The India Cable: Mamata Defies Modi on Transfer, SC Questions Centre on Vaccine Policy

Plus: 12 crore vaccines cleared but still 39 crore short, angry nation mourns its dead, PTR draws blood in Goa, Tesco, Ikea, linked to TN labour abuse, and bat grounds Air India flight

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
May 31, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Achhe Din! CMIE data shows that “more than 97% of India’s population is poorer, compared to where they were in terms of income [a year ago].” Former chief economic advisor Kaushik Basu tweets, “It’s painful to watch the desecration of India’s economy by callousness and lack of leadership. Inflation high (10.5% WPI), growth low (-8.0%, 20-21), unemployment high (14.7% May), youth unemployment very high (23.75%, 2020). Sad, given the talent in the people, country and even the government.” 

When Foreign Minister S Jaishankar met the US Secretary of State in Washington, the two discussed, as per the Secretary’s tweet, “Covid-19 relief efforts, India-China border situation, and our support for Afghanistan.” Major national dailies skipped the bit about the India-China border, highlighting New Delhi’s deep discomfort about acknowledging the ongoing Chinese presence. 

Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy has been diagnosed with Covid-19 in hospital, where he has been admitted belatedly, after much wrangling in court. Natasha Narwal of Pinjra Tod, who was granted interim bail of three weeks to perform the last rites of her father after one year in prison, charged under the UAPA, went back to jail yesterday. At the gates, she presented an inspiring picture.

This month, the government claims that close to 12 crore (11,95,70,000) doses of vaccine will be available for the national Covid vaccination programme, 6.09 crore with the Centre and 5.86 crore for the states and private hospitals. Around 10 crore of them are expected from the Serum Institute of India. Last week, while claiming that the whole adult population of India will be vaccinated in 2021, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan had said that “by July this year, 51 crore doses will be procured”. With 12 crore doses accounted for, that leaves the small matter of 39 crore vaccine doses to be procured in July. And the question of vaccination cost remains controversial. 'Are you asking states to compete,’ the Supreme Court said on Monday as it criticised the Centre for its dual pricing policy. It also questioned the government on the need for people to mandatorily register on the CoWIN  app if they want to be vaccinated.

Still smarting from the BJP’s defeat in the West Bengal Assembly election, and apparently upset because Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was not sufficiently accommodating when he visited Kalaikunda Air Base to review cyclone damage, PM Modi had state Chief Secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay transferred to Delhi beginning today. The peremptory call is particularly problematic because he is anchoring Covid management in the state. Bandyopadhyay won’t present himself for duty at North Block today. The Centre has broken protocol, which requires it to be a little more polite to officers and their state government. The BJP is bungling its first salvo against Mamata Banerjee after Operation ‘Didi O Didi’ failed, and creating yet another Centre-state problem. Today, Banerjee wrote to the PM refusing to relinquish Bandyopadhyay, and asking, though not in so many words, if the PM has an ego problem with her

The UK faces a shortage of everyday medications, from painkillers and steroids to anaesthetics. While one third of generic medicines used by the NHS are manufactured in Britain, as much comes from India, where factory output has been drastically reduced by the pandemic. Stocks could reach dangerously low levels in the coming months, the trade body representing generic drug makers in the UK has warned.

A year and a half after it enacted the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which fast tracked Indian citizenship for non-Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Centre on Friday allowed eligible immigrants residing in 13 districts of India to apply for citizenship. But as rules under the Act are yet to be framed, the old Citizenship Act of 1955 will apply.

Veteran Marxist leader Mythily Sivaraman, a champion of workers’ and women’s rights and a popular political leader in Tamil Nadu, passed away in Chennai on Sunday. She was 81 and is survived by her husband and daughter. She was a fierce fighter for equality between the sexes and communities, and wrote with feeling of the despair that casteism generates among the masses. Read her article ‘Children of Darkness’, which first appeared in Mainstream on July 12, 1969. 

The Indian government’s attempts to muzzle social media are being noticed everywhere. In Israel, Haartez wrote: “Netanyahu’s attempt to block access to TikTok compares to authoritarian figures who have figured prominently in his political campaigns in recent years, including Modi, Trump and Putin.”

Justice BN Srikrishna, who headed a government-appointed committee on data protection and has submitted a draft bill, too, describes recent developments as an “undeclared emergency” in the country. The retired Supreme Court judge said, “I still think it is a free country but I am getting more and more doubtful about it.” He was referring to the face-off between the central government and global social media platforms over the new IT rules, as well as other attempts to gag voices speaking against the government.

The Supreme Court has resumed hearing the suo motu matter on the Covid crisis today. It has also constituted a 12-member national task force to formulate a methodology for distributing oxygen to the states.   

The government has sought time till Thursday in the Supreme Court to take a "final decision" on the question of cancellation of Class XII Board exams. It has to give “good reasons” in case it departs from the 2020 policy to cancel the exams because of the pandemic.

The Delhi High Court has ruled that the reconstruction of the Central Vista in the national capital is an “essential project of national importance”, with the “public vitally interested in the project” and “the current construction has to be completed before November 2021” despite the pandemic and its associated restrictions. It dismissed the PIL to halt construction with Rs 1 lakh costs.

Today, Kerala’s Legislative Assembly unanimously passed a resolution to call back the administrator of Lakshadweep. Kerala will see the onset of the monsoon on June 3, two days behind schedule, according to a revised forecast by the India Meteorological Department. 

And a US-bound Air India flight was forced to turn around and head back to Delhi when a fruit bat began to execute aerobatics in the cabin. A video shows it flapping over the heads of panicked passengers and crew on board the Boeing 777, 30 minutes after take-off on Friday.


Kumbh ‘world’s biggest superspreader’

The Guardian reports on possibly “the biggest superspreader event in the history of the pandemic”, the Kumbh festival. Advanced a year before schedule, it had PM Modi publishing in front page advertisements in every national daily, inviting millions to attend. Sensible advice on containment from the BJP CM in Uttarakhand led to his removal and the new CM, chosen by Modi himself, was confident that faith would prevail over the virus. In the week following the festival, Uttarakhand registered a 1,800% increase in Covid cases, many of which were linked to the festival. 

The Independent reports on doctors and patients battling Covid in what is perhaps the toughest lockdown anywhere in the world ― in Kashmir, where the healthcare system is buckling.


Ganga water quality unchanged by corpses

As expected, bodies buried in shallow graves on the banks of the Ganga (from which the state administration stripped the colourful shrouds) are floating in the river as water levels rose by 44 cm. It is argued that water burial is a religious practice in UP, but this video from Balrampur has nothing religious about it. The Modi government maintains that little variation is seen in the Ganga river water quality on biological parameters. The Namami Gange Programme was launched as a flagship programme by this government in June 2014,  but has failed.


Tamil Nadu FM seeks ‘quality control’ in BJP

Tamil Nadu Finance Minister Dr P Thiaga Rajan is winning admirers all over the country not only for his knowledge of economics and public finance but also for his forthrightness and political savvy in tackling the BJP and its right-wing allies. The latest to fall foul of him is the tourism minister of BJP-ruled Goa, who got a severe, public dressing down for his intemperate attacks on Rajan about Friday’s GST Council meeting. The BJP wasn’t spared either, as the former banker asked Modi’s party “to impose some minimal quality control on its ‘MLA Acquisition’ procedures”. Ouch. 


Trouble in Puducherry

First, in Assam, BJP took ages to decide who would be chief minister, before the government could get going. Now, there is trouble in Puducherry, where the Centre had been scheming long and hard. It had installed the chief of the Tamil Nadu BJP unit head as governor before the polls. Now, 27 days after the All India NR Congress (AINRC)-led NDA won the polls, the expansion of the cabinet remains uncertain. The delay is hampering the fight against the second wave of Covid-19 infection. Bad news for the BJP, they are not finding it easy to bully Chief Minister N Rangaswamy, whom they did not want to name as CM-candidate in the first place. 


The Long Cable

A nation in mourning

Sidharth Bhatia

A thick book can be compiled by just listing the thousands of messages on social media where people desperately inquire about hospital beds or oxygen cylinders for their loved ones. To this can be added the pages and pages of obituaries of those who have died due to Covid or related causes, including some who did not get help in time.

A companion volume could be about the instances of sheer callousness of BJP leaders, their statements about fanciful treatments, the aggressive stance against the Opposition, the threats held out by UP Chief Minister Adityanath against those who raise their voice to complain. The publicity machine of the party spends its energies on mocking the Opposition and the central government is busy tilting at windmills, by going after Twitter.

India is grieving. All over the land, distraught families are mourning their loved ones, a vast number of whom have died not because they caught the dreaded infection but for lack of hospital beds, vital oxygen and even medicines. An overworked health system just couldn’t help, even with the best of intentions. There are stories of patients dying outside hospitals while they waited for that elusive bed, or simply waiting for an ambulance to arrive.

And as if this indignity weren’t enough, what followed is even more appalling ― an interminable wait at the cremation grounds, lack of space in cemeteries, or simply, bodies being thrown into the Ganga, to float downriver anonymously.

In any civilised country, this is where the state would step in. But the BJP government which, in its mistimed triumphalism, had declared that “India has controlled Covid” in January, has not just failed to provide succour, its party members have only offered either crackpot remedies or threatened anyone who complained about lack of oxygen.

From the lofty heights, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has dispensed either homilies or meaningless schemes such as money for Covid orphans when they turn 18. Nothing about working to upgrade infrastructure, or even a word of solace to those who are hurting.

Social media is just one platform where the despair of Indians is visible. It has come as a handy tool to appeal for help and in many cases, there has been a happy ending. Help and kindness came from strangers, never from the government ― on their part, the government went after those who were providing help, truly a case of “na karunga na karne doonga”.

But Twitter is available only to the tech savvy; countless other millions had no one to turn to.

The poor in India have long been used to standing interminably in queues for what is their due, suffering crushing humiliation while dealing with the bureaucracy, and accepting their lot.

But this brutal second wave has hit the privileged and the powerful with equal ferocity and they have discovered – to their utter shock and dismay – that all their money, their contacts, their access, are of no use in the face of monumental shortages, even in the cities, which have considerable private healthcare facilities. Covid has truly been an equaliser, flattening everything in its path and affecting people across religions, communities, caste and economic and social status.

And it shows no sign of abating. An endemic shortage of vaccines – a result of shoddy planning – will continue for a while. The caseload is lower in some parts, but is still growing in others. The official death toll of over 3.26 lakhs – almost certainly an underestimate – will rise, as vaccination continues at its slow and sluggish pace. And the health infrastructure is still hugely overburdened.

The government on its part remains preoccupied with its Rs 20,000 crore boondoggle of destroying the historic Central Vista in Delhi, meddling in West Bengal and rampaging through the pristine beaches of Lakshadweep to offer land to private builders to build resorts, and imposing a beef ban. Where does it have time to hear the cries of mourners or see the flames of cremation grounds all over the country?


Reportedly

Phata poster, nikla zero.” Remember the slogan from seven years ago? India’s cartoonists do.


UK retail chains learn of labour abuse in TN

British supermarket chain Tesco said it has found labour abuses in its garment supply chain in south India. It has evidence of the widespread use of migrant women as forced labour in cotton spinning-mills in Tamil Nadu. The supermarket said that one of its supply chains is linked to a spinning mill covered in a new report by NGOs Somo and Arisa. They found evidence across the region of multiple labour abuses including deception, intimidation and threats to vulnerable female workers, abusive working and living conditions and excessive overtime. The report named international brands including Next, Sainsbury’s, Gap and Ikea, which it claims were directly or indirectly linked to the mills investigated.


Prime Number: 11,717
The number of mucormycosis (black fungus) cases in India, as on May 26. To treat these cases alone, the country needs more than 29 lakh vials of amphotericin but only 2 lakh vials have been distributed and another 10 lakh are expected in June. The cost per patient is Rs 5-15 lakh, only for amphotericin. How many can afford this?

Corona Maa, goddess of the year

As India reels under the devastating second wave of Covid-19, some devotees with nowhere else to turn are seeking divine intervention at temples dedicated to ‘coronavirus goddesses’. Two ‘Corona Devi’ idols, crafted from sandalwood and stone, have been consecrated at the Kamatchipuri Adhinam temple in Coimbatore. South China Morning Post reports similar shrines for Covid-19 and other illnesses all over the country. In Bihar, UP and Assam, women congregate near temples or under sacred trees to worship the coronavirus in the form of ‘Corona Maa’. The trend is not as unusual as it sounds. 


Deep Dive

The Central Vista project exemplifies the anti-democratic vision colonising India’s public spaces, writes Vivek Menezes. He finds that the only comparable project was Albert Speer’s reimagining of Berlin as Germania, future capital of the Thousand Year Reich. 


Government had itself named B.1.617 as ‘India variant’

There was egg on many faces after a Congress spokesman pointed out that it was the government of India that had started using the term the ‘Indian varant’ to refer to the coronavirus classified as B.1.617, which was first detected in India. A fact-checker had more home truths to offer on the evolution of the name of a Covid variant ― the BJP and its government named variants after countries, including in a court affidavit.


Choksi deportation: More than meets the (black) eye

The government is silent on the Mehul Choksi deportation case, even as the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda claimed that he had information that India has sent a chartered jet to Dominica to provide documentation and take custody of the fugitive businessman. On his radio show, Antiguan Prime Minister Gaston Browne said India is going “all out” to ensure that Choksi, who is wanted in the Rs 13,578 crore Punjab National Bank fraud case, is deported, and indicated that Indian officials were in Dominica’s capital Roseau to escort him back. 

A Qatar Airways Bombardier jet had landed at the Douglas-Charles airport in Dominica, Antigua News Room reported. Choksi was detained there after his mysterious disappearance from neighbouring Antigua and Barbuda. The Dominica High Court has stayed his removal till the matter is heard in open court on June 2. Choksi has alleged that he was abducted from Jolly Harbour in Antigua and Barbuda by policemen who looked Antiguan and Indian, and taken to Dominica. Purported pictures of the 62-year-old have surfaced in Dominica, showing him with a red, swollen eye and bruises on his hands. 


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • While scientists all over the world are working round the clock to find a foolproof scientific response to the Covid-19 threat, the Modi regime has been busy undermining scientific thought, writes GN Devy on the nakba and nauba.

  • The government assault on digital media reflects Modi’s paranoia, and by taking on big tech as it tries to pulverise critics online, the BJP may have bitten off more than it can chew, write MK Venu (a contributor to The India Cable) and Maya Mirchandani.

  • WhatsApp’s fight with India has global implications, writes Varsha Bansal in Wired, as the country’s “traceability” requirement would undermine the privacy of the encrypted messaging app’s users far beyond its borders.

  • Developments in Lakshadweep suggest something sinister is being planned. Is the game plan to altogether supplant Lakshadweep’s human habitation with cement factories, asks Wajahat Habibullah.


Listen up

Pandemic, politics and religion ― Meenal Baghel essays a morality play on the thousands of unclaimed bodies that found their way into the Ganga. Uma Bharti and Wendy Doniger weigh in. 

Watch Out

Last month, Malayalam rapper Vedan released ‘Vaa’, which calls Dalits and other oppressed communities to come together and stand united against systematic caste oppression. It opens with these lines: “Come friend/ Shoulder to shoulder/ Let’s go fight/ Become fire/ Shatter the barricades…”


Over and Out

A generation of Indian immigrants from East Africa, who arrived in the UK in the 1960s determined to succeed, are now in their 70s and 80s, looking back on eventful lives. BBC’s Krupa Padhy, whose father was among them, tells the story of Praful Patel and his efforts to find a place in British society.

Hear from Shyju Khalid, the 44-year-old cinematographer behind Traffic, Maheshinthe Prathikaram, Ee Ma Yau, Sudani From Nigeria, Kumbalangi Night and Virus. These films brought out the latest flush of talent in one of India’s most creative film industries.


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.