The India Cable: Lockdown Was a Leap In the Dark; New IT Rules Divide to Conquer Media

Plus: Highest R0 since pandemic began, Indian forces may train in Pak, UGC drafts problematic history syllabus, govt proposes hashes to track social messages and former CEC lacked ID, could not vote

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
March 23, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

India saw a spike of almost 47,000 coronavirus cases on Monday, recording its highest single-day surge in infections for months as the country tries to stave off what looks like a major second wave. With Holi on the horizon, experts say that complacency about Covid protocols like social distancing and the use of masks is driving a resurgence in new cases, which were down to around 9,000 per day in February. India is now back in third place globally, in terms of the number of cases daily. 

The Covid vaccine will now be given to anyone over the age of 45. As expected, the Union Health Ministry has also widened the window between two doses of the Covishield vaccine from four to six weeks to six to eight weeks, for greater efficacy. As confusion about the availability of vaccines continues and the government is urged to look after its own population instead of doing vaccine diplomacy, it has hastened to explain that the window has not been widened because of a shortage. However, it can try to use the breather to ensure that more people get their first shot. 

While the government has demanded that social media must be able to track the origins of problematic messages, Facebook subsidiary WhatsApp has demurred because it would require breaking end-to-end encryption. The government has now offered a solution ― an alphanumeric hash attached to every message, which can be decoded without breaking the encryption protecting the message contents. However, it is not clear if the identities of third parties involved in the communication would be compromised. Under various governments, people have been arrested both for speaking in legitimate protest, and for the relatively trivial act of forwarding a meme. 

The University Grants Commission, which had earlier contented itself with issuing guidelines, has produced a draft undergraduate history syllabus which, teachers say, changes the focus from critical analysis of historical processes to celebration of a mythic past. While the Harappa culture was taught earlier, the contested Indus-Saraswati civilisation now appears, to claim cultural continuity from the earliest times. Religious texts and epics are highlighted at the expense of secular texts like Kautilya, Kalidasa and Charaka, and Muslim rule gets much less attention. The saffron syllabus promotes the idea of a unified and uniform Bharatiya culture, which is a myth.    

According to figures submitted to the Lok Sabha by the finance ministry, excise duty collections from fuel and natural gas in the first ten months of this financial year are already 45% higher than collections recorded during the whole of the last financial year. Any doubts on if the fuel tax is the cash cow for the government stand dispelled. The Centre’s levy is 39% of the retail price.

The Indian Union Muslim League has fielded its first woman candidate in 25 years in the Kerala Assembly polls. Noorbeena Rasheed of Kozhikode, 58, is tired of having to explain why it took so long. 

Kangna Ranuat has won the Best Actor prize for Panga and Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi in the 67th National Awards announced yesterday. Manoj Bajpayee and Dhanush shared the prize for best male actor. 


India to train against terrorism in Pakistan?

If things go according to plan, the Indian Army is likely to participate in a multi-nation counter-terrorism military exercise to be hosted by Pakistan later this year at Pabbi in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Balakot, struck by the Indian Air Force in February 2019, is located in the province. The exercise will be held under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and was announced during the 36th meeting of the Council of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, last week. 

India had withdrawn from the multilateral military exercise Kavkaz-2020, which was scheduled to be held in southern Russia in September last year, as it did not want to drill with Chinese soldiers amid tensions at the Line of Actual Control (LAC). It had withdrawn citing the pandemic. It could offer a similar or a novel excuse this time, if the current bonhomie with Pakistan fails to hold until then.


Highest R0 since pandemic began

The R0-value, or basic reproduction rate of the coronavirus, has jumped to 1.32, the highest since April last year, when there were fewer than 27,000 cases. A statistic used worldwide to track and potentially control the spread of the virus, it is a measure of how many people are being infected by one infected person. An R0 of 2.0 indicates that one person with Covid-19 will, on average, infect two others. Each of those two will infect two more (spreading the disease to an average of four people), and so on.

In a pandemic situation the ideal R0 target is below 1.0, which ensures that the virus eventually stops spreading because it cannot infect enough people to sustain the outbreak. In India, the R0 rate was below 1.0 for several weeks starting late November last year, which was welcome news as it forecasted a rapid decline in new Covid-19 cases. For comparison, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 had an R0 of 1.4-2.8, and measles tops the list at 12-18. 


Lockdown was a leap in the dark

Prime Minister Modi announced a sudden lockdown on March 23 last year, to stop the spread of the pandemic, giving citizens just hours to prepare. Using the Right to Information Act 2005, the BBC screened the government’s premier agencies, government departments and state governments which were directly involved in dealing with the impact of the epidemic. It asked if before the Prime Minister’s announcement, they knew that a nationwide lockdown was contemplated.

Their extensive search has revealed that no one was aware of the lockdown, nor has it found any evidence of the government preparing for it, even as Modi made the late evening announcement that triggered monumental tragedy for millions of workers who began walking home over hundreds of miles.‎ It was just another ‘Pokhran’ moment.


India won’t be 3rd largest economy soon

Pandemic-induced shocks to the economy, which have already shaved off 15.7% of GDP from the previous year, will delay India becoming the third largest economy by three years to 2031-32 now, says a Bank of America (BoA) Securities report. In 2017, BofA had predicted that the country would emerge as the third largest economy in 2027-28. 

And what of the Modi government’s target to make India a $5 trillion economy by 2024? The Indian economy was worth $2.65 trillion in 2019-20, while that of Japan was worth $4.87 trillion in 2020. Currently, India is the fifth largest economy in the world behind the US, China, Japan and Germany.


The Long Cable

IT rules divide to conquer, setting born-digital apart from other media

MK Venu

In its first official response to the new media regulations brought by the Centre, Facebook has predictably described the new rules as “legitimate scrutiny” by the Indian government. It said regulations against hateful and violent messaging were justified but it has remained ambiguous on how to determine “unlawful content” for the purpose of taking action. This was also the most contentious issue when Twitter took down some posts at the government’s request but refused to take down many others in support of the farmer’s protests. Indeed, the Centre’s spat with Twitter was one of the immediate triggers for hastening the notification of the new media rules. It will be interesting to see how US-based social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter negotiate the new media rules whose implementation may be fundamentally in conflict with American free speech laws. 

Facebook India head Ajit Mohan has said action against unlawful content is taken as per the platform’s own “community standards” and Indian laws. But the key question is whether  Facebook’s own established standards would clash with the new media rules, which give the executive immense discretion and intrusive powers to not only take down content but also dilute end-to-end encryption on messaging platforms like WhatsApp.

Mohan remained noncommittal on sharing the origin of unlawful messages as demanded by the government. Therefore, it will be interesting to see how Facebook reconciles the more expansive American free speech laws with the demands of the draconian Indian IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021.

It is another matter that the new media rules do not pass the test of freedom of speech guaranteed under Article 19(1) (a) of the Indian Constitution, which allows for reasonable restrictions on free speech. The new media rules have already been challenged in courts for being in gross violation of the constitutional guarantees under Article 19 and Article 14, which is invoked because of the discriminatory classification of digital news media for the application of the parent legislation, the IT Act, 2000, meant for intermediary internet communications platforms. Traditional newspapers in physical form, which also have an internet presence, have been kept out of the ambit of new media rules. 

The Foundation For Independent Journalism has contended in its petition in the Delhi High Court that the parent IT Act, 2000, does not even remotely contemplate regulation of news content. The fact that news media as a category stands on a completely different footing was also brought out clearly in the meeting the minister for Information and Broadcasting had with the Digital News Media Association, a group of traditional media groups (with newspapers or TV channels) that also have large digital news publishing operations. All the members unambiguously told the minister that the new media rules should not apply to digital news because the news media as a category is already regulated by existing laws and regulators like the Press Council of India Act and News Broadcasting Standard Authority (NBSA).

If this proposition is accepted, then born-digital news media platforms must also logically be brought under the existing news regulatory framework rather than being illegally clubbed with social and messaging platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp or Twitter, which are defined as intermediaries under the IT Act 2000. In fact, this appears to be the broad recommendation of a government-sponsored committee under the Information and Broadcasting ministry, which has gone into the question of how to evolve an updated regulatory framework by simply creating a new Media Council of India (MCI) on the lines of the traditional Press Council of India and by bringing digital news under its ambit as well. Under this arrangement, all categories of news media would be put in the same basket for regulation. 

It is surprising that the government has chosen not to heed its own experts in this regard and is wrongly imposing on digital news intrusive media rules aimed at intermediaries like OTT and social messaging platforms. It is still not too late to review these categories on a legal and rational basis.

Meanwhile, the government has also started a subtle campaign to pressure big aggregating platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google to share a larger part of their massive advertising revenues with the traditional media groups whose content they use. Australia recently applied new rules forcing the likes of Facebook and Google to share a higher portion of revenues with the original content providers. This situation has occurred mainly because aggregating platforms corner over 75% of incremental advertising revenues, raising an existential threat to the business models of traditional news media. 

In the current context, the government may be cleverly trying to create a sort of divide between different news media categories by hinting at  a new policy on advertising revenue share. This is bound to influence the response of different media categories to the new media rules. There are multiple layers to the politics of the new media rules notified by the government.  However, freedom of expression as guaranteed by the Constitution and pushing back executive overreach in determining news content must remain the core concern for the Indian news media.  


Reportedly

With a little over a month to go before Chief Justice of India SA Bobde retires, the government has started the process of appointing the next CJI, asking the incumbent to recommend his successor, reports said. Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Friday sent a letter to Justice Bobde, who will retire on April 23, seeking his recommendation. As per the Memorandum of Procedure governing the appointment of members of the higher judiciary, “appointment to the office of the Chief Justice of India should be of the senior-most judge of the Supreme Court considered fit to hold the office”. Bobde is set to recommend his senior-mostcolleague, Justice NV Ramanna, against whom the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh had launched an open tirade. The Supreme Court recently had to issue a press release denying that Chief Justice Bobde was seeking a response from Justice Ramana on a complaint filed by Andhra Pradesh chief minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy. 


Prime Number: 787
That's the number of soldiers who have died by suicide since 2014, along with 20 cases of fratricide. The Army has lost 591 soldiers to suicides since 2014, while the number was 160 in the IAF and 36 in the Navy, a written reply by the government in the Rajya Sabha stated. 

Second Covid wave can damage labour-intensive sectors

Migrant workers who left for their hometowns following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic last year may refuse to return to metros amid the second wave of infections, staffing companies warned. And many of those who had returned to industrial centres are heading back to their villages once again, worrying labour-intensive industries. According to industry observers, a surge in Covid cases may lead to severe cost pressures for companies looking to retain or recruit workers.


Forces understaffed

Over 1,07,000 positions are lying vacant in the three services with the Army topping the list with around 86,000 vacancies, according to details provided by the government in the Rajya Sabha. 79,349 positions of junior commissioned officers and other ranks are lying vacant while the shortfall of officers is 6,975. In the Indian Navy, the shortage of officers against the sanctioned strength is 1,044 while the number for sailors and other ranks is 12,317, while in the Indian Air Force, the number of vacant posts of officers is 589 while that of airmen is 7,231.


Deep Dive

The variation of prices of petrol and diesel since June 2002 in the metro cities in India and the impact of international crude oil prices and exchange rates on such prices in these cities are examined in detail here. Fuel prices are important for economies as they are a factor in the prices of all goods. The Modi government’s tax collections on petrol and diesel have jumped over 300% in the last six years as excise duty on the two fuels was hiked repeatedly.


Gujarat model of workplace safety

A total of 1,128 labourers attached to the agricultural and construction sectors have died due to accidents in the last two years in Gujarat, the state Assembly was informed on Monday. Of these, 842 were from the agriculture sector and 286 worked in the construction sector.


Vaccine wall of China

Indian students enrolled in Chinese universities but stranded in their home country will not be allowed to return for now because of continuing strict restrictions on international travel related to the Covid-19 pandemic, Beijing has told New Delhi. Instead, Beijing has suggested that Indian students stay in contact with their universities in China and follow their instructions – in effect, saying that they should continue with their courses online. With a strength of 23,000, the Indian student community is the fourth largest group from any country in China.

Earlier, Beijing had specified that to enter China, foreign nationals would have to take a Chinese vaccine, which is not available in India. 


Adivasis use satellite data to enforce Forest Rights Act

A number of Adivasi communities in Gujarat’s Narmada district are showing the way in establishing a transparent and objective process for the verification of claims under the Forest Rights Act, using satellite imagery.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Sujatha Gothoskar asks, ‘Why are India’s billionaires unmoved?’ At a time when a cohort of global millionaires have requested their governments to tax them so the poor may live, India’s rich show no such tendency.

  • Ajay Gandhi writes that the farmers’ protest and bank bailouts show us that far from being unbiased, Indian capitalism is replete with its own vested interests. Claims to agricultural and banking reform evade the question of which players are positioned to coopt profits and socialise debt.

  • PDT Achary writes that the proposed amendments to Delhi’s governance violate the basic structure of the Constitution, violate specific articles of the Constitution and violate the privileges of the Delhi Assembly ― they cannot stand judicial scrutiny.

  • Ruchir Joshi writes that after the 2002 Gujarat riots, any political commentator outside the sanghi camp who had anything but deep dismay and trepidation about Narendra Modi becoming prime minister was either ludicrously naive or writing in some perverse bad faith, allowing revulsion for the Congress to blind them to the much greater danger to the republic and the Constitution.


Listen Up

Chai pe charcha

Sarah Besky, cultural anthropologist at Cornell University, speaks on her recent book Tasting Qualities: The Past and Future of Tea. In this podcast she talks about the role of quality in contemporary capitalism and how a product like a bag of tea is understood and judged for its quality. The discussion zooms into different spaces where mass market black tea is made and processed in eastern India. 


Watch Out

Decoding Tamil Nadu’s politics

As Assembly elections close in, here is a detailed rumination and analysis on Tamil Nadu as it heads for its first state election without either Jayalalithaa or Karunanidhi, and explores the challenges of picking a new generation of leaders.


Over and Out

Kanyaon ki cricket hogi, zaroor aayiye” (There will be a cricket match for girls, do come). Read about Mahendra Kumar Sharma’s announcements on a microphone, as he travelled the streets of Lucknow in an autorickshaw one Saturday afternoon 50 years ago. He supported women’s cricket and thought about a women’s cricket tournament when it was hard to find players.

Predictions made a year ago about the economy have turned out to be quite the opposite of what was expected during the pandemic. For example, while everyone was focused on OTTs, surprisingly, 2020 was a good year for book sales all over the world.

And in an ironic turn, former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi was not allowed to vote in internal elections at Delhi’s prestigious India International Centre, for want of valid ID. He had neither his old membership card nor the new smart card issued by the institution. The returning officer was unmoved by his plea that even the Election Commission permits various IDs like Aadhaar to be used in India’s most important elections. 


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.