Editorials - 11-01-2021

Modi’s speech at the university showed a shift from Nehruvian candour to courteous commendation

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the centenary celebrations of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) on December 22, 2020, via video conferencing.

AMU, given it’s chequered history, and being the site of a high density of modern, educated Muslims, has immense symbolic value for the Muslims of north India as well as for the rest of the country, for the narratives permeating the political atmosphere have emanated from the north.

Mr. Modi’s address came as a surprise to many as his ideological vantage doesn’t countenance AMU’s historical significance and its symbolism. Therefore, this move must have been taken to signal the ruling dispensation’s desire for a recalibration of the relationship with the Muslim minority.

Over the last five decades or so, no Prime Minister visited the AMU’s campus though it is a fully funded government institution, a Central university, situated not far from the national capital. The last Prime Minister to visit AMU was Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1964. Before him, Jawaharlal Nehru gave the convocation address on January 24, 1948.

Nehru’s speech

Aware of the university’s symbolic value, Nehru used AMU as a platform to address Indian Muslims. Nehru had been among the very few to sympathetically look at founder Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s strategic antipathy towards the Congress and the national movement. Sir Syed feared that hisqaum(community) was not ready for the political plunge which could invite British wrath and sabotage his mission of spreading modern education among Muslims. Nehru opened his speech bemoaning how he had not been not allowed in AMU for many years. The plaint had added poignancy as someone else had been visiting the campus in the years when he couldn’t: Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Despite the “convulsions and heartbreaks” of Partition, Nehru wanted to ascertain afresh “where we stand and what we stand for”. He had come for a frank conversation with a people who, in his view, needed to revise their understanding of India and redefine their cultural moorings and political orientation. In his earnestness to leave behind the “doubts and disillusionment” of the recent past, and in his hope that “ if we are wise and strong enough to think and act rightly even now, we might succeed in erasing that mark,” he wanted to meet everyone and “probe somewhat into your minds, and to let you have a glimpse of my own mind.” It was an imperative for Nehru to “build up a free India of high ideals and noble endeavour where there is equality of opportunity for all.”

However, he was clear in his mind that equality, or any other right for that matter, flowed from the acceptance of duties and obligations. He situated the dyad of rights and duties in the context of belonging and ownership of the country’s history and culture. Therefore, he raised the question which was at the root of the recently experienced “catastrophe and disaster”. Having stated that “I am proud of our inheritance and our ancestors who gave an intellectual and cultural pre-eminence to India,” he posed a soul-searching query: “How do you feel about this past? Do you feel that you are also sharers in it and inheritors of it and, therefore, proud of something that belongs to you as as much as to me? Or do you feel alien to it and pass it by without understanding it or feeling that strange thrill which comes from the realisation that we are the trustees and inheritors of this vast treasure?” His emphasis on a shared past was for the sake of a common future. He considered that politics dangerous which attempts to “change the spirit of India” and “reverse the historic process through which we had been passing for long ages past”.

Therefore, in the spirit of compassionate candour, he talked to his Muslim audience about the country which they had helped bring into existence and deeply cared for. Although he considered Pakistan to have come into being “rather unnaturally”, he reassured them that India didn’t want to undo Pakistan, wished it well, and wanted good neighbourly relations with it.

Nehru wore his heart on his sleeve and spoke in a cathartic manner. He neither harangued his audience nor displayed the presumption to think on their behalf. Instead, he urged them to work all this out in their own heads. He concluded with the words, “Do not think that you are outsiders here, for you are as much flesh and blood of India as anyone else, and you have every right to share in what India has to offer. But those who seek rights must share in the obligations also... I invite you as free citizens of free India to play your role in the building up of this great country and to be sharers, in common with others, in the triumphs and setbacks alike that may come our way.”

Modi’s speech

Mr. Modi’s speech gave the impression that time has come a full circle. He discounted all of Nehru’s apprehensions and vindicated his optimism. Nehru had asked: “Do we believe in a national State which includes people of all religions and shades of opinions and is essentially a secular State?” Mr. Modi’s speech provided an affirmative answer to this question based on the presumption that his audience agreed with him and that they clearly understood what he wanted to convey.

At first, Mr. Modi’s address seemed like a routine speech made to just any university. It was free from the urgency and predicament of an extraordinary situation which many perceive to foretell a fundamental shift in the contours of our polity. But his polite platitudes before a sceptical audience may have a profound impact, for such utterances signify a reaffirmation of shared normative principles.

Nehru had flagged some basic ideological and political issues. Mr. Modi treated them as settled and, therefore, no longer relevant. Mr. Modi’s speech was an improvement on, and a departure from, Nehruvian concerns. Unlike Nehru, he credited AMU for playing a sterling role in the freedom struggle — sometimes rewriting of history and amnesia can be socially therapeutic too.

There was a shift from Nehruvian candour to courteous commendation.The statements that “jo desh ka hai wo har deshwasi ka hai(that which is the country’s belongs to every citizen)”, and that “no one should be left behind because of his religion” were made to reassure the audience that no one needed to worry about their constitutional rights. Coming as they did after the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens, they renewed Nehru’s assurance that “you are as much flesh and blood of India as anyone else...”

Mr. Modi might have said, “Society mein siyasat ke ilawa bhi doosre masle hain(society has many other concerns beside politics)”, to invoke rising above politics in matters of national importance. Muslims would do themselves a favour by focusing on social upliftment rather than the politics of identity which is divisive in spirit. For this they need to define their relationship with the country in cultural, not political, terms.

All the right words that needed to be spoken have been spoken. Their loyal translation into action would depend on absolute congruence between the intent of the message and actual decoding of the same by the intended audience.

Najmul Hoda is an IPS officer. Views are personal

Constitutional tradition requires the state’s decisions to be just, fair and reasonable and adhere to procedure

There is a pattern that emerges out of the contemporary Supreme Court of India’s most notable judgments. These rulings invariably begin with an homage to the ideas of the rule of law. But the opening tributes are left by the wayside when it comes time for the Court to apply those ideas to the case at hand. The invariable upshot: the executive government’s caprice trumps due process, and the rule of law survives only in name. The judgment delivered on January 5 inRajeev Suri v. Delhi Development Authority, in which a 2:1 majority of the Court granted itsimprimaturto the proposed redevelopment of the Central Vista in the national capital, fits the trend.

Right to public participation

The majority’s ruling begins in now-customary fashion. It holds that in a republic governed by the rule of law, the government’s actions, “howsoever laudable” they might be, must stand the test of the Constitution. But when you read on from there, a shudder ofdéjà vusoon sets in. The early paeans to the “high principles of democratic values” are enfeebled by the Court’s refusal to acknowledge the existence of a right to public participation, a right, which ought to be seen as fundamental in a democracy, properly understood. What is more, a repudiation of basic environmental norms is condoned, because, according to the Court, “the principle of sustainable development and precautionary principle need to be understood in a proper context”, one in which “competing public interests” must be harmonised and balanced. As we know only too well, every time the Court uses the language of harmony and balance, development eclipses every other concern.

A state-people link

Delhi’s Central Vista, originally conceived by Edwin Lutyens, stretches from India Gate to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Littered with sprawling parks and lawns, it houses not only an ensemble of landmark government buildings — from Parliament House to the Secretariats on the North and South Block — but also a number of other important public structures: among others, the National Archives of India, the National Museum and the National War Memorial. Its open spaces and the easy physical access that it affords to seats of power also mean that it has served in many ways as a link between the state and its people.

In 2009, the Central Vista was considered important enough to be designated, after extensive public consultation, as a Grade-I heritage precinct. This meant that any development inside the area had to be “regulated and controlled” in a manner that would leave its grandeur unscathed. But the proposal today, which portends enormous costs, is not any simple act of development within the boundaries of the area.

Instead, it seeks to remake the space. A new Parliament house will be erected next to the existing heritage building — it has been suggested, the central hall, where Nehru made his “Tryst with Destiny” speech, where the Constitution was adopted, would be converted into a “museum of democracy”. A new secretariat and a new residence for the Prime Minister will be built, and a number of post-Independence buildings, including the National Museum, will be taken down.

Petitions and claims

Petitions originally filed in the Delhi High Court, and transferred later to the Supreme Court, alleged that the government had failed to follow due process in approving the project. Two claims stand out: first, that the state had sanctioned an alteration to the existing land use permitted under law without sufficient public consultation; second, that the environmental clearance for the project is unreasoned, and was, in any event, obtained by illegitimately carving the project into two.

In his judgment for the majority, Justice A.M. Khanwilkar, writing on behalf of himself and Justice Dinesh Maheshwari, holds that the project required no special judicial scrutiny. According to the Court, the petitioners’ case was not predicated on the violation of any fundamental right, but only on the rigours prescribed by statute, in this case, the Delhi Development Act, 1957. That law, though, as Justice Sanjiv Khanna’s dissenting opinion notes, does, in fact, mandate, among other things, the granting of an opportunity to the public to place on record its objections, and for those objections to be considered by hearing the objectors.

Here, although objections were invited from the public, a mere three-days’ notice was given for the hearing on those complaints. The majority rules that the law does not make personal hearings mandatory, and, therefore, it was irrelevant whether sufficient time was granted or not. There are, at least, two problems with this finding: one, the Court has consistently held in the past that arbitrary state action violates fundamental rights, in particular the equality clause of Article 14. This would mean that in a project such as this, where a transformational change is brought about to the Master Plan framed under the 1957 Act, the public ought to have been accorded a sufficient chance to place on record all its objections, and a sufficient chance to be heard personally on those complaints.

Two, any civic participation can be productive only if complete information is placed in the public domain. In this case, the Board of Enquiry and Hearing (BoEH) which was appointed to consider the objections raised on the change in the land use, recognised the merit in the objectors’ plea that the full details of the project were not made available. “Among the respondents, majority of whom are Planners/Architects, there appears to be a feeling that authentic technical information on this iconic project of Central Vista is not available in public domain, which is leading to avoidable misgivings....,” its report noted. Moreover, it also recommended that “impact assessment studies on traffic, environment and heritage” ought to be commissioned at the earliest. But despite these findings the Delhi Development Authority sanctioned the proposal.

Need for adequate disclosures

According to the majority, it was sufficient that the authority had the power to do so. The absence of a reasoned order overriding the BoEH’s specific concerns was found to be of no value. As a result, the Court had effectively determined that the Constitution guarantees no independent right to public participation. But, as the dissenting judgment shows us, the most basic principles of procedural fairness — doctrines that flow from an array of constitutional promises — require the state to make adequate and intelligible disclosures. This is especially so in this case, because, as Justice Khanna identifies, the project, when executed, will have permanent and irreversible consequences.

Environmental scrutiny

The nature of the project ought to have also led to a more careful scrutiny on the environmental clearance granted to it by the Expert Appraisal Committee. Clearance had been sought not for the redevelopment of the Central Vista but only for the construction of a new Parliament building. This meant that the application was considered simply as a “Building and Construction Project” rather than as a “Township and Area Development Project”, which would have enhanced the level of inspection. Again, as the dissent observes, the Expert Appraisal Committee’s order granting sanction does not so much as render a finding on why the project was sliced into two.

These concerns over procedure, and over the denial of adequate public participation, might not strike us intuitively as matters of grave importance. But if the rule of law must mean something, we must regard the basic goals of our constitutional tradition with respect. That tradition, more than anything else, requires decisions made by the state to be just, fair and reasonable, both in its substance, and, however tedious it might be, in its adherence to procedure.

Suhrith Parthasarathy is an advocate practising at the Madras High Court

The RBI’s main challenge would be in managing the tension between restraining inflation and supporting recovery

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) embarked on an extraordinary expansionary policy to manage the financial pressures unleashed by COVID-19. It slashed policy interest rates aggressively, flooded the market with an unprecedented amount of liquidity and instituted a slew of measures for targeted assistance to especially distressed sectors.

Must be a deliberative process

As we sight springshoots in the economy, the RBI must be planning for a non-disruptive exit out of the easy money regime. Crisis management is a percentage game. When the house is on fire, central banks do what they think has the best chance of dousing the flames, shedding their characteristic deliberation. In contrast, reversing a crisis-driven expansionary policy has to be a deliberative process, with the timing and sequencing carefully planned. Indeed, one of the big lessons of the global financial crisis is that any missteps on the exit path by way of commission, omission, or importantly communication, can be costly in macroeconomic terms.

So what are the challenges that the RBI will confront on the way out?

By far the biggest challenge will be to manage the tension between restraining inflation and supporting the recovery. This is a policy dilemma even when the macroeconomic situation is benign; the pandemic, shrouded in unusual uncertainty, has made the dilemma much sharper.

Consider the most recent Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) review in early December. Inflation remained above the RBI’s target band for the past several months, and according to the RBI’s own estimates, is expected to remain above the band for the next several months. Yet, the MPC decided against any rate action out of concerns for growth and financial stability. The MPC expects inflation to soften on its own in the weeks ahead as supply chains, disrupted by the lockdown, normalise, and the bumper winter crop comes into the market.

Inflation and revival

That outcome is not inevitable. Inflation could be pressured upwards by several factors even though there could be some apparent softening purely because of base effects. There is the risk that persistent high inflation expectations would result in food inflation getting more generalised. Core inflation could firm up because of rising input prices. ‘Excessive margins’, among the factors cited by the MPC as one of the causes of high inflation, may not disappear if firms, regaining pricing power amid demand recovery, raise prices to mend their balance sheets.

Equally, there are concerns that the recovery, for all the positive signals, is still fragile. It has also been uneven and unequal, with large industries finding their foothold while small and medium enterprises and the entire informal sector continue to be in distress. And there is heightened concern about an aggravated unemployment problem caused by big firms retrenching labour to cut costs.

Plight of savers

Quite apart from the upside risks to inflation and downside risks to growth, the RBI should also be concerned about the plight of savers who are being shortchanged by low interest rates at a time of high inflation. All these concerns taken together make a complex cocktail of dilemmas for the RBI as it seeks to normalise the policy rates.

A second and related challenge will be to withdraw the ‘excess’ liquidity in good time. Banks are routinely depositing trillions of rupees with the RBI every day, evidencing that all the money that the central bank unleashed into the system is not doing much good anymore. For sure, there was a clear purpose behind the RBI joining the global central bank bandwagon of ‘dash for cash’ — to inspire confidence in the economy when confidence was at very low ebb. Hopefully, we are out of that abyss now and it is time to think of an exit.

Every financial crisis can be traced back to mispricing of risk, and mispricing of risk is what results when there is too much liquidity sloshing around the system for too long. It will drive investors into dodgy ventures and threaten financial stability.

Market reactions

As the RBI seeks to guard financial stability by normalising liquidity, it will have to contend with possible market tantrums. Remember the ‘taper tantrums’ that reverberated across global markets when Ben Bernanke, then chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, announced in a routine statement in May 2013 that they were considering gradually tapering ‘quantitative easing’. Any news like that, implying that the American economy, the epicentre of the global financial crisis, was showing signs of a robust recovery, should have been cheered by the financial markets; instead, the panic sell-off showed that investors, used to the ease of abundant liquidity, were unprepared for the ‘punchbowl’ being snatched away. The lesson from the taper tantrums clearly is that the RBI will have to manage its communication as carefully as it does the liquidity withdrawal.

That allows me a segue into the third big challenge for the RBI going forward which will be to restrain the rupee from appreciating out of line with fundamentals. Here, the RBI is confronted with a classic case of ‘the impossible trinity’ — of keeping doors open for capital flows while simultaneously maintaining a stable exchange rate and restraining inflation. Maintaining a policy balance across all three conflicting objectives can be tricky. As a former Governor, I can vouch for it.

Financial stability

The current account surplus this year together with massive capital flows has meant a surfeit of dollars in the system putting upward pressure on the rupee which is already overvalued in real terms. The RBI has absorbed nearly $90 billion this fiscal year to prevent exchange rate appreciation and to maintain the competitiveness of the rupee. The RBI’s ability to continue to intervene in the forex market will be constrained by its anxiety about how the resultant liquidity might aggravate inflation and the risk to financial stability. Managing the impossible trinity will be a tricky challenge for RBI going forward.

It is better to be rough right, as Keynes said, than be precisely wrong. That should be the guiding principle for RBI as it navigates its way out of the crisis driven easy money policy.

Duvvuri Subbarao is a former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India

The media must ask questions on whether due diligence was followed in approving the COVID-19 vaccines

There are issues for which there is space for debate and there are issues on which we need to build an informed consensus. Vaccines is one area where the need for consensus is high as vaccine hesitancy is a culture that has been perpetuated by a few influential sections of our society.

Vital facts

In this context, on January 5,The Hinducarried two op-ed articles on the challenges in approving COVID-19 vaccines. The Science Editor, R. Prasad, in his article “Hasty approval, no transparency”, pointed out how India had squandered an opportunity to build trust in vaccines by rushing to vaccinate the population. Anup Agarwal, a physician from New Mexico, in his article “Care is the standard of a vaccine trial”, spoke about the importance of due process in clinical trials and emphasised how we cannot have vaccines at the cost of the safety of study participants. The editorial, “A hurried gamble” (Jan. 4), argued that lack of transparency in communication is not only undesirable but also dangerous. These opinion pieces are backed by exhaustive reports on vaccine research for COVID-19, India’s roll-out plans and the approval process. However, some readers saw these critical articles through a partisan lens or nationalistic lens. Public health and interventions to ensure larger public good should not be read through a reductionist lens. Partisan political debates on vaccines will harm vulnerable sections of our society, including front-line health workers.

It is true that there are many sides to various sociopolitical developments, and journalism must strive to document and bring home all the diverse viewpoints on such issues. But there are certain issues on which there cannot be alternative opinions. It is important that journalism does not tie itself in knots in matters where it fails to make a crucial distinction between false balance and truth. We can trace the current crisis facing many of our democratic institutions to a decade-long normalisation of illogical and harmful tendencies in the name of balance. Media scholars have systematically documented the perils of this false equivalence.

V. Kurup, a reader, wrote: “There is a compelling reason for squeezing the approval process as we cannot afford to have a second lockdown like Europe. Evaluation of any vaccine will take years if we want to satisfy the arguments of these experts. We have entrusted the task to an expert group and they are giving their approval after weighing the pros and cons of fast-tracking the evaluation process and the experience of other nations. It is not fair to cast aspersions on their decisions. Mr. Prasad’s statement that India has ‘squandered an opportunity to build trust in vaccines’ is not logical.”

Questions in public interest

The key question is not about quick roll-out of vaccines but finding an effective vaccine with proven efficacy to contain the pandemic. Everyone agrees that we cannot afford a second lockdown. There are many disturbing questions about the roll-out plan announced by the Government of India. The regulatory authority for medical products, the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO), on January 2, gave “restricted emergency approval” to two vaccines — Covishield, manufactured by Serum Institute of India with technology transfer from Oxford University-AstraZeneca, and Covaxin, developed by Bharat Biotech in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research and the National Institute of Virology.

Covishield has been approved without waiting for the results of the ongoing Phase-III trials that are taking place in India. Many health experts feel that the approval for this vaccine, based on the Phase-III trials in the U.K. and Brazil, without establishing bioequivalence in India, may be permitted for emergency use. But they are worried about the short-circuiting of the process for Covaxin. Experts point out that the CDSCO’s statement clearly indicates that approval was granted based on Phase-I and Phase-II data on safety and immune response, but without any efficacy data from Phase-III trials.

Newspapers, which are mandated to articulate public good, should raise questions about due process and due diligence when it comes to providing vaccines to control a pandemic that has taken a massive toll on lives and livelihoods everywhere. Not doing so would amount to dereliction of duty.


The lithium and cobalt industry are likely to grow domestically to support the switch to electric vehicles

The progression to electric vehicles is important for India because such vehicles are sustainable and profitable in the long term. Reducing dependence on crude oil will save the government money, reduce carbon emissions, and build domestic energy independence. Besides being an economically and environmentally viable option, India’s transition to electric vehicles will allow us to fine-tune our infrastructure. This will also influence India’s foreign policy as our energy security dependence will shift from West Asia to Latin America. India imported 228.6 MT of crude oil worth $120 billion in 2018–19, which made it the third-largest oil importer in the world in terms of value.

Shift to electric vehicles

In order to reduce dependence on crude, the government has drafted policies that may act as catalysts in propelling the acceptance of electric vehicles. Under the ‘Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicles’ and its updated (Fame 2) version, the government has allocated $1.3 billion in incentives for electric buses, three-wheelers and four-wheelers to be used for commercial purposes till 2022, and earmarked another $135 million for charging stations. Besides these incentives, a proposal for a $4.6 billion subsidy for battery makers has also been proposed by the NITI Aayog. These policies are embedded with the vision to have 30% electric vehicles plying the roads by 2030. In September 2019, Japanese automobile major Suzuki Motor formed a consortium with Japanese automotive component manufacturer Denso and multinational conglomerate Toshiba to set up a manufacturing unit in Gujarat to venture into the production of lithium-ion batteries and electrodes.

Developing domestic battery manufacturing capacity may fundamentally change India’s relationship with resource-rich Latin America as the government plans to buy overseas lithium reserves. Latin America’s famous lithium triangle that encompasses lithium deposits under the salt flats of northwest Argentina, northern Chile, and southwest Bolivia holds about 80% of the explored lithium of the world. In Latin America, most of the production comes from Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia.

Scouting for mineral assets

In 2019, India’s National Aluminum Company (NALCO), Hindustan Copper Limited (HCL) and Mineral Exploration Corporation Ltd (MECL) formally signed a joint venture agreement to form Khanij Bidesh India Limited (KABIL) to scout for strategic mineral assets like lithium and cobalt abroad for commercial use and for supplying to meet the domestic requirement for battery manufacturers. At present, India’s lithium-ion battery demand is fulfilled by imports from China, Vietnam, and Hong Kong. In the last two years, India has had a growing appetite for lithium-ion batteries, and so, lithium imports have tripled from $384 mn to $1.2 bn. Notably, the government has intercepted this growing demand from its incipience. With its policy intervention to support battery manufacturers by supplying lithium and cobalt, this industry is more likely to grow domestically to support India’s goal to switch to electric mobility.

Interestingly, lithium is also used as a drug to treat bipolar disorder and is soon becoming the metal to treat a world polluted by excessive carbon emissions. Currently, India’s biggest trading partners in Latin America are Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, and majority of trade is concentrated on crude oil which includes 14%-20% of India’s total crude oil imports.

However, this may soon shift to lithium and cobalt. The Indian government’s initiation to take the front seat in electric mobility and preemptive action to send a high-level delegation to have a precise understanding of the availability of lithium and possibilities of joint ventures will supply domestic markets and drive international markets. Most importantly, this will be a long-term solution to clean our cities, build new markets, and skill people for new jobs towards an ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’.

Syed Ali is an independent analyst on India-Latin America affairs. Twitter: @Alinyst

To avert another Bhandara-like hospital inferno, govts must address underlying causes

The deadly fire that snuffed out the lives of 10 infants in the Bhandara District General Hospital in Maharashtra is a shocking reminder that safety norms in several medical facilities in India do not pass muster. The parents of the babies who perished in the sick new-born unit have been plunged into a lifetime of trauma. Some of the victims, a few just days old, had been brought to the hospital for better care from smaller health facilities; seven had a providential escape. There are reports of poorly trained staff failing to respond adequately. The terrible blaze joins the long list of such accidents recorded in government and private hospitals, underscoring a painful reality: safety protocols are yet to be institutionalised even in places where people legitimately expect a high degree of professionalism. Last year, there were devastating fires in COVID-19 facilities in Vijayawada and Ahmedabad, with several casualties, blamed on poor oversight by fire authorities or faulty electrical repairs. The Maharashtra government has ordered a probe into the Bhandara fire to be concluded in three days, and a fire audit of hospitals, but a perfunctory inquiry cannot effectively address the underlying causes. Hospital fires are a distinct entity, and research indicates that there are specific factors that trigger them off and aggravate their impact.

Intensive Care Units, neonatal ICUs and operating rooms are often the site of fires, implicating the presence of a high concentration of oxygen in a confined space. A review of Indian hospital fires published in theJournal of Clinical Anesthesiaidentified higher oxygen availability in intensive care facilities as the likely primary cause, with motors and electrical units in the room providing the ignition, and plastics fuelling it. It is worth considering, therefore, whether hospitals have been audited with such factors in mind, and to evaluate national building safety codes against international practice. Oxygen monitors for hospital rooms, to ensure that the ambient level is within safe norms — set at a maximum of 23.5% by the U.S. National Fire Protection Association — could help avert an accident. Locating electrical equipment for air-conditioners with sparking potential away from oxygen saturated areas may also reduce the risk. As the health sector expands, it is essential that all new infrastructure conforms to rigorous safety standards, a small premium to stop disasters such as the Bhandara carnage. If the government sets the bar high enough, ensuring full adherence to safety in its buildings, regulatory authorities can compel commercial structures to fall in line. The Centre should also create a public platform for insights gained from inquiries into hospital fires to be shared. Hospitals should mandatorily hold regular safety and evacuation drills which are key to saving lives when disaster strikes.

As India starts on vaccination, the government must bolster public trust in the process

India now has a firm date to roll out the biggest vaccination programme in its history. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that from January 16, after the Makar Sankranti and Pongal festivities, doctors, nurses and sanitation workers, who are part of the priority group, would begin getting the vaccine. India has approved two vaccines in emergency-use mode — Covishield by the Serum Institute of India, Pune, and Covaxin by Bharat Biotech Ltd. While it still is unclear who gets which vaccine, there are more doses of Covishield available at present than Covaxin, almost five to one, and it could take a few months before the 30 million prioritised get one of their doses. Others, those in the 50-plus age group and those with comorbidities, will have to wait much longer, especially in a situation where vaccines such as those by Pfizer and Moderna are not made available for import by the private sector.

However, the vaccination begins under a cloud. Covaxin belongs to a league of vaccines that has been approved without establishing its efficacy, namely, the extent to which vaccination protects from COVID-19. There have been differences among scientists such as on the best testing strategy, treatment, extent of infection, but none more divisive than on the approval of Covaxin. Several experts have made the case that the declining rate of infections and low relative mortality meant that India was not in as dire a state of emergency that required it to approve an untested vaccine when more clarity would likely have come by March. Covaxin is best kept as a backup in the event of a sudden surge of cases till its efficacy data are available and acceptable. Also, reports have emerged of trials in Bhopal where volunteers were seemingly under the impression that they were getting a protective shot when some were likely getting a placebo. They also complain of no medical follow-up when some developed symptoms such as fever, body pain and loss of appetite. The vaccine may eventually prove protective and the adverse symptoms reported, seen as part of the variety of the human body’s response — there are 28,500 volunteers after all. However, a vaccine that evokes distrust is self-defeating. With childhood immunisation, India has proven that it has the infrastructural backbone to inoculate millions. The dry runs to test the Co-WIN management software have reportedly given authorities valuable feedback on perfecting the prospective rollout. However, this could be undone if people do not turn up, and worse, if vaccine hesitancy rises. The pandemic gave India an opportunity to examine its dispensation of health care. Along with improving access, the government must seriously examine the conduct of vaccine trials and work hard to bolster public trust in it, and monitor the vaccination process for adverse reactions.

From our Special Correspondent in Bristol, January 7: The opposition to Lord Reading’s appointment is practically dead. It emanates from anti-Jewish and military circles which fear Lord Reading with his legal and judicial experience would rule India constitutionally and not with an iron hand as they desire. Major-General Pilcher wrote in yesterday’s “Morning Post” that Lord Reading’s appointment would be disastrous to India. Quoting the “Times” suggestion that Lord Reading would temper justice with extreme clemency and forbearance even under provocation the “Morning Post” emphasised the British went to India as conquerors, remained as Sahibs and cannot abide as servants. That explains in a nutshell the militarist and Imperialist attitude towards Indians. As Lord Reading’s appointment will not displease the city I don’t believe the anti-Jew and militarist opposition will sway the Premier. Some doubt is expressed as to the ability of Lord Reading’s health to bear the Indian climate.

The Prime Ministers of India and the United Kingdom have emphasised the significant expansion of Indo-British co-operation since Independence. Speaking at a lunch given in honour of the British Prime Minister, Mr. Heath, here [New Delhi] to-day [January 10], Mrs. Indira Gandhi said that in some sectors of India’s economy the progress had been considerably helped by Britain’s enlightened and understanding assistance. The lunch, which was held in the gardens of Rashtrapati Bhavan was attended among others by Lord Hailsham, Lord Chancellor of U.K. She said it was a good time for Mr. Heath to visit India. “You will see how your country has influenced many aspects of our national life. You are here on the eve of our fifth general elections, when, apart from other hectic activities, there is the usual forecasting of results in the press, an exercise in which I believe you have little confidence.” Referring to the relations between the two countries, Mrs. Gandhi said, “Our relations with your country are extensive and involved and have been able to survive because they have constantly evolved and adjusted to changed circumstances. As you yourself said yesterday, our relations can be meaningful only so long as they are relevant to the contemporary situation and pass the test of public evaluation.”