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A TUG OF WAR BETWEEN COVID-19 AND STAYING AFLOAT

As the death toll comes to weigh profoundly, it underscores the need for deep public and media scrutiny of the policy decisions regarding Covid-19 and our public health system. While we struggle to survive and breathe, it is worth wondering: Is there any clarity in this catastrophe?

Nanki Singh

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The empty main road echoes fragmentally with wails of ambulances. But this wail is different. It sounds like the wrenching away of the last thread of hope, of inexplicable suffering. It is visceral. It is human. As Covid-19 blazes through India at an unprecedented rate, almost every household has experienced that agony in some capacity. This pandemic isn’t just preying on the most vulnerable populations. So, it’s not invisible any longer.

The lexicon of the once unlucky is now a part of our daily vocabulary. As the death toll comes to weigh profoundly, it underscores the need for deep public and media scrutiny of the policy decisions regarding Covid-19 and our public health system. While we struggle to survive and breathe, it is worth wondering, is there any clarity in this catastrophe?

GETTING TO WHERE WE ARE

The number of infectious disease outbreaks has been accelerating, from HIV to Ebola to Zika. Public health experts had warned of potential pandemics and urged robust preparations since the first outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), yet Covid-19 still took large parts of the world by surprise. Globally, preparedness metrics failed to predict weaknesses —and the pandemic revealed certain fundamental deficiencies

There are few cases in which national health response capacities have been subjected to a rigorous stress test at this level. The Covid-19 pandemic response(s) were shaped by a series of insights, research findings, actions and reactions that took place amidst great uncertainty. Many of the choices made and decisions taken were highly time-sensitive — under conditions that changed unpredictably. The highest level of global alert, a PHEIC, declared by the Director-General of WHO on 30 January 2020, did not spur the worldwide response it should have. Neglect, indecision and confusion prevailed at the apex levels of all public health bodies. 

This deprived us of perhaps the most essential commodity of all– time, earmarking the pandemic to spread across an unprepared world and an ill-equipped India.

AN INDIA PERSPECTIVE

Pandemics, cyclones and storms are acts of nature. The state of India’s public health infrastructure — lack of access to essential medical resources, fragmentation, and aversion to cross-sectoral cooperation —are not. 

There were delays in coordinated and comprehensive action: beset by the long-standing undervaluing of health workers, acute underfunding, and an unscientific approach that denied the consequences of the pandemic. 

The pandemic exposed the gordian knot that is the healthcare system in India.

In December, as China raised the alarm, the Indian government was preoccupied with its chronic ailments of religious fundamentalism and communalism in the form of the discriminatory Citizen Amendment Bill. Fueled by mass protests between far-right Hindu nationalists who supported it, and those who saw it as another mangling of the social fabric of the country. 

India announced its nationwide lockdown eight weeks after Wuhan did. While the sheer immensity of 1.38 billion people being imposed in a nationwide lockdown dominated headlines, conversations and news reports, it served to camouflage a more catastrophic reality. 

Nevertheless, despite a decrepit and funding-starved healthcare infrastructure, the country’s ability to manage the first wave of Covid-19 appeared laudable as the U.S., Canada, and European countries faltered under the second and third waves of the pandemic. Then things went awry. The turnaround raised false hopes that the virus had side-stepped India. Spurred in part by the cavalier attitudes that the country would be spared of a second wave, we weren’t afflicted just by the virus, but also by severe disillusionment and misinformation. 

From the beginning of and even at the zenith of a national emergency, the Indian government remained focused on winning elections rather than actual governance. Amid a devolving crisis, the present Indian state has no means of ensuring critical scrutiny of the decisions that led to the current crisis. Distorted statistics prevailed, conveying a reassuring but false sense of certainty. Obfuscating the gravity of a pandemic is a dangerous path to a bigger disaster.

Now, all these decisions, policies and actions are overshadowed by the leaden smoke surging from funeral pyres that burn day and night, the gasps of breath of those with COVID-19 and the anguish of the millions who have lost their loved ones. Critical questions, such as why people are being forced to cremate family members in parking lots or on pavements, remain unanswered. 

At the individual level, the onus lies with us, more than ever before, to ask ourselves: What does it mean for a majority of our population that lacks access to food, water and primary healthcare? Do statistics convey the reality for our overburdened and under-resourced healthcare system? How much value does life hold to not even be counted as a statistic when you die? 

A CLOSER LOOK AT INDIA’S PUBLIC HEALTH SYSTEM 

As early as 1946, India conceived a comprehensive plan for universal healthcare for all its citizens. Unfortunately, this vision is still to attain actuality. 

At about 1.28% of its GDP, India’s spending on public health is one of the lowest globally. In a textbook illustration of market failures, financing of healthcare has continued to be dominated by regressive out-of-pocket payments.

Within its first year, the BJP reduced the health budget by around 15%, and its insurance scheme continues to be riddled with inefficiencies. An NHP in 2017 proposed raising health expenditure to 2.5% of the GDP by 2025. However, where these resources will come from remains unknown. Limited funding towards the health sector compounded by low efficiencies in public spending over decades have adversely impacted the reach and quality of health services. The result is deep inequities in regional distributions of health infrastructure and personnel. 

While India has a growing private sector for health, the public sector operates at an incredible ratio of 0.008 doctors to 1,000 people. Most government health programs are implemented by accredited social health activist (ASHA) workers. Yet, they remain undervalued and underpaid. Rather than leveraging our human resources, there has been crippling neglect of adequate investment in community health workers, despite their necessity for any emergency response. 

Moreover, India not only faces a double burden of disease but is also yet to overcome many of its “older” maledictions. Despite the country’s recent history with epidemics such as SARS, Japanese encephalitis, chikungunya, H1N1 and Nipah, the central government — responsible for controlling infectious disease spread — still lacks a concrete framework for disease control. 

Even today, almost 2.4 million Indians die of treatable conditions yearly. Despite having the world’s most extensive nutrition program, 25 million children remain malnourished. Tuberculosis, dengue and cholera continue to claim lives each year- disadvantaged sections invariably bear the brunt of these systemic failures. 

One can argue that even with these shortfalls, we have made progress in areas like polio eradication, maternal mortality and child survival. But this silver lining is a cost at which we cannot afford to ignore the minacious dark cloud. 

WHERE CAN WE GO FROM HERE? 

Successful country responses heeded the evolving science; they quickly mobilised, trained and reallocated their health resources and workforce. System capacities were increased, with the rapid construction of makeshift hospitals and primary care support. 

It has been proven beyond doubt that vaccinations work- they remain our single best option. A single day of lockdown costs the country more than Rs 10,000 crore. The government needs to do the math, put its political issues aside and figure out how to vaccinate at least 51 crore people, and fast. 

Currently, the reach and extent of primary care facilities offer key opportunities. If effectively leveraged they play a crucial role in promoting and delivering Covid-19 vaccinations, reduce wait times, and alleviate patient volumes at hospitals. 

Capacity building of ASHAS, ANMs and Anganwadi workers is needed to ensure continued access to essential services, especially for women. They can assist in the provision of preventative services and help build trust in vaccines and the health system through their grassroots networks. They could aid the design of an equitable Covid-19 vaccination strategy by fortifying existing systems like the AB-PMJAY.  

The government launched the Arogya Setu mobile app (CoWin portal) for contact tracing and symptom mapping. This has the potential to be expanded for scheduling routine and timely access to care. It can be leveraged as an important starting point to build data for information systems and disease registries.

Encouraging electronic health records and synchronising existing reporting systems across health facilities—including the private sector—remains a key feature of any health reform strategy. The IDSP needs to be transformed to expand its coverage and data reporting quality.

Enabling a level of self-management at home through a streamlined, accurate and comprehensive health communication strategy will be helpful from both infection control and operations perspectives. 

 However, these responses remain stop-gap arrangements that may only temporarily bolster the response. The diversion of resources from other essential health services (like maternal and child health) will have long-term repercussions. 

The way forward is not abandoning the system that has been emerging out of the NRHM/NHM, but strengthening it through sustained support in technical, financial and functional capacities at regional and national levels. We need to build health infrastructure that is effective and equitable, with increased accessibility and responsiveness. We need greater investment in our public health system to achieve Universal Health Coverage and to ensure system preparedness to withstand future health emergencies.  

A genuine change in our public health system is long due. We simply cannot afford the human toll to return to the status quo. 

AS WE ARE NOW: TOGETHER, APART. 

Covid-19 has torn child from parents, husband from wife, grandparent from a grandchild. On stretchers, in car-parks, in corridors, tethered to ventilators, gasping for oxygen, sequestered in their suffering, hundreds of thousands of patients face death’s vicinage alone. This particular cruelty of Covid-19 shatters a fundamentally primal need. 

Across cultures and geographical boundaries, what we crave in extremis is unvarying—an antidote to our fear and pain- the comfort of familiarity, a hand that says hold on. With Covid-19, suffering and death occur in a harsh world of absences with families sundered and the sick marooned. 

It is important to recognise that many of these deaths could have been prevented, and many lives saved. Unfortunately, this is not a novel narrative for India. We have all known of the profound deficiencies and fragilities in our health system, but it was a reality many of us chose to vaccinate ourselves against for too long. 

Frontline workers have been our soldiers on the ground in this Covid war. With no time to grieve, often lacking PPE, they have witnessed this pain every minute. As cases and deaths shatter records, foreshadowing what might be one of the deadliest times in our country’s history, the weight of this pandemic has its own share of trauma for them: the indiscriminate path of the virus, burdened by the lives they had to choose to save, with limited resources. An indelible mark will be left. 

Civil society has come together in this time of crisis. This reaffirms empathy for suffering that may not be our own. It emphasises the indomitable human spirit that galvanises us to fight for a tomorrow to abate the pain and agony experienced today. That is the true silver lining; that is the clarity in this catastrophe. 

We need continued collective action by civil society more than ever to promote behavioural changes that reduce the transmission of Covid-19, to share food, water, medication and other necessities with those suffering most. Right now, we are doing that in a way that reveals enormous dedication, tenacity and resolve. 

We must realise that we have the power to demand changes from the systems responsible for serving us. Most importantly, perhaps, Covid-19 has made us reacquaint ourselves with the value of us: the individual, the community, the country. Never again, at the time when people need each other most, can we allow a disease to pry us apart. We must remember that right now, even when we are torn — we still can be together, apart

The writer is a Communications Consultant for Public Health (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation & William J Clinton Foundation). The views expressed are personal.

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GLAD THAT I LISTENED TO MY INSTINCTS: TANUJ VIRWANI

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Tanuj Virwani, who has won a lot of accolades for his role in ‘The Tattoo Murders’, recently joined NewsX for an exclusive interview as part of NewsX India A-List and opened up about his current projects and how the pandemic has been affecting him.

Tanuj Virwani is an actor and model, who has won a lot of accolades for his role in ‘The Tattoo Murders’ on Disney+Hotstar, and yet again he packed with a powerful role as ACP Aditya in ‘Murder Meri Jaan’ streaming on Disney + Hotstar alongside Barkha Singh. Along with being an actor he has shown a keen interest in direction and writing and has made several socially relevant short films. Tanuj recently joined NewsX for an exclusive interview as part of NewsX India A-List and talked about how his current projects and roles in it and how the pandemic has been affecting him.

When asked about what convinced the director and also him to do the role in his recent film ‘Tattoo Murders’, Tanuj shared with us, “If you propose that question in front of our director Shravan sir maybe he will ask what convinced Tanuj to do the role. It was sort of a perfect role because I think I was also itching to do something different. Since I have started getting work, I have been offered an array of roles such as after ‘Inside Edge’ I have been offered interesting projects. It was more urban in the treatment of how those characters lived, and I specifically felt that with the character of Prabhat Pratap on ‘Tattoo Murders’, it offered me the chance to do something drastically different and I like to experiment.”

“On this particular project, I did not have the sort of pressure to carry a shoot but I was okay to try something different because sometimes you will pass with flying colours and audience will embrace it or sometimes just mixed reactions. But if you don’t try, if you don’t take that first step into the water you will never know whether you can sink or swim. I think the OTT platform also largely should be credited because it really gives us as actors a lot more scope for experimentation, shoots and even films.”

When asked about how appealing the role was to him, the actor replied, “Absolutely, the one thing I am happy having seen the show entirely is that our director who is also one of the writers on the show was kind of able to read it in the authenticity that was present in the writing. Many times what happens is that things get lost in translation, you might read a script and whereas the whole story may appeal to you but when you see the way it’s finally done on the screen executed very differently. In this particular case, I feel Shravan sir has done an excellent job of maintaining the authenticity and it’s very raw and very edgy because there’s no sex involved in a lot of projects was involved shooting in real life which I think will be impossible during a pandemic but we finished shooting just before Covid has hit.”

When asked about his success with digital platforms, Tanuj said, “I think just the visibility of what OTT platform offers to actors like myself and many others in my position is insane. I still remember when I was signed on ‘Inside Edge’ and we were shooting back in 2016, a lot of us were very cautiously optimistic that we know we are making something cool and interesting but no one could have in their wildest dreams thought like the impact it could have. Today when you look at the entire landscape of entertainment in our country it has just shifted so dramatically and has given birth to so many wonderful actors and I consider myself very fortunate that I am an active actor at this point of my career who is getting these opportunities. I am just so glad that I listened to my instincts and it has given me even more confidence on going ahead to trust my instincts.”

While talking about his next upcoming movie, the actor shared with us and said, “The lineup seems to be very solid right now so I believe my next release would be a show called ‘Tandoor’ that is based on a Tandoor murder case that happened in Delhi in 1995 and I am portraying the role of the person who was responsible for it and it’s a miracle to get that on Covid situation. I have got another show coming up with Barkha Singh so I am looking forward to it as it has given me another opportunity to do other works. There is one upcoming project which I am passionate about with the mafia in Bombay city because it’s again a very different kind of project.”

When asked how the actor himself has adjusted to the pandemic situation, Tanuj revealed, “Everybody collectively put our guards down and we are in a probably worst situation than from last year. I would like to say is that we all have been redirecting for the last year about social distancing, sanitisation and wearing masks and hence I request viewers to take of themselves and others around especially those who are vulnerable. It has been frustrating for me also but whenever I put on television I consider myself extremely fortunate and grateful to be in the position that I am and there is so much to look forward to in life and I am sure few years from now when we will look back at this as learning curve thinking and how we lived through it and we survived.”

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Cryptocurrencies: Regulation is the constructive way forward

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Is the wave of cryptocurrency a destructive tsunami that shall annihilate the financial system or a lucrative opportunity that ought to be pushed towards profitable shores? Given that the first cryptocurrency, bitcoin, traded at $0.08 when it was created in 2009, even after accounting for its significant fluctuations, its current value of $35,876, is enough to make jaws drop and eyes roll. 

What makes cryptocurrency so valuable despite it having no intrinsic value? Top cryptocurrencies such as Ethereum and Bitcoin trade at amounts that are unthinkable for an intangible piece of code. While this can be baffling, on deeper scrutiny, print money’s valuation is equally without any intrinsic value. Once the gold standard was removed in the 1930s as a basis to value fiat currency, the central bank of a country was effectively the sole determinator of its value. So the RBI dictates the value of the Rupee and if it decides to devalue it against the dollar or print more money, it can easily do so. However, there is still a level of stability associated with the value of the rupee owing to several factors on the demand and the centralised nature of its regulation, as is true of most fiat currency from stable economies. On the other hand, it begs the question of whether a currency whose value can fluctuate from $58,000 to $30,000 on an Elon Musk tweet can be said to have any level of stability.  

The value of cryptocurrency is derived from demand and supply, media forecasts and finite coin mining. Being platformed on blockchain technology and a decentralised distributed ledger system it has no central authority which approves and maintains a record of the database and determines its value. Despite the banking system being one of the oldest institutions backed by the Central government, the absence of an intermediary has not stalled the growth of cryptocurrencies because it has developed on a peer to peer network, being freely tradable by individuals and vesting control directly into the hands of the owner. Its convertibility into fiat currency is also at the behest of individuals who, through exchanges, are perfectly happy accepting it as tender which constitutes a discharge of debt. 

Moving forward, there is great uncertainty about the place of cryptocurrencies in the formal economy on account of the concerns of the state-regulated banking system. Lately, the Chinese government, amongst others, has vowed to crackdown on crypto-exchanges amidst growing leakages from their financial system. El Salvador, in stark contrast, became the first country to formally introduce cryptocurrency in its financial system and recognise it as legal tender. Several countries stand between these two extremes and recognise cryptocurrency in a limited capacity by regulating its use. India is at such an inflection point and must decide which path to follow. 

As with most significant technological developments, India viewed cryptocurrency with scepticism but did little about it from 2008 till sometime in 2018, when the RBI decided to come out with a circular that disallowed banks from allowing persons to trade in cryptocurrency. That step was taken without the legislature disallowing trade in cryptocurrency, so it effectively never made cryptocurrency illegal but created a surrogate ban for its official trade. The result was cryptocurrency exchanges relocating themselves outside of India and those wanting to trade in cryptocurrency proceeding to do it from outside the country. The RBI’s circular was struck down by the Supreme Court in its judgment in Internet and Mobile Association of India v RBI, which meant that crypto-currency, never considered illegal in India, could be traded and conversions into fiat currency done through the formal banking channel. However, as with most things, matters did not end with the Supreme Court’s decision. The recent experience with cross border trade in cryptocurrency in violation of foreign exchange guidelines served as another important reminder that regulation, and not prohibition, is the way forward. The cryptocurrency exchange WazirX was put on notice by the Enforcement Directorate for the alleged violation of foreign exchange laws. 

Rather than a blanket or a surrogate ban, acknowledging that the Indian authorities are well within their rights to prosecute the unauthorised and illegal use of cryptocurrency is the way to serve all stakeholders and is better in the long run, even from a tax collection standpoint. Allowing interested traders to access the market through legitimate and regulated means would help negate many of the worries associated with cryptocurrency transactions. Banning cryptocurrency is likely to further incentivise investment through the black market thereby leading to even more leakages from the formal economy. 

India can take several cues from beyond its borders on how to approach the regulation of cryptocurrency. The European Union, while cautioning against the dangers of cryptocurrencies, has permitted its use by regulating it. Cryptocurrency trading is also permitted in the USA, UK, Canada, Brazil and Russia, amongst others. For example, in the USA, people who trade in cryptocurrencies must follow centralised regulations and must register with accredited bodies to enforce anti-money laundering programs, keep appropriate records and make reports to FinCEN. With the active monitoring of such reports, it is possible to regulate the entire market holistically to avoid funding criminal activities such as terrorism. 

With carefully crafted safeguards most of these concerns can be tamed. The potential for cryptocurrencies to destabilise the system can be addressed by simple checks such as permitting trading only through exchanges and limiting deposits and withdrawals. By placing limits on the volume of sales and purchases as a percentage of the total holding, the volatility can be controlled in the same manner as the stock market. That said, while there have been talks of cryptocurrency regulation in India and several policy papers, they have not materialised into a proper regulation. A bill in Parliament proposes criminal penalties for mining, holding, selling, trading, issuance, disposal, or use of cryptocurrency and at the same time introduces the Digital Rupee as the RBI backed digital currency. However, that was followed by a ministerial press statement that suggested that even if the bill was tabled for the RBI to launch a Digital Rupee, it would not criminalise cryptocurrency. That bill is yet to be tabled. Further, high echelons of the government and in particular the Finance Ministry have made positive statements to the media on the subject, which shines a bright ray of hope, but not without the usual policy surprises.  

The question is whether India wants to follow China or embrace the winds of change with strong controls that are in sync with the liberal free-market economy. By embracing new technologies in our democratic and progressive nation, the twin objective of strengthening the dream of a digital India and not missing on the Blockchain revolution will become a reality. Gautam Buddha’s adage holds true even in today’s world: “Change is never painful, only resistance is.” There is no reason for India to impose a complete ban. Appropriate regulation and taxation are the tools to introduce it within the system for safe and legal use.

Nakul Dewan is a Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India and Barrister, Twenty Essex, Singapore and London. Nakul was the lead counsel who successfully argued against the RBI’s cryptocurrency ban in Internet and Mobile Association of India v RBI. Avishkar Singhvi is an Independent Advocate, Supreme Court of India. The views expressed are personal.

By embracing new technologies in our democratic and progressive nation, the twin objective of strengthening the dream of a digital India and not missing on the Blockchain revolution will become a reality. Gautam Buddha’s adage holds true even in today’s world: “Change is never painful, only resistance is.” There is no reason for India to impose a complete ban on cryptocurrency. Appropriate regulation and taxation are the tools to introduce it within the system for safe and legal use.

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FASHION WAS NEVER A PLAN B FOR ME: RANNA GILL

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NEW DELHI: Fashion designer Ranna Gill recently joined NewsX’s special series NewsX India A-List . She gave an insight into her journey and shared how the pandemic has impacted the fashion industry.

An alumnus of the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, Ranna Gill launched her label ‘Ranna Gill’ two decades ago. Over the years, she has carved a space of her own in the Indian fashion industry. Ranna recently joined NewsX’s special series NewsX India A-List and spoke about not only her journey but also how the pandemic has impacted the fashion industry. 

Speaking about how the pandemic has impacted her label and how she overcame the challenges, Ranna said, “We are still fighting. The challenges were big. We overcame them a little bit and then we came back to the fighting ground again. We have two businesses, so we have an export business in the United States and then we have stores and retail in India. So, we kind of need to paddle both. When this side of the river is stormy, we jump to the other side. We kind of need to paddle both sides and somehow try to come out of it, get out of the troubled water and we will.”

When asked about the brand ‘Ranna Gill’ and how was it conceptualised, she responded, “It is a lot of work. I started this brand with my mother, so the company is owned by my mom and me. I always loved fashion as a young student. I went to fashion school, it was my passion, it was my first love. It was what I always wanted to do so it’s not a plan B. It’s not like I wanted to be something else and I just rolled into fashion. I studied fashion. I have got bachelors in fashion from FIT New York, so I am a student of fashion and as well as a fashion designer. So, I have trained in fashion and I have always loved it. Even to this date, after having done designing for over twenty years, I still get excited when I look at products when I look at fashion I look at colours. Colours to me are like what candy is to children. It’s just such a special treat to look at the colour palette, to look at swatches, to dip die, to look at textures. Prints are an important USP to our brand. Even now, I am wearing a print from my collection. I love prints, the play of prints, and colours. We like to do easier, more playful, more ready to wear bodies, using these tools. We always stay closer to the story, what it is speaking, what the brand is speaking to its customers. You will always see colour in our collection and you will always see prints in our collection.”

Talking about the trick or mantra behind increased online sales amid the pandemic, she said, “I think it’s mostly product and the price point. It’s not very expensive, not very pricey and it’s not very difficult to wear. You don’t need to think of an occasion before coming onto our website or our stores to buy a line. To buy our products, whether it is a blouse, a tunic or a dress, you can always buy them over this weekend or two weekends down. You can wear it in the summer or bring it up in the falls. I think the product is always the king and we stay close to our language or the message we are sending to our customers. We don’t pivot from sarees to sometimes go on to make a blouse. We are always going to make the blouses, the dresses and tunics and that’s what we are going to always be designing into and circling back to. I think the product is crucial, that helped us through this time, price point, sensible pricing. sensible making of products. It’s not too fashionable that it won’t be relevant next year or two years down the line. So it’s all of those things that we kind of always come back to.”

Finally, when asked about the lessons she learned during this phase and future plans for her brand, she said, “We want to 100% focus on our online business. That is where we are headed and that I think is the future. Having said that I think we can bring more to our stores maybe. I am a little old school but I still think that they are very lovely to come to our shop. The customer has this special feeling. When she comes to our store, the girls know her she wears the garment so I think it’s going to be a bit of both. It’s really not going to be some clear messaging but at the moment it’s online, of course.”

She added, “There have been some really hard learning lessons. I think one has to for all of us. For our brand, it was just mainly we just decided to fight for the brand. We were not going to give it away or let it go and we just kind of all held hands. When did our business quietly and just fought for what we stood for so many years? One thing we learnt in our business, is working via technology. In the past, we used to take a flight and go to any place and really quickly. We would meet a buyer or meet or go to fashion fair or meet. I feel that one of the great learning is that we all got out of this phase was using technology for fashion, for all streams of business, even to connect with friends and family and fighting for your own business. Those were the two big learnings for me.”

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CORRUPTION CORONATED

When a selfless approach was needed to fight Covid-19, corruption ruled the roost. A grocery shop owner fleeced customers. A pharmacist hoarded life-saving medicines. Even a crematorium wasn’t spared.

V K Saxena

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Kautilya sat down to write ‘Arthashastra’, one of the first books of economics in human history, some 2,300 years ago. And he ended up writing a whole chapter on ‘corruption’. He famously said, “Just like it is impossible not to taste a drop of honey that you find at the edge of the tongue, it is impossible for a King’s officer not to eat up a bit of King’s revenue.”  

Essentially, it means that even as long ago as in 300 BC, we were rampantly corrupt and as a society, we exploited whatever individual power we had. Kautilya implied that for Indians, the very human nature itself poses corruption. Time and again it was proved in our history. Kingdoms grew or fell through some strategic corruption of individuals who switched sides at a critical time. Even the British India Company walked over this sub-continent and established the rule of Britain over us because we could be corrupted easily, and it was so effortless to divide us and rule.  

Transparency International, which places us in the list of nations as a very corrupt society, remarked that over 92% Indians have been exposed to and/or indulged in corruption of either giving or receiving or both at some point in their lives. As a society, we indulge in it as a casual act of convenience. And then, we complain about it, make a fuss and cry wolf. 

WHY CAN’T THE GOVERNMENTS ABSOLUTELY WIPE OUT CORRUPTION?

So, whether it is Kautilya’s ‘Arthashastra’ or a review by an international organisation, we have had an indisputable image as a corrupt society that can hardly be changed. In these 2,500 years, we have had several types of governments ruling over us — kingdoms, monarchies, dynasties, Sultanats,foreign colonisation, and democracies. There have been benevolent rulers, autocratic usurpers, people’s leaders, men of the sword, and religious oppressors, you name it and we have had it. But how come any form of government or system of rule could not bring down corruption through force, legislation, counselling, or any other means for thousands of years? Haven’t we punished people enough? Well, the country has historically practised capital punishment, dismemberment of limbs, jailing, public humiliation, seizing of property, and all kinds of punishment for corruption over centuries and millennia. Yet, as a society, we are as corrupt as we have been for thousands of years.

This essentially means that it is not the government or the law which is weak and unimaginative in bringing down corruption. It is just that as people, we are too strong and imaginative to remain corrupt by all means. The people perpetuate corruption as a means of convenience. And morally, we do not attach shame or guilt to being corrupt. Corruption is our blood trait. Corruption is more of people’s character in definition than being social malice that the governance can totally get rid of. What has stayed so for years shall remain the same in the coming years, unless we change at an individual level.

During these testing times, when a selfless and sincere approach was needed to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, this trait of corruption ruled the roost. A grocery shop owner fleeced customers citing short supply. A pharmacist hoarded life-saving medicines. A piece of basic equipment like a pulse oximeter suddenly disappeared from stores and if available, was sold at a much higher price. Black marketing of oxygen cylinders wreaked havoc on several families in dire need of oxygen. Even a taxi driver charged hefty sums from passengers. This shows that we can exploit any opportunity for money or material. And by stooping this low, we have also defeated all the good works of a large section of people during these difficult times. Individuals, organisations, even political parties, in their own capacities, have been providing free food, medicines, ambulances, oxygen, and all possible support to the needy but they were easily eclipsed by the rampant corruption surrounding us.

In the Covid era, we have seen that corruption has reached the zenith. It is not exaggerating to say that during the times of the pandemic, we have ‘corona’ated corruption and installed it on the throne. Corruption thrives at the juncture of power. And power need not be political or administrative or of any high order. And if the opportunity is critical, rendering the other one helpless, distressed, and weak in some manner, it is all the more easier to exploit the situation. And coronavirus pandemic has become a golden goose of benefit for the heartless, unscrupulous, and ruthless.

People of all stature — from the rich and resourceful to the ones struggling to meet their ends — had to fight this corruption alongside fighting the deadly virus. It was widely reported that once you reach the hospitals, in the hope of some relief and cure, corruption widened its wings. Finding a hospital bed for the patient proved to be a Herculean task and in several cases, the hospital beds were hoarded by unscrupulous agents in connivance with the hospitals. Negotiating for an ambulance to take the critical patients to came as another shocker. News reports of ambulance operators charging Rs 20,000 to Rs 40,000 for ferrying patients to short distances of a few kilometres describe this moral corruption in the most absolute terms. 

In our country, where total private infrastructure accounts for nearly 62% of all of India’s health infrastructure, it is easier for corruption to thrive at every level of the system. Medical staff were found refilling empty Remdesivir bottles with fake drugs and selling them to patients not only at a premium but also risking their lives, remorselessly. Patients and their families were cheated with fire extinguishers in the name of oxygen cylinders just when they needed oxygen to save the lives of their loved ones.

These instances are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The deep-rooted corruption at the health services goes up to kickbacks given to the health workers to please them and secure better services, thefts of medical instruments and medicines from the hospitals that are sold at a premium outside the hospitals. This ethical and moral bankruptcy have even driven them to the extent of recycling and selling bio-medical wastes like used face masks, PPE kits, and gloves for the sake of a few pennies. Hospitals were also found charging exorbitant fees from Covid patients. 

And if one thought this face-off with corruption would end here, a rude shock awaited. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, who would have ever thought of corruption in the cremation grounds. Families of the deceased were charged up to Rs 25,000 to Rs 30,000 for cremating the bodies that used to be a matter of less than Rs 5,000 on normal days. The cost of woods and ghee spiralled through the sky as bodies queued up at crematoriums.

I began this article by saying that corruption is a blood trait of people. There is very little that anyone can do to remove evil from our surroundings if people act beyond the sanctity of morality. A thing that was never effectively curtailed for centuries will only increase and occupy the centre stage of our lives when people patronise it, benefit from it, and silently subscribe to it. 

The present government under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has effectively shown how a system can be run without corruption. Having served for 20 years as head of the governments — in Gujarat and then at the Centre — without even a charge of corruption, PM Modi has an impeccable, clean character to inspire our generation to adopt honesty as their way of life. Unfortunately, even the high degree of honesty and morality of our Prime Minister failed to influence our society and proved that corruption was indeed our blood trait.  

Governments can only help people’s will to change. But if they don’t want to change, there is no power with anyone anywhere to pull us out of the intricate mess that we have created for ourselves. Let us pledge not to exploit humanity with greed.

The writer is Chairman, Khadi & Village Industries Commission, Government of India. The views expressed are personal.

Corruption thrives at the juncture of power. And power need not be political or administrative or of any high order. And if the opportunity is critical, rendering the other one helpless, distressed, and weak in some manner, it is all the more easier to exploit the situation. And the coronavirus pandemic has become a golden goose of benefit for the heartless, unscrupulous, and ruthless. People of all stature—from the rich and resourceful to the ones struggling to meet their ends—had to fight this corruption alongside fighting the deadly virus.

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BORIS JOHNSON TO DELAY LIFTING COVID-19 RESTRICTIONS IN UK

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday is expected to delay lifting of COVID-19 restrictions on June 21 as planned.

Johnson told British media from the G7 summit in Cornwall on Sunday that the government “is looking at the data”, reported euronews. “The roadmap was always cautious but irreversible and in order to have an irreversible roadmap, we’ve got to be cautious,” he added.

England’s four-step easing programme planned for all remaining restrictions on businesses—including pubs, restaurants and nightclubs—and on large events and performances—including weddings and funerals—is expected to be lifted on June 21.

The UK has experienced a surge of new COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, blamed on the spread of the Delta variant.

Nearly 7,500 new infections were recorded on Sunday across the UK, bringing the weekly tally to more than 50,000—a near 50 per cent rise on the previous week, reported euronews.

This is despite the country having one of the highest vaccination rates in the world with 78.9 per cent of the adult population having received at least one dose and more than 56 per cent now fully inoculated.

British health authorities say that the Delta variant is up to 60 per cent more transmissible than the original strain and now represents over 90 per cent of new cases in the UK.

They also stressed last week that although vaccination prevents the risk of severe disease, it does not eliminate it completely or prevent transmission, reported euronews.

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PROTESTS IN BERLIN TO MARK SECOND ANNIVERSARY OF HONG KONG UPRISING

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On the second anniversary of the pro-democracy uprising in Hong Kong, scores of people including German citizens and Hongkongers jointly organized a protest in Berlin, Germany.

Nearly 100 protestors including representatives of Tibetans and Uyghurs participated in the protest at Alexanderplatz, a large public square in the capital city, on June 12 against the widespread human rights abuse by the Chinese government. Demonstrations were staged in several cities across the globe on Saturday to commemorate the second anniversary of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

Since June last year, the sweeping national security law Beijing imposed on the city is being used to stifle political opposition and anti-government protests.

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