A) Schemes, Policies, Initiatives, Awards and Social Issues
1. Towards a skill capital (TH)
- The National Skill Development Policy was launched in 2009 and revamped in 2015, recognises the challenge of skilling with speed and high standards.
- UNESCO’s State of the Education Report for India 2020, published recently, focuses on vocational education and training.
- One of the biggest challenges for expanding the reach of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET)-related courses has been the lack of aspiration and stigma attached to jobs such as carpentry and tailoring.
- Considerable effort, including information campaigns involving youth role models, would go a long way in improving the image of vocational education.
- At the same time, common myths around TVET need to be debunked. Research is now proving that TVET graduates for entry level jobs can get paid as much as university graduates, and for some jobs can even surpass them.
- Moreover, students from vocational streams typically take less time to find jobs as compared to university graduates.
- The new National Education Policy (NEP) aims to provide vocational education to 50% of all learners by 2025.
- Schools are encouraged to provide students access to vocational education from Grade 6 onwards and to offer courses that are aligned to the local economies and can benefit local communities.
B) Science and Technology, Defence, Space
2. Predicting protein structures (TH)
- Context: The Artificial Intelligence (AI)-based program, AlphaFold2, from the company DeepMind, has stunned the world by accurately and quickly predicting the structure of proteins, starting from the sequences of amino acds that constitute them.
- Proteins are ubiquitous in all organisms. By comparing and analysing protein structures, it is possible to get ideas about biological evolution, diseases, defence mechanisms, etc.
- In 1972, Christian B. Anfinsen won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his experiments that showed that a protein could fold into its structure based on the information contained in the sequence of amino acids.
- Only about 60 years ago, Max Perutz and others experimentally determined the first protein structures of myoglobin and haemoglobin.
- Knowing the structure of haemoglobin helped people understand how it is able to perform its function of transporting oxygen from the lungs to the cells in the body.
- It also showed how changing a single amino acid can cause sickle cell anaemia.
- Just as knowing the shape of the human nose or the crow’s beak helps understand its function, knowing a protein structure helps recognise how it functions and how a defect may lead to malfunctioning.
- Proteins, along with nucleic acid sequences that make a genome, form the basis of all organisms. Technology has advanced so much that it is routine and inexpensive to sequence genomes.
- India has had a legacy of being a top player in the field of protein structural work, both experimental and computational.
- The Ramachandran Plot devised nearly 60 years ago by G.N. Ramachandran and others from the University of Madras is used even today the world over to validate protein structures.
- In 1994, John Moult and his colleagues started an exercise, to bring fun and rigour into structure prediction, called Critical Assessment of Protein Structure Prediction (CASP). Since then, this has been conducted every two years.
- In this, scientists who have experimentally determined protein structures voluntarily do not submit the structure to the public database but make available the protein sequence for a structure prediction challenge.
- That way, the predicted structures could be compared to the experimentally determined ones without any bias in prediction.
- The effort also resulted in devising a quantitative measure called Global Distance Test (GDT) which would be 100 when the predicted and the experimental matched perfectly and zero if there was no match at all.
3. FELUDA: India’s first CRISPR Covid-19 test (TH)
- Context: The Delhi government has decided to conduct a part of the total COVID-19 tests in the city using Feluda paper strip test. The test gives faster results than RT-PCR test.
- The Feluda paper strip test is also done in a lab and a nasopharyngeal swab will be used to conduct the test, just like the RT PCR test.
- Some microbiologists of the government were of the opinion that the test did not add any value as we already have RT-PCR and Rapid Antigen Test.
- But in the end, the government decided to go ahead with it. This will increase the testing capacity, but it will not replace the RT-PCR test, which is the gold standard of testing.
- On October 22, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) had issued an advisory for the use of Feluda paper strip test.
- The Tata CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) test, powered by CSIR-IGIB (Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology), FELUDA, received regulatory approvals from the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) for commercial launch in Sep 2020.
- The indigenous test has high quality benchmarks with very high sensitivity and specificity for detecting the novel coronavirus.
- This test uses an indigenously developed, cutting-edge CRISPR technology for detection of the genomic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 virus.
- CRISPR is a genome editing technology to diagnosing diseases.
- The Tata CRISPR test is the world’s first diagnostic test to deploy a specially adapted Cas9 protein to successfully detect the virus causing Covid-19.
- CRISPR/Cas9 is a simple but powerful gene-editing technology that can be harnessed to modify, delete or correct disease-causing abnormalities at their genetic sources.
- CRISPR refers to Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats of genetic information, which some bacterial species use as an antiviral mechanism in combination with the Cas9 enzyme.
- Cas9 – a CRISPR-Associated endonuclease – acts as “molecular scissors” to cut DNA at a specific location and inserts a foreign piece of DNA to correct the mutation that causes the disease.
- However, in addition to binding to the intended target on the DNA, the commonly used Cas9 protein from Strepotococcus pyogenesbacteria (SpCas9) and its engineered derivative tend to potentially bind to DNA at multiple unintended sites thereby leading to unnecessary alterations in the DNA.
- The Cas9 protein is supposed to bind to the DNA only when there is a perfect match between the DNA and the protein, thus reducing the chances of the protein binding at non-target sites on the DNA.
- But even when three mismatches exist between the protein and the DNA, the currently used SpCas9 protein binds and cleaves the DNA.
- In contrast, the new FnCas9 protein, derived from a bacterium — Francisella novicida, showed negligible binding when there exists more than one mismatch in the target DNA.
- The high specificity of the new FnCas9 protein arises due to reduced affinity to bind to DNA when there is even a single mismatch.
4. Micronutrients: Vitamins (TH)
- Context: As the Odisha government is preparing to launch fortified rice with vitamin C in the Public Distribution System (PDS) in February 2021, more than 100 activists have opposed the move saying the people have sufficient substitutes in natural food to meet the nutritional needs.
- Vitamin C and calcium are available in abundance in natural food. Vitamin C is water soluble. If the rice is laced with Vitamin C, it will get washed away while the rice is cleaned before cooking. It is a futile exercise to add Vitamin C to uncooked rice.
- Fortification is the addition of key vitamins and minerals such as iron, iodine, zinc, vitamins to staple foods such as rice, milk and salt to improve their nutritional content. These nutrients may or may not have been originally present in the food before processing.
- Vitamins and minerals are micronutrients required by the body to carry out a range of normal functions.
- Minerals are inorganic elements present in soil and water, which are absorbed by plants or consumed by animals. (e.g. copper, iodine, and zinc)
- Vitamins are organic substances that are generally classified as either fat soluble or water soluble. Fat-soluble vitamins (vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, and vitamin K) dissolve in fat and tend to accumulate in the body.
- Water-soluble vitamins (vitamin C and the B-complex vitamins, such as vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and folate) must dissolve in water before they can be absorbed by the body, and therefore cannot be stored.
- Any water-soluble vitamins unused by the body is primarily lost through urine.
- There is a difference between the vitamins that are naturally water soluble (such as vitamins B and C) and the “water solubilized” form of a vitamin (such as vitamin E) that is naturally a fat-soluble vitamin.
- This form of vitamin E is “water solubilized” by the addition of certain compounds during a specific manufacturing process.
- It is hypothesized that this “water solubilized form” of vitamin E is more efficiently absorbed through the intestinal wall into the body.
5. Japan’s Hayabusa2 Mission (IE)
- Context: Six years after Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission was launched, it is set to return back to Earth on December 6 carrying with it samples from the one-kilometre wide Ryugu asteroid that orbits the Sun.
- This is the first time that a probe has visited a celestial body that is under 100 metres in diameter.
- The mission is similar to NASA’s OSIRIS-REX mission that brought back samples from asteroid Bennu late in October.
- Scientists are interested in studying Bennu because it hasn’t undergone drastic changes since its formation over billions of years ago and therefore it contains chemicals and rocks dating back to the birth of the solar system. It is also relatively close to the Earth.
What is Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission?
- The Hayabasu2 mission was launched in December 2014 when the spacecraft was sent on a six-year-long voyage to study the asteroid Ryugu and collect samples that it is now bringing back to the Earth.
- For its latest mission, Hayabusa2 hovered outside the crater, without landing.
- It picked up samples of the material by shooting down a projectile from its one-metre long cylindrical horn, which then captured the fragments rebounding from the surface.
What is an asteroid?
- Asteroids are rocky objects that orbit the Sun, much smaller than planets. They are also called minor planets.
- Asteroids are left over from the formation of our solar system.
- Our solar system began about 4.6 billion years ago when a big cloud of gas and dust collapsed.
- When this happened, most of the material fell to the centre of the cloud and formed the sun.
- Some of the condensing dust in the cloud became planets.
- The objects in the asteroid belt never had the chance to be incorporated into planets. They are leftovers from that time long ago when planets formed.
- According to NASA, there are 994,383 known asteroids, the remnants from the formation of the solar system over 4.6 billion years ago.
Asteroids are divided into three classes.
- First, those found in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, which is estimated to contain somewhere between 1.1-1.9 million asteroids.
- The explanation for the concentration of asteroids in this belt comes from the formation of Jupiter, whose gravity brought an end to the formation of any planetary bodies in this region, as a result of which the smaller bodies kept colliding with each other, fragmenting into asteroids.
- The second group is that of trojans, which are asteroids that share an orbit with a larger planet.
- NASA reports the presence of Jupiter, Neptune and Mars trojans. In 2011, they reported an Earth trojan as well.
- The third classification is Near-Earth Asteroids (NEA), which have orbits that pass close by the Earth. Those that cross the Earth’s orbit are called Earth-crossers. More than 10,000 such asteroids are known, out of which over 1,400 are classified as potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs).
Are all asteroids the same?
- Because asteroids formed in different locations at different distances from the sun, no two asteroids are alike. Here are a few ways that they differ:
- Asteroids aren’t all round like planets. They have jagged and irregular shapes.
- Some asteroids are hundreds of miles in diameter, but many more are as small as pebbles.
- Most asteroids are made of different kinds of rocks, but some have clays or metals, such as nickel and iron.
- Ryugu is also classified as a potentially hazardous asteroid (PHA).
- It is 300 million kilometres from Earth.
- The samples from this asteroid may help Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency Institute of Space (JAXA) researchers understand why Ryugu is so dark — darker than any known meteorite.
Why do scientists study asteroids?
- Scientists study asteroids to look for information about the formation and history of planets and the sun since asteroids were formed at the same time as other objects in the solar system.
- Another reason for tracking them is to look for asteroids that might be potentially hazardous.
- UN’s International Asteroid Day: June 30 – It is a global event to raise awareness about the hazards of an asteroid impact and technological progress to counter such a threat.
C) Agriculture, Geography, Environment and Biodiversity
6. Dew, Frost, Fog, Smog and Mist (TH)
- Context: Delhi woke up to a layer of dense fog on Monday, with the visibility in many areas falling to zero for the first time this season.
- After condensation the water vapour or the moisture in the atmosphere takes one of the following forms — dew, frost, fog and clouds.
- Forms of condensation can be classified on the basis of temperature and location.
- The transformation of water vapour in air into water is called condensation. Condensation is caused by the loss of heat.
- Condensation takes place when the dew point is lower than the freezing point (0 degree C) as well as higher than the freezing point.
- The air containing moisture to its full capacity at a given temperature is said to be saturated.
- It means that the air at the given temperature is incapable of holding any additional amount of moisture at that stage.
- The temperature at which saturation occurs in a given sample of air is known as dew point.
- When the moisture is deposited in the form of water droplets on cooler surfaces of solid objects (rather than nuclei in air above the surface) such as stones, grass blades and plant leaves, it is known as dew.
- The ideal conditions for its formation are clear sky, calm air, high relative humidity, and cold and long nights.
- For the formation of dew, it is necessary that the dew point is above the freezing point.
- Frost forms on cold surfaces when condensation takes place below freezing point (0 degree C), i.e., the dew point is at or below the freezing point.
- The excess moisture is deposited in the form of minute ice crystals instead of water droplets.
- The ideal conditions for the formation of white frost are the same as those for the formation of dew, except that the air temperature must be at or below the freezing point.
Fog and Mist
- When the temperature of an air mass containing a large quantity of water vapour falls all of a sudden, condensation takes place within itself on fine dust particles.
- So, the fog is a cloud with its base at or very near to the ground.
- Because of the fog and mist, the visibility becomes poor to zero.
- The only difference between the mist and fog is that mist contains more moisture than the fog.
- In mist, each nuceli contains a thicker layer of moisture.
- Mists are frequent over mountains as the rising warm air up the slopes meets a cold surface.
- Fogs are drier than mist and they are prevalent where warm currents of air come in contact with cold currents.
- Fogs are mini clouds in which condensation takes place around nuclei provided by the dust, smoke, and the salt particles.
- In urban and industrial centres smoke provides plenty of nuclei which help the formation of fog and mist.
- Such a condition when fog is mixed with smoke, is described as smog.
What is Smog?
- Smog is a kind of air pollution, originally named for the mixture of smoke and fog in the air.
- Today, smog generally refers to photochemical smog, which is the haze created when sunlight reacts with nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds that can be found in fossil fuel emissions from automobiles, factories, and power plants.
- These reactions create ground-level ozone and tiny particles in the air, known as particulate matter.
- Smog can form in almost any climate where industries or cities release large amounts of air pollution.
- However, it is worse during periods of warmer, sunnier weather when the upper air is warm enough to inhibit vertical circulation.
- During the winter months when the wind speeds are low, it helps the smoke and fog to become stagnate at a place forming smog.
- Certain landscapes can also contribute to smog problems. For example, large cities located in basins surrounded by mountains are more likely to have problems with smog, because smog gets trapped in the valley where it can’t be blown away by winds.
- Delhi, Los Angeles and Mexico City are cities known for having smog problems that are exacerbated by their landscapes
Harmful Effects of Smog
- Not only does smog reduce visibility and create an unattractive haze on the horizon, it also has negative health effects.
- Smog also affects plants and animals.
- The ground level ozone present in the smog also inhibits plant growth and causes immense damage to crops and forests.
- Heavy smog is responsible for decreasing the UV radiation greatly.
- Thus, heavy smog results in a low production of the crucial natural element vitamin D leading to cases of rickets among people.
- Smog has also been known to cause corrosive damage to buildings and vehicles.
7. Swaraj Sangathans and World Soil Day (WSD) (TH)
- Context: Tribals in the villages of southern Rajasthan, who utilised their indigenous agricultural practices to survive during the COVID-19 pandemic, have come together to protect soil biodiversity during an agriculture and tribal sovereignty campaign launched through 27 ‘Swaraj Sangathans’ in Banswara, Dungarpur and Pratapgarh districts.
- The villagers took a pledge to preserve their resources of farmland, water, livestock and indigenous seeds on the World Soil Day on Saturday (December 5).
- The Vaagad region, comprising the three tribal-dominated districts, witnessed the activities for spreading awareness about the livelihood rights of tribals, traditional farming and an effective resource management during 11 days of the campaign.
- World Soil Day (WSD) is held annually on 5 December as a means to focus attention on the importance of healthy soil and to advocate for the sustainable management of soil resources.
- An international day to celebrate Soil was recommended by the International Union of Soil Sciences (IUSS) in 2002.
- Under the leadership of the Kingdom of Thailand and within the framework of the Global Soil Partnership, FAO has supported the formal establishment of WSD as a global awareness raising platform.
- In December 2013, the UN General Assembly responded by designating 5 December 2014 as the first official World Soil Day.
Why 5 December?
- The date of 5 December was chosen because it corresponds with the official birthday of the late H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, King of Thailand, who was one of the main proponents of this initiative.
8. Only organic farming allowed in Lakshadweep (TH)
- With the entire Lakshadweep group of islands being declared an organic agricultural area, the island administration is eyeing an expansion of the traditional business in coconuts and coconut products through value addition, better marketing, and round-the-year processing.
- The coconut processing industry also works only for about six months a year when the weather is dry.
- The period between May and December sees the industry come to a standstill.
- The island’s coconut farmers are also expected to benefit from the Union government’s ‘One District One Product’ programme of food processing, in which the entire island is being considered as a single district and coconut oil has been identified as the product.
- Note: For more details on this topic, refer to 1st Dec and 16th Aug files.
9. Interlinking of Rivers, National Water Development Agency (NWDA) and National Interlinking of Rivers Authority (NIRA) (PIB)
- Context: The Minister of State for Jal Shakti chaired the 34thAnnual General Meeting of the National Water Development Agency (NWDA) and 18th Meeting of the Special Committee for Interlinking of Rivers (SCILR) through video conference.
- The National Water Development Agency (NWDA) is a Registered Society under the Ministry of Jal Shakti.
- It has been set up to:
- carry out detailed studies, surveys and investigations in respect of Himalayan and Peninsular Components of National Perspective for Water Resources Development;
- explore the feasibility of linking sub-basins of rivers in States like Bihar;
- take up the work for preparation of Detailed Project Report (DPR) of Ken-Betwa link, which is one of the priority links under Peninsular Component of National Perspective Plan;
- to undertake the work of preparation of DPRs of intra-State links;
- undertake completion of water resources projects under Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana (PMKSY); and
- act as a repository of borrowed fund or loan from Banks / other institutions for the execution of projects.
Inter-Linking of Rivers
- The National Perspective Plan (NPP) was prepared by the then Ministry of Irrigation, now Ministry of Water Resources, RD & GR (now the Ministry of Jal Shakti) for water resources development through inter basin transfer of water, for transferring water from water surplus basins to water-deficit basins.
- Under the NPP, the National Water Development Agency (NWDA) has identified 30 links (16 under Peninsular Component & 14 under Himalayan Component) for preparation of Feasibility Reports.
- No State except Kerala is opposing the Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) Programme.
- Further Kerala Government is opposing only Pamba-Achankovil-Vaippar link which concerns the State.
Ken-Betwa link project
- The Ken-Betwa link project, country’s first river interlinking project, envisages diversion of surplus waters of Ken basin in Madhya Pradesh to water deficit Betwa basin in Uttar Pradesh to help irrigate the drought-prone Bundelkhand region and the adjoining areas.
- Both the rivers originate in Madhya Pradesh but empties themselves into Yamuna in Uttar Pradesh.
- The ₹18,000-crore project has been mired in several hurdles. The most recent one is a disagreement between the States on the share of water and difficulty in acquiring non-forest land.
- Other than differences between the States, there are outstanding environmental obstructions
- The project involves deforestating a portion of the Panna Tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh.
- A new proposed irrigation project will submerge more than three lakh trees in the Palamau Tiger Reserve (Jharkhand).
- The project involves building a 77-metre tall and a 2-km wide Dhaudhan dam and a 230-km canal for both irrigation and drinking water supply.
- It had been cleared by the apex wildlife-regulator, The National Board for Wildlife, in 2016.
- Ken Betwa Link Project Phase-I (Madhya Pradesh & Uttar Pradesh) is one of the 16 National Projects in India.
National Interlinking of Rivers Authority (NIRA)
- The Central government is working on the establishment of an exclusive body to implement projects for linking rivers.
- To be called the National Interlinking of Rivers Authority (NIRA), the proposed body is expected to take up both inter-State and intra-State projects.
- It will also make arrangements for generating up funds, internally and externally.
- An official of the National Water Development Agency (NWDA), which is responsible for the formulation of proposals of the linking of rivers, said an updated draft Cabinet note has been circulated to other Ministries in the Central government.
- The subject of establishment of the Authority was discussed at the last meeting of the Special Committee on Inter-Linking of Rivers (ILR) headed by Union Minister of Jal Shakti.
- Once approved, the projects will be pursued as national projects, wherein the Centre will absorb 90% of the cost and the States concerned the rest.
- As of now, six ILR projects — the Ken-Betwa, Damanganga- Pinjal, Par-Tapi-Narmada, Manas-Sankosh-Teesta-Ganga, Mahanadi-Godavari and Godavari-Cauvery (Grand Anicut) — have been under examination of the authorities.
- With regard to the peninsular rivers, the Centre has chosen to focus on the Godavari-Cauvery link than the earlier proposal to link the Mahanadi-Godavari-Krishna-Pennar-Cauvery rivers.
- The latter has eluded consensus given reservations from Odisha, officials said.
D) International Relations
10. Yemen Crisis (TH)
- Abdul Vahab Musthaba was among the 14 Indians who were reportedly held by Houthi rebels in Sana’a.
- Note: For more details on this topic, refer to 8th Nov file.
11. U.S., China dominate arms market: report (TH)
- S. and Chinese companies dominated the global arms market in 2019, while West Asia made its first appearance among the 25 biggest weapons manufacturers.
- The U.S. arms industry accounted for 61% of sales by the world’s “Top 25” manufacturers last year, ahead of China’s 15.7%, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
- Total sales by the “Top 25” rose by 8.5% to $361 billion, or 50 times the annual budget of the UN’s peacekeeping operations.
- European companies are more internationalized.
- For the first time, a company from the West Asia made it into the “Top 25”: EDGE, of the United Arab Emirates, was formed by the consolidation of some 25 defence entities in 2019.
- Meanwhile, two Russian companies were also in the “Top 25”.
12. Prison Statistics India (TH)
- The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) will include transgenders as a separate third gender in their annual publication of Prison Statistics India from 2020 onwards, the Delhi High Court was informed.
- So far, the Prison Statistics of India (PSI), which collects annual data on prisoners across the country, has been doing it under two categories — male and female.
- Unless the NCRB assign a proper sex to the prison inmates, who may be transgenders, there cannot be a proper guarantee of their civil rights, constitutional rights and even basic human rights.