11 – 20 April 2021
Urea from coal gasification
The Union Cabinet on 20 April 2021 approved an "exclusive subsidy policy" for urea fertiliser produced through coal-gasification by Talcher Fertilizers Ltd (TFL). Incorporated in 2015, TFL is a joint venture of four PSUs -- GAIL India Ltd, Coal India Ltd, Rashtriya Chemicals and Fertilizers Ltd and Fertilizer Corporation of India Ltd (FCIL).
- The estimated cost of this first of its kind project in India is about Rs 13,277 crore. Urea is a widely used fertiliser in India.
- TFL is reviving the erstwhile Talcher plant of FCIL by setting up a now greenfield urea plant in Odisha with the installed capacity of 12.7 lakh tonne per annum.
- Coal gasification plants are strategically important as coal prices are non-volatile and coal is abundantly available in the country.
- India has large coal reserves but not adequate gas. This effort to convert coal to gas, and then gas to urea will truly help India become Aatmanirbhar (self-reliant).
- The gasification process adopted in the Talcher unit is a Clean Coal Technology giving negligible sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and free particulate emissions as compared to directly coal fired processes.
- Natural gas and naphtha are the most commonly used feedstock for manufacturing urea. Natural gas used for urea production is sourced either from domestic fields or imported in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG).
- Talcher plant shall also reduce dependence on important natural gas for production of urea leading to reduction in LNG import bill.
National Climate assessment report
Eight Indian states -- Jharkhand, Mizoram, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Assam, Bihar, Arunachal Pradesh and West Bengal -- are highly vulnerable to climate change, according to a national climate vulnerability assessment report. These states, mostly in the eastern part of the country, require prioritisation of adaptation interventions, the report pointed out. Among all states, Assam, Bihar and Jharkhand have over 60 per cent districts in the category of highly vulnerable districts.
- Lack of forest area per 100 rural populations was found to be one of the major drivers of vulnerability for Assam despite the fact that the state has a forest cover of 42 per cent, followed by low road density.
- In case of Bihar, the report cited poor health infrastructure to be the key vulnerability driver in 36 districts, followed by a high percentage of marginal and small operational holders in 24 districts.
- The lack of implementation of the rural employment scheme MGNREGA, causing a lack of alternative livelihood opportunities, appeared as a key driver in 14 districts of Bihar, followed by a lack of women's participation in the workforce in 11 districts.
- Lack of crop insurance and rainfed agriculture were key drivers of vulnerability for Jharkhand.
- The report, titled 'Climate Vulnerability Assessment for Adaptation Planning in India Using a Common Framework', which identifies the most vulnerable states and districts in India with respect to current climate risk and key drivers of vulnerability, was released by Department of Science and Technology (DST).
- Himachal Pradesh, Telangana, Sikkim and Punjab have been categorised as lower-middle vulnerable states.
- Uttarakhand, Haryana, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Nagaland, Goa and Maharashtra have been categorised as states with low vulnerability.
World Press Freedom index 2021
India has not slipped further on the World Press Freedom Index 2021 published by the international journalism not-for profit body, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), It continues to be counted among the countries classified “bad” for journalism and is termed as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their jobs properly.
- The latest index released on 20 April 2021 ranks 180 countries, topped, yet again, by Norway followed by Finland and Denmark, while Eritrea is at the bottom. China is ranked 177, and is only above North Korea at 179 and Turkmenistan at 178.
- India is ranked 142, same as last year, after it had consistently slid down from 133 in 2016.
- In the South Asian neighbourhood, Nepal is at 106, Sri Lanka at 127, Myanmar (before the coup) at 140, Pakistan at 145 and Bangladesh at 152.
- The report released on 20 April 2021 stated that India shares the “bad” classification with Brazil, Mexico and Russia.
- For India, the latest report has blamed an environment of intimidation created by BJP supporters for any critical journalist, who, the report said, is marked as “anti-state” or “anti-national”.
Committee to review ARC norms
The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) on 19 April 2021 constituted a committee to evaluate the role of asset reconstruction companies (ARCs) in stressed debt resolution and review their business model. The panel has to submit its report within three months after its first meeting. Headed by former RBI executive director Sudarshan Sen, the six-member panel comprises Vishakha Mulye, executive director, ICICI Bank, P N Prasad, former deputy managing director of State Bank of India, Rohit Prasad, professor of economics, Management Development Institute, Gurugram, Abizer Diwanji, partner, Ernst and Young, and chartered accountant R Anand.
- The committee will review the existing legal and regulatory framework and recommend measures to improve the efficacy of ARCs.
- It will also review their role in stressed asset resolution under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC), and suggest means to improve liquidity and trading of security receipts.
- Lenders sell stressed loans to ARCs at a discount, either in exchange of cash or a mix of cash and security receipts. These receipts are redeemable as and when the ARC recovers the specific loan.
- RBI had announced its intent to review the working of ARCs on 7 April, as part of its announcements following the monetary policy committee (MPC) decision.
- Asset reconstruction companies play an important role in the resolution of stressed assets. Their potential however is yet to be fully realized; a panel will undertake a comprehensive review of the working of ARCs and recommend measures to enable them to meet the growing requirements of the financial sector.
- The central bank’s concerns seem to have stemmed from the fact that extant regulations are not conducive for the participation of ARCs as equity buyers in stressed companies.
RBI sets up RRA 2.0
The Reserve Bank on 15 April 2021 set up the second Regulatory Review Authority (RRA 2.0) with a view to streamlining regulations and reducing compliance burden of regulated entities. Reserve Bank of India Deputy Governor M Rajeshwar Rao has been appointed as the Regulations Review Authority, the central bank said in a statement. The RBI had set up a Regulations Review Authority (RRA) initially for a period of one year from April 1, 1999, for reviewing regulations, circulars, reporting systems, based on the feedback from public, banks and financial institutions.
- The recommendations of the RRA enabled streamlining and increasing the effectiveness of several procedures, simplifying regulatory prescriptions, paved the way for issuance of master circular and reduced reporting burden on regulated entities.
- Considering the developments in regulatory functions of the Reserve Bank over the past two decades and evolution of the regulatory perimeter, it is proposed to undertake a similar review of the Reserve Bank's regulations and compliance procedures with a view to streamlining/ rationalising them and making them more effective.
- Accordingly, it decided to set up RRA 2.0 to review the regulatory prescriptions internally as well as by seeking suggestions from the RBI-regulated entities and other stakeholders on their simplification and ease of implementation.
- The RRA would be set up for a period of one year from 1 May 2021, unless its tenure is extended by the Reserve Bank.
- The RRA will engage internally as well as externally with all regulated entities and other stakeholders to facilitate the process.
Mars helicopter successful flight on Red Planet
NASA's miniature robot helicopter Ingenuity performed a successful takeoff and landing on Mars early on 19 April 2021, achieving the first powered, controlled flight by an aircraft over the surface of another planet, the U.S. space agency said.
- The solar-powered whirligig's debut on the Red Planet marked a 21st-century Wright Brothers moment for NASA, which said success could pave the way for new modes of exploration on Mars and other destinations in the solar system, such as Venus and Saturn's moon Titan.
- NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) confirmed that the 4-pound (1.8-kg) twin-rotor helicopter had performed its maiden 40-second flight as planned.
- The robot rotorcraft was programmed to ascend 10 feet (3 meters) straight up, then hover and rotate in place over the Martian surface for half a minute before settling back down on its four legs.
- A snippet of color video footage captured by a separate camera mounted on the NASA's Mars rover Perseverance, parked about 200 feet away, showed the helicopter in flight against the orange-colored landscape surrounding it.
Facebook signs first deal for renewable energy
Facebook has signed a deal to buy renewable energy in India from a local firm's wind power project, the social media giant's first such deal in the South Asian nation, the companies said on 15 April 2021. The 32 megawatt wind power project, located in Karnataka, is part of a larger portfolio of wind and solar projects that Facebook and Mumbai-based CleanMax are working together on for supplying renewable power into India's electrical grid, they said in a joint statement.
- CleanMax will own and operate the projects, while Facebook will buy the power off the grid using environmental attribute certificates, or carbon credits.
- Facebook typically doesn't own the power plants but instead signs "long-term" electricity purchasing agreements with the renewable power company. That enables the project to seek out the financing that it would need. India is Facebook's biggest market by users.
- In Singapore, Facebook has announced similar partnerships with energy providers Sunseap Group, Terrenus Energy and Sembcorp Industries on projects that can produce 160 MW of solar power.
- The electricity generated from these plants will power the tech giant's first Asian data centre that is set to start operations next year.
- Data centres driving tech companies like Facebook use up as much as 1% of the world's total energy, the International Energy Agency said last year.
- Tech companies like Amazon, Alphabet Inc and Microsoft have pledged to operate carbon-free and achieve net-zero emissions, as demand for data and digital services is expected to see a sustained rise.
- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced separately on 15 April 2021 that the company's global operations are now supported wholly by renewable energy and that it has reached net-zero emissions.
AIM collaborated with Bayer
Atal Innovation Mission (AIM), NITI Aayog on 13 April 2021 collaborated with Bayer- a global enterprise with core competencies in the fields of healthcare and nutrition, to work towards the mission’s innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives across the country. A Statement of Intent (SoI) of a strategic partnership between AIM and Bayer was signed and exchanged to formalize the collaboration.
- The SoI will span the promotion of science education, advancing digital solutions and agri-tech to strengthen supply chains as well as healthcare projects.
- Additionally, Bayer will collaborate with AIM to support their current and future programs and foster innovation & entrepreneurship across the agriculture and healthcare sectors.
- A flagship program of AIM, ‘Atal Tinkering Labs’ (ATL) has played a pivotal role in fostering creativity and imagination amongst school children.
- Bayer will explore opportunities to mentor school children, inculcate design thinking, problem solving and adaptive learning skills amongst them and support and adopt mutually agreed schools.
- Additionally, as a part of the ‘Atal Incubation Centres’ (AIC) and ‘Atal Community Innovation Centres’ (ACIC), Bayer shall mentor young innovators and startups and collaborate with them to further the cause of innovation.
- Bayer would also explore association with the techno-preneurs from the ANIC and ARISE programs in the area of digital solutions both in agriculture and healthcare sectors.
- The partnership will be holistic in nature spurring and supporting knowledge and innovation at school, university and Startups leveraging Bayer’s domain expertise, global reach and facilities.
- Bayer has been present in India for over 120 years and as a leader in agriculture, healthcare and nutrition has consistently aimed at using science and technology to benefit a large section of society.
- This first of a kind collaboration in the sectors of agriculture and healthcare between AIM and Bayer will aid in fostering innovation and entrepreneurship.
IED Version 2.0
With an aim to provide single-window access to the energy data for the country, government think tank Niti Aayog on 12 April 2021 launched India Energy Dashboards (IED) Version 2.0. While launching the IED, Niti Aayog Vice Chairman Rajiv Kumar said that it is an endeavour to establish a central energy database of the country.
Key features of Version 2.0
- The IED provides time-series data from FY 2005-06 until FY 2019-20.
- Enhanced data download – It enables easy downloading of data into convenient spreadsheet formats in a cleaner, more intuitive way.
- IED provides data at sub-yearly frequencies as well. This includes monthly data and API linked data from some portals maintained by the government agencies.
- The monthly data is sourced from the monthly reports that are regularly published for the electricity, petroleum and natural gas sectors.
- API linked data from Saubhagya, UJALA, PRAAPTI, and Vidyut PRAVAH has been incorporated in the portal.
- A 'Feedback and Suggestions' forum for the engagement of energy data user community has been incorporated.
- A semi-automated workflow/ issue-tracking system for managing periodic updates to the IED.
- The workflow system performs basic checks and data validation, helping to avoid incorrect data entry.
- Addition of technical and financial data of electricity utilities available from the regulatory documents in the state of Maharashtra.
- Regulatory data specifically for the area served by the state-owned distribution utility – MSEDCL has been added. The Dashboards will include other states data in future.
- This includes monthly data and API linked data from some portals maintained by the government agencies. Niti Aayog had launched the Version 1.0 in May 2017.
Vaccine production at Haffkine approved
In a significant development aimed at ramping up vaccine production, the Centre has approved rolling out vaccines from the Maharashtra government-owned Haffkine Institute. Over the last few weeks, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray had requested for production of vaccines in Mumbai and has requested Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the two back-to-back video conferences with CMs of Covid-19 affected states.
- The Haffkine Institute located in Parel in Mumbai will produce the Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin under a technology transfer agreement.
- Department of Science & Technology Secretary formally informed Maharashtra Chief Secretary Sitaram Kunte of the approval for a period of one year.
- The Haffkine Institute has the capacity to produce 22 crore doses annually.
- The Haffkine Institute was established in 1899 and is named after the legendary scientist Dr Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine who invented the plague vaccine.
- Since then, Haffkine Institute has emerged as a multi-disciplinary institute engaged in training, research and testing of various aspects of infectious diseases.
- The first-ever Phase-I clinical trial in India was perhaps conducted by the founder of the Haffkine Institute in 1899, when he injected himself with the plague vaccine he developed for evaluating its safety and efficacy.
- In the first half of the twentieth century, the institute extended its scope against various other common infectious diseases.
France joins IPOI launched by India
In a bilateral development, France has agreed to join India's Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI). The initiative was proposed by Prime Minister in November 2019 during the East Asia summit. The move comes as French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is on a three-day visit to India. India and France continue to enhance the engagements in several sectors including defence, and maritime.
- The India-France Varuna naval exercise that is all set to take place from 26 April will have a French aircraft carrier, Charles de Gaulle, take part.
- The aircraft is the first French nuclear-powered surface vessel. The exercise will take place off the coast of Oman (Western Indian Ocean).
- India also joined France's initiative La Pérouse exercises earlier this month.
- The exercise witnessed the participation of Quad countries- India, US, Australia, and Japan.
- In January 2021, France and India launched the Indo-French Year of the Environment, which will structure the cooperation between our two countries in the run-up to the key multilateral events of the year, such as COP15 and COP26.
US plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan
President Joe Biden plans to withdraw the remaining 2,500 US troops from Afghanistan by 11 Sept. 2021, 20 years to the day after the al Qaeda attacks that triggered America's longest war. The disclosure of the plan came on the same day that the US intelligence community released a gloomy outlook for Afghanistan, forecasting "low" chances of a peace deal this year and warning that its government would struggle to hold the Taliban insurgency at bay if the US-led coalition withdraws support.
- Biden's decision would miss a 1 May deadline for withdrawal agreed to with the Taliban by his predecessor Donald Trump.
- The insurgents had threatened to resume hostilities against foreign troops if that deadline was missed. But Biden would still be setting a near-term withdrawal date, potentially allaying Taliban concerns.
- The US intelligence report, which was sent to Congress, stated: "Kabul continues to face setbacks on the battlefield, and the Taliban is confident it can achieve military victory."
- The 1 May deadline had already started to appear less and less likely in recent weeks, given the lack of preparations on the ground to ensure it could be done safely and responsibly.
- US officials have also blamed the Taliban for failing to live up to commitments to reduce violence and some have warned about persistent Taliban links to al Qaeda.
- It was those ties that triggered US military intervention in 2001 following al Qaeda's 11 Sept. attacks, when hijackers slammed airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon outside Washington, killing almost 3,000 people.
- The Biden administration has said al Qaeda does not pose a threat to the US homeland now.
India-France sign agreement for Gaganyaan
Space agencies of India and France on 15 April 2021 inked an agreement for cooperation for the country’s first human space mission Gaganyaan. Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs of France Jean-Yves Le Drian visited the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in Bengaluru as part of his three-day official visit to India, which started on 13 April 2021.
- France announced a new space cooperation agreement with ISRO from the Human Space Flight Centre (HSFC) in the city. Under this agreement, France will be contributing to India’s Gaganyaan human spaceflight programme.
- The first space agreement between France and India dates back to 1964. Existing partnerships between the two nations cover almost all areas of space activity. ISRO will also be launching the joint Oceansat 3-Argos mission this year.
- With the new agreement, France will be taking part in the great technological and human challenge that is the Gaganyaan programme.
- The Gaganyaan orbital spacecraft project was kicked started in August 2018. It originally intended to send an astronaut from Indian soil to mark the 75th anniversary of the country’s independence in 2022. Test flights will carry an instrumented humanoid robot.
- The capsule will orbit at an altitude of 400 kilometres for seven days before splashing down in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Ahmedabad.
- ISRO has asked the French space agency CNES to help prepare for Gaganyaan missions and to serve as its single European contact in this domain.
- ISRO is targeting the first unmanned mission under the Gaganyaan project in December.
- This launch was to take place in December last year. This mission will be followed by another unmanned mission. The third leg is the main module.
NSM to enter final phase
The second phase of the National Supercomputing Mission (NSM) will be completed by September this year, taking India’s total computational capacity to 16 Petaflops. Launched in 2015, the ambitious Rs 4,500-crore project is led jointly by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and Department of Science and Technology. The mission aims at creating a powerful supercomputing capability for the country and offer powerful computational facilities to boost research.
- The Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC) and Indian Institute of Science (IISc) were entrusted to spreadhead the seven-year mission, ending in 2022.
- A National Knowledge Network (NKN), a grid, will connect 70 supercomputers across 75 research institutions with over a thousand researchers using this facility.
- Computational infrastructure is being installed at nine premier institutions and with the completion of phase II in September this year, the country’s computing power will be 16 Petaflops.
- In October last year, CDAC had inked MoUs with IITs — Madras, Kharagpur, Kanpur, Guwahati, Hyderabad, Roorkee, Mandi, Gandhinagar, Goa, Palakkad — along with IISc, National Agri-Food Biotechnology Institute and NIT, Thiruchirapalli — where a High Power Computing (HPC) system in each institute is currently being installed.
- So far, over 4,500 people have been trained in HPC and further training in Artificial Intelligence will be held at special NSM nodal centres established at four IITs — Kharagpur, Madras, Goa and Palakkad.
- In the first phase, PARAM Shivay, PARAM Shakti, PARAM Brahma, PARAM Yukti and PARAM Sanganak were deployed at IIT (BHU), IIT Kharagpur, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune, and Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Research.
Sputnik V approved in India
An expert panel of India's central drug authority has recommended granting approval to Russian COVID-19 vaccine Sputnik V for emergency use in the country with certain conditions. The Subject Expert Committee (SEC) of the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO) on 12 April 2021 took up the application of Dr Reddy's Laboratories seeking emergency use authorisation for Sputnik V.
- The Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) will take a final call on the recommendation. If approved, it will be the third COVID-19 vaccine to be available in India.
- The vaccine would be imported from Russia for emergency use in the country.
- In September last year, Dr Reddy's partnered with the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) to conduct clinical trials of Sputnik V and for its distribution rights in India.
- The Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) has already given the emergency use authorisation for two COVID-19 vaccines -- Covaxin of Bharat Biotech and Covishield of Oxford-AstraZeneca, being manufactured by Serum Institute of India in Pune.
- Sputnik V has demonstrated an efficacy rate of 91.6 per cent in the interim analysis of phase 3 clinical trial, which included data on 19,866 volunteers in Russia.
eSaNTA platform for marine products
Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal on 13 April 2021 said that e-commerce platform eSaNTA for marine products will empower farmers as they will be able to sell their produce at the click of a button through this portal. Launching the platform, the minister also said it will enable farmers to do spot as well as forward sales. This website will clearly empower our farmers with a new and digital solution, with an additional alternative way of selling their products.
- The platform would also provide more freedom, options and opportunities to fish and aqua farmers, adding that it will ensure fair prices and traceability to both buyers and sellers.
- The minister suggested that the Marine Products Export Development Authority (MPEDA) should have a rating system for both buyers and sellers on the portal as one can see the ratings and take decisions accordingly.
- Currently, there are about 18,000 farmers who are contributing to the country's marine exports.
- The use of modern tools and techniques can help in increasing shrimp production to 6-7 lakh tonnes from 40,000 tonnes.
- The platform provides services like easy registration, details of buyers and sellers as well as helps expand the business and ensure better prices to farmers.
- The platform will change the traditional way of carrying out business from a word of mouth basis to business with more formal and legally binding.
- eSaNTA (which means mandi or market) is a digital bridge to end the market divide and will act as an alternative marketing tool between farmers and buyers by eliminating middlemen.
- It will also revolutionise traditional aqua farming by providing a cashless, contactless and paperless electronic trade platform between farmers, exporters and domestic markets.
- It is available in Hindi, English, Telugu, Tamil, Bengali and Odiya. There are plans to make the portal available in other languages too.