Current Affairs 25th May

Odisha, Bengal grapple with evacuation ahead of cyclone #GS3 #DM

As the storm system Yaas heads towards the north Odisha-West Bengal coast, several thousand people are set to be evacuated from the coastal districts of both States. Officials of the Regional Meteorological Centre (RMC) in Kolkata said that the very severe cyclonic storm will make landfall by Wednesday.

The cyclone will cross on May 26 noon as a very severe cyclonic storm. It is likely to make landfall between the Paradip Coast in Odisha and Sagar Island in West Bengal, close to Balasore in Odisha. Mr. Das predicted that at the time of landfall, wind speed in the districts of north Odisha and Purba Medinpur in West Bengal would be about 155 to 165 kmph, gusting at 185 kmph.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said the State was in the process of evacuating about 10 lakh people to cyclone shelters. “We have about 4,000 cyclone shelters, where people who are being evacuated will be given shelter to minimise the loss of lives. Twenty of the 23 districts will be affected by Yaas.

We have kept stock of relief materials at blocks. Control rooms are working round the clock in districts, blocks and even in municipalities. The Chief Minister said power back-up had been provided at hospitals. About 51 teams of the State Disaster Response Force had been posted at several strategic places in the State.

Wind speeds over coastal areas in North and South 24 Parganas during landfall are likely to be 90 km-100 km, gusting 120 km at the time of the landfall.

Migrant workers may just want to go home, says SC #GS2 #Governance

Scared, unemployed and hungry migrant workers may just want to go home and will hardly care for the finer nuances of the “national” and “mini” lockdowns imposed by the government, the Supreme Court.

“Whether it was the national lockdown in 2020 or the mini lockdowns in 2021, psychologically, the attitude of migrant workers remains the same — they would want to go home,” Justice M.R. Shah addressed the Union government.

A Bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and Shah was hearing a suo motu case to provide migrant labourer families marooned in big cities dry rations and cooked food and public transport to workers travelling home to their villages, where they think they would be safe from the clutches of the virus. Justice Shah’s remark came when the government said the situation in 2021 was different from last year, when the entire nation was shut down to curb infection.

Responding quickly, the government submitted that it had opened control rooms. But it was the responsibility of the States to provide cooked food for stranded migrant workers.

The court, not quite taken in by the submissions, referred to an affidavit filed by the government. Justice Bhushan said the document mentioned only people covered under the Food Security Act, that is, people with ration cards. The court said unorganised labourers, wandering from one place of work to another in mega cities, could not be expected to have ration cards.

The court asked the Centre to file a further affidavit detailing everything it has done to provide dry rations to migrant workers under the Atmanirbhar scheme.

Initially, during the beginning of the hearing, Justice Bhushan sounded sceptical, wondering whether the migrants’ plight in the second wave was as bad as last year. Justices Bhushan and Shah had passed a plethora of orders for the welfare of migrant workers in 2020. “This time the situation is not as grim as last time,” Justice Bhushan said.

‘Grimmer this time’

Advocate Prashant Bhushan, who accused the Centre and the States of a lacklustre approach on migrant workers, said, “In fact, it is grimmer this time… Public health has been more severely affected in the second wave. As a result, more people have again lost their jobs”.

Covaxin: govt. reviews process to get WHO nod #GS3 #SnT

The government on “took stock” of Bharat Biotech’s application process with the World Health Organization (WHO) for regulatory clearances for the Covaxin vaccine, as an inter-ministerial group, led by Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla, met with company representatives in Delhi.

The meeting, that included senior officials from the Ministry of External Affairs, the Ministry of Health and the Department of Biotechnology, with Bharat Biotech International Limited (BBIL) managing director Dr. Krishna Mohan, went over the paperwork submitted in April for the WHO’s Emergency Use Listing (EUL), amidst concerns that Indians who have taken Covaxin doses will face travel restrictions in the absence of global regulatory approval.

“On the issue of WHO’s authorisation for Emergency Use Listing (EUL), BBIL noted that they had submitted 90% of the documentation required for EUL to WHO. The remaining is expected to be submitted in June 2021. BBIL is confident about obtaining WHO EUL subsequently, given its experience of getting its other vaccines pre-qualified by WHO,” sources present at the meeting said.

Bharat Biotech is yet to publish results in any peer-reviewed journal of its phase-3 trials and has so far only announced interim clinical results claiming 81% efficacy. Indian Council of Medical Research chief Dr. Balram Bhargava has also said that the publication is likely in June.

New land regulations spark protests in Lakshadweep #GS3 #Environment

Discontent is simmering in the verdant environs of the Lakshadweep group of islands over a slew of regulations introduced by the new administrator Praful Khoda Patel in the first five months of his tenure, which have also seen the archipelago lose its treasured status of being a ‘COVID-free region’.

COVID-19 affected Lakshadweep after the stipulation for mandatory quarantine of Dweep-bound travellers in Kochi was done away with under Mr. Patel’s orders. As a result, the remote island chain has 6,847 cases as on May 24. Consequently, the 10 inhabited islands of the Union Territory have been under lockdown for two months now.

The UT administration is accused of exploiting the restrictions, which prevent locals from gathering, to push “arbitrary legislation” brought in by Mr. Patel. The most recent of these is the creation of a Lakshadweep Development Authority (LDA) with extensive powers, including eviction of land owners.

A slew of regulations introduced by the new administrator Praful Khoda Patel of the Lakshadweep group of islands has sparked discontent among its inhabitants.

Islanders have pointed out that the legislation are out of sync with the social and environmental realities of the archipelago. Mr Patel, a BJP leader and former Home Minister of Gujarat, is the first political appointee as Administrator, a post mostly held by retired civil servants. The creation of the Lakshadweep Development Authority (LDA), with extensive powers, including eviction of land owners, is widely read as having been pushed by the real estate lobby and against the interest of the islanders.

Hundreds of islanders have written to the administrator demanding the withdrawal of the proposed regulation, which makes “provision for the orderly and progressive development of land in both urban and rural areas and to preserve and improve the amenities thereof; for the grant of permission to develop land and for other powers of control over the use of land; to confer additional powers in respect of the acquisition and development of land for planning; and for purposes connected with the matters aforesaid.”

The regulation empowers the government, identified as the administrator, to constitute Planning and Development Authorities (PDAs) to plan the development of any area identified as having “bad layout or obsolete development”. An authority thus created would be a corporate body with a government-appointed chairman, a town planning officer and three “expert” government nominees besides two local authority representatives.

The islanders opposing the plan have pointed out that the ecologically fragile islandsare tiny and thickly populated. “What sort of highway or tram-way you are planning to construct in that area?” asks Koya Arafa Mirage, lawyer and leader of Nationalist Youth Congress.

One of the petitions seeking the withdrawal of the regulation says the legislation vests extensive powers with the authority, allowing it to prepare comprehensive development plans for any area and relocate people.

Will not limit functions till new data law: WhatsApp #GS3 #SnT

Facebook-owned WhatsApp has told the government that it will not limit functionality for users in the coming weeks, but will continue the current approach of reminding users about the update until “at least the forthcoming Personal Data Protection law comes into effect”.

WhatsApp has said this in its response to the notice by the Government of India asking the platform to withdraw the controversial update to its privacy policy. The government had sought a response within seven days, warning of steps “in consonance with law” in case of failure of a satisfactory response.

‘Highest priority’

“We have responded to the Government of India’s letter and assured them that the privacy of users remains our highest priority. As a reminder, the recent update does not change the privacy of people’s personal messages. Its purpose is to provide additional information about how people can interact with businesses if they choose to do so.

The spokesperson added that WhatsApp will not limit the functionality of how the platform works in the coming weeks. Instead, it will continue to remind users from time to time about the update as well as when people choose to use relevant optional features, like communicating with a business that is receiving support from Facebook.

“We hope this approach reinforces the choice that all users have whether or not they want to interact with a business. We will maintain this approach until at least the forthcoming PDP law comes into effect,” the spokesperson added.

The Ministry of Electronics and IT, in the May 18 notice, had told WhatsApp that deferring the May 15 implementation deadline does not absolve it from “respecting the values of informational privacy, data security and user choice for Indian users”. As per the government, WhatsApp’s updated privacy policy was a violation of several provisions of the existing Indian laws.

SC irked by absence of migrant database #GS2 #Governance #SocialIssues

The government’s delay in completing a national database to identify and register migrant workers in order to provide them benefits in times of dire need stood out like a sore thumb in a Supreme Court hearing.

“We impress upon the Central government and the State Government[s] to complete the process of registration of organised workers at an early date so that unorganised workers are able to reap the benefit of different schemes of the Centre and the States which, without proper registration and identity card, seems to be difficult to implement on the ground.

The court acknowledged the submissions made by advocate Prashant Bhushan that such a database would have made it easier for the government to identify and provide essentials such as food and dry rations to stranded migrant labourers during the second wave of the pandemic.

“The direction [for the database] was issued by this court in 2018…Your process is very slow. We are not satisfied. We will pass orders on this,” Justice Bhushan addressed Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, for the Centre.

Mr. Bhushan, who represents activists seeking urgent measures to provide food and life support for migrant workers, said: “People are dying… 24 crore people have been pushed below the poverty line. The situation is worse than last year… Government has said they have not been able to even put up a portal for the registration of workers”.

Cash transfers

Many of these destitute workers required immediate cash transfers to purchase essentials.

Justice Bhushan said, “A uniform national data grid of migrant workers, in which both the Centre and States provide inputs should be there. This would ensure that benefits meant for migrant workers reach them and no other.”

The court asked the government to clarify what steps it had taken under the Code of Social Security of 2020. During the hearing, Justice Shah pointed out that many of the workers would be illiterate and unable to register online. It was a welfare government’s obligation to reach out to the workers, their employers and contractors.

The Labour Ministry, Mr. Mehta said, had started work on the database. He assured the court that he would talk to the Labour Secretary and get the necessary information on its status.

Mr. Bhushan interjected to say that the immediate handing out of dry rations and cooked food, however, during the second wave should not depend on the completion of this database.

‘90%-95% of mucormycosis patients are diabetics on steroids’ #GS3 #SnT

“Mucormycosis is not a communicable disease and 90%-95% of patients that we have with us currently are diabetics who were on steroids. We are also seeing the fungus early on in COVID patients which is proving to be a challenge.

Dr. Guleria, speaking at the Health Ministry press conference, added that early detection and hygiene were key to tackling the virus.

Mucormycosis is one of the general fungal infections being seen in recovering or recovered COVID-19 patients. The number of cases being reported is increasing, but it is not a communicable disease, meaning it does not spread from one person to another, like COVID-19 does.

‘Not correct term’

Dr. Guleria also said it is better not to use the term black fungus while talking of mucormycosis, as it leads to a lot of avoidable confusion.

Black fungus is another family; this term got associated with mucormycosis due to the presence of black dots among the culture of white fungal colonies. In general, there are various types of fungal infections such as candida, aspergillosis, cryptococcus, histoplasmosis and coccidioidomycosis. Mucormycosis, candida and aspergillosis are the ones observed more in those with low immunity.

“Many patients taking treatment at home, who were not on oxygen therapy, have also been found to get infected with mucormycosis. So there is no definite link between oxygen therapy and catching the infection.

Stating that the anti-fungal treatment is long drawn over many weeks, Dr Guleria said that was proving to be challenging for hospitals, since COVID-positive patients and COVID-negative patients who catch mucormycosis need to be housed in separate hospital wards. Surgery also needs to be done judiciously since aggressive surgery for mucormycosis can have adverse outcomes for COVID patients.

“Maintaining proper hygiene is very important for diabetic patients since chances of opportunistic infection is very high in such patients. Those using oxygen concentrators should ensure cleaning of humidifiers regularly,” he said.

Post-COVID issues

“Besides this, even among those recovering we are seeing symptoms including chronic fatigue, joint pains, headaches, brain fog, cough etc. for anywhere from 4 to 12 weeks. As our knowledge of the virus is growing, doctors are able to help the recovering patients who need to keep an eye-out for any post-COVID symptoms.”

He added that difficulty in concentrating, insomnia and depression are other signs to watch out for.

Record foodgrain exports amid hunger, says group #GS2 #SocialIssues

The record export of foodgrains at a time of widespread hunger and distress due to COVID-19 exposes “the government’s apathy towards the people”, according to the Right to Food Campaign. The advocacy group has called for the universalisation of the public distribution system (PDS) for at least six months, noting that the quantity of exported grain could have been used to provide 25 crore people with rations for a year.

The surge of COVID-19, spread to rural areas and lockdowns in most parts of the country have led to severe economic distress, especially among informal sector workers, said the Right to Food Campaign’s statement, issued on Monday. It said the situation was worse than in 2020, due to the large number of households now dealing with illness and high healthcare expenses on top of a year of job losses and declining wages.

The Centre’s relief scheme, PMGKAY, only provides additional free grain for two months for those who already have ration cards. The food security crisis facing informal sector workers, many of whom do not have ration cards, has been “completely invisibilised”.

“The government’s apathy towards people has been thoroughly exposed by the fact that this year has seen record exports of foodgrains.” Noting that over 13 million tonnes of non-basmati rice and more than two million tonnes of wheat were exported in 2020-21, the Campaign said this could have been used to give 5 kg grain per month to 25 crore people for a year. In fact, rice was exported at Rs. 27 per kg, lower than the FCI’s economic cost of Rs. 37 per kg.

Foodgrain stocks in FCI’s warehouses stand at a record high of 100 million tonnes. It is becoming quite apparent that the government does not care about filling the stomachs of the hungry and is happy to rather export the grains or use them for other purposes [like it was done for ethanol production last year].

GST Council should prioritise COVID relief, States’ cash woes #GS3 #Economy

The Goods and Services Tax (GST) Council, meeting after a gap of more than seven months, should prioritise giving relief on the taxes levied on COVID-19 vaccines and critical medical supplies, and rationalise GST rates to provide relief to sectors that are worst hit by the second wave.

A mechanism for paying States their compensation dues for this year shall also be a knotty issue for the council to figure out, while little headway is expected on more contentious problems such as bringing petroleum products under the GST regime to reduce the burden of high retail fuel prices on the common man.

The council should consider reducing the tax rates or zero rating the GST on essential material to combat COVID — from hand sanitizers to oximeters and oxygen concentrators, said Saloni Roy, senior director at Deloitte India. COVID-related expenditures incurred by employers for the welfare of employees and their families may also be considered as input tax credit, she said.

“Individuals and companies importing oxygen concentrators, oxygen cylinders, regulators and rakes are looking for exemptions or credits on these medical devices as in most of the cases, the imports are in public interest or for donation to State governments and NGOs,” said Abhishek Rastogi, who is arguing writs on these issues in the Bombay and Delhi High Courts.

EY tax partner Abhishek Jain said providing GST concessions and exemptions to COVID vaccines, and other equipment, as well as allowing input tax credit for firms undertaking vaccination drives or providing oxygen concentrators to their employees need to be taken up.

States’ burden

With five new finance ministers in the council from the States with newly formed governments, and three of them not aligned with the BJP-led government at the Centre, the equations in the council would be different from its last meeting in October.

The meeting on October 12, 2020 had ended without a consensus with several Opposition States refusing to accept the Centre’s compensation formula for last year as revenues tanked in sync with the economy due to the national lockdown.

States are still owed Rs. 63,000 crore from last year’s dues and GST cess collections are unlikely to meet this year’s compensation dues as well, following the spate of lockdowns across several States over the past two months.

“Needless to say, the States are desperate for funds at the moment since the Centre has largely shifted the onus of improving the health infra and vaccination drives on the State governments,” pointed out Rajat Bose, partner at Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co. Apart from the early release of outstanding dues, States may also press for a parley on a possible extension of the five-year period for which they were guaranteed compensation under the GST regime, said Niraj Bagri, partner at Dhruva Advisors LLP

‘Rescue industry’

“Unlike last year, the second wave has proved to be much more lethal, even for businesses, and hence, any short-term measure may not yield desired results,” warned Mr. Bose, who hoped the Centre and States would come up with some sustainable measures to rescue the industry.

While industries such as entertainment, hotels and tourism are impacted badly due to COVID and need relief measures, even sectors that continue to operate need support on many fronts, including getting due refunds quicker to free up their working capital needs.

“GST refunds for several exporters including gems and jewellery and IT sectors are stuck, which must be processed quickly which will infuse liquidity and also give an impetus to our exporters,” said Siddharth Surana, adviser, strategy and business transformation, RSM India. “The gems and jewellery industry in our view has over Rs. 1,000 crore stuck in past accumulated input tax credits and due to backlog in refunds,” Mr. Surana said.

“The council should consider reducing the GST rate for composition dealers, including the special rates for restaurants [presently at 5% with no input tax credit] and travel and tour operators for the period from April to September 2021