As of April 13, 2020, there are 9,152 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in India. Of these, 857 patients have been cured/discharged and 308 have died. As the spread of COVID-19 has increased across India, the central government has continued to announce several policy decisions to contain the spread, and support citizens and businesses who are being affected by the pandemic. In this blog post, we summarise some of the key measures taken by the central government in this regard between April 7 and April 13, 2020.
Source: Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, PRS.
Supreme Court orders free testing for COVID-19 and provision of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers
Free testing for COVID-19: The Supreme Court held that COVID-19 tests should be free of cost for persons belonging to economically weaker sections as notified by the government and those covered under the Ayushman Bharat scheme, irrespective of whether they are conducted in private or public laboratories. Further, it held that COVID-19 tests may only be carried out in laboratories accredited by the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories, or any agencies approved by the World Health Organisation or Indian Council for Medical Research. Prior to this order, tests were free of cost in government laboratories. However, private laboratories were permitted to charge up to Rs 4,500 per test.
Personal protective equipment for healthcare workers: The Supreme Court held that availability of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) for front line healthcare workers must be ensured by the government. PPE includes gloves, masks, goggles, face shields, and shoe covers. Usage of PPE must be based on guidelines provided by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and the World Health Organisation. Further, it directed the government to promote domestic production of PPE by means such as allowing movement of raw material. Restriction on exports of PPE may also be instituted.
Security for healthcare workers: The Court also noted that healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients were facing violence by the public due to stigma associated with their potential exposure to COVID-19. The Court held that states and union territories should direct police authorities to provide security to doctors and medical staff in hospitals, places where persons have been quarantined, and while conducting screening visits. Necessary action must be taken against persons who obstruct and commit any offence in respect to performance of duties by doctors, medical staff and other government officials working to contain the outbreak of COVID-19.
Exemptions from customs duty and health cess for certain items
The central government has exempted the levy of basic customs duty and health cess on certain items. These include ventilators, face masks, PPE, COVID-19 testing kits, and items necessary to manufacture these items. The exemptions will remain in force until September 30, 2020.
COVlD-19 emergency response and health system preparedness package
The central government approved the COVlD-19 emergency response and health system preparedness package. It will be implemented in three phases from January 2020 to March 2024. The objectives of the package include: (i) strengthening national and state health systems, (ii) support preparedness for COVID-19, (iii) procure essential medical equipment and drugs, (iv) setting up laboratories for surveillance, and (v) biosecurity.
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has initiated release of funds for phase 1 of the programme which will last until June 2020. These funds will be utilised for activities such as: (i) developing hospitals and isolation wards for COVID-19 patients, (ii) providing ventilators, (iii) expansion of diagnostic capacities, and (iv) community surveillance for the disease.
Permission granted for partial withdrawal from National Pension System
Subscribers of the National Pension System may make partial withdrawals to fulfil their financial needs. Withdrawals will be permitted on formal request by the subscriber. Funds may be utilised for the treatment of the illness of a subscriber, his spouse, children (including adopted children), or dependent parents.
All pending income tax refunds up to five lakh rupees to be issued
To provide immediate relief to businesses and individuals, all pending income-tax refunds up to five lakh rupees, will be issued immediately. This is estimated to benefit approximately 14 lakh taxpayers. Further, all pending GST and Customs refunds will be issued. This will benefit around one lakh business entities. The total refund granted will be approximately Rs 18,000 crore.
Compensation for Food Corporation of India Employees in case of death due to COVID-19
The central government has approved the proposal for monetary compensation to 1.08 lakh workers of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) including 80,000 labourers who are working to supply food grains across the country. Currently, families of FCI employees are entitled to compensation in the event of death due to terrorist attack, bomb blast, mob attack or natural disaster. However, the regular and contractual labour of FCI are not covered. Under this proposal, all workers on duty will be insured in the event of death due to COVID-19 between March 24, 2020 and 23 September, 2020. Regular labour will be entitled to 15 lakh rupees, contractual labour will be entitled to 10 lakh rupees, category 1 officers will be entitled to 35 lakh rupees, category 2 officers will be entitled to 30 lakh rupees, and category 3 and 4 workers will be entitled to 25 lakh rupees.
NGOs permitted to buy food grains directly from FCI for relief operations
The government noted that NGOs and charitable organisations are playing an important role in providing food to thousands of poor people during the lockdown. To ensure uninterrupted supply of food grain to these organisations, the central government has directed FCI to provide wheat and rice to NGOs at the Open Market Sale Scheme rate. These rates are generally reserved for state governments and registered bulk users. This implies that these organisations can purchase one to ten metric tonnes of wheat and rice at a time from FCI at the predetermined reserve prices.
Increasing financial resources
Reduction in salaries and benefits to Members of Parliament
The centre issued two Ordinances to amend: (i) the Salary, Allowances, and Pension of Members of Parliament Act, 1954 to reduce the salaries of MPs by 30% for a period of one year, and (ii) the Salaries and Allowances of Ministers Act, 1952, to reduce the sumptuary allowance of Ministers by 30% for one year. The government also amended the rules notified under the 1954 Act to reduce certain allowances of MPs for one year, and suspended the MPLAD Scheme for two years. The MPLAD scheme enables members of parliament to recommend developmental work in their constituencies. These changes are being made to supplement the financial resources of the centre to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. The proposed reduction to the salaries and allowances of MPs and Ministers amounts to savings of around Rs 55 crore, and the suspension of the MPLAD scheme is expected to save Rs 7,800 crore. These measures comprise 0.03% and 4.5% respectively, of the estimated amount required to fight the immediate economic distress unleashed due to COVID.
For more information on the implications of the reduction of salaries and benefits to MPs, please see here.
For more information on the spread of COVID-19 and the central and state government response to the pandemic, please see here.
The National Anti-Doping Bill, 2021 is listed for passage in Rajya Sabha today. It was passed by Lok Sabha last week. The Bill creates a regulatory framework for anti-doping rule violations in sports. It was examined by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Sports, and some of their recommendations have been incorporated in the Bill passed by Lok Sabha.
Doping is the consumption of certain prohibited substances by athletes to enhance performance. Across the world, doping is regulated and monitored by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) which is an independent international agency established in 1999. WADA’s primary role is to develop, harmonise, and coordinate anti-doping regulations across all sports and countries. It does so by ensuring proper implementation of the World Anti-Doping Code (WADA Code) and its standards. In this blog post, we discuss the need of the framework proposed by the Bill, and give insights from the discussion on the Bill in Lok Sabha.
Doping in India
Recently, two Indian athletes failed the doping test and are facing provisional suspension. In the past also, Indian athletes have been found in violation of anti-doping rules. In 2019, according to WADA, most of the doping rule violations were committed by athletes from Russia (19%), followed by Italy (18%), and India (17%). Most of the doping rule violations were committed in bodybuilding (22%), followed by athletics (18%), cycling (14%), and weightlifting (13%). In order to curb doping in sports, WADA requires all countries to have a framework regulating anti-doping activities managed by their respective National Anti-Doping Organisations.
Currently, doping in India is regulated by the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA), which was established in 2009 as an autonomous body under the Societies Registration Act, 1860. One issue with the existing framework is that the anti-doping rules are not backed by a legislation and are getting challenged in courts. Further, NADA is imposing sanctions on athletes without a statutory backing. Taking into account such instances, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Sports (2021) had recommended that the Department of Sports bring in an anti-doping legislation. Other countries such as the USA, UK, Germany, and Japan have enacted legislations to regulate anti-doping activities.
Framework proposed by the National Anti-Doping Bill, 2021
The Bill seeks to constitute NADA as a statutory body headed by a Director General appointed by the central government. Functions of the Agency include planning, implementing and monitoring anti-doping activities, and investigating anti-doping rule violations. A National Anti-Doping Disciplinary Panel will be set up for determining consequences of anti-doping rule violations. This panel will consist of legal experts, medical practitioners, and retired athletes. Further, the Board will constitute an Appeal Panel to hear appeals against decisions of the Disciplinary Panel. Athletes found in violation of anti-doping rules may be subject to: (i) disqualification of results including forfeiture of medals, points, and prizes, (ii) ineligibility to participate in a competition or event for a prescribed period, (iii) financial sanctions, and (iv) other consequences as may be prescribed. Consequences for team sports will be specified by regulations.
Initially, the Bill did not have provisions for protected athletes but after the Standing Committee’s recommendation, provisions for such athletes have been included in the Bill. Protected persons will be specified by the central government. As per the WADA Code, a protected person is someone: (i) below the age of 16, or (ii) below the age of 18 and has not participated in any international competition in an open category, or (iii) lacks legal capacity as per their country’s legal framework
Issues and discussion on the Bill in Lok Sabha
During the discussion on the Bill, members highlighted several issues. We discuss these below-
Independence of NADA
One of the issues highlighted was the independence of the Director General of NADA. WADA requires National Doping Organisations to be independent in their functioning as they may experience external pressure from their governments and national sports bodies which could compromise their decisions. First, under the Bill, the qualifications of the Director General are not specified and are left to be notified through Rules. Second, the central government may remove the Director General from the office on grounds of misbehaviour or incapacity or “such other ground”. Leaving these provisions to the discretion of the central government may affect the independence of NADA.
Privacy of athletes
NADA will have the power to collect certain personal data of athletes such as: (a) sex or gender, (ii) medical history, and (iii) whereabout information of athletes (for out of competition testing and collection of samples). MPs expressed concerns about maintaining the privacy of athletes. The Union Sports Minister in his response, assured the House that all international privacy standards will be followed during collection and sharing of data. Data will be shared with only relevant authorities.
Under the Bill, NADA will collect and use personal data of athletes in accordance with the International Standard for the Protection of Privacy and Personal Information. It is one of the eight ‘mandatory’ standards of the World Anti-Doping Code. One of the amendments moved by the Union Sports Minister removed the provision relating to compliance with the International Standard for the Protection of Privacy and Personal Information.
Establishing more testing laboratories across states
Currently India has one National Dope Testing Laboratory (NDTL). MPs raised the demand to establish testing laboratories across states to increase testing capacity. The Minister responded by saying that if required in the future, the government will establish more testing laboratories across states. Further, in order to increase testing capacity, private labs may also be set up. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Sports (2022) also emphasised the need to open more dope testing laboratories, preferably one in each state, to cater to the need of the country and become a leader in the South East Asia region in the areas of anti-doping science and education.
In August, 2019 a six-month suspension was imposed on NDTL for not complying with International Standard for Laboratories (ISL) by WADA. The suspension was extended for another six months in July, 2020 due to non-conformity with ISL. The second suspension was to remain in effect until the Laboratory complies with ISL. However, the suspension was extended for another six months in January, 2021 as COVID-19 impacted WADA’s ability to conduct an on-site assessment of the Laboratory. In December, 2021 WADA reinstated the accreditation of NDTL.
Several athletes in India are not aware about the anti-doping rules and the prohibited substances. Due to lack of awareness, they end up consuming prohibited substances through supplements. MPs highlighted the need to conduct more awareness campaigns around anti-doping. The Minister informed the House that in the past one year, NADA has conducted about 100 hybrid workshops relating to awareness on anti-doping. The Bill will enable NADA to conduct more awareness campaigns and research in anti-doping. Further, the central government is working with the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) to test dietary supplements consumed by athletes.
While examining the Bill, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Sports (2022) recommended several measures to improve and strengthen the antidoping ecosystem in the country. These measures include: (i) enforcing regulatory action towards labelling and use of ‘dope-free’ certified supplements, and (ii) mandating ‘dope-free’ certification by independent bodies for supplements consumed by athletes.