The News Editorial Analysis 11th Dec 2021

The News Editorial Analysis 11th Dec 2021

The News Editorial Analysis 11th Dec 2021

PM moots social media, cryptocurrency norms

The News Editorial Analysis 11th Dec 2021

Modi addresses Summit for Democracy convened by Biden

Democracies should jointly deal with social media and cryptocurrencies, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a virtual address at the Summit for Democracy, hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden, on Friday.

Mr. Modi said India is the largest democracy in the world and has 2,500-year-old democratic traditions. He proposed to share India’s democratic experience through digital solutions.

“We must also jointly shape global norms for emerging technologies like social media and cryptocurrencies, so that they are used to empower democracy, not undermine it,” Mr. Modi said.

The summit was convened by Mr. Biden to strengthen democracies around the world. Opening the summit on Thursday, he announced the establishment of the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, under which the administration plans to provide $424.4 million for supporting free and independent media, fighting corruption, strengthening democratic reforms, advancing technology for democracy, and defending free and fair elections.

Mr. Modi said democracy had taken various shapes across the world, and there was a need to work on the democratic practices.

Mutual learning

“Different parts of the world have followed different paths of democratic development. There is much we can learn from each other. We all need to constantly improve our democratic practices and systems. And, we all need to continuously enhance inclusion, transparency, human dignity, responsive grievance redressal and decentralisation of power,” he said.

Mr. Modi referred to the civilisational tradition of democracy in India, citing the ancient city states under the Lichhavis and others that flourished in India during the late Vedic and Buddhist periods and continued till the early medieval period. Mr. Modi said democratic traditions had made ancient India the “most prosperous”.

“Centuries of colonial rule could not suppress the democratic spirit of the Indian people. It again found full expression with India’s Independence and led to an unparalleled story in democratic nation building over the past 75 years,” Mr. Modi said.

The Prime Minister said India would be happy to share “expertise” in organising “free and fair elections” and in increasing “transparency in all areas of governance through innovative digital solutions”.

“Democracy is not only of the people, by the people, for the people, but also with the people, within the people,” he added.

Coal production hit for second day in a row

Coal production remained paralysed across the underground coal mines and the opencast projects (OCPs) of the Singareni Collieries Company Limited (SCCL) as the 72-hour strike by the workers of the State-owned coal company entered the second day on Friday. The second-day strike saw an overwhelming number of workers, except for the essential staff, abstaining from duties for the second day in a row in pursuit of their charter of demands.

Centre says no proposal to scrap sedition law

Plea against Section 124A in SC: Rijiju

Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju on Friday told the Lok Sabha that the Ministry of Home Affairs had no proposal under consideration to scrap Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code that deals with sedition.

Mr. Rijiju also informed the House that “the question of law” regarding Section 124A was pending for adjudication before the Supreme Court.

Ajmal’s question

The Minister was responding to a question from Assam MP and All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) chief Badruddin Ajmal on whether the Supreme Court had recently termed the sedition law as colonial and made an observation that it was being misused, and whether the court had directed the Government to submit its response on the necessity and validity of the law. “No such observations have been found in any judgment or order delivered by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India,” the Law Minister said in a written reply.

Ambit and parameters

However, Mr. Rijiju said that in a writ petition, the top court had observed that the “ambit and parameters of the provisions of Sections 124A, 153A and 505 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 would require interpretation, particularly in the context of the right of the electronic and print media to communicate news, information and the rights, even those that may be critical of the prevailing regime in any part of the nation”.

Omicron tally rises to 32, symptoms mild: Centre

7 new cases take Maharashtra tally to 17

With the detection of seven new cases of the Omicron variant of novel coronavirus in Maharashtra and two in Gujarat, the total number of cases in the country touched 32 on Friday.

Maharashtra now has 17 cases, followed by nine in Rajasthan, three in Gujarat, two in Karnataka, and one in Delhi. In Maharashtra, three new cases, including a three-and-half-year-old child, were reported from Mumbai, and four from Pimpri Chinchwad Municipal Corporation in Pune.

Addressing a press conference, Lav Agarwal, Joint Secretary, Union Health Ministry, said, “Mainly mild symptoms have been seen in the cases of Omicron variant detected so far.”

“Clinically, Omicron so far hasn’t posed burden to the healthcare system but we have to be vigilant,” cautioned Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) Director-General Balram Bhargava. He added that vaccination and COVID-appropriate behaviour continue to be the best protection against the virus.

Dr. Bhargava said the ICMR “will test efficacy of the vaccines against Omicron while following protocol”.

Goods and Services Tax as an unfinished agenda

Seen purely from a revenue point of view and as a fiscal policy tool, India’s GST is still on a rocky road

GST, or Goods and Services Tax, an institutional tax innovation intensively marketed in many countries by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, was wrapped in a “one nation one tax” package, and was accepted by India on the midnight of July 1, 2017. Despite the alleged haste in its launching by the central government, there were adaptations to make it to suit the Indian context.

Hailed as a landmark reform in India’s tax history, it was expected to improve tax-GDP ratio, end tax cascading, enhance efficiency, competitiveness, growth, and ensure lower prices. It was also projected as a watershed in India’s fiscal federalism. While the States have forgone a substantial part of their own tax revenue, they were in turn guaranteed a GST compensation assuring 14% growth in their GST revenue during the initial five years. Many exemptions, along with different tax rates, as against the single rate in many countries, have been accommodated to protect the interests of different stakeholders.

Unresolved issues

Even after 50 months in existence, a number of relevant issues, both for policy and action, remain unresolved. A recently held international seminar on GST, organised by the Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation that brought together experts from India and select countries (Malaysia, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico and Canada), was the venue for a sui generis policy debate focusing on India’s GST experience. We, as participant observers, cherry-pick some of the observations that were made for reflection by policymakers and the wider public.

The base and pillars

India’s GST architecture is built on the firm foundations of a GST Council and the GST Network (GSTN). The first is the key decision-making body, chaired by the Union Finance Minister with a Minister of State in charge of Finance and the Finance Ministers of States as members. This is envisaged as a due federal process to protect the interests of the States. GSTN generates high frequency data and subjects them to analytics for informed policy making. Built on this foundation, India’s GST paradigm stands on two key pillars: revenue neutrality and GST compensation for the States. Designed on the principle of destination-based consumption taxation, with seamless provision for input tax credit with CGST levied by the Centre, SGST by the States, UTGST by the Union Territories, and IGST levied on inter-State supply including imports, GST is applicable to all goods and services except alcohol for human consumption and five specified petroleum products with a common threshold exemption applicable to both CGST and SGST.

The assured revenue neutrality remains a mirage and many States have experienced a declining tax-GDP ratio. Studies show that in the case of major 18 States, the ratio of own tax revenue to GDP has declined. While the share of the Centre in total GST increased by 6%, that of States put together lagged behind with only a 4.5% increase. Stark differences between the Revenue Neutral Rates (RNR) for the producing States and consumption State have been observed. States producing exempted food grains also lost out.

Since the rates were lower under GST vis-à-vis the VAT regime, revenue neutrality was not adhered ab initio. The problems were compounded with massive evasion following the dismantling of check posts, and later on fake invoices, that grew by leaps and bounds. Exemptions and subventions complicated and worsened the situation. The South African experience illustrates how zero rating and large exemptions have defeated revenue goals. In Mexico, although the country relied more on income tax, with a standard rate of 16% they could raise over 4% of GDP from GST.

Reviewing 30 years of the Canadian experience with GST, it is shown that GST could be improved by limiting zero rating, tax-exemptions and harmonising tax rates. The Brazilian experience indicates that transfers through social security or subsides tend to be more progressive than subventions or exemptions because reduced rates or zero rating do not usually get passed on to target groups or industries as happening in India. The resilience of the economy at the time of rolling out of GST is critical for its wider reception as the Australian experience shows. However, India was in the reverse gear given the downturn following demonetisation.

GST in India was possible only because the States surrendered much of their constitutionally inherited indirect taxes. While the States collectively forewent 51.8% of their total tax revenue, the Centre surrendered only 28.8%. Yet, GST is shared equally between the Centre and States despite two expert committees recommended for a higher share for the States. Given the revenue neutrality failure and the host of other issues, many of the States are left with no option except to depend on GST compensation. While compensation legitimately has to coexist with GST, even the constitutionally guaranteed compensation for five years has not been implemented in letter and spirit, forcing the States to beg for their entitlement. This is not conducive to sustainable co-operative federalism.

IGST woes, other points

Although IGST is a key source of revenue for many of the States, the clearing house mechanism and the process therein remains terra incognita. It was pointed out that GST is discriminatory to manufacturing States, indicating the need for a revenue sharing formula that duly incentivises exporting States by sharing IGST revenue among three parties instead of two. The Malaysian experience demonstrates the need for swift and transparent functioning of the input tax credit system through a flawless IT infrastructure. Malaysia ended up abandoning GST owing to these woes. We operate in an almost information vacuum especially with respect to IGST along with several glitches in the digital architecture. GSTN is now in the doldrums. It neither makes effective use of the massive and invaluable data being generated nor shares them to enable others to make use of them. Such practice in “data monopoly” was a fact of history in India’s statistical system and has to go sooner rather than later.

Australia, having several similarities with India, in terms of Centre and the subnational units, and destination-based, multi-stage tax with input credit provisions, has not been revenue-buoyant. The GST revenue of Australia has fallen relative to GDP from 3.85% in 2003-04 to 3.28% in 2018-19. It is a matter for consideration whether such adventures such as widening exemptions and the replacing of income-tax by GST in the case of small and medium enterprises are advisable measures in the Indian context.

GST should be seen purely from a revenue point of view and as a fiscal policy tool for efficiency, competitiveness and growth. Even by this standard, India’s GST is still on a rocky road, with several of the assumptions falling flat while expectations stand belied. Neither the States nor the consumers seem to have benefited since the rate reductions are not translated into prices due to profiteering and cascading. Despite many years of efforts in evolving an Indianised GST system and over 50 months of adjustments with over a thousand notifications, with accompanying uncertainties in the first year and the novel coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown still in the saddle, GST continues to be an unfinished agenda. But how far and how long?

M.A. Oommen is Distinguished Fellow, and K.J. Joseph is Director, Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation (GIFT), Thiruvananthapuram

Caught in a ‘zero COVID’ dilemma

Hong Kong is one of the last few places in the world that is still following a stringent ‘zero COVID’ policy. Ananth Krishnan reports on a populated but poorly vaccinated region that is doing all it can to keep cases at a minimum even as it becomes more and more isolated from the world

The first thing that hits travellers landing in Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok airport is the emptiness. Hong Kong International Airport (HKG to frequent fliers) used to be among the world’s busiest. It handled 71.5 million passengers in 2019, which is close to 2,00,000 a day. Now, a busy day means 1,500 passengers at most. On a lean day, sometimes only half that number walks through the airport’s doors.

When a passenger steps off the plane, they can walk minutes on end without seeing another passenger. The inter-terminal train, packed to capacity in pre-pandemic times, no longer takes passengers to the arrivals hall but to what is possibly one of the world’s largest testing centres. An entire terminal has been transformed into a ‘test and hold’ facility. The departure gates have been converted into massive waiting halls. This is where passengers await their results, with tests processed at an on-site laboratory.

HKG may be unrecognisable, but the administrative efficiency for which Hong Kong is famous is not. On arrival, every passenger is whisked into a makeshift tent for a quick nose and throat swab. A series of desks then beckon, where passengers fill in a multitude of forms. Within an hour of landing in Hong Kong, travellers are issued a government-recognised vaccination certificate that lists the date of their doses, the type of vaccine and where they had their shots — all prepared in advance from the online health declaration that every passenger is required to fill before boarding.

The certificate comes with a QR code that can be scanned and stored on Hong Kong’s ‘Leave Home Safe’ tracing app, which many Hong Kong venues, from dining establishments to cinema halls, now require for granting entry. Finally, every traveller’s phone number is registered with the health authorities and checked to make sure they can receive test results and other public health alerts. Arrivals are also introduced to Hong Kong’s 24/7 COVID-19 hotline, which usually takes not more than two minutes to respond to any query on WhatsApp, on everything from where to get a test to whether you can open your hotel window in quarantine (the answer is unfortunately a ‘no’, at least in most designated quarantine hotels).

Once the forms are filled and Hong Kong’s bureaucratic machinery is satisfied, a surreal sight awaits passengers who are ushered, finally, into a cavernous hall filled with a sea of desks. Travellers, pilots, air crew all sit in perfect silence as though at a massive examination centre. Over a nerve-wracking five-hour wait for their test results, passengers watch anxiously as every few minutes, health personnel in full PPEs appear, march up to numbered desks, quietly ask passengers who presumably tested positive to pack their bags, and then disappear.

A positive test means a passenger can neither clear immigration nor claim their checked-in luggage. They are taken away in an ambulance, lights flashing, to a hospital in Lantau Island near Chek Lap Kok, purpose-built for international arrivals. There they have to stay for at least 24 days in hospital, while all close contacts (those they sat next to on the flight) are taken to Penny’s Bay, the government’s biggest quarantine centre, for 21 days of isolation. This centre is also located in Lantau — an island once famous for hosting Hong Kong’s “happiest place on earth”, Disneyland, but now the centre of its massive quarantine programme.

Zero COVID, zero tolerance

If this elaborate arrival procedure and the vast system that is in place to keep it running seems excessive, it has been key to ensuring Hong Kong’s extraordinary record during the pandemic. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Hong Kong, a region of 7.5 million people, has recorded only a little over 12,000 infections and 213 deaths. Its ‘zero COVID’ strategy — an approach predicated on maintaining zero local cases by squashing every outbreak with mass testing and quarantine — certainly spared thousands of lives in a densely populated island, where public health experts say a virus left to run amok would have overwhelmed its already stressed health infrastructure.

Even passengers who test negative on arrival are issued a quarantine order and taken in a government-operated shuttle to their designated quarantine hotel that has to be pre-booked, usually at least two months in advance, given the limited availability designed to cap the number of arrivals. Most passengers from countries deemed ‘high risk’ spend 21 days of quarantine in a hotel room at their own cost. The windows in these rooms are often sealed and cannot be opened. Stepping out of the room means a hefty fine, an immediate transfer to Penny’s Bay for 21 days of isolation, followed by six months in prison, reads the warning sign posted on every door.

This stringent screening of arrivals, Hong Kong’s health officials pointed out on November 29, helped Hong Kong detect its first case of the new Omicron variant, before it spread, in a traveller from South Africa who tested positive on his third day in quarantine. Every individual is tested six times during their three-week hotel stay. Hong Kong also emerged unscathed from the Delta variant, with most cases caught in quarantine and the region facing no wave. The only local spread came from an airport worker, whose close contacts were all promptly transferred to Penny’s Bay.

“A few elements have been key to ensuring that the cases were low,” explains Siddharth Sridhar, clinical virologist at the University of Hong Kong. “Border controls, 100% mask-wearing from very early on, very strictly enforced social distancing, and a highly efficient method of testing and tracing. We do a lot of contact tracing and quarantine. So, I’d say Hong Kong uses fairly traditional methods to achieve COVID-19 control and they have worked very well for us.”

Hong Kong’s sweeping testing system means that entire residential neighbourhoods are locked down and individuals tested if there is a single reported case, while hundreds of close contacts are immediately sent to quarantine at the government’s facility at Penny’s Bay.

Another major factor for low cases has been compliance from a public that lived through the SARS epidemic. If the costs of this strategy include mask-wearing and no international travel, the benefits are that people have been living largely normal lives, with open schools, for much of the past two years after an initial strict lockdown.

Yet, this ‘zero COVID’ approach, in place now for close to two years, appears increasingly incongruous in a world that is gradually returning to normalcy — or was, before the emergence of Omicron. After Singapore, Australia and New Zealand opened their borders, only the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan are still clinging on to a ‘zero COVID’ approach, with stringent travel restrictions meaning continued isolation from the world.

‘A victim of our own success’

A growing number of people from foreign firms who have made their base in a place that likes to call itself ‘Asia’s World City’ as well as people who haven’t seen their families overseas for months are now asking whether this strategy is sustainable. They may, however, still be in the minority, given the broad public support for a stringent approach.

Moreover, much of the debate about whether Hong Kong can — or should — re-open and follow Singapore’s path hinges on two pressing problems that complicate any decision. One involves public health — specifically, poor vaccination rates — while the other is political, with Hong Kong having to choose between the mainland — another ‘zero COVID’ region — and the rest of the world while returning to normalcy.

In Dr. Sridhar’s view, Hong Kong, at this moment, has no choice but to continue with this approach at least until it vaccinates more people. The single biggest concern is an extremely low vaccination rate among the elderly. On November 23, Hong Kong reached a milestone of vaccinating 70% of the population with one dose (67% have been given two doses). The number falls dramatically for the 80 and above population — the most vulnerable group — to just 18%.

Singapore’s example is the warning sign that gives pause for caution. Singapore, with more than 80% of the population fully vaccinated, crossed Hong Kong’s total number of deaths on October 16, mostly because of the Delta wave earlier this year. After Singapore opened its borders, it recorded more than 250 deaths in just November, which is more than what Hong Kong has seen since the start of the pandemic. Most of those deaths were among the elderly, with 95% of those who died above 60 years, and close to three-quarters of them not fully vaccinated. Given Hong Kong’s vaccination rates, opening up now would mean a wave of possibly thousands of deaths among the elderly.

What explains the low vaccination rates for a region that did almost everything else right? “We are a victim of our own success,” says Dr. Sridhar. “Because COVID-19 was so effectively controlled, many people don’t feel it is a threat at a personal level. Indeed, there is a perception that Hong Kong can maintain its current measures and keep COVID-19 out indefinitely.” Coupled with widespread misinformation about vaccines on WhatsApp groups, few older residents are seeking to get vaccinated.

Yet, the low rates also feed into a vicious cycle, a consequence of a conscious policy decision to keep Hong Kong isolated. If Hong Kong was to set a timetable for opening, it would certainly spur more people to get their shots. While Dr. Sridhar says there is “no such thing as a clean exit strategy, if you tell people that there is a deadline and you are going to have to open up eventually”, it would send a strong message to get vaccinated. “What we can do,” he says, “is mitigate the effects of a massive COVID-19 surge in the community as far as possible. And I would argue that we will be in the best position possible to make that happen only by 2022”, with a combination of more people being vaccinated and the possibility of anti-virals. “There is no other way to exit the limbo we are currently in,” he says.

The politics of opening

That is the public health argument. Then there is the politics. With the sweeping political changes introduced in Hong Kong last year, with the passing of a national security law that essentially decimated the pro-democracy opposition and gave Beijing more control than ever over its Special Administrative Region (SAR), Hong Kong’s future is more than ever before wedded to that of the mainland.

The unpopular Chief Executive Carrie Lam, embattled after months of protests calling for universal suffrage in 2019 and the clampdown in 2020 that saw Beijing essentially bypass her government to pass the national security legislation, said in October that opening up to the mainland was “far, far more important” than opening up to the rest of the world.

Lam’s government has spent months negotiating with Beijing about opening a travel bubble that will restore the once-thriving cross-border travel between Hong Kong and the Guangdong province. According to current rules, those travelling from Hong Kong across the land border have to quarantine for at least 14 days at a government-chosen hotel in Guangdong. This has hampered business activity and separated families.

At least 50% of the 1,011 Cantonese-speaking residents surveyed by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute in November said they “preferred to see the government take immediate steps to help Hongkongers travel to the mainland instead of overseas”, while “those who favoured opening international borders for outbound travel first accounted for 38 per cent of the respondents”, the Hong Kong Free Press reported.

A trial bubble is slated to begin by end-December. This will allow a very limited daily quota of not more than 1,000 travellers a day to travel without quarantine, but only to Guangdong province and not to the rest of China. Negotiations on the bubble have dragged on for a year, delayed mostly by demands from mainland authorities for even more stringent measures (although, ironically, Hong Kong has had no major local spread for most of the past year while it is the mainland that has recently seen a spread of local clusters).

Caught between opening to the mainland and to the world, Hong Kong has had no choice but to pursue ever-stricter measures in pursuit of the elusive bubble. Part of that effort has been to tighten rules for quarantine and impose tougher conditions for discharging positive cases. Most countries have now been moved to the high-risk category requiring mandatory 21 days of hotel quarantine. These rules are more stringent than those of the mainland that allow the last seven days to be spent at home.

Under earlier rules, anyone who tested positive could only be discharged after consecutive negative tests 24 hours apart and a minimum 10 days in hospital. In November, authorities said such people would also have to spend an additional 14 days in isolation, which means at least 24 days in hospital.

This also applies to ‘repositives’ — travellers who recovered from COVID-19 but tested positive on arrival in Hong Kong even if they tested negative in their home countries, which has happened in several cases because of Hong Kong’s stricter testing criteria and how it measures cycle threshold (Ct) values in its COVID-19 tests. So, even a trace of dead virus from a patient who recovered months earlier will mean a minimum 24 days in hospital. Given these rules, some experts have advised travellers to think twice about travelling to Hong Kong if they had previously contracted COVID-19 unless they were willing to spend considerable time in hospital.

The new 14-day rule was criticised by several health experts as being unscientific. They pointed out that there is no evidence to suggest that such repositives are infectious or that a 14-day isolation is needed even after testing negative. Hong Kong authorities have been sensitive to criticism of these measures. When epidemiologist Ben Cowling at the University of Hong Kong in November criticised the extended quarantine as a “waste of resources and actively harming the patient with no community benefit to offset against” as well as being “unethical”, Health Secretary Sophia Chan shot back saying while “it is understandable that they perceive our stringent but necessary measures to maintain zero COVID as harsh, zero COVID is our best strategy not only on public health but also social and economic considerations, and is in line with the aspirations of our community.”

The second much-debated move, which officials say is needed to open the mainland bubble, is to adopt a mainland-style Health Code app. This is a significant step up from Hong Kong’s Leave Home Safe app, which only requires users to sign in when they enter a venue. The mainland’s Health Code app, in contrast, tracks movements 24/7 and allows authorities to easily contact, trace and quarantine people based on their geo-locations. In Hong Kong, however, there are concerns over both privacy and sharing individuals’ data with mainland authorities when they cross the border. In preparation for the bubble, the new Hong Kong health code was launched on December 10. It is not mandatory for residents, but those who want to travel to the mainland will be required to register.

Impact of policy

That Hong Kong has decided to prioritise opening to the mainland leaves little prospect of any move away from zero COVID for the time being, regardless of the impact it may have on foreign firms and Hong Kong’s status as a financial centre for Asia.

Indeed, many foreign firms are already relocating to Singapore, while expatriates are either returning home or shifting to other destinations. Tara Joseph, president of the powerful American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, told Reuters in November that she would quit her post and leave Hong Kong because of its 21-day quarantine policy for overseas arrivals. “It is not in my nature to advocate on something and then embark on quarantine like a stooge,” she said. She later qualified those remarks saying this was only one of several reasons for her departure. Some international airlines are reconsidering their Hong Kong routes too, and asking if the stringent testing and quarantining is worth the risk for their air crew. In late November, British Airways said it had suspended flights to Hong Kong after several of its crew were sent to quarantine at Penny’s Bay after one crew member had tested positive. The airline said it was “reviewing operational requirements” for this route. Last month, after a Cathay Pacific pilot tested positive upon returning to Hong Kong, his entire family, along with more than 100 children in the kindergarten and primary school that the pilot’s child was studying at, were sent to quarantine at Penny’s Bay. Parents criticised this move as excessive and harsh as the children in the school were not even close contacts of the pilot, but secondary contacts.

Tens of thousands of Hongkongers have also already moved to the U.K. in recent months in response to Beijing’s tightening control under a new visa programme launched by London that offers a pathway to citizenship for Hongkongers. London introduced the initiative in response to last year’s national security law, which was seen as violating Beijing’s commitments under the 1997 handover treaty.

As a result of these measures, Hong Kong’s economy is beset by many challenges. More than ever, it is banking on the mainland and on closer integration with the Greater Bay Area (Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau) to keep its economy afloat. However, the relative normalcy of the last two zero-COVID years has also to some extent helped local businesses avoid the fate of those in other countries that struggled under the cycle of COVID-19 waves and lockdowns.

Hong Kong lawmaker Regina Ip, the outspoken founder of the pro-Beijing New People’s Party, says the current strategy is justified, especially in the light of the emergence of new variants, and has helped Hong Kong avoid the fate of much of the rest of the world over the past year.

“Our 21-day quarantine requirements with regard to travellers from most countries are a function of their COVID-19 situations,” she says. “The U.K. was in our Group B requiring 14-day quarantine but upgraded to Group A because of the surge of their cases involving the Delta variant. We have to stop flights from Africa because of the import of a new, dangerous strain identified by the WHO. Our priority must be to keep the 7.4 million people in our city safe, and we have done well in this respect.”

Ip says Hong Kong doesn’t have to choose between mainland China and the world. “Ideally,” she says, “we want to have the best of both worlds”. That is, of course, easier said than done. For now at least, it appears, Hong Kong has already made its choice.

President calls for a debate on right to climate justice

On Human Rights Day, he says time is running out to preserve nature

President Ram Nath Kovind on Friday said time was running out for preserving nature for future generations, and called for a debate on the right to climate justice.

Speaking at the Human Rights Day event here of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Mr. Kovind said while the world was waking up to harsh realities, decisive changes were yet to be made.

‘Human dignity’

The President said while non-discrimination was the first condition for absolute respect for human dignity, the world was beset with countless prejudices. He said the world needed to debate and discuss the “right to a healthy environment and climate justice”.

“We owe it to our children that we save Mother Nature from the worst effects of industrialisation. The time is running out,” Mr. Kovind said, while noting India’s progress in the matter, particularly in its leadership of the International Solar Alliance.

The President said while the human rights discourse was justifiably focused on rights, India had always understood that rights and duties were two sides of the same coin.

Earlier in the event, NHRC Chairperson Justice Arun Kumar Mishra (retd.) said tolerance and inclusion were non-negotiable human rights. Mr. Mishra said it was necessary “to provide remedy to the victims of unfair economic structure and business-related human rights violations”.

“The NHRC Chairperson said freedom of speech is the most cherished value and fundamental right to be protected. However, the extent of freedom of cyberspace both online and offline is a matter of debate, as it has fuelled grave apprehension of its misuse, violating the sovereignty, integrity of the country, public order, decency and morality,” an NHRC statement said.

‘80% of funds for Beti Bachao was spent on media campaigns’

Parliamentary committee says Govt. must revise strategy

The Government spent 80% of the funds under the ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ (BBBP) scheme on media campaigns and must now revisit this strategy and invest in measurable outcomes in health and education for girls, the Parliamentary Committee on Empowerment of Women has noted in its report tabled in the Lok Sabha on Thursday.

“The Committee finds that out of a total of ₹446.72 crore released during the period 2016- 2019, a whopping 78.91% was spent only on media advocacy. Over the last six years, through focussed advocacy BBBP has been able to capture the attention of political leadership and national consciousness towards valuing the girl child. Now, it is time to focus on other verticals by making ample financial provisions to help achieve measurable outcomes related to education and health envisaged under the scheme,” it said.

The committee is chaired by Heena Vijaykumar Gavit and the report is titled “Empowerment of women through education with special reference to Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao.”

The scheme was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in January 2015 with the aim to address sex-selective abortion and the declining child sex ratio, which was at 918 girls for every 1,000 boys in 2011. The programme is being implemented across 405 districts.

The total utilisation under the scheme was also poor — the committee found that since the inception of BBBP in 2014-15 till 2019-20, the total budgetary allocation under the scheme was ₹848 crore, excluding the COVID-19-stricken financial year of 2020-21. During this period, ₹622.48 crore was released to the States but only 25.13% of the funds, i.e. ₹156.46 crore, had been spent.

The committee noted that the massive spend on advertisements was despite the clearly laid-down formula for utilisation of funds – ₹50 lakh a year is earmarked a district for utilisation under six different components. Of this, 16% is for inter-sectoral consultation or capacity-building, 50% for innovation or awareness generation activities, 6% for monitoring and evaluation, 10% for sectoral interventions in health, 10% for sectoral interventions in education and 8% as flexi funds.

Advocacy and media campaigns include television publicity, outdoor and print media, SMS campaigns, radio spots and community engagement through exhibition vans.

Nobel Peace Prize winners call for journalist protections

Maria Ressa, Dmitry Muratov jointly receive award in Oslo

The two journalists who shared this year’s Nobel Peace Prize received their awards on Friday in Oslo, with both warning that the world needs independent journalism to counter authoritarian governments.

Maria Ressa of the Philippines and fellow laureate Dmitry Muratov of Russia gave their Nobel lectures at Oslo City Hall. They were chosen for the award for their separate fights for freedom of expression in countries where reporters have faced persistent attacks, harassment and killings.

“Yes, we growl and bite. Yes, we have sharp teeth and strong grip,” Mr. Muratov said of journalists. “But we are the prerequisite for progress. We are the antidote against tyranny.”

Ms. Ressa, 58, co-founded Rappler, a news website critical of the Philippine government, in 2012. Mr. Muratov, 59, was one of the founders in 1993 of Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

Ms. Ressa offered a bleak view of the journalism industry, saying “the era of competition for news is dead.” “We need to help independent journalism survive, first by giving greater protection to journalists and standing up against states which target journalists,” she said.

Don’t use State force on political opinion: SC

It says journalists should not be made to suffer for reporting what is public

The Supreme Court in an order has said that “state force” should not be used to “browbeat a political opinion” and journalists should not be made to suffer the consequences of reporting on what is already in the public domain.

The court observed that the political class across the country should introspect on the “debasement” in dialogue which was taking place.

“State force should never be used to either browbeat a political opinion or journalists suffer the consequences of what is already in public domain,” a Bench led by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul stated in an order.

The court hastened to add that “this does not take away the responsibility of journalists in how they report matters, more so in a ‘Twitter age’.”

The court order said it could not “let go off the opportunity of saying something which is troubling society and the court. It is undoubtedly the debasement in the dialogue which is taking place which needs introspection from the political class across the country”.

Essence of democracy

It noted, “In a country which prides itself on its diversity, there are bound to be different perceptions and opinions which would include political opinions. That is the very essence of a democracy.”

The Bench stressed that political exchanges may get heated, but should not explode. “No doubt by the very nature of the job required to be performed by the political class, at times their exchanges may get heated. But it should not explode. We are sure difference in perceptions can be expressed in better language.” The order came after West Bengal informed the court that it had no objection to the quashing of FIRs registered on the basis of reports in ‘OpIndia’ portal.

‘OpIndia’ editor Nupur Sharma and other petitioners had moved the court, saying the FIRs amounted to an abuse of law and suppression of Press freedom.

Quashing the FIRs, the court said that what the petitioners had done was to “reproduce what the political class has stated against each other and which is already in public domain”.

West Bengal’s stand to not proceed with the FIRs was “better late than never and should be a model for others to follow”.


The News Editorial Analysis 10th Dec 2021


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