1. Very few post-vaccine infections: ICMR
Council says such ‘breakthrough’ cases do not undermine the efficacy of shots
The Indian Council of Medical Research on Wednesday said only a “small” fraction of people who had been vaccinated with either Covaxin or Covishield had tested positive for COVID-19. However, these instances of “breakthrough” infections did not undermine the efficacy of the vaccines.
“These vaccines definitely, definitely protect against disease. However, the immune response begins to develop usually two weeks after every dose and there are variations within individuals, too. Even after the first dose, if exposure to the virus happens, one can test positive,” Balram Bhargava, Director-General, ICMR, said.
Of the 9.3 million who received the first dose of Covaxin, 4,208 tested positive; and of the 1.7 million who received the second dose, 695 tested positive.
For Covishield, of the 100.3 million who received the first dose, 17,145 tested positive; of the 15 million who got the second dose, 5,014 tested positive.
Two key reasons for this, Dr. Bhargava said, were that healthcare and frontline workers, who were among the first to be vaccinated, were as a population far more exposed to the virus and therefore, more susceptible. Second, the emergence of “the highly transmissible second wave (newer variants)” may have contributed to instances of infection among those vaccinated. Several variants, which have mutations that have been shown to avoid detection by the immune system and in some cases, reduce the efficacy of vaccines, have been reported globally, including in India.
“This is roughly around two in 10,000 and is a very, very small fraction. We have seen similar rates of reinfection internationally, too, from the use of other vaccines,” said V.K. Paul, Chairman, National Expert Group on Vaccination that oversees the COVID-19 management strategy.
When comparing patterns of infection and mortality in the first and second waves of the pandemic, a slight percentage increase in cases among those in the age group of 10-20 is seen in the current wave — 8.5% compared with 8.07% earlier. There is an increase in cases among those in the 40-70 age group from the previous wave, and the same fraction persists in the 30-40 age group.
In terms of deaths — that is now nearly 2,000 a day — COVID-19 continues to be disproportionately fatal for those above 70. There were 22% deaths among those in the age group of 70 to 80 in the second wave compared with 19% in the first, and 9.8% deaths in those above 80 compared with 7.8% previously.
There is no evidence of any change in patterns of death in the younger age groups of 30-70, with about 70% deaths during both waves falling in this age bracket. However, for the mortality comparison, a far smaller sample — 24,814 — was used in the second wave compared with the 83,189 in the first wave.
2. India should be a ‘country of particular concern’: U.S. panel
Commission says there were severe violations of religious freedom in 2020
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent bi-partisan commission, has recommended for the second year in a row that the State Department put India on a list (‘Countries of Particular Concern’ or CPCs) for the worst violations of religious freedoms in 2020. One of the 10 USCIRF commissioners presented a dissenting view.
The USCISRF recommended that the administration impose targeted sanctions on Indian individuals and entities for “severe violations of religious freedom”.
A second recommendation was for the administration to promote inter-faith dialogue and the rights of all communities at bilateral and multilateral forums “such as the ministerial of the Quadrilateral [the Quad]”. Another recommendation — to the U.S. Congress — was to raise issues in the U.S.-India bilateral space, such as by hosting hearings, writing letters and constituting Congressional delegations.
The USCIRF recommendations are non-binding and the Trump administration had rejected the USCIRF recommendation to designate India a CPC last year, when it released its own determinations in December.
The key concerns of the 2021 report include the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The report says, “Mobs sympathetic to Hindu nationalism operated with impunity,” and used “brutal force” to attack Muslims in Delhi’s riots in February 2020.
On the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the report says, “The consequences of exclusion — as exemplified by a large detention camp being built in Assam — are potentially devastating…” Efforts to prohibit interfaith marriage — such as those in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh — are also highlighted as a concern. “These efforts targeting and delegitimising interfaith relationships have led to attacks and arrests of non-Hindus and to innuendo, suspicion, and violence toward any interfaith interaction,” the report notes.
In an apparent reference to the Tablighi Jamaat Markaz in March 2020, the USCIRF says, “At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, disinformation and hateful rhetoric — including from government officials — often targeted religious minorities, continuing familiar patterns.”
Johnnie Moore, an evangelical who is the president of The Congress of Christian Leaders as per his USCIRF bio, included a dissenting note in the text of the report saying India should not be designated a CPC but was at a “crossroads”. India is “diversity personified” and “its religious life has been its greatest historic blessing,” Mr. Moore wrote. “India’s government and people have everything to gain and nothing to lose from preserving social harmony and protecting the rights of everyone,” he said. Last year, three of 10 commissioners — including Mr. Moore — had presented dissenting views.
Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019
- Recently, the Parliament passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019 which received the President’s assent to become an Act.
- The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955.
- The Citizenship Act, 1955 provides various ways in which citizenship may be acquired. It provides for citizenship by birth, descent, registration, naturalisation and by incorporation of the territory into India.
- In addition, it regulates the registration of Overseas Citizen of India Cardholders (OCIs) and their rights. An OCI is entitled to some benefits such as a multiple-entry, multipurpose lifelong visa to visit India.
- An illegal migrant is prohibited from acquiring Indian citizenship. An illegal immigrant is a foreigner who either enters India illegally, i.e., without valid travel documents, like a visa and passport, or enters India legally, but stays beyond the time period permitted in their travel documents. An illegal migrant can be prosecuted in India and deported or imprisoned.
- In September 2015 and July 2016, the government exempted certain groups of illegal migrants from being imprisoned or deported. These are illegal migrants who came into India from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, or Pakistan on or before December 31, 2014, and belong to the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, or Christian religious communities.
Key Provisions of the Amendment Act
- The Bill amends the Act to provide that the Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who entered India on or before December 31, 2014, will not be treated as illegal migrants.
- In order to get this benefit, they must have also been exempted from the Foreigners Act, 1946 and the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 by the central government.
- The 1920 Act mandates foreigners to carry passport, while the1946 Act regulates the entry and departure of foreigners in India.
- Citizenship by registration or naturalisation: The Act allows a person to apply for citizenship by registration or naturalisation if the person meets certain qualifications.
- For instance, if a person resides in India for a year and if one of his parents is a former Indian citizen, he may apply for citizenship by registration.
- To obtain citizenship by naturalisation, one of the qualifications is that the person must have resided in India or have been in the service of the central government for at least 11 years before applying for citizenship.
- The Bill creates an exception for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, with regard to this qualification. For these groups of persons, the 11 years’ requirement will be reduced to five years.
- On acquiring citizenship: (i) such persons will be deemed to be citizens of India from the date of their entry into India, and (ii) all legal proceedings against them in respect of their illegal migration or citizenship will be closed.
- Applicability of the Amended Act
- These provisions on citizenship for illegal migrants will not apply to the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Tripura, included in the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution. These tribal areas include Karbi Anglong (in Assam), Garo Hills (in Meghalaya), Chakma District (in Mizoram), and Tripura Tribal Areas District.
- Further, it will not apply to the “Inner Line” areas notified under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873. In these areas, visits by Indians are regulated through the Inner Line Permit.
- Currently, this permit system is applicable to Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, and Nagaland. Manipur has also been brought under the Inner Line Permit (ILP) regime through a Gazette Notification on the same day the bill was passed in the parliament.
- Cancellation of registration of OCIs: The Act provides that the central government may cancel the registration of OCIs on certain grounds. These include: (i) if the OCI has registered through fraud, or (ii) if, within five years of registration, the OCI has been sentenced to imprisonment for two years or more, or (iii) if it becomes necessary in the interest of sovereignty and security of India.
- The Bill adds one more ground for cancelling the registration, that is if the OCI has violated the provisions of the Act or of any other law as notified by the central government. The orders for cancellation of OCI should not be passed till the OCI cardholder is given an opportunity to be heard.
Concerns against the Amendment Act
- Issues in the North-East:
- It contradicts the Assam Accord of 1985, which states that illegal migrants, irrespective of religion, heading in from Bangladesh after March 25, 1971, would be deported.
- Critics further argue that the extensive exercise of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) will become Null and Void due to this Amendment act.
- There are an estimated 20 million illegal Bangladeshi migrants in Assam and they have inalienably altered the demography of the state, besides putting a severe strain on the state’s resources and economy.
- Critics argue that it is violative of Article 14 of the Constitution (which guarantees the right to equality and applicable to both the citizens and foreigners) and the principle of secularism enshrined in the preamble of the constitution.
- India has several other refugees that include Tamils from Sri Lanka and Hindu Rohingya from Myanmar. They are not covered under the Act.
- It will be difficult for the government to differentiate between illegal migrants and those persecuted.
- The Bill throws the light on the religious oppression that has happened and is happening in these three countries and thus, may worsen our bilateral ties with them.
- It provides wide discretion to the government to cancel OCI registrations for both major offences like murder, as well as minor offences like parking in a no-parking zone or jumping a red light.
- The government has clarified that Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh are Islamic republics where Muslims are in majority hence they cannot be treated as persecuted minorities.
- According to the government, this Bill aims at granting rather than taking away someone’s citizenship.
- It has assured that the government will examine the application from any other community on a case to case basis.
- This Bill will come as a big boon to all those people who have been the victims of Partition and the subsequent conversion of the three countries into theocratic Islamic republics.
- Government has cited that the partition of India on religious lines and subsequent failure of the Nehru-Liaqat pact of 1950 in protecting the rights and dignity of the minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh as the reasons for bringing this Bill.
- After Independence, not once but twice, India conceded that the minorities in its neighbourhood are its responsibility. First, immediately after Partition and again during the Indira-Mujib Pact in 1972 when India had agreed to absorb over 1.2 million refugees. It is a historical fact that on both occasions, it was only the Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians who had come over to Indian side.
- Regarding questions of not including minorities from Sri Lanka, Myanmar, etc., the Government clarified that the process of awarding citizenship to refugees has been undertaken by different governments in the past on case to case basis from time to time, on “reasonable qualifications to Article 14”. This time the case of refugees fleeing religious persecution from these three countries has been considered through this Bill.
- In January 2019, Government had notified the High-Level Committee (HLC) for implementation of Clause 6 of Assam Accord and urged the Committee to submit its report at the earliest to the Central Government for effective steps to be taken to fulfil the provisions of the Accord.
- The government thus has assured the people of Assam that their linguistic, cultural and social identity would be preserved.
3. India at 142nd rank on press freedom index
It was in the same place last year too
The World Press Freedom Index, 2021, produced by Reporters without Borders (RSF), a French non-governmental organisation, has again ranked India at 142nd out of 180 countries. This is despite the fact that for a year, on directions from Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba, an index monitoring cell worked to improve the rankings, even holding a meeting between the Indian Ambassador to France and the RSF officials to lobby for a change in the ranking.
In 2016, India’s rank was 133, which has steadily climbed down to 142 in 2020.
The RSF report says India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job properly. They are exposed to every kind of attack, even police violence against reporters, ambushes by political activists, and reprisals instigated by criminal groups or corrupt local officials.
In February last year, fearing such an adverse assessment, the cell was set up in 18 Ministries to find ways to improve the position on 32 international indices.
The Information and Broadcasting Ministry was delegated to look at the freedom of press index.
According to the report of this cell, accessed by The Hindu, on April 26 last year, the Additional Director-General, Public Information Bureau, first wrote to RSF chairman Pierre Haski asking for the criteria on the basis of which it compiles the index, for a better understanding of the ranking. This was followed by a meeting between Indian Ambassador Javed Ashraf with the RSF’s secretary-general Christophe Deloire and the head of its Asia Pacific desk, Daniel Bastard.
The minutes of this September meeting are part of the report of the cell. Mr. Ashraf said the openness of the government to be criticised and questioned with respect to subjects such as economy, international affairs and defence deals such as Rafale were indicators of press freedom.
Internet ban in J&K
The RSF representatives, however, questioned the Internet ban in Jammu and Kashmir from August 5, 2019, which went on for nearly a year. The Ambassador said the shutdown was for the security of the region. “Members of the press could access the Internet through the Internet kiosks set up by the government and there was active reporting in Indian and international media on the situation in Kashmir, which could only have been possible with unhindered access to the Internet and freedom of the press,” the minutes say.
The minutes also note that on the issue of violence raised by the RSF, Mr. Ashraf said, “many incidents reported as attacks on journalists are often a consequence of the law and order situation in some areas of India. This is often misrepresented as targeted attacks on journalists by the State in western media.”
4. Indian ads further gender stereotypes, shows study
It measured over 1,000 ads aired across India in 2019
An analysis of Indian advertisements on television and YouTube has shown that while they are superior to global benchmarks insofar as girls and women have parity of representation in terms of screen and speaking time, their portrayal is problematic as they further gender stereotypes — they are more likely than male characters to be shown as married, less likely to be shown in paid occupation, and more likely to be depicted as caretakers and parents.
These are some of the findings of a study released on Monday by UNICEF and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (GDI) titled “Gender bias and inclusion in advertising in India”. The research measures over 1,000 television and YouTube advertisements aired across India in 2019. The ads analysed were those that received the most reach.
The study finds that women characters dominate screen time (59.7%) and speaking time (56.3%), but one of the drivers of this is their depiction for selling cleaning supplies and food and beauty products to women consumers. For example, almost all the detergent and food commercials depicted a woman taking care of her family who speaks directly to women viewers about caring for their families. In comparison, in a separate study by the GDI for setting global benchmarks, it was found that ads in the U.S. show women with half the screen time (30.6%) and nearly half the speaking time (33.5%).
A greater percentage of female characters is depicted as married than male characters (11% compared with 8.8%). Female characters are three times more likely to be depicted as parents than male characters (18.7% compared with 5.9%). While male characters are more likely to be shown making decisions about their future than female characters (7.3% compared with 4.8%), the latter are twice as likely to be shown making household decisions than male characters (4.9% compared with 2.0%).
Female characters are more likely to be shown doing the following activities than male characters — shopping (4.1% compared with 2.3%); cleaning (4.8% as against 2.2%); and being involved in the purchase or preparation of meals (5.4% against 3.9%).
For characters where intelligence is part of their character in the ad, male characters are more likely to be shown as smart than female characters (32.2% compared to 26.2%). Male characters are almost twice as likely to be shown as funny than female characters (19.1% compared to 11.9%).
Two-thirds of female characters (66.9%) in Indian ads have light or medium-light skin tones — a higher percentage than male characters (52.1%). Female characters are nine times more likely to be shown as “stunning/very attractive” than male characters (5.9% compared with 0.6%). Female characters are also invariably thin, but male characters appear with a variety of body sizes in Indian advertising
“Misrepresentation and harmful stereotypes of women in advertising have a significant impact on women — and young girls — and how they view themselves and their value to society. While we do see female representation dominate in Indian ads, they are still marginalised by colorism, hypersexualisation, and without careers or aspirations outside of the home,” said Geena Davis, Academy Award Winning Actor, Founder and Chair of the GDI adding that the stark inequality must be addressed to ensure an equitable society.
5. Variant in Bengal can evade immune system
It has a major mutation that can lead to increased infectivity and possibly compromise vaccine efficacy
With the election on in West Bengal, scientists report the emergence of a new lineage of the novel coronavirus that may make up as much as 15% of the genomes identified in the State from January to March. The new variant, B.1.618, has a major mutation called E484K — found in several internationally identified variants of concern — that helps it evade the immune system and possibly compromise vaccine efficacy.
On April 8, INSACOG (Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics), a group of 10 Indian labs working across the country on sequencing genomes from coronavirus patients, named a “double mutant variant” as B.1.617 that contains two mutations: E484Q and L245R. Though more studies are under way, there is suspicion that this variant, whose mutations have also been found in variants in other countries, may be playing a significant role in the nearly month-long exponential rise in cases that is now seeing nearly 3,00,000 new infections a day, the most in the world, and straining India’s health infrastructure to its seams.
The B.1.618 was first isolated on October 25, 2020 and most recently on March 17. The variants that carry some of the mutations associated with B.1.618 have also been found in the U.S., Switzerland, Singapore and Finland. While mutations occur in all parts of the coronavirus genome, key changes to the spike protein — that help the virus bind better to the body’s cells — are most closely tracked. In the case of B.1.618, there are four characteristic mutations to the spike protein associated with increased infectivity and immune escape.
“The proportion of B.1.618 has been growing significantly in recent months in West Bengal,” Vinod Scaria, who researches genome mutations at the CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, said on Twitter. “Along with B.1.617, it forms a major lineage in West Bengal.” The IGIB is part of the INSACOG. The samples detailing the genetic structure of the virus was collected by the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics (NIBG), Kalyani, West Bengal, also an INSACOG lab. Though its goal is to sample 5% of coronavirus samples, the consortium has sampled around 1%.
He said that at the moment, there was no “conclusive” evidence that the lineage was driving the epidemic in West Bengal, other than the fact that the numbers and proportions were rising. As in other States, West Bengal too has seen a sharp spike in cases. On April 1, it was reporting 829 cases a day and that has since spiked to 7,000 a day with 53,000 active cases reported as of Tuesday. This has prompted some Opposition parties to scale down the campaigns and calls to club the remaining phases of the polling.
Partha Majumdar, geneticist and former director of the NIBG, said though the variant was spreading rapidly, it alone could not be linked with the acceleration of cases in West Bengal.
“Mutations play a role but as only 15% of those infected carry the B.1.618, it cannot alone explain the surge,” he said.
The 15% only represents the number of samples whose data have been shared by Indian scientists on the global repository GISAID, a forum for researchers everywhere to collate data and track emerging variants and strains. In spite of its huge number of cases, there are relatively fewer samples and details of their genetic information regularly uploaded out of India.
Some laboratories have started tests on the virus containing these mutations. Rakesh Mishra of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, said the institute was testing plasma from those inoculated with Covishield and Covaxin against virus variants to check if it escaped antibodies. Studies have shown that the Novavax, Johnson and Johnson and Pfizer vaccines were less effective against the South African variant, which has the E484K mutation. Some vaccine makers are developing vaccines that reportedly work against the mutation.
Immune System in the Body
- The human immune system consists of lymphoid organs, tissues, cells and soluble molecules like antibodies. As you have read, immune system is unique in the sense that it recognizes foreign antigens, responds to these and remembers them. The immune system also plays an important role in allergic reactions, auto-immune diseases and organ transplantation.
- Lymphoid Organs: These are the organs where origin and/or maturation and proliferation of Lymphocytes
- The primary lymphoid organs are bone marrow and thymus where immature lymphocytes differentiate into antigen-sensitive lymphocytes.
- After maturation the lymphocytes migrate to secondary lymphoid organs like spleen, lymph nodes, tonsils, Peyer’s patches of small intestine and appendix.
- The secondary lymphoid organs provide the sites for interaction of lymphocytes with the antigen, which then proliferate to become effector cells.
- The bone marrow is the main lymphoid organ where all blood cells including lymphocytes are produced.
- The thymus is a lobed organ located near the heart and beneath the breastbone. The thymus is quite large at the time of birth but keeps reducing in size with age and by the time puberty is attained it reduces to a very small size.
- Both bone-marrow and thymus provide micro-environments for the development and maturation of T-lymphocytes.
- The spleen is a large bean shaped organ. It mainly contains lymphocytes and phagocytes. It acts as a filter of the blood by trapping blood-borne micro-organisms. Spleen also has a large reservoir of erythrocytes.
- The lymph nodes are small solid structures located at different points along the lymphatic system. Lymph nodes serve to trap the micro-organisms or other antigens, which happen to get into the lymph and tissue fluid.
- Antigens trapped in the lymph nodes are responsible for the activation of lymphocytes present there and cause the immune response.
- There is lymphoid tissue also located within the lining of the major tracts (respiratory, digestive and urogenital tracts) called mucosal-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT). It constitutes about 50 per cent of the lymphoid tissue in human body.
6. Exporters fret over delay in rebate rates
The RoDTEP scheme came into effect on Jan. 1 but lack of clarity is hampering sector’s ability to price
Even as exporters fret over an inordinate delay in notification of the rates under a new WTO-compliant scheme for rebating taxes and duties to the export sector, they are also seeking greater clarity from the government on some grey areas in the scheme’s functioning, according to tax consultancy firm RSM Astute.
‘Very near future’
On Tuesday, Commerce Secretary Anup Wadhawan had said that the rates under the RoDTEP (Remission of Duties and Taxes on Export Products) scheme, which came into effect on January 1, would be notified in the ‘very, very near future’.
Exporters have been urging the government to lift the uncertainty over the benefits that would accrue to them under the scheme, as they are it finding it difficult to price fresh global orders in the absence of the crucial information especially in sectors with thin margins.
“The trade and industry is hopeful that the scheme’s operation would be smooth, and concerns would be addressed in the early stages of operationalisation,” RSM Astute noted in a white paper on the scheme. “Due to COVID-19, India’s exports may require more stimulus and the exporters hope that RoDTEP would not be an impediment to their business plans,” it added.
The consultancy flagged the power given to Customs officers to suspend the scrips or refund credits or even to bar exporters from utilising these scrips especially as the grounds on which such suspensions could be done have not been spelt out.
As per government statements, the refund of taxes on exports would be credited to exporters’ ledger account with the Customs department, which could be utilised to pay basic customs duty on imported goods. “Clarity would be required whether the refund could be utilised to pay other taxes on imported goods such as IGST and Social Welfare Surcharge,” the tax consultant said. Under the MEIS scheme, which RODTEP has replaced, these refund credits could be used to pay customs duty, additional customs duty (with some exceptions) as well as central excise duties.
The delay in operationalising the scheme is affecting the exporters by restricting their ability to price products competitively and the uncertainty was making it harder to finalise contracts, RSM Astute pointed out.
Remission of Duties or Taxes on Export Product
- The new scheme will be implemented from 1st January 2020 and will replace the existing Merchandise Exports from India Scheme (MEIS) and create a fully automated route for Input Tax Credit (ITC) in the GST to help increase exports in India.
- It is expected to adequately incentivize exporters by reducing duties paid on exports and will initiate the refund of various taxes to exporters.
- ITC is provided to set off tax paid on the purchase of raw materials, consumables, goods or services that were used in the manufacturing of goods or services. This helps in avoiding double taxation and the cascading effect of taxes.
- By adopting to RoDTEP scheme, Indian exporters will be able to meet the international standards for exports as affordable testing and certification will be made available to exporters within the country instead of relying on international organizations.
- Also under it, tax assessment is set to become fully automatic for exporters. Businesses will get access to their refunds for GST via an automatic refund-route.
- This would increase the economy for the country and working capital for the enterprise.
- WTO Compliant: Apart from boosting the export sector of our country, RoDTEP will coordinate with the World Trade Organization (WTO) to reduce the post-production transaction costs for exporters. The implementation of the scheme thereby must provide a production-oriented process along with WTO, which in turn can boost the production of SMEs, MSMEs.
- RoDTEP is a WTO-consistent scheme under which indirect taxes on inputs are consumed in the production process.
- In general, according to principle recognised in WTO, indirect taxes on exports are reimbursed.
- A number of indirect taxes, such as import tariffs and goods and services tax (GST), are already reimbursed for exports in India and most other countries. RoDTEP would cover central and state indirect taxes, which are not currently reimbursed thereby complying with WTO rules.
- RoDTEP is a WTO-consistent scheme under which indirect taxes on inputs are consumed in the production process.
- Merchandise Export from India Scheme (MEIS) was not WTO rules compliant. It was introduced in the Foreign Trade Policy (FTP) 2015-20 w.e.f. 1st April 2015 with the objective to offset infrastructural inefficiencies and associated costs involved in exporting goods/products which are produced /manufactured in India including products produced/manufactured by MSME Sector.
7. Editorial-1: The last word on the state and temples
In Tamil Nadu, the movement seeking a delinking of state and religion misprizes the law’s value
In the midst of the recent electoral campaign in Tamil Nadu, a movement to free Hindu temples from state control gained some traction. Ask the proponents of the movement who they see as the state’s successor and the answer you get is, the community of Hindus. But by that, what do they mean? Who selects the personnel that will constitute this community? Does the movement want a reversion to the status quo ante that existed before the state intervened in the management of temples? If so, what was that status quo ante? A lack of clear answers to these questions suggests that what the programme really seeks is to plant in the state’s position powerful private interests, and in the process, reinstate some of the hierarchical divisions that might have been negated, albeit not nearly entirely, through the Constitution and its processes.
Civic history and faith
At an intuitive level, the idea of governments overseeing the management of religious institutions strikes one as anathema to a secular, democratic republic. But the principles on which secularism rests in India are distinct from their western antecedents. The makers of India’s Constitution were conscious of the dangers in promising an American style right to non-establishment. To them, there was little doubt that all persons must be entitled to a freedom of conscience. But that freedom, they believed, ought not to be circumscribed by extending to extreme limits the divide between the state and religion.
The Constituent Assembly was especially mindful of the civic history surrounding matters of faith in India. It understood that left unattended, religion could lead to a perpetuation of historical evils. To treat religion as a subject beyond the state’s sovereign reach was to thwart the Constitution’s aim of establishing a free and egalitarian society at its very founding. The framers were also conscious that achieving these goals meant that the government had to ensure that resources vital to the commonweal were properly managed. As they saw it, it was the state’s responsibility to guarantee, for instance, that a temple dedicated for public use was, in fact, being put to such use.
Caveats and provisos
It was with these ends in mind that various caveats and provisos were written into Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution. The former makes the freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion subject to public order, morality and health. What is more, this right, the provision clarifies, will not stand in the way of the state making laws regulating any economic, financial, or other secular activity associated with religion, or in the way of the state making laws providing for social welfare and reform.
Article 26, on the other hand, protects group rights. It grants to every “religious denomination” the right to establish institutions; to manage its own affairs in matters of religion; to own and acquire property; and to administer that property in accordance with law. This right too is bound by considerations of public order, morality, and health.
A plain reading of these provisions shows us that a religious denomination has substantial freedom over matters concerning its faith. But this right does not override the state’s power to make laws regulating the management of properties belonging to these denominations. The state’s authority is wider still in attending to religious institutions that partake a public character. The protections of Article 25 are expressly restricted to matters within the domain of religion. Government has every authority to regulate and restrict a secular function performed by a public religious institution. It was in exercise of this power that the government of Madras enacted a Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act in 1951, which was replaced in 1959 by the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Act.
As essential role of the state
But this power to oversee administration of religious bodies was seen as an incident of sovereignty long before the Constitution came into force. In his 1918 treatise, The Law Relating to Hindu and Mohammedan Religious Endowments, P.R. Ganapathi Iyer points to how Hindu kings habitually employed ministries to supervise temples and charitable bodies. Indeed, the regulation of temple management was seen as an essential role of the state. The book also shows us how under Mughal administration, the governments of the time recognised that it was their duty to guarantee that all religious endowments were “applied according to the real intent and will of the grantor,” and appointed Mutawallis to manage Waqf properties.
To be sure, that this was once the case does not by itself suggest that state control over religious institutions must now continue. But the circumstances that existed in the 1920s, when the government of Madras enacted its first endowment law, have not substantially changed. The provincial administration of the time introduced the law because it found that the colonial regime, in ceding regulatory authority over temples, had paved the path for a division of power in which powerful castes and communities within the Hindu fold appropriated control over religious institutions. The statutes of 1951 and 1959 which succeeded the 1927 legislation were both framed with the same objective: to ensure that Hindu public endowments were being put to use for the true purposes for which the endowments were first made.
To that end, the law accords to a state-appointed commissioner a power of general superintendence over all Hindu religious endowments, and it authorises the commissioner, among other things, to appoint executive officers to temples to ensure that their funds are being properly applied. The Supreme Court of India tested the rationale for this oversight in the Shirur Mutt case (1954). In substantially upholding Tamil Nadu’s 1951 legislation — which was repealed and re-enacted in 1959 — the Court recognised that the basic framework of the law was in perfect consonance with the authority vested in the state under Articles 25 and 26. Today, with no obvious successor available, should the state surrender its regulatory authority, it will surely be acting in breach of its sovereign duties. The consequence of such action will be precisely what the Constituent Assembly strived to avoid: a reassertion of social power by dominant groups.
In other religions
Those calling for deregulation also point to the state’s approach to other religions. But a reading of the Waqf Act, 1995, will show us that the government also exercises substantial supervisory control over management of properties dedicated for religious purposes under Muslim law. It is possible to argue that this legislation does not go far enough, as Justice S.A. Kader, a former judge of the Madras High Court has in his book, The Law of Wakfs. Similarly, in the State of Kerala, repeated demands have been made by reformist Christian groups for the creation of state-managed committees to administer the church’s finances and properties. Perhaps a time will come for such laws.
In the meantime, though, we must consider the HR&CE law on its own merits. An examination of the legislation enforced in Tamil Nadu demonstrates that the movement seeking a delinking of state and religion misprizes the law’s value. If applied properly, the regime will allow the state to act as a genuine tribune of social justice. No doubt there might be deficiencies in how the statute is applied today. For this reason, we must constantly demand transparency and hold the state responsible to the administrative standards prescribed under the law. But a call to do anything more is to risk the abandoning of the promises that underpin the Constitution.
8. Editorial-2: Strengthening the process of choosing the police chief
A balance needs to be struck between the government’s legitimate role and the police chief’s operational autonomy
Recent developments in the Mumbai Police which resulted in the removal of Param Bir Singh from the Mumbai Police Commissioner’s post focus the spotlight once again on long overdue reforms needed in the process of appointing and removing police chiefs. A crucial way in which governments exercise control over the State police is through their unregulated power to decide who the chief will be.
There is no independent vetting process to assess the suitability of qualified candidates, and the government’s assessment, if it is done at all, remains opaque and is an exercise behind closed doors. While the principles of democratic accountability necessitate the police chief to remain answerable to the elected government at all times, the moot reform issue is in ensuring the right balance between conditioning the government’s legitimate role in appointing or removing the police chief with the need to safeguard the chief’s operational autonomy.
Have an oversight panel
Two elements are vital to reforms in this area. The first is the need to shift the responsibility of appointment and removal from the government alone to a bipartisan, independent oversight body of which the government is one part.
Establishing a state-level oversight body with a specified role in the appointment and removal of police chiefs was first suggested by the National Police Commission (NPC), constituted in 1979, and much later reaffirmed by the Supreme Court of India in its judgment in 2006, in Prakash Singh. While the top court entrusted the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) with a role in shortlisting candidates from which the State government is to appoint the police chief, the Model Police Bill, 2015 places the responsibility with a multiparty State Police Board, also referred to as the State Security Commission (SSCs), instead (Section 8). Made up of government officials, the Leader of the Opposition as well as independent members from civil society, the board provides the additional safeguard of civilian oversight over the appointment process.
Gaps in SSCs
India, however, has made little progress in constituting truly independent bodies. While 26 States and the Union Territories (https://bit.ly/2P8nab3) have established SSCs, either through new police acts or amendments or through executive orders, not a single one adheres to the balanced composition suggested by the top court. Some do not include the Leader of the Opposition; others neither include independent members nor follow an independent selection process of the members. In essence, the commissions remain dominated by the political executive. Keeping aside the concern over non-functioning SSCs (as of 2019, information secured through the Right to Information Act indicates that only four SSCs have held meetings since 2014), their design itself will have to be strengthened if they are to drive meaningful reforms.
Moreover, in as many as 23 States, governments retain the sole discretion of appointing the police chief. Assam, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Meghalaya and Mizoram are the only States where, on paper, the SSC is given the responsibility of shortlisting candidates. Whether this process is followed in practice each time remains to be verified.
Need for transparency
The second element critical to police reforms is instituting an independent and transparent selection and decision-making process around appointment and removal, against objective criteria. Much standard-setting work is needed on this as only basic safeguards have been defined in reform measures towards protecting the operational autonomy of the police chief. On appointments, the Court and the Model Police Act require the UPSC/SSC to shortlist candidates on the basis of length of service, service record, and range of experience and a performance appraisal of the candidates over the past 10 years.
However, no further guidance has been developed on explaining these terms or specifying their elements to guide the appointments. What qualifies as a “good” range of experience? How is the integrity of a candidate measured during appraisals? What is the process required to be followed by the SSC in reviewing the suitability of candidates? Should not interviews with the candidates be considered as a requirement, for instance?
Similarly, no scrutiny process has been prescribed to justify removals from tenure posts. The NPC had required State governments to seek the approval of the State Security Commission before removing the police chief before the end of term. This important check was diluted under the Prakash Singh judgment that only requires governments to consult the SSC. Most States omit even this cursory step. Broad terms such as “on administrative grounds” or “in the public interest” continue to be retained in police acts to justify the government’s power to remove the police chief. Such terms remain liable to misuse.
Indeed, the Supreme Court has rightly emphasised that “prima facie satisfaction of the government” alone is not a sufficient ground to justify removal from a tenure post in government, such as that of the police chief (T.P. Senkumar vs Union of India, 2017). The rule of law requires such decisions be for compelling reasons and based on verifiable material that can be objectively tested.
Clear and specific benchmarks need to be integrated into decision-making processes, both on appointments and removals, to prevent politically motivated adverse actions.
In improving transparency of the review process, the United Kingdom provides a useful example. The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act, 2011, introduced public confirmation hearings as an additional layer of check for the appointment of the heads of their police forces known as Chief Constables (outside of London city).
The proposed candidates are required to participate in a hearing organised by the police and crime panel in each area(made up of representatives from local councils and co-opted independent members) where questions centre on the candidate’s ability to “recognize and understand the separation of political and operational responsibilities in relation to the post”. This constitutes a crucial step of the time-bound vetting process based on which the panel makes its recommendations on the suitability of the candidate. Importantly, these panels have the power to veto (by two-thirds majority) the proposed appointment as well. On removals too, the panels allow the police chief an opportunity to respond to the allegations on the basis of which their removal is being sought as part of the scrutiny process.
Such steps can help ensure fairness in administrative decisions and need to be considered in our context as well in order to protect the political neutrality of the police. Any further delay in implementing reforms in this area will continue to demoralise the police and cripple the rule of law.
9. Data and a new global order
India has a key role to play in the hyper-connected world
The shift of global power from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific raises strategic questions for India. Is the world divided because of an assertive China or is the shift of power to Asia a switch to the historical norm? Is the United States defending multilateral rules or the hegemony over the rules it had set? Should India take sides or bide its time as a neutral contender to both China and the U.S.?
The Industrial Revolution restructured the global manufacturing order to Asia’s disadvantage. But in the ‘Digital Data Revolution’, algorithms requiring massive amounts of data determine innovation, the nature of productivity growth, and military power. Mobile digital payment interconnections impact society and the international system, having three strategic implications.
First, because of the nature and pervasiveness of digital data, military and civilian systems are symbiotic. Cybersecurity is national security, and this requires both a new military doctrine and a diplomatic framework.
Second, the blurring of distinctions between domestic and foreign policy and the replacement of global rules with issue-based understanding converge with the growth of smartphone-based e-commerce, which ensures that massive amounts of data give a sustained productivity advantage to Asia.
Third, data streams are now at the centre of global trade and countries’ economic and national power. India, thus, has the capacity to negotiate new rules as an equal with the U.S. and China.
A renewed strategy
Innovation based on data streams has contributed to China’s rise as the second-largest economy and the “near-peer” of the U.S. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Commander recently said the erosion of conventional deterrence capabilities was the greatest danger in the strategic competition with China. The national security strategy of the U.S. puts more emphasis on diplomacy than military power to resolve conflicts with China, acknowledging that its military allies have complex relationships with Beijing, as it seeks to work with them to close technology gaps.
China’s technology weakness is the dependence on semiconductors and its powerlessness against U.S. sanctions on banks, 5G and cloud computing companies. But its Fourteenth Five Year Plan emphasises a $1.4-trillion strategy for the development of science and technology. China’s digital technology-led capitalism is moving fast to utilise the economic potential of data, pushing the recently launched e-yuan and shaking the dollar-based settlement for global trade.
China has a $53-trillion mobile payments market and it is the global leader in the online transactions arena, controlling over 50% of the global market value. India’s Unified Payments Interface (UPI) volume is expected to cross $1 trillion by 2025. The U.S., in contrast, lags behind, with only around 30% of consumers using digital means and with the total volume of mobile payments less than $100 billion. The global strategic balance will depend on new data standards. Earlier this year, China formed a joint venture with SWIFT for cross-border payments and suggested foundational principles for interoperability between central bank digital currencies at the Bank for International Settlements. The U.S., far behind in mobile payments, is falling back on data alliances and sanctions to maintain its global position.
India’s goal is to become a $5-trillion economy by 2025.While the country is fast-tracking its digital rupee, the challenge is promoting engagement with major powers while retaining its data for innovation and competitive advantage.
With Asia at the centre of the world, major powers see value in relationships with New Delhi. India fits into the U.S. frame to provide leverage. China wants India, also a digital power, to see it as a partner, not a rival. And China remains the largest trading partner of both the U.S. and India despite sanctions and border skirmishes. These fluid relationships have their own trade-offs, raising the question: whose interests do the current rules really serve? India, like China, is uncomfortable with treating Western values as universal values and with the U.S. interpretation of Freedom of Navigation rules in others’ territorial waters. New Delhi’s Indo-Pacific vision is premised on “ASEAN centrality and the common pursuit of prosperity”. The European Union recently acknowledged that the path to its future is through an enhanced influence in the Indo-Pacific, while stressing that the strategy is not “anti-China”. The U.S. position in trade, that investment creates new markets, makes it similar to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
India alone straddles both U.S. and China-led strategic groupings, providing an equity-based perspective to competing visions. It must be prepared to play a key role in moulding rules for the hyper-connected world, facing off both the U.S. and China to realise its potential of becoming the second-largest economy.
14. A fresh push for green hydrogen
India must address several challenges to enhance commercial-scale operations
India will soon join 15 other countries in the hydrogen club as it prepares to launch the National Hydrogen Energy Mission (NHEM). The global target is to produce 1.45 million tonnes of green hydrogen by 2023. Currently, India consumes around 5.5 million tonnes of hydrogen, primarily produced from imported fossil fuels.
In 2030, according to an analysis by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), green hydrogen demand could be up to 1 million tonnes in India across application in sectors such as ammonia, steel, methanol, transport and energy storage. However, several challenges in scaling up to commercial-scale operations persist. We propose five recommendations.
First, decentralised hydrogen production must be promoted through open access of renewable power to an electrolyser (which splits water to form H2 and O2 using electricity). Currently, most renewable energy resources that can produce low-cost electricity are situated far from potential demand centres. If hydrogen were to be shipped, it would significantly erode the economics of it. A more viable option would be wheeling electricity directly from the solar plant. For instance, wheeling electricity from a solar plant in Kutch to a refinery in Vadodara could lower the transportation cost by 60%, compared to delivering hydrogen using trucks. However, the electricity tariffs could double when supplying open-access power across State boundaries. Therefore, operationalising open access in letter and spirit, as envisioned in the Electricity Act, 2003, must be an early focus.
Second, we need mechanisms to ensure access to round-the-clock renewable power for decentralised hydrogen production. To minimise intermittency associated with renewable energy, for a given level of hydrogen production capacity, a green hydrogen facility will typically oversize the electrolyser, and store hydrogen to ensure continuous hydrogen supply. However, such a configuration would also generate significant amounts of excess electricity. Therefore, as we scale up to the target of having 450 GW of renewable energy by 2030, aligning hydrogen production needs with broader electricity demand in the economy would be critical.
Third, we must take steps to blend green hydrogen in existing processes, especially the industrial sector. Improving the reliability of hydrogen supply by augmenting green hydrogen with conventionally produced hydrogen will significantly improve the economics of the fuel. This will also help build a technical understanding of the processes involved in handling hydrogen on a large scale.
Fourth, policymakers must facilitate investments in early-stage piloting and the research and development needed to advance the technology for use in India. The growing interest in hydrogen is triggered by the anticipated steep decline in electrolyser costs. India should not be a mere witness to this. Public funding will have to lead the way, but the private sector, too, has significant gains to be made by securing its energy future.
Finally, India must learn from the experience of the National Solar Mission and focus on domestic manufacturing. Establishing an end-to-end electrolyser manufacturing facility would require measures extending beyond the existing performance-linked incentive programme. India needs to secure supplies of raw materials that are needed for this technology. Further, major institutions like the DRDO, BARC and CSIR laboratories have been developing electrolyser and fuel-cell technologies. There is a need for a manufacturing strategy that can leverage the existing strengths and mitigate threats by integrating with the global value chain.
Even before it has reached any scale, green hydrogen has been anointed the flag-bearer of India’s low-carbon transition. Hydrogen may be lighter than air, but it will take some heavy lifting to get the ecosystem in place.