The India Cable: No National NRC Considered, 'Until Now'; Crisis At Ashoka University Intensifies

Plus: ‘Cooperative federalism’ squeezing states, India child mortality rate grew, Aadhar squeezed out 3 crore ration card holders, and while trains are running on time, one rebelliously rolled back

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 18, 2021

Following the exit of public intellectual Pratap Bhanu Mehta, former chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian has also resigned from Ashoka University, decrying its inability to protect academic freedoms. He was founding director of the Ashoka Centre for Economic Policy. His resignation letter to the vice-chancellor reads: “That even Ashoka — with its private status and backing by private capital — can no longer provide a space for academic expression and freedom is ominously disturbing. Above all, that the University’s commitment to fight for and sustain the Ashoka vision is now open to question makes it difficult for me to continue being part of Ashoka.”

An older institution of learning, Banaras Hindu University made headlines yesterday when its students protested the offer of a visiting professorship to Nita Ambani, wife of Reliance head, Mukesh Ambani. Both BHU and Reliance quickly issued official denials – the former insisting that no offer was made, the latter that no offer was received or accepted. But email evidence has now emerged in the media of the unusual move made by Nidhi Sharma, coordinator for the women studies centre and Kaushal Kishor Mishra, dean of the Social Sciences department. 

The Income Tax department remains busy with members of Opposition parties. Yesterday evening, it conducted searches at the premises of Chandrasekar, Kamal Haasan’ party’s treasurer. His residence and the premises of his firm are being searched in Tirupur.

Unaware of the actual situation in his own state, where criminals are running riot, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath is busy improving the situation in West Bengal and Assam, Akhilesh Yadav has scoffed. Adityanath has addressed three rallies in West Bengal and was in Assam yesterday. Akhilesh had earlier visited Kolkata to show support to the Tinamool Congress, which had also advised Adityanath to look after women in UP before trying to protect West Bengal’s women. 

Breaking all records this year, Maharashtra on Wednesday reported the highest single-day spike of Covid-19 cases as it recorded 23,179 cases in the last 24 hours. Mumbai’s daily infection tally breached the 2,000-mark with 2,377 new infections yesterday. The Union Health Secretary was concerned by the rate of growth.

Left with only one woman judge, the Supreme Court is in a hurry to appoint more. But the five-member collegium headed by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde failed to reach a consensus on recommending Justice BV Nagarathna, a judge of the Karnataka High Court, which would lead to the supersession of many HC chief justices far more senior than her. CJI Bobde and another judge had proposed Justice Nagarathna’s name for consideration by the collegium, which also includes Justices NV Ramana, RF Nariman, UU Lalit and AM Khanwilkar, with the hope that if she were appointed, then she would go on to become the first woman CJI after the retirement of Justice Surya Kant as CJI in February 2027.

The trains are running on time ― all the signs are visible. But one train rolled backwards for 35 km in Uttarakhand. After the train was stopped at Khatima, the passengers were sent to Tanakpur by bus.


No national NRC considered “till now”

The Centre informed the Rajya Sabha that “till now”, the government had not taken any decision to prepare the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRC) at the national level. Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai was answering a question by Abdul Wahab, an IUML MP. The minister had said the same thing in reply to a question from the Communist Party of India’s Binoy Viswam on March 4, 2020 and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s Tiruchi Siva on March 18, 2020. But in the same month last year, the Ministry of Home Affairs had filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court stating that the NRC was a “necessary exercise for any sovereign country for mere identification of citizens from non-citizens”.

In December 2019-March 2020, at least 69 were killed in various incidents in the wake of protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), the National Population Register (NPR) and the NRC, which exploded after Union Home Minister Anit Shah’s comments on the “chronology” of the NRC following the CAA, went viral.


A plot of land for Pratap’s head

The Edict, the student newspaper of Ashoka University, reports “that the resignation of Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta ... according to a senior faculty member with whom our source spoke, was motivated by an understanding that if Prof. Mehta resigned, the University’s efforts to acquire a new plot of land to expand the campus would get much smoother. Ashoka’s campus is in Haryana and it Mehta may have ruffled official feathers in the state by a sharply critical column last week on the Manohar Lal Khattar government’s “constitutionally indefensible, politically cynical”  move to introduce domicile based preferential policies.

“Additionally, formal recognition for the fourth year postgraduate diploma, Ashoka Scholars’ Program, was also hinted at as being part of the deal,” The Edict claimed.

In a “heartfelt” email to his students thanking them for “being an inspiration,” Prof. Mehta revealed that “after discussions with the university about prevailing circumstances, it became clear to me that it was best to move on.” The current Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Malabika Sarkar, has not yet publicly addressed allegations that Prof. Mehta had to resign due to pressure from the Trustees, who in turn faced pressure from the government. Sarkar, in her only public statement so far, has claimed that the decision to resign was “[Prof. Mehta’s] own.” 

Ashoka’s crisis got worse today with high profile resignations. Following the exit of Arvind Subramaniam, that of Madhav Khosla is reported. The faculty is expected to seek the reinstatement of Mehta, and a meeting with the founders. 


Vaccine wastage comes to light

The Ministry of Health has confirmed that on an average, 6.5% of vaccine doses are being wasted. Telangana leads the field with a wastage rate of 17.6%, and the Prime Minister is agitated. India has the third highest number of confirmed cases per million in the world, second to only the US and Brazil.

In parliament, Minister for External Affairs S Jaishankar spoke of the Vaccine Maitri initiative. Noting that India’s reputation as the ‘Pharmacy of the World’ has been reinforced by the supply of vaccines abroad, the minister assured the House that export volume is determined based on adequate availability at home, contradicting the affidavit the government had submitted a day earlier. 

Amid speculation about possible side effects of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine, the Indian government said that there was no cause for concern. While death due to the formation of blood clots has been observed after vaccination, the rate is no higher than the normal rate of death due to thrombosis in the population.  


UN: During pandemic, India child mortality rate highest in South Asia

The UN report ‘Direct and Indirect Effects of Covid-19 Pandemic and Response in South Asia’ examines the effect of government strategies on healthcare, social services including schools, and the economy in the region. The report found that women, children and adolescents were the worst hit. Child mortality rose the highest in India in 2020, up by 15.4%. The report estimates that there have been 228,000 additional deaths of children under five in these six countries due to crucial services, ranging from nutrition benefits to immunisation, being halted. 

Immunisation among children dropped 35% in India. Experts in India already fear that malnutrition rates will be significantly worse when the data comes in over the next few months.


No Aadhaar, 3 crore ration cards cancelled 

The Supreme Court has termed the government’s cancellation of around three crore ration cards for not being linked to Aadhaar cards as “too serious”, and sought a response from the Centre and states. A bench of Chief Justice SA Bobde and Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian said this matter should not be treated as adversarial, and would be put up for final hearing. 

On December 9, 2019, the apex court had sought responses from all states over allegations of starvation deaths of people deprived of ration supplies for not having valid Aadhaar cards. The Centre had earlier said that reports suggest that the deaths were not due to starvation. “No one was denied food because of lack of valid Aadhaar card,” it had said.


The Long Cable

‘Cooperative federalism’ squeezing the states

Seema Chishti

In its early years, the Modi government claimed ‘cooperative federalism’ was its governance mantra. Like all mantras of that time, this slogan has also all but vanished. As five important states go to the polls, PM Narendra Modi has been making the “double-engine” argument on the campaign trail, asking people to vote for only one party at the Centre and states, to enable ‘development’. The implication is that any state which is not governed by the party ruling the Centre would be hobbled. For federal cooperation to get underway, state finance decides the states’ freedom of action. The hobbling of states is being done by robbing them fiscally.

Consider retail fuel prices, which are a big issue in the forthcoming polls. Touching almost Rs 100 per litre, their graph since this government assumed power reveals that they are not determined by reason or market logic. The central government admitted in Parliament on Monday that since May 6, 2020, it has been earning Rs 33 per litre of petrol and Rs 32 on a litre of diesel as central excise duty, including basic excise duty, cess and surcharge. As the financial writer Vivek Kaul has elaborated, “The total taxes as a percentage of dealer price now works out to 167% of the dealer price. In March 2014, they were at 47.3%.”

As the increased revenue doesn’t go to the divisible pool, the bulk of the tax increases are cornered by the Centre, leaving states with no advantage. After 2014, the Modi government hit a bonanza when international oil prices crashed, but they kept retail pump prices the same by increasing central taxes. It even hiked prices and consistently denied states a proportionately larger share in revenue. After memes and criticism personally directed at Modi and his government circulated, there were reports of the Centre urging oil companies to ensure no price rise till the Assembly elections are over. If the cap on price hikes can be aligned with political optics, how economic can the reasoning possibly be? The Opposition is not wrong when it terms it a “politically fixed freeze”. If crude oil prices have been increasing every day and this determines the retail pump price every day, how have pump prices remained unchanged? The Centre’s silence on this question is telling.

On the larger question of monies available to states, the story is equally grim. The Fifteenth Finance Commission recommended 41% revenue sharing between states and the Centre, down from 42% ― the difference was stated to be required for the new Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh. Critically, the Finance Commission has shrunk the amount that is to be shared. As analysts have pointed out: “While the divisible pool looks the same as in the 14th FC in percentage terms, the actual amount of funds devolved will be much less because the Centre has reduced the divisible pie by building in cesses and surcharges into the levies, which are not shareable with the states, while reducing the shareable tax components. What is sharable is the net proceeds of only the taxes that the Centre levies and collects, such as income tax, corporation tax, central GST and excise duties.” Kerala Finance Minister Thomas Isaac contended that the total share due to states in real terms may shrink even below the 32% which was their share in the 13th Finance Commission.

The massive shortfall in GST in the pandemic year had left states in a tough situation as they continued to incur all the spending, yet had to wage a struggle to get their routine dues. It was only in October 2020, after holding out for months, that the Centre released Rs 1 trillion. With criteria for devolution to states involving state population, area, income distance from the average per capita income and forest cover, southern states felt particularly short-changed.

The ‘double engine’ argument is both misleading and wrong-headed in a federal democracy like India. Several democracy indices have concluded that there has been a steep slide in India’s status on several grounds. The part of an index which looks at the way the nation is fundamentally organised, as a union of states – a structure central to Indian democracy – may merit special attention.


Reportedly

Meghalaya Governor Satya Pal Malik, formerly governor of the state of J&K, once an MP from Aligarh and before that a Rajya Sabha MP, seems to be working on carving out his own role in the political ferment resulting from the farmers’ protest in his home state, Uttar Pradesh. Decidedly un-gubernatorial in this interaction, he constantly referred to “us” when talking about the BJP. The importance of what he had said, he asserted, when he spoke of the government’s lack of outreach, was to build trust and empathy with farmers. “Even when a kuttiya (bitch) dies, the government sends a condolence message,” he said. “Two hundred and fifty people died and we did not mourn.” Is he a peacemaker jumping in of his own volition and instinct? Or has he been assigned the role of interlocutor by the Centre, which is still unable to get the narrative on the three farm laws under control? Malik jaane.


Imran dangles Central Asia access

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan yesterday said that India would be benefited economically by having peace with his country, as it would enable New Delhi to directly access the resource-rich Central Asia region through Pakistani territory. Delivering the inaugural address at the launch of the two-day Islamabad Security Dialogue, Khan also said that his government, after coming to power in 2018, pursued better ties with India, and it was for the neighbour to reciprocate. “India will have to take the first step. Unless they do so, we cannot do much,” he said.

“The unresolved Kashmir issue is the biggest hurdle between the two countries,” said Khan. “If India gives the Kashmiris their rights under the UN (resolutions), it will be greatly beneficial for Pakistan as well as for India.” He added: “India can access Central Asia after peace.”   


New Mumbai police chief

Hemant Nagrale was appointed commissioner of the Mumbai Police yesterday, said Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh. His predecessor Parambir Singh has been put in charge of the Home Guards, a backwater posting. Singh had met Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray amid the investigation into the explosives-laden car found outside industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s residence last month.


Prime Number: 25,067

Prime Number: 25,967
Parliament was informed of the number of villages without mobile connectivity: 25,067 of the 5,97,618 inhabited villages in the country didn’t have services, as of 2020.

Deep Dive

Big tech’s caste problem

For all the IITs’ proficiency at training and placing students, the coders, programmers, product developers and engineers fanning out from its campuses to work in global tech carry with them the troubled legacy of India’s caste system. Here is a close look into how Big Tech imports Big Prejudice into America.


NBFC balance sheets unbalanced

The nightmare for India’s beleaguered non-banking finance companies (NBFCs) continues. After the economic slowdown and liquidity crunch, now the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is weighing heavily on the balance sheet of Indian NBFCs. A key indicator of this pressure is the rising number of accounts that have defaulted on the repayment of loans for more than 90 days. For most of these lenders, stress is a side-effect of the loan moratorium they offered to customers in the initial period of the lockdown. The growth of bad loans spells trouble not only for the $350 billion NBFC sector but also for the Indian economy as a whole. If NBFCs’ ability to lend is curtailed, consumption or demand could weaken further.


Absurd drama in riot charges

A Delhi court pulled up the Delhi Police for “apparent absurdity” in clubbing a man’s complaint about his house being burned down during the north-east Delhi riots last year, with another complaint, and later arresting him in the same matter — making him both the victim and the accused. It also said there was no record of investigations into the alleged burning and desecration of Madina Masjid during the riots in the Shiv Vihar area. Additional Sessions Judge Vinod Yadav directed the DCP (North-East) to file a report on the status of investigation by March 25.

The court’s observations came while hearing an appeal by the state against a magistrate court’s order on February 1 for registration of an FIR on a complaint by Haji Hashim Ali regarding alleged desecration of the mosque. Ali had also complained about the burning of his house allegedly by the rioters, which was clubbed by the police with the complaint of one Naresh Chand. The police had registered a common FIR and later arrested Ali in the case. Ali is out on bail.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Sudheendra Kulkarni writes that defending India’s ‘democratic descent’ may be embarrassing for the MEA.

  • If the government has its way, India will soon be a de facto US ally without any clarity on how this would enhance the country’s defence against the combined China-Pakistan threat. No clarity, either, on how it would help establish geopolitical equilibrium with China, says Pravin Sawhney.


Listen Up

Remembering MS

Author and former administrator Keshav Desiraju and music enthusiast Vishnu Vasudev discuss his latest book, Of Gifted Voice, on MS Subbulakshmi’s life and times, the great musical tradition she belonged to and to which she brought so much, against the larger backdrop of developments in the world of Carnatic music.


Watch Out

A rare chat about cricket

Watch Mithali Raj, the first Indian woman cricketer to reach 7,000 runs in one-day internationals, talk to Ravichandran Ashwin. It is rare to see men and women’s cricket have a conversation at this level.


Over and Out

Magufuli dead, Ankhi Das angel

Ankhi Das, the former Facebook executive for ‘public policy’ in India accused of protecting ruling party politicians from the company’s hate speech rules to protect its business interests, is now an angel investor, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Africa’s most colourful Covid-19 denier, Tanzanian president John Magufuli, has died of Covid-19. A vaccine sceptic, he had said that Tanzania eradicated Covid-19 with three days of national prayers. He had not been seen in public since February, and Opposition leader Tundu Lissu had alleged that he had contracted Covid-19 and was being treated in Kenya, which apparently declined to have him die on their soil and passed on the burden to India. News reports now say he passed away in a hospital in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

And in case you’ve been following the ‘Zomato case’, this cartoonist has the final word:


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.