Openly Burning Garbage around Agra is discolouring the Taj Mahal

Burning city garbage in the open is increasingly discolouring India’s iconic Taj Mahal – a problem that does not require technological fixes as much as more efficient waste management, new research shows.

The white marble of

Taj Mahal © Asitjain / Wikimedia Commons

the Taj Mahal keeps getting bombarded by polluting emissions. The 262nd Report on Effects of Pollution on Taj, submitted to the Rajya Sabha in 2015, noted that despite previous interventions to reduce pollution in Agra’s vicinity, the haze and darkening persist. Previous measures to curb the impact of local air pollution around the Taj Mahal included restricting vehicles near the complex, closing over 200 enterprises in Agra, requiring iron foundries to install scrubbers and filters on their smokestacks, prohibiting new polluting enterprises from being built within a defined buffer zone around the mausoleum and, most recently, banning cow dung cake burning as cooking fuel.

An ignored aspect is the practice of burning garbage, or municipal solid waste (MSW), openly – a practice rampant across Indian cities. Its role as well as that of large-scale burning of crop wastes in north India in winter is increasingly coming under the scanner for their contributing to air pollution.

Moreover, the rapid growth of the city of Agra together with limited MSW management infrastructure has resulted in less effective waste management that leaves large volumes of trash accumulating in the streets. This is from a report by an Indo-American team of scientists, published in the latest issue of the journal Environmental Research Letters.

MSW is openly and frequently burned on roadsides and in residential and commercial areas in Agra – as it is done across India. Burning garbage openly leads to the emission and deposition of small, polluting particles, technically called particulate matter (PM), all over the place – from monuments and buildings to deep inside people’s lungs. The Central Pollution Control Board of India estimates that MSW-burning contributes between 5% and 11% of primary particulate emissions from sources within cities.

The study looked at emissions from burning of MSW and dung-cakes. “MSW burning was found to be the main contributor,” says Sachchida Tripathi, a professor at the department of civil engineering and Centre for Environmental Science and Engineering, IIT-Kanpur, and one of the study authors.

Read my full report in The Wire :


Cliff-hanger on India’s GM mustard

India’s face-off between anti- and pro-GM groups on the country’s genetically modified mustard is in its final stages.

The deadline for public feedback on the country’s GM mustard. developed by a team of geneticists from Delhi University South Campus, and led by former Delhi University Vice Chancellor Deepak Pental is over.  It is reported to improve yields by 25 per cent. It would cut India’s reliance on costly edible oil imports. It uses  the same three genes used to engineer the new crop are already in GM rapeseed oil used in Canada, US and Australia.

The mustard is now waiting in the wings for clearance. India’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) released its biosafety review in September, finding no “measurable risk, for sustained use of the technology”.

But battle lines have been hardening between biotechnologists and environmentalists, farmers lobbies, and extreme right-wing organisations that support prime minister Narendra Modi’s government. There have been online petitions for a ban  Will the government stick to its mantra about the power of technology to boost the nation?

GM crops have been hotly disputed in India. Monsanto’s Bt cotton is the only GM crops approved for cultivation so far.

In 2010, India’s then environment minister Jairam Ramesh imposed a two-year moratorium on GM aubergene (eggplant, brinjal). The moratorium has continued ever since.

Will the GM mustard too go the eggplant way? Watch this space.

Read my report in New Scientist :

and my report in Guardian :


Four out of 6 great apes step away from extinction, but Panda, Tibetan antelopes doing better

Four out of six great ape species are now Critically Endangered – only one step away from going extinct – with the remaining two also under considerable threat of extinction, judging from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s latest Red List.

The IUCN Red List update released in September also reports the decline of the Plains Zebra due to illegal hunting, and the growing extinction threat to Hawaiian plants posed by invasive species. Thirty eight of the 415 endemic Hawaiian plant species assessed for this update are listed as ‘Extinct’ and four other species have been listed as ‘Extinct’ in the Wild, meaning they only occur in cultivation.

The IUCN Red List now includes 82,954 species of which 23,928 are threatened with extinction.

These include The Eastern Gorilla (Gorilla beringei) – which is made up of two subspecies – has moved from Endangered to Critically Endangered due to a devastating population decline of more than 70% in 20 years.

Several other plants and animals from Hawaii too figure in the list.

Meanwhile, the Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), previosuly listed as ‘Endangered’ is now listed as Vulnerable, thanks to the Chinese government’s conservation efforts. But these gains could be reversed due to climate change that is predicted to eliminate more than 35% of the Panda’s bamboo habitat in the next 80 years.


The Tibetan Antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii) too has has moved from ‘Endangered’ to ‘Near Threatened’. The population underwent a severe decline from around one million to an estimated 65,000-72,500 in the 1980s and early 1990s, due to commercial poaching for the valuable underfur – shahtoosh – which is used to make shawls.

Other conservation successes include the Greater Stick-nest Rat (Leporillus conditor), endemic to Australia,  and the Bridled Nailtail Wallaby (Onychogalea fraenata),

Read the full release here:

What dinosaurs’ patterns tells about their lives

New research shows that the long-lost species  Psittacosaurus (meaning “parrot lizard,” a reference to its parrot-like beak) most likely lived in an environment with diffuse light, such as in a forest.

This, a team of scientists from the University of Bristol, United Kingodm, inferred by studying the colour pattern of the species. The scientists found a pattern of ‘counter-shading’ —  light on its underside and darker on top — which they say is a common form of camouflage in modern animals.

Countershading most likely served to protect Psittacosaurus against predators that use patterns of shadow on an object to determine shape, just as humans do.

University of Bristol researcher Innes Cuthill apparently describes  Psittacosaurus as “both weird and cute, with horns on either side of its head and long bristles on its tail”. It lived in the early Cretaceous of China and has been found in the same rock strata where many feathered dinosaurs have been found. Those deposits also include evidence for a forest environment based on plant and wood fossils.

But, says Cuthill’s colleague Jakob Vinther , closely related species lived in Mongolia in an environment that would have resembled a savannah with much less vegetation and so, the researchers predict, would have had different camouflage patterns.

Read the full release of Eurekalert : and the original research paper in Current Biology :


Citizen Science Takes Wings

Common people had always helped scientists with observations; now scientists are making it easier for them by setting up special citizen scientist projects.

You don’t need a PhD, or a full-time job in a research institute to become a citizen scientist — age and degrees are no bar, and the time you commit is entirely voluntary. School children, teachers, volunteers, amateur bird, frog, or snake-watchers, plant enthusiasts, amateur astronomers — anybody can become one. What’s needed is a healthy curiosity.

The recent discovery of a sparse cluster of galaxies, reported in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Society of Astronomy, is based on contributions from two citizen scientists. The cluster is named after Ivan Terentev and Tim Matorny, who found something out of sync when they were trying to match images of galaxies from radio and infra-red sources. That something odd turned out to be the C-shaped cluster of sparse galaxies! The Russian duo is part of a citizen science project called the Radio Galaxy Zoo that helps spot black holes — regions in space with such strong gravity that nothing, including light, can escape from them.

That project is itself a part of Zooniverse, the “largest online platform for collaborative volunteer research”. Other Zooniverse projects have similar whacky names: Popping Galaxies attempts to pick out dancing galaxies, Comet Hunters tracks comets in the solar system’s asteroid belt and  Galaxy Zoo looks out for the secrets of evolution of galaxies by classifying them.

Citizen scientists are helping the Australian Museum in Sydney understand  the city’s famed brilliantly-coloured cockatoos. And its ‘Digivol’ project, comprising volunteers from across the globe, delves into the museum collection to transcribe its data and make it accessible to everyone.

“There are so many interesting citizen science programmes, both global and national, and each of us can make a real difference through our participation,” says Suhail Quader, head of Citizen Science at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore..

Check out the Internet. There’s heaps of information on citizen science projects.

Read my full report in The Telegraph, Kolkata

True or false? Figs contain dead wasps — Under The Banyan

On a moonlit night in southern Africa a reproductive race is about to begin. The stakes are high but so are the risks. Most of the competitors will be dead or doomed by dawn. The starting line is a solitary fig tree whose gnarled form towers over a small stream. Figs hang in clumps from […]

via True or false? Figs contain dead wasps — Under The Banyan

India and the world’s largest radio telescope in the outback Down Under

This is the beginning of my astronomy series:

What were Indian scientists doing in the unimaginably empty, arid and remote Australian outback? The unimaginably arid, empty, remote Western Australian outback is hardly a place one associates with Indian scientists. Murchison, 700 km north of Perth and traditional home of the Warrari aborigines, is size of the Netherlands and has about 140 people. This is where Ravi Subramanyam, director of Raman Research Institute (RRI), Bangalore, headed some six years back, to work out India’s role in the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

India has a crucial role to play — it will be SKA’s brain and nervous system, so to speak, or to put it more scientifically, the SKA’s Telescope Manager that will monitor all the telescope dishes located in two sites — South Africa (for mid  frequency radio waves)  and Australia (for low frequency radio waves).

Read the full report ” Wide angle view of the Universe ” in Nature India:



Indian drought pointer to its future probs in warming world

The current Indian drought foretells the country’s likely future struggles in a warming world.

India is in the grip of a severe drought as a result of two successive weak monsoons and a searing heatwave. Its reservoirs dipped to less than a fifth of their total capacity in May, and a quarter of the country’s 1.1 billion people are estimated to be affected in some way.

Reports of parched, cracked soils, farmers’ suicides and desperate migration from Marathwada in the west of the country – one of the worst-hit regions – are at odds with the country’s image as an emerging economic and technological power, aspiring towards a trillion-dollar economy “with no poverty” by 2032.

The hope is that this year’s monsoon, due to arrive in the first week of June, will turn things around. But many see the drought as a wake-up call for India, and a sign of things to come for the region as global warming takes hold.

The full report in New Scientist :

Mystery of the Tully monster solved

Scientists have solved the mystery of the “Tully monster” — a bizarre pre-historic animal found by, and named after, an amateur fossil collector Francis Tully in 1958.  It apparently looked like something out of science fiction, with its eyes on a stalks and a snout. And it turned out to be one more of the ‘weird wonders’ that scientists could figure out what to make of? Was it, for example, a worm or shell-less snail or some other form of an invertebrate?

Tully monsters — Tullimonstrum gregarium — lived in Illinois 307 million years ago . For long, these strange-looking aquatic animals with foot-long  tube-shaped bodies,eyes at the end of stalks, and skinny snouts ending in a tooted jaw, were considered invertebrates.

Tully monster
Holotype of fossil of Tully monster, Tullimonstrum gregarium. Image Credit: Paul Mayer, The Field Museum

Now Field Museum scientists and colleagues at Yale, Argonne National Laboratory, and the American Museum of Natural History, report in the journal Nature that are vertebrates, akin to jawless fish like lampreys. These modern-day jawless fishes have a unique combo  of traits, including primitive gills, rows of teeth, and traces of a notochord, the flexible rod-like structure along the back that’s present in chordate animals–including vertebrates like us, a release quoting Field Museum’s  Paul Mayer says.


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