The India Cable: Faith Trumps Sense, Hospitals, Crematoriums Stretched But More Vaccines Coming

Plus: Gadkari’s claims on luxury bus disproved, millionaire exodus in progress, Adani Ports ejected from S&P Dow, Modi’s ordinance addiction, hidden unemployment serious, reading Karunanidhi in 2021

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 13, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

If there is one visual which shows up the government’s unpreparedness in the face of the pandemic and the havoc it has visited upon India, this is it.

Gujarat has had a BJP government since 1998 and Narendra Modi was himself chief minister from 2001 to 2014. Gujarat’s hospitals are also running out of resources.

In Uttarakhand, foolhardiness was on display ― the Maha Kumbh in Haridwar is an event sponsored and promoted for months by the government. Lakhs took the holy dip yesterday, confident that faith conquers all:

A total of 1,61,736 new coronavirus infections have been reported in a day, pushing India’s tally of cases to 13.68 million  according to data updated by the Union Health Ministry. The death toll increased to 1,71,058 with 879 new fatalities. 

Somewhere in the government, the penny has dropped, and all vaccines approved for use in the US, UK, Europe and Japan, or which are listed for emergency use by WHO, will be available in India, to speed up vaccinations. The government’s statement is silent on pricing, and whether doses will be available on the open market. The only caveats seem to be that manufacturers must run trials in parallel with release, and that the first 100 recipients of a vaccine will be watched for a week before general release.    

S&P Dow Jones Indices has said it is removing India’s Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Ltd from its sustainability index due to the firm’s business ties with Myanmar’s military, which is accused of human rights abuses after a coup this year. It will be off the index at Thursday’s opening bell. Meanwhile, The Wire, the Caravan magazine and Newslaundry report in stunning detail that there is enough evidence in the form of mobile chats, emails, contracts, receipts, and unsecured loan transfers that establishes the active role of Nitin Gadkari’s family in securing a luxury bus from Scania, allegedly as a kickback. 

The country’s factory output contracted for the second consecutive month in February at 3.6%. This is the biggest contraction in the last six months. Meanwhile, retail inflation accelerated to a four-month high of 5.52% in March, as food prices rose.

Retired judge Surendra Kumar Yadav, who last year acquitted all the 32 accused, including BJP veterans LK Advani, MM Joshi, Uma Bharti and Kalyan Singh, in the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition case, has taken oath as an up-lokayukta in Uttar Pradesh, after being appointed to the post by the BJP state government. However, even after seven months, the CBI is yet to decide if it will challenge Yadav’s order of acquittal. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has dismissed a plea against the dismantling of the aircraft carrier INS Viraat.

For those who wonder about the rising Chinese influence and waning Indian influence in Nepal, it’s all about money. Indian FDI is falling dramatically while Chinese investments hold steady and increase their share of the total. And China has extended a $500 million loan to Sri Lanka.

The Modi government has promulgated more ordinances in its seven years than the previous UPA government did in two full terms, pointing to its intention of evading parliamentary accountability. PRS Legislative Research and Lok Sabha secretariat data shows that 61 ordinances were promulgated between May 2004 and May 2014. But after Modi took over as PM in 2014, 76 bills have been pushed through the ordinance route.

Farmers are still angry and protesting, and not only in Haryana. Baldev Singh Aulakh, minister of state for Jal Shakti in Uttar Pradesh, who had gone to a village in Rampur district on Sunday to campaign for a BJP-supported candidate in panchayat elections, was driven away by the villagers, mostly farmers, who waved black flags and chanted slogans against him and the party.

India’s millionaire exodus

India’s wealthy are prime customers of visa programmes that offer citizenship or right of residence in other countries in return for investments. A 2018 Morgan Stanley report found that 23,000 Indian millionaires had left the country since 2014. More recently, a Global Wealth Migration Review report revealed that nearly 5,000 millionaires, or 2% of the total number of high net worth individuals in India, left the country in 2020 alone. And Indians topped a list compiled by the London-headquartered global citizenship and residence advisory Henley & Partners (H&P), of those seeking citizenship or residency in other countries in return for monetary investments.

No Covid norms at Haridwar, as disaster intensifies

States are running out of hospital beds and crematorium facilities as Covid-19 cases and deaths climb across the country. Seven states registered new Covid records yesterday. Covid cases are up 1,000% in Bihar in a fortnight. Cases are up at 923% in UP. In Prayagraj, the growth is at 2313% or 23.1x, in Varanasi 1,811%, and in Kanpur, cases are up 1,542%. And the number of deaths due to Covid-19 are being grossly underreported by some states. There’s the case of BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, where 249 bodies were disposed off with the Covid protocol in the last five days, but the official death count was only eight. In Gujarat too, the problem of undercounting deaths persists.

No Covid norms were adhered to in Haridwar yesterday on the occasion of the Shahi Snan on Somvati Amavasya, when at least 35 lakh people took a dip in the Ganga. There were no arrangements in the city for thermal screening anywhere and no action was taken against those not wearing masks ― which was just about everybody. Senior police officials said that it was not possible to enforce Covid norms by force for fear of making the situation worse. Kumbh Mela IG Sanjay Gunjyal said, “We are unlikely to take strict action due to the huge gathering. A stampede-like situation can occur if we try to apply force.” Just days ago, organisers were assaulted by sadhus displeased with the arrangements. 

After Maharashtra, Rajasthan has become the second state to administer more than 10 million doses of the vaccine against coronavirus. The Aviation Ministry has banned in-flight meals on flights of less than 2 hours, while for flights longer than 2 hours, the servicing of meals will be staggered among adjacent seats.

Unemployment, both barefaced and disguised

As the second wave of pandemic threatens to overwhelm India, unemployment touched 8.6% for the week ending April 11, up from 6.7% two weeks ago, according to CMIE data. The hit is more severe in urban areas, where the rate is nearing 10%, but more worrying is the disguised unemployment in agriculture which has witnessed an 8% increase in labour in the sector but only a 2-3% rise in agricultural production in March 2021, compared to 2019-20. Nine million people are counted as underemployed but are unemployed, and it’s a bigger challenge than the total of 5.4 million jobs lost during the same period. 

Surprisingly, Indians are among the most optimistic globally about a return to the pre-Covid normal, with over 70% expecting it to happen in less than a year, as per a survey conducted by global market research major Ipsos for the World Economic Forum. However, the survey was conducted just before the pandemic was seen moving towards a new peak in India and some other countries.

Sputnik V gains approval

Sputnik V, the Russian vaccine against the novel coronavirus, got approval from the Subject Expert Committee for Emergency Use Authorisation in India. If formally approved by the Drugs Controller General of India, it will be the third Covid-19 vaccine in the country, after Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin and Oxford-AstraZeneca’s Covishield. It was developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute and the Russian defence ministry. Named after the pioneering Soviet satellite, Sputnik V was approved for use in Russia in August 2020.

More than 850 million doses of the vaccine are going to be produced annually in the country, which costs less than $10 per shot and uses two different vectors for the two shots, 21 days apart. Around 10 crore doses are likely to be imported for emergency use in the country in the next six months. India is producing less than half of the 1 crore Covid-19 vaccine doses it needs every day. 

Centre’s discriminatory suggestion for Nizamuddin Markaz shot down

Observing that there cannot be a fixed list of devotees allowed to enter the Nizamuddin Markaz when no other religious place has such norms, the Delhi High Court has asked the Centre and Delhi Police to open Masjid Bangley Wali for prayers during Ramzan in accordance with the Delhi Disaster Management Authority guidelines. The court rejected the Centre and Delhi Police’s submission that only 20 people be allowed to enter the premises for prayers at a time, from a list of 200 persons verified by the police.

“It is an open place. They don’t have fixed devotees and no other religious place has…” observed Justice Mukta Gupta, adding that anybody can wish to go to a temple or mosque or church, and they cannot be limited to a specific list of 200 persons. At the beginning of the pandemic last year, the Markaz was unfairly demonised for holding an international congregation which would have spread the virus. It appears that the discrimination is continuing in more subtle forms. 

The Long Cable

Reading Karunanidhi in 2021

Seema Chishti

Karunanidhi: A Life by AS Panneerselvan, Penguin Viking, 420 pages, Rs 566

Muthuvel Karunanidhi had the longest active political life that anyone in India has ever lived. That it spanned pre-independence India and the 21st century speaks of his resilience and also that of the forces he stood for. AS Panneerselvan’s Karunanidhi, A Life is the story of that journey, and through it, much else is essayed and reflected upon. The national context and the changing mood in Tamil Nadu makes it almost a story of India, viewed from a Hubble telescope focused on his state. At times, it goes into overdrive to make Karunanidhi the most important centre for all signature political events shaping India, which is contestable. But what makes this book valuable to those with only a passing familiarity with the state is its ability to sharply point out what Karunanidhi and the Self-Respect movement meant, and the change they brought about in India, not just Tamil Nadu.

As India enters a phase of the BJP’s overwhelming political dominance and UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is paraded as the party’s mascot, the book renders yeoman’s service in describing the quest for empowerment and upliftment of backward groups, and the mechanics of ensuring both dignity and better material standards to the most marginalized sections. Unlike in UP, in Tamil Nadu, ensuring representation for backward classes also resulted in better governance, better delivery of services, and a more educated, demanding and empowered workforce. Not only did backward communities benefit, but it was worthwhile for the entire state, too. 

A research paper published in 2020 by the Centre of Government and Delivery, comparing the trajectory of UP and Tamil Nadu, shows a direct link between inclusive growth and political leadership and governance. In 1960, rural poverty in Tamil Nadu was nearly at 70%, much higher than in UP, where it was just 48%. By 2005, after Dravidian party rule, Tamil Nadu outpaced UP’s per capita income by 128%.  In 2009-10, its rural poverty rate dropped to 21.2%, compared to UP’s 39.4%, and the figures were similar for urban poverty.

In July 2020, CII recognised Tamil Nadu as the “35th largest economy, on PPP basis… larger than the economies of Romania, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Finland and Sri Lanka.” It also recognizes Tamil Nadu as a major engine of India’s growth, with an average growth rate of over 9% in the last nine years. It is also among the top three FDI destinations in India. 

Karunanidhi’s contribution to the industrialisation of the state and the factors of a high growth rate has often been deliberately ignored. “The facet of the Dravidian movement and Dravidian parties, as promoters of development, is often buried in the charges levelled against them of corruption, nepotism and linguistic chauvinism.” Most recently, Karunanidhi and his Industries Minister S Madhavan and their “excellent team of bureaucrats” laid the template of growth, which could “even survive the puppet regime that came to power after Jayalalithaa’s death.”

The author has analysed content in Cho Ramaswamy’s weekly Thuglak from 1970 to 1976, to understand how masked by satire, “Mylapore myths” were peddled to those living outside Tamil Nadu to denigrate the Dravidian movement. There is no mention of “market meeting welfare and social justice meeting food security” which was how the Dravidian parties, and especially Karunanidhi, approached governance.

Reading about the self-respect movement through the story of Karunanidhi is valuable inoculation at a time when not only is a political remaking of the backward castes being attempted by politicians, with the Kamandal desperately trying to subsume Mandal, but the air is thick with the facile term ‘subaltern Hindutva’ – as if everyone falling in line uncomplainingly with an ‘integral varnashram’ is somehow a brand new idea. As sharply pointed out in a recent essay by Sourav Roy Barman and Pratim Ghoshal, in the context of West Bengal, while singing hosannas to BJP’s attempts as innovative politics and terming it ‘subaltern’, “the continued presence of (old) elites”, those making a comeback via this route, is conveniently camouflaged as “new”.

The ruling dispensation, having secured electoral power, is now attempting to create what the historian Romila Thapar terms a “permanent majority”, by hoping to fold all castes uncomplainingly under one Hindutva umbrella. This is what makes Karunanidhi, A Life very timely. That is the model that stands in opposition to the retrofitting we see now. Read this book to understand how aspirations were stoked and then fulfilled, of ensuring dignity and self-respect. Certainly self-respect – literally the last word in the book.


Equal opportunity campaigner

Politics or paid promotion? That’s the question being asked after Bollywood actor Mahima Chaudhry was seen campaigning for both the BJP and TMC in West Bengal. According to reports, Chaudhry was spotted alongside TMC candidate Madan Mitra in Kamarhati during a roadshow a few days ago. Then, she was seen urging people to vote for BJP candidate Sabyasachi Dutta on April 12 at North 24 Parganas. Clearly, political endorsement is just a promotional activity for the Pardes star.

Prime Number: 815
That’s the number of Indian Sikhs who reached Lahore yesterday to attend Baisakhi rituals at Gurdwara Panja Sahib, Hassan Abdal, a 16th century gurudwara in Pakistan’s Punjab province. The Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi had issued visas to over 1,100 Sikh pilgrims in connection with the Baisakhi festival. Under the framework of the Pakistan-India Protocol on Visits to Religious Shrines of 1974, a large number of pilgrims from India visit Pakistan to observe various religious festivals and occasions every year.

Hold Kerala RS polls with current MLAs: court

The Kerala High Court has directed the Election Commission to conduct elections to three Rajya Sabha seats that fall vacant on April 21 before the announcement of Assembly election results on May 2. The EC is yet to react to the HC’s directive. Justice PV Asha delivered the verdict on two petitions filed by CPI(M) legislator S Sharma and Assembly Secretary SV Unnikrishnan Nair. 

The court, in its verdict, observed that the sitting legislative assembly has the right to elect members to the seats falling vacant in the upper house. It rejected the EC’s contention that voting can be done after the constitution of the new assembly and observed that current members of the legislative assembly would have the right to vote.

Lawmakers, cops and officials from Myanmar among refugees in Mizoram

At least 14 lawmakers are among over 2,200 people from Myanmar who have taken refuge in Mizoram after fleeing their country to avoid detention, following the military takeover in February. Of the 2,223 people, 80 per cent are police personnel, while the rest are other government servants like teachers, firemen and bureaucrats.

Deep Dive

What science says about Covid care

Why is there a shortage of Remdesivir, with hordes of people desperately trying to procure it, when it has been proven that it is no better than routine care for Covid-19? This Twitter thread by Director of Tata Memorial Cancer Hospital Pramesh CS examines the science and human concerns of a delicate question.

Northeastern people faced racism during pandemic

Citizens from the Northeast faced racial discrimination amid the Covid-19 outbreak, says a government study commissioned by the Indian Council of Social Science Research. Last year, people from the region “faced an increased number of acts of hate and prejudice against them”. The study found that 78% of people from the region who were interviewed believed that physical appearance was the most important reason for prejudice against them.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Rohan Venkat asks us to imagine the headlines if any other religion had promoted a gathering like the Kumbh Mela at Haridwar.

  • Hindutva in its present form can never be satiated; it is an escalation of power that constantly demands more, writes Pratap Bhanu Mehta. Yesterday it was Ayodhya, tomorrow it will be Kashi and Mathura the day after. Hindutva has been emboldened by the lack of resistance amongst Hindus and the increasing isolation of minorities. 

  • While the US is sticking by its interpretation of the Exclusive Economic Zone, India is pointing to its domestic laws that mandates Delhi’s prior concurrence to activities within it. Harmonising these divergent positions will be complex and contested but is necessary, writes C Uday Bhaskar.

Listen Up

India’s borderlands

Suchitra Vijayan, author of Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India, talks about what propelled her to travel 9,000 miles along India’s borderlands. In conversation with Vaibhav Vats, Vijayan recounts her reportage along India’s tenuous boundaries with Bangladesh, Myanmar, China and – most contentious of all – Pakistan. They also muse on how the violence at the peripheries slowly permeates inwards, as raging conflicts over citizenship and identity – once an issue confined largely to the borderlands – have moved to the centre of the Indian body politic.

Watch Out

From one former foreign secretary to another ― Nirupama Rao and Shivshankar Menon discuss India and the Asian Balance.

Over and Out

Next to the Book Burning Memorial in Bebelplatz in Berlin is a black granite tablet, lying face up, which reads, in white German alphabets: “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn men as well” (from Heinrich Heine’s Almansor). Indians seem to have learnt that lesson, for when the public library for the poor started by Syed Issaq was burned down, people got together to pay him to build a new and better one. 

And the fake video of the day drives home the truth with uncanny force:

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.