Editorials - 15-02-2021

The legal regime that enables the government to block websites needs urgent reform

On February 1, 2021, in the wake of the intensification of the farmers’ protests and reports of violent incidents on January 26 – a number of Twitter accounts became inaccessible in India. These included (among many others) the accounts ofThe Caravanmagazine, the actor Sushant Singh, and the Kisan Ekta Morcha handle, which was chronicling the protests. In the beginning, it was unclear whether this was Twitter’s decision, based on its belief that the accounts had violated its Terms of Service (the reason for its permanent suspension of Donald Trump from its platform, for example), or whether Twitter had been ordered to do so by the government, or by a court.

As outrage mounted, the Government of India clarified that it had invoked Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, and ordered Twitter to block access to these accounts. The reason, it appeared, was the use of the hashtag #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide, which was deemed a threat to public order. The merits of this argument aside, the government’s Section 69A order was clearly an overreach even on its own terms, as media outlets such asThe Caravanhad not used the hashtag.

Uneasy truce

Soon after, Twitter restored access to many of the withheld accounts. This prompted a sharp reaction from the government, including a non-compliance notice and veiled threats that Twitter’s employees would be prosecuted for violating Section 69A. A meeting between Twitter officials and the government appears to have yielded for now an uneasy truce. On February 10, Twitter also published a blog post (https://bit.ly/378vIof) where it remarkably — and in my view correctly — argued that the government’s own actions in directing it to withhold access to the accounts of journalists, activists, and politicians, violated Indian law, and the constitutional guarantee of the freedom of speech.

These events of the last few days throw into sharp relief the unsatisfactory state of Indian law and how it is interpreted and applied by censorship-happy governments. At present, the online free speech rights of Indian citizens depend entirely upon the extent to which multinational social-media platforms are able to stand up to the government’s censorship requests, how willing they are to risk legal prosecution, and how much confidence they have that their interpretation of Indian free speech law will stand up in court, even over the claims of the government. It should be clear that this is not a sustainable situation.

The root lies in the IT Act

The root of the problem is Section 69A of the IT Act. Section 69A grants to the government the power to issue directions to intermediaries for blocking access to any information that it considers prejudicial to, among other things, the sovereignty and integrity of India, national security, or public order. Section 69A(3) envisages a jail sentence for up to seven years for intermediaries who fail to comply. In 2009, the government also issued “Blocking Rules”, which set up the procedure for blocking (including regular review by government committees), and also stated that all requests and complaints would remain strictly confidential.

Violation of rights

There are a number of problems with this legal structure. The first is that it makes censorship an easy and almost completely costless option, for the government. Rather than having to go to court and prove a violation evenprima facieof law, the government can simply direct intermediaries to block content, and place the burden of going to court upon the users. It stands to reason that the easier it is to censor speech, the more likely it is that a government — any government — will resort to that option. Furthermore, the confidentiality requirement means that the user will not even know why their account has been blocked and, therefore, will be in no position to challenge it. Third, there are no procedural safeguards — no opportunity for a hearing to affected parties, and no need for reasoned orders. This, then, violates both free speech rights, as well as the right to due process.

In the famousShreya Singhalcase that is well known for the striking down of Section 66A of the IT Act, the scope of Section 69A and the Blocking Rules were also litigated before the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, however, the Supreme Court missed an opportunity to guide the law in a pro-free speech direction, as it had with Section 66A: without engaging in any detailed analysis, the Court largely endorsed the legal regime, as it stood. The Court only noted that every affected individual would retain the constitutional right to challenge a blocking order, through a writ petition before the High Court.

Need for transparency

Now, it would appear to follow from this holding that the Shreya Singhal judgment made it mandatory for the government to furnish blocking orders along with reasons to affected parties; it is evidently impossible to challenge something that you cannot even see. However, as recent events show, in practice, that is not being followed (the lack of clarity in the Shreya Singhal judgment is no doubt a contributory factor). In a recent article inThe Indian Express, Apar Gupta also pointed out that after the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Kashmir Internet Ban case, it is, at least now, an arguable position of law that any order restricting access to the Internet, or information on the Internet, must be made public. There is, at present, a pending case before the High Court of Delhi, which makes the same argument; until that is resolved, however, the present state of affairs is likely to continue.

Consequently, a combination of bad law and unclear jurisprudence has created a situation where Twitter or the intermediary that might be caught in the government’s crosshairs is the only entity that is in a position to defend the free speech rights of Indian citizens. And there is little doubt that doing so entails a non-trivial risk: in particular, the record of the Indian judiciary in civil rights cases involving the government has been remarkably poor in recent times, and it would take considerable courage for any entity to bet on the proposition that its interpretation of Indian free speech law would be necessarily upheld by the courts. Thus, while it may still be possible for Twitter to stand up to the government in obvious cases of overreach and abuse, such as the suspension ofThe Caravan, there will be a host of borderline cases where it will simply be easier to back down; indeed, as MediaNama reported recently, the Twitter account of a Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament remains suspended even now.

Enable a fair hearing

There is, thus, an urgent need for both legal and jurisprudential reform. Legally, the best case scenario would be to prohibit the government from being able to directly order intermediaries to block access to online information, except in narrowly-defined emergency cases, and to require it to go through court to do so, with an adequate opportunity for affected parties to defend themselves. Short of that, however, it is vitally important that blocking orders be made public, and that even under the current legal regime, affected parties be given the opportunity of a fair hearing before a blocking order is issued. This process will also ensure that the blocking order is a reasoned one, and can be effectively challenged before a court, if need be. Long term, however, the hard work of contesting governmental impunity in cases of censorship, both in courts and outside, remains to be done.

Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based lawyer

In not complying fully with the Indian government’s statutory orders, Twitter has acted with reason

Twitter has not complied fully with the Indian government’s statutory orders under Section 69A of the Information Technology (IT) Act to block hundreds of accounts for allegedly posting messages suggesting that the Prime Minister was planning a genocide against farmers. Twitter has said that the government’s blocking list had accounts of journalists, activists, and politicians whose accounts appear to be bonafide; that their posts are legitimate expression; and that it reasonably believes that keeping them blocked would be a disproportionate act contrary to both Indian law and the platform’s charter objectives. This apparent defiance has not gone down well with many, including the government. Independent verifications revealed that many such accounts (for example, the Kisan Ekta Morcha) did not post messages suggesting a genocide plan, although all of them had posted in favour of the farmer protests and against government measures to quell the protests.

Criticism against Twitter

Criticism against Twitter’s stand seems to be three-fold. One, Twitter is an intermediary bound by statutory orders of the government under the Act, and its refusal shows a lack of respect for Indian law. Two, Twitter, as a private company, cannot adjudicate or sit in appeal over the government’s judgment on what is proportionate or lawful. It may challenge the order in a court, but cannot simply choose to comply partially or not at all. Three, Twitter’s blocking of Donald Trump’s account even while he was the sitting President of the U.S. and its refusal to block here shows it denying parity to India with the U.S. Four, its defiance indicates the increasing power and impunity of Big Tech, requiring a clear and unequivocal zero tolerance response.

The first two arguments miss the vital detail that Twitter, or any person for that matter, is only bound bylawfulorders of the state. Twitter being a private company or a foreign company does not change that. Once there is a blocking order, an intermediary is within its rights to take a considered view on whether the order is lawful; to what extent it is lawful; and to what extent it must comply to achieve substantial compliance acceptable in law. Lawfulness of an order is not merely about citing the statutory provision, being on a letterhead with the national emblem on it, and having the designated officer’s signature and seal. For an order to be lawful, it needs to demonstrate having satisfied all statutory conditions and conditions cumulatively evolved through judicial reasoning, which takes into account constitutional provisions and international human rights jurisprudence.

In a polity in which the government is limited by a Constitution and laws, different kinds of state action entail varying consequences and command varying degrees of deference. A government order of the non-statutory type is not quite the same as a government order validly issued under a statute (where the government is acting as a delegate of Parliament). Neither of them commands as much deference as an express provision of law. Even an express provision of law differs from an order of a constitutional court in that respect. One may add, even compliance with orders of a constitutional court is subject to one’s own studied sense of constitutional reason.

In this case, Twitter appears to have justifiably formed an informed opinion that the blocking orders, even if validly issued under Section 69A(1) of the IT Act, are partly not lawful and that it is confident of succeeding in a challenge to the orders should the government take any coercive action to enforce them.

Twitter’s actions desirable

Quite apart from the social media giant being within its rights to defy government orders to the extent it views them as not being lawful, it is indeed desirable that it does so. It is undeniable that platforms such as Twitter have significant control over how people’s right to free and informed speech is fulfilled. Mechanically following government orders without regard to their lawfulness, necessity or proportionality will seriously impact their audience’s fundamental rights. The assumption of this responsibility to defy government orders is consistent with the power they wield. The tension between two powerful entities — the government and social media platforms — on questions of which speech to promote and whose speech to curtail is healthy and constructive. It acts as a check on the arbitrary power that would prevail if both were on the same side as a matter of routine. Therein also lies the response to the argument about the increasing power and impunity of Big Tech.

This functional tension as demonstrated in this case, however, is no alternative to structural and institutional solutions that must be found to limit the power of both the government and Big Tech and to enforce their obligation to act rationally and responsibly. Big Tech has often sided with the government (and the political party in power), hurting its users’ rights. TheWall Street Journalreport on Facebook India’s failure to act on the disinformation-laden and incendiary posts of a member of the BJP on the consideration of not wanting to be it loggerheads with the Central government is a case in point.

Red Fort is not Capitol Hill

Kisan Ekta Morcha is not Donald Trump and Red Fort 26/01/2021 is not Capitol Hill 06/01/2021. Mr. Trump’s Twitter account was operational with no limits on reach throughout his tenure despite repeated calls for curtailment pointing to his messages being persistently incendiary, inciteful and promoting lies. Even leading up to the day of the Capitol Hill riot, his account had been spreading misinformation (or what Twitter reasonably concluded as misinformation) calling into question the election results to the office of the President. Twitter initially resorted to the less intrusive measure of flagging his content, followed by limiting its reach before suspending his account. His account’s permanent ban was the last step in the series of measures, after an appraisal of his Twitter posts’ effect on the Capitol Hill riots and the probability of further imminent lawlessness. All of these actions weresuo motuand not under government orders.

If anything, the present episode is arguably among the rare instances that Twitter has accorded parity to its Indian audience with that of its U.S.’s — choosing to take an independent view of the matter and not mechanically complying with the wishes of the national government. Social media platforms enjoy better immunity and warmer first amendment protection under U.S. law that help them better guard their users’ interests against government action. The attempt to extend similar safeguards to Indian users, who also in theory are guaranteed the same protection under a universal human rights regime, is welcome. That would also be consistent with the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights endorsed by the UNHRC.

Prasanna S. is a Delhi-based lawyer and a founding member of the Article 21 Trust which works on issues at the intersection of digital rights and welfare. Views are personal. He holds no brief for Twitter and derives no benefit (percuniary or otherwise; direct or indirect) from the company

But cautious diplomatic and military planning and hawk-like vigil by India will be needed in its implementation

The year 2021 has begun on an optimistic note for reduction of military tensions between India and China. Both sides announced on February 11, the simultaneous disengagement of their massive forward deployments in the Pangong Lake area, cheek by jowl for the past 10 months in Eastern Ladakh. India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh delivered a carefully worded statement in Parliament about the breakthrough which envisages a pullback by both sides in “a phased, coordinated and verified manner”. The headway in the impasse, achieved after lengthy talks between the two sides, surprised the doubting Thomases who questioned India’s will and capacity for a military counterpoise that is essential for restoration of the situation as it prevailed before April 2020. It also caught off guard those who scoff at the notion of a peaceful resolution of territorial differences in keeping with the longer-term interests of both Asian giants.

Peaceful resolution

Tracing the genesis of the problem since April-May 2020, when the Chinese side had suddenly positioned a large body of troops and armaments along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the Indian Defence Minister also paid rich tribute to the armed forces and lauded their valiant sacrifices.Indeed, the intentions of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were thwarted by India’s robust military response guided by a resolute Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Relations between India and China suffered a dramatic setback following the violation by China of the bilateral agreements and protocols, which ruptured peace and tranquillity. The bloody incident at Galwan on June 15, 2020, the first involving casualties since 1975, brought about the collapse of the prevailing consensus that bilateral ties could develop in parallel with efforts to resolve the boundary question and the maintenance of peace and tranquillity. Since June last year, India has consistently highlighted the view that peace is a fundamental prerequisite for the normal conduct of relations. The stand-off at the Pangong Lake was but one of several in Eastern Ladakh, but undoubtedly among the most significant. After China took steps to alter the ground situation between Fingers 4 and 8, the Indian Army had carried out daring manoeuvres to take up advantageous positions along the Kailash range on the southern bank, thereby dominating the key Chinese garrison at Moldo across the Spanggur Gap. Even on the northern bank, the Indian Army succeeded in offsetting any initial advantage that the PLA may have had along the spurs.

Message of endurance

Having acquired powerful leverage, Indian troops dug in for the long haul and mirrored the PLA’s deployments. On its part, the government left no stone unturned to ensure that they were provided with the necessary wherewithal to deal with any real or perceived asymmetry. The message was unambiguous. India was not going to cave in and stood ready to impose a harsh penalty if China engaged in any act of adventurism. The endurance of the Indian Army through the harsh winter months has been extraordinary. China appears to have realised that a prolonged stand-off, hardly a part of its original calculus and of little avail militarily or politically, was permanently impairing bilateral relations. The uncertainty associated with the law of unintended consequences, the high reputational costs to itself, and the forward momentum in India-U.S. relations and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (India, the U.S., Japan and Australia), better known as the Quad, may also have proved to be factors for China.

The disengagement at Pangong Lake is certainly a welcome development. This is an area in which the patrols of the two sides have been encountering one another for decades, whether on land or on the lake. The construction of a road by China from Finger 8 towards Fingers 5 and 4 many years ago had led to a spike in face-offs and gradually reduced access for Indian troops to their traditional patrolling point at Finger 8. Meanwhile, India too built better infrastructure all the way to its permanent presence at the Dhan Singh Thapa Post near Finger 3.

The disengagement deal is perhaps better than one might have expected under the circumstances. The Chinese have agreed to pull back forward deployments to their permanent base at Sirijap, east of Finger 8, and to dismantle all infrastructure created after April 2020. India’s tough negotiators, both diplomatic and military, have ensured that our troops retain their presence at the permanent Indian post at Finger 3 even though China had earlier demanded that India fall back further. Moreover, all the Chinese posts atop the high spurs on the northern bank will also be dismantled, including those that overlooked the Dhan Singh Thapa Post. Of course, India will also fall back from its recently held positions along the Kailash range to earlier positions.

With trust badly shattered after April 2020, one expects the Indian side to tread warily in implementing the deal at Pangong. Carrying out simultaneous disengagement in a phased and coordinated manner, with proper verification, is key to its success. There is little doubt that cautious diplomatic and military planning and hawk-like vigil will be called for throughout the implementation.

Faith in forces, negotiators

The government of Prime Minister Modi has amply demonstrated its willingness to take tough calls on matters pertaining to sovereignty and territorial integrity. It has demonstrated boldness in the face of a major military challenge. It has shown equal courage in grasping the nettle of peace. More importantly, the government has reposed full faith in its armed forces and negotiators. Mr. Singh’s statement, containing just the right blend of steel and velvet, generously acknowledged the unity of purpose among all departments of the government and highlighted the consistency with which India’s unwavering position was put across. Both he and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar had engaged their Chinese counterparts last September and drawn the red lines. This no doubt strengthened the hand of the senior commanders and foreign ministry officials who hammered out the deal.

The progress at Pangong notwithstanding, the doubting Thomases will continue to raise questions. They run the risk of doing so without sufficient familiarity with either the facts or the military complexities on the ground. The truth is that India’s tough military and diplomatic posture has paid off, resulting in an honourable disengagement. If tensions could be defused at Galwan, where much blood was shed, and at Pangong, it should be equally possible to fashion mutually acceptable terms for disengagement at Gogra/Hot Springs as well as the resolution of patrolling issues in Depsang.

Over the next two to three weeks, both sides should be given a chance to implement the agreement. The temporary moratorium on military activities by both sides along the north bank, including on patrolling up to the traditional points, will improve the situation. That patrolling will be resumed only consequent to an agreement being reached in future diplomatic and military talks is also a step forward. Naturally, the pullback will prove to be a complex exercise involving meticulous planning of intricate details and scheduled withdrawals that must factor in the local terrain, the disposition of troops and a vast array of armaments. No doubt, one must also keep the powder dry.

Sujan R. Chinoy, a former Ambassador and negotiator on India-China boundary issues, is currently Director General, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. The views expressed are personal

The government’s recent moves not only have a chilling effect on journalism but on the entire information ecosystem

On February 11,The Hindupublished an editorial, ‘Media as target’, on the Enforcement Directorate’s raids in the office of NewsClick, an online video news network. The editorial was unambiguous when it said: “The present regime’s record is quite dismal when it comes to the obvious use of central agencies such as the CBI, ED, IT and even the NIA, to rein in dissenting voices. It is unfortunate that specialised agencies are allowing themselves to be used as force multipliers in political battles against sections of the Opposition.” In response to the editorial, Purender, a reader, wrote: “It may be a part of ‘toolkit’... and what’s the problem, if they had not done anything wrong... why to fear... let them do their work.”

Mr. Purender was not alone. Some readers read this editorial along with my last column, ‘Debunking vs. prior restraint’ (February 8), and asked two questions. Why is the ombudsman, who is independent of the editorial process, taking a similar view as the newspaper on the government’s actions? News organisations and free speech advocates always raise questions about searches by the government. If there is nothing to hide, why should they fear such raids?

Diverting attention

Before answering these questions, let us remember that the raid at the residence of NewsClick’s editor-in-chief, Prabir Purkayastha, lasted for nearly 114 hours. There are multiple problems with these intimidating acts. The agencies who carry out these acts know that they may not be able to get a legal judgment against journalists and media organisations. But they know pretty well that searches, selective leaks and concocted tales divert the attention of the news organisation from its task of providing credible information and generating ‘sense-making news’. As I have been arguing over the last three decades, in the case of freedom of the press, the approach of the government is to create a process that is itself the punishment for critical media players, rather than securing a judicial verdict against those media houses that actually flout journalistic rules with consummate ease. An independent ombudsman at times concurs with the newspaper and at times differs with the stand taken by the newspaper.

‘Sense-making news’ is the way to go

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, is credited for coining the term ‘sense-making news’. He has a broad and inclusive definition of ‘sense-making news’, which he thinks is central for journalism to thrive in the age of information overload. His prescription: “It is the news that helps people figure out what to believe. It helps them make order out of random facts. If information is in oversupply, knowledge becomes harder to create because it requires more sifting and sorting.” He is convinced that ‘sense-making news’ is the best way to earn public trust for quality journalism. As someone who is subjected to both information overload and credible journalism on an hourly basis, I completely endorse Mr. Rosenstiel’s views.

For any observer of the Indian information ecosystem, one issue is clear. The long arm of the government is extended to muzzle the voices of those who are engaged in ‘sense-making news’. The First Information Reports filed against some prominent journalists by the Delhi Police and the Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh governments, for their tweets relating to the death of a farmer during tractor rally in Delhi on Republic Day, is an attempt to prevent discussions that would contribute to ‘sense-making news’. The Supreme Court has protected them from arrest in multiple sedition FIRs registered against them. But the larger question is whether the government is justified in using a colonial law like sedition to cripple independent voices. Readers should realise how these moves can have not only a chilling effect on journalism but on the entire information ecosystem. Democracy cannot thrive in a climate of self-censorship and partial reporting.

The fear of executive overreach that is stifling some of our fundamental rights is very real. How else can one understand the arrest of a 21-year-old climate activist, Disha Ravi, on Saturday in Bengaluru for “spreading” the “toolkit” on the farmers’ protest? Can the Delhi Police explain how sharing a toolkit to canvass support for farmers is a crime under Sections 124A (sedition), 153 (wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot), 153A (promoting enmity between different groups) and 120B (criminal conspiracy)?


The elements of a free market — competition, choice, and prices — will help advance social welfare

Today, India completes nearly four weeks since it began administering the two COVID-19 vaccines — Covishield and Covaxin. During this period, the country has managed to give the first dose of the vaccine to only about eight million people, which is about 0.6% of the population.

Seroprevalence surveys suggest that some 400 million people already have antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 in India. Assuming true herd immunity is reached when 60% of the population develops antibodies against the virus, for a population of 1.3 billion, that would require over 780 million people to develop antibodies either naturally or through vaccines. If we assume that 400 million have already developed antibodies, how will the additional 380 million develop antibodies quickly, without contracting the virus, especially given the high level of vaccine hesitancy and lack of trust in both vaccines and the government? In fact, at the current rate of vaccination, which is about eight million over four weeks, the country would require about 47 months (or about four years) to reach herd immunity. It simply cannot afford to wait that long.

Constricted market

In this context, it is surprising that the Indian government has stayed away from a free market system for COVID-19 vaccines, especially given that several vaccine options are now knocking at its door. Instead, there are only governmental channels, which can work only to a certain extent. The rules and elements of a free market, such as competition, choice, and prices, will go a long way in advancing social welfare.

On this count, the drug regulator of India has not inspired confidence. Pfizer recently withdrew its application for emergency use of its COVID-19 vaccine in India. There is no transparency on the Moderna-Tata discussions. Gamaleya Sputnik V has positive results and has advanced in its work with Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories. This vaccine should soon be ready to hit the market, but here too it seems like the regulator is slowing it down by distorting incentives. Meanwhile, Johnson & Johnson has its one-dose vaccine ready; Novavax’s vaccine is also in the offing; and Gennova might also speed up its clinical trials for its mRNA vaccines if incentives start making more sense through free markets.

Not opening up the market for these options suggests that there may be other considerations at play here, which are beyond the health and welfare of citizens. Many households in India are waiting to pay privately for the vaccines, in addition to socially bearing the cost of the vaccine for extended families.

A constricted vaccine market does nothing to help the government’s aspiration of a $5 trillion economy. In fact, the sooner the country reaches herd immunity, the more likely the chance that the economy will recover faster. Stimulating the economy would also be an incentive for the government given that its international image has taken a beating recently following the farmers’ protests.

Private motivations

Economists point out that since vaccines boost health and immunity, creating additional private motivations with a free market makes rational sense in India’s context. India is not really a place where one can expect private subsidies to take vaccines to socially optimal levels, such as in the U.S., because that may be socially unaffordable for the government. If this is not done, the country’s rich will find a way to engage in vaccine tourism. This would mean that events that can show celebrities taking the vaccines and reducing the stigma surrounding vaccines would be few and far between in India unlike in the U.S., the U.K., or other Western economies. Also, several Indian pharmaceutical firms must be waiting to respond with their manufacturing capacities should the tap of private channels be opened.

Will the government listen? We will have to wait and hope that good sense prevails before mutating virus strains minimise our chances of efficient social and policy responses.

Chirantan Chatterjee is a faculty member at IIM Ahmedabad and Visiting Fellow at Hoover Institution, Stanford University

The government should ensure that the available stocks of vaccine are used efficiently

The downward trend in fresh coronavirus infections in India continues to inspire confidence that the pandemic is on the wane. The daily new cases fell below 10,000 for the third time this month. India’s tally is now 10.9 million cases and fresh reported fatalities were recorded below 100 for the eighth time this month, according to Health Ministry data. On January 1, there were around 20,000 fresh infections, which fell to about 11,000 by the month end. Should this sharp decline continue for this month too, then it would be a truly propitious turn of events. So far, around 8.2 million doses of vaccine have been administered to health-care workers and some frontline workers, though this is still below the first lot of 16.5 million doses of Covishield and Covaxin that the government commissioned from their manufacturers. India has also managed to donate vaccines to neighbouring countries. For now, supply seems to far exceed demand, with only around half of those enrolled for vaccinations showing up for their doses. Saturday marked 28 days since the first doses of vaccine were administered and time for the first batch of those inoculated to show up for their second dose. The government is also considering administering vaccines to those above 50 and those younger with co-morbidities from March. India is also likely to get 97 million doses of Covishield by June — half of them by March.

This is a far cry from many countries where demand far exceeds supply and experiments are under way to test if different vaccines can be administered as first and second doses, so that more people may get at least one dose. However, the disappearance of a pandemic does not equate to the vanishing of the virus. The results of the ongoing serology surveys from the ICMR, meant to estimate the prevalence of COVID-antibodies, say that only around 21% of the population has been exposed to the virus. That, combined with the fact that there is so far no reliable information on the kind of coronavirus variants prevalent in the population, means that India can ill-afford to be complacent. Though dreaded variants such as the South African one have not yet been identified in India, key mutations (E484K and N440K) that are known to help the coronavirus evade antibodies have been reported in India. In spite of a consortium of labs analysing variants since December, there is no firm indication from the Centre if the U.K. variant has been found outside of those with a history of international travel. However, the government’s message to not be complacent and continue to adhere to mask use is in the right scientific spirit, given the uncertainty about virus evolution. Considerable hesitancy continues to exist as evidenced in Chhattisgarh. The Centre should work on furnishing efficacy data on Covaxin as well as improving public confidence, in ways that the available stocks of vaccine can be efficiently used.

Saudi Arabia should end the blockadeof Yemen and start talks with rebel factions

The Biden administration’s decision to end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s Yemen war is a signal to Riyadh that the Trump-era open support it had enjoyed is a matter of the past. The U.S. offered support to Saudi Arabia’s campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen when Barack Obama was the President. Donald Trump continued that policy, overlooking the disastrous effects of the war that has turned Yemen, one of the poorest Arab countries, into a humanitarian catastrophe. In its last hours, the Trump State Department designated the Houthis, who are backed by Iran, as a terrorist organisation. Rights groups have condemned the move, saying that the designation would complicate aid efforts as the Houthis control a sizeable part of Yemen, including the capital. Mr. Biden has now taken a different line, initiating steps to remove the Houthis from the terror list, among other actions. This is part of his larger attempts to rewrite the U.S.’s West Asia policy which, under Mr. Trump, was almost entirely focused on containing Iran. The administration’s message seems to have reached Riyadh. Saudi Arabia ended a nearly four-year-long blockade of Qatar, another American ally, after Mr. Biden was elected President. It has also signalled that it would carry out domestic reforms keeping human rights in focus. But it is yet to make any definite moves to wrap up the Yemen conflict.

Yemen is a case study for a war that has gone wrong on all fronts. When the Saudis started bombing the country in March 2015, their plan was to oust the Houthis from Sana’a and restore a pro-Riyadh government. Despite the Saudi-led attacks, the Houthis held on to the territories they captured, while the Saudi-backed government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi was teetering on the brink of collapse. After five years of fighting, the United Arab Emirates pulled out of the war last year. And the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council wants southern Yemen to be an independent entity. While these multiple factions continued to fight, more than 10,000 people were killed in attacks and tens of thousands more died of preventable diseases. Yemen also stares at famine. It is a lose-lose war for everyone. Saudi Arabia has failed to oust the Houthis from Sana’a and is now facing frequent rocket and drone attacks by the rebels. The Houthis are living in permanent war, unable to provide even basic services to the people in the territories they control. Yemen’s internationally recognised government practically lacks any power and legitimacy at home as the war is being fought by other players. Ending the war is in the best interest of all parties. Mr. Biden should push Saudi Arabia and its allies to end their blockade of Yemen and initiate talks with the country’s multiple rebel factions.

The Hon’ble Mr. Srinivas Sastri then moved his resolution for the appointment of a committee at an early date to examine the repressive laws now on the statute book and report whether all or any of them should be repealed and in cases where repeal is not desirable, whether the laws in question should be amended and if so how. He prefaced his speech with an expression of gratitude to the Government for having found it possible to bring his resolution on the agenda paper on the first business day of the Council. This, in Mr. Sastri’s opinion, was an indication of the admirable spirit of cordiality and friendliness which he hoped would characterise the future work of this Council. The purpose and aim of these reforms could not be better expounded than in the weighty words addressed to the Council on the inauguration day by H.E. the Viceroy than whom no authoritative exponent of the subject could be conceived.

To outer space and Antarctica, the ocean floor has now been added as a nuclear-free zone, which is as much as can be said for the treaty which the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain signed last week banning nuclear weapons and other instruments of mass destruction from the sea-bed. The contribution that this pact can make to the nuclear disarmament that the rest of the world is yearning for will be practically nil. In fact, every one of the nuclear limitation treaties which the U.S. and Russia have put through so far has only been a non-armament move aimed at preventing the non-nuclear countries from acquiring atomic weapons rather than a step towards limiting their own armaments. If Washington and Moscow have agreed not to install nuclear weapons in outer space and Antarctica and on the ocean floor, it is because they feel there is no military advantage to be gained by doing so. Under the latest treaty all that they have committed themselves to do is not to “implant or emplace” nuclear weapons on the bed of the sea, in other words not to erect permanent missile launching pads on the ocean floor. Who would want to erect them there anyway? They would make easy targets for the enemy.