The India Cable: Fuel Prices Rise 20 Times In 35 Days; Cheetahs to Return to India
Plus: Punjab, TN, Kerala lead in school education, Pleistocene suggests rough monsoons ahead, West Bengal governor’s Hindu undivided family, and why India can’t have a national language
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
June 7, 2021
Who could have imagined that blue ticks would become a front page story in India, vying for attention with the pandemic, black fungus, unemployment and the market bubble? Over the weekend, the government gave Twitter “one last chance” to get in line with the new IT rules. The platform played divertingly with the blue ticks of senior leaders on the Right, making them disappear and reappear at will.
But Nigeria leads the field in the Twitter tournament ― President Muhammadu Buhari has banned it for pulling down one of his tweets. His government said the provocation was “persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.” And just to show how it’s done, an unseen force has vanished the Weibo account (China’s equivalent of Twitter) of the e-commerce site Xiaohongshu, for asking on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown: “Tell me out loud: what’s the date today?”
Offline, the spin continues. Even as the government claimed with pride that its GST collections had crossed Rs 1 lakh crore again in May, CMIE data shows 15 million jobs were lost across the country in the same month.
Maheshwer Peri provides a case study for the crony capitalism of our public sector banks ― the intriguing case of Ruchi Soya. As a result of various market “jugalbandis”, this is the Ramdev property worthy of note, weighing in at Rs 35,000 crore. Last year, six months after the stock began its incredible climb, JN Gupta, former executive director of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), had said that the matter warranted investigation.
Two doses of Covishield vaccine produced more antibodies than Covaxin doses, but there were relatively fewer instances of ‘breakthrough infections’ after the latter, reports a study of healthcare workers in India. Across 22 cities, 515 doctors were tracked through the immunisation schedule. This is among the few studies of the real-world effectiveness of vaccination in India. Caveat: It has yet to be peer-reviewed and published.
According to a New York Times report, US campuses want students to be vaccinated against Covid-19 before the fall semester, with specific shots approved by WHO. Sputnik V and Covaxin are yet to receive WHO approval.
Sixteen states are testing more than 50% of suspected Covid-19 patients using the less sensitive rapid antigen test. Telangana tops the list at 82% followed by Odisha (77.3%), Bihar (75.62%) and Assam (73%). Till a fortnight ago, the Centre was advising states to ensure that at least 70% of total tests were conducted using the gold standard RT-PCR method. But some states relied heavily on RAT, and the official statistics may not reflect ground realities.
The new Delta variant of coronavirus appears to be about 40% more transmissible than the variant it has largely replaced, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said, making government decisions about easing restrictions in England on June 21 “more difficult”. Australia has also termed it of “significant concern”. When Australia worries, it takes decisive steps. Recall that it had threatened to jail even its own citizens coming in from India.
India has reported more than 11,000 cases of the black fungus infection or mucormycosis. The mortality rate is over 50%, and the drug required to combat it is in short supply. The incidence of black fungus could be related to the country’s highly infectious coronavirus variant rather than merely the overuse of steroids, The Telegraph UK reports, citing Indian specialists. It is thought that the Delta or B.1.617.2 strain is causing unprecedented damage to the pancreas of otherwise healthy people, triggering sudden onset diabetes and soaring blood sugar. This allows the deadly fungus to thrive.
“When India’s catastrophic second wave struck Tamil Nadu and other southern states,” the Financial Times reports, “they were able to withstand the worst of its fury. That they did so was due in large part to the legacy of investment in primary and public healthcare in the southern states, among India’s most affluent and developed. In many other parts of India, experts said, the chronic neglect of healthcare had been brutally exposed by the crisis.”
India’s rank has slipped by two places to 117 on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted as a part of the 2030 agenda by 193 UN member states in 2015. India ranks below four South Asian countries ― Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. India and Pakistan are fighting again after New Delhi applied for an exclusive trademark that would grant it sole ownership of the basmati title for rice in the European Union. The two countries are the only global exporters of basmati.
Jagdeep Dhankar, the in-your-face Governor of West Bengal, seems to head a Hindu undivided family on the side. The residents of Kolkata’s Raj Bhawan are related to each other by familial and historical ties. Trinamool MP Mahua Moitra called them Dhankar’s “extended family”. Farm leader Rakesh Tikait will meet West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Wednesday, as part of the project to widen the ambit of the protest to the states. He is now in Tohana, Haryana, whose police station has become a new rallying point, following the arrest of activists. The government continues to stonewall the movement. Dainik Bhaskar reminds us in a banner headline that “there have been no talks in four months and no reply from the PM, to their letter written 17 days ago.”
An Assam Rifles major and three subordinates have been booked for murder after they allegedly shot dead a 29-year-old man during a search at Chalwa village in Manipur’s Kangpokpi district on Friday night. But as the 2004 killing of Thangjam Manorama Devi has shown, the filing of a case and even the award of compensation for wrongful death is no guarantee that the guilty will be punished. In Delhi, a court turned down the plea of Delhi Police to produce former JNU student Umar Khalid and activist Khalid Saifi in handcuffs before trial courts, noting that “they are not gangsters”.
Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Kerala have all scored higher than 90% in school education in the HRD Ministry’s Performance Grading Index, which was launched in 2019. Gujarat dropped from second to eighth rank, while Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are the only states whose scores fell. The index monitors the progress that states and Union territories have made in school education with regard to learning outcomes, access and equity, infrastructure and facilities, and governance and management processes. Punjab leads with 929 points out of a possible 1,000, showing a huge jump from 769 last year.
Tamil Nadu Chief minister MK Stalin has announced that his DMK government will work towards making all the languages in the Eighth Schedule, including Tamil, official languages of the Union of India ― in spirit, we suppose. His announcement followed the controversy over a letter issued on Saturday by the Delhi Government’s GB Pant Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research (GIPMER) ordering nurses from Kerala to not speak in Malayalam but only in Hindi or English. After a massive public outrage, which yet again showed that despite the periodic efforts of the Centre, India cannot possibly have a national language, the order was revoked yesterday morning.
9.27 lakh children ‘severely acute malnourished’
More than 9.27 lakh children, from six months to six years, are ‘severely acute malnourished’, according to government data, underscoring concerns that the pandemic could exacerbate the health and nutrition crisis among the poorest of the poor. They were identified across the country till November last year, the Women and Child Development Ministry said in response to an RTI query. Of these, UP accounted for 3,98,359 and Bihar 2,79,427, while Madhya Pradesh, one of India’s largest states, reported none.
WHO defines ‘severe acute malnutrition’ or SAM by very low weight-for-height or a mid-upper arm circumference of less than 115 mm, or by the presence of nutritional oedema. Children suffering from SAM have very low weight for their height, and are nine times more likely to succumb to diseases due to their weakened immune system. The numbers could be an underestimation, and could be driven up by the pandemic, since the third wave could impact children more.
Covid affecting cancer care
CS Pramesh, director of India’s premier Cancer institute Tata Memorial, says that the Covid crisis has denied cancer patients access to care. This will have consequences for the mortality rate in years to come. Reductions in the volume of cancer services were dramatic, he says. New patients registrations fell by 54%, outpatient clinic visits by 46%, hospital admissions by 36%, pathology by 38%, radiology by 43%, surgeries by 49 to 52%, chemotherapy by 37%, radiation by 23% & palliative care by 29%. The study looked at volumes of services in 41 cancer centres in theNational Cancer Grid over a three-month period during the pandemic in 2020 and the same three months in 2019.
Top retired bureaucrats write to Modi on Lakshadweep
Ninety-three retired top civil servants from across the country have written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi against a series of controversial decisions by Lakshadweep administrator Praful Khoda Patel. “It is clear that each of these draft regulations is part of a larger agenda that is against the ethos and interests of the islands and islanders,” the letter from the Constitutional Conduct Group reads, stating that decisions have been taken without consulting the people of Lakshadweep. The signatories have sought their withdrawal and the appointment of a “full-time, people-sensitive, responsive Administrator… even as some of the draft orders are pending approval before the Union Home Ministry.”
AIIB denies being in Beijing’s service
Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank kept lending to India despite domestic pressure during last year’s deadly border dispute between the two countries, said bank president Jin Liqun, refuting claims that it is a tool for China’s strategic interests. India was a founding member of the bank and has been a top borrower, getting around 25% of approved loans.
Former foreign secretary and ambassador to Beijing Vijay Gokhale said, “In the long term one hopes China senses that it is not in its national interest to create an adversary of [India]... But I think that in the interim, we are in for a difficult ride.” Yesterday, it was exactly one year since the first round of corps commander level talks were held between India and China in Ladakh. The last and 11th round was held on April 9, while substantive progress was last seen in talks on January 24, which led to disengagement on the north bank of Pangong Lake and Kailash Range. The Indian side still awaits de-escalation and deinduction there, and disengagement from the other ‘friction points’ of Depsang, Gogra, Hot Springs and Demchok.
Twitter vs Sangh Parivar
On Saturday, the government in a letter to Twitter said the company had not yet met the requirements for the new IT rules, and India could hold it legally liable for content on its platform. But the letter stated that “as a gesture of goodwill, Twitter Inc is hereby given one last notice to immediately comply with the Rules.” The new rules call for platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp to remove content within 36 hours of receiving a legal order. The rules also require the companies to have a grievance officer who acknowledges users’ complaints within 24 hours, a chief compliance officer, and a contact person who would be available to law enforcement agencies 24 hours a day.
There was a bit of ruckus when Twitter knocked off a few ‘blue ticks’, or signs of verification, from the handles of Vice President Venkaiah Naidu and RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, ostensibly because they did not log in frequently enough. Both ticks were restored. On Friday, Twitter informed popular political cartoonist Manjul that it had received a legal request from Indian law enforcement to take action against his social media profile.
The Long Cable
“The lack of preparedness on vaccines is devastating”
“We haven’t been doing well for some time and need to rethink our future going forward. What is the India we want? We need a new vision for India,” former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan tells Karan Thapar. Read the full text of the interview here.
BJP’s defeat in the recent Assembly elections in West Bengal was a major jolt for the entire Sangh Parivar. For Union Home Minister Amit Shah, it was a personal blow, according to the buzz in the corridors of power. The impact has been visible, with Shah lying unusually low, even a month since the votes were counted. He attends virtual meetings where he is required to be present in his capacity as home minister, and also participates in some party sessions. But the assertive Shah who takes on adversaries aggressively — that’s a missing person.
Fuel prices shoot up, again
The price of petrol has crossed Rs 95 a litre in Delhi, and diesel has breached the Rs 86 per litre mark for the first time ever as fuel prices were hiked again today, for the 20th time in 35 days since Assembly election results were declared on May 2. Petrol is now above the Rs 100 per litre mark in six states and Union territories. As this headline says, fuel prices are killing both consumers and consumption.
Prime Number: 8,281-19,844
extrapolation of the number of deaths
(based on life insurance claims of patients who died of COVID-19 in Andhra Pradesh and across India) by Chennai-based management consulting firm Proxima shows that the actual COVID-19 toll in Telangana – officially stated as 3,281 – could be as high as 11,562 to 23,125. This would suggest that around 8,281-19,844 COVID-19 deaths could have gone unreported between March 2020 and May 2021 in Telangana. Similarly, Telangana’s unreported cases could be as high as 8.65-23 lakh, since the onset of the pandemic.
India’s monsoons, which remain its economic lifeline, could become wetter and more drastic, going by new research. A new paper in the journal Science Advances, looks back to the Pleistocene, which was marked by sharp changes in carbon dioxide and ice volume, to give us a sense of monsoons to come.
Indian-American woman in core role in Artemis
Coimbatore-born engineer Subashini Iyer has a key role in NASA’s Artemis mission ― she will be overseeing the rocket’s core stage, which will send the Orion craft into space. Artemis I will be an uncrewed flight, the first of three complex missions for exploration on the moon and Mars. In 2024, Artemis III will take astronauts to the moon.
RIL’s zero debt claim untrue
Having raised a record Rs 2.6 lakh crore in a little under 200 days through stake sales and rights issues, Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Ltd has not just declared zero net debt in its annual report for the financial year 2020-21 — it has declared negative net debt. But estimates by various brokerages of RIL’s effective consolidated net debt disagree with the claim. At a hefty Rs 64,000-99,000 crore, their estimates are a far cry from RIL’s declared position.
Sundaresan colours social networks
“The problem is there is a higher probability for a white person to have a better social network compared to me, because I am the first person in my whole social network to have reached my position.” Thirty-two-year-old former journalist Vignesh Sundaresan, who spent $69 million on a non-fungible token artwork, tells ‘Lunch with FT’.
Op-Eds you don’t want to miss
In the MIT Technology Review, Tanya Basu writes that India is grappling with Covid grief and the country’s wealth and tech divides mean that only some people get to grieve online.
“They say time heals everything. As a reporter, I must soldier on. As a daughter, sister, wife, mother and daughter-in-law, I’m grateful for my family’s well-being. But as an Indian, a part of me will probably never heal,” writes CNN’s Vedika Sud about reporting on India’s brutal second wave of Covid-19.
From ‘emerging superpower’ to ‘failed state’. Shoaib Daniyal writes on how perceptions of India have changed drastically under Modi.
Ajaz Ashraf writes that the chain of events once again linking COVID-19 to Wuhan bears an uncanny resemblance to the 2002-03 campaign against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction.
It was widely hoped that the GDP in 2021-22 would be at least back to 2019-20 levels, but that is unlikely to happen now. All because the government was asleep and forgot to order enough vaccines, writes Vivek Kaul.
Yamini Aiyar writes that the final nail in the coffin was the Centre undermining the functioning of the GST Council by delaying meetings, bypassing the principles of consultation by responding to state demands on Twitter, and using bodies like the GST implementation committee to rush decisions.
Rajesh Mahapatra and Rohan D’Souza take a long historical view of Modi’s confrontation with Mamata Banerjee, and assess the prospects for the margin to correct the excesses of an imperious Centre.
When Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014, Time had done a cover story titled ‘Modi means business’. Now, seven years later, the foreign media is virtually saying in one voice that Modi means mess, unadulterated mess, write Venkatesh Kesari and Sunil Gatade.
The Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) has a sharp, reasoned critique of the judgement pronounced by a district and sessions court at Mapusa, Goa, on May 21, acquitting Tarun Tejpal, editor-in-chief of Tehelka magazine, who was charged in 2013 of the rape, unlawful confinement and sexual harassment of a young woman colleague.
Rahul Bedi looks at the role of retired Indian civil servants as critics of government policy and asks how the ‘establishment’ in India compares to its counterparts in the UK and United States.
After deferring to the executive for years, the Supreme Court seems to be losing its patience with the government, says Mark Tully.
Rama Lakshmi sees the Modi government’s controversial Central Vista project and its plan to shift the National Archives of India an “an opportunity to imagine a better, more inclusive archive”.
The Home Ministry has reignited the debate over religion and citizenship with its recent moves to allow non-Muslim migrants from Pakistan, Afghanstan and Bangladesh to apply for naturalisation as Indian citizens even though rules to implement the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act have yet to be promulgated , write Fuzail Ahmed Ayyubi and Ibad Mushtaq.
Thirty-two years on, after the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square incident in Beijing, journalist Suhasini Haider is in conversation with Vijay Gokhale, then a young Indian diplomat serving in Beijing, who witnessed the drama.
A moving film made last year on the misery brought on by Covid-19 and its searing effect on the lives of the most marginalised in India, 24 Hours was part of the nine-part documentary series that won the ‘Silver Telly’.
Over and Out
Cricket star Mithali Raj tells Harsha Bhogle that India needs a women’s IPL.
Ravi Shankar left “a gentle footprint on jazz” as he toured the US. The sitarist wasn’t a jazz musician, and did not claim to be one, but his music informed the work of many jazz greats. He met legendary musicians like John Coltrane, at a particularly productive period in the genre, and collaborated with them.
If all goes well, eight cheetahs ― five males and three females ― will make the 8,405 km journey from South Africa to their new home in a sprawling national park in India in November. The world's fastest land animal will make a comeback in India, more than half a century after it became extinct in the country.
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