1. Mobile app KURMA helps save turtles in India
Collaborative citizen science initiative provides database, helps identify species and lists rescue centres
- On May 23, 2020, World Turtle Day, a number of conservation agencies launched a citizen science initiative, a mobile-based application called KURMA, aimed at turtle conservation.
- The application, developed by the Indian Turtle Conservation Action Network (ITCAN) in collaboration with the Turtle Survival Alliance-India and Wildlife Conservation Society-India, not only provides users a database to identify a species but also provides the location of the nearest rescue centre for turtles across the country.
- “The KURMA App is free to download. It serves as a digital database, with a built-in digital field guide covering 29 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises of India, and information on turtle identification, distribution, vernacular names, and threats,” Shailendra Singh, director of Turtle Survival Alliance-India, said.
200 smuggled a week
- Tortoise and freshwater turtles are among the most trafficked in the country. A report released in 2019 by TRAFFIC, an international wildlife trade monitoring organisation, showed that at least 200 tortoises and freshwater turtles fall prey to illicit poaching and smuggling every week, or 11,000 each year, adding up to over 1,11,130 turtles poached or smuggled between September 2009 and September 2019.
- One of the major challenges for freshwater turtle conservation in the country is that wildlife crime prevention agencies are not sufficiently equipped to know how to distinguish one species from the other, or their protection status in accordance with CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) and the Wildlife Protection Act.
- “Suppose turtles are recovered at Kolkata Airport, then KURMA will help you reach five places in Kolkata that one can approach for help. Different rescue centres are also registered on the app, and also a number of experts who can provide more information on the species,” Mr. Singh said.
- Within only a few weeks, 90 assistance facilities have been registered on the app. If anyone reports a turtle from any part of the country using KURMA, he or she receives advice about the species and its conservation. The organisations that have developed the app said it was generating a good response.
|World Turtle Day was founded by the American Tortoise Rescue (ATR), a non-profit organization committed to the protection of all turtles and tortoise alike. In 2002, the rescue announced World Turtle Day to fall on May 23rd annually. Indian Turtle Conservation Action Network (ITCAN) A group of leading conservation agencies have come together to launch the citizen-science initiative, named the Indian Turtle Conservation Action Network (ITCAN).|
2. Study finds evidence of vertical transmission of coronavirus across the placenta
- Transmission through droplets and contact with contaminated surfaces seem to be the major routes of novel coronavirus spread. The World Health Organization recently acknowledged that “short-range aerosol transmission” of the virus “cannot be ruled out” in specific indoor locations which are crowded, inadequately ventilated and where exposure to the infected person is over a prolonged period of time. Now, a study has found evidence that confirms vertical transmission of SARS-CoV-2 virus from the mother to the foetus. The route of infection is through the womb (in utero) well before the onset of labour and delivery of the baby.
- About half-a-dozen studies published in medical journals have already suggested vertical transmission as a possible route but have not been able to provide strong evidence about the route of spread — transplacental or transcervical — of the virus from the mother to the child. These studies could not confirm the transmission route because samples of placenta, amniotic fluid and blood of the mother and the newborn were not collected and tested in every mother–infant pair.
- For instance, in a study published recently in the journal CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal), only the placenta and nasopharyngeal swab samples of the mother were tested for the virus. Though nasopharyngeal swab samples of the newborn collected on the day of birth and on two other days, plasma and stool samples tested positive for the virus, the researchers did not collect and test the cord blood. Hence the researchers classified it a “probable” case of congenital route of vertical transmission.
- In contrast, the results published recently in Nature Communications involving one mother–newborn pair provide strong evidence of “confirmed” vertical transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus through the “transplacental” route.
- Studying how the virus reaches the foetus, the researchers of the Nature Communications paper led by Daniele De Luca from Paris Saclay University, France, found that the virus first occurs in the mother’s blood and later causes placental infection and inflammation. The virus then gets into the blood of the neonate following placental infection. The neonate also showed clinical manifestation of COVID-19 in terms of neurological signs and symptoms.
- The mother aged 23 years, at 35 weeks of gestation, was admitted to the hospital in March with symptoms of coronavirus infection. Real-time PCR detected the presence of two genes (E and S) of the virus in the blood and in nasopharyngeal and vaginal swab samples.
- To check for vertical transmission, the researchers first collected clear amniotic fluid prior to rupture of membranes. The amniotic fluid tested positive for two genes of the virus. The baby was delivered through caesarean section to avoid infection during normal childbirth; caesarean delivery is routinely done in the case of HIV positive mothers to cut the risk of vertical transmission.
- To confirm infection in the newborn, the researchers collected blood and bronchoalveolar lavage samples soon after birth and tested them for the virus. Both samples tested positive. They also collected nasopharyngeal and rectal swab samples at three time points — one hour after birth, and three and 18 days of postnatal age. These too tested positive for the virus, confirming infection with SARS-CoV-2.
- The amount of virus in different tissues both in the mother and newborn varied. “Viral load was much higher in placental tissue, than in amniotic fluid and maternal or neonatal blood,” they write. In the case of the newborn, the nasopharyngeal sample collected on day three after birth had higher viral load, while the blood contained the least amount of the virus.
- “Our findings confirm that transplacental transmission is indeed possible in the last weeks of pregnancy, although we cannot exclude a possible transmission and foetal consequences earlier during the pregnancy,” they write.
|Vertical Transmission Vertical transmission refers to the transmission of infection directly from mother to her child.The transmission might occur before birth (antennal stage), weeks immediately before or after birth (perinatal stage) or after birth. This transmission can occur through breast milk, placenta, or through direct contact.HIV, Zika, Rubella, Toxoplasma gondii and Herpes are vertical transmission diseases.Concerning COVID-19 vertical transmission, ICMR suggests that transmission is apparent. Horizontal transmission Horizontal transmission is transmission by direct contact between infected and susceptible individuals or between disease vectors and susceptible individuals. World Health Organization (WHO) World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations’ specialized agency for Health was founded in 1948.Its headquarters are situated in Geneva, Switzerland.There are 194 Member States, 150 country offices, six regional offices.It is an inter-governmental organization and works in collaboration with its member states usually through the Ministries of Health.The WHO provides leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, articulating evidence-based policy options, providing technical support to countries and monitoring and assessing health trends.It began functioning on April 7, 1948 – a date now being celebrated every year as World Health Day.|
3. Why is India out of the Chabahar rail project?
Can it rejoin later? What is Iran’s stand on the issue? And what about the China link?
The inauguration of a track-laying project from Iran’s Chabahar port to Zahedan on the border with Afghanistan on July 7, has ensured that Chabahar — which literally means “four seasons”, named for its salubrious weather — is once again in the middle of a storm over the fate of India’s investment there. The port project along Iran’s southern coast in the Sistan-Baluchistan province has been a part of discussions between New Delhi and Tehran since their first agreement to develop it, in 2003. State-owned Ircon International Limited (IRCON) was associated with the rail project even as India acted quickly to develop Chabahar port facilities. Over the years, the Chabahar project has grown, and now envisages a port, a free trade zone, the 628-km railway line to Zahedan, and then the little over 1,000-km track to Sarakhs on the border with Turkmenistan.
What ties India to Chabahar?
- The Chabahar project is ambitious and will require deep pockets, but New Delhi has always weighed its strategic benefits above the costs. India-Iran relations are historic and New Delhi has sought to maintain these ties in the face of opposition from Iran’s adversaries, namely the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Chabahar project ties India and Iran together as New Delhi deals with its difficult neighbour to the west, Pakistan. A major trade and connectivity hub on Iran’s coast not only gives India an alternative route to Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan, but also has the potential to provide an Indian strategic counter to Pakistan’s Gwadar port being developed by China right next door to Chabahar. The Chabahar trade zone could be an important weigh station for India’s energy imports and food and material exports coming from Kandla and Mundra ports. And the rail project will allow India an independent corridor not only to Afghanistan, which Pakistan has denied it, but also to Central Asia and Russia someday.
What happened to the rail project?
- While the Chabahar port development has moved forward in the last five years, the railway line languished. After several threats and appeals to India, Iran said it was moving ahead to build the Chabahar-Zahedan line on its own this month, with approximately $400 million from the National Development Fund of Islamic Republic of Iran.
What was the hitch?
- Despite the attractions, India’s investment in Chabahar has always been held hostage to international policy shifts on Iran. U.S. policy in particular has swung wildly in the last two decades. It placed heavy sanctions on Iran until nuclear talks between the P-5+1 (the U.S., the U.K., France, China, Russia and Germany) that began in 2006, ended successfully with the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015. As a result, while India continued to negotiate for Chabahar, it was not until after the sanctions were lifted that talks could make headway. In 2016, the Chabahar agreement, which included the Trilateral Agreement on Establishment of International Transport and Transit Corridor between Afghanistan, Iran and India was signed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. It also included the port project and the railway line to be built and funded by IRCON for $1.6 billion. In 2018, however, U.S. President Donald Trump overturned the JCPOA, and re-imposed stringent sanctions on Iran. This meant India’s energy imports from Iran, which was its third largest supplier, had to be dropped to zero. Bilateral trade, which depended on a rupee-rial exchange mechanism also stopped. The U.S. gave Chabahar port and rail line a special waiver or “carve-out”, but the sanctions made it very difficult for companies dealing with the U.S. to participate in the project.
Are other projects hit too?
- The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has disclosed that India’s ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL) has been cut out of the development of an Iranian gas field project, Farzad B; both sides had been in talks since 2009. The project, which will now go to an Iranian company, had also floundered due to a combination of U.S. sanctions, Iran’s changing conditions and fluctuating prices, as well as India’s delayed responses. On the Chabahar-Zahedan rail project, the MEA said IRCON had completed its feasibility studies by December 2019, three years after the memorandum of understanding was signed, but that it had not heard back from Iran. In the meanwhile, Iranian Railway authorities have begun laying tracks. An Iranian official told The Hindu, “In the absence of an active Indian engagement and partnership, it is currently under construction by Iranian funding and engineering capacities.” Both New Delhi and Tehran have left the door open for IRCON to return to the project at a later date, but for the moment, India is not a part of the railway construction.
What is the China angle?
- The announcements on the two projects come even as news filters in of a China-Iran 25-year partnership for $400 billion to build infrastructure and energy resources in Iran, giving the impression that Iran may be relying more and more on Beijing.
Has India lost an opportunity?
- India’s stakes in Chabahar remain strong, and no matter who builds the railway line, Indian trade could still find its way to Afghanistan and Central Asia. India’s monetary losses are minimal, as it had not invested money or material on the rail line yet. However, there is the worry of reputational damage from the idea that India gave in to U.S. sanctions, a departure from the past. China’s growing inroads in Iran could make Indian projects there more unviable. The largest worry is that Chabahar, the enduring symbol of India-Iran friendship, could become collateral damage in a larger proxy war between the U.S. and China.
4. What is plea bargaining and how does it work?
Will this practice help to avoid long trials? Why is it uncommon in India?
Many members of the Tablighi Jamaat belonging to different countries have obtained release from court cases in recent days by means of plea bargaining. Accused of violating visa conditions by attending a religious congregation in Delhi, these foreign nationals have walked free after pleading guilty to minor offences and paying the fines imposed by the court. These cases have brought the focus on plea bargaining as a practice by which time consuming trials can be avoided. Even though plea bargaining is available to those accused of criminal offences in India for over a decade, it is not yet common.
When was it introduced in India?
- Plea bargaining refers to a person charged with a criminal offence negotiating with the prosecution for a lesser punishment than what is provided in law by pleading guilty to a less serious offence. It is common in the United States, and has been a successful method of avoiding protracted and complicated trials. As a result, conviction rates are significantly high there. It primarily involves pre-trial negotiations between the accused and the prosecutor. It may involve bargaining on the charge or in the quantum of sentence.
- In India, the concept was not part of law until 2006. There has always been a provision in the Code of Criminal Procedure for an accused to plead ‘guilty’ instead of claiming the right to a full trial, but it is not the same as plea bargaining.
- The Law Commission of India, in its 142nd Report, mooted the idea of “concessional treatment” of those who plead guilty on their own volition, but was careful to underscore that it would not involve any plea bargaining or “haggling” with the prosecution.
- Plea bargaining was introduced in 2006 as part of a set of amendments to the CrPC as Chapter XXI-A, containing Sections 265A to 265L.
In what circumstances is it allowed? How does it work?
- Unlike in the U.S. and other countries, where the prosecutor plays a key role in bargaining with the suspected offender, the Indian code makes plea bargaining a process that can be initiated only by the accused; further, the accused will have to apply to the court for invoking the benefit of bargaining.
- Cases for which the practice is allowed are limited. Only someone who has been charge sheeted for an offence that does not attract the death sentence, life sentence or a prison term above seven years can make use of the scheme under Chapter XXI-A. It is also applicable to private complaints of which a criminal court has taken cognisance. Other categories of cases that cannot be disposed of through plea bargaining are those that involve offences affecting the “socio-economic conditions” of the country, or committed against a woman or a child below the age of 14.
- The applicant should approach the court with a petition and affidavit stating that it is a voluntary preference and that he has understood the nature and extent of punishment provided in law for the offence. The court would then issue notice to the prosecutor and the complainant or victim, if any, for a hearing. The voluntary nature of the application must be ascertained by the judge in an in-camera hearing at which the other side should not be present. Thereafter, the court may permit the prosecutor, the investigating officer and the victim to hold a meeting for a “satisfactory disposition of the case”. The outcome may involve payment of compensation and other expenses to the victim by the accused.
- Once mutual satisfaction is reached, the court shall formalise the arrangement by way of a report signed by all the parties and the presiding officer. The accused may be sentenced to a prison term that is half the minimum period fixed for the offence. If there is no minimum term prescribed, the sentence should run up to one-fourth of the maximum sentence stipulated in law.
What is the rationale for the scheme? What are its benefits?
- The Justice Malimath Committee on reforms of the criminal justice system endorsed the various recommendations of the Law Commission with regard to plea bargaining. Some of the advantages it culled out from earlier reports are that the practice would ensure speedy trial, end uncertainty over the outcome of criminal cases, save litigation costs and relieve the parties of anxiety. It would also have a dramatic impact on conviction rates. Prolonged incarceration of undertrials without any progress in the case for years and overcrowding of prisons were also other factors that may be cited in support of reducing pendency of cases and decongesting prisons through plea bargaining. Moreover, it may help offenders make a fresh start in life.
Do courts have reservations?
- Case law after the introduction of plea bargaining has not developed much as the provision is possibly not used adequately. However, earlier judgments of various courts in cases in which the accused enter a ‘guilty’ plea with a view to getting lesser sentences indicate that the judiciary may have reservations. Some verdicts disapprove of bargaining with offenders, and point out that lenient sentences could be considered as part of the circumstances of the case after a regular trial. Courts are also very particular about the voluntary nature of the exercise, as poverty, ignorance and prosecution pressure should not lead to someone pleading guilty of offences that may not have been committed.
5. Who draws up the Central Board of Secondary Education syllabus?
What is the reason for a 30% syllabus reduction this year? How will it impact learning?
With the COVID-19 pandemic keeping students out of classrooms, forcing schools into various modes of distance education and reducing teaching time, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has decided to cut down its 2020-21 syllabus by 30%, for students from Classes 9-12.
Why does it matter?
- Although the CBSE said core concepts will be retained, there has been concern regarding the topics removed from the syllabus. For the sciences and mathematics, some teachers are worried that the topics removed are foundational in order to understand concepts that will be covered in the following academic year. The wider public concern has revolved around social sciences, history, political science and other humanities subjects. Opposition politicians and academics are protesting against the omission of topics such as federalism, citizenship, nationalism, secularism, democracy, and diversity, as well as analysis of recent economic policies such as demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax.
What was the rationale?
- “When we interacted with our schools and principals, there was a demand that with this much content in the provided time they can’t complete the syllabus,” said Joseph Emmanuel, Director of Academics at CBSE. He pointed out that the CBSE has already been in the process of promoting competency-based education and experiential learning, instead of content-based learning dependent on memorising facts. “… in the COVID scenario, we thought why not experiment by integrating different topics for the examination, so that the load on the children is minimised. So the strategy is through pedagogy. You will be integrating new topics and teachers will be giving more focus on concepts, rather than the content.”
How is the curriculum compiled?
- The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) is responsible for developing the National Curriculum Framework that all school systems across the country follow. It also prints textbooks based on its syllabus each year, which are used in all CBSE schools.
- The CBSE course committees, each with about six to seven members, comprises school teachers as well as university professors. They meet every year to deliberate on changes and updates, and recommend a revised syllabus by February, before the new academic session begins. This year, they were asked to meet again in June to select topics for the 30% reduction. “Mainly we use the NCERT curriculum and syllabus, but there is about 10-20% variation done by every examination board,” said Dr. Emmanuel. “The course committees are an independent group. There was no outside input for the rationalisation process. Being an autonomous body, there is complete independence on academics,” he explained. The course committee suggestions were approved by the CBSE’s Curriculum Committee and then its Governing Body, which includes representatives from the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development and the Delhi State government, apart from school principals and vice-chancellors.
- “Topics suggested for rationalisation have already been covered. For example, concepts such as democracy or federalism have been interwoven from middle level onwards. The children are already familiar with these concepts and they can be taught through various alternative ways,” added Dr. Emmanuel. Subjects such as GST and demonetisation may have been left out of Business Studies because they were covered in the Economics syllabus instead, he added.
How does this inform the teaching process?
- Teachers say that given the time crunch exacerbated by COVID-19, it is highly unlikely that topics which will not be tested in the examination will be taught in the classroom. “Even in a regular year, many political science teachers omit subjects such as federalism, democracy and citizenship from the political theory chapters in Class 11, in order to begin the Class 12 syllabus instead. They don’t see the point in teaching such ‘vague’ subjects and the COVID-19 rationalisation only validates that kind of thinking. Each school has complete discretion for Class 11 since there is only an internal examination,” said a political science teacher from a reputed Delhi school, who did not wish to be named.