The unique geography of Kerala, with its steep climbdown from 900m high elevations of the Western Ghats to the coast of Malabar, has resulted in a land with a vast riverine network. There are no less than 44 fast flowing rivers that drain the rainwater Kerala is blessed with into the Arabian Sea. It is a lifeline that supports a very fertile land, some of the most singular flora, fauna and also a people and their lives in a symbiotic way.
However, this drainage basin has seen massive urbanization over the last two decades with the erstwhile wisdom of coexistence with the State’s waterways beginning to fade away. This linear development which has been along major road networks, has completely ignored the varying and ecologically sensitive landscape. Substantial portions of revenue lands in the State are wetlands and forests, which has resulted in a shortage of buildable land parcels. This in turn is creating huge pressure on these ecologically fragile areas for conversion to government-supported infrastructure projects as well as private profit-making enterprises.
Not surprisingly, all landslide and flood-affected areas in the State are in Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZ-1), as categorized by the Madhav Gadgil report. The Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) report that was prepared by the UN for Kerala following the massive flooding of 2018 looks at some of the gaps in law and policy. The State Action Plans on Climate Change elucidate measures for disaster-risk reduction in the wake of an increasing frequency of heavy rainfall in turn leading to more flooding and landslides. Though plans and laws such as Integrated Water Resources Management or Coastal Regulation Zone Notification hold key solutions to natural disasters that are linked to water management, most of them are not implemented or followed to the letter. A lack of holistic and coordinated measures within planning departments has resulted in further problems. Also missing are key pieces of legislation for housing and land use in fragile zones which allow buildability but with sensitive development.
Dilution of laws
The need of the hour is for a review and revision of building bye-laws for urban and rural areas in accordance with bettering environmental sustainability. In 2017, a judgment of the High Court of Kerala mandating the inclusion of a clause in building rules, and which said that ‘natural drains and streams shall not be obstructed by this development/building permit’, has yet to come into effect. Further, the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act, 2008 — it has immense potential to preserve such land as natural watershed buffers — has suffered too many dilutions even as rampant reclamation of paddy lands continues. The absence of a databank on paddy lands and wetlands as mandated by the law, has only exacerbated the issue.
Master plan focus
There are, however, cities and regions the world over that deal most successfully with heavier precipitation in much less favourable topography than Kerala’s. The dire need is for watershed-based master planning and development legislated guidelines for each major river basin, especially those that impact densely populated settlements. Primarily, such master plans should focus on these areas.
First, there must be a demarcation of ecologically sensitive zones using existing village survey maps and public participation. There must be clear land use plan for these zones specifying flood plains, protected forest areas, agricultural and plantation zones, with details of the types of crops, building usages permitted and the density of buildings permitted.
Second, to compensate owners in non-buildable areas, there must be strategies such as Transfer of Development Rights to buildable zones in cities.
Third, the master plan should focus on permitting only ecologically sensitive building strategies for these areas by proposing new construction techniques. Controlled development can be proposed using building height rules, floor area ratio control, and restrictions on cutting and filling natural land.
Fourth, strategies to make sure that all infrastructure projects are carried out in a scientific manner with strict scrutiny must be specified. This should include roads built on difficult terrain and all public infrastructure projects in wetlands and the High Ranges.
Such an intensive and sensitive hydrology-driven master plan requires very specialized expertise and experience which may not be readily available in our homegrown available pool of resources. The State should not shy away from acquiring the most appropriate skills to implement this urgently given the massive damage to life and property it now faces both in the short and long term. A complete overhaul of processes to hire technical expertise which allows access to necessary skills, and with a long-term vision of capacity building of local agencies, is the way forward.
After the floods in Kerala in 2018, the Chief Minister’s team visited the Netherlands to learn how cities with high levels of a water footprint are dealing with climate change issues. Copenhagen in Denmark, which faces a similar problem of repeated flooding, has come up with active cloudburst responsive planning as a process to develop the city in line with climate change needs. Though we cannot just transfer or have carbon copy solutions from Europe, we must learn from each experience in order to collectively formulate strategies that address our needs.
Furthermore, post-disaster management of land and geography needs imaginative actions by the authorities and people in order to reverse the damage already done. The floods in 2018 brought high levels of silt from the highlands, reducing river depths and narrowing river mouths. A year later, this silt has not been cleared, reducing the carrying capacity of rivers. Serious strategies are required by the government and the people to reclaim groundwater percolation and flood plains. Legal processes and byelaws need revisions. The water footprint needs to be reinstated, and the relationship with water resources rebuilt. This may be the only way we can face a future of changing weather patterns.
Trump is not furthering the cause of free global trade with his unfair attack on the WTO
U.S. President Donald Trump opened up another front in the ongoing global trade war on Wednesday by ramping up rhetoric against the World Trade Organization (WTO). He even threatened to pull the U.S. out of the multilateral trade organization if it fails to treat the U.S. fairly and blamed it for allowing too many countries to claim the status of a “developing country”. In a memo to the U.S. Trade Representative last month, Mr. Trump pointed out that nearly two-thirds of the 164 WTO members classified themselves as developing countries, and raised the issue of even many rich economies claiming to be “growing” rather than “grown” economies. This time around, in Pennsylvania, the President targeted India and China in particular for “taking advantage” of the U.S. by classifying themselves as “developing countries” at the WTO. The status of a developing country allows countries to seek partial exemptions from the WTO’s rules for free and fair trade between countries. The status, for instance, allows countries like China and India, with their special tag, to impose higher tariffs on imports from other countries and also offer more subsidies to local producers in order to protect their domestic interests. Developed countries find this to be unfair on their producers who are put at a relative disadvantage, but countries like China have argued that their developing country status is justified given their low per capita income.
Mr. Trump’s recent attacks on the WTO would be welcome if they were truly about creating a global trading arena with lower tariffs and fewer barriers to trade. The “developing country” status, which offers substantial benefits to countries that want to protect their domestic interests and which most countries are more than happy to make use of, has indeed skewed global trade over the years in favour of certain countries. But he may be raking up the issue not to further the cause of global free trade, but simply as a convenient pretext to justify further trade barriers against China and other countries. By pointing fingers at other countries that follow protectionist policies, Mr. Trump will find it justified to impose retaliatory tariffs against them. This will help him bolster his “America First” approach and allow him to successfully hold on to his support base in America’s manufacturing belt that has been affected by foreign competition. Even if countries like China and India offer to lower their tariffs, Mr. Trump would not take them up on their offer. That is because it would require reciprocation in the way of lowering U.S. tariffs, which would work against the interests of local American producers.
There is good news a year after Ebola struck the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), making 2,619 people ill and killing 1,823. Assuming that the final test results are valid, the disease — which has had an overall fatality rate of about 67% in the current outbreak in DRC — can be treated with drugs, especially if treatment is started early.
Earlier, Merck’s preventive Ebola vaccine (rVSV-ZEBOV-GP), which has had a 97.5% efficacy, helped slow the virus’s spread, but was not able to stop the disease in its tracks.
Now, four candidate drugs — Zmapp, remdesivir, REGN-EB3 and mAb114 — have been tested in a randomized trial, which began in November last year and, as on August 9, had enrolled 681 of the target 725 patients. Preliminary results, of 499 of the participants, show that two of the candidates, REGN-EB3 and mAb114, were highly effective in treating people infected with the virus. While REGN-EB3 “crossed the efficacy threshold” set for the trial, the efficacy of mAb114 was also comparable, say the results.
The overall mortality among patients randomly chosen to receive REGN-EB3 and mAb114 was 29% and 34% respectively.
In the case of Zmapp and remdesivir, the overall mortality was way higher at 49% and 53% respectively.
The striking difference in efficacy was in patients who were recently infected (and so had a low viral load). Further, REGN-EB3 cured the disease in 94% of such patients, while, in the case of mAb114, it was 89%.
Taking into consideration the superiority of the two candidates, data and safety monitoring board recommended that all future patients be given either of the two, though they have not yet been licensed.
REGN-EB3 is a cocktail of three antibodies generated by injecting Ebola virus into a mice model that has a human-like immune system, while mAb114’s development goes back to the Ebola outbreak in 1995 in Congo.
The first step towards finding a cure was taken in 2005 by veteran Congolese microbiologist Jean Jacques Muyembe Tamfum, who helped discover Ebola virus in 1976 and is now tasked with bringing the current outbreak under control. Mr. Tamfum transfused blood of Ebola survivors into eight people with disease and though antibodies were not isolated, seven of the eight survived. In 2006, antibodies isolated from two survivors led to the development of mAb114.
Final analysis awaited
While we will have to wait till end September or early October before final analysis of all the trial data is performed, there is a high possibility that the final results will be along the same lines as the preliminary results, which were based on the data of 499 patients — nearly 69% of the total number of participants.
Vaccination strategies have so far faced huge challenges, including those relating to tracing primary contacts and contacts of contacts, and the mistrust among the infected people towards authorities and health-care workers. However, in all likelihood, the attitude of people will change, and they will become more willing to seek medical care without delay, once they know that Ebola is a curable disease.
Trial of a new Ebola preventive vaccine from Johnson & Johnson has already begun in Uganda.
While the interim analysis shows Merck’s vaccine to be highly effective, the durability of protection is not known. Further, a high coverage will be required to prevent outbreaks. And when outbreaks do occur, the availability of an approved treatment will be important for optimal responses.
If the final results of Merck’s preventive vaccine trial and the two drugs to treat the disease do not spring any adverse surprise, Ebola, which has had a free run so far, is all set to be tamed.
The CDS will be a single-point military adviser to the government and synergise long-term planning, procurements, training and logistics of the three services. This is expected to save money by avoiding duplication between the services, at a time of shrinking capital expenditure within the defence budget. “The Defence Ministry will constitute an implementation committee which will finalise the modalities which is expected to take few months,” a defence source said.
Given the time frame, the Chief of the Army Staff, General Bipin Rawat, could be the front runner to be the country’s fist CDS as he has tenure till December 31 and would be the senior-most officer after Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa, also the current Chairman of Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), who retires on September 30.
The creation of a CDS to act as a single-point military adviser to the Prime Minister on strategic issues was one of the key recommendations of the Kargil review committee on higher military reforms after the 1999 conflict. Despite much deliberation, the issue did not make progress due to lack of consensus and apprehensions from the services.
In 2012, the Naresh Chandra committee recommended the appointment of a Permanent Chairman COSC as a midway to allay apprehensions over the CDS. Currently, the senior-most of the three chiefs functions as the Chairman of the COSC but it is an additional role and the tenures have been very short.
The CDS is also one of the 99 recommendations made by the Lt. General D.B. Shekatkar (retd.) Committee which submitted its report in December 2016 and had 34 recommendations pertaining to tri-service integration.
Speaking to The Hindu on the announcement, Lt. Gen. Shekatkar said that with the fastchanging security and defence environment, this was the right moment for India to have a CDS. He said that during the Kargil conflict, if India had a CDS it would not have suffered so many casualties in the initial stages as the Indian Air Force took time to come in support and “so it was felt there is need for a central point authority who can advise the government”.
“There are three different agencies buying the same thing. You are wasting the resources,” he added.