News & Events
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1. Juveniles and Justice: Should the below-16 face full trial if offences are heinous?
A Madhya Pradesh HC judge has rued the Juvenile Justice Act’s inability to punish delinquents aged below 16 while rejecting bail for a 15-year-old juvenile accused of raping a 10-year-old girl. The judge observed that the legislature hasn’t “learnt lessons” from the Nirbhaya case, where one rapist was just under 18. This had triggered JJA 2015 amendments that allowed trial of juveniles over 16, when accused of heinous offences, as adults in children’s courts. But first a Juvenile Justice Board evaluates them for mental and physical capacity and ability to understand consequences of the crime. If found guilty, jail terms for the remainder of the sentence commences only on turning 21.
Interestingly, during the parliamentary debate at least one MP had wondered if a future 15-year-old offender accused of a heinous crime would prompt further lowering of age. Victims of rape or other heinous offences will understandably feel let down if violators get just three-year spells in a special home.
The issue here is of balance – if a juvenile less than 16 is credibly accused of an extremely heinous offence, he can be in the same halfway house system as those in the 16-18 group are now. Determining whether someone less than 16 can indeed be tried in such a fashion must be a thorough process. So, were Parliament to consider making exceptions for JJA’s age of criminality for extremely heinous offences, the amendment must be written with care. Heinous offences must be well defined to minimise subjectivity.
There’s another tragic problem: whether designated homes where juvenile offenders, including those who may face further trial, are placed are actually “places of safety” are in doubt. Any change in the juvenile justice system must consider that, too.
2. Pay Ashas well: Unacceptable that these Covid warriors are paid abysmally
Asha workers, the footsoldiers of India’s public health system, are agitating. Bowing to protests, Maharashtra last week revised their monthly honorarium from Rs 5,000 to Rs 6,000 accompanied by a Rs 500 Covid duty allowance. Their monthly take-homes are even lower elsewhere. Asha protests have raged in several MP districts too since June 1. During this pandemic, Asha workers have proved their worth many times over their measly wages. They have conducted house visits, village surveys, rapid antigen tests and even offered rudimentary first aid for Covid patients through distributing paracetamol tablets. Many did these tasks wIthout adequate protective gear or thermometers and oximeters.
Ashas (Accredited Social Health Activists) have grown rapidly into a 10-lakh strong corps since launch in 2006. By accompanying pregnant women for institutional deliveries and motivating child immunisation, they aided India’s giant leaps in these two areas. With roles to play now in Covid detection, vaccine delivery and dispelling vaccine hesitancy, better working conditions are key to extracting maximum value from them. But dirt cheap wages don’t do justice to either the job risks or their criticality as last-mile public health workers in villages. If this isn’t exploitation, what is?
In many states, Asha workers are paid fixed honorariums, varying between Rs 3,500 and Rs 6,000. Most states offer incentives for meeting targets and since last year, Rs 1,000 Covid duty allowance. When the Seventh Pay Commission recognised Rs 18,000 as the minimum pay for the lowest ranked central employee, Asha workers sought parity. Admittedly, they are volunteers and not government employees. But their work hours are just as long. Complaints of wages as low as Rs 3,000 and delayed, irregular payments are rife too. Given that Asha workers are women, gender injustice in the unequal and irregular pay cycles deserves stronger scrutiny. With Asha protests rampant across India, recognise that such low honorariums also contribute to poor worker morale, and consequently suboptimal public health outcomes.
3.Unjust green: On vaccine passports
India must continue to monitor discrimination in vaccine passports issue
The European Union’s decision to enforce a “Green Pass” to allow travel within the EU from July 1, and linked to specified vaccines, has set off a storm of protest from several quarters including India. According to the European Medicines Agency (EMA) that sets the guidelines, the vaccines given “conditional marketing authorisation” were Comirnaty (Pfizer/BioNTech), Vaccine Janssen (Johnson & Johnson), Spikevax (Moderna) and Vaxzevria (AstraZeneca), which makes it clear that neither of India’s vaccines, Covishield and Covaxin, as well as Russia’s and China’s, would be eligible for the EU Digital COVID Certificate (EUDCC), as the Green Pass is formally called. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar took up the exclusion strongly with EU authorities this week, particularly the case of Covishield, which is made under licensing and certification from AstraZeneca, and cleared by WHO. India has argued that the entire idea of “vaccine passports” would leave developing nations and the global south at a disadvantage, as they have restricted vaccine access. An unspoken but valid criticism is that there is a hint of racism in the action — the EMA list only includes vaccines already used by Europe and North America. A letter of protest on the EMA’s decision was also issued by the African Union and the Africa CDC this week, which called Covishield the “backbone” of the COVAX alliance’s programme, that has been administered in many African countries. The EMA list is not binding however, and countries can choose to include others individually. After India’s vocal protests, and its subtle threat to impose reciprocal measures, at least a third of the EU has said they would recognise Covishield (Estonia has accepted Covishield and Covaxin).
While the news that Austria, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Spain and Switzerland (not an EU member) have accommodated India’s concerns is welcome, there are still some hurdles before Indian travellers. Most of these countries are not at present accepting Indian travellers at all, as no non-essential travel is allowed to EU countries, and the spread of the Delta variant, first identified in India, has meant further travel restrictions. In addition, Indians who have taken doses of Covaxin will need to wait even longer, until this vaccine receives WHO clearance. Finally, as more nations complete their vaccine programmes, they will seek to tighten their border controls with “vaccine passports” and longer quarantines in order to curtail the spread of new variants. While it is necessary for the Government to keep up with these actions worldwide, and battle discriminatory practices, the real imperative remains to vaccinate as many Indians as possible, given that more than six months after the Indian inoculation programme began, only 4.4% of those eligible have been fully vaccinated.
4. Net loss: On Internet access to schools
The Centre must help provide Internet links to all schools as an essential service
The digital divide in India’s school education system, reflected by the absence of computers and Internet access on campus, emerges starkly from the Education Ministry’s Unified District Information System for Education Plus (UDISE+), for the pre-pandemic year of 2019-20. Physical infrastructure has traditionally meant good buildings, playgrounds, libraries and access to water and toilets, but the advent of hybrid learning even ahead of the coronavirus crisis has made essential online access and computers key adjuncts to make the learning process more engaging. During 2020-21, it became painfully evident that most students had to rely on remote learning, but many faced the double jeopardy of not possessing their own computing devices and smartphones at home, and their schools remaining in the dark without such facilities. In remote areas, particularly in the Northeast, many had to travel closer to mobile phone towers to access the Internet on shared phones to get their lessons. The latest data confirm that a mere 22% of schools across the country on average had Internet access, while government institutions fared much worse at 11%. On the second metric of functional computer access, the national average was 37% and for government schools, 28.5%. Beyond the averages, the range of deficits reflects deep asymmetries: 87.84% of Kerala schools and 85.69% in Delhi had an Internet facility, compared to 6.46% in Odisha, 8.5% in Bihar, 10% in West Bengal and 13.62% in Uttar Pradesh.
Students and teachers not being able to use computers and the Internet is acknowledged to be a form of deprivation, especially during the pandemic, just as the inability to attend in-person classes is another. Many scholars see the teaching-learning process as multi-dimensional, helping to inculcate social skills. COVID-19 has, however, compelled all countries to evaluate hybrid education models, with a mix of lessons delivered virtually now and on campus later when the virus threat abates. In such a multi-layered process, bringing computers and the Internet to all schools cannot be delayed any longer. The Centre must explore all options, such as the National Broadband Mission, the BSNL network and other service providers, to connect schools, including all government institutions that are severely deprived; the upcoming 5G standard with the benefit of high wireless bandwidth may also be able to help bridge the gap quickly. Getting computers to schools should also not be difficult because, apart from public funding, communities, corporates and hardware makers can use recycling and donation options. The UDISE+ shows that many schools have fallen through the net, and they need urgent help to get connected.