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April 2019

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

[op-ed snap] Seeing darkness


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Black Hole, EHT, Gravitational Waves

Mains level : How Event Horizon Telescope was able to take a picture of Black hole


On April 10, the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration showed the world the ‘unseeable’: the very first image of a black hole.

Black hole And Last Photon Ring

  • The black hole itself cannot be seen, because light cannot escape its intense gravitational attraction.
  • The so-called event horizon that envelops the black hole is the point of no return and any object transgressing this boundary is lost.
  • Just outside is a region where a photon (light quantum) can orbit the black hole without falling in.
  • This is called the ‘last photon ring’, and this is what the EHT imaged, seeing in effect the silhouette of a black hole.

Black Hole’s history in Science

  • About a hundred years after the black hole made its way into physics through Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, soon after the LIGO collaboration first directly observed the gravitational waves made by the merging of two black holes, the ‘dark star’ had finally been imaged.
  • The Higgs boson was detected 50 years after it had been postulated, and gravitational waves were observed a century after Einstein predicted them.
  • Visual proof of the existence of black holes comes a century after they appeared in scientific literature.
  • In a collaborative effort, eight telescopes around the world were used for the experiment.
  • The challenges included making each observe the same broad range of wavelengths around 1.3 mm and having precise atomic clocks at each location, so the data could be combined.

Black hole

  • A black hole marks the end of spacetime as commonly understood, and nothing that enters it can escape from the tremendous gravitational attraction.
  • However, this is no real danger, as black holes are located at distances that humans do not have the power to scale.

The Process to Obtain the image

  • The EHT set out to image two candidate supermassive black holes — Sagittarius A*, which is 26,000 light years from the earth, at the centre of the Milky Way, and another which is 55 million light years away at the centre of the Messier 87 galaxy in the Virgo galaxy cluster.
  • But the first image was of the more distant one.
  • The very long baseline interferometry technique linked radio dishes of telescopes across the world to produce a virtual telescope the size of the earth.
  • This was needed to obtain the high resolution required for this measurement.
  • Combining data from telescopes, each with different characteristics, was a separate challenge.
  • Cutting-edge developments from computer science related to image recognition were used.


  • As Katie Bouman, Assistant Professor at the California Institute of Technology, who led the efforts to develop an algorithm to put the data together and create the image, said in a TEDx talk, projects such as the EHT succeed owing to interdisciplinary expertise that people bring to the table.
  • This experiment endorses the diversity of collaboration just as much as it does unrelenting patience and good faith in the power of science and reason.

Electoral Reforms In India

[op-ed snap] Not Half Done


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing Much

Mains level : Election commission has been less powerful in controlling misconduct in 2019 General Elections.


The first phase of voting on Thursday to elect the 17th Lok Sabha witnessed enthusiastic participation of voters in 91 Lok Sabha constituencies across 20 States and Union Territories.


  • In this opening phase of a total of seven, the challenges in ensuring a free and fair poll, as well as the trend of high enthusiasm among voters, have been highlighted.
  • The drive of the Election Commission of India against malpractices led, ahead of the first phase, to seizures worth ₹2,426 crore of cash, liquor, drugs and other items meant to unduly influence voters.
  • Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and parts of Odisha also voted to elect their State Assemblies.
  • Tripura and West Bengal topped in turnout, with 81.8% and 81%, respectively.
  • This is the first general election with VVPATs attached to all EVMs. According to the ECI, 1.7% of VVPATs, 0.73% of the ballot units and 0.61% of the control units of EVMs had to be replaced on Thursday.
  • Stray incidents of violence were reported in Andhra Pradesh, but in Jammu and Kashmir the polling went relatively peacefully.
  • In the Jammu constituency 72% polling was recorded, while in the Valley’s Baramulla constituency the figure was 35%, marginally lower than the 2014 figures.
  • Isolated complaints regarding mismanagement arose in some parts, but by and large the first phase went on well, and upheld India’s reputation in managing what is the world’s largest democratic exercise.


ECI’s Effectiveness

  • The ECI’s decision to ban the release of a biopic on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and its order to stop the broadcast of political content on a TV channel meant for his propaganda were measures in the right direction.
  • But the trail of serious violations of the Model Code of Conduct and the defiance of its previous directives by the ruling dispensation and Mr. Modi himself raise a lot of questions regarding the ECI’s effectiveness in being a neutral and fair arbiter.

Doubts Regarding the impartiality of Institution

  • The questions regarding the integrity of the elections arising out of doubts about EVMs have been addressed with 100% Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trails, followed by a Supreme Court-directed increase in their random counting rate from one machine to five per Assembly constituency/segment.
  • But doubts arising out of the ECI’s conduct fall in a different category, and it needs to do more to reassure voters that the process is not vitiated by partisanship.
  • The seemingly biased moves by Central agencies such as the Income Tax department targeting only Opposition leaders point to the possible misuse of office by the ruling party to target opponents.
  • Mr. Modi’s appeal to voters in the name of soldiers — something the ECI had explicitly warned against — was unfortunate, as was the Commission’s failure to take prompt action.

Way Forward

While the ECI must urgently respond to MCC violations, the government must act fairly.

Electoral Reforms In India

[op-ed snap] Bonds and binds


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Electoral Bonds

Mains level : Supreme court gave order to furnish all details regarding electoral Bonds to political parties.


On Friday, the Supreme Court took the first step towards resolving the controversy over political funding that erupted after the government introduced the electoral bonds scheme last year.

Court’s direction

  • The Court refused to accede to the request of the NGOs, Common Cause and Association for Democratic Reforms, and the CPM for an immediate stay of the new mechanism to fund elections.
  • But the key message from the three-judge bench’s decision underlines the complexity of the issue: “Rival contentions by the parties and respondents raise weighty issues which have tremendous bearing on the sanctity of the electoral process.”
  • The court has decided to examine the issue in detail.

Electoral Bonds

  • Electoral bonds are bearer instruments like promissory notes and can be purchased by an Indian citizen or a body incorporated in the country.
  • The identity of the donor will be known only to the bank, and it will be kept anonymous.
  • Given that political funding used to be a way to whitewash black money, the switch to a mechanism that operates through the banking system is undoubtedly a step forward in ensuring clean political funding.

Concerns by Election Commission

  • However, questions over the issue of donor anonymity were raised even before the scheme was notified.
  • In May 2017, the Election Commission (EC) had argued that the proviso that exempts political parties from disclosing the names of donors militates against “greater transparency” in political funding.
  • The Commission’s concerns were also linked to the amendment to the Companies Act in 2017, which lifted the cap on the amount corporates could contribute to political parties.
  • This opens up the possibility of shell companies being set up for the sole purpose of making donations to political parties,” the EC had noted in a letter to the law ministry two years ago.
  • . But the fact also is that with most of the bonds being issued and encashed at public-sector banks, the party holding office at the Centre can always access these particulars.

Government’s stand

  • The government contends that the anonymity provision is necessary to prevent donors from being victimised, in case they turn out to have supported the losing party.
  • If you back the wrong horse, then tomorrow an industrialist who is bidding for a dam will get victimised if the opposite party came to power,” Attorney General K K Venugopal pointed out during the hearing of the case.

Way Forward

  • The SC’s order  is alive to these concerns.
  • It has directed all political parties to furnish details of the funding received through electoral bonds, including the identity of the donors, to the EC by May 30.
  • But this, as the Court pointed out, is only an interim measure.
  • This verdict is also a message to the political class to debate more thoroughly the long-pending issue of political funding in order to resolve the anonymity vs transparency impasse.


Skilling India – Skill India Mission,PMKVY, NSDC, etc.

2 West Bengal govt schemes win UN awards


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Utkarsh Bangla, Sabooj Sathi Schemes

Mains level : Not Much

  • Two schemes of the West Bengal government for skill development and distribution of bi-cycles to students have won the prestigious World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) awards of the United Nations.
  • The schemes are “Utkarsh Bangla” and “Sabooj Sathi”.
  • The WB government had received another UN award in 2017 for its ‘Kanyashree’ project, a targeted conditional cash transfer scheme aimed at promoting education among girls.

Utkarsh Bangla

  • The “Utkarsh Bangla” project aims at creating a pool of skilled candidates who are industry ready.
  • It is meant especially for school dropouts.
  • Out of 1062 nominations in 18 categories, Utkarsh Bangla got the topmost award and emerged a winner in Capacity Building category.

Sabooj Sathi

  • Sabooj Sathi is a scheme for distribution of bi-cycles to estimated 40 lakh students of class IX to XII studying in Govt. run and Govt. aided Schools and Madrashas.
  • The scheme was launched in September 2015.


  • WSIS Prizes is an international contest to create an effective mechanism to evaluate and recognise individuals, governments and private bodies for outstanding success in implementing development oriented strategies that leverage the power of ICTs as an enabler of the development.
  • The contest, organised by the WSIS in Geneva, was first held in 2012.

Health Sector – UHC, National Health Policy, Family Planning, Health Insurance, etc.

‘Display information on 7 common antibiotics’


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : PVPI

Mains level : Pharmacovigilance initiatives in India

  • The Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO) has now asked  commonly-used antibiotics manufacturers to ensure its details be made available to the general public.
  • This decision was taken considering directives from the National Co-ordination Centre of the Pharmacovigilance Programme of India (PvPI).

Pharmacovigilance Programme of India (PvPI)

  • Pharmacovigilance is defined as the science relating to the detection, assessment, understanding and prevention of adverse effects, principally long term and short term adverse effects of medicines.
  • The  CDSCO has a nation-wide Pharmacovigilance Programme for protecting the health of the patients by promising drug safety.
  • The Programme shall be coordinated by the Indian Pharmacopeia commission, Ghaziabad as a National Coordinating Centre (NCC).
  • The  PvPI was started by the Government of India on 14th July 2010 with the  AIIMS New Delhi as the National Coordination Centre for monitoring Adverse Drug Reactions (ADRs) in the country for safe-guarding Public Health.

CDSCO guidelines to manufacturers

  • CDSCO has written to drug manufacturers, to mention in leaflets inserted into drug packets or on promotional literature, information about the adverse reactions of these medicines.
  • All of the seven formulations  have been instructed to warn patients of the “new” side effects.

Why such move?

  • The Union Health Ministry was alerted about the adverse reactions of Antibiotic Cefixime last year in August.
  • Antibiotic Cefixime is used to treat a wide variety of bacterial infections and is known to have adverse reactions, including pain, diarrhoea, nausea and headaches.

Railway Reforms

RailWire Wi-Fi Zones


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : RailWire, RailTel

Mains level : Internet connectivity across railway stations

  • RailWire Wi-Fi by RailTel is now live at 1,600 railway stations across the country, with Santa Cruz railway station in Mumbai becoming the 1,600th station to become a RailWire Wi-Fi zone.


  • RailWire is a retail broadband initiative of RailTel, which envisages extending broadband and application services to the public.
  • RailTel is working to establish bringing fast and free Wi-Fi at all stations (except the halt stations) within a year.
  • The Wi-Fi at 415 A, A1 and C category stations has been provided in association with Google as the technology partner.
  • Wi-Fi connections at 200 stations were provided with support from the Universal Service Obligatory Fund of the Govt. of India.

About RailTel

  • RailTel Corporation is a Mini Ratna(Category-I) PSU of Ministry of Railways.
  • It is the largest neutral telecom services providers in the country owning a Pan-India optic fiber network covering all important towns & cities of the country and several rural areas covering 70% of India’s population.

Civil Services Reforms

9 professionals selected as joint secys in biggest lateral induction into govt service


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Various appointments

Mains level : Lateral entry scheme

  • The government has selected nine professionals, largely from the private sector, as joint secretaries in various departments, signalling a major shift in the entry of professionals in shaping policies.
  • This is perhaps the first time that a large of group of experts with domain knowledge will enter the government through the lateral-entry process.

Appointment as Joint Secys

  • So far, the joint secretary-level officers are largely drawn from the pool of people who clear the civil services examination conducted by the UPSC.
  • To ensure the same standards, the entire process of the selection of these experts was conducted by the UPSC.
  • They will join their respective departments on a “contract basis”.

Not for the first time

  • Earlier, some experts had joined the government through the lateral-entry route in ministries such as finance, power and sanitation.
  • The list of professionals included those like Manmohan Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Bimal Jalan, Vijay Kelkar (former petroleum and finance secretary), R V Shahi (former power secretary), apart from Parameswaran Iyer, who is currently sanitation secretary, and Rajesh Kotecha, who heads the Ayush ministry.

Assist this newscard with:

Burning Issues- Lateral Entry into Civil Services

Foreign Policy Watch: India-Russia

PM to get Russia’s highest civilian award


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Various awards mentioned

Mains level : India-Russia bilateral relations

  • Russia has announced  that it will confer its highest civilian award, the “Order of the Holy Apostle Andrew the First,” on PM Narendra Modi for his work on bilateral ties.

Why this award?

  • The order was presented to the PM for his distinguished contribution to the development of a privileged strategic partnership between Russia and India and friendly ties between the Russian and Indian peoples.
  • The Russian honour comes after a week of the Indian premier being awarded the UAE’s highest civilian award, the Zayed Medal, for his crucial role in boosting the strategic relationship between the two countries.

About the Award

  • The award was established in 1698 but it was abolished during the communist era, before being reinstated in 1998.
  • Since then, it has been awarded to 18 people, mostly Russians, such as AK-47 designer Mikhail Kalashnikov, former president Mikhail Gorbachev and author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Facts for Prelims

  • The Russian honour is the seventh international award conferred on Modi since he came to power in 2014.
  • The Zayed Medal by the UAE (2019), Grand Collar of the State of Palestine (2018), Amir Abdullah Khan Award is Afghanistan (2016) and Order of King Abdullaziz from Saudi Arabia (2016) are the most significant civilian awards given to the Indian prime minister by heads of Islamic nations.
  • He has also been awarded with the UN’s ‘Champions of the Earth’ Award for his leadership of the International Solar Alliance and pledge to eliminate single use plastic in India by 2022.