1. Nicobar project violates tribal rights: ST panel
The project intends to use about 7.114 sq. km of tribal reserve forest land.
The National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) has flagged alleged discrepancies with respect to the forest clearance granted for the ₹72,000-crore Great Nicobar Island (GNI) Project.
Citing alleged violations under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, the panel issued notice in April to district authorities on the Andaman and Nicobar islands on grounds that the project will significantly affect the rights of local tribespeople and that the NCST was not consulted.
Earlier this month, the National Green Tribunal ordered a stay on the project and constituted a committee to revisit the environmental clearance.
Months after the project was granted forest clearance, implementation reports prepared by the Tribal Affairs Ministry show the island administration neither recognised nor granted ownership of any forest land to tribespeople under the FRA, a requisite step under the Forest Conservation Rules, 2017, before Stage I clearance is granted.
The clearance was granted in October 2022, two years after the application was received. The project being implemented by the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation includes a transshipment port, airport, power plant and greenfield township.
The government has said in Parliament that the project intends to use about 7.114 sq. km of tribal reserve forest land, where the Shompen, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG), and the Nicobarese reside. It insisted that local people will not be displaced for the project.
NCST flags FRA lapses in ₹72,000-cr. GNI Project
The NCST, in its notice sent this month to the island administration, has sought a detailed action-taken report on the alleged procedural lapses within 15 days. The Commission said it was taking cognisance of a complaint from retired bureaucrat E.A.S. Sarma, who was the former Tribal Affairs Secretary to the Andhra Pradesh government.
Mr. Sarma had said the Constitution mandated that the government consult the NCST on any matters involving the rights of tribespeople. He went on to allege that the panel was not consulted for the GNI project and that there were alleged violations of the FRA as well.
The NCST’s intervention in the project comes even as Tribal Affairs Minister Arjun Munda is currently on a tour of the islands discussing ways to better implement the tribal welfare schemes and oversee the PM-PVTG Mission.
According to Rule 6(3)(e) of Forest Conservation Rules-2017 (FCR), any diversion of forest land would first require the District Collector to recognise and vest rights to local people under the FRA. Only then do the rules permit authorities to seek consent of the now-rights-holding gram panchayats for the diversion of this land — a provision envisioned to give primacy to rights of indigenous forest-dwelling communities.
No claims processed
However, monthly progress reports filed with the Ministry show that the district administration did not receive or process a single claim over forest land under the FRA in the 26-month period between October 2020 — when ANIIDCO first applied for clearance — and November 2022, even after the clearance was granted.
Instead, a special Gram Sabha meeting was called for on August 12, 2022, with less than a day’s notice to villagers of Laxminagar, Gandhi Nagar and Campbell Bay panchayats. At this special Gram Sabha, a resolution was purportedly passed, consenting to diversion of the forest land adjacent to their villages for the purpose of the project.
On August 15, the Sub-Divisional Level Committee at Campbell Bay convened, took a No-Objection Certificate from the Shompen tribespeople through the proceedings, and passed the file to the District-Level Committee. The Shompen were represented in the meeting through the administration’s Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS).
Meanwhile, rights bodies and experts argued whether Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS) could ever truly represent the Shompen, given that it is a society set up and run by the administration.
Significantly, while opposing the Forest Conservation Rules-2022, which had done away with the consent clause altogether, the NCST had in October last year written to the Environment Ministry flagging a similar problem with FRA compliance in other projects that required diversion of forest land.
The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, and the island administration have not yet responded to The Hindu’s queries on the allegations .
2. Behind the ‘dearth’ of rabies vaccine
While many States report a vaccine shortage, a research centre in Kasauli had to discard vaccine vials earlier this year due to a lack of demand.
A lack of forecasting, irregular demand from States and poor coordination result in India facing a shortage every year
Every year from November to March, when the weather improves across most of India and people begin to spill out of their homes, the mating season for dogs begins. This brings on aggression and bites and attacks increase. “There are on an average six to seven million dog bites every year in India. Each dog bite will require five doses of vaccine. Many cases may also go unreported and not all patients who are bitten get their vaccines on time,” says Dr. Simmi Tiwari, Joint Director, Public Health, National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).
Between March 6 and 12, for instance, four deaths by dog bite were reported by the NCDC. None of the deceased had got the rabies vaccine after the bite. Those who had come into contact with the people who died were advised vaccination.
Yet, in States such as Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the emphasis on procurement of rabies vaccine is low, say government officials. “In other States such as Kerala, there was a shortage. So they raised demands for stocks to be moved from neighbouring Tamil Nadu,” an NCDC official notes. But earlier this year, the Central Research Institute in Kasauli had to discard vaccine vials due to a lack of demand.
India’s rabies vaccine market is growing at a steady rate. In 2022, its market value stood at $141.4 million, while the 2023 estimated value is at $147.6 million, Coherent Market Insights, a market research agency, says. It is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.2% between 2023 and 2030.
However, last September, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) reported that it had only 5,000 doses of vaccine left for 2022, with many municipal corporation hospitals not having them at all.
There had been nearly 13,000 dog bites registered in Delhi alone from January to December. A late tender meant that the 30,000 additional doses they had wanted to procure would be delayed.
Manufacturers say State and Central governments fail to forecast demand, leading to delays. “A low manufacturing capacity requires orders to be placed in advance, so we can cater to larger volumes on time. At times, demands from States are delayed by many months making it difficult for us to cater to the demand on time,” a senior executive working closely with one of rabies vaccine manufacturers says.
The rabies vaccine is lyophilized (freeze dried) and filled in vials in powdered form. In 24 to 32 hours, most Indian companies have the capacity to produce close to 50,000 vials. “In the case of polio, production of vials can go up to a lakh or two lakh in that time. With the polio vaccine, one vial has up to 10 doses. The rabies vaccine vial can be used only in the measure of one dose per person,” the executive adds.
There are now seven big Indian makers: Indian Immunologicals’ Abhayrab, Bharat Biotech’s IndiRab, Cadila Pharma’s ThRabis, Serum Institute of India’s Rabivax-S, Sanofi Pasteur’s Verorab, BIO-MED’s SureRab, and Chiron Behring’s ChiroRab.
Indian Immunologicals has a market share of 27.6%, with Bharat Biotech commanding 15.6%, followed by Chiron Behring at 8.7%, and Cadila Pharma at 7.9%.
A senior official from Bharat Biotech says that the company has the capacity to manufacture 4 to 5 million vaccine vials a month. Even if the manufacturing plant is functioning at 80% of its full capacity, the company can churn out 3.2 million to 4.2 million vials each month. In an ideal situation, States should forecast demand and stockpile rabies vaccine over a period of two years.
“Major Indian manufacturers supply rabies vaccine to countries like Turkey, Bangladesh, Myanmar and some African nations, among others. Although the rabies vaccines are produced in adequate amount to meet the demand of the country, the manufacturers focus on exporting more than 30% of their production as they get a higher price through exports,” says Raj Shah, Lead Consultant, Coherent Market Insights.
3. Close to 4,000 painted storks nesting in two A.P. villages
Winged visitor: A painted stork guarding its nest at Veerapuram village in Andhra Pradesh.
One of the largest flocks of painted storks (Mycteria leucocephala), approximately 4,000 birds, have made tall trees in Veepapuram and Venkatapuram villages of Andhra Pradesh their breeding ground, and are currently looking after 6,000 chicks.
By May-end to June-end when the chicks are more than three months old, they will fly away along with adults. They mostly inhabit wetlands in the plains breed closer to undisturbed/protected trees.
Copious amounts of rain received in the region during last monsoon has made it a favourable breeding ground for these colourful winged guests.
While it was only 2,500 to 3,000 in 2019, two years of good rain has brought enough shallow water into both the village tanks making them the right wading grounds for the painted storks, who survive on small fish, and occasionally on frogs and snakes.
4. NGT disappointed over delay in removal of burnt waste from Brahmapuram yard
Delay in the removal of the waste from the dump site in Brahmapuram is a matter of serious concern, says NGT.
The National Green Tribunal has expressed its displeasure over the delay in the removal of the burnt waste, plastic, ash and refused derived fuel (RDF) from the dump yard of the Kochi Corporation in Brahmapuram, after a massive fire on March 2.
The Southern Bench comprising of Justice Pushpa Sathyanarayana, and expert member Dr. Satyagopal Korlapati has asked the Additional Chief Secretary, Department of Local Self Government to appear before it online to clarify the plan of action and the timeline within which it could be completed, considering the risk involved in leaving the site unattended. The official has to submit details of the proposed waste to energy plant and the time required for completing it.
The Bench said that the delay in safe removal of the waste was a matter of serious concern as the heaps of fire-affected waste would enter the ground and affect the drinking water sources, with the start of the monsoon period.
It would be more hazardous than the fire itself, it said.
As per the report submitted by the authorities, about 80,000 tonnes of RDF have been recovered from the fire-hit sectors. The tribunal stated that it could be transported to the cement manufacturing units till the waste-to-energy plant is commissioned.
“We are at a loss to understand as to why the various limbs of the government are keeping quiet without removing the same,” it said.
5. Safety concerns over e-pharma put Centre in a spot
In India, the Drugs and Cosmetics Act of 1940 regulates the import, manufacturing and distribution of drugs.
Union Health Ministry sources say that they are in no mood to give the e-pharma platforms a “free run’’, calling the move far too dangerous.
“Consumer safety is our primary focus. Unlimited accessibility to medicines through e-pharmacy, sale of sub-standard, habit-forming medicines [like sedatives, mood-altering drugs], profiling of patients and buyers, and illegal data collection are the main concerns,” said the source, adding that this dynamic industry must be handled with care.
A cautious Health Ministry has maintained this despite a rap on its knuckle by a parliamentary panel asking it to finalise the draft e-pharmacy rules and implement them without further delay. “Vigilance wins over the perceived convenience and economics of the e-pharma market,” the source said.
The parliamentary panel also expressed concern over the possible misuse of online pharmacies in the absence of regulation and mentioned that there are concerns over the distribution of illegal or unethical medicines, or outdated, substituted, or counterfeit medications.
According to a report – ‘E-pharmacy Market in India 2022-2027’ – compared to its physical counterparts, e-pharmacy has emerged in recent years as a superior and more practical strategy for addressing consumer problems and delivering excellent customer solutions.
“In 2021, the market for online pharmacies was worth ₹25.50 billion. It is anticipated to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 22.20% from 2022 to 2027 when it is expected to reach ₹89.47 billion,” the report added.
While there are talks in the Health Ministry about a complete ban on e-pharmacy, earlier this year, the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) sent show-cause notices to 20-odd e-pharmacies including Tata 1mg, NetMeds, Practo etc. stating that there was sale of drugs that weren’t allowed for retail sale and lack of proper prescription.
The Hindu contacted some of the e-pharma businesses, but no response was received. The Drugs and Cosmetics Act of 1940 regulates the import, manufacturing and distribution of drugs in India.
E-pharma business insiders maintain that shutting down business doesn’t help. “Stringent laws and strong e-pharmacy code of conduct will help this market,” they say.
The Indian Medical Association (IMA), in its white paper on online pharmacies, said that drug abuse, misuse, self-medication, access to children, no place or system to evaluate adverse drug reactions, no clarity on drug storage conditions and no system of immediate recall in case of drugs are problems that the industry comes with. “These need to be addressed,’’ it advised.
The DCGI had sent show-cause notices to 20-odd e-pharmacies for selling drugs that are not for retail sale
6. A push for rehab instead of jail time
Message to youth: Peer-led campaigns can be effective in curbing the use of narcotic substances.
While enforcement agencies are targeting supply chains, the Social Justice Ministry is running awareness campaigns to treat narcotic drug users as victims and not criminals; the government is also working to increase number of rehabilitation centres and collaborating with faith organisations
As the Union government debates decriminalising consumption of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, it is likely to bring in a policy where addicts and users will have to submit themselves before treatment centres and declare themselves as such in order to escape criminal prosecution.
In the past two years, the number of vulnerable districts (for drug use) have gone up from 272 to 372, with Delhi, Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Goa, Chandigarh, Puducherry and Tripura having 100% districts marked as vulnerable. These are followed by Uttarakhand and Punjab, where 92.3% and 86.95% of the districts have been marked vulnerable, respectively.
According to the substance usage survey conducted by the Social Justice Ministry through the AIIMS in 2018, alcohol had emerged as the most used substance among adults at 17.1% prevalence. Apart from this, the survey showed that cannabis use had the highest prevalence at 3.3%, followed by opioids (2.1%), sedatives (1.21%), inhalants (0.58%) and cocaine (0.11%).
Currently, under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, the consumption of any narcotic drugs or psychotropic substance may attract a jail term of up to one year and/or fines up to ₹20,000.
As of now, while enforcement agencies are targeting supply chains, the Social Justice Ministry is concurrently running country-wide awareness and rehabilitation campaigns to treat users and addicts like victims and not criminals.
Citing examples of countries that have followed the total decriminalisation path, a senior government official argued that it was an “ineffective policy”. The official said that under the scheme that is being considered, consumers who are caught must submit themselves to treatment facilities and can only be back into society once cleared by the rehabilitation centre.
For minors who are caught consuming illegal substances, the onus will be on the parents to declare their wards as users or addicts and check them into an appropriate facility.
Anticipating an influx of users once this option becomes a reality, the Social Justice Ministry is now preparing to scale up the network of 508 rehabilitation and de-addiction facilities it supports under the campaign for drug demand reduction — Nasha Mukt Bharat Abhiyaan.
The centres currently operational include about 340 integrated rehabilitation centres for addicts (in-patient care), about 50 community-based peer-led intervention centres, 71 outreach and drop-in centres (out-patient care), and about 46 addiction treatment facilities (advanced medical care in government hospitals).
Not all 372 districts have one of each of these, with officials explaining that the level of treatment varies from drug to drug and depends on the level of dependence as well. “Sometimes, discussions and counselling like Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are enough, not all require medical intervention,” one official said.
On the one hand, the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment intends to increase the number of rehabilitation centres it is directly supporting — like addiction treatment facilities, 125 of which are expected to be launched this year. On the other, it is aggressively pursuing tie-ups with spiritual and faith-based organisations.
“The department is looking to tie-up with spiritual and faith-based organisations or any organisations, including private ones, that have their own hospitals, educational institutes, counselling facilities, etc. We want to be able to use these facilities to boost the drug demand reduction campaign,” a government official said.
In March this year, the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Brahma Kumaris of Mount Abu to “spread the message of Nasha Mukt Bharat Abhiyaan among the youth, women, students, etc.”. This week, the department signed a similar MoU with Art of Living, the NGO run by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, with sources adding that one more MoU is likely to be signed in the coming weeks with another spiritual and faith-based organisation popular in the south of India.
Apart from addiction treatment facilities, most other centres run under the NMBA are supported by the government but operated by NGOs or voluntary organisations.
However, some of the NGOs running these centres have said that the government still needs to address a lot of problems they are facing currently.
Awadhraj Singh, president of the Raj Foundation Sansthan, an NGO running rehabilitation and intervention centres in Rajasthan, said, “The guidelines give us just 30 days to treat someone who is addicted to smack for instance. That is nowhere near enough and, very often, we see people relapsing and coming back to us. Usually, it takes at least five months to treat someone who is addicted to smack. Now, we just ask the families to make sure the patients are at home for at least one more month after discharge.”
He added that many integrated rehabilitation centres for addicts have just one government doctor each, who are not able to give their undivided attention to patients and treat them.
“Across two IRCAs, call-ins and walk-ins put together, about 70 people visit every day. A start would be to change the guidelines and give us more time to treat people,” Mr. Singh suggested.
7. H5N1 kills 50 million birds, spreads to mammals
Uncontrolled spread of the virus can be catastrophic to the already endangered bird species globally, leading to the mass extinction of several species
This year, the world has been witnessing one of the worst-ever documented outbreak of the highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 killing millions of birds. The virus, which is known to cause severe disease and death in birds, has also been detected in mammalian species and also in humans.
This has put health authorities on high alert regarding the implications of the large outbreak on public health.
High mortality in birds
Although avian influenza has different subtypes, H5N1 is a highly pathogenic subtype that causes mortality in birds. Since 2022, the virus has infected over 100 million birds across the globe, resulting in the deaths of over 50 million and culling of millions of poultry. Unlike previous outbreaks of highly pathogenic subtypes of avian influenza, H5N1 is heavily impacting wild bird species, including many which were on the verge of extinction.
While it is difficult to ascertain how many wild birds have been affected by the virus, a significant impact has been seen in eagles, pelicans, geese, waterfowl, gulls, falcons and shorebirds, in addition to the highest possible impact on poultry seen till date, at least in the U.S.
The impact of H5N1 on wild bird populations has varied depending on several factors, such as level of exposure, geographical locations and migratory patterns of the affected species.
High mortality in wild birds due to the virus could lead to significant ecological consequences, including vulnerability of predators and alterations in species composition in affected ecosystems, and therefore a possible impact on biodiversity not just limited to avian species.
It has raised concerns regarding the spread of the virus among critically endangered avian populations.
In recent weeks, reports suggest that at least 20 California condors, a species that was on the verge of extinction since 1980s, have succumbed to H5N1 avian influenza. With around 300 condors estimated to be remaining in the wild, this would roughly account for a significant 7% of the species. H5N1 has also killed a large number of bald eagles and Caspian terns in the U.S. since January 2022, along with thousands of cranes in Israel. Last year, H5N1 hit a colony of the endangered African penguins in South Africa, killing at least 30 penguins.
Spread to animals
The highly contagious H5N1 virus can also occasionally spillover from birds to animals through direct or indirect contact with infected birds or their droppings.
Worryingly, there have been several reports on spillover of H5N1 to mammals during the current outbreak from different countries, infecting species such as sea lions, minks, foxes, wild bears, and skunks, apart from domestic animals such as dogs and cats.
In 2023 alone, H5N1 caused the deaths of over 3,000 sea lions in Peru. In a recent yet-to-be peer-reviewed study, scientists found that the virus could efficiently spread between ferrets in the laboratory. The only known cases of the virus spreading between mammals were reported in minks that were raised in close confinement in a farm in Spain.
The transmission of H5N1 from birds to mammals is rare, but when it does occur, it can be a cause for concern, as the virus could accumulate mutations and acquire the ability to potentially initiate human outbreaks. H5N1 has a high mortality rate of over 60% in humans and is primarily transmitted to humans through close contact with infected birds or animals, either through handling infected poultry or exposure to contaminated environments.
In the recent months, a few sporadic cases of human H5N1 infections have also been reported from Ecuador, Cambodia, and more recently in Chile.However, since the virus does not yet transmit efficiently among humans, the World Health Organization(WHO) has assessed the risk of H5N1 to humans to be low.
However, the large and unabated outbreak in avian species and not so rare mammalian spillovers could potentially provide the virus a chance to adapt for mammalian transmission.
As the current H5N1 outbreak continues unabated with devastating impact on avian population globally, and with significant ecological and economic consequences, the time has never been better to initiate efforts for preparedness towards building better, efficient vaccines for avians and humans and genomics surveillance to map the continued evolution of the virus. Enhanced biosecurity measures are also needed to protect both animal and public health.