The India Cable: Allahabad HC Won’t Protect Interfaith Couples; Vaccination Drive Falters Again

Plus: ‘Pepsi Bomber’ acquitted of UAPA after 12 years, core industrial output falls, deficit widens, Bloomberg ranks India 4th worst on resilience against Covid, and a leopard takes the cake

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

Snapshot of the day
July 1, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

The WHO has declared China free of malaria, after a campaign that lasted seven decades. Besides, artemisinin, derived from the artemisia plant, now the drug of choice against malaria, owes to the work of a Chinese scientist, who shared a Nobel prize for it. India is also making rapid gains against malaria, and is the leading contributor to the reduction of its incidence in the region. 

The Chief Justice of India has said that elections offer no “guarantee against the tyranny of the elected”. He also said that criticism and protest are integral to the democratic process (more below).

Six Indian medical colleges find a place in the list of the world’s 100 best in 2021: AIIMS (23), AFMC Pune (34), CMC Vellore (49), JIPMER Pondicherry (59), Medical College Chennai (64) and IMS BHU Varanasi (72). When Union Minister Prakash Javadekar tweeted that it was ‘a proud moment for every Indian,’ some were quick to remind him that three of them were started by Nehru and three by British colonial rulers. So much for the “wasted years” until Modi became PM.

Google removed about 59,350 pieces of content from its social media platforms in April last, following over 27,700 complaints received from individual users in India, according to the company’s maiden monthly transparency report. Most (97.3%) of these were because of copyright or trademark violations. Of those remaining, the breakup was: defamation (1%), ‘legal’ (1%), counterfeit (0.4%) and circumvention (0.1%). The category ‘legal’, which accounts for some 590 items, is probably the head under which government or court ordered takedowns are classified.

“India is growing increasingly assertive in its efforts to control online communications, challenging Twitter and Facebook’s practices and threatening to set a precedent that could extend far beyond its borders,” reports Bloomberg. “The largest US internet firms are fighting new intermediary rules issued by Narendra Modi’s government in February that, they say, curtail privacy and free speech. Officials have ordered Facebook and Twitter to take down hundreds of posts this year, divulge sensitive user information and submit to a regulatory regime that includes potential jail terms for executives if companies don’t comply.”

Covaxin manufacturer Bharat Biotech has had to do a lot of explaining over missing Phase 3 data. Now, it is having to explain itself on the Brazil deal. On Wednesday, it asserted that it had done nothing wrong, that it has followed a routine ‘step-by-step approach’ towards getting contracts and regulatory approvals for the supply of the vaccine to Brazil, and added that it had neither received any advance payments nor actually supplied any vaccines to the country’s Health Ministry. But the company is silent on why it is using a Singapore-based shell company to route payments for Covaxin exports,

Total dependence on imported consignments from Russia, along with the mandatory quality testing of every batch in India, has pushed back the commercial availability of the Sputnik vaccine in India, by more than six weeks after it was first launched in the country.

The World Bank has approved a $500 million loan programme to support India’s informal working class to overcome pandemic distress. The loan will create greater flexibility for states to cope with the ongoing pandemic, besides future climate and disaster shocks, the World Bank said in a statement. US President Joe Biden has nominated Indian-American circuit court chief judge Shalina D Kumar as a federal judge for the Eastern District of Michigan. This makes her the first federal judge of South Asian descent in Michigan.

The 149-year-old tradition of shifting capitals twice a year between Srinagar and Jammu, by moving truckloads of official files on the treacherous Jammu-Srinagar highway, came to an end yesterday. The administration served notice to employees to vacate accommodations related to the ‘Darbar Move’ in Jammu and Srinagar in three weeks.

Last month, Indian rapper-singer Raftaar (born Dilin Nair) became the first Indian artist to accept payments in cryptocurrency for a performance scheduled in Canada. The editor of the only Sanskrit daily in the world, Sudharma, Mysuru-based KV Sampath Kumar, died yesterday. And Naseeruddin Shah is in hospital with pneumonia, but is responding well to treatment. 

The Financial Times’ Amy Kazmin observes that the Indian Prime Minister’s distinctively longer beard is more than a style statement. She writes: “Political analysts believe what probably began as a typical “lockdown beard” is now part of an effort by Modi to reinvent himself politically as a spiritual guru — instead of the ultimate temporal authority — amid the devastation of India’s Covid crisis.”


Certify Covid dead

The Supreme Court has made it clear that a death certificate issued in respect of a Covid fatality must clearly specify the cause of death as Covid. Also, if a person has died due to any other complications or disease attributable to Covid, then too the death certificate should specifically state that Covid-19 is the cause of death. Further, the Supreme Court has directed the central government and other appropriate authorities to issue guidelines to simplify the process of issuance of death certificates stating the cause of death as “death due to Covid”.

The court passed the direction in two PILs which raised the grievance that authorities were not issuing correct and accurate death certificates in cases where the deceased succumbed to Covid. Since the certificates are not accurately stating the cause of death as Covid, the petitioners submitted that the dependents are unable to access the welfare benefits announced for Covid victims. Also, misstating the cause of death is perceived to be one of the sources of error which contributed to Indian pandemic data being seen to be unreliable. 


India threatens quarantine diplomacy 

After Covishield and Covaxin were not included in the Green Passport scheme of the European Union to facilitate free movement, India has requested each of the 27 member countries to individually consider allowing Indians who have taken two vaccine doses to travel to Europe. The individual member states have the flexibility to also accept vaccines that have been authorised at the national level or by the WHO, which allows inclusion of Covishield, but not Covaxin. Several European states – Austria, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Slovenia and Spain – have now added Covishield, but not Covaxin, which has yet to secure WHO approval.

India has also threatened that citizens of countries which reject Indian vaccines could be placed in quarantine when they travel here, using a medical procedure for diplomatic aims. Meanwhile, the Serum Institute of India is confident of receiving approval from the European Medicines Agency for its Covid-19 vaccine Covishield, in a month’s time.


Vaccination rates slump

After a week of reasonable vaccination rates in the country which brought some hope, India has seen a slump. On the last day of June, just 25.7 lakh doses were administered, which is worrying. That makes it 37.6 lakh doses on average in the month, perhaps because of shortages. 

In an affidavit filed before the Supreme Court, the government has said that 135 crore doses will be available by December 2021. This is a sharp downturn from the government’s claims in May, when it had projected that India would have 216 crore doses. 


Chief Justice lays down the law

The Chief Justice of India delivered the PD Desai Memorial Lecture: “For the judiciary to apply checks on governmental power and action, it has to have complete freedom. The judiciary cannot be controlled, directly or indirectly, by the legislature or the executive, or else the rule of law would become illusory.” He also said that “judges should not be swayed by the emotional pitch of public opinion either, which is getting amplified through social media platforms,” Significantly,  Justice NV Ramana said “people have changed the ruling party or combination of parties eight times, which accounts for nearly 50% of the number of general elections… The masses have performed their duties reasonably well. Now, it is the turn of those who are manning the key organs of the state to ponder if they are living up to the Constitutional mandate. (Full text)


India to propitiate Cairn?

In an exclusive, BloombergQuint reports that India may partially pay the $1.2 billion arbitration award to Cairn Energy Plc, in an attempt to end the tax dispute that has turned into an embarrassment for the Indian government. Cairn had approached several nations and jurisdictions to enforce the award, and had announced its intention to have assets of the Indian government, including state-owned shipping and aircraft of Air India seized from ports and airports abroad. At one point, it had also threatened to seize the assets of Indian public sector bank branches overseas, though the banks argued that they held public money, rather than government funds. For the chronology of the ridiculous affair, see the BBC’s timeline


Akhil Gogoi finally free

Akhil Gogoi, the peasant leader and campaigner against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, who has been in custody since December 2019 on serious but hugely trumped up charges including sedition, promoting enmity and offering support to terrorist organisations, will walk free today if the National Investigation Agency does not file further charges against him. On Tuesday, the NIA had filed a supplementary chargesheet, which the detenu stated was an attempt to keep him in jail though the agency had no case. Gogoi has now been discharged by an NIA court in both cases against him. He had won the Sibsagar Assembly seat from jail and is now an MLA.


40% employees saw pay reduction, core infra output falls

In India, 40% of employees suffered a reduction in their pay during the pandemic, according to the ‘Human Capital Survey’ conducted by accounting network Grant Thornton. It spoke with 16,700 respondents across sectors, including consumer, retail, e-commerce, financial services, manufacturing, automotive, pharmaceuticals and healthcare, among others. While total pay decreased for 40% respondents, a temporary reduction in fixed pay was experienced by 16% of employees.

Eight core infrastructure industries saw output fall 3.7% in June over the previous month in May, shows data released by the government. In April, output had dropped 12.4% compared to March, highlighting the decline in economic activity. BloombergQuint reports that if one were to compare the index levels between now and February 2020, before the Covid crisis hit, one finds that core sector output in May 2021 is 93.9% of February 2020. The country’s current account deficit widened to $8.1 billion or 1% of GDP for the March quarter, as against a surplus of $0.6 billion or 0.1% of GDP in the year-ago period, and a deficit of 0.3% in the preceding December quarter, as per RBI.


Reportedly

Tamil Nadu BJP leaders and right wing supporters have been silent after Puducherry Lieutenant Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan called it the “Indian Union Territory of Puducherry” while administering the oath of office to ministers last Sunday. The same BJP supporters had outraged and opposed the DMK for using the term ‘Ondriya Arasu’ to address the Union government, instead of ‘Mathiya Arasu’, which means central government. DMK mouthpiece Murasoli was quick to mock the state BJP leaders, for having been “slapped” by Tamilisai, who is their state party chief. 


Banks face systemic risks

Indian banks face systemic risk as the country deals with the aftermath of the second wave. Lenders struggled with a high level of weak loans well before the pandemic struck and clearly, conditions have deteriorated, as per a note by S&P Global Ratings. Stating that economic recovery remains highly vulnerable to setbacks due to Covid, particularly if fresh outbreaks trigger new lockdowns, the note said the banking sector’s weak loans will likely remain elevated at 11-12% of gross loans in the next 12-18 months.


Prime Number: 50 out of 53
Fourth worst in the world: that is India’s ranking in Bloomberg’s survey of 53 countries on Covid resilience. 

Fourth worst in the world: that is India’s ranking in Bloomberg’s survey of 53 countries on Covid resilience


Deep Dive

American public radio station NPR addresses a question we must never forget: if India is the world’s biggest vaccine maker, why are only 4% of Indians vaccinated?


In hot water

With concerns mounting about the impact of climate change on Himalayan glaciers, the Ministry of Jal Shakti has released an updated atlas of glacial lakes that are part of the Ganga river basin. About 4,707 glacial lakes have been covered in maps that are available online.


Acquitted and freed after 12 years in jail under UAPA

A 44-year-old Srinagar resident, arrested and jailed nearly 12 years ago on terrorism charges and branded as the “Pepsi Bomber” by a section of the media and the J&K Police, finally returned home this week after a lower court in Surat, Gujarat, acquitted him of all charges, including under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Bashir Ahmed Baba, who is from Srinagar’s Rainawari area, says he “never lost faith”. The police planted this  racy nickname on Baba, claiming he was skilled in assembling Improvised Explosive Devices in empty Pepsi cans. The media swallowed this koolaid though no evidence was offered at the time, or during his trial


Picture imperfect: Ramya’s ‘disastrous mistake’

Kannada actor-turned-politician Ramya-Divya Spandana’s sudden departure as head of Congress’ social media department and exit from politics in 2019 was blamed on internal rivalries within the party, but the former Lok Sabha member from Mandya has revealed one “disastrous mistake” she had committed while leading the party’s social media strategies. The incident dates back to August 2018, when Rahul Gandhi, then the Congress president, was on a visit to Germany with a group of former party MPs and photos of his tour of the Bundestag museum in Berlin caused him acute embarrassment. Ramya said she had offered to resign after the incident, but Rahul had turned down the offer and only asked her to be more careful.


Controversial anti-conversion law invoked in UP

The Allahabad High Court has declared three interfaith marriages in violation of UP’s new controversial law. It recently refused to grant protection to three interfaith couples on the ground that their marriages were “illegal” since they had not complied with the requirements under the recently enacted anti-conversion law ―  the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act. While in two of the cases, the women involved had converted to Hinduism from Islam to marry Hindu men, a third case was about a Hindu man converting to Islam to marry Muslim woman. This law (and it’s many versions, like the one in force in Madhya Pradesh) has been roundly criticised for being in violation of the basic spirit of the Indian Constitution and a tool to be used against minorities and to curtail the agency of women of all religions.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Two of four major inequities, in gender and geography, have been mitigated to some extent in the vaccination policy due to the Supreme Court’s intervention. We need to fix the other two, by focusing on the vulnerable and the poor, writes Partha Mukhopadhyay.

  • The “dark chapter” narrative of the Emergency has proved to be a bonanza for the Hindutva Right, as it not only hid the “curious duality” of opening channels of communication with Indira Gandhi later, while also projecting itself as a leader of the “second freedom struggle”, writes Subhash Gatade.

  • Former minister P Chidambaram writes on how PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh rewrote the script of the Indian economy 30 years ago this month. Some fascinating tales are included.

  • Lauding the move to appoint women as priests, writer Ja Deepa recalls the history of the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu which has now led to this moment. “Today in Tamil Nadu, anyone can enter a temple — which is not the case in many north Indian states, where caste based discrimination in temple entry still exists,” she says. 

  • As the Supreme Court orders community kitchens & ration cards to be made usable anywhere in India by 31 July,Dipa Sinha writes that it leaves out more than 100 million who need food at a time of rising hunger and that too, with overflowing granaries.

  • Kaushik Basu recounts his experience when he first took leave from academia and came into the world of policy in the government of India.

  • Dinesh C Sharma writes that it is time for public scrutiny of the government’s handling of the pandemic. Such “an exercise will hold the government and policymakers accountable for their actions, and enhance public confidence in vaccination and pandemic-related policies.”

  • Sunita Vishvanath criticises a section of Hindus in India and abroad who feel they must rush to defend every Hindu accused of a violent crime against a non-Hindu. This politically driven tendency, she says, poses a bigger threat to Hinduism than the straw men these activists claim to be fighting.


Listen Up

‘Imagined Tomorrow’ is a podcast that imagines futures for India and this part of the world through the lens of science and technology, like a possible future dominated by electric vehicles.


Watch Out

At the Kalinga Literary Festival, watch writer Chitra B Divakaruni explain how she writes her women characters and makes them central in a world in which they are usually given short shrift.

https://www.pscp.tv/w/1mnxeaaYlpRxX


Over and Out

Eating biscuits soaked in tea is an art form. Especially when tea is poured over them ― one of India’s finest batsmen, Sunil Gavaskar explains how it’s done.

Let it have cake: a leopard got a two-pound birthday cake in the face from two riders on a bike, Firoz and Sabir, when it leapt out of a sugarcane field and gave chase in Madhya Pradesh’s Burhanpur district. In panic, the men hurled a cake they were carrying in the leopard’s direction, throwing it off kilter and allowing them to escape with their lives ― and with a dramatic birthday story more memorable than the ditched confection.


That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you tomorrow, 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.