News & Events
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1.Is Congress becoming an organisation incapable of self-correction?
The Congress panel led by former Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan examining the reasons behind the party’s poor performances in the recently concluded assembly elections have highlighted infighting and weak organisational structure as the major culprits. Essentially, the party is left staring at the need for a massive overhaul right from the AlCC nerve centre in Delhi through to all state units and down to the booth level.
Congress has postponed the restructuring till the Covid pandemic settles. It is over nine months since a group of 23 leaders raised the banner of revolt against Sonia Gandhi continuing as interim president. But Rahul Gandhi’s diffidence in taking over as party president or indicating his preference or future course of action hasn’t helped.
In the state units, fearing splits, Congress has shied away from holding organisational elections and has preferred to rely on nominating office-bearers based on factional strength or high command preferences. Unlike cadre-based parties which function in a state of permanent mobilisation, Congress, which calls itself a mass-based party, has witnessed its organisation wither away as promising netas lost hope in rising up the party ranks without patronage from above.
Meanwhile, BJP has undertaken a review of the Uttar Pradesh government’s performance during the Covid second wave amid reports of discontent. BJP president JP Nadda has also directed party leaders to take Covid relief activities to one lakh villages as part of the Modi government’s seventh anniversary.
Recently, Rahul Gandhi’s press conference after several months hardly gained any traction even as Mamata Banerjee’s national profile rises. But Congress remains the only party with a national presence, and unless it can get its act right, BJP can continue to flag the TINA factor of no other viable national alternative to the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah diarchy.
2.BB, play the a game: Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin must play a far larger role in India’s vaccination drive. And get WHO approval
India’s truly atmanirbhar, made-by-Bharat Biotech (BB) vaccine, Covaxin, is yet to secure WHO’s Emergency Use Listing. This, when Sinovac became the second Chinese vaccine after Sinopharm to get global approval. Covaxin’s absence from the list of WHO-approved vaccines means millions of Indians who have got this shot may not be eligible for global travel, since most countries go by the list of WHO-approved vaccines. Three months have elapsed since BB published Covaxin’s interim efficacy data. The company is a vaccine developer with a solid track record. But further delay in publishing the third phase data isn’t helping India. GoI should push BB to obtain WHO green signal ASAP.
But Covaxin has an even more critical role to play in India in the near future. And BB, therefore, needs to now start playing its A game. Questions over its production and capacity made the company argue there’s a 4-month lag between initiation and supply, and that June will see substantially more doses of Covaxin. GoI has now said it expects to secure 7.5 crore doses of Covaxin in July. This needs to be upped further. Serum Institute cannot indefinitely postpone its Covax/ commercial commitments and risk more international ire. Covishield has so far shouldered nearly 90% of the vaccination burden. This proportion needs to change substantially over the next few months. And all the official talk of Covaxin being produced by other companies, including some pharma PSUs, must see some real action.
BB’s vaccine is also crucial for three more reasons. First, demanding cold chain requirements mean none of the foreign vaccines can be administered to people in small towns and villages. Covaxin – and Covishield – must carry the responsibility of vaccinating Bharat. Second, if India’s experiments with mixing vaccines boil down to a Covishield-Covaxin cocktail, domestic safety-efficacy studies must be carried out quickly and transparently. Foreign studies on mixing vaccines didn’t include Covaxin. In 3-4 months, millions of Covishield first dosers will be due for their next shot. Can they take Covaxin – that question must be answered clearly.
Third, Covaxin trials on 2-18 year-olds is India’s best bet to protect children from a feared third wave and to safely reopen schools. And, relatedly, BB’s undertrial intranasal vaccine is just as important, given its ease of administration and the general dread of needles among many in rural India. Bharat Biotech, please note, much rests on Covaxin.
3.Exam fear: On Class XII exam cancellation
The CBSE Class XII exam has been cancelled, but the Centre must act to secure education
Several anxieties faced by students, parents and schools have been calmed by the decision to cancel the Central Board of Secondary Education Class XII examination following a review by the Centre. Shaken by the carnage wrought by the second wave of the pandemic, the Government had little choice but to act against possible fresh clusters of infection, although that will mean considerably limited opportunities for students. Hopes for predictability in 2021, after the traumatic experience of students all through last year, have been dashed by the emergence of the double mutant variant of the coronavirus that has spread far and wide because of superspreader events. The Government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi were obviously anxious to be seen as acting decisively on the examination question, after a long phase of dithering in formulating a national response. The decision to cancel the crucial Class XII public examination and replace it with an objective assessment for certification will help boards of education in the States to move in the same direction. Some pointers to an assessment scheme can be found in the CBSE’s submission to the Supreme Court last year, when the pandemic prevented the completion of Class XII examinations: for students who could not take the examination, as in Delhi, the internal, practical, and project assessment was proposed as a proxy to arrive at results, with an option to improve performance at a subsequent examination. The Board must now come up with a model scientific scheme.
The decision to cancel the examination in 2021 may have resolved a prickly issue, but the question of national entrance examinations — such as NEET and JEE — need to be addressed. Importantly, the Centre must recognise that major factors such as non-availability of enough vaccine doses, absence of a systematic vaccine coverage plan, and poor understanding of where virus variants are spreading, contributed to the second wave, and may, in fact, cause a third. For instance, there is better comprehension in Britain of where the variant of concern initially isolated from India, B.1.617.2, is spreading in that country because it has a robust genome sequencing programme. Such sharp insight, together with the availability of free and widespread testing, is crucial to stop waves of infections that threaten to hobble the country. The plight of students, which is engaging governments, has to become a top priority. Singapore has just approved mRNA vaccine coverage for children 12 years and older, just as the U.S. regulator FDA has for 12 to 15-year-olds. Britain has thought of 100 extra tuition hours for schools from 2022. There cannot be an interminable wait for vaccines to trickle down to all. The Centre must take responsibility to provide them to everyone, including students.
4.Embracing children: On children orphaned by COVID-19
Speedy implementation of relief schemes for children orphaned by COVID-19 is essential
Well begun is not always half done, and, in any case, half done is never good enough. The Centre’s response to the Supreme Court that the modalities of the expansive assistance programme for children orphaned by COVID-19, announced by the Prime Minister, were yet to be formulated comes as a disappointment. While rightly feted for its announcement of a comprehensive programme for the most vulnerable section of the population during this COVID-19 pandemic, children, the Centre did not lay down procedural formalities for implementation. It is clear from the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights’ submission in the Supreme Court that nearly 10,000 children are in need of immediate care and protection. They include children aged between zero and 17 years orphaned or abandoned during the COVID-19 pandemic since March 2020. The total was 9,346 children who have been affected, including 1,742 children who lost both parents, 7,464 who have lost one parent, and 140 who have been abandoned from March 2020 to May 29, 2021. It further told the apex court that these children run a high risk of being pushed into trafficking and the flesh trade. There is thus no doubt that time is of the essence here.
Given the urgency of rescuing these children, the Government cannot dawdle over figuring out implementation strategies. A swift laying down of processes and monitoring mechanisms to kick start rescue and relief, besides undertaking the continuing process of estimating beneficiaries is needed. Children have little or no agency of their own and are still dependent on adults to get by, and the disruption that COVID-19 has wrought on their lives is devastating. The experience of States that sprang to the assistance of children orphaned by the Indian Ocean tsunami can be factored in — they were embraced into the safety net of the social security system, and funds were placed in a trust for them for use when they reach a certain age. While the plans announced under the PM CARES Fund include this, and are far more expansive looking at funding schooling, higher education, even health insurance, a promise is nothing if not fulfilled. The responsibility of the Government now is to go the full mile to ensure that these benefits reach every child fitting the criteria, besides making sure that the children are not exploited with an eye on the eventual bounty. Several States have announced their child-care packages on similar lines too, with some setting up monitoring committees to ensure implementation. Sincere implementation through committed staff, and using existing systems such as 1098 for periodic identification of children in need would be the cornerstones of such a project, especially at a time when the onslaught of COVID-19 is far from over.