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ANALYSING THE PANDEMIC OF THE CENTURY

Originating from Wuhan, China, towards the end of 2019, Covid-19 appeared as a ‘Black Swan’ creating havoc across the globe. In India it mutated into ‘Grey Rhino’, causing mayhem in the form of extreme disruption and destruction.

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Nicholas Taleb described ‘Black Swan’ as an improbable event and random occurrence with extreme impact. ‘Grey Rhino’, on the other hand, as per Michele Wucker, is a highly probable event that may occur after a series of warnings and visible pieces of evidence with enormous impact. Originating from Wuhan, China, towards the end of 2019, coronavirus appeared as a ‘Black Swan’ creating havoc across the globe. In India it mutated into ‘Grey Rhino’, causing mayhem in the form of extreme disruption and destruction.    

It was during March last year that Covid-19 virus cases began to surface in India. Initially, the daily infection rate was barely in hundreds in comparison to Western nations where the count was in five figures, despite the advanced health care system. Given modest medical infrastructure and India is being predicted to be a potential hot spot, the Central Government declared nationwide lockdown towards late March 2020 to obviate a catastrophe. PM Modi addressed the nation frequently to sensitise the citizens about the consequences of the deadly virus.

 Starting with insufficient PPE kits, N-95 masks and testing facilities, the Indian medical fraternity led the charge against coronavirus, duly complemented by ‘Non-Profit Organisations’ corporates and the public at large. Despite severe hardships, migrants’ untold suffering and millions losing their livelihood, the nation reposed implicit faith in the PM-led campaign against the pandemic. By mid-February 2021, daily infections had dropped to around ten thousand after hitting the peak of nearly a lac. Corona appeared to be on the wane, given the assurances by the top leadership including the PM and Health Minister. The economy was showing signs of recovery and the business environment looked favourable, marked by a sense of optimism. Going by the indicators, apparently, the ‘Black Swan’ phase of the pandemic had been well handled. 

BLACK SWAN TO GREY RHINO: SLEEP WALK TO THE EDGE     

 Now there was a window of opportunity for the Central and State administrations to get the house in order and prepare earnestly for the pandemic’s second surge, evident from the experience of US and Western nations. Even the forum of scientific experts had warned the officials against a more contagious variant of the Covid-19 virus taking hold of the country. Hence, making up shortages of critical medical equipment and ramping up supply chains ought to have been taken upon the highest priority. As mass immunisation offered the best option to defeat the second wave, India was in a far better position than even the advanced nations due to its vast potential to produce vaccine doses. However, due to the Government’s reluctance to fund the capacity building of vaccine manufacturing firms, the advantage could not be leveraged.   

Ironically, complacency got better of prudence, faith trumped science and fixation with the election calendar threw all the Corona protocols to the wind. Assumptions like our young demographics and BCG vaccination provided us with special immunity against virus proved to be wishful speculations. Delusion of triumph against pandemic obfuscated all signs of impending disaster. The Covid-19 second wave did not turn into Tsunami overnight. The crisis had begun to loom large on the horizon towards the end of March. It appears India almost sleepwalked into the ‘Grey Rhino’ trap. 

It was only around 10 April when the daily cases crossed 150,000 that the panic button was pressed. By the end of April, daily Corona infections had breached the four lac mark. The health infrastructure in many states has been overwhelmed. The role of government machinery leaves much to be desired. With the situation having spun out of control, the nation today finds itself on the edge, many left to their own fate. It›s mid-May, the total infection stands at twenty-five million with over a quarter-million deaths. The daily cases continue to hover around 3.5 lakh, with approximately 4,000 deaths. 

INDIA FIGHTS BACK

 While intense fire fighting actions are on, adhocism and past assumptions are inadequate to solve the existing cataclysm. The need of the hour is adaptive leadership and strategic clarity. The toughest challenge facing the authorities is to reconcile to the fact that grievous lapses led to the current dire straits. Persistent efforts of the administration to play down the crisis and cacophony of blame game are most disheartening. Instead, what is needed is the correct diagnostic of the problems areas and formulation of actionable strategies by the experts to mitigate the crisis situations. To this end, the constitution of 12 members National Task Force (NTF) by the Supreme Court marks a step in the right direction. For effective results, the NTF should be empowered to take decisions and government officials must ensure a speedy implementation mechanism.        

  Currently, the most critical issues are the availability of oxygen, ICU beds and life-saving medical equipment. As for oxygen, the cruciality is not its shortage per se but the logistics constraints of the supply chains. Although the situation is now being addressed on a war footing by employing strategic air and naval assets and augmenting internal capacities, it’s going to take some time before the situation eases out. Therefore, judicious utilisation and prioritising the distribution of resources can considerably alleviate the criticality. Installing in situ oxygen plants in major hospitals must be done on the highest priority. Setting up field hospitals facilities utilising the resources of the armed forces, central agencies like DRDO, ISRO, PSUs and industry has come as a great relief at a very crucial juncture.                      

 During the calamities, the tendency of over-centralisation just cannot work, case in point initial blunder of virus testing restricted only to government labs. Delegation, deregulation and distribution of responsibility are the key essentials to handle unforeseen contingencies. In fact, the NGOs, local bodies, ‘resident welfare associations’ (RWAs) are already making yeoman contribution by setting up Covid beds and supplying life-saving equipment. I can personally vouch for it being part of some of these initiatives. Incidentally, in China, the ‘Residential Committees’ (Juzhu Weiyuan Hui) played a pivotal role in controlling the coronavirus. One of the serious shortcomings still is the lack of real-time information regarding the availability of beds and critical medicines. Here, well organised ‘Covid Care Centre’ in each major city/town can prove to be of immense value and bolster much needed public confidence.     

 It is most unfortunate that bureaucratic procedural norms continue to hamper the import of critical medical equipment and speedy distribution of foreign assistance material to the states. ‘Crisis Management Teams’ composed of logistics experts must be deployed at key nodal centres to handle this issue, as each minute the lives are being lost. During such abnormal times, the leaders in public life should be visible on the ground. Ironically, most appear to be missing in action. The political parties have substantial resources at their disposal. Instead of indulging in petty squabbles, it is a great opportunity for these organisations to contribute in the hour of crisis by throwing open their facilities for the good of the fellow countrymen.            

   There is a need for a clear overall strategy. The topmost priority ought to be in saving precious lives and bringing down the infections rate. Besides lockdowns, strict adherence to regulations pertaining to public behaviour, prioritising allocations of resources and capacity building merit immediate attention. The medical supply chains need to be reconfigured and the expertise of multinationals like Amazon and Flipkart could be ideally exploited. Measures must be put in place in anticipation of the third wave in view of the new variant of virus and vulnerability of the under18 population. A long term strategy is needed to fix the public health system which is currently in shambles. 

The vaccination programme has to move in tandem as it is the best defence against future waves. The strength of pharmaceutical companies should be leveraged to boost the production of vaccines, alongside seeking immediate IPR waiver. The current pace of daily vaccination which is barely 2 million needs to be accelerated significantly. Pricing must be standardised and Central Government should compensate the Pharma companies for subsidising the vaccines. For those ‘below the poverty line’ vaccination must be free.

  As a nation, we have tremendous resilience to bounce back during adverse situations but have a poor record in anticipating these. We tend to believe in fait accompli, ignoring the science, besides avoiding introspection of lapses, thus missing out on valuable lessons. Even our strategic community is more at ease with hindsight wisdom than prognostics. History tells us, ‘If you don’t learn from history, you are bound to suffer it.’

  India will win the fight against the pandemic, primarily due fortitude and forbearance of ordinary citizens- the real Victors. Nonetheless, the leadership of the day owes to the countrymen a solemn commitment; “never again will India fall victim to ‘Black Swan’ or ‘Grey Rhino’ phenomenon”.

The author is a war Veteran, former Assistant Chief Strategic; Currently Professor Geo Strategy & Management Studies, Distinguished Fellow at United Institution of India.

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China seeks to consolidate hegemonic control in Africa

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Beijing is deploying strategic activities, employing aggressive propaganda efforts with sharp objectives to establish a positive image and consolidate a hegemonic control in Africa, this is being done despite Chinese President Xi Jinping’s tall claims of promoting ‘soft power’ in Africa,

Jianli Yang for National Review writes that amid the criticism that China is pursuing an exploitative strategy in Africa, with its increasing soft-power projections including Covid-19 vaccines, propaganda efforts have intensified to portray China as a positive, benign development partner. The increasing investments in media, the growing number of Confucius Institutes, the organisation of grand cultural festivals, and the generous giving of scholarships have all been embraced to establish China’s strong foothold on the continent. Meanwhile, resentment amongst the African populace toward the Chinese diaspora on the continent has emerged, fueled by incidents such as the recent ill-treatment of Africans in Guangzhou. In the absence of strong linguistic and cultural affinities between the two, interactions between Chinese and Africans remain quite restricted.

Despite this, Chinese media is gaining a deeper presence on the continent, at a time when Western media have largely retreated from the African landscape, according to National Review.

Beijing has also been actively pursuing its dream of gaining control over local sports markets and securing access to major sports events in Africa. The initiative is aimed at both control and economic gains. The Chinese scheme involves advancing and flooding its own low-grade domestic products into local African markets to demonstrate its ability to match international brands.

At the same time, to nurture demand, Chinese authorities have been constructing sports facilities in many poor African countries that were severely lacking sports infrastructure, including stadiums and the requisite training facilities for sports.

Yang writes: “It is time that African nations, and those in other parts of the world, realise the Chinese method of debt-trap diplomacy, which, beyond hitting them economically, is capable of enslaving them in a neocolonial setup, this time with China at the helm.”

The author also said that Beijing claims to deploy ‘soft power’ in Africa, but in reality is deploying ‘sharp power’, which refers to the use of manipulative, subversive methods by authoritarian regimes to gain influence in other countries.

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SANJAY GANDHI’S TRAGIC PLANE CRASH: THE DAY THE COURSE OF POLITICS CHANGED FOREVER

Pankaj Vohra

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It was exactly 41 years ago, when at 8.40 in the morning of 23 June 1980, my father woke me up and told me that the Police PRO was on the line. I had reached home late the previous night after finishing my day’s assignments at the National Herald daily where I had in January started working. I walked up to the phone placed near the door of my father’s official residence (he was the Medical Superintendent of the LNJP hospital) in my groggy state and with visible irritation in my voice asked why the urgency had come up. A.N. Sharma, the then police spokesman, was on the other end, and in his characteristic casual manner informed me that a glider had crashed near the Willingdon Crescent (Mother Teresa Crescent). When I shot back demanding to know why the furore, he retorted, “Sir, aaisi jankaari mili hai ki usme Sanjay Gandhi bhi tha.” (We have received information that Sanjay Gandhi was in the glider that had come down.) With a parched throat, I enquired from Sharmaji whether Sanjay was safe while instantaneously waking up fully from my slumber. He informed me that the injured had been taken to the Ram Manohar Lohia hospital.

I banged the receiver, went to the bathroom, brushed my teeth and rushed out after washing my face and changing my clothes. I called up the taxi stand located on the other side of the roundabout near our house, adjacent to the office of the DCP, Central. I reached the Lohia hospital wondering what could have happened to Sanjay, for whom I had great admiration during my college and university days, believing that he was a man ahead of his times. As I was entering, I bumped into Anil Sharma, my classmate in our post-graduate programme. He was accompanying senior Congress leader, C.M. Stephens. Seeing me in a hurry, he told me in chaste Punjabi, “Sanjayji da kam ho gaya hai” (Sanjay has passed away). I could not believe it and raced towards the Nursing Home section where he had been rushed post the crash. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was paying his tribute while talking to some reporters and Chandra Shekhar stood a short distance away. I went straight outside the room where Sanjay was said to have been taken. Indira Gandhi was standing outside, and one could see her devastated grief even though she was wearing dark sunglasses. She was constantly biting her lower lip trying to hold back her tears. Maneka stood nearby, totally dazed and unable to come to terms with the tragedy that had struck her at such a young age. (She was only 23 years old.)

It was confirmed that Sanjay was no more amidst us even as reality was refusing to sink in. I moved towards the administrative block of the hospital and as I reached the Medical Superintendent’s room, Yashpal Kapoor, a close aide of Indira Gandhi and the Chairman of National Herald, saw me and asked me to come in. I had known Kapoor for several years and he yelled, “Kaka andar aaja” (Young man, come inside.)

Kapoor went on, “Aaj se 20 saal pehle, main iske baap ki laash ko yahan se leke gaya tha, aaj mujhe isse bhi lejana padega.” (Twenty years ago, I carried his father’s body from here, and now I have to carry his body as well.) Kapoor was referring to the late Feroze Gandhi, who had died in the same hospital. His words sent a chill up my spine. I decided then and there that they could be part of the opening sentence of a report I would do for the next morning’s paper. I came out and ran into Coomi Kapoor, then the Chief Reporter of Indian Express. She asked me what was going on and I shared whatever information I had. I was thinking on my feet. National Herald had opened up after a lockdown and had no resources. I had little money on me as well. The only way of reaching the spot would be to hitch a ride in the Indian Express Matador which was with Coomi. She was kind enough to accommodate me in it and we drove to the Chanakyapuri area and turned right after the Indonesian Embassy towards the Vishwa Yuvak Kendra and the Circular Road leading to a drain on the rear of the Willingdon Crescent Bungalows.

The vehicle was stopped after some distance and we walked towards the drain where the plane carrying Sanjay and his co-pilot, Captain Subhash Saxena had crashed. The supreme irony is that the brand-new Pitts-2 aircraft had come down, very close to the rear entrance of 12, Willingdon Crescent, the official residence allotted to Indira Gandhi during the Janata Party rule. The mangled remains of the plane bore testimony to the violent crash that had taken place. People had gathered there and the police had a tough time cordoning off the area. The Police Commissioner, Pritam Singh Bhindar, who had been hand-picked by Sanjay to head the Delhi Police, superseding several of his seniors in the process, was present there. We were informed that another Sanjay appointee, Lt Governor Jagmohan, was at the spot earlier but had left by then.

Eye witnesses stated that the plane was in the air and the pilot (Sanjay) was trying his hand at advanced aerobatics. It had taken one loop and as another was being attempted, it did not gain the required altitude and smashed near to the nallah. The injured occupants were rushed to the hospital where they were declared dead. Indira Gandhi also reached the pummeled site and appeared to survey the tragic scene while combating her bottomless sorrow. Soon after she left, there were rumours that she was searching for something, probably a bunch of keys or a watch, which perhaps were missing. This turned out to be inaccurate, though the deceased’s detractors used it to spread the canard that the keys and watch were linked to Sanjay’s bank accounts and other dealings.

By then, the place was swarming with newsmen and I decided to go to 1, Safdarjung Road, the Prime Minister’s residence to take in what was happening. In the meantime, I had informed my Chief Reporter, D.K. Issar that I was at the spot and covering the unfolding story. Arrangements to seat people had started, and Durrees were being spread in the lawns outside the house. Spiritual singers, belonging to various faiths, had also started arriving. It was an excessively hot day and the task of covering the event had become even more difficult as I had not consumed even a morsel since morning. My own personal grief was overwhelming as well. A few months earlier, Issar had assigned me the task of covering the birth of Sanjay and Maneka’s son, Feroze Varun, on 13 March at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. The very thought that the child may grow up without a father, made me immensely sad. And what about Maneka? What would she do now? Many questions crossed my restless mind and I started recollecting whatever memories I had of Sanjay, the foremost being my visit to Amethi in March, 1977 along with my late friend, Deepak Malhotra, and the then Indian Youth Congress president, Ambika Soni. I was with the NSUI that time and we had gone to assist Sanjay in his maiden election from this underdeveloped area adjacent to Rae Bareilly, Indira Gandhi’s constituency. Sanjay was contesting against Ravindra Pratap Singh who had extensive support in the region and RSS cadres were leaving no stone unturned for his victory. It was at Amethi where I had first met Kamal Nath, then a party activist. It was there that I also came to know about Akbar ‘Dumpy’ Ahmed, Sanjay’s great buddy. Both Kamal Nath and Dumpy were in the Doon School with Sanjay and were amongst his closest confidants.

I had first seen Sanjay at the IYC office, then located at 10, Janpath where he had come to address a press conference in support of his Five Point Programme. This was during the Emergency and my friend, Prem Swarup Nayyar who was attached to Ambika Soni and was also president of the New Delhi Youth Congress, had facilitated my entry into a room which I think is now the meeting point of those who go to meet Sonia Gandhi. I had met Sanjay several times later, mostly with Mohammad Shamim of the Times of India, who was extremely close to the Gandhis, and subsequently became my mentor in Political reporting. Shamim Saab had ready access to the Gandhi household, and both Sanjay and Rajiv were most fond of him. Both would address him as “Sir’’ and he was undoubtedly, a person in whom Indira Gandhi reposed immense faith. From the sidelines, had also watched Sanjay outmaneuver seasoned politicians like Raj Narain, the man who had defeated Indira in 1977 and who was primarily responsible for the fall in 1979 of the Morarji Desai government.  The meetings would take place at 46, Pusa Road, the residence of Mohan Meakin boss, Kapil Mohan. Sanjay would always be accompanied by Kamal Nath who had emerged as his right-hand man.

By then, Sanjay had become a legend in his own right. While in Opposition, the Janata party attempted to implicate him in several cases. However, he fought back and with the help of his Youth Congress storm troopers led by Nayyar and Lalit Maken, paved the way for the return of the Congress to power in 1980. He possessed an indomitable spirit and astounding energy which he used for out of the box thinking to counter his countless enemies who had been fed on false propaganda concerning the Family Planning programme by jealous politicians and over-zealous bureaucrats wanting to be on the right side of the establishment. Sanjay was certainly ahead of his times, and all his programmes, from the need to have a small family, to ecology preservation to literacy were reflective of his vision and approach to politics. His entrepreneurship was evident when he launched the Maruti project with very little support from the established companies. His understanding of human nature enabled him to choose leaders who till today form the backbone of the Congress. It is Sanjay’s team that has served the party beyond four decades, and it is only leaders from his stable, who can perhaps provide the future leadership to the party where the sagging morale of its workers has put a huge question mark over its future. There have been attempts to rewrite the history of the Congress and if they have not succeeded it is solely because people and genuine supporters of the party have not allowed distortion to take place. Sanjay was clearly the heir apparent to Indira Gandhi and a deserving one at that. Her legacy belonged to him and his family more than to anyone else. Rajiv was his brother, but a reluctant politician on whose shoulder the party’s weight rested following Indira Gandhi’s brutal assassination. He was a gentleman who was let down by his own friends; this, however, was not the case with Sanjay, whose loyalists continue to swear by him. Ironically, Sanjay’s wife and son are today a part of the BJP, a party he would have whole-heartedly opposed, yet sometimes circumstances determine the course of future.

However, in 2009, when Feroze Varun contested his maiden election from Pilibhit/Bareilly, the Congress launched an all-out attack on him. At that time, I had met some of the old Youth Congress activists during a round of western UP. They categorically told me that while they were in the Congress, they would ensure the victory of Feroze Varun, who was the “son of their leader”. “How can he lose from our region?” was their war cry. This was Sanjay’s charisma and till today, many decades after he has been gone, his supporters continue to believe that only a leader like him could have led the country in the hour of crisis. His many facets emerged as time has passed and more details regarding him slowly started trickling into the public domain. Sanjay was truly a leader, a man with great conviction and a person who was never shy of initiating action. He was vilified yet he had the strength to overcome and hold his own ground. This is how he was made.

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Throttling environment to push growth agenda

Gaurika Chugh

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Environmental concerns are once again trapped in a scrimmage but interestingly it’s not between people and the government but this time, it’s the government that is treating the judiciary as a suspect. The government’s pet organisation ‘NITI Aayog’ appeared to be wary of judicial speed-breakers to its environmental oversights in developmental policies. This was considered an obstruction to NITI Aayog’s central role as per its standing for National Institution for Transforming India that would stimulate economic growth, promote development rather than hang its head before the judiciary which on most occasions emerged as a shield around forests, water bodies, and wildlife in the country.

A non-governmental organisation CUTS International, becomes a powerful vehicle to allude to a contract for research from NITI Aayog. The research study undertaken by CUTS International aims to examine some of the recent judgments by the Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal, handed over to them by NITI Aayog’s CEO. The research study highlights that the judgements delivered do not take into account a calibrated approach while delivering justice. The brief highlights that “some of the recent judgments/orders of the SC and NGT indicate that the economic impact analysis of judicial decisions is yet to gain broader acceptance. The absence of ex-ante analysis of the economic costs associated with a decision is further exacerbated when judicial activism by courts and tribunals is also in play.” This brief put up by CUTS International is part of the study that has been funded by NITI Aayog to study the unintended economic impact and reverberation of judicial activism. 

The research study has undertaken an examination of five cases out of which three have been decided by the SC and the other two by the NGT. While the SC cases deal with the suspension of the construction of Mopa Airport in Goa, suspension of iron-ore mining in Goa, and shutdown of Sterlite copper plant in Thootukudi, the NGT judgments deal with sand mining ban case and halt on the construction activities in Delhi NCR. This turns tables of the government’s commitment to achieving targets of the Sustainable Development Goal and the Paris Pact by 2030.

While one cannot disagree with CUTS International suggesting training for judges that has also been a repeated demand by many scholars across the country since new challenges of transdisciplinarity in environmental concerns is also a potentially powerful hurdle generating major deficits in justice delivery. For example, judges have failed to link environmental preparedness to disasters or ensuring time and space factors while ordering displacement of the poor from their unauthorised slums. The deficits of governance are mostly linked to a tendency of treating individuals in isolation to their ecosystem, creating silos of solutions for each one of them notwithstanding a million distortions in the process. A recent column that caught my attention ‘Is Law Enough to protect Environment?’ by Amita Singh where she has argued that law and the protectors of justice have always been complacent in protecting the denizens of the environment which are smaller nationalities linked together but not understood by the conceitful eyes of humans. The issues of ethics, integrity, and accountability are as much a need for the judiciary as it is for the administrators of the country. The voice of the voiceless has always been antagonised by the superior and the mighty living being in the garb of stimulating progress and economic development. To understand the dichotomy agonising the conundrum between environmental and development, CUTS International appears to be holding hands of its funding agency the NITI Aayog for endorsing that judicial concerns for the environment have led to major economic losses. CUTS International and NITI Aayog surface as organisations in primary need of training in issues of environment, development, and commitment to sustainable progress.

As the SC raises its head on some occasions to address calls for environmental protection, some of the aggressively pursued policy decisions by the government face a setback nonetheless, many still sneak through the crevices of courtrooms as major disasters to the citizens of this country. One such decision waiting to be addressed is that of the 2019 auction of Bakshwaha forest by the Madhya Pradesh government to the Aditya Birla Group Essel Mining and Industries Limited for undertaking diamond mining for a 50 years lease period for 342 million carats of diamonds. This catastrophic mining project will lead to the wreckage of 382.131 hectares of forest land. As per the forest department estimates, 2,15,875 trees include some precious and medicinal trees in the forest area. The Bakshwaha forest in Chhatarpur district adjoining Panna in Madhya Pradesh is an ecologically fragile region with forest natural resources that provides for the livelihood of ST population inhabiting the forest area. This project also poses a great danger to wildlife. 

In the ‘Geological Report on the Exploration of Diamonds’ in the Bakshwaha forest that was submitted in May 2017 by the Directorate of Geology and Mining, Madhya Pradesh, it has been reported that there are plenty of jungle cat, sloth bear, jackal, striped hyena, Indian fox, and wild dog among others. In contrast, a more recent report submitted by the forest department shows no evidence of wildlife found in the area. A PIL has been filed in the SC to stop this ecological destruction and awaits its due diligence in the court of law. Will the NITI Aayog conduct another research to assess economic losses due to ‘judicial activism’ if the court declares it environmentally destructive? Why environmentally sound decisions by the apex court are being treated as ‘judicial activism’ by the CEO of NITI Aayog.

Government is a ‘public trustee’ as affirmed clearly in the Kamal Nath case of 1992. The notion of public trust as envisaged by Joseph Sax (1970) can be defined as an affirmation of the duty and responsibility of the state to protect all common property resources — streams, lakes, marshlands, rivers, land, tidelands, and mountains held in public trust. It is a basis to ensure inter-generational equity that affirms that common resources are to be preserved by the government for use by current and future generations. The NITI Aayog has been the flag carrier to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 as laid out by the UN has contradicted its aim by supporting a research study that seeks to undermine the tenets of environmental justice. As per the report by Shreegireesh Jalihal of ‘The Reporters Collective’, it has been found that the NITI Aayog didn’t follow the specified norms and regulations of inviting competitors through open tender and instead commissioned CUTS International to do the research for Rs 24.8 lakh. By supporting such a research study for examining the economic cost of judicial decisions is neither eligible as research nor a study in national interest. So on what grounds was this work allocated to CUTS International? This demands accountability for public money spent for personal ambitions by government servants at the NITI Aayog. 

This year the ‘World Environment Day’ theme suggested by the UN is ‘Ecosystem Restoration’. The danger caused by deforestation is irrepressible and its impact on public health is even more alarming. David Wallace-Wells’ book ‘The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming’ says that “every sq km of deforestation produces 27 additional cases of malaria, thanks to what is called vector proliferation when the trees are cleared out, the bugs move in.” Covid- 19 has ensured some wisdom to homo sapiens that despite a unilateral assumption of being at the top of the environmental or bio-species, it is not only ‘not the mightiest’ but also an extremely weak creature knocked out by an invisible, microscopic zoonotic virus ruling the race now for many months and still going strong. The top priority of the government should be environmental conservation and anything that stands against it should be treated as a sacrilege even if this lasso drops from a window at NITI Aayog.

The writer is a research scholar in Centre for the Study of Law & Governance, JNU, Delhi & Consultant, Center for Land Governance.

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Be with yoga, be at home

Being confined in homes for long periods has added fuel to our other physical ailments and increased mental stress and anxiety. This has emphasised the importance of building immunity and many studies have proven the effectiveness of yoga in strengthening the immune system.

Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’

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The United Nations General Assembly adopted an India-led resolution declaring 21 June as International Yoga Day. It was a historic moment for two reasons: Firstly, after being proposed by our Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, it was implemented by member countries in the UN body in less than 90 days, and secondly, 177 nations joined as co-sponsors, the highest number ever for any general assembly resolution. We recently celebrated the 7th edition of Yoga Day and while the Covid-19 pandemic continues to disrupt the normal lives and livelihood of many people across the globe, the relevance of yoga has increased manifold.

The practices and concepts of Yoga originated in India with the very dawn of our ancient civilisation. Our great saints and sages carried the powerful yogic science to different parts of the world and made it available for every common man’s reach. It is one of the most amazing practices that streamline the mind, spirit and body and rewards those who seek mental clarity. Yoga is an essential tool for those facing stress and immense pressure in their daily lives and simultaneously seeking to improve flexibility and reduce other health ailments.

Today, Covid-19 has unleashed one of the biggest crisis upon humanity. The pandemic has led to a substantial loss of human life and thrown unprecedented challenges to public health. Due to the ongoing situation, we all are bound and restricted in our homes and constantly living under the fear of infection risks and hence, developing anxiety. Being confined for such long periods has added fuel to our other physical ailments and increased mental stress and anxiety. This public health crisis has emphasised the importance of building immunity and therefore adopting a healthy lifestyle. Many studies have proven the effectiveness of yoga in strengthening the immune system. Yoga is a combination of physical exercise, breathing practices and concentration improvement which strengthens the body and the mind which in turn improves immunity. To name some among the many yoga asanas, Shavasana and Sasakasana reduces stress and increases our immune system’s ability to fight antigens. Breathing practices such as Pranayam maintains our respiratory systems and increases the efficiency of our lungs. Trikonasana improves blood circulation and ensures the optimal functioning of all organs. Hence, practising Yoga is not only helpful in building immunity but also essential for the overall well-being of the human body.

Several medical practitioners and experts are suggesting that patients with Covid-19 mild symptoms who have been advised to isolate at home, must practice Yoga asanas and breathing exercise to fight against the deadly virus. As the virus directly affects the lungs, it is imperative to strengthen the respiratory system. The suggested Yoga asanas help in achieving ideal saturation levels and in restoring lung functions. Practising yoga is not only being advised to the Covid positive patients, but also to the patients who have recovered from the virus. Yogic breathing, beginner-level yoga asanas and meditation brings mental peace to the mind and calms the overall body of the patients who have faced the traumatic experience of Covid-19. Apart from these, the modified breathing techniques and recommended yoga pose by the experts have helped reducing fatigue and naturally restored energy levels among the recovered Covid patients.

The benefits of yoga are not only limited to adults but yoga for children can help counter the stress experienced by them. Covid has taken an unthinkable toll on our children at all levels: socially, emotionally, physically, and academically. Being the nation with the largest population of children and youth, coping with the disruption during this pandemic will require greater efforts from our end to mitigate the impact on their well-being. Hence, I appeal to all the parents and teachers to motivate young children to practice yoga in their daily lives. Practising yoga will allow the children to connect more deeply with the inner self and enhance their strength, flexibility and coordination. Apart from this, the young ones will derive enormous benefits from yoga by improving their concentration and maintaining a sense of calmness and relaxation during these challenging times.

Today, when the world has come to a standstill, yoga has emerged as one of the most effective health practices to improve our immunity and maintain an inner self-balance. Yoga has gained immense admiration and captured people’s imagination globally and thus has become India’s source of soft power. In the absence of the Covid-19 pandemic, we all would have celebrated this festival of the union of mind, body and spirit with great enthusiasm and excitement. However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we are expected to stay in our homes and maintain social distancing. I would appeal to all the citizens and children of my country to not allow the virus to dampen our spirits. Let us all grab our mats and celebrate the spirit of Yoga Day to bring our inner light within us to the surface and achieve a peaceful mind during these tough times. 

The writer is Union Education Minister, Government of India.

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The hunger and nutrition crisis: The dark side of Covid pandemic

Coronavirus has presented itself as a challenge and an opportunity to address our
long-standing problems of food security and nutrition. The current need is to come up with
sustainable solutions to lift millions of people out of the vicious cycle of hunger and poverty.

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C ovid-19 has transformed into a silent pandemic of hunger and starvation as a result of millions of people pushed into the vicious cycles of economic stagnation, loss of livelihood and worsening food insecurity. The World Bank has estimated that 71 million people will be pushed into extreme poverty across the globe as a result of the pandemic. As per the State of Working India 2021 report by the Azim Premji University, about 100 million lost jobs during the nationwide April-May 2020 lockdown. Most were back at work by June 2020, but even by the end of 2020, about 15 million workers remained out of work. Incomes also remained depressed. As we saw the deadly second wave of Covid-19 ravaging our country and leaving families devastated, the oxygen crisis overwhelmed the entire system while the crisis of hunger and starvation kept becoming grave each day. The CMIE Unemployment Data reveals a grim picture of unemployment spiralling to 12% by the end of May 2021 as compared to 8% in April 2021. Breaking this down further over 10 million or 1 crore people lost their jobs because of the second wave of coronavirus alone and 97% of households’ incomes have declined since the beginning of the pandemic last year. In a country like ours where a majority of the workforce is in the informal sector, people have not only been massively affected by the pandemic due to loss of jobs but also because they have no access to the benefits that come with formal employment and are out of the ambit of the social security schemes. The daily wagers, construction workers, street vendors, domestic helpers are the people who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and lockdowns and are living a life of uncertainty and disrupted incomes.  Agriculture is the primary occupation in the villages but due to frequent lockdowns, there has been a disruption of the supply chains and access to the market for the sale of agricultural produce impacting the income of the rural households.  World Food Programme estimates that an additional 130 million people could fall into the category of being food insecure over and above the 820 million who were so classified by the State of Food Insecurity in the World Report, 2019. In the 2020 Global Hunger Index, India ranks 94th out of the 107 countries. The pandemic has worsened this hunger crisis in India. With higher food inflation combined with reduced incomes, more and more households have to cut down on the quantity and quality of their food consumption. The impact is the worst on the low and middleincome household spend a large share of their incomes on food expenditure. The First Phase of the National Family Health Survey (2019-2020) has revealed alarming findings, with as many as 16 states showing an increase in underweight and severely wasted children under the age of 5. Ever since the advent of Covid-19, the pandemic has risked becoming nutrition crisis, due to overburdened healthcare systems, disrupted food patterns and income loss. And the disruption of programmes likes the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and the mid-day meal programme.  The current crisis highlights the importance of the existing welfare schemes like MGNREGA, PDS, and PMGKY etc which put cash and relief directly into the hands of the most vulnerable people and help them tide over the economic distress. There is an imperative need to improve food security by increasing local food production and strengthening food supply chains. The availability of high food stocks presents a bright opportunity to ensure the strongly advocated universal PDS which is the need of the hour. As the second wave has led to many young people who were the breadwinners of their families succumbing to the virus, it is of utmost importance that support is provided to these families with adequate cash and food support and building employment opportunities to prevent them from slipping further below the poverty line.  Like the first wave, it has been the collective endeavour of several citizen initiatives and NGOs to complement the efforts of the administration to mitigate the hardships and provide immediate relief to the most marginalised communities who have been the worst affected by the pandemic. At Samarpann, we are focusing all our resources on the rural areas keeping in view this alarming crisis. Until now we have distributed 2.6 million meals across India since the advent of the Pandemic. When our team visited the villages in Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Kashmir, and Mizoram we realised that nothing had changed for these families in the second wave as compared to the second wave. The second wave has worsened the conditions for most of these households as there has been a loss of livelihoods and depletion of savings due to medical expenses. The people have either not been reinstated into their jobs after the first lockdown or have suffered major pay cuts leading to reduced incomes. Though we provide immediate relief in the form of ration and sanitation kits, it is important to start rebuilding the lives of these families, especially those who have lost their earning members. Hence, we are purchasing the relief material from the women Self Help Groups (SHGs) so that it increases their income sources and providie the material in the community itself. We believe that the solution to the hunger crisis should follow a twofold approach of addressing food insecurity as well as providing livelihood opportunities to the people whose voices have largely been left unheard in this second wave of Covid-19. Each ration kit includes wheat flour, rice, two types of pulses, sugar, cooking oil, spices, and salt which is sufficient to take care of a family’s need for 15 to 20 days. There is also a sanitation kit that has soaps, sanitisers, and a packet of masks. Some of the villages which we are targeting are Rathkankara, Borabas, Kolipura, Girdharpura, and Bhairopura in the Kota district in Rajasthan which is mostly inhabited by the indigenous communities of tribal. In Kashmir, with our partner organisation, we are targeting villages in Anantnag, Baramulla, Pulwama, Bandipora, and Kulgam while in Uttarakhand the target areas are the women in the Khatima block of Udham Singh Nagar, who are single earning members coming from very poor families. Mizoram hosts its own problems, being tribal predominated and situated in the arduous terrains.   Covid-19 pandemic has presented itself as a challenge and an opportunity to address our long-standing problems of food security and nutrition and the current need is to come up with sustainable solutions which help us tide not only over the current crisis but also lift millions of people out of the vicious cycle of hunger and poverty.  ‘One Nation, One Card’ across the country is a long term solution aimed at bringing a large number of excluded households into the ambit of social security. Similarly, diversification of the food basket under PDS and ICDS would go a long way in addressing malnutrition and reducing the disease burden in the country. The task at hand is a humongous one that needs to be dealt with at multiple levels by various stakeholders coming together to minimise the adversities and develop long term strategies for addressing hunger and malnutrition.  Dr Ruma Bhargava, Lead Healthcare, World Economic Forum and Founder, Samarpann & Dr Megha Bhargava, Deputy Commissioner Income Tax, Govt of India.

The views expressed are personal

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Reflecting on refugee pasts and possible future

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India has had a stellar history in welcoming refugees and sheltering them. Independent India saw us handling an unprecedented refugee crisis of 1947. In fact, as a child of 1947 refugees, I can’t but applaud that part of our nation-building history. India had hosted Tibetan refugees from the 1960s and in the 1970s we welcomed refugees from western Africa, later from Afghanistan and then from Sri Lanka. Most recently, we are hosting Rohingya refugees from Myanmar emerging from the persecution against their community from May 2015 and refugees fleeing from the February 2021 crisis in Myanmar. 

India’s example holds true for much of the global south. As UNHCR data notes, more than 86% of refugees were hosted by developing countries, with more than 73% by the neighbouring countries. In general, societies in the south have welcomed refugees as equal members of society. Countries of the North on the other hand have never embraced refugees in the same spirit of solidarity and responsibility, though it can be argued they carry much of the responsibility of the global refugee crisis. They need to be called out for that.

ActionAid Association has been at the forefront of responding to the emergency needs of forcibly displaced communities for over four decades now. ActionAid Association prioritises the needs of women and children and builds the resilience of marginalised populations. We have supported displaced minorities from Pakistan, living in Rajasthan, and internally displaced persons from Chhattisgarh settled in Andhra Pradesh. In partnership with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees India, we continue to extend support to people from the Rohingya community settled in parts of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. Working in collaboration with social organisations, we have been offering humanitarian assistance to refugees from strife-ridden Myanmar too.

We need to recognise that in this century there has been a reversal in the perception of refugees. World Refugee Council calls it “a shortfall of humanity and empathy”. With growing xenophobic tendencies, stronger border controls, the rise of nativistic “sons of the soil” movements, as well as rising economic inequities which stoke fears of “risk from refugees”, host communities have become insecure and elected governments voice these insecurities, without resolving them; this comes at a time when the need is for addressing the refugee crisis in the framework of leaving no one behind.

With some exceptions, in general, there is a fast-growing antipathy towards refugees. The conscience of the world was struck by the tragic visuals of drowning refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea and of Rohingyas and other Myanmarese ethnic groups fleeing atrocities but governments have not been so easily moved. Rescuing drowning migrants became a crime in Italy; sheltering refugees from Myanmar a matter of political debate. Spectres of “dangers and threats” posed by refugees basis race, religion and economic competition that is propelled by fundamentalist actions of vested interest groups from both refugee and host communities groups, are raised to stoke xenophobia.

Let’s understand that refugees or for that matter any other groups, could become a threat to national sovereignty, only when the state has retreated from its welfare and caring orientation. To any government whose main focus is the increased physical, social, economic, and mental well-being of its people, care for people seeking refuge poses no threat. This has been demonstrated in ample measure by our collective past of accepting and integrating refugees. 

Refugees need safety during travel when fleeing oppression, hunger or fear. They need safety, social protection, and care in the spaces they flee to without discrimination, and a right to return to their native lands, should they so desire. Their children need access to continued education, and families need non-discriminatory access to healthcare, education, and all public services. Women need protection against violence and discrimination. Enabling conditions to earn livelihoods are critical, even when there is no right to employment; else how can their families survive. 

The lesson for us is not to mirror the countries that have regressive colonial attitudes to refugees and migrants. India should remain true to its warm non-discriminatory history of welcoming refugees. To the global community, that would be a message and an action demonstrating principled leadership —one that is morally, socially, politically and strategically defensible, and inspirational for others to follow.

Let us, however, remember that stellar pasts don’t automatically lead to glorious futures. Futures need active construction with humane people-centred politics and policies, set in a frame of a caring welfare state. Existing treaties and protocols need to be signed up to and newer societal imageries of futures based on solidarities, co-existence, and commons of humankind are needed, as are sensitive refugee policies and actions.

Sandeep Chachra is Executive Director of ActionAid Association and Joseph Mathai is Senior Manager – Communications of ActionAid Association. The views expressed are personal.

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