The India Cable: Centre Was Warned Of Surge; Modi’s ‘Policy Paralysis’ Cripples Vaccination

Plus: Without vaccine, pilots threaten to ground Air India, overseas Covid-19 aid materials start moving, high street rentals fall, IPL suspended indefinitely, Kangana banned, Jagmohan dead

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
May 4, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

(Amul outdoor publicity celebrates Mamata Banerjee’s victory in West Bengal)

Mamata Banerjee will be sworn in tomorrow morning as chief minister of West Bengal for the third term, despite her defeat at Nandigram ― a novelty in the state. To retain the constitutional post, she must seek election to an Assembly seat within six months. Her party may move court, too, to probe alleged malpractices in the counting of votes at Nandigram. Meanwhile, its cadres have unleashed post-poll violence against members of all other parties, including the BJP. The Left has reported at least two deaths and widespread vandalism, while the BJP threatens an all-India dharna tomorrow ― another opportunity to spread the virus. The state has a childish tradition of post-poll violence, but spurned BJP hopeful Swapan Dasgupta has put a communal spin on it. Today, the Left alleged a coordinated fake news campaign alleging violence, originated by the BJP, and reports on Bangla TV claim that Trinamool Congress cadres and property have also been attacked. BJP president JP Nadda plans a two-day visit to the state to meet the families of affected BJP workers. 

Where there is the BJP, there must be dung. Two BJP-run civic bodies in the national capital have given the nod to the use of a mix of cow dung and stubble for cremation, due to a shortage of wood and a plenitude of funerals. North Delhi Municipal Corporation Mayor Jai Prakash said cow sheds under the corporation’s jurisdiction have been asked to install machines that convert cow dung into dung cakes. East Delhi Municipal Corporation Mayor Nirmal Jain also said that they had approved the proposal about a week ago. Of course, if we trust the official death toll put out by the Health Ministry, there should be no shortage of wood, and therefore no need for dung.

The official numbers: 357,229 fresh infections and 3449 deaths were recorded by the Health Ministry in the past 24 hours. As no one trusts these numbers, they serve no purpose except to provide the basis for some faux analysis by the ministry for its daily press conference. Are we undercounting? That usually means a few percentage points off the mark, but what we have here is outright fraud ― the real numbers could be as high as 25 to 30 times the official ones. 

The Delhi High Court has sought responses of the Centre and the Delhi government on a PIL to temporarily increase the number of cremation and burial sites in the city in view of the “overwhelming” number of people dying due to Covid-19 every day. All secretaries of the Union government have been called for a meeting to address “strong criticism” of the government and to focus on “effective communication of government efforts”. Black humour, fit for a dark time. 

Adar Poonawalla’s Serum Institute of India has announced that they will invest Rs 2,400 crore in the UK as part of vaccine production plans there. Several jobs would be created, in the UK, of course, said British Premier Boris Johnson as part of an India-UK initiative. From UK government documents, it is reported that $1 billion worth of fresh business would be generated, and ₤200 million invested in the UK. 

Padma Vibhushan Pandit Channulal Mishra, who proposed Narendra Modi’s name at the Varanasi Lok Sabha elections, is desperately seeking treatment. He lost his wife and elder daughter, but the authorities did not respond to his distress calls. Varanasi is one of the places where the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is constructing temporary hospitals to treat Covid-19 patients, along with Lucknow, Ahmedabad and New Delhi. Not at all coincidentally, these are all Lok Sabha constituencies of some of the country’s most powerful leaders, and these DRDO hospitals are run by doctors and medical staff from the armed forces. The treatment of Covid-19 patients in VIP zones diverts them from their primary task of force preservation, and impinges upon operational readiness. 

Thanks to threats and trolls, organising online Covid-19 relief in India has been complicated. During the country’s worst public health crisis, organisers say police threats have made sharing resources online difficult. The Indian Commercial Pilots’ Association has threatened that Air India pilots will ground themselves if crews are not vaccinated by the government. They have been operating on cut pay in dangerous conditions, and claim that they are left to fend for themselves if they fall ill.  

It now transpires that the Centre was given advance warning on April 2 of a surge in coronavirus cases that would peak in mid-May, IIT (Hyderabad) professor Dr M Vidyasagar, who leads the Covid-19 Supermodel Committee, told NDTV last night. He said the Centre was warned of a predicted peak of around 1.2 lakh new cases per day sometime in May 15-22, itself a gross under-estimate as we now know but still much more than what anyone in government was planning for. The timing of the peak was later revised to the first week of May. The studies raise an important question: was the Centre aware of a potentially devastating spike in Covid-19 cases? If so, what measures did it take, if any, to counter the wave? India’s overwhelming surge has revealed complacency after last year’s wave, as well as a “lack of foresight, a lack of leadership,” according to Raghuram Rajan, former governor of the Reserve Bank of India.

India may be making global headlines, but not of the ‘godi media’ flavour. CNN reports on  a Covid-19 hospital in India so bad patients want to get out. Watching a catastrophe unfold from afar has left India’s diaspora feeling angry and helpless. The Wall Street Journal reports on a bride-to-be scouring a hard-hit city for oxygen and hospital beds to save her father and grandfather. And as Covid-19 spreads, India’s press freedoms are shrinking.

Award-winning Bollywood actor and bizarre BJP supporter Kangana Ranaut has been permanently banned from Twitter for repeatedly exhibiting abusive and hateful behaviour. It’s the electronic version of the death sentence. And former governor of J&K state, bulldozer man of Delhi during the Emergency and India International Centre library fixture Jagmohan has died, aged 94. 


As global aid piles up in Delhi, Centre lists where it’s going

In the past five days, 25 flights loaded with 300 tonnes of emergency Covid-19 relief supplies have landed in New Delhi from around the world. The supplies include 5,500 oxygen concentrators, 3,200 oxygen cylinders and 1,36,000 Remdesivir injections. In the absence of official information, concerns mounted about the government’s legendary inefficiency stymying the distribution of this relief too. On Tuesday afternoon, the Union health ministry issued a statement detailing the process by which this aid is received, processed and distributed. It listed 31 states and 38 institutions that have received material so far, but did not say who had got what.

US Air Force flights that were scheduled to leave for India with essential life-saving supplies have been delayed till Wednesday due to maintenance issues. Meanwhile, the central government was finally forced to issue notifications exempting basic customs duty and/or health cess on imports of a number of Covid-19 related relief materials, for a limited period. The Finance Ministry denied a submission by a private party in the Delhi High Court that a consignment of 3,000 oxygen concentrators is pending with the Customs authorities.


UP panchayat polls: semi-final for state polls?

This is the first time all major political parties are openly backing candidates for panchayat elections in UP, making the polls virtually semi-finals for the Assembly polls next year. The Samajwadi Party has defeated the BJP in key areas, with symbolic and decisive victories posted in Ayodhya, Mathura and Varanasi. There have been significant setbacks to the BJP in CM Adityanath’s pocket borough, Gorakhpur, and other areas of East UP, with many BJP stalwarts biting the dust.

Elections were held to posts at four levels – gram panchayat, gram pradhan, block panchayat and zila panchayat. Corona chaos, deaths, police repression of critics, and farmer discontent are cited as major reasons for the sentiment reflected in these polls. 


Virus pricks IPL ‘bio-bubble’, season suspended

The IPL has been suspended indefinitely. After reports that two players from the Kolkata Knight Riders had tested positive, there are reports that three members ― chief executive Kasi Viswanathan, bowling coach L Balaji, and a bus cleaner ― from the Chennai Super Kings squad and five groundsman at the Arun Jaitley stadium in Delhi have tested positive for Covid-19 in a secure bio-bubble environment at two places where the IPL is currently being played, Ahmedabad and Delhi. Almost a week ago Hemang Amin, BCCI’s interim chief executive officer, had reassured all teams that they were “totally safe” in the IPL bubble. The BCCI has also reassured all players and franchisees that the 2021 IPL would carry on despite India being caught in the grip of a deadly second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. All six venues shortlisted by the BCCI to conduct the IPL ― Ahmedabad, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru and Kolkata ― have been among the worst-affected cities in the past month. The IPL was falling apart, as was clear from this statement by broadcaster Michael Slater, expressing anger at Australia making a return from India a punishable offence: “If our government cared for the safety of Aussies, they would allow us to get home.”


Vaccine confusion continues

It is appalling that the Centre, in trying to apparently defend itself against charges that it had placed the last order for vaccines only in March, has ended up giving out some figures but not imparting any confidence in its confounding plans for securing doses. It has said it placed orders for 11 crore Covishield and 5 crore Covaxin doses on April 28, for vaccine expansion from May 1.  It appears now that the government hasn’t placed an order larger than 110 million doses from the biggest local maker since sales started in December, according to a person familiar with the matter — enough to vaccinate just 4% of its population. Meanwhile, there have been no comments from the government about the repeated and confusing statements by Adar Poonawalla, currently in London to escape “threats” in India. Maharashtra’s Congress Chief Nana Patole has asked him to name the person who has been threatening him.


The Long Cable

Modi’s ‘policy paralysis’ has crippled vaccine rollout 

MK Venu

It needed some plain speaking by Adar Poonawala, now in London to escape the heat over India’s vaccine mess, to expose the Modi government’s headline-grabbing announcement of opening up the vaccination drive to all above 18 years from May 1. Most states have said they don’t have vaccine stocks to meet such a large requirement. 

Poonawala has gone public, saying that vaccine shortages will persist for another three months and his company would not be able to scale up capacity from 60 million shots a month to 100 million before July. He has also privately told journalists that the Centre made the big announcement to vaccinate all over 18 without consulting him on availability. He feels so harassed that he is now building part capacity for Covisheld abroad. That is ease of doing business for you! 

Why did Prime Minister Modi choose to announce vaccination for all above 18 from May 1, while knowing that vaccines were in short supply? Even Sputnik V has not committed to big imports to fill the gap in the next three months, needed to scale up the production of Covishield and Covaxin. 

The Centre seemed to have a clear objective ― to divert attention from its own primary failure of not having placed prior orders or stocked up on vaccines like many other countries have already done, to rapidly vaccinate their population. Belatedly, Modi realised that he had been caught napping with low stocks in the midst of a devastating second surge. Until then, Modi’s approach was complete centralisation of vaccine policy by keeping all information close to the chest. That changed rapidly when the penny dropped.

Informally, Poonawala has told journalists that he had been asking the PMO to place big orders for the vaccine, like other nations were doing, since November last year. But PM Modi did not respond until February, because he had already declared victory over Covid-19 and didn’t feel the need to quickly vaccinate the bulk of the population.

But when he saw disaster looming on the horizon in April, Modi quickly turned decentraliser and asked the states and private hospitals to buy 50% of vaccines directly. This was a desperate bid to shift substantial responsibility to the states for the massive failure of the vaccine policy of the Centre as it evolved since last November. Vaccine policy is very time-sensitive because every nation is trying to act fast to save lives and livelihood. India has lost five to six critical months since November 2020. This was clearly a period of policy inaction, even paralysis. Now, in the midst of a devastating second surge, the panic response is to involve the states and the private sector when there is a massive vaccine shortage.

Even now, there is no clear-headed thinking on the price of vaccines to be delivered by the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech. There is no transparent communication from the Centre on the total availability of vaccines, both domestic production and imports, over the next three months, before production capacity actually scales up. There is no clarity on how the available vaccines will be transparently distributed across different states. There is little clarity on how the central subsidy of Rs 35,000 crore will be shared with states, though this is a national immunisation program involving health centres run by state governments, which will provide free vaccination to the people. 

A rough calculation shows that to give two doses at the average cost of Rs 250 per jab to a population of 80 crore, the figure initially mentioned by the government, would cost Rs 40,000 crore. This would require an additional Rs 5,000 crore to be added to the budgeted amount of Rs.35,000 crore. To begin with, the Centre should announce free vaccination for 80 crore Indians and procure vaccines jointly with states, to be administered via public health centres. What better example of cooperative federalism could there be, than working together to give free vaccines to 80 crore people and save the nation’s health and economy? Setting up multiple production facilities either via technology transfer or compulsory licensing is not rocket science, either. It needs only political will and the capacity to rise above the personality cult, in the larger interest of the nation. Is that too much to ask for? 


Reportedly

The government’s peddling of pseudo-science and mumbo-jumbo cures for Covid-19 had peaked when two Union cabinet ministers were found in the supporting cast as yoga guru Ramdev propagated false claims about a cure for the disease. Now, a BJP activist has been spotted yanking off an oxygen mask to pour what looks like cow urine down the patients’ throat. Even in the official literature, despite the massive surge and changed protocols, a lot of untested cures and outdated medicine recommendations remain.


Prime Number: 75 lakh
The number of persons left jobless last month as the country’s unemployment rate in April rose to 7.97% from 6.5% in March, according to data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

Deep Dive

Independent India’s tryst with modern medicine is recounted here. So much we take for granted, the pills we pop and the shots we expect will keep us going, are results of choices made in the early years of independent India, after 1947. Read about the tussle between the jingoists and the progressives. 


High street rentals fall

The country’s most expensive retail hub – Khan Market in New Delhi – saw a drop of 8-17% in average monthly rentals in the first quarter of 2021. The high street markets of Kala Ghoda, Bandra Linking Road and Fort in Mumbai also saw retail rentals decline 5-10% in the same period.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • The edifice of nationalist pride, prestige and global respect built by Modi on his personalised and ‘muscular’ foreign policy has been demolished by his mishandling of the pandemic. It is an embarrassing step back, putting paid to India’s global dreams, writes Sushant Singh (a contributor to The India Cable) in Foreign Policy.

  • Under-reporting hurts the battle against Covid, write Bhramar Mukherjee et al. 

  • The near-collapse of the state in the face of the pandemic cannot be excused. For this failure, we must demand answers — and our leaders must give account. Praveen Swami writes on why each death must be made to matter.

  • Vaccination must be free for citizens, while vaccine manufacturers must be subsidised. India can’t afford to make more mistakes and must do all it can to protect citizens through a smart vaccine policy, writes Sabyasachi Kar.

  • “It’s such a huge crisis which cannot just be reported, it has to be understood with its political underpinnings.” Author Arundhati Roy tells Mehdi Hasan the Indian government is responsible for a “crime against humanity”.

  • Callous disregard for the signs of resurgent Covid-19 by his cronies, advisers and Modi himself left the greater Indian population exposed to rampant infection rates. They are not seen to be contributing either to the economic or the spiritual future of the nation, and as such are dispensable. It may be that their drag on the nation is such that it would be better if they were dispensed with, writes Anish Kapoor in The Times.

  • EAS Sarma writes that the Election Commission had unwittingly become a party to offences committed during the recent elections, because facilitating an offence amounts to abetment, which is equally punishable. The ECI has diminished its own authority and eroded its own reputation.


Listen Up

Sharmila Tagore remembers Satyajit Ray on his 100th birth anniversary, takes a look back at his films ― in some of which she acted --  and talks about what made him stand apart from others.


Watch Out

Yesterday evening, a discussion hosted by the Centre for Policy Research decoded the most violent elections in the middle of a pandemic. Watch, in case you missed it.

https://www.facebook.com/CentreforPolicyResearch/videos/vb.428992003948247/156323443092514/?type=2&theater


Over and Out

SG Neginhal, 93, the retired forest official credited with creating the green cover around Bengaluru four decades ago, died on Sunday. He retired as Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, greened the city in the 1980s and was an acclaimed wildlife photographer.

The owners of the Pune firm which the government of India, in its wisdom, has trusted almost solely with catering to the vaccine needs of Indians, are cooling their heels in London for now. But in February, they were busy talking up their Pune residence to Architectural Digest― on how it is “harmoniously blending with the stunning green landscape”. 

The capital’s Press Club of India is honouring photo-journalists for their tireless effort and the work they do. Record keepers of a dark time, who have been demonised for graphically showing the reality that the government has been trying to deny.


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.