The India Cable: India Hides Numbers, Harms Global Effort; After the Plague, an Urban Exodus

Plus: Covid deepened unemployment crisis, under Cairn threat, PSBs to empty overseas accounts, Pak aid not allowed but Modi can't stop them singing for Indians, Nehru and Gandhi in Stalin’s government

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
May 8, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

India is essentially a medical war zone,” feel members of the Indian diaspora in the US, who are trying to help loved ones back home. In desperation, Indians are searching for oxygen cylinders on Google, Amazon and even YouTube. India’s huge wave of Covid-19 infections has also hit the international shipping industry, which relies on the country for seafarers, as crews come down with the disease and ports deny entry to vessels. After Bill Gates opposed an IPR waiver on vaccines, though US President Joe Biden had turned to support it, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation now speaks of a “narrow waiver”. Country negotiators at the WTO will have to figure out what that means. 

The Congress yesterday demanded the arrest of BJP MP Tejasvi Surya and MLA Satish Reddy, alleging they were behind the scam involving blocking of hospital beds for Covid patients in Bengaluru. Under pressure, Surya went back to the Covid War Room and has apologised, saying he “did not realise” that the 17 names he had reeled out were Muslim. Right. Seven people have been arrested. True to form, Surya did his best to communalise the Bangalore South Covid War Room yesterday and the 17 people named lost their jobs. A prominent Kannada daily had alleged that the MLA and his uncle are part of the hospital bed scam that they made so much noise about.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has announced compensation of Rs 2 lakh each to the kin of those killed in post-poll violence, irrespective of party affiliation. One person from the family of each victim in Sitalkuchi will also be given a post in the Home Guards. 

This morning, the Supreme Court said, “We mean business.” It has ordered the Centre to supply 700 MT to Delhi daily, and warned it to not add any riders. It has also refused to interfere with the Karnataka High Court’s Order directing the Centre to increase the oxygen quota for the state to 1,200 MT, terming it “well-calibrated and judicious”. 

Bangladesh yesterday handed over 10,000 vials of Remdesivir, Vitamin C, D, Zinc supplements, N95 masks and other critical medicines to India in assistance. US Vice President Kamala Harris will today deliver a message of solidarity with the people of India, as the US partners with the country to save lives and hasten the end of the pandemic. Harris is slated to address an online event, ‘Bolstering US Covid Relief Efforts in India: Perspectives from the Diaspora’, organised by the State Department. Meanwhile, the coronavirus strain first detected in India is likely to be elevated to a “variant of concern” after clusters were found in several areas of England. The Lucknow hospital against which the UP police filed a “rumour mongering” case for announcing that it had no oxygen plans to move the high court for relief.

Amartya Lahiri, professor, Vancouver School of Economics, University of British Columbia, tells Mint that India’s vaccination policy—from pricing and procurement to distribution—has been seriously mismanaged. He recommends that a set of corrective actions be taken urgently. "India: The country is collapsing and Modi ... is renovating the parliament and building a new house,” says the leading Greek daily Ta Nea on the Central Vista project.

All other states that went to the polls are sorted, but the BJP has failed to name a chief minister in the only state where it has one ― Assam. And Mohit D. Ram, long-standing counsel for the Election Commission of India has resigned, saying, in his letter, that his “values are not in consonance with the current functioning of the ECI”. 

This week, the famed sitarist Debu Chaudhuri died of Covid. He was arguably the last of the great players born before 1947, the tragedy of his passing made even more unbearable by the death of his son and star disciple, Prateek Chaudhuri, today.


Bracing for a third wave

The Supreme Court asked the Centre to spell out its plan to tackle a possible third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, while emphasising the need to create a buffer stock of oxygen and vaccinate at a larger scale. The court also felt that the Centre’s formula for oxygen distribution to state governments, particularly Delhi, was a “gross underestimate”. Following the observations of Dr Devi Shetty, the bench also noted that doctors waiting to enrol for postgraduate courses could be deployed against the third wave. “If we prepare today, we may be able to handle it,” the bench said. “Today, we have 1.5 lakh doctors who have finished the medical course but are waiting for the NEET exam. How do you tap them? One and a half lakh doctors and 2.5 lakh nurses are sitting at home.” 


Unemployment-shaped recovery

India’s real GDP growth is estimated to be minus 8%. This has directly hit employment and will have numerous long-term economic and social implications. Agriculture is up, manufacturing and services down.

Employment in agriculture has been on the rise over the last two years with year-on-year growth rates of 1.7% in 2019-20 and 4.1% in 2020-21. This has been accompanied by a fall in employment in manufacturing, down to nearly half of what it was five years ago.

The 7% decline in overall employment in the country is from 407 million in 2016-17 to 378 million in 2020-21. These numbers, based on a study by CEDA using data provided by CMIE, show that the employment crisis in India predates the pandemic; Covid-19 has only deepened the unemployment crisis.


High courts hearings followed like cricket scores

As the Supreme Court is seen to be faltering in its duty to the people, the High Courts are watched closely. The Delhi High Court yesterday directed the Delhi government to provide medical facilities to all persons suffering from Covid-19 in the national capital. Patients must be supported with hospitalisation, medication and the ICU, with or without ventilator, as required. Taking note of inadequate liquid medical oxygen supply in Tamil Nadu, which forced the state government to fall back on reserves, the Madras High Court has made an appeal to the Centre for equitable distribution of resources to all states, so that lives are not lost for want of oxygen. The Calcutta High Court has directed the Centre to issue instructions for the supply of vaccines to West Bengal. The Goa Bench of the Bombay High Court has directed the Goa State Administration to ensure that no persons can enter the state without a Covid-negative report issued within 72 hours.


Undercounting undermines global Covid effort

Statista reports that out of all countries with more than 25 daily average deaths from Covid-19, the death toll rose fastest in India in the last 14 days. New deaths rose by 143% on the subcontinent compared to three and four weeks ago. Yet, undercounting is massive, and a serious concern. The Washington Post has a meticulous take on the extent of undercounting, using obituaries, especially in Gujarati papers, which some local journalists have been counting doggedly. The paper writes “it is increasingly clear the situation is even worse than statistics indicate. The country has shattered global records for daily infections.” It followed “crematorium statistics in three cities in three Indian states and found a wide divergence from official tallies. In all cases, the statistics released by state authorities appeared to capture only a fraction of Covid-19 deaths.” Concerns are growing that with India hiding its numbers, the ability to plan and push back a wave devastating millions of lives would be impaired, and the end of the pandemic delayed. 

The Guardian terms it “denialist rhetoric” which  is “occurring at almost every level”. The paper writes that attempts made globally to stymie the pandemic will be hit if India allows new variants and new challenges to spiral out of control. “India likes to tout itself as the world’s largest democracy – and use that moral authority to protect its standing in the global economy and the international diplomatic community. But with a dark curtain separating the reality of the country’s Covid-19 crisis from the rest of the world, India’s standing and authority are at risk.” 

BBC visited the PM’s constituency, Varanasi, and reported on 13 Covid funerals they saw in an hour at one cremation site, while the government says there were seven in the entire day.


The Long Cable

After the plague, an exodus from the cities

Pratik Kanjilal

Caught napping by the second wave of Covid-19, the scientific bureaucracy has announced  that a third wave must be in the offing. They’ve learnt a lesson from the security agencies, which regularly inform the government that nebulous mischief will be afoot ― an insurance policy, taken out just in case deadly mischief is indeed afoot. The third wave story is convincing because bungling and politicking in Delhi have triggered a plague of Biblical proportions. Surely, human stupidity can do even more. Indeed, it can intensify a flight from the cities and the country, which began shortly after this government took office. 

Delhi had surpassed itself long before the second wave arrived. The city has grown explosively ever since liberalisation improved the fortunes of the middle class. It has spilled over state borders into a gigantic National Capital Region. You can drive out of Delhi in any direction, and at least an hour after crossing city limits, the urban landscape is still with you. So is the air pollution. The urban sprawl is fertile breeding ground for a fast-travelling respiratory virus. Especially because it is full of overloaded housing ― half a dozen migrant workers may be stuffed into a tenement room designed for one person to live in. 

The sprawl offers its own insurance ― excellent and extensive medical facilities. But they’re of no use if they can’t be accessed. A former diplomat breathed his last in a hospital parking lot in the NCR, waiting to be let in. Such things are not supposed to happen in elite Delhi, which runs on influence. You need something, you call someone. But the system collapses if everyone needs the exact same thing, like an oxygen cylinder, at the same time. Long before the Antonine and Justinian Plagues ravaged the Roman Empire, Horace seems to have anticipated their levelling effect in the Odes,I:4: “Pallida mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas regumque turres (Pale Death crushes with an equal tread the hovels of the poor and the castles of the rich).” Plagues are great equalisers, erasing the privilege which cities generate. 

Delhi’s system of privilege is repeated in other cities of the north, but size makes a difference. In small towns, one hears of empty hospital beds being reserved for important locals. The general public has no access, period. Going up the pecking order, the blaze of pyres on the Gomti was not unexpected, because Lucknow is low on resources, but the great cull in Delhi was a caution against migration to the metros. If the big city can’t protect you, why stay there? 

Historically, when plagues break out, the countryside beckons. The tales in Boccacio’s Decameron are told by 10 young people who escaped plague-ravaged Florence. Now, on social media, people wonder out loud about rural idylls with all the modcons, where elites could withdraw not out of idealism or for the aesthetics, but because the population is sparse and less likely to support contagion. 

In India, development means urbanisation, and the coronavirus has turned its logic on its head. What now attracts is small, exclusive gated communities far from civilisation, with services like electricity generation, waste recycling and security installed, and captive ICU wards baked in. Minus the ICU, that’s a description of the loony libertarian paradise that Gurgaon was supposed to be, before it collapsed into yet another section of the urban sprawl, and before it was appreciated that ICUs are more life-altering than squash courts and Olympic-size pools.  

A privileged few can aspire beyond the countryside. The pandemic could intensify a trend that’s been visible since 2015. On February 10, when the first signs of the second wave were being seen, The India Cable had noted that Indian applications for ‘golden visas’ offering  residency overseas in return for investment had more than doubled during the pandemic. In the five-year period 2015-19, 6,76,074 Indians gave up their Indian citizenship

That was a numerical comment on the government in power since 2014. Now, a pandemic response bungled by low politics and a pathological lack of empathy may accelerate it. Everybody seems to be headed overseas. We have a G7 delegation, including our rash foreign minister, marooned in some plague hotel in London because two members tested positive. The chief executive of the Serum Institute of India, which we do not tire of celebrating as a vaccine powerhouse, is also in London, planning an expansion out of India. The signals are not edifying, and when destinations reopen to air traffic from India, we could see a lot of one-way tickets being booked. 


Reportedly

In the wake of reports of the death of at least 14 people in political violence that broke out after the results of West Bengal assembly elections were declared, the West Bengal BJP held a press conference on May 5 which was addressed by party president JP Nadda, national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya, BJP WB president Dilip Ghosh and spokesperson Swapan Dasgupta. During a video presentation at the conference, an image of a man named ‘Manik Moitra’ was shown and it was claimed that he was killed in post-poll violence in Sitalkuchi. The video of the press conference had over 1 million views on Facebook and Twitter before it was deleted.

On May 6, India Today journalist Abhro Banerjee posted a screengrab from the video along with a screen-recording of BJP West Bengal’s now-deleted Facebook post and informed, “I am Abhro Banerjee, living and hale and hearty and around 1,300 km away from Sitalkuchi. BJP IT Cell is now claiming I am Manik Moitra and died in Sitalkuchi. Please don’t believe these fake posts and please don’t worry. I repeat: I am (still) alive”. India Today called this ‘BJP’s Bengal Blooper’ in their coverage. One journalist asked, “The ruling party in this country circulated a video using your employee’s face, changed his identity and claimed he was dead. This is a ‘blooper’? At what point do you demand accountability? This is really astounding.” 


Mobile phones down

Chinese smartphones Xiaomi, Oppo, Vivo and Realme are concerned with implications of the Indian economic slowdown. Lockdowns have weakened consumer demand, “which could push smartphone shipments down 25% in the second quarter,” according to an analysis from Bloomberg Intelligence published the day before yesterday. That would mean 9 million fewer handsets shipped in the country than the original 28 million forecast by market intelligence firm IDC.


UP panchayat results singe BJP

Should the BJP begin to panic on account of the panchayat election results in Uttar Pradesh? Has the Covid bug finally bitten the voters in India’s most-populous state, which accounts for 80 Lok Sabha seats and will vote for its next government in 10 months? Or are Opposition parties and their supporters clutching at straws? Opposition parties have won close to 50% of all seats contested, and swept districts which are BJP strongholds. After West Bengal, the BJP is singed by the losses, top leaders are mum, but the machinery is doing what it does best, spreading the word that it has done “very well”.


Prime Number: 1.45 lakh
According to this calculation, on oxygen available and the number of patients increasingly needing it to survive, a shortage of 32,000 metric tonnes is projected. This means that 1.45 lakh patients will not get the oxygen they need. 

Deep Dive

Behind the vaccine shortage

The vaccine story, month by month, as India’s arrogance and ignorance ensured she did not order any vaccines till January 2021. Other nations booked supplies in January 2020. A full account of why India is where it is today, with a huge shortfall in supplies.


Cairn’s threat forces banks to withdraw money

The Modi government has asked state-run banks to withdraw funds from their foreign currency accounts abroad, as it fears Cairn Energy may try to seize the cash after an arbitration ruling in a tax dispute. Cairn was awarded damages of more than $1.2 billion plus interest and costs in December, in a long-drawn-out tussle with the Indian government over retrospective tax claims. While the Modi government has filed an appeal, the London-listed firm has started identifying Indian assets overseas, including bank accounts, that could be seized in the absence of a settlement, which Cairn says it is still pursuing.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • The monstrous monument to Narendra Modi’s ego: as millions suffer in the pandemic, India’s narcissistic prime minister is building a vast folly at a cost that could fund 40 major hospitals. Now his nation is in uproar, writes David Jones in The Daily Mail, UK

  • Laura Spinney writes inThe Guardian that rampant Covid-19 in countries like India and Brazil will shape the evolution of the virus and could cause new, even more dangerous variants to emerge, which neither our borders nor our vaccines are guaranteed to keep out.

  • Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo write in the  New York Times, warning the world to learn from India’s experience, and to get ready now, which “might give us a fighting chance to avoid a repeat of India’s nightmare”.

  • Zhou Bou writes in the South China Morning Post that it is not clear why the US Navy chose to publicise its operation in India’s EEZ at a time when Washington wants Delhi to take its side in its competition with China. It is a useful lesson for India. Expediency might sell in the short term, but it seldom pays off in the long run and, worse still, it might backfire.

  • Vivek Kaul writes that between March and April, of the overall increase in the number of unemployed people still looking for a job, around 83.8% were less than 30 years of age. It implies that when employers fire workers, they choose younger employees, particularly women.

  • Badri Raina was once asked by someone in the US, ‘How do I find a real Indian?’. "If he says, ‘I know, I know,’ and ‘It's not my fault’," you've found one, he replied. "Few Indians exemplify this quality as comprehensively as does India’s top man," he writes in a blistering critique of Modi’s handling of Covid.


Listen Up

On GayBCD, Farhad and Sunetro talk about RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality show spanning 13 seasons, searching for the next drag superstar. They share their favourite moments and contestants from the show. 


Watch Out

A masterclass by Dr Ashish K Jha, Dean, Harvard School of Public Health, as Karan Thapar teases out all that you need to know about India’s Covid crisis and how to crawl out of it. If India wants to, that is.


Over and Out

Gandhi and Nehru find a place in Stalin’s team. What’s more, Gandhi is in charge of khadi and village industries, bhoodan and gramdan. Tamil Nadu ko vanakkam!

The Modi government is not allowing Punjab to accept oxygen from Pakistan, but here is a tune they have sent over.


That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you on Monday, 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.