1. Asha workers struggle with pandemic surveillance in rural Uttar Pradesh
They lack adequate protective gear and monitoring kits for door-to-door visits
“People don’t take us seriously. Why would they, when I cannot even record their temperature and oxygen level for them,” says Veermati Singh, standing at her door in Nindemau, a village in Unnao.
An Asha worker, among the thousands of frontline workers tasked with surveillance and monitoring of COVID-19 in rural Uttar Pradesh, Ms. Singh speaks of the obstacles faced by her in the absence of proper protective gear and equipment.
In addition to its ongoing routine surveillance, the State government from May 5 to May 9 reportedly carried out a special drive for identifying symptomatic patients and testing them through village-level over 60,000 nigrani samiti or surveillance committees. Ms. Singh has neither a thermal scanner nor a pulse oximeter nor has she been provided with sanitizers. All she was provided was a medicine kit with some strips of tablets, mainly for fever, a face mask and a pair of gloves for the surveillance work. Her task requires her to go door-to-door and record the temperature and oxygen levels of residents, and send those with symptoms for self-isolation or testing to the local community health centre. She checks on 20-25 households in a day.
“How do I save myself with one mask? I can’t wear the same gloves daily when I go door-to-door. If I do, I would be bringing COVID to my house,” she says. Ms. Singh is particularly worried about her infant grandson.
Besides the personal risk of coming in contact with a lot of untested people, Ms. Singh says the Asha workers do not get much cooperation from villagers as they lack the authority and resources, and also because many in rural U.P. are hesitant to reveal their symptoms. “Due to some fear, they say they are all normal even if they have cough, cold and chest infection,” Ms. Singh says.
In Khapura Bhatt village, anganwadi worker Suman Sharma and Asha worker Manorama also lack thermal scanners and pulse oximeters. The one they used last year was taken back by the former village pradhan (village headmen) after a couple of days this year and they do not have replacement, they say.
Rama Kanti, a ‘Super Asha’ who has 20 Asha workers under her in Hasanganj block, says that last July, COVID-19 kits were provided to the workers but some pradhans took the equipment back and did not provide anything this year.
While a village may have 3-4 Asha workers — one for every 1,000 residents — only one of them gets the thermal scanner and oximeter, said Ms Kanti, admitting that if each Asha worker was provided a kit, the surveillance work would be more efficient and quicker.
Ms. Kanti also claims that Asha workers are yet to get paid for last year’s surveillance work. “We are working with a lot of risks. What will happen to our families if something happens to us,” she asked.
Geetanjali Maurya, State head of the Anganwadi Karmachari Association Uttar Pradesh, also says her workers were not provided any kit or equipment during the second wave. The Additional Development Officer (Industry, service and business) of Hasanganj, Lal Madhav Singh, a district block official, said all villages had already been provided one thermal scanner and oximeter each last year. But he pointed out that not all Ashas in the village are given the tools. “Only one of them gets it,” he said.
The equipment from some villages was borrowed for the recently-concluded panchayat polls but were soon returned, he added.
Mr. Singh said there were control rooms at the block and district levels to educate the Asha and anganwadi workers about spreading awareness.
The government on May 11 informed the Allahabad High Court that under the special drive since May 5, a survey was done of 2.92 crore houses in the whole State, out of which 4.24 lakh persons were found with certain symptoms and considered as “suspected” cases and provided with medicine kits.
The World Health Organization, which is supporting the State government in training and micro planning for the drive, said the State has deployed 141,610 teams and 21,242 supervisors from the Health Department to ensure all rural areas are covered.
Swatanshu, a WHO official working in Unnao, said they had 17 members in Unnao. The WHO teams train the nigrani samiti members on how to cover the containment zones and also monitor their work, he said.
Additional Chief Secretary (Health) Amit Mohan Prasad said apart from the special drive, under the routine surveillance in the State, they had contacted over 16.8 crore people in over 3 crore households.
Role of ASHA
- The National Health Mission was launched to provide effective health care to the entire rural population in the country.
- The core strategy of the mission is to provide well trained female health activist (Accredited Social Health Activist- ASHA) in each village (1/1000 population) to fill the gap of unequal distribution of health services in rural area.
- ASHAs are expected to create awareness on health and its determinants, mobilize the community towards local health planning, and increase utilization of the existing health services.
Responsibilities of ASHA will be as follows:
- ASHA will take steps to create awareness and provide information to the community on determinants of health. such as nutrition, basic sanitation and hygienic practices, healthy living and working conditions, information on existing health services, and the need for timely utilization of health and family welfare services.
- She will counsel, women on birth preparedness, importance of safe delivery, breast-feeding and complementary feeding, immunization, contraception and prevention of common infections including reproductive tract infection/sexually transmitted infection and care of the young child.
- ASHA will mobilize the community and facilitate them in accessing health and health related services available at the Anganwadi/sub-centre/primary health centres, such as immunization, ante natal check-up, post natal check-up, supplementary nutrition, sanitation and other services being provided by the government.
- She will work with the village health and sanitation committee of the gram panchayat to develop a comprehensive village health plan.
- She will arrange escort/accompany pregnant women and children requiring treatment/admission to the nearest pre-identified health facility i.e. primary health centre/community health centre/First Referral Unit.
- ASHA will provide primary medical care for minor ailments such as diarrhoea, fevers, and first-aid for minor injuries. She will be a provider of directly observed treatment short-course (DOTS) under revised national tuberculosis control programme.
- She will also act as a depot holder for essential provisions being made available to every habitation like oral rehydration therapy, iron folic acid tablet, chloroquine, disposable delivery kits, oral pills and condoms etc. A drug kit will be provided to each ASHA. Contents of the, kit will be based on the recommendations of the expert/technical advisory group set up by the-government of India, and include both AYUSH and allopathic formulations.
- Her role as a provider can be enhanced subsequently. States can explore the possibility of graded training to her for providing newborn care and management of a range of common ailments, particularly childhood illnesses.
- She Will inform about’ the .births and deaths in her village and any unusual health problems/disease outbreaks in the community to the sub-centre/primary health centre.
- She will promote construction of household toilets under total sanitation campaign.
Role and integration with Anganwadi:
Anganwadi worker will guide ASHA in performing following activities:
- Organizing Health Day once/twice a month. On health day, the, women, adolescent girls and children from the village will be mobilized for orientation on health related issues such as importance of nutritious food, personal hygiene, care during pregnancy, importance of antenatal check- up and institutional delivery, home remedies for minor ailment and importance of immunization etc. AWWs will inform ANM to participate and guide organizing the Health Days at Anganwadi centre;
- AWWs and ANMs will act as resource persons for the training of ASHA;
- ICE activity through display of posters folk dances etc. on these days can be undertaken to sensitize the beneficiaries on health-related issues;
- Anganwadi worker will be depot holder for drug kits and will be issuing it to ASHA. The replacement of the consumed drugs can also be done through AWW;
- AWW will update the list of eligible couples and also the children less than one year of age in the village with the help of ASHA; and
- ASHA will support the AWW in mobilizing pregnant and lactating women and infants for nutrition supplement. She would also take initiative for bringing the beneficiaries from the village on specific days of immunization, health check-ups/ health days etc. to Anganwadi centres.
2. 186 elephants killed on rail tracks in over 10 years
At 62, Assam accounted for the highest number of casualties
A total of 186 elephants were killed after being hit by trains across India between 2009-10 and 2020-21, according to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC).
According to the data furnished by the Project Elephant Division of the Ministry, Assam accounted for the highest number of elephant casualties on railway tracks (62), followed by West Bengal (57), and Odisha (27). Uttar Pradesh saw just one death.
Trains claimed the highest number of pachyderms in 2012-13, when 27 elephants were killed in 10 States as per the data accessed by activist R. Pandiyaraja from Tenkasi district in Tamil Nadu through the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
K. Muthamizh Selvan, Scientist ‘D’ and Central Public Information Officer (Project Elephant), said in the RTI reply that various measures had been taken to avoid elephant casualties on railway lines.
According to the Ministry, a Permanent Coordination Committee was constituted between the Ministry of Railways (Railway Board) and the MoEFCC for preventing elephant deaths in train accidents.
The formation of coordination committees of officers of Indian Railways and State Forest Departments, clearing of vegetation along railway tracks to enable clear view for loco pilots, using signage boards at suitable points to alert loco pilots about elephant presence, moderating slopes of elevated sections of railway tracks, setting up underpass/overpass for safe passage of elephants, regulation of train speed from sunset to sunrise in vulnerable stretches, and regular patrolling of vulnerable stretches of railway tracks by frontline staff of the Forest Department and wildlife watchers are among other initiatives the Ministry has undertaken.
The MoEFCC also stated that it released ₹212.49 crore to elephant range States under Centrally Sponsored Schemes (CSS) of Project Elephant to protect elephants, their habitat and corridors, to address man-elephant conflicts, and for the welfare of captive elephants, between 2011-12 and 2020-21.
Kerala stood at the top in getting CSS funds of ₹35.39 crore during the period. Punjab received the lowest of the funds — ₹ 1.82 lakh, according to the RTI document.
Assam’s Minister for Environment and Forest, Parimal Suklabaidya, ordered an enquiry into the death of 18 elephants on a hillock in central Assam’s Nagaon district on Wednesday night.
The probe was ordered after Mr. Suklabaidya and a team of senior officials, veterinarians and wildlife specialists inspected the site of the incident on Friday. The seven-member enquiry committee has been asked to submit a detailed investigation report within 15 days.
“Preliminary investigation reveals the elephants probably died due to lightning … But the exact cause for their tragic death will be known after the post mortem and inquiry report,” said Mr. Suklabaidya.
Locals said the hillock where the elephants died is close to Mikir Bamuni Grant, where Adivasi and Karbi tribal people have been protesting the takeover of 276 bighas of farmland for a solar plant allegedly through doctored documents.
“Assam forest officials were evasive when we went to the solar plant site for a fact-finding report. The death of the elephants indicates that the land where the private company is setting up the solar power project is part of an active elephant corridor,” said Leo Saldanha of the Delhi Solidarity Group.
- Tiger faces threat of extinction, whereas the elephant faces threat of attrition.
- The elephant numbers have not increased or decreased drastically but there is an increasing pressure on the elephant habitats.
- Project Elephant was launched in 1992.
- It is a centrally sponsored scheme.
- To assist states having populations of wild elephants and to ensure long term survival of identified viable populations of elephants in their natural habitats
- Addressing man-animal conflict.
- Developing scientific and planned management measures for conservation of elephants.
- Protecting the elephants from poachers, preventing illegal ivory trade and other unnatural causes of death
- An elephant corridor is defined as a stretch/narrow strips of forested (or otherwise) land that connects larger habitats with elephant populations and forms a conduit for animal movement between the habitats.
- This movement helps enhance species survival and birth rate.
- There are 88 identified elephant corridors in India.
- Out of total 88 corridors, 20 are in south India, 12 in north-western India, 20 in central India, 14 in northern West Bengal and 22 in north-eastern India.
Threats to Elephant Corridors
- Habitat loss leading to fragmentation and destruction caused by developmental activities like construction of buildings, roads, railways, holiday resorts and the fixing solar energized electric fencing, etc.
- Coal mining and iron ore mining is the two “single biggest threats” to elephant corridors in central India.
- Orissa, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, are mineral-rich states, but also have the highest number of elephant corridors in the country, which makes them known for elephant-man conflicts.
- There is also a serious poaching problem, as elephant ivory from the tusks is extremely valuable.
- Elephants need extensive grazing grounds and most reserves cannot accommodate them. If protected areas are not large enough, elephants may search for food elsewhere. This often results in conflicts with humans, due to elephants raiding or destroying crops.
- Fusion of the corridors with nearby protected areas wherever feasible; in other cases, declaration as Ecologically Sensitive Areas or conservation reserves to grant protection.
- During the process of securing a corridor, monitoring for animal movement have to be carried out; depending on the need, habitat restoration work shall also be done.
- Securing the corridors involves sensitizing local communities to the option of voluntarily relocation outside the conflict zones to safer areas.
- Preventing further fragmentation of the continuous forest habitat by encroachment from urban areas.
Initiatives for protecting elephants
- Monitoring of Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) Programme
- Mandated by COP resolution of CITES, MIKE program started in South Asia in the year 2003 with following purpose:
- To provide information needed for elephant range States to make appropriate management and enforcement decisions, and to build institutional capacity within the range States for the long-term management of their elephant populations
Haathi Mere Saathi
- Haathi Mere Saathi is a campaign launched by the Ministry of environment and forest (MoEF) in partnership with the wildlife trust of India (WTI).
- The campaign was launched at the “Elephant- 8” Ministerial meeting held in Delhi in 2011.
- The E-8 countries comprise of India, Botswana, the Republic of Congo, Indonesia, Kenya, Srilanka, Tanzania, and Thailand.
- This public initiative was aimed at increasing awareness among people and developing friendship, companionship between people and elephants.
3. U.S. slider turtles pose a threat in northeast
They are popular as pets but can turn invasive
A ‘cute’ American turtle popular as pet is threatening to invade natural water bodies across the northeast, which is home to 21 of the 29 vulnerable native Indian species of freshwater turtles and tortoises.
Between August 2018 and June 2019, herpetologists from the NGO ‘Help Earth’ found red-eared sliders in the Deepor Beel Wildlife Sanctuary and the Ugratara temple pond — both in Guwahati. They published the “grim” finding in Reptiles & Amphibians, journal of the U.S.-based International Reptile Conservation Foundation, in August 2020. But the alarm was raised after H.T. Lalremsanga and eight others from Mizoram University’s Department of Zoology published another report in the same journal in April this year. Their report said a red-eared slider was collected from an unnamed stream, connected to the Tlawng River, on a farm near Mizoram’s capital, Aizawl.
The red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) derives its name from red stripes around the part where its ears would be and from its ability to slide quickly off any surface into the water.
“Native to the U.S. and northern Mexico, this turtle is an extremely popular pet … But on the flip side they grow fast and virtually leave nothing for the native species to eat,” Mr. Lalremsanga told The Hindu on Friday.
“Much like the Burmese python that went to the U.S. as a pet to damage the South Florida Everglades ecosystem, the red-eared slider has already affected States such as Karnataka and Gujarat, where it has been found in 33 natural water bodies,” said Jayaditya Purkayastha of the Guwahati-based NGO.
“But more than elsewhere in India, preventing this invasive species from overtaking the Brahmaputra and other river ecosystems in the northeast is crucial because the northeast is home to more than 72% of the turtle and tortoise species in the country, all of them very rare,” he said.
National Marine Turtle Action Plan
The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has released ‘Marine Mega Fauna Stranding Guidelines’ and ‘National Marine Turtle Action Plan’.
- The documents contain ways and means to guide improved coordination amongst the government, civil society, and all relevant stakeholders on the response to cases of stranding, entanglement, injury or mortality of marine mammals, and also conservation of marine turtles.
- These two documents highlight:
- actions to be taken for handling stranded animals on the shore, stranded or entangled animals in the sea or on a boat,
- management actions for improved coordination,
- reducing threats to marine species and their habitats,
- rehabilitation of degraded habitats,
- enhancing people’s participation,
- advance scientific research and exchange of information on marine mammals and marine turtles and their habitats.
Important value additions
Status of turtles in India
- Five species of Indian turtles along with their IUCN status are as follows:
- Olive Ridley – Vulnerable
- Green turtle – Endangered
- Loggerhead – Vulnerable
- Hawksbill – Critically Endangered
- Leather back – Vulnerable
- They are protected in Indian Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, under Schedule I.
- They are also protected under the Biodiversity Conservation and Ganga Rejuvenation programme.
Turtle Conservation in India
- There are five species in Indian waters i.e. Olive Ridley, Green turtle, Loggerhead, Hawksbill, Leatherback.
- The Olive Ridley, Leatherback and Loggerhead are listed as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
- The Hawksbill turtle is listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ and Green Turtle is listed as ‘Endangereed’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
- They are protected in Indian Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, under Schedule I.
- Turtles have been protected in India under the Biodiversity Conservation and Ganga Rejuvenation programme.
4. What’s Iron Dome system?
It can engage multiple targets simultaneously
The Iron Dome aerial defence system intercepted a Hamas Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) on Friday that crossed from Gaza into Israel, Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) said on social media. The IDF said on Thursday that in the last three days, Hamas has fired more than 1,500 rockets from Gaza all the way into Israel. The night sky over Israel has been ablaze with interceptor missiles from Iron Dome shooting down the incoming rockets in the sky. So what is the Iron Dome system?
Iron Dome is a multi-mission system capable of intercepting rockets, artillery, mortars and Precision Guided Munitions like very short range air defence (V-SHORAD) systems as well as aircraft, helicopters and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) over short ranges of up to 70 km. It is an all-weather system and can engage multiple targets simultaneously and be deployed over land and sea.
Iron Dome is manufactured by Rafael Advanced Defence Systems and has been in service with Israeli Air Force since 2011. The radar system was developed by Elta. Its development was prompted after a series of rocket attacks on Israel by Hezbollah and Hamas in the 2000s. In the 2006 Lebanon war, around 4,000 rockets were fired on the northern parts of Israel resulting in the death of about 44 Israeli civilians and and evacuation of around 250,000 citizens following the development of the system was taken up.
How does it work?
An Iron Dome battery consists of a battle management control unit, a detection and tracking radar and a firing unit of three vertical launchers, with 20 interceptor missiles each. The interceptor missile uses a proximity fuse to detonate the target warhead in the air. The Iron Dome is deployed in a layered defence along with David’s Sling and Arrow missile defence system which are designed for medium- and long-range threats.
According to a 2013 research paper by Yiftah S. Shapur titled ‘Lessons from the Iron Dome’ in Military and Strategic Affairs, one of the system’s important advantages is its ability to identify the anticipated point of impact of the threatening rocket, to calculate whether it will fall in a built-up area or not, and to decide on this basis whether or not to engage it.
This prevents unnecessary interception of rockets that will fall in open areas and thus not cause damage, the paper states.
The system has intercepted thousands of rockets so far and, according to Rafael, its success rate is over 90%. The I-DOME is the mobile variant with all components on a single truck and C-DOME is the naval version for deployment on ships.
The system has performed very well so far. However, the system can see limitations when it is overwhelmed with a barrage of projectiles. “The system has a ‘saturation point’. It is capable of engaging a certain (unpublished) number of targets at the same time, and no more. Additional rockets fired in a crowded salvo could succeed in breaching defences and cause damage,” Mr. Shapur says in the paper.
Several assessments suggest that Hamas is developing mitigating strategies including lowering the trajectories of the projectiles while also continuing to accumulate thousands of rockets with improved precision. According to Mr. Shapur, one of the possible limitations is the system’s inability to cope with very short range threats as estimates put the Iron Dome’s minimum interception range at 5-7 km. The other factor is the cost of interception is high. The cost of the interceptor missile is about $40,000-50,000, according to Mr. Shapur.
According to a November 2017 commentary on RAND Corporation blog by Elizabeth M. Bartels, the system is built to intercept a certain of projectiles and can be overwhelmed by a more capable adversary. According to Ms. Bartels, the planning scenario for a war with “Hezbollah involves 1,000-1,500 rockets per day fired at Israeli population centres.” Taking North Korea as a context, the study puts estimates of forward-deployed conventional artillery of North Korea would be “capable of firing 500,000 shells an hour for several hours, or firing tens-of-thousands of shells per day over an extended period.” “This rate of fire would easily overwhelm a variant of Iron Dome, which is currently being proposed as a solution,” it state.
Iron Dome Air Defence System: Israel
- It is a short-range, ground-to-air, air defence system that includes a radar and Tamir interceptor missiles that track and neutralise any rockets or missiles aimed at Israeli targets.
- It is used for countering rockets, artillery & mortars as well as aircraft, helicopters and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV).
- It is capable of being used in all weather conditions, including during the day and night.
- It was developed by the state-run Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries and was deployed in 2011.
- Rafael claims a success rate of over 90%, with more than 2,000 interceptions, however experts agree the success rate is over 80%.
- It can protect deployed and manoeuvring forces, as well as the Forward Operating Base (FOB) and urban areas, against a wide range of indirect and aerial threats.
- The Iron Dome has three main systems that work together to provide a shield over the area where it is deployed which are:
- Radar: It has a detection and tracking radar to spot any incoming threats.
- Weapon Control: It has a battle management and weapon control system (BMC),
- Missile Fire: It also has a missile firing unit. The BMC basically liaises between the radar and the interceptor missile.
- Indian Alternatives:
- S-400 TRIUMF:
- India has S-400 TRIUMF, which also caters to the three threats (rockets, missiles and cruise missiles). But they have much longer range.
- It has a much larger air defence bubble to knock off threats.
- It is a mobile, surface-to-air missile system (SAM) designed by Russia.
- Range & Effectiveness:
- The system can engage all types of aerial targets within the range of 400km, at an altitude of up to 30km.
- The system can track 100 airborne targets and engage six of them simultaneously.
- Prithvi Air Defence and Advance Air Defence:
- It is a double-tiered system consisting of two land and sea-based interceptor missiles, namely the Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) missile for high altitude interception, and the Advanced Air Defence (AAD) Missile for lower altitude interception.
- It is able to intercept any incoming missile launched 5,000 kilometres away. The system also includes an overlapping network of early warning and tracking radars, as well as command and control posts.
- Ashwin Advanced Air Defence Interceptor Missile:
- It is also an indigenously produced Advanced Air Defence (AAD) interceptor missile developed by Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).
- It is the advanced version of the low altitude supersonic ballistic interceptor missile.
- The missile also has its own mobile launcher, secure data link for interception, independent tracking and homing capabilities and sophisticated radars.
- It uses an endo-spheric (within the Earth’s atmosphere) interceptor that knocks out ballistic missiles at a maximum altitude of 60,000 to 100,000 feet, and across a range between 90 and 125 miles.
- S-400 TRIUMF:
5. Editorial-1: In COVID storm, the key principles driven home
Adherence to them would have mitigated the traumatic fallout of the pandemic in India
Dead men do tell tales and history bears witness that pandemics leave their imprint among those they leave behind. In India, a full reckoning would take place when the pandemic is fully behind us. But even from deep inside the storm there are some first principles that have been driven home. Adherence to them would have undoubtedly mitigated the ghastly fallout of the virus.
Health care, not coverage
The first is the debate between universal health care and universal health coverage. That stands settled now, in the spirit of the landmark Aneurin Bevan’s-led National Health Service Act in 1946, which revolutionised health care in the United Kingdom by delinking it from a person’s income. It became a benchmark for the recognition that it could not be left to market forces to deal with public health.
The most comprehensive document prepared so far in India, by the high-level expert group appointed by the Planning Commission, submitted in November 2011, concluded that “progressive strengthening of public facilities” is the only way to reach medical services to the population as a whole. While finance was a concern to be dealt with, the centrepiece of health care was not insurance. After 2014, insurance has instead been a focus — good health to be somehow secured via insurance, as with Ayushman Bharat. But for all the hype, there is no getting away from strengthening public health facilities and making that the fundamental way of ensuring a healthy life for its people. India, already spending woefully limited amounts on health, for all the hoopla and hype, ended up reducing allocations in the February 2021 budget. The results are there to see.
Kerala, when it started investing heavily in public health care in the 1950s, was told it was too expensive for a poor State like it was then. But as it went on to demonstrate, primary health care was labour-intensive, generating its own virtuous cycle of trained personnel and a well-looked after populace. It enhanced the people’s ability to produce, to be economic assets and enriched the State much more than could be imagined.
Reason, not mumbo-jumbo
The second principle of so-called ‘New India’, of faith over science and the silencing of rationalists as ‘western’ and ‘alien’ to the ‘Indian ethos’, must be kicked very hard if India has to start breathing again. In the past seven years and even when the novel coronavirus pandemic was looming, top Ministers, including the Health Minister, were seen flanking the sides of a yoga guru proclaiming that he had found a cure for COVID-19. The World Health Organization had to step in and make it clear that it had not endorsed it. The Prime Minister has himself privileged myth over reason, most visibly at a hospital inauguration in Mumbai, in 2014, where he spoke of “plastic surgery” as an Indian invention, citing Lord Ganesh’s trunk. This set India back by centuries. The message downwards was clear; science, rationalism or expertise was ‘Nehruvian’ and not to be encouraged.
Public allocations for science have fallen and Indian scientists criticised two speakers at the Indian Science Congress “for making bizarre, unscientific claims, including that ancient Hindus invented stem-cell science”. Scientists held protests against the unscientific statements in Bengaluru, Kochi, Kolkata and Thiruvananthapuram on January 6, 2019. With the Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (AYUSH) coming under fire frequently for peddling non-cures with the weight of the Government of India behind it, it appears as if science itself was perceived as a threat to the ruling party’s ecosystem.
All through last year, no public health expert — and India has many — was empowered enough to be seen advising, directing, taking questions or giving out advice that the public could trust, and on occasion question policy. The thali banging, candle lighting, abrupt lockdowns, were all done via public addresses to the nation by the Prime Minister. There was no group with respected scientists or public health experts who could challenge government diktats or test decisions taken by the Narendra Modi government against scientific principles. The Prime Minister took to declaring victory over the pandemic on January 28. The Home Minister authoritatively announced to the media that rallies were not causing the surge in the middle of a crowded Bengal campaign. On if the Kumbh Mela should be allowed a year earlier, it was the Akhil Bhartiya Akhada Parishad that had the last word, not epidemiologists. It took hundreds of anguished scientists to write a letter urging that genomic data be collected and shared, like other civilised democracies, on the virus for the protocol to be altered. The wholesale junking of science even deep into the pandemic worsened the situation.
Data integrity, not hesitancy
Third, comes data integrity, which is shorthand for the credibility of any government, at any time. Data-hesitancy has been a feature of this government, whether it was about economic data, on making the GDP look good or on recording employment statistics. So changing baselines, withholding periodic labour force surveys or consumption survey data, set the path for continued data denial over testing last year and this year, over COVID-19 deaths. Other than the moral and human imperative of owing it to each Indian who dies, the basic courtesy of recording her existence and departure, not recording deaths faithfully, has deep practical implications. If you do not track it honestly and accurately, you do not understand the disease, and if you do not do that then you cannot handle it and lesser still, rescue the future by accurate predictions. In the case of COVID-19, India’s mortality data are many times lower than what is officially acknowledged, as discussed in detail by the latest assessments of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, and experts such as Dr. Bhramar Mukherjee, Dr. Ashish K. Jha and Dr. Murad Banaji. The discrepancy is above the regular margin of error seen in many countries. This is deeply damaging to India’s international standing as a reliable recorder of information. Not recording or diligently sharing data has consequences, for India and the world.
Our economics and the poor
The fourth and final principle that the pandemic has driven home is the importance of centring good economics around improving the lives of those worst-off. Recently, India has been anxious about turning into a ‘5 trillion’ economy. But there is no Security Council seat or grand entry into the big rich clubs of the world if India’s overwhelming majority, those who live under $1.90 a day, cannot be lifted out of the morass. Numerous surveys and reports have consistently hammered at the slide into poverty. The latest report by the Azim Premji University talks of 230 million Indians slipping below the breadline during the pandemic. India’s obsession with being Vishwaguru, egged on by misleading analysts deriding “Povertarianism”, talking of “freebies” cannot be a replacement to sound welfarism which must prioritise the majority of Indians who need a social security net. It is stunning disregard for global experience, whether it is Joe Biden’s big spending, Boris Johnson ending the age of austerity, Germany launching the biggest state spend since the war or China’s historic drive to end absolute poverty, and India’s own, when the International Monetary Fund acknowledged the fastest decline in poverty globally occurring in India between 2005-06 and 2015-16. Understanding “good economics” as what helps its majority, the most poor and vulnerable, must be a principle rather than a matter of embarrassment.
The virus is no sociologist but it responds to how society and human beings behave with it. Allowing gargles of cow urine to double as cures, giving it a free run to travel and diversify amongst large unprotected crowds or in a desperation to win elections such as in West Bengal, actively courting and boasting about mass gatherings till just days ago were all invitations to disaster, providing the virus with what it wanted — a chance to multiply, diversify, jump hosts and regions rapidly, adding as accelerators to the second wave.
This was contrary to what India did with smallpox and polio, with far fewer resources. There, its adherence to basic scientific and rational principles, helped its people, and the world beat back the disease.
The least good that might be hoped for, at an unimaginably high cost, is for COVID-19 to cure us of the basic distortion in our public and political culture which has been on a speed pill for the last seven years. Else, it would be hard to stop analysts from terming this the man-made, Indian, or worse still, Modi variant.
6. Editorial-2: Lend a helping hand to children the right way
Following the COVID surge, the laws and procedures for the care and protection of orphaned children must be noted
The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic now sweeping India has left many children orphaned and vulnerable. Social media is flooded with requests to adopt children who have lost their parents in the pandemic. And a few non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have come forward to help such children.
However, before handing over an orphan child to any agency, family or person, however well intended the move may be, it is important to be aware of the laws that are prevalent and procedures with regard to the care and the protection of orphan children rather than face legal action for violations later.
Many options to help
Any individual who finds an orphan child or even any child who needs care and protection under the circumstances, should immediately call the toll free Childline number 1098, an emergency phone outreach service (managed by the Women and Child Development department’s nodal agency, the Childline India Foundation; which operates round the day and on all days across the country. After taking note of the whereabouts of the child, the helpline reaches out immediately and takes charge of the child. These Childline units are nothing but civil society organisations duly approved by the government.
The second option is to intimate the district protection officer concerned whose contact details can be found on the National Tracking System for Missing and Vulnerable Children portal (https://bit.ly/3eLb2a5) maintained by the Women and Child Development department of the Government of India.
The third alternative is to approach the nearest police station or its child welfare police officer who is specially trained to exclusively deal with children either as victims or juvenile delinquents. Nonetheless, one can always dial the Emergency Response Support System (ERSS) which is a pan-India single number (112) based emergency response system for citizens in emergencies and seek the necessary help. The non-reporting of such children is also a punishable offence under the JJA or the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 (https://bit.ly/3hmX4wD).
Once an orphan child is recovered by the outreach agency, it is the duty of the said agency to produce the child within 24 hours before the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) of the district. The CWC, after an inquiry, decides whether to send the child to a children’s home or a fit facility or fit person; if the child is below six years, he or she shall be placed in a specialised adoption agency. The State thus takes care of all such children who are in need of care and protection, till they turn 18 years. In Sampurna Behrua vs Union of India (2018), the Supreme Court of India directed States and Union Territories to ensure that all child care institutions are registered. Thus, any voluntary or NGO which is not registered as per the requirement of the JJA cannot house children in need of care and protection.
Once a child is declared legally free for adoption by the CWC, adoption can be done either by Indian prospective adoptive parents or non-resident Indians or foreigners, in that order. Another important feature of the JJA is that it is secular in nature and simple in procedure as compared to the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act, 1956 which is not only religion specific but also relatively cumbersome in procedure. Second, the procedure of adoption is totally transparent and its progress can be monitored from the portal of the statutory body, the Central Adoption Resource Authority (http://cara.nic.in/).
Court directives to police
It is quite often said that ignorance of the law is not an excuse. Therefore, if an orphan child is kept by someone without lawful authority, he or she may land themselves in trouble. According to the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, 1956, the father, and in his absence the mother, is the natural guardian. Not even a close relative can look after the child without authorisation.
The Supreme Court in Bachpan Bachao Andolan vs Union of India directed all Directors General of Police,in May 2013, to register a first information report as a case of trafficking or abduction in every case of a missing child. At least one police officer not below the rank of assistant sub-inspector in each police station is mandatorily required to undergo training to deal with children in conflict with the law and in need of care and protection. They are not required to wear a uniform and need to be child-friendly.
Similarly, each district is supposed to have its special juvenile police unit, headed by an officer not below the rank of a Deputy Superintendent of Police. The Supreme Court in Re: Exploitation of children in Orphanages in the State of Tamil Nadu (2017) inter alia, specifically asked the National Police Academy, Hyderabad and police training academies in every State to prepare training courses on the JJA and provide regular training to police officers in terms of sensitisation.
Children are an important national asset, and the well-being of the nation, and its future, depend on how its children grow and develop. The primary purpose of giving a child in adoption is his welfare and restoring his or her right to family. Article 39 of the Constitution prohibits the tender age of the children from being abused. Therefore, orphaned children who have lost both their parents or abandoned or surrendered due to the COVID-19 pandemic must not be neglected and left to face an uncertain future. They must be taken care of by the authorities entrusted with responsibilities under the JJA.
The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) recently wrote to the Chief Secretaries of all States and Union Territories on the issue of children orphaned due to COVID-19. It said that that ‘if any such information about an abandoned or orphaned child is received by any entity, organisation, or NGO, then the NCPCR has to be informed by email or over the telephone for assistance and help to children)’. This directive needs to be implemented in the most humane manner.
7. Editorial-3: Cease the fire
Israel’s right to defend itself does not extend to indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Gaza
From Israeli armed forces storming Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque on Monday morning to Israel pounding Gaza with air strikes and artillery on Thursday night in response to the rocket firing by Hamas, the Israel-Palestine conflict has escalated dangerously within days. At least 119 Palestinians, including 31 children, have been killed in Israeli attacks on Gaza since May 10, while nine people were killed in Israel in the rocket attacks, including an Indian national and a child. For now, both sides have refused to stand down from the fighting despite international appeal. Israel cannot evade responsibility for the crisis engulfing the region. There was already resentment and frustration among the Palestinians in the occupied territories as Israel has expanded Jewish settlements and deepened occupation. Besides, Israel’s high-handedness in East Jerusalem and the move to evict Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah for Jewish settlers added to the anger, leading to clashes. Hamas, which claims to be the main national resistance force against the occupation, seized on the opportunity and escalated the crisis with rocket attacks. Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas’s militant infrastructure. But Israel knows that it is easier said than done. In 2014, Israel carried out a seven-week-long operation with the same objective. Seven years later, there is Hamas, firing over 1,800 rockets into Israel within five days.
Beyond the rhetoric by both sides, this is a loss-loss situation in which the civilians are taken hostages. Hamas’s rockets do not distinguish between Israeli civilians and soldiers. While the Iron Dome defence system neutralised most of the rockets, some actually hit Israel’s population centres, killing civilians and raising concerns for the country’s rulers. Israel is in fact witnessing a twin crisis. While the conflict with Hamas is escalating into a land attack, Israeli cities are gripped by riots between Jewish vigilantes and Arab mobs. The riots prompted President Reuven Rivlin to evoke fears of a civil war and the government to declare a state of emergency in some locations, including the central city of Lod. This is the most serious law and order crisis Israel is facing internally since the second intifada of 2000. In return, Israel has pulverised Gaza, inflicting a heavy casualty on the impoverished region’s population. The high casualty of children points to the collective punishment approach of the Israeli military. Israel’s right to defend itself, which the U.S. and Germany have endorsed, cannot be the right to launch an indiscriminate bombing on the civilians of Gaza. The international community, especially the U.S. which is a close ally of Israel, should put pressure on both sides to cease the fire. They should do it sooner rather than later as every day, dozens are being killed in the bombings.