CURRENT AFFAIRS – 23/05/2023

CURRENT AFFAIRS – 23/05/2023

It’s time to ensure safer skies

In 1997, a Bangalore-based NGO called the Environment Support Group filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Karnataka High Court. A key concern of the group was that the second runway in Mangalore airport would not be able to meet the standards required while dealing with an emergency, particularly during landings and take-offs. The court dismissed the PIL. In a new PIL in 2002, the group warned, “The inevitable consequence could be that the plane will come crashing down the hillsides from a height of 80-100 metres…” The court dismissed this PIL too. The group challenged this verdict in the Supreme Court, which said, “We see no reason to interfere… We, however, clarify that in constructing the Airport, the Government shall comply with all applicable laws and also with environmental norms.”

No lessons learned

But government agencies did not comply with laws or norms, and several violations led to the loss of 158 lives on May 22, 2010, when AIE 812 crashed on landing in Mangalore. The aircraft overshot the runway, plunged down the hillside as the petitioners had warned, and burst into flames. The PIL which highlighted all the violations was also dismissed by the Supreme Court, showing the judiciary’s reluctance to act against government agencies. Only the pilot was blamed. The cover-up report, which contained a well-orchestrated litany of lies, resulted in lessons not being learned to prevent a recurrence.

The AIE aircraft was too high and fast and the touchdown was late. It crashed into the illegal concrete structure on which the Instrument Landing System Localiser antenna was mounted. The International Civil Aviation Organization had set January 1, 2010 as the deadline to ensure that all localiser structures were frangible. To make matters worse, the structure was replaced with steel girders. The court of inquiry team, headed by an Air Marshall, ignored both these violations.

The cardinal principle of an accident investigation is to identify the cause and prevent recurrence. This is where the investigations by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) and Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB) have failed. India has had a string of runway overruns due to high and fast approaches and late touchdowns, resulting in hull losses. In 2005, an Air Sahara 737 overshot the runway. In 2009, a Kingfisher ATR touched down late from a high and fast approach and went off the runway. Both aircraft were written off. After the Mangalore crash, SpiceJet had a string of runway overruns resulting in hull losses. In all these accidents, the pilots were blamed but there was no introspection on why investigations had failed to prevent such accidents from recurring, indicating a lack of accountability and transparency in the system. Pilot error is an easy card to play to cover up the DGCA’s incompetence.

The Ministry of Civil Aviation constituted the Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Council (CASAC) after the Mangalore crash. Members of operations, aerodromes and Air Traffic Control (ATC) were tasked with identifying deficiencies and providing corrective steps. The focus was on critical runways, such as in Mangalore and Calicut. The CASAC pointed out the failure of the court of inquiry report in identifying serious errors and taking corrective steps. An inspection of Calicut showed shocking deficiencies. The CASAC warned the Ministry that the failure to provide the mandatory Runway End Safety Areas (RESA) at Calicut could result in fatal accidents on Runway 10 if any aircraft touched down late at high speed. It also pointed out that the narrow service road would prevent quick rescue by rescue and firefighting vehicles. But the Ministry and the DGCA ignored our warnings. An accident on August 7, 2020 cost 21 lives. Was anyone held accountable for this dangerous failure to take corrective steps? The AAIB report following the crash pointed out several deficiencies. The Ministry constituted a committee. One of its recommendations was to have RESA at both ends. But we are yet to see that being implemented as it will reduce the runway length and affect payload. The commercial interests of airlines seem to override safety.

When the same errors cause accidents over years, it means that there are serious deficiencies in training, problems with the safety audits by the DGCA, and that investigation agencies have failed in identifying the reasons for such accidents and providing corrective steps. Our airports are not conforming to international safety standards. Sadly, the Supreme Court has also turned a blind eye to the problem. The system takes advantage of the judiciary’s blinkers, and safety is swept away under the carpet. There is no transparency or accountability. Fatigue, another serious safety issue, is not given the importance it deserves. Lives are considered cheap. Unless occupational safety and training are given top priority, the skies are not going to be safe.

A wing and a prayer

As a large number of aircraft is being inducted into our skies without the minimum number of qualified professionals to man critical stations such as cockpit, ATC and engineering, it is bound to lower the safety standards in India. Airlines are falling like nine pins due to failed financial audits by the DGCA. This is another dangerous trend. That pilots are fatigued and work to suit the commercial requirements of airlines is equally dangerous. The Chief Justice of India is proactive. Will he take up the PILs of the fatal Mangalore crash and set right the wrongs that are the results of inaction? Or do we continue to fly on a wing with prayers?

It has been 13 years since an aircraft crashed in Mangalore resulting in the deaths of 158 people, but investigation agencies have still not identified the reasons for such accidents and provided corrective steps.

About the ICAO:

In October 1944 ICAO became a specialized agency of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Its headquarters is located in the Montreal, Canada.

It changes the principles and techniques of international air navigation and fosters the planning and development of international air transport to ensure safe and orderly growth.

It adopts standards and recommended practices concerning air navigation, its infrastructure, flight inspection, prevention of unlawful interference, and facilitation of border-crossing procedures for international civil aviation.

ICAO defines the protocols for air accident investigation that are followed by transport safety authorities in countries signatory to the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation.

India is a founding member of ICAO.

According to the Chicago Convention, ICAO’s goals and objectives are as follows:

To promote international air transport planning and development in order to ensure the safe and orderly growth of international civil aviation around the world.

Encourage the design and operation of aircraft for peaceful purposes.

Encourage the construction of international civil aviation highways, airports, and air navigation infrastructure.

Meet the global demand for safe, reliable, efficient, and cost-effective air transportation.

Prevent economic wastage as a result of unfair competition.

Ensure that contracting states’ rights are completely honoured, that each contracting state has an equal opportunity to operate international airlines, and that discrimination between contracting states is avoided.

Increase flight safety in international air navigation, and support the development of international civil aviation in general.

Prime Minister extols value of Pacific island nations at third FIPIC summit

Small island nations of the Pacific Ocean are in fact “large ocean states”, said Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday, highlighting the importance of the 14 members of the Forum for India Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC).

In the opening session of the FIPIC-3 summit in Port Moresby, Mr. Modi spoke in favour of free and open Indo-Pacific region and focused on India’s commitment to assist the development goals of the member-countries.

New Delhi would continue to help the Pacific island states in “every possible” way, he said. “Climate change, natural calamities, poverty and famine already existed but now new challenges are emerging as supply chains of food, fuel fertilizer and pharma are facing hurdles. Those we thought were reliable, we came to know they were not standing with us. In this time of difficulty, the old saying that a friend in need is a friend indeed has been proved. From vaccines to medicines, wheat and sugar, India has supplied the countries that needed the items,” he said.

The previous two meetings of the India-Pacific Islands Cooperation were held in November 2014 in Fiji, and August 2015 in Jaipur.

Mr. Modi arrived in Port Moresby on Sunday after completing his engagements at the G-7 summit in Hiroshima, where India was a guest country.

Welcoming the guest, Prime Minister James Marape said the members of the FIPIC had suffered because of the high tariff on energy and food.

Plea to India

“We are victims of global power play and we want you to be an advocate for us and sit in those meetings,” he said, urging India to serve as the voice of the Global South in the G-7 and the G-20.

Modi extols the value of Pacific island nations

He said the small size of the island nations of the Pacific Ocean region should not overshadow the fact that the islands had large space in the ocean. Mr. Modi assured the FIPIC members of India’s support in the field of sustainable development, science and technology and space application.

In a special ceremony, Governor General Sir Bob Dadae conferred the Grand Companion of the Order of Logohu (GCL), the highest civilian award of Papua New Guinea, on PM Modi.

Mr. Modi’s visit to Papua New Guinea highlights the growing strategic significance of the Pacific Island nations, which have also received attention from China, with the country having signed a security agreement last year with the Solomon Islands.

FIPIC consists of Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. His visit coincided with the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken as the two sides plan to seal a defence partnership agreement.

PM Modi reached Sydney on Monday evening to start the last leg of the three-nation tour that will see him hold the official bilateral dialogue with Prime Minister Albanese. In an interview given to The Australian, Mr. Modi said he wants to take India-Australia relation to the “next level” with closer defence and security ties to safeguard the Indo-Pacific region. The two Prime Ministers will address a public meeting at Sydney Olympic Park on Tuesday night, where at least 20,000 expat Indians in Australia are expected to be in attendence.

Forum for India-Pacific Islands cooperation (FIPIC) is a multinational grouping for cooperation between India and 14 Pacific Islands nations.

It include 14 islands named- Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

All Head of state/head of government of the above countries met in Suva, Fiji in November 2014 for the first time where the annual summit was conceptualized.

The FIPIC initiative marks a serious effort to expand India’s engagement in the Pacific region.

A major part of India’s engagement with these countries is through development assistance under South-South Cooperation, mainly in capacity building (training, scholarships, grant-in-aid and loan assistance) and community development projects.

In 2015, FIPIC Trade Office at Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) to promote Trade & Investment opportunities between India & Pacific Island Countries.

Significance of pacific Island nations for India

1.Strategic location

2.Resource-rich region

3.Countering China

4.Diplomatic importance

5.Development partnerships

6.Economic opportunities

Aim to lift AFSPA from Assam by 2023-end: CM


Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma reiterated here on Monday that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) was likely to be lifted completely from the State by the year-end as law and order had improved considerably.

Mr. Sarma also said retired Army personnel would be appointed Additional Superintendents of Police to impart training to the police force in Assam.

The Chief Minister, who was speaking at the first Commandants’ Conference at the Lachit Barphukan Police Academy here, said, “We are aiming at withdrawing AFSPA completely from Assam by the end of 2023. We will also rope in military personnel to train our police force.” He also said, “This will facilitate replacement of Central police with Assam police battalions.” The AFSPA, which gives the armed forces the right to arrest and search without warrants and use force without a magistrate’s permission, has been lifted from most Assam districts except eight and one sub-division.

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Important provisions:

Under Section 3, the Central Government or the Governor of the State or administrator of the Union Territory can declare the whole or part of the State or Union Territory as a disturbed area.

An area can be disturbed due to differences or disputes between members of different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities.

Section 4 gives the Army powers to search premises and make arrests without warrants, to use force even to the extent of causing death, destroy arms/ammunition dumps, fortifications/shelters/hideouts and to stop, search and seize any vehicle.

Section 6 stipulates that arrested persons and the seized property are to be made over to the police with the least possible delay.

Section 7 offers protection of persons acting in good faith in their official capacity.

The prosecution is permitted only after the sanction of the Central Government.

Education Ministry holds meet on PARAKH aimed at unifying 60 school Boards

The Education Ministry organised a workshop in New Delhi on Monday with the aim of unifying a network of 60 school examination Boards of various States and Union Territories under one umbrella.

The workshop will study school assessments, examination practices and equivalence of Boards across the country.

The main component of this plan is PARAKH, the National Assessment Centre, which has been set up as an organisation under the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT).

The mandate of PARAKH is to work on bringing the school Boards across States and Union Territories on a common platform.

“As a first step, a workshop on PARAKH will act as a common platform for interaction of all stakeholders concerned in order to develop a holistic approach that ensures a fair assessment system which promotes equity in performance and equivalence in assessment of students,” an official from the Ministry said.

Sanjay Kumar, Secretary (School Education), emphasising the need for equivalence of Boards said that the aim was to establish a unified framework that enables seamless transitions for students moving between different Boards or regions.

The Education Ministry official added that the discussion revolved around the need to reassess the prevailing rote examination culture in the education system.


PARAKH has been launched as part of the implementation of the National Education Policy (NEP)-2020 that envisaged a standard-setting body to advise school boards regarding new assessment patterns and latest research, and promote collaborations between them.

It will act as a constituent unit of the NCERT.

It will also be tasked with holding periodic learning outcome tests like the National Achievement Survey (NAS) and State Achievement Surveys.

It will work on three major assessment areas: large-scale assessments, school-based assessment, and examination reforms.

The main objective of the framework is to ensure “uniformity” across the state and central boards which presently follow different criteria for evaluation.

Objectives of PARAKH

Setting norms, criteria, and procedures for student assessment and evaluation for all recognized educational boards across India.

Promote and support school boards in changing their assessment practices reflecting the 21st-century skill standards.

To bring uniformity across the state and central boards, which currently use different standards of evaluation and produce significant score differences.

It will act as a body that establishes standards for student evaluation and assessment throughout all school boards across India.

It will address differences in student test scores among boards.

It will perform National Achievement Surveys (NAS) on learning outcomes, evaluate all components of the planning and execution of the NAS activities, and highlight areas that require improvement.

It will manage India’s participation in international tests like the PISA, or the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).

U.S. signs security pact with Papua New Guinea amid competition with China

The U.S. signed a new security pact with Papua New Guinea on Monday as it competes with China for influence in the Pacific.

Papua New Guinea’s location just north of Australia makes it strategically significant. It was the site of fierce battles during World War II, and with a population of nearly 10 million people, it’s the most populous Pacific Island nation.

The State Department said the new agreement provides a framework to help improve security cooperation, enhance the capacity of Papua New Guinea’s defence force and increase regional stability.

“The work that we’re doing together to try to shape the future could not be more important, could not be more timely,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters.

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape said the pact is mutually beneficial and “secures our national interests”.

But the agreement sparked student protests in the second-largest city, Lae. And many in the Pacific are concerned about the increasing militarisation of the region.

The marine organism with a surprising wiring of neurons

Comb jellies have been at the centre of a heated debate over the identity of the first animal; even if they are the oldest animal lineage,

biologists still don’t know how their nervous systems evolved; their unique features are creating shockwaves in the scientific community

A beautiful marine animal with a jelly-like body surrounded by iridescent combs. The most likely candidate for the earliest branched-off animal lineage. And now, an impossible nervous system. Comb jellies may be too small to even cause ripples in the water as they swim, but their unique features are creating shockwaves in the scientific community.

A recent study, published in Science, looked closely at the comb-jelly nervous system and found something unexpected in its nerve net.

The nerve net is a diffuse nervous system made up of interconnected neurons, most commonly found in simple marine animals like comb jellies and jellyfish.

The researchers found that instead of being connected by synapses – junctions between neurons in all other animals, including humans – nerve-net neurons are continuously connected by a single plasma membrane.

What are comb jellies?

Comb jellies, or ctenophores, belong to phylum ctenophora, and are one of the oldest animal lineages with a defined nervous system. They are quite hard to culture in the lab, however, yet Pawel Burkhardt managed to do just the thing in his lab at the Michael Sars Centre at the University of Bergen, Norway.

“This was something that all came together, step by step. We were able to basically disentangle the nervous system,” Dr. Burkhardt told The Hindu.

He had collaborated with Maike Kittelmann of the Oxford Brookes University in the U.K. previously for a study, published in Current Biology in 2021.

In this study, the researchers examined a single neuron in the nerve net using high resolution electron microscopy. They found that the neurites – the branches from the neuron that form synapses – were all interconnected by a single plasma membrane, a feature not seen in the neurons of other animals.

What did the study find?

For the new study, they wanted to see how a single nerve net neuron could make connections with other nerve net neurons. When they observed the microscopy images of the different nerve net neurons together, they were taken completely by surprise.

“We expected synapses,” said Dr. Kittelmann. “We went in there to find the synapses between the nerve net neurons, but we just couldn’t find them, because they aren’t there.”

The researchers conducted their experiments with ctenophores in the predatory cydippid stage, an earlier stage in the ctenophore life cycle when it is capable of reproducing. They used high-pressure freezing and fixing and electron microscopy to build a 3D view of all the neurons within the nervous system of ctenophores.

When they examined how some neurons outside the nerve net connected to others in the cydippid, they found synaptic connections. But the five neurons within the nerve net seemed to all be interconnected via a syncytial network, i.e. without any synapses.

Why ctenophores?

In the 1950s, the use of electron microscopy helped confirm neurobiologistRamón y Cajal’s hypothesis that neurons were separate cells connected via synapses. It put to rest a long debate about whether neuronal networks in most animals formed a continuous syncytium or were made up of discrete cells.

In an ironic twist, the new study again demonstrated the usefulness of more advanced microscopy techniques to show that in ctenophores, at least in the nerve net neurons, it’s the opposite: it is a syncytium.

Ctenophores have already received a lot of attention, being at the centre of a heated debate over the identity of the first animal. Whole-genome sequencing studies of ctenophores, published in 2013 in Science and 2014 in Nature, added evidence to the theory that ctenophores were the earliest branch of the animal kingdom and form a sister group to all other animals.

The mystery

But even if ctenophores constitute the oldest animal lineage, biologists are still unclear as to how their nervous system evolved. Based on his findings in the 2014 Nature paper, Leonid Moroz of the University of Florida proposed a controversial theory. He said that the nervous system could have evolved twice, once in ctenophores and once in other animals.

His paper and another study that followed pointed to ctenophores having a unique nervous system.

The ctenophore genome didn’t show classical neurotransmitter pathways present in other animals nor did ctenophore neurons express the common genes associated with other animal neurons.

“Our paper is not proof for or against the independent evolution of the ctenophore nervous system,” Dr. Burkhardt said. “However, given that ctenophores are very early branching animals and that the nerve-net architecture of ctenophores is unique, it is possible that the nerve net evolved independently.”

According to him, the fact that ctenophores use cilia, and not muscles, to move could also be a reason why they would possibly evolve a different signal conduction system. “It is a fantastic finding that nerve nets can also be syncytial,” said Detlev Arendt, a researcher at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory who studies the evolution of nervous systems. “We have to understand how such a nerve net operates as compared to other nerve nets that are connected with synapses or gap junctions.”

What are the questions?

Dr. Burkhardt and Dr. Kittelmann are keen to study the nerve net neurons as the ctenophores develop, to see if adult ctenophores retain the syncytial nerve net or if they develop synapses.

For Dr. Moroz, the results are more evidence for the ctenophore nervous system’s unique nature and signs that it could have evolved independently. More importantly, he stressed the importance of such studies in a broader context – of how unique animal systems like the ctenophore can help us understand how the nervous system has evolved to work so perfectly, even in humans.

“Nature has offered to us alternate unique examples of how to get the same outcome in different ways,” Dr. Moroz said. “The shortcut to understand the fundamentals of neuronal function and treat a variety of disorders will come from comparative analyses.”

There is a lot more to do to further understand the functional and evolutionary significance of the syncytial nerve net neurons in ctenophores. This study provides an important anchor for such research into nervous system evolution in animals, research which Dr. Moroz firmly believes is essential to understand the principles of brain function.

“To understand our brain, we have to understand alternative strategies,” he said. “To understand our brain, we have to study small creatures in the sea.”

Rohini Subrahmanyam is a freelance journalist.

About Comb Jelly:

Comb jellies, also known as ctenophores, are marine animals that belong to the phylum Ctenophora.

They have a gelatinous, transparent body that is often luminescent and adorned with rows of cilia, or comb-like structures, which give them their characteristic shimmering appearance.

It is a beautiful, oval-shaped animal with eight rows of tiny comb like plates that it beats to move itself through the water.

As it swims, the comb rows break up (diffract) light to produce a shimmering rainbow effect.

Some ctenophores live in somewhat brackish water, but all are confined to marine habitats.

They live in almost all ocean regions, particularly in surface waters near shores.

They are frequently swept into vast swarms, especially in bays, lagoons, and other coastal waters.

They are carnivorous, eating myriads of small planktonic animals.