1. Genome sampling shows rising prevalence of U.K. strain in Delhi
Proportion rose to 50% last week from 28% in March
The proportion of the U.K. variant (B.1.1.7) in genome samples sequenced from COVID-19 cases in Delhi has risen from 28% in the second week of March to 50% last week, Sujeet Singh, Director, National Centre for Disease Control, said at a webinar on Friday.
The U.K. variant has a mutation N501Y that is reported to increase the transmission of the virus, leading to more numbers and a knock-on consequence of increasing disease severity and mortality.
Speaking at the webinar, organised by the Department of Biotechnology, Dr. Singh said there was also a rise in the Indian variant (B.1.617), which has two mutations associated with increased efficacy and decreasing the potency of vaccines.
However, while the relative proportion of known variants of concern, or VoC, (the U.K., South Africa, Brazil variants) is around 11%, investigations were still on to determine to what extent they were responsible for the severity of disease.
Delhi is undergoing an unprecedented surge in its fourth wave, with a rise in instances of people with breathlessness and a demand for oxygen cylinders and beds that has led to health systems being overwhelmed.
Of the 438 sequences of the VOCs analysed in Delhi, 415 exhibited the U.K. strain and 23 the South Africa strain.
Delhi was among the States, along with Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat, where instances of the U.K. strain in the wider community far outnumbered those detected among international travellers and their contacts.
For instance, in Delhi, there were 324 instances of the UK strain in the “community” as opposed to 91 among travellers and their contacts (T&C). In Gujarat, it was 18 in T&C and 42 in the community and in Chhattisgarh there was only 1 case in the T&C as opposed to 14 in the community.
Such numbers weren’t yet present for the Brazilian and South African strains. Several of these States are showing unprecedented spikes.
The comparative data was presented by Dr. Singh. So far about 15,000 genomes had been sequenced, which is about 1% of India’s coronavirus case load.
Dr. Anurag Agrawal, Director, CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, said the concern with the Indian variants was that they possessed two mutations — E484K and L245R — that together would increase the likelihood of a wider range of antibodies being unable to counter the virus. “However immunity also includes a cellular level response that can generate cross reactivity and so we can still expect, a good antibody response which is why all vaccines, despite the variant, will be fairly protective (against disease),” he said.
Dr. Priya Abraham, Director, ICMR-National Institute of Virology, said the virus would continue to mutate and the best defence would be to continue following ‘COVID appropriate behaviour’ .
2. Calls grow for U.S. to help India with spare vaccines
Plea for temporary waiver of IPR to boost global supply
As a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic rages in India, calls are growing in the United States to send spare vaccine doses to New Delhi. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Indian and U.S. officials were in touch about possible U.S. help to India at this time, but did not comment on whether the U.S. would send vaccines from its stockpiles.
“Let me first say that the United States offers our deepest sympathy to the people of India who are clearly suffering during this global pandemic and we are working closely with Indian officials at both political and experts level to identify ways to help address the crisis,” Ms. Psaki said on Friday in response to a question on whether there are plans for the U.S. to send vaccines, such as from its AstraZeneca stockpile, to India.
“So there are ongoing discussions. I don’t have anything more to preview but we are in touch with at a range of levels about how we can help them get through this period of time,” Ms. Psaki said.
On the question of whether the U.S. was helping India with its oxygen shortage, Ms. Psaki said the U.S. had provided a “huge, significant” amount of health funding to India over time towards a range of supplies.
“…But I will check if oxygen is specifically a part of how we can help at this point of time. There are ongoing discussions so maybe that’s part of the discussions now,” she said.
Several lawmakers and health experts remarked on the current wave of the pandemic in India, asking for the U.S. to donate spare vaccines.
“India is reporting the world’s highest ever single-day COVID case rise. Earth Day is about the health of the planet and everyone and everything on it. The U.S. has more than enough vaccine for every American, but we are denying countries like India desperately needed support,” U.S. Senator Ed Markey from Massachusetts tweeted on Thursday.
In March, the U.S. announced plans to release 4 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Canada and Mexico.
A group Senators, including former Democratic primary progressive candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have written to President Joe Biden, asking the U.S. to support a request by India and South Africa for a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights at the World Trade Organization to facilitate the production of vaccines and therapeutics globally.
On Thursday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price referred questions on export controls to the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR).
“You asked about intellectual property and certain controls. That was — is within the purview of USTR. What I will say broadly is that the United States first and foremost is engaged in an ambitious and effective and, so far, successful effort to vaccinate the American people,” he said.
Intellectual Property Rights
- Intellectual property rights (IPR) are the rights given to persons over the creations of their minds: inventions, literary and artistic works, and symbols, names and images used in commerce. They usually give the creator an exclusive right over the use of his/her creation for a certain period of time.
- These rights are outlined in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides for the right to benefit from the protection of moral and material interests resulting from authorship of scientific, literary or artistic productions.
- The importance of intellectual property was first recognized in the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property (1883) and the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (1886). Both treaties are administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).
Intellectual property rights are customarily divided into two main areas:
(i) Copyright and rights related to copyright:
- The rights of authors of literary and artistic works (such as books and other writings, musical compositions, paintings, sculpture, computer programs and films) are protected by copyright, for a minimum period of 50 years after the death of the author.
(ii) Industrial property: Industrial property can be divided into two main areas:
- Protection of distinctive signs, in particular trademarks and geographical indications.
- Trademarks distinguish the goods or services of one undertaking from those of other undertakings.
- Geographical Indications (GIs) identify a good as originating in a place where a given characteristic of the good is essentially attributable to its geographical origin.
- The protection of such distinctive signs aims to stimulate and ensure fair competition and to protect consumers, by enabling them to make informed choices between various goods and services.
- The protection may last indefinitely, provided the sign in question continues to be distinctive.
- Industrial designs and trade secrets: Other types of industrial property are protected primarily to stimulate innovation, design and the creation of technology. In this category fall inventions (protected by patents), industrial designs and trade secrets.
What is the need of IPR?
The progress and well-being of humanity rest on its capacity to create and invent new works in the areas of technology and culture.
- Encourages innovation: The legal protection of new creations encourages the commitment of additional resources for further innovation.
- Economic growth: The promotion and protection of intellectual property spurs economic growth, creates new jobs and industries, and enhances the quality and enjoyment of life.
- Safeguard the rights of creators: IPR is required to safeguard creators and other producers of their intellectual commodity, goods and services by granting them certain time-limited rights to control the use made of the manufactured goods.
- It promotes innovation and creativity and ensures ease of doing business.
- It facilitates the transfer of technology in the form of foreign direct investment, joint ventures and licensing.
India and IPR
- India is a member of the World Trade Organisation and committed to the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS Agreement).
- India is also a member of World Intellectual Property Organization, a body responsible for the promotion of the protection of intellectual property rights throughout the world.
- India is also a member of the following important WIPO-administered International Treaties and Conventions relating to IPRs.
- Budapest Treaty on the International Recognition of the Deposit of Microorganisms for the Purposes of Patent Procedure
- Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property
- Convention Establishing the World Intellectual Property Organization
- Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works
- Patent Cooperation Treaty
- Protocol Relating to the Madrid Agreement Concerning the International Registration of Marks- Madrid Protocol
- Washington Treaty on Intellectual Property in respect of Integrated Circuits
- Nairobi Treaty on the Protection of the Olympic Symbol
- Convention for the Protection of Producers of Phonograms Against Unauthorized Duplication of Their Phonograms
- Marrakesh Treaty to facilitate Access to Published Works by Visually Impaired Persons and Persons with Print Disabilities.
National IPR Policy
- The National Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) Policy 2016 was adopted in May 2016 as a vision document to guide future development of IPRs in the country.
- It’s clarion call is “Creative India; Innovative India”.
- It encompasses and brings to a single platform all IPRs, taking into account all inter-linkages and thus aims to create and exploit synergies between all forms of intellectual property (IP), concerned statutes and agencies.
- It sets in place an institutional mechanism for implementation, monitoring and review. It aims to incorporate and adapt global best practices to the Indian scenario.
- Department of Industrial Policy & Promotion (DIPP), Ministry of Commerce, Government of India, has been appointed as the nodal department to coordinate, guide and oversee the implementation and future development of IPRs in India.
- The ‘Cell for IPR Promotion & Management (CIPAM)’, setup under the aegis of DIPP, is to be the single point of reference for implementation of the objectives of the National IPR Policy.
- India’s IPR regime is in compliance with the WTO’s agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).
- IPR Awareness: Outreach and Promotion – To create public awareness about the economic, social and cultural benefits of IPRs among all sections of society.
- Generation of IPRs – To stimulate the generation of IPRs.
- Legal and Legislative Framework – To have strong and effective IPR laws, which balance the interests of rights owners with larger public interest.
- Administration and Management – To modernize and strengthen service-oriented IPR administration.
- Commercialization of IPRs – Get value for IPRs through commercialization.
- Enforcement and Adjudication – To strengthen the enforcement and adjudicatory mechanisms for combating IPR infringements.
- Human Capital Development – To strengthen and expand human resources, institutions and capacities for teaching, training, research and skill building in IPRs.
Achievements under new IPR policy
- Improvement in GII Ranking: India’s rank in the Global Innovation Index (GII) issued by WIPO has improved from 81st in 2015 to 52nd place in 2019.
- Strengthening of institutional mechanism regarding IP protection and promotion.
- Clearing Backlog/ Reducing Pendency in IP applications: Augmentation of technical manpower by the government, has resulted in drastic reduction in pendency in IP applications.
- Automatic issuance of electronically generated patent and trademark certificates has also been introduced.
- Increase in Patent and trademark Filings: Patent filings have increased by nearly 7% in the first 8 months of 2018-19 vis-à-vis the corresponding period of 2017-18. Trademark filings have increased by nearly 28% in this duration.
- IP Process Re-engineering Patent Rules, 2003 have been amended to streamline processes and make them more user friendly. Revamped Trade Marks Rules have been notified in 2017.
- Creating IPR Awareness: IPR Awareness programs have been conducted in academic institutions, including rural schools through satellite communication, and for industry, police, customs and judiciary.
- Technology and Innovation Support Centres (TISCs): In conjunction with WIPO, TISCs have been established in various institutions across different states.
Issues in India’s IPR regime
- Section 3(d) of the Indian Patent Act 1970 (as amended in 2005) does not allow patent to be granted to inventions involving new forms of a known substance unless it differs significantly in properties with regard to efficacy.
- This means that the Indian Patent Act does not allow evergreening of patents.
- This has been a cause of concern to the pharma companies. Section 3(d) was instrumental in the Indian Patent Office (IPO) rejecting the patent for Novartis’ drug Glivec (imatinib mesylate).
- Issue of Compulsory licencing (CL): CL is problematic for foreign investors who bring technology as they are concerned about the misuse of CL to replicate their products. It has been impacting India-EU FTA negotiations.
- CL is the grant of permission by the government to entities to use, manufacture, import or sell a patented invention without the patent-owner’s consent. Patents Act in India deals with CL.
- CL is permitted under the WTO’s TRIPS (IPR) Agreement provided conditions such as ‘national emergencies, other circumstances of extreme urgency and anti-competitive practices’ are fulfilled.
- India continues to remain on the United States Trade Representative’s (USTR’s) ‘Priority Watch List’ for alleged violations of intellectual property rights (IPR).
- In its latest Special 301 report released by the United States Trade Representative (USTR), the US termed India as “one of the world’s most challenging major economies” with respect to protection and enforcement of IP.
- Data Exclusivity: Foreign investors and MNCs allege that Indian law does not protect against unfair commercial use of test data or other data submitted to the government during the application for market approval of pharmaceutical or agro-chemical products. For this they demand a Data Exclusivity law.
- Enforcement of the Copyright act is weak, and piracy of copyrighted materials is widespread.
3. Emergency use nod for Virafin
Antiviral drug for moderate infection
The Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) on Friday granted emergency use approval for pharma major Zydus Cadila’s antiviral drug ‘Virafin’ to treat moderate COVID-19 in adults, company press release said.
“A single dose subcutaneous regimen of the antiviral Virafin [a pegylated interferon alpha-2b (PegIFN)] will make the treatment more convenient for the patients. When administered early on during COVID, Virafin will help patients recover faster and avoid much of the complications. Virafin will be available on the prescription of a medical specialist for use in hospital/institutional setup,” the release added.
The drug’s safety profile is already well known as it is used in treating people with chronic hepatitis B and C. The drug has been repurposed for treating moderate COVID-19 disease.
According to Dr. Sharvil Patel, Managing Director, Cadila Healthcare Limited, the therapy “significantly reduces viral load when given early on and can help in better disease management”.
In a multi-centre trial in 20-25 centres across India, the company found the drug reduced the need for supplemental oxygen. This clearly “indicates that the antiviral was able to control respiratory distress and failure which has been one of the major challenges in treating COVID-19”, the company said.
In the phase-3 trials, the drug was able to achieve “better clinical improvement in the patients suffering from COVID-19”. A “higher proportion (91.15%) of patients administered the drug were RT-PCR negative by day seven as it ensures faster viral clearance”.
According to an April 5 company press release, the drug reduced the duration for supplemental oxygen to 56 hours from 84 hours in moderate COVID-19 patients.
Drug Controller General of India (DCGI)
Drugs Controller General of India is the head of department of the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization of the Government of India.
Responsible for approval of licences of specified categories of drugs such as blood and blood products, IV fluids, vaccines, and sera in India.
DCGI also sets standards for manufacturing, sales, import, and distribution of drugs in India.
Comes under the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare.
DCGI lays down the standard and quality of manufacturing, selling, import and distribution of drugs in India.
- Acting as appellate authority in case of any dispute regarding the quality of drugs.
- Preparation and maintenance of national reference standard.
- To bring about the uniformity in the enforcement of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act.
- Training of Drug Analysts deputed by State Drug Control Laboratories and other Institutions
- Analysis of Cosmetics received as survey samples from CDSCO (central drug standard control organisation)
With the notification of Medical Device Rules 2017 by the Government of India, DCGI will also act as Central Licensing Authority (CLA) for the medical devices which fall under the purview of these rules. Out of four Classes of medical devices from Class A to Class D, DCGI will be the direct licensing authority for Class C and Class D devices, whereas it will coordinate licensing for Class A and B devices through State drug controllers, who will act as State Licensing Authority or SLA.
The central government have established 6 zonal offices of CDSCO (Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation) at Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, and Ghaziabad, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, various Sub-Zonal offices and Port offices, which works in close collaboration with the state control administration and assist them in securing uniform enforcement of the Drug Act.
4. Covishield protects against double mutant: study
Preliminary tests on a small group showed efficacy in those who have received the vaccine
Preliminary studies show that people who have been vaccinated with Covishield have protection against the double mutant variant (B.1.617) first found in India.
Researchers at the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) found that protection against the double mutant variant was also seen both when convalescent plasma from people who have been infected and have already recovered was tested in the lab.
“Both Covishield vaccinated sera and convalescent sera were found to offer protection against the double mutant variant (B.1.167),” said Dr. Rakesh Mishra, Director, CCMB. “This is only a preliminary study involving four-five people for each group, and was carried out among young people who have recovered from prior infection and another group who received Covishield vaccine.” Dr. Mishra said that in about 10 days, studies involving more people from both groups will be done. Also, the study will involve older people to understand the level of protection.
“The study, though preliminary, does show that vaccination with Covishield offers protection against the double mutant variant. So people should go ahead and get vaccinated quickly,” said Dr. Mishra.
“The preliminary study also suggests that convalescent plasma may offer protection against reinfection with the double mutant variant. Studies using plasma from more recovered and vaccinated people of different age groups are needed for confirmation,” he said.
The institute is carrying out similar studies using plasma from people vaccinated with Covaxin. The B.1.617 variant has two mutations — E484Q and L425R — of concern. According to Dr. Vinod Scaria, a senior scientist at the Delhi-based Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB), the two mutations have individually been found to make the virus more infectious and evade antibodies. But their combined effect when found together has not been determined.
Lab studies found that convalescent plasma from recovered people neutralised the double mutant variant almost completely even when the plasma was diluted 20-fold. The relative viral load seen when plasma was diluted 40- and 80-fold was about 2-3%. It was nearly 65% when the plasma was diluted 320-fold.
5. Protests in Myanmar ahead of ASEAN meet
Demonstrators urge leaders to stand with people; Amnesty calls crisis the bloc’s biggest test
Protesters marched through downtown Yangon on Friday to demand that regional leaders “stand with Myanmar people”, ahead of a weekend ASEAN summit to be attended by junta leader Min Aung Hlaing.
The country has been in turmoil since February 1, when the military ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a lightning coup.
Using violence and lethal force to quell a nationwide uprising, security forces have killed at least 739 people in near-daily crackdowns, according to a local monitoring group.
Coup leader Min Aung Hlaing is set to take part on Saturday in a summit of regional leaders — as part of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — to address Myanmar’s mounting crisis.
The meeting of ASEAN leaders and Foreign Ministers has drawn widespread criticism from activists, human rights groups and protesters for including the military regime.
In Yangon — where the anti-coup movement had laid low in recent weeks due to fear of crackdowns — protesters returned to the streets on Friday, flashing three-finger salutes of resistance.
“Mother Suu and leaders — release them immediately!” they shouted as they marched quickly past the Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon. “What do we want? Democracy!”
The protesters came from different Yangon townships, some carrying signs that read “ASEAN please stand with Myanmar people” and “ASEAN do you need more blood… to make the right decision?”
Also angered by the bloc’s invitation to Min Aung Hlaing was the so-called National Unity Government (NUG) — a group of ousted Myanmar lawmakers attempting to run a shadow administration.
‘Arrest the General’
On Thursday, they called on Interpol to arrest the senior General — the same day Myanmar state media announced the lawmakers in hiding were wanted for high treason.
Despite the threat of violence, nationwide demonstrations for a return to democracy persisted on Friday.
Scores of people young and old marched through the southern city of Dawei, holding signs that said, “Please, help (us) to arrest Min Aung Hlaing” as they chanted support for the shadow government.
Amnesty International’s Emerlynne Gil called ASEAN’s handling of Myanmar the “biggest test in its history”.
“The Indonesian authorities and other ASEAN member states cannot ignore the fact Min Aung Hlaing is suspected of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole,” she said.
The junta has justified the putsch by alleging electoral fraud in November’s elections — which Ms. Suu Kyi’s party had won in a landslide.
The U.S., EU and U.K. have already imposed sanctions on top military brass and some Army-linked businesses.
Before the coup, Gen. Min was already facing international sanctions over his Army’s role in the Rohingya crisis. About 7,50,000 of the Muslim minority group fled Myanmar in 2017 following a brutal military crackdown.
6. Japan to host joint drill with U.S., France
Japan will hold a joint military drill with U.S. and French troops in the country’s southwest next month, the Defence Minister said on Friday, as China’s actions in regional waters raise concern.
The exercise, running from May 11 to 17, will be the first large-scale exercise in Japan involving ground troops from all three countries.
It comes as Tokyo seeks to deepen defence cooperation beyond its key ally U.S. to counter Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the East and South China seas. “France shares the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi said. “By strengthening cooperation between Japan, the U.S. and France, we’d like to further improve the tactics and skills of the Self-Defense Forces,” he said.
7. Editorial-1: India’s COVID crisis — when difficult became worse
Its second wave is a result of poor political choices, bad communications, and neglect of public health principles
India is in its darkest days of the pandemic, but there may be still darker days to come. With one in three new infections globally occurring in the country, India’s astronomic surge in cases — more than 3 lakh daily — is propelling the global pandemic, and represents a grave threat to the economic and social well-being of the Indian people. The political leaders, who have been too slow and largely failed to take the outbreak seriously, are now coming to realise the gravity of the task at hand. Lockdowns are spreading, but always one step behind the virus. Given the catastrophic state of affairs, effective intervention will require much more rigorous and extensive action.
A data gap
It is difficult to grasp the true scope of this crisis. New Delhi’s test positivity rate — the rate at which people getting tested for coronavirus receive positive results — recently climbed above 30%. If it takes three tests to find one positive patient, it means that we are likely missing many, many infections. Indeed, one would not be surprised if the true number of infections was now above 10 lakh daily. And we can see it in all those undocumented deaths. While the official statistics suggest 2,000 deaths daily, the true number again is much higher. One crematorium in New Delhi has gone from managing 20 bodies daily to 100; the constant running of the furnaces has caused its steel chimneys to melt.
How did India find itself in this predicament? Certainly, the country faced many challenges in controlling the coronavirus, including the second largest population in the world, and one spread over an enormous, geographically and socially diverse country comprising both very rural areas and sprawling cities. But India’s leaders have made a very difficult situation worse. Early this year, daily new infections dropped to less than 10,000 — a remarkable achievement, driven in part by successful efforts to enforce social distancing and other public health measures. India began to roll out homegrown vaccines to much fanfare. Bharatiya Janata Party President J.P. Nadda declared that Prime Minister Modi had “saved the country,” comparing India’s performance under Modi favourably to that of the United States.
But this premature celebration has ushered in a nightmare. The resumption of large, in-person political rallies and other large gatherings are part of the fuel that has caused COVID-19 to explode. The Prime Minister recently declared, “I can see a sea of masses” at a rally in West Bengal, apparently oblivious to the grave risk that such a sea poses to his supporters. The government also took almost no steps to limit the risk posed by the Kumbh Mela festival, ironically claiming that infection precautions would present too great a threat to crowd safety. As a result, the Kumbh Mela has resulted in thousands of positive tests, including several sadhus and former King Gyanendra of Nepal, with many thousands of infections sure to go undetected as pilgrims return to their home communities and expose their families and neighbours.
The virus has taken advantage of the overconfidence of the government over the past months, making matters worse. Viruses mutate constantly, but it is when they are allowed to spread unchecked through large populations that more infectious and more deadly variants become established and change the dynamics of outbreaks. India is now faced with managing a renewed epidemic driven at least in part by the B1.617 “double mutant” strain of SARS-CoV-2, with similar mutations to more virulent strains found in Brazil and South Africa. At the moment, however, scientists and public health policymakers are drawing on extremely limited data, as far too few cases of infection are being analysed to provide a complete and actionable picture of the spread of variants and their influence on disease dynamics. India must rapidly scale up its genomic surveillance efforts to give scientists and public health researchers the data they need to guide policy decisions.
How can the astronomical growth of the pandemic in India be brought under control? Short-term targeted lockdowns can help — the kind we are seeing in New Delhi and elsewhere. They will break the chains of transmission and can curb the exponential growth we are seeing across the nation.
A second strategy is expanding access to vaccines although its benefits are likely to take weeks to be felt. Vaccine rollout without massive outreach and support for the complex, the challenging logistics of administering vaccines, and simply broadening eligibility requirements will do little to slow the virus. The lockdowns we are seeing now will almost surely need to be extended beyond a week and will need to be in place until infection numbers start coming down substantially. It is worth remembering that lockdowns exact a terrible economic and social cost and are a strategy of last resort.
Steps to take
So what might we do to minimise the time that cities and regions need to be in lockdown? India needs a surge of testing. Right now, given high test positivity rates, it is clear that the nation is not testing enough. Ideally, India would increase its testing rates several times over, with the goal of getting the positivity rate under 5%. The nation has the capacity to do that many more tests but has not made it enough of a priority.
We also know that universal mask wearing when people are outside their homes can be enormously helpful in curbing the spread of the disease. Given the crowds of Indian cities and towns and the high rates of infections, universal mask wearing, ideally with high quality masks, is critical and must be mandatory.
And banning all major indoor and outdoor events, including rallies, religious festivals, weddings, and so forth, is essential. If those were to continue, any hope of bringing this outbreak under control would quickly vanish.
Of course, India’s pandemic will finally come to an end when enough Indians are vaccinated — and targeting vaccines now most quickly and effectively can help control the spread of the virus. Whatever strategy India takes to administer vaccines (focus on elderly to save lives, young people to slow spread, etc.), the key is ensuring the country has enough vaccines. Here, the government needs to work with manufacturers like the Serum Institute, identify what is slowing them down, and use the full clout of the Indian government to drive production higher.
India is now suffering the worst days of the pandemic, going through a second wave of coronavirus as a result of poor political choices, poor communications, and neglect of public health principles. For months, too many celebrated that India had “beaten the virus” even though none of us could explain how that could be and why. In this crisis, there is much that individuals can do to protect themselves and their families. But political leaders must do much more. The good news is that we know it can be done, and we know how to do it. Focus on public health measures, improve vaccinations, universal masking, and effective coordination across public health efforts. If we do these things, infections can turn, hospitals can stop being overwhelmed, and life can begin to go back to normal.
8. Editorial-2: Arise and rejuvenate the third layer of governance
Political acts depriving people of their rights must stop and there needs to be a movement to strengthen Panchayati raj
What is progress? When has a government achieved its goals? What is the true indication that a government is not just planning, but also putting into action those plans? The half-hearted execution of a plan by a government that the people chose is not a sign of achievement. The government must ensure that even the last man sitting in the remote corner of the last row should have access to the beneﬁts of the plan. This is why it is crucial that strong local bodies are formed to enable genuine feasibility and execution. The Cholas were the pioneers in the formation of local bodies as part of a well-organised hierarchy to oversee the implementation of progressive plans.
The journey of Panchayati raj
“The voice of the people is the voice of god; The voice of the Panchayat is the voice of the people,” is the quote attributed to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Panchayati raj ensures that the voices of the people are heard loud and clear. But, drawing up a path for a brilliant organisational structure like the Panchayat raj, and then travelling along the path is not a simple task.
Realising that seamless administration is impossible without power sharing, the British, in 1884, passed the Madras Local Boards Act. With this, the British formed unions in both small towns and big cities and began to appoint members to ensure better administration. To a certain extent, this brought about positive changes in basic parameters such as health and hygiene.
With the advent of gram panchayat laws in 1920, people over 25 years of age were bestowed with the right to vote and choose their panchayat members.
Even though Gandhiji was constantly laying emphasis on the importance of autonomously ruled villages, the idea received constitutional recognition only in 1992.
It was only after the 73rd Amendment in the 1990s, that the Panchayati raj law came into force. This was the law that brought about massive turning points such as the initiation of grama sabha, a three-tier Panchayati raj methodology of governance, reservation for the downtrodden and women, consistency in economic development, local body elections once in five years, the formation of the State Election Commission, Finance Commission, and the power to draft the rules and responsibilities of the Panchayat.
The regions which were better equipped with basic facilities and which were more developed than the villages were brought under one coordinated body, namely, the municipality. The district capitals were further slotted into a combined parameter, namely, the corporation. Administration was transferred to the people, from the politicians and other ofﬁcials.
The lofty dream of Gandhiji to make each village of the independent India a republic organisation, and to reiterate that the autonomous administration of villages should be made the foundation of the entire country’s administration was heard and he lay stress on the active participation of the people in governance.
For seemingly trivial and easily resolvable issues, the villages did not have to seek the assistance of the State or the Central governments. Grama sabhas could and can be the platform to resolve such issues. According to the rules framed by the Tamil Nadu government, it is mandatory that grama sabhas meet at least four times in a calendar year. Besides, grama sabhas can be convened as and when the necessity arises. Every grama sabha meeting ensures the equal right to highlight the issues that disrupt life. In addition to this, the elected members of the Panchayat are obliged to read out the ﬁnancial statements and balance sheet to ensure transparency.
The decisions taken during a grama sabha meeting and the proposed solutions with a feasible deadline are potent and powerful. Unfortunately, the reality today is that grama sabhas have become more like auction houses. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, the present government did not even make an attempt to seek the opinions and the consensus of the people on significant issues such as an eight-lane highway project and even a major hydrocarbon project. Even though the government announced that people’s opinions would be considered, it went ahead and conducted meetings, which were marked by poor attendance and poor representation from the people. Even then, the government went ahead with the approval of projects which are impediments to normal life.
The truth is that keeping in mind a single goal, of profit, politicians hold ‘negotiations’ with the ofﬁcials. Several projects are being implemented for the beneﬁt of private and corporate entities.
Sadly, in this age, women do not find themselves in major administrative roles in the local bodies, though, on paper, women are shown to be a considerable force.
The Makkal Needhi Maiam has been laying stress on the importance of grama sabhas and has been extending its support in a very transparent manner to rejuvenate the dying system of Panchayati raj.
The Kerala example
The neighbouring State of Kerala has been diligently working toward ensuring the proper use of allotted funds, and ensuring the efﬁciency of administration and eligible member appointments. Thus, it stands tall as being exemplary. If Tamil Nadu wants to stand tall too, it needs to take steps to enable the power of administration to Panchayats, as stated in the Constitution.
To ensure efﬁciency, we need to strengthen our grama sabhas, hold area sabhas in cities, form ward committees, hold online Panchayat meetings, ensure decent remuneration to Panchayat chiefs and councillors and also bestow the grama sabha with the power to revoke appointed members and representatives. These steps are what will ensure real growth in the State.
The State-appointed corporation commissioner faces mammoth challenges when a member of the Opposition party takes charge as a mayor. The constant and meaningless conﬂicts between the ruling party and the mayor from the Opposition party make it impossible for the corporation commissioner to execute what was agreed upon in a meeting. The ofﬁcials kowtow to pressures from the ruling party. The same treatment is meted out to municipal councillors and district councillors.
In Tamil Nadu
The Constitution is clear in stating that local body elections must be conducted once in ﬁve years. But the ruling party keeps postponing the holding of local body elections, which is a breach of the Constitution. Strangely, this form of disrespect never materialises when it comes to the Assembly elections!
Local body elections have been held once in five years for the last 25 years, since 1996. But for the ﬁrst time, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government has travelled on without holding a local body election. This is not only an act of escapism but also a stain on the State’s political history.
The recent reconstitution of nine districts in the State is an invalid excuse to postpone the holding of local body elections. The government gives a variety of empty and irrelevant excuses to postpone these elections and to cancel grama sabha meetings. The time has come to stop this act — of depriving people of their basic rights.
The demand for federal rule in the Centre and autonomous rule in the States should resonate along with the need to have autonomous local bodies too. We must collectively ensure that Panchayati raj should be strengthened. This should be the outcome of a peoples’ movement.
I wish to end by citing Gandhiji’s belief that the voices of people will resolve what violence can never be successful in resolving. Let the peoples’ voices be heard. We should also note that every year, April 24 is celebrated as Panchayat raj day.
9. Editorial-3: Too little
The ECI woke up late to the ill-effects the long campaign in Bengal had on public health
The Election Commission of India’s decision to restrict campaigning for the remaining two phases of the West Bengal Assembly election is an instance of wisdom dawning late. Nevertheless, it will help limit the public health damage to what was already caused by an unreasonably extended election cycle in the State during the pandemic. After the Calcutta High Court sought an action taken report on what measures it was adopting in the context of the spreading pandemic, the Election Commission has ordered the cancellation of all rallies and roadshows. Only meetings that are attended by no more than 500 people will be allowed now. In its order, the Election Commission noted “with anguish” that parties and candidates were not adhering to safety protocols. Daily campaign hours had already been cut and campaigning was to stop 72 hours prior to polling, instead of 48 hours, as per an earlier directive. A bit of foresight would have been more helpful. The State is recording high numbers of infection. Bengal’s health infrastructure is not robust to deal with a heavy surge. All parties organised rallies amid the pandemic. But parties other than the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been calling for clubbing the last phases together. In the face of the Election Commission’s refusal to do so, the Congress, the Trinamool Congress and the Left had discontinued big rallies.
The only party that did not have a problem with the election being spread over eight phases over five weeks has been the BJP. Allegations that this helped the BJP that was dependent on its star campaigners and workers from other States moving from one region to the next carries weight. It is ironic that the BJP that argues for clubbing together all elections across the country has been happy about such a prolonged process in Bengal. Even after it became evident that the new surge was turning out to be severe, the BJP continued with big rallies in the State. Prime Minister Narendra Modi gloated about massive turnouts at his rallies. BJP leaders declared that there was no correlation between rally turnouts and the spread of the pandemic. It is not that India sleepwalked into this disaster; it was dragged in a boisterous procession of triumphalism and hubris by the political leadership. The unusual and unreasonable schedule of the Bengal election during the pandemic was unwise and avoidable. The Election Commission’s corrective measures at the last moment can only be of limited help. The lack of foresight while drawing up the schedule and monitoring the campaign bordered on complicity in the surge of new infections.