The India Cable: Experts Confused by Covaxin Nod, Farmers Threaten R-Day Tractor Parade in Delhi

Plus: H1-B re-freeze, BJP hurt by Shiv Sena’s badmouthing, Chinese companies in Indian Metro projects, Sobhraj on UK screens, cop rides stolen car for two years

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
January 4, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

It’s a great start to the new year for Zhong Shanshan, founder of Nongfu Spring, China’s biggest beverage firm, who has outstripped Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani to become Asia’s richest person, with a $78 billion net worth. It’s the Year of the Ox in China, which favours the hard-working and the methodical.

As the government breaches its own safety standards for vaccine development, experts are uneasy about the tearing hurry with which vaccine candidates are being brought to the market. The issue has sharply polarised politics. A Congress spokesperson has called it a “fraud”, Akhilesh Yadav has refused to take the “BJP vaccine” and BJP president JP Nadda has responded with a vaccine nationalist rant: “To further their own failed politics and nefarious agendas, Congress and other Opposition leaders are trying to cause panic in the minds of the people.” Quaint rhetoric, recalling banana republic politics during the Cold War.  

Two farmers protesting the government’s three agriculture laws died at Delhi’s Tikri border Saturday night, and two more died at the Kundli border Sunday, taking the count of farmers who have died while protesting against the farm laws to 50. Farmers from Rajasthan who tried to breach the capital’s border have been tear-gassed, while the region reeled under a severe cold wave, accompanied by rain. 

The irony is grim: 23 people were killed after a roof collapsed at a cremation ground in Muradnagar, Ghaziabad district, UP on Sunday, trapping dozens of people and injuring about 20. Gathered for a funeral, they had sheltered from the rain under a newly-built structure. 

Disappointed with the language used by Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna against BJP leaders including Narendra Modi Maharashtra BJP chief Chandrakant Patil wrote to its editor Rashmi Uddhav Thackeray to complain. It’s a bit rich, the BJP complaining about being abused. 

To mark the 50th year of India’s victory over Pakistan in the 1971 war, a contingent of the Bangladesh Army will take part in this year’s Republic Day parade on January 26. And the Indian Ambassador to Beijing has penned a piece about the challenges India faced in the year that is past in a Chinese-owned newspaper, without a word on the India-China border troubles. About 100,000 soldiers are still deployed in the inhospitable weather and terrain of Ladakh. 

After Arnab Goswami got an immediate hearing in the Supreme Court for his interim bail petition, activist Saket Gokhale filed an RTI query with the Supreme Court, asking how many such cases are pending before it. According to the court registry, there were 1,072 such cases pending on December 18. And more than three years after the Modi government’s electoral bond scheme was challenged in the Supreme Court, the case was listed on 15 dates, had two effective hearings and only one interim order was issued.

Indian Air Force choppers, National Disaster Response Force teams, forest and police personnel on Sunday tried to extinguish wildfires in the Dzukou range in Nagaland’s Kohima district. The fire broke out in the hills in the Southern Angami region of the district on Tuesday afternoon. The scenic Dzukou valley, a tourist spot in Nagaland, is located in the Dzukou range.

And 89 persons of Indian origin are on the Queen of England’s New Year’s honours list. 


Unemployment rate at 6-month high 

The national unemployment rate and the rural joblessness rate jumped to a six-month high in December, indicating that the economy is not yet ready to absorb labour in numbers, though almost all sectors have opened up. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, the national unemployment rate climbed to 9.06% in December from 6.51% in November, while the rural joblessness rate rose to 9.15% from 6.26% in the same period. Both national and rural joblessness levels are also at the highest since July. 


Experts disturbed about vaccine approval

The government seems to have relied on faith rather than facts in granting regulatory approval to the indigenous Indian vaccine. The Modi government had earlier called upon the Indian Council of Medical Research to declare that the vaccine would be ready by Independence Day, 2020. Now, it has been cleared though Stage 3 trials remain incomplete and the results of the first two stages are yet to be peer reviewed. No data has been released publicly and crucially, the efficacy of the vaccine remains unknown. Scientists and doctors are asking questions, though journalists’ queries were not entertained when clearance was announced.

The Subject Expert Committee of the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation had recommended restricted use of Covaxin “in emergency situation in public interest as an abundant precaution, in clinical trial mode, specially in the context of infection by mutant strains”. That has academic caution written all over it. Confusing instead of enlightening, officials and the AIIMS director added that it would be used as a “backup vaccine” in case of a spike in cases. 

“The SEC argument is that Covaxin would work as some sort of insurance against the UK variant, but I am completely unaware of any data on Covaxin’s efficacy on any strain of SARS-CoV-2, let alone any special efficacy against the variant strain. It is quite a stretch to say it would work against the UK variant,” said Dr Gagandeep Kang, a professor at Christian Medical College, Vellore, and one of India’s leading vaccine researchers who says she has no clue of what is happening

Experts regret that India, a major vaccine producer, could have taken a huge headstart in developing and manufacturing a shot, but failed to seize the lead in spring. 


India bars Oxford vaccine export

India will not allow export of the Oxford University-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine for several months, says the Serum Institute of India, which has contracted to make 1 billion doses for developing nations. The world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer, it is likely to make most of the doses destined for developing countries. The ban on exports, however, means that poorer nations will probably have to wait for months to receive their first shots as the export of vaccines for COVAX won’t begin until March or April. Set up by the World Health Organization, vaccine alliance GAVI and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, COVAX will ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.

Serum Institute will sell the first 100 million doses of the vaccine at a “special price” of Rs 200 per dose, after which prices would rise. It will be sold in the open market at Rs 1,000 per dose. The shots could be delivered to Indian states where they are needed within seven to 10 days of the company finalising a deal with the Centre. The company planned to give 200-300 million doses to COVAX by December 2021, but will have to balance distribution of vaccines between India and COVAX.


More farmer talks today

A delegation of the protesting farmer leaders reached Vigyan Bhawan for talks with the Modi government on the revocation of the three farm laws. There is little chance of any breakthrough in these talks and the farmers have promised an escalation, and declared a programme that includes a tractor parade in Delhi on Republic Day.

Waterlogged tents, soaked firewood and blankets, and extreme cold — farmers camping at Delhi’s borders in protest against new farm laws had a difficult morning on Sunday due to overnight rains. The continuous downpour waterlogged agitation venues and tents did not help much, according to protesters.

The Haryana police lobbed tear gas to stop protesting farmers camping on the Delhi-Jaipur highway near Bhudla-Sangwari village for the past three days after they reached Masani barrage near Dharuhera, 4 km from their last halt. A tractor caught fire during the clash but the blaze was doused by farmers. The protesters were adamant about going ahead, while the police had blocked the service lane. “We wanted to go to Delhi peacefully, but the police lobbed teargas shells and used force to stop us from moving ahead,” said a protesting farmer, adding that they had vowed to go to Delhi and would do it, come what may.

Farmers from Udham Singh Nagar district of Uttarakhand have started a free bus service to ferry farmers to Delhi. Buses will run on Mondays and Thursdays. 


Underground, the Chinese are in India’s midst

The deep economic recession and the poor financial position of the Modi government has compelled it to award a contract to a Chinese company for a vital section of the Delhi-Meerut Regional Rapid Transit System (RRTS), on which trains will run at 180 kmph. India has so far borrowed $1.5 billion (over Rs 10,000 crore) from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Manila, and the New Development Bank, Shanghai, for the Delhi-Meerut RRTS. Both banks require that member nations be allowed to participate in tenders for projects funded by them. China is a member of both NDB and ADB, and the Shanghai Tunnel Engineering Company Ltd competed and won the tender for the construction of a 5.6-km underground stretch, from New Ashok Nagar to Sahibabad. The Chinese company’s quotation was a few crores lower than that of the Turkish company Gulermak.

The NDB has also extended a $241 million loan for the Mumbai Metro project, and Chinese companies will participate in its tenders as well. Despite the Modi government’s political estrangement from Turkey over Kashmir, Gulermak has completed the Lucknow Metro and is executing two major projects for the Pune Metro. Turkey is also a member of ADB and its companies will be in the race for contracts for all projects for which the Manila-based bank extends loans. Clearly, app ban nationalism is no match for globalised capital. 


Majoritarian vandals across borders

Days after communal violence broke out in parts of Madhya Pradesh when a group soliciting funds for the Ram temple in Ayodhya clashed with locals near a mosque in Mandsaur, authorities have imposed restrictions in parts of Mandsaur and Indore districts. Some arrests have been made. On Sunday, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said he would bring a new law against “stone pelters and vandals”, empowering the state to auction their assets to compensate for damage to public property or individuals. Vandals in neighbouring Pakistan attacked a temple. The Supreme Court there took suo motu notice of the egregious assault and the culprits have been booked.


The Long Cable

Vaccine nod: The buck stops at the top 

MK Venu

Public information and accountability cannot be circumvented just because there is urgency to authorise emergency use of anti-Covid vaccines. In fact, the opposite is true. The government and its regulators must follow higher standards of transparency and information sharing when large sections of the vulnerable population are being administered vaccines with the timelines of trial phases crunched to less than half of the normal span. In this situation, accountability cannot be left to technocrats or firms making the vaccines. 

There has to be political accountability at the very top when a domestically developed vaccine is authorised for use with caveats such as “for restricted use in emergency situation in public interest as an abundant precaution, in clinical trial mode”. Bharat Biotech is authorised to supply its vaccine though its Phase 3 trial on 26,000 people is yet to be completed. Notions of atmanirbharta and nationalism are one thing when they exist purely in the realm of abstract messaging. They assume a totally different complexion when the health of citizens is put at risk in the name of self-reliance. Similarly, Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine developer Serum Institute of India has not published any data on its Phase 3 bridge trial on 1,200 persons in India. It has published data on the efficacy and safety of its trials in the UK and Brazil. Questions remain about whether what works for those populations will also work for India, with its own genetic specificities.

Dr Gagandeep Kang, Professor at the Christian Medical College, Vellore, and vice-chair of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) says, “I don’t think we should be approving a vaccine with no efficacy data.”  In an interview with Times of India, Dr Kang said, “I am totally confused,” when asked what she thought of the approvals for the two vaccines. If an expert is confused, what clarity could common citizens possibly enjoy about the government’s communications?

The government has declared that Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin will be delivered in clinical trial mode. Dr Kang says she has no clue what this means. Does it mean that if a few million come forward to take this vaccine, the regulators will happily deliver it in “clinical trial mode”?  Similarly, the Oxford vaccine is yet to be cleared by WHO experts. Different standards are being followed by nations and institutions. Don’t citizens have the right to proper analysis and assessment of vaccine safety and efficacy, communicated in a language that the average person can understand, before taking a vaccine which is either in clinical trial mode or one which has only gone through a bridge trial on 1,200 persons?

The most important question concerns accountability at the very top. Prime Minister Modi rapidly surveyed vaccine developers by travelling to their facilities in just one day. One recalls Serum Institute CEO Adar Poonawala’s public praise for his deep understanding of vaccine dynamics. But the PM must share this understanding with the citizenry at large, before they take the shots. The people of India must not be under the impression that the anti-Covid immunization programme is like the Mahabharata war, which was won in 21 days!  


Prime Number: 26%
The increase in India’s trade deficit last month from a year earlier. The deficit widened to $15.7 billion from $12.5 billion in December 2019 after imports climbed about 7% and exports fell less than 1%, as per preliminary government data.

‘Global thinkers’ see mixed bag in forecast for 2021 but many see China Up

Foreign Policy magazine invited nine Americans, one Brit and two Asian experts including India’s former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon to predict the shape of the world after Covid

Menon is pessimistic, and says “the pandemic accelerated the attempt to fragment the global economy into self-reliant “bubbles,” an attempt that is unlikely to succeed but will likely impoverish us all by limiting growth. Relations among the great powers are more fraught than ever, including those between China and the United States and between China and India.” But Singapore’s Kishore Mahbubani sees Asia as the winner: “When future historians look for the start of the Asian Century, they may well point to COVID-19 as the moment when Asian competence resurfaced in strength.” 

The only other non-American in this list of “leading global thinkers,” Robert Niblett of Chatham House in London, says China has emerged ‘turbo-charged’. Whatever changes Joe Biden brings as US President, thanks to Donald trump’s “undisciplined efforts to undercut China’s emergence as a technological superpower… it is now too late for the liberal democracies to set the terms for how China develops its economic power.”

The American scholars are all fiercely critical of Trump but Richard Haas of the Council on Foreign Relations and Kori Schake of the American Enterprise Institute are not bearish on America’s future prospects. Anne Marie Slaughter worries about the disconnect between booming financial markets amidst mass suffering while John Eikenberry and Joseph Nye believe the only way forward is for governments around the world to recognise the interconnectedness of the threats each country faces. John Allen of Brookings says leadership holds the key, even more than science, while Stephen M. Walt is glad that populist leaders around the world are paying the price for their poor handling of the pandemic.


Trump refreezes H1-B

Outgoing US President Donald Trump has extended the freeze on H1-B visas sought by Indian IT professionals, along with other types of foreign work visas and green cards through March 31 to protect American workers, saying that the reasons for which he had imposed them amidst the pandemic have not changed. The freeze on various categories of work visas was clamped through two proclamations on April 22 and June 22 last year. Hours before the freeze was set to expire on December 31, Trump issued another proclamation to extend it until March 31.


Jester arrested and denied bail

Several comic artists, including Varun Grover, Vir Das and Rohan Joshi have criticised the arrest of stand-up comic Munawar Faruqui, a day after he was held for allegedly making indecent remarks about Union Home Minister Amit Shah during a show in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. Faruqui, a comedian from Gujarat, was arrested along with four others on Saturday after the son of a BJP MLA complained about him. A local court later rejected their bail pleas and remanded them to judicial custody. This is what they had to say:

A thread on how the Third Reich regulated humour. Parallels with BJP governments in power today are purely coincidental, of course.


Deep Dive

Inventing a majority

“The definition of ‘Hindu’ lacks objective reality and runs contrary to recent scholarship in various disciplines. The religion has been used to suppress and control the political aspiration of the oppressed castes, who were slipped into the Hindu religious category in the last century without consultation,” assert scholars Divya Dwidevi, Shaj Mohan and J Reghu in The Caravan.


Sarkari patronage of the law

An analysis of Supreme Court judges who have retired since 1999 — 103 in all (one, Justice M Srinivasan, 63, passed away while in office, in February 2000) — reveals that at least 71% (73 out of 103) took up an assignment after demitting office. These included appointments to tribunals, human rights commissions, government-appointed ad hoc commissions, court-appointed committees, water tribunals, and designation as lokayuktas or state-level anti-corruption officials. At least 60% (62 out of 103) of the first post-retirement assignments were direct appointments by the government, or the government had a say in the matter. 


India keeps falling under Modi

On 40 counts, and counting… 


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • The military standoff in Ladakh is often seen as a stalemate between two nuclear neighbours. New Delhi cannot afford the status quo, writes Sushant Singh (a contributor to The India Cable) in Foreign Policy.

  • The reign of Aurangzeb, the Mughal emperor the BJP dislikes the most, is a more appropriate model for speculating about the balkanisation of India than the Soviet Union before the fall of the Berlin Wall, argues Devangshu Datta.

  • The Washington Post on Romila Thapar, the preeminent historian of ancient India, respected the world over for her scholarship, relentlessly attacked at home by the BJP and its supporters for interfering with the myth of a prelapsarian Hindu golden age followed by a ‘thousand years of slavery’.

  • Though Covid-19 is an unfriendly visitor, it has delivered an important message, telling us to position health centrally in the programme of sustainable development, says K Srinath Reddy.

  • As we reckon with the tension between glorying in Mohammed Siraj’s achievements on ‘our’ behalf and the increasingly brazen persecution of Muslims in India, Mukul Kesavan says that we must hold politics accountable to the same standards of fairness that we expect of sport.

  • Ian Chappell writes that Ajinkya Rahane is brave, smart, calm, and has the respect of his team.

  • India’s vaccine nationalism, seen in the hasty approval of a locally developed Covid shot, has raised the eyebrows of scientists and puts the global fight against the virus at risk, says Andy Mukherjee.

  • India has approved two vaccine candidates, but let’s not pretend everything is okay, writes Vasudevan Mukunth on the 10 questions the DGCI needs to answer.


Listen up

In the podcast India Colonised, Omar Haq looks at colonial roots. This episode is the first of two in which the benefits that the Indian Railways brought to colonial rule are revisited. In the British narrative, the establishment of the railways is represented as a gift of colonialism, which benefited the colonised. 


Watch Out

The first big drama of 2021 in the UK is an eight-part true crime saga about a serial killer. The Serpent (BBC One) tells the tale of Charles Sobhraj, the notorious half-Indian conman who murdered at least a dozen between 1963 and 1976, mostly backpackers on the hippie trail in Southeast Asia and South Asia.  


Tailender

And in UP, a man has found his car two years after it was stolen, when he got a message from a service centre asking for feedback. The car was being used by a policeman, who had sent it in for servicing. 


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.