Daily Current AFfairs 26.12.2021 (Kashmiri apples face Iranian kiwi pests, A telescope on million-mile voyage, Study of distant magnetar reveals facets of the exotic star)

Daily Current AFfairs 26.12.2021 (Kashmiri apples face Iranian kiwi pests, A telescope on million-mile voyage, Study of distant magnetar reveals facets of the exotic star)


1. Kashmiri apples face Iranian kiwi pests

The valley’s apple dealers write to horticulture experts and the Ministry of Agriculture

The import of Iranian kiwis from Afghanistan to India has posed a major concern for apple dealers in Kashmir following a contagious quarantine pest threat found earlier this month in New Delhi.

Majid Aslam Wafai, president of the J&K Processing and Integrated Cold Chain Association (JK-PICCA), has written to Sarafarz Ahmad Wad, Director-Research of the Sher-i-Kashmir University of Science and Technology, to initiate analysis of samples of Iranian kiwis flooding the Kashmiri market and infecting locally harvested apples with the pests.

“We request an analysis report and supervision on whether the import of Iranian fruit may affect or destroy our horticultural produce and orchards, in order to enable us to follow up on the case for remedial measures,” Mr. Wafai said.

Certificate invalid

Alarm bells were set off in Kashmir, which produces 71% of the country’s apples, after the National Plant Protection Organisation (NPPO), a body under the Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, wrote to Iran on December 7 about the incidence of two quarantine pests, Aspidiotus nerd and Aonidella aurantii, in many shipments of kiwis from Iran.

The Indian government has already conveyed to Iran that “the phytosanitary certificates issued by the NPPO, Iran, for fresh kiwi fruits shall not be entertained from our end from December 8, 2021”.

“Iran is also exporting apples to India from orchards which have been affected by these pests, along with others such as codling moth. We believe they have the potential of destroying and damaging our orchards too,” Mr. Wafai said in the letter. Experts in Kashmir say codling moth are highly dependent on fruits, rather than leaves, as a food source, and are among the major pest threats for fruits, especially apples and pears.

The apple dealers of Kashmir have also written to Union Minister Narendra Singh and flagged the issue of “import of Iran’s fresh apple illegally and unlawfully under the trade name of Afghan apple and misusing the free trade agreement”.

“Pests entering in the territory of any apple-producing State shall be a catastrophe for local farmers,” they warned.

They have demanded a complete ban on import of apples from Iran “till the quarantine pest issue is resolved”.

2. A telescope on million-mile voyage

World’s most powerful space telescope expected to reach destination in a month

The world’s most powerful space telescope on Saturday blasted off into orbit, headed to an outpost 1.5 million kilometres (9,30,000 miles) from Earth, after several delays caused by technical hitches.

The James Webb Space Telescope, some three decades and billions of dollars in the making, left Earth enclosed in its Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou Space Centre in French Guiana.

It is expected to take a month to reach its remote destination.

It is expected to beam back new clues that will help scientists understand more about the origins of the Universe and Earth-like planets beyond our solar system.

Named after a former NASA director, Webb follows in the footsteps of the legendary Hubble — but intends to show humans what the Universe looked like even closer to its birth nearly 14 billion years ago.

Speaking on social media, Webb project co-founder John Mather described the telescope’s unprecedented sensitivity.

“#JWST can see the heat signature of a bumblebee at the distance of the Moon,” he said.

All that power is needed to detect the weak glow emitted billions of years ago by the very first galaxies to exist and the first stars being formed.

‘Exceptional measures’

The telescope is unequalled in size and complexity.

Its mirror measures 6.5 metres (21 feet) in diameter — three times the size of the Hubble’s mirror — and is made of 18 hexagonal sections.

It is so large that it had to be folded to fit into the rocket.

That manoeuvre was laser-guided with NASA imposing strict isolation measures to limit any contact with the telescope’s mirrors from particles or even human breath.

Once the rockets have carried Webb 120 kilometres, the protective nose of the craft, called a “fairing”, is shed to lighten the load.

To protect the delicate instrument from changes in pressure at that stage, rocket-builder Arianespace installed a custom decompression system.

“Exceptional measures for an exceptional client,” said a European Space Agency official in Kourou on Thursday.

Crew on the ground will know whether the first stage of the flight was successful about 27 minutes after launch.

Challenges ahead

Once it reaches its station, the challenge will be to fully deploy the mirror and a tennis-court-sized sun shield.

That intimidatingly complex process will take two weeks and must be flawless if Webb is to function correctly.

Its orbit will be much farther than Hubble, which has been 600 kilometres above the Earth since 1990.

The location of Webb’s orbit is called the Lagrange 2 point and was chosen in part because it will keep the Earth, the Sun and the Moon all on the same side of its sun shield.

Webb is expected to officially enter service in June.

3. Study of distant magnetar reveals facets of the exotic star

An international group of researchers has succeeded in measuring for the first time the characteristics of a flare on a distant magnetar. A magnetar is a rare compact type of neutron star teeming with energy and magnetism. The magnetar they have studied is about 13 million light years away, in the direction of the NGC 253, a prominent galaxy in the Sculptor group of galaxies.

The flare, which spewed within a few tenths of a second as much energy as the Sun would shed in 100,000 years, was captured accidentally on April 15, 2020, by the Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor instrument (ASIM) of the International Space Station.

Rare and exotic

This data was then analysed by the researchers over the period of a year to throw light into the structure of the flare, and thereby, into the nature of such magnetars. This is the first study to characterise such a flare from so distant a magnetar. The research was published in the journal, Nature.

Magnetars are relatively rare objects, with only about thirty having been spotted within the Milky Way so far. The present magnetar is only the second one to be studied which is located outside the galaxy and is also the furthest, at 13 million light years distance.

How magnetars form

During the course of their evolution, massive stars – with masses around 10-25 times the mass of the Sun – eventually collapse and shrink to form very compact objects called neutron stars. A subset of these neutron stars are the so-called magnetars which possess intense magnetic fields. These are highly dense and have breathtakingly high rotation speeds – they have rotational periods that can be just 0.3 to 12.0 seconds. “We believe that size of the object was around 20 km in diameter with mass around 1.4 times the mass of the Sun,” says Shashi Bhushan Pandey of the Aryabhata Research Institute of Observational Sciences, Nainital, who is one of the authors of the paper.

High luminosity

Magnetars have high magnetic fields in the range of 1015 gauss and they emit energy in the range given by luminosities of 1037 – 1040 joules per second. Compare this to the luminosity of the sun which is in the order of 1026 joules per second – a factor of at least 1011 lower.

Further, these magnetars emit violent flares. “The observations revealed multiple pulses, with a first pulse appearing only for about tens of microseconds, much faster than other extreme astrophysical transients,” said Alberto J. Castro-Tirado, from the Andalusian Institute for Astrophysics (IAA-CSIC), Spain, and lead author of the paper, in a release circulated by the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India.

The observed giant flare lasted approximately 160 milliseconds and during this time 1039 joules of energy was released. The flare spewed as much energy in a tenth of a second that our Sun will radiate in 100,000 years, according to the paper.

Eruptions in magnetars are believed to be due to instabilities in their magnetosphere, or “starquakes” produced in their crust – a rigid, elastic layer about one kilometre thick. This causes waves in the magnetosphere, and interaction between these waves causes dissipation of energy.

Magnetars are very difficult to observe when they are silent. It is only during a flare that they can be observed, and these flares are so short-lived that it presents a formidable problem. “They are mostly observed or seen in active transient phases which are very short in duration and are very faint in general for any available instruments or telescopes,” says Dr Pandey.

Serendipitous finding

It was also a serendipitous find because, as Dr Pandey explains: “ASIM is mainly designed with its large effective area to observe terrestrial gamma ray flashes. It was a great coincidence that this bright transient flash was observed by ASIM instrument.”

According to Dr Pandey, studying these flares will not only help us understand the physics of magnetars, it will also help in understanding fast radio bursts, which are among the most enigmatic phenomena in astronomy.

The short-lived flare recorded by the ISS instruments spewed as much energy in a tenth of a second that our Sun will radiate in 100,000 years

4. What are the head and tailwinds in the economy?

In which sectors has the recovery gained momentum? What needs to be done to sustain growth?

The story so far: For India, the year gone by has been about rebuilding from the ravages of 2020 amid the COVID-19 storm which had pushed the already slowing economy into contraction mode. To refresh the context in which 2021 dawned, the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth had dipped to a mere 3% in the fourth quarter of 2019-2020. The pandemic-related lockdowns sent the stalling economy into free fall, causing output to shrink by 24.4% and 7.4% in the first two quarters of 2020-21, respectively. The resultant destruction meant that job and income losses coincided with the unfolding health crisis, cramping consumption and disrupting production supply chains across industries, while contact-intensive sectors like tourism, restaurants and other services haemorrhaged. It was only after the first COVID-19 wave had peaked in September 2020, that GDP growth crawled back to the surface with a meagre 0.5% rate of expansion in the third quarter. The new year, it was hoped, would help unravel the damage, aided by rapid vaccination against the novel coronavirus as well as specific policy steps to rescue and resuscitate the worst-affected sectors of the economy.

How did the Indian economy fare this year? Is it out of the woods yet?

With an eye on making up lost ground, in February, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s Union Budget for 2021-22 bet on pushing infrastructure spending to revive the economy but refrained from providing income support for those worst affected by the pandemic. An ambitious ₹1.75 lakh crore target was set for disinvestment from public sector enterprises backed by a new policy to retain a ‘bare minimum’ presence of state-owned firms even in strategic sectors. The government explained that higher capital spending would trigger multiplier effects by nudging up demand in several sectors and spur job creation and consumption. Economists were concerned about the implementation risks of this approach, including the time public investment projects may take to fructify before the multiplier effects trickle down. While the government talked up prospects of a sharp V-shaped recovery, experts fretted about a K-shaped recovery unfolding thanks to a divergence between those who needed to protect their lives and livelihoods, and those who were able to sustain themselves like corporates and those in white-collared jobs who had not been too badly affected by the pandemic. The COVID-19 virus, however, was immune to such nuanced debates and decided to play spoiler even before the Budget fine print had sunk in. By the end of March, India was firmly in the grip of a much deadlier second wave, prompting the Centre to unveil fresh relief measures for industry as well as the vulnerable sections such as providing free foodgrains (which has now been extended till March 2022). If the virus had weighed heavily on livelihoods in 2020, this year, it claimed a far greater human cost with high fatalities. In contrast, the economic suffering from the second wave was less pronounced and supply chains were less stressed, with restrictions on mobility and business activities being localised across States, unlike the hard nationwide lockdown of 2020. Of course, this is not to say the second wave didn’t hurt growth. After a sedate 1.6% uptick in GDP between January and March, the economy expanded by an underwhelming 20.1% in the April to June quarter when it was hoped that the base effect of the sharp 24.4% slide in the previous year would push the number higher. With households being impacted more severely, consumption’s share in GDP fell during this quarter. While manufacturing and construction recovered, the economy’s overall output remained far below even the low pre-pandemic levels. Gross value added (GVA) was still 7.8% shy of the level seen in the first quarter of 2019-20, while GDP remained 9.2% lower. Things have improved, as per the latest national accounts data, but only just — as the July to September quarter registered 8.4% GDP growth pulling the economy 0.3% above the same quarter in 2019. The first half of financial year 2021-22 has now recorded 13.5% GDP growth and the Finance Ministry expects a double-digit expansion for the full year ending in March 2022. But one cannot say the economy has truly come out of the woods yet. Real GVA for the first half of this fiscal year remains 3.7% below the first half of 2019-20 and this difference is even larger for real GDP at 4.4%, EY India chief policy adviser D.K. Srivastava pointed out. “2021-22 has been spent mostly in making up for the contraction in 2020-21. Even if a real GDP growth of 9.5% is achieved this fiscal, India would land only marginally on the positive side as compared to 2019-20,” he said.

Which sectors are back to pre-pandemic levels now and where does the pain persist?

While the recovery has gained momentum despite the second wave, it still remains uneven and fragmented with economists also unconvinced about its sustainability. CARE Ratings’ economists Madan Sabnavis and Kavita Chacko noted that demand and investments were yet to see a meaningful and durable pick-up and any improvements were expected to be limited and gradual as the domestic economy had been grappling with low demand and a subdued investment climate even before the COVID-19 shock. While agriculture, the only sector to record positive growth throughout the pandemic, has held firm, sectors like manufacturing, mining, electricity, recovered above pre-COVID levels by September. But employment-intensive sectors like construction, the contact-intensive trade and hotels industry, as well as financial services and real estate, continue to languish below their pre-pandemic levels.

There are some other interesting aspects of this year’s economic trajectory. Exports have done well, hitting record numbers so far, but imports have been surging as well widening India’s merchandise trade deficit to an all-time high of $22.9 billion in November. The rupee, which had recovered after falling below 76 to a dollar in March 2020, weakened past that mark again recently. Tax collections, both direct and indirect, have fared surprisingly well. Goods and Services Tax revenues stayed above ₹1 lakh crore a month for most of the year. While retail inflation moderated in the initial period of this year after staying beyond the central bank’s 6% tolerance threshold through large parts of 2020, it has been inching back up in recent months, hitting a three-month high of 4.9% in November. Wholesale price inflation has also hit an all-time high in the current series of the index, making input costs the number one worry for businesses.

Pradeep Multani, PHDCCI president, said supply side issues such as high commodity prices and raw material shortages were denting industry margins, especially for small and medium enterprises that generate high employment. He opines that the government needs to handhold the economy in view of the risks this poses to consumption and private investments even as the new virus variant Omicron is a fresh dark cloud on the horizon.

What tidings may 2022 hold and what are the biggest risks to growth?

The uncertain effects of Omicron and other virus mutations aside, the OECD has projected global growth to slow to 4.5% in 2022, from 5.6% this year, with India’s growth pegged at 8.1% for 2022-23. On the bright side, ICRA chief economist Aditi Nayar is hopeful of consumption returning to normalcy that could ramp up industry’s capacity utilisation rate and set the stage for a broad-based investment revival by the end of 2022. Economists believe higher inflation is the biggest risk for the coming year as supply chain problems in key components, volatile commodity and oil prices as well as shipping disruptions are likely to deepen at least in the first half of the year. With retail inflation at a 40-year high in the U.S., interest rate hikes there could warrant a shift in the central bank’s current monetary policy stance prioritising growth over inflation.

India’s policy makers, be it North Block mandarins formulating the Budget or Mint Street bosses in Mumbai, have their task cut out for a smooth landing in 2022.

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