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Private cars, cabs to be allowed with fewer riders; buses with 50% commuters

Long wait ends: Migrant workers waiting on the IIT-Hyderabad campus to board a special train early on Friday to return to their home State of Jharkhand. Mohd Arif

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on Friday issued new guidelines allowing considerable relaxations across red, orange and green zones, based on the evidence of COVID-19 infection, even though it extended the countrywide lockdown till May 17.

The lockdown, imposed first on March 24 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, was to end on May 3.

The MHA asked local authorities to ensure 100% coverage of the Aarogya Setu app among the residents in the containment zones. The National Directive for COVID-19 management said use of the Aarogya Setu application is to be mandatory for all employees, both private and public and “it should be the responsibility of the head of organisation to ensure 100% coverage of this App among the employees”.

In green zones, buses can operate with up to 50% seating capacity and bus depots can operate with up to 50% capacity, the MHA said.

In orange zones, taxis and cab aggregators will be permitted to ply with only one passenger. Inter-district movement of vehicles will be allowed in orange zones for permitted activities and cars could have maximum two passengers besides the driver, and pillion riding will be allowed on two-wheelers.

In red zones, other than the containment zones, private cars will be allowed only for permitted activities with a maximum of two persons other than the driver but no pillion riders in two-wheelers. Irrespective of zones, however, all forms of other public transport — air, rail, metro and inter-State movement by road — will remain suspended except those allowed in select cases.

Approval subject to outcome of legal challenge to land use change, says panel

The Centre’s proposal to construct a new Parliament building next to the existing heritage structure was approved by the Environment Ministry’s expert appraisal committee (EAC) last week.

The EAC, however, said the approval was subject to the outcome of a legal challenge to the change of land-use of the plot, according to the minutes of the meeting.

The Central Public Works Department’s (CPWD) proposal for “expansion and renovation of the existing Parliament building at Parliament Street” was among the projects considered by the EAC at its meetings on April 22-24.

The proposal was earlier considered by the EAC at its meetings on February 25-26, where it asked the CPWD for additional information.

While reconsidering the project during last week’s meeting, the EAC noted that the project cost, as submitted by the CPWD, had gone up from ₹776 crore to ₹922 crore due to “changes in project specifications”.

While the March notification of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs of (MoHUA) changing the land-use of the plot from “recreational (district park)” to “Parliament” in the Master Plan of Delhi has been challenged in the Supreme Court, the CPWD clarified that there was no stay order.

The CPWD submitted that there would be “no significant impacts on public space” and with the entire area being in “high security zone”, the plot could have never been used for recreational purposes. Of the 333 trees on the plot, 223 will be transplanted and 100 retained. In addition, 290 new trees would be planted.

Responding to a representation to the EAC about the timing of the project in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CPWD submitted: “The existing Parliament building was constructed 93 years ago. Over the years many planned/ unplanned changes have been made, often undocumented. It is in dire need of retrofitting as soon as possible. This can only be done once the building is in vacant position and that will happen once the new building is made available. Therefore, development of the proposed Parliament building is of utmost importance.”

The CPWD stated that the project was the “expansion of an existing building on the neighbouring plot” so the environmental impacts would be “if at all, minor and incremental”. The project would not lead to any increase in air and noise pollutions and the water consumption would decrease due to reuse of treated water, the EAC minutes stated.

Kanchi Kohli, an independent environment law researcher, said the assessment done was inadequate. “The CPWD’s EIA consultant has called the impacts of the modernisation and expansion of Parliament, which includes an entirely new building ‘minor and incremental’. This is without carrying out a full environment assessment of the stand-alone Parliament project, leave alone the full Central Vista redevelopment, of which it is a part.”

(With inputs from

Jacob Koshy)

Social activists urge Centre to expand MGNREGA funding, work limits to mitigate fallout of COVID-19

Livelihood matters: A file photo of workers engaged in desilting work at a village in Visakhapatnam. K.R. DEEPAKK_R_DEEPAK

A new Urban Employment Guarantee Act is needed to complement the existing rural jobs scheme during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, said a group of development activists and economists.

In a letter sent to Rural Development Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, they have asked for MGNREGA funding to be increased to at least ₹1 lakh crore for the next three months, noting that the scheme already has the infrastructure in place to respond to the unprecedented unemployment crisis.

The group has also recommended relaxation of the 100 days of work per household limit, suggesting that all individuals who wish to work under the scheme be given employment for as many days as needed, up to the full year.

Given that a large number of migrants returning from cities to villages as a result of the lockdown would desperately need work but may not have MGNREGA job cards, the group suggested that anyone wanting work should be given a job, with card registration made available on site.

Signatories to the letter include economists Jean Dreze, Jayati Ghosh and Reetika Khera, activists Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and Annie Raja of the National Federation of Indian Women, as well as Swaraj Party president Yogendra Yadav.

The economists also asked for full minimum wages in cash, as well as dry rations, to be paid to workers within seven days rather than the current 15-day limit, so that the scheme can meet the needs of people. Biometric based payment systems should be avoided for now, they said, noting that bank account payments would only cause overcrowding in rural banks.

People prevented from working during the pandemic due to medical advisories including those aged over 50, disabled and sick, and pregnant women, should be paid full wages for the duration of the restrictions, the group recommended. The signatories also urged that rather than stopping MGNREGA work throughout districts declared to be in the red zone, decisions should instead be taken block-wise.

With regard to an urban jobs programme, the letter’s signatories noted that a significant number of migrants were returning to small towns and had lost their livelihoods.

‘Vital to understand its safety, efficacy before being given to health workers’

Deeper insight: The WHO has underscored the importance of randomised controlled trials before usage.Getty ImagesPaul Kane

In a letter published in The Lancet on April 30, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros A Ghebreyesus and others highlight a few critical issues over the use of BCG vaccine for COVID-19. They underscore the importance of randomised controlled trials of the vaccine to understand its safety and efficacy before using it on healthcare workers.

Randomised controlled trials are under way in the Netherlands and Australia to find out whether the vaccine can reduce the incidence and severity of COVID-19 among healthcare workers.

The authors do state that the BCG vaccine, which “enhances the innate immune response to subsequent infections, might reduce viral load after SARS-CoV-2 exposure, with a consequent less severe COVID-19 and more rapid recovery”.

A study, posted on March 28 in a preprint server medRxiv, found an association between countries that have a universal BCG vaccination and reduced coronavirus cases — and even deaths. Preprints are yet to be peer-reviewed and published in scientific journals.

The authors cite five reasons countries should wait for the results of the BCG vaccine randomised controlled trials. According to them, the association of fewer COVID-19 cases in countries that have a universal BCG vaccination programme is based on population rather than individual data. Second, the beneficial effects of the BCG vaccine given at birth are “unlikely” to reduce the severity of COVID-19 decades later. “One reason for this is that the beneficial off-target effects of the BCG vaccine might be altered by subsequent administration of a different vaccine,” they write.

Third, there is a possibility, even if remote, that the BCG vaccine ramps up the immune system leading to exacerbation of COVID-19 in a small population of patients with a severe disease. It is already known that the virus induces cytokine storm in some patients, leading to further complications — and even death. Fourth, if not effective against the novel coronavirus, BCG vaccination is likely to give a false sense of security to people, especially during the pandemic.

And finally, using the vaccine without evidence of its benefits could further jeopardise vaccine supply, which is already short, to protect children against disseminated TB in high-risk countries.

“BCG given early in life does improve the immune system. The vaccine can prevent intracellular infections. So the protective effect of BCG against COVID-19 is a biologically plausible hypothesis,” Prof. Gagandeep Kang, executive director of the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute (THSTI), Faridabad, had earlier told The Hindu.

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