1. It is imperative to make disaster resilience an inherent part of community culture

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Disaster Management

The Panchayati Raj, first adopted by Nagaur in Rajasthan on October 2, 1959, has expanded vastly. There are now 2,60,512 Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) represented by about 31 lakh elected members across India. This system of local self-governance, where people in the villages participate in the decision-making process, is the backbone of democracy. The People’s Plan Campaign and Vibrant Gram Sabha Dashboard, rolled out this year, aspire to strengthen the Panchayati Raj system by making gram sabhas more vibrant.

A bottom-up approach

Unlike other disasters like earthquakes, COVID-19 is an unusual crisis as it is long-drawn and affects people everywhere. When the traditional top-down disaster response system was compromised during the bad months of the pandemic, it was PRIs that played a remarkable role. They helped reduce risks, responded swiftly and thus helped people recover quickly. The PRIs provided essential leadership at the local level. They performed both regulatory and welfare functions. For instance, during the nationwide lockdown, PRIs set up containment zones, arranged transport, identified buildings for quarantining people and provisioned food for the incoming migrants. Moreover, effective implementation of welfare schemes like MGNREGA and the National Rural Livelihood Mission quickened the pace of recovery while ensuring support to the vulnerable population.

Gram sabhas act as a sounding board for diverse ideas and opinions. They provide a platform to build consensus and make resolutions in the community’s interest. During the pandemic,, gram sabhas resolved to adhere to COVID-19 norms. In addition, regular engagement with frontline workers like ASHA workers and Anganwadi workers through committees bridged the trust gap between the community and the officials.

By representing diverse communities, PRIs mobilise them effectively. During the COVID-19 crisis, they organised community-based surveillance systems involving village elders, the youth and self-help groups (SHGs) to keep a strict vigil in quarantine centres and monitor symptoms in households. More recently, their role in mobilising citizens for COVID-19 vaccination is exemplary.

Building capacity

The Yokohama strategy during the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction in May 1994 emphasised that it is important to focus on disaster prevention, mitigation and preparedness rather than disaster response alone, to reduce vulnerability. In this respect, certain initiatives can be taken to build the capacity of PRIs. One, it is crucial to include disaster management chapters in Panchayat Raj Acts and make disaster planning and spending part of Panchayati Raj development plans and local-level committees. This will ensure citizen-centric mapping and planning of resources. Various insurance products customised to local needs will build financial resilience of the community.

Two, conducting regular location-specific training programmes for the community and organising platforms for sharing best practices will strengthen individual and institutional capacities. Assigning roles to individual members and providing them with the necessary skills can make such programmes more meaningful.

Three, since the community is usually the first responder in case of a disaster, community-based disaster management plans would help. These would provide a strategy for resource utilisation and maintenance during a disaster. Such plans should tap the traditional wisdom of local communities which will complement modern practices. Moreover, financial contributions from the community should be encouraged through the establishment of community disaster funds in all gram panchayats. It is imperative to make disaster resilience an inherent part of the community culture now more than ever.

Source: The Hindu

2. What spike in crude prices means for economy, markets

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Economics

The recent spike in global crude oil prices above the $80-per-barrel mark led to a dip in key indices in the stock market as concerns rose over the impact on inflation, currency and input cost for companies across sectors. However, as prices eased, indices in India recovered Thursday in line with global markets.

Why are oil prices rising?

Since hitting a low of $16 per barrel on April 22 last year, the price of Brent crude oil has been rising steadily. Since the beginning of the year, it has risen nearly 58% from about $51.8 per barrel to about $81 at close on Wednesday. The rise has been sharp over the last six weeks, from $65 per barrel on August 20. According to analysts, prices are nearing their intermediate top level of $86 per barrel, around which some cooling off is expected even though the broader trend remains rising.

Crude prices have risen sharply in 2021 on the back of a recovery in global demand as the world economy recovers from the pandemic. Supply restrictions maintained by the OPEC+ grouping , too, have kept international oil prices high. So far, these oil-producing economies have signalled only slow production increases, which is leading to a rise in gas prices as well. A shortage of gas in Europe and Asia has boosted demand for oil for power generation.

The rise in crude prices has contributed to petrol and diesel prices hitting all-time highs in India. Prices of petrol and diesel in India are pegged to a 15-day rolling average of the international prices of these fuels. High taxes by the central and state governments too have contributed to retail prices being far higher.

How will this impact stocks and bonds?

While a sharp surge in oil prices can create short-term panic in the equity markets, historical precedents show that equity markets often bottom out alongside a bottoming out of oil prices. When oil futures turned negative last year at the peak of the pandemic, stock markets bottomed out, but since then they have been on a rising spree in line with surging oil prices. Analysts point out that increasing oil prices reflect growing demand in the economy, and equities often deliver more than the expected inflation that the oil surge may lead to. In line with oil, prices of other commodities including coal has been rising sharply. The BSE Basic Materials Index has risen more than three times from a low of 1,761 on April 3, 2020 to 5,725 at Wednesday’s close. This reflects the general view that economic recovery will strengthen going forward.

As for bonds, the situation can get tricky: Any hint of sustained high inflation can result in rising yields and falling bond prices. So, debt investors need to be watchful whether the interest rate cycle is moving upwards in case the central bank tries to contain inflation. If inflation remains transitory and rising oil prices do not lead to a broad-based increase in prices, the monetary policy is expected to remain accommodative, keeping in check the surge in yields. For bonds, central bank policies will play a far greater role than the direct impact of rising oil prices. As for equity investors, they can increase their exposure to upstream oil companies, which benefit from rising prices. In sectors where oil is a major cost component, a negative reaction on returns can be expected.

How does it impact currency and the economy?

Rising crude prices tend to depress the rupee, as India being a major importer of oil needs more dollars to buy the same amount of crude. Winter tends to put pressure on prices in normal times too. Of late, the power shortage in some geographies, especially China, has been caused by supply chain issues regarding coal. This in turn has increased the demand for oil, aggravating the situation.

CARE Ratings Chief Economist Madan Sabnavis said surging prices will lead to expansion in the import bill and a downward pressure on the rupee. “It is expected now that Brent crude can test the $ 90/barrel mark… Intuitively $10/barrel will mean an increase in the import bill by $ 8.2-$ 9.1 billion for this period (October-March). In FY20 the oil bill was $ 130 billion and in FY21 $ 82.4 billion. In the first 6 months of FY22, oil imports were $ 70.5 billion, and hence, assuming a similar quantum would be imported in the second quarter, there would be an increase in the half-yearly bill by 11.6% to 12.9%. This will tend to impact the trade deficit too,” he said.

The rupee has already started slipping and is moving towards the $ 75 per dollar mark. “At this stage this may be a welcome development as it would aid exports, though imported goods will tend to be more expensive. In the short run a range of Rs 75-75.5 per dollar may be expected before clarity descends on OPEC+ action,” Sabnavis said.

How can it hurt inflation, government finances, and the markets?

Crude import accounts for nearly 20% of India’s import bill. The fuel import bill jumped from $8.5 billion for the quarter ended June 2020 to $24.7 billion for the quarter ended June 2021. A rise in prices could lead to a surge in inflation, forcing the RBI to go for liquidity tightening measures followed by rate hikes. Besides its use as a fuel and a key commodity for the transportation sector, oil is a necessary raw material for several industries. An increase in crude prices means an increase in the cost of producing and transporting goods. It thus adds to inflation; economists say an increase of $10/barrel in crude oil prices could raise inflation by 10 basis points.

A surge in crude prices tends to increase India’s expenditure and adversely affects the fiscal deficit. On the other hand, a rise impacts the current account deficit — a measure of value of imported goods and services exceeding the value of those exported, and indicates how much India owes in foreign currency.

Investors with an exposure to equity markets will have to carefully watch the crude price movement. Sectors including refining, lubricants, aviation and tyres are sensitive to oil price movement. As a rise in crude oil prices impact their input raw material cost, their profitability comes under pressure, thereby hurting their share prices.

Source: The Indian Express

3. Importance of Nobel winner Abdulrazak Gurnah’s writing in highlighting the refugee experience

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Miscellaneous

Ahead of the declaration of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, the prestigious award — mired in controversy in recent years — was called out for its lack of inclusivity and recognition of women writers and writers of colour. On Thursday, Abdulrazak Gurnah, 72, who was born in Zanzibar and now lives in the UK, became the fifth African writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, after Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka (1986), Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz (1988), and South African writers Nadine Gordimer (1991) and John M Coetzee (2003).

In its citation, the Nobel committee lauded Gurnah’s “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”

Gurnah’s work

The author of 10 novels and several short stories and essays, including Memory of Departure (1987), Pilgrims Way (1988), Paradise (1994), By the Sea (2001), Desertion (2005), Gravel Heart (2017) and, most recently, Afterlives (2020), Gurnah’s writing explores the immigrant experience and how exile and loss shape identities and cultures.

Most of his books feature African Arab protagonists trying to come to terms with dislocation and estrangement, looking in on societies and cultures on which their holds are tenuous. For instance, Paradise, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, references British modernist writer Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), as its protagonist Yusuf comes of age at a time of violent colonial expansion in East Africa in the late 19th century.

In most of his works, Gurnah eschews nostalgia and upends genre tropes to show the tension and insecurity latent in the constantly shifting sands of displacement. In By the Sea, another novel nominated for the Booker Prize, he explores the refugee’s struggle to both remember and to forget.

“It is difficult to know with precision how things became as they have, to be able to say with some assurance that first it was this and it then led to that and the other, and now here we are. The moments slip through my fingers. Even as I recount them to myself, I can hear echoes of what I am suppressing, of something I’ve forgotten to remember, which then makes the telling so difficult when I don’t wish it to be,” says one of the narrators, Saleh, a Muslim man from Tanzania who seeks asylum in the UK with a forged visa in the name of his sworn enemy.

In a twist of fate, the person delegated to help him settle down in the new country is that man’s son, and in their bitter, acerbic quarrels, the tension between the old world and the new takes shape.

Set in the early 20th century, before German rule over East Africa ended in 1919, Afterlives, Gurnah’s last work, takes off from the premise of Paradise and explores the fate of Hamza, an African Arab youth who is enlisted to fight for the Germans in World War I.

A member of staff displays a pile of copies of “Afterlives” by Zanzibar-born novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah in a book shop’s window in London. (AP)

Background

Gurnah was born in Zanzibar on the Indian Ocean in December 1948, when it was still ruled by the British. In 1963, as the archipelago gained independence, it would enter into a phase of civil unrest and internal strife between its Arab minority that was in power and the African majority. In 1964, the Zanzibar Revolution would see the overthrow of the constitutional monarch, Sultan Jamshid Bin Abdullah, and his predominantly Arab functionaries by African Left-leaning revolutionaries.

In its bloody aftermath, as Zanzibar became the United Republic of Tanzania, Arabs and other minorities were ruthlessly persecuted, with some estimates putting the death toll to about 20,000.

Gurnah left the island in 1968 as an 18-year-old and moved to Britain, a refugee in search of a safe haven. He would be unable to return home and meet his family until 1984, when he would meet his father shortly before the latter died.

Even though Swahili is his mother tongue, when he began writing at 21, Gurnah gravitated towards English, the language of his education. He earned his PhD from the University of Kent, Canterbury, where he was the professor of English and Postcolonial Literature until his recent retirement. His academic work focused on post-colonial and diasporic literature, with particular emphasis, mentions the Nobel website, on writers such as Soyinka, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Salman Rushdie.

In his writings and his interviews, Gurnah has spoken at length of having drawn inspiration from the cosmopolitan Zanzibar of his childhood, where a multitude of languages, religions and cultures thrived side by side, and which find expression through the smattering of Swahili, Arabic, Hindi and German that appear in his work.

Inspiration

In his 2004 essay “Writing and Place”, Gurnah writes, “…at the time I left home, my ambitions were simple. It was a time of hardship and anxiety, of state terror and calculated humiliations, and at 18, all I wanted was to leave and find safety and fulfilment somewhere else. I could not have been more remote from the idea of writing. Starting to think differently about writing in England a few years later was to do with being older, thinking and worrying about things that had seemed uncomplicated before, but in a larger part it was to do with the overwhelming feeling of strangeness and difference I felt there.

There was something hesitant and groping about this process. It was not that I was aware of what was happening to me and decided to write about it. I began to write casually, in some anguish, without any sense of plan but pressed by the desire to say more. In time, I began to wonder what the thing was that I was doing, so I had to pause and deliberate. Then I realised I was writing from memory, and how vivid and overwhelming that memory was, how far from the strangely weightless existence of my first years in England.

That strangeness intensified the sense of a life left behind, of people casually and thoughtlessly abandoned, a place and a way of being lost to me for ever, as it seemed at the time. When I began to write, that lost life was what I wrote about, the lost place and what I remembered of it.”

Importance now

At a time when the global refugee crisis is exponentially on the rise, Gurnah’s work draws attention to how racism and prejudice against targeted communities and religions perpetuate cultures of oppression.

In his bio-bibliographical note, Anders Olsson, chairman of the Nobel Committee, The Swedish Academy, writes, “Gurnah’s dedication to truth and his aversion to simplification are striking. This can make him bleak and uncompromising, at the same time as he follows the fates of individuals with great compassion and unbending commitment.

His novels recoil from stereotypical descriptions and open our gaze to a culturally diversified East Africa unfamiliar to many in other parts of the world. In Gurnah’s literary universe, everything is shifting – memories, names, identities. This is probably because his project cannot reach completion in any definitive sense.”

Source: The Indian Express

4. Malaria and the vaccine hunt

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Science & Technology

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday allowed “widespread use” of the world’s first vaccine against malaria, a common mosquito-borne disease that claims more than four lakh lives every year. Developed by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the vaccine, known as RTS,S/AS01, has already been administered to nearly 8 lakh children in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi as part of a pilot programme since 2019.

The WHO endorsement paves the way for its use outside the pilot programme, in all areas where malaria is widely prevalent. But RTS,S/AS01, known by its brand name Mosquirix, is considered only the first step towards effective immunisation of the global population. RTS,S/AS01 is able to prevent severe cases in only 30% of cases; the quest for more effective vaccines is still underway.

Why is a vaccine against malaria important?

Malaria is one of the deadliest diseases in human history, having claimed millions of lives. Even today, it kills over four lakh every year, according to WHO. This is still a huge improvement from 20 years ago, when close to twice this number were dying of the disease.

Malaria is most endemic in Africa, with Nigeria, Congo, Tanzania, Mozambique, Niger and Burkina Faso together accounting for over half the yearly deaths.

In the last few years, significant progress has been made in reducing its impact. A few countries have also been able to eliminate malaria, mainly through spray of insecticides to kill mosquitoes, and cleaning up areas where mosquitoes breed. In the last 20 years, 11 countries have been declared by WHO as malaria-free, after zero cases were recorded in these countries for three consecutive years. These include the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Sri Lanka and Argentina. In 2019, 27 countries reported less than 100 cases. Two decades ago, only six countries had less than 100.

India is one of the countries badly affected by the disease. Although deaths due to malaria have come down sharply in the last few years — officially these are only in hundreds now —infections continue to be in millions.

What is the vaccine that has been cleared for widespread use?

RTS,S/AS01 is the result of a partnership between GlaxoSmithKline and the global non-profit PATH’s Malaria Vaccine Initiative, with grant funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It is a recombinant protein vaccine, which means it includes DNA from more than one source. It targets a protein called circumsporozoite in Plasmodium falciparum — the deadliest malaria parasite globally and the most prevalent one in Africa. It offers no protection against P vivax malaria, which predominates in many countries outside of Africa.

The vaccine is formulated with an adjuvant called AS01. It is designed to prevent the parasite from infecting the liver, where it can mature, multiply, and infect red blood cells, which can lead to disease symptoms.

The vaccine, which requires four injections, is for children under the age of five. Its efficacy is modest, as demonstrated in phase 3 trials from 2009 to 2014, on 15,000 young children and infants in 7 African countries. Four doses prevented 39% cases of malaria over 4 years of follow-up and 29% cases of severe malaria, with significant reductions also seen in overall hospital admissions.

Why has it taken so long to develop a vaccine against malaria?

Although there have been decades of research, and over 20 candidates have entered clinical trials in the last few years, the best prevention of malaria remains the use of mosquito nets — which do nothing to eradicate malaria. Mosquirix itself is the result of more than 30 years of research and development.

“The difficulty in developing effective malaria vaccines stems largely from the complexity of the malaria-causing parasites’ life cycle, which includes mosquitoes, human liver, and human blood stages, and subsequent antigenic variations of the parasite. These parasites are also able to hide inside human cells to avoid being recognised by the immune system, creating further challenges,” a group of Australian and Chinese researchers wrote in an open-access journal last year.

They cited another challenge: “The most common mouse models of malaria employ the rodent-specific parasite species P. berghei, P. yoelii, and P. chabaudi… While they are still employed to model various manifestations of human disease, the immune response patterns observed in these models are not fully transferable to humans.

Navneet Arora, Lokhesh Anbalagan and Ashok Pannu from the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) in Chandigarh point to the lack of funding and interest in developing a malaria vaccine. “Because malaria disproportionately affects LMIC (low and middle income countries) lacking the robust health infrastructure, the vaccine manufacturers have little incentive for malaria vaccines and continued targeting vaccines for industrialized world markets,” they wrote in a paper last year.

Other scientists have also mentioned that research for a malaria vaccine never received the same kind of attention as, say, HIV/AIDS.

When is RTS,S coming to India?

In January this year, GSK, PATH and Bharat Biotech signed a product transfer agreement to help ensure the long-term supply of the RTS,S vaccine. However, experts The Indian Express spoke to feel there is no immediate “rush” to introduce it in India. Although malaria is a concern in India, the burden has reduced through interventions such as antimalarial drugs, mosquito nets and insecticide: from 1,018 deaths in 2010 to 93 in 2020.

Besides, the vaccine’s efficacy is modest. Officials with the National Malaria Control Programme said that a vaccine has to give protection of over at least 65%.

What other vaccines are in development?

Several are being tested, and at least one has shown promise. Called R21/Matrix M, this candidate vaccine showed an efficacy of 77% in phase 2 trials in May this year. R21/Matrix M is a modified version of Mosquirix, and has been developed by researchers at the University of Oxford. Lead researcher Adrian Hill, director of Jenner Institute and professor of vaccinology at Oxford University, had said he believed this vaccine was the first to reach WHO’s goal of at least 75% efficacy.

Dr V S Chauhan, former director of Delhi-based International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biology, and known for his efforts to develop a recombinant malaria vaccine, said R21/Matrix M held a lot of promise. “This vaccine is definitely a big hope, but it still has to undergo phase 3 trials,” he said.

Source: The Indian Express