Editorials - 19-06-2021

Viewan in Kashmir has become the first village in India to vaccinate all its people with the first dose against COVID-19. Peerzada Ashiq reports on the challenges faced by officials in turning a reluctant village in a remote area into a role model for the country

A 3-km dirt track from Bandipora town allows vehicles passage to the whooshing Madhumati stream at Athwatoo village near the foothills of the Himalayas. The stream is noisy and in full flow — the glaciers nearby are melting fast under the warmth of the June sun in north Kashmir.

Across the stream, there are multiple narrow pony tracks on steep slopes. They lead to Viewan village, about 35 km away from the Bandipora district headquarters. On foot from Athwatoo, Viewan’s last house is 11 km away. From here, the glaciers feeding the stream suddenly become visible and look like shimmering mirrors.

On the pony tracks, human habitation is visible first in Tangtari after 3 km of trekking. This cluster of 12 families is in the lower flank of Viewan village.

About 2 km away, Taziyat Jan and her daughter Naziya Jan sit in a two-storey mud-and-wood house buttressed against a slope in the midst of a dense forest. In this village — quaint, inaccessible and quiet — Taziyat has received her first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. “I had heard a lot of negative things about the vaccine. I was hesitant at first, but doctors counselled us and motivated us to take it. They said the vaccination certificates are going to be an important document to move around and visit offices. So, I agreed,” she says.

Viewan shot into the limelight on June 7 when it was declared India’s first vaccinated village against COVID-19. Everyone aged 18 and above has received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. This glory has led to a big push for a pro-vaccine movement in Kashmir.

A remote village

There are 710 adults — 348 of them aged above 45 years and 362 above 18 years — in and around Viewan village. Unlike the rest of the country, where fear of the virus prevails and lockdowns are still in effect, the local farmers and herders in the village have resumed a normal routine with some confidence.

Nawab Gojri, Taziyat’s husband, got vaccinated in the first week of June. He then left on an arduous journey to G.G. Gali along with his cattle comprising 500 sheep. The upper reaches have untouched, green meadows where the cattle enjoy grazing. Back home, a ferocious dog keeps watch against any attack by bears.

“I had fever and dizziness after getting vaccinated, but it subsided quickly. My husband and I feel fine now. I am worried for my daughter who has suffered from a foot disease since childhood. The treatment is expensive, and we have dropped the idea of visiting any hospital,” Taziyat says.

Taziyat, like most inhabitants of Viewan, does not possess a radio, television or mobile phone. Only a few villagers have radio sets and trek to points where they can catch a signal. With no communication access, information about the virus trickled in through a few locals like Rafiq Rehman. A farmer in his 30s, Rafiq knew that something terrible was unfolding in the plains throughout the year and people were dying. “I first heard about the pandemic on the radio in March,” Rehman says. Rehman and his family decided then that they would not venture towards the town.

Taziyat first came to know about the virus when doctors started streaming into the village in the last week of May. “Doctors told me that there is this disease which can kill us. They said if a person contracts it, the whole village can be wiped out. But Allah will take care of us now. We had no case of COVID-19 last year or this year,” Taziyat says.

The topography of Viewan village may have helped it to escape the fast-spreading pandemic in Bandipora district. It is a small village, remote, and landlocked. But for the same reasons, it has been a daunting task for the officials to vaccinate its population.

Shedding the Wuhan tag

Bandipora district has a population of 3.92 lakh, according to the 2011 Census. Ninety-eight people have died of COVID-19 in the district so far. Thirty-six of them died in the second wave this year among the 4,338 people who tested positive until June 15.

The Deputy Commissioner of Bandipora, Dr Owais Ahmad, believes in aggressive sampling. This is what has helped keep the mortality rate low in this district. At least 2,44,215 samples, including 1,33,152 this year, have been collected since the pandemic outbreak. The sample size is equal to 62.2% of the total population of the district.

“Around 90% of the 45-plus age group has been covered so far.Extensive sampling, isolation of positive patients and strict preventive measures have all helped the district control the spread of the virus,” Ahmad says. The district administration also worked on setting up a five-bed COVID-19 Care Centre in every panchayat.

Last year, though, things were different for the district. Bandipora was labelled the ‘Wuhan of Kashmir’ when about 90% of the population in Gund Jahangir village, which has 1,500 people, tested positive for the virus in May-June.

“I still remember when the houses in Gund Jahangir village emptied out and most of the people were shifted to quarantine centres last year. We dreaded walking through the streets and fields of Gund Jahangir,” says Dr Masarat Iqbal Wani, Block Medical Officer, Bandipora.

Wani, backed by Ahmad, was keen to not only get rid of this label but also beat the virus. The team began to work on a model, now known as the Viewan model, to battle the pandemic. The thrust, Wani says, was to create a chain of resource persons who could dispel the various myths about the vaccine, develop a rapport with the hesitant population, and convey the importance of vaccination before convincing the people to take the jab.

“We chose Viewan among 29 other remote villages of Bandipora because even if a single COVID-19-affected person made his or her entry into these pockets, it would have been catastrophic. It would have been very difficult for the affected population to reach the nearest medical centres in the plains. Vaccinating them was like creating a buffer wall, which we did,” Wani says.

All 267 villagers in the main cluster of Viewan village have been vaccinated with Covishield. In the other28 villages, the 45-plus population has been inoculated with one dose.

The Viewan model

The officials decided to first sensitise the population. They chose locals to influence the villagers, initiated vaccination drives, and sent a dedicated team of medical practitioners door-to-door for inoculation. Doctors were stationed nearby to address medical complications arising from vaccination.

Around 600 people of the Bandipora health department split into 60 teams to vaccinate the population. The population aged 45 and above is nearing 100% inoculation this week. The pace of the drive for people aged 18 and above has slowed down due to a low stock of vaccines.

It was one such team comprising doctors, one auxiliary nurse midwife, an accredited social health activist worker, an anganwadi worker, a booth-level officer, teachers, sarpanchs, panchs, block development council members and voluntary influencers that visited Viewan on May 21 with a narrative and a method.

“There was hesitancy among the population regarding the vaccine. They had heard that some scientisthad warned that people will die within two years of taking the vaccine,” says Wani. Many men hid in the jungles to escape getting vaccinated. “We managed to vaccinate only six people in the village, including the sarpanch, on our first trip,” he says.

Bagh Hussain, the sarpanch, says he could not sleep the night after inoculation. “We had heard that our limbs would fall off, we would die, etc. I was traumatised by these thoughts. But I realised that I need to show faith in the doctors to ensure that my community is safe from the virus,” he says.

For the next 10 days after the first visit, the team did not disturb the village. It was in the first week of June that the team returned with more evidence. All the doctors and paramedical staff carried videos of people being vaccinated to earn the trust of the villagers. “Once we were back in the village, we called all the six people who had been vaccinated 10 days earlier to tell us how they feel. The live demonstration worked for the rest of the population,” Wani says.

The team had another problem: all the elders in the village would either go to the fields or the upper reaches to graze cattle during the day. “So, we decided to do door-to-door vaccination at night. The sarpanch, who was vaccinated in the first trip, accompanied us to ensure that there was no communication gap,” Wani says.

The vaccination drive would start after sundown and continue well into midnight. As there was no accommodation available in this remote village, the female staff of the health department stayed with the families, and the male staff stayed at the Viewan high school building. The building has been empty since the second wave hit India: all the 80-odd students enrolled there are at home. The entire population was vaccinated within three days and two nights.

Recalling the tour of the village, Jehangeer Ahmad, who is in his 20s, says he started trekking around 8 a.m. and reached the village around 12:30 p.m. It was not easy to develop a connection with the villagers immediately.

“We started a free medical camp once we reached the village. People started trooping in. Most women were anaemic. We addressed their chronic diseases. At the same time, we made them understand that vaccine certificates would help people access government offices in the future besides saving their lives,” Ahmad says.

Neelofar Jan, 30, a public health worker who vaccinated the villagers, has blisters from the arduous trek but that did not deter her from raising awareness about the vaccines. She says the women were very hesitant.

“We sat with them and educated them by providing a lot of details. We gave them a patient hearing. The biggest concern among women was infertility. We told them that this vaccine was like other vaccines which they had received as children to fight polio and measles. We told them that it is an immunity booster. Some people shut their doors but then, slowly, everyone started opening their doors to us,” Jan says.

The task of sensitising the population was not possible without a local influencer. Azad Hussain Sheikh, a government teacher who has worked as a booth-level officer during elections since 2008, had developed a rapport with the population. “I have visited Viewan many times. People know me and have faith in me. I used that influence to reinforce a pro-vaccine narrative. It worked,” Sheikh says.

Only 10 pregnant women could not be vaccinated in Viewan as the government has not yet approved of a policy to inoculate this segment. “When we vaccinated the entire eligible population of the village, we did not know that it would be the first village in the country to get this tag. We are very happy to achieve this feat. It was a joint effort between the top officials of the administration and grassroots representatives,” Ahmad says.

Since the village has no Internet, there was no way the team could register the details online. Details were written manually on a file at the spot. “Three days later, when the staff returned, the data were fed into the application for an official record,” Wani says.

A pro-vaccine movement

The focus on Viewan has spurred a pro-vaccine movement in Bandipora district. Majaz Hassan Khan, a candidate from Banakoot who lost the block development council polls, says he used the technique deployed during electioneering in his block to get people vaccinated. “I went door-to-door and pleaded with the people to get vaccinated, just like I would do to seek votes. When a medical team is backed by the political class in such initiatives, it does multiply the effect,” Khan says.

The Viewan model is being replicated across Bandipora. Health workers have drafted elaborate plans to go and inoculate people at night in far-off villages like Kundara, Chandaji and Sumlar where menfolk work in the fields during the day or take cattle for grazing.

“Late evening and midnight inoculations have proved successful in far-off villages. We need to design our vaccination plan according to the requirement of the population. Each village, semi-urban and urban pocket may require a different approach,” Wani says.

About 27 km away from Wani’s hospital at the district headquarters,shikaras(small wooden boats) are decked up, with blue boxes of vaccines placed safely at one end. Wearing personal protection equipment, doctors and paramedical staff have decided to create a vaccine buffer in and around Wular lake, India’s third largest freshwater lake.

At Kolhama, an island in the lake, doctors took samples to check if the population has been affected by the virus. After this examination, healthcare workers started vaccinating about 2,400 people. In another cluster of Zurimanz, 250 fishermen were vaccinated when they were out fishing in the lake during the day.

Bandipora’s influencers, like kick-boxing champion Tajamul Islam, 13, are also out on the streets to encourage those above 18 to line up for vaccination. “We can only defeat the virus by getting a jab,” Islam says.

The Viewan model has impressed the Bombay High Court too. On June 12, while hearing a petition, the court underlined the need to look at the door-to-door vaccination programme carried out successfully by Jammu and Kashmir and Kerala, with special reference to the country’s first village that has got vaccinated. “How is it that individual States like Kerala and Jammu and Kashmir have introduced and are successfully doing door-to-door vaccination? What is the Centre’s comment on the Kerala and Jammu and Kashmir pattern?” the Bench asked.

Unaware of the glory, Taziyat keeps looking at the sky-touching ridges of the Bandipora mountains where her vaccinated husband has gone to graze the cattle. “I am waiting for him to return safely with healthy cattle. We need to earn money to treat our daughter. I hope everyone gets vaccinated and the pandemic ends,” she says.

Policy approaches must strike a balance between the achievement of health goals and exigencies of supply constraints

Vaccines have proven to be effective against the SARS-CoV-2 virus in preventing serious illness and death. In an article published inNature Medicineon June 9, an analysis of data from the United Kingdom, gathered between December 1, 2020 and April 30, 2021 when the alpha variant was predominant, showed that the AstraZeneca vaccine had an effectiveness of 64% after one dose and 79% after two doses, in protecting against severe illness and death. In the same article ((https://go.nature.com/3zBxR8x), the authors also found that a previous infection with SARS-CoV-2 had a significant protective effect against re-infection.

Vaccine data

On June 14, Public Health England released a report that showed that the AstraZeneca vaccine had an effectiveness of 71% after one dose and 92% after two doses in protecting from hospitalisation due to the delta variant (https://bit.ly/2S9kk7j). In the first report of vaccine effectiveness from India, researchers from the Christian Medical College, Vellore, Tamil Nadu, reported an analysis of 8,991 staff who had been vaccinated between January 21, 2021 and April 30, 2021, predominantly with Covishield, in theMayo Clinic Proceedings(https://bit.ly/3qeCEsb). The protective effect of vaccination was 92% against need for oxygen and 94% against need for intensive care. There were no deaths, but about 10% of those who had received one or two doses were infected. Although sequencing was not available, many breakthrough infections were probably due to the delta variant strain. These data from the United Kingdom and India show that the Covishield vaccine is working against the variants.

More detailed studies on whether the vaccines are continuing to work, if yes, for how long, or against new variants, will continue to be needed. We also need to consider what we expect from vaccines at different stages of the pandemic. At the level of the individual, we expect vaccines to be safe and provide protection from disease and death at least, and preferably also from mild disease and infection. From the point of view of public health, we expect vaccines to decrease the burden of illness and spread of infection. For society, however, beyond the needs of public health, the ability to go back to productivity and social interactions also matters. These different needs require policy approaches that balance the achievement of health and societal goals with the potential impact, and the exigencies of supply constraints.

In a time of urgent need and short supply, a clear and measurable goal is essential. The prioritisation and delivery strategy needs to align with the goal to achieve maximum impact. We have been somewhat confused about the goal, with early announcements of vaccinating 300 million people being replaced by all adults. With the increase in highly transmissible variants, it is clear that to both prevent disease and slow spread, we will need to cover a larger proportion of the population, possibly extending at a later stage to children.

On herd immunity

When vaccines seemed to be somewhere in the future with no predictability on timing or supply, discussions on the pandemic focused on ‘herd immunity’ or the percentage of the population that needed to be infected or vaccinated in order to slow the spread of infection. The Swedish strategy of limited restrictions and the Great Barrington declaration (https://gbdeclaration.org/)attracted much opprobrium as many scientific commentators considered it callous to follow a strategy which meant that a lot of people would get infected with the virus. Herd immunity or herd effect or herd protection is an often misunderstood term, but a key attribute is that the more transmissible the agent, the higher the level of the population that needs to be infected or vaccinated. With the delta variant, it is clear that the earlier plan to vaccinate a smaller proportion of the population is not appropriate and reaching up to 85% of the population might be necessary. This implies that not only will we have to consider all adults but we should be planning for children as well.

Long- and short-term goals

The control of infection in the population is the long-term goal. The short-term goal is to protect individuals at highest risk and to save lives. The deaths from COVID-19 show clearly that those who are the oldest are at the greatest risk of severe disease and mortality, with distinct stratification of severity by age, followed by those with comorbidities such as diabetes mellitus and hypertension. Yet, the risk of severe disease and death among younger people, though low, is not zero and therefore when large numbers of young people get infected some of them will die even with the best medical management. Nonetheless, the goal of preventing the maximum number of severe cases and deaths clearly requires an age descending approach.

This was indeed the strategy that was initially implemented in India, but the opening of the age tiers has not kept pace with the supply. The Government has not revealed a clear road map of availability of vaccines and their supply to individual States. This has highlighted the reluctance by the Government of India to reveal information which would help in formulating a predictable delivery mechanism that could be communicated to citizens. Coupled with the anti-science statements made by those seen as close to the Government, this has led to a situation where the public is confused as to how best to cope with the novel coronavirus pandemic. With the promise of vaccines as at least a partial solution, but with no certainty on availability, doubt, fear, anxiety and depression are widespread.

To move forward, we must accept that it is extremely unlikely that we will achieve the goal of vaccinating every adult by the end of 2021. Therefore, based on the principles of public health, we must vaccinate those most at risk from serious illness and death first. Based on population pyramid data, we can extrapolate that there are about 360 million above the age of 45 years. Even though recent data from the United Kingdom with the delta variant indicates a slightly lower effectiveness against severe disease requiring hospitalisation with a single dose (71% with one dose and 92% with two doses), the high rates of previous exposures in India may make it feasible to immunise a large part of our population with a single dose, at least initially (https://bit.ly/35vIjAG).

Rural focus

The final prioritisation and approach should be modelled before policy is made and implemented, but for delivery, a rural focus is key. We must take the vaccine to every village, building on the experiences of the pulse polio programme and conducting elections. Community leaders should be empowered with information and tools to broadcast the message that the vaccine saves lives. The central government has centralised vaccine purchase but must revisit the private sector allocation and cede distribution to States, providing support when requested. The CoWIN app must not be a limiting factor on access to the vaccine.

Evidence, models, good data

As more vaccines become available the vaccination policy must be adapted quickly to changing circumstances. We must generate evidence and develop models to design the appropriate vaccination strategy for younger populations. If cases are climbing in a particular region, we should direct vaccine doses there to protect as much of the population as possible and decrease both disease and further spread. High vaccination coverage in cities may protect rural areas. Some professions are most likely to spread infection and should therefore be prioritised for vaccination.

Finally, the Government must trust its citizens and share the information that is solely available to it. A notable aspect of the pandemic is the absence of credible data from the government. This has led to speculative ideas based on poor or poorly understood information and misinformation. The management of the pandemic has been severely impacted by this lack of granular, interpretable, actionable data. We need to restore society to normalcy. Good data, or the ability to measure what matters, is the key.

Dr. George Thomas is the former editor of ‘The Indian Journal of Medical Ethics’,

Dr. Gagandeep Kang is Professor, Wellcome Trust Research Laboratory at the Christian Medical College, Vellore; Dr. Jayaprakash Muliyil is former Principal of the Christian Medical College, Vellore

A delay in the provision of marriage rights to same-sex couples would fall foul of constitutional guarantees, judgments

Last month, when the cases surrounding the question of same-sex marriages came up before the High Court of Delhi, the Union Government was found to be dithering. The Solicitor General of India made himself available only to request the court to have the matter adjourned on the ground that it was not urgent. Though the Union Government argued that the matter was not important in the context of the second wave of COVID-19 cases, it overlooked the basic notion that the plight of persons in same-sex and queer relationships looking after each other — without the legal protection of marital relationships — was exacerbated by the pandemic. In any case, it is a matter of some concern that the Union Government does not find urgency in a matter of extending civil rights to a class of persons who have approached a constitutional court.

Nevertheless, given the march of law — both international and domestic — in the direction of expanding human rights, jurisprudence necessarily means that the provision of marriage rights to same-sex and queer couples is only a matter of time. Any further delay in doing so would fall foul of our constitutional guarantees, judgments rendered by various High Courts and evolving international jurisprudence.

The last two decades have witnessed tremendous progress in establishing civil rights for the LGBTQIA+ community.

International jurisprudence

In 2005, the Constitutional Court of South Africa in the case ofMinister of Home Affairs and Another vs Fourie and Another;Lesbian and Gay Equality Project and Eighteen Others vs Minister of Home Affairs and Others[2005] ZACC 19, unanimously held that the common law definition of marriage i.e. “a union of one man with one woman” was inconsistent with the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996. Consequently, the Parliament of South Africa was given 12 months to amend the Marriage Act 25 of 1961, failing which the Marriage Act would stand amended, by virtue of the decision of the Constitutional Court, to include the words “or spouse” after the words “or husband”. As a result of the verdict, the Civil Union Act, 2006 was enacted, enabling the voluntary union of two persons above 18 years of age, by way of marriage.

In 2007 in Australia, the reforms to civil rights of queer community were prompted by the Honourable Michael Kirby (then judge of the High Court of Australia) writing to the Attorney-General of Australia asking for the judicial pension scheme to be extended to his gay partner of 38 years (at that time). After initial opposition from the Federal Government, the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws – General Law Reform) Act 2008 came to be enacted to provide provide equal entitlements for same-sex couples in matters of,inter alia, social security, employment and taxation. Similarly, in England and Wales, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 enabled same-sex couples to marry in civil ceremonies or with religious rites.

More recently, in 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States decided that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples. The case ofObergefell vs Hodgesushered in a landmark shift in the American position and allowing same-sex marriages to be recognised and treated on a par with opposite-sex marriages. While doing so, the Supreme Court of the United States held the denial of marriage rights to same-sex couples to be a “grave and continuing harm, serving to disrespect and subordinate gays and lesbians”. Across the world, the recognition of the unequal laws discriminating against the LGBTQIA+ community has acted as a trigger to reform and modernise legal architecture to become more inclusive and equal.

Courts and civil rights

In India, marriages solemnised under personal laws such as the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, Indian Christian Marriage Act, 1872, Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937 and so on. At present, though same-sex and queer marriages are not clearly recognised in India, we are not bereft of judicial guidance. In the case ofArunkumarand Sreeja vs The Inspector General of Registration and Ors.[W.P.(MD)No. 4125 of 2019 & W.P.(MD)No. 3220 of 2019], the Madurai Bench of the High Court of Madras employed a beneficial and purposive interpretation holding that the term ‘bride’ under the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 includes transwomen and intersex persons identifying as women. Therefore, a marriage solemnised between a male and a transwoman, both professing the Hindu religion, is deemed to be a valid marriage under the Act. The import of this judgment cannot be overstated as it expands the scope of a term used in the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 in a progressive manner and sets the stage for re-imagining marriage rights of the LGBTQIA+ community.

The judgment of the Madras High Court builds on the tenets laid down by the Supreme Court of India inShafin Jahan vs Asokan K.M. and OthersAIR 2018 SC 1933 (Hadiya case), wherein the right to choose and marry a partner was considered to be a constitutionally guaranteed freedom. By doing so, the Supreme Court held that the “intimacies of marriage lie within a core zone of privacy, which is inviolable” and that “society has no role to play in determining our choice of partners”.

The only logical interpretation from reading these cases together, it is apparent that any legal or statutory bar to same-sex and queer marriages must necessarily be held to be unconstitutional and specifically violative of Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution of India. No longer can the position of the Union Government that marriage is a bond between “a biological man and a biological woman” be tenable.

Expanding scope of marriage

The domain of marriages, including religious marriages, cannot be immune to reform and review. Self-respect marriages were legalised in Tamil Nadu (and subsequently, in Puducherry) through amendments to the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955. Self-respect marriages, commonly conducted among those who are part of the Dravidian Movement, have done away with priests and religious symbols such as fire orsaptapadi. Instead, solemnisation of self-respect marriages only requires an exchange of rings or garlands or tying of themangalsutra. Such reform of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 to bring self-respect marriages under its very umbrella, is seen as a strong move towards breaking caste-based practices within the institution of marriage.

Similarly, understanding the needs of the LGBTQIA+ community today, the law must now expand the institution of marriage to include all gender and sexual identities. At least 29 countries in the world have legalised same-sex marriage. It is time that India thinks beyond the binary and reviews its existing legal architecture in order to legalise marriages irrespective of gender identity and sexual orientation.

Manuraj Shunmugasundaram is Spokesperson, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Advocate, High Court of Madras. Inputs from Vadhana Bhaskar, advocate

The unprecedented Class 12 evaluation system must be an open book to inspire confidence

With its marks tabulation framework for Class 12 students encompassing three assessment years starting with Class 10, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has ended prolonged anxiety among lakhs of students. The Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE) has also developed a similar system. Student evaluation after a chaotic pandemic year remains a challenge in all countries, and many have opted for a hybrid system of school-level internal assessments combined with any examinations that may have been held. The CBSE scheme, evolved to fulfil a Supreme Court mandate, distributes score weightage across the Class 10 public examination, the Class 11 annual test, and the Class 12 school tests in a 30:30:40 ratio for theory, and actual score for internal assessment and practicals. This aims to level out any aberrant phase in a student’s performance. Since the marks considered from Class 10 will be the average of the best three subjects among five, students must feel reassured. When they wrote that examination, they had no inkling of the future importance of the score. A provision to take a Class 12 public examination at a later date to attain a higher score when the pandemic has waned should also have a calming effect. Evidently, there are some challenges to uniformly implementing the CBSE plan, and its success hinges on the approach of school result committees responsible for inclusion of Class 12 marks. Uneven access to devices and online connectivity in the final school year, with an impact on scores or even resulting in non-appearance must be resolved by the result committees.

Successful conclusion of Class 12 assessment, which lacks the standardisation available in a public examination, and declaration of results by July 31 depend on result committees marking the theory segment transparently and moderating marks for the senior secondary years based on the school’s performance over a period of time. There is then the issue of fraud. Even in the U.K., reports indicate influential parents brought pressure on schools to give their wards an unfair hike in grades in a similar mixed evaluation system, with veiled threats of legal disputes. For fairness, CBSE mandates the participation of external members on the result committees, but it will take utmost openness to dispel students’ apprehensions. State Boards waiting for the central model for comparison also need to draw up safeguards, including a dependable dispute resolution process. Education boards were caught unawares last year by the pandemic and could not evolve suitable evaluation tools. Unfortunately, the course of the pandemic remains uncertain, and developing a continuous assessment system for 2021-22 and beyond has become a necessity. The CBSE has taken the lead on this, and State Boards must not lose time in forming their own.

The U.S., Russia must reset their relationship to pragmatic levels and reduce tensions

The Geneva summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, on Wednesday, has set a pragmatic tone for engagement between the two competing powers. Mr. Biden had, in the past, called Mr. Putin “a killer”. Relations have hit the lowest point in recent years since the end of the Cold War. The U.S. has accused Russia of interfering in its elections and launching cyberattacks and criticised its stifling of internal dissent, while Moscow has slammed America’s “interventionist” foreign policy. Despite these differences, the leaders held talks on all critical issues, bringing diplomacy to the centre-stage. After the summit, they have struck cautious optimism that is rooted in self-interest. Mr. Biden sought a more predictable, rational engagement, while Mr. Putin said relations were “primarily pragmatic”. They have decided to return their Ambassadors to the Embassies and announced “a strategic stability dialogue” to discuss terms of arms control measures. While there was no major breakthrough, which was not expected anyway, they could at least demonstrate a willingness to strengthen engagement and reduce tensions.

There are structural issues in the U.S.-Russia ties. When Russia ended its post-Soviet strategic retreat and adopted a more assertive foreign policy under Mr. Putin, partly in response to NATO expansion into eastern Europe, the West saw it as a threat to its primacy. The 2008 Georgia war practically ended the romance between “democratic Russia” and the West. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 renewed tensions. Russia was thrown out of the G8, and western sanctions followed. But such steps did not deter Mr. Putin. Ties hit rock bottom after allegations that Russian intelligence units had carried out cyberattacks and run an online campaign to get Donald Trump elected President in the 2016 U.S. election. Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin cannot resolve these geopolitical and bilateral issues in one summit. But they can certainly take measures to prevent relations from worsening. For the U.S., the cyberattacks are a red line. Russia, which had amassed troops on the Ukraine border earlier this year, sees NATO’s expansion into its border region as a threat. Both countries should be ready to address their critical concerns and agree to a cold peace, which would help in addressing other geopolitical problems such as Syria. The U.S. should be less pessimistic about Russia’s foreign policy goals. Whether the Americans like it or not, Russia, despite its weakened economic status, remains a great power. Mr. Putin should also realise that if his goal is to restore Russia’s lost glory in global politics, he should be ready to cooperate with the West. Permanent hostility with other powers cannot be of much help to Russia.