The India Cable: Middle Class Shrinks 32 Million, Poor Grow 75 Million; India is Ageist

Plus: US Defence Secretary brings hard questions, Bajwa offers mailed fist handshake, WB candidates hither, thither and dither, the Ashoka tree withers, Metakovan drops the mask and shows the money

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 19, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

The WHO came out with its first ‘Global Report on Ageism’ yesterday, and it turns out “the highest prevalence of ageism was in low-income and lower-middle-income countries like India, Nigeria, and Yemen”. Ageism is at work “when age is used to categorise and divide people in ways that lead to harm, disadvantage and injustice, and erode solidarity across generations.” Ageism doesn’t only affect the elderly, though in European nations like Italy, entire cohorts have been taken by Covid-19. Testimony from India speaks of young people aged 18-29 being viewed as perpetrators or victims of violence alone, and of tokenism, by which they are included in decision-making, but their opinions are ignored. 

The UK has been hit by vaccine delivery delays from India. A shipment of 5 million doses produced by the Serum Institute of India has been held up for four weeks, the BBC has learnt. The chief executive of Serum Institute, Adar Poonawalla, has previously called for patience about global vaccine deliveries, saying the company has been “directed to prioritise the huge needs of India”, which is seeing its sharpest five-day rise in 10 months, fuelled by spikes in five states and Union territories. He has also raised concerns about raw material shortages, attributing this to US export bans on specific items needed to make vaccines, such as specialised bags and filters. After a “thorough and careful review”, UK and EU regulators have said there is no evidence that the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine causes blood clots. No extra deaths are observed following the shot. 

In his first trip overseas since the Covid-19 outbreak, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Bangladesh on March 26-27, coinciding with elections in West Bengal. And coincidentally, communal violence has broken out there ― Hindu homes in Sunamganj were attacked with makeshift weapons following a Facebook post. Chowdhury Abdullah Al Mamun, director general of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), Bangladesh’s version of the Indian RAF, has termed the attacks “despicable” and ordered the immediate arrest of the perpetrators. 

At least 6,500 employees have died on duty at factories, ports, mines and construction sites in the last five years, the Labour Ministry told Parliament. Occupational deaths rose in 2017 after a decline, and most occurred in factories.

With the middle-class in mind, protesting farmers have launched an “MSP loot calculator” to counter the Centre’s narrative on the minimum support price (MSP) for crops, using official data to show that the farming community is being paid way below the rates announced by the government. The “calculator” is an initiative of the Jai Kisan Andolan, a constituent of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha which is spearheading the farmers’ movement.

Metakovan, the pseudonymous crypto fund manager who made headlines after buying an NFT (non-fungible token) digital artwork from the equally pseudonymous artist Beeple for $69.3 million, has revealed his identity in a Substack post (Substack hosts newsletters like the one you’re reading). He is Singapore-based Vignesh Sundaresan, promoter of the NFT exchange MetaPurse with the pseudonymous Twobadour (now revealed to be Anand Venkateswaran/@viananda of Chennai). 

The sale appears to have been a business investment and now, Metakovan offers $100,000 fellowships to five communicators to talk up crypto. MetaPurse clearly seeks a helmsman’s role in the business, at a time when the Indian government is becoming dreadfully leery of any currency beyond the remit of central banks.    

National dailies have their first two pages plastered with the UP Chief Minister’s so-called achievements over four years. We are sure that the lead articles carried by the Hindustan Times and The Indian Express are not part of the ‘package’. Here is a short list of achievements of the UP chief minister’s tenure ― for real, compiled by the UP-based reporter Alok Pandey.

Austin in India today, Menendez has questions

The last stop of his Asia tour, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin will start his three-day trip to India on Friday, when he will hold talks with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. The talks are expected to focus on China, maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and the peace process in Afghanistan. The recent thawing of tensions with Pakistan is also likely to feature as Austin has ample experience of dealing with that country, when he was US Central Command chief. The military to military discussions will feature cooperation on preparing for multi-domain operations, an Indian requirement based on its learnings from the recent border crisis with China. Austin will also raise the Biden administration’s opposition and likely sanctions against India’s planned purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system.

US Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrote a strongly-worded letter to Austin before his India visit, asking him to specifically raise democracy and human rights concerns in his discussions with the Modi government (full text and press release). The Modi government’s “ongoing crackdown on farmers peacefully protesting new farming laws and corresponding intimidation of journalists and government critics only underscores the deteriorating situation of democracy in India.  Moveover, in recent years, rising anti-Muslim sentiment and related government actions like the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the suppression of political dialogue and arrest of political opponents following the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir, and the use of sedition laws to persecute political opponents have resulted in the US human rights group Freedom House stripping India of its ‘Free’ status in its yearly global survey.”

To the great discomfiture of the Modi government, this is a question being repeatedly raised in the US – and not just by the usual liberal intelligentsia but global security analysts too. Writing about the Quad in the Washington Post, Daniel Drezner (of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the Brookings Institution) asked: “One of the big questions about this grouping is whether India’s membership helps to curb some of Modi’s worst excesses or acts as an excuse for further illiberalism.” Allie Funk and Amy Slipowitz argue in Just Security,“If the United States were to ignore the recent democratic decline in India, it would undermine its own efforts to hold Beijing accountable for regional aggression and systematic human rights abuses.”

Across the Big Pond, representatives in the UK House of Lords expressed their concerns about democratic backsliding in India. They pulled no punches and wore no gloves.

Bajwa offers clenched fist handshake

Speaking from the same podium the day after Pakistan PM Imran Khan, Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa held forth about mending ties with India in the same tone and tenor (full text). He said that it was time for India and Pakistan to “bury the past and move forward” but asserted that lasting peace in South Asia will remain elusive until the Kashmir issue is resolved.

“For resumption of the peace process or meaningful dialogue, our neighbour will have to create a conducive environment, particularly in Indian Occupied Kashmir,” the General said, far short of the longstanding Pakistani position of the right to self-determination of Kashmiris and the implementation of UN resolutions (which Imran Khan had spoken of). He did not even ask for a reversal of the decisions taken by the Modi government in August 2019, leaving ample scope for PM Modi to “create a conducive environment” in Kashmir as and when state assembly elections are held, those there is no word on that yet from the Indian government. Meanwhile, in another sign of slight warming of ties, the Indian cricket board has written to the International Cricket Council assuring them of no complications for the Pakistan contingent’s passage into India for the T20 cricket World Cup tournament in October-November this year.

SC lays down the law on shaadi, rakhi in sexual assault cases

An obnoxious order by the Madhya Pradesh High Court, decreeing that in order to get bail, a rape accused and his wife must visit the victim and get her to tie a rakhi on him, finally got the Supreme Court riled anough to issues some pathbreaking guidlelines. If followed, or enfoced, they could dramatically alter the way in which women are dealt with in courtrooms, which is often deeply insensitive. The Supreme Court spoke of the need to avoid stereotyping, as “stereotypes discriminate against women or deny them equal access to justice. Stereotyping might compromise the impartiality of a judge’s decision and affect his or her views about witness credibility or the culpability of the accused person,” it said.

The Chief Justice of India had found himself on the wrong side of the argument earlier this month, when he asked a rape accused if he was “planning to marry” the victim, earning the ire of feminists and demands that he must step down.

The new Uttarakhand Chief Minister, who has got off to a ripping start in his quest to become the most conservative uncle in the realm, is in flagrant violation of almost every guideline

Millions pushed into poverty: Middle class shrinks by 32 million

Financial distress brought on by the coronavirus pandemic has pushed about 32 million Indians out of the middle class, while job losses pushed another 75 million into poverty. The number of Indians in the middle class, or those earning $10-20 a day, shrank by about 32 million, compared with the number projected in the absence of a pandemic, the US-based Pew Research Centre said. 

 (Via: The Mint)

A year into the pandemic, numbers in the middle class have shrunk to 66 million, down a third from a pre-pandemic estimate of 99 million, it added. The Pew Centre estimated the number of poor people, with incomes of $2 or less every day, has gone up by 75 million as the recession brought by the virus has straipped away the benefits of decades of progress.

The Long Cable

The withering of the Ashoka tree

Pratik Kanjilal

The long, slow slide of Pratap Bhanu Mehta out of Ashoka University, the private institution which he had once helmed, is finally over with his resignation as professor. After a stint as president of the influential Delhi think tank Centre for Policy Research, Mehta became vice-chancellor of Ashoka University in 2017. In July 2019, two months after the Narendra Modi government won its second term in office, he stepped down on the apparently reasonable plea that administrative work left him little time for academics and writing. But apart from the proforma paeans about Ashoka University, his open resignation letter contained a telling passage: “The contemporary world has unsettled so many of our political and philosophical assumptions, and I increasingly felt the need to reorient myself academically. Hence, the decision to step down.”

Earlier that year, an Intelligence Bureau report to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had flagged Mehta as an “unrelenting critic” of the Modi government. It also suggested deep connections between the promoters of Ashoka University and independent media, observing that they “also fund anti-government propaganda sites (sic) like” Azim Premji, Anu Aga and Raghuram Rajan were tarred with the same brush. Though neither Mehta nor Ashoka University betrayed any sign of it, the pressure to conform and to celebrate instead of criticising was visible. 

Now, while relinquishing the position of professor and sundering ties altogether, both Mehta and Ashoka University have been officially silent on the reasons for the sundering. Mehta’s resignation email is in the wild, though, and makes it clear that his journalistic work made him a political liability. The student body’s publication suggests a quid pro quo: land for the university to expand. And in an open letter inviting support for Mehta, it has sought precisely what is lacking: “transparency from the founders and trustees”. The academic body is of the same mind, and seeks the disclosure of institutional processes. Parents of students at the university have also raised their voice.

In situations where government pressure is in play, the thumbscrews are usually applied in the dungeon at the top, and executives of institutions deal with the pain on their own. Those turning the screws know that for shame, top executives won’t admit to subordinates that they are under pressure. Also, the victims are keenly aware that the future prospects of institutions depend on their decisions, along with hundreds or perhaps thousands of livelihoods. Bravery can always wait. Accommodation seems to be reasonable, even if it means taking steps that baffle the rank and file and damage the institution’s image.  

Even the media, historically close to power and familiar with its seductions and pressures, have floundered at this game of ‘chicken’. Other sectors of the knowledge industry, including publishing and academia, aren’t faring much better. Brick and mortar institutions are especially vulnerable, even when they break with tradition or have independent means. After the Nalanda University project foundered, Ashoka was the posterboy of the private liberal university wave which pulled away from the traditional Indian idea of the campus, which offers a subsidised education to many. Instead, private universities offer an expensive education to a few, benchmarked to international standards and offering global prospects. (We are excluding the industry of professional certification for a price, which has also proliferated, as unworthy of notice.) 

Privately funded, these universities were expected to be immune to financial pressures, and therefore fit custodians of academic freedoms, which were coming under threat as the liberal arts were politicised. But seriously, a mere glance at corporate behaviour would reveal that private capital is intensely risk-averse. In the knowledge sector, the right won its landmark coup in 2014, when Penguin buckled to pressures from doggedly angry old man Dinanath Batra, the only visible face of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan at the time. In response, and to protect its staff and business,  Penguin, the most powerful corporate publisher active in India, pulped Chicago University academic Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. Within months, nine self-improvement books by Batra were in the Gujarat school syllabus. The message that the incident sent to smaller presses was deeply disheartening.

Privately funded universities and media are no less vulnerable to pressures than Penguin was at the time. Private institutions have seen liberal campuses like JNU and Jamia Millia Islamia being repeatedly offered violence by the police and vigilantes backed by the ruling party, and the planting of friendly vice-chancellors is commonplace. And the very idea that commercial money and its handlers are resistant to pressure is a myth. Educational institutions backed by commercially acquired wealth, whether Ashoka or OP Jindal University or Azim Premji’s initiative, are unlikely to compromise capital, which has a logic of its own, or the business prospects of their backers. In fact, the Ashoka tree showed signs of withering last autumn, when a maths teacher and two officials far less celebrated than Mehta were forced to quit, after opining on Kashmir too freely for the authorities’ taste ― though the institution pointedly supports free speech. As Ashoka’s students have said, a little transparency would be useful ― and indeed, could deter inference. When dark miasmas are abroad, sunlight is still the best disinfectant. 

After an invisible hand forced Mehta to step down as vice-chancellor in 2019, his influential weekly column in The Indian Express, in which he critiques politics and society, became sharper than before. Now, divested of his institutional burden altogether, he may be at even greater liberty. As his exit triggers other resignations, this is the real takeaway from the long drawn-out tragedy ― in these strange times, the less burdened one is by brick and mortar, capital assets and material commitments, the freer one is to speak one’s mind. The disempowered are, paradoxically, powerful free radicals.


The HD Deve Gowda-led JD(S) has picked a Muslim for the upcoming Basavakalyan Assembly bypolls, a move the Karnataka party hopes will reiterate its ‘secular’ credentials amid talk that it is growing closer to the BJP. JD(S) legislature party leader HD Kumaraswamy formally inducted Syed Yasrab Ali Quadri, who was earlier with the Congress party, and announced him as the candidate for Basavakalyan. 

Addressing a news conference, Kumaraswamy said the Congress had projected the JD(S) as “being pally” with the BJP. “I know what the Congress will do now. They will say the JD(S) fielded a Muslim candidate as part of an understanding with the BJP to cut Congress’s votes,” he said. No way out for poor Kumaraswamy.

Prime number: 7%

That’s the percentage of shots actually delivered to Indians, of the initial vaccination target of 50 crore, in the two months since the world’s largest vaccination programme was rolled out. India has given 3.49 crore vaccine shots and has 4.5 months to make up the remaining 93%. India’s capacity to vaccinate every day has fluctuated, rising from 2.2 lakh shots on the first day of vaccination (January 16, 2021) to 1.3 lakh shots a month later on February 16, to 19 lakh shots on the third month anniversary (March 16). The country will need to give 36.5 lakh shots per day for the remaining 137 days until the end of July, in order to achieve its target of vaccinating 25 crore people with two doses. This cannot be achieved without making administration more efficient and widening the pool of recipients.

Free after 41 years

In an extraordinary case, a Nepalese national has been freed after 41 years in jail, as he was found unfit to stand trial by the Calcutta High Court. Dipak Jaishi, who is now 70, has been languishing in Dum Dum Central Correctional Home since his arrest in Darjeeling district of West Bengal for the alleged murder of a man in 1981. Ham radio operators traced him following information from a person who was lodged at the same correctional home. Jaishi’s relatives, who did not know about his whereabouts all these years, contacted the Nepal government after learning about his incarceration in Kolkata. Some reports described him as “an intellectually challenged undertrial prisoner”.

Deep Dive

How the Indian economy grew over the years

Growth Transitions in India: Myth and Reality, by Pulapre Balakrishnan, Mausumi Das & M Parameswaran examines the economic growth trajectory in India from 1950 onwards. Among its most important conclusions is that growth in India has accelerated continuously since the 1950s, implying that dynamism in the economy did not have to wait for the liberalising reforms launched in 1991. There is more.

(via: EPW, March 13, 2021)

Biyani in trouble

Kishore Biyani and his debt-ridden firm Future Group suffered a major setback after the Delhi High Court upheld the Singapore emergency arbitration award which had put the proposed Rs 24,713 crore Reliance-Future deal on hold on the appeal of e-commerce giant Amazon. A single-judge bench also issued a show cause notice to Biyani and other shareholders, asking them why they should not be detained in civil prison for violating the Singapore order. The court has also directed the attachment of assets of Biyani and other shareholders.

Pilots oppose social media ban

The Air India-Indian Commercial Pilots’ Association has written to the Air India chairman, stating that the prohibition on the use of social media issued by the airline is illegal and violates their fundamental rights. Earlier, Air India had issued letters to all its serving and retired employees, asking them to desist from posting any personal views contradicting the organisation’s messages, or on policy matters related to the aviation sector, on social media.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Milan Vaishnav writes in Foreign Affairs on the decay of Indian democracy and why India no longer ranks among the lands of the free.

  • India should not be written off yet, writes Kapil Komireddi in the Washington Post. But a country that was once a source of inspiration for aspiring democrats has become, under Modi, a cautionary tale for established democracies.

  • Much of what the court said in its judgment on the convention of sub judice is important and commendably balances the right to free speech with the right to privacy of the victim and the right to dignity of the accused, but there could be problems for legitimate investigations too, writes Abhinav Chandrachud.

  • Rudra Chaudhuri writes that India-US defence ties have saved the larger bilateral relationship from political lethargy when negotiators dealing with matters of commerce and trade have failed to reconcile differences, and any threat of sanctions for buying Russian S-400 will be a blow to those ties.

  • Abbas Siddiqui, who draws upon his fiery oratory, the massive popularity of the Furfura Sharif shrine as well as popular dissent against the TMC’s local level corruption, represents a churn amongst Bengali Muslims, writes Shoaib Daniyal.

Listen up

Grand old man

Historians Dinyar Patel and Prashant Kidambi discuss the life and legacy of Dadabhai Naoroji, whom Gandhi referred to as the ‘Father of the Nation’. They discuss Naoroji’s life and work as an Indian nationalist thinker, as a member of British parliament, and as a leading intellectual whose legacy lives on even beyond India in various anti-colonial, nationalist and suffragette movements. 

Watch Out

Democracy on the ropes

‘India’s Authoritarian Turn’ is traced in this talk by Prof Rahul Mukherji of Heidelberg University. He is director, Institute of South Asia Studies. The view from Germany is of considerable interest.

Over and out

Party-hopping in West Bengal, and a Cashmere goat population explosion

Two candidates officially announced by the BJP in West Bengal yesterday turned around and said they weren’t even a part of the BJP, never mind contesting. And a TMC candidate issued a ticket has switched over to the BJP. Lots of hithering, thithering and dithering in the poll-bound state. 

Nearly 200 years ago, Dhaka muslin was the most valuable fabric on the planet, and one of the drivers of colonial trade, which eventually made it extinct. How did it happen?

The goats of the Great Orme headland in Wales became a worldwide sensation during the first Covid lockdown last year, when they were pictured roaming the deserted streets in herds. This year, there has been a population explosion among these Cashmere goats in their north Wales home, after the Covid crisis forced countryside wardens to cancel a planned contraception campaign. We expect they’ll be entering homes and offices soon, and demanding to use the loo.

A Bangladesh United Airways aircraft has been parked at the Raipur airport for five and a half years now, and the parking fee is Rs 1.5 crore. 

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.