The India Cable: Centre Blames Opposition For Second Wave; 3 Richest Indians Gain $100 bn

Plus: CDS Rawat says can’t catch up with China, rupee worst Asian currency, vaccine diplomacy gains reversed, Jaishankar mistakes Russia for US and Darth Putin takes a press snafu in good humour

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
April 8, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

General Bipin Rawat, India’s Chief of Defence Staff, wants the armed forces to completely shed the ‘colonial era syndrome’. Conceding that China is technologically way ahead of the Indian military, he said that “we may not be able to fully catch up with China, so we are trying to develop some kind of a relationship with Western nations to see how we can get better support from them during peacetime at least to see how we can overcome this deficiency.”

Vaccine diplomacy reduced domestic supplies and may have contributed to the current surge. Now, as India stops exports to protect its own population, it is reneging on overseas commitments, including those made to neighbours. That’s bad diplomacy. The New York Times reports that Nepal has resumed vaccines again after three weeks as supplies from China bridged the gap caused by India’s export reluctance. The Tirupati temple has temporarily suspended sarva darshan (free) tokens from April 12, due to escalating Covid-19 cases. According to the Union Health Ministry, the country recorded 1,26,789 new Covid-19 cases and 685 more deaths in the past 24 hours. At the height of the first wave last year, daily infections never crossed 100,000.

Even as thousands of farmers continue with their protests on the three sites at the borders of Delhi without any hearing from the Modi government, the Agriculture Minister was busy launching a portal for online registration to make the sourcing of honey and other beehive products traceable. 

The Election Commission (EC) issued a notice to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for urging Muslims to not vote for BJP. Specifically, Banerjee had asked the electorate to not allow the minority vote to be divided and had also asked Hindu voters not to be seduced by attempts to polarise the elections on religious grounds. The poll panel sent the notice for ‘openly demanding votes on communal grounds’. The EC has been quite ‘openly demanding’ for some time now.

The ruling BJP suffered a jolt in Himachal Pradesh as the Congress won two of the four municipal corporation polls of Solan and Palampur while Mandi and Dharamshala went to the saffron party.

There are reports that the Chhattisgarh government and intelligence agencies have opened a back-channel dialogue with CPI (Maoist), with the help of social activists and panchayat members, to ensure the safe release of CoBRA commando Rakeshwar Singh Manhas.

The Inspector General of Police in Kashmir has said that journalists should refrain from covering live encounters and law and order situations. Spot reporting is the foundation of journalism and such advice defeats the purpose of the profession. In response, 12 journalists’ associations based in Kashmir have issued a statement.

And here’s a cartographic reminder of the problem of air pollution in India:

As Covid escalates, Centre passes blames to Opposition-ruled states

As the pandemic rages on in the country, the Centre is trying to palm off the blame to the Opposition-ruled states. Punjab has ordered a total ban on political gatherings until April 30. Starting April 11, any workplace, government or private, with 100 eligible beneficiaries, can arrange to inoculate their employees by tagging an existing vaccination centre. Here is a list of players and support staff who tested positive for Covid-19 at various camps ahead of the 2021 edition of the Indian Premier League.

The Union Health Minister accused states of making “deplorable attempts” to highlight vaccine shortages to spread panic. Ten states ― Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Punjab, Rajasthan, UP, Maharashtra, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and West Bengal ― claim to have stocks for only three or four days. Nellore district in Andhra Pradesh actually ran out on Tuesday. The Serum Institute of India has also warned that its existing capacity to manufacture Covishield is “very stressed”. Over 900 students of the Indian Institute of Technology in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, received Covid-19 vaccines last week, despite being under the age threshold prescribed by the Centre for vaccinations, reports said. But IIT Roorkee is the new hotspot, with 80 students testing positive. 

The subdued mortality seen in the second wave of the Covid-19 epidemic so far notwithstanding, the country may be staring at a surge of deaths in the coming weeks as an astounding number of new cases piles up every day. Even with a low fatality rate of 1.3% and 90,000 to over 100,000 new cases every day, India may soon be dealing with 1,000-plus Covid-19 deaths daily. Amid reports of shortages of the critical drug used in the fight against Covid-19, the Modi government has asked all seven manufacturers of remdesivir in the country to ramp up production to full capacity by next week. The BBC checks if Indian vaccine producers meet the demand.

Rupee worst-performing currency in Asia

After logging a single-day fall of 105 paise yesterday, the biggest in nearly two years, the Indian rupee has become Asia’s worst performing currency. It is expected to depreciate further as the Reserve Bank of India’s plan to purchase Rs 1 lakh crore worth of government bonds in the current quarter – seen as quantitative easing – has spooked sentiments. At the interbank foreign exchange, the Indian currency settled at 74.47 to the dollar, marking its lowest level since November 13 last year. India’s debt to GDP ratio increased from 74% to 90% during the Covid-19 pandemic, the International Monetary Fund has said.

Pakistan-India goodwill moves 

The High Commission for Pakistan in India has issued over 1,100 visas to Indian Sikh pilgrims to participate in the annual Baisakhi celebrations at historic gurudwaras in Pakistan, from April 12-22. These visas have been issued by Islamabad as a “goodwill gesture”. Meanwhile, the Indian Army handed over a boy ― Mausam, the son of Manzoor Ahmad and a resident of the Lipa area in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir ― to Pakistani authorities at the Titwal border crossing point along the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kupwara district. 

Auto data sold for peanuts due to transport ministry ignoring internal warnings

According to an investigation byReporters’ Collective, Nitin Gadkari’s ministry sold India’s vehicle ownership data to a firm in a deal without an open tendering process. Officials warned repeatedly of the risks of giving a private firm a de facto monopoly, for peanuts. The ministry finally pulled the plug on the deal when internal objections mounted.

Book Extract

Pandemic management as politics

Dinesh C Sharma

A pandemic is a public health emergency of massive proportions, management of which needs a ‘whole of society’ approach, through measures implemented on a mass scale, to be followed by everyone in a community. If it is a respiratory virus ― as the SARS-Cov-2 is ― then preventive measures could be face masks, social distancing, etc. Some viruses spread from animals to humans, while others are transmitted through the oral-fecal route. Scientific evidence about the route of transmission, infectivity, incubation period, host, etc is necessary for deciding effective responses. Suitable strategies for prevention, treatment, pharmaceutical care and non-pharmaceutical interventions (handwashing, hygiene, isolation, etc) are devised based on available scientific evidence and past experience. While scientists and medical experts can generate evidence and formulate necessary guidelines and protocols, management strategies ― particularly related to non-pharmaceutical interventions ― have to be implemented by governments and their agencies at various levels.

Pandemic preparedness and capacity in public health, to a great extent, are linked with political leadership. For effective pandemic response, scientists and policymakers, as well as politicians, have to work in tandem. Political processes help in moving the state machinery in the event of a pandemic. In pandemics caused by new pathogens such as SARS-Cov-2 for which drugs and vaccines are not available, non-pharmaceutical interventions ― distancing, entry point curbs and lockdowns ― become the mainstay, to prevent transmission. Each of these measures has to be initiated after considering scientific necessity as well as social and economic costs. 

The Indian government initiated two sets of interventions – entry point restrictions (like thermal screening of all incoming passengers) and closure of schools and colleges in some states in the first fortnight of March 2020. All international flights were stopped on March 22, 2020. The largest non-pharmaceutical intervention – national lockdown – came into effect from midnight on March 24, 2020. Almost everything came to a grinding halt in a nation of over 1.34 billion people. By this time, lockdowns had been announced in several cities and regions across the world, with varying degrees of severity, but this was the most stringent and all-encompassing lockdown ever. According to the status report the Ministry of Home Affairs submitted to the Supreme Court on March 31, 2020:

‘Unlike other countries where the population is less and population density ratio is also less, it is very difficult to effectively use voluntary social distancing as the only preventive measure [in India]. Considering the total incubation period of Covid-19, it was found medically desirable and advisable to declare a national lockdown to ensure complete social distancing and breaking the chain. This decision was taken after detailed and careful deliberations with the Expert Group and after considering all possible eventualities and options in detail. It was a necessity for taking an emergent measure even at the cost of some inconvenience in the larger public interest and to ensure that spread or potential spread of this global disease is immediately arrested/contained.’

The MHA report made it clear that the decision to impose national lockdown in one go was based on the advice of the Expert Group headed by Dr Vinod Paul of NITI Aayog, and that it was taken after considering likely impacts. Since the statement was made in the context of a petition relating to the migrant crisis, it is fair to presume that the decision was taken after considering likely hardships and possible options like a graded rollout of lockdown. On the other hand, a government report presented 10 months later in February 2021 ― this time from the Ministry of Finance ― pointed to uncertainty and lack of scientific evidence while discussing the lockdown decision:  

‘The limits of scientific understanding of the disease, lack of good data on mode of spread and potency of the virus made it difficult to model the likely impact of different policy options in a reliable and timely way. To aggravate the uncertainty, it was estimated (in a modelling study) that India would have 30 crore cases and several thousand deaths by the end of May 2020.’ 

According to the Finance Ministry report, the ‘evidence’ the government relied on to impose the lockdown when the number of confirmed cases was only 500 was the ‘experience’ from the 1918 Spanish Flu which showed that ‘early and extensive lockdowns led to greater delays in reaching peak mortality, lower peak mortality rates, and overall lower mortality burden. Swift lockdowns also had no adverse effect on local economic outcomes.’ The lockdown decision was based on ‘the humane principle that while GDP growth will come back, human lives once lost cannot be brought back.’ The report posits that the ‘health and socio-economic trade-off’ for policymakers was between ‘lives’ and ‘livelihoods’, and they chose ‘lives.’ As a result, GDP may have contracted due to disruption in economic activity during the lockdown, but the intervention resulted in averting 3.7 million infections and saving 100,000 lives, the report from the Ministry of Finance said.

The Home Ministry cited data from developed countries that had delayed lockdown to justify the sudden and complete lockdown that resulted in the migrant crisis, while the Finance Ministry cited lack of evidence and extreme scenarios emerging from a modelling study to justify lockdown and explain the resulting contraction of GDP. The objective in both cases was to defend the decision of full lockdown announced by the Prime Minister on March 24, 2020, and to play down the significance of fallout such as the migrant crisis and fall in GDP as something that had already been factored in. In reality, however, it did not seem so. 

For instance, if the eventuality of millions of people walking back home from cities to villages was anticipated then the economic package for the poor could have been announced along with the lockdown on March 24. This may have prevented the exodus. The continuous denial of ‘community transmission’ even when millions of infections were being reported was also designed to project lockdown as a ‘strategic policy intervention’ that prevented community spread. Political bipartisanship was also visible while celebrating premature success of certain ‘models’ of successful management. Overall, science and epidemiology were twisted in ways that credited the political leadership for pandemic management and projected its each step as absolute success.

Excerpted with permission from Unmasked: Decoding the Politics of the Covid-19 Pandemic by Dinesh C Sharma. The Edit Mill, April 2021.


Covid fall guy

While the pandemic shows no signs of abating and a vaccine fiasco develops, it is clear that Health Minister Harsh Vardhan is being pushed to become the ‘face’ of the disaster. Last year, PM Modi was sparing no effort to make innumerable ‘national addresses’ at 8 pm, ensuring thaali-banging, candle-lighting and citing Indian exceptionalism. Now, Harsh Vardhan, who was not too visible last year, has stepped up to the crease. 

He may be giving interviews all over the place but as AltNews pointed out, there were 1.15 lakh Covid cases reported in India the day before, the highest ever, but the Union Health Minister, who is also chairman of the WHO’s executive board, has been busy sharing videos of election rallies. In the past five days, he has shared close to 40 videos and photos of Modi’s rallies. Unlike in countries like the US, Brazil and the Czech Republic (which has changed health ministers four times during the pandemic), in India, there is no sign of the government taking responsibility. ‘Faith not fear’, the unofficial slogan of the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, could prove to be a killer prescription. 

Prime Number: $100 billion
That is the amount the three richest Indians on the Forbes list ― Ambani, Adani and Shiv Nadar ― alone have added to their wealth in the last one year. Their current net worth is $84.5 billion, $50.5 billion and $23.5 billion respectively. 

Supreme Court rises to bustard’s defence

The Supreme Court may not have the time or inclination to hear important pending cases, such as the challenge to the revocation of Article 370 or the issue of electoral bonds or other constitutional challenges to save India’s critically endangered democracy, but at least it has shown the willingness to pass orders to save the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard, the world’s heaviest flying bird. The top court expressed concern over death by electrocution of the endangered birds and had said it may consider ordering low tension electricity cables to be laid underground in Rajasthan and Gujarat and the installation of bird diverters at certain places. It was told by the central Power Ministry that there was a technical problem in putting high voltage electric cables underground.

Deep Dive

Translating a pandemic, Himal assesses the impact of Covid-19 terminology on South Asian languages, as they struggled to adapt English epidemiological terms to the mother tongue. The Hindi translation of ‘social distancing’, samajik doori, is perplexing, for instance. 

Film appellate tribunal shelved, filmmakers aggrieved

Criticising the Modi government’s decision to do away with the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT), filmmakers Vishal Bhardwaj, Hansal Mehta and Guneet Monga have said the move is “arbitrary” and “restrictive”. The FCAT was a statutory body constituted to hear appeals of filmmakers aggrieved by cuts suggested by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). The Tribunals Reforms (Rationalisation and Conditions of Service) Ordinance, 2021, issued by the Ministry of Law and Justice, which abolished certain appellate tribunals and transferred their functions to other existing judicial bodies, was notified on Sunday.

With the amendment in the Cinematograph Act, the appellate body will now be the High Court. “Do the High Courts have a lot of time to address film certification grievances? How many film producers will have the means to approach the courts?” asked Mehta. In the recent past, several films, including Monga’s 2016 drama Haraamkhor, Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017) and the 2017 Nawazuddin Siddiqui-starrer Babumoshai Bandookbaaz, were cleared on appeal by FCAT.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • An increase in the minimum wage would remove the pro-employer bias of wage policy. Wages have to grow if incomes and standards of living are to improve, writes Ajit Ranade.

  • New research reveals that curbs on press freedom, along with poor education, can actually cause a drop in GDP, write Alexandra Wake, Alan Nguyen, Abbas Valadkhani and Jeremy Nguyen. 

  • India’s draconian rules for online intermediaries will have profound implications for the privacy and freedom of expression of users, write Katitza Rodriguez, Sasha Mathew and Christoph Schmon. 

  • For the government to treat either the sexuality of a candidate for judgeship or the nationality of his/her spouse as a disqualification is a violation of the constitutional bar on discrimination, says V. Venkatesan in an article on senior advocate Saurabh Kirpal’s stalled candidature.

Prominent trade union activist in Mumbai dead

Datta Iswalkar was a prominent figure, and founder-president of the Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti. He fought earnestly for displaced mill workers’ and their heirs’ right to free housing. In 2011, he led a massive protest by various mill worker unions for this. He has died at 72, of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Listen Up

On the Brown Baby podcast, award-winning musician and activist Anoushka Shankar speaks of her parenting journey. 

Watch Out

India Ink have an excellent explainer on the scandal of ‘merit’ in India and how the ‘general category’ is all about the upper castes.

Over and Out

Chennai-based Nethra Kumanan (23) is the first Indian woman sailor to qualify for the Olympics.

Stirring news from the Emerald Isle ― Pushpika de Silva won the Mrs Sri Lanka pageant, then lost  the crown (and allegedly suffered a head injury in the melee), as her predecessor Caroline Jurie objected that she was divorced and therefore ineligible. Her rather extraordinary crown was stripped off on stage, but then the jury restored her title since Pushpika is a single mother, separated but not divorced.

If you are India’s foreign minister and starting a joint press conference with your Russian counterpart, you really don’t want to mix up Mother Russia with Uncle Sam, and hold forth on the time-tested nature of India-US ties. Watch from 1:22 for 3 seconds

It was a day for mistaken identity regarding Russia. The Indian Express got unlucky and mixed up Vladimir Putin’s photograph with that of an Indian TV anchor accused of rape. The undercover entity known to the world as Darth Putin has responded in good humour

And the Russian Embassy’s clipped response to the newspaper’s corrigendum is a classic of diplomatic brevity.

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.