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LOOKING BACK AT AN APOCALYPTIC YEAR

2020 will go down in history as a year of catastrophes. But as the world moves towards a new year, it must learn from its mistakes and march towards greater cooperation, resilient supply chains, improved healthcare and a promise to reduce inequalities.

Rajesh Mehta & Badri Narayanan Gopalakrishnan

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No matter how one may summarise 2020 exactly, it has been a unique, significant and path-breaking year. It may be called a year of surprises, a year of doom, or a year when nature reminded us of many things which humans had forgotten over centuries of technological progress.

This year has had a profound impact on everything, ranging from geopolitics and the global economy to technology, healthcare and climate change. Catastrophic events happened simultaneously, with the surge of Covid-19, the collapse of economies across the world, the near-death of multilateral institutions, the accelerating climate crisis, rising inter-cultural and inter-racial tensions, a global trend of hyper-nationalism and inequalities—all of which may be registered in history as keywords to describe this year.

Though globalisation has been on the decline, the Covid crisis has taught us the importance of nations working together. This has also been a year for remote working, artificial intelligence, e-commerce and domestic manufacturing. This was a year when biotechnology, information technology (IT) and nanotechnology competed with each other but also complemented each other.

Such a phenomenal mix of developments is aptly captured in this quote provided to us by esteemed industry leader Ravi Venkatesan: “Covid eclipsed everything else this year. It accelerated important trends like digitalisation of the economy, the move to local and the reversal of globalisation. It held the mirror up to humanity, highlighting the consequences of extreme inequality and our unsustainable ways. It has woken the world up to the un-peaceful rise of China. It has highlighted stark differences in the leadership of countries. Hopefully, in 2021, we will begin to deal with some of these issues.”

Immense geopolitical changes happened this year, starting from the increasing isolation of China due to the dubious origins of Covid-19 as well as the increasing realization by several countries about the fragility of global value chains in general, which are intricately led by China. Resilience against shocks in value chains has become a new priority, and several countries have begun to strengthen their domestic value chains and recalibrate their trading and strategic partners. In particular, this year has led to a renewed focus on the Quad, including more countries in the group. These geopolitical concerns have also led partly to a sort of de-globalisation and weakening of multilateral institutions. However, with the change in the US administration, there may be renewed hopes for reversing this trend in favour of the previous wave of strong global coordination and cooperation, which is the need of the day in light of Covid-19, vaccines and economic recovery.

It has also been a year for the introverts thanks to the lockdowns and remote working becoming the new normal. A global talent pool became accessible with no locational barriers. 2020 also ushered in an era where Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet and many other such cloud meeting platforms became household names. As a result, education has become progressively and remotely deliverable to students by teachers who may be miles away from them. All this has increased productivity, but also undermined the ‘human’ quotient in it. Maybe that is why the importance of human resources (HR) as a key function of the corporates has evolved this year.

Travel across the world fell to a record low due to the pandemic, not to mention the finances of hotels, restaurants and tourism in general. While a rebound of tourism activities is expected in due course, innovative ways of getting together this year have kept social ties intact and reduced emissions temporarily.

Small and medium enterprises have also suffered enormous losses across the world, and so have the people rely on these enterprises and have been left with little or no safety nets. Migrants across the world were stranded, jobless and, in many cases, hungry and desperate to earn some money. At the same time, some of these enterprises have been continuously innovating and, instead of playing the victim card, evolving themselves to find solutions as part of the recovery process. For example, many auto industry firms have turned themselves to manufacturing ventilators, while textile and apparel companies have turned to mask and PPE manufacturing. In this context, countries across the world have also played around with trade policies and measures, either restricting or promoting trade in medical supplies. Trade promotion has served to facilitate facing this crisis effectively, while placing restrictions on goods have proved to be detrimental in solving the pressing issues of Covid-19.

The agricultural sector has stayed safe overall, but supply chain challenges have come out in the open, affecting the undisrupted supply arriving at the hands of the consumers. However, new technologies in the supply chain have quickly evolved this year to help farmers and other food producers in bridging these gaps. Even in the manufacturing sector, there has been an accelerated phase of digitalisation, with a proliferation of new technologies. Robotics, automation, AI, data science and other new age technologies have been used effectively to facilitate remote working and social distancing in the industry. This was also an unexpected ushering in of Industry 4.0 across the world. This also implies major changes in comparative advantage as the ‘cheap labour’ advantage may longer hold well. Nevertheless, the quick emergence of disruptive technologies is what 2021 will take forward.

In the context of all these rapid technological changes, Prof Sean Randolph’s quote is quite relevant: “The pandemic has increased our reliance on technology and accelerated digitalization. The biggest impacts will be in remote learning, remote management, and digital medicine, but IoT and applications such as autonomous driving will advance as well. AI, as an enabler of innovation crossing many industries, will be central. Biotech’s 2020 surge, supported by advances in IT, will also continue. Despite the pandemic’s negative effects on the economy, venture investment has remained strong and will play a critical role funding these shifts in 2021.”

2020 has also been a year for nursing and healthcare workers. All of us owe our deepest gratitude to millions of them across the world for saving lives while risking—and in many cases, losing—their own. More importantly, they have worked so efficiently within the constraints of infrastructure (enough has been said about the lack of hospital beds and ventilators across the world) and in the absence of any proven medication or cure for the pandemic. No words are enough to thank them. At the same time, we have another amazing achievement in sight—the imminent release of vaccines to the public across the world, reiterating the rigour, speed and diligence of our scientists, who have worked tirelessly to get a few choices of vaccines usable, within the record time of less than a year. This is a very positive note with which we can start 2021.

Meanwhile, climate change refuters and questioners of the science underlying global warming have faced a difficult time this year! There have been a record number of wildfires in Australia and the US, a proliferation of natural disasters across the globe, and the year has been one of the warmest in recent history. In this context, we faced a double whammy during this challenging year. Firstly, we have seen the severe effects of ongoing climate change and, secondly, the economic crisis has led to the reversal or cancellation of several investments in climate change mitigation and adaptation across the world. Climate finance has been a major victim this year, despite hopes that the Green New Deal, discussed by several governments and international organisations, can boost the economy and help it recover from scratch, by reorienting technologies to be greener. This is yet another aspect that stands on global coordination, and the US rejoining the Paris Accord is a welcome step in this direction.

India has been no exception to all the trends mentioned so far. The year began with enthusiasm and with the ambition of marching towards a $5 trillion economy in the near future. But the nation also witnessed widespread protests and controversies about issues like the CAA and Kashmir. However, the Covid situation which emerged in March turned priorities around. We began on a hopeful note as India did not see many fatalities or a wide spread of the infection in the initial weeks, thanks to the strict nationwide lockdown. Many rejoiced due to the reduction in pollution, with the air becoming clear enough to catch a glimpse of the Himalayas from Punjab! However, since then we have also seen numerous tragedies, with the economy contracting at a record level in any quarter, a historical level of hardships faced by migrants walking from major cities back to their villages and hometowns, a widespread lack of jobs, and India reaching the second spot in the global index of Covid cases and fatalities.

On the economic front this year, we have seen the articulation of Aatmanirbhar Bharat, a wide range of measures to boost the economy and help it recover, a slew of reforms in labour and agriculture (many of which are being protested against now) and some relocation of investments away from China and partly towards India, though many of them are moving to Southeast Asian countries. Therefore, we may be heading towards an era of increased self reliance while also plugging into global value chains through the investments pouring in. There are still several challenges, such as India’s continued hesitation to join major trade blocs such as RCEP, an increased resistance to reforms despite a strong mandate by the government and intent to pursue reforms and lack of resurgence in demand and employment through the recovery, implying more fiscal and other stimulus and interventions in the short term by the government. Going forward, we will have to stay confident that these challenges will be faced effectively and we will be able to tide past the crisis.

Greater global coordination, improved healthcare systems that are efficient and effective, resilient global supply chains, reduced inequality and in short, a renewed impetus on sustainable development and prosperity, are the strategies that may reflect the hope of billions of people across the world, including in India, for 2021. We end this article on a positive quote from NITI Aayog Vice Chairman Rajiv Kumar: “The Indian economy will rebound in 2021 on the strength of significant number of major structural reforms implemented by the Central Government during the lockdown forced by the Covid-19 pandemic. These reforms were undertaken following the Prime Minister’s call for converting the crisis into an opportunity for putting the Indian economy on a sustained higher growth trajectory. India will reach its rate of growth of potential output by FY 23 and then stay on track.”

Rajesh Mehta is the president (India) of the Indo-Scandic Council and a leading international consultant, entrepreneur and columnist. Dr Badri Narayanan Gopalakrishnan is a leading international economist and consultant.

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Innovation is spurred when there is a challenge: Vikram Khurana

In an exclusive conversation with NewsX for its special series NewsX India A-List, Vikram Khurana, Chairman of the Toronto Business Development Centre spoke about how they supported India’s fight with the Covid-19 pandemic, their Start-up Visa Programme and more.

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As India is fighting the biggest enemy the world has seen so far, the global community is doing its part vehemently. The Toronto Business Development Centre (TBDC) supported India’s fight with the Covid-19 pandemic by providing 5000 ventilators and other medical supplies. In an exclusive conversation with NewsX for its special series NewsX India A-List, Vikram Khurana, Chairman of the Toronto Business Development Centre spoke about their beneficial initiative and shared his insights with us.

Talking about the initiative, Khurana said, “These ventilators have been donated kindly by the province of Ontario and the province of Saskatchewan. The ventilators are made to survive on their own. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of global relations among the nations. The virus doesn’t recognise any borders; it is evident that it moves freely, in the air. We cannot build any borders around this pandemic unless we’re able to build walls in the air.”

He explained about the organisation that facilitated the supply of ventilators in collaboration with Air Canada. TBDC is the oldest business incubator in Canada that support entrepreneurs with all their needs. While talking about giving rise to 9 Unicorns, Khurana said, “Our current focus is on India. We think that there is a great amount of innovation and start-ups coming from India.”

He also threw light on their Start-up Visa Programme, which is extremely helpful for young and new entrepreneurs. Khurana continued, “While there is a great discussion on brain drain, there is not as much discussion on business expansion. Start-ups that grow internationally become multi-national. To facilitate this, Canada started the Start-up Visa in 2013. It essentially allows entrepreneurs to move with their families, be closer to their markets, and access technology and sources easily. Currently, about 2500 entrepreneurs from all over the world migrate to Canada under this program.”

“Innovation does not go to sleep, and innovation is spurred when there is a challenge,” he said when asked about some innovations he saw during the pandemic by Indians. Khurana pointed out that one of the most considerable collateral damage of Covid-19 has been on seniors citizens. Khurana applauded several start-ups helping to solve the problem faced by senior citizens and start-ups to find vaccine sites by diverting and balancing traffic among those vaccine sites. He mentioned the fact that most of the time, entrepreneurs executed these initiatives without concern of making money which is a very noble way of entrepreneurs giving back to society.

Khurana talked about the collaboration with Air Canada that made this initiative a success. “Many people of the crew were Indians living in Canada for a while and have roots in India like Captain Rash Pal who piloted the aircraft that carried those ventilators along with many other supplies with great pride. Every member of the team took great pride and went above and beyond to make this happen,” he said.

Talking about the world being caught flat-footed by the virus, Khurana said, “There are a lot of lessons learned on the fly”. He concluded the conversation by talking about having a front window view of great ideas coming from all around and the dominance of AI, data modelling, and machine learning in the area of innovation.

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Self-executing crypto contracts: The advent of smart law

Relying on a distributed consensus model, smart contracts have the DNA of blockchains and run on platforms similar to cryptocurrencies. These technology-enabled innovations in law are being watched closely as they make contracts more reliable, simultaneously making it difficult to evade execution.

Brijesh Singh and Khushbu Jain

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Smart contracts enable the execution of trustworthy transactions and agreements between anonymous parties and without the need for a legal system. Smart Contracts will bring in changes, not as fast as some predict, but will surely change the way we are used to working, as per Kai Schiller, author of the German blog blockchainwelt.de.

You would have heard of blockchains. In our last two articles, we spoke about Non-fungible Tokens and Ransomware attacks, this one is the third in the series concerning blockchains. Apart from cryptocurrencies and NFTs, there is a much more serious and beneficial application of this technology, namely smart contracts.

SMART CONTRACTS VS (TRADITIONAL) CONTRACTS

We are aware as to what entails a traditional legal contract — a document that details an agreement that parties execute with an expectation of being legally binding with a structure that includes offer, acceptance, consideration, and date with the parties signature. The endgame is Judicial Enforcement. Whereas, smart contracts bypass and ignore the legal mode and judicial enforcement is not their endgame. In contrast, smart contracts are computer programs filled with clauses “if/then” laying out every eventuality and obligation. These computer programs, once created and formally accepted by both parties, can be self-enforcing, running in the cloud. Continuous monitoring of key performance metrics determines when one of the “if/then” clauses suddenly switches from false to true, triggering automatic enforcement. Through auto-enforcement, smart contracts can add efficiencies for many kinds of agreements. This includes rental, intellectual property, financing, shipping, and manufacturing contracts.

First proposed in the 1990s by Nick Szabo, the concept of smart contract entails contract clauses written in computer programs. These are to be automatically executed as and when predefined conditions are met. Smart contracts are stored, replicated, and updated in distributed blockchains with logic consisting of transaction status. The integration of blockchain technology with smart contracts has made the dream of a “peer-to-peer market” come true.

LEGAL STATUS

For an enforceable legally binding contract, the common law requires four elements to be present: (a) offer; (b) acceptance; (c) consideration and (d) intentions to create legal relations. The law takes a wider approach and will enforce any promise in whatever form it is in, if the above criteria are met and if there are no vitiating factors such as misrepresentation or duress to taint the contract. Practically a contract concludes upon the agreement of a future contractual performance, which then generates rights and obligations for all parties.

The lingering question of whether smart contracts carry the same legal validity as traditional contracts warrant a definitive and authoritative answer, instead, it instigated a never-ending debate amongst academics and practitioners.

TECH, FUNCTIONALITY

Imagine a self-executing contract that digitally enforces, verifies, and facilitates the performance or negotiation of a contract. Blockchain technology and its distributed nature are used to foster transaction credibility between contracting parties without the necessity of third parties as exhibited in regular contracts.

There are several steps involved in a blockchain-based smart beginning with agreement identification, defining setting conditions, scripting the business logic, encryption with blockchain, execution and processing on event triggers, and finally updating the network status.

Thus contractual performance obligations are memorialised in code using a strict and formal programming language, then they are executed by members of a blockchain-based network. Once a smart contract is triggered via a transaction by one of the parties, the smart contract itself acts as the parties’ agent that is deputised to assist the parties with their arrangement.

The code of the smart contract is stored on each miner’s computer and each smart contract is assigned a blockchain-based address. Parties can initiate a smart contract by sending digitally signed “transactions” to the smart contract’s address. The transactional record is stored on the blockchain, the saved record then triggers the smart contract’s execution. Owing to the consensus-based distributed architecture the smart contract’s code is run by all miners supporting the network simultaneously. The transaction in this case is a record that includes the variables necessary for the code to run, along with a digital signature of the sending party.

ERROR IN CODE — RISK EXPOSURE:

Smart contracts also suffer from material shortcomings. Any vulnerability or even an error in the code may bring consequences. And one such example is when the DAO raised more than $150 million, an individual discovered a loophole in the code and diverted almost $70 million worth of ether and it was observed that the hacker did not maliciously hack the code, but rather used the terms of the existing smart contracts to accomplish something others later found objectionable, i.e. the diversion of their money. Thus, it is evident that the systemic risks exposed by the DAO hack have fuelled the argument that raises several concerns about the functionality of smart contracts. Broadly speaking — the hack reveals that the foundational characteristics which make smart contracts attractive ought to be questioned.

RELATION WITH CRYPTOCURRENCY

Centralised form of transactions may have a single point of failure that has been solved by using blockchain technology, which provides a peer-to-peer transaction without the need of a third party. The Bitcoin decentralised cryptocurrency, released in 2009, has generated great interest in blockchain technology applications. The blockchain technology that used to be applied only for bitcoin peer-to-peer transactions has been also usable for other purposes, such as smart contracts.

In the last few years, there has been significant development in technology related to blockchain-based smart contracts that have been accumulating over the years. It ranges from various platforms that facilitate blockchain-based smart contracts, applications that utilise smart contracts and tools in developing blockchain-based smart contract applications.

While a cryptocurrency is used as a secure medium of exchange due to the use of strong cryptography for ensuring verifiability of asset transfer, control of unit creation and even evasion of regulations as well as oversight by governments across the world, smart contracts are self-executing contracts that utilise blockchain technology to digitally enforce, verify, or facilitate the performance or negotiation of a contract.

COSTS AND ADVANTAGES

Smart contracts provides for many benefits as compared to the traditional contracts: (a) Speed as smart contracts use software code that automates tasks that are typically accomplished manually; (b) Enhanced Accuracy as due to automated transactions the probability of manual error is reduced; (c) Cost-Effective as less human intervention, fewer intermediaries and thus less cost: (d)Auto-enforcement as Smart contracts are unique in their enforceability since these clauses are embedded in the applicable software itself; (e) Reducing risks. Smart contracts cannot be arbitrarily altered once they are issued due to the immutability of blockchains. All the transactions stored and replicated are traceable and auditable.

Despite the advantages mentioned hereinabove, the enforceability of more subjective obligations such as ensuring commercially reasonable efforts is affected by the inherently digital nature of smart contracts.  

SMART CONTRACT AND ONLINE DISPUTE RESOLUTION

The dispute arising out of smart contract demand for non-judicial remedy systems that are cross-jurisdictional, extra-legal, and efficient hence the smart Developers and Entrepreneurs are swiftly moving to create solutions for resolving smart contract disputes and accordingly reliance over online dispute resolution systems in the blockchain. Generally, Online Dispute Resolution models have been online arbitration, AI-powered resolutions, and crowd-sourced dispute resolution. It is no surprise, especially given this history of resorting to extra-legal resolutions, that developers have turned to online arbitration for resolving blockchain disputes. 

Relying on a distributed consensus model, smart contracts have the DNA of Blockchains and run on platforms similar to cryptocurrencies. These technology-enabled innovations in law are being watched closely as they make contracts more reliable simultaneously making it difficult to evade execution.

The ‘autonomous’ nature of these contracts does not require a third party to evaluate execution and even obviates the need to engage lawyers and experts to estimate execution in a granular fashion.

Despite obvious advantages, blockchain-based technologies have not shown great success as a business model. There are serious concerns about the non-green nature of computing needed to run the blockchains and some security issues which have cropped up despite the self-healing nature of blockchain nodes.

Ethereum has been an excellent example of a platform based on blockchains for smart contracts and the evolution of standards as well as tools for developing applications and utilities will pave the way for wider acceptance of these innovations. On the whole, the world is watching these innovations with caution filled with expectations.

Brijesh Singh, IPS, is an author and IG Maharashtra. Khushbu Jain is an advocate practising before the Supreme Court and a founding partner of law firm Ark Legal. They can be contacted on Twitter: @brijeshbsingh and @advocatekhushbu. The views expressed are personal.

Ethereum has been an excellent example of a platform based on blockchains for smart contracts and the evolution of standards as well as tools for developing applications and utilities will pave the way for wider acceptance of these innovations.

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We take pride in trying our best to save lives: Marina Shaikh & Nandini Singh Jhabua

Marina Shaikh and Nandini Singh Jhabua from The Rising World Foundation recently joined NewsX on its special series NewsX India A-List to share how they helped thousands of people across India during the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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The Rising World Foundation (RWF) is a not-for-profit charitable organisation dedicated to relieving the impact of Covid-19 on India’s most vulnerable communities. Marina Shaikh, Founder of The Rising World Foundation, and Nandini Singh Jhabua, Communications Director of The Rising World Foundation recently joined NewsX for its special series NewsX India A-List to speak on how they helped thousands of people across India during the second wave of the pandemic.

Marina, an experienced social organiser and philanthropist with international experience began the conversation and said, “I was in Brussels since 2017 when I found this organisation and it was my work with the international development committee in the European Parliament that gave me much understanding of what kind of work I wanted to do basically. I did a lot of public service projects and worked a lot with the international government. But I also realised that I wanted to come back and serve the people of my own country and hence The Rising World Foundation was formed.”

Nandini threw light on their collaboration and said, “Marina and I belong to Madhya Pradesh, our families are two generation’s friends and we grew up together. We both always liked community service as children. I remember we used to always plan that we’re going to do something and serve a community in a way that we wanted to, especially to the needy, to the marginalised community.”

Through her work with Marina and the RWF, Nandini hopes to combine her two greatest passions: her family’s connection to tribal art forms and giving back to the community. Talking about how the foundation operated and helped the community at large, Marina said, “The rural is our target. Rural communities in Madhya Pradesh is what we have been targeting and recently we have started with a fundraiser for oxygen supplies in Madhya Pradesh.”

“We have been working on that lately, as we got a lot of calls from a lot of villages that we have been working in for the past whole year. We started a fundraiser with Milaap. We hope a lot more people can contribute to this cause and you know help the state,” she added.

Elaborating on the working of RWF, Nandini said, “We have been working for the past year and a half ever since Marina started the NGO in 2015. The pandemic hit us and at that time we weren’t sure how would we start, we were immediately started relief works. Between Marina and I, we covered five different states along with Madhya Pradesh.”

“It was amazing the kind of work we have done along with drives including the educational, agricultural drives and breast cancer awareness drive. It was really nice that we were able to reach out to almost over 1 lakh people with information, mask sanitisers, hygiene kits, so I think we have made a tremendous difference in these five states,” she added.

Marina told us about her on-ground experiences during the devastating second wave of the Covid pandemic, “It’s extremely intimidating going to hospitals and distributing to their families, food and hygiene kits for women. It’s been very intimidating with whole new black fungus. I mean I’m glad that we’re doing whatever we can and yeah it’s very tough for us. We are trying our best to save lives and I take pride and say it’s alright to just go out. Somebody has to do it.”

Talking about their ongoing fundraiser, Marina said, “We have people who supported us from across the world. We have received about 20 lakhs and our target was 30 lakhs. We have already donated 26 oxygen concentrators to various districts in Madhya Pradesh.”

On a concluding note, Nandini mentioned how one can reach out and support the ongoing cause of RWF, “They can DM us and follow The Rising World Foundation. We hope every individual put the tools they need to thrive. The sky is vast the opportunities are limitless. Come out and support us to help us in every way to save lives, as many as we can.”

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A FATHER’S LOVE IS LIKE AN UNENDING TRIP OF JOY AND HAPPINESS

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Whenever we talk about God, One word that always resonates with it is father. Whether it’s our dad, brother, son, or any other father figure, these men need to know what a huge difference their presence makes in society.

Many of us are lucky to have our dad by our side. But for others who lost their fathers, this day is a painful reminder that their dad is no longer around. I hope they’re able to find peace during these testing times and if it makes any better, your dad will always be watching over you from the sky to keep you warm and protected.

Several atrocities came in where others left me midway. But it is my father who has always grabbed my hand and tirelessly crossed the other side with me. In every sphere of my life, I wouldn’t have become self-reliant without his blessings and constant support. His never forgetting life lesson made me who I am today. 

Here’s a part of him left in his diary, which I discovered on his bookshelf after he passed away. Unfortunately, the diary pages were left blank. That made me a bit curious. Why didn’t he write anything? By the time I flipped to the last page, I got to know what he wanted me to become. There was a crumpled piece of paper on the last page. Therein, it was written, “I know you would search for it someday. I just want to tell you one thing that you were born to rule the world and I can’t wait to see you conquer everything you touch upon from up here. I love you to the core, my strongest child.” – Your One and only Daddy

Losing a father is devastating. So, grieve as much as you want and cry and sulk but then think about your father’s hopes and dreams about you, he’d never want to see his little child so distressed. So collect the broken pieces of your heart and stand tall for him. You will discover this new strength that resides in you. Sharing photos and memories, and taking part in meaningful activities centred around your father’s life and tradition, will make this a more meaningful day for you.

And for the lucky ones who have the angels called dad around, here’s what can you do to make his day memorable: 

SPEND TIME WITH HIM 

Make his presence felt. You would certainly not like to see him neglected on this occasion. Spend little time with your dad on Father’s Day thanking God for the blessing of their presence; pray for their strength and guidance.

GATHER AROUND WITH FAMILY

A father loves to see all his family together. Make sure to plan a get-together on this occasion so that your father enjoys quality time with the family. Plan for a retro event along with homemade food that he loves so that he feels overjoyed and special. 

REMEMBRANCE

One of the most important things is to remember him forever. Not to forget that he made you feel jubilant whenever you felt gloomy. It is rightly said, “Encourage one another and build each other up.” And Father’s Day is a chance for us to make that happen. 

Lift their spirits, celebrate their joyous moments, and remind them how much they’re appreciated every single day. Remember his life mantra, do not exaggerate things, and always show your affection. 

Though it can be difficult — especially if your loss is sudden or recent — remembering dad openly and together will help your appreciation for your father grow. And you will be comforted as you hear the things that others remember most about your dad — stories you’ve never heard before or forgotten.

On this Father’s day where the world is a bit helter-skelter due to Covid-19, spend some quality time with your father. As you never know what would happen in the future. Cherish these moments because these moments would last forever in your memories. No matter how you reach out, your encouragement is sure to make this Father’s Day one they’ll always remember.

The writer is president, Purush Aayog.

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Genome surveillance for pandemic disaster preparedness

Covid-19 has ushered in a new digital era and is rewiring the world’s perspective to genomic science and sensibilities to personal data privacy in public health management.

Suravi Sharma Kumar

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Besides uncovering the gaps in healthcare infrastructure, the pandemic has thrown up the lack of a data-driven ecosystem and culture in the country at various levels of the healthcare system. In today’s world, as much we appreciate the potential of genome science, we need to know that it’s a resource-intensive work around quality data (input, storage, and analysis). Over the last few decades, the strong ties between DNA and Computer Science have revolutionised genomics technologies. At this juncture, about Covid genome sequencing we must know that we are now in an era of rapid (and cheaper) sequencing. But today the ability to determine DNA sequences is starting to outrun the ability of researchers to store, disseminate, and analyse data. Genome studies need pre and post-sequencing data management to make sense of the genome mapping and work towards the epidemiological goals. Genomic surveillance is the best we can do to track the virus and prepare public health defence measures against it. The importance of this aspect of pandemic management can be ignored only to our detriment in the face of the third wave/ future waves. 

Data generated from whole-genome sequencing is huge (in terabytes) and demands computational capabilities to manage it. Analysed genomic information requires to be combined with clinical/ epidemiological inputs that in turn can yield insights on the virus that can be used in public health interventions. The sequencing process needs a high level of laboratory infrastructure that is expensive. As India had spent very little per capita on healthcare before the pandemic, there is a lot needing investment/funding for the India genome project. The funding/investment, I believe should be through public and private involvement considering the immense capability of the Indian private sector in Genome Informatics when pitted against the public sector.

The convergence of biology and computing is necessary for this relatively obscure technology. Essentially a biologist and a programmer should work closely to facilitate the development of tools and systems that can solve a biological question. Many public health laboratories may not have the right bioinformatics capability (Kelly F. Oakes on Comments to Author, 2017) and data management resources for large scale public health projects. Also, Database management and big data analytical capabilities may not be in alignment with some of the public sector institutes’ objectives which are mostly around teaching and human resource capacity building in Biotechnology and microbial research. 

As we know detecting mutations/variations can identify the cause of outbreaks: the virus behaviour — the fast-spreading or the immune escaping variants — guide public health policies, and even find a drug/cure or inform vaccine researchers. To detect genome variations, millions or billions of data points have to be analysed through computational techniques — pattern analysing algorithms, mathematical models, image processing and so on. 

Apart from the public sector regional labs identified by the Genetic Consortium, there are Indian genomics companies in the private sector that have world-class capabilities. And apart from these, the IT giants of India, have one or two genomics labs each, and with state-of-the-art infrastructure handling liquid biopsies and doing work mostly in NGS (Next-generation Sequencing). These genome science labs of IT corporate houses are adept at preparing data files and computational techniques besides performing the steps of gene/ whole-genome sequencing. I believe, these capabilities in India’s IT sector can contribute to the country’s Covid scene by directly contributing to laboratory research work for its R&D experience in the field. This I believe will enable the delivery of standardised genomic data meeting international quality requirements; thereby catching up with the required GISAID or GenBank data contribution requirement for the country. 

In a well-designed PPP (Public-Private-Partnership) model, these Genomic labs in the private/corporate sector will be able to provide not only the required lab infrastructure for genome sequencing (or mapping) but also the much-required strong digital capabilities to complement the process and thereby support NCDC (National Centre for Disease Control). Authorities should find ways to incorporate these labs with high infrastructure that are not licensed for clinical use but have been contributing to high-level research work in tandem with renowned cancer hospitals and oncologists for their skill and include them in the genome surveillance efforts for the greater public good. The Bioinformatics capability of the Indian IT sector will be able to transform the genomic surveillance scenario of the country, thereby helping in pandemic preparedness.

As we know, by now India should have sequenced more than five million samples to have a good understanding of the virus and its strains, but so far 11,047 sequences have been performed (of the 1.4 million samples sequenced worldwide) according to GISAID. Currently, less than 0.05% of positive cases in India are subjected to such mapping while the recommended number is 5% of all samples. On the other hand, few countries (like the UK, the US, Belgium) have been doing whole genomic sequencing in real-time to inform/update the public health response system.

Unavailability of metadata along with Covid samples sent for genome evaluation is another concern which I believe is for data privacy or ethics issues. The authorities should address this the soonest and enable the collection of complete relevant epidemiological data (demographic, clinical and laboratory) through public health workers in the right format, and share it — anonymised or as-is with patient consent with the laboratories where the samples are sent for analysis. At this point, we must also remember that life sciences or healthcare data are always un-structured unlike other branches of science, and data scientists often find biological data technically trickier to organise. Readying the data for research use itself may be a struggle and may necessitate the use of high-end techniques like natural language processing.

The Covid-19 pandemic has ushered in a new digital era and is rewiring the world’s perspective to genomic science and sensibilities to personal data privacy in public health management. Governments around the globe are imposing new digital surveillance tools to track and monitor individuals for the new norms of Covid etiquettes as well as the morphology of the virus for variations to bolster defences against the novel virus. 

The writer is a medical doctor (pathologist) and holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of London. The views expressed are personal.

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WE ARE FOCUSED ON HELPING THE HELPLESS AND FEEDING THE NEEDY: ARIDAMAN RATHORE & AANJNEYA SINGH

Aridaman Singh Rathore, Founder, Act Jaipur and Aanjneya Singh, Member, Act Jaipur joined NewsX’s special series, NewsX India A-list and spoke about how social media became a valuable tool in making their aim a fortunate reality.

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Covid-19 was an unprecedented disaster that wreaked havoc on the world and is still at its prime momentum. Humanity is being tested daily, and some warriors are holding up its sanctity with valour and pride. NewsX’s special series, NewsX India A-list, aims at acknowledging such warriors. Aridaman Singh Rathore, Founder, Act Jaipur and Aanjneya Singh, Member, Act Jaipur, participated in the special series for their excellence in social work.

Introducing the concept behind this initiative and how it all came together, Aridaman said, “It was nothing but friend and family coming together to do their bit.” Driven by the feeling of helplessness and witnessing the Covid-19 pandemic exploding onto our country, he added, “We are focused on helping the helpless and feeding the needy. Even people with a good job profile who got laid off are suffering, and we came to their aid as well.”

Aanjneya Singh, who has been working in New York for six years, came to India for holidays and couldn’t go back due to the lockdown restrictions. Explaining how he came to be a part of this noble initiative, he said, “Actions speak louder than words. We had the resources and the network, so helping people in need was our responsibility.” Aanjneya also mentioned how donations from across Europe and New York, through his contacts, have been beneficial in propelling social aid.

Both the individuals spoke about how social media became a valuable tool in making their aim a fortunate reality. Aridaman connected with his cousins and friends over a WhatsApp group and started their page on Instagram. Social Media proved to be immensely helpful in propagating the idea further.

Throwing light on the reach and expansion of ‘Act’, Aridaman said, “Our initial goal was distributing 10,000 food packets. Today, we have distributed 23,791 meals, and are projecting close to 50,000 packets by mid-June.” Reiterating the importance of social media in times of the pandemic, Aridaman talked about the ease with which people with similar aim and equal drive connected with Act on Instagram. The platforms also facilitated their networking with several NGOs. One such NGO is ‘Raksha’. In collaboration with Raksha, Act Jaipur also fed stray animals and has expanded to distributing dry ration in slums.

“We wanted people to act out. We had had enough of just talking, it’s time to act now. We wanted people to realise the power of Social Media and reach out to the needy in such trying times,” said Aridaman while enlightening about the name of their initiative. He said that they want to do as much as they can in their limited capacity and are unwilling to stop until they achieve it. Aanjneya echoed Aridaman’s thought and said, “Doing something is always more beneficial than just speaking up.”

Humanity is facing a crisis, and initiatives like Act Jaipur gives people hope and a dose of positivity which is the need of the hour (after a dose of the vaccine). Ending the interview on a hopeful note, Aridaman said, “No amount is less, and no effort is lost.”

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