The News Editorial Analysis 26th Dec 2021

The News Editorial Analysis 26th Dec 2021

The News Editorial Analysis 26th Dec 2021

Jabs for 15-18 group from Jan. 3; booster for seniors from Jan. 10

In late-evening televised address, PM urges caution against Omicron variant

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on Saturday that teenagers in the 15-18 age group would be eligible for COVID-19 vaccination, and frontline and health workers and senior citizens above the age of 60 with co-morbidities would be eligible on the advice of doctors for what he termed a “precaution” or third dose.

In a late-evening televised address to the nation, Mr. Modi announced the dates for the commencement of this vaccination process. January 3, 2022 will see the roll-out of vaccination for those 15 to 18, while January 10 will be the commencement date for “precaution dose” for frontline and health workers and the elderly with co-morbidities.

“All our decisions with regard to vaccination, their research, approval and certification have been scientifically driven as has our vaccination drive and who is eligible to be vaccinated first, in that regard, these decisions today were made,” the Prime Minister said.

Vaccinations for children aged 15 to 18, he said, will not only help protect them as schools have reopened in many places but also go a long way in assuring worried parents.

In the course of his nearly 15-minute address, the Prime Minister urged caution without panic in dealing with the Omicron variant.

He gave an overview of the ground-level preparations already made by the government with regard to healthcare systems in anticipation of Omicron and taking lessons from the second wave.

Vaccine coverage

“Currently, nearly 90% of all those eligible for vaccines have had at least one dose, and 61% of eligible population has had both doses. We have over 18 lakh hospital beds available, out of which five lakh beds are oxygen supported. Almost 90,000 intensive care unit (ICU) beds are for children alone, and over 30,000 PSA oxygen plants have been set up across the country,” Mr. Modi said on the healthcare infrastructure ramp-up after the second wave devastated India in the summer months.

“I would ask that you do not panic, but maintain caution in the face of the new mutation of the coronavirus. Maintain use of masks, and frequently wash hands. As we have faced the coronavirus, our ability to fight it has also improved,” he said.

‘We haven’t finished our mission, but large patches of Ganga are clean’

The News Editorial Analysis 26th Dec 2021

Taking care of rivers has to be part of cities’ master plans, says the outgoing Director-General of the National Mission for Clean Ganga

Rajeev Ranjan Mishra, Director-General, National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), speakson steering the organisation tasked with one of the largest clean-ups in history for close to a decade; the challenges in making the Ganga pollution-free; and his reasons for co-authoring the book, Ganga: Reimagining, Rejuvenating, Reconnecting.

Since 2014, the government has made the cleaning of the Ganga one of its centrepiece missions and earmarked ₹20,000 crore towards it. How has the mission so far progressed?

Today, we have close to 350 projects of various types and about 160 are sewage treatment plants. All the projects in Uttarakhand and Jharkhand are complete; 60% of the projects are complete in U.P. Bihar is slower as a lot of projects being made are brand new but in two years 70% of them should be over.

In two years, the majority of the projects along the Ganga will be over. U.P., the most important State, will be over before that. We are also looking at several related aspects, such as improving wetlands, improving the ecological flow (e-flow), along with developing sewage treatment plants.

The Clean Ganga Mission was billed as a ₹20,000-crore project. You have sanctioned projects worth ₹30,000 crore. Is the Ganga measurably cleaner than before?

We have sanctioned projects worth ₹30,000 crore for 15 years. The outflow will be much less and people say that you have actually spent only ₹11,000 crore. In five years, we won’t be spending a lot. From 1985 to 2014, only about ₹4,000 crore was spent on Ganga cleaning and by those standards, our spending is a significant boost. We have not finished our mission but large patches of the river are clean.

All projects in Uttarakhand are complete and there is an immediate change in the water quality of Haridwar. It’s a typical big city and not really a hill city. Its water quality is Class A (the highest grade of cleanliness according to India’s water quality monitoring standards). There is a visible difference in the water quality in Kanpur, which until a few years ago had deplorable water quality. You don’t need measurements; the change is there to see. And this is all through the year.

However, this is just one aspect. You have to keep your urban and local bodies ready. Fifteen years is nothing in the life of a river and cities have to start owning their river. Lots of Municipal Commissioners typically focus on only their small stretch of the river and dump waste outside their jurisdictions. In the last few years, we have been focused on sensitising authorities in cities and Ganga riparian States to river planning. We have a river-city alliance to achieve this. Taking care of rivers has to be part of cities’ master plans.

Do you have an independent monitoring system that measures aspects such as Dissolved Oxygen (DO) and Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) to ascertain water quality?

The Central Pollution Control Board and a special cell has been created to monitor real-time water quality. In terms of DO, the entire stretch of Ganga meets the standards from Uttarakhand to West Bengal. These are measured at nearly 90 stretches.

The BOD levels are met in at least 60. The Kanpur BOD used to be 10 at one point and now is three-four. So, there is significant improvement. We have made the ghats cleaner, [with] better crematoria facilities.

The pandemic saw instances of bodies dumped into the Ganga in U.P., which even attracted notice from the National Human Rights Commission. What did you find, and did this affect the water quality?

The pandemic created unforeseen challenges which led to unprecedented situations. It called for a series of meetings with the authorities concerned and the rolling out of measures to ensure that the health of the river as well as the lives of the people are safe and protected.

We released a notification to all the States to ensure that the cremation of suspected COVID-19 patients were in line with the Government of India’s guidelines and that strict vigilance along the length of the river was maintained.

We collaborated with a specialised virology testing institute, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)-Indian Institute of Toxicology Research (IITR) and initiated the investigation of SARS-CoV-2 virus contamination and analysis of water quality due to disposal of dead bodies in the Ganga. The investigation concluded that SARS-CoV-2 was not detected in any of the tested sites. I have mentioned this incident in the book to emphasise the constant challenges being faced, and that river rejuvenation is a dynamic process. We faced a problem which did not have anything to do with the programme and yet had to be immediately tackled by the NMCG.

You mentioned e-flow and a few years ago, this was a controversial issue with fasts organised by seers and activists such as G.D. Agrawal (who died after a 100-day fast) demanding a minimum flow of water, and protesting against hydroelectric projects. How does the NMCG ensure that adequate flows are maintained?

To maintain ecological flow, it is necessary to maintain supply and demand of water and maintain minimum flows at all times for the health of the river. The primary problem is the enormous amounts of water from the Ganga diverted for agriculture.

If you see the Haridwar to Kanpur belt, there are several barrages.In the lean season (non-monsoon), there is a paucity of water. In Uttarakhand, you have to deal with hydroelectric projects, and in other States and cities, it is irrigation projects. In Uttarakhand, hydropower project operators initially had reservations but by and large, most are adhering to the revised norms. In these respects, we have been helped by the National Green Tribunal, whose directions on conservation have been significant.

A telescope on million-mile voyage

World’s most powerful space telescope expected to reach destination in a month

The world’s most powerful space telescope on Saturday blasted off into orbit, headed to an outpost 1.5 million kilometres (9,30,000 miles) from Earth, after several delays caused by technical hitches.

The James Webb Space Telescope, some three decades and billions of dollars in the making, left Earth enclosed in its Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou Space Centre in French Guiana.

It is expected to take a month to reach its remote destination.

It is expected to beam back new clues that will help scientists understand more about the origins of the Universe and Earth-like planets beyond our solar system.

Named after a former NASA director, Webb follows in the footsteps of the legendary Hubble — but intends to show humans what the Universe looked like even closer to its birth nearly 14 billion years ago.

Speaking on social media, Webb project co-founder John Mather described the telescope’s unprecedented sensitivity.

“#JWST can see the heat signature of a bumblebee at the distance of the Moon,” he said.

All that power is needed to detect the weak glow emitted billions of years ago by the very first galaxies to exist and the first stars being formed.

‘Exceptional measures’

The telescope is unequalled in size and complexity.

Its mirror measures 6.5 metres (21 feet) in diameter — three times the size of the Hubble’s mirror — and is made of 18 hexagonal sections.

It is so large that it had to be folded to fit into the rocket.

That manoeuvre was laser-guided with NASA imposing strict isolation measures to limit any contact with the telescope’s mirrors from particles or even human breath.

Once the rockets have carried Webb 120 kilometres, the protective nose of the craft, called a “fairing”, is shed to lighten the load.

To protect the delicate instrument from changes in pressure at that stage, rocket-builder Arianespace installed a custom decompression system.

“Exceptional measures for an exceptional client,” said a European Space Agency official in Kourou on Thursday.

Crew on the ground will know whether the first stage of the flight was successful about 27 minutes after launch.

Challenges ahead

Once it reaches its station, the challenge will be to fully deploy the mirror and a tennis-court-sized sun shield.

That intimidatingly complex process will take two weeks and must be flawless if Webb is to function correctly.

Its orbit will be much farther than Hubble, which has been 600 kilometres above the Earth since 1990.

The location of Webb’s orbit is called the Lagrange 2 point and was chosen in part because it will keep the Earth, the Sun and the Moon all on the same side of its sun shield.

Webb is expected to officially enter service in June.

Study of distant magnetar reveals facets of the exotic star

The short-lived flare recorded by the ISS instruments spewed as much energy in a tenth of a second that our Sun will radiate in 100,000 years

An international group of researchers has succeeded in measuring for the first time the characteristics of a flare on a distant magnetar. A magnetar is a rare compact type of neutron star teeming with energy and magnetism. The magnetar they have studied is about 13 million light years away, in the direction of the NGC 253, a prominent galaxy in the Sculptor group of galaxies.

The flare, which spewed within a few tenths of a second as much energy as the Sun would shed in 100,000 years, was captured accidentally on April 15, 2020, by the Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor instrument (ASIM) of the International Space Station.

Rare and exotic

This data was then analysed by the researchers over the period of a year to throw light into the structure of the flare, and thereby, into the nature of such magnetars. This is the first study to characterise such a flare from so distant a magnetar. The research was published in the journal, Nature.

Magnetars are relatively rare objects, with only about thirty having been spotted within the Milky Way so far. The present magnetar is only the second one to be studied which is located outside the galaxy and is also the furthest, at 13 million light years distance.

How magnetars form

During the course of their evolution, massive stars – with masses around 10-25 times the mass of the Sun – eventually collapse and shrink to form very compact objects called neutron stars. A subset of these neutron stars are the so-called magnetars which possess intense magnetic fields. These are highly dense and have breathtakingly high rotation speeds – they have rotational periods that can be just 0.3 to 12.0 seconds. “We believe that size of the object was around 20 km in diameter with mass around 1.4 times the mass of the Sun,” says Shashi Bhushan Pandey of the Aryabhata Research Institute of Observational Sciences, Nainital, who is one of the authors of the paper.

High luminosity

Magnetars have high magnetic fields in the range of 1015 gauss and they emit energy in the range given by luminosities of 1037 – 1040 joules per second. Compare this to the luminosity of the sun which is in the order of 1026 joules per second – a factor of at least 1011 lower.

Further, these magnetars emit violent flares. “The observations revealed multiple pulses, with a first pulse appearing only for about tens of microseconds, much faster than other extreme astrophysical transients,” said Alberto J. Castro-Tirado, from the Andalusian Institute for Astrophysics (IAA-CSIC), Spain, and lead author of the paper, in a release circulated by the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India.

The observed giant flare lasted approximately 160 milliseconds and during this time 1039 joules of energy was released. The flare spewed as much energy in a tenth of a second that our Sun will radiate in 100,000 years, according to the paper.

Eruptions in magnetars are believed to be due to instabilities in their magnetosphere, or “starquakes” produced in their crust – a rigid, elastic layer about one kilometre thick. This causes waves in the magnetosphere, and interaction between these waves causes dissipation of energy.

Magnetars are very difficult to observe when they are silent. It is only during a flare that they can be observed, and these flares are so short-lived that it presents a formidable problem. “They are mostly observed or seen in active transient phases which are very short in duration and are very faint in general for any available instruments or telescopes,” says Dr Pandey.

Serendipitous finding

It was also a serendipitous find because, as Dr Pandey explains: “ASIM is mainly designed with its large effective area to observe terrestrial gamma ray flashes. It was a great coincidence that this bright transient flash was observed by ASIM instrument.”

According to Dr Pandey, studying these flares will not only help us understand the physics of magnetars, it will also help in understanding fast radio bursts, which are among the most enigmatic phenomena in astronomy.

Releasing the booster shots: What are we waiting for?

There is evidence to suggest that immunity, when it wanes after the second dose, can be boosted with a third dose

The Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 clearly appears to be taking over as the dominant strain of the virus, reflecting its increased transmissibility, and ability to escape the immunity conferred by the standard vaccination schedule or past infection. There is evidence to suggest that such immunity, which wanes with time elapsed from the second dose, can be boosted with a third dose of the vaccine.

There are several arguments which are being made against boosters, which seem to be oversimplifying the discourse.

The first of these arguments is that two doses protect against severe disease, irrespective of the waning protection against infection with the passage of time. We now know this is not true. A study analysing data from medical databases in Brazil and Scotland (with close to 2 million adults from Scotland, and 42 million from Brazil) found protection from the vaccine against hospitalisations and death beginning to wane within three months after the second dose. This was before the Omicron variant was reported. A more transmissible variant would mean a potentially larger denominator of those infected, and even if a small proportion of these individuals need hospitalisation, we could overwhelm the healthcare system. A shorter doubling time which is being reported for Omicron would also mean that infections are likely to be clustered in time, making “flattening the curve” more challenging.

Is it just like a flu?

Second comes the statement, “Omicron could be just like the flu.” We need to remind ourselves that influenza kills 12,000–52,000 individuals in the U.S. every year (as per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and possibly a significantly higher number in India. It is also true that respiratory infections increase risk of heart attacks and strokes upto sixfold, and it would be in our best interests to prevent them, especially in the elderly and immunocompromised. Even if Omicron intrinsically causes a milder illness than the existing variants, its impact on vulnerable groups could be profound, and cannot be trivialised. Post-COVID sequelae and long-COVID do not often get captured in statistics since they may not be associated with hospitalisation, but are very real reasons for us to do our best to prevent infection. But focusing exclusively on the fact that Omicron may not cause disease as severe as the Delta variant, we ignore all the collateral damage that it might cause which may not get labelled as severe COVID disease.

Effective strategy

Thirdly, the view that boosters are a luxury when India has vaccine shortages: An important question is whether it is hesitancy or shortages that have prevented the entire eligible population from being vaccinated? In addition, when last checked, a majority of the doses presently being administered are second doses to those in the relatively low-risk 18–44 age group category, followed by first doses to individuals in the same category (close to 3.6 million and 0.9 million doses, respectively, of the 6.2 million total doses administered on December 22). Suspending vaccinations temporarily for those under 40 years of age without comorbidities (who, even when unvaccinated, suffer mild illness, the data from South Africa confirming this for Omicron) to offer booster doses to vulnerable groups might be a more effective strategy rather than waiting for a later date after Omicron has spread through the community and caused irreparable damage.

Lastly, a booster with the same vaccine does not work: The COV-BOOST study analysed seven different vaccines as boosters and found all of them effective to varying degrees after two doses of Covishield, including Covishield as a booster. A heterologous prime-boost strategy (booster with a different vaccine) definitely performs better, but whether a third dose of what is available today is better than an ideal third dose that’s available a month later needs to be modelled. Mixing the available vaccines (Covishield followed by Covaxin and vice-versa) is being tested, and if the results are promising, this might be an efficient strategy.

Healthcare workers

Other considerations that must be weighed in the decision to roll out a booster immediately is that we do not want hordes of individuals gathering to receive their third dose in the middle of an Omicron surge, turning vaccination centre gatherings into superspreader events. This is very likely to have happened with the Delta variant during the second surge, and we must not make the mistake of repeating this with Omicron. Rapid, widespread transmission would also mean the possible selection of newer variants, the attributes of which are impossible to predict. We also do not want healthcare workers falling ill at the same time, thereby paralysing healthcare services (it has been close to a year since when frontline workers have been vaccinated).

Our vaccination programme, combined with the high background seroprevalence from past infection, has likely protected us for the last few months. However, it was always known that if there was a new variant which caused vaccine breakthrough infections and reinfections, we could face another big wave. In addition to strictly preventing crowds and superspreader events, we need to act fast, using the available scientific evidence, to prevent such a wave with the Omicron variant. Rolling out booster doses to the immunocompromised, elderly, and frontline workers immediately could be invaluable.

On the brink

Why is Afghanistan staring at a humanitarian disaster? What does this mean for the war-torn country?

The story so far: For Afghanistan, 2021 was one of the watershed years in its history. After 20 years of war, the U.S. pulled back its troops from Afghanistan, which led to the return of the Taliban to power. While the Taliban now has the whole country under their control, they seem clueless on how to address a looming humanitarian crisis. As several countries have suspended or substantially cut aid to Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover, the country is on the brink of a humanitarian disaster.

How bad is the humanitarian situation?

Almost 80% of the fallen Afghan Government’s budget came from international development assistance. After the Taliban took over Kabul on August 15, most of the donors suspended government aid. The U.S. has also frozen nearly $9.5 billion of Afghan central bank assets, mainly held in New York Fed and American financial institutions. The Taliban remain on the U.S. Treasury Department’s sanctions list. According to the UN World Food Programme, the situation could become the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. UN agencies estimate that about 23 million of Afghanistan’s nearly 40 million people are facing acute food shortages. Other countries, including the U.S., European nations and India, have sent humanitarian aid to ameliorate the situation. As most commercial flights to Kabul are still suspended, aid is being sent by road to the landlocked country, mainly through Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia. Amid growing calls for international action to address the situation, the UN Security Council, on December 22, unanimously adopted a resolution that facilitates humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. But all the international sanctions on the Taliban are still in place.

How are the Taliban ruling?

While the Taliban have said the new regime would be different from the old one of Mullah Omar, there’s little evidence on the ground suggesting any real change — at least not yet. Reportedly, there are two different factions within the Taliban — one dominated by the Haqqanis, who have close ties with al-Qaeda and the Pakistani intelligence establishment, and the other by a relatively moderate wing, comprising Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who is currently the deputy Prime Minister. The selection of a Pashtun-men-only Cabinet and decisions such as keeping girls out of primary education suggest that the hardliners have an upper hand in decision making. Despite a general amnesty that the Taliban announced after they seized power, extrajudicial killings continued. According to a recent Human Rights Commission (HRC) report, at least 72 executions were attributed to the Taliban since mid-August and in several cases bodies were publicly displayed. Some 4.2 million young Afghans are out of school, 60% of them girls, says the HRC report.

Does the Taliban regime have international recognition?

No country has formally recognised the Taliban regime this time. But several countries, including Pakistan, China, Russia and Central Asian republics, have kept their diplomatic missions open in Kabul. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has held direct talks with Taliban delegations. In September, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan told the UN General Assembly that the only way forward for Afghanistan is to “strengthen and stabilise the current government”. Qatar, which hosted the Taliban-U.S. talks that led to the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, poses itself as a conduit between the West and the Taliban. The UAE recently reached out to the Taliban by opening embassy operations. According to a Taliban spokesperson, the UAE assured the Taliban that it would not allow former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who has taken refuge in the Emirates, to engage in political activities. All these developments suggest that a larger group of countries are ready to engage the Taliban this time.

Is the war over?

While fighting has receded, Afghanistan is far from reaching peace and stability. Unlike in the 1990s, the Taliban have taken control of almost all of the country, including Panjshir Valley in the north which defied both the Soviets and the Taliban earlier. But the Panjshir guerrillas were not defeated; they retreated to the mountains. Their commander Ahmad Massoud, son of the legendary Panjshir warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, is reportedly in Tajikistan, along with Amrullah Saleh, former Vice-President. They may be waiting for an opportunity to strike back, like the Taliban did after they were ousted in 2001. The immediate security challenge the Taliban face, however, is from the Islamic State-Khorasan, the Afghan wing of the IS. The IS-K has carried out multiple bombings since the Taliban takeover. Stuck between a humanitarian disaster and the Taliban’s Islamist totalitarianism, the people of Afghanistan are also being hunted down by terrorists of the Islamic State.

What are the head and tailwinds in the economy?

In which sectors has the recovery gained momentum? What needs to be done to sustain growth?

The story so far: For India, the year gone by has been about rebuilding from the ravages of 2020 amid the COVID-19 storm which had pushed the already slowing economy into contraction mode. To refresh the context in which 2021 dawned, the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth had dipped to a mere 3% in the fourth quarter of 2019-2020. The pandemic-related lockdowns sent the stalling economy into free fall, causing output to shrink by 24.4% and 7.4% in the first two quarters of 2020-21, respectively. The resultant destruction meant that job and income losses coincided with the unfolding health crisis, cramping consumption and disrupting production supply chains across industries, while contact-intensive sectors like tourism, restaurants and other services haemorrhaged. It was only after the first COVID-19 wave had peaked in September 2020, that GDP growth crawled back to the surface with a meagre 0.5% rate of expansion in the third quarter. The new year, it was hoped, would help unravel the damage, aided by rapid vaccination against the novel coronavirus as well as specific policy steps to rescue and resuscitate the worst-affected sectors of the economy.

How did the Indian economy fare this year? Is it out of the woods yet?

With an eye on making up lost ground, in February, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s Union Budget for 2021-22 bet on pushing infrastructure spending to revive the economy but refrained from providing income support for those worst affected by the pandemic. An ambitious ₹1.75 lakh crore target was set for disinvestment from public sector enterprises backed by a new policy to retain a ‘bare minimum’ presence of state-owned firms even in strategic sectors. The government explained that higher capital spending would trigger multiplier effects by nudging up demand in several sectors and spur job creation and consumption. Economists were concerned about the implementation risks of this approach, including the time public investment projects may take to fructify before the multiplier effects trickle down. While the government talked up prospects of a sharp V-shaped recovery, experts fretted about a K-shaped recovery unfolding thanks to a divergence between those who needed to protect their lives and livelihoods, and those who were able to sustain themselves like corporates and those in white-collared jobs who had not been too badly affected by the pandemic. The COVID-19 virus, however, was immune to such nuanced debates and decided to play spoiler even before the Budget fine print had sunk in. By the end of March, India was firmly in the grip of a much deadlier second wave, prompting the Centre to unveil fresh relief measures for industry as well as the vulnerable sections such as providing free foodgrains (which has now been extended till March 2022). If the virus had weighed heavily on livelihoods in 2020, this year, it claimed a far greater human cost with high fatalities. In contrast, the economic suffering from the second wave was less pronounced and supply chains were less stressed, with restrictions on mobility and business activities being localised across States, unlike the hard nationwide lockdown of 2020. Of course, this is not to say the second wave didn’t hurt growth. After a sedate 1.6% uptick in GDP between January and March, the economy expanded by an underwhelming 20.1% in the April to June quarter when it was hoped that the base effect of the sharp 24.4% slide in the previous year would push the number higher. With households being impacted more severely, consumption’s share in GDP fell during this quarter. While manufacturing and construction recovered, the economy’s overall output remained far below even the low pre-pandemic levels. Gross value added (GVA) was still 7.8% shy of the level seen in the first quarter of 2019-20, while GDP remained 9.2% lower. Things have improved, as per the latest national accounts data, but only just — as the July to September quarter registered 8.4% GDP growth pulling the economy 0.3% above the same quarter in 2019. The first half of financial year 2021-22 has now recorded 13.5% GDP growth and the Finance Ministry expects a double-digit expansion for the full year ending in March 2022. But one cannot say the economy has truly come out of the woods yet. Real GVA for the first half of this fiscal year remains 3.7% below the first half of 2019-20 and this difference is even larger for real GDP at 4.4%, EY India chief policy adviser D.K. Srivastava pointed out. “2021-22 has been spent mostly in making up for the contraction in 2020-21. Even if a real GDP growth of 9.5% is achieved this fiscal, India would land only marginally on the positive side as compared to 2019-20,” he said.

Which sectors are back to pre-pandemic levels now and where does the pain persist?

While the recovery has gained momentum despite the second wave, it still remains uneven and fragmented with economists also unconvinced about its sustainability. CARE Ratings’ economists Madan Sabnavis and Kavita Chacko noted that demand and investments were yet to see a meaningful and durable pick-up and any improvements were expected to be limited and gradual as the domestic economy had been grappling with low demand and a subdued investment climate even before the COVID-19 shock. While agriculture, the only sector to record positive growth throughout the pandemic, has held firm, sectors like manufacturing, mining, electricity, recovered above pre-COVID levels by September. But employment-intensive sectors like construction, the contact-intensive trade and hotels industry, as well as financial services and real estate, continue to languish below their pre-pandemic levels.

There are some other interesting aspects of this year’s economic trajectory. Exports have done well, hitting record numbers so far, but imports have been surging as well widening India’s merchandise trade deficit to an all-time high of $22.9 billion in November. The rupee, which had recovered after falling below 76 to a dollar in March 2020, weakened past that mark again recently. Tax collections, both direct and indirect, have fared surprisingly well. Goods and Services Tax revenues stayed above ₹1 lakh crore a month for most of the year. While retail inflation moderated in the initial period of this year after staying beyond the central bank’s 6% tolerance threshold through large parts of 2020, it has been inching back up in recent months, hitting a three-month high of 4.9% in November. Wholesale price inflation has also hit an all-time high in the current series of the index, making input costs the number one worry for businesses.

Pradeep Multani, PHDCCI president, said supply side issues such as high commodity prices and raw material shortages were denting industry margins, especially for small and medium enterprises that generate high employment. He opines that the government needs to handhold the economy in view of the risks this poses to consumption and private investments even as the new virus variant Omicron is a fresh dark cloud on the horizon.

What tidings may 2022 hold and what are the biggest risks to growth?

The uncertain effects of Omicron and other virus mutations aside, the OECD has projected global growth to slow to 4.5% in 2022, from 5.6% this year, with India’s growth pegged at 8.1% for 2022-23. On the bright side, ICRA chief economist Aditi Nayar is hopeful of consumption returning to normalcy that could ramp up industry’s capacity utilisation rate and set the stage for a broad-based investment revival by the end of 2022. Economists believe higher inflation is the biggest risk for the coming year as supply chain problems in key components, volatile commodity and oil prices as well as shipping disruptions are likely to deepen at least in the first half of the year. With retail inflation at a 40-year high in the U.S., interest rate hikes there could warrant a shift in the central bank’s current monetary policy stance prioritising growth over inflation.

India’s policy makers, be it North Block mandarins formulating the Budget or Mint Street bosses in Mumbai, have their task cut out for a smooth landing in 2022.

‘Every third informal worker is now registered on e-Shram’

Total enrolment crosses 14-crore mark: Labour Minister

Every third informal sector worker in India is now registered on the e-Shram portal with registration on the portal crossing the 14 crore mark in four months, Union Minister Bhupender Yadav said on Saturday.

The national database being created on e-Shram portal will eventually help the government to provide various social security and other welfare benefits to unorganised workers. The portal was unveiled on August 26.

“e-Shram portal in just about 4 months 14 crore crossed… Kudos to all those who made it possible,” the Labour and Employment Minister tweeted.

The latest data of the portal shows that the top five States in terms of number of registrations on e-Shram are U.P., West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha and Jharkhand. Gender analysis of the data shows that 52.56% are female while 47.44% are male.

The data show that 42.64% of the registered workers are other backward classes (OBC) followed by 26.45% from general category, 22.54% from the scheduled caste and 8.38% from the Scheduled Tribe.

It also show that over 94% registered workers’ income is ₹10,000 per month or below while over 4% have income in the rage of ₹10,000 to ₹15,000 per month.

About 51% workers are farm labourers, 11% in construction, 10% in domestic and household work and 6.5% in the apparel segment.


The News Editorial Analysis 25th Dec 2021

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