THE SOCIAL ISSUES
1. WHO ARE ASHA WORKERS, THE WOMEN HEALTHCARE VOLUNTEERS HONORED BY WHO?
THE CONTEXT: The World Health Organisation has recognized the country’s 10.4 lakh ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers as ‘Global Health Leaders’ for their efforts in connecting the community to the government’s health programmes.
- ASHA workers are volunteers from within the community who are trained to provide information and aid people in accessing benefits of various healthcare schemes of the government.
- They act as a bridge connecting marginalised communities with facilities such as primary health centres, sub-centres and district hospitals.
- The role of these community health volunteers under the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) was first established in 2005.
- ASHAs are primarily married, widowed, or divorced women between the ages of 25 and 45 years from within the community. They must have good communication and leadership skills; should be literate with formal education up to Class 8, as per the programme guidelines.
- The aim is to have one ASHA for every 1,000 persons or per habitation in hilly, tribal or other sparsely populated areas.
- There are around 10.4 lakh ASHA workers across the country, with the largest workforces in states with high populations – Uttar Pradesh (1.63 lakh), Bihar (89,437), and Madhya Pradesh (77,531). Goa is the only state with no such workers, as per the latest National Health Mission data available from September 2019.
- They go door-to-door in their designated areas creating awareness about basic nutrition, hygiene practices, and the health services available. They focus primarily on ensuring that women undergo ante-natal check-up, maintain nutrition during pregnancy, deliver at a healthcare facility, and provide post-birth training on breast-feeding and complementary nutrition of children. They also counsel women about contraceptives and sexually transmitted infections.
- ASHA workers are also tasked with ensuring and motivating children to get immunised. Other than mother and childcare, ASHA workers also provide medicines daily to TB patients under directly observed treatment of the national programme.
- They are also tasked with screening for infections like malaria during the season. They also provide basic medicines and therapies to people under their jurisdiction such as oral rehydration solution, chloroquine for malaria, iron folic acid tablets to prevent anaemia, and contraceptive pills.
- The health volunteers are also tasked with informing their respective primary health centre about any births or deaths in their designated areas.
- ASHA workers were a key part of the government’s pandemic response, with most states using the network for screening people in containment zones, getting them tested, and taking them to quarantine centres or help with home quarantine.
- Since they are considered “volunteers”, governments are not obligated to pay them a salary and most states don’t. Their income depends on incentives under various schemes that are provided when they, for example, ensure an institutional delivery or when they get a child immunised. All this adds up to only between Rs 6,000 to Rs 8,000 a month.
2. INTER-STATE COUNCIL RECONSTITUTED
THE CONTEXT: The Inter-State Council, which works to promote and support cooperative federalism in the country, has been reconstituted with Prime Minister as Chairman and Chief Ministers of all States and six Union ministers as members.
- The mandate of the council is to create a strong institutional framework to promote and support cooperative federalism in the country, activate the council and zonal councils by organising its regular meetings.
- It also facilitates consideration of all pending and emerging issues of the Centre- State and inter-State relations by the zonal councils and inter-State council and develop a sound system of monitoring the implementation of the recommendations of the inter-State council and zonal councils.
3. INDIA NEEDS PARLIAMENTARY SUPERVISION OF TRADE PACTS
THE CONTEXT: Effective parliamentary supervision will increase the domestic acceptance and legitimacy of international treaties, especially economic agreements, which are often critiqued for imposing undue restraints on India’s economic sovereignty.
- India is negotiating and signing several free trade agreements (FTAs) with countries like Australia, the UK, Israel, and the EU. While the economic benefits of these FTAs have been studied, there is very little discussion on the lack of parliamentary scrutiny of these treaties.
- This gives rise to arguments of democratic deficit in India’s treaty-making process. Given the wide-ranging impact of trade and other economic treaties, the question is: Shouldn’t Parliament exercise some control over the executive’s power to sign international treaties?
- In the Constitution, entry 14 of the Union list contains the following item — “entering into treaties and agreements with foreign countries and implementing of treaties, agreements and conventions with foreign countries”. According to Article 246, Parliament has the legislative competence on all matters given in the Union list.
- Thus, Parliament has the power to legislate on treaties. This power includes deciding how India will ratify treaties and thus assume international law obligations. This power includes Parliament’s competence to give effect to treaties within the domestic legal regime by enacting laws. Article 253 elucidates that the power of Parliament to implement treaties by enacting domestic laws also extends to topics that are part of the state list.
- While Parliament in the last seven decades has passed many laws to implement international legal obligations imposed by different treaties, it is yet to enact a law laying down the processes that India needs to follow before assuming international treaty obligations.
- Given this legislative void, and under Article 73(the powers of the Union executive are co-terminus with Parliament), the Centre has been not just negotiating and signing but also ratifying international treaties and assuming international law obligations without much parliamentary oversight.
- Arguably, Parliament exercises control over the executive’s treaty-making power at the stage of transforming a treaty into the domestic legal regime. However, this is a scenario of ex-post parliamentary control over the executive.
- In such a situation, Parliament does not debate whether India should or should not accept the international obligations; it only deliberates how the international law obligations, already accepted by the executive, should be implemented domestically. Even if Parliament does not amend or make domestic laws to transform the treaty, the treaty will continue to be binding on India.
- Concerns over the lack of parliamentary oversight were flagged by the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, set up by the Vajpayee government more than two decades ago. But India’s treaty-making practice hasn’t changed.
- This practice is at variance with that of several other liberal democracies. In the US, important treaties signed by the President have to be approved by the Senate. In Australia, the executive is required to table a “national interest analysis” of the treaty it wishes to sign in parliament, and then this is examined by a joint standing committee on treaties – a body composed of Australian parliamentarians.
- In this way, the Australian parliament supervises the treaty-making process and acts as a check on the executive’s power. In Canada, too, the executive tables the treaties in parliament.
- Indian democracy needs to inculcate these healthy practices. Effective parliamentary supervision will increase the domestic acceptance and legitimacy of international treaties, especially economic agreements, which are often critiqued for imposing undue restraints on India’s economic sovereignty.
- Cynics might argue that in these times, when Parliament has been reduced to a rubber stamp for the government’s legislative agenda, the quest to augment Parliament’s role in the treaty-making process is like flogging a dead horse.
- But an effective counter to majoritarianism is to relentlessly strive for strengthening the democratic process, not accepting its weakness as a fait accompli.
THE INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS
4. WHY IS TURKEY AGAINST SWEDEN, FINLAND JOINING NATO?
THE CONTEXT: With the Russian invasion of Ukraine nearing three months, Sweden and Finland (SweFin), the two Nordic countries that have historically stayed out of military alliances, have formally applied to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
What triggered SweFin’s NATO application?
- The Russians may have their explanations for the war, the invasion saw Russia violating the sovereignty of a weaker power in its neighborhood. It also raised questions on whether Russia would have started the war had Ukraine been a NATO member.
- Unlike Ukraine, Sweden and Finland do not have any border conflict with Russia. But again, Ukraine didn’t have any major conflict with Russia until the 2014 regime change in Kyiv. So, the Russian attack seemed to have altered the security calculus of SweFin.
- They moved quickly to apply for NATO membership because they hoped the alliance would act as deterrence against potential future attacks. Sweden and Finland have already developed deep ties with the West. Both are members of the European Union.
- Their ties with NATO are the closest two non-members could get with the alliance. They hold joint military drills with NATO, share intelligence and have supported NATO’s military missions abroad. They did not formally seek membership until now because they did not want to upset the security status quo in Europe. They also feared Russian retaliation.
- But that status quo has been altered by the Russian invasion. And the possibility of Russian military retaliation is very less now because Russian troops are fighting a seemingly prolonged war in Ukraine. This opened the door for both SweFin and NATO. And they are ready to embrace each other.
Why is Turkey against SweFin’s bids?
- President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly said Turkey would oppose SweFin’s NATO bid. Within NATO, decisions are taken unanimously, which means every country in the 30-member bloc holds a veto.
- Turkey says Sweden and Finland have ties with “terrorist” groups — a reference to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The PKK, which seeks greater autonomy for Turkey’s Kurdish minority, has waged an armed insurgency since the mid-1980s.
- The YPG is the armed wing of Syrian Kurdistan which controls parts of the Kurdish region in Syria. Turkey faces serious allegations of human rights violations in the Kurdish region. In recent years, Mr. Erdogan’s government has cracked down on Kurdish political groups and leaders, including the left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Selahattin Demirtas, a charismatic Kurdish politician who was a former legislator and presidential election candidate, has been in prison since 2016. Turkey has justified its actions, claiming that the PKK, YPG and their associated political groups are “terrorists”.
- Turkey says Sweden, and Finland to a certain extent, maintain close ties with Kurdish militias, particularly the YPG. It also alleges that the countries are hosting supporters of the Fethullah Gulen movement, a religious sect led by the U.S.-based Gulen who is accused by Ankara of being the mastermind behind the failed 2016 coup against Mr. Erdogan. Turkish state TV reported last week that Sweden and Finland refused to extradite 33 people wanted by Ankara. Mr. Erdogan calls Sweden “a testing ground for terrorist organisations” and has ruled out Turkey backing SweFin’s NATO entry in the future either.
5. INDIA JOINS BIDEN’S NEW TRADE INITIATIVE FOR INDO-PACIFIC, NEGOTIATIONS TO BEGIN
THE CONTEXT: India signalled its readiness to join a new economic initiative led by the United States for the region, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi joined U.S. President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and leaders of 10 countries, who joined virtually, for the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) in Tokyo on May 23.
- The negotiations for the IPEF, which will begin on May 24, are expected to center around four main pillars, including trade, supply chain resiliency, clean energy and decarbonisation, and taxes and anti-corruption measures.
- The grouping, which includes seven out of 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), all four Quad countries, and New Zealand, represents about 40% of global GDP.
- “India will work together with [other IPEF countries] to build an inclusive and flexible Indo-Pacific Economic Framework,” PM said at the launch of the new initiative, that comes three years after India walked out of the 15-nation RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership).
THE ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
6. WORLD LOST 11.2 CRORE JOBS IN THE FIRST QUARTER OF 2022: ILO
THE CONTEXT: The “world of work” is being buffeted by multiple crises, says the ninth edition of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Monitor. The report says that after significant gains during the last quarter of 2021, the number of hours worked globally dropped in the first quarter of 2022, to 3.8% below the employment situation before the pandemic. About 11.2 crore jobs might have lost between this period, according to the report.
- The gender gap in India’s employment scenario is mentioned in the report on the “world of work”. The report said both India and lower-middle-income countries excluding India experienced a deterioration of the gender gap in work hours in the second quarter of 2020.
- “However, because the initial level of hours worked by women in India was very low, the reduction in hours worked by women in India has only a weak influence on the aggregate for lower-middle-income countries. In contrast, the reduction in hours worked by men in India has a large impact on the aggregates,”.
- Explaining the data, an ILO official told The Hindu that for every 100 women at work prior to the pandemic, 12.3 women would have lost their job as an average through the entire period considered by the report.
- The fresh lockdowns in China, the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, and the global rise in the prices of food and fuel are cited as the main reasons for the findings. The ILO urged its member countries to take a humane approach to address the situation.
- Financial turbulence, potential debt distress and global supply chain disruption points at a growing risk of a further deterioration in hours worked in 2022, as well as a broader impact on global labour markets in the months to come.
- The report added that a “great and growing divergence between richer and poorer economies” continues to characterize the recovery. “While high-income countries experienced a recovery in hours worked, low- and lower-middle-income economies suffered setbacks in the first quarter of the year with a 3.6 and 5.7 percent gap respectively when compared to the pre-crisis benchmark.
- Women employment in India has come down, particularly in sectors such as healthcare as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The ILO report suggests that the purchasing capacity of the workers should be improved. ILO has been proposing decent jobs and decent wages. We do not have decent employment here in India. Most people are on contract without any social security. If there are no decent wages, purchasing power will also come down. The Code on Wages was passed in 2019 but is not yet implemented.
- The Wage Committee in 1948 asked the government to implement minimum wage, living wage and decent wage. Government has not implemented even minimum wage yet.
THE SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
7. ENGINEERING TOMATOES TO PRODUCE VITAMIN D
THE CONTEXT: Scientists have used a novel way to modify tomato plants to have fruits rich in a precursor to vitamin D.
- Reading the pages of the World Sustainable Development Goals 2 (SDG2) — Eradicating Hunger — is depressing to say the least. According to the estimates made in 2020, nearly 690 million people, who make up close to 8.9% of the world’s population, are hungry.
- This number has increased by 60 million in the preceding five years. The index which was initially decreasing has started to rise since 2015. This does not portend well for the SDG2 which has as its target zero hunger by 2030, and the guess is, if this trend continues, that the world will have 840 million people affected by hunger by 2030.
- There are various ramifications to hunger, and an important part of it is micronutrient malnutrition. This is a term used for diseases caused by deficiency of vitamins and minerals in the diet. This is particularly a problem in developing countries and the number of those suffering from this so-called invisible hunger is huge.
- Some methods of combating this are to provide micronutrient supplements in the form of tablets or capsules and to fortify food products such as flour or salt by enhancing micronutrients in them. There is also the route of genetically modifying plants to produce bio-fortified leaves and fruit which can be consumed to alleviate micronutrient hunger.
- In this line, a paper in Nature Plants by Jie Li et al tries to address vitamin D deficiency by genetically modifying tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) plants so that the fruit contains a significant amount of pro vitamin D 3 which is a precursor from which humans can make vitamin D.
- Provitamin D 3 has the chemical name 7-dehydro cholesterol, or 7-DHC for short. Humans can synthesize Vitamin D from 7-DHC when they are exposed to ultraviolet B (UVB) light. Vitamin D is needed for a process known as calcium homeostasis which is the maintenance of a constant concentration of calcium ions in the body.
- This is needed for, among other things, bone development and strength, and its deficiency is a cause of conditions such as rickets and osteoporosis.
- Other diseases that are associated with vitamin D deficiency are cancer, Parkinson’s disease and dementia. Vitamin D 3 is present in fish and dairy products. Vegetarian diets are particularly deficient in Vitamin D.
- Mutant tomatoes
- The recommended intake of vitamin D is 15 microgram per day for children and 20 micro gram per day for elders. This can be given through supplements or a careful exposure to sunlight, but there are various caveats for the latter.
- It is in this context that the work of J. Li et al is significant. The authors of the paper, published in Nature Plants, tweaked a recently discovered pathway in tomato plants to produce cholesterol and a substance called steroidal glycoalkaloid (SGA for short) using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool. This inhibits the conversion of 7-DHC to cholesterol and instead the former accumulates in the leaves, green and ripe fruits.
- Usually, in untreated tomato plants, 7-DHC is present in leaves and to a lower extent in green fruit, but not in ripe fruit — which is the most consumed of the lot. The researchers showed that in their modified plants, the suppression of the activity of a particular gene, “led to substantial increases of 7-DHC levels in leaves and green fruit,” and, according to the paper, while levels of 7-DHC were lower in ripe fruits of the mutant, they remained high enough that if converted to Vitamin D 3 by shining UVB light, the amount in one tomato would be equivalent to that in two eggs or 28 grams of tuna, both of which are recommended sources of vitamin D.
- In addition, the researchers report that the mutants showed a reduction in their leaves of a substance called alpha-tomatine, and they comment that this may even be beneficial because of alpha-tomatine’s reported toxicant or anti nutritional activity. Surprisingly, the cholesterol levels in both fruit and leaves of the mutants was higher that of the wild-type. This was despite having blocked the conversion of 7-DHC to cholesterol.
THE PRELIMS PRACTICE QUESTIONS
QUESTION FOR 24TH MAY 2022
Q1. Vitamin D deficiency in humans may cause one of the following?
Select the correct answer using the code given below:
a) 1 and 2 only
b) 1, 2 and 3 only
c) 1, 3 and 4 only
d) All of them
ANSWER FOR THE 23RD MAY
- USA unveiled its trade initiative the Indo-Paciﬁc Economic Framework (IPEF) in Tokyo on 23rd Maty 2022.
- India is yet to take a decision on joining the trade partnership framework.