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GS: 2


International relations:

US foolishly gave money to Pakistan (The Hindu)

Context

Pakistan was U.S. President Donald Trump’s target of ire on January 1 as he threatened to stop U.S. aid to Islamabad

What has Mr Trump said?

The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!,” he tweeted on Monday morning

Backdrop

  • In recent years, Washington has tightened the purse strings on aid, demanding more action against terror networks operating from Pakistan
  • In August 2017, the Trump administration kept $255 million in military assistance in suspension even as it demanded specific action against terrorists
  • Trump’s tweet followed a New York Times report last week that the administration was planning to deny aid under the State Department’s assistance programme, known as Foreign Military Financing

Seize the Asian century (The Hindu Opinion)

Context

The old economic order is dead, but India and China must take the lead to preserve its successes

Three decades of success

No other period in human history has seen as many people lifted out of absolute poverty as in the three decades since the mid-1980s. That is largely because the world’s two most populous nations, China and India, made rapid strides in terms of economic growth in this period

Growth for both India and China

China, which embraced openness and internal reform more vigorously than India, has been the bigger beneficiary. India, with its limited openness and gradual internal reform process, registered lower growth than China but higher growth rates than any other point in its history

Benefits to millions

Author states that it would be cynical to say that the forces of globalisation and free markets have only enriched a minority in these countries. The fact is that more than half a billion people have been lifted out of poverty in a single generation by the very forces that are now being buried in the countries of their origin

Flaws with globalisation

Author points out that globalisation has had its flaws too

  • Financial crisis: The role of Wall Street and global finance in bringing disrepute to the system is well known. That is what precipitated the 2008 financial crisis which sowed the seeds for a backlash. But curiously, politics has chosen to target free trade and free (only relatively) movement of labour, soft targets compared to the powerful world of finance

There is a grave danger for both emerging economies and advanced economies with this form of backlash

Argument for globalisation

  • In the advanced economies, it is convenient to blame free trade for job losses in manufacturing, without commenting on the huge benefits such trade has brought for consumers who are clearly better off as a result of cheaper products and services. It is easy to target immigrants without acknowledging the huge value-add they bring to the host economies
  • Think of the number of foreign-born persons in top positions in American or British academia or in Silicon Valley. Without them, the U.S. (even the U.K.) would not be so wealthy. Any sustained backlash against free trade and immigration will ultimately hurt the economic and geo-political interests of the U.S. and the U.K.

Developing countries in more danger

For countries like India and several other emerging and developing economies, a closed world means missed opportunities and a longer journey out of poverty for those who continue to remain poor. They have the most important stake in ensuring that the world doesn’t return to wealth-destroying autarky

  • Autarky: Autarkyexists whenever an entity can survive or continue its activities without external assistance or international trade

In-house reforms needed

Before raising an argument for global reforms emerging economies need to put their houses in order

  • Eliminating corruption: For many emerging economies, particularly China and India, the backlash against free markets isn’t likely to stem from external considerations (free trade or free movement of labour), but from a free market system at home that has been vitiated by crony capitalism. It isn’t surprising that the leaders of both China and India, President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have devoted a considerable amount of political capital to combat corruption and root out entrenched vested interests. It isn’t an easy task and it won’t happen overnight but the battle against corruption and cronyism is a critical element in retaining the legitimacy of an open market economy which has delivered more prosperity than any alternative system in the last hundred years
    • Improving state’s capacity: In India, the battle against graft has to be accompanied by an attempt to improve state capacity, because there are certain critical functions which only the state can perform
  • Willingness to open up: Reform at home must be accompanied by a willingness to open up to the rest of the world
    • Protectionist China: China has been aggressive about exports and about attracting foreign investment but has been more protectionist about imports (particularly services and agricultural goods) and its state-owned enterprises
    • Reluctant India: India has never quite embraced an export-oriented development strategy

Acknowledging the size of global market

Somehow the point that the domestic market is large enough has won the argument even when it is apparent that the global market is several times that size

  • Merchandise trade market: Just the global market for merchandise trade is $18 trillion, almost nine times the size of India’s total GDP

What India needs to do?

  • India needs to capture a much larger share of that market than its present 1.6% share. India also needs to capture a greater share of foreign investment. But for that to happen, it needs to give up its traditionally defensive posture on trade in particular. The opportunity has never been better as China’s wages rise and it reorients its economic strategy from primarily an export-led growth to a more consumption-driven economy.

Leading the change together

Author puts forward his view that India and China hold the key to the emerging global political economy. Joining the U.S. and other advanced economies in closing up will only lead to slower growth

  • Challenge: The challenge for India and China, as the two fastest growing major economies, is to engage with each other and with other willing partner nations, particularly in the East Asia and the Pacific region (including advanced economies like Japan and Australia), to maintain openness and embrace globalisation
  • Avenues for engagement: The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is one forum where this engagement can happen. India can engage on free trade and free investment in other groups like the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) and BIMSTEC (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand, Bhutan) and via these groups with the entire ASEAN region

Conclusion

The scenario is set for an Asian century. But for it to materialise India, China and the rest of the region need to look beyond rivalry and defensiveness to explore the possibilities of economic integration as the West, so dominant for the last two hundred years, marginalises and isolates itself. That is the promise of 2018 and beyond

US drastically cut aid to Pakistan in the Obama years (The Hindu)

Context

U.S. President Donald Trump’s New Year tweet is indicative that his administration is not satisfied by Pakistan’s response on terror. A month ago, U.S. Secretary of Defence James Mattis had told Pakistan during a visit that it “must redouble its efforts to confront militants and terrorists operating within the country”, according to a Pentagon statement

Scaling down of aid

There was significant scaling down of U.S. assistance to Pakistan in the later years of the Barack Obama administration. From $2.177 billion in 2014, it came down to $1.604 in 2015 and $1.118 billion in 2016. In 2017, it was $526 million

Conditional Coalition Support Funds

The U.S. has also made disbursement of Pentagon’s Coalition Support Funds (CSF) conditional.

CSF pertains to reimbursement to Pakistan for its logistical and operational support for U.S.-led military operations

  • In 2015, $300 million of the CSF was tied to a certification requirement that Pakistan was taking adequate action against the Haqqani network. That component increased in the following years — in 2016 it was $350 million out of $900 million and, in 2017, it was $400 million out of $900 million
  • The defence budget for 2018 reduced the CSF allocation to $700 million and tied half of it to action against the Haqqani Network

Indian Constitution and Polity:

Unseemly haste (The Hindu Opinion)

Context

The triple talaq Bill and the fantasy of legislative-judicial collaboration

Author’s contention

Author contends that the Bill is at odds with the very judgment that it purports to reinforce

Contradictions

  • Terms triple talaq an illegal divorce: The statement of objects and reasons accompanying the Bill indicates that it is meant to give effect to the court’s judgment, which it claims had failed to produce any deterrent effect in reducing the practice of triple talaq across the country. The purpose of the court’s judgment was disarmingly simple: to deprive talaq-e-biddat of recognition in the eyes of the law. That remains the case irrespective of the frequency with which it is exercised. To speak of “illegal divorce”, as the statement does, is therefore a contradiction in terms – triple talaq is simply not a divorce in the first place
  • Flawed provisions: A victim of triple talaq, the Bill says, is entitled to a subsistence allowance and custody of minor children. These provisions belong to a Bill that regulates divorce, not marriage. A victim of triple talaq remains married to her husband. As a wife (rather than an ex-wife), she should be entitled to far more than mere subsistence. The question of custody does not arise where the couple remains married
  • Criminalisation accentuates asymmetry: Until the judgment, there was an asymmetry between the authority conferred upon the words of a Muslim man as opposed to a Muslim woman. By indicating that Muslim men lacked the power to divorce their wives through triple talaq, the Court diminished that asymmetry. This Bill accentuates it once again and puts men at the centre of legislative policy, by triggering a number of legal consequences upon the utterance of those words

Conclusion

Not everything that is arbitrary or unlawful is, or in this case should be, criminal

IPFT team to meet Rajnath over separate state demand (The Hindu)

Context

A 10-member delegation of Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura (IPFT) would leave for New Delhi on Tuesday to hold talks with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and the top brass of BJP over its contentious separate state demand

Backdrop

Twenty seats in 60-member Tripura Assembly are reserved for tribals and the BJP is trying to work out coalition with a common tribal platform consisting of IPFT, Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra (INPT), National Conference of Tripura (NCT), and an IPFT faction led by former MLA Rajeshwar Debbarma to take on the CPI(M) in Assembly polls. Of them IPFT visibly stands strongest as it gained support of a large number of tribals with its separate state or ‘Tipraland’ plank

IPFT’s vision

The IPFT mooted vision to convert the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) into Tipraland – a separate State for indigenous people. One third population in Tripura is tribal and the TTAADC consists of three-fourth geographical area of the State

  • The IPFT chief, who retired as Station Director of All India Radio Agartala a decade ago, said his party will contest Assembly elections with or without BJP. “If we have to fight alone, we would put up candidates in more than 50 seats and we are confident of winning a number of seats”, he stated

One register to count them all-how the NRC fares (The Hindu)

Context

Assam is the only state to have its own register of citizens

Why was it necessary to bring out an NRC in Assam?

  • The NRC is being updated in Assam to detect Bangladeshi nationals, who may have illegally entered the State after the midnight of March 24, 1971, the cut-off date. This date was originally agreed to in the 1985 Assam Accord, signed between the then Rajiv Gandhi government and the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU)
  • However, successive State governments failed to achieve much progress in detecting and deporting foreigners as set out in the Assam Accord
  • In 2005, another agreement was signed between the Centre, the then Tarun Gogoi government in Assam and the AASU where it was decided to update the NRC that was first published after the Census data of 1951 in post-Partition India
  • Though the Gogoi government had started the NRC update as a pilot project in some districts, it was stopped after violence broke out in some parts of the State
  • In July 2009, Assam Public Works (APW), an NGO, petitioned the Supreme Court for identification of Bangladeshi foreigners in the State and deletion of their names from the voters’ list

What will happen to those persons who don’t find their names in the draft register published on Monday?

The list published on Monday is the first draft of the updated NRC. Another list is expected by February-end or early March, with more names and details

  • However, if a citizen’s name is missing, he or she can file an objection and request that the name be included after submitting the requisite documents to the NRC centre or online on the website www.nrcassam. nic.in

Is there a possibility of violence in the State if a large number of people don’t find their names in the register?

The Assam government did fear violence and hence requisitioned over 20,000 paramilitary personnel and requested the Army to be on standby to deal with any law-and-order issue.

  • However, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal said people, irrespective of their caste or religion, had taken part in the process and expressed confidence that the NRC update will not result in violence
  • The security challenge, however, will emerge only when the process of updating the NRC gets completed and a large number of people are left out

Is the NRC a court-mandated exercise?

Yes, the publication of the first draft of the NRC by December 31, 2017 was ordered by the Supreme Court.

The top court has been hearing this case since July 2009 when Assam Public Works moved court to intervene in detecting and deporting Bangladeshis.

Should persons of Assam living in other parts of the country also have their names in the register?

NRC is a process by which a bona fide Indian citizen can be distinguished from a foreigner.

If a person from Assam is living or working in another part of the country, it is advisable to get oneself registered and establish one’s legacy as an “inhabitant” of Assam

1.9 cr names in first draft of Assam NRC (The Hindu)

Context

Nearly 32 years after the Assam Accord was signed, the first draft of an updated National Register of Citizens (NRC) for the State listed 1.90 Crore names out of the 3.29 crore applicants. The updated NRC was published at midnight on December 31

Facts

  1. Assam is the only State in the country that prepared an NRC in 1951 following the census of that year
  2. It has become the first State to get the first draft of its own updated NRC
  3. The NRC, 1951, is updated in Assam with the names of applicants whose names appear in NRC, 1951, or any electoral rolls of the State up to midnight of March 24, 1971, and their descendants and all Indian citizens, including their children and descendants who have moved to Assam post March 24, 1971

Under process

Verification of the remaining applicants is under way and the subsequent draft would be published after the names were verified

  • No need to panic: State NRC Coordinator Pratik Hajela stated that verification was a tedious process and there was a possibility that some names within a single family might not be included in the first draft. He appealed to all people not to panic as the verification process was still on

Timeframe

  • Set by SC: The time frame for the publication of the NRC draft was set by the Supreme Court, which has been monitoring the entire process. The court had turned down a plea by the Centre last month for an extension of the time frame till July 31, 2018, and directed that the first draft be published at midnight of December 31
  • The time frame for publication of the second draft would be decided in accordance with the Supreme Court, adding that the entire process would be completed in 2018
  • The Supreme Court, which is monitoring the entire process, had ordered that the first draft of the NRC be published by December 31 after completing the scrutiny of over two crore claims along with that of around 38 lakh people whose documents were suspect

Backdrop

  • Start of application process: The application process started in May, 2015 and a total of 6.5 crore documents were received from 68.27 lakh families across Assam
  • The ground work for this mammoth exercise began in December 2013 and 40 hearings have taken place in the Supreme Court over the last three years

NRC wins consensus but not Citizenship bill (The Hindu)

Context

AGP has threatened to snap ties with BJP if the Centre grants citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis who have entered Assam illegally post-1971

Migration after marriage

  • The verification of the NRC for the subsequent draft will also decide on the applications from 29 lakh women, who have submitted certificates issued by Gaon (gram panchayat) secretaries and executive magistrates to support their claim of residency after migration post-marriage
  • The Supreme Court allowed these documents after setting aside an order of the Gauhati High Court which declared these documents “invalid” and “ineffective in the process of the verification of claims for inclusion in NRC”

SC’s view

  • Not a proof of citizenship: The Supreme court, however, clarified: “The certificate issued by the G.P. secretary, by no means, is proof of citizenship. Such proof will come only if the link between the claimant and the legacy person (who has to be a citizen) is established. The certificate has to be verified at two stages. The first is the authenticity of the certificate itself; and the second is the authenticity of the contents thereof. The latter process of verification is bound to be an exhaustive process in the course of which the source of information of the facts and all other details recorded in the certificate will be ascertained after giving an opportunity to the holder of the certificate.”

Threat by AGP

Asom Gana Parishad threatenend to snap ties with the ruling BJP if the Centre pushed for passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 that seeks to grant citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis, who have entered Assam illegally post-1971

Against identification based on religion

All Opposition parties, including the Congress and the All India United Democratic Front, and student and youth organisations have opposed identification of illegal migrants on the basis of religion. They have demanded withdrawal of the Bill on the ground that if made into an Act, it would render the updated NRC and the entire process of updating the citizenship register infructuous


GS: 3


Environment:

Tourist entry banned at National Park (The Hindu)

Context

The Bhitarkanika National Park in Odisha’s Kendrapara district will be out of bounds for tourists for a week in view of for the annual census of estuarine crocodiles

7 day ban

The forest department has imposed a seven-day ban, starting January 3, to prevent noise pollution during the headcount operation of the reptiles, Divisional Forest Officer, Rajnagar Mangrove (wildlife) division, B.P. Acharya, said

Free head count

“There will be a prohibition on the entry of visitors to the national park area during this period to ensure smooth and disturbance-free head count operation of saltwater crocodiles,” Mr. Acharya said.

  • Objective: The objective is to keep the place free from human interference when the meticulous exercise is underway, officials said

Ideal picnic spot

  • The 145-sqkm Bhitarkanika National Park, located in the delta of rivers Brahmani, Baitarani and Dhamara, is an ideal spot for camping, trekking and picnic.
  • The peak winter is suitable for the counting of the reptiles, the official said

Economy:

The money trail (The Hindu)

Context

Government’s warning against cryptocurrencies

What has happened?

The government has joined the Reserve Bank of India in cautioning potential customers about investing in cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, likening them to ponzi schemes where investors risk losing their money

Price fluctuation

The price of bitcoin, the most popular of all cryptocurrencies, not only shot up by well over 1000% over the course of the last year but also fluctuated wildly. One of the main reasons for this volatility is speculation and the entry into the market of a large number of people lured by the prospect of quick and easy profits

Backdrop

The government’s caution comes on top of three warnings issued by the Reserve Bank of India since 2013

Most are scams

A number of investors, daunted by the high price of bitcoin, have put their money into less well-established and often spurious cryptocurrencies, only to lose it all. Even some private cryptocurrency operators in India have gone on record saying that as many as 90% of the currencies are scams

Regulation efforts at global level

  • Global tech firms such as IBM are developing their own cryptocurrency platforms to speed up cross-border transactions in a secure and transparent manner
  • At the same time, countries like South Korea and the U.S. are intensifying regulatory scrutiny of the market
    • South Korea, where bitcoin became something of a craze, recently proposed legislation to either heavily regulate exchanges or ban them
    • In the U.S., in November, a court ordered a popular Cryptocurrency platform to hand over information related to 14,000 accounts to the Internal Revenue Service, undermining the anonymity the digital currencies offer

Way forward for India

In all this, India must be careful to differentiate between cryptocurrencies and the blockchain technology they are based on

  • Precaution against Cryptocurrency: Cryptocurrencies may or may not emerge as a useful tool, especially since the government may not want to encourage the proliferation of anonymous, non-fiat currencies as its anti-black money fight intensifies
  • Utilize Blockchain tech: But blockchains, basically digital ledgers of financial transactions that are immutable and instantly updated across the world, are worth looking at as aids to ease doing business. They have the potential to greatly streamline payment mechanisms and make them transparent

Real Estate Act yet to show teeth (The Hindu)

Context

RERA

News

Only 20,000 housing projects have been registered under the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Act, 2016, six months after the legislation seeking to protect the interests of homebuyers came into force last May

  • This is just a fraction of the under-construction and proposed housing projects promoted by private developers

Backdrop

The Act was initiated by the previous United Progressive Alliance government and passed by Parliament in 2016 and notified in May 2017

Provisions

  • The developer has to declare to buyers detailed information such as dates on which various government clearances are secured, floor plans, carpet area, progress in construction, and so on
  • All real estate projects have to be registered with the Real Estate Regulatory Authority (RERA)

Lax implementation

However, the Housing and Urban Affairs Ministry says only six States have set up permanent authorities, while 23 have set up an interim ones

Explaining low registration

  • Rules favouring private developers: The low registration of projects can be explained by the fact that many States have rules that favour private developers. For example, Gujarat, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have exempted ongoing projects from RERA. Similarly, in Karnataka, projects that are 60% complete have been kept out of RERA. In Maharashtra, the rules say that if any building in a project is completed, then it need not be registered
  • “The real estate market is in a slump. The low registration of the projects can be partially explained by the twin factors,” an official said

IBBI registration must for asset valuation (The Hindu)

Context

Professionals carrying out asset valuations under Companies Act and Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code will have to get themselves registered with Insolvency and Bankruptcy Board of India (IBBI) from April to conduct such activities, an official statement said on Monday

Registration mandatory

With effect from April 1, 2018, for conducting valuations required under the Companies Act, 2013 and the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016, a person is to be registered with the IBBI as a registered valuer

  • Necessary qualification: As per the notification, a valuer needs to have necessary qualification and experience, be a member of a recognised valuer organisation and should be registered with IBBI to carry out such activities

Backdrop

A government notification in October had delegated powers and functions to the IBBI under Companies Act and designated it as the authority under the Companies (Registered Valuers and Valuation) Rules, 2017

Science and Technology

Googles new AI system can atriculate like humans (The Hindu)

Context

In a major step towards its “AI first” dream, Google has developed a text-to-speech artificial intelligence (AI) system that will confuse you with its human-like articulation

Tacotron 2

The tech giant’s text-to-speech system called “Tacotron 2” delivers an AI-generated computer speech that almost matches with the voice of humans, technology

How the system works?

  • The system first creates a spectrogram of the text, a visual representation of how the speech should sound
  • That image is put through Google’s WaveNet algorithm, which uses the image and brings AI closer than ever to mimicking human speech. It can easily learn different voices and even generates artificial breaths

Mean Opinion Score (MOS)

“Our model achieves a mean opinion score (MOS) of 4.53 comparable to a MOS of 4.58 for professionally recorded speech,” the researchers were quoted as saying

What is MOS?

It is a numerical method of expressing voice and video quality

  • MOS gives a numerical indication of the perceived quality of the media received after being transmitted and eventually compressed using codecs
  • MOS is expressed in one number, from 1 to 5, 1 being the worst and 5 the best. MOS is quite subjective, as it is based figures that result from what is perceived by people during tests. However, there are software applications that measure MOS on networks

MOS values

The Mean Opinion Score Values

Taken in whole numbers, the numbers are quite easy to grade.

5 – Perfect. Like face-to-face conversation or radio reception

4 – Fair. Imperfections can be perceived, but sound still clear. This is (supposedly) the range for cell phones.

3 – Annoying

2 – Very annoying. Nearly impossible to communicate.

1 – Impossible to communicate

AI first

At Google I/O 2017 developers conference, the company’s CEO announced that the internet giant was shifting its focus from mobile-first to “AI first” and launched several products and features, including Google Lens, Smart Reply for Gmail and Google Assistant for iPhone

Alternative drugs for mild infection the way (The Hindu)

Context

Drug resistance

News

Developing alternatives to antibiotics for small infections could prevent bacteria from developing drug-resistance and help humans win the battle against superbugs, scientists say

Backdrop

  • It has been widely reported that bacteria will evolve to render antibiotics mostly ineffective by mid-century, and current strategies to make up for the projected shortfalls have not worked.
  • Doctors are often quick to prescribe strong antibiotics for mild infections, helping bacteria evolve resistance to even the most potent drugs

Focusing on extreme infections

One possible problem is that drug development strategies have focused on replacing antibiotics in extreme infections, such as sepsis, where every minute without an effective drug increases the risk of death

Need of the hour: Focusing on smaller infections

However, the evolutionary process that brings forth antibiotic resistance does not happen nearly as often in those big infections as it does in the multitude of small ones like sinusitis, tonsillitis, bronchitis, and bladder infections, according to researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology in the U.S.

Prescriptions to smaller ailments a major threat

  • Antibiotic prescriptions against those smaller ailments account for about 90 percent of antibiotic use, and so are likely to be the major driver of resistance evolution
  • Bacteria that survive these many small battles against antibiotics grow in strength and numbers to become formidable armies in big infections, like those that strike after surgery
    • For example, E coli is widespread in the human gut. While some strains secrete enzymes that thwart antibiotics, others do not
    • A broad-spectrum antibiotic can kill off more of the vulnerable, less dangerous bacteria, leaving the more dangerous and robust bacteria to propagate
    • Often, superbugs have made their way into hospitals in someone’s intestines, where they had evolved high resistance through years of occasional treatment with antibiotics for small infections. Then bacteria have infected patients with weak immune systems

Different approach

Furious infections have ensued, essentially invulnerable to antibiotics, followed by sepsis and death. The researchers proposed a different approach. Developing non-antibiotic therapies for strep throat, bladder infections, and bronchitis could prove easier, thus encouraging pharmaceutical research

Ancient jumping genes may give corals new lease of life (The Hindu)

What has happened?

Scientists have identified a gene that improves the heat tolerance of the algae that live symbiotically with coral species, and could potentially help the corals adapt to some warming

Effect of rising temperatures

  • Symbiodinium is a unicellular algae that provides its coral host with photosynthetic products in return for nutrients and shelter.
  • Coral bleaching: However, high sea temperatures can cause the breakdown of this symbiotic relationship and lead to the widespread expulsion of Symbiodinium from host tissues, an event known as coral beaching. If bleached corals do not recover, they starve to death, leaving only their white, calcium-carbonate exoskeleton

New species

Researchers from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia have identified special genes, called retrotransposons, which could help the algae adapt more rapidly to heat stress

  • The team suggests that the activation and replication of Symbiodinium’s retrotransposons in response to heat stress could lead to a faster evolutionary response, “since producing more mutations increases the chance of generating a beneficial one that allows the symbionts to cope better with this specific stress
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