Current Affairs 2nd May

Record GST mop-up of Rs. 1.41 lakh cr. in April #GS3 #Economy

Gross revenues from the Goods and Services Tax hit a record high of Rs. 1.41 lakh crore in April, suggesting that economic activity may not yet be as badly affected amid the ongoing second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, as last year.

The GST collections surpassed the previous highest collections of Rs. 1.24 lakh crore in March by 14%, and mark the seventh month in a row since October last year that GST revenues have crossed Rs. 1 lakh crore.

In April last year, as economic activities ground to a halt amid a national lockdown, the indirect collections had dipped to Rs. 32,172 crore. This April, revenues from domestic transactions, including services imports, grew 21% over March 2021.

Tax experts expect some moderation in revenues in the coming months due to the gradual imposition of partial and full lockdowns across all the States.

The government, on its part, said the steady increase in GST collections over recent months clearly indicated that a “sustained economic recovery” was under way.

‘Various measures’

“The all-time high GST collections seem to be the outcome of uptick in economic recovery, anti-evasion measures such as e-invoicing, data analytics-led investigations, and also year-end audit and financial closure of the companies as on March.

First instalment of SDRF released #GS3 #DM

The Centre has released the first instalment of the State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) to States, in the wake of the second wave of COVID-19 that has claimed thousands of lives since April.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), in a statement, said Rs. 8,873.6 crore had been released, an annual exercise usually done in June.

“As a special dispensation, the Department of Expenditure, Ministry of Finance, at the recommendation of the Ministry of Home Affairs, has released in advance of the normal schedule the first instalment of the Central share of the State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) for 2021-22 to all the States. “Normally, the first instalment is released in June as per the recommendations of the Finance Commission. However, in relaxation of the normal procedure, not only has the release of SDRF been advanced, the amount has also been released without waiting for the utilisation certificate of the amount provided to the States in the last financial year. Up to 50% of the amount released, i.e., Rs. 4,436.8 crore can be used by the States for COVID-19 containment measures.

The MHA said the funds may be used for meeting the cost of oxygen generation and storage plants in hospitals, ventilators, air purifiers, strengthening ambulance services, COVID-19 hospitals, COVID Care Centres, consumables, thermal scanners, personal protective equipment, testing laboratories, testing kits and containment zones, among others.

Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh, one of the first COVID-19 hit States, were allocated Rs. 1,288 crore, Rs. 316.4 crore, Rs. 125.60 crore and Rs. 773.20 crore respectively.

Since Delhi is a Union Territory, the fund is released by the MHA and is included in the Union Budget. The allocation to each State depends on its population and utilisation of such funds in the previous financial year.

Immediate relief

The SDRF is the primary fund available with State governments as part of their response to notified disasters to meet expenditure on providing immediate relief to victims.

The Centre contributes 75% of the allocation for general category States and Union Territories and 90% for special category States (northeastern, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and J&K).

U.S. clears sale of six P-8I patrol aircraft to India #GS2 #IR

The U.S. State Department approved the proposed sale of six P-8I patrol aircraft and related equipment, a deal estimated to cost $2.42 billion.

In November 2019, the Defence Acquisition Council, chaired by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, approved the procurement of the long-range maritime surveillance aircraft manufactured by Boeing.

The original proposal was for 10 more aircraft but was cut down to six due to budgetary constraints as well as because the Navy had adopted some fleet rationalisation measures and was considering long-endurance unmanned platforms.

The possible sale comes through the Foreign Military Sale route and requires that the U.S. Congress be notified, a process that was completed on Friday. Lawmakers have a statutory 30 days to raise any objections.

“The Government of India has requested to buy six (6) P-8I Patrol aircraft; eight (8) Multifunctional Information Distribution System-Joint Tactical Radio Systems 5 (MIDS-JTRS 5) (6 installed, 2 spares); forty-two (42) AN/AAR-54 Missile Warning Sensors (36 installed, 6 spares); and fourteen (14) LN-251 with Embedded Global Positioning Systems (GPS)/Inertial Navigations Systems (EGIs) (12 installed, 2 spares). Also included are CFM56-7 commercial engines; Tactical Open Mission Software (ITOMS) variant for P-8I; Electro-Optical (EO) and Infrared (IR) MX-20HD; AN/AAQ-2(V)l Acoustic System; ARES-1000 commercial variant Electronic Support Measures; AN/APR-39D Radar Warning Receiver; AN/ALE-47 Counter Measures Dispensing System; support equipment and spares; publications; repair and return; transportation; aircraft ferry; training; U.S. Government and contractor engineering, software, technical, and logistics support services; and other related elements of logistical and program support,” the State Department said in a statement on Friday.

The Indian Navy is currently in the process of inducting the four P-8Is contracted under the offset clause in 2016. The Navy had procured eight P-8Is in a $2.2-billion deal in 2009 with the optional clause for four more. The aircraft are part of the 312A Naval Air Squadron based at Arakkonam in Tamil Nadu.

With India having signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) foundational agreement with the U.S., the six aircraft will come fitted with encrypted systems, as reported by The Hindu earlier.

These systems were replaced with commercial off-the-shelf systems in the earlier deals. The P-8I is based on the Boeing 737 commercial aircraft and India was its first international customer.

Help pours in from several countries #GS2 #IR

International solidarity and emergency medical supplies poured in on Saturday to help India fight the COVID-19 pandemic. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar received calls of support from his Norwegian and Spanish counterparts Ine Eriksen Soreide and Arancha Gonzalez.

The U.S. is sending a National Airlines Boeing 747-400 cargo aircraft which is scheduled to land in Delhi around 11.30 p.m. on Saturday. It is carrying the biggest aid till date from the U.S. to India of around 100 tonnes including oxygen concentrators, oxygen cylinders, medicines and other COVID-related medical products. There are six or seven flights which will be coming in the next few days via the National Airlines cargo flights, one airlines official said.

World-class supplies

French Ambassador Emmanuel Lenain said 28 tonnes of medical equipment will be flown by the French government on Sunday. The cargo will include “8 world-class oxygen plants that will make 8 Indian hospitals oxygen autonomous for 10+ years,” Mr. Lenain said in a social media message.

Substantial cargo arrived from Thailand on Saturday with 30 oxygen concentrators, of which 15 were from the Thai government and 15 donated by the Indian community there. “Discussed the COVID-19 challenge and international cooperation with Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai. Appreciated the supplies of cryogenic tanks and other oxygen-related equipment. Confident that we can continue to count on our partnership with Thailand,” Mr. Jaishankar said on social media.

The IAF has deployed an IL-76 transport aircraft to carry three empty cryogenic oxygen containers from Singapore to Panagarh.

The U.K. is also working on a combined plan with the IAF to airlift additional emergency supplies expected to be finalised shortly. The Navy has deployed seven ships Kolkata , Kochi , Talwar , Tabar , Trikand , Jalashwa and Airavat for shipment of liquid medical oxygen-filled cryogenic containers and associated medical equipment from various countries.

INS Talwarheaded back

INS Kolkata and INS Talwar , mission deployed in Persian Gulf, were the first batch of ships that were immediately diverted for the task and entered port of Manama on Friday.

INS Talwar , with 40 MT of liquid medical oxygen, is headed back home, the Navy said in a statement.

INS Kolkata has proceeded to Doha for medical supplies and will head to Kuwait for liquid oxygen tanks. Similarly, on the Eastern seaboard, INS Airavat has been diverted for the task, while INS Jalashwa was pulled out of maintenance, readied and sailed out to augment the effort, the Navy said.

“ INS Airavat is scheduled to enter Singapore for embarking liquid oxygen tanks and INS Jalashwa is standing by in the region to embark medical stores at short notice

Strings attached: puppets offer safety lessons to fight COVID-19 #GS3 #SnT #GS1 #Culture

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided an Assam-based trust the opportunity to focus on a near-forgotten form of string puppetry called Putola Nach.

In collaboration with the UNICEF-Assam, the Anamika Ray Memorial Trust (ARMT) has produced three short videos using string puppetry for creating mass awareness of COVID-appropriate behaviour. A fourth video is on the issue of school dropouts.

The video ‘COVID Shatru (Enemy)’ is based on a king, who preaches safety measures after the spread of the novel coronavirus threatens to devastate his realm. ‘COVID Bibhrat (confusion)’ is aimed at students for instilling COVID appropriate behaviour — washing hands regularly, wearing a mask, maintaining physical distance and adhering to other precautionary measures as prescribed in the standard operating procedures.

While these two are in Assamese, ‘ Mama ro Mina ko COVID Katha ’ (COVID Tale of Mama and Mina) is in the Nepali language, made especially for the Sikkim government.

“These videos are a part of a larger collaborative project with UNICEF done in November and December 2020. We used the dying folk art form of Putola Nach to campaign for its conservation besides creating awareness on the pandemic.

Interactive scripts

“We have also prepared other multimedia interactive documents creating general awareness on COVID-19. But as time demands, we are focusing on the circulation of the three puppetry videos that encapsulate COVID appropriate behaviours in a simple, entertaining and attractive manner for people of all ages.

ARMT is named after his wife, a Gauhati University teacher who died from a gall bladder surgery gone wrong in New Delhi in 2015. The Medical Council of India had in October 2019 found two doctors guilty of medical negligence leading to her death. Dr. Dutta had campaigned against what he called “medical terrorism” prior to the verdict.

Assam’s string puppetry had three distinct styles based on the area performed. These areas were Barpeta-Nalbari in western Assam, Kalaigaon in northern Assam and Majuli “island” in eastern Assam.

Vaccine shortage will affect all eligible groups #GS3 #SnT

From May 1, 595 million adults aged 18–44 years were officially eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The State governments and private hospitals are to vaccinate this group of adults. However, based on the number of vaccine doses that will become available in the following days and weeks, it is likely that only a very small percentage of adults aged 18–44 years will receive a vaccine, if at all.

The two private vaccine manufacturers – Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech – are required to supply 50% of vaccine produced to the Central government and the balance to State governments and private hospitals. The Central government will be vaccinating for free the 300 million people belonging to three priority groups — healthcare workers, frontline workers and those above 45 years. With two doses to be administered per person, this would mean 600 million doses to be administered to 300 million people.

But as on May 1, three-half-months after the mass vaccination programme began on January 16, only 160.37 million doses have been administered. Of these, over 120.5 million have received the first dose and the remaining have received the second dose as well. Only 2.7% of adults are fully vaccinated and 12.9% given a single dose. This would mean that another 450-odd million doses have to be administered for free to fully cover the three priority groups.

As per a PIB release, as on May 1, nearly eight million doses are currently available with the States and Union Territories. With 1.2 million, Uttar Pradesh has the highest number of vaccine doses available, followed by Bihar (0.61 million), Maharashtra (0.14 million), Delhi (0.44 million), Karnataka (0.19 million), Assam (nearly 0.44 million), and Gujarat (0.34 million). Tamil Nadu has just 0.30 million doses, while Telangana has a meagre 90,480 doses. But these doses are to be used only in adults aged over 45 years.

Distribution of doses

Seven States will receive 1.7 million vaccine doses by May 4. With nearly 0.4 million, Bihar will receive the most doses followed by Uttar Pradesh (0.35 million), Haryana (0.3 million), Madhya Pradesh (0.28 million), Rajasthan (0.2 million), and Jammu & Kashmir and Goa (0.1 million each). These doses too are to be used only in adults aged over 45 years.

While the mass vaccination programme began on January 16, the daily uptake of vaccines was low. At 0.8 million, February 25 recorded the most vaccinations before the third and fourth priority group of those above 60 years and those over 45 years with comorbidities began from March 1. The uptake of vaccines increased and touched a peak of 3.4 million doses on March 22.

But with the government making anyone over 45 years immaterial of comorbidity status eligible for a vaccine, the uptake increased sharply touching 4.2 million on April 2. While daily vaccinations hovered around 4 million for several days, a sharp dip began since mid-April, coinciding with shortages in vaccine supplies. For the last 10 days, the daily vaccination numbers have been dropping further; it plummeted to reach 2.2 million on April 29.

Supplying private hospitals

While private hospitals too are allowed to vaccinate adults aged 18-44 years according to government policy, in a letter dated April 28, Serum Institute has told a Community Medicine specialist at Hamdard Institute of Medical Sciences & Research, Delhi that it is constrained to supply vaccines to private hospitals.

Our current obligation to meet the Government’s existing requirements and to meet the additional demand emanating from State governments under liberated and accelerated vaccination, it is challenging to meet independently the requirement from large numbers of private hospitals,” the letter says.

The letter adds: “We urge you to access the vaccine when it becomes available in the private market supply chain channels, which will take about five–six months from now. In the meantime, it is suggested to approach the State government for vaccine supplies, which was provided earlier for the category of citizens over 45 years of age.”

However, Apollo and Max Hospitals had rolled out vaccines for the 18-44 age group on May 1.

Only six States — Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Odisha — have received small quantities of vaccines to immunise adults aged 18-44 years from May 1. As a result, the vaccination drive will be more of a token affair limited to a few districts in each of the six States.

Serum Institute currently manufactures 60–65 million doses a month, and the production will be ramped up only by June-July when about 100 million doses will be produced a month. Bharat Biotech too is increasing capacity.

According to the government release, Covaxin production will be increased from the current 10 million doses a month to 100 million doses by September. A six–seven-fold increase is expected by July-August.

Overflowing registrations

While expanding the eligibility to include adults 18–44 years is a welcome move, vaccine shortages are likely to persist for a few months. According to the government, 20.45 million beneficiaries have registered on CoWIN as on April 29.

And with the Central government set to receive only 50% supplies and State governments to compete with one another for a share of the balance 50% supplies, vaccination of all priority/age groups is set to be affected for at least a few months. This when the daily new cases and deaths are scaling new peaks; new cases touched 4.01 lakh (0.4 million) on April 30.

Coronavirus: What are variants of concern? #GS3 #SnT

If manuscripts are copied by hand repeatedly, spelling errors are common. Similarly, when ‘genetic scripts’ encoded in DNA or RNA are copied repeatedly for virus replication, errors do occur. RNA viruses are more error-prone than DNA viruses. SARS-CoV-2 genome is single-stranded RNA, and errors — in biology, mutations — occur frequently.

SARS-CoV-2 is new in humans and as it spreads, mutations are very frequent. Emerging variants with higher transmission efficiency become dominant, tending to replace others. Such frontrunners emerge in different geographic communities where the virus is epidemic, spreading widely.

Variants were detected in the U.K. and South Africa because genetic studies were systematically done. Brazil variant was discovered in Japan, in travellers from Brazil, and its origin traced back.

The ability to detect and track variants hinges on laboratory capacity for whole genome sequencing of viruses. Globally, over 1 million SARS CoV-2 genomes have been sequenced to-date, providing a high resolution, spatio-temporally granular readout of virus evolution. More importantly, this has allowed the identification and documentation of variant viruses with altered properties compared to the virus that started the pandemic.

As the importance of ‘variants of concern’ (VOC) was appreciated, the Indian SARS CoV-2 Genomic Consortium (INSACOG), a network of ten competent public-sector laboratories for genomic surveillance, was established, and the genetic variant landscape is being surveyed in India.

Nomenclature schemes

There are three different schemes of nomenclature of SARS-CoV-2 variants. The widely used one is the ‘Phylogenetic Assignment of Global Outbreak Lineages’ (PANGOLIN) that uses a hierarchical system based on genetic relatedness – an invaluable tool for genomic surveillance. It uses alphabets (A, B, C, P) and numerals starting with 1.

Variant lineages are at the emerging edge of the pandemic in different geographies. Lineage B is the most prolific. The variants in circulation are B.1; B.1.1; B.1.1.7; B.1.167; B.1.177; B.1.351, B.1.427 and B.1.429. Lineage P.1 has deviated from the original B.

For convenience, the three most frequent ones are named by their geography of origin — ‘U.K. variant’ for B.1.1.7; ‘South Africa variant’ for B.1.351; and ‘Brazil variant’ for P.1. They had been detected in 2020 — September (U.K.), October (South Africa) and December (Brazil). Variants in India include the so-called double mutant B.1.617 spreading in Maharashtra and B.1.618 spreading in West Bengal.

Mutations can be pinpointed using the nucleotide position on the genome and the switched amino acids consequent to mutation. The original pandemic virus (founder variant) was Wu.Hu.1 (Wuhan virus). In a few months, variant D614G emerged and became globally dominant.

Matters of concern

The ‘concern’ in VOC comprises three sinister properties – transmission efficiency, disease severity and escape from immunity cover of vaccination.

In many countries, including India, the VOC, by virtue of increased transmissibility, have kicked off new wave(s) of epidemic transmission. Unfortunately, at that precise time, as case counts were low, there was widespread relaxation of COVID-appropriate behaviour. Together, this has contributed to a rapidly ascending second wave — daily numbers far exceeding those during the earlier wave.

Regarding virulence (propensity to cause severe/life-threatening disease), the U.K. variant is worse. The South Africa and Brazil variants do not seem to have higher virulence.

The third concern is regarding the immunity cover offered by vaccination using antigens made from D614G variant — which applies to most vaccines in current use. Lowered efficacy of vaccines was found more with the South African and less with the Brazil variant. Hence, reinfection can occur in spite of immunity by earlier D614G infection or vaccination.

Vaccine efficacy may be lower now than what was determined in phase-3 trials as VOC were not then widely prevalent. Fortunately, mRNA (Pfizer and Moderna) vaccines have broader immunity for different reasons, and they protect better against these two variants.

Karolinska Institute in Sweden created an antigen using new variant RBD peptide with adjuvant, and inoculated monkeys already primed with an older vaccine. The resultant booster response was not only high but also broad, covering new variants. This approach, called ‘hetero boosting’ by a different vaccine, offers a way to manage the ‘vaccine-escape’ variants until newer vaccines become available.

Lessons learnt

An important lesson the pandemic has taught us in India is the critical importance of biomedical research and capacity building – for saving lives and economic growth. We need a foundation of broad-based research, in universities, medical colleges and biotechnology companies, all of which must be funded, encouraged, appreciated, and talent rewarded.

While some endeavours have been initiated, they must take off in a big way, and India must invest heavily in biosciences. After a decade, its products and profit will make us healthier and wealthier.

Oxygen deficit amid mounting COVID-19 cases #GS3 #SnT

The story so far: A shortage of medical oxygen at hospitals in many parts of the country in the wake of the ongoing second wave of COVID-19 infections has caused multiple deaths, including in the capital city, and led to the Delhi High Court asking the Central government to explain its approach to the allocation of the critical resource to various States and Delhi.

On Thursday, it questioned the Centre on why States like Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra were allotted more oxygen than what they had asked for, while Delhi was not given even its projected requirement to treat COVID-19 patients. On Saturday, Batra Hospital in New Delhi reported that 12 patients had died as it ran out of oxygen. On April 30, India crossed the 4 lakh-mark for daily new COVID-19 cases.

How much oxygen does India produce?

In a release on April 15, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare acknowledged at the outset that “medical oxygen is a critical component in the treatment of COVID affected patients” and said that India had a daily production capacity of 7,127 metric tonnes (MT) of oxygen, which it asserted was sufficient given that the countrywide medical oxygen consumption as of April 12 was 3,842 MT.

While the 7,127 MT capacity that the Ministry referred to was the overall oxygen-producing capacity, including the volumes produced for industrial use, the fact that the Centre has restricted the supply of oxygen for all non-medical purposes, except a list of exempted industries that includes pharmaceuticals, food, oil refineries and oxygen cylinder makers, has meant that the major share of output has been earmarked for medical use.

Subsequently, in a statement shared by the Press Information Bureau on its website on April 27, the Prime Minister’s Office said: “The production of LMO [liquid medical oxygen] in the country has increased from 5,700 MT/day in August 2020 to the present 8,922 MT (on April 25, 2021). The domestic production of LMO is expected to cross 9,250 MT/day by the end of April 2021.”

What led to the shortage?

The demand for medical oxygen, which prior to the onset of the pandemic last year was at about 10% of overall output, or 700 MT/day, has skyrocketed in recent weeks with the incidence of patients suffering acute respiratory distress having sharply spiked during the current wave.

While the Union government did constitute an inter-ministerial Empowered Group (EG2) of senior officers in March 2020 to ensure the availability of essential medical equipment, including medical oxygen, to the affected States, the group appears to have been caught off guard, along with most of the country’s health sector by the sheer scale and speed of the rise in infections. As a result, oxygen demand projections have woefully lagged behind actual requirements.

For instance, in an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court last month, the Union government pointed out that soon after it had passed an order for allocation of oxygen to 12 high-burden States on April 15, some of them promptly ended up considerably revising their projections for medical oxygen requirements for April 20. So, while Uttar Pradesh doubled its requirement forecast to 800 MT from 400 MT earlier, Delhi said it would need 700 MT as of April 20, a 133% increase from the 300 MT it had previously sought.

Three other States, which had previously not been a part of the list, also sought allocations from the Centre, thus pushing up the demand forecast for April 20 to a total of 5,619 MT, from the 4,880 MT estimated earlier. The sharp revisions on the part of two States even prompted the government to remark in the affidavit that “it is also pertinent to note that the medical oxygen in any country cannot be unlimited”.

Also, the preparation for a possible second wave in India and oxygen requirements appears to have been wholly inadequate. As a pointer, in August last year, the European Industrial Gases Association observed that its members such as Air Liquide and Linde were experiencing five to 10 times the usual demand for medical oxygen, and this at a time when some countries, including in Europe, were experiencing their second wave.

Add to this the unique logistic challenges facing the distribution of medical oxygen to hospitals in India, and we had a perfect storm of supplies running out with replenishment not reaching on time and many seriously ill patients gasping to death.

Why are we facing supply challenges?

Prior to the pandemic, a bulk of the health sector’s medical oxygen requirement had been met with supplies delivered either in form of oxygen cylinders containing the element as a high-purity gas or through dedicated cryogenic tankers that transport the oxygen in liquid form and deliver them to storage tanks at hospitals.

The stand-alone facilities for the production of oxygen, including the medical variant, have so far been geographically concentrated mainly in clusters in the eastern, southern and western parts of the country, thus necessitating the transportation of the element over distances by road.

With just 1,224 cryogenic tankers available for transporting LMO, according to the affidavit filed in the Supreme Court, there have not been enough vehicles to carry medical oxygen in quick time to critical locations. This despite the fact that some tanker fleet owners have deployed at least two drivers with each vehicle to improve on-road and turnaround times between each delivery. With cylinders and tankers scarce, the authorities are now eyeing other ways to urgently redress the situation.

What is being done to boost supply?

The Centre is taking a multi-pronged approach to address the crisis. For one, it has decided to deploy surplus stocks of the element available with steel plants across the country, including Public Sector Units.

Also, the movement of transport tankers for LMO is now being closely monitored and the Indian Railways and the Indian Air Force have been roped in to help ferry tankers by both rail and air (though aircraft are mainly transporting empty tankers as it is hazardous to transport filled cryogenic vessels).

The PESO (Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation) has also issued directions to oversee the conversion of argon and nitrogen tankers for use as oxygen tankers. Production of additional cryogenic tankers is also underway to augment fleet capacity. Separately, industrial cylinders have been permitted to be used for medical oxygen after due purging, and the Health Ministry is placing orders for another one lakh oxygen cylinders.

The Ministry is also expediting on “a war footing” the commissioning of 162 Pressure Swing Adsorption (PSA) plants that can generate oxygen from the air at various hospitals across the country, according to its affidavit. And for now, the government is also accepting assistance from abroad with several countries, including Russia and Singapore, despatching oxygen equipment.

What lies ahead?

The efforts to boost output and improve supplies notwithstanding, there are still multiple challenges. For the relatives of patients struggling to procure an assured supply of oxygen either at home or once admitted to a hospital, real-time information on availability has been hard to come by. Hence, they have mostly had to rely on volunteer networks disseminating data via social media platforms. Here again, the Supreme Court had to step in to warn authorities against initiating any punitive action against volunteers and those putting out appeals for help.

Further, the allocation of oxygen to the States by the empowered group appears to be uneven, with the Delhi High Court pointing to the fact that against the local government’s request for 700 MT, it had only been allocated 490 MT, while Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra had been sanctioned more supply than they had sought. The wrinkles in matching supply and demand both at the institutional and individual level need to be ironed out without further delay.

Public buildings and fire safety rules #GS3 #DM

The story so far: Fires occur in many public buildings in India every year, killing a large number of people and injuring many. Over the past year, there have been deadly fires in hospital buildings, including those treating COVID-19 patients. Recent infernos in hospitals at Bharuch in Gujarat, Virar, a suburb of Mumbai, and Mumbra near Thane, killed at least 37 people.

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) says 330 people died in commercial building fires in 2019, while fatalities for residential or dwelling buildings were much higher at 6,329. Electrical faults are cited as the leading cause of fires but State governments are widely criticised for being lax with building safety laws and for failing to equip public buildings with modern technology. Hospital ICUs (intensive care units) are a great fire risk because they are oxygen-suffused, and need to meet high standards.

What fire safety compliance is expected in public buildings, including hospitals?

At the centre of all standard-setting is the National Building Code of India. Part 4 of the Code deals with Fire and Life Safety. The document provides specifications and guidelines for design and materials that reduce the threat of destructive fires. Under the Code, all existing and new buildings are classified by nature of use, such as residential, educational, institutional, assembly (like cinemas and auditoria), business, mercantile, industrial, storage and hazardous.

Hospitals come under the institutional category. The Union Home Ministry’s Directorate-General for Fire Services, Civil Defence & Home Guards says on its website that the National Building Code (NBC), published by the Bureau of Indian Standards, is a “recommendatory document”, and States have been asked to incorporate it into their local building bylaws, making the recommendations a “mandatory requirement”. Evidently, fire safety rules exist in every State, but the provisions of the Code are ignored in practice, and even mandatory certifications do not reflect compliance.

Queries on hospital fires prompted the Centre to announce in Parliament on March 23 this year that a Fire Safety Committee conducts periodical audits on fire installation, heating, ventilation and air-conditioning, electrical sub-stations and other electrical equipment in the Union government’s hospitals. The Health Ministry said it had circulated strict guidelines in September 2020 stipulating third-party accreditation for fire safety and that a fire response plan should be in place.

The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has also stipulated requirements for fire safety in public buildings, including hospitals, which incorporate elements of the NBC, besides design guidelines on maintaining minimum open safety space, protected exit mechanisms, dedicated staircases, and crucial drills to carry out evacuations.

What does the Code specify?

At the macro level, the NBC recommends the location of buildings by type of use in specific zones to ensure that industrial and hazardous structures do not coexist with residential, institutional, office and business buildings. It specifies, among other things, the technical requirements for special buildings, high rises, educational and institutional buildings higher than 9 metres, and those with an area of over 300 square metres.

Next, the Code drills down into the specifics of fire resistance based on the materials used — exterior walls, interior bearing walls, floor, roof, fire check doors, fire enclosure exits, and so on. Technologies to sound alerts in case of a fire and also to fight it are expected to be incorporated into buildings.

Examples given in the Code are automatic fire detection and alarm system, down-comer pipelines connected to a roof tank, dry riser pipelines that fire-fighters can use to douse upper floors, automatic sprinklers and water sprays, fireman’s lift, fire barriers, escape routes, markings, and so on.

Incorporating these into a proper design and ensuring that certified fire-resistant materials are used in the construction can avert deadly fires, giving occupants sufficient time to exit safely.

However, the NBC also says that for various types of buildings, “in case of practical difficulty or to avoid unnecessary hardship, without sacrificing reasonable safety, local head, fire services may consider exemptions from the Code”.

Do State governments follow the Code?

Maharashtra, which has been hit by a series of fires, has a Fire Prevention and Life Safety Measures Act since 2008. Section 3 of the Act makes the provisions of the NBC mandatory and Schedule I of the State’s law is borrowed from the Code.

However, reports in the wake of recent fire accidents indicate that the authorities have been unable to keep up with inspection requirements for thousands of buildings. A Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report for the period 2010 to 2015 noted that in Maharashtra, after a “joint physical inspection by audit of 53 government buildings/hospitals/educational institutions/commercial establishments in eight selected MCs [municipal corporations] revealed that only fire extinguishers were installed in 11 of 53 buildings and the remaining 42 buildings were not equipped with any of the fire-fighting installations”. Fire department professionals had earlier demanded third-party audits by licensed professionals.

In Kerala, obtaining an NOC [no-objection certificate] from the fire department, given in form H-3 for hospitals that are between 15 metres and 24 metres high, requires furnishing exhaustive information on design and infrastructure. The rules prescribe firefighting equipment and installations that meet “Indian Standards”, but do not contain a direct reference to the NBC.

Tamil Nadu’s form for a fire licence, required under the Fire Service Act read with municipal law, is even broader, and no reference is found for compliance with the Code.

What is the future course?

In December last year, the Supreme Court directed all States to carry out fire safety audits of dedicated COVID-19 hospitals. It has become evident that State forces lack the manpower to inspect and ensure compliance with safety codes, including the NBC, where it is mandatory. One option is to make heavy fire liability insurance compulsory for all public buildings, which would offer protection to occupants and visitors and bring about external inspection of safety.

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April 2020 Hindu & IE Editorial Compilation & Imp. Article for quoting as an example

March 2020 Hindu & IE Editorial Compilation & Imp. Article for quoting as an example

February 2020 Hindu & IE Editorial Compilation & Imp. Article for quoting as an example

January 2020 Hindu & IE Editorial Compilation & Imp. Article for quoting as an example

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