Daily Current Affairs for 31th Jan 2024

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Test tube rhinos

Why in the news?

  • The death of the last male in 2018 made the extinction of the northern white rhino inevitability. But already in 2015, a group of 20 scientists from five continents had launched an audacious and expensive project to rebuild the subspecies through in vitro fertilisation (IVF).
  • The scientists announced the first-ever rhino pregnancy achieved by transferring a lab-made rhino embryo into a surrogate mother. It took 13 attempts for the breakthrough with a southern white rhino, a closely-related subspecies that branched away from the northern whites about a million years ago.
  • The international consortium of scientists, named BioRescue, is confident that the success can be replicated with 30 embryos of the northern white stored in liquid nitrogen. However, rebuilding a species is easier said than done.

Process is the challenge

  • In 2009, four northern white rhinos were brought from a zoo in the Czech Republic to a conservancy in Kenya in the hope that they might breed in their natural environment.
  • The two males — Suni and Sudan — have died since, and the two females — Najin and her daughter Fatu — turned out to be incapable of reproduction for pathological reasons. This meant surrogacy was the only option to produce a northern white calf through IVF.
  • Preparing a southern white female, the natural choice for a surrogate mother, is an elaborate process.
    • The first step is to isolate her and put a protocol in place to guard against bacterial infections.
    • The real challenge, though, is to spot when the animal is in oestrus — the fertile window for implanting the embryo.
  • This requires the services of a ‘teaser’ — a scrubbed and sterilised rhino bull to check when the designated surrogate mother gets interested. Mating also triggers an array of hormonal reactions that primes the female for the embryo implant.

Issue of genetic viability

  • In this case, since the embryos are all from eggs harvested from two females and sperm taken from a few deceased zoo males, even multiple successes with IVF and surrogacy cannot build a gene pool large enough for a viable northern white population.
  • One solution is to broaden the breeding pool by creating sperm and eggs from stem cells extracted from preserved tissue samples stored in zoos. The science has worked in lab mice, but it may not be easily replicable in rhinos.
  • Another optimistic argument is based on the natural resilience witnessed in the wild. Rampant hunting had resulted in the southern white rhino population crashing drastically in the 19th century when their numbers had possibly dropped to as low as 20. However, thanks to armed protection and multilateral conservation efforts, the subspecies has made a significant recovery since then, and now number more than 17,000.
  • But even favourable outcomes from experiments with stem cell techniques cannot stretch the northern white rhino gene pool beyond 12 animals.
  • Crossbreeding the northern and southern subspecies is not a solution since this will result in the loss of certain unique attributes, such as hairier ears and feet, that make the northern white better adapted for swampy habitats.

Being a northern white

  • Breakthroughs in IVF or stem cell technologies can in theory produce northern white rhino calves long after the species is extinct. However, babies are not born genetically hardwired to behave as one of the species. They pick up those traits from family and social interactions.
  • So the first batch of IVF northern white calves born to surrogate southern white mothers needs to be raised by northern white adults to learn to be northern whites and carry that legacy for the next batch of IVF calves and, if the species indeed survives, future generations.
  • That is why scientists consider it absolutely vital that the first IVF calves are born in time to learn the social and behavioural skills of northern whites from the last two surviving females in Kenya. Najin is 35, and Fatu 24. Given that northern white rhinos rarely live beyond 40 in captivity, that window will be closing soon.

Is it worth the money?

  • Millions of dollars have been spent on the project that aims to make “the seemingly impossible a reality”.
  • Questions have been asked on whether the project takes focus and resources away from other endangered species that could still be saved.
  • Some critics have also questioned the purpose of rebuilding a northern white population without addressing the threats to its natural habitat, which may jeopardise its future in the wild all over again.
  • A victim of organised hunting for its horns, the northern white was officially declared extinct in the wild in 2008. In 2015, when Biosecure was launched, only three individuals survived in a Kenyan conservancy. The effort to rebuild the species was inspired by an obligation to try and undo the damage caused by the greed of humans.
  • One rhino is poached every 16 hours on average in Africa. While the southern whites form the largest surviving rhino species, there are fewer than 7,000 black rhinos in Africa, and only 4,000 one-horned rhinos in Asia.
  • Populations of the other two rhino species — the Javan and the Sumatran — are down to fewer than 100 each. But there may still be time to help them in the wild before test tubes become their future too.



Hybrid Vehicles vs Electronic vehicles

Why in the news?

  • According to a research India needs to “embrace” hybrid vehicles over the next 5-10 years on the way to full electrification.
  • Such vehicles are the more practical medium-term solution for the country’s Decarbonization efforts and, more importantly, less polluting.


Current status

  • Currently, overall carbon emissions are lower in hybrids compared to both electrics and those that run on petrol and diesel for similarly proportioned vehicles. In fact, it could take as long as a decade for EV and hybrid vehicle emissions to come to the same level.
  • Hybrids have both an internal combustion engine and an on-board electric motor, with the two systems working in tandem to provide motive power.
  • Countries everywhere, including India, are pushing toward electrification.
  • The Centre currently offers clear tax incentives for primarily one category of cars, with practically all other vehicular technological platforms clubbed together towards the upper end of the tax bracket.
  • India’s electric mobility plan is largely focussed on battery electric vehicles or BEVs replacing internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. Li-ion is seen as the most viable battery option for now.

Why hybrid vehicles are a good medium-term solution?

  • A long-standing belief is that hybrid and compressed natural gas cars are a practical medium-term (5-10 years) solution for India, while the country moves towards eventual electrification. Hybrids are critical not just from a cost of ownership perspective, but also for India’s decarbonisation drive.
  • The total (wheel-to-wheel, or WTW) carbon emissions from an EV is currently 158 g/km, compared to 133 g/km for hybrids — which means that a hybrid is at least 16% less polluting than the corresponding EV. These numbers are 176 g/km and 201 g/km for corresponding petrol and diesel vehicles respectively.
  • This analysis does not focus only on tailpipe emissions, but includes vehicle emissions (tank-to-wheel, or TTW) and emissions from crude mining, refining, and power generation as well.

For how long is this situation expected to hold?

  • According to an estimate EV and hybrid emissions could converge after 7-10 years.
  • The non-fossil share of power generation in India in FY23 was 26%, and the blended Indian power generation emission was 716g/kWh.
  • According to the note, total emissions from hybrid cars and EVs will converge if non-fossil power generation in India moves up to 44%.
  • By 2030, even if India’s share of non-fossil fuels is 40%, hybrids will still release 8% less emissions than EVs, which, however, will be half of the 16% of today.

How is the overall global push for BEVs faring?

  • There are a few speed bumps on the way to rapid adoption of battery electrics at scale.
  • Upfront subsidy: The experience in markets from Norway to the US and China shows that the electric push works only if it is backed by state subsidies.
    • An elaborate system of incentives is central to Norway’s EV policy, which has fostered the world’s most advanced EV market. So, the government waives the high taxes it imposes on sales of non-electrics; it lets electric cars run in bus lanes; toll roads are free for electric vehicles; and parking lots offer a free charge.
    • The problem with this kind of overt subsidisation of EVs, especially in developing countries like India, is that much of the subsidy, especially the one offered as tax breaks for cars, ends up in the hands of the middle or upper middle classes, who are typically the buyers of battery electric four-wheelers.
  • Charging network: An analysis by the World Bank has found that investing in charging infrastructure is between four and seven times more effective in ensuring EV adoption compared with providing upfront purchase subsidies.
    • Both Norway and China, while offering purchase subsidies, have seen faster adoption of EVs also as a result of sustained efforts at expanding the public charging infrastructure. China, the leader in the number of publicly available chargers, accounts for 85% of global fast chargers and 55% slow chargers.
    • The situation in India is very different from these countries. While the number of EVs had crossed 1 million by mid-2022 and will likely grow to 45-50 million by 2030, only about 2,000 public charging stations are currently operational across the country.
    • Also, as a report by KPMG (‘Electric vehicle charging — the next big opportunity’) pointed out, India faces a unique challenge in building charging infrastructure because the vehicle mix in the country is dominated by two- and three-wheelers.
    • Given that cars and these smaller vehicles have different charging requirements — two- and three-wheelers have small, low-voltage batteries for which normal AC power charging is adequate, while four-wheelers have varying battery sizes and use different charging standards — the charging network strategy has to be tweaked.
  • Electricity source: In several countries that have pushed EVs, much of the electricity is generated from renewables — Norway, for example, has 99% hydroelectric power. In India, the grid is still fed largely by coal-fired thermal plants.
    • Therefore, unless the generation mix changes significantly, India would be using fossil fuel generation to power EVs. Theoretically, this would mean reduced tailpipe emissions in the cities, but continuing pollution from the running of the thermal plant. There is the advantage of substitution of oil imports, though.
  • Value chain: As India struggles to make inroads into the global lithium value chain, there is discussion on the need to diversify the country’s dependency on Li-ion batteries in the EV mix. The demand for Li-ion batteries from India is projected to grow at a CAGR of more than 30% by volume up to 2030, which translates to more than 50,000 tonnes of lithium requirement for the country to manufacture EV batteries alone.
    • However, more than 90% of the global Li production is concentrated in Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia, alongside Australia and China, and other key inputs such as cobalt and nickel are mined in the Congo and Indonesia. India would, therefore, be almost entirely dependent on imports from a small pool of countries to cater to its demand. While other options to Li-ion are being explored, viability remains a key factor.



Cipher case

Why in news?

What is Cipher Case?

  • https://tse1.mm.bing.net/th?id=OIF.%2fTewDCFhx8inhEMROF3vnQ&pid=Api&P=0&h=220 The cipher case that pertains to the disclosure of a classified cable sent to Islamabad by Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington in early 2022. Both Imran and Shah Mahmood have been found guilty of making the document public.
  • Although Imran has claimed that the cable is proof of a US conspiracy to push the Pakistani military to oust him in a parliamentary vote in 2022, he has denied revealing its content publicly.

What was the classified cable?

  • The document at the centre of the controversy contained an account of a meeting that took place on March 7, 2022, between US State Department officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu, and then Pakistani ambassador to US Asad Majeed Khan.
  • The complete text of the purported cable hasn’t been disclosed yet as it is protected under Section 5 of the Official Secrets Act 1923 of Pakistan. However, in August 2023, American news organisation The Intercept reproduced a section of the document — the outlet said that it received the document from a source in Pakistan’s military.



Budget Session begins today, suspension of Opposition MPs revoked

Why in news?

  • Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman will present the Interim Budget, her sixth Budget in a row, on February 1.

Details of the budget session:

  • The Budget Session 2024 will begin with the address of President Droupadi Murmu.
  • Murmu will deliver the address in a joint sitting of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha at the Lok Sabha chamber in the new Parliament building. This is because the new building does not have a central hall.
  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also expected to reply to the debate on the motion of thanks on the President’s address in the two Houses.
  • The finance minister will deliver the Interim Budget 2024 on February 1. It will be a “vote-on-account”.
  • Sitharaman will also table the Budget for Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), which is under President’s Rule.
  • The Centre has said it has no legislative agenda for the session.
  • The Budget session 2024 will have eight sittings in total.
  • The budget session will conclude on February 9.

Suspended member of parliaments:

  • On the eve of Parliament’s Budget Session, the suspension of 14 Opposition MPs — 11 from Rajya Sabha and three from Lok Sabha — was revoked Tuesday to enable them to attend the customary President’s address to both Houses of Parliament on Wednesday.
  • The decision came hours before senior ministers met Opposition leaders and floor leaders and sought their cooperation for conduct of a smooth session.
  • A record 146 Opposition MPs, from both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, were suspended during the Winter Session for disrupting proceedings to press their demand for a statement from Home Minister Amit Shah on the Parliament security breach on December 13.
  • While the other MPs were suspended for the remainder of the Winter Session, the suspension of 14 MPs was referred to the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha privileges committees.

Budget Session

  • The budget session was usually held from February to May every year.
  • It is considered to be a highly crucial session of the Parliament.
  • The Budget is usually presented on the last working day of the month of February.
  • Here, the members discuss the various provisions of the budget and matters concerning taxation, after the finance minister presents the budget.
  • The budget session is generally split into two periods with a gap of one month between them.
  • This session every year starts with the President’s Address to both Houses.



Asian fuel exports to Europe hit, Russian oil cargoes sail strong

Why in news?

  • According to commodity market analytics firm Kpler, Even as west-to-east crude oil flows — mainly Russian oil headed to India and China — via the Suez Canal have not been majorly impacted by the Red Sea troubles, refined petroleum product exports to Europe through the crucial trade route have seen disruptions.
  • The trend is significant for India as the country is a top destination for Russian crude and also an important source market for fuels, particularly aviation turbine fuel (ATF) or jet fuel, for Europe.

Disruption in trade route

  • Over the past couple of months, a number of cargo ships have come under attack from the Iran-backed Houthi rebels of Yemen around the Bab el-Mandeb strait, which leads to the Red Sea and Suez Canal, forming the shortest, albeit narrow route to the Mediterranean Sea and beyond from the Arab Peninsula, North-East Africa, and the Arabian Sea.
  • The route is seen as an important artery of global goods and energy supplies. The Houthis have so far claimed that they are targetting vessels with links to Israel and its allies in view of its military offensive in Gaza.
  • West-to-east flows via the Suez Canal, mainly made of Russian crude, have been less impacted,remaining steady at around 1.4 Mbd (million barrels per day). So far this month all cargoes shipped to Asia from Western Russian ports have travelled via the Suez Canal.
  • It also noted that Russian refined fuel cargoes headed to Asia via the Suez Canal, too, appear to be “undeterred by the escalating hostilities in the Red Sea.
  • While Kpler did caution that the recent attack on a tanker carrying Russian naphtha could see tanker transits through the Red Sea fall relatively more steeply in the coming weeks, it also noted that there has been no immediate change in tanker approaches since the attack and four tankers carrying Russia’s flagship Urals crude passed through the Bab el-Mandeb strait with another three heading south through the Red Sea.
  • Tankers carrying Russian crude have largely been immune to the security situation in the Red Sea region, which has forced a number of major shipping lines and Western oil companies to shun the route and instead take the much longer route around Africa via the Cape of Good Hope. Higher risk premiums and longer voyages have hit movement of goods between Asia and Europe in terms of higher freight rates.
  • Russian oil cargoes departing from the North Sea and Black Sea ports take the Suez Canal-Red Sea route to reach Asia, specifically India and China, which are currently the biggest buyers of Russian crude.
  • Oil and shipping analysts do not foresee tankers carrying Russian oil coming under attack in the region as Russia are perceived as Iran’s ally. The Houthi rebels are widely believed to be backed by Tehran. In contrast, crude oil flows from West Asia to Europe via the Suez Canal have seen a “substantial decline since October .
  • But unlike India’s inbound cargoes of Russian crude, tankers hauling refined fuels from India and other parts of Asia to Europe, do not appear to be comfortable transiting the Suez Canal. “Last year, 3.5 Mbd of refined product flows was shipped via the Suez, a record annual high, making up 14 per cent of total refined product flows.
  • Jet fuel is the most exposed, with 33 per cent of exports utilising the canal. Flows of these products are already disrupted with some cargoes travelling via the Cape (of Good Hope), while others are waiting in the Arabian Sea. The surge in freight rates has also closed arbitrages which will restrict long haul flows to Europe, but did not quantify the impact.
    • The majority of Indian and Middle Eastern ATF exports to Europe are now going around Africa, adding 15-20 days to the voyage length. In the aftermath of Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, as Europe started shunning Russian crude oil and fuel, India emerged as the largest buyer of Russian seaborne crude and also a major fuel supplier to Europe with all such shipments passing through the Red Sea.
  • The main jet (fuel) trade flow is from the Middle East and India to Europe, averaging 400 kbd in 2023. Europe is the most reliant on the flow of products through the Suez with 1.3 Mbd arriving via this route, 24 per cent of the total. This share has increased in recent years after Europe banned the import of Russian oil products, forcing a greater volume…to be sourced from the east of Suez.
    • According to the agency, Suez Canal transits by commercial cargo vessels in January has been 30 per cent lower from November levels, with liquefied natural gas (LNG) flows down a whopping 73 per cent, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) flows down 65 per cent, dry bulk down 27 per cent, and tankers—used for liquids like crude and fuels—falling 23 per cent. Unlike crude oil, most of India’s LNG and LPG imports do not transit the Suez Canal.



Mosque panel on ASI report of Gyanvapi:

Why in news?

What ASI report mention?

  • The ASI, tasked by the Varanasi district court to ascertain whether the mosque was “constructed over a pre-existing structure of a Hindu temple”, has concluded that a temple “appears to have been destroyed in the 17th century, during the reign of Aurangzeb and part of it… modified and reused in the existing structure”.
  • The ASI report — which has four volumes — was made public on Thursday after copies of it were handed over to the Hindu and Muslim litigants by the court.

What is the claim of Mosque side?

  • Historical books which state that the mosque was built in the 15th century before Humayun’s reign.
  • The document/book is in Persian, which states that Sheikh Suleimani Mohaddis had got this (Gyanvapi) mosque built on an empty plot of land.
  • There may have been some Buddhist structure there.
  • The whole of Varanasi was a major centre for Buddhists till the Shankaracharya arrived in Varanasi.
  • Sheikh Suleimani Mohaddis, who hailed from Jaunpur and was a wealthy man, had built two mosques – one in Varanasi and one in Jaunpur which is still there.
  • Claims that it was Emperor Akbar, who expanded the mosque under the philosophy of Din-e-ilahai, and then, in the third phase, it was Aurangzeb who expanded the mosque.

Steps taken by mosque side?

  • S M Yasin, joint secretary, Anjuman IntezamiaMasajid Committee, said that They have sent copies of the ASI report to five historians, including some non-Muslim ones.
  • They will wait for their opinion and we have started having conversations with Buddhists here in Varanasi.
  • It is also claimed that a lot of signs and objects found at the mosque belong to their faith.
  • They have also sent copies (of the report) to our lawyers and after we have received opinion from the historians, we will sit with them and draft our objections to the report.”

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