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Pandemic – ‘Nationwide Lock-down’ A Tale of Caution & Hope

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Curfew Relaxation in Himachal Pradesh 3

Shimla-It’s for the first time in the history of our planet that the entire Humankind is together and is focused on fighting with one problem.

In India, from many days Doctors have been coming out and demanding a nationwide lockdown fearing the wrath of the virus which has been raging hell all across the world. The State has now responded and has ordered a 21-day lockdown for the entire nation, which is an unprecedented move.

The Lockdown is an extreme step which is demanded by these extraordinary circumstances. And as expected it has and will continue to have a huge impact on the economic health of the country. It has paralysed virtually all commerce and has put millions of people out of work, leaving many struggling with basic requirements like food and medicines. This has caused much debate in the media and elsewhere that whether we are ‘over-reacting’ to the coronavirus outbreak?

In this post, the author argues that the present step of a ‘National Lockdown’ is the most efficient and only available first response which the Government could have taken to tackle the immediate and ongoing existential crisis.

The viability of measures is to be seen through the lens of precaution and what might be the risk to reward outcome of the decision. The ‘precautionary principle’ which has had its evolution through various judgments of our Supreme Court ultimately boils down to an understanding that “if one is bound to err then always err on the side of minimising the risk and the scale of catastrophic harm than to take high-risk measures for immediate gains”.

The question which has arisen for consideration is,  ‘what is at stake by acting too strongly versus what is at stake by acting too weakly?.

The answer, when we think about it with any seriousness, is that too strong action will more quickly reduce wealth and economic activity; whereas too weak action could put crores of lives at stake across the country, and a far greater economic impact will await us down the line.

It is here then that the value judgments behind political decisions about pandemics come into full light. Are we willing to risk economic potency, or are we willing to risk our neighbours, friends, and elders’ lives? The United States and the United Kingdom who have not still imposed a complete nationwide lockdown and are also planning to lift the partial lockdown at the time of Easter (as announced by President Trump) have obviously given a very feeble response and have given considerable weightage to their economy rather than their people. India has chosen to completely focus on its people.

Precautionary Principle 

The Global pandemic and nature of this virus is a powerful reason for aggressively employing the Precautionary Principle to reduce our collective exposure to this deadly virus, an exposure which is grave.

It is hoped that a strong regulatory action which includes measures of forced quarantine, curfew and nation-wide lockdowns, (reduction of public transport/movement/contact) throughout the country would go some way towards lowering contagion even if not completely getting rid of it.

The basic point is that we need to consider the viability of measures through the lens of precaution, and always err on the side of minimising the risk and scale of catastrophic harm. We should be willing to make huge economic sacrifices. So that many of our fellow citizens don’t have their very lives sacrificed at the altar of ‘economic growth’.

The individual choices that we are all facing over the coming months should also be shaped by precaution. We need to be aware that passing this virus to others can create huge contagion cascades that infect thousands of people. It is only by taking pronounced physical distancing steps as early on as possible can we ensure that we are not fueling the wildfire of this pandemic. For many, this may mean a lonely few months, but that is by far a worthwhile price to pay to reduce the scale of this catastrophe.

A Caution- Listen to The Cry of the Poor and Homeless

Though the step by the Government of Lock-down is commendable, there are certain extremely important issues to be kept in mind.

Our country is home to the largest undernourished population in the world. It ranks 102 in the Global Hunger Index, has 1 in 5 people living on less than Rs.150 per day. We have the largest number of street children!

We need an Economic Task Force and a distribution strategy for the supply of essential commodities to the needy.

With the massive outbreak of COVID-19 across the country, there is a *huge and urgent* need of ration and other supplies for daily wage workers, workers in the informal sector as well as masks for doctors and nurses at the frontline.

There have been some announcements which have been made by the State to tackle the above situation such as:

  •  Pradhanmantri Garib Kalyan Yojana – Rs. 1,70,000 crore (Rs. 1.7 trillion) package for poor stuck in lockdown Rs. 50 lakhs insurance cover for health workers in Covid 2019 front.
  •  Pradhanmantri Ann Yojana – 800 Mn people will get additional free 5 kg wheat/Rice and 1 kg, Dal, for 3 months from ration
  • Farmers will get upfront Rs. 2,000 in their account directly
  •  MNREGA – Daily wages increased from Rs. 182 to Rs. 202. Rs 2,000 per worker will be an additional income.
  •  Old Age peoples – Poor senior citizen/widow / handicapped will get additional Rs. 1,000/pm for another 3 months.
  • Mahila Jan Dhan Account – Women will get additional Rs. 500/pm for another 3 months
  • Ujjwala Yojana – Below Poverty Level family will get free LPG cylinder for next 3 months
  •  Up to 20 lakh collateral-free loans for the SHGs from earlier 10 lakh crore cap
  • For organised sector employee and others who earn below Rs. 15,000 salary, Government will pay 12% + 12% provident fund (contribution of employee and employer) under EPF for the next 3 months.
  • EPFO regulations will be amended to allow workers under EPFO to draw up to 75% of their non-refundable advance or 3 months of wages, whichever is lower.
  •  State governments to be directed to utilise an existing Rs 31,000 crore welfare fund for the benefit for 3.5 crore construction workers

Hope & Love

Hope now is that the underprivileged will continue to receive help not only from the Government but also from the super-rich and the various religious institutions that India is so infested by and is proud of. If there was any time for religious institutions to shine this is exactly that time.

We live in a world where infinite money is printed to support corporations and banks and millions are donated to ‘Gods and Godmen’, at the same time nakedly excluding the millions homeless, who are left scrounging for their next meal. India can break this vicious cycle and take steps here out of compassion and empathy. India, the oldest civilization of the world can lead the world and show the light of ‘reason & love’ in its civilized response to the present existential crisis.

There is nothing we can do to change the constraints of our existence. Heartbreak and death await us all one day. As  Albert Camus once said;

 Love is not just a confrontation with the absurdity of the world; it is a refusal to be broken by it.  It is our choice whether we shrink from the slings and arrows of fate, or whether we stand in the full light of the sun while it shines above us.

India! its time to stand at a “physical distance” but stand Together.

 

(The post was first published in https://lawumbrella.wordpress.com/ )

Deven Khanna is a Lawyer, practicing at High Court of Himachal Pradesh, other H.P Courts/Tribunals and the Supreme Court of India, he is an alumnus of a National Law School. For any queries related to the articles, he can be contacted at 7018469792 or at khannadeven@gmail.com. The personal blog is at https://lawumbrella.wordpress.com/

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PIL Filed in HP High Court Re-Ignites Quest for Recognizing Pahari (Himachali) as Hill State’s Official Language

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Shimla- November 10, 2021, Himachal Pradesh High Court on Monday passed an order concerning a public interest litigation (PIL) seeking to recognize Pahari (Himachali) as an official language of the state. The petition also sought effective steps on the part of the government to preserve and promote the Pahari language in the State as its culture and language give it a distinct identity. 

The Public Interest Litigation was filed by Arsh Dhanotia with a prayer that the state be directed to declare Pahari (Himachali) as one of the official languages in the State of Himachal Pradesh in any script and also promote further research towards a long-term formal Pahari (Himachali) nuclear language structure and nuclear Tankri script.

Bhawani Pratap Singh Kutlahria, the advocate for the petitioner, argued in the court that the State Government be directed to promote Pahari (Himachali) and other local languages as the medium of instruction in primary and middle-level schools as per the New Education Policy, 2020. On behalf of the petitioner, he also prayed the court to direct the state government to include Pahari (Himachali) language as a separate category for the 2021 Census and simultaneously undertake an awareness campaign to create awareness amongst the masses, especially the youth of the State who speak Pahari (Himachali), to get it marked as their mother tongue in the upcoming Census.

A bench of Chief Justice Mohammad Rafiq and Justice Sabina while disposing off the PIL stated,

“The direction as has been prayed for, cannot be issued to the State Government until and unless it is established on record that the Pahari (Himachali) language has its own script and that a common Pahari dialect is spoken throughout the State of Himachal Pradesh.  We, however, set the petitioner at liberty to approach the Department of Language Art & Culture to the Government of Himachal Pradesh with his demand for undertaking research to promote a common Pahari (Himachali) nuclear language structure and nuclear Tankri script. If the petitioner approaches the respondents-State through its Additional Chief Secretary (Language Art & Culture) to the Government of Himachal Pradesh) for the prayer made in the Civil Writ Public Interest Litigation, it would be for the said authority to consider the same in accordance with the law.”

Additionally, the petition had emphasised that Sanskrit, which is the second official language of the state, had only 936 speakers according to the 2011 census and Pahari (Himachali) dialect chain which is spoken by more than 40 lakh people was being neglected and has not been made an official language even after having so many speakers.

The petition also highlighted works of Former Chief Minister Late YS Parmar and Former Education Minister Late Narain Chand Parashar towards the promotion of the Pahari (Himachali) language.

What’s Pahari (Himachali) Language, How Many Districts It Covers

It is to be noted that according to the petitioner, Pahari (Himachali) is a combined term used for the Western Pahari dialect chain spoken in Himachal Pradesh and majorly includes Kangri, Mandeali, Chambeali, Kulvi, Mahasu Pahari and Sirmauri. According to him ever since the creation of Himachal Pradesh, there has been a demand for recognition of Pahari (Himachali) under the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution and it is also officially listed with 37 more languages as a language which is in significant demand to be included in the scheduled languages category.

In his plea, he also stated that the Himachal Pradesh Vidhan Sabha in 1970 and 2010 have also passed resolutions concerning the promotion and development of Pahari (Himachali).

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Himachal’s Snow Covered Area Has Decreased, Poses Big Threat to State Economy’s Lifelines: Report

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Himachal Pradesh's Snow Covered area decreasing

Shimla-The area under snow cover in Himachal Pradesh has declined by 18.5% according to a recent report published by State Centre on Climate Change (SCCC) and Space Application Center (ISRO) Ahmedabad. The report revealed this decreasing trend for the five major river basins in the State.

As the report points out, the high altitude regions of Himachal Pradesh receive precipitation mainly in the form of snow during the winter season. One-third of the geographical area of ​​the state is covered by a thick blanket of snow during the winter season. Rivers like Chenab, Beas, Parvati, Baspa, Spiti, Ravi, Sutlej and its tributaries flowing through Himachal are dependent on snowfall in winter. These rivers mainly feed into the Indus water system and a decline at this rate rings a death knell for water and also food security for millions of people from Himachal to Kashmir, the plains of Punjab, the food bowl of the country.

Using images and data received from satellites, the report states, that the winter precipitation was mapped in all the basins from October 2020 to May 2021 (a period of two years). The findings indicate that there has been an average decrease of 8.92 percent in Chenab basin, 18.54 percent in Beas basin, 23.16 percent in Ravi basin, 23.49 percent in Sutlej basin compared to last year. The ice covered area of ​​Chenab basin was 7154.11 sq km in 2019-20, which has come down to 6515.91 sq km in 2020-21. Similarly, Beas basin was reduced from 2457.68 to 2002.03 square kilometer, Ravi basin from 2108.13 square kilometer to 1619.82 square kilometer and Sutlej from 11823.1 square kilometer to 9045 square kilometers. Overall, the snow covered area was reduced from 23542 square kilometer to 19183 square kilometer in the entire Himachal.

basin wise snow cover in himachal pradesh

Figure Source: Hindustan Times

Sutlej Basin covers 45 per cent of the total geographical area of Himachal and it is the longest river of the state. It flows for around 320 kms here, passing through Lahaul and Spiti, Kinnaur, Shimla, Kullu, Mandi, Solan and Bilaspur districts, along its course. The above study shows that the maximum reduction in snow cover has occurred in the Sutlej basin. An area of ​​4359 square kilometers under snow cover has decreased for the whole state, of which more than half of the Sutlej Basin.

Just two years ago another study had indicated that more than half of glaciers in Sutlej Basin are set to vanish by 2050. Yet another study also showed that the Sutlej basin has the highest 562 number of glacial lakes. These lakes stand the risk of sudden outbursts, which then causes flash floods downstream as the valley has already experienced. So, while the crisis that is unfolding, be it deglaciation, lake formation or reduction in area under snow cover, it seems that the Sutlej river basin is more vulnerable to these changes.

Prakash Bhandari, an environmental researcher and activist and member of Himdhara Collective expressing his concern states that the situation in the Sutlej river basin is certainly indicative of a serious climate emergency and it is critical to look into the drivers of this both local and global.

“The Sutlej basin catchment is the largest and so the changes visible here are more significant. Many factors have worked together to create this crisis which should be studied closely. There is no doubt that global warming is contributing to these changes. But the local conditions also play a role in reducing or increasing its impact”, he says.

The upper reaches of the Sutlej Valley, especially areas like Kinnaur are geologically fragile, with sharp gradients and loose soil strata. Vegetation is in a very small area so the proneness to erosion. We have seen the catastrophic impacts of flashfloods and landslides over the last decade and a half, where crores worth of property has been damaged. This year saw a spate of landslides where lives were lost. “In such a sensitive and also strategically important area, changes in the landscape will have far reaching and irreversible impacts. More construction activities will lead to more deforestation, more erosion”.  

Construction of dams has been rampant in the Sutlej valley, a phenomena that started post independence and continues today. If all of the planned dams are built the Sutlej will be cho-a-cloc with more then 150, large and small projects. At the bottom of the valley in Bilaspur is the Bhakra Dam, built almost 6 decades ago, which has a size of 168 sq km and a storage capacity of 9.340 cubic km. Is. This is followed by the Kol Dam which extends for 42 km up to Sunni, which has a total storage capacity of 90 million cubic metres. Nathpa Jhakri Project which is 27.394 kms. is long. When a dam is built, a huge amount of water is stored. The debris of many villages, trees etc. also gets absorbed inside the dam. When water is stagnant, it receives heat from the Sun to form mist in the surrounding area by evaporation and simultaneously generates methane gas. The experience of the lake formed by the Kol dam at Tattapani in Mandi district shows that the area is experiencing heavy haze which was not there earlier.

“In the 30s and 40s, Shikari Devi and Kamrunag used to have snow on the peaks for about 6 months, which now could barely stop for only 2 months. The air route distance of Shikari Devi and Kamrunag is only 26 to 30 kms from Tattapani lake. At the same time, their distance is not much from the cement factories of Darlaghat, Sundernagar”, the elders in the area say. “Today, fog is prevalent and this has also made the area warmer”.

Due to the warming of the weather due to the clouds formed from the mist, the snow has started melting quickly. Apart from this the local crop patterns are affected. Post the 1990s, the Sutlej became a site for run of the river hydroelectric projects using extensive underground tunneling. This involves massive use of explosives for blasting through the mountains. Of the 23,000 MW worth of projects to be constructed in Himachal more than 10,000, a third are from this valley alone. Kinnaur continues to be a hydel powerhouse with 10 run of the river projects in progress and 30 more to be set up including two mega projects of 1500 MW and 1000 MW each. This paints a scary picture.

Interactive Sutlej River-Basin Map indicate Hydropower Station location

It is not just the hydro-electric dams but unplanned tourism and other development activities like mining, cement plants, road expansion and mindless construction across the high Himalayan regions have also add to the shift in local weather patterns, land use changes and thus the ecological crisis. But the reason why we should put the limelight on hydropower is that this is being pushed as “Green Energy”, in the name of climate change mitigation. As opposed to other forms of generating power, hydropower projects are said to cause lesser carbon emissions, which is why there has been a global push to shift to renewable resources. But the climate emergency in the Himalayas has put a question mark on ‘water’ as a renewable resource.

The question then arises that with all this data indicating a steady decline in river discharge and snow cover have our planners and policy makers not considered what will happen to these projects? Will they be able to generate the power they propose to? The people of Himalaya have to wake up to this wastage of public resources. Scarce funds should be diverted to better planning for securing local livelihoods by protecting the forest ecosystems and water sources for the future.

Author: Gagandeep Singh-From Himdhara (Environment Research and Action Collective)

Feature Images:  unsplash/@raimondklavins

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Himachal: Warnings of Delta Plus Virulence Fall on Deaf Ears, No Restriction on Visitors from Affected States  

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Shimla-Yesterday, the Centre government directed the state governments to take immediate measure in wake of the spread of more infectious Delta Plus variant.  As the Delta Plus variant is posing a threat of the third wave, the states were told to take steps like preventing crowds, increase testing, more focus on surveillance, contact tracing and put boosting vaccine coverage on a priority basis. Following it, Himachal Pradesh Government might have announced an alert over Delta plus variant, but there wasn’t any follow up on instructions passed by scientists and health experts to take strict restrictive measures ahead of the impending third wave. 

To make it worse, high rank officials and political leaders were seen flouting Covid-19 SOPs on several occasion, which sent wrong messages to the masses. The pictures and videos showing flouting of Covid appropriate behavior by Chief Minister Jairam Thakur and Directorial General of Police, Sanjay Kundu, alongwith other staff for Anupam Kher is the most recent to mention. A group photograph and video of the same were widely circulated on social media and invited huge criticism from the people.  

So far, the state has not reported any case of the Delta Plus variant. But the neighboring states – Punjab, Haryana, and Jammu & Kashmir – reported their first cases yesterday. This puts the boarding areas, like in Una district, at a higher risk. Chief Secretary to HP Government, Anil Khachi, yesterday said samples have been sent for genome sequencing. 

Despite repeated warnings of Delta plus variant (B.1.617.2.1.), Himachal Pradesh has thrown its borders open to all and lifted all restrictions for inter-state travel in just one go. From June 23 onwards, the state government removed the condition for registering on the e-pass portal for visitors intending to enter the state. In the Cabinet meeting held on June 22, 201, the government first decided that e-pass restrictions would be removed from July 1, but later it changed the decision and instead implemented it immediately.

This haphazard decision is said to have come under huge pressure from the hospitality industry – the worst-hit sector, leading to financial crisis and mass unemployment among its stakeholders. Related associations had been approaching Chief Minister Jairam Thakur with their pleas to provide relief, but mostly faced disappointment. The stakeholders say the state government didn’t provide any significant relief, which is making the survival of the industry difficult.

Also Read: Read Eight Reliefs That Himachal’s Devastated Tourism Industry Seeks from HP Govt  

Also, stakeholder of the industry, especially hoteliers, had been demanding the removal of restrictions and conditions on the entry of tourists to Himachal so that they could fetch the remaining peak tourist season.

With its inability to offer relief, the HP Government took the chance to waive off restrictions in a haste.

At the same time, the state government has decided to conduct offline examinations for the undergraduate classes starting from July. A section of the students had been condemning the HP government for scheduling exams without vaccinating students. Some student bodies had been asking the government as to why online classes were possible but not online exams. 

The state government also waived off restrictions on timings for the opening of markets/shops.

As scientists and health experts warn of the virulence of the new variant and with neighboring states already on alert after reporting cases of the new variant, the HP government hasn’t even mentioned any intention to at least put a check on the visitor from the states where cases of Delta Plus are being reported. Carrying an RT-PCR negative report for visitors from such states/cities would have been a wiser step. 

Officially, the state is on alert, but no measures have been announced to check the entry and spread of the variant into the state. The state government does speak of preparing for the anticipated third wave, but there is hardly any long-term preventive strategy. The Covid appropriate behavior is hard to adopt when markets and tourist places are crowded with visitors.

Why Delta Plus is a Big Concern

The World Health Organization (WHO) has labelled the Delta variant as ‘Variant of Concern’.

The Centre and scientific/medical institutes in India also agree with that Delta Plus as a variant of concern and could be the cause of impending third wave. Last Tuesday, based on the findings of INSACOG, the Union Health Ministry had alerted and advised Maharashtra, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh regarding the Delta Plus variant of COVID19.

INSACOG had warned that the Delta Plus variant has increased transmissibility, stronger binding to receptors of lung cells, potential reduction in monoclonal antibody response.

“Delta variant is more resistant to medication, treatment and vaccination. Therefore, people who have been vaccinated can still be affected by this variant and can go on to get a clinical illness, Archana Dhawan Bajaj, director, Nurture IVF, told a national English Daily.

“Neutralising antibodies against this variant post-vaccination seem to be nearly five times lower in people who have already been vaccinated than the other variants,” she said.

Further,  Dr Raman Gangakhedkar, ex-Head Scientist of Epidemiology and communicable diseases, ICMR, has also expressed concern over the reports that Delta Plus has reported pathophysiologic change and affecting different organs.  Dr Raman says that it could transfer from cell to cell and would more likely produce neurological symptoms as a common manifestation.

So far India has reported 51 cases of the Delta Plus variant.

Delta Plus variant is a variant of Delta with an additional mutation -B.1.617.2.1.

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