The India Cable: Delhi Locked Down; Piyush Goyal Badgers States to Control Oxygen Demand

Plus: Fadnavis dubbed ‘Devendra Pharmacist’, top scrips tumble, Rahul stops campaigning but Modi can’t, GDP projections downgraded, Bollywood’s first intimacy coordinator is on the sets

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 19, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Following a meeting with the Lieutenant Governor, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has locked down the capital for a week from 10 pm tonight to Monday morning next week. To prevent public alarm, the intervention has been termed a curfew, and not a lockdown. With 30% tests returning positive in Delhi, India’s Covid situation remains an international headline

Officials in Indianapolis have released the names of the eight persons killed when a gunman opened fire at a FedEx warehouse on Thursday night. Among the victims were four members of the local Sikh community, a mother, a father and two grandmothers. Other victims include two 19-year-olds, a university graduate and a father. Local Sikhs say they feel “traumatised” by the attack.

Rashtriya Janata Dal president and former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav was granted bail in a case linked to the fodder scam by the Jharkhand High Court. The leader, who is currently undergoing treatment at AIIMS Delhi, can walk out of jail after being discharged from the hospital.

India recorded another single-day high of 2,73,810 coronavirus cases, taking the overall caseload to 15.06 million. Active cases are 1.93 million. There were also a record 1,620 new fatalities in the same period, pushing the nationwide death toll to 178,793, as per Health Ministry data. The governments ‘summary findings of the second wave’ indicate patients requiring hospitalisation this time around are in greater need of supplemental oxygen than in the first wave. Former Army chief Gen VP Malik raised concerns about the continuous upsurge in the daily Covid-19 cases in India. “Our nation is at war,” he said, slamming election rallies and other mass gatherings. Now, Kerala too has joined the ranks of states unwilling to call off a religious festival.

Yesterday, CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury blasted Narendra Modi for continuing with super-spreader campaign rallies and West Bengal chief ministerMamata Banerjee sought his resignation for botching the containment of the pandemic. The Economic Times reports that in response, the PM will hold four rallies in a day instead of two a day over two days, as planned earlier. Density and intensity will solve the problem, apparently.

The Mahakumbh continues even as numbers in UP and Uttarakhand refuse to dip. A dipstick revealed frightening projections. A weak-kneed appeal to akharas by the PM ― who broke his extremely rare silence on social media ― to just engage in “symbolic” baths triggered an angry response from saints. The engineering college entrance exam JEE-Mains, scheduled to be held in April 27-30, has been postponed in view of the Covid-19 situation.

The Modi government tried to talk up Oxygen Express ― trains with oxygen ― but that story’s run out of gas. Covid-19 patients are dying, finds an investigation, because the government wasted time. It took eight months to invite bids for over 150 oxygen generation plants costing just Rs 200 crore. Six months later, most still aren’t operational. The chief ministers of Delhi and West Bengal wrote to PM Modi, calling for extra beds, oxygen and permission to buy drugs directly with state funds. This disaster has been a case-study of the ill-effects of callous centralisation. 

Amid tall claims made by the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government about adequate oxygen supply in Madhya Pradesh, at least six critical patients died overnight allegedly due to low oxygen pressure at the government medical college in Shahdol district. Data in states like UP cannot be hidden any more ― cremations on pavements are being reported in Ghaziabad. But perhaps the maximum fudging of Covid death numbers is happening in Gujarat, famed for its ‘model’.

A serious charge of politicising Covid-19 by the Centre emerged in Maharashtra, where the ruling Shiv Sena alleged that former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis was hoarding Remdesivir, an emergency drug, in order to play saviour. The charge was that it was procured secretly. When the drug was seized, Fadnavis personally took up the matter with Mumbai Police.

A BJP leader in Vadodara has objected to the presence of Muslim volunteers at the Khaswadi crematorium in the city — which is overburdened with bodies by the second wave of Covid-19. Muslims, among others, had been helping to deal with the large influx. Mercifully, other BJP members there have said they have no problem with the volunteers.

Foreign portfolio investors have pulled out Rs 4,615 crore from Indian markets in April so far, amid sharp escalation in Covid-19 cases and consequent restrictions, which have spooked overseas investors. Gold imports, which have a bearing on the country’s current account deficit, rose by 22.58% to $34.6 billion (about ₹2.54 lakh crore) during 2020-21 due to increased domestic demand, according to Commerce Ministry data.

Yesterday, on the 144th day of the farmers’ agitation, the Kisan IT Cell had news to report. And a call-in programme on Times Now went a little off-script when a caller ticked off top anchors “Navika and the other whatisname” for sucking up to the government.

MMS urges vaccine transparency, gets crabby reply

Former prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh has politely drawn attention to the gross mismanagement of the pandemic by the Modi dispensation, by writing to the prime minister with a five-point action plan, and asking for full disclosure on vaccination planning, including purchase orders for the months ahead. The health minister has sent him a crabby reply. The BJP has been under pressure over the weekend, as its leadership went missing in action and Youth Congress leader BV Srinivas drew gratitude and praise for connecting patients with desperately needed resources. As always, the former Army Chief and controversial cabinet minister took the cake. He was forced to delete a tweet asking for help and a hospital bed for a constituent, which he got from the Congress’ Dolly Sharma, a rival he defeated in 2019.

Here is WHO Chief Scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan on vaccines, variants and protection.

Rahul Gandhi brakes, PM hits the gas

Home Minister Amit Shah made the questionable claim that rallies have nothing to do with the pandemic surge and faced criticism for his thoughtlessness. Rahul Gandhi cancelled his poll rallies and urged other political leaders to consider the effects of theirs. The CPI(M) had already announced it would do no big rallies. Gopalkrishna Gandhi, former governor of West Bengal, has written to the governor asking for all rallies to be cancelled. Doctors say: “We will pay the price for Kumbh Mela, poll rallies.”

In Ladakh, no chance of status quo ante

In the 11th round of talks between the two nuclear neighbours, China flatly refused to pull back troops from Hot Springs and Gogra Post which, along with Depsang Plains, remain the friction points between the two sides. So there is no status quo ante happening. Indian and Chinese troops and armoured columns had disengaged on the north and south banks of Pangong Tso and the Kailash range in February, despite experts at that time expressing surprise at India buckling, by easily giving up the only trump card it had in hand. It has now emerged that Indian troops had fired rocket launchers in end-August when they went on to take the Kailash ranges, which have now been vacated.

Pak confirms UAE mediation

The foreign ministers of India and Pakistan were in Abu Dhabi in UAE on separate bilateral visits and engagements with the Emirati leadership. There was intense interest in their visit after the UAE envoy to the US claimed that it was mediating between the two neighbours. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi implicitly confirmed the UAE’s role as a mediator when he told Gulf News, “Obviously, looking at the interest of peace and stability in the region, it only makes sense that the UAE feels that two players (Indian and Pakistan) in this region, who are estranged, should sit together and talk out their differences.”

Boris cancels India tickets, get on Zoom says Labour

Britain and India have decided the Covid situation will not permit Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s visit to Delhi. Earlier,  the opposition Labour Party had joined calls for Johnson to cancel his visit to India, starting next Sunday, amid growing concerns of a new variant of Covid-19 detected in the country. Public Health England has said 77 cases of the so-called “double mutant” Indian variant have been detected in the UK since last month and that it has now been classed as a Variant Under Investigation. 

Downing Street had earlier confirmed a much shorter schedule for the UK prime minister’s visit, with the bulk of the programme, including talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, set for a day-long agenda on Monday, April 26. “I can’t see why the prime minister can’t conduct his business with the Indian government via Zoom,” Labour’s Shadow Communities Secretary Steve Reed had said.

The Long Cable

The collected works of Piyush Goyal 

Sidharth Bhatia

India is gasping for breath. As the number of Covid-19 cases escalates and deaths continue to rise, there are harrowing stories about the shortage of hospital beds, medicines, vaccines and, frighteningly, oxygen supplies. For a large number of cases, oxygen is a lifesaver and delay can be fatal.

Relatives are pleading with the authorities and dealers for a cylinder and social media is flooded with entreaties and heart-rending cases of loved ones dying for want of timely help. Even if local governments and medical professionals want to help, they can’t, because supply is short.

At such a time, cheap politicking looks inappropriate and obscene. When all hands  are required on deck, a senior minister of the central government, Piyush Goyal, is lecturing state administrations on the best way of using oxygen – as an economist or a business school teacher might do it, rather than a doctor – by managing the ‘demand side’, not merely the ‘supply side’. He then clarifies – ‘we need to use oxygen rationally and stop its wastage’.

Decoding this boardroom jargon, it undoubtedly means that governments and hospitals should set up a system to optimize the use of this critical resource by allotting only specific amounts to patients. A management consultant would undoubtedly draw up an Excel sheet outlining the criteria according to which this could be done ― perhaps by age? Once a patient has received her allotted portion, the cylinder would be turned off and wheeled over to the next patient. In the process some would die, others would recover, and optimal results would be obtained.

If this sounds outlandish, it is, but this kind of Darwinism is also downright inhuman. Recently, Goyal was quoted criticizing the Shiv Sena government for complaining about the lack of cylinders, saying that “production was at 110 percent” and Maharashtra – where Goyal lives and is a Rajya Sabha MP from – should not be politicizing the issue.

The collected sayings of Piyush Goyal would contain some real gems. In 2017, he had said falling employment was “a very good sign” because this would make entrepreneurs out of the unemployed.  Last May, as the first wave of Covid raged, Goyal claimed that India would recover very fast because the country had “130 crore aspirational Indians.”

All this is not going unnoticed. As Covid strikes home – literally – people are frightened. They need assurances and they need a fully performing health sector — hospitals, doctors, medicines and equipment. They don’t need political one-upmanship. They will go by results and outcomes, and not parties or ideologies.

If Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh are – as reported – fudging mortality figures, the citizen won’t be convinced; they have seen for themselves the situation in the crematoriums. They know that wood is being sold at a premium on the ghats in Varanasi. And they have watched their family members die for want of a cylinder. When they see BJP workers in Indore holding up a truck with oxygen cylinders for two hours for a photo-op and to perform a puja, citizens feel disgusted. Their love for the BJP and the prime minister will not temper their grief.

Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have instinctively realised the potential political fallout. Modi made an appeal to have a ‘symbolic Kumbh’ once it became clear that the huge, densely packed crowd at the festival was a super spreader of the virus. Even before that, the influential sadhus and akharas who had set up camp at Kumbh began to fold their tents when sadhus began to die.

Amit Shah has said that Covid protocols were not followed at both the Kumbh mela and for Ramzan prayers. This is a huge admission, considering that so far the BJP and its leaders have indulged in selective targeting, pointing fingers only at Muslims. Even government-friendly channels have begun to show the monumental failures of BJP-ruled states.

Optics are as important as action—Shah and Modi know that. Goyal and other ministers don’t seem to have got the internal memo. The optics are changing, perhaps, with the setting up of more oxygen plants and other vaccines being imported. But real action, like the transparent vaccine purchase process suggested by Manmohan Singh, is awaited. Until then, Indians will pay the price for the government’s great vaccine botch-up.


De facto Team B

Delhi Chief Minister and Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal has a lot in common with AIMIM president Asaduddin Owaisi. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, they end up helping the BJP,  their entry in the electoral fray weakens the Congress. Owaisi did so in Bihar and Kejriwal in the Gujarat local elections. 

With a vigorous recruitment drive, AAP is focusing on expanding its footprint in Uttarakhand and positioning itself as a credible alternative in the hill state. Kejriwal is concentrating on the Kumaon region, where the Congress has strong roots, and not on Garhwal, which is the BJP’s fiefdom. Given the anti-incumbency against the BJP in Uttarakhand, the Congress has a chance of coming back to power. But Kejriwal could play spoilsport, much to the BJP’s delight.

Prime Number: Rs 1.41 trillion
The market capitalisation of seven of India’s top 10 valued firms tumbled over Rs 1.41 trillion last week, with IT companies taking the biggest hit. The Mcap of Infosys declined Rs 37,579.03 crore to Rs 5,76,275.68 crore.

GDP growth projections downgraded

Leading brokerages have downgraded India’s GDP growth projections for the current fiscal year to as low as 10% on local lockdowns threatening fragile recovery. While Nomura has downgraded projections of economic growth for the fiscal year ending March 2022 to 12.6% from 13.5% earlier, JP Morgan now projects GDP growth at 11% from 13% earlier. UBS sees 10% GDP growth, down from 11.5% earlier and Citi has downgraded growth to 12%. India’s GDP growth had been on the decline even before the pandemic struck earlier last year. 

When will this wave peak? 

Here is a summary of several models collated by Dr Giridhar Babu, an epidemiologist with the Public Health Foundation of India. Since the official modelling committee is missing in action, we must rely upon private enterprise in this, as in most other matters.

Deep Dive

Understanding farming

Indian agriculture needs a holistic policy framework, not pro-market reforms, write Biswajeet Dhar and Roshan Kishore in EPW. And Harish Damodaran explains how to calculate India’s actual farming population.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • P Chidamabaram writes on the suspected bias of the EC. He has serious reservations about the general superintendence and control exercised by the poll overseer. 

  • While the judgment of the Gauhati HC will not solve all the issues that continue to plague the Foreigners’ Tribunals — and inflict great hardship and suffering on ordinary people — it, and more judgments like it, would at least help to restore a semblance of the rule of law to the process, writes Gautam Bhatia.

  • Is the Modi government postponing the use of the Rs 35,000-crore allocated for vaccine development in the current Budget? Has it been shy about using its good offices with the US to intercede on behalf of the country’s vaccine manufacturing companies? Kaushik Dasgupta asks these and other questions.

  • As the Modi government embarks on its borrowing programme to bridge a mammoth deficit of Rs 12 lakh crore, it will sell bonds, which will be indirectly bought by the RBI through secondary markets, and thus ensure adequate funding and low interest rates, writes Ajit Ranade. But will this infusion of freshly created money be inflationary?

  • Bharat Bhushan writes that international criticism of India as a ‘flawed democracy’ and its secular slide on several other global indices has clearly cut to the bone, forcing the government to look for ways to spin its international rankings.

Listen Up

Gideon Rachman talks to Sathnam Sanghera about his book Empireland and the legacy of racism and nostalgia that Britain is yet to come to terms with.

Watch Out

“Why is our (Bombay cinema) industry only looked at as flippant and frivolous?” ask Neeraj Ghaywan and Aditi Rao Hydari ahead of the release of their film anthology Ajeeb Daastaans. They speak about creating nuanced relationships on screen and the changes they’ve seen in the industry through the pandemic.

Over and Out

“My mum’s Indian, my dad’s Nigerian, my stepdad’s Jamaican and I was born in London,” says award-winning designer Priya Ahluwalia in an Esquire interview. Ahluwalia is “filtering diverse cultures into vibrant menswear”.

“What they need to understand is that just as you need a stunt director when you have a knife on the set, you need me if you have intimacy in your script,” India’s first and only certified intimacy coordinator, Aastha Khanna, tells the BBC.

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.