Tag Archives: India

India has administered 1 billion vaccine doses to its citizens, moving closer to 100% goal

Last week, India passed an important milestone: the country has administered 1 billion doses of COVID vaccine to its citizens, according to government data. With this, roughly 75% of its population has been immunized with at least one dose — around 708 million people. Around one-third (30%) of the country has been fully immunized with two shots of vaccine.

Image credits Christian Emmer.

Other countries have managed similar vaccination rates as percentages of their population — Canada, for example, sits at around the 77% mark, while Portugal hit 88% — but India’s achievement impresses through sheer numbers. One billion doses are no small feat.

The country has had a pretty rough experience with this pandemic. But it also made sizeable efforts to contend with the virus, and this achievement carries on that trend.

For example, India was among the first countries to issue lockdowns and use contact tracing to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Still, things have not been going swimmingly for the country, especially since the rise of the Delta variant, and for a long time, India was among the countries with the most cases.

High score

“This achievement belongs to India, every citizen of India,” wrote Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Twitter (original tweet in Hindi). “I express my gratitude to all the vaccine manufacturing companies of the country, workers engaged in vaccine transportation, health sector professionals engaged in vaccine development.”

India’s very large population, currently inching toward the 1.4 billion mark, is one of the factors working against its efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Other populous countries know how challenging it can be to source, deliver, and administer a large number of vaccine doses. Even countries with lower populations but robust infrastructures and strong economies — like the USA — have had their own hiccups in vaccination efforts.

Apart from this, India’s population is still largely rural, living outside metropolitan areas. Its economy, although large and diverse, is still mostly people-driven, and much less resilient to public health issues than those of more developed countries. Its infrastructure is also relatively undeveloped in many geographical areas.

This all makes the country’s vaccination milestone all that much more impressive.

Against this backdrop, New Delhi is setting even more ambitious goals for itself. Government officials are aiming to have all of India’s adult population vaccinated by the end of the year. I, personally, cheer them on, although I do have my reservations regarding how feasible such a target actually is. Experience in other areas of the world shows us that the last steps towards full vaccination are the hardest, and slowest to go through.

Still, reaching that goal means India will need to administer around 1.8 billion doses. A production target the government set in June called for 2 billion doses to be produced by December. Local manufacturers have reportedly ramped up production in recent months to reach that target.

India started its vaccination program in January of this year. So far, only those above 18 years of age can receive a shot. Several vaccines have been approved for use by the government, including the AstraZeneca shot and the Russian Sputnik-V. A new vaccine, a three-dose shot produced by local manufacturer Cadila Healthcare, has also been approved for use in those under 18.

There are over 70,000 state-run vaccination centers currently administering free shots in India. A further 2,000 private centers also offer vaccine shots, although these charge for the service.

India sets grim record of 400,000 coronavirus cases per day

India reported a grim marker: 400,000 new coronavirus cases within 24 hours, after 10 consecutive days of over 300,000 new cases. It is now averaging over 3,000 COVID deaths each day, with more than 200,000 dead in total.

Image credits: Annie Spratt.

It’s not a wave, it’s a tsunami

In early March, India seemed to have the pandemic largely under control and health minister Harsh Vardhan declared the country was “in the endgame” of the pandemic. In the span of a month, the situation has deteriorated dramatically.

The second wave was bound to come, but it could have been delayed or mitigated, if not entirely prevented. The wave surpassed anything that India and the world have seen — it’s a tsunami. Cutting through social and economic divides, the wave struck hard at rural and urban populations, affecting the rich and the poor. The crisis is intensified by inadequate hospital supplies, and stories from those in the front lines are essentially a worst-case scenario.

Like other countries that eased lockdown restrictions too quickly, India is now suffering a major backlash. The problem was compounded by questionable politics, with many politicians denying there’s even a problem.

“There was a feeling of triumphalism,” said K Srinath Reddy, the president of the Public Health Foundation of India. “Some felt we had achieved herd immunity. Everyone wanted to get back to work. This narrative fell on many receptive ears, and the few voices of caution were not heeded to,” he said.

In a recent interview to Indian media, Anthony Fauci also advised a more proactive approach, both in the short and in the long-term, suggesting that a lockdown is pretty much the only way for India to squash the wave.

“There is the immediate, the intermediate, and the long-range. I think the most important thing in the immediate is to get oxygen, get supplies, get medication, get PPE, those kinds of things but also, one of the immediate things to do is to essentially call a shutdown of the country,” Fauci told the Indian Express.

“We know that when China had this big explosion a year ago, they completely shut down. And if you shut down, you don’t have to shut down for six months. You can shut down temporarily to put an end to the cycle of transmission.”

It’s unclear just how much of this is owed to the coronavirus variant in India, but the lessons and the warnings from the situation in India are clear. For starters, we should be careful not to declare a premature victory, and be cautious of political triumphalism.

The only way to be truly rid of the pandemic is through vaccination ensuring herd immunity. Until that happens, the pandemic isn’t truly over. Also, in countries like India, with low vaccination rates, short local lockdowns may still be necessary to squash future spikes of infection. As India is clearly showing, the pandemic isn’t over yet.

A deadly smog covers much of India, threatening 400 million people

A widespread haze and pollution that has affected large parts of India since October is likely to remain there for at least another month, according to a forecast by the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS). This means people will continue to be exposed to dangerous emissions that can significantly reduce their lifespan and cause multiple health issues.

Smog on Delhi, India’s capital. Image credit: Flickr / Ninara

The phenomenon has affected several countries across South Asia but India has been the most severely hit, especially in its north-eastern areas. High levels of fine particulate matter known as PM2.5 were reported in cities like New Delhi, India, Lahore, Pakistan, and Kathmandu, Nepal. The air quality in New Delhi has remained in the “poor” category since January, worsened by the current cold temperatures which favor the appearance of smog.

Mark Parrington from Copernicus said in a statement:

“Degraded air quality is common across northern India in winter, especially throughout the Indo-Gangetic Plain, due in part to emissions from anthropogenic activities such as traffic, cooking, heating and crop stubble burning which are able to accumulate over the region due to topography and cold stagnant conditions.”

Scientists from Copernicus regularly monitor air pollution using satellite information, ground-based observation, and detailed computer models. They have been regularly tracking the phenomenon in South Asia and identified sulfate and organic matter as the main contributors to the haze. They believe it will come to an end in spring thanks to warmer temperatures and changes in the weather.

Many studies have shown that chronic exposure to harmful gases and small particles such as PM2.5 can have adverse health effects, reducing life expectancy by more than eight months on average and by two years in the most polluted cities and regions. A study earlier this year even suggested air pollution could be responsible for 1 in 5 adult deaths worldwide.

Image credits: Copernicus.

Cities across India frequently make the top of the ranking of the most polluted cities worldwide, and this isn’t random. New Delhi and many others are subject to a severe smog season every year as burning farmland combines with fossil fuel pollution, enveloping urban centers during cold months when demand for heat is high and air circulation is reduced.

Copernicus’ report follows a recent study by Harvard University researchers, who found that 2.5 million Indians died from air pollution in 2018. The study concluded that previous estimates of deaths caused by long-term exposure to airborne toxic particles were too low. Instead of the previously estimated 4.2 million global deaths, they said the number was closer to eight million.

Previous research used satellite and surface observations to estimate the average global annual concentrations of airborne particulate matter – neither of which allows to distinguish the difference between fossil fuel emissions and those from other sources. To overcome this challenge, the Harvard researchers used a global 3-D model of atmospheric chemistry called GEOS-Chem.

“Often, when we discuss the dangers of fossil fuel combustion, it’s in the context of carbon dioxide and climate change and overlook the potential health impact of the pollutants co-emitted with greenhouse gases,” author Joel Schwartz said in a statement. “By quantifying the health consequences of fossil fuel combustion, we can send a clear message to policymakers and stakeholders of the benefits of a transition to alternative energy sources.”

New species of glowing mushroom found growing on dead bamboo in India

A new species of mushroom has been discovered in the Assam province, northeastern India. It glows.

Image credits Karunarathna, Mortimer, Tibpromma, Dutta, et al., (2020), Phytotaxa.

A team of researchers from India and China reports on two weeks of fieldwork in the Assam region, during which they spotted several new species of mushrooms. The most exciting of these is a species that locals describe as “electric mushrooms” that lives on dead bamboo. The species, christened Roridomyces phyllostachydis is bioluminescent — it produces its own light.

Glow up

“The members of the genus Roridomyces are very fragile and they love moist and humid conditions,” explained Samantha Karunarathna, senior mycologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and lead author of the report.

“In general, bioluminescent mushrooms seem to have co-evolved together with some specific insects as these mushrooms attract insects to disperse their spores.”

The species may be new to science, but locals have known about (and used) it for quite a while now. They’ve been employing bamboo sticks with these glowing mushrooms growing on them as natural torches at night, for example.

It only grows on dead bamboo, the team explains, although it’s not immediately apparent why. It may be the case that the bamboo substrate offers special conditions or resources that the fungus prefers, according to Karunarathna, but until the issue is researched more thoroughly, we can’t know for sure. This is the first species of the genus Roridomyces to be discovered in India, the team adds.

The team recovered samples of the mushrooms, dried them, and then performed a genetic analysis to understand where it fits on the tree of life. Both morphological features and its genetic heritage support its position as a new species in the genus Roridomyces. Currently, 12 other species are known in this genus, and five of them are also bioluminescent. The team named the species phyllostachydis after the genus of the host bamboo tree (Phyllostachys) from which it was collected.

Image credits Karunarathna, Mortimer, Tibpromma, Dutta, et al., (2020), Phytotaxa.

During the day, they look pretty unassuming. However, at night they glow with a clear, green light — but only from its stripes and mycelia (which are a rough equivalent to roots) that are burrowing into the bamboo. The mushrooms’ brown caps do not emit light at all.

So why does it glow? Bioluminescence is most commonly seen in ocean environments than on dry land, although fireflies are iconic examples of the latter. Its typically used to attract attention, either for hunting or to coax insects into visiting a plant and spreading its pollen or seeds around. Of about 120,000 described fungus species, around 100 are known to be bioluminescent; only a handful of these are native to India. This is likely due to the fact that there aren’t enough trained specialists to go out and look for new species and document those that have already been discovered, Karunarathna argues.

Bioluminescent fungi commonly grow on decaying wood and are able to feed on the lignin in plant debris (lignin is a structural component in the walls of plant cells, which gives them their stiffness). The largest genus of bioluminescent fungi we know of is the Mycena (bonnet mushrooms), and genetic studies of Mycena suggest that this trait evolved around 160 million years ago.

The paper “Roridomyces phyllostachydis (Agaricales, Mycenaceae), a new bioluminescent fungus from Northeast India” has been published in the journal Phytotaxa.

Mistaken beliefs are altering India’s transition to clean cooking fuels

Popular belief in India that using firewood for cooking is healthier than Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) is making the transition to clean cooking fuels more difficult, a new study showed. This means better information programs are needed to train people, the researchers argued.

Credit Flickr Carl Stead

India has more people who rely on solid fuels for cooking than any other country in the world (780 million), and estimates indicate that it will stay in this top position at least until the end of 2030. The scale of solid fuel use in rural areas signals that the widespread uptake of clean fuels is a distant reality.

Women are the main family cooks in rural India. That’s why researchers decided to focus their study on them and their views on fuel transition. The team performed a qualitative analysis of data from focus group discussions with comparable groups of women who have those who have not transitioned to LPG, seeking to understand their views.

The findings showed women believe firewood causes health problems but feel that it contributes more to wellbeing than cooking with LPG. For the researchers, this helps explain why India’s switch from traditional solid fuels is going slower than expected.

Study co-author Rosie Day said in a statement: “Whilst cooking is not solely a woman’s job, the reality is that, in rural India, women are considered the primary cooks. It is, therefore, critical to unravel how women see the relationship between wellbeing and cooking fuel if India is to make progress in transitioning to clean fuels.”

The researchers from the Universities of Birmingham (UK) and Queensland (Australia) focused on women from four villages in the Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh. This allowed to do a comparison, as two of the villages mostly used firewood and the other two LPG, having switched from using firewood.

Those who use firewood believed that cooking with this fuel improved their financial wellbeing because they generated income from its sale, whilst collecting firewood gave them an opportunity to socialize and is a tradition they would like to continue. They viewed LPG as a financial burden that gave food an undesirable taste.

On the other hand, LPG users said their fuel allowed them to maintain or improve social status, as well as making it easier to care for children and other family members. Cooking with LPG freed up time which they could use to work outside the home and earn money. They also enjoyed extra leisure time with their family.

The researchers suggested future interventions to promote new fuels should actively involve women who used solid fuels and clean fuels, opening discussion about the benefits of each and allowing cooks to observe different cooking practices. They said information should be distributed on the positive wellbeing of LPG.

“We have gained important understanding of women’s views in this setting, but further research is needed to analyze the perceived relationship between women’s fuel use and multi-dimensional wellbeing in other settings. This will help to increase our understanding of how social and cultural factors come into play in transition to clean fuels,” said Day.

The study was published in the journal Nature Energy.

India creates cheap and quick test for COVID-19

A group of Indian researchers created a cheap paper-based test for coronavirus that could provide results fast as a pregnancy test, using gene-editing technology. The test, called Feluda after a famous Indian fictional detective, would give results in an hour and cost about $6.75.

Credit Flickr Gwydion Williams

Feluda will be manufactured by a leading Indian company, Tata, and could become the world’s first paper-based Covid-19 test available in the market. It’s simple, precise, reliable, and scalable, according to Professor K Vijay Raghavan, principal scientific adviser to the Indian government, speaking with the BBC.

The test was developed by researchers at the Delhi-based CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB), working with private labs. They first tried Feluda on samples from about 2,000 patients, including some who had already tested positive for the coronavirus.

They found that the test had a 96% sensitivity and 98% specificity. A highly sensitive test can detect almost everyone who has the disease, while a high-specificity test can rule out everyone who doesn’t have the disease. The first one rules false negatives and the second one false positives.

India’s drug regulator already authorized the test for commercial use. The country is the world’s second-highest in confirmed infections of COVID-19, now exceeding six million. More than 100,000 people have already died of the disease. The country is now testing a million samples a day, using two different tests.

One is the time-tested, gold-standard polymerase chain reaction, or PCR swab tests. It uses chemicals to amplify the virus’s genetic material in the laboratory. The other one is the speedy antigen test, which works by detecting virus fragments in a sample. The PCR test is reliable but expensive, while the antigen is cheaper but generates more false positives.

Dr. Anant Bhan, a researcher in global health and health policy, told BBC that there are curently long wait times and unavailability of Feluda kits across the country. However, he argued it could end up replacing the antigen test as it is cheaper and more accurate.

The sample collection for Feluda will be similar to the PCR test, using a nasal swab inserted a few inches into the nose to check for coronavirus in the back of the nasal passage. Feluda uses CRISPR, Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, a gene-editing technology to detect the virus.

Several companies in the US and the UK are working on similar paper strip tests that can be cheap and mass-produced. One of the most mentioned has been a paper-based strip developed by Sherlock Bioscience, already approved for emergency use by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“The ideal and ultimate test will be the one that is paper-based which you can do from home,” Dr Thomas Tsai of the Harvard Global Health Institute told BBC News. “But of course, there are some biological restrictions to the technology – we can’t expect people to extract and amplify the RNA from home.”

Coronavirus cases continue to rise sharply in the US, India and Brazil

The coronavirus pandemic is showing no signs of slowing down in the worst-affected countries, the United States, Brazil and India. The three nations account for more than 60% of the new positive cases of the virus, according to recent estimations by John Hopkins University.

India reported today almost 25,000 new coronavirus infections, as the disease continues to spread among its 1.4 billion inhabitants. Meanwhile, the US reported nearly 59,00 new daily cases, close to the record of 60,000 cases from a day earlier. In Brazil, nearly 45,000 new cases were reported.

The number of confirmed cases in the US has already passed three million, which means at least one in every 100 people has been infected, with the number of deaths exceeding 132,000. President Trump stills wants to reopen schools and threatened to hold back federal money from districts that don’t follow through.

Despite the pressure, New York City announced that most of its students would return to classrooms only two or three days a week and would learn online in between. “Most schools will not be able to have all their kids in school at the same time,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio in a press conference.

Health experts have urged US officials to reconsider how they are planning to reopen the economy as a whole and to prioritize schools. This would mean closing down some establishments like bars to limit the spread of the virus and increase the possibility of returning to the classrooms.

“We need to think about what our priorities are as a society, and some other things may just have to wait” Helen Jenkins, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Boston University, told AP. “I think there are hard choices having to be made by decision-makers.”

In Brazil, cases of coronavirus are soaring across the country, and the healthcare system in several states has been stretched to its limit. Brazil is second only to the United States in the number of infections and deaths, and on Tuesday, president Jair Bolsonaro was also diagnosed with Covid-19.

The virus first hit Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas, as well as some regions in the southeast of the country, such as San Pablo or Rio de Janeiro, but in recent weeks it has spread with force to other areas, such as the west center and the south.

Meanwhile, India remains as the third country with the largest number of cases, so far totaling 767,296. Of those, about 476,000 have already recovered. Maharashtra remains the most affected state and accumulates more than 223,000 positives, followed by Tamil Nadu (more than 122,000) and Delhi (almost 105,000).

The situation in other countries

The novel coronavirus has also been spreading quite fast in South Africa, which registered almost 9,000 new cases in the latest daily update. The government is preparing 1.5 million gravesites, according to a provincial health official, who told AP it’s the public’s responsibility “to make sure that we don’t get there.”

Meanwhile, in Australia, following initial success in containing the outbreak, the country reported 179 new cases. Most of them were located in the city of Melbourne, which has imposed a new six-week lockdown. Six new cases were from a high school that is now considered the state’s larger known cluster with 113 people infected.

The virus is also escalating in Tokyo, with more than 220 new cases today, exceeding the record daily increase from mid-April. Most of the new cases are linked to night clubs, according to Tokyo’s virus task force, but there are also growing concerns of a wider spread in the community from workplaces and households.

In Serbia, the police threw tear gas at protesters who were complaining against the president’s handling of the outbreak. The government backtracked on reinstating a lockdown in Belgrade and demonstrations turned violent, with protesters throwing stones against the parliament.

Climate change is creating a marriage crisis for farmers across India

Climate change is having negative effects on the marriage prospects of farmers in India, a new study in the region of Andhra Pradesh showed. Farmers are no longer getting married because they’re seen as unstable financially by would-be brides due to the effects of climate change.

Credit Flickr

As part of a larger project running from 2018 to 2021, an international group of researchers interviewed over 1,000 farmers from India to learn about the “increasing vulnerability of agriculture” in the region of Andhra Pradesh. What they found was, in the own words of the researchers, “unexpected.”

“The focus on climate change hitherto has mostly focused on the impacts on the natural environment. This research highlights for the first time that social and cultural changes are also occurring as a consequence of environmental damage,” the researchers wrote. “The climate crisis is linked to a marriage crisis, in a place where over a billion of the world’s population still have arranged marriages.”

In India, the majority of marriages are arranged. However, due to the increasing uncertainty of farmers’ incomes, many parents no longer want farmers as their son-in-law, the study found. Increasingly the eligible women instead prefer to marry employees, particularly government ones as they earn a stable monthly income.

The researchers estimate that “just over half” of the farmers in Andhra Pradesh are experiencing a barrier to marriage. Already, the state, which is the tenth-largest state in India in terms of population, is feeling the impact of both climate change and the resulting marriage crisis.

One of the young farmers from Guntur district told the researchers: “I am searching for a suitable bride for eight years and still not yet married”. Meanwhile, another one, now is in his early 40s, said that: “I did not get a bride even though I offered a financial incentive” (the traditional custom of a gift to the future bride).

Agriculture is still the major source of employment around the world. That’s especially applicable in low- and middle-income countries, where nearly three billion people live in rural areas and of those, 2.5 billion people depend on agriculture for their livelihood. In India, more than 70% of the rural population relies on agriculture as the main source of income.

A significant amount of these farmers relies on the rain and other natural resources for their agriculture needs. Increasing temperatures, changes in rainfall trends, and more extreme natural hazards are negatively affecting incomes from agriculture. Climate change is leading to loss of crops, reductions in productivity, depletion of biodiversity, even the complete devastation of entire crops.

For the researchers, the long-term consequences of the marriage crisis are worrying. Not only wellbeing and happiness are being negatively impacted but also the population of farming communities will be reduced. They estimate this will lead to a reduced farming capacity, at the loss of agricultural experience and knowledge.

The study also showed that a significant number of farmers are being forced to migrate to other regions or other states to cope with the marriage crisis. “If the impact of climate change is not minimized in the near future, agriculture will be significantly affected, as well as harming many traditional cultural practices,” the researchers wrote.

The study made a number of policy recommendations to be adopted in India that both address agricultural precarity and prepare farmers to “cope up with the risks” of climate change. This included the identification of sustainable and resilient farming practices, crop diversification, and expanding irrigation.

Implementing these policies would help “support adaptation and a household level,” allowing for farmers’ livelihoods to be less vulnerable to climate change, the researchers argued. The measures would need to be in conjunction with other widespread changes, as the temperature in India is on track to increase 4.4℃ (or 39.92℉) by 2100.

The study was published in the journal Sustainability.

How Hinduism, the world’s oldest religion, came to be

Religion has fallen from grace in many parts of the world today. Secularism seems to be the name of the modern game.

Ganesh or Ganapati, the elephant-headed god, is one of the most important hindu dieties.
image credits Pijarn Jangsawang.

But religion undeniably had a huge effect on the path of history. People argued, fought, and died over which god or gods are the ‘right’ ones. Kings and priests bickered over what gives one the right to rule, and would generally try to grab power from the other. On a more communal or personal level, religion and spirituality shaped our customs and the way each culture and individual views the world around them.

Given its massive impact on history, religion is always an interesting topic of conversation. We’ve talked about the origins of religion in general. Today, let’s build on that general picture with a more in-depth look at the oldest religion we know of: Hinduism.

Origins

To the best of our knowledge, the story of Hinduism starts around 3500 years ago. One of the best shorthands for understanding this religion is that the word ‘hindu’ — which itself is an exonym, a name by which outsiders refer to something — is used to describe people or cultural elements that come from the Indian subcontinent. Its very name, then, means ‘the Indian’ faith.

It’s quite uncommon among today’s religions: it has no known founder. Its oldest roots probably formed as Indo-Aryan peoples migrated into the Indus Valley, thus mixing their language and culture with those of the indigenous Harappan people. On the other hand, it’s possible that this incursion was what ultimately collapsed the Harappan civilization.

File:Indus Valley Civilization, Mature Phase (2600-1900 BCE).png
Image via Wikimedia.

Whichever way that meeting went down, it does suggest that Hinduism is the cultural successor of the beliefs and customs of ancient Indus Valley peoples.

It is believed that Hinduism emerged in the area near modern-day Pakistan between 2300 BC and 1500 BC as a collage of philosophies, cultural elements, religious texts, rituals, and customs that had merged together. Many adherents to the faith, however, say it has always existed — in fact, one of the names they know their own faith by is “the eternal way”.

Today, Hinduism is the third-largest religion on the planet. Its most important texts are known as the Vedas and were composed between about 1500 BC and 500 BC. This span of time, which came to be known as the Vedic Period, mostly emphasized rituals including chanting and sacrifices. During the later Epic, Puranic, and Classic Periods (which collectively lasted until 500 AD), the worship of deities became a central part of the faith, along with the concept of dharma.

Early evolution

The Vedic period of Hinduism (1500-500 BC) mostly saw a fleshing out of the philosophies and ideas that were already part of the faith.

Archivo:Early Vedic Culture (1700-1100 BCE).png
Image via Wikimedia.

It was a time of much debate and growth inside the Hindu faith. The Vedic teachings coagulated inside the hearts and minds of pastoral, nomadic tribes while they started shifting towards agriculture — a period of dramatic social change.

Given these times of change it’s perhaps not surprising that Hinduism (note: it was still the Vedic faith) at this time was trying to move in two different directions. On the one hand, the numerous and elaborate sets of rituals that are still part of Hinduism to this day started to form. Other Hindus were moving the faith more into the abstract, pondering on the meaning and purpose of their rituals and internalizing them as ethical tenets. This latter group formed the groundwork of the Buddhist and Jainist faiths which branched out from the Vedic body.

Brahmanism emerged during this time — Brahmins are a priestly class (varna) in India’s caste system. This branch of Hinduism drew from both Vedic and post-Vedic texts, and placed emphasis on ritual and the dominant position of Brahmins. They would lose much of their power in the coming centuries due, in particular, to higher urbanization and outside influences (such as Alexander the Great’s Indian Campaign). Another factor that challenged the Vedic faith was a growing ascetic movement closely linked to the emergence of Buddhism and Jainism.

The Classical Period

black and orange hindu letter preview
‘Om’ or ‘Aum’, is a sacred sound in Hindu belief and their most important spiritual symbol. It signifies “the essence of the ultimate reality” and was first mentioned in the Upanishad texts, is often found at the beginning and end of every verse. It’s also used as an incantation.
Image via Peakpx.

The rituals and beliefs of Hinduism matured between 500 BC and 300 AD, as the Vedic and Brahmin systems continued to merge. During this time, the faith also spread within India, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia along with Buddhism.

Hinduism as we know it today took religious elements from those Indo-Aryan peoples of old and incorporated them within the Vedic-Brahmin systems. Elements from the Srmanic faiths (Buddhism and Jainism) also make their way into the modern form of Hinduism.

One of the key criteria for being a Hindu today is accepting the Vedic and Upanishad texts as the basis of the faith — similar to how Christianity is inseparable from the bible.

Many of Hinduism’s most influential texts were composed during this period, likely due to higher urbanization creating the socio-economic conditions to make them possible (such as higher availability of education and wealth to support religious activity).

Up until 650 AD, during the rule of the Gupta dynasty, India is considered to have experienced a ‘golden age’. The oldest stone Hindu temples were built during this time, alongside many monasteries and universities which supported both Vedic and non-Vedic studies. The earliest version of the Puran texts were written during this time, which heavily expanded on the mythos of Vishnu, Shiva, and Devi (major Hindu deities). The Puran texts fit into the older Vedic faith, but also added to it — and they were living texts, meaning they were revised and updated over time, changing the faith as they changed.

A Hindu temple in Victoria, Seychelles.
Image credits Pascal Ohlmann.

As the Gupta collapsed, so did their empire. Religion became a local affair, leading to the regionalization of faith. Srmanic faiths both declined but were also integrated into Hinduism and courtly life (royal courts were especially involved in Buddist ritual and sponsored religious texts).

Interactions with Islam

Islam had quite a powerful impact on the history of India. The religion first arrived on the backs of Arab traders in the early 7th century, but its true effect started being felt from the 10th to 12th century as various regions of India fell under Islamic rule. Buddhism especially declined during this time, and a new culture mixing Indian and Islamic elements emerged although many ulamas (“learned Islamic jurists”) worked against the in-mixing of these two.

The Taj Mahal, one of India’s most iconic landmarks, was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, one of the most powerful Islamic rulers in India’s history as a tomb for him and his favourite wife.
Image via Pixabay.

The Islamic kingdoms of India are the last element that shaped the Hindu religion in its current form. While the two faiths generally coexisted peacefully, some violent confrontations did occur. Non-Muslims were also enslaved (especially Hindus), although this practice became less common after it was abolished in 1562 by Akbar the Great. Kalinga was one of the last real Hindu strongholds in the area during this time, keeping their religion, philosophy, art, architecture, and customs alive.

But not all Muslim leaders were as tolerant as Akbar. Between the 12th and 18th centuries, several important Hindu temples were broken down and mosques built in their place. Various rulers at various times also allowed or supported the persecution of non-Muslims, including Hindus. Some converted to Islam either for socio-economic benefit or genuine belief; in some regions, as much as 90% of the population were Muslim, although in others it was as little as 10%.

The expansion of Islam in India was blocked by the Hindu Vijayanagar Empire in the 14th and 15th centuries, which also nurtured Hindu customs and administration in its lands. The Hindu Maratha Confederacy, India’s last great empire before the British came, rose to power in the 18th century and brought the country back firmly into Hinduism.

It was during this time that scholars began considering Hinduism as we know it. Before, the individual texts and traditions of each faith were seen as more separate. These ‘saddarsana‘ now form the foundation of the Hindu religion.

Today

saraswati, sarasvati, wisdom, goddess of wisdom, hinduism, temple, sunlight, harmony, hindu, morning light, holy
Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, art, wisdom, and learning, part of a trinity with two others.
Image via Wikimedia.

Hinduism saw a reemergence during British rule from the 18th century in the British Raj. The British Raj was the name of the colonial government imposed in India (‘raj’ is an Indian word for ‘rule’).

The British didn’t show much academic interest in the Raj, being more concerned with milking its enormous wealth of cotton, spices, and tea. Hinduism started to receive academic scrutiny only in the 19th century, which first exposed Europe and the West to the belief.

In many ways, Hinduism didn’t really ‘exist’ until Europeans started referring to the area’s rich religious heritage as a unified set of beliefs. Those traditions were there, but they weren’t seen as a single entity the way Christianity or Islam is. It was through the eyes of Westerners trying to explain this exotic Indian faith using the concepts and systems that defined their own religion that Hinduism took the mantle of a single, unified religion.

Today, it is the third-largest religion in the world with 1.2 billion adherents worldwide — although most of them are found in southeast Asia, for example in Nepal and India. Countries that were part of the British empire, such as Canada, the USA, or South Africa also typically have Hindu populations today.

Apart from that, it’s not very widespread. In Europe, the only countries with a sizable Hindu minority are Sweden and the Netherlands. In South America, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana are the only countries where Hinduism makes up an important minority.

However, one element of Hinduism does capture the hearts and minds of trendy, educated, wealthy people all over the world — yoga.


Condensing the history of a religion such as Hinduism in a single article is a very hard task; condensing its beliefs might just be impossible.

Hinduism is enormously rich in ritual, customs, and philosophical thought. It’s also a polytheistic religion with “33 million” gods. It doesn’t actually have that many, but they do have 33 types of deities. There’s no way we can cover all of that here and keep you guys and gals awake through it, but if you do have some free time on your hands (and, given the pandemic, you probably do) delving into the beliefs of Hinduism is a very gripping, exotic, sometimes surreal experience.

It is, after all, a religion thousands of years old.

Air pollution shortens global life expectancy by three years, study shows

Air pollution shortens life expectancy by almost three years, which is more than tobacco, AIDS, wars or diseases such as malaria, according to a new study.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

The results of the report (carried out among others by the Max Planck Institute and the University of Mainz, both in Germany) suggest that “the world is facing a ‘pandemic’ of air pollution,” according to a statement from the European Society of Cardiology.

The study points out that poor air quality especially affects older people and overall, about two-thirds of premature deaths due to air pollution are attributable to people generated sources, mainly due to the use of fossil fuels.

Using a new method to model the effects of various sources of air pollution on mortality rates, the researchers estimated that global air pollution caused 8.8 million additional premature deaths in 2015. This represents a shorter life expectancy of almost three years for everyone in the world.

There are, however, large regional differences due to the diversity of emissions, the study said. In East Asia, the reduction in life expectancy is an average of 3.9 years; in Africa of 3.1; in Europe 2.2 years; in North America of 1.4 and in South America, around 1 year.

By comparison, tobacco use shortens life expectancy by an average of 2.2 years (7.2 million deaths), HIV/AIDS by 0.7 years (1 million deaths), diseases such as malaria transmitted by parasites or insects 0.6 years (600,000 deaths), and all forms of violence, including deaths in wars, for 0.3 years (530,000 deaths).

The researchers analyzed the effect of air pollution on six categories of diseases: lower respiratory tract infection, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, heart disease, stroke that leads to stroke and other noncommunicable diseases, including pathologies such as hypertension and diabetes.

They discovered that cardiovascular diseases are responsible for the largest proportion of lives shortened by air pollution: 43% of the loss of life expectancy worldwide. Air pollution causes damage to blood vessels, which in turn causes increases in blood pressure, diabetes, strokes, heart attacks, and heart failure.

Poor air quality has a great effect on reducing the life expectancy of older people, the study showed. It is estimated that 75% of deaths attributed to air pollution are from people over 60 years. The only exception is the deaths of children under five in low-income countries in Africa and Southeast Asia.

One of the authors, Thomas Münzel, of the University of Mainz, said: “About two-thirds of premature deaths can be attributed to man-made air pollution, mainly from the use of fossil fuels, a figure that reaches up to 80% in high-income countries. Five and a half million annual deaths in the world are potentially preventable.”

Nine out of ten people are now breathing polluted air and the cities that are struggling the most are located in India in China, according to the World Air Quality Report. Bangladesh was found to be the country with the most air pollution on the planet, South Korea within the OECD and Bosnia-Herzegovina in Europe.

The study was published in the journal Cardiovascular Research.

The world’s most polluted cities: most are in India and China

Nine out of ten people are now breathing polluted air and, according to a new report, the cities that are struggling the most are located in India.

Global map of PM2.5 exposure. The closer it is to red, the worse it is. Credits: IQAir

The “World Air Quality Report” found that of the 30 cities with the highest air pollution in the world, 21 are in India. Bangladesh was found to be the country with the most air pollution on the planet, South Korea within the OECD and Bosnia-Herzegovina in Europe.

The report was prepared by IQAir, a Swiss-US platform that specializes in technology solutions to protect people from airborne pollutants. The work, while not published in a peer-reviewed journal, is quite comprehensive. It includes a world ranking of 4,680 cities and another of 98 countries based on fine particle data (PM2.5) and collected last year by ground stations for air quality control.

“While the new coronavirus is dominating headlines, a silent killer is contributing to nearly 7 million more deaths a year: air pollution. Through compiling and visualizing data from air quality monitoring stations, the report gives new context to the world’s leading environmental health threat,” said Frank Hammes, IQAir CEO, in a press release.

The city with more air pollution in the world is Ghaziabad (India), with an average of 110.2 micrograms per cubic meter during 2019, which is 11 times more than the 10 micrograms per cubic meter per year recommended by the World Organization of the Health (WHO) for citizens to breathe healthy air.

Hotan (China), with 110.1 micrograms per cubic meter, is a close second, just ahead of Gujranwala (Pakistan), Faisalabad (Pakistan) and New Delhi (India), which is the first national capital on the list. Four other Indian cities (Noida, Gurugram, Great Noida and Bandhwari) complete the ‘top ten’, as well as another Pakistani (Raiwind).

In addition to the six locations mentioned, India contributes another 15 more in the top 30 positions — it’s shocking that 21 out of the 30 most polluted cities are in India (at least considering PM2.5).

From then on, Chinese municipalities begin to proliferate. A myriad of Chinese cities (including large ones) have extremely poor air quality.

As for Europe, the classification is headed by Lukavac (Bosnia-Herzegovina), followed by Valjevo (Serbia) and three other Bosnian cities: Tuzla, Zenica, and Sarajevo.

There was some positive news in the report as well. Although they’re still a ways away from acceptable levels, Chinese cities saw an overall improvement, with a 9% decrease in the concentration of pollutants compared to last year. Beijing, for example, halved its pollution levels over the past decade and is no longer one of the most 200 polluted cities. Furthermore, much of central and Eastern Europe has acceptable or almost acceptable air quality. Scandinavia, despite being highly developed, boasts generally clean cities.

The report indicated that air pollution levels are affected by weather and climate events, such as sandstorms and forest fires, and rapid urbanization in Southeast Asian regions, among other causes. Urgent action is needed to tackle these emissions sources, the report argued.

Air pollution is the most pressing environmental health risk in the world since it is estimated that it contributes to seven million premature deaths a year and it is believed that 92% of the planet’s population breathes unhealthy air, according to WHO. These deaths cost around 4.6 billion euros in losses in global terms.

People suffer both short-term and long-term health effects from air pollution, causing diseases and complications in nearly every system of the body. Some of these include respiratory diseases, eye irritation, skin diseases, cancer and birth defects.

Indian ministry recommends homeopathy against coronavirus

India’s Ministry of AYUSH recommended taking an arsenic-based homeopathic substance as a prophylactic medicine against the infection.

Image credits: Vishal Bhutani

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread, several health organizations have published guidelines on how to prevent the virus’ spread. It’s usually the common themes: wash your hands, avoid crowded places, use a handkerchief if sneezing. But India‘s Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, Sowa Rigpa and Homoeopathy has a different approach.

The ministry, which has often been criticized for its unscientific actions, recommends taking Arsenicum album 30 — heavily diluted arsenic trioxide — as homeopathic prophylaxis. They recommend taking the medicine on an empty stomach for three days to protect against the infection.

This advice is not only useless, but it’s also dangerous.

The good news is that the arsenic compound (which is toxic in high doses), is very diluted — so at least, it’s not harmful. But that’s where the good news ends.

The problem is that it just doesn’t work. The principles behind homeopathy have been disproved time and time again, and there is no evidence whatsoever to support any value to this approach. When it comes to Arsenicum album 30 in particular, there’s no published evidence supporting its use. The only mention in the scientific literature is a couple of (extremely questionable) studies discussing the use of this “medicine” in treating arsenic poisoning in mice and plants. The fact that a public ministry recommends such unproven, unscientific treatment is very concerning.

Not only does it recommend a useless treatment and elevates pseudoscience, but it also undermines actual science and medicine. It could, for instance, make people forego other, proven treatments, with potentially dangerous consequences. Furthermore, it could create a false sense of security — making people feel they are safe from the novel coronavirus when, in fact, they are not.

It’s not the first time the AYUSH ministry has come under criticism for its promotion of pseudoscience. The ministry was proliferated after the electoral win of Narendra Modi’s party in 2014. Its quality of research has been poor, and several times, unproven drugs have been launched on the market. Furthermore, several schemes push rural populations to accept AYUSH-based healthcare, instead of proven, medical healthcare.

There is no credible or scientific basis for most of the AYUSH treatments. It’s simply quackery. Several clinical trials were vehemently rejected by major scientific journals, and much of AYUSH research is published in dubious or predatory journals — without any replicability or reliability.

As a response, AYUSH claims that there is a western conspiracy against homeopathy, without even trying to replicate or confirm its own findings.

At the very least, AYUSH also recommended other (proven) approaches: maintaining personal hygiene, washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, avoiding touching face with unwashed hands, and avoiding close contact with people who are sick.

Scientists in India find new type of viper — and it looks stunning

The Arunachal pit viper was found in the state of Arunachal Pradesh in northeast India, close to the border with Bhutan and China. Image by Rohan Pandit.

Meet the Arunachal pit viper — or by its formal name, Trimeresurus arunachalensis. The viper was discovered by accident, when researcher Rohan Pandit and Wangchu Phiang, a member of the indigenous Bugun tribe, were carrying a biodiversity survey in north-eastern India. They found the snake by accident, although it was excellently camouflaged in the fallen foliage.

They weren’t sure what species it was, but they carefully studied it, noting its number and pattern of scales, and describing its anatomy. They also harvested DNA samples for analysis.

They sent the samples to Deepak Veerappan, currently a herpetologist at the Natural History Museum, London, who was then working at the Indian Institute of Science. To Veerappan, it was clearly a new species.

“I have been studying [the] morphology of snakes and lizards for a while now. The first time I saw the hemipenis of the snake [I realized] it is unique compared to its congeners,” he said. Veerappan also commented on its unusual coloring: perfect for hiding in between fallen leaves, despite a brightly colored orange belly.

“If you look at it from the top, it appears drab and camouflages well against leaf litter,” Pandit said. “But on the sides and the belly they have a bright orangish color.”

The Arunachal pit viper is well-camouflaged well in fallen leaves. Image credits: Rohan Pandit.

Despite the fact that only one specimen was found, the analysis strongly confirmed that it’s a new species. Genetic analysis indicates that it is closely related to the Tibetan pit viper (Trimeresurus tibetanus), a snake known only from Tibet, but features significant anatomical differences from this species.

However, although researchers are confident in the snake’s unique identity, they don’t know all that much about it. For instance, even though this snake was found on the ground, it’s not clear if it’s entirely terrestrial or also spends some time in the trees. We also don’t know what it eats or its general behavior. Most importantly, we don’t know whether this snake is threatened or not — it’s anyone’s guess how many Arunachal pit vipers there are in the wild.

Researchers are hoping to carry out a more detailed survey in the future. For now, however, this finding suggests that the forests in northeastern India may host numerous undiscovered species, of which we know even less than the Arunachal pit vipers.

Journal Reference: Captain, A., Deepak, V., Pandit, R., Bhatt, B., & Athreya, R. (2019). A New Species of Pitviper (Serpentes: Viperidae: Trimeresurus Lacepède, 1804) from West Kameng District, Arunachal Pradesh, India. Russian Journal of Herpetology26(2), 111-122.

Why India and Pakistan keep fighting over Kashmir — the history of the Kashmir conflict

In recent days, military skirmishes between the countries of India and Pakistan have taken place in Kashmir. While we can only hope that the conflict is settled peacefully without further victims, we won’t focus on the political and military aspects of current affairs. Instead, let’s look at the history of the Kashmir Conflict and find its roots.

India’s Kashmir Valley. Image credits: Ishan Singal, CC BY-SA.

The short story

The Kashmir Conflict, like many other modern disputes, can be traced down to the British Empire — that tends to happen whe you rule half the world with an iron fist. The English fought tooth and nail to maintain control of India, but it ultimately became clear that they had to give it up. So in 1947, they agreed to give India its independence.

The British India was split into two countries: India, which had a Hindu majority, and Pakistan, which had a Muslim majority. Bangladesh was also a part of Pakistan until 1971 when after a short but intense war, it also obtained its independence.

These splits caused millions of people to move from one area to another. However, it remained unclear to which country Kashmir, an area high in the Himalaya Mountains, belonged to. Violent fighting erupted, and both India and Pakistan sent soldiers to occupy the area. Each managed to forcefully claim around 40% of Kashmir, with China controlling the rest (China has also, at times, played a minor role in the conflict).

The United Nation has called for elections in the area, but elections never happened — so both countries currently lay full claim to Kashmir. Troops on the “border” regularly fire volleys at each other, engaged conflict is quite common, and to top it all off, there are several insurgent groups which call for independence.

Pakistan also supports some of these insurgents and even supported terrorist acts deep in India. Most notably, a 1998 four-day killing spree left more than 160 people dead. The direct cause of the current violence is a suicide bombing by a young Islamic militant, who blew up a convoy of trucks carrying paramilitary forces, which was the deadliest attack in the region in 30 years. However, the entire story is much more complex.

Early Kashmir — History and religion

Political map of the Kashmir region districts. This image is a work of a Central Intelligence Agency employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties.

Kashmir is the northernmost geographical region of the Indian subcontinent. It has been inhabited for thousands of years, with the earliest Neolithic sites in the flood plains of Kashmir valley being dated to 3000 BCE. The history of Kashmir is intertwined with the history of the Indian subcontinent, and for all its roughness and lack of accessibility, it has traditionally played an important role in central and southern Asia.

For the first part of the first millennium CE, Kashmir was an important religious center — first for Hinduism, and then for Buddhism. As Buddhism became more and more prevalent, Kashmir grew in importance, becoming a place where different strands of Buddhism can coexist in peace. However, by 1339, the region was firmly under Muslim control and was notably under the control of the famous Mughal Empire, which ruled most of today’s India for centuries.

After four centuries of Muslim rule, Kashmir fell under the control of the Sikhs. While the Sikhs were tough rulers, they allowed Muslims to exert some religious freedom, and the isolation of Kashmir, in particular, allowed the previous religion to survive.

The Sikhs were in control of Kashmere until 1845, when England enters the scene. England’s East India Company starts a war with the Sikh Empire, which it wins one year later, establishing the “Princely State of Kashmir and Jammu” — and this is where the first causes of the Kashmir Conflict start to take root.

British Rule and independence

A map of the British Empire in 1921 when it was at its height (via Wikipedia).

The “Princely State” included several populations of different ethnicities and different religions. The area included a vast Muslim peasantry, but the elite was largely Hindu. The Muslim population was often subjected to forced labor and unfair taxation. The end result was a severely segregated society, with an impoverished Muslim majority and a rich Hindu minority.

The British did not care all that much of previous ethnic and political arrangements in the area. They were more interested in controlling trade routes and strategic areas and expanding their colonial powers, often violently. This created a lot of social pressure in many of the British colonies, including areas like India.

While World War I would prove to be a watershed in the imperial relationship between Britain and India, relations were in turmoil and often times ended in violence and bloodshed. Moreover, on a cynical side, India was not particularly profitable for the British Empire, and year after year, it became increasingly clear that the empire wouldn’t be able to maintain control of India.

The partition of India was made on the basis of the “two-nation theory”: instead of considering ethnicities and any other social indicators, it only considered religion as a separation factor. After a long and very delicate process, India and Pakistan gained their independence. The fate of Kashmir, however, was left hanging.

The Kashmir Conflict

Srinagar, the largest city of Kashmir. Image via Wikipedia / Kenny.

In 1947, Kashmir’s population was 77% Muslim and 20% Hindu — but it was led by the Hindu Maharaja Hari Singh. He was given the possibility of joining one country or the other, but he decided to remain independent, fearing that joining India would upset the Muslims, and joining Pakistan would upset the Hindu and the Sikh.

Over the next few years, a large number of Muslims were massacred by extremist Hindu and Sikh groups while Kashmir was considering whether to join India or Pakistan. Pakistan started fueling guerilla groups and even open warfare, and India retaliated. American historian Burton Stein, who focused on the history of India, summed the situation thusly:

“Kashmir was neither as large nor as old an independent state as Hyderabad; it had been created rather off-handedly by the British after the first defeat of the Sikhs in 1846, as a reward to a former official who had sided with the British. The Himalayan kingdom was connected to India through a district of the Punjab, but its population was 77 percent Muslim and it shared a boundary with Pakistan. Hence, it was anticipated that the maharaja would accede to Pakistan when the British paramountcy ended on 14–15 August. When he hesitated to do this, Pakistan launched a guerrilla onslaught meant to frighten its ruler into submission.”

Ultimately, a cease-fire was agreed upon under UN auspices, with a referendum being planned to let Kashmir decide which country they wanted to join. But the referendum never came. The local rulership didn’t manage to clear things out, and as relations between India and Pakistan soured, it became clearer and clearer that Kashmir will not be settled anytime soon.

Two wars were fought in Kashmir, in 1965 and 1999. In 1999, Pakistan infiltrated soldiers disguised as Kashmiri militants into positions on the Indian side of Kashmir and pushed for violence. They then denied involvement and placed the blame solely on Kashmir militants, but documents left behind by casualties and later statements by Pakistan’s Prime Minister and Chief of Army Staff showed involvement of Pakistani paramilitary forces. This blueprint was repeated several times.

To make matters even more complicated, China never accepted the agreements regarding Kashmir’s northern border and has also claimed a part of the area.

The current Kashmir situation

Image from the 2010 Kashmir unrest. Image credits: Kashmir Global.

Currently, Pakistan controls the northwest portion, India controls the central and southern portion and the People’s Republic of China controls the northeastern portion. Kashmir has become a heavily militarised zone, becoming one of the prime examples of mountainous warfare in the world.

The United Nations has blamed Indian soldiers for committing numerous human rights violations there, including firing on protesters and denying due process to people arrested. Meanwhile, Pakistan is blamed for its role in the violence in Kashmir, especially for providing material support to Kashmiri militants — something which Pakistan vehemently denies.

Yet for all of Pakistan’s involvement in insurgencies, uprisings, and independence movements, there is a genuine independence movement within Kashmir. An entire generation grew up during the so-called 30-year insurgency — they are deeply alienated from India and view it as an occupying power. However, neither India, Pakistan, or China are interested in giving up the areas they control.

The Indian government has written off these grievances as part of a territorial border group, ignoring the legitimate woes of the people in Kashmir. As a result, militant groups in the region tap into this discontent, recruiting young people to use violence in their quest for Kashmir’s freedom.

As a result, conflict is always brewing in Kashmir and tensions go up and down, occasionally escalating into open violence, as was the case recently. Kashmir is one of the world’s longest-running conflicts.

Recent conflict in Kashmir

The direct cause for this latest episode of violence was a suicide bombing which killed 40 Indian Central Reserve Police Force members. Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility, while Pakistan denied all involvement — although in all truth, they have little credibility left.

In retaliation, India carried out airstrikes in Pakistan for the first time since 1971. Outbreaks of violence escalated with India and Pakistan exchanging fire in Kashmir. Ten Indian soldiers were injured while four Pakistani civilians were killed in the shelling. Pakistan captured on Indian pilot, which was subsequently released as a “gesture of peace.” While armed conflict has simmered down, tensions are still high, and it’s unclear what the consequences will be.

Kashmir itself is not a homogenous region with a singular voice. There are five regions of Kashmir and numerous political organizations — and there are many sides to this conflict. If there is any chance of peace in the region, this would require both India and Pakistan to give up their political aspirations and try to reconcile the multiple — and often conflicting — aspirations of the diverse peoples of this region.

Given India’s and Pakistan nationalistic ambitions, this seems unlikely. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, will be running for re-election in May, and Kashmir is a hot agenda to pick up votes. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s new prime minister, Imran Khan, was elected with the backing of the country’s powerful military and is eager to show that his country can stand up to India.

There are also external forces at work. China has recently become a strong ally of Pakistan, while the US relations with Pakistan have soured substantially. Recent political actions show that the US is much more likely to support India, which it sees as a roadblock to China’s Asian domination.

Nanga Parbat in Kashmir. Image credits: Atif Gulzar.

Nanga Parbat, the ninth-highest mountain on Earth, is the “western anchor” of the Himalayas and most commonly, its ascent is done from Kashmir. Nanga Parbat is widely regarded as the most dangerous peak to climb, often called the Killer Mountain. Climbing it requires excellent preparation, a solid team, and a bit of luck to ensure that nothing unexpected goes wrong — otherwise, the odds are strongly stacked against you.

Likewise, the efforts required to solve the Kashmir conflict need to be concentrated and well-prepared. Considering Kashmir’s tragic history of conflict, the lack of cooperation between the two countries, and the external interests at work, the situation is unlikely to be settled anytime soon — but having two nuclear powers at each other’s throat is a clear recipe for disaster.

Indian state set to launch world’s biggest basic income experiment

An Indian state has announced a plan to provide universal basic income to each and every one of its 610,577 citizens. This would be the world’s largest experiment of this type.

Sikkim landscape. Image in public domain.

Bordering Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan, the Indian state of Sikkim nestles in the Himalaya mountains. Its elevation ranges from 280 meters (920 ft) in the south to 8,586 meters (28,169 ft) in Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak. Its soil is unfit for agriculture and, aside from its lush forests, it doesn’t have many resources to boast. Even so, Sikkim is one of the most progressive states in India — and the world.

In 1998, it issued a single-use plastic ban, and in 2016, it took things even further, banning the sale and use of styrofoam and disposable plates, cutlery, and food containers. It’s also an “organic state”, effectively banning chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Its social indexes also are very different from most of India. Its literacy rate, for instance, is 82% — compared to a 30% average for India. Just 8% of Sikkim people live below the poverty line, and Sikkim sells 90 percent of its hydropower, which it generates as a surplus to its own needs. Even when compared to the neighboring states of Bhutan and Nepal, Sikkim is a model state.

Now, it wants to take things even further. Sikkim’s ruling party has announced an ambitious plan to implement a universal basic income for all its people.

Universal basic income is a topic which has been picking up massive steam in recent years. The fundamental principle is that you take state money and offer it unconditionally to the people. As crazy as it seems, the idea is not really that crazy — at least according to many economists.

The downside, of course, is that you give your people free money — which could serve as a disincentive to work and reduce overall productivity. Supporters of the universal basic income (UBI) argue that not only has our productivity increased to the point where many societies can afford a UBI, but overall productivity would increase because people would be more motivated to work in areas which they are passionate about. With job automation becoming more and more prevalent, we just might not need people to work all that much — and if they do, they’d be more productive, supporters say. A UBI would also help to reduce poverty and alleviate the wage gap, which seems to be continuously increasing in recent years.

Few large-scale experiments have been carried out — and this is exactly why the Sikkim plans sound so intriguing.

“If there is one chance of it happening anywhere, it is Sikkim,” said P.D. Rai, the sole member of India’s Parliament from the state. Rai decline to provide specifics regarding this program and said that it is ultimately a “matter of political will” if the UBI experiment will take place or not.

While this is still far from a done deal, it raises some interesting prospects — especially as economists are still torn when it comes to UBI. For instance, a program in Uganda randomly awarded grants of $382 to 535 young applicants aged 15–35. The results showed that “the program increases business assets by 57%, work hours by 17%, and earnings by 38%”. India itself had another UBI pilot which started in 2010, involving 20 villages. Villagers who received the income spent more on food and healthcare, children’s school performance improved in 68% of families, while new business start-ups doubled. Both experiments were considered a success. Finland is also undergoing a national UBI pilot, but while preliminary results look good, definitive results are still a year away.

“UBI is a scheme that a number of economists have talked about and it works well in developing countries. It has been tested even in India, debated within the Finance Ministry as early as 2017,” Prem Das Rai, SDF MP in the Lok Sabha told the Indian Express.

While universal basic income is still far from being a proven approach, it’s made a convincing case for itself. The Sikkim pilot could be important not only for the locals — but could serve as a stepping stone for other projects in the future.

China and India on track for world’s largest economies by 2030. US could lose first place as soon as next year

Many will be surprised to hear this but, for the better part of the last 2,000 years, China and India were the world’s largest economies. Up until the Industrial Revolution, output was directly proportional to population size, so these countries naturally came on top. It wasn’t until steam engines, railroads, and mass production entered the picture that industrialized countries with much larger productivity per capita overtook the populous Asian powerhouses.

For more than a century, not long after the Civil War ended, the United States has held the crown as the world’s foremost economy. Now, history is about to reach a new turning point, with China and India set to soon reclaim their previous positions on the world economic stage.

Data compiled by Angus Maddison, an economist who died earlier this year, suggest that China and India were the biggest economies in the world for almost all of the past 2000 years. Credit: The Economist.

Data compiled by Angus Maddison, an economist who died earlier this year, suggest that China and India were the biggest economies in the world for almost all of the past 2000 years. Credit: The Economist.

According to Standard Chartered Bank, China will likely become the world’s largest economy at some point in 2020, overthrowing the United States. By 2030, the standings of the world’s top 10 economies will look radically different from today: the United States will claim only 3rd place, and six of the top ten countries on the list will hail from Asia.

The researchers at Standard made their projections by combining purchasing-power-parity exchange rates — so-called GDP (PPP) — and nominal gross domestic product (GDP).

[panel style=”panel-success” title=”What is GDP (PPP)” footer=”Source: Wikipedia / Purchasing Power Parity.”]Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) is measured by finding the values (in USD) of a basket of consumer goods that are present in each country (such as pineapple juice, pencils, etc.). If that basket costs $100 in the US and $200 in the United Kingdom, then the purchasing power parity exchange rate is 1:2.

For example, suppose that Japan has a higher GDP per capita ($18) than the US ($16). That means that someone in Japan would, on average, make $2 more than someone in American. However, they are not necessarily richer. Suppose that one gallon of orange juice costs $6 in Japan and only $2 in the US; then $6 in Japan exchanges to only $2 worth of US goods.

Let’s use 1 gallon of orange juice as a reference basket of goods. Based on it, we can establish a PPP index of 1 to 3 between Japan and the US. Therefore, in terms of orange juice, the Americans are richer, and in this example, the US has a GDP (PPP) of $16, unchanged since it is the reference currency. Japan, however, has GDP (PPP) of only $6 since $18 in Japan can only buy 3 gallons of orange juice, which represents only $6 of US goods.

Source: Wikipedia / Purchasing Power Parity

[/panel]

By PPP alone, China is already the world’s largest economy. On a nominal basis, however, the US is still leading the pack.

In the future, emerging markets are expected to catch up with historically-developed countries, driven by the convergence of per-capita GDP. In other words, as a country’s output starts matching the size of its population, this can mean a lot as far as hugely populated nations are concerned. For instance, Indonesia, Turkey, Brazil, and Egypt are expected to experience massive growths in their economies. To get a better idea of the bigger picture, Visual Capitalist compared Standard’s 2030 projections with the IMF’s most recent data on GDP (PPP) for 2017. It’s a bit of a case of counting apples and oranges, since the Standard assessment also includes nominal GDP in its formula, but the table gets the job done.

Rank Country  —- Proj. GDP (2030, PPP) —- GDP (2017, PPP)  —- % change
#1 China $64.2 trillion $23.2 trillion +177%
#2 India $46.3 trillion $9.5 trillion +387%
#3 United States $31.0 trillion $19.4 trillion +60%
#4 Indonesia $10.1 trillion $3.2 trillion +216%
#5 Turkey $9.1 trillion $2.2 trillion +314%
#6 Brazil $8.6 trillion $3.2 trillion +169%
#7 Egypt $8.2 trillion $1.2 trillion +583%
#8 Russia $7.9 trillion $4.0 trillion +98%
#9 Japan $7.2 trillion $5.4 trillion +33%
#10 Germany $6.9 trillion $4.2 trillion +64%

According to economists from Standard Chartered, Asian GDP will account for about 35% of the world’s GDP, up from 28% in 2018 and 20% in 2010. That’s equivalent to the combined output of the US and the European Union.

Odisha vaccination.

India just launched the largest health insurance scheme on the planet

India announces massive health-insurance program amid cheers and criticism

Odisha vaccination.

A community health worker administering a vaccine in the Odisha state, India.
Image credits Pippa Ranger /DFID – UK Department for International Development.

This Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India wants to offer free coverage for over half a billion of its poorest citizen. The new insurance scheme — dubbed “Modicare” — will cover 100 million of the country’s lowest-income families (the bottom 40% bracket). Each will receive services equivalent to the sizeable sum of 500,000 rupees (roughly $6,900) per year to treat serious ailments.

The program mainly addresses secondary and third healthcare. For primary care — basic services usually provided by general practitioners or nurses — the government plans to open 150,000 “health and wellness” centers, staffed by nurses, traditional medicine healers, and other health workers, by 2020.

Modi handed medical cards out at the launch in Ranchi, capital of the eastern state of Jharkhand, calling it a historic day for India.

Healthcare, or votecare?

“Indian healthcare is poised for a great leap forward with Ayushman Bharat – which will insure over 50 crore [500 million] citizens,” tweeted Health Minister Jagat Prakash Nadda, referring to the program by its official name, “Long Life India”.

The initiative is without a doubt very good news for India, whose public health system experiences systematic shortages of facilities and doctors, forcing many to opt for private healthcare. A private consultation, however, can cost up to 1,000 rupees (about $15), which is a very high bill for the millions of locals living on under $2 a day. Government estimations also show that around 60% of the average Indian family’s spending goes towards buying medicine and wider healthcare services.

Many of the country’s poorest, thus, make do without visiting a doctor, with disastrous consequences. For these people, Modicare could be a game- (and life-) changer.

“We want to strengthen the hands of the poor and stand shoulder to shoulder with them in pursuit of good health,” Modi posted on Twitter.

The British medical journal Lancet praised the ambitious scope behind the program in a recent editorial, writing that “setting up such a program has undoubtedly required heroic efforts.”

The initiative, however, is not without its critics. There are fears that increased demand created by Modicare would place an even greater strain on India’s already-faltering health infrastructure. It also is expected to drain the central and 29 state governments $1.6 billion per year in total. Funding will also be gradually increased should demand increase.

Cost is one of the central points of discussion around the scheme. Critics are skeptical that the government will be able to actually fund such a huge system, accusing Modi’s government of trying to use Modicare to draw in votes ahead of the next elections, which will be held in May.

In their eyes, Modi plans to coast along to a second term on the back of a pro-poor policy platform, of which Modicare will play a central part.

Healthcare providers themselves are concerned over Modicare which, they say, severely underestimates the cost of certain treatments. What’s more, they are worried that private insurance companies will rake in the benefits while the public and the public health system will be left to bear the costs:

“This is going to be another scam. It will benefit only private insurance companies. The citizen of the country will realise later that it is nothing but an election gimmick,” said Sanjay Nirupam from India’s Congress Party, the main opposition party.

Prathap Reddy, chairman of private hospital chain Apollo Hospitals, believes the private sector is “rightly worried” about pricing and reimbursements.

“While we all work together to ensure the success of this scheme, there are areas that need focus and fine tuning,” he said.

Still, others say that Modicare should have aimed to provide day-to-day healthcare for the people, instead of focusing just on secondary and tertiary care for more serious and long-term treatment as it does now.

“Modicare does not extend to primary healthcare, which, we believe, is the weakest link in the provision of public health in India,” Rajiv Lall and Vivek Dehejia of the IDFC Institute think-tank said in a column for the Mint newspaper.

While some of the criticisms raised at the program are more worrying — and could have dramatic consequences, should they prove true — the fact remains that Modicare is, for the most part, uncharted territory for the Indian government. Modi himself has gambled hugely on the program and has essentially signed a blank cheque to make it work — the government has allocated $7.2 billion for now but has committed to providing more on request, says Vinod K. Paul, the program’s creator. The final budget, he explans, is difficult to pin down because nothing like this has been attempted before.

Hopefully, Modicare surprises everybody and enjoys a resounding success. A recent study showed that substandard healthcare was responsible for an estimated 1.6 million deaths a year in India, the highest number anywhere in the world.

Modhere Sacred Well.

India’s aquifers show “widespread” uranium contamination

When in India, you might want to be careful where you drink water — a new study found widespread uranium contamination in aquifer-drawn groundwater in 16 Indian states. The researchers point to over-drainage of these water-bearing bodies as a probable cause.

Modhere Sacred Well.

Modhere Sacred Well, Shenzhen, China.
Image credits Bernard Spragg / Flickr.

A new study led by researchers from Duke University reports that aquifer groundwater in India shows high levels of uranium contamination. The main source, they believe, is the chemical make-up of the rock layers which hold the water. Human activity such as pollution and over-drainage may be exacerbating the problem, however.

Dangerously uranic

“Nearly a third of all water wells we tested in one state, Rajasthan, contained uranium levels that exceed the World Health Organization and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s safe drinking water standards,” said Avner Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and paper co-author.

Data recorded during previous water quality studies revealed aquifers with similarly-high levels of uranium in 26 districts in northwestern India and in 9 districts in southern and southwestern India, the paper adds. The study is the first to highlight a widespread presence of uranium in India’s groundwater. Uranium exposure has previously been linked to health complications such as kidney disease.

Based on the findings, the team believes there is a “need to revise current water-quality monitoring programs in India” and to face the potential public health risks in areas with high levels of uranium contamination.

“Developing effective remediation technologies and preventive management practices should also be a priority,” Vengosh adds.

According to provisional safety standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO), which are consistent with standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), around 30 micrograms of uranium per liter of water should cause no adverse effects for humans. However, uranium isn’t currently on India’s water quality watchlist, the Bureau of Indian Standards’ Drinking Water Specifications.

For the study, the team sampled and analyzed the chemistry of 324 wells in the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat. In one subset of samples, they measured the ratios of uranium isotopes. The dataset was fleshed-out with measurements from 68 previous groundwater chemistry studies performed in Rajasthan, Gujarat and 14 other Indian states.

The results suggest that there are several factors contributing to this contamination. The source is natural, the team writes — uranium contained in the aquifer’s rocks leaching out into the water. The quantity of uranium contained in the rocks of each is the first factor. The others include water-rock interactions, oxidation conditions that enhance uranium’s solubility in water, as well as the presence of chemicals in the groundwater that can interact with this extracted uranium (such as bicarbonate) which further enhances the metal’s solubility. These last three factors are specific to each water-bearing body — but, in many areas of India, they compound and lead to high concentrations of uranium in the water.

Human activity also plays a central part, the team notes. The most important culprit is over-exploitation of aquifer water for crop irrigation.

Most Indian aquifers are composed of clay, silt, and gravel resulted from the weathering of rocks in the Himalayas, or from uranium-rich granites eroded by streams. If these aquifers get drained faster than they can replenish (so water levels decline), it creates an environment ripe for oxidation — in turn, this makes what groundwater is still in the aquifer leach uranium much faster.

“One of the takeaways of this study is that human activities can make a bad situation worse, but we could also make it better,” Vengosh said.

“Including a uranium standard in the Bureau of Indian Standards’ Drinking Water Specification based on uranium’s kidney-harming effects, establishing monitoring systems to identify at-risk areas, and exploring new ways to prevent or treat uranium contamination will help ensure access to safe drinking water for tens of millions in India.”

This contamination is just the latest in a long string of problems India is having with its groundwater supply lately. Over-consumption is quickly drying its aquifers, threatening to leave its population wanting for water. But these findings show that the country’s immense drain on underground water resources is already starting to have adverse effects.

Furthermore, India’s groundwater “also suffers from multiple water quality issues such as arsenic and fluoride contamination that pose human health risks,” according to the paper.

The paper “Large-Scale Uranium Contamination of Groundwater Resources in India” has been published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Nipah.

Three confirmed, six suspected deaths from emerging Nipah virus in India

Health officials in the state of Kerala, India, report that nine people lost their lives in confirmed and suspected case of the emerging Nipah virus.

Nipah.

Transmission electron micrograph (TEM) showing a number of Nipah virus virions isolated from a patient’s cerebrospinal fluid.
Image credits CDC / C. S. Goldsmith, P. E. Rollin.

Three victims have tested positive for the virus in the past two weeks. The results from the other six are expected later today. A further twenty-five people have been hospitalized with symptoms indicative of the same infection in Kozhikode, Kerala.

Nipah is one of the viruses on the list of the most dangerous viral threats, candidates for a major outbreak, published by the WHO — in fact, it was at the top of the list. It got there by virtue of two characteristics: Nipah can be transmitted to humans from animal hosts, and there is no current treatment against it. Nipah has a mortality rate of 70%.

Fruit bats are currently considered to be one of the most prolific carriers and spreaders of the virus. Local authorities reported finding mangoes bitten by bats in the home of three suspected Nipah victims. Furthermore, Kerala’s health secretary Rajeev Sadanandan told the BBC that a nurse who treated the patients had also died. However, doctors are yet to confirm if she had contracted the Nipah virus, The Indian Express adds.

“We have sent blood and body fluid samples of all suspected cases for confirmation to National Institute of Virology in Pune. So far, we got confirmation that three deaths were because of Nipah,” he said.

“We are now concentrating on precautions to prevent the spread of the disease since the treatment is limited to supportive care.”

The first time we had seen the Nipah virus (NiV) was during a 1999 outbreak of encephalitis and respiratory illness in Malaysia and Singapore. The outbreak centered around pig farmers and other people in close contact with pigs, suggesting the animals were helping spread the disease. More than a million animals were euthanized in a bid to limit the spread.

The outbreak reached nearly 300 confirmed human infections and 100 deaths. However, in subsequent NiV outbreaks, there were no intermediate hosts.

Nipah’s symptoms include fever, headache, drowsiness, respiratory illness, disorientation and mental confusion — and can progress to coma within 24-48 hours. The WHO recommends avoiding contact with sick pigs or bats in endemic areas, as well as not drinking raw date palm sap as precautions against infection.

First Zero.

“Nothing” changed: ancient Indian text pushes the history of zero back 500 years

Carbon dating of an ancient Indian text might push the history of zero 500 years earlier than thought, a new paper reports. It might seem like nothing, but this humble number made modern mathematics possible.

First Zero.

Close-up image of one of the manuscript’s sheets. I’ve circled the dot, which stands as a placeholder zero, on the bottom line of the text.
This dot would later evolve into the fully-fledged number zero.
Image credits Bodleian Libraries / University of Oxford.

The number was found in an ancient Indian text known as the Bakhshali manuscript, a collection of 70 Sanskrit-covered birch bark leaves delving into the field of mathematics. The manuscript was first discovered by a local farmer near the village of Bakshali, present-day Pakistan, back in 1881, and has been housed at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian library since 1902.

Luckily for us, it seems that researchers can still teach this old work new tricks. A team lead by Marcus du Sautoy, a professor of mathematics at Oxford, carbon dated the text for the first time in history. Their findings show that we were far off the mark in estimating the text’s date of origin — hailing from somewhere between 224AD and 383AD instead of the commonly-assumed 9th century (801-900AD) — with deep implications for the history of mathematics.

Less is more and nothing is everything

This would make the Bakhshali manuscript the oldest known incidence of the number zero, preceding the current-oldest (an inscription on a temple wall in Gwalior, India, etched in the 9th century) by several centuries.

However, as is often the case, this early-version zero had some quite significant differences from the one we’re familiar with today. For starters, it wasn’t donut-shaped: there are hundreds of zeros throughout the Bakhshali manuscript, all of which are denoted using a simple dot. The shape would evolve over the following centuries. It also seems like dot-zero was yet to come into its full powers, and was originally used as a placeholder. It would be used to write more complex numbers but wasn’t a full-fledged number yet. In other words, it’s used as the “0” in 103 implies there are no tens but doesn’t hold any meaning by itself so it can’t be used to denote zero as in the value of nothing.

The Bakhshali manuscript.

The birch bark leaves that make up the Bakhshali manuscript bound together to preserve them.
Image credits Bodleian Libraries / University of Oxford.

Translations of the text suggest it was a sort of training manual for monks or merchants traveling across the Silk Road, as it includes a lot of practical arithmetic exercises and an early version of algebra.

“It seems to be a training manual for Buddhist monks,” du Sautoy says about the manuscript. “There’s a lot of ‘If someone buys this and sells this how much have they got left?’”

Usage-wise, the Indian concept of zero has counterparts in other cultures, such as the ancient Mayans and Babylonians. But only this dot-zero would go on to become a number in its own right, first described by the Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta sometime in 628 AD.

The concept of “nothing” was revolutionary for numbers, and went on to change mathematics from the ground up. It underpinned the development of calculus, which is strongly entrenched across fields of science and the nightmares of burgeoning engineers everywhere, and made the digital revolution possible.

In many ways, the moment when “nothing” became a number was a turning point in science and technology, marking a transition from dealing in the palpable to dealing with abstract concepts. It’s likely that India’s cultural background in a sense allowed mathematicians there to think in such abstract terms, according to du Sautoy. For example, despite developing sophisticated maths and geometry, the ancient Greeks had no symbol for zero, showing that the concept of a “nothing” number is far from an obvious one.

“Some of these ideas that we take for granted had to be dreamt up. Numbers were there to count things, so if there is nothing there why would you need a number?” du Sautoy adds. “The whole of modern technology is built on the idea of something and nothing.”

“This [number] is coming out of a culture that is quite happy to conceive of the void, to conceive of the infinite. That is exciting to recognise, that culture is important in making big mathematical breakthroughs. The Europeans, even when it was introduced to them, were like ‘Why would we need a number for nothing?’”

“It’s a very abstract leap,” he concludes.

However, the team notes that the manuscript is far from a homogenous body of work — which is why it took so long for scientists to accurately date it in the first place. The pages come from different dates, with up to 500 years’ difference between the oldest and youngest ones, they write. It’s still unknown how they got collected together, du Sautoy says, but hopefully, future research will provide answers.

The Science Museum of London will put the manuscript on display on October 4th as part of a larger exhibition, Illuminating India: 5000 Years of Science and Innovation.

A paper titled “Carbon dating reveals Bakhshali manuscript is centuries older than scholars believed and is formed of multiple leaves nearly 500 years different in age” describing the findings has been made available online by David Howell, Head of Heritage Science at the Bodleian Libraries.