COVID-19 updates: SC questions vaccine procurement policy; Mumbai eases restrictions, India logs 1.52 lakh cases

As India continued to witness a trend of declining cases with 1.52 lakh fresh infections logged over the past 24 hours, the Supreme Court on Monday asked questions of the Centre over its COVID-19 vaccine procurement policy.

A special bench of justices DY Chandrachud, LN Rao and S Ravindrabhat, questioning the need for mandatory registration on the CoWIN app for people to get vaccinated without keeping in mind the real ‘digital India’ situation, said policymakers must have an ear to the ground.

“You keep on saying the situation is dynamic but policy makers must have their ears on ground. You keep on saying digital India, digital India but the situation is actually different in rural areas. How will an illiterate labourer, from Jharkhand get registered in Rajasthan? Tell us how you will address this digital divide,” the bench asked Solicitor General Tushar Mehta.

Meanwhile, the Centre told states and Union territories that nearly 12 crore COVID vaccine doses will be available to them in June 2021, thus enabling them to ramp up inoculation.

In a review meeting held through video conferencing, the states and UTs were also exhorted to proactively increase engagement with private hospitals on COVID vaccinations and take up non-health facility based settings and nearer to home vaccination centres for the elderly and differently-abled. They were advised to constitute a dedicated team of 2-3 members to regularly coordinate with vaccine manufacturers and private hospitals for timely supplies of vaccine, a health ministry statement said.

In the meeting with administrators from states and UTs on the progress of vaccination, health secretary Rajesh Bhushan assured them that the Central Government will provide the states and UTs with the available buffer stock to urgently replenish their depleting supplies so that the vaccination drive continues at a steady pace, it said.

This, on the same day that reports emerged that the Centre is considering tweaking its vaccine strategy.

As per Indian Express, the Centre plans to review the impact of its decision to extend the interval between doses of Covishield once it obtains data from a newly proposed vaccine tracking platform to be launched shortly. The platform, which is to be linked to CoWin, will allow people to flag their worries after a shot, after which a district officer will follow up on the cases, NDTV reported. The data may help the Centre decide whether to approve a single-dose regimen for Covishield, sources told Indian Express. Data from the platform is slated to be analysed around August, sources further told the newspaper.

Mumbai eases restrictions

Also on Monday, the BMC eased restrictions in Mumbai as the city recorded 676 new COVID-19 cases and 29 deaths in the last 24 hours. The total recoveries in the city stand at 5,570 while there are 22,390 active cases, according to the latest update. Meanwhile, Maharashtra on Monday reported 15,077 new COVID-19 cases and 184 deaths.

Under the state’s ‘Break the Chain’ order, all shops selling essential items will be allowed to be open between 7 am and 2 pm from Monday till 15 June. Presently they are permitted to remain open between 7 am to 11 am. The order also permitted the distribution of non-essential items along with essential ones under e-commerce.

While shops selling non-essential items in the city will be allowed to stay open only on weekdays in such a manner that shops on the right side of the road will open on Monday, Wednesday and Friday while shops on the left side open on Tuesday and Thursday.

“Next week, the shops on the left side of the road will be open on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, while the shops on the right will be open on Tuesday and Thursday,” the order stated, adding that the same arrangement will continue for the weeks ahead.

Lockdown extended in Bihar, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand

Lockdown was extended in Bihar and Himachal Pradesh on Monday till May end while Uttarakhand too decided to continue with the COVID-induced curfew, as several states said that the restrictions have led to an improvement in the pandemic situation. The Nitish Kumar government extended till June 1 the lockdown that has been in force for nearly a month in Bihar.

“The lockdown has had a good impact and there has been a decline in the corona contagion. Hence, a decision has been taken to continue with the lockdown till June 01”, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar tweeted after chairing a high-level meeting convened to review the pandemic situation in the state. More than four lakh people have been infected and over 2,000 have lost their lives since April when the devastating second wave hit the state

The Uttarakhand government extended the COVID-19 related curfew period, which was to end on Tuesday morning, till 1 June. Himachal Pradesh government has extended the corona curfew in the state till May 31, an official spokesperson said. The decision to extend the curfew till six am on 31 May was taken in the state cabinet meeting chaired by the chief minister Jai Ram Thakur here on Monday, he added.

With the COVID-19 positivity rate coming down to less than five percent in five districts of Madhya Pradesh, the state government has allowed “restricted relaxations” in the corona curfew in those districts from Monday, a senior official said. On the basis of the experience in these districts, Jhabua, Alirajpur, Khandwa, Burhanpur and Bhind, a strategy for implementing a graded unlocking process will be considered from 1 June onwards, Additional Chief Secretary (Home) Dr Rajesh Rajora told PTI.

The restricted relaxations have been allowed as the coronavirus positivity rate in these districts is less than five percent. The relaxations are applicable from May 24-31,” he said. All government offices in these five districts will be allowed to operate with 100 percent strength of officers and 25 percent strength of other employees. Shops of essential commodities will be opened for the entire day in these districts. The Chandigarh administration too decided to allow the opening of all shops, besides announcing to continue with night and weekend curfew in the city.

“All shops will be allowed to remain open from 9 AM to 3 PM,” said an official statement here. The decision was taken in the wake of declining COVID-19 cases and the demand by traders and shopkeepers who were suffering due to the closure of their shops. Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren said that the daily infection rate has declined by 50 percent but till a single death takes place in the state, the war against the second wave will not be over.

The government is making all efforts to save both “livelihood and life” and will soon decide on the lockdown which is scheduled to come to an end on 27 May, he said.

Also on Monday, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan wrote to his counterparts in all non-BJP ruled states and requested them to make a “united effort” to demand the Centre to procure Covid-19 vaccines and distribute them at free of cost. The letter,  amid shortage in supply of vaccines to fight the coronavirus pandemic, was written to the chief ministers of 11 states: Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Delhi, Punjab, Rajasthan and Maharashtra.

‘Decision on Class 12 exams in two days’

The government will take a final decision within the next two days on whether to conduct class 12 board exams amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Supreme Court was informed on Monday.

Attorney General KK Venugopal told this to a bench of Justices AM Khanwilkar and Dinesh Maheshwari which said if the Centre decides to depart from the last year’s policy, wherein the remaining board exams were cancelled due to the pandemic, then it must give tangible reasons for it.

“No issue. You take the decision. You are entitled to it. If you are departing from the policy of last year, then you must give tangible reasons for it,” the bench told Venugopal. Observing that the last year’s decision was taken after deliberations, the apex court said, If you are departing from that policy, please give us good reasons so that we can examine it. The bench was hearing a plea seeking directions to cancel the class 12 exams of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and Council for the Indian School Certificate Examination (CISCE) amid the pandemic situation.

The apex court on 26 June, 2020 had approved the schemes of the CBSE and CISCE for cancellations of remaining board examinations scheduled from 1 to 15 July last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and also approved their formula for assessment of examinees. During the hearing conducted through video-conferencing on Monday, the attorney general told the bench, “The government will take a final decision within the next two days. We are hoping that your lordships will give us time till Thursday (June 3) so that we can come back with the final decision.”

India’s economy contracts by 7.3 percent

India’s economy contracted by less-than-expected 7.3 percent in the fiscal year ended March 2021 after growth rate picked up in the fourth quarter, just before the world’s worst outbreak of coronavirus infections hit the country. The gross domestic product (GDP) in Asia’s third-largest economy grew by 1.6 percent in the January-March period, up from 0.5 percent in the previous quarter when India began pulling out of a steep pandemic-induced recession in the earlier six months.

GDP had grown by 3 percent in the January-March quarter in the previous year. The economy, which was facing a slowdown even before the pandemic broke out last year, contracted by 7.3 percent during April 2020 to March 2021 fiscal (FY21), weighed down by a nationwide lockdown that pummelled consumption and halted most economic activities.

This is the first full-year contraction in the Indian economy in the last four decades since 1979-80, when GDP had shrunk by 5.2 percent. The economy had grown by 4 percent in the previous 2019-20 fiscal. Prior to that, the GDP expanded by 8.3 percent in FY17 before slipping to 7 percent in the following fiscal and to 6.1 percent in 2018-19. According to data released by the National Statistical Office (NSO) on Monday, India’s real GDP contracted to Rs 135 lakh crore in FY21 (2020-21) from Rs 145 lakh crore at the end of March 2020.

Seeking fast-track approvals to bring Moderna”s single-dose COVID-19 booster vaccine in India expeditiously, Cipla has requested the government for indemnification and exemptions from price capping, bridging trials and basic customs duty, while stating that it is close to committing over USD 1-billion as advance to the US major, sources said on Monday.

Commending the government for its efforts to increase the vaccine availability in the country for achieving effective protection against COVID-19, the Indian pharma giant has said its discussions with Moderna on the COVID-19 booster vaccine are nearing finalisation and for that, they are seeking the “partnership and support of the government to make this programme successful”.

Requesting the government to provide confirmation on four critical points — exemption from price restriction, indemnification, bridging trial waiver and basic customs duty exemption, Cipla has said such an assurance will help make this significant financial commitment of more than USD 1 billion (over Rs 7,250 crore) advance to Moderna for its booster vaccine in India, sources privy to the development said.

Finally, the WHO on late Monday evening announced that it has assigned simple labels for key variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, using letters of the Greek alphabet. These labels were chosen after wide consultation and a review of many potential naming systems. WHO convened an expert group of partners from around the world to do so, including experts who are part of existing naming systems, nomenclature and virus taxonomic experts, researchers and national authorities.

WHO will assign labels for those variants that are designated as Variants of Interest or Variants of Concern by WHO. These will be posted on the WHO website. These labels do not replace existing scientific names (e.g. those assigned by GISAID, Nextstrain and Pango), which convey important scientific information and will continue to be used in research.

 

With inputs from PTI

In India, as incidence of forest fires spikes in the pandemic, inhabitants lose their sole source of livelihood

By Manish Chandra Mishra

“I have never seen this kind of a forest fire before. This year, the fire entered our village, and I could see that it was just 100 meters away from my home. Those three days of fire were horrific for us,” Brind Prajapati, a forest dweller who hails from Bamera village of Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve (BTR) in Madhya Pradesh, recounted the fire incident that took place in the forest area around a month ago.

Prajapati and his family usually go to the forest to collect minor forest produce (MFP), but the fire, which went on for some days, hampered their work which in turn impacted their earnings. “My village falls under Pataur range of the forest which was badly hit by the fire. Villagers could not collect Mahua flowers as expected and incurred huge losses,” said Prajapati. His family usually collects three quintals of Mahua flowers in this season, but this time they could not meet the target, he said.

This season was important for forest dwellers as their livelihood was already hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Villagers usually migrate to cities in search of jobs, but due to the lockdown, that option is not available. Mahua flowers and other minor forest produce were our last hope after losing jobs due to lockdown,” added Prajapati.

States like Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Uttarakhand, and Odisha witnessed massive forest fires this year. Increasing fire trends can be seen in data as well with the Forest Survey of India (FSI)’s system sending fire alerts 3,86,031 times this year, till 28 May 2021, which is already twice the number of alerts sent in all of last year.

Fires occurred at the time when tribal people were already facing the brunt of the COVID-19 lockdown. A recent report prepared by researchers, activists and grassroots organisations revealed how tribals and forest dwellers in India suffered during the COVID-19 lockdown. “The lockdown has affected the collection, use, and sale of minor forest produces (MFP), or Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) by tribals and forest dwellers. An estimated 100 million forest dwellers depend on MFP for food, shelter, medicines, and cash income,” the report said.

The report also highlighted an advisory by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) which instructed all states and UTs to restrict entry within protected areas.

“This advisory would immediately impact about three to four million people living in and around protected areas. These are mostly tribal communities including Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs), nomadic and pastoral communities, fish workers, among others, and are most dependent on the natural resources within and around the protected areas for their livelihoods,” report added.

This group also sent the report to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. However, the ministry recently claimed that measures are being taken to protect the livelihood of tribals during the pandemic.

During 2020-21, the state government procured MFPs worth Rs 157.51 crores to provide immediate livelihood support to tribal MFP gatherers, said Renuka Singh Saruta, Minister of State for Tribal Affairs while replying to a question by a member of parliament Mohammed Faizal PP in Lok Sabha on 22 March 2021. He had asked a question about measures undertaken by the Ministry to address problems faced by tribal communities because of COVID-19 and the lockdown.

Increasing forest fire alerts: a worrying trend

The Forest Survey of India (FSI) disseminates forest fire alerts obtained from SNPP-VIIRS satellite sensors (Soumi National Polar-orbiting Partnership–Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite). These alerts are based on near real-time fire point data processed by National Remote Sensing Centre, Hyderabad. The frequency of the alerts depends on the number of times the satellite passes around the Earth in a day, which is currently six times in 24 hours. This year, till 24 May, this system sent an alert 385,000 times from India. It is around double the number of alerts in the previous year, 2020, which was 154,032. It was 213,684 in the year 2019.

“The trends are not very pleasing, but it is rising both in terms of number and impact,” said Dr Abdul Qayum, an IFS officer from AGMUT Cadre. Qayum was a part of a study Forest fire trend analysis and effect of environmental parameters on Jharkhand. The study utilised geospatial techniques to analyse the incidences of forest fire events from the year 2005 to 2016 in the Jharkhand state of India. The study revealed that the environmental /climate/ weather parameter and their trends are strongly correlated with the forest fire occurrence and its trend over a period of time.

‘No damage’ in Bandhavgarh fire

One percent of the forest area was affected by the Bandhavgarh fire incident that took place in March-April this year, said a report submitted by the committee headed by BTR’s field director Vincent Rahim to the forest department of MP. The committee also found that no animal or tree was affected by the fire, said media reports.

“There are many loopholes in the report. It was headed by the officer who needs to be held responsible for the fire in the first place. The report is not in the public domain, but I saw media reports based on this report. According to the claims, no animal was harmed by the fire even after one percent area of 1,536 square kilometres national park area forest was affected,” said Ajay Dubey, a Madhya Pradesh-based wildlife and environment activist.

“Forest department could have carried out a fair inquiry of the fire incident to know the exact cause. It would be beneficial for the forest to know the real cause of fire and act accordingly, to avoid such incidents in the future,” Dubey added.

Dubey’s suspicion about the claim that no human or animal is harmed, seems to hold some validity if we compare the situation to that of the fires in Uttarakhand. According to the Uttarakhand forest department report, as much as 393 square kilometres (3,963 hectares) of forest and forest village was affected by 2,920 incidents of fire this year. While this area is almost a quarter of the area that came under fire in Madhya Pradesh, yet the fire claimed the lives of eight people and 29 animals and injured three people and 24 animals. These incidents also caused the loss of 222 hectares of plantation. The Forest Department estimated a loss of Rs 10 million by fire incidents in Uttarakhand.

The BTR field report said that the negligence of locals, natural causes, and human-animal conflict were a few causes of fire in Bandhavgarh.

Tala (in Bandhavgarh) based wildlife photographer Satendra Kumar Tiwari also speculates that human-animal conflict, especially the conflict with elephants in the area, is a reason behind the fire.

“A few herds of elephants are active in the area. They are damaging the property and crops of locals. These elephants entered in Bandhavgarh forest from Chhattisgarh. Locals may have set fire in the forest to keep the elephants away,” said Tiwari.

“Forest fires can be a natural and seasonal affair in hot, dry summers in most of the dry deciduous forests of India. However, it can also be caused by human beings for reasons including, letting new grass grow for cattle, collecting minor forest produce like mahua or even for poaching small animals,” said Vivek Menon, Founder & CEO, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI).

“Negligence in controlling such fires can lead to the devastation of an old forest that has taken decades to grow,” Menon told Mongabay-India.

Dr Qayum also feels that human activities may cause forest fires.

“Many studies have confirmed these rising number of fire incidences are often linked with climate change issues and increased dependency on forests. Most often, these forest fires are anthropogenic and are created or ignited by human beings. It is also linked with the availability of a lot of fuel load in the form of dry leaves and litter,” said Qayum.

Economic and ecological impact

As with ecological impacts of fires, comprehensive assessments of the economic losses due to fire in India are lacking, said a report jointly prepared by MoEFCC and the World Bank.

“In official reports and statistics, monetary damages due to forest fires are generally assessed only for the loss of standing trees (natural or planted) in terms of their timber value,” the report said.

“Average damages reported per hectare in 2016 ranged from INR 0 in Chhattisgarh (according to the forest department, because “only ground fires” occur in that state, there have been “no losses so far”) to INR 2,344 in Himachal Pradesh,” added the report.

The impact of forest fire on biodiversity is grossly underestimated. The loss of wildlife was not even being accounted for, found a Parliamentary Committee report which was presented to the Rajya Sabha in December 2016. This report also recognises the loss of livelihood of forest dwellers and those dependent on forest produce.

“The impact of increased fires in India on economic outcomes is significant”, said Jayash Paudel, an environmental economist and assistant professor of economics at Boise State University, in a conversation with Mongabay-India.

“The magnitude of the economic impact of forest fires in India will depend on a range of socio-economic factors, including the distance between fire sites and habitation, land tenure, and land cover type. I do see a large economic impact on the lives of forest dwellers as well. Air pollution can damage crops and trees in different ways,” he added.

Explaining the economic losses, he said, “In a neighbouring country Nepal, which suffers from the recurring threat of fires every year, my recent study forthcoming in Land Economics concludes that property values declined by 4.48 percent for every additional increase in the number of fire incidents over the last year. This indicates that the corresponding economic effect of fires on India will be even larger.”

Dr Abdul Qayum said, “If we have controlled fire, it helps improve the local ecology and overall quality of the forests. But the kind of incidences we have witnessed in the recent past have quantitatively increased and have led to more qualitative devastations.”

“Forest fires have long term impact not only on the carbon sinks but also on wildlife. The impact on environment is also severe,” he added.

Dr Qayum is an IIT Kanpur graduate and completed his doctorate from JNU. He is known for introducing ‘eForestFire-Himalayan Forest Fire Prediction’, an e-governance initiative to predict forest fires in Arunachal Pradesh.

Experts believe that fuel load in forests such as shrubs, dead trees, ground litter can ignite, grow and intensify the forest fire. Menon found a way to minimise the fuel load. Indian State of Forest Report 2019 revealed that 21.40 percent of the country’s forest cover is high to extreme fire-prone. “WTI has provided leaf blowers and our innovatively designed tractor-mounted water sprayer that have shown good results in combatting forest fires in Kerala and Karnataka. It has offered the same equipment support to the forest department in Bandhavgarh as well,” he said.

“It’s good to predict any calamity or natural disaster so that you are prepared in advance and damages can be mitigated to a large extent. Vulnerability mappings and predictive models are found to be more effective in it,” said Qayum.

“We demonstrated a similar model using remote sensing and GIS in Arunachal Pradesh and incidentally the number of fire incidences were brought down. This work was later awarded National Awards for e-Governance by the Government of India. I feel it can be easily replicated in all the states of India, and abroad and we can surely reduce the losses incurred due to forest fires,” he added.

This article was originally published on Mongabay.com.

Mongabay-India is an environmental science and conservation news service. This article has been republished under the Creative Commons license.