1. Minor ‘face-off’ in Galwan Valley
Army denies it, says reports inspired by those trying to derail resolution process
There was a minor face-off between Indian and Chinese troops in the no-patrolling zone at Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh in the first week of May, a senior government official told The Hindu. However, no clash occurred and the two sides disengaged quickly.
A no-patrolling zone extending to around 3 km, around 1.5 km each on either side of the clash site near the Y-junction of the Galwan Valley, was created after June 15, 2020, when 20 Indian Army personnel were killed in clashes with Chinese troops. A 30-day moratorium was also applied on foot-patrolling then. It was not known if it had been extended.
The Army, however, said no such “minor face-off” took place. “The article seems to be inspired by sources who may be trying to derail the ongoing process for early resolution of issues in eastern Ladakh,” it said in a statement.
“After the no-patrolling zones were created last year, the two sides occasionally conduct reconnaissance to see if the other side has crossed the line. The patrols are sent at different times. On the particular day, the Indian and Chinese patrols reached the area at the same time, a minor face-off happened, but they returned quickly,” the senior official said, adding that China still had camps beyond the no-patrolling zone and there had not been any reduction in troop deployment since last year.
The official said that both sides sent periodic patrols “out of suspicion”.
Prior to April-May 2020, when China massed troops at the particular location in Galwan, claiming it to be Chinese territory, Indian troops regularly patrolled the area that is said to be within India’s perception of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Earlier, the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) used to patrol the area and leave, but since April-May 2020, it made a permanent presence within 600-800 metres of India’s perception of the LAC.
On February 11, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh informed the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha that India and China had reached an agreement for disengagement in the Pangong Lake area to cease their forward deployments in a “phased, coordinated and verified manner”, which would “substantially” restore the pre-April 2020 status.
Since April 2020, Chinese troops blocked Indian troops from reaching at least 10 patrolling points, running from the Depsang plains in the north to Pangong Tso (lake) in the south in eastern Ladakh.
In all, there are more than 65 patrolling points from the base of Karakoram to Chumar.
India and China have held 11 rounds of talks so far after the clashes last year. While the troops partially disengaged on the north and south banks of Pangong Tso, phased disengagement is yet to take place at the other friction areas in eastern Ladakh — Gogra, Hot Springs, Depsang and Demchok.
“There has been no reduction in the number of troops on either side. China is currently doing some exercise so they have enhanced their presence along the LAC. There was some talk to pull back Indian troops to deploy them on COVID-19 duty. However, that was later ruled out,” the official said.
On April 2, the Ministry of Defence in a communication to Konchok Stanzin, councillor, Chushul, said that “due to the present operational situation in Ladakh, grazers have been asked to restrict their cattle movements”.
Galwan Valley Clash
What is the issue?
- The Indian and Chinese armies are engaged in the standoff in Pangong Tso, Galwan Valley, Demchok and Daulat Beg Oldie in eastern Ladakh.
- A sizable number of Chinese Army personnel even transgressed into the Indian side of the de-facto border in several areas including Pangong Tso.
- The actions on the northern bank of Pangong Tso are not just for territorial gains on land, but enhanced domination of the resource-rich lake.
- The stand-off at Ladakh’s Galwan Valley has escalated in recent weeks due to the infrastructure projects that India has undertaken in the recent years. India is building a strategic road through the Galwan Valley – close to China – connecting the region to an airstrip.
- China is opposed to any Indian construction in the area. In 1962, a stand-off in the Galwan area was one of the biggest flashpoints of the 1962 war.
- The border, or Line of Actual Control, is not demarcated, and China and India have differing ideas of where it should be located, leading to regular border “transgressions.” Often these don’t escalate tensions; a serious border standoff like the current one is less frequent, though this is the fourth since 2013.
- Both countries’ troops have patrolled this region for decades, as the contested 2,200-mile border is a long-standing subject of competing claims and tensions, including a brief war in 1962.
- Reasons: The violent clash happened when the Chinese side departed from the consensus to respect the LAC and attempted to unilaterally change the status quo.
- It is part of China’s ‘nibble and negotiate policy’. Their aim is to ensure that India does not build infrastructure along the LAC. It is their way of attaining a political goal with military might, while gaining more territory in the process.
What is the Line of Actual Control (LAC)?
- The LAC is the demarcation that separates Indian-controlled territory from Chinese-controlled territory. India considers the LAC to be 3,488 km long, while the Chinese consider it to be only around 2,000 km.
- The India-China LAC in Ladakh is an outcome of the territory illegally retained by China after the 1962 conflict. The Chinese occupation of parts of Aksai Chin is not supported by historical or legal documents.
- It is divided into three sectors:
- the eastern sector which spans Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim
- the middle sector in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh
- the western sector in Ladakh
- The Galwan Valley area comes under Sub Sector North (SSN), which lies just to the east of the Siachen glacier and is the only point that provides direct access to Aksai Chin from India.
How to Deal with a Problem?
- Devolution of comprehensive China strategy: Strong political direction, mature deliberation and coherence are keys to handling the situation.
- The Army can make tactical adjustments and manoeuvres to deter the Chinese, but a comprehensive China strategy and its determination should devolve on those tasked with national security policy in the highest echelons of the Government of India.
- Strategic communication: The responsibility of effective strategic communication too rests with political leadership. It is important to perceive the signals of transgressions on a serious note and adopt adequate strategy with clear instructions for forces.
- Clarification on LAC: India should take the initiative to insist on a timely and early clarification of the LAC. Pockets of difference of alignment as perceived by each side have to be clearly identified and these areas demilitarised by both sides through joint agreement pending a settlement of the boundary.
- Diplomatic channels must continue to be open and should not be fettered in any way because their smooth operability is vital in the current situation.
- Scaling down of military contact: India must stand resolute and firm in the defence of territory in all four sectors of the border. Contacts between the two militaries through joint exercises and exchanges of visits of senior Commanders should be scaled down for the foreseeable future.
- Counterbalance for the outside world: India’s leverage and balancing power within the Indo-Pacific and the world beyond stems from its strong democratic credentials, the dynamism of its economy, its leading role in multilateral institutions.
- The strategic advantage of its maritime geography is an asset possessed by few nations, and which must be deployed much more effectively to counterbalance the Chinese ingress into this oceanic space that surrounds us.
- Reconsider RCEP engagement: The time has also come for India to reconsider its stand on joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
- If India is to disengage from economic involvement with China, and build the capacities and capabilities it needs in manufacturing, and in supply chains networks closer home, it cannot be a prisoner of the short term.
- It is time to boldly take the long view in this area as also on its South Asia policy.
2. Single dose only 33% effective against B.1.617.2: U.K.
The finding is significant for India which is relying heavily on Covishield
A single dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, in the United Kingdom, was only 33% effective in protecting against symptomatic COVID-19 coronavirus involving the B.1.617.2 variant, first identified in India, as compared to a 59% efficacy from two doses of the vaccine, a study by scientists at Public Health England (PHE) and multiple institutions in the U.K. has found.
The finding is significant for India, which is not only heavily reliant on Covishield — the AstraZeneca vaccine — for about 90% of vaccination but also because the scientists who analyse genome variants in India report that the B.1.617.2 is increasingly becoming the dominant variant in India. The variant has multiple mutations on the spike protein region, a portion on the coronavirus that helps it to infiltrate the human body. Laboratory studies testing the potency of Covishield and Covaxin have shown that fewer antibodies are produced against the B.1.617 variant (related to the 617.2) though the numbers are sizeable to trigger immunity. No similar studies, however have been publicly reported on the B.1.617.2.
Anurag Agrawal, Director, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, said that while the dominance of the 617.2 strain was concerning and required investigation to improve future versions of available vaccines, the study’s import for India was that all the groups at greatest risk — healthcare workers, frontline workers and those over 60 years — must be given two shots.
“The Centre’s current guidelines are to continue masking up even after getting vaccinated. These numbers from the PHE only reinforce that. The vaccines’ protection against severe disease continues to be fairly high and so after two doses to those most at risk, we should ensure a single dose for as many as possible,” he told The Hindu. India, while posting over 350,000 new cases a day, battles a vaccine shortage with demand exceeding supply across age groups and some increase in supply expected only around August.
Health authorities in the U.K. have been reporting a rise in infections involving the 617.2 strain. Two vaccines predominantly — the Pfizer (BNT162b2) mRNA vaccine and the AstraZeneca vaccine — are being administered in the country, and from increasing the length between doses, from the original 4 weeks to 12 weeks, the U.K. has now reduced the gap between doses — to four weeks — for those above 60 years, given the rise in cases fuelled by the India variant. Before the second wave hit India, the policy here was to administer doses 4-6 weeks apart and has now — for Covishield — been extended to a 12-16 week interval.
The latest U.K. study sought to analyse if being infected with the 617.2 variant in the vaccinated reduced the vaccine’s effectiveness at protecting against symptomatic disease compared to the B.1.1.7, or the variant first identified in the U.K. The scientists reported that effectiveness (which in vaccine terminology refers to real-world efficacy) was “notably lower” after one dose of vaccine with B.1.617.2 compared to B.1.1.7 cases at 51.1%. One dose of the Pfizer vaccine also saw similar reduction in efficacy when the two variants were compared. However, two doses of the Pfizer vaccines saw effectiveness reduced from 93.4% with B.1.1.7 to 87.9% with B.1.617.2. In the case of AstraZeneca, it was a seven percentage point drop from 66% to 59%
The analysis included data for all age groups from April 5 to cover the period since the B.1.617.2 variant emerged in the U.K. It included 1,054 people confirmed as having the B.1.617.2 variant through genomic sequencing. The PHE said that the difference in effectiveness between the vaccines after two doses could be explained by the fact that the roll-out of second doses of AstraZeneca was later than for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and other data on antibody profiles showed that it took longer to reach maximum effectiveness with the AstraZeneca vaccine.
3. Anxiety, depression top concerns
calls received at Social Justice Ministry’s mental health call centres
Anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress have been among the most common problems reported by callers to the Social Justice Ministry’s mental health helpline, with many States seeing an increase in calls during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to officials.
A senior official from one of the regional centres of the helpline said the increase in number of calls could be partially because the helpline is being promoted as a COVID-19-related mental health resource during the second wave.
The official, who wished not to be named, said most of the callers in the past month had raised concerns regarding the second wave of the pandemic after being diagnosed with COVID-19. Some also enquired about vaccination and emergency services, the official said.
According to the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities data, a total of 26,047 calls were received by the KIRAN helpline till April 30 from September 16, 2020.
Rise in Gujarat, Kerala
While the number of calls overall saw a decrease from March (3,617) to April (3,371), there was an increase in some States, including Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Haryana, where the number more than doubled from 73 in March to 170 in April.
The helpline — 1800-599-0019 — was launched by the Ministry on September 7, 2020 as a mental health rehabilitation service. Callers are counselled first and are connected with psychiatrists and other experts depending on the need.
The majority of the callers had been men and in the age-group of 15 to 40, the Ministry’s report on its functioning from September 16, 2020 to January 15, 2021 had said.
4. ‘Children at limited risk for severe COVID-19’
Monitor mutant strains: paediatricians
Children are at limited risk for severe COVID-19 though they will continue to be susceptible to the infection as well as be transmitters, say the latest guidelines from the Indian Academy of Pediatrics, a 32,000-member association of paediatricians in India.
In recent days, there have been concerns that a ‘third wave’ of the pandemic would hit children harder, largely on the presumption that they were proportionally more likely to be unvaccinated than adults were. The academy statement, however, notes that the third serology survey (by the Indian Council of Medical Research) had found that the percentage of infected children in the 10-17 age group was around 25% which was similar to that of adults.
Two factors that favour children, the academy statement suggests, is that they have fewer chemical receptors that facilitate viral entry and their immune systems are more primed.
However, were a large number to be affected in future waves, that would also result in a substantial proportion of children being afflicted with severe and moderate disease, they add.
“As per data collected in waves 1 and 2, even instances of severe disease in children are less likely to require admissions in intensive care units,” the statement notes. “However, we need to be watchful about how mutant strains are likely to behave.”
Other experts too have opined that children are not more susceptible but steps must be taken to get them vaccinated. “I have no reason to think that infections in children in absolute numbers or in the form of a severe disease will rise. We need to prepare but try to avoid any unnecessary concern or alarm. One of the discourses which is largely missing is the vaccination of children. Aspects such as which will be the most appropriate vaccine for children? What will be the purpose of vaccination in children? In my opinion, while selecting a vaccine for children, preference should be given to one which shows a role in preventing transmission. Maybe, nasal COVID-19 vaccines could be the best option for children, as those will have an advantage in quick scale up as administration of those vaccines will be easy,” Chandrakant Lahariya, epidemiologist and public health analyst, told The Hindu in a recent interview.
5. U.K. to unveil plans for ‘digital border’
People coming to Britain without a visa or immigration status will need an ETA
Britain is to announce plans for a “fully digital border”, including the introduction of U.S.-style electronic travel authorisation to pre-check travellers to the U.K., Interior Minister Priti Patel said on Sunday.
The Minister will announce the plans in Parliament on Monday as part of a wider overhaul of the country’s immigration system, which will also include the introduction of a points-based migration system.
“Our new fully digital border will provide the ability to count people in and out of the country, giving us control over who comes to the U.K.,” Ms. Patel said in a statement.
“Our new approach will make it easier to identify potential threats before they reach the border,” she added.
Digitising the border will mean officials “can now count who is coming in and out of the country and whether they have permission to be here,” said her Home Office department.
Ms. Patel unveiled elements of her “New Plan for Immigration” in March, calling it “the most significant overhaul of our asylum system in decades.”
Tightening immigration rules and securing borders were key promises of those like Ms. Patel and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who argued for leaving the EU in Britain’s 2016 Brexit referendum.
Under the new plans to be unveiled on Monday, Ms. Patel is set to announce that people coming to the U.K. without a visa or immigration status will have to apply for an American-style Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA).
The Home Office expects that around 30 million ETA applications will be processed each year.
“What I’m unveiling and proposing tomorrow is a new legal migration and border strategy…, which is based upon digitalisation of our borders, but also the simplification of our immigration laws,” Ms. Patel told Sky News on Sunday.
“I am introducing the new borders bill, which will come to Parliament next month, where we will specifically clamp down and tackle the problems around illegal migration,” she added. “We will have not just greater checks, we’ve already got very, very significant law enforcement operations taking place in France, in Belgium… and we’re really prosecuting and arresting the people smugglers.”
Last year, roughly 8,500 people arrived in Britain having made the perilous crossing across the Channel, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, in boats.
6. CDC studying heart inflammation in some young vaccine recipients
It typically occurs within 4 days after receiving mRNA dose
Some teenagers and young adults who received COVID-19 vaccines experienced heart inflammation, a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory group said, recommending further study of the rare condition.
The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices in a statement dated May 17 said it had looked into reports that a few young vaccine recipients, predominantly adolescents and young adults, and predominantly male, developed myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle.
The condition often goes away without complications and can be caused by a variety of viruses, the CDC group said.
CDC monitoring systems had not found more cases than would be expected in the population, but members of the committee on vaccinations felt that healthcare providers should be made aware of the reports of the “potential adverse event,” the committee said in the statement.
It did not say how many people had been affected and recommended further investigation.
The CDC said the cases typically occurred within four days after receiving the mRNA vaccines. It did not specify which vaccines. The United States has given emergency authorisation to two mRNA vaccines, from Moderna Inc and Pfizer/BioNTech .
Israel’s Health Ministry in April said it was examining a small number of cases of heart inflammation in people who had received Pfizer’s vaccine, though it had not yet drawn any conclusions. Most of the cases in Israel were reported among people up to age 30.
Pfizer at the time said it had not observed a higher rate of the condition than would normally be the case in the general population and that a causal link to the vaccine had not been established.
Pfizer and Moderna did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Saturday.
The CDC in late April, after news of the Israeli investigation, said it did not see a link between the two.
7. Editorial-1: Recalibrate growth, reprioritise expenditures
Protecting total expenditures at the budgeted level and mass vaccination are important in India’s pandemic situation
The second wave of COVID-19 currently sweeping India is forcing States into successive lockdowns, in turn eroding economic activities. The growth projections of different national and international agencies and the fiscal projections of Centre’s 2021-22 Budget require recalibration.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), and the Ministry of Finance’s Economic Survey had forecast real GDP growth for 2021-22 at 12.5%, 10.5%, and 11.0%, respectively. Moody’s has recently projected India’s GDP growth in 2021-22 at 9.3% (https://bit.ly/3fIkWs8). This is close to the benchmark growth rate of 8.7% which would keep India’s GDP at 2011-12 prices at the same level as in 2019-20. This level of growth may be achieved based on the assumption that the economy normalises in the second half of the fiscal year. If the lockdowns come to an end earlier, the growth rate may be higher, but that is perhaps unlikely.
The 2019-20 real GDP was ₹145.7-lakh crore at 2011-12 prices. It fell to ₹134.1-lakh crore in 2020-21, implying a contraction of minus 8.0%. If even the growth rate of 8.7% for 2021-22 comes under challenge because of a prolonged lockdown, not only will India see a fall in the real GDP in the current year as compared to 2019-20 level but the nominal GDP numbers assumed in the Budget will also be belied adversely affecting the fiscal aggregates in the Centre’s 2021-22 Budget. At 8.7% real growth, the nominal GDP growth would be close to 13.5%, assuming an inflation rate of 4.5%. This would be lower than the nominal growth of 14.4% assumed in the Union Budget. At 13.5% growth, the estimated GDP for 2021-22 is ₹222.4-lakh crore at current prices. This will lead to a lowering of tax and non-tax revenues and an increase in the fiscal deficit as compared to the budgeted magnitudes.
The budgeted gross and net tax revenues for 2021-22 were ₹22.2-lakh crore and ₹15.4-lakh crore, respectively. The assumed buoyancy for the Centre’s gross tax revenues (GTR) was 1.2. Even if this buoyancy is achieved, the lower nominal GDP growth would imply a GTR growth of 15.7% as compared to the budgeted growth of 16.7%. If, however, the buoyancy of 1.2 proves optimistic and instead a buoyancy of 0.9, which is the average buoyancy of the five years preceding the COVID-19 year, is applied, the nominal growth of GTR would be 12.2%. This would lead to the Centre’s GTR of about ₹21.3-lakh crore. The corresponding shortfall in the Centre’s net tax revenues is estimated to be about ₹0.6 lakh crore.
The budgeted magnitudes for non-tax revenues and non-debt capital receipts at ₹2.4-lakh crore and ₹1.9-lakh crore, respectively, may also prove to be optimistic. In these cases, the budgeted growth rates were 15.4% and 304.3%, respectively. The excessively high growth for the non-debt capital receipts was premised on implementing an ambitious asset monetisation and disinvestment programme. The COVID-19-disturbed year may not permit any of this. The budgeted growth in non-tax revenues is largely dependent on an assumed growth of 60% in revenues from communication services and of 44.1% in dividends and profits from non-departmental undertakings. We consider that a shortfall of ₹1.5-lakh crore in non-tax revenues and non-debt capital receipts together may not be ruled out. Together with the tax revenue shortfall of nearly 0.6 lakh crore, the total shortfall on the receipts side may be about ₹2.1-lakh crore.
Two factors will affect the fiscal deficit estimate of 6.76% of GDP in 2021-22. First, there would be a change in the budgeted nominal GDP growth. Second, there would be a shortfall in the receipts from tax, non-tax and non-debt sources. The budgeted magnitude of fiscal deficit is ₹15.06-lakh crore. Together, these two factors may lead to a slippage in fiscal deficit which may be close to 7.7% of GDP in 2021-22 if total expenditures are kept at the budgeted levels. This would call for revising the fiscal road map again. Protecting total expenditures at the budgeted level is, however, important given the need to support the economy in these challenging times. There is a case for reprioritising these expenditures.
Other steps, vaccination
The second wave of the novel coronavirus has put a spotlight on India’s serious under-capacity in health infrastructure. Given the likelihood of a third COVID-19 wave, there is an urgent need to ramp up health and related infrastructure by enhancing the number of hospitals and hospital beds, sources of oxygen supplies, and the manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines and drugs. The Centre’s 2021-22 Budget has provided for ₹71,269 crore for the Department of Health and Family Welfare. This included a budgeted capital expenditure of ₹2,508.7 crore. In contrast, in 2020-21, the total health and family welfare expenditure (RE) was ₹78,866 crore, implying a fall of ₹7,597 crore in 2021-22. In the budgeted capital expenditure for health also, there was a fall of ₹1,724.8 crore as compared to the RE of 2020-21 at ₹4,233.5 crore. Clearly, these magnitudes are quite inadequate for an economy challenged by COVID-19 for two successive years. The allocation for the health sector should be increased substantially by reprioritising expenditures.
Construction activities within the health sector will have high multipliers. There may also be higher expenditure on inducting a larger workforce of doctors, nurses and paramedics and other hospital-related administrative staff. Furthermore, strong support is needed for the vulnerable groups of the society including migrant labour and the rural and urban unemployed population.
Speedy and larger vaccination coverage of the vulnerable population is key to minimising economic damage.
The Centre’s Budget had allocated ₹35,000 crore for vaccination as shown in the Budget for the Department of Finance (demand for grant number 40) as an amount to be transferred to the States. India’s population aged 12 years and above is 109 crore. Total vaccination doses (at two doses per person) adds to 218 crore. At an average price of ₹300 per dose, this would require an amount of ₹65,108 crore. This is a rough estimate.
The cost to the government would be less if the coverage is less than full. COVID-19 vaccination is characterised by strong inter-State positive externalities, making it primarily the responsibility of the central government. The entire vaccination bill should be borne by the central government. Rather than having individual State governments floating global tenders for vaccines, if the central government is the single agency for vaccine procurement, the economies of scale and the Centre’s bargaining power would keep the average vaccine price low. The total vaccination cost would go up if the unit cost goes up. The central government may transfer the vaccines rather than the money that it has budgeted for transfer. Some of the smaller States may find procuring vaccines through a global tender to be quite challenging.
8. Editorial-2: Deflating India’s COVID black market boom
An independent vigilance system and an administrative machinery capable of affirmative outputs are solutions
In the gloomy battle against the novel coronavirus pandemic, what has emerged as most reprehensible is the brazen attempt by profiteers in filling the gap following the desperation of many patients and families. With the second wave of infections and the rise in COVID-19 positive cases in India, the necessity for integral medicines, hospital beds and oxygen supplies has gone up incrementally. For example, we come across information about government helpline numbers being circulated widely. The Twitter handles of politicians and administrative executives often reiterate the dependability of these helplines. These helpline numbers ought to be not just ‘ray of hope’ delivery systems but also a clear demarcation between what is legal and officially authorised, and what is not.
Remdesivir and tocilizumab have been the most sought after drugs ever since the pandemic set in. In July 2020 a racket of selling fake and spurious tocilizumab injections in Surat and Ahmedabad was unearthed by the Gujarat Food and Drugs Control Administration. Almost a year later, things do not seem to have improved. Recently, the police in Ahmedabad arrested a few people for preparing fake remdesivir vials for sale using a mixture of glucose and salt and affixing them with fake brand labels. In Mumbai’s drug black market, citizens have had to pay huge amounts ranging from ₹35,000 and ₹50,000 for remdesivir vials. In Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, a racket to market oxygen cylinders in the black market was uncovered after raids on a godown. The Haryana police have registered at least 21 FIRs in connection with the blackmarketing of many of these medical essentials.
The desperate need for vital medical supplies has forced many hapless citizens to pay more than the market price to procure these medicines. There are reports of many having been tricked into believing fire extinguishers to be oxygen cylinders and saline water bottles to be remdesivir vials after parting with huge sums of money. However, clamping down on these cases and the culprits is dependent on having an efficient multi-dimensional preventive model rather than a control mechanism that functions much after the damage has been already done.
India is in the middle of its second year in the battle against the COVID-19 virus and the persistent challenges many citizens face in medical aid is a wake-up call to revisit the administrative mechanism and map its limitations. In India, the distribution of remdesivir in the States is mostly controlled by the local governments,while decisions about oxygen supplies to the States are predominantly decided by Union bodies. Yet, citizens have been approaching alien sources to procure medical supplies.
A major reason behind why many are in the situation they are facing is because administrative organisations are being overwhelmed and helpline numbers inundated with calls and difficult to connect to. Even if citizens are fortunate enough to have their requests entered in records, they may not be able to procure the products they need due to the inadequacy of resources or probably not receiving a closure communication from helplines, which keeps them at a loose end without knowing where else to go and what else to do. This inaccessibility, a redundant and long communication process flow, and a delay in rendering responses are what have affected the reliability of these helplines as far as people are concerned.
Any market, black or otherwise, is a dynamic hemisphere which is consumer-driven. There is public demand for what the products these black markets or rackets have to offer and which is why they thrive. A patient and their attendants face challenges of resource availability and significant constraints of time within which they need a solution, resulting in tremendous mental pressures. Alleged hospital bed-booking scams, the unnecessary hoarding of COVID-19 essentials by the elite, and possible VIP culture practices have contributed to the erosion of trust. These elements have all combined to force the public to look elsewhere for sources beyond the probability of the government rendering them assistance.
Volunteers as a resource
Therefore, administrative mechanisms need to be expanded qualitatively and quantitatively. India is blessed with numerous volunteer organisations trying to tackle the various challenges of the pandemic. Unfortunately, in many instances, they do not enjoy governmental support. The state machinery needs to identify such groups, train them, optimise them and deploy them on a priority basis and ensure that there is no concentration of human resources in a single vertical. We need to operationalise technological knowledge in order to ease the communication processes which could reduce the burden on data entry operators and the management information systems to induce better responsive behaviour. We need an expert planning model which not only allocates the resources judiciously but also allows a follow-up of the entire process flow to ensure that there are no illegal deviations. In oversight, we need a strong, decentralised and independent vigilance system which promotes transparency in this desperate situation to ensure quality in the performance of administrative set-ups.
At the end of the day, what has been listed above ought to be matched with confidence-building mechanisms. It is only when the government’s performance is high and the administrative machinery is capable of large-scale affirmative outputs that the public will not have to look for third party resources. And with no dependency subsisting on them, profiteering would not have a dimension and play its game.
9. Editorial-3: Guarantor beware
Entrepreneurs signing guarantee will have to be certain that the business will not flounder
The Supreme Court judgment upholding creditors’ right to proceed against personal guarantors to loans provided by them to a corporate borrower helps lift the uncertainty over the extent to which banks and other financial lenders can pursue not only the corporate debtor but also the individuals who had furnished personal guarantees to enable the flow of credit to the company they had stood surety for. This ought to be of significant consequence to the financial system, already under a mountain of bad loans, by helping expedite the resolution of such stressed assets. The two-judge Bench was considering a clutch of petitions challenging the government’s 2019 notification that made personal guarantors a separate category of individuals who could be proceeded against under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code as part of the insolvency proceedings initiated by lenders against defaulting corporate entities. In dismissing the petitions, the judges made clear that the government was right in “carving out personal guarantors as a separate species of individuals”, given the “intimate connection between such individuals and corporate entities to whom they stood guarantee”. Banks now stand a real chance of recovering substantially more from the resolution of a stressed corporate entity, as in most cases it has been the relatively affluent promoters who have been standing as individual personal guarantors for the loans extended to the companies they promoted.
Several corporate leaders are set to be impacted. The promoters of many defaulting corporates, which are facing action under the IBC, had furnished guarantees for thousands of crores in loans availed by the companies they ran. The State Bank of India alone had submitted in the apex court that it had served demand notices aggregating to more than ₹39,000 crore to individuals who had signed as guarantors for credit provided to corporate entities. The judges also cleared the air over another issue that is bound to strengthen the creditors’ positions in all ongoing, future and even completed insolvency proceedings. The Bench ruled that the approval of a resolution plan for the corporate debtor does not extinguish the personal guarantor’s liability, which it said “arises out of an independent contract”. Lenders can now proceed against the guarantors to enhance recovery given that most banks agree to ‘haircuts’ when negotiating a resolution plan with a new promoter for the defaulting company. The only wrinkle here is that once the resolution plan becomes legally binding, the guarantor loses the recourse to remedy from the borrower when the creditor invokes the personal guarantee. Entrepreneurs will now have to think twice before signing a personal guarantee unless they can be very certain that the business they found will not flounder.
10. Editorial-4: Another challenge
The rise in mucormycosis cases underlines the need for diabetics to get vaccination
The second wave of the pandemic has thrown up another serious challenge. Besides, in just about three months, the number of daily cases touching 4.14 lakh on May 6 and cumulative cases crossing 15 million, mortality reaching an all-time peak of 4,529 on May 18 and the total number of deaths reaching nearly 1.5 lakh, there is now a growing number of mucormycosis cases being reported in COVID-19 patients. A concerned Health Ministry has now asked all States to classify mucormycosis, a fungal infection, as a notifiable disease under the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897; a few States have complied. As a notifiable disease, every suspected and confirmed case is to be reported to the State Health Department. While the infection is caused by a group of moulds called mucormycetes, which are commonly found in the environment, the fungi are largely harmless under normal circumstances. But COVID-19 patients with uncontrolled diabetes who are on steroid therapy face a higher infection risk. Breathing in the fungi spores can cause an infection in the lungs or sinuses which can spread. Even when blood sugar is under control, indiscriminate steroid use can cause an increase in blood sugar levels, making such patients more susceptible to mucormycosis infection.
Patients with severe COVID-19 disease tend to develop a systemic inflammatory response leading to lung injury and multisystem organ dysfunction. While WHO “strongly recommends” that corticosteroids such as dexamethasone be used in treating patients with severe and critical COVID-19, they should not be used in non-severe COVID-19 patients. The absence of any new or repurposed drugs to effectively treat COVID-19 patients and the lack of clear guidelines in using certain drugs have led to indiscriminate drug use, including steroids. The rise in mucormycosis infection cases should be a wake-up call for COVID-19 patients and medical practitioners to use steroids judiciously for a limited period and in the right dosage, especially in diabetic patients; self-medication with steroids should be avoided at any cost. Most importantly, in COVID-19 patients with diabetes, controlling blood sugar levels using insulin can help prevent mucormycosis infection. While the availability of Amphotericin-B to treat mucormycosis was limited till recently, five manufacturers in India are in the process of ramping up production. Five more companies have also been licensed to augment supplies. Since the infection presents itself with typical symptoms, timely diagnosis is easy. The infection can be cured without even surgery if detected early. This is one more reason why people, particularly those with diabetes, should get vaccinated soon. Since complete vaccination prevents severe disease, diabetics will not need steroids, and hence will not suffer from mucormycosis.
11. Editorial-5: The many benefits of an eco tax
Environmental fiscal reforms will reduce pollution and generate resources for financing the health sector
The Indian government announced a pandemic-related stimulus package in FY 2020-21 though there was large decline in tax revenue. The fiscal deficit for FY 2020-21 (revised estimates) is projected to be 9.5% of the GDP; for 2021-22, it is pegged at 6.8%. The focus is on maintaining fiscal discipline. In this peculiar scenario, sustained health financing in India remains a challenge.
Household spending on health
The World Health Organization (WHO) provides data on the percentage of the total population where the household expenditure on health was greater than 10% and 25% of the total household expenditure or income in India in 2011. This provides a clear picture of the status of spending on health by the rural and urban populations. As far as health expenditure above 10% is concerned, 17.33% of the population in India made out-of-pocket payments on health. The percentage was higher in rural areas compared to urban areas. Globally, the average was 12.67%, which means that 12.67% of the population spent more than 10% of their income (out of their pocket) on health. In Southeast Asia, 16% spent more than 10% of their household income on health. The Western Pacific region came second in the list of regions that saw a rate higher than the global average. Similarly, 3.9% of the population in India made more than 25% of out-of-pocket payments on health, with 4.34% in the rural areas.
The Economic Survey of India 2019-20 has outlined the fact that an increase in public spending from 1% to 2.5-3% of GDP, as envisaged in the National Health Policy of 2017, can decrease out-of-pocket expenditure from 65% to 30% of overall healthcare expenses. This is where the importance of alternate sources of health financing in India needs to be stressed. The COVID-19 pandemic has also forced countries all over the world to rethink climate change and the need for preservation of the environment. Fiscal reforms for managing the environment are important, and India has great potential for revenue generation in this aspect.
Fixing the eco rax rate
Environment regulation, in turn, may take several forms: command and control; economic planning/urban planning; environmental tax (eco tax)/subsidies; and cap and trade. India currently focuses majorly on the command-and-control approach in tackling pollution. The success of an eco tax in India would depend on its architecture, that is, how well it is planned and designed. It should be credible, transparent and predictable. Ideally, the eco tax rate ought to be equal to the marginal social cost arising from the negative externalities associated with the production, consumption or disposal of goods and services. This requires an evaluation of the damage to the environment based on scientific assessments. This would include the adverse impacts on the health of people, climate change, etc. The eco tax rate may, thus, be fixed commensurate to the marginal social cost so evaluated. The Madras School of Economics had already undertaken extensive studies in this regard.
Environmental tax reforms generally involve three complementary activities: (a) eliminating existing subsidies and taxes that have a harmful impact on the environment; (b) restructuring existing taxes in an environmentally supportive manner; and (c) initiating new environmental taxes. Taxes can be designed either as revenue neutral or revenue augmenting. In case of revenue augmenting, the additional revenue can either be targeted towards the provision of environmental public goods or directed towards the overall revenue pool. In developing countries like India, the revenue can be used to a greater extent for the provision of environmental public goods and addressing environmental health issues.
In India, eco taxes can target three main areas: one, differential taxation on vehicles in the transport sector purely oriented towards fuel efficiency and GPS-based congestion charges; two, in the energy sector by taxing fuels which feed into energy generation; and three, waste generation and use of natural resources. Tax revenues can be generated through eco taxes. There is also a need to integrate environmental taxes in the Goods and Service Tax framework as highlighted by the Madras School of Economics in its studies.
Negligible impact on the GDP
The implementation of an environmental tax in India will have three broad benefits: fiscal, environmental and poverty reduction. Environmental tax reforms can mobilise revenues to finance basic public services when raising revenue through other sources proves to be difficult or burdensome. Revenue from environmental tax reforms can also be used to reduce other distorting taxes such as fiscal dividend. Environmental tax reforms help internalise the externalities, and the said revenue can finance research and the development of new technologies.
Environmental regulations may have significant costs on the private sector in the form of slow productivity growth and high cost of compliance, resulting in the possible increase in the prices of goods and services. However, the European experience shows that most of the taxes also generate substantial revenue and there is no evidence on green taxes with sustainable development goals leading to a ‘no growth’ economy. Most countries’ experiences suggest negligible impact on the GDP, though such revenues have not necessarily been used for environmental considerations. Thus, the negligible impact on the GDP may be a temporary phenomenon.
Hence, this is the right time for India to adopt environmental fiscal reforms as they will reduce environmental pollution and also generate resources for financing the health sector.
12. Editorial-6: WhatsApp and its dubious claims
Advantages of WhatsApp
In the submission, WhatsApp suggested that users who did not agree to its terms and conditions could discontinue use of its service. Apps such as Signal and Telegram provide alternate reliable communication services. While this is a reasonable option for urban users of messaging apps, researchers working with rural and disenfranchised sections have pointed out the reliance on WhatsApp’s services due to the design of the app. WhatsApp has an inherent advantage with its messaging and audio-video calling even in low-bandwidth Internet areas. This has to be seen in conjunction with WhatsApp Pay which allows users to transfer money to others. Thus, a mass migration to more privacy-respecting services appears near-impossible due to vendor lock-in. The observation of the Competition Commission of India that WhatsApp is misusing its dominant status appears relevant here.
We would have to understand that a WhatsApp exception, as suggested by Mr. Sibal, would only open the floodgates to further privacy violations by both the state and private entities dealing with user data. There is the issue of potential violation of privacy of children through Ed-Tech apps due to the lack of both a comprehensive ethics policy and a data privacy law akin to the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In the context of services provided by the above-mentioned companies, the Personal Data Protection Bill of 2019 does not even attempt to provide a fig leaf of protection to users of services.
To ensure that the privacy of the Indian citizen is protected in the digital sphere, the data protection Bill needs to be reformulated to ensure that it focuses on user rights with an emphasis on user privacy. A privacy commission would have to be established to enforce these rights. The government would also have to respect the privacy of the citizens while strengthening the right to information. There is an overarching need for a strong data protection Bill.