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A.P. CM announces compensation of ₹1 crore for families of deceasedGas reportedly spread over a radius of 3 km, affecting five villages About 2,000 people were evacuated from nearby areasChemical plant situated in a densely populated suburb

Eleven people, including a six-year-old girl, died and over 350 were admitted to hospitals after styrene monomer gas leaked from a chemical plant belonging to LG Polymers India at R.R. Venkatapuram in Visakhapatnam on Thursday.

The gas leak began around 3.30 a.m. in the plant, which is situated in the midst of a densely populated area. It was set up in 1961 in the area, then a suburb.

The gas reportedly spread over a radius of about 3 km, affecting at least five villages — R.R. Venkatapuram, Padmapuram, B.C. Colony, Gopalapatnam and Kamparapalem. About 2,000 people were evacuated from the 3-km radius.

Visakhapatnam Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar Meena said that among those killed, two were accidental deaths — a 19-year-old medical student fell from the balcony of the second floor of his house after he was blinded by the fumes and the other fell into a well while trying to escape the gas. The others were declared brought dead at hospitals.

Of those affected, 100 have been shifted to King George Hospital (KGH), where the condition of 20 was stated to be critical. They have been put on ventilator, said P.V. Sudhakar, Principal, Andhra Medical College.

Chaotic situation

According to eyewitnesses, people initially thought it was a fire accident. But as the pungent smell spread, people rushed out of their homes, carrying children and supporting the elderly. Many, running out of their houses leaving doors unlocked, fell unconscious on the road.

Two people, who tried to flee on a two-wheeler, died after the vehicle fell into a drain.

The police reportedly received an emergency call at 4 a.m., and by 4.20 a.m. the first team reached the spot.

Collector V. Vinay Chand, who was supervising the evacuation process, said people were shifted in about 30 ambulances, police jeeps and government vehicles. State Road Transport Corporation buses were also pressed into service.

The gas is not lethal but prolonged exposure to it could affect the central nervous system, which may lead to depletion of oxygen to the brain and cause nausea, vomiting and breathlessness, said KGH Superintendent Arjuna.

CM visits hospital

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy reached Visakhapatnam from Amaravati in a chopper and visited the affected persons in KGH. He announced compensation of ₹1 crore for family members of the deceased. “This amount includes the compensation to be paid by the company,” he said. He also announced that a four-member committee, headed by the Special Chief Secretary, Environment and Forests, would inquire into the incident.

Twin blows of slowdown and lockdown reduce the government’s income in April to a meagre trickle

Telangana, often touted as a ‘rich state’ by its Chief Minister K.Chandrasekhar Rao, finds itself reeling under the twin blows of the economic slowdown that preceded the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown. While slower economic growth left its finances substantially dependent on GST compensation, the State’s own revenues have now hit rock bottom due to the latest public health crisis and the drastic measures taken to mitigate it.

Mr. Rao, who has extended the lockdown in the State till May 29 despite a trying financial situation that has resulted in the State receiving barely 5% of its own revenue in April, has given indications that his patience is wearing thin with the Centre not responding to his various suggestions to infuse funds into economy.

The lockdown was announced a few weeks after the State presented its Budget outlay of ₹1.82 lakh crore for 2020-21, with an increase of 28.7% over the revised estimate of 2019-20. At the time, the outlay was perceived as being ambitious given the country’s economic slowdown and the fact that the GSDP growth rate at current prices for 2019-20 was revised down to 12.1%, from 14% in 2018-19. But no one could have foreseen the havoc wrought on the State’s revenue and growth estimates by the pandemic. The budget had earlier estimated the State’s fiscal deficit for 2020-21 at ₹33,000 crore.

The State, which used to be proud of its robust revenue growth rate, became eligible for GST compensation in 2019-20 as its own revenue growth fell sharply to 7%, from the 16.1% expansion recorded in 2018-19. The recommendation of the 15th Finance Commission cut the State’s share in Central tax devolution to 2.1% from 2.4%. And delays and shortfalls in the release of the State’s share of IGST and GST compensation added to its woes.

The overall income for Telangana, including Central funds and loans, is about ₹15,000 crore a month with the State’s own tax revenue amounting to ₹10,800 crore to ₹11,000 crore. But Telangana’s income from all sources was only ₹1,600 crore in April, with the State’s own tax revenue slumping by 95% to ₹500 crore, Mr. Rao had said recently.

Making a case for liberal sanction of funds to the States at a time when they were reeling under the impact of slowdown, compounded by the COVID-19 crisis, and yet spending from their meagre resources on relief and welfare of the poor and migrant workers, Mr. Rao’s argument is that the broad fiscal policy rests with the Centre. “Either Centre should sanction more funds to the States or transfer power to the States to make their own decisions,” he said.

Mr. Rao has also repeatedly — once in a videoconference on the ongoing crisis with the Prime Minister and also in a written representation — urged the Centre to accord sanction for what he termed ‘Helicopter money’ (a direct infusion of money to the public by the RBI or the Central government) and increase the FRBM limit from 3% to 5%.

The FRBM limit increase would enable the State to raise more loans from the market — ₹50,000 crore as against ₹30,000 crore for the year 2020-21. Another appeal is for a moratorium on loan and interest repayments for six months to let the State get a breather from its financial stress.

Mr. Rao pointed out that even for running special trains to take migrant workers to their home States, the Railways were collecting the fare from the States. “ I feel sorry for the Centre’s indifference towards the States’ problems. We will wait for some more time and have our own plan of action,” a visibly disappointed Mr. Rao said during a recent conference with the media.

Revenue from sales tax and VAT on petroleum products, State excise duty on liquor and stamp duty and registration fee are the main revenue sources for the State (amounting to ₹52,400 crore) while SGST is expected to generate ₹27,600 crore. The SOTR was estimated at more than ₹85,000 crore for 2020-21.

But in April, there was zero revenue from excise and liquor (against ₹1,400 crore), stamps and registration (target of ₹880 crore) and motor vehicle tax (estimated ₹400 cr.) while the VAT on petroleum products was only about ₹50 crore as against normal revenue of ₹1,500 crore. The State GST was also only about ₹350 crore to ₹400 crore against ₹3,000 crore.

The State borrowed ₹4,000 crore from the market in April, as against the ₹2,500 crore it would normally borrow in a month.

Against the income of ₹1,600 crore, the government had to spend close to ₹10,000 crore in April including ₹1,800 crore towards salaries and pensions at 50% and 75% deferment, ₹2,400 crore towards debt servicing, ₹870 crore towards Aasara pensions, ₹830 crore towards power subsidies, ₹2,400 crore towards COVID-19 relief assistance of ₹1,500 to every white ration card holder and 12 kg of rice and releases to the health department. The State also stood guarantor for a loan of ₹25,000 crore availed by the Civil Supplies Corporation to procure paddy, fine rice for the current rabi season.

The cut in the State’s share in Central devolution saw the State receiving only ₹982 crore in April, as against ₹1,200 crore. “We pulled through with some savings apart from borrowings and what trickled in from Centre under Centrally Sponsored Schemes and about ₹200 crore of donations to the CMRF” officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Telangana’s government spends close to ₹40,000 crore on welfare schemes and its budgeted capital expenditure of ₹44,000 crore includes ₹22,000 crore of capital outlay for the creation of assets. Its debt servicing expenditure for the year was put at ₹21,131 crore.

It is not clear if the casualties were caused by it or by some other chemical or a combination

Unsparing killer: Cattle lying dead near the plant. K.R. Deepak The Hindu

Gas leak from LG Polymers, which led to the death of at least seven people in Visakhapatnam, is suspected to have been caused by styrene gas.

The most common health problems when exposed to styrene involve the nervous system — both the central and the peripheral nervous systems.

According to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the health effects due to inhalation of styrene gas include tiredness, feeling drunk, slowed reaction time, concentration problems, balance problems and changes in colour vision.

The styrene concentrations that cause these effects are more than 1,000 times higher than the levels normally found in the environment.

According to the U.S.-based Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), short-term exposure to styrene can lead to respiratory effects, such as mucous membrane irritation, eye irritation, and gastrointestinal effects. Chronic exposure affects the central nervous system with symptoms such as headache, fatigue, weakness. It can also cause central nervous system dysfunction including memory, visuomotor speed, hearing loss and peripheral neuropathy.

Clinical studies of volunteers and workers exposed to styrene have demonstrated both the central and the peripheral nervous systems toxicity.

The number of studies of styrene clinical neurotoxicity is rather small.

Acute exposure to styrene via inhalation at 376 ppm for 25 minutes had resulted in nausea, a sense of inebriation and headache. But no studies have been carried out to understand the harmful effects from exposure at extremely high concentrations lasting a couple of hours.

Currently, no studies have reported deaths from short-term exposure to styrene gas. Hence, it is not clear if the deaths were caused by styrene gas or some other chemical or a combination.

Khalilzad meets Jaishankar, Doval

Zalmay Khalilzad

The U.S. recognises India’s “constructive contribution” to Afghanistan, said U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, who came to Delhi on Thursday and met with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval to brief them on progress in the peace process that has faltered in the past few weeks.

Expressing “deep concern” about the increase in violence in Afghanistan, Mr. Jaishankar and Mr. Doval made a particular mention of the need to protect “Afghan Hindus and Sikhs,” and said India supported the call for a ceasefire to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

“The U.S. side recognised India’s constructive contribution in economic development, reconstruction and humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. They laid importance to India’s crucial and continuing role in sustainable peace, security and stability in Afghanistan,” a statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs said after the meeting, which was also attended by U.S. National Security Council Director Lisa Curtis and U.S. Ambassador to India Kenneth Juster.

Protection of rights

The statement said that India reiterated its continued support for strengthening peace, security, unity, democratic and inclusive polity and protection of rights of all sections of the Afghan society, including Afghan Hindus and Sikhs.

Mr. Khalilzad is in the middle of a three-city trip to Doha, Delhi and Islamabad. “At each stop, he will urge support for an immediate reduction in violence, accelerated timeline for the start of intra-Afghan negotiations, and cooperation among all sides in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic in Afghanistan,” a U.S. State department release.

The trip is meant to build support for the full implementation of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, which has been derailed by differences between the Afghan government and the Taliban over the release of prisoners.

Regional talks

In Delhi, Mr. Khalilzad was due to “discuss the important role of India in a sustainable peace in Afghanistan and the region.” India was not included in a UN-coordinated “6+2+1” meeting of Afghanistan, its neighbours and U.S. and Russia on April 16, an exclusion New Delhi is understood to have protested.

However, Afghan officials have hinted that they are speaking to the UN, U.S. and others about a broader “6+4” formation for regional talks on Afghanistan soon, which would include India. The MEA declined to comment on whether Mr. Khalilzad had discussed this further.

In a reminder of India’s concerns over Pakistan’s role, the MEA said Mr. Jaishankar and Mr. Doval “emphasised that putting an end to terrorist safe havens and sanctuaries is necessary for enduring and sustainable peace and stability in Afghanistan”.

They were found in the latest study of one of a pair of binary brown dwarfs

A depiction of Luhman 16A. NASA NASA

A group of international astrophysicists have identified cloud bands on the surface of Luhman 16A, one of a pair of binary brown dwarfs in the Vela constellation. They have used an idea put forth nearly two decades ago by Indian astrophysicist Sujan Sengupta, who is at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bengaluru, that the light emitted by a cloudy brown dwarf, or reflected off an extrasolar planet, will be polarised. He suggested that a polarimetric technique could serve as a potential tool to probe the environment of these objects.

Subsequently, many astronomers detected polarisation of brown dwarfs. But what is special in the newest study of Luhman 16 is that the researchers have found the actual structure of the clouds — that they form bands over one of the pair (Luhman 16A) of brown dwarfs.

Understanding the cloud system over a brown dwarf can shed light on the pressure, temperature and climate on the surface of the celestial body.

Luhman 16 is a binary star system, the third closest system to the Sun after Alpha Centauri and Barnard’s star. At a distance of about 6.5 light years from the Sun, this pair of brown dwarfs referred to as Luhman 16A and Luhman 16B orbit each other, casting a dim light. Brown dwarfs are also called failed stars, because their masses are intermediate to the largest planets and the smallest main sequence stars. Their masses being too small, they are unable to sustain fusion of their hydrogen to produce energy. It is believed that some of the more massive brown dwarfs fuse deuterium or lithium and glow faintly.

The faintness of the glow proved to be providential in finding the cloud bands. Unlike a star whose brightness would be too high, or an extrasolar planet orbiting a star, where the extra light from its star would have to be cut off to make the measurement, the light of the brown dwarfs was just right.

The group, by using the Very Large Telescope at European Southern Observatory, Chile, found that Luhman 16A had band-like clouds in its atmosphere, whereas the same was not true of Luhman 16B. “While, the polarisation of Luhman 16B can be interpreted to have its origin in the asymmetry caused by rotation-induced oblateness of the object, the polarisation of Luhman 16A needs inhomogeneous band-like cloud distribution,” said Professor Sengupta. The work has been published in The Astrophysical Journal.

Bengal Forest Department indicates that the count has increased by 8 in 2019-20

Long strides: A tiger caught on a camera trap installed by the West Bengal Forest Department.

The latest estimation of tiger numbers in the Indian Sunderbans indicate an increase in the population of big cats. According to the West Bengal Forest Department, the tiger count for the year 2019-20 rose to 96, from 88 in 2018-19.

The Sunderbans delta, spread over India and Bangladesh, is the only mangrove forest in the world inhabited by tigers. Giving details of the tiger estimation exercise, West Bengal Forest Minister Rajib Banerjee said that the increase in the number by eight was significant as it was the biggest annual jump reported from the Sunderbans. Previously, the highest yearly increase of tigers in the Sunderbans had been seven, he added.

“Considering the images of tigers, which we received during the estimation exercise, we can say that the habitat can sustain more number of tigers in future,” Mr. Banerjee said.

The estimation revealed that of the 96 tigers, 23 were identified as male and 43 as female, while the sex of 30 big cats could not be determined. The survey also revealed the presence of 11 tiger cubs. The estimation exercise was carried out in two phases: the first period commencing on December 16 and ending on January 13, and the second phase starting on January 22 and ending on February 19.

“For the first period, a total of 1,156 Cuddeback camera traps (578 pairs) were installed in the Sunderban Tiger Reserve and during the second period, 272 camera traps (136 pairs) were installed in the 24 Parganas (South) Division,” the State Forest Department said.

The Sunderban mangrove forest is spread over 2,585 sq. km and includes the Sundarban Tiger Reserve and the 24 Parganas (South) Division. While 23 tigers were found in 24 Parganas (South) Division, 73 big cats tigers were recorded inside the four divisions of the Sunderban Tiger Reserve.

Estimation of the number of tigers in the Sunderbans, a world heritage as well as a Ramsar site, has always been a challenge because of the difficult terrain that comprises dense mangrove forests, with creeks and rivulets, and floods twice a day during the high tides.

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