COVID-19: Time to rethink development

The lockdown has given us a rare opportunity to step back and assess our priorities and impact on the environment. The positive impact of the lockdown is evident in the clean air and water being reported from around the world.

I had returned to my village when the Prime Minister announced the first lockdown in late-March. I ended up spending the whole lockdown period in the village assisting my family with various agricultural and pastoral tasks. This was the first time I had spent so much time in the village since my childhood. This made me reflect on the idea of development itself.

I have worked in the tourism sector for over 10 years like most of the young people in the village. However, this year the COVID-19 pandemic underlined the fact that tourism remains an unsustainable and unreliable source of livelihood. In the past, when I would return to the village, I would only meet the elderly as all the young people had left the village to pursue livelihood or educational opportunities. However, during the lockdown I realised that people in the village are constantly busy in productive work and have little time to worry about things like COVID-19. I spent my time working on the farm, planting fruit trees and tending to the garden. As a result, I became much fitter than I was earlier. I also ended up meeting and speaking with more people in my village and neighbouring areas than I have in the past.

I noticed an interesting trend during the lockdown period. Many young people had returned to the village for the first time in their lives. They were surprised to realise that it was much cheaper to live in the village where they are able to grow their own food. Like me, they also admitted that they became physically fitter in the village where they engaged in physical and mental work on a regular basis. At the same time, all of us were eating much healthier and more wholesome food as most of what is grown is organic in nature. I could not help but think how this lifestyle must have boosted our immune system and substantially reduced the risk posed by viruses such as SARS-CoV-2.

I also noticed that having everyone back in the village had a very positive impact on its social and economic life. This year, none of the households had to hire daily wage labourers for any chores as there was a surplus of family members present. I saw and heard of numerous cases where families have revived and cultivated land that they had left barren for several years. Many of the youth mentioned that they are now faced with a simple choice of either looking for a government job or finding a more sustainable and reliable source of livelihood.

During the lockdown, my villagers started re-distributing barren land amongst the youth for irrigation and cultivation. I was surprised to see how much these youth seemed to enjoy farming and working on the land. The period of the lockdown was used productively as these youth managed to learn various skills needed for farming, orchard plantation, management of irrigation canals etc. In this time of uncertainty, this not only ensured that these youth were productively engaged but also ensured that they contributed to the well-being of the village.

Over the last few decades, most development in Ladakh has been centred on Leh. As a result, many people from rural Ladakh migrated to Leh in search of jobs and educational opportunities. However, none of us expected our world to be turned upside down in the manner that COVID-19 has done. Many people have now started appreciating that rural life is more sustainable and fulfilling than life in urban areas like Leh. I have heard many people announcing that they now intend to return and stay in their villages for longer periods each year to practice farming, nurture plantations, and irrigate fields.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an important wake up call. It has helped people evaluate their lifestyles while appreciating the importance of rural life and underlined its sustainable nature. It has also forced people to realise the need for sustainability in an unpredictable world. The realisation of the fickleness of current frameworks is probably one of the biggest lessons of COVID-19 for Ladakh. It is also an opportunity to help people value the importance of happy and fulfilling lives over one based on earning money. In my opinion, the UT Administration should use this opportunity and push for a more sustainable form of development for Ladakh in the wake of COVID-19 with the rural economy at its core.

Photograph and text by Tsering Stobdan

Tsering Stobdan is a part of the editorial team at Stawa

COVID-19: An opportunity for localisation

COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2 is known to have emerged from Wuhan in Hubei province of China in December 2019. Since then, it has become a global health emergency that was declared as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 11 March, 2020. This new strain of virus is creating havoc worldwide. It has affected almost every sector in some way or the other and has disrupted normal social and economic functioning. The global spread of this infection has restricted international and domestic travel with many countries enforcing a lockdown and mandating social distancing which has impeded the global supply chain of various commodities.

Prior to the outbreak of this pandemic, it was believed that globalisation will lead to development and prosperity. However, the whole scenario has changed now with almost every part of the world under some form of lockdown, which has posed a major challenge to the fulfillment of the demand for various goods and services. This is has shifted focus on the importance of the ‘local’.

The situation was no different in Ladakh when restrictions were placed on the transportation of various supply chains during the crucial period (summer months). I am describing summer months as a ‘crucial period’ for Ladakh as it is the only period when we are open for economic activities. This is difficult in the rest of the year with the onset of winter when the roads to the outside world remain closed for several months each year. Ladakhis stockpile all basic commodities in the summer to last them for the rest of the year.

During the lockdown, vegetables and fruits were nowhere to be seen in Ladakh and there was a shortage of other food items too. This was primarily due to travel and transport restrictions at a time when these commodities are usually brought to Ladakh. Such a situation calls for a return to the days of the past, when Ladakh was a self-sustaining and self-reliant kingdom and dependent on the outside world for very few commodities. However, with gradual improvement in connectivity and the increased impact of globalisation, we became dependent on the outside world for each of our basic necessities and economic development.

The arrival of tourists from 1974 onwards, revolutionised Ladakh’s economy with many preferring to invest in tourism-based businesses instead of traditional agriculture and animal-based livelihoods. In time, the occupational shift became so prominent that people in Ladakh are now completely dependent on the transportation of basic commodities such as vegetables, fruits, and oils from the outside world.

Here I am not saying that we should all move back to traditional agriculture and animal farming when the world is going in a different direction. However, I am trying to highlight the unsustainable dependence we have nurtured to meet even of our basic needs, which we can easily be produced in Ladakh. For instance, a wide variety of vegetables and basic goods like oil, butter, flour, etc can be produced in Ladakh and imports can be reduced as we scale-up local production. Once we have enough production in Ladakh, there will be no need to transport them from outside. At the same time, there would be more employment and people would not need to migrate outside for job opportunities.

Localisation doesn’t mean to necessarily become completely self-reliant. Instead, it refers to a reduction in the distance between producers and consumers and consequent need for unnecessary transportation. This idea of being local has been emphasised by German economist E. F. Schumacher in his book Small is Beautiful (1973) and Swedish filmmaker and author, Helena Norberg-Hodge in her film Economics of Happiness (2012).

Ladakh has the potential to be a self-reliant and self-sufficient Union Territory wherein we will not need to unnecessarily transport basic goods from outside as they can be grown and produced in the region. This includes vegetables and fruits as well as education facilities and job opportunities. There are many advantages to being local and consuming locally-produced goods. It ensures a quality assurance for products as one can trace its origins easily. Perishable vegetables and fruits will be safer to consume with less chemical content and preservatives, which in turn will help boost our immunity to withstand various infections.

We already have numerous goods being produced locally with several entrepreneurs making new innovations. For instance, the current increased demand in facemasks and hand-sanitisers has led to many volunteers producing these locally in Ladakh. These are small acts of being local. Localisation also has a number of positive environmental impacts. The reduction in unnecessary transportation will lead to a major reduction in the carbon footprint of each commodity, help conserve natural resources, reduce environmental pollution, ensure food security and mitigate climate change. In addition, it will create new job opportunities, reduce economic conflicts and increase contentment amongst local communities.

In my opinion, we must consider the COVID-19 pandemic as a wakeup call from nature. It signifies that it is time for us to give back to nature what we have been taking from it till now. It is not the last pandemic and global disaster that we will have to overcome. Hence, it is essential that we learn our lessons so that we are able to overcome these challenges when we face them again. Moreover, each disaster has a lesson it, which serves as an opportunity to make changes for the future. I feel it is the right time to reboot the system, build local capacity, and promote local production to create a more resilient society with a localised economy.

By Thinles Chondol

Thinles Chondol is currently working as a Young Professional at the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM), Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India

Ladakh’s mutilated highway

Roads are the lifeline of a region, especially places like Ladakh that are isolated due to their terrain. In this regard, Ladakh has suffered from neglect over several decades especially in terms of the highway that connects Ladakh with Kashmir and the rest of India. This road travels over Zoji-la and remains open only for a part of the year as it gets blocked by snow in the winter months.

The vehicular road over Zoji-la roughly traces the historical trekking path that people used in the past to travel between Ladakh and Kashmir valley. Around 30 to 40km of this highway remains unpaved and rough to this day. While it traverses some challenging terrain, the road condition has been worsened by the ill-conceived road widening efforts, which has led to seemingly random deforestation and cutting of rocks along this road.

As mentioned earlier, Zoji-la remains impassable through the winter when snow blocks the pass. There has been a longstanding demand to make a tunnel below Zoji-la to provide year-round road connectivity to Ladakh, especially Kargil district which lacks any form of connectivity in the winter except by air from the airport in neighbouring Leh district. The people of Kargil have been demanding a tunnel under Zoji-la for the last 50 years. Unfortunately, Government of India has always been lukewarm to this demand. Given the important role played by Ladakhis, especially in Kargil, during the 1971 and 1999 conflicts with Pakistan, it is pertinent that Government of India fulfils this longstanding demand and builds a tunnel under Zoji-la without further delay. In addition, the tunnel will also help India strengthen connectivity with Ladakh, which remains a geo-strategically important frontier region for India.

I have also failed to understand why a major part of the current road has been built on the sheltered slopes of the mountain, which remain in the shade. This includes the stretch from Gumberi to Mina Marg and from Thusgam to Kargil. In these areas, the snow remains longer than areas that receive direct sunlight. These areas are also more prone to rockslides. The snow on the other face melts faster and it is generally less rocky and poses fewer risks. The journey along this road will be much more comfortable and safer if this road is planned better and built on the other side of the slope.

The Zoji-la tunnel is crucial in terms of national security. An alternative road exists from Drass over Umba-la to Sanku that was made after the Kargil War in 1999 when the main highway came under shelling along parts of its route. However, this road is also visible from across the Line of Control and remains within shelling range. It addition it also passes over a relatively high and difficult pass, remains covered by snow in the winter, and passes through uninhabited areas with no rest-stops or other facilities as compared to the original road. Currently, the route is popular only with biking and trekking groups, and not used by general traffic. Government of India might be satisfied that there is a second route to link Ladakh via Manali in Himachal Pradesh. However, this route has many passes, which are covered by snow each winter and a major part of the route travels through uninhabited areas. So while this road is a viable alternative route, it is relatively more difficult than the road over Zoji-la.

Thankfully, Ladakh receives relatively little rainfall. Otherwise, the Kargil-Leh road would be closed after each shower. This road also lacks basic infrastructure. For instance, you will see a closed circuit camera in Khaltse market but it is a major challenge to find a rest area or wash room and a clean drinking water point. Who should be responsible for such basic necessities: The road authorities or the notified area community?

Perhaps one of the problems with roads in Ladakh is that important persons, decision-makers and policy-makers who visit Ladakh no longer use this highway. They generally opt to fly in and out of Leh. As a result, none of them have a first-hand experience of the challenges posed by the current road infrastructure in Ladakh. In my opinion, such first-hand experience would make a big difference and would be instrumental in the development of Zoji-la tunnel and to improve the conditions of roads in Ladakh.

Unfortunately, despite repeated demands from the people of Ladakh and our so-called leaders, we are nowhere close to a tunnel below Zoji-la. If this tunnel were to become a reality, it will address many of the problems people face in Ladakh. This includes sourcing fresh vegetables and fruits, access to medical facilities, sourcing of construction material, travel option for students studying outside Ladakh etc. Most importantly, the tunnel will strengthen India’s national security interests, especially in the context of Pakistan and China with which Ladakh shares a frontier.

The funds that have been allotted for road widening in Ladakh over the last few decades, would probably suffice to make tunnels under Zoji-la , Namika-la, Foto-la (on the Kargil-Leh route), Khardzong-la (which connects Leh town with Nubra valley) and Pensi-la.(between Kargil and Zangskar).

The current ‘widened’ highway between Kargil and Leh is dotted with warnings of ‘stone pelting area’, ‘slide prone area, ‘sharp curve’, ‘accident-prone area’ etc. If these are known challenges along the road, why have measures not been implemented to mitigate these risks? Or, have these problems arisen due to damage caused to the mountain-faces on which these roads are located?

In this matter, we must keep national security as our main focus along with providing services to local communities. In this regard, India is far behind its eastern neighbour, China, which is said to have built quality motorable roads right till its frontier regions. Similarly, China has constructed a railway line traversing 2,000 km to connect the Tibetan Autonomous Region with Beijing. This railway line traverses tough terrain with dramatic temperature variations and climatic conditions. Interestingly, this railway line remains operational throughout the year. Similarly, the Karakoram highway, which connects Sinkiang (Xinjiang) and Pakistan while traversing through the mighty Karakoram mountain range, also remains open throughout the year.

During my own travels in Malaysia, I have driven on the highway between the capital Kuala Lumpur and the tropical highland region of Genting. Around 90 km of this highway passes through thick rainforest and hilly terrain. However, this road has been built without damaging the environment around it and where some intervention was not-avoidable, one can see that mitigation measures have been implemented. Since Malaysia is a tropical country, it receives heavy rains. The road design has taken these factors into account to ensure that the road is safe, beautiful, and environment-friendly. I cannot help wondering why we are not able to show the same foresight and sensitivity in our infrastructure projects in Ladakh.

Photograph and text by Dr. (Kacho) Akbar Khan

Dr (Kacho) Akbar Khan is a retired Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist and is based in Kargil.

Prejudice in the time of coronavirus

A high-pressure situation generally brings out the best and worst in people. The COVID-19 pandemic is no different. It has underlined various prejudices, ignorance and visceral divisiveness amongst people around the world. While more than a million people around the world cutting across race, religion, gender, and other superficial differences have been affected by COVID-19, people have still found ways to target specific communities to blame for the pandemic.

Perhaps the most famous and public expression of prejudice was US President Donald J Trump referring to COVID-19 as ‘Chinese Virus’. This was echoed by several right-wing leaders and media-persons with such political leanings. In practice, this led to a racial backlash against persons of Chinese origin who were blamed for the pandemic.

India too has been susceptible to this trend. There are numerous cases of racial prejudice faced by Ladakhis and persons from the Northeast India, in the Indian plains. Perhaps the most common expression of this prejudice and ignorance is when people from Ladakh and India’s Northeast are being taunted with racial slurs. There were several cases of Ladakhi students being asked to vacate their rented spaces. There are numerous cases where this ignorance has taken a more unpleasant expression. There are cases of people hurling abuses, spitting and threatening physical violence against people from Ladakh, the Northeast or others with similar racial and ethnic features.

In addition, in India the Muslim community has also faced the brunt of prejudice and discrimination with many blaming members of the community for spreading the virus in the country. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken on a communal hue in India after news of the Tablighi Jamaat convention in New Delhi became public. In the midst of a generally professional approach to a pandemic, there were some disturbing news reports of some doctors refusing to treat Muslim patients because of their religion. Islamophobic memes started to appear on social media and hash-tags such as #CoronaJihad and #TablighiVirus were trending on social media.

Former Chief Minister of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state, Omar Abdullah condemned the communalisation of the pandemic through a tweet on 31 March where he wrote, “Now the #TablighiJamat will become a convenient excuse for some to vilify Muslims everywhere as if we created & spread #COVID around the world.”

Many of these prejudices have been evident in Ladakh. In early March as the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Ladakh, it emerged that the patients had returned from a pilgrimage in Iran. While there was no overt expression of discrimination, many people privately expressed their prejudices with regard to the Muslim community for bringing COVID-19 to Ladakh. People, including highly educated individuals and religious leaders, would freely cite un-verified claims circulating on social media and television to justify their prejudices.

Furthermore, migrant labourers in Ladakh were at the receiving end of prejudices as fear of COVID-19 peaked in Ladakh. Many Ladakhis were being thrown out of their rented spaces by landlords who feared contracting COVID-19 from them. Each year hundreds and thousands of migrant labourers from different parts of India and Nepal arrive in Ladakh by March; and have played a pivotal role in building Ladakh. However, this year, many of them were forced to leave their rented spaces in Leh, Changthang, Nubra, Sham and Lalok. Furthermore, landlords in two neighbourhoods of Leh asked even their Ladakhi tenants to leave and return to their villages.Such actions left many migrant labourers and Ladakhi tenants in a lurch. The district administration tried to counter these actions by warning landlords of legal action, while also providing ration and financial support to some migrants to return home. The UT Ladakh administration has also put social media group administrators on notice for the content being shared and discussed on their groups.

It is unfortunate that Ladakhis, people from the Northeast and Muslim communities have had to bear the brunt of people’s prejudice and ignorance. However, it is equally unfortunate that many people in Ladakh too acted on their prejudice, ignorance and fear to target vulnerable groups of people, especially migrant labourers and people from rural Ladakh. At a time when containing the virus should be our collective priority and when unity is a necessity, people around the world have submitted to their deeply held prejudices and fears. In contrast, coronavirus does not differentiate on the basis of race, class, caste, religion, gender, or for that matter age. We will hopefully develop a vaccine for COVID-19 and other such viruses. But how will we find a cure for the prejudices, ignorance and deep-seated hatred we seem to be nurturing within ourselves?

By Tashi Lundup and Sunetro Ghosal

Tashi Lundup and Sunetro Ghosal are part of the editorial team at Stawa.

Ladakhi students at crossroads

Right from the beginning of 2020, the people of Ladakh have been forced to come out on the roads to demand safeguards for their newly-born Union Territory (UT).More than eight months have passed since UT Ladakh was carved out of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir and was granted UT status without a Legislative Assembly. A series of discussions, debates and protests have been going on in and outside Ladakh for the past eight months with student community taking the lead.

The protests intensified in the wake of the Ministry of Home Affair’s categorical refusal to include Ladakh in the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, despite an explicit recommendation to this effect from the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST). The stated reason, as mentioned in the Parliament, was that the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils (LAHDCs) have more powers than autonomous councils under the Sixth Schedule. Even a passing effort to fact check this claim reveals that this argument has no truth either in its logic or actual ground reality.

The people of Ladakh are demanding constitutional mechanisms to safeguard their interests including protection of land, environment, jobs, and culture to conserve the unique ethnic identity of the region. Demography-related changes are a potential challenge as Ladakh has a large surface area in relation to its relatively small population of around 300,000 people. Considering these issues, people in Ladakh are exploring various provisions and constitutional measures to protect the interests of the tribal communities that make up 98% of Ladakh’s population and gain a degree of autonomy over administration and legislation.

The silence broke when Ladakh student communities learnt of short-sighted changes that had been ‘imposed’ on the region. What started out as whispers among educated Ladakhi youth inside and outside Ladakh soon turned into loud roar with people demanding justice and protection of their interest.

The lack of access to quality higher education in Ladakh has resulted in the mass migration of students from Ladakh to various universities and colleges across India. Every year hundreds of Ladakhi students enrol at various colleges, universities and institutions partly through open categories and partly through reservations explicitly meant for Ladakhis. Such measures are based on the principle of ‘Positive Discrimination’. Many colleges and universities such as government medical colleges, government engineering colleges, University of Jammu and others are now under the jurisdiction of UT of J&K. If students from Ladakh are not allowed to enroll in these colleges and universities from the next academic session on account of being categorised as ‘outsiders’ i.e. not the bonafide residents of UT of J&K, then it is grave injustice for these students. There are no medical and engineering colleges in Ladakh as of now and the government degree colleges in Ladakh are not yet at par with colleges in J&K. The ambiguous status of University of Ladakh does not help this situation either.

This has also fuelled apprehensions about possible loss of public employment opportunities within the newly-formed UT Ladakh. Unemployment continues to plague Ladakhi society, which is still developing. The number of public sector employment opportunities that Ladakhi students enjoyed in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir is going to reduce drastically in UT Ladakh.

In the erstwhile state of J&K, J&K Public Service Commission and J&K Service Selection Board used to advertise a large number of gazetted and non-gazetted posts at the state, divisional level and district level to cater to the needs of 1.25 crore (12.5 million) people of the former state. Apart from these two recruiting agencies, various other departments would also advertise jobs. The two LAHDCs would also advertise jobs at the district level that were explicitly meant for bonafide residents of their respective districts apart from seats reserved for Scheduled Castes.

Tribal communities account for around 98% of UT Ladakh’s population. They enjoyed reservations in accordance to the J&K Reservation Act, 2004 in government jobs, which has benefitted the people of the region. Under this act, reservation for STs was 10% while the national mandate for reservation for STs 7.5%. Reservation benefits through the Residents of Backward Areas (RBA) category were also available to the people of Ladakh. The J&K Reservation Act, 2004 was rather progressive. It had a provision that if a sufficient number of candidates from any reserved category were not available during the recruitment process, the post would remain vacant and carried forward to the next recruitment process. Thus, the people of Ladakh had many viable options to get a government job in the erstwhile state of J&K: open merit basis as well as ST and RBA categories for state, divisional and district level jobs.

It is clearly stated in the J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019 that the Union Public Service Commission or UPSC will cater to the administrative needs of UT Ladakh. This has already exerted a lot of pressure on Ladakhi students aspiring for jobs as recruitment for posts in Ladakh through UPSC may put Ladakhis at a disadvantage. One only needs to look at the abysmal success rate for UPSC applicants from the erstwhile state of J&K. The success rate for Ladakhi applicants in these examinations is worse than that of the other two regions of the former state. The level of competition is very high and students face intense pressure to perform; which has pushed many of them into acute depression. The absence of a private sector in Ladakh and the lack of safeguards for job reservation for Ladakhis will only aggravate this situation.

When we compare employment prospects in the erstwhile state and UT Ladakh, one finds that the current framework undermines opportunities for Ladakhi youth. Government employees of the erstwhile state of J&K were given a choice of choosing either of the two UTs to continue their duties. Many people hailing from Ladakh who were posted in Jammu region and Kashmir valley opted to serve in UT Ladakh. In many departments, staff strength has exceeded the necessary strength. The transfer of non-Ladakhi government employees to UT J&K may address this issue to an extent. At the same time, we must remember that this can be further complicated by the absence of proper legislation to regulate recruitment. In its absence, employment remains open to non-residents of Ladakh, which will undermine the employment prospects of Ladakhi youth.

Like other Indian states and Union territories, Ladakh must work out legislative mechanisms to ensure fair job opportunities in the region for local communities. It urgently needs to formulate its own reservation policy to ensure that the brightest minds in this region do not miss out on opportunities due to lack of support. The reservation policy for Ladakh should be based on economic, social and demographic characteristics of the region itself. Moreover the formation of Ladakh Public Service Commission could be one step to organise the employment sector in the region and coordinate every government job in the UT to ensure fair opportunities to the youth and students of Ladakh.

The scope of public employment opportunities in Ladakh is not very lucrative but it needs to be reserved to protect the interest of the resident population. There is an urgent need to address this issue. Policymakers, parliamentarians and other decision-makers must keep the plight of Ladakhi students in mind before they make any laws related to domicile status and job reservation. Till we have high quality medical, engineering, and other colleges and universities in Ladakh, students from the region should be allowed to enrol in institutions of UT J&K. We need to maintain status quo till UT Ladakh develops its own recruitment policy. Similarly, Ladakhi students must be permitted to apply for jobs in UT J&K till these issues are ironed out.

There are provisions in neighbouring states like Himachal Pradesh that reserves certain jobs for students who have completed their matriculation and secondary school education (10 + 2) from Himachal Pradesh for jobs advertised for residents of the state. This can easily be replicated in J&K as a majority of Ladakhi students have completed their education under the JKBOSE system.

In the current circumstances, many students are facing a lot of stress and anxiety due to the lack of employment. We must develop a harmonious working environment for governmental services between the two UTs. The mandarins in Delhi must consider the consequences of their action before they formulate new laws or policies.

Editor’s note: This article was written before the new domicile law for Jammu and Kashmir came into effect in March 2020.

By Ghulam Mustafa

Ghulam Mustafa is a doctoral scholar in the Department of Economics at University of Jammu.

A race to save the race!

The idea that the Earth belongs to each and everyone equally was earlier limited to textbooks and some books. Time has come when this idea takes centre stage and we remind ourselves that the planet truly belongs to everyone. Humans are social animals that have misused their intelligence to such an extent that nothing matters in front of them other than their money and power. Time and again nature has tried to remind humankind of this truth through natural calamities such as earthquakes, tsunamis, floods,heavy downpours, uncontrolled fires and so on to create a semblance of balance. Humankind has had no time to pause and learn from these events.

Rather humankind never wanted to learn and take time away from their ‘busy schedules’. Now the whole world is on standby mode courtesy a tiny virus: Coronavirus. Really, it’s hard to believe at first but then the world has been aware of the adverse effects of the action of ‘super intelligent and over ambitious humans’ who have left no stone unturned to exploit the planet. Never before in history, be it wars or natural calamities, has the world come under one common roof i.e. the roof of lockdown.

This period of lockdown is an opportunity for the human race to think of ways to curb over-exploitation of Mother Earth. It is difficult to imagine something like this on a global scale but if individuals start making changes then it will have an impact. This time it’s not only about having an impact but also about reaching an actual solution. The Earth needs to be balanced and shared equally by all species in a real sense. World leaders who are making various announcements should also focus on stringent schemes for the well-being of the planet. This may ensure that when this lockdown period ends, humans will not jump to exploit the planet once again. 

Dolphins and various species are once again being seen in the rivers of Italy for the first time in 60 years. They were displaced from these waterways due to human action and pollution. The Ganga and Yamuna are sacred for Hindus. Yet, they have been over-burdened by various forms of pollution. There were big plans to clean those rivers with little results. Yet, now these rivers are close to their original form. Clearer blue skies in the plains and improved air quality is clearly evident with each passing day. Peacocks are being seen walking gracefully along empty streets in different parts of the world and are a pure treat for the eyes. All this has been achieved only due to the lockdown and self-isolation norms that have been implemented to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Amidst all the chaos that the world is experiencing currently, these are certain things that can helpus see this period from a different perspective. It teaches humans to not take everything around them for granted. Be it the human race, nature or any of the species, large or small, that shares this planet with us. All of us deserveto exist on the planet equally. The Earth is indispensable and has survived through bitterly cold and exasperatingly hot periods, with and without dinosaurs. This brings to mind a proverb that provides an apt description of our relationship with the planet. “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” The wisdom of this proverb should act as a deterrent for us humans from trying to make profits at the cost of destroying the planet.

On a lighter note, the current situation is surely a race to save the human race! Let’s hope humans emerge victorious in this race and take this lockdown period as a life lesson to correct their ways.

By Deachen Yangdol

Deachen Yangdol is a mechanical engineer. She has worked in the corporate sector in New Delhi and is now based in Leh.

Can India’s healthcare system cope with COVID-19?

On the night of 23 March, Prime Minister Modi abruptly announced the nationwide lockdown for 21 days. At the time, I was in a village about 50 km from Leh and was worried about returning home. I can’t even start to imagine the feeling of people I see on the news who are walking 700 km with their children on their shoulders.

There was also a tinge of nostalgia when I heard the announcement. It reminded me of 8 November, 2016 when the Prime Minister announced demonetisation in a similar manner. He is known for his bold decision-making and this was the boldest of them all.

Many have praised him for this move and rightly so. A lockdown is the only known strategy to contain the pandemic. Everyone is trying to ‘flatten the curve’ and practising social distancing to counter the spread of the virus. However, I cannot help but wonder if a country like India can afford such a lockdown at such a short notice. Is it only delaying the spread of the virus?

One of the main factorsis our economy that has been in shambles even before this crisis. The economic growth rate had fallen to4.7% in the last quarter, which is the lowest it has been in the last six years. Itis expected to fall another 2.4% in the next quarter (January to March),and to make matters worse, there are reports that we are likely to increase our borrowing for 2020-2021 to INR 7.8 trillion with Reserve Bank of India directly buying these bonds. Our fiscal deficit has increased to 7.5%, which is more than Vietnam (4.4%) and Bangladesh (4.8%).

In all of this, it is the floating population of migrant labourers that are worst affected. These are workers in the informal sectors in our country who roughly make up about 80% of the total workforce. Of this, 8.8 million of the household are scattered across congested urban slums with an average income of INR 150 rupees per day.

According to a report published by World Health Organisation in 2016, India spent about INR 4,500 per person on health care, whichis six times less than what China spends. Our public health expenditure is about 1.2% to 1.6% of India’s total GDP between 2008-09 and 2019-2020, which is about USD 9.7 billion compared to USD 66.7 billion that India spends on defence. Budgetary allocation for healthcare and related research is so poor in India that 97% of this budget is directly allocated to the Department of Health and Family Welfare. In contrast, governing establishments such as the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) received only 3% (INR 21,000 million) of the medical budget in the 2020-2021 financial year and according to national health profile of 2019, the per capita of the public health expenditure was INR 1,657 in 2018-2019, which is three times lower than Indonesia and significantly lower than Sri Lanka.

I think our government takes solace in its historic successes such as eradication of smallpox. However, there are issues of concern such as the continued epidemic of tuberculosis in India for several years.WHO estimates that there are 2.8 million people in India who are affected by tuberculosis and the number continues to rise. Some 480,000 people die each year in India from tuberculosis, which works out to more than 1,300 per day. This number is significantly higher than the number of deaths occurring due to HIV/AIDs in South Africa. Though tuberculosis is less deadly than HIV/AIDS and remains curable, the Indian healthcare system is still struggling to cope with it. One of the main reasons for this shortcoming is that the healthcare system in India is spread thin across its vast population.

Dr Zarir Udwadia, a pulmonologist who researches drug-resistant tuberculosis, has stated in his 2010 study that many prescriptions given out in the small privatised sectors are inappropriate. He added that this contributes to amplifying the spread of drug-resistant tuberculosis and aids in strengthening the virus rather than killing it. Our fight against tuberculosis is nowhere near over and now diseases like COVID-19 have taken precedence. Can the healthcare system cope with this challenge?

We are currently in the midst of a pandemic. Our country already has the lowest rate of testing for COVID-19.Though it has a capacity of testing about 8,000 samples per day, the government was initially only testing around 90. This number has increased slightly very recently after the testing criteria was broadened to include people without travel history.

The first COVID-19-related death was reported on 11 March. It was a 76-year-old man from Karnataka, who was initially turned away by a private hospital due to his medical condition. His test results were received only after his death.

The concern over the lack of facilities provided by Government of India was expressed by Chhattisgarh Health Minister, T.S Singh Deo when he wrote to Union Health Minister Harsha Vardhan. In this letter he mentioned that only one centre was performing the tests and requested for more testing kits to scale up the testing. Kerala was an exception as it managed to expand its guidelines on testing to include a wider population much earlier than other states.

Dr S.P Kalantri, medical superintendent at Kasturba Hospital in central India, told Vox that he expects 55% of India’s total population to be infected with COVID-19. This is around 300 to 500 million individuals over the next four to five months with about one to two million deaths from it in a year. These are daunting numbers and reflect how our healthcare system is structured.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that there are around 0.5 hospital beds for every 1,000 people in India. In comparison, Italy has 3.2 and China has 4.3.The National Health Profile, a compilation of all the data that India’s Ministry of Health Ministry has at his disposal, reports that India has a total of 11,54,68 registered allopathic doctors of which only 1,16,756 doctors are eligible to carry out current tests. This means that there is one doctor for every 10,926 individuals in India. WHO recommends a standard ratio of one doctor for every 1,000 individuals.In addition, a 2016 report by Reuters states that every country needs more than 50,000 critical-care specialists while India currently has 8,350.

We must also understand the manner in which our healthcare system is structured. The private sectoraccounts for about 70%, while the remaining is public sector. However, a very small percentage of our population can afford private health facilities. Now every Indian state is scrambling to acquire new beds, increase the capacity of their Intensive Care Units, life-saving ventilators and so on.

The proportion of doctors and infrastructure in relation to population in India’s largest states is rather alarming. Maharashtra,which is home to more than 126 million people, has 450 ventilators and 502 ICU beds in public hospitals.Chhattisgarh,which has a population of 32 million, has 150 ventilators and 25 specialists. Assam has 200 ventilators of which 36 are not functional and Telangana has 1,000. India Railways has pitched in and has prepared 7,000 beds and 500 ventilators in their hospitals across the country. There are an estimated 40,000 ventilators in the Indian inventory.

The Indian government has now released INR 15,000 crore to meet health expenditures. Interestingly, this is INR 5,000 crore short of budget for the Central Vista being developed in New Delhi. The latter project is meant to develop and beautify prominent buildings in Lutyens’ Delhi. The money allotted to meet health expenditures accounts for less than one percent of the country’s GDP, while countries like the UK, Spain and Germany have allotted around 20% of their GDP to meet these expenses.

It’s difficult to say how things will develop in the coming days and how our country will respond to these challenges, given the vulnerable state of our healthcare system. I hope we are able to contain the outbreak but that does seem like a far-fetched notion right now.

Writer and journalist, Vidya Krishnan has written an article in The Atlantic in which she describes the dire and frightening condition of the Indian healthcare system. She concludes with a reference to a quote by epidemiologist Ramanan Laxminarayan where he draws an analogy between a pandemic and a tsunami. “Imagine that you’re standing on the shore and you’re watching the tsunami come in. If you are going to just stand there, and watch the tsunami, you are finished. If you can run as fast as you can, you have a better chance.” Vidya Krishnan ends the article ominously by stating, “India is not running fast.” Here I would pose a question, “Is India even capable of running fast?”

By Tenzin Jamphel

Tenzin Jamphel co-founded the mountain-biking company, Unexplored Ladakh and holds a master’s degree in communication.

Can COVID-19 wipe out the human race

Nowadays the world is at battle to combat a virus called Coronavirus Disease 2019 or COVID-19. This is infectious disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) that belongs to a group called Coronaviridae. The disease was first identified in 2019 in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in China and has since spread globally and resulted in the 2019-20 coronavirus pandemic.

Given the lack of reliable information about COVID-19, I am listing well-researched information of what is currently known about this virus and the disease it causes.

What is the origin of the virus?

In nature, bats are the natural reservoir for many such viruses. The virus replicates inside bats and somehow finds its way to other species. When the virus crosses the species barrier and jumps to humans it is called zoonosis. The first transmission to humans is believed to have occurred in Wuhan and then started passing from person to person when an infected person coughed or sneezed. It is said that a single cough can spray around 3,000 droplets that can travel several metres.

How long does it stay active on a surface?

The droplets from a cough stay suspended in the air for up to 10 minutes. If it manages to land on a person’s face or body, it increases chances of direct transmission of the virus through inhalation. If the droplet lands on a surface such as cloth, it remains active for up to three hours. On other surfaces such as plastic or metal, it has been known to remain active for two to three days.

What happens to your body when it is infected?

The virus uses the outer spike proteins that surround its core, which has given it the name corona (crown) to attach to receptors in the epithelial cells of the lungs via Angiotensin Converting Enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptors. The virus then fuses its membrane with the cell’s membrane and releases its RNA into the cell. A study found that the virus is able to enter more in cells that have an acidicnatureas its entry is based on pH-dependent endocytosis.It then takes advantage of the lung’s cellarchitecture to duplicate its RNA and capsid and envelope proteins. Once thousands of new RNA and proteins have been replicated, they are assembled into thousands of new viruses in golgi bodies and endoplasmic reticulum.

What is the incubation period for the virus?

In the beginning, when the virus is replicating,the infected persondoes not exhibit any overt symptoms. The period between first exposure to an infection and appearance of the first symptoms is called the incubation period. In the case of this virus, the incubation period is believed to be four to fourteendaysin which the virus replicates itself and produces thousands of copiesof itself.

What are the symptoms?

The key symptomof the diseases caused by the virus is dry cough with fever and/or difficulty in breathing.

Who is at risk?

Everyone! Who doesn’t care about their health?However, people with chronic heart disease, chronic lung disease, kidney failure, and immuno-suppressed diabetic patients are at greater risk.

Can such a disease wipe out the human race?

No. But it can definitely cause severe damage. However, with each outbreak of such diseasespeople fear the extinction of the human race. Historically, infectious diseaseswere an existential threat to humanity and killed a large number of people.

Nowadays, science fiction has become our reality and we don’t even think about it. Some recent breakthroughs will change our lives and how we perceive normalcy. Human beings are evolving even as viruses change their strains.

Changes in genetic coding have an impact on the being that carries it. In the 1990s, in an effort to treat maternal infertility resulted in babies that carried genetic information from three humans, making them the first humans to have three genetic parents. This was impressive but also extremely expensive and complicated. This has now changed with a revolutionary technology called CRISPR (clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats). The cost has reduced by 99%. In this world, bacteria and viruses have been fighting since the beginning of life. The virus called Bacteriophageshuntsbacteria in the ocean and kills 40% of them every single day. The virus does this by inserting their own genetic material into the bacteria and taking them over for use of its own re-production. The bacteria tries to resist but generally failsas their protection tools are not strong enough.

Sometimes, a bacterium survives the attack and developsan effective anti-virus system. The bacteria save a part of the virus’ genetic material in their own genetic code in a DNA archive system called CRISPR. When the virus attacks again, the bacterium quickly makes an RNA copy from the DNA archive and arms a defensive weapon in the form of a protein called cas9. The protein scans the bacterium for the virus by comparing its genetic material with the sample in the archival memory. When it finds a 100% match, it removes the virus’ genetic material to render it useless and protect the bacteriumfrom the attack.

A scientific revolution started when scientists discovered that the CRISPR system can be programmed. In addition to being precise, cheap, and easy, CRISPR offers the possibility of editing life cells to switch genes on and off. In 2015 scientists used CRISPR to cut HIV virus from living cells of patients in a laboratory. This proved that such interventions were possible. A year later, scientists carried out a large-scale project with rats that had the HIV virus in their cells. By simply injecting CRISPR into the rat’s tails, they were able to remove more than 50% of the virus from cells in their body. The first clinical trial for a CRISPR cancer treatment on human patients was approved in early 2016. A month later, Chinese scientists announced that they would treat lung cancer patients with immune cells modified with CRISPR. With a powerful tool like CRISPR, we may be able to cure thousands of diseases. In 2015 and 2016, Chinese scientists experimented with human embryos and were partially successful in their second attempt. There are enormous challenges in gene editing embryos and scientists are working on resolving them.

Irrespective of your personal view of genetic engineering, this technology will affect you. As the technology evolves and gets more refined, more people may argue that not using genetic engineering is unethical as it condemns people to preventable suffering and death. However, as soon as the first genetically engineered child is born, a door will open that cannot be closed. If you make your offspring immune to Alzheimer’s, why not also give them an enhanced metabolism? How about height and muscular structure? Better hair? Why not throw in perfect vision?

As genetic engineering becomes more ‘normal’ and our knowledge improves, we could solve many of our biggest health challenges. Today, we produce many chemicals by genetically engineering life-forms. This includes life-saving clotting proteins/factors, growth hormones and insulin. Earlier, we used to harvest these chemical from the organs of animals.

Recently the Indian Council of Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR) Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB) in New Delhi made a major breakthrough. It developed a CRISPR Cas9-based paper strip test to identify the RNA sequence of novel coronavirus in the samples of suspected persons and deliver result in 20 to 25 minutes. This test costs INR 500while the qRtPCR (quantitative Real time Polymerase Chain Reaction) test that costs INR 4,500 and takes hours to complete.

By Mohd Murtaza

Mohd Murtaza is a doctoral scholar in the Cytogenetic and Molecular Biology laboratory, Centre of Research for Development at University of Kashmir