1) Tackling the surge-
- With less than a week for Lockdown 4 to end, India’s COVID-19 caseload has surged past 1,40,000.
- The relaxation of restrictions from the third phase of the lockdown onwards has added to the challenges faced by the country’s already overburdened healthcare system.
- According to the Indian Council of Medical Research, the positivity rate (share of tests that yield positive results) has gone up to 7 per cent in the three weeks of Lockdown 3 and 4 — it was around 3 per cent at the end of Lockdown 2.
- The mortality rate, reassuringly, has remained static at about 3 per cent.
- Moreover, more than 80 per cent of the infected do not require hospitalisation.
- Even then, the sheer scale of the pandemic seems to be taxing the resources of hospitals in most parts of the country and taking a toll on the health of medical professionals.
- The death, on Sunday, of a COVID-positive nurse employed at a private hospital in Delhi, who was allegedly made to wear used PPEs, frames the difficulties of those at the frontlines of the battle against the virus.
MOBILISE PUBLIC RESOURCES:
- In the past two months, states have tried to mobilise public resources, ramp(increase) up medical centres, and shore up quarantine facilities.
- In most parts of the country, such efforts have, at best, produced mixed results.
- In Delhi, more than 75 per cent of the beds earmarked for COVID-positive patients in private hospitals are already occupied.
- Though the Delhi government claims that the situation is under control, it needs to be on high alert because the city has been adding more than 400 COVID cases daily for more than a week now.
In Mumbai, as a report in this paper showed last week, the situation is much more critical:
- There is an acute shortage of Dedicated Covid Hospitals, which admit critically ill patients like those who require ICU or ventilator support.
- With the return of migrants from hotspots, districts and small towns in the country will have their task cut out.
- Khagaria district in Bihar, for instance, expects about 50,000 migrants to return in the coming weeks, but has only two ventilators, both in private hospitals.
- Only 37 of the 135 posts of government doctors in the district have been filled.
OVERWHELMED MEDICAL PROFESSIONALS:
- Overwhelmed by the pandemic, some medical facilities have turned up the pressure on medical professionals, particularly junior doctors and nurses.
- Last week, the Gujarat High Court pulled up the state’s health minister and chief secretary for neglecting the problems faced by patients and staff at the Ahmedabad Civil Hospital.
- Responding to an anonymous letter detailing the problems of the government hospital’s junior staff, the court described the healthcare facility as a “dungeon(room or cell in which prisoners are held, especially underground)”.
- As the country’s COVID-19 caseload increases, policymakers and hospital authorities need to work at creative solutions to deal with the patient influx.
- As a first step, they must treat healthcare workers in a humane manner, ensure their safety.
2) Unlocking justice-
- Individuals against whom cases of sedition have been filed in recent months, for protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens in particular, may be facing a double injustice, in the justice process.
- As a report in this paper has brought to light, amid a public health emergency in which courts are hearing only “urgent” cases through video-conferencing, bail pleas filed in these cases are not being defined as such.
- That these people, like 19-year-old Amulya Leona, arrested in February by Bengaluru police under Section 124 of the IPC for raising “Pakistan Zindabad” slogans at an anti-CAA rally, are languishing in custody, their bail pleas unheard, is the second injustice.
- The first, as another report in this paper underlined in February, predates(taken place before) the pandemic:
- It is the fact that in many of these arrests, the remand orders by magistrates neither asked nor answered basic questions laid down by the Supreme Court to satisfy themselves that the serious sedition charge is founded.
MISUSE FO SEDITION LAWS:
- A scrutiny(examination) of 25-odd arrests made on charges of sedition in UP, Karnataka and Assam since the anti-CAA protests began, threw up a sobering(creating a more serious, sensible) pattern of police custody granted by courts, no questions asked, no reasons given, or after the most perfunctory(carried out without real interest) hearings.
- While the Supreme Court has upheld the colonial-era sedition law, it has also read the provision restrictively, saying only seditious “speech tended to incite public disorder” was punishable.
- The apex court has emphasised that clear and immediate incitement to violence is necessary for making the offence of sedition.
COURTS NOT ACTING:
- The apparent languor(inactivity) of the courts, the evident(obvious) lack of rigour or urgency, in cases where it would appear that the government is criminalising acts of protest by slapping serious charges on them, is troubling.
- It is disquieting(disturbing) if the pandemic becomes a cover to delay or deny the weak and the vulnerable their day in court, their fundamental right to bail.
- Ever since people’s protests began across the country against the CAA and the proposed NRC, the BJP-led government at the Centre has, deservedly, invited accusations of intolerance of views different from its own.
- The government did not just turn a deaf ear to the protesters, it also attempted to subdue them, including by wielding the sedition law. This has cast a greater responsibility on the court.
- The courts are the time-tested recourse(solution) for upholding and safeguarding constitutional protections for the citizens’ freedom of expression, including and especially the liberty to dissent(disagreement).
- They must not show, nor be seen to show, a lack of alacrity(eagerness) in performing their vital role.
3) Experience with GST holds valuable lessons for One Nation One Ration Card-
- The economic crisis precipitated by COVID-19 has focussed the country’s attention on inter-state migrants.
- Millions of Indians in this diverse, complex group have crossed state borders in search of better economic opportunities.
- The crisis, however, has highlighted their precarious(difficult) socio-economic condition.
- Historically, governments have made several attempts to bridge the gap.
- A key part of that roadmap is the idea of portable(transferrable) welfare benefits, that is, a citizen should be able to access welfare benefits irrespective of where she is in the country.
- In the case of food rations, the idea was first mooted under the UPA government by a Nandan Nilekani-led task force in 2011.
- The current government had committed to a national rollout of One Nation, One Ration Card (ON-ORC) by June 2020, and had initiated pilots in 12 states.
- While intra-state portability of benefits has seen good initial uptake, inter-state portability has lagged.
- The finance minister has now announced the deadline of March 2021 to roll out ON-ORC.
CHALLENGES TO THE ROLL OUT ON-ORC:
- To ensure a smooth rollout, we would benefit from reviewing the challenges thus far.
- First, the fiscal implications: ON-ORC will affect how the financial burden is shared between states.
- Second, the larger issues of federalism and inter-state coordination:
- Many states are not convinced about a “one size fits all” regime because they have customised the PDS through higher subsidies, higher entitlement limits, and supply of additional items.
- Third, the technology aspect: ON-ORC requires a complex technology backbone that brings over 750 million beneficiaries, 5,33,000 ration shops and 54 million tonnes of food-grain annually on a single platform.
- These barriers might seem daunting(challenging), but the country has previously dealt with an equally complex situation while rolling out the GST, which was widely touted(considered) as “one nation, one tax”.
DRAWING COMPARISION BETWEEN GST AND ON-ORC:
- Just like with ON-ORC, fiscal concerns had troubled GST from the start.
- States like Tamil Nadu and Gujarat that are “net exporters” were concerned they would lose out on tax revenues to “net consumer” states like UP and Bihar.
- Finally, the Centre had to step in and provide guaranteed compensation for lost tax revenues for the first five years.
- The Centre could provide a similar assurance to “net inbound migration” states such as Maharashtra and Kerala that any additional costs on account of migrants will be covered by it for the five years.
NATIONAL COUNCIL FOR ON-ORC:
- GST also saw similar challenges with broader issues of inter-state coordination.
- In a noteworthy example of cooperative federalism, the central government created a GST council consisting of the finance ministers of the central and state governments to address these issues.
- The government could consider a similar national council for ON-ORC.
- To be effective, this council should meet regularly, have specific decision-making authority, and should operate in a problem-solving mode based on consensus building.
PDS NETWORK (PDSN):
- Finally, GST is supported by a sophisticated(advanced) tech backbone, housed by the GST Network (GSTN), an entity jointly owned by the Centre and states.
- A similar system would be needed for ON-ORC.
- The Nilekani-led task force recommended setting up of a PDS network (PDSN) to track movement of rations, register beneficiaries, issue ration cards, handle grievances(complaints) and generate analytics.
- Since food rations are a crucial lifeline for millions, such a platform should incorporate principles such as inclusion, privacy, security, transparency, and accountability.
- The IM-PDS portal provides a good starting point.
LEARNING FROM GST SHORTCOMINGS:
- At the same time, we should learn from the shortcomings and challenges of the GST rollout.
- For example, delay in GST refunds led to cash-flow issues.
- Similar delays in receiving food rations could be catastrophic.
- Therefore, ON-ORC should create, publish and adhere to time-bound processes, like right to public services legislation that have been adopted by 15 states, and rapid grievance redress mechanisms.
- MSMEs also complained about the increase in compliance burden especially for those who had to digitise overnight. Similar challenges could arise in ON-ORC.
- PDS dealers will need to be brought on board, and not assumed to be compliant.
- Citizens will need to be shielded(protected) from the inevitable(unavoidable) teething issues by keeping the system lenient(easy) at first, providing different ways of authenticating oneself, and publicising a helpline widely.
- If done well, ON-ORC could lay the foundation of a truly national and portable benefits system that includes other welfare programmes like LPG subsidy and social pensions.
- It is an opportunity to provide a reliable social protection backbone to migrants, who are the backbone of our economy.