Daily Current Affairs : 16th & 17th January 2022

Daily Current Affairs for UPSC CSE

Topics Covered

  1. Undersea Volcano
  2. WTO Verdict on Sugar Subsidy
  3. Rare Earth Minerals
  4. Driverless Cars
  5. Web 3
  6. Special Marriages Act
  7. Facts for Prelims

1 . Undersea Volcano


Context : The Kingdom of Tonga doesn’t often attract global attention, but a violent eruption of an underwater volcano on January 15 has spread shock waves, quite literally, around half the world.

About the Location

  • Kingdom of Tonga is a Polynesian country and also an archipelago consisting of 169 islands, of which 36 are inhabited.
  • Volcano is situated near two small uninhabited islands, Hunga-Ha’apai and Hunga-Tonga, poking about 100m above sea level 65km north of Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa. But hiding below the waves is a massive volcano, around 1800m high and 20 kilometres wide.
  • The Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano has erupted regularly over the past few decades. During events in 2009 and 2014/15 hot jets of magma and steam exploded through the waves. But these eruptions were small, dwarfed in scale by the January 2022 events.

What is an undersea volcano?

  • An undersea or submarine volcano is located below the ocean surface and mostly erupts under water.
  • There are an estimated one million undersea volcanoes that, like continental volcanoes, are located near the Earth’s tectonic plates and where they form. These volcanoes not only deposit lava, but can also spew out large amounts of volcanic ash.
  • According to the Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration group, about “three-quarters of all volcanic activity on Earth actually occurs underwater”.
  • Undersea volcanic activities give rise to seamounts – underwater mountains that are formed on the ocean floor but do not reach the water surface.

Why are the volcano’s eruptions so highly explosive, given that sea water should cool the magma down?

  • If magma rises into sea water slowly, even at temperatures of about 1200 degrees Celsius, a thin film of steam forms between the magma and water. This provides a layer of insulation to allow the outer surface of the magma to cool.
  • But this process doesn’t work when magma is blasted out of the ground full of volcanic gas. When magma enters the water rapidly, any steam layers are quickly disrupted, bringing hot magma in direct contact with cold water.
  • Volcano researchers call this ‘fuel-coolant interaction’ and it is akin to weapons-grade chemical explosions. Extremely violent blasts tear the magma apart. A chain reaction begins, with new magma fragments exposing fresh hot interior surfaces to water, and the explosions repeat, ultimately jetting out volcanic particles and causing blasts with supersonic speeds.

How often does Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai erupt?

  • The Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano, which lies about 65km (40 miles) north of the capital of Nuku’alofa, has a history of volatility.
  • In recent years, the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai breached sea level during a 2009 eruption. In a 2015 eruption, it spewed so many large rocks and ash into the air, it caused a new island to be formed measuring 2km (1.2 miles) long and 1km wide and 100 metres (328 feet) high.
  • On December 20 last year and then on January 13, the volcano erupted again, creating visible ash clouds that could be seen from the Tonga island Tongatapu. On January 15, another massive eruption occurred, triggering tsunami around the Pacific.
  • According to Volcanologist and science journalist Robin George Andrews undersea volcanoes like Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai erupt in such an explosive way about once every 1,000 years.

What caused the tsunami waves?

  • Undersea volcano eruptions can lead to tsunamis, a series of ocean waves caused by the displacement of water.
  • However, the process by which this happens after an undersea volcanic explosion is still debated among scientists.

2 . Rare Earth Minerals


Context : Two U.S. senators have proposed a law aiming to end China’s alleged “chokehold” on rare-earth metal supplies, a statement by the lawmakers said on Friday.

What are Rare Earths?

  • Rare Earth Elements or Rare Earth Metals are a set of 17 chemical elements in the periodic table — the 15 lanthanides, plus scandium and yttrium, which tend to occur in the same ore deposits as the lanthanides, and have similar chemical properties.
  • The 17 Rare Earths are cerium (Ce), dysprosium (Dy), erbium (Er), europium (Eu), gadolinium (Gd), holmium (Ho), lanthanum (La), lutetium (Lu), neodymium (Nd), praseodymium (Pr), promethium (Pm), samarium (Sm), scandium (Sc), terbium (Tb), thulium (Tm), ytterbium (Yb), and yttrium (Y).
  • Despite their classification, most of these elements are not really “rare”. One of the Rare Earths, promethium, is radioactive.

What are Rare Earths used for?

  • These elements are important in technologies of consumer electronics, computers and networks, communications, clean energy, advanced transportation, healthcare, environmental mitigation, and national defence, among others.
  • Scandium is used in televisions and fluorescent lamps, and yttrium is used in drugs to treat rheumatoid arthritis and cancer.
  • Rare Earth elements are used in space shuttle components, jet engine turbines, and drones. Cerium, the most abundant Rare Earth element, is essential to NASA’s Space Shuttle Programme.
  • According to the Rare Earth Technology Alliance (RETA), the estimated size of the Rare Earth sector is between $10 billion and $15 billion. About 100,000-110,000 tonnes of Rare Earth elements are produced annually around the world.

How and why does China dominate the sector?

  • In China, the mining of Rare Earths began in the 1950s, but it remained a cottage industry until the 1970s, when the chemist Xu Guangxian found a way to separate the Rare Earth elements.
  • After the Cultural Revolution in China ended, the country focussed on exploiting its natural resources.
  • China’s Rare Earths deposits account for 80% of identified global reserves
  • According to research by the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, since 2010 when China curbed shipments of Rare Earths to Japan, the US, and Europe, production units have come up in Australia, and the US along with smaller units in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Even so, the dominant share of processed Rare Earths lies with China.

3 . WTO Verdict on Sugar Subsidy


Context : The story so far: India this week filed an appeal with the Appellate Body of the World Trade Organization (WTO) disputing a verdict by the WTO’s dispute settlement panel last month on sugar subsidies. The WTO’s dispute settlement panel had ruled that India, by subsidising sugar producers, was breaking rules framed under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which govern international trade.

What is it?

  • In 2019, Australia, Brazil, and Guatemala complained against India at the WTO arguing that subsidies offered by the Indian government to sugar producers were against the rules governing international trade. They argued that these subsidies, which include both domestic subsidies as well as export subsidies, exceed the limits imposed by WTO trade rules.
  • According to WTO rules, subsidies cannot exceed 10% of the total value of sugar production. These countries believe that subsidies offered by India have led to increased production of sugar and caused the price of sugar to drop significantly in the global market.
  • After two years, the WTO ruled in December that India’s sugar policy was favouring domestic producers through subsidies to the detriment of foreign producers.
  • The panel recommended that India withdraws its alleged prohibited subsidies under the Production Assistance, the Buffer Stock, and the Marketing and Transportation Schemes within 120 days from the adoption of this report. India has stated that the WTO’s dispute panel ruling has made certain “erroneous” findings about domestic schemes to support sugarcane producers and exports and the findings of the panel are completely “unacceptable” to it.
  • India is the second-largest sugar producer in the world after Brazil and it is estimated that more than 5 crore people depend on the cultivation of sugarcane alone for their livelihood.

What is India’s stand?

  • India has argued at the WTO that it does not offer direct subsidies to sugarcane farmers and thus doesn’t break any international trade rule. This argument, however, has not convinced other countries who point out that, among other things, the Centre and the State governments in India mandate the minimum price (the Fair and Remunerative Price, or FRP) at which sugar mills can buy sugarcane from farmers. Individual States also set minimum procurement prices that may be higher than the Centre’s price to adjust for conditions at the local level.
  • The high procurement price for sugarcane set by the Government is believed to have led to a supply glut that in turn has caused sugar prices to drop. In fact, several sugar mills are caught in a debt trap as consumer demand for sugar has remained stagnant.
  • The low price of sugar has affected the revenues of mills, their ability to pay farmers and also forced many mills to shut down. To help the sugar sector, the Centre has even mandated the compulsory blending of ethanol derived from sugarcane with fuels such as petrol and diesel.
  • According to the Food Ministry, the country’s sugar production is likely to remain flat at 30.5 million tonnes in the next 2021-22 season as more sugarcane will be diverted for ethanol making.
  • State governments and the Centre have also regularly intervened to reduce the debt burden on sugar mills. Earlier this month, the Centre decided to restructure loans worth over ₹3,000 crore offered to sugar mills by the Sugar Development Fund. Without such assistance, it may not be possible for sugar mills to procure sugarcane from farmers at the minimum prices dictated by the government. Further, the Centre also regularly sanctions funds to encourage sugar mills to export sugar depending on sugar prices in the global market. In the budget last year, the Centre allocated a total of ₹3,500 crore to fund the export of 6 million tonnes of sugar.

What lies ahead?

  • The WTO Appellate Body’s decision will be considered final on the dispute. In case India refuses to comply with the decision, it might have to face retaliatory action from other countries. This could be in the form of additional tariffs on Indian exports and other stringent measures.
  • Incidentally, the appellate body of the WTO is not functioning because of differences among member countries to appoint members, and disputes are already pending with it. The U.S. had blocked the appointment of members.

4. Driverless Cars


Context : Technology for autonomous driving is progressing rapidly with several big players investing heavily.

Technology behind Driverless Cars

The technology fundamentally relies on 3 sensors : cameras, radar and LIDAR.

  • A camera can discern colours, shapes, recognise traffic signage etc. However, it does not transmit any sensing signals and relies on ambient light that is reflected from objects.
  • A radar can transmits its own signals but it cannot discern colour nor recognise street signs and also has poor ‘spatial resolution’.
  • A LIDAR scans the environment with a laser beam. In many respects, it combines the best features of both radar and camera but it cannot penetrate fog or discern colour.

Functions, Advantages and disadvantages

  • A camera system operates much like a human eye — it can discern colours, shapes, recognise traffic signage, lane markings etc. Most cars have stereo cameras i.e., two cameras separated by a short distance. This enables it to perceive depth (like humans). However, a camera does have its limitations. It does not transmit any sensing signals and relies on ambient light that is reflected from objects. So, the absence of adequate ambient light (at night) limits its ability, as can other environmental conditions like fog and blinding sunlight.
  • A radar sensor transmits its own signals, which bounce off targets and reflect back to the radar. Thus, unlike a camera, a radar is not dependent on ambient light. Further, a radar transmits radio waves which can penetrate fog. The radar measures the time between the transmission of the signal and arrival of a reflected signal from a target to estimate the distance to the target. A moving target induces a frequency shift in the signal (‘Doppler shift’) which enables the radar to instantaneously and accurately measure target speed. Thus, radars can accurately measure the range and velocity of targets largely independent of environmental conditions such as fog, rain and bright sunlight. However, unlike a camera, a radar cannot discern colour nor recognise street signs. A radar also has poor ‘spatial resolution’. So, an approaching car would be visible as a blob —and individual features (such as the wheels, body contour etc.) would not be discernible like they would in a camera. Thus, the capabilities of a camera and a radar sensor complement each other, which is why many cars come equipped with both cameras and radars.
  • LIDAR is another sensor which is used in autonomous vehicles. A LIDAR scans the environment with a laser beam. In many respects, LIDAR combines the best features of both radar and camera. Like a radar, it generates its own transmit signal (thus does not depend on daylight), and can accurately determine distances by measuring the time difference between the transmitted and the reflected signal. The narrow laser beam that is used for sensing ensures that it has a spatial resolution that is similar to a camera. However, LIDAR does have its disadvantages — LIDAR signals cannot penetrate fog, discern colour or read traffic signs. The technology is also significantly costlier than radar or camera.

5 Web 3.0


Context : The concept of Web3, also called Web 3.0, used to describe a potential next phase of the internet, created quite a buzz in 2021. The model, a decentralised internet to be run on blockchain technology, would be different from the versions in use, Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. In web3, users will have ownership stakes in platforms and applications unlike now where tech giants control the platforms.   

About different versions

  • Web 1.0 is the world wide web or the internet that was invented in 1989. It became popular from 1993. The internet in the Web 1.0 days was mostly static web pages where users would go to a website and then read and interact with the static information. Even though there were e-commerce websites in the initial days it was still a closed environment and the users themselves could not create any content or post reviews on the internet. Web 1.0 lasted until 1999.
  • Web 2.0 started in some form in the late 1990s itself though 2004 was when most of its features were fully available. It is still the age of Web 2.0 now. The differentiating characteristic of Web 2.0 compared to Web 1.0 is that users can create content. They can interact and contribute in the form of comments, registering likes, sharing and uploading their photos or videos and perform other such activities. Primarily, a social media kind of interaction is the differentiating trait of Web 2.0.   

What are some of the concerns?

  • In Web 2.0, most of the data in the internet and the internet traffic are owned or handled by very few behemoth companies. This has created issues related to data privacy, data security and abuse of such data. There is a sense of disappointment that the original purpose of the internet has been distorted. It is in this context that the buzz around Web3 is significant.

What is Web3 and how will it address the problems of data monopoly?

  • As per the Web3 foundation, Web3 will deliver “decentralized and fair internet where users control their own data”. Currently if a seller has to make a business to the buyer, both the buyer and seller need to be registered on a “shop” or “platform” like Amazon or Ebay or any such e-commerce portal. What this “platform” currently does is that it authenticates that the buyer and seller are genuine parties for the transaction.
  • Web3 tries to remove the role of the “platform”. For the buyer to be authenticated, the usual proofs aided by block chain technology will be used. The same goes for the seller. With block chain, the time and place of transaction are recorded permanently.
  • Thus, Web3 enables peer to peer (seller to buyer) transaction by eliminating the role of the intermediary. This concept can be extended to other transactions also.
  • Consider a social media application where you want to share pictures with your followers. It could be a broadcast operation from you aided by blockchain and you don’t need social media accounts for all the participants to be able to perform this.  The key concepts in Web3 seen so far are peer to peer transaction and block chain.
  • The spirit of Web3 is Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO) which is that all the business rules and governing rules in any transaction are transparently available for anyone to see and software will be written conforming to these rules. Crypto-currency and block chain are technologies that follow the DAO principle. With DAO, there is no need for a central authority to authenticate or validate. 

6 . Special Marriage Act


Context : The law that governs inter-faith marriages in the country, the Special Marriage Act (SMA), 1954, is being challenged for endangering the lives of young couples who seek refuge under it. More than a year after a writ petition was moved before the Supreme Court, seeking striking down of several of its provisions, the Union government is yet to submit its response.

About the Issue

  • The law that governs inter-faith marriages in the country, the Special Marriage Act (SMA), 1954, is being challenged for endangering the lives of young couples who seek refuge under it. More than a year after a writ petition was moved before the Supreme Court, seeking striking down of several of its provisions, the Union government is yet to submit its response.

What are the features of the SMA?

  • The marriage of any two persons may be solemnised under the SMA, subject to the man having completed 21 years of age and the woman 18. Neither should have a spouse living; both should be capable of giving valid consent, should not suffer from any mental disorder of a kind that renders them unfit for marriage and procreation.
  • They should not be within the degrees of prohibited relationship — that is, they should not be related in such a way that their religion does not permit such marriages.
  • Parties to an intended marriage should give notice to the ‘marriage officer’ of the district in which one of them had resided for at least 30 days.
  • The notice will have to be entered in a ‘Marriage Notice Book’ and a copy of it displayed at a conspicuous place in the office.
  • The Notice Book is open for inspection at all reasonable times without a fee. Further, if either of the parties is not a permanent resident of the district, the marriage officer has to send a copy to his counterpart in the district where the party has permanent residence.
  • The notice shall be displayed in that district office too. The marriage has to be solemnised within three months of the notice, and if it is not, a fresh notice will be needed.
  • The law also provides for objections to the marriage. Any person can object to the marriage within 30 days of the publication of the notice on the ground that it contravenes one of the conditions for a valid marriage. The marriage officer has to inquire into the objection and give a decision within 30 days. If he refuses permission for the marriage, an appeal can be made to the district court. The court’s decision will be final.
  • Also, the Act says that when a member of an undivided familywho professes Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh or Jaina religions, gets married under SMA, it results in his or her “severance” from the family.

What are the hurdles faced by couples?

  • The provisions relating to notice, publication and objection have rendered it difficult for many people intending to solemnise inter-faith marriages.
  • Publicity in the local registration office may mean that family members objecting to the union may seek to stop it by coercion. In many cases, there may be a threat to the lives of the applicants. There have been reports of right-wing groups opposed to inter-faith marriages keeping a watch on the notice boards of marriage offices and taking down the details of the parties so that they can be dissuaded or coerced into abandoning the idea.

What are the other options for registration of inter-faith marriages?

  • Many opt for inter-faith marriages through the relevant law of the faith of one of the parties. This will involve one of them converting to the religion professed by the other. While conversion to Islam and Christianity has formal means, there is no prescribed ceremony for conversion to Hinduism.
  • The Hindu Marriage Act is also applicable to “any person who is a convert or re-convert to the Hindu, Buddhist, Jaina or Sikh religion”.
  • In a recent ruling, the Allahabad High Court declined to grant police protection to a couple, of whom the bride was a Muslim who converted to Hinduism, citing past precedents that said conversion should be based on change of heart and conviction and should not be solely for the purpose of marriage.
  • Based on a Kerala High Court recommendation, the Law Commission of India had recommended in 2010 that every person who has converted may be allowed to send a declaration within a month to the officer who registers marriages in the area, and it may be confirmed in person after 21 days. However, this recommendation was not made applicable to States that have a Freedom of Religion Act (which are essentially anti-conversion laws).

7 . Facts for Prelims


Commonwealth War graves commission

  • The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is an intergovernmental organisation of six independent member states whose principal function is to mark, record and maintain the graves and places of commemoration of Commonwealth of Nations military service members who died in the two World Wars.
  • The commission is currently responsible for the continued commemoration of 1.7 million deceased Commonwealth military service members in 153 countries.
  • Since its inception, the commission has constructed approximately 2,500 war cemeteries and numerous memorials.
  • The commission is currently responsible for the care of war dead at over 23,000 separate burial sites and the maintenance of more than 200 memorials worldwide
  • In addition to commemorating Commonwealth military service members, the commission maintains, under arrangement with applicable governments, over 40,000 non-Commonwealth war graves and over 25,000 non-war military and civilian graves.
  • The commission operates through the continued financial support of the member states: United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa

Chindwin River

  • The Chindwin River is a river flowing entirely in Myanmar, and the largest tributary of the country’s main river, the Ayeyarwady

Pruritogens

  • Factors that induce itch are called pruritogens.
  • Tissues that are sensitive to itch include the skin, mucus membranes and the cornea of the eye.
  • Some nerve fibres in these tissues (pruriceptors) are stimulated by pruritogens and the resulting signals are carried, via itch-signaling neurons in the spinal cord, to the brain.

Rickets

  • Vitamin D deficiency is often associated with rickets. In rickets, the bone tissue does not correctly mineralise calcium and phosphorus, leading to softening of bones resulting in skeletal deformities.
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