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1.The diagnostic lens (The Hindu)

2.The role of sustainable transport in urban development (Live Mint)

1.The diagnostic lens (The Hindu)

Synoptic line: It throws light on the Japanese Encephalitis (JE) a viral infection of the brain. (GS paper II)

Overview

  • Japanese Encephalitis (JE) is a mosquito-borne viral infection of the brain. There is, however, a debate about the origin of the disease and whether it is enteroviruses caused by virus found in pigs and birds. There is no cure for JE.
  • Encephalitis is recurring outbreak, which killed over 100 children last year, was thought to be due to the Japanese encephalitis (JE) virus. A paper in the Indian journal ‘Current Science’ suggests an unexpected cause for the inflammatory brain disease encephalitis found in Malkangiri district of Odisha.

Research from Indian journal 

  • Researchers found that it is likely due to the consumption of a wild bean, called Bada Chakunda, which grows freely in the region. Like several natural toxins, the anthraquinones in the bean don’t harm healthy people, but cause fatal dysfunction of the liver, heart and brain in underfed children. This finding draws on the researchers’ previous work in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur district, where too a recurrent encephalitis outbreak was traced to this bean.
  • Though more data may be needed to confirm this link, it is clear the Malkangiri scourge wasn’t JE. An illness around for three decades in U.P.’s Gorakhpur turned out, primarily, to be scrub typhus last year, while epidemics in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur were linked to lychee consumption, again among emaciated children. In all these cases, the suspicion of JE, though the epidemiology and symptoms didn’t match, delayed the discovery of the cause.
  • JE was indeed the biggest cause of encephalitis in India for decades, and the public health diagnostic machinery is built around this illness. But as JE vaccination rates have grown, incidence has shrunk, and a host of other causes of encephalitis, like dengue, scrub typhus, herpes simplex and the West Nile virus, have emerged to the forefront.
  • Investigating agencies such as the National Centre for Disease Control and the National Institute of Virology have persisted in focussing on JE. Another problem is the archaic format in which encephalitis is reported to the government. This too is a relic of the pre-JE-vaccination era. Under this format, if an encephalitis case cannot be confirmed as JE, doctors tag it as Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES), a term that has now crept into medical literature.
  • AES is no diagnosis, just a temporary label for different unnamed diseases. Classifying them all under one head gives doctors the false sense of security of having pinpointed the illness, the researchers behind the Malkangiri finding argue.

Way ahead

  • An Indian investigator needs to update their understanding of encephalitis and look at outbreaks through a wider lens. If JE made 2,043 Indians sick this year, the mysterious AES is reported to have affected six times as many. A fixation with JE means the numerous patients in the second group may never get a diagnosis.

Question– Encephalitis is reoccurring outbreak taking over 100 children last year was thought to be due to the Japanese encephalitis (JE) virus. Explain why we need update our understanding of encephalitis?

2.The role of sustainable transport in urban development (Live Mint)

Synoptic line: It throws light on how public transport can easily be the cheaper, faster and economical alternative if policymakers plan for tomorrow’s problems today. (GS paper III)

Overview

  • The car has been the signifier of the aspiring Indian for decades. Starting in the 1980s, the democratization of car ownership with the explosion in sales of the humble Maruti 800 heralded an emergent middle class.
  • Every year, governments across the country lay down fresh tar on any available city space to welcome the latest entrants into the coveted league of car owners. Meanwhile, the millions who don’t own cars and are sidelined to the narrow footpaths that lead to the distant bus stop continue to aspire to own their own car one day.

Identifying the problem

  • The government is now beginning to see why this is a problem. Bengaluru is engulfed in a never-ending traffic jam, Delhi’s pollution is at world-beating levels and Mumbai was never famous for its fast roads. This decade has made it resoundingly clear that the present model of urban transport is unsustainable, and the only way out of the cycle of rising incomes and more wheels on the road is an efficient public transport alternative.
  • In light of this realization, Prime Minister inauguration speech for the Magenta Line of the Delhi Metro was on point. Using a city’s public transport should be a matter of prestige, he said. Modi made a fine attempt to persuade people to choose public transport over private, but persuasion only goes so far. India is stuck in a collective action problem: It’s not rational for anyone to switch to public transport until everyone else also follows. An individual will stop using his car if the bus is faster, but that is possible only if others also get their cars off the road. Unfortunately, city-development plans have failed to create the right incentives, as is borne out by the preference for private transport.
  • For example, Bengaluru has seen an increase in the number of private vehiclesfrom 2.7 million in 2008 to 6 million in 2017. The growth in roads cannot keep up with this. Meanwhile, roughly half the city’s passenger trips (5 million) are via a fleet of 6,000 Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation buses.

Why there’s a problem?

  • The problem starts with the way cities are governed in India. The lack of adequate devolution as per the Constitution (74th Amendment) Act, 1992, and consequently, effective power vested in a city-level governance mechanism, exacts a heavy toll. Chief ministers, whose remit should be the state, are inevitably involved at the city level.
  • Municipal corporations lack adequate transparency and accountability, and urban governance is a tangled web of overlapping jurisdictions. This becomes abundantly clear every time a major city floods or faces some other upheaval, like the Elphinstone Road railway bridge tragedy in Mumbai earlier this year. Urban planning is a mechanistic process that pays little heed to evolving urban landscapes. Taken together, this means band-aid solutions to congestion, i.e. building more roads. That is what the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission did, as it allocated 80% of the budget to building roads and flyovers.
  • The urban transport policy must rethink the hierarchy of needs; pedestrians and cyclists must be on top, followed by buses and then motor vehicles. It is absolutely clear that there isn’t enough space for everyone to drive a car, and the government must pivot the policy to delivering reliable public transport. The metro project is a step in the right direction, but it needs complementary changes that improve the citizens’ experience.
  • For starters, the metro system needs a bus system to provide last-mile connectivity. If people have to take buses, they need pedestrian paths to walk on the roads. The bus system also needs to be reliable. Mysuru has managed to achieve that because of a centralized monitoring system that tracks buses using GPS.monitors driving speed and ensures that they stop at every bus stop.
  • Second, the government must resist using attractive-sounding propositions, like pushing electric and hybrid buses, to give the impression that there is political will to improve urban transport. Changing the fuel of the bus will reduce emissions, but there will be dramatically bigger gains if we are able to prompt even a quarter of the private vehicle-using population to use public transport.
  • Third, India has plenty of assets that are decaying due to poor maintenance. Policymakers will do well to make space for depreciation accounts in their budgets to pay for maintenance and replacement of public assets.

Way ahead

  • As a positive step towards reforming urban governance, the Centre has proposed incentives worth Rs10,000 crore for meeting certain defined parameters. This should, hopefully, empower municipal bodies, encourage states to delegate more powers to them, and improve the delivery of services. There are other reforms as well, like lateral entry of officers and giving local bodies greater flexibility in urban planning. However, it remains to be seen whether these reforms will be able to change the conventional ways of the bureaucracy.
  • India is a growing economy, and census data suggests that only 31% of the population lives in urban centres. Another 300 million people will be added by 2050 and the planning for carrying those people in our cities must begin now. Public transport can easily be the cheaper, faster and economical alternative if policymakers plan for tomorrow’s problems today.

Question –  The first step to build smart cities is to build a sustainable network of transport. How can India improve its public transport system?