Editorials - 17-05-2021

Lockdowns should be imposed only after adequate preparation and planning

At a time when several States are already under one form of lockdown or another, it seems facile to debate whether there should be a national lockdown or not. Indians are witness to never-before-seen sights of bodies floating in the Ganges, drought of medical oxygen, collapsing health infrastructure, a faltering vaccination drive, and the pandemic stretching its tentacles rapidly into rural areas.

With a national positivity rate of about 20% and over 4,000 daily deaths, India must do what it needs to do — a national lockdown if unavoidable; if not, regional lockdowns/micro-containment zones. It should, however, ensure that the implementation of any lockdown is humane and protects the interests of those likely to be worst affected. Lockdowns should be imposed only after adequate preparation and planning, involving experts. Moreover, adequate notice should be given to the affected people so that they have enough time to prepare themselves.

The Kerala model

The lockdown in Kerala offers some important lessons. Realising that night curfews and weekend lockdowns were insufficient to halt the rapid rise in infections, a complete lockdown from May 8 to 16 was announced on May 6. This provided the State with about two days to prepare for the event as compared to the national lockdown imposed last year with a four-hour notice.

From the beginning of the pandemic last year, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan took command and was the main face of the government’s response. Through daily press briefings, he provided detailed information on the rate of infections and fatalities; the availability of beds, ICUs, oxygen and vaccines; as well as measures taken to deal with the crisis. This paid handsome dividends in the recently concluded Assembly elections for the Left Democratic Front. The people liked the idea of a strong leader presiding over their interests and acting as a guardian in a time of crisis. Assured now of a second term, Mr. Vijayan has provided a smooth continuum in leadership and decision-making. He has continued his daily press briefings and communicated the gravity of the situation with facts and figures, steps being taken by the government, and the need for the public to cooperate.

The response to the second wave at the national level and in Delhi has been marked by confusion, conflicting authorities, lack of transparency and no clear assumption of responsibility or willingness to answer uncomfortable questions. People have been forced to use personal networks to scrounge for oxygen and beds in hospitals. In refreshing contrast, in Kerala, there is clarity on where the buck stops. Most Chief Ministers value their engagement with the media and are open and accessible. It is, however, not known how many of them engage with the media on the COVID-19 issue as intensely as Mr. Vijayan does and that too on a daily basis. The Prime Minister, Home Minister and Health Minister as well as Chief Ministers of the worst-affected States would be well advised to follow suit and see transparency as an important part of the COVID-19 response toolkit. A direct, open and proactive approach in this regard would go a long way in building popular trust and confidence that the crisis can be overcome.

A commendable aspect of the current lockdown in Kerala has been a clear articulation of the principle that no one in the State should suffer from hunger or lack of medical attention. To this end, food kits are being delivered to homes. Community kitchens and Janakeeya hotels (people’s hotels) have been opened. First-level treatment centres and second-level treatment centres have been set up to ensure that patients are screened and treated appropriate to their symptoms. Only the most serious cases reach the district and specialty COVID-19 hospitals. Domiciliary care centres have also been created to provide shelter, food and treatment to those who do not have the space at home to be quarantined. In private hospitals, 50% of the beds have been declared as COVID-19 beds. Focused efforts are underway to assure migrant workers that they need not flee to their hometowns in panic because of the lockdown. Communications in Hindi have been issued, clarifying that they will be provided food as well as vaccination.

Similar to the ‘Mumbai model’, beds are allotted through centralised control rooms in each district. These rooms also monitor requirements of oxygen and ambulances. Orders have been issued pegging the cost of RT-PCR testing and treatment charges in private hospitals at a reasonable level. The Kerala High Court has stepped in to supervise the government’s response. It has dismissed challenges from private labs to the reduction of charges and in response to a PIL, approved a rate card for hospitals prepared by the government. Coming down on private hospitals, the court pointed out how shocked it was at the usurious charges levied by some for the simplest of services.

Having empowered local bodies and devolved finances to them long before the crisis, elected officials at the grassroots level are Kerala’s first line of defence in the fight against COVID-19. Panchayat members and municipal councillors, irrespective of their political affiliations, function as foot soldiers. They look out for fresh infections amongst their constituents, motivate people to get vaccinated, supervise the implementation of the lockdown and ensure the supply of medicines and provisions to those in need. Commendably, the Opposition led by the Congress has called upon everyone to work together. Leaders from both the Opposition and ruling party have been setting up help desks, providing ambulances and organising food packets.

As a new government assumes office on May 20, the crisis will continue to be the most important item on its agenda. While good systems have been set up, there are complaints that the health workers are unable to cope. There are also reports of oxygen shortages in some parts of the State. There is fear that if numbers continue to rise, bed and oxygen shortages will become unavoidable.

Preparing for future waves

Clearly, the war against COVID-19 is going to be long-drawn and even a well organised State like Kerala will be kept on its toes. The second wave will pass but preparations still need to be made for a third and fourth wave. More lockdowns will be inevitable until such time the vaccination programme makes adequate progress and herd immunity is acquired. What is important is to mitigate the impact of these lockdowns on the lives of the poor by guaranteeing food and equitable access to healthcare. The Kerala model deserves attention in this regard. There are also best practices from other States which could be emulated across the country, such as the Tamil Nadu government’s announcement of incentives for healthcare workers.

Twelve Opposition parties have in a joint letter urged the Centre to immediately begin a free universal mass vaccination campaign and ensure uninterrrupted supply of medical oxygen and vaccines. They have also called for the invoking of compulsory licensing to expand domestic vaccine production. The convening of an online meeting of non-BJP Chief Ministers to support and reiterate these demands would be good follow-up to the letter. This could serve as a useful exercise in cross-learning amongst States. It could also reinforce the need to protect the people and formulate a just and equitable response to the pandemic.

Venu Rajamony is former Ambassador of India to the Netherlands and former Press Secretary to President Pranab Mukherjee

China-India ties are moving into a zone of problems even as New Delhi grapples with pandemic-related issues

It has been a year since the news of tensions between Indian and Chinese troops on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh first broke. Dismissed as a “routine” event in the first few weeks by officials, the truth about the extent of Chinese ingress could no longer be hidden when India lost 20 soldiers in a violent clash with soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in mid-June. As has been evident from commercial satellite imagery, sparse official statements and a few interviews, the crisis eventually involved seven places: Depsang plains, Galwan, Gogra, Hot Springs, North bank of Pangong Tso, Kailash range and Demchok.

Border crisis

The situation at Galwan was resolved a few weeks after the deadly clash, and the two sides disengaged from the face-off site. The Indian Army had occupied certain heights on the Kailash range in end-August, where it was in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the Chinese. In February this year, the two sides agreed to disengage from this location and from the north bank of Pangong Tso. This was announced by India’s Defence Minister in Parliament, where he also said that the two armies will convene the next meeting of the senior commanders within 48 hours after the complete disengagement in the Pangong lake area “to address and resolve all other remaining issues”. The last such meeting of commanders was held on April 9, but the Chinese have refused to even discuss the remaining issues.

Such an outcome was not entirely unexpected. It was written in this newspaper (“Looking after the Ladakh walkback”, February 17, 2021; https://bit.ly/3bsLvAi) that India had lost its only leverage on the Kailash range for the sake of disengagement on the north bank. This happened after India reversed its position of simultaneously resolving all the flashpoints in Ladakh rather than deal with them piecemeal. India’s military rationale was evident: with soldiers and tanks of the two armies barely a few metres apart, the situation was explosive and could escalate into a major crisis with a minor incident or accident. It was also clear that by restricting itself to its own side of the LAC on the Kailash range, India had not taken control of the more dominating peaks like the Black Top and had a weak hand to play with. Politically, the Narendra Modi government seemed keen to announce a closure of the border crisis by creating the impression of an honourable solution against a major power.

Three months later, no such closure is in sight. With the PLA troops denying India access to territories it controlled by patrolling, the government’s avowed aim of restoring thestatus quo anteas of April 2020 remains unfulfilled. Even on the north bank of Pangong, a newstatus quohas been created where the patrolling rights are yet to be restored. Similarly, the Kailash range has seen neither de-escalation nor de-induction so far.

In each statement, both India and China reiterate the need “to ensure peace and tranquillity” in border areas. Even if there have been no further deaths after June and no firing after early September, the peace on the border is both unstable and unsustainable. Ongoing tensions, with massive deployments on each side, belie any hope of tranquillity. That the security establishment in New Delhi is cognisant of the volatility and risk can be gauged from the fact that the Indian Army has undertaken a major reorientation of its units and formations towards the China border.

COVID-19 and geopolitics

Even as the situation on the border poses a tricky challenge for India, its geopolitical concerns have been exacerbated by the devastation caused by the mismanagement of COVID-19. Through its ‘Vaccine Maitri’ programme, New Delhi was presenting itself as a better alternative to Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy, particularly in South Asia. Shaken by scenes of massive suffering and public criticism, the Modi government has backtracked on existing contractual commitments to supply vaccines to its friendly neighbours. Countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have started procuring vaccines from China, further casting doubts on India’s reliability as a partner and raising questions about its ability to act as a counter to China. Sensing the opportunity, Beijing also moved in quickly, organising a meeting with all South Asian countries except India, ostensibly to deal with the pandemic.

New Delhi was also the lynchpin of the Quad’s pledge to deliver a billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine throughout the Indo-Pacific by the end of 2022, an effort focused on countering Chinese influence in the region. With India now trying to import vaccines for its own population and reneging on its commitments to other poor countries under GAVI’s COVAX scheme, the proposal now seems to be on a weak footing. The abysmal failure of the Modi government to anticipate and deal with a public health crisis has diminished India’s aura as an emergent power. A Prime Minister tom-tomming the mantra of ‘Atmanirbharata’ or self-reliance has been forced to reverse a 16-year-old policy to accept global aid has laid bare India’s vulnerabilities, further reducing its standing as the Quad’s anchor.

A weaker India is not only less attractive as a partner globally, it makes New Delhi more dependent on the United States to deal with China. That India has been acting at the behest of the U.S. has been one of China’s presumptions and this would only confirm Beijing’s worst fears. It would further strain India-China ties, directly linking them to the vagaries of the China-U.S. relationship. The hypothesis that India can safeguard its land borders by strengthening its oceanic prowess could then be put to test, a scenario New Delhi wants to avoid at all costs.

Meanwhile, the threat of a two-front collusive threat after the Ladakh crisis forced the Modi government to seek peace with Pakistan. The back channel talks, facilitated by the United Arab Emirates, led to the announcement of the ceasefire on the Line of Control which has held so far. But there have been contradictory voices emerging from Islamabad and the process seems to be floundering, as Pakistan awaits the steps on Kashmir promised by the Modi government. No political environment has been created in India for any such step so far.

New Delhi’s preoccupation with the pandemic may brook a delay of few weeks but fears of failure, a routine happening in India-Pakistan engagements, loom large. It is hard to predict the Pakistani course of action hence, but if the past is an experience to go by, it has usually been spiteful, reckless and dangerous, especially when India is seen as weak. Coupled with the imminent American military withdrawal from Afghanistan and a win for the Taliban, the signs are ominous. An assertive China and a vengeful Pakistan acting in concert on the land borders is India’s military nightmare, which New Delhi will have to avoid at all costs.

Chinese supplies

Meanwhile, Beijing has made certain significant moves towards New Delhi in the recent days. China’s President Xi Jinping sent a message to Mr. Modi to convey sympathy and express condolences over the pandemic, which was the first communication between the two since the border crisis began last year. The Chinese Foreign Minister spoke to his Indian counterpart twice and offered help to deal with the pandemic, which led to an early clearance and approval of cargo flights from China. The Chinese Ambassador to India has been highlighting the supplies and the material being sent to India.

Beijing’s efforts have been largely confined to private companies and donations from the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, unlike other countries which have pledged government help to India. Curiously, much of the Chinese media ambiguously frames it as Chinese aid, while India explicitly avoids that framing and lays stress on the point that these are largely commercial contracts between private companies. Even if the Chinese intent is to project itself on a par with other global powers providing relief and aid to India, the fact remains that India is heavily dependent on China for crucial medical supplies. State-owned Sichuan Airlines had suspended cargo flights to India for 15 days beginning last month, but the supply chains have since been kept open by Beijing. This is in tune with the Indian demand from Beijing that the supply chain should remain open but the other demand to ensure stable product prices has not been met.

More point scoring

If the recent weeks during the pandemic provided an opportunity for the two Asian giants to work together, that hope has been lost as both governments have focused on point scoring. That reflects the broader state of bilateral ties, but is also a fundamental difference emanating from the ongoing border crisis. As the talks between India and China have floundered, New Delhi has taken a position that the border issue is central to the bilateral relationship. This runs contrary to Beijing’s argument that the boundary question cannot be seen as the whole of the bilateral relationship. In an ideal world, New Delhi can hope for a settlement that delineates and demarcates the LAC in some form but Beijing has ruled out any such proposal. With soldiers of both armies facing each other in Ladakh and a lack of trust between the two countries as the two governments talk past each other in a period of geopolitical churn, it is clear that the China-India bilateral relationship is moving into a zone of increasing disruptions, and attendant risks of conflagration on the disputed border.

Sushant Singh is a Senior Fellow with the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

In the pandemic, women have borne a disproportionate burden of the severe disruptions to life and the economy

The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed millions of livelihoods and led to a sudden and large increase in poverty and a massive disruption of the labour market in India. Women workers, in particular, have borne a disproportionate burden. As the country meets the challenge of the second wave of the pandemic, it is crucial to learn lessons from the first wave to chart the policy path ahead.

A widening gap

Even prior to 2020, the gender employment gap was large. Only 18% of working-age women were employed as compared to 75% of men. Reasons include a lack of good jobs, restrictive social norms, and the burden of household work. Our recently released report, ‘State of Working India 2021: One Year of Covid-19’ (https://bit.ly/2RmW29p) shows that the pandemic has worsened the situation.

The nationwide lockdown hit women much harder than men. Data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy Pvt. Ltd. show that 61% of male workers were unaffected during the lockdown while only 19% of women experienced this kind of security. Even by the end of the year, 47% of employed women who had lost jobs during the lockdown, had not returned to work. The equivalent number for men was only 7%.

Men who did lose work were able to regain it, even if it was at the cost of increased precarity or lower earnings, because they had the option of moving into fallback employment arrangements. Thus, 33% of formal salaried men moved into self employment and 9% into daily wage work between late 2019 and late 2020. In contrast, women had far fewer options — only 4% and 3% of formal salaried women moved into self employment and daily wage work, respectively. Nearly half of the women workers, irrespective of whether they were salaried, casual, or self-employed, withdrew from the workforce, as compared to only 11% of men.

Even as new entrants to the workforce, women workers had poorer options compared to men. Women were more likely to enter as daily wage workers while men found avenues for self-employment. Daily wage work is typically far less remunerative than self employment as on average, between September to October 2020, a daily wage worker earned about Rs. 7,965 compared to a self-employed worker who earned nearly twice that at Rs. 12,955. So, not only did women enter into more precarious work, it was also likely to be at very low earnings compared to men.

Women tended to lose work disproportionately irrespective of the industry in which they were employed. For instance, the share of women in job losses in education was three times their share in that industry. So, while around 20 out of 100 workers in education were women, amongst those who lost work, about 70 out of 100 were women. Similarly, in the health sector, 40 out of 100 workers were women, while of the 100 in this sector who lost work, 80 were women.

Growing domestic work

With schools closed and almost everyone limited to the confines of their homes, household responsibilities increased for women. Married women and women from larger households were less likely to return to work, suggesting that the burden of care may be a reason for poor employment recovery. But even for those women who managed to remain employed, this came alongside a massive increase in the burden of household work. The India Working Survey 2020 found that among employed men, the number of hours spent on paid work remained more or less unchanged after the pandemic. But for women, the number of hours spent in domestic work increased manifold. In February-March, about 10%-20% of women reported spending between two to four hours on domestic work. This share had increased to about 50% by September. This increase in hours came without any accompanying relief in the hours spent on paid work.

The course to take

The long-standing question of women’s participation in India’s economy has become more urgent with the pandemic disproportionately impacting women’s paid work and increasing the burden of unpaid care work. The following measures are needed now: expansion of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and the introduction of an urban employment guarantee targeted to women as soon as the most severe forms of mobility restrictions are lifted.

We further propose co-ordinated efforts by States to facilitate employment of women while also addressing immediate needs through the setting up of community kitchens, prioritising the opening of schools andanganwadicentres, and engagement with self-help groups for the production of personal protective equipment kits. Further, a COVID-19 hardship allowance of at least Rs. 5,000 per month for six months should be announced for 2.5 million accredited social health activists and Anganwadi workers, most of whom are women.

But this is not enough. The National Employment Policy, currently in the works, should systematically address the constraints around the participation of the women’s workforce, both with respect to the availability of work and household responsibilities. The pandemic has shown the necessity of adequate public investment in social infrastructure.

The time is right to imagine a bold universal basic services programme that not only fills existing vacancies in the social sector but also expands public investments in health, education, child and elderly care, and so on, to be prepared for future shocks. This can help bring women into the workforce not only by directly creating employment for them but also by alleviating some of their domestic work burdens, while also overcoming nutritional and educational deficits that we are likely to be confronted with as we emerge from this crisis.

Rosa Abraham is Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Sustainable Employment, Azim Premji University. Amit Basole is Associate Professor of Economics, Azim Premji University.

The task of journalists is to bring attention to the toll that this pandemic is taking on everyone

Last week, three letters reiterated a point I had made in my earlier column, ‘An inclusive public sphere’ (April 19), in which I had cited a study by the American Press Institute documenting the disjunction between core journalistic values and the expectations of a privileged citizenry. The first letter questioned the wisdom of the editorial, ‘Out of line’ (May 15), which pointed out a straightforward constitutional flaw. It argued that Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar’s visit to violence-hit areas in West Bengal was a breach of constitutional propriety. The second was a letter that came in defence of BJP MP Tejasvi Surya. It said that he too has his freedom of expression and the media should not gag him. The third letter was from a regular contributor, V.N. Mukundarajan, from Thiruvananthapuram, who was very unhappy with the newspaper’s coverage of the pandemic.

The narrative on positivity

The first two letters were virulent. Mr. Mukundarajan tried to make a case for positivity. Given the layered nature of his arguments, I reproduce here substantial portions of his mail. He wrote: “Not a day passes without the paper’s front page screaming death and destruction. The paper’s defining mood has been one of negativity underlined by a fetish for the macabre. Gruesome and revolting depictions of bodies floating on rivers and people choking to death in ICUs flashed as front-page headlines made me wonder whether I was reading a potboiler. Under the garb of telling truth to power, the paper seems to have embraced doomsday journalism. Nobody wantsThe Hinduto whitewash a tragedy, but over catastrophising makes one pause and look for ostensible reasons [forThe Hindu’s coverage].”

He further invoked the international audience and wrote: “Whether intentionally or unintentionally,The Hinduseems eager to tell its international audience that India is collapsing under the weight of a catastrophe; that India is a failing state. Sections of the western media, ever on the lookout for India’s negative side, have already picked up the noise.” He made a distinction between holding a mirror to a tragedy and holding a magnifying glass to the tragedy that distorts reality. He said there is a total abandonment of sensitivity in a moment of tragedy when politics should take a backseat.

The present narrative of positivity, seen even in the high-profile Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh event called ‘Positivity Unlimited’, intended to counter the ‘negativity’ around the fight against COVID-19, urges citizens not to question those in power and their failure in planning for a disaster and mitigating the pain caused by the pandemic.

Glossing over failures

Some slogans have had the power to transform people’s life. Mahatma Gandhi’s anti-colonial struggle had a powerful slogan at its heart: ‘Quit India’. B.R. Ambedkar mobilised millions of people to walk out of humiliation through his powerful writing, ‘Annihilation of caste’.

But if slogans are meant to save those in power and gloss over the complete failure of governance, then their vacuousness is seen by all. Rhetorical flourishes touch no one’s heart. This government came to power with the slogan, ‘minimum government, maximum governance’. But the pandemic has clearly proved that what we have is more government and less governance.

A famous story in Buddhism, ‘Kisa Gotami and the Mustard Seed’, should be the guiding principle for journalism. The Buddha did not gloss over death, loss and pain. When Kisa Gotami went to the Buddha with her dead son and asked him to bring her son back to life, the Buddha asked her to bring him a mustard seed from a home that had not seen death. Those who are talking about positivity are in search of that elusive mustard seed. What the Buddha taught Kisa Gotami was that loss is universal. The task of journalists is to bring attention to the toll that this pandemic is taking on everyone. It is also a fact that those who are worried about the international media’s coverage of India are also jubilant when these publications carry positive reports about India.

This does not mean that the newspaper is not covering positive developments. For instance, it carried a long-form report titled ‘Beating back the pandemic in Mumbai’ (May 15). This report meticulously documented how the financial capital of India is trying to contain the spread of the pandemic. It pointed out that the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation met the second wave of the COVID-19 challenge on a war footing by learning from the lessons offered by the first wave.


It is time to set up a National Tribunals Commission

The Centre has abolished several appellate tribunals and authorities and transferred their jurisdiction to other existing judicial bodies through the Tribunals Reforms (Rationalisation and Conditions of Service) Ordinance 2021. This Ordinance has been challenged in the Supreme Court.

Sharp criticism

The Ordinance has met with sharp criticism for not only bypassing the usual legislative process, but also for abolishing several tribunals such as the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal without any stakeholder consultation. Despite the Supreme Court’s direction inRojer Mathew v. South Indian Bank(2019), no judicial impact assessment was conducted prior to abolishing the tribunals through this Ordinance. While the Ordinance has incorporated the suggestions made inMadras Bar Association v. Union of India(2020) on the composition of a search-cum-selection committee and its role in disciplinary proceedings, it has also fixed a four-year tenure for Chairpersons and members of tribunals “notwithstanding anything contained in any judgment, order, or decree of any court” by blatantly disregarding the court’s direction for fixing a five-year term. Further, the Centre is yet to constitute a National Tribunals Commission (NTC), an independent umbrella body to supervise the functioning of tribunals, appointment of and disciplinary proceedings against members, and to take care of administrative and infrastructural needs of the tribunals. The idea of an NTC was first mooted inL. Chandra Kumar v. Union of India(1997), but it has still not seen the light of day.

Initiating dialogue and promoting awareness about the NTC is vital for overcoming the government’s inertia in establishing such a body. Developing an independent oversight body for accountable governance requires a legal framework that protects its independence and impartiality. Where the institutional design is not properly conceived, partisan interests can twist the law to serve political or private interests. In India, executive interference in the functioning of tribunals is often seen in matters of appointment and removal of tribunal members, as well as in provision of finances, infrastructure, personnel and other resources required for day-to-day functioning of the tribunals. Therefore, the NTC must be established vide a constitutional amendment or be backed by a statute that guarantees it functional, operational and financial independence.

One of the main reasons that has motivated the idea of NTC is the need for an authority to support uniform administration across all tribunals. The NTC could therefore pave the way for the separation of the administrative and judicial functions carried out by various tribunals. A ‘corporatised’ structure of NTC with a Board, a CEO and a Secretariat will allow it to scale up its services and provide requisite administrative support to all tribunals across the country.

Administrative duties

The NTC would ideally take on some duties relating to administration and oversight. It could set performance standards for the efficiency of tribunals and their own administrative processes. Importantly, it could function as an independent recruitment body to develop and operationalise the procedure for disciplinary proceedings and appointment of tribunal members. Giving the NTC the authority to set members’ salaries, allowances, and other service conditions, subject to regulations, would help maintain tribunals’ independence. Administrative roles of the NTC include providing support services to tribunal members, litigants, and their lawyers. For this purpose, it would need to be able to hire and supervise administrative staff, and to consolidate, improve, and modernise tribunals’ infrastructure.

As the Finance Ministry has been vested with the responsibility for tribunals until the NTC is constituted, it should come up with a transition plan. The way to reform the tribunal system is to look at solutions from a systemic perspective supported by evidence. Establishing the NTC will definitely entail a radical restructuring of the present tribunals system.

Aakanksha Mishra and Siddharth Mandrekar Rao are Research Associates with DAKSH

Enabling other manufacturersto produce Covaxin is a necessary step

As the second COVID-19 wave continues to ravage the country, it is now clear that universal and swift vaccination is the only way out to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. But with only 3% and 10.4% of the total population estimated to have taken the second and a single dose, respectively, the goal of vaccinating a substantial number of people to achieve immunity against SARS-CoV-2 and its variants, remains a tall order for India. Supply constraints in delivering the only two vaccines available to Indians so far — Covishield and Covaxin — (the Russian-developed Sputnik V vaccine has just been deployed) are one of the reasons why the pace of vaccination has fallen. Karnataka and Maharashtra have halted vaccination for the 18-44 age group to address this as well. While the manufacturers, Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech, have promised an augmentation in production capacity, the dependence on them till other vaccines, including those from abroad, are made available over the long term, will remain a constraint in the pace of vaccination and expose much of the population to the possibility of infection. India has rightly sought (along with South Africa) a temporary waiver of provisions in the TRIPS Agreement to facilitate universal access to COVID-19 vaccines. But the Centre has done nothing to bring vaccines and medicines under a statutory regime in India to allow for wider availability and a diversity of options.

In fact, the Centre’s submission to the Supreme Court that the “exercise of statutory powers... under the Patents Act, 1970... can only prove to be counter-productive at this stage”, is clearly contradictory to its international position for a temporary waiver in the TRIPS Agreement. The Agreement allows exceptions to the rights of patent owners by grant of compulsory licences. Section 100 of the Patents Act, 1970, allows the Centre to license specific companies to manufacture the vaccines, while Section 92 of the Act allows the Centre to issue a compulsory licence in circumstances of a national or an extreme emergency. Considering the impact of the second wave, the daily toll and the high case load, the Centre should revisit its rigid and contradictory stance on the issue of compulsory licensing that would allow the manufacture of vaccines and important drugs without the consent of the patent holder. In the case of Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin, which was developed in collaboration with the publicly funded ICMR and the NIV, even this route is redundant. The ICMR can license other public sector vaccine manufacturers to help augment its supply over the medium term. As of now, two central PSUs, Indian Immunologicals Ltd and BIBCOL, have already entered into a technology transfer agreement with Bharat Biotech, besides the Haffkine Bio-pharmaceutical Corporation based in Mumbai. Other manufacturers can also re-purpose their plants to produce the vaccine.

The govt. must respond to concerns about demolitions in Central Vista redevelopment

The Government of India’s Central Vista redevelopment project is highly questionable as a national priority at any time, and more so in the midst of a pandemic. The project includes the construction of a new Parliament building, and new residences for the Prime Minister and the Vice President. A new Parliament building is indeed required; and there is a strong case for reorganising the existing offices of the central government. However, the architecture and timelines of the redevelopment as it is happening now are less about the need and more about an imperious obsession with grandeur. The irony is that a colossus built amid the ruins of a pandemic could turn out to be a monument to the government’s disregard for public good. The misplaced determination of the Centre to complete the project before the next Lok Sabha election in 2024 is characteristic of the showmanship that has befallen governance in India, but there is no justifiable urgency in razing to the ground a row of buildings and then rebuilding. Last week, 76 scholars, artists, writers, curators and museum professionals put the spotlight on a particularly concerning aspect of the project. The National Museum of India, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), and the National Archives Annexe are set to be demolished to make way for new buildings.

These experts have called for an immediate suspension of the project, and wide public consultations on the path ahead. There are valid concerns about the conservation of the collections housed at these centres. Relocation of the treasures at the National Museum, archival records at the National Archives and manuscript holdings at the IGNCA can be an extremely challenging task even during ordinary times. It is a complex operation that requires detailed planning and expertise. Such changes around premier institutions take place only after wide consultations in any part of the world; and certainly not in the opaque and cavalier manner as is being planned here. Artefacts at the National Museum still lack a complete inventory, the experts have pointed out, flagging the risk of loss or mishandling. The Central Vista redevelopment project is clearly being implemented in a hurry. The government’s intolerance towards any public scrutiny of the project is such that even photography of the construction is now banned. The country is facing an unprecedented health crisis, the ripple effects of which are being felt in the economic, social and political spheres too. The government will lose nothing if it were to suspend the project, and take the Opposition and the public into confidence on the future course, in calmer times.

Lala Lajpat Rai emphasised that the spirit of fearlessness and courage to stand by principles, for which the Congress was fighting, was demanded of every Indian at this supreme moment. 150 years of British rule, he said, had produced such a slave-mentality that even great intellectuals among Indians, thought that the attainment of Swarajya by India, by 32 crores of the population within one year, was impossible. It was to remove this mentality that the time of one year was given. When India gives up this slave-mentality, she would attain Swarajya. He was glad that the courage with which Congressmen went to gaol was quiet proof. Personally, he had attained Swarajya, which was knowing the truth, speaking the truth fearlessly, and even dying for the vindication of truth.

Referring to the posibilities of the Afghan invasion, he asked those who threatened them with it to remember that they who were Non-Co-operating with the British Government, would not have any other foreign power ruling over them.

President Yahya Khan’s special emissary, Mr. M.M. Ahmed, has so far made no significant headway in his quest for American aid to bail Pakistan out from imminent bankruptcy though he was readily given a hearing by President Nixon and Mr. Henry Kissinger, National Security Adviser. The Administration has so far been wary about making any commitment to Pakistan in this regard because of the sustained pressure from Congress and the press in this country [Washington, May 16]. East Bengal sources here who have been keeping a tab on Mr. Ahmed’s activities say that in return for U.S. assistance, Mr. Ahmed has offered a package deal which includes drastic devaluation of the Pakistan rupee and the early establishment of “a responsible Government, in East Pakistan by the “representatives of the people”. Both are recognised as fake offers here. Economists doubt whether in Pakistan’s current financial plight even a 100 per cent devaluation can boost its export earnings. The other proposal — “a representative government” — under the aegis of discredited politicians handpicked by Mr. Yahya Khan is also not regarded as a durable political solution by the authorities here.