NASA’s Perseverance rover
(GS-III: Awareness in space)
The first scientific analysis of images taken by NASA’s Perseverance rover has now confirmed that Mars’ Jezero crater — which today is a dry, wind-eroded depression — was once a quiet lake, fed steadily by a small river some 3.7 billion years ago.
About Perseverance Rover:
It was launched in 2020 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V.
On February 18, 2021, the Perseverance rover landed on the floor of Jezero crater.
Why is this mission significant?
It carried a unique instrument, MOXIE or Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment: which for the first time manufactured molecular oxygen on Mars using carbon dioxide from the carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere (ISRU means In Situ Resource Utilization: or the use of local resources to meet human needs or requirements of the spacecraft).
It carried Ingenuity, the first ever helicopter to fly on Mars.
It is the planned first step to bring back rock samples from Mars for analysis in sophisticated laboratories on Earth: with the goal of looking for biosignatures: or signatures of present or past life.
These are some of the key mission objectives:
Look for signs of ancient microbial life.
Collect Martian rock and dust samples for later return to Earth.
Deliver an experimental helicopter.
Study the climate and geology of Mars.
Demonstrate technology for future Mars missions.
What is the reason for the near-term interest in Mars?
Mars is located in the very near backyard (about 200 million km away).
It is a planet that humans can aspire to visit or to stay for a longer duration.
Mars had flowing water and an atmosphere in the distant past: and perhaps conditions to support life.
It also has implications for commercial travel.
World Bank Doing Business report
(GS-II: Important International institutions, agencies and fora, their structure, mandate)
The World Bank, in mid-September, announced that it was set to discontinue publishing its Doing Business report.
This announcement came on the back of an independent investigation that, reportedly, found “data irregularities” that prevailed in the 2018 and 2020 reports.
What’s the issue?
In August 2020, World Bank paused the publication of Doing Business reports following a number of irregularities were reported regarding changes to the data.
The irregularities in Doing Business reports had affected four countries: China; Saudi Arabia; United Arab Emirates; and Azerbaijan.
A probe of data irregularities cited “undue pressure” by top bank officials, including then-Chief Executive Kristalina Georgieva, to boost China’s ranking in 2017.
This raised ethical matters involving former bank staff and board officials.
Why does the report matter?
The World Bank’s annual report matters to several nations, especially developing ones, since it greatly influenced investor decisions by releasing a ranking of economies based on how easy it is to open up, and operate, a business. But while the report was hugely popular among investors, it was heavily criticized by many governments for its methodology that, leaders said, inaccurately captured the realities on the ground.
About Doing Business project:
It provides objective measures of business regulations and their enforcement across 190 economies and selected cities at the subnational and regional level.
Started in 2002, it looks at domestic small and medium-size companies and measures the regulations applying to them through their life cycle.
It ranks countries on the basis of Distance to Frontier (DTF) score that highlights the gap of an economy with respect to the global best practice.
What does the report provide?
Each year, the EoDB rankings mapped whether, and by how much, a country had improved on a number of big and small parameters, such as how long it takes to start a business, or how costly it is to get a construction permit, or how many procedures one has to go through to enforce a contract etc.
How reliable are the rankings?
Even before this controversy, it was openly known that there are several gaps in the rankings.
Reliability of data: For example, in India, which had registered a massive jump in the last few years, all the data to construct the ranking was taken from just two cities — Mumbai and Delhi. Any ranking based on such a small sample ignored how remarkably the “ease” of doing business varied once one moved away from these two metros.
How can the ranking methodology be improved?
Following are the key recommendations made by an external panel review of EoDB methodology:
India will ban single-use plastics next year
(GS-III: Conservation and pollution related issues)
India will ban most single-use plastics by next year as part of its efforts to reduce pollution — but experts say the move is only a first step to mitigate the environmental impact.
The government announced the ban in August this year, following its 2019 resolution to address plastic pollution in the country.
The ban on most single-use plastics will take effect from July 1, 2022.
Enforcement is key for the ban to be effective.
The government also needs to address important structural issues such as policies to regulate the use of plastic alternatives, improve recycling and have better waste segregation management.
In addition to improving recyclability, investment in research and development for alternatives should also be a priority.
What are single use plastics?
Single-use plastics refer to disposable items like grocery bags, food packaging, bottles and straws that are used only once before they are thrown away, or sometimes recycled.
As plastic is cheap, lightweight and easy to produce, it has led to a production boom over the last century, and the trend is expected to continue in the coming decades, according to the United Nations.
But countries are now struggling with managing the amount of plastic waste they have generated.
About 60% of plastic waste in India is collected — that means the remaining 40% or 10,376 tons remain uncollected.
In 2019, the Union government in a bid to free India of single-use plastics by 2022, had laid out a multi-ministerial plan to discourage the use of single-use plastics across the country.
A government committee has identified the single use plastic (SUP) items to be banned based on an index of their utility and environmental impact. It has proposed a three-stage ban:
The first category of SUP items proposed to be phased out are plastic sticks used in balloons, flags, candy, ice-cream and ear buds, and thermocol that is used in decorations.
The second category, proposed to be banned from July 1, 2022, includes items such as plates, cups, glasses and cutlery such as forks, spoons, knives, straws, trays; wrapping and packing films used in sweet boxes; invitation cards; cigarette packets; stirrers and plastic banners that are less than 100 microns in thickness.
A third category of prohibition is for non-woven bags below 240 microns in thickness. This is proposed to start from September next year.
It is not going to be an easy task given that close to 26,000 tons of plastic waste is generated across India every day, of which more than 10,000 tons stays uncollected.
A significant amount of plastic ends up in rivers, oceans and landfills.
What needs to be done?
The government has to do a thorough economic and environmental cost-benefit analysis.
The plan has to take into account social and economic impacts for the ban to be successful.
We need better recycling policies because resources are poor and there needs to be a much broader strategy.
G7 guidelines for central bank digital currencies
(GS-III: Awareness in technology)
G7 finance leaders have laid out guidelines for central bank digital currencies.
The guidelines include:
Any digital currency issued by a central bank must “support and do no harm” to the bank’s ability to fulfil its mandate on monetary and financial stability, and must also meet rigorous standards.
Currencies must be issued in a way that do not infringe upon the central banks’ mandates, and meet rigorous standards of privacy, transparency and accountability for protection of user data.
Any central bank digital currency (CBDC) should be grounded in long-standing public commitments to transparency, rule of law and sound economic governance.
What is the CBDC or National Digital currency?
A Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC), or national digital currency, is simply the digital form of a country’s fiat currency. Instead of printing paper currency or minting coins, the central bank issues electronic tokens. This token value is backed by the full faith and credit of the government.
How can CBDC be used in the Indian context?
‘Fit-for-purpose’ money used for social benefits and other targeted payments in a country. For such cases, the central bank can pay intended beneficiaries pre-programmed CBDC, which could be accepted only for a specific purpose.
CBDCs could be used for faster cross-border remittance payments. International collaboration among the major economies of the world, including India, could help create the necessary infrastructure and arrangements for CBDC transfer and conversion.
Payment instruments could be made available for payment transactions to be made via CBDC. Furthermore, universal access attributes of a CBDC could also include an offline payment functionality.
Instant lending to micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in India can be possible with the help of CBDC.
Need for CBDC:
An official digital currency would reduce the cost of currency management while enabling real-time payments without any inter-bank settlement.
India’s fairly high currency-to-GDP ratio holds out another benefit of CBDC — to the extent large cash usage can be replaced by CBDC, the cost of printing, transporting and storing paper currency can be substantially reduced.
The need for inter-bank settlement would disappear as it would be a central bank liability handed over from one person to another.
Challenges in rolling out National Digital Currency:
Potential cybersecurity threat.
Lack of digital literacy of the population.
Introduction of digital currency also creates various associated challenges in regulation, tracking investment and purchase, taxing individuals, etc.
Threat to Privacy: The digital currency must collect certain basic information of an individual so that the person can prove that he’s the holder of that digital currency.
SC Garg Committee recommendations (2019):
Ban anybody who mines, hold, transact or deal with cryptocurrencies in any form.
It recommends a jail term of one to 10 years for exchange or trading in digital currency.
It proposed a monetary penalty of up to three times the loss caused to the exchequer or gains made by the cryptocurrency user whichever is higher.
However, the panel said that the government should keep an open mind on the potential issuance of cryptocurrencies by the Reserve Bank of India.