1. What Air India deal means for Govt, Tatas

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Economics

On Friday, the government announced its decision to sell all its stake in Air India (AI) as well as AI’s stake in two other businesses — Air India Express Ltd (AIXL) and Air India SATS Airport Services Pvt Ltd (AISATS).

Why was Air India sold?

The sale of Air India to a private player has been in the offing for a long time. AI was started by the Tata Group in 1932, but in 1947, as India gained Independence, the government bought 49% stake in AI. In 1953, the government bought the remaining stake, and AI was nationalised.

For the next few decades, the national carrier dominated Indian skies. However, with economic liberalisation and the growing presence of private players, this dominance came under serious threat. Ideologically too, the government running an airline did not quite gel with the mantra of liberalisation.

By 2007, AI (which flew international flights) was merged with the domestic carrier, Indian Airlines, to reduce losses. But it is the mark of how poorly the airline was run that it has never made a profit since 2007.

In fact, since 2009-10, the government (and indirectly the taxpayer) has spent over Rs 1.1 lakh crore to either directly make up the losses or raise loans to do so. As of August 2021, AI’s debt was Rs 61,562 crore. Moreover, every additional day that AI remains operational, the government suffers a loss of Rs 20 crore — or Rs 7,300 crore per year.

Why wasn’t it sold earlier?

The first attempt to reduce the government’s stake — disinvestment — was made in 2001 under the then NDA government. But that attempt — to sell 40% stake — failed. As the viability of running AI worsened with every passing year, it was clear to all, including the government, that sooner or later the government would have to privatise the airline.

In 2018, during its first term, the Narendra Modi government made another attempt to sell the government stake — this time, 76%. But it did not elicit even a single response.

The latest attempt was started in January 2020, and even though aviation is one of the worst hit sectors due to the pandemic, the government has been able to finally conclude the sale.

So how was it managed this time?

There were two main hurdles.

One, the mere fact that the government retained a partial stake. In other words, as long as the government kept a certain shareholding of AI, private players did not seem interested. That’s because the mere idea of government ownership, even if it was as little as 24%,

made private firms wonder if they would have the operational freedom needed to turn around such a heavy loss-making airline. Unlike all the past attempts, this time the government put 100% of its stake on sale.

Two, the sheer mountain of debt on AI’s books, not to mention the ongoing losses. In the past, the government expected the bidders to pick up a certain amount of the debt along with the airline. That approach did not work. This time, the government let the bidders decide the amount of debt they wanted to pick up. These two factors made the difference.

What is the significance of this sale?

From the government’s perspective, there are two ways to look at it.

One, it underscores PM Modi’s commitment to reducing the government’s role in the economy; he can claim to have saved taxpayers from paying for daily losses of AI. Given the historical difficulties in AI’s disinvestment, or any disinvestment at all (see table), this is a significant achievement.

However, purely in terms of money, the deal does not result in as big a step towards achieving the government’ s disinvestment target of the current year. Moreover, of the total AI debt of Rs 61,562 crore, the Tatas will take care of Rs 15,300 crore and will pay an additional Rs 2,700 crore in cash to the government. That leaves Rs 43,562 crore of debt. The assets left with the government, such as buildings, etc., will likely generate Rs 14,718 crore. But that will still leave the government with a debt of Rs 28,844 crore to pay back.

So, it can be argued that if the government had run AI well, it could have made profits and paid off the debts — instead of selling the airline (that can make profits) and still be left with a lot of debt.

From the Tatas’ perspective, apart from the emotional aspect of regaining control of an airline that they started, AI’s acquisition is a long-term bet. The Tatas are expected to invest far more than what they have paid the government if this bet is to work for them.

Source: The Indian Express

2. Nobel Peace Prize to independent journalists who stood up for freedom of expression

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper II; International Organisations

Maria Ressa (left) and Dmitry Muratov, “for their courageous fight for freedom of expression”

In an age marked by authoritarian regimes around the world, misinformation and hate speech, the Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded on Friday to two journalists who have been running independent news organisations in their countries, often under the threat of detention and even death. Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia received the Prize “for their courageous fight for freedom of expression”.

The Nobel Committee said the two are representatives of all journalists “who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions”. It said “freedom of expression and freedom of information help to ensure an informed public”. “These rights are crucial prerequisites for democracy and protect against war and conflict. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov is intended to underscore the importance of protecting and defending these fundamental rights.”

Christophe Deloire, secretary general of the non-profit Reporters Without Borders (RSF), called the Prize “an extraordinary tribute to journalism and a mobilisation appeal, because this decade will be absolutely decisive for journalism”. Deloire said it is a “powerful message at a time when democracies are being undermined by the spread of fake news and hate speech”.

Maria Ressa

An investigative journalist, Ressa in 2012 co-founded Rappler, a digital media platform for investigative journalism, which she continues to head. The Nobel Committee noted that Rappler has “focused critical attention” on President Rodrigo Duterte regime’s controversial, murderous anti-drug campaign. “The number of deaths is so high that the campaign resembles a war waged against the country’s own population,” the statement noted. It said Ressa and Rappler have also documented how social media is being used to spread fake news, harass opponents, and manipulate the public discourse.

In the RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index, the Philippines ranked 138 of 180 nations (India was ranked lower, at 142). RSF quoted Duterte from 2016, when he had taken over as the President, as saying, “Just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch. Freedom of expression cannot help you if you have done something wrong.”

Born in the Philippines, Ressa spent much of her growing up years in the US and studied at Princeton University, before returning to Southeast Asia. Before starting Rappler, she spent more than two decades working for CNN, investigating terrorist networks among other topics, and later also wrote for The Wall Street Journal.

She has authored Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of Al-Qaeda’s Newest Center, and From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism.

Dmitry Muratov

The Nobel Committee said Muratov has “has for decades defended freedom of speech in Russia under increasingly challenging conditions”. During the Vladimir Putin regime, Russia has ranked 150 in the RSF’s 2021 World Freedom Index. Calling it a “stifling atmosphere for independent journalists,” RSF said Russia has “draconian laws, website-blocking, Internet cuts and leading news outlets reined in or throttled out of existence”.

Five years after Muratov left the popular daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, he along with around 50 colleagues started Novaja Gazeta in 1993, as one of its founders. He has served as the newspaper’s editor-in-chief since 1995.

Committee to Protect Journalists, a US-based non-profit, had felicitated Muratov as one of its International Press Freedom awardees in 2007. CPJ had called Novaja Gazeta “the only truly critical newspaper with national influence in Russia today”. Receiving the CPJ award, Muratov had said, “Igor Domnikov was murdered for investigating corruption. Yuri Shchekochikhin, my best friend, deputy, and a nationally famous journalist was murdered. Anna Politkovskaya was murdered… And I am the one who gets to stand here in a tuxedo and receive an award. It’s not normal. I feel no joy. I never will.”

Six of Muratov’s colleagues have been killed since the newspaper started, which has often faced harassment, threats, violence and murder from its opponents. “Despite the killings and threats, editor-in-chief Muratov has refused to abandon the newspaper’s independent policy,” the Nobel Committee noted.

Source: The Indian Express

3. NRC backs Linear No-Threshold model for radiation safety

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

Now it is official. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) decisively upheld the Linear No-Threshold model to prescribe radiation safety standards, ending the protracted controversy on the topic. Radiation protection specialists worldwide were eagerly awaiting the NRC’s decision.

Over six years ago, during February 2015, Dr. Carol S. Marcus, Mr. Mark L. Miller, Certified Health Physicist, and Dr. Mohan Doss, and others, through three petitions requested the NRC, “to amend its regulations based on what they assert is new science and evidence that contradicts the linear no-threshold (LNT) dose-effect model that serves as the basis for the NRC’s radiation protection regulations.”

The model

The LNT model states that biological effects such as cancer and hereditary effects due to exposure to ionising radiation increase as a linear function of dose, without threshold.

The petitioners support “radiation hormesis,” a concept that posits that low doses of ionising radiation protect against the deleterious effects of high doses of radiation and result in beneficial effects to humans.

The NRC denied the three petitions because they failed to present an adequate basis supporting the request to discontinue use of the LNT model. “The NRC has determined that the LNT model continues to provide a sound regulatory basis for minimizing the risk of unnecessary radiation exposure to both members of the public and radiation workers. Therefore, the NRC will maintain the current dose limit requirements,” the NRC declared recently.

Petitioners’ proposed substantial increase in dose limits to workers; raise the public dose limits to be the same as the worker doses; end differential doses to pregnant women, embryos and fetuses, and children less than 18 years of age; remove the As Low As Is Reasonably Achievable (ALARA) principle entirely from the regulations because they claim that ‘‘it makes no sense to decrease radiation doses that are not only harmless but may be hormetic’’.

No proof of a threshold

“Convincing evidence has not yet demonstrated the existence of a threshold below which there would be no stochastic effects from exposure to low radiation doses. As such, the NRC’s view is that the LNT model continues to provide a sound basis for a conservative radiation protection regulatory framework that protects both the public and occupational workers. Despite the various studies cited by the petitioners, uncertainty and lack of consensus persist in the scientific community about the health effects of low doses of radiation.” the NRC, asserted.

The LNT model helps the agencies to regulate radiation exposures to diverse categories of licensees, from commercial nuclear power plants to individual industrial radiographers and nuclear medical practices.

The NRC noted that although there are studies and other scholarly papers that support the petitioners’ assertions, there are also studies and findings that support the continued use of the LNT model, including those by national and international authoritative scientific advisory bodies.

Endorsed by authority

Authoritative scientific advisory bodies such as the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the National Council for Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP), the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), that have a specialty in the area of radiation protection support the continued use of the LNT model. The National Cancer Institute (NCI), the National Institute of Occupational safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also endorse the use of LNT model.

The NRC gave due weight to NCRP Commentary No. 27: ‘‘Implications of Recent Epidemiologic Studies for the Linear-Non-threshold Model and Radiation Protection,’’ released in April 2018. The commentary assesses currently available epidemiological evidence and concludes that the LNT model should continue to be utilised for radiation protection purposes.

The NRC received over 3,200 comment submissions, with 635 of those being unique, including submissions from certified health physicists, nuclear medicine professionals, scientific associations, federal agencies and concerned citizens. There were 100 unique comment submissions that agreed with the petitioners. The NRC responded to all questions. Its procedures to arrive at its decision are a model for other regulators to emulate. (Details available at The Federal Register: The Daily Journal of the United States Government, proposed rule – Linear No-Threshold Model and Standards for Protection Against Radiation.)

Source: The Hindu

4. Lunar samples brought by Chinese mission studied

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

Samples dated to later volcanic lava

Remnants of solidified lava brought back by a Chinese lunar mission were 1 billion years younger than material acquired by other missions decades ago, according to an article in Science, suggesting the moon cooled down later than thought.

Samples brought back by U.S. and Soviet missions were more than 2.9 billion years old. The samples acquired on China’s Chang’e-5 mission late last year were around 1.96 billion years old suggesting volcanic activity persisted longer than believed.

Last December, the uncrewed Chinese probe touched down on a previously unvisited part of a massive lava plain, the Oceanus Procellarum or “Oceans of Storms,” bringing back lunar samples.

One of the main objectives of Chang’e-5, named after the mythical Chinese goddess of the moon, was to find out how long the moon remained volcanically active. “The Oceanus Procellarum region of the Moon is characterised by high concentrations of potassium, thorium, and uranium,elements that generate heat through long-lived radioactive decay and may have sustained prolonged magmatic activity on the nearside of the Moon,” wrote the article’s authors.

Tidal heating?

The article said the heat source for the magmatic activity might also be the so-called “tidal heating,” or heat generated by the gravitational tug and pull of the Earth.

The Chang’e-5 mission made China the third country to have retrieved lunar samples, after the United States and the Soviet Union, which launched the last successful mission to acquire material from the moon.

China plans to launch the Chang’e-6 and Chang’e-7 lunar missions, also uncrewed, in the next five years to explore the south pole of the moon.

Source: The Hindu

5. Mergers of black holes and ‘kicks’ that hold a key to puzzles

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

Scientists from Chennai Mathematical Institute, with their collaborators, have analysed data from the LIGO-VIRGO observatories and estimated the fraction of the binary black hole mergers detected so far that show potential to form intermediate mass black holes. This throws light on the puzzle of how intermediate mass black holes form.

Black holes form when a massive star undergoes a supernova explosion towards the end of its lifetime. The black hole forms from the remnants of the explosion. However, there are factors that place limits on the mass of a black hole so formed. According to physicist K.G. Arun of Chennai Mathematical Institute, black holes with masses between approximately 45-135 times the solar mass are unlikely to be produced by standard stellar evolution as the pair-instability process either limits the max mass of the black hole or completely disrupts the star during the supernova explosion. What puzzles astronomers and cosmologists is that gravitational wave detectors have seen several such “intermediate mass black holes”.

The two detectors of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) made the first observation of a pair of binary black holes on September 19, 2014.

Since then with other gravitational wave observatories about 40 mergers have been detected, of which nearly five have masses above 100 times solar mass.

One of the theories of intermediate mass black hole formation has to do with ‘hierarchical growth’. That is, if the black holes exist among a dense cluster of stars, the remnant (black hole) of a merger can pair up with another black hole close by to form a binary. This can eventually merge to form a second remnant which is more massive. This process, happening in a hierarchical manner, can explain intermediate mass black hole formation.

Kicks in mergers

During the mergers, gravitational waves take away energy and linear momentum, as a reaction, the remnant black hole acquires an opposite momentum. This is the “kick” it receives. These kicks can be quite large, giving it a velocity of up to 1000 kilometres per second. If this kick velocity is above the escape velocity of the star cluster in which the black hole is formed, it literally escapes from the environment and moves out. This prevents it from undergoing further hierarchical mergers.

The extent of the kick received by the remnant can be calculated from the masses of the merging black holes and their spin. “As GW observations give an estimate of these, we can calculate the kick imparted to every remnant black hole in the population of binary black holes reported by LIGO/Virgo till date,” says Parthapratim Mahapatra, Ph. D. student, Chennai Mathematical Institute, who is the first author of a paper on this work published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The kick estimates help understand which mergers have the possibility of undergoing further hierarchical mergers and forming into intermediate mass black holes.

There have been recent studies using astrophysical models to understand whether the components of some of the binaries are formed hierarchically. “This is a complementary approach as we are interested in the prospects of the remnants participating in further mergers and not whether the observed binaries contain one or more of the black holes which are hierarchically formed,” says Prof. Arun, in whose lab the work was done, in an email to The Hindu.

Using the state-of-the-art understanding of the escape speeds of star clusters and using the kick magnitudes they have inferred for different observed events, the group has calculated what fraction of the remnants may remain in-cluster (provided they originally merged in the cluster). “We find that as many as 17 out of 40 remnants may be retained by the nuclear star clusters,” says Prof. Arun.

Source: The Hindu