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Daily Current Affairs 26.12.2022 (The emerging Omicron sublineages, CPCB report shows fewer polluted river stretches but worst ones remain unchanged, Constitutional silences unconstitutional inaction, A welcome move, Forest rights and heritage conservation)

Daily Current Affairs 26.12.2022 (The emerging Omicron sublineages, CPCB report shows fewer polluted river stretches but worst ones remain unchanged, Constitutional silences unconstitutional inaction, A welcome move, Forest rights and heritage conservation)

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1. The emerging Omicron sublineages

What led to the recent outbreak of COVID-19 cases in China? What are the SARS-CoV-2 lineages circulating in the country? Which Omicron sublineages has the WHO put under the ‘Omicron subvariants under monitoring’ category?

Since the initial outbreak in 2019 in Wuhan, China, the world has seen multiple repeated waves of COVID-19 infections over the past few years, largely driven by the emerging variants of concern (VOCs) of the causative virus, SARS-CoV-2. However, until recently, China remained successful in containing the spread of the disease owing to its zealous “zero-COVID” policy, which included mass quarantines, lockdowns, and early vaccination programmes. As a result of the abrupt lifting of the policy, the country is now facing a surge of COVID-19 cases.

What are the SARS-CoV-2 lineages circulating in China?

Over the course of the pandemic, genome sequencing of the virus and rapid sharing of data has been key to tracking the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and early identification of emerging variants. SARS-CoV-2 sequencing data previously submitted from China to GISAID, a globally accessible repository of SARS-CoV-2 genome sequences, shows that over the months, the country has seen isolated cases linked to multiple variants of the virus seen previously. These include Delta and its sublineages in 2021, and Omicron and its sublineages in 2022. Only 30 sequences of SARS-CoV-2 collected between October-December 2022 are available on GISAID from China. These belong to 14 different lineages of SARS-CoV-2, all of which are Omicron sublineages, including BA.5.2, BQ.1.1, BF.7, BF.5, BA.2.75 and the recombinant lineage XBB.

Of the 14 genomes from China available on GISAID for the month of December, two genomes each belong to the Omicron sublineages BF.7, BF.5 and BA.2.75, while one genome belongs to the recombinant lineage XBB. Lineages BF5 and BF.7 of SARS-CoV-2, while first detected in January 2022 in France, have also been previously detected in India in May and July 2022, respectively, while lineage BA.2.75 was first detected in India as early as December 2021. The recombinant lineage XBB has also been previously detected in early 2021 in multiple countries in Asia, including India and Singapore. With the limited number of genomes available corresponding to the ongoing outbreak, we are still in the dark about the variants driving the wave in China.

Which Omicron sublineages are under monitoring?

Owing to the large-scale spread of Omicron and its sublineages across the world, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has added another category of variants referred to as ‘Omicron subvariants under monitoring’.

Currently, the Omicron subvariants being monitored under this category include BA.2.75, BA.4.6, XBB, BA.2.3.20 and sublineages of BA.5 including BF.7 and BQ.1. While the first sample belonging to lineage BA.4.6 dates back to December 2021, lineage BA.2.3.20 was detected in multiple countries recently in August 2022.

What is the XBB lineage?

The SARS-CoV-2 virus has the potential to evolve by exchanging large fragments of the genome, called recombination. First detected in January 2022, the XBB lineage of SARS-CoV-2 resulted from recombinant between Omicron sublineages BA.2.10.1 and BA.2.75. The lineage was largely detected in genomes from Singapore and India, with the largest number of genomes on GISAID belonging to the U.S. and India. Although detected in over 30 countries, there has been no observed association of the lineage with a sustained increase in new cases in India but has become now the dominant variant in many countries seeing an uptick in infections. Monitoring the prevalence of XBB and its sublineages will therefore be essential in the days to come.

Although BA.5 was first detected in November 2021, certain BA.5 sublineages having mutations at key antigenic sites in the virus have emerged over the months, including BF.7, BF.14 and BQ.1. Lineage BQ.1 is a BA.5 sublineage having the mutations K444T and N460K in the spike protein of the virus. Accounting for over 5% of global cases, the variant has been seen to have a growth advantage over other lineages in highly vaccinated regions including Europe and the U.S., thus making it important to monitor the spread and evolution of this sublineage. With waning immunity to vaccination and prior Omicron waves leading to reinfections, genomic surveillance will be the key to understanding the continuing evolution of Omicron. Being immune-naive to Omicron, an overwhelming surge of cases in a populous country such as China will not only cause massive loss to life but will also allow the virus to mutate with the potential to create new variants. Wide-ranging efforts are thus urgently required to monitor the COVID-19 situation in China and other countries, including genomic surveillance and the use of time-tested methods with significant scientific evidence.

2. CPCB report shows fewer polluted river stretches, but worst ones remain unchanged

The number of polluted stretches in India’s rivers has fallen from 351 in 2018 to 311 in 2022, though the number of most polluted stretches is practically unchanged, according to a report from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in November but made public this week.

The CPCB network monitors water quality at 4,484 locations across the country.

Biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) exceeding 3 milligrams per litre (mg/l) is identified as polluted locations. Two or more polluted locations identified on a river in a continuous sequence are considered as a “polluted river stretch.” A BOD less than 3 mg/l means the river stretch is fit for “outdoor bathing.”

Further, stretches with BOD exceeding 30 mg/l are considered “Priority 1” (P1), meaning, the most polluted and thus needing the most urgent remediation. There are five such categories with “Priority 2” (P2) indicating a BOD of 20-30 mg/l and “Priority 5” (P5) indicating 3-6 mg/l. The success of river-cleaning programmes are measured by the number of stretches moving from 1 to 2, 2 to 3 until those in 5 (requiring the least action) too reduce.

In 2018, when the CPCB published its report (after analysing stretches in 2016 and 2017), there were 45 stretches categorised in P1, 16 in P2, 43 in P3, 72 in P4 and 175 in P5. The latest report counts 46 in P1, 16 in P2, 39 in P3, 65 in P4 and 145 in P5. All of the improvement thus, were in river stretches that required relatively less intervention.

“No change/slight change in P1 and 2 category of polluted river stretches indicates that further stringent actions are required for control of organic pollution from various point sources of pollution including development of infrastructure and its proper operation for treatment of wastewater before discharge into recipient water bodies,” the CPCB report observes.

While Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh had the highest number of “Priority 1” river stretches (6), Maharashtra had the most polluted river stretches of 55, followed by Madhya Pradesh (19), Bihar (18), Kerala (18), Karnataka (17) and Uttar Pradesh (17).

Following a report published in The Hindu in 2018, the National Green Tribunal passed orders that the CPCB and the Jal Shakti Ministry monitor river pollution and ensure that it was dealt with. Every State had to ensure that at least one river stretch was “restored” to at least be fit for bathing.

To questions on the status of river-pollution abatement efforts by States, Minister Prahlad Patel said pollution abatement work had been implemented in 36 rivers in 80 towns, spread over 16 States at a total cost of ₹6,248.16 crore, and a sewage treatment capacity of 2,745.7 million litres per day (MLD) has been created.

“Under the Central Sector Scheme of Namami Gange, 406 projects, including 176 projects for sewage treatment of 5,270 MLD and a sewer network of 5,214 km, have been sanctioned at a cost of ₹32,898 crore against which sewage treatment capacity of 1,858 MLD has been created so far,” he said in a statement.

The CPCB, in its report, added the overall decrease in the net number of identified polluted river stretches, which have shown improvement in water quality, “could be attributed” to the efforts done for infrastructure development for pollution control.

Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB)

  • The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) of India is a statutory organisation under the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. (Know the difference between the statutory and quasi-judicial body in the linked article.)
  • Established in 1974 under the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act and later entrusted with functions and responsibilities under the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.
  • Water Pollution: Water pollution can be defined as the contamination of water bodies. Water pollution is caused when water bodies such as rivers, lakes, oceans, groundwater, and aquifers get contaminated with industrial and agricultural effluents.
  • Air Pollution: Air pollution refers to any physical, chemical or biological change in the air. It is the contamination of air by harmful gases, dust and smoke which affects plants, animals, and humans drastically. Click here to read about Air Pollutants.
  • It coordinates the activities of the State Pollution Control Boards by providing technical assistance and guidance and also resolves disputes among them.

CPCB Organisational Structure

CPCB is led by its Chairman followed by the Member Secretary, and other members. The CPCB performs its various functions through the following nine major project budget heads.

  1. Pollution assessment (survey and monitoring).
  2. R&D and laboratory management.
  3. Development of standards and guidelines for industry-specific emissions and effluent standards
  4. Training
  5. Information database management and library
  6. Pollution control technology
  7. Pollution control enforcement
  8. Mass awareness and publications
  9. Hazard waste management

Powers and Functions of CPCB

  • Advising the Central and State Government on matters related to prevention, improvement and control of Air and Water pollution.
  • Planning various programs to control and prevent Air & Water pollution
  • Planning and organising training programs for people involved in activities for the prevention, improvement and control of Air and Water pollution.
  • Collecting, compiling, and publishing statistical and technical reports related to Air & Water Pollution. These reports are used to develop preventive measures to control and reduce pollution.
  • Preparing manuals, codes and guidelines relating to treatment and disposal of sewage and trade effluents as well as for stack gas cleaning devices, stacks and ducts.

Air Quality Monitoring 

  • To monitor the ambient air quality, CPCB launched a nationwide programme called National Air Quality Monitoring Programme (NAMP).

NAMP

Objectives

To determine status and trends of ambient air quality

To ascertain whether the prescribed ambient air quality standards are violated

To identify Non-attainment Cities and control air pollution is those cities

To obtain the knowledge and understanding necessary for developing preventive and corrective measures and 

To understand the natural cleansing process undergoing in the environment.

Under N.A.M.P., four air pollutants are regularly monitored by CPCB:

  1. Sulphur Dioxide (SO2), 
  2. Oxides of Nitrogen as NO2, 
  3. Respirable Suspended Particulate Matter (RSPM / PM10) and 
  4. Fine Particulate Matter (PM2.5) 
  • These air pollutants are measured at an automatic monitoring station set up at ITO Intersection in New Delhi by CPCB.
  • This air quality monitoring information is updated every week at ITO.

Water Quality Monitoring

  • Fresh water is a limited resource and is essential for human existence and their activities. 
  • India is a riverine country. It has 14 major rivers, 44 medium rivers and 55 minor rivers besides numerous lakes, ponds and wells which are used as primary source of drinking water even without treatment. 
  • One of the important function of CPCB is to collect, collate and disseminate technical and statistical data relating to water pollution. Also, collaborate with various stakeholders to control water pollution.

National Water Quality Monitoring Programme (NWMP)

  • The water quality monitoring network – 4111 stations in 28 States and 8 Union Territories.
  • Surface water bodies – monitored monthly or quarterly
  • Groundwater – monitored half-yearly basis
  • Micro pollutants (Metals & Pesticides) – monitored twice in a year, before and after monsoon.

3. Editorial-1: Constitutional silences, unconstitutional inaction

When the Constitution was adopted by the Constituent Assembly, the founders left deliberate gaps in it to enable a future Parliament to modify and amend the Constitution that was in accordance with the aspirations and the will of the people. This ostensibly gave birth to a Constitution with glaring misses.

One of the silences in the Constitution is in Article 200 which does not prescribe a timeline for the Governor to provide assent to Bills sent by the Legislative Assembly. This has been used to advantage by the Governors of various Opposition-ruled States to obfuscate the mandate of democratically elected governments. The examples range from the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Online Gambling and Regulation of Online Games Bill, 2022 (passed by the Tamil Nadu Assembly) to the Kerala Lok Ayukta (Amendment) Bill, 2022 (passed by the Kerala Assembly). In Tamil Nadu alone, almost 20 Bills are awaiting assent by the Governor. The situation is no different in Telangana and West Bengal as well. Can the Governor just sit on Bills endlessly?

Constitutional scheme

When the draft of Article 200 was discussed in the Constituent Assembly, Prof. Shibban Lal Saxena rightly highlighted how there is no time limit prescribed for the Governor to act. In Purushothaman Nambudiri vs State of Kerala (1962), a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court clarified that the Constitution does not impose any time limit within which the Governor should provide assent to Bills. Interestingly, the question as to whether the Governor can sit on Bills indefinitely did not arise before the Court; the Court too had no occasion to provide an authoritative ruling on it. However, the Court has maintained that the Governor must honour the will of the Legislature and that the President or a Governor can act only in harmony with their Council of Ministers. When a Governor, a central government-appointee, withholds assent to a law validly passed by the Legislature, he is undoing the will of the Legislature through unconstitutional devices, thereby directly attacking the federal edifice of the Constitution. Causing delay to assent Bills will be an arbitrary exercise, which in itself is constitutionally abhorrent.

The additional issue of the President not acting swiftly to grant assent to the Bills reserved by the Governor for the consideration of the President cannot be missed. The President has not yet acted on the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET)-exemption Bill passed by the Tamil Nadu Assembly, after it was referred to the President in May 2022. There is no timeline prescribed for even the President, under Article 201 of the Constitution, to decide on the outcome of the Bill. Even as there is no timeline for the President to grant assent, there is a timeline of six months applicable to the State Assembly to reconsider the Bill if the President decides to refer it back to the House.

Call for reforms

In a consultation paper, the ‘Institution of Governor under the Constitution’, the Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy-led Committee states that if the Governor withholds assent to a Bill indefinitely, “such a course will not be conducive with the decorous regard a Governor is expected to the rules of the Constitutional game….”. The ‘National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution’ that was set up by the A.B. Vajpayee government in 2000 recommended that “there should be a time-limit — say a period of six months — within which the Governor should take a decision whether to grant assent or to reserve a Bill for consideration of the President.” It is also important to understand the real objective behind Article 200 requiring the Governor to grant assent to Bills. It was felt that an independent Governor would be necessary to act as a check and balance, to avoid the state-enacted law being repugnant to the Union laws. Some State governments expressed an opinion before the Sarkaria Commission that a “Governor will act as a safety-valve against hasty legislations and by their operation enable the State Government and Legislature to have a second look at it”.

The Sarkaria Commission went to the extent of suggesting a cure to the terminal illness plaguing the federal ecosystem of the country. It was suggested that delay from the side of the Governor in granting assent can be avoided by streamlining the existing procedures; by making prior consultation with the Governor at the stage of the drafting of the Bill itself, and by prescribing time-limits for its disposal.

Delay thwarts reasonableness

In the realm of administrative law, unreasonable delay in granting administrative sanction would be violative of the rule of law. Therefore, it implies that the Governor will have to grant assent or decline the same within a ‘reasonable time’. ‘Reasonable time’ is what is necessary, under the circumstances, to do conveniently what the contract or duty requires should be done in a particular case. In Keisham Meghachandra Singh vs The Hon’ble Speaker, Manipur Legislative Assembly (2020), a case on anti-defection law, the Supreme Court held that the Speaker must act on disqualification petitions against the defecting MLAs within a ‘reasonable time’. It clarified in the same judgment that reasonable time is three months in the case of disqualification petitions.

The concept that the Queen reigns, but the Ministers rule is the bedrock of the Westminster system. The Governor’s duty is only to ensure that an elected government is working within the parameters of the Constitution. It does not mean that the Governor can sit on the Bills indefinitely, merely because there is no time limit prescribed for the Governor to decide on the bills. The Constitution should be read contextually to provide a meaning that the Governor must act on the Bills within a reasonable time, say three months. The constitutional silences should not give way for unconstitutional inaction, leaving space for anarchy in the rule of law. As Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer put it pithily in Shamsher Singh and Anr. vs State Of Punjab, “may be, our founding fathers were not political prophets who could foresee glaring abuses or perverted developments”.

4. Editorial-2: A welcome move

Centre’s free food grain distribution in 2023 will provide relief to States

The Government has decided not to extend the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Ann Yojana, (PMGKY), a scheme that ran between April 2020 to December 2022 (except for a short period in between), and provided additional allocation of foodgrains, i.e., rice or wheat from the central pool at five kilograms a month free of cost to beneficiaries under the National Food Security Act (NFSA). PMGKY absorbed the shock of the pandemic for the extreme poor and also brought in political dividends for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in many States that had elections this year, including Uttar Pradesh in particular. While discontinuing the scheme, the Government has said that it will bear the expenses of food grains under the NFSA for 2023 and ensure free ration under the Act for the estimated 81.35 crore beneficiaries for that year. In other words, ration card holders can now avail 5 kg of wheat or rice per month for free rather than at a subsidised rate, while Antyodaya Anna Yojana cardholders will receive 35 kg of free foodgrains. As the estimated number of 81.35 crore beneficiaries is still based on Census 2011 numbers and Public Distribution System entitlements have been limited to ration card holders and quotas framed by the Union Government, some States have gone on to expand benefits to others through the NFSA and other schemes. By taking on the burden of the expenditure for this distribution, the Union government, which has estimated an additional amount of ₹2 lakh crore for the scheme, has provided limited but welcome relief in monetary terms for States.

While the expenditure numbers on food distribution and subsidy provisions seem fiscally expensive, the schemes have provided distress relief to the most needy, helped the Government control its food buffer stocks better, and also reduced wastage of procured food grains at a time when procurement figures for rice and wheat by the Food Corporation of India remain high. The PDS and the PMGKY have not only enabled basic food security but have also acted as income transfers for the poor by allowing them to buy other commodities that they could not have afforded if not for the benefits. There is, of course, the question of whether targeted distribution, including the identification of priority households and the “poorest of the poor”, has really helped the benefits reaching the deserving with concerns about diversion of foodgrains. But as rights activists have argued, the more robust solution could be a universalisation of the PDS, which has already worked well in a few States such as Tamil Nadu, as the scheme would be availed by anyone in need instead of a flawed targeting system.

5. Editorial-3: Forest rights and heritage conservation

Of the 39 areas declared by UNESCO in 2012 as being critical for biodiversity in the Western Ghats, 10 are in Karnataka. Before recognising areas as world heritage sites, UNESCO seeks the opinion of the inhabitants on the implication of the possible declaration on their lives and livelihoods.

This author interacted with different stakeholders in the gram panchayats located close to the world heritage sites in Karnataka. The primary stakeholders were Scheduled Tribes (STs). Other traditional forest dwellers include Scheduled Castes (SCs), Other Backward Classes, minorities and the general category. An overwhelming majority said that they were not aware of the process that leads to the declaration of UNESCO heritage sites.

Forest Rights Act

The majority of the forest dwellers claimed land measuring not more than one acre. It is clear that the claims were nowhere close to the ceiling of four hectares permitted under the Forest Rights Act (FRA). The rejection rate of the other traditional forest dwellers was two times more than the STs. In the case of the STs, the reasons were attributed to fresh encroachments; the claimants not living on the lands claimed; claimed lands being on ‘paisari bhoomis’ (wasteland and forest lands which have not been notified as protected forests or reserved forests) or revenue lands; and multiple applications made in a single family. In the case of other traditional forest dwellers, it was mainly failure to produce evidence of dependency and dwelling on forest land for 75 years.

The officials said the FRA is good law which recognises the rights of the STs because of their overall backwardness. However, most felt there should be a closure to this Act; and that the process cannot go on forever with new claims emerging on a regular basis. Presenting the declaration of the world heritage site in a positive light, they said that illegal tree-felling and poaching have come down following the stringent implementation of rules in the ‘protected areas’. Most forest dwellers acknowledged this fact.

The people in the villages falling under eco-sensitive zones said they had started experiencing severe restrictions on their entry into the forest. Development activities like road repair has been stopped. Farming is not allowed in a normal way, a slight sound is demurred, the use of fertilizers is banned, and even a small knife is not allowed to be carried into the forest. The people are prohibited from cutting trees falling on their houses to undertake repair work or move the earth. A striking revelation was that these restrictions were in enforcement from the time these areas were declared as protected areas and not necessarily after their declaration as world heritage sites.

The increasing animal insurgency is causing damage to the crops of the farming forest dwellers. Those who don’t have recognition over their lands are not given compensation for the loss. Monkeys and snakes released from urban settings into the forests enter their houses. More importantly, the monkeys do not survive in the wild for long.

Owning livestock in the villages close to forests is more challenging than in regular revenue villages. In the areas where irrigation projects have come up, the affected people reported that grazing lands have been taken over by the government to compensate for the forest land lost to such projects.

Current status

The respondents were in possession of the lands claimed under the FRA even though their applications were either rejected or were still pending. However, in many places, they were apprehensive that people were accepting the resettlement packages and moving out of ‘protected areas’ for good. They worried that if half the village population moved away, it would become difficult for the remaining ones to live their normal life.

Most forest dwellers said they were still deprived of basic facilities and other government benefits extended under various schemes and programmes as they don’t possess the ‘Records of Rights, Tenancy and Crops’ that is required along with the title of the land. The government must address this issue in consonance with the rules of the Act.

Half the world heritage sites in Karnataka fall under protected areas (National Park: 1; Wildlife Sanctuaries: 4) and the remaining are reserved forests. The issue becomes complicated when the people refuse to ‘re-locate’ on grounds of their attachment to the land fearing extinction of their culture and religious roots. The gram sabha appears supreme in the Act in deciding the ‘proposed resettlement’ as it has to give ‘free informed consent’. However, this does not happen. Hence, the government must bring more clarity to the Act to avoid conflicts between the government agencies conserving biodiversity and the people living in the forest for over decades and centuries.

Finally, the conservation of biodiversity requires special attention. Yet, forest dwellers willing to live in the forest must be allowed to stay. Many of them comply with the norms of the eco-sensitive zone because they do not depend on modern development needs such as the the use of fertilizers and mobile phones. In the same breath, those wanting to experience the fruits of development must be relocated according to their choice of a new place and a suitable package. This can be possible only when the areas declared as ‘protected’ are arrived at after consultations with the local population. This did not take place in a transparent way at the time of the declaration of world heritage site or earlier, when protected areas were notified.

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