One Lakh Infants Died In Economic Slowdown; ‘Pipeline Of Assets’ To be Monetised

Plus: Vaccine shortages confirmed by poll, UP criminal appeals take 35 years, new charge thrown at Bhima-Koregaon accused, opposition appeals to the citizen, and blue whales sing off Lakshadweep

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

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Snapshot of the day
August 24, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

The Modi government has scheduled an all-party meeting for the day after tomorrow on the Afghanistan situation. Floor leaders will be briefed, mainly on the evacuations. A definitive statement by the government on the Taliban dispensation is still awaited.

A Delhi court yesterday said that “we are not in a Taliban state”, while dismissing the anticipatory bail application of Hindu Raksha Dal president Pinky Chaudhary, who is under investigation for his alleged role in the hate speech at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. The court said that Chaudhary’s speech was “impregnated with high octane communal barbs, insulting and threatening gestures ex facie is indicative of the calculative design on the part of the applicant to promote hatred and ill-will amongst other sections of society.”

The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has hurt textile traders and exporters in Surat, Gujarat. Payments of over Rs 100 crore have been stuck since the beginning of August. “We don’t have the accurate figure but it’s a substantial amount, since Surat is a major hub of textiles exports to countries like Afghanistan and Iran,” said Ashish Gujarati, head of the South Gujarat Chamber of Commerce and Industries. The trade consists of finished garments like Punjabi ‘suits’ and dupattas, dress material and fabrics, and is conducted through traders and agents in Dubai, Dhaka and Delhi.

Confirming what is widely known, a survey by Local Circles has found that 29% of 9,516 respondents knew two or more persons who were turned away for want of Covid vaccine doses in the past month. Another 10% knew at least one such person. Less than six million doses have been administered daily in this period. About 9.9 million doses must be administered daily to fully vaccinate all adults by the end of December.

The Supreme Court has been told that on average, persons in UP who appeal against a criminal trial court conviction in the Allahabad High Court must wait 35 years for a verdict, since 1.83 lakh appeals are pending. If their offence is serious, then they must be behind bars for that period. Simultaneously, the UP government has suggested to the apex court that bail pleas of life convicts may be considered after they have served 10 years or half their maximum term. Is UP facing a population explosion behind bars? 

As per records till March 31, more than 8,645 employees of UP Jal Nigam have not been paid salaries for five months while 13,676 retired employees have not received pension since April. 

A Muslim bangle seller from Hardoi was assaulted and looted by vigilantes in Indore, for selling his wares in a “Hindu area”, apparently under a Hindu name, a common strategy to evade prejudice. He has since been accused of inappropriate behaviour by the minor daughter of one of the assailants, and charged with serious offences under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. He has also been charged with impersonation, something he has also denied.

The Modi government is misleading us on high fuel prices and oil bonds, writes Vivek Kaul. Between 2015 and 2021, 4.1% of excise duty collected on petroleum products has gone towards paying interest on oil bonds. In 2020-21, this stood at just 2.7%.

The Defence Research and Development Organisation may not have produced any state-of-the-art military platforms in recent years, but they have developed biodegradable bags for mahaprasadam laddu at the Tirumala temple. 

The Paralympic Games kick off in Tokyo today, and India has sent the largest contingent ever.


1 lakh infants died in economic slowdown

World Bank researchers writing in the British Medical Journal have shown that the economic decline accompanying Covid-19 may have caused nearly one lakh excess infant deaths last year in India. The study showed over 267,000 excess infant deaths in low and middle-income countries last year, 99,642 of them in India. India has the highest annual births (242,38,000) and a large projected economic shortfall of -17.3%.


Umar Khalid’s case loops the loop

Jailed student activist Umar Khalid’s lawyer Tridip Pais laid out precisely how his client was framed on the basis of footage on Republic TV and TV18 showing a BJP tweet. Pais held that the press played an edited video of his speech, which was initially tweeted by BJP social media panjandrum Amit Malviya. Pais said that Delhi Police had sought raw footage of the speech from TV18. They responded that they did not have raw footage and had taken it from a tweet by a BJP member. If this looks circular, it’s because it is indeed circular. Khalid’s full speech was never transcribed or shown by the police to the court for a reason: it was a call for peaceful, Gandhian protest.

Pais started by telling the court that the police have registered 715 FIRs and Umar was “not named in a single FIR”. He said that the FIR against him under the draconian UAPA is “unnecessary and has been drafted and filed in order to target people selectively based on opposition to CAA.” Pais told the court that in each of the riot FIRs, a cognisable offence was disclosed, but in the present FIR, there is no such thing.


Pipeline to sell ― well, sort of

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman yesterday announced “a pipeline of assets” that the Centre will monetise, including in railways, roads, power and airports, to raise Rs 6 trillion by the end of its term to finance infrastructure development. The Centre underlines it is “not selling” because the private sector will return brownfield assets to the government in a few years. But there is insufficient clarity on the mode. Will it be structured like an operation and maintenance concession? Will operators set prices for users, allowing the government to evade responsibility for price hikes? 

The PM’s announcements on infrastructure in this year’s Independence Day speech were identical to speeches made in 2019 and 2020. In each, old schemes were framed as new. The National Monetisation Pipeline proposal became controversial almost immediately. “Sale of the country’s properties worth Rs 6 lakh crore ― roads, rail, mines, telecom, power, gas, airports, ports, sports stadium… Modi-ji will sell everything from the earth to the sky. If there is BJP, then the assets of the country will not be saved,” said the Congress. The Left and the Trinamool Congress came down heavily against the plan to ‘monetise’ public assets. 


Court ponders children born out of wedlock

The Gujarat High Court has sought to know whether a woman is under any obligation to disclose the name of the father of her child conceived out of wedlock. “The pure question of law would be, if a lady conceives, and it is her call that, ‘I want to have a child but I don’t want to marry’, then which provisions would be violated if she takes this call?” the court asked. Justice Paresh Upadhyay also asked whether one should look for a criminal angle into the case of a woman who does not want to disclose the identify of the father of the child she has given birth to without marriage, even if she has not complained of rape. 

The court made the observations on August 19 while hearing an appeal by a convict against a lower court sentencing him to 10 years’ rigorous imprisonment for raping a minor under Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code and provisions of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO). The victim, a resident of Junagadh, had given birth to two children of the convict with whom she lived without marrying, and without complaining.


The Long Cable

Opposition appeals not to voters but to citizens

Pratik Kanjilal

Last week, 19 Opposition parties met virtually to launch a concerted campaign for the 2024 elections. The first step: a stir from September 20 to 30. The commitment was met with gentle derision, because the Opposition has struggled to corner the government for outrages like the relentless rise in fuel prices, which diverts the burden of corporate sops to the consumer, and its alleged use of Pegasus. 

However, the Opposition got something right: it called upon “the people of India” to rise to the occasion and “save India”. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said that who leads the front is unimportant, because the people would lead. This was not an appeal to voters but to citizens, a reminder that they do not sporadically gain political agency when they enter a polling booth, but retain it in everyday life. It was a call to take to the streets, because when government by discussion falters in Parliament, the country’s most important conversation must seek public venues. To make that very point, protesting farmers and the Opposition have held parallel parliaments outside the precincts of the museum of democracy. Now, they seek to move further afield, beyond the restrictions of party interests, in search of critical mass. It could work.

The day before the Opposition meet, Facebook briefly deactivated the group page of the ‘No Vote to BJP’ movement (with 33,000 members) in West Bengal, which is perceived to have swung the floating vote in favour of the Trinamool Congress in the crucial Assembly election earlier this year. It has no party affiliations, not even with the TMC. Its visible faces are scholars, publishers and filmmakers in real life, and they stepped up at a time when the BJP had positioned the state election like a national referendum on its 56” audacity, and thought it was done and dusted. 

The BJP had deployed all its big guns on the campaign trail, so many that farmers’ leader Rakesh Tikait complained that he would have to relocate his agitation to Kolkata to get the attention of the Union government. The campaign was so massive that it amplified the second wave of the pandemic in the state, causing needless deaths. In other ways, too, it wasn’t perfect. At every rally, the Prime Minister insisted on mangling the BJP’s Bangla slogan, “asol poriborton” (“real change”, negatively referencing the slogan that made Mamata Banerjee chief minister), into something unprintable. UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said he had come to West Bengal to protect the state’s women. To them, it sounded like a threat, and it could have lost the BJP a chunk of the women’s vote. But the sheer scale of the campaign ―  what the press admiringly calls “the BJP juggernaut” ― had convinced people that the party was unstoppable. 

Precisely when it looked like game over, graffiti and handbills began to appear all over Kolkata and other towns with just one slogan: “No Vote to BJP”, and palpably, the wind changed. It worked because the movement claimed no party affiliation and appealed to the people’s agency. Of course, West Bengal is easily turned away from communalism, with which it is uncomfortable for historical reasons. Though communal inclinations in the state have grown, the Great Calcutta Killings of August 16, 1946, are still embedded in race memory. The aggressively secular Left, a cadre-based party which was in office for decades, still casts a long moral shadow, though it played a puny and provincial role in the Assembly election, largely restricting itself to attacking Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, apparently unaware that it was a potentially powerful player in a national referendum on political ethics. 

Besides, the size of the minority population makes a practical difference. In UP, where Muslims are perceived to be politically significant, they constitute about 19% of the population. In West Bengal, they number almost one in three, and ghettoisation is less visible than in the north. Here, a pogrom is improbable. The numbers would render any conflict into something like civil war, hurting everyone. 

That’s background material. In this election, the floating vote decided to reject being told what to eat, what to read and write, and how to think. Significantly, the signalling of No Vote to BJP only told people what to reject, not what to support, and the call came from an unaffiliated citizen’s group. As the national Opposition gears up to involve the people, this format offers promise. It has worked in a state-level referendum, and it can work again, on a national scale. 


Reportedly

Bitter rivals Nitish Kumar and Tejashwi Yadav have come together, along with other non-BJP parties, and met PM Modi in Delhi to seek a caste census. They were met with prevarication. An exact count of each caste would truly annoy a lot of people already angry with the logic of more than 50% quotas for minuscule numbers. Being coy about caste will hurt the BJP in UP, too, which explains Modi’s non-committal attitude. The Samajwadi Party reiterated yesterday that it would initiate a caste census if voted to power in the UP Assembly polls.


New charge: Bhima-Koregaon accused ‘recruited’ students

“The accused recruited students from various universities, including the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Tata Institute of Social Science for commission of terrorist activity,” according to the draft charges in the Elgar Parishad-Koregaon Bhima case submitted to the NIA court in Mumbai. The case relates to the congregation in Shaniwarwada in Pune during which allegedly inflammatory speeches were made on December 31, 2017, which, the investigative agencies claimed, triggered violence and caste clashes on January 1, 2018. After the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi comprising Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress came to power, the Centre asked the NIA to take over the case despite opposition by the state government.


Prime number: Rs 750 crore
That's the value of the liquor sold by the Kerala State Beverages Corporation during Onam, a new record. In 2020, Rs 520 crore worth of liquor was sold despite the pandemic striking earlier that year. In 2019, it was Rs 487 crore.

Deep Dive

Several organisations have come together to develop a website hosting documents and resources on clean, low-carbon mobility in India. It’s a “digital library of green mobility”. 


Blue whales sing off Lakshadweep

Scientists have recorded blue whale songs for the first time in Indian waters off the Lakshadweep islands in the Arabian Sea. It demonstrates that the waters in this archipelago “are rich and productive”. Also, it signals that the area could be a breeding ground.


Witch hunt in Maharashtra village

Seven members of two Dalit families were thrashed by local residents on suspicion of practising “black magic” in a village in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra, leaving them seriously injured. The incident happened in village Wani under Jiwti tehsil over the weekend and 13 have been arrested. 

Atul Kulkarni, Additional SP of Chandrapur, said that seven members of two Dalit families, including women and senior citizens, were summoned to the village square and accused of practising “black magic and possessing spirits”. People started throwing mud on them, tied three of them, including two women, to wooden poles and thrashed them with sticks, and kicked and punched them.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Sanjay Kumar reckons that the BJP is reluctant to conduct a caste census for fear that numbers emerging about different castes, especially the OBCs, might result in “Mandal II”, giving regional parties a new lease of life.

  • The blueprint for doubling India’s exports in three years was drafted in great detail 10 years ago. It just needs to be dusted off and re-read, and maybe updated to incorporate new opportunities, writes Ajit Ranade.

  • Regardless of the turn that Taliban-Pakistan relations take, an ideological victory for the military-jihadi complex is bound to have repercussions in India, writes Pranay Kotasthane. 

  • Hamish McCullum explains the journey of the Delta variant, first discovered in India, which is the most prominent variant in many nations today. He says that evolutionary theory explains most of the developments so far.


Listen Up

Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook examine Afghanistan’s complicated relationships with empires and discuss its role in the Great Game. India figures throughout the fascinating podcast, from Babur’s journey from Kabul to Delhi and the East India Company’s exploits.


Watch Out

As Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad is set to be remade into a so-called ‘world class’ structure, watch this short film from 2018 on how the simplicity of the original design speaks of genius.


Over and Out

A Rolling Stones India magazine cover featuring Dhee, who sang the superhit Tamil song Enjoy Enjaame with Arivu, has kicked up a huge storm. The exclusion of Arivu has outraged many, who feel it underscores the very caste discrimination which the song tried to highlight. Pa Ranjith was exceptionally annoyed.

Shahzia Sikander has a new exhibition of modern miniatures opening in Manhattan. With its reliance on architecture, her work is reminiscent of that of the ‘Singh Twins’ in the UK, but with a muted colour palette. So now, three contemporary women have ventured into the art of the medieval manuscript, which was the exclusive preserve of men. 

A post shared by @meancurry

“The past two years, during Onam, it’s become part of my routine to try recreating our Mahabali in a different avatar,” Sabari wrote on his Mean Curry page on Instagram, choosing to portray Mahabali as a young man. “[What] irks me the most is the VERY AVOIDABLE poonool [sacred thread] around him. How does one think it is apt for a king, who basically stood against the idea of the caste system and treated everyone as equals, to wear a poonool. How daft does a person have to be to make that decision in this day and age. Call it out.⁣⁣⁣” His Mahabali is a young man who loves flowers.


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