1. Jeff Bezos gears up to usher in a new era of private commercial space travel, will fly to the edge of space in his own start-up’s rocket in July

Relevant for GS Prelims

Amazon boss – Jeff Bezos is preparing to make history in the world of space tourism, a few weeks from now. The world’s 2nd richest person will fly into space on the first crewed flight of the New Shepard, the rocket ship made by his own space company, Blue Origin.

The flight is scheduled for July 20th, just 15 days after Bezos is set to resign as Amazon’s CEO and shift to an executive chairman’s role. Bezos’ younger brother, Mark Bezos, will also be on this flight.

The Details

Jeff Bezos founded Blue Origin back in 2000. The company’s New Shepard spacecraft has so far undergone 15 test flights, none of which had any passengers on-board. However, on its first crewed flight, which will last 11 minutes, New Shepard’s 59-foot rocket will also take along a six-seater capsule to a height of 100 km above the Earth.

This height, also known as suborbital space, will be high enough for passengers to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the earth’s curvature.  The capsule will then return️ to earth under parachutes.

Though Blue Origin is yet to announce the price of the regular tickets for this service, it will give one seat for the inaugural trip to the winner of a month-long auction that’s presently underway. As of Monday morning, the highest bid was $2.8 million but it jumped to $3.2 million, soon after Blue Origin’s announcement.

Space: billionaire’s next battleground

Jeff Bezos will be the first of the billionaire space tycoons to personally experience a ride, so close to space. British billionaire – Richard Branson owned space company, Virgin Galactic, is also planning on conducting flights to suborbital space for rich adventure seekers.

Branson has already declared his ambition to be among the first passengers aboard such a plane whose first flight is expected to take place later this year. Meanwhile, Elon Musk, whose SpaceX builds powerful, massive rockets, which can enter orbit around Earth has apparently nothing to show in this particular segment.

However, his company did get the better of Blue Origin when it secured a NASA contract for a proposed human mission to the moon. Space X will build the lunar lander that would take astronauts from the moon’s orbit down to its surface.

2. How Performance Grading Index assesses states in school education

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper II; Polity & Governance

The Education Ministry released the latest edition of the Performance Grading Index or PGI on Sunday. This relatively new index measures the performance of states in school education.

How is PGI worked out?

It assesses states’ performance in school education based on data drawn from several sources, including the Unified District Information System for Education Plus, National Achievement Survey, and Mid-Day Meal. States are scored on a total of 1,000 points across 70 parameters, which are grouped under five broad categories: access (eg. enrolment ratio, transition rate and retention rate); governance and management; infrastructure; equity (difference in performance between scheduled caste students and general category students) and learning outcomes (average score in mathematics, science, languages and social science).

States are graded and not ranked to discourage the practice of one improving only at the cost of others, “thereby casting a stigma of underperformance on the latter”. According to the government, the objective is to help the states prioritise areas for intervention in school education. The Education Ministry released the first PGI in 2019 for the reference year 2017-18.

What does the grading system reflect?

The PGI grading system has 10 levels. Level 1 indicates top-notch performance and a score between 951 and 1,000 points. Level II, also known as Grade 1++, indicates a score between 901 and 950. Those with Grade 1+ (or Level III) have scored between 851 and 900. The lowest is Grade VII, and it means a score between 0 and 550 points.

PGI Report Card, 2019-20

How have states performed this time?

In PGI 2019-20, no state or Union Territory could achieve the highest grade, that is Level I. Even in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 editions, no state had reached Level 1 and Grade 1++. Chandigarh, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Andaman and Nicobar and Kerala have scored more than 90% and obtained Grade 1++ (or Level II), which makes them the best performing states. This is the first time that any state has reached Level II. The top-performing states of Gujarat, Chandigarh, and Kerala in 2018-19 were given Grade 1+ (or Level III), that is, a score between 851 and 900 points. Only the UT of Ladakh has been placed in the lowest grade, that is Grade VII, but that’s because it was the first time it was assessed after it was carved out of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019.

How does their performance compare with that in the last two editions of PGI?

A total of 33 States and UTs have improved their total PGI score in 2019-20 as compared to 2018-19, indicating a general upward shift. “For some of the states/UTs, the reason for this improvement has been improvements in their data reporting mechanisms while for some others, the improvements have been in specific domains…” the report states.

However, there are still 31 states and UTs placed in Level III (Grade 1) or lower, showing that they still have a lot of ground to cover. The biggest improvement in PGI this year has been shown by Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Punjab, and Arunachal Pradesh. All three have improved their score by 20%.

What are the areas where the states still have to improve?

According to the report, states and UTs mainly need to improve their performance in terms of governance processes. This domain carries several parameters, including teacher availability, teachers training, regular inspection, and availability of finances. “In the domain Governance Processes, there are 24 States/UTs which have scored less than 288 (80% of the maximum possible score). It clearly implies that this is the area many States and UTs must focus upon. The PGI too accords the highest importance to this Domain because compliance with the indicators here will lead to critical structural reforms in areas ranging from monitoring the attendance of teachers to ensuring a transparent recruitment of teachers and principals.”

It adds, “The second area that requires attention is the Domain for Infrastructure and facilities, where twenty States/UTs have scored less than 120 (80% of maximum possible score in this domain). Two States, Bihar (81) and Meghalaya (87) recorded lowest scores in this domain. This is a cause for concern as a proper school building with adequate facilities is a must to improve the overall quality of school education.”

Source: The Indian Express

3. What puts lions and tigers at coronavirus risk?

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

Neela, 9, a lioness at Chennai’s Vandalur Zoo, died of suspected coronavirus infection last week, having suffered nasal discharge the previous day. Since then, samples of nine lions have tested positive at the National Institute of High Security Animal Diseases at Bhopal.

Also last week, a 10-year-old tiger died at Ranchi’s Bhagwan Birsa Biological Park after suffering from fever, zoo sources said. Although a Rapid Antigen Test returned negative, the viscera has been sent to Indian Veterinary Research Institute, Bareilly, while other animals at the zoo are being tested.

So, are lions and tigers particularly vulnerable?

The defining feature of a coronavirus is the spike protein on its surface. The spike protein initiates infection by binding with a host protein, called ACE2 receptor. Different species express ACE2 to different extents, and this plays a key role in determining how much a species is susceptible to coronavirus infection.

In various studies, domestic cats and their big cousins have been found or estimated to express ACE2 more significantly than many other species. Also, there are similarities in the ACE2 of cats and humans.

What have such studies found?

STUDY: In December last year, a paper in PLOS Computational Biology looked at the ACE2 receptors of 10 different species and compared their affinity for binding with the virus spike protein. The researchers used computer modelling to test this. They also compared the “codon adaptation index” — which is a measure of how efficiently the virus replicates after entering the cell.

FINDINGS: The most vulnerable species to coronavirus infection, next to humans, are ferrets, followed by cats and civets.

STUDY FINDINGS: Last August, a study in PNAS detailed a genomic analysis of the relative coronavirus risks faced by 410 species. In humans, 25 amino acids of ACE2 are important for the virus to bind with the cell. The researchers used modelling to evaluate how many of these 25 are found in the ACE2 of other species. The more the matches with the human ACE2, the lower the risk of infection.

FINDINGS: At very high risk are primates such as chimpanzee rhesus macaque. At high risk are species such as blue-eyed black lemur. Cats were found to have a medium risk, while dogs had a low risk.

What about big cats?

Luis Serrano, Director, Centre for Genomic Regulation, Barcelona, and senior author of the study in PLOS Computational Biology, said by email last year: “We have not looked at the genome of big felines, but I assumed that since cats can be infected, there is a big chance that lions and tigers will as well, since they will be very close in sequence.”

A study in Frontiers in Veterinary Biology last August looked at tigers. Researchers of the University of Bologna collected tissues from six cats and a tiger and found wide expression of ACE2 in their gastrointestinal tracts. This was more prominent in the cats than in the tiger.

There have been other cases of tigers and lions catching coronavirus in zoos:

  • Nadia, then 4, a Malayan tiger at New York’s Bronx Zoo, tested positive in April 2020, she is believed to have caught the virus from a zoo employee.
  • Four lions at Barcelona Zoo tested positive in December.

Source: The Indian Express

4. How Indians see the economy

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Economics

Last week, RBI Governor Shaktikanta Das announced the latest Monetary Policy Review. The broad takeaway: The RBI marked down India’s GDP growth forecast for the current financial year from 10.5% to 9.5% and marked up the inflation forecast for the year from 5% to 5.1%.

Typically, faltering growth prompts the RBI to cut interest rates in order to spur economic activity. But rising inflation requires raising interest rates. And since the RBI is mandated by law to target inflation within the band of 2%–6%, the best it could do — and it has been doing this for several months now — is to maintain the status quo on interest rates.

Actually, for most of his tenure as the RBI Governor, Das has found that the GDP growth rate has faltered while inflation has spiked. But more salient than the RBI’s decision on the benchmark interest rates were the results of the latest RBI Consumer Confidence Survey that was conducted in May.

What is this survey?

The RBI conducts this survey every couple of months by asking households in 13 major cities — such as Ahmedabad, Bhopal, Guwahati, Patna, Thiruvananthapuram — about their current perceptions and future expectations on a variety of economic variables. These variables include the general economic situation, employment scenario, overall price situation, own income and spending levels.

Based on these specific responses, the RBI constructs two indices: the Current Situation Index (CSI) and the Future Expectations Index (FEI). The CSI maps how people view their current situation (on income, employment etc.) vis a vis a year ago. The FEI maps how people expect the situation to be (on the same variables) a year from now.

By looking at the two variables as well as their past performance, one can learn a lot about how Indians have seen themselves fairing over the years.

Source: RBI Consumer Confidence Survey

What was the main finding?

As Chart 1 shows, the CSI has fallen to an all-time low of 48.5 in May. An index value of 100 is crucial here, as it distinguishes between positive and negative sentiment. At 48.5, the current consumer sentiment is more than 50 points adrift from being neutral — the farthest it has ever been. It is important to note that even a year ago, the CSI had hit an all-time low.

The FEI moved to the pessimistic territory for the second time since the onset of the pandemic. However, there were two peaks (of positive consumer sentiment) in the recent past; they coincide with demonetisation in 2016 and Prime Minister Modi’s re-election in 2019.

What are the factors responsible for pulling down the CSI and FEI respectively?

The RBI states that CSI is being pulled down because of falling consumer sentiments on the “general economic situation” and “employment” scenario.

Chart 2 maps the “net responses” of households on the general economic situation. In the survey, the RBI asks how many people currently perceive that the general economic situation has “improved”, “remained the same” or “worsened”. The difference between those who say it has improved and those who say it has worsened is the “net response”. It is in percentage terms and if it is negative, it means that more people think the situation has worsened. Suppose 40% say their perception of the general economic situation has “improved” from a year ago, 10% say it has “remained the same” and 50% say it has “worsened” then the net response would be –10%.

Net responses are calculated similarly for “one year ahead expectations” and a negative net response implies more people expect things to get worse in a year.

So, on the “general economic situation”, RBI finds that there has been a largely secular decline in both current consumer sentiment and future expectations since PM Modi’s re-election in 2019.

On employment (Chart 3), the current sentiment has been worsening ever since PM Modi was elected in 2014. There were only two spikes, which again coincide with demonetisation and PM Modi’s re-election in 2019.

Beyond the medium-term trend, what also stands out is the starkness of consumer sentiments on employment. The difference between the percentage of respondents who think the employment situation has improved (7.2%) and those who think it has worsened (82. 1%) from a year ago is a whopping 75%. What is equally worse is that more people expect the employment situation to worsen a year from now — that is why the one year ahead expectation line is below the zero mark.

There was one more factor that is bringing down the FEI: the outlook on incomes (Chart 4). Much like employment, the prospects on incomes have registered a secular decline since roughly the start of PM Modi’s tenure in 2014. The two positive spikes coincide, yet again, with demonetisation and the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

What else did the RBI survey find out?

The RBI also collected data on spending levels, especially spending on non-essential items such as leisure travel, eating out, luxury items etc. The net responses on this variable suggest that while Indian had started curtailing spending on non-essential items quite sharply since the middle of 2018, the pandemic simply pulled the metrics into the negative territory. In other words, more respondents say that they spend less today, and more respondents expect to spend less on non-essentials a year from now. This may explain why even the big firms want the government to print money and spend it on the people.

What is the big takeaway?

These data lay out the tricky challenge facing the Indian economy.

If the government’s strategy for fast economic growth — expecting the private sector to lead India out of this trough by investing in new capacities — is to succeed, then consumer spending (especially on non-essentials) has to go up sharply. But for that to happen, household incomes have to go up; and for that to happen, the employment prospects have to brighten; and for that to happen, again, companies have to invest in new capacities.

Source: The Indian Express