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International

Rainy Days Ahead for Northeast India

A low-pressure area, currently located over Odisha, is set to bring an intense bout of heavy to very heavy rains over the eastern and northeastern states of India on Friday.

According to The Weather Channel’s forecasters, Assam, Meghalaya and Sikkim will experience heavy to very heavy rainfall on Friday. Moreover, heavy rains are also forecast in Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura.

A 24-hour precipitation accumulation (i.e. total rainfall volume) of over 100mm is also possible over eastern and northeastern India on Friday, and over northeast India on Saturday.

Rainfall accumulation forecast during the next 48 hours, from Friday morning to Sunday morning(TWC Met Team)

The India Meteorological Department (IMD) also forecasts that isolated places over Assam and Meghalaya will experience thunderstorms accompanied by lightning and gusty winds (with speed up to 30-40 kmph) over the next 48 hours.

The regional met centre also forecasts the possibility of thunderstorms with lightning across northeastern states on Friday and Saturday. Gale winds of up to 40 kmph are forecast in isolated places over Assam and Meghalaya. The IMD has issued an orange level alert for these two states, while other states in the northeast have been put under a yellow watch. IMD’s orange alert signifies ‘be prepared’ for extreme weather, while yellow watch recommends to ‘be updated’.

The circulation and the related low is expected to move northeastward on Friday, and reach northeastern India on Saturday morning. The intensity of rainfall is likely to drop after Sunday, as the low-pressure loses steam.

Since the start of October, five Northeastern states (Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Sikkim) have experienced ‘deficit’ rainfall as compared to the normal average, while Manipur has experienced a ‘large deficit’. However, with heavy rain headed their way, these statistics could change drastically over the weekend.

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International

Indian Tourist from Maharashtra Detained in Bhutan for ‘Desecrating’ Holy Buddhist Chorten

A biker from India was seen standing on the dome of a sacred structure in Bhutan, which has sparked outrage on social media in the Himalayan nation and India, where people criticised him for his behaviour that could embarrass the country.

In a video tweeted by The Bhutanese newspaper, the tourist in a black jacket and jeans with protective biking gear is seen climbing a ladder to the top of the memorial structure at Dochula, 20 km from Bhutan’s capital Thimphu.

There are 108 stupas at Dochula, built in the memory of Bhutanese soldiers who died in a military strike – Operation All Clear – in 2003 to flush out insurgents from India’s north-east region. The insurgents had set up camps in Bhutan along the border with India.

In another photo, a Bhutanese carpenter was seen sitting on the ladder on the dome of the chorten or a religious monument. The local police are looking for him.

View image on Twitter

The newspaper reported the tourist in the biker outfit has been identified as Abhijit Ratan Hajare, a resident of Maharashtra. “In the second picture the man sitting on the ladder is a Bhutanese citizen and carpenter, Jambay, who was doing repair works on the Chortens,” The Bhutanese tweeted.

There is rising concern in Bhutan against the huge influx of tourists that may damage its fragile ecosystem

“Abhijit was part of a 15-bike convoy headed by a Bhutanese team leader. Incident happened when bikers were resting at Dochula and the team leader was trying to arrange parking for the bikes. The Bhutanese team leader was unaware of the incident,” the newspaper said.

“Abhijit, whose passport has been taken by the RBP (Royal Bhutan Police) has been called in for questioning today. RBP is launching its investigation today. The Indian tourist came across Jambay and he allowed them to climb the ladder. The RBP are in the process of tracking Jambay down,” it reported.

The Indian tourist apologised in writing to the police, after which he was released, the newspaper reported.

Indians don’t need a visa to travel to Bhutan. However, they should have either a passport with minimum six-month validity or a voter identity card.

For some time now, environmentalists and activists in Bhutan have been raising concerns over a huge influx of tourists that may add pressure on the landlocked Himalayan nation’s fragile ecosystem.

Tenzing Lamsang, editor of The Bhutanese that reported the stupa incident first, said unsustainable growth of regional tourists is affecting the country. “The issue is not about discrimination,” he said. 

Over 50,000 regional tourists came to Bhutan in 2012, as against 54,685 “international tariff-paying” tourists, Mr Lamsang said. In comparison, over two lakh regional tourists – a huge rise in number – came to Bhutan in 2018 and only 71,807 international tourists came, he added. (NDTV)

International

Acid from coal mine burst pipe, kills four

by Mubina Akhtar

Four men were killed when the pipe that brings water from Kopili dam in the Indian state of Assam to its 275 MW hydropower station burst in the early hours of October 7. Three of them – J Sing Timung, Robert Baite and Prem Pal Balmiki – were employees of North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Limited (NEEPCO), a government-owned firm that operates the project. The fourth victim – still unidentified – worked for a contractor to the project. Hemanta Deka, NEEPCO executive director (Operations and Management), blamed rathole coal mining in Meghalaya for the accident.

Located on the southern bank of the Brahmaputra river that flows through the Assam valley, the Kopili dam is on the river with the same name. The Kopili river flows down to the Brahmaputra from the Meghalaya plateau in the south – and is now infamous for carrying coal slurry and acids used in rathole mining in Meghalaya. This practice, of creating narrow holes of about a metre in diameter in which only one person can enter, has been banned by the National Green Tribunal, India’s top green court, but continues illegally.

Deka says the acids from the slurry had corroded the pipe that was designed to bring water at the rate of 12,000 litres per second. The burst pipe caused a fountain that rose several hundred feet and continued to do so for hours, according to eyewitnesses. The four victims were washed away and their bodies could not be recovered for days. NEEPCO sought help from the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and the paramilitary Assam Rifles. It opened all gates of the dam to reduce the water flow to the powerhouse.

The incident showed a lack of emergency preparedness. “What is this? Why have no steps been taken for rescue by the government agencies?” asked the brother of Robert Baite, one of the four victims.

Kopili hydroelectric project was NEEPCO’s first project when the company was formed in 1976. It has two dams, on the Kopili River and on its tributary the Umrang River. The first power unit was commissioned in March 1984 and a second in July 2004. The powerhouse was renovated in the financial year 2015-16. A water tunnel that had cracked was repaired in 2018. The issue of corroded pipes remained unresolved.

No funds for maintenance

The Congress party that is in opposition in Assam and the centre has blamed the Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government for not releasing the money – INR 2 billion (USD 28 million) – for maintenance work in the project, though this had been approved by a Congress-led government before the party went out of power in 2014.

Making the allegation, Congress Member of Parliament from Assam Gaurav Gogoi also decried the centre’s reported move to merge NEEPCO with other government-run firms. “NEEPCO was established under the North East Council not only to tap the hydropower potential of the region but also to ensure overall socio-economic development,” he pointed out in a letter to the power ministry.

Durga Das Boro, spokesman of the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee, echoed Gogoi’s charge and said, “A major repair of the project was due in 2014. The life of the pipeline expired in 2014. However, it [the maintenance] could not be done as the BJP-led government had not released the amount approved.”

Acid-laced water

V.K. Singh, the head of NEEPCO, also blamed acidic water for corrosion of the water pipe and therefore the accident, while holding that the pipe that burst had been repaired just a year ago. He estimated the loss at INR 6 billion (USD 84 million).

NEEPCO officials say that since 2007, they have been warning the Central, Assam and Meghalaya governments about the acid-laced water, but no one listened to them.

Kopili and its tributaries – Kharkor, Myntriang, Dinar, Longsom, Amring, Umrong, Longku and Langkri – are known to be heavily affected by rathole mining for coal that is rampant in Meghalaya, especially in the Jaintia Hills in the eastern part of the state. The rivers run reddish due to a phenomenon called Acid Mine Drainage (AMD), caused by active and abandoned mines, coal storage sites and overburdened rocks. Leaching of heavy metals and the washing down of the soil removed to reach the coal seams add to the pollution in the rivers.

India’s National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned rathole mining in the Jaintia Hills and two other mining regions on April 17, 2014. “We are of the considered view that such illegal and unscientific method can never be allowed in the interest of maintaining ecological balance of the country and safety of the employees,” said the tribunal.

But the ban was opposed on the plea that the area is inhabited by indigenous communities that have special rights under India’s Constitution. The mining continues, and the miners continue to use child labour, again citing special rights. There has been no environmental impact assessment that was supposed to be mandatory under a 2006 notification, nor has the environmental clearance for mining activities – required under the 1986 Environment Protection Act – ever been given.

On January 4, 2019, the NGT fined the Meghalaya state government INR 1 billion (USD 14 million) for its failure to curb rathole mining. But India’s Supreme Court revoked the ban and allowed coal mining “on privately and community owned lands with permission from concerned authorities”.

NEEPCO’s responsibility

Most independent experts agree that pipes at the Kopili project have been affected by acidic water. But knowing this, why has NEEPCO continued to operate the dam and the power station, they ask.

The accident has brought back the debate on dam safety in north-eastern India, a region in which 168 hydropower projects are being planned – although it is unclear if many of them will see the light of day. Environmentalists have repeatedly questioned these plans, pointing out the adverse impacts on ecosystem and the risks to people. There have been a number of instances of floods being worsened because dam managers upstream have opened the gates.

NEEPCO has been in focus after a number of dam-induced accidents in its projects in the recent past. Assam’s Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal had to warn NEEPCO not to release water from its Ranganadi project while downstream areas were flooded anyway. There have been reports that the Kameng dam it is now building has already shown several leaks.

Along with rathole mining and NEEPCO, the entire issue of building dams in the geologically and ecologically fragile Himalayas is now being questioned again.

( The report first published in The Third Pole,, London)

International

Our brains control pain perception

Washington: Pain perception is essential for survival, but how much something hurts can sometimes be amplified or suppressed: for example, soldiers who sustain an injury in battle often recall not feeling anything at the time. A new study published in Cell Reports on Tuesday honed in on the brain circuitry responsible for upgrading or downgrading these pain signals, likening the mechanism to how a home thermostat controls room temperature.

Yarimar Carrasquillo, the paper’s senior author and a scientist for the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), told AFP the region responsible was the central amygdala, which according to her work appeared to play a dual role.

Studying mice, Carrasquillo and her colleagues found that the activity in neurons that express protein kinase C-delta amplified pain, while neurons that express somatostatin inhibited the chain of activity in the nerves required to communicate pain. The central amygdala isn’t completely responsible for pain itself: if it were removed entirely, then “the ‘ouch’ of things, or the protective pain, would remain intact,” said Carrasquillo.

“It seems to be sitting there waiting for something to happen,” for example responding to stress or anxiety that amplifies pain, or being forced to focus on a task that diverts your attention and reduces pain. Experiencing pain can be a vital warning to seek help, for example in a person experiencing appendicitis or a heart attack.

People who are born with insensitivity to pain, meanwhile, often do not realize the severity of injuries and are at greater risk of early death. But not all pain is useful. According to a 2012 survey, about 11 per cent of US adults have pain every day and more than 17 per cent have severe levels of pain.

Often this leads to dependence on potent painkillers like opioids, or attempting to self-medicate through counterfeit or illicit drugs which are increasingly laced with deadly fentanyl. By better understanding the brain mechanisms responsible for pain modulation, researchers hope to eventually find better cures: potentially ones that target only those forms of pain that are “bad” and not useful.

“The healthy response is you get pain, it tells you something is wrong, it heals, and the pain goes away,” said Carrasquillo. “In chronic pain, that doesn’t happen, the system gets stuck. If we can identify what makes the system gets stuck, then we can reverse it.”

International

Sino-Pak axis plans to sell arms to Nigeria and Myanmar

NEW DELHI: The Sino-Pak military axis is now eyeing export markets in third countries in India’s neighbourhood and among Delhi’s traditional defence partners in Africa. The subject of Chinese fighter aircraft and other military hardware supplied to Pakistan for exports to third countries figured high on the agenda of Pakistan Army chief’s visit to Beijing last week, media has learnt.

ET has further learnt that Pakistan plans to sell batches of JF-17 Thunder fighters that it has built with Chinese assistance to India’s neighbour Myanmar and Nigeria, India’s old defence partner in Africa. Myanmar has already ..

Myanmar has already purchased four JF-17s through Chinese assistance. Pakistan also plans to export JF-17 to Malaysia and Azerbaijan as well as additional fighter jets to Nigeria, which now has three JF-17s, ET has learnt.

Interestingly, India has expanded defence partnerships with old and new partners in Africa, including Nigeria in recent months.

Pakistan has relied on Chinese military hardware for more than five decades, though Islamabad has US weaponry. But while the US is no longer a predictable defence equipment supplier for Pakistan, China remains consistent amid India’s defence modernisation plans and acquisition of modern system.

Technology transfers from China have allowed Pakistan to begin producing military hardware on its own. Pakistan is also increasingly foraying into the production of tanks and other equipment for land forces, thanks to technology transfers from China. The equipment could be exported to third countries in future as China is helping Pakistan create a more commercially-run defence industry, according to some reports.

“Pakistan’s reliance on Chinese military hardware will grow. China has signed a contract to supply eight new submarines to Pakistan’s navy… Although neither party has revealed the value of the contract, Western defence analysts say it could be worth from $4 billion to $5 billion depending on weapon systems and other add-ons,” according to a report in NikkeiAsian Review.

Besides traditional partners in eastern and southern Africa, western African states have also sought to deepen defence ties with India including training for its officers and joint defence exercises, ET had earlier reported. India and Africa plan to hold a comprehensive security dialogue in near future. The military to military ties are being revived as India seeks to emerge as a net security provider in Africa amid common challenges from terrorism and piracy.

India has had defence partnerships with Zambia, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia. Botswana, Uganda, Namibia and Mozambique, and is seeking to expand this to include more countries across the vast continent. It may be recalled that in the post-colonial Africa, India had assisted to set up military academy in Ethiopia, defence college and naval war college in Nigeria, besides setting up the air force in Ghana and training military personnel in a number of African countries. 

Several army chiefs from Nigeria have been trained in India and Delhi is focussing on increasing joint military exercises with the African nations. (Agencies)

International

Bali Zoo celebrated Tumpek Kandang ritual for all its resident faunas

The Tumpek Kandang ceremony is a tribute to God of Creator and Preserver (God Shiva).

The most recent Tumpek Kandang ceremony in Bali Zoo was held on October 12. The main purpose of the ceremony was to pray for an eternal safety and a healthy state of the animals, also to hope for a disease-free condition. It was also celebrated in order to respect the meaningful bond that grow in a relationship between human and other well-beings, especially animals, which by some means, the celebration also gave hope to wildlife preservation. What have been mentioned above are essentially aligned with the mission of Bali Zoo, which always put animal preservation on top missions. With that alignment, the ceremonies that had been held at Bali Zoo always sparked joy. During the most recent ceremony, all animals were well-fed with special treats and the temple master sprinkled each of them with holy water. The special treats consisted of food and drink that symbolize a worship to Sang Hyang Rare Angon – an embodiment of Dewa Siwa (God Shiva) whose in power of all beings, notably animals.

In the Hindu philosophy, Tumpek Kandang falls once every 210 days, thus the Hindus are usually celebrating this tradition twice a year and the day always falls on Saturday. For Bali Zoo, Tumpek Kandang is a sacred tradition that has to be commemorated every half-yearly. The zoo celebrates it for the entire animals that reside in the zoo, which in total have reached more than 500 faunas.

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“The Tumpek Kandang ceremony is a tribute to God of Creator and Preserver (God Shiva). The Hindus are familiar with this ceremony as it is a solemn prayer to ask for animals’ safety, as well as to hope for disease-free and healthy animals. This ceremony is also a way to appreciate compassion towards all animals at Bali Zoo. On a different note, Tumpek Kandang is also associated with Tri Hita Karana, a Balinese philosophy of life. The philosophy teaches us three causes of well-being, one of them is Palemahan which is a Balinese word to remain care about our surroundings and that surely include animals,” said Lesmana Putra, Bali Zoo’s General Manager.

The unique vibe and colorful atmosphere of Tumpek Kandang succesfully attracted many domestic and international tourists that happened to be at Bali Zoo during the ceremony was held. They watched and fascinated by the wonderful rituals. All the employees of Bali Zoo joined the ceremony, they were all wearing their traditional Balinese attire which showed vibrant color and beautiful patterns. They were fully aware that the spirit of this ceremony is to keep the balance between human and animals since they have mutually beneficial relationship.  PTI

International

Assam dam disaster: Ruptured pipeline was repaired a year ago

No trace of four missing employees believed to have been washed away

The ruptured water pipeline that washed away four people engaged in central Assam’s Kopili hydroelectric project on October 7 was repaired a year ago, raising questions about the quality of the work.

The four people remained untraced 48 hours after the disaster struck at about 6.30 a.m. Three of them were identified as Robert Baite, Prem Pal Balmiki and Joy Sing Timung — all employees of the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO) that runs the 275 MW Kopili project.

The fourth was employed by a firm engaged in tunnel repair work.

“We are trying out best to check the inflow of water and sort things out within a day or two so that the powerhouse is approachable. This is not a normal situation and it is difficult to assess the damage until and unless we start restoring the system,” project manager Debotosh Bhattacharjee said.

A project technician, declining to be quoted, said that they have been struggling to block the intake point of the penstock pipe that burst. The pipe had been carrying water from the NEEPCO reservoir to the Kopili powerhouse at 12,000 litres per second.

A lot of the water entered the powerhouse, forcing the officials to shut it down. The three NEEPCO employees were said to have been washed away from the powerhouse.

“Apart from our own people, a team of the State Disaster Response Force is standing by to help find the missing people,” Mr. Bhattacharjee said.

The family members of the missing employees said they were losing hope by the hour. One of them blamed NEEPCO for slack maintenance, leading to the disaster.

Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People quoted a NEEPCO statement that said the penstock pipes and tunnels at Kopili were repaired a year ago. “If that was the case, who executed the repairs and who certified the adequacy of such repairs? These and many such questions are destined to remain unanswered going by the experience of past dam-related disasters,” he said.

One such disaster happened on October 9, 1963, at Vajont dam in Italy, killing at least 2,000 people.

The Kopili hydroelectric project in Dima Hasao district has two concrete gravity barriers — the 66m tall Khandong dam on the Kopili River and the 30m Kopili dam on its tributary Umrang stream located at Umrangso.

Water from the Khandong reservoir is utilised in the Khandong power station through a 2,852 m long tunnel to generate 50 MW of power. The tail water from this powerhouse is led to the Umrong reservoir. The water from Umrong reservoir is taken through a 5,473 m long tunnel to the Kopili power station to generate 200 MW of power.

An additional 25 MW was added to the Khandong dam in Stage 2 of the Kopli project to make the total capacity 275 MW in July 2004. The work on the project started in 1976 and its first unit was commissioned in March 1984.

International

Total recall: A brilliant memory helps chickadees survive

In winter, the birds must remember where they’ve hidden tens of thousands of seeds. Biologist Vladimir Pravosudov explains what this can teach us about how the brain evolves.

Despite weighing less than half an ounce, mountain chickadees are able to survive harsh winters complete with subzero temperatures, howling winds, and heavy snowfall. How do they do it? By spending the fall hiding as many as 80,000 individual seeds, which they then retrieve — by memory — during the winter. Their astounding ability to keep track of that many locations puts their memory among the most impressive in the animal kingdom.

It also makes chickadees an intriguing subject for animal behavior researchers. Cognitive ecologist Vladimir Pravosudov of the University of Nevada, Reno, has dedicated his career to studying this tough little bird’s amazing memory. Writing in 2013 on the cognitive ecology of food caching in the Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, he and coauthor Timothy Roth argued that answers to big questions about the evolution of cognition may lie in the brains of these little birds.

In July, at a meeting of the Animal Behavior Society in Chicago, Pravosudov presented his group’s latest research on the wild chickadees that live in the Sierra Nevada mountains. He and his graduate students were able to show for the first time that an individual bird’s spatial memory has a direct impact on its survival. The team did this by building an experimental contraption that uses radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology and electronic leg bands to test individual birds’ memory in the wild and then track their longevity. The researchers found that the birds with the best memory were most likely to survive the winter.

Knowable Magazine spoke to Pravosudov about what his research means for our understanding of memory and cognition. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What are some of the big ideas driving your work on chickadees?

If some species are smart, or not smart, the question is: Why? Cognitive ecologists like me are specifically trying to figure out which ecological factors may have shaped the evolution of these differences in cognition. In other words, the idea is to understand the ecological and evolutionary reasons for variation in cognition.

A lot of the classical work in the field of cognitive ecology has looked at why some species have bigger brains, especially an area of the brain called the hippocampus. In my lab, we work on spatial memory, which is well-known to be linked to the hippocampus. So we’ve been looking at variation in hippocampus size, number of neurons, size of the neurons, and how it all links to variation in memory.

Why did you choose to study chickadees?

We use food-caching birds because they’re like memory machines — they rely on memory a lot, so they’re a good model for these types of things. Other people have looked at differences between male and female parasitic cowbirds, because females have to find and monitor many, many nests of other species to lay their eggs in — which is a pretty heavy memory-based task. People have also looked at differences between monogamous voles and voles where males have multiple mates and bigger territories; the latter have better memory and a larger hippocampus.

Cognitive ecology research was quite popular at the conference this year. Is this a field that is growing and advancing quickly right now?

I think so. The field initially started with comparing multiple species, and that was good in some ways, but in other ways it didn’t quite work. I think this was largely because when you’re comparing different species, there are a lotof differences between them, not just cognition. And when you test them, all of these differences contribute to how they perform. For example, species react very differently to captivity. All animals have evolved to function a certain way and when you bring different species into the lab and put them all in a white room, even closely related species will respond to that room differently. This makes it hard to know which behavioral differences are due to differences in cognition.

I decided that, to solve this, you need to look at differences between populations of the same species. Once you look at the same species, at the very least it’s more similar than comparing, let’s say, jays and chickadees. So we started by comparing chickadees from Alaska to chickadees from Colorado in the lab. The idea was that in Alaska it’s really harsh in the winter, but in Colorado it’s milder and the chickadees would have to rely less on food-caching, so their memory wouldn’t need to be as good. And sure enough, we found giant differences between the two populations: Birds from Alaska had better memory, a larger hippocampus and more neurons.

Your presentation drew a standing-room-only crowd. Can you explain what had everyone so interested?

Comparative studies still don’t directly show how the cognitive differences happen. They suggest, and everybody assumes, it’s natural selection, but nobody could show it. People attempted to test birds in the lab and then release them to see how their cognitive differences affected their survival, but it didn’t work. So that kind of forced me years ago to go into the field. And part of it was building the apparatus with RFID capabilities so we could test their cognition in the wild. We can also track the chickadees’ survival, reproduction, who they mate with.

The work I presented at the meeting was specifically looking at juveniles in their first year to see if natural selection affects cognition. If so, we would expect to see that the birds who did better on the cognitive test, who have a better spatial memory, will be more likely to survive their first winter, and the ones that do worse will be more likely to die. And that’s what we found. We directly confirmed for the first time what everybody suspected — that yes, it looks like what’s happening is that spatial cognition is directly acted upon by natural selection.

We also compared mountain chickadees living at higher and lower elevations in the Sierras. At higher elevation, almost 70 percent of juveniles may die during their first winter, every year. That’s a lot! That’s good, though, if you’re interested in selection. If more animals are dying and there’s some reason for some animals to survive better, well, that’s where you can best see the results of selection: Those that survive will reproduce and their offspring should be better equipped to survive harsh conditions.

So at high elevations we already know the birds cache significantly more food than those living at lower elevations. They also show much better spatial cognition, and they have a larger hippocampus, more neurons, bigger neurons, and more new neurons forming. The difference between the two populations is startling — it’s very big. Tricks and traits that let insects take flight

And now we have also shown that mortality of juveniles is higher at high elevations. But that isn’t the case for adults at high elevation: For those that manage to survive, the mortality rate is lower than for adults at lower elevations, where conditions are milder. So in other words, if they have the cognitive traits to get through the tough selection at higher elevation and survive their first winter, they can live much longer. This is despite a crazy amount of snow at those elevations — we’re talking about 20 or 25 feet of snow in some years.

Do the differences in cognition affect more than just survival?

Yes, we’ve also shown that females that mate with males with a better memory lay bigger clutches and produce bigger broods. Now we’re trying to figure out why. It’s not because these males are able to provide more food for the young, because they don’t use caches for feeding young. (Both adults and young eat insects in spring.) And the males don’t seem to use their superb memory for reproduction. Their memory is so good because they need to recover all these tens of thousands of caches. As far as breeding goes, it’s overbuilt — a bit like having space technology to put butter on your sandwich.

So any individual differences in memory would be critical for survival during the winter, when finding caches is essential for survival, but not likely to make a difference during breeding, when demands on memory are much lower.

A mountain chickadee grasps a seed in its beak in winter. The birds’ seed stashes can number in the tens of thousands, making a good memory a huge benefit. | (Courtesy of Vladimir Pravosudov)

The only way we can think of to explain it is as an investment for the future: Females produce more because their offspring will more likely survive, because they will have the genetics that will allow those offspring to have a better memory. A big question we’re working on now is how the females know which males have better memory. It may be that they can watch the males retrieving caches. But we think a more logical potential explanation is that variation in cognition is somehow indicated by male song quality or by some other characteristic, maybe plumage.

Can what you’ve learned about chickadees teach us anything about memory and cognition in general?

It can explain, I think, how memory evolves across multiple species, why some species’ memory may be better and some species’ worse, how that can change over time, and why. We’re looking at genetics as well, collaborating with Scott Taylor at the University of Colorado Boulder on sequencing chickadee genomes. We’ve already sequenced the genomes of 40 individuals — 20 from high elevation, 20 from low elevation. From each elevation, we selected the birds with the best and worst performances on memory tests. Now we’re trying to see what genetic differences may contribute to these memory differences.

And if we track and test the animals in the wild for their entire life, we may have a better chance to detect and study senescence. It could maybe lead to a better understanding of things like Alzheimer’s.

This article originally appeared in Knowable Magazine, an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews. Sign up for the newsletter.

International

Xi arrives, heralding the rise of an influential geopolitical actor in Nepal

The visit of the Chinese President might come with material benefits for Nepal but it is laden with geostrategic symbolism, analysts say.

Binod Ghimire

It was more than two decades ago that a Chinese president last crossed the Himalayas and landed in Kathmandu. But on Saturday, Xi Jinping did not cross the Himalayas, he flew over the Tarai plains—straight from Chennai, India, after the second informal summit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

While Xi’s visit, the first by a sitting Chinese president after 23 years, no doubt holds great significance for Nepal, analysts say it is up to Nepal to make the most out of China’s goodwill, which may come with strings attached.

As far as Beijing is concerned, it is clear about its foreign policy, how it wants to expand its influence in South Asia and beyond, and what measures it will take to broaden the reach and appeal of Xi’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). But in the past week, South Asia was on Xi’s mind.

Just before flying to Chennai on Friday, Xi welcomed Imran Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan. In the aftermath of New Delhi’s August 5 decision to strip Kashmir of its autonomous status, Beijing and Islamabad appeared to be on the same page, much to India’s chagrin. The meeting between Xi and Modi too materialised after some level of uncertainty.

But in Kathmandu, despite no official communication from Beijing regarding Xi’s visit until just a few days earlier, preparations to welcome the Chinese president were underway a fortnight ago. China has been Nepal’s all-weather friend, but despite enjoying over six decades of diplomatic ties, high-level visits from the north have been sparse.

That’s one reason why Xi’s visit is a watershed moment in Nepal-China ties, say analysts. 

“Xi’s visit definitely takes China-Nepal relations to a new stage,” said Ajaya Bhadra Khanal, a political analyst who is also a columnist for the Post. “The visit is a positive response from China.”

Khanal, however, did not miss the symbolism of Xi’s arrival from across the plains.

Xi arrives, heralding the rise of an influential geopolitical actor in Nepal

President Bidhya Devi Bhandari welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) in Kathmandu.  Angad Dhakal /TKPbookmark12

“Nepal wants China to look at Kathmandu without bringing in New Delhi, but Xi arrived straight from India. So doubts persist,” he said.

This long overdue visit from a friendly neighbour was not particularly due to China’s unwillingness to engage with Nepal on a high level, say foreign policy watchers. It was largely due to political instability in Nepal. The 2015 constitution and the 2017 elections have brought about a semblance of stability in Nepal, installing a strong government that is largely seen as much more open to engagement with China.

Political stability certainly paved the way for a visit, but Nepal’s concerns are more material.

Constantino Xavier, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings India, a think tank in New Delhi, said that Nepal seeks greater connectivity with China to reduce its reliance on India, whether on trade, energy security or digital connectivity.

“This also explains the strategic debate within the Nepali government, between those arguing for China’s BRI and a northward focus to Tibet, across the Himalayas, and those who have made a case for diversification by linking Nepal southwards, beyond India, to the Bay of Bengal region and the Indo-Pacific,” Xavier told the Post in an email interview.

Nepal has signed up for the BRI but India has cautiously refrained from taking part.

Unlike India, Nepal lacks the economic and geopolitical heft to abstain from a project as ambitious as the BRI. China is a global power and Xi one of the most powerful leaders in the world. China has engineered an economic boom in recent years, while the United States and Europe were licking their wounds after financial crises. With the West, particularly the US, wringing its hands regarding China’s rise, American President Donald Trump has launched a trade war against China.

But Beijing is not naive. It knows that the US move is not just about trade, say analysts. For China, this is a good moment to shore up its backyard.

“Economy and security are the two factors that China is concerned with,” said Khanal. “Taking neighbours along is a must for China, which has as an aspiration to expand its influence globally.”

According to Khanal, how Nepali politicians carry forward their foreign policy will also decide Nepal’s future course.

“Foreign policy must not become a tool for domestic politics,” he said. “But unfortunately, the Nepal Communist Party and its leaders are trying to benefit politically from their relations with China.”

Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli won the 2017 elections on the back of nationalist posturing against India, which had just imposed a months-long economic blockade when Nepal was still reeling from devastating earthquakes. Oli played up ties with China as a counter-balance to Nepal’s unhealthy dependence on India, even signing a transit and transport agreement with the northern neighbour. India has not been particularly pleased with these developments, especially since it has long considered Nepal to be within its sphere of influence.

But India isn’t the only country watching Nepal in its pursuit of China. The US, which has long been wary of a rising China, has time and again cautioned Nepal against Chinese goodwill, sometimes bluntly. During their visits to Nepal, American officials have reminded Nepali leaders that any assistance from the north should be in Nepal’s interest, not China’s. Even though they have stopped short of mentioning the Belt and Road Initiative, their references to Sri Lanka and some African countries, which have fallen into what the West calls a “debt trap”, clearly demonstrate what they mean. The Chinese have been quick to counter such statements and they maintain that the Belt and Road Initiative is meant for shared benefits.

The US has also included Nepal in its broad Indo-Pacific Strategy. Even though American officials have attempted to qualify that the strategy is not targeted at any particular country, many, including the Chinese, see it as an attempt to counter China.

An article in The Global Times, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, on Wednesday said that Xi’s visit to India would improve China’s ties with the South Asian country and also “serve as a response to the Indo-Pacific Strategy intended to contain China”.

In this tussle between the great powers, Nepal is a footnote, but its geostrategic location gives its an edge that belies its small stature.

“Chinese support for infrastructure and foreign direct investment is what Nepal is looking forward to,” said Tanka Karki, a former Nepali ambassador to China. “At the same time, it is an opportunity to show Nepal is China’s trusted neighbour.”
Connectivity with China would not just benefit Nepal but also the region, which is in the shared interest of everyone, including China and India, who aim to take their bilateral trade over the $100 billion mark by the end of the year.

Railway connectivity to India via Nepal is certainly in China’s interest, analysts say.

“After the Wuhan normalisation, China has been insistently advocating trilateral connectivity or infrastructure projects with India, which Beijing calls the ‘India-China plus one’ model,” said Xavier. “Recognising Indian concerns about the BRI and its projects in PoK [Pakistan-occupied Kashmir], China has been testing India’s openness to develop a Himalayan economic and transportation corridor between India, Nepal and China.”

The cross-border railway is high on the Xi visit agenda. While there is euphoria among Nepalis regarding a rail link to China, a railway across the Himalayas, by their own admission, will be a test for China’s technological might.

While there are sections in Kathmandu that caution Nepal against falling into a debt trap over a train line, ruling party leaders have rejected the notion of a debt trap wholesale, saying it is an “imported notion”, created by westerners. The experience of many African countries, however, says otherwise. Even China itself is “recalibrating” its BRI in response to criticisms of creating indebtedness among poorer nations.

Nevertheless, around a dozen agreements related to connectivity, infrastructure and hydropower are expected to be signed during Xi’s 20-hour stay in Kathmandu. But more than the material, Xi’s presence in Kathmandu is laden with symbolism.

“More than a few projects Xi is expected to inaugurate or announce, his visit marks the rise of China as an influential political actor in Nepal,” said Xavier. “Beyond financing, China has been silently cultivating a new generation of Nepali politicians, journalists and scholars through public diplomacy and exchange programmes.”

Xi’s visit to Nepal follows a two-day symposium on “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” in Kathmandu, which was attended by leaders of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP), including Prime Minister Oli.

“The recent workshop conducted in Kathmandu for ruling party members indicates Beijing is using its sharp power to shape the politics and institutions of one of Asia’s least developed democracies,” said Xavier.

But amid all these maneuverings, what is important for Nepal is how it maintains its autonomy, say analysts. Nepali politicians should make prudent moves and exhibit deft diplomacy to make the most of its friendly nations.

“Nepal should be able to maintain its strategic autonomy,” said Khanal. “Relations must be transparent to ensure other friendly nations aren’t skeptical.”

With Xi’s arrival, however, the consensus is that the Oli administration has pulled off a coup by materialising a visit from the northern neighbour.

“In the contemporary world where China is expanding its role, Xi’s visit has huge diplomatic and strategic meaning with long-term implications,” said Ramesh Nath Pandey, a former foreign minister. “Traditional and ritualistic diplomacy has been replaced with direct and tactical diplomacy.”

According to Pandey, while deals on infrastructure and other support from the Chinese side matter, what’s more significant is how the one-on-one meeting between Prime Minister Oli and President Xi moves ahead.

“That meeting will pave the future course of the Nepal-China relationship,” said Pandey.

International

India to soon set up apex water authority for northeast region

To evolve a consolidated strategy for management of its north-east region’ water resources, India will shortly set up a North East Water Management Authority (NEWMA), according to government officials. The authority is being set up on the recommendations of a high level committee headed by NITI Aayog vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar, in the backdrop of China’s ambitious $62 billion south-north water diversion scheme.

NEWMA will be the apex authority for developing all projects related to hydropower, agriculture, bio-diversity conservation, flood control, inland water transport, forestry, fishery and eco-tourism in the region. It will also help spearhead India’s efforts to establish prior user rights on waters from the rivers that originate in China.

The committee was set up in October 2017 with the aim of helping India’s flood-ravaged north-east. Its mandate was to facilitate optimising benefits of appropriate water management and NITI Aayog, the federal policy think tank headed the efforts. This assumes significance as India has been pushing to establish prior user rights on rivers that originate in China in an effort to fast-track projects in the northeast. Also, Japan has joined hands with India to aggressively develop infrastructure projects in the region with an India-Japan Coordination Forum for Development of North East been set up.

“The committee’s report has been finalised and its is on that basis that a structured approach is being considered. The main purpose is to take care of power generation, irrigation, flood control, soil erosion among all other measures,” said a senior Indian government official requesting anonymity.

“The report has been submitted some months back. We are going ahead with constituting the NEWMA. The vice chairman of Niti Aayog chaired this. Niti Aayog has been at the forefront of this,” said a second Indian government official who also did not want to be named.

With one of the focus areas being hydropower, the strategy will also help establish first-user rights to the waters of the Brahmaputra. The total hydropower generation potential of India’s North-Eastern states, and Bhutan, is about 58,000MW. Of this Arunachal Pradesh alone accounts for 50,328MW, the highest in India.

Queries emailed to NITI Aayog vice-chairman Kumar and a Niti Aayog spokesperson on Thursday morning wasn’t immediately answered.

To have all states on board to work in tandem for implementing a concerted strategy, the chief secretaries of all the eight states of the region were included in the committee. The committee also comprises secretaries from the ministries of development of north-eastern region (DoNER), power, water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation, National Disaster Management Authority, departments of border management and space.

Developing hydropower projects has been a recurring theme of India’s strategic play in the border areas, specifically with China and Pakistan in mind. A case in point being the 330 MW Kishanganga hydro power project in Jammu and Kashmir that was commissioned last May on the river Kishanganga, a tributary of Jhelum. While Pakistan had challenged the project under the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960, the International Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled in India’s favour in 2013.

India is now also looking at expediting strategically important hydropower projects in Jammu and Kashmir to fully utilize its share of water under the Indus Waters Treaty. State run NHPC Ltd plans to construct these hydropower projects in the context of China developing the controversial China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

The committee’s terms of reference against the backdrop of floods that have brought life to a standstill in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur also included identification of gaps in the existing mechanisms and arrangements for water resource management, and suggesting policy interventions.

Mint reported on 30 August that 103 private hydropower projects in Arunachal Pradesh with a total capacity of 35 gigawatts (GW) still to take off despite the government’s Act East policy. This comes against the backdrop of growing concerns on the delay in India’s plans to generate power from rivers originating from neighbouring China. A delay in building hydropower projects on rivers originating in China will affect India’s strategy of establishing its prior-use claim over the waters, according to international law.

China on its part is going ahead on its south-north water diversion scheme of the rivers that feed downstream into the Brahmaputra, known in China as the Yarlung Tsangpo. Of the 2,880km of the Brahmaputra’s length, 1,625km is in Tibet, 918km in India, and 337km in Bangladesh. Of the eight river basins in Arunachal Pradesh, Subansiri, Lohit and Siang are of strategic importance, as they are closer to the border with China.

Utpal Bhaskar, the livemint