Current Affairs 14th May

Sputnik-V shots to be available in India next week, says govt. #GS3 #SnT

The Sputnik-V vaccine, developed by the Gamaleya National Centre of Russia, will be available in India from early next week.

We are also proactively engaging with foreign vaccine manufacturers like Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson and Johnson, asking them to apply for emergency use authorisation in India so that these vaccines can be easily imported and made available in India.

Simultaneously, we, along with other like-minded countries, are stressing on IPR waiver for the COVID-19 vaccines. These two interventions, taken in conjunction, will ensure easy availability of vaccines not only in India but globally too.

‘Initial hiccups’

Stating that overall 216 crore doses of vaccines could be available in India between August and December. “The current mismatch in demand and supply is just an initial dynamic situation, which is being faced across the world.”

Speaking about Sputnik-V, Dr. Paul said local production is expected to begin in July at Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories in Hyderabad. Sputnik-V was given emergency use authorisation by the Drugs Controller-General of India (DCGI) in April and was first approved in Russia last year.

The Ministry, in a statement, said allegations about the delay in licensing for Covaxin and the delayed approval for technology transfer for manufacturing Covaxin were baseless.

Why not place convicts under house arrest, asks SC #GS2 #Governance

The Supreme Court has thrown open the door to the legislature to “ponder” over the idea of placing convicts under house arrest to avoid overcrowding of prisons.

A Bench of Justices U.U. Lalit and K.M. Joseph, in a judgment, highlighted the “alarming” statistics of prisons. The suggestion is relevant considering the spread of COVID-19. A few days ago, a Bench, led by Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana, issued a series of directions, including the grant of interim bail and parole to prisoners to decongest prisons.

Justice Joseph said the occupancy rate in prisons had climbed to 118.5% in 2019. The court referred to the National Crime Records Bureau’s figures of 2019 to show that 18,86,092 inmates were admitted in jails. The number of undertrial prisoners in 2019 was 3,30,487, which, in fact, constituted 69.05% of the total number of prisoners.

Secondly, a very large sum (Rs. 6818.1 crore) was the budget for prisons. The “tremendous” overcrowding of prisons and the huge budget were both “relevant in the context of the possibilities that house arrest offers”, the court noted.

It concluded that “as regards post-conviction cases, we would leave it open to the legislature to ponder over its employment. We have indicated the problems of overcrowding of prisons and the cost to the State in maintaining prisons”.

China told to keep prices stable #GS2 #IR

India has asked Chinese authorities to ensure prices for key medical supplies remain stable as costs for oxygen concentrators and other critical goods have surged on the back of rising demand.

Our expectation at this point is that the supply chain should remain open and product prices should remain stable.

Even if there is a little bit of supply demand pressure, there has to be some stability and predictability to product prices. And there has to be a sense of governmental level support and efforts. I don’t have the information as to how much influence the Chinese government can have in this matter but if they can, then it would be welcome.”

Chinese media are reporting that oxygen concentrators that were listed as selling for 1,000 yuan (around Rs. 11,000) on Chinese e-commerce websites such as Alibaba’s Taobao are now selling for four or five times that amount and the final cost borne by individual buyers once the goods are sold in India is even higher.

Ms. Chauhan “appreciated the need for travel bans based on public health concerns, but added that India was asking China to facilitate cargo flights so that supplies could be delivered”, the South China Morning Post reported, adding that “state-owned Sichuan Airlines Logistics suspended cargo flights to India for 15 days last month in response to the surge, which the Pharmaceuticals Export Promotion Council of India warned would have a cascading effect on supply chains”.

“Unreasonable control should be avoided and transport linkages should be maintained,” she said, adding that a phone call between the two Foreign Ministers had helped with some approvals but flights had not yet returned to the same frequency as earlier.

Since April, orders for at least 40,000 oxygen concentrators have been placed by Indian companies with Chinese firms, of which 21,000 have so far been delivered, along with more than 5,000 ventilators, 21 million face masks and 3,800 tons of medicines, according to Chinese customs figures.

First batch of 100 oxygen concentrators and 40 ventilators donated by the Red Cross Society of China arrived on a cargo flight from China.

OCIs stung by Home Ministry notification #GS2 #Governance

The Home Ministry’s March 4 order that required professional Overseas Citizens of India (OCIs), such as journalists, engineers and researchers, to notify the Ministry about their activities in India has left them in the lurch.

A portal that was to come up for the purpose is not operational yet. A Ministry official said it was delayed as several officials in the Ministry’s Foreigners Division had tested positive for COVID-19 in the past month. The official said the OCIs could intimate the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) through e-mail till the portal is activated.

Rajanna Sreedhara, president of the Association of Resident OCI and Families (AROCIF), said they believed the notification was discriminatory adding that they planned to challenge it in the High Court but the plan is currently on the back burner due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

NRI quota seats

On March 4, the Ministry issued a gazette notification that OCI cardholders could claim “only NRI (Non-Resident Indian) quota seats” in educational institutions. It specified that OCIs could only pursue the following professions — doctors, dentists, nurses and pharmacists, advocates, architects and chartered accountants, and the rest would require “special permission”.

OCIs are of Indian origin but hold foreign passports. India does not allow dual citizenship but provides certain benefits under Section 7B(I) of the Citizenship Act, 1955 to the OCIs. So far, 37.72 lakh OCI Cards are said to have been issued.

The notification said that OCIs shall be required to obtain a “special permission or a special permit” from the competent authority or the FRRO or the Indian mission “to undertake research, missionary or Tabligh or mountaineering or journalistic activities or internship in any foreign diplomatic missions”.

“The notification does not mention IT professionals, a large number of OCIs are engineers; so will they have to apply for employment visa? It says permission required to conduct research … this will place undue burden on scientific, pharmaceutical, medical, biotechnology and other research fields.

“Even if an OCI student has secured a high rank in an exam like NEET [National Eligibility Entrance Test], several institutions of repute do not have NRI seats. The exorbitantly high fees under the NRI quota cannot be afforded by many OCIs as they live and work in India. India-domiciled OCI students are deprived of domicile status both in India [country of residence] as well as the country of their citizenship.

India still resists community spread tag #GS3 #SNT

In spite of adding the highest number of COVID-19 infections to the global caseload every day, India continues to label itself as a country with no community transmission (CT), opting instead for the lower, less serious classification called “cluster of cases.

Countries such as the United States, Brazil, United Kingdom, France — and a perusal of the list of over 190 countries suggest the majority — have all labelled themselves as being in “community transmission”.

Among the 10 countries with the most number of confirmed cases, only Italy and Russia do not label themselves as being in community transmission. Both countries have been on a declining trajectory for at least a month and together contribute fewer than 20,000 cases a day — about 5% of India’s daily numbers.

India, since the beginning of the pandemic, has never marked itself as being in community transition.

Broadly, CT happens when new cases in the last 14 days cannot be traced to those who have an international travel history, when cases cannot be linked to a specific cluster.

The WHO guidelines further suggest four subcategories within the broader definition of CT. CT-1 implies “low incidence of locally acquired, widely dispersed cases… and low risk of infection for the general population” with the highest, a CT-4 suggesting “very high incidence of locally acquired, widely dispersed cases in the past 14 days and very high risk of infection for the general population”.

The cluster of cases classification says, “Cases detected in the past 14 days are predominantly limited to well-defined clusters that are not directly linked to imported cases. It is assumed that there are a number of unidentified cases in the area. This implies a low risk of infection to others in the wider community if exposure to these clusters is avoided.”

Positivity rate

India’s national positivity rate, or the proportion of tested cases returning positive, is around 21% and 533 of the 734 districts had reported positivity greater than 10%. There are 24 States with more than 15% positivity and 10 with over 25%, according to figures from the Health Ministry on Thursday.

An expert told The Hindu that India’s refusal to describe itself as being in community transmission was an “ostrich in the sand” approach since being in CT — far from being stigmatic or an indicator of failure — had a bearing on how authorities addressed a pandemic.

If cases were still a cluster, it would mean that the government ought to be prioritising testing, contact tracing and isolating to prevent further infection spread. CT, on the other hand, meant prioritising treatment and observing advisories to stay protected. “We may have been in community transmission since last April. Testing continues to be useful for forecasting the future course of the pandemic (through random tests) and preparing for it.

Centre’s SC affidavit jars with TRIPS stand #GS3 #Economy

In fact, the Centre even goes to the extent of issuing a word of caution that “any discussion or a mention of exercise of statutory powers either for essential drugs or vaccines having patent issues would have serious, severe and unintended adverse consequences in the country’s efforts being made on global platform using all its resources, good-will and good-offices through diplomatic and other channels”.

An April 30 order of the Supreme Court had “flagged” the legal framework within which the Centre could “possibly consider compulsory licensing and government acquisition of patents”.

However, not all are impressed by the balancing act. They have called for urgent steps for compulsory licensing of COVID vaccines and drugs to ramp up production and availability.

A plea by IIT Madras alumnus Pratheesh Prakash, represented by advocates Sriram P. and Mukund P. Unny, in the Supreme Court accused the Centre of “enabling privatisation and profiteering over vaccines by monopolists in a manner contrary to public interest”.

West Bengal reminded the Centre that the TRIPS Agreement allowed member-countries to invoke compulsory licensing for emergency use.

‘Stalled projects’ completion is stimulus’ #GS3 #Economy

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the government’s efforts to help finish stranded housing projects would serve as a ‘sustained stimulus’ for the ailing real estate sector and drive demand in core sectors including cement and steel.

Speaking at the virtual handing over of apartments to 640 households following the completion of the first stalled residential project funded through the Special Window for Affordable & Mid-Income Housing (SWAMIH) in Mumbai, Ms. Sitharaman said that the project, completed over 18 months despite the COVID-19 pandemic, indicated ‘positivity’ for the realty sector.

“I remember, in 2019, the number of families that kept calling the Prime Minister and the representations that kept coming to us about the bank loans they had taken, the EMIs they had to pay. “2019 was a very testing time for us on this particular score, because the real estate industry was going through a stressed time, they were cash-strapped.

With banks not lending to the sector, many projects were left almost complete, translating into ‘a perpetual wait’ for families who had booked flats, she said.

“For a middle-class family, to have to pay rent and equally the EMI on loans taken for their homes, couldn’t have been worse than anything else. It was the biggest burden they were carrying after investing to have a happy home for themselves. It was a Catch 22 situation, you couldn’t go elsewhere to find a house, you couldn’t get your own house because it wasn’t completed.

Last mile funding

Stating the last-mile funding to push stalled real estate projects had given priority to middle class families, she said the cost of apartments helped under the scheme had been capped at Rs. 2 crore in Mumbai, Rs. 1.5 crore in the National Capital Region and 5 other cities, and Rs. 1 crore in the rest of the country.

“So this particular scheme has primarily and only focused on relieving the suffering of the middle class who invest in their homes by borrowing, and who, for no fault of theirs, suffer because houses are not given to them… because real estate itself went through a cash-strapped situation in 2019.

Eventually, the SWAMIH investment fund-1, managed by SBICap Ventures, would benefit 1,16,000 Indian families awaiting their homes, the minister said.