Daily Current Affairs 05.05.2021 (Govt. gives nod for 5G trials; Chinese tech giants left out, MFIs flag rural borrower distress to RBI, FDA to approve shot for adolescents, Scientists see flaws in SUTRA’s approach to modelling pandemic)

Daily Current Affairs 05.05.2021 (Govt. gives nod for 5G trials; Chinese tech giants left out, MFIs flag rural borrower distress to RBI, FDA to approve shot for adolescents, Scientists see flaws in SUTRA’s approach to modelling pandemic)


1. Govt. gives nod for 5G trials; Chinese tech giants left out

Telcos tie up with Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung and C-DOT

The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) on Tuesday gave permission to Telecom Service Providers (TSPs) to conduct trials for the use and application of 5G technology.

This formally leaves out Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE from the 5G race in India.

“The applicant TSPs include Bharti Airtel Ltd., Reliance JioInfocomm Ltd., Vodafone Idea Ltd. and MTNL. These TSPs have tied up with original equipment manufacturers and technology providers, which are Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung and C-DOT,” a statement from the Ministry of Communications said.

In addition, Reliance JioInfocomm Ltd. will also be conducting trials using its own indigenous technology.

The duration of the trials is for six months, which includes a time period of two months for the procurement and setting up of the equipment.

“The permissions have been given by DoT as per the priorities and technology partners identified by the TSPs themselves,” it stated.

Each TSP will have to conduct trials in rural and semi-urban settings also, in addition to urban settings, so that the benefit of 5G technology proliferates across the country and is not confined to the urban areas, the statement said.

Stating that TSPs are encouraged to conduct trials using 5Gi technology in addition to the already known 5G technology, the statement said the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has also approved the 5Gi technology, which was advocated by India, as it facilitates much larger reach of the 5G towers and radio networks. The 5Gi technology has been developed by the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M), Centre of Excellence in Wireless Technology (CEWiT) and IIT Hyderabad.

With 5G technology data, download rates are expected to be 10 times that of 4G while giving up to three times greater spectrum efficiency. The trials will be on a non-commercial basis.

5G Technology

  • Features of 5G Technology:
    • Millimeter wave spectrum: The 5G networks will operate in the millimeter wave spectrum (30-300 GHz) which have the advantage of sending large amounts of data at very high speeds because the frequency is so high, it experiences little interference from surrounding signals.
    • Upgraded LTE: 5G is the latest upgrade in the long-term evolution (LTE) mobile broadband networks.
    • Internet speed: In the high-band spectrum of 5G, internet speeds have been tested to be as high as 20 Gbps (gigabits per second) as compared to the maximum internet data speed in 4G recorded at 1 Gbps.
      • 5G network speeds should have a peak data rate of 20 Gb/s for the downlink and 10 Gb/s for the uplink.
    • Bands in 5G: 5G mainly work in 3 bands, namely low, mid and high frequency spectrum — all of which have their own uses as well as limitations.
      • Low band spectrum: It has shown great promise in terms of coverage and speed of internet and data exchange however the maximum speed is limited to 100 Mbps (Megabits per second).
      • Mid-band spectrum: It offers higher speeds compared to the low band, but has limitations in terms of coverage area and penetration of signals.
      • High-band spectrum: It has the highest speed of all the three bands, but has extremely limited coverage and signal penetration strength.
  • Hurdles in Rolling Out 5G Technology:
    • Enabling critical infrastructures: 5G will require a fundamental change to the core architecture of the communication system. The major flaw of data transfer using 5G is that it can’t carry data over longer distances. Hence, even 5G technology needs to be augmented to enable infrastructure.
    • Financial liability on consumers: For transition from 4G to 5G technology, one has to upgrade to the latest cellular technology, thereby creating financial liability on consumers.
    • Capital Inadequacy: Lack of flow of cash and adequate capital with the suitable telecom companies (like Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea) is delaying the 5G spectrum allocation.
  • Utility of 5G Applications: Combined with IoT, cloud, big dataAI, and edge computing, 5G could be a critical enabler of the fourth industrial revolution.
    • For India: 5G networks could improve the accessibility of services such as mobile banking and healthcare, and enable exponential growth in opportunities for unemployed or underemployed people to engage in fulfilling and productive work. For this Government has rolled out enabling policies.
  • 5G Enabling Policy:
    • India’s National Digital Communications Policy 2018 highlights the importance of 5G when it states that the convergence of a cluster of revolutionary technologies including 5G, the cloud, Internet of Things (IoT) and data analytics, along with a growing start-up community, promise to accelerate and deepen its digital engagement, opening up a new horizon of opportunities.
      • It aims to reach 100% teledensity, high-speed internet highways and delivery of citizen-centric services electronically.
  • Global Progress on 5G:
    • Global telecom companies have already started building 5G networks and rolling it out to their customers in many countries:
      • 5G had been deployed in 50 cities in the United States.
      • South Korea has rolled out 5G to 85 cities.
      • Japan and China have too started 5G mobile service on a trial basis.

2. MFIs flag rural borrower distress to RBI

Lenders plead for central bank relief, say small-ticket, rural customers hit harder by second wave

The pandemic’s second wave is affecting rural households far more than last year, with a large number of microfinance staffers, borrowers and their families hit by COVID-19, impacting many more livelihoods than during the first wave.

The trend, which poses a higher risk of loan delinquencies if the rising infections don’t taper off by the end of May along with mobility restrictions, was flagged by microfinance institutions (MFIs) to the Reserve Bank of India Governor Shaktikanta Das on Monday, according to two industry representatives who attended the meeting.

Urging the central bank to grant forbearance for borrowers unable to pay instalments with some flexibility for the MFIs to restructure affected loans, industry representatives observed that while collections had been normal till early April — in the wake of the gradual recovery — they had slowed down since then.

“A larger proportion of borrowers and their families are affected by the illness, even in rural areas, in contrast to last year,” an industry executive said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Many of our borrowers’ livelihoods are getting affected and they intend to conserve cash to tide through this phase,” he added.

The official said that a significant section of MFI staff working with borrowers had also been infected, triggering fear among employees.

“Instead of an across-the-board moratorium… it would be better to give MFIs freedom to restructure loans based on requests without attracting the provisioning norms,” said another MFI official. “We have suggested to the RBI to consider this, while invoking relief provisions that are applied for natural calamities,” he said.

In a statement after Monday’s meeting, the RBI said that the Governor had discussed the current economic situation and the outlook on potential stress on MFIs’ balance sheets, as well as credit flows to their borrowers.

ICRA cautioned on Tuesday that MFIs face a ‘high risk’ perception amid the sharp surge in infections. Though some States have classified the industry as an essential activity, borrowers’ cash flows may be affected due to restrictions.

“Rapidly rising infections and mobility restrictions are… impacting MFIs’ field operations,” noted Sachin Sachdeva, sector head, financial sector ratings at ICRA. “Consequently, the industry is witnessing a reduction in collections,” he said.

“We estimate a sequential drop of 8%-10% in collections in April 2021 and the same may dip further,” Mr. Sachdeva cautioned.

What are MFIs?

  • Micro finance Institutions, also known as MFIs, a microfinance institution is an organisation that offers financial services to low income populations.
  • Usually, their area of operations of extending small loans are rural areas and among low-income people in urban areas. 
  • MFIs provide the much-needed aid to the economically underprivileged who would have otherwise been at the mercy of the local moneylender and high interest rates.
  • The model had its genesis as a poverty alleviation tool, focused on economic and social upliftment of the marginalised sections through lending of small amounts of money without any collateral to women for income-generating activities. 
  • MFI loan portfolio has reached Rs 2.31 lakh crore at the end of FY2020, touching the lives of 5.89 crore customers.
  •  Some of the MFIs, that qualify certain criteria and are non-deposit taking entities, come under RBI wings for Non-Banking Financial Company (NBFC) Regulation and supervision. These “Last Mile Financiers” are known as NBFC MFI.
  • The objective of covering them under RBI was to make these NBFC MFIs healthy and accountable. 

Digitalisation and growth of MFI sector

  • Over the years, the sector has incorporated several changes in its operating model, including digital interventions across the lending value chain.
  • MFIs have adopted digital technologies in order to eliminate the redundancies, enable quick customer on-boarding, loan disbursals and even cashless collections.
  • The use of digital technologies has enabled MFIs not only to reach a greater number of clients and thereby grow at a much faster pace, but also to do so in an efficient manner by streamlining processes and reducing turnaround times.

Challenges associated with MFI 

  • Social Objective Overlooked: In their quest for growth and profitability, the social objective of MFIs—to bring in improvement in the lives of the marginalised sections of the society—seems to have been gradually eroding. 
  • Impact of COVID-19: It has impacted the MFI sector, with collections having taken an initial hit and disbursals yet to observe any meaningful thrust.
  • Inadequate Data: While overall loan accounts have been increasing the actual impact of these loans on the poverty-level of clients is sketchy as data on the relative poverty-level improvement of MFI clients is fragmented.
  • Loans for Conspicuous Consumption: The proportion of loans utilised for non-income generating purposes could be much higher than what is stipulated by RBI. These loans are short tenured and given the economic profile of the customers it is likely that they soon find themselves in the vicious debt trap of having to take another loan to pay off the first

3. Fiscal metrics to stay weak on COVID: S&P

‘FY22 GDP impact may be 100-300 bps’

An ongoing second wave of COVID-19 infections in India could hurt its near-term economic recovery and possibly diminish growth for the full year, S&P Global Ratings said on Tuesday.

“India’s COVID wave will inevitably hit the recovery and could push growth below 10%,” said Shaun Roache, chief economist, Asia Pacific at S&P.

“The longer it takes to regain control, the greater the permanent damage, especially as policy space is limited.”

With 3.45 million active cases, India recorded 357,229 new infections over the last 24 hours, while deaths rose 3,449 for a toll of 222,408, health ministry data showed. Experts said actual numbers could be five to 10 times higher.

‘Q1 shock to spill over’

S&P currently has a “BBB-” rating on India with a stable outlook, the lowest investment grade and expects India’s economy to grow 11% in the year that started April 1 following a projected record contraction of 8% in the previous year.

“The shock of the first quarter is likely to carry on through the rest of the year and the impact on the GDP could be around one to three percentage points,” Mr. Roache said. (1 percentage point = 100 basis points or bps). The rating agency said India had been showing strong recovery momentum since September last year and until March-April of 2021 before the massive surge in cases prompted localised lockdowns and mobility restrictions.

“There will be some near-term ramifications at least… from the severe second wave of COVID-19 that we are observing. But India still has good recovery prospects over the next 3-4 years but that may be slower,” Andrew Wood, director, sovereign & international public finance ratings.

He said that the agency expected India to see the best growth prospects over the medium to longer-term, relative to other regional peers at similar development levels.

“We still believe that India’s fiscal settings are going to be weak… deficits are going to be high for a long time,” Mr. Wood said. India’s general fiscal deficit is seen at around 11% of GDP this year against 14% last year, he added.

4. FDA to approve shot for adolescents

Roll-out of Pfizer vaccine among those aged between 12 and 15 could begin as early as next week

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is set to approve the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech two-dose mRNA COVID-19 vaccine for adolescents aged between 12 and 15 years, according to reports in the American press.

The roll-out could begin as early as next week. More than 131 million shots of the Pfizer vaccine have been used to date in the U.S., and the extension to adolescents could assist with school re-opening later this year.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine — one of two mRNA vaccines (the other is from Moderna) that have Emergency Use Authorisation (EUA) in the U.S. for use in people 16 years and older — is likely to be cleared for EUA for adolescents as early as this week, as per reports, which were based on comments from FDA officials. The day after the FDA’s expected approval, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will likely meet to give the vaccine the go-ahead for use in adolescents, the New York Times reported.

The FDA declined to put a timeline to the approval.

“The FDA’s review of Pfizer’s request to amend its emergency use authorisation (EUA) in order to expand the age range for its COVID-19 vaccine to include individuals 12-15 years of age is ongoing,” Stephanie Caccomo, an FDA spokesperson, said, as per the Washington Post.

Of 2,260 adolescents who participated in a Pfizer clinical study, none who were fully vaccinated got COVID-19, compared to 18 cases in the group that got placebos, the company had reported in March.

Less susceptible

While children can get COVID-19, data available over the past year indicates that they are significantly less susceptible than adults. However, the proportion of children in overall infections has been rising in the U.S., partly because older adults are getting vaccinated.

Moderna is also expected to release the results of a U.S. vaccine study on 12-17-year-olds in the summer. Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech trials for children 6 months and older are also under way. Another company, Novavax, which expects to seek approval for its vaccine in the second quarter of this year, has also expanded its clinical trials to include children in the 12-17 age group. Pfizer was seeking an “expedited approval pathway” for its vaccine in India, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said in a May 3 social media post. The vaccine is currently not approved for any age group in India.“Unfortunately, our vaccine is not registered in India, although our application was submitted months ago,” Mr. Bourla said in the post.

In April, the government relaxed conditions for foreign vaccine use in the country, by permitting foreign vaccine manufactures to conduct clinical trials in India within 30 days of being given EUA (rather than before the fact). Pfizer announced in February that it had withdrawn an earlier application for EUA in India where it had not met the drug trial requirements in place at the time.

mRNA Vaccine vs Traditional Vaccines:

  • Vaccines work by training the body to recognise and respond to the proteins produced by disease-causing organisms, such as a virus or bacteria.
    • Traditional vaccines are made up of small or inactivated doses of the whole disease-causing organism, or the proteins that it produces, which are introduced into the body to provoke the immune system into mounting a response.
    • mRNA vaccines tricks the body into producing some of the viral proteins itself.
      • They work by using mRNA, or messenger RNA, which is the molecule that essentially puts DNA instructions into action. Inside a cell, mRNA is used as a template to build a protein.
  • Functioning of mRNA Vaccines:
    • To produce a mRNA vaccine, scientists produce a synthetic version of the mRNA that a virus uses to build its infectious proteins.
    • This mRNA is delivered into the human body, whose cells read it as instructions to build that viral protein, and therefore create some of the virus’s molecules themselves.
    • These proteins are solitary, so they do not assemble to form a virus.
    • The immune system then detects these viral proteins and starts to produce a defensive response to them.
  • Advantages of Using mRNA based Vaccines:
    • mRNA vaccines are considered safe as mRNA is non-infectious, non-integrating in nature, and degraded by standard cellular mechanisms.
    • They are highly efficacious because of their inherent capability of being translatable into the protein structure inside the cell cytoplasm.
    • Additionally, mRNA vaccines are fully synthetic and do not require a host for growth, e.g., eggs or bacteria. Therefore, they can be quickly manufactured inexpensively to ensure their “availability” and “accessibility” for mass vaccination on a sustainable basis.

5. Scientists see flaws in SUTRA’s approach to modelling pandemic

Too many parameters, a constant that was inaccurate and calibration errors may have led to predictions that did not signal the catastrophic second wave

With close to 4,00,000 cases being added every day, questions are being raised by some scientists on whether a government-backed model, called SUTRA, to forecast the rise and ebb of the COVID-19 pandemic, may have had an outsize role in creating the perception that a catastrophic second wave of the pandemic was unlikely in India.

An official connected with the COVID-19 management exercise said, on condition of anonymity, that the SUTRA model input was “an important one, but not unique or determining”.

The SUTRA group had presented their views to V.K. Paul, who chaired a committee that got inputs from several modellers and sources. “The worst-case predictions from this ensemble were used by the National Empowered Group on Vaccines and the groups headed by Dr. Paul to take measures. However, the surge was several times what any of the modellers had predicted,” the official said.

On May 2, the SUTRA group put out a statement, carried by the Press Information Bureau, that the government had solicited its inputs where they said a “second wave” would peak by the third week of April and stay at around 1 lakh cases. “Clearly the model predictions in this instance were incorrect,” it noted.

Past its peak

SUTRA (Susceptible, Undetected, Tested (positive), and Removed Approach) first came into public attention when one of its expert members announced in October that India was “past its peak”.

After new cases reached 97,000 a day in September, there was a steady decline and one of the scientists associated with the model development, M. Vidyasagar, said at a press conference then that the model showed the COVID burden was expected to be capped at 10.6 million symptomatic infections by early 2021, with fewer than 50,000 active cases from December. In October, at that time, there were 7.4 million confirmed cases of which about 7,80,000 were active infections.

Computational biologist Mukund Thattai, of the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, in a Twitter thread on May 1 summarised instances of the SUTRA forecasts being far out of bounds of the actual case load.

“The so-called Covid ‘supermodel’ commissioned by the Govt of India is fundamentally flawed,” he tweeted. “Based on Prof. Agrawal’s [Manindra Agrawal of IIT-Kanpur] own posts, it was quite clear that the predictions of the SUTRA model were too variable to guide government policy. Many models got things wrong but the question is why the government continued to rely on this model, than consult epidemiologists and public health experts,” Mr. Thattai told The Hindu.

Mr. Agrawal was among the mathematicians involved in developing the model. In an email to The Hindu, Mr. Agrawal said that the model, which had multiple purposes, didn’t work well on a metric of “predicting the future under different scenarios”.

He said unlike many epidemiological models that extrapolated cases based on the existing number of cases, the behaviour of the virus and manner of spread, the SUTRA model chose a “data centric approach”. The equation that gave out estimates of what the number of future infections might be and the likelihood of when a peak might occur, needed certain ‘constants’. These numbers kept changing and their values relied on the number of infections being reported at various intervals. However, the equation couldn’t tell when a constant changed. A rapid acceleration of cases couldn’t be predicted in advance.

‘Danger of overfitting’

Rahul Siddharthan, a computational biologist at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, in an email said no model, without external input from real-world data, could have predicted the second wave. However, the SUTRA model was problematic as it relied on too many parameters, and recalibrated those parameters whenever its predictions “broke down”.

“The more parameters you have, the more you are in danger of ‘overfitting’. You can fit any curve over a short time window with 3 or 4 parameters. If you keep resetting those parameters, you can literally fit anything,” he said.

According to Mr. Agrawal, one of the main reasons for the model not gauging an impending, exponential rise was that a constant indicating contact between people and populations went wrong. “We assumed it can at best go up to pre-lockdown value. However, it went well above that due to new strains of virus.”

Further the model was ‘calibrated’ incorrectly. The model relied on a serosurvey conducted by the ICMR in May that said 0.73% of India’s population may have been infected at that time. “I have strong reasons to believe now that the results of the first survey were not correct (actual infected population was much lower than reported). This calibration led our model to the conclusion that more than 50% population was immune by January. In addition, there is also the possibility that a good percentage of immune population lost immunity with time,” Mr. Agrawal said.

In the SUTRA approach, the factor by which reported cases differ from actual ones is a parameter in the model that could be estimated from just reported government data, according to Mr. Agrawal. “I understand it may appear a bit mysterious, but the math shows how. This, in fact, is one of our central contributions,” he told The Hindu. This has been described in a preprint research paper that has been available online since January.

6. How does a concentrator help?

The device can aid those whose oxygen saturation levels are between 88 and 92

With the demand for medical oxygen continuing unabated and several States struggling to keep pace with demand, the oxygen concentrator has emerged as a sought after device. Unlike medical oxygen sourced from industrial units, which are supplied via cylinders, concentrators are devices that can be operated at home.

When is an oxygen concentrator needed?

When blood saturation levels drop below 94%, it could be a sign of respiratory distress. Usually this merits hospitalisation, but due to the surge in COVID-19 cases and oxygen beds in short supply, the device could help those whose saturation levels range between 88 and 92 if they can’t access hospital services. Any lower would require more intensive oxygenation and any higher would mean that an improvement in lung function can obviate the need for such a device.

What does a concentrator do?

An oxygen concentrator takes in air and separates the oxygen and delivers it into a person via a nasal cannula. Air is 79% nitrogen and 21% oxygen and a concentrator that works by plugging into a source of electricity delivers air that is upto 95% oxygen. In respiratory infections that causes oxygen saturation levels to dip below 90%, having an external device supply pure oxygen eases the burden on the lungs. However in cases of severe respiratory distress, it may be necessary to provide oxygen that is almost 99% pure and an oxygen concentrator is not up to that job,

How does it work?

A concentrator consists of a compressor and sieve bed filter. The former squeezes atmospheric air and also adjusts the pressure at which it is delivered. The sieve bed is made of a material called Zeolite that separates the nitrogen. There are two sieve beds that work to both release oxygen into a tank that’s connected to the cannula as well as release the separated nitrogen and form a continuous loop that keeps producing fresh oxygen.

Are all concentrators the same?

These products come with a variety of specifications. There are those with varying oxygen outputs. For COVID-19 patients, a device with a 5L-10 L output is recommended. What’s important though is that it delivers air that contains at least 90% pure oxygen. The cost of these devices can range from ₹40,000 to ₹90,000. There are also pulse and continuous flow concentrators where the latter delivers oxygen at a constant rate and the other uses a sensor to deliver a puff of oxygen when a user is about to inhale.

Oxygen Concentrator

  • An oxygen concentrator draws in ambient air which is about 78 per cent Nitrogen and 21 per cent Oxygen and the remaining 1 per cent other gases.
  • The concentrator filters the room air through a sieve and releases back the nitrogen back into the atmosphere.
  • The oxygen retained in the concentrator is 90-95 per cent pure. It is compressed and given through a cannula.
  • A pressure valve on the concentrators helps to monitor the supply which ranges from 1-10 litres per minute.
  • A report by WHO in 2015 stated that oxygen concentrators have been designed as such that they can provide a continuous supply of oxygen for 24 hours, 7 days a week. They can work for up to 5 years or more.

Are Oxygen Concentrators beneficial for COVID-19 patients?

  • Experts say that the 90-95 per cent pure oxygen generated by these concentrators is useful for COVID-19 patients with mild to moderate symptoms with oxygen saturation levels above 88 per cent.
  • However, the patients in the ICU ward benefit only from 99 per cent Liquid Medical Oxygen. The oxygen from concentrators is not advisable for them.
  • Also, experts do not recommend attaching the concentrators to multiple patients as it poses a danger of cross-infection.

How are Oxygen Concentrators different from Oxygen Cylinders?

  • Oxygen Concentrators are portable whereas oxygen cylinders are required to be stored and transported in cryogenic tankers.
  • Oxygen Concentrators work on the power supply to draw in room air and generate oxygen while oxygen cylinders require refilling.
  • Oxygen concentrators are only capable of generating 5-10 litres of oxygen per minute hence not suitable for patients with a critical need for 40-50 litres of oxygen per minute.

7. Editorial-1: A COVID blot on India’s foreign policy canvas

A direct consequence of the pandemic is that New Delhi’s claim to regional primacy and leadership could take a hit

The second wave of COVID-19 and its agonising consequences, prompting the country to accept foreign aid after a gap of 17 years, is bound to have far-reaching strategic implications for India. While the world realises that India is too important to ignore, which perhaps explains the rush to help, there is little doubt that the country will not be the toast of the western world until it is able to get back on its feet. As a direct consequence of the pandemic, New Delhi’s claim to regional primacy and leadership will take a major hit, its ‘leading power’ aspirations will be dented, and accentuate its domestic political contestations. These in turn will impact the content and conduct of India’s foreign policy in the years to come.

Regional primacy

COVID 2.0 has quickened the demise of India’s regional primacy. Regrettably, the country’s geopolitical decline is likely to begin in the neighbourhood itself, a strategic space which New Delhi has been forced to cede to Beijing over the past decade or so, a phenomenon that was intensified by the aggressive regional policies of Modi 1.0. India’s traditional primacy in the region was built on a mix of material aid, political influence and historical ties. Its political influence is steadily declining, its ability to materially help the neighbourhood will shrink in the wake of COVID-19, and its historical ties alone may not do wonders to hold on to a region hungry for development assistance and political autonomy. As a result, South Asian states are likely to board the Chinese bandwagon, if they haven’t already. COVID-19, therefore, comes at a time when India’s standing in the region is already shrinking: the pandemic will unfortunately quicken the inevitable.

In July 2015, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, who was then the Foreign Secretary, stated that India aspires to be a “leading power, rather than just a balancing power”. How will COVID-19 impact India’s great power/leading power aspirations? Being boxed in a China-dominated region will provide New Delhi with little space to pursue its regional, let alone global, geopolitical ambitions except in the Indo-Pacific region. While the Indo-Pacific is geopolitically keen and ready to engage with India, the pandemic could adversely impact India’s ability and desire to contribute to the Indo-Pacific and the Quad. COVID-19, for instance, will prevent any ambitious military spending or modernisation plans (called for in the wake of the stand-off at the Line of Actual Control (LAC)) and limit the country’s attention on global diplomacy and regional geopolitics, be it Afghanistan or Sri Lanka or the Indo-Pacific. With reduced military spending and lesser diplomatic attention to regional geopolitics, New Delhi’s ability to project power and contribute to the growth of the Quad will be uncertain.

While the outpouring of global aid to India shows that the world realises India is too important to fail, the international community might also reach the conclusion that post-COVID-19 India is too fragile to lead and be a ‘leading power’. New Delhi is pivotal to the Indo-Pacific project, but with India’s inability to take a lead role and China wooing smaller states in the region away from the Indo-Pacific with aid and threats, the Indo-Pacific balance of power could eventually turn in Beijing’s favour.

Domestic politics

Domestic political contestations in the wake of the COVID-19 devastation in the country could also limit New Delhi’s strategic ambitions. General economic distress, a fall in foreign direct investment and industrial production, and a rise in unemployment have already lowered the mood in the country. The central political leadership, therefore, is likely to focus on COVID-19 recovery and the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh in 2022. The U.P. election and the run up to the 2024 general election, both crucial for the Narendra Modi regime, could fan communal tensions in the country, triggering more political violence. A depressed economy, politically volatile domestic space combined with a lack of elite consensus on strategic matters would hardly inspire confidence in the international system about India. Domestic political preoccupations will further shrink the political elite’s appetite for foreign policy innovation or initiatives. Post-COVID-19, Indian foreign policy is therefore likely to be a holding operation.

These strategic consequences of the pandemic will shape the content and conduct of India’s foreign policy in several important ways.

India-China equations

One potential impact of COVID-19’s devastating return and the damage it has done would be that India might be forced to be more conciliatory towards China, albeit reluctantly. From competing with China’s vaccine diplomacy a few months ago, New Delhi today is forced to seek help from the international community, if not China, to deal with the worsening COVID-19 situation at home. For one, China has, compared to most other countries, emerged stronger in the wake of the pandemic. Second, the world, notwithstanding its anti-China rhetoric, will continue to do business with Beijing — it already has been, and it will only increase. Third, while one is yet unsure of the nature of China-U.S. relations in the days ahead, the rise of China and India’s COVID-19-related troubles could prompt Washington to hedge its bets on Beijing. Finally, claims that India could compete with China as a global investment and manufacturing destination would remain just that — claims.

Thanks to its monumental mismanagement of the second wave, India’s ability to stand up to China stands vastly diminished today: in material power, in terms of balance of power considerations, and political will. This might require New Delhi to be more conciliatory towards China.If the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s rather muted response to the LAC stand-off in the summer of 2020 is anything to go by, we are likely to see a conciliatory China policy from here on.

Depressed foreign policy

Post-COVID-19, Indian foreign policy is unlikely to be business as usual. Given the much reduced political capital within the Modi government to pursue ambitious foreign policy goals, the diplomatic bandwidth for expansive foreign policy goals would be limited, leading thereby to a much depressed Indian foreign policy. The remainder of Mr. Modi’s current term is unlikely to emerge unscathed from such acute foreign policy depression. This, however, might take the aggressive edge off of India’s foreign policy under Mr. Modi. Less aggression could potentially translate into more accommodation, reconciliation and cooperation especially in the neighbourhood, with Pakistan on the one hand and within the broader South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) framework on the other.

The aftermath of the pandemic may kindle such a conciliatory tone in Indian foreign policy for other reasons as well. For one, COVID-19 has forced us to reimagine, to some extent at least, the friend enemy equations in global geopolitics. While the United States seemed hesitant, at least initially, to assist India even as the pandemic was wreaking havoc in the country, Moscow was quick to come to New Delhi’s aid. Even though New Delhi did not accept the aid offers from Pakistan and China, these offers sounded more than the usual diplomatic grandstanding that states engage in during natural calamities. The argument here is not that these will lead to fundamental shifts in India’s strategic partnerships, but that they could definitely moderate the sharp edges of India’s pre-existing geopolitical articulations.

Strategic autonomy

Finally, the pandemic would, at the very least indirectly, impact India’s policy of maintaining strategic autonomy. As pointed out above, the strategic consequences of the pandemic are bound to shape and structure New Delhi’s foreign policy choices as well as constrain India’s foreign policy agency. It could, for instance, become more susceptible to external criticism for, after all, New Delhi cannot say ‘yes’ to just aid and ‘no’ to criticism. A post-COVID-19 New Delhi might find it harder to resist demands of a closer military relationship with the U.S.

And yet, every crisis opens up the possibility for change and new thinking. What COVID-19 will also do is open up new regional opportunities for cooperation especially under the ambit of SAARC, an initiative that already saw some small beginnings during the first wave of the pandemic. New Delhi might do well to get the region’s collective focus on ‘regional health multilateralism’ to promote mutual assistance and joint action on health emergencies such as this. Classical geopolitics should be brought on a par with health diplomacy, environmental concerns and regional connectivity in South Asia. COVID-19 may have opened precisely such an opportunity to the world’s least integrated region.

8. Editorial-2: An issue of lives versus livelihoods

That the situations faced by India’s migrants are not a matter of concern in policy making is quite apparent

Strict to moderate lockdowns are being imposed again, this time in April 2021, terminating jobs in many an establishment employing large numbers of informal workers.

Of those employed in the informal category, large numbers include migrants who face, like they did in March-April of 2020, a bleak future, with job losses, loss of rented accommodations, a lack of sustainable income and savings to ensure food, transportation back to villages or any other emergency including falling victim to COVI-19.

Grim to grimmer

Given their bitter experiences last year, migrants have already begun their journeys back to villages, paying exorbitant sums for their travel. Of course, no bright prospect awaits them there given the state of rural distress which initially pushed them to seek a better future in the urban areas. Nor do they expect new job opportunities, especially under shrinking National Rural Employment Guarantee Act allotments by the government.

The continuing exodus unofficially records figures upward of 4 lakh (Western Railway) between April 1 and 12, while the Central Railways sent back 4.7 lakh migrants, all from Maharashtra, over the last few weeks. Such journeys will be recorded in history as those of destitution, offering no prospects of a better state.

With multiple issues of serious sufferings on account of COVID-19- related distress, the country has less time to discuss the fate of these unwanted migrants on their path of reverse migration, fleeing from centres of livelihood toward dark holes of rural helplessness and poverty. To provide a narrative of who these people are, we may describe them as ‘mobile by default’, with growing rural distress and inadequate official policies failing to support the ailing rural economy.

Providing a mirror image of the previous tragedy in 2020, this unwanted trek back to where they came from provides them no future worth mentioning. The conditions faced by these workers under a ‘curfew-to-lockdown’ status include the immediate termination of their livelihoods in terms of jobs, access to accommodation and near insolvency.

That the situations faced by migrants are not a matter of concern in policy making is quite apparent. There has been no attempt to have an official estimate of such flows, either incoming or reverse. Nor has any thought, going by official announcements, been made visible to redress the miseries that await the returning migrants. The recent official announcement of free ration of 5 kg cereals to 80 crore families is the only sop visible so far.

Questions for the state

Questions abound. It may not be too far-fetched to ask if this measure of using lockdowns and curfews to save lives also, simultaneously, take away the means of livelihood for the rootless and roofless migrants. If so, what are the measures the state has offered even to redress to some degree of their sufferings? Would it not have been more fair to provide for some short-term relief for these workers and their families not wanted any more in the urban areas?

One can count the impact on urban centres. The flow provided a reserve army of cheap labour waiting to be hired at wages which, often, could dip lower than the statutory minimum, especially after meeting the demands of the mediating contractor who arranged for the migration from villages. With the formal organised industry employing as many as one half or more of employees with casual or informal status, it proved rather opportune for enterprises in factories, construction sites and other labour-intensive activities to make use of these migrants in their cost-cutting exercises. On the whole, the presence of the rural migrants benefited the urban economy by providing cheap labour to manufacturing units and cheap services to households. However, these jobs provided did not entail further obligations on the part of the employers or the state, given that the ‘footloose’ migrants never had any legal status as a working population.

No labour safeguards

One last question. Has there been any attempt ever to ensure some legal safeguards to these people? Pieces of legislation, as available, do not provide any evidence of addressing the issue especially in the current crisis, a pattern indicative of a minimalist state with close alliances with capital in the process. The Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act 1970 conferred on casual labour a legal status by providing a mechanism for registration of contractors engaging 20 or more workers. While it was never effective, the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020 has replaced all such Acts. Seeking, rather ineffectively, to regulate the health and safety conditions of workers in establishments with 10 or more workers, the Code has replaced 13 prevailing labour laws.

One can raise questions as to what happened to the various laws still operative. It is thus more than obvious that none of the so-called corrective measures was of any significance in relation to what the migrants have been experiencing today since partial or total lockdowns have been imposed over the last few weeks.

Can we justify the situation as a step to save lives when it does not work for large sections of migrant people who also experience a loss of their livelihoods at the same time? Could there be some safeguards for such people before sending them off to such a bleak future?

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