The India Cable: Crematorium Furnaces Melting; Ma Ganga's Blessings Means 'No Corona' at Kumbh Says CM

Plus: Adityanath, Akhilesh catch Covid, pandemic response botched by govt breaking laws and protocols, health minister fast-tracks cow science, and a temp gardener is taking RT-PCR swabs in Sanchi

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 14, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

It’s Ambedkar Jayanti today ― a good day to read the Constitution, the instruction manual for India’s operating system.

The good news is that as India and Pakistan adhere to the ceasefire agreement after years of cross-border shelling, wedding celebrations have returned to villages along the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir.

In other news, migrants have started making their way back home once more as memories of the apathy, the lack of planning and human concerns of the central government, and the leadership’s affection for dispensing masterstrokes and tough love, make the most vulnerable jittery again

India reported a record single-day rise of 1,84,372 new coronavirus infections, according to the Union Health Ministry data, while the death toll crossed 1.7 lakh with 1,027 new fatalities in the past 24 hours. The ascent of the second wave is visible, experts say. The R variable, which indexes how fast the disease is propagating (2 is the danger mark, meaning that each infected person is infecting two more) is rising. UP is at 2.8 and Bihar at 3. At least 12 states have an R value higher than 2. UP chief minister Adityanath has tested positive. Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav tested positive too after visiting Haridwar, where the Kumbh Mela is underway, and meeting religious leaders.

But Union Health and Science Minister Harsh Vardhan was busy yesterday pulling up representatives of several ministries over the delay in approving and funding research projects that aim to scientifically validate the uniqueness of indigenous cows and their products under an inter-ministerial funding programme. The minister now wants these projects to be fast-tracked so there is “significant development” in time for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech on  the 75th Independence Day, he indicated at a virtual meeting on Tuesday with officials of his ministry and other government agencies associated with the programme.

A new Moody’s report has warned against complete lockdowns as an economic risk, and suggested limited curbs like those applied in Maharashtra today. A “lockdown-style curfew” restricts activities in the state for 15 days, but leaves transport and essential services functioning. On Monday, Barclays had suggested that accelerating the vaccination drive would limit economic damage. 

A week ago, documents circulated on social media alleging that Oyo had filed for bankruptcy. The fake story made headlines and the room aggregator had to issue a denial. Willingness to believe the story reflected public perceptions of the state of the travel and hospitality industries, which are hit hard by the second wave just as they were recovering from the first. But a week later, there’s a real deal: Flipkart, in which Walmart has a majority stake, is close to picking up booking platform Cleartrip in a distress sale

At 11:30 AM this morning, the Indian National Congress launched its digital channel, INCTV, to disseminate its messages through social media. As Election Commission officials raised incomprehensible objections to West Bengal Congress chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury’s sleeping arrangements, he had to write to the Election Commission protesting against “restrictions on night halt and stay at own house.”  

Upset and “angry with God” about rising temperature and lack of rain, a man defiled three idols of Lord Hanuman in southwest Delhi’s Kakrola village. It landed him in jail.

Crematorium furnaces melt, but Gujarat shows low death rate

India’s crematoriums and burial grounds are working overtime to cope with the surging number of deaths from the escalating coronavirus outbreak. Local media has been filled with grim reports of furnaces melting down as crematoriums run non-stop, bodies piling up and smoke from continuously burning bodies creating a new health risk for locals. Workers at six crematoriums across the country confirmed the scenes in phone interviews with Mint, saying they’ve seen Covid-19 deaths climbing. 

Officials in Gujarat say that metal structures of furnaces at some Surat crematoriums are melting or breaking because they’re being used 24x7 to cope with the huge rush of bodies amid the second wave of pandemic. Ironically, official figures show that only 55 people died yesterday in the whole state due to Covid-19. Almost every media outlet in Gujarat – print, TV, English-language or Gujarati – has put the spotlight on the staggering mismatch between the government’s official Covid-19 death count and the number of bodies being cremated or buried. Bodies are piling up at crematoriums and burial grounds in the neighbouring BJP-ruled state of Madhya Pradesh, reflecting a steep rise in Covid cases, but there seems to be an unexplained gap between the official daily death count released by the state government and the ground reality

The deluge of infections and deaths highlights just how unprepared the Modi government is to deal with the latest wave of the epidemic. In the past weeks, it has encouraged large crowds to gather for election rallies in five states, and festivals and religious pilgrimages ― things could get much worse before they get better. 

Class 12 exams postponed to June, Class 10 exams cancelled

Amid growing demands to cancel school board examinations this year, officials of the Central Board of Secondary Education, Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal and the Prime Minister met today to reset the schedule. The Class 12 exams have been indefinitely postponed ― dates will be decided after a review on June 1 ― and the Class 10 exams are cancelled.  

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had sought cancellation of exams and Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh had sought postponement, and today, prior to the meeting, Madhya Pradesh actually postponed exams to June, joining several other states. The fresh surge in the pandemic had resulted in increasing demands for rescheduling of board exams from students, parents, and teachers. 

UP and MP in crisis, Sanchi gardener collects RT-PCR samples 

Prime Minister Modi has been forced to cancel meetings with foreign dignitaries because of the raging pandemic, but it has had no effect on the Kumbh festivities or the BJP’s election campaigning in West Bengal. 

The Maharashtra government has imposed a curfew across the state for the next 15 days to control the spiralling Covid-19 cases. The state government has decided to close down everything except essential and emergency services. The restrictions will be imposed between 7 am and 8 pm, and will come into effect from today. Among the bigger states, the seven-day average growth of total active cases is now the highest in Bihar, Assam and Uttar Pradesh but the Union Health Ministry has not uttered a word about this or the horrendous situation in Gujarat, while it pursues the important objective of criticising Opposition-ruled states. A BJP MP in UP has gone public about the crisis in the state, tweeting that the Covid situation is “out of control” in Lucknow, and requesting the Election Commission to delay panchayat polls.

Shortage of staff due to the Covid-19 pandemic has forced the authorities to take the help of a daily wage gardener to collect swabs of people at the government civil hospital in Madhya Pradesh’s Sanchi, the constituency of state Health Minister Prabhuram Choudhary. The incident came to light when some TV reporters recorded the gardener, Halke Ram, collecting swabs of people for testing at the hospital in Sanchi, a world heritage site 50 km from Bhopal. The surge in Covid-19 cases and the demands raised by various state governments upon travellers to carry a negative RT-PCR test report have led to a shortage of testing kits and delays in the preparation of reports by authorised labs.

Kumbh versus Tablighi Jamaat 

Haridwar is witnessing a huge spike in Covid-19 cases following the massive and mostly maskless Mahakumbh gathering. Last year, the Delhi chief minister was the first to label the cases at the Tablighi Jamaat in Nizamuddin as a separate category. By April 11, when Delhi had 1,069 cases, the Delhi government had renamed the category ‘Special Operations,’ and the chief minister spoke of the Jamaat being a spreader of corona, alongside people with a travel history. But when asked about the Mahakumbh, which carries serious risks and is not far from Delhi, watch him stumble, hem and haw.

Meanwhile, Uttarakhand Chief Minister TS Rawat has reduced the timings for night curfew, citing the forthcoming festival celebrations for Chaitra Navratri in the state. He also said the ongoing Kumbh Mela in Haridwar should not be compared with the Nizamuddin Markaz, which was held in a closed space and attended even by foreigners. “Kumbh is at the bank of the River Ganga. Maa Ganga’s blessings are there in the flow. So, there should be no corona,” he said.

BJP sheds 20th ally since 2014

After the Shiv Sena and the Akali Dal, one more BJP ally has quit the National Democratic Alliance. The Goa Forward Party of Vijay Sardesai has walked out, citing the “anti-Goan policies” of the BJP-led state government, making it the 20th party to quit the alliance since 2014. The GFP extended support to the NDA in 2017 to facilitate the formation of the BJP-led state government under Manohar Parrikar. After Parrikar’s death in 2019, the alliance soured when three GFP ministers were dropped from the Pramod Sawant-led government. Though the exit of the GFP, which has three MLAs in the 40-member Goa House, will not impact the stability of the Pramod Sawant government, it signals the growing inability of the Modi-Shah regime to keep allies with them. 

The Long Cable

Government broke laws and protocols to botch pandemic response

Vasudevan Mukunth

In its rush to deal first with the vaccination drive and then with the unprecedented second wave of Covid-19, the Government of India has botched its response in various ways. To begin with, it has resorted to a slew of extralegal measures to push through questionable decisions about medical treatments, antiviral drugs and vaccines – all in the name of the epidemic’s “unprecedented nature”. 

For example, the Drug Controller General of India approved Covaxin on January 3, 2021 in “clinical trial mode”, an unheard-of term indicating that the vaccine rollout would be part of a clinical trial of sorts, to test its safety and efficacy. Result: in the following weeks, widespread vaccine hesitancy caused 92% of vaccine recipients until late March to opt for Covishield, the other vaccine that had been approved, instead of Covaxin. The Centre was empowered by a robust body of laws to take a straightforward route: to approve Covishield alone – preferably not in the opaque process currently used – and wait for Covaxin’s interim results to become available. The first of these results showed up in early March.

But the Centre, not having learned its lesson, reproduced the same behaviour towards other Covid-19 vaccines, other than Covaxin and Covishield. Was the state trying to protect the already small market for Covaxin, a ‘Made in India’ product? Because the terms of its approval of Covaxin are vastly different from those it confronted other applicants with, including Novavax, Pfizer, Sputnik V and Johnson & Johnson. The government asked for bridging trials from all of them. It did it for Covishield as well, and the shot’s approval was predicated on apparently favourable data of 100 participants from the trial. 

But on April 12, the government made another completely avoidable U-turn, saying it would waive the requirement for bridging trials under the 2019 New Drugs and Clinical Trial Rules, and that foreign vaccine-makers could apply for accelerated approvals based on week-long ‘mini trials’ and effectiveness data of the vaccines’ administration in other countries. It could have done exactly these things earlier, when the first reports emerged of a looming vaccine shortage, which the government instead deflected, accusing state governments of attempting to mask vaccine hesitancy and refusing to increase supply. 

Instead of breaking one rule to make up for breaking another one, and evading any public accountability, the government can still make better use of existing laws to shore up India’s vaccine situation. It can issue compulsory licenses on the vaccines to be manufactured, reallocate existing manufacturing facilities to boost Covaxin and Covishield production, modify the licenses granted to Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech to sell additional doses on the private market, take steps to reduce vaccine wastage and ensure state authorities don't hold the national genome surveillance programme back. 

All these actions can be implemented quickly, would help speed up the vaccination drive and lie within the law. India’s Covid-19 outbreak is not yet so unprecedented as to justify lawbreaking.

Mukunth is Science Editor of The Wire


The last laugh

When Congress leader Rahul Gandhi asked the Modi government last Friday to allow vaccines approved by other countries to be used in India, Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had accused the former Congress President of “lobbying for pharma companies by asking for arbitrary approvals for foreign vaccines” adding that “Fighting a pandemic is not a one-trick game”.  

Collage: The Telegraph

Policy advisor in the External Affairs Ministry Ashok Malik called the idea of bringing in additional  (priced) vaccines “a hare-brained non-starter”. He further argued that such a move “could potentially destroy the credibility of a major public health effort”. Four days later, Prasad and Malik’s own government followed Gandhi’s advice to the T, leaving many wondering if these gentlemen are taken seriously by the establishment.

Prime number: 20,000

That’s the target set by France for the number of Indian students in that country by 2025, as per French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. There were 10,000 Indian students studying in the European nation in 2019, according to officials at the French Embassy.

Corona invites quackery and wild claims

Indians are paying a heavy price for the absence of planning, and peddlers of mumbo-jumbo are adding to the inability of the ruling BJP to plan the pandemic response in such a large country with so many vulnerable people. The launch of Coronil, the so-called Corona-cure from the Ramdev stable, which WHO distanced itself from, was graced by two central ministers. Incidents of quackery should be investigated, and so should ridiculous research claims. “India is, therefore, not suffering from a second wave,” argues a paper apparently authored by BHU researchers, which is submitted to and is yet to be peer-reviewed. 

A professor of genetics, one of the main authors, had last year concluded that Indian genes have protected the population against the novel coronavirus. In the recent study, published on February 8, he again reassures India that all is well. “At the moment, there is a rise in the number of cases in some parts of the country. However, if you look closely, it is not an exponential rise.” Reliance on babas and disdain for expertise and rigour will cost the people.

Deep Dive

India’s manufacturing woes

Despite the push under the ‘Make in India’ slogan of PM Modi, the share of the manufacturing sector in the GDP has stayed stagnant. Low wages across the sector, increased contractualisation and a preference for capital investment over labour has left blue-collar workers struggling.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Aakar Patel writes that the right to freedom of religion was taken away by subterfuge, as has been the case for many rights in India, under the approving eye of the Supreme Court.

Listen Up

Cricket, glorious cricket

Sharda Ugra, arguably India’s finest and most respected sports journalist, joins Amit Varma to talk about sports journalism, cricket, other Indian sports, and how she has embraced both the sublime and the shady. 

Watch Out

Nanak Singh’s ‘Khooni Vaisakhi’ narrates the political events in the run-up to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and its immediate aftermath. A scathing critique of the British Raj, the poem was banned soon after its publication in May 1920 and then lost for decades. Nanak Singh’s grandson Navdeep Suri, a former diplomat, translated it into English and discusses it with Raghu Karnad. The 102nd anniversary of the massacre was yesterday.

Over and Out

Hank Azaria has apologised for voicing the Indian character Apu on The Simpsons. Hank, who’s white, had played the convenience store owner since 1990. The actor said in a podcast: “Part of me feels like I need to go around to every single Indian person in this country and personally apologise.” The character has been criticised for years for reinforcing racial stereotypes.

Cricket sensation Chris Gayle has released a music video with popular Indian rap artist Emiway Bantai ― ‘India se Jamaica’

The Narcotics Control Bureau has seized 80 dots of LSD concealed inside a copy of German dictator Adolf Hitler’s biography at a post office in Vile Parle, Mumbai. Enough said.

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.