Editorials - 18-05-2021

In order to understand the pandemic’s extent, a district-wise estimation is the best bet to arrive at a national total

Last year, in these columns, I wrote about the many challenges in estimating deaths due to COVID-19 in India (https://bit.ly/2Rs4hAZ). While the challenges remain, the need for estimating COVID-19 deaths globally and in India to understand the magnitude of the pandemic is still there. Since direct counting of COVID-deaths is problematic, the approach most commonly used is the “excess” death approach which attributes all deaths beyond what is considered “normal” for that area and time to COVID-19. It includes deaths directly caused by COVID-19 as well as deaths indirectly caused due to the impact on access to care for other diseases during the pandemic and the lockdown.

Global estimates released

While official or unofficial estimates are available for some countries, two estimates have been released globally. Based on the World Mortality Dataset — the largest international dataset of all-cause mortality encompassing 89 countries — researchers estimated excess mortality and reported that it exceeded the number of reported COVID-19 deaths in these countries by over 1.6 times. It also said that this ratio is likely to be conservative as undercounting is likely to be much higher in countries which are not part of this dataset (https://bit.ly/3eQ3Bye).

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), a global leader in this area, recently released its estimates that put the global toll of COVID-19 deaths by May 3, 2021 at 6.93 million, a figure that is more than two times higher than the reported number of deaths of 3.24 million. India accounted for about 10% of them at 6,54,395 (only second to the United States with an estimated 0.9 million) which is about three times higher than the reported official figure (https://bit.ly/3omaKtg).

The lower number of reported deaths does not imply undercounting, deliberate or otherwise. Even if there had been no underreporting of COVID deaths in a country, this ratio is likely to be above one as excess deaths include not only those that are directly caused by COVID-19 and likely to be reported but also those where deaths occurred due to other diseases, either due to a lack of care or as a consequence of COVID-19. It is very difficult to tease out these proportions. We might have a better sense if we look at cause-specific deaths. But that kind of data is still more difficult to get.

WHO classification

The World Health Organization classifies countries into three categories based on their data availability for COVID-19 excess death estimation. First are those countries that have good data available and excess death estimation is possible (most countries in the above mortality dataset). Second is the group of countries whose data, though not good, is acceptable for use through some process of harmonisation or adjustment for incompleteness leaving the third category of countries where the data on deaths are not available or usable, forcing the adoption of an indirect approach of using data from other countries or a multivariate approach using covariates to arrive at these estimates. India and China, which together constitute a third of the world population, are currently in category three, and unless we manage to provide some source of usable data, India will have to be content with an estimate generated by an external agency using an indirect approach.

Data for India

So, what do we know about the COVID-19 mortality in India? Data from Kerala, which is among the States with a very good vital registration system, showed that there has been a decline in deaths in 2020 as compared to previous years (https://bit.ly/3eTBaj3). While it will need a closer look, under-registration of all deaths due to the pandemic is a possibility.

Data released by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, shows 22% excess deaths during 2020 in Mumbai region (https://bit.ly/3hwwHEx). An analysis of data from a panel of 2,32,000 households maintained by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy Pvt Ltd (CMIE) found that deaths from all causes between May and August 2020 numbered almost twice as many as compared with the same period in past years (https://bit.ly/3wepv4m).

These are crude estimates based on the number of extra deaths reported as compared to previous years. Estimation of excess deaths needs a more sophisticated statistical approach which first defines a baseline, before estimating excess. The simplest approach for defining a baseline would be estimation of mean and standard error based on data for the last five years to provide a plausible range for a baseline. We could then see whether the registered deaths are beyond that range to estimate “excess” deaths. There are other statistical approaches which use different data distribution assumptions to define a baseline. This analysis should be done by age and sex on a weekly or monthly basis and correlated to the peaks of the epidemic.

My team analysed data from the Civil Registration System (CRS) of district Faridabad in Haryana, which has been reporting 100% registration of deaths in the past few years. We found that 7% higher deaths have been reported in 2020 as compared to 2016-19, with a 17% increase in deaths above 60 years. By applying well-accepted statistical techniques, we found that the period of excess deaths correlated with the pandemic peaks in the districts. Our range of estimates for excess deaths by different approaches resulted in a ratio of reported to excess death estimate to be between 1.8 to 4. This is not very different from that reported by the IHME, though its ratio included part of the second wave. This estimate should be read in the context that 80% of the population for Faridabad is urban and the serological survey in October 2020 showed a 31% seropositivity.

It is not appropriate to extrapolate these estimates to India as even within India, there are enormous differences in the severity and timing of the epidemic and its health system capacity. Thus, combining data at higher levels is likely to lead to errors in estimation. A district-wise estimation is our best bet to arrive at a national estimate. An assessment of the quality of CRS data should enable us to identify districts with an acceptable quality of registration and generate estimates for them. For districts which lack an acceptable quality of registration, we could use alternative approaches. We are seeking access to the CRS dataset from the authorities and are hopeful of being able to generate national estimates in the next few months.

A continuing process

Our experience with an estimation of deaths in past influenza pandemics shows that different agencies come up with different estimates which leads to confusion among policy makers and the public. These are both due to data limitations and differences in statistical approaches. The long-term way out for countries is to address the data limitations while academics work on refining their approaches.

There will be more estimates of COVID deaths in the near future and the numbers will keep changing till some sort of a consensus emerges. However, putting up a number which is contested and debated is still good as it propels people to improve that estimate. The second wave has been deadlier, and undercounting is more likely to have occurred as the pandemic has spread to rural areas, and when access to testing has been adversely affected and many deaths are occurring outside hospitals. Refining our approaches using the first wave in 2020 would enable a much better estimation of the deaths in subsequent waves.

Dr. Anand Krishnan is Professor of Community Medicine at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi and a Member of the World Health Organization/United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Technical Advisory Group on COVID mortality

A monthly cash transfer to informal workers will provide them relief and also revive the economy

The majority of India’s working population is today reeling from the impact of multiple crises: a health emergency more ferocious than any in independent India; massive job losses and dramatic declines in incomes from work; and significantly increased mass hunger and worsening nutrition.

Many failures

The Supreme Court on May 13 directed the Centre and the State governments of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to provide free rations without insisting on ID proof to all migrant workers and to run kitchens providing free meals twice a day. The verdict was significant as this was the first time since the national lockdown last March that the apex court acknowledged a hunger crisis in the country that needed urgent state action. But it fell short of being path-breaking for three reasons: it did not extend the facility to the country as a whole; it did not extend the facility to cover cash payments by the state besides meals and ration; and it made the facility a state largesse rather than a right. Had it recognised a universal right to livelihood as the basis for its verdict, deriving from the right to life, all three lacunae would have been overcome.

The most brazen violation of the right to life by the state at present is its vaccine policy. Being vaccinated against COVID-19 is essential for defending one’s right to life; and since the state must respect everyone’s right to life, it must make the vaccine equally available to all irrespective of the recipient’s capacity to pay. This can be accomplished only if vaccination is free. In many other countries, including the most privatised medical systems like the U.S., vaccines are being distributed free to all the people. India is making people (aged 18-45 years) pay to be administered these vaccines in private clinics — an obscene and counterproductive strategy to deal with a pandemic.

This is the outcome of many grave failures of the Indian government: it did not ensure adequate production through compulsory licensing of more producers; it did not order enough vaccines; it reneged on its responsibility to provide these vaccines to State governments; it introduced differential pricing, forcing State governments to compete with each other and with private clinics to buy vaccines; and it allowed price gouging by Bharat Biotech and Serum Institute of India.

The lack of consideration for lives is matched by callousness about the loss of livelihood that has come about during the second wave. At least 90% of workers are informal, with no legal or social protection, denied adequate compensation over the past year of lockdowns, restrictions and economic distress. But there is hardly any public outcry about the plight of the nearly one billion people whose lives depend on informal activities, and policymakers, especially at the national level, have completely abandoned them. The consequences of inaction are going to be dire and long-lasting, not just for people experiencing untold suffering, but for the country and the future economic trajectory.

A recent study called ‘Hunger Watch’ by a large collective of social groups found that even two months after the lockdown was lifted last year, two-third families reported eating less than they did before the lockdown, and a reduction in healthy food. For a quarter of the families surveyed, incomes had fallen by half. It also found that hunger was higher in urban India compared to rural. The recent knee-jerk lockdowns will stifle the attempts for revival.

A significant fiscal package

Even as the country confronts its greatest humanitarian crisis in half a century, India is one of the few countries in the world that has not come up with a significant fiscal package to counter the health and economic effects of the pandemic. It has remained fiscally conservative, and actual Central government spending over April 2020 to February 2021 shows a rise in non-interest expenditure only by 2.1% of GDP. This explains why India’s economy has been performing so poorly compared to other countries that were more battered by the first wave of the pandemic, since most of them had significantly larger fiscal packages that were also directed towards providing income support to people.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman speaks of government spending on the backlog of infrastructure projects as the means for a recovery. If instead she relied on cash transfers to the millions of the labouring poor, it would have shielded them from slipping deeper into hunger and joblessness and also spurred growth, because all of this would be spent for simple, domestically produced goods. Therefore, the ‘multiplier’ effects of this public expenditure would have been much higher than if spent on infrastructure projects.

Free rations and meals, as mandated by the Supreme Court, though beneficial, have very little expansionary effect on the economy, since the bulk of the commodities required come from decumulation of existing stocks of foodgrains. Thus, both the need to provide relief and the imperative to revive the economy demand that a monthly cash transfer, of about Rs. 7,000 per family (the rough equivalent of minimum wages), be made to people, over and above the provision of free meals and rations.

What the state needs to do urgently is to take a range of measures that prioritise the right to life, which also remains the surest way of initiating assured (and equitable) economic recovery today. Among them are enabling expanded production and central procurement of COVID-19 vaccines, and distribution to States for free immunisation to all; universal access to free foodgrains of 5 kg per month to all those who require it for the next six months; cash transfers of Rs. 7,000 per household for at least three months to those without regular formal employment; increased resources to the Integrated Child Development Services to enable revival and expansion of their programmes; making the MGNREGS purely demand-driven, with no ceilings on the number of days or the number of beneficiaries per household; and covering urban India with a parallel scheme that would also cater to the educated unemployed.

Where, it would be asked, are the resources? In an economy with substantial unemployment, unutilised capacity and unused foodgrain stocks (about 80 million tonnes at present), resource mobilisation does not require curtailing anyone else’s consumption. Even enlarging the fiscal deficit would cause no harm, except that it would gratuitously widen wealth inequalities and frighten globally mobile finance capital. To prevent both, a simple measure would be to introduce wealth taxation (though larger profit taxation will also suffice). These measures together would not cost more than an additional 3.5% of GDP, of which about 1% would flow back as extra tax revenue to Central and State governments, requiring 2.5% of GDP as fresh additional tax revenue. A 1.5% wealth tax levied on only the top 1% of households will be adequate to raise this amount.

These figures are only illustrative. But when U.S. President Joe Biden and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen are considering more radical measures, India should not shy away from measures that give substance and meaning to the term ‘right to life’ and the pledges of equality and fraternity in the Constitution.

Prabhat Patnaik is Professor Emeritus, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, JNU, New Delhi; Jayati Ghosh is a Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, U.S.; and Harsh Mander is a human rights worker, writer and teacher

Unprecedented interactions among the major powers are leading to a significant diplomatic churn in the region

Major West Asian nations have recently embarked on new diplomatic engagements with erstwhile rivals that could in time overturn existing regional alignments and possibly end ongoing conflicts that have wreaked havoc in several states.

The most dramatic interactions have been between senior Saudi and Iranian officials. After their meeting on April 9, the first since diplomatic ties were broken in January 2016, there have been other interactions, with technical committees set up to look at specific topics.

Again, since early this year, following the removal of the diplomatic and economic blockade on Qatar that was imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, Doha has made efforts to mend ties with both Saudi Arabia and Egypt, in tandem with similar initiatives of its doctrinal and political ally, Turkey.

On May 5, Turkey and Egypt had their first diplomatic meeting in Cairo after they had broken diplomatic ties in 2013, when Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was overthrown in a military coup. The two countries, on opposite sides on almost all regional issues, are now exploring how to address their differences.

The Biden challenge

The driving force behind these unprecedented engagements is the advent of the Biden administration at the helm of politics in the United States. Within his first 100 days in office, Mr. Biden has signalled a fresh U.S. approach to West Asian affairs. He has taken a tough line on Saudi Arabia, indicating a closer scrutiny of its human rights record and strong opposition to the war in Yemen.

Egypt too has concerns on the human rights issue, while seeking regional support for its differences with Ethiopia. It now seems the U.S. could re-enter the nuclear agreement, but Iran has concerns about the limitations to be imposed on its regional role.

Turkey could also experience fresh winds from Washington. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has built close ties with Russia, while threatening U.S. allies in Syria, the Kurds, with military force. Mr. Biden is expected to be less accommodative; his recent recognition of the Armenian “genocide” is already a fresh rebuke.

Besides concerns in West Asian capitals about a new U.S. approach to each of them, the broader message from Washington is that the U.S. is now likely to be less engaged with the region’s quarrels. Mr. Biden seems to be reiterating earlier messages from his predecessors Barack Obama and Donald Trump that regional states should be responsible for regional security.

These signals of new U.S. policies have occurred even as the novel coronavirus pandemic is devastating West Asia. Besides the widespread infections and deaths, the viral epidemic has severely damaged regional economies, while oil prices remain in the doldrums, creating uncertainties for the producer states.

Finally, one major factor that is encouraging these unprecedented interactions among rivals is the recognition that the ongoing regional conflicts, in Syria, Yemen and Libya, despite the massive death and destruction, have yielded no military outcome and now demand fresh diplomatic approaches.

Recent engagements

Following the first meetings in Baghdad, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have made efforts to improve the atmosphere. In a recent interview, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman spoke of seeking a “good and special relationship” with Iran. The Iranian spokesman responded by referring to a “new phase of cooperation and tolerance”.

The priority for the kingdom is to end the Yemen conflict: the lethal attacks from the precision missiles of the Houthis, said to have been provided by Iran, are a threat to national infrastructure and morale. The recent Houthi attack on oil-rich Marib is also a Saudi concern, while Iran would like theblockaded Hodeidah port which is partially open, to be used to rush humanitarian aid to the beleaguered Houthis. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has supported the Saudi offer of a ceasefire in Yemen.

Both countries also share concerns relating to the political impasse in Lebanon and the security of the waters of the Gulf and the Red Sea where a “shadow war” on oil and merchant vessels could escalate into a larger conflict. So far, both have paid a heavy financial price for their rivalry: Iran’s role in Syria costs its exchequer a few billion dollars every month, while Saudi Arabia has spent several hundred billion dollars in buying weaponry to sustain its partnership with the U.S.

Turkey is also exhibiting diplomatic dexterity. Despite differences with Egypt over Libya, the East Mediterranean waters and Turkey’s affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey now sees Egypt as a valuable partner to promote peace in Libya and pursue their interests jointly in the East Mediterranean by challenging Greece, Israel and Cyprus.

Turkey has also made overtures to Saudi Arabia. Besides accepting the Saudi court verdict on the Khashoggi murder case (https://bit.ly/3w5QwGS), Turkey has indicated it could work with the Saudis against the Houthis and facilitate the post-war political process through the Islamist Al-Islah party. Turkey has also offered the kingdom its advanced drones to be used against Houthi missiles.

Qatar’s outreach to Egypt has been well received, since it appears to have moderated its ties with the Brotherhood, toned down anti-Egypt broadcasts on Al Jazeera television, and is a major potential investor in Egypt’s flagging economy. To promote regional peace, Qatar’s Foreign Minister has called for a structured dialogue of the Gulf countries with Iran, affirming its view that Iran is a major presence in the regional security scenario.

Regional security

These are very early days and all sides concerned have a long way to go in resolving their differences. Egypt remains uneasy about Turkey’s ties with the Brotherhood and its regional ambitions. Saudi Arabia has similar concerns about Turkey’s doctrinal affiliations and its relations with Iran.

There are difficulties in reshaping Saudi-Iran relations as well. Iran may ease the pressure on the kingdom in Yemen and gradually yield ground in Iraq: the latter has already conveyed its desire to be free from all external influences. However, Syria will test their diplomatic skills as they explore how to accommodate their competing strategic interests in that devastated country.

Still, this is truly a historic period for West Asian diplomacy: the major states are displaying an unprecedented self-confidence in pursuing initiatives without the heavy hand of western powers that have dominated regional affairs for at least a couple of centuries, and, in pursuit of their own interests, have nurtured deep animosities between many of them. This has left a pervasive sense of insecurity across West Asia and made the countries dependent on western alliances to ensure their interests.

A role for India?

Today, states in West Asia appear poised to negotiate their strategic interests without outside intrusion. But, given that regional contentions are inter-connected, third-party facilitators will be needed to promote mutual confidence and prepare the ground for a comprehensive regional security arrangement which will bring together regional and external states with a stake in West Asia security.

This arrangement will have provisions for participating states to uphold regional peace and promote mutually beneficial cooperation in energy, economic and logistical connectivity areas.

Given its close ties with all the regional states, India is well-placed to build an association of like-minded states — Japan, Russia, South Korea — to shape and pursue such an initiative for West Asian peace.

Talmiz Ahmad is a former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE

The government should offer Covaxin’s technology to domestic pharmaceutical companies and foreign corporations

Member countries of the World Trade Organization (WTO) are under an obligation to ensure that their domestic intellectual property rights (IPR) laws conform to the requirements of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement. When the pandemic hit the globe, India and South Africa piloted the proposal to waive key provisions of the TRIPS agreement on COVID-19 vaccines, drugs, therapeutics, and related technologies. The core idea is that IPRs such as patents should not become barriers in scaling up production of medical products essential to combat COVID-19. The TRIPS waiver proposal, now backed by the U.S., is essential because it would give immunity to member countries from a legal challenge at the WTO if their domestic IPR laws suspend or do not enforce IP protection on COVID-19 medical products.

Foot-dragging on compulsory licences

It is uncertain when the TRIPS waiver would be adopted, or what conditions it would be subjected to. Meanwhile, nothing stops India from using the existing flexibilities under the Patents Act of 1970, such as compulsory licences, which are consistent with the TRIPS agreement, to increase the supply of COVID-19 medical products. While issuing compulsory licences for COVID-19 vaccines in the absence of technology transfer is easier said than done, they can be used to augment the supply of drugs and other therapeutics. For instance, Natco, an Indian pharmaceutical company, has requested a compulsory licence under Section 92 of the Patents Act for Baricitinib, a COVID-19 drug. Incyte Holdings Corporation owns the patent for Baricitinib with a licence to Eli Lilly, an American drug company. Likewise, there are demands that compulsory licences be issued for drugs such as Remdesivir to augment supply. Natco’s application demonstrates that the option of issuing compulsory licences is available to the government. However, despite the nudging by the judiciary and others, the government inexplicably hasn’t made use of compulsory licences in the pandemic. This is ironic because India has historically played a leading role in mainstreaming TRIPS flexibilities like the compulsory licence at the WTO.

To make matters worse, the Central government, in an affidavit filed before the Supreme Court a few days ago, suggests that issuance of compulsory licences will not be effective. Specifically, the affidavit states that the main constraint in boosting the production of drugs like Remdesivir is the unavailability of raw materials and essential inputs. If that is the real bottleneck, and not IPR-related legal hurdles, why is India pushing for a TRIPS waiver at the WTO? After all, the TRIPS waiver is about overcoming legal impediments, not about addressing supply-side bottlenecks. The affidavit further states, “it is presumptuous to assume that the patent holder will not agree to more voluntary licences”. Thus, the government believes that voluntary licences, not compulsory licences, are the way forward to address shortage of COVID-19 medical products. Interestingly, those who oppose the TRIPS waiver at the WTO advance the same argument.

The first step in advocating for the removal of IPR-related impediments at the WTO is to make use of the existing lawful means, even if insufficient, to lift the obstacles that come in the way of manufacturing patented products domestically. Therefore, the government’s stand before the Supreme Court is not only contradictory with India’s position at the WTO but also severely undermines it. This would make the TRIPS waiver negotiations arduous. To make its TRIPS waiver stand convincing, the government needs to make aggressive use of Sections 92 and 100 of the Patents Act to license all patents necessary to make COVID-19 medical products, without waiting for a private party to apply for a licence. An assertive posture on compulsory licences would also have the advantage of forcing several pharmaceutical companies to offer licences voluntarily.

Licensing Covaxin

India’s development of Covaxin is a spectacular scientific achievement. Given the involvement of taxpayers’ money in the development of Covaxin, the government has a stake in its IPR. Thus, the government should not only transfer Covaxin’s technology to domestic pharmaceutical companies, to boost national supplies, but also offer it to foreign corporations. By unlocking its vaccine technical know-how to the world, India would demonstrate its resolve to walk the talk on the TRIPS waiver. Licensing Covaxin widely would enable India to live up to its reputation of being the ‘pharmacy of the world’ and also put pressure on developed countries to transfer their vaccine technology to developing countries. India must take a consistent stand on IPRs on COVID-19 medical products internationally and domestically.

Prabhash Ranjan is a Senior Assistant Professor at South Asian University’s Faculty of Legal Studies. Views are personal

The governments of most countries have failed to understand and predict human behaviour

In the beginning of COVID-19 last year, thousands of people around the world shared an image on social media depicting the three waves of the 1918 influenza pandemic, commonly known as the Spanish flu. The image had the headline, ‘Humanity should never allow a repeat of the same mistake made in 1918, in the time of COVID-19’. The image read, “The most severe pandemic in history was the Spanish Flu of 1918. It lasted for 2 years, in 3 waves, with 500 million people infected and 50 million deaths. Most of the fatalities happened in the 2nd wave. The people felt so bad about the quarantine and social distancing measures that when they were first lifted, the people rejoiced in the streets with abandon. In the coming weeks, the 2nd wave occurred, with tens of millions dead.”

This post contained a mix of accurate and inaccurate information. The estimates are accurate and the second wave was indeed the most deadly. However, according to James Harris, a historian at Ohio State University, part of the reason why the flu spread like wildfire causing a second wave was because officials were unwilling to impose restrictions during wartime despite the existence of a new mutated strain.

Lessons from the past

This shows that we haven’t been able to learn from history to prevent millions of infections and deaths worldwide. One would believe that knowledge makes one wiser. But in reality, knowledge doesn’t change behaviour. Knowing about the Spanish flu is very different from having to live through a similar pandemic. Knowing about masks being protective doesn’t make people wear them. Knowing about social distancing doesn’t make people practise it.

In most countries, people got tired of lockdowns, wearing masks, staying at home and not socialising last year. Human beings are social animals after all. Social ostracisation has been shown to cause pain in the brain similar to putting up with physical pain. So, as the number of cases began to fall by the end of the first COVID-19 wave, governments and people around the world started to let their guard down. Amongst many businesses that were allowed to resume, for example, restaurants which were suspected to be one of the major centres for the spread of COVID-19 were given permission to open. Signs outside their establishments read ‘No entry without mask’, but once inside, visitors could remove their masks even while not eating. They talked, laughed, sneezed and coughed in indoor non-ventilated spaces. These visitors would have known about the dangers of this behaviour, some of them may have read about the Spanish flu. But awareness and action often lie at opposing ends.

Lifting restrictions

Each one of us has to contribute to break the chain of COVID-19 infections. However, the ultimate responsibility of managing the pandemic cannot lie with the masses in today’s modern societies; it is the job of governments. But governments of most countries failed to learn from the Spanish flu because they failed to understand and predict human behaviour. In India, the government allowed election rallies and religious gatherings. It hesitated in imposing a lockdown despite the emergence of new strains of the virus. Leaders were often seen addressing crowds and conducting meetings without masks. Every politician wants to win over people and give them what they want (in this case, freedom from lockdowns). But declaring victory prematurely gave rise to policies that caused the second wave.

India had the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of other countries which opened up too soon after the first wave. But it didn’t. This has led to the huge spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths. Perhaps it was overconfidence in the government’s ability to manage the pandemic or an underestimation of the ability of COVID-19 to cause infections and deaths in the second wave or both that led to the surge in infections. While vaccines weren’t available during the Spanish flu, we have the benefit of curbing COVID-19 by vaccinating people now.

Anand Damani is behavioural scientist and partner at Briefcase

The casual resort by the police to thesedition clause continues to cause concern

The arrest of K. Raghu Ramakrishna Raju, an MP from Andhra Pradesh, on the grave charge of sedition, is yet another instance of the misuse of the provision relating to exciting “disaffection” against the government. The police in different States have been invoking sedition, an offence defined in Section 124A IPC, against critics of the establishment and prominent dissenters. It is not surprising that Mr. Raju, a vocal detractor of A.P. Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, is sought to be prosecuted. However, his arrest is unwarranted, considering that he is being accused of only speech-based offences relating to his diatribe against his party leader and CM. It has predictably, and not without justification, invited charges of political vendetta. Even if one were to accept at face value the prosecution’s claim that his speeches stoked hatred against communities — he had referred to alleged rampant conversion activities in the State — and attracted prosecution under Section 153-A or Section 505, was his arrest necessary? These offences attract a prison term of only three years and, under theArnesh Kumarruling (2014) of the Supreme Court, there is no need to arrest a person for an offence that invites a prison term of seven years and less. Further, even sedition, which allows a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, also prescribes an alternative jail term of three years.

Mr. Raju has alleged ill-treatment while in CID custody. The Supreme Court has directed that he be examined at the Army hospital in Secunderabad in neighbouring Telangana. His bail petition is likely to be taken up later this week. It is unedifying to note that the CID has also named in the FIR, two television channels to which he gave interviews. While the legal process will take its course, it is once again time for a reflection on the need and relevance of the offence of sedition, a colonial-era provision used to imprison people for political writings in support of Indian independence, to remain on the statute book. That State governments and various police departments are known for the casual resort to prosecution under this section is a poor reflection of the understanding of the law among civil servants everywhere. It is now fairly well known that the section is attracted only if there is an imminent threat to public order or there is actual incitement to violence — ingredients that are invariably absent in most cases. In addition, it remains vaguely and too broadly defined (the term ‘disaffection’ is said to include ‘disloyalty’ and ‘feelings of enmity’), warranting a total reconsideration. Recently, the Supreme Court decided to revisit the constitutionality of this section. While a judicial verdict will be welcome, it would be even more protective of free speech if the Centre abolished the provision.

The much-delayed convening of theGST Council comes at a critical juncture

After a gap of over seven months, the GST Council will now meet on May 28, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced last Saturday. That the Council, expected to meet every quarter, has taken possibly the longest pause in its functioning does not set a good precedent. Given the acrimony that transpired in its last few meetings over how the States’ GST compensation dues for the pandemic-induced lockdown-dented 2020-21 were to be met, the long break makes Centre-State equations even more awkward. States later reluctantly agreed to the Centre’s proposal to raise Rs. 1.1 lakh crore of GST recompense dues through special market borrowings, after the Finance Ministry backed off from insisting that States raise these loans directly. In the intervening period, the economy almost surged back to normalcy before being hobbled again by the second wave of infections. And unlike the first wave, there is a greater onus on the States now to figure out everything from what mobility restrictions to put in place, to vaccination sequencing, and the bigger headache of sourcing enough vaccines from within or outside India. A Council meeting before or after the Union Budget could have helped soothe States’ frayed nerves.

Having ignored the call by several States for a Council meet all these months, citing the Assembly polls, the Centre will now also have to contend with a slight change in equations. The elan of re-elected State governments apart, a large State such as Tamil Nadu can no longer be expected to toe the Centre’s line. There is much big ticket pending work on the Council’s plate, but from the States’ perspective, it would be necessary to get clarity on the modalities for receiving the Rs. 63,000 crore GST compensation still due to them, along with this year’s dues, in a timely manner. Cash flow visibility would help them gear up better, be it for vaccines or subsequent COVID-19 waves. Even more pressing is the demand to drop GST on material to battle the pandemic, including the 12% tax on oxygen concentrators, 5% on vaccines, and on relief supplies from abroad. Ms. Sitharaman responded with a tweet storm to a missive on the issue from the West Bengal CM to the PM. This suggests an irascible approach on an issue that more States are raising. Tax experts believe solutions are possible to reduce the GST burden. The Centre had dropped the GST on sanitary napkins after strongly defending the tax, with one stated worry being cheap imports. In the case of vaccines and critical supplies, the more the imports, the merrier it is now. That the GST revenue will be shared with the States may be factually correct, but surely, neither the States nor the Centre are eyeing COVID-19 expenses as a fat source of revenue. An accommodative approach from the Centre could ensure India’s fiscal federalism framework does not suffer an irretrievable breakdown at this calamitous juncture.

The Diwan of Cochin has published the draft rules for the State Legislative Council and the people of the State do not appear to be much delighted over them. After the recent riots at Trichur the Diwan has fallen so heavily in prestige and public estimation that popular judgment on anything of his doing must naturally begin with prejudice. While therefore the public of the State would tend to be hypercritical, the Diwan it will be felt, had a splendid opportunity in the drafting of the rules, not merely for recovering lost position but even for inspiring fresh confidence. Mr. Vijiaraghavachariar has apparently not troubled himself about these points of view and has presented Cochinites with a set of rules which complete the Morleyan hesitancy of the proclamation regarding the Legislative Council. For the most part, the rules read like echoes of what we are familiar with in these parts, but there is often an attempt at originality and ample room is left for reasonable dissatisfaction.

Coochbehar, May 17: About 3.5 lakh evacuees from Bangla Desh are officially reported to have crossed into the Coochbehar district of West Bengal till Saturday. Of them about 1.5 lakhs have been accommodated in 85 Government camps. The rest are either putting up with relatives and friends or living in the open air.

Meanwhile, a PTI correspondent on a tour from Jalpaiguri to Haldibari found yesterday streams of evacuees anxiously waiting on the roadside and in open spaces to be taken to places of safety. Several hundreds were still trekking to the Indian territory through Haldibari, Deaganj, and South Berubari borders.

The Union Minister for Industrial Development, Mr. Moinul Haq Choudhry, said in Lucknow yesterday that either the Pakistan Government or the countries which were responsible for arming it should bear the bill for the rehabilitation of the East Bengal refugees in India. The Indian Government, he added, apart from asking for compensation for their rehabilitation would also ask the Pakistan Government to take them back.

Mr. Choudhry said about 30 per cent of the refugees from East Bengal were Muslims while ten per cent belonged to other religions and the rest were Hindus.