Daily Current Affairs 10.05.2021 (Green panel allows Great Nicobar plan to advance, China rocket debris falls in Indian Ocean near Maldives, A TRIPS waiver is useful but not a magic pill)

Daily Current Affairs 10.05.2021 (Green panel allows Great Nicobar plan to advance, China rocket debris falls in Indian Ocean near Maldives, A TRIPS waiver is useful but not a magic pill)


1. Green panel allows Great Nicobar plan to advance

The Environment Appraisal Committee, which had flagged concerns, has now ‘recommended’ it ‘for grant of terms of reference’ for EIA studies

The Environment Appraisal Committee (EAC) – Infrastructure I of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has flagged serious concerns about NITI Aayog’s ambitious project for Great Nicobar Island (‘NITI Aayog vision for Great Nicobar ignores tribal, ecological concerns’, The Hindu, March 21, 2021). The committee has, however, removed the first hurdle faced by the project. It has “recommended” it “for grant of terms of reference (TOR)” for Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) studies, which in the first instance will include baseline studies over three months.

Documents uploaded recently on the MoEFCC’s Parivesh portal show that the 15-member committee headed by marine biologist and former director, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Deepak Apte, made the decision following two meetings held on March 17 and 18 and April 5 and 6. The EAC was responding to the 126 page ‘pre-feasibility’ report, ‘Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island at Andaman and Nicobar Islands’, prepared for the NITI Aayog by the Gurugram-based consulting agency Aecom India Private Limited. The proposal includes an international container transshipment terminal, a greenfield international airport, a power plant and a township complex spread over 166 sq. km. (mainly pristine coastal systems and tropical forests), and is estimated to cost ₹75,000 crore.

Concerns on site

The committee’s concerns were both procedural and substantive. A discussion on the proposal in the March meeting was deferred because of delayed and incomplete submission of documents. The missing information included the minutes of the meeting note, details of the township to be developed over 149 sq. km., a note on seismic and tsunami hazards, freshwater requirement details (6.5 lakh people are envisaged to finally inhabit the island when the present population is only 8,500; the current total population of the entire island chain is less than 4.5 lakh), and details of the impact on the Giant Leatherback turtle.

The committee also noted that there were no details of the trees to be felled — a number that could run into millions since 130 sq. km. of the project area has some of the finest tropical forests in India. A point-wise response to concerns was submitted by the project proponent, the Andaman and Nicobar Island Integrated Development Corporation (ANIIDCO), on April 5, the very day the committee convened for its next meeting. Yet, the proposal was taken up for consideration and even recommended for grant of ToR to go ahead.

This, despite the fact that the committee raised a number of additional issues, including about Galathea Bay, the site of the port and the centrepiece of the NITI Aayog proposal. Galathea Bay is an iconic nesting site in India of the enigmatic Giant Leatherback, the world’s largest marine turtle — borne out by surveys done over three decades by the island’s Forest Department and research agencies like the Andaman and Nicobar Environment Team, Dakshin Foundation and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) (‘Leatherback nesting sites could be overrun by Andamans projects’, The Hindu, February 15, 2021).

The committee noted that the site selection for the port had been done mainly on technical and financial criteria, ignoring the environmental aspects. It has now asked for “an independent study/ evaluation for the suitability of the proposed port site with specific focus on Leatherback Turtle, Nicobar Magapod (sic) and Dugong”.

Action points

This, in fact, is only one of over a 100 specific points of action listed out by the committee. They include, among others, the need for an independent assessment of terrestrial and marine biodiversity, a study on the impact of dredging, reclamation and port operations, including oil spills (to be carried out by nationally recognised institutions such as the Wildlife Institute of India, IISc or the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History), the need for studies of alternative sites for the port with a focus on environmental and ecological impact, especially on turtles, analysis of risk-handling capabilities, a seismic and tsunami hazard map, a disaster management plan, details of labour, labour camps and their requirements, an assessment of the cumulative impact, and a hydro-geological study to assess impact on round and surface water regimes.

Corporate policy

The committee has also asked for details of the corporate environment policy of the implementing agency — whether the company has an environment policy, a prescribed standard operating procedure to deal with environmental and forest violations, and a compliance management system.

ANIIDCO, the Port Blair project proponent, is a government undertaking involved in activities such as tourism, trading (iron and steel, milk, petroleum products, and liquor) and infrastructure development for tourism and fisheries. Its annual turnover for 2018-19 was ₹379 crore, and handling a mega infrastructure project estimated to cost ₹75,000 crore appears way beyond its capacity.

AECOM’s pre-feasibility report has proposed 2022-23 for the commencement of work on the site. “How is that possible,” asks an island expert, requesting anonymity. “One year is simply not enough if the government and project proponents follow the EAC’s recommendations in letter and spirit. And how can extensive baseline studies be carried out in just three months?”

Ecological surveys in the last few years have reported a number of new species, many restricted to just the Galathea region. These include the critically endangered Nicobar shrew, the Great Nicobar crake, the Nicobar frog, the Nicobar cat snake, a new skink (Lipinia sp), a new lizard (Dibamus sp,) and a snake of the Lycodon sp that is yet to be described.

“None of these are even mentioned in AECOM’s pre-feasibility report or the EAC’s observations,” he notes. “We don’t even fully know what exists here, leave alone understanding the many fragile inter-linkages of the Great Nicobar’s complex systems.”

Pankaj Sekhsaria has been researching issues of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for over two decades. He is also the author of five books on the islands

Great Nicobar plan

NITI Aayog’s  Great Nicobar Development plan aims to promote the holistic development of Greater Nicobar. Based on that, the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) denotified the entire Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary for building port and other related infrastructure.

About the Great Nicobar Development plan

  • Firstly, The overall Great Nicobar Development plan envisages the use of about 244 sq. km. region for development purposes.
  • Secondly, Phase 1 of the plan will cover:
    • 22 sq. km. airport complex, 
    • Transshipment port (TSP) at South Bay 
    • Parallel-to-the-coast mass rapid transport system and 
    • Free trade zone and warehousing complex on the southwestern coast.  
  • Thirdly, Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation (ANIIDCO) will be the nodal agency for the implementation of the Great Nicobar Development plan.

Significance of the Great Nicobar Development plan

  1. Job opportunities for locals: The plan involves the creation of infrastructure (ports, airports, etc.). This will help in creating satisfactory jobs for the locals.
  2. Economic Development: It will help in creating tourism prospects in the region. This will aid the income generation in the region. 
    1. The per capita income in Andaman & Nicobar Islands for the year 2015-16 was Rs. 1,24,361. This was much lower than the per-capita income of other Union Territories (Chandigarh, Delhi, and Puducherry.)
  3. Connectivity: The development of world-class infrastructure will help in improving inter-island connectivity. Thereby, improving governance and boosting export potential.
  4. Social Benefits: It would further create affordable state-of-the-art facilities for healthcare, quality education, and adequate air, sea and web infrastructure.
    1. It will facilitate the delivery of e-governance services such as telemedicine and tele-education, as a part of the Digital India initiative.
  5. Strategic benefit: The Nicobar island located in proximity to the strait of Malacca. This demands the creation of robust infrastructure for meeting geopolitical interests in the region.
    1. The islands are also home to India’s only tri-services command – the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC). 
    1. The command holds immense relevance due to rising Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Concerns with the Great Nicobar Development plan

  1. Firstly, a threat to biodiversity: Any construction in the region threaten the survival of certain important organisms. Such as,
    1. The beaches at the mouth of the river Galathea in South Bay are among the most prominent nesting sites of Giant leatherback turtles.
    1. Similarly, 90% of the Nicobar megapode’s nesting sites are within a distance of 30 m from the shore.
  2. Secondly, jeopardizing environment for economics: Galathea sanctuary lies in Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ)-I (the zone with maximum protection). But still, a slew of high-value projects got precedence over the pristine biodiversity.
  3. Thirdly, neglecting tribal rights: The proposed project areas are important grounds for the hunter-gatherer nomadic community especially Shompen. Initiation of work would make large forest areas inaccessible and useless for the Shompen.
  4. Fourthly, geological volatility: Andaman & Nicobar Islands are located in seismic zone V. Further,  The Andaman & Nicobar observe frequent storms and cyclones. This can easily destroy constructed structures.
    1. For instance, In 2004 Tsunami caused a 3-4  metre land subsidence. This is the reason for the submergence of a lighthouse located at Indira point.
  5. Fifthly, undermining international obligations: The Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary forms part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So preservation of this pristine biodiversity is an International Obligation of India. 
  6. And lastly, information Deficit: The rationale, process of creation, and other relevant provisions of the plan are still not publicly available. 

2. China rocket debris falls in Indian Ocean near Maldives

NASA slams Beijing for ‘failing to meet responsible standards’

Debris from the last stage of China’s Long March rocket that had last month carried a key component of its under-construction space station fell into the waters of the Indian Ocean west of the Maldives on Sunday.

The re-entry of the rocket, described by astrophysicists as the fourth-largest uncontrolled reentry in history, had evoked concerns in recent days about possible damage should it have fallen on land, and had been criticised by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the U.S. for “failing to meet responsible standards”. China had rejected those concerns, saying most of the debris had been burned during reentry and that a fall into international waters was most likely.

The China Manned Space Agency (CSMA) said on Sunday “the vast majority of the device burned up during the reentry, and the rest of the debris fell into a sea area with the centre at 2.65 degrees north latitude and 72.47 degrees east longitude,” placing it west of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. The Maldives National Defence Force said on Sunday its Coastguard Squadron “is active after receiving reports of rocket debris fallen in Maldivian waters”.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a statement called on “spacefaring nations” to “minimise the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximise transparency regarding those operations.” “It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris,” he said.

Chinese experts rejected the criticism over the uncontrolled entry, saying authorities had been tracking the course, although they did not have any control over where the debris would fall.

‘Double standards’

“It only refers to the loss of propulsion, but in no way means that China has lost track of its flying trajectory and real-time location,” Song Zhongping, an aerospace commentator and former instructor at a PLA Rocket Force affiliated university, told the Global Times, saying that debris from the U.S. SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that fell on a farm in Washington State did not attract similar criticism and showed Western “double standards”.

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said the uncontrolled reentry of the Chinese rocket was “the equal fourth-biggest” among uncontrolled reentries, on a par with the first Long March rocket that last year fell in the Ivory Coast where there were reports of debris damaging homes in villages. “An ocean reentry was always statistically the most likely,” he said on Twitter. “It appears China won its gamble (unless we get news of debris in the Maldives). But it was still reckless.”

The Long March-5B Y2 rocket was carrying the Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, module, which is the first of three key components for the construction of China’s space station, which will be completed by the end of next year.

Tianhe will act “the management and control hub of the space station” which is called Tiangong, or Heavenly Palace, Chinese authorities said after the April 29 launch of the rocket from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on the island province of Hainan.

The space station, which will be only the second after the International Space Station (ISS), has been designed with a lifespan of 10 years but could last 15 years, or until 2037. The life of the ISS, experts say, could be extended until 2030, by when one of its members, Russia, has said it would launch its own space station.

Space debris

  • Space debris, also called space junk, artificial material that is orbiting Earth but is no longer functional.
  • This material can be as large as a discarded rocket stage or as small as a microscopic chip of paint.
  • Much of the debris is in low Earth orbit, within 2,000 km (1,200 miles) of Earth’s surface; however, some debris can be found in geostationary orbit 35,786 km (22,236 miles) above the Equator.
  • Kessler syndrome postulates that crashes would first be seen between fragments and larger objects like satellites and would eventually be between two fragments. Crashes will continue till the debris becomes very small.
  • There is almost 7,000 tons of active space debris—from old satellites and spacecraft to lost components and spent rocket parts—orbiting Earth at any given moment. While some of the space junk in orbit decays with time, debris that is located at a higher orbit can take years to disintegrate.

International laws

  • There is no binding international legal rule (yet) which prohibits the wanton creation of space debris.
  • 1967 Outer Space Treaty bars states party to the treaty from placing weapons of mass destruction in Earth orbit.
  • Since 2002, the world’s space powers have complied with an informal code of conduct to avoid the creation of space junk and the United Nations has endorsed a resolution along those lines.

Removal of debris

There have been several initiatives to remove debris like global mitigation measures by Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, and Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) ;  e-Deorbit mission of European space agency etc.  However RemoveDEBRIS mission launched by European Union is a significant one.

Remove DEBRIS Mission

The Remove DEBRIS mission is led by the Surrey Space Centre (SSC) at the University Of Surrey, UK, and is co-funded by the European Commission and other partners, including prominent European space companies and institutions.

Rather than engaging in active debris removal (ADR) of real space debris, the Remove DEBRIS mission plan is to test the efficacy of several ADR technologies on mock targets in low Earth orbit.

  • It showcases four methods of capturing artificial debris targets.
  • The targets are two CubeSats (miniaturized satellites provided by the SSC) that are carried inside the main platform.
  • The first demonstration involves a net that is deployed (net capture) at the target CubeSat.
  • The second experiment sees the use of a harpoon, which is launched at a target plate made of “representative satellite panel materials”. This is a first-of-its-kind harpoon capture in orbit.
  • The third experiment using the other CubeSat involves vision-based navigation. Using cameras and LiDAR (light detection and ranging), the platform sends data about the debris back to the ground for processing.
  • The fourth experiment sees the RemoveDEBRIS spacecraft deploy a large dragsail to speed up its de-orbiting process. As it enters Earth’s atmosphere, the spacecraft will burn up, leaving no debris behind.

3. Editorial-1: A TRIPS waiver is useful but not a magic pill

The U.S.-supported move will have an effect if countries simultaneously address non-IP bottlenecks among other things

The United States has finally relented and declared its support for a temporary waiver of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement for COVID-19 vaccines at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). In October 2020, India and South Africa, at the WTO, proposed waiving Sections 1, 4, 5, and 7 of Part II of the TRIPS agreement (covering copyrights, industrial designs, patents, and undisclosed trade information) related to the prevention, containment, or treatment of COVID-19.

The U.S.’s support of the TRIPS waiver is a significant step forward in the global fight against the pandemic. Hopefully, the U.S.’s decision would cause other holdouts like Canada and the European Union to give up their opposition. Legally, the waiver is surely possible since Article IX of the WTO Agreement allows for waiving obligations in ‘exceptional circumstances’, which the COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly is. The stumbling block is the political will of the richer countries that house the giant pharmaceutical corporations producing COVID-19 vaccines and medicines.

Devil in the details

While the U.S.’s decision is to be welcomed, the devil would be in the details. The countries would now negotiate on the text of the waiver at the WTO. If the experience of negotiating such waivers, especially on TRIPS, were anything to go by, it would be too early to celebrate. In the aftermath of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa in the 1990s, the WTO adopted a decision in 2003 waiving certain TRIPS obligations to increase the accessibility of medicines in countries that lacked manufacturing capability. Specifically, the obligation contained in Article 31(f) of TRIPS that medicines produced under a compulsory licence are predominantly for the domestic market of that country was waived, paving the way for the export of such medicines to a country that lacked manufacturing capability.

However, this waiver (later incorporated as Article 31 bis in the TRIPS agreement; was subject to several stringent requirements such as the drugs so manufactured are to be exported to that nation only; the medicines should be easily identifiable through different colour, or shape; only the amount necessary to meet the requirements of the importing country are to be manufactured; the importing country has to notify to the WTO’s TRIPS Council, etc,. Given these cumbersome requirements, hardly any country, in the last 17 years, made effective use of this waiver.

Developing world must watch

The statement issued by Katherine Tai, the U.S. Trade Representative, states that the negotiations on the text of the waiver will ‘take time’ given the WTO’s consensus-based decision-making process and the complexity of the issues involved. This signals that the negotiations on the waiver are going to be difficult. While the U.S. would not like to be seen as blocking the TRIPS waiver and attracting the ire of the global community, make no mistake that it would resolutely defend the interests of its pharmaceutical corporations. The developing world should be conscious to ensure that a repeat of 2003 does not happen.

Ms. Tai’s statement also reveals that the U.S. supports waiving intellectual property (IP) protections on COVID-19 vaccines. However, India and South Africa proposed a waiver not just on vaccines but also on medicines and other therapeutics and technologies related to the treatment of COVID-19. So, the U.S. has already narrowed down the scope of the waiver considerably by restricting it to vaccines. Medicines useful in treating COVID-19 and other therapeutics must be also included in the waiver.

Overcoming key obstacles

While the TRIPS waiver would lift the legal restrictions on manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines, it would not solve the problem of the lack of access to technological ‘know-how’ related to manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines. Waiving IP protection does not impose a legal requirement on pharmaceutical companies to transfer or share technology. While individual countries may adopt coercive legal measures for a forced transfer of technology, it would be too draconian and counterproductive. Therefore, governments would have to be proactive in negotiating and cajoling pharmaceutical companies to transfer technology using various legal and policy tools including financial incentives.

Finally, while a TRIPS waiver would enable countries to escape WTO obligations, it will not change the nature of domestic IP regulations. Therefore, countries should start working towards making suitable changes in their domestic legal framework to operationalise and enforce the TRIPS waiver. In this regard, the Indian government should immediately put in place a team of best IP lawyers who could study the various TRIPS waiver scenarios and accordingly recommend the changes to be made in the Indian legal framework.

Notwithstanding the usefulness of the TRIPS waiver, it is not a magic pill. It would work well only if countries simultaneously address the non-IP bottlenecks such as technology transfer, production constraints, and other logistical challenges such as inadequacy of supply chains and unavailability of raw materials to manufacture vaccines and medicines.


Drugmakers say Biden misguided over patent waiver

U.S. President supports waiving intellectual property rights for COVID vaccines

Drugmakers on Thursday said U.S. President Joe Biden’s support for waiving patents of COVID-19 vaccines could disrupt a fragile supply chain and that rich countries should instead share more generously with the developing world.

Mr. Biden on Wednesday threw his support behind waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, angering research-based pharmaceutical companies.

If adopted by the WTO, the proposal would invite new manufacturers that lack essential know-how and oversight from the inventors to crowd out established contractors, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) said.

“I have heard many (vaccine makers) talking about ‘our resources are stretched, our technicians are stretched’,” IFPMA Director General Thomas Cueni told Reuters. He warned of a possible free for all if “sort of rogue companies” were allowed to become involved.

Vaccine developers echoed his comments that waiving intellectual property rights was not a solution.

Germany’s CureVac, which hopes to release trial results on its messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccine as early as this month, said patents were not to blame for bottlenecks.

‘Unfathomable amounts’

“Since mRNA technology has emerged as the key technology inthe fight against COVID-19, the world now needs the same raw materials in unfathomable amounts. The biggest problem is how to coordinate this,” a spokeswoman said.

In contrast, the GAVI vaccine alliance, which co-leads the COVAX dose-sharing programme with the WHO and faces major supply constraints, welcomed Mr. Biden’s support for waiving intellectual property rights.

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