Seeking an ultimate vacation? Forget planet Earth. The time is fast approaching when you can go into space to see a sunrise and sunset every 90 minutes. A team of international researchers has predicted that space tourism will rocket into reality in this century and the "final frontier' could begin showing up in a number of travel guides by the year 2010. Till now, only a few multi-millionaires have been able to afford the current $ 20 million price tag to go up in a Russian rocket for a two-week stay at the International Space Station. But, according to the researchers, shorter and more affordable "suborbital' space flights, costing $ 80,000 per trip, will drive space tourism in the near term. "During these flights, a spacecraft reaches space, but it does not enter Earth's orbit. Suborbital trips are likely to become available to tourists by 2010-2015, while tourism in space hotels is on a longer trajectory, predicted to become a reality in 2025. "Passengers will enter a world that only astronauts and cosmonauts have experienced

The Central Silk Board (CSB), the apex body of the Indian sericulture industry, is involved in developing new hybrids to improve bivoltine silk production in sub-tropical Northern India. Among northern states, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttaranchal are the traditional bivoltine silk producers in the region. Despite more potential for bivoltine silk in these states, their combined contribution remains low, when compared to other states like Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu. One of the major reasons for such a low production is lack of region-specific and acclimatised productive hybrids, CSB officials said. Currently,

The poultry industry, which has suffered losses on account of the recent outbreak of avian flu in West Bengal, is eagerly waiting for the government's subvention on interest rates charged on loans extended to them by banks. The Reserve Bank of India, last week, had issued guidelines to banks suggesting a one-year moratorium on repayment of outstanding loans, conversion of working capital loans into term loans, and re-schedulement of term-loan repayment as a relief to the affected poultry industry. According to sources, the finance minister P Chidambaram may announce the government's subvention rates on loans extended to the poultry industry either before the Budget or may spell it out in his Budget speech. The Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar had earlier announced that the government would work out separate relief packages for the poultry sector - one exclusively for poultry farmers in West Bengal and the other for the poultry industry in the country as a whole, which has suffered in sales due to a dip in prices in the country and the ban imposed by different countries on Indian poultry imports. The government's package would include subvention rates on interest charged by banks. He had assured that the financial package would be an improved one over that announced in March 2006 on account of the outbreak of bird flu. The March 2006 package contained 4% interest subvention, a one-year moratorium period for repayment of loans, conversion of working capital into loans, and extension of fresh loans for working capital. "The poultry industry had demanded zoning of poultry areas in the country based on geo-climatic conditions, so that exports from bird flu-free zones can be business as usual, ban on export of corn and soybean to augment feed availability, 7% central government's interest subvention on loans, and a two-year moratorium on repayment of loans,' said Anuradha Desai, chairperson of the National Egg Coordination Committee. The government has turned down the proposal for zoning of poultry areas, even though the industry had pointed out such zoning or compartmentalisation exists in the US and is allowed by the world animal health organisation - OIE. It has also refused to impose a ban on exports of corn or soybean. India has a poultry population of 489 million (nearly 3% of world's poultry), out of which 51% is concentrated in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal. Due to the recent incidence of avian flu in West Bengal, culling operations were undertaken not only in those states but also in parts of the neighbouring states - Assam, Bihar, and Jharkhand.

Repower SystemsAG, the German wind-power company taken over by India's Suzlon Energy Ltd, signed a memorandum of understanding to deliver wind turbines with a capacity of as much as 1,900 mw to RWEAG. RWE's Innogy unit will make a final decision on the purchase by the end of this year at the late stand the plants will be delivered from 2010Hamburg-based Repower said in a statement. The company plans to deliver as many as 450 turbines in the deal.

The public health system in Orissa is on the brink of collapse. Most government hospitals in the state are running without doctors, para-medical staff, medicine and basic infrastructure. The outbreak of cholera in Koraput last year and the recent cases of anthrax-related deaths have already exposed the weak links in the health system. What's worse, at a time when the government is grappling with controversies like irregularities in the Rs 415-crore World Bank-aided Orissa Health Systems Development Project and the fake medicine scam, about 3,000 government doctors have threatened to quit their jobs. On February 18, government doctors across the state put in their papers en-masse demanding higher salary and more privileges. The doctors have given a time-frame of one month to the government to either consider their 18-point charter of demands or accept the resignation letters. Their demands include basic salary of Rs 12,000-Rs 16,500 per month at the entry level (subject to revision, as per recommendations of the Sixth Pay Commission), specialist allowance of 30% of the basic salary, in-service post-graduation study and housing accommodation for doctors from primary health centres to block headquarters and, above all, security to all doctors. The doctors demands are not illogical, say observers. With the population:doctor ratio touching a new low (roughly one doctor to 8,000 patients), the doctors in government hospitals have to bear the burden of a huge workload. Unable to meet the growing demand, these doctors end up facing public wrath. There have been many such incidents in various parts of the state. Moreover, these doctors see no reason why they should serve the government when higher salaries and better privileges await in the private sector. Amidst all this, it is the patients who have been suffering. Orissa is virtually running short of doctors, particularly allopathic, in recent years. There are 929 posts of doctors that have been lying vacant in various streams. Of these, 765 are for allopathic, 77 ayurvedic and 87 homeopathic doctors. The highest number of 31 vacancies in allopathy has been reported in Sundergarh district. Even though state health minister Sanatan Bisi has assured the people that the vacancies would be filled up, the fact is that adequate number of doctors are not available in the state. The few doctors who pass out from the three government medical colleges migrate to other states in search of higher compensation, promotional avenues, professional security and social status. There are 150 seats each in the three medical colleges and hospitals in the state, while in private medical colleges there are 300 seats. In a desperate bid, the state government is now considering enhancing the entry age limit of doctors for government jobs from 32 years to 45. It also proposes to raise the retirement age of government doctors from the present 60 to 62. Meanwhile, the state government has empowered the chief district medical officers to appoint on contract those MBBS pass-outs who have failed to make it in the Orissa Public Service examinations and have crossed the age limit. Retired doctors can also be appointed on contract basis till 68 years of age. An incentive of Rs 4,000 a month has been announced, besides salary, for doctors posted at the district and sub-divisional headquarters of KBK, Boudh and Gajapati districts. Doctors on rural stint in these districts get an incentive of Rs 8,000 a month. Contractual doctors in KBK, Gajapati and Boudh districts get Rs 18,000 a month while in the rest of the districts, the salary amounts to Rs 12,000 a month. "There is requirement of an additional 5,000 doctors in the state. From where will such a huge number of doctors come'? says Madhusudan Mishra, president of Orissa Medical Service Association (OMSA). He suggests that the state government should take immediate steps to retain existing doctors and provide them all the facilities. "The doctors demands will be taken up for consideration soon after the on-going Budget session is over', health minister Bisi said.

Some state governments, without waiting for a decision by the group of ministers (GoM) on bio-fuels, headed by agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, have gone ahead with their own programme of large-scale plantation of Jatropha. "We have launched our Jatropha plantation programme taking a cue from the Planning Commission's document, National Mission on Biodiesel. We are aware that the GoM on bio-fuels is deliberating the issue. The broad policy of the central government has already been enunciated in the Planning Commission document. The GoM is discussing incentives to be provided and the work of central government agencies in aiding implementation of the programme,' SK Shukla, executive director of Chhattisgarh Bio-fuel Development Authority (CBDA), told FE. The CBDA, which is headed by the chief secretary of the state, has identified 15.7 million hectare out of 201.5 million hectare revenue fallow land in different parts of the state for Jatropha. Chhattisgarh has 170.18 million hectare of degraded forest land in 17 out of 18 districts which can used for Jatropha plantation. "But for this, we need clearance from the Union ministry of environment and forests,' Shukla said. The Indian Railways also owns 7,309.557 hectare land along the tracks and other holdings amounting to 1,096.871 hectare, which can be used for Jatropha, he added. State government agencies have raised about 390 million Jatropha saplings in nurseries and have distributed them free to farmers for planting in 1,55,000 hectare in the last three years. In 2008-09, 200 million Jatropha saplings would be raised in nurseries. Chhattisgarh has also announced support prices for Jatropha seed at Rs 6,500 a tonne, Karanj seeds at Rs 6,000 a tonne and for Jatropha and Karanj oils at Rs 18 per litre. Also, it has framed a new policy for leasing out wastelands to investors. In addition, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is being used for Jatropha plantation. The Bio-fuel Authority of Rajasthan, too, has identified 2,106.8 hectares in 11 districts for Jatropha, said PC Chaplot, of the directorate of extension education in Maharana Pratap University of Agriculture and Technology. The state is also exploring the possibility of diverting 2% to 3% farm land for Jatropha in the form of hedges around fields for protecting crops, water harvesting as well as acting as a windbreak. In the south, Karnataka has set up an autonomous Bio-fuel Board with members drawn from institutions, agriculture universities, forest and agriculture departments, industry and NGOs for integrated development of the bio-fuel programme and formulating support prices for seeds, oil and oilcakes, KV Sarvesh, of the state agriculture department told FE.

India will host the first four-day global conference on agro-industries, to be held in Delhi from April 8, 2008. The Global Agro-Industries Forum (GAIF) will promote the importance of agro-industries for economic development and poverty reduction, a press release of GAIF said. Around 500 senior representatives from the agro-industry, governments, technical and financing institutions, civil society and UN agencies will discuss the potential of agro-industries and the challenges they are facing. The conference will be jointly organised by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), in close collaboration with the Indian government. The Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh will officially inaugurate the Forum on April 9, in the presence of The FAO director-general Jacques Diouf, UNIDO director-general Kandeh K Yumkella, IFAD president Lennart Bage. Rapid globalisation, market liberalisation, and urbanisation have created new opportunities for countries to trade agricultural and food products. However, they have also created challenges and increased risks. Countries with inefficient agro-industries are likely to be left behind those with modern and efficient agro-industries. While high-income countries add, on average, US$180 of value by processing one tonne of agricultural products, developing countries generate only $40 of value per tonne, the press release said. Increasing the market opportunities particularly for small-scale producers in rural areas, by improving their production, processing and marketing capabilities, will be one of the main issues of the conference. Delivering better products at lower prices could be beneficial for poor consumers and could also create employment opportunities. The GAIF will also encourage dialogue between the private and public sector in order to foster partnerships for developing competitive agro-industries.

Many parts of the country faced a shortage of LPG cylinders from November 2007 despite the oil marketing Companies

The Hyderabad-based Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture (CRIDA) has said that plantation of different tree borne oilseeds in wastelands under different agro-climatic conditions can be taken up for production of bio-fuels. But pests control needs adequate attention. CRIDA has conducted on-farm experimentation in three districts in Andhra Pradesh, namely Anantapur, Mahabubnagar and Nalgonda alongwith the state government's rainshadow area development department. In general, the experiments showed the survival of Jatropha was about 95% after two years of planting and that of Pongamia was around 98% after a year of planting. "Experiments on pruning of Jatropha plants in different districts have shown good response to the treatment at a height of 45 cm and 60 cm from ground level by reflecting in increased number of branches (10-15 per plant) and also vigorous growth', said GR Rao of CRIDA. However, with a view to develop good plant growth, the inflorescene should be removed during the first year. It was observed that the pruning had reflected in more pest problems as pruned plants had more vigor and also because of pruning injuries, he said CRIDA suggested that legume intercropping should be taken up in the three-year gestation period of Jatropha plantation with a view to provide immediate income to the farmer and improving soil fertility. It experimented with such intercropping of pigeonpea, blackgram and horsegram in 2006. The spacing should, however, be at least 3m between rows of Jatropha while that for Pongamia at least 5x4m. Still wider spacing of 6x4m or 6x6m is preferred for Pongamia to get good growth. According to CRIDA study major pests were, however, observed on bio-fuel plants namely Semilooper (Archaea janata), red hairy caterpillar (Amsacta albistriga), leaf webber (Pempelia morosalis), stem girdler, grass hoppers, Defoliater, leaf and inflorescence webber (Pempelia morosalis), spotted bugs (Scutellera nobilis/Chrysocoris purpureus), scale insects (Megapulvinaria maxima), leaf miner, leaf blight and leaf galls (Eriophyes cherian). CRIDA initiated on-station trials with Jatropha way back in 1992 and on Pongamia since 2003. It identified 218 Jatropha species and over 197 Pongamia species in Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh and collected and screened germplasm on the basis of oil content in the seed and thereafter short-listed 42 Jatropha accessions and 23 Pongamia accessions for evaluation. "The screened accessions of Jatropha and Pongamia are being evaluated in progeny trials. Germplasm of these two species were exchanged with network partners, representing all state governments for multi locational trials,' said Rao He said that CRIDA has taken up standardized mass multiplication and other agro technologies for raising elite accessions of Jatropha and Pongamia and intiated trials on inter and intra specific breeding in Jatropha. The negative and positive interactions in bio-fuel plants based agro-forestry systems were being evaluated to develop a sound agro-forestry system suitable to dryland areas. Grafting in Pongamia standardization and performance of grafts vis-avis seedlings were being evaluated in the fields, he said and added that CRIDA has already designed a mini oil expeller by modifying the screw and oil chamber of traditional oil expeller to suit the needs of extracting oil from Jatropha and Pongamia.

This column was the first to mention that the compressed air powered engine was on its way to Tata Motors, for use in a small car, and now the Tatas have confirmed this in a separate news report. Obviously, it will not be the only engine of choice in the Tata Nano (or any other small motor vehicle being developed by them right now, either), but it will certainly be an option for city taxies and short-run small cargo vehicles. This should, with any luck, convince the armada of environmentalists and greens. And bring the subject of a small vehicle back to the core issue: increased mobility is good for the nation as well as the people. Whether they use public transport as the mainstay or not, is another issue. Which brings me to the next point