1. AlphaFold: A tour de force in science
How have our methods of predicting protein structures changed with AI-based tools? What does this development signify for structural biology?
DeepMind, a company owned by Google, announced this week that it had predicted the three-dimensional structures of more than 200 million proteins using AlphaFold.
AlphaFold is an AI-based protein structure prediction tool. It used processes based on “training, learning, retraining and relearning” to predict the structures of the entire 214 million unique protein sequences deposited in the Universal Protein Resource (UniProt) database.
The Indian community of structural biology needs to take advantage of the AlphaFold database and learn how to use the structures to design better vaccines and drugs.
The story so far: DeepMind, a company based in London and owned by Google, announced this week that it had predicted the three-dimensional structures of more than 200 million proteins using AlphaFold. This is the entire protein universe known to scientists today.
What is AlphaFold?
AlphaFold is an AI-based protein structure prediction tool. It is based on a computer system called deep neural network. Inspired by the human brain, neural networks use a large amount of input data and provides the desired output exactly like how a human brain would. The real work is done by the black box between the input and the output layers, called the hidden networks. AlphaFold is fed with protein sequences as input. When protein sequences enter through one end, the predicted three-dimensional structures come out through the other. It is like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
How does AlphaFold work?
It uses processes based on “training, learning, retraining and relearning.” The first step uses the available structures of 1,70,000 proteins in the Protein Data Bank (PDB) to train the computer model. Then, it uses the results of that training to learn the structural predictions of proteins not in the PDB. Once that is done, it uses the high-accuracy predictions from the first step to retrain and relearn to gain higher accuracy of the earlier predictions. By using this method, AlphaFold has now predicted the structures of the entire 214 million unique protein sequences deposited in the Universal Protein Resource (UniProt) database.
What are the implications of this development?
Proteins are the business ends of biology, meaning proteins carry out all the functions inside a living cell. Therefore, knowing protein structure and function is essential to understanding human diseases. Scientists predict protein structures using x-ray crystallography, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, or cryogenic electron microscopy. These techniques are not just time-consuming, they often take years and are based mainly on trial-and-error methods. The development of AlphaFold changes all of that. It is a watershed movement in science and structural biology in particular.
AlphaFold has already helped hundreds of scientists accelerate their discoveries in vaccine and drug development since the first public release of the database nearly a year back.
What does this development mean for India?
From the seminal contribution of G. N. Ramachandran in understanding protein structures to the present day, India is no stranger to the field and has produced some fine structural biologists. The Indian community of structural biology is strong and skilled. It needs to quickly take advantage of the AlphaFold database and learn how to use the structures to design better vaccines and drugs. This is especially important in the present context. Understanding the accurate structures of COVID-19 virus proteins in days rather than years will accelerate vaccine and drug development against the virus.
India will also need to speed up its implementation of public-private partnerships in the sciences.
The public-private partnership between the European Molecular Biology Laboratory’s European Bioinformatics Institute and DeepMind made the 25-terabyte AlphaFold dataset accessible to everyone in the scientific community at no cost.
Learning from this, India could facilitate joint collaborations with the prevalent hardware muscle and data science talent in the private sector and specialists in academic institutions to pave the way for data science innovations.
Is AlphaFold one-of-a-kind tool in predicting protein structures?
Although a tour-de-force in structural biology, like any other method, AlphaFold is neither flawless nor the only AI-based protein structure prediction tool. RoseTTaFold, developed by David Baker at the University of Washington in Seattle, U.S., is another tool. Although less accurate than AlphaFold, it can predict the structure of protein complexes.
The development of AlphaFold is sure to make many scientists feel vulnerable, especially when they compare their efforts from years of hard work in the lab to that of a computer system. However, this is the time to adjust and take advantage of the new reality.
Doing this will reinvigorate scientific research and accelerate discovery.
2. The dwindling fighter strength of the IAF
How is the Indian Air Force planning to increase fighter aircraft? Do the MIG-21 jets still have technical life left?
In a tragic accident, a MIG-21 trainer jet of the IAF crashed in Rajasthan last Thursday killing both the pilots onboard.
The MIG-21 was inducted into the IAF in the early 1960s. Currently, there are four MIG-21 squadrons in service. IAF officials have stated that there is technical life still left in them.
The IAF has an authorised strength of 42 fighter squadrons. As time passes, the drawdown is increasing as the total technical life is completed. However, the rate of new inductions is not matching the drawdown, depleting the overall number of fighter squadrons.
The story so far: In a tragic accident, a MIG-21 trainer jet of the Indian Air Force (IAF) crashed in Rajasthan last Thursday killing both the pilots onboard, Wing Commander M. Rana and Flight Lieutenant Advitiya Bal. This has once again put the focus on the MIG-21 jets as well as on the IAF’s fighter strength and modernisation.
What is the status of the MIG-21 jets in the IAF?
The MIG-21 was inducted into the IAF in the early 1960s and since then more than 800 variants of the supersonic fighter were inducted into service. It remained the frontline fighter jet of the force for a long time. During this period, there were over 400 accidents involving the jet which claimed the lives of around 200 pilots. Currently, there are four MIG-21 squadrons in service consisting of the upgraded Bison variant. IAF officials have stated that there is technical life still left in them.
There are only four squadrons of the MIG-21 aircraft, the IAF informed the Parliamentary Standing Committee on defence as per a report tabled in March this year. “As and when the technical life is complete, we can’t keep them extra even for a day, and we don’t keep them either. Life extension is done for some aircraft. In that regard, we now have the Bison aircraft remaining, which are upgraded, but still old. There is no doubt about that,” an IAF representative told the committee.
With delays in new inductions, the IAF has been forced to continue the last four MIG-21 Bison squadrons in service. One squadron is set to be phased out in the next few months, while the remaining three squadrons are planned to be phased out in the next three years. This phase out was worked out much before last week’s tragic incident.
What is the present fighter strength of the IAF?
The IAF has an authorised strength of 42 fighter squadrons. As time passes, the drawdown is increasing as the total technical life is completed. However, the rate of new inductions is not matching the drawdown, depleting the overall number of fighter squadrons. Additionally, several frontline aircraft in the inventory including the Jaguars, MIG-29s will begin phasing out by the end of the decade. For instance, by 2027-28 the first of the MIG-29s, inducted in the late 1980s, will start going out.
In the last few years, the IAF has inducted two squadrons of the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas and two squadrons of Rafale fighter jets procured from France which pushed the squadron strength to 32.
In January 2021, the IAF had signed a contract with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for 83 of the more advanced LCA MK-1A which it will start receiving from early 2024 onwards. Along with that the to-be-acquired 114 Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) will help arrest the drawdown, the IAF said.
A larger and even more capable LCA-MK2 as well as the fifth generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) are under development. However, their availability in enough numbers will take some time.
What is the roadmap to shore up the fighter strength?
The IAF has acknowledged that they will not be able to achieve the desired strength for the time being and that they are doing the best they can. In addition to the indigenous aircraft coming up, the IAF is confident that increasing the low availability rates of Su-30 and other fighters in service will offset some of the shortfall in the interim. However, that could be potentially impacted due to the war in Ukraine even though officials have said that they are assessing the impact of the war and western sanctions.
“But the interesting fact is that we have ended up spending a large amount when we got the funds last to last year and last year on revenue spares. There is also a very large number of Sukhoi-30 and other fighters on ground and we are hopeful that when those spares start coming from this year onwards, we will be able to actually add some squadrons,” the IAF representative had informed the standing committee.
The representative further added: “Serviceability state, as you are aware, has been low. Once we get that, the existing strength itself we can ramp up before the new aircraft come in. That is the best we are looking at for us as of now.” In the last seven to eight years, several steps have been taken to increase the serviceability rates of the Russian equipment in use, especially the Su-30MKI fleet which constitutes a significant number in the IAF inventory. Part of the measures are long term spares and support agreements as well as joint ventures in India with Russian original equipment manufacturers for faster turnaround.
3. Bastar’s wheels of justice grind exceedingly slow
Hearings should not be suspended during COVID times as jail conditions and quick trials do matter in conflict regions
The lives of those arrested and their families, for a good number of years after incarceration, hinge upon the efficiency of the judicial system. Jails and courts may not matter much for most people, but in conflict regions such as Bastar where many families have some members in jail at any point of time, jail conditions and speedy trials do matter.
In Bastar, a high proportion of ‘Naxalite’ cases are being tried in the National Investigation Agency (NIA) courts. During the first wave of COVID-19 (in 2020), work in all courts, including the NIA court in Jagdalpur, came to a standstill and hearings were suspended for months.
Undertrial prisoners and their families have coped with COVID-19 and now have hope that the loss of time would be made up and their cases closed in the months ahead.
On July 31, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged the judiciary to speed up release of undertrials who are languishing in jails, awaiting legal aid. In this article dated March 2, 2022, Bela Bhatia explains how speedy trials are essential in conflict-torn regions such as Bastar. Edited excerpts:
The third wave of COVID-19 is on its way out, but it has left in its wake many anxieties in conflict-torn Bastar in the State of Chhattisgarh. COVID times may put a halt to many activities but it does not halt the militarisation that has been growing and spreading to new areas of Bastar division’s seven districts with corresponding actions that satisfy the paramilitary’s raison d’être. The Maoists for their part like to be heard through improvised explosive device (IED) blasts or similar actions with predictable consequences. In the absence of any appeal for a ceasefire from either side — from the State to the Maoists or vice-versa — at least for the duration of this crisis, arrests of local Adivasis, many in fabricated cases, continue as before after every fresh incident.
The lives of those arrested and their families, for a good number of years after incarceration, hinge upon the efficiency of the judicial system and good governance of jails. Jails and courts may not matter much for most people, but in conflict regions such as Bastar where many families have some members in jail at any point of time, jail conditions and speedy trials do matter. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, intermittent suspensions of court work and jail visits have created enormous hardships for prisoners and their families.
Jails out of reach
On January 7, relatives of undertrials Hidme Markam and Bujji Semla, and unjustly convicted Kishor Kawasi, besides many others, were turned away by the jail guards. The guards also refused to take their parcels — small plastic bags with necessities such as toothpaste and brush, innerwear, sweaters, and sometimes the odd “luxury” item such as glass bangles or biscuits.
The Jagdalpur Central Jail is the largest prison in the Bastar division. Besides the central jail, there are two district jails in Dantewada and Kanker districts and three sub-jails in Bijapur, Sukma and Narayanpur districts. The total prison population is around 3,500, most of them Adivasis. Only a small fraction are convicts; the rest are undertrials.
In normal times, in all these prisons, relatives or lawyers of prisoners can visit the prisoners only in the first half of the day. Those who come from faraway— as most do — have to start very early in the morning from their homes or reach Jagdalpur the previous day. It is a big blow for family members to return without being granted a meeting after having incurred the necessary time, travel and other expenses. In the first wave of COVID-19, at least the parcels could be sent through lawyers. But this time, even that was disallowed. Only a small number of prisoners who had some money deposited in their names could make weekly calls. Lawyers, who are normally able to bridge the two (prisoners and family), can do so only if lawyer-client visits are not discontinued too, as they were during the first lockdown in 2020.
The NIA courts
In Bastar, a high proportion of ‘Naxalite’ cases are being tried in the National Investigation Agency (NIA) courts. Until early 2021, there was only one NIA court for Bastar division. It was set up after a State government notification on May 19, 2015 authorised the First Additional Sessions Judge, Bastar (at Jagdalpur) as the Special Court for trial of Scheduled Offences under the National Investigation Agency Act, 2008. On January 15, 2021, by another government notification, the number of NIA special courts was increased by giving additional charge to two courts in Dantewada District and Sessions Court and one court each in Kondagaon and Kanker District and Sessions Courts.
During the first wave of COVID-19 (in 2020), work in all courts, including the NIA court in Jagdalpur, came to a standstill and hearings were suspended for months. Just as the courts were reopening in early 2021, the decision to decentralise NIA courts was made. The decentralisation process required hundreds of files to be transferred to the different courts in the respective districts. Old session trial numbers were renumbered in the new courts. It is only after these cumbersome changes were done that the process of sending summons to the witnesses began. Despite these delays and difficulties, court hearings (in observance of strict precautionary protocols) were slowly but surely resuming. On January 11, 2022, however, hearings were suspended once again, except for fresh or urgent matters (as in previous lockdowns). Work in the courts resumed on February 16, but after every speed breaker it takes time to bounce back; and so it is still in first gear. Overcrowding in prisons, already a serious problem in Bastar prisons, worsens every time court hearings are suspended. In Jagdalpur central jail, for example, the number of prisoners rose from 2,021 (on January 28) to 2,057 (on February 13).
Hopes for a speedy trial
Undertrial prisoners and their families have coped with COVID-19 and now have hope that the loss of time would be made up and their cases closed in the months ahead, especially those which are at the last stages of trial.
Ordinarily, each case is heard only once a month. If nothing happens in the hearing (for example, if the witnesses do not turn up) there is no progress. In Bastar, typically, in any single NIA case many persons are accused and arrested. These are cases where the accused are charged under Acts such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), the Arms Act and the Explosive Substances Act (all scheduled under the NIA Act) and also other sections of the Indian Penal Code, or IPC (some of which are also included in the NIA schedule), mostly based on fabrications. After a Maoist attack or incident, a large number of people from the surrounding areas, male and female, get arrested and charged in this manner. In such cases, many witnesses — aside from the complainant and investigating officer — are part of the police and security forces. Summons even to civilians are sent to the respective thana. The speed of the trial, therefore, depends on the extent to which the police cooperate with the judicial process. Even in normal years, summons have to be sent many times before witnesses appear in court for examination and cross-examination, which results in unnecessary delay.
Needless to say, life gets held up when cases do not move. This feeling of being stuck in a stagnant pool, the murky workings of which are not known to them, can also take a toll on the mental health of prisoners and their family. For a human-rights lawyer, it becomes hard to keep hope alive. It becomes difficult to explain the delays during the trial or the denial of bail in “Naxali cases”. Bail, a possible relief, is rarely granted in these cases and almost never to those charged under the UAPA. This is so common that it has become unwritten law. Often, helpless families of undertrials fall prey to false promises made by greedy lawyers and end up parting with a large sum of money. Bail applications are a sure bait for these unscrupulous lawyers. Frustrated family members may even dump an honest lawyer for a far more expensive lawyer in the hope of faster results.
Honest lawyers and judges in Bastar know that the only hope for the prisoners (especially of the ongoing “war”) is a speedy trial. To this goal, we must remain committed even during COVID times.
Deva is a common name in Bastar. One of the ‘Devas’ saved on my phone is Kosi’s Deva. Kosi is from a Dantewada village and has been in jail since 2018. She was picked up with a dozen others after an IED blast by the Maoists. She is one of the hundreds (if not thousands) who are charged under the UAPA in Bastar. Kosi was engaged to be married when she was arrested. Her fiancé, Deva, is a frequent caller from a border village in Telangana, where his family migrated a few years ago to escape the violence. He calls about twice a month and has been doing so season after season. One can only hope that the wait will end soon, allowing Kosi and Deva to turn the page and start a new chapter of their lives together.
4. Manufacturing PMI hits 8-month high
July’s output growth fastest since November, input cost inflation slows to 11-month low: S&P Global
India’s manufacturing sector rebounded in July, with sales and output growing at the fastest pace since November, as per the survey-based S&P Global India Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI). The PMI quickened last month to 56.4, from June’s 9-month low of 53.9.
The index suggested ‘marked gains’ in new business orders during July, even though job creation remained marginal amid an uncertain outlook.
Although costs continued to rise, the inflation rate in manufacturing inputs eased to an 11-month low. Chemicals, electronic components, metals, textiles and transportation fees were reportedly higher, even as the pass-through of higher costs to output prices moderated to the lowest in four months.
“Inflation rates, for both input prices and output charges, were most acute in the capital goods segment,” S&P Global said. “The weakest rises were… in the intermediate goods sub-sector.”
New export orders grew at the slowest pace in four months, even as aggregate new orders recovered smartly in July from the loss in growth momentum in the preceding month. It was the thirteenth month in a row that factory orders and production recorded growth.
‘Outlook. jobs subdued’
The uptick in July, however, did not alter the outlook among most producers, with 96% expecting no change in output levels over the coming year. Business sentiment was only marginally better than June, when it had slipped to a 27-month low.
The uncertainty about the future also constrained hiring, which remained marginal, with 98% of firms keeping workforce numbers unchanged as there was no pressure on operating capacities. “Despite the solid performance… overall job creation remained subdued,” S&P Global noted. The “increase in employment was… broadly similar to those seen in the current five-month sequence of growth,” it added.
Pollyanna De Lima, economics associate director at S&P Global Market Intelligence said July marked a ‘welcome combination of faster economic growth and softening inflation’ for producers. “Although the upturn in demand gained strength, there were clear signs that capacity pressures remained mild as backlogs rose only marginally and job creation remained subdued,” Ms. De Lima added.
“Firms were successful in their efforts to obtain inputs amid a second consecutive improvement in supplier performance,” she noted.
Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI)
- It is a survey-based measure that asks the respondents about changes in their perception of key business variables as compared with the previous month. It is an index of the prevailing direction of economic trends in the manufacturing and service sectors.
- The purpose of the PMI is to provide information about current and future business conditions to company decision makers, analysts, and investors.
- It is calculated separately for the manufacturing and services sectors and then a composite index is also constructed.
- The PMI is a number from 0 to 100.
- A print above 50 means expansion, while a score below that denotes contraction.
- A reading at 50 indicates no change.
- If the PMI of the previous month is higher than the PMI of the current month, it represents that the economy is contracting.
- It is usually released at the start of every month. It is, therefore, considered a good leading indicator of economic activity.
- PMI is compiled by IHS Markit for more than 40 economies worldwide.
- IHS Markit is a global leader in information, analytics and solutions for the major industries and markets that drive economies worldwide.
- IHS Markit is part of S&P Global.
- As the official data on industrial output, manufacturing and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth comes much later; PMI helps to make informed decisions at an earlier stage.
- It is different from the Index of Industrial Production (IIP), which also gauges the level of activity in the economy.
- IIP covers the broader industrial sector compared to PMI.
- However, PMI is more dynamic compared to a standard industrial production index.
Significance of PMI
- Provides a Reliable Expectation of Economy:
- The PMI is becoming one of the most tracked indicators of business activity across the world.
- It provides a reliable expectation of how an economy is doing as a whole and manufacturing in particular.
- Indicator of Economic Activity:
- It is a good gauge of boom-and-bust cycles in the economy and closely watched by investors, business, traders and financial professionals besides economists.
- PMI is also regarded as a leading indicator of economic activity since it is released at the beginning of every month.
- It comes before the official data on industrial output, core sector manufacturing and GDP growth.
- It is a good gauge of boom-and-bust cycles in the economy and closely watched by investors, business, traders and financial professionals besides economists.
- Helps in Decision Making:
- The PMI is used by central banks to set interest rates.
- Besides influencing equity market movements, PMI releases also impact bond and currency markets.
- Enhances Attractiveness of the Economy:
- A good reading of PMI enhances the attractiveness of an economy vis-a-vis other competing economies.
- Suppliers can decide on prices depending on PMI movements.
5. Editorial-1: Using a rupee route to get around a dominating dollar
India could take advantage of geopolitical developments to promote trade and gain better status for the rupee
A number of countries, including India, are now considering the use of other currencies to avoid the U.S. dollar and its hegemonic role in settling international transactions. As for India, currency hierarchy goes back to colonial times when the Indian rupee was virtually linked to the British pound rather than to gold which it earned through exports. In the post-War period, the neo-colonial currency hierarchy has been clubbed with the continued use, primarily of the U.S. dollar, for the majority of international transactions. The current situation relates, in addition, to geopolitical developments, the Russia-Ukraine war in the forefront followed by the sanctions imposed on Russia by the West.
The present scenario
In recent times, India has been taking an active interest in having the rupee used for trade and the settlement of payments with other countries, which include Russia, now facing sanctions. Even earlier, the annexation of Crimea in 2014 had resulted in the imposition of similar sanctions against Russia over a period of time. Settling payments with Russia by India, especially for mineral fuels and oil imports as well as for the S-400 Triumf air defence system has been continuing on a semi-informal basis through rupee payments by using the Vostro accounts maintained by Russian banks in India. The Reserve Bank of India has recently taken a proactive stand to have rupee settlement of trade (circular dated July 11, 2022). While options for invoicing in rupees were already legal in terms of Regulation 7(1) of the Foreign Exchange Management (Deposit) Regulations, 2016, the current circular aims to operationalise the special Vostro accounts with Russian banks in India, in a bid to promote trade and also gain a better status for the rupee as an international currency.
The advantages India is currently seeking in these arrangements include avoidance of transactions in the highly priced dollar which has an exchange value of ₹80, impacting the Indian economy with inflation, capital flight (aggravated by interest rate hikes by the Fed and possible hikes in the European Union as well) and the drop in foreign exchange reserves by $70 billion since September 2021. Buying oil with a depreciated ruble, and at discounts, is not only cost-saving but also saves transport time with the use of multi-modal routes using land, sea and air routes. In addition, India is looking forward to trade expansion in sanctions-affected Russia (leading to recession and de-industrialisation there). As mentioned by Alexey Yusupov in the IPS Journal on July 20, the impact of sanctions on Russia includes L-shaped stagnation in GDP which has declined by 10% to 15%, with de-industrialisation and unemployment (largely on account of the retreat of most western companies from the country leading to sharp declines in the production of steel, wood and automobiles). With India having a trade deficit with Russia, which has been around $3.52 billion on average over the last two financial years, India’s opportunities include the possible use, by Russia, of the surpluses in the Vostro rupee account in Russian banks for additional purchases from India. Such purchases could include not only pharmaceutical products and electrical machinery (which are currently the major items of India’s exports to Russia) but also a range of products that Russia might need, particularly to redress the hardship faced with the sanctions.
There are quite a few problems that may prevail in implementing the desired rupee payments and avoiding dollar transactions. Apart from issues that concern an agreed exchange rate between the rupee and the ruble (R-R), two volatile currencies, there is also the question of the willingness of private parties (companies, banks) to accept the rupee for trade and settlements. Will they be ready to forego the greenback? Of course if Russia opens its door for exports from India, the ‘R-R’ route may prove attractive for Indian exporters. Finally, there are official concerns for reactions, particularly from the U.S., to deals, especially for purchase of the S-400 defence equipment. And the fear continues even after the recent Congressional approval of those purchases as a special case in the backdrop of Chinese aggression. Moreover, the deals between India and Russia, especially on oil, can be considered by the West as ‘indirect back door support’ — as India is importing Russian crude at 30% discount, processing at refineries in Gujarat which include Reliance, and then exporting those to the West. As reported by the Economic Times (June 13, 2021), such exports amounted to $1.5 billion per day in May 2021. These companies are exporting to the West with ‘robust refining margins’, as Alex Lawson mentions in The Guardian (June 22).
There were attempts even before the novel coronavirus pandemic to initiate a clearing account on the BRICS platform. An analysis by the writer in the EPW on the quantitative implications indicate a skewed pattern of transactions — with China having most of the trade surplus. It is a pattern similar to what is happening in India-Russia trade at the moment.
Examples to note
Attempts to use the rupee for invoicing and trading is, however, not new to India. A comprehensive bilateral trade and payments agreement was signed by India in 1953 with the Soviet bloc countries (it included those that later formed a part of the Commonwealth of Independent States.) Crucial aspects of the arrangement included: participation by state-trading units alone; fixed exchange rates as agreed upon by trade partners, and the offer of credit by countries that had a trade surplus to countries with a trade deficit. In general, most of the bilateral agreements were marked by scissor-like operations on a continuous basis, in effect clearing the imbalances as the surplus country was importing more from the deficit partner, or offering credit to the latter. The Soviet Union’s credit to India enabled the setting up of the Bhilai steel plant, other industrial units, oil refineries and pharmaceuticals — all controlled by India’s public sector. The agreement ended in 1991 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, leaving behind some issues of a rupee surplus and the ‘R-R’ rate of exchange.
However, history moves on. The market economies in most parts of the world today negate the possibility of having the state or the public sector at centre-stage. But still, the India-Soviet agreements of the past may provide a clue on how the current ‘R-R’ trade and the problems can be managed by initiating a push for Indian exports to Russia and, of course, avoiding all deals in dollars — benefiting both trade partners and countering, globally, the on-going currency hierarchy.
6. Editorial-2: Unpacking a conundrum
The authorities must communicate the potential severity of monkeypox
A fortnight after India confirmed its first case of monkeypox, it has reported its first casualty. A 22-year-old man, from Thrissur in Kerala, died due to suspected monkeypox symptoms, a day after which Kerala’s Health Minister Veena George said he had tested positive in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The patient was undergoing treatment in a private hospital for severe fatigue and brain fever, six days after his arrival in the State on July 21. His swab samples have been sent to the ICMR-National Institute of Virology (NIV) centre in Alappuzha for confirmation. Death from the virus is reportedly rare, though as the experience of COVID-19 shows, it could vary depending on the population at hand. According to the World Health Organization, the case fatality ratio of monkeypox has historically ranged from 0% to 11% in the general population and has been higher among young children. In recent times, the case fatality ratio has been around 3%-6%. While the disease has been around in Africa since the 1970s, it has also been reported in the U.S., the U.K. and Israel. In 2017, Nigeria experienced a large outbreak, with a case fatality ratio of approximately 3%; cases continue to be reported. It is the surge outside Africa, in 78 countries, that has elevated the risk profile of the disease along with the realisation that there are considerable gaps in knowledge on whether the disease poses a greater risk to specific population groups, just as it was eventually determined for COVID-19. In monkeypox deaths in Brazil and Spain, the patients were reported to have had serious associated syndromes such as encephalitis and lymphoma, though it is unclear what role the virus played in their disease outcome.
That monkeypox spreads mainly through sexual transmission and close contact — it is not an airborne disease — should not be of comfort to health authorities. The death in Thrissur highlights the need for a thorough probe as well as a public disclosure on the case progression. For instance, Kerala’s health authorities say the person was admitted not after being confirmed to be monkeypox-positive but due to a fever and experiencing fatigue. It was only later that the rashes and blisters showed up. Intriguingly, that he had tested positive for monkeypox was disclosed to the health authorities a day before he died. It is to rule out a misdiagnosis of monkeypox (by the UAE) that the NIV has undertaken a re-test. India has announced a task force to monitor the disease spread. The Indian Council of Medical Research has isolated the strain of the virus and invited vaccine makers to develop a vaccine. It has also invited proposals to develop diagnostic kits. While it is fortunate that the disease so far appears to be self-limiting, the Government must not be slack in transparently communicating the potential severity of the disease.
7. Editorial-3: Language as barrier
There are pluses and minuses in making the mother tongue the medium for higher studies
The call by Home Minister Amit Shah last week for engineering, law and medicine to be taught in Indian languages is a well-intentioned one. His stand is in sync with one of the focal points of the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, i.e., the promotion of Indian languages in higher education. The NEP provides for more higher educational institutions and programmes in higher education to use the mother tongue or local language as a medium of instruction, besides offering programmes bilingually. The rationale behind Mr. Shah’s call is that 95% of students, who receive primary education in their mother tongue, should not be left out in their pursuit of higher studies. In recent years, substantive measures have been taken to make engineering courses available in Indian languages, if the statement by Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan in the Lok Sabha in December 2021 is an indication. Effective 2021-22, the AICTE granted approval to 19 engineering colleges in 10 States for having engineering courses in six Indian languages. The Council has also developed an “AICTE Translation Automation AI Tool” that translates English online courses in 11 Indian languages. SWAYAM, an open online courses platform of the Central government, has been offering some popular courses in Indian languages too. The import of this is that the goal of covering all sections as far as higher education is concerned should become a reality. But, at the same time, one should not gloss over the exercise not having yielded results. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, the bid to impart engineering education through the Tamil medium has not created any impact despite the principal political players using language as a political tool. In the field of law — before the subject is taught in the Indian languages — the Central government should try to impress upon the judiciary to allow the use of Indian languages in court proceedings.
While there is no need for haste in making educational materials available in Indian languages, the approach and methodology should be discussed threadbare by policymakers and educationists, without political pressure or interference. What should be made obvious is that the use of English, wherever desirable, should be retained, with no aversion shown on the ground that it is a “foreign” language. It would not be out of place to highlight issues about standards and the quality of teaching of Indian languages in schools. Be it Gujarati or Hindi or even Tamil, students have been found to fail in their public examinations in language papers. There is also the point of diminished employability outside the region of the language. If the Government is serious in taking forward its stated position of creating higher education access to certain sections, it should dispassionately study the advantages and the disadvantages.
8. Editorial-4: Government’s own ‘gig workers’
Outsourcing jobs to contractors is far more inefficient than fixed term contracts
When images of a langur appear on the walls of Vigyan Bhavan and nearby sites in New Delhi, the protagonist (Anjani Prasad) in the movie, Eeb Allay Ooo!, is summoned along with his thekedaar (contractor) to the office of the municipal corporation. A complaint about the images that were put up by Anjani to scare away the monkeys has reached the officer and he threatens to cancel the contract for shooing away the monkeys. The absurdity of the task, for which a thekedaar is appointed by floating a tender, may unsettle the viewers. However, for those engaged by the various levels of the government through such contracts, it is a lived reality.
While the Agnipath scheme has ignited a debate on the nature of jobs in the government, ‘temporary’ jobs have comprised the vast majority of available government employment for quite some time. They may be classified into three categories; permanent, contractual and daily wagers.
Outsourcing: a dominant mode
A commentator recently referred to it as “the caste system of permanent, contractual, and casual employees”. Outsourcing has become the dominant mode of working in the government, from highly specialised tasks to the most routine ones. It may be a safai karamchari (sanitation worker), a driver/conductor of your city bus service, a junior engineer or a highly paid consultant — all engagements are usually outsourced to an agency. The modalities of “contractual” jobs in the public sector, therefore, require a much deeper examination than it has been afforded in recent debates to understand its impact on various public services.
There are two main methods to induct an ‘employee’ on contract in a government entity; first, directly on the payroll of the entity and, second, through a labour contractor or as part of any other contract entered into pursuant to a tender process. In both cases, the costs and liabilities of the government entity are significantly reduced compared to a “permanent” position. While the entity may remain the principal employer in both cases, the burden of responsibility is shifted to the contractor in the case of the latter, which is also the predominant mode of engaging contractual workers.
Non-payment of salaries for extended periods, fudging of statutory deductions for the worker’s welfare such as provident fund (PF), employees’ state insurance (ESI), etc. by the labour contractor, and uneven distribution of work vis-à-vis “permanent” employees, are all common and well-known features of such contracts. This has serious repercussions for the quality of public service that is sought to be provided including sanitation, public transport, health, etc. Urban and rural local bodies are an important site to understand the implications of a large “contractual” workforce.
Shift of responsibility
Arguably, for the managers or officers in the government, the shifting of responsibility to the contractor and the possibility of litigation seeking ‘regularisation’ for the workers predisposes them to such labour contracts. The overwhelming reliance on contractors, who almost function as the HR managers of the government, has undermined our institutions.
It is often the case that the managers/officers in the government do not have the capability to draft or even review basic tender documents. Consequently, there is an endless chain of delegating tasks so much so that at any time there are more people to get things done than those who could actually do things. What is our solution then? We float another tender to appoint experts or consultants who would do things for us.
I would argue that contractual recruitment has largely been a missed opportunity to augment the capacity of the government, particularly those wings of the state that cater various services to people, as well as to create a viable avenue of employment for India’s burgeoning working age population. This is subject to the appropriate mode of engagement and safeguards that add institutional capabilities rather than shifting the onus of management to an external agency.
Due to fiscal constraints and a large workforce, contractual jobs will continue to eclipse ‘permanent’ ones at least in terms of numbers. Our local bodies, parastatals, special purpose vehicles and other public utilities stand to gain considerably if the modalities of engagement are diligently worked out.
As an example, following the recent strike by the Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC) staff in Maharashtra, Aurangabad’s City Bus Service, operated as a joint venture with the former, had to be suspended due to non-availability of drivers and conductors. Instead of outsourcing the service to a private agency, a decision was made to directly recruit the drivers and conductors from amongst ex-servicemen via fixed term contracts to be renewed periodically.
In addition, a maintenance division was set up for daily maintenance from amongst the ex-servicemen retired from mechanical and engineering divisions of the Army. As a result, a significant improvement was seen in various service level parameters in a short span. The Ministry of Housing & Urban Affairs’ The Urban Learning Internship Program (TULIP), which enables city authorities to directly engage a young workforce for a fixed term, is another example of a step in the right direction.
Our critique of public employment, which is largely framed as the presence or absence of the security and benefits of a permanent job, may be disconnected from the predominant modes of recruitment shaping the realities of young people’s lives. Moreover, even though a permanent government job remains highly coveted, it may be important to also recognise that not everyone may aspire to ‘permanence’ due to various reasons.
Fixed term contractual stints with the government with safeguards against sheer exploitation can be a major source of employment. However, such modes of recruitment will have to assimilate the principles of affirmative action, in line with the vision of social justice enshrined in our Constitution. This is key in order to avoid becoming a mechanism that will skirt provisions for reservation.
As we seek to regulate the “gig economy”, it may be time for the government to take some concrete measures for its own “gig workers”.