The India Cable: Delhi Most Polluted Capital; Culture Ministry Embraces Nazi Admirer

Plus: Communal virus infects cricket, India finds UN special rapporteurs “deplorable”, Quad statements vary again, Covid second wave here, and Kalashnikov to make Bluetooth shotgun in India

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
February 19, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

If you’re in New Delhi, don’t breathe. It’s the world’s most polluted capital with 54,000 excess deaths due to air pollution, at a cost of $8.1 billion, a report released by Greenpeace Southeast Asia has found (methodology here). Their 2019 report had said that the world’s most polluted cities were in South Asia

This morning, the Delhi High Court heard the case of Disha Ravi. Her counsel sought curbs on the media sharing videos and her chats with climate activist Greta Thunberg about the ‘toolkit’ for the farmers’ agitation, which she had helped to edit. India Today argued that they were already in the public domain, whereas her counsel argued that they were leaked by the police from the public record, which is not the same thing.   

The Union Ministry of Culture has officially embraced M.S. Golwakar, the controversial RSS ideologue whose writings are full of not just anti-Muslim vitriol but also admiration for the Nazis.

Nasa’s Perseverance rover has landed on Mars with the help of a skycrane, and people who watched the delicate manoeuvre live (if you didn’t and you’re feeling seditious enough, a toolkit is still out there) were curious about the woman with a bindi who narrated the descent. She’s Swati Mohan, who heads Guidance, Navigation and Controls for Mars 2020 at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 

Harley-Davidson lost road grip in the Indian market in 2020 and had to wind down operations. Undaunted by its failure, equally rugged brand Kalashnikov plans to start production in India this year, in the course of its search for new markets after being sanctioned by the US and EU for Russia misbehaving in the Crimea. But it’s being smart and seeking a geeky market, with a shotgun loaded with wifi and Bluetooth, capable of syncing with a smartphone. perhaps for augmented reality games. On a more serious tack, Kalashnikov aims to produce 6.7 lakh AK-203 assault rifles over the next decade, in collaboration with the Indian defence establishment. 

Journalists in Delhi organised a protest outside the Press Club of India condemning the continuing arrests, attacks and harassment that mediapersons are being subjected to, merely for doing their job. Many of those present questioned the intent behind these attacks on media houses and independent journalists, who have been persistently questioning the present government.

The Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee wants the Modi government to rethink its denial of permission for a Sikh jatha to visit Pakistan for the centenary of an event at Nankana Sahib. The Centre cited Covid as the reason but the SGPC is not convinced.

The Washington Post has a detailed account of the Modi government using the full force of its legal machinery to act against all those who oppose it.

Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar has said that it is unfair to link the BJP debacle in the Punjab civic polls with the farmers’ stir. He said that the party usually teams up with the Shiromani Akali Dal, but didn’t this time. Actually, the SAD exited the alliance during the farmers’ protests. It reminds us of those school tests in which you had to rephrase a passive voice sentence in the active voice. A panchayat at the Bharatiya Kisan Union’s headquarters in Sisauli, Muzaffarnagar, has asked people not to invite BJP leaders to family functions or public events until the deadlock is over. Reportedly, it has imposed a punitive ‘tax’, too: invite a leader, feed 100 people in compensation.  

In unusually strong remarks, UN human rights rapporteurs showed concern about India’s decision to end Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy and enact new laws which could curtail the political participation of Muslim and other minorities, as well as potentially discriminate against them in important matters including employment and land ownership. India has responded to the statement and termed their concerns over demographic changes as “deplorable”.

Indian visa curbs on Chinese workers are hurting Taiwan tech giants, including suppliers to Apple Inc, and hindering the Modi government’s much-vaunted incentive program for electronics manufacturing.

Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan is in the 2021 TIME100 Next, an expansion of TIME’s flagship TIME100 franchise of the most influential people in the world which highlights 100 emerging leaders who are shaping the world’s future.


High fuel tax promotes smuggling

With fuel prices in India rising to record heights due to high taxation by the Modi government, people living on the Bihar-Nepal border have found a creative way to reduce the pain. They are crossing the porous border to buy fuel, which is about Rs 23 cheaper than in India. Incidentally, most petrol pumps in Nepal are run by Indian Oil Corporation. Yesterday, petrol cost Rs 93.50 per litre in Bihar’s Araria district, while in neighbouring Nepal, it sold for Rs 70.62. 

Driven by this powerful potential difference, enterprising people have started smuggling fuel. According to reports from remote areas in Bihar, those residing in Araria, Jogbani and Forbesganj drive over to Nepal, fill up the tank and sell the surplus at a premium to small retailers in India. Probably, it’s still cheaper than the government-mandated price.


China lost four in Galwan clash

China has officially admitted to four Chinese military officers and soldiers having been killed in the clash with the Indian Army in Galwan Valley on June 15 last year. India lost 20 lives and 10 of its soldiers were taken captive, while 78 others were injured and hospitalised. The Chinese declaration comes in light of the recent claim by Northern Army Commander Lt Gen YK Joshi that the Russian news agency TASS reported 45 dead and that was close to the truth. But renowned China scholar Taylor Fravel has pointed out that the TASS report was based on Indian media’s claims. He had earlier noted that China publishes its casualties from any military action years or decades later, and the casualties from the 1962 war were only published in its 1994 internal history.

Meanwhile, the disengagement process in Pangong Tso between the two armies has been completed and the 10th round of talks at the level of senior military commanders is scheduled for tomorrow. 


Quad meet held, statements vary

The third meeting of the foreign ministers of the Quad countries was held virtually on Thursday, and was attended by Australia’s Marise Payne, Japan’s Toshimitsu Motegi, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, besides Foreign Minister S Jaishankar. There were substantial differences between the readouts issued by the four governments and the Indian statement, which used a milder tone on Myamar.

This was the first meeting of the four foreign ministers after the Biden administration took office on January 20. The last two foreign ministerial Quad meetings ― in Washington in 2019 and in Tokyo in 2020 ― were held during the Trump administration. While the four Quad countries see themselves as a loose grouping, China sees them as joining hands in a NATO-like institutional structure to circumscribe it. 


Farmers threaten tractor rally to Kolkata

Asserting that farmers camping at the Delhi borders will not go home till the farm laws are repealed, Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait has said that “our next target is to reach Kolkata on tractors”. He said the Modi government should not be under the impression that the movement will wither away because farmers must go to their villages to harvest their crops. The protesting farmers on Thursday sat on railway tracks at many places across India as part of the four-hour ‘rail roko’ protest against the Centre’s three farm laws, with officials saying trains were halted at various stations as a precautionary measure. 


Kashmir MPs boycott J&K delimitation process 

The Delimitation Commission for redrawing the boundaries of parliamentary and assembly constituencies of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, chaired by Justice (Retd) Ranjana Prakash Desai met only two of the five associate members – BJP MPs from Jammu and Udhampur ― after three MPs of the National Conference boycotted the meeting. The trio, Farooq Abdullah, Hasnain Massodi and Mohammad Akbar Lone, had communicated in writing to the Delimitation Commission that they would not take part in the deliberations because the law under which they had been called in was being scrutinised by a five-judge Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court.

National Conference leader and former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah took a dig at the controlled visit of 24 foreign envoys to Kashmir, asking them to send real tourists from their countries instead. The envoys, including from member states of the European Union (EU), Brazil and Malaysia, were briefed by senior Army officers on the second and final day of their guided tour on Thursday. The Railways are considering restoring train services partially in Kashmir in the last week of February. They were suspended about 11 months ago due to the pandemic. 


Covid-19 second wave is real, and here

Fears of a second wave in the country have emerged with a renewed spike in cases in several parts. While Gujarat has extended the night curfew in Ahmedabad, Surat, Vadodara and Rajkot till February 28 following a spurt in cases, people in Mumbai have been warned of another lockdown in the coming days if they do not follow rules. Infection in Kerala refuses to die down. Containment zones are back in Karnataka and there are worrying signs from Odisha and Haryana as well.

Over 342,000 healthcare workers are now protected from the coronavirus infection after getting the second and final dose of the vaccine. However, the pace of second-dose vaccination is modest. While 786,000 persons had received their first dose in the first five days of the vaccination drive, only 43% of them turned up for the second dose in the five days after 13 February. Maharashtra Health Minister Rajesh Tope has tested positive.


The Long Cable

Not quite cricket: The loneliness of Wasim Jaffer

Sidharth Bhatia

On Thursday, the annual auction of Indian cricketers for the forthcoming Indian Premier League was held and eye-popping prices were paid, mainly for foreign players, by the respective teams. The highest an Indian player was ‘purchased’ for, after considering form, fitness and match-winning potential was Rs 9.25 crore ― Chennai Super Kings ‘bought’ Krishnappa Gowtham. 

Friday’s newspapers were full of stories, with appropriate graphics, of the millions of rupees that teams had shelled out from their impressive war chests for the players that would, they hoped, drive them to victory and more lucre.

After the lockdown year – during which the IPL matches were played in Sharjah – it was back to normal, which essentially means a lot of money sloshing around. The Board of Control for Cricket in India can now concentrate on the other important tasks on its plate — big-ticket sponsorships and advertising, and maybe even socially distanced crowds in stadia.

But as always, BCCI ducks awkward issues, and we are not talking only about the alacrity with which the title sponsorship deal with Chinese company Vivo was announced. Only last year, in the wake of clashes between Indian and Chinese soldiers in the snowy Himalayas, when patriotic fervour was rising and people were boycotting Chinese goods, the BCCI had tentatively said that it had ‘paused’ its five-year deal with Vivo, handsomely priced at Rs 2,000 crore. Any future decision would be taken keeping the “best interest of cricket and country in mind”, it had coyly said, equating the two. That was in July last year.

A few days later, in August, the BCCI announced that it would retain the sponsor, generating a lot of criticism. Happily, the de-escalation pact between India and China was announced last week, and no sooner had the ink dried on it, Vivo was back as the sponsor.

The BCCI’s normal tendency is to stay clear of anything that requires it to take a stand. The Pooh-Bahs who run cricket in this country – and this includes former captain Saurav Ganguly and Home Minister Amit Shah’s businessman son Jay ― have enormous power over the players’ future, as well as tremendous financial and political muscle. The IPL has added to its considerable coffers.

But its commitment to standing by its players is highly debatable. When Wasim Jaffer was badly trolled online – and by the BCCI-affiliated Cricket Association of Uttarakhand, no less – for allegedly showing a religious bias in his team selection, the BCCI remained Sphinx-like, aloof and silent. Jaffer had also invited a maulvi into the dressing room, a ‘crime’ that apparently put him beyond the pale. The despondent cricketer resigned.

None of his fellow players defended him against the allegations or the trolls. The exalted stars of the Indian cricket team, such as Sachin Tendulkar – a former Mumbai teammate of Jaffer ― who only the other day tweeted from a template about how he stood for Indian sovereignty, maintained radio silence, as did the others such as Saurav Ganguly and Virat Kohli. Only a handful of players, the prominent ones being Mohammed Kaif and Anil Kumble, stood up for him.

Cricket has so far not been infected with the communal virus. There have been accusations over years about regional favouritism, but no anti-minority bias has been visible. Members of every community have played for India, and even captained the teams over the decades.

But how can cricket remain aloof from what is becoming the national disease? Bigoted trolls know they have the power to sway public opinion and they use it to the full — and with no powerful counter-voice to shut them down, they go full throttle to promote their communal agendas. Not much can be expected from our leaders or even political parties in general; but when the BCCI, which ought to look after its players’ interests, doesn’t open its mouth and offer support to cricketers like Jaffer, what hope is left?


Reportedly

YS Sharmila, sister of Andhra chief minister YS Jagan Reddy,  seems to have intensified efforts to launch her party in Telangana but has maintained that more consultations are needed to decide whether to float one or not. As the model code of conduct is in force in the state, Sharmila has deferred her tours but intensified the paperwork to form her party. She is likely to announce her party in Khammam on the birth anniversary of her father, former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy. Sharmila had already announced that her party would bring ‘Rajanna Rajyam’ in Telangana.


IPL auction: Going once, going twice

The slave trade is banned and buying and selling gladiators old hat, but the Indian Premier League auctions for 2021 in Chennai attracted considerable attention. South African all-rounder Chris Morris was the most expensive buy in IPL auction history and went to Rajasthan Royals for Rs 16.25 crore. Another all-rounder, Glenn Maxwell, attracted a winning Rs 14.25 crore bid from Royal Challengers Bangalore. New Zealand pacer Kyle Jamieson joined Virat Kohli’s team for Rs 15 crore. Punjab Kings, who went into the auction with the biggest purse among eight teams, paid Rs 14 crore to buy Australian pacer Jhye Richardson.

The fun bit was when Kerala player Sachin Baby was ‘sold’. Till the evening, fans took digs at a hapless Sachin Tendulkar, as his son Arjun Tendulkar was also up for auction. He ‘went’ at a base price of Rs 20 lakh to Mukesh Ambani’s Mumbai Indians. Commentators expressed surprise at Steve Smith going at base price to Delhi Capitals.


Prime Number: 40%
That’s the decline in domestic air passenger traffic in January 2021, in comparison with the period last year, according to monthly traffic data released by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation. The total number of passengers flown by Indian carriers on domestic routes in January 2020 was 1.27 crore, and was down to 77.34 lakh this January. The passenger load factor (a measure an airline’s capacity utilisation) in January was lower than in December.

Deep Dive

Snakebite fatalities

India accounts for the world’s highest number of snakebite cases and deaths. But publicly available government data for snakebites is patchy, and different data sets give widely different numbers. There’s also a class dimension here: most snakebite victims live in rural, forested or agricultural areas, the habitats of snakes ― a detailed report.


Cairn CEO meets Sitharaman’s officials for compensation

Edinburgh-based energy giant Cairn’s global CEO Simon Thomson met with India’s finance secretary and other tax officials yesterday, and termed the meeting as “constructive”. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had asked him to meet the officials instead of herself, to discuss possible compromises about the $1.2 billion compensation awarded to the company by an arbitration tribunal, payable by the Indian government. The company continues to file cases against India in international courts as a prelude to taking over Indian assets abroad if the government of India refuses to pay. India has till March 21 to file an appeal against the ruling at The Hague. The government lost the international arbitration case under the retrospective tax legislation amendment on December 21 last year.


Kailash Mansarovar yatra uncertain

Uncertainty looms over this year’s Kailash Mansarovar yatra. Preparatory meetings were not held in January and February, as is usual. There is no information from the Centre whether it will be held at all this year. The yatra from Lipulekh Pass runs every year from June to September, managed by the Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam with the help of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and the local administration. Last year, due to Covid-19 epidemic, the yatra was not held.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Samyukt Kisan Morcha leader Jagjit Dallewal says that despite the government’s efforts, the movement is getting stronger. The protests have prompted people to talk about the “dirty tricks” of the regime, and not just about the three “black” laws.

  • Ajay Gudavarthy says we need to cut through the hate to reclaim not just our freedom of expression but the right to think as citizens. A well-organised model of criminalising public culture is at work,  and being civic itself has become a crime by default.


Listen up

In the Desi Woman podcast, Dr Anjana Kundu, MD discusses her inspiring life journey from Bijawa, a small village in India, to becoming a successful and highly respected physician and business owner in the US. What was it like to grow up as one of eight siblings and become the first person from her village to ever become a physician and battle domestic abuse?


Watch Out

The AR Rehman Show focuses on people backstage, who have enlivened the music scene. This is his conversation with technician Krishna Chetan.


People power

The Lancet predicts tectonic changes in the populations of nations and their economic and strategic heft by the end of the century. China’s population could plummet to just about double that of sparsely populated USA, and India is likely to have the world’s biggest work-capable population. But perhaps the effects of global warming in South Asia are not reflected. 


That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you on Monday, 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.