The India Cable: Modi on Warpath Against Mamata’s Official; Urban Joblessness Soars

Plus: Covid variants Greek to us, Arun Mishra to protect human rights, GDP contracts sharply, pandemic reverses gender gains, toolkit explodes in UP BJP's hands, protesting farmers eat cake

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
June 1, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

On the advice of the UP government, the state-run Chaudhary Charan Singh University will include books by “stupid science” yogi Ramdev and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath in the philosophy syllabus. They have expounded upon ‘Chikitsa Rahasya’ (literally, ‘Therapy Mystery’) and Hathayoga, respectively. When Kant can’t, yogis can. 

What’s in a name? Political potential. To defuse it, the coronavirus sub-lineage B.1.617.1 first discovered in India will be called ‘Kappa’, while the highly infective variant B.1.617.2 is ‘Delta’. Nationalists no longer need to outrage any more about ‘Indian’ variants. It’ll all be Greek to them now.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee may have scuppered the PM’s move to punish her by forcing her chief secretary to report to the Centre Monday morning sharp but Modi is not done yet. Banerjee said that Alakan Bandyopadhyay had retired ― indeed, Monday was his last day in the IAS, though he was on extension to lead the state’s pandemic response. Later, she appointed him as her adviser for three years. The DoPT, still peeved and refusing to stop digging itself deeper into a hole, has issued a show cause notice to him, asking why he skipped the review meeting at Kalaikunda in Bengal that Prime Minister Modi chaired. Today, the Home Ministry has sent him a notice under the Disaster Management Act. The suggestion is that he could even be prosecuted for “refusing to comply with a direction given by the Central government”, a crime that carries a prison sentence. Bureaucrats in West Bengal, serving and retired, are not amused. 

Seeking fast-track approvals to bring Moderna’s single dose Covid-19 vaccine into India expeditiously, Cipla has requested the government for indemnification and exemptions from price capping, bridging trials and basic customs duty, while stating that it is close to committing over $1 billion in advance to the US major. Dr Reddy’s Laboratories is in talks with the government to bring Russia’s single dose Sputnik Light vaccine into the country. Russia has already approved it and trials are in progress in many countries.

Weeks after corpses were seen floating in the Yamuna in Uttar Pradesh’s Hamirpur district, there are now similar scenes at Buxar Ghat in Unnao, where over 50 bodies have been seen floating in the river since Saturday morning. 

Bereaved Indians are searching for solace as the pandemic rages on. In the absence of physical outlets to grieve for their loved ones, many have turned to virtual communities, helplines and tribute sites.

The BJP is fascinated by toolkits, whether it’s made by kids into green politics, the Congress or even their own lot. Dainik Bhaskar reports on an alleged BJP toolkit in Uttar Pradesh, where an audio clip has gone viral. It promises Rs 2 for tweeting in support of state Chief Minister Adityanath. The alleged audio is attributed to Manmohan Singh, leader of the team that handled the CM’s social media account. Singh’s employment was terminated by the company as soon as the alleged toolkit went viral. 

Meanwhile, in Goa, the prosecution has said it finds the trial in the Tarun Tejpal case ‘coloured by prejudice and patriarchy’, and seeks retrial.  


GDP contracts, worst-ever performance

India’s GDP has shrunk. The government says it’s down by (-)7.3%. That’s Rs 10 lakh crore haemorrhaged in one year, some of which is lost forever. It’s the first contraction in 40 years and the sharpest annual fall since national accounts were first compiled in India. The economy had been stuttering since late 2016, well before Covid-19, but mismanagement of the pandemic and the “world’s strictest” national lockdown – declared prematurely, many experts say, and without proper planning – have pushed it off the edge. Not just amongst the BRICS nations or versus China (which posted the world’s highest growth rate), even in South Asia, India is among the worst performers. Economists had seen this coming ― a public health disaster twinned with an economic tragedy.

FICCI has been sensitive to government sentiment, but emphasising the need for another fiscal package, its survey yesterday finally said that the overall business confidence index has nosedived and stands at 51.5, after reporting a decadal high value of 74.2 in the previous survey round. The RBI’s consumer confidence surveys also show worsening sentiment among consumers and on the “general economic situation, income and prices”. 


World worries about highly infective variant

The government’s decision to ban vaccine exports has left 91 nations extremely susceptible to new strains of Covid, including B.1.617.2, now called ‘Delta’, first discovered in India, the WHO has said. These countries are dependent on the Serum Institute of India’s products, including the AstraZeneca vaccine (Covishield) and the forthcoming Novavax. 

The UK is weighing the risks to recovery posed by the wildfire spread of the variant first discovered in India. Hopes of reopening fully on June 21 are dwindling as the highly transmissible variant spreads. UK-based public health researcher Vyoma Dhar Sharma embarked on a trip to India to study how global public health policy, scientific research and medical practice affect women’s health in India. The trip began as Covid-19 started sweeping through the population and overwhelming hospitals, and has taken a terrible toll on her country – and her family.


Modi govt picks visionary to defend human rights

Justice Arun Mishra – he of the ‘Modi is an internationally acclaimed visionary who could think globally and act locally” – will soon be named the next head of the National Human Rights Commission. The law setting up the NHRC was amended in 2019 to allow any former judge of the Supreme Court and not just former Chief Justices of India to be chairpersons of the constitutional body. Justice Mishra, a judge whose tenure on the Supreme Court was not marked by any particular concern for human rights, or judicial discipline or legal precedents, will be the first beneficiary of the rule change. The only non-establishment member of the selection committee, Rajya Sabha opposition leader Mallikarjun Kharge, dissented on the grounds that the committee was given no names of candidates from Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe or minority communities to choose from. The other two NHRC members picked are former Intelligence Bureau director Rajeev Jain and a former chief justice of Jammu and Kashmir high court Mahesh Mittal Kumar.

Supreme Court: What is the vaccine policy?

The Supreme Court yesterday posed tough questions to the Centre about the rationale for the dual pricing and procurement policy of Covid vaccines, the diversion of vaccination from the National Immunisation Programme and its insistence on CoWIN app registration. The three-judge bench urged the Centre to disclose what its policy was, and the Solicitor General ducked for cover. Significantly, amicus curiae Jaideep Gupta, appointed to assist the court, said, “A single source procurement is to be done.” 

State governments which approached Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech have not been entertained. Foreign manufacturers have refused to deal with them. Gupta further explained that until May 1, from 1978, India had one of the finest distribution policies in the world ― the National Immunisation Programme. He urged the Centre to revert to that policy. The apex Court had more questions, some half in jest. Justice DY Chandrachud darkly asked if a case of sedition had been registered against news channels reporting that Covid-19 victims had been thrown into a river. 


Vijayan writes to Opposition CMs

Chief ministers are having to assume national roles and think global. Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan has written to his peers in non-BJP states saying they should, as a “united effort”, ask the Union government to procure Covid-19 vaccines and distribute them free of cost to the states. His letter has been sent to the CMs of Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Delhi, Punjab and Maharashtra. The Supreme Court was already urging the Centre to explain why India is not looking out for all the states, as the Constitution suggests in Article 1.

“It’s learnt that the Union government has taken a stand that the states should resort to their own measures to procure Covid-19 vaccine. The supply of vaccine is scarce as compared to the demand,” the letter read. Vijayan said that he has already written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi urging him to float a global tender for Covid-19 vaccines, taking into account the cumulative need of the country.


The Long Cable

The rocky road to gender equality amid Covid-19

Ashwini Deshpande

The coronavirus pandemic is not only making it harder to achieve gender equality in India, but also reversing gains made so far. Men everywhere are more likely to be employed and earn higher wages compared to women. In developed countries, the division between employed (working for wages) and out of the labour force (not working for wages and not looking for work) is clearly demarcated.

In developing countries like India, several women who get counted as “not working” actually contribute substantially to household economic activities (farming, livestock, kirana shops, workshops etc.): work that is unrecognised and unpaid. For this work, women need to be recognised legitimately as workers. They need to be seen as equal partners whose labour allows the household to earn a livelihood.

Everywhere in the world, the burden of domestic chores and care work ― reproductive labour ― falls disproportionately on women, regardless of their employment status. The enormous weight of endless and repetitive housework leads women to either drop out of paid employment altogether (or temporarily), or to seek part-time work. Women who manage to re-enter paid employment after a childcare break typically enter as juniors of, and earn less than, men comparable to them in age, education and qualifications. Collectively, as a society, we want children, for which mothers pay a penalty, but not fathers. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has made this penalty steeper. Prolonged closure of schools and childcare centres have compelled women in developed countries, who were lucky enough to not be laid off, to drop out of the workforce.

While gender equality is notably higher in parts of the world like South Asia, attitudes towards sharing of household chores are similar in the belief that women are expected to do more.

What do women want?

An interactive graphic produced by the ILO presents the results of a global survey that asks women if they prefer to work in paid jobs, take care of their families or do both. Their data show that a staggering 70% of women, regardless of their employment status, prefer to work in paid jobs.

National-level data from the National Sample Survey (NSS) or independent surveys document substantial unmet demand for work. When women who declare themselves to be “not working” outside the home are asked if they would be willing to work if work was available at or near their home, an overwhelming majority respond positively.

Women want to work, but the already high gender gaps in employment in India have been made worse by the pandemic. In April 2020, the first month of the stringent lockdown, more men lost jobs compared to men because pre-Covid male employment was far greater than female. However, in the subsequent months, women’s chances of holding on to their jobs or to enter the job market have been significantly lower than men’s. Now that unemployment is soaring, all evidence points towards worsening of the gender gap.

Covid has made the Indian road towards gender equality rockier than it already was. Reports show that from employment and wages to vaccinations, Indian women are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the pandemic. CoWin data reveal that for every 100 men, 87 women are getting vaccinated at the national level, with gender disparity higher in some states. For instance, for every 100 men, the numbers of women getting vaccinated are 75 in UP, 82 in Bihar, 83 in MP and 84 in Assam. Fortunately, there are exceptions like Kerala, where women take the lead: for every 100 men, 115 women are getting vaccinated.

Added to this is the worrying feature that the gap in time spent on domestic chores has widened compared to the pre-pandemic months, as my research shows. 

There are global reports of the shadow pandemic of domestic violence marching in step with the disease and lockdowns. Indian data is released with a lag; therefore, we don’t have hard numbers on domestic violence, but there is no reason to believe that India would be an exception to the global trend.

As the pandemic forges ahead with ferocity, claiming innumerable lives and livelihoods, it is also rolling back the precarious progress on gender equality and making the road towards the goalpost even thornier than it already was.

The writer is Founding Director of the Centre for Economic Data and Analysis (CEDA), Ashoka University and Professor of Economics, Ashoka University


Reportedly

The Delhi High Court has rejected as ‘trash’ the status report filed by the Drug Controller on the issue of BJP MP Gautam Gambhir procuring huge amounts of Fabiflu, used for treating Covid patients, when they were in short supply in the capital. “This tendency of people trying to take advantage and then trying to appear as saviour… This has to be denounced,” Justices Vipin Sanghi and Jasmeet Singh remarked. The High Court said the Drug Controller has not done any investigation on how “a large consignment” of 2,343 strips of Tab Fabiflu was supplied to the Gautam Gambhir Foundation, which does not have a medical practice. 

The Delhi Police had given a clean chit to Gambhir, who was busy doing the IPL commentary at that time. Even though he is putting a brave face even now, the first-time BJP MP seems to be in trouble ― he is seen to have disturbed the supply chain of essential medication.


Girl who cycled to Bihar loses father

Mohan Paswan, the father of bicycle girl Jyoti Kumari, passed away yesterday after a heart attack at his home in Darbhanga, Bihar. Jyoti, 15, shot to fame last year when she cycled about 1,200 km, all the way from Gurugram in Haryana to Darbhanga, with her incapacitated father on the carrier, escaping the lockdown that caught them, and millions of other poor workers in urban India, completely off guard.


Urban unemployment shoots up

India’s urban unemployment rate has soared to almost 18%, the highest in a year. The urban joblessness rate was 17.88% in the week ended May 30, three percentage points higher than a fortnight ago, when it was 14.71%, CMIE data showed. The labour force participation rate (LFPR) and employment rate also fell in urban India. LFPR dropped to 35.69% in the week ended May 30, against 37% in the week ended May 16. However, rural unemployment fell nearly five percentage points in the week ended May 30, from a fortnight ago, to 9.58%. National joblessness dropped a little over two percentage points in the same period. As per the latest weekly data, the national unemployment rate stands at 12.15%.


Prime Number: -3,817
If we look at new subscribers or members who enroll in social security schemes like the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF), Employees’ State Insurance (ESI) and the National Pension Scheme (NPS) as an index of employment ― as the government does ― a strong impact of the pandemic is visible on employment figures of the young, aged under 18, 18-21, and 22-25. Together, these three categories saw net payroll additions of 10,55,633 in April-June 2019. Struck by the pandemic in 2020-21, instead of net additions, these three saw 3,817 net exits in April-June 2020. So, those just joining the workforce have taken the biggest hit

Deep Dive

Siddharth Agarwal spent two years trekking along the nation’s holiest river, the Ganga, and everywhere he went he saw the impact of climate change and human interference.

The activist has set up a foundation to document environmental issues and intends to walk along many more of India’s rivers. Filmmaker Shridhar Sudhir walked with Agarwal for 45 days over the final 500 km of his journey along the Ganga, and his documentary about the expedition – Moving Upstream: Ganga, which deals with the politics that hold sway over the river – is being released soon. 


Rescue on the high seas

Battered by the cyclone, an ONGC barge near Bombay High began to sink on May 17. Then, four vessels in the vicinity also lost control. The Indian Navy received five separate SOS calls in a matter of hours. The lives of 714 people on board five vessels that were carrying out work for ONGC in the Arabian Sea were at risk. The story of a high seas rescue.


Chinese commander killed in Galwan nominated for top award

Chen Hongjun, 30, commander of a motorised infantry battalion under a People Liberation Army (PLA) border defence regiment, who was killed fighting Indian troops at Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh on June 16 last year, has been nominated for a once-in-a-century medal during the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on July 1. He is among the 29 nominated for the July 1 medal, which was established by the CPC Central Committee earlier this year, the party’s highest honour.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • “My government showed development is possible in a coalition. International and inter-state issues were addressed. As the son of an ordinary farmer and without knowledge of Hindi, I managed,” says HD Deve Gowda, exactly 25 years after he became PM.

  • As we transit from a lockdown and begin to reopen, K Srinath Reddy writes on priorities for action on containment, early detection, improvement of healthcare facilities for timely and efficient delivery of care, acceleration of universal vaccination and equity in care for the marginalised.

  • Patrick Heller writes that in the US, India and Brazil, messianic populism, polarisation and insularity have made the pandemic that much worse.

  • A prolonged period of political grandstanding and continued tensions between the Centre and the states has adversely impacted governance and economic development, writes Sanjaya Baru. The nation needs a renewed commitment to cooperative federalism, as defined by the principles of the Constitution.

  • V Sridhar writes that the Indian Covid-19 vaccine story is a string of missteps based on the Modi government’s exaggerated claims of exceptionalism, grounded in voodoo notions of free markets and perpetuated with a stubborn unwillingness to learn.

  • A two-child cap for panchayats is the last thing Lakshadweep needs. Poonam Muttreja writes that instead, India must learn from Lakshadweep on what it has done right so far.


Listen Up

Vinod Kapri, filmmaker and author, speaks about his new book on the cruel journey India’s migrants had to make last year in utter distress: 1232 km: The Long Journey Home.


Watch Out

‘DRS with Ashwin’ features the wonderful cricketer host with grandmaster Vishwanathan Anand, who broke into world chess when it was dominated by the Russians, and set out alone “without expectations” on a road less travelled by Asian.


Over and Out

Manjari Makijany hopes that her debut feature Skater Girl will start a conversation about skateboarding groups in India. The skating park that was built as a set for the movie was donated to locals in Khempur-Mavli district near Udaipur, after production was completed.

Girish Karnad’s memoirs are out in English. Prof Rajendra Chenni spoke of the significance of his life, shortly after he had died: “His personal experiences were of a generation coming of age in post-Independence India, lost between two worlds, confused by an ambiguous modernity, rebelling against the puritanical hypocrisy of the middle class and awakened to the anxieties and enchantment of sexuality.”

Tiger poacher Habib Talukder ― known as Tiger Habib ― was finally caught by the Bangladesh authorities following a tip off, after three previous arrest warrants issued against him brought up nothing. He operated in the Sundarbans mangrove forest on the border between India and Bangladesh, and is alleged to have killed 70 Royal Bengal tigers.

When the farm protests began last year, it was scorned as a rich farmers’ movement because pizza was being made in the langars ― until the protesters pointed out that every ingredient of a pizza is created by farmers. Now, there’s this cake for three triplets born on the same day in Yamunanagar. If the movement is inspiring even bakers, it’s in no danger of losing steam. 

Note: In an earlier version of this edition, it was wrongly stated that the show cause notice issued to the former chief secretary of West Bengal was over his failure to report for duty to Delhi on May 31. It is, in fact, for his decision to skip the review meeting PM Modi held in Kalaikunda, West Bengal on May 28. The show cause notice is appended below:


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.