Current Affairs 16th May

Two killed in Kerala as cyclone intensifies #GS1 #Geography

Cyclonic storm Tauktae (pronounced Tau’te) in the Arabian Sea is expected to intensify into a very severe cyclonic storm, with windspeeds expected to touch 160 kmph by Monday.

Heavy rain accompanying the storm claimed two lives in Ernakulam and Kozhikode districts of Kerala and forced more than 2,000 to move to 71 camps. The State recorded an average rainfall of 145.5 mm, citing data from the India Meteorological Department (IMD), with the power and agriculture sectors reporting heavy damage.

The storm moved northwards and lay about 250 km southwest of Panjim-Goa and 620 km south-southwest of Mumbai. The Lakshwadeep Islands and the Ghat districts of Tamil Nadu also received significant rain.

Rain is expected to intensify in coastal Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat over the next 48 hours, causing damage to plantations, thatched houses and roads. Fishermen have been warned to stay off the sea. The IMD expects Tauktae to touch the Gujarat coast between Porbandar and Naliya around May 18 afternoon or evening, with wind speeds increasing to 175 kmph.

Current forecasts show heavy rain in the coastal districts of Gujarat, including extremely heavy rainfall in Junagadh and Gir Somnath and heavy to very heavy rain in Saurashtra, Kutch and Diu, Junagadh, Porbandar, Devbhoomi Dwarka, Amreli, Rajkot, and Jamnagar.

Navy teams deployed in Kerala amid rain #GS3 #DM

The Indian Navy deployed relief teams from the Southern Naval Command which undertook rescue operations in areas affected by Cyclone Tauktae on the Chellanam coast in Kerala. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has kept 16 transport aircraft and 18 helicopters on operational readiness in peninsular India in preparation for the cyclone which is expected to cause very heavy to extremely heavy rain along the western coast in the next few days.

“Towards providing assistance to flood-hit villages of Malaghapadi, Kampanipadi and Maruvakad in Chellanam, three Naval diving teams and one Quick Reaction Team from Southern Naval Command swung into action.

The teams undertook rescue of personnel, provisioning of food and water and shifting of people trapped in houses to relief camp at St. Mary’s High School Chellanam in the harsh weather conditions. The Navy has also put ships, aircraft and helicopters on standby in coordination with district administration.

“One IL-76 aircraft has airlifted 127 personnel and 11 tonnes of cargo from Bhatinda to Jamnagar. A C-130 aircraft has airlifted 25 personnel and 12.3 tonnes of cargo from Bhatinda to Rajkot. Two C-130 aircraft have airlifted 126 personnel and 14 tonnes cargo from Bhubaneswar to Jamnagar.

In addition, the IAF said COVID-19 relief operations have been focused in these coastal areas for the coming few days, as bad weather is likely to affect air operations later. The cyclone relief operations are in addition to those under way for COVID relief.

According to the Navy’s Information Fusion Centre for Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR), the cyclone in the Arabian Sea is likely to intensify into a severe cyclonic storm and further intensify into very severe cyclone storm late hours of May 15 or early hours of May 16.

Oxygen transport

On the ongoing transportation of emergency oxygen and other medical supplies, both within the country and from abroad, the IAF said that as on Saturday morning domestically it had carried out 778 sorties accumulating 1,147 hours and airlifted 490 tankers with 8,343 MT capacity and 209 MT of other equipment.

Kuwait to deliver more medical oxygen: envoy #GS2 #IR

Kuwait is expected to deliver a total of 1,400 metric tonnes of liquid medical oxygen to India. Ambassador Jasim Al Najm said Kuwait had emerged as one of the largest contributors of oxygen-related support to India. Kuwait sent 75 mt of liquid medical oxygen and 1,000 oxygen cylinders to the Mumbai port by using the sea-bridge agreement with India.

A statement from the Embassy of Kuwait informed Saturday’s delivery was carried on MV Capt Kattelmann . This was the fourth such ship that carried Liquid Medical Oxygen to Indian hospitals that are dealing with the rush of COVID-19 affected patients. Three more Indian Navy ships, INS Kochi, INS Tabar and INS Kolkata brought oxygen supplies to Mangalore port earlier in the week.

“We are doing our best to help India with the bilateral sea-bridge agreement. We produce a huge quantity of oxygen for Iraq and Jordan. So now we are also producing for India because of the emerging health crisis.

Mars landing gives China’s space programme a leg-up #GS3 #SnT

China landed a spacecraft on Mars carrying its first Mars rover in a big boost to its space ambitions. China had in July last year launched its first Mars mission, called Tianwen-1, meaning Questions to Heaven, carrying a lander and rover.

Tianwen-1 had been in orbit since February, and on Saturday, a lander descended successfully on to the surface of the red planet carrying a rover named Zhurong, named after a god of fire for a planet known in Chinese as the planet of fire. Only the Soviet Union and the U.S. had previously carried out a successful landing on Mars.

China’s official media described “nine minutes of terror” during the descent — the hardest part of the mission. The descent “was extremely complicated with no ground control, and had to be performed by the spacecraft autonomously,” Geng Yan, an official at the China National Space Administration (CNSA) Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center, was quoted as saying by state media.

The rover will provide “first-hand materials for research on the planet’s space environment, surface topography, and soil structure. China’s leadership sees the space programme as an important part of China’s ambitions to close the technological gulf with the U.S.

President Xi Jinping described the Mars landing as “an important step in China’s interstellar exploration” and said it had “left a Chinese mark on Mars for the first time” and was “another landmark progress in China’s space industry development”.

China had previously tried to launch a Mars orbiter along with Russia in 2011, but that failed to enter orbit. This attempt, on its own, hit the target.

China’s Mars mission, along with lunar mission and space station, is key to its space programme. In 2019, the fourth lunar probe, Chang’e-4, carried out the world’s first landing on the far side of the moon. The Mars mission was launched the following year.

China is also investing heavily in its manned space programme, as plans accelerate for its first space station, set to be functional by the end of next year and only the second space station after the International Space Station. Last month, a Long March-5B Y2 rocket carried out the first of three components for the space station, called the Tianhe or Heavenly Harmony module.

Testing and the importance of low positivity rate #GS3 #SnT

Early detection and isolation of potentially infectious individuals are the keys to successfully fighting a viral pandemic. The importance of diagnostic testing to facilitate this cannot be overemphasised. A widely deployed and efficient testing strategy can go a long way in limiting the spread of new cases as it significantly reduces the chance of individuals with undetected virus exposure from roaming freely among unexposed individuals.

Specialised kits

Depending on the type of diagnostic test used, testing can turn out to be expensive in terms of machinery, manpower and other resources especially when these are at a limited supply. COVID-19 testing required specialised testing kits that were not easily available in January 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic in India .

Although the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared coronavirus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on January 30, 2020 and India had also reported its first case of COVID-19 on the same day, until about the second half of March 2020, India’s COVID-19 testing was largely confined to symptomatic airport travellers and contacts with known sources.

India went into a complete nationwide and staggered lockdown starting March 25, 2020. However, our testing strategy for SARS-CoV-2 was still being evolved. A closer look at the different revised testing guidelines from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) throughout the period of the pandemic shows the scope of testing got gradually expanded to include different population subgroups only as new incidences of novel coronavirus infection were reported from those groups.

Instead of using it as a pre-emptive strategy, our testing strategy appeared to be a game of catch-up with the spread of the virus. Naturally, the virus always outsmarted this testing strategy.

A complete lockdown is widely perceived as a tool to expand resources including ramping up testing infrastructure along with other healthcare infrastructure instead of being a solution in itself.

However, an analysis of the progression of India’s COVID-19 cases and testing reveals that the growth of testing lagged behind that of cases during the pre-peak phase of both the first and the second wave. The second wave saw daily new cases growing three-to-four times higher than the growth of tests.

Vastly underprepared

Although the second wave came more than a year from the onset of the first wave, it appears that India’s testing infrastructure remained highly insufficient and vastly underprepared. This becomes obvious when we see that average daily new cases recorded during the second wave grew more than four-fold compared to that during the peak of the first wave, while the daily average testing grew only by 60% during the same time.

At the end of the first wave of COVID-19, in early February 2021, India was doing about 63 tests per detected case while the daily testing has decreased to 4.5 tests per each detected case during recent times.

Even at the peak of the first wave, India was doing about 11.4 tests per detected case. The average daily test positivity rate was only 8.5% at the peak of the first wave, whereas, the average positivity rate reached 22.8% a few days ago when India was reporting close to 400,000 daily new cases. The WHO, on the other hand, recommends raising daily testing enough to bring the test positivity rates below 5% level.

Glaring statistic

Yet another glaring statistic points to the serious deficiency of testing during the current wave of this pandemic. India reported a total of 108 lakhs COVID-19 cases with the help of 20.3 crore tests, during the first wave that lasted about 375 days. However, for the second wave so far, in 95 days, India already reported 130 lakh new cases by conducting only 10.6 crore tests.

At about 229 tests per 1000 people, India’s testing remains below that of 112 other countries. There has been wide variation in testing across states in India too, ranging from a low of only 76 tests per 1,000 people in Nagaland to 1,314 tests per 1,000 people in Lakshadweep.

Among the larger states, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh carried out the lowest number of tests per 1,000 people while Delhi, Jammu & Kashmir, Kerala and Karnataka did the highest.

In recent days, however, several states including Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Chandigarh and Arunachal Pradesh have been decreasing their daily new tests even as their test positivity rates are still rising. If the tests are reduced while the cases are still rising, it will manifest in an increased test positivity rate.

While the reduced number of reported cases may be inadvertently interpreted as a peak of the present wave, the pandemic will continue unabated whether we detect more cases or not. The downside to this would be an unnecessarily prolonged pandemic straining our healthcare system and the economy even further while putting more lives at risk.

Combined capacity

Dr. Balram Bhargava, the chief of ICMR in a press conference on May 11, stated India has a daily capacity of doing 16 lakh RT-PCR tests and 17 lakh Rapid Antigen Tests which indicate a combined capacity of 33 lakh tests per day. Yet, it is unfortunate that India has not done even 20 lakhs of daily testing on any day from the beginning of this pandemic.

For a country of 140 crore people, it is grossly inadequate. It is high time India makes use of its full testing capacity and augments this capacity even further to effectively fight this pandemic. The growth of testing should far outpace the growth of the cases in order to be ahead of the epidemic curve rather than chasing it.

New skink species from Western Ghats #GS3 #Environment

In September 2019, a group of herpetologists gathered at Anaikatti hills in Coimbatore for the South Asian Reptile Red List Assessment organised by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

When Achyuthan Srikanthan from the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, suggested an impromptu night visit to a nearby private farm, little did they know they would stumble upon a new species: an Asian gracile skink.

Slender and slight

Named Subdoluseps nilgiriensis, the reptile has a slender body of just about 7 cm and is sandy brown in colour. Based on genetic studies, the team writes the new species is closely related to Subdoluseps pruthi found in parts of the Eastern Ghats.

“The new species was found in a dry deciduous area, showing that even the dry zones of our country are home to unrealised skink diversity. There is an urgent need to change the notion that high biodiversity can be found only in the wet and evergreen forests.

He adds that most of the studies in Tamil Nadu are carried out only in the protected areas and focus only on megafauna such as tigers, elephants and other such. “We also need to study the little-known animal groups inside our forests. They are fundamental and indispensable components of our biodiversity.

Secretive habits

Most skinks are diurnal and are usually secretive. Being elusive, not much is known about their natural and evolutionary history. “This species is only the third skink species discovered from mainland India in the last millennium. Such discoveries give us an understanding of how underestimated our reptile species diversity truly is.

Skinks are non-venomous. They resemble snakes because of the often-inconspicuous limbs and the way they move on land. Such resemblance has led to confusion often resulting in humans killing this harmless creature.

“We are yet to study the breeding and feeding habits of this new species. Other skinks are known to feed on insects such as termites, crickets and small spiders, and we assume our new species has a similar diet.

Subdoluseps nilgiriensis is currently considered a vulnerable species as there are potential threats from seasonal forest fires, housing constructions and brick kiln industries in the area. Rapid urbanisation, which has increased the road networks in the area, has also threatened its small geographical range.

Vaccinating a population of 940 million #GS3 #SnT

The story so far: Many States have announced their intention to import COVID-19 vaccines through a global bidding process, and several tenders inviting Expression of Interest have been issued, including by Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Uttarakhand, and also by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation for Mumbai.

Is the onus on States to procure vaccines?

The Centre is currently pursuing a ‘Liberalised Pricing and Accelerated National Covid-19 Vaccination Strategy’, under which it has left vaccination of people in the 18-44 years age group to the States from May 1. State governments have to call for vaccine bids in an open market in the case of international imports and buy a limited domestic supply at prices fixed by the manufacturer.

Vaccine makers in the country are required to provide 50% of their production to the Centre to meet the needs of the 45-plus priority age group, besides 25% to the States, and leave the rest open for purchase by the private sector.

The strategy was submitted in the Supreme Court by the Centre in thesuo motucase as a step taken in an effort to incentivise and grow vaccine manufacturing. Earlier, the Drugs Controller General of India issued guidance on April 15 stipulating the conditions for the import of vaccines for restricted use in emergency situations.

What is the state of vaccine availability?

For the 18-plus age group, India has a population of about 940 million, and Census-based projections put the 18-44 age group at over 591 million. This makes up a total requirement of about 1.9 billion (or 190 crore) vaccine doses, at two doses each.

Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said on May 12 that India’s domestic vaccine production in May is likely to be 8 crore doses and about 9 crore doses in June. Considering that over 18 crore doses have been administered as of May 15, of which around 14 crore are only the first dose, there is a requirement of 172 crore doses more to cover the target population.

NITI Aayog member V.K. Paul has said that overall, 216 crore doses of vaccines could be available in India between August and December 2021. But this optimistic estimate includes 130 crore doses of Covishield (75 crore) and Covaxin (55 crore), and 15.6 crore doses of Sputnik V, while the rest — Bio E sub-unit, Zydus Cadila DNA, SII-Novavax, BB Nasal and Gennova mRNA — represent vaccine candidates in trials.

In addition, Dr. Paul said Indian authorities were actively encouraging Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson to apply for emergency use authorisation (EUA) for their vaccines. Pfizer had applied for EUA in India but withdrew it in February this year as the regulatory authority sought additional information on its vaccine.

For those not eligible for free immunisation and others who go to a private provider, prices range from Rs. 600 to Rs. 1,200 a dose for the two available vaccines, besides any hospital charges.

Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories has announced a price of Rs. 995.40 per dose for the new entrant, the imported Sputnik V vaccine. The rule for private hospitals receiving vaccines from the government, which capped the price at Rs. 250 a dose, has been discontinued.

Why do States need to import?

While the States will continue to get vaccines under the Central quota for those above 45 years, they must prepare for beneficiaries in the 18-44 years age group using their own resources; private hospitals will sell to the better-off sections, mainly in urban areas, using imports.

States are allowed to order only an approved number of domestically manufactured doses for the 18-44 years group, on a pro-rata basis fixed by the Central government based on a population estimate. Imports, therefore, come into play to meet the demand early.

Pressure for vaccines continues to mount on governments amid the wildfire spread of the infection, with the country seeing around 400,000 cases and almost 4,000 deaths a day. This has led to several decisions that the Centre claims will improve availability.

These include direct import of vaccines by States and private entities for immediate use, promoting wider domestic manufacture of Covaxin, and, if intellectual property restrictions are relaxed, domestic manufacture of foreign vaccines, which experts say will take time.

At the same time, there is a demand for a free, central vaccine procurement programme to cover every citizen. Leaders from 12 political parties, including four Chief Ministers, asked the Centre to procure vaccines, domestic and international, for universal immunisation.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had recently appealed to the Prime Minister for speedy import of approved vaccines and help to set up franchised production units in India, for which her State would provide land and all support.

How do vaccine imports work?

In the Centre’s scheme, an “incentivised” market will increase the number of manufacturers, and thus, the availability of vaccines, although the counter view is that the decentralised, unregulated procurement system will push up costs due to weak bargaining power, and with global shortages, only pave the way for profiteering.

Imports have to meet the norms stipulated by the Centre. As per the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO) guidance of April 15, which is based on the recommendations of the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19 (NEGVAC), foreign-produced vaccines granted emergency approval for restricted use by specified regulators such as the United States’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in Europe, United Kingdom’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices Agency (PMDA) in Japan, or which are listed in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Emergency Use Listing, may be granted emergency approval in India. After approval, these vaccines must be subjected to a bridging clinical trial in place of a local clinical trial, as per the New Drugs and Clinical Trials Rules, 2019.

Also, the first 100 beneficiaries must be assessed for safety outcomes for seven days, before a vaccine is rolled out as part of the vaccination programme. To speed up the availability of more vaccines, the CDSCO will process applications for restricted use in three days and registration and import formalities will be completed in three days thereafter. Every batch of a vaccine would have to be tested and released at the Central Drugs Laboratory (CDL), Kasauli, says the order.

Have States issued tenders under the new plan?

A number of States have constituted committees to finalise import modalities and many official tenders have been published. Uttarakhand said it would import 2 million doses of Sputnik V over two months.

The Uttar Pradesh tender for 40 million doses, which closes on May 21, specifies that the “goods supplied must be as per the guidelines of the ICMR”. The State seeks six to eight million doses every month, starting seven days from the issue of the purchase order, and requires the bidder to have an import licence and import registration certificate as well as the necessary transport cold chain infrastructure. U.P. Medical Supplies Corporation, the importer, has specified a vaccine storage temperature of 2°C to 8°C in nine warehouses.

Tamil Nadu has issued a tender for 50 million doses of vaccines to be delivered progressively in 90 days from the date of order, with the bid closing on June 5. Odisha has invited bids for 38 million doses, with online bids closing on May 28. Karnataka has announced that it will procure 20 million doses, while Andhra Pradesh has identified 20.4 million people for coverage in the 18-44 years group.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) in Mumbai has floated a tender for 10 million doses from COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers, their Indian partners, wholesalers of manufacturers or authorised distributors of manufacturers, but barred applicants from “countries sharing borders with India”.

This condition, in effect, rules out China’s two-dose Sinopharm vaccine that was approved by the WHO earlier this month. Moreover, the responsibility to maintain the cold chain and supply the vaccine at the main storage facility, any hospital or vaccination centre, is that of the applicant. In addition, taking into account the very low storage temperatures required for some vaccines such as Pfizer (-80°C and -60°C up to expiration date but refrigerated at 2°C to 8°C up to 120 hours), the tender says the responsibility to maintain such infrastructure up to the vaccination point would be that of the bidder. The Mumbai civic body currently has 20 hospitals and 240 vaccination centres.

Given the complexities, States feel it is the Centre that should negotiate prices, set terms and get vaccines delivered to them from international and domestic companies, to meet the challenge of universal coverage and get the country back on its feet.

Mucormycosis in COVID-19 patients #GS3 #SnT

The story so far: Hospitals across the country have started to report a number of cases of mucormycosis, an invasive fungal infection affecting patients who have recently recovered from COVID-19. In common parlance, it also goes by the name ‘black fungus’, a direct reference to the blackening that is characteristic of the disease.

What is mucormycosis?

Mucormycosis is an aggressive and invasive fungal infection caused by a group of molds called mucormycetes. It can affect various organs but is currently manifesting as an invasive rhino-orbito-cerebral disease, crawling through the sinus and working its way to the brain, affecting the ear, nose, throat, and mouth. While it is not contagious, it can cause a lot of damage internally and can be fatal if not detected early.

While mucormycosis is an old disease, what is perhaps new and concerning is the sudden increase in the invasive form of the sinus variant, which involves the orbit, and at times the brain, leading to blindness, stroke or death.

How prevalent is the disease?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S., calls it a serious but rare disease. Without population-based estimates, it is difficult to determine the exact incidence and prevalence of mucormycosis in the Indian population, but a computational model-based method by Arunaloke Chakrabarti et al., in a journal, estimated a prevalence of 0.14 cases per 1000 individuals in India.

While the infection is being reported from many States, Maharashtra Health Minister, Rajesh Tope, told mediapersons recently that there could be over 2,000 such cases in the State as of now, and predicted that the figure may go up as the number of COVID-19 cases escalates. Dr. Ram Gopalakrishnan, senior consultant, Infectious Diseases, Apollo Hospitals, added that while no studies exist on the current prevalence, the infection remained a possibility for one in 10,000 persons who recovered from COVID-19.

What causes the disease?

Diabetes mellitus is the most common underlying cause, followed by haematological malignancies and solid-organ transplants, according to acomparative study of several papers on the incidence of mucormycosis in India, published in a recent issue of Microorganisms. Diabetes mellitus was reported in 54% to 76% of cases, according to a report.

What seems to be triggering mucormycosis in patients post COVID-19 is, Dr. Kameswaran said, “an indiscriminate use of a high dose of steroids in COVID-19 patients, sometimes even in minimally symptomatic patients”. This leads to spikes in the sugar level among diabetics, which, in turn, renders them vulnerable. Dr. V. Mohan, senior diabetologist, Dr. Mohan’s Diabetes Specialities Centre, said steroids in some COVID-19 patients might be a life-saver, and therefore, they become a double-edged sword. Rational use of steroids is necessary, and constant monitoring of sugar levels and resorting to insulin use to control these levels if required, is essential, he added.

Dr. Kameswaran said the use of monoclonal agents like Tocilizumab may be a factor, too. He added that while the fungi are present in the environment, the use of nasal prongs and other devices for oxygen delivery and possible breach of sterile conditions can possibly lead to cross-infection and hospital-acquired infection. “The question of COVID- 19 infection itself predisposing to invasive fungal disease would need further studies but cannot be ruled out at this stage,” he added.

Does the disease cause any distinct symptoms?

Dr. Nisar Sonam Poonam, associate consultant at the Department of Orbit and Occuloplasty at Sankara Nethralaya, Chennai, said the signs to watch out for are a stuffy nose, bloody, blackish, or brown discharge from the nose, blackish discolouration of the skin, swelling or numbness around the cheek, one-sided facial pain, toothache or jaw pain, drooping of the eyelids or eyelid swelling, double vision, redness of eyes, and sudden decrease in vision. The main line of treatment is an anti-fungal drug called amphotericin B, which is given over an extended period of time under the strict observation of a physician. Surgery to remove the fungus growth might also be warranted.

How can mucormycosis be prevented?

Following appropriate treatment protocols as recommended by the World Health Organization for COVID-19, including rational use of steroids and monoclonal antibodies only when they can help a patient, is important, said Dr. Kameswaran.

It is important to keep blood sugar levels under control and ensure that appropriate calibration of oral drugs or insulin is done from time to time, stressed

Dr.Mohan. Further, recognising the symptoms and seeking treatment early if there are two or three symptoms at a time is key. Like most illnesses, if detected early, mucormycosis can be cured.

The hurdles in accessing foreign COVID-19 aid #GS3 #Economy

The story so far: As India ran out of critical supplies for managing the severe second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic — from medical oxygen to medicines, hospital beds and even vaccines — the Centre unveiled gradual measures over the past month to ease the imports of some items. Import duties and taxes were cut in some cases, while a new system was introduced for allowing foreign donors to route emergency relief to the pandemic’s frontline victims. However, there are some serious hiccups.

What steps have been taken to facilitate imports of relief supplies?

On April 24, the Finance Ministry announced it was dropping the basic customs duty on import of COVID-19 vaccines, and the basic customs duty as well as health cess on imports of medical grade oxygen and other equipment related to providing oxygen to patients, till July 31. Prior to this, the customs duty on the much-prescribed drug for India’s COVID-19 patients, Remdesivir, and its active pharmaceutical ingredients had been waived. On April 30, the government dropped the import duties on diagnostic kits till October 31 to help ramp up testing efforts and allowed individuals to import oxygen concentrators for personal use through courier from e-commerce portals or global vendors. The customs department was told to clear them as ‘gifts’ till July 31.

Have all critical COVID-19 imports been made temporarily tax-free?

No. Though customs duties have been slashed, such imports still attract the Goods and Services Tax (GST), specifically termed the Integrated GST (IGST). For hospitals, corporates or domestic entities that import such goods, 12% GST is payable on oxygen concentrators and related equipment, the same rate that is payable on domestic purchases. Vaccines attract a 5% GST.

Imports of oxygen concentrators for personal use were taxed at 28%, but the government reduced this rate to 12% on May 1. So, even as special protocols have been put in place by the Shipping Ministry to ensure that vessels with COVID-19 relief material are unloaded on a priority basis and paperwork and cargo clearances are processed expeditiously by Customs and the Directorate General of Foreign Trade, GST payments are mandatory for the material to be released. Several shipments sent by foreign donors, including groups of NRIs, or procured online by resident Indians from abroad, were held up due to a lack of awareness of this.

G. Bansal, who, with his IIT alumni friends in London, sourced 40-odd oxygen concentrators locally and couriered them to Delhi when the city was facing daily shortages of medical oxygen, said they had to raise more funds subsequently to facilitate the GST payments to get them released. “The money wasn’t the issue, but this ended up delaying the use of those concentrators by at least three days,” he said, adding that for subsequent relief efforts, he and his friends were factoring in the GST costs as well, which would dent the quantities of relief material they send.

The same tax implications arise for all Indian entities trying to import such material, be it a domestic corporate or an NGO that raises funds to import such goods.

Has something been done to reduce the GST burden?

Yes, but there are problems. On May 3, the Finance Ministry granted a conditional ‘ad-hoc’ GST exemption for imports of all COVID-19 relief material, including vaccines, medical oxygen and Remdesivir vials, et al, till June 30. This was in response to representations from charitable organisations, corporates and entities outside India seeking exemption from paying IGST on the import of COVID-19 relief material, said the Ministry.

To avail of this IGST exemption, the material has to be “received free of cost for free distribution anywhere in India for COVID relief”. But domestic companies or charities importing these items by purchasing them, even if for free distribution in the country, cannot avail of this tax break. Moreover, entities that wish to import relief material for free distribution need a prior certification from State governments. So, global donors and their intended recipients for the donations would need to register with individual States where they wish to route relief material.

Can any entity use this system to tie up with a global donor?

No entity in India is allowed to receive foreign aid or cash donations unless they have an approval to do so under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA). No exemption from the FCRA has been granted in the system laid out by the Finance Ministry. Moreover, FCRA-approved entities and NGOs need to have the same stated objective as the intended use of funds being donated. New rules introduced last September required such NGOs to open a bank account for receiving foreign funds at the State Bank of India’s Parliament Street branch by April 1. Many have struggled to do this, with a petition in the Delhi High Court stating that only 16% of NGOs have managed to open an account.

But there is an even bigger challenge — an NGO receiving foreign funds or material can no longer transfer foreign aid to any other person, which would make it difficult to pass on the relief material to patients or smaller NGOs or groups working on the ground.

What next?

Nasscom has urged the Prime Minister to temporarily relax the FCRA norms, stressing that many countries and global firms are keen to help India. “However, the amended provisions of the FCRA 2020 are proving to be a deterrent. Given the humanitarian crisis, we would request the government to grant a temporary waiver to the FCRA Act and the 2020 amendments,” said Nasscom.

Separate petitions concerning the restrictive FCRA provisions are being heard in the High Courts, and a Bench of the Delhi High Court has also asked the Finance Ministry to consider dropping GST levies on all oxygen concentrator imports as they can be linked to the Right to Life under Article 21 of the Constitution amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

State governments are also expected to raise the issue of GST levies on COVID-19 supplies, including vaccines, at the GST Council meeting on May 28.