The India Cable: Covid Makes Deep Rural Inroads; Govt Claims it's Making Loos, Not Central Vista

Plus: Second wave spikes consumption growth story, a Bobde defence that does the ex-CJI no good, India catching up with China on population, and a pretend newspaper reports on Modi’s hard work

A newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas | Contributors: MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam | Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

Snapshot of the day
May 12, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will not be travelling to Cornwall in June to attend the G-7 summit in person, “given the prevailing Covid situation”. It is not confirmed that he will send a hologram instead.

Here at home, Modi is working hard, according to an op-ed in the ‘Guardian’, not the real one, of course, published from London, which has castigated Modi for his hubris, but a knock-off that no one had heard of till now called The Daily Guardian. Yesterday, it became the launch pad for BJP IT cell chief Amit Malviya’s social media campaign to refocus public attention on the 85% of Indians who recover from Covid-19 on their own, and deflect it from the person who’s taking a beating for the huge absolute numbers that are dying. On cue, dozens of BJP leaders tweeted the op-ed, which was written by a BJP man. The pretend Guardian is just a website registered to ‘ITV Network, Uttar Pradesh’. ITV Network (the real entity) runs India News, NewsX, the Sunday Guardian and various Indian language products. Meanwhile, ABC News’s man in Delhi calls out a purported Australian news outlet reporting on India, which exists only on social media. Its lead story says that India is fighting a pandemic of “vulture journalists”. 

Why is Modi getting such bad international press? He has, by all accounts, earned it. For example, his missteps led the country into an oxygen shortage amid a devastating Covid-19 surge. India recorded 4,205 fresh fatalities yesterday, the highest so far, as per the Health Ministry’s official data. Most global experts believe this to be an undercount by a factor of three to five.

Following the Mahakumbh, Covid-19 is now in the heartland, with Chhattisgarh leading in the rural share of cases, followed by Himachal Pradesh and Bihar. A total of 533 districts across India are reporting positivity rates of over 10%. In other words, at least 10 out of every 100 persons tested are Covid-positive in 71% of the total number of districts (718) in the country. Mercifully, however, daily and weekly average active cases have been dropping for three days, suggesting that the peak of the wave is almost here. Eighteen states could plateau, but West Bengal is rising, and Goa and the Northeast show sharp growth. 

(Via Twitter/@caricatured)

A day after corpses were seen floating in the Ganga at Buxar in Bihar, dozens more were found in the river in Ballia and Ghazipur districts in Uttar Pradesh. The local administration fished out many which were close to the riverbank and had them buried. Ghazipur District Magistrate MP Singh said that the administration was trying to find out where the bodies had come from. And the Centre did what it does best ― it passed a vague and unimplementable order which addresses the optics rather than the problem itself. Today, corpses are reportedly in a river in Panna district, Madhya Pradesh, which is a source of water for villagers and their cattle. 

Meanwhile, hospitals in UP are witnessing tragic scenes, and many people resist taking admission. Reuters reports that doctors are scarce, intensive care units expensive, and patients are packed into emergency rooms. People flit in and out, trying to help with everything from procuring oxygen cylinders to artificial resuscitation. The WHO, however, is all praise for a new door-to-door testing programme launched in the state.

The Congress government in Rajasthan will provide free ambulances to Covid-19 patients bound for hospital or on referral. Over 5,000 defence personnel are being treated for Covid-19 in military hospitals, and an almost five-fold jump in admissions has been seen since the second wave began. So far, 133 deaths have fallen to the pandemic, including 17 in the past three weeks.

The central government has asked the states to prioritise beneficiaries due for a second dose and dedicate a minimum of 70% of allocated vaccines from the Centre’s channel for it. This is the exact opposite of the policy followed in the UK, where maximum people were given the first jab before moving focus to the second one, even if it was delayed.

“The Election Commission, the higher courts and the government failed to fathom the disastrous consequences of permitting elections in a few states and the panchayat elections in Uttar Pradesh,” said an order by the Allahabad High Court. Another bench said that the kin of those who died on poll duty must be compensated by at least Rs 1 crore.

A 13-year-old was found “lost and confused” in a Kolkata rail terminus, carrying a Covid-positive rapid test report. He was abandoned by his father, a daily wage worker who could not pay for his treatment. Child welfare officials said they have been receiving several such cases recently. 

The violence in Palestine and Israel has claimed the life of an Indian woman from Idukki district, Kerala. Soumya, 30, who worked as a caretaker at a house at Ashkelon in Israel ―  which borders the Gaza strip ― died in a mortar attack yesterday.

The 2020 census in China reveals the slowest population growth in decades ― 0.53% over the last 10 years, which has brought the population down to 1.41 billion. Statista.com estimates India’s population to be 1.391 billion. We’re catching up, in the most dubious race we could possibly run.


WHO nixes Ivermectin, Indian experts target plasma

WHO has recommended against the general use of Ivermectin, an orally-administered drug for parasitic infections, for the treatment of Covid-19. It was included in the Union Health Ministry’s revised national Covid treatment protocol for off-label use on patients with mild disease. Its maker has now clarified that there is no evidence of efficacy against Covid-19.

“Safety and efficacy are important when using any drug for a new indication. WHO recommends against the use of Ivermectin for Covid-19 except within clinical trials,” Soumya Swaminathan, WHO’s chief scientist, tweeted. This drug was classified in the guidelines as a possible therapy for mildly symptomatic patients “based on low certainty of evidence”. Goa went a step further and on Monday, state Health Minister Vishwajit Rane said that all adults would be given Ivermectin as a prophylactic measure.

In India, 18 health professionals have written to the Principal Scientific Advisor, saying that Covid management guidelines are misleading patients and families into believing that plasma helps. Global research and an ICMR study last year found no clear evidence of benefit. 


Govt claims it is ‘only building public amenities’, not Central Vista

The Centre has opposed the plea before Delhi High Court seeking a halt on construction activities in relation to the Central Vista redevelopment project. In an affidavit filed through its executive engineer, it told the Court that the construction activities in progress at Rajpath and India Gate do not pertain to a new Parliament building or new offices. It is with respect to public spaces and includes amenities like new toilet blocks, parking spaces, pedestrian underpasses below the C-Hexagon, etc.

Petitioners Anya Malhotra and Sohail Hashmi sought a halt to construction for fear of creating another super-spreader in the disease-burdened capital. The plea contended that there is no rationale for classifying the Central Vista Project as an “essential service”, merely because some executive-mandated contractual deadline was ostensibly required to be met.

Since the petition objects to exposing the workforce at a time of a pandemic, it is not clear why the government believes it absolutely must rush the erection of amenities that a locked down or socially-distanced public will not be able to use for many more months.


Second wave spikes consumption growth story

Even from distant shores, the Indian economy looks critically ill. The Financial Times writes about economists warning that the latest outbreak could have long-term ramifications for middle-class Indians, whose rising consumption was expected to be the country’s growth engine for many years, since India’s rise is “a consumption story”. The Cornell economist Kaushik Basu has spoken on the debt-to-GDP ratio, which has risen from 72% in 2019 to 89%. India is the third worst-off emerging market after Argentina and Brazil. Basu says: “It’ll be a mistake to ignore the growing debt problem. Unchecked, it can do long-run damage to the economy.”

The electronics and consumer durables market in India may see a significant slowdown because of the second wave of Covid-19. Sales of smartphones and laptops and summer products like air conditioners and coolers will fall.

The country could be heading towards a “serious livelihood crisis”, as the working class is worse-off during the second wave, and local restrictions imposed by states already approximate a nationwide lockdown, says Jean Dreze. The labour participation rate fell to 39.98% in April 2021, which CMIE estimates is the worst since the national lockdown last year. The Nomura India Business Resumption Index has slumped to June 2020 levels. Moody’s Investors Service has slashed India’s growth forecast to 9.3% from the 13.7% projected earlier, due to the mishandling of the second wave. Net inflows into equity mutual funds fell in April on dampened sentiment and poor growth prospects. Data released by the Association of Mutual Funds in India yesterday showed net inflows fell 75% to Rs 1,783 crore in April from Rs 7,376 crore in March.


Temple construction for about $1/hour?

The Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) has been accused of using forced labour to build a temple in New Jersey, USA. This is the group that has built ‘Akshardham’ temples in Gujarat and Delhi. Federal agents descended on the massive temple in Robbinsville, NJ, as a lawsuit claimed that Dalit men had been lured from India to work for about $1 an hour. The workers accused the Hindu sect of luring them from India, confining them to the premises and paying them about $1 an hour to perform gruelling labour in near-servitude. Their lawyers said BAPS, which has “strong ties” with PM Narendra Modi and the BJP and has built temples around the world, had exploited possibly hundreds of Dalits in the years-long construction project. 

The FBI confirmed to the media that agents had been at the temple. “I respectfully disagree with the wage claim,” Kanu Patel, chief executive of BAPS, told The New York Times, while noting he was not in charge of day-to-day operations at the site. The case has come to light following the efforts of Swati Sawant, described by the New York-based journalist and author Yashica Dutt as “the fierce Dalit immigrant lawyer, who organised legal teams and highlighted this case.”


The Long Cable

Pandemic plutocracy, or the benefits of unity in adversity

Satya Mohanty

Regardless of the regime in office, the Indian state has always tended to be pro-big business. When tested, it rarely comes out as pro-people in the asymmetrical trade off with business. Claude Ake, the Nigerian political philosopher and development specialist at Yale, wrote,

“Instead of being a public force, the state… tends to be privatised, that is, appropriated to the private interest by the dominant faction of the elite. Political elites extract immediate rents and transfers… clientelism and patrimonialism is a personalised relationship between patron and client commanding unequal wealth, station and influence, based on conditional loyalties and involving mutual benefits.”

He wrote this about Africa, but it’s uncannily like India.

​When the pandemic began, the government set the price for the RT-PCR test at Rs 4,400.  Later, it was brought down to Rs 2,800 and Rs 2,200 in Delhi. Now, in large parts of the country, it is much lower, at Rs 400-500. Why did the agency responsible set the rate so high, and why did governments allow it to stay high? It’s the same story with the Rapid Antigen Test, which was fixed at Rs 800 when it could have been less than half of that. Diagnostic centres have shown exponential profit in their balance sheets with such windfall gains. It is inevitable when the government sanctifies price gouging by setting rates so high.  

​When ventilators were being procured under emergency powers by governments, it was at a very high rate. Anecdotally, when the Tamil Nadu government struck a lower price, they were told to stick to the higher rate. This translated into higher charges for patients in private hospitals, though they had purchased machines at a much lower rate. The rate for using ventilators stayed at that level regardless of the cost incurred and amortization. When Maruti and Mahindra & Mahindra were ready to manufacture ventilators, reluctance at some level made sure that it did not happen. Today, we face a shortage of ventilators again. So much for Atmanirbharata.

​Now, let’s come to vaccination. “For the last 73 years, the government has always borne the bill of national vaccination,” says K Sujatha Rao, former Union health secretary. While declaring that the 18+ group would be eligible, the Centre conveniently shifted the burden of responsibility to the states. Worse, the government permitted private firms to set vaccine prices, and the states had to negotiate and foot the bill during a national health emergency, with a shortage at the manufacturing level. Under the Constitution, it is the responsibility of the Centre (entry 29 of the Concurrent List) to stop the spread of the pandemic across state borders. But very dextrously, the onus was shifted to the states ―  both costs and consequences. 

The result is that the companies priced the vaccine at Rs 400 per jab. Covishield was apparently making a profit at Rs 150 per jab, at which it sold to the Centre. The same company increases the price by 200% for the states and 300% for private hospitals. A two-jab protocol for a family of five will now cost Rs 12,000 in private hospitals, if they charge conservatively at Rs 1,200. This is happening in a country where 80% of the population would find it difficult to pay for vaccines and 80% of the states cannot take it on their budget book, with their anaemic finances. The effect of vaccination is believed to last only for six months. Hence, the expenditure can double when states feel compelled to go slow.

​Without belabouring the points of shortage of medicines and oxygen, let us see what private healthcare has come to mean during the pandemic. All over India, 60-65% of medical facilities are privately owned, and in very few places have their charges been capped. I refer to a bill of a private hospital in south India, where a person known to me was on a ventilator for three and half days before breathing her last. More than her recovery, the family was legitimately worried that all their assets would vanish, including a small house, in the course of treatment. The bill finally came to Rs 5 lakh ― bedside procedures were Rs 60,000, the blood bank cost Rs 30,000, medicines cost Rs 1,60,000, consultant charges were Rs 40,000, nursing cost Rs 40,000, lab investigations cost Rs 50,000 and ICU charges were Rs 60,000. This was for a disease with a limited template of treatment, applied to a lower middle class person. Economics frowns upon the government capping prices. But what does the government do in an economy where rent gouging is the SOP of the medical system? Look at classic economic theory and look the other way?

​When some states capped prices, why didn’t the rest? Surely crony capitalism is at play here, knowing very well that common people will be exploited for windfall gains. ​Profit from tragedy is not unknown in India, unlike in most societies, but the enabling of profiteering under the government’s guard is even more sobering. Even snake oil has been endorsed as a cure for Covid-19 by the presence of the country’s Health Minister (who is a trained doctor himself). Not only was an unproved tablet sanctified, but a plutocratic crony arrangement, too. Evidence proving complicity is scant, thanks to impediments to free flow of data and information. But smoking guns are worrisome. One just hopes that it is not a case of the fence eating the crop. But one thing is clear: in the course of the pandemic, the common man has been thrown to the wolves.

(Dr Satya Mohanty is a retired IAS official)


Reportedly

UP and Bihar, ruled by the BJP-led NDA, may be literally swamped by the dead in the second wave, but that has not prevented the state governments from targeting Opposition politicians who question the dubious actions of ruling party MPs. The Samajwadi Party’s national spokesperson IP Singh and two others have been booked by UP police for linking BJP Rajya Sabha member Sanjay Seth’s son with a Thai woman who died of Covid complications at a Lucknow hospital. Former Bihar MP Pappu Yadav, who recently took on Rajiv Pratap Rudy, the BJP MP from Saran, over the issue of a large number of ambulances lying unused at the latter’s premises, was yesterday rounded up by police in Patna and booked for alleged lockdown violation


Prime Number: 210
That is the number of journalists who have died in the second wave of Covid-19 since April. That makes it an average of 35 journalists dying every 10 days.

SII is profitable, but is it acceptable?

Pharma major Serum Institute of India’s material cost was 14% of its revenues. It is in good shape to earn profits. But will it earn the respect and goodwill of a pandemic-stricken nation?


Deep Dive

India’s real population fatality rate during the pandemic is 3.5 times the reported PFR, and this undercounting is concentrated in a few states, especially UP, with 8.3 times undercounting and Bihar with 20 times undercounting. See this Twitter thread and paper by Alex Washburne.


With advocates like this, who needs prosecutors?

A law clerk of former Chief Justice of India Sharad Bobde has attempted a defence of the judge’s record, which is otherwise seen as not just unspectacular but downright atrocious. Bobde retired last month. Writing in LiveLaw, Roddam Prashanth Reddy defends Bobde’s failure to prioritise key constitutional cases like Article 370, electoral bonds and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act by quoting  Samuel Alito, a former judge of the US Supreme Court, who once said  that “delaying reaching conclusions until everything has been considered" is a good habit for good judges.

Reddy writes, “I believe Justice Bobde fits in [that] category of good judges… Sometimes this may delay the process of delivering a Judgment but what use is merely delivering a Judgement if it cannot deliver justice? While we all agree with the famous saying "Justice delayed is Justice denied", it is also equally important to acknowledge that Justice hurried is Justice buried.”

So what exactly was Bobde’s contribution then? In the words of his defender: “He attempted to appoint the first woman Chief Justice of India… he has for the first-time, paved way for fixing the cost of a tree, he made sure the courts run smoothly during the pandemic… he has taken Suo moto cognizance of the covid crisis even if it is his last day in the court” (emphasis added). 

It need hardly be said that all higher courts in India are running “smoothly” during the pandemic and that the essential point of Bobde’s suo moto cognisance of the Covid crisis was to run down the high courts which were passing orders that were not to the Centre’s liking.


Sequencing languishes

India is sequencing far less than 1% of daily positive samples. An early goal was 5% of cases, but that became unrealistic once cases ballooned. World leader UK has been sequencing up to 10% of samples at points in the pandemic.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss


No ventilator while alive, Pt Rajan Mishra gets hospital after death

Hindustani classical singer Pandit Rajan Mishra died in April for want of a ventilator, despite desperate calls for help, including to PM Modi on social media. Now, a DRDO hospital manned by the armed forces in Modi’s Varanasi constituency has been named after him. And of course, Modi gets a picture as big as Pandit Mishra’s on the banner.

His son, Rajnish Mishra says: “My father won’t be coming to see this hospital, neither will Lord Rama come to see his temple in Ayodhya. More than statues, temples or a new residence for the PM, governments need to improve health infrastructure.”


Listen Up

All over the world, cases of depression, anxiety and stress-related problems have been seen after the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. India is no exception, Dr Rajesh Parekh, neuropsychiatrist and head of the Jaslok Hospital Medical Centre tells Sidharth Bhatia (a contributor to The India Cable)


Watch Out

Murali Neelakantan sheds light on the role that Intellectual Property Rights play on how fast vaccines can be produced at scale, the gaps in India’s Covid-19 vaccination policy, and more. 


Over and Out

While Pakistan reeled under the oppressive cultural clampdown of President Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s, a revolutionary rock music scene was brewing underground at universities and five star hotels. Pop rock band Strings, formed in 1988 in Karachi, was popular in India and always championed rock music in the subcontinent. It has called it a day after 33 years.

Anoushka Shankar’s single Sister Susannah is a tribute to women battling domestic abuse, which has been on the rise throughout the pandemic.

On this day in 2002, Anil Kumble bowled an incredible 14 overs against the West Indies with a broken jaw, and dismissed Brian Lara. 


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.