Editorials - 13-05-2021

The novel coronavirus crisis has fully revealed the price to be paid in the neglect of education and health

A speeding autorickshaw driver once told me that slowing down might not be very useful to avoid an accident. He was responding to my unease, sitting behind him, feeling helpless about the consequence I might have to face on account of his reckless manoeuvres, especially at turns and roundabouts. He agreed to slow down because I asked him to, but he was not convinced that it would help avoid an accident. I was intrigued to hear this view and asked him to elaborate. He said that if another vehicle was going to collide with him in the coming few minutes, speeding might save you from that collision. The collision itself was a matter of destiny, not chance, for him and his logic was based on that perception. He wanted to persuade me to realise that an accident is something inevitable. When it is to happen, it will happen. Therefore, slowing down might invite it as much as speeding would.

In academic parlance, this kind of logic has long been regarded as an expression of fatalism. This label does not allow nuances to be recognised in what is a broad framework for making sense of human life and its encounters with sudden changes, especially tragedies. Recalling this autorickshaw driver’s logic has helped me to make sense of arguments given in the context of diseases such as malaria and typhoid. When it comes to malaria, whether you get it or not depends on your ability to avoid being bitten by a mosquito. Of course not every mosquito, and not every bite, can cause malaria, but avoiding the proliferation of mosquitoes does prevent the chances of being infected by the parasite that causes malaria, carried by mosquitoes. Malarial mosquitoes breed in stagnant water, and that is where the imperative of avoidance begins.

Logic of avoidance

For many decades now, schoolchildren have scored marks by giving the correct answer to the question, ‘How can mosquitoes be stopped from breeding in our neighbourhoods?’ It is a rare school that gives children a task of going around noticing stagnant puddles formed during the rainy season containing visible mosquito larvae. The standard textbook line of action is to spread kerosene on stagnant water. That is what municipal workers supposedly do, and that is what is taught in the lesson on the services that municipalities provide.

As the pedagogic calendar goes, once a lesson has been delivered and the test based on it taken, there is no reason to recall its content in the later parts of the year, except for the final examination. So, if malaria, dengue and chikungunya persist during the long autumn and winter months, it is unlikely that a teacher will relate them to the lesson taught earlier on mosquito prevention. Thus, while mosquitoes are avoidable, the diseases they cause take on an inevitable character, quite different from the inevitability that my autorickshaw driver was associating with an impending accident.

Before the advent of antibiotics, typhoid fever and jaundice were life-threatening, and especially in the case of children. Doctors knew that it was possible to prevent both these diseases by avoiding contaminated water. And this could be done by boiling drinking water. But more usually, boiling of water only started after someone had been diagnosed as suffering from typhoid, or from jaundice. In any case, boiling was cumbersome and expensive. Along with antibiotics, water purifying devices and bottled water have distanced us from the grim experiences associated with water-borne diseases prevalent before the 1970s. Common diarrhoea is still a threat to the life and health of babies. Instead of preventing it by ensuring the supply of clean water in all geographical locations, India as a nation has ended up addressing the problem of drinking water by popularising personalised devices.

No public systems

The absence of public systems has proved costly both in health and in education. The teaching of science from the primary levels was a major policy initiative taken in the early decades of Independence through which the welfare state hoped to create general awareness on crucial matters of disease prevention and health. But the teaching of science is more than talking about science and telling students what ought to be done. In the case of boiling water, for example, it is hardly enough to say that high temperatures kill microbes. To achieve the belief that it actually does, one needs to see microbes with one’s own eyes.

For an overwhelming majority of children, our system of education fails to provide them this kind of experience, even at the higher secondary level. The idea that boiling purifies water remains a matter of giving the correct answer in the examination, rather than a belief based on evidence seen through a microscope. This can hardly be described as a failure of education, because the seed of a capable public system was never sown, and, therefore, we could hardly expect a harvest. The novel coronavirus crisis has fully revealed the price that the neglect of education and health has wreaked.

COVID compulsion

Just this week I had the opportunity to talk to a city-based rickshaw puller who had booked a seat in a private bus which would take him to his native village in Uttar Pradesh. When I asked him why he was going, he gave me the obvious answer I had expected, referring to the sheer inadequacy of income to sustain himself in the city. But then he mentioned another reason why he had to go urgently, and this had to do with a wedding in the village. He had to attend it, he said, otherwise his relatives would feel upset with him. It did not help our conversation when I alluded to the risk of him contracting the novel coronavirus while travelling in a bus and later attending a wedding ceremony.

He was not particularly interested in my concern that he must take every precaution, and especially make sure that he did not remove his mask during the journey and during the wedding ceremony. His response to my concern for his well-being reminded me of what the autorickshaw driver had said many years ago, namely, that the inevitable cannot be avoided. In this case, the inevitable was hardly a matter of fate. In fact, it is the wedding that was inevitable and therefore unavoidable, even if it posed the risk of getting sick.

My interlocutor also shared with me the feeling that the pandemic is mainly in the big cities and that villages are free of it. Apparently, despite being on WhatsApp, he had not heard about the surge currently being witnessed across rural parts of northern India. But the most interesting part of this conversation had to do with the mask. If the mask, a bit like boiling water, prevents an invisible microbe from entering the human body, it is a matter of faith for someone who has no idea of the world of invisible pathogens.

The mask and the citizen

We may wonder why several western countries, where education is supposedly better, also failed to convince their citizens to wear masks. This argument is based on a positive stereotype of the West. Looking more closely at different countries that comprise the West, one noticed sharply differentiated levels of the quality of their school science. Over the last half century, some of the richest countries have allowed science at school to decline. India’s education system, which was already impoverished, suffered severe cutbacks under the repeated waves of lopsided economic reforms. New norms of public financing have undermined science teaching, robbing ordinary citizens of the intellectual resources they might have acquired during childhood.

But science teaching alone cannot create miracles. For science to mean anything, a rational social environment is needed. Moreover, for science to acquire meaning during school life, it is important that children grow up in an ethos where dissent and debate are encouraged. It is obvious that the benefits of science and its teaching do not accrue when the democratic order, and the institutions on which it is based, are not in good health.

Krishna Kumar is a former director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training and the author of ‘Education, Conflict and Peace’

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of expanding social security nets

Pinki is a 28-year-old Dalit woman from Saharanpur, U.P. Her husband met with an accident during the national lockdown in April 2020. The two of them had to sell all their belongings for his treatment and subsequently became dependent on her parents. Such avoidable miseries were heaped on millions due to the unilateral national lockdown in 2020. The monthly report from the Finance Ministry in October stated, “From a trickle in not so distant past to now a sea of humanity coming out on the streets, the people of India have embraced the new normal where self-protection is inseparable from economic activity.” It attempts to poetically celebrate the spirit of resilience among the people by alluding to “self-protection” by shying away from the government’s responsibility of social protection. The experience for the poor is a kind of syndemic: a juxtaposition of the healthcare crisis due to the pandemic and the daily precarity of having to deal with hunger and uncertainty about livelihoods.

The rural-urban divide

As per the State of Working India report 2021 of Azim Premji University, nearly half of formal salaried workers moved into informal work between late 2019 and late 2020 and the poorest 20% of the households lost their entire incomes in April and May 2020. Considering the modest national minimum wage threshold of Rs. 375 per day (the Anoop Satpathy Committee), 23 crore individuals have been pushed below these minimal earnings. Poverty rates in rural areas have increased by 15 percentage points (pp) and by 20 pp in urban areas.

A worse impact on the urban poor was also observed in other surveys. For instance, many organisations affiliated with the Right to Food campaign and the Centre for Equity Studies, under the banner ‘Hunger Watch’ (HW), conducted a survey of nearly 4,000 households in 11 States in October 2020. The respondents were equally split between rural and urban. The survey focussed on understanding the hunger and livelihood situation among marginalised communities such as daily wage workers, single women households, people with disability, etc. The differential impact on rural and urban populations came across in this as well. Incomes reduced by half/quarter for more than half the urban respondents while it was a little over one-third for rural respondents. In October, in rural areas, 26% had no income while 30% had no income in urban areas. For only one in five rural respondents, the nutritional quality of food remained “more or less the same” in October compared to pre-pandemic levels. This was doubly worse for urban respondents. While 54% in urban areas had to borrow money for food, it was 16% lower for rural respondents. Nearly two-thirds of the urban respondents had to skip a meal while it was lower (41%) for rural respondents. Urban respondents experienced at least 12 pp more reduction in consumption of grains and pulses compared to rural. In summary, across 13 key parameters, urban respondents were 15 pp worse off compared to their rural counterparts. The conditions are worse when data are spliced by caste, religion and other special forms of vulnerability. For instance, 60% of Muslims, 51% of Dalits, 58% of older persons without caregivers and 56% of single women-headed households went to bed without a meal at least once. This pattern holds true across other parameters too. The number of respondents in each of these categories varies so they are not strictly comparable. However, the uniformity of these numbers across surveys indicates the disproportionate impact faced by some of these more vulnerable communities.

Two important laws

Under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 75% of the rural population and 50% of the urban population are entitled to 5 kg of foodgrains each month at subsidised prices. Despite well-known exclusions from NFSA due to identification errors as well as using old population estimates, the additional measures announced by the Central government under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana after the national lockdown were restricted to only those already covered by the NFSA. An additional entitlement of 5 kg of foodgrains per individual and 1 kg of pulses per household for free was given to those who hold Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) cards under the NFSA. AAY card holders fall under the extremely poor category. This was discontinued in November. Supplementary rations were available under various State schemes. In the HW survey, a higher proportion of respondents in rural areas (56%) had NFSA cards compared to urban areas (27%). Of the respondents, 36% in urban areas did not have any ration cards compared to 13% in rural areas. Similarly, as per official records, there was a 47% increase in persondays of work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in 2020-21 compared to 2019-20 and a record 72 lakh households completed 100 days of work in one year. The wider coverage of the public distribution system (PDS) and a promise for employment in rural areas have perhaps cushioned the blow to some extent compared to urban areas.

While still a long way to go, NFSA and MGNREGA have at least demonstrated the importance of expanding the social security nets. PDS entitlements are basic survival kits and fall far short of minimal nutritional requirements for a healthy society. As per conservative estimates, there are at least 33 crore poor households in India. If even the basic survival needs of these households are not ensured, it is like plunging the combined population of Germany, France, the U.K., Spain, Portugal and Italy into irredeemable levels of starvation and malnutrition. With over 100 million tonnes of foodgrain stocks in the Food Corporation of India warehouses (as on May 1), not universalising rations at this stage is akin to taking a bullet train to hunger. The Central government must immediately expand the coverage and quantity under the NFSA for at least one year, increase MGNREGA entitlements to 200 days per household, initiate consultations for an urban employment programme and offer a wage compensation of Rs. 7,000 per poor household for the next few months.

Rajendran Narayanan teaches in Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, and is with LibTech India. Dipa Sinha teaches in Ambedkar University, Delhi. Both are with Right to Food Campaign

The Centre must revisit its vaccine policy by procuring 100% doses which can then be equitably disbursed to States

In its affidavit (https://bit.ly/3eHudlb) submitted to the Supreme Court on May 9 in thesuo motuCOVID-19 management case, the Union of India avers, in the words of Justice Holmes, that “play must be allowed for the joints of the machine”. Arguably, in this instance, such play is irrelevant because the machine needs to be scrapped. The Centre must revisit its policy by procuring 100% of the vaccine doses which can then be equitably disbursed to the State governments.

Reasons to revisit policy

The States were indeed thoughtless to ask for an immediate expansion of vaccination to all adults, beyond the 45-plus years priority group, but the affidavit shows the Centre as cavalier and spiteful. The submission provides three good reasons to revisit the new “liberalised” policy.

First, it is indefensible and out of line with international practice; put bluntly, it is patently stupid.

Second, it is incoherent and internally inconsistent — it alludes to liberalisation while controlling both price and quantity for every State — an inevitable consequence of the infeasibility of a liberalised policy at this time. Indeed, the Centre is currently threatening to penalise States that are not administering sufficient second doses.

Third, the submission frequently resorts to legal legerdemain, obfuscating the argument, instead of constructively addressing the essential problem at hand.

To begin with, at a time when the Centre is deciding which manufacturer of Remdesivir, hitherto a competitively marketed drug with multiple manufacturers, will sell how much to which State at what price, it is concomitantly deregulating the vaccine market, which currently has just two suppliers, in a situation of extreme shortage, exacerbated by adding 600 million 18 to 44-year-old citizens to 200 million unvaccinated people above the age of 45. This is far from using “differential pricing… to instil a competitive market”, a goal best left for later. In every other country, only the national government is buying vaccines, with odd exceptions such as Indonesia and the Philippines, where corporates are allowed to buy internationally, to vaccinate their workers for free. It is also perplexing why Covaxin is not more widely licensed, given that the affidavit makes it clear that much of the core work in developing the vaccine was done at the ICMR-NIV in Pune.

The high price States will pay

In the affidavit, the Centre baldly admits that “by nature of its large vaccination programme, [it] places large purchase orders for vaccines as opposed to the State Governments and/or Private Hospitals and therefore, this reality has some reflection in the prices negotiated” — i.e., it can buy vaccines cheaper than States or the private sector. If so, why should it not buy and distribute, as it was doing till April 30?

Next, the Centre takes 50% (it may have booked more than its share) to give to States for the 45-plus age group, and the States get 25% of the total vaccine production for their use. Each State is “informed by the Central Government in writing about the number of vaccines it would receive....” Further, “by conducting informal consultations with the vaccine manufacturers, [it] ensured that the prices of vaccine is uniform for all the States”, i.e., the Centre has fixed both quantity and price. It is clearly not a liberalised policy.

The balance 25% in each State “will go to the private sector based upon the contracts between private sector and vaccine manufacturers,” but how is the private sector in a specific State defined, since contracts are at a corporate level and not by State units? Also, what happens if the private sector cannot absorb the 25%? After all, in terms of CoWIN sites, the private sector, which earlier had about 10% share, is now under 3%. Day before yesterday, Bihar had nine sites, Chhattisgarh, 32 and Arunachal Pradesh had none. The private sector allocation actually privileges large urban areas, where it is more present.

Thus, instead of the full production at zero cost, the States now get one quarter of the production at twice or more the price paid by the Centre. The private sector will access the other quarter, at a landed cost that, based on current reports, might be up to 10 times the price it paid earlier.

Little did States know that their petulant insistence on immediate universal vaccination would come at such a high price.

The Centre has little to show

But, cannot States secure other supplies, e.g., via global tenders that many are now floating? The affidavit states, quite sensibly, that “efforts in the direction of procurement of other vaccines from other countries is essentially a responsibility of the Central Government” and “discussions for procurement of vaccines… has been going on since third-quarter of 2020… These negotiations are a complex undertaking which is currently ongoing on a war footing using all resources including diplomatic channels.” Effectively, the Centre has been trying for over six months, with little to show for it. Thus, States are either being led up the garden path — it is difficult to accept that States are so naive — or their global tenders are just grandstanding.

Finally, legal legerdemain, that is most evident in the response to door-to-door vaccination. Yes, it is impracticable.But, the spirit was to make vaccination easier to access, e.g. through pop-up centres in communities, maintaining the necessary protocols. Instead, after expending five pages on creating and demolishing an unnecessary straw man of door-to-door vaccination, the affidavit dismisses the central question as to “whether the Central government will revisit its policy by procuring 100% of the doses which can then be equitably disbursed to the State Governments” with an airy “the answer has been already elaborated hereinabove”, when it has no such answer.

Is there not enough residual trust between the Centre and States for such equitable distribution? If so, the need is to reinvigorate this trust, rather than accept policies leading to further Balkanisation.

What then does this liberalised policy accomplish? It increases the vaccine maker’s revenue, with a weighted price of Rs. 477 per dose for Covaxin and Rs. 302 per dose for Covishield, based on prices to be paid by States and private firms. (On pricing, the weighted average is calculated based on a share of 50% for the Centre, 25% for States and 25% for the private sector for both vaccines, according to the affidavit. Covaxin and Covishield are both at Rs. 154 — https://bit.ly/2SBTwwa — for the Centre, and Rs. 400 for States and Rs. 1,200 for the private sector for Covaxin and Rs. 300 for States and Rs. 600 for the private sector for Covishield.) While this is possibly too high, their revenue can be raised more simply by increasing the Centre’s price, currently Rs. 154, and providing the comfort of large long-term orders for 100% of India’s needs, enabling firms to invest more and sell globally. States could bear the extra cost directly without this convoluted new policy. It could even be financed by special interest-free 50-year loans to States, as promised last year for infrastructure, by the Finance Minister.

The Union Minister for Health has clearly stated that “those who can afford to get them at the private and corporate sector rates shall go ahead” (https://bit.ly/3y54hrd). Should such a policy be accepted, one that makes supplies less reliable and vaccination more expensive and less equitable across geographies and sends the marginalised to the back of the queue? One that delays vaccinating the vulnerable, by halving their allocation? Or should this “new” policy just be scrapped?

Partha Mukhopadhyay is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal

ASEAN has created a rare pathway to help Myanmar move forward

On February 1, Army trucks and tanks rolled into the streets of Naypyidaw and Yangon, signaling the military’s overthrow of a government in which it had a sizeable share of power. The generals felt insecure with the landslide victory of the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) in the November 2020 elections. They decided to exert full control and terminate the experiment of transition to democracy that their wiser predecessors had initiated in 2010.

Paying a hefty price

The costs of this political U-turn have been high. People clashed with police and army units wielding batons, rubber bullets and live ammunitions. Youth, women, professional groups and ethnic minorities rose in unison to demand the release of their elected leaders and return of freedoms and democracy. People’s resolve surprised the military as much as the latter’s brutality shocked the largely non-violent protesters.

In the end, unarmed demonstrators had to yield to the logic of the bullets fired. The civil disobedience movement began to lose momentum from early April. The people paid a heavy price: 750 were killed, thousands injured, and over 2,500 detained. One reality, however, remained unchanged: power still flowed from the gun in Myanmar.

The Army offered a fundamentally unfair solution: the results of the 2020 elections were set aside, new elections were promised in a year or two and so was a ‘disciplined democracy’ (in which the military presumably would have more control).

People opposing the military initially called for the restoration of the status quo ante i.e., undo the coup and let the newly elected parliament function, with a new NLD government. As there were no signs of the acceptance of this demand and violence escalated, positions hardened. The opposition then came up with a new, radical package, including rejection of the 2008 constitution, adoption of a new Federal Democracy Charter, and announcement of the ‘national unity government’ with representation from the majority Bamar and ethnic minority communities. The generals were not impressed.

ASEAN mediation

The ASEAN group, which includes Myanmar, was deeply concerned over the coup’s adverse impact. Its principles, credibility and much-touted but largely eroded ‘centrality’ were endangered. Although still wedded to the concept of non-interference in internal affairs of its member states, ASEAN followed its activist tradition to assist Myanmar in exiting from this quagmire.

But first it had to bridge internal differences, with members like Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam inclined to be sympathetic to the military and others like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore keen to mediate in the Myanmar crisis for the region’s larger good. Then, it had to navigate the chasm within the international community. The U.S., the U.K. and the European Union zealously advocated a policy of condemnation and strong sanctions against the military regime, while China and Russia were determined to protect the generals from excessive censure and opposition, on the ground that greater instability would jeopardise their interests.

Fortunately, other Asian powers, notably India and Japan, preferred to support reconciliation. ASEAN also had to handle deftly the activism of the United Nations Secretary General whose special envoy strove to find a role for herself, even though Naypyidaw was opposed to her approach. ASEAN kept up consultations with her, even letting her visit Jakarta just when the momentous ASEAN summit was held on April 24 there. The summit’s ostensible agenda was a discussion on regional developments, but the single-most important item was to devise a classic way to defuse the crisis in Myanmar.

Two major features of the Jakarta summit outcome need to be appreciated. First, the Five-Point Consensus has the presumed concurrence of Myanmar’s new strong man, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Its contents include immediate cessation of violence; supply of humanitarian assistance; constructive dialogue; and ASEAN’s mediation through the visit by a special envoy of ASEAN’s Chair and the ASEAN Secretary General. Who the special envoy would be remains unclear so far.

Second, the first part of the Chairman’s statement includes a para on the repatriation from Bangladesh of the Rakhine state’s displaced people. This part also contains a line that “calls for release of all political prisoners including foreigners” were “also heard”. It was evident that the Myanmar representation had reservations on these two elements, the reason why they were excluded from the Five-Point Consensus. The unstated message from Jakarta was that Ms. Suu Kyi’s political role might become a casualty of an eventual settlement. She could be released only when the situation normalises, perhaps on condition that she glides into a deserved retirement.

What next?

Critics in Myanmar underplayed the likely impact of the Jakarta agreement, with the key opposition leader, Dr Sasa, stressing that there would be no dialogue with the junta unless it agreed to the conditions put forward earlier, including the release of political prisoners. ASEAN has created a rare pathway to help Myanmar move forward. However, the road ahead promises to be difficult. The opposition in Myanmar would need to internalise the utility of a helping hand extended by the region. The military is perhaps grateful for the honourable opportunity to climb off the tiger it unwittingly rode on February 1. But it seems in no hurry to talk to the Opposition.

International reactions to the Jakarta summit outcome have largely been positive. The UN and other global stakeholders appreciate Southeast Asia’s willingness to resolve its problems in its ‘family way’. As a neighbour with vital stakes, India welcomed the ASEAN initiative. New Delhi should unreservedly back ASEAN’s endeavours, helping it blossom further by extending requisite support to Jakarta and other capitals.

Myanmar’s leaders should work for a lasting reconciliation, deriving inspiration from Lord Buddha’s ‘Middle Path’. A nation often let down by its leaders, Myanmar deserves a better future.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House and a former Ambassador to Myanmar

The privacy of students who use EdTech apps for learning is at risk

The lack of a regulatory framework in India along the lines of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe could impinge on the privacy of students who now use educational technology (EdTech) apps for learning. Since the onset of the pandemic, online education has replaced conventional classroom instruction. This has spawned several EdTech apps which have become popular. Schools and colleges have been able to move their content delivery, engagement and evaluation from offline to online and ensure minimal academic disruption. This exercise has forced teachers to become facilitators in learning rather than being content providers. The EdTech apps have the advantage of being able to customise learning to every student in the system.

Storing the smallest details

To perform the process of learning customisation, the apps collect large quantities of data from the learners through the gadgets that the students use. These data are analysed in minute detail to customise learning and design future versions of the app. The latest mobile phones and hand-held devices have a range of sensors like GPS, gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer and biometric sensors apart from the camera and microphones. These provide data about the learner’s surroundings along with intimate data like the emotions and attitudes experienced and expressed via facial expressions and body temperature changes. In short, the app and device have access to the private spaces of the learner that one would not normally have access to.

Researchers dealing with human subjects need to comply with ethics rules that committees of their respective research organisations formulate, along with global standards. One of the cardinal rules that should never be broken is informed consent. Before any research on human subjects is undertaken, researchers have to submit detailed proposals to their respective ethics committees and obtain their permissions. Those proposals and permissions are subject to transparent external reviews.

Further, a researcher working with children, for example, would also have to convince schoolteachers, parents, and school managements about the nature of the research to be undertaken, type of data to be collected, method of storage, the potential harmful effects of such data, etc. All this should be done in writing, while giving the learner the option to opt out of the study at any point of time without any repercussions.

Minimal safeguards

However, in the EdTech industry, where investments are pouring in, researchers and app developers are being pushed to be as intrusive as possible. The safeguards that traditional researchers are subject to are either missing or minimal in research that the EdTech industry promotes.

Children use these apps without parent or adult supervision. Intrusion of privacy can happen unnoticed. The concept of informed consent is not meaningful since there are no proper primers to explain to stakeholders the intricacies in layperson terms. Further, there is no option to stop using the app without some repercussions. Since India does not have protection equivalent to the GDPR, private data collected by an EdTech company can be misused or sold to other companies with no oversight or protection. It is prudent to remember the 2014 study titled ‘Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks’, wherein Facebook manipulated the emotions of 7,00,000 users by changing the type of posts that were shown to the user.

Given these realities, it is necessary to formulate an ethics policy for EdTech companies through the active participation of educators, researchers, parents, learners and industry experts. Such a policy draft should be circulated both online and offline for discussions and criticism. Issues of fairness, safety, confidentiality and anonymity of the user would have to be dealt with. EdTech companies would have to be encouraged to comply in the interest of a healthier learning ecosystem.

Vikram Vincent holds a PhD in Educational Technology from IIT Bombay

Instead of dictating how States deal withthe pandemic, the Centre must be a facilitator

India’s national positivity rate, or the proportion of tested cases returning positive, is around 21%. Moreover, 533 of the 734 districts have reported positivity greater than 10%. There are 26 States that had more than 15% positivity, nine with over 25% and 10 with 20%-25% positivity. Couple that with the faltering vaccination drive, and the picture is far from pretty. On April 12, India administered 3.7 million doses of vaccine and after April 26, it has failed to administer over 3 million doses a day. Ever since the vaccine drive was expanded to all adults over 18, on May 1, the maximum number of daily doses administered has been 2.4 million. This, even as daily new cases added continue to be above 380,000 and deaths close to 4,000 a day. The oxygen crisis continues and the pandemic has now established itself in rural India in lethal proportions, with macabre reports of bodies surfacing in the Ganga in the stretch from Uttar Pradesh to Bihar. All of these point to the fact that there is a very large pool of those infected and prone to infecting those around, bringing up the question of whether a national lockdown should be reimposed.

No fewer than 18 States have imposed various grades of lockdown or curfews. Some only lay stress on shutting down marketplaces whereas others are more reminiscent of the curbs of March and April last year. These restrictions are expected to be in force at least till the third week of this month. Many of the States with the highest positivity rates and growth in infections have already imposed restrictions on the main sources of continued spread. These include religious gatherings, social functions and leisure visits to public entertainment spaces. A ‘national lockdown’ at this stage has only cosmetic value. India’s economy was already in a nosedive before March 2020 and the sudden imposition wreaked havoc on the migrant workforce. The brutality of the second wave has burnished the importance of masking up and opting for a vaccine as early as possible. In the absence of newer effective treatments, these continue to be the mainstay in staying safe. A lesson that has emerged from the pandemic is that States are best equipped to take care of themselves with the Centre doing its job best while acting as a facilitator. Central Ministers, armed with the best medical experts, had declared early this year that India was in the ‘end game’ of the pandemic and that India had “shown the world” how to beat it. Instead, the Centre must focus on distributing equitably across States vaccines, oxygen tankers, testing kits and other critical medical equipment while also accounting for a potential third wave.

Imprisonment practices need a relook so that the police do not effect unnecessary arrests

If overcrowding of prisons has been a perennial problem in this country, high occupancy levels can only mean bad news amidst a pandemic. The Supreme Court has been intervening from time to time to address this problem, but its latest order directing the interim release of eligible prisoners acquires salience in view of the uncontrolled second surge in the raging pandemic. Last year, the Court had passed such an order quite early — the one of March 23, 2020 came even before the nation-wide lockdown. The Court had then ordered all States to take preventive steps as well as constitute high-powered committees to determine the class of prisoners who could be released on bail or parole for a specified period. In directing this week that besides identifying more prisoners for release, the same set of prisoners be given parole this year too, the Court continues its trend of seeking to protect prisoners as well as those guarding them from getting infected. There have been significant initiatives to prevent any uncontrollable spread within the congested jails, ranging from stopping the practice of transporting remand prisoners to court for periodical extension of custody and hearings to asking authorities to prepare readiness and response plans. The Court’s order is welcome, both as a move to decongest jails and a measure that protects the right to life and health of the prisoners. Now that the issue of reducing occupancy in the prison is once again under focus, and not merely for the usual reason of overcrowding, but also in view of the vulnerability of prisoners and prison staff to infection and disease, a comprehensive look at imprisonment practices in the country may be in order.

There have been reports of prisoners testing positive and getting hospitalised. How far the regular testing and medical treatment available to inmates across the country is effective is unclear. Further, even political prisoners, such as those jailed in the Bhima Koregaon case without any direct link to any act of violence, are being repeatedly denied bail, solely because stringent laws have been invoked against them. Some political activists in Delhi are also in jail under anti-terrorism laws for alleged complicity in riots early last year. The courts must take into account their vulnerability to infection and consider bail. In its order, the Supreme Court has rightly emphasised the need to adhere to the norms it had laid down inArnesh Kumar vs State of Bihar(2014) under which the police were asked not to effect unnecessary arrests, especially in cases that involve jail terms less than seven years. In the past, the Court has also asked authorities in all districts in the country to give effect to Section 436A of the Cr.P.C., under which undertrials who have completed half of the maximum prison term prescribed for the offence may be released on personal bond. Effective follow-up action is needed to audit these measures so that these are not implemented selectively or arbitrarily.

Bolshevism may be a serious menace to the welfare of man, but we find that the Bolsheviks too are human beings, with an even greater regard for human nature and kindly care in the treatment of children than their vilifiers. From an account of the Bolshevik system of education, we learn that an elaborate scheme is at present worked out in Petrograd as regards the taking care and training of children. There are, we note, two important departments organised with special duties in the matter, the People's Commissariat for Public Health and the People's Commissariat of Public Instruction, both working in close co-operation. The Commissariat for Public Health is responsible for the medical and dental inspection of various school children, and has a large and well-equipped staff of doctors and dentists. It is also responsible for the physical culture of the children and with the help of the Commissariat of Public Instruction organises games and gymnastics. It has also established one or two special schools for physical culture in which boys and girls live and are specially trained to develop their athletic ability or correct some physical defects.

New Delhi, May 12: The chances of the Cauvery waters dispute being settled without being referred to a tribunal under the Inter-State River Waters Dispute Act have become bright, it is learnt. In fact, the complexion of the dispute between Tamil Nadu, Mysore and Kerala has undergone a complete change because of the modified attitude taken by Mysore. Mr. Dharma Vira, Governor of Mysore, who was here some weeks ago for high-level discussions with Central officials on matters pertaining to his State, had a meeting with Dr. K.L. Rao, Union Minister for Irrigation and Power, on the dispute. Mr. Dharma Vira got the impression that there was a greater understanding of Mysore’s stand on the part of the Centre and that was what he indicated when he met pressmen at the conclusion of his visit to the capital. Enquiries show that Mr. Dharma Vira gave an assurance to the Centre that Mysore would stand fully by the 1924 agreement on the sharing of Cauvery waters and that the State would not do anything which would directly or indirectly offend the provisions of the agreement.