Down to Earth (March 16-31)

Down to Earth (March 16-31)


  • Please note that some inputs have been given by our team in order to make the topic more relevant to UPSC.

Prelims Facts

Laschamps: This is the temporary reversal of Earth’s magnetic poles, which happened almost 40,000 years ago.

  • Laschamps excursion lasted for a period of 1000 years.
  • Experts have indicated the possibility of linkage between Laschamps Excursion and the extinction of Neanderthals.

MGNREGA and Water Conservation


Topics covered from the syllabus:

  • GS-2: Issues relating to development and management of Social Sector/Services relating to Health, Education, Human Resources.
  • GS-3: Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation, environmental impact assessment.

Context: Celebration of March 22 as World Water Day.

Requirements of water conservation:

  • Augment Water Availability: This will require the construction of water conservation structures as well as harvesting every drop of rainwater, such that wastage of water is reduced to a minimum.
  • Efficient Usage of Water: There is a need to understand the importance of water by making behavioral adjustments and using only the water that is required. If this is not done, the water which is almost free now would turn into a commodity fit for consumption only by the rich. For e.g., the flood irrigation which is practiced now in the fields, needs to give way to drip irrigation.
  • Encourage Reuse and Recycling of water: As the technology progresses, the water needs to be filtered and used sustainably. Also, technology needs to be used to maximize the reuse of water, wherever possible. For e.g., shower water and the water used for cleaning the utensils can be reused for flushing down the toilet.
  • Prevention of degradation of water by pollution: It has been reported multiple times that the fresh water of rivers has been rendered unusable because of the surface runoffs from the field, polluted by fertilizers. Similarly, industrial effluents also play a big role in polluting the river water. This needs to be terminated to increase the usability of water in the downstream regions.

Impact of Climate Change on Water availability:

There are two major factors related to climate change which affect the availability of water:

  1. Increasing Temperature
  2. Varying Rain Events

Increasing Temperature and Scorching Heat:

  • Record high temperatures: In contemporary times, every year usually breaks the record of high temperature when compared to previous years. This indicates the rising impact of global warming in the world.
  • Modified nature of geographical phenomena: 2021 being the La Nina (see inset) year, the temperature was thought to be cooler this year. However, scientists have already predicted that the phenomenon of La-Nina would be offset by global warming this year.
  • Rising Evaporation: Rising evaporation means faster loss of water from the water bodies. To offset this, we need to work on innovative strategies like covering the canals (especially by solar panels which generate electricity) to reduce the rate of evaporation. Similarly, the storage of water needs to be increased by constructing more structures and recharging the underground water storage like wells.
  • Drying up of soil moisture: India, being a country with primarily rainfed agriculture, needs more irrigation coverage for assured agricultural output. However, with rising temperatures, the land would become dustier and the soil moisture would evaporate, leading to requirement of more irrigation. Otherwise, we risk more land being rendered useless for agriculture.
  • Rise in water demand: More temperatures would lead to more requirement of water for almost all purposes, including drinking, washing etc. As temperatures increase, leading to higher chances of forest fires, more water would be required to conquer such fires.

Prelims Focus

La-Nina: It refers to the cooling of surface waters in the Pacific Ocean, west of South American coast.

  • It is the reverse phenomenon of El-Nino.
  • It leads to greater than average rainfall in the Indian subcontinent during the monsoon season.

Extreme Rain Events:

  • Increased floods: Recent events indicate increased downpour, sometimes leading to floods (or even flashfloods) in the region.
  • Vagaries of the season: Apart from increased flood incidents, there are also increased incidents of drought, which means that the water cycle gets disturbed over a period.
  • Opportunity in adversity: Some experts have painted an optimistic picture of increased flood incidents. If properly managed, the increased water flow can be harnessed and stored to tide over the deficit periods, to balance the difference. However, this would require careful planning and sustained intent. For e.g., the capital allocations under MGNREGA can be utilized to construct permanent structures, which can be harnessed at the time of need.

Prelims Focus

Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA): It is a poverty alleviation programme of the government of India, which provides legal right to work in exchange for money to the citizens of the country.

  • On an average, everyday approx. 1.5 crore people work under MGNREGA at almost 14 lakh sites.
  • Till date, it has generated almost 31 billion person-days of employment, worth almost Rs 6.4 lakh crores.

Impact of MGNREGA on water conservation:

  • Productive Assets: MGNREGA has contributed to water conservation as one of its mandates is to create productive assets including water harvesting ponds and irrigation canals. At least 60% of the total works should be related to land and water conservation. In fact, according to government data, 3 crore water conservation assets have already been created under MGNREGA. This has created irrigation facility for almost 18.9 million hectares of agricultural land.
  • Performance Gauge: One unique corollary of MGNREGA is the ability to gauge its performance by the structures built with the programme allocation. If the productive assets created by MGNREGA can generate enough remunerative employment leading to people abandoning MGNREGA, then it would mean success for the programme. For e.g., people can be engaged in fishing using the fish ponds created by MGNREGA capital allocation.
  • Benefits of creation of water conservation assets under MGNREGA:
    • Increased agricultural productivity leading to financial gains
    • Revival of water storage structures (including a river in Kerala’s Palakkad district)
    • Reduction in distress migration


  • As we move into an era of increased water demand and reduced availability, it is important to address the issue of water conservation holistically. This would not only include increased financial allocation towards the availability of water, but also behavioral changes to increase the recycling and reuse of water.
  • At the same time, it is imperative to use all means at our disposal to increase water harvesting and preventing its pollution. This would include using capital allocations under MGNREGA, to create permanent structures for water conservation and harvesting.


Practice Question:

  • Establish the linkage between environmental degradation and poverty headcount in a country. Do you agree with the premise that climate change disproportionately affects women more than their men counterparts?

UPSC Previous Year Question:

  • ‘Climate Change’ is a global problem. How India will be affected by climate change? How Himalayan and coastal states of India will be affected by climate change? (GS3 – 2017)
  • The Namami Gange and National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) programmes and causes of mixed results from the previous schemes. What quantum leaps can help preserve the river Ganga better than incremental inputs? (GS3 – 2015)
  • Enumerate the National Water Policy of India. Taking river Ganges as an example, discuss the strategies which may be adopted for river water pollution control and management. What are the legal provisions for management and handling of hazardous wastes in India? (GS3 – 2013)


Dark Underbelly of Big Pharma Lobbying

Topics covered from the syllabus:

  • GS-2: Important International institutions, agencies and fora - their structure, mandate.
  • GS-3: Science and Technology- developments and their applications and effects in everyday life.
  • GS-3: Awareness in the fields of IT, Space, Computers, robotics, Nano-technology, bio-technology and issues relating to intellectual property rights.

Context: Lobbying by the powerful and rich western Pharmaceutical industry against creating exceptions to the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of IPRs (TRIPS).

Joint Proposal by India and South Africa:

India and South Africa have proposed to temporarily halt the enforcement of the TRIPS agreement, so that the accessibility of COVID vaccines and drugs improves around the world, especially in the third world countries.

Prelims Focus

Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS): It provides protection to the creativity and application of intellect of a person, known as the ‘Intellectual Property Rights’, and prevents their unauthorized copying by others.

  • TRIPS agreement was negotiated in 1986-94 during the Uruguay round of World Trade Organization (WTO).
  • TRIPS agreement tries to balance innovation with social welfare, by providing for ‘Compulsory Licensing’ and preventing ‘Evergreening of the Patents’.
  • Compulsory Licensing refers to the ability of a WTO member to provide licensing of a life-saving drug to its domestic industry, even without the consent of the original manufacturer, if it meets certain laid-down conditions. It is mentioned in Section 84 of the Indian Patents Act, 1970.
  • Similarly, Prevention of Evergreening refers to the practice of extending the patent of a drug by the manufacturer for financial gains. TRIPS agreement does not allow for further extension of the patent, if the modification in the drug is cosmetic and not substantial. It finds a place in Section 3(d) of the Indian Patents Act, 1970.

Opposition of the Western Pharmaceutical industry to the proposal:

The pharma industry claims that if the drugs manufactured by a company can be cloned, the company won’t be able to recover its investments, effectively disincentivizing innovation. The cost of a drug is driven by many factors:

  • Innovation – The basic argument forwarded by the pharma industry is that profits sustain innovation.
  • Investment in Research - According to the pharma industry, huge investments are required in the research phase of the formulation of drugs and vaccines. Any drug company does this investment in the hope of reaping the benefits when the formulation comes out in the market and sells at profit.
  • Investment in Testing – It is not just the formulation of the drugs, but the testing which requires huge monetary investments as the testing is carried over a sustained period with usually paid volunteers, willing to accept side-effects of the drug.

The price of the drug is usually sought to be remunerative enough to recover the costs, apart from gaining handsome profits for the manufacturing company.

Arguments in favor of creating the exception:

  • Mankind’s one of the worst crises: COVID is one of the worst crises faced by the global community in recent times. Therefore, it requires cooperation at the global level. Also, it is to be understood that to fight the crisis effectively, it is critical to rise above the narrow interests and think about global social welfare, rather than sticking to narrow individual interests.
  • One-time exception: The exception which is sought to be created is for COVID-induced emergency, which has not only caused economic loss but also loss of human lives in the world. In the interest of saving human lives further, the global community must agree to create this one-time exception.
  • Narrow exception: The proposal resolves to create an exception for only the COVID-related drugs. There is no proposal to extend this exception to any other spectrum of drugs. Therefore, the net loss for the pharma industry is minimal.


  • India and South Africa, have taken the lead in articulating the demand of the third world countries for greater access to drugs, which can be considered global commons, at this time of crisis.
  • The western world needs to understand its responsibility in ensuring the access of drugs for the third world, as it has been long established that the west has grown at the cost of the developing countries of Africa and South Asia.


Practice Question:

  • Discuss the dilemma faced by the authorities in the debate between safeguarding innovation and rooting for social welfare. Also, discuss the contemporary challenges faced by the third world countries in pursuit of development as compared to their western counterparts.

UPSC Previous Year Question:

  • “The broader aims and objectives of WTO are to manage and promote international trade in the era of globalization. But the Doha round of negotiations seem doomed due to differences between the developed and the developing countries.” Discuss in the Indian perspective. (GS2 – 2016)
  • In a globalised world, intellectual property rights assume significance and are a source of litigation. Broadly distinguish between the terms – copyrights, patents and trade secrets. (GS3 – 2014)
  • Bring out the circumstances in 2005 which forced amendment to section 3(d) in the India n Patent Law, 1970. Discuss how it has been utilized by Supreme court in its judgment rejecting Novartis patent application for “Glivec”. Discuss briefly the pros and cons of the decision. (GS3 – 2013)


Untold Risks

Topics covered from the syllabus:

  • GS-3: Disaster and disaster management.
  • GS-3: Role of external state and non-state actors in creating challenges to internal security.

Context: The article explores the preparedness of India against a COVID-like biological terror attack.

Three types of biological threats which India might face:

  • Naturally occurring infections: This includes commonly transmitted pathogens in humans, plants and animals. For e.g., the recent locust attacks in south asia, bird-flu outbreak, COVID-19 etc.
  • Unintentional Release of Pathogens from the labs: India has not experienced such an attack. However, the fear against Genetically Modified (GM) crops is partially due to the unintentional spillover and irreversible modifications, which it may give rise to, in the existing crops.
  • Terrorist attack by Biological weapons: This has been a possibility that is dreaded by the governmental institutions the world over. In fact, in 2001, India faced a real scare when 17 unidentified letters were detected, being suspected of containing the Anthrax spores.

Prelims Focus

Australia Group – It is an informal group of countries which seeks to manage export laws in such a manner that they do not contribute to the development of Biological and Chemical weapons.

  • The group was established in 1985 and has an annual meeting in Paris.
  • The group currently has 43 members including India.

Is India prepared to face bio-terrorist threats?

Media reports have pointed to glaring gaps in the Indian strategy to fight bioterrorism:

  • Poor Disease Surveillance Network: The basic issue with the disease surveillance network of India is its reactive nature. It is often seen that the Indian medical system starts responding to the threats of a disease when it has already consumed human lives and is being ferociously reported by the media. The need of the hour is for the health network to be proactive whenever any pathogen is discovered in the country.
  • Dismal investment in Scientific Research: Yet another issue with India’s healthcare industry is its focus on disease management, rather than on scientific research. The focus of the industry is on recovering the investment and becoming profitable. This leads to fewer discoveries and a poor understanding of the nature of the environment in which people reside.
  • Multiplicity of authority: There are multiple ministries and institutions involved in the regulation of healthcare industry, which leads to conflicting rules and regulations, and creates confusion. For e.g., Ministry of Science and Technology and Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change look into the safety of biotechnological research. On the other hand, the researchers from the same field are often affiliated to laboratories supported by the Indian Council of Medical Research and Indian Council of Agricultural Research, which are set up under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and Ministry of Agriculture respectively.
  • Inadequate Coordination between the ministries: As already discussed above, multiple ministries are looking into the biosafety of the country. However, the situation regarding sharing of the data and coordination between the ministries is not ideal. Too much red tape and bureaucratic inertia lead to a backlog in the decision-making.
  • No involvement of experts: Generally, the meetings of the ministries involved in the field take place behind closed doors and the opinion of experts is not sought, leading to undervaluing of precious human resources and talent, and poor decision-making bereft of understanding at the ground level.

Conclusion:  There needs to be a full-time authority dedicated to studying threats from biotechnology and preparing plans to fight such scares before they turn into a major nightmare for the authorities. It might be a good idea to engage the National Disaster Management Authority for keeping oversight over such a body.

Practice Question:

  • COVID-19 has exposed serious lacunae in the preparedness of the Indian healthcare system. Discuss the steps required to put in place a mechanism to fight any similar future events in the country.

UPSC Previous Year Question:

  • Why is there so much activity in the field of biotechnology in our country? How has this activity benefitted the field of biopharma? (GS3 – 2018)