On Tuesday, 21 August 2012, Alpine rescuer Arnaud Christmann and his neighbour Jules Berger stood on the snow-covered slopes of the Bossons Glacier beneath the southwest face of Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s highest mountain. The two Frenchmen discovered a well-preserved grey coloured jute bag near an aircraft wheel. The nine-kilo sack read Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi. The Indian embassy in Paris was handed the diplomatic pouch by Captain Emmanuel Vegas of the high mountain Gendarmerie platoon of Chamonix. Tucked inside the bag full of history were Indian newspapers, some regular mail, and calendars of 1966. At the end of the summer of 2016, another Indian diplomatic bag resurfaced in the Alps. Then a portion of a folder emerged with the faded initials H.J.B. embossed on it.
Over half a century ago, at 07:00 GMT on Monday, 24 January 1966, Air India’s Flight 101 began its scheduled descent into Geneva over the Alps. The recently married Captain Joe de Souza, one of Air India’s experienced pilots, radioed verifying everything was all right. The next minute the flight vanished off the radar screen and air traffic control at Geneva panicked. With no response from the plane, the control tower got progressively more hysterical. Over a decade earlier, on 3 November 1950, an Air India aircraft had crashed into Mont Blanc. A helicopter was now rushed to the last known position of the plane. Hours later, the rescue team battling the weather confirmed that the Boeing 707 had crashed at an elevation of 15,585 feet into a rock shoulder called Rocher de la Tournette on Mont Blanc. Due to poor visibility on the peak there was virtually no hope of survivors. Ice drifts and snowstorms silently claimed the lifeless bodies of the one hundred and seventeen passengers in the Alps.
Among the lives abruptly extinguished was India’s most distinguished scientist Dr Homi Jehangir Bhabha who was the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. India’s top nuclear scientist’s death in the air crash came just days after Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri had inexplicably passed away on 11 January in Tashkent. Even though a pilot in the vicinity reported seeing a black cloud possibly due to an explosion, the general explanation for the air tragedy indicated human error. The exact cause was never established. The Alps have also not yet delivered further clues to this mystery of history.
Born on 30 October 1909 to a rich aristocratic Parsi family of Bombay (Mumbai now), Homi J. Bhabha hardly slept as a small boy. A leading European child specialist after assessing the youngster told his parents that he had a fascinating mind that kept ticking away. The doctor predicted Bhabha was a genius in the making. At eighteen the handsome and super brilliant youngster enrolled at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University to study Mechanical Engineering with plans to join Tata Steel as a metallurgist. But at Cambridge besides conducting the orchestra, the man with a mind of his own fell passionately in love with Physics. The rebellious Indian was accepted as a research student at Ernest Rutherford’s Cavendish Laboratory. He computed the interaction between the electron and its antimatter (positron). It was named Bhabha Scattering in his honour. In 1935, he obtained a PhD from Cambridge for his paper, The Absorption of Cosmic Radiation. Soon thereafter he gained the respect of the world’s most eminent physicists and associated with masterminds like Enrico Fermi, Wolfgang Pauli, Paul Dirac and Niels Bohr. His twelve years of work in Europe were enough for him to gain a lasting worldwide reputation as a theoretical physicist. But this was just the beginning.
On 3 September 1939, when Europe went to war, Bhabha was vacationing in India and couldn’t return to Cambridge. He accepted the offer from Nobel Laureate Dr C.V. Raman, the Director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, (Bengaluru now), to be a reader in physics. Here he met the amazing Vikram Sarabhai; decades later they laid the foundation for India’s remarkably successful space program. During his years at IIS, Bhabha recognised the role modern science could play in a nation steeped in poverty and superstition and that became his life’s mission. Bhabha, an elected fellow of the Royal Society and the winner of the Adams Prize and the Hopkins Prize, was distinct from other scientists of his era. His plans for India as a leader in the field of atomic energy were extraordinarily grand. His friend, the industrialist J.R.D. Tata assisted with a grant of Rs 80,000 from the Sir Dorab Tata Trust, and in June 1945 Bhabha established an institution called the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research (TIFR). The visionary founder-director referred to his brainchild as “the cradle of the Indian nuclear energy program” and conceived TIFR as a first-rate world-class center comparable to MIT and Cambridge.
After 15 August 1947, with the world entering the atomic age, Bhabha was convinced that the newly independent nation had the potential to get into the exclusive nuclear club. In Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru he found a fellow traveler. The two had fortuitously met earlier during a sea voyage. If Nehru stressed on scientific temper in India it was Bhabha who gave it a physical structure. On 10 August 1948, Nehru founded the Indian Atomic Energy Commission with Bhabha as its Chairman. Now he was in charge of top-secret research for the nuclear technology project that competed with the rest of the world. Within a few years, on a 1,200‐acre hilly track along Bombay’s southeast harbor called Trombay, hundreds of Indian scientists were studying uranium and thorium in the state of the art and futuristic Atomic Research Establishment lifting India out of centuries of scientific backwardness. Spearheading the completely indigenous nuclear program at the temple of modern India, Bhabha told his associate Dr Raja Ramanna, “We must have the capability. We should first prove ourselves and then talk of Gandhi, non-violence, and a world without nuclear weapons.”
The Western press published bristling editorials and denounced India’s atomic ambitions. Bhabha overflowing with innovation nevertheless strove onwards and stated, “My success will not depend on what A or B thinks of me. My success will be what I make of my work.” His exceptional standing in the scientific community of the world ensured that Nobel Laureates and prominent physicists frequently visited India and irrigated the Indian minds. A classic photograph from that era shows an elegantly dressed Bhabha in conversation with Albert Einstein, Hideki Yukawa, and John Wheeler as they walked through Marquand Park in Princeton, New Jersey. Right through the 1950s Bhabha was repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics and was a successful nominator as all the three persons proposed by him received the Nobel Prize.
In 1954, the charismatic Indian was conferred with Padma Bhushan award for outstanding contributions to nuclear science. Bhabha’s enterprise and nationalistic thinking also inspired a reverse brain drain and scores of prominent Indians relocated back to India to work at TIFR and the Atomic Research Establishment (BARC now). United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold selected Bhabha as the President of the first international conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy organized in Geneva. He was also appointed one of the Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at Vienna. Nonetheless the scientific wizard of India derived his greatest sense of intellectual achievement by publishing sixty-six original papers. He wanted to probe ideas for which there were no words.
Beyond the domain of science, Bhabha’s remarkable mind extended into the realm of art. Music fueled his life. He was proficient in playing both the violin and the piano and loved Beethoven’s ninth symphony. Musician Mehli Mehta consistently visited his home along with his infant son, Zubin. A painting kit accompanied Bhabha on his travels. His figure drawings in charcoal and pencil were outstanding. He pioneered appreciation of contemporary Indian art and was among the earliest to invest in the works of the Progressive Artists Group. An admirer of Maqbool Fida Hussain’s works, Bhabha not only inaugurated his first exhibition but also drew an impressive portrait of the young artist. In addition, he was also an amateur botanist, designer of gardens and a technically competent architect. During his trips to New Delhi, he spent time examining the city’s monuments and public parks. Sir C.V. Raman fascinated with Bhabha’s laser like focus on both cutting-edge science and the arts described him as “the modern equivalent of Leonardo da Vinci”. The multifaceted man disclosed, “Since I cannot increase the content of life by increasing its duration, I will increase it by increasing its intensity… increasing the intensity of my consciousness and life”.
Then the shocking military humiliation of 1962 in the Himalayas and the subsequent death of Nehru set off a chain‐reaction in India. The nation started rearming and concentrating on military preparedness. After China conducted a nuclear test on 16 October 1964 at the Lop Nur test site, the Government of India decided to exercise its nuclear testing option. Bhabha made a famous speech on All India Radio on 26 October 1964 about self-reliance where he argued; “atomic weapons give a State possessing them in adequate numbers a deterrent power against attack from a much stronger State”. He claimed that he would need just eighteen months to deliver India’s own atomic bomb. On 27 November 1964, Prime Minister Shastri sanctioned the Subterranean Nuclear Explosion Project and Bhabha led the effort to capture the awesome fire of the sun for his country’s defense.
Fourteen months later, on 23 January 1966, heading to Vienna to address a meeting of the IAEA, Bhabha, the fifty-six-year-old lifelong bachelor, boarded the ill-fated Air India flight. The next morning Geneva airport announced the news of the catastrophic crash. At the Bhabha residence on Little Gibbs Road, Malabar Hill in Bombay, his younger brother Jamshed received the heartbreaking phone call about the disaster in the Alps. Homi’s mother Meherbai never really got over the tragedy of losing her son. It was one of the saddest days for India and its scientific community. Many scientists at TIFR and in Trombay wept openly. Indira Gandhi, who had just been sworn in as India’s third Prime Minister, termed Bhabha’s demise as a personal loss and J.R.D. Tata remembered his friend as, “Scientist, engineer, master-builder, and administrator, steeped in humanities, in art and music, Homi was a truly complete man”.
Scientists across the world were shocked that a future Nobel Prize winner, and one of the most brilliant brains had perished in a plane crash. J. Robert Oppenheimer, remarked, “Dr Bhabha will be sorely missed as a scientist” and The New York Times recorded, “He was more than a scientist. A universal man, he believed that nothing human was alien to him… He was a gifted artist himself”.
After the towering genius’s unnatural death India’s impressively large nuclear establishment was left without a commander. Bhabha held a great deal of strategic information in his head and none of that could be retrieved now. For a moment, the Renaissance man’s lifelong dream of making India a nuclear power seemed frozen. Nevertheless, a group of seventy-five Indian scientists inspired by the trailblazer began working towards achieving the critical mass. Sarabhai who replaced Bhabha said that he had left islands of self-confidence in a country beset by a thousand problems.
The victory in the Bangladesh War of 1971 influenced India’s resolve to test a nuclear device and secure its national borders forever. Dr Homi Sethna, Dr Nag Chaudhuri and Dr Raja Ramanna received the go-ahead from the Prime Minister on 7 September 1972. Then eighteen months later, early morning on Saturday, 18 May 1974, one of the many unlisted phones at the Prime Minister’s home in Lutyens’ Delhi rang piercingly. Indira Gandhi was waiting for this call. A voice on the crackling phone line from 350 miles southwest of New Delhi at the Pokhran testing range informed her, “The Buddha is smiling”. This was the coded message indicating that India had successfully conducted its first nuclear test.
The Indian scientists had ensured Bhabha’s dream was realised. The news that India had secretly conducted an underground nuclear test stunned the world. This was the first confirmed test by a nation that was not a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Almost immediately there were both advocates and opponents of India’s nuclear deterrence. Western press castigated India as an impoverished nation squandering its financial resources.
One senior Indian official stung by foreign criticism reportedly stated, “Our priorities are our own business. They’re not determined in Washington, or Moscow… Did you tell the Chinese what their priorities should be when they exploded the bomb in 1964?” History, of course, has vindicated India’s position. Across the nation, torchlight processions celebrated the achievements of the father of India’s nuclear programmw. The crowds screamed, “Homi Bhabha Zindabad”.
Dr Homi J. Bhabha, by single-handedly creating TIFR and BARC, two of India’s most significant scientific institutions ensured that the atomic dominion he established for his nation would participate in every scientific feat of the future. Today TIFR is in its seventy-fifth year and India is a world leader in thorium research and development. Homi Bhabha Zindabad, indeed.
Bhuvan Lall is the author of ‘The Man India Missed The Most: Subhas Chandra Bose’ and ‘The Great Indian Genius: Har Dayal’. He is currently writing the biography of Sardar Patel. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Bhuvan Lall is the author of ‘The Man India Missed The Most: Subhas Chandra Bose’ and ‘The Great Indian Genius: Har Dayal’. He is currently writing the biography of Sardar Patel. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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CITIZENS SHOULD BE TRAINED ON THE COMPLEXITIES OF USING CRYPTOCURRENCIES
In India, there is a lapse in the legislation on regulation of virtual currency, which either prohibits trade and dealings or legalises their use. The Supreme Court, in the case of Internet and Mobile Association of India v. Reserve Bank of India, set aside the curb imposed by the RBI on banks and NBFCs from trading or providing services in cryptocurrencies. Nevertheless, the court also put emphasis on the dire need of an umbrella legislation for regulation of virtual currencies.
The Cryptocurrency and Regulation of Official Digital Currency Bill, 2021 is being reviewed and would be introduced in Parliament soon. The bill’s specifics have not yet been made available. However, market commentary indicates that it would enable the issuing of a central bank digital currency (CBDC) as well as the usage of blockchain and distributed ledger technologies which underpin cryptocurrencies. In terms of private digital currencies, recent remarks by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman suggest that, rather than an outright prohibition, there could be experimentation, discovery and promotion of the emerging technologies behind these.
The draft Bill prohibits all cryptocurrencies due to the threats associated with them, such as alleged money-laundering, consumer risks, and a danger to the country’s financial stability. However, cryptocurrencies have the ability to have additional advantages such as improved record tracking and more effective cross-border transfers. Several countries are using laws to attempt to minimise some of these threats.
According to the draft Bill, cryptocurrency is any content, code, or token that has a digital representation of value and is created by cryptographic or other means. This description might be too vague, encompassing different types of digital tokens that are not developed using cryptography and not in consonance with international standards. Such tokens could not carry the same risks as cryptocurrencies.
The penalties prescribed by the Bill for such offenses could be disproportionate in comparison to other comparable economic offenses in the country. To illustrate, mining, holding, issuing, transferring or any usage of crypto, barring created exceptions, is punishable with a fine or imprisonment of up to 10 years which is synonymous with punishment for possession of marijuana under NDPS.
The MEITY issued a draft national strategy on blockchain which proposed the establishment of a ‘National Level Blockchain Framework’ which will be a multi-layered infrastructure to host sector-wise specific blockchains. Users under the draft will have the mechanism to access the infra through a ‘National Blockchain API’ which will be linked with Aadhar and E-sign. It has established legal and regulatory barriers to blockchain acceptance, such as privacy concerns, the RBI’s unfavourable views on cryptocurrencies, and impediments due to data localisation criteria. Nevertheless, the draft needs to revisit the data localization requirements as it identifies it as a barrier to the adoption of blockchain. Localisation should be exempted for decentralised storage as it would better security.
According to the draft, privacy is not an important characteristic of blockchain which should not be the case, and it is believed by numerous entities that use privacy-enhancing features on top of blockchains. French Data Protection Authority recommendations on privacy protection could be a potential way forward.
There is an urgent need for regulatory harmonisation since most blockchain technology advancement occurs in the permissionless blockchain domain, it should be proposed that the MEITY collaborate with the RBI and other sectoral regulators to develop an inclusive platform for blockchain in India.
THE WAY FORWARD
In the longer run, licensing and compulsory registration could be a plausible solution that helps in facilitating the compulsory registration of the trader. Any activity or business involving a transaction in crypto should be permitted, however it should be subject to requirements of licensing. Zebpay, a Bitcoin wallet app, often follows a self-regulation scheme thus adhering to KYC and anti-money laundering standards. This allows the rules of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002 to be applied to ensure that no individual or agency misuses these networks.
In India, a Special Regulatory Body dealing with the Regulation of Virtual Currencies could be empaneled. This body’s responsibilities may involve issuing licenses to virtual currency merchants and organisations receiving virtual currency payments, as well as promoting the registration of different types of virtual currencies floating in the Indian and global markets. This agency would also seek to deter illicit activity using virtual currency and to track down the perpetrators. Its members may involve RBI’s board of directors, governors’ delegates, senior intelligence officers, and economists.
Citizens should be trained on the complexities of using cryptocurrencies. The RBI can provide regular alerts about the opportunities that cryptocurrencies provide for illicit activities such as money laundering and terrorism.
VIRUS IS YOUR ENEMY, NOT PM MODI
Rather than playing politics and getting elated in their own echo system, the Opposition should trust the Prime Minister.
In numerous interviews, Medical Advisor to the POTUS, Dr Anthony Fauci, has reiterated that despite the divisiveness, our common enemy is the virus and not each other. The message is to fight this pandemic unitedly. Sadly, that spirit is missing among Indian politicians who are so paranoid about Narendra Modi that even a pandemic has failed to drive some sense into them.
I would not need to quote Dr Fauci for a society that has always banded together in times of crisis. But for some, political survival has become more important than the lives of people. In their enthusiasm to score political points, they are ignoring the negative impact their murky tricks may have on people. Yes, I am talking of the vaccine politics being played out in full public view. While PM Modi and his team have been trying their best to empower the country and vaccinate people as quickly as possible, the Opposition parties are trying their best to undermine the efforts by spreading rumours and raising demands that may make the society more divisive and confused.
The Prime Minister, who worked overtime to ensure that scientists come out with vaccines earlier than expected, is being accused of not making enough efforts to meet the vaccine demand. Facts, however, would reveal that Modi has been way ahead of the Opposition’s thought process. The Opposition did try to derail the process but has failed desperately.
First, the timeline. The rotavirus vaccine that prevents diarrhoea in young children first came to the US in 1998. It was withdrawn and then reintroduced in 2006. India included this vaccine in the Universal Immunisation Programme in March 2016. The Hepatitis B vaccine was available in the world commercially in 1982. India launched this in 2002. The polio vaccine was approved by the WHO in 1955. The oral version of the same came to be commercially marketed in 1961. India launched the vaccine in 1978.
Compare this to the vaccine for Covid-19. The WHO gave the first emergency use authorization for the vaccine against Covid-19 on 31 December 2020. India got its first vaccine in January 2021 and it had already launched its vaccination programme on 16 January 2021. Also, India achieved the rare feat of having an indigenous vaccine and joined the elite club of about a dozen countries that can say so too.
While scientists must be complimented, one cannot take credit away from the leadership. PM Modi set up a task force of experts in April 2020 and personally monitored vaccine development and ensured that the country was not lagging behind. Covishield and the indigenously produced Covaxin became the first two vaccines which were given clearance for emergency use.
When talks were going on that the vaccine being developed by Bharat Biotech and Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) would be India’s weapon against Covid-19, very few believed it. But the Prime Minister was sure about it. When the ICMR was trying to fast-track trials, everyone raised eyebrows and charged the PM with putting pressure on the process. But the PM was only encouraging and asking them not to compromise on parameters.
Everybody in the country heaved a sigh of relief and pride when the PM announced on 15 August 2020 that the vaccines were at various stages of trial and a fully ‘Made in India’ vaccine would be ready soon. While promising that the vaccines would reach every Indian, he said that the distribution roadmap was ready. And both the vaccines, Covishield and Covaxin, after satisfactory trials, were given emergency use authorisation on 3 January 2021.
While India was celebrating and the world looked towards India with hope, the Opposition reacted with bitterness. Some called it haste and dubbed it as vaccine nationalism. Senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor called the approval “unseemly haste”. He said, “Chest-thumping ‘vaccine nationalism’ – combined with the PM’s ‘self-reliant India’ campaigning – trumped common sense and a generation of established scientific protocols”. “Jingoism is no substitute for common sense,” he added. While demanding full disclosure about the trials, CPM leader Sitaram Yechury said that “any attempt to short-circuit the regulatory process for political gains will damage the good reputation built by Indian pharma over the years”. A Samajwadi Party leader called it the “BJP vaccine”. One cannot say whether these leaders were acting at the behest of pharma lobbies that were keen to sell their vaccines to India, but it was certain that they saw the vaccine as the most powerful weapon to solidify Modi’s image as India’s most beloved leader.
Ever since, their single-point agenda has been to damage this image and they have tried their best to argue that the vaccine was going to undermine the health of the people. Thousands of articles and media reports came, opposing vaccine use. No one asked the simple question: can any PM do that? Congress-ruled Chhattisgarh raised objections to the use of Covaxin in immunization even when the programme rolled out on 16 January. Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Kerala opposed Covaxin even when its efficacy was proved after the third phase of trials. The TMC in West Bengal joined the chorus and the Jharkhand government termed people on whom the vaccine would be used as “guinea pigs’’.
All this was bound to impact people negatively. There were reports that many people in Kolkata refused to take Covaxin at private hospitals, saying they would take Covishield instead. For the Opposition, their tirade seemed to work. They had undermined their own vaccine.
‘Who should be vaccinated first?’ This has also been an issue since day one of the vaccination drive. This was the first time that even people who considered themselves powerful did not try to short-circuit the system. Even the Prime Minister had to wait for his turn to take the jab. There was no rush, no scramble to be the first. Everybody knew he would get the jab when his turn came.
At a meeting of the Covid Vaccine Group on 30 June 2020, the PM had formulated four guiding principles for vaccination: “First, vulnerable groups should be identified and prioritized for early vaccination, for example, doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, non-medical frontline corona warriors, and vulnerable people among the general population. Second, vaccination of ‘anyone, anywhere’ should take place without imposition of any domicile-related restrictions for getting the vaccine. Third, vaccination must be affordable and universal – no person should be left behind. And fourth, the entire process from production to vaccination should be monitored and supported in real time with the use of technology.”
Based on international norms and discussions with experts, the Covid Vaccine Group devised the mechanism to roll-out vaccines in India. The target was to vaccinate 30 crore people by August 2021. In the first phase it was open to healthcare and frontline workers whose numbers came to 30 million. In the second phase the free vaccine was applicable to all above the age of 45 and above. The Centre was to take the tab. More than 18 crore people were already vaccinated, having taken one or two doses by Friday, 14 May.
As the PM launched “Vaccine Utsav” from 11 to 14 April to speed up the vaccination drive, the country witnessed a second Covid wave with a severity not imagined by anyone. States that had started celebrating and preparing to bid goodbye to the pandemic, despite warnings from the Centre, and people who had become complacent suddenly found caught in the vortex.
Despite the severity, the trend of the infection was the same. While it severely impacted the younger generation too, close to 70 percent of those affected were in the 70-plus category. The impact could have been mitigated by better preparation and a war-like effort, but helplessness was visible all around. Delhi, which had recorded a peak of close to 9,000 cases on 11 November 2020, crossed the 30,000 mark daily on some days in April 2021.
In this situation, opposition parties discovered that the best way to deflect attention from poor management was to shift the focus to vaccination for people in the age group of 18-44 years. The demand was first made by Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray who on 5 April appealed to the PM to include people in the 25-44 age group. Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal had already written to the PM saying all adults should be vaccinated. Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel wanted this to be extended to 18 years and above. The Indian Medical Association also requested the PM for the same and suggested that public places be opened to those with vaccination certificates.
The Health Ministry responded by saying that the inoculation strategy was crafted to minimize deaths and protect the vulnerable. Union Health Secretary Ranjit Bhushan said, “The basic aim is to reduce death through vaccination. The other aim is to protect the healthcare system. If doctors, nurses and paramedics are infected then who would run the hospitals? These are the two objectives of vaccination in all countries.”
The vaccination objective was not based on demand but need, he stressed, while asking people not to trivialize the government’s decision. He said, “When we talk about opening vaccination to all, our focus reduces on controlling the pandemic. Did you hear about any country that vaccinates those younger than 45 years?”
Rahul Gandhi perhaps sensed an opportunity to score a political point and to create a wedge. He tweeted: “It’s ridiculous to debate needs and wants. Every Indian deserves the chance to a safe life.” Politics hijacked his sense of balance and he ignored the fact that since vaccines were in limited supply it was not possible to open it for all. Chairman of the National Expert Committee on Vaccine Administration VK Paul clarified that when the time would come, this would be open to all.
Rahul Gandhi and his supporting parties raised the issue of vaccine export. “While our nation is facing vaccine starvation, more than 6 crore (60 million) vaccines have been imported,” he said. Such intemperate criticisms can come only from a person who is completely irresponsible and does not bother about the interest of the nation. Vaccine export was a part of the commitment to the GAVI alliance that takes care of poor countries and is applicable to all vaccine manufacturers.
What Gandhi and other Opposition leaders have been saying would have made India a pariah in the international community. The SII alliance with AstraZeneca had clauses for the compulsory sale of vaccines. Considering that the SII depended on crucial raw material from the US to make this vaccine, should India have tried to default on the commitment? One just needs to recall the panic that had been caused when news about the US stopping supplies of raw material for Covishield came out. The Government of India had to intervene to smoothen the process. India’s goodwill earned through vaccine diplomacy has also compelled the world to come to India’s help when it got engulfed in a crisis. Indian vaccines helped the UN peacekeeping forces to continue their operations and also healthcare and frontline workers to work safely to save lives. No wonder world leaders expressed their debt to India for saving the lives of their citizens.
And this export of vaccines did not impact India’s own vaccination programme for the 45-plus category. It was merely a matter of prioritization since vaccines were not available anywhere and it takes time to ramp up production. The Union Government always said that the entire country needs to be vaccinated. To prevent the society from getting divided on vaccines and to enable faster vaccination, the Union Government on 19 April announced vaccination for the 18-44 years category from 1 May. The expert group had been mulling over this already. But it wanted to ensure a smooth supply line and uniform policy.
The government’s new liberalised vaccine policy allowed the two vaccine manufacturers to earmark 50 percent of their production exclusively for the Central government and 50 percent for state governments and the open market. Opposition-ruled states and Congress leaders had already demanded that states be given greater leverage in the procurement of vaccines and that they should not be held hostage by the Centre. Under the new system, states could lift their quota of vaccines based on their population directly from the Centre. They were also allowed to float tenders for procuring vaccines from other manufacturers.
The states that were asking for a liberalised procurement policy suddenly realised that they could not do much since buying it from outside at competitive bidding could be costly. All those who were talking of decentralization suddenly took a U-turn and started demanding that the Centre do the purchasing and give to state governments.
Was the Centre unaware of this? It was fully aware that such a policy could lead to chaos. After its meeting on 12 August 2020, the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for Covid-19 (NEGVAC) had specifically advised all the states “not to chart separate pathways of procurement”.
There was bound to be a vaccine shortage because of the technical issues involved. It needs a different kind of laboratory security and the government cannot risk the lives of people. Already it is taking steps to increase production and the country would soon have sufficient vaccines to give it to other age groups too. But rather than depending on the wisdom of the government, Rahul Gandhi and others started lobbying for other vaccine manufacturers. The Modi government was clear that any vaccine manufacturer must follow the process of bridge trial to test its suitability for India that has a different climatic condition. Some vaccine manufacturers opted out. The pride of a country and lives of people are more important than the ego of these manufacturers.
When the Opposition found that none of these were sticking and that the government was on firm wickets, it raised the issue of differential pricing. How can the Union Government buy the vaccine at the rate of Rs 150 per shot and ask states to buy the same at Rs 300 or private players at Rs 600? This was a way to help vaccine manufacturers make a profit. This argument will not hold ground when seen in the proper context.
The vaccine procured by the Centre is also going to the states and that too free of cost. Differential pricing is a way to encourage private players to keep some margin so that there is an incentive for them to invest in the expansion of capacity. This would also help other global players to come to India. If the government fixes the price for all, this would drive away others and also prohibit investment in research by pharma companies. Competition may bring the prices further down.
All states have declared that they would administer vaccines to people free of cost. The people are thus not impacted by the cost of the vaccine. Why can’t states therefore take the tabs? For example, the Delhi government, which spends crores on advertisements and self-promotion, can easily afford to buy the vaccines. When a BJP-ruled state like Uttar Pradesh, the most populated in the country, can do it, why can’t Maharashtra, the richest, and other states do it too?
Allowing private players would further ease down the burden on the respective states. Those who can afford and don’t mind paying can go to private hospitals and get their jabs. There are many in the country who do not want it for free and would rather go to a private hospital and get the shot of their liking. Why are states trying to stop them from doing this? Availability, not pricing, is the issue.
Federalism is a shared concept. The Centre is under pressure due to a massive investment need for infrastructure. This year alone over Rs 3 lakh crore was spent on health. Besides the emergency need due to Covid, such as extending help to states to strengthen their response system, the government is also setting up hospitals and reinforcing the healthcare system across the country.
Sharing the burden of vaccinating everyone is not a bad proposition. Rather than playing politics and getting elated in their own echo system, which is filled with anti-Modi venom, the Opposition should know that the PM, who worked in a focused way to give India its vaccine, would also ensure that everyone is vaccinated. His timeline is better than yours because he has planned much in advance. Just listen to him and follow him and remember that the virus is the enemy.
The writer is convener of the Media Relations Department of the BJP and represents the party as a spokesperson on TV debates. He has authored the book ‘Narendra Modi: The Game Changer’. The views expressed are personal.
TIME FOR INDIA TO WIN HEARTS AND MINDS OF NEPALESE PEOPLE
For the last one week the political scenario in Nepal has been taking an astonishing shape. The world may not consider it very significant but India is certainly deeply concerned with the ups and downs in the political mood of the Nepalese House of Representatives (Parliament). Historically, it is a fact that India and Nepal have the closest fraternity and it would be better to say that the two countries are identical twins with regard to their religio-cultural fabric.
The people of both countries have been enjoying psychological oneness. The religious faith system has been primarily observed in both countries on the central teaching and tenets of sanatan dharma. The physical boundaries did never take place in the mental spheres of the people in these two countries. In this way India and Nepal have been enjoying the national life in one vein. It happened so because of the prime location of Nepal between India and China. The people of Nepal en masse have a complete inclination towards India and never thought of Chinese affinity.
With the establishment of modern democracy in India, the democratic politicians of Nepal organised a movement for building a democratic Nepal on the pattern of the Indian parliamentary system. The most dependable leadership of this campaign in Nepal was guided by the leaders of the Nepali Congress, especially under the leadership of the Koiralas. Apart from Nepali Congress the other political parties based on the ideologies of liberal democracy and communism made their presence. The leaders of Nepali Congress launched their activities on the pattern of the activists of Socialist Congress (Socialist Party of India). But the so-called leftist leaders of Nepal were looking towards the Maoist ideology and claimed to be radical communists. The king’s dynasty in Nepal reluctantly preferred the Nepali Congress to communists. The collective mind of the people of Nepal also showed a greater inclination towards the Nepali Congress. After a long movement of over 50 years the Nepali Congress succeeded in persuading the political clusters to come on one platform and formulate a constitution with consensus to establish and run the democratic polity. The beginning of the last decade of the twentieth century could make it possible and thus a constitution consisting of a democratic ethos could take a concrete shape. The leaders of the Nepali Congress enjoyed the office of the Prime Minister through the electoral process.
Nepal shifted from dynasty rule to democratic polity on the pattern of the Indian parliamentary system. The people of Nepal were enjoying the privilege of a peaceful parliamentary system but the communists in Nepal, loyal to China, were trying to grab power. The peace-loving people of Nepal could not sense the unpatriotic gesture of the leftists in Nepal. In the recent past some unprecedented natural calamities and disasters shattered habitations in Nepal. India extended a helping hand with all sincerity but failed to show the posture of appreciable engagement. The clever Chinese government helped Nepal less than India but succeeded in establishing her enthusiasm to provide welfare measures in Nepal during the miseries. The communist clusters also took benefit of the situation and got an edge over India. The opponents of dynasty rule and democratic rule run by the Nepali Congress leaders took advantage by persuading the simple Nepalese people to appreciate the Chinese welfare craft.
In this way K.P. Sharma Oli capitalised on the favourable opportunities of the Nepali Congress’ weakening and designed interventions by China and took over the office of the Prime Minister in Nepal. For the first time, from 11 October 2015 to 3 August 2016 and again from 15 February 2018 to 10 May 2021, his status was turned to that of a caretaker prime minister after he lost a vote of confidence in the House of Representatives.
The opportunist and clever China won the goodwill of the simple and sane Nepalese people through Oli’s regime. The Oli government never took the welfare of Nepalese people on its agenda and only worked as a shadow government of the Chinese president. Throughout his regime Oli was engaged only in manipulating the mindsets of the people of Nepal towards the Chinese choice. Oli did not care for long, natural bonding between the peoples of Nepal and India. The people of Nepal and their representatives in different parties and even some nationalist communists in Oli’s block realised what China had its eye on.
Now the people of Nepal and their patriotic representatives have exposed the selfish loyalty of Oli to China. The fraternal bonding between India and Nepal was being harmed by him, bringing great change in the minds and moods of people and their representatives towards Oli and China. It seems that the combined blessings of god Pashupath Nath and god Vishwanath have saved Nepal from cruel Chinese paws. The extreme state of disruption and depression being faced by Nepalese people during Oli’s regime compelled them and their representatives to reject Oli and finally, on 10 May 2021, Oli lost his majority in the House of Representatives.
Though Oli has reappointed as the PM after the Opposition failed to secure majority seats in Parliament to form a new government, a new dawn has become visible which bears plenty of opportunities for the people of Nepal, their development, their autonomy and their religio-cultural happiness. Apart from immense favourable moments for Nepal, a ripe moment has come for the people and power of today’s India too. India must have an agenda of generating fresh faith in the minds of the Nepalese people and power. The new political upsurge in Nepal must be capitalised upon by India and ensure as top priority that India is the true elder of Nepalese people and sovereignty.
Let us celebrate this upsurge of political purification in Nepal unitedly.
FOSTERING ACADEMIC COMPETITION IN THE UNIVERSITY SYSTEM
Healthy competition among universities can raise the bar of higher education in India significantly. But for that to happen, context-specific and evidence-based strategies for institutionalising and funding interdisciplinary research, continuous professional development of faculty members, and a thriving university-industry interface must be ensured.
It is a desirable expectation that the majority of our universities should continue to strive to achieve excellence in teaching and learning, in discovery and invention, and in extension and engagement with social concerns. There is an urgent need to promote the culture of healthy academic competition amongst our universities. Their competitive spirit should stem from a positive mindset. They should make concerted efforts to win in different kinds of academic competitions, but if someone else raises the bar of academic excellence higher than them they should feel equally good, if not more. The academic competition should not be about the end result of winning, but to have a deeper understanding about the subject and showing the way forward in that particular domain to others as well.
Academic excellence is of paramount significance because it is linked with those outcomes of teaching and learning and research and innovations that are valued the most. These goals require, among others, due emphasis on interdisciplinary research, university-industry interface and continuing professional development of faculty, as the overall success of a university depends upon the amount and quality of its research and the quality of its faculty and students. These are some of the pressing issues that the university system was expected to resolve but it seems to have no end in sight. Although efforts have been made to put in place a system of professional development of faculty, far too little has been done insofar as institutionalisation of interdisciplinary research and university-industry interface are concerned.
Interdisciplinary research perspectives are the cornerstone of present-day research and it must take roots in the culture of our university system where individual departments largely operate as islands without connectivity to others. The present system requires interdisciplinary research as creation of new knowledge entails syntheses of ideas and characteristics from across different disciplines. In fact, it has become a practical necessity since new knowledge lies at the intersections of different disciplines. This is the time when advancement of knowledge has become one of the inevitabilities of a progressive and modern society. Advancement of knowledge is as important in the life of a university as the transmission and certification of knowledge. It is needless to say that it requires a larger pool of scientists and increased budgetary allocations over a protracted period.
Though the pool of Indian scientists has increased a little in the last couple of years, the number of researchers per million population, as of 2018, is far fewer (216) than China (1,307), America (4,412), Russia (2,784), England (4,603), Germany ( 5,212) and France (4,715). It is much worse than numbers in even smaller countries like Sweden (7,536), Norway (6,467), Netherland (5,605) and New Zealand (5,530). Nonetheless, India has emerged as the world’s third-largest contributor of scientific publications (135,788) in peer-reviewed journals as of 2018, with China being the first (528,263) and America the second (422,808). What is particularly noteworthy about this is that our expenditure on research and development in terms of percentage of GDP is far too less (0.9%) than both China (2.1%) and America (2.7%). There are countries which are spending even more than China and America like Israel (4.9%), Sweden (3.2%) and Germany (2.9%).
Apart from much larger research grants to universities, there is also a need to identify and address other basic issues which can promote the culture of interdisciplinary research in our university system. There is a lot to learn from how such a culture has been created in some other countries and how it could be scaled in our university system after its appropriate experimentation in some of our leading universities. Since interdisciplinary research requires funding at a large scale, and there is a scarcity of resources, it obviously requires mobilisation of resources through other means of financing. It is, therefore, necessary to understand how leading universities of the world mobilise their funding and how that model can be replicated in the country. In addition, it would also be desirable to examine how the faculty in those universities are able to deliver and meet the timelines of the funding agencies?
It is extremely important to develop and scale centres of interdisciplinary research across universities. There is an urgent need to have a concrete action plan. But we need to realize that despite interdisciplinary research being a buzzword, most seem to be utterly clueless about what they could do and how to go about it. There is a need to identify a group of eminent researchers from different domains of knowledge who can study the dynamics of interdisciplinary research and prepare a roadmap for Indian universities to make it happen.
The second important aspect of quality higher education which is as important as the earlier one is the university-industry interface. After it proved to be a hugely successful endeavour in western universities, it spread its wings across some universities in the east. But somehow it remained confined only to those premier institutions which had consciously developed the capacity to solve the problems of the industry, helped them increase their productivity, guided them to make gainful investments and supplied them with a skilled workforce. Despite the constant exhortation and encouragement by various commissions and committees, most universities could not get culturally tuned to operationalise a university-industry interface or develop confidence in meeting timelines. In fact, most of them were lacking in foresight and had been beset with diffidence and indecisiveness. Consequently, they could not arouse confidence and enthusiasm in the industry.
The university system in most leading countries mobilises its funding largely from the industry. Their research and development activities are mostly dependent upon the interface between the university and the industry. The funding from the industry sustains the research support needed by the university and in turn it helps the industry to utilise the outcome of the research for application. This aspect is not as dominant in the functioning of our universities as in some of the leading universities abroad, since they sustain largely on internal funding through research grants.
There may be different levels of strategy that can determine the direction and scope of the university-industry interface over the long term. First, universities should ascertain requirements of the industry by associating industry leaders and integrating industry-linked areas in their curriculum. Second, they should prioritize their Ph.D. as well as other research programs for finding solutions to industry-related problems. Third, the industry should absorb university graduates and after providing them a certain orientation, send them back to the university on a sponsorship basis for Ph.D. programs. Fourth, the government and industry should jointly support the university to upgrade its research facilities. Fifth, the industry should invest in establishing their labs and workshops on the campus of the university for mutual benefit. Sixth, the industry should identify areas of their interests and commission research projects to the university. Lastly, the university should study how this interface has been working well in some of our premier institutions. In addition, a group of university academics can undertake a detailed study of how this works in some leading universities of the east and the west and bring back experiences which can enhance the university-industry interface in the country and thus lay a solid foundation for R&D focus in university research.
None would perhaps dispute the contention that in the university system it is the teacher who, besides being qualified, competent and caring, has to be extremely dynamic and collaborative without which she would not be able to give an interdisciplinary orientation to research or ensure a university-industry interface. It could be possible only when the teacher continually keeps herself abreast of the latest developments in the subject and changing requirements of the industry. Thus a vibrant university system needs to ensure that every member of the faculty is able to demonstrate the best of his or her inherent potential for the good of education and the society. And it is for this reason that there has to be an inbuilt provision for continuous professional development of academic faculty, commensurate with the changing and constantly emerging concerns in all domains of human learning.
The UGC took the initiative for continuing professional development of university teachers through the establishment of as many as 66 Academic Staff Colleges (ASCs) in selected universities in the country. The ASCs were expected to be vibrant centres to provide opportunities to the faculty for their professional and career development. They were mandated to organise orientation and refresher programs in different areas of study, covering every teacher at least once in three to five years. They seem to have realised a little insofar as an orientation program is concerned but much more remains to be accomplished insofar as the content enrichment part is concerned.
Regrettably, the ASCs seemed to have drifted away from their primary goal and slipped into the role of fulfilling the requirements for career advancement. It was corroborated by the Review Committee (2010), which ound out that just a quarter of the ASCs came close to their charter. Though they have now been renamed as Human Resource Development Centres (HRDCs), this mere change in their nomenclature has not yielded any desirable results. The experience, thus far, points out that the operational design of the HRDCs calls for serious introspection, if the needed objectives of continuing professional development of teachers is to be seriously realised.
In this connection, a small group of senior faculty from across universities may be constituted to study how the faculty development initiatives are operationalised in some leading countries? What institutional structures have been created for this purpose? What is their working design? How often does a member of the faculty undergo professional development? Is it voluntary on the part of the individual faculty or is the concept institutionalized? Who pays for this activity? Is undergoing training linked with career promotion? What is the profile of institutions offering such programs? Such an exercise is extremely necessary to revitalize the faculty development program and thus should be undertaken sooner rather than later.
Academia bears a heavy responsibility for evolving context-specific and evidence-based strategies for the institutionalisation of interdisciplinary research, university-industry interface and continuous professional development of faculty along with resource requirements. This exercise will have a vast amount of beneficial interests besides fostering healthy academic competition amongst the universities and that is what is going to be a spur for modernisation. It would provide first-hand knowledge of facts and requirements which could be used to put up the case with full academic justification to the competent authority. It would be hard to become a significant global competitor in higher education if such inescapable reforms were brushed aside.
The author is former Chairman, UGC. The views expressed are personal.
THIS IS NOT A MODI HEALTH CRISIS, THIS IS AN INDIA HEALTH CRISIS
In a democracy, it is not incumbent on citizens to find favour or merit in its elected representatives. They have the right to disagree, dislike or even have disdain against their political leaders for legitimate or frivolous reasons.
So, if for some reason — political, social, or for a plain dumb notion of herd mentality — you dislike the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, that is your freedom to exercise. But your dislike or stronger feelings of hate for Modi or the BJP-led government in a global health crisis impacting our nation is misplaced.
The Covid-19 pandemic is not a “Modi” health crisis – it is an India health crisis. Modi is the Prime Minister of India today, he may or may not be the Prime Minister of India tomorrow, but if we fail to act as one nation today, we might not have a nation at all tomorrow.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a serious health crisis. We need to work collectively as one nation and one people to tide over these hard times our country is experiencing. Lives are being lost every day.
This is not about Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi or Arvind Kejriwal or Uddhav Thackeray or Mamata Banerjee or MK Stalin or Yogi Adityanath. This is about thousands of Indians suffering due to the pandemic. This about thousands of lives being lost daily. This is about a damning and dangerous virus we know so little about and its changing mutation making the prevalent health crisis more severe by the day.
This is not about whether the Centre is acting more responsibly than the state governments, or one state government has managed to deal with the health crisis promisingly and is beating the curve. This is about citizens who are gasping for breath, wanting to live, and hoping that the Centre or State has done its job in ensuring that we have the requisite health infrastructure to deal with the pandemic.
This not about Uddhav Thackeray or Arvind Kejriwal saving Maharashtra or Delhi better than Narendra Modi, nor is it about Goa’s Health Minister Vishwajit Rane playing out a subtle media exercise to show he is more competent than the Goa Chief Minister Dr Pramod Sawant. This is also not about Chief Ministers or Health Ministers walking in hospitals followed by their media entourage clicking pictures for their media or social media campaigns. Most importantly, this crisis is not about which social media IT cell got which hashtag to trend more than the other IT cell. This is about life. The life of our people.
People want to live. The pain and trauma are heart-wrenching and disturbing. I do not think a political leader with an ounce of humanity will ever resort to playing dirty politics over the lives of our people but unfortunately, our nation manages to produce such rectums that think only about the political opportunities at hand and not about the welfare of the people or the nation.
Every Indian we save from the virus is one less potential carrier of the virus across a community, state, or our entire nation. We are a nation of travellers and our people travel around the country, therefore, this cannot be about saving your own state, this should be about saving our country. But we must while keeping a focus on the macro strategies in dealing with this crisis as a nation, we must ensure that we manage this health crisis at a micro level, at an individual level, and family level too.
While the nation is rife with stories of people rising to the occasion to fight this pandemic for other people, there some stories that have exposed the complete inhumanity that also exists. Making a profit over the desperation of people in a health crisis is pathetic and downright diabolic. But people resort to it, not thinking for a moment that people with immense wealth also cannot escape the wrath of the coronavirus if it decides to ensure that life is sucked out of you. Today you are profiting on someone’s misery, tomorrow someone will profit from your misery.
This is the time for the people of India to rise up against an enemy that we do not fully understand, therefore it is important for us to stick together because we know each other and we can trust each other. Every Indian in this war against the coronavirus is a soldier and as a soldier, we must fight this pandemic.
This pandemic was unleashed around to world to cripple our socio-economic existence by hitting us and other countries at the root of our strength — our people. The greatest wealth of any nation is its citizens and their health. If there are no people, there will be no citizens. This is not the time for blame-game but the time to play the game of defeating the Covid-19 pandemic.
Some nations want us to fail. Some nations want us to continue to remain like a third-world nation. Most importantly, some nations want our people to suffer so that they can gain from a change of political regime. As Indians, we must not let the lives of our people become pawns in the hands of political opportunists waiting for Prime Minister Modi to fail or for other Chief Ministers to fail so that India fails. If the state fails, the Centre fails. If the Centre fails, India fails. And we cannot let India fail.
I believe we can beat this virus and win this war against Covid-19 but we have to do it as one India. Therefore, it is my appeal to political leaders, their IT cells, their spokespersons, and their supporters, there is a time to play politics. However, this is not that time. This is the time to look at this crisis as an India health crisis and not the Modi health crisis.
Remember there is no balm to calm the heart of a person that has lost a loved one unexpectedly.
The author is founder & editor-in-chief at GoaChronicle.com.
AMITABH’S DONATION TO GURDWARA PROJECTS IGNITES SIKH POLITICS
Cine superstar Amitabh Bachchan’s declaration that he donated Rs 12 crore towards Covid-related projects initiated in two prominent gurdwaras of the capital has snowballed into a major controversy that could have wide-ranging ramifications for Punjab in general, and Sikh politics in Delhi in particular.
Two prominent leaders, both former presidents of the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, Paramjit Singh Sarna and Manjit Singh G.K. have urged the Akal Takht to take strict action against the current chief, Manjinder Singh Sirsa, for “accepting blood money” from an actor who was extremely close to Rajiv Gandhi when the Sikh genocide took place in 1984 and is perceived to be the part of the “khoon ka badla khoon” gang.
Sirsa had apparently accepted money from the cine star for a project in the Gurdwara Bangla Sahab last year and for a new Covid facility at Gurdwara Rakabganj this year. The supreme irony is that the outgoing chief had himself in 2017 demanded that Amitabh should clear his name for his alleged involvement in the anti-Sikh riots after he had been named by some of the victims.
Senior Akali leader and former Lok Sabha MP Simranjit Singh Mann has also demanded strict action against Sirsa and others, who are close to the Badals, for concealing facts from his executive and trying to cover up the matter. The revelation of money being donated came from the actor himself, who stated on a social platform how he had contributed to the noble cause. The matter has become a major point of discussion in the ongoing gurdwara politics and could impact the final outcome.
Manjit Singh G.K. said that a complaint against Amitabh’s involvement was filed before the Akal Takht by Jagdish Kaur and others who were responsible in sending former Congress MP Sajjan Kumar to jail. Paramjit Singh Sarna demanded that Akat Takht Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh should order the immediate expulsion of Sirsa for desecrating gurdwara properties with blood money, failing which he should resign. Sarna is a veteran of Sikh politics and was extremely close to former SGPC Chief Gurcharan Singh Tohra. Manjit Singh is the son of late DSGPC president Jathedar Santokh Singh, who, till his assassination in 1981, enjoyed cordial relations with Indira Gandhi. In fact, after Operation Blue Star, senior Congress leader Buta Singh had taken Manjit to meet Rajiv Gandhi who wanted him to help in the reconstruction of the Akal Takht. Only 26 years old at that time, Manjit had declined, stating that the Sikhs would never endorse this action.
The Sarnas are very influential in Sikh circles and this attack on Amitabh has found a lot of support at every level. The Sikhs have resolved that the Rs 12 crores given by Amitabh through donation to an individual was unacceptable and would be returned and “the tainted money’’ cannot be used for any gurdwara projects. Sirsa finds himself on the wrong foot and would be looking for support from the Badals, who themselves are in the eye of a political storm concerning the sacrilege incidents of 2015. It is evident that Amitabh’s effort to warm his way into Sikh hearts by charity has boomeranged. It is evident that the Sikhs would not settle for this kind of appeasement.
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