News & Events
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1.Delimitation’s limit: J&K Commission needs to address Kashmiri fears. India needs to rethink 2026 plan
Results of the exercise carried out by the J&K Delimitation Commission are in the public domain even though the proposals haven’t been published in the gazette. Jammu is to get six more seats in the proposed assembly and Kashmir will be given one more. It will lead to a split of 43 seats for Jammu and 47 to Kashmir in a 90-member assembly. Kashmir’s politicians, rarely on the same page, are unanimous that their region got a raw deal. They still have time to convince the Commission.
The J&K Delimitation Commission is a unique body, owing its existence to the provisions of the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019. The Act set the terms for the Commission. In addition to population, other aspects such as physical features, communication and conveniences were to be considered in the delimitation exercise. To put the extraordinary situation of J&K in perspective, it’s important to consider Andhra Pradesh’s bifurcation. The 2014 AP reorganisation law states that the assembly seats in the successor states will be increased. That exercise has been put off till the first census after 2026, which is when there can be a national delimitation exercise.
Chief election commissioner Sushil Chandra, a member of the J&K Delimitation Commission, observed that it’s not a mathematical exercise, but must reflect political aspirations. That’s the nub of the matter. It’s the reason the Commission now needs to engage politicians from Kashmir. Advancing the delimitation exercise for just J&K serves no purpose if it cripples a nascent political process.
Reactions to this exercise should also make us rethink the forthcoming national delimitation exercise. The Constitution initially linked Lok Sabha seats allotted to a state to its population. Subsequent amendments froze the population reference point to the 1971 Census till the first census after 2026. It’s meant to protect states that took a lead in lowering fertility rates.
A delimitation exercise represents a shift in political power. As population is the main basis of seat allocation, an inherent problem is it dilutes the political clout of states and regions that have done well in realising the goal of population control. India has over time overcome fissiparous tendencies that weakened national integrity. Given this backdrop, a national delimitation exercise is best avoided because of the danger of unintended consequences. And in J&K, the Commission should find a way to address the fears of Kashmir before it publishes its outcome.
2Protect healthcare: As Omicron spreads, GoI must think of booster shots for medical professionals
GoI’s warning to state governments on Omicron includes keeping public health infrastructure in operational readiness. But what about boosting healthcare workers’ immunity against the virus? A study published in Lancet has just shown that protection accorded by the AstraZeneca vaccine (Covishield) dips three months after the second dose. Currently, healthcare workers numbering around 70 lakh (nearly 70%) are those who took their second doses over six months ago. If the highly infectious Omicron variant surges in India too, many health workers can get infected. This, in turn, will reduce healthcare capacity to treat patients. Fearing this, the Indian Medical Association and some state governments have urged GoI to approve booster doses for health workers.
That a booster dose of Covishield, administered to nearly 90% Indians, is unlikely to work well for those already jabbed twice with it, has complicated the picture. Meanwhile, mix and match studies of Covishield with Covovax have shown good results. WHO and EU regulators have just cleared this SII-manufactured vaccine for emergency use listing. Also note that WHO recommends that those jabbed with inactivated virus-based vaccines, Covaxin, in India’s case, must also get booster list priority. Bharat Biotech’s intra-nasal vaccine is apparently the booster for those jabbed with Covaxin – but the timeline for its clearance is not clear.
There’s no question that GoI must move. Both Covovax and BB’s intra-nasal vaccine must receive focussed official attention and all plans must be based on worst case scenario assumptions. We still don’t know what the official thinking is on boosters – that in itself is a policy gap that needs to be filled. States are moving to restrict activities – Delhi and Maharashtra have put curbs on Christmas-New Year partying – and while moving earlier and in a graded fashion is better than blunt instruments like lockdowns, faster vaccination and a smart rollout of boosters remain the best official weapons.
3.Warning bells: On Omicron cases in India
India must ensure more availability of beds, medicines and vaccines to deal with Omicron
India has reported over 200 cases of the highly infectious Omicron variant and given that there were no cases when the month began, this has put the Centre in a high state of alert. An unmistakable foreboding was writ large in a letter by the Union Health Secretary to the Chief Secretaries of States and Union Territories on Tuesday that has asked them to be prepared for the worst. It said that Omicron was at least “three times more transmissible” than the Delta variant, and therefore “greater foresight, data analysis, dynamic decision-making, strict and prompt containment action” were required at the local and district levels. It also underlined two specific parameters which States have to be vigilant about: a test positivity of 10% or more in the last week and bed occupancy crossing 40% or more on oxygen-supported or intensive care units. There were echoes in the letter of the days when India was under a complete lockdown — it exhorted district officials, when required, to impose night curfew, strictly regulate large gatherings, curtail numbers in marriages and funerals, and restrict numbers in offices, industries and public transport. It also directed pre-emptive action.
Maharashtra and Delhi have reported the highest number of cases of Omicron, followed by Telangana, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Kerala and Gujarat. India’s daily case count has ebbed and has remained well below 10,000 for most of the month — a first since May 2020; close to 90% of the adult population has been vaccinated with at least one dose. From the numbers alone, India is in a much better position than from last year or even as recently as this summer when the devastating second wave struck a body blow. However, the consternation in the Centre appears to derive from the experience of the last two years when waves in Europe and the United States were harbingers of havoc in India. While last year it appeared that vaccines would be the world’s passport out of the pandemic, it now seems that even a third dose is inadequate. India is overwhelmingly dependent on a single vaccine in spite of two being produced here; none of the mRNA vaccines is available. Drug regulators are yet to clear vaccines for children and booster doses partly out of concerns that this may trigger a shortfall. A good 40% of adults — and they are still the most vulnerable to severe disease — are yet to be fully vaccinated. Crowds and public mingling are at pre-pandemic levels and the coming months will see huge crowds as part of election campaigning. The true impact of Omicron will be known over the next few weeks but the Centre must continue to strike the gong of caution while facilitating greater availability of essential medicines, hospital beds and vaccines.
4. Troubled waters: On Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan custody
More efforts should be made to wean away fishermen from trawlers
The arrest of 68 Indian fishermen by the Sri Lankan authorities between December 18 and 20 and the impounding of 10 boats for “poaching” in territorial waters have again raised concerns about the fate of the men. It is a matter of comfort and relief that the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka is working to secure their early release. The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M.K. Stalin, in his communication to the External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, on Monday, has underscored the need to get back 75 fishing boats too from Sri Lanka. Fishermen from Tamil Nadu getting arrested and released later has become a routine affair, but there have been cases of deaths. In January 2021, four fishermen from Ramanathapuram district lost their lives after their vessel collided with a Sri Lankan naval craft. There was a similar case in October in which a fisherman died. This is why the Palk Bay fishing dispute needs a resolution soon. The fact that many rounds of discussions — at the levels of the fishermen and the governments of the two countries — have not led to any tangible improvement in the situation should not deter the pursuit of sustained engagement to sort out a problem that involves humanitarian and livelihood issues.
The bone of contention between the two countries has been the use of bottom trawlers by the Tamil Nadu fishermen, a practice opposed in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province on the ground that trawling damages the marine ecosystem. This practice has been banned in Sri Lanka and there have been agitations for stringent enforcement of the law. More than anything else, the fishermen of Tamil Nadu should take into account the fact that their counterparts on the other side of the Palk Strait are still struggling to pick up the threads of their lives after a brutal civil war. Given that an ambitious ₹1,600 crore scheme of replacing in three years 2,000 bottom trawlers with deep-sea fishing boats equipped with long lines and gill nets continues to be a disappointment, both the Central and Tamil Nadu governments need to take up fresh initiatives to get the fishermen on board. The main reason for failure is the component of cost to be borne by the fishermen, accounting for 30% of the unit cost of ₹80 lakh; the two governments take care of the remaining 70%. Apart from increasing the unit cost at least to ₹1.2 crore, which will be at the same level as that of a similar scheme under the Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana (PMMSY), the Governments must increase their share of subsidy. They should also motivate the fishermen to adopt sea cage farming and sea/ocean ranching, which were all covered under the PMMSY. Such an approach is essential as the fishermen find it hard to restrict themselves to India’s territorial waters, given the limited marine wealth and area on the Indian side. But, the priority now for New Delhi should be in securing the swift release of the 68 fishermen.
5. Omicron variant: An action plan for India
India is now entering the crucial set of weeks when the variant could take hold in community transmission
This week, the Union government spelt out a series of steps states must take to mount an effective surveillance to catch any budding Sars-Cov-2 Omicron variant outbreaks and made a formal appeal to them to review medical infrastructure readiness. States must activate war rooms and pay attention to any clusters of infections, the Union health secretary said in an advisory to administrators across the country. The advisory also sets a clear threshold: If more than 10% of tests in a week turn up positive, or if hospital bed occupancy breaches 40% capacity, containment measures must kick in. Such clear, specific action points are critical to ensure surveillance and mitigation efforts are rooted in science, especially since efforts must now be focussed on avoiding any need to lock down.
India is now entering the crucial set of weeks when the variant could take hold in community transmission. The experience of European nations and the United States shows such a scenario is not a matter of if, but when. The variant has triggered case trajectories not seen since the start of the pandemic in several nations, bringing with it a potential for panic. On the other hand, continued mystery over whether it is inherently more virulent risks creating a sense of false security. The government’s messaging needs to strike a balance in which the threat is neither overblown nor underplayed, but the preparations must account for the worst-case scenarios. In this regard, the advisory is a welcome move and it is now up to states to pay adequate heed. The Centre, however, is still dithering on a step that experts largely agree on: India must start boosters, at least for the elderly and the vulnerable.