1. SC: personal guarantors liable for corporate debt
Court clears insolvency proceedings under the IBC norms
The Supreme Court on Friday upheld a government move to allow lenders to initiate insolvency proceedings against personal guarantors, who are usually promoters of big business houses, along with the stressed corporate entities for whom they gave guarantee.
In a judgment which will ring loud and clear across the business community, a Bench of Justices L. Nageswara Rao and S. Ravindra Bhat held that the November 15, 2019, government notification allowing creditors, usually financial institutions and banks, to move against personal guarantors under the Indian Bankruptcy and Insolvency Code (IBC) was “legal and valid”.
The November 15, 2019, notification was challenged before several High Courts initially.
The Supreme Court had transferred the petitions from the High Courts to itself on a request from the government.
The court said there was an “intrinsic connection” between personal guarantors and their corporate debtors.
Justice Bhat, who authored the 82-page verdict, said it was this “intimate” connection that made the government recognise personal guarantors as a “separate species” under the IBC.
It was again this intimacy that made the government decide that corporate debtors and their personal guarantors should be dealt with by a common forum — National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) — through the same adjudicatory process.
In this context, Justice Bhat referred to how the November 2019 notification had not strayed from the original intent of the IBC. In fact, Section 60(2) of the Code had required the bankruptcy proceedings of corporate debtors and their personal guarantors to be held before a common forum — the NCLT.
“The adjudicating authority for personal guarantors will be the NCLT if a parallel resolution process is pending in respect of a corporate debtor for whom the guarantee is given,” Justice Bhat noted.
In fact, side by side bankruptcy proceedings before the same forum for both the corporate debtors and their personal guarantors would help the NCLT “consider the whole picture, as it were, about the nature of the assets available, either during the corporate debtor’s insolvency process, or even later”.
“This would facilitate the Committee of Creditors to frame realistic plans, keeping in mind the prospect of realising some part of the creditors’ dues from personal guarantors,” the judgment reasoned.
The court further corrected a misunderstanding among petitioners that approval of a resolution plan in respect of corporate debtors would also extinguish the liability of the personal guarantor.
The petitioners, mostly personal guarantors to stressed companies, had argued that an approved resolution plan in respect of a corporate debtor amounts to extinction of all outstanding claims against that debtor. Consequently, the liability of the guarantor, which is co-extensive with that of the corporate debtor, would also be extinguished.
“The release or discharge of a principal borrower from the debt by operation of law, or due to liquidation or insolvency proceeding, does not absolve the surety/guarantor of his or her liability, which arises out of an independent contract,” Justice Bhat clarified.
During the hearings, the government had justified the November 2019 notification extending bankruptcy proceedings to personal guarantors.
Attorney General K.K. Venugopal argued that by roping in guarantors, there was a greater likelihood that they would “arrange” for the payment of the debt to the creditor bank in order to obtain a quick discharge.
- Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 is considered as one of the biggest insolvency reforms in the economic history of India.
- This was enacted for reorganization and insolvency resolution of corporate persons, partnership firms and individuals in a time bound manner for maximization of the value of assets of such persons.
- The era before IBC had various scattered laws relating to insolvency and bankruptcy which caused inadequate and ineffective results with undue delays. For example,
- Securitization and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Security Interest Act SARFAESI –for security enforcement.
- The Recovery of Debts Due to Banks and Financial Institutions Act, 1993 (RDDBFI) for debt recovery by banks and financial institutions.
- Companies Act for liquidation and winding up of the company.
- Ineffective implementation, conflict in one of these laws and the time-consuming procedure in the aforementioned laws, made the Bankruptcy Law Reform Committee draft and introduce Insolvency and Bankruptcy Law bill.
Objectives of IBC
- Consolidate and amend all existing insolvency laws in India.
- To simplify and expedite the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Proceedings in India.
- To protect the interest of creditors including stakeholders in a company.
- To revive the company in a time-bound manner.
- To promote entrepreneurship.
- To get the necessary relief to the creditors and consequently increase the credit supply in the economy.
- To work out a new and timely recovery procedure to be adopted by the banks, financial institutions or individuals.
- To set up an Insolvency and Bankruptcy Board of India.
- Maximization of the value of assets of corporate persons.
The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code ecosystem
- National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) – The adjudicating authority (AA), has jurisdiction over companies, other limited liability entities.
- Debt Recovery Tribunal (DRT) has jurisdiction over individuals and partnership firms other than Limited Liability Partnerships.
- The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Board of India (IBBI) – apex body for promoting transparency & governance in the administration of the IBC; will be involved in setting up the infrastructure and accrediting IPs (Insolvency Professionals (IPs) & IUs (Information Utilities).
- It has 10 members from Ministry of Finance, Law, and RBI.
- Information Utilities (IUs) – a centralized repository of financial and credit information of borrowers; would accept, store, authenticate and provide access to financial data provided by creditors.
- IPs- persons enrolled with IPA (Insolvency professional agency (IPA) and regulated by Board and IPA will conduct resolution process; it will act as Liquidator/ bankruptcy trustee; they are appointed by creditors and override the powers of the board of directors.
- IPs have the power to furnish performance bonds equal to assets of the company under insolvency resolutions
- Adjudicating authority (AA) – would be the NCLT for corporate insolvency; to entertain or dispose of any insolvency application, approve/ reject resolution plans, decide in respect of claims or matters of law/ facts thereof.
Key aspects of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code
- IBC proposes a paradigm shift from the existing ‘Debtor in possession’ to a ‘Creditor in control’ regime.
- IBC aims at consolidating all existing insolvency related laws as well as amending multiple legislation including the Companies Act.
- The code aims to resolve insolvencies in a strict time-bound manner – the evaluation and viability determination must be completed within 180 days.
- Moratorium period of 180 days (extendable up to 270 days) for the Company. For startups and small companies the resolution time period is 90 days which can be extended by 45 days.
- Introduce a qualified insolvency professional (IP) as intermediaries to oversee the Process
- Establishment of Insolvency and Bankruptcy board as an independent body for the administration and governance of Insolvency & bankruptcy Law; and Information Utilities as a depository of financial information.
The success of IBC
- 21 PSU banks had combined gross NPAs of Rs 7.3 lakh crore at the end of September 2017 quarter. This was a growth of 27% as compared to 2016 quarter.
How has IBC helped?
- Due to the institution of IBC, we have seen that many business entities are paying up front before being declared insolvent. The success of the act lies in the fact that many cases have been resolved even before it was referred to NCLT.
- 4452 cases were dismissed at the pre-admission stage. Hence, it shows the effectiveness of IBC.
- Presently, there are 1332 cases before NCLT.
- Realization by creditors around Rs 80,000cr in resolution cases.
- Banks recovered Rs 5.28 lakh crore in 2017-18, compared to just Rs 38500 cr in 2016-17.
- The maximum amount recovered was Rs 4, 92,500 cr from 21 companies.
- 12 big cases are likely to be resolved this year, and the realization in these cases is expected to be around Rs 70000 Cr.
Amendments in IBC
- The President has assented to the promulgation of Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Amendment) Ordinance, 2018 on June 6, 2018. The two key amendments would help both the real estate sector and the MSMEs
- Homebuyers Recognized as Financial Creditors- giving them due to representation in the Committee of Creditors (CoC). Thus, now home buyers will be an integral part of the decision making process.
- Special Provisions for MSME- now, the promoters of MSMEs are allowed to bid for their companies as long as they are not willful defaulters and don’t attract any other related disqualification. This has corrected the anomaly in the section 29A of the existing act which had barred promoters of defaulting assets from bidding for their assets.
2. A green warrior to the core is no more
He was known for Chipko movement to save forests
Well-known environmentalist and Gandhian Sunderlal Bahuguna is no more. Mr. Bahuguna, 94, died of COVID-related complications at AIIMS, Rishikesh, on Friday. He was one of the founders of the Chipko, or hug the tree movement, in the 1970s to save Himalayan forests.
Mr. Bahuguna also led the charge against the construction of big dams in the Himalayas in the 1980s. He was fervently opposed to the construction of the Tehri dam and sat on two long hunger strikes against the dam, which proved to be of no avail.
Mr. Bahuguna, who lived for decades in his Silyara ashram in Tehri Garhwal, inspired many young people by his passion for the environment. His ashram was open to young people, with whom he communicated with ease.
He wrote about the problems of deforestation for years — drawing a link between the lack of tree cover and the drying up of springs in the Himalayas. He also led a movement of women’s groups, or mahila mandals, to enforce prohibition in Tehri Garhwal, which was then part of Uttar Pradesh.
Dressed in khadi, sporting a flowing white beard and a jhola on his shoulder, Mr. Bahuguna toured the length and breadth of India carrying his message of “save the Himalayas” to whoever would listen to him.
President Ram Nath Kovind, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttarakhand Chief Minister T.S. Rawat were among those who condoled the pioneering environment leader’s death.
Former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh tweeted, “He had considerable influence on Indira Gandhi & his 4,000 km Kashmir to Kohima padyatra in ‘81-‘82 to heighten public awareness, especially on forest protection, was a landmark. A charismatic man.”
- An environmental movement can be defined as a social or political movement, for the conservation of environment or for the improvement of the state of the environment. The terms ‘green movement’ or ‘conservation movement’ are alternatively used to denote the same.
- The environmental movements favour the sustainable management of natural resources. The movements often stress the protection of the environment via changes in public policy. Many movements are centred on ecology, health and human rights.
- Environmental movements range from the highly organized and formally institutionalized ones to the radically informal activities.
- The spatial scope of various environmental movements ranges from being local to the almost global.
Major Environmental Movements in India
Some of the major environmental movements in India during the period 1700 to 2000 are the following.
1. Bishnoi Movement
- Year: 1700s
- Place: Khejarli, Marwar region, Rajasthan state.
- Leaders: Amrita Devi along with Bishnoi villagers in Khejarli and surrounding villages.
- Aim: Save sacred trees from being cut down by the king’s soldiers for a new palace.
What was it all about?
Amrita Devi, a female villager could not bear to witness the destruction of both her faith and the village’s sacred trees. She hugged the trees and encouraged others to do the same. 363 Bishnoi villagers were killed in this movement. The Bishnoi tree martyrs were influenced by the teachings of Guru Maharaj Jambaji, who founded the Bishnoi faith in 1485 and set forth principles forbidding harm to trees and animals. The king who came to know about these events rushed to the village and apologized, ordering the soldiers to cease logging operations. Soon afterwards, the maharajah designated the Bishnoi state as a protected area, forbidding harm to trees and animals. This legislation still exists today in the region.
2. Chipko Movement
- Year: 1973
- Place: In Chamoli district and later at Tehri-Garhwal district of Uttarakhand.
- Leaders: Sundarlal Bahuguna, Gaura Devi, Sudesha Devi, Bachni Devi, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Govind Singh Rawat, Dhoom Singh Negi, Shamsher Singh Bisht and Ghanasyam Raturi.
- Aim: The main objective was to protect the trees on the Himalayan slopes from the axes of contractors of the forest.
What was it all about?
Mr. Bahuguna enlightened the villagers by conveying the importance of trees in the environment which checks the erosion of soil, cause rains and provides pure air. The women of Advani village of Tehri-Garhwal tied the sacred thread around trunks of trees and they hugged the trees, hence it was called ‘Chipko Movement’ or ‘hug the tree movement’. The main demand of the people in these protests was that the benefits of the forests (especially the right to fodder) should go to local people. The Chipko movement gathered momentum in 1978 when the women faced police firings and other tortures. The then state Chief Minister, Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna set up a committee to look into the matter, which eventually ruled in favor of the villagers. This became a turning point in the history of eco-development struggles in the region and around the world.
3. Save Silent Valley Movement
- Year: 1978
- Place: Silent Valley, an evergreen tropical forest in the Palakkad district of Kerala, India.
- Leaders: The Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) an NGO, and the poet-activist Sughathakumari played an important role in the Silent Valley protests.
- Aim: In order to protect the Silent Valley, the moist evergreen forest from being destroyed by a hydroelectric project.
What was it all about?
The Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) proposed a hydroelectric dam across the Kunthipuzha River that runs through Silent Valley. In February 1973, the Planning Commission approved the project at a cost of about Rs 25 crores. Many feared that the project would submerge 8.3 sq km of untouched moist evergreen forest. Several NGOs strongly opposed the project and urged the government to abandon it. In January 1981, bowing to unrelenting public pressure, Indira Gandhi declared that Silent Valley will be protected. In June 1983 the Center re-examined the issue through a commission chaired by Prof. M.G.K. Menon. In November 1983 the Silent Valley Hydroelectric Project was called off. In 1985, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi formally inaugurated the Silent Valley National Park.
4. Jungle Bachao Andholan
- Year: 1982
- Place: Singhbhum district of Bihar
- Leaders: The tribals of Singhbhum.
- Aim: Against governments decision to replace the natural sal forest with Teak.
What was it all about?
The tribals of Singhbhum district of Bihar started the protest when the government decided to replace the natural sal forests with the highly-priced teak. This move was called by many as “Greed Game Political Populism”. Later this movement spread to Jharkhand and Orissa.
5. Appiko Movement
- Year: 1983
- Place: Uttara Kannada and Shimoga districts of Karnataka State
- Leaders: Appiko’s greatest strengths lie in it being neither driven by a personality nor having been formally institutionalised. However, it does have a facilitator in Pandurang Hegde. He helped launch the movement in 1983.
- Aim: Against the felling and commercialization of natural forest and the ruin of ancient livelihood.
What was it all about?
It can be said that Appiko movement is the southern version of the Chipko movement. The Appiko Movement was locally known as “Appiko Chaluvali”. The locals embraced the trees which were to be cut by contractors of the forest department. The Appiko movement used various techniques to raise awareness such as foot marches in the interior forest, slide shows, folk dances, street plays etc. The second area of the movement’s work was to promote afforestation on denuded lands. The movement later focused on the rational use of ecosphere through introducing alternative energy resourceto reducece pressure on the forest. The movement became a success. The current status of the project is – stopped.
6. Narmada Bachao Andholan (NBA)
- Year: 1985
- Place: Narmada River, which flows through the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
- Leaders: Medha Patker, Baba Amte, adivasis, farmers, environmentalists and human rights activists.
- Aim: A social movement against a number of large dams being built across the Narmada River.
What was it all about?
The movement first started as a protest for not providing proper rehabilitation and resettlement for the people who have been displaced by the construction of Sardar Sarovar Dam. Later on, the movement turned its focus on the preservation of the environment and the eco-systems of the valley. Activists also demanded the height of the dam to be reduced to 88 m from the proposed height of 130m. World Bank withdrew from the project.
The environmental issue was taken into court. In October 2000, the Supreme Court gave a judgment approving the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam with a condition that height of the dam could be raised to 90 m. This height is much higher than the 88 m which anti-dam activists demanded, but it is definitely lower than the proposed height of 130 m. The project is now largely financed by the state governments and market borrowings. The project is expected to be fully completed by 2025.
Although not successful, as the dam could not be prevented, the NBA has created an anti-big dam opinion in India and outside. It questioned the paradigm of development. As a democratic movement, it followed the Gandhian way 100 per cent.
7. Tehri Dam Conflict
- Year: 1990’s
- Place: Bhagirathi River near Tehri in Uttarakhand.
- Leaders: Sundarlal Bahuguna
- Aim: The protest was against the displacement of town inhabitants and environmental consequence of the weak ecosystem.
Tehri dam attracted national attention in the 1980s and the 1990s. The major objections include, seismic sensitivity of the region, submergence of forest areas along with Tehri town etc. Despite the support from other prominent leaders like Sunderlal Bahuguna, the movement has failed to gather enough popular support at national as well as international levels.
3. What did Israel achieve in Gaza?
Netanyahu had claimed that he aimed for ‘forceful deterrence’ against Hamas
After 11 days of airstrikes on and rocket attacks from Gaza, Israel and Hamas agreed to an Egypt-mediated ceasefire on Thursday night. The truce appears to be holding on Friday with Palestinians taking out celebratory gatherings across the occupied territories and Israel removing the emergency restrictions in areas hit by rockets.
Pressure from all sides
Unlike in 2014, when the last major fighting between Israel and Hamas occurred, the Israeli troops were wary of launching a ground invasion this time. In a ground attack, Israel could inflict more damage on Hamas, but the risk of losing Israeli soldiers would also be high.
This time, the focus of Israel’s military campaign, which started on May 10, was on causing maximum damage to Hamas’s militant infrastructure through airstrikes. In the first 10 days of the fighting, Israel carried out more than 1,800 airstrikes on Gaza, according to the UN.
But one issue with offensives that are heavily dependent on air power is that they need a quicker exit strategy. Airstrikes will leave disproportionate civilian casualties. And disproportionate airstrikes, which was Israel’s strategy, will have even greater damage. While Israel tried to sell the narrative that it’s a victim of terror (which has buyers), the fact remains that Israel is the only sovereign power in this conflict, which continues the occupation of Palestinian territories in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, international laws and norms.
So, when civilian casualties mounted in Gaza, even those countries that initially supported Israel’s “right to defend itself” started calling for a ceasefire. In the UNSC, most countries, including India, backed an immediate ceasefire. The Biden administration, which was facing intense pressure from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, issued a strong statement on Wednesday asking for “a significant de-escalation”.
Israel was also facing internal pressure as its streets were gripped by riots between Jewish vigilantes and Arab mobs. Protests were spreading in the West Bank and rockets were coming from the Lebanon border. Amid intensifying pressure from all sides, the Israeli Security Cabinet unanimously accepted a “unilateral and mutual” ceasefire with Hamas on Thursday night. The militants immediately confirmed the truce.
What were the goals?
During the course of the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there were two ways to deal with Hamas — one, to conquer Hamas and the other to establish deterrence. The Prime Minister said his aim was “forceful deterrence”, but conquering was “an open possibility”.
Israeli military leaders have claimed that they have killed 225 members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad — a contested claim as the Gaza Health Ministry says 243 Gazans were killed, including 66 children. Israel has also claimed that it has destroyed Hamas’s elaborate tunnel network and military and intelligence infrastructure. ‘We have set Hamas back by years,” said Mr. Netanyahu.
It’s true that Hamas has suffered far greater damage than what its rockets inflicted on Israel, where 12 people were killed, including one child and three foreign nationals. But it will be clearer only in the coming weeks, months or years whether the Israeli campaign has established deterrence. The facts on the ground tell us that despite the heavy losses Hamas suffered, it continued to fire rockets into Israel till the last moment. On the 11th day, Hamas fired some 300 rockets into Israel.
As soon as the ceasefire was announced, Palestinians took to the streets “celebrating the resistance”. Senior Hamas officials called it “the euphoria of victory”. By launching the rocket attacks on May 10, hours after Israeli forces stormed Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem, Hamas was seen to be making a political point — it is the real defender of Jerusalem. In effect, Hamas was trying to tap the growing Palestinian resentment towards Israel’s high-handedness. The political messaging appeared to have gone down well with the Palestinians as Israel faced unprecedented protests and riots both in the occupied West Bank and Israeli cities when the Gaza attack was under way.
Militarily, Hamas, despite the heavy losses it suffered, demonstrated its growing rocket fire capabilities. Hamas launched at least 4,000 rockets in 11 days, more than the 3,383 rockets it fired during the 50 days of conflict in 2014. By launching barrages of rockets within minutes, it also managed to overwhelm Israel’s Iron Dome defence system. For example, in one day last week, Hamas launched more than 1,000 rockets. In 2014, its daily total never crossed 200. And Hamas rockets killed more civilians in Israel in 11 days this time than the total number of civilian deaths during the seven weeks of 2014, which is a matter of grave concern for Israel.
Ceasefires can be fragile. In 2014, after the ceasefire was announced, Israel attempted to assassinate Hamas’s shadowy military commander Mohammed Deif, but failed. This time, too, the truce is tenuous. Hamas says it accepted truce after Israel promised “to lift their hands off Sheikh Jarrah (where Palestinians face eviction from their houses) and Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Israeli side has denied any such promise and emphasised that the ceasefire was unconditional. Egypt says concerns in Jerusalem will be “addressed”. Israel has already removed some restrictions it had imposed on Al-Aqsa, which it says was a temporary security measure. Hamas could take credit for the same.
But Sheikh Jarrah is a more complicated matter. The Supreme Court of Israel is supposed to give a final ruling on the eviction of Palestinians in the neighbourhood. If Israel goes ahead with the eviction process, there could be more protests and violence. Israeli leaders say there won’t be lasting peace as long as Hamas has rockets. Hamas says there will be rockets as long as the occupation continues.
4. RBI to pay ₹99,122 cr. surplus to Centre
Central bank’s board approves transfer of higher-than-expected sum for July-March accounting period
The Reserve Bank of India’s board approved a significantly higher-than-expected surplus transfer to the government on Friday but it may not be enough to cushion the damage from a crippling second wave of the novel coronavirus.
The RBI announced a surplus transfer of ₹99,122 crore for the 9-month period from July 2020 to March 2021, the central bank said in a statement. The bank will move to an April to March accounting year from 2021/22, from a July to June year.
COVID to hit tax revenue
The higher-than-expected dividend or surplus transfer to the government comes as the government is expecting a sharp sequential fall in tax collections due to the severe second wave of COVID-19 which has forced lockdowns in several States.
“This surplus likely reflects the central bank’s higher income from their open market operations as well as receipts from FX sales, with its transfer to the government’s coffers providing some cushion to the pandemic-driven shortfall in revenues,” said Radhika Rao, an economist with DBS.
The government had budgeted to receive a surplus of about ₹50,000 crore from the RBI to be accounted for in the budget estimates for 2021/22, while in the previous full accounting year, the RBI had transferred ₹57,128 crore as surplus.
Barring 2018/19, this is the highest ever transfer by the RBI in an accounting period. In FY19, ₹1.76 lakh crore was transferred to the government which included a one-time transfer of extra reserves.
The government is likely to find it challenging to meet its privatisation and disinvestment target of $24 billion while goods and services tax (GST) revenues are also likely to fall, a government official said.
“The government is also under pressure as it has no option to cut expenditure given that it needs to spend to spur some investment and perk up growth from record low levels that it hit last year. The dividend is welcome but the government will need more and hope divestment can deliver,” the official added.
‘Provide a buffer’
Aditi Nayar, chief economist at rating agency ICRA, said the considerably higher surplus transfer would provide a buffer to absorb losses from indirect tax revenues anticipated in May and June this year.
“Moreover, high commodity prices at a time when demand and pricing power are subdued, would dent the margins of corporates in many sectors, compressing the growth in direct tax collections,” she said.
The RBI also decided to maintain a Contingency Risk Buffer at 5.50% in line with recommendations of the Bimal Jalan Committee report. (With inputs from PTI)
5. Rules for insurance firms’ control tweaked after FDI ceiling raised to 74%
New norms seen as a ‘mixed bag’
Indian promoters of insurance joint ventures with foreign partners will no longer be able to nominate a majority of the board members, as per the new rules notified under the Insurance Act. This follows the recent amendments to enhance the foreign direct investment (FDI) limit in the sector to 74% from 49%.
However, a majority of board members, key management persons (KMP) need to be resident Indian citizens, as should at least one of the three top positions — the chairperson of the board, the MD and CEO.
Applies to all JVs
This new norm will apply to all insurers, irrespective of the stake held by the foreign partner, said legal experts. The Finance Ministry has also specified further conditions on the composition of the board for firms where foreign investors’ stake exceeds 49%.
“In an Indian insurance company having foreign investment exceeding 49%, not less than 50% of its directors shall be independent directors, unless the chairperson of its board is an independent director, in which case at least one-third of its board shall comprise independent directors,” state the Indian Insurance Companies (Foreign Investment) Amendment Rules, 2021, notified by the Finance Ministry.
“The significant change introduced is the deletion of the requirements pertaining to Indian ownership and control, irrespective of whether the insurer has majority foreign ownership or not,” said Shailaja Lall, partner at law firm Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co. “Previously, Indian promoters or investors were required to nominate a majority of the Board. This deletion is being seen favourably by foreign investors proposing to hold stakes in insurance companies,” she added.
“However, the requirement to have a majority of the board and KMP comprised of Indian resident citizens will mean that foreign investors will have to continue to rely on Indian citizens who are resident in India to man key roles in the insurance company and its board. Therefore, while the FDI limit in insurance companies has been increased to 74%, the government has sought to provide adequate protection for insurance companies,” she added.
While the rules are a step forward for enabling fresh investments in the insurance sector, more changes are needed before transactions can begin, PwC said in a note. Further amendments are now expected in Foreign Exchange Management (Non-debt Instruments) Rules, 2019, and IRDAI guidelines on Indian ownership and control, the advisory firm added.
Insurance Amendment Bill
- The Bill seeks to amend the Insurance Act, 1938.
- The Act provided the framework for functioning of insurance businesses and regulates the relationship between an insurer, its policyholders and its shareholders.
- It also had provisions regarding the regulator (the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India).
Key highlights of the bill
The Bill seeks to increase the maximum foreign investment allowed in an Indian insurance company.
- The Act allows foreign investors to hold up to 49% of the capital in an Indian insurance company, which must be owned and controlled by an Indian entity.
- The Bill increases the limit on foreign investment in an Indian insurance company from 49% to 74%, and removes restrictions on ownership and control.
- However, such foreign investment may be subject to additional conditions as prescribed by the central government.
Investment of assets
- The Act requires insurers to hold a minimum investment in assets which would be sufficient to clear their insurance claim liabilities.
- If the insurer is incorporated or domiciled outside India, such assets must be held in India in a trust and vested with trustees who must be residents of India.
- The Act specifies in an explanation that this will also apply to an insurer incorporated in India, in which at least: (i) 33% capital is owned by investors domiciled outside India, or (ii) 33% of the members of the governing body are domiciled outside India.
- The Bill removes this explanation.
- More capital at dispense: The FDI limit increase is also expected to provide access to fresh capital to some of the insurance companies, which are struggling to raise capital from their existing promoters.
- Better solvency: This would not only increase the solvency position for some insurers but would provide long-term growth capital for other companies to invest in newer technologies.
- Insurance penetration: These technologies would not only help in managing losses but also in customer acquisition and thus insurance penetration.
- Technological impetus: The additional funds could be used to invest in technology to adapt to the evolving customer needs like responsive service through digital platforms.
6. Editorial-1: The AIDS fight offers a COVID vaccine patent pathway
There are recognised ways to overcome the patents hurdle, ensuring social justice and boosting the COVID-19 battle
In order to achieve global herd immunity and prevent new strains of COVID-19 from emerging, possibly for years to come, vaccines need to be affordable and available in massive quantities throughout the globe. This can happen through patent owners voluntarily licensing their products to other companies, especially Indian producers who are experienced at mass-producing low-cost medications. This can also be done by temporarily suspending patent rights for COVID vaccines, an option that is being pursued by India and South Africa through the World Trade Organization (WTO) and one that is legal in the event of a public health emergency, according to that organisation’s own rules. One way or the other, India and the world need several Indian pharmaceutical companies, not just the Serum Institute of India, to gain the right to make these vaccines if we are going to see an end to this pandemic any time soon.
Turning point in the HIV fight
Decades of struggles over patent rights and access to medications for HIV/AIDS demonstrate that it is possible to navigate patent restrictions using something called “voluntary licenses” where a patent holder decides to license a product to other producers. The United Nations’ Medicines Patent Pool and the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool are important tools in an effort to promote voluntary licensing for COVID products that so far have been ignored by pharmaceutical producers. Sharing patent rights through voluntary licensing would need to involve India’s large pharmaceutical sector whose production capacity helped make treatments for AIDS more affordable in low-income countries and helped mitigate that pandemic.
In the 1990s, the WTO began implementing a global intellectual property regime known as the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement, or TRIPS. While TRIPS alarmed public health experts because of its potential to raise the price of essential medicines, voluntary licensing agreements between pharmaceutical producers were able to bring down the price of AIDS medications despite the TRIPS regulations.
Responding to anti-TRIPS activism from low-income countries and realising they would not be able to profit off of low-income markets anyway, some manufacturers placed licensing agreements to produce AIDS drugs for which they owned patent rights in the UN-affiliated Medicines Patent Pool. Several India-based companies then used these voluntary licences to manufacture these drugs on a massive scale and sold them at prices they determined. In the case of Gilead, which placed more products in the Patent Pool than any other producer, their licences required the licensee to pay Gilead a royalty of 3% of the sales of the drug and limit sales to low-income countries. This effort brought down the price of key AIDS medications in these countries. Most significantly, tenofovir, a first-line treatment for HIV/AIDS, has come down in price from $200-$500 per person per year to $39 per person per year in low-income countries now that 13 India-based pharmaceutical companies are producing it.
Context of health emergency
It is also possible for governments to issue what are called “compulsory licenses” which override patent rights to allow local production or import of drugs by generic manufacturers in the event of a public health crisis. Since 2003, this right has been enshrined in the Doha Declaration addendum to the WTO’s TRIPS agreement and this is what India and South Africa are lobbying for, having recently been joined by the United States though not as of yet the European Union (EU). The Doha addendum, Section 5c, offers AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis as examples of what qualifies as a health emergency. By this standard, COVID-19 should easily qualify. In fact, not invoking Doha exemptions in this unprecedented health crisis would make this agreement meaningless. We may thus find compulsory licences being issued in several countries for vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, although manufacturers in India say they prefer to work with voluntary licences because there is more good will between companies while compulsory licences often come with a legal battle brought by the patent holder. Voluntary licences also enable production to begin more expeditiously as they usually are accompanied by “technology transfer” meaning that the patent holder reveals to the licensee how to manufacture the medication, sparing the licensee the lengthy and costly process of figuring out how to reverse engineer the product.
The COVAX option
Some favour ensuring access to COVID-19 vaccines through the COVAX programme, which was established to purchase vaccine doses and donate them to low-income countries but does not involve modifying patent rights. Similar ventures during the AIDS crisis were chronically underfunded and had only minor effects on that pandemic compared to the voluntary licensing and mass production of antiretroviral drugs from Indian producers. COVAX is also currently underfunded and the Director-General of WHO, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned that people in the lowest-income countries might have to wait until 2022 to get vaccinated through this programme, which may actually be optimistic since COVAX has shipped around 68 million doses so far.
Similar concerns to those presented here were raised in last year’s annual meeting of WHO which established a patent-sharing pool for COVID products, the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool. So far, no patent holders have joined this effort which is why India and South Africa called on the WTO to temporarily waive patent protections for COVID-19. Meanwhile, the UN Medicines Patent Pool stands ready to accept voluntary licences having added a placeholder for COVID-19 on the list of diseases they address. Hopefully, the EU will join the efforts by India and South Africa at the WTO, and pharmaceutical producers will realise, as some did during the AIDS pandemic, that voluntary licensing comes with better public relations and that they are not going to make money off low-income countries regardless of patent enforcement.
A key step
Furthermore, the billions of dollars in government aid given to companies to help develop COVID-19 treatments should entail an obligation to enable the mass production of affordable vaccines. After all, as legal scholars have long explained, patents are not ironclad ownership rights. They are a temporary contract that balances the public interest with the claims of the innovator. This is not just a question of social justice and ensuring life-saving therapies are available to the world’s poor. It is a necessary step to prevent deadlier, more contagious and possibly vaccine-resistant variants of COVID-19 from proliferating in an under-vaccinated world.
7. Editorial-2: Extending safety
Staggering of vaccine doses should not be to merely buy time until more doses are available
Pursuing a policy of spreading the interval between two doses of vaccine, the Centre has now outlined more scenarios of second dose deferment. While lactating women are now encouraged to get vaccinated, those who have recovered from an infection ought to be getting vaccinated three months hence — the recommendation earlier was four to eight weeks. Those inoculated but who have tested positive should defer their second dose by three months after clinical recovery from COVID-19. The recommendations follow from earlier ones that advise increasing the interval from 12-16 weeks for Covishield, the more widely available vaccine. But there are two underlying principles behind these recommendations, the first being a vaccine shortage. Until early April, India had a very different scheme for its vaccination roll-out, appearing to take stock of availability as well as prioritising those at greater disease risk. It was the ferocity of the second wave that caused the government to panic and ‘free up’ vaccine supply applying a ‘to each his own’ approach. While this benefits a fraction of the privileged, it has not improved access as seen by the stagnation in daily inoculations and a fall in second dose recipient numbers.
The second principle is that the timing of the second dose for an optimal boost to the immune system is not clear. A general policy for childhood vaccines in India is a four to eight-week interval. However, clinical trials of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the U.K (18-55 years) showed that binding antibodies (the ones that actually block viruses) were nearly twice as high in those who got their shots 12 or more weeks apart than in doses had within six weeks. The vaccine also appeared to be more protective in those above 18 with a longer dose interval. While antibody levels are a key marker of protection, they are not the only ones. Cell-based immunity, whereby the immune system confers long-lived immunity, counts too. Given that SARS-CoV-2 has been around for less than 20 months, there is uncertainty about the duration of protection. There are also documented cases of breakthrough infections as well as deaths even after a second dose. Though they fall within expected statistical boundaries so far, it is only more inoculations from now that will shed greater clarity on the degree of protection. Put together, these recommendations do buy policy makers time to stagger doses until more vaccines become available from August. On the other hand, the toll from India’s second wave continues to surpass similar daily figures from the U.S. and Brazil. Given that many Indians have still not been exposed to the virus and newer threatening variants abound, there is no reason to be complacent that people will be protected from future waves. The aim of vaccines is to prevent severe disease and death and all policy recommendations must be geared towards that goal. There is no room for knee-jerk reactions that can compromise this objective.
8. Editorial-3: Fitful approach
India must have data protection laws in place before acting against WhatsApp
In doing so, MeitY has made a charge that WhatsApp has discriminated against its Indian users. Its letter to WhatsApp reportedly states that given that Indians depend on it to communicate, “It is not just problematic but also irresponsible, for WhatsApp to leverage this position to impose unfair terms and conditions on Indian users, particularly those that discriminate against Indian users vis-à-vis users in Europe.” First, it can be argued that there are enough alternatives to WhatsApp in the market. But more importantly, it has to be pointed out that Europe’s citizens are protected by strong data laws that go by the name of General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR. Where is the Indian equivalent of such laws? When will they be implemented? These are questions that the government should answer. These questions become even more pertinent because WhatsApp has reportedly said in its affidavit that it is being singled out, and that its policy is not different from those of private apps such as Google, BigBasket, Koo, as well as public apps such as Aarogya Setu, Bhim, IRCTC, and others. A fitful approach to issues concerning the user may do more harm to India’s approach to data protection and freedom than anything else.
9. Editorial-4: Invading virus, ill-equipped villages
With the discovery of several bodies in and near the Ganga, serious concerns have been raised on the extent to which COVID-19 has made inroads into the rural areas of Uttar Pradesh. Omar Rashid reports on the State’s efforts to ramp up facilities in villages where the health infrastructure is poor
“Ganga has revealed the truth!” exclaims Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, head priest of the Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi. Located in the heart of the ancient city, the temple is where the faithful come to seek an end to their problems. But the region has been witness to a grisly sight over the past week. Semi-decomposed and bloated bodies have been found floating in the sacred river. Mishra, who is also a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology-BHU, says this indicates that the COVID-19 situation in rural Uttar Pradesh is far worse than it appears.
Ever since the bodies were discovered, police personnel have been patrolling the waters and ghats. They have set up pickets in at least seven districts and even offered a support sum of ₹5,000 to those who cannot afford wood for cremation, to dissuade them from immersing bodies in rivers.
The State police have so far admitted to having found 44 bodies floating in the rivers, mainly the Ganga, in the districts of Ballia, Chandauli, Ghazipur, Varanasi, Hamirpur and Kanpur. For residents of Ghazipur, where the bodies were first spotted in U.P., the sight was shocking. Balwant Singh Bala of Gahmar village says he has never seen anything like this before. “We are used to bodies floating in the river once in a while. But this time we knew that there was something very grave happening,” he says. A senior police officer, who led the clean-up of the ghats with lime powder, agrees.
U.P. is officially yet to acknowledge that all or some of these were COVID-19 victims. Many observers suspect that these bodies could be of COVID-19 victims who were abandoned or disposed of in the waters by families due to lack of money for cremations, the waiting lines at cremation grounds, or the social stigma attached to the disease. Speculation intensified when countless shallow graves were found on the ghats of the Ganga in some districts, including Unnao, Prayagraj, Kannauj and Rae Bareli.
At the Baksar ghat in Unnao, cleaners, priests, locals and attendants of the dead say that though bodies have been cremated and buried there according to customs, in April, when the wave was at its peak, the number of bodies arriving at the ghat for final rites reached 70-80 a day against the daily figure of 15-20. Those who could not afford to buy wood and fuel for cremation chose to bury the dead, they say. Since there is no way of knowing whether the bodies in the river are of COVID-19 victims, the question of uncounted COVID-19 deaths in the State still hangs in the air.
Battling COVID-19 in the villages
The pandemic has put tremendous strain on the fragile health infrastructure in U.P. and exposed the lack of preparedness in urban areas. Every day, there are desperate pleas for hospital beds, essential medicine and oxygen cylinders. Crematoriums and graveyards are packed. But now, the focus has shifted to the rural areas after the discovery of the bodies in the Ganga and the alarms raised in the wake of the recently conducted panchayat polls.
According to official figures, the daily number of positive cases and deaths has drastically dropped over the last three weeks. On April 30, the State had 3.1 lakh active cases. On May 21, this dropped to over a lakh. On April 24, the State had recorded 38,055 new cases out of 2.25 lakh samples tested, while on May 21, it recorded 7,735 out of the over 2.89 lakh samples tested. The recovery rate in U.P. is now 92.5%.
However, the spread of the infection in rural areas is alarming. During a testing drive in 89,512 villages, 28,742 villages (32%) reported positive cases, says Amit Mohan Prasad, Additional Chief Secretary, Health. Prasad, however, chooses to look at the bright side. “Sixty-eight percent of our villages are still safe from the infection,” he says, adding that the government’s focus is to keep testing in rural areas. Even after aggressive testing, new cases have been decreasing while recoveries are increasing, a government official says.
All these numbers offer little consolation to the bereaved. In Mau district, nursing staff Deepak Yadav’s experience encapsulates the tragedy of battling COVID-19 in the hinterland where medical infrastructure is poor. After his parents tested positive (they were tested at home with a rapid antigen test kit), Yadav desperately searched for a hospital bed in Mau and in the neighbouring districts of eastern U.P. without success. He then arranged for oxygen cylinders at home. When his mother’s health continued to deteriorate, Yadav dialled for an ambulance but the oxygen cylinder that came with it ran out in five minutes, he says. The local community health centre in Dohrighat was shut. The family then went to a private hospital across the Ghaghara river in Barhalganj in Gorakhpur but was told that it had no oxygen. In panic, Yadav tried to move his mother to his workplace in Deoria. Meanwhile, the private hospital which had rejected him earlier called him back following the intervention of a politician, he says. The entire episode lasted more than three hours, of which the family spent an hour stuck on a 3-km stretch of road in a traffic jam, which Yadav’s brother, an Army jawan, frantically tried to clear. Yadav attempted resuscitation in the ambulance meanwhile, but by the time they reached the hospital, his mother had died. His father, who was also hospitalised for a few days, is critical at home. Barring two or three members, everyone is his house has tested positive for COVID-19.
Yadav, who was busy during the panchayat polls and vaccination drive, cannot explain how his parents who live a rural life got the virus. “It means the virus has spread in the villages,” he says.
While a large part of the media’s focus was on the worst-affected urban centres of the State such as Lucknow, Varanasi city, Kanpur, Prayagraj and Meerut, the pandemic steadily crept into the semi-urban and rural areas. In several districts, the death count doubled and even tripled within a fortnight in April. Largely rural and backward districts like Chandauli, Hardoi, Shahjahanpur, Basti, Ghazipur and Sonbhadra have recorded a high number of deaths, between 230 and 320 each, indicating the devastating impact of COVID-19 in the rural areas of U.P.
Problems with testing
Bihari Lal, a journalist in a Hindi daily in Chandauli, is among the dead. His son Ashutosh Jaiswal, who serves in the Railways, says his father faced no shortage of oxygen supply, but was not treated well at the private hospital where he was admitted. The family did not take Bihari Lal to a government centre as they do not trust government hospitals and found it easier to find a bed in a private centre, Jaiswal says. Bihari Lal, who also served as an LIC agent and ran a photo editing store, had developed a cough and fever after moving about during the panchayat polls, his family says. Initially, a local doctor prescribed some antibiotics for him. Then a blood test revealed that he had typhoid. While his fever subsided, Bihari Lal’s oxygen levels continued to drop and he was admitted in hospital. A CT scan revealed that he had lung infection. Three-four days later, a rapid antigen test showed that Bihari Lal was COVID-19 positive.
Jaiswal feels that the initial delay in starting COVID-19 treatment may have cost his father precious time. According to a senior district official, this is a common concern as people rely on quacks and are slow to start precautionary treatment for COVID-19 as per the guidelines issued by the State.
For many days after his initial symptoms, Bihari Lal’s family relied on the usual care and steam treatment as they believed that he was getting better. “People are taking the fever and cough lightly and going to doctors for usual treatment. When the doctor says the patient has COVID-19, they are unable to understand what to do,” says Jaiswal.
Despite raising a flag on the district portal, Jaiswal says no sanitation work was carried out in his house in Purwa village after his father tested positive. Similar complaints were raised by people in other districts as well.
The State government says it is conducting a massive testing and door-to-door surveillance drive in 97,000 villages. This included a special drive from May 5 to 9. However, representatives of several villages have alleged that the administration has provided minimal facilities for testing. Testimonies from rural areas show that deaths and positive cases may be much higher than recorded as not all symptomatic or suspected cases are being sent for tests. This is due to infrastructural issues such as shortage of manpower and equipment, lack of accessibility and urgency, or hesitancy on behalf of the people.
In Unnao, front-line ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers, who go door to door to trace cases in villages, say they are at high risk as many of them do not have the necessary instruments to measure temperature or oxygen levels. They are not even provided sanitisers, they say. Veermati Singh, an ASHA worker, says all she was given was a medicine kit with some strips of tablets, mainly for fever; a face mask; and a pair of gloves. “People don’t take us seriously. Why would they when I cannot even record their temperature and oxygen levels,” she says.
Many who had COVID-19 symptoms and lung infection, detected through CT scans, say they did not get RT-PCR tests done. If they did have COVID-19, they would not have been officially counted in the State’s daily case count.
On May 10, Seema Jaiswal, the Pradhan of Sauram village in Ghazipur, not too far from the Ganga, wrote to the district magistrate stating that the number of people dying due to COVID-19 in her gram sabha was increasing by the day. She attached a list of 16 persons who had died. Manoj Kumar Jaiswal, her husband, says three more people have died since, including a six-month-old girl. Though he is not sure if they died of COVID-19, he says the symptoms could not have been anything else. “Bas khasi aur bukhar (Just cough and fever)! Some had it for 2-4 days and died. Others had it for barely 12-24 hours and died,” he claims. However, he is quick to add, “We can’t say that they died of COVID-19. Only after testing will we be able to say that.” Jaiswal alleges that no tests were carried out in the village till his wife wrote the letter.
The Chief Medical Officer of Ghazipur, Girish Chandra Maurya, visited the village to inspect the deaths. He says two-three people did die in the village but due to “age and natural process” or some other illness, not COVID-19.
The administration then held testing camps in two sessions. Of the 142 persons with symptoms, four were found positive through rapid antigen tests. They were put under quarantine. Medicine kits were distributed among the others. Three sacks of bleaching powder were provided to the village head for sanitisation.
Maurya admits that “more people are dying” in the rural areas in the second wave. This has scared the rural folk and has forced many to come forward to get tested, he says. “Now more people are also wearing masks. They feel they need to get tested and treated on time,” says Maurya. The district had a target of conducting 2,000 tests per day but was testing 8,000 samples, he says. He adds that teams are especially being sent to the villages for testing drives. Neighbouring Chandauli was testing only 1,500-1,700 samples, says an official.
In Baghpat’s Lumb village, the headman released on social media a list of 34-37 persons who had allegedly died of COVID-19 over the past month. After carrying out a survey, officials said the reports were false. The teams did not find any death due to COVID-19, says the Chief Medical Officer, R. K. Tandon. Officials say though fever was reported in a couple of cases, it was not correct to say that all deaths in the village were due to COVID-19. In the last two months, 20-25 persons had died, but due to other illnesses, says Tandon. He also rubbished claims that no tests were being carried out. The administration tested 362 persons through RT-PCR and 428 through rapid antigen tests and found 21 persons positive for COVID-19. All of them have recovered, he says.
The role of Panchayat polls
The spread of the pandemic in rural U.P. has coincided with the panchayat polls, which many have blamed for the spike in cases and deaths. Despite guidelines being issued, it was impractical to imagine social distancing and proper safety norms being followed in the tightly contested rural polls which had around 13 crore registered voters, over 2 lakh voting booths and 80,762 voting centres, and over 2.43 lakh officials and staff on polling duty.
While the government says that it conducted the polls on the instructions of the Allahabad High Court, it ignored several warnings, including by its own legislators, to defer the process of voting as well as counting when the second wave hit its peak. The counting could lead to a “super explosion” of COVID-19 cases in rural areas, wrote the Bharatiya Janata Party MLA from Hardoi district, Madhvendra Pratap, to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Concerned about the deaths of those on polling duty, teacher unions had declared that they would boycott the counting process on May 2. However, after the Supreme Court allowed the counting process to go ahead, on assurances by the State government that proper COVID-19 safety norms would be followed, the unions called off their boycott. The counting centres across U.P. presented a worrying picture. Social distancing went for a toss. Large numbers of people, mostly men, gathered outside or lined up at the gates of the centres in close physical proximity to one another.
The U.P. Prathmik Shikshak Sangh, a union of primary teachers, alleged that 1,621 teachers and staff died of COVID-19 after being assigned duty in the panchayat polls and control rooms for the pandemic. The Allahabad High Court, which has taken note of the issue in regular hearings, reprimanded the State over the deaths and said the ₹30 lakh compensation offered to the kin of the dead was not enough. It suggested that the amount be increased to ₹1 crore. However, the government left the teacher unions fuming after it announced that it had confirmed only three deaths due to COVID-19. The kin of the deceased and the Opposition parties say this is a ploy by the government to avoid paying huge sums of compensation.
Lawyer Satyam Rai, whose father Pankaj Rai, a school principal, died on April 24 after serving in the second phase of the panchayat polls in Azamgarh, says the election could have easily been deferred given the surge in cases. Pankaj Rai, though he tested negative in a rapid antigen test, was diagnosed with “typical COVID-19” in his CT scan. He died before the RT-PCR test could be conducted and will perhaps not be counted among the 18,760 persons who have died in U.P. till May 21. “A person does not develop symptoms and die immediately. The government’s figure is pure eyewash,” says Satyam, still reeling from his loss.
He is referring to the explanation offered by the State Basic Education Department, which said that only three teachers had died on polling duty. Citing the rules of the State Election Commission, the Education Department said that an official was considered to be on election duty only from the period he or she left their residence for training, polling and counting work till they reached their residence after work.
Dinesh Chandra Sharma, president of the union, which is at the forefront of the fight for the deceased teachers, says this guideline does not make sense since people develop symptoms and die days or weeks after exposure. “This is a scam of deaths,” says Sharma, claiming that 80% of the teachers who had died had either RT-PCR or antigen test reports taken. “They have to change the rules for COVID-19. Saying that someone didn’t die on the spot… how does that make sense,” he asks. Following the furore over the issue, Adityanath instructed officials to amend the guidelines.
Learning from the urban areas
As U.P. tackles the surge in rural areas, the Allahabad High Court recently said, “So far as the medical infrastructure is concerned, in these few months we have realised that in the manner it stands today, it is very delicate, fragile and debilitated.” Adityanath, however, is confident. He said the results of “gaon-gaon, ghar-ghar (village to village, door to door)” screening and testing have shown that the rural areas are “safe to a large extent”. At the same time, he has asked officials to further improve medical facilities in rural areas.
Neeraj Mishra, president of the United Resident and Doctors Association, U.P., who is himself recovering from post-COVID-19 complications, feels that the government should have judiciously used the experience in the urban areas to prevent the spread in the villages. “The administration should have been vigilant and active. But they left people to fend for themselves. There needs to be accountability,” he says.
Meanwhile, in Ballia, Superintendent of Police Vipin Tada says no new bodies have been found floating in the Ganga after the initial phase. Nine police teams in the district are out on patrol. The final rites of the bodies found were carried out according to customs, the police say. However, five police constables in Ballia were suspended for insensitive behaviour after an unclaimed body was cremated with petrol and tyres on a ghat.
As the State takes fresh measures to arrest the growth of the virus in its villages and the debate over the bodies in the Ganga rages on, Mishra says there is no religious sanction for the disposal of bodies in the Ganga. Even the jal samadhi ritual for seers is done through a specific process of encasing the body in a box with stones, he points out. Highlighting the religious significance of the river for Hindus, he says, “The Ganga is not meant for this purpose. She is the giver of mukti and bhukti.”