Editorials -01-01-2021

People need to draw the right lessons from the experiences of the last several months, as individuals and a collective

Masked living for the last 10 months to stave off the novel coronavirus has raised questions: of the purpose and the meaning of life. Some of the most memorable moments of life flow from connection. But we covered our mouth and nose and kept a distance from others for most part of last year. Is survival and doing some work for it the sole purpose of life? The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to live restricted lives for most part of the last year. Reflection is more conscious during such confinement. I too underwent isolation and reflection. What is the purpose of life and is there meaning to the way we are living? Such questions filled our minds. Life has been unmasked as we masked ourselves to survive.

On the purpose of life

The purpose of life is to be happy, said the Dalai Lama. But what is happiness and how does one attain that state and stay put? In our quest for life, besides wearing masks and maintaining a safe distance, working from home became an integral part of the universal COVID-19 culture that emerged last year. But is work the only purpose of life and source of happiness? Nothing gives a person a sense of purpose than a distinct understanding of what she does. Are we so enlightened to pursue work without being conscious and concerned about the results and find meaning in it? If work is a means of survival, are we finding meaning in it?

Life is a battle against uncertainties and challenges. As the most evolved of living organisms and living in the most complex order of economic, scientific and technological interconnectedness, humanity has witnessed a heightened share of such battles during 2020, the year of the pandemic. How does one cope with such a situation and live with equanimity and balance? The pandemic has unleashed an internal churning about the purpose and meaning of life as we all pressed a pause button. It dawned on us that life cannot be on the highway all the time. Philosophical reflection was forced on us.

Plato said philosophy is a process of constant questioning that takes the form of dialogue. While coping with modern life, we have stopped talking to ourselves. The pandemic forced us to think about the way we are living and ought to live. It has underlined the need to revisit and, if required, redefine the purpose and meaning of life. This is all about reorienting our mindsets as the pandemic taught us a few lessons of life.

A journey as challenge

There is no objective meaning of life written in the stars, in a holy book or in sequences of DNA. Birth and death are not subject to our volition. The principal challenge is to navigate the journey in between these two points, defining its purpose and finding a meaning. The pandemic has shattered the arrogance of humans of being supreme and the master of all living and non-living forms around. The principal lesson learned is that we are only part of a larger design and have got to live that way, and not at the expense of others.

The forgotten ideas of oneness, interconnectedness and the intelligent laws that govern the universe have come to the fore once again. The regular outbreak of viruses including the latest one in Wuhan city has brought out the consequences of growing interference with nature, with attendant disturbances in the habitations of the different living forms. The wild is forced to have an eye on human habitation. Humans are only a part of the incredible scheme of coexistence that we call nature. The issue is not about saving nature. It is more about aligning with it and understanding how we are one.

In the troubled order of uncertainties of various kinds, the major challenge for individuals is to correct confusion and puzzlements about oneself and the world. The philosophy of life is an overall vision and attitude towards life and the purpose of it. It helps one in building principles in fighting the adversities of life and living in happiness. Happiness means different things to different people and it is an individual’s call. Seneca in hisMoral Letterssaid philosophy offers counsel. It strengthens one’s ability to remain steady in the chaos and rush of life.

A specific purpose of life determines the choices one makes and influences behaviour toward the surroundings. These choices and behaviour determine the happiness that life should aim at. Choices include those we are willing to give up to remain sane and purposeful.

The personal experience

During the COVID-19 enforced confinement, and more so during the post-infection isolation, I reflected on my journey so far. I have assessed the journey till now, its vicissitudes, how I have handled different situations and whether I could have been different and done better in different contexts. I did find that life was at a fast pace, was too involved in work and should have spent a little more time with the family. I could have struck a different life-work balance. I have evolved and grown with the times and the experiences that came along. I too have had my share of testing times and handled them in my own ways. Spiritualism came in handy on many occasions to find solutions and happiness when tested. It sprung from within that I should focus more on social service after a long innings in politics and networking change agents for further galvanising the change.

One’s contribution is key

We have an individual form for a limited time like a wave. We live only once and have to live in the best possible manner. Human nature to be happy leads us to search for peace both within and without. Evolution from selfishness to self-realisation promotes common good. Living in moderation is the best lesson of the experience of the pandemic. Living with equanimity and harmoniously with all beings, our surroundings and society is ideal living. We need to talk to ourselves and define the purpose and meaning of life based on the lessons of the last several months and individual predilections. One is the master of one’s life and the path to its meaning. The meaning of life lies in contributing to the flourishing of humanity and the nature around for common welfare. Sharing and caring is the essence of our age old ethos. This confers a certain meaning to life.

The Bhagavad Gita says of life; “Whatever happened, happened for the good; Whatever is happening, is happening for the good; and whatever will happen, will also happen for the good.” This warrants us to evolve to find equilibrium to face the unending uncertainties.

A new strain of the novel coronavirus is being talked about even as we are coming to terms with the parent. Uncertainties never cease. We need to tune ourselves to face them with stillness to stay in a happy state of mind and live with a purpose from which the meaning flows.

The spin-offs

The handling of the pandemic during the dark year, 2020,annus horribilis, has some positives. While it normally takes several years to come up with a vaccine, the scientific community has succeeded in finding some candidates for COVID-19 in less than a year, much to the relief of all. The vaccine has begun to be administered already in some parts of the world. Vaccinating people all across the globe is the next big challenge.

India has risen admirably as a nation to fight the pandemic. A parliamentary panel that examined various aspects of its handling has appreciated the grit and the determination that underlined this massive national effort and has complimented all stakeholders for the same even as it chronicled the hardship caused. The way the spread of virus and mortality has been kept under check are no mean achievements.

The need of the hour is to draw the right lessons from the experiences of the last several months as both individuals and a collective so as to usher inannus mirabilis, by wiping out the pandemic and the havoc it has brought on us. Constant vigil is needed till the fight is finally won decisively. Learning to live with a purpose and meaning is the biggest takeaway of the year that has gone by.

M. Venkaiah Naidu is the Vice-President of India

It has not achieved the kind of success it was intended to achieve for many reasons

The Special Marriage Act (SMA), 1954, is seen as a progressive law enacted to help inter-faith couples. But with States such as Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh framing laws that target inter-faith marriage, the procedural requirements of the SMA — such as the need to give prior notice, and allowance for ‘objections’ — seem to be undermining its original intent by opening the doors to violent moral policing by vigilante groups. Can the SMA come to the rescue of inter-faith couples, who, in addition to the old challenge of parental opposition, today also have to contend with the bogey of ‘love jihad’? Faizan Mustafa and Veena Gowda explore this question in a conversation moderated byG. Sampath. Edited excerpts:

Why was this legislation needed in the first place?

Faizan Mustafa:The original Special Marriage Act was enacted in 1872. It was moved by an eminent jurist and Legislative Council member named Henry Maine. It was enacted following a campaign launched in 1860 by Brahmo Samaj, especially Keshab Chandra Sen, for simpler marriage ceremonies. But it had one problem: it required that two people of different faiths who wish to get married must renounce their respective religions. By 19th century standards, the mere fact that this law paved the way for inter-faith marriages was a good first step.

But its requirement of renouncing one’s religion was not compatible with modern ideas of liberalism, individualism and autonomy of the individual. So the 1954 law replaced this 1872 Act, and the requirement to renounce one’s religion was removed. Basically, this law was the first step towards a Uniform Civil Code. The thinking was that if you wanted a liberal, modern, secular and progressive law, let us start the experiment on a voluntary basis. So, those going for an inter-faith marriage, as well as others, could register under the SMA. The effect of the SMA is that once your marriage is registered under it, your religion’s personal laws won’t apply.

How would you assess the SMA’s impact so far?

Veena Gowda:It has not been sufficiently used. It is often used when people are going abroad. For two Hindus married under the Hindu Marriage Act, the certificate used to be called a ‘Memorandum of Marriage’, which was not recognised by certain countries while issuing a visa. So, people would then register their marriage under the SMA. Also, earlier, under the Indian Divorce Act, applicable to Christians, mutual consent was not available. Only registering one’s marriage under the SMA gave them the right to divorce by mutual consent, so they would be advised to register their marriage under the SMA. The SMA was also used for inter-religious marriages, but not so often. I think the process and procedure are seen as tedious.

FM:The SMA did not achieve the kind of success it was intended to achieve. But that is a comment on how unprepared we are, as a society, when it comes to uniform laws. The fact that very few marriages get registered under the SMA demonstrates that society is not yet ready to involve public institutions in what are purely private relationships.

At the same time, if someone wants to use the SMA for the purpose of inter-faith marriage, the state has no business asking them to put up a notice informing the whole world whom they want to marry. When the SMA was enacted, the notice requirement was meant to ensure that the man did not already have a spouse and does not marry a minor. But now it has become an invitation to moral policing by right-wing groups. The Supreme Court has finally admitted a petition where the constitutionality of this provision will be examined. If the right to privacy judgment is taken into consideration, there is no way this notice requirement can be sustained as constitutional.

VG:I would say, rather than uniformity, equality is the real issue. For instance, what are the matrimonial rights that women have within a marriage? It’s just a right to maintenance, and given the manner in which courts pass these orders, it is usually Rs. 500 or Rs. 1,500. And we have still not progressed towards what we would like as matrimonial property. The state should focus on what rights women can get within a marriage, and aim for a more equal, progressive law and not engage itself so much with the manner in which marriages are performed. How I wish to legalise my marriage should be of no concern to the state.

Can the SMA do a better job of protecting inter-faith couples?

VG:A marriage is a civil contract. Civil law is not meant to protect people against violence or against societal reaction. What does the SMA provide for? It says that if you follow the procedure and register your marriage, the consequences of the marriage will be determined by the SMA. It is not there to protect you. But the situation has changed, and people seem to be watching and observing who’s marrying whom, but the law did not anticipate this.

Also, this need for protection is not merely in the case of inter-faith marriage, it’s there in the case of inter-caste marriages as well. If a so-called higher caste person is marrying someone from a marginalised caste, then, there have been writ petitions filed over the years, asking the court for protection because the family will react, and there could be so-called honour killings. But offering this kind of protection is not the role of civil law, as it then becomes criminal law, and the state must provide protection. On the contrary, with the SMA, the state seems to be saying we’re going to increase surveillance on inter-faith marriages.

How so?

VG:What does the SMA actually envisage? If I’m getting married to somebody, I’ll go fill a form, I give a notice. If these essentials are complied with, then they have to register it. But over a period of time, certain States have decided that if it’s an inter-religious marriage, then the parents will be informed. Today, what do the ‘love jihad’ ordinances do? If it’s an inter-religious marriage, and I want to convert, then I have to fill a declaration form, go before a magistrate, and the magistrate will conduct an inquiry. In the form, you have to fill in all the details about your age, address, etc., which makes inter-faith couples extremely insecure. So, the spirit of what the SMA was meant to be is not only being diluted, these ‘love jihad’ laws are completely contrary to it.

But isn’t it the other way round — that it’s only because the SMA is unable to do its job in cases of inter-faith marriage that one party ends up converting so that they can marry under a personal law?

VG:As they say, in India, you don’t just marry your partner, you marry the family itself. But when it comes to rights, then you’re married only to the partner! So it’s not only about the procedure of the SMA. Society itself is so patriarchal that whether a marriage is inter-caste or inter-religious, it is always the woman who’s adjusting to the family that she is going into – it’s the woman who leaves her natal home to go into the matrimonial home. So, in that sense you are always accommodating the family that you are marrying into. So the SMA is not the only problem.

FM:People look down upon SMA marriages as ‘sarkari’ marriages. That’s also why many do not register their marriages and just go for a private Hindu ceremony or a nikah. The acceptance of the involvement of a state institution in marriage is still very low in our society. People think marriage is a personal matter. Today, however, the state is trying to dictate terms in this purely personal matter. Which religion one believes in, and whether one changes religion — it’s none of the state’s business to know or monitor. One may convert to another religion because of marriage, or even for no reason. There is no authority under our law available to the state to examine the cause or rationality of somebody’s conversion. Yet, strangely, more than half a dozen States in India have these anti-conversion laws, and they all have titled these ‘freedom of religion laws’ even though they curtail religious freedom. Moreover, hardly any convictions been reported under these laws.

The word “propagate” in Article 25 of the Constitution was inserted to assure Christian minorities. For them, it is an article of the faith to take the gospel to the other people. But we then got a regressive Supreme Court judgment inRev. Stanislaus(1977) in which the Court held that you cannot convert because ‘propagation’ of a religion does not extend to conversion. In fact, India’s foremost constitutional expert H.M. Seervai said that this judgment is “productive of great public mischief” and must be overruled. This judgment should be reviewed as it is now contrary to the privacy judgment.

The SMA is a Central law, and the anti-conversion ordinances are happening at the State level. Don’t they conflict with each other?

VG:Whoever chooses to register their marriage under the SMA may continue to do so. The anti-conversion laws occupy a different space: they talk about conversion, which the SMA does not concern itself with. So, there is no conflict.

Is it possible to amend these anti-conversion laws so that they cease to be patriarchal and anti-women?

VG:We know the history of conversions in our country. They were, in a way, also to get away from very oppressive situations. So, these laws ought to go.

FM:This whole bogey of ‘love jihad’ is now almost 90 years old. It was in the 1920s that people in U.P. started writing that there is a concerted conspiracy by the Muslims to outnumber Hindus by marrying Hindu women and then producing a great number of children. This is the work of right-wing organisations. Though there have been some progressive judgments of the divisional benches of the Allahabad High Court, protecting the rights of adult individuals to marry whoever they want, the U.P. government promulgated an ordinance that undermines constitutional rights, particularly of Hindu women. The primary purpose of these ordinances is to discipline Hindu women and control their bodies and sexuality. It undermines their agency.

Also, it is problematic to have this notion of “sanctity of marriage” incorporated into law. It’s there even in the SMA. There is a provision under Section 29 of the SMA, which says that you cannot file a petition for divorce within one year of your marriage except when there is extreme hardship. If marriage is a civil contract, and if parties think that they cannot live together because they are not compatible, why have this restriction?

Under the influence of the ‘sacramental’ nature of Hindu marriage, our courts have been over-emphasising this element of “saving” a marriage — this should not be the sole objective. Their goal should be to ensure that two individuals happily live together, and if they cannot happily live together, let them gracefully walk out of a painful marriage. Sustaining a marriage should not be the concern of the public authorities, the courts, or of the law.

VG:We have to think about where our legal system is moving. On the one hand, we were thinking of the possibility of same sex marriages, of making marriages contractual, and if we can have matrimonial property. On the other, we are getting laws that control which religion you follow when you intend to marry, and decide for you who you can fall in love with and who you can’t. This is not two steps back but hundreds of steps back.

People think marriage is a personal matter. Today, however, the state is trying to dictate terms in this purely personal matter.

Faizan Mustafa

Assessing numbers of cats in select sites and monitoring areas they occupy over swathes will ensure a better overview

“India’s leopard population increases by 60% in 4 years” [since 2014] is what most newspapers highlighted when a first-of-its-kind report on leopard numbers in the country was released recently. Unlike the fanfare and debates that would have rolled out with tiger numbers, there was hardly any discourse about this species. Like always, the leopard loses out to its larger cousin. However, to get a population estimate of an elusive carnivore at the geographical scale of 21 States in India is tricky and requires colossal effort. On this front, the entire research team has to be congratulated for completing this massive task.

What is needed

Most times, the goal of species conservation is to protect and increase the population of the species of interest. In this direction, scientific monitoring of their current numbers, and an increase or a decrease in numbers over the years will determine whether the conservation efforts undertaken to preserve the species are bearing fruit. To achieve this, a solid, authentic benchmark is very essential and critical.

Though the report ‘Status of leopards in India, 2018’ (https://bit.ly/3rJG0nu) distinctly mentions that the figure is the ‘minimum number’, the way it was launched has depicted that the country has 12,852 leopards. If we go by these figures, I feel this is an underestimate by at least 40%. In my opinion, India may have over 20,000 leopards.

By-product of tiger estimate

This study focused mostly on forested habitats where tigers are found, as it was a by-product of the all-India tiger estimate. Hence other leopard habitats such as rocky outcrops, smaller dry forests, higher elevation habitats in the Himalayas, agricultural landscapes (coffee, tea, arecanut, sugarcane plantations) where leopards are known to be found in good numbers were not a part of this exercise. Similarly, much of Northeast India was excluded from the study. Hence the area studied by itself does not represent a true pan-India leopard population. Though a very coarse scale map is made available in the report, it clearly depicts that vast stretches of leopard habitats have been excluded from the study. I think this is a key factor that has kept India’s leopard numbers lower than the true picture.

It requires enormous resources and time to carry out a study on the scale of a large nation such as ours. If this study had included leopard population estimates from other research organisations (for the same study period and which had used camera trapping as a methodology) from the areas that were not covered (by this study), it could have added significant information and leopard numbers to the current estimate of 12,852.

In Karnataka

My work on leopards is focused on my home State of Karnataka. Hence I will use this as an example to draw parallels on the all-India leopard numbers. Our camera trapping exercise in the BRT-MM Hills-Cauvery-Bannerghatta protected areas revealed a leopard population of 267 individuals. This protected area complex, of an area of 2,825 square kilometres, possibly represents less than 6% of leopard habitat in Karnataka. This landscape also has two competing large predators — the tiger and the dhole — who keep leopard numbers under check. Even in small, natural habitats such as the Devarayanadurga Reserved Forests and its adjoining areas, our studies showed a population of 15 leopards in a small area of 70 square kilometres. Small rocky outcrops such as Devarayanadurga can potentially have high leopard numbers. Hence it is critical that such habitats are included when the population figure for an entire nation is projected.

Misleading picture

The claim that “leopard numbers increased by 60%” also needs to be closely looked into.

In 2014, the study estimated a minimum leopard population of 7,910 individuals from 18 different Indian States covering a study area of 92,164 square kilometres. In 2018, the study was expanded to 21 States with a study area of 121,337 square kilometres, which shows a spatial increase in the size of the study area by 25%. Even the number of camera trap locations has increased by nearly threefold (9,735 to 26,838 camera trapping locations).

So, comparing results from 2014 with 2018, and hailing it as a 60% increase is quite misleading. It simply means that we covered more area and put in more camera traps to count leopards, which resulted in higher leopard numbers. It is like carrying out human population estimates in 18 States, and the next year we conduct a similar exercise but in 21 States. Obviously, the count will result in a higher number of people, but to claim that population figures have increased would be fallacious.

The main threats

Overall, we need a benchmark number against which we can evaluate the trend in leopard numbers and threats to this carnivore. In general, habitat loss due to mining and quarrying, poaching for body parts, mortality due to vehicular collisions, retaliatory killing due to human-leopard conflict and accidental deaths due to snares set for catching wild prey all seem to be impacting the conservation of this rosette-patterned cat. If we can assess leopard numbers in a few selected sites and monitor the area occupied by them over large swathes, it will perhaps give us a better overview of leopard conservation efforts.

Sanjay Gubbi works on leopard ecology and conservation in Karnataka and is the author of the book, ‘Second Nature: Saving Tiger Landscapes in the Twenty First Century’. The views expressed are personal

This year, policymakers, industry captains and citizens must make climate proof choices

Several parts of north India are in the grip of a severe cold wave. While winter may be longer and harsher in some regions due to La Niña, forecasters suggest that 2021 would still be among the Earth’s hottest years recorded. Rising temperatures have led to a sharp increase in climate extreme events in recent years.

A recent report by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water found that 75% of districts in India, home to over half the population, were vulnerable to extreme climate risks. While India witnessed 250 extreme climate events between 1970 and 2005, the country recorded 310 extreme climate events after 2005 alone. Further, between 1990 and 2019, India incurred losses exceeding $100 billion. Also, the intensity of floods increased eightfold and that of associated events such as landslides and heavy rainfall increased by over 20 times since 1970. Drought-affected districts have increased by an yearly average of 13 times over the last two decades. The frequency of cyclones has also doubled. Over 40% of Indian districts now show a swapping trend: flood-prone areas are becoming drought-prone, and vice-versa.

At the recent Climate Ambition Summit, the UN Secretary-General underscored the importance of adaptation and resilience to mainstream climate actions, and tagged 2021 as a “make it or break it” year. What should India do in 2021 to enhance its resilience and adaptive capacity against extreme climate events?

Building climate resilience

First, India should create an Environment and Health De-risking Mission to increase emergency preparedness, secure critical resources and build resilient infrastructure and governance systems to counter the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme climate events. The Mission should also focus on democratising local climate-related and weather-related data along with integrating risk projections in national, sub-national and district disaster and climate plans. Another priority would be restoration, revival, and recreation of traditional climate-resilient practices, with a special focus on indigenous communities, often on the front lines of ecosystem conservation.

Second, India needs a comprehensive Climate Risk Atlas to present a risk-informed decision-making toolkit for policymakers at the national, State, and district level. Such an Atlas should identify, assess and project chronic and acute risks at a granular level to better prepare against extreme climate events, urban heat stress, water stress, crop loss, vector-borne diseases, and biodiversity collapse. The Atlas would also help in assessing the resilience and adaptation capabilities of communities and business. Further, it would help in climate-proofing critical infrastructure.

Third, to finance climate action at scale, risk financing instruments and risk retention and identification tools should be supplemented by contingency and adaptation funds such as the Green Climate Fund. This will enhance the public finance pool and gear up efficient allocation across sectors at risk by mobilising investments on critical infrastructures and resilient community actions. The Climate Ambition Summit also called for enhancing adaptation financing by 50% versus its current share of 20% of the total pool of climate financing.

Finally, as the permanent chair of the recently formed Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure, India should play a pivotal role in attracting private investments into climate-proofing of infrastructure. It should also promote adaptation-based infrastructure investment decision making in these countries. Further, an equal focus should be on championing a culture of localised risk assessments among members from the Global South.

Ignoring low probability risks could be catastrophic for the economy as well as society. This year, policymakers, industry captains and common citizens must make climate proof choices.

Abinash Mohanty is a Programme Lead at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, an independent, not-for-profit policy research institution

Reforms, however necessary, cannot be done without consultations with all stakeholders

Farmers protesting against three agriculture reform laws, and on related issues, have reached a partial agreement with the Centre on Wednesday, but the main points of contention remain unresolved. The government has agreed to not penalise farmers for stubble burning and to safeguard power subsidies. Farmers have decided to continue the agitation until the three laws are repealed and their demand for a legal guarantee for MSPs for farm produce is met. Farmer leaders will meet with Central Ministers again on January 4. Flexibility by farmers and a reconciliatory approach by the government led to the partial agreement, but the core concerns regarding the laws and MSP are not amenable to easy resolution. The government has continued to propagate the laws — the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act — as measures that will enhance agriculture incomes. The Centre is so sure of the promise of these reforms that it did not even attempt to build a political consensus around them beforehand. Subsidised power and lopsided incentive structures have built cropping patterns that are no longer sustainable. Large sections of farmers meanwhile continue to languish in debt and fear. Farmer concerns are not uniform across India.

The ongoing agitation is being spearheaded by farmers from Punjab and Haryana, who have been big beneficiaries of government procurement. The current agitation, its apparent energy and resolve notwithstanding, is geographically and programmatically limited. It now faces the risk of losing steam or spinning out of control. At least some groups that are part of the agitation currently might favour more flexibility. The government is reluctant to agree to a legal guarantee of MSP because the demand is unrelated to the laws. The government is also hoping to tire out the agitators. Finding a way out will be better for both sides. Though a completely satisfactory resolution of all issues raised by the farmers is not possible immediately, the government must reassure them that honest efforts will continue to address them even if the protests are formally ended for now. Reforms are necessary to ensure that India has a productive, sustainable and remunerative agriculture sector. While all stakeholders appear to agree on this principle, they diverge on questions of detail. The reports of the National Commission on Farmers, chaired by Prof. M.S. Swaminathan, and other government committees have suggested solutions. The Centre must engage with the farmers, political parties and States on the economic and environmental issues at stake. That is the best route to effective reforms.

Constant monitoring is the only way India can build up its defences against new virus strains

In less than a month, it will be a year since India confirmed its first SARS-CoV-2 cases in Kerala. From then and now, India looks infinitely more prepared in terms of testing capacity, vaccine candidates in development, public awareness and the kaleidoscopic experiences of those who have been exposed to the virus. However, the report of the new variant from the U.K. and confirmed in at least 25 travellers from there puts India back at the base of a new learning curve. First reported to WHO on December 14, the SARS-CoV-2 VUI 202012/01, or the ‘U.K. strain’, was detected only following an unexpected case spike in South East England. The U.K.’s consortium of labs periodically sequences 5%-10% of the entire genome of SARS-CoV-2 isolates from the population. From October 5 to December 13, over 50% of isolates were identified as the variant strain in South East England. This variant has at least 14 significant mutations, which could affect healthy cells or worsen compromised immune systems. Studies show that the virus variant, while not linked yet to increasing mortality, is more transmissible than other variants, thus indirectly contributing to a higher death toll. Even though the world has only now woken up to this variant, it may have been circulating in the U.K. as early as October, and with people flying on the U.K.-India route, it is quite likely that this may have already caused its circulation in India. This puts the country right back to January and February when attention was trained towards possible carriers from China and SE Asia, when it was travellers from West Asia and Europe who led to the case explosion after March. Then, India was just about figuring out how to mass produce and, more importantly, distribute RT-PCR kits and paraphernalia required for detection. Now, Indian scientists have to grapple with a new beast called mass genomic surveillance. For some years now, India has had genome sequencing machines and the personnel to track and identify new variants. However, like in the early days of RT-PCR, there are not enough of them to sequence the 4%-5% of isolates in the population like what the U.K. does. India has genome sequenced around 5,000 isolates compared to the U.K.’s 137,000.

That India has formed a consortium of leading genomics labs to make genome surveillance a routine continuous exercise is to be welcomed. With 2021 likely to be the year of the vaccine, with a rollout at an unprecedented scale, scientists have already warned that it is possible that some virus strains, or escape mutants, may change enough to evade the vaccine’s immune response — as observed in the case of hepatitis B. Therefore, continuous monitoring and developing suitable detection kits are the only way India can shore up its defences against this pandemic and those of the future.

What is was like to tail Rajinikanth and buttonhole him for his political views

It was one of the most awaited events of the 1996 Assembly election in Tamil Nadu. With just a week remaining to conclude the campaign, Rajinikanth was returning from the U.S. to Chennai on April 20, with an overnight stopover in Mumbai. He was expected to make a big statement.

I had just returned to my desk after witnessing the election campaign across Tamil Nadu for more than a week, touching several districts — a rare opportunity for a city-bound journalist. I was set to plunge back into work. Then came the assignment. Rajinikanth was to arrive in Chennai the next day. Rush to Mumbai by a late evening flight, and return with him, so we would have an exclusive story.

A ticket was purchased by the night flight, including the return leg that Rajinikanth would take, with the aviation correspondent tracking his movement. I prepared for a red-eye mission because the task involved many things: finding out where the actor would be staying between flights to ensure that nothing was missed, tailing him, and buttonholing him on the plane.

It was not hard to discover that he would be staying at the airport VIP lounge. Sure enough, he arrived from Las Vegas and was whisked off. There were a few hours for the Air India flight to Chennai, and there was nothing to do but maintain vigil.

Rajinikanth would obviously not join the check-in queue and it was almost time to get the boarding card. Suddenly, I noticed a fellow journalist from Chennai going up to AI’s first class counter. My heart sank as I realised that I had been given an economy class ticket, which would take me no closer to the actor than any of the others in the rear of the plane. Disaster loomed, with the prospect of ignominy that a rival would have an exclusive story, and I would have only an excuse.

Making a dash to the counter, I told the attendant what the purpose of the visit was and no matter what, I had to be on a seat next to Rajinikanth. It meant paying to upgrade, which, miraculously, was possible. But the adjacent seat was already taken by the other journalist. The one behind was available, and I got it.

Close to boarding time, the star emerged early in the morning. By now, a couple of Mumbai journalists, obviously tipped off by airport or Chennai sources, had also arrived. But no comment was available from the ‘thalaivar’.

I spent the hour-and-a-half on board standing, craning to hear every word he was saying. A foreigner in the seat next to mine showed his irritation, remarking, “You must be in love with him!” Rajinikanth was charming, exhibiting no resentment that he had been ambushed and cornered inside the plane. He kept talking, but politely declined sharp political questions.

At the Chennai airport, there was a media throng. Rajinikanth announced that the DMK-Tamil Maanila Congress combine would get an absolute majority.The Hinducarried a front-page story the next day, also describing the atmosphere on the plane. Rajinikanth had said on the flight, “God is there, he will see me through” on how he would manage the thick of politics, and “Let me finish this five-year project” to advance the electoral prospects of the DMK-TMC alliance. I had no byline, but Rajini fans across the office were awestruck that I was with him on the plane.

The All India Moslem League resumed sitting this morning in the Congress pandal and passed a number of resolutions including Non-Co-operation and creed resolution [Nagpur, Dec. 31]. The latter resolution was debated at length and an amendment was also moved but the voting would be taken later on. The following six resolutions were moved by the president and unanimously adopted:

That the Moslem League deeply deplores the death of the late Sheikh Mahmul-ul Hasan; that the league heartily welcomes the establishment of National Muslim University at Aligarh and calls upon the public to give it best moral and material support; that the league expresses sorrow on the demise of Mr. Mumtaz Hussain of Lucknow; that while reaffirming the Cow resolution passed at Amritsar exhorts the Moslems to continue earnest efforts in that direction, also appeals to Hindus to refrain from securing cow protection through Legislative measures which might add to the difficulties of the situation; that the League expresses its appreciation of the work done by the Khilafat deputation and particularly Mr. Mohamed Ali’s courageous efforts in that direction; that while disapproving of the trustees of certain colleges is not disaffiliating their institutions, whole heartedly appreciates the action taken by Nadyat-Ulema in declaring its independence from Government control.

Several members of the dissolved Lok Sabha expressed resentment and deep indignation over the summary manner in which their telephones were cut by the authorities [New Delhi, Dec. 31]. Some of the members, who were away from Delhi, found on their return to the capital that their telephones were not functioning. Though the telephone authorities had made enquiries of some members whether they would like to have their instruments kept at their expense, most of the members complained that disconnections were made without any notice. They were also surprised at the very prompt manner in which the Lok Sabha Secretariat moved in the matter of sending notices to them saying that they should vacate their houses within a month. These notices were despatched within 24 hours of the dissolution of the Lok Sabha.