The India Cable: Modi Govt Chary But RCEP the Right Recipe, Vaccine Race Hots Up

Plus: Parliament winter session unlikely, Gilgit-Baltistan goes to Imran’s PTI, pollution pall covers villages, shelter homes found wanting, RTI queries stalled by official cussedness

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
November 17, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

A diminished Nitish Kumar has got the throne in Bihar, but the BJP has grabbed the lion’s share of the ministerial pie in Patna. The complete absence of Muslims from the first round of ministerial appointments, made on Monday, is glaring but not surprising given that the National Democratic Alliance does not have a single Muslim legislator.

Ahead of the Tamil Nadu Assembly polls in May 2021, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam founder M Karunanidhi’s son MK Alagiri mulls floating a new political party, as his younger sibling MK Stalin leads the opposition alliance in the state.

It is Kapil Sibal versus Ashok Gehlot in the Congress as the former reiterates his call for internal democracy in the party and the latter says this has hurt the sentiments of Congressmen. (Question: How does Gehlot know this, if there is no internal democracy). Sibal also featured in a contest at the Supreme Court on Monday, where he argued unsuccessfully for the release of Kerala journalist Siddique Kappan, arrested by the Uttar Pradesh Police about a month ago. In stark contrast to its alacrity in the Arnab Goswami case last week, the Supreme Court was not keen to hear his petition and posted the matter for Friday, when the UP government must file a reply. Meanwhile, two Dalit sisters, both minors, were killed and their bodies dumped in a pond in a village in the Asodhar area of Fatehpur district in Uttar Pradesh. And Dalit students are being forces to wait endlessly for their stipend from a scholarship started by the British in 1940 on BR Ambedkar’s demand. The post-matric scheme is starved of funds after a rule tweak in 2018 steeply increased the states’ share of funding and lowered the Centre’s contribution.

A group of people who were among the Shaheen Bagh protesters against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act on Monday urged the Supreme Court to review its judgment of October 7, which had held that such protests could be allowed only at “designated” areas. They argued that such a direction would “lead to abuse of authority by the government”.

In surprisingly retro remarks, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has slammed trade pacts and globalisation itself. And he did it the day after the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade pact was signed, in which India is notable by its absence. China’s Global Times has said that India had committed a strategic blunder by staying out of the RCEP. India’s wholesale price inflation continues to rise and is currently at its highest in eight months. The government has begun to seek compliance on its order capping FDI in digital media at 26%. Media organisations which breach the ceiling must rein themselves in by October 15, 2021. And the Prime Minister is to attend the BRICS virtual summit today. Xi Jinping will be there, too.

The English Cricket Board has been accused of “institutionalised racism” by two former umpires, John Holder and Ismail Dawood. Holder said he had offered to be a mentor but had not heard from the Board, and Dawood said that racist language was used in the presence of senior staff and went unchallenged.

Vaccines surge, Aarogya Setu tanks

Bharat Biotech on Monday said it has begun the Phase 3 clinical trials of its Covid-19 vaccine candidate Covaxin in India, with 26,000 participants across 22 locations. The trial will be conducted in partnership with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). Volunteers will receive two intramuscular injections, about 28 days apart. 

A new vaccine that protects against Covid-19 is nearly 95% effective, early data from the US company Moderna shows. The results come hot on the heels of similar results from Pfizer, and add to growing confidence that vaccines can help end the pandemic. But US-based Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee has been asking the right question, amidst the optimism ― how is it to be delivered? The WHO chief went a step further to temper sentiment when he emphasised the importance of all other mechanisms to safeguard against the novel coronavirus: “A vaccine will complement the other tools we have, not replace them,” director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “A vaccine on its own will not end the pandemic.” 

The pandemic continues in India, which remains high on the world list, only second to the US, with total deaths above 130,000. And the Aarogya Setu app, once made mandatory despite huge data privacy issues, has failed to be effective in spite of being the world’s most downloaded contact tracing app.

Parliament may duck session

The Modi government may be claiming victory in the battle against the pandemic and removing restrictions in everyday life, but those rules of normalcy do not apply to Parliament, which may not have its winter session this year. A single extended session may be held instead of separate winter and budget sessions. According to the parliamentary records, this has happened only three times before ― in 1975, 1979 and 1984. The winter session of Parliament usually starts in the last week of November or the first week of December, while the Budget session starts from the last week of January and the Union Budget is tabled on February 1. 

The monsoon session, which was held from September 14 in the midst of the pandemic, was cut short by eight days, question hour was scrapped, and ended abruptly on September 24. It is a convention and not a rule to hold three sessions of Parliament in a year. The Constitution prescribes that there should not be a gap of six months or more between two sessions, and the monsoon session was held just before the deadline this year. 

The run-up to the Budget has begun, and Rathin Roy, former member of the PM’s Economic Advisory Council, has a very pertinent query for Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman:

“Waging war” against judges

India’s premier investigative agency has been industriously booking people who have criticised the judges of the Supreme Court and the Andhra Pradesh High Court on social media. It has managed to collar 16 people already. The Andhra Pradesh High Court had directed the CBI to probe the case and submit a report in a sealed cover within eight weeks. The next hearing of the case is scheduled on December 14.  The two-judge bench said orally at a hearing, “Their comments are perilous to democracy and amounted to an attack on the judiciary. If some ordinary person makes any comment against the government, cases are promptly registered against such persons. When persons in positions made comments against judges and the courts, why have cases not been filed?” 

On October 13, the Andhra Pradesh high court had struck back at allegations levelled by Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy in a letter to the Chief Justice, alleging bias in the judiciary. The court has then said that this amounted to “waging war against the judiciary” and had asked the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to probe the “abusive” and “threatening” posts made on social media.

On RCEP, press against Jaishankar 

On the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, The Hindu’s editorial asserts that “it would be in India’s interests to dispassionately review its position and embrace openness rather than protectionism.” Seize the deal, urges The Indian Express: “Trade lifts all boats, New Delhi must get inside the RCEP tent at the earliest opportune moment”. Terming it ‘economic self-harm, Business Standard writes that “self-reliance cannot be a superior alternative to open trade.” Hindu Business Line posits that “by rejecting RCEP, Delhi has reinforced its protectionist image. In the longer run, we may turn out to have done ourselves no favour by being isolationist”. 

“It is vital that New Delhi joins the world’s largest trading bloc sooner rather than later,” writes The Economic Times. The Hindustan Times editorial is less certain but speaks of the shadow of RCEP hanging over India, “India’s new external economic policy is far from perfect. Its new bilateral investment draft treaty has no serious takers.” Mint says that “a shift in global dynamics could present us with new options that must not be dismissed without a cost-benefit analysis.” The Telegraph has an editorial on the economic gloom in India: “The government has to understand that demand creates additional output and employment. It is not the other way round.” 

The Long Cable

Door to RCEP still open

MK Venu

India must necessarily have mixed feelings about not being part of the world’s largest free trade bloc, formed on Sunday by 15 nations of the Asia-Pacific region. The timing of the formal launch of the China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) may seem very apt, even symbolic. It comes just when Donald Trump –whose obsessive America-first trade policy had led to an unprecedented disengagement of the US with global multilateral and regional trade groupings – is on his way out. His successor may not be so evangelical about rejecting greater multilateral trade cooperation. It is also significant that the RCEP deal is signed at a time when the world economies are strategising their post-pandemic recovery, in which China is clearly playing a major role. 

Map of the RCEP region. Source: Wikimedia

Most of the 15 RCEP nations have performed remarkably well in dealing with Covid-19, showing among the lowest fatality rates and the least damage to output and employment growth. Most of them will have positive GDP growth in the second half of 2020. The key trend to watch out for in the coming decade is a rapid acceleration in trade within Asia, due to new investment dynamics triggered by shifting supply chains among RCEP nations. Even at present, a strong ecosystem exists in East Asia and China in electronic hardware and many labour-intensive sectors. If global companies present in China want to shift their supply chains for reasons of efficiency, they are more likely to do it within the RCEP nations like Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines, which offer seamless and smooth movement of goods. 

RCEP will offer its constituents a market of  2.2 billion consumers with reasonably high per capita incomes. This is why India will lose out by staying away from RCEP. Indian officials claim that India already has separate free trade agreements with most of the Asean nations, so RCEP may not offer any additional advantage. But they also admit that these agreements have not been used optimally by Indian businesses. There is enough research to show more trade has happened between India and Asean nations outside these FTAs, because of stringent documentation and bureaucracy regarding rules of origin. Therefore, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s statement yesterday, that Asean FTAs have led to de-industrialisation in several sectors, is rather alarmist. Jaishankar sounded more like a mid 20th century Left ideologue when he spoke in favour of protectionism and against the efficiency of open trade policy. 

Open trade has existed down the ages, from pre-industrial times, and it goes without saying that it is always pursued within the framework of national interest. India has been very much part of the last three decades of the pivotal shift in trade and investment flows within the Asia-Pacific region. A recent McKinsey study observes, “Asia is not only rising in scale but also integrating rapidly, arguably setting the pace for a new stage of globalisation and regionalisation. For instance, 60% of goods traded by Asian economies are within the region, as are 71% of Asian investments in start-ups and 59% of Asian foreign direct investment (FDI). Also, 74% of Asian travel is within the region.” McKinsey makes the broader argument that a “structural and observable shift towards regionalisation” of economic activity is happening within Asia. This trend continued after the marked de-globalisation of trade and investment triggered by the 2008 financial meltdown, which shook the world economy. Intra-Asia trade and investment has been quite impressive even in this period.The launch of RCEP must be viewed against this backdrop.

Though official statements may continue to deny the reality of the tectonic shifts taking place within its economies, everyone knows that India was seriously in RCEP discussions for over a decade and fully in the game until the eleventh hour, when negotiations were being concluded last year. PM Modi also seemed keen until a very late stage. Segments of Indian industry and agriculture spoke against the threat of dumping of manufactured goods from China and agri-products from Australia and New Zealand, and Modi suddenly signaled a last minute withdrawal. As a substitute, India is talking of concluding FTAs with the EU and US separately. That won’t be politically easy either, as both have an aggressive interest in pushing for access in agriculture and services. In any case, none of the other FTAs can match the RCEP for sheer dynamism, as shown by historical and current trends in intra-Asian trade and investment flows.      

The silver lining is that India can review its position as the doors have been kept open for her to join at a later stage. Joining late after strengthening its own domestic competitiveness may not be a bad idea, either, provided that strengthening actually happens. China did that at the WTO. But India cannot afford to stay out of RCEP in the long run.


Gilgit-Baltistan goes to PTI amidst charges of rigging

Elections in Gilgit Baltistan, which India has vehemently opposed, have yielded favourable results for Pakistan’s ruling party, the Imran Khan-led PTI. It has got nine of the 23 provincial assembly seats in unofficial results. The Opposition PPP and the PML(N) have bagged three and two seats respectively. PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari on Monday levelled serious allegations regarding irregularities in the elections, saying that his party would use all available legal options against “open and naked rigging” in the polls. India has said these polls are attempting to change the status quo of the region, and are unacceptable. Earlier this month, spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said: “Our position has always been clear and consistent. The entire territories of the UTs of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh have been and are an integral part of India and would remain so.”

Shelter homes fail audit

The first ever national audit of shelter homes, commissioned by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, has revealed that nearly 40% of such centres do not have adequate measures in place to prevent physical or sexual abuse of children. There are over 2.5 lakh children currently lodged in shelter homes across the country, and nearly 70% of them are in only eight states. 

The audit was initiated after the mass sexual abuse of girls at state-funded shelter homes in Muzzaffarpur (Bihar) and Deoria (Uttar Pradesh), run by NGOs, in 2018. The full report was submitted to the Supreme Court by the apex child rights body earlier this year. As per the report, there are 7,163 child care institutions, of which 6,299 are run by NGOs or trusts while the government runs only 864 centres, mainly observation homes where juveniles in conflict with the law are kept. 

Air pollution blights rural India, too

A new study by scientists from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay and Colorado State University finds that pollution in India’s rural idylls is no better than the toxic soup that city dwellers are inhaling. It calculated the amount of PM 2.5 ― dust particles 2.5 microns in diameter ― across India from satellite data, and did not find much difference in air pollution levels between urban and rural areas. This finding has a far-reaching impact on how pollution is viewed in India and other developing countries. The new research comes two years after another group of US scientists had shown that the death rate due to air pollution was nearly identical in rural and urban India.

Unchecked growth caused Hyderabad floods

Around 50% of all lakes and water bodies in and around Hyderabad city have been encroached upon, according to a study by Telangana’s Irrigation and Command Area Development (CAD) department. The study was undertaken to analyse the reasons behind the massive flooding and waterlogging in the city due to the heavy rains in mid-October, when 33 people died. According to the findings of officials, who studied 192 lakes and waterbodies in Hyderabad, encroachers included large real estate ventures and public institutions.

Prime number: 2%
Just 2% of requests rejected by Information Commissions in India have attracted a penalty. Fifteen years after the implementation of the Right to Information Act in India, a report has been compiled by Satark Nagrik Sangathan on the performance of the 29 information commissions set up under the RTI Act across the country. The report found a tardy disposal rate, and several lacunae which point not to lethargy but to human cussedness, which makes it impossible to get a meaningful RTI reply.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Jayati Ghosh writes on ‘vaccine apartheid’: Within days of the announcement of early positive test results, Pfizer had sold more than 80% of the vaccine doses it will be able to produce by the end of next year to governments representing only 14% of the global population.

  • A confident India need not stay out of the RCEP, writes Ajit Ranade. Joining in the mega trade pact could spell “new opportunities” that will serve India’s ambitions well.

  • In a scathing attack on regressive values, Justice PB Sawant asks, “The inherently inhuman, iniquitous and unjust ancient texts like Manusmriti are an anathema to the aims and objectives of our Constitution. Dr Ambedkar burnt the Manusmriti in 1927, but would we have the courage to rise up against it today?”

  • Murtaza Niaz in Dawnasks a controversial question and also proceeds to answer it. Why is Pakistan doing poorly, compared to India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka amongst the SAARC countries? He thinks the answer lies in ‘social capital’, and does not think Pakistan will do better anytime soon.

Listen up

Before she was hosting fitness training masterclasses, Mandira Bedi had, among other things, worked in advertising, been one of the biggest TV actors of the Nineties and a prominent cricket commentator. She talks to Sandip Roy about her career, how she has reinvented herself over the years, and her memoir, Happy For No Reason.

Watch out

Expectations of India’s rise have been dented in 2020. Amid lacklustre economic performance and creeping socio-political illiberalism, India also suffered a major strategic setback on its borders. Chinese forces that crossed the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh remain encamped at several tactically valuable points, and although talks continue, India has few visible options to force a return to the status quo ante. India now sees China in more clearly adversarial terms, but does it have what it takes to compete effectively? Ashley Tellis answers various aspects of this question, and the need to strike the right domestic and external balance, in this detailed conversation with Arzan Tarapore.

Building blocks of life

The building blocks of life do not need to wait for planets to be formed. Amino acids can be formed before stars or planets, says a new study published in Nature Astronomy. This  has huge implications for theories of the origin of life. 

No signal, only noise

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.