The India Cable: Huge Mismatch in BJP States’ Death Numbers; Kumbh Super-Spreader to Continue

Plus: Rahul’s Covid warnings proven true, Maharashtra seeks isolation rail coaches, Dhaka finds Shah ignorant, and why vaccination will not stop the pandemic―not at the current rate of coverage

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 15, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Even as Congress MP Shashi Tharoor asked India to diplomatically address the disrespect shown by the US through the movement of its naval ship in Indian waters, Russia said it is encouraged by India and China focusing on “disengagement efforts” in Ladakh. Slamming those who have described the Quad as an “Asian NATO” ― but predictably, without naming China ― Foreign Minister S Jaishankar has said that discussions among the Quad countries focus on issues like vaccines, student mobility, semiconductors, emerging technologies, climate change and maritime security.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s four day ‘tika utsav’ was evidently a flop: vaccinations during the much-touted event actually fell by 12%.

Farmers observed Dr BR Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, or Ambedkar Jayanti, yesterday on Delhi’s Singhu border. Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad and several Dalit organisations from Haryana joined farmers camping at Delhi’s borders as they observed ‘Save Constitution Day’ and ‘Kisan Bahujan Ekta Diwas’. The same day, in an online event, Justice DY Chandrachud spoke on why representation matters (starts at 14:15).  And in Maharashtra, Chief Justice of India SA Bobde invoked Ambedkar’s one-time support for Sanskrit to be Indias official language, since it would be “acceptable to all”, without elaborating on the context. The CJI spoke in English, noting that it is accepted throughout the country.

Ten human rights and digital rights organisations and over 150 individuals have signed a statement by the Internet Freedom Foundation warning against the use of facial recognition technology in the Modi government’s vaccination programme.

And US President Joe Biden has officially announced that all US troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 9/11. The pullout will begin this month. Biden said: “We’ll ask other countries — other countries in the region — to do more to support Afghanistan, especially Pakistan, as well as Russia, China, India, and Turkey. They all have a significant stake in a stable future for Afghanistan.”

Hyderabad-based vaccine maker Bharat Biotech has said it is in the midst of ramping up its capacity for Covaxin. But reports say the biotechnology company is facing challenges in procuring the adjuvant, a key component which puts a ‘red flag’ on the antigenic component of the vaccine — an inactivated whole or part of a virus or bacteria — and instructs the immune system to mount a defence against that antigen whenever it is encountered.

In Gujarat’s Vadodara, BJP district president Ashwin Patel and BJP workers cut a cake in public to celebrate his birthday, less than 48 hours after their chief minister announced a ban on public celebrations. In Norway, the prime minister had paid a fine of $2300 for violating COVID norms during her birthday celebration,

That the pandemic situation is extremely bad can be gauged from the fact that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has shortened the length of his impending trip to India later this month. A patient died in an ambulance because a hospital in NDA-ruled Bihar was waiting to welcome the state’s health minister.

Amid increasing Covid-19 cases, Maharashtra is the first state to approach the Indian Railways seeking isolation coaches to treat patients. Other states including Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh also enquired about the availability of isolation coaches.


UP death figures don’t match, Kumbh superspreader to continue

A mismatch between the official figure of deaths because of Covid-19 and the death count at crematoriums has been reported in Uttar Pradesh’s capital Lucknow, triggering allegations that the BJP government has been underreporting the pandemic in the state. The health minister and the Lucknow municipal commissioner have hugely different figures for the dead. And then there is a third and higher figure from an official in charge of cremations. The visuals coming out of Lucknow are scary.

The mega Kumbh Mela at Haridwar in Uttarakhand will continue till April 30 and there has been no discussion to close it early on account of surging Covid infections. The head of the Nirvani Akhara has died in a hospital after attending the kumbh. fficials denied any move to wrap up the event two weeks early. A potential superspreader event like the Kumbh is a world story. BBC, Al Jazeera, AFP, Reuters and The Guardian have reported prominently on the horrific consequences that could flow from allowing lakhs of people to congregate.

To seek admission in a coronavirus hospital in UP, the permission of the Chief Medical Officer of the district is required, stressing families burdened by the disease. The Ayodhya district administration has made it mandatory for devotees planning to visit the makeshift temple of Ram Janmabhoomi on Ram Navami, April 21, to carry RT-PCR negative reports. The Varanasi Divisional Commissioner has also appealed to devotees and foreigners to avoid visiting the holy city till the end of the month.


Migrant labour returns to home towns

The New York Times reports that low-paid workers in India are starting to flee the country’s cities en masse, just like a year ago. But their hometowns, often in rural places, may once again be ill-prepared to test arrivals and treat the sick. The Wall Street Journal also reports that migrant workers who had just started to resettle in the cities they had left during last year’s outbreak are packing up to return to their villages again. Migrant workers told the BBC that a “lockdown will make us beg for food again.”

Meanwhile, hordes of people were seen returning to their villages from Delhi’s Anand Vihar long-distance bus station, fearing that the government could announce another lockdown abruptly, like it did last year.


Home Minister embarrasses India again

PM Modi may have embarked on a visit to Bangladesh to make up (public opinion there had turned adverse when the government cited persecution of Hindus in Bangladesh as a pretext for the Citizenship (Amendment) Act) but Home Minister Amit Shah’s latest comments have put paid to any attempts to sweeten ties. Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said his remarks are “unacceptable”. He said that the minister’s knowledge of Bangladesh is “limited”. 

The Dhaka Tribune took apart Shah’s nasty remarks about Bangladeshi immigrants “coming because they are hungry”, citing India’s drastic slide down the Hunger Index: “India ranks 94 among 107 nations in the Global Hunger Index 2020 while Bangladesh ranks 75.”  Bangladesh’s PM Sheikh Hasina had cleared Modi’s visit last month but at least 12 people died in clashes protesting against it.


UAPA not valid against Akhil Gogoi, says HC

The Gauhati High Court has upheld the bail order for peasant activist Akhil Gogoi by a Special NIA Court in relation to his alleged role in violent protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Assam in 2019. Dismissing an appeal by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), a High Court bench comprising Justices Suman Shyam and Mir Alfaz Ali said any action aimed at creating civil disturbance would not come within the purview of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, unless it was committed with the intention required under the UAPA.


The Long Cable

The incapacity of the government is exposed, but at great human cost

Sushant Singh

There is no doubt that India is in big trouble with Covid. The country today reported a record single-day rise of more than two lakh new coronavirus infections and 1,038 daily new fatalities, as per Health Ministry data. These are the official numbers, which are seen as suspect due to poor testing levels, lower use of RT-PCR tests and poor data integrity. AsTIME magazine says, “Officially, India has the world’s second-worst Covid-19 outbreak. Unofficially, it’s almost certainly the worst.”

Most people argue that the doubt was only about the number of people infected, since no government can suppress the number of deaths due to Covid-19. But as we have seen in the case of Gujarat, UP and MP, there is a huge variation in the number of deaths being recorded officially and the bodies being cremated or buried according to the Covid protocol. Coincidentally, these are all BJP-ruled states, while the Union Health Ministry keeps directing its ire and criticism at the states governed by the Opposition, such as Maharashtra, Punjab and Chhattisgarh. True to their character, BJP ministers and MLAs in UP, MP and Gujarat are blaming bureaucrats for the Covid spike created by their own governments at the state and the Centre. The partisan political requirement of shaping the narrative to suit the ruling party has meant that there is no sanctity or dignity for the dead, too. In a telling comment, migration scholar Chinmay Tumbe says that “we had more timely release of all-cause deaths data in 1918 than in 2021”.

But the cracks in the narrative are showing up. Terrifying images from the cremation ground in Lucknow have gone viral which has now erected a wall to prevent any evidence, while the Gujarat media has taken the state government to task over its attempt to suppress data. Gujarat is a particularly important case because the state has been ruled by the BJP since 1998, and Modi was himself chief minister from 2001 to 2014 before he captured power in Delhi by showcasing the so-called ‘Gujarat Model’. The truth is bubbling up, as the myth of the ‘double engine’ which the BJP boasts of is cruelly being exposed in the home state of Modi-Shah. If Gujarat, which boasts of the world’s tallest statue and the biggest stadium but has poor healthcare facilities, is the future of the rest of India, the rest of India has good reason to be extremely worried and sceptical of Modi’s claims.

With the crisis manifesting itself in an inhuman manner, the Modi government is still sticking to its old playbook. Modi claimed in a meeting with governors (what role can governors play in a parliamentary democracy, except denying Opposition chief ministers their rightful voice in a meeting with the PM?) that he is committed to maintaining vaccine supplies, but several states are grappling with a shortage of shots. The list of states which have flagged shortages and sought re-stocking from the Centre includes Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Delhi, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand and Assam. Shortages were also reported from other states like Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar, forcing state governments to scale down their daily vaccination targets. In places like Nainital and Tehri Garhwal in Uttarakhand, Rajsamand and Pratapgarh in Rajasthan, Satara and Panvel in Maharashtra and Morena in Madhya Pradesh, the drive had to be halted as centres ran out of stock.

India doesn’t have enough vaccines, and having destroyed the economy twice with his hare-brained demonetisation move and then last year’s zero-planning lockdown, Modi does not have the political capacity to impose another lockdown to break the transmission chain. The situation looks dire and perilous. Attempts to cover up the truth or deflect attention from the reality are unlikely to work when mortal fear is a lived experience for everyone. You can’t bury the facts with the bodies. The truth about the ruling dispensation’s governance had to come out one day, but it is a tragedy that it had to be at such grave cost to the people ― a misfortune that India should never have had to face.


Reportedly

Addressing an election rally in West Bengal, former Congress President Rahul Gandhi said, “Last year in February, all Congress leaders and I collectively said to the PM that India is going to be affected by Covid-19. You should start preparing to save the economy, migrant labourers and small-scale industry.” He added that he was mocked and was called a “fear-monger” by the BJP, while “Narendra Modi said beat thaali, corona will go. He said bang bells and thaalis.” Gandhi has a point ― every warning that he has offered the Modi government about the pandemic has been proven to be correct (see this Twitter thread). Rude and boorish BJP ministers making impolite remarks about his advice have had egg on their faces, the latest being Ravi Shankar Prasad and Smriti Irani on approval for foreign vaccines. The BJP’s attempt to put down Gandhi is just crude politics, but one wonders about the conduct of the mainstream media and its concerted effort to deny acknowledging the advice of the Congress MP.


OCI dissent

In the Supreme Court on Monday, 80 Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) sought directions to the Centre to prevent them from being treated as “second class citizens” and to allow them to freely express their views against the government. Section 7D of the Citizenship Act allows the Indian government to scrap the registration of OCIs in case of violations of any law or for showing “disaffection to the Constitution of India”. The petition says these provisions have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression of OCIs, several of whom, in spite of being permanently resident in India, cannot express peaceful dissent for fear of losing the right to stay in India.


Professional education not govt largesse: SC

Maintaining that access to professional education is not governmental largesse, the Supreme Court has said the state has commitments to education at all levels. “While the right to pursue higher (professional) education has not been spelt out as a fundamental right in Part III of the Constitution, it bears emphasis that access to professional education is not a governmental largesse. Instead, the state has an affirmative obligation to facilitate access to education, at all levels,” a Bench led by Justice DY Chandrachud said.


Deep Dive

Pandemic and crisis of fiscal federalism

When the pandemic first struck, it was assumed that state finances would be hit hard largely because of a shortfall in their own tax revenues. But state governments seem to have suffered more because of a shortfall in their share of central taxes. While the Centre could impose additional cesses during the pandemic to add to its kitty, such cesses and surcharges were not shared with the states as they are not part of the divisible pool. A report reveals the severe strain on state finances and how the pandemic crunched state budgets


Prime Number: 40%
The percentage of its population that India will be able to vaccinate by the end of this year, if it vaccinates at the rate of 35 lakh doses per day. Vaccinations at the current rate will not stem the  tide of the pandemic.

Amazon’s mission impossible

Starting today, Amazon is organising a virtual summit in India named Smbhav, which means “possible” in Hindi if you aren’t too particular about spelling. Huge ads have appeared in several dailies, and the event showcases opportunities offered by the US firm to get small businesses to expand and sell online. Trader groups representing 600,000 sellers said in a statement that they would launch a parallel summit titled Asmbhav, or “impossible”, including an award ceremony to pin the blame on those who, they think, have hurt their businesses.


Untouchability as state policy

“When a father kills a daughter, the state pursues the case, because violence is prohibited and murder is a crime. It becomes the State vs someone, but when it comes to a safai karamchari’s death, the state is absent. It is a modern form of untouchability by the state.” Searing words from Bezwada Wilson. Manual scavenging was outlawed in 2013, but in more than 400 deaths since, there have been no convictions. The law’s loopholes keep a dirty, degrading and dangerous practice alive. Read Radhika Bordia and Yogesh Pawar on the law that doesn’t work, the lives at stake and the enduring trauma of India’s lowest castes.


EU Members of Parliament record discomfort over human rights violations

In a resolution passed on Tuesday, EU MPs “expressed concern over the deteriorating human rights situation in India, echoing comments by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and several UN Special Rapporteurs. This includes reports that human rights defenders and journalists in the country lack a safe working environment. There are also concerns about the difficult situation faced by Indian women and minority groups, caste-based discrimination, as well as the closure of Amnesty International’s India offices.” The Citizenship (Amendment) Act was called out as “discriminatory” to Muslim citizens. The text was approved by 61 votes in favour and six votes against, with four abstentions.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Freedom of the press is the mortar that binds together a free society, says Shashi Tharoor, and if Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to de-institutionalize what used to be a dynamic and independent Fourth Estate persists, public confidence in Indian democracy is at risk.


Listen Up

Christophe Jaffrelot speaks to Milan Vaishnav about India’s First Dictatorship and others that may follow, in an absorbing podcast on why the depth of Indian democracy must be evaluated.


Watch Out

In 10 minutes, this short film tells you everything about the Modi government’s response to the pandemic since it began. 


Over and Out

In the late 1970s, the government of India named nine artists as national treasures. Here is a closer look at the iconic navratnas, or ‘nine gems’ of Indian art — who show no sign of losing their lustre. 

A man in Chennai suffered serious burns while lighting a cigarette after using a hand sanitiser on Saturday night. Ruban had just finished sanitising his hands when the incident occurred at his Ashok Nagar home. The lesson, don’t sanitise before smoking. And to be really safe, don’t smoke at all. 

A dispute over Lord Hanuman’s birthplace has been simmering for some time between Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, but a pontiff from Shivamogga district added a spark recently when he said the trusted companion of Lord Ram was born in the pilgrim centre of Gokarna in Karnataka’s Uttara Kannada district. But Andhra Pradesh has another story. The state claims that Hanuman was born on one of the seven holy hills of Tirupati, which is also called Anjanadri. But Raghaveshwara Bharathi, pontiff of Ramachandrapura Mutt in Shivamogga, quoting the Ramayana, countered by saying that Hanuman tells Sita that he was born in a place by the sea called Gokarna. Inter-state disputes don’t usually end well, or end at all ― not even god-tier ones.

Virat Kohli has been reprimanded for breaching the IPL Code of Conduct. He admitted to the Level 1 offence 2.2 of the Code of Conduct. He smashed a chair on his way back when he got out yesterday. Incidentally, Babar Azam, the Pakistani captain, dislodged him from the top ICC ODI rankings yesterday.

And in a rare exception to our policy, here’s a NSFWFH joke that demands to be shared:


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.