Daily Current Affairs 25.09.2022 (No viable options: farmers in Punjab forced to persist with paddy, go against the grain, BA.2.75 emerges as major sublineage in Maharashtra, The evolution of lumpy skin disease virus, What is the SC initiative on capital punishment?, How will Putin’s mobilisation impact Ukraine?)

Daily Current Affairs 25.09.2022 (No viable options: farmers in Punjab forced to persist with paddy, go against the grain, BA.2.75 emerges as major sublineage in Maharashtra, The evolution of lumpy skin disease virus, What is the SC initiative on capital punishment?, How will Putin’s mobilisation impact Ukraine?)


1. No viable options: farmers in Punjab forced to persist with paddy, go against the grain

Growers in the State are keen on shunning the water-guzzling crop and cultivate alternatives, but the absence of an assured market and guaranteed returns, apart from the input costs required for the changeover, is acting as a deterrent to them

Pruning poplar trees on his three-acre field on the banks of the Sutlej at Maniewal village, about 30 km from Ludhiana, in Punjab, Raghvir Singh, 53, explains why he stopped growing paddy.

Mr. Singh says a change in the flow plan of the Buddha Nullah, which merges with the Sutlej, caused industrial effluents from Ludhiana to enter the canal and pollute the water used for irrigation. “Several farmers like me were forced to make the switch from rice cultivation owing to the dearth of clean water. I planted the trees three years ago,” he says.

A poplar tree, whose wood is used in the plywood industry, provides about five quintals of wood over five to 10 years. Each quintal fetches ₹500 to ₹700, he says. “This can compensate for the shift from paddy to an extent, but we don’t have an assured market and have to depend on private traders and agents,” he says.

Rice growers in the State say they are keen on shunning the water-guzzling crop and cultivating alternative crops, reduce input costs and prevent stubble burning. However, the lack of assured procurement and guaranteed returns are forcing them to persist with paddy.

Traditionally, Punjab was not a rice-producing State. Farmers began cultivating paddy during the Green Revolution. Of the 881.32 lakh tonnes of paddy procured in the ongoing kharif season, as of August 31, 125.48 lakh tonnes has come from Punjab. Around 31.33 lakh hectares of land in the State is under paddy cultivation.

To produce a kilogram of rice and wheat, 5,000 litres and 2,500 litres of water is required, respectively, leading to the overexploitation of groundwater. Several farmers’ organisations have been supporting the efforts of the Centre and the State to implement crop diversification and demand that the crops that replace paddy be procured at the minimum support price.

“With paddy cultivation, a system of agriculture was imposed on us. Farmers had to buy new machinery, fertilizers and pesticides. A new market system was introduced. Now, farmers can’t go back to growing other crops,” says Joginder Singh Ugrahan, president of Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan), one of the largest farmers’ groups in the State.

Ajmer Singh Brar, Principal Agronomist (water management), Punjab Agriculture University, says water shortage owing to overexploitation of groundwater poses the biggest threat. He says adoption of less water-intensive crops such as maize, cotton and certain fruits would be possible only with government’s financial and technical support.

Dr. Brar says paddy cultivation is affecting the sowing of wheat too. “In several fields, the formation of hardpan is impairing plant growth as it prevents roots from absorbing water and nutrients from the soil. Specific tractors have to be used to break the hardpan before sowing wheat. This adds to the farmers’ input cost.”

In Fazilka, once known as the ‘California of Punjab’ for its rich varieties of cotton, fruit and grains, farmers growing cotton, fruit and sugar cane are not finding any support.

Jagtar Singh, a farmer near Abohar, says, “I tried growing vegetables without success. I incurred a loss of around ₹2 lakh last year. My father had made the shift from paddy to vegetables in 2005, but he also suffered losses. Debts are mounting. We are forced to cultivate paddy.”

He adds that cotton growers are also finding it tough to sell their produce as two mills have moved out of the district.

Buddha Nullah

  • Buddah Nullah or Budha Nala is a seasonal water stream that runs through the Malwa region of Punjab.
  • It passes through highly populated Ludhiana and drains into Sutlej River, a tributary of the Indus River.
  • It has also become a major source of pollution in the region as well the main Sutlej River, as it gets polluted after entering the highly populated and industrialized Ludhiana city, turning it into an open drain.
  • Also, since a large area in south-western Punjab solely depend on the canal water for irrigation, and water from Buddha Nullah enters various canals after Harike waterworks.
  • The pollution in the Buddah Nullah is a major threat to public health and environment and the main sources of pollution in the nullah are direct flow of pollutants by industries and dairies.
  • Also, treated effluents from existing STPs, based on UASB technology, does not meet the required quality and overflow from sewer lines add to the problem.
  • The NGT has already directed the government to take proactive steps to immediately address the problem.

The Punjab Government has directed for the timely completion of the Budah Nallah project within two years. The Buddha Nullah is located at Ludhiana. It is one of the most polluted canals. It has a total length of 47.55 km, of which 14 km passes through Ludhiana city. It has posed a major contributor to pollution in the area.

The Local Government has approved a sum of Rs.650 crores for the project. The allocation will be as follows: Rs.342 crore will be contributed by the Punjab state government, Rs.208 crore will be contributed by the government of India and Rs.100 crore by the private operators. The project will be implemented in phases. The first phase of the mission will be augmentation and refurbishment of dairy effluent treatment, sewage treatment facility, survey to find out missing links for industrial effluent and laying of dedicated conveyance system for industrial wastewater to carry the same to Common Effluent Treatment Plant would be executed. In another phase will include reuse of treated effluent, and landscaping & beautification along the Buddha Nallah will be undertaken.

2. BA.2.75 emerges as major sublineage in Maharashtra

More mutations seen in BA.2.75 raise concerns about possible reduction in sensitivity to antibodies — monoclonal antibodies and from vaccination or natural infection

Since the first case of SARS-CoV-2 in March 2020, India has witnessed three pandemic waves. Delta (B.1.617.2) and its sublineages caused the second wave, and Omicron (B.1.1.529) and its sublineages (BA.1 and BA.2) are driving the third wave. After the waning of the third wave, India saw a surge in COVID-19 cases from May 2022. On sequencing, these variants were characterised as BA.2 by Pangolin. However, the predominance of BA.2 after the waning of the third COVID wave was unexplainable. Subsequently, the Indian isolates of BA.2 were further classified into sub-lineages BA.2.74, BA.2.75 and BA.2.76.

Since their designation, these new sub-lineages have already spread to over 40 countries. They have acquired additional mutations in their spike protein compared to BA.2. These added mutations, over and above those of the parental BA.2 variant, have raised concerns about their impact on viral pathogenicity, transmissibility, and immune evasion properties of the new variants.

We have been the coordinating laboratory for the surveillance of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the community in Maharashtra. During our study, a total of 990 RT-PCR positive SARS-CoV-2 samples, with a cycle threshold value (Ct) of less than 25, were processed for whole genome sequencing between June 3 and August 7, 2022. A set of individual-level data was obtained corresponding to the samples.

Out of 990 samples sequenced, BA.2.75 (23.03%) was the predominant Omicron sublineage, followed by BA.2.38 (21.01%), BA.5 (9.70%), BA.2 (9.09%), BA.2.74 (8.89%) and BA.2.76 (5.56%). When the world was experiencing the latest global outbreak driven by the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron lineages, India did not see an exponential increase in cases due to these two lineages. This probably could be as both Delta and BA.4/BA.5 share the L452R mutation on the receptor-binding domain (RBD) of spike protein, the convalescent sera from Delta infection may contain L452R-specific neutralising antibodies, which could have impaired the BA.4/BA.5 transmission in India.

Also, BA.2.75 has shown 57-fold higher binding affinity to ACE2 receptors when compared with BA.5, accounting for its higher transmissibility. Another study in a small sample of plasma from post-vaccination Delta infection shows that BA.2.75 is more immune evasive than the BA.4/BA.5 lineages in the Delta-stimulated immune background, which explains why BA.2.75 has a growth advantage over BA.4/BA.5 in India.

The current study indicates that these newly designated BA.2 sublineages caused mild disease with reduced need for hospital admission. Out of 228 cases of BA.2.74, BA.2.75 and BA.2.76 contacted by telephone, 94.30% were symptomatic with mild symptoms, and 5.70% had no symptoms. Around 85.53% cases recovered at home, and 14.47% cases were institutionally quarantined. Recovery with conservative treatment was seen in 92.98% of cases, while 4.83% required additional oxygen therapy.

Only 1.32% cases had poor outcomes resulting in death, and the remaining 98.68% had a good outcome. In animal models, BA.2.75 replicated more efficiently in the lungs of hamsters than other Omicron variants causing focal pneumonia characterised by patchy inflammation in alveolar regions. The fact that subvariant BA.2.75 contains mutations greater than BA.2 and BA.4/BA.5 raise concerns regarding the possibility of reduced sensitivity to therapeutic monoclonal antibodies and antibodies developed by vaccination/natural infection. Among the 228 cases studied, 96.05% cases were vaccinated with at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine; of these 72.60% had received both doses, 26.03% had also received the precautionary booster dose, while 1.37% had received one dose.

Various studies on the evasion of neutralising antibodies have found that BA.2.75 is 1.8 and 1.1 times more resistant to sera from vaccinated individuals than BA.2 and BA.2.12.1, respectively. Also, BA.2.75 has higher resistance to BA.5 induced immunity.

These second-generation variants have the potential to be successfully transmitted across several countries due to the presence of critical mutations and significant growth advantages. It is, however, unclear as to what extent the intrinsic virulence of the virus and the immunity due to vaccination or previous infections could have contributed to mild disease in India. The ability of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to evolve continuously and achieve increased transmission and immune evasion reinforces the importance of vaccination and sustained epidemiological surveillance to detect the emerging variants.

3. The evolution of lumpy skin disease virus

Lumpy Skin Disease (LSD) is a viral disease that predominantly affects cattle. First identified in an outbreak in Zambia in 1929, the disease is caused by the LSD virus (LSDV), a poxvirus of the genus capripoxvirus. Until the 1980s. multiple outbreaks of LSD were confined to the African continent. The first reports of infections outside Africa were in 1989 from Israel. In 2016, LSD was reported from Russia and South-East European nations. In the Indian subcontinent, the disease was initially observed in Bangladesh in 2019, followed by China, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Myanmar.

The first complete genome sequence of LSDV (Neethling strain) was available in 2001 and suggested a large DNA genome. This strain was originally isolated in Kenya in 1958. Adaptation of poxviruses are dominated by genomic mutations, deletions and recombinations.

Recombinant viruses

LSD outbreaks were reported in Russia during 2015-2019. The virus isolated from 2015 and 2016 was similar to the earlier genomes. However, the use of homologous (attenuated) LSDV vaccine in 2016 did not end the outbreak and subsequently vaccine-like isolates were obtained from affected cattle in 2017. By 2018, all field isolates of LSDV in Russia were replaced by viruses bearing genetic signatures of the LSDV vaccine, suggesting that the outbreak of LSD in Russia during 2017-2019 was due to a novel LSDV recombinant variant.

Recombination events are now well catalogued in poxviruses and mediated by the poxvirus DNA polymerases in cells being co-infected by viruses of same or different genus. Recombination of pathogenic and vaccine strains are, therefore, likely when an infected animal is immunised or infection occurs in the pre-immune phase after vaccination.

Genomes from India

In August 2019, suspected cases of LSD were observed in Odisha. The first laboratory-confirmed outbreak of LSD was subsequently reported in November 2019. Sequences of particular genes of the isolated virus from the 2019 outbreak were genetically similar to strains from Kenya.

In July 2022, large outbreak of LSD was reported from Gujarat and Rajasthan, which subsequently spread to 11 other States with over 80,000 cattle deaths.

In collaboration with the Department of Animal Husbandry in Rajasthan, CSIR-IGIB reported the whole genome sequences of six isolates of LSDV collected from five affected animals. A total of 177 unique mutations were found compared to the Neethling strain from Kenya. Out of these, 47 were not present in any other global genome sequences of LSDV.

Phylogenetic analysis of the isolates showed that the current virus strain is unrelated to the virus found in India as well as other global genomes of LSDV. The closest genomes to the viral isolates from the current outbreak comprise 12 sequences belonging to other Asian and European countries that were collected from 2012-2022. Further, the presence of an additional mutation in two samples from the same animal and the large number of mutations potentially suggests that LSDV may be able to evolve fast within the host.

We need to accept that animal and plant health are key to human health, and forms the basis of One Health. As we move towards industrialised agriculturein the era of climate change, the need has never been acute for preparedness with newer and better tools like molecular surveillance and digital technologies to identify and stop emerging pathogens.

4. What is the SC initiative on capital punishment?

Why has the issue been referred to a five-member Constitution Bench? How will comprehensive guidelines help the sentencing process? What would be the right stage at which mitigating circumstances may be brought to the trial court’s notice?

The story so far:

A three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court has referred to a five-member Constitution Bench the issue of giving meaningful opportunity to those found guilty of a capital offence to present mitigating factors and circumstances so that they can better plead for a life term instead of a death sentence. The reference was made to resolve differences between judgments, mainly on whether it is necessary to hold the hearing on sentencing on a subsequent day and not on the day of the conviction. It is believed that an authoritative verdict on the question may lead to the judicial system making death sentences even rarer than it is now.

What does the law say on sentencing?

The issue arises from the legal requirement that whenever a court records a conviction, it has to hold a separate hearing on the quantum of sentence. Section 235 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) says that after hearing arguments, the judge shall give a judgment; and, “if the accused is convicted, the judge shall hear the accused on the question of sentence and then pass sentence”. This process gains significance if the conviction is for an offence that entails either death or life imprisonment. Section 354(3) says that when an offence is punishable with death or imprisonment for life, the judgment shall state the reasons for the sentence awarded, and if the sentence is death, “special reasons” for the sentence.

Taken together, these provisions would mean that the sentencing hearing following the conviction of a person for a capital offence is a matter of great importance, as it would decide if the death penalty should be imposed or a life term will be sufficient. This would necessarily entail an inquiry into the nature and gravity of the offence and the circumstances in which it took place. Ever since the Supreme Court, in Bachan Singh vs State of Punjab (1980) laid down that the death penalty can be awarded only in the ‘rarest of rare cases’, the nature of the sentencing hearing has undergone a transformation. Besides the gravity of the crime, the circumstances of the accused also came to be examined to determine the suitability of the death penalty in a given case. Trial courts were required to balance ‘aggravating circumstances’ and ‘mitigating circumstances’ to decide the sentence.

What have courts said about the process?

The Supreme Court noted in Bachan Singh that Section 235 is based on a recommendation in the 48th Report of the Law Commission, which had said that one of the deficiencies in sentencing policy was the lack of comprehensive information about the characteristics and background of the offender.

The Commission had also suggested that gathering evidence related to the circumstances relevant to sentencing should be encouraged. Given this background, the Supreme Court said the trial court, while deciding the sentence, “should not confine its consideration ‘principally’ or merely to the circumstances connected with [a] particular crime, but also give due consideration to the circumstances of the criminal.” In a series of judgments, the Supreme Court has advocated that the sentencing hearing be done separately, that is, at a future date after conviction. “We think as a general rule the trial courts should after recording the conviction adjourn the matter to a future date and call upon both the prosecution as well as the defence to place the relevant material bearing on the question of sentence before it,” it said in a 1989 judgment.

Opinions on this issue have emphasised the need for a separate hearing for sentencing, as well as the need for an effective opportunity to the accused to place mitigating factors before the court. However, in a contradiction of sorts, several judgments have upheld the practice of ‘same-day’ sentencing. Such a practice does not vitiate the sentence, the courts have ruled.

What are the views on same-day sentencing?

Even though a separate hearing on sentencing is practised in all trials, most judges do not adjourn the case to a future date to go through this. As soon as the verdict of ‘guilty’ is pronounced, they ask counsel on both sides to argue on sentencing. There is a view that such ‘same-day’ sentencing is inadequate and violates natural justice as convicts do not get enough time to gather mitigating factors.

A major premise for the current order of referral is that this process is hopelessly tilted against the accused. “While the State is given an opportunity to present aggravating circumstances against the accused throughout the duration of a trial, the accused, on the other hand, is able to produce evidence showing mitigating circumstances in their favour, which may spare them the noose, only after their conviction,” the Bench said.

What is expected from the reference?

The Constitution Bench may lay down comprehensive guidelines on the manner in which sentencing decisions can be arrived at. It may make it necessary for the trial court to get to know the accused better before passing the sentence. Going beyond the reports of jail authorities or parole officers, the courts may draft the help of psychologists and behavioural experts. A study into the childhood experiences and upbringing of the accused, mental health history in the family and the likelihood of traumatic past experiences and other social and cultural factors may be mandated to be part of the sentencing process. This may mean that trial courts will be better informed than now, when only basic data such as educational and economic status are ascertained before a sentence is imposed.

5. How will Putin’s mobilisation impact Ukraine?

Why has the Russian President threatened nuclear retaliation? Will the referendums in four breakaway regions in Ukraine on joining the Russian Federation change the course of the conflict? What is the domestic position of Vladimir Putin?

The story so far:

On September 21, almost seven months after his war in Ukraine began, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial military mobilisation and dialled up the nuclear threat. Separately, four Russia-backed breakaway regions in Ukraine — Donetsk and Luhansk in the east and Kherson and Zaporizhzhya in the south — are holding referendums on joining Russia. These decisions followed Russia’s first major battlefield defeat in Ukraine earlier this month with Mr. Putin’s troops forced to retreat from the territories they captured in the Kharkiv Oblast by a lightning Ukrainian counter-offensive.

Why did Putin announce mobilisation?

When Mr. Putin announced his “special military operation” on February 24, after mobilising over 1,50,000 troops on the border, his plan appeared to be making quick territorial gains in Ukraine through a limited war. Russian troops tried to make a sharp thrust into Ukraine from multiple fronts — in the north, towards Kyiv and Kharkiv; in the east, towards Donbas; and in the south, towards Kherson, Zaporizhzhya and Mykolaiv. The Russians made substantial territorial gains in the east and south — the four regions that are holding referendums make up some 15% of Ukraine’s landmass — but they had to pay a heavy price for those gains, which themselves fell short of the original objectives. Ukraine’s troops, backed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), stopped the Russians on the outskirts of Kyiv, repelled them from Kharkiv and put up a prolonged resistance in the east. Despite the slow progress, Russia had maintained that its operation was going according to plan — until its troops were pushed back from the Kharkiv Oblast.

The military setback, which strengthened the right-nationalist criticism of the way the war was conducted, forced the Kremlin to come out of the fiction that everything was going as planned. The frontline is now as long as 1,000 km, stretching from the northern edges of the Oskil River to the borders of Mykolaiv in the south, and Russia, which is suffering from supply problems and manpower shortage, finds it difficult to hold the line in the face of Ukrainian counterattacks. Mr. Putin acknowledged the limits of his operation and the challenges his troops face in Ukraine in his address. The reality is that Russia has reached a level where it cannot sustain its military gains without further troop mobilisation. And Mr. Putin has gone for it.

What is a partial military mobilisation?

Both Mr. Putin and his Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, have said that only those who are currently in the reserves and those who have served in the armed forces and have got military training would be conscripted. Mr. Shoigu says Russia can mobilise some 25 million people from the country’s vast reserves but the Defence Ministry is planning to call in only 1% of that potential — some 3,00,000 troops. It may not have been an easy decision for Mr. Putin, who is now in a difficult situation — the Generals need more manpower and hardliners are exerting pressure on him to commit more troops and resources. Some have even expressed rare public criticism such as the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. On the other side, a general mobilisation, which would need nationwide conscription, could be unpopular. This explains why Mr. Putin delayed the mobilisation so long and hasn’t declared war on Ukraine. He can’t afford to take further battlefield defeats either. So he struck a balance by opting for a partial mobilisation — which also triggered some protests — immediately after pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s breakaway regions decided to hold referendums on joining Russia. This move itself is a major escalation. The 3,00,000 troops the Russian Defence Ministry is mobilising is almost twice the size of the original mobilisation Russia made before launching this war.

How will referendums impact the situation?

Of the four regions holding the vote, Russia has recognised Donetsk and Luhansk, which make up the industrial Donbas region, as independent republics. Since the war began, Russia and the separatists have captured almost all of Luhansk and some 65% of Donetsk. They also control parts of Kherson, including the port city that fell in the initial days of the war, and Zaporizhzhya, including the eponymous nuclear plant, Europe’s largest. The separatists have been planning to hold the referendums for some time, but Russia’s setbacks in Kharkiv seem to have quickened their move, with blessings from Moscow. While there won’t be any surprise in the results, what needs to be seen is if and when Moscow recognises the referendums and annexes these territories. If Moscow does it, Ukraine’s borders would be redrawn for good and it would require greater commitment from the Kremlin to defend those territories or capture the rest of these regions that are still controlled by Ukrainians. It’s not a surprise that both the referendums and Mr. Putin’s additional mobilisation were announced simultaneously. They are part of the same strategy.

Is there an exit strategy?

While Mr. Putin’s declaration of mobilisation is a major escalation, a careful examination of his speech shows mixed signals. Mr. Putin referred to the March talks between Russia and Ukraine where both sides agreed to further discuss peace proposals, which, according to him, was sabotaged by the U.S. and the U.K. Here, the reference is to the Istanbul talks in which Ukraine had made a proposal to adopt neutrality (give up NATO membership plan) in return for multilateral security guarantees, discuss the status of Donbas with Mr. Putin and agree to a 15-year consultation period for Crimea (during which the status quo would be respected). After the talks, Russia announced its withdrawal from around Kyiv and Kharkiv (city). But then, footage of the Bucha bodies emerged, after which the peace process collapsed. While we don’t know the fine print, Mr. Putin’s positive reference to the peace process is an indication that the hope for a negotiated settlement is not yet dead. In the speech he said he would use “all available means” (read nuclear weapons) to protect the territorial integrity of Russia — which was a direct threat to Ukraine against attacking Crimea, which Russia had annexed in 2014. While he backed the referendums, he didn’t say if and when he would recognise the results. This leaves a window of opportunity for the peace process which will not stay open forever.

If Russia, with additional troops, turns around the course of the war, it could strengthen the hands of the Kremlin, which could go for annexation of the territories, shutting the path to peace. If the mobilisation fails, it would make Mr. Putin’s position at home vulnerable, forcing him to take more drastic measures. This means the current phase of the war offers both an opportunity to pursue peace and a slide into dangerous escalation — depending on which path the stakeholders would follow.

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