Daily Current Affairs 25.04.2021 (RBI to issue cybersecurity norms for payment services, Chances of infection after COVID-19 vaccination, Groundwater depletion may reduce winter cropping intensity by 20% in India)

Daily Current Affairs 25.04.2021 (RBI to issue cybersecurity norms for payment services, Chances of infection after COVID-19 vaccination, Groundwater depletion may reduce winter cropping intensity by 20% in India)


1. RBI to issue cybersecurity norms for payment services

‘Firms must surpass minimum standards to ensure safety’

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) will soon issue cybersecurity norms for payment service providers (PSPs), following a series of data breaches faced by operators including Mobikwik and payment aggregator JusPay, a top RBI official said.

While the standards for fintech-driven payment services providers will be similar to cyber hygiene norms issued recently for banks and non-banking finance companies, the RBI is quite clear that firms will have to do more than observe the minimum standards to ensure safety as digital transactions gain further traction.

“On cyber frauds, Reserve Bank of India has issued very recently basic guidelines on cyber hygiene and cybersecurity for banks and certain NBFCs,” said RBI executive director T. Rabi Sankar. “We would follow that up with respect to other entities such as payments systems operators in the payments space. Those are getting finalised and will be issued soon,” he added.

“Having said that, the minimum standards set by the regulator for the regulated entities are needed, but they would never be enough. As digitisation increases in any sphere, payments or otherwise, as people do more and more digital transactions, institutions themselves will have to do more than the minimum standards that regulators set, to deal with any cybersecurity threats,” he said, adding that individual users would also need to be alert as there is no alternative to being aware of the risks in undertaking digital transactions.

Mr, Sankar, who was speaking at a webinar on ‘Banks, Finance and the changing form of technology’ hosted by RIS, India International Centre and the University of Essex, also raised concerns about the domination of two or three players in the fintech-backed retail payments space.

“Look at the popularity of UPI because of the client base of a couple of Big Tech companies. But this process has to be managed…. the concentration of two or three third-party providers in this retail payments space could give rise to competitive weaknesses. That is a challenge that we need to look at and solve going forward,” he said.

Over the next decade, the critical challenge for regulators would be to speed up the absorption of fintech without undermining the financial system’s integrity or stability, he asserted.

Stressing that there are not too many payment systems in India and the number of players is limited, Mr. Sankar observed that two apps provide about 70% of third-party services in the UPI system.

“Strictly speaking, they are not providers as such, as they are just the front-end and just onboard customers. They have no control on the entire UPI itself. In that sense, there is not so much a concern on antitrust or monopolistic tendencies because there is hardly any pricing that happens there,” the central bank official said.

‘No antitrust norms’

The National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) had laid down a framework for a more even distribution of share of third-party app providers in the UPI system, the senior RBI official noted, adding that the regulator was, however, not looking at any antitrust provisions against dominant players at this juncture.

“If UPI is gaining popularity, you will have to think twice about stepping in and controlling the market share of two or three popular apps because that could actually hurt absorption of this tech in the population,” he said.

Unified Payments Interface (UPI)

  • It was launched in April 2016 and in the last two years, the platform has emerged as a popular choice among users for sending and receiving money.
  • UPI is a payment system that allows money transfer between any two bank accounts by using a smartphone.
  • UPI allows a customer to pay directly from a bank account to different merchants, both online and offline, without the hassle of typing credit card details, IFSC code, or net banking/wallet passwords.
  • It also caters to the “Peer to Peer” collect request which can be scheduled and paid as per requirement and convenience.

Key Features

  • Linking of overdraft account: In addition to current and savings accounts, customers can link their overdraft account to UPI. Customers will be able to transact instantly and all benefits associated with the overdraft account shall be made available to the users. UPI 2.0 will serve as an additional digital channel to access the overdraft account.
  • One-time mandate: UPI Mandate, which means customers including both merchants and individual users can pre-authorize a transaction and pay at a later date, can be created and executed instantly. On the date of actual purchase, the amount will be deducted and received by the merchant/individual user.
  • Invoice in the inbox: This feature is designed for customers to check the invoice sent by merchant prior to making payment. It will help customers to view and verify the credentials and check whether it has come from the right merchant or not. Customers can pay after verifying the amount and other important details mentioned in the invoice.
  • Signed intent and QR: This feature helps customers to check the authenticity of merchants while scanning QR or quick response code. It notifies the user with information to ascertain whether the merchant is a verified UPI merchant or not. This provides an additional security. Customers will be informed in case the receiver is not secured by way of notifications.
National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) It is an umbrella organisation for operating retail payments and settlement systems in India. It is an initiative of Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and Indian Banks’ Association (IBA) under the provisions of the Payment and Settlement Systems Act, 2007.It has been incorporated as a “Not for Profit” Company under the provisions of Section 25 of Companies Act 1956 (now Section 8 of Companies Act 2013).The ten core promoter banks are State Bank of India, Punjab National Bank, Canara Bank, Bank of Baroda, Union Bank of India, Bank of India, ICICI Bank, HDFC Bank, Citibank and HSBC. In 2016 the shareholding was broad-based to 56 member banks to include more banks representing all sectors.

2. A space for science, experiments and unity

Global cooperation in space research faces challenges with Russia considering leaving the ISS and launching its own station

The ISS has been assembled section by section over several years. The first segment was launched on November 20, 1998, in a Russian proton rocket named Zarya (which means ‘sunrise’)

The first human expedition to the station was launched in a Soyuz TM 31 rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan

So far, 240 individuals from 19 countries have visited the ISS, including from Malaysia and the UAE

The International Space Station (ISS) is a landmark of international cooperation. For over 20 years, it has seen intense collaboration between the U.S., Russia, the EU, Japan and Canada, and has played host to people from 19 countries since its launch in 1998. This scenario appears to be coming to an end, as Russian space agency Roscosmos’s chief has declared that Russia is ready to build its own space station and launch it by 2030 if President Vladimir Putin would give the go ahead. Further, in an interview to Russian TV, Deputy Prime minister Yuri Borisov said Russia would give notice and leave the ISS by 2025.

The idea of the ISS was born in 1984 when Ronald Reagan, then the US President, announced it in a State of the Union address. “Our progress in space, taking giant steps for all mankind, is a tribute to American teamwork and excellence. Our finest minds in government, industry and academia have all pulled together. And we can be proud to say: We are first; we are the best; and we are so because we’re free,” he said. In his speech, he outlined the idea of international cooperation in this venture, as he announced: “A space station will permit quantum leaps in our research in science, communications, and in metals and lifesaving medicines which could be manufactured only in space. We want our friends to help us meet these challenges and share in their benefits. NASA will invite other countries to participate so we can strengthen peace, build prosperity, and expand freedom for all who share our goals.”

Since then, the ISS project saw a collaboration grow between several countries, mainly the following space agencies: NASA (U.S.), Roscosmos (Russia), ESA (Europe), JAXA (Japan) and CSA (Canada). Though the programme began in 1993, the construction of the station started only in 1998.

The ISS has been assembled section by section over several years. The first segment was launched on November 20, 1998 in a Russian proton rocket named Zarya (which means ‘sunrise’). The first human expedition to the station was launched in a Soyuz TM 31 rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. This crew became the very first to inhabit the ISS — these were NASA astronaut Bill Shepard and Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev from Roscosmos, who reached the station on November 2, 2000 and stayed for several months.

The assembling of the ISS has been a complex undertaking in itself. It took over 10 years and over 30 missions to bring it to its present form. Though the basic unit was launched in 1998, a photograph of the station taken in September 2000 from spaceship Atlantis looked markedly different from a picture taken in October 2018 by Expedition 56 members after undocking in a Soyuz spacecraft. Installation of different parts took place on close to 40 different occasions from 1998 to 2020.

Human presence

One of the most spectacular achievements of the ISS is that ever since November 2, 2000, it has seen the steady presence of human beings. So far, 240 individuals from 19 countries have visited the ISS, including from Malaysia and the UAE. Most have been from the U.S., numbering 151; Russia has sent 48 people; Japan 9; Canada 8 and so on. In the realm of science fiction, the sight of the ISS hurtling through space at a speed of 28,000 km per hour is something that can be watched from the Earth and wondered at. According to Niruj Mohan Ramanujan, a radio-astronomer who is with Indian Institute of Astrophysics, “If the ISS flies over your location a bit before sunrise or a bit after sunset, for those few minutes, it is usually the brightest object in the sky.” There are apps that indicate where exactly it is in the sky at any time.

The length of the ISS is just about a metre short of the length of an American football field at 109 m. It has a habitable volume of 388 cu. m. and includes six sleeping quarters, two toilets and a gym. It weighs 419,725 kg, which to give a perspective, is the weight of 1,090 cows.

The ISS, at a height of about 402 km above the Earth, orbits it 16 times every day, once every 90 minutes. Over a period of 24 hours, the people inhabiting the ISS see 16 sunrises and sunsets.

The ISS’s recent tweet celebrated the conclusion of the 64th expedition that began in October 2020 and ended on Friday April 23, after approximately six months. It said: “There was a change of guard this week onboard the station. Expedition 64 concluded their mission and returned to Earth, and the Crew-2 astronauts docked with the station on Saturday.” With the ending of Expedition 64, NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergei Rhyzikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchokov returned to Earth on a Soyuz MS-17 spacecraft. Crew-2 members, NASA’s Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, JAXA’s Akihiko Hoshide and ESA’s Thomas Pesquet joined the others in the ISS and until the Crew-1 astronauts, NASA’s Shannon Walker, Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Jaxa’s Soichi Noguchi return, there will be 11 crew members onboard the ISS.

The first experiments were those that studied the dynamics of cells under microgravity. Some of the experiments being conducted by the latest expeditions include a study of how muscles work under long-term stay under low-gravity conditions. This is an experiment by ESA and observes biochemical properties of muscles under long-term exposure to spaceflight. This can help in developing rehabilitation both on Earth and in Space. Another experiment mimics the way geckos attach themselves to surfaces, using an adhesive that has been shown to work in space. This can help devise methods for robots to attach themselves to surfaces and then to detach just the way geckos do.

Physics experiments

Some of the early physical sciences experiments related to crystal growth. The newer ones study the behaviour of free-flying soccer balls in microgravity. More exotic sounding subjects include Janus particles, or particles that have two ‘faces’ with distinct properties — one side is hydrophobic and avoids water, while the other is hydrophilic and loves water. Studying these in microgravity reveals the fundamental physics behind microparticle self- assembly and the kinds of colloidal structures that can be fabricated.

Do these experiments justify the amount of money that is spent on the ISS? There is a debate. It costs NASA about $3 billion to $4 billion a year just to maintain the station, and the total spending had gone up to $100 billion in 2018 itself. Would it be more fruitful to invest in space-based telescopes or missions other than the ISS? Under the Donald Trump administration, the U.S. reached out to private firms to participate in the space expeditions. American space research had been a governmental activity until this development. This showed NASA the way to cut the huge payments it had been making to Russia to ferry astronauts back and forth. The commercial equation was disrupted once again.

For over 20 years, the ISS has remained an ideal of global unity and peace, at least in the realms of space. Will there be another such expensive investment in the areas of science and technology? There is no answer now, but, so far, the ISS is unique in being one such ideal.

3. Chances of infection after COVID-19 vaccination

Can people test positive even after inoculation and how common are such ‘breakthrough cases’?

The story so far: The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has reported that around two to four of 10,000 people given two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have tested positive for the disease. Contracting COVID-19 after vaccination is known as breakthrough infection. It has occurred in “a very small number” of people and does not undermine the effectiveness of vaccination, said Dr. Balram Bhargava, Director-General of the ICMR.

What is a breakthrough infection?

These are infections that occur in people who have been vaccinated. Such cases are not out of the ordinary as the vaccines that have been approved so far the world over are made to protect against disease and not the transmission of the virus. Phase 3 clinical trials conducted before vaccines were approved showed a fairly constant proportion of infections among those vaccinated. In the AstraZeneca trial, for instance, 30 out of 5,807 vaccinated — about 0.5% — were symptomatic and tested positive 14 days after the second shot.

Results from the Pfizer phase 3 trial showed that of the 21,720 who got the second dose of the vaccine, eight tested positive for COVID-19, or about 0.03%. Figures as of April 20, from the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), show that there have been 7,157 breakthrough infections reported to the agency so far. Compared to the 87 million Americans who were fully inoculated, this works out to an infection rate of 0.008%, or 8 in 100,000. Further, in those reported infections, there were 88 deaths and 498 hospitalisations.

How does India compare with others?

According to data presented by Dr. Bhargava, of the 1.7 million people who got a second dose of Covaxin (and thus fully inoculated), 695 tested positive — a rate of 0.04%. Of the 15.7 million who got a second dose of Covishield, 5,014 tested positive, a rate of 0.03%.

Covishield has not been tested in an India-specific efficacy trial, and Bharat Biotech, the maker of Covaxin, has not yet published results from its ongoing efficacy trial. So, we do not know — unlike in the case of Pfizer and AstraZeneca’s international trials — how many vaccinated trial participants went on to get COVID-19 after their second dose. That 5,709 people who got a second dose of either vaccine tested positive of the 17 million inoculated persons suggests that 3 people per 10,000 tested positive, which is higher than the rate the CDC is reporting, of 8 in 100,000.

Is it rare to get infected even after vaccination?

The CDC guidelines on breakthrough infections state that all such reported rates are an undercount. “It is important to note that reported vaccine breakthrough cases will represent an undercount. This surveillance system is passive and relies on voluntary reporting from state health departments which may not be complete. Also, not all real-world breakthrough cases will be identified because of lack of testing. This is particularly true in instances of asymptomatic or mild illness. These surveillance data are a snapshot and help identify patterns and look for signals among vaccine breakthrough cases,” the advisory notes.

For nearly three months after vaccination began in India, the government’s COVID-19 test form, used by state and private laboratories, did not check if those who tested positive had been vaccinated. Dr. Samiran Panda, who heads the Epidemiology Division at the ICMR, told The Hindu that reports on breakthrough infections were collated from the Co-WIN database and were based on self-reporting. “There will no doubt be many more who may have got infected after the second dose but that is expected. It is also likely that only those with significant symptoms might report and those with mild symptoms or who are asymptomatic will not follow up. The message of vaccination is that it protects against disease,” he said.

What are the reasons for such infections?

Dr. Bhargava said healthcare and frontline workers were getting infected because of their constant high exposure to COVID-19 patients. The other reason he said was due to “highly transmissible new variants”.

According to the latest data, over 12.1 million healthcare and frontline workers have got a second dose, as opposed to over 9 million of those above 45 years of age. Laboratory studies for Covaxin on the ‘U.K. variant’ and the Indian variant (B.1.617) suggest that it “effectively neutralises” the virus. However, studies on the AstraZeneca vaccine show that its efficacy is reduced when faced with the U.K. and the South African variant.

The CDC data show that there were 88 deaths for 87 million people who were fully inoculated with the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines — this means that one in a million will die from COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated. If those figures are applied to India, it would mean around 800 deaths given our adult population of 800-900 million. Thus, while vaccines indubitably protect against death and disease, they may not be 100% protective.

4. Jabs for all adults amid the second wave

Which States are the worst hit and is the supply chain in place to provide the required doses?

The story so far: Since April 1, the number of COVID-19 cases reported daily has been accelerating rapidly in India. On April 21, the country, for the first time, crossed the 3-lakh mark in infections reported in a day, when it saw 3,15,735 cases. On April 20, as many as 2,021 deaths were reported, which further rose to 2,620 on April 23. While Maharashtra is still reporting the most number of cases daily, there has been a slight dip in the last few days. It is early to say if the second wave has peaked in the State. But Mumbai and Pune, the two cities that reported the most cases in the second wave, have been consistently reporting fewer numbers for the last few days. On the other hand, States such as Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh, which did not experience high daily cases last year, are now witnessing a surge.

Are there any signs of daily cases slowing down nationally?

As of April 23, there is no indication that the cases will start dropping in the next few days. Despite the number of cases reported on April 23 reaching an all-time peak of 3,45,283, the national seven-day average test positivity rate on that day was 18.5%. This indicates that there are more cases that remain undetected. Though the daily number of tests across the country increased from over 11 lakh on April 1 to 17.53 lakhs on April 23, the high test positivity rate indicates that the number of tests being carried out in States witnessing a sharp surge should increase manifold.

Testing has to be increased, particularly in a few States whose seven-day average test positivity rate as of April 23 was way above the national average of 18.5%. These States are Delhi (30.1%), Chhattisgarh (30.1%), Maharashtra (24.6%), Madhya Pradesh (23.8%), Andhra Pradesh (22.2%), and West Bengal (20.5%).

How will higher vaccination coverage help?

It is possible to slow down the spread of the virus by vaccinating all above the age of 18 years, say doctors. However, with several States facing vaccine shortages, the number of daily vaccinations in the last week dipped.

The Serum Institute of India (SII) currently has the capacity to produce 2.4 million doses of Covishield a day. The company has been manufacturing 60-65 million doses a month, and it says production will be ramped up only around June-July, when about 100 million doses can be produced in a month.

Bharat Biotech, the maker of Covaxin, is also increasing capacity at its facilities in Hyderabad and Bengaluru. According to a government release, Covaxin production will be increased from the current 10 million doses a month to 100 million doses by September. A six- to seven-fold increase is expected around July-August. According to Bharat Biotech, the technology to manufacture the vaccine has been transferred to Indian Immunologicals Ltd., which will also produce the vaccine.

With restricted-use approval granted for Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, about 100 million doses are expected to be imported soon by Dr. Reddy’s Lab. Fast-track approvals for Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson shots are likely to be given when companies apply to the drug regulator.

Will vaccines be free for the 18-44 age group?

According to the recent policy of the Centre, which allows vaccination of those above 18 years from May 1, States are required to procure vaccines directly from the two vaccine manufacturers. The SII has priced the vaccine at ₹400 per dose for State governments and ₹600 per dose for private hospitals. Those above 45 years of age can still avail of the shots for free at government vaccination sites, and for ₹250 per dose at private health facilities. A few States like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Kerala, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Goa have announced free vaccination for all aged 18-44 years at government health facilities.

5. Reforms in the National Pension System

What are the major changes being proposed to the NPS and why is the government tweaking the rules?

The story so far: Started as the New Pension Scheme for government employees in 2004 under a new regulator called the Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority (PFRDA), the National Pension System (NPS) has been open for individuals from all walks of life to participate and build a retirement nest-egg. Given the dominance of informal employment in India, the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation, which is contingent on a formal employer-employee relationship, only covers a fraction of the workforce. The NPS has been gradually growing in size and now manages ₹5.78 lakh crore of savings and 4.24 crore accounts in multiple savings schemes. Of these, over 3.02 crore accounts are part of the Atal Pension Yojana (APY), a government-backed scheme for workers in the unorganised sector that assures a fixed pension payout after retirement. The rest constitute voluntary savings from private sector employees and self-employed individuals, for whom some significant changes are on the anvil.

What overhaul is the PFRDA planning?

The law regulating the NPS allows members to withdraw just 60% of their accumulated savings at the time of retirement. With the remaining 40%, it is mandatory to buy an annuity product that provides a fixed monthly income to retirees till their demise. Members who accumulate up to ₹2 lakh in their NPS account at the time of retirement are exempted from the mandatory annuitisation, and can withdraw the full amount.

Last week, PFRDA chairman Supratim Bandyopadhyay said this limit will soon be revised to ₹5 lakh. Separately, the regulator has decided that the annuity purchase stipulation for 40% of members’ retirement corpus should be dropped altogether. Legislative amendments to this effect are being worked out for Parliament’s approval.

What prompted this rethink?

Falling interest rates and poor returns offered by annuity products had triggered complaints from some members and experts about the compulsory annuitisation clause. “If someone opts for a lifetime annuity at retirement with a return of purchase price to the nominee once the person dies, the rates are varying between 5% and 5.5%. Since annuities are taxable, deducting the tax and factoring in the inflation means annuities are yielding negative returns,” Mr. Bandyopadhyay pointed out.

With retail inflation running at about 5%-6% over the past year, the returns on annuities are, in fact, negative, even if one does not factor in the tax. To avoid forcing people into such an unattractive investment, the regulator has now proposed to give members a choice to retain 40% of their corpus with the NPS fund managers even after retirement. This, the PFRDA chief believes, will allow them to get better returns, and these savings can be paid out to members over 15 years through something like the systematic withdrawal plan offered by mutual funds. While this change shall need Parliament’s nod, the expansion of the annuity-free withdrawal limit from ₹2 lakh to ₹5 lakh is being done immediately. “Suppose somebody reached ₹2.1 lakh at retirement, he will get an annuity component of ₹84,000, which, today, will give an income of ₹400 or ₹450 a month — a pittance. So, now, we will allow those with savings up to ₹5 lakh to take the entire corpus out if they choose,” the PFRDA chief said.

Are there any other tweaks in the works?

While different schemes under the NPS have given reasonable returns at a low fund-management cost so far, there has been a clamour for a guaranteed return product for large sections of potential investors with a high aversion to risk. An actuary is being appointed to suggest the design for such a product and the PFRDA hopes to launch its first guaranteed product soon.

At least three more fund managers are expected to be appointed soon, which will take the total managers to ten. Age restrictions to join the NPS are also being eased to allow people to join the scheme up to the age of 70 years, from 65 years earlier. The reason is that over 15,000 recent NPS members joined after the age of 60 since the age limit was raised to 65 years from 60 years in 2017. So, as Indians’ overall longevity improves, the population of “retired, but not so tired” will also have access to the NPS.

Pension Fund and Regulatory Development Authority (PFRDA)

  • PFRDA is a statutory body established by an Act of Parliament to promote old age income security by establishing, developing and regulating pension funds, to protect the interests of subscribers to schemes of pension funds and for matters connected there with or incidental thereto.
  • PFRDA performs the function of appointing various intermediate agencies like Pension Fund Managers, Central Record Keeping Agency (CRA) etc.
  • It develops, promotes and regulates the pension industry under National Pension System and also administers the Atal Pension Yojana.

National Pension System

  • The Central Government has introduced the National Pension System (NPS) with effect from January 01, 2004 (except for armed forces).
  • NPS is being implemented and regulated by Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority in the country.
  • National Pension System Trust (NPST) established by PFRDA is the registered owner of all assets under NPS.
  • NPS is structured into two tiers:
    • Tier-I account: This is the non-withdrawable permanent retirement account into which the accumulations are deposited and invested as per the option of the subscriber.
    • Tier-II account: This is a voluntary withdrawable account which is allowed only when there is an active Tier I account in the name of the subscriber. The withdrawals are permitted from this account as per the needs of the subscriber as and when claimed.
  • NPS was made available to all Citizens of India from May 01, 2009.
  • Any individual citizen of India (both resident and Non-resident) in the age group of 18-65 years (as on the date of submission of NPS application) can join NPS.
  • However, OCI (Overseas Citizens of India) and PIO (Person of Indian Origin) card holders and Hindu Undivided Family (HUFs) are not eligible for opening of NPS account.

6. Groundwater depletion may reduce winter cropping intensity by 20% in India

Policy-supported intensive agriculture led to unsustainable groundwater use, water scarcity

India is the second-largest producer of wheat in the world, with over 30 million hectares in the country dedicated to producing this crop. But with severe groundwater depletion, the cropping intensity or the amount of land planted in the winter season may decrease by up to 20% by 2025, notes a new paper. Some of the important winter crops are wheat, barley, mustard and peas.

The international team studied India’s three main irrigation types on winter cropped areas: dug wells, tube wells, canals, and also analysed the groundwater data from the Central Ground Water Board. They found that 13% of the villages in which farmers plant a winter crop are located in critically water-depleted regions. The team writes that these villages may lose 68% of their cropped area in future if access to all groundwater irrigation is lost. The results suggest that these losses will largely occur in northwest and central India.

Alternative sources

The team then looked at canals to understand if they can be promoted as an alternative irrigation source and as an adaptation strategy to falling groundwater tables. But the results showed that “switching to canal irrigation has limited adaptation potential at the national scale. We find that even if all regions that are currently using depleted groundwater for irrigation will switch to using canal irrigation, cropping intensity may decline by 7% nationally,” notes the paper published in Science Advances.

When asked what new or additional adaptation strategies can be implemented, corresponding author Meha Jain explains: “We can conjecture based on other literature and say that adoption of water-saving technologies like a sprinkler, drip irrigation and maybe switching to less water-intensive crops may help use the limited groundwater resources more effectively,” She is from the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan.

Her team is now trying to understand how groundwater depletion has already reduced yields and cropped areas in India over the last 20 years, and also how climate change may affect the future availability of groundwater resources.

Unsuited soils

Balwinder Singh from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, New Delhi, explains more about the problems wheat farmers face in our country. “There are several first-generation (productivity) and second-generation (sustainability) problems. In the green revolution era, policy-supported environment led to a large increase in rice cultivation in northwestern India mainly in Punjab and Haryana which are ecologically less suitable for rice cultivation due to predominantly light soils.”

He explains that this policy-supported intensive agriculture led to unsustainable groundwater use for irrigation and in turn groundwater scarcity. There was also post-harvest residue burning to make way for the timely sowing of wheat. He is one of the authors of the paper.

Poor infrastructure

He adds that there are enough groundwater resources supported with higher monsoon rainfall in eastern Indian states like Bihar. But due to lack of enough irrigation infrastructure, farmers are not able to make use of natural resources there.

“So we need better policies in eastern India to expand the irrigation and thus increase agriculture productivity. This will also release some pressure from northwestern Indian states,” he concludes.

7. IISc teams develop oxygen concentrators, ventilators

The groups also developed oxygen supply manifolds

With the setting in of the second wave of covid-19, there is round the corner, a growth in the need for ventilators and related interventions. While hospital ICU beds do come with ventilators, makeshift ones will not be so, hence the need. Indian Institute of Science researchers have come up with several non-pharmaceutical interventions such as ICU ventilators, oxygen supply manifolds and oxygen concentrators which will each satisfy different sets of needs.

Low-cost solutions

In 2020, when the pandemic set in within India, Sushobhan Avasthi, Associate Professor with Centre for Nanoscience and Engineering and his team wanted to build low-cost ventilators. But as the project evolved, they realised that what was needed was a more sophisticated device that could sense when the patients were able to breathe on their own, and then wean them off gently so that they could become independent again. “In September we were ready with the D3 edition of smart ventilators that were good enough to be used in the ICU,” says Dr Avasthi. They teamed up with the company Vasmed with an aim to produce these ventilators for the market. “These would have cost about 1.5 lakh rupees,” says Anoop Varghese, COO of Vasmed, pegging the cost at approximately a third of the price of commercially available ones.

The group worked with Dr Justin Aryabhata Gopaldas, of the Manipal Hospital, Bangalore, to get inputs and feedback as they developed the devices. “There were many doctors involved initially, perhaps it was my familiarity with physics that helped. We discussed many things, for example, when a breath was taken what kinds of waves were formed,” says Dr Gopaldas. However, the effort did not see fruition during the first wave. Vasmed needed the pull of the market to be able to finance a complete testing and certification of the module.

No prior experience

The group then also started looking out for other interventions that would be useful in this juncture. They came up with the idea of the oxygen supply manifold, which is a system using which oxygen may be supplied to several patients from a central source and the amount of oxygen supplied may be adjusted.

“We started this project with zero experience in medical devices, let alone a critical one like a ventilator… Prof. Prosenjit Sen developed the touchscreen user interface. Prof. Saurabh Chandorkar designed the embedded system – the brain of the ventilator. Prof. Srinivasan Raghavan oversaw the development of the pneumatics. Most crucial of all was the enthusiasm of our students, specifically Harshvardhan Gupta and Ankit Rao,” says Dr Avasthi in recollection.

Sturdy concentrator

Meanwhile, in the Materials Engineering lab, efforts were on to produce an oxygen concentrator. Ambient air contains about 70% nitrogen and about 28% oxygen and other gases; the work of a concentrator is to separate the oxygen and collect air enriched with oxygen to the patient. “By August 2020 we had the third generation of the concentrator ready. It worked to concentrate more than 90% in five litres and 80% in ten litres. Not just this, it could run non-stop for months together without getting heated up,” says Praveen Ramamurthy, who led the effort. By September they had the system ready, but interest had died down.

“In the last couple of weeks, again I have been getting many mails and calls enquiring about this,” says Dr Ramamurthy.

Certification for safety

The device has the advantage that it can pump the data into the cloud, which can be shared with a doctor for monitoring use. The group is going to apply for a certification which will test for electrical and pressure safety and also biocompatibility. They expect it will take about two weeks to obtain.

Both the oxygen supply manifold and the oxygen concentrator are very much the need of the hour, the group feels, and can be manufactured easily.

8. Justice N.V. Ramana is CJI

He will have a tenure of a little over one year

Justice N.V. Ramana was on Saturday sworn in as the 48th Chief Justice of India (CJI) by President Ram Nath Kovind at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The ceremony to administer the oath of office, held as per COVID-19 protocol, was attended by Vice-President M. Venkaiah Naidu, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, among others.

Justice Ramana will have a tenure of one year and four months as CJI and will demit office on August 26, 2022.

After Justice K. Subba Rao, Justice Ramana is the second CJI from Andhra Pradesh.

Activist role

Born to agriculturist parents in 1957, Justice Ramana was known for his activism regarding issues involving farmers and industrial workers. Before turning to legal practice, he was a journalist with a prominent Telugu newspaper.

He practised at the Andhra Pradesh High Court, Central and A.P. Administrative Tribunals and the Supreme Court before being appointed a permanent Judge of the Andhra Pradesh High Court on June 27, 2000.

He functioned as acting Chief Justice of Andhra Pradesh High Court between March 10 and May 20, 2013, and was elevated as the Chief Justice of Delhi High Court on September 2, 2013. He was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court on February 17, 2014.

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