The Hindu Editorial Analysis
03 September 2021

1. Breakthrough challenge: Vaccine makers should move to making vaccines for the Delta variants

  • Page 6/Editorial
  • GS 2: Health

Context: With over 66 crore vaccines administered since the vaccination drive commenced in January, India has now inoculated at least half its adult population with at least one dose, and 16% with two.

    • However, there is a small, discernible rise in the number of new infections. Kerala, which contributes the bulk of infections, also has among the highest proportions of the population who are double vaccinated.

 

A Paradoxical Situation:

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  • This apparent paradox underlies concerns about the rise in ‘breakthrough infections’, or confirmed infections in those who took the second dose at least two weeks earlier.
  • Breakthrough Infection: A case of Covid-19 that arises in someone who's been fully immunized—that is, 14 days after their final dose of the vaccine—is known as a breakthrough infection. The term implies that the virus “broke through a protective barrier provided by the vaccine.”
  • Examples of Breakthrough infections:
    • A recent study by CSIR scientists found that nearly a quarter of 600 fully vaccinated care workers were re-infected.
    • Earlier studies from the CMC Vellore, and PGIMER, Chandigarh, too have reported between 1%-10% of fully vaccinated health-care workers as having been infected.
      • Milder Cases after vaccination: less than 5% of them have required hospitalisation and no deaths have been confirmed, indicating the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing severe sickness and death.
      • International trends: Israel and the U.S. in spite of high vaccination coverage, continue to report new cases; though here too, the infection rate is much higher in the unvaccinated.

 

Major causes of worry:

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  • The prime suspects, internationally as well as in India, are the Delta variants and related sub-lineages that are believed to form the bulk of coronavirus infections.
  • The Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG) that tracks mutations in coronavirus strains has said that the breakthrough infections reported so far are within “expected” numbers. That is, vaccines in large, controlled clinical trials had demonstrated 70%-90% efficacy but lost considerable ability to reduce symptomatic infections when confronted with the Delta variants, and so a certain fraction of those fully vaccinated would continue to be vulnerable.
    • Cause of worry:
      • Mutation: Fact of evolution that viruses would mutate to be able to avoid antibodies, and vaccines, therefore, would have to keep being upgraded. It seems that the moment appears to have come too soon.
      • Low Vaccine delivery: A country like India, in spite of being a major vaccine producer in the pre-pandemic era, has only now managed to get production lines to deliver one crore vaccines a day.

Conclusion: There are no reports yet, anywhere in the world, of vaccine makers specifying a timeline for vaccines that are tuned to the Delta variants. Vaccine makers who may have got emergency-use authorisations but are a while away from launch, should ideally move to making vaccines for the Delta variants and not rely on their existing pipeline.

 

Expected Question: Enumerate the reasons for the rising number of 'breakthrough infections'. What steps are necessary to address such a situation? (150 Words)

 

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2. A hydro onslaught the Himalayas cannot take| There is rock solid scientific evidence to demand the cancellation of many upcoming and approved hydel projects

  • Page 6/Editorial
  • GS 3: Environment

Context: Recently, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) filed an affidavit in an ongoing matter in the Supreme Court has recommended the construction of seven partially constructed hydroelectric projects in the Uttarakhand Himalaya.

 

Previous Standing:

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  • After the Kedarnath tragedy of 2013, in suo motu cognisance by the Supreme Court, an expert body (EB-I) was constituted to investigate whether the “mushrooming of hydro-power projects” in the State of Uttarakhand was linked to the disaster.
  • Findings: “direct and indirect impact” of these dams in aggravating the disaster. Paving the way for the projects, the Ministry formed committee after committee until it got approval for these projects with some design changes.
  • Reversal of Position - in the recently filed affidavit: This affidavit reveals that the Government is inclined towards construction of 26 other projects, as in the recommendation of the expert body (EB-II; B.P. Das committee). The conclusions of the first expert body (EB-I), chaired by Ravi Chopra, that had flagged the incalculable environmental risks of such structures have been conveniently sidelined and overwritten by EB-II whose mandate has been to pave the way for all projects through some design change modifications.
  • Concealing critical information:

    • It conceals the Ministry’s own observations and admissions given in its earlier affidavit which admitted that hydroelectric projects did aggravate the 2013 flood.
    • It also conceals the minutes of the meeting and decision taken by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) on February 2, 2019 in this regard. The minutes of this meeting make the policy decision of there being “no new hydropower projects” on the Ganga along with the cancellation of those that have not reached at 50% of its construction.

 

Proliferation of Dams:

    • The proliferation of dams is not restricted to Uttarakhand.
    • By 2007, Sikkim had entered a contract with private public sector players for development of 5,000 MW and Arunachal Pradesh signed memoranda of understanding in 2010 for 40,000 MW.

 

Problem:

    • Recurrent disasters in the last decade in the State of Uttarakhand have been studied and analysed. And in every disaster, the increasing anthropogenic pressure in this area has been found to be a direct or an indirect contributor.

      • For example, the Chamoli (Rishi-Ganga valley) disaster, in February this year which claimed over 200 lives as the river turned into a flood carrying a heavy load of silt and debris and demolishing hydropower projects along its course. While science and logic tell us to press on with conservation and protection in these sensitive areas, our Government has decided to go in the dangerous and opposite direction.

    • Against MoEFCC's mandate: Its mandate is to conserve the country’s natural environment — and one of the prominent electoral promises of the Government, the rejuvenation of one of the country’s major rivers, the Ganga.

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3. Question of Sustainability of Dams: hydropower solely relies on the excess availability of water. Climate change models are clear about the cascading impacts of global warming trends on the glaciers of the Himalaya — the main source of water in the region that sustains the drainage network within the mountain chain.

  • Temperatures across the region are projected to rise by about 1°C to 2°C on average by 2050.

  • Retreating glaciers and the alternating phases of floods and drought will impact the seasonal flows of rivers.

  • It must be noted that the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has special significance in the context of fragile mountainous ecological regimes.

4. Hotspot Para-glacial Zones: the existence of sediment hotspot paraglacial zones, which at the time of a cloud burst, can contribute to huge amounts of debris and silt in the river, thereby increasing the river volume and the devastation downstream. The flash floods in these Himalayan valleys do not carry water alone; they also carry a massive quantity of debris. This was pointed out by EB-II alongside its recommendation not build any projects beyond 2,000 metres or north of the MCT, or the Main Central Thrust (it is a major geological fault).

5. Historical Experience: The existing fully commissioned dams in the region are already indicative of the fact that these high-capital intensive ventures have negatively impacted local communities and their livelihoods. 

6. ‘Risk-laden artifacts’: dams in the mountainous regions that are exposed to earthquakes, floods, extreme rainfall, avalanches and landslides, are “risk-laden artifacts”. The intense anthropogenic activities associated with the proliferation of the hydroelectric projects in these precarious regions accelerate the intensity of flash floods, avalanches, and landslides.

  • For example, during the 2015 Nepal earthquake, several dams were damaged in that event destroying a third of Nepal’s hydropower.

  • The recent events such as the Rishi Ganga tragedy and the disasters of 2012 (flashfloods), 2013 are examples of how hydroelectric projects which come in the way of high-velocity flows aggravate a disaster.

7. Big contentious externalities such as social displacement, ecological impacts, environmental and technological risks.

8. Political Corruption: these agreements often thrive on speculative investments and political brokering. Private companies often partner with public companies — have minimal accountability or experience in the courier and logistics, real estate, steel fabrication, and tourism sectors. For example:

  • Teesta V hydropower plant in central Sikkim, commissioned in 2008. The local communities have been complaining about the sinking of mountain slopes, drying up of springs, development of fissures and increased incidents of landslides.

  • Many lives and livelihoods were lost in the Ukhimath flash floods of 2012 where the Kali-Ganga and Madmaheshwar dams are located. The dangers of an impending earthquake or flash flood loom large over the highly vulnerable Chamoli region where Vihsnugad-Pippalkoti is based. 

9. Avira Ganga: The river must flow free.

10. Cheaper alternatives: Solar and wind power are getting cheaper by the day. A preposterous amount of money is being wasted in the construction of these dams that will always function much below their efficiency, cause the loss of water and forests, and render the area fragile. By the time they are constructed, the cost of electricity generated will also be phenomenally high and would have no buyers.

 

Conclusion: it is imperative that the Government refrains from the economically challenged rapacious construction of hydroelectric projects and declares the upper reaches of all the headstreams of the Ganga as eco-sensitive zones. It must allow the river to flow unfettered and free.

Expected Question: Enumerate the critical challenges faced due to the construction of dams in the Himalayan region in India. (250 Words)