Editorials - 12-06-2021

Hundreds of Pakistani Hindus have migrated to India in search of security and citizenship but are caught in a maze of rules and regulations that have left them stateless for years.Mohammed Iqbalreports on their plight and the politics around citizenship

For two decades, Jogdas Maharaj waited in vain for Indian citizenship. Last month, the 82-year-old man, highly respectedin the Kali Beri settlement of Pakistani Hindu migrants near Jodhpur, Rajasthan, died stateless.

Maharaj crossed the border into India with nine family members in August 2000. He decided to stay in the country, in Jodhpur, to escape the economic hardship and discrimination he was facing in Rahimyar Khan district in the Punjab Province of Pakistan. “Our father passed away waiting for citizenship. Our family has 19 members and we have nowhere to go,” says Harjiram Bheel, Maharaj’s son.

Bheel says the family has been wandering from one citizenship camp to another over the years. These camps were organised by the Union Home Ministry from time to time to receive new applications for citizenship and dispose of or clear old ones. But the camps have not been successful because of red-tapism. Bheel’s family is one among many whose Pakistani passports and Indian visas have expired.

Karamshi Koli, 43, who migrated to India in 2015, lives as an asylum-seeker in the Anganwa hutment. Koli says he has not even succeeded in getting a long-term visa which would enable him to find a private job or take up self-employment to sustain his family.

The weary residents of the mud houses in Anganwa, adjacent to a water filtration plant, have no access to electricity, water, toilets and sanitation facilities. Women and children fetch water from a well in the Shri Khetanand temple situated 2 km away, while solar lights — some donated by philanthropists and some purchased by some of the migrants — are used at night.

The number of Pakistani Hindu migrants staying in 21 settlements in Jodhpur district is estimated to be about 30,000. The land where they have built their ramshackle dwellings belongs either to the Municipal Corporation or the village panchayats and Forest Department. These migrants came to India expectantly, but their eagerness has turned into disillusionment over time. They are unhappy with the way they are being treated in a country which they had hoped would accept them wholeheartedly and they could call home.

No sense of belonging

Young Laxman Singh, who hails from Sindh’s Mirpur Khas district, says unhappily that migrants like him seem to belong nowhere. “We faced persecution on the ground of our religious identity in Pakistan. In India, we are being ostracised for being Pakistanis,” he says. Most men like him, who were landless farmers or daily labourers in Pakistan, have failed to find any gainful employment in or around Jodhpur. The pandemic-related lockdowns have only made matters worse.

Hemji Koli, who is a shelter manager on a contractual basis with the Municipal Corporation, runs a ‘Chetana’ study centre on behalf of a non-governmental organisation, Universal Just Action Society, in the Anganwa settlement. The centre provides basic literacy to children up to five years of age and tuition to those going to nearby government schools. About 350 children who were attending school before the COVID-19 outbreak have been confined at home for over a year due to the pandemic.

“No person in this locality has been given citizenship so far. This is a relatively new settlement. The only saving grace is that we have not been driven out of this land,” Hemji says. Some migrants in the other settlements have got citizenship after completing the mandatory 11 years of stay for eligibility under the Citizenship Act of 1955, but even they struggle daily to get food, water, healthcare and education.

Since 2014, most Hindu migrants have been entering India, into western Rajasthan and northern Gujarat, on a pilgrim visa. They often leave their family members in Pakistan in the hope that they can travel later when they find employment in India. However, they are invariably disappointed when they are left to fend for themselves.

The migrants are mostly Dalits from the Meghwal, Koli, Bhil, Jatav, Kumawat and Mali communities. They are considered underprivileged on both sides of the international border, though some caste Hindus, belonging to the Rajput, Maheshwari and Brahmin communities, have also crossed into India.

They all say that they were segregated and persecuted in Pakistan on religious grounds. They say young girls are sometimes abducted and forcibly converted to Islam in the interior areas of Sindh. Their children faced discrimination in government schools. Their shops and commercial establishments were attacked by robbers. And Hindu residents were not allowed to buy property.

Hindu Singh Sodha, president of the Seemant Lok Sangathan, an organisation working for the welfare of migrants, points out that there have been three waves of migration of Hindus to India from Pakistan. The first was during and after Partition. During the 1971 war, about 90,000 persons migrated to India when Indian troops strategically occupied important areas 50 km deep inside Pakistan. The third wave, which started as a result of a backlash against Hindus during the Ram temple movement and after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, has been a prolonged one. Migrants still continue to come to India. Also, in 1996, the Taliban captured power in Afghanistan. This led to a change in atmosphere in Pakistan, with the minority communities in the Balochistan and Sindh Provinces increasingly being targeted.

A maze of rules and regulations

While a growing sense of insecurity in Pakistan has led to the migration of thousands of Hindus over the past two decades, they cannot expect to get the status of refugees because India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, nor its 1967 Protocol. The Pakistani immigrants do not receive the protection or benefits which they would have been entitled to on getting official refugee status if India had been a signatory.

All foreign nationals, including asylum-seekers, are governed by the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946; the Registration of Foreigners Act, 1939; the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920; and the Citizenship Act, 1955, as well as the rules and orders framed under these laws. The Union government possesses the power to detain and deport foreigners and restrict their movements, but it has no international obligation to enact a legislation for refugees.

For accessing legal entitlements and services, Indian citizenship is the only viable option for the migrants. But the migrants face major challenges in obtaining citizenship status, ranging from the condition of having stayed in India for a certain number of years to keeping the registration permit from the Foreigners Regional Registration Office up-to-date and paying a hefty fee for frequent renewal of their long-term visas.

Having all the Indian documents is not enough. The migrant must also hold an unexpired Pakistani passport, which can only be obtained at the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi. Bhagchand Bhil, who left his medical practice in Karachi and crossed the border in 2014, says that most of the migrants are illiterate and unable to decipher and navigate this maze of rules and regulations, which makes them vulnerable to deceit and exploitation by government officials.

Even when they do get citizenship, their problems don’t end. Obtaining documents such as ration cards and caste certificates is no easy task and they find it difficult to avail themselves of the benefits of the government’s healthcare, education and employment schemes. Sodha, who had himself migrated as a young boy from Tharparkar district’s Chachro town in 1971, rues that there is no provision for the rehabilitation of people from Pakistan.

The Seemant Lok Sangathan has raised these issues repeatedly with the Union Home Ministry over the past few years. While affirming that the government needs to be migrant-friendly, Sodha has sought the grant of citizenship through special camps, which will benefit the migrants who still have their family members in Pakistan. “During the last 30 years, I have not found a single family which says it has no member over there. The families are divided,” he says.

Improving the lives of migrants

Sodha feels that the Pakistan High Commission should be persuaded to withdraw the increased fee that the migrants are charged for renunciation of their Pakistani citizenship, which is mandatory for them to do before getting their Indian citizenship, and provide easy facilities for renewal of passports and identity cards. Besides, he says, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees should be approached for incorporating the minority migrants in its regular programmes for refugees.

Moreover, the gaps in livelihood development and rehabilitation status should be identified at the State level and a robust policy for rehabilitation introduced at the Central level for migrant families, he says. Stateless persons belonging to higher castes, who comprise 20% of the migrant population, manage the hardship better because of their socioeconomic condition. They are generally engaged in business or private employment.

The children of these migrants are the worst affected. Schools reluctantly give them admission and do not provide them emotional support and counseling. The children struggle as their medium of instruction was Urdu and Sindhi in Pakistan and Hindi in India. They are often singled out by the teachers and other students because of their Pakistani origin. Government schools, which earlier demanded their identity proof, started giving them admission only a couple of years ago.

Despite this, some migrant children have excelled in their studies. Chandra Prakash, son of a migrant teacher, Manjhiana Rana, topped Class 12 at the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad School, run by the Marwar Muslim Educational and Welfare Society, in 2019. Chandra Prakash is now studying MBBS at the Sardar Patel Government Medical College in Bikaner.

The Marwar Muslim Educational and Welfare Society’s CEO, Mohammed Atiq, says plans are afoot to open a primary school this year exclusively for the children of migrants at a plot of land situated near the Maulana Azad University in Bujhawar village. The school will be gradually upgraded to include higher education after the intake of 60 children in the first year.

As an indication of the State government’s consideration for the rehabilitation of the migrants, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot inaugurated the Vinoba Bhave Nagar housing scheme for them, comprising 1,700 plots at the land measuring 300 bighas, in Chokha village near Jodhpur earlier this month. The residential scheme, announced in the 2021-22 State Budget, will be executed by the Jodhpur Development Authority.

Hope and despair

On the one hand, the government is making efforts to improve their quality of life, but on the other, the migrants have also had to face the problem of exploitation by government officials. In May 2018, a racket involving extortion of money from the migrants for extension of long-term visa, visa transfer, and grant of citizenship came to light after the arrest of a Home Ministry official by the Rajasthan Anti-Corruption Bureau. The official visited Jodhpur regularly to attend hearings on writ petitions moved by the migrants in the Rajasthan High Court. The official had three agents who identified themselves as Pakistani migrants with Indian citizenship. The case indicated that a larger nexus was at work to exploit the migrants for money. The Anti-Corruption Bureau’s probe revealed that the official had demanded and accepted bribes from about 3,000 migrants in 2017 alone.

The inordinate delay in the grant of citizenship has led to a host of problems for the migrants. In November last year, a migrant woman, Janta Mali, was reunited with her family in western Rajasthan after being stranded in Pakistan for 10 months during the lockdown. Since her No Objection to Return to India (NORI) visa had expired, she was not allowed to travel back. Mali’s husband and children, who are Indian citizens, travelled back to India in July 2020 after visiting her ailing mother in Pakistan’s Mirpur Khas. The Seemant Lok Sangathan took up the issue with the Rajasthan government and the Centre and succeeded in bringing her back after six months by getting her visa extended.

Though the migrants have been staying in cities in western Rajasthan such as Barmer, Jaisalmer and Bikaner for several years, Jodhpur emerged as the preferred destination after the Thar Express train linking Karachi with Bhagat Ki Kothi railway station started in 2006. The train was stopped in August 2019 when tensions escalated between India and Pakistan following India’s revocation of special status to Jammu and Kashmir. The Munabao-Khokhrapar rail route was restored after a gap of 41 years following the 1965 war to reduce the distance and journey of time for people from central and southern Indian States travelling to Pakistan. It gained popularity among the Pakistani Hindus who wanted to migrate to India. The train was also used by migrants frustrated by the delay in the grant of long-term visa or citizenship to return to Pakistan.

Bone of contention

On May 28, the Union Home Ministry issued a notification inviting non-Muslim migrants residing in 13 districts of five States to apply for Indian citizenship. It also empowered the Collectors of these districts to grant citizenship certificates. This has become the latest bone of contention between civil rights activists and asylum-seekers. The notification is applicable to migrants belonging to the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian communities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

While the Collectors of Jodhpur, Jaipur and Jaisalmer districts were empowered to grant citizenship in 2016, the new notification has now delegated the same powers to the Collectors of Jalore, Udaipur, Pali, Barmer and Sirohi districts. Sodha says these powers should be conferred on the Collectors of all districts in the State to speed up the process of application, security check, and inquiry for grant of citizenship.

The Home Ministry says that the latest notification is not related to the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) of 2019, which has not come into effect and seeks to benefit the undocumented or illegal migrants from the six “persecuted communities” who entered India before December 31, 2014. The CAA will reduce the requirement of 11 years of aggregate stay in India to five years for citizenship, which would help fast-track the applications of migrants.

The president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties in Rajasthan, Kavita Srivastava, disagrees. She says that the notification amounts to implementation of the CAA “by stealth” even as the law has been challenged in the Supreme Court. “The delegation of powers to the Collectors is only with respect to the communities covered by the CAA and not those otherwise eligible for citizenship by registration and naturalisation,” she says. While demanding immediate withdrawal of the notification as well as nullification of the CAA, Srivastava says the notification’s intention is to rush through citizenship without waiting for the court’s verdict. She says it is also in complete disregard to the massive protests against the law in late 2019 and early 2020. “It is the first salvo towards implementing the 2019 Act, as its intention is to keep Muslims out of the purview of the citizenship law,” she says.

Civil rights groups have called for taking measures to smoothen and hasten the process for grant of citizenship to migrants irrespective of their religious identity. Popular Front of India’s State president Mohammed Asif says the organisation will stage protests against the May 28 notification in a democratic manner once the COVID-19-related restrictions are lifted, as it bears resemblance to the CAA which discriminates on the ground of religion.

COVID-19-related problems

A new issue that the migrants are now facing is inaccessibility to vaccines. This remains unresolved despite the intervention of the Rajasthan High Court. The State government has refused to inoculate those who do not possess Aadhaar cards or other prescribed documents. About 15 migrants, including those who tested positive for COVID-19 and those suspected to have the virus or are symptomatic, have died in Jodhpur during the second wave of infections.

A Division Bench of the High Court, which earlier ruled that the Centre’s standard operating procedure on vaccination did not exclude the migrants from Pakistan, has hauled up the State government for seeking clarification from the Union government, and sought an explanation from the Chief Secretary. The migrants settled in Barmer have started getting vaccinated on the basis of their Pakistani passports.

Hearing the additional submissions made on behalf of the migrants in a suo motu case, the court also directed the State government to supply ration material and food packets to them through the Food and Civil Supplies Departments, local bodies and non-governmental organisations. It was submitted to the court that only the migrants residing in Jodhpur were getting the food packets, while those in Jaisalmer, Barmer and Jaipur districts were deprived of food supply during the pandemic.

Hoping against hope that their basic needs will be met, the Pakistani Hindu migrants are caught in a vicious circle of poverty and vulnerability. They face an unresponsive government and uncertain legislation. Out of their homeland and across the border, the migrants wait endlessly for the day when they can call India their true home.

Local planning will need to go hand-in-hand with equitable plans at the national and global levels

Poornima and Ashok, 80-year-old parents of two and grandparents of three, have been hunkered down in their Mumbai apartment for a year. When a COVID-19 vaccine became available in March 2021, they went to the local hospital to get their first dose of the Serum Institute of India’s Covishield vaccine — the vaccine that was supposed to save the world. Seeing long lines and not wanting to risk being infected while waiting to be vaccinated, they returned home. This happened again the next day before a very helpful staff member of the World Health Organization (WHO) stepped in to help, taking them to a health centre early one morning and making sure they did not have to wait in a line to get vaccinated. This played out again in April 2021 for their second dose. This couple was lucky.

Where the focus must be

As we look ahead to what is promised to be a transition from a lack of vaccine supply to one of greater availability, the plan must be to prioritise people like the two octogenarians in Mumbai — older adults who remain unvaccinated, and very much at risk. Ensure we vaccinate them before we open vaccination to younger adults. This would prioritise people based on the risk of severe disease, and need — essential principles if we plan with justice in mind.

Local governments and municipalities should also prioritise vaccines for the historically marginalised by focusing through the lens of equity and justice. What does it mean to focus through a lens of equity and justice? It would mean ensuring that the vaccine roll-out does not result in avoidable differences in vaccine uptake — and hence preventable disease and death — between marginalised groups and the rest of the country. It would require prioritising the poor, religious minorities, socially disadvantaged castes, Adivasi communities, those living in remote areas, and women.

In Chhattisgarh

One example of an equity-focused vaccination plan came from the Chhattisgarh government. The plan prioritised ration card holders, specifically because they are poor, and often live in multi-generation, larger households, putting them at higher risk of infection. They also often lack access to mobile phones and the Internet, which are necessary to register for vaccination. Though the High Court asked that the plan be modified to provide vaccines to the general public alongside ration card holders, we would propose prioritisation of the marginalised when vaccine supply is limited in order to minimise the risk of severe outcomes due to COVID-19. WHO’s strategic advisory group of experts on immunisation recommend prioritising sociodemographic groups at significantly higher risk of severe disease or death (for vaccination) in the context of limited supply (https://bit.ly/3pGy99C). We should ensure that we remove barriers to vaccination for the most vulnerable in India to minimise preventable disease and deaths.

India depended, and continues to depend on the AstraZeneca vaccine because it was stable in a refrigerator for longer periods than mRNA vaccines (https://bit.ly/3gv02Ny). Presumably, this was so that vaccines could be made available where freezers do not exist. But it also enables the vaccine to be transported in vaccine carriers, and taken to the people where they are. In Indian villages, Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) and Auxiliary Nurse-Midwives (ANMs) have vast experience and expertise with campaign-style pulse polio vaccination and newborn vaccination; their expertise should be harnessed to take vaccines to villagers.

Urban slums and neighbourhoods, where socially disadvantaged caste and community groups, and migrants from Adivasi communities often reside, have poor access to and low levels of trust in the health-care system. Vaccines should be provided in camps or door-to-door in such areas. Appropriately, local governments are considering providing vaccines to older adults in door-to-door campaigns. A similar approach — vaccination camps where people live and work — could also greatly enhance vaccine uptake among essential workers and the poor. We need to ensure that those who work for daily wages are able to get the vaccine without having to forego work or pay.

Adivasi communities also reside in remote and forested areas that are also being ravaged by waves of death, presumably due to COVID-19; vaccine distribution should be prioritised to districts where they live. In India today, perhaps the most marginalised are religious minorities, and, specifically, poor Muslim communities. Vaccine distribution should also be prioritised to Muslim-dominated tier-3 towns across the country. An explicit focus on justice would prioritise the engagement of trusted spokespeople to engage in effective risk communication with vulnerable and marginalised communities, and to build trust in the vaccine.

Women-only vaccine days

We need women-only vaccine days to ensure that women know that they are being prioritised. During the 1918 influenza pandemic, India was one of few locations where mortality was higher in women than in men (https://bit.ly/3gfc4vH), and we barely understand the drivers of this observation. In the current pandemic, it is very possible that if women are not explicitly prioritised, economic pressures to protect the (often male) breadwinner in families, and the historically marginalised stature of women in society, will end up resulting in gender inequities in vaccine uptake — early signs of exactly this have been recently reported.

Unfortunately, our data during the pandemic do not allow us to examine whether gender, caste, religious, and indigenous identities have impacted the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection or death. Despite global calls for better surveillance (https://bit.ly/2TjQxZU), including among vulnerable groups, India does not regularly report even gender-disaggregated data. Despite crowd-sourced efforts to collect and make data available, reporting of geographic and other meta-data for tests conducted and sequenced samples is variable across laboratories and States. Better leadership to standardise and enforce meta-data collection and timely reporting is essential to inform data-driven interventions and prioritised resource mobilisation.

Equity and justice

Local planning will need to go hand-in-hand with a refocus on equity and justice at the national and global levels as well. Nationally, people have recognised that digital apps for registration are a recipe for inequity along age, gender, and economic dimensions, and reports have highlighted the plight of those on the wrong side of the digital divide. CoWIN data that are available to date (https://bit.ly/2RJWQFw) show that vaccination rates have been inequitable between tribal and non-tribal areas (https://bit.ly/2TY9qBU), for example. Going forward, let us focus on first doing no harm — get people vaccinated to save the lives most at risk. At the national level, the recent decision to procure vaccines centrally and make COVID-19 vaccines available free of cost through the public system goes a long way towards ensuring equity and justice. WHO has been tireless in its call for the urgent need for vaccine equity at the global level. In an ideal world, vaccines would be procured and equitably distributed to countries based on need through the COVAX facility (https://bit.ly/3pRoXPS). But instead, wealthy countries have once again, as during the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, secured more doses than they need to vaccinate every member of their population (https://bit.ly/3zmRa5a), and even pre-ordered booster doses (https://reut.rs/3pHT1NL). This leaves only poor countries to be dependent on supplies through COVAX, and they find themselves at the end of the line. This is a wake-up call for setting up vaccine distribution systems with equity in mind for the next pandemic. At this time, unfortunately, poor countries are at the mercy of the European Union and the United States, who need to donate vaccines now. They need to vaccinate the world alongside their own communities — they need to vaccinate grandparents everywhere alongside children and adolescents within their borders. Work during the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic showed that willingness among the U.S. public to donate vaccines to the poorer countries was appreciable (https://bit.ly/3iAvnRU). Today as well, surveys show that U.S. public support for immediate donation of COVID-19 vaccine exists (https://bit.ly/3pIs9gx). Doses need to be donated to COVAX now so that they can be distributed to countries based on need. Every life matters in this world and world leaders need to follow the lead of WHO and embody global solidarity in this pandemic.

Refocused, rejuvenated local, national, and global vaccination campaigns are possible. Let us ensure that we plan now so that we get those shots in arms when they are available. Let us get to work in India.

Supriya Kumar is a public health researcher focused on health equity in South Asia. N.S. Prashanth is on the faculty at the Institute of Public Health, Bengaluru

The non-transparent process of candidate selection has carefully rejected reformists and focused on hardliners

On May 25, the Guardian Council in Iran announced a slate of seven candidates who would compete in the presidential election on June 18. The council, in a non-transparent process, selected these seven candidates from among 592 applicants, including 40 women. The list does not include a woman candidate.

Iran has a dichotomous political order whose two parts are constantly at odds with each other. It has the institutions of a normal democratic system — a directly elected President, an elected national assembly, and a government responsible to the assembly. The other part of the political order is devoted to safeguarding the ideology and principles of the Islamic Revolution; this has provided the country with institutions that are unique to Iran and do much to dilute, if not undermine, the country’s democratic credentials.

Placed above the popularly elected President is the Supreme Leader, who wields supreme authority in all matters of national governance — security, defence, foreign relations, the judiciary. One of the bodies under the Supreme Leader is the 12-member Guardian Council.

The council has now carefully rejected reformist candidates and retained two who seem to be centrist, so that the slate has five so-called “hardliners”. But many of them are relatively light-weight: prominent personalities such as Assembly Speaker Ali Larijani, have also been excluded. Clearly, the Guardian Council has decided to ensure the election of one specific candidate, Ebrahim Raisi.

Raisi at the helm

Raisi has been a high-profile legal luminary in Iran since the days of the Revolution. He is now head of the judiciary and deputy chief of the Assembly of Experts which selects the Supreme Leader. Raisi had stood against Hassan Rouhani for the presidency in 2017, but was soundly defeated. Raisi has been in campaign mode for the last two years and has made “fighting corruption” and “caring for the down-trodden and the under-privileged” the centre-piece of his platform.

The list announced by the council has evoked sharp criticisms across the political spectrum. President Rouhani has expressed concern about the “minimal participation” in the elections that could now occur. Ali Larijani’s brother has called the list “indefensible”. Surprisingly, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself has said that in the vetting process “some candidates were wronged”, but,so far, the Guardian Council has not revised the candidates’ list (https://bit.ly/3cBIXR7).

Khamenei appears to have backed the narrow selection of candidates to ensure that Iran’s politics will now shift from Rouhani’s moderate reform to the hard ideological posture of Ebrahim Raisi, who is his long-term political associate. As Iran is now once again engaged in dialogue on the nuclear issue with the United States and other interlocutors in Vienna, Khamenei would like the credit for the lifting of sanctions to go to the hardliners.

But Khamenei has taken this gamble despite considerable public hostility to the overt manipulation of the election. Recent polls suggest a low voter turnout of about a third of the electorate which could dilute the credibility of the new President and condemn the country to domestic turmoil.

Economic despair

There could be longer term political implications as well. The economist Djavad Salehi-Isfahani has pointed out (“Iran’s middle class and the nuclear deal”; brookings.edu) that the educated middle class plays a central role in determining the direction of Iran’s elections: earlier, in the absence of harsh sanctions, Iran’s economy had grown exponentially and expanded the size of the middle class.

In 2013, with the prospect of the end of sanctions, Rouhani won the presidential election, when the middle class was nearly 60% of the population. The lifting of sanctions after the nuclear agreement saw him through during the 2017 elections as well.

However, the re-introduction of sanctions by the Donald Trump administration cost the economy about $200 billion: the middle class has been reduced by eight million, while those living in extreme poverty have increased five-fold to 20 million. Poor medical facilities have caused pandemic-related deaths of around 80,000 people.

U.S. sanctions have also changed political attitudes: support for the nuclear agreement has gone from 80% in 2015 to just 50% today, while reformist politicians have been discredited due to their failure to obtain the easing of sanctions.

Domestic, regional outlook

The principal concern of the new President will be economic: Iran’s inflation rate has gone from 10% in 2017 to 50% today, the national currency has depreciated four times in value, while unemployment is over 12%. The easing of sanctions after an agreement on nuclear issues in Vienna will remove restrictions on Iran’s oil and financial sectors and help bring much-needed relief to the beleaguered population.

However, it does not seem that much else will change. Iran’s politics is likely to remain fractious, with the clerics seeking to ensure that effective authority remains with them, while the reformists will try to nibble away at the ideological edifice, usually with limited success.

In the regional arena, Iran is likely to continue its present approach of combining pragmatic peace moves with confrontation: quiet dialogue with Saudi Arabia on the Yemen conflict could make progress, though Syria will take longer to settle as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its ally, Hezbollah, are deeply invested in that theatre.

Again, there will be no let-up in Iran’s confrontation with the U.S. and Israel. The Carnegie scholar, Karim Sadjadpour, has reported Khamenei’s observation that “the revolution needs enmity with America” (https://bit.ly/3veSaoW). However, hostility to Iran and its Revolution is also deeply ingrained in the U.S. psyche,which has meant that earlier peace overtures from the Islamic republic have repeatedly been rebuffed by Washington.

Thus, the “Cold War” between the two will continue, along with occasional skirmishes with Israel, not just in Syria, but also in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Iran will seek strategic comfort in closer ties with Russia and China.

Donald Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” that, with its crippling sanctions, was meant to achieve regime change in Iran, has had the ironical effect of tilting Iran’s political balance sharply in favour of the hardliners. They will now control the levers of power in Iran for the foreseeable future.

Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates

Mumbai must urgently replace decrepit buildings to prevent houses collapsing in rain

The monsoon over the greater Mumbai region has come to be characterised by the unsettling annual spectacle of collapsing buildings, and this year is proving to be no different. An unsafe multi-storeyed building in a core area of the city has collapsed on to another, leaving at least 11 people dead and exposing once again, the decrepit base of dwellings in India’s much-romanticised economic powerhouse. The disaster has brought in its wake the familiar litany of accusations, of people occupying unsafe and illegal buildings, and civic authorities failing to act in time. Mumbai’s Mayor Kishori Pednekar has responded to criticism with a helpless exhortation to the city administration to remove dangerous structures. Going beyond these predictable impulses, the overburdened city needs a time-bound and accountable system of ensuring the safety of its housing stock. Coinciding with this year’s monsoon, the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority identified 21 structures in Mumbai as being extremely dangerous, with an advisory to over 700 occupants to move to transit accommodation, while reconstruction is undertaken. Understandably, the occupants are reluctant, since the alternative housing is far away from their education and work locations. This is a conundrum that Maharashtra will have to address, treating it as a crisis that will only be aggravated by changes to monsoon rainfall intensity over time.

Coastal Maharashtra sits in the pathway of extreme monsoon weather events, which are forecast to increase in frequency due to ongoing warming of the Arabian Sea. Scientists including those of the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology have proposed, in the context of the deluge a few years ago, that accurate monsoon forecasting over central India, incorporating changes to sea surface temperature, would help governments prepare better to save lives and agriculture. For Mumbai, what this means is to accelerate its repair and rehabilitation programme for weak structures and replace those that cannot be salvaged. The city desperately needs channels for huge volumes of water to flow out, and a plan to create new urban wetlands where feasible to store the precipitation. A rejuvenated Mithi river — its planned clean-up has been delayed by the COVID-19 crisis — could offer some relief, but more waterbodies are needed. And it will take a mass housing programme to make life safer for the thousands in hovels. A far-sighted plan to shift people from squalid buildings to modern ones is also a health imperative; such a start must be made with the most dangerous structures. It is also unseemly for political parties to use a disaster such as the one in Malad as a cudgel against the government, considering that Mumbai’s civic base lies neglected over the decades regardless of who ruled.

Measuring excess deaths is the best possible way to estimate the count of COVID-19 deaths

The real time mortality impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is an important statistical measure to guide policy responses. But measuring the actual count is not an easy task. WHO, in January 2021, had estimated, based on excess deaths data in Europe and the American continents, that actual deaths were at least 1.6 times over the official count. The problem of under-counting, even in mature public health systems across the developed world, is largely because patients who die due to cardiovascular issues among others even after apparent recovery from COVID-19 are sometimes not tracked and registered as COVID-19-related deaths. This is why even in Kerala — with 100% registration of deaths and a relatively low case fatality rate — following criticisms about the methodology to evaluate whether a death was related to COVID-19, the health administration in the districts, rather than a State-level audit committee, will now audit deaths. But there is another class of under-counting across States, where health bulletins mislead by reporting a lower number of cases and deaths. This is the case with Bihar where the reported toll was suddenly increased by 72% following a Health Department review after the Patna High Court found discrepancies in figures cited by different agencies in Buxar district. Bihar is among the States in India with the lowest civil registration of deaths, with barely 34.1% of the dead being registered, according to the Civil Registration System (CRS) report of 2018. Estimations of the actual count of the dead are difficult to obtain in other States such as Uttar Pradesh as well, where public health systems are poor and neither the infections nor deaths have been effectively tracked, especially in rural areas, where many have died outside of hospitals.

One method to assess the actual number of deaths due to COVID-19 is by calculating the excess deaths during the given period when the pandemic has raged, compared to the baseline mortality occurring in similar time frames before the pandemic. This exercise also works best if death registrations are relatively high, which should be possible in most districts as registration of deaths has improved to 76% according to CRS 2018. Excess deaths analyses in Gujarat, Chennai and Kolkata based on collations of preliminary registration data by news organisations suggest that they were nearly 10, five and seven times higher, respectively, than reported fatalities during the second wave. If the CRS datasets, maintained by the Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India besides State registrars and municipal officials with a good quality of registration, are made available, it would enable better estimation of the actual mortality figures. In the meantime, only honest reporting of the deaths will help provide better mitigation strategies.