New Modi-Shah Ministry of Cooperation Mystifies; Media Gets High Court Cover, Not Twitter

Plus: Zika found in Kerala, Data Protection Bill pending while committee members become ministers, schools online but fees raised, and after 4 lakh Covid deaths, a novelty—Modi alarmed about crowds

A newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas | Contributors: MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam | Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

An unformatted version of the newsletter was erroneously sent out earlier. We apologise for the inconvenience.

Snapshot of the day
July 9, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

In the first meeting with his new council of ministers, Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed concern about viral pictures of crowds of tourists thronging Manali and Mussoorie. He said that such scenes were unpleasant and should instil fear. It’s a pleasant change from the BJP’s enthusiasm about the Kumbh Mela and the West Bengal election campaign, which contributed to the magnitude of the second wave. ‘I’ve never seen such a large crowd’, a visibly pleased Modi had said at a rally in Bengal at the height of the second wave.

“Harsh Vardhan, 66, paid the price for India’s inability to control or cope with an outbreak that overwhelmed hospitals, and which for the first time since Narendra Modi, the prime minister, came to power in 2014, led to Modi being vilified on social media,” reportsThe Times, London.

Kerala has been put on alert after the Zika virus was detected in a pregnant woman in Thiruvananthapuram. The National Institute of Virology in Pune confirmed the infection yesterday.

The Supreme Court on Friday refused to accept the Union government’s plea that all high court hearings on the controversial IT Rules be stayed till its petition seeking the transfer of all these cases to the apex court is decided. The court has listed the transfer petition for July 26 and all high courts currently hearing challenges by various media organisations against the IT Rules will be free to proceed as usual. Also, on Friday, the Kerala High Court directed the Union government to refrain from taking coercive action against members of the News Broadcasters Association for failing to comply with the Rules.

There is fear and angst amid overt signs of normalcy in the Kashmir Valley, reports The Tribune. “We are hurt and our confidence stands shaken. However irrelevant they may seem, the politicians are right in saying that confidence-building measures should be taken before people run out of patience,” say apprehensive residents of the Valley.

Eastern Ladakh is facing all sorts of trouble due to the serious situation on the China border. Now, a report shows, Eastern Ladakh students have been suffering because schools in this region have been completely shut due to the Covid-19 pandemic, like in other parts of the country. But they have no internet, either, so life is completely shut down.

The number of people working as a proportion of the people who wish to join the workforce has come down dramatically over the years. As per CMIE data, 41.85 crore Indians were employed out of 95.33 crore people looking for work five years ago. While the number of people looking for work has gone up to 106.63 crore, only 38.33 crore are employed now.

The Bombay High Court has asked the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the government of Maharashtra to clarify whether a sessions judge not designated as a Special Court under the NIA Act could hear cases pertaining to scheduled offences under the Act. This could have serious consequences for the 15 Bhima Koregaon bail (or, frankly, denial of bail) matters being heard.

WhatsApp has said it will not enforce its new privacy policy – which many users in India and elsewhere have objected to – till India’s privacy law is enacted. But there’s another problem. The cabinet expansion saw five members of the Joint Committee on Personal Data Protection Bill, including chairperson Meenakshi Lekhi, being made ministers, which raises questions over the fate of the long pending report of the panel. The inductees include new Minister for Electronics and Information Technology Ashwini Vaishnaw and his MoS Rajeev Chandrashekhar. 

Vaishnaw has assumed office with the message ― obviously directed at Twitter, which has sought time to comply with the new IT rules ― that companies operating in India must abide by national laws. The Delhi High Court has said that it will not protect Twitter if the central government moves against it. Unlike several digital media companies which have challenged the vires of the IT Rules in court, Twitter has not contested the constitutionality of the government’s move.

Amit Shah’s new deputy Nisith Pramanik’s educational qualifications have triggered a controversy. His Lok Sabha and Assembly election affidavits show the secondary level as his highest educational qualification, but his profile on the Lok Sabha website states a bachelor’s qualification, from a rural middle school. In addition, the new MoS, Home, “had mentioned 11 criminal cases against him in his 2019 affidavit and 13 cases in a 2021 affidavit, including charges of murder, dacoity, theft, and possession of explosives.”

VK Sasikala, Jayalalithaa’s aide aka ‘Chinamma’, now looks set to step out and stake her claim to the AIADMK. That is what this long interview in The Week is pointing towards.

There were eight major coal ash breach accidents in the past two years. Penalties were levied but were not paid by coal-based power plants. Highlighting the current state of fly ash-related accidents at coal-based power plants in India in the last two years, a new study shows that despite levying penalties and fines, several power plants did not deposit the full compensation money. Breach accidents continued, too.

The first batch of Indian sportspersons for the Tokyo Olympics is set to depart on July 17. During the games, Tokyo will be in a state of emergency due to the pandemic. 


Sluggish vaccination rates worrying

Vaccination rates continue to alarm. After the self-congratulatory publicity over the June 21 vaccination ‘record’, concern is back on how India will fulfil its commitment to vaccinate the country’s population to a significant degree before the year is out. India has barely managed to reach 4 million vaccine doses in the past couple of days. Yesterday’s vaccinations were 39,14,445 doses, according to CoWIN. ‘Aspirational’?

Six months into the Covid-19 vaccination programme, only eight states have inoculated more than 10% of their target population with both doses of a vaccine whereas Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand gave both doses to less than 5% of their targeted individuals. Only two large states ― Kerala (13.2%) and Gujarat (13.07%) ― are among the eight top performers. The rest are smaller and less populous Himachal Pradesh (14.66%), Uttarakhand (10.35%), Delhi (12.57%), Tripura (22.85%), Sikkim (23.6%) and Arunachal Pradesh (10.62%). Also, the Gujarat government has suspended the vaccination drive for two days on Thursday and Friday, apparently amidst shortage of doses.

In the first seven days after June 21, India’s daily average of vaccine doses doubled to 6.1 million. But July’s average so far is 4.13 million. The slowdown is across the board. Of the 36 states and Union territories, 29 saw a drop in weekly doses. Among major states, the largest weekly drops were seen in Chhattisgarh (65%), Himachal Pradesh (61%), and Tripura (61%). Concerns about a third wave remain. “The decline in new cases appears to be ebbing. More districts are progressively reporting a week-on-week increase in new cases: from 110 two weeks ago to 141 districts last week to 156 this week”, says a detailed report in Mint.


Pandemic widows in distress

The South China Morning Post reports that though no numbers are available on how many women in India have been widowed by the pandemic, since the Modi government has not released gender-specific details, most experts point out that the male mortality rate for Covid-19 is higher. This means that more women have been left partnerless, and many children are missing a parent. According to various estimates, there are 40-50 million widows in the population of some 1.4 billion people. In a deeply patriarchal system, where widow remarriage is still frowned upon and widowed mothers are frequently treated with disdain, many of these widows are in dire circumstances. 


Forced cohabitation with estranged spouse challenged legally

Can a person be forced to cohabit with their estranged spouse against their will? It’s a question involving the fundamental right to privacy, and sexual autonomy. The Supreme Court yesterday gave the Union government 10 days to spell out its stand on a petition challenging the law on restitution of conjugal rights under the Hindu Marriage Act and the Special Marriage Act. The petitioners contend that provisions of law allow courts to ask estranged spouses to “cohabit” and “take part in sexual intercourse” to restore the conjugal rights of the aggrieved spouse. 

While the law allows two consenting adults to marry despite opposition from their families, in Tamil Nadu, after some rules issued in 2017 under the AIADMK, government officers keen to minimise backlash by angry family members and caste organisations insist on summoning the couple’s parents at the marriage registration. Now, some organisations want to challenge it and force a change in the rules again, so adults can choose their spouse and not be infantilised.


Violence by ruling BJP in UP local polls

In a video on social media, a Samajwadi Party worker is manhandled and her sari is yanked by two BJP men as nominations were filed for local polls in Uttar Pradesh. The woman was reportedly a proposer for an SP candidate in block panchayat polls and was trying to enter a nomination centre when she was attacked. They also snatched the nomination papers to prevent her from filing them in time; the police said the men were trying to ensure their candidate would be elected unopposed. 

Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav accused BJP leaders and workers of anarchy and violence as nominations were filed for the election of chairpersons of kshetra panchayats. “This is an act of polluting the democratic system,” Yadav said. The SP chief also demanded another opportunity to file nominations.

The Allahabad High Court has ordered the police to escort candidates filing nominations. “Any attempt from any corner including State authorities or district administration to damage the system of free and fair poll is not conducive to democratic functioning of the State,” the Court has stated. 


Reportedly

The new ‘Ministry of Cooperation’ is raising questions. The top one: are the other ministries uncooperative? Last time we heard the term ‘cooperative’, it went with federalism, and we know how India has fared on that count. So what is this about? As a senior journalist pondered, should the spelling be changed? If it is to be a Ministry of Cooperatives, thought up to directly control or interfere with cooperatives which fall in the domain of state governments, should it not be spelt differently? Then, there is another apprehension. Is it just the formalisation of securing the RSS’s penetration in all manner of organisations ― cooperatives being closest to the ground, and equipped with resources. The third question is, why should it be handed to the Home Minister? It is a closer cousin of agriculture (where there is already a department of agriculture, cooperation and farmers’ welfare), or rural development, not home. Could this be linked to the important political role cooperatives play in a crucial state like Maharashtra, currently ruled by the opposition?


Freedom of speech incidental, says Twitter in Hegde case

In a note submitted to the Delhi High Court in connection with the suspension of senior advocate Sanjay Hegde’s Twitter account, the platform has said that “services on the Twitter platform is a contractual relationship and in its commercial venture, that it incidentally also serves the ends of freedom of speech and expression, would not convert the nature of the activity.” Twitter has asserted that since it provides contractual services to its users as per its terms and conditions, any dispute would go before ordinary courts for redressal and not to the High Courts under writ jurisdiction. 

Hegde moved the High Court under its writ jurisdiction in December 2019 after his Twitter account was permanently suspended for allegedly re-tweeting two posts. The government, in its response filed through central government standing counsel Kirtiman Singh, said the issue of suspension of account was prima facie between Hegde and Twitter, and it has not directed that the account be suspended.


Prime Number: 1%
That is Twitter’s compliance rate for the Modi government’s requests between January and June 2020, compared to Facebook’s 50%. 

Father Stan’s case “not just a murder but an act of torture to death”

A statement from Father Stan’s family and friends decries his death as “the institutional murder of a gentle soul by an inhuman state”. That sounds about right, notes The Economist. Jean Dreze, who had worked with Father Stan Swamy in Jharkhand, tells The News Minute about his death in judicial custody: “I would say that it was not just a murder but an act of torture to death. Stan was 84 years old and in poor health. He has advanced Parkinson’s disease, debilitating arthritis and other ailments. In prison, he also suffered from other ailments including severe headaches, diarrhea and Covid-19. Taloja, where he was incarcerated, is a grossly overcrowded prison with thousands of inmates and no allopathic doctor. Sending him there was like a death sentence. There was no logical reason for it. Stan never tried to run away and always cooperated with the investigation agencies. There was no question of him tampering with evidence or indulging in unlawful activities. Denying him bail was an act of abominable cruelty, almost inexplicable ― except that this is the way most UAPA undertrials are treated. Bail is almost always denied.”


Deep Dive

A sudden increase in the price of crude impacts the Indian economy in a number of ways. As India is a net importer, higher payments for crude impact the current account, while local inflation rises unless higher global prices are balanced by local tax cuts. If retail fuel prices remain high, the impact on growth is felt through consumption, as disposable income in the hands of consumers drops. BloombergQuint on how rising oil prices affect the Indian economy.


Schools are online, but fees raised

According to a new survey by LocalCircles, 63% of parents said that the schools their children go to have increased aggregate fees this year, despite classes being online. Thirty-three percent of parents said that the schools their children go to have increased fees by over 20% this year. Further, 65% of parents said their state government has been inactive or ineffective in regulating school fees during the pandemic. The survey received more than 26,000 responses from citizens in 302 districts. 


Rooh Afza rules

India, Pakistan and Bangladesh alike enjoy the sweet and herbal taste of Rooh Afza, a beverage that has endured the region’s turbulent history. The New York Times reports on the cordial whose formula is as secret as that of Coca-Cola, and which does not know that Partition ever happened. The drink annually brings in about $45 million of profit in India alone. Most of it goes to a trust that funds schools, universities and clinics.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Only 2% of the cases prosecuted under the UAPA have ended in convictions, so that is not its purpose, writes Julio Ribeiro. The state is more interested in the process that keeps the accused in jail for years, neutralising their ability to organise a viable opposition to unjust projects that rob the poor of their rights and even their livelihood.

  • Dr K Srinath Reddy writes that besides strong health system competencies, the pandemic response must pay attention to urban redesign to replace slums with better housing, provide for less crowded public transport and safe cycling lanes and more open and green spaces, apart from the usual developmental goals.

  • The Indian government is afraid of Twitter and “the social media platform is a casualty of the government’s fear of dissent — and it’s not the only one,” write Christophe Jaffrelot and Aditya Sharma.

  • March 1978 may have been a turbulent time for the national capital for many reasons, but the tornado that struck the University of Delhi then was something else. Annika Taneja goes back to the eye of the storm.

  • Neha Sinha writes that according to the latest State of India’s Birds report, peafowl numbers have actually gone up in the last few decades. Other common birds, such as the yellow-fronted pied woodpecker, the common woodshrike and the Indian thick-knee have declined.

  • Sana Goyal writes on debut author Soumya Roy who follows Farzana Shaikh, a teenage waste picker, for eight years as she finds toys, snacks, jeans, friendships and love on the garbage mountains of Mumbai. Through her life, Roy looks at overconsumption, pollution, climate change and how the most vulnerable bear the brunt of it.


Listen Up

The pandemic has unravelled India’s weak disability support system. Persons with disabilities make up over 2% of the Indian population. Among a segment, rare diseases are chronic and can lead to major disability. Listen to this episode of the podcast Rare Lives that details the absence of support for those with disabilities.


Watch Out

The Cinematograph Act amendments “could create McCarthyism; Amitabh, Shah Rukh, Salman, Aamir are taking it lightly and must speak out,” Kamal Haasan tells Karan Thapar 


Over and Out

‘Mahanadi’: Anita Agnihotri’s epic Bengali novel following the course of a river is now available in English. Read an excerpt from Nivedita Sen’s translation.

Director Mani Ratnam and Jayendra have made an anthology based on ‘Navarasas’ or nine emotions central to existence. They say in this interview that it kept them “sane during the pandemic.”

Visitors have been flocking to a farm in Bangladesh to see the country's latest celebrity: Rani, a dwarf cow. The 23-month-old Bhutti, or Bhutanese, cow stands just 51cm (20 in) high, and weighs 28 kg. More than 15,000 people have reportedly visited Rani at her farm in Charigram, near Dhaka.


That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you on Monday, on a device near you. If The India Cable was forwarded to you by a friend (perhaps a common friend!) book your own copy by SUBSCRIBING HERE.