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Biden focused G-7 Summit disappoints

By Asad Mirza

The 3Cs: Covid, China and Climate Change dominated the 47th annual G-7 Summit in Cornwall, UK. But overall the leaders were not able to present a united stand on any major issue.

The British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wanted the summit to showcase his brand of ‘Global Britain’, after Brexit. But there were terse exchanges between the French, EU and British leaders and officials on the issue. In effect, the summit turned out to be more Biden focused and expectations were raised high on some real agreement taking place on the 3C’s before the summit, though that was not the result ultimately.

Broadly, Biden sought to set a new tone after the unrestrained Trump years. Most G-7 leaders seemed relieved to have a return to a more predictable and traditional US administration. France’s Emmanuel Macron welcomed Biden back to the “club.” But the final Communique showed that even Biden’s expectations to ensure a consensus on many of his promises fell short.

On the issue of Covid-19, the leaders of the seven most affluent western nations seemed united, but there was a difference of opinion on the way forward. Earlier, they had shown commitment to donate 1 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses over the next year to poorer countries. But in reality the bloc fell short of its own goal — 613 million new doses pledged, instead of a billion.

Even so, the vaccine effort gave Biden some help with his China push. Biden has criticised China for a transactional brand of vaccine diplomacy, where the shots are being doled out for geopolitical advantage. Biden called on democracies to counter China and Russia by donating vaccines equally and based on need, without seeking favours in return.

On the second day of the summit, US unveiled plans to counter China through infrastructure funding for poorer nations. Promising to “collectively catalyse” hundreds of billions of infrastructure investment for low- and middle-income countries, the G7 leaders said they would offer a “values-driven, high-standard and transparent” partnership.

G-7s “Build Back Better World” (B3W) project was aimed directly at competing with China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Infrastructure (BRI) initiative.

However, several leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, pushed back over worries about turning the G-7 into an anti-China group, suggesting any infrastructure programme should be framed as a more positive, pro-environment effort.

French President Emmanuel Macron also pushed back publicly, saying that the “G-7 is not a group that is hostile to China.” Macron was one leader who sought the middle ground.

China hit back at these statements dismissively saying that the days when “global decisions” were dictated by a “small group of countries are long gone”.

The final version of the communique skirted B3W, instead creating a task force to study how to spur infrastructure development abroad. It made no mention of BRI, though Biden renewed his call at a press conference, and said that, “I proposed that we have a democratic alternative to the Belt and Road initiative, to build back better.”

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced last month that due to surging Covid cases in India, he’d not travel to the UK, he addressed the summit virtually. He conveyed India’s commitment to “collective” solution to global health challenges, and called for “one earth, one health” approach, which aims for unity and solidarity among the states of the world to deal with the pandemic. He also emphasised the need to keep raw materials for vaccines easily accessible.

The summit’s Communique, which was issued several hours after the end of the summit, promises many things but falls short of what was expected to be achieved before the summit.

(The Op-Ed appeared in IANS)

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India Latest News

As Netanyahu loses power, what does it mean for India?

By P R Kumaraswamy

“Bibi dethroned”. This is the expression used in the Israeli media to describe the formation of a new Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid government. Though Benjamin Netanyahu — known as Bibi — vowed to bring down the fragile government, endorsed by a wafer-thin majority of 60-59 (with one abstention) in the Knesset, the changeover marks the end of an era. Netanyahu was the longest-serving Prime Minister (PM) of Israel.

The ongoing tenure of PM Narendra Modi coincided with Bibi’s. As the 2014 Lok Sabha results were trickling in, Netanyahu was the first international figure to congratulate Modi on his impending sweep. Since then, both have been talking, meeting, hosting, greeting and tweeting at regular intervals.

During PM Modi’s July 2017 visit to Israel, Bibi broke protocol and skipped the Knesset proceedings to be a tour guide for the Indian visitor. Modi reciprocated when Bibi visited India in January 2018. Indeed, Bibi even used Modi’s image during his September 2019 election campaign and lamented his own difficulties in forming a government when Modi swept the 17th Lok Sabha elections.

Some of the key shifts in India’s position vis-a-vis Israel happened during the Bibi-Modi tenure — India’s abstentions in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) vote on Jerusalem and the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) votes on the Gaza wars of 2014 and 2021; and the dropping of East Jerusalem as the capital of future Palestinian State. 

The display of bonhomie was also manifested in bilateral exchanges between presidents, PMs and officials. De-hyphenation was a hallmark of the Modi-Bibi relations when Modi undertook standalone visits to Israel and Palestine. The Covid-19 fight also brought both countries together.

While the basic parameters of the bilateral relations are strong, under the Bennett-Lapid government, there will be a lull, at least in public display. Bibi has dominated the Israeli political landscape since the early 1990s, and has not left office smoothly. In his last speech as PM, he pledged to topple the nascent government and return to office.

Since 2009, Bibi was synonymous with Israel and forged closer ties with leading personalities, from Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Moreover, though Bennett served under Netanyahu during 2013-2020, he held portfolios such as religious affairs, education and diaspora affairs. His exposure to India will largely be confined to his six-month tenure at the defence ministry. Improving relations with the Joe Biden administration and slowing down, if not scuttling, the nuclear negotiations with Iran are his priorities.

In the 1990s, the Indian embassy was lukewarm towards the opposition, but things will be better now and presumably, India forged ties with some of them before the changeover.

The Gaza crisis is a reminder of the urgency of the Palestinian track, and if the past pattern is an indication, the Bennett government will be preoccupied with negotiations with the Palestinians, which means lesser attention to India.

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India Latest News

Modi announces revised Covid vaccine policy, 44 crore doses ordered

Forty-four crore doses of Covid vaccines have been ordered which will be available from August, the Indian government said amid a raging shortage that forced a closure of vaccine centers in many states. These doses will be delivered between August and December 2021, the Union Health Ministry said.

The health ministry announcement — that orders have been placed for 25 crore doses of Covishield and 19 crore doses of Covaxin to achieve universalization of vaccination — came a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a fresh vaccine policy.

The new policy takes back the onus of vaccine purchase from the states. The finance ministry said that the new program will cost around ₹ 50,000 crore and the Centre has the necessary funds.

Last week, the government said it has booked 30 crore doses of Hyderabad-based Biological-E’s Covid vaccine, which is undergoing clinical trial.

The procurement issue became a matter of huge controversy as the coronavirus ravaged the country in the second wave and exposed the massive shortcomings in the healthcare sector, especially in rural areas.

The Indian Supreme Court strongly criticized the vaccine policy, calling it “prima facie arbitrary and irrational” and demanded a blueprint of the way ahead. The judges strongly hinted that a do-over was in order.

The vaccination programme will retain priority categorization for health workers, frontline workers, 45-plus people and those due for second doses followed by the 18-44 age group while also facilitating supply and payment for jabs procured by private hospitals through the National Health Authority’s e-platform. States though may decide their own prioritization factoring in supply schedules.

According to a government release, private hospitals will charge a maximum of Rs 780 for a shot of Covishield, Rs 1,410 for Covaxin and Rs 1,145 for Sputnik V.

The NHA’s role is to ensure small and remote private hospitals get timely and equitable access to vaccines and states are to aid the process by aggregating demand keeping in mind regional balance and size of establishments. The formula for the Centre’s allocation to states is largely unchanged, going by caseload, population and negative marks for wastage.

Importantly, all government and private vaccination centers will provide walk-in registration facility for individuals as well as groups of people. “All citizens irrespective of their income status are entitled to free vaccination. Those who have the ability to pay are encouraged to use a private hospital’s vaccination center,” the guidelines said.

There will also be non-transferable electronic vouchers to encourage people to help with vaccination of the economically weaker section. These vouchers can be redeemed only at private vaccination centers.

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India Latest News

BJP to reach out to 1 lakh villages across the country

New Delhi: To mark the seventh anniversary of the Narendra Modi government on Sunday, the BJP has planned an extensive outreach exercise by carrying out Covid-relief activities which will also take place in areas bordering the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir and other remote villages across the country.

As per the plan to mark the seventh anniversary of the Modi Government, the BJP will organise special Covid-relief activities in one lakh villages across the country.

BJP Jammu and Kashmir co-in-charge Ashish Sood said that several activities related to Covid-prevention and relief have been planned across the state including the Kashmir Valley as per the directions of the central leadership.

“These activities are planned as per Prime Minister Modi’s vision to reach out to everyone. At the time of pandemic, the Jammu and Kashmir unit of the BJP will reach out to people living in villages of Samba and other districts bordering LoC,” Sood said.

Sood said party workers will educate people about preventive measures and help villagers and others in J&K to overcome vaccine hesitancy.

Apart from village outreach programmes, BJP workers across the country will distribute ration and organise blood donation camps. The BJP has also asked its ministers in the Modi government and MPs and MLAs in party-ruled states to visit at least two villages across the country following all Covid protocols.

The BJP also plans to hold blood donation campaigns. “Workers will also organise blood donation camps across the country, in which about 50,000 workers from all morcha (wings) of the party will donate blood,” Baluni said.

Baluni further stated that party chief Nadda has asked the party-ruled states to prepare a programme for the welfare of children who have lost their parents due to Covid, to help secure their future.

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Covid-19: CBSE Class 12 Board Exams cancelled in India

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 1 chaired a review meeting regarding the Class XII Board exams of Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). Officials gave a detailed presentation on the wide and extensive consultation held so far and views received from all stakeholders, including State governments.

In view of the uncertain conditions due to Covid and the feedback obtained from various stakeholders, it was decided that Class XII Board Exams would not be held this year. It was also decided that CBSE will take steps to compile the results of class XII students as per a well-defined objective criteria in a time-bound manner.

The Prime Minister said that the decision on Class 12 CBSE Exams has been taken in the interest of students. He stated that COVID-19 has affected the academic calendar and the issue of Board Exams has been causing immense anxiety among students, parents and teachers, which must be put to an end. 

The PM said that the Covid situation is a dynamic situation across the country. While the numbers are coming down in the country and some states are managing the situation through effective micro-containment, some states have still opted for a lockdown. Students, parents and teachers are naturally worried about the health of the students in such a situation. The PM said that students should not be forced to appear for exams in such a stressful situation.

The Prime Minister stressed that the health and safety of our students is of utmost importance and there would be no compromise on this aspect. He said that in today’s time, such exams cannot be the reason to put our youth at risk.

The PM said that all stakeholders need to show sensitivity for students. The PM directed officials to ensure that the results are prepared in accordance with well-defined criteria, in a fair and time-bound manner.

It was also decided that like last year, in case some students desire to take the exams, such an option would be provided to them by CBSE, as and when the situation becomes conducive.

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US, India united in tackling Covid: Secretary of State Antony Blinken

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday the United States and India are united in trying to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic together and Washington is determined to help India with its coronavirus crisis.

Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, who has spent the past week in the United States seeking help amid a devastating second wave of infections at home, told reporters while standing with Blinken at a State Department meeting that India is grateful to Washington for strong support and solidarity.

“In the earlier days of Covid, India was there for the United States — something we will never forget,” Blinken said. “And now we want to make sure that we’re there for India as well.”

Blinken said the partnership between the two countries is “vital,” “strong” and “increasingly productive.”

“We’re united in confronting Covid-19 together,” Blinken said.

He said the two countries were also united in addressing climate change, and were partnered together directly through the Quad — a four country group that also includes Japan and Australia — and through U.N. institutions “in dealing with many of the challenges we face in the region and around the world.”

Jaishankar said India was appreciative to Washington for its “strong support and solidarity at a moment of great difficulty for us.”

U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary for South Asia Dean Thompson later told a briefing hosted by the State Department’s Foreign Press Center that vaccine manufacturing, procurement and delivery were discussed with Jaishankar, but declined to give details.

He said final decisions were still pending as to where up to 80 million vaccine doses President Joe Biden has promised to send abroad would go.

Thomson said the U.S. Government, state governments, U.S. companies, and private citizens had provided over $500 million in Covid-19 relief supplies to India.

Jaishankar met with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in New York on Tuesday. Guterres’ spokesman said they had a “very good discussion” on “Covid-19, the issue of vaccines and also a number of other peace and security issues in general.”

U.S.-India ties have grown closer in recent years amid shared concerns about China’s rise and they have increased cooperation through the Quad.

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India Latest News

Seven years on, Modi faces three challenges

By Shashi Shekhar

The beginning of the third year of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term would be an apt occasion to look at the early days of this innings. He began as a run-hungry batsman, eager to notch up a big score, belting out sixes and fours to every corner of the ground.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government divided Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and abrogated Article 370 in one fell swoop. A new Union Territory, Ladakh, emerged and J&K’s full state status was done away with. The practice of triple talaq was declared illegal. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) always had these issues in its sights, but Modi is the one who grasped the nettle.

His vow of making India a $5-trillion economy by 2024 meant removing certain hurdles to growth. He zeroed in on non-performing assets of public sector banks as one and a merger of 19 banks into four was executed. Despite unprecedented opposition from farmers and the Opposition, agri-sector laws were changed and the path to the privatisation of government undertakings was cleared. Modi meant to show that he would not hold back on economic reform.

Then disaster struck in the form of the lethal coronavirus.

Of the three major challenges facing the government, this has been the biggest the NDA has faced by far.

The government claims that everyone will be vaccinated by December but so far there is little to inspire confidence in this assertion. A vaccination drive for those above 18 years has been announced, but hundreds of vaccination centres are running short of vaccines for this cohort. In fact, the whole vaccination strategy, which was to be a model for the world, is now in trouble. Vaccines are in short supply and prior commitments made to foreign nations for vaccine supplies cannot be fulfilled.

The state governments ruled by opposition parties are up in arms about the paucity of vaccines and have accused the government of ignoring the threat from the virus for political gain.

The pandemic may eventually peter out but it has seriously damaged the economy.

The second challenge Modi faces is political. Next year, assembly elections will be held in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Goa and Manipur.

The groundwork for these has begun. Despite the victories in Assam and Puducherry, the defeat in West Bengal has dented the BJP’s reputation as an invincible election machine. During Modi 2.0, the party has won only four out of 10 state elections. In these, the role of the allies was crucial. That is why many political critics feel that even though there is no alternative to Modi at the Centre, the voters prefer strong state-level parties in the assembly elections.

As of March 2018, the NDA was ruling 21 states, with 71% of the country’s population. In April 2019, it was reduced to 18 states. However, in terms of demography, now 49% of the population is ruled by the NDA.

The third challenge to the Modi government is from across the borders. China is still up to its old tricks. Will Modi be able to get China to retreat from the border areas it has encroached on?

These are all daunting challenges for PM Modi. His track record on meeting difficult situations head-on is well known. He is a past master at political manoeuvrings. Will he rise to the occasion now as well?

It remains to be seen but this is why the eighth year of his prime ministership or his second term as pradhan sevak as he likes to term himself, will prove interesting to both his admirers and critics.

(The opinion piece appeared in The Hindustan Times)

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Covid: People should not let India down

Intro: The health emergency has exposed the socio-cultural degradation of many in Indian society, a society that prided itself and genuinely so for its inheritance of moral and spiritual legacies.

By DC Pathak

The deadly second wave of Covid-19 has provoked an intense public debate and anger on the reasons why it was allowed to hit us at all and the points raised have varied from delayed preparatory moves to failures of response from an overrun healthcare system that resulted in casualties owing to shortages of beds, oxygen and medicines at the hospitals. 

The pandemic overwhelmed all systems and inevitably a large number of tragic deaths occurring across the country could become a part of the collective historical memory — but with the remembrance also of the enormous work done by our medical fraternity for saving lives despite shortages of supplies and equipment. The crisis has produced a political fallout and the opposition has seized the opportunity of pressing forth with its criticism of the Modi government in regard to the long-term preparations required for meeting the health hazard. 

It is the politics of perceptions that is in full play now but all of that could change in the future depending on the way events unfold themselves and the success the present regime achieved in planning for all contingencies in the times ahead.

There is no denying the fact that even in the ‘unlock’ phases Prime Minister Modi had constantly emphasised the need for Covid precautions to be followed strictly. Many people in India regrettably did not come out at their best as far as their own conscious or innocent contribution to the spread of the pandemic was concerned. Social festivities like weddings and get- togethers continued particularly in the North in utter disregard of the Covid restrictions. 

There could be a variety of reasons why this happened. Herd mentality, so typical of the public here, came into play in adding to the defiance of the standardised Covid-appropriate behavior.

Evidently, there was also a widespread absence of scientific temper that would be a major reason why people failed to grasp the prime importance of the elementary preventive measures of mask, safe distancing and hand sanitisation. This was seen even in the segments of population that could afford to buy quality masks and sanitisers. 

Migrations of the economically weak on account of lockdowns — that had not guaranteed their wages even for a temporary period — proved to be a debilitating factor. The pull of faith as a mitigator of threat to health, and even of danger to life, was also there in the context of an event like Kumbh. The pandemic demanded voluntary postponement of mass agitations, a political activity in normal times, in the interest of the public at large.

An excessive reliance on the powers that be for delivery, big or small, in a public crisis, could be the outcome of a system where the voter accepted the promise that everything possible under the sun would be done by the victorious candidate or party.

On the whole, a higher degree of public awareness would have reduced the gravity of incidence of the second wave and checked its cumulative spread. As the government proceeds at a rapid pace to make up for deficiencies and arrange for universal vaccination, the role of the people in countering the pandemic is still going to be extremely important in the months to come.

There have been numerous cases of serious and even fatal consequences of exposure to an asymptomatic infected person who was a regular visitor to the victim’s house. The point is about lack of awareness in a situation where common sense itself would have suggested the dos and don’ts of Covid precautions. Now that even children are said to be in the zone of vulnerability, the adults across the society have to once again redefine their responsibilities.

What is truly deplorable is that the health emergency exposed the socio-cultural degradation of many in Indian society, a society that prided itself and genuinely so for its inheritance of moral and spiritual legacies. 

This has produced a spectacle of innumerable individuals and philanthropic bodies coming forth to help those in distress on the one hand and a significant number of depraved individuals making huge monetary gains, on the other, by selling medical equipment and medical supplies in the black — in full knowledge of the threat to life that this caused. Deterrent action against such culprits, wherever possible, has to be taken to build confidence of the citizens in governance.

The crisis has unravelled the poor state of management that various establishments deemed to be autonomous in their working, had suffered over the years — whether it was the case of a hospital, a university or a civil supplies centre of the government. Misconduct of a ward boy with a Covid patient going unpunished has become the symbol of how this country’s systems had been allowed to run without supervision. 

A lesson from this pandemic is that the internal governance of the country across all segments and states needed to be upgraded to a point where organisations in public or private sector would be audited for performance in terms of their compatibility with the national interests and public good.

There are many more lessons to be drawn from the pandemic India is passing through, creating the ‘fear of the unknown’ in every citizen here. The experience calls for a greater public education on governance and policy making — subject, of course, to the requirement of confidentiality on grounds of national security.

Robust functioning of Parliamentary Committees has to be ensured, accountability for failure of implementation of the given mandate on the head of an enterprise or a department of the government has to be fixed and punishment meted out to functionaries in leadership positions who misused the authority of the state for personal benefit.

The Intelligence machinery of the Centre has once again proved its sterling worth by acting as the eyes and ears of the government to give an objective picture of the impact of the pandemic — it should be strengthened further in the interest of the nation and democratic governance.

Perhaps the most meaningful lesson in handling a national emergency that affected the entire population is that the process should be taken down to the level of districts and the DM-SP duo made the nodal point of ‘survey’ and ‘implementation’. Some of the districts of India are of the size of a small country and they offer a decentralised autonomous centre of governance closest to the people that could represent both the Centre as well as the state government. 

It is a matter of great satisfaction that Prime Minister Modi himself reached out to the district magistrates of affected districts and encouraged them to take charge of the situation and boldly plan out the strategy of meeting the challenge of the Corona crisis on a long-term basis.

(The opinion appeared in IANS)

The most meaningful lesson in handling a national emergency is that the process should be taken down to the level of districts and the DM-SP duo made the nodal point of ‘survey’ and ‘implementation’

As the government proceeds at a rapid pace to make up for deficiencies and arrange for universal vaccination, the role of the people in countering the pandemic is still going to be extremely important in the months to come.

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PM Modi’s approval rating fall to a new low: Report

New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s approval ratings have fallen to a new low, a survey showed, as the country struggles to contain a devastating second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, reports Reuters.

Narendra Modi, who swept to power in 2014 and was re-elected in 2019 with the biggest majority of any leader in three decades has long fostered the image of a powerful nationalist leader.

But India’s Covid-19 caseload surged past 25 million this week, exposing a lack of preparation and eroding Modi’s support base, according to US data intelligence company Morning Consult’s tracker of a dozen global leaders.

Narendra Modi’s overall ratings this week stand at 63%, his lowest since the US firm began tracking his popularity in August 2019. The big decline happened in April when his net approval dropped 22 points, reports Reuters.

That sharp fall came as the pandemic appeared to be overwhelming large urban centers such as Delhi, where hospitals ran out of beds and life-saving oxygen and people died in parking lots, gasping for breath.

The situation has since eased in Delhi and Mumbai as cases have fallen but the virus has penetrated deep into India’s vast hinterland where public health facilities are weaker.

A survey among urban Indians by polling agency YouGov this month showed public confidence in the government’s handling of the crisis has plummeted since February when the second wave began.

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