Ballari financially self-sufficient for handling COVID-19: Anand Singh

The Hindu | May 10, 2021

He says it will make use of funds from District Mineral Foundation

Pointing to the huge cash reserves of District Mineral Foundation (DMF) lying with the district administration in Ballari, Minister for Infrastructure Development, Haj and Wakf Anand Singh, who is also the district in-charge Minister, said that there was no dearth of funds for tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.

The administration had, a few weeks ago, resolved to use the DMF funds, which was accumulated from the contributions of the mining companies and originally meant for taking up development and rehabilitation activities in mining-affected areas, for COVID-19 containment activities including the expansion of healthcare facilities in the district.

“The district has a large amount of DMF funds and there is no need for the district administration to seek money from the government for handling the pandemic. We will use the DMF funds to take up extensive pandemic containment activities. Saving people’s lives is our first priority. We will positively take the suggestions from all the people’s representatives for controlling the pandemic and incorporate them in our plans,” Mr. Singh said.

He was addressing a review meeting held at a conference hall of the PDAA Football Grounds in Ballari on Monday.

Anticipating the third wave of the pandemic, Mr. Singh said that the administration was already making all the preparations to face the situation by expanding the medical infrastructure not just at the district headquarters but at the taluk centres.

“We have decided to provide each taluk hospital with 10 ventilators and 10 dura cylinders. As many as 40 ventilators sent by the State government have already reached Ballari. We are in the process of expanding and upgrading the existing medical facilities by increasing the bed capacities, appointing additional health staff including doctors and nurses and equipment. In addition to 109 ambulances working in the district, we have planned to purchase more ambulances. We will shortly establish VRDL laboratories at Hosapete and Huvina Hadagali. Oxygen plants would be set up at each taluk hospital. The DMF funds would be used for the purpose,” Mr. Singh said.

The establishment of a temporary hospital with 1000 oxygenated beds, including 40 Intensive Care Unit beds, Mr. Singh added, is being taken up at Toranagal with the assistance of JSW Steel.

“The work is on a fast track. A public notice has been issued expressing interest in recruiting the required staff – expert doctors, staff nurses, lab technicians and others. The hospital is expected to be functional shortly.”

Referring to the increased number of COVID-19 deaths in the district as compared to other districts, Deputy Commissioner Pavan Kumar Malapat told the meeting that the patients with respiratory problems being rushed to the hospitals at an advanced stage was the major reason for the increased deaths. On the vaccination progress, the officer said that of the 6,01,191 people in the 45-59 year age group, 3,22,879 had taken the first dose and 31,573 had taken the second dose. Of the targeted 1,74,345 people above 60 years, 1,37,546 had taken the first dose and 33,733 had taken the second dose.

Social Welfare Minister B. Sriramulu, Lok Sabha member Karadi Sanganna and others were present.

In Odisha, funds meant for mining-affected communities are being diverted to urban areas

Scroll | Manish Kumar | May 09, 2021
Those living in mining areas have been seeking assistance for basic amenities for decades.

During the latest budget Session of Odisha’s Legislative Assembly, the Odisha government’s Cabinet in March approved several proposals but the one that raised eyebrows was to use the District Mineral Foundation funds, meant for the mining-affected community in the Sundergarh district, for construction of an international stadium in Rourkela town.

The proposed international stadium has been envisioned to host the Men’s Hockey World Cup 2023. This misuse of the funds is not a one-off incident, but there have been many similar trends over the years. In 2017, in the Jharsuguda district, the district administration sanctioned works related to the power supply to the Jharsuguda airport with an investment of more than Rs 20 crore squeezed from the District Mineral Foundation funds.

In another mining district of Keonjhar, the district administration in 2019-’20 sanctioned works for a handball stadium, and invested around Rs 5,00,000 for a patient facilitation centre for Cuttack-based medical college which is around 200-km away from Keonjhar.

In January 2020, the administration of the Sundergarh district bought 25 cars with the District Mineral Foundation funds for them to be used as patrolling vans by the police in Rourkela city, a non-mining affected area. Earlier, even integrated traffic management was sponsored with the funds. In the same district, the funds were also used to construct the boundary walls of the Circuit House.

The list of instances where the funds were used for works that had nothing to do with the welfare of the mining-affected communities goes on. This, experts warn, is worrisome because this comes at a time when the state’s own people living in the mining-affected areas are crying for attention and seeking help for basic amenities in their areas after living in poor and vulnerable conditions for decades.

This is important because according to the Union Coal and Mines Minister Pralhad Joshi, Odisha has seen the highest collection of Rs 11,984 crore as District Mineral Foundation collections from the miners operating in the state since the inception of funds in 2015.

The Odisha government recently told the state Assembly that the District Mineral Foundation collections in the state are rising in the state. While it was Rs. 395.44 crore in 2015-2019, in 2019-’20 the total annual collections stood at Rs 3,079.20 crore.

Though Odisha has a significant amount of the funds what is probably lacking is the provision of transparency related to their use. For instance, Rule 16 of the Odisha DMF Rules talks about sharing the annual report of the District Mineral Foundation trust on its website but hardly any annual reports have been uploaded online for several years.

Odisha’s DMF Rules mandates the usage of 60% of the funds in priority areas while 40% of them could be used in non-priority areas. The non-priority areas included investments in physical infrastructure, irrigation, energy and watershed development, afforestation and others.

Queries sent to PK Jena, who is the Odisha government’s secretary for the planning and convergence department, regarding the diversion of DMF funds for other purposes remained unanswered.

Pranav Sachdeva, a lawyer with the Supreme Court who has handled many mining cases in the apex court emphasised that Odisha and many states have attempted to dilute the very concept of the funds by diverting it to areas other than the mining-affected areas.

“As mining firms grow, the local community impacted by mining does not get any benefit from the money collected … in fact the local environment is impacted too,” he said. “But the governments often diverts these important resources away from the vulnerable community. They try to use the funds for works where ideally budgetary allocations should have been used. These funds were planned for the upliftment of the affected community for their health, education, livelihood and others and many portions land in urban areas.”

Pollution mess
According to the 2011 Census, about 1.62 million people (50 percent) in the Sundergarh district belong to Scheduled Tribes and many live in rural areas. This area is adjacent to the Chhattisgarh border and known for coal mining and other minerals for decades. But what is consistently ignored is the plight of the communities impacted by mining.

For instance, Naresh Meher, a resident of Ratanpur village in Gopalpur panchayat in Sundergarh district, said that people in his village are living in pathetic conditions due to mining taking place about 10-km away. He said that the levels of air pollution, water pollution and sound pollution have taken a huge toll on his village.

“Around 3,000 trucks cross our village every day,” said Meher, who himself is a tuberculosis patient. “Thick levels of dust often engulf our standing crops while polluted water is discharged from the handpumps. Several of the citizens here live with skin diseases, cancer and other diseases triggered by mining activities.”

But this is not the end of their poor fate as his village is now listed to be taken away for mining.

Social activist Suru Mishra from Sundergarh said that in the Hemgiri block in the district, a stretch of 25 km of road connects the mining centres of Sundergarh with Chhattisgarh and passes through several villages but even then the roads are in extremely bad shape.

“You cannot walk on that road,” Mishra told Mongabay-India. “Only trucks and heavy vehicles run on that road. There are very big potholes and the whole stretch gets waterlogged making it very difficult for the local communities to commute or for kids to use that to go to schools.”

Both, Meher and Mishra, said that these areas and many other mining-affected areas need government attention to improve their standards of lives. They also said that the Hemgiri Community Health Centre is still deprived of a digital X-ray facility and ultrasound facility and other medical facilities but the government has spent several portions of the DMF funds in boosting the District Headquarter Hospital, which is in an urban area.

The provision of District Mineral Foundation funds – to be collected from miners – were introduced in January 2015 by the government of India through an amendment in the country’s mining laws for all districts affected by mining-related operations.

In the Talcher region of the Angul district, the villagers living in areas close to the coal mining and coal washery units are left to suffer from the discharge of untreated water directly into the farmlands of the village. Similarly, in the Bansapal and Joda blocks of the Keonjhar district, the villagers are facing the crisis of polluted groundwater, a result of mining activities. This has also forced many women to walk for miles every day to fetch drinking water.

Funds diverted
Experts working on the issue of mining in Odisha and other states claim that the funds are now easily diverted for other priority areas and urban areas despite it being illegal and mining-affected communities crying for help.

Sankar Prasad Pani, a lawyer with the National Green Tribunal said, “In districts like Keonjhar, the salaries of doctors are now being paid through the funds which should ideally be coming from the state’s budgetary allocations.”

“Collectors find the funds sometimes hard to dispense and thus divert it for numerous urban-centric works,” he said. “But they are not annual budget funds, they can be accumulated and do not lapse. They can be used when needed. The need is to make priority-based plans to aid the mining-affected people.”

Ramesh Agarwal, a leading Indian environmentalist based in Raigarh in Chhattisgarh said, “The rules of funds have been framed in such a way that the district collector gets the power to sanction the funds with the approval of the local District Mineral Foundation committee. In many states, we have seen diversion of the funds to other areas which is not going to affect the mining hit communities.”

A study conducted by the New Delhi-based think tank Centre for Science and Environment on the usage of the District Mineral Foundation funds in different mining districts of Odisha found that despite lower social and health indicators the allocation of the funds on the issue of livelihood and other areas had not been much, say for example in Sundergarh district.

“In Sundergarh, one of Odisha’s top mining districts, a negligible Rs 3 crore has been provided for child development out of the district’s Rs 745 crore sanctions. This is at a time when the under-five mortality rate in rural areas of the district is as high as 67, and nearly 50% of the children below this age are victims of stunted growth,” the report said.

Srestha Banerjee, Programme Head, International Forum for Environment, Sustainability & Technology, who played a key role in producing the Centre for Science and Environment report, said the constitution of the District Mineral Foundation committee in the districts is one of the main problems.

“The District Mineral Foundation Committee in the districts have been formed in such a way that the local politicians including the parliamentarians and legislators exert more power in the decision making on the spending of the funds in their areas,” Banerjee told Mongabay-India. “The mining laws permit the administration to use part of the funds for administration works, but when the mining hit communities need attention for their upliftment and diversion of these funds to urban areas and for other similar works sounds less logical.”

She said that livelihood and income generation of the rural poor population living in the mining-affected areas need to get a priority under the District Mineral Foundation fund allocations. She also demanded that the funds should be spent based on priority areas rather than in a haphazard manner as it is happening presently in many mining districts of Odisha.

Vizag gas leak: A year on, villagers near the plant continue to live in fear

Hindustan Times | Srinivasa Rao Apparasu | May 08, 2021

Though the plant has since been closed following orders from the Andhra Pradesh high court, residents of Venkatapuram and four other villages surrounding the plant said the horror from the tragic incident haunt them to this day.

A year on since Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh woke up to one of its worst environmental disasters – leakage of poisonous gas from a storage tank of LG Polymers Ltd, a South Korean company on the outskirts of the city, killed 12 people while nearly 500 were hospitalised – villagers settled near the plant continue to live in a state of fear.

Though the plant has since been closed following orders from the Andhra Pradesh high court, residents of Venkatapuram and four other villages surrounding the plant said the horror from the tragic incident haunt them to this day.

On May 7 last year, poisonous Styrene gas leaked from one of the tanks at LG Polymers Ltd due to sudden rise in temperature at the bottom of the tank at around 3.30 am. The gas slowly spread over a radius of about 3 km, affecting five villages — Venkatapuram, Venkatadri Nagar, Nandamuri Nagar, Pydimamba Colony and BC & SC Colony.

Srinu Yadav, a transport worker from Venkatapuram, said the incident had created havoc in the lives of several villagers, particularly the poor and the middle class. “Many in these villages, particularly Venkatapuram, where the LG Polymers plant is located, continue to face health issues, like breathing problems, asthma, and gastrointestinal disorders,” Yadav said.
The villagers recall how thanks to the timely alert from locals, the authorities of Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation and the district administration swung into action and shifted people from the affected areas with the help of police to safer areas.

The Jagan Mohan Reddy government paid ex gratia of ₹1 crore each to the families of the 12 who died in the incident, besides ₹10 lakh for persons who were kept on ventilator for a long time, ₹1 lakh each to 485 people who were hospitalised with serious complications and ₹25,000 each to 99 people who were treated as outpatients. Another 19,893 people were paid ₹25,000 each towards compensation.
“In the next one week, three others from the affected villages died but the authorities attributed their deaths to some other reasons. In the last one year, at least 15 people, including my father-in-law, died due to symptoms that surfaced after the Styrene gas leak. But no forensic studies were done to prove they were related to the gas leak tragedy,” Yadav said.

An eight-member expert committee headed by state special chief secretary (environment and forests) Neerabh Kumar Prasad, which was constituted to probe into the mishap, came up with a series of suggestions, including periodical testing of health conditions of villagers in the area so as to monitor the short-term and long-term impact of the Styrene gas on their health.
“Subsequently, a committee of health experts was appointed to regularly monitor the health of people in the affected villages, but it did not commence its work because of the Covid-19 pandemic,” K Kumara Mangalam, a local trade union leader, said.

He added that the government has washed off its hands by setting up a primary health centre in a local school, but it hardly helped. “Except for an occasional visit by a junior doctor and para-medical staff, nothing much has happened. It doesn’t have any facilities, though the authorities promised to set up a hospital in the area,” Mangalam said.

A study conducted in March this year by local environmentalists under Alluri Sitarama Raju Vignana Kendram on environment, health and safety of people in the villages surrounding LG Polymers, observed that the GVMC authorities were neither monitoring water bodies periodically nor getting an expert study on the water quality.
“Most of the households are depending on the canned water for drinking purposes and spending between ₹300- 600 per month,” said K Eswar, another resident.

An official of the GVMC, however, denied contamination of the drinking water in villages. “Scientists belonging to CSIR-National Environment Engineering Research Institute studied the water samples in and around the area and found that styrene is insoluble in water and would drain away in case of water flow. We are supplying Godavari water to local residents through pipeline,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

The LG Polymers has shut its operations since the tragedy and the Korean management, with special permission from the Ministry of Shipping, shifted 13,000 tonnes of unused Styrene in two ships back to Seoul. On April 6 this year, the company got permission from the high court to move and sell leftover raw material, finished product and packaging material from the plant as it could pose danger to the public health if left unattended.
The court directed that sale process be done in the supervision of a three-member committee appointed by the state government and the company deposit the sales proceeds in an account in the name of Vizag district collector.

The villagers in the area are apprehensive that the LG Polymers might restart their operations once the cases pending in the high court and the National Green Tribunal were settled. “Unless the plant is completely shifted from the area, the fear of recurrence of such incidents will continue to haunt us,” said S Pydi Raju, a resident of Venkatapuram.

When contacted, state industries minister Mekapati Gautam Reddy said the government has not focused on LG Polymers as of now as it was busy tackling the Covid-19 situation. “We shall take appropriate decision after discussing with the industries department authorities later,” he said.

Fossil Fuels, Climate Change and India’s COVID-19 Crisis

Time to Flourish | May 06, 2021

The surge of COVID-19 cases and the humanitarian crisis now unfolding in India has shocked the world and led to a search for an explanation of how the situation got so bad so fast. Scientists are investigating several factors including new variants and public health officials have pointed to underinvestment in the country’s health system.

Undoubtedly, the causes are varied, and as I watched the numbers surge, I began to wonder whether it’s worth considering the role air pollution may be playing. Since the early days of the pandemic, researchers have understood that exposure to polluted air makes people more vulnerable to COVID-19, and India’s megalopolises are among the most polluted in the world. “We understand that the impact of pandemic can be higher in polluted regions where people’s lungs have already been weakened due to long term exposures,” says Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of research and advocacy at Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi. “That makes Indian cities vulnerable.”

There’s been some research on air pollution and COVID-19 in India specifically, but it’s probably first worth looking at the bigger picture. A slew of studies have shown direct links between exposure to air pollution and vulnerability to COVID-19. One paper published in December in the journal Cardiovascular Research found that chronic exposure to particulate matter—a type of pollution that results from a mix of chemicals that come from sources like smokestacks and fires—is likely linked to some 15% of global COVID-19 deaths. Particulate matter doesn’t just come from fossil fuels, but the study’s authors found that more than 50% of air pollution-linked COVID-19 deaths are specifically connected to fossil-fuel use.

A seemingly endless stack of studies has shown the causal links that explain this: extended exposure to air pollution contributes to a range of ailments—from asthma to diabetes—that are risk factors for COVID-19.

The research in India is still in early stages, but scientists have already begun to evaluate the local connection. A preliminary study out of Malaviya National Institute of Technology in Jaipur, India found a correlation between COVID-19 cases and air pollution and climatic conditions—like wind and humidity—in Delhi. Another preliminary paper from the World Bank relying on data from India found that a “1 percent increase in long-term exposure to [particulate matter] leads to an increase in COVID-19 deaths by 5.7 percentage points.” The study suggested a range of “urgent” interventions from promoting cleaner fuel sources to reducing pollution in the transportation system that would complement more obvious public health measures like vaccination and mask wearing.

“A scientific consensus seems to be emerging that improving air quality may play an important role in overcoming or at least reducing the impacts of the pandemic,” the authors of the World Bank paper wrote. “Research implies that pollution must be limited as much as possible when lockdowns are lifted.”

This dynamic is important to understand not only because it helps explain one factor that has worsened the pandemic, but also because it offers a lens into so-called “climate co-benefits”—a key consideration that helps make the case for urgent action on climate change. That term refers to the positive effects beyond carbon dioxide emissions reduction that result from tackling climate change. Co-benefits range from improved soil health (resulting from agricultural practices that reduce carbon emissions) to improved energy security (as a positive outcome of expanding renewable energy sources and reducing reliance on fossil fuel imports).

But perhaps no co-benefit is more significant—and more urgent—on a global level than the clean air that results from nixing fossil fuels. In India, for example, chronic exposure to air pollution causes the premature death of more than a million people each year. Hundreds of thousands more are similarly affected in China. Even in the U.S., which has relatively strict environmental standards, more than 100,000 people have been estimated to die prematurely due to particulate matter air pollution every year, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And, in the U.S. and around the world, the burden falls disproportionately on low-income communities of color.

Policymakers and scientists have had many a thorny debate about the best ways to account for those co-benefits, but on a purely human level it’s another example of how tackling climate change would save lives—not just 30 years in the future but right now.

COVID-19 first wave pushed 23 crore Indians into poverty: Azim Premji University

Business Today | May 06, 2021

The report, titled ‘State of Working India Report 2021’ stated that rural India witnessed a 15% increase in poverty and a 20% rise was registered in urban areas after one year of the coronavirus pandemic

The first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic shoved a staggering 230 million (23 crore) Indians below the poverty line, estimated a study by the Azim Premji University.

The report, titled ‘State of Working India Report 2021’ stated that rural India witnessed a 15% increase in poverty and a 20% rise was registered in urban areas after one year of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Coming on a low-income base, this shock meant that the number of individuals who lie below the national minimum wage threshold (Rs 375 per day as recommended by the Anoop Satpathy committee) increased by 230 million during the pandemic,” according to the report.

“This amounts to an increase in the poverty rate by 15 percentage points in rural and nearly 20 percentage points in urban areas. Had the pandemic not occurred, poverty would have declined by 5 percentage points in rural areas and 1.5 percentage points in urban areas between 2019 and 2020, and 50 million would have been lifted above this line,” it added.

The report further highlighted how women lost more employment than men during the COVID-19 pandemic last year, how around half of formal salaried workforce moved into informal work, and how poorer households underwent considerably higher income losses during the lockdown period.

Mobility curbs resulted in income losses because of decreased economic activity, the report noted. “A 10% decline in mobility was associated with a 7.5% decline in income,” it stated, suggesting the situation could get worse if more lockdowns are imposed in the future.

The report proposed that the Centre will need to roll out a relief package worth Rs 8 lakh crore to contain hardships being faced by lower-income groups due to the economic impact of COVID-19.

The report is based on inputs from Consumer Pyramids Household Survey, Azim Premji Foundation, and many other civil society organisations.

The study found that nearly half of formal salaried workers moved into informal work, either as self-employed (30 per cent), casual wage (10 per cent) or informal salaried (9 per cent) workers, between late 2019 and late 2020 and there was a decline in their income level as well.

In April and May, the poorest 20 per cent of households lost their entire income and the richer households suffered losses of less than a quarter of their pre-pandemic incomes, the report said.

To bring relief for the people suffering hardships of COVID-19 impact, the Azim Premji University report, released on Wednesday, recommended measures that would cost the government an additional expenditure of around Rs 8 lakh crore.

“The measures that we have proposed will bring the spending by the government of India to 4.5 per cent of overall GDP between this year and last or about Rs 8 lakh crore. We think that is not even internationally comparable to what other countries have done, but really what India needs to do,” Azim Premji University associate professor of economics Amit Basole said while releasing the report.

According to the report, the public distribution system has a wider reach than Jan Dhan Yojana, and free rations under the PDS should be extended beyond June, at least till the end of 2021.

In Karnataka and Rajasthan, out of those with women-owned Jan Dhan accounts, 60 per cent received one or more transfers, around 30 per cent did not receive any transfers and 10 per cent did not know about the fund status in their account, it added.

The university report recommended a cash transfer of Rs 5,000 for three months to as many vulnerable households as can be reached with the existing digital infrastructure, including but not limited to Jan Dhan accounts.

It has suggested expanding the MGNREGA entitlement to 150 days and revising programme wages upwards to state minimum wages.

This needs to expand the programme budget to at least Rs 1.75 lakh crore, according to the report.

It has also recommended launching a pilot urban employment programme in the worst-hit districts with a focus on women workers, increasing the central contribution in old-age pensions to at least Rs 500, a COVID hardship allowance to 25 lakh Anganwadi and ASHA workers of Rs 30,000 and automatically enrolling all MGNREGA workers who do construction work as registered workers under the building and other construction workers (BoCW) Act.

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