1. Ahom burial sites to vie for UNESCO tag
The Centre has decided to nominate Assam’s Charaideo Maidams — the Ahom equivalent of the ancient Egyptian pyramids — for the UNESCO World Heritage Site status this year.
“There is currently no World Heritage Site in the category of cultural heritage in the northeast. The dossier [to push for the case of the Charaideo Maidams] was prepared in collaboration with the Archaeological Survey of India,” Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said on Saturday.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose the Maidams, representing the late medieval (13th-19th century CE) mound burial tradition of the Tai Ahom community in Assam, from among 52 sites across the country seeking the World Heritage Site tag.
The Ahom rule lasted for about 600 years until the British annexed Assam in 1826. Charaideo, more than 400 km east of Guwahati, was the first capital of the Ahom dynasty founded by Chao Lung Siu-Ka-Pha in 1253.
Out of 386 Maidams or Moidams explored so far, 90 royal burials at Charaideo are the best preserved, making them showpieces of mound burial tradition of the Ahoms. The Charaideo Maidams enshrine the mortal remains of the members of the Ahom royalty, who used to be buried with their paraphernalia.
2. A rice-loving wild jumbo drives villagers up the wall
A rogue tusker named ‘Arikompan’ that regularly raids ration shops and eats provisions is giving sleepless nights to the residents of Santhanpara in Idukki district.
According to local people, the tusker has attacked a ration shop around 10 times in the past one-and-a-half years. Now,the Santhanpara grama panchayat has demanded that the government capture the tusker immediately.
Antony P.L., who runs the ration shop at Panniyar that is particularly favoured by Arikompan, says in each attack, the tusker eats atta, rice, sugar, and wheat. There is a distinct preference for rice, and hence the name Arikompan (ari is rice, and kompan means tusker). “ Over 500 ration cardholders, including families from two tribal settlements, depend on the shop. The elephant would attack any time. I am reluctant to keep the shop open in the evenings,” says Mr. Antony. His shop came under attack at 4 a.m. on Saturday. The loss was two full sacks of rice.
Santhanpara panchayat president Liju Varghese says the panchayat has written to Forest Minister A.K. Saseendran and the Chief Wildlife Warden demanding steps to shift the tusker from the region immediately.
“The tusker has destroyed over 60 houses in the panchayat and killed nearly 10 people under the Devikulam range over the years,“ says Mr. Varghese.
Elephant expert P.S. Essa says the undulating terrain and presence of the Anayirankal reservoir in the vicinity is a big hurdle to capturing the tusker. “If the elephant enters the water after being tranquilised, it is in danger of drowning,” says Mr. Essa. The terrain is dotted with small hills and a sedated elephant can fall to its death from such a mound.
A senior Forest department official confirms the threat posed by the tusker to the local people. “The final decision of capturing it can be taken only at the government level,” says the official.
3. ‘China building new dam in Tibet near Indian border’
In addition to using water as leverage, the possibility of a military establishment near the tri-junction cannot be ruled out as China had developed the same in Yarlung Zangbo, say sources
In a development that is a matter of concern to India and Nepal, China is constructing a dam on the Mabja Zangbo river in Tibet, close to the tri-junction, satellite imagery has revealed. The dam is around 16 km north of the tri-junction and is opposite the Kalapani area of Uttarakhand, according to sources in the security establishment.
The Mabja Zangbo originates in the Nagari county of Tibet, flows through Nepal into the Ghaghara river before joining the Ganga in India.
In a tweet on January 19, Damien Symon, a geospatial intelligence researcher at Intel Lab as per his Twitter profile, posted satellite images of the dam’s construction. The images show the activity since May 2021 in the Burang county of Tibet that shares its border with Nepal.
“Since early 2021, China has been constructing a dam on the Mabja Zangbo river just a few kilometres north of the tri-junction border with India and Nepal. While the structure isn’t complete, the project will raise concerns regarding China’s future control on water in the region,” Mr. Symon said in the tweet. The images show the formation of an embankment type dam with a reservoir.
In addition to using water as leverage, the possibility of a military establishment by China near the tri-junction cannot be ruled out as the country had developed the same in the Yarlung Zangbo river near Arunachal Pradesh, the sources said.
A source stated that China could use this dam to not only divert but also store water which could lead to a scarcity in the regions dependent on the Mabja Zangbo river as also lead to lower water levels in rivers such as the Ghaghara and the Karnali in Nepal. Dams close to the border could be used by China to strengthen its claim on the disputed areas in the region, the source added.
The Yarlung Zangbo, as the Brahmaputra is known in Tibet, originates in the Himalayas in Tibet, enters India in Arunachal Pradesh, passes through Assam and then Bangladesh, before emptying into the Bay of Bengal.
In 2021, China announced that it would construct a massive dam on the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo to generate up to 70 GW of power, three times that of the country’s Three Gorges dam, which is the world’s largest hydropower plant in terms of installed capacity. This was among several other hydropower projects announced by China to generate clean energy and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.
4. Of a bygone era: excavations reveal Buddhist monastery complex at Bharatpur in Bengal
India’s plan to eradicate measles, rubella
Recent excavations at Bharatpur in Paschim Bardhaman district of West Bengal have revealed the presence of a Buddhist monastery. The Kolkata Circle of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) started excavating the site in the second week of January and a structural complex of a monastery has now been partially exposed.
The site was initially excavated almost 50 years ago between 1972 and 1975 when archaeologists from the ASI and Burdwan University found a Buddhist stupa there.
“The site had been left unexcavated for almost 50 years. We were looking at the cultural sequence of the stupa from where black and red ware pottery belonging to the Chalcolithic Age was also recovered. A Buddhist stupa cannot exist in isolation, and the recent excavations have revealed the presence of an extended monastery complex,” said Shubha Majumder, Superintending Archaeologist at the ASI Kolkata Circle.
Mr. Majumder, who is supervising the excavations, said archaeologists would be able to ascertain more details about the monastery complex and its date of construction once the excavation progresses. “So far, we have exposed some structures which appear to be the outer wall of the monastery, containing nine layers of brick and a small circular structure, probably a stupa,” he added.
According to experts, what makes the site unique in terms of other Buddhist sites in the State is the presence of a large stupa, along with a monastery complex and black and red ware pottery, from the Chalcolithic or Copper Age.
In other sites across West Bengal, such as Karnasubarna in Murshidabad, Moghalamari in Paschim Medinipur and Jagjivanpur in Malda, archaeologists have found only smaller votive stupas.
A Buddhist stupa is a commemorative monument usually housing sacred relics associated with the Buddha or other saints or priests, whereas votive stupas have similar significance but are smaller structures originating in eight cylindrical structures.
When the site was excavated in the 1970s, archaeologists found black and red ware pottery associated with the Chalcolithic Age, which predates any Buddhist structures. “The excavation is likely to shed more light to understand the earliest occupation of the site and its continuity till the establishment of a Buddhist monastery,” Mr. Majumder said.
Rupendra Kumar Chattopadhyay, former Professor at the Department of Archaeology, University of Calcutta, said the site was important for two main reasons: one, because it is an early village settlement on the bank of the Damodar river which could date to around 2000 BC; and two, the Buddhist monastery complex.
“So there are two significances to the site: one is secular which is an early village settlement, and second, religious, which is the Buddhist site,” he said.
Professor Chattopadhyay said the site could have been a nucleus of an early village farming site from where sites radiated to other areas along the other bank of the Damodar and other rivers such as Ajoy and Darakeshwar.
Referring to other pre-historic sites in the region, Mr. Majumder said there were early village farming sites at Dihar and Pakhanna on the other bank of the Damodar in Bankura district. He said the excavation was an attempt to trace the cultural continuity of the site where settlements could have been located for thousands of years.
In the 1970s when the site was excavated along with the stupa, five beautiful seated sculptures of the Buddha in Bhumisparsha Mudra — with all five fingers of the right hand extended to touch the ground — were found. These miniature sculptures, each about 30 cm in height, were most likely used for worship in the monastery.
Professor Chattopadhyay and Dr. Majumder said that almost all the Buddhist sites have been found in the Rarh Bengal region, which is the south-western part of the State. The excavation at Bharatpur, also in the same region, has the potential to reveal interesting aspects about the extension of Buddhism in the region.
5. Why is China’s population shrinking?
To what extent is the ‘one-child policy’ responsible? Why has the country now announced a ‘three-child policy’ including financial inducements? Will this help stop the slide?
China’s National Bureau of Statistics announced on January 17, 2023 that the country’s population had fallen by 8,50,000 in the year 2022. This marked the first decline since 1961, when the country was in the midst of a four-year famine following the failed ‘Great Leap Forward’ campaign. Demographers say that with China’s population now having peaked, India is set to become the most populous nation this year.
What the reasons for this trend?
Birth rates in China have declined since the 1980s and in the wake of the “one-child policy”, which introduced harsh measures such as forced abortions and high financial penalties. The Chinese government still defends the policy, arguing it spared China an additional 400 million births. But critics of the policy say the estimate is an exaggeration, when considering declining family sizes over time in many countries along with economic development and without similarly harsh measures, and when factoring into account the policy’s legacy of leaving behind a rapidly ageing society.
If the one-child policy and its legacy has been one major factor, a second one, as pointed out by Barclay Bram of the Asia Society Policy Institute in a January 2023 paper, is that “young Chinese are marrying later, having fewer children, or forgoing having children altogether”, with the number of couples who married in China dropping from 13.46 million to 8.14 million in the period from 2013 to 2020.
Meanwhile, the average age of first-time parents, in the three decade-period from 1990-2020, rose from 24.1 to 27.5. With a growing preference for getting married and starting families later, couples are choosing to have fewer children. In 2022, for the first time the number of births fell below the number of deaths. Births last year were 9.56 million, a more than 10% drop from 2021.
How has the Chinese government responded to the population crisis?
To arrest the slide, Beijing finally abandoned the one-child policy in 2016 — by then, the policy had, in any case, included many exceptions, for instance for couples who were both only children or in rural areas for families where the first child was a daughter.
The “two-child policy” introduced that year, however, failed to elicit the desired response. A government survey conducted that year found 70% attributed high costs of healthcare and education as a factor.
Ahead of the rollout of the current five-year plan (2021-25), the Politburo discussed “major policy measures to actively address the ageing of population” and in 2021 rolled out a “three-child policy” including financial inducements for families with three children. It has also pledged to address the economic factors such as healthcare costs and education expenses, for instance by cracking down on expensive private education companies, which had become a booming industry.
Harder to address, however, are the widening personal preferences for smaller families, a trend seen globally which also likely explains why the policies rolled out by China, as well as other countries such as Japan, have had limited impact in encouraging the public to have larger families.
A more realistic policy emphasis, some scholars have suggested, would be to deal with what appears to be an inevitable trend following Japan’s experience, and to consider, for a start, raising the retirement age from the current 60 for men and 55 for women.
What will be the impact on China’s economy?
China’s 16-59 working age population has continued to decline. As of the end of 2022, the number was 875 million, or 62% of the total population, down by around 75 million from 2010.
The above-60 population was 280 million, or 20% of the total population, an increase of around 30 million in the same period. By 2050, the Chinese government estimates, the above-60 population will account for as much as 35% of the total population. According to China’s National Working Commission on Ageing, healthcare spending on this group will rise to 26% of the GDP by 2050, up from 7% in 2015.
A major concern is the economic impact of a shrinking workforce.
The size of China’s labour force already peaked in 2011 at 925 million, and is likely to drop to 700 million by 2050. The glut of labour from the rural heartland that powered China’s factories is already drying up. With wages rising, many factories in the lower end of the manufacturing spectrum are already moving out to Southeast Asia and Bangladesh. Chinese companies like e-commerce giant JD are already investing heavily in automation to deal with the coming labour crunch.
Articles in the Chinese media have recently expressed longer term anxieties about factories moving out to India, that will this year become the world’s most populous country with a demographic dividend and labour force of a profile similar in age to China’s in 1980.
6. India’s plan to eradicate measles, rubella
Will the country be able to achieve the new target of 2023? Why was the earlier goal of 2020 unattainable? How fatal are the viruses? What needs to be done with the vaccination programme? What are the various challenges India’s health system faces?
As the new year dawned, so did a crucial target for India. India had set a target to eliminate measles and rubella (MR) by 2023, having missed the earlier deadline of 2020, due to a variety of reasons, exacerbated by disruptions due to the pandemic. An earlier target that was set for 2015 was also missed. It was in 2019 that India adopted the goal of measles and rubella elimination by 2023, anticipating that the 2020 goal could not be reached.
Why is this target crucial?
The measles virus is one of the world’s most contagious human viruses that kills more than 1,00,000 children every year globally, and rubella is a leading vaccine-preventable cause of birth defects, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Both measles and rubella can be prevented by just two doses of a safe and effective vaccine. Over the past two decades, the measles vaccine is estimated to have averted more than 30 million deaths globally, as per the WHO’s statistics. In both diseases, the symptoms are a rash and fever. While measles has a high fatality rate, rubella infection in a pregnant woman will have an impact on the foetus, resulting in birth defects.
What happened in 2022?
From October 2022, an outbreak of measles in Maharashtra, particularly Mumbai, had the authorities worried. As per media reports at least 15 children died among several hundreds who contracted the infection. Coming at the cusp of a year in which India had a crucial target to achieve, it perturbed authorities.
Dr. Jacob John, noted virologist who heads the India Experts Advisory Group for eliminating MR, equates it to a phenomenon similar to COVID-19 infections catching up in China end of last year, since they had ‘escaped the previous waves of infection.’ “It is a similar phenomenon, because during the winter months of 2020 and 2021 (November to January when there is the usual spurt in cases of measles) there were no outbreaks,” he said. The 2022 outbreak was like epidemiological compensation. However, experts aver that this outbreak will contribute to ramping up herd immunity in the population which along with a robust vaccination programme will help achieve the necessary targets.
What has India done to achieve targets?
Though the pandemic led to poor immunisation rates, in a paper, Progress Toward Measles and Rubella Elimination — India, 2005–2021, published on the CDC website, Ratnesh Murugan and others explain the paths the country had taken in getting to where it stands now. During 2010–2013, India conducted a phased measles catch-up immunisation for children aged 9 months–10 years in 14 States, vaccinating approximately 119 million children.
Mission Indradhanush was launched in 2014 to ramp up vaccinating the unvaccinated population. During 2017–2021, India adopted a national strategic plan for measles and rubella elimination, and introduced rubella-containing vaccine (RCV) into the routine immunisation programme, besides launching a nationwide measles-rubella supplementary immunisation activity (SIA) catch-up campaign. It also transitioned from outbreak-based surveillance to case-based acute fever and rash surveillance, and more than doubled the number of laboratories in the measles-rubella network.
Is the target to eliminate MR achievable?
“Yes, I would think so,” said Dr. Jacob John. “The main concern is the under one-year population. But if we are able to keep up the tempo of immunisation at 95 % the second dose coverage (which means the first dose coverage has to be higher), it will be possible.”
But the trick, he pointed out, is to do it district by district — give each district a target to achieve the required rate of immunisation, conduct a robust fever and rash surveillance programme, besides testing for MR. He said a well-oiled machinery rests in place, and it is possible to be free of the disease as some other countries have recently demonstrated, including Sri Lanka, the Maldives and South Korea. “My expectation is that 95% will succeed. But what we must remember is that even if 5% miss the target, it is not as if the whole country has failed, we would have indeed achieved significant gains. Besides if we keep monitoring the progress, the districts that are stragglers in implementing the immunisation, can be helped along, with additional inputs,” he contended.
In the process, C.S. Rex Sargunam, paediatrician and president, Tamil Nadu Health Development Association, said it is important to provide full support to the ground level staff who implement the programme — the village health nurses, ASHA (accredited social health activists) workers, anganwadi and ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) workers. “In fact the only way to ensure a target driven approach is successful is to make sure that the people given the tasks are happy doing their job. We do need to improve their service conditions, and make sure salaries are not pending for months.”
He said that while targets will be easier to achieve in States such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala, thanks to the robust immunisation infrastructure, in the other States, additional efforts should be taken to work towards achieving the target.
The WHO has expressed hope that India could indeed reach the target. “We can reach MR elimination goals in India if we strengthen surveillance by finding, investigating, and collecting and testing a sample for every suspected case, in each district in every State and UT,” said Roderico H. Ofrin, WHO Country Representative to India. Experts underlined the importance of being thorough in public health outreach. As Prabhdeep Kaur, deputy director, National Institute of Epidemiology, ICMR, said: “A threat of infection anywhere is a threat everywhere.”