The India Cable: PM Waxes Virtually Liberal at G7; AP Excess Mortality 34 Times Covid Toll

Plus: US ticks off Modi on J&K, Chamoli disaster was like 15 nuclear bombs, rigid I&B ministry reunites divided media industry, China reasserts Ladakh claims, world’s biggest family loses patriarch

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 14, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

The image of India and Modi have fallen precipitously in the eyes of the world, and at the G7 outreach sessions, the Modi system was hard at work to show that he is still with it ― virtually, at least. The PM, according to his own press release, recalled that “democracy and freedom were a part of India’s civilizations ethos”. There were some mystifying comments about the PM feeling that there was fellowship with G7 on the planks of opposing terror and authoritarianism. Also, “he called for the reform of the multilateral system as the best signal of commitment to the cause of open societies.” It’s a bit thick, really. 

The Telegraph UK reports that India’s vaccination campaign “is digital-only and to get a vaccine, citizens have to register on the government’s online portal CoWin and then receive a code via mobile phone. This is impossible for many ― some 1.04 billion out of 1.38 billion Indians do not have access to smartphones and around 685 million have no access to the internet. This is more stark in the villages, where the majority are on the other side of India’s digital divide. The vast hinterlands of the country have been pushed out of the vaccination line — leaving them vulnerable, yet again, to future waves of the disease.” 

Andhra Pradesh officially reported over 130,000 deaths in May 2021, or nearly five times the usual number for the month. Excess mortality reported by the state from January to May 2021 was 34 times the official Covid-19 toll for the same time. A similar analysis of Madhya Pradesh revealed that the excess mortality rate was 42 times the official Covid-19 toll. The Indian Council of Medical Research has asked district administrations to audit every death to identify gaps in surveillance, testing and diagnosis, and upload the data to a dashboard to watch out for future hotspots. The Modi government got exercised overThe Economistcarrying news on underestimations of the Covid death rate by a magnitude of “five to six times”, and ended up attracting more public attention to its lack of numeracy and its eagerness to cover up. 

Dr Anthony Fauci, the US President’s medical adviser, has said, “The ideal interval between doses for mRNA vaccines is three weeks for Pfizer and four for Moderna. The problem with extending intervals is that you become vulnerable to variants.” India’s Dr K Srinath Reddy says that scientific research has considerably strengthened the case for reducing the interval between two doses of Covishield, and the government must fix it “in days”, not weeks or months. Mind the gap, please.

Bikaner, Rajasthan, will soon become the first city in the country to start a door-to-door vaccination drive. Earlier, the central government had vigorously opposed such a policy to extend vaccination to people who cannot step out, for “good, germane and rational reasons”, in the face of reasonably argued public interest litigations.

Long range drone deliveries will be test-flighted this month in Rajasthan, where a consortium led by global drone major ANRA Technologies will deliver Swiggy orders in the town of Jawra. In Punjab, medicines will be delivered in collaboration with IIT Ropar. Projects in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka will follow. Currently, India permits drones to be operated only within the line of sight, but now they can range over 20 km. Long range drone deliveries were mooted in 2019.  

With petrol and diesel prices climbing to record highs due to heavy taxes levied by the Modi government, Oil Minister Dharmendra Pradhan asked Congress governments in Rajasthan and Maharashtra to cut sales tax if there were concerns about the burden on the common man, but did not say if BJP-ruled states like Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, where petrol has crossed Rs 100 mark, would do the same.

Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Minister PK Sekar Babu has said that women who wish to become temple priests will be trained and appointed in temples managed by his department. He also said archana at the temples (invoking the gods) would be performed in Tamil, and is already being done in 47 temples.

A Hindu woman went to a mosque, a nun to a gurdwara and a Muslim woman to a church ― and this is not a bar joke. While the politics of hate seeks to divide people, in places of worship in Kolkata, a drive to save lives is breaching the barriers of faith. The free oxygen service, which began over a month ago at the Behala Gurdwara, reached the Sola Ana Masjid in Ekbalpore and Sacred Heart Church in Esplanade over a fortnight ago.

Nirmal Milkha Singh has died of post-Covid illness. She has been captain of India’s volleyball team, and was married to athlete Milkha Singh ― who also contracted Covid-19.

The BJP’s farmer crisis manifests itself in a new avatar: a group of farmers in Haryana, including women, removed the foundation stone of the BJP district office laid by state party president Om Prakash Dhankar on the Rewari road yesterday morning. In Ilambazar, West Bengal, Trinamool Congress workers who had switched sides to the BJP before the state elections went on dharna at the TMC office, holding placards apologising for having been “deluded” and asking to be let back in. Similar representations have been reported from other places in Birbhum and Hooghly districts. The threat of violence may help explain this change of heart, or the desire for loaves and fishes.

In Mumbai, the monsoon is doing its thing. Its most impressive exploit this year is the disintegration of a concrete floor, and the disappearance of a car into the sinkhole beneath it, in seconds. As dramatic as the fall in India’s GDP growth rate


US has urged Modi govt to bring normalcy to Kashmir

“India remains the world’s largest democracy with a strong rule of law and independent judiciary and enjoys a strong and growing strategic partnership with the United States. However, some of the Indian government’s actions have raised concerns that are inconsistent with India’s democratic values,” said acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Dean Thompson, during a Congressional hearing on Democracy in the Indo-Pacific (watch the full hearing here) on Wednesday. They include increasing restrictions on freedom of expression and the detention of human rights activists and journalists, he said. 

In response to a question by Congresswoman Chrissy Houlahan (at 1:34:02 in the video), Thompson said, “Kashmir is one area where we have urged them to return to normalcy as quickly as possible. We’ve seen some steps taken: the release of prisoners, the restoration of 4G access, things of that nature. There are other electoral steps we’d like to see them take and that we have encouraged them to do and will continue to do so.”


Land scam alleged in Ayodhya

The temple-mosque case in Ayodhya may have been resolved by the Supreme Court in favour of those who demolished the Babri Masjid in 1992 but a fresh dispute has now arisen in the historic town. The sale of another plot of land which the Ram Temple Trust bought in March 2021 has led to questions about the conduct of the head of the Trust, Champat Rai. He has paid Rs 18.5 crore for land sold by the original owner for Rs 2 crore barely minutes earlier. Since the money used comprises public donations, the opposition Samajwadi Party has called for a CBI inquiry. The sale deed papers are doing the rounds. Rai was initially dismissive about the allegation – he said the Sangh is used to being accused of everything, even “for Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination”. But he then issued a statement pleading that the price of land in Ayodhya has risen sharply ever since his trust took charge of the Babri site and that the plot in question was bought from dealers who had a pre-existing contract to buy the land from the original owners for a much lower price. That contract, of course, has yet to be made public.


China reasserts claims in Ladakh, PLA sends Pangong flag across China

As the first anniversary of the deadly clash in Galwan approaches, Beijing has reasserted its claims to the area, with Qi Fabao, a Chinese regimental commander who sustained head wounds in the attack, saying he is willing to give his life for the country’s sovereignty. Qi was given a hero award in February along with battalion commander Chen Hongjun, who was honoured posthumously. Four Chinese soldiers and 20 Indian soldiers were killed in the clash.

The PLA has begun a domestic campaign ahead of the Communist Party’s July 1 centenary to highlight last year’s actions of its border defence troops along the LAC, specifically in Pangong Lake, as part of a broader push to underline the military’s firm support to President Xi Jinping. Two groups of eight “youth role models”, military and students, are visiting colleges and universities across China. Soldiers are touring the country and presenting China’s national flag “once raised on Pangong Lake”, a key site of tensions in 2020, at military units and educational institutions.


Massive corporate loan write-offs

Indian banks have written off loans worth Rs 1.53 lakh crore in 2020-21 to show reduced non-performing assets (NPAs) on their books. This is the second-biggest writeoff in a financial year after 2018-19’s record Rs 2.54 lakh crore. It was Rs 1.45 lakh crore in 2019-20 and Rs 1.44 lakh crore in 2017-18 ― mostly, corporate loans. 

There’s also a steep fall in recoveries. Bank of India saw a 37% fall in recoveries in 2020-21. After Rs 89,000 crore is transferred from 22 stressed accounts to the proposed National Asset Reconstruction Company Ltd, NPA figures will fall by the end of FY21, but the banking system stress would remain stressed.


The Long Cable

With media rules, Modi continues losing streak of laws that stakeholders reject

MK Venu

Prominent newspapers with a large online presence are actively considering going to court against the new media rules, which have already been challenged by many online digital news publishers and social media platforms like The Wire, Quint, LiveLaw, WhatsApp and Google. In the end, the IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021are likely to be challenged by most media companies ― whether intermediaries, OTT platforms or online multimedia news outfits. This clearly begs the question: what use is a law which is not acceptable to the majority of industry stakeholders? Why is the government forcing a new law down the throat of the media without Parliament’s endorsement?

The traditional media, comprising big players like Hindustan Times, Times of India, Malayala Manorama, Dainik Bhaskar, Dainik Jagran, NDTV, and others, had collectively written to the I&B Ministry suggesting that they were already adequately regulated under existing statutes like the Press Council of India Act and the programming code of the Cable TV Network Act, besides the News Broadcasting Standard Authority (NBSA). Therefore, new rules were not needed for legacy media which has ventured into the online space, they argued.

The government last week rejected their contention that the Press Council of India Act covers their online news content. The government also maintained that NBSA has jurisdiction only over registered TV channels and does not cover videos put online by traditional media organisations. It has rejected the broader claim of the legacy media that their online news content is adequately regulated simply because it flows from a common newsroom set up by their newspapers and TV channels.

The government is insisting on creating online news platforms (text and video) as a category separate from the traditional newspaper or TV news channel. It is another matter that a well known policy paper circulated by Niti Aayog some time ago argues that the existing statutory and self-regulatory mechanisms covering traditional media can easily be extended to online news and videos.

The new rules, brought behind Parliament’s back, accord the executive huge powers to become the arbiter of free speech in the online news space. This strikes at the root of Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. All the challenges pending at various High Courts will be taken up by the Supreme Court at some stage, because the constitutional validity of the new media rules will have to be subjected to a proper judicial review. Once the traditional media organisations, who have the bulk of eyeballs in the online news space, move the courts, the judicial review would surely gain momentum. 

Traditional media owners had hoped they could resolve the issue through dialogue with the government, and did not want to adopt a confrontationist approach. Many of them were also arguing and hoping that the government would treat them differently from born digital news organisations, which are smaller, and which have been at the forefront of the fight against the new rules so far. But with the I&B Ministry rejecting their case last week, the traditional media owners have also been pushed to seek judicial review of the new rules. They miscalculated in thinking that the Modi government was open to dialogue and debate. 

If recent history is any guide, traditional media owners must know that the Modi regime is expert at bringing new laws without adequate consultation, often resulting in protests by key stakeholders, whether it’s the farm laws, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or GST. The Modi regime’s lawmaking is characterised by hubris and lack of democratic empathy. The new media law is of a piece with this unbending attitude. Worse, its forced implementation comes even as Modi assures the G7 of India’s “civilisational commitment to democracy, freedom of thought and liberty.” Such remarkable candour and transparency in doublespeak!


Reportedly

Last week, a media address by Ravi Shankar Prasad, who is in charge of heavyweight portfolios like law and justice, electronics, IT and Communications, was scheduled at the BJP headquarters. Given Prasad’s profile, a topic of national importance was expected. But Prasad limited himself to slamming the Delhi government’s proposal to home deliver rations to the poor ― and Delhi isn’t even a full-fledged state. In party circles, the choice of fielding a senior minister like Prasad was seen as a deliberate move by the regime to ensure that ministers or leaders don’t start thinking that they have become too big for their boots. At one point, Prasad was mocked as Resignation Prasad, for his penchant for asking for the resignation of Opposition leaders on the flimsiest of grounds. 


Prime Number: 22 lakh
The number of vaccine doses administered by private hospitals in May, out of a total of 1.29 crore collected by them while government vaccination centres were shut due to shortage of vaccines. Out of a total production of 7.5 crore vaccines, private hospitals were allocated 25%, or 1.85 crore, but there was no demand for them. On what basis is the Modi government continuing with its policy of allocating 25% of domestic production to private hospitals? And does India have 30 crore people who can afford to pay? Over to the Supreme Court.

Deep Dive

A new paper by Fenella Carpena and Francesca R Jensenius in the Journal of Politics figures the correlation between the age of marriage and political participation by women in India and finds that delayed age of marriage has women much more able, capable and confident about playing a role in public life.


Chamoli was like 15 atom bombs

An international group of over 50 researchers has published a detailed assessment of the disaster in Chamoli in Uttarakhand in February. It is based on multiple data sources, from satellite imagery to field observations. The disaster originated close to the top of the 6,063 metre high Ronti Peak in Chamoli district. A wedge of glacier-covered rock more than 500 metres wide and 180 metres thick just suddenly let go.

The team calculates that almost 27 million cubic metres of material was in free fall for a whole minute. The volume is about 10 times that of the Great Pyramid of Giza. When the mass hit the Ronti Gad valley floor, it released energy equivalent to 15 Hiroshima atomic bombs. By the time the debris flow ripped through the Rishiganga hydro-electric plant 15 km away, the frontal velocity was 25m/s, or 90 kmph.


World’s largest family bereaved 

Ziona Chana of Mizoram, who headed the world’s largest family with 39 wives and 94 children, passed away on Sunday. He was 76 and he breathed his last at the Trinity Hospital in Aizawl soon after being admitted there. He also had 14 daughters-in-law, 33 grandchildren, and a great-grandchild. All members of the family live in a 100-room, four-storey house in the hills. Ziona was featured in ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not’, among the top 11 strangest stories of 2011.


Non-violence wins

At the New York Indian Film Festival, Ramesh Sharma’sAhimsa: Gandhi ― The Power of the Powerless bagged the Best Documentary Film Award. Sharma termed it “the validation of Gandhi’s message of nonviolence and his relevance to our times.”


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss


Listen Up

Salil Tripathi, writer and chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, spoke with Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Julian Morrow about Parul Khakhar’s remarkable poem ‘Shav Vahini’, on the mishandling of the pandemic because of which corpses floated in the Ganga. It caused a storm in Gujarati literary circles, and a national political outcry.


Watch Out

‘Lessons of the Emergency for today’s India’ ― hear Christophe Jaffrelot’s talk for Manthan.


Over and Out

A road safety campaigner in the UK, Meera Naran, from Leicester, has dedicated her MBE to her eight-year-old son who was killed in a smart motorway crash. Dev Naran was killed in May 2018 when a lorry struck his grandfather’s car on the hard shoulder. Meera had called for improvements to the smart motorway system, playing a key role in the UK government's new 18-point safety plan.

Skateboarding became a thing in India in the 2000s. It was confined to cities but when a skatepark came up in the hinterland in Madhya Pradesh in 2015, it changed lives, especially that of Asha Gond, who is now a pro skateboarder.


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