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VIRUS IS YOUR ENEMY, NOT PM MODI

Rather than playing politics and getting elated in their own echo system, the Opposition should trust the Prime Minister.

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In numerous interviews, Medical Advisor to the POTUS, Dr Anthony Fauci, has reiterated that despite the divisiveness, our common enemy is the virus and not each other. The message is to fight this pandemic unitedly. Sadly, that spirit is missing among Indian politicians who are so paranoid about Narendra Modi that even a pandemic has failed to drive some sense into them.

I would not need to quote Dr Fauci for a society that has always banded together in times of crisis. But for some, political survival has become more important than the lives of people. In their enthusiasm to score political points, they are ignoring the negative impact their murky tricks may have on people. Yes, I am talking of the vaccine politics being played out in full public view. While PM Modi and his team have been trying their best to empower the country and vaccinate people as quickly as possible, the Opposition parties are trying their best to undermine the efforts by spreading rumours and raising demands that may make the society more divisive and confused.

The Prime Minister, who worked overtime to ensure that scientists come out with vaccines earlier than expected, is being accused of not making enough efforts to meet the vaccine demand. Facts, however, would reveal that Modi has been way ahead of the Opposition’s thought process. The Opposition did try to derail the process but has failed desperately.

First, the timeline. The rotavirus vaccine that prevents diarrhoea in young children first came to the US in 1998. It was withdrawn and then reintroduced in 2006. India included this vaccine in the Universal Immunisation Programme in March 2016. The Hepatitis B vaccine was available in the world commercially in 1982. India launched this in 2002. The polio vaccine was approved by the WHO in 1955. The oral version of the same came to be commercially marketed in 1961. India launched the vaccine in 1978.

Compare this to the vaccine for Covid-19. The WHO gave the first emergency use authorization for the vaccine against Covid-19 on 31 December 2020. India got its first vaccine in January 2021 and it had already launched its vaccination programme on 16 January 2021. Also, India achieved the rare feat of having an indigenous vaccine and joined the elite club of about a dozen countries that can say so too.

While scientists must be complimented, one cannot take credit away from the leadership. PM Modi set up a task force of experts in April 2020 and personally monitored vaccine development and ensured that the country was not lagging behind. Covishield and the indigenously produced Covaxin became the first two vaccines which were given clearance for emergency use.

When talks were going on that the vaccine being developed by Bharat Biotech and Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) would be India’s weapon against Covid-19, very few believed it. But the Prime Minister was sure about it. When the ICMR was trying to fast-track trials, everyone raised eyebrows and charged the PM with putting pressure on the process. But the PM was only encouraging and asking them not to compromise on parameters.

Everybody in the country heaved a sigh of relief and pride when the PM announced on 15 August 2020 that the vaccines were at various stages of trial and a fully ‘Made in India’ vaccine would be ready soon. While promising that the vaccines would reach every Indian, he said that the distribution roadmap was ready. And both the vaccines, Covishield and Covaxin, after satisfactory trials, were given emergency use authorisation on 3 January 2021.

While India was celebrating and the world looked towards India with hope, the Opposition reacted with bitterness. Some called it haste and dubbed it as vaccine nationalism. Senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor called the approval “unseemly haste”. He said, “Chest-thumping ‘vaccine nationalism’ – combined with the PM’s ‘self-reliant India’ campaigning – trumped common sense and a generation of established scientific protocols”. “Jingoism is no substitute for common sense,” he added. While demanding full disclosure about the trials, CPM leader Sitaram Yechury said that “any attempt to short-circuit the regulatory process for political gains will damage the good reputation built by Indian pharma over the years”. A Samajwadi Party leader called it the “BJP vaccine”. One cannot say whether these leaders were acting at the behest of pharma lobbies that were keen to sell their vaccines to India, but it was certain that they saw the vaccine as the most powerful weapon to solidify Modi’s image as India’s most beloved leader.

Ever since, their single-point agenda has been to damage this image and they have tried their best to argue that the vaccine was going to undermine the health of the people. Thousands of articles and media reports came, opposing vaccine use. No one asked the simple question: can any PM do that? Congress-ruled Chhattisgarh raised objections to the use of Covaxin in immunization even when the programme rolled out on 16 January. Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Kerala opposed Covaxin even when its efficacy was proved after the third phase of trials. The TMC in West Bengal joined the chorus and the Jharkhand government termed people on whom the vaccine would be used as “guinea pigs’’.

All this was bound to impact people negatively. There were reports that many people in Kolkata refused to take Covaxin at private hospitals, saying they would take Covishield instead. For the Opposition, their tirade seemed to work. They had undermined their own vaccine.

‘Who should be vaccinated first?’ This has also been an issue since day one of the vaccination drive. This was the first time that even people who considered themselves powerful did not try to short-circuit the system. Even the Prime Minister had to wait for his turn to take the jab. There was no rush, no scramble to be the first. Everybody knew he would get the jab when his turn came.

At a meeting of the Covid Vaccine Group on 30 June 2020, the PM had formulated four guiding principles for vaccination: “First, vulnerable groups should be identified and prioritized for early vaccination, for example, doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, non-medical frontline corona warriors, and vulnerable people among the general population. Second, vaccination of ‘anyone, anywhere’ should take place without imposition of any domicile-related restrictions for getting the vaccine. Third, vaccination must be affordable and universal – no person should be left behind. And fourth, the entire process from production to vaccination should be monitored and supported in real time with the use of technology.”

Based on international norms and discussions with experts, the Covid Vaccine Group devised the mechanism to roll-out vaccines in India. The target was to vaccinate 30 crore people by August 2021. In the first phase it was open to healthcare and frontline workers whose numbers came to 30 million. In the second phase the free vaccine was applicable to all above the age of 45 and above. The Centre was to take the tab. More than 18 crore people were already vaccinated, having taken one or two doses by Friday, 14 May.

As the PM launched “Vaccine Utsav” from 11 to 14 April to speed up the vaccination drive, the country witnessed a second Covid wave with a severity not imagined by anyone. States that had started celebrating and preparing to bid goodbye to the pandemic, despite warnings from the Centre, and people who had become complacent suddenly found caught in the vortex.

Despite the severity, the trend of the infection was the same. While it severely impacted the younger generation too, close to 70 percent of those affected were in the 70-plus category. The impact could have been mitigated by better preparation and a war-like effort, but helplessness was visible all around. Delhi, which had recorded a peak of close to 9,000 cases on 11 November 2020, crossed the 30,000 mark daily on some days in April 2021.

In this situation, opposition parties discovered that the best way to deflect attention from poor management was to shift the focus to vaccination for people in the age group of 18-44 years. The demand was first made by Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray who on 5 April appealed to the PM to include people in the 25-44 age group. Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal had already written to the PM saying all adults should be vaccinated. Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel wanted this to be extended to 18 years and above. The Indian Medical Association also requested the PM for the same and suggested that public places be opened to those with vaccination certificates.

The Health Ministry responded by saying that the inoculation strategy was crafted to minimize deaths and protect the vulnerable. Union Health Secretary Ranjit Bhushan said, “The basic aim is to reduce death through vaccination. The other aim is to protect the healthcare system. If doctors, nurses and paramedics are infected then who would run the hospitals? These are the two objectives of vaccination in all countries.”

The vaccination objective was not based on demand but need, he stressed, while asking people not to trivialize the government’s decision. He said, “When we talk about opening vaccination to all, our focus reduces on controlling the pandemic. Did you hear about any country that vaccinates those younger than 45 years?”

Rahul Gandhi perhaps sensed an opportunity to score a political point and to create a wedge. He tweeted: “It’s ridiculous to debate needs and wants. Every Indian deserves the chance to a safe life.” Politics hijacked his sense of balance and he ignored the fact that since vaccines were in limited supply it was not possible to open it for all. Chairman of the National Expert Committee on Vaccine Administration VK Paul clarified that when the time would come, this would be open to all.

Rahul Gandhi and his supporting parties raised the issue of vaccine export. “While our nation is facing vaccine starvation, more than 6 crore (60 million) vaccines have been imported,” he said. Such intemperate criticisms can come only from a person who is completely irresponsible and does not bother about the interest of the nation. Vaccine export was a part of the commitment to the GAVI alliance that takes care of poor countries and is applicable to all vaccine manufacturers.

What Gandhi and other Opposition leaders have been saying would have made India a pariah in the international community. The SII alliance with AstraZeneca had clauses for the compulsory sale of vaccines. Considering that the SII depended on crucial raw material from the US to make this vaccine, should India have tried to default on the commitment? One just needs to recall the panic that had been caused when news about the US stopping supplies of raw material for Covishield came out. The Government of India had to intervene to smoothen the process. India’s goodwill earned through vaccine diplomacy has also compelled the world to come to India’s help when it got engulfed in a crisis. Indian vaccines helped the UN peacekeeping forces to continue their operations and also healthcare and frontline workers to work safely to save lives. No wonder world leaders expressed their debt to India for saving the lives of their citizens.

And this export of vaccines did not impact India’s own vaccination programme for the 45-plus category. It was merely a matter of prioritization since vaccines were not available anywhere and it takes time to ramp up production. The Union Government always said that the entire country needs to be vaccinated. To prevent the society from getting divided on vaccines and to enable faster vaccination, the Union Government on 19 April announced vaccination for the 18-44 years category from 1 May. The expert group had been mulling over this already. But it wanted to ensure a smooth supply line and uniform policy.

The government’s new liberalised vaccine policy allowed the two vaccine manufacturers to earmark 50 percent of their production exclusively for the Central government and 50 percent for state governments and the open market. Opposition-ruled states and Congress leaders had already demanded that states be given greater leverage in the procurement of vaccines and that they should not be held hostage by the Centre. Under the new system, states could lift their quota of vaccines based on their population directly from the Centre. They were also allowed to float tenders for procuring vaccines from other manufacturers.

The states that were asking for a liberalised procurement policy suddenly realised that they could not do much since buying it from outside at competitive bidding could be costly. All those who were talking of decentralization suddenly took a U-turn and started demanding that the Centre do the purchasing and give to state governments.

Was the Centre unaware of this? It was fully aware that such a policy could lead to chaos. After its meeting on 12 August 2020, the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for Covid-19 (NEGVAC) had specifically advised all the states “not to chart separate pathways of procurement”.

There was bound to be a vaccine shortage because of the technical issues involved. It needs a different kind of laboratory security and the government cannot risk the lives of people. Already it is taking steps to increase production and the country would soon have sufficient vaccines to give it to other age groups too. But rather than depending on the wisdom of the government, Rahul Gandhi and others started lobbying for other vaccine manufacturers. The Modi government was clear that any vaccine manufacturer must follow the process of bridge trial to test its suitability for India that has a different climatic condition. Some vaccine manufacturers opted out. The pride of a country and lives of people are more important than the ego of these manufacturers.

When the Opposition found that none of these were sticking and that the government was on firm wickets, it raised the issue of differential pricing. How can the Union Government buy the vaccine at the rate of Rs 150 per shot and ask states to buy the same at Rs 300 or private players at Rs 600? This was a way to help vaccine manufacturers make a profit. This argument will not hold ground when seen in the proper context.

The vaccine procured by the Centre is also going to the states and that too free of cost. Differential pricing is a way to encourage private players to keep some margin so that there is an incentive for them to invest in the expansion of capacity. This would also help other global players to come to India. If the government fixes the price for all, this would drive away others and also prohibit investment in research by pharma companies. Competition may bring the prices further down.

All states have declared that they would administer vaccines to people free of cost. The people are thus not impacted by the cost of the vaccine. Why can’t states therefore take the tabs? For example, the Delhi government, which spends crores on advertisements and self-promotion, can easily afford to buy the vaccines. When a BJP-ruled state like Uttar Pradesh, the most populated in the country, can do it, why can’t Maharashtra, the richest, and other states do it too?

Allowing private players would further ease down the burden on the respective states. Those who can afford and don’t mind paying can go to private hospitals and get their jabs. There are many in the country who do not want it for free and would rather go to a private hospital and get the shot of their liking. Why are states trying to stop them from doing this? Availability, not pricing, is the issue.

Federalism is a shared concept. The Centre is under pressure due to a massive investment need for infrastructure. This year alone over Rs 3 lakh crore was spent on health. Besides the emergency need due to Covid, such as extending help to states to strengthen their response system, the government is also setting up hospitals and reinforcing the healthcare system across the country.

Sharing the burden of vaccinating everyone is not a bad proposition. Rather than playing politics and getting elated in their own echo system, which is filled with anti-Modi venom, the Opposition should know that the PM, who worked in a focused way to give India its vaccine, would also ensure that everyone is vaccinated. His timeline is better than yours because he has planned much in advance. Just listen to him and follow him and remember that the virus is the enemy.

The writer is convener of the Media Relations Department of the BJP and represents the party as a spokesperson on TV debates. He has authored the book ‘Narendra Modi: The Game Changer’. The views expressed are personal.

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Opinion

DELHI UNIVERSITY UNDER A CLOUD IN ITS CENTENARY YEAR

Pankaj Vohra

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The country’s premier university, Delhi University, in its centenary year, is in the grip of a major crisis resulting from apparently “illegal and questionable actions” of the ministry for Human Resources Development. The major contentious issue is that the university has a person functioning as the acting Vice Chancellor without the requisite approval of the Visitor, in this case the President of India. Prof P.C. Joshi was appointed as the VC by the ministry following the superannuation of Prof Yogesh Tyagi, who spent the last few months of his tenure under suspension. The objection of those well conversant with the Delhi University Act, its Statutes and Ordinances is that the ministry could not have unilaterally appointed Prof Joshi to serve, even in an acting capacity, without the matter getting the Visitor’s nod.

Here too, there are some alarming serious views that emerge. The Vice Chancellor usually appoints his team of the PVC, the Dean of colleges and the Director, South Campus, soon after assuming office. Prof Tyagi had himself not followed many conventions and established practices in the university and when during the last year of his tenure appointed Prof Joshi as his PVC, he did not obtain the approval of even the Executive Council, which was merely informed, and also the appointment was done without the consent of the Visitor. In Delhi University, the practice has been that once the tenure of the VC ends, those appointed by him to assist him also have to go. In other words, their tenure is co-terminus with the office of the VC. Prof Tyagi retired on 9 March without being reinstated which itself raises many questions, and Prof Joshi was asked by the ministry to continue till such period, a new VC was appointed. In fact, his tenure would have automatically ended with that of Prof Tyagi and in that case, the Registrar should have convened a meeting of the EC to take stock of the situation and to seek the final advice from the Visitor in this regard.

As per knowledgable sources, the Registrar or the senior-most Professor of the university should have been asked to take over for the interim period or whoever the Visitor deemed fit to discharge the functions. Instead, Prof Joshi continued to perform the functions of the VC. The second problem that has arisen is that Prof Joshi also superannuated as professor in the university on 31 May, thus his continuation becomes questionable even on the above grounds. A PVC is appointed from among the professors in the university and if the person ceases to be a professor, how can he be the PVC or the acting VC. To make matters worse, the HRD ministry has not sent any file regarding the DU VC’s position and even the Search Committee has yet to be fully constituted for the appointment of a regular Vice Chancellor.

The DU Executive Council in its meeting had suggested a panel of seven names from which two were picked up by the Dean of Colleges; P.C. Joshi declared that he would not preside over the meeting since he was himself a candidate. The two names—Yogendra Narayan, former Defence Secretary and Secretary General of Rajya Sabha, and Prof Raj Kumar, Vice Chancellor of the Punjab University—exist only in a file that has not been sent to the Visitor to enable him to nominate his own nominee to make the search committee complete. This inordinate delay is on account of the ministry sitting over the DU issue deliberately or inadvertently.

Delhi University certainly does not need to be treated in such a shabby manner in its centenary year where the actions of the acting Vice Chancellor could be legally challenged. There are nearly 20 odd universities which do not have regular VCs and it is high time that the Prime Minister’s Office should intervene and get the matters sorted out. There are more than half-a-dozen ministers in the present government who are the alumnus of this prestigious institution which is crying for help.

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Opinion

LINKING SCHOOLS WITH HIGHER EDUCATION

Higher education needs to come forward in a big way to improve the quality of school education in general and secondary education in particular.

Prof. Ved Prakash

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The growth of higher education has to be synchronous with the school education in the long run. Although well recognised, it needs to be reiterated that the growth of education in most of the developing societies shows commensurate progress across elementary, secondary and post-secondary sectors of education. It has been substantiated through a number of longitudinal studies conducted across the globe. However, there seems to be some incongruity insofar as transition rates in Indian school system are concerned. It requires a whole series of corrective measures as it has serious policy implications for higher education in the country. One of the serious shortcomings of the Indian education system is the lack of linkage across different sectors of education. They have been working in isolation for long as if they have nothing to do with each other. Of them, the higher education sector is primarily responsible for this malaise as it has failed in providing desired level of academic support to its feeder sectors.

It is quite perplexing to find declining trends in transition rates across different sectors, while there is an upward trend in enrolment. Transition rates seem to be moving on a sliding scale as is evident from 2018-19 data. While the transition rates from primary to upper primary and from elementary to secondary are found to be 91 and 90 respectively, it is as low as 69 from secondary to higher secondary. An analysis of the District Information System for Education (DISE) data over a period of five years from 2014-19, reveals another kind of incongruity in transition rates across different sectors of school education. While it shows declining trends from primary to upper primary and elementary to secondary for three consecutive years in a row from 2015-18, a similar trend is seen only for a year (2016-17) in the case of secondary to higher secondary. If we are to attain 50% Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in higher education within 2030, as envisaged in the National Education Policy (NEP), 2020, then it is necessary to ensure commensurate upturn in transition rates across all sectors of school education.

The declining trends of transition rates at school stage would continue to be the main impediments, if not addressed through academic interventions at school stage, to the overall growth of higher education. There are multiple reasons for these declining trends which need to be appreciated and appropriately addressed by the university system in a time bound manner. It is vital to understand that when students transit from one stage to another stage or change classes within or between schools, their teaching and learning are invariably calibrated in accordance with the intended learning outcomes. Some of the critical factors like acclimatisation of students with unacquainted ambience, their social and emotional adjustments are not given as much attention as they deserve. It is primarily because these aspects are not adequately addressed in our teacher training programs.

These problems get accentuated as students move upward because of the load of curriculum and lack of individualised instructions. It not only makes a negative impact on their learning but also affects their ability to withstand the academic pressure and the test of time leading to continuous decline in transition rates in all subsequent stages of education. There are also other factors like socio-personal, academic attainments, average annual dropout rates that contribute to declining trends. With an average annual dropout rate of about 17%, at secondary stage, the transition rate from secondary to post-secondary is going to be much less than the number of places available at that stage. Furthermore, all those who would graduate might not make the cut to higher education due to a variety of reasons like poor marks, fierce competitions, limited seats, financial constraints and several other family obligations.

It is evident that we are losing out a large number of learners at every stage of education and which is why we have been still struggling with the universalisation of elementary education, let alone universalisation of twelve years of schooling. Global experience shows that transitions are more successful in those schools where teachers ensure seamless learning by way of preventing vulnerable students from their disengagement with learning. Since there is an acute shortage of such schools in the entire country, urgent measures need to be taken to ensure seamless learning right from lower primary to senior secondary, without which it would not be possible to realise the goals that have been set in the NEP, 2020. This obviously requires, among others, policy interventions at the level of teacher preparation.

Transition rates across different stages of education can be improved substantially if institutions persistently focus as much on students’ adjustments and acclimatisation as on academic attainments. They need to proactively address curricular as well as social and personal issues of vulnerable students who would predominantly be from marginalised groups of the society. The curricular areas at school stage provide a feeder to the knowledge domains in higher education. Such disciplines, having poor enrolments at the school stage, need to be strengthened to improve the quality and intake in such disciplines so that the higher education system does not remain starved for want of appropriate intakes in those subjects of study. This would of course require proper attention and linkage between school education and higher education which is presently not as appreciable as it ought to be.

Interdisciplinary approach to education is a catchword expressing the reality of higher education in the current context. This orientation to education needs to be attempted through curriculum reforms at secondary education by avoiding insularity of subject disciplines. The current tendency of independent streams like science, commerce, humanities, medical and non-medical need to be merged in such a way that the students can choose from amongst various subjects which cut across physical sciences, biological sciences, social sciences and mathematics. This would require a revisit to curriculum practices at the secondary stage which is generic to orientation to higher education. This is going to help improve the transition rates across different stages of school education. But these curricular changes cannot be accomplished without the active participation of eminent experts from higher education.

Higher education needs to come forward in a big way to improve the quality of school education in general and secondary education in particular. This can be done, among others, by organising continuous professional development programmes for school teachers in different subjects by the higher education system. School teachers need to be familiarised with the developments in curricular areas so that their focus remains on ensuring that nothing is taught which has to be unlearned at the higher education stage. It needs to be noted that major curriculum development projects which have influenced school education all over the world have emanated from the campuses of higher education institutions. This approach has also been instrumental in improving the quality of school education and that in-turn has provided a much better foundational edifice for curriculum reforms even at the higher education level. The higher education system in India is presently insulated from the school education sector in this regard and the gap that exists needs to be bridged through this strategy.

University departments in education, sciences, and social sciences need to generate innovations in pedagogy in the curricular areas of school education so that such an output provides a face-lift to teacher education which is so very vital for the overall qualitative improvement of both school and higher education. Another priority concern in education in the current context is Vocational Education and Training (VET) leading to skills development. Secondary education pass-outs should be one of the feeder streams to the vocational courses at the higher education level, at least in some areas, and it should also provide vertical mobility. Therefore, vocational education at the school stage needs to be strengthened. The present picture is not very encouraging and in its present form it is not going to provide vocational orientation to higher education which is the need of the hour.

There is a need for strengthening certain academic reforms such as semesterisation, choice-based credit system, comprehensive internal evaluation at school stage for the purpose of improving transition rates from school education to higher education. The present position indicates a lot of confusion and lack of will to implement such reforms even at the higher education stage in several universities. Another significant aspect that requires urgent attention is the reform at the level of teacher education. The Education Commission (1964-66) had made a significant recommendation of bringing teacher education for all stages of school education under the umbrella of the university system. This was done to provide a very vital interface between school education and higher education for a holistic and qualitative development of school education. This recommendation has not been implemented thus far. Perhaps the idea can be put to some scholarly discourse now to analyse the implications and possible strategies for realising the objectives in the larger interest of both the school and higher education.

India has the largest system of higher education in terms of number of institutions. But there is hardly any institution of higher learning, except the NCERT, which institutionalised the culture of active engagement with schools. The time has come when higher education institutions across the country should take proactive steps to improve the quality of school curriculum, pedagogical processes, assessment techniques and continuous professional development programmes. They should also undertake action research to improve academic attainments, organise motivational lectures, science exhibitions, summer schools and summer camps to improve the overall quality of school education without which Indian higher education will continue to remain woefully deficient both in quantity and quality.

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

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Opinion

AGRA HOSPITAL WHERE 22 PATIENTS DIED SHOULD BE CHARGED WITH MASS MURDER

Pankaj Vohra

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In a shocking revelation, the owner of a hospital in Agra has claimed on a video that went viral, that he had directed the oxygen supply to some patients to be discontinued for some time to determine, who all could survive without it. As a consequence of this ‘mock drill’ 22 patients died both in the Covid and non-Covid areas of the medical institution. Although the Uttar Pradesh authorities have ordered an inquiry to go into the claim and have suspended the licence of the hospital, yet a strong case is made against those responsible for this gross callous behaviour. If the inquiry establishes any kind of wrongdoing, the owner and all those involved in this brainless exercise should be charged with mass murder, and their case should be put before fast-track court to dispense justice.

These kinds of drills should only be carried under normal circumstances and with adequate precautions and close monitoring by the authorities. In any case, before embarking on this misadventure, the owner and others should have at least kept the district administration posted so they could have also deployed a backup plan.

The entire episode is bizarre and insane and if it had happened in a developed country, lawsuits would have ensured that the hospital authorities would have gone out of business for a long time. In any case, mock drills or real-time things do not mostly work when the actual situations occur. In the early 1980s, the Delhi Fire department learned for the first time that its equipment was inadequate to handle multi-storey fires after a huge blaze at the Gopala Towers at Rajendra Place broke out.

Helicopters that were deployed to pour water from above made things worse since the rotors fanned the fire further. It was in June and the Fire hoses could only go up to a particular height which was not sufficient to bring things under control. The Fire department did not have the requisite equipment to deal with the situation. It was only later that Snorkels and Turn Table ladders were acquired.

Even now, the Fire services in the NCR, particularly in Gurgaon need to be strengthened. With so many multi-storied structures, one shudders to think what would happen if some major untoward incident was to take place. The Disaster Management Committee and the Crisis Management Group, have meetings and plans which need to work when something actually happens.

One can recall that when the Indian Airlines aircraft was hijacked to Kandahar, the telephone numbers at the crisis management office were all found to be outdated. The preparations should factor in various aspects including the presence of multiple authorities that call the shots in the country. Delhi appears to be better prepared than most cities but its contradictions do not seem to be evident to the authorities.

There is an urgent need to review all the plans that have been put in place for any kind of emergency so that things don’t backfire at the apt time. Prevention is the best cure for most situations.

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Opinion

HOW MODI GOVERNMENT IS EMPOWERING FARM ECONOMY

It is time for India’s Opposition and pressure groups to wake up, smell the coffee and change their mindset because the agriculture reforms by the Narendra Modi government are pro-farmers and the new farm laws are indeed India’s ‘Glasnost’ moment, as these reforms will usher in greater transparency in the country’s farm sector. For this government, ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’, is not just a slogan.

Sanju Verma

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What has the Modi government done for the well-being of India’s farm community? This is a question that is often asked. Well, for starters, the government has been transferring cash directly to farmers. Over Rs 1.35 lakh crore has been paid (via PM-KISAN, since its inception, in December 2018) to over 12 crore farmers. From just 255 million tonnes in 2012-13, under an inept Congress regime, to 297.5 million tonnes in 2019-20 and 303.34 million tonnes of foodgrain production in 2020-21, is a vindication of how India’s self-sufficiency, with an exportable surplus in the foodgrain space, has added to India’s economic heft. The latest data available with the Food Corporation of India (FCI) shows wheat procurement crossed 418 lakh metric tonnes (LMT) till May 29, 2021, in the ongoing rabi marketing season (RMS), higher than 390 LMT in RMS 2019-20. The current year’s wheat procurement figure is the highest ever in post-independent India. This is also the first time that wheat procurement has crossed the 400 LMT mark. The record wheat procurement comes just after the all-time high procurement of paddy. In the 2020-21 Kharif marketing season (KMS), paddy procurement crossed 789 LMT, compared to 773 LMT in KMS 2019-20, according to FCI data.

Given the hue and cry over Minimum Support Price (MSP), it is only apt to ask, what has been the track record of the Modi government? Without an iota of doubt, the track record on MSP has been exemplary. Minimum Support Price (MSP) is a form of market intervention by the Central government, to insure agricultural producers against any sharp fall in farm prices. For the 2021-22 crop year, the Modi government raised the MSP of paddy (common variety) by Rs. 72, to Rs 1940 per quintal from Rs 1868 per quintal in the year-ago period. The MSP of Grade A variety of paddy has also been increased by Rs. 72 to Rs. 1960 per quintal this year from Rs. 1888 per quintal last year. Among coarse cereals, the government increased the MSP of jowar (hybrid) by Rs 118 to Rs 2738 per quintal from Rs 2620 per quintal last year.

A similar increase has been made in support price of jowar (Maldani) to Rs 2,758 per quintal for the 2021-22 crop year. The government increased the support price of bajra by Rs 100 to Rs 2,250 per quintal from Rs 2,150 per quintal last year, while ragi support price has been increased by Rs 82 to Rs 3,377 per quintal from Rs 3,295 per quintal last year. The support price of maize has been increased marginally by Rs 20 to Rs 1,870 per quintal for the 2021-22 crop year from Rs 1,850 per quintal last year. The government has made concerted efforts over the last few years to realign the MSPs in favour of oilseeds, pulses, and coarse cereals to encourage farmers to shift to the larger area under these crops and adopt the best technologies and farm practices, to correct the demand-supply imbalance. The added focus on Nutri-rich, Nutri-cereals is to incentivise their production in the areas, where rice-wheat cannot be grown without long-term adverse implications for groundwater table.

To boost pulses and oilseeds’ production and reduce the country’s dependence on imports, the government increased the support price of tur and urad dal by Rs 300 to Rs 6,300 per quintal each. Moong support price has been increased by Rs 79 to Rs 7,275 per quintal for the 2021-22 crop year.

Among Kharif-grown oilseeds, the government increased the support price in the case of sesamum by Rs 452, to Rs 7,307 per quintal and that of groundnut by Rs 275 to Rs 5,550 per quintal for the 2021-22 crop year. Sunflower seed MSP has been increased by Rs 130 to Rs 6,015 per quintal from Rs 5,885 per quintal. For oilseeds, the government has approved an ambitious plan for the free distribution of high-yielding varieties of seeds to the farmers for the Kharif season 2021 in the form of mini-kits.

The special Kharif programme will bring an additional 6.37 lakh hectare area under oilseeds and is likely to produce 120.26 lakh quintals of oilseeds and edible oil amounting to 24.36 lakh quintals. On fertilisers, retail prices of di-ammonium phosphate (DAP) recently rose in line with global markets, but the government increased the subsidy portion to ensure farmers continue to get the key soil nutrient at Rs 1,200 per bag. In effect, subsidy on DAP was raised by a massive 140% from Rs 500 to Rs 1,200 per bag.

Coming to the Modi government’s track record, the numbers speak for themselves. MSP payment to farmers for paddy rose by 2.4 times to Rs 4.95 lakh crore between 2014 and 2019 under the Modi government, as against only Rs 2.06 lakh crore, under the previous, Congress-led regime, between 2009 and 2014. MSP to farmers for wheat increased by 1.77 times during 2014-19, to Rs 2.97 lakh crore, compared to Rs 1.68 lakh crore in the 2009-14 period. MSP payment for pulses surged by a whopping 75 times under the Modi government to Rs 49,000 crore from 2014-19, compared to a measly Rs 645 crore, under the Congress-led UPA-2. Payment to farmers for Oilseeds and Copra also surged 10 times under the Modi government, to Rs 25,000 crore, during the last five years, in comparison to MSP payment of just Rs 2,460 crore, in the period from 2009 to 2014, under the Congress-led, United Progressive Alliance (UPA) establishment.

Has the Modi government been fair to farmers in Punjab? Well, the straight answer to that is a loud and clear, ‘yes’. In April and May 2021, a little over Rs 21,000 was paid to wheat-growing farmers as MSP, of which a solid Rs 8,200 crore was paid to farmers in Punjab alone. Do the farm bills dismantle the existing ‘APMC-Anaj Mandi’ structure? No, they do not. Going forward, farmers will have the choice and freedom to sell their produce either at APMC designated wholesale Mandis or in ‘Trade Areas’. There will be no taxes or levies of either State or Central government, on trade conducted in these ‘Trade Areas’, thereby reducing the cost of transaction in the entire food chain, from farm to fork. Hence, the whole narrative that ‘Trade Areas’ are anti-farmer is false.

Talking of farm infrastructure, the Modi government launched a new Agriculture Infrastructure Fund worth Rs/ 1 lakh crore, meant for setting up storage and processing facilities, which will help farmers get higher prices for their crops. The government launched the Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana – a flagship scheme for focused development of the fisheries sector in the country, with an estimated investment of Rs. 20,050 crore during a period of the next five years. The Modi government also launched a Rs. 15,000 crore Animal Husbandry Infrastructure Development Fund with an interest subsidy scheme to promote investment by private players and MSMEs in dairy, meat processing, and animal feed plants, a move which is expected to create 35 lakh jobs. So the government has been working at strengthening farm infrastructure. This, along with the new Farm Laws (in abeyance temporarily), will boost the productivity of the agrarian sector to areas beyond just growing traditional crops like paddy or wheat.

The Farm Laws also allow for contract farming, whereby farmers can enter into contracts, at a predetermined price, even before the crop has been harvested, with private companies, aggregators, food processors, and exporters. This is an unprecedented reform, as it allows farmers to lock in a good price for their harvest and insulates them from any post-harvest, product-related, or price volatility. The formation of 10,000 Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) is on track. These FPOs are largely clusters or groups of farmers who are brought together so that credit and other assistance can be extended to them. There are already about 5000 FPOs in India, of which only a handful are private. More than 3900 FPOs are affiliated to NABARD or small farmers’ agri-business consortium (SFAC). Hence allegations of corporatisation and blanket privatisation of Indian agriculture are baseless.

Huge growth has been seen in the export of cereals with the export of non-basmati rice growing by 136.04% to $4794.54 million, wheat by 774.17% to $549.16 million, and other cereals (millets, maize, and other coarse gains) by 238.28% to $694.14 million in FY21. India’s agriculture exports (including marine and plantation products) have beaten the pandemic, registering a growth of 17.34% to $41.25 billion in 2020-21. In Rupee terms, the increase in agri exports is 22.62%, with exports during 2020-21 amounting to Rs 3.05 lakh crore as compared to Rs 2.49 lakh crore during 2019-20.

India’s agricultural and allied imports during 2019-20 were USD 20.64 billion and the corresponding figures for 2020-21 are $20.67 billion. Despite Covid, the balance of trade in agriculture has improved by 42.16% from $14.51 billion to $20.58 billion.

For agriculture products (excluding marine and plantation products), the growth is 28.36% with exports of $29.81 billion in 2020-21 as compared to $23.23 billion in 2019-20. India has been able to take advantage of the increased demand for staples during the Covid period. Huge growth has been seen in the export of cereals with the export of non-basmati rice growing by 136.04% to $4794.54 million; wheat by 774.17% to $549.16 million; and other cereals (millets, maize, and other coarse gains) by 238.28% to usd 694.14 million.

The organic exports during 2020-21 were $1,040 million as against $689 million in 2019-20, registering a growth of 50.94%. Organic exports include oil cake/meals, oilseeds, cereals and millets, spices and condiments, tea, medicinal plant products, dry fruits, sugar, pulses, coffee, etc. Exports have also taken place from several clusters for the first time. For instance, the export of fresh vegetables and mangoes from Varanasi and black rice from Chandauli has taken place for the first time, directly benefiting farmers of the area. Exports have also taken place from other clusters viz. oranges from Nagpur, bananas from Theni and Ananthpur, mangoes from Lucknow, etc. Despite the pandemic, export of fresh horticulture produce took place by multimodal mode, and consignments were shipped by air and sea to Dubai, London, and other destinations from these areas. Hand holding by the Modi government, to build market linkages, post-harvest value chains, and an institutional structure such as FPOs, enabled North East farmers to send their value-added products beyond the Indian borders. Cereal exports have done well during 2020-21. The country has been able to export to several countries for the first time. For example, rice has been exported to countries like Timor-Leste, Puerto Rico, Brazil, for the first time. Similarly, wheat has been exported to countries like Yemen, Indonesia, Bhutan, and other cereals have been exported to Sudan, Poland, Bolivia.

Sugarcane-growing farmers too have benefitted in a big way, via an export subsidy of Rs. 3500 crore that was announced last year. The FRP of sugarcane at Rs 285 is 175% if the cost of production. The decision to increase ethanol blending to 20% by 2025 and increase procurement and capacity build-up of ethanol from 38 crore litres in 2014 to 195 crore litres, are big moves. In-principle approval was given last year to 185 sugar mills and standalone distilleries to avail Rs. 12,500 crore of loans for capacity addition of about 468 crore litres of ethanol per annum, as part of Modi government’s efforts to achieve 20% blending with petrol. In the last two years alone, 70 ethanol projects were sanctioned loans of Rs 3600 crore. Under the ethanol interest subvention scheme for molasses-based distilleries, the government in September 2020 also opened a window for 30 days to invite more applications from sugar mills and distilleries. In the normal sugar season, about 320 lakh tonnes of sugar is produced against domestic consumption of 260 lakh tonnes.

This 60 lakh tonnes of surplus sugar which remains unsold, blocks funds of sugar mills to the tune of about Rs 19,000 crore every year, thereby affecting liquidity positions of sugar mills resulting in accumulation of cane price arrears of farmers, the ministry said.

To deal with surplus sugar stocks, the government is providing financial assistance to mills for the export of sweeteners.

However, India being a developing country can export sugar by extending financial assistance for marketing and transport only up to 2023 as per WTO arrangements. For long-term solution to deal with surplus sugar, the government has therefore been encouraging diversion of excess sugarcane and sugar to ethanol for supplying to Oil Marketing Companies (OMCs) for blending with petrol. The move would not only reduce import dependency on crude oil but will also enhance the income of sugarcane farmers.

Financial assistance is being extended by way of interest subvention for 5 years at a 6% rate of interest against the loans availed by sugar mills and distilleries from banks, for setting up their projects. The existing installed capacity of molasses-based distilleries has reached a massive, 426 crore litres. In 2020-21, the target has been to supply 325 crore litres of ethanol to OMCs for achieving 8.5% blending. In the next few years, with 20% ethanol blending with petrol, the Modi government will be able to reduce the import of crude oil, a step towards being Aatmanirbhar in the petroleum sector and this will also help in increasing the income of farmers and creating additional employment in distilleries.

To cut to the chase, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, famously said, “Mind is never a problem; Mindset is”. Well, it is time for India’s hapless opposition and pressure groups to wake up, smell the coffee and change their mindset, because the agri-reforms by the Modi government are pro farmers and the Farm Bills are indeed India’s “Glasnost” moment, as these reforms will usher in greater transparency, in India’s farm economy. For the Modi government, ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’, is not a mere slogan. The journey of the “Bharatiya Kisan” from being the “Annadata”, to also becoming the ‘Urjaadata’, is at the core of Modinomics.

The writer is an economist, national spokesperson of the BJP, and the bestselling author of ‘Truth & Dare: The Modi Dynamic’. Views expressed are her personal.

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HAS SECOND COVID-19 WAVE OPENED THE DOORS FOR OPPOSITION?

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s expertise at using strategic electoral cards to win elections has received a setback in the recently-held West Bengal Assembly elections. Ironically, while the second wave of the pandemic may be held accountable for diminishing the appeal of what was once projected as a Modi-wave, the West Bengal results convey a different message.

PM Modi needs to be on guard against strong state leaders. Voters have conveyed this by choosing to support Mamata Banerjee’s party in these polls. Clearly, regional parties with a firm base in their respective states and headed by popular leaders cannot be easily defeated and cornered by however strong national parties and their respective leaders are.

Of course, the coming year—with seven states heading for Assembly elections—may spell a different political scenario. Uttar Pradesh (UP), Punjab, and Gujarat are three of these states. While it is as yet too early to consider the prospects of BJP in UP and Gujarat, the return of Congress to power in Punjab cannot be ruled out.

In UP, a lot is dependent on how BJP’s rival parties play their cards. It may be recalled, during 2017 Assembly polls in UP, in a notable number of seats, total votes won by Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP) exceeded those secured by BJP by more than 20,000 votes. While BJP won 312 seats, BSP and SP managed to get only 19 and 47 respectively. Yet, it cannot be missed, BSP won around 22% votes, SP- 21%, while BJP secured 39% votes. This hard reality apparently prompted SP and BSP to align during the 2019 parliamentary elections. While BJP retained its lead in 2019, it won 62 seats, nine lesser than it had secured in 2014; BSP won 10, SP five, and the Congress only one seat. Perhaps, had its two rivals not remained divided in the 2014 parliamentary elections and 2017 Assembly polls, BJP’s fate may have been decided by a lesser number of seats.

Undeniably, the impact of the Modi wave cannot be ignored in deciding the BJP’s luck; the Modi wave doesn’t seem to be at the peak currently. This has suffered substantially because of Covid-19. It has certainly limited the electoral appeal of master cards exercised by PM Modi while campaigning. This also includes his ‘Ayodhya card’. Success on this front helped him dominate headlines for some time. The same may be said about his government’s decision regarding Jammu & Kashmir’s status, Triple Talaq, and also the more controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Yet, the second wave of the Covid-19 may have left a majority of Indians too tensed to be distracted by these issues

But, PM Modi and his team are least likely to give up on their master card. This is partly suggested by the repeat telecast of the once highly popular serial Ramayana. Indians are as religious as they were when this serial was first telecast during the late eighties on government channel Doordarshan. Ninety percent of the Indian population, which includes non-Hindus also, sat glued to their TV screens to watch this serial. There were also reports of some devout persons viewing the serial as a religious exercise. Some groups would indulge in violence, if due to some reason, there was a powe-cut, disrupting the serial’s telecast.

That was in the eighties, more than three decades ago, when the communication boom had not hit India. Compared to several hundred channels now, there was only one channel in the eighties, and that too for select hours. Now, viewers have the option to switch on channels round the clock. Besides, several religious programmes, including serials, are available now but the question of each and/or all being given the ‘religious’ importance that Ramayana-serial was in the late eighties is as good as non-existent.

In addition, the mobile era had not yet entered the scene then. Nor had the computer followed by the Internet. So people had no access to various means of communication that they now have. From one angle, Narendra Modi has the advantage of using multiple means of communication to spread ‘news’ about his accomplishments. The same may be used to increase negative campaigns against his rivals. Unfortunately, for him, the Covid phase has substantially derailed the expected positive impact of these electoral strategies.

During his UP campaign, BJP leaders may well be expected to talk of BJP winning all the 403 assembly seats. But as suggested, a lot may be decided by rival parties’ nature of aligning and campaigning. It would be sensible of Congress to maintain a low profile in UP in the way it seems to have done in West Bengal. This once-dominant party needs to focus more on retaining its base in Punjab, as it has a long way to go in UP. Congress won only seven seats in 2017 and 6.25% votes. There is a view that in Bihar assembly polls, the political results may have been different had Congress not insisted on contesting from 70 seats. It won 19 seats. At present, Congress needs to give more importance to respecting the strength of BJP’s rivals and aligning with them accordingly, rather than displaying over-confidence about its reach

Covid’s phase 2 has caught the BJP off-guard and there may be fewer chances of much-tried strategic electoral cards bearing the same relevance for voters. Prime Minister Modi’s recent national address is an indicator of him acting so as not to let his mastery of over communication strategies go off-track and get derailed by the effects of the pandemic.

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THE ETERNAL LEGACY OF INDRA DEVI

In the late 1930s, Eugenie Peterson, aka Indra Devi, launched her yoga school in Shanghai and became the first person in modern history to bring the ancient Indian practice to China. Her compassionate efforts made yoga accessible to everyone. Today in many nations, Indra Devi remains a name synonymous with contemporary yoga.

Bhuvan Lall

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On a splendid morning in March 1948, Marilyn Monroe stepped into the studio at Columbia Pictures where a photographer awaited her arrival. Just a year earlier she had made her Hollywood debut with The Shocking Miss Pilgrim. Her screen-time was so short that if one blinked one would miss her part. Five more insignificant roles later, Columbia Studio boss Harry Cohn spotted potential in the youngster and decided to offer her a six-month contract. At the studio, Oscar-winning still photographer Edward Cronenweth, renowned for publicity shots of Hollywood’s biggest stars adjusted his lenses. As he looked through the viewfinder, he saw a woman more beautiful than most stars with cobalt blue eyes and golden blonde hair. That day, he didn’t realize that the black and white photographs he shot for Columbia would be prized by private collectors and museums for decades. For Marilyn Monroe effortlessly posed for him in a sequence of body postures and twisted like a pretzel. It was Yoga– an import from India that was gently conquering Hollywood.

In another part of Los Angeles, at 8806 Sunset Boulevard, in a room filled with Americans, an amazing woman stood on her head. Her acquired name was Indra Devi and she demonstrated ‘shirshasana’ or headstand. Then the woman, responsible for figuratively turning Hollywood upside down in a picture-perfect move, stood back on her feet. Diminutive in stature but not in grace she explained to her enthusiastic students, some of whom were celebrities, “Yoga is an art and science of living. Yoga in Sanskrit means union, in all its significances and dimensions. Through a certain amount of physical and mental disciplines, we can learn how to stay healthy, alert, receptive and to improve our perception of the external world to feel internally harmonized, with a better life condition and spiritual balance.” Indra Devi fashioned Yoga as India’s most prominent export to the world before information technology.

Indra Devi’s fascinating life story commenced on 12 May 1899 in Riga, Latvia. She began her life as Eugenie Peterson. She was the daughter of Vasili Pavlovich Peterson, a Swedish Banker, and Sasha Zitovich, a Russian aristocrat. Her parents divorced when she was one and in her youth, she enrolled in a drama school in Moscow. Then the ten days of October 1917 shook the world and wrecked Eugenie’s life. The Communist takeover forced Eugenie and her mother to flee Latvia overnight. Along with thousands of refugees, her family too was deprived of their wealth. To make ends meet, she employed her formal drama training and became a stage artist in Berlin’s theatres. After the unforeseen devastation of the Russian Revolution and the First World War, European nobility partly inspired by George Gurdjieff, the Greek-Armenian mystic, seriously turned towards eastern philosophies. In her early years, Eugenie stumbled upon 14 Lessons in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism, by American author William Walter Atkinson. From that moment onwards, her heart was set on discovering India. In 1926, Eugenie heard the charismatic Indian sage, Jiddu Krishnamurthy singing sacred Sanskrit hymns at Ommen, Holland. There was no turning back. She sold all her jewels, bid farewell to a fiancé, and on 17 November 1927, boarded a ship in Italy destined for India.

In India, Eugenie traveled across the country as a backpacker. Deeply immersed in Indian culture, she learned to wrap a sari, eat without tableware, relish vegetarian cuisine and speak Hindi. India was in the middle of the tumultuous freedom movement, and she paid homage to the leading lights of the period including Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Sarojini Naidu and corresponded with Jawaharlal Nehru. Two years later on her second trip to India, she took lessons in classical dance. She performed in Bombay (Mumbai) the home of the nascent Indian film industry. In those early years besides finances, the filmdom was severely short of female actors. A major filmmaker Bhagwati Prasad Mishra witnessed the dance performance of Eugenie. He instantly cast the blue-eyed Russian girl as the heroine in his silent film, Sher-e-Arab (The Arabian Knight). Eugenie accepted the role since she had a history in theatre and needed money. Mishra gave her a screen name— Indra Devi (heavenly goddess). Later, she found herself on a film set in a gypsy skirt with a long, dark, braided wig and turban. Across from her was the hero of the film, the handsome rising star Prithviraj Kapoor. The success of Mishra’s Sher-e-Arab established her as the new star of the Indian cinema. Six films later, Eugenie’s tryst with stardom ended with the introduction of sound. Nonetheless, the brief star status automatically provided her with a brand name for the rest of her life.

Subsequently, Eugenie was courted by Jan Strakati, the middle-aged Commercial Attaché at the Czechoslovak Consulate in Bombay and soon they were husband and wife. In 1937 Eugenie bored of the predictable routines of a diplomat’s spouse experienced panic attacks that demanded medical attention. Later the couple was guests of Maharaja Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV, the philosopher-king of Mysore where the legendary yoga guru Tirumalai Krishnamacharya was the yogi-in-residence. Krishnamacharya was a remarkable man, who had vast knowledge of several disciplines and had studied Yoga from a master in Tibet. In 1935 with a ram-rod straight posture he openly demonstrated his ability to stop his heartbeat to a baffled French cardiologist Thérèse Brosse who certified it. At fifty, he had singlehandedly resurrected the millennia-old practice of Yoga. His most famous disciples were two teenagers, B.K.S. Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois, who later established the Iyengar and Ashtanga schools. Eugenie keen to recover from her illness expressed a desire to learn Yoga from Krishnamacharya. But the Grand Master stood on the threshold of the Mysore yogashala (school) at the Jaganmohan Palace, and didn’t let her step in as he had never taught a female student or a westerner. The Maharaja of Mysore in an attempt to unify the East and the West intervened and Krishnamacharya ultimately relented. As the first foreigner and a woman to be admitted to the yogashala, Eugenie observed its strict discipline and severe lifestyle protocol. Krishnamacharya customarily denied his students meals if their performance was deemed inadequate. Eugenie later told the Yoga Journal, “He was very strict with me, thinking that I would not keep up with the regime that he imposed on me”. But even though she was in her late thirties she was equal to every challenge Krishnamacharya set for her. She gave up coffee and turned into a strict vegetarian. Krishnamacharya taught her about the importance of breathing properly, relaxation, diet, and the significance of fasting. The Yoga training was designed to strengthen her body with a series of poses, shoulder stands, headstands, breathing exercises in the Lotus pose, and meditative practice for quietening the mind. The year-long punishing schedule helped her regain her health and the panic attacks vanished. After Strakati was posted to Shanghai, Krishnamacharya directed Eugenie to take Yoga to the world and trained her to be a yoga teacher. With an appetite for adventure, she sailed for Shanghai and to her surprise remained calm right through the stormy journey. She now accepted her life’s mission to be the global ambassador of Yoga.

In the late 1930s, Eugenie in a sari boldly launched her Yoga school in Shanghai and became the first person in modern history to bring the ancient Indian practice to China. Her style of teaching Yoga was characterized by compassion that made it accessible to everyone. Americans and Russians stationed in Shanghai along with the curious Chinese population were her initial trainees. Gradually her Yoga classes in the Chinese language multiplied, and she relocated from modest apartments to the spacious bungalow of Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Then the World War Two interrupted her life and the Japanese army ordered her to teach the staff of the American Consulate who were incarcerated. After enduring the desolation of the war, the emotionally exhausted Strakati returned to Czechoslovakia. Eugenie traveled to India again. She lived in the Himalayas and published her first book on Yoga. Subsequently, Eugenie sought a new direction in her life. At almost fifty she recognized that teaching Yoga was her only pursuit. Globally it was viewed as a mystical journey, however, she perceived it as India’s invaluable gift to humanity. Deeply influenced by Swami Vivekananda’s sensational Chicago address at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893, Eugenie intuitively boarded the troop carrier USS General W. H. Gordon in Shanghai and crossed the Pacific. She was poised to be one of the twentieth century’s most influential women in the world of Yoga.

Americans were drawn towards Indian spiritual traditions for decades. After Vivekananda’s awe-inspiring lecture tours, Vedanta Centres sprung up across America with one located in Hollywood. In the 1920s Swami Yogananda Paramahansa arrived in California and declared, “I have always considered Los Angeles to be the Benares of America.” He created three Self Realization Fellowship Temples in the Los Angeles area with two at either end of Sunset Boulevard. Even Jiddu Krishnamurti established his home eighty miles northwest of Los Angeles in Ojai. Eugenie disembarked at San Francisco on 21 January 1947 and one year later unveiled her business on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood in Los Angeles. A modest billboard placed outside the Yoga studio stated “Indra Devi Yoga Classes”. It wasn’t easy initially. Still, the former Indian star persevered. As an accomplished practitioner, she judiciously presented Yoga on American soil as a defense against illness and aging. She also restructured the ancient discipline to appeal to American sensibilities with moderately challenging poses. The articulate teacher elegantly dressed in a light sari brought an exceptional freshness to the Yoga scene of the youth-obsessed and anxiety-driven Hollywood community. Regular saleswomen, factory workers, and famous stars with their perfectly coiffed hair flocked to her studio to embrace Yoga. She clarified in slight Russian accent that her reasonably priced classes were resolutely free of religion, and added, “Yoga has a very illuminating and practical message for our restless, insecure and spiritually forlorn world of today”. Soon her clients benefitting significantly from Yoga sat in lotus poses and did headstands at homes, offices, factory floors, on the beaches, and the film sets, to restore their energy and vitality. Over time Indra Devi became a Hollywood celebrity.

Strakati passed away in Czechoslovakia in early 1953 and Indra Devi married Dr. Siegrid Knauer who advocated preventive medicine instead of antibiotics. Four years later she received her American citizenship in her new legal name— Indra Devi. As the new-age power couple in Hollywood, Indra Devi and Dr. Knauer entertained many Californians interested in the eastern way of life at their Nichols Canyon home and Yoga Studio. These included Aldous Huxley, Greta Garbo, Igor Stravinsky and Jennifer Jones. In January 1955, she published the bestseller Forever Young Forever Healthy, and her biggest celebrity client, the film star Gloria Swanson’s endorsement asserted, “In her book, Indra Devi reveals her splendid path to wellbeing.” Indira Devi dedicated her second book Yoga for Americans (1959) to Swanson, and Yehudi Menuhin wrote the Foreword. Her books about Yoga as toolkits for work-life balance received nationwide acclaim. Marilyn Monroe who owned a copy claimed that Yoga improved her legs. Elizabeth Arden introduced Yoga elements in her fashionable saloons. Even superstar Elvis Presley sang, ‘Yoga is as yoga does.’ Till the arrival of gifted Indian yogis to American shores in the 1960s, Indra Devi was the practice’s cover girl nationwide.

Soon Indra Devi’s fame as an amazing yoga trainer reached the rest of the world. In 1960 she returned to her motherland Russia and Indian Ambassador K.P.S. Menon facilitated her meeting with the Soviet leadership at the Kremlin. Speaking fluent Russian at the reception, she assured Andrei Gromyko and Anastas Mikoyan that Yoga was not a religious practice but a method of holistic development. After her thought-provoking talk, Gromyko proposed a toast: “To Indra Devi… who opened our eyes to Yoga”. Eventually, Kremlin removed the ban on Yoga. Dr. Knauer died on 21 December 1984, and Indra Devi once again followed her inner voice and relocated to Argentina in February 1985. The rest of her years were spent zealously propagating Yoga through the ‘Fundacion Indra Devi’, in Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Egypt, Germany, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Russia, Spain, Uruguay, and the Philippines. In 1990, her appearance in a lotus pose while defining Yoga on a popular Russian TV show made her an instant celebrity and the next day she was mobbed on Moscow’s streets. Indra Devi celebrated her century on planet earth on 12 May 1999 in Buenos Aires with three thousand of her fans in attendance. By now, millions of her students worldwide affectionally called her Mataji (mother) and for Argentina, the Spanish-speaking teacher was a national treasure.

The global ambassador of Yoga lived through some significant moments of the twentieth century on four continents and acquired twelve tongues. Indra Devi passed away in Argentina on 25 April 2002, just short of 103. Right through her extraordinary life, Indra Devi leveraged her high-profile friendships to teach the world the form of Yoga she had mastered in the modest Mysore yogashala. Today in many nations, Indra Devi remains a name synonymous with contemporary Yoga.

Bhuvan Lall is the biographer of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Lala Har Dayal. He can be contacted at writerlall@ gmail.com.

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