The India Cable: Demand for Shrouds Up 30 Times; BJP in 'Toolkit' War as Congress Charges Forgery

Plus: Jailed under NSA for disparaging dung therapy, TMC ministers arrested for scam but defectors to BJP spared, urea as precedent for centralised vaccine imports, HCs call out UP, Bihar on pandemic

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 18, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

“Modi’s larger-than-life persona has shrunk. The aura of invincibility has developed gashes from both the bungling of the second wave and the vaccination campaign that has all but run aground,” writes the Times, London. It also speaks of his “lack of compassion”. In contrast, here’s how other governments owned up to shortcomings in the management of the pandemic. The Economist writes that “the omnipresent Mr Modi”, who loves the limelight, has “started fading like the Cheshire Cat”. The government has published a ‘toolkit’ on the website of the Embassy of India Student Hub in Washington, DC, to recruit Indian students in the US to counter such depictions of India in the foreign press. 

Credit rating agency Crisil has said it is “too early” to say that the second wave of the pandemic has peaked and flagged concerns about the vaccination drive. After opening up vaccination for all adults, the drive has suffered because the availability of vaccines has become a “national bottleneck”, the rating agency said in a report. Sales of road transport fuels in the first half of May dropped by a fifth from the previous month and about 28% from the same period in 2019.

A digital divide had already emerged in India’s vaccination drive as vaccination slots are booked by recipients with smartphones, while others are left behind. Now, another divide is emerging ― with urban slots full up, tech savvy Indians are seeking out slots in distant villages on apps like Telegram and driving long distances to get their shots. Again, the poor, the elderly and the tech-illiterate are left behind. The chopping and changing in vaccination guidelines is not helping ― now, the infected may be asked to wait for “three to nine months after recovery” for a shot.

Senior ministers in the TMC government in West Bengal Subrata Mukherjee and Firhad Hakim, and former ministers Madan Mitra (now a TMC MLA) and Sovan Chatterjee, were arrested yesterday morning and secured bail from a CBI court. Amid dramatic scenes, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was in the CBI office for six hours, daring them to arrest her, too. The High Court withdrew bail, saying that the chief minister and her party cannot be perceived to be above the law. It will hear the matter today.

But there are irregularities. West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankar approved the CBI’s request to prosecute after he knew that three detainees would be ministers, while the permission of the speaker was not sought. This leaves the matter in a legally grey area. Also, why did the CBI not arrest former TMC minister Suvendu Adhikari, another accused in the same case, who was once Banerjee’s man in Nandigram, and who has since joined the BJP? The CBI also spared former TMC MP turned BJP MLA Mukul Roy, another accused. All of them featured in a sting operation conducted in 2014 by Mathew Samuel of Narada News, a web portal, wherein people resembling TMC ministers, MPs and MLAs in Mamata Banerjee’s government were seen receiving money from representatives of a fictitious company in lieu of favours. 

A private hospital in Haridwar allegedly withheld information about deaths of 65 Covid-19 patients from the health authorities for over a fortnight, yet another indication of the extent to which casualties are being under-reported.

India lost 50 doctors in a day to Covid-19 last week and 244 in the second wave so far, according to the Indian Medical Association. Its former president, the Padma Shri awardee Dr KK Aggarwal, died in AIIMS last night. In his last video, he said that the show must go on.

Incidents of rare bleeding or clotting after Covishield (AstraZeneca) vaccination in India is six cases per 10 million compared with 40 in the UK and 100 in Germany, an expert panel that examined adverse effects has said in its first report. The use of Covaxin showed no adverse incidents. 

Lynching on one pretext is an invitation to the next lynching on some other pretext, observed a Delhi sessions court, while denying bail to three accused of lynching a person to death in 2019. The Kerala High Court recently directed that a Malayalee couple stuck in Israel in the pandemic be permitted to register their marriage via video conference. A Saudi family infected with Covid-19 has been airlifted home from India, observing protocols against transmission. A Division Bench of the Delhi High Court has reserved judgment in a plea seeking temporary suspension of work on the Central Vista Redevelopment Project in light of the second wave. The arguments between the petitioners’ counsel and the Solicitor General were sharp and combative and worth reading in full.

Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, who had sent a curmudgeonly reply to former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s suggestions for combating the second wave before his government followed them to the letter, has now responded to a withering editorial in the Lancet. It is a blog post ― not his own ― illuminated by a cat picture. The post reiterates the statistical prestigidations that the government’s apologists have been putting out. It originally ended with “Tiger Zinda Hai” but the line was later removed. Its only redeeming quality is the cat picture. That cat has sensitivity and character. The meme-storm has just begun.


Forget the pandemic, there’s a toolkit war on

Stunned by the effectiveness of the Indian Youth Congress in providing relief to Covid patients, top BJP and RSS leaders have spent the whole day tweeting what they claim is a Congress toolkit whose contents suggest the Opposition party’s help was just a cynical ploy to gather public support. And show Hindus and India and the BJP in bad light.

The Congress has denounced this “toolkit” as a fabrication. The BJP insists it is genuine, though parts of it read as a parody of just the kind of document the doctor might have ordered to tar as ‘a conspiracy’ the bad press the government has been getting for its mishandling of the pandemic. Perhaps some parts are genuine, such as the section on the Central Vista, while other parts have been added. Only a proper investigation can reveal the truth, but don’t hold your breath.


Tauktae makes landfall

The biggest cyclone to hit western India in 30 years,Tauktae, packing ferocious winds and a destructive storm surge, bore down on the Gujarat coast yesterday. The state evacuated over 2 lakh people. In Mumbai, heavy seas swept areas around the Gateway of India, as seen from the Taj Hotel

The Indian navy rescued 177 people as a barge foundered at Bombay High, while 127 remain missing. A drilling ship is also believed to be adrift. 

The wave of destruction travelled up the coast from Kerala. Heavy damage is reported from Diu, and there are extensive power outages along the coast. 


BJP legislators still promoting cow ‘products’ against Covid

A Manipur activist and a journalist have been charged under the National Security Act for posts disparaging cow urine, after a BJP leader died of Covid-19. Kishorchandra Wangkhem and Erendro Leichombam were granted bail yesterday by an Imphal court but the government invoked the stringent law against them before their release. The party had filed a complaint against them for posting condolences about the Covid-19-related death of Manipur BJP chief Saikhom Tikendra Singh, including the statement that cow dung and urine are not cures for the coronavirus. “The cure is science and common sense,” the post said. In the view of the BJP and the state government which it leads, that should attract the NSA. 

Pragya Singh, the BJP MP from Bhopal whom Modi apparently never forgave for the embarrassment caused by her Godse remark, offers true confessions on the therapeutic properties of bovine excreta: “I am taking cow urine. If we take the essence of the urine of indigenous cow (desi gaay ke mutra ka ark), it removes the infection from our lungs. I am in distress but I daily take the essence of cow urine (gomutra ka ark). Hence, I am not needing any medicine for Corona now. Neither am I Corona affected. Cow urine is lifegiving (jeevandayini) for us.” A vaccine is rather more effective, but there’s no dampening BJP leaders’ public display of affection for bovine waste

A 40-bed hospital has been set up in Banaskantha, Gujarat, to treat Covid patients with ‘Panchgavya’ therapy and mantras. UP BJP MLA Surendra Singh had also claimed that drinking cow urine essence protected him from Covid-19. His prescription: “Mix 50 ml cow urine with 100 ml water,” which he claimed also works as “superpower” medicine against heart disease. Last Tuesday, Madhya Pradesh Culture Minister Usha Thakur made an appeal to people to perform “yagya” and offer “aahuti” (sacrifice) to purify the environment from coronavirus. A video of dung therapy from a cow shelter, Shree Swaminarayan Gurukul Vishwavidya Pratishthanam, in which people were seen smearing cow dung and urine also went viral a few days ago.


In Bihar and Ram Rajya UP, it’s ‘Ram bharose’, says court 

The Allahabad High Court took a dim view of Uttar Pradesh and its medical protocols. A bench of Justices Siddhartha Varma and Ajit Kumar took exception to the fact that the dead body of a patient, Santosh Kumar, who had collapsed in the bathroom and died, was disposed of as an unidentified body. “If this is the state of affairs of treatment at the medical college in a city like Meerut, then the entire medical system of the state, pertaining to the smaller cities and villages, can only be taken to be like a famous Hindi saying, ‘Ram Bharoseʼ,” the Court remarked.

“In Bihar, the district of Buxar has a huge population of 17 lakh. If in ten days in only one crematorium, 789 persons were cremated, what would be the position in the entire district, and that too of persons belonging to all faiths. Also, it is not clear from both the affidavits as to whether the deaths occurred/persons cremated were suffering from Covid-19. It would also be important to ascertain the age group of these persons. All such facts need to be clarified,” the Patna High Court directed the Bihar state government. “We see no reason as to why the deaths, be it 6 or 789, would not have been updated on the official website. Equally, this would apply to all the districts of Bihar.”


The Long Cable

Covid-19 vaccine import: Urea offers a precedent

Siraj Hussain and Jugal Mohapatra

Like several other schemes of the government, the vaccine policy for Covid-19 is quite complex and confusing. The Centre has taken the responsibility of vaccinating healthcare and frontline workers. On March 1, everyone above the age of 60 became eligible for vaccination. From April 1, vaccination was opened up for those above 45 years. Under the Liberalised and Accelerated National Covid-19 Vaccination Strategy, from May 1, state governments and private healthcare providers have been given the responsibility of vaccinating people in the age group of 18-44. The Centre will still obtain 50% of vaccines produced in India while the state governments and private providers can access only the balance 50%.

Since there are only two domestic vaccine manufacturers, the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech International Ltd, all the 29 state governments must go to them for supply of vaccines. Imagine the confusion in the offices of the two private companies in dealing with requests from so many state governments. No wonder Adar Poonawalla articulated the pressure he was under.

Covid-19 vaccine is not the only product the government is procuring. There is the example of the purchase of urea by the government, for instance. Domestic production of urea meets about 75-80% of demand while the balance 20-25% has to be imported. 

Urea is highly subsidised by the government. Its global price (FOB) in March 2021 was $352.88 per tonne (Rs 25,687 per MT). It was sold at Rs 268 per bag of 50 kg. Thus, there is a subsidy of more than Rs 1,000 per bag of imported urea. It is useful to comprehend how this is managed. And there are lessons for importing vaccines.

The Union Ministry of Agriculture consults the states well before a cropping season starts and finalises the monthly requirement. A detailed supply plan is prepared and communicated to the states and the Department of Fertilizers. No private entity is authorised to import urea and only three Central PSUs ― MMTC, STC and Rashtriya Chemicals and Fertilisers ― are allowed to import it under the Foreign Trade Policy. Incidentally, under the current regime of canalisation, even these companies float global tender for imports by rotation. Thus, for any tranche of import of urea (there are several in a year) only one canalising agency invites bids on behalf of all the three agencies.

Between 2015 to 2018, the Fertiliser Association of India and some influential voices within the government (including the then Chief Economic Advisor) argued for de-canalisation, allowing private companies to ensure competitive imports and to augment domestic availability. But the government demurred. Since urea is an essential input for agriculture, it was felt that competition by several Indian companies in foreign markets would not be an appropriate policy and its timely supply across the districts in all states is too critical to be left to multiple private players.

India faces the massive challenge of vaccinating its large population. As of May 12, 17.52 crore doses have been given but only 3.86 crore people have taken both doses.

Vaccine manufacturing requires the highest degree of knowledge and competence and manufacturers require culture media, preservatives and other raw materials which would be in short supply. So the global tenders being floated by various Indian states can only present a peculiar spectacle of Indian governance before the world. Currently, there are only four global manufacturers of Covid-19 vaccines (excluding Chinese producers) authorised by the WHO. The global market is oligopolistic and exportable supply is too limited in comparison to the global demand (in contrast with the global market for urea, which has ample availability). 

We think the Centre should immediately take over procurement of vaccines as it is in the best position to negotiate availability and price with both domestic and foreign manufacturers. It is nobody’s case that domestic manufacturers should not get a fair price. 

In the Union Budget of 2021-22, a provision of Rs 35,000 crore exists for vaccination. Additional funding can easily be found at the stage of revised estimates. So it is not the funds but the urgency, adequacy and timely availability of vaccines which would determine if India can vaccinate the majority of its population.

(Hussain is visiting senior fellow, ICRIER, and was Union agriculture secretary. Mohapatra was Union fertiliser secretary)


Reportedly

Between polls being announced and the results declared, active Covid-19 infections in six states or UTs that held assembly or local elections amidst the virulent second wave grew at more than double the national average over the same period. An analysis of infection data reveals that a tsunami followed super-spreader election events. Infections in Assam, Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh (UP) grew at an average of 4,345% compared to 2,012% nationally between 27 March and 29 April, this analysis of coronavirus data sourced from state government bulletins and databases like Covid19 India showed. Elections were held to five state assemblies and UP held elections to 58,159 village panchayats. Active cases in all these states had declined by between 14% and 64% between January and February, a monthly analysis starting January showed, even as cases grew nationally. The Madras High Court had asked the Election Commission: “Were you on another planet when the election rallies were held? Your officers should be booked on murder charges probably.” PM Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah persisted with mass rallies despite other parties restricting the campaign.


Record double-digit wholesale price inflation

Wholesale inflation was at 10.5% in April 2021, the highest it has ever been in the current series, which started in April 2011, because the prices of cooking gas, petrol and diesel have increased by 20.3%, 42.4% and 33.8%, respectively, over the previous year. In turn, this is because the total central government excise duty on fuels has shot up. In April 2020, the total excise duty on petrol was Rs 22.98 per litre and rose to Rs 32.9 in April 2021. For diesel, it jumped from Rs 18.83 per litre to Rs 31.80 per litre. Within manufactured products, the highest price rise was that of vegetable oil, which rose 43.3% and has impacted consumers directly.


Prime Number: 30
The demand for shrouds in north India has increased 30 times over. In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, small handloom and machine loom units produced 10,000 individual pieces of the shrouds a month, but now they are coping with demand for as many every day.

Deep Dive

Jaggi Vasudev is much in the news, having started a war of words with the Tamil Nadu government on management of temples. Here is a deep dive into how Sadhguru built his Isha empire. Isha Foundation’s 150-acre campus at Ikkarai Boluvampatti, Coimbatore, has come up in blatant violation of laws and rules, alleges this report.


WHO didn’t praise Adityanath government

After WHO released an article titled “Uttar Pradesh going the last mile to stop Covid-19” on May 7, several media outlets and the UP government claimed that it had praised the state’s door-to-door surveillance campaign. But the article merely spoke of WHO’s role in the programme. While all assumed that the health agency patted the state on the back for carrying out the “trace, test, track, treat” campaign, a WHO spokesperson told FactChecker that “surveillance and monitoring are among key WHO roles” across the country. Essentially, WHO did not praise the UP government but was merely showcasing its own groundwork. The carelessly worded headline of the article unleashed bizarre official propaganda.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss


Listen Up

On ‘The Jab’ podcast, development economist and professor Jayati Ghosh of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst says that lifting vaccine patents is an urgent moral issue.


Watch Out

Amartya Sen joins Kaushik Basu at the Bartels World Affairs Lecture to examine why, in the last 20 years, democracy has been held in contempt in so many countries, including India.

https://ecornell.cornell.edu/keynotes/view/K050521a/


Over and Out

The Kochi Biennale has been delayed this year. But get a glimpse of this exhibition of 267 contemporary artists from around the world in Lokame Tharavadu, on in Alappuzha and Ernakulam in Kerala till June 30. Check out Bose Krishnamachari’s Instagram account, if you can’t be there.

Pankaj Mishra writes to Penguin Random House India CEO Gaurav Shrinagesh:

“As a Penguin author, both in the UK and India, I am appalled that the imprint should put itself, during an extensive slaughter of innocent lives, at the service of Narendra Modi.”

Mishra was referring to Penguin’s promotion of ‘Exam Warriors’, a collection of nostrums and homilies by the only person in the world to have a degree in ‘Entire Political Science’. 


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.