Current Affairs 19th May

Vaccination lag in rural India points to a looming crisis #GS3 #SnT

Even as the second COVID-19 wave shows signs of easing, the spread of cases in rural areas and the relatively lower vaccination numbers there points to a burgeoning crisis. During the first wave (which peaked in September 2020), the COVID-19 cases started piling up in urban areas initially and spread to rural areas (including semi-rural ones) constituting 65% of all cases.

The second wave also followed a similar pattern. The split was 52%-48% in urban/semi-urban vs rural/semi-rural areas in March 2021 and by mid-May, the estimated case load split was 65% in rural/semi-rural areas vs 35% in urban/semi-urban areas. These percentages are also skewed due to the lack of adequate testing facilities in many parts of rural India.

Adding more cause for concern is the fact that the rise in registered cases has not seen a concomitant increase in vaccination in rural areas. While more than 60% of cases were from the rural and semi-rural districts, only an estimated 12%-15% of inhabitants have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by May 14.

In contrast, an estimated 30% of residents in urban and 19% in semi-urban areas have received at least one shot. In terms of being fully vaccinated (both doses), only an estimated 2.6% of rural residents received them by May 14, even as an estimated 7.7% of urban dwellers had received both doses.

Vaccination helps

Data from some States show that the daily confirmed cases have decreased among the vaccinated higher age groups, while the infections among the non-vaccinated continue to rise during the second wave. Experts have also said that vaccines effectively prevent severe disease even if a vaccinated individual gets infected.

The lower vaccination numbers in semi-rural and rural areas suggest that the impact of the pandemic will be more severe there, as is being reported anecdotally from ground reports in several parts of north India, in particular.

Dhaka sends second consignment to India #GS2 #IR

Bangladesh sent a large consignment of medicines and protective gears to India. This is the second consignment of assistance from Dhaka since India opened up for foreign assistance to deal with the second wave of COVID-19.

The delivery took place as Foreign Minister of Bangladesh A.K. Abdul Momen called External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and urged him to push the United States to supply vaccines to Dhaka.

Bangladesh Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata Towfique Hasan handed over 2,672 boxes of medicines and personal protective items to a representative of the Indian Red Cross Society in Petrapole at the Indo-Bangladesh border.

The consignment consists of antibiotics, paracetamol, injection vials and hand sanitisers among other things and came in four large vans. The consignment, which was handled by the Foreign Ministry of Bangladesh, was produced mainly by the public sector-run Essential Drugs Co. Ltd.

Remdesivir injections

The first consignment from Bangladesh was sent on May 6 and consisted of 10,000 vials of the antiviral injection, Remdesivir, produced by Beximco, one of the leading pharmaceutical companies in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has also sent Remdesivir injections, Hydroxychloroquine and protective gears to Nepal, as the Himalayan country faces a tough challenge from increasing COVID-19 cases.

In a press statement issued on Tuesday evening, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh announced that Dr. Momen had urged Dr. Jaishankar to push the United States to deliver AstraZeneca vaccine doses to Bangladesh.

The official statement said the Indian Minister has assured the country of his cooperation. The discussion took place hours after President Joe Biden announced that the United States would send vaccines abroad.

9,000 Indians’ details checked for U.S. entry scheme #GS2 #IR

On the request of the U.S. authorities, Indian security agencies in the past two years checked the antecedents of more than 9,000 Indians who wanted to enrol for the paid Global Entry Program that allows members to use expedited lanes at the U.S. airports and few other international airports.

From January to March last year, around the time when international air travel was suspended to stop the spread of COVID-19 in India, a background check was run on 2,720 Indians to see if they were eligible to avail the programme.

From April to December last year, when India went into lockdowns that eased gradually, as many as 2,394 applications were vetted by the Indian authorities, in all 5,114 in 2020. In the first quarter of 2021, as many as 428 applications were verified.

In 2019, more than 4,000 applications were verified. It was not clear how many applications were denied.

Use of CCTNS

The Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS), a secure application that links over 97% police stations in the country, is being used for antecedent verification for Global Entry. CCTNS has been developed by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) under the Union Home Ministry.

Earlier, in response to a Right to Information Act (RTI) request filed by The Hindu on the number of applicants successfully verified by the NCRB for the programme, the agency denied information under Section 8 (exemption from disclosure of information) of the Act.

It said, “Background verification of Indian citizens who have applied for U.S CBP’s Global Entry has been undertaken by Government of India on behalf of U.S government’s CBP Global Entry Program. This is not a public service open to all the Indian citizens. Hence, there is no obligation on the part of Government of India to furnish any information pertaining to the processing of this service to the GEP applicants or the general public.”

The Global Entry is a facility run by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), an agency that works under the Department of Homeland Security that fast tracks movement of pre-approved, low-risk travellers upon arrival after a rigorous background check through designated kiosks.

Applicants are charged $100 and a personal interview before they are enrolled. Their biometrics are also collected. Though the pilot project started in 2008, India became a member of Global Entry in 2017.

98% of India still at risk, warns Health Ministry #GS3 #SnT

Over 98% of India’s population continues to be vulnerable or susceptible to COVID-19, said Lav Agarwal, Joint Secretary, Health Ministry adding that so far only 1.8% of the total population of the country had been affected.

“Despite the high number of COVID cases reported so far, we have been able to contain the spread to under 2% of the population. But with the majority still vulnerable, we cannot let our guard down and hence continued focus on containment is critical. The virus hasn’t got tired so we don’t have the option to relax just yet.

Releasing data, Mr. Agarwal said that from the 17.13% of the total COVID-19 case load reported on May 3, India’s current status stands at a reduced 13.3%

“Currently, eight States have more than 1 lakh active COVID-19 cases and 22 States have more than 15% case positivity. Maharashtra, U.P., Delhi, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have shown a decline in COVID-19 cases and a decline in positivity. There are 199 districts showing a continued decline in COVID-19 cases and positivity in the last two weeks,” he said.

NITI Aayog, Member (Health) V.K. Paul, who also addressed the conference, said that the COVID-19 curve was stabilising in India.

“We are already looking at the possible vaccine use for children as is being done internationally also, and are carefully tracking any changes in the virus. The basic rules to prevent the spread of the virus don’t change, and together we have to contain and defeat the virus,” he said.

Trials for children

Dr. Paul noted that Covaxin had received approval for Phase II/III clinical trials in the two-to-18 age group. “And I have been told that trials will begin in the next 10-12 days,” he said.

He added that the COVID-19 National Task Force would examine the drug 2-deoxy-D-glucose (‘2-DG’) developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) for adding it to the COVID-19 treatment protocol.

The drug has received emergency use authorisation from the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI).

Replying to a question about a COVID-19 virus variant found in Singapore, which could be more harmful to children, Dr. Paul said that it was being looked into.

“We are examining the report about this particular variant. Regarding COVID-19 among children, so far, the knowledge that we have is that most of them are asymptomatic, and it is reassuring that they don’t get serious infections. Meanwhile, we are keeping an eye on variants found in Singapore.

New naming system for virus variants #GS3 #SnT

The World Health Organization (WHO) would unveil a system of naming of coronavirus variants drawn from the way tropical storms are named.

“The new naming system should go live soon — yes, it will be names like hurricanes. This is so as not to stigmatise and deincentivise countries from making their sequencing results public. It will also be easier for the lay public to remember rather than these complicated lineage numbers

The WHO and health and science agencies across the world, for instance the Indian Council of Medical Research, the United States’ Centres for Disease Control and the Public Health England refer to viruses and their variants by formal lineage names, which are a combination of letters and names that point to the relationships between different variants.

To the trained eye, variants such as B.1.1.7 and B.1.617 suggest that they have certain mutations in common and as well clues to their evolutionary history.

Geographical tag

However, because virus names and their associated diseases have frequently been named after geographical places where outbreaks were first reported or samples first isolated — such as the West Nile virus or Ebola.

B.1.1.7 started to be known as the ‘U.K. variant’ and B.1.351 as the ‘South African’ variant. India’s Health Ministry, in the aftermath of B.1.617 that was popularly called the ‘Indian variant’, issued a press release decrying the media’s use of the name.

The dilemma of having names that don’t stigmatise places but also are amenable to popular use has to an extent been solved by the system of naming hurricanes, or tropical cyclones. The World Meteorological Organisation leaves it to countries that surround a particular ocean basin to come up with names.

GST Council to mull COVID relief: Govt. #GS3 #Economy

Requests for relief from the Goods and Services Tax (GST) on critical COVID-19 materials will be placed before the GST Council at its May 28 meeting, the Centre told the Delhi High Court, which had asked it to consider exempting the GST levied on oxygen concentrators imported for personal use.

Stating it had an ‘open mind’ on all tax relief requests, the Finance Ministry, in a counter affidavit filed before the Bench of Justices Rajiv Shakdher and Talwant Singh on Tuesday, argued that merely levying a reasonable GST rate on oxygen concentrators cannot be considered a violation of the Right to Life under Article 21 of the Constitution.

“If the argument of the petitioner is accepted, then it will lead to absurd consequences and interpretations, wherein citizens will be seeking exemption from property tax, since housing is an essential facet of Right of Life… or exemption from taxes on several food items since Right to Food has been held by the Supreme Court to be a part of Right of Life under Article 21.

Judgment reserved

The Court, which reserved its judgment following Tuesday’s proceedings assisted by Amicus Curiae Arvind Datar, had asked the Centre to drop the GST levy temporarily till the pandemic subsides. The petitioner in the case, a senior citizen getting a concentrator as a gift from a nephew abroad, had invoked Article 21 to challenge a May 1 notification that levied 12% GST on such imports from 28% earlier.

‘Parity to deter misuse’

“Significant relief has already been provided on personal imports of oxygen concentrators with reduction of duty incidence from 77% to 12%,” the Ministry said, adding that tax parity between commercial and personal imports would prevent misuse of the latter route.

“It is felt that any person importing concentrator for personal use or has sources for receiving such supplies in gifts would be in better position to afford the nominal 12% GST as compared to others who source it through commercial channels, urging the Court to dismiss the petition. Since GST rates and general exemptions are prescribed on the recommendation of the GST Council, all the representations seeking GST relief shall be placed before the Council at its next meeting.

“The government is receptive to the needs of the citizens… The government has an open mind to all these requests (for tax relief and exemptions) and it would intervene for further concession, as necessary, in the present unprecedented and very dynamic situation to provide relief to the public, particularly those who are not in a position by themselves to afford the COVID relief supply.

Bengal wants Upper House back: how states have Councils #GS2 #Governance

Earlier this week, the Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal approved the setting up of a Legislative Council in the state. It was a promise made by the party in its election manifesto. West Bengal’s Legislative Council was abolished 50 years ago by a coalition government of Left parties.

Currently, six states — Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka — have a Legislative Council. The setting up of a second chamber is not exclusively in the hands of the state government. The central government also has to pilot a Bill in Parliament. This issue could, therefore, lead to another potential flash point between the state and the Centre.

How Councils came to be

Legislatures with two Houses (bicameral) have a long history in India. The Montagu-Chelmsford reforms led to the formation of the Council of State at the national level in 1919. Then the Government of India Act of 1935 set up bicameral legislatures in Indian provinces. It was under this law that a Legislative Council first started functioning in Bengal in 1937.

During the framing of the Constitution, there was disagreement in the Constituent Assembly on having a second chamber in states. The arguments in support of Rajya Sabha — that a second chamber acts as a check on hasty legislation and brings diverse voices into legislatures — did not cut ice with many Constituent Assembly members when it came to the states.

Prof K T Shah, from Bihar, said a second chamber in states “involve considerable outlay from the public exchequer on account of the salaries and allowances of Members and incidental charges. They only aid party bosses to distribute more patronage, and only help in obstructing or delaying the necessary legislation which the people have given their votes for”.

The framers of the Constitution provided that in the beginning, the states of Bihar, Bombay, Madras, Punjab, the United Provinces and West Bengal would have a Legislative Council. Then they gave states the option of abolishing an existing second chamber or setting up a new one by passing a resolution in their Legislative Assembly.

The Constitution also gave the Legislative Assembly the power to overrule the Council if there was a disagreement between them on a law. The Constitution also capped the membership of the council to one-third of the popularly elected Legislative Assembly.

West Bengal’s Council

The West Bengal Legislative Council remained in existence till 1969. But it was events in the second chamber two years prior that led to its abolition. The fourth general elections held in 1967 led to the Congress losing power in multiple states. In West Bengal, the United Front, a coalition of 14 parties, formed the government with Congress in the Opposition.

Chief Minister Ajoy Kumar Mukherjee led the government with Jyoti Basu as the Deputy CM. But the coalition did not last long, and Governor Dharam Vira dismissed the government after eight months.

P C Ghosh, an independent MLA who had earlier been Chief Minister, once again assumed the post with the support of the Congress. Different scenes played out in the two Houses of the West Bengal legislature. In the Assembly, the Speaker called the Governor’s actions unconstitutional.

But the Congress-dominated council passed a resolution expressing confidence in the Ghosh-led government. This resolution sounded the death knell for the Legislative Council.

After midterm elections in 1969, the second United Front came to power. In the 32-point programme on which it had fought the elections, point number 31 was the abolition of the Legislative Council, which was one of the first things the government did when it came to power.

Article 168 of the Constitution empowers the Legislative Assembly to create or abolish a Legislative Council by passing a resolution. The resolution has to be passed by two-thirds of the Assembly members. Then a Bill to this effect has to be passed by Parliament.

The West Bengal Assembly passed this resolution in March 1969, and four months later, both Houses of Parliament approved a law to this effect. Punjab followed suit, abolishing its Legislative Council later that year.

Councils in other states

However, having or not having a Legislative Council is a political issue. For example, in Tamil Nadu, creating a Council has been a contentious issue for the last three decades. The AIADMK-led government in 1986 abolished the state’s second chamber.

Since then, DMK has made attempts to re-establish the Council, and AIADMK has opposed such moves. The DMK’s manifesto for the recently concluded elections again promises the setting up of a second chamber.

The Congress made a similar promise in the 2018 Madhya Pradesh elections. In Andhra Pradesh, the Legislative Council was first set up in 1958, then abolished by the TDP in 1985 and re-established by the Congress in 2007. Last year, the Legislative Council dominated by the TDP referred three Capital Bills to a Select Committee, which led to the YSRCP-controlled Legislative Assembly passing a resolution to abolish the legislative council.

However, passing a resolution in the Legislative Assembly is not enough to abolish or establish a Legislative Council. A Bill for such creation or dissolution has to be passed by Parliament. The Assam Assembly in 2010 and the Rajasthan Assembly in 2012 passed resolutions for setting up a Legislative Council in their respective states. Both Bills are pending in Rajya Sabha. And the Bill for abolishing the Andhra Pradesh Legislative Council has not yet been introduced in Parliament.