Editorials - 15-05-2021

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation has been meeting the second wave of the COVID-19 challenge on a war footing.Sonam Saigalreports on how the civic body learnt lessons from the first wave and adopted a decentralised approach which is showing results slowly but surely

For six years, 42-year-old Surekha Mane spent most of her days teaching history and geography to students from Classes 5 to 8. Her run-of-the-mill routine was suddenly upended in January this year. Now, she is part of the Maharashtra government’s large team of COVID-19 fighters.

Mane works at a disaster control room, or ward ‘war room’, in Mumbai, where she answers distress calls from those showing symptoms of COVID-19 or from their families and diligently notes down their details.

The job is hectic. On May 13, Mane answered 23 phone calls on one of the 15 lines in the ‘war room’ at ‘E’ ward. “The first thing I do when I answer a call is to take down the contact number of the person calling in case the line gets disconnected,” she says.

Mane says the nature of calls has changed over time. “Earlier, we used to get a lot of queries on the availability of beds and ambulances. Now, most of the people calling are in isolation at home. They ask about garbage disposal because the society does not collect their garbage. I take down their name, number, address and enter all this into a register. Then I contact the waste management department. The next day, I follow up to check if the garbage has been picked up,” she says.

Mane sometimes gets unusual requests. “The other day, I got this call asking for a banner for a society. The BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) puts up banners at buildings after it declares them as ‘containment zones’. [When five people test positive for COVID-19 in a building, it is labelled a containment zone.] The secretary of the building called saying a stray dog tore off the banner. So, we arranged for the banner to be put up again,” she says.

Mane is one of the over thousand staff members working at Mumbai’s ‘war rooms’. The financial capital struggled during the initial phase of the first COVID-19 wave with only one central BMC helpline. It quickly learnt that decentralisation was the best way to tackle the unfolding challenge. With the help of private hospitals, the police, educational institutions, industry and others, the BMC, the richest civic body in the country, has been meeting the new wave of the COVID-19 challenge on a war footing. And the results are slowly but surely showing, with many praising what it now being referred to as the ‘Mumbai model’. After a record number of daily cases on April 3 (11,163), Mumbai has been recording a steady dip since then, with 1,657 daily cases on May 14.

Mumbai, the hotspot

Soon after Mumbai recorded its first COVID-19 case in March 2020, and cases climbed to 17, the Maha Vikas Aghadi government, a coalition of the Shiv Sena, Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party, declared COVID-19 an epidemic and invoked the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897. On March 13, 2020, the State government shut down theatres, gyms, swimming pools and public parks; barred social, religious and political events; requested private employers to ensure that employees work from home wherever possible; and advised people against visiting malls, hotels, restaurants and other crowded places. On March 20, when cases reached 52, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray announced that all workplaces, excluding essential services and public transport, in certain pockets of Maharashtra would be shut till March 31. He then imposed a complete lockdown as cases continued to increase. Despite these measures, Mumbai soon became a hotspot for COVID-19 cases. By May 8, it had recorded 12,142 COVID-19 cases. The BMC looked like it was losing the battle against the virus.

Mahesh Narvekar, chief officer of the BMC’s disaster management cell, recalls how stressful the job was back then. He says the central control room (number 1916) buckled under the pressure of calls during the first wave of COVID-19. “As 75% of the staff tested positive, there were very few people to take the calls, let alone address the queries of those desperate people who were calling,” he says. “I appointed some contractual call operators but they were new and didn’t have any domain knowledge.” Staggering under the weight of cases and deaths, the city looked like it was on the brink of a disaster.

Back then, there were only 40 ambulances for COVID-19 patients and four hearses to carry dead bodies, Narvekar says. “The backlog of dead bodies was 100-150. These bodies were just lying in morgues. We didn’t have any vehicles to carry the bodies,” he recalls.

Today, the BMC has 675 ambulances and 400 hearses.

Chasing the virus

With its back to the wall, the BMC began to fight back during the first wave. A new BMC Commissioner, Iqbal Singh Chahal, who was Principal Secretary in the Urban Development department, was appointed to lead the fight on May 8, 2020. Chahal was chosen despite having had no experience in municipal administration. He recalls the day he received the order as being “very scary”. “That day there were reports of a body found on the road near Dadar, another body found in an autorickshaw in Parel, and another on the divider at Dharavi,” he says.

Chahal immediately called all the 120 heads of departments of the BMC, 24 ward officers, 24 wards in-charge of health, deputy commissioners, additional commissioners and joint commissioners for a physical meeting. “We have to chase the virus,” he told them. The BMC soon launched the ‘Chase the Virus’ campaign and began to aggressively test, trace and isolate. As part of this campaign, 15 close associates of every COVID-19 positive patient were compulsorily institutionally quarantined. In addition, community leaders were appointed to provide information to people about co-morbidities, facilities being provided at institutional quarantine facilities, clinic timings, and so on.

Chahal led from the front. He conducted a 5.5 km march at Mukund Nagar in Dharavi along with 50 BMC officers. The officials checked the hygiene conditions in the slums and distributed packets of food. “The BMC planned to visit all the containment zones across various slums in Mumbai because 95% of the cases were in the slums,” says Chahal. The civic body’s aim was to go from house to house, test, quarantine those who were found positive, and move their family members and neighbours to the 47,000 rooms that were made available through 187 hotels in Mumbai.

It was an onerous task. “We started shifting close to 30,000 people a week,” says Chahal. At the same time, BMC officials started sanitising the homes of those who had tested positive and kept constant checks on those who had been quarantined to see if they had developed any symptoms. “Those who developed symptoms were taken to hospitals. Else, they were sent back to their sanitised homes,” says Chahal. The BMC moved over 1.5 lakh people in this way in Mumbai through the first wave.

At first no one wanted to be whisked away to these facilities. “But by word of mouth, people came to know about these facilities. They understood that people were being looked after well. And that broke the initial reluctance among people; they voluntarily agreed to move,” he says.

Chahal says he visited 55 slums in Mumbai. Thousands of health workers, who feared visiting containment zones earlier, visited the slums too. “This was in the second week of May. We quickly arrested the spread of the virus. In July, the World Health Organization praised our efforts in Dharavi,” says Chahal.

Getting the largest slum of Asia in order was never going to be an easy task. Sanitation and hygiene are the first casualty in a slum of Dharavi’s size. “We entered public toilets in Dharavi and found that 200 people were sharing one toilet. Each public toilet had 20-25 seats. We ordered that the toilets be sanitised every two hours. That is being done even today. This is how we destroyed the virus in public toilets,” Chahal says.

Role of community leaders

These initiatives were not foolproof. To ensure that instructions were being followed by BMC employees, community leaders were roped in to keep frequent checks on them. Each of the community leaders was given a mobile phone and was connected to the control rooms. These leaders were asked to check whether BMC health workers were going door to door checking people’s temperatures, conducting tests, and checking for co-morbidities, or whether they were just filling up documents at the exit gates of the containment zones. They were asked to report to the BMC if the toilets were not sanitised. They were asked to check whether personal protective equipment kits were being used by healthcare workers and whether people in the neighbourhood had developed symptoms like diarrhoea or eye problems. In addition to this, they monitored the quality of the food packets being distributed by the BMC. This was micro-management and yet a decentralised operation that was put in place by the Mumbai civic authority.

It was also important to take care of the BMC employees, says Chahal. “More than 100 BMC employees had died between March and April 2020, and they did not come under the Government of India’s insurance scheme for frontline healthcare workers. For example, safai karamcharis and bus drivers of BEST buses who were ferrying doctors were not in the category of frontline workers,” he says. In mid-May, the families of all BMC employees who died of COVID-19 became entitled to receive Rs. 50 lakh as compensation. The announcement galvanised the staff. The BMC has paid Rs. 150 crore as compensation to the families of the bereaved employees.

Inside the ‘war rooms’

The BMC also launched another campaign called ‘Chase the Patient’ where it asked people to get tested and admitted in hospitals if they had symptoms of COVID-19. Each of the 24 wards in Mumbai got a ‘war room’, its own dedicated line, and a COVID-19 dashboard that was uploaded on a daily basis. The dashboard gives information on the number of positive cases, active cases (symptomatic and asymptomatic) and number of patients discharged. The ‘war rooms’ are active 24X7 with staff working in three shifts. Each shift has at least one doctor on duty to advise patients. These ‘war rooms’ have been especially useful during the second wave.

The ‘war room’ of K (West) ward is associated with 12 hospitals and two COVID-19 Care Centres for asymptomatic patients. Dr. Hameen Yadnyeshwari, the in-charge there, says the ‘war room’ has eight doctors who work in three shifts, along with five BMC employees who take queries and make arrangements to sanitise the homes of COVID-19 patients. “We also have 10 teachers who receive calls and five teachers who make calls after they receive the final list of COVID-19 patients,” says Yadnyeshwari. “When the second wave started around mid-February this year, the number of cases started rising to 50, 60 even 80 in a ward as opposed to 20,30 that we saw last year. That is when we knew the second wave was here. We began to increase the number of beds in private hospitals and non-COVID-19 hospitals. We also added oxygen beds to COVID-19 care centres.”

Today, calls are largely about vaccination. In K(West) ward, Deepa Raut, who teaches science to students of Class 8 at a BMC-run school in Juhu, has been attending to several of these anxious calls. “On May 13, I received 12 calls and all of them were vaccination-related. We assure them that we are there to help them. We tell them that the BMC is coming up with more vaccination centres and vaccines, and that the problem will be resolved soon,” she says.

Involving private hospitals

An operation of this scale could not have been possible without the involvement of private hospitals. The chief operating officers of 35 private hospitals including Breach Candy Hospital, Lilavati Hospital, Nanavati Hospital, Wockhardt Hospitals and Hiranandani were brought in. A BMC order stated that 80% of the total beds and 100% of ICU beds in private hospitals shall be kept reserved only for COVID-19 patients referred by ward ‘war rooms’. In order to augment ambulance capacity, 800 Tata Sumo and Toyota Innova cars available with the BMC were converted into ambulances. Fifty mini buses were converted into ambulances with stretchers and Uber was roped in to make available its fleet of cars and buses.

Institutions were also roped in. IIT Bombay developed a web page called covidialysis.in. This gives information to COVID-19 patients about slots available for dialysis. Aggressive measures were put in place for those not observing COVID-19 protocols. The BMC has collected Rs. 50 crore as fines from people so far.

Giant COVID-19 Care Centres were created at the Bandra Kurla Complex, NESCO in Goregaon and the National Sports Club of India at Worli. These have a total capacity of 78,000 beds and are centrally air conditioned. The BMC also ensured that patients could keep in touch with their families through iPads.

Preparing for the worst

Eight jumbo isolation centres were set up across the city last year. Except one which did not have a single patient, all of them were kept intact, says Chahal. “We kept the beds, equipment and oxygen support which were not used in the first wave. All that is now being utilised at the new centre which we are building right opposite the Mahalaxmi Racecourse,” he says.

As expected, Mumbai was badly hit by the second wave. Maharashtra is the worst-affected State this year too, accounting for more than a quarter of the cases in the country. Fatalities too have been high. And despite efforts, there have been alarms about shortage of oxygen. Chahal recalls one particularly difficult night: “On April 16 midnight, I learnt about shortage of oxygen. In the morning, I texted Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba and told him that we need to import oxygen. He put me in touch with Dr. Guruprasad Mohapatra, Secretary in the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade. I said it would take eight days for oxygen to reach Mumbai from Haldia, West Bengal, and asked if oxygen tankers could come from Jamnagar, just 16 hours away. He arranged for it. A disaster was averted.”

But as a result of this combined and sustained effort over months, there have been no SOS calls for beds in Mumbai during the second wave. Dr. Mangala Gomare, executive health officer of BMC, in her affidavit before the Bombay High Court said, “The BMC’s COVID-19 Response War Room Dashboard uploaded every day at 5 pm contains all the essential information about total active cases — symptomatic as well as asymptomatic active cases.”

“In all the dedicated COVID-19 hospitals, healthcare centres and ‘jumbo’ COVID facilities, a nodal officer has been appointed to update the data at regular intervals. The same information is available to the disaster management cell as well as the ‘war rooms’ and the administrators of each ward. Therefore, for effective bed management, real-time information is available with the ‘war rooms’ of each ward,” said Dr. Gomare.

“Each ward war room has a mobile medical team which is deployed in case there is a serious emergency. The team provides temporary medical care while shifting the patient to the nearest hospital. The patients who are advised home isolation are regularly called on their mobile phones on the third, fifth, seventh and 10th day. The ward ‘war rooms’ in coordination with health officers follow up with patients and allot beds on the same day,” said Gomare.

Dr. Manoj Joshi, Dean of BYL Nair Hospital, says it was very difficult to put the plan in place. “Following the lockdown, the challenge was to provide transport for healthcare workers coming from outside Mumbai like Vasai-Virar, Nala Sopara, Panvel, Badlapur and Kalyan. We managed this for thousands of healthcare workers. We looked after their needs. As canteens were not open, food was provided either by corporates or by hotels,” says Joshi. More than 50% of healthcare workers including doctors, resident doctors, nurses and support staff stayed at hotels, says Joshi.

At the same time, strict action was taken against those who did not come. “We served them notices, handed out punishment. We tried to remove some, threaten some. But that is how they all resumed work. It was through reward and punishment,” says Joshi.

Going beyond duty

The ‘Mumbai model’ would be incomplete without the mention of the Mumbai Police which has lost 115 of its personnel to COVID-19 till date. “The first wave was tough. People did not understand the gravity of the problem, and were not willing to listen. So, tough measures had to be taken in some areas and this put a lot of policemen at risk,” says a police officer who worked in Dadar and Worli Koliwada, which were among the worst affected areas in Mumbai when COVID-19 was at its peak. “But people have been much more cooperative since then,” he says.

Hemant Nagrale, the Mumbai Police Commissioner, says the role of the police is multifaceted during a pandemic. “We need to maintain the lockdown, deploy our officers on the road and in busy areas like markets. We need to issue e-passes to facilitate travel in cases of death, marriage or any medical emergency after permission is granted by the local authority.” The Mumbai Police have also had to man buildings where people have been quarantined to ensure that nobody leaves or enters the building. “We have deployed officers at vaccination centres and COVID-19 wards so that the vaccination process goes on smoothly and there are no stampedes,” he says.

The police are also required at crematoriums for unclaimed bodies. “A head constable, Gyandeo Ware, has cremated 50 bodies. All of them had COVID-19. The police have to take the bodies from the hospitals or morgues and cremate them. It is not their duty, but they have done this as a humane gesture,” he says.

The ‘Mumbai Model’ is being replicated in other districts. “This model is being implemented with local variations in rural areas. Cases are coming down in Nagpur and Pune. We have increased testing in many rural areas. We are also trying to increase the availability of beds and oxygen according to the needs,” says Maharashtra Chief Secretary Sitaram Kunte.

Despite the fact that Mumbai’s daily positivity rate was as low as 7% on May 10 as compared to around 25% in the first week of April, it cannot afford to relax. “As we anticipate a third wave, there are two challenges that we envisage: cases may originate from the rural areas of Maharashtra and that wave may affect the younger population more,” says Kunte. The challenges keep piling on, but “we are preparing for them,” he says.

Adherence to them would have mitigated the traumatic fallout of the pandemic in India

Dead men do tell tales and history bears witness that pandemics leave their imprint among those they leave behind. In India, a full reckoning would take place when the pandemic is fully behind us. But even from deep inside the storm there are some first principles that have been driven home. Adherence to them would have undoubtedly mitigated the ghastly fallout of the virus.

Health care, not coverage

The first is the debate between universal health care and universal health coverage. That stands settled now, in the spirit of the landmark Aneurin Bevan’s-led National Health Service Act in 1946, which revolutionised health care in the United Kingdom by delinking it from a person’s income. It became a benchmark for the recognition that it could not be left to market forces to deal with public health.

The most comprehensive document prepared so far in India, by the high-level expert group appointed by the Planning Commission, submitted in November 2011 (https://bit.ly/3tNmGFx), concluded that “progressive strengthening of public facilities” is the only way to reach medical services to the population as a whole. While finance was a concern to be dealt with, the centrepiece of health care was not insurance. After 2014, insurance has instead been a focus — good health to be somehow secured via insurance, as with Ayushman Bharat. But for all the hype, there is no getting away from strengthening public health facilities and making that the fundamental way of ensuring a healthy life for its people. India, already spending woefully limited amounts on health, for all the hoopla and hype, ended up reducing allocations in the February 2021 budget. The results are there to see.

Kerala, when it started investing heavily in public health care in the 1950s, was told it was too expensive for a poor State like it was then. But as it went on to demonstrate, primary health care was labour-intensive, generating its own virtuous cycle of trained personnel and a well-looked after populace. It enhanced the people’s ability to produce, to be economic assets and enriched the State much more than could be imagined.

Reason, not mumbo-jumbo

The second principle of so-called ‘New India’, of faith over science and the silencing of rationalists as ‘western’ and ‘alien’ to the ‘Indian ethos’, must be kicked very hard if India has to start breathing again. In the past seven years and even when the novel coronavirus pandemic was looming, top Ministers, including the Health Minister, were seen flanking the sides of a yoga guru proclaiming that he had found a cure for COVID-19. The World Health Organization had to step in and make it clear that it had not endorsed it (https://bit.ly/3feMk0U). The Prime Minister has himself privileged myth over reason, most visibly at a hospital inauguration in Mumbai, in 2014, where he spoke of “plastic surgery” as an Indian invention, citing Lord Ganesh’s trunk. This set India back by centuries. The message downwards was clear; science, rationalism or expertise was ‘Nehruvian’ and not to be encouraged.

Public allocations for science have fallen and Indian scientists criticised two speakers at the Indian Science Congress “for making bizarre, unscientific claims, including that ancient Hindus invented stem-cell science”. Scientists held protests against the unscientific statements in Bengaluru, Kochi, Kolkata and Thiruvananthapuram on January 6, 2019. With the Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (AYUSH) coming under fire frequently for peddling non-cures with the weight of the Government of India behind it, it appears as if science itself was perceived as a threat to the ruling party’s ecosystem.

All through last year, no public health expert — and India has many — was empowered enough to be seen advising, directing, taking questions or giving out advice that the public could trust, and on occasion question policy. Thethalibanging, candle lighting, abrupt lockdowns, were all done via public addresses to the nation by the Prime Minister. There was no group with respected scientists or public health experts who could challenge government diktats or test decisions taken by the Narendra Modi government against scientific principles. The Prime Minister took to declaring victory over the pandemic on January 28. The Home Minister authoritatively announced to the media that rallies were not causing the surge in the middle of a crowded Bengal campaign. On if the Kumbh Mela should be allowed a year earlier, it was the Akhil Bhartiya Akhada Parishad that had the last word, not epidemiologists. It took hundreds of anguished scientists to write a letter urging that genomic data be collected and shared, like other civilised democracies, on the virus for the protocol to be altered. The wholesale junking of science even deep into the pandemic worsened the situation.

Data integrity, not hesitancy

Third, comes data integrity, which is shorthand for the credibility of any government, at any time. Data-hesitancy has been a feature of this government, whether it was about economic data, on making the GDP look good or on recording employment statistics. So changing baselines, withholding periodic labour force surveys or consumption survey data, set the path for continued data denial over testing last year and this year, over COVID-19 deaths. Other than the moral and human imperative of owing it to each Indian who dies, the basic courtesy of recording her existence and departure, not recording deaths faithfully, has deep practical implications. If you do not track it honestly and accurately, you do not understand the disease, and if you do not do that then you cannot handle it and lesser still, rescue the future by accurate predictions. In the case of COVID-19, India’s mortality data are many times lower than what is officially acknowledged, as discussed in detail by the latest assessments of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, and experts such as Dr. Bhramar Mukherjee, Dr. Ashish K. Jha and Dr. Murad Banaji. The discrepancy is above the regular margin of error seen in many countries. This is deeply damaging to India’s international standing as a reliable recorder of information. Not recording or diligently sharing data has consequences, for India and the world.

Our economics and the poor

The fourth and final principle that the pandemic has driven home is the importance of centring good economics around improving the lives of those worst-off. Recently, India has been anxious about turning into a ‘5 trillion’ economy. But there is no Security Council seat or grand entry into the big rich clubs of the world if India’s overwhelming majority, those who live under $1.90 a day, cannot be lifted out of the morass. Numerous surveys and reports have consistently hammered at the slide into poverty. The latest report by the Azim Premji University talks of 230 million Indians slipping below the breadline during the pandemic (https://bit.ly/2RPIp2o). India’s obsession with being Vishwaguru, egged on by misleading analysts deriding “Povertarianism”, talking of “freebies” cannot be a replacement to sound welfarism which must prioritise the majority of Indians who need a social security net. It is stunning disregard for global experience, whether it is Joe Biden’s big spending, Boris Johnson ending the age of austerity, Germany launching the biggest state spend since the war or China’s historic drive to end absolute poverty, and India’s own, when the International Monetary Fund acknowledged the fastest decline in poverty globally occurring in India between 2005-06 and 2015-16. Understanding “good economics” as what helps its majority, the most poor and vulnerable, must be a principle rather than a matter of embarrassment.

The virus is no sociologist but it responds to how society and human beings behave with it. Allowing gargles of cow urine to double as cures, giving it a free run to travel and diversify amongst large unprotected crowds or in a desperation to win elections such as in West Bengal, actively courting and boasting about mass gatherings till just days ago were all invitations to disaster, providing the virus with what it wanted — a chance to multiply, diversify, jump hosts and regions rapidly, adding as accelerators to the second wave.

This was contrary to what India did with smallpox and polio, with far fewer resources. There, its adherence to basic scientific and rational principles, helped its people, and the world beat back the disease.

The least good that might be hoped for, at an unimaginably high cost, is for COVID-19 to cure us of the basic distortion in our public and political culture which has been on a speed pill for the last seven years. Else, it would be hard to stop analysts from terming this the man-made, Indian, or worse still, Modi variant.

Seema Chishti is a journalist/writer based in New Delhi

Following the COVID surge, the laws and procedures for the care and protection of orphaned children must be noted

The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic now sweeping India has left many children orphaned and vulnerable. Social media is flooded with requests to adopt children who have lost their parents in the pandemic. And a few non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have come forward to help such children.

However, before handing over an orphan child to any agency, family or person, however well intended the move may be, it is important to be aware of the laws that are prevalent and procedures with regard to the care and the protection of orphan children rather than face legal action for violations later.

Many options to help

Any individual who finds an orphan child or even any child who needs care and protection under the circumstances, should immediately call the toll free Childline number 1098, an emergency phone outreach service (managed by the Women and Child Development department’s nodal agency, the Childline India Foundation; https://bit.ly/3uN9mCw) which operates round the day and on all days across the country. After taking note of the whereabouts of the child, the helpline reaches out immediately and takes charge of the child. These Childline units are nothing but civil society organisations duly approved by the government.

The second option is to intimate the district protection officer concerned whose contact details can be found on the National Tracking System for Missing and Vulnerable Children portal (https://bit.ly/3eLb2a5) maintained by the Women and Child Development department of the Government of India.

The third alternative is to approach the nearest police station or its child welfare police officer who is specially trained to exclusively deal with children either as victims or juvenile delinquents. Nonetheless, one can always dial the Emergency Response Support System (ERSS) which is a pan-India single number (112) based emergency response system for citizens in emergencies (https://112.gov.in/) and seek the necessary help. The non-reporting of such children is also a punishable offence under the JJA or the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 (https://bit.ly/3hmX4wD).

Established process

Once an orphan child is recovered by the outreach agency, it is the duty of the said agency to produce the child within 24 hours before the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) of the district. The CWC, after an inquiry, decides whether to send the child to a children’s home or a fit facility or fit person; if the child is below six years, he or she shall be placed in a specialised adoption agency. The State thus takes care of all such children who are in need of care and protection, till they turn 18 years. InSampurna Behrua vs Union of India(2018), the Supreme Court of India directed States and Union Territories to ensure that all child care institutions are registered. Thus, any voluntary or NGO which is not registered as per the requirement of the JJA cannot house children in need of care and protection.

Once a child is declared legally free for adoption by the CWC, adoption can be done either by Indian prospective adoptive parents or non-resident Indians or foreigners, in that order. Another important feature of the JJA is that it is secular in nature and simple in procedure as compared to the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act, 1956 which is not only religion specific but also relatively cumbersome in procedure. Second, the procedure of adoption is totally transparent and its progress can be monitored from the portal of the statutory body, the Central Adoption Resource Authority (http://cara.nic.in/).

Court directives to police

It is quite often said that ignorance of the law is not an excuse. Therefore, if an orphan child is kept by someone without lawful authority, he or she may land themselves in trouble. According to the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, 1956, the father, and in his absence the mother, is the natural guardian. Not even a close relative can look after the child without authorisation.

The Supreme Court inBachpan Bachao Andolan vs Union of Indiadirected all Directors General of Police,in May 2013, to register a first information report as a case of trafficking or abduction in every case of a missing child. At least one police officer not below the rank of assistant sub-inspector in each police station is mandatorily required to undergo training to deal with children in conflict with the law and in need of care and protection. They are not required to wear a uniform and need to be child-friendly.

Similarly, each district is supposed to have its special juvenile police unit, headed by an officer not below the rank of a Deputy Superintendent of Police. The Supreme Court inRe: Exploitation of children in Orphanages in the State of Tamil Nadu(2017)inter alia, specifically asked the National Police Academy, Hyderabad and police training academies in every State to prepare training courses on the JJA and provide regular training to police officers in terms of sensitisation.

Children are an important national asset, and the well-being of the nation, and its future, depend on how its children grow and develop. The primary purpose of giving a child in adoption is his welfare and restoring his or her right to family. Article 39 of the Constitution prohibits the tender age of the children from being abused. Therefore, orphaned children who have lost both their parents or abandoned or surrendered due to the COVID-19 pandemic must not be neglected and left to face an uncertain future. They must be taken care of by the authorities entrusted with responsibilities under the JJA.

Recent order

The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) recently wrote to the Chief Secretaries of all States and Union Territories on the issue of children orphaned due to COVID-19. It said that that ‘if any such information about an abandoned or orphaned child is received by any entity, organisation, or NGO, then the NCPCR has to be informed by email (cp.ncpcr@nic.in) or over the telephone (011-23478200/23478250) for assistance and help to children)’. This directive needs to be implemented in the most humane manner.

R.K. Vij is a senior IPS officer in Chhattisgarh. The views expressed are personal

Governor Dhankhar’s visit to violence-hit areas is a breach of constitutional propriety

There is little doubt that West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar’s visit to areas hit by post-poll violence in Cooch Behar constitutes a grave transgression of the bounds of constitutional propriety. A habitual critic of the Mamata Banerjee regime, he has been given to ignoring the principle that constitutional heads should not air their differences with the elected regimes in public. As recently as December 2020, Ms. Banerjee had appealed to the President to recall the Governor for political statements that she believed were being made by him at the behest of the BJP-led Union government. One would have thought that a fresh election, in which Ms. Banerjee’s TMC has won a resounding victory, would be a reminder, if one was needed at all, that the norms of representative government ought to be a natural restraint on Mr. Dhankhar’s gubernatorial propensity to speak out of turn and step out of line.

There was a time when another West Bengal Governor, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, came in for some criticism for setting aside the restraints of constitutional office by expressing “cold horror” at the police firing that left 14 protesters dead at Nandigram in 2007. Some may believe that the gubernatorial office ought not to be an impediment to the incumbent yielding to the moral urge to condemn incidents of rare enormity. Yet, the larger principle that the Governor should not offer public comment on situations best handled by the representative regime ought to hold good in all circumstances. In the case of Mr. Dhankhar, what worsens his persistent criticism of the TMC regime is the unfortunate congruency between his words and the interests of the BJP. His visit to Cooch Behar can be seen as an action louder even than his words in derogation of the elected regime. A visit to a scene of violence by the Governor cannot be justified as a gesture to show solidarity with victims. M. Channa Reddy, as Tamil Nadu Governor, shocked the AIADMK regime in 1993 by visiting the RSS headquarters in Chennai after a bomb exploded there. It may be argued that the present situation in West Bengal is different from those in which other Governors had shed the restraints of their office. Post-election violence is something that should not be witnessed at all in an electoral democracy. West Bengal is certainly out of step with the rest of the country in allowing post-poll celebrations to degenerate into triumphalism and attacks on the losing side. Yet, the onus is on Ms. Banerjee to restore order and end the violence, even if she believed that the extent of the violence was being exaggerated by the Opposition. Regardless of one’s view of a regime’s inaction, there should be no departure from the principle that any advice or warning the Governor wants to give to the elected government ought to be in private and in confidence.

Israel’s right to defend itself does not extend to indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Gaza

From Israeli armed forces storming Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque on Monday morning to Israel pounding Gaza with air strikes and artillery on Thursday night in response to the rocket firing by Hamas, the Israel-Palestine conflict has escalated dangerously within days. At least 119 Palestinians, including 31 children, have been killed in Israeli attacks on Gaza since May 10, while nine people were killed in Israel in the rocket attacks, including an Indian national and a child. For now, both sides have refused to stand down from the fighting despite international appeal. Israel cannot evade responsibility for the crisis engulfing the region. There was already resentment and frustration among the Palestinians in the occupied territories as Israel has expanded Jewish settlements and deepened occupation. Besides, Israel’s high-handedness in East Jerusalem and the move to evict Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah for Jewish settlers added to the anger, leading to clashes. Hamas, which claims to be the main national resistance force against the occupation, seized on the opportunity and escalated the crisis with rocket attacks. Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas’s militant infrastructure. But Israel knows that it is easier said than done. In 2014, Israel carried out a seven-week-long operation with the same objective. Seven years later, there is Hamas, firing over 1,800 rockets into Israel within five days.

Beyond the rhetoric by both sides, this is a loss-loss situation in which the civilians are taken hostages. Hamas’s rockets do not distinguish between Israeli civilians and soldiers. While the Iron Dome defence system neutralised most of the rockets, some actually hit Israel’s population centres, killing civilians and raising concerns for the country’s rulers. Israel is in fact witnessing a twin crisis. While the conflict with Hamas is escalating into a land attack, Israeli cities are gripped by riots between Jewish vigilantes and Arab mobs. The riots prompted President Reuven Rivlin to evoke fears of a civil war and the government to declare a state of emergency in some locations, including the central city of Lod. This is the most serious law and order crisis Israel is facing internally since the second intifada of 2000. In return, Israel has pulverised Gaza, inflicting a heavy casualty on the impoverished region’s population. The high casualty of children points to the collective punishment approach of the Israeli military. Israel’s right to defend itself, which the U.S. and Germany have endorsed, cannot be the right to launch an indiscriminate bombing on the civilians of Gaza. The international community, especially the U.S. which is a close ally of Israel, should put pressure on both sides to cease the fire. They should do it sooner rather than later as every day, dozens are being killed in the bombings.