BOMB-SHELL … Chinese military thought about using Covid as biological weapon in 2015, US probe confirms fears


COVID CHINA BIO-TERROR

NEW DELHI: Global community is stunned by disclosures that the Chinese military scientists had investigated the possibility of weaponising coronaviruses five years before the onset of the Covid19 pandemic of 2020. “They may have predicted a World War III fought with biological weapons, news agencies reported, quoting documents obtained by the US State Department.

The Australian was first to get at copies of these documents from the US State Department, and its report was later quoted by The Sun newspaper in the UK. The “bombshell” documents obtained by the US State Department reportedly shows the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) commanders making the sinister prediction. US officials obtained the papers written by military scientists and senior Chinese public health officials in 2015 as part of their own investigation into the origins of Covid19 pandemic, which took the world by storm in the early part of 2020.

Chinese scientists described SARS coronaviruses — of which Covid is one example — as presenting a “new era of genetic weapons,” the reports said.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, several of which cause respiratory diseases in humans – ranging from a common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The PLA papers referenced seem to fantasise that a bioweapon attack could cause the “enemy’s medical system to collapse”. It references work by US Air Force colonel Michael J. Ainscough, who predicted World War III may be fought with bioweapons.

The paper also includes musing that SARS —which hit China in 2003 — could have been a man-made bioweapon deliberately unleashed by “terrorists”. They reportedly boasted the viruses could be “artificially manipulated into an emerging human disease virus, then weaponised and unleashed in a way never seen before”.

The document lists some of China’s top public health figures among the authors and has been revealed in an upcoming book on the origins of Covid, titled ‘What Really Happened In Wuhan’.

WUHAN, 2019

China reported the first Covid-19 case in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019 and since then the deadly disease has become a pandemic, affecting more than 157,789,300 people and causing over 3,285,200 deaths worldwide.

Tom Tugendhat MP and Australian politician James Paterson said the document raises major concerns about China’s transparency on the origins of Covid19. Tugendhat, chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, was quoted in The Sun as saying: “China’s evident interest in bioweapons is extremely concerning. Even under the tightest controls these weapons are dangerous.

“This document raises major concerns about the ambitions of some of those who advise the top party leadership.” Peter Jennings, the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), told news.com.au that the document is as close to a “smoking gun” as we’ve got. “I think this is significant because it clearly shows that Chinese scientists were thinking about military application for different strains of the coronavirus and thinking about how it could be deployed,” said Jennings.

“It begins to firm up the possibility that what we have here is the accidental release of a pathogen for military use,” added Jennings. He also said that the document may explain why China has been so reluctant for outside investigations into the origins of Covid19. “If this was a case of transmission from a wet market it would be in China’s interest to co-operate … we’ve had the opposite of that.”

Among the 18 listed authors of the document are People’s Liberation Army scientists and weapons experts.

DEFINITELY NOT FAKE


Robert Potter, a cyber security specialist who analyses leaked Chinese government documents was asked by The Australian to verify the paper. He says the document definitely is not fake. 
“We reached a high confidence conclusion that it was genuine … It’s not fake but it’s up to someone else to interpret how serious it is,” Potter told news.com.au. “It emerged in the last few years … they (China) will almost certainly try to remove it now it’s been covered.”

Questions remain over the origins of the deadly virus after a much derided World Health Organisation (WHO) probe earlier this year, with the organisation ordering a further investigation which factors in the possibly of a lab leak. 

Most scientists have said there is no evidence that Covid19 is manmade — but questions remain whether it may have escaped from a secretive biolab in Wuhan — from where the pandemic originated. China is known to have been carrying out high risk “gain of function” research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) — which is near the outbreak’s ground zero at the Huanan Seafood Market. There is no evidence so far to suggest it was intentionally released by China.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, the state-run Global Times newspaper slammed The Australian for publishing the article to smear China.

An academic book that explores bioterrorism and possibilities of viruses being used in warfare was interpreted as a conspiracy theory by The Australian, which deliberately and malignantly intends to invent pretexts to smear China, Chen Hong, a professor and director of the Australian Studies Center at East China Normal University, told the newspaper. “It is a shame for anti-China forces in Australia to back their own ideology against China at the expense of basic professional journalistic ethics, conspiring to twist the real meaning of the book,” Chen said. –Agencies, IHN-NN

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ASSEMBLY POLLS … Schedules for assembly polls in Assam, Bengal, TN, Puducherry, Kerala


SCHEDULE ASSEMBLY POLLS

KS Shankar /IHN-NN


NEW DELHI: The die is cast for a mini-round of elections covering 
politically potent states in the east and south, where regional parties too dominate the scene. Voting for five assemblies will begin on March 27, with West Bengal having the maximum eight phases till April 29, Assam three, while Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry will have one-day polling. The counting of votes for all five polls will be done on May 2.

The Election Commission said on Friday that the Assam assembly polls will be conducted in three phases on March 27, April 1 and April 6, while polling for the Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry assembly elections will take place on April 6.


Elections for the West Bengal assembly will be held in eight phases, up from seven last time, beginning with polling for 30 seats on March 27, Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora said. The 
second phase of the state’s elections will be on April 1 and cover 30 constituencies, followed by the third phase on April 6 for

31 seats, fourth phase on April 10 for 44 constituencies, fifth phase on April 17 for 45 seats, sixth phase for 43 seats on April 22, seventh phase on April 26 for 36 seats and last and eighth phase on April 29 for 35 seats.


Polls are to be held for 294 seats in West Bengal, 234 seats in Tamil Nadu, 140 seats in Kerala, 126 seats in Assam and 30 seats in
Puducherry.

After the Bihar assembly elections, held in November 2020, elections to these states will also be held amid the coronavirus pandemic. This will be the second large scale election in India in the ongoing Covid 19 pandemic.


As many as 18.68 crore voters will be eligible to cast their vote at 2.7 lakh polling stations for 824 assembly seats across the four states and one Union Territory.


The current Assam Assembly’s term ends on May 31; Tamil Nadu’s on May 4; West Bengal’s on May 31; Kerala’s on June 1, and Puducherry’s on June 8. President’s Rule has been imposed in Puducherry after the Congress government resigned earlier this week. All election officers will be vaccinated. Door-to-door campaigning will be restricted to five people because of Covid-19 regulations.


By-poll for Kanyakumari Lok Sabha constituency in Tamil Nadu and Malappuram Lok Sabha seat from Kerala will also be held on April 6.


The Election Commission will oversee massive security arrangements 
for the polls too. Adequate CRPF troops have been dispatched to all five states and UT.  ” All critical and vulnerable polling stations are identified and an adequate number of CAPFs will be deployed,” he said.


Political roadshows will be allowed with a limit of five vehicles. 
Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora said the nationwide vaccination drive has made the situation more conducive for conducting elections and the Health Ministry has declared everyone on poll duty as ‘frontline worker’ for the immediate vaccination purpose.


The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam
(DMK), the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the CPIM are among the major political parties prominently

entering the fray in one or the other state. Kerala is the Communists’ last surviving outpost in the country.

In Tamil Nadu, the ruling AIADMK and the BJP are allies and the opposition DMK will fight the assembly elections in an alliance with

the Congress once again. This will be the first assembly election in the state without the presence of towering figures like M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalitha, former chief ministers.

The Mamata Banerjee-led TMC and the BJP will be fighting it out in West Bengal as the ruling party looks set to retain the state with the BJP as also the CPIM-Congress combine set to put up some resistance. Chief Minister Banerjee is projecting herself as Bengal’s daughter facing odds from the Modi-Shah combine, drawing the imagery of a north-Indian assault on West Bengal’s culture and traditions.


Kerala will see the Left Democratic Front (LDF), led by the Communist 
Party of India(Marxist) or CPI(M), crossing the sword with the United Democratic Front (UDF) led by the Congress. Both the coalitions fight fit

and have held power in the southern state alternately over the last four decades. The LDF had won the 2016 Kerala assembly election with 91 out of 140 seats.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has an incumbent government in Assam with the party’s Sarbananda Sonowal as chief minister. In the last assembly polls in 2016, the BJP formed its maiden government in the northeastern state after defeating the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA).


The following is the election schedule for the assembly elections:


ASSAM: Election First Phase: 47 Constituencies: Issue of Notification: March 2,
Last Date of Nomination: March 9; Scrutiny of Nomination: March 10 Last date of withdrawal of candidature: March 12; Date of polls: March 27


Second Phase: 39 Constituencies; Issue of Notification: March 5, 2021; Last Date of Nomination: March 12; Scrutiny of Nominations:  March 13; Last date of withdrawal of candidature: March 17; Date of polls: April 1.


Third Phase: 40 Constituencies; Issue of Notification:  March 12; Last Date 
of Nomination:  March 19; Scrutiny: March 20: Last date of withdrawal: March 22;

Date of polls: April 6.


KERALA: One-day poll. Issue of Notification:  March 12. Last Date of 
Nomination: March 19; Scrutiny of Nomination:  March 20; Last date of withdrawal: March 22; Date of polls: April 6.


TAMIL NADU / PONDICHERRY:  Issue of Notifications: March 12; Last Date 
for nominations March 19; Scrutiny: March 20; Last date for withdrawal: March 22;

Date of Poll: April 6.

WEST BENGAL: Phase-I: 30 Assembly Constituencies; Issue of Notification: March 2; Last Date of Nomination: March 9; Scrutiny of

Nomination:  March 10; Withdrawal of Candidature:  March 12; Date of polls: March 27. Results: May 2.


Phase-II: 30 Assembly Constituencies; Issue of Notification: March 5; Last Date of Nomination: March 12; Scrutiny of Nomination:  March 15; Withdrawal: March 17; Date of polls: April 1. Results: May 2.


Phase-III: 31 Assembly Constituencies; Issue of Notification: 12 March; Last Date of Nomination: 19 March; Scrutiny of Nomination: 20 March; Withdrawal of Candidature: 22 March; Date of polls: April 6; Counting May 2.


Phase-IV: 44 Assembly Constituencies; Issue of Notification: 16th March; Last Date of Nomination: 23rd March; Scrutiny of Nomination: 24th March; Withdrawal of Candidature: 26ht March; Date of polls: 10th April; Counting May 2.

Phase-V: 45 Assembly Constituencies; Issue of Notification: 23rd March; Last Date of Nomination: 30th March; Scrutiny of Nomination: 31st March; Withdrawal of Candidature: 3rd April; Date of polls: 17th April; Counting May 2.


Phase-VI: 43 Assembly Constituencies; Issue of Notification: 26th March; Last Date of Nomination: 3rd April; Scrutiny of Nomination: 5th April; Withdrawal of Candidature: 7th April; Date of polls: 22nd April.


Phase-VII: 36 Assembly Constituencies; Issue of Notification: 31st March; Last Date of Nomination: 7th April; Scrutiny of Nomination: 8th April; Withdrawal of Candidature: 12th April; Date of polls: 26th April; Counting: May 2.

Phase-VIII: 35 Assembly Constituencies; Issue of Notification: 31st March; Last Date of Nomination: 7th April; Scrutiny of Nomination: 18th April; Withdrawal

of Candidature: 12th April; Date of polls: 29th April; Counting May 2. –IHN-NN

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UNION BUDGET 2021: FM Nirmala in Parliament to present Budget at 11am


PAR BUDGET

NEW DELHI: The Union Budget for the 2021-22 Fiscal will be introduced in Parliament at 11am on Monday by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in paperless, digital format. The FM met President Ram Nath Kovind for his customary nod before presentation of the financial statement on receipts and expenditure for the government for a full financial year starting from April, 2021. 

This was followed by a meeting of the Union Cabinet, which will give its formal nod for the Budget. There are high expectations for special steps to take the national economy out of the woods in the context of the Covid-19 crisis that began a year ago. IHN-NN

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JUDGES, VACANCIES .. Centre, SC holding back filling of judge posts; Justice Bobde, what of the judicial recruitment system you promised?


NEWS SUPREME COURT JUDGES VACANCIES

NEW DELHI: In a tug-of war between the Supreme Court and the Modi government over the delay in filling vacancies of judges, the Centre has bluntly told the apex court that it should shoulder the blame. Some 23 names proposed by various high courts are pending with the Supreme Court for as long as nine months to 33 months, the Centre has pointed out.

This response came after a division bench led by Chief Justice SA Bobde told the Attorney General KK Venugopal on Wednesday that as many as 103 names recommended by various HCs to the central government has not been forwarded by the Centre to the Supreme Court collegium. This apart, the SC admitted that some 43 more fresh recommendations have come to it from the high courts for consideration. “Yes, we had deferred a decision on 23 recommendations,” the apex court said.

It was also pointed out to the government that some 16 recommendations sent by the collegium to the government have not been acted up on vis-à-vis appointment of judges.

The 25 high courts in the country have a sanctioned strength of 1080 judges. However, at present, there are only 663 judges. This meant more than one-third of the judge posts are vacant. The Indian judicial system is increasingly coming under criticism for the decades-long delay in disposal of large numbers of cases. At one time, it was stated by a CJI that some four crore of cases were pending in courts in the country for disposal. There are also serious misgivings about the way judges’ appointments are decided on. The whole system is riddled allegedly with favouritism, if not nepotism as well. 

As high as 45 lakh cases are pending in high courts alone in the country, pending disposal. Against this backdrop, the vacancies of the order of more than one-third of the total strength is a commentary on how systems are going for a toss in this country, ruled by incompetent leaders one after another whose only capability is to work crowds to a frenzy from public platforms and run away with their votes to the seats of power.

The new CJI, SA Bobde, who took charge a year ago, had promised to introduce a Judicial Service on lines of Civil Service to bring in bright talents to the judicial system, but nothing much has emerged. Also, CJIs are frequently changed, due to superannuation or appointment of judges to the post of those who have just months or a year or two to retire. 

The present Chief Justice of India, Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde, took charge in November 2019 and he will retire by April this year. Even then, he would be the longest-serving CJI in the past eight years. Meaning, CJIs got changed with the ease similar to a musical chair system. Irresponsible leaders at the helm of the country are creating this situation due to their ineptness in the governance process or due to the play of multiple vested interests. Narendra Modi’s government is no better and is anachronistic in most ways.

Such a frequent change of CJI is also creating a situation in which long-term planning for judicial reforms is not facilitated. Nor are successive governments with their five-year tenure and short-term goals be of any help to change systems in India for the better.  Notably, many of the reforms that PM Modi has brought about the past over six years of his rule were half-baked and did not effectively change the scenarios for the better in major ways. –IHN-NN

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COVID INDIA … Union health ministry says India has arrested the Covid spread; one-fifth of districts report no new incident in past one week


NEWS COVID INDIA

NEW DELHI: The worst is over and good days past the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems, are round the corner. The Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan stated as much on Thursday.

He said India has halted the rise in Covid-19 infections, with a fifth of its districts reporting no new cases for a week, even as its immunization campaign has covered 2.4 million people. The country of 1.35 billion has recorded the highest number of cases in the world after the United States, though the rate of infection has come down significantly since a mid-September peak. Some studies have suggested pockets of India have attained herd immunity through natural infection.

“India has successfully contained the pandemic,” Harsh Vardhan said, noting that fewer than 12,000 cases were reported in the past 24 hours. He said 146 of India’s 718 districts have had no new cases for a week and 18 districts for two weeks. India has flattened its Covid-19 graph,” he added.

With infections falling, the government said that from Feb. 1 it would lift curbs on the use of public swimming pools, allow cinema halls and theatres to seat more than 50% of capacity and let all types of exhibition halls to operate.

The world’s second most populous country started its COVID-19 immunisation programme on Jan. 16, with the aim to reach 300 million people by July-August.

India has so far reported 10.7 million infections and 1,53,847 deaths – one of the world’s lowest fatality rates from the disease, attributed partly to its younger population.

Thyrocare Technologies Ltd, one of India’s top-three diagnostic chains, told Reuters antibody tests it had done on more than 700,000 people showed that 55% of the country’s population may have already been infected. The World Health Organization says at least 60 per cent to 70 per cent of the population needs to have immunity to break the chain of transmission. A top Indian vaccine official was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying he did not think India had reached that level yet, but that even a smaller percentage could help slow the spread of the virus.

KERALA AS WORST CASE: The Union health ministry, out of the 20 worst-affected Covid districts, 12 are in Kerala. Ernakulam and Kozhikode top the state in Covid-19 cases. The Indian Medical Association (IMA)’s Kerala chapter has asked the state government to take stringent measures in Ernakualm including a lockdown . The state government appears to be reluctant because it could impact upcoming assembly polls, which are expected by April-May. However, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan stated two days ago that police would be asked to ensure people followed the covid regulations strictly, mainly in the worst-hit areas of the state.

The Kerala state health ministry said there are 3,050 ICU beds — 1,200 in government hospitals and 1,850 in the private sector — and of them about 90 per cent are occupied.  State health minister KK Shailaja has noted that though the infection rates in Kerala remain high, the fatalities are not at a high level. Some 3,500 people have died of the infection so far, against the national figure of over 1.50lakh.

The situation in Kerala turned serious in the last three months. Covid-19 cases started to rise after a brief lull in October (called the second wave). The average test positivity rate (TPR) rose to 13% and on October 13 it went up to 18.16%. In November, the TPR came down to 8% and in December it went up to 9%, shows the ministry data.

In the second half of January, the cases started rising again with the TPR increasing to 12.48 per cent on January 25 from 10.88 in mid-January. As the positivity rate rose, the number of active Covid cases also increased. Average active cases in the last three months were between 65,000 and 70,000, statistics show. On Wednesday, the active caseload was 71,607, a report noted. — Agencies, IHN-NN

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VIOLENCE AND MORE.. As farmer protests turn violent on R-Day, farmer unions on the defensive


NEWS DEEP SIDHU

NEW DELHI: The Modi government is hugely embarrassed over the security failure at Red Fort on Republic Day, as was evident from the way some participants in the farmers’ tractor parade in the capital climbed atop the fort and hoisted the religious flag of Sikhs there.

Punjabi actor Deep Sidhu has admitted later on a facebook post that it was his way of protesting against the anti-farmer policies of the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre. Farmers’s unions who claimed they only wanted a peaceful and orderly protest on Republic Day  also accused Sidhu of instigating the crowds into a frenzy.

Deep Sidhu, 36, is a popular punjabi actor who had his debut in Ramta Jogi, released in year 2015. He hails from Muktsar district of Punjab and was closely associated with Bollywood actor Sunny Deol. His photo with the Sunny Deol, now a BJP MP, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi had gone viral after the Republic Day violence. 

Sidhu claimed, “To symbolically register our protest against the new farm legislations, we put up ‘Nishan Sahib’ and a farmer flag and also raised a slogan of Kisan Mazdoor Ekta.”

The Union Home Minister Amit Shah visited Red Fort to take stock of the situation there and ascertain for himself as to how such a security lapse has occurred. Those in charge of the security there are bound to face serious consequences for the patently anti-national act. Also, the Home ministry has asked police departments in the capital as also neighbouring states to identify the men involved in law violations and violence in the course of the farmer tractor rally and street protests. 

There are provisions in law to attach properties of those who indulge in such law violations. With CCTV cameras set up by the police department capturing the visuals of the protests, identifying the guilty will not be a problem, though it could take a few days of investigations. Hundreds of protesters are bound to face the consequences in the coming weeks. 

The overdo by segments of the protesters has come as a serious embarrassment to the unions leading the farmer protest too. Their leaders had given an undertaking to police that no security breach will be done by the protesters on Republic Day in Delhi. The violent turn to the protest has already led to the withdrawal of a few farmer unions from the two-months-long protest, and this dwelt a serious blow to the farmer movement itself, which so far had maintained a moral high ground by their orderly sit-in at border points. —IHN-NN

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FARMER PROTESTS ….Modi’s government looks rattled. But it should hold firm


OPINION / FARMER PROTESTS

Mihir Sharma / Bloomberg

NEW DELHI: India’s agitating farmers show no signs of fading away. Angry cultivators have been camped on the doorstep of Delhi for weeks through north India’s bitingly cold winter. They have shown a talent for staying in the headlines as well, with attention-grabbing stunts such as staging a tractor convoy to rival India’s official Republic Day parade on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government looks rattled. But it should hold firm. The reforms that have so incensed protesters go further in addressing Indian agriculture’s most intractable problems than any previously contemplated. Those changes need to be protected, not abandoned.

Three new laws in particular, passed hastily and in open defiance of parliamentary norms last year, sparked off the agitation. Now the federal agriculture minister, who has been deputed to negotiate with the protesters, has offered to postpone implementation. This follows a series of other concessions in December.

The farmers camped out near Delhi, however, are campaigning against a whole slew of reform measures both real and imagined. They want a total and immediate repeal of the laws passed last year. In addition, they want the government to guarantee that the current system of state-run procurement of rice and wheat will continue indefinitely – even though it hasn’t been threatened yet.

The farmers recognize they have got the government playing defense. There are cracks even within the ruling establishment. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s parent organization, the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has hinted that the government should compromise.

This isn’t a surprise. In spite of the rhetoric of its men in government, the RSS has never been sold on the whole “market economy” idea. Still, it’s remarkably disappointing that the government seems willing to roll back some of its most substantial reforms to date because of the vocal opposition of the country’s most heavily subsidized and richest agricultural producers.

Let’s not beat about the bush here: The government has already conceded too much. It has, for example, agreed to protect farmers’ access to free electricity. This is not just unaffordable, it holds back the modernization of India’s power sector and thus the growth of renewable energy. Authorities have also promised they won’t go after farmers who burn agricultural waste – a major contributor to air pollution across India’s northern plains, home to almost all of the world’s most unhealthy cities.

What’s at risk isn’t just a couple of laws, but India’s commitment to the transition to a more environmentally sustainable and equitable growth model. In their demand that unsustainable practices continue into a new and more environmentally conscious age, the protesters are reminiscent of France’s gilets jaunes more than anything else. And Modi’s government seems more inclined to buckle than even French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron’s – even though Modi, with a 78% approval rating, is far more politically secure than Macron.

Given the stakes, it is galling how abysmal the government’s political management and messaging has been. For one, it has failed to communicate its case effectively to those farmers who would benefit from the reforms and who could conceivably have prevented their colleagues from hijacking the narrative. It has alienated a long-term ally – a Sikh religious party called the Akali Dal – that could otherwise have helped handle the reform’s fallout.

And the government should understand by now that reform of one subsidy is best introduced with a clear pathway to an alternative form of support. That simply hasn’t been on offer. Before surrendering to the protesters, the government should at least try to work out what it might do to sweeten the deal it originally proposed.

Modi and his advisers should also be under no illusions about the price of retreat. They tried to deal with the agricultural sector’s problems once before, early on in Modi’s tenure. Their attempt to strengthen the government’s powers to acquire farmland had to be rolled back following noisy objections led by the political opposition.

Objectively, those land-acquisition laws were as regressive as the new agricultural reforms are progressive – but that’s not the point. The lesson is that Modi lost the initiative on reform in 2015 and never fully recovered it during his first term. Neither he nor India can afford to make the same mistake twice. 

–Mihir Sharma is the author of ‘Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.’

SEX, DEATH PENALTY .. In Modi’s corrupt India, sex as only crime; maximum of death sentences for sex-related crimes; BJP-run UP ‘worst’


NEWS SEXUAL DEATH SENTENCE

NEW DELHI: India, run by deeply corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, is in the forefront in awarding death sentences for those involved in sexual offences – More so during the rule of the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) led from the front by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a bachelor by definition except for a brief spell of married life in his young days.

Last year, 65 per cent of the total death sentences awarded by trial courts involved sexual offences — an increase from 53 per cent the previous year, in 2019. Of these cases, 82 per cent involved children.

According to data collated by Project 39A, a litigation and research group at National Law University, Delhi, this is the highest proportion of death sentences in such cases in the past five years. Death penalties, the report said, in cases related to sexual offences have been steadily increasing — from 17.64 per cent in 2016, 37.27 per cent in 2017, 41.08 per cent in 2018, 53 per cent in 2019 and now, 65 per cent in 2020.

Corrupt politicians and bureaucrats are hardly ever caught. Even when they are caught, cases drag on and on for decades or are disposed of without punishment or fine in almost all cases. There are enough loopholes in law to facilitate their escape. So with the case of businessmen who loot the nation’s government=owned banks with help from senior politicos and bank executives. They take huge loans and refuse to repay. The extent of Non-Performing Assets (what is left of enterprises that end up with zero value after hundreds of crores are taken from banks as loan) or “bad loans” in the banking system in India was, a while ago, of the extent of Rs 10 lakh crore. Businessmen take away and park their ill-gotten wealth in tax havens like Mauritius, St Kitts etc and laugh their way through a luxurious life abroad thereafter. Incompetence of those who lead the nation and complex legal mechanisms that allow such people to get away with their act together work to the disadvantage of India of today. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, enjoying a high popularity rating because of his claim to being a “poor man” in his childhood and hailing from a so-called backward community, has done little to stem such rot in the system.

Modi had spent much of his life as a “pracharak” (publicist) for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the largest fundamentalist Hindu outfit working from behind the BJP; a post that required a life of bachelorhood. They need not necessarily abstain from sex, though. The idea is that they devote all their time to work for promotion of the RSS, pro-Hindu ideology. The RSS never speaks out against social evils like corruption, as it is part of India’s elitist set-up composed mostly of corrupt bureaucrats and greedy businessmen. 

Thousands of teenaged youths are framed by police across states in India in recent years even for sexual crimes as a simple touch. Curiously, a Mumbai high court ruling this week stated that a touch on a woman’s body is a sexual crime; but it is not a crime if the “skin of the man and skin of the woman do not come into direct contact” — meaning, a touch over the dress cannot be termed a sexual offence. Such are the elitist fads promoted by the Indian establishment of the modern times, and under the BJP-led, Modi-led Indian governance system and parliament.

EXECUTIONS

The past year had also witnessed the execution of the four accused in the 2012 December gangrape-murder case in Delhi — Mukesh, Akshay Kumar Singh, Vinay Sharma and Pawan Kumar — on 20 March in Tihar jail, after a gap of five years. Yakub Memon, who was convicted in the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts, was the last person to be executed before them in July 2015.

Governments, both the previous United Progressive Alliance(UPA) that ruled the nation for 10 years from 2004, and the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government are sharpening laws against sexual advances, abuses, harassment, torture of women, also as part of an effort to get votes from them by adopting the appeasement route. UPA was led by a woman, Sonia Gandhi of Italian origin, while Prime Minister was Dr Manmohan Singh, a former IMF economist and professor who ran government on lines recommended by Sonia Gandhi, who headed the UPA and her own Congress party, the main constituent of the then-ruling alliance.

A gang-rape and killing of a para=medical female student in a running, otherwise empty luxury bus in capital Delhi in year 2012 led to a huge outcry and sharpening of laws on sexual abuse in India, creating a situation in which even a sharp look at a woman can result in a complaint and the accused getting arrested and jailed – in situations similar to fundamentalist Saudi Arabia. Indian men, mostly docile, have not complained.

Notably, the report noted that, as of 31 December 2020, 404 prisoners in India are on death row  — with most number of such prisoners, 59 of them, in Uttar Pradesh. Large numbers of them are from the poor segments of the society, like Dalits, or Muslims. Uttar Pradesh courts also handed out the most number of death sentences in 2020 with 13 out of the total 77 capital punishments from the state. With nine cases, West Bengal comes second.

Uttar Pradesh is run by a BJP government, headed by Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu sanyasin (one in priestly uniform; a bachelor and RSS pracharak of the past), and the fact is also that traditionally, the state has been among the top in crimes of all sorts.

The report noted that due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a major drop in the number of death sentences by trial courts in the past year. A total of 77 death sentences were imposed in 2020, compared to 103 in 2019. Fifty of these 77 cases involved sexual assault. In 41 cases, the victims were minors. However, 62 per cent of the total death sentences were imposed in the first three months of the year, before the lockdown was announced on 24 March 2020, which is more than double the number of death sentences imposed during the same period in 2019.

The report noted that the increase in death sentences before the nationwide lockdown to “strong public sentiment across India to prosecute and execute sexual offenders”. What it refers to is the big push by the Indian media, especially English media where large numbers of women work, to give exemplary punishment to men involved in sexual offences.

“The changing realities of the death penalty in India highlight the necessity of robust empirical research that helps assess the impact of various measures and design well-considered reform,” the study recommended. –IHN-NN

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DAMS .. Dire warning about ageing dams by UN agency; says if they burst, millions would perish


NEWS DAMS DANGER UN MULLAPERIYAR

NEW DELHI: A United Nations report has sounded a grim warning about ageing dams across the world, including India, saying that these are likely to pose serious danger to life in future. A specific mention is made about the Mullaperiyar Dam ( see picture above) in Kerala, a contentious issue between the state and neighbouring Tamil Nadu.

The report, titled ‘Ageing water infrastructure: An emerging global risk’ and compiled by United Nations University’s Canadian-based Institute for Water, Environment and Health,  says about India: “ In India, there are over 1,115 large dams that will be roughly 50 years old in 2025. More than 4,250 large dams in India will be over 50 years old by 2050 and 64 large dams will be more than 150 years old by 2050.”

The report said approximately 3.5 million people in Kerala are at risk if the Mullaperiyar dam in Kerala, built 125 years ago, “were to fail”. It added, “The dam, in a seismically active area, shows significant structural flaws and its management is a contentious issue between Kerala and Tamil Nadu States.” If the dam breaks, the resultant flood would reach up to the commercial city of Kochi, that has a population of nearly 7 lakh, apart from inundating large swathes of residential areas along a distance of 215kilometres — from the Western Ghats to the Arabian Sea.

The dam, about which there already are safety concerns, was built between 1887 and 1895. It supplies water to Tamil Nadu as well as part of an interstate riparian agreement – between the Maharaja of Travancore, Vaisakham Tirunal Rama Varma with the then Madras Presidency through the good offices of the then reigning British government in India. The dam is situated at the confluence of Mullayar and Periyar rivers.

The report noted that most of the 58,700 large dams worldwide were constructed between 1930 and 1970 with a design life of 50 to 100 years. At about 50 years, any large concrete dam “would (most probably) begin to express signs of ageing. ”In fact, “most people on Earth will live downstream of tens of thousands of dams built in the 20th Century.”

 “By 2050, most people on Earth will live downstream of tens of thousands of large dams built in the 20th century, many of them already operating at or beyond their design life,” the UN report notes.

 The report, in specific, referred to dam decommissioning or ageing case studies from the USA, France, Canada, India, Japan, and Zambia and Zimbabwe. As many as 32,716 large dams (55 per cent of the world’s total) are found in just four Asian countries — China, India, Japan, and South Korea. “A  majority of these will reach the 50-year threshold relatively soon.” The report said the same is true of many large dams in Africa, South America, and Eastern Europe.

ABOUT MULLAPERIYAR: The report added that dams that are well designed, constructed and maintained can “easily” reach 100 years of service but predicts an increase in “decommissioning” – a phenomenon gaining pace in the USA and Europe – as economic and practical limitations prevent ageing dams from being upgraded or if their original use is now obsolete.

GLOBAL SCENARIO: The report said that in the US, the average age of 90,580 dams is 56 years. More than 85 per cent of US dams in 2020 were operating at or beyond their life expectancy and 75 per cent of US dam failures occurred after 50 years of age. The estimated cost to refurbish US dams is about $64 billion. Nearly 1,275 dams were removed in 21 US states in the last 30 years; 80 removed in 2017 alone. Worldwide, the huge volume of water stored behind large dams is estimated at 7,000 to 8,300 cubic km – enough to cover about 80 per cent of Canada’s landmass under a metre of water.

The report’s co-author Vladimir Smakhtin, Director of UNU-INWEH, said: “Underlined is the fact that the rising frequency and severity of flooding and other extreme environmental events can overwhelm a dam’s design limits and accelerate a dam’s ageing process. Decisions about decommissioning, therefore, need to be taken in the context of a changing climate.”

Lead author and UNU-INWEH Senior Researcher Duminda Perera said the problem of ageing large dams today confronts a relatively small number of countries – 93 per cent of all the world’s large dams are located in just 25 nations.“Large dam construction surged in the mid-20th Century and peaked in the 1960s – 70s especially in Asia, Europe and North America, while in Africa the peak occurred in the 1980s. The number of newly-constructed large dams after that continuously and progressively declined,” he said.

“Nearly 50 per cent of global river volume is already fragmented or regulated by dams,” the report says.

Public safety, escalating maintenance costs, reservoir sedimentation, and restoration of a natural river ecosystem are among the reasons driving dam decommissioning, the report said, adding that overall, dam decommissioning should be seen as equally important as dam building in the overall planning process on water storage infrastructure developments. — Agencies, IHN-NN

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PARLIAMENT: Budget session from January 29; to continue till April 8; Budget on February 1


NEWS PARLIAMENT BUDGET

KS Shankar / IHN-NN 

NEW DELHI: The Budget session of Parliament will begin on January 29 with all Covid-related protocols including the shift system in place. The session, which will have a recess, will conclude on April 8. The last session was held briefly in September, the Monsoon Session, which was cut short by seven days after several MPs tested positive for Covid-19. 

As per the schedule, President Ram Nath Kovind  will deliver his inaugural address to a joint sitting of both Houses at 11am. The two Houses will meet separately for tabling of the President’s Address. The Economic Survey will also be tabled in this 30-minute sitting. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman will present the Union Budget at 11am on February 1. 

The budget session is unlikely to be a smooth affair for the government, as the Opposition is gearing up to bring up a number of issues, the farmers’ protest being the most prominent. The government is expected to face an aggressive opposition on issues like the economic slowdown and handling of Covid 19 pandemic. 

Except for the September session, the Parliament did not meet since April last following the pandemic spread. The Winter Session normally held from November was abandoned due to the Covid scenario. 

The budget session will go into recess from February 15 till March 8. During this period, the various department-related standing committees will discuss the Demands for Grants for various ministries and prepare reports. The session will conclude on April 8. 

Question Hour, suspended during the Monsoon session from September 14, to September 23 last, will resume during the Budget session. During this period, Parliament passed 2 bills and set a record in productivity. 

Rajya Sabha met for four hours in the morning while Lok Sabha sat for the second half, with both chambers and visitors’ galleries being used for members so they could observe physical distancing. 

The Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha will operate in shifts with the Upper House meeting in the forenoon and the Lower House in the evening between 4pm and 9pm, as per Covid protocol. The Lok Sabha will sit for five hours during the Budget session. The session is being held at a time when the government is grappling with the farmers’ agitation and the vociferous demand from the Opposition for repeal of the three farm laws. 

Revival of the economy will be the primary focus of the NDA government during the budget session. The government would face tough questions from Opposition on crucial issues such as reverse migration and the job scenario. The government would also be cornered on the three controversial farm laws and the protests against them. 

Senior Opposition leaders are also keen to have a detailed debate on the issue of employment generation and the problems of reverse migration, which saw an estimated 7 million daily wagers going to their homes largely in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Jharkhand. The Congress is likely to raise the border stand-off with China and seek an update on the situation on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). 

The Opposition is not only likely to question the government on its handling of the pandemic, but also discuss measures for the mass covid-19 vaccination drive that started on January 16 and seek more financial assistance for states to deal with the fallout of covid-19. 

With Assembly elections due in April-May in West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry, the Parliament proceedings are likely to be surcharged. The government is looking forward to get the Data Protection Bill and other important legislation passed. 

The debate on the President’s Address and the budget are also expected to be charged as these will be held against the backdrop of the developments since the outbreak of Covid in March 2020  In order to ensure smooth running of Budget Sessions, Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla said that in the first half of the session, the Parliament will meet 12 times, while 21 sittings are scheduled in the second half. 

NINE PROTOCOLS: “Everyone inside the Parliament complex, including Members of Parliament, their families and staff, Secretariat staff and members of the media would need to undergo RT-PCR tests.” The Speaker said. 

Will MPs be given priority for getting Coronavirus vaccine? The Speaker said as per the vaccination policy finalised by the Centre and states will apply to Parliamentarians as well. “We will have to wait for our turn,” he said. Even PM Modi, during his Covid-19 review meeting with CMs of various states, said that public representatives including MPs and MLAs are not on the priority list. 

The Parliament staff will undertake sanitisation of cars and other vehicles entering Parliament including various files. These are on the lines of the protocols adopted during the September 2020 session. The RT-PCR tests for MPs will be conducted on January 27-28 in Parliament House as well as North Avenue, South Avenue, BD Marg and other places in Lutyens Delhi. Emergency wards for urgent Covid care with dedicated medical teams shall also be deployed at Ram Manohar Lohia hospital for MPs. Other measures include regular fumigation and sanitization. 

According to Lok Sabha secretariat, private members’ business which usually takes place on Friday afternoons will also happen. Members will be allowed to introduce their own bills which will be debated. 

ALL-PARTY MEET ON JAN 30: Prime Minister Modi will chair an all-party meeting on January 30 during which the government will put forth its legislative agenda for the Budget session. Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi said the meeting will be held in virtual mode, and invitation has been sent to floor leaders of all parties. All-party meeting is a customary procedure before the beginning of every session to ensure its smooth functioning. This time, it would be held a day after the session starts on January 29.—IHN=NN 

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