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Current Affairs - 2 March 2015

Cern to test new particle model

  • GENEVA: The Higgs particle can disintegrate into particles of dark matter, according to a new model that is being tested at the particle physics laboratory Cern. 
    Physicists describe the smallest constituents of nature - elementary particles and forces acting between them using a set of theories known as "the Standard Model". 
    This model was developed in the 1970s and has been very successful, particularly in predicting the existence of undiscovered particles. The last in the series was the Higgs particle, or the 'Higgs Boson', the existence of which was confirmed by the scientists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at Cern in 2012. 
    The problem is that there are several things the Standard Model is unable to explain, for example dark matter, that makes up a large part of the universe. Many particle physicists are therefore working on developing new, more comprehensive models. 
    One of them is Christoffer Petersson, who carries out research in theoretical particle physics at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden and the Universite Libre in Belgium.Together with two colleagues, he has proposed a particle model based on what is known as supersymmetry. 
    This model contains more elementary particles than the Standard Model, including dark matter particles. In addition, the model gives the Higgs particle different properties than the Standard Model predicts. 
    It proposes that the Higgs particle can disintegrate into a photon (a particle of light) and particles of dark matter. However, these properties are quite difficult to discover. Petersson's model has met with a response at Cern. Two independent experimental stations - Atlas and CMS - at the LHC are now looking for the very properties of the Higgs particle his model predicts. 
    "It's a dream for a theorist in particle physics. LHC is the only place where the model can be tested," said Petersson. "If the model is found to fit, it would completely change our understanding of the fundamental building blocks of nature."

India to join top global league
  • India will join the league of countries like Singapore, UK and the US with its proposed law to check black money, under which those hiding income and evading tax in relation to foreign assets can be slapped with a prison term of up to ten years.

    In fact, the proposed imprisonment penalty, as also the monetary penalty, here could be higher than many other countries in most of the cases.

    The new law would also provide for a penalty for such concealment of income and assets at the rate of 300 per cent of tax, while offenders will not be permitted to approach the Settlement Commission.

    Non-filing of return or filing with inadequate disclosure of foreign assets will itself be liable for prosecution with punishment of rigorous imprisonment up to seven years.
    Under the US laws, the federal penalties for each count of conviction of tax crimes include prison term of maximum one year and a fine of USD 100,000 for failure to file a tax return, false withholding exemptions, and delivering or disclosing false tax documents.

    Besides, the penalties include prison term of up to ten years and a fine of USD 100,000 for "conspiracy to defraud with respect to false refund claims".

    Other penalties include a maximum of three years in prison and a fine of USD 250,000 for obstructing or impeding an investigation and filing or preparing a false tax return, and a maximum of five years in prison and a USD 250,000 fine for tax evasion, failure to pay taxes, conspiracy to commit a tax offense or conspiracy to defraud.

    In the UK also, the 'top tax criminals' of the year 2012 -- a list of 32 individuals -- were given a total of over 150 years imprisonment.

    The UK's tax authorities have recently put in place tougher penalties for those who hide assets and income abroad, by doubling the maximum penalty for offshore tax evasion to 200 per cent of the tax dues.

    Under the Singapore's Income Tax Act, any person convicted of intentionally evading tax or assisting any other person to evade tax may be penalized four times the amount of tax undercharged and may also be fined an amount not more than 50,000 Singapore dollars or jailed for up to 5 years, or both.

    Besides, Singapore's Goods and Services Act provides that any person convicted of intentionally evading tax or assisting any other person to evade tax may be penalized three times the amount of tax undercharged and may also be fined an amount of 10,000 Singapore dollars or jailed for up to 7 years, or both.

    While the proposed law in India has been largely welcomed, industry body Assocham today said the government should avoid "over-kill and rush job" in its efforts to check foreign assets' concealment.

    Leading business conglomerate ITC's Chairman Y C Deveshwar said that the "strong measures to eliminate black money and to impose exemplary punishment is a bold step to curb the parallel economy and mainstream resources for productive growth." 

    In a statement, industry chamber Assocham said, "The issue should be approached in a scientific and logical way to ensure that the proposed legislation on concealment on foreign assets does not go in for the over-kill and the genuine business or individual transactions are not subjected to minute scrutiny of the tax inspectors.

    "By all means the government should make tough laws, but then to prevent the misuse of the same, the rules and the procedures should be very simple, easy to understand and be not at all left to the discretion of the assessing officers.

    "They should not be left to interpretation. Every minute detail should be written in the statute-otherwise, the amendments in FEMA may lead it back to the draconian days of FERA," the chamber said.

    Assocham Secretary General D S Rawat said that Finance Minister Arun Jaitley's announcement that the government would bring in Bills on Foreign Assets and Benami transactions are welcome moves, but the proposed bills should be well debated in public domain and experts with knowledge of the national and international laws should be consulted.

    "It should not so happen that we go in over-kill and the new laws themselves become a main source of corruption...That danger could be real," he added.

    Assocham further said that many Indian professionals, students and corporate leaders travel all over the world and do business transactions or their professional pursuits and the new law should not make the tax compliance cumbersome.

    "The problem could be more for the professionals and small and medium enterprises who cannot afford expensive consultancy advice. Thus, while as a nation we stand committed to eradication of black money and corruption, we should not make business eco-system adversarial," Rawat added.

First country to submit its climate action plan
  • NEW DELHI: Showing the world how to move forward in chalking out climate action plan, Switzerland on Friday became the first member country to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to submit its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) ahead of the Paris climate talks, committing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% relative to 1990 levels by 2030. 

    The rich European country promised that at least 30% of this reduction must be achieved within Switzerland itself while the rest may be attained through projects carried out abroad. 

    Under the INDCs, all countries are expected to submit their 'nationally determined contribution' in terms of their mitigation (emission cut) and adaptation goals in advance ahead of Paris climate talks, scheduled for December, where a new climate deal is expected to be signed. 

    India is expected to submit its INDC in June. 

    The new climate agreement will come into effect in 2020 and will pave the way to keep a global temperature rise this century under 2 degrees C. 

    In an official statement, the Switzerland government said, "This objective of a 50% reduction in emissions reflects Switzerland's responsibility for climate warming and the potential cost of emissions reduction measures in Switzerland and abroad over the 2020-2030 period''. 

    "Switzerland, which is responsible for 0.1% of global greenhouse gas emissions and, based on the structure of its economy, has a low level of emissions (6.4 tonnes per capita per year), should be able to avail of emissions reduction measures abroad to reduce the cost of emissions reduction measures during the period 2020-2030. The fulfilment of part of the targeted reduction abroad will also enable the spreading of domestic measures over a longer period to account for capacities within the economy". 

    Additional details of the Switzerland's INDC is available with the UNFCCC and it can be accessed by governments, NGOs, think-tanks or individuals. 

    The news from Switzerland comes in the wake of a meeting in Geneva where countries also finalized the negotiating text for the Paris agreement a few days ago. The next round of formal negotiations will take place at UNFCCC headquarters in Bonn, Germany in June. 

    Reacting to Switzerland's move, Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC said: "Switzerland is today demonstrating leadership, commitment and its support towards a successful outcome in Paris in 10 months' time-it is the first but will not be the last. Momentum towards Paris is building everywhere. I look forward to many more INDCs being submitted over the coming weeks and months." 

    The negotiating text from Geneva also signals the ambition among many governments for a long-term goal to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the century.

PDMA, inflation targeting reduce RBI powers
  • Mumbai: The move to set up a separate Public Debt Management Agency (PDMA) to manage market government borrowings and public debt and also a Monetary Policy Committee for inflation targeting may reduce the powers of the central bank, says analysts. The proposals are a way of curtailing the powers of the Reserve Bank, apart from increasing the debt burden on the nation, a leading tax and banking expert said.

    Noting that RBI has been doing a commendable job in handling public debt management, Ashvin Parekh, a leading financial services expert who retired from EY and is currently the managing partner of Ashvin Parekh Advisory Services, said the move is unfair on the RBI. “The move to set up a separate PDMA is a bit drastic for reducing the powers of RBI as it comes with many pre-conditions. After all, RBI has been doing a fairly good job in the past on this front, especially during the East Asian currency crisis and also during the recent flight of capital following the Fed’s tapering talk,” Parekh told PTI.

    While presenting the Budget, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said following the FSLRC (Financial Sector Legislative Reforms Commission head by BN Srikrishna) report, the government proposed to set up a PDMA. The FSLRC report in March 2013 had also recommended that Sebi, Irda, Pfrda and FMC be merged into a single entity into a unified financial agency. On this, Jaitley said, “We have also received a large number of suggestions regarding the Indian Financial Code, which are currently being reviewed by the Srikrishna panel. I hope, sooner rather than later, to introduce the IFC in Parliament for consideration.”

    Parekh also pointed out the move will only increase the debt burden on the public maturity of government debt which is long term and that one of the key focus of the budget is to increase debt-driven investment. Another analyst who does not want to be named also echoed similar views saying the recommendations of the FSLRC that may impact on the powers of RBI or having a single financial sector regulator by merging all the four regulators now, are not worth implementing,

    “Why to change when everything is going on well?” he quipped when asked about the need for a separate debt management agency. “If we keep raising more and more debt, we may be falling into a trap of the many Western European countries. It will lead to burden on future government as debt are paid later and we will be leaving our future generations into debt trap. Even China is having second thoughts on debt-driven investment spree it has undertaken in the past,” he said.

Ice ages made Earth's ocean crust thicker (March 2015)
  • Far-Reaching Research says that consecutive climate changes affect ocean volcanism. Quirin Schiermeier tells us how hot magma thickened up under the ocean floor during glacial periods.
    The Earth’s ice ages have left their mark on the thickness of the planet’s oceanic crust, scientists have discovered. During glacial periods, when sea levels are low, the magma that spreads out from mid-ocean ridges to form virgin crust wells up thick and fast. But the production of new crust is stunted in warmer times when sea levels are high, such as they are today.

    “We know that volcanism has an effect on climate. What we’re seeing is that climate cycles are also affecting ocean volcanism,” says Richard Katz, a geophysicist at the University of Oxford, UK, and one of the authors of the study, which is reported in Science.The researchers say that they have 
    spotted the effect in chains of hillocks under the sea between Australia and the Antarctic.
    The reason, Richard explains, is that higher sea levels exert a greater pressure on Earth’s mantle below the ocean floor. This seems to slow the transport of molten rock and gas from the mantle up to mid-ocean ridges, where it erupts.

    Periodic variations in Earth’s axial tilt and orbit around the Sun have driven the planet’s succession of ice ages and warm periods over the past two million years. 

    During an ice age, more water is trapped on land; as a result, sea levels are more than 100 metres lower than in warm periods. And that can thicken the oceanic crust by around 800 metres (on the order of 10 per cent), Richard says.

    Anthropogenic climate change will not impose much extra variation on this pattern. Today’s sea levels are already high, geologically speaking. And scientists will have to hang around for quite a while to spot the effects of modern sea-level rise in the oceanic crust: because magma creeps slowly up from Earth’s interior to the surface, the lag between a change in sea level and the peak crustal thickness response might be about 50,000 years.

    A tale of high seas
    Scientists knew that changes in thepressure of ice sheets affect what happens in Earth’s upper mantle below land masses. For example, the disappearance of ice is thought to have strongly increased mantle melting and volcanism beneath Iceland. But many geologists were 
    doubtful about whether sea-level variations alone could produce similar 
    effects beneath ridge zones in the deep ocean.

    Yet Richard and his colleagues calculated that sea-level variation should sometimes have a discernible effect on the thickness of oceanic crust spreading from ridge zones. The effect is complicated: It depends on the level of the sea, the rate at which this level rises or falls, the rate at which magma upwells from the mantle, and the rate at which oceanic crust spreads sideways from mid-ocean ridges.

    The team then backed up its hypothesis by examining two areas of a mid-oceanic ridge between Australia and the Antarctic, which had been surveyed in 2011 and 2013 by the Korean icebreaker Araon . There, the sea floor is lined by elongated chains of hills around 200 metres high. The change in oceanic crust thickness needed to produce the hills is up to about 800 
    metres, says Richard; much of the crust is submerged into the mantle, rather as the bulk of a floating iceberg sits under water.

    The hills have been formed by a mixture of seismic activity, sedimentation, 
    volcanoes and sea-floor spreading. But the researchers say that in the geological 
    fabric there seems to be a distinct pattern of crustal-thickness variations that are 
    synchronized with 23,000-, 41,000- and 1,00,000-year glacial cycles known as 
    Milankovitch cycles.

    “This is a fascinating discovery and an important key to understanding the 
    creation of oceanic crust,” says Ken Macdonald, a geologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who was not involved in the study. “It’s very convincing, because they actually work through the physics,” says Carl Wunsch, an oceanographer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

    A second paper, published in Geophysical Research Letters, comes to similar conclusions. Maya Tolstoy, a geophysicist at Columbia University in New York, found that volcanic activity along the East Pacific Rise, an ocean ridge off the coast of Mexico, ebbs and flows in regular cycles. Among other shorter cycles, she found on the fast-spreading sea floor in that region a 1,00,000-year pattern strikingly in synch with the most prominent of Earth’s natural glacial cycles.

    Conceivably, examining variations in crust thickness might provide new insights into past glacial cycles and help scientists to better narrow down sea-level change in the deep past, says Wunsch. Meanwhile, a high-resolution topography survey carried out last summer across the Juan de Fuca ridge off the coast of Oregon and Washington offers an opportunity to test the team’s hypothesis further. “We’re going to look at that data very soon,” says Richard.

Lanka Won’t Allow China Subs To Dock In Its Ports
  • Beijing : In a move apparently aimed at allaying India’s concerns, the new Sri Lankan government on Saturday said it will not allow Chinese submarines to dock in its ports while acknowledging that such a docking did take place coinciding with the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit last year, reports PTI.

      “I really do not know what circumstances led to some submarines coming to the port of Colombo on the very day the Japanese Prime Minister (Shinzo Abe) was visiting Sri Lanka,” Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera told reporters here, disclosing for the first time that the docking coincided with Abe’s Colombo visit. “But we will ensure that such incidents from whatever quarters does not happen during our tenure,” said Samaraweera, who held extensive talks with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

    During his talks with Li and Wang, Samaraweera discussed a host of issues including concerns over high interest rate on the about $ five billion Chinese loans as well as his government’s aim to pursue a balanced foreign policy.

    Analysts say that the timing of the Chinese submarines could be significant considering volatile relations between China and Japan especially over the disputed islands in the South China Sea. Abe visited Colombo on September 7 last year when then president Mahinda Rajapaksa was in power.

    China had defended their docking, stating that there was “nothing unusual” as it is common international practice for warships to stop for refuelling at ports abroad.

    It had said the submarines were part of the fleet of warships deployed in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.

    Concerns were raised in India over the docking of Chinese submarines in Lankan ports. While answering questions on concerns in India over pro-China policy of the previous government, Samaraweera, who visited India first after taking charge followed by the new President Maithripala Sirisena, said his government’s foreign policy is to bring Sri Lanka “back to the centre”.

    “Back to centre meant I don’t think it has any bearing on Sri Lanka-China relations. It will remain as ever. We will strengthen relations further with China as we are doing with the rest of the world.

    Back to the centre I meant a more balanced foreign policy,” he explained. Significantly, Samaraweera also said Sri Lanka is concerned about the high interest rates for Chinese loans to build various projects which he said amounted to USD five billion, including the $ 1.5 billion

    for the Colombo Port City project.

    “We do have some concerns about what you have mentioned,” he said adding that a high-level Sri Lankan delegation will visit China after the planned visit of Sirisena on March 26 and “discuss these loans and any amendments we may be suggesting.”

Higher fiscal deficit, rating agencies frown at fine-print
  • Rating agencies have not red-flagged the Budget stretching fiscal deficit target by 0.3 percentage points to 3.9 per cent in FY16, but cautioned that higher borrowings should be used for only capacity-building in the economy.
    “This is a deviation from the earlier announced fiscal consolidation roadmap. We believe a higher fiscal deficit as such is not harmful, so long as the borrowed money is used for expanding the productive capacity of the economy,” India Ratings said in a statement.
    It, however, said that the fine-print in the Budget does not support this.
    “The quality of fiscal deficit measured by the ratio of revenue deficit-to-fiscal deficit under FY15 revised estimate is 70.7 per cent while the FY16 budget estimate is 71 per cent,” it said.
    It can be noted that a majority of the major international rating agencies have warned the country about the high fiscal deficit in the past. In the run-up to the Budget, S&P and Moody’s even had said the high fiscal deficit was among the factors which “constrains” the country’s rating.
    In the Budget announced yesterday, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had said the government would achieve the 4.1 per cent fiscal deficit target in FY15, but increased the FY16 target to 3.9 per cent as against 3.6 per cent set earlier, as part of the fiscal consolidation roadmap.
    He had also put off the 3 per cent target by a year to FY18, saying “rushing into” a pre-set timetable for fiscal consolidation will not be conducive for growth.
    Accordingly, the fiscal deficit targets are 4.1 per cent for FY15, 3.9 per cent for FY16, 3.3 per cent for FY17 and 3 per cent for FY18, each year missing 30 bps.
    Stressing that the economy needs public expenditure, Jaitley plans to utilise the additional legroom for capital expenditure.
    “The total additional public investment over and above the revenue estimates is planned to be Rs 1.25 trillion out of which Rs 70,000 crore would be capital expenditure from budgetary outlays,” he said.
    Another domestic agency Care Ratings termed the fiscal targets as “pragmatic” given the need to grow faster and stressed that the glide path to the medium term target of 3 per cent has been maintained.
    The Budget is pro-growth and the government seems to be keen to expedite the growth story with public investment, it said.
    “The creditable part of this exercise is that it has been accomplished by being pragmatic with the level of fiscal deficit which will be at 3.9 per cent for the year even though the glide path to 3 per cent is still on the agenda,” its managing director DR Dogra said.
    He however, pointed out that in his calculations, Jaitley has pegged an ambitious divestment target of Rs 69,500 crore, even though the previous fiscal’s target of Rs 43,425 crore is expected to fall short by 49 per cent.
    “Hence, it remains to be seen if the optimistic target is realised in FY16,” it said.
    Domestic rating agency Crisil said the 3.9 per cent fiscal deficit target is realistic, but warned of slippage because of a possible trouble in achieving the divestment target.
    In such a scenario, and if the government does not introduce expenditure cuts, the deficit can go up to 4.2 per cent, it said.
    The government has managed a 25.5 per cent increase in capital expenditure to Rs 2,414 billion because of the headroom created from savings in oil subsidies and hike in excise duties on petrol and diesel.
    “As a share of GDP, capital expenditure will increase from 1.5 per cent in 2014-15 to 1.7 per cent in 2015-16,” it said.

New compounds protect nervous system
  • A newly characterized group of pharmacological compounds block both the inflammation and nerve cell damage seen in mouse models of multiple sclerosis, according to a study conducted at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

    Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the brain and spinal cord, where for unknown reasons, the body's immune system begins an inflammatory attack against myelin, the protective nerve coating that surrounds nerve fibers. Once myelin is stripped from these fibers, the nerve cells become highly susceptible to damage, which is believed to underlie their destruction, leading to the steady clinical decline seen in progressive forms of multiple sclerosis.

    "The compounds identified in this study, when administered orally, both reduced the inflammation that is a hallmark of multiple sclerosis and protected against the nerve cell damage seen in mouse models of the disease," said Jeffery Haines, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow at Mount Sinai and the study's lead author. "The multiple sclerosis drugs currently on the market and being tested elsewhere seek to reduce the immune attack on cells, but none target neurodegeneration nor do they work to restore nerve cell function. The findings of this new study represent an exciting step in the process of advancing new oral treatment options."

    Previous research conducted at Mount Sinai found that the trafficking of protein molecules between the nucleus (the cellular compartment containing the genetic information of the cell) and the cytoplasm is altered in neurodegenerative disease. The molecule that shuttles proteins between the nucleus and cytoplasm, XPO1 (also called CRM1,) has been implicated in multiple sclerosis and a number of other diseases.

    Specifically, the Mount Sinai study was designed to test whether pharmacological compounds designed to block the function of XPO1/CRM1 could stop disease progression in mouse models that exhibit some of the characteristics of MS. Researchers found that two chemical agents (called KPT-276 and KPT-350) prevented XPO1/CRM1 from shuttling cargo out of the nucleus of nerve cells, which protected them from free radicals and structural damage. The compounds also stopped inflammatory cells from multiplying, thereby reducing inflammation.

    Mice showing hindlimb paralysis were able to regain motor function within two weeks after KPT-276 or KPT-350 were orally administered.

    "The study results elucidate the molecular mechanisms underlying disease progression in multiple sclerosis models, providing a basis for future clinical trials to determine safety and efficacy of these chemical agents in humans with demyelinating disorders," says Patrizia Casaccia, MD, PhD, Professor of Neuroscience, Genetics and Genomic Sciences at Mount Sinai and senior author of the study.

    Because traffic of molecules between the nucleus and the cytoplasm of nerve cells is altered in several other neurodegenerative disorders, targeting nuclear transport may have broader therapeutic implications in diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and Alzheimer's disease.

    The study was conducted in collaboration with Karyopharm Therapeutics, Inc. and supported by the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health and by funds from the National Multiple Sclerosis initiative Fast-Forward. Dr. Jeffery Haines was supported by postdoctoral fellowships from the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada and Fonds de recherche du Québec - Santé.

India offers help to avalanche-hit Afghanistan
  • New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi has written to Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani offering help in relief and rescue operations following a series of avalanches in the mountainous country, officials said. Ministry of external affairs spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin tweeted that Modi wrote to Ghani saying India is “deeply saddened by the loss of lives in avalanches in different parts of Afghanistan”.

    “India (is) ready to help in any way with rescue and relief and help people to rebuild lives – PM @narendramodi to Afghanistan’s Prez @ashrafghani,” Akbaruddin tweeted. Hundreds of people have been killed and an indeterminate number have been reported missing after the series of avalanches in Afghanistan.

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