The India Cable: Over 2,000 corpses in UP Ganga; Modi’s Vaccine Maths Doesn’t Add Up

Plus: Assam for new NRC, BJP makes dodgy toolkit, Atmanirbhar ventilator that couldn’t, Covid treatment for Bastar Maoists who surrender, and single-screen cinemas won’t recover from pandemic

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 14, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Dainik Bhaskar has carried a ground report from 27 districts in UP, from the border of Uttarakhand to that of Bihar. In 1,140 km of riverbank, it found over 2,000 corpses washed up. The Yogi Adityanath government’s response is to intensify boat patrols and threaten legal action.  And in Gujarat, Divya Bhaskar has compared official death data for all causes in March, April and May for 2020 and 2021. A total of 58,068 persons died in Gujarat in those three months last year. In 2021, the figure for these three months (up till May 10) is 123,873, an increase of more than 100%, yet only 4,218 deaths in this period have officially been attributed to Covid.

Positivity is Prime Minister Modi’s mantra, and his Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has supported it by tweeting that IIT Ropar “has developed a prototype of a moveable electric cremation system which claims to be using first of its kind technology that involves smokeless cremation despite using wood.” Presumably the data generated will also leave no traces.

Whatever its impact in India, none of this positivity is fooling the world. “Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, who has promoted herbal Covid ‘cures’, became the Marie Antoinette of India last week when he advised people to eat extra-dark chocolate with ‘more than 70% cocoa’ to beat Covid-related stress”, writes the Economist, adding, “Perhaps he should read a recent World Bank report, which shows that 86% of Indian families cannot afford a basic balanced diet, let alone fancy chocolate”. TIME magazine has a detailed report on how India’s Covid-19 disaster may be turning into a global crisis as it spills across borders. Bloomberg has taken apart the UP government’s epic mismanagement of the pandemic and reflected on its broader implications. The New Yorker has a detailed account on the Indian crisis marking a new phase in the global battle against the pandemic. BBC has more on how India’s vaccine drive went horribly wrong.

UK PM Boris Johnson has said he is “anxious” about the virus variant first seen in India and is “ruling nothing out” to tackle it. Asked if surge vaccinations could be introduced, a No 10 spokesman said ministers “want to consider all options”. No wonder PM Modi is not visiting the UK in June.

Former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon has sharp things to say on present foreign policy, especially the goals of being a “Vishwaguru” and a “superpower”. “Our priority is to make India modern, prosperous, secure. Foreign policy is supposed to create that enabling environment, not to get others to recognise us as a great power. It suggests an inferiority complex.” 

It is likely that the use of cow dung as a “Covid cure” could be causing deadly black fungus disease (mucormycosis) in India says a US doctor. Other triggers: diabetes and high steroid use. 

The Punjab government has decided to join the COVAX alliance for global sourcing and procurement of Covid vaccines at the best price, becoming the first state to do so. The suggestion to join the global initiative for equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines was given to the Cabinet by Dr Gagandeep Kang, who heads the Punjab Expert Group on Vaccination. 

Chief Justice of India NV Ramana said yesterday that he was actively considering a proposal to live-stream proceedings of the Supreme Court, but he added he would do this only after seeking consensus among his colleagues. 

The Financial Times’ India correspondent has given it back to the bhakts. But senior BJP leader and former Uttarakhand CM Trivendra Singh Rawat left everyone speechless: “If we speak philosophically, then the Covid-19 virus is also a living organism that wants to live and has the right to live like humans. However, we consider ourselves smarter than any other living organism. We are now looking [for it] and to escape the virus is constantly changing shape.” Rawat is an old hand at this game. Years ago, he had said that the cow is the only animal which both inhales and exhales oxygen. 

And Union Minister DV Sadanand Gowda was cornered by the Kannada press, which wanted to know if vaccines for all were announced just to grab headlines. The answer is extraordinary. 

Indu Jain, ‘chair prasanna’ of the Times of India group, has died of Covid complications. She was 84. Also Jarnail Singh, journalist turned Aam Aadmi Party MLA. Singh once hurdled a shoe in anger at the then home minister P. Chidambaram over the allotment of an election ticket to a leader accused of involvement in the 1984 massacre of Sikhs.


Silence on official US State Department report

The Modi government is reacting with silence to an official report by the Biden administration, which alleges discrimination against minorities in India and referred particularly to the campaign blaming the Tablighi Jamaat for the Covid-19 outbreak. The campaign was officially inspired though the report doesn’t say so. The US State Department’s ‘2020 Report on International Religious Freedom’ was published on Wednesday and released by Anthony Blinken, US Secretary of State. The report also referred to the Delhi riots in February 2020, after the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act introduced by the Modi government in December 2019. It also took note of reports of religiously motivated killings, assaults, riots, discrimination, vandalism, and actions restricting the right of individuals to practice and speak about their religious beliefs in India.

The government has also refrained from reacting to the latest report by the US Commission for International Religious Freedom, which reiterated its 2020 recommendation and asked the Biden administration to designate India as a ‘Country of Particular Concern’ in view of the “drastic downward turn” in religious freedom. The Modi government, which has spoken up against earlier US characterisations of religious freedom in India, has yet to respond to the latest iteration.


BJP propagates new Covid-19 toolkit

The BJP has a new toolkit out on its abysmal pandemic mismanagement. But as always, it is based on untruths. For example, journalist Suhasini Haidar presented documentary evidence to show that while the government now insists ‘Vaccine Maitri’ exports could not be helped, and were part of commercial and aid obligations, actually, the Ministry of External Affairs had said that exports would follow after domestic needs were fulfilled. For a full list, see this and this.

The Health Minister and his colleagues are a bit OTT in a bid to ascribe “motives” and somehow defend the indefensible. After swallowing the snarks that followed his “dark chocolate” advice, Harsh Vardhan said last night that the demand for more vaccines from states “arouses narrow political passion” among the masses that “harms whole-of-government approach” to tackle the pandemic. 


Vaccines maths doesn’t add up

In yesterday’s briefing, Niti Aayog member Dr VK Paul projected that 216 crore doses of various vaccines could be available in India between August and December. Among the vaccines in the list are the candidates of Biological E, Zydus Cadila, Gennova and Bharat Biotech’s nasal vaccine, which are in clinical trials. He said that so far, 35.6 crore shots have been either procured or are being procured in three phases by the Centre. In the third phase, 16 crore (11 crore Covishield and 5 crore Covaxin) doses are being procured, but their supply will only begin from May 21 and continue through July. Paul also said that Bharat Biotech has welcomed the offer of other companies manufacturing Covaxin to increase its production in the country. Dr Reddy’s gave the first Russian Sputnik V jab today in Hyderabad.

The economist R Ramakumar made a factual rebuttal of each of these claims, and explained why it is more spin and PR than transparency.


No vaccine, only harangue to get vaccinated, says HC

The dialer tune message of the Modi government asking people to get vaccinated was criticised by the Delhi High Court which said the “irritating” message was being played for “we don’t know how long” asking people to get the jab when there was not enough vaccine available. “You have been playing that one irritating message on the phone whenever one makes a call, for we do not know how long, that you (people) should have the vaccination, when you (Centre) don’t have enough vaccines,” the bench said.

The Supreme Court in an important order yesterday, directed the Central and the governments of Delhi, UP and Haryana to provide dry rations, cooked food and transport facilities to migrant workers in the National Capital Region, without seeking ID.


The Long Cable

While patients choked, PM Cares funded dud ‘atmanirbhar ventilator’ with taxpayer’s money

MK Venu

The devastating second wave of Covid-19 has shown that the Modi government has become a victim of its own hyperbole and managed headlines. Last week, the Times of India carried a story tucked away in the inside pages ― though it should have been prominently displayed on the front page ― about 40,000 ventilators financed by the PMCares Fund last year, which were lying unused in a godown because of pure negligence, or lack of coordination between government departments. The news came in the midst of a huge shortage of medical supplies, including ventilators, plane-loads of which were being brought as foreign aid from 40 countries.

Amid an acute shortage of everything that could help Indians breathe better, the industry body FICCI wrote to the government on April 19 reminding it of the 40,000 ventilators lying unused in government godowns. The newspaper quoted FICCI’s letter alerting the Centre about ventilator stocks in the midst of growing scarcity. 

The story triggered the usual response from the government ― that of managing headlines. FICCI was forced to issue a clarification, to the effect that while it did remind the government of 40,000 ventilators lying unused, the industry body never suggested it was due to negligence or lack of coordination, as the media had interpreted. It was a routine reminder to the government, FICCI seemed to imply. 

Imagine, a routine reminder to use 40,000 breathing machines in the midst of people gasping for breath! Clearly, managing the leader’s image is more important than asking the government hard questions about why 40,000 ventilators were lying idle at a time when plane-loads of ventilators were arriving as foreign aid. 

FICCI also clarified that the ventilators were lying idle because of a shortage of healthcare professionals trained to use them, and a lack of oxygen supply and other consumables needed to operationalise the machines. 

Meanwhile, a news report on NDTV India by Ravish Kumar clearly brought out the reason why ventilators sponsored by PM Cares Fund were not working. NDTV India spoke to many hospitals in Madhya Pradesh and the doctors said the ventilators supplied by PM Cares Fund needed trained operators and components which were not available. Similar citizens’ feedback has been coming from other states like Karnataka and Maharashtra. 

The problem is there is no way to seek accountability from the PM Cares Trust, whose status remains ambiguous ― it claims not to be a public authority, though a large portion of its funds has come from the corporate social responsibility budgets of public sector companies, which is essentially the taxpayer’s money. Its trustees are ministers in the central government who don’t feel obliged to tell people why the ventilators funded by PM Cares are unusable in this crisis. 

The hyperbole about ventilators is the story of India’s atmanirbharata in microcosm. Amitabh Kant, CEO of Niti Aayog, tweeted on June 20 last year that India had begun producing 1,000 ventilators a day and would soon become a big exporter of ventilators. However, this year, India is having to not only import ventilators, but also seek their supply in the form of foreign aid. 

One assumes that the PM Cares Fund was also supposed to have played a role last year in making India a “net exporter of ventilators” by encouraging and funding several new manufacturers. But one question still remains unanswered. How could the government have promoted exports when there are so many problems related to the domestic use of the product? 

According to industry data published by Financial Express, India had eight ventilator manufacturers with an annual capacity to supply 3,360 ventilators before the pandemic. During the Covid crisis, nine more players entered the field and raised India’s manufacturing capacity to 396,260 annually. There is a need to audit what is happening to this huge capacity, and why we are depending on foreign aid to get breathing machines. How long will Indians remain buried under hyperbole and headlines? 


Reportedly

Amid reports that 10 Maoists have died of Covid-19 in the forests of Bastar in neighbouring Chhattisgarh, Odisha’s Malkangiri SP Rishikesh D Khilari has offered free treatment to rebels who choose to surrender. Malkangiri’s Swabhiman Anchal and Tulsi mountain areas are near the Chhattisgarh border. Stating that Covid-19 could be spread by infected cadres, since Maoists come in contact with villagers and hold meetings in bordering areas, the SP said the rebels are putting lives of villagers at risk by not seeking timely treatment. The incentive he offers for surrender is most innovative.


Assam for new NRC

The new BJP government in Assam led by ex-Congressman Himanta Biswa Sarma has made its first political move, in attempting to reopen Assam’s contentious National Register of Citizens (NRC), with a plea in the Supreme Court for “reverification”. The draft citizens’ list of August 2019 had excluded 19 lakh people. Most of them did not provide adequate documents to establish citizenship, officials had said. 

The BJP has been whipping up suspicion about the NRC, which the apex court had sealed in a long drawn out and contentious process. The BJP government in Assam had confirmed fears that the executive wishes to cherry-pick its list of citizens, a process fraught with deep and dark implications for the state and the rest of India.


Prime Numbers: 3, 34 and 5
Three High Court judges and 34 judicial officers have lost their lives to the pandemic so far. Five more Supreme Court advocates on record passed away from Covid-19 yesterday. Last month, three advocates on record had succumbed. The virus had also claimed former attorney general and solicitor general Soli Sorabjee, and senior advocates V Shekhar and Anip Sachthey.

Deep Dive

As the government breaks new ground in Delhi to secretly rebuild the Central Vista, by designating it an ‘essential service’ in a global pandemic and then banning its photography, here is an account by Alpana Kishore of how this project reached this stage, acquiring all approvals and documentation by subverting urban law with impunity. 


The late show: Single screen cinemas’ demise hastened

Nearly 20% of the country’s movie screens, especially properties of independent owners in north India, will not return to business post-Covid. Out of 9,527 screens in India, 6,327 are single-screen cinemas, and the remaining are in multiplexes, a 2020 report by FICCI and EY said. The single screen industry was already struggling due to weak footfalls and access to very few commercially entertaining films. Now, zero income and recurring costs like staff salaries during the pandemic have proven to be a financial disaster. 


Lightning strikes down elephants

In a tragic and very rare incident, at least 22 wild elephants are suspected to have died “due to lightning” at Tapatjuri Hill at Barhampur, Nagaon district, Assam. The carcasses of four elephants were found in the foothills, while the rest were spotted atop the hills yesterday.


IIT and the Cold War

In his latest research paper titled ‘Engineering Education in Cold War Diplomacy: India, Germany and the Establishment of IIT Madras’, German Roland Wittje, Associate Professor of  History of Science and Technology, IIT Madras, has examined the sociopolitical background and the motivation behind the founding of the institution. Just before West Germany made an offer for IIT-M, IIT Bombay was established in 1958 with Soviet support. “With [Jawaharlal] Nehru spearheading the Non-Alignment Movement during the Cold War, what West Germany wanted was that India shouldn’t acknowledge East Germany as a sovereign nation,” Wittje told The Hindu, “During the early phase, Germany got what it wanted from India, in terms of the larger picture of development. In fact, IIT-M is its largest project in higher education worldwide.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Jug Suraiya wrote a humorous column about a conversation between the Supreme Leader and his Supreme Sidekick, which the Times of India baulked from running in its print edition.

  • Shahid Jameel in the New York Times laments another casualty of the pandemic in India ― decision-making based on data. As the pandemic in India spun out of control, so did responses. 

  • In the Wall Street Journal, Sadanand Dhume writes that Modi has presided over a shambolic response to the pandemic. When things seemed to be going well, he was eager to claim credit. Now, it’s time for him to accept the blame.

  • Gautam Menon in The India Forum writes that there was no Indian exceptionalism behind the small number of deaths during the first wave. A failure to understand the subtleties underlying the low case fatality ratio induced complacency, for which Indian are paying with their lives.

  • In Al Jazeera, Sukhada Tatke writes on the travails of being an Indian abroad: “My mind is a graveyard of the living… I’m seeing the world around me return to normalcy slowly but steadily, while my own country is burning down.”

  • Nilanjan Mukhopadhyaya on why Prashant Kishor may be right in saying Amit Shah’s skills as a poll strategist are highly exaggerated.

  • On the Centre’s bizarre and dangerous new vaccine policy, Azman Usmani argues that the central government claimed to have lifted its singular control on the supply of Covid-19 vaccines under its ‘liberalised’ policy, but it continues to dictate how many doses states can procure from manufacturers.

  • The government was effectively forewarned to expect a possible exponential rise in cases during the second wave of the pandemic but did virtually nothing, writes Karan Thapar. Just as the government owes us an explanation for its irresponsibility, doesn’t the media owe us an explanation for keeping you in the dark about this, he asks.

  • Ajaz Ashraf et al look at the results of the West Bengal polls from the perspective of the people, not just personalities and the narrative of ‘Modi versus Mamata’.


Listen Up

Hear Deep State Radio on the Covid-19 crisis in India with independent journalist Rana Ayyub, Edward Luce of the Financial Times and practicing physician and former Obama health advisor Dr Kavita Patel.


Watch Out

The Covid-19 disruption should be seen as a structural rather than a cyclical shock to the Indian economy. Complacency would only worsen the economic challenge, argues Himanshu, associate professor of economics at JNU


Over and Out

The journey of Indian comics finds itself at an interesting place with the launch of Comixense, the brand-new quarterly magazine produced by Orijit Sen, Francesca Cotta and Aniruddha Sen Gupta for the Ektara Trust. It has been decades since India had any illustrated periodical of such calibre and ambition, ever since the demise of the pioneering Target, which introduced an entire generation of 1980s kids to quality graphic storytelling. 

Rumour has it that Dev Patel is in talks to portray Mr Darcy in a modern day retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice alongside Amita Suman as Elizabeth Bennet. Suman has already sighed at the prospect, wishing it were true. In all probability, this is just wishful thinking, but many people are terrified already of a balle balle version.

Nothing Eid-like this year about Eid, except perhaps the Salman Khan release which kept its date with the moon. Here’s the title track, Zoom Zoom. from his latest film, Radhe.

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.