The India Cable: Cairn Can Seize Indian Assets In 5 Nations; BJP Soft-Pedals CAA in Assam

Plus: HC issues notice on digital media 'regulations', defence allocations cut, tax-fuelled oil revenues up 459%, 10k firms lost to pandemic, $2.8 bn to net shutdowns, MP clears ‘love jihad’ law

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
March 9, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Co-WIN vaccination appointments, ticket booking, netbanking and other online transactions were severely affected yesterday as new SMS spam filters held up OTPs. Banks reported a 25% transaction failure rate.    

The Petitions Committee of the House of Commons in London held a debate on press freedoms and the safety of protesters in India. Martyn Day, a member of the committee, opened the debate. 

The Indian High Commission in London has condemned the debate amid the ongoing farmers’ stir as “false assertions” made in a “distinctly one-sided discussion”.

The Delhi High Court heard a challenge to the IT rules for regulating online news portals. The petition, filed by the Foundation for Independent Journalism, the non-profit comany which publishes The Wire, argues that they have no statutory backing.  The court issued notice and will hear detailed arguments from the petitioners and the government on April 16.

For the first time in almost a quarter of a century, women officers have been deployed on Indian warships ― an air traffic controller and a logistics officer on the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya and another logistics officer and a doctor on the fleet tanker INS Shakti. Women officers were last seen on warships in 1997. Indian Navy ships INS Kulish and INS Sumedha arrived on Monday in Bangladesh on March 8 to mark the 50th year of 1971 Bangladesh liberation war. They will be there for three days. 

(Via: Indian Navy)

The Madhya Pradesh assembly has passed the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021, to prohibit conversions by misrepresentation, allurement, force and undue influence. The law significantly reduces personal freedoms, which is its unstated purpose.

The National Minorities Commission has failed to fill eight vacancies out of nine, and the Delhi High Court has rapped the Centre. The Centre pleaded that no timeline was stipulated for making appointments. The judge said the affidavit was “completely unsatisfactory”.

The death of Mansukh Hiren, the owner of the stolen vehicle stuffed with about 20 gelatin sticks found outside Mukesh Ambani’s house Antilia in Mumbai, will be probed by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). The development comes shortly after Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh said the state police were “capable” of solving the case. Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray said that the development suggested that something was fishy”.

Triple-layered masks, even those made of cloth, and N95 masks, provide the best protection from the coronavirus, preventing the atomisation of cough particles, find researchers at the Indian Institute of Science, in collaboration with scientists in UC San Diego and the University of Toronto.

The government may privatise many more public sector banks, retaining only six. It may also sell off three insurance companies, which were proposed to be merged. Some months ago, the Centre had proposed to allow corporates to own and run banks, inviting sharp criticism. 

The Modi govt has advertised 10% fewer jobs for the civil services this year, a trend that is replicated in SSC, banking and railway recruitments. More than 10,000 firms shut down in India during the pandemic. The maximum number, 2,394, were located in Delhi, and the second highest, 1936, in UP. The BBC also reports that Indian businesses lost $2.8 billion in 2020 due to 9,000 hours of internet shutdowns. 

And actor Priyanka Chopra has launched Sona, yet another Indian restaurant in New York City. 


Serum Institute short on imports 

The Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer by volume, has sought the Modi government’s intervention to enable the import of essential inputs from the US. The US government has invoked the Defence Production Act, and the firm is finding it difficult to import products like culture media, raw materials, single-use tubing assemblies and some specialty chemicals from the US, as well as consumables and equipment from US developers that it is collaborating with. 

At the beginning of the Covid-19 vaccination drive, traffic was below capacity due to vaccine hesitancy and transient technical issues in the Co-WIN portal, the Modi government told the Rajya Sabha.


Vijayan says Shah “epitome of communalism”

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has termed Union Home Minister Amit Shah the “epitome of communalism” and alleged that he was trying to trigger division at any cost, making him unsuitable for office. Referring to a series of questions from Shah relating to the gold smuggling case, Vijayan recollected the series of criminal charges against Shah, including a fake encounter, and the time he spent in jail. They include the allegations Shah faced in connection with the death of CBI judge BH Loya, who had handled the Sohrabuddin Shaikh fake encounter case. 


Mumbai blackout prompts new cyber-strategy  

India is mulling a new strategy to strengthen cybersecurity after a US firm’s report suggested that a Chinese cyber campaign targeted India’s power grid and brought Mumbai to a standstill in October. The Ministry of Power had confirmed that it was aware of the Chinese cyber campaign to use malware against the power network. However, it said that there was no data breach due to the incidents.

The previous day, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi spoke of the need for a cyber command. National Cyber Security Coordinator Rajesh Pant told Bloomberg that the plan would coordinate responses from various ministries, including Defence, Home Affairs and Information Technology, and the National Critical Information Infrastructure Protection Centre in case of an attack, and set audit protocols. The new proposal awaits cabinet clearance.


BJP shies away from CAA

The Assam BJP is not talking about the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the Modi government’s flagship achievement in 2019 which sparked off major protests all over the country. BJP’s pointsman and senior minister in Assam Himanta Biswa Sarma said, “Nobody is talking about the CAA now. That has lost traction after our fight against the coronavirus pandemic.” Repeal of the CAA is central to the Congress party’s campaign. A worried BJP is trying to deflect attention, speaking of sabbhata (civilisation), suraksha (security) and vikash (development).


The Long Cable

India’s Quad summit hesitancy is all about China

Sushant Singh

When the Sino-Indian border crisis was at its peak last year, Chinese foreign minister and State Councillor Wang Yi chose not to answer any questions from Indian journalists during his annual press conference after the party congress. That Wang was avoiding comments on a tricky area was obvious, but less obvious is the rationale behind his choice of picking a question from an Indian news agency in the press conference on Sunday. China and India should stop “undercutting” each other, shed mutual “suspicion” and create “enabling conditions” by expanding bilateral cooperation to resolve the border issue, the minister said in his reply. On how China looks to move forward in its relations with India, Wang said, “In the year ahead we hope India will work with China to truly deliver on the important common understanding reached by our leaders that the two countries are not threats to each other but opportunities for each other’s development.”

The answer was not just a mealy-mouthed platitude, but has to be seen in the context of the ongoing buzz around the leader-level summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. The news was broken by the Japan Times on February 7 ― India was reluctant to be part of such a summit. As India and China started disengaging on their disputed border in Ladakh, New Delhi’s desire to not provoke China was understandable. The talk got an official imprimatur in Canberra last week. When asked by reporters about a Quad meeting in a press conference on Friday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, “I have already had bilateral discussions about this with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Yoshihide Suga, the Prime Minister of Japan. And of course, we are looking forward to those discussions and follow-up face-to-face meetings as well”.

More intriguing was the Modi government’s response to Morrison’s revelation. When asked about the Quad summit on Friday, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Anurag Srivastava told reporters: no comment. Clearly, New Delhi is still hesitant about committing fully to the Quad summit, since it is not a US treaty ally and the only country in the grouping with a land border with China.

Moreover, there is the small matter of Moscow, which believes that the Quad undermines Russian interests. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has also suggested that the Quad will inevitably harm Russia’s relationship with India. It would instead want India to focus on the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the BRICS grouping. Russia doesn’t want the Quad to become a wedge between India and China. Even though Beijing is the Quad’s main target, Moscow fears that it also seeks to contain Russia.

Against this backdrop, news that US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin is expected to visit New Delhi later this month, as part of a swing through Indo-Pacific made immense sense. It seems to be part of US efforts to get the Modi government to agree to a summit meeting of the Quad leaders. Meanwhile, the Financial Times reports that the White House has said that President Biden could hold the virtual meeting this week. If India is already on board, the purpose of Austin’s visit would be to make a stronger case for future engagement on the Quad.

Not that the others are ready, but India’s hesitancy means that there is little possibility of the Quad grouping becoming the formal military alliance which Beijing fears it is. New Delhi also publicly insists that the Quad is not aimed at China, and wants to expand its agenda, particularly on the security side, at its own pace. The calibration will eventually depend on the health of the Sino-Indian relationship – if it worsens on the land border, New Delhi would be more inclined to press ahead with greater military engagement. Considering the Chinese foreign minister’s recent statement, the Quad will receive a lukewarm response from New Delhi for the time being.


Reportedly

What is going on in Uttarakhand? The ruling BJP seems to be facing a revolt against its CM Trivendra Singh Rawat, with assembly elections due next year. The party high command urgently summoned Rawat to Delhi for “further discussions” on Monday after a meeting of the state BJP’s core committee, presided over by central observers, was held here on Saturday. The core group meeting was held at a time when most party MLAs and ministers, including the chief minister, were in Gairsain to attend the budget session of the state assembly. It was hurried up and they were called to Dehradun for the core committee meeting. Will there be a change in leadership?


OTP failure impacts transactions

New filters to scrub SMS spam crippled digital payments on Monday, with banks and financial technology firms reporting transaction failures due to delays in receiving one-time passwords. Banks have been deploying other modes of OTP delivery like emails and phone banking, and using other modes of identification, but glitches persist today.


Prime Number: 4
That's the number of child victims of sexual offences who are denied justice every day due to cases being closed by police for want of evidence, according to a study on ‘Police case disposal pattern: An enquiry into the cases filed under POCSO Act, 2012’ by Kailash Satyarthi’s Children’s Foundation (KSCF). It is an analysis of the pattern of disposal of POCSO cases by police in 2017-2019, based on data and information published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). As many as 3,000 POCSO cases registered and investigated fail to reach trial every year, and four child victims of sexual abuse are denied justice every day due to the closure of cases.

Despite border tensions, defence allocation slashed

Despite a crisis on the Ladakh border and an active LAC, the three defence services have been allocated only Rs 3,24,658 crore, 28% less than the budgetary projection of Rs 4,49,508 crore, according to a reply to a parliamentary question. Making the blow even harder, the services’ capital budget for new equipment was slashed by Rs 76,553 crore, a 38% reduction from the projected requirement of Rs 1,99,553 crore. The Navy took the biggest hit, followed by the Indian Air Force.


Five nations recognise Cairn arbitration

Courts in five countries, including the US, the UK, Canada and France, have given recognition to an arbitration award that asked India to return $1.4 billion to Cairn Energy plc — a step that now opens up the possibility of the British firm seizing Indian assets in those countries if New Delhi does not pay. Once a court recognises an arbitration award, the company can petition it to seize Indian government assets like bank accounts, payments to state-owned entities, airplanes and ships in those jurisdictions, to recover monies due to it.


Riding fuel taxes, revenues up by 459%

As assembly elections near, pressure on the centre to rein in fuel prices is growing. Government-controlled oil marketing companies have held back price revisions for a week and are expected to do so through March owing to political reasons. There may be a dramatic fall in prices during the polls, but they could soar again after results are declared on May 2.

The price of  LPG has doubled to Rs 819 per cylinder in the last seven years while the increase in taxes on petrol and diesel has swelled collections by over 459%, Oil Minister Dharmendra Pradhan told the Lok Sabha in a written reply. Similarly, kerosene sold to the poor through the public distribution system (PDS) has risen from Rs 14.96 per litre in March 2014 to Rs 35.35 this month, he said. With taxes accounting for the bulk of prices, the minister said tax collected on the two fuels was Rs 52,537 crore in 2013, which rose to Rs 2.13 lakh crore in 2019-20 and to Rs 2.94 lakh crore in the first 11 months of the current fiscal year.

During a global pandemic that has derailed livelihoods and incomes, these prices are a strain for all Indians. But for millions below the poverty line, the recent LPG price hike makes access to clean cooking fuel more difficult than ever. Thousands of poor families are dropping out of the much-hyped Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, which provides women below the poverty line with a free gas cylinder and subsidised LPG to wean them off traditional cooking fuels. Yesterday, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee led a women’s rally 35,000 strong with the slogan, “The kitchen’s on fire.” 


Streaming platforms to play safe?

A report on how the new OTT rules had spooked platforms like Amazon ― “fans of Amazon Prime Video’s espionage thriller The Family Man and crime thriller Paatal Lok will be disappointed, with upcoming seasons of both cancelled.” ― has been trashed by filmmakers Manoj Bajpayee, Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK, who termed it as “BS”. 


Doyen of Deccan studies dies

Indian-born Ziauddin Shakeb (87) died of pulmonary oedema in London. He was a historian of Indo-Persian relations and a world-renowned expert on Persian and Arabic manuscripts, and is said to have laid the foundations of Deccan studies. An obituary written by his grandson is illuminating.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Jayati Ghosh writes that India should have been a prime example of the successful production and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. Unfortunately, over-enthusiastic attempts by the government to promote one candidate before clinical trials were complete reduced public trust. 

  • Shyam Saran writes that with India acquiescing to inroads at the border, the Chinese would like to return to business as usual. It is telling that the Chinese Foreign Minister has made no positive reference to the disengagement at Pangong Tso, nor given any indication of further steps. 

  • Ajit Ranade writes that Haryana’s new law reserving jobs for locals goes against India’s Constitution and probably breaches fundamental rights enshrined in Articles 14, 15, 16 and 19.

  • Pritam Singh says that no movement in India’s history – including the Independence movement – saw as much participation by women as the farmers’ protest. He says that the Kisan Morcha leadership’s decision to celebrate International Women’s Day is of huge significance

  • Despite constitutional provisions, in the past three years, anti-migrant rhetoric is increasingly turning into legislative reality, writes Chinmay Tumbe, referring to Haryana’s provision of 75% of jobs reserved for locals.

  • With the government of India coming out with rules to keep “objectionable content” off OTT platforms and online news outlets, Vimoh asks what it is. Isn’t it the news channels that peddle hate, lies and propaganda?

  • Mahesh Vyas writes that a full year after the lockdown began, consumer sentiment is at half the level before the lockdown. It reflects the intangible component of households’ economic decisions.

  • Bharat Bhushan says the GoM is a bid to gag the media, a sign of a nervous government panicking at criticism and desperate to put a lid on it.


Listen Up

Understanding isolation

Salman Rushdie is interviewed by Paul Holdengräber on ‘The Quarantine Tapes’, a series exploring how isolation has been experienced. Our species understands itself through stories, Rushdie says, and we live in concentric circles of stories. Suketu Mehta is here, too, asking if these are the darkest days of independent India. Rushdie agrees. 


Watch Out

Stand-up comedy in India can be life-threatening. But people like Varun Grover do not give up. Watch his latest here.

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In an MSNBC interview, Mehdi Hasan asks Greta Thunberg about India’s “unhinged response to activism” ― the government’s ‘toolkit’ mania which led to a witch hunt. She speaks of the “privilege” of living in a democracy which assures absolute freedom of speech. Watch from the 4’ mark. 


Tailpiece

The Guardian says that the famous houseboats on the Dal Lake, originally built for Europeans who were banned from owning land in Kashmir, have been sunk by the pandemic. A building and repair ban had turned the Dal Lake into a graveyard of sinking boats, even before the pandemic and the disruptive crackdown by Delhi delivered the quietus.

In Cuttack, an advocate has complained about the police stealing drumsticks from his premises. The body of evidence is extensive

And a TV channel exposes the compulsion to show that Modi is leading, even when the lead is negative.


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.