DALVEER BHANDARI RE-ELECTED TO ICJ

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India’s nominee to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) Dalveer Bhandari was re-elected to the fifth and the last seat of the world court after Britain withdrew its candidate from the election.

Bhandari received 183-193 votes in the General Assembly and secured all the 15 votes in the Security Council after separate and simultaneous elections were held at the UN headquarters in New York.

The elections were held after United Kingdom, in a dramatic turn of events, withdrew out of the race for the Hague-based ICJ, thus paving the way for Bhandari’s re-election to the prestigious world court.

Bhandari and Britain’s Christopher Greenwood were locked in a neck-and-neck fight for re-election to the ICJ.

The permanent members of the Security Council — USA, Russia, France and China — were understood to have been throwing their weight behind Greenwood. The UK is the fifth permanent member of the Security Council.

In a dramatic turn of events, the British Permanent Representative to the UN, Matthew Rycroft, wrote identical letters to the presidents of the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council, before the two chambers were scheduled to meet at 3 pm for the 12th round of voting.

Read out simultaneously by both the presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council. Rycroft said that its candidate Judge Christopher Greenwood had decided to withdraw from the election to the 15-membered ICJ.

In the 11 rounds of voting, Mr. Bhandari had got nearly two-thirds of the votes in the General Assembly and in Security Council Greenwood consistently received nine votes as against five for his opponent. This resulted in a stalemate.

As per the letter read out simultaneously in the General Assembly and the Security Council, Rycroft said the current deadlock is unlikely to be broken by further rounds of voting.

As such he announced withdrawal from the race. With Mr. Bhandari being the only candidate left in the race, the General Assembly and Security Council still went through the formal motion of voting to complete the formalities.

Congratulating Justice Bhandari, the UK said it will continue to cooperate closely with India at the United Nations and globally.

“The UK has concluded that it is wrong to continue to take up the valuable time of the Security Council and the UN General Assembly with further rounds of elections,” Rycroft said.

Britain, he said, congratulates the successful candidates, including Judge Bhandari of India.

“We are naturally disappointed, but it was a competitive field with six strong candidates,” Rycroft added.

“If the UK could not win in this run-off, then we are pleased that it is a close friend like India that has done so instead. We will continue to cooperate closely with India, here in the United Nations and globally,” he said.

Britain’s withdrawal from the election to the prestigious world court would mean that there will not be a British judge on the UN’s most powerful court for the first time in its history.

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DELHI-NCR HIT BY SEVERE SMOG, ONCE AGAIN!

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Delhi, and the National Capital Region (NCR) centered on it, came under a heavy blanket of smog today, with air quality reaching “severe” level. The situation is not expected to change for the next two days.

On Tuesday evening, Delhi’s deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia announced that primary schools in the national capital will remain closed on Wednesday, adding, if needed, it will be extended. He also said the outdoor activities in schools will be stopped.

In a similar situation at the same time last year, multiple courts had passed several orders to control stubble burning in northern states and implementation of a Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) to tackle high levels of pollution.

But, so far, authorities have failed in preventing stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana in winters, which intensifies air pollution in the Delhi-NCR region.

According to data from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), air quality at the majority of the monitoring stations across Delhi and adjoining towns touched “severe” levels.

Overall, the air quality index (AQI) of Delhi on Tuesday evening was 443 (Severe). The average levels of two deadliest components in air pollution—Particulate Matter (PM) 10 and PM 2.5—across Delhi NCR on Tuesday was 418 µg/m³ (over four times the safe limit) and 439 µg/m³ (over seven times the safe limit) respectively.

The Indian Medical Association asked the Delhi government to stop all outdoor activities and sports in schools.

Earlier in the day, Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal announced that considering the high levels of pollution, he has asked Delhi’s education minister Manish Sisodia to consider closing schools for a few days.

“Every year, this happens during this part of year. We have to find a solution to crop burning in adjoining states. All of us together have to find a solution to this. Delhi becomes a gas chamber for almost a month,” tweeted Kejriwal.

The Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA), which is tasked with implementation of GRAP, also met on Tuesday and asked governments of Delhi and adjoining states to take a series of immediate steps to control pollution.

When air quality touches “severe” level, it causes respiratory problems to even healthy people and seriously impacts those with existing diseases. In such conditions, outside exposure and activities, including intense physical activities should be minimised.

EPCA also directed immediate measures like closing of brick kilns, stone crushers, intensification of public transport service, increasing frequency of service of Delhi Metro, intensification of mechanized road sweeping and sprinkling of water, continuation of the ban on use of generator sets in Delhi, immediate enhancement of parking fee by four times, ban on use of coal and firewood in hotels and eateries and others.

EPCA, however, noted that “given the prevailing conditions and the concern about the possible deterioration in weather conditions, it is possible that severe plus or emergency conditions would need to be imposed in the coming days” and directed governments in Delhi-NCR to ensure that all agencies are ready to implement tougher measures as laid down in GRAP.

Under GRAP, the task force led by CPCB has been monitoring air quality in NCR. During EPCA’s meeting, CPCB’s member secretary, A. Sudhakar explained the reasons behind high pollution.

“Currently, Delhi and its neighbouring region are seeing almost still conditions at the ground level, but in the upper atmosphere there are two wind masses—one from Punjab, which is bringing pollutants from crop burning and the other from eastern Uttar Pradesh, which is bringing moisture. These are colliding at the higher altitude. This is leading to conditions where there is both moisture and pollution as well as no wind at the ground level,” said Sudhakar while adding that it is expected that conditions will remain severe over the next two days as per the forecast made available by India Meteorological Department (IMD).

EPCA chairperson Bhure Lal said GRAP is an “emergency plan, which cannot become a substitute for long term and decisive action to cut air pollution”.

“We have achieved some things—often in the face of enormous odds—and we have provided some solutions. So far, every solution that has been suggested has been contested and delayed. Today, weather conditions in Delhi NCR are adverse, and the wind is bringing pollution from farm fires in Punjab and moisture from the east. In terms of air pollution, things are expected to get much worse in the coming days. We, therefore, need to act decisively,” Lal added.

It also asked all state pollution control boards to immediately impose fines on all road constructing agencies where there are inadequate dust control measures. In accordance of Construction and Demolition Rules, which allow for penalty of up to Rs. 5 lakh for construction dust mismanagement, EPCA directed for a fine of Rs. 50,000 per day per stretch for inadequate road dust control.

EPCA also called for intensifying the enforcement of non-destined goods traffic into Delhi by physically checking all vehicles and turning them back.

EPCA called for long-term actions and said unless that is done, air pollution levels cannot be brought down. It called for drastic actions like stringent monitoring of emissions in industrial estates and as well as from illegal industries, switch-over to gas in vehicles, power plants and industry, massive augmentation of public transport, massive action to change garbage management system and others.

WORLD’S FIRST HYBRID ELECTRIC TRAM LAUNCHED IN CHINA

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The world’s first hybrid electric tram powered by hydrogen fuel cells was recently launched in China, which marks a huge step in the application of green energy in public transport.

The tram was put into commercial operation for the first time, recently, in Tangshan, north China’s Hebei Province, state-run Xinhua news agency reported, according to PTI. China Railway Rolling Corporation (CRRC) Tangshan Co is the maker of the tram.

It is the world’s first hybrid electric tram with hydrogen as the main power source. The research and manufacturing of the hybrid tram was done by Chinese locally. The tram doesn’t emit any pollutants, it only emits water.

It does not produce any nitrogen oxides as the temperature of the reaction inside hydrogen fuel cells is controlled under 100 degrees Celsius.

The distance between carriage floor of the tram and the rail is only 35 centimeters thanks to the latest low-floor technology, which can remove station platforms and thus making boarding easy for passengers.

The tram, having three carriages with 66 seats, can run for 40 kilometers at a maximum speed of 70 kilometers per hour after being refilled with 12 kilograms of hydrogen.

The tram operates on a 136-year-old railway line in Tangshan City, one of China’s earliest industrial cities, and links several of its industrial heritage sites.

INDIA TO HOST UN WILDLIFE SUMMIT IN 2020

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India will host the next UN global wildlife conservation and international species protection conference in 2020.

An announcement in this regard was made on the last day of the week-long 12th session of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention in Manila, Philippines, on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals or CMS COP12, the only international treaty devoted exclusively to migratory animal species.

Delegates from 91 countries participated in the CMS COP held once in three years. This was for the first time the summit was held in Asia.

“An intensive week of negotiations have resulted in a stronger commitment by countries to step up their efforts to conserve the planet’s migratory wildlife,” an official statement quoting CMS Executive Secretary Bradnee Chambers said.

The CMS COP12 in Manila has been the largest-ever meeting in the 38-year history of the convention, which is also known as the ‘Bonn Convention’ after the German city in which it was signed.

The summit saw some notable outcomes, including a vulture multi-species action plan to better protect 15 species of Old World Vulture in more than 120 countries, comprising four that are critically endangered in India.

Governments also agreed to cooperate on reducing the negative impacts of marine debris, noise pollution, renewable energy and climate change on migratory species.

Other mammals that will benefit from the additional protection include the African wild ass — the most endangered wild equid in the world — Przewalski’s Horse and four species of Lasiurus Bat.

The proposal to add the Chinkara (Indian gazelle) was withdrawn.

Addressing the Plenary of COP12, UN Environment Executive Director Erik Solheim said the sustainable development goals were directed at both “people and planet”.

He added that new technologies and political commitment could protect both the planet and bring development to people with the same policies.

KILOGRAM WILL GET NEW MEASURE SET BY VALUE OF PLANCK CONSTANT FROM 2019

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Using a state-of-the-art device for measuring mass, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have made their most precise determination yet of Planck’s constant, an important value in science that will help to redefine the kilogram, the official unit of mass in the SI, or international system of units.

Accepted for publication in the journal Metrologia, these new results come ahead of a July 1 international deadline for measurements that aim to redefine the entire SI in terms of fundamental constants of nature.

The new NIST measurement of Planck’s constant is 6.626069934 x 10-34 kg-m2/s, with an uncertainty of only 13 parts per billion. NIST’s previous measurement, published in 2016, had an uncertainty of 34 parts per billion.

The kilogram is currently defined in terms of the mass of a platinum-iridium artifact stored in France. Scientists want to replace this physical artifact with a more reproducible definition for the kilogram that is based on fundamental constants of nature.

Planck’s constant enables researchers to relate mass to electromagnetic energy. To measure Planck’s constant, NIST uses an instrument known as the Kibble balance, originally called the watt balance. Physicists widely adopted the new name last year to honor the late British physicist Bryan Kibble, who invented the technique more than 40 years ago.

NIST’s Kibble balance uses electromagnetic forces to balance a kilogram mass. The electromagnetic forces are provided by a coil of wire sandwiched between two permanent magnets. The Kibble balance has two modes of operation. In one mode, an electrical current goes through the coil, generating a magnetic field that interacts with the permanent magnetic field and creates an upward force to balance the kilogram mass.

In the other mode, the coil is lifted at a constant velocity. This upward motion induces a voltage in the coil that is proportional to the strength of the magnetic field. By measuring the current, the voltage and the coil’s velocity, researchers can calculate the Planck constant, which is proportional to the amount of electromagnetic energy needed to balance a mass.

First, the researchers have much more data. The new result uses 16 months’ worth of measurements, from December 2015 to April 2017. The increase in experimental statistics greatly reduced the uncertainty in their Planck value.

Secondly, the researchers tested for variations in the magnetic field during both modes of operation and discovered they had been overestimating the impact the coil’s magnetic field was having on the permanent magnetic field. Their subsequent adjustment in their new measurements both increased their value of Planck’s constant and reduced the uncertainty in their measurement.

Finally, the researchers studied in great detail how the velocity of the moving coil affected the voltage. “We varied the speed that we moved the coil through the magnetic field, from 0.5 to 2 millimeters per second,” explained Darine Haddad, lead author of the NIST results.

In a magnetic field, the coil acts like an electric circuit consisting of a capacitor (a circuit element that stores electric charge), a resistor (an element that dissipates electrical energy) and an inductor (an element that stores electrical energy).

In a moving coil, these circuit-like elements generate an electrical voltage that changes over time, said Schlamminger. The researchers measured this time-dependent voltage change to account for this effect and reduced the uncertainty in their value.

This new NIST measurement joins a group of other new Planck’s constant measurements from around the world. Another Kibble balance measurement, from the National Research Council of Canada, has an uncertainty of just 9.1 parts per billion.

Two other new measurements use the alternative Avogadro technique, which involves counting the number of atoms in a pure silicon sphere.

The new measurements have such low uncertainty that they exceed the international requirements for redefining the kilogram in terms of Planck’s constant.

NEW RNA EDITING TOOL CAN ERADICATE GENETIC DISEASES

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Representational image. Unlike the permanent changes to the genome required for DNA editing, RNA editing offers a safer, more flexible way to make corrections in the cell. Photo: iStockphoto

Scientists have created a new gene editing tool that tweaks the individual RNA ‘letters’ in human cells without making changes to the entire genome, paving the way for therapies that can reverse disease-causing mutations.

The molecular system, called RNA Editing for Programmable A to I Replacement (REPAIR) has profound potential as a tool for both research and disease treatment. REPAIR is based on the gene editing tool CRISPR that can be used to modify DNA in cells.

The new system, developed by scientists from The Broad Institute and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, can change single RNA nucleosides in mammalian cells in a programmable and precise fashion. REPAIR has the ability to reverse disease-causing mutations at the RNA level, as well as other potential therapeutic and basic science applications.

“The ability to correct disease-causing mutations is one of the primary goals of genome editing,” said Feng Zhang, from MIT. “So far, we’ve gotten very good at inactivating genes, but actually recovering lost protein function is much more challenging,” said Zhang.

“This new ability to edit RNA opens up more potential opportunities to recover that function and treat many diseases, in almost any kind of cell,” he said.

REPAIR has the ability to target individual RNA letters, or nucleosides, switching adenosines to inosines. These letters are involved in single-base changes known to regularly cause disease in humans.

In human disease, a mutation from G to A is extremely common; these alterations have been implicated in, for example, cases of focal epilepsy, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and Parkinson’s disease.

REPAIR has the ability to reverse the impact of any pathogenic G-to-A mutation regardless of its surrounding nucleotide sequence, with the potential to operate in any cell type.

Unlike the permanent changes to the genome required for DNA editing, RNA editing offers a safer, more flexible way to make corrections in the cell. “REPAIR can fix mutations without tampering with the genome, and because RNA naturally degrades, it’s a potentially reversible fix,” said David Cox, a graduate student in Zhang’s lab.

To create REPAIR, the researchers systematically profiled the CRISPR-Cas13 enzyme family for potential “editor” candidates. They selected an enzyme from Prevotella bacteria, called PspCas13b, which was the most effective at inactivating RNA.

The team engineered a deactivated variant of PspCas13b that still binds to specific stretches of RNA but lacks its “scissor-like” activity, and fused it to a protein called ADAR2, which changes the nucleoside adenosine to inosine in RNA transcripts.

“The success we had engineering this system is encouraging, and there are clear signs REPAIRv2 can be evolved even further for more robust activity while still maintaining specificity,” said Omar Abudayyeh, also a graduate student in Zhang’s lab.

INDIAN PASSPORT RANKED 75th MOST POWERFUL IN THE WORLD

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The Passport Index’s Global Passport Power Rank 2017 has ranked India at a lowly 75th position. Singapore, for the first time, has topped the Index.

The passports of all 193 United Nations member countries and six territories were considered.

The ranking is based on the score that the countries get after an analysis is made of the access that the different passports allow to countries around the world. The ‘Visa-free score’ (VFS) represents the number of countries, its holder can visit visa-free or with visa on arrival.

India has a VFS of 51, which in effect means that 24 countries allow Indian passport holders visa-free entry and 27 provide them with the visa on arrival.

In India’s case, 24 countries allow its passport holders visa-free entry and 27 provide visa on arrival. This comparitively low number has led to the Indian passport’s low ranking.

In the immediate neighbourhood, India fared better than Bangladesh that was ranked at 90 with a VFS score of 35, Nepal and Sri Lanka were both ranked at 89 with a VFS score of 36, Bhutan was placed at 76 spot with a VFS score of 50, Myanmar was ranked at 84 with a score of 41, and Pakistan that was ranked at 93 with a score of 26.

The bottom five nations on the list are Afghanistan, which ranked 94th with a visa-free score of 22; Pakistan and Iraq both at 93 with a score of 26; Syria at 92 with a score of 29; and Somalia 91 with a score of 34.