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The long, torturous journey of migrant workers continues

Since the beginning of the nationwide lockdown on 25 March, the fate of migrant workers remains uncertain and their lives are still hanging in the balance.

Riddhi Setty

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When the lockdown began in March, so did the plight of the migrant workers who lost their livelihood overnight. With time, they also lost their patience and eventually their hope and many hit the road, walking hundreds of kilometers to find their way home. Though India may be in the initial phases of reopening, their plight is far from over.  T

here are many miraculous stories that have surfaced about migrant workers on their journey. Fifteen-year-old Jyoti Kumari Paswan had nothing but a second-hand bicycle and a bottle of water as she bravely took her ailing father from Sikandarpur in Haryana to Darbhanga in Bihar. Refusing to give up, Jyoti pedalled approximately 1,200 km till she reached her destination. This heroic young girl has now achieved unexpected fame as the result of her determination and strength. 

Shakuntala, a nine-month pregnant migrant worker, walked a distance of 1,000 km from Nashik to Satna. She gave birth to her baby on the side of the road and after just an hour’s rest, continued the journey with her newborn. Shakuntala walked more than 200 km after giving birth to reach her destination. Though her story, like Jyoti’s, is one of triumph and strength, it is also one that marks the tragedy of circumstance. In most cases, women need weeks to recover after childbirth, but this woman, along with many other migrant workers who are trying to find their way home, simply did not have that option. 

Though there are many incredible stories of migrant workers who are beating the odds and making their way home, there are even more tragic tales about migrants who were not able to make it home and suffered from the lack of fulfillment of their basic needs. A twelveyear-old girl was walking a 150 km distance from Telangana to her home in Bijapur but died one hour before she reached her village. The CMHO said that it seemed she died due to exhaustion, electrolyte imbalance or dehydration. At a railway station in Bihar, a young child played with a shroud covering his mother, who died of extreme heat, hunger and dehydration. At the same station a two-year-old child died, reportedly from heat and hunger as well. This is the reality that migrant workers across the country are currently facing every day. 

Though their tribulations continue, many have lost interest in their stories. Saptarshi Basak witnessed this first-hand as he and others involved in Safar, a project created by students to ensure a safe journey home for migrant workers, attempted to raise donations to help the workers. Basak said that when the idea was first born, they were overwhelmed by the support that the project received. “I didn’t think it would happen in the beginning but we raised Rs 4.5 lakh overnight.” However, in their following attempts, the team encountered more difficulties than initially anticipated. “People thought if it could happen the first time, it would happen again. Now of course we realise it’s much easier the first time because everyone is excited and wants to do something, but it wears out like everything else,” explained Basak. “After the Rs 4.5 lakh, we’ve had one fundraiser and in three days we’ve raised Rs 1.7 lakh. Nobody donates the second time or even bothers to spread the word because it’s not as cool.”

Though our country is currently facing a constant state of change, one thing that has remained constant since the beginning of the lockdown period which began on 25 March is the journey of these workers, whose lives currently hang in the balance. Despite the aid efforts of notable personalities and companies, there are many still far from home and unfortunately, their troubles do not end once they get there, having lost their livelihood and therefore their families’ means of support. Through Safar, Basak is hoping to motivate others around him to take the initiative required to help the migrant workers of our country. He said, “People are dying inside trains and buses are unsafe for women and children. If you’ve got money and contacts you can do a lot for the underprivileged. You don’t even need a job, all you need is a phone.”

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Opinion

LOOKING FOR LEADERSHIP

Priya Sahgal

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If there is one thing the second surge of the Covid outbreak has thrown up it is questions around the current leadership style. As the WHO’s Soumya Swaminathan said, what is needed is strong leadership that is based on science and data – not grandstanding and rhetorical flourishes. The fact that the BJP did not sweep West Bengal the same way it did Uttar Pradesh post-demonetisation has sent its own wake-up call to the saffron party. But the larger question of national leadership remains.

Now, whenever the Prime Minister’s leadership model is called into question, be it post the CAA riots, post the GST rollout or regarding the sad state of the economy, the troll army of the BJP is very quick to swing into attack mode and target Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. Suddenly, all of social media from Twitter to WhatsApp is full of posts lampooning and ridiculing Rahul, trying to prove one simple point: that however bad the PM may be, Rahul Gandhi is much worse. And hence, because there is no alternative, Modi will prevail.

We are already seeing glimmers of this narrative after the Assembly polls where the Congress lost Kerala despite Rahul Gandhi’s focus on the state. But that is clearly an internal Congress problem. It is up to the party to decide if it wants to continue with Rahul despite his inability to win elections or not. India has larger problems on its plate and it would be best not to get distracted by the trolls. 

The larger question remains: is this really the catch-22 before India? Are our choices limited to Modi and Rahul only? Don’t the two national parties have alternatives? And, more importantly, what about other regional leaders? Since this is a conversation that is being had after the West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu polls, it is quite clear that answers to India’s national leadership crisis can also be found at the regional level. Even Tamil Nadu tells a heartening story where the DMK did well but the AIADMK was not decimated as expected. The former CM EPS had built a narrative of governance that stood him in good stead and may have warded off the entry of the more flamboyant Sasikala, who may have more power and funds but whose governance model is yet to be tested. 

We have seen successful coalitions on both sides of the aisle from the United Front, National Front, the UPA and the NDA. What is stopping another such formation, propped, but not led, by the Congress? Already there is talk that Mamata Bannerjee, Jagan Mohan Reddy, Arvind Kejriwal and Sharad Pawar are exploring some options with the help of ace strategist Prashant Kishor. In fact, given the current experiment, it is clear that a coalition rather than an outright majority suits India’s needs much better. It does not need to be led by an expert or a Supreme Leader. Rather the leader of such a coalition has to be one who is a consensus man in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee mode, a man who is not afraid to take the advice of experts as Narasimha Rao did to ward off the economic crisis, and a man who is humble yet inspires the confidence of not just India but also the global community. Dr Manmohan Singh comes to mind here. 

We have had these ordinary men performing ordinary tasks that have kept the ship of the state going. We do not need a Supreme Leader, we do not need a vote-winning machine. All we need is someone to set systems in place, ensure they are implemented and keep us all alive. Surely that is not too much of an ask?

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Opinion

A YEAR TO EMBRACE THE INDIA-NZ RELATIONSHIP

As India marks its 75th year of independence, ravaged by a pandemic which has cast a shadow of uncertainty over its near-term growth prospects, the nation must leverage its companionship with New Zealand, expand and diversify the bilateral trade relations between the two, and resolve current FTA gridlocks.

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The 75th year of Indian Independence can be an inflection point in the India-New Zealand ties through constructive steps in bilateral trade deals and companionship to harness a plethora of opportunities between the two countries. Although the second wave of Covid-19 and the triple mutant coronavirus variant have put an abrupt halt on the near-term growth prospects of the country, the recently united Quad leaders and the increased gravity of the Indo-Pacific strategic edge have put India on the centre stage of bilateral trade deals. With NZ promising to provide $1 million in direct aid to India to fight against the novel virus, there is rising hopes of a tectonic shift in the way India sees NZ as a global partner.

The much proclaimed thriving economy of the eastern world, India has been following a spinoff strategy since the start of the pandemic to build robust indigenous manufacturing capabilities by incentivizing foreign players. Emulating China, India has gained priority in any country’s foreign trade policy, and there are economic reasons for the same. India provides a ready-to-enter market for private players with the potential to target a customer base of 1.3 billion, a demographically diversified marketplace and a resilient technological infrastructure. Besides this, the expanding scope of foreign direct investments has attracted numerous capitalists to bet on the Indian growth story.

The iron is hot to hit, but New Zealand’s approach towards a foreign trade agreement (FTA) with India is on a “slow boil”. Even after 30 years and 10 rounds of negotiations for an FTA, the Kiwis have fallen short of agreements and maintained a status quo with India. This is despite the fact that Indians contributed 3% of the total NZ GDP in 2019 and as of September 2020, India was NZ’s 11th largest trading partner with a two-way total trade value of $2.4 billion. NZ has been an active partner of India in multiple fields like sports (cricket), higher education, tourism, hospitality and cybersecurity networks. All these fronts have so far been fruitful for both the countries and generated economical returns along with a cohesive cultural understanding in the past.

New Zealand has always been an active multilateralist, working closely with countries to form conducive and mutually beneficial policies. But India is different with its approach and action. Unlike with China, NZ should not expect the same deal terms with India, which has faced severe trade asymmetries in its past trade deals with ASEAN, SAFTA and RCEP, and hence will now make new FTA deals with scrutiny.

So far the bottlenecks in the FTA deal are the high-tech dairy and agricultural products, which NZ wants to push in the Indian markets. This is because India sees business and trade liberalisation with a protectionist angle and believes that such inflow of imports will have a detrimental effect on small and medium enterprises, especially marginalised farmers.

Recently, India also opted out of RCEP negotiations to safeguard the interests of industries like agriculture and dairy and over “significant outstanding issues” with China, a co-partner in RCEP. India feared that there was “inadequate” protection against surges in imports and there was a possible circumvention of rules of origin, the criteria used to determine the national source of a product.The exit from RCEP has freed a market of worth $30 billion-plus in India to fill in. This includes value-added sectors like chemicals and plastics and rubber, minerals, leather, textiles, gems, jewellery and animal products.

This posts a significant scope for expansion and diversification for businesses involved in the New Zealand-India bilateral trade in goods. This is over and above the existing scope in the high-end education services which NZ provides to Indian students and which has grown to 79% of the total services exported. To reap the benefits, New Zealand needs to showcase poised political diplomacy with swift actions on unconventional measures to solve the FTA gridlocks.

Plan B must find alternatives to the dairy and agricultural products, which NZ initially stressed upon and posed a major consensus barrier, in favour of the newly freed markets due to India’s exit from RCEP. This will promote high trade complementarities for India, matching the import pattern of India with the export pattern of NZ, hence, increasing the chances for a successful trade arrangement. In exchange, the NZ foreign trade policy should also provide a margin of preference to India in terms of a favourable rate of import duty on pharmaceuticals, machinery and textiles. Apart from this, a De Maximus provision can be adopted to enforce strict rules on exporters’ goods to qualify as NZ origin, which has been a major concern for India. Various countries have been dumping their products in India by routing them through other countries that enjoyed lower tariffs.

The bottom line is that New Zealand has to first build trust with India before entering into an FTA. The New Education Policy and the Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (STIP) passed by India in 2020 needs to be embraced by the Kiwi government to get the first-mover advantage. Through this NZ can get access to the IT powerhouse, new technology of India along with an entry into the ed-tech solutions space. The Indian diaspora, which constitutes 5% of the population and has been the fastest-growing ethnic group, has to play a proactive role to persuade the NZ government to form a correlative partnership with India.

In the near future Kiwi officials need to explore offbeat channels of trade and need to learn from trade giants like the US, Singapore and Australia, who have been strategic partners of India on multiple fronts. NZ needs to understand that India has so far little to gain from a 5 million population market and hence it demands favourable trade policies to make it economically beneficial for the country.

Rajesh Mehta is a leading consultant and columnist working on market entry, innovation and public policy. Uddeshya Goel is a financial researcher with specific interests in international business and capital markets.

NZ has been an active partner of India in multiple fields like sports (cricket), higher education, tourism, hospitality and cybersecurity networks. All these fronts have so far been fruitful for both the countries and generated economical returns along with a cohesive cultural understanding in the past.

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Opinion

CORONA IN INDIA: WESTERN MEDIA’S BIAS IS SHOWING

Joyeeta Basu

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Corona

There is only one way to describe the foreign media coverage of the Covid-19 crisis in India—it stinks. It stinks of bias, superiority complex, voyeurism and even racism. It also stinks of lazy journalism, ignorance, and worse, of distortion. As if callous intrusion into the last rites of Indians was not enough by blowing up photographs of burning pyres on front pages of western legacy media, now there are television reporters of international channels marching into ICUs of Indian hospitals with their cameras, feeding off the misery of patients like scavengers, apart from putting lives in danger. Such actions stem from the western sense of superiority, while taking pity and pot-shots at the crisis in a “third world” country. It appears like a barely concealed glee at how they have managed the pandemic better, although the whole world has seen how difficult it has been for the West to bring back even a semblance of normalcy when the first wave of the virus hit them. How their “first world” healthcare system collapsed facing a once-in-a-century onslaught. But no TV camera barged into hospitals violating the patients’ privacy. The coverage was restrained. But since Indian funerals are often in the open and thus easier to photograph using drones, there is this plethora of insensitive images giving the impression of apocalyptic devastation—of hellfire burning—even though on an average the US was facing over 5,000 deaths a day during the height of the crisis, perhaps as much as India’s or worse. This inability, nay, unwillingness to understand a culture that is different has been the hallmark of the Western world, and the media too is reflecting that in a much magnified manner.

Also the current crisis is a validation of their belief that a “poor” country like India does not deserve a place on the global high table. This is reflected in almost every report that is done about India, be it about its space program or its industry, everything comes with a caveat—“and this even though it’s a dirt-poor country which is divided along caste lines”. For them India could be a banana republic, and it’s a miracle that it has not yet broken up into pieces.

Of course, the question is how much of this reportage stems from bias and how much of it is “inspired” by interests inimical to India, or maybe it is a combination of both. It definitely helps certain countries if they can show India as unfit to receive large-scale foreign investments, or become a key alternative to China as a manufacturing base. In fact, reports suggest that the Chinese media is deriving vicarious pleasure from India’s current troubles and what is happening in the western media space is an amplification of that narrative as well. Moreover, serious questions need to be asked to the western media about their reticence to call China out for the monster it has unleashed on the world. Why describing Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus” is considered racist, but not calling out the “Indian strain” or the “South African strain”? Why does Western legacy media refuse to probe what exactly China did in Wuhan, why is there unwillingness to question WHO for the way it kowtows to China? Why is it that Indian Prime Minister can be hauled over coal by the western media, but not the Chinese President? From the coverage that the Indian Prime Minister gets, it’s almost as if he is a tyrannical despot, and not a leader democratically elected by hundreds of millions of voters—a Prime Minister who is accountable to his people. Legitimate criticism is a must as else course correction does not happen, but in this case the targeting reeks of political bias—a one-sided rant often devoid of facts. How did Xi Jinping escape such a scrutiny even after unleashing the virus on the world? Is there more to it than meets the eye? India is wondering.

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Opinion

PM MODI HAS BEEN WORKING HARD; DON’T GET TRAPPED IN THE OPPOSITION’S BARBS

As the nation faces an unprecedented crisis, the larger debate is not about the deaths due to Covid or the large number of recoveries—it is only about who should be blamed for the pandemic. However, there are some key points that must be brought to the notice of people who are busy making PM Modi the scapegoat in this situation.

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I hardly know a family that has not had Covid-19. There is hardly an extended family that has not witnessed death or suffered from its after-effects or due to the unavailability of critical medical care. It is the severity and reach of the disease that makes it a pandemic.

But there is another side to this which is positive and not being reported because death is big news and recovery is not. More than 85 percent of people recover without hospitalization and it is only the 5 percent or so which needs critical hospital care. While I have heard news of the deaths of friends and associates, I have also heard news about entire families recovering very fast.

But the larger debate in the country is not about recovery or death: it is about who should be blamed for the pandemic. Very few are talking about China and the possibility that the virus has been unleashed to weaken India. A pertinent question to ask would be why countries similarly or worse placed such as Pakistan and Bangladesh have not reported the same severity. Have people there become very disciplined or has the health infrastructure there become better than India? This is something inexplicable.

When we are too emotional, particularly when we are deep in sorrow, our critical faculty refuses to work. We try to apportion the blame for death. Was it our inability to get a hospital bed or oxygen cylinder that led to death? Who is responsible for this? Surely the chief ministers, who are caretakers of health infrastructure in their respective states, can’t be responsible. They have done a splendid job by crying and trying to do politics and express their helplessness. A chief minister even said that he can’t reach every person and it was the responsibility of the residents of the state to save the state. No one found it objectionable.

People cried for oxygen and the chief ministers cried too, trying to blame the Union Government. There surely must be one person who is not allowing them to work for the welfare of people. To them it is the failure of the Central Government to provide oxygen to the states. However, when asked to explain why different states have performed differently, they have no answer.

So, the blame must lie with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Why is he not crying in a country where talking is taken as acting, where bravado is seen as a sign of leadership? His critics are attacking with vengeance and creating optics that the pandemic has happened due to him and due to his inability to tackle the situation. Why did he address election rallies? Why did he allow the Kumbh Mela? Why did he not impose a nationwide lockdown like last time? Most attacks hover around these issues. Let us try to understand what the Prime Minister has been doing when the chief ministers were crying and doing politics.

Here is a prime minister who tries to work silently when a crisis comes and does not react to political statements since this is not the time to take the bull by the horns. He focuses on channelising his energy into finding solutions and works with double speed. If he also becomes a crybaby like the others, who will come up with a solution? I would not have defended him since the person who is the best speaker in the country does not need a minion like me to defend him. But I am angry. Angry that we seem to be losing our critical faculty. Facts and logic work no more.

Modi’s critics have been trying to systematically destroy him by painting a negative image. But he has come out with flying colours every time. This is because he believes in the philosophy of nishkaam karm (selfless work) and stithpragya (to stay steadfast in every situation)—the two ideals suggested by Lord Krishna in The Bhagwad Gita for a karmyogi. But we must ponder, are we doing the right thing by targeting a man without even a shade of civility? Society should not become so ungrateful. We should not crucify our saviour every time. We should learn from mistakes.

This pandemic has exposed the failure of our health infrastructure to give it an adequate response. First, nobody in the world had expected that the second wave would be so pervasive. Everyone thought this would be less severe. Can we blame Modi for this? The Supreme Court while asking the government to pull up its socks on fixing the oxygen supply also gave a tongue-in-cheek statement that should not be missed. The observation came on 30 April 2021. The Court held, “… the healthcare infrastructure inherited over the past 70 years was not sufficient and the situation was grim.” Can we blame the Prime Minister for this? In fact, he has brought the best healthcare facilities within the reach of the poor by enabling them to get best treatment under the Ayushmaan Bharat scheme. Till the time we have super-speciality hospitals in every district, let people not suffer.

We should not forget that till Atal Bihari Vajpayee became the Prime Minister, there was only one AIIMS that had been set up in 1952. It was Vajpayee who decided to open six AIIMS, one each in the states that did not have good medical facilities such as Madhya Pradesh (in Bhopal), Odisha (Bhubaneshwar), Rajasthan (Jodhpur), Bihar (Patna), Chhattisgarh (Raipur) and Uttarakhand (Rishikesh). Learning from Vajpayee, Dr Manomohan Singh as Prime Minister opened one AIIMS in Uttar Pradesh at Rae Bareli in 2013. When Narendra Modi came to power he decided to open 14 AIIMS to cover the entire country. Every state should have a centre of medical excellence so that they don’t have to rush to Delhi. His vision has been that the problems of a country of India’s size needs addressal on a big scale and a piecemeal approach would not work.

The Modi government has decided to open 157 medical colleges across the country, something that was never thought of. And the government is not withdrawing from the health sector. The number of government medical colleges would be more than those in the private sector. There were 215 private medical colleges and 189 government colleges in 2014-15. In 2019 there were 279 government colleges and 260 private colleges. The vision is to have at least one super-speciality hospital in every district.

Have we ever thought that there is a huge shortage of MBBS graduates and specialists in this country? There were only 50,000 medical seats in the country till 2014. In the last six years, 30,000 additional seats have been added, besides 24,000 postgraduate seats to promote specialization and excellence. A question needs to be asked here: why was this not thought of earlier?

The doctor-population ratio in India is 1:1456 against the WHO recommendation of 1:1000. This is just a statistical average. The situation is abysmal in some states. Bihar has one doctor for 28,392 people, followed by Uttar Pradesh (19,962), Jharkhand (18,518) and others. Even the national capital has one doctor for 2203 people, which is almost double the number in the WHO norms. According to a study by the Medical Council of India, Jharkhand would take 87 years at the present rate to reach the WHO norm.

People would say it is not a big deal. That is the reason he was brought as the Prime Minister. One can’t disagree with this. Now let us look at the short-term measures taken for or immediate response given to the pandemic. During the first wave of Covid-19, the Prime Minister imposed a nationwide lockdown since he knew that the country was not prepared to face the crisis. His strategy paid off even as our economy slid to an unimaginable point. But the time was used to ramp up medical infrastructure and the pandemic was contained. His decision was criticised by many states that said it was unconstitutional and the states should have been given the liberty to devise their own strategies, that the Centre should limit itself to sending advisories or sharing knowledge, and that since the pandemic had differing extents and severity in different states, they should have had strategy that suited them.

So, when the country had enough PPE kits, sanitizers, gloves, masks and inoculated medical and paramedical staff, the states could be trusted with taking care of the crisis. Many leaders had opined that a national lockdown was not the right solution when most states had opted to go for their own versions of lockdowns.

On four occasions, the Union Government sent missives to the states saying that the second wave was coming and they needed to follow Covid protocol strictly. The Centre had written a letter to four states—Maharashtra, Kerala, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal—in January 2021, asking them to take precautions and warning them about impending danger. On 21 February, the Centre wrote again, asking them to increase the number of Rapid Antigen tests and RT-PCR tests and impose strict and comprehensive surveillance. At that time, more than 74 percent cases were from Kerala and Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh had also witnessed a spike. On 25 February, the Cabinet Secretary had a review meeting with seven states that had witnessed a spike—Maharashtra, Kerala, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh. On 27 February, the Cabinet Secretary had a review meeting with Telangana, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, and West Bengal. These states were advised not to lower their guards, enforce Covid-appropriate behaviour and also deal firmly with violations. Many such meetings took place, showing that the Centre was aware and that it kept asking states to prepare themselves. The Prime Minister held 28 meetings in April-May on how to deal with Covid-19.

The Central Government also told the Supreme Court on 30 April that it had been urging states to prepare for a second wave of Covid-19. The states, however, had not updated their data even after constant persuasion. It stated in an affidavit that it had asked states to prepare a district-wise estimate of beds and capacities in Covid care facilities, based on the trends of infection growth. Had the states followed the projection tool created by the Central Government and ramped up medical infrastructure, the situation would have been different, the Centre said.

On the supply of medical oxygen, the Centre said that of the total requirement of 8462 MT, 22 high-burdened states were already allocated 8410 MT. Also, the Centre was augmenting oxygen on a war footing such as it had already floated a short-term global tender on 16 April for the import of 50,000 MT of medical oxygen. Besides these, 551 PSA oxygen plans are being set up at district hospitals. This is apart from the 500 PSA plants being set up by the DRDO to augment oxygen availability. The signal-free Railway Oxygen Express is also running to ensure the supply of oxygen to needy states. The PM CARES fund has also been used to purchase 1 lakh portable oxygen concentrators and set up Covid hospitals in states, besides spurring the vaccination drive. The Prime Minister has reviewed the progress of converting nitrogen plants to oxygen plants and the process is underway in 14 industries. Further, 37 nitrogen plants have been also identified for conversion this way.

The Centre has also airlifted oxygen tankers from Germany, the UAE, Singapore and other countries using the Indian Air Force to meet the demand for cryogenic tankers for the supply of oxygen. As a part of Operation Samudra Setu II, seven Indian Naval ships—Kolkata, Kochi, Talwar, Tabar, Trikand, Jalashwa and Airavat—have been deployed for the shipment of liquid medical oxygen-filled cryogenic containers and associated medical equipment from various countries. The Army has opened its hospitals to civilians and paramilitary forces are running Covid care centres in various states. The Railways have provided 70,000 Covid care beds across the country and opened Railways hospitals for non-Railways patients. Leading industrialists have also diverted their industrial oxygen for medical needs.

The Prime Minister is the one who stressed the need to vaccinate people. Target groups were identified and allocation made for the vaccination drive. But our leaders politicised the vaccine as well, calling it a “BJP vaccine”. It appeared that they were playing at the behest of forces keen to weaken India. Crucial time was lost. A lot of politics was played regarding the price of the vaccines as if the government was making money out of it. The crucial factor is the reach of the vaccine and not the pricing. While the poor need to be given it for free, those who can afford it must pay to lessen the burden on the exchequer. Hopefully, now the states would go for faster vaccination. Those who can afford can take it from private hospitals as well.

Some critics also made a lot of fuss when India was supplying vaccines to the world for their critical needs such as the vaccination of their healthcare workers. This was not being done at the cost of citizens but as per protocol. India’s efforts have been appreciated the world over. Now that India is in need, the entire world is trying to help us. It is not without reason that French President Emmanuel Macron said that India does not need to listen to lectures from people on vaccine availability. India has helped many countries in making vaccines available and thus helped humanity. Prime Minister Modi’s appeal to countries of the European Union that the TRIPS waiver be given for vaccinating the entire globe without thinking of earning profits has been taken positively.

Enhancing vaccine production capabilities and giving vaccines to all in India and also the world has been the country’s priority. The Prime Minister is working for that. The government has already ordered 160 million doses of vaccine that would take care of things till July. The Centre has allowed states to procure vaccines directly from private players too. Since the Centre has decided to give the vaccine free to target groups and people above 45 years, 50 percent of the vaccines would go to the Centre and 50 per cent to states or private players. Subject to import licensing and approval by regulatory authority, private players can import vaccines. These importers can supply vaccines to states or private players. Sputnik V is going to be the first vaccine available in the private market. Dr Reddy’s Laboratory is already raring to go.

Why did the Prime Minister participate in elections? He could have said no. Is this a fair proposition? The Election Commission conducts elections and the Union Government provides the means and resources to conduct elections including paramilitary forces. When the Election Commission was reportedly toying with the idea of postponing elections in Bihar, every party had opposed and wanted immediate elections. That had also taken place when Covid was surging. The same was the norm this time. Nobody had problems with other parties or their leaders campaigning but critics had problems with the Prime Minister. You don’t create a different norm for the PM. And he did cancel his meetings towards the last legs of campaigning in West Bengal. BJP leaders including Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah cancelled all their election visits to the poll-bound state of West Bengal.

Why was Kumbh Mela allowed to take place in Haridwar? This could have been cancelled. It was for the state government to decide whether it was feasible to organise such a large mela and yet follow the Covid protocol. The Union Health Secretary had written to the Chief Secretary of Uttarakhand on 21 March expressing concerns on the Kumbh Mela. The Union had warned the state about a surge in cases as people from affected states would also reach the mela. The state was also told that the daily testing numbers reported in Haridwar (i.e., 50,000 Rapid Antigen tests and 5,000 RT-PCR tests) were not enough and they must be increased as per ICMR guidelines. Strict quarantine and treatment were suggested for affected people. The state government had already shortened the Kumbh Mela from a four-month event to just one month (January-April to just April) in view of the adverse situation. But the decision proved to be a bad one. The Prime Minister did appeal to people and seers to make the mela symbolic.

Because of space constraints, I have focused largely on what the Prime Minister has done and how unfair we have been to his efforts. In the next, if needed, I would write how various chief ministers have failed their respective states.

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.

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Opinion

THE SOPS FOR GOVERNMENT ADVERTISING NEED TO CHANGE

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The affinity of public sector entities including governmental departments, nodal agencies and regulators for print advertisements is unmatchable. It is probably part of an ancient SOP which is yet to be updated.

The ad category that catches the eye the most is the one for the recruitment of people and empanelment of agencies. The print media industry must be thankful for such a customer segment, but this is the age of ads on online platforms like LinkedIn and others, even for hiring non-tech roles and senior positions. It is probably a sheer waste of paper, money and time when public entity advertisers take their SOPs too seriously and publish print ads calling for professionals to work with digital tools and technology! That’s using ink to promote digital!

One wonders whether these ads mean to showcase that the entity did indeed advertise as part of a process and to tick something off a list or if it really seeks to bring in the servicemen or knowledge providers that the ads call for. Assuming that the target audience for the advertisements actually reads those newspapers, one should take a look at the size and location of the ads and more importantly the “stern” messaging of them that actually replicate official documents with many reference numbers and bureaucratic lingo. But it is in these semantics that the optics often lie hidden!

And it doesn’t end there. The tardiness in asking “those interested” to visit the recruiting department’s website is worse than searching for a needle in the haystack. You can even search for the needle using a high powered magnet, but try searching for the said advertisement on those websites! (On a lighter note, one also wonders if even the individuals mentioned as the “undersigned” in those ads can locate the specific ads in their maze of a website.) I am sure most of us have seen QR codes which can be published in a print ad and take the user directly to the specific section on the advertiser’s website upon scanning them, which can be done using any of the many affordable camera-phones used in India today.

It is indeed time for public offices to assess the effectiveness of their advertising and to ensure that the outcomes are measured to showcase the cost of effective reach. That would be a way to account for such public spending.

It is also time to correct anomalies in the way public offices advertise and redraw the rulebook to stay relevant in the 21st century, but without reducing or missing out on any stakeholder’s access to complete information.

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Opinion

ASPIRING FOR WORLD-CLASS VARSITIES

To establish world-class universities in India, we have to identify and avoid the weaknesses of the current system, allow institutions greater freedom and incentive to innovate, provide liberal grants and other required resources and encourage a futuristic orientation in every aspect of their operations.

Prof. Ved Prakash

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Universities have made unparalleled contributions in bringing different civilizations together and nurturing them towards social and scientific advancements. University of Bologna which was founded in Italy in the year 1088 is considered to be the oldest university in continuous operation. It is believed that by the end of the 15th century there were about fifty universities, and all were in Europe. All modern universities of the world have evolved on the pattern of the 11th century European model of universities. According to an estimate, there are about 25,000 universities in the world. India is known to have the largest system of higher education in terms of the number of institutions, with 982 degree awarding institutions and about 40,000 colleges.

The western system of higher education has substantially influenced the system of the rest of the world, primarily because of its futuristic orientation and significant research contribution in frontier areas of knowledge. They have brought out critical understanding of social dynamics and invented modern technology which has permeated in all dimensions of human development. One unique feature of western universities is that they are continually moving ahead of time. There are universities which have a common practice of establishing curriculum and research groups that invest a considerable amount of time on a continual basis in planning and designing of futuristic curricula and determining research priorities for the present as well as for the unknown boundaries of the future. These are some of the unique characteristics, among others, that make them the leading universities of the world. These universities have been role models for a long time for most parts of the world. A large number of them have been continually capturing ace positions in global rankings that are carried out by different agencies. That has started mounting enormous pressure on universities in other parts of the world.

Ranking system in higher education is not a recent phenomenon. It has been there right from early times, but in different forms. It is said that even after the establishment of the University of Oxford in 1096, Londoners preferred to go for higher studies to other places of Europe, and that continued until the imposition of a formal embargo by the king. This perception-based ranking remained part of the system until the mid-eighties when American universities started domestic rankings based on limited parameters. It was followed by some other countries in different forms where it began in the form of program accreditation and institutional accreditation. This trend ultimately took the shape of global ranking of universities. Soon, the ranking system caught the imagination of some commercial organisations which saw great potential in it. They evolved their own instruments in consultation with experts and launched a global ranking exercise in the beginning of the 21st century which eventually gave rise to competition amongst universities as also among nation states. Soon, it generated a newer kind of enthusiasm amongst some countries which started aspiring for ‘world-class’ universities.

On the concept of the ‘world-class’ university, Phillip Altbach in 2004 said, “Every country wants a world-class university. No country feels it can do without one. The problem is that no one knows what a world-class university is, and no one has figured out how to get one. Everyone, however, refers to the concept.” Since then, the debate on world-class universities is on but no one has been able to articulate yet what it really means. A very big conference on world-class universities was held as late as October 2019 at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University where no one agreed on any one definition of the ‘world-class university’.

A world-class university is perceived to be a multidimensional concept. The most significant aspect of a world-class university lies in its capacity to lead the world through its academic rigour in frontier domains of knowledge besides churning out the most talented workforce needed by the modern world. People have been aspiring to have world-class universities for a long time. There is a famous anecdote about the University of Chicago. It is said that when John D. Rockefeller wanted to establish the University of Chicago in 1890, he contacted the then President of Harvard University, Charles William Eliot, and asked him as to what is required to build a great university? Eliot replied that it required USD 50 million and 200 years. On hearing that, Rockefeller said that he got the message loud and clear but he would not wait for that long, for he would like to invest much more than USD 50 million and establish a great university much earlier than usual.

Since it is difficult to turn a blind eye to the idea of having world-class universities in a highly competitive world, even less resilient economies came up with numerous innovative ideas to have world-class universities. India also realized the need to have a couple of world-class universities. The National Development Council (NDC), in its meeting held in November 2010, approved the setting up of as many as 14 world-class universities in the cities of Bhubaneswar, Kochi, Amritsar, Greater Noida, Patna, Guwahati, Kolkata, Bhopal, Gandhinagar, Coimbatore, Mysore, Pune, Visakhapatnam and Jaipur.

The idea was to have a two pronged approach to set up a few world-class universities. While some of them could be established under the de-novo category focusing on issues of national importance, others could be identified from amongst the existing universities and provided additional resources for attaining world-class standards. These universities would provide teaching and research facilities of the standard comparable to the best universities of the world and they would be under the category of institutions of national importance like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). Later on it was decided to change the nomenclature from world-class university to Universities for Research and Innovation. And accordingly a Bill was introduced in the Parliament on May 21, 2012, which somehow could not be passed.

Five years later, the government decided not to take the legislative route and instead opted to do it through the UGC (Institutions of Eminence Deemed to be Universities) Regulations, 2017. Hence the government constituted an Empowered Expert Committee (EEC) and entrusted it with the mandate of identifying ten public and ten private institutions of higher learning based on their academic standings that could be granted the status of Institution of Eminence (IoE). Ten public institutions that were shortlisted by the EEC are IISc, Bangalore, four IITs—Delhi, Bombay, Madras and Kharagpur—BHU, Universities of Delhi, Hyderabad, Jadavpur and Anna. The ten private institutions are MAHE-Manipal, BITS-Pilani, O P Jindal, Shiv Nadar, KIIT-Bhubaneswar, VIT-Vellore, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapitham, Jamia Hamdard, Satya Bharti Foundation and JIO Institute. Up till now only among the public institutions and four from the private ones have signed MoUs with the government. It looks like a work in progress but at a very slow pace despite claims to the contrary.

There are different dimensions towards establishing world-class universities. While some of them are related to frameworks, others are related to quality, governance and sustainability. One can understand the necessity of having world-class universities in the country because none of our universities is ranked among the top hundred in global rankings. Another reason could be that India’s innovation in higher education has generally side-stepped universities either in preference to premier institutions or to establishing new institutions. We also need world-class universities because most of our institutions are churning out graduates without skills required in the real world.

But establishing new universities especially those intended to be innovative require careful planning and understanding of the weakness of the current system. If we aspire to have universities with world-class standards then we have to consciously avoid the weakness of the current system like overwhelming bureaucratic burden, degree of severity of the toughness of decision making, little incentive to innovate, eliminating fragmentation of knowledge, freeing the universities from external control, substantial resources, etc. In addition, they have to have futuristic orientation in every aspect of their operation. It hardly needs any mention that they will have to provide an inspiring learning and living environment to their students.

Since such universities are expensive institutions, they require liberal grants over a protracted period of time and freedom to mobilize resources from other sources in a transparent manner. Enabling some of our existing universities to emerge as world-class centres of academic excellence, as envisaged under the scheme of Institutions of Eminence, can be most successfully achieved over a period of time provided honesty in honouring the commitments takes precedence over everything else from both the sides.

The author is former Chairman, UGC. The views expressed are personal.

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