The India Cable: Illegal Rendition, Indian Style; Health Ministry Firewalls Vaccine Stock Data

Plus: Stalin asks CMs to pressure Centre again, digital divide multiplies differences during pandemic, airline pilots seek to be declared frontline workers and Modi govt talks to Taliban

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 9, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Arbitrary and irrational pricing of the 25% vaccines set aside for private purchase continues. The government announced that Covaxin would cost Rs 1,410, Sputnik 1,145, and Covishield 780. But true to the Centre’s style, there is still room for change: “It may be noted the current MRPs are based on the current prices declared by manufacturer and can be suitably modified in future if manufacturers change the prices.” 

The Union Health Ministry has written to states that data on vaccine stocks status and the temperature of storage are “owned” by the ministry and “not to be shared on public forums” without its consent, since “this is very sensitive information”. “The only possible reason,” a journalist noted, “is that the government's abysmally low vaccine stocks ought not to be publicly known. That’d hurt the ‘Aal izz welll’ messaging.”

An RTI application has revealed that only 7% of funds allocated for Ayushman Bharat, the Centre’s flagship health insurance scheme, were released in the last four years. Of Rs 21,360 crore set aside, only Rs 1,540 crore has been disbursed to the National Health Authority.

Amid debate over whether the Centre’s decision to provide free Covid-19 vaccines to all above 18 was triggered by the Supreme Court’s remarks on its vaccine policy, a Class 5 student of Kerala has written to Chief Justice NV Ramana lauding the top court for its effective intervention. Lidwina Joseph, 10, got a response from the Chief Justice of India for her “beautiful letter” and “heart-warming illustration of a judge at work” ― a signed copy of the Indian Constitution.

It’s not just the ‘system’ that looks for people to blame. Ministers do it too. In a tweet, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman dumped all the blame for a new but malfunctioning portal for filing income tax online, which was launched on Sunday night, on Infosys and Nandan Nilekani’s shoulders. Nilekani was forced to respond and take responsibility. Quite the schoolmarm and the errant student. Earlier, too, Infosys has taken a lot of flak from the public for the slow response of the GSTN portal, which had impeded the rollout of GST.  

The Bombay High Court yesterday cancelled the caste certificate of Amravati MP Navneet Kaur Rana, saying it was obtained fraudulently using fabricated documents, and directed her to surrender it within six weeks. An independent MP, she had the support of the Congress and NCP in the 2019 election.

The government is ready to talk with agitating farmers on “options other than the farm bills”, Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar says. It’s like India or Pakistan agreeing to talk on anything other that terror or Kashmir, their respective core issues. And since the farm laws are a domestic matter, the UAE can’t step in.

Farmer leaders protesting against the Centre’s three controversial agriculture laws have made it clear that their focus is on Delhi. “The social boycott and agitations against the leaders of BJP and its allies will be in the context of their official programmes, including government and political, and not their personal or private events, like weddings and participation in funeral processions.”

The New York Times examines why Amazon is confronting “the richest man in India”, Mukesh Ambani. The American company sees major potential in India’s growing e-commerce market. Both sides view troubled grocery store chain Big Bazaar as the key to success.

A case has been filed against BJP’s Kerala unit chief K Surendran after he was accused of bribing his opponent to withdraw from the Assembly election held on April 6. On June 5, Bahujan Samaj Party candidate K Sundara had alleged that BJP leaders had given him Rs 2.5 lakh and a mobile phone not to contest from Manjeswaram against Surendran. The Madras High Court has directed organisations in the food business to prevent packers from using their breath or saliva on packing materials. The Indore bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court has issued a notice to the BJP state government on a PIL filed by Congress Rajya Sabha MP Digvijaya Singh over the communal violence in Indore, Ujjain and Mandsaur in the last week of December 2020, during fund collection rallies for the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya.

boAt ― the brand is Indian, but its products, not so much. The Delhi-based firm has broken the Chinese monopoly in India’s personal audio equipment space, but only by leveraging China’s manufacturing prowess and importing from there.


Illegal rendition, Indian style?

In a complaint to the British police, lawyers representing Mehul Choksi – the fugitive diamantaire who traded his Indian passport for an Antiguan one but ended up dazed and injured in Dominica two weeks ago – allege he was kidnapped by British nationals. Ashsis Ray reports that the complaint alleges Choksi “was lured to the other side (of Antigua) by a Ms Barbara Jarabik, a Hungarian national and United Kingdom resident, where he was attacked by a large group of men, beaten bound, and gagged, and had a bag placed over his head before being forced on to a small boat from which he was taken to a larger boat which sailed for Dominica.” 

It further stated: “Along with Ms Jarabik, there is evidence that the following individuals were involved in Mr Choksi’s torture and kidnap: Gurdip Bath (St Kitts and Nevis national and United Kingdom resident); Gurjit Singh Bhandal (British national and United Kingdom resident); and Gurmit Singh (Indian national and United Kingdom resident).” Scotland Yard is investigating. 

Gurdip Bath, aka Dev Bath, had a 2019 picture of himself posing with Narendra Modi posted on his Twitter feed. But he has since locked his account.


After vaccine campaign, Stalin asks CMs to seek loan moratorium

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin has written to CMs of 12 states ― Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Jharkhand, Kerala, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan, Telangana and West Bengal ― urging them to pressure the Centre for a moratorium on repayment of loans to micro, small and medium enterprises in the wake of the lockdowns of the second wave. The states should use their collective strength and the Reserve Bank of India should also be persuaded, he said.

Expressing happiness that “all our collective efforts” for free and universal vaccination paid for by the Centre was “instrumental” in convincing Prime Minister Narendra Modi to reverse the vaccine policy, Stalin said the states should come together again.


Centre nixes door-to-door vaccination for old and bedridden

The Centre has told the Bombay High Court that a door-to-door Covid-19 vaccination programme for senior citizens, specially-abled, bed-ridden and wheelchair-bound people is currently not possible, but it will start “near-to-door” inoculation centres. In its affidavit, the Union government said the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration (NEGVAC) favoured “near-to-door” vaccination. The HC noted: “The concerns raised by the expert committee on why door-to-door vaccination cannot be started are not very serious. These can be overcome if the government wishes to.” The risks listed by the committee could also exist at inoculation centres. 


Modi government talking to Taliban

India has for the first time opened channels of communication with Afghan Taliban factions and leaders, including Mullah Baradar, against the backdrop of the rapid drawdown of US forces from Afghanistan, Hindustan Times reports. The outreach is largely being led by Indian security officials and has been limited to Taliban factions and leaders that are perceived as “nationalist” or outside the sphere of influence of Pakistan and Iran. It has been underway for some months, but remains exploratory in nature. 

Outreach to Taliban leaders was proceeding in parallel with New Delhi’s engagement with different segments of the Afghan leadership, including President Ashraf Ghani’s government and key leaders such as former president Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, head of the High Council for National Reconciliation.


Nepal stops Coronil distribution

Nepal’s Department of Ayurveda and Alternative Medicines on Monday stopped distribution of' Coronil kits gifted by televangelist-businessman Ramdev. Its order says that tablets and nasal oil that are part of the Coronil kit are not equivalent to medicines to defeat the Covid-19 virus. Nepalese officials pointed to recent statements against Coronil by the Indian Medical Association. Two high-profile Indian ministers, including the Union health minister, were present when Ramdev launched Coronil in February.


New EC from UP

A retired UP cadre IAS officer Anup Chandra Pandey was appointed Election Commissioner (EC) last night. The next state elections are in UP, Pandey has a Phd in ancient history, and he appears to have done well in NDA regimes. He was appointed chief secretary by the Adityanath government in 2017 and was given a six month extension in February 2019 when he turned 60. He was director of the information department during Kalyan Singh’s regime in 1999, and later served as private secretary to Uma Bharti, when she was a minister in the Vajpayee government. As an EC he will henceforth have to adjudicate on complaints (like this from 2020) that his former boss, Adityanath, uses inflammatory campaign rhetoric.


The Long Cable

During pandemic, digital divide multiplies differences

Seema Chishti

The recent Covid vaccination policy, hurriedly U-turned by the PM himself, ignores a major red flag raised by the Supreme Court ― its exclusive dependence on a digital portal, CoWIN. One of the most serious issues raised by the Supreme Court concerned the “digital divide”, a phrase that was in its May 31 order on vaccines. The court spelled out how it could hamper efforts to achieve universal and rapid vaccination, required for reasons of health, economy and political morality.

Currently, the innumerable OTPs that well-Wifi-ed sections of India’s elite receive when trying for appointment slots, are an institutionalised joke on social media platforms and should embarrass the government. The rush from cities to a rural area where vaccine slots can be booked, to the complete disadvantage of residents of those very hamlets who lack the wherewithal to book a jab, is a disgrace, to put it mildly.

In its grand self delusion about how connected it is as the IT nerve centre of the world, Indians and their government have forgotten the width of the yawning divide between 0 and 1. The Supreme Court did not forget. It cited the survey on ‘Household Social Consumption: Education’ conducted by the National Statistics Office (July 2017-June 2018) which pointed out that around 4% of rural households and 23% of urban households have a computer. In the age group of 15-29 years, around 24% in rural households and 56% in urban areas are able to use a computer. And only 24% of Indian households had internet access during the survey year.

Article 14 research “puts numbers to the “accessibility barrier” that the Court referred to: 1.04 billion of 1.38 billion Indians have no access to smartphones required to access CoWIN.” Also, this adds another layer of discrimination for women, as 86% (570 million) of India’s 663 million women are without smartphones and 49% (325 million) without any kind of mobile phone. Just 34% of rural women have ever used the Internet.

For those still in doubt, the court cited the TRAI report titled ‘Wireless Data Services in India’ to make clear that out of 1.3 billion people, only 578 million people, less than half, subscribe to wireless data services and Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Assam have low coverage.

The Solicitor General argued that each registration allowed for four people and that family, friends and common service centres or CSCs were useful, but the Supreme Court asked point-blank if that was possible, especially in rural areas, and without overcrowding. The three-judge bench also cited the Annual Report of CSC for 2019-2020, published by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, to establish that approximately 13,000 Gram Panchayats do not have CSCs at all.

The family-based and phone-a-friend model shows a government anxious to hoover up data but callous about the fact that this digificationis playing out on an ill-prepared and harried population, endangering lives. An account from Beed, Maharashtra, is a clear instance of how Indians in rural India face many levels of discrimination anyway, and the digital gap is only compounding the general level of inequality. Those who managed to get digital appointments and travel 25 kilometres for their shots ended up in police lock-up, because appointments were cancelled and when they asked why, a situation developed and people were beaten up and detained.  

The Supreme Court order has been categorical in saying that even those who are “digital literates” are having a tough time getting appointments. It has marked out six barriers to access which it wants the government to answer for, including inadequate provisions for the visually challenged. The Centre is yet to give any evidence that it has a grip on the questions, let alone answers.

Covid-19 has thrown India a big challenge. Administering shots quickly has always been a daunting exercise for a country of this size. But when the solution selected by the government is as injurious to health as the ailment, that just compounds the grief. The shortest way out for the government must be to accept that India’s digital divide is real and large. Just as children didn’t need ID to get “do boond” of the polio vaccine, if Covid vaccination is to succeed, it cannot continue as a gated exercise under the garb of high technology.


Reportedly

Several developments, including fresh deployment of paramilitary forces, in Jammu and Kashmir have triggered speculation, mostly of another partition of India’s newest Union Territory, or of some controversial delimitation/gerrymandering of assembly seats. Officials claim these are routine developments. The context is reports of troop build-up in parts of north Kashmir and Jammu, and a series of meetings between top government officials from the Union Territory administration and the central government in Delhi. Many locals are publicly expressing fears that Jammu and Kashmir might be partitioned afresh into Jammu and the Valley. Sajjad Lone, president of the People’s Conference, tweeted mysteriously, reflecting the uncertainty. 


Party hoppers

In an analysis by election watchdog Association for Democratic Reforms, of candidates who switched parties in the recent state elections, it was found that 8 (13.33%) ― the maximum number ― left the Congress to join another party. Five (8.33%) candidates left the AIADMK, AIUDF and BJP to join a different party. Of the 60 party-hopping, re-contesting candidates, 48% are crorepatis. The latest to defect is former Congress union minister, Jitin Prasada, who joined the BJP this afternoon. He was last seen heading the Congress’s campaign in the recent West Bengal assembly elections. That assignment didn’t end well.


RBI asks banks to keep demonetisation CCTV recordings

The Reserve Bank of India yesterday asked banks to preserve CCTV recordings of their branches and currency chests from November 8, 2016, to December 30, 2016, to help enforcement agencies take action against persons involved in illegal activities during the demonetisation period. PM Modi had demonetised high value currency notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 on November 8, 2016 in a sudden move, ostensibly to check black money and curb terror funding. 

People had to exchange junked currency notes or deposit them in their bank accounts, and huge crowds were witnessed at banks. On the basis of various inputs, the investigative agencies started probing the accumulation of new currency notes, and CCTV recordings from the period of demonetisation would help them.


Prime Number: 17
At least 17 pilots across airlines have lost their lives in the pandemic. Pilots want to be declared frontline workers and want insurance schemes that ensure that families are protected if they die of Covid.  They have now approached the High Court.

Deep Dive

Though the number of Indians illegally crossing over into the US through the southern border has fallen during the pandemic, they will remain part of the global migration crisis. Their numbers are bound to increase either immediately, or after pandemic-related travel restrictions ease. Economies ravaged by the pandemic are going to see a massive exodus. 


Off AIR for speaking up

A casual announcer at All India Radio went on Twitter to seek payment of her fraternity’s pending dues. She had been slapped with a permanent ban from the airwaves and a police complaint. Rama Thakur had been a casual announcer for 15 years at AIR Shimla, and said that irregular payments had been a feature since 2017, became commonplace from 2019 and had produced arrears of six months.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss


Listen Up

Siddharth Bhatia (a contributor to The India Cable) speaks to Hansal Mehta, who tells him that “filmmakers will face repression, but will find a way to tell their stories.” 


Watch Out

In the galleries for Islamic art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, works are presented in various cultural, historical and regional contexts. Set to the music of nature, curator Navina Haidar and filmmaker Dev Benegal weave a visual and sonic experience through the galleries.


Over and Out

For all those of us still untouched and undrenched by the Southwest Monsoon, watch and hear it pour down here as the first rains hit Kerala.

“Paramita, I didn’t go to the park with some other girl that day, please unblock me. Please talk to me. I know you are Modiji’s follower and you are watching this live.” This was a comment on the Facebook Live session of a TV channel during the PM’s address. As a commentator remarked, at least someone was communicating something meaningfully on Monday evening.


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.