The India Cable: As Expected, Supreme Court Clears Modi’s Central Vista, Vaccine Nationalism Continues

Plus: Government-farmer talks as fruitless as India-China talks, India may face US sanctions, Vijayvargiya fields shoes in Kolkata, Sourav recovers from heart attack, his healthy cooking oil ad vanish

From the founding editors of The Wire—MK Venu, Siddharth Varadarajan and Sidharth Bhatia—and journalists-writers Seema Chishti, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam. Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

Snapshot of the day
January 5, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

India’s multi-billion dollar deal to purchase the Russian-made S-400 air defence system may trigger US sanctions on New Delhi, a US Congressional Research Service report has warned. In its annual report, the Indian Defence Ministry has stated that “the PLA escalated the situation by the utilisation of unorthodox weapons and amassing a large number of troops.”  Curiously, it does not elucidate on the unorthodox weapons used, because when some British newspapers had reported a Chinese professor’s claim that the PLA used microwave weapons against Indian troops in Ladakh, the Army was quick to deny the claims as “fake news”.

Like the Ladakh border talks, the government’s Delhi border negotiations with farmers have again failed to achieve anything beyond agreeing on when to talk next ― it’ll be January 8. Seeing the lie of the land and the possibility of bitter harvests ahead if it sides with a pig-headed government, Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Ltd has stated that it will not venture into contract farming. Rather, it will back the farmers’ demand for a “fair and profitable price on a predictable basis”. That’s corporate prudence. Reliance runs India’s biggest retail chain of 11,000 stores, which sell foodgrains and perishables, and mobile towers of its Jio network have been targeted by farmers. But seriously, does it not strike futures deals with farmers, ever? Everyone else seems to.

The BJP is licking its chops over West Bengal, which will be pollbound in months, but the Trinamool Congress has the chops to face it, despite significant defections from its ranks. Weeks ago, the convoy of BJP President JP Nadda was attacked on the way to Diamond Harbour when it passed a spot where a TMC meeting was in progress ― the district administration had overlooked the event. In an action replay yesterday, the roadshow of Kailash Vijayvargiya and Mukul Roy through the Kolkata neighbourhood of Watgunj veered too close to a TMC meeting and found footwear and stones raining upon it. Vijayvargiya is a veteran of the eastern front, a casualty in the Diamond Harbour incident. Nothing serious, though, apart from injured pride. Former city mayor and current BJP find Sovan Chatterjee prudently kept away from the battlefield.

Kashmir was cut off from the rest of the country on Monday as the arterial Jammu-Srinagar national highway and Mughal road were closed due to snowfall. Air traffic to and from Srinagar airport was also affected for the second consecutive day due to poor visibility.

Goa Chief Minister Pramod Sawant has suspended implementation of the newly promulgated Goa Municipalities (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020, which merchants have described as “draconian”, and which would drive small traders out of markets. They had threatened to down shutters in all 11 municipal areas in Goa on Thursday. In Bhubaneswar, the old city areas around the Lingaraj Temple are to get a facelift. Hoardings have been banned and all signage made uniform ― a white background and a terracotta red border, inspired by Kalingan temple architecture

The Income Tax department questioned Robert Vadra, son-in-law of Congress President Sonia Gandhi, for eight hours on Monday in connection with its probe against him under the benami assets law. Six years ago, the BJP had promised prompt action against Vadra in its election campaign. Vadra says the latest move is intended to distract public attention from “real issues” like the farmers’ agitation. 

No arrests, no chargesheet and the university’s internal probe dissolved—a year after masked intruders went on a rampage inside Jawaharlal Nehru University, the investigation into the violence has made little progress

Food delivery giant Zomato’s revenues for the financial year 2019-20 were up by 100% but its net losses too surged by 138%. Zomato served 4,254 orders per minute at peak time on New Year’s Eve. Close to Rs 18,000 crore of unclaimed deposits were lying with banks in the calendar year 2019, up from Rs 14,307 crore in 2018, data released by the Reserve Bank of India shows. Under central bank rules, deposits are classified as unclaimed when they are not operated for 10 years or more.

Wasim Khan, Birmingham-born chief executive of the Pakistan Cricket Board, was asked if  Imran Khan and Narendra Modi could play a super over to decide on resuming Test matches. Wasim had a quiet chuckle before offering: “You won’t get many pitched up.”

Cricketer and youth icon Sourav Ganguly suffered a heart attack in Kolkata. He may be discharged from hospital tomorrow, following angioplasty. But a nationally popular cooking oil brand of the Adani Group, which Ganguly promoted in TV ads, and which claims to be kind to the heart, may not recover.  


Vaccine bakwaas continues

The BJP says that the political row over the indigenous vaccine is helping ‘foreign forces’. The bizarre charge highlights all that is wrong with the way the Modi government has approved two vaccine candidates for emergency use. 

The managing director of Bharat Biotech has responded to a question about data on the efficacy of Covaxin against the new strain of coronavirus: “It’s only a hypothesis right now…  Just give me one week’s time to come out with the data. I am confident it will work.” He also said that the company, which has already manufactured 20 million doses and aims to produce 700 million by year-end, expects to release the efficacy data of Covaxin’s Phase 3 trials, which are ongoing, by March. He admitted that he did not understand the terms under which Covaxin was okayed. The Union health minister has vehemently said that they guarantee public safety.  

Concerns about the government’s reckless vaccine nationalism and its disregard for scientific protocols is now an international story. Bad news for a country that hoped to become the world’s vaccine supplier. 


Talks fail, excesses against farmers subject of PIL

Talks between farmers and the Modi government have failed, as expected. They began with a two-minute tribute to farmers who have lost their lives in the agitation, but the government has ceded nothing new and farmers remain steadfast on their core demand ― repeal of the problematic laws. The battlelines are drawn and farmers say they will escalate the stir.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a plea by 35 students of Panjab University, who had written to the Chief Justice urging him to take cognizance of “excesses” against protesting farmers, as a public interest litigation. The students had sought a direction from the apex court for an inquiry into the Haryana Police’s illegitimate use of water cannons, tear gas shells and lathis on farmers protesting peacefully. 

Hours after Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance (besides being active on social media) approached the Punjab and Haryana High Court for protection against damage to its cellular infrastructure and forcible closure of its stores, the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) said, “The Reliance industry affidavit is full of false claims of it not entering the crop market and taking over farmland. In Raigad, Maharashtra, and other places, large tracts of land have been taken over by Reliance and it must return all those before making any false claim.” The AIKSCC has also accused the governments of Haryana and Madhya Pradesh of using force to repress protests against the controversial agriculture laws.


Ram temple to be built on sand

Work on the foundation for the Ram temple in Ayodhya would start by end-January, said the trust entrusted with its construction. Champat Rai, general secretary of the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra said: “We had hoped construction would have started in June but the study has not been completed [even] after seven months. The results are not matching. There is sand, crumbly sand, under the ground or some old debris lying deep down,” said Rai. He also said that the Indian Space Research Organisation had sent them pictures of a stream of the Sarayu river under the site of construction. Last week, reports had first emerged of a stream of the Sarayu flowing under the site. 


Even without rules, laws rule 

The Cabinet Secretariat has told all ministries that provisions of laws can be implemented even before and as rules are being finalised. The claim, citing a Supreme Court judgement of 2018, is that the authorities are not denuded of their power to act. This is significant as the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) has not been implemented for a year now, with the government taking the plea that its rules have yet to be framed because of the pandemic. 


Cattle cannot be immediately confiscated

“Animals, a source of livelihood, cannot be confiscated before an accused is convicted,” said the Supreme Court yesterday and asked the Centre to amend controversial cattle slaughter rules, or it would pass orders. The court was hearing a plea by the Buffalo Traders Welfare Association challenging the validity of 2017 rules which allow authorities to seize vehicles used in cattle transportation and send the animals to gaushalas and elsewhere.


Power plants cannot meet pollution deadline

The Power Ministry has proposed pushing back the deadlines for adoption of new emission norms by coal-fired power plants, saying that “an unworkable time schedule” would burden utilities and lead to power tariff hikes. India had initially set a 2017 deadline for thermal power plants to comply with emissions standards, which was later changed to varying deadlines for different regions, ending in 2022. Under the latest proposal, no new dates have been set but a final decision will have to be approved by the Supreme Court, which is hearing the issue.


The Long Cable

Supreme Court bids adieu to heritage conservation

Siddharth Varadarajan

Paragraph 315 of the Supreme Court’s majority verdict clearing the Modi government’s hideous plans for ‘redevelopment’ of the Central Vista in Lutyens’ Delhi poses a rhetorical question that it believes needs answering:

“To begin this discussion, the pin-pointed enquiry is whether the broad statement that “once a heritage, always a heritage” or that heritage buildings/precincts have an inviolable character in law with an absolute embargo on any modification whatsoever, is the correct legal position.”

The question is dangerous, superfluous and reeks of bad faith because India has heritage conservation laws and rules that specify clearly what changes are allowed to the structure and precincts of Grade I built heritage. To summarise what the rules say, only those changes which strengthen and prolong “the life of the buildings/precincts or any part or features thereof” are permissible.

The Modi government’s plans for the Central Vista in New Delhi

The requirement of prior clearance by the Heritage Conservation Committee as per the Delhi master plan is another requirement for construction of the kind the government is planning. But the government never bothered to secure this clearance, and this failure forms the central part of the admirable dissenting judgment delivered by Justice Sanjiv Khanna. He has also held as another critical infirmity the government’s failure to hold any kind of public consultation.

The majority judgment of Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and Dinesh Maheshwari gets around these two obstacles by (i) declaring that the bulk of the Central Vista, excluding the structures at the northern end (atop Raisina Hill and comprising North Block, South Block and Rashtrapati Bhavan) are, incredibly, not part of any heritage precinct, and (ii) that the requirement of seeking the approval of the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) will come not at the planning stage (including the awarding of a construction contract) but prior to the commencement of construction.

Both these arguments are outrageous. Major capital cities around the world are defined by their public spaces. The Mall in Washington, the Red Square in Moscow and the Central Vista in New Delhi are examples of this. If the court’s logic is taken at face value, does this mean anything goes as far as the Central Vista is concerned? The fact is that the erection of multiple storied office complexes along either side of Rajpath will forever kill the Central Vista as a green and much loved and visited public space. 

Even on the basis of this logic, the majority was forced to ask itself whether the proposed new parliament building could come up within the precincts of the existing parliament complex – which is Grade I heritage – without affecting the latter’s grandeur, but has left it to the HCC to take a final call. The judgment also seems silent on the planned changes on Raisina Hill itself, such as the construction of mansions for the prime minister and vice president,

The court’s argument that it is premature to insist on the committee’s approval even when building plans have been sanctioned and contracts handed out is nothing other than a crude attempt to cover up the government’s contempt for due process. The HCC comprises bureaucrats, in the main, and it is hard to see them standing up for the rules when the highest court of the land is reluctant to do so. And yet the Modi government ignored seeking their pro forma approval because, quite frankly, that is the way it is used to taking decisions. 

If there is a silver lining in the court’s judgment, it is that it appears to have opened the door for heritage conservationists to continue their legal challenge. The HCC’s decisions on whether the buildings planned are permissible or not can surely be challenged. The Central Vista is too precious for Dilliwalas to meekly surrender their heritage to a leader obsessed with leaving his own destructive stamp on Indian history,


Kashmir unsafe, return to Pakistan

A group of Pakistani-origin Kashmiri brides who had returned under the J&K government’s rehabilitation programme for surrendered militants have said the Kashmir valley wasn’t “safe” for them. They demanded to be sent back to their homes in Pakistan as the Indian government has denied them citizenship. They also pointed to the fact that a Pakistani origin Kashmiri bride, Somiya Sadaf, was allowed to contest the District Development Council elections recently, but soon the government stopped counting in her constituency.


Prime Number: 0.5%
“India, despite its size, has managed only slightly more than a one-half percentage point increase in its global labor-intensive export share since 2000,” finds new research from Gordon Hanson.

Umar Khalid’s right wronged

Former JNU student leader Umar Khalid alleged before a Delhi court on Monday that a “media trial” was being conducted against him, which was affecting his right to a free and fair trial in a case related to the Northeast Delhi riots. He claimed that a section of the media got the supplementary chargesheet filed in the case even before he or his lawyer got it from the court, and that so-called disclosure statements were being leaked selectively, even though he had not signed any statements while in custody. The next hearing is on Tuesday.


Deep Dive

PRS Legislative Research has a report on state finances, which tells us that higher central cesses and surcharges have reduced the devolution of taxes to states, and the states rely more on borrowing for expenditure.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Gautam Bhatia calls out the egregious Kerala High Court judgement on bail for two young men arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for what it is: two High Court judges browbeating and bullying a subordinate judge for daring to do his job, while signalling servile fealty to the Supreme Court.

  • The Fragile States Index, in which India is in the ‘Elevated Warning’ category, suggests that India is headed for a scary future, says Aakar Patel, and it owes to the poorly considered economic policies of the current government,.

  • Hardayal Singh on the dangers of inequalities, which harm both social cohesion and growth. Covid-19 has widened the gap.

  • One of the most striking images from the beginning of 2020 showed protesters against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act reading aloud the Preamble to the Constitution. Ritwika Sharma looks at how the Constitution fared last year.

  • Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam in Tamil Nadu has promised state wages for housework. Kalpana Karunakaran reflects on the feminist history of this demand.


Listen up

Bela Bajaria is one of the top Indian-Americans in the US entertainment business. She is now Head of Global Television at Netflix, a newly created post, which means that no matter where you are, she decides what you “watch next”. Hear her in this podcast on how change happens in Hollywood, and why she was sacked from NBC-Universal. 


Watch Out

Listen to pianist Anil Srinivasan and Carnatic vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan in a noteworthy concert series, Sunaad. It is Margazhi, the month of bhakti, music and (until the pandemic) concerts all over Chennai. Savour songs of praise. 


Red flag over Google

It is a turning point for the IT industry as Google employees discontented with management unionise, not only for a greater say on wages and working conditions, but also for more control over the ethics of the company’s business. 


Tailend

The Ramnath Roenka Awards dished out by Newslaundry for the ‘best’ of television news is a riot. 


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.