1.NGT closes proceedings against Mekedatu dam project
It finds merit in Karnataka govt.’s submission
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has closed proceedings against the Mekedatu dam project after finding merit in the Karnataka government’s submissions that requisite environmental clearances were pending consideration before the statutory authorities concerned.
The observations came when the green panel took suo motu cosgnisance of media reports on allegations of violations of environmental norms in the construction of the dam.
A Bench headed by the NGT Chairperson Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel said, “We find merit in the submission of learned A-G (Attorney General) for the State of Karnataka that the media report does not mention that the issue of statutory environmental clearances is already pending consideration before the statutory authorities concerned. Even the very same media report has been mentioned by the State of Tamil Nadu in its submission before the Ministry of Jal Shakti…”
“Accordingly, proceedings before this Tribunal are closed without prejudice to rival contentions of the parties on the subject in proceedings pending before the statutory authority concerned and before the Supreme Court,” the Bench said, while observing that the State of Tamil Nadu had raised the issue before the apex court.
The Karnataka government had contended that the media report had failed to disclose the fact that the process of obtaining necessary clearances was pending before authorities. All issues, including those of environmental, forest and wildlife clearances, were already a subject matter of consideration before the authorities, it had said.
However, the counsel appearing for the Tamil Nadu government opposed the stand and submitted that the environmental issue be examined by the Tribunal.
“Further, the same issue has also been raised by the state of Tamil Nadu before the Supreme Court. Thus there is no need for this Tribunal to continue the suo motu proceedings,” the NGT said.
The news report in question had stated that the construction of the dam would have adverse impact on forests and sanctuaries.
What is National Green Tribunal (NGT)?
- It is a specialised body set up under the National Green Tribunal Act (2010) for effective and expeditious disposal of cases relating to environmental protection and conservation of forests and other natural resources.
- With the establishment of the NGT, India became the third country in the world to set up a specialised environmental tribunal, only after Australia and New Zealand, and the first developing country to do so.
- NGT is mandated to make disposal of applications or appeals finally within 6 months of filing of the same.
- The NGT has five places of sittings, New Delhi is the Principal place of sitting and Bhopal, Pune, Kolkata and Chennai are the other four.
Structure of NGT
- The Tribunal comprises of the Chairperson, the Judicial Members and Expert Members. They shall hold office for term of five years and are not eligible for reappointment.
- The Chairperson is appointed by the Central Government in consultation with Chief Justice of India (CJI).
- A Selection Committee shall be formed by central government to appoint the Judicial Members and Expert Members.
- There are to be least 10 and maximum 20 full time Judicial members and Expert Members in the tribunal.
Powers & Jurisdiction
- The Tribunal has jurisdiction over all civil cases involving substantial question relating to environment (including enforcement of any legal right relating to environment).
- Being a statutory adjudicatory body like Courts, apart from original jurisdiction side on filing of an application, NGT also has appellate jurisdiction to hear appeal as a Court (Tribunal).
- The Tribunal is not bound by the procedure laid down under the Code of Civil Procedure 1908, but shall be guided by principles of ‘natural justice’.
- While passing any order/decision/ award, it shall apply the principles of sustainable development, the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle.
- NGT by an order, can provide
- relief and compensation to the victims of pollution and other environmental damage (including accident occurring while handling any hazardous substance),
- for restitution of property damaged, and
- for restitution of the environment for such area or areas, as the Tribunal may think fit.
- An order/decision/award of Tribunal is executable as a decree of a civil court.
- The NGT Act also provides a procedure for a penalty for non compliance:
- Imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years,
- Fine which may extend to ten crore rupees, and
- Both fine and imprisonment.
- An appeal against order/decision/ award of the NGT lies to the Supreme Court, generally within ninety days from the date of communication.
- The NGT deals with civil cases under the seven laws related to the environment, these include:
- The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974,
- The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Cess Act, 1977,
- The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980,
- The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981,
- The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986,
- The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991 and
- The Biological Diversity Act, 2002.
- Any violation pertaining to these laws or any decision taken by the Government under these laws can be challenged before the NGT.
Strengths of NGT
- Over the years NGT has emerged as a critical player in environmental regulation, passing strict orders on issues ranging from pollution to deforestation to waste management.
- NGT offers a path for the evolution of environmental jurisprudence by setting up an alternative dispute resolution mechanism.
- It helps reduce the burden of litigation in the higher courts on environmental matters.
- NGT is less formal, less expensive, and a faster way of resolving environment related disputes.
- It plays a crucial role in curbing environment-damaging activities.
- The Chairperson and members are not eligible for reappointment, hence they are likely to deliver judgements independently, without succumbing to pressure from any quarter.
- The NGT has been instrumental in ensuring that the Environment Impact Assessment process is strictly observed.
- Two important acts – Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 have been kept out of NGT’s jurisdiction. This restricts the jurisdiction area of NGT and at times hampers its functioning as crucial forest rights issue is linked directly to environment.
- The NGT decisions are being challenged in various High Courts under Article 226 (power of High Courts to issue certain writs) with many asserting the superiority of a High Court over the NGT, claiming ‘High Court is a constitutional body while NGT is a statutory body’.” This is one of the weaknesses of the Act as there is lack of clarity about what kind of decisions can be challenged; even though according to the NGT Act, its decision can be challenged before the Supreme Court.
- Decisions of NGT have also been criticised and challenged due to their repercussions on economic growth and development.
- The absence of a formula based mechanism in determining the compensation has also brought criticism to the tribunal.
- The decisions given by NGT are not fully complied by the stakeholders or the government. Sometimes its decisions are pointed out not to be feasible to implement within a given timeframe.
- The lack of human and financial resources has led to high pendency of cases – which undermines NGT’s very objective of disposal of appeals within 6 months.
- The justice delivery mechanism is also hindered by limited number of regional benches.
2.‘No rise in black money in Swiss banks’
Finance Ministry says customer deposits had fallen from 2019-end, seeks facts from bank authorities
The Finance Ministry has asserted that “there does not appear to be any significant possibility” of an increase in Swiss bank deposits from undeclared incomes of Indians, but has requested Swiss authorities to provide the “relevant facts” and “possible reasons” for changes in deposit numbers.
The Ministry, reacting to reports of Indians stashing away more funds in Swiss banks through 2020, claimed customer deposits had actually fallen from the end of 2019.
However, it cited several factors that could “potentially explain the increase in deposits”, such as Indian companies holding more funds in Switzerland due to increased business transactions.
“The Swiss authorities have been requested to provide the relevant facts along with their view on possible reasons for increase/decrease in the light of media reports,” the statement said, referring to reports that funds of Indians in Swiss banks rose from ₹6,625 crore at the end of 2019 to ₹20,700 crore at the end of 2020.
The reported surge in deposits has been reported as the highest in 13 years, it added.
The Ministry said that reports about the spurt in Swiss bank deposits “allude” to official figures reported by banks to Swiss National Bank (SNB) and do not indicate the quantum of the much-debated alleged black money held by Indians in Switzerland.
“Further, these statistics do not include the money that Indians, NRIs or others might have in Swiss banks in the names of third-country entities,” the statement added. The increase in deposits, the Ministry argued, could also be due to the business of Swiss bank branches located in India, increasing inter-bank transactions between Swiss and Indian banks or a capital increase for a subsidiary of a Swiss company in India.
Another factor could be an increase in the “liabilities connected with the outstanding derivative financial instruments”.
“The funds held through fiduciaries have also more than halved from end of 2019. The biggest increase is in “Other amounts due from customers. These are in the form of bonds, securities and various other financial instruments,” it said in a statement on Saturday.
“In view of the existing legal arrangement for exchange of information of financial accounts (which has a significant deterrent effect on tax evasion through undisclosed assets abroad), there does not appear to be any significant possibility of the increase of deposits in the Swiss banks, out of undeclared incomes of Indian residents,” the Ministry said.
India and Switzerland have been sharing such information since 2018 and both are signatories to multilateral treaties relating to mutual administrative assistance in tax matters. Bringing back black money held by Indians abroad was a key plank in the 2014 Lok Sabha election for the BJP.
3.Are your staple rice and wheat losing their nutrients?
One reason could be that the rate of yield increase is not compensated by the rate of nutrient uptake by plants
Rice, domesticated by humans over 10,000 years ago has now become the staple food for more than three billion people. But today’s rice does not have the same density of essential nutrients as those cultivated 50 years ago, notes a new study. Researchers from various institutes under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya found depleting trends in grain density of zinc and iron in rice and wheat cultivated in India. The findings were published last month in Environmental and Experimental Botany.
The team collected seeds of rice (16 varieties) and wheat (18 varieties) from the gene bank maintained at the ICAR-National Rice Research Institute, Chinsurah Rice Research Station and ICAR-Indian Institute of Wheat and Barley Research.
“These are nodal institutes that preserve and archive the old cultivars or varieties from our country. These institutes are repositories of genetic materials. If you want to study the genuine variety, or as botanists call them, ‘the true type’ of a plant, these institutes are your source,” explains Professor Biswapati Mandal from the Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya, West Bengal, and one of the corresponding authors of the paper.
The collected seeds were germinated in the laboratory, sown in pots and kept under an ambient environment outdoors. They were treated with the necessary fertilizers and the post-harvest seeds were studied for their nutrient content.
The team noted that zinc and iron concentrations in grains of rice cultivars released in the 1960s were 27.1 mg/kg and 59.8 mg/kg. This depleted to 20.6 mg/kg and 43.1 mg/kg, respectively in the 2000s. In wheat, the concentrations of zinc and iron — 33.3 mg/kg and 57.6 mg/kg in cultivars of the 1960s, dropped to 23.5 mg/kg and 46.4 mg/kg, respectively in cultivars released during the 2010s.
Sovan Debnath, the first author of the paper explains: “There could be several possible reasons for such depletion: one is a ‘dilution effect’ that is caused by decreased nutrient concentration in response to higher grain yield. This means the rate of yield increase is not compensated by the rate of nutrient take-up by the plants. Also, the soils supporting plants could be low in plant-available nutrients.” He is a doctoral researcher at Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya and a scientist for ICAR.
“Zinc and iron deficiency affects billions of people globally and the countries with this deficiency have diets composed mainly of rice, wheat, corn, and barley. Though the Indian government has taken initiatives such as providing supplementation pills to school children, it is not enough. We need to concentrate on other options like biofortification, where we breed food crops that are rich in micronutrients,” he adds.
The paper concludes that “growing newer-released (1990s and later) cultivars of rice and wheat cannot be a sustainable option to alleviate zinc and iron malnutrition in Indian population. These negative effects need to be circumvented by improving the grain ionome (that is, nutritional make-up)…while releasing cultivars in future breeding programmes”
- The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) was established on 16 July 1929 as a registered society under the Societies Registration Act, 1860.
- It is an autonomous organisation under the Department of Agricultural Research and Education (DARE), Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, Government of India.
- It is headquartered at New Delhi. With 102 ICAR institutes and 71 agricultural universities spread across the country this is one of the largest national agricultural systems in the world.
- It is the apex body for coordinating, guiding and managing research and education in agriculture including horticulture, fisheries and animal sciences in the entire country.
- The ICAR has played a pioneering role in ushering Green Revolution and subsequent developments in agriculture in India through its research and technology development that has enabled the country to increase the production of foodgrains by 5.6 times, horticultural crops by 10.5 times, fish by 16.8 times, milk by 10.4 times and eggs by 52.9 times since 1950-51 to 2017-18.
- The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) will start a Farmers Innovation Fund.
- The ‘Kisan Diwas’ or National Farmers Day is observed across the country on 23rd December to celebrate the birth anniversary of Chaudhary Charan Singh, the former Prime Minister of India.
- Dr. Norman E. Borlaug was the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work in global agriculture. He is also known as the Father of the Green Revolution.
- The World Food Prize is also known as the “Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture”. Dr. Rattan Lal has been declared the winner of the World Food Prize 2020.
- Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, the father of India’s green revolution, was the first recipient of this award in 1987.
- World Food Day is observed annually on 16th October to address the problem of global hunger (SDG 2-Zero hunger).
4.Abuzz with cicadas
Why do the ‘periodical’ species lay underground for over a decade and when do they emerge?
The story so far: The latest phenomenon that has taken America by storm is the song of the cicadas. Billions of cicadas have emerged across eastern parts of the United States. Periodical cicadas, so called because of their 13- or 17-year life cycle, most of which is spent underground, emerge from their earthy digs to romance, reproduce and retire. This year is the year of the Brood X periodical cicadas. Here, X stands for the Roman numeral and refers to the sequence of emergence. Certain questions arise in the research on cicadas — how do they grow underground, what do they eat during their 13- or 17-year nymph stages spent burrowed in, or how do they know it is time to emerge?
When was this phenomenon first recorded?
Periodical cicadas of the genus Magicicadae have intrigued entomologists since they were noticed. Though Native Americans in the east of America knew about them earlier, the earliest recorded mention of these insects was in 1633 (there is some doubt whether this was in 1631 or 1634) by William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth Colony in America, according to Gene Kritsky’s article in American Entomologist in 2001. This area later developed into the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts. The next mention was in 1666 by an unsigned note published by Henry Oldenberg where he referred to “swarms” of “locusts”. However, these insects are neither locusts nor do they swarm.
How did the evolution of lineages take place?
As species, periodical cicadas are older than the forests they inhabit, writes Chris Simon in an article in The Conversation. Molecular analysis has shown that about 4 million years ago, the ancestor of the current Magicicada species split into two lineages. Some 1.5 million years later, one of those lineages split again. The resulting three lineages are the basis of the modern periodical cicada species groups, Decim, Cassini and Decula. Each of these three species has 13-year and 17-year broods.
Why is the present emergent population called Brood X?
The term ‘brood’ is used to refer to all periodical cicadas that emerge the same year and occupy a geographically contiguous area. Charles Marlatt assigned roman numerals to designate their year of emergence, and the sequence started arbitrarily in 1893. The brood with the 17-year cycle that emerged in 1893 was denoted Brood I, and so on. So, the 17-year broods were designated I to XVII, and the 13-year broods were designated XVIII to XXX.
Why are they called ‘periodical’ cicadas?
These cicadas spend most of their lives underground. They grow burrowed in their earthy homes by feeding on root xylem for 13 or 17 years. During this time, they complete five developmental stages, known as “instars”, entirely underground. The fifth-instar nymphs emerge from the ground by making holes and then transform into adults, only to perish approximately four weeks later. As adults, they gather in so-called chorus groups, where the males sing to woo the females. After mating, the female lays eggs in thin twiggy branches of trees, and then dies. The eggs hatch and the nymphs drop into the earth like rain, burrowing into it. About 95% of the nymphs die, and the ones that are left feed on root sap and remain underground, till it is time to emerge. This is described in an article by Kathy S. Williams and Chris Simon in Annual Review of Entomology (1995).
In which parts of the U.S. are they found?
They are found to the east of the Great Plains in the U.S. and north of Florida, says Chris Simon, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut, in an email. “They emerge earlier in the warmer southern areas (late April-May) and later in the colder zones (late May-June),” she adds.
How does climate impact them?
“In any given place, they come out only once every 13 or 17 years. Occasionally, part of a population will come out four years early and part four years late. With climate warming, we are seeing more four-year early emergences in larger numbers,” says Prof. Simon. For instance, the Brood X periodical cicadas were documented in 2017 too, according to an article in the Washington Post.
5.Are there periodical cicadas in India?
There are three species of cicadas found in the Indian subcontinent — Chremistica mixta (found in Sri Lanka), C. seminiger (found in the Nilgiri hills) and C. ribhoi (discovered in Ri-Bhoi district of Meghalaya).
Mass emergence has been noticed only in the case of Chremistica ribhoi. The emergence takes place after dusk and once in four years. The phenomenon is well-known among villagers, who refer to the insect in the local Khasi language as ‘niangtaser’ (niang stands for “insect” and taser is believed to be derived from the name of the village “Iewsier”, which refers to the area in which the phenomenon occurs, and the forest region around it). This periodical cicada is used as food and fish bait and has been observed in May 2006 and in May 2010, according to a 2013 article in Zootaxa by Sudhanya Ray Hajong and Salmah Yaakop.
The debate around gain-of-function research
Do the benefits of such studies on possible future therapies outweigh the risk of pathogens escaping from labs?
The story so far: With the re-emergence of the lab-leak origin theory for the SARS-CoV-2, questions are also being raised on what gain-of-function research is, and whether the benefits of conducting such research outweigh the risk of pathogens escaping from labs. The Wuhan Institute of Virology was said to have conducted gain-of-function research on coronaviruses.
What is gain-of-function research?
In virology, gain-of-function research involves deliberately altering an organism in the lab, altering a gene, or introducing a mutation in a pathogen to study its transmissibility, virulence and immunogenicity. It is believed that this allows researchers to study potential therapies, vaccine possibilities and ways to control the disease better in future. “Gain-of-function research involves manipulations that make certain pathogenic microbes more deadly or more transmissible. This is done by genetically engineering the virus and by allowing them to grow in different growth mediums, a technique called as serial passage,” says Abdul Ghafur, senior consultant, infectious diseases, Apollo Hospitals.
There is also ‘loss-of-function’ research, which involves inactivating mutations, resulting in a significant loss of original function, or no function to the pathogen. When mutations occur, they alter the structure of the virus that is being studied, resulting in altered functions. Some of these significant mutations might weaken the virus or enhance its function.
Some forms of gain-of-function research reportedly carry inherent biosafety and biosecurity risks and are thus referred to as ‘dual-use research of concern’ (DURC). This indicates that while the research may result in benefits for humanity, there is also the potential to cause harm — accidental or deliberate escape of these altered pathogens from labs may cause even pandemics.
Thomas Briese of Columbia University described gain-of-function research done in the laboratory as being a “proactive” approach to understand what will eventually happen in nature, during a 2014 seminar on ‘Potential Risks and Benefits of Gain-of-Function Research’. Kanta Subbarao, who was then with the Laboratory of Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), U.S., said in the seminar that current medical countermeasures are often insufficient largely because of resistance mechanisms that lead to ‘escape mutants’, i.e., drug-resistant strains. There is, hence, a continual need to develop new antiviral drugs and additional options, such as immunotherapy, based on neutralising monoclonal antibodies. Ultimately, gain-of-function studies, which enhance viral yield and immunogenicity, are required for vaccine development.
What is the situation in India?
In India, all activities related to genetically engineered organisms or cells and hazardous microorganisms and products are regulated as per the “Manufacture, Use, Import, Export and Storage of Hazardous Microorganisms/Genetically Engineered Organisms or Cells Rules, 1989”. Last year, the Department of Biotechnology issued guidelines for the establishment of containment facilities, called ‘Biosafety labs’, at levels two and three. The notification provides operational guidance on the containment of biohazards and levels of biosafety that all institutions involved in research, development and handling of these microorganisms must comply with.
Should research continue?
Scientists have differing opinions on the issue, particularly since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. While those on the side of gain-of-function research say that it makes science and governments battle-ready for future pandemics, there have been a rising number of calls to suspend such research. Proponents of gain-of-function research believe that “nature is the ultimate bioterrorist and we need to do all we can to stay one step ahead”.
Dr. Ghafur, who thinks it is time to stop such research, says, “Unfortunately, scientists have crossed all boundaries and created monster chimeric viruses.” In the U.S., after COVID-19 struck, concerns were raised to ensure greater transparency about such research. In 2014, the country paused funding for three years for such research until steps could be taken to ensure the safety of the procedure. The Scientific American says in a report that science policymakers “must wrestle with defining the rare instances in which the benefits of experiments that enhance a virus’s capacity to survive and flourish in human hosts outweigh any risks.”
At the World Health Organization (WHO), the Science Division leads activities on DURC and responsible use of life sciences research, focusing on mitigation and prevention of biorisks and associated ethical issues. Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist, WHO, says that in 2020, the Department organised three DURC Dialogues with academies and councils, science editors and publishers, and donors of life sciences research. The stakeholders also called on the WHO to develop a Global Guidance Framework for member states to follow. The organisation initiated the development of that Framework and organised a consultative meeting in March 2021. Work is on to address key topics as part of the Framework.