1. Making them pay: on regulating app store operators

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Science & Technology

About South Korea’s new law

South Korea’s newest legislation, dubbed the ‘anti-Google’ law, is something that Indian lawmakers should consider emulating. Last week, its Parliament passed an amendment to its Telecommunications Business Act with the aim of preventing app store operators, such as Google and Apple, from forcing app developers to use their in-store payment systems, for which they charge exorbitantly. The new law is also a check on the unfair use of market position.

Similar regulations

With digital commerce becoming ubiquitous, and with the Googles and the Apples controlling this experience through their platforms, it has become imperative for government laws to regulate them. South Korea happens to be the first off the block. But a lot of other jurisdictions are not far behind. Australia, which only recently brought in a law to make Internet platforms pay media companies for displaying their content, is now reportedly thinking of bringing digital payment services such as Apple Pay, Google Pay and WeChat Pay under its regulatory ambit. The European Union’s draft law seeks to make these large platform companies, “gatekeepers” as it refers to them, comply with a set of dos and don’ts that gives the smaller companies a fair chance. The EU proposal is also centred around customers having more choice.

But that is not all. In the U.S., last month, three Senators brought in a Bill much along the same lines. Introduced by Democrats Richard Blumenthal, Amy Klobuchar, and Republican Marsha Blackburn, it aims “To promote competition and reduce gatekeeper power in the app economy, increase choice, improve quality, and reduce costs for consumers.” All this is happening in the backdrop of the pending verdict in the well-known case in which Epic Games, the company behind ‘Fortnite’, sued Apple on this very issue. The legal move was triggered after Apple ousted Epic from its platform for putting up its own payment system, bypassing Apple’s. The app store operators are clearly on the back foot the world over. In India too, the angst of app developers has been evident in recent times. According to a report, Apple is facing an antitrust challenge in India from a Rajasthan-based non-profit called ‘Together We Fight Society’ on this issue. It remains to be seen if the regulator, the Competition Commission of India, orders an investigation. Last year, it started investigations into similar allegations against Google. A law to regulate app store operators is not a drastic departure from this government’s thinking on such issues. Only recently, it promoted the setting up of the Open Network for Digital Commerce to “democratise e-commerce” and “to provide alternatives to proprietary e-commerce sites”. The challenge, however, is to protect the smaller sellers and developers without undermining the ecosystem for technological innovation.

Source: The Hindu

2. Needed: A tribunal for CAPF

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper II; Polity & Governance

Over the years, there have been numerous cases of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) officers overstaying leave. This prompted the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to issue orders to the CRPF headquarters on August 23, 2021, to “include the provisions of Security Force Court (SFC) as available in the Acts and Rules of other CAPFs (Central Armed Police Forces), for initiating disciplinary action against the delinquent officers, so that such cases are finalised within minimum time.”

Delays in enquiries

CRPF rules lay down the procedure for the conduct of departmental enquiries against non-gazetted ranks, and the officers are generally well versed with the procedure. As a result, most of the cases that are challenged in the High Courts are upheld. In normal circumstances, the departmental enquiries are completed within three to six months. But when gazetted officers are charge-sheeted, the time taken to order the enquiries is longer as other institutions like the Union Public Service Commission, the Central Vigilance Commission, the Department of Personnel and Training, and the MHA are also roped in for their views and legal opinion.

When personnel overstay their leave for long durations, the delinquent officers must be directed to appear before the inquiring authority along with the presenting officer and the defence assistant of the charged official. Even if one of them fails to appear for the hearing, the conduct of enquiry must be postponed. Often, the enquiry is conducted ex parte (without the presence of the charged official). In such cases, the recorded statements and other documents must be sent to the charged official. Postal delays further aggravate the matter. Since most officers are busy in operational matters, which gain priority over everything else, the enquiries take a backseat.

It is not just the inquiring authority who has to take time off his busy schedule to conduct the enquiry, but also the charged official and the presenting officer and defence assistant, if any. Quite often, delays occur in providing certain prosecution documents to the charged official who may demand them for preparing his own defence. There can be no gainsaying that such delays occur in all ministries and departments. While in the case of non-gazetted ranks, the enquiries are completed within a matter of few months, there can be no reason for undue delay in the case of officers. The monitoring system must be very stringent. Since most serving officers who are appointed as inquiring authorities are tasked to conduct enquiries in addition to their usual responsibilities, the enquiries are not given due priority.

The solution

The solution lies in appointing retired officers as inquiring authorities, who can afford to devote their time to the conduct of enquiries as is being done in most departments of the government. The difference between the SFC and the departmental enquiry is that while the former is a purely judicial process where the guilt must be proved beyond reasonable doubt and the charged official is at liberty to engage a legal practitioner to defend him, the latter is a quasi-judicial proceeding where the mere element of preponderance of probability is enough to determine guilt. Though the Central Reserve Police Force Act of 1949 provides for conducting judicial trial by a Commandant in his capacity as a Magistrate, seldom is it exercised as it gets into the realm of judicial process. Hence, the conduct of a departmental enquiry is the better option.

With increasing cases being filed in the High Courts across the country in service matters, it is high time the government considered the setting up of tribunals for the CAPFs on the lines of the Armed Forces Tribunal for defence services. Retired officers of the rank of Inspectors General and Additional Directors General from the CAPFs could be part of these tribunals along with retired judges of High Courts. This would ensure speedy delivery of justice.

Source: The Hindu

3. Decoding asset monetization

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Economics

The National Monetisation Pipeline (NMP) is a bold initiative. But let us first understand what the NMP is and what it is not. The NMP is not about the sale of government-owned assets. It is not about privatisation or disinvestment. The proposal is to offer infrastructure assets that will continue to be owned by the government under a long-term concession agreement to interested private bidders.

Comparison with PPP model

The NMP is also very different from the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-I’s ill-fated public-private partnership (PPP) infrastructure development of the mid-2000s. That programme was about attracting private parties to build, operate and then transfer ‘greenfield’ or new infrastructure projects under build-operate-transfer (BOT) concession agreements. These enjoined the winning private bidder to take not only the operating risk, but also the development and construction risk of the project, such as a toll road, from scratch. This was a complex and messy process. It involved the acquisition of land. This process became controversial and was subject to delay. It involved securing environmental and other regulatory approvals. These proved challenging to obtain. It involved meeting construction and design standards. Compliance with these became a source of friction between the concessioning authority and the concessionaire. All this undermined trust between the public and private parties and led to a huge volume of disputes for which there was no readily available resolution mechanism.

In contrast, the NMP is about leasing out ‘brownfield’ infrastructure assets (such as an already operating inter-State toll highway) under a toll-operate-transfer (TOT) concession agreement. In such an arrangement no acquisition of land is involved. Nor does the concessionaire need to take any of the construction risk. The process promises to be much simpler and cleaner than what was required in the PPP programme. It is also certain to attract a different class of private capital. To be successful in the BOT bids required a proven ability to navigate and manage the system. It thus attracted battle-hardened domestic entrepreneurs adept at finding creative ways of extracting value, including through ‘gold plating’ of project costs or through ‘negotiated settlements’ with demanding government inspectors or friendly bankers. On the other hand, for success under the bidding process of the NMP, what will be required is operational experience in running a particular class of infrastructure assets and a strong understanding of the potential cash flows generated over the life of the concession. This is certain to attract the largest global pension funds.

Contract design and implementation

That said, the success of the NMP is by no means assured. Bidding out and designing long-term concessions for assets that are already operating requires considerable skill. Given the long tenure of these concession agreements, they must be designed to allow for some flexibility so that each party has the opportunity to deal with unforeseen circumstances (such as climate-related disasters) and to prevent needless litigation. Contracts must also incorporate clear key performance indicators expected of the private party and clear benchmarks for assets as they are handed over by the government the start of the concession. This is key to avoiding disputes about potential additional capital expenditures that might be required to keep the asset operational. Two, no matter how well a contract is crafted, it still needs to be implemented effectively. Experience shows that there is a tendency for government departments to inject opacity into the implementation of concession agreements so that they have more power over the concessionaire. To avoid this, it would be useful if the responsibility for administering the concession agreements did not lie directly with the line ministries and/or their agencies. Three, it is vital to put in place a robust dispute resolution mechanism. For all these reasons there is a strong case to set up a centralised institution with the skills and responsibility to oversee contract design, bidding and implementation, separate from, but with appropriate assistance of, the concerned line ministries. An institution such as ‘3 PPP India’, first mooted in the 2014 Budget, is needed. It would also be advisable to set up an Infrastructure PPP Adjudication Tribunal along the lines of what was recommended by the Kelkar Committee (2015) to create suitably specialised dispute resolution capacity.

Finally, it is always wise to under-promise and over-deliver. The government could start with sectors that offer greatest cash flow predictability and the least regulatory uncertainty before expanding the experiment. It could also ensure that resources raised from the NMP are used to fund new asset creation under the National Infrastructure Pipeline. This will ensure credibility.

Source: The Hindu

4. How CSC network may help expand passport services

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper II; Polity & Governance

The Common Services Centres (CSC), a special purpose vehicle of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), have received approvals to manage and operate Passport Seva Kendra (PSK) kiosks in rural areas.

Why have CSCs been allowed to manage and operate Passport Seva Kendras?

The CSCs have an extensive network of village-level entrepreneurs (VLEs) who run and operate over 2.5 lakh centres across India. Most of these centres are present either in rural or semi-urban areas, where internet connectivity is not always the fastest.

In such a scenario, CSCs have managed to create a niche for themselves by offering services such as registering people for voter ID card, Aadhaar Card, helping them pay their electricity and other bills on time, as well as provide basic banking services.

With such an extensive network, the government will find it easier to use CSCs to do the bulk of the work such as collection of documents, photographs and other details necessary for the passport process as well as the initial non-police verification.

Will CSCs be allowed to conduct other biometric verification in future?

Biometric verification for passports is a very complex process which requires storing such data in very secure systems. Since the CSCs do not have very secure systems in their premises, it is unlikely that they will be allowed to conduct such biometric verification on their own.

What other services do CSCs operating in rural and semi-urban areas offer?

Over the past three years, CSCs have tied up with partners, both public and private sector, across domains by leveraging their presence across the country.

In August, Tata Motors signed a memorandum of understanding to strengthen its commercial vehicle reach in rural India. Apart from Tata Motors, companies like Renault and Bajaj Auto are also likely to sign agreements to benefit from the last mile delivery system of the CSCs.

Apart from vehicle makers, CSCs have also tied up with many FMCG companies such as PepsiCo, Coca Cola, Nestle, Tata Consumer Products, Shahi Masala, Adhar Foods, and Unibic Foods.

Last April, after the nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the CSCs allowed VLEs the option to launch a Grameen e-store. While initially launched for easy delivery of essential items in villages, gram panchayats and other rural areas, these e-stores soon expanded their portfolio to start sale of non-essential items such as soft drinks, biscuits, soaps, shampoos, pencils, pens, electric and electronic appliances.

Source: The Indian Express

5. Tracking airborne pollen to prevent allergy

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Science & Technology

By studying airborne pollen and its seasonal variations for about two years, researchers from the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) and Panjab University have created a pollen calendar for Chandigarh, arguably the first for any city in India.

Titled, ‘Pollen calendar to depict seasonal periodicities of airborne pollen species in a city situated in Indo-Gangetic plain, India’, the study was recently published in the journal Atmospheric Environment.

Dr Ravindra Khaiwal, Additional Professor of Environmental Health, Department of Community Medicine and School of Public Health, PGIMER, the lead investigator of the study, spoke to The Indian Express to explain this pollen calendar and its role in preventing allergies.

What is a pollen calendar?

Pollen calendars represent the time dynamics of airborne pollen present in a particular geographical area. They yield readily accessible visual details about various airborne pollen present throughout the year in a single picture.

Is this a new concept in India? Where else in the west has this calendar been used?

Though the concept is not essentially new, this is one of the major environmental concerns that had not been addressed for the Indian cities.

Such calendars are location-specific, as pollen concentrations are closely related to locally distributed flora. Europe, UK and the US are using regional pollen calendars in a big way to prevent and diagnose allergic rhinitis/hay fever and predict the timing and severity of the pollen season.

Why is it important to study pollen?

Pollen grains are male biological structures with the primary role of fertilisation, but when inhaled by humans, they may strain the respiratory system and cause allergies. Pollen found suspended in air can cause widespread upper respiratory tract and nasobronchial allergy with manifestations like asthma, seasonal rhinitis, and bronchial irritation.

About 20-30 per cent of the population suffers from allergic rhinitis/hay fever in India, and approximately 15 per cent develop asthma. Pollen is considered a major outdoor airborne allergen responsible for allergic rhinitis, asthma, and atopic dermatitis in humans. Considering these concerns, we conducted this study for Chandigarh.

What were the key findings?

The study highlights the variability of crucial pollen types in different seasons. Spring and autumn are two seasons when airborne pollen dominate. The findings will enhance the understanding of pollen seasons, which will in turn help minimise pollen allergies.

How will a pollen calendar benefit people, especially those who have respiratory issues?

A pollen calendar provides a clear understanding for clinicians, as well as people with allergies to identify the potential allergy triggers and help to limit their exposure during high pollen load season.

The early advisories can be prepared and disseminated through media channels to the citizens so that they can use protective gear during the period when the concentration of allergic pollen will be high. People can access the Pollen Calendar through the Care 4 Clean Air website.

Does the study infer that gardens and parks in the city contribute to the pollen and thus there must be proper scientific tree plantation?

It is important to involve experts while designing parks. We should try to plant trees/shrubs that release no or little pollen. Trees such as palms, nettle, safeda, white mulberry (shahtoot), congress grass, pine, have a high incidence of pollen.

What kind of trees must be grown alongside our roads or in parks?

Plant monoecious plants (male and female flowers on the same plant). Hibiscus, lilies, and holly that are grown widely in Chandigarh are examples of such plants. Cucumbers and squashes are also monoecious. Select plants with low to moderate pollen production.

Non-allergic or entomophilous plant species should be chosen to provide an allergen-free atmosphere. Examples of such plants include rose, jasmine, salvia, Bougainvillea, Raat ki rani and sunflower.

Source: The Indian Express

6. How Covid-19 vaccines fare with Delta variant

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Science & Technology

In a possible explanation for the rapid spread of the Delta variant of SARS-CoV2 virus, a study published in the journal Nature has found this particular variant to have a much higher ability to infect, and to evade the immune response gained through previous infections or vaccines.

The Delta variant, or the B.1.617.2 lineage, first discovered in Maharashtra, is dominant not just in India but also in several other countries. According to the World Health Organization, the Delta variant is now present in at least 170 countries.

The Nature study, carried out by an international team of researchers including from several Indian institutions, is based on data collected from India till the end of May. Its results were first reported in June when the pre-print version was made available, before peer review.

What are the key findings?

The study found that the Delta variant was 6 times less sensitive to serum neutralising antibodies from recovered individuals, and 8 times less sensitive to vaccine-induced antibodies compared to the original Wuhan strain of the virus.

In other words, compared to the original virus, the Delta variant was 8 times more likely to cause breakthrough infections among vaccinated people, and 6 times more likely to re-infect people who have recovered from previous infections. The vaccines considered for the study were those developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, and Pfizer and BioNTech.

Additionally, the study reported a higher “replication and spike mediated entry” in the Delta variant, meaning it had a greater ability to infect and multiply within the human body, compared to the B.1.617.1 lineage.

The study also looked at 130 cases of breakthrough infections among fully vaccinated healthcare workers at three Delhi hospitals, and found reduced vaccine effectiveness against the Delta variant.

“The results of the study show that Delta variant does spread faster and reduces protection gained from previous infections or vaccines,” said Anurag Agrawal, director of the Delhi-based CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, and a joint author of the study.

“However, the good news is that vaccination does lead to reduced severity of the disease, and so does previous infection,” he said.

What other evidence is available on the effectiveness of vaccines against Delta?

Recently, the World Health Organization cited four studies — two in the United States, one in the UK, and the other one in Qatar — that have presented similar evidence for reduced effectiveness of vaccines against the Delta variant.

The UK study, for example, showed reduced effectiveness of the AstraZeneca vaccine in a period when the Delta variant was the most dominant in the country, compared to when the Alpha variant was dominant there.

How important are vaccines, then?

Vineeta Bal, an immunologist with the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) in Pune, pointed out that the study must not lead people to believe that vaccines were not useful. She pointed out that the Nature study was carried out on in vitro samples, in a laboratory environment.

“All data emerging from in vitro studies are surrogate evaluations in lieu of what actually happens inside the body. The limitation is that neutralising antibodies (which were tested in the study) do not provide the entire answer. Immune protection is offered by neutralising antibodies as well as the T-cell responses. In vaccinated or previously infected individuals, both antibodies and T-cells contribute to protection. This study does not show data on T-cells, thus leaving a major component of immune response out of consideration,” she said.

Bal said the results of the study were not surprising, however.

“Currently, the majority of infections are being caused by Delta variant, and it is no surprise that it is the commonest virus found in re-infection cases or in cases post vaccination,” she said.

“No vaccination provides 100% protection. Breakthrough infections are not unusual or unheard of. However, the incidence of severe disease, and hospitalisation would be significantly lower than in the vaccinated groups compared to the unvaccinated, or uninfected, groups,” she said.

Anu Raghunathan, a scientist at the National Chemical Laboratory in Pune, said the study simply means that larger amounts of antibodies would be required to block the Delta variant.

“Vaccines are still effective. The Delta variant is just less sensitive to neutralising antibodies. It means that it would require five to eight times more antibodies to elicit the same kind immune response as against the original virus during the first wave to block the Delta variant,” she said.

What is the way forward in dealing with newer variants?

The original Wuhan virus mutated into the successively more dangerous Alpha, Beta, Kappa and Delta variants. The virus will likely continue to mutate into newer forms. But all mutations need not necessarily mean they are more harmful.

Experts say the only effective way to slow down the emergence of new variants is to reduce the spread of infections through measures like vaccination, or observance of Covid-appropriate behaviour.

“Like this study, there is a critical need for continuous surveillance of the effectiveness of antibody response against new variants, and to keep assessing whether booster vaccine doses are required, or whether vaccines themselves need to be updated. Simultaneously, a genomic surveillance of new variants has to be continued,” Raghunathan said.

“This will help us in improving our vaccines and producing newer, more effective ones. In the current context, it is possible that we might require additional booster shots of vaccines. Additionally, we must ensure that when newer and more effective vaccines arrive the market, they are made accessible to everyone at a quick pace,” she said.

Source: The Indian Express