The News Editorial Analysis 27th November 2021

The News Editorial Analysis 27th November 2021

The News Editorial Analysis 27th November 2021

Omicron new variant of concern

The World Health Organization on Friday declared the recently-discovered B.1.1.529 strain of Covid-19, first detected in southern Africa, to be a variant of concern and renamed it Omicron.The classification puts Omicron into the most-troubling category of Covid-19 variants, along with the globally-dominant Delta, plus its weaker rivals Alpha, Beta and Gamma.Nations rushed to ban flights to slow the spread of Omicron on Friday, while stock markets and oil prices plunged on fears surrounding the variant, potentially dealing a heavy blow to the global economic recovery.”Based on the evidence presented indicative of a detrimental change in Covid-19 epidemiology… the WHO has designated B.1.1.529 as a variant of concern (VOC), named Omicron,” the UN health agency said in a statement.The WHO said it could take several weeks to complete studies of Omicron to see if there are any changes in transmissibility, severity or implications for Covid vaccines, tests and treatments.

Reinfection Concerns

The change in classification came after a quickly-assembled virtual meeting of the WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution.The variant was first reported to the WHO from South Africa on Wednesday.The first known confirmed Omicron infection was from a specimen collected on November 9. In recent weeks, infections in South Africa have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection.”This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning,” the WHO said, pointing to worrying characteristics.”Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs.”It said the number of Omicron cases appeared to be increasing in almost all provinces of South Africa.As for testing for the strain, the WHO added: “Current SARS-CoV-2 PCR diagnostics continue to detect this variant.”

 Travel Concerns

Apart from South Africa, Omicron has been detected in Israel in a person coming from Malawi; Botswana; Belgium and Hong Kong.Despite countries scrambling to ban flights, the WHO earlier cautioned against imposing travel restrictions due to Omicron.The organisation said countries should take a risk-based and scientific approach when considering travel curbs in light of the variant — but cautioned against restrictions.”At this point, again, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against,” spokesman Christian Lindmeier told reporters.Besides Delta, Omicron and the three other VOCs, there are currently two lower variants of interest and below that, a further seven under monitoring.Delta, which is more transmissible than the original strain, is now overwhelmingly dominant around the world, having all but out-competed other variants.

CBI gets sanction to prosecute retired Allahabad High Court judge

He is accused of favouring a private medical college in his orders

The Central Bureau of Investigation has received the sanction to prosecute retired Allahabad High Court Judge S.N. Shukla in connection with a case alleging that a private medical college was favoured in his orders.

The agency had sought the High Court’s approval to prosecute the retired judge earlier this year. Following the grant of sanction, it can now file a charge sheet for further legal proceedings.

Besides Justice (now retired) Shukla, who was with the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court, retired judge of the Orissa High Court I.M. Quddusi has also been named in the First Information Report.

The other accused were Bhawana Pandey of Prasad Education Trust; Bhagwan Prasad Yadav, chairman of the Prasad Institute of Medical Sciences; his son Palash; and Sudhir Giri of Venketashwara Medical College (Meerut).

The case was registered in December 2019 on the basis of a preliminary enquiry initiated by the CBI on September 8, 2017, into the alleged commission of gross misconduct by Justice Shukla and others.

As alleged, the Medical Council of India (MCI) had barred the Prasad Institute of Medical Sciences in May 2017 from admitting students for two years due to sub-standard facilities and non-fulfilment of the requisite criteria. Similar action had been taken against 46 other medical institutions.

The Trust challenged the order in the Supreme Court. Subsequently, it is alleged, a conspiracy was hatched and the petition withdrawn with the Court’s permission. Then, another petition was filed before a Division Bench of the Allahabad High Court in Lucknow on August 24, 2017.

The next day, Mr. Quddusi and the institute’s chairman met Justice Shukla at his residence and “delivered illegal gratification”. According to the CBI, the petition was heard later that day by the Division Bench comprising Justice Shukla and a favourable order was passed.

The MCI challenged the order in the Supreme Court. During the hearing, the Trust did not claim any benefit from the High Court order, but requested that its bank guarantee not be encashed, which was permitted. The agency alleged that the institute’s chief then attempted to get back the illegal gratification from Justice Shukla and a part of it was returned.

In September 2017, in another case, the agency had arrested Mr. Quddusi and five others for allegedly conspiring to get the case of the Lucknow-based institute “settled” in the Supreme Court. The institute’s chief, his son Palash, Ms. Pandey, alleged middleman Vishwanath Agarwala and “hawala operator” Ramdev Saraswat were also arrested.

The CBI did not need sanction to prosecute Mr. Quddusi as he had retired at the time of the alleged offence.

Shore up the lifeline: On rural jobs scheme

Fresh funds must close the gap between demand and supply for MGNREGS work

After reports clearly indicated that the States had run out of funds for expenditure on wages and materials for the MGNREGS, the Government announced ₹10,000 crore in additional funds as an interim measure. Though allocated on November 5, the scheme’s financial statement as on November 25 still showed a negative net balance of ₹9,888 crore indicating that the balance sheets were in the red in 24 States and Union Territories. This means that the fund crunch suffered by the scheme due to high demand and a low budgeted outlay in the Union Budget for this financial year, continues. The high demand is an indication of the extended effects of the pandemic in rural areas, and a continuing lack of funds will hurt any further demand for work in such areas besides of course delaying payments for those who have already completed work. The impact of the lockdowns during the pandemic has continued to depress employment levels and rural wage incomes, which is why the MGNREGS has proven to be a popular avenue for employment and wages. In fact, even during the economic crisis during the pandemic, the rural sector sustained the poor by providing them guaranteed work through the scheme. The delays in payments and the lack of funds have contributed to an estimated unmet demand to the tune of 20% in Bihar, Telangana and Gujarat, according to activists tracking the implementation of the scheme. As the scheme guarantees income for 100 days of work, many households get a reduced number of workdays for which they are paid — a situation that should not be tenable.

The budgeting for the scheme by simply fixing a nominal increase from the original Budget estimate in previous years is a flawed method. If anything, the outlay must be tied to revised/actual estimate of expenditure for the scheme each year — in the case of 2021-22, the total allocations were ₹73,000 crore, much lower than the ₹1,11,500 crore as revised estimates in expenditure in 2020-21. Nearly a quarter of the allocation for the current financial year was also tied to meeting the liabilities from previous years. Clearly, the scheme suffers from a budgeting problem that has hampered its proper implementation despite its popularity, and this needs to be rectified. The Union Government has done the right thing in continuing till March 2022, its free foodgrain ration scheme, the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana, that was launched as part of the COVID-19 relief packages — the fourth such extension. This was an acknowledgment of the need for the scheme to support poor families in a recovering economy. Considering that the MGNREGS acts as a robust lifeline as well, it will be prudent for the Government to make up the shortfalls in the allocations quickly.

A Close Reading of the NFHS-5, the Health of India

Given how little the country spends on health and education as a share of GDP, the improvements seem remarkable

The national health and demographic report card is finally completely out. The results from the first phase (conducted between June 2019 and January 2020) of the fifth round of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) were released in December 2020. We now have the key results from the second phase (conducted between January 2020 and April 2021).

How did India fare? It is a mixed verdict, containing both cheer and alarm in abundant measure. Before going into details, we should note that the results of the NFHS are worthy of our attention because it is not a hastily put together state-of-health index. Together, the two phases provide a detailed, comprehensive, multi-dimensional report card on the state of India’s demographic and health trajectory.

Population has stabilised

There are many pluses in the report card. A comparison of NFHS-5 with NFHS-4 (2015-16) reveals improvement in several dimensions such as educational attainment, institutional deliveries, vaccinations, infant mortality and much more. We can debate later whether the improvements are good enough given the scale and depth of what needs to be done. For now, we need to appreciate the progress, especially given the abysmal state of India’s health infrastructure, which has been tragically apparent since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Given how little India spends on health and education as a share of GDP, these improvements are particularly remarkable.

The biggest positive headline news from NHFS-5 is that the total fertility rate (TFR), which is the average number of children born to a woman during her lifetime, has been falling over time and is now just below the replacement rate of 2.1. This is true across all States of India. This means that the total population has stabilised. Therefore, politicians can strike one thing off their to-do list and devote their energies to urgent health matters, instead of raising the bogey of population explosion to justify coercive population policies. There is absolutely no evidence to justify tying welfare support measures or holding elected office to the number of children.Another headline reveals that nationally, there are 1,020 adult women per 1,000 men for the first time. Does this mean that Indian women are no longer “missing”, i.e. does this signal the beginning of the end of another tenacious problem — that of deep-rooted son preference which leads to illegal but pervasive sex-selective abortions as parents repeatedly try for at least one son?

Notes of caution

Some analyses have suggested that the rate of progress has slowed down, based on comparisons between NHFS-4 and NHFS-5 to the improvements between the two previous rounds. We would not be able to claim this yet, since comparing changes over a 10-year interval (between NFHS-3 in 2005-06 and NFHS-4) to a five-year interval (between NFHS-4 and NFHS-5) is misleading.

Some have argued that the poor health outcomes reflect the effect of COVID-19. The data for the second phase of NFHS-5 have been, to a large extent, collected during the highly unusual conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic, but as the evidence on anaemia shows, the deterioration in public health indicators cannot be attributed entirely to the pandemic. COVID-19 might have added fuel to the fire of poor public health, but it did not cause the fire.

The Rate reset: On slashing GST slabs

Slashing multiple GST slabs is essential, as is resisting frequent tinkering with rates

Since its onset in 2017, the GST regime to subsume multiple State and Central levies was criticised for far too many tax rates that were amenable to creating complications instead of simplifying taxation. The Government had hinted that rates could be reviewed once the system stabilised. Now, with GST in its fifth year, the Government has assessed it is about time to consider a reboot, partly because revenues are falling short of expectations, despite healthy monthly collections. Next month, a Group of Ministers set up by the GST Council is expected to propose changes, including merging slabs, with a road map for immediate, short- and medium-term changes. This mandate marked an expansion of its initially stated task of rationalising tax rates to bolster revenues. To recap, there are eight effective GST rates, including zero on essential goods, standard rates of 5%, 12% and 18% for most goods and services, and a 28% tax plus GST Compensation Cess on sin or demerit goods. Special low rates are specified for jewellery, precious stones and supplies to exporters.

The effective tax rate under GST has slipped from the original revenue-neutral rate of 15.5% to 11.6%, which Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said occurred due to rate cuts effected across categories since 2017. Quite a few stemmed from the GST’s hasty beginning and errors in the initial rate-setting. The Council continues to resolve genuine hardships this created for industry segments, but the constant tweaks have also altered the original revenue dynamics envisaged. The 18% tax rate, levied even on insurance premium payments, now accounts for the largest taxable turnover, as a National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP) paper points out. Reducing the 18% rate or merging it with the 12% slab will thus entail revenue losses that would have to be offset by hikes in the lowest and/or highest rates. The NIPFP has suggested a structure of 8%, 15% and a 30% rate for sin goods, to protect revenue concerns while minimising the need for a sharp hike at either end of the spectrum and leaving special rates untouched. This may be less contentious than raising rates on bullion, reportedly proposed to the GoM, which could only spur tax evasion. Sequencing the implementation of new rates and avoiding far-too-frequent rethinks would be critical to minimise disruptions and engender investor confidence. The Council must also urgently address data limitations flagged by the NIPFP. For several months this year, the Government did not reveal returns filed by taxpayers even as it claimed GST collections reflect recovery and improved compliance. Also, many GST rate cuts that triggered the current resource worries were aimed at pandering to regional considerations ahead of critical elections. With key State polls soon, the Government’s resolve to carry out a hard reset on GST rates now may be tested.

Won’t add to vaccine hesitancy: SC

People who had been vaccinated were not being taken for follow-ups, says plea

The Supreme Court on Friday made it clear that it will not do anything to bring on COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy even as it asked a petitioner to serve a copy of his plea to direct the Government for active surveillance of immunised people and publication of the exact number of deaths that occurred within 30 days of inoculation.

“Look at the positivity of vaccination. We cannot send a message that there is some problem with the vaccination. The World Health Organization [WHO] has spoken in favour of vaccines, countries all over the world are vaccinating their citizens. We cannot cast any doubts,” Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, heading a Bench comprising Justice A.S. Bopanna, said.

Appearing for petitioner Ajay Kumar Gupta, senior advocate Colin Gonsalves said people who had been vaccinated were not being taken for follow-ups. “There are no directives for a follow-up… Healthy people are collapsing and dying,” Mr. Gonsalves submitted.

However, the Bench asked what the correlation between vaccine and the deaths was. It may not be attributable to the vaccine, it said. Mr. Gonsalves, however, said these deaths needed to be investigated. He said the Adverse Event Following Immunisation (AEFI) guidelines required health workers to check on the vaccinated population after a specific period, after which clearance ought to be given.

These guidelines were revised in 2020, which only provide “passive surveillance” on the health status of inoculated persons, that too, on the request of the person concerned or the affected families. The Bench, however, observed orally that the revised guidelines provided a mechanism for tracking instances of serious and minor AEFI.

It said the Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) had been tasked to keep an eye on the vaccinated population and provide monthly reports.

“We do have a system. We have formulated the AEFI guidelines. There will always be dissenters. Policy cannot be as per them… It is of the highest national importance that we vaccinate,” the court said.

The Bench asked Mr. Gonsalves to serve a copy of the petition and listed the case after two weeks.

COVID effect: Equity markets crash, oil prices tumble amid fears of new variant

The News Editorial Analysis 27th November 2021

Reports of a heavily mutated COVID-19 variant on Friday sent global and domestic equity markets into a tizzy. Indian equity markets saw Rs 4.5 lakh crore worth of investors’ wealth getting eroded as both the benchmark indices – BSE Sensex and NSE Nifty – fell by around 3 per cent.

US stocks opened lower while London’s benchmark fell by 3.3 per cent at the opening. Tokyo, Shanghai, Frankfurt and Hong Kong also fell. The tremors were also felt in the global oil market as well, as Brent Crude shed over 10 per cent to trade around USD 73.34 a barrel on Friday.

India’s equity market saw its biggest single day fall in recent times on Friday. The Sensex shed 1,688 points or 2.87 per cent to close at 57,107, and the Nifty was down 510 points or 2.91 per cent to 17,027.

Friday’s bloodbath was caused by discovery of a new mutation of coronavirus in Africa (B.1.1.529), which poses another set of challenges to global economic recovery.

Amit Gupta, fund manager, portfolio management services at ICICI Securities said, “Nervousness on the new variant and expectations of US increasing the pace of tapering have led to recent market weakness. This trend may take some time to recover as the WHO meeting on the new mutant variant impact and hospitalisation rates in US and Europe will be watched by the market very closely.”

Other than the discovery of the new COVID variant, the release of crude oil reserves by the US and other countries leading to an increase in global supply also caused the 10 per cent drop in oil prices.

Recently, the US had made a request to some of the world’s largest oil-consuming nations, including China, India and Japan, to release oil from their strategic reserves to check the skyrocketing prices.

India and the US decided to release 5 million and 50 million barrels of oil, respectively, from their stockpile. According to the findings of a panel of experts that advises ministers of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), such release is likely to perk up supplies further in the coming months.

OPEC and its allies, a group known as OPEC+, are set to meet on December 2 to weigh their options. 

An important relationship that is under strain

An uneasy relationship between the judiciary and the executive does not augur well for a democracy. Arguably, it is the mandated role of the judiciary to review, revise or revoke any decisions of the government that are incompatible with the provisions and values of the Constitution. The courts striking down laws enacted by the legislature or annulling some provisions or reversing certain decisions of the government is nothing new. In fact, this judicial watchfulness is the sign of a healthy democracy that guarantees the unimpeachable rights of its citizens. Indisputably, Indian polity has immensely benefited from the continuous judicial interpretations of the Constitution. However, in recent times, this well-settled relationship seems to have been repeatedly challenged and the strain can no longer be hidden or ignored.

The manner in which the Central government has taken executive authority to its dangerous brinks has repeatedly forced the Supreme Court to interfere with unusual vehemence. Several instances are still in the memory of the nation where justice would have been denied to the needy if it were not for the timely reprimand of the apex court. The massive reverse migration of workers, trekking hundreds of kilometres, after the unplanned announcement of the lockdown in March 2020, had forced the court to interfere and prod the government to act. It also brought out not only the absence of statistics with the government but also its shocking lack of anticipation, planning, preparedness and even willingness to provide succour. When the government announced an ab initio flawed vaccine pricing policy that discriminated against the people, it was the Supreme Court that felt the shock waves and forced the Centre to retrace its steps and make the scheme more equitable. The same dynamics were repeated when a reluctant state was made liable to financially compensate the families who lost their dear ones to Covid-19. It was again the Supreme Court that directed the government to formulate a policy to take care of children orphaned by the pandemic. Recently, an irate apex court had to reject as unsatisfactory an affidavit filed on behalf of the government explaining how it was difficult to formulate a comprehensive programme to feed the needy and the hungry.

Though the court has the power to constitute expert committees to help in adjudicating technically complicated matters, it is an instrument that is sparingly used. When such disputes arise, the government would normally explain all the dimensions of the matter and the court would hear both parties at length and take a judicious view. However, when the government that is privy to all information and inputs turns reticent, it effectively makes judicial review difficult. It is then that the court invokes the option of constituting expert committees. This was demonstrated in the cases of the much castigated (and eventually withdrawn) farm laws and the Pegasus snooping allegation. Repeated straight questioning by the Supreme Court on whether the Centre has bought the Pegasus spyware has failed to elicit a clear answer. The court had then no alternative but to constitute a committee to help itself.

This running test of relative strength and authority between the Union government and the top judiciary has two immediate uncomfortable fallouts. One, this  inadvertently conveys the lack of compassion and thoughtfulness on the part of the executive. Decisions that ought to have emanated naturally from an elected government to protect the welfare and well-being of its citizens appear to be taken as the unwilling afterthought and an inescapable response to the compulsive direction of the judiciary. Second, the frequent recurrence of such instances stretches the judiciary’s powers to its imaginable limits, beyond which it could encounter its helplessness. Even the hints that constitutional remedies are getting exhausted are indeed ominous. 

It is not that the Constitution has not foreseen such conflicts, but there are times when the remedies provided become unequal to the challenges posed, as demonstrated in the stasis in several crucial matters. The constitutionality of reading down Article 370 and bifurcating Jammu and Kashmir is yet to be decided. Even in the Lakhimpur-Kheri case of homicide in public view, the court had to resort to a commission to enquire. Admittedly, it is not the judiciary that precipitates this situation. It is entirely the creation of the executive. What is the trigger for such instances leading to an uneasy coexistence? Both the judiciary and the executive have an ideal picture of each other, which is the residual image that comes out of the various provisions of the Constitution. Conflict arises when the executive acts inconsistently with this ideal. At all levels of decision-making, the executive ought to be constantly aware of how


The News Editorial Analysis 26th November 2021

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