Daily Current Affairs 25.02.2023 (It’s Centre’s call, says SC on menstrual leave policy, Orangutans smuggled via Chennai, four policemen suspended, Birders delight: Bengal reports 489 species during count , COP-28 must focus on adaptation instead of mitigation, says official, Cyberattacks are rising, but there is an ideal patch, Breathing the toxic air of Chandrapur)

Daily Current Affairs 25.02.2023 (It’s Centre’s call, says SC on menstrual leave policy, Orangutans smuggled via Chennai, four policemen suspended, Birders delight: Bengal reports 489 species during count , COP-28 must focus on adaptation instead of mitigation, says official, Cyberattacks are rising, but there is an ideal patch, Breathing the toxic air of Chandrapur)


1. It’s Centre’s call, says SC on menstrual leave policy

Petitioner can approach the Ministry of Women and Child Development, says Bench, which also flagged the concern that such leave can act as a ‘disincentive’ for those who want to hire women

The Supreme Court said on Friday that there are different “dimensions” to menstrual pain leave, which though being a biological process, may also act as a “disincentive” for employers from engaging women in their establishments.

A three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud asked the petitioner to approach the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development Ministry to frame a policy.

The court was hearing a petition filed by Shailendra Mani Tripathi, represented by advocate Vishal Tiwari, seeking a direction to States to frame rules for granting menstrual pain leave for students and working women.

Caution note

However, the court was also intrigued by a caveat filed by a law student, Anjale Patel, represented by advocate Satya Mitra, who raised a flip side to such a move.

“The law student says that if you compel employers to grant menstrual pain leave, it may operate as a de facto disincentive for employers to engage women in their establishments… This has a policy dimension,” Chief Justice Chandrachud observed.

Mr. Tiwari said menstruation was a biological process and women should not be discriminated against in educational institutions and workplaces.

“We are not denying it… But the student says that is what employers may do in actual practice. There are different dimensions to the issue, we will leave it to the policy makers. Let them first formulate a policy, we will consider it then,” Chief Justice Chandrachud said.

“Having regard to the policy dimensions involved in the matter, we are of the considered view that the petitioner make a representation to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, which may take an appropriate decision on the grievance of the petitioner,” the court recorded in its order.

Mr. Tiwari said Bihar and Kerala are the only States that allow menstrual pain leave. He had sought a direction from the court under Section 14 of the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961.

Section 14 deals with appointment of inspectors and says appropriate governments may appoint such officers and may define the local limits of jurisdiction within which they shall exercise their functions under this law.

The plea said countries like the United Kingdom, China, Wales, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, South Korea, Spain and Zambia were already providing menstrual pain leave in one form or the other.

“Ironically, the most disappointing aspect in the direction of respecting the rights of working women, is that in spite of a provision under section 14 of the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, that there will be an inspector for a particular area to monitor the implementation of provisions, no government in India has created the post of inspectors, forget about the appointment of such inspectors,” the plea claimed.

It said the various provisions of the 1961 Act recognise and respect motherhood and maternity of working women.

“In spite of provisions to take care of women in difficult stages of her maternity, the very first stage of the maternity, the menstrual period, has been knowingly or unknowingly ignored by society, the legislature and other stakeholders in society except a few organisations and State governments,” the petition said.

2. Orangutans smuggled via Chennai, four policemen suspended

A gang smuggling at least eight orangutans has escaped through Chennai, allegedly with the help of some police personnel. Following the incident, four personnel, including a Sub-Inspector, have been placed under suspension.

Sources said a fortnight ago, SI Ashok and constables Mahesh, Krishnamoorthy and Vallarasu, all attached to the Red Hills police station in Chennai, intercepted a vehicle carrying the orangutans. The smugglers bribed some of the police personnel, who let the gang proceed. Senior officers later got a tip-off about the incident. An inquiry has been ordered.

Orangutans, a critically endangered species, are native to the rainforests of Malaysia and Indonesia.

3. Birders delight: Bengal reports 489 species during count

Over 46,000 checklists and 1,067 avian species were uploaded on e-Bird, an online platform to record bird observations.

West Bengal reported the highest number of species of birds, followed by Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh during the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) 2023 across 35 States and Union Territories from February 17 to February 20.

While West Bengal reported 489 species, Uttarakhand recorded 426, Arunachal Pradesh 407, Assam 397 and Karnataka 371 species.

Tamil Nadu and Kerala took the eighth and ninth spots with 349 and 325 species, respectively. Kerala, on the other hand, recorded the highest number of checklists of birds, the Bird Count India (BCI) said in a statement on Friday. It took the top spot in the checklist category by uploading 9,768 lists of birds. Maharashtra with 7,414 lists and Tamil Nadu with 6,098 were placed second and third, respectively.

The BCI is an informal partnership of organisations and groups working together to increase collective knowledge about bird distributions and populations.

India was among 190 countries that participated in the GBBC 2023, an annual event that brings bird enthusiasts, students and nature enthusiasts together for counting birds they see around the places where they live, work or study.

The preliminary report released by the BCI said that more than 46,000 checklists and a total of 1,067 avian species were uploaded on e-Bird, an online platform to record bird observations.

“The GBBC 2023 showed India’s birds are thriving in diverse habitats from the city to the countryside. A remarkable increase in participation across the country helped India upload the second-highest number of checklists after the United States and the third-highest species of any country,” the BCI said.

“The event was significant as it encouraged students to learn more about birds and to take initiatives to observe them,” Vaishnavi Padigala, an environmental science undergraduate from Pune’s Fergusson College, said.

Pune birders uploaded more than 5,900 lists, the most among urban centres.

According to the BCI, the data contributed by citizen scientists are used by scientists and conservationists to better understand and protect bird species.

The GBBC was launched in 1998. The Bird Count India organises the GBBC in the country.

4. COP-28 must focus on adaptation instead of mitigation, says official

The forthcoming United Nations Conference of Parties (COP-28) in Dubai must focus on adaptation instead of mitigation, Leena Nandan, Secretary, Environment Ministry, said at a meeting on Friday.

The concepts of mitigation and adaptation are at the heart of international climate discourse. Adaptation refers to assisting countries that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change (coastal states, island nations) with finance and infrastructural assistance. Mitigation refers to reducing carbon emissions and historically, countries have wrangled over the deadlines and upper limit of emissions to keep global temperatures from rising 0.5 degree Celsius or 1 degree Celsius from the current levels.

“We have all along focused on mitigation. But adaptation lies at the heart of equity and climate justice. When we speak of climate finance, the very definition of climate finance is yet to be arrived at. COP-28 should focus on action,” Ms. Nandan said at the World Sustainable Development Summit organised by the Energy Resources Institute here.

“We require much more discussion on loss and damages and the mechanism for the loss and damage (fund) to be operationalised. India has made a firm commitment to green growth as well as mindful utilisation of resources,” she added.

The decision to establish a loss and damage fund, and to compensate some countries for the damage already wreaked from climate change was the highlight of the COP-27 that concluded in Cairo in November, 2022. There is, however, no agreement on who will fund it, despite estimates that it should at the minimum be worth $500 billion.

‘Global stocktake’

A major highlight of the Dubai COP, scheduled in November, is expected to be the ‘global stocktake’, or when signatories to the climate treaties are expected to inform the world on the progress they have made in fulfilling their contributions (voluntary commitments to cut emissions and progress towards a 1.5° Celsius limit), and the way forward to closing them.

“We are coming to the end of the technical phase of the global stocktake but it is the political phase that requires elevation,” said Simon Stiell, Executive Secretary, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), adding, “In terms of moving the needle and within G-20, it is an opportune moment with India taking on the Presidency.”

5. Editorial-1: Cyberattacks are rising, but there is an ideal patch

The past few weeks have highlighted the soft underbelly of our fast expanding digital networks. The first was the ransomware attack on the servers of India’s premium institute, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Nearly 40 million health records were compromised and it took over two weeks for the systems to be brought online. Soon afterwards, a ransomware gang, BlackCat, breached the parent company of Solar Industries Limited, one of the Ministry of Defence’s ammunition and explosives manufacturers, and extracted over 2 Terabyte of data.

Growing vulnerability

Ransomwares have emerged as the most predominant of malicious cyberattacks. Here, the perpetrators demand hefty payments for the release of withheld data. Data show that over 75% of Indian organisations have faced such attacks, with each breach costing an average of ₹35 crore of damage. There are other malwares that could infect all kinds of computer systems. With the lines between the physical and digital realms blurring rapidly, every critical infrastructure, from transportation, power and banking systems, would become extremely vulnerable to the assaults from hostile state and non-state actors.

Cyber capabilities are also playing a pivotal role, as seen in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, where electronic systems in warheads, radars and communication devices have reportedly been rendered ineffective using hacking and GPS jamming. With cyber threats capable of undermining our critical infrastructure, industry and security, a comprehensive cyber security policy is the need of the hour.

In 2022, the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In), which is India’s cybersecurity agency, introduced a set of guidelines for organisations to comply with when connected to the digital realm. This included the mandatory obligation to report cyberattack incidents within hours of identifying them, and designating a pointsperson with domain knowledge to interact with CERT-In. India’s draft Digital Personal Protection Bill 2022 proposes a penalty of up to ₹500 crore for data breaches. Recently, India’s armed forces created a Defence Cyber Agency (DCyA), capable of offensive and defensive manoeuvres. All Indian States have their own cyber command and control centres.

However, most organisations lack the tools to identify cyberattacks, let alone prevent them. India also faces an acute scarcity of cybersecurity professionals. India is projected to have a total workforce of around 3,00,000 people in this sector in contrast to the 1.2 million people in the United States.

Most of our organisations are in the private sector, and their participation remains limited in India’s cybersecurity structures. They would be advised to look at the Digital Geneva Convention, where over 30 global companies have signed a declaration to protect users and customers from cyber breaches, and collaborate with like-minded intergovernmental and state frameworks. With the introduction of 5G and the arrival of quantum computing, the potency of malicious software, and avenues for digital security breaches would only increase. India’s cybersecurity strategy would do well not to overlook these actualities and trends.

Global understanding is essential

With most cyberattacks originating from beyond our borders, international cooperation would be critical to keep our digital space secure. It would also be a cause which would find resonance abroad. This year, cybercrimes are expected to cause damage worth an estimated $8 trillion worldwide. India has already signed cybersecurity treaties, where the countries include the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, South Korea and the European Union. Even in multinational frameworks such as the Quad and the I2U2 (which India is a member of) there are efforts to enhance cooperation in cyber incident responses, technology collaboration, capacity building, and in the improvement of cyber resilience. Yet, there is no truly global framework, with many operating in silos.

Previous years have seen the United Nations General Assembly establish two processes on the issues of security in the information and communication technologies (ICT) environment. One is the Open-ended Working Group (OEWG), comprising the entire UN membership, established through a resolution by Russia. The other is the resolution by the U.S., on the continuation of the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE), comprising 25 countries from all the major regions. The two antagonistic permanent members of the UN Security Council, counted among India’s most important strategic partners, differ vastly on many aspects of the Internet, including openness, restrictions on data flow, and digital sovereignty. Yet, based on adoption, member-states have found the two resolutions to be complementary, and not mutually exclusive. Amidst the turbulent current world events, these UN groups would struggle to have effective dialogues.

Tap the G-20 summit

The G-20 summit this year in India, which will see participation by all the stakeholders driving the global levers of power, is a rare opportunity to bring together domestic and international engagement groups across the spectrum, and steer the direction of these consultations. India could make an effort to conceptualise a global framework of common minimum acceptance for cybersecurity. This would be one of the most significant contributions made by any nation towards collective security in modern times.

India’s G-20 presidentship and summit later this year are ideal opportunities for the crafting of a comprehensive domestic and global cyber security framework

6. Opinion-1: Breathing the toxic air of Chandrapur

The Chandrapur Super Thermal Power Station in Chandrapur, a hulking seven-unit facility,has been billowing toxic substances for nearly 40 years. 

Despite the Chandrapur Super Thermal Power Station facing several allegations of flouting environmental norms and of knowingly and willingly damaging its immediate environment, it has barely faced any action. Mrinali Dhembla reports from one of India’s most polluted cities on the dangers of slurry leaks and untreated coal waste and the effects of toxic substances on the population

Every day, when 10-year-old Madhav Mundhada comes back from school tired, he takes at least 45 minutes to finish his meal. He is forced to eat slowly. “Sometimes food triggers his asthma attack,” says Dr. Gopal Mundhada, his grandfather who is a paediatrician and former president of the Chandrapur chapter of the Indian Medical Association.

Madhav has had severe asthma since he was two or three years old. Mundhada says he is convinced it is because of the air pollution in the neighbourhood.

The Mundhadas are an intergenerational household a few stones’ throw away from the coal-fired Chandrapur Super Thermal Power Station (CSTPS) in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district. A hulking seven-unit facility with a capacity of 2,920 MW, the plant has been billowing toxic substances for nearly 40 years. The air around the CSTPS smells charred and pungent. It reeks of the smell of continuous combustion of petrol or coal. The radius of the plant is bespattered with trees, and inhabited by the employees of CSTPS, who claim that it is not uncommon to spot a tiger on the premises of the plant.

Chandrapur city is known as ‘India’s Black Gold City’ and is in the Vidarbha region, the coal-rich belt of Maharashtra. It is also one of the most polluted cities in India. The city is an industrial area, home to cement, explosives, paper, and textile factories, in addition to mines.

The CSTPS plant alone releases 7,100 metric tonnes — almost the weight of 18 jumbo jets — of fly ash, a fine particulate by-product of coal combustion that is known to be carcinogenic. It also generates 2,900 metric tonnes of bottom ash, the heavier coal waste that is non-combustible and needs to be stored safely to prevent it from percolating into the groundwater. Both these forms of coal waste are together known as coal ash.

In 2019, Chandrapur had a very high Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index (CEPI) score of 76.41. The CEPI is a monitoring scale that assesses the overall environmental quality of industrial areas in India. When scientists installed faux lungs to measure air pollution in the city in November 2021, they turned sooty black in one week. The air became so toxic that the air quality index reached a dangerous 400 in January 2022.

Critically polluted

Mundhada’s son, daughter-in-law, and his wife Dr. Bharati Mundhada all suffer from asthma. Bharati says that she started having breathing troubles in 1989, a few years after she moved to Chandrapur following her marriage into the Mundhada family.

According to government stipulations, CSTPS, which is run by the Maharashtra State Power Generation Co. Ltd (MAHAGENCO), a public utility with the second-highest power generation capacity in India (in 2017), is required to install air quality monitoring units in different locations around the thermal plant. In January 2022, the sulphur dioxide (SO2) reading from a monitoring system installed at unit 8, a new unit commissioned in 2015, was found to be eight times higher than the standard limit. Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions also often show similar deviant trends.

Several studies have shown the effects of this pollution. A June 2020 study showed that among street vendors, 32% of those surveyed by two researchers in Maharashtra had complained of respiratory tract infections. According to a report published in February 2022 by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), an independent organisation founded in Helsinki, the operation of units at CSTPS in 2020 could be linked to an estimated 85 premature deaths in Chandrapur and 62 in Nagpur, about 120 km to the north. The study also said that the effects of ambient air pollution from CSTPS resulted in various health illnesses, which led to 34,000 sick leave days in Chandrapur and 30,000 days in Nagpur. MAHAGENCO responded by serving a defamation notice to CREA. It dubbed the study “mischievous”, “baseless”, “false”, “misleading” and “unscientific.”

There are several complaints of respiratory issues in the area around the plant. “Children are falling sick because of pollution. If we go to a public hospital, they ask us to come in, give us medicines and an injection. That’s it,” says a resident of the city.

“Every family has a story,” says pulmonologist Dr. Saurabh Rajurkar, who runs a clinic close to the plant.

Key activists in Chandrapur, including Mundhada, who runs the non-profit Chandrapur Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, have filed a lawsuit against the State government demanding action. They say the CSTPS has been flouting environmental norms. Reports that the activists filed with the National Green Tribunal suggest that all seven operational units at CSTPS released SO2 beyond permitted limits and that one unit reported a higher concentration of nitrous oxides as well.

Plant officials deny these allegations. “All industries (in Chandrapur) are complying with industrial norms,” says Pankaj Sapate, chief engineer of the CSTPS plant.

Dangerous disasters

Around 40 km away from the plant is an ash pond that holds coal waste in the form of slurry. “All the bottom ash [2,900 metric tonnes that is produced daily] is dumped into the ash bund by the CSTPS. Then the ash leaks into rivers, nallahs and people’s agricultural land,” says Suresh Chopane, an activist in Chadrapur.

In September 2021, the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB), which is responsible for overseeing CSTPS’ adherence to environmental norms, wrote in a letter to the electric utility saying it had found seven million metric tonnes per annum of ash dumped in the bund and the plant is storing ash in an unscientific manner.

In March last year, a pipe that carried fly ash slurry from the thermal plant to the ash pond reportedly leaked right over the Erai river, a lifeline for the people of Chandrapur. Sapate claims that the quantity of the leaked slurry was very little.

Ash was reportedly found along the river bed and accumulated in many places on the road next to the pipe. “There was no such thing witnessed,” he says.

Dangerous disasters such as the slurry leak are an all too common in India. There have been 76 such incidents reported in just the last decade, according to the Flyash Watch Group.

“The ash pond is a temporary storage unit,” says Sripad Dharmadhikar, a policy researcher at the Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, an organisation that studies various environmental issues such as water privatisation, inland waterways, coal and water, and water policy in India. The latest rules regarding coal ash stipulate that the rate of fly ash generation is supposed to meet the rate of utilisation, which means 100% of the fly ash being generated needs to be recycled. Fly ash utilisation is the process by which waste is recycled for reuse in cement, concrete, mineral filler for asphalt roads, etc. As per the rules, all coal power plants must reuse 100% of their fly ash within three years or face a fine of ₹1,000 per tonne. However, one in every two coal-based plants flouts these norms, according to a report by the Centre for Science and Environment.

In Koradi and Khaparkhera in Maharashtra, where there are two state-run plants of 2,400 MW and 1,340 MW capacity, respectively, Manthan examined the water quality and found that almost every water sample failed the safe Bureau of Indian Standards’ limits for drinking water. There were also heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic, and cadmium, which can cause cancers of the bladder and the liver. Coal ash slurry is rich in these elements as well.

Manthan suspects similar results with Chandrapur, where it undertook a similar water sampling survey in September 2022. The report is due to be published this year.

CSTPS’ groundwater monitoring report is not in the public domain. However, it shared its report for June 2022 with The Hindu, which reported that the contaminants’ concentrations in drinking water were within safety limits.

Despite a variety of problems, the CSTPS has always had a ‘consent to operate’ from the National Green Tribunal and the Pollution Control Board, and has never shut down due to environmental violations.

“I suggest you… go there [to the ash pond]. You will not find the ash there,” Sapate says.

In a letter dated March 2021, the MPCB wrote that CSTPS was knowingly and willingly damaging its immediate environment. Two other letters dated September and December 2021 used the same words to denounce the plant’s operations. But CSTPS hasn’t faced further action other than being asked to pay a fine of ₹5 crore for the slurry leak in March 2022.

The better way forward

India produces almost 180 million metric tonnes of fly ash every year and a significant fraction of it remains untreated and unrecycled. The Indian government has issued various notifications on fly ash utilisation, demanding beneficial reuse instead of all-out disposal; installation of flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) units; and safe disposal of fly ash. Yet, India has recycled only around half of its fly ash even as it generates more.

In 2020 alone, CSTPS emitted 4,724 tonnes of particulate matter, 1,03,010 tonnes of SO2 and 28,417 tonnes of NO2, according to a recent study by CREA. FGD is a system that can help cut SO2 emissions by up to 80-90% in some units. This way, “More than 1,300 lives could have been saved in 2020 if the CSTPS [had] installed FGD,” CREA’s report says.

“It is important to install FGD to meet the current environmental norms. It is compulsory by the authorities,” Sapate says. “We are planning to place FGD as per the guidelines of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change.” Seven years since the nationwide announcement for the need of an FGD system, CSTPS still has no solid plan to install it. A September 2022 update said tendering for FGD systems is “in progress”.

As per the latest available data, CSTPS has only utilised 45% of its fly ash; the remaining 80 million tonnes — the weight of 1,500 Titanic ships — is stored in the ash bund. According to a Maharashtra State Pollution Control Board action plan, CSTPS was to have achieved 100% utilisation by 2014.

Mundhada says this battle isn’t just his own. It’s an arduous struggle to ensure that one of the largest state-run power plants in Maharashtra operates lawfully, keeping in mind the myriad ways in which its operations affect the lives of Chandrapur’s people. “Yeh diye aur toofan ki ladayi hai (it’s a battle between a lamp and a storm),” he says.

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