Current en Sat Sep 21 17:28:53 IST 2019 costs-of-escalation <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>When Article 370</b> was revoked last August, a strict lockdown and communication blackout was imposed all over Jammu and Kashmir to prevent any backlash against the move. Operations against militants were also suspended. In contrast, after lockdown was imposed early this year to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, 59 militants were gunned down by security forces. Those killed include senior commanders of the Hizbul Mujahideen like Riyaz Naikoo and Junaid Sherri, Lashkar-e-Taiba commander Haider, Jaish-e-Muhammad commander Qari Yasir and Burhan Koka, commander of Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGH), an Al Qaeda affiliate in Kashmir.</p> <p>Such has been the pace of anti-militancy operations during the lockdown that 23 militants were killed in the first 24 days of April. Meanwhile, 15 civilians and 20 security personnel lost their lives in encounters, targeted killings by militants and shelling by Pakistan this year till June 15. Since February, a new militant group called The Resistance Front (TRF) has been quite active in Kashmir. Security forces say TRF is LeT in disguise and has been formed to mislead the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which has threatened to blacklist Pakistan for supporting terrorism. According to Kashmir inspector-general of police Vijay Kumar, TRF has members from the LeT and the Hizbul Mujahideen. He said the hunt for Naikoo, who was Hizb’s chief operations commander, was intensified after security forces suffered setbacks in north Kashmir.</p> <p>Naikoo and aide Adil were killed on May 6 at Beighpora in Pulwama, within hours of another encounter at Handwara in which a colonel, a major, two soldiers and a police sub-inspector were killed. Kumar said the police were on Naikoo’s trail for six months and managed to bust six of his hideouts before tracking him down to Beighpora. “We interrogated some of his over ground workers (OGWs) and got important information about him,” he said.</p> <p>Security experts believe that Naikoo, a former mathematics teacher, was more of a strategist than a hardcore militant. He led the Hizb well after Musa, who replaced Burhan Wani, then parted ways with the group and joined AGH. He wooed recruits and used social media to good effect. Kumar said Naikoo’s killing was a big jolt to militancy in Kashmir.</p> <p>Once the lockdown began, the police stopped handing over the bodies of local militants for burial. Such burials attract huge crowds and motivate young men to take up militancy. Like foreign militants, local militants, too, are now buried at places like Sonamarg and Baramulla, where only family members are allowed. According to police sources, the order not to hand over the bodies came from the Union home ministry. The matter had first come up for discussion in 2018, but no decision was taken because of opposition from the state government.</p> <p>The Centre also slipped in the new domicile law just five days into the lockdown, granting domicile status to anybody who has served in Jammu and Kashmir for ten years or lived there for 15 years. It also confers domicile status to those who have studied in Jammu and Kashmir for seven years and passed their class X/XII examinations from any institution in the Union territory. Political parties in Kashmir have questioned the timing of the new law and have accused the BJP of using it to engineer a demographic change.</p> <p>While security forces have been relentlessly pursuing militants in Kashmir, Chinese incursion in Ladakh has led to increased attempts of infiltration along the LoC and the international border. Pakistan has also increased shelling on the LoC. On June 1, the Army foiled a major infiltration bid in the Naushera sector in Rajouri, killing three militants and seizing weapons and a large quantity of ammunition. Two days later, Pakistan violated ceasefire in the Sunderbani sector, killing a soldier and injuring two others.</p> <p>On June 7, Pakistan targeted the Keran sector. Three days later, a soldier was killed at Rajouri after Pakistan violated ceasefire once again. The next provocation came in the Uri sector where a woman was killed and two other civilians were injured in intense shelling on June 12. Two days later, a soldier was killed and two others were injured in the Poonch sector.</p> <p>Increased attacks by Pakistan have come in the wake of Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Quraishi’s statement that “China cannot ignore India’s illegal construction in Ladakh”. He said if India attacked Pakistan again, the world should not expect restraint from Pakistan like it showed in February 2019. Security experts in Kashmir see a nexus between Chinese incursion and Pakistan’s aggression on the LoC. They believe that Pakistan is trying to exploit the situation at a time when India is trying to avoid a confrontation with China. What lends credence to the China-Pakistan military nexus against India is a tweet by Chinese diplomat Wang Xianfeng saying the standoff between India and China in Ladakh was linked to New Delhi’s decision to scrap Jammu and Kashmir’s special status last year.</p> <p>Wang’s statement has come as a shot in the arm for separatists and their supporters in Kashmir. The visit of Pakistan army chief Qamar Bajwa to Gilgit-Baltistan on Eid is yet another indication of China and Pakistan ganging up against India. The Pakistanis are delighted about the Chinese move in Ladakh, which has come at a time when New Delhi had openly pledged to reclaim Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan and started issuing weather updates for the region. Given the Chinese intransigence in Ladakh, the possibility of infiltration of militants into Kashmir and further heating up of the LoC cannot be ruled out.&nbsp;</p> Thu Jun 18 17:11:23 IST 2020 needle-in-a-haystack <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>As the world </b>eagerly awaits a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, those who are developing the shot face several challenges in making a safe and effective product in a short time. According to the World Health Organization’s draft landscape for Covid-19 vaccines, there are 133 candidates at different stages of development. Ten of these are in the clinical evaluation stage, while 123 are in pre-clinical stages. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, the global body that is funding vaccine candidates, lists 224 candidates across the globe that are being worked on using diverse technologies. The sheer numbers, and the different technologies being used, mean that the chances of a successful candidate are high, say experts.</p> <p>Here is the bitter truth, though. Experts also concede that given the complexities involved in building a vaccine, a majority of these candidates are bound to fail—one would be lucky if a couple of them succeeded. In India, some 30 groups are working on a vaccine; only two or three look promising, said some top government officials.</p> <p>Typically a vaccine takes 10-15 years to reach the market, and the process involves several stages where animals and humans are tested in large numbers to ensure that the shot is safe, it induces the right immune response and has a protective effect against the disease in a healthy person. But with Covid-19 spreading fast, researchers do not have the luxury of time. “To determine the efficacy of a vaccine, you need to test it on large numbers of healthy people who have not been exposed to the virus, or live in areas where few have been infected. In a pandemic where the disease footprint is increasing rapidly with time, such a population is hard to find,” said Dr Vineeta Bal, immunologist and visiting faculty at the Indian Institute of Science&nbsp;Education and Research, Pune.</p> <p>Before the human trials begin, researchers test vaccines on animal models. The traditional mouse model is not the most appropriate one for SARS-CoV-2, and alternative models such as cats, ferrets and monkeys were being tried for the testing, said Bal.</p> <p>Since this is a new virus for which specific animal models cannot be designed given the short window, researchers are testing with available models. “We are using rodents for the initial animal testing,” said Dr Prabuddha Kundu, co-founder of Manesar-based Premas Biotech. “The questions we are asking are, one, is the vaccine safe? Two, does it generate antibody response? The next step would then be to test if the antibody is protective against the disease.”&nbsp;Kundu’s team at Premas Biotech is working on a multicomponent recombinant protein vaccine against COVID-19.&nbsp;</p> <p>Researchers at Oxford University recently tested their vaccine candidate in monkeys, and the results showed that the animals were not protected against the virus, but they did not develop pneumonia. In China, too, researchers testing a vaccine candidate found that monkeys did not develop severe disease.</p> <p>Primate studies cannot be a replacement for human trials, and were typically done to complement data gathered in humans, said Dr Gagandeep Kang, director, Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, an autonomous body under the Department of Biotechnology. She was speaking at a discussion organised by the Indian Scientists’ Response to Covid-19, a voluntary group of scientists.</p> <p>“Primate models are not particularly great for SARS-CoV-2,” she said. “Therefore, the only option we have is to generate data in humans, which follow the phase 1, phase 2, phase 3 route.” she said. In these three phases, researchers start with a small group of people whom they test it on, and then increase the number, with phase 3 trials involving large numbers of people. In normal times, each of these phases take a lot of time, as each phase requires approval and people given the vaccine are followed up for a long time. Kang said that in case a rescue treatment was available, researchers might consider human challenge studies—where vaccinated people are challenged with the disease to test its efficacy—but these studies were still not considered equivalent to phase 3 trials. “If we do get to the point of human challenge studies, that might speed up our ability to develop new vaccines, and could lead to us discarding a lot of candidates that are likely to fail in phase 3,” she said.</p> <p>Finding a large number of people for phase 3 efficacy trials is not easy not only because the population should not have been exposed to the infection, but also because the cohort design has to be well thought out for the trials. “For instance, pregnant women and elderly people are a high risk population, to be part of such a cohort. So, for those who are going to do such studies, picking healthy people for the trial will be a huge issue,” said Kundu.</p> <p>In India, however, there is access to only a limited number of animal models. Ferrets, which are widely used to study respiratory diseases, are currently not available in the country, said Raghavan Varadarajan, professor at Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, and cofounder of Mynvax, which is developing a vaccine candidate against SARS-CoV-2. Also, India does not have a non-human primate facility where viral challenge experiments can be conducted. Since it is difficult to get permission to euthanise non-human primates at the conclusion of study, carrying out vaccine studies with large numbers of animals has become difficult from a logistical point of view for the facility, said Varadarajan.</p> <p>Fortunately, hamsters are emerging as a convenient animal model for SARS-CoV-2. At the moment, for the IISc-Mynvax candidates that are in early stages of development, a number of spike protein derivatives have been designed, characterised and tested in mice and guinea pigs with some promising initial results, Varadarajan said. The design which shows the best results in animals will be advanced to process development, safety, toxicity and subsequent clinical testing.</p> <p>Varadarajan said the true efficacy of the vaccine would only be established after post-marketing surveillance was done. “But since this is a difficult situation, researchers might target partial efficacy, or look for surrogate markers of immunity,” he said. Usually researchers measure the level of neutralising antibodies to determine vaccine efficacy.</p> <p>Besides, there is the complex interaction of antibodies. In respiratory viruses and dengue virus, for instance, it has been found that the antibodies that develop in response to the disease enhance the entry of the virus, and in some cases, the replication of the virus. This phenomena is called antibody dependant enhancement (ADE), said Bal.</p> <p>The ADE mechanism hampers vaccine development because the neutralising antibodies produced by the vaccine are insufficient to prevent this from happening. This was seen in SARS-CoV-2 in vitro (outside a living organism), but it is not known whether the same would show up in vivo (inside a living organism).</p> <p>Even as complex questions of antibody response in animals and humans are being worked on, having a vaccine ready does not mean that everyone will have it. There are issues of scaling up. Varadarajan, for instance, pointed out that mRNA vaccines, such as the one the American biotech company Moderna was making, were difficult to manufacture in bulk. “For India, where routine immunisation is a challenge and public health cadres are not available, how will we deliver the vaccine to everyone?” asked Bal. Besides, she said, decisions would have to be made on what kind of vulnerable populations would be given the vaccine.</p> <p>“The vaccine has to be safe, effective, scalable and cost-effective,” said Kundu. “In a situation such as the current pandemic, where things are being rushed through—take the case of Hydroxychloroquine, where the narrative has constantly been changing—it tells us that many of these complex questions need time to be solved. And responses may not always be right in the first instance.</p> Sat Jun 20 17:19:16 IST 2020 death-by-other-means <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Hirra Azmat </b>from Srinagar has had a hard time making her grandmother, Hajra Begum, understand social distancing. “She can’t come to terms with this new form of imprisonment called quarantine,” said 26-year-old Azmat. Begum, 80, gets so annoyed that she even threatens to retaliate. “Nani suffers from dementia and heart blockage,” said Azmat. “She missed her monthly follow-ups. Her body aches have increased and she needs a change of medication for symptomatic relief.”</p> <p>Getting care for non-Covid-19 ailments has been a nightmare in India in the last three months. With the focus on tackling Covid-19, the rising burden of non-communicable diseases is being neglected. Those with acute and life-threatening problems like snake bites and pneumonia also find it difficult to get treated.</p> <p>At All India Institute of Medical Sciences, the OPDs remain closed. “Even now, they are not planning to open the OPDs,” said a senior AIIMS doctor who wished to remain anonymous. “So, no new patient can come in. Even the old ones cannot come. If liquor shops and malls can be opened, why not OPDs?” Currently, only trauma and cancer surgeries are being done in the hospital, and chemotherapy and radiotherapy are not being offered to all patients, said the doctor. A 200-bed trauma centre in AIIMS has been converted into a Covid-19 hospital. “Nowhere in the world has a tertiary centre been converted into a Covid-19 hospital. It just shows how rotten our health care system is,” he said.</p> <p>As arrangements were not made for existing patients in hospitals that were converted to Covid-19 centres, the health care system took a hit. Kamal Shah, cofounder and director of guest services at the dialysis care provider NephroPlus in Hyderabad, said: “They don’t take into account what happens to the dialysis patients. Where will they go?” Shah, 44, has been on dialysis for 23 years. “We have figured out alternatives in some cases but those centres are farther off than their regular centres,” he said. “Because of this, some of our patients could not get to the dialysis centre and they died.” The health system has turned a blind eye to such deaths and they seem to be less significant than the Covid-19 deaths.</p> <p>Dr Yogesh Jain, cofounder of the Jan Swasthya Sahyog, which offers highly subsidised health care services to villages in Chhattisgarh, says it is important to have specific non-Covid-19 hospitals as well. “Maternal and infant deaths are happening because of lack of access to health care. If I want to admit a patient with severe pneumonia, I don’t have a place to send him. If you set aside all your resources for Covid-19 care, where do people go for treatment of communicable diseases?” he said.</p> <p>In Chhattisgarh, one wing of each district hospital has been converted into a Covid-19 hospital. “Ideally, private hospitals should be made Covid-19 hospitals operating under the government, and a district hospital should be the designated non-Covid-19 hospital,” said Jain.</p> <p>Shah says that the lack of public transport is a big problem as patients below the poverty line depend on it. But even those with vehicles avoid hospitals if the illness is not life threatening. They see hospitals as vectors of Covid-19 and follow-up visits have declined remarkably in hospitals.</p> <p>As Hyderabad sees a surge in cases, non-Covid-19 hospitals and clinics are faced with an ethical dilemma. If the hospital accepts a patient without a Covid-19 test, it puts existing patients at risk. But it is hard to get the test done in many places, unless one has strong symptoms.</p> <p>Many private hospitals in Chhattisgarh have remained closed. “I have no doubt that the deaths and disabilities arising out of the lack of care given to non-Covid-19 problems will be far more than those caused by Covid-19,” said Jain. “Be it TB patients not getting a refill of their medication, women not getting their C-section on time or diabetics who have stopped treatment as the doctor is not available in the OPD... they are going to suffer hugely,” he said.</p> <p>Puja Bhattacharjee from Kolkata, who suffers from psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis, agrees. “Since last winter, my psoriasis has flared up, and now, I have large patches on my skin,” said the 32-year-old. “I really need to go to the dermatologist to get medicines. My old medicines are not working anymore.” Bhattacharjee had set an appointment for mid-May, which did not happen. The clinic is closed now and she is making do with the old medicines.</p> <p>Amid all the chaos, telemedicine has been a boon for some. Unlike Begum, who did not benefit much from it, Bhattacharjee has been able to avail mental health care online. She made an appointment with her psychiatrist through HealthPlix, an app. “I used to go to his clinic before. During the lockdown, we had a video session and he gave me some directions,” she said.</p> <p>Technology has been a lifesaver for Ruchi Dwivedi too, who was in her final month of pregnancy when the lockdown was announced. “We restricted hospital visits to only one mandatory scan and all other consultations with my gynaecologist were done over the phone,” she said. “Even after the delivery, my visits to the paediatrician were limited to getting vaccines, which were again clubbed together.”</p> <p>But the lockdown has been a testing time for her mother-in-law, Ajitha S., a rheumatoid arthritis patient, who has been on HCQS 300 for two years. With the increased use of hydroxychloroquine for Covid-19 treatment, the drug is hard to come by in medical stores, even with a prescription. “It was a nightmare as I normally do not hoard medicines,” says Ajitha, 62. “I wish the government had either given us a heads up or made some alternate arrangements.”</p> <p>“There is a difference between fear and caution,” said the doctor from AIIMS. “The government has instilled fear in the minds of people at the cost of treatment for non-communicable diseases, instead of inducing caution.”&nbsp; </p> Sat Jun 20 16:21:00 IST 2020 rocky-road-to-polls <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In his more than four-decade-old political career, the Bihar chief minister is facing his trickiest challenge ever—fighting the pandemic with a poor health infrastructure and managing the return of more than 30 lakh migrants, which will have a bearing on the assembly elections due in October-November. These apart, he has to tackle not only his opponents in the RJD-led Mahagatbandhan, but also his coalition partners in the BJP. He, however, seems unfazed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Nitish enjoys the support of the BJP’s central leadership, which has declared him the chief ministerial candidate. But the opposition is a divided house. While the Rashtriya Janata Dal has picked Lalu Prasad’s son Tejashwi as the chief ministerial candidate, its allies—Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha and Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samta Party are yet to voice their support.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But there has been criticism over Nitish’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis. Bihar ranks among the top ten states with the highest number of cases. The return of the migrants has stretched its inadequate health infrastructure. Migrants account for nearly two-third of the positive cases. The state has more than 12,000 block-level quarantine centres for migrants. Eight lakh of the 13.7 lakh migrants in these centres have been discharged. State Information and Public Relations Minister Neeraj Kumar told THE WEEK that a door-to-door screening of 1.87 crore households, covering 10.4 crore residents, was done. A similar screening would soon be carried out for migrants.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As of June 2, the state had tested 81,413 samples, of which 4,049 were positive. It is conducting only 62.4 tests per lakh of its population, while the recommendation is 200 tests per lakh. The positivity rate per 100 is 5—one in 20 samples test positive—which is close to the national average of 4.9. It means only the severely ill are being tested. A low positivity rate determines the policy on opening up of the economy. Kerala’s rate stands at 1.9. What has worked in Bihar's favour though is the low morbidity—30 deaths (as on June 8). This has eased pressure on the intensive care units in its three Covid-19 designated hospitals.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Nitish had repeatedly asked the Centre for more testing kits and monetary assistance. But he was seen as reluctant to welcome migrants home after the lockdown extension. Unlike his counterparts in other states, Nitish has been maintaining a low profile. Even the transfer of state health secretary Sanjay Kumar amid the crisis raised eyebrows. “We had never known this side of Nitish Kumar,” said Rajya Sabha MP Manoj Jha of the RJD. “He has been insensitive.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Neeraj Kumar, however, said that the chief minister, like always, worked silently during a calamity. “It [fighting Covid-19] has been a challenge for a state with huge population and [poor] human index,” he said. “Had Bihar been like it was in 2005, would the migrants have returned? People trusted government facilities more than private ones. The state, which earlier had only three medical colleges, today has 15 in both government and private sector. Our handling has been much better.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the three heart-wrenching faces of the migrant crisis belong to the state: Rampukar Pandit, who was found sobbing by the roadside in Delhi as he could not travel to Begusarai to see his baby boy before he died; Arvina Khatoon, whose dead body lay on the Muzaffarpur railway platform even as her child tried to wake her up; and 15-year-old Jyoti Kumari who cycled over 1,200km from Gurugram to Darbhanga with her ailing father. Most migrants are dalits or belong to the extremely backward castes, and had migrated to cities to escape caste oppression. They would send money back home. But that social and financial security is now gone.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“We have a big crisis at hand. The total number of migrants who could have returned could be in the range of 40 lakh,” said Dr Shefali Roy, head of political science department at Patna University. “The one positive thing about the state is that because of prohibition, there are fewer complaints of domestic violence during lockdown unlike other areas. But as these migrants are returning, they may be bringing other infections like HIV. Lack of livelihood is likely to lead to increase in crimes. We are in a fix.” A state campaign to distribute condoms to migrants has been started.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Also, the state government said that it paid Rs1,000 each to migrants stranded in other states. Of the more than 29 lakh migrants who registered, more than 20 lakh were paid Rs204.05 crore by May 31. In addition, the state decided to reimburse train ticket fare and other travel expenses up to Rs1,000. For ration card holders, it is offering Rs1,000 as ‘Corona Sahayata’, and has paid an advance instalment on scholarships for students and provided assistance to farmers. In all, through five initiatives, the state has transferred more than Rs6,464.26 crore through direct benefit schemes. The state is now focusing on employing migrants based on their skills.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is a given that the government’s handling of the crisis will have an impact on the poll results, but there is still uncertainty over when and how the elections will be held. “When we go to the polls, development and governance will be our main plank,” said Neeraj Kumar. “The timing of the polls will be decided by the Election Commission in consultation with the state. It is only then that the chief minister will give his views.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There have been suggestions to hold the elections online, but the Election Commission has said that it will not be feasible to do so. Bihar's low mobile and internet penetration would be a challenge.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Nitish would prefer to hold the elections on schedule or continue as caretaker chief minister rather than have the state under Governor’s rule, as it may give better manoeuvrability to the BJP. Though both the BJP and Nitish’s Janata Dal (United) have been insisting that their alliance is intact, the saffron party’s local unit has been needling Nitish. Its other ally, the Chirag Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party, may also ask for more seats this time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BJP, meanwhile, has begun its poll preparations. Its general secretary Bhupender Yadav, who is also in charge of the state, said, “Covid-19 will impact the campaign in a huge manner. But our party is present at the grassroots, which will engage with people.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The party has already appointed a team of seven workers in each booth, based on the local caste composition. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented his ‘Mann Ki Baat’, the BJP tested its virtual campaign strategy by asking all the teams to listen in. “The conversation was tuned in at over 60,000 booths,” said BJP state chief Sanjay Jaiswal. “What this exercise also helped us in doing is to prepare programmes for the next three months at the booth level.” People have already been put in charge of each of the 243 seats.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On June 7, Home Minister Amit Shah held a virtual rally, first of the 75 such meetings to be organised by the BJP. Though he clarified that this was not an election rally, he said that Nitish Kumar-led NDA would return to power with two-third majority.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On the other hand, the RJD-led Grand Alliance is yet to sort out its differences. Unlike the last elections, when he spearheaded the campaign against the BJP, Lalu Prasad, who is jailed in a Ranchi prison, will be missing in action. And that will take the sting out of the opposition’s campaign. A friendly government in neighbouring Jharkhand has ensured that Lalu gets visitors, but he will have to go all out to cajole allies like Manjhi and Kushwaha, who prefer Loktantrik Janata Dal’s Sharad Yadav over Tejashwi for the chief minister’s post.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Tejashwi is trying to project himself as a counter to Nitish, by raking up the issues of migrants and unemployment. “Lakhs of migrant workers are suffering. We have not talked politics,” said Jha. “Even Tejashwi ji has said that only a brazenly insensitive party can think of organising a digital rally during such crisis.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the ruling alliance has an advantage: it will rely on the sops announced by the Centre to create jobs for migrants in the state, improve infrastructure and provide relief—all of which will help win over the poor before the polls.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The biggest challenge, however, is before the Election Commission, which has to figure out a way to hold the polls during a pandemic. “The elections may get delayed,” said Roy, “and currently it appears like it will be a hung house.”</p> Fri Jun 12 14:59:49 IST 2020 we-have-a-roadmap-to-provide-jobs-to-migrants <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>How are you dealing with the migrant crisis?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The migrants returned because they trusted Nitish Kumar. The infrastructure he has created since 2005 has given them confidence. It was on his insistence that trains were started and migrants were brought back. Till now, more than 19 lakh people have come back by trains. We have done everything for their social and economic security. Most migrants were dalits and from the most backward classes. They had left the state owing to the conditions in the past. As good governance changed Bihar, they decided to return. Nitish Kumar is the first chief minister in the country to speak to migrants housed in quarantine centres through videoconferencing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If you look at the state’s panchayat raj system, which has been strengthened, we have given reservations to women from the most backward classes and dalits. This empowered them and has dented the social base of the Naxal movement since 2006. When migrants from these castes wanted to return, they trusted the system as they came with their families. The empowerment of panchayat raj also ensured that there was no community spread.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>How will you create livelihood for migrants?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Our growth rate in construction sector has been high. Till May 31, 4.37 lakh jobs have been created…. We did skill-mapping of migrants in quarantine centres. Unskilled labourers were given the option of working under MGNREGA. Those who can drive will get e-rickshaws under the existing scheme; similarly, for other trades. We are studying the economic package to see how it can be used to generate jobs. We have transferred Rs6,464 crore in cash to migrants, farmers, students and social scheme beneficiaries…. We have created a roadmap to provide jobs to all migrants.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>There was criticism that the state was not doing enough testing.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What can be a bigger sign of efficiency than the fact that we mapped and screened 1,87,45,361 households, covering 10.4 crore residents. We have their details and signatures. So nearly 11 crore of the 12 crore population have been screened…. Earlier, we did not have many testing centres. We created 14, and now the chief minister has ordered that they be created in all districts. Our recovery rate is now 45 per cent.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Your opponents have accused Nitish Kumar of being insensitive to the crisis.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The entire country knows that he is a law-abiding individual. He followed the home ministry guidelines. You can call a person insensitive when he does not react or speak up, especially on the issue of disaster. Bihar did not have a law for disaster management, but our government made one. The chief minister has a track record of working systematically…. The migrants trusted him and returned. And no migrant has complained to me about hunger in the state. The chief minister has said that people affected by disasters have the first right to the state's treasury. We don’t need anyone’s certificate. Those who are making such allegations have been absent since lockdown. The leader of opposition has been missing since then.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Is your alliance with the BJP intact? Will Nitish Kumar be the chief ministerial candidate?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is no debate on the alliance. Any counter talk is by those who are jealous. What can be a bigger pointer [to Nitish’s candidature] than the fact that in 2015 we got the mandate with the Grand Alliance, but when we left it on the issue of corruption and aligned with the BJP and the Lok Janshakti Party, there was no change in leadership.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What is the way forward?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is also the responsibility of states where migrants go to work to take care of them. They should not be treated as expendables. As the chief minister said, the people of Bihar are not a burden on anyone, but they take the burden of others. They contribute a lot to the economy of other states.</p> Fri Jun 12 14:53:43 IST 2020 double-trouble <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It is 6:49pm in São Paulo. The silence of the quarantine is broken by shouts unleashed from deep within desperate souls. “Fora Bolsonaro (Get out, Bolsonaro),” they say, “to save our lives.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Covid-19 pandemic is only one half of the double-barrelled cannon of fear and dread pointed at the people of Brazil, the second most-populous country in the Americas and the second most affected in the world by the virus. The other half is the inflexibility of its far right president Jair Messias Bolsonaro, who has been actively undermining quarantine and preventative measures adopted by its states in favour of a machismo that sells well with some 25 per cent of the population—the ones who join the president in his mask-less, gun-toting, flag-waving rallies, calling for the opening of malls and schools. Under the smokescreen of political controversy and the fog of war against an invisible enemy, Brazilians are fighting for their lives.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In São Paulo, the country’s most populous city and the current epicentre of the pandemic in Latin America, frustration boils over whenever Bolsonaro appears on television. Residents stand at their windows, banging pots and shouting “Fora Bolsonaro”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The state of São Paulo, the first to register a Covid-19 case in Brazil, has 1.23 lakh confirmed cases and 8,276 deaths as on June 6. Panic is palpable in the streets as masked people could be heard shouting at others to stay safely away, a man at an ATM breathing uneasy at people forming a queue, another one holding up his open palms to stop others from entering the elevator when it opened at an intermediate floor.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>All of this happens in a setting of empty concrete canyons and closed businesses in the normally electric neighbourhood in the centre of the city. In the world’s largest residential building, the iconic Edifício Copan, residents help each other stay in quarantine, they support businesses in the building by buying from them and provide meals to the homeless in the neighbourhood.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The economic stress has triggered a negative vibe in the city that is struggling to keep alive the classic Brazilian attitude to life. It used to be said of São Paulo that its bars were full of empty souls. It is now a city of empty bars, filled only with the souls of those who used to frequent them. Thriving businesses and must-visit locations like the Galeria do Rock mall have closed their doors for good, shutting down 30 stores and costing hundreds of jobs. There have been thousands of such cases across the massive country, which is now staring at a serious economic recession.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In São Paulo, intensive care units now have an occupancy rate of 84.7 per cent, although the city is yet to hit the peak of infections. Among citizens, there is the nagging fear that Bolsonaro’s macho drive will prevail as the way Brazil deals with the pandemic. “I am not afraid of a little virus. It is just a little cold,” says Bolsonaro. “A knife didn’t kill me (referring to being stabbed during his presidential campaign).” When the country neared 10,000 deaths, he planned a no-mask barbeque at the presidential palace. After political pressure forced him to cancel the cookout, Bolsanaro went jet skiing and showed up at a beach barbecue, shaking hands and disregarding preventative measures. He is pushing the idea that 70 per cent of the people would be infected and a small portion would die, “but that is better than starving to death,” a reference to the economic woes of people who have no savings, no food and no way of finding any work in a quarantined country.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>All of this is accompanied by a disinformation campaign that pushes a ‘Make Brazil Great Again’ ideology and provides just the right amount of false news to fuel his now-banned ‘Brazil Cannot Stop’ anti-quarantine campaign. Back in December, congresswoman Joice Hasselmann told a parliamentary commission about a fake news scheme linked to Bolsonaro and his two sons, Carlos and Eduardo. The federal police later identified Carlos as one of the leaders of what it called “an illegal disinformation scheme”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Fake news has been at the centre of Bolsonaro’s Covid-19 denial. A fake social media post that said that the hard-hit Amazonas state was falsifying its death toll by burying coffins full of rocks was shared more than two million times, despite the horrific scenes of death from its capital, Manaus. The health care system in Amazonas has collapsed, and so has its burial and cemetery systems. São Paulo, too, is facing a similar crisis. By late May, the city’s cemeteries saw an average of 11.4 burials an hour.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But Bolsanaro keeps on repeating that it is all hysteria. Like US President Donald Trump, he, too, ignores the recommendations of top epidemiologists and wants “immediate return to normalcy.” Quarantine, for Bolsanaro, is a “crime”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Convinced that his political future depends on it, Bolsonaro is out to get the economy going, no matter what it costs. “Some people are going to die. They will die. Sorry. That’s life,” Bolsonaro can be heard saying on camera. “They are trying to get Brazil into bankruptcy with that fear-mongering…. The best remedy for the disease is work. If someone can work, they have to go back to work. You cannot hide. It is not okay to be quarantined at home, who knows for how many days.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bolsonaro’s conscious downplaying of such a public health catastrophe is in conflict with the policy adopted by most states in the country. The states have taken seriously the responsibility for the lives of their citizens and have implemented serious quarantine and prevention strategies. Bolsonaro himself sends contradictory messages, wearing a mask at times, appearing without one sometimes and taking it off when he comes near people.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Crucial to Bolsonaro’s back-to-work drive has been the portrayal of hydroxychloroquine as a “potential cure,” and pushing the population to take it as a prophylactic while getting back to work. “Right-wingers take chloroquine,” he says proudly. “Left-wingers can drink a soda instead, if they so desire.” Twitter deleted Bolsonaro’s tweets that touted the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Clinical studies have shown that using hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19 can be fatal.The World Health Organization halted its use after clinical trials showed that Covid-19 patients who used the drug were at a higher risk of death and cardiac problems.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>All of this adds to despair and it may be pushing Brazil to the brink of social unrest. The states are releasing some of the pressure by moving to a more dynamic quarantine in June, which is quickly deteriorating into social chaos. The São Paulo administration is concerned about the prospect of looting in the city. The rapidly deteriorating situation is raising questions about Bolsonaro’s competence to remain as president.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bolsonaro, who was a young army captain during Brazil’s darkest period of military dictatorship, is facing the threat of impeachment for his mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis, for blatant corruption and for electoral fraud, which could, under Brazilian laws, result in the voiding of the election and his removal from office. His response so far has been in feisty Trump-like fashion—warning the press, the state governors, the congress and the supreme court judges of “their guilt” in “usurping the role of the executive”. Praising the torturers in the military dictatorship, Bolsanaro openly advocates a military coup against the congress and the courts, while demanding dictatorial powers for himself.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And so, the world’s fifth largest country is under the attack of two dreadful enemies: a deadly virus that threatens to change society and the life as we knew it, and a man who threatens to destroy Latin America’s largest democracy with his dictatorial, pro-military and anti-democratic policies.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Martinic</b> is a writer and researcher.</p> Fri Jun 12 14:47:38 IST 2020 affonsos-ark <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><i>The city flickers with a pale glow</i></p> <p><i>And all the shadows that come and go</i></p> <p><i>Sometimes I can hear them laugh and cry</i></p> <p><i>In my lonely room with a view</i></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Shawn Colvin</b></p> <p>Window to the World</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The wavy accent</b> mark over the ‘ã’ in São Paulo lords over the city of 21 million through a massive and emblematic building— Edificio Copan, which holds the Guinness record for having the largest floor area of any residential structure in the world. Home to 5,000 people, the building is the largest postal code in the city. It has a population which is larger than 547 Brazilian cities, and a survival spirit which is larger than life. It is the soul of São Paulo, views from the building are to die for and it is not a bad place to live out the Covid-19 pandemic.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>From Copan, it seems as if the city was built around it. It helps that it is made in a shape that evokes the very name of the city. The building was designed by Brazil’s superstar architect Oscar Niemeyer, the man who also designed Brazil’s capital, Brasilia. A measure of its impact on modern design can be seen in the cross-section of Brazilian society that resides in Copan; a large number of them are architects and design professionals.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is the north façade that has the more elaborate special architectural treatment with its fanciful brise soleil, a curving louver that deflects sunlight and shapes the building’s imposing façade. The sections are wonky and the fire stairways artistically corkscrewed. The streets flow into the building through five gates, following the slope of the city itself. There are stores, restaurants and services along an inclined indoor street, though many are now closed—some forever—because of the pandemic. Residences are divided into six independent blocks serviced by some 20 elevators, giving residents the feel of living in a far smaller building, in a cosy, quiet neighbourhood. On its floors, the air is heady with the atmosphere of São Paulo.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Local gossips say it has inspired filmmakers, artists, photographers, writers and more. Indeed, like New York’s landmark Plaza Hotel serves as the setting for the Eloise at the Plaza books, Copan is the star of the award-winning Portuguese-language book Arca sem Noé - Histórias do Edifício Copan (Ark without Noah).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When danger was raining on São Paulo in the form of the pandemic, the building did have a Noah—Affonso Celso Prazerers de Oliveira, its 80-year-old general manager. He executes his job like an art, so much so that the building’s residents refer to him reverently as “The Mayor”. More than a month before the first case of Covid-19 was reported in Brazil, De Oliveira turned the building into an ark by laying down protective measures to save the lives of the residents and the 102 employees. He stopped the terrace tours that offered the most spectacular, panoramic views of São Paulo to hundreds of tourists from all over the world.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When Covid-19 hit, at de Oliveira’s direction, crews began to sterilise the sidewalks outside the building and all hallway floors inside; they cleaned and sanitised the entire 20,000 square metres every 24 hours. Elevators were cleaned more frequently, and call-buttons on all floors were wiped down. Vulnerable Copan workers were paid to stay at home and those living far away were given a transportation stipend so they could avoid using public transport. “Solidarity,” says de Oliveira, is the key to effective protection of citizens. “That is the spirit that prevails in Copan.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Copan is at the intersection of the upper and the lower middle class of São Paulo,” says Dr Eswar Chukaluri from Hyderabad, who stayed near Copan during the Carnival. “Walk 100m towards the upper middle-class side, and you will see expensive grocery shops and people dressed in bohemian clothes; walk 100m in the other direction, and you will see homeless people and addicts.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Chukaluri says, in Copan, you did not need to go to the Carnival—it came to your doorstep. Then came Covid-19 with a whimsical nickname called corona, making it sound perhaps less lethal and more distant. The Carnival was the perfect petri dish for breeding a pandemic hotspot.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The state imposed a hurried quarantine,” says Chukaluri. “There was no ‘indoors’ for the homeless on the streets, living only a few metres from the folks in Copan. The streets became increasingly desolate and the homeless increasingly desperate as they depended on the food thrown in the bins. They picked this food during the nights, when the city was asleep; they slept during the day, when the city was awake. This balance, which ensured a peaceful life around Copan, was brutally disturbed within a week. One can imagine what hunger can do to people. Yes, violence! The more desperate the homeless and the drug addicts became, the more brazen the attacks became.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That was the beginning.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Moved by the plight of the homeless, Copan residents raised funds and cooked meals for them. Copan itself now contributes all income from its recyclables to the effort. Its residents took the risk of exposing themselves to the virus so that others could live.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Many of the 72 businesses in the building depended on tourists and foot traffic, which are now non-existent. These shops are now closing or reducing hours, renegotiating rents, cutting staff and trying hard to see a bright future, knowing that the only option may be to close doors forever.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As for those going into their third month of isolation in the building, and all of those who come home to Copan after running the gauntlet of the virus, their solace is in those big picture windows that let them see the city’s shadows come and go, safely from any one of the thousands of lonely quarantine-rooms with a view.</p> Fri Jun 12 14:41:01 IST 2020 the-hacker-the-faker-and-the-virus <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The attack was stealthy, and quick off the blocks. As soon as Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the launch of his PM CARES Fund to fight the pandemic, online fakers hit the ground running. “Within a couple of hours, over a dozen fake UPI sites came up with similar sounding names,” says Lieutenant General (retired) Rajesh Pant, India’s national cybersecurity coordinator.</p> <p>The fake IDs, with names such as ‘pmcaress’ or ‘pmcare’, were created on UPI handles of Punjab National Bank, HDFC Bank and others to mislead citizens into parting with their money. The Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In), India’s nodal cyber security agency, quickly swung into action and shut down the fake handles, with help from the home ministry, the State Bank of India and the National Payments Corporation of India. But not before, as reports from the home ministry indicate, over 8,000 Indians and NRIs donated thousands of dollars into fake accounts. In fact, according to home ministry figures from April, cyber attacks on Indians went up by 86 per cent since the lockdown began.</p> <p>Cyber-attacks have been as viral as the pandemic, spreading across a world where people are turning to the internet more and more. And aiming at them from the dark recesses of the web are an increasingly cocky yet invisible bunch of criminals who have been coming up with newer methods of entrapment.</p> <p>On May 18, Seqrite, a cyber security specialist, reported that it had found a new wave of Adwind Java Remote Access Trojans (RAT) hidden in coronavirus-themed emails that claimed to be from the Reserve Bank of India targeting certain co-operative banks in India. Names of the banks were not revealed.</p> <p>“We have noticed an increase in attacks—it will only go up more,” said Trishneet Arora, who runs TAC Security, a cyber security firm that handles network security for some of India’s biggest financial institutions.</p> <p>This is particularly frightening as, according to Pant, India is already the third most cyber-attacked country in the world. “People are understandably anxious about the pandemic and are more likely to access malicious links and attachments that are disguised as essential information,” said J. Kesavardhanan, founder and CEO of K7 Computing, a leading Indian cyber security firm, adding, “Working from home also creates more opportunities for cybercriminals who wish to harvest business data and banking credentials. Covid-19 has brought out the worst in cybercriminals who are attacking when we are at our most vulnerable.”</p> <p>Check Point Research, one of the world leaders in cyber security, said that, in the first two weeks of May, Covid-19-related attacks went up by 30 per cent. Also, there was a 37 per cent increase in the registration of domain names that sounded like Zoom, the popular video conferencing app.</p> <p><b>Corona caution</b></p> <p>Be it a website offering information on the disease, a mail offering you ‘your share’ from the stimulus package announced by the government or a Telegram channel selling masks or sanitisers to get its hands on your financial details, most of these attacks have a connection to the outbreak. K7 found that, between March 24 (eve of the lockdown) and April 9, the average daily number of cyber-attacks that were stopped, and that had a Covid-19 connection, had increased by about 260 per cent.</p> <p>From just one website on January 1, today there are more than 90,000 websites related to the virus, many of them fake. Check Point said the pandemic-related attacks had increased to more than 27,000 a day in May. More than 70 per cent of IT professionals it surveyed reported an increase in attacks since the outbreak hit top gear. Barracuda Networks, a multinational network security firm, said it detected just 137 Covid-related phishing attacks in January, which went up to 1,188 next month, before burgeoning to 9,116 in March. “A growing number of (cyber thieves) are capitalising on the fear in the minds of their intended victims,” said Murali Urs, country manager, India, Barracuda Networks.</p> <p>The most popular method used is phishing. McAfee, a leading anti-virus provider, estimates a 500 per cent increase in Covid-related spam mails in the near future. The danger? “These spam mails go to millions of people, weaponised with trojans,” said Venkat Krishnapur, vice president and managing director of McAfee India.</p> <p>Some of the malware the Indian government has identified include Emotet, Lokibot, Trickbot Agent Tesla and CovidLock.</p> <p>These phishing emails attempt brand impersonation and try to compromise a user’s email by offering fake solutions to Covid-19. Said Himanshu Dubey, director of Quick Heal, an IT security services provider, “The emails lure the user into opening the attachment that either claims it has some report, health advice or possible cure. The vast majority of such attachments are document files, which, when opened, drop a malicious payload on the user’s system that steals sensitive information by tapping the browser, email and FTP clients. In some cases, we also noticed remote access trojans and ransomware being dropped as the payload. Such phishing tactics intend to spread malware, extort money from unsuspecting users who fall for it and, even worse, pedal fake news and cause mass panic.”</p> <p>Reports of data breaches have also risen. A May 22 report by cybersecurity firm Cyble said that the data of 2.9 crore Indian jobseekers was released on the dark web. Later in the month, Google announced in a blog post that up to 100 Indian users were targets of what it described as ‘state-sponsored’ attacks.</p> <p><b>Worry from home</b></p> <p>When people log into their company system from either personal devices or through home internet connections that lack protections, it is, as Arora put it, “an inherent vulnerability at the end point”.</p> <p>“The hackers’ targets right now are large enterprises and financial institutions, where they know the whole focus is on seamless WFH (rather than security),” he said.</p> <p>According to Shodan, a search engine that scans and indexes devices instead of websites, half a lakh computers in India have their default remote access port open for connections. “Many IT admins would have had to loosen their firewall settings to allow employees to connect to their remote computers in the office,” said Kesavardhanan.</p> <p>A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers study showed that cybercriminals have used the panic to infiltrate corporate networks and steal data.</p> <p><b>Health is ‘Wealth’</b></p> <p>A new target of web scammers is the health care industry. Multiple agencies have noticed a global trend in cyber-attacks on hospitals, health care professionals and the pharmaceutical industry. In early April, Interpol issued a ‘purple notice’ to all its 194 member countries, warning in its advisory: “Hospitals and other institutions on the front lines have also become targets of ransomware attacks designed to lock them out of their critical systems in an attempt to extort payments.”</p> <p>Said Shree Parthasarathy, leader, cyber risk services, Deloitte (South Asia), “The most targeted categories were life sciences and health care companies, the manufacturing sector, and services. These are being hunted to steal patents, processes, passwords and other information.”</p> <p>McAfee also warned about the attacks, and even red-flagged an app, ‘Corona Safety Mask’, which asked for so many permissions on download that, if granted, gave it full internet access to a user’s device, allowing it to create network sockets, read contact data and even send messages!</p> <p>Worries abound as India’s health care industry does have a reputation of having lax security. A few months ago, 68 lakh patient records stolen from an Indian health care website were put on sale on the dark web; in July 2018, hackers ‘locked’ the data of Mumbai’s Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hospital, demanding ransom in bitcoins. Keeping such instances in mind, Bitdefender, a cybersecurity firm, made its security solutions for hospitals and other health care organisations free for the next one year. As Zakir Hussain, Bitdefender’s director (India), said, “Hospitals are currently most vulnerable to cyber-attacks. During such critical times, we need to move swiftly.”</p> <p>Warned Sujay Vasudevan, vice president (cyber and intelligence solutions), Mastercard South Asia: “Consumers need to be highly vigilant and guarded against scammers who are on the lookout to exploit the current situation.”</p> <p>The only way out is heightened cyber hygiene and caution on the part of companies as well as individuals, especially those who work from home. “[From] the complaints and the crime reports we are getting,” said Pant, “every day it is getting more and more serious.”&nbsp;</p> Thu Jun 04 15:50:40 IST 2020 triple-trouble <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>For five days now, Shova Mondol, a resident of Sonarpur town in South 24 Parganas district, has been living without electricity and drinking water. The district, along with North 24 Parganas and Purba Medinipur, was the worst affected after super cyclone Amphan lashed the south Bengal coast on May 20. What makes matters worse is that these districts are also Covid-19 hotspots.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But Amphan has made people throw caution to the winds. Ignoring physical distancing norms and the fact that her husband works for the state health department, Mondol joined her neighbours in blocking the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass, which connects Kolkata’s north to the south, on May 24. The police used force to disperse the crowd. “We wanted water and electricity, instead we got lathis,” said Mondol.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Not far away from Sonarpur, where many people lost their houses in the cyclone, lies Baruipur. Local resident Kanak Mukherjee, an employee of a public sector undertaking of the Central government, is a harried man. The approach road to his house is gone, so is the roof shed of his terrace. The toilet, too, is a shambles. But what worries him the most is the lack of drinking water. His mother suffers from a kidney disease and requires pure drinking water. All she gets now is a bottle of water from a pond. Though Kanak filters the water, nephrologist Aveek Barman said that it was dangerous to give that water to a kidney patient. “Her creatinine level would jump manifold and that would hit her heart,” he warned.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Amphan, however, first hit the green lungs of the state and of neighbouring Bangladesh—the Sundarbans in South 24 Parganas. All 103 islands in the Sundarbans were flooded. When the cyclone made landfall in the Sundarbans and Digha in Purba Medinipur, the wind speed was around 260km/h. The speed dropped as the cyclone pushed inland into North 24 Parganas (over 230km/h), Kolkata, Hooghly and Howrah (all three at around 140km/h). And, it raged on for eight hours and more, crushing everything that stood in its path.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>More than 100 old houses in Kolkata were reduced to rubble. Mighty old trees were uprooted (6,000 in Kolkata alone), as were slender electric poles.&nbsp;Five districts of Bengal were in complete darkness for more than five days. Roads were inundated. Bungalows and luxury apartments were damaged. The middle class and the upper middle class, too, took to the streets, but no&nbsp;lathis&nbsp;rained on them.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Their protest, however, made the state blame the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation (CESC), a private company owned by the RPG-Sanjiv Goenka Group. “CESC is squarely responsible for the electric mess in Kolkata,” said acting mayor and Municipal Affairs Minister Firhad Hakim. “They could have done more than what they did.” A top CESC official, however, said that power substations, too, were damaged, and they were working with limited staff owing to lockdown.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The meteorological department had alerted the state about the cyclone four days in advance.&nbsp;So far, the official death toll is 85 (unofficial: 120). Hospitals are struggling to treat them as they are overburdened with Covid-19 patients. Kolkata, Howrah and Hooghly, too, are emerging as Covid-19 hotspots.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Following criticism, Bengal had upped its testing to 8,000 individuals per day. But only 3,000 tests were done on May 20. And while it touched 5,000 tests on May 24, it was clear that combating the pandemic had taken a back seat. Banerjee’s priority has been to restore water, power, communication lines and transport in six districts. That is when she reached out to Modi. “I want the prime minister to come to our state and see the damage,” she said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Within half an hour, the state secretariat was informed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would visit the state on May 22. While the ruling Trinamool Congress said that the visit was at Banerjee’s behest, the BJP said it was based on the briefing by the National Disaster Response Force. “Perhaps lack of communication facilities were the reasons that the state administration received the communication late,” Bengal BJP chief Dilip Ghosh told THE WEEK.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Modi, Banerjee and Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar did an aerial survey of the cyclone-ravaged districts, and were the first to witness the damage as these districts were cut off from the rest of the state. Sources said that Modi was seen making notes on his iPad. Later, he held a review meeting at Basirhat in North 24 Parganas and sought a presentation from the chief secretary. However, Modi, Banerjee and Dhankhar had more information about the situation than the presentation. Modi reportedly told the chief secretary: “Don’t forget the Covid-19 situation while carrying out relief works. Be prepared for a spike in all these areas.” Modi also announced an advance assistance of Rs1,000 crore and said that a Central team would visit Bengal and more aid would be provided.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A day later, Banerjee again visited the Sundarbans with officials. On her return, she was greeted by the protests over non-restoration of services. With the assembly polls just 10 months away, Trinamool leaders are worried about the public unrest as Kolkata, North 24 Parganas and Howrah are the party’s major support bases. While the BJP won 18 seats across the state in the last Lok Sabha polls, it drew a blank in these districts.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Banerjee is aware that this is the toughest period in her 10-year rule, and that the BJP is waiting in the wings to step in. She is, therefore, careful to avoid mistakes she made during the Covid-19 crisis. She did not hide the death toll this time, nor the number of people affected—one crore. She also told the local administration to cooperate with the NDRF, and warned party leaders against interfering in the rationing system. In the early days of the Covid-19 crisis, Trinamool leaders had tried to grab major rationing stores in rural Bengal for their party relief programme. As a result, ration dealers had to cancel ration distribution.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A Trinamool leader said that Banerjee has categorically told party men that rescue operation should be the primary focus, not politics. The BJP, however, is not buying it, with Ghosh asking why she would then attend the videoconference with Congress president Sonia Gandhi and non-BJP chief ministers soon after the cyclone had hit the state.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Banerjee’s critics said that her excessive reliance on bureaucrats instead of ministers would delay the relief work. “Administration must empower officials and public representatives at the lower level,” said B.K. Patra, a retired official who has handled many relief initiatives in Odisha. “People on ground understand the situation better. So, relief should be monitored at the block level, and not by the state secretariat.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Central team is expected to visit Bengal soon, and Banerjee has to ensure that she gets maximum aid from Delhi. Banerjee knows that Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah are waiting to wrest the state from her in 2021. Therefore, they cannot be seen as going back on their promise. But the BJP has its own strategy. It will make sure that the people of Bengal know that the Centre had come to their aid in this dark hour.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Politics aside, what remains to be seen is how Covid-19 will be tackled in a post-cyclone Bengal.</p> Thu May 28 20:52:17 IST 2020 chief-minister-political-antenna-was-in-disabled-mode-during-chopper-ride <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar, along with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, accompanied Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his aerial survey of the state’s cyclone-ravaged districts. The trio was the first to witness the destruction, as government officials were unable to access the districts even four days after Cyclone Amphan hit the state. In an exclusive chat with THE WEEK, Dhankhar talked about the devastation he witnessed and the difference in Banerjee’s demeanour during the chopper ride. Edited excerpts:<br> <br> <b>Post the aerial survey, what is your assessment of the destruction?</b>&nbsp;<br> Such fury of nature has not been seen in West Bengal in recent times. The rains and heavy winds caused massive damage to crops and infrastructure. Kolkata happens to be one of the five severely affected districts. Our scientific predictions were helpful in timely evacuation of lakhs of people. Eighty lives have been lost. Sixteen districts have been impacted in varying degrees.</p> <p><b>What was the prime minister's reaction after the aerial survey? </b><br> The prime minister’s visit was a reiteration of his firm commitment to being on the front foot in times of crisis. To such issues, his approach is that of a statesman—playing with a straight bat. During the aerial survey, I amazingly noticed his level of preparedness, and his use of technology in understanding ground reality was intense.<br> <br> <b>The prime minister also held a review meeting at Basirhat after the aerial survey. </b><br> Yes, in the review meeting, after the presentation by chief secretary and chief minister, he made significant and invigorating reflections. Togetherness in action was suggested by him. He minced no words in asserting that in this crisis, the central government would not spare any effort to stand with the people of West Bengal and mitigate their woes. He declared that a central team will soon visit the state to take stock of the loss suffered so that reconstruction can be fast-tracked.<br> <br> <b>The prime minister announced Rs1,000 crore advance assistance. But the chief minister said it might be part of the devolved Central taxes due to the state, which would be later adjusted.</b><br> This is no time to engage in hair splitting or taking a political stance. While the state presentation indicated a scenario, it also reflected that due to inaccessibility, assessment is yet to be done. Only after ground evaluation can there be a rational way forward…. I would, for sake of efficacy and efficiency and to curtail mismanagement, favour that all assistance finds its way to the intended beneficiaries.<br> <br> <b>Five lakh people were evacuated and rehabilitated by the state government. Is that not commendable? </b><br> During this crisis, I was in active touch with Central agencies. &nbsp;The state, however, could not be persuaded for such engagement. The Indian Coast Guard performed in an exemplary manner, (and ensured) no death on sea. The Border Security Force played a significant role in the Sundarbans…. Our defence forces were ready to provide relief. Evacuation was tough, given the Covid-19 situation. This was achieved effectively by state and Central agencies working in tandem. At the level of prime minister and home minister, there was action mode approach much before the landfall of Amphan. All agencies need to be appreciated for their commitment.<br> <br> <b>The biggest challenge now would be ensuring physical distancing even as Covid-19 cases are on the rise in the state. </b><br> In the review meeting (at Basirhat), the prime minister reflected on this dilemma. On one hand, all are being exhorted… to stay put at home, while lakhs had to shift out of their homes due to Amphan. He called upon all to do the difficult balancing act so that our Covid-19 combat is not compromised. Covid-19 combat has to be unabated, otherwise we will face a scary scenario. All precautions need to be fully adhered to.<br> <br> <b>As you mentioned, there should be no politicisation over relief work. Do you think that is possible? </b><br> The chief minister’s political antenna is ever in peak form. I have flagged her on numerous occasions, saying that in matters of development or in dealing with the Centre [her political approach] was inappropriate. This has led to a confrontational stance with the Centre, which has adversely impacted the people. For example, farmers all over the country are benefiting from the PM-KISAN scheme except in West Bengal. Our 70 lakh farmers have so far been denied Rs7,000 crore while all others have got Rs10,000 per head.<br> <br> <b>Was the confrontational stance evident during the chopper ride? </b><br> During the recent visit of the prime minister, &nbsp;I noticed that the political antenna of the chief minister was in disabled mode. I, for the first time, saw a ray of hope in the confrontational dark tunnel. Continuance of this will benefit all.<br> <br> <b>The opposition wants the relief money to be deposited in the accounts of those affected by the cyclone. Your take.</b><br> For the sake of transparency, efficacy and efficiency, this is a must. It will optimise relief impact. In West Bengal, unfortunately, all agencies are heavily politicised. The public distribution system is in a political cage. The administration and police have ingratiated themselves with the ruling party. This has emasculated the bureaucracy and it is now in supine role. This scenario is antithetical to the essence of democracy. If the state is to regain its past glory, it needs to return to rule of law and constitutionalism.<br> <br> <b>Kolkata has suffered a lot, probably for the first time in decades. </b><br> The Kolkata Municipal Corporation should have been better prepared. It is mired in politics. &nbsp;Its failure to rise to the occasion is painful. It has become a hub of power and greed. The least it can do is to avoid personal projections by massive spending on advertisements. All publicity and little effective work!<br> <br> <b>What is your role in this critical time?</b><br> I am ever in the service of people. During Covid-19, my office hours increased; same in this case. However, the situation is tough as the democratic fabric needs urgent repairing. There can be no sane takers for the ‘state within a state’ (style of) governance, which is being practised. A stressed and fearful media is an indicator of the mess we are in.<br> <br> <b>Members of the ruling Trinamool Congress are saying that the prime minister visited Bengal at the behest of the chief minister. </b>The prime minister has, time and again, made it known through concrete action that he subscribes to ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’. He came to the state during this unprecedented crisis as a statesman. He has unequivocally asserted that all that may be required will be done.</p> <p>I find political stance in the assertion of the chief minister. Such statements do not befit the position of the chief minister. The prime minister’s track record has been to play with a straight bat when it comes to development or relief. He is quick to anticipate events as is reflected in his strategy to combat Covid-19.</p> Sat May 30 14:01:57 IST 2020 bengal-has-not-seen-such-kind-of-devastation-in-years <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>You carried out one of the biggest evacuations in recent times.</b></p> <p>Yes, you can say that. Around nine lakh people were evacuated in both West Bengal and Odisha.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Please explain how did you do that because in West Bengal people had to empty islands in the Suderbans.</b></p> <p>To be frank, people in Odisha are used to such kind of cyclones as they have been getting it every year. In Bengal, the story was different. Except Bulbul in recent years, they are hardly affected. So we faced some difficulty in Bengal. Also, the cyclone hit Bengal harder and did not do much damage to Odisha.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What were the difficulties you faced in West Bengal?</b></p> <p>Initially, people were reluctant to step out. For example, the people on Sagar Island in the Sundarbans wondered how they could leave their houses and belongings. The local administration advised us to let them take their time. But we said if we allowed that they would not be able to pack up. Finally, they did step out. People in rural Bengal were less aware than people in rural Odisha. The awareness was so low that fishermen wanted to go to sea in the morning despite the warning.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>But this time, the Indian Meteorological Department had been issuing forecasts at least a week before the cyclone hit.</b></p> <p>Yes, that made things easy for us. But poor people in the rural belt are not easily woken up. We carried out massive announcements using our megaphones and other mediums. So, many people finally understood. That also made local police and administration to pitch in as well. The campaigning went on for 48 hours. We told the local administration about the harm this cyclone would bring.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Did you see the resistance only in Bengal or in Odisha as well?</b></p> <p>The people and the administration in Odisha are primed for cyclones as they are habituated to them. Bengal has not seen such devastation in years. For instance, Odisha had designated cyclone centres, so it was easy for us to shift people there. In Bengal, relief centres had been made COVID-19 centres. But we were lucky that schools and colleges were closed owing to the lockdown. So we could use them. Also, other buildings were used as temporary relief centres.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>How many teams were on ground?</b></p> <p>We had around 47 teams ready, of which 36 were used in Bengal (around 60 members in each team). They were divided into four or five sub-teams, and had 300 sophisticated items (like diving and fire-fighting equipment, and boats). Each team had a vehicle. Our protocol does not allow us to use vehicles of state governments or any other agencies.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Did you get enough support from the local administration?</b></p> <p>I do not like to create controversies. But I must say that the prime minister set the tone by talking to everyone. [Then] the path was cleared for us to coordinate with the local administration and they fell in line.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>How did you activate the local administration because they are not used to cyclones with wind speeds of 250kmph.</b></p> <p>We had clearly told them we were not there to make our presence felt. We asked them to use the force [NDRF] to their own benefit. I also told them that the force will remain as long as they want. So in this process, we got help from everyone, including traffic police of Kolkata!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What was the kind of damage you saw?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;There is 100 per cent damage in South 24 Parganas, 95 per cent in North 24 Parganas and 85 per cent in Purba Medinipur. Kolkata has never seen such a cyclone in a century. Many old trees were uprooted in and around Kolkata. Electric poles were destroyed and roads damaged. Some old buildings, too, collapsed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>People in Kolkata did not take the cyclone warning seriously.</b></p> <p>I was told that this was because Kolkata had never witnessed such a cyclone. During my pre-storm briefing, I maintained that Kolkata was in the path of Amphan and everyone would have to take this cyclone seriously as it was different from past ones.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What should the state learn from this?</b></p> <p>People must understand that Kolkata is not too far from the coast. And, it is in a vulnerable location. In future, we need to plan the city accordingly. Because of lack of urban planning we had to face huge problems.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Will it be easy to rebuild the most affected districts?</b></p> <p>What we saw was people were very resilient. They have come to repair their own houses, roads and electric poles even if they could. We were surprised to see the resilient attitude of the poor villagers. They were not waiting for the government to come and help them. They have already begun constructing their huts and roads. Of course, we had to face major problems in clearing debris. But people joined us, which helped us a lot. Even people in Kolkata came out and cut trees to bring back normalcy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>How long would the NDRF stay in Bengal to bring back normalcy?</b></p> <p>Our job is to clear the debris and re-install electric poles and also clear the roads. Rest would have to be done by the administration. For our jobs, we would have to stay about a week in three badly affected districts. To come back to the stage before the cyclone hit, Bengal will need time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The Indian Army also joined in operations in Kolkata.</b></p> <p>Yes, my officers told me that they had come. It was an administrative decision. But we worked independently on our own.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Were there any casualties among NDRF jawans?</b></p> <p>It was a most difficult operation for us as we had to work during COVID-19 time. I had asked officers to arrange enough water, food and juice for the jawans working on the ground. We also had to follow social distancing. But then sometimes it was difficult to follow all such health norms.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Did you follow social distancing while sending people to relief camps and now when they are in relief camps?</b></p> <p>Frankly speaking, we could not follow that when we were bringing them to relief camps as they were brought in groups. But inside the camps, we sanitised the places and maintained social distancing. Since January, when COVID-19 broke out in Wuhan, our jawans and officers were trained on how to work under this situation. So special training was given to them. Now once we would withdraw, it is the task of the state administration to follow the norms.</p> Sat May 30 14:02:57 IST 2020 information-gap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>ON THE MORNING</b> of April 24, activist Raghvendra Dubey received a WhatsApp message that left him pleasantly surprised. It was the Rewa district food controller’s reply to his application under the Right to Information Act; he had wanted to know how many people in Rewa’s Kot village had received free ration under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Dubey was surprised not only because he got his response through WhatsApp, but also because he had submitted the RTI application just the previous night. It was probably a first for the instant messaging service to be used to respond to RTI queries.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Mentioning this incident, Madhya Pradesh Information Commissioner Rahul Singh said the alacrity displayed by the food controller was perhaps because he had been previously penalised by the commission for not giving information related to distribution of ration. “This episode showed the importance of RTI in times like the Covid-19 pandemic, when information, especially that which pertains to life and liberty of the individual, has to be provided,” Singh said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The information commissioner put out a message on Twitter, urging people who had any complaints about distribution of food grain to file RTI applications under Section 7(1) of the Act, under which information has to be provided by the relevant authority within 48 hours. He said that transparency was essential during the lockdown.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Rewa incident made clear the importance of RTI for holding the state agencies accountable for the measures taken to deal with Covid-19. However, the virus has had a debilitating effect on the transparency framework put in place under the 2005 law, especially affecting the functioning of a majority of the state commissions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Of the 28 state information commissions, seven had resumed functioning after a brief pause because of the lockdown. Arunachal Pradesh is hearing matters online, while Chhattisgarh&nbsp;is hearing cases both through video-conferencing and in person. Telangana&nbsp;has been conducting hearings over phone. Punjab, Rajasthan and Manipur have made it clear that they will, for the time being, hear only urgent matters that pertain to life and liberty. The Andhra Pradesh commission is hearing only those appeals where the applicant has been denied information either by the public information officer or the first appellate authority.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A few other commissions sprang back to life after further relaxations were announced for after May 17. The&nbsp;Uttarakhand&nbsp;commission began hearing matters through audio- and video-conferencing on May 22. The Kerala&nbsp;commission resumed hearings over phone on May 21. The information commission in Gujarat is conducting audio-visual hearings from May 26. In nine states, matters stand adjourned till the end of&nbsp;lockdown—it&nbsp;was either declared on their website or found out on enquiry by THE WEEK. The Madhya&nbsp;Pradesh&nbsp;commission had reopened on April 29, but hearings have not been taking place, barring the efforts of&nbsp;Rahul&nbsp;Singh&nbsp;on an individual basis. The&nbsp;Haryana&nbsp;commission, too, has reopened but some benches are not functioning.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As for the remaining commissions, it could not be ascertained when they would resume functioning. The Bihar commission does not have a website, and its office number went&nbsp;unanswered; RTI&nbsp;activists say the commission is not hearing matters. With Sikkim, the number listed against the name of the state chief information commissioner&nbsp;M.B. Gurung&nbsp;turned out to be a wrong number.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Experts say the state commissions have failed to safeguard the citizens’ right to information during the pandemic, when it was even more essential to protect their interests. “It is pathetic that the state commissions have not functioned during the&nbsp;lockdown&nbsp;when every section, be it government or private institutions, has embraced technology. They have all begun online meetings and projects,” said&nbsp;RTI&nbsp;activist&nbsp;Vinita Deshmukh.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>RTI&nbsp;specialists say the state commissions ought to have followed the lead of the Central Information Commission, which resumed hearings on April 15 using both video-conferencing and audio means. According to the minutes of a meeting Central Information Commissioner&nbsp;Bimal&nbsp;Julka&nbsp;had with the state commissioners on April 29, he urged them to think of innovative measures in these times so that the information seeker is provided all possible relief. In April, during lockdown, the CIC disposed of 548 second appeals.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“If nothing else, hearings could be done over the phone,” said RTI activist Commodore (retired) Lokesh Batra. “While not everyone is expected to have smartphones, even a basic phone would have done the job.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A rapid phone survey carried out by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) during the first two phases of the lockdown found that while the CIC had a system in place to hear matters during the Covid-19 restrictions, the state commissions had largely failed to cope. “The situation now is somewhat better, with the commissions at least opening offices and issuing circulars on what is the status of hearing,” said CHRI researcher Shikha Chhibbar, who conducted the survey.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In a meeting with the CIC, the state bodies brought out the practical difficulties with online hearings due to lack of infrastructure at the state level—like poor internet connectivity in rural areas. Another issue is that of the phone numbers and email IDs of the applicants not being provided in their pleas. There are other constraints, such as public information officers—against whom appeals are taken up—finding it difficult to access files since government offices are closed or are open only to a limited extent, or they are pre-occupied with Covid-19 duty.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“For all commissions, it is an unprecedented situation; it was never envisaged, not even while the Act was drafted,” said Punjab Chief Information Commissioner Suresh Arora. “However, we cannot say that the fundamental right to information is suspended. So, our commission decided to take up pleas that deal with life and liberty.” He said the commission’s effort is to be a facilitator in getting justice done in matters pertaining to health, police or food distribution by taking it up with the concerned departments in an informal capacity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Referring to the Rewa administration’s anti-encroachment drive that has resulted in families getting displaced amidst lockdown, Rahul Singh said: “If the government has enough resources to carry out an anti-encroachment drive, the officers should also be able to provide information within 48 hours to an application made under Section 7(1).” He said an RTI application in this regard has been taken up by him.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Filing applications is also proving to be difficult as postal and courier services have been affected, and only a few governments have online submission facilities. “The lockdown has turned the citizenry into passive consumers of information that the administration releases on a need-to-know basis,” said Venkatesh&nbsp;Nayak, programme head, access to information programme, CHRI.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“It is very disappointing that the commissions have downed shutters like this, especially since the pendency of appeals is so huge,” said former chief information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi. “There are cases pending for one, two or three years. There is no sense of urgency to deliver to the citizens on their own,” he said. There are over two lakh cases pending in the information commissions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>RTI activists also say the current situation points to the deeper problem of lack of political will to empower commissions, which begins from delay in appointing commissioners to arbitrariness in the selection process and dilution of the law to take away their autonomy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Seven state commissions—Assam, Bihar, Goa, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Tripura and Uttar Pradesh—are headless. RTI activists also questioned the Centre’s compliance report filed recently in the Supreme Court with regard to filling up of vacancies in the CIC. In the status report filed on April 24, the Centre claimed that “the process of appointment in respect of information commissioners in Central Information Commission has been completed within three months” as directed by the Supreme Court in its order of December 16, 2019. But four posts of information commissioners are still vacant.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The activists, meanwhile, have formed a pressure group to try and coax the state commissions to resume functioning. “We are writing letters to all the state information commissioners with the appeal that they should rise up to the occasion,” said activist Vijay Kumbhar. “Why do the commissions have to spring into action only if there is a rap from the court or if there is an agitation?”</p> Fri May 29 10:15:12 IST 2020 mother-of-all-journeys <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>While most of us binge-watched movies or web series from the comfort of our homes during the lockdown, the workers who built those homes were abandoned by their employers, far from their own homes. Not having work or cash, they suffered without food and shelter. But more than these basic needs, they yearned to be with their loved ones. When the government started trains with limited seats for migrants to return to their home states, they flocked to the stations in their thousands and struggled to fill application forms. When the trains left with some, the remaining camped outside police stations day and night, hoping to get the clearance to proceed homeward.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A few chose the path of self-reliance, taking the long walk home, carrying bags and sacks of utensils and clothes. Children sat on the shoulders of their fathers or clung to the hips of their mothers. Grown-up kids walked barefoot with their parents in the scorching summer sun. Their long journeys are filled with fear—of authorities and of road accidents. The heart-rending scenes moved a few good people to help the migrants on their way. Some gave food and water, a few offered lifts in their vehicles and others donated money.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Youngsters who used to send money home were forced to ask their families for money. They bought bicycles and peddled for thousands of kilometres. Groups of boys walked on train tracks, through forests and farm fields to evade police checkpoints on the highways. “If we all leave the city, it will come to a standstill, that is why they don’t want us to leave,” said a boy who worked as a helper at a construction site. After years in the city, he wants to return home and never come back.</p> Fri May 29 10:00:41 IST 2020 self-reliance-does-not-mean-exclusionist-policies <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>AS THE TWO-MONTH</b> lockdown was eased, the Union government came out with an economic stimulus package of 020 lakh crore and initiated many reforms.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In an exclusive interview, Union Minister (of environment, forest and climate change; information and broadcasting; and heavy industries and public enterprises) Prakash Javadekar articulates the government’s position on the economic stimulus package, reforms, migration crisis and governance. Edited excerpts:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Many people say the stimulus package may not help revive demand.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/There are two views—whether you need to address the supply side or the demand. It will create inflation if there is no proper supply. People were saying that we should give Rs7,500 to everyone. Eighty crore people were given 25kg of rice or wheat, 5kg of pulses; additionally, 10 crore people (migrants and people without ration cards) were given 10kg rice and 2kg of pulses free of cost. Twenty crore women got Rs1,500 each [Rs30,000 crore total] in their Jan Dhan accounts. Eight crore families have got three gas cylinders each, free [of cost]. Three crore senior citizens got Rs1,000 each in their account. Eight crore farmers got Rs2,000 in their accounts. So, basically, the bottom 10 per cent have got more than Rs7,500.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Will the prime minister’s mantra of self-reliance lead to protectionism? Make in India has had only limited success.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/We have to see how India responded when there was a need. Take the pandemic. We had no Covid-hospital, now we have 800; we had only one lab in Pune, now we have over 300 labs; we had no manufacturing capacity for masks or personal protective equipment or swab stick, now we are making everything including ventilators. Make in India happened in four months. When we say self-reliance, that does not mean exclusionist policies. Lessen our import and increase our export—that is the simple definition of Atma Nirbhar Bharat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Will you compare the latest economic reforms with the 1991 reforms?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/In 1991, we were on the verge of defaulting. Today, the situation is not bad. We have $482 billion in forex reserves, so situation is not comparable in that sense. We have done something basic, like in case of defence where we banned imports of certain goods and spares which India can produce. As we were importing, we were living in hypocrisy. We were importing 100 per cent in weapons, but not allowing foreign direct investment. We have changed the definition of MSME (micro, small and medium enterprises) to make it more inclusive. Rs3.7 lakh crore is the package in credit line—liquidity without guarantee—which is a very important development. Rs75,000 crore for NBFCs (non-banking financial companies) has also been [declared].</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We have given Rs1 lakh crore for the MGNREGA scheme. [When] it was a UPA government scheme, the maximum expenditure was Rs30,000 crore. In last five years, the Narendra Modi government spent Rs50,000 crore to Rs60,000 crore [on it]. Now, in one go, we will spend Rs1 lakh crore, as an additional Rs40,000 crore has been given in the package. We have given Rs1 lakh crore for agriculture infrastructure, a Rs90,000 crore discom package, and Rs70,000 crore as credit-linked subsidy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Cash transfers could have stopped migrant workers.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/No, even the cash transfers would not have stopped workers from migrating. Because once you feel there is a threat to life, you would wish to be with your family. By May 25, we had run 2,800 special trains, which carried 42 lakh migrant labourers to their homes. Buses carried more than 10 lakh labourers. Fifty to 60 lakh migrants have already reached their homes. Rural areas do much better when it comes to taking care, having home quarantine.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Environmentalists have criticised the draft Environment Impact Assessment notification, saying businesses are being helped at the cost of environment.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/This is absolutely wrong. We are not making any change to the Environment Protection Act. Secondly, we are making a compendium. So many changes have been made in the last 14 years (of the Act). We are bringing all the changes together.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>From 2008, how many projects were cleared by the UPA government, how many have we cleared? The number is the same. But the method has changed, so has the time lag. But that does not mean we are compromising with the environment norms.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Automobile sector is suffering because of the lockdown. Do you see the growth returning soon?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/Within two months the demand will revive. Unfortunately, two things happened. They experienced a slump last year, and then January onwards the customers thought they would wait till April when the new Bharat [stage] VI-compliant vehicles became available.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The high incidence of Covid-19 is in 11 cities. The major sale of autos is also in these 11 cities. Two-wheelers have no problem; four-wheelers have a little problem [of sale]. By next month, we should be able to see the sun rising again.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/How will the government conduct census and the National Population Register exercise this year?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/Census work may be a little delayed, but it will not be postponed indefinitely. You have to live with Covid-19 till a vaccine is found. It will be the new normal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Bihar assembly election in October is expected to pose a challenge.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/Elections in Bihar will be conducted according to the schedule. Campaigning will depend on the prevalence of the disease at that time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/The lockdown has brought the Centre-state relations in sharp focus.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/In our politics, there is doublespeak. You witnessed it when domestic flights were started. Every state has come up with its own protocol and is applying different quarantine rules. They are deciding independently, depending on their own assessment, yet people accuse the Centre of centralising power. It is not concentration of power. It is cooperative federalism at its best.</p> Thu May 28 20:06:27 IST 2020 disparate-measures <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>THE HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE</b> (HCQ) story got a major plot twist on May 25. Two months after US president Donald Trump waxed eloquent on the benefits of the antimalarial drug in treating Covid-19, the World Health Organization paused the HCQ arm of its multi-centre, multi-drug randomised clinical trial. (Patients who were getting the drug would complete their course, though.) The pause to review safety data from other trials signals that the hype over HCQ was misplaced, and that there is concern about its safety.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The decision, the WHO said, was taken in light of a large observational study published in The Lancet on May 22. The study showed that among one lakh patients from various countries who took the drug (alone or with an antibiotic), the death rate was higher and an increased frequency of irregular heartbeats was observed. Also, the researchers could not confirm any benefit from the drug in Covid-19 patients.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On the same day, the Indian government issued an advisory to expand the pool of personnel who would receive the drug as a preventive measure against the pandemic.&nbsp;The advisory said that cardiovascular side-effects were rare. The basis on which the Centre’s joint task force took this decision included three studies—a retrospective case control study, an observational study at AIIMS and another investigation from three Central government hospitals—which, as per the advisory, indicated some benefits from taking HCQ for those with high exposure to Covid-19 patients.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has started an observational study for HCQ at five sites—Jodhpur, Patna, Delhi (two hospitals) and Chennai. “About 1,200-1,300 health care workers will be followed up for 12 weeks and we will be comparing the effect of the drug [by observing] those who are taking it and those who are not,” said Dr Suman Kanungo, senior scientist, ICMR-National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases, Kolkata. The results would be out in about two months, said Kanungo, the coordinator of the study.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Though the government is conducting an observational study, experts said that the best option to assess the efficacy and safety of a drug was a randomised controlled trial (RCT). An ICMR epidemiologist said that observational studies can bring in several biases, such as in selecting cases and confounding—the possibility that an observed association is totally or in part because of the effects of differences between the study groups. For instance, in a study on alcohol consumption and risk of coronary heart disease, smoking would be a confounder.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>However, Kanungo said that the ICMR study has no selection bias as the health care workers are recruited irrespective of their HCQ status, and potential confounders like&nbsp;use of personnel protective equipment would be taken care of. The WHO trial that was paused, Kanungo said, was a clinical trial for treatment, while the ICMR study was for prevention. He said that an RCT was the best option, but added that if a drug had shown some benefit, it would be unethical to deny it to those in a control group. “In such a scenario, a study of this type (observational) is the best option,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Given the low quality of evidence that was available for HCQ as a preventive measure, experts said that the government should have gathered more robust evidence before issuing the first advisory. “It might be that HCQ has some [small] protective role, but all evidence so far is in the treatment domain,” said Dr Anant Bhan, Bhopal-based researcher in bioethics and global health. “It would have been ideal to do a smaller RCT in select institutions for prophylaxis (preventive) indication and get reliable data first. Data from an observational study will always be questioned. Why can’t the Centre do a similar review of evidence [like the WHO] in India transparently, and then revise the advisory accordingly? That would be good science.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Covid-19 is an evolving field, and we do not know which drug is working, said Dr Balram Bhargava, ICMR director general, and secretary, department of health research. Bhargava said that the drug is safe, and the government had recommended it as a preventive measure for health care workers based on in vitro studies that showed antiviral properties and “biological plausibility”. He said that studies also indicated no major side-effects, “except nausea, vomiting and occasional&nbsp;palpitations”. For the nausea, “we recommend that the dose be taken with food,” he added.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bhargava also referred to the “popularity” of the drug after the US government’s emergency authorisation of its&nbsp;use in March. However, in April, the US Food and Drug Administration&nbsp;had also advised caution on the use of the drug, with or without antibiotics, due to reports of serious heart rhythm problems.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Doctors working in Covid-19 wards said that the news of conflicting evidence on the drug had created confusion and apprehension. Some said it was not worth the risk and decided not to take it, despite the recommendation of superiors. Dr Vijaya Kumar, 70, an independent physician in Delhi, said he had started taking the recommended dose in March after checking in with his peers. “Some of us are of the view that since there are no major risks associated with the drug, based on our clinical experience with patients of rheumatoid arthritis, it is okay to take it,” said Kumar.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Apart from prevention, the HCQ plus azithromycin combination has been allowed as an experimental treatment by the Centre. “Several hospitals are giving Covid-19 patients the combination of HCQ and azithromycin without taking informed consent,” said Malini Aisola, co-convener, All India Drug Action Network. The group has been assisting Covid-19 patients access health services across the country. Aisola said that an analysis of hospital bills for Covid-19 treatment shows how rampant the trend has been. “Recently, a mildly symptomatic patient in a metro city suffering from an immunocompromised condition and mild Covid-19 was compelled to take the combination despite her reservations about the experimental treatment,” said Aisola.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Globally, over 100 clinical trials on HCQ have been registered. Over the next few weeks, as more evidence emerges, the HCQ debate will start to resolve, and the Centre’s enthusiasm for the antimalarial drug shall be put to the test.</p> Thu May 28 19:57:47 IST 2020 mutant-menace <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>AS COVID-19</b> continues to spread its tentacles across the globe, some scientists are theorising that the virus, also dubbed as SARS-CoV-2, is mutating. Understanding these mutations, which are essentially small genetic changes or “errors” in the entire genome of a virus made up of 30,000 letters, is significant for the development and evaluation of new diagnostics, drugs and vaccines.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>According to a study from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico (that has not yet been peer-reviewed), there exists a potentially more transmissible or contagious strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus due to a mutation to the spike protein (S protein)—that mediates virus entry into host cells—called D614G. As per the study, the mutation Spike D614G is of urgent concern. It began spreading in Europe in early February. When introduced to new regions, it rapidly became the dominant form. Although the observed diversity among the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic sequences is low, its rapid global spread provides the virus with ample opportunity for natural selection to act upon rare but favourable mutations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Spike protein is the main target of antibodies, and many vaccines are developed based on it. Mutations in virus may hamper the protection induced by a vaccine based on one variant of the spike protein.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Australia’s national science agency, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), further confirmed on May 12 that two-thirds of the sequenced strains globally and half of the sequences in Australia and India now have the D614G mutation which is apparently increasing its representation among newer strains. But even if a particular strain may be more transmissible, it does not mean that it will cause a more severe form of disease, says Seshadri Vasan, head of CSIRO’s Dangerous Pathogens Team, that is testing Covid-19 vaccine candidates at the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness, Geelong. “This virus is still adapting to its new human host,” says Vasan. “It is expected that, over time, different dominant strains will appear in different parts of the world. This should not cause undue alarm. While it is normal and anticipated for RNA viruses to mutate, the SARS-CoV-2 virus has a ‘proof-reading’ mechanism which limits the rate at which it can mutate.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Denis Bauer, team leader, Transformational Bioinformatics, CSIRO e-Health Research Program, also backs the view that mutations are a normal part of a virus’s evolution and do not necessarily have an impact on the severity of the disease.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Researchers are investigating the physical and molecular characteristics of the virus to find out significant differences and similarities it shares with other known coronaviruses which caused Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. At the same time, as Covid-19 has turned into one of the biggest threats to the world economy, the need for testing new potential vaccines and therapeutics for the epidemic is being undertaken with a sense of urgency. CSIRO is planning experiments to confirm whether the D614G mutation will impact antibody responses to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI)-funded vaccines under their evaluation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The mutations in the Covid-19 virus are not as frequent or random as those in the case of the influenza virus for which vaccines must undergo tweaking each year for northern and southern hemispheres. Indian Immunologicals Limited, a leading vaccines manufacturing company joined hands with Griffith University of Australia to develop a live attenuated SARS–CoV-2 vaccine—which is based on a weakened version of virus—for preventive, active, single-dose immunisation. “We are fully aware that these RNA viruses have the tendency to mutate,” says Dr K. Anand Kumar, managing director, IIL. “But it is not to a level of serious concern. This mutation happens predominantly in the spike protein which is used by the virus to gain access into human cells. There are various types of vaccine manufacturers who are using different technologies, including purified spike protein as a vaccine or the whole live-attenuated virus vaccine as in our case.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Many laboratories are cooperating to release their virus genome sequence information to the whole community. But the speed of data creation and data release, as well as the excitement to release analysis results, allows mistakes to arise, believes Nick Goldman, head of research at the European Bioinformatics Institute.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This brings us to the next obvious question: Can people be tested for all actionable mutations so that one can provide the best treatment option? Goldman says: “We do not have good treatment for any version of the virus [as of now]. We can hope in future to gain this knowledge, but for now we need to collect more data and relate the mutation data with other information such as transmissibility, severity of symptoms, effectiveness of treatment options and differential mortality.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Dr Alejandro Cabezas-Cruz, principal investigator, UMR BIPAR (a joint research unit in molecular biology and parasitic immunology), France, says that the analysis of more than 5,300 coronavirus genomes from 62 countries shows that SARS-CoV-2 is fairly stable. “The major implication of high mutation rates in viruses is that this trait helps them escape from the immune system,” he says.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Back home, the CSIR-Central Drug Research Institute, Lucknow, has initiated collaborations with King George’s Medical University, Lucknow, to sequence the virus strains that are from patient samples in Uttar Pradesh. A team has been put into place for analysing whether changes to the viral sequences, if any, will impact proposed treatment strategies. It is known that at least eight different variants of the virus are causing the Covid-19 infection. Initially a few patient samples will be sequenced. Digital and molecular surveillance will be carried out on the basis of this work.</p> Fri May 22 19:23:53 IST 2020 network-support <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>FROM A POSSIBLE</b> isolated outbreak in a wet market in Wuhan, China, Covid-19 has become a global pandemic affecting around five million people and killing more than three lakh worldwide. The causative organism is a virus that is so small that more than four lakh of its kind can fit on the tip of a needle. This new strain of coronavirus, named as novel coronavirus 2019, or 2019-nCoV, has an RNA (ribonucleic acid) genome of around 30,000 nucleotide bases and belongs to the betacoronavirus genus.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The first genome sequence of 2019-nCoV was isolated from a man employed at the Wuhan market. A consortium of researchers in China made the sequence available in the public domain; today, it serves as the reference point for understanding the virus and its evolution.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Like all organisms, coronavirus evolves through the accumulation of genetic mutations. Unlike the influenza viruses that cause the common flu, the 2019-nCoV mutates at a much slower pace. It is estimated that the virus accumulates one mutation approximately every 15 days. As the virus replicates and transmits, mutations get accumulated in its genome, thus forming different evolutionary groups or ‘clades’.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sequencing the genome can provide a view of the genetic mutations in a particular strain and how it compares with the rest of the strains worldwide. Based on information from GISAID, a database hosted by the German government to share genomic data, the research network Nextstrain has broadly divided the 2019-nCoV genomes into 10 clades: A1a, A2, A2a, A3, A6, A7, B, B1, B2 and B4. The ‘A’ supergroup, or A superclade, are known as the ‘European clade’, since the sequences falling under this type originated in European nations. The B superclade is called the ‘East Asian clade’, also based on its origins.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The sequence of the viral genome thus provides researchers with an opportunity to understand how the virus evolves, and more importantly, how it spread across the world. The initial genomes of 2019-nCoV from India were obtained from one of the patients who had travelled from Wuhan to Kerala. The genomes were sequenced by the National Institute of Virology in Pune. Till date, over 200 2019-nCoV genomes from India have been deposited in public databases globally. These include isolates from government agencies such as the National Institute of Virology, the National Centre for Disease Control, the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics, and the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences. The majority of genomes have been made available through a collaborative effort between the National Centre for Disease Control and the CSIR Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology. The Gujarat Biotechnology Research Centre, a state-sponsored research organisation, has deposited more than 100 genome sequences of 2019-nCoV isolates collected from across Gujarat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The genomes can be compared based on the genetic mutations they have. This comparison can help map out a visual construction of what is known as a phylogenetic tree—a family tree of the virus that depicts how the different genome sequences are related to each other. Clades can thus be identified on the tree as a cluster that shares a common ancestor and descends from the same branch.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Phylogenetic analysis has shown that the Indian coronavirus isolates largely cluster into five clades—A1a, A2a, A3, B and B4. Most of the Indian genomes fall in the A superclade, with a majority encompassing A2a and A1a clades and a few in A3 clade. A2a is a globally predominant clade. The genomes in A3 clade, which was mostly reported in Iran earlier, are from isolates collected from Ladakh.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The initial genomes from Kerala fell into the B clade, and are from individuals who had travelled from Wuhan. The recent addition of B4 clade to the Indian cluster was largely through the sequencing efforts of Gujarat Biotechnology Research Centre and the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics in West Bengal. The B4 clade is a sub-type of the superclade B with potential origins from either East Asia or Oceania. Sequences that belong to the B4 clade harbour two distinguishing mutations in their genomes. The first mutation, L84S, in the gene ORF8 is common among all clades of the B superclade. The other mutation is S202N in the gene that encodes the nucleocapsid protein of the virus. In the phylogenetic tree of genomes from India, three genomes from Gujarat and one from West Bengal fall under this cluster.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A number of people suggest that the clades have a difference in severity, but such claims have not been proven. Though some clades are predominantly prevalent in some locations than in others, there is insufficient data to draw conclusions about the differences in virulence and clinical outcomes of these clades. More genomes and systematic tagging of clinical information for the genomes would significantly improve our understanding in this direction.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to share genomic data on a global scale. Researchers from more than 70 countries have made over 30,000 coronavirus genomes publicly available—one of the best examples of open data initiatives shaping up across the globe. It also highlights the renewed interest in open source movements for developing better diagnostics and novel therapeutics, something that has been rightly emphasised by World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>—<b>The authors are researchers at the CSIR Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (CSIR-IGIB), Delhi.</b></p> Fri May 22 19:43:34 IST 2020 three-year-hitch <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>AKSHAJ PANT,</b> a 20-year-old undergraduate in business administration, so loved Uri: The Surgical Strike that he began dreaming of serving in the Army, at least for a brief period. Now the Army has announced a plan for thousands like Pant who want to don the olive green. Called Tour of Duty (ToD), the plan allows those who do not want to become career soldiers to serve in the force for three years. “If given a chance, I would opt for this,” said Pant. “But I want to pursue a course in management studies from a foreign university.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Army chief General M.M. Naravane said ToD took shape after officers realised that students were eager to experience the Army life. “When our officers addressed the youth in colleges, we got the feeling that they wanted to experience Army life, but not as a career,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Under ToD, the Army plans to initially recruit 100 officers and 1,000 jawans after six months of training. It will be “voluntary military service”, unlike the conscription in Israel and South Korea. The army headquarters is targeting cumulative savings of Rs11,000 crore by hiring jawans and officers under the new scheme. “[The savings] could be utilised for the much-needed modernisation of the armed forces,” reads the proposal document.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The headquarters say the cumulative cost of pre-commission training, pay and allowances, and packages and benefits is Rs6.83 crore for an officer under the short service commission (SSC), which mandates 10 to 14 years of service. Such expense for a ToD officer will be lower than Rs85 lakh.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Also, more than half the SSC officers are granted permanent commission. They serve up to 54 years and retire with lifelong benefits. The defence ministry has long been struggling with the hefty pension bill, which is US$6 billion more than Pakistan’s entire defence outlay.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Lt Gen (retd) D.B. Shekatkar, who headed a committee that submitted a report on military reforms in 2015, said ToD would have benefits that goes beyond the armed forces. “Military needs young people, as we are already facing a deficiency of officers. But the bigger advantage will be their post-ToD careers. Those cultured and disciplined youth will improve the quality of governance if they join the civil services after the Army stint,” Shekatkar told THE WEEK.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Industrialist Anand Mahindra said ToD would give recruits an “added advantage” in the workplace they choose after their military stint. “In fact, considering the rigid standards of selection and training in the Indian Army, the Mahindra Group will be happy to consider their candidature,” Mahindra wrote to the Army.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For aspiring recruits, ToD’s pay packet, too, will be attractive. A lieutenant in the Army earns around Rs80,000 per month, while the average salary package for a fresh graduate from Delhi’s prestigious Shri Ram College of Commerce is below Rs50,000 per month. Three years of ToD income will be tax-free, too.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Some experts, however, doubt whether ToD recruits would be effective soldiers. “The Army life is exceedingly tough and officers lead from the front,” said Lt Gen (retd) Vinod Bhatia, who was director general of military operations. “Those joining for three years will not have the physical and moral robustness, and will have a risk aversion, as they will be looking at a career beyond.”</p> Fri May 22 19:44:14 IST 2020 summer-of-terror <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>THESE DAYS, PAKISTAN</b> Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa is busy shuttling between the military offices in Karachi, the country’s financial capital, and the army headquarters in Rawalpindi. The Covid-19 pandemic has not only hit Pakistan’s economy but also turned international attention away from its favourite subject—Kashmir. Its army, therefore, has taken centre stage to meet the two challenges.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even before the pandemic, Pakistan’s economy had been witnessing a slump. There was pressure from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the global terror financing watchdog, which put Pakistan on the grey list and threatened sanctions. At the same time, terror outfits were growing desperate after India abrogated Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir on August 5, 2019.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Last October, Bajwa met business leaders and government finance officials in Karachi to discuss ways to tackle the economic slowdown. The growing role of the military in the country’s economic management became clear when the military issued a statement after the meeting.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>National security was intimately linked to economy, said Bajwa, and to prosper, there should be a balance in security needs and economic growth.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In Rawalpindi, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence met top terror commanders like Jaish-e-Mohammed’s operational commander Mufti Abdul Rauf Asghar, brother of JeM founder Maulana Masood Azhar, in December. The commanders were told that the government will ease restrictions on terror outfits.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Months later, when the world was busy fighting Covid-19, Pakistan quietly removed around 1,800 terrorists from its watch-list. As the pandemic threatens to disrupt Pakistan’s economic revival plans, Bajwa and his men are desperate to succeed in their military plans to safeguard the military budget. Recently, Pakistan’s military spokesman tweeted that the “voluntary cut” in the military budget would not be at the expense of security. For a country that has long been using terrorism as an instrument of state policy, it did not take too long to put those plans into action.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Intelligence reports revealed that a dozen launching pads were kept active in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir during winter to facilitate early entry of terrorists into the Valley. The pads, reportedly, are: Halmatm, Nekrum, Taobat, Suti, Ziarat, Sonar, Dakki, Sharda, Rata Pani, Dudhnial, Kasim-2 and Leepa Chham. The ceasefire violations since last August were reportedly being used to infiltrate terrorists. Official records showed that there have been 17 ceasefire violations this year (one in January, seven in February, three in March and six in April).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Latest intelligence inputs, accessed by THE WEEK, revealed that the launch pads housed 450 terrorists, of which 380 were Pakistan nationals. It is also learnt that Bajwa visited the Line of Control on April 30 to take stock of the preparations and weapons.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Official sources say that most of the terrorists have already made their way into Kashmir. According to latest inputs, there are around 240 terrorists in Kashmir; 120 are Pakistan nationals, with 60 each from the Lashkar-e-Taiba and JeM. On May 2, two militants engaged security forces for 12 hours in Handwara in north Kashmir, resulting in the killing of four Army personnel and a police sub-inspector. Two days later, three CRPF personnel were killed in another encounter in the same area. While security forces avenged the Handwara horror by killing Hizbul Mujahideen commander Riyaz Naikoo, it might not ensure a lull in violence in the Valley.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“It is unlikely that Pakistan will give up using terrorism as an instrument of policy, and as long as that continues it will be difficult for India to maintain peace in the Valley,” said Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US.</p> <p>Security sources said that the ISI was sending terrorists from various tanzeems (outfits) as a single group to increase infiltration. A case in point was the encounter in Dangerpora in which two terrorists, one from Hizbul and the other from JeM, were killed. Also, keeping in line with the Rawalpindi plan to underplay the “state support” in terror attacks, new local outfits like The Resistance Front and Tehreek-e-Millat-e-Islami have been floated to mislead the FATF and the international community, said an intelligence official.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The irony is that while Pakistan cannot attain its objective of internationalising the Kashmir issue without giving up terrorism, India also cannot settle things in Kashmir without winning over the people of the state that has been downgraded to a Union territory,” Haqqani told THE WEEK.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While the Modi government and security forces are trying to win the hearts of Kashmiris through political and humanitarian efforts, Indian Army Chief General M.M. Naravane said, “The onus remains with Pakistan to bring peace in the region. Unless Pakistan gives up its policy of state-sponsored terrorism, we will continue to respond appropriately and with precision.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Intelligence reports revealed that the Pakistan army has deployed heavy artillery regiments close to the LoC and is not shying away from targeting civilians. Their use of mortars and artillery guns during ceasefire violations is keeping Indian security forces on their toes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>However, the Indian Army has chalked out a summer offensive. It has activated the anti-infiltration grid, which involves reoccupying posts along the LoC that were vacated in winter owing to the heavy snow. Local formation commanders have been tasked to take the lead in intelligence-based operations. While the terrain makes it impossible to physically monitor and prevent infiltration, intelligence-based interdiction and real-time coordination with the police are proving to be effective. While the resumption of internet and mobile services in Kashmir has provided security agencies with good intelligence inputs, it has also helped terrorists communicate with their handlers in Pakistan. Another challenge is the overground network that provides logistical support, safe houses, funds and weapons for attacks.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The counterterrorism response by the Indian Army is not in isolation, but an aggregation of capabilities of all agencies involved directly or indirectly. Options short of war are available to us to provide a befitting response to our adversaries,” said an officer.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Moreover, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval is not just watching the developments in Karachi and Rawalpindi but also Islamabad. The recent appointment of Lt Gen (retd) Asim Saleem Bajwa as information adviser to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan is being seen as a sign of the growing trust deficit between the military establishment and the civilian government. The military establishment is still licking its wounds from the diplomatic humiliation at the United Nations General Assembly last September, as Khan failed to garner any support against India’s decision to abrogate Article 370.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>New Delhi is also keenly watching the growing unrest in PoK. Home ministry sources said that the people of PoK are appealing to the Indian government to intervene and safeguard their human rights.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Under the guise of controlling the law and order situation, the Pakistani army has decided to send heavy contingents of troops to Gilgit-Baltistan,” said Dr Amjad Ayub Mirza, a human rights activist. Mirza, who hails from Mirpur in PoK and now lives in exile in the UK, expressed worry over the April 30 order of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, which allowed the federal government to set up a caretaker government in Gilgit-Baltistan and conduct provincial assembly elections.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“In anticipation that a general election will pave way for the formation of a pro-Pakistani military establishment, the doors to declare Gilgit-Baltistan the fifth province of the country through a parliamentary bill will be wide open,” Mirza told THE WEEK. He added that it was time for the Indian government to reclaim its territories from Pakistan. “It can only be done by bringing the Pakistani military to the negotiating table,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And, New Delhi is upping the ante. The Indian Meteorological Department recently included Gilgit-Baltistan and Muzaffarabad under PoK in its forecast list, a move that miffed Pakistan. “This is another mischievous Indian action in support of a spurious claim and further evidence of India’s irresponsible behaviour,” said Pakistan foreign ministry spokesperson Aisha Farooqui in a statement on May 8.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But as Taha Siddiqui, an award-winning Pakistani journalist living in exile in Paris since 2018, said, India needs to look beyond this summer as “the political and social climate in the region has changed since the abrogation of Article 370”. “Today, Pakistan is increasingly focusing on exploiting the local sentiments of the youth, especially those who feel alienated by Delhi’s recent steps,” he said. “Through social media and internet, Pakistan is brainwashing these youngsters, training them and providing funds and weapons.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>According to Siddiqui, be it summer or winter, Kashmir will continue to boil until India aligns the interest of the Kashmiri people with that of the nation. Till then, Bajwa and his military will continue to steer Pakistan’s defence and foreign policies to run its war economy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>With Pradip Sagar</b></p> Thu May 14 18:09:48 IST 2020 mean-manoeuvre <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>THE PASSING OUT </b>parade at Officers Training Academy (OTA) Chennai in March was marred by an unusually high failure rate of women cadets. The number of women cadets failing the physical tests went up soon after the Supreme Court ruled in favour of permanent commission to female officers in the armed forces.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Since 1992, when women were allowed to serve in the military through Short Service Commission (SSC) at OTA, they have nearly always cleared their physical tests—except last year, when three cadets failed the mandatory tests. However, in the last OTA batch, at least 13 women failed the horizontal rope test, while three others could not complete their 5km running task. And, perhaps for the first time, two women are likely to be withdrawn from the academy, after failing to clear the training course in two terms. Every cadet gets a maximum of two chances to complete the training.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“It is an aberration and a matter of serious concern,” said Lieutenant General (retd) Bobby Mathew, who was commandant of OTA Chennai. “Normally, relegation is way below 10 per cent of a batch and that, too, mostly happens with gentlemen cadets. Women cadets usually fail on medical or disciplinary grounds.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are 1,550 women officers in the Indian Army. And the ratio of lady cadets admitted to those passing out is approximately 1:0.99, according to Army headquarters. Many serving and retired women officers are suspicious about the timing of the mass failure and fear that it may be linked to the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment on February 17 making women officers eligible for permanent commissions and command posts. After a long legal battle, women officers are now on par with male officers in matters of promotions, benefits and pensions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Capt (retd) Shweta Misra, who served in the Army Ordnance Corps, said the Army was trying to change its standards after losing the legal battle. “After the verdict, we have seen statements from senior officers including Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat that standards of women officers would have to be brought on par with men if they wanted to be treated equally. It must have percolated down through official channels as seen from the results in the academy. It does an injustice to women officers,” said Misra.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>An officer who was involved in training at OTA said the Army used to have a separate criteria for physical training of women cadets. “Up until two years ago, women cadets never used to fail on physical fitness grounds,” said the officer. “Generally, male instructors are lenient with women cadets.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In response to THE WEEK’s query, the Army headquarters said there had always been variations in the numbers of men and women cadets being relegated on various grounds such as medical reasons, discipline, or not meeting academic or physical standards. “These are due to inherent variations in the physical fitness levels of the intake, different response of human bodies to stress and training environment, academic pursuits in an environment of higher stress.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But retired officers do not agree. Maj (retd) Asha Shinde Alagappa, a fourth generation officer, said there was no difference in the training imparted to female officers. “At the academy, men and women are treated equally in everything, including their haircuts. All cadets pass physical fitness tests and people are relegated only on medical or disciplinary grounds.” She said the government was spending nearly one lakh rupee a month on a cadet and the relegations were a huge loss to the exchequer. “The Army is already short of officers and if we do such things, it is very unfortunate. I am sure the top hierarchy of the Army is behind this move,” said Alagappa.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At the academy, there is a marked difference in the physical standard requirements of men and women. For instance, while men need to complete a 2.4km-run in 10 minutes, women get 15 minutes. In the battle physical efficiency test, ‘excellent timing’ for men is 24 minutes and 40 seconds while for women it is 31 minutes and 30 seconds. “To clear the physical fitness test, women cadets get multiple chances, including mercy attempts. And the instructors are more lenient with women cadets,” said an officer involved in training.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Army headquarters, meanwhile, clarified that no changes were made to the physical fitness criteria of women cadets. It said significantly lower physical standards were set for women because of the “employment differences” between men and women. The Army headquarters, however, noted that the outgoing batch at OTA Chennai had close to 50 women cadets, which it said was “unusual”. Downplaying the significance of the high failure rate, it said the situation was not alarming and that the failed cadets would be given adequate opportunities to prepare for and pass the applicable physical and academic benchmarks.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>An officer, however, told THE WEEK that the unusual failure rates at OTA was indeed influenced by the Supreme Court verdict. “We also get affected by what is happening outside,” he said. “The Supreme Court verdict came barely a week before the mercy attempts at OTA. There was chest-thumping on television channels by women officers with an arrogance that they were no less competent than their male colleagues. They said they underwent similar training like us. It might have changed the mindsets of the instructors.”</p> Fri May 15 19:30:14 IST 2020 bridge-over-troubled-water <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>SUDHEER,</b> an artist, lives in Baghban apartments in Delhi’s northern suburb of Rohini. The apartment compound was declared a containment zone and sealed off after a couple there contracted Covid-19 and died on May 4. The couple’s children were quarantined, but their test results were yet to come in.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A worried Sudheer downloaded Aarogya Setu (‘bridge to health’), a mobile app developed by the government to trace the spread of Covid-19 and alert users when and if their contacts test positive. He walked around the compound to test the app. But, even when Sudheer was in the area where the couple had died, Aarogya Setu displayed his status in happy, verdant letters—‘You are safe.’ “Many neighbours also got the same result,” he said. “What is the point of this app then?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sudheer’s story gives ammunition to supporters and critics of Aarogya Setu. The critics call it a tool for government surveillance, while supporters say the lack of complete coverage—less than 10 per cent of the population have the app—is what is limiting its efficacy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Since its launch on April 2, Aarogya Setu has been the government’s de facto tech tool against Covid-19. It has been downloaded more than 100 million times, but the news it has been making are not all good. “Aarogya Setu is a sophisticated surveillance system with no institutional oversight, raising serious data security and privacy concerns,” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said on May 2, a day after the Union government made the app mandatory for people in containment zones and all government and private employees who were preparing to return to work after the lockdown was eased on May 4. “Technology can help keep us safe; but fear must not be leveraged to track citizens without their consent,” said Rahul.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A few days later, French ethical hacker Robert Baptiste, known as Elliot Alderson on social media, exposed what he said to be a series of security flaws in the app. This related to the number of times the app fetched the user’s location and an option that enabled users to change latitude, longitude and radius parameters to get statistics from different locations. “The privacy of 90 million Indians is at stake,” Baptiste said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union minister of electronics and information technology, soon issued a denial. He said the app was “absolutely robust, safe and secure in terms of privacy protection and data security”. Authorities also released a six-page document detailing measures taken to protect privacy. It said every user was assigned a “random anonymous device ID” and that all info from users were deleted after a specific time. Location data was used only “in case you test positive, and only to map places visited in the past 14 days,” said the document.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The app is being aggressively promoted. Some states have made it mandatory for those who want to cross inter-state boundaries. Authorities in Noida have ordered that anyone found without the app in a public place be fined Rs1,000 or jailed for six months. The IT department in Tamil Nadu has asked all government employees to download the app, while Indian Railways has made it compulsory for passengers boarding special trains.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the push is not backed by any ordinance or legislation. The order making Aarogya Setu mandatory was issued by an executive committee constituted under the provisions of the 2005 National Disaster Management Act, which gives the Union government sweeping powers and has been in force since the lockdown began. Justice B.N. Srikrishna, head of the committee that submitted a draft data protection bill last year, said the notifications making Aarogya Setu compulsory was “not backed by law”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), a Delhi-based digital liberties NGO, has taken the matter to the parliamentary committee on IT, headed by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor. “[There is a] lack of clear basis or legislative framework for contact-tracing apps such as Aarogya Setu,” said Sidharth Deb, the IFF’s policy and parliamentary counsel. “[It is a] privacy minefield.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>According to him, Aarogya Setu “by design is aligned with the Chinese model of surveillance, which is in clear contravention of existing human rights benchmarks”. “India is the only democratic country in the world to make its app mandatory,” he said. (The UK’s House of Commons does not recommend the use of such apps, while countries like Australia have not made their use mandatory.)</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Though Aarogya Setu was released by the National Informatics Centre, the government calls its development a “public-private” partnership. The IFF says the IT ministry’s response to queries regarding the app has been rather vague. “For example, the source code is not open-source and there is a lack of clarity on contract conditions and service rules for volunteers developing it,” said Deb.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant said Aarogya Setu was India’s attempt to leverage technology to fight Covid-19. “The app is privacy-first by design,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kazim Rizvi, founder of the think tank The Dialogue and co-chair (public policy) of the Indian National Bar Association, said the use of Aarogya Setu was warranted. “Real-time response mechanisms require real-time insights,” he said. He pointed out that even the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment in 2017 that made privacy a fundamental right had provisions to limit the scope of privacy. “The judgement lays down three key tests to reasonably restrict privacy—necessity, proportionality and legality.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Rizvi’s suggestion: Bring an ordinance or legislation to “give a stronger legal footing to the use of this application”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Deb, however, wants people to wake up to the dangers of letting it happen. “The public must understand that if they do not speak up, these systems can become permanent; they cannot be rolled back at a later juncture,” he said. “[We] must tell the government that it cannot have carte blanche access to our private lives.”</p> Thu May 14 17:58:25 IST 2020 if-we-do-not-accelerate-growth-the-effects-of-covid-19-on-the-economy-will-be-challenging <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>WHILE EXPERTS ARE</b> divided on the manner in which the lockdown was imposed across the country after the Covid-19 outbreak, former Reserve Bank governor Bimal Jalan has no doubt that it was the best thing the government could have done. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, he talks about why the slowdown might be a temporary one and the measures the government should take to revive the economy. Excerpts:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Many people have opined that the lockdown will severely affect the economy. Do you think it was the best thing to do by the government to resort to a complete lockdown?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is no doubt at present that the lockdown has affected the growth rate of the economy. According to the estimates made by several economists and experts, the growth rate will significantly decline. Estimates of likely growth rate during this period range from 0.5 to 2 per cent. Hopefully, it will be a short-term issue. The lockdown has ensured that the spread of Covid-19 has been brought down. If the lockdown had not been imposed there would have been many more sick people and many more people would have died. As such I think there would have been no option for the government but to go in for a complete lockdown. I hope that once the lockdown is lifted, growth will revive as the number of affected people has not been very high in India, compared with other countries.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>How much growth rate we will actually have in the future is a long-term issue and I feel that after the lockdown ends the growth will start reviving. The government has to take all the necessary action to revive growth as early as feasible. There could be scope for companies to invest more in order to increase demand for their products. The government has already taken some measures and the Reserve Bank has also infused substantial long term liquidity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Recently, the RBI took steps to infuse liquidity into the system. Is this enough?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So far, the steps taken by the RBI and the government are timely, but whether they are enough would depend on how the Indian economy actually behaves. The RBI has introduced low rate of interest and the government has also increased the fiscal deficit target. These have been broadly aimed at increasing consumer demand and the supply side in the economy. The RBI has taken measures to provide resources to strengthen SMEs as well as mutual funds in addition to reducing lending interest rates.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If more liquidity has to be created by the RBI and the government, it is necessary to take administrative measures and simplify the approval system for those who are investing. Large corporates have to be encouraged to spend as much they can. At the same time, it must be ensured that benefits reach the common people. Under the present situation, we have to implement the measures that have already been announced by the government and the RBI based on actual developments. In the light of these measures, it should be feasible for the government and the RBI to further increase liquidity in the economy, if required.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Will we be able to achieve the target of making India a $5 trillion economy by 2024?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I think we should not stick to the target of $5 trillion economy by 2024. Any target for the economy in 2024, which is four years from now, should be considered only after we mitigate the economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. As things stand today, we will not be able to achieve a very high target within the given timeframe as announced earlier. I feel that the present situation will prevail at least for the next two or three quarters. However, if we do not introduce measures that are required to accelerate growth, the effects of Covid-19 on the economy and the welfare of the people will be very challenging. As of now, we are on track and have taken appropriate, timely steps and decisions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Will the long-term economic reforms that the government had launched be affected by the lockdown?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Confidence among people in terms of investment, and consumer demand and consumption have to improve. At the moment, the government should take short-term action to revive the economy. It should take long-term economic reforms when the present circumstances have turned around and the slow growth rate is revived to at least 5 per cent.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>How much time will the economy take to revive post the lockdown?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This year, the GDP growth rate may not be 5.2 or 6 per cent, but over a period of time it can certainly increase if appropriate policy actions are taken. When growth rate increases, employment prospects and jobs will also increase. Under the present circumstances, as rate of growth and investments have come down significantly, jobs have been impacted severely. So we have to reverse the present situation and ensure that more jobs are created in the economy. As mentioned, the government and the RBI should go all out to revive growth and to take measures to bring back the economy to normal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>All necessary action should also be taken on the demand side. The impact assessment of the lockdown is important, but is not a priority issue. It can be accessed after we have taken measures to revive the growth rate. The immediate priority should be to reverse the impact of this pandemic on the Indian economy as early as possible.</p> Thu May 14 16:45:41 IST 2020 many-patients-have-improved-during-treatment <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>IN THE FRANTIC</b> race between potential cures for Covid-19, the antiviral drug remdesivir has pulled ahead. The US Food and Drug Administration has approved emergency use of the investigational drug on critically ill patients.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Manufactured by Gilead Sciences, remdesivir was originally developed to treat Ebola. The intravenous drug blocks an enzyme in the invading virus and prevents it from replicating itself.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The FDA approval was based on early results of an ongoing clinical trial sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which included 1,063 patients from different sites, including the US, Europe and Asia. The drug was shown to shorten the time to recovery by 31 per cent in some patients.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Gilead Sciences is now in talks with generic drug makers in India and Pakistan to produce remdesivir for developing countries.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The company also released preliminary results from its Phase 3 SIMPLE (shockless implant evaluation) trial that showed that patients who received a shorter, five-day treatment using remdesivir achieved similar clinical improvement as patients who received a 10-day one.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Early results also showed that patients who received the drug within 10 days of symptom onset fared better than those who got it later. Gilead Sciences’s press release said, “By day 14, 62 per cent of patients treated early were able to be discharged from hospital, compared with 49 per cent of patients who were treated late.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said, “What it has proven is that a drug can block this virus. The data shows that remdesivir has a clear-cut, significant, positive effect in diminishing the time to recovery.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Said Daniel O’Day, chairman and CEO, Gilead Sciences: “(The approval) opens the way for us to provide emergency use of remdesivir to more patients with severe symptoms.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The drug has not been tested on people with milder illness and it still needs to get formal approval from the FDA. Its possible side effects include inflammation of the liver and infusion-related issues such as nausea, vomiting, sweating, shivering and low blood pressure.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Also, conflicting results have emerged from a remdesivir study on critically ill patients in China. The study published in The Lancet included 237 severely ill patients who were randomly assigned either remdesivir or a placebo. The researchers could not reach their goal of recruiting 453 patients because of a steep decline in Covid-19 cases. “Our trial found that intravenous remdesivir did not significantly improve the time to clinical improvement, mortality, or time to clearance of virus in patients with serious Covid-19 compared with a placebo,” the study said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>However, Dr Leila Hojat, principal investigator of the clinical trials at University Hospitals, which was one of the first hospitals in the US to open a clinical trial of the drug, is optimistic about remdesivir as a potential treatment. In an interview, Hojat, assistant professor of medicine, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, talks about the drug, expectations from it and the need to stay realistic. Excerpts:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Are you excited about remdesivir as a treatment option?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ From the beginning, we considered ourselves very lucky to be able to offer remdesivir as a treatment to our patients. Before the trials began, it had demonstrated the strongest activity against Covid-19 compared with any of the other available treatments, and it also did not have the same risk of severe side effects. Yet, it was still unknown whether in the end it would turn out to be ineffective, like it was for Ebola. Now with growing evidence that remdesivir may have a benefit to patients with this disease, we are very enthusiastic about continuing this as a treatment.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Who should be treated with remdesivir?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ Since it needs to be given through a vein, remdesivir should only be given to Covid-19 positive patients who are symptomatic, and in most cases to those who are sick enough to require hospitalisation. It should be avoided in patients with severe baseline kidney or liver disease, as it may not be as well-tolerated.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What is your personal experience with remdesivir?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ We have had many patients improve during treatment and leave the hospital in good condition. But it has not been a miracle cure in that most patients still required a few days of treatment before noticeably improving, and some still had progression of their disease despite treatment. I feel positive about the results I have seen first-hand, but it is just not possible to draw any conclusions from observations at a single site, and we are only one among nearly 200 sites involved in the trials.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What do you think about the conflicting data from a Chinese study published in The Lancet?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ It is always disappointing not to see the results you were hoping for. However, it is crucial to consider these types of studies in their own context. The Lancet study was underpowered; it did not have the required number of patients to truly show a difference between the two groups, which is a limitation the authors acknowledged in their paper. Also, it was performed in 10 sites in one province in China, as opposed to nearly 70 sites throughout the US, Europe and Asia. While I am yet to see the data in its entirety, based on study design alone, the NIH trial would be expected to have more reliable results.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What is your opinion about future treatment options for Covid-19?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ I am eager to see the complete results of the NIH study, and I am also looking forward to seeing the results of our own Gilead-sponsored trials. I feel optimistic that remdesivir will prove to have benefit, but we have to remain realistic. Nothing will replace the intense supportive care and monitoring that is needed in [cases of] severe Covid-19, but perhaps remdesivir will be just enough to get patients through the peak of their disease and ultimately allow them to have a better outcome. We also need an oral option for patients who are not yet ill enough to come to the hospital, and to hopefully prevent them from having to do so. Finally, prevention is still the key; we will continue to see patients become ill until we have an effective vaccine.</p> Fri May 08 19:56:50 IST 2020 rites-of-return <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>AT 3PM</b> on May 2, a day after the Central government green-lit interstate trains for migrant workers, Chandan Kumar, his wife, Kiran, and their three-year-old son reached Bhiwandi railway station near Mumbai to catch a train to Gorakhpur, their hometown. They were part of a group of nearly 1,200 workers and their families who got permission to go home after being stranded in Mumbai because of the lockdown. For local authorities, it was a race against time to round up the migrants whom they were to send back—54 in a coach—in the 24-coach special Shramik train that was to run nonstop and complete the journey in 30 hours.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The scene outside the station was striking. Workers wearing masks were squatting on the road, waiting for their details to be verified and body temperatures checked. “After waiting for almost two months, we get to go now. Why couldn’t they do it earlier?” asked Zakir Ali, who has been working in Mumbai for 10 years. “I ended up paying rent for two months, although the handloom factory where I used to work was shut down. I have a big family back home and there are farms where I can work.” He is not planning to return to Mumbai for at least six months.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>All those who wanted to take the special trains had to fill out forms which were distributed by the police in slums, community kitchens, shelters and relief camps. The filled-up forms had to be submitted to deputy commissioners of police. “The forms were made in such a way that a group of 25 to 40 people could apply together, but only one of them had to go to the police station to submit it,” said Nitin Kausadikar, assistant commissioner of police. “Six local police stations in Bhiwandi chose six playgrounds to accommodate migrants in their jurisdictions. They were then brought together in school buses for their final boarding.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Maloji Shinde, senior inspector at the Narpoli police station, said migrants from containment areas were not considered for the trip back home. “This has been an enormous exercise and a well-coordinated effort among different entities. We are trying our best to ensure social distancing, but there is only so much we can do,” said Shinde.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But not all migrants are happy about paying for their tickets. “Why should the poor shell out money? If they can provide us with food and shelter, can they not give us a ticket to go back?” asked Murad Ansari, who is from the town of Campierganj in Gorakhpur.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Trains took back workers from at least 10 states on May 2. The first Shramik train from Maharashtra carrying 847 migrants left Nashik on May 2, reaching Lucknow a day later. Another train carried 334 migrants to Bhopal. “We were in constant touch with the assistant commissioner of Bhopal, Richa Saxena, who immediately gave us the no objection certificate (NoC). Similarly, we got in touch with the home secretary of Uttar Pradesh, who ignored protocol and responded directly to officers working on the ground in Nashik,” said Prashant Waghmare, district disaster management officer, Nashik.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kerala, which is home to nearly 35 lakh migrant workers, saw 18,272 of them leaving aboard 16 special trains till May 5. There have been services to Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Bihar, which initially refused NoCs to trains from Kerala, came around and gave the green light on May 5. “Migrants are an integral part of the Kerala economy. The state needs them more than they need Kerala. So we must incentivise their return once the Covid-19 threat is gone,’’ said S. Irudaya Rajan, professor, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, who is part of the expert committee that advises the state government on Covid-19 related issues.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Protests by stranded migrant workers had broken out across the country during the lockdown. The most violent of these protests took place on April 29 in Telangana when around 500 construction workers—most of them from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand—damaged police vehicles, manhandled policemen and raised slogans at the Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad campus in Sangareddy district. Two days later, the first Shramik train in the country was flagged off from Lingampalli station near Hyderabad, carrying hundreds of workers stranded at the IIT campus. The workers were given a warm send-off by the same policemen with whom they clashed less than 48 hours ago.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As migrants start to return in large numbers, their home states are facing significant medical and logistical challenges. The West Bengal government has arranged special buses at the railway stations for the returning workers. Those with elevated body temperatures will be tested for Covid-19, while others will be quarantined at their homes for 14 days. Police stations have already been informed about returning migrants. “The police are following up with the returnees about obeying the norms of home quarantine,” said Birupakshya Mitra, block development officer at Beledanga in Murshidabad district. The police have been asked to report cases of illness to local health officials so that the state administration can take necessary action.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Bihar government has made 21-day quarantine mandatory for all returning workers and has cancelled leaves of all doctors and health care workers, while Odisha has instructed all community centres to remain open 24x7.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>WITH RAHUL DEVULAPALLI, CITHARA PAUL AND RABI BANERJEE</b></p> Fri May 08 19:57:45 IST 2020 syllabus-for-survival <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>When IIT Bombay director Subhasis Chaudhuri found that the online teaching system adopted by the institute to beat the Covid-19 pandemic was not serving its purpose, he put the ongoing semester on pause. Chaudhuri and his team instead launched a summer term under a special dispensation scheme for those expected to graduate in the current academic year. The spring semester is now likely to restart on June 1 and will finish by the end of the month with an appropriately designed evaluation scheme.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Uncertainty regarding admissions, completion of ongoing courses and future placement of students have become major concerns for educational institutions across the country. With Covid-19 cases increasing by the day, regular academic activity is unlikely to restart anytime soon. All regular examinations have been delayed, with the government announcing on May 5 fresh dates for the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE-Mains) and National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET). The JEE-Mains will now be conducted from July 18-23, JEE-Advanced in August and NEET on July 26.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Chaudhuri admitted that the admission process would be delayed because of the postponement, but he said the institute was prepared for it. “If required, we will increase the lecture hours and shall use the vacation to align the academic calendar by December end, and if that is not possible, by June 2021,” said Chaudhuri. “Saving lives comes before education. We shall work out a scheme so that careers of our students are not jeopardised. We do anticipate some disturbances because of the likely economic slowdown. However, IITs always provide manpower at the top of the talent pool.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>IIT Kharagpur has moved its classes to web-conferencing mode, video lectures of the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) and emails. The institute has revised its summer recess, and examinations will now be conducted in July. “The new semester is expected to start in September 2020 and new admissions will depend on the JEE-Advanced examination. At the same time, dates have been extended for PhD applications,” said Bhrigu Nath Singh, registrar of the institute.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For technical institutes like the IITs, technology-enabled learning is the future. With most of them shifting to the online mode, the impact can be felt across the entire system, including admissions and evaluations. Educating the faculty to develop digital content and effectively handle online classes will become even more important.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>K.N. Subramanya, principal of the Bengaluru-based RV College of Engineering, said various software platforms were being used to make learning more effective and to achieve digital transformation in higher education. “Our faculty has undergone certificate courses in digital pedagogy conducted by the National Project Implementation Unit (NPIU). They are also regularly taking NPTEL courses along with our students,” said Subramanya. “The ongoing crisis has provided an opportunity to conduct 6,000 online sessions on various topics, projects, experiential learning, seminars and virtual labs.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At the Indian School of Business, only two weeks were left for the completion of the regular academic year when the lockdown started. The institute, with campuses in Hyderabad and Mohali, moved its classes and evaluations online, wrapping up the academic year and allowing students to complete the programme.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Some of the students have even started working (from home). For our modular programmes, we are looking to restart classes when permitted by the government,” said Ramabhadran Thirumalai, senior associate dean, academic programmes, ISB. “We use a hybrid model of resident and visiting faculty in our teaching portfolio. Given the uncertainty of calendars, schedules and global travel, we may have to use some amount of online sessions. Educational institutions are being forced to rethink their programmes and courses in innovative ways. But in the long run, students will be the beneficiaries.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>TAPMI Manipal has acquired licences of Webex and Zoom to ensure smooth conduct of its operations. Currently the institute is using Webex to conduct its sessions. Vishwanathan Iyer, dean-academics at TAPMI, said all faculty meetings, interactions with students and prospective candidates and all executive programmes were held via Zoom and Webex. TAPMI completed admission processes at most of its centres before the lockdown. “We are making admission offers and the situation is being monitored closely,” said Iyer. “We expect our students to report to campus from September 1. We believe the new academic year is likely to be stretched till the end of April 2021.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite the contingency plans, the enduring crisis has caused anxiety among students and parents. Yajulu Medury, director, Mahindra École Centrale College of Engineering, Hyderabad, said his institution had received several requests for early counselling. “We will conduct the process completely online. In fact, May 10 is the earliest round of admission counselling and eligible students will be counselled about the branches available and offers will be rolled out accordingly,” said Medury.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For some universities and institutions, online learning has been the norm for quite some time and they are finding it easier to adapt to the new situation. “When the government formulated rules for online degrees, Amity was the first university to get permission and we still have the largest number of approved online degrees,” said Atul Chauhan, chancellor, Amity University. “So, when suddenly all classes for our full-time students had to go online, we were fully equipped and ready. Our students did not miss out on a single day’s class. We rolled out remote learning across all our campuses around the world in a week and brought 1.2 lakh students online. For online examinations we have an advanced software which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to track students via cameras and assists faculty members in live online proctoring.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Chauhan, meanwhile, anticipates new challenges. He feels that there will be staggering and regrouping of sessions and classes to cover the lost time, rescheduling of teaching hours, curtailing of holidays and weekly offs and rotational working on weekends. “We envisage even logistical problems as many outstation students may face difficulty in travelling back once the lockdown is lifted. Everyone is anticipating continuance of social distancing in one form or the other. This may require restructuring the use of our resources. Medical and health supervision for all will be another challenge,” said Chauhan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are many universities that closed since mid-March and want to launch online classes. For many of them, it is a new experience altogether as they have been used to conventional teaching methods. Aligarh Muslim University switched to online teaching as soon as the pandemic struck. “We facilitated e-resources, links, applications and platforms for online teaching material and organised webinars on online teaching for faculty members,” said M. Rizwan Khan, director of Internal Quality Assurance Cell at AMU. “We will conduct examinations under UGC directives. Our summer vacation this time will be a short one in June so that we can complete online classes and examinations. We are preparing for admission tests in July, because the UGC wants to start the new session from September.” Khan said the pandemic had severely affected placements, exchange programmes, various project works, seminars, conferences, training programmes and outreach and extension programmes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Universities and colleges across the country have realised that it is important to ensure that the education process goes ahead unhindered, with the help of technology and other available options. Most of them are optimistic that they can reinvent the academic culture and reengage students effectively and constructively, under altered circumstances.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Chennai-based Hindustan Institute of Technology and Science (HITS), which has more than 7,000 students on its rolls, switched to online mode as soon as it was closed in the middle of March because of the pandemic. The institute was already using Microsoft Teams for online learning and the transition was, therefore, easy. Online classes became regular by April 15 and the ongoing semester was completed successfully by the end of the month.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Our advantage was that we already had the licence for the Teams platform from Microsoft. The staff and students gradually got used to the system. Now I have regular videoconferences with different department heads and others through this platform,” said Kuncheria P. Isaac, vice chancellor of the university. “We plan to start the next semester by June 15, which will initially be completely online. Practicals and other aspects which require face-to-face interaction will be done at a later stage. I have even got many guest lecturers and industry experts to speak to students.” Isaac said if the situation continued to be uncertain, the university would conduct online examinations or would go in for an open-book examination system.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At Lovely Professional University (LPU) in Punjab, constant efforts are being made to train the faculty to teach online. The university has completed the syllabus for the current semester and examinations are scheduled tentatively for late June. But if it does not work out, contingency plans are in place to conduct AI-based remote-proctored examinations, which can be taken from home and are not easy to tamper with.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“We have made our admission process completely online. We also have dedicated call centres and WhatsApp teams to support students to make informed decisions,” said Aman Mittal, who heads the division of international affairs at LPU. “Our entrance tests can now be taken from home on an online platform. We are very hopeful that the session will start soon and are drawing up contingency plans to avoid any hassle for our new students.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>O.P. Jindal Global University based in Sonipat, Haryana, expects to complete its spring semester by June 26, giving students time to engage in work-from-home internships or regular internships, if allowed by the government. Arjya B. Majumdar, dean of admissions at Jindal, said examinations were being held on a take-home basis, with question papers being prepared accordingly. “We have made our admission process completely online. A student may apply and even receive and accept admission offers completely online,” said Majumdar.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Most of the universities THE WEEK spoke to indicated that they had anticipated the Covid-19 challenge even before the government went for a complete lockdown. Bengaluru-based Jain University, for instance, had sent its outstation students home as early as March 17. The university has made available counselling teams to ensure low anxiety levels among its students.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“There has been disruption rather than disturbance because of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said N.V.H. Krishnan, registrar, Jain University. “Online is the new normal. Students are taking up more responsibility. Teachers are adapting to the challenges of teaching online. Those who are not tech savvy are learning new skills. Disruption is always an inconvenience in the short-term, but it is good in the long run.”</p> Fri May 08 19:58:57 IST 2020 order-online <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>DURING THE SUPREME</b> Court’s hearing via videoconferencing on April 13, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud engaged with lawyers on its viability. Advocate-on-Record A.D.N. Rao said the new system had resolved the problem of travel and led to a reduction in pollution; he quipped that he hoped the restrictions would stay in place until July at least. Chandrachud said he had seen so many stars in Delhi’s night sky for the first time. “I had a flock of peacocks in the garden in front of the house. It is all a touching experience,” he said. The positive impact on nature aside, the lockdown has coaxed the judiciary into embracing technology.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On March 27, for the first time ever, three benches of the Supreme Court assembled in the residential offices of the judges to hear matters through videoconferencing. It marked the beginning of a new experience with ramifications for the near future and the promise of greater digitisation of the judicial system in the long run.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Various courts, tribunals and jails have been moving towards going online. It is, however, a first for the higher echelons of the judiciary to adopt the online mode to hear urgent matters. ‘Work from home’ and ‘work from chamber’ is the new normal for judges and lawyers. If judges are hearing cases from their home offices, lawyers are logging in from their homes or chambers. While the Supreme Court is using the Vidyo app developed by the National Informatics Centre, the high courts are using Vidyo, Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Teams. An electronic system has been put in place for filing petitions, while mentioning of matters is taking place through emails or even phone calls made to judges. But the facility is limited only to urgent matters.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Experts say it is commendable that the judiciary is using technology during the lockdown since justice is an essential service. “They have to be congratulated for rising to the occasion and bringing in these changes,” said Surya Prakash B.S., programme director of Daksh, a civil society group.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The present system is, however, marred by glitches and there are concerns about its effectiveness. Recently, as the apex court was hearing the suo motu petition regarding overcrowding of prisons, the line got disconnected, forcing the judges to complete the hearing through a WhatsApp video call. There are doubts whether the hearings are safe and as inclusive as the traditional open court. Experts feel that the courts would have done much better had the work on creating an electronically-enabled judiciary been on track.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The IT platform should be so enabled that even during a hearing if you want to hand over some papers or documents or rely on some decision of a court, you should be able to transmit that electronically in real time,” said advocate Lokenath Chatterjee, who practices at the Calcutta High Court. “We need an indigenously developed secure system in view of the security problems involved. A heavy duty internet connection is most important.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For the system to be truly online, an automated mechanism for filing of petitions is required. At present, lawyers send their request for videoconferencing along with the necessary documents to an email address designated for the purpose. “The online system was launched with a lot of fanfare, and it was said that e-filing will happen. But what is happening is that petitions that were earlier submitted to the court across the counter are now being sent on email. The system is cumbersome, layered and not at all user-friendly,” said K. Diwakar, former legal adviser to the Karnataka government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Advocate Fuzail Ayyubi, one of the first lawyers to appear before the Supreme Court through videoconferencing, said people were getting used to the new system. “There are new challenges and glitches. The clerks are used to a paper-based system. So new kinds of problems have arisen,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Technical glitches apart, the courts have to come to terms with the need to observe proper decorum in online hearings. There is the shocking instance of a lawyer appearing for an online hearing before the Rajasthan High Court wearing ‘baniyan’ (vest). A furious court adjourned the hearing, saying it has already observed that even during videoconferencing, the decorum of the court has to be maintained. It was the second such incident in the Rajasthan High Court.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Lawyers say the proceedings should be in the open court format, wherever the nature of the case allows it, and especially in cases involving larger public interest or questions of law. The Supreme Court has not opened up its hearings for the public. The proceedings in some of the courts, for example the Kerala High Court and the Bombay High Court, are being conducted through Zoom and are open to the public.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“At least for larger constitutional matters or cases which involve a public cause or an issue of national interest, live public streaming can be made available,” said Advocate-on-Record Alakh Alok Srivastava.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Supreme Court has issued guidelines on online hearing of cases. It said that the Supreme Court and the High Courts should ensure the robust functioning of the judicial system through videoconferencing. It has authorised High Courts to determine the modalities for the temporary transition to online hearings.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>An e-committee of the Supreme Court headed by Justice Chandrachud has come out with a standard operating procedure for advocates and parties. A new software to facilitate round-the-clock e-filing of documents is being tested. These initiatives are seen as preparatory steps for the coming months when the courts will have to continue observing social distancing norms while moving on to a more extensive hearing regimen.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“I don’t think that immediately on termination of the lockdown, the courts are going to function normally. The Patna High Court has around 6,000-7,000 counsels, all courtrooms and corridors are packed. Videoconferencing is going to continue for some more months,” said Lalit Kishore, advocate general of Bihar. The Patna High Court, which was the first to hear matters through videoconferencing on March 19, has two courts hearing matters at present; efforts are being made to link at least five courts.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Videoconferencing is here to stay and there are several advantages to it,” said Vikas Singh, senior advocate and former additional solicitor general. Singh, who was the first lawyer to appear through videoconferencing before the Supreme Court, has made an intervention application before the top court about online hearings, asking them to be made a routine feature in the long run.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Singh said the Supreme Court Rules should be amended urgently to provide for compulsory videoconference hearing of certain types of matters and voluntary hearing for others so as to ensure social distancing and to deal with the problem of overcrowding.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>He has suggested that bail pleas, transfer petitions, matrimonial matters, service matters involving a single employee, matters of petitioners-in-person, except for PILs and chamber matters can be heard compulsorily through videoconferencing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Experts feel that the advantages of videoconferencing include bringing greater professionalism into the proceedings, since the submissions have to be succinct and to-the-point, enabling remote participation, ensuring the speedy disposal of cases where the decision is largely based on written submissions, and saving time and effort for litigants and witnesses who are out of station.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The current experience will ensure that naysayers can be overruled easily,” said Surya Prakash. “There is a mindset change and the judiciary needs to use this occasion to channel all its energy towards digitisation.”</p> Thu Apr 30 20:26:45 IST 2020 disease-and-unease <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Shivraj Singh Chouhan looked suitably sombre during the swearing-in of his cabinet ministers on April 21. His day had started with the news of a police inspector in Ujjain succumbing to Covid-19, the second such death in Madhya Pradesh within 48 hours. Naturally, the shadow of the pandemic hung heavy as Govind Singh Rajput, Kamal Patel, Meena Singh, Narottam Mishra and Tulsiram Silawat were sworn in.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The cabinet formation came almost a month after Chouhan became chief minister in dramatic fashion; the Kamal Nath government was toppled by defecting Congress MLAs and the BJP returned to power.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Chouhan attributed the delay in appointing ministers to the pandemic and said more would be appointed after lifting the lockdown. Political analysts, however, felt that Chouhan kept the cabinet small because of other compulsions. Basically, it was the BJP central leadership that had pushed through the decision, under pressure from the Congress, and Chouhan did not have much say in the matter, including in the choice of ministers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are too many strong contenders for cabinet posts, including BJP heavyweights and 22 former Congress MLAs who recently joined the party along with former Union minister Jyotiraditya Scindia. At least 10 of them were promised ministerial berths.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BJP does not want political dissension to boil over, said analysts, when the pandemic is worsening and Madhya Pradesh has the third-highest death toll in the country.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The first Covid-19 cases in Madhya Pradesh were reported in Jabalpur hours after Kamal Nath resigned as the chief minister on March 20. The situation worsened over the next few weeks, especially in commercial capital Indore. As on April 26, the state had recorded 2,090 cases and 103 deaths, and the mortality rate in the state (around 5 per cent) is well above the national average of 3.2 per cent.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Health activists and the Congress have been pointing to the poor health infrastructure, lack of health care access to non-Covid-19 patients, scarcity of testing kits and other hurdles. The state government has tried to take multiple preventive steps, including lockdown in hotspot districts, increasing screening and community sampling, adding to the number of labs, sending out samples to laboratories in other states, and making attempts to start plasma therapy. The situation, however, remains critical.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is in this situation that the BJP has to prepare for the upcoming byelections to 24 Assembly seats, necessitated by the defections and two deaths. The Congress currently has 92 MLAs, the BJP 107. There are four independents, two Bahujan Samaj Party MLAs and one from the Samajwadi Party. All seven had supported the Congress government and could turn with the tide again.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The biggest test would be for Chouhan, who overcame strong opposition from within the party to become chief minister for the fourth time. That the current cabinet has none of his confidants would also impede him.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“It is actually a disastrous and suicidal move by the BJP to constitute this truncated cabinet at this point of time,” said political analyst Girija Shanker. “They could have continued without a council of ministers or should have constituted the complete cabinet.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Not having a council of ministers would have kept all the aspirants hoping and prevented the current resentment, he said. “One thing has become clear,” he said. “As two of Scindia’s supporters have been included in the cabinet, there would be 60:40 share for the original BJP cadre and the new entrants. This means the space for the original BJP cadre will shrink considerably.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Political writer Manish Dixit said that the exclusion of strong contenders such as former leader of opposition Gopal Bhargava sent out a bad message to the party cadre. “This is probably for the first time in the history of Indian politics that a leader of opposition in a state did not become even a minister when his party assumed power,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Though Bhargava told THE WEEK that he was not disappointed by the development, there was a hint of pain in his tone. “I have been working for the party for 40 years and have been an MLA for most of the time,” he said. “In those days, I never dreamt that my party would ever assume power, but I continued working. I have been a cabinet minister for 15 years and then as leader of opposition, too, I had the rank of cabinet minister. So, I do not aspire for anything more. Politics has changed over time and now there are two clear breeds of politicians—the ones who want something from the party and politics and the ones who believe in work. There are a lot in the first category these days; I belong to the second.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Those in the Scindia camp might also be worried. Though most of them come from the Gwalior-Chambal belt, where Scindia is influential, none from the region were included in the cabinet. “Also, the fact that Scindia himself has not yet been given a ministerial berth at the Centre might be playing on their minds,” said Dixit.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Apparently, the BJP had told Scindia that he would be made a Union minister after he was elected to the Rajya Sabha, and all his MLAs would either be made ministers or be given top posts in state boards and corporations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But given the uncertainty, leaders such as Bisahulal Singh and Aidal Singh Kansana, who switched to the Scindia camp after Kamal Nath denied them ministerial berths, might be feeling let down, said Dixit.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The BJP will face big trouble when it tries to field to all the defectors in the byelections,” he said. “Some prominent BJP leaders had lost to these defectors in the Assembly elections." If they feel diminished in their own regions, he said, then the BJP may also suffer defections.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Political writer Rasheed Kidwai said, “Three of the five ministers—Narottam Mishra, Kamal Patel and Tulsiram Silawat—have held health and medical education portfolios in the past 16 years. It was during their terms that the state’s health infrastructure worsened. They will surely be held accountable by the people.” He said Scindia's position had weakened; the two ministers from his camp got relatively lightweight portfolios, and popular leaders such as Imarti Devi were left out.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>BJP state president Vishnu Dutt Sharma, however, played down the possibility of strife in the party. “No one is angry,” he told THE WEEK. “Everything is fine. Our priority is handling the Covid-19 situation with all our might. There was a feeling that the chief minister was handling multiple responsibilities for a long period and he needed a support system. Therefore, a small cabinet was formed. The expansion will be considered when the situation is normal.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Said Pankaj Chaturvedi, who jumped ship with Scindia: “We are all in the BJP now and it does not matter who has been made minister or not. It is the prerogative of the chief minister. There should not be any politics on the issue of cabinet constitution when we are faced with this pandemic.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Congress leader and former minister P.C. Sharma said the negativity around the pandemic would surely affect the BJP and the state government. “The party is responsible for the worsening of the pandemic not just in Madhya Pradesh, but also in the entire country,” he said. “It delayed the lockdown and other preventive measures simply to grab power in the state. Now, in government, too, it is failing to handle the situation. Common people are suffering because of a huge loss of livelihood and jobs, and measures such as the holding back of DA (dearness allowance) hike. All this will fuel public anger. Then there is the tussle within the party due to the defectors' entry. Scindia himself will not be comfortable as there are multiple centres of power in the form of central leaders and the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh). Internal surveys are already showing negative tidings for the BJP. The Congress will certainly make its mark in the byelections.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kidwai argued that, during his three consecutive terms as chief minister, Chouhan had an absolute majority and his leadership qualities were never put to the test. “Riding on statistical jugglery, he managed to get several awards from the erstwhile UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government and consolidated his position as a people's leader on the basis of populist measures like Kanyadan and Ladli Laxmi schemes for girls, teerthyatra (pilgrimage) scheme for senior citizens. Also, a large section of the media was favourable to him. But, the current situation is totally different.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Usually, Chouhan would be in yatra mode, connecting with the people. “But now he cannot make that connect in the lockdown, and he is not comfortable handling technology,” said Kidwai. “So, it is the bureaucracy that is basically running the show. His own touch is missing and this is going to hurt him badly.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As Shanker said, “The Covid-19 situation has taken away the chief minister's [advantage] of direct contact with people. There is a lot of suffering due to the lockdown and it is only growing. This will surely harm the prospects of the ruling party because people usually hold the government responsible for any suffering. There is a growing feeling that the Shivraj government is as good or bad as the previous Congress government and this does not augur well for the BJP. Shivraj is losing out on the goodwill that he created over the years. They (the BJP) might consider the coronavirus as a political shield, but it will actually lead to heavy losses for them politically. That is the irony of the situation.”</p> Thu Apr 30 19:44:47 IST 2020 the-real-threat-comes-from-online-communities <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Bellingcat is an independent collective of researchers and citizen journalists that uses open-source tools and social media investigation to probe a variety of subjects. In an interview, Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins talks about the scourge of fake news and how the common user can deal with it. Excerpts:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Is it in the interest of a few majoritarian governments to let the disinformation system function?</b></p> <p>A/ This may be a result of how the boundaries of what is acceptable political discourse have been pushed. Obviously, when it is a foreign actor pushing disinformation to your own population, governments tend to react differently, but if you accept disinformation as part of your own political process, it should not come as a surprise if your own population is vulnerable to foreign disinformation.</p> <p><b>Q/ Is social media responsible for converting disinformation from a menace to a hazard?</b></p> <p>A/ The real threat comes from online communities and how information is shared and amplified. You find these communities on all sorts of topics, some mundane, like supporters of a sports team or fans of a particular musician, and more bizarre, like communities who believe the earth is flat. A kind of group-think develops in these communities, and the information shared there generally reinforces those views.</p> <p>Those individuals who draw their self-worth from membership of those communities often become key amplifiers in those communities, in turn making the whole community more extreme. Social media is a significant contributor to disinformation spreading outside the community, but it does not create the behaviour that leads to those communities in the first place.</p> <p><b>Q/ Why do you think there has been a lack of diligence in the legacy media or is there more to it than meets the eye?</b></p> <p>A/ There is a lack of understanding in the media of how these online communities operate, and it has been compounded by foreign governments’ use of those communities to spread disinformation, commercial pressures on newsrooms, and a lack of understanding about these issues among senior staff. Some media organisations are also happy to spread, and even generate, misinformation for their own ends.</p> <p><b>Q/ Why are there few open-source tools for basic fact checks?</b></p> <p>A/ There are some easy-to-use tools for images, like reverse image search on sites like Google and Yandex; it is just that most people have not heard of them or do not think to use them. Video is more complex as there are fewer methods for checking if a video has come from somewhere else, and these are less easily teachable.&nbsp;</p> Thu Apr 23 18:14:28 IST 2020 fact-andfriction <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As the pandemic has spread across the world, so has disinformation. And with few mechanisms to curb the menace, the surge in fake news has spread fear and panic in India.</p> <p>The messages seem, at times, innocuous. Like an unsigned message asking people to give a five-minute standing ovation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on April 12. Modi had to debunk it himself.</p> <p>The fake news about the recent Tablighi Jamaat episode, which tried to portray a community in a certain way, was anything but harmless. As was the false information about resumption of train services, which led to thousands of migrant workers flooding the streets in Mumbai. “Disinformation is not innocuous,” said a senior intelligence official.</p> <p>The national and state-level cyber security cells are buzzing with activity, working day and night to track and kill the disinformation virus. Forensic analysis is underway to trace the mischievous content related to the pandemic and to build a quick and effective counter narrative on social media.</p> <p>According to a new report collated by intelligence agencies, 3,162 shady Twitter accounts popped up in 16 days during and after the Delhi riots in February.</p> <p>An intelligence report THE WEEK accessed revealed how social media interventions based on false information led to actual protests on the ground during the recent citizenship law protests. Social media targeting of Indian students in Europe and the US prompted them to come out and protest in front of Indian missions there. According to the report, chartered buses were booked to ferry Indian students for many of these protests, and train tickets were reimbursed through the organisers by leaders of Pakistani diaspora associations. Forensic analysis has traced these social media handles, including @SohniS21, @NidiiM and @Afshan 2016, to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.</p> <p>The virus-related disinformation, however, seems to have overtaken all this, said the official. The Centre has launched a national cyber crime reporting portal, the Press Information Bureau has launched a PIB Fact Check page, and the home and information and broadcasting ministries have sensitised states and the public about unverified and misleading content. The government is also spreading awareness on multiple platforms, asking people to approach the police when they see fake news that could cause communal violence and social unrest.</p> <p>Dr Muktesh Chander, senior IPS officer and former director of the National Critical Information Infrastructure Protection Centre, said that all states should create social media monitoring cells. “Why should we leave it to platforms like Alt News and news channels to come out with facts?” he asked. “By that time, the damage is already done. The police should take action against those spreading misinformation, and also get it blocked under the Information Technology Act.”</p> <p>A state cyber cell official, who did not want to be named, said that states are more reactive than proactive, and that cyber cells are ill-equipped or understaffed. “There is a need for a 24-hour task force,” said the official. “This requires a convergent effort at the national level by incorporating all intelligence and law enforcement agencies, making the media accountable, and educating the society and social media users.”</p> <p>Alt News founder Pratik Sinha, however, said that the government alone cannot be the nodal authority. “What the government does will always be subjective,” said the former software engineer. “How many people follow the PIB? I would rather have the mass media do it. Like the vaccination programme or the Swachh Bharat campaign, we need an awareness programme against disinformation. It needs to be part of the school curriculum. We need short- and long-term strategies.”</p> <p>Sinha and his friends founded Alt News in 2017, and the site has since exposed thousands of fake news items. “We break videos into different frames,” he said. “Each frame is analysed using digital techniques and some old-school practices where we look at billboards to recognise the location. We then contact people or the police in that area to ask about that particular incident.”</p> <p>There is a pattern to misinformation, he added. “Any event that has an emotional appeal is used by anti-national, anti-social elements and political forces to capture the narrative and inject misinformation in a way that will benefit them,” he said.</p> <p>Dr Pavan Duggal, Supreme Court advocate and president of consultancy site, said the challenge is enormous because there is no international law on fake news. “It has been left to the subjective interpretation of different countries under the parameters of their existing national legislation,” he said. “India has sought to regulate fake news under the parameters of its cyberlaw, which is the IT Act, 2000.”</p> <p>There are some countries, like Singapore, which have dedicated legislation on fake news, but many others do not. “Because the provisions of the IT Act, 2000, have not been specifically enforced against service providers who are publishing and disseminating fake news, an impression has started emerging that anyone can publish and disseminate fake news without fear of any legal consequences,” said Duggal, who is also chairman of the International Commission on Cyber Security Law.</p> <p>Khushhal Kaushik, an ethical hacker who has helped police cyber cells crack cases of fraud, said that fake news is generated using artificial intelligence, tools such as Photoshop, websites that generate newspaper clippings and fake news creator apps. Deep fakes, where a person’s likeness is imposed on another person in a photo or video, are also widely used to mislead the public.</p> <p>To hide their identity, fake websites are created in other countries; the articles are then spread using social media platforms. TikTok, for instance, has a weaker algorithm compared with more established applications, and cannot fact-check content, said Kaushik. This is why it is difficult to zero in on fake news on the platform. “To counter national security threats, we need to watch out for social media apps that can collect data without the user’s knowledge and promote false information,” said Kaushik.</p> <p>Intelligence agencies are on their toes as they realise that fake news has the intrinsic ability to impact not just public order, but also cyber sovereignty. Analysis of material being fed to jihadi channels in India has revealed that the servers pushing them are located in the UAE, which are further connected to servers in Karachi. Similarly, online Khalistani propaganda, particularly that of Sikhs For Justice (SFS), has recently been traced to Karachi-based servers. The SFJ is banned in India.</p> <p>Intelligence reports show that SFJ runs 14 websites hosted on the same server in Karachi, which run through the same content management system operated by a single company with the domain .pk, which can only be obtained through government intervention. Also worrisome was the fact that the same server was running several e-commerce websites.&nbsp;</p> Thu Apr 23 18:12:23 IST 2020 tenuous-peace <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The Congress, down and out after the Lok Sabha elections and crippled by a leadership crisis, is suddenly abuzz with activity. There are strong signals that Rahul Gandhi may be on the comeback trail as he takes centre stage in the party’s response to the current pandemic.</p> <p>The Congress has tried to occupy the moral high ground by extending its hand in “constructive collaboration” to the Union government. In a recent news conference, his first in several months, Rahul said he had many differences with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but this was not the time to play the blame game. Just two days later, Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi set up an 11-member committee to deliberate on the pandemic. While former prime minister Manmohan Singh leads it, the focus is on Rahul, who is also a member. The first item on the committee’s agenda is preparing a report for the government on an economic stimulus package for the micro, small and medium businesses. And, in this regard, Rahul announced on Twitter the launch of a dedicated portal for suggestions from the public.</p> <p>The former Congress president’s current stance is a far cry from his aggressive onslaught on Modi during the Lok Sabha elections, which seemed to have backfired. In fact, the party’s newfound ally, the Shiv Sena, has praised Rahul for creating a code of conduct on how an opposition party should behave when the country faces a crisis.</p> <p>“We differ with the government on various issues and we are critical of many of the government’s policies,” said senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh, a member of the party’s Covid-19 committee. “But the Congress’s policy is to offer the government constructive support at this crucial juncture. It is our hope that the government will act on them with the same constructive mindset with which we are making these recommendations.”</p> <p>Opposition chief ministers, too, have collaborated with the Centre. While they have voiced their grievances, especially regarding financial assistance from the Centre, they have been unanimous in their support of the lockdown.</p> <p>After facing criticism of not taking everyone on board, Modi, too, reached out to chief ministers through video-conferencing, held an online meeting with floor leaders of different parties, and called several senior politicians.</p> <p>“Today’s discussion reflects constructive and positive politics, reaffirms India’s strong democratic foundations and its spirit of cooperative federalism,” Modi said following the meeting with floor leaders.</p> <p>The assessment in the opposition camp is that the states would have to collaborate with the Centre as the virus would have a debilitating impact on their finances, and that there is a need to convince the Centre to strengthen the hands of the states.</p> <p>“As far as the left is concerned, we are of the view that we need a united fight against Covid-19, in which the Centre and the states, both have an important role to play,” said Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader M.B. Rajesh. “Health is a state subject, so the states are at the forefront of the fight. The Centre needs to empower the states. It should help the states with the required financial support and other measures. Mere lip service is not enough.”</p> <p>Though the opposition has maintained support for the Centre’s measures, it has also flagged lacunae in the response, including inadequate testing, the plight of the stranded poor, lack of personal protection gear for health care workers and the alleged opaqueness of the PM-Cares Fund.</p> <p>“The government has not really taken the opposition on board,” said DMK Rajya Sabha member Tiruchi Siva. “There is a difference between holding meetings and actually listening to us. However, as a responsible opposition party, we have been raising certain issues, and we are doing what we can on our own to help the people.”</p> <p>Even amid the collaborative approach, the opposition parties have not forgotten their political interests. In West Bengal, where the BJP is snapping at the heels of the Trinamool Congress, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has accused the Modi government of being partisan in its dealings with the state.</p> <p>On questions about mismanagement by opposition parties in the state, Trinamool MP Derek O’Brien said, “In Bengal, we are carrying on with our work, which has ensured our Covid-19 numbers are better than most other states. The rumours and mischief have to be responded to with facts, figures and public health logic.”</p> <p>The Congress, meanwhile, slammed the Modi government for delaying action against the virus in Madhya Pradesh as it was allegedly more interested in toppling the Kamal Nath government. It has also brought up the fact that Rahul had, in February itself, warned of the pandemic, but the Centre paid him no heed.</p> <p>The Congress thinking seems to be this—the pandemic has sidetracked the BJP’s key agenda, including the implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens, and there is an opening to bring back focus on bread-and-butter issues, especially as the economic cost of the pandemic would be massive. Timed with Rahul’s apparent willingness to engage with the party’s decision-making process, the economic issues, which he has focused on in the past, could power his comeback.</p> <p>The BJP has hit back, attacking Rahul for his persistent criticism of the Centre’s Covid-19 policies. “When your main leader is seeking to instigate the common people at the time of a national crisis and is carrying on a tirade against a government that is working day and night in collaboration with the states, how can the Congress be seen as positive in any other exercise?”&nbsp;asked BJP leader Nalin Kohli.</p> <p>“They cannot speak in a forked tongue, make wild attacks on the one hand and have a committee give reports to the government on the other.”&nbsp;</p> Thu Apr 23 17:57:10 IST 2020 the-terminal <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It was his 36th day of being stranded in the Dubai International Airport and Deepak Gupta, understandably, was miserable. “I have not seen the sun or breathed fresh air for more than a month,” he told THE WEEK. “I am stuck. Can you imagine such a life?”</p> <p>Gupta landed in Dubai on March 18, the day India decided to stop the entry of Indians coming from Europe. He was told that he could not fly to India when he was preparing to check in. “I am yet to overcome that shock,” said Gupta, who has been living in the airport since.</p> <p>A resident of Delhi’s Uttam Nagar, he had gone to Budapest on an official assignment a month earlier. As Covid-19 began to spread worldwide, his employer, a Gurugram-based multinational company, called him back. As he left Budapest to catch an Emirates flight from Dubai to Delhi, little did he know that he would spend the next few weeks in an airport.</p> <p>“I had no idea about the ban on passengers coming from Europe when I boarded the flight from Budapest,” said Gupta. “My wife is pregnant, and I was counting the hours before I could be with her. Now I really don’t know when I will be able to see her.”</p> <p>Apart from Gupta, 18 other Indians have been stranded in the airport. They had all landed in Dubai on or after March 18, from different parts of the globe. According to India’s ministry of external affairs, five of them are from Kerala, four from Gujarat, three from Punjab, two from Maharashtra and one each from Delhi, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Karnataka.</p> <p>Most of them had no clue about the ban when they started their journeys. After banning inbound passengers from Europe, India extended the ban to include all international flights on March 22.</p> <p>“I had no idea about the complete ban until I reached the airport here on March 22,” said Iqbal Hussein of Gujarat, who was on his way home from Tanzania. Ankit Parekh, also of Gujarat, said he had boarded the same flight from Tanzania along with two other Indians and Parekh was planning to catch the March 22 flight to Ahmedabad.</p> <p>The stranded Indians had a tough time initially as they had to spend their days and nights at the T3 terminal reserved for Emirates flights. “We slept on chairs and on the floor, and survived on food coupons provided by the Indian embassy,” said Benson Andrews of Kerala, who flew in from Lisbon. He and his twin brother, Jackson Andrews, have been in the airport since March 18.</p> <p>The stranded Indians spent nearly a week at T3, taking bath in airport washrooms and living like Tom Hanks’s character in the 2004 hit The Terminal. The embassy twice gave them 400 dirhams each, but as eateries had started shutting down by then, they had to survive on bun and patties mostly.</p> <p>Fortunately, Emirates shifted all passengers to the Dubai International Airport Hotel in the terminal after screening them for Covid-19 on March 25. All of them tested negative.</p> <p>Part of the group is a Bengali couple, who are in their seventies. They had flown in from Sydney to catch a flight to Ahmedabad. “We feel so bad for them,” said a passenger. “They look so lonely and shattered in this unfamiliar situation. The Indian government should have arranged for their journey at least.”</p> <p>All passengers have been given separate rooms, free food and wireless internet. But, amid the hotel’s luxurious setting, their helplessness is palpable. Most of them spend their time sleeping or watching television. Some hold office meetings online, some wander the corridors, some work out in their rooms. Some have grown very close to each other, sharing their rooms to “shoo away loneliness and depressing thoughts”.</p> <p>As the days pass, the pining for home is only growing stronger. “Everything has been provided to us,” said Hussein. “But we just want to go home. Please help.”</p> <p>Gupta said their families back home were worried. “We were all rushing back, as we wanted to be with our families in this difficult time,” he said. “But we are stuck. Please help us get out of here.”</p> <p>Most passengers feel that the Indian government had left them high and dry. “Are we not Indians?” asked Pizarro Andrade of Goa. “Don’t we belong to India? Why is the government treating us like this?”</p> <p>Andrade works in a luxury cruise in Sydney. He was planning to catch a flight to India on March 21, but his flight from Sydney to Dubai was delayed because of rain. “Many countries, including Pakistan, took their citizens back on chartered flights,” he said. “Only we Indians and a few others are stuck here. We all have tested negative. Still we are treated like pariahs.”</p> <p>Andrade’s wife, Marushka, is a receptionist at a counselling centre in Goa. “He always tells me that everything is all right,” she said. “That is what every man would tell his wife, no? I am so worried about him.”</p> <p>Marushka said the government should have arranged a special flight for the group stranded in Dubai. “They are stuck there for no fault of theirs. Most of them knew about the travel ban only after reaching Dubai. The Indian government should show some mercy.”</p> <p>The authorities, however, say other countries, including Pakistan, could take their citizens back as they had not announced lockdowns at that time. “It is clearly not possible to carry passengers during the lockdown as there are no flights between the UAE and India,” Consul General Vipul told THE WEEK.</p> <p>Apart from the 19 Indians, 46 people from countries like Angola, Cameroon, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan are stranded in the Dubai airport. While some Indians are not happy with the Indian government, all heap praise on Emirates. Apparently the airline even provided them Indian food when they asked for it.</p> <p>Among the stranded passengers is one man who missed his flight to Ahmedabad in the wee hours of March 22. Since he worked in Dubai, the ban on passengers from Europe was not applicable to him. But because he overslept, he ended up missing the flight. He is very upset, understandably.</p> <p>Over the days that THE WEEK contacted the stranded passengers, their emotional turmoil was quite palpable. Some refused to communicate as they “were too depressed to talk”; a few others were furious. Some who had initially responded positively became increasingly dejected. “Nothing is going to save us,” said one passenger before going offline.</p> <p>Dr T.S. Jaisoorya, additional professor at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, Bengaluru, said the mood swings of the stranded passengers were natural. “They are going through a very difficult and uncertain phase—and that, too, in an unfamiliar, artificial situation. They will recover once they reach their homes,” he said.</p> <p>But what has come as a fresh jolt to the group is the news that India may not lift its ban on international flights even if it decides to end the lockdown on May 3. Some have gone into severe depression following rumours that the ban could remain in place till July.</p> <p>Pavan Kapoor, India’s ambassador to the UAE, however, said the ban was unlikely to be extended. “We certainly hope that it will not be the case,” he told THE WEEK. “We have kept New Delhi informed about the need for many people from the UAE to return to India for urgent reasons. I am sure that, at the first available opportunity, this will be permitted.”</p> <p>Interestingly, there are some who look at the prevailing problems positively. “One would stop feeling so bad if one thinks about the thousands who are stranded in different parts of the world without proper shelter, food and water,” said Raju Nair, who runs a restaurant in Moscow. “We should consider ourselves lucky for getting this luxury life in this uncertain time. That is the only way to survive this phase.”</p> <p>Nair was flying back to his wife and son in Russia from his home state, Kerala. Once the ban is lifted, he plans to return to Kerala as Moscow is unlikely to welcome non-Russian international travellers anytime soon, as Covid-19 cases are going up in Russia.</p> <p>When THE WEEK contacted Nair, he was in the middle of an intense cardio session. “There is more to life than these stranded days,” he said. “One must emerge stronger after this episode.”</p> <p>Some have started calling the airport hotel their third home. “I have met some very nice people,” said Karthik Shivaprasad of Bengaluru. “Also, the airport is one of the safest places on earth, as only those who have tested negative are allowed to stay.”</p> <p>A first-year MBA student at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, Karthik was flying back to the US when got stuck in Dubai.</p> <p>All passengers have been coping with misery in their own ways. At times, they share drinks and watch TV together. Some have even shared their Netflix passwords with others, and many have watched <i>The Terminal </i>more than once, trying to relate to the positive attitude of Hanks’s character. And, many take special care to cheer up the elderly couple from Bengal.</p> <p>“At times, we pretend to be positive just for the sake of others,” said Andrade. “We all have some interesting stories to tell our children once we reach home.”&nbsp;</p> Thu Apr 23 17:38:03 IST 2020 impossible-to-bring-the-stranded-back-to-India-now <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Q/What is the current status of Indians stranded in the Dubai International Airport? Are they all safe?</b></p> <p>A/There are 19 Indians stuck in the airport. They belong to different states and all are absolutely safe.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/How did they get stranded?</b></p> <p>A/Some of them got stranded when they travelled from Europe at a time when India had already suspended entry of travellers from there. Others got stuck as they missed their connecting flights before India stopped entry of flights from abroad.</p> <p><b>Q/What are the facilities that the consulate is providing them?</b></p> <p>A/Our consulate has kept in touch with them and given some financial help from the Indian Community Welfare Fund. We had also assured them that if they are allowed entry into Dubai, we would help [arrange for] their stay and food.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Is there any possibility of bringing them back to India now?</b></p> <p>A/It is clearly not possible to get them to India during the lockdown, as there are no international flights between the UAE and India. In a pandemic situation, the government has to take decisions for the common good.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Will they be brought back to India on a priority basis as soon as the lockdown is over?</b></p> <p>A/We hope that they will be able to proceed to India as soon as passenger flights start from Dubai to India.</p> Thu Apr 23 17:34:15 IST 2020 violence-returns <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A river runs through Keran village, so does the Line of Control (LoC). What Pakistan calls daryayi (river) Neelum becomes the Kishanganga in India. The village, however, has the same name on both sides of the border. In other areas along the LoC, the Kishanganga separates Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK) from Jammu and Kashmir; in Keran, the river is fully in PoK. Hence, since the 1990s, Keran has been one of the preferred entry points into Kashmir for militants. Usually, they cross the river and scale the Shamshabari mountain range to sneak in.</p> <p>On April 1, five heavily armed militants entered Keran in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district. The Army, however, trapped them in a gorge between the LoC and the mountains. The five-day-long Operation Rangdori Behak ended with the killing of the militants. The Army lost five men of 4 Para (Special Forces)—Subedar Sanjeev Kumar, Havildar Davendra Singh, Paratrooper Bal Krishan, Paratrooper Amit Kumar and Paratrooper Chhatrapal Singh. The last four hours of the operation saw close-quarters combat so intense that the bodies of the fallen soldiers and the infiltrators lay only a few feet apart. The Army recovered five AK-47 rifles, two under-barrel grenade launchers, two pistols, ammunition, satellite radio, medicines including morphine and dry rations including figs, cashew nuts and Tang drink mix.</p> <p>While the Army has a network of sensors, thermal imagers and long-range observation radars along the LoC, sources said the inclement weather and mountainous terrain helped the militants this time. Heavy snowfall often damaged fences, they said.</p> <p>Chinar Corps Commander Lt Gen B.S. Raju said that soon after the militants slipped in on April 1, the platoon guarding the area gave chase and cornered them at 1pm. He said that the militants then ditched much of their gear and hid in a gorge. By evening, the Army had trapped them between the LoC and the mountains. “For the next two days, the Army used helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles for better situational awareness, and further isolated the group,” he said. On April 4 noon, a group of Special Forces personnel was airdropped near the militants’ hideout. “As the Special Forces were approaching the target area, one of the terrorists, probably a guide, started to run towards the LoC and was neutralised by the Army,” said Raju. “(The soldiers) approached the target area traversing extremely challenging terrain in high snow and over extremely steep slopes.” By late evening, a gun battle ensued, and in the next five hours, the militants were neutralised. “When the world is fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, Pakistan is aiding and abetting infiltration,” said Raju. “I would like to tell you that we are here at the LoC and we will not tolerate any mischief from Pakistan.”</p> <p>A video released by the Army on April 10 showed it targeting Pakistan army’s gun positions, terrorist launch pads and an ammunition dump in PoK. The Army spokesman in Srinagar, Col Rajesh Kalia, confirmed in a statement that the Army had retaliated to the ceasefire violations by Pakistan and inflicted heavy damage. Sources said the Army targeted the Pakistani positions with medium and heavy artillery. On April 12, three civilians were killed in artillery shelling by Pakistan in Kupwara.&nbsp;</p> <p>The April 1 infiltration attempt was the second such bid by militants to ferry weapons from PoK to Kashmir through Keran since the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019. This March, the police reportedly recovered a huge cache of arms from Keran after arresting a militant module at Sopore in Baramulla. On interrogation, the militants allegedly revealed that the weapons were meant for the newly formed The Resistance Front (TRF), linked to the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Security officials said that the TRF was formed to provide cover to the activities of the LeT, after the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) threatened to blacklist Pakistan over its support to militants.</p> <p>Though the Army did not reveal the identity of the militants killed in Keran, a family from south Kashmir’s Shopian district identified one of them as Sajjad Ahmad Hurra, who was missing since 2018. Sajjad’s family said that they recognised him from the pictures of slain militants shared on social media. His father, Mushtaq Hurra, told THE WEEK that Sajjad and his friend Adil Bashir Wani left Kashmir to work in Saudi Arabia in April 2018. He said that after a few days, the nambardar (village headman) told him that the Army was enquiring about the whereabouts of the boys. “The next day when Sajjad called, I told him that the Army was looking for them and not to switch off the phone,” he said. “But Sajjad called again the next day to say that they would be switching off their phones as they were at a hospital to get some tests done before flying to Saudi Arabia.” That was the last he heard from his son, said Hurra. Sources said Sajjad and Adil travelled to Pakistan via the Wagah border.</p> <p>After reports of Sajjad being one of the slain militants spread, the police raided his house and arrested his brother. Hurra and Adil’s family have approached the deputy commissioner of police, Kupwara, for a DNA test to verify whether their sons were among those killed in Keran. The family of Sartaj Ahmed from Kulgam, too, has requested the same. Sartaj went missing in December 2017. Hurra said that Kupwara’s senior superintendent of police has been directed to collect DNA samples.</p> <p>The Keran incident has reinforced fears about increased violence in Kashmir, triggered by the revocation of Article 370. With the FATF extending Pakistan’s deadline from April to October to comply with its requirements to get off the grey list, the militants, it seems, are using the diversion caused by the pandemic to cross the border.&nbsp;</p> Sat Apr 18 10:14:08 IST 2020 frontier-resistance <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>When the Covid-19 infection broke out, they were among the most vulnerable states in India. Ringed by China, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh, and with extensive ties with hotspots in southeast Asia, the five northeastern states—Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland—faced a major threat, but they have so far been successful in tackling the pandemic.&nbsp;</p> <p>Aided generously by the Central government, the five states have streamlined their economic activities, adopted safe cultural practices and have undertaken rigorous testing protocols, reaching around 100 people per million population as against the national average of 70 per million. People have stopped going to neighbouring villages, and shops are open only for a few hours. All states except Meghalaya have inner line permit systems, which have been invoked to prevent the entry of outsiders.&nbsp;</p> <p>“Our only concern today is mainland India and we will have to somehow stop people coming from there,” said Alo Libang, health minister of Arunachal Pradesh. He said the cities in the state were a little reckless, while the villages—largely tribal—were much more disciplined in practising strict lockdown. “Whenever there are disease outbreaks like malaria or any kind of unknown fever, villagers stay indoors and shops are closed. Local village councils ensure the supply of goods and essential services,”said Libang.</p> <p>Arunachal Pradesh imposed a lockdown on its own on March 23, even before Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a national shutdown. One big challenge for the state is its huge NRI population. The state government has asked them not to return now. It has also clamped down on those who attended the Tablighi congregation in Delhi. “The only positive case we have is a person who returned from Nizamuddin. Around 50 others who visited Delhi have been quarantined,” said Libang.</p> <p>Manipur, which is not a traditional and protected state like Arunachal Pradesh, has two cases—one person who came from London and the other who attended the Tablighi programme. The state, which shares a porous 400km-long border with Myanmar, enjoys flourishing trade ties with it. Tribes on both sides of the border share cordial ties. But Manipur was quick to cut all contact with Myanmar, which has been a critical move, considering the country’s long border and close ties with China. While it has hit the state hard economically, the move seems to have saved the northeast from the pandemic.&nbsp;</p> <p>While Arunachal Pradesh has a tradition of segregation and isolation, the Manipuri culture is just the opposite. Women run major markets called Ima markets. All such markets are now closed, making the women anxious. The government said it had food stocks for six months and was getting enough support from the Central government. NGOs, too, play a key role in distributing food and essential items. Being under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, the state relies heavily on security forces for the supply of essential commodities.&nbsp;</p> <p>Manipur has a good number of people working in South Korea who are keen to return. But Health Minister L. Jayantakumar Singh said they should stay safe wherever they were. “The Indian government is in touch with the Korean government in this regard,” he said.</p> <p>Mizoram reported only one Covid-19 case. The patient, who had returned from Amsterdam, has recovered, but the state is following strict lockdown protocols, with task forces being set up for door-to-door supply of essential goods. “These task forces have government officials, public representatives, the powerful Young Mizo Associations and church leaders as members. The church plays a key role in enforcing the lockdown,” said Remruata Varte, a social activist.&nbsp;</p> <p>Mizoram Chief Minister Pu Zoramthanga said he was getting generous support from the Centre. The state is surrounded by Myanmar and Bangladesh and there is a huge amount of public movement—especially of the tribal population—across the borders, raising the risk of disease transmission. But the lockdown seems to be working.&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite having a long, porous border with Bangladesh and the largest population of migrant workers in the northeast after Assam, Meghalaya has reported only seven cases, including one death. The patient who died was a 69-year-old doctor and the other six cases are his contacts. One area of concern is the state’s reliance on Assam for essential supplies. Assam has nearly 800 patients, of which the majority seem to have contracted the virus from the Tablighi congregation. Meghalaya Health Minister A.L. Hek credited the state’s village culture for its success in containing the outbreak.&nbsp;</p> <p>“We have village response teams, district response teams and state response teams under the director of health services. If a man enters a village, the village head will report that to the local police station or to the deputy commissioner. Even a villager is empowered to inform local authorities about anyone entering his village,” said Hek. Village response teams are arranging door-to-door delivery of food, especially for the poor, the elderly and the sick.&nbsp;</p> <p>Meghalaya has blocked the entry of all those who had attended the Tablighi congregation. “We face a shortage of doctors and health workers. So we have blocked the entry of the Nizamuddin returnees,” said Hek.&nbsp;</p> <p>The state has made use of the thriving hospitality industry in Shillong by recruiting the hotel staff to man temporary hospitals set up across the state. “We have recruited Ayush doctors and private nursing staff to create a robust health care system. Even those who have just passed their MBBS exams are being recruited,” said the minister. Director of health services Aman Warr said Meghalaya had only 700 government doctors and 1,300 nurses when the crisis struck. “But with recruitment from outside, we have tripled those numbers,” he said.&nbsp;</p> <p>Nagaland, which is home to several hunting tribes, was worried when reports about the pandemic came in. But the 16 tribes in the state sat together under the Naga Hoho, the all-powerful civil society umbrella group, and implemented strict social distancing. Whenever a person from another village comes in, villagers will sound the alarm by whistling, an effective tool for social distancing.&nbsp;</p> <p>“Even neighbours do not meet. There is a stipulated time for members of each village to visit the market to collect their rations,” said H.K. Zhimomi, president of the Naga Hoho.</p> <p>Nagaland Deputy Chief Minister Y. Patton lauded the efforts of civil society groups like the Naga Hoho. Unfortunately, the insurgency-hit state has only two big hospitals. “We have no testing centres. Samples are sent to Imphal and Guwahati. We rely heavily on the Central government and on God,” said Patton. Nearly 20 foreigners stuck in the state have been quarantined.</p> <p>The state reported its first case on April 12. A private hospital in Dimapur in Nagaland had referred the patient to Guwahati Medical College, where the infection was confirmed.</p> <p>The Naga insurgents, also known as “national political workers”, are keeping a low profile. Zhimomi said the Naga Hoho had asked insurgents not to tax people during the crisis. “They are playing a very positive role this time,” he said.</p> <p>Naga leaders, meanwhile, are worried about the community spread of the disease. “If it happens, the entire Naga community will be at risk,” said Akum Naga, vice president of the Business Association of Nagaland. “We are shocked to see the situation in mainland India. It can infect us if we open our state borders,” said Akum. “It would be great if India takes help from China, which has successfully controlled the disease, although it originated there.”&nbsp;</p> <p>It will, however, be the last thing the Modi government would want to do as it fights an uphill battle against the deadly virus.&nbsp;</p> Sat Apr 18 10:13:50 IST 2020 we-have-stock-for-four-months <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Mizoram Chief Minister Pu Zoramthanga has been working from home after the Covid-19 outbreak. His critics call the 80-year-old leader “self-quarantined chief minister” for his decision to isolate himself even before the state went into total lockdown. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, the chief minister explains how Mizoram is dealing with the situation.</p> <p>Excerpts:&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Mizoram has handled the Covid-19 crisis well so far.&nbsp;</b></p> <p>A/ We managed to insulate ourselves from the rest of India well in advance. We locked down our state four days before the Indian government did. In fact, I requested the prime minister to stop flights to Aizawl before I locked down the state.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ The people of your state have been cooperative.</b></p> <p>A/ They are disciplined and patient. They are doing exactly what is expected from them at this critical time. We are sandwiched between Bangladesh and Myanmar and there is a huge influx of people. So, anything could have happened.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How did you seal the borders?</b></p> <p>A/ I asked security agencies to do that immediately. And, I told people that we needed to stop all connections with Myanmar for the time being. I also took the decision to isolate Mizoram from Assam, which I knew would get lots of cases. I also imposed a ban on inner line permits.&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How are you managing essential supplies?&nbsp;</b></p> <p>A/ We grow essential vegetables in Mizoram. We are buying rice from Assam. We have stocks for four months.&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Will you continue with the lockdown?</b></p> <p>A/ Even if the Central government withdraws the lockdown, we will continue with it till the situation normalises. I will have to see whether I should open inner line permits even if the lockdown is withdrawn, because there is scope for second stage infection.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What will happen to the state’s economy if the lockdown continues?</b></p> <p>A/ A state like Mizoram, which has a disadvantaged location, needs support from the Central government. We are getting all sorts of help, including financial support and personal protective equipment, from the prime minister.&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Are you getting enough testing kits?</b></p> <p>A/ We are now carrying out rapid tests. We are getting kits from the Central government. We have created a system by which all are checked in a time-bound manner and we are largely not finding any symptoms.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Your critics say even before the lockdown, you confined yourself to your residence.&nbsp;&nbsp;</b></p> <p>A/ Before the lockdown I held two cabinet meetings in the office. I then realised that the disease does not have any cure, except social distancing. So I decided to follow it so that others will understand.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Your health minister is working tirelessly across the state.</b></p> <p>A/ Yes, one or two people will have to go out, not all. But some people are in a hurry to go out and show that they are working. In this critical hour, what is needed is a very small group of people out on the field, maintaining social distancing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ You are being criticised by your political adversaries.</b></p> <p>A/ I told my colleagues that this is not the time to go out, show off and reap political dividends. The time for politics will come and I will answer people then.</p> Sat Apr 18 10:13:26 IST 2020 booster-shot <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In 1901, the father of Indian chemistry, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray, founded India’s first pharma company, the Bengal Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals Ltd. The heart of the company was Ray’s own laboratory in his Manicktala residence in Calcutta, which he had set up nine years earlier for the princely sum of Rs700.</p> <p>A few years before Ray converted his lab into a full-fledged company, a Calcutta-based British medical doctor named Ronald Ross had discovered that malaria was caused by parasites. A range of medicines to treat the disease were then invented, and Ray’s Bengal Chemicals soon became the first pharmaceutical company in Asia to mass-produce a version of the anti-malarial drug quinine.</p> <p>The company kept growing until Ray died 1944. It began recording losses within a decade, ultimately leading to its nationalisation in 1980. By 1992, it had become so sick that the government had to intervene to restructure the company.</p> <p>In 2016, though, the company turned a surprise profit of Rs4 crore. For the past four years, it has been on the recovery path. Now, as Covid-19 wreaks havoc across the world, Bengal Chemicals has become one of the most talked-about pharma companies in India.</p> <p>The reason is that the West Bengal Directorate of Drug Control has issued the company a licence to manufacture hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), an anti-malarial drug that is believed to help Covid-19 patients recover faster. “For decades, we have been producing chloroquine phosphate [an anti-malarial drug], which is analogous to HCQ,” said a company spokesperson. “But, because of Covid-19, we sought a licence from the state government to produce HCQ and an approval from the Union government to manufacture the drug. We have received both.”</p> <p>The swift approval owes a lot to US President Donald Trump, who recently forced India, the largest producer of HCQ in the world, to lift the ban on the drug’s export. The first two shipments of HCQ from India, manufactured by two Gujarat-based companies, have already reached the US. With Bengal Chemicals preparing to begin production, India would soon be able to increase exports and keep up with the domestic demand.</p> <p>Several factors, however, could hamper the plans. Years of neglect have made it impossible for Bengal Chemicals to produce HCQ without sourcing ingredients from outside with the help of government agencies. “The ingredients of chloroquine phosphate and hydroxychloroquine are different,” said the spokesperson. “So we have written to both the Union and state governments to make the ingredients available.”</p> <p>The state government is ready to help, on one condition. “We can give them the ingredients, provided that they give us around three lakh HCQ tablets a month,” said a health department official.</p> <p>Apart from its facilities in Kolkata, Bengal Chemicals has factories in Maharashtra and Telangana. The governments there would also want their share of HCQ for helping the company source the ingredients.</p> <p>Also, Bengal Chemicals will have to suspend production of all other drugs to start manufacturing HCQ. This means stopping the production of third-generation antibiotics, generic medicines and anti-viral drugs. “This is an emergency situation and we will have to be prepared for any eventuality,” said the spokesperson.</p> <p>The HCQ project may not add to the company’s bottom line, as the Indian pharma regulatory system does not allow Bengal Chemicals to retail its products. “We can only sell our medicines to the Indian Army and government establishments like the Employees’ State Insurance Corporation,” said an official.</p> <p>There are also fears that the whole undertaking would not yield the desired results. HCQ’s efficacy in fighting Covid-19 has not been clinically proven, even though doctors feel that the drug is helpful. There are fears of multiple side effects as well. HCQ can cause blurred vision, skin rashes, gastrointestinal issues and other adverse reactions.</p> <p>“This medicine is very useful when we see the nature of the pathological damage that Covid-19 does to the human body,” said virologist Amitava Nandy. “The virus enters the cells and harms them, leading to multi-organ failure. HCQ prevents that to some extent. So, given the side effects it has, the medicine has the capacity to reduce the pathological damage as well as high level of inflammation in the body because of the infection.”</p> <p>But how does HCQ really work? “It has the capacity to enter the cell, and its cytoplasm as well,” said Nandy. “It then changes the pH level of the sap inside the cytoplasm and raises its acidic level. Because of the increase in the acidity level inside the cytoplasm, the virus loses its capacity to damage the cell. The virus is also unable to multiply, thus reducing its lethality.”</p> <p>Hospitals in several states have been giving HCQ to doctors and other medical staff as a preventive measure. Nandy, however, said it was not advisable. “This medicine is not used at the pre-exposure stage,” he said. “It can only work once the virus enters the cells. HCQ is recommended only after doctors, nurses and health care staff who come into contact with patients are infected. It can only be administered to patients who have full-blown Covid-19, and not at an early stage.”&nbsp;</p> Sat Apr 18 10:13:04 IST 2020 screen-play <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A day before the Congress Working Committee met on April 2 to discuss the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, members learnt the ropes of an online interaction that involved a large number of participants. The CWC members participated in a mock e-meeting, where they were familiarised with concepts such as adjusting the webcam and ‘muting’ and ‘unmuting’ themselves. They were also briefed about the protocol involved in a web-based interaction. The next day, the highest decision-making body of the Congress held its first-ever videoconference meeting. For the grand old party, it was nothing short of a leap of faith, and the leaders took to it rather well.</p> <p>Desperate times breed desperate measures, but sometimes they can inspire innovative solutions, and the social distancing norms to contain the spread of Covid-19 have resulted in parties and leaders taking politics to the virtual space.</p> <p>“It is not very challenging for us now,” said K.C. Venugopal, AICC general secretary in charge of organisation. “Our social media team is fully equipped for this task. We are doing videoconferencing both at the national and state levels. We are using social media platforms to connect with Congress workers and the people. I think it is effective.”</p> <p>Zoom, Skype and webcasting have become part of political jargon. If the Congress leaders went online with Zoom, the BJP, which has been a frontrunner in using technology, has also taken to virtual media to bridge the physical gap.</p> <p>BJP president J.P. Nadda is holding several meetings daily on Skype. At 7pm, Nadda logs in for discussions with office bearers, party MPs, state leaders and spokespersons. This is among the eight to ten daily videoconferences organised by the party, the logistics of which is arranged by the party’s social media department.</p> <p>Coordinating party work is currently focused on lockdown-related relief activities, down to the grassroots. The state in-charges, MPs and local unit chiefs are using video and audio conferences to coordinate activities such as providing rations and meals to the poor, helping migrant workers and encouraging donations to PM-CARES fund.</p> <p>The BJP office bearers and MPs have been assigned different regions to coordinate relief work. “Once we started having videoconferences on Skype with our national president, it had a trickle-down effect,” said Rajiv Pratap Rudy, BJP MP from Saran. “The party asked us to do it at our level also, so I have become an expert at it. I have videoconferences with my party workers and the officials in my constituency on a daily basis.”</p> <p>Rudy said his team in his constituency is enthusiastic about the online meetings despite the occasional drop in signal strength. “They keep their family members around, and their neighbours drop in to see what is happening,” he said.</p> <p>BJP’s IT cell head Amit Malviya said the party is “platform agnostic”. “We use all [platforms] depending on convenience and utility,” he said. “We have to adapt to innovative ways in times like these.”</p> <p>The Congress discovered the virtues of videoconferencing when, on March 28, there was an online meeting of 82 leaders, including general secretaries, state unit chiefs, heads of frontal organisations and leaders of the Congress legislature parties in the states. This was the party’s first-ever virtual meeting on such a large scale. At this meeting, the party decided to set up control rooms down to the district level, to collect daily reportage on the actual ground situation of Covid-19, the medical preparedness of the states, and also the relief activities being undertaken by the party and state agencies. Prior to the online CWC meeting, Congress president Sonia Gandhi had a meeting on similar lines with the chief ministers of the party-ruled states.</p> <p>The follow-up of the CWC meeting is also being done online, according to Rohan Gupta, who heads the Congress’ social media team. “State office bearers are meeting on videoconferences to discuss the needs of the people and what demands they should raise with the government,” he said. Leaders are realising the convenience of videoconferencing and the advantages in terms of conserving resources. One only needs to alert everybody with a WhatsApp, and anybody can join the meeting, without moving geographically.</p> <p>The Congress then decided to hold its media briefings online, too, albeit it did encounter the minor issue of reminding participating work-from-home journalists to be presentable as they would also be visible in the video. “We realised that we could do our press conferences also using Zoom, unaware of how successful it would be. We had no other option. And it worked,” said Pranav Jha, AICC secretary in charge of communication.</p> <p>The Aam Aadmi Party’s internal meetings have also shifted to Zoom to ensure party leaders have a coordinated approach on issues. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal held a videoconference with all the party MLAs, after which a number of them sought the help of the party’s social media team to set up their meetings with local officials, resident welfare associations and their constituents.</p> <p>Kejriwal has daily video meetings with Lt Governor Anil Baijal, senior officers in the national capital and party leaders. Even before the national lockdown was announced, Kejriwal had shifted to virtual media briefings to enforce social distancing.</p> <p>AAP’s Akshay Marathe said the experiences gained during the lockdown could result in parties adopting online means to communicate to a greater extent in future. “Social distancing will alter behaviour in many ways, and there is no doubt politicians and activists will adopt videoconferencing even in the longer term.”&nbsp;</p> Thu Apr 09 16:58:12 IST 2020 mounting-trouble <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As a teenager, Masoom Muradabadi went to the Ghalib Academy adjacent to the Nizamuddin Markaz, the international headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi, to learn Urdu calligraphy. He could not help but notice men and women thronging the Markaz, leaving the comforts of their homes to devote themselves to learn how to be a good Muslim. Masoom’s uncle, Mohammad Abdul Malik Jamaee, was a founding member of the Jamaat and a close associate of its founder, Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Kandhlawi.</p> <p>Started in 1927 as an offshoot of the Deobandi brand of the Hanafi Sunni school, the Tablighi Jamaat expanded from local to national to an international movement, but kept its headquarters at the Nizamuddin Markaz. Today, its largest chapter is in Bangladesh, followed by Pakistan. It has more than five crore followers in India. The Jamaat denies affiliation to any particular school of Sunni Islam and says it focuses on the Quran and the Hadith.</p> <p>Masoom’s life has been shaped by the Markaz, and he still remembers the day he first met Maulana Muhammad Saad Kandhlawi, the current head of the Jamaat. Maulana Saad, the great-grandson of the Jamaat founder, is now in the eye of a storm, and is facing criminal charges of flouting norms of social distancing and leaving thousands of people infected with the coronavirus. When the government declared a nationwide lockdown on March 24 to contain the spread of Covid-19, the Markaz was hosting some 4,000 people, including foreign nationals from a dozen countries. After the three-day exercise of performing namaz at the masjid five times a day, attending lectures, studying verses and the literature of the Markaz, and participating in community eating and living, these missionaries were tasked to fan out to the target areas and pass on the teachings to the faithful.</p> <p>On any given day, there are around 3,000 people at the Markaz, which has the capacity to house 7,000 in the main, six-storey building. Behind the main building is a single-storey building for women which can house 300. Children and unmarried women are not allowed into the complex. Though more and more women are getting associated with the Jamaat, men still vastly outnumber them.</p> <p>Those who come to the Markaz bring their own money, ration and bedding. “Activities like sharing food from the same plate are meant to spread love and reduce conflict. For example, if ten people have to eat, there will be only five plates,” said Fardin Maz, teacher at Jamia Millia Islamia and a Jamaat follower. “There is nothing hidden. All activities are in the open.”</p> <p>Maulana Nur ul Hasan, a relative of Maulana Saad, said the aim of the Jamaat gatherings was to bring humanity together. “The Tablighi Jamaat does not have a membership nor does it take donation,” he said. “These activities have been going on for decades. The Markaz shares its boundary wall with the Nizamuddin police station. It is learnt that the Intelligence Bureau and local sleuths keep a watch on who is coming and going. But they have not found anything suspicious.”</p> <p>Apart from the missionary bands that travel to various places exhorting people to give up vices and pay regular visits to the local mosques, there are other followers who do not travel but perform the same duties—doctors, engineers, sportspersons, politicians, lawyers and so on. Taking time off their jobs, they talk to their neighbours, targeting the young and the wayward, asking them to visit the mosque regularly. “Once people are drawn there, they are reformed,” said Hasan.</p> <p>But many Muslim organisations in the country do not approve of the methods of the Jamaat. And even those who have little idea of what it does now treat it with suspicion as images of its followers being chased by the police across states are being widely circulated. The government has filed a case against Maulana Saad and the Markaz administration. The international members are being booked for flouting visa norms. The intelligence and law enforcement agencies are tracing and quarantining them before they can be deported.</p> <p>“The biggest disservice the Tablighi Jamaat has done to people is spreading fear and trauma not only among the local shopkeepers, workers and visitors in Nizamuddin but also the entire country and across nations,” said Sufi Ajmal Nizami, trustee of the Nizamuddin Dargah, the mausoleum of the Sufi saint Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya. “If the government finds sufficient proof of their negligence, then it must take action. The safety and security of the nation comes first.”</p> <p>For decades, Nizamuddin, and the dargah especially, has been the nerve centre of Sufi culture in India. Nizami said the dargah also had visitors from different parts of the world, but it started following the government orders from March 12 and vacated the premises. “This is where the ideology comes in,” Nizami said. “We differ with the Tablighi Jamaat ideology, which says Muslims should live like the prophet. What about the law of the land? They overlook the fact that 1,400 year-old practices cannot be followed today.”</p> <p>After shutting down the Markaz, the police have been tracing the Tablighi missionaries all over the country. In Uttar Pradesh alone, 179 foreign Tablighi followers have been found. As many as 24 first information reports have been registered under various sections of the Foreigners Act, the Epidemic Diseases Act and the Disaster Management Act. Prashant Kumar, additional director general of police (Meerut zone), told THE WEEK that most Tablighi followers in Uttar Pradesh came through the porous Nepal border.</p> <p>There have been reports of Tablighi followers trying to escape from quarantine facilities and misbehaving with health care providers. Kumar said certain behavioural disorders were identified. “But these could be because so many restrictions have been imposed suddenly which can lead to anxiety. Whether it is intentional or due to fear psychosis is difficult to say,” he said. “No arms and ammunition has been recovered from them. Certain fake videos and messages are doing the rounds, and we should not believe them.”</p> <p>Some followers of the Jamaat had warned Maulana Saad about going ahead with the congregation. Zafar Sareshwala, former chancellor of Maulana Azad National Urdu University, told THE WEEK that he had requested Maulana Saad not to have the congregation. He had given similar advice to a breakaway group of the Jamaat led by Maulana Ibrahim Devla and Maulana Ahmed Laat. Though there was no malice involved, there was a grave error of judgment, Sareshwala said.</p> <p>Followers like Masoom felt that Maulana Saad should be given a fair hearing. “It is obvious that the Tablighi Jamaat head and its managing committee did not take early measures to contain the spread of this disease among its members who came for the congregation. But if they are guilty of this then the police and other agencies of the Delhi government are equally responsible. A thorough inquiry is needed under the supervision of a Delhi High Court judge and whosoever is found guilty must be punished accordingly,” he said.</p> <p>The inquiries have already begun. The Delhi Police have asked the Markaz administration to explain the functioning of the Jamaat headquarters, its funding and it activities. Intelligence officials in Delhi said that despite the Jamaat’s ban in some countries and the alleged terror links, none of the countries have approached the United Nations to proscribe the outfit as a terrorist organisation. “There is no concrete evidence or proposal to ban the outfit,” said an official.</p> <p>Also, for the Indian intelligence agencies, the Jamaat’s Delhi headquarters is a peephole to its activities worldwide. It is felt that a crackdown on the Markaz may force the Jamaat to shift its base to Pakistan. “This is a worry,” said the official. “If this happens, then we will lose an asset for gathering intelligence and push the movement towards getting radicalised.”</p> <p>The episode has thrown an opportunity to the law enforcement agencies. To understand the Tablighis is not difficult, said Maz. He recalled how Maulana Ilyas used to say that “on the platform of Tabligh, we shall discuss the happenings either under the land or above the blue sky”. Probably that is why the Covid-19 pandemic escaped the eye. &nbsp;&nbsp;</p> Thu Apr 09 16:20:14 IST 2020 some-elements-in-india-will-use-any-stick-to-beat-muslims <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>While the Tablighi Jamaat is taking flak in many parts of the world for its large gatherings acting as a catalyst to the Covid-19 pandemic, historian Francis Robinson, a specialist in South Asian and Islamic history, says the bigger question is how the right-wing elements are using the pandemic as a reason to harass Muslims. Excerpts from an exclusive interview:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Is the crackdown on the Tablighi Jamaat a reflection of intolerance to Muslims?</b></p> <p>A/There are elements in India who will use any stick to beat the Muslims. The 21st century is not a pleasant time to be a Muslim in India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Are we seeing Islamophobia in the times of an epidemic?</b></p> <p>A/In the UK, there are some right-wing elements who have used the Covid-19 pandemic as a reason to harass Muslims. Some video clips have been circulating recently of Muslims attending Friday prayers with the suggestion that they are breaking lockdown rules. But it turned out that these video clips were taken before the lockdown rule was imposed. These clips have been taken down, so I am told. I do not know if the police are taking further action, but I sincerely hope they do.</p> <p><b>Q/The Tablighi Jamaat Markaz at Nizamuddin has become a Covid-19 hotspot. Do you think the image of the TJ has suffered a blow?</b></p> <p>A/I do not know the details of what happened at the TJ Markaz in Nizamuddin, so it is not possible to comment on its reputational outcome. In general, I would say that the TJ are Sunni Muslims and through history it has always been the tendency of Sunni Muslims to obey the law of the land. Secondly, as far as reputation is concerned, I suspect that most will judge the event through their prejudices. So, if people wish to use the event as a stick to beat the TJ, they will do so.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Do you think the Tablighi Jamaat has become radicalised? There are allegations of terror links.</b></p> <p>A/It is unlikely that the TJ has become radicalised. It is strictly apolitical, although, of course, the impact of missionary work can be political. It is true that some years ago western intelligence agencies regarded the TJ as a threshold to radicalisation. But this is not a reflection of TJ policies. It is more about the impact of the TJ on some individuals; in sharpening their sense of Muslim self-worth and their desire to be saved. It might make them open to the preaching of malign individuals, not members of the TJ.&nbsp;</p> Mon Apr 13 21:36:22 IST 2020 lockdown-chronicles <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Malvika Trivedi wakes up early and, after her morning tea, heads for her home-based workout. She has set herself a 30-day challenge to build some muscle. Post breakfast, she gets ready for work as she would ordinarily do, even slipping into her sandals and never forgetting the lipstick. She then takes her two children, Adhrija and Darsh, downstairs to her office, where she sits down to work.</p> <p>Work is not much these days, so the lawyer also surfs the internet or reads with her younger son, while her daughter attends her online classes. After lunch, they spend some time lounging together, and then she heads back to “work”. The evenings are spent watching Netflix with her husband, Saket, also a lawyer. “I am loving the lockdown phase, despite the heavy financial loss,” she says. “It has given me the time to be with my children, and remain stress free, too.”</p> <p>Trivedi realised that her motivation to work had come down to zero when the court closed, so she forced a schedule upon the family. “I tried my hand at cooking, but the maids were petrified with the results, so I stopped,” she says with a chuckle. “I haven’t got bored till now, let’s see what the future holds.’’</p> <p>In the surreal existence that the country, and much of the world, is now living, life has turned on its head. Three am is the new midnight, as one youngster put it. India, locked into the confines of its home, is valiantly trying to adjust to the new reality, and the host of challenges it has thrown up. While India went into lockdown from March 25, many parts of the country had already slipped into a semi-lockdown by mid-March. Even in Kashmir, which is used to curfews, and has just emerged from the lockdown following the abrogation of Article 370, the present time is like nothing before. Muezzins appeal to the devout to worship from home, and the security personnel compare it with the situation just a few months ago, when they had to work hard at maintaining peace and order.</p> <p>The going is in no way easy. The initial days of panic buying and stashing up on provisions may have eased a bit with supply chains slowly falling into a system. But stuff one took for granted earlier is precious commodity today, even as so many objects of desire of the past life—cars, jewellery and clothes—have little meaning. The breaking of a television remote is an event high on the calamity scale, as one family discovered. And God forbid if the mobile phone decides to die out right now. Where once mothers stressed over ensuring their children did not miss the school bus, the equivalent of that stress shows up when the FTTH (fibre-to-the-home) connection snaps in the middle of an online class.</p> <p>Working from home (WFH) is part of the new normal, but while it is a novel experience for those who commuted to work daily, even among communities where the WFH culture was already established, the experience is different. “With the domestic staff in its own quarantine, it is not WFH, but also all the work at home,” says an exasperated software professional Shwetha Rao, who finds herself facing laundry, cooking, cleaning and an endless string of domestic chores, along with her professional commitments.</p> <p>Confined living is stifling on a number of counts. While the lockdown has given families time to bond, sometimes, there is also “too much family,” as Anhaita Puri, 21, says. The jokes about whether corona-babies will outnumber the corona-divorces are not funny anymore. Mumbai has already witnessed a ghastly corona-crime, a fratricide that resulted from a fight between two brothers because one of them had stepped out of the house.</p> <p>Mental health will be one of the biggest challenges that society will have to tackle as the lockdown stretches out, and even beyond, when job losses will trigger a spate of domestic violence, mental breakdowns and suicides. Indeed, once the authorities are able to get a grip on housing, feeding and clothing them, the migrant labour that was left stranded will also have to deal with what to do with their spare time. Most are illiterate, and soon even the mobile savvy will run out of money to top up data. Their jobless hours could lead to several social and even law and order problems.</p> <p>Rakesh Malviya, 39, however, might just come out of the lockdown smelling of roses, while his wife ought to develop heart-shaped pupils. The Bhopal resident has begun recording the daily routine of his homemaker wife, Anjali, with plans to make a documentary appreciating the efforts a homemaker takes to ensure the house runs smoothly.</p> <p>If families cramming into personal, physical and mental space can get overwhelming at times, at the other end of the spectrum are those who live alone. Smita Vinchurkar’s life has become a gaping void. After her mother’s death last year, she was surrounded by friends and neighbours, and her solo living had not seemed like a problem. Now, the Mumbaikar feels “dull and depressed”. There is only as much television and films that one can watch, she says. As a freelance photographer, she is also facing the financial brunt of having no income. Vinchurkar has created a small distraction for herself. She poses for a selfie, self-times it and posts it on social media daily, documenting her lockdown life.</p> <p>At least Vinchurkar is in her own home. Ekta Yadav, 25, and Ritika Dangi, 16, are confined to a hotel room in Colaba, Mumbai, and are the only two guests in that small hotel. The two yachtswomen were in Mumbai for training when the country began closing down in phases. “We missed even the last flight, and the roads closed, too,” says Yadav. “We later learnt there were four Covid-19 positive cases in that flight.” The girls have devised their own routines, which include a series of training exercises—light ones in the morning and strenuous ones in the evening. “We are sportswomen, we are tough,” says Yadav. “There is Netflix and television, and sometimes we like to prepare breakfast in the hotel kitchen ourselves.” A skeletal staff remains in the hotel, officials from the military help with other logistics, while their coach, now confined to his suburban apartment, keeps in touch over phone. In some ways, say the girls, it is better to be at the hotel than at home because they can train as a team.</p> <p>Then, there are the parents. Self-sufficient senior citizens who lived by themselves. But, with them emerging as the most vulnerable age group, there is a heightened sense of insecurity. While families are no longer able to check in on them regularly, the drying up of their daily soap fix is another problem. Television serials have stopped production, though reruns of old programmes are adding to the semblance of stepping back in time. “We rarely stepped out anyway. But I am busier now, with so many chores now that the domestic staff does not come. I just hope we do not have a medical problem,” says septuagenarian Rehana Ziauddin.</p> <p>The virtual world has come to the aid of youngsters and the old alike. From online classes to social media fora to discuss new recipes, life is now online. P.V. Kapur was one of those senior citizens who had an active life—his work as an advocate, as well as his social life, kept him busy. Till the lockdown restricted outings to a family dinner on the terrace. Then, he discovered the networking app Houseparty, which allows group videoconferencing. So, 7.30pm is now the highlight of his day, when his group of friends log in for a social get-together. “We have been together since the 1950s and we used to meet regularly. Now, we get our drinks ready—the teetotallers their haldi paani (turmeric water) or plain water—toast each other and chat. It is a bright spot when everything else is so bleak,” says Kapur.</p> <p>If Houseparty is the new social watering hole, Zoom is the forum for work-related conferences. The younger generation is happier with multi-player online games like PUBG, which they were hooked on to anyway.</p> <p>The lack of physical activity (for those who do not have endless chores) can get irking. Indeed, even as people worry about a shortage of supplies, they are as worried about new curves (and bulges) that will be a challenge to flatten. It took Muhammad Shafi all his skills and two days of hard work to make a swing on his lawn in Srinagar for his daughter Munazah and niece Aisha, both primary schoolers. The girls are happy, but for Shafi, the challenge will be to find some other activity now for himself. Necessity is the mother of invention, and one Delhi father, Dewan Kumar, made a Ludo board for his children from material at home—paper and colours. The dice was a challenge, till they decided to mould a bit of dough.</p> <p>The phrase “window to the world” has never had more meaning than now, as people crane out of the grilles to take a glimpse at what is happening outside, which is not much except that urban fauna is getting bolder and more visible. Balconies have become the new outdoors, whether for a “picnic” lunch or for hobbies like balcony birding. Gurugram resident Prabhat Verma, armed with his camera, has spotted 30 species of birds from his eighth floor balcony, as well as jackals and mongooses, animals that cohabit urban space, but stay in the shadows usually. The cleaner air and clearer skies offer some great sky watching opportunity, too.</p> <p>It is easy, however, to slip into despair and boredom. Thoughts of the raging pandemic are always at the forefront and with barely anyone resorting to digital dieting, the infodemic, too, continues to rage. Several groups are working on dealing with these issues. A group of doctors in Ahmedabad, consisting of pulmonologist Parthiv Mehta, gynaecologist Darshana Thakker and infectious disease expert Atul Patel, has harnessed social media platforms for Covid-19 information and myth busting. In Lucknow, Kulsum Talha, 60, journalist and teacher, has started a series of 21 inspirational stories from the lockdown. The idea was to keep her students, who seemed to be getting bored, motivated. The lockdown heroes come from all over India—a Mumbai teen who used a drone to send rotis to his hungry friend to a couple that takes care of stray animals. The youngest member of Talha’s team of five is 16. They get one version of their stories uploaded on a local newspaper’s website, and upload videos on social media themselves.</p> <p>Meanwhile, the circle of life does not come to a halt with a lockdown. Across the country, there are deaths, not pandemic related, as well as births. Funerals are doubly tragic in present times, with even rituals having to be curtailed. In more savvy homes, last rites are shared with family members on group networking platforms, and there are even e-rituals available. In communally fraught Bulandshahr, a group of Muslim neighbours got together to give a Hindu funeral to a deceased neighbour.</p> <p>A new mother in Mumbai has not been able to celebrate such a big event in her life. But her bigger problem is that there are hardly any clothes for the baby.</p> <p>Even festivals have to be modified. The spring Navratri began on the day of the lockdown, and across north India, devotees wailed that they did not have a coconut to place before the deity. The kanya puja, during which prepubescent girls are venerated, also had to be modified, with video conferencing stepping into the void. A range of festivals—Mahavir Jayanti, Easter and the harvest festival of Vishu/Bihu/Baisakhi—will have to be adapted for lockdown life.</p> <p>On the other side of the lockdown, what will the brave new world that emerges from the chrysalis look like? Is the present state a metamorphosis, or just a phase that will be gone with the wind?</p> <p><b>With inputs from Tariq Bhat, Nandini Oza, Puja Awasthi, Prathima</b></p> <p><b>Nandakumar, Sravani Sarkar and Pooja Biraia Jaiswal</b></p> Sun Apr 05 10:57:15 IST 2020 triple-strike <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>On March 12, the Jammu and Kashmir government revoked the Public Safety Act invoked against former chief minister and National Conference president Farooq Abdullah. It happened with just two days remaining in Farooq’s second three-month detention at his Srinagar home. He was among the more than 50 political leaders, including former chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, who were detained after the revocation of Article 370 and the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir. On March 24, Omar Abdullah, too, was released from custody.</p> <p>Farooq expressed gratitude for his release, but he said he would not answer questions or make any political statements till all detainees were released.</p> <p>While the release of Farooq and Omar has made their family and supporters happy, it has come as a big challenge to the NC. The political situation in the state is in a flux. Many of the senior leaders of the Peoples Democratic Party have moved beyond Article 370 and have set up the Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party under the leadership of Syed Altaf Bukhari. But the NC’s cadre and leadership are largely intact. Ironically, it has placed an added burden on the party. Kashmiris are waiting to see whether the NC will play hardball with the Centre on the question of autonomy or fall in line for the sake of power like it has done in the past.</p> <p>Farooq is mindful of people’s sensitivities. On March 15, he issued a statement requesting the Centre to bring back all detainees held in prisons outside Kashmir. He said compared with hundreds of Kashmiri families, he was more fortunate as he was detained at home and his family could meet him. For many others, it has not been as easy as they have had to spend huge amounts to visit their loved ones. And, the situation has worsened because of the health risk caused by the coronavirus.</p> <p>Farooq’s release came a month after former Research &amp; Analysis Wing chief A.S. Dulat visited him in prison. Although Dulat said the meeting was personal, it could not have happened without the approval of the Union government. Dulat said Farooq would respond if the Centre engaged with him. But many political leaders, including those from the NC, believe that Article 370 is history and the only remaining possibility is about restoring Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood. The disarray in the PDP, the formation of the Apni Party and the fact that the local Congress unit passed a resolution asking for the restoration of statehood while remaining silent on reinstating Article 370 have made the NC’s task all the more difficult.</p> <p>When the Narendra Modi government decided to scrap Article 370, the two main challenges it foresaw were the threat of violence and the impending political vacuum. The first was handled by imposing a lockdown and by detaining scores of people and political leaders. The second challenge still remains, but the BJP hopes that Bukhari will succeed in making an impression among the electorate. He has announced that autonomy and self-rule are not his agenda as he remains focused on issues like development, employment and land rights.</p> <p>“Our sole aim is to strive for development and also for the politics of truth,” said Bukhari. “The issue of Article 370 is pending before the Supreme Court. If I do not accept its abrogation, will the decision change? We must wait for the Supreme Court’s decision,” he said. Modi met an Apni Party delegation on March 14, and discussed issues such as restoration of Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood, development of the Union territory, return of the Kashmiri Pandits, grant of domicile, delimitation exercise and demographic change in Kashmir.</p> <p>Bukhari, a wealthy businessman with a degree in agriculture sciences, said he waited for seven months after the revocation of Article 370, expecting political parties like the NC and the PDP to talk about problems faced by the people. “Political parties do not cease to exist after their leaders are arrested,’’ said Bukhari. “My voice is going to be relevant in the times to come.”</p> <p>Abdul Majeed Padder, who joined the Apni Party after he was expelled by the PDP, said he switched parties because he wanted to do something for the people. “There has been no contact with the people as we were under detention,’’ he said. “ Now, I will go out and meet them.” Former PDP MLA Noor Mohammed Sheikh said he would first explain to his constituents why he joined the new party. “I will be honest with them. I will talk only about things that I can deliver,’’ he said. “I used to operate from a government quarters where people would come and meet me. I have been evicted from there. I will now be operating from home.” Noor Muhammad Baba, who was head of the political science department at Kashmir University, said if the Apni Party came to power, there would be some communication between the people and the politicians. “Political activity in Jammu and Kashmir is dead and the bureaucracy is running the government. The common man has had no or limited access after the abrogation of Article 370,” said Baba. But he wondered whether Bukhari would be able to fill the political vacuum in Jammu and Kashmir. Rekha Chowdhary, who was professor of political science at Jammu University, said Bukhari and his supporters would have to work very hard to convince the people of their agenda. “These individuals cannot achieve much without support from the cadre. It will take time for them to establish themselves,” she said.</p> <p>The BJP and the Union government, however, have found a handy ally in Bukhari. An NC leader said Bukhari’s party was set up to silence critics of the BJP. “It was launched to create a feeling that the people supported the BJP and that the NC and the PDP were no longer relevant.’’ The BJP aims to use Bukhari as a hedge against the NC and the PDP. BJP leaders know that Kashmir-based parties will be reluctant to have any future alliance with the party after the failure of its coalition with the PDP.</p> <p>After having successfully pushed its ideological agenda in Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP has set in motion the delimitation process in the Union territory. On March 6, the Union law ministry notified the constitution of a delimitation commission for assembly seats in Jammu and Kashmir, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Nagaland. Once the process is complete, the number of assembly seats in Jammu and Kashmir will increase from 107 to 114 (including the 25 seats earmarked for Pakistan-occupied Kashmir).</p> <p>The delimitation exercise for Jammu and Kashmir will be based on the 2011 Census, unlike other states which use the 2001 Census. The change was made through an amendment introduced in the J&amp;K Reorganisation Act, 2019, passed by Parliament last year. The BJP expects that under the delimitation exercise, the number of seats in Jammu will go up, leading to greater political empowerment of Hindus in the only Muslim majority part of the country. And, when statehood is restored, Jammu is likely to be in a much better position politically, compared with Kashmir.</p> <p>The NC, the PDP and other Kashmiri political parties seem to have realised what is happening, but there is hardly anything that they can do given the power the BJP wields. And, that makes it nearly impossible for them to engage with the Centre on their own terms. Moreover, the lockdown imposed by the government to tackle the coronavirus pandemic has further worsened the political and economic crisis in Kashmir. Given the gravity of the crisis, political activity by the NC and other parties is likely to be delayed further.&nbsp;</p> Thu Mar 26 18:18:48 IST 2020 fair-probe-a-prerequisite-to-restoring-normalcy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In his first interview after being appointed chief of Delhi Police, S.N. Shrivastava spoke to THE WEEK about the need to instil confidence in all sections of society through a fair and impartial probe into the recent riots in North East Delhi. A former head of the anti-terror wing, Delhi Police, Shrivastava was also CRPF special director general in Jammu and Kashmir when a joint offensive in 2017 eliminated top rung militants in the valley. He said that facial recognition software has been used to identify rioters in Delhi and that people who participated in crimes like murder “cannot and should not insist that their privacy is being breached”. Edited excerpts:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Why did the situation go out of hand? Was there a lack of intelligence?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ We are still investigating. In due course, we will be able to connect the threads and understand the reasons behind it. I also do not want to look back. That is not the way I function. Having said that, I feel that we must certainly improve our intelligence collection and response to a developing situation. We need to be faster, and fair and impartial. All sections of the society should have enough faith in us. It is only then that any action taken by us will have an impact on the situation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Do you think traditional methods of policing need to be revived?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ All policemen, irrespective of their rank, have their charter of work. They are aware of the prescribed work and have to act appropriately and in time. They should have sufficient confidence that if they are unable to deliver or if there is a bona fide error, then they will be protected against punitive action as long as their intention was good. I intend to boost their confidence further.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ So far, what is coming out in the investigation?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ We have already registered a case to probe links to the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (branch of IS active in Afghanistan and Pakistan). There are also certain local forces whose role is being probed. I do not wish to name them now. I am sure there will be some external forces which maybe active.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Is there evidence to suggest that external forces were funding the riots?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ The funding is being probed. The ED has taken up the matter.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ If there was a big conspiracy behind the riots, does it not show lapses on the part of the Delhi Police?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ I reserve my comments for a future date as we are still investigating the matter. But I know what to do in the future and I also know what I am doing right now.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ The Union Home Minister Amit Shah praised the Delhi Police for bringing the riots under control in 36 hours. Is that a clean chit to the Delhi Police?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ Who else will know [the facts] better than the home minister? He has information from all the agencies. We accept his comments and thank him for saying so. The Delhi Police controlled the riots by the evening of February 25 and after that no incident took place. Some people who had shifted out of their homes are returning now. The schools and colleges are open and exams are taking place. All these are indicators of normalcy settling in. At the same time, we have registered 712 cases until now. We have made more than 220 arrests.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How will you ensure a fair probe ?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ We are making use of scientific methods and technical tools for the investigation. We have to be fair and impartial and there should be no complaint from anyone that we have been partial to any group. I know that without being impartial, I cannot do a good job. A fair probe is a prerequisite to restoring peace and normalcy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ The Delhi police is using advanced facial recognition software to track down the accused. How successful has it been?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ The software or the application we have is doing its job. When the videos are shot, they are not shot in an ideal setting since everything is in motion. So when we pick a picture from the video, it does not have absolute clarity. If we improve the system, then we will be able to improve the quality of the pictures and match with the [police] database better. With time, we are going to improve it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How big is the police database? Has Aadhaar been used to identify the accused?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ We have not used Aadhaar database because the Supreme Court guidelines does not allow it to be shared with law enforcement agencies. However, we are using our own criminal database, data available with the Uttar Pradesh Police, driving licences, voter identity cards and photographs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ There are concerns of breach of privacy and misuse of technology by law enforcement agencies.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ There is no reason to be concerned about it. We are not taking personal details. These are only photographs and the identity of the person. So there is no question of privacy. Secondly, people participating in henious crimes like murder, attempt to murder, rioting and destruction of public property, cannot and should not insist that their privacy is being breached. It is the responsibility not only of the police but also the entire society that all the culprits are identified and taken to court.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Are there concerns of radicalisation among youth?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ I have no reason to believe that any radicalisation has taken place because of these riots. But I remember that in my previous stint in Delhi, we found that some boys were in touch with more radicalised persons who got arrested later. These boys were in the initial stages of radicalisation. So instead of arresting them, we counselled them and sent them back under the guardianship of their parents. We also kept a watch on them. So, counselling helps and this is one of the areas we will focus on.</p> Sat Mar 21 17:20:29 IST 2020 justice-not-delayed <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>“<b>WE HAVE DISCHARGED</b> our debt to the nation,” declared four senior judges of the Supreme Court on January 12, 2018. Ranjan Gogoi was among this rebellious four who held an unprecedented press conference to air their grievances against the manner in which Dipak Misra, then chief justice of India, was managing the apex court. They said they were forced to speak out because the independence of the judiciary was under threat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The media had asked the foursome if they were aggrieved at the allocation of the case related to Justice B.H. Loya’s death to a particular bench. Three of the judges remained tight-lipped. It was Gogoi who confirmed it was so. He came across as the boldest of the four judges, as he was next in line to become CJI.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ironically, Gogoi is now at the centre of a controversy over the Narendra Modi government’s decision to nominate him to the Rajya Sabha. The move has been widely described as an assault on the independence of the judiciary. Critics point out that Gogoi, as CJI and master of the roster till last November, was allocating cases that were crucial to the government. He also adjudicated on matters that had deep political significance.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The brother judges who were with him at the historic press conference expressed disappointment at Gogoi’s decision to enter the Rajya Sabha. Justice (retd) Kurian Joseph said he was surprised at how Gogoi, “who once exhibited such courage of conviction to uphold the independence of the judiciary, has compromised the noble principles of the independence and impartiality of the judiciary”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Our great nation continues to be firmly grounded on the basic structures and constitutional values, thanks mainly to the independent judiciary,” said Joseph. “The moment this confidence of the people is shaken, the moment there is a perception that a section among the judges is otherwise biased or looking forward, the tectonic alignment of the nation built on solid foundations is shaken.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Justice (retd) Madan Lokur, who was also part of the press conference, said he would first like to hear Gogoi explain why he accepted the nomination. “[Before responding] I would like to wait for Justice Gogoi to make a statement on this,” he said. Lokur had initially said that Gogoi’s move redefined the independence, impartiality and integrity of the judiciary. He had also wondered whether the “last bastion” had fallen.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Some critics have said that the nomination reeks of “quid pro quo”, because Gogoi had adjudicated on politically significant matters. His nomination to the upper house has also been contrasted with the midnight transfer of Justice S. Muralidhar of the Delhi High Court, who was hearing petitions related to the Delhi communal riots in February.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A.P. Shah, former chief justice of the Delhi High Court, said Gogoi’s nomination sends a message that if one gives judgments that are favourable to the executive, he or she would be rewarded. And if you do not do it, said Shah, you would be punished through transfers or your career growth will be hampered. “It is a death knell for the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bishwajit Bhattacharyya, senior advocate and former additional solicitor general, said Gogoi’s statement that the legislature and the judiciary must work together was an affront to the doctrine of separation of powers. “He delivered several politically sensitive verdicts, perceived to be in favour of the executive, as the presiding CJI till November 2019,” said Bhattacharyya. “That Gogoi so quickly and joyfully accepted an offer from the executive shakes the faith of the common man in the independence, integrity and impartiality of the judiciary. The credibility of the judiciary is irreparably damaged.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Critics are questioning the very rationale of nominating a former judge to the Rajya Sabha. “It is my firm belief that no chief justice of India should accept a nomination to the Rajya Sabha or even contest elections to the upper house,” said former Supreme Court judge A.K. Patnaik. “A person has to decide on whether he wants to be a politician and be in Parliament or whether he wants to join the judiciary. You cannot have both.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Judges accepting post-retirement benefits has been a hotly debated issue. There have been instances of judges making it clear that they would not accept appointments after retiring. Article 124(7) of the Constitution says, “No person who has held office as a judge of the Supreme Court shall plead or act in any court or before any authority within the territory of India.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The First Law Commission, chaired by eminent jurist M.C. Setalvad, had in its 14th report dealt with the question of Supreme Court judges taking up employment under the state or the Union after retirement. The report said it was necessary to safeguard the independence of Supreme Court judges by enacting a law barring them from further employment, except as ad hoc judges of the Supreme Court.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“It is absolutely not correct,” said Vikas Singh, senior advocate and former additional solicitor general. “It smacks of quid pro quo. There can be no justification for sending judges to the Rajya Sabha since these are political appointments. There should be a ban on it.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As Gogoi makes a shift from the judiciary to the legislative, the political ramifications of the move are unmistakable. Gogoi’s legacy as the CJI was already being viewed as contentious. Questions have been raised about the politically significant judgments under his tenure as CJI—most prominent among them on the Ayodhya dispute. A five-judge Constitution bench headed by Gogoi had undertaken a 40-day, nonstop hearing on the matter, before passing a unanimous verdict in favour of building a temple on the disputed site. Among the string of judgments before Gogoi retired was the dismissal of the politically significant petition related to the acquisition of Rafale fighter jets from France. The court ruled that there was no need to register a first information report based on the allegations of corruption in the deal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Apart from the crucial judgments, there was also criticism that Gogoi’s court had not fast-tracked certain crucial matters, such as the petitions challenging the voiding of Article 370 and the pleas demanding the court to decide on the constitutionality of the electoral bonds scheme.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi said sending Gogoi to the Rajya Sabha strengthens the perception that the judiciary is “not able to stand up with its usual vigour and fearlessness against executive and legislative assault”. “Pre-retirement judgments are influenced by a desire for a post-retirement job,” he said. “For two years after retirement, there should be a gap before appointment because otherwise the government can directly or indirectly influence the courts and the dream to have an independent, fair and impartial judiciary in the country would never actualise.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For its part, the BJP has defended Gogoi’s nomination by citing precedents, including that of former CJI Ranganath Misra and former Supreme Court judge Baharul Islam, both of whom were elected to the Rajya Sabha. But these examples are problematic since it was alleged that their entry to the upper house had to do with their judgments which were favourable to the Congress governments of the past.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>K.G. Balakrishnan, former chief justice of India, struck a different note on the controversy, saying there was a tradition of the president nominating people from the legal fraternity to the Rajya Sabha. “Fali Nariman was a member of the Rajya Sabha,” he said. “Thereafter, K.T.S. Tulsi was nominated. Now, they are saying that Justice Gogoi would be the most suitable candidate. It is up to him to accept it or not.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is, however, a strong feeling that Gogoi did not live up to expectations as chief justice of India, especially since he was one of the four rebel judges who spoke out against the alleged efforts to undermine the judiciary. While the appointment of judges did pick up during Gogoi’s term, it is felt that the Supreme Court collegium that he led gave in to government pressure in certain cases. Many people have pointed out that Gogoi had also failed to streamline the allocation of cases, which had been the primary reason for the 2018 press conference.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The biggest blot on his reputation, however, has been the allegation that he sexually harassed a junior court assistant and then misused his power to silence the victim and her family. Even though he was acquitted by a three judge-bench headed by S.A. Bobde, the current chief justice, the manner in which the case was dealt by the Supreme Court was criticised.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Bitter truths must remain in memory,” Gogoi had said in his farewell speech as the CJI. For many people, bitterness is what he leaves behind in the judiciary as he prepares to cross over to the legislative.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>GOGOI’S BIG VERDICTS</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><i><b>Ayodhya judgment</b></i></p> <p>A bench led by Ranjan Gogoi decreed that the disputed land belonged to the deity Ram Lalla. It directed the government to allot an alternative plot in Ayodhya for the construction of a mosque</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><i><b>Rafale review</b></i></p> <p>A bench headed by Gogoi gave a clean chit to the Union government over allegations of irregularities in the procurement of 36 Rafale jets from France</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><i><b>NRC</b></i></p> <p>Gogoi was part of a bench that directed the implementation of the National Register of Citizens in Assam</p> Sat Mar 21 17:19:37 IST 2020 at-least-a-year-until-a-vaccine-is-ready-but-no-guarantee <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Dr Tom Frieden is former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and former commissioner of the New York City Health Department. He is currently president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, a global nonprofit working on preventing epidemics and cardiovascular diseases. On March 10, he wrote about the worst case scenario in Covid-19—it could kill up to 10 lakh people in the US. In an exclusive interview to THE WEEK, Frieden discussed how little experts know about the virus, the uncertainty of drug treatments and vaccines and how vulnerable the world is to such epidemics. Excerpts:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How would you rate the world’s response to the coronavirus outbreak?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ Most of the world is not prepared for epidemics. Although some countries have made strong efforts to improve preparedness, many countries lack the critical systems to find, stop and prevent epidemics, allowing Covid-19 to spread. But even the best prepared countries will have large challenges with this unprecedented event. Singapore stands out for excellent management. It is too soon to say how things will go in the United States, but the risk of widespread transmission is high.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ In what way is this epidemic different from previous outbreaks?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ This is the first time we have seen a coronavirus spread widely around the world, with continuing transmission in multiple countries. Every epidemic is unique, but lessons learned from previous responses are always useful. We are able to take what we have learned from SARS and MERS, also coronaviruses, and apply those lessons to the Covid-19 response.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ It has been close to three months since the virus became known to researchers. Do you think we still have little knowledge about it?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ There is still so much we don’t know about the virus. I have highlighted 19 critical gaps that are limiting our effectiveness in responding to Covid-19. For example, we don’t know if children or asymptomatic people commonly spread the infection. The gaps range from questions on transmissibility [how the virus is spreading, how contagious it is, how common is its spread from contagious surfaces] to testing [sensitivity of the tests, rate of false negatives] to severity [reported case fatality rates are likely to greatly overestimate death rates because there are so many undiagnosed cases] to control.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On the issue of control, for instance, what works to limit the spread of the virus? For example, will school closures make a difference? Since children don’t appear to get ill, even if infected (unlike with influenza), they may not be important as sources of infection, and school closures may (or may not) have limited value. We will only know as we learn more and rigorously evaluate our attempts to do more to control spread.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ The hunt for a cure and a vaccine is on across the globe. What can we expect in the months to come?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ It will be at least a year until a vaccine is ready, and even that is not a guarantee. In the meantime, it is important that we focus on tools we have to slow the spread of the virus, from washing hands to limiting social gatherings to staying home when sick. Treatment could be very helpful and might become available in a few months, but that is far from certain.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What should experts keep in mind, given the frequent threat of infectious disease outbreaks?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ It is inevitable that the world will see another epidemic. What is not inevitable is that we will be as underprepared as we are now. We now know more than ever before where the epidemic preparedness gaps are, how to close them, and how much it would cost. All that is missing is sustained financing to address these preparedness gaps.</p> Sat Mar 14 11:01:18 IST 2020 a-house-divided <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>An emergency meeting of the Congress Working Committee was held on February 26 to discuss the Delhi riots; Rahul Gandhi was conspicuous by his absence. He was abroad. Rahul has reportedly been skipping CWC meetings after stepping down as Congress president in August last year.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Rahul’s absence from the scene when the Narendra Modi government came under attack for its failure to control the Delhi riots has only accentuated the ongoing leadership debate in the Congress. Several party leaders have displayed unease and impatience about the leadership issue dragging on. The failure of the Congress to win even a single seat in the Delhi assembly elections for the second consecutive time seems to have triggered an outburst of views within the party.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It all began with Sharmistha Mukherjee, daughter of former president Pranab Mukherjee, taking on veteran leader P. Chidambaram for praising the Aam Aadmi Party for its poll victory. She took to Twitter asking Chidambaram whether the Congress had outsourced its fight against the BJP. In yet another intra party skirmish, former Delhi unit chief of the Congress Ajay Maken criticised former Mumbai Congress president Milind Deora for praising the AAP regime’s handling of Delhi’s finances.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The leadership crisis was blamed for the party’s demoralising defeat in Delhi. Former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit’s son, Sandeep Dikshit, ruffled feathers further by saying that if Rahul was reluctant to lead, there were six to eight senior leaders capable of holding the Congress president’s post. Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor said that Dikshit had publicly voiced what was being spoken of privately by dozens of party leaders. Tharoor asked the CWC to hold leadership elections “to energise workers and inspire voters”. Other leaders like Jairam Ramesh, Abhishek Manu Singhvi and Manish Tewari also called for similar action.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Last December, Rahul gave indications that he was on a comeback trail, as he led protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Indian Citizens and also spoke about economic distress and unemployment. But soon there was buzz that Rahul was not yet ready and that he wanted the party to look beyond the family. There is now speculation that the Congress might hold a plenary session in April where a decision on a full-time party chief could be taken. But it is unclear whether Sonia would be made president or Rahul would make a comeback.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A large section in the Congress feels that Rahul should take the helm. “Rahul Gandhi is our general. He is loved by the rank and file of the party,” said former Uttarakhand chief minister Harish Rawat. “Rahul ji’s campaign against the BJP and the RSS is showing results and the people are waking up to reality.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But there are others who talk about the need to look beyond the Gandhis. Singhvi said it was high time the party acted on the leadership issue. “If Rahul insists on not becoming president, we need to have a consensual leader or a group of three consensual leaders,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>However, the efficacy of having a non-Gandhi president is in doubt, especially when the Congress is out of power at the Centre. “This talk about making a non-Gandhi party president is rubbish,” said senior leader Anil Shastri. “The Congress will cease to exist if there is a president who does not belong to the family.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Shastri also voiced a sentiment expressed by several leaders that Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was the best bet at the moment. “She is dynamic and is familiar with the workings at the organisational level. She has shown a high level of engagement with party affairs in Uttar Pradesh. Politics is a 24x7 job, and it is even more challenging when you are in the opposition, and she is suited for it,” said Shastri.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The leadership woes of the Congress could worsen with the hectic lobbying in the party for the coming round of Rajya Sabha polls. This has to be seen against the backdrop of the tussle between the young leaders and the old guard as many of the hopefuls are members of Team Rahul. Jyotiraditya Scindia is hoping for a slot from Madhya Pradesh, while leaders such as Deora and Rajiv Satav are in the fray in Maharashtra. Also vying for a place in the upper house are Rahul confidants Randeep Surjewala, Jitin Prasada, R.P.N. Singh, Shaktisinh Gohil and Deepender Hooda. The proposal to nominate Priyanka to the upper house, mooted by the seniors, is said to be aimed at complicating matters for young leaders.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With the Congress in disarray, the gains made by Rahul post his Berkeley outing in September 2017, where he appeared as a credible challenger to Modi, seem to have been frittered away. “Rahul had emerged as a fighter and had the right narrative in place. But now, his credibility is in question. A comeback would require tremendous amount of confidence, but the leadership is going through a crisis of confidence,” said a Congress leader.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Rahul camp said the critics needed to look within. It is also being pointed out that none of them have made any formal representation to the Congress president or made any moves as per the constitution of the party for convening an All India Congress Committee session to discuss the issues. “All of us need to see how many votes we secured when we contested and introspect on why we lost,” said Surjewala. “Instead of imparting knowledge to the whole country, they (the critics) need to focus on their respective areas and show tangible results.”</p> Sat Mar 07 11:02:32 IST 2020 rahul-is-the-best-bet-to-succeed-sonia <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>PUNJAB CHIEF MINISTER</b> Captain Amarinder Singh credits Sonia Gandhi for doing a remarkable job as interim president of the Congress. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, he says India’s future lies in regional leadership and regional alliances. Reiterating his confidence in Rahul Gandhi’s leadership skills, Amarinder says Rahul has the ability to deliver what new India wants.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Excerpts from the interview:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Is the Congress going through a leadership crisis?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Just because the party did not win the general elections, it does not mean that there is a leadership crisis. The Congress has performed really well in several recent elections to state assemblies and local bodies. A host of factors are at play in any given election. Every political party goes through ups and downs. Let us not forget that the BJP had only two seats in the Lok Sabha at one time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>There are voices within the party seeking clarity on the leadership issue.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>You cannot attribute a low to the party leader, just as a victory is not that of the leader alone. Sonia Gandhi is doing a remarkable job as leader of the Congress and there is no question of the party suffering a crisis of leadership.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The perception gathering ground is that the Congress is adrift and not really up to taking on the BJP.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Any such perception is more of a media creation than anything else. The Congress is a 130-year-old party, with strong roots. It cannot be wished away just because the ruling dispensation would like it to be so. We successfully took on the BJP in states like Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and formed governments there. I do not think a party that is adrift could have done that. My advice to those who think that the Congress is not equipped to take on the ruling coalition—just wait and see. We have been through a period of lows, and we are now set to ascend the political ladder nationally, just as we have already done in several states.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What are some of the steps that the Congress needs to take on an urgent basis to shake off this perception?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I do not agree that there is any such perception on the ground. However, any individual or organisation can always find ways and means of strengthening itself. Within the Congress, too, the process to strengthen ourselves is an ongoing one. Encouraging regional leaders and supporting like-minded parties is one way of going about it, and the party is already engaged proactively in the process. Maharashtra is a case in point. I personally feel that India’s future lies in regional leadership and regional alliances, which have a strong pulse on the aspirations of the people in their respective states.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Why is it taking so long for the Congress to find a successor to Rahul Gandhi?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What successor? Sonia Gandhi took over the party reins by consensus and she is doing a wonderful job as party president. If, at some point, she decides to let go of this role, then the question of a successor will arise.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Does Rahul Gandhi continue to be the best bet for the party?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Rahul is the best bet as the successor to Sonia. He has everything it takes to be a good leader. He is young, competent, clear-minded, and has a deep understanding of the desires of India’s youth, who constitute a majority of the population at present. He knows what new India wants and has the ability to deliver on it.</p> Fri Mar 06 14:22:29 IST 2020 capital-wounds <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>On February 24, when violence broke out at Yamuna Vihar in Delhi, around 60 students were preparing for competitive exams at Horizon Academy, one of several coaching institutes lining National Highway 9. After burning down a neighbouring petrol pump, the rioters began targeting the academy. They broke its windowpanes, but could not force open the wooden door. Inflamed, the angry mob began torching vehicles outside.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Trapped inside were students and staff, Hindus and Muslims. “It was harrowing,” said Navneet Gupta, who owns Horizon Academy. “Many students were crying. Four or five policemen were with us; they had taken shelter [from the violence]. We asked them if they would go out and control the riot. They said they would rather stay inside. It was only in the evening, when the streets fell silent, that the policemen went out.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Workers at the petrol pump told a similar story. “There were many policemen outside when the mob came,” said Ramnath Mishra, a security guard. “As the rioters grew in number, the policemen and a few employees climbed a wall and escaped.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>After the rioters faced retaliation, they began targeting shops of Muslims. Haji Shareef Ahmed, who sold automobile spare parts and electric rickshaws at Bhajanpura, said that his shops were torched as the police dragged its heels. “I lost more than 060 lakh,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The delay in police action is a common thread in stories of Delhi’s worst riots in 35 years. Policemen told THE WEEK that they feared being lynched by the mobs. There were two full days of violence before the police finally cracked the whip and imposed Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure on riot-hit areas.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>North East Delhi has a history of communal flare-ups, but the police were woefully underprepared. Amid the violence, they could not even respond to emergency calls or help the injured. Intelligence inputs were either unhelpful or nonexistent. It took 36 hours for the police to regain control over one of India’s most densely populated districts. North East Delhi had 36,155 people per square kilometre in 2011; the number may be 50,000 now. Clearly, the death toll—around 50—could have been worse.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Communal polarisation had been growing stark in the run-up to the Delhi assembly polls, in which a key campaign plank was the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The protest at Shaheen Bagh had been going on for weeks, creating a vortex of fears that prompted both Hindus and Muslims to prepare for the worst. The first crucial intelligence lapse occurred on February 22, when the police failed to prevent protesters from blocking an arterial road at Jaffrabad that links northeast and central Delhi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That the roadblock was allowed to be created was surprising. Last December, several thousands of anti-CAA protesters had twice gathered in the Jaffrabad-Maujpur area. On both occasions, the police had acted swiftly to prevent flare-ups. On February 22, though, the readiness was missing. At about 10pm on that Saturday, around 1,000 men, women and children began blocking the Jaffrabad road. The police, however, were busy keeping tabs on protesters a kilometre from Jaffrabad. Forces were deployed at Seelampur, where agitators had been protesting for a month and were expected to cause trouble.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For the police, the Jaffrabad roadblock posed a conundrum. There were not enough personnel stationed there, nor could they be mobilised at short notice, because of preparations for US President Donald Trump’s visit the following day. The police also held back from using force to remove protesters because the Supreme Court had been monitoring the situation at Shaheen Bagh. The indecision proved costly.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Costlier still was the failure to prevent BJP leader Kapil Mishra from reaching Maujpur and threatening the protesters the next day. Supporters of the Bhim Army also reached the spot, and they were instances of stone-pelting between the two sides.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As rumours mills worked overtime, videos of stone-pelting began doing the rounds. Intelligence failure meant the police had no clue of the clandestine preparations made by both the pro- and anti-CAA camps. All hell broke loose the next morning.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A turning point came at 8.30am on February 23, when Amit Sharma, deputy commissioner of police in Shahdara, responded to a call informing that a petrol pump was under attack at Bhajanpura. As he led three companies of personnel to the scene, he was attacked by rioters. Sharma was severely beaten up, and head constable Ratan Lal was shot. Lal died of injuries later.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With a DCP injured and a head constable killed, the police found themselves demoralised and rudderless. There were efforts to rush in reinforcements through NH-9 to the trouble spots, but the intense stone-pelting and violence prevented the convoys from reaching Yamuna Vihar, Bhajanpura and Chand Bagh areas.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>NH-9 connects Haryana and Uttar Pradesh via Delhi. Reports said outsiders had arrived at the national capital using this route. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who has no jurisdiction over law and order in Delhi, asked the Union government to seal the borders. But by then, violence had spread to more areas.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For six hours, the riots were uncontrollable. From 10am, when DCP Sharma was rescued from the mob, to 4pm, when the police were finally able to dispatch reinforcements, rioters fought pitched battles in the streets using stones, batons and country-made pistols; they took turns burning down businesses and vehicles.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“We were silent initially,” a person at Bhajanpura told THE WEEK. “But when we saw that our areas were attacked, and that stones were pelted and shots fired by the minority community from Chand Bagh, we regrouped. We paid them back in the same coin. Their shops were burnt, and shots fired in equal measure.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That day, the police control room received more than 4,000 calls. The focus shifted from controlling rioters to mounting rescue operations. That mission, too, largely failed. The police could not even reach interior areas in the district, which saw a high number of deaths. The governance breakdown was so complete that the police could not even reach the 16 people whom Rajya Sabha member Naresh Gujral wanted rescued from Maujpur.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Special Commissioner of Police Satish Golcha was on the ground as the situation worsened. “Despite the magnitude and spread of violence, and the fact that they were outnumbered, my personnel did not leave their place of deployment,” he told THE WEEK. “They stood like a rock between the two groups.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The police cracked down on rioters on February 25, after the Trump visit ended. At Jaffrabad, protesters were removed and the road was opened. But the police reportedly had trouble reaching the narrow lanes that lead to colonies housing both Hindus and Muslims.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“We fired in the air, used tear gas and lathis,” said Golcha. “We have non-lethal weapons…. But at no place did the mobs back off after firing. So we used appropriate force to minimise casualties and bring the situation under control.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On February 26, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval visited riot-hit areas, helping boost the morale of the police. A former IPS officer, Doval helped the Delhi Police at a time when it needed leadership. Delhi Police chief Amulya Patnaik, who was nearing his tenure’s end, had failed to inspire confidence.</p> <p>The police continue to deny allegations that they actively aided some rioters. “Our personnel stood between clashing groups and talked to them fearlessly,” said Joint Commissioner of Police Alok Kumar. “There are untold stories of how children and women were carried to safe locations, and given food and shelter in police stations.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For now, the stories are mostly about police failures. “On February 25, we received a call from Al Hind Hospital in Mustafabad, a colony neighbouring Chand Bagh,” said Dr Harjit Singh Bhatti, who heads the Progressive Medicos and Scientists Forum. “They were in need of medical and surgical equipment, and doctors. We took ambulances there, but were surrounded by around 60 people in the presence of the police. They did not allow us to go further. The hospital had 10 people with gunshot injuries. We could only reach there in the evening.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With the violence having subsided, the police are picking up the pieces. The evidence being collected include videos from multiple sources, which would help investigators identify rioters with the help of face-recognition technology. Delhi saw arguably the first riots in India to be shot on cellphones, so the police are likely to have a wealth of evidence. The security agencies have zeroed in on over 4,500 Facebook pages, 2,000 Twitter accounts and many WhatsApp groups that were used to incite violence.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When THE WEEK visited riot-hit areas, a semblance of normalcy had returned. Shops on main roads were open, but charred remains of the destruction were visible in many areas.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The situation remains tense, but there are tales of hope as well. Navneet Gupta, owner of Horizon Academy, said his Muslim friends from Chand Bagh visited him for dinner two days after the riots. They talked about how the violence had resulted in losses on both sides of the divide, he said. Haji Shareef Ahmed, the Bhajanpura trader, talked about the one gain he made even as his shops went up in smoke. In his colony, he said, not a single Hindu family was hurt.</p> Sat Mar 07 11:03:42 IST 2020 delhi-police-did-not-perform-well <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>My career as an IPS officer had spanned over 39 years and included postings in communally sensitive areas like Aligarh, Meerut and Varanasi. Throughout my career, I have regarded communal riots as next only to external aggression against a country. As far as internal security is concerned, communal riots are the most serious threat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When I heard about the riots in North East Delhi, I was surprised that the Delhi Police was not taking these incidents seriously. The protests at Shaheen Bagh were a landmark in the recent happenings. If it was not allowed on the first day, the communal violence would not have happened. The communal atmosphere in Delhi was charged up after so many people were allowed to gather there, the traffic flow was affected in nearby areas, and the agitation grew over weeks as people sat down and raised slogans that created communal sentiments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Then the Delhi elections took place and politicians from the BJP, the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party were seen giving provocative speeches. Leaders like Kapil Mishra crossed all limits, but no action was taken against them, and the situation turned tense. Even at this stage, if Section 144 was enforced strictly and some preventive arrests were made, the violence could have been contained.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There should be sufficient force to enforce Section 144; otherwise it becomes counterproductive. Had the police imposed the curfew a day earlier, many lives could have been saved and buildings, hospitals and shops would not have been burnt. Once the violence broke out, the police should have gone all out to bring the situation under control. But they shied away from enforcing serious action. Since action was not taken according to the situation, violence continued for three days.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Once normalcy has returned to the riot-affected areas, the top brass of the Delhi Police should analyse what happened in the last few days and pinpoint where the police were found derelict in their duties.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When I was posted in some of the most communally sensitive districts in Uttar Pradesh, we had prepared riot schemes for each place. We had made a list of communal agitators based on their role in past flare-ups. We had also prepared a list of all antisocial elements, who, during a riot, resorted to stabbing and shooting members of the other community. Whenever a communal disturbance or violence seemed imminent, both these types of people were rounded up. Similarly we had made peace committees of members of both the communities and influential members of the society. Their meetings were useful. If necessary, the riot scheme would be enforced even before the violence broke out.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Sharma was commissioner of police in Delhi and director-general of Border Security Force.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>—<b>As told to Namrata Biji Ahuja.</b></p> Sat Mar 07 16:21:44 IST 2020 mild-symptoms-but-fast-mover <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As the world battles coronavirus (Covid-19), with over 90,000 people infected and more than 3,000 patients succumbing to the disease, India, too, reported a spate of fresh cases. Twenty-nine persons have tested positive, including the first three cases in Kerala, as of March 4. But there is no reason to panic, and the outbreak should be seen as an opportunity to strengthen our disease surveillance and laboratory systems, says Dr Manoj V. Murhekar, director, National Institute of Epidemiology (ICMR), Chennai. Excerpts from an interview:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What are our current surveillance strategies?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ These include universal screening for passengers and focusing on quarantine measures for 14 days for suspected cases. What is important is that, as of now, all the positive patients have had travel history, with the exception of the Delhi cluster (the six relatives of the Delhi patient in Agra who tested positive). We have not had major community transmission of the virus, unlike in countries such as China and South Korea. Hence, it is possible to contain the virus. However, if it gets into the community where several people are infected, then it becomes a challenge. This was seen in South Korea, where ‘Patient 31’ attended a church congregation.... As a result, thousands of people acquired the infection. But that has not been the case for us.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What about the possibility of infection from asymptomatic persons?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ More data is needed to ascertain whether that is a possibility. In Germany, for instance, there was a case of an asymptomatic person who was detected with the virus. However, more studies need to be done to confirm whether this is at all a significant trend.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How does the Covid-19 compare to SARS, MERS, which belong to the same family of coronaviruses?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ As opposed to SARS and MERS, the symptoms in Covid-19 are mild. About 80 per cent of the cases across the world have been mild, and less than 5 per cent have been critical or severe. Case fatality rates have been 3 to 4 per cent only. However, the virus transmits really fast as over [90,000] people have been affected globally. SARS had 8,000 people affected, but case fatality rates were much higher. Covid-19 is transmitted through droplet and fomites [any inanimate object, that when exposed to infectious agents such as pathogenic bacteria, viruses or fungi, can transfer disease to a new host].</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What about drug therapies to treat the disease?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ Several antivirals are in various stages of clinical trials globally. DCGI [Drug Controller General of India] has approved ‘restricted emergency use’ for antiretroviral drug combination protocol of ICMR. This was done because in SARS and MERS, this drug combination was found to be effective in animal studies and some patients, too. Clinical trials are on globally to test the drug combination for MERS. However, in the Indian cases, we didn’t need the drug at all, because the cases were mild and symptomatic treatment worked well with the first three cases in Kerala, who have now recovered. One patient in Kerala, for example, did not even have fever.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What precautions need to be followed?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ There is no reason to panic. People should avoid crowded places, wash their hands frequently, and observe etiquettes on sneezing and coughing. Masks should be used only if people have respiratory symptoms. Right now, masks are a precious commodity and we need to be careful in using them. If people see symptoms, they should report them.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What are the challenges for a country such as India?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ Instead of seeing the outbreak as a threat, we need to see it as an opportunity—to strengthen disease surveillance, laboratory systems, so that we are able to contain [the outbreak].... Travel restrictions will also help us in containing [it].</p> Fri Mar 06 12:43:01 IST 2020 the-bug-and-the-bite <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>With around 90,000 Covid-19 cases confirmed globally as on March 2, there would be a substantial impact on global supply chains. As China accounts for 16 per cent of global exports, overall trade will be affected in the next few months. In a base case scenario, it would be restricted up to March 31, because as the temperature starts rising in China, the impact of the virus could wane. In a quarantined manner, factory production in China has restarted, though dispatches from ports have not resumed as yet. There is a strong case that stabilisation will begin in April.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, the impact on India is restricted to the closure of the financial year 2020. We have looked at it through four quadrants:</p> <p>1. Where we are importing raw materials; it will impact production levels in India</p> <p>2. Where we are importing final products that are competing with domestically manufactured products. There can be some benefits for domestic industry</p> <p>3. Where we are exporting globally and China is competing with us; there is an opportunity if we can scale up and fill the gap</p> <p>4. Where we have exports to China. Although lower than imports, it is worth $29 billion and it will get impacted</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One big impact is supply chain disruption. We did an assessment across 15 key sectors in India and found that in sectors like auto components, pesticides and fertilisers, solar panels, pharma bulk drugs, and consumer durables and electronics (including mobile handsets), a large proportion of the raw material comes from China. For example, 18 per cent of our auto component imports and 30 per cent of tyre imports come from China. About 45 per cent of the completely built units of consumer durables and about 67 per cent of electronic components come from China.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In pharma bulk drugs, India imports a lot of intermediaries. About 70 per cent of total imported intermediaries come from China. India imports a lot of technicals, which are an input for manufacturing pesticides, and about 50 per cent of these come from China. About 10 per cent of the urea that is consumed in India is imported from China.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sectors like consumer durables and electronics have some inventory lined up till March 31. But, beyond that, if nothing is supplied in the next two months, it will start reflecting in the sales volumes, especially in segments like air conditioning that are entering a peak sales cycle.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Similarly, about 67 per cent of the components in the electronics and mobile handsets segment are imported from China, as India is more into assembling than into manufacturing. We will see a disruption in terms of supply chain getting impacted for the next two quarters for sure.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the case of telecom equipment, a large portion of imports comes from China, which means if the government was planning to conduct 5G trials, there will be a delay. We are already late because of the financial tumult in the telecom sector.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As India imports 70 per cent of the solar modules from China (globally China accounts for 80 per cent of the capacity), substituting it with some other partner might not be easy. We will see a commissioning delay of four to six months in projects.</p> <p>A few automobile players have already said that they were covered till March for supplier-specific components. If supplies do not resume, we might face issues in the manufacturing of BSVI vehicles, especially at a time inventories have been significantly optimised to phase out BSIV vehicles.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Pesticides and urea are a very important part of the value chain imports from China. As rabi procurement season for pesticides is over, and stocking for kharif begins only in April, we may not see a major disruption in the market.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the case of pharma bulk drugs, companies have created buffer stocks of raw materials for 2-3 months as there was a holiday season in China. As a result, they are well cushioned until April.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the case of imports of finished products, India has an exposure worth $85 billion to China. This is about 20 per cent of India’s total imports, and includes ceramics, paper, plastics and steel. In ceramics, about 37 per cent of India’s imports come from China and at a substantially lower price than what domestic players offer. Lower imports will help domestic manufacturers better utilise capacity and improve their pricing power.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>About 17 per cent of India’s paper imports come from China. Any reduction in this will provide Indian players the opportunity to improve their pricing and sales, especially in the paperboard segment. Similar is the case with plastics. You will also see domestic steel manufacturers benefit from import substitution. Our exports will benefit to an extent, as there is a void in the global market after the virus outbreak.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As far as exports are concerned, in readymade garments, you will see a positive impact because China accounts for only 1 per cent of India’s exports, and in other export markets, especially in the US, India competes with China. The current situation will give the Indian players some pricing power and some uptick in sales.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The southern textile manufacturing cluster does have the capacity to service additional exports if required, and it can provide an upside at a time when the Chinese players are not able to ramp up. On the other hand, about 27 per cent of India’s cotton yarn exports are to China. Here, we will see a decrease, and it will put further pressure on yarn prices and lead to lower margins for yarn players.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While international travel is going to be impacted, airlines are going to utilise those additional planes to have inbound domestic travel. A lot of tourists will also get diverted to India. But since the number of confirmed cases in India is also rising, domestic travel could also get impacted. We were expecting a double digit growth for airline companies, but it should definitely come down.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ideally, by summer the spread of the virus should subside. If that happens and there is no increase in cases after March 31, then a recovery in FY21 should not be an issue for India Inc. As of now, we are expecting a revenue growth of 5-7 per cent for India Inc in FY21, after factoring in the virus impact. If the virus subsides by March 31, we can expect up to 7 per cent growth.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The fall in crude oil price will have an impact on trade deficit and on the revenue growth rate as all commodity prices will start moving downwards. We will see a benefit in margins as we will have lower raw material prices.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Gandhi is director, CRISIL Research.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>As told to Nachiket Kelkar.</b></p> Sat Mar 07 11:08:31 IST 2020