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Budget 2021-22 key points

The Union Minister for Finance & Corporate Affairs, Smt Nirmala Sitharaman presented the Union Budget 2021-22 in Parliament on February 1, 2021.

1.Health and Wellbeing

There is increase in investment in Health Infrastructure and the Budget outlay for Health and Wellbeing is Rs 2,23,846 crore in BE 2021-22 as against this year’s BE of Rs 94,452 crore, an increase of 137 percentage.

A new centrally sponsored scheme, PM AatmaNirbhar Swasth Bharat Yojana, will be launched with an outlay of about Rs 64, 180 crore over 6 years. The aim is to develop capacities of primary, secondary, and tertiary care Health Systems, strengthen existing national institutions, and create new institutions. This will be in addition to the National Health Mission. The main interventions under the scheme are:

 

    1. Support for 17,788 rural and 11,024 urban Health and Wellness Centers
    2. Setting up integrated public health labs in all districts and 3382 block public health units in 11 states;
    3. Establishing critical care hospital blocks in 602 districts and 12 central institutions;
    4. Strengthening of the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), its 5 regional branches and 20 metropolitan health surveillance units;
    5. Expansion of the Integrated Health Information Portal to all States/UTs to connect all public health labs;
    6. Operationalisation of 17 new Public Health Units and strengthening of 33 existing Public Health Units at Points of Entry, that is at 32 Airports, 11 Seaports and 7 land crossings;
    7. Setting up of 15 Health Emergency Operation Centers and 2 mobile hospitals; and
    8. Setting up of a national institution for One Health, a Regional Research Platform for WHO South East Asia Region, 9 Bio-Safety Level III laboratories and 4 regional National Institutes for Virology.

 

Vaccines

Provision of Rs 35,000 crore made for Covid-19 vaccine in BE 2021-22.

The Pneumococcal Vaccine, a Made in India product, presently limited to only 5 states, will be rolled out across the country aimed at averting 50,000 child deaths annually.

Nutrition

Government will merge the Supplementary Nutrition Programme and the PoshanAbhiyan and launch the Mission Poshan 2.0. Government will adopt an intensified strategy to improve nutritional outcomes across 112 Aspirational Districts.

Universal Coverage of Water Supply and Swachch Bharat Mission

JalJeevan Mission (Urban), will be launched for universal water supply in all 4,378 Urban Local Bodies with 2.86 crore household tap connections, as well as liquid waste management in 500 AMRUT cities. It will be implemented over 5 years, with an outlay of Rs. 2,87,000 crore. Moreover, the  Urban Swachh Bharat Mission will be implemented with a total financial allocation of  Rs 1,41,678 crore over a period of 5 years from 2021-2026. Also to tackle air pollution, government proposed to provide an amount of Rs. 2,217 crore for 42 urban centres with a million-plus population in this budget. A voluntary vehicle scrapping policy to phase out old and unfit vehicles was also announced. Fitness tests have been proposed in automated fitness centres after 20 years in case of personal vehicles, and after 15 years in case of commercial vehicles

2.Physical and Financial Capital and Infrastructure

AatmaNirbhar Bharat-Production Linked Incentive Scheme

PLI schemes for an AatmaNirbhar Bharat have been announced for 13 sectors. The government has committed nearly Rs.1.97 lakh crore in the next 5 years starting FY 2021-22. The Minister claimed that this initiative will help bring scale and size in key sectors, create and nurture global champions and provide jobs to our youth. 

Textiles

A scheme of Mega Investment Textiles Parks (MITRA) will be launched in addition to the PLI scheme. The Minister claimed that this will create world class infrastructure with plug and play facilities to enable create global champions in exports. 7 Textile Parks will be established over 3 years.

Infrastructure

The National Infrastructure Pipeline (NIP) was launched with 6835 projects; the project pipeline has now expanded to 7,400 projects. Around 217 projects worth Rs 1.10 lakh crore under some key infrastructure Ministries have been completed.

Infrastructure financing – Development Financial Institution (DFI)

A Bill to set up a DFI will be introduced. Government has provided a sum of Rs 20,000 crore to capitalise this institution and the ambition is to have a lending portfolio of at least Rs 5 lakh crore for this DFI in three years time.

Asset Monetisation

Monetizing operating public infrastructure assets is a very important financing option for new infrastructure construction. A “National Monetization Pipeline” of potential Brownfield infrastructure assets will be launched.  An Asset Monetization dashboard will also be created for tracking the progress and to provide visibility to investors. Some important measures in the direction of monetisation are:

  1. National Highways Authority of India and PGCIL each have sponsored one InvIT that will attract international and domestic institutional investors. Five operational roads with an estimated enterprise value of Rs 5,000 crore are being transferred to the NHAIInvIT.  Similarily, transmission assets of a value of Rs 7,000 crore will be transferred to the PGCIL InvIT.
  2. Railways will monetize Dedicated Freight Corridor assets for operations and maintenance, after commissioning.
  3. The next lot of Airports will be monetised for operations and management concession.
  4. Other core infrastructure assets that will be rolled out under the Asset Monetization Programme are: (i) NHAI Operational Toll Roads (ii) Transmission Assets of PGCIL (iii) Oil and Gas Pipelines of GAIL, IOCL and HPCL (iv) AAI Airports in Tier II and III cities, (v) Other Railway Infrastructure Assets (vi) Warehousing Assets of CPSEs such as Central Warehousing Corporation and NAFED among others and (vii) Sports Stadiums.

Roads and Highways Infrastructure

By March 2022, Government would be awarding another 8,500 kms and complete an additional 11,000 kms of national highway corridors. The Minister also provided an enhanced outlay of Rs. 1,18,101 lakh crore for Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, of which Rs.1,08,230 crore is for capital, the highest ever.

Railway Infrastructure

Indian Railways have prepared a National Rail Plan for India – 2030. The Plan is to create a ‘future ready’ Railway system by 2030. It is expected that Western Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC) and Eastern DFC will be commissioned by June 2022.

For Passenger convenience and safety, the following measures are proposed:

  1. Introduction of aesthetically designed Vista Dome LHB coach on tourist routes to give a better travel experience to passengers. 
  2. The safety measures undertaken in the past few years have borne results. To further strengthen this effort, high density network and highly utilized network routes of Indian railways will be provided with an indigenously developed automatic train protection system that eliminates train collision due to human error.
  3. Budget also provided a record sum of Rs. 1,10,055 crore, for Railways of which Rs. 1,07,100 crore is for capital expenditure.

Urban Infrastructure

Government will work towards raising the share of public transport in urban areas through expansion of metro rail network and augmentation of city bus service. A new scheme will be launched at a cost of Rs. 18,000 crore to support augmentation of public bus transport services.

A total of 702 km of conventional metro is operational and another 1,016 km of metro and RRTS is under construction in 27 cities. Two new technologies i.e., ‘MetroLite’ and ‘MetroNeo’ will be deployed to provide metro rail systems at much lesser cost with same experience, convenience and safety in Tier-2 cities and peripheral areas of Tier-1 cities. 

Power Infrastructure

The Minister claimed that during the past 6 years, 139 Giga Watts of installed capacity has been added, connecting an additional 2.8 crore households and addition of  1.41 lakh circuit km of transmission lines.

Finance Minister proposed to launch a revamped reforms-based result-linked power distribution sector scheme with an outlay of Rs. 3,05,984 crore  over 5 years. The scheme will provide assistance to DISCOMS for Infrastructure creation including pre-paid smart metering and feeder separation, upgradation of systems, etc., tied to financial improvements.

Ports, Shipping, Waterways

Major Ports will be moving from managing their operational services on their own to a model where a private partner will manage it for them.  For the purpose the budget proposes to offer more than Rs. 2,000 crore by Major Ports on Public Private Partnership mode in FY21-22.

A scheme to promote flagging of merchant ships in India will be launched by providing subsidy support to Indian shipping companies in global tenders floated by Ministries and CPSEs. An amount of Rs. 1624 crore will be provided over 5 years. This initiative will enable greater training and employment opportunities for Indian seafarers besides enhancing Indian companies share in global shipping.

Petroleum & Natural Gas

Following key initiatives are being announced:

  1. Ujjwala Scheme will be extended to cover 1 crore more beneficiaries.
  2. Government will add 100 more districts in next 3 years to the City Gas Distribution network. 
  3. A gas pipeline project will be taken up in Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir.
  4. An independent Gas Transport System Operator will be set up for facilitation and coordination of booking of common carrier capacity in all-natural gas pipelines on a non-discriminatory open access basis.

Financial Capital

The Finance Minister proposed to consolidate the provisions of SEBI Act, 1992, Depositories Act, 1996, Securities Contracts (Regulation) Act, 1956 and Government Securities Act, 2007 into a rationalized single Securities Markets Code.  The Government would support the development of a world class Fin-Tech hub at the GIFT-IFSC.

Increasing FDI in Insurance Sector

She also proposed to amend the Insurance Act, 1938 to increase the permissible FDI limit from 49% to 74% and allow foreign ownership and control with safeguards. Under the new structure, the majority of Directors on the Board and key management persons would be resident Indians, with at least 50% of Directors being Independent Directors, and specified percentage of profits being retained as general reserve.

Disinvestment and Strategic Sale

The Finance Minister said a number of transactions namely BPCL, Air India, Shipping Corporation of India, Container Corporation of India, IDBI Bank, BEML, Pawan Hans, NeelachalIspat Nigam limited among others would be completed in 2021-22. Other than IDBI Bank, Government propose to take up the privatization of two Public Sector Banks and one General Insurance company in the year 2021-22. 

In 2021-22, Government would also bring the IPO of LIC for which the requisite amendments will be made in this Session itself. 

The Finance Minister said that in the AtmaNirbhar Package, she had announced to come out with a policy of strategic disinvestment of public sector enterprises and said that the Government has approved the said policy.  The policy provides a clear roadmap for disinvestment in all non-strategic and strategic sectors.  Government has kept four areas that are strategic where bare minimum CPSEs will be maintained and rest privatized. In the non-strategic sectors, CPSEs will be privatised, otherwise shall be closed. She said that to fast forward the disinvestment policy, NITI Aayog will work out on the next list of Central Public Sector companies that would be taken up for strategic disinvestment. Government has estimated Rs. 1,75,000 crore as receipts from disinvestment in BE 2020-21 .

3.Inclusive Development for India

The Finance Minister announced to cover Agriculture and Allied sectors, farmers’ welfare and rural India, migrant workers and labour, and financial inclusion.

Agriculture

The Minister said that the MSP regime has undergone a sea change to assure price that is at least 1.5 times the cost of production across all commodities. The procurement has also continued to increase at a steady pace.  This has resulted in increase in payment to farmers substantially.

In case of wheat, the total amount paid to farmers in 2013-2014 was Rs. 33,874 crore. In 2019-2020 it was Rs. 62,802 crore, and even better, in 2020-2021, this amount, paid to farmers, was Rs. 75,060 crore.  The number of wheat growing farmers that were benefitted increased in 2020-21 to 43.36 lakhs as compared to 35.57 lakhs in 2019-20.

For paddy, the amount paid in 2013-14 was Rs. 63,928 crore. In 2019-2020, this increased to Rs.1,41,930 crore. Even better, in 2020-2021, this is further estimated to increase to Rs. 172,752 crore.  The farmers benefitted increased from 1.24 crore in 2019-20 to 1.54 crore in 2020-21.

In the same vein, in case of pulses, the amount paid in 2013-2014 was ` 236 crore. In 2019-20 it increased to Rs. 8,285 crore. Now, in 2020-2021, it is at Rs.10,530 crore, a more than 40 times increase from 2013-14.

The receipts to cotton farmers have seen a increase from Rs. 90 crore in 2013-14 to Rs. 25,974 crore (as on 27th January 2021). 

Early this year, Honourable Prime Minister had launched SWAMITVA Scheme. Under this, a record of rights is being given to property owners in villages. Up till now, about 1.80 lakh property-owners in 1,241 villages have been provided cards and the Finance Minister proposed during FY21-22 to extend this to cover all states/UTs.

The Government has enhanced the agricultural credit target to Rs. 16.5 lakh crore in FY22. Similarly, the allocation to the Rural Infrastructure Development Fund increased from Rs. 30,000 crore to Rs. 40,000 crore. The Micro Irrigation Fund, with a corpus of Rs.5,000 crore has been created under NABARD will be doubled.

The scope of ‘Operation Green Scheme’ that is presently applicable to tomatoes, onions, and potatoes, will be enlarged to include 22 perishable products.

Around 1.68 crore farmers are registered and Rs. 1.14 lakh crore of trade value has been carried out through e-NAMs. 1,000 more mandis will be integrated with e-NAM. The Agriculture Infrastructure Funds would be made available to APMCs for augmenting their infrastructure facilities.

Fisheries

To start with, 5 major fishing harbours – Kochi, Chennai, Visakhapatnam, Paradip, and Petuaghat – will be developed as hubs of economic activity.

Migrant Workers and Labourers

Government has launched the One Nation One Ration Card scheme through which beneficiaries can claim their rations anywhere in the country. One Nation One Ration Card plan is under implementation by 32 states and UTs, reaching about 69 crore beneficiaries – that’s a total of 86% beneficiaries covered. The remaining 4 states and UTs will be integrated in the next few months.

Social security benefits will extend to gig and platform workers. Minimum wages will apply to all categories of workers, and they will all be covered by the Employees State Insurance Corporation. Women will be allowed to work in all categories and also in the night-shifts with adequate protection. Compliance burden on employers will be reduced with single registration and licensing, and online returns.

Financial Inclusion

To facilitate credit flow under the scheme of Stand Up India for SCs, STs, and women, the Finance Minister proposed to reduce the margin money requirement from 25% to 15%, and to also include loans for activities allied to agriculture. Government has provided Rs. 15,700 crore to MSME sector – more than double of this year’s BE.

4.Human Capital

More than 15,000 schools will be qualitatively strengthened to include all components of the National Education Policy.  The Minster also announced that 100 new Sainik Schools will be set up in partnership with NGOs/private schools/states. She also proposed to set up a Higher Education Commission of India, as an umbrella body having 4 separate vehicles for standard-setting, accreditation, regulation, and funding. For accessible higher education in Ladakh, Government proposed to set up a Central University in Leh.

Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Welfare

Government has set a target of establishing 750 Eklavya model residential schools in tribal areas with increase in unit cost of each such school from Rs. 20 crore to Rs. 38 crore, and for hilly and difficult areas, to Rs. 48 crore. Similarly, under the revamped Post Matric Scholarship Scheme for the welfare of Scheduled Castes, the Central Assistance was enhanced and allocated  Rs. 35,219 crore for 6 years till 2025-2026, to benefit 4 crore SC students.

5.Innovation and R&D

The Finance Minister said that in her Budget Speech of July 2019, she had announced the National Research Foundation and added that the NRF outlay will be of Rs. 50,000 crore, over 5 years.

Government will undertake a new initiative – National Language Translation Mission (NTLM). This will enable the wealth of governance-and-policy related knowledge on the Internet being made available in major Indian languages.

The New Space India Limited (NSIL), a PSU under the Department of Space will execute the PSLV-CS51 launch, carrying the Amazonia Satellite from Brazil, along with a few smaller Indian satellites.

As part of the Gaganyaan mission activities, four Indian astronauts are being trained on Generic Space Flight aspects, in Russia. The first unmanned launch is slated for December 2021.

6.Minimum Government, Maximum Governance

The Finance Minister proposed to take measures to rationalised the functioning of Tribunals. Government has introduced the National Commission for Allied Healthcare Professionals Bill in Parliament, with a view to ensure transparent and efficient regulation of the 56 allied healthcare professions. She also announced that the forthcoming Census could be the first digital census for this Rs. 3,768 crore allocated  in the year 2021-2022.

Against an original BE expenditure of Rs. 30.42 lakh crore for 2020-2021, RE estimates are Rs. 34.50 lakh crore. The capital expenditure, estimated in RE is Rs. 4.39 lakh crore in 2020-2021 as against Rs. 4.12 lakh crore in BE 2020-21.

The Finance Minister said fiscal deficit in RE 2020-21 is pegged at 9.5% of GDP and it has been funded through Government borrowings, multilateral borrowings, Small Saving Funds and short-term borrowings. She added that the Government would need another Rs 80,000 crore for which it would be approaching the markets in these 2 months.  The fiscal deficit in BE 2021-2022 is estimated to be 6.8% of GDP. The gross borrowing from the market for the next year would be around 12 lakh crore.

Sitharaman announced that the Government plan to continue the path of fiscal consolidation, and intend to reach a fiscal deficit level below 4.5% of GDP by 2025-2026 with a fairly steady decline over the period.

“We hope to achieve the consolidation by first, increasing the buoyancy of tax revenue through improved compliance, and secondly, by increased receipts from monetisation of assets, including Public Sector Enterprises and land”, she said.

In accordance with the views of the 15th Finance Commission, Government is allowing a normal ceiling of net borrowing for the states at 4% of GSDP for the year 2021-2022.

The FRBM Act mandates fiscal deficit of 3% of GDP to be achieved by 31st March 2020-2021. The effect of this year’s unforeseen and unprecedented circumstances has necessitated the submission of a deviation statement under Sections 4 (5) and 7 (3) (b) of the FRBM Act which the Finance Minister laid on the Table of the House as part of the FRBM Documents.

On 9th December 2020, the 15th Finance Commission submitted its final report, covering the period 2021-2026 to the Rashtrapatiji. The Government has laid the Commission’s report, along with the explanatory memorandum retaining the vertical shares of the states at 41%.  On the Commission’s recommendation, the Budget provided  Rs. 1,18,452 crore  as revenue deficit grant to 17 states in 2021-22.

PART-B

In Part B of the Budget Speech, the Union Minister Smt. Nirmala Sitharaman seeks to further simplify the Tax Administration, Litigation Management and ease the compliance of Direct Tax Administration. The indirect proposal focuses on custom duty rationalization as well as rationalization of procedures and easing of compliance. 

DIRECT TAX PROPOSALS

 The Finance Minister provided relief to senior citizens in filing of income tax returns, reduced time limit for income tax proceedings announced setting up of the Dispute Resolution Committee, faceless ITAT, relaxation to NRIs, increase in exemption limit from audit and relief for dividend income.  She also announced steps to attract foreign investment into infrastructure, relief to affordable housing and rental housing, tax incentives to IFSC, relief to small charitable trusts, and steps for incentivizing Start-ups in the country. 

Sitharaman, in her Budget speech, said that in the year 2020, the income tax return filers saw a increase to 6.48 crore from 3.31 crore in 2014.

The Budget seeks to reduce compliance burden on senior citizens who are of 75 years of age and above.  Such senior citizens having only pension and interest income will be exempted from filing their income tax return.  The paying Bank will deduct the necessary tax on their income.  The Budget proposes to notify rules for removing the hardship of non-Resident Indians returning to India on the issue of their accrued incomes in their foreign retirement account.  The Budget proposes to make dividend payment to REIT/InvIT exempt from TDS.  For Foreign Portfolio Investors, the Budget proposes deduction of tax on dividend income at lower treaty rate.  The Budget provides that advanced tax liability on dividend income shall arise only after the declaration or payment of dividend.  The Minister said that this was being done as the amount of dividend income cannot be estimated correctly by the shareholders for paying advance tax. 

 The Finance Minister proposed to extend the eligibility period for claim of additional deduction for interest of Rs. 1.5 lakh paid for loan taken for purchase of an affordable house to 31st March, 2022.  In order to increase the supply of affordable houses, she also announced extension of eligibility period for claiming tax holiday for affordable housing projects by one more year to 31st March, 2022.  For promoting supply of affordable rental housing for the migrant workers, the Minister announced a new tax exemption for the notified affordable rental housing projects. 

Sitharaman announced extension in the eligibility for claiming tax holiday for start ups by one more year till 31st March, 2022.  In order to incentivize funding of start ups, she proposed extending the Capital Gains exemption for investment in start ups by one more year till 31st March, 2022. 

 The Finance Minister said that delay in deposit of the contribution of employees towards various welfare funds results in permanent loss of interest/income for the employees.  In order to ensure timely deposit of employee’s contribution to these funds by the employers, she announced that late deposit of employee’s contribution shall never be allowed as deduction to the employer. 

The Budget provides reduction in the time-limit for reopening of income tax proceeding for three years from the present six years.  In serious tax evasion cases, where there is evidence of concealment of income of Rs. 50 lakh or more in a year, the assessment can be reopened upto 10 years but only after the approval of the Principal Chief Commissioner. 

The Finance Minister said that the Direct Tax Vivad se Vishwas Scheme announced by the Government has been received well.  Until 30th January, 2021, over one lakh ten thousand tax payers have opted to settle tax dispute of over Rs. 85 thousand crores under the Scheme.  To further reduce litigation of small tax payers, she proposed to constitute a Dispute Resolution Committee.  Anyone with a taxable income upto Rs. 50 lakh and disputed income upto Rs. 10 lakh shall be eligible to approach the Committee.  She also announced setting up of National Faceless Income Tax Appellate Tibunal Centre. 

To incentivize digital transaction and to reduce the compliance burden of the person who is carrying almost all of the transactions digitally, the Budget proposes to increase the limit for tax audit for persons who are undertaking 95 per cent of their transaction digitally from Rs. 5 Crore to Rs. 10 Crore.

To attract foreign investment into infrastructure sector, the Budget proposes to relax certain conditions relating to prohibition on private funding, restriction on commercial activities and direct investment in infrastructure.  In order to allow funding of infrastructure by issue of zero coupon bonds, the Budget proposes to make notified infrastructure debt funds eligible to raise funds by issuing tax efficient zero coupon bonds. 

In order to promote International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) in GIFT City, the Budget proposes more tax incentives. 

The Budget proposes that details of capital gains from listed securities, dividend income and interest from banks, post office etc. will also be pre-filled to ease filing of returns.  Details of salary income, tax payment, TDS etc already come pre-filled in returns. 

In order to reduce compliance burden on the small charitable trust running educational institutions and hospitals, the Budget proposes to increase the limit on annual receipts for these trusts from present Rs.1 Crore to Rs. 5 Crore for non-applicability of various compliances. 

INDIRECT TAX PROPOSALS

  With respect to the custom duty policy, the Finance Minister proposed to review 400 old exemptions in the custom duty structure this year.  She announced that extensive consultation will be conducted and from 1st October, 2021, a revised custom duty structure free of distortions will be put in place. She also proposed that any new custom duty exemptions henceforth will have validity upto to the 31st March following 2 years of the date of its issue. 

The Finance Minister announced withdrawal of a few exemptions on parts of chargers and sub-parts of mobile phones further some parts of mobiles will move from “NIL” rate to a moderate 2.5  per cent. She also announced reducing custom duty uniformly to 7.5 per cent on semis, flat, and long products of non-alloy and stainless steel.  She also announced exempting duty on steel scrap for a period upto 31st March 2022. 

The Finance Minister announced bringing nylon chain on par with polyester and other man-made fibers. Announcing uniform deduction of the BCD rates on Caprolactam, nylon chips and nylon fiber and yarn to 5 per cent, the Minister said this will help the textile industry, MSMEs and exports too.  She also announced calibration of customs duty rate on chemical to encourage domestic value addition and to remove inversions.  The Minister also announced rationalization of custom duty on gold and silver.

The Finance Minister said that a phased manufacturing plan for solar cells and solar panels will be notified to build up domestic capacity.  She announced raising duty on solar inverter from 5 per cent to 20 percent and on solar lanterns from 5 per cent to 15 per cent. 

She announced revision in duty rates on certain items immediately including tunnel boring machine and certain auto parts. 

 The Budget proposes certain changes to benefit MSMEs which include increasing duty on steel screws, plastic builder wares and prawn feed.  It also provide for rationalizing exemption on import of duty free items as an incentives to exporters of garments leather and handicraft items.  It also provides withdrawing exemption on imports of certain kind of leather and raising custom duty on finished synthetic gem stones. 

To benefit farmers, the Finance Minister announced raising custom duty on cotton, raw silk and silk yarn.  She also announced withdrawing end-use based concessions on denatured ethyl alcohol.  The Minister also proposed an Agriculture Infrastructure and Development Cess on a small number of items.  She said “while applying the cess, we have taken care not to put additional burden on consumers on most items. 

Regarding rationalization of procedures and easing of compliance, the Finance Minister proposed certain changes in the provisions relating to ADD and CVD levies.  She also said that to complete customs investigation, definite time-lines are being prescribed.  The Minister said that the Turant Custom Initiative rolled out in 2020 has helped in putting a check of misuse of FTAs. 

 

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Covid-19 Needs a Regional Response, Say Physicians and Activists at SAPAN Meeting

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Peace activists under the SAPAN platform conducted an event on Sunday which included prominent physicians like Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury, Dr Anup Subedee, Dr Vandana Prasad, and Dr Hamid Jafari of Pakistan (led the team that eradicated polio in India). Speakers included Salima Hashmi, Khushi Kabir, Kanak Dixit, Lalita Ramdas, besides journalists Beena Sarwar, Mandira Nayar and others. Activist Priyanka Singh conducted the event.

South Asian countries cannot go it alone, that’s irrational,’’ said Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury, renowned public health activist and Ramon Magsaysay awardee from Bangladesh.

The hard lockdown in his country will lead to furthering the inequalities in society, he warned, emphasizing that it is irresponsible to impose lockdowns without providing food. “Poverty has increased. There are 25 million more poor without food.”

Dr Chowdhury was among the physicians and health right activists across countries who came together on Sunday 27 June at a webinar organised by the South Asia Peace Action Network (SAPAN) to emphasize that the coronavirus pandemic must be fought collectively.

The third in the series of SAPAN’s monthly public webinars themed ‘Imagine: Neighbours in Peace’, the meeting focused on health as an entry point to talk about South Asian regionalism and Healthcare for all. Three main aspects deliberated included:

  How the pandemic is affecting rural areas of South Asian countries, hurdles in treatment, and access — or lack thereof — to vaccinations.

  How COVID-19 has affected mental health, women and particularly women in rural areas of all the countries of the region

  How the challenges are similar in all countries of the region and require similar solutions.

The meeting took place at a time when South Asia is reeling from the devastating second wave of Covid-19, especially in India. With Delta plus virus mutation now detected in parts of the region, the possibility of another wave looms large.

Journalist Mandira Nayar in Delhi moderated the physicians’ panel with Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury in Dhaka; infectious diseases specialist Dr Anup Subedee in Kathmandu and public health activist Dr Vandana Prasad also in Delhi. Dr Hamid Jafari of Pakistan, who led the WHO team that eradicated polio in India, joined from his current posting in Jordan. 

Dr Chowdhury advocated challenging vaccine-producing countries and pushing South Asian governments to invest more in public health.

Participants also noted that the pandemic has particularly hit women hard.

“Domestic violence has increased,” noted Dr Prasad. Women often lack control over finances, are primary caregivers and shoulder the responsibility of caring for the ill. The pandemic has pushed women further into the margins, she said, adding that there is also a “gender dimension to the access of vaccines”.

She urged doctors to enter the peace activism domain, because the poor all over are at the brink of disaster.

Dr Prasad drew attention to the gendered nature of pandemic and frontline workers, as well as Dalits, indigenous people, other minorities. “Telemedicine is important, but we must not lose focus on need for ground-based public health to begin with”.

Frontline workers in India, the accredited social health activist (ASHA) workers often lack training, safety equipment and often doesn’t get her wages for months.

While highlighting that a public health system is meant to be a great equaliser, Dr Anup Subedee noted how the pandemic exposed systematic failures in many aspects of life in Nepal, referring not only to the grievous impact on non-Covid healthcare – like child immunization and maternity care – but also the painful ordeals of healthcare community itself. 

He shared how the healthcare community in Nepal has been compelled to deal with threats of violence, lack of access to personal protection equipment, prospects of income loss without any social security system support, and an unaddressed mental health crisis among healthcare workers. 

Doctors at the meeting endorsed the need for greater cooperation and collaboration across borders. Participants called on the governments to allow free flow of critical equipment and medical personnel across borders. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had floated the idea of a SAARC medical visas for patients and for medical teams to assist during the pandemic – something that must be followed up.

The doctors also urged the international fraternity to push for a Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS, waiver so that the Covid-19 vaccine production can be ramped up. “It is the way forward for vaccines for all,’’ asserted Dr Prasad.

Activist Khushi Kabir in Dhaka introduced the event. She talked about connections, sharing her memory of how Dr Haroon Ahmed, one of the event’s speakers, was her physician when she was a child and he was starting work at a government clinic in Karachi. Dr Haroon was unable to join at the last moment due to ill health. 

Wishing him a speedy recovery, Khushi commented, “Each time we meet, there are more losses people who have been part of our journey”. As at the previous SAPAN meeting there was a commemoration of mentors and leaders whose vision SAPAN is taking forward, like Asma Jahangir and Dr Mubashir Hasan, and Nirmala Despande and others. 

There was also a moment of silence to express condolences and share the grief of the families and friends of those lost to Covid and other causes over the past month. “Since we were unable to memorialise everyone, the presentation could only be symbolic,” noted Khushi Kabir.

The In Memoriam slideshow includes journalist Ghazi Salahuddin’s three siblings taken by Covid in as many weeks, including Dr Aquila Islam, Pakistan’s first woman nuclear physicist. It also included the legendary runner Milkha Singh and his wife, volleyball champ Nirmal Saini who died within days of each other, and radiologist Chinna Dua, 56, wife of journalist Vinod Dua. She had endeared herself to music and poetry lovers across the region when she joined Tina Sani some years back at the Faiz Festival in Karachi – on Facebook at this link.

Ghazi Salahuddin has written about his family tragedy in a brave and heartbreaking oped for The News, Partings without goodbyes (20 June 2021), noting: “my struggle to cope with this terrible bereavement was eased a bit when I reminded myself that this pandemic has devastated so many families across the world…”

Several well known activists and experts also joined from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and elsewhere, including Hina Jillani, Urvashi Butalia, Jean Dreze, Kavita Srivastava, Shireen Huq, Kanak Mani Dixit and others.

The South Asia Peace Action Network (SAPAN) is primarily a coalition of individuals and organisations aiming to take forward a peace agenda for the region, building on the work done by mentors and leaders over the last few decades. 

SAPAN founder and curator Beena Sarwar shared the story of this network and her vision for an inter-generational, multi-sectoral, inter- and intra-regional coalition of individuals and organisations coming together in broad consensus for a one-point agenda.

Facebook live recording is online at this link

Source: SAPAN,  Beena Sarwar, Kanak Mani Dixit, Mandira Nayar, Rida Anwaar, Rehmat Merchant, Priyanka Singh and some other peace activists present in the virtual session

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Editors Guild of India Condemns FIR Against Journalists, Calls it Destructive of Freedom of Speech

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ghaziabad incident
Image Credit: The Cognate

Shimla-The Editors Guild of India on Thursday condemned the filing of First Information Reports (FIRs) by the Uttar Pradesh Police against The Wire and several other journalists for their tweets on an assault on an elderly Muslim man in Ghaziabad on June 5th.

“The Guild is deeply concerned by the UP Police’s track record of filing FIRs against journalists to deter them from reporting serious incidents without fear of reprisals”, it said.

It further added that it is the duty of the journalists to report on the basis of sources and in case facts become contested later on, to report the emerging versions and facets.

The guild called such actions by the police destructive of freedom of speech. It also claimed that the police has been discriminatory in targeting those media organizations and journalists when thousands had tweeted the video- that have been critical of the government and its policies.

“The Guild condemns this wanton misuse of laws to criminalize reporting and dissent to harass independent media and demands that the FIRs be withdrawn immediately,” it demanded.

Several media organizations and journalists had posted the video on their social media feeds. The UP police has filled FIR’s against The Wire, Twitter, journalist Mohammed Zubair, Rana Ayyub and Sana Naqvi and some Congress leaders under IPC Sections 153(provocation for rioting), 153A(promoting enmity between different groups), 295A(acts intended to outrage religious feelings), 505(mischief), 120B(criminal conspiracy) and 34(common intention) against them.

In the video that was posted by those charged, the man is seen alleging that he was beaten up by some people and was forced to chant ‘Jai Shree Ram’.

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India’s Revised Vaccination Policy and Supreme Court’s Role Behind This Change in Approach

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india's revised vaccination policy

Shimla-Free vaccine to all Indian citizens above 18 years of age would be available from 21st June onwards, the Government of India announced yesterday. The Centre has also announced that private hospitals would not be able to levy arbitrary charges for vaccination and the rate would be fixed. The government also rolled back its policy for procurement of vaccines, which was under heavy criticism not only from the opposition but also from the Supreme Court of India.

Though, the Centre claimed that the roll-back was a result of the demands raised by state governments, but some believe this decision came right after harsh judicial scrutiny of the government’s previous policy by the Supreme Court, whose initiation is being lauded by the citizens of India amid this pandemic.

“Many states came forward with a demand for reconsideration of the vaccination strategy and for bringing back the system that was there before 1st May,” the Centre said while defending the rollback.

Also, the Centre was even objecting to the court’s jurisdiction in matters related to policymaking and had termed it as an encroachment on the jurisdiction of the executive. However, very mindful of its jurisdiction, the court had mitigated this allegation of the Centre by explaining how policymaking is subject to judicial scrutiny. The court made the Centre aware of the ‘dialogic judicial review’, where the Court can question the executive and demand justifications from it over non-conformity of a policy to the constitutional rights.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court had grilled the Union government over its faulty and discriminatory policy as states were left on their own for the procurement of vaccines. In its orders passed on May 31, a bench comprising of Justice DY Chandrachud, L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat came down heavily upon the central government. The bench had termed the policy approach as “arbitrary and irrational”  because it did not provide free vaccination for the 18-44 year age group.  The bench had sought clarification on policy and dual pricing in which states were being made to procure vaccines directly from the manufactures and were invariably paying more for vaccines while the Centre procured the same vaccines at lower rates.

“Due to the changing nature of the pandemic, we are now faced with a situation where the 18-44 age group also needs to be vaccinated, although priority may be retained between different age groups on a scientific basis. Hence, due to the importance of vaccinating individuals in the 18-44 age group, the policy of the Central Government for conducting free vaccination themselves for groups under the first 2 phases, and replacing it with paid vaccination by the State/UT Governments and private hospital for the persons between 18-44 years is prima facie arbitrary and irrational” a bench observed while passing an order on May 31, 2021 concerning a Suo moto case on “Re-Distribution of Essential Supplies and Services During Pandemic”.

Further, the court had also expressed concerns over the digital divide which would make accessing vaccine equally difficult for a large section through online registration.

Earlier, in its orders passed on April 30, the bend had observed that this policy approach would be “detrimental to the right to life and health”. The bench had also observed that this policy requires rethinking, as it needs to be formulated in conformity with the provisions of Articles 14 and 21 of the Indian Constitution.

The bench aggressively went on to order the government to share all details of the vaccine purchase and distribution, as well as provide information on how the budget allocated for the vaccination (₹35,000 Crores ) was used.

Provisions of the New Vaccination Policy

  • Procurement of 25 per cent vaccinations which was earlier with states will now be undertaken by the Government of India.
  • The government of India will buy 75 per cent of the total vaccines produced and will provide it to the states free of cost. No state government would be spending anything on vaccines.
  • The system of 25 per cent vaccines being procured directly by the private hospitals will continue. Private hospitals can’t charge more than 150 rupees service charge over the decided price of the vaccines.

The Centre said that this policy would be rolled out in two weeks.

“In two weeks, the Centre and states will make necessary preparations as per new guidelines,” the Centre announced yesterday.

Till today, more than 23 Crore vaccine doses have been administered in the country.

To ward off the embarrassment caused by such a contentious policy which was not conforming with the constitutional rights of the citizens, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, without referring to the judicial review, blamed it on the state governments.

“As the corona cases started declining, questions arose about the lack of choice for states and some people questioned why the Central government is deciding everything,” he said.

“India’s vaccination program was run mostly under the Central government. Free vaccination for all was moving forward and people were showing discipline in getting vaccinated when their turn came, amid all these demands for decentralization of vaccination were raised, the decision about priority to certain age groups was raised. Many types pressures were exerted and certain sections of media took it as a campaign,” the PM said.

But with that being said the role of the judiciary in making the government roll back its policy in the interest of the people is being lauded as the victory of judicial review. Also, it has attracted positive response for the apex court which was being alleged of evading several matters related to the public interest under the pressure from the current political regime.

Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana Extended  Till Deepawali.

In another major announcement, the Central government announced the extension of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana till Deepawali.

As per the announcement, till November, 80 crore people will continue to get a decided amount of free food grain every month.

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