Banks once again move top court to keep inspection reports hidden

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The country’s top banks have once again moved the Supreme Court against attempts to make their sensitive inspection reports public under the Right to Information Act.


The inspections are done by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) not even the employees of the banks, except the top management, are allowed to see it. But a 2015 ruling by the Supreme Court telling the RBI to make the reports available under the RTI Act changed all that.





Banks, even the central government, have challenged the ruling in various ways.


State Bank of India, HDFC Bank, Kotak Mahindra Bank, IDFC Bank filed a petition against a notice, in what could be a last-ditch attempt by the Indian banking system to keep confidential information under wraps. The notice was given to the banks under Section 11(1) of the RTI Act seeking third-party disclosure requirements.


It is important to recall here that the RBI allowed making such reports public as a result of the Supreme Court order in 2015. While the Apex court had originally asked for the full report, but subsequently, it was agreed that not the entire report would be made public, but the relevant portions on bad debts, borrowers etc. Nevertheless, even such information can disclose much information about the borrowers, which violates various client confidentiality clauses of banks, the lenders have argued.


In April this year itself, the Supreme Court had dismissed one such attempt by the Central government 10 banks. In early July, the court had again spurred Punjab National Bank against such a request.


In its original ruling in 2015 ruling, the SC had chastised the RBI for trying to keep the inspection reports confidential.


“RBI has no legal duty to maximize the benefit of any public sector or private sector bank, thus there is no relationship of ‘trust’ between them. RBI has a statutory duty to uphold the interest of the public at large, the depositors, the country’s economy, the banking sector,” the Supreme Court had ruled.


In April this year, the SC refused to recall its order as there was no such provision.


“RBI has to act with transparency not hide information that might embarrass the banks that it is duty-bound to comply with the provisions of the act disclose the information sought,” the SC ruled on April 21.


In their latest filing, SBI argued that banks are driven by the “trust faith” of their clients that should not be made public. Private banks, such as HDFC Bank argued that RTI Act is applicable for government departments, the act doesn’t apply for private banks.


Besides, the banks argued that privacy is a fundamental right, therefore should not be violated by making clients’ information public.


The court is scheduled to hear the case on July 22.

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Vegrow raises funding to tap India’s $50 bn fruits, vegetables segment

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Vegrow, a business-to-business agritech platform for fruits vegetables, has raised $13 million in a series A investment round co-led by Lightspeed Venture Partners Elevation Capital. The round also saw participation from existing investors Matrix Partners India, Ankur Capital, Better Capital Titan Capital.


Established in 2020, Vegrow has scaled rapidly among both farmers B2B customers, resulting in nearly 20x top-line growth with a presence in over 30 cities. At the heart of this growth is their unique technology platform, which powers everything from farm discovery, produce quality profiling, market intelligence to smart matchmaking between farm-level inventory customer requirements. The impact of this platform is clear in deep customer love positive unit economics early on in the company’s journey.





The funding would help the firm to expto 100 cities, invest in technology launch new products. Vegrow was founded by IIT alumni Praneeth Kumar, Shobhit Jain, Mrudhukar Batchu Kiran Naik.


“At Vegrow, we focus on select products as compared to building a large basket. Each of these products is a multi-billion dollars’ opportunity,” said the founders of Vegrow. “This enables us to go deep in the product value chain unlock massive growth in this sector. In fact, we have become one of the largest companies for pomegranates in the country in less than a year,” they said.


While India’s B2B agri market is attractive at $300 billion, it is also a complex maze of fragmented supply with over 120 million farmers growing across 30 states. Vegrow is on a mission to unlock the power of India’s agri value chain, initially focusing on the $50 billion fruits high-value vegetables segment. The company addresses challenges around farmlunder-utilization supply fragmentation for farmers delivers consistent quality along with fill rate to customers. Their unique farmer engagement model tech-driven quality profiling are core to delivering higher returns to farmers, reducing supply-chain wastage improving procurement for wholesalers.


“Agriculture as a sector has largely remained removed from digital disruptions, despite the strong tailwinds of increasing internet penetration adoption,” said Akarsh Shrivastava, vice president, Elevation Capital. “We believe any effort to digitize these value chains will have to keep farmers their interests at the core. Vegrow’s farm-centred approach, coupled with strong insights, which are allowing the team to fundamentally re-imagine augment these supply chains, stood out in our interactions.”


Vegrow’s developed deep agri expertise as well as a hyper-growth marketplace culture having previously worked across companies such as ITC, Urban Company Chronus. This combination of deep agri value chain knowledge, product thinking, farmer-empathy makes for a powerful driving force in the sector.


Ritu Verma, partner, Ankur Capital said while Indian consumers businesses have seen tremendous changes in the past 10 years through several waves of innovation, the reality is that fruits vegetables are grown by independent farmers in a nearly identical manner, with dwindling yields. “Vegrow’s tech-enabled processes allow the company to grow their margins while also driving value to the farmers they work with,” said Verma.


Vaibhav Agrawal, partner, Lightspeed, said that having invested in commerce companies like Pinduoduo, OYO Zetwerk, the firm has realized that the number one pressing need of the small supplier, a farmer in this case, is higher revenue realization. It’s not accessing inputs, credit or crop advisory.


“Therefore, we believe companies building marketplaces between farmers buyers, using technology to eliminate inefficiencies will have the largest market opportunity eventually,” said Agrawal.


Sudipto Sannigrahi, vice president, Matrix India, said the Vegrow team has the unique experience know-how of grassroots agriculture. “Infact, a few co-founders come from farming familie! — of building high growth internet marketplaces,” said Sannigrahi. “We love the company’s focus on aggregating fragmented farms to help unlock economies of scale with technology-led interventions which has enabled them to scale rapidly profitably over the last 12 months. We believe they are well-positioned to emerge as the front runners of this space streamline India’s largest yet unorganised industry,” he said.

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Three stocks that are flashing bullish signs in a weak market

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BUY HEMISPHERE PROPERTIES INDIA | TARGET: Rs 170 | STOP LOSS: Rs 148


There has been a gradual increase in trading volumes in the stock over the past couple of trading sessions. The stock recently witnessed a ‘sloping trend-line’ breakout, affirming inherent strength. The 14 period RSI has seen positive crossover is headed northwards. Further, recent chart structure on the Bollinger bsuggests near term outburst in the channel, confrming bullish stance in the counter.





BUY PRISM JOHNSON | TARGET: Rs 152 | STOP LOSS: Rs 127


Prism Johnson has been consolidating since the last few sessions. Although, it has been able to sustain above the mean of the Bollinger band, suggesting strength in the counter. On the daily time frame, the stock is situated well above all its major exponential moving averages, even the leading indicator, Parabolic SAR is situated below the stock price, affirming bullishness in near future.


BUY KEI INDUSTRIES | TARGET: Rs 750 | STOP LOSS: Rs 684


KEI is placed at the crucial support of the mean in Bollinger b(20, 2) previous swing high that coincides with the 21 DEMA, suggesting it to be a strong support for the counter. Also, the secular uptrend in the stock has proved all minor corrections to be good accumulation points for the bulls. The same could be expected at a given point in time as gradual increase in volumes could be seen as the stock tests the mean.

=========================================================================

Disclaimer: Osho Krishan is a senior manager – equity research at AnRathi Shares & Stock Brokers. Views expressed are personal

Dear Reader,

Business Standard has always strived hard to provide up-to-date information commentary on developments that are of interest to you have wider political economic implications for the country the world. Your encouragement constant feedback on how to improve our offering have only made our resolve commitment to these ideals stronger. Even during these difficult times arising out of Covid-19, we continue to remain committed to keeping you informed updated with credible news, authoritative views incisive commentary on topical issues of relevance.

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ICMR, public face of India’s Covid response, comes under fire for decisions

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For a century, the Indian Council of Medical Research was a little known government body quietly studying illnesses in New Delhi. But during the pandemic, it’s taken on a role akin to Anthony Fauci’s National Institute of Allergy Infectious Diseases in the U.S. — a powerful position that’s made it a controversial face of India’s struggles with Covid-19.


As the ICMR has acted as a key medical adviser to Prime Minister Narendra Modi his health ministry, it’s increasingly drawn criticism from the nation’s doctors independent scientists, who have questioned its drug recommendations the group’s lack of transparency on data related to variants identified in India that are now spreading globally.


India struggled to curb the world’s fastest coronavirus surge this summer, public health experts are warning that the country is ill prepared to face a possible third wave of infections. Some of the ICMR’s decisions during the pandemic reflect the broad chaos that’s dogged India’s overwhelmed government apparatus, have ended up benefiting the pharmaceutical industry rather than patients, critics say.


In April last year, physician SP Kalantri — who helps runs a 1,000 bed hospital in the village of Sevagram — wrote to the international scientific journal, The Lancet, strongly criticizing the ICMR for signing off on the health ministry’s decision to recommend the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a Covid therapy. The medicine remained on India’s virus guidelines for almost a year after the drug, once embraced by Donald Trump, was discarded as a treatment for Covid in the U.S.


ALSO READ: Two vaccine doses successful in preventing 95% deaths, says ICMR study


Kalantri’s hospital in Sevagram, a village once home to Mahatma Gandhi, refused to prescribe that other unproven treatments. Desperate patients, however, simply sought them out elsewhere, he said.


“Countrywide, the doctors started writing these prescriptions, which artificially inflated the cost for Covid management,” said Kalantri, director professor of medicine at Sevagram’s Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences. “Big Pharma was laughing all the way to the bank ultimately the one who suffered was the poor patient — it’s where the science failed in India.”


Numerous therapies initially looked promising the ICMR’s guidelines are constantly evolving as trial evidence emerges, said Aparna Mukherjee, a New Delhi-based senior scientist at the ICMR. “It’s very easy to criticize when something is put forward,” she said in an interview. “When you know there is some possibility that this drug might work, then just because it is in shortage you cannot say don’t use it.” Like other Indian government health agencies, the ICMR has been “stretched thin” during the pandemic, Mukherjee said. Spokespeople for the ICMR the Ministry of Health Family Welfare didn’t respond to requests for comment.


Yet criticisms of the ICMR don’t stop there. Over the past year, the government the ICMR have also been accused of withholding data about Covid its variants that left physicians in the country flying blind, of promoting a homegrown vaccine before it had passed key clinical trials. Public health experts say that it isn’t clear how the ICMR decides which Covid drugs to back, have complained that the agency hasn’t fully disclosed how much funding it provided for the local shot.


Such moves have made the ICMR emblematic of India’s struggles with Covid, exemplifying problems in the country’s social political fabric that existed for decades lingered under Modi — from a lack of transparency to the underfunded health-care system.


India’s government needed “better evidence making policy advice from the ICMR,” said Shahid Jameel, a virologist who resigned in May as chair of the advisory panel of a state Covid genome-sequencing panel after criticizing India’s response to the pandemic. The ICMR has also drawn criticism on social media from scientists health care advocates for its decision making recommendations, at times attracting attention overseas.


“The Indian Council of Medical Research has been singled out by experts for straying from scientific evidence, appearing at worst politically motivated at best overly optimistic,” an editorial in the Lancet said in September 2020, discussing the dangers of the “false optimism” that India’s government was projecting even as virus cases continued to rise.


The pandemic has killed more than 400,000 people in India, numbers that experts say are vastly undercounted. As infections surged this summer, hospitals ran short of life-saving oxygen some patients died in the streets. This month, India’s federal health minister, Harsh Vardhan, resigned amid a broad cabinet reshuffle by Modi, whose popularity has taken a hit over the government’s handling of the pandemic. But the ICMR hasn’t changed.








ALSO READ: Third wave may hit by August-end, but it isn’t inevitable: ICMR official


Headquartered in New Delhi, opposite India’s parliament, the ICMR was set up in 1911 by British colonial rulers was traditionally focused on research. Covid-19 thrust the organization into the uncharted waters of actually managing an outsized viral outbreak.


In past epidemics, India’s National Centre for Disease Control — which has several infectious disease experts on its board — has played a bigger role. Yet the ICMR has become the more public face of India’s response to Covid-19, a development some scientists questioned. Sujeet Kumar Singh, the director general of the NCDC, didn’t respond to an interview request.


ICMR’s Mukherjee acknowledged that the ICMR’s remit had widened during the pandemic said that was due to the “need of the hour.” It’s taken on added responsibilities such as testing procurement of diagnostic equipment, she said.


Funded through the health ministry, the organization has a budget of 23.5 billion rupees ($316 million) this year backs hundreds of scientist fellowships. ICMR-linked researchers published more the 800 papers in Indian international journals, according to its last annual report.


Since 2018, it’s been headed by Balram Bhargava, a cardiolologist. The ICMR has several experts focused on diseases like malaria that have traditionally been India’s biggest public health concerns, but few virologists work for the agency. Bhargava didn’t respond to multiple requests for an interview.


With its states easing lockdowns despite only about 6% of the population being fully vaccinated, India is at risk of new waves of infection. But experts question whether India’s health network will be better prepared when the next resurgence comes.


“There is a distinct uneasiness in the scientific community on the government’s handling of the pandemic” the “opaqueness of the process of consultations, consensus building, data sharing, decision making,” said Lalit Kant, who headed the ICMR’s epidemiology communicable diseases division for 13 years until 2011. “If we want the third wave to be managed appropriately then we need evidence-based insights.”


In April, almost 300 Indian scientists medical researchers appealed to Modi to allow them access to data that could help study, predict, curb the spread of the coronavirus. While the ICMR has data on all Indians who’ve been tested for Covid so far, it restricts access, they say.


“The ICMR database is inaccessible to anyone outside of the government perhaps also to many within the government,” the scientists wrote. “While new pandemics can have unpredictable features, our inability to adequately manage the spread of infections has, to a large extent, resulted from epidemiological data not being systematically collected released in a timely manner to the scientific community.”


The ICMR conducted some of the most comprehensive serological surveys last year, including studying the presence of antibodies in various groups. It’s also recently published research on mortality rates during the country’s recent devastating second wave. Scientists outside of the government system have said they haven’t had access to this data.


This gatekeeping of crucial information on the genomic makeup of local virus strains, testing immune response to vaccines has left India flying blind as it contends with the new highly infectious delta variant, which was first identified in the South Asian country is now spreading worldwide, say some researchers.


“Granular data on antibody surveys, clinical severity of disease, demographics, etc., has not been made available in the public domain,” said Jameel, the Indian virologist. “Open data would have allowed better modeling, better preparation perhaps saved lives.”


Mukherjee at the ICMR said there aren’t constraints on data anyone with a proper proposal can access it, though she didn’t elaborate on what criteria they needed to meet.


The ICMR’s work with local company, Bharat Biotech International Ltd., on a homegrown Covid vaccine, has also drawn criticism from the scientific community. Earlier this year, the shot, called Covaxin, was approved by India’s government for emergency use before final trials were completed, a move doctors public health experts said was premature fueled widespread hesitancy.


While approvals in India are handled by the drug regulator, the ICMR helped finance the vaccine’s development, although it has not publicly said how much funding it provided. The company, India’s government the ICMR have been further criticized for not making the details of the intellectual property rights to Covaxin public. Bharat Biotech in a statement last month said it will pay unspecified royalties to the ICMR India’s National Institute of Virology.


Pandemic frontlines


Bharat Biotech the ICMR have published studies showing potentially encouraging results on the vaccine’s effectiveness against new variants. However, because the papers have been authored by officials from the company agency, scientists have pointed to conflict of interest issues.


Mukherjee from the ICMR declined to comment on the funding intellectual property rights around Covaxin, but said final trial efficacy data should be published soon in a peer-reviewed journal, which was reiterated by a spokesperson for Bharat Biotech.


Back on the frontlines of the pandemic in Sevagram, Kalantri is mainly concerned about the poor in rural areas, some of whom went into debt buying medicines. Prices of some drugs — such as Remdesivir, which was added to India’s guidelines in March 2020 — soared more than tenfold on the black market.


Remdesivir is approved used as a Covid treatment in the U.S. elsewhere, but the World Health Organization has said there isn’t enough evidence to back it as therapy because the drug hasn’t been shown to improve survival in patients.


Its widespread use in India was particularly devastating because many had to pay for it out of pocket in a country where few have medical insurance average incomes are less than $160 a month. Experts bodies including the All India Drug Action Network, an umbrella group of non profits advocating drug access in India, have been critical of India’s continued advocacy of Remdesivir.


Gilead Sciences Inc., which makes Remdesivir, didn’t respond to a request for comment. ICMR’s Mukherjee said there was little the agency could do about price increases that arose in the black market.


ALSO READ: What ICMR study reveals about efficacy of Covishield against Delta strain


Convalescent plasma therapy, too, remained on the list for months despite the ICMR’s own studies in November finding little benefit. Until late June, the health ministry’s guidelines also recommended Ivermectin, an anti-parasitic treatment that was untested against Covid, even though the WHO discouraged its use as far back as March 2021.


“I’m very sad disappointed,” Kalantri said about the ICMR.


Meanwhile, even with the coronavirus at its peak in India this summer, an index of local pharmaceutical stocks advanced 21% this year Alliance Bernstein estimates that drugmakers’ sales volumes surged 36% in May from a year earlier due to Covid-related demand.


The pandemic has shown up India’s failure to strengthen medical bodies that are “weak functioning sub-optimally,” said Chandrakant Lahariya, a New Delhi-based epidemiologist public health expert who has co-authored a book on the nation’s battle against Covid.


“It is not merely about the Covid-19 pandemic response, but also about preparing Indian institutions for the future,” Lahariya said. “That opportunity seems to have been lost.”

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World is ‘moving further away’ from end of COVID-19 pandemic: WHO official

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A top scientist at the World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Monday that the world is shifting further away from the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, owing to factors like viral variants, social mixing, the flouting of public health measures vaccine inequities.

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, epidemiologist WHO COVID-19 technical lead, noted an 11.5% increase in global cases over the last week, with a 1% increase in deaths. Europe saw a 21% uptick in infections last week, while the Western Pacific experienced a nearly 30% increase, for instance. Though data reflects a slight dip in the African region, Kerkhove warned Africa is experiencing a high level of cases an approximate 60% increase in deaths.

The highly transmissible Delta variant is the latest of four such viral variants of concern under surveillance. The variant, detected in at least 111 countries, has also been blamed for COVID-19 cases rising across the U.S. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky on Friday warned that the outbreak in the U.S. is becoming “a pandemic of the unvaccinated” because nearly all hospital admissions deaths are among those who hadn’t been immunized.

WHO SAYS IT WILL FIX MULTIPLE ‘UNINTENDED ERRORS’ IN REPORT WITH CHINA ON COVID-19 ORIGINS: REPORT

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, epidemiologist WHO COVID-19 technical lead, noted an 11.5% increase in global cases over the last week, with a 1% increase in deaths.
(Fabrice Coffrini/Pool via REUTERS)

COMMON CHOLESTEROL DRUG MAY REDUCE COVID-19 SEVERITY, STUDY FINDS

“In the context of virus variants, increased social mobility, social mixing, inappropriate use of public health social measures inequitable vaccine distribution, we’re in a very dangerous situation,” Kerkhove said. “It’s becoming more more challenging we’re moving further away from the end of this pandemic than we should be at this point in time.”

The comments follow the eighth meeting of the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee last week, which noted “governments are making increasingly divergent policy decisions that address narrow national needs which inhibit a harmonized approach to the global response,” per a WHO release.

“The Committee noted that, despite national, regional, global efforts, the pandemic is nowhere near finished,” adding that the current state of the pandemic still needs “a coordinated international response.”

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Nearly a quarter of the global population, or 24.7%, has received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, with over three billion doses administered, the WHO reported as of July 13.  Nearly 30 million doses are administered worldwide daily, 1% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose, figures show.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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