The India Cable: Covid-19 ‘From Bad To Worse’; Bank Privatisation Bankrolled By Taxpayer

Plus: Farmers’ protest biggest ever, Myanmar sanctions may touch India, Jaishankar seeks ‘double peace’, disguised joblessness rises, Nandigram votes tomorrow, Assam Rifles' mysterious good hair day

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 31, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

The India section of the US State Department’s 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices says that the harassment of journalists continues and the government’s requests for social media user data have increased “dramatically”. The impact of US sanctions on two Myanmar military companies may reach Indian shores after Australian human rights lawyers claimed that the Adani Group is financially involved with one of the companies, which serve as financial lifelines to the junta.

A joint statement by 14 nations “expressing concerns” on aspects of the WHO-convened Covid-19 Origins Study was issued yesterday. The signatories include three nations of the Quad. India is the significant exception, and has not joined countries trying to corner China on the coronavirus. 

Campaigning ended yesterday for 30 seats spread across four districts of West Bengal which vote tomorrow. However, all eyes will be on one seat — Nandigram — where Trinamool Congress chief and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee faces former party colleague turned rival Suvendu Adhikari, who switched to the BJP just ahead of the polls and has launched one of the most polarising campaigns ever, with a little help from Amit Shah. In Assam, 39 of the 126 seats will go to the polls, including those in the Barak Valley.

The middle class is going to be hit hardest by the new tax on employee contributions towards provident fund, higher tax deduction at source and leave travel concession to cash schemes effective from tomorrow. Here is the lowdown.

Former Mumbai Police commissioner Param Bir Singh’s serious allegation of being asked to make ‘collections’ by the state home minister will be probed by an inquiry commission under Justice (retd) Kailash Chandiwal. Rebuffed by the Supreme Court, he is being heard today by the Bombay High Court. An RTI query has revealed that Aarogya Setu health data was shared with the police in J&K, confirming fears of digital rights groups of data misuse for state surveillance. The Madras High Court yesterday ordered counselling for the parents of a same-sex couple, two women who fled Madurai and sought protection after their parents threatened them. The court said the counsellor should be a specialist who has experience in working with LGBTQI individuals.

The Supreme Court has agreed to examine a plea by a group of academics and researchers seeking directions to the central government and states to lay down guidelines governing the seizure, examination and preservation by the investigating agencies of personal digital and electronic devices and their contents.

Twitter has controversially locked the Free Software Movement of India’s handle after they asked the government’s Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) to acknowledge and investigate a data leak from Big Basket, the online grocery company. Unrelated fact: the father-in-law of Big BasketCEO Hari Menon is E Sreedharan, the Metro Man and BJP’s potential chief ministerial candidate in Kerala, who had a beef with questions about ‘love jihad’ posed by a journalist from Newslaundry.

Calling for ‘double peace’ at the ninth Heart of Asia meet in Tajikistan, both inside Afghanistan and in the region, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said, in a rare direct reference to the Taliban, that India supports the Intra-Afghan negotiations. Though the Union Home Ministry asserted that refugees from Myanmar should be identified and deported, the Mizoram government is defiant and planning to provide employment to refugees under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).

In a major embarrassment for the Tamil Nadu BJP, they have used a portion of a Bharatanatyam performance by Srinidhi Karti Chidambaram in their election promo. She had performed 10 years ago for the ‘Semmozhi’ song penned by M Karunanidhi and composed by AR Rahman. The BJP has struck quite a mudra.

Coronavirus going from “bad to worse”, says government

The Niti Aayog’s Vinod Kumar Paul has said that the Covid-19 situation “is going from bad to worse”. The Union Health Ministry agreed that it is a “huge cause for worry”. The whole country is at risk and no one can afford to be complacent.  

Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said the 10 districts with maximum active Covid-19 cases are Pune (59,475), Mumbai (46,248), Nagpur (45,322), Thane (35,264), Nashik (26,553), Aurangabad (21,282), Bengaluru Urban (16,259), Nanded (15,171), Delhi (8,032) and Ahmednagar (7,952). The Delhi numbers bear a caveat: though the capital has several districts, it has been taken as one district, he said. 

The states show a huge variation in the number of active cases, but plotting ‘doubling time’ reveals that all are showing a rapid increase in the rate of infection. 

Following genome sequencing of 11,064 samples since December, the UK variant was detected in 807 samples, the South African variant in 47 and the Brazilian variant in one. But Prof Ashish Jha of the Brown University School of Public Health says India’s efforts on genome sequencing are woefully inadequate.

Two days ahead of the Mahakumbh, Rishikesh and Haridwar emerge as Covid-19 hotspots. And former prime minister HD Deve Gowda and his wife have tested positive for the virus. 

Vaccine update

India’s drug regulator has allowed the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine to be used for up to nine months from its date of manufacture, as opposed to the prescribed six months, according to Reuters. The approval, given to the licensed version Covishield made by the Serum Institute of India (SII) and exported to dozens of countries, could help health authorities minimise vaccine wastage and plan their inoculation programmes better.

The Centre has said that both Covishield and Covaxin are effective against the UK and Brazilian variants of coronavirus, while work against the South African strain is on at several laboratories. More than 61 million vaccine doses have already been administered in India. This is less than the 64 million doses given to 84 countries, said Health Minister Harsh Vardhan at a webinar yesterday. In the pursuit of ‘vaccine diplomacy’, India has exported more vaccines than it has administered to Indians. But Brazil’s regulator now says Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin does not meet its standards. Brazil signed a contract last month for 20 million doses.

On the other hand, India has received at no cost 10 million of the nearly 28 million Indian-made AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine doses delivered so far by the global programme for poor countries under the WHO’s Covax scheme, according to data from Unicef and vaccine alliance Gavi. From tomorrow, everyone aged 45 and above would be eligible to be vaccinated. 

Unemployment rises, in disguise

The unemployment rate may have fallen significantly from the peaks seen after the lockdown, but the ranks of the self-employed have risen, revealing disguised unemployment. A report by Azim Premji University on the ‘State of Working India 2021’, to be released soon, shows that of every 100 formal salaried workers who lost jobs, 35 moved into self-employment in September-December 2020. The country’s inflation is “uncomfortably high”, an exception among Asian economies, Moody’s Analytics said yesterday, blaming high fuel prices for feeding retail inflation. 

Imran writes back: Plus ça change

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has responded to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi's Pakistan Day message, telling him that the Pakistani people “also desire peaceful, cooperative relations with all neighbours, including India.” He wrote to Modi a week after Modi told Imran that his country desires cordial relations with the Pakistani people. While Modi wrote about a terror-free environment for peace, Khan said that peace was possible only if outstanding issues like Kashmir were resolved. The more things change… Meanwhile, reports from Pakistan said that its government could take a decision today on reopening trade with India.

Army chief says everybody’s winning

Asked who was the “victor” in Ladakh, Indian Army Chief Gen MM Naravane said the disengagement between India and China (which is yet to be completed) serves “the interests of both”. He said we should want “a stable LAC” and that “not an inch of land” had been lost. Why the Army Chief suddenly decided to speak on this matter is not clear, especially since Assembly elections are in progress. 

The air forces of both countries remain deployed in the theatre just as they were when the border row was at its peak last year, and the peace process has stalled after the initial disengagement as military commanders failed to arrive at a phased timeline for de-escalation and de-induction. The ball was thrown back into the court of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China border affairs, a diplomatic mechanism which has agreed to hold further military talks in Ladakh. 

The Long Cable

Bank privatisation bankrolled by taxpayers

MK Venu

In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had rejected a budget proposal internally put forward by finance minister Arun Jaitley to privatise some public sector banks. Jaitley saw this as a key reform but Modi thought otherwise. Six years on, he has accepted the idea of privatising some public sector banks (PSBs). 

One compulsion is that due to the pandemic, the government does not have the resources to go on infusing more capital into PSBs, which have lost unprecedented amounts of money in the last six years as large corporate groups defaulted on loan repayments. Nearly Rs 5 lakh crore has been written off by banks since 2015, and this had caused complete erosion of capital in most PSBs. The government has been trying to stop the haemorrhaging by pumping in more capital ― which is nothing but the taxpayer’s money subsidising defaulting cronies. Just one corporate group ― declared a wilful defaulter by some banks ― owes over Rs 1.5 lakh crore to banks and other entities. It has offered a legal challenge against being declared a wilful defaulter. The case may go on for years. 

As corporates default on large sums, the government has pumped in fresh capital of about Rs 4 lakh crore in the past five years. A former RBI deputy governor in charge of banking told The India Cable that this fresh capital infusion will only fill the gaping holes created in the past. The banks need much more capital ― Rs  2-3 lakh crore ―  to be able to start lending to industry again. The Modi government possibly thinks that this additional capital could come from the private sector, and therefore the urgent need to privatise some PSBs.

The RBI deputy governor, who chose to remain anonymous, said that the government runs a political risk by inviting the private sector to take over some banks, just after the taxpayer’s money has been used to write off massive bad loans and inject additional capital to improve the balance sheet. Privatising banks at this stage could raise questions about the social cost-benefit, and the propriety of getting taxpayers to subsidise new private sector owners. The recent strike by lakhs of bank employees across India raised precisely these questions. 

Socialisation of losses and privatisation of profits seems to be embedded in the way the Modi government is sequencing bank privatisation. Indeed, if these loss-making banks were privatised in 2015, when the proposal was first mooted by Arun Jaitley, at least the government would have been spared the burden of pumping in lakhs of crores of fresh capital to deal with bad loans.  Having cleaned up the banks’ balance sheets to a large extent, the question now is whether this is the time to sell banks to the private sector at throwaway prices. 

Most PSBs quote at rock bottom prices on the stock market, way below their book value (the actual value of a share as reflected in the balance sheet). Private sector banks like HDFC, Kotak Mahindra and ICICI are quoted at three to five times their book value in the stock market. Normally, the stock market gives a decent premium on the book value. Even the discredited and scam-ridden Yes Bank is quoted at a slight premium on its book value. But most PSBs quote at over 50% discount on their book value! It is politically indefensible to sell bank shares to the private sector at such an abysmally low price, especially after cleaning up their balance sheets with taxpayers’ money. 

To add insult to injury, an RBI working group has proposed that corporate houses should be allowed to own banks. So the same corporates who may have been responsible for massive loan defaults can possibly acquire PSBs whose balance sheets have been cleaned up with the taxpayer’s money. Can this approach be justified politically? These are questions the Modi government cannot avoid as it goes ahead with its plan to privatise banks. 


Prejudice on trial

Exasperated with the Narendra Modi government for the delay in elevating Delhi High Court lawyer Saurabh Kirpal to a judge of the same court, Chief Justice of India SA Bobde has reportedly written to Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar, giving him “four weeks to clear the air” about whether the matter is pending because of Kirpal’s sexual orientation. Kirpal’s name was recommended for elevation by the Delhi High Court collegium in October 2017, but the Supreme Court has deferred its deliberations three times. It is believed that the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) had red-flagged his elevation. Kirpal had said last year: “This is all mired in a cloud of innuendo. The problem is that the collegium system is opaque and because it is opaque, I cannot say what is the reason and what is there in the mind of judges. There was some kind of Intelligence Bureau report, which I don’t have access to but only read about in the media, that there was some problem with my partner. So, this (non-elevation) has probably got to do with my sexuality.”

No reservation after privatisation

The Centre has “assured private investors that they would not have to comply with caste-based job reservation norms after strategic disinvestment” of the government’s stake in state-run firms.

But a report in Livemint says that it will “adequately protect existing employees, including those belonging to scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and the physically handicapped.” Sounds like magic.

Farmers’ protest biggest ever

The Mass Mobilisation Project, which tracks protests outside the United States, has recorded nearly 7,000 protests from 153 countries over the past 10 years. India’s farmer protests get a special mention. On November 26, 2020, trade unions in India said 250 million people participated in a 24-hour general strike to demand the repeal of three laws that would deregulate the agricultural sector. This makes it the largest protest gathering in history.

Prime number: 2019 minus

Prime Number: 2019 minus
India’s 2021 economic output is expected to remain below the 2019 level, the annual survey by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) has said. Produced annually since 1947, the Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific is the oldest UN report on the region’s progress. In comparison, China demonstrated a “swift and effective” response to Covid-19 and its 6.5 per cent year-on-year growth rate in the fourth quarter of 2020 “exceeded pre-pandemic growth levels”, said the survey, which also said it expects China’s economic recovery to further improve in 2021.

KYL: Know Your Leak

Payments startup MobiKwik said it was investigating claims of data breach after a website claimed to have exposed private information of nearly 100 million users of the mobile payment app. It is said to be the largest KYC leak so far. An onion site on the dark web claimed it had 8.2 terabytes of MobiKwik user data, including phone numbers, email addresses, hashed passwords, transaction logs, and partially readable credit card and debit card numbers. MobiKwik is being panned for not taking responsibility and blaming users who reported finding their personal data in the dump. Earlier this month, too, it was in denial over the possibility of a leak.

About 52% of Indian organisations said they fell victim to a successful cybersecurity attack in the last 12 months, according to a survey released yesterday. Of these, 71% of organisations admitted it was a serious or very serious attack, and 65 per cent said it took longer than a week to fix, according to the survey by global cybersecurity firm Sophos.

Deep Dive

India’s Tibet policy

Ironically, despite hosting the largest Tibetan diaspora, including the government in exile, India’s policy towards Tibet has been ambivalent, especially recently. Ghazala Wahab offers a detailed portrait.

OTT growth over the top 

Research by RedSeer shows that between April 2020 and February 2021, unique paid users to Over The Top (OTT) platforms grew by 35% and subscription revenue by 42%. 

Of the 188 billion minutes spent on OTT in February 2021, users spent the biggest chunk of 69 billion minutes on daily soaps, followed by movies with 31 billion minutes and then originals produced by the OTT platforms. Voot dominates the daily soaps genre while other platforms together contribute 31%. On the other hand, Hotstar dominates the movies genre with 33%. Telecom bundling has worked for OTTs, conclude the researchers.

Hairy situation at Myanmar border

An official of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD), custodian of the world famous Tirupati temple, clarified yesterday that the recent seizure of tonsured hair by Assam Rifles at the Mizoram-Myanmar border has nothing to do with it. He said the temple e-auctions all the tonsured hair donated by the devotees to international bidders. “TTD hands over the hair stock through tenders to the bidders after deducting prescribed GST.” Assam Rifles suspected that the hair seized at the border came from TTD and was being smuggled to Myanmar, bound for other countries.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes that the real test of vasudhaiva kutumbakam is not opportunistic displays of noblesse oblige. It is adherence to basic norms of decency, and by sidelining even the most basic humanitarian impulses in its response to the Myanmar crisis, India will fail its ideals and its strategic objectives

  • Maidul Islam says West Bengal has often surprised pollsters, and this time it may be the BJP which is surprised.

  • Arvind Mayaram advocates the need for environment-friendly sanitary pads. A special “disposal cess” should be imposed from FY2023 on pads containing plastic to penalise producers.

  • The public university was also the only space in our polity where young citizens of all classes and communities met on level ground, This did not endear them to the privileged orders, and this system has been dismantled in the new century, with no viable replacement, writes Sukanta Chaudhuri.

  • Why I am a communist: Activist Kobad Ghandy discusses ideology and Utopia.

Listen Up

Communalism Down Under

Sidharth Bhatia (of The India Cable) speaks with Surjeet Dhanji of the University of Melbourne and the Asia Institute about the sudden outburst of tensions among Indians in Australia. Some of the anti-farmer hysteria in India has morphed into anti-Sikh hysteria Down Under. This is the first instance of intra-community violence in Australia, where Indians have been living peacefully for a long time. 

Watch Out

The London School of Economics interviews Professor Christophe Jaffrelot as part of its series on the vision for India in 2022, at 75 years of India’s Independence.

Over and Out

Body doubles off-screen

The doppelganger is the stuff of movie plot lines, but they cross over into real life, too. Ajay Devgn had to issue denials days ago after he was misidentified in a viral video showing a pub brawl in New Delhi. However, the story of Kannur native VK Thajudheen, who spent 54 days in jail and lost his business in Qatar because the police mistook him for a chain-snatcher, is stranger than fiction.

Azharuddin from Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, 20, fought many odds including poverty to become a mechanical engineer. He has created an electric cart from junk and is now receiving online orders internationally.

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.