The India Cable: Pvt Sector 'Can Vaccinate 500M in 2 Months'; Covaxin Tally in 17 States, UTs 'Under 100'

Plus: Puducherry govt falls, mask up or we’ll lock you down, Maharashtra & Odisha threaten, Patanjali’s 'anti-Covid' concoction relaunched to fresh ridicule, and the myth of a vegetarian India

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
February 22, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

The Bombay High Court has granted six months’ bail on medical grounds to ailing poet Varavara Rao – arrested in the Bhima-Koregaon case in August 2018 and jailed since then – or “it would have abdicated its duty in protecting his fundamental rights”. He will have to surrender his passport and stay within the jurisdiction of the special NIA court. The court’s advice against destroying evidence and influencing witnesses is redundant, given Rao’s condition. 

Political, religious and social gatherings will be prohibited in Maharashtra from today in view of rising Covid-19 cases, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has announced. Odisha does not rule out another lockdown ― a threat to encourage people to continue following pandemic norms. In Maharashtra, Thackeray has issued the same threat: mask up, or we’ll lock you down. The statistics show an uptick, even though no ‘second wave’ has been spoken of officially in India. India remains at number two in the world after the US, in terms of the count of total cases.

Azim Premji believes that if the government engages quickly with industry, it could be possible to vaccinate 500 million people in two months, at the affordable cost of Rs 400 per shot. The Southeast Asia office of the World Health Organisation has had to issue a clarification stating that it has not okayed “any traditional medicine” for treating Covid-19. The provocation was a rumour, amplified by Indian television channels, that Patanjali’s Coronil formulation had acquired WHO approval. That forced Patanjali managing director Acharya Balkrishna to issue a clarification “to avoid confusion”, though the company had re-launched the product, suspect claims intact, with two Union ministers in attendance

Baba Ramdev’s product has caused international consternation earlier, when the BBC found it being sold as a fake “immunity booster” in Asian shops in the UK. And pity the WHO, which is having to deny the most ridiculous claims in these strange times. Its director-general has even had to deny arming an insurgency in Ethiopia. 

Less than 100 doses of Covaxin – the homegrown Covid-19 vaccine – have been used in as many as 17 Indian states and UTs of which six provinces didn’t use a single dose of Covaxin, according to the official vaccine distribution data.

Kashmir journalist Sajad Gul has been booked for ‘rioting, trespassing, and assault’ after reporting a story on an alleged demolition drive in Bandipora district for The KashmirWalla. Gul said that despite repeated requests he has not been provided a copy of the FIR by the police. The Supreme Court has adjourned the contempt case against comedian Kunal Kamra for four weeks. The Punjab and Haryana High Court will hear matters concerning activists Nodeep Kaur and Shivkumar, behind bars for 44 and 40 days respectively, on Wednesday. It was to hear Kaur’s case today. In response to an RTI, the Supreme Court reveals that it has 58 habeas corpus petitions pending before it, the oldest dating to 2005. The writ of habeas corpus is the most important legal tool for protecting rights, and is expected to be attended with despatch. 

No comparative study has been conducted by the Airports Authority of India (AAI) to show that the PPP (Public Private Partnership) model would be more beneficial for the growth of the aviation industry in India, says a parliamentary panel. In its meeting on September 5, 2019, the AAI Board had approved the leasing of six more airports — Bhubaneswar, Varanasi, Amritsar, Raipur, Indore and Trichy — for undertaking operations, management and development through the PPP model. The panel also noted the huge amount (Rs 7,291 crore) to be spent by the government on the airports approved for privatisation.

Vivek Murthy and Neera Tanden, the two Indian-American nominees for cabinet-level positions in the Biden administration, both face headwinds in the confirmation process in a tightly divided Senate now steeped in partisan politics.

Indian cricket is making news globally, but for all the wrong reasons. Hannah Ellis-Petersen reports in The Guardian that “in recent weeks cricket’s position as one of the final bastions of a secular India has come under attack, as the anti-Muslim sentiment that has been on the rise in India under the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) reared its head in an ugly cricketing scandal.”

And widely-appreciated Modi mimic Shyam Rangeela wonders out loud about the limits of the bizarre, after a petrol pump where he made a YouTube video about petrol selling for Rs 100 had its supplies suspended and may lose its licence. The owner of the pump says its image has been ruined. Rangeela wonders if the makers of the jacket he performs in, or the smartphone he uses to film himself, or YouTube itself, will next complain about having their image ruined by his satirical videos.  

And UK Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden is expected to tell heritage bodies and museums not to focus selectively on controversial aspects of British colonial history. Such as Dalhousie’s Doctrine of Lapse, we presume, which brought on the rising of 1857, or the Opium Wars. Actually, the original headline of the article was even more telling:


The Long Cable

CEO Modi should use private enterprise to scale up vaccine programme

MK Venu

As a resurgence of Covid-19 threatens Maharashtra and India’s business capital, Mumbai, industry leaders have begun to make fervent pleas for the government to  involve the private sector to scale up vaccination on a war footing. Wipro Group founder Azim Premji told Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman yesterday at a post-budget event that the private sector can help execute 500 million vaccinations in just two months.

So far, the government has managed only about 10 million vaccinations in a month and a half this year. At this rate, says former CII chairman Naushad Forbes, “It may take 17 years to vaccinate the entire population.”

Healthcare industry CEOs are totally baffled as to why the Centre is not taking a quick call on scaling up vaccinations when manufacturers like the Serum Institute, which is making the AstraZeneca vaccine, Covishield, has stated that it has a stockpile of over 50 million doses for domestic use, after executing commercial exports to various countries. Bharat Biotech, which is making Covaxin, currently in open trial mode for the third phase, is seeking regulatory approval to sell in 40 countries. 

So the question every citizen may ask is, why are vaccines not being made available commercially in India for use by the aam aadmi, when Covishield is already being exported and its manufacturer is willing to release massive stockpiles in the domestic market? Healthcare CEOs are seeking an answer to this simple question.

The answer can only be given by India’s super CEO, Prime Minister Modi. The Centre has maintained a studied silence after allowing the Serum Institute, which was first off the blocks to mass produce a vaccine, to export commercially. Ironically, it has temporarily stopped Covishield production because offtake by the government for domestic use is too low. 

A few months ago the head of Serum Institute, Adar Poonawala, had told NDTV that he would have 100 million vaccine shots ready by January and thereafter, he could deliver a similar number every month. Poonawala even suggested that he could supply to the government at a low price of Rs 250 or less per shot, because a bulk government order could facilitate low price points. For normal commercial supply, he had said, a price point of Rs 500-600 and a distribution margin of Rs 100 or so could suffice. 

The Serum Institute head was clearly signalling to the Centre that he would supply to the government at a low price point, provided he got a bulk order. 

For some reason, Prime Minister Modi is postponing taking this call. Is he delaying because he wants Bharat Biotech and other players who are likely to come on stream with production at scale in the next 60 days? If so, it does make sense to drive prices down further for consumers. 

But time is of the essence. Can India afford to wait till more players come to the market? The logic of a bird in hand being worth two in the bush favours the Serum Institute, which already has production at scale going. Perhaps the Centre could impose a price ceiling for commercial sales, too. 

The imperative is a quick decision so that the vaccination programme can be scaled up to levels suggested by Azim Premji ― 500 million in two months ― to help restore confidence among the people at large so that they resume normal activity, like in the pre-Covid period. It would additionally help mitigate fears of a second wave of infection, which has gripped Maharashtra. 

For India’s economy, scaling up vaccinations is critical also because the worst-hit segments of the economy are employment-intensive, and need to be rescued urgently. The government hasn’t given any direct cash stimulus to employees in these segments, but surely it can help by scaling up vaccinations fast to revive business sentiments.


Across borders, neoliberalism hurts farmers

Citing damning examples of Reagan era policies that have led to irreparable damage to the prospects of farmers, 87 farmers’ unions in the US have extended solidarity to the ongoing protests by farmers in India. In a strong letter, the organisations draw a sharp connection between the effects on agriculture of “forces of neoliberalism” in India and the US. The letter begins by quoting Ghazipur protester Ringhu Yaspal: “Agriculture has turned into a slow poison. It’s better to die fighting here.” While announcing events to escalate the protest, a Bharatiya Kisan Union leader has urged protesters to gherao Delhi Police if they try to arrest them.

The American farmers’ unions called the ongoing agitation at Delhi’s borders “one of the world’s most vibrant protests in history.”


Fuel prices on fire

Skyrocketing fuel prices, among the highest in the world despite low international rates for crude, are attracting sharp comments and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman calls it a dharma sankat (moral dilemma). The bulk of the price consists of central taxes, so it is clear which side of the moral divide the government is on. The Congress president has shot off a letter to the PM, likening the Centre’s tax escalation to “extortion” and “profiteering”. Meanwhile, old tweets of BJP leaders, ministers and celebrities who had protested against rising fuel prices ― nothing like the present, though ― when the party was in the Opposition are being dredged up all over social media to embarrass them, because they are silent now. 

In West Bengal, where the BJP hopes to make significant gains in the forthcoming elections, street protests by the ruling Trinamool Congress against high fuel prices have begun. State Finance Minister Amit Mitra has announced that despite financial stresses brought on by the Amphan storm and the pandemic, and though the Centre owes Rs 77, 000 crore, the state government will cut fuel prices in the public interest by Rs 1 per litre at midnight.  

Here is a list of petrol and diesel prices across various states.


India-China commanders talk again

Senior Chinese and Indian military commanders engaged in the 10th round of talks to resolve the crisis on the Ladakh border. Focused on the unresolved ‘friction points’ of Depsang, Demchok and Gogra-Hot Spring, they lasted for 16 hours and resulted in an identical statement by the two governments. The Gogra-Hot Spring situation looks resolvable but the other two are trickier and likely to take more time.


Reportedly

Bollywood star couple Kareena Kapoor Khan and Saif Ali Khan became parents to their second child, a baby boy, on Sunday. Right wing handles, including those of news channels, swung into action to post rabidly communal comments on social media after the news became public, not sparing even a newborn their poisonous invective and hatred.


Congress government in Puducherry falls

In yet another setback to the Congress government in Puducherry, an MLA of its ally DMK resigned shortly after Parliamentary Secretary to the Chief Minister K Lakshminarayanan tendered his resignation, plunging the V Narayanasamy government into deep crisis. After failing the floor test today, Narayanasamy resigned, calling it the “murder of democracy” and alleging impropriety. The BJP and the AAP are heaping scorn on the Congress and Rahul Gandhi for failing to defend the government. Lakshminarayanan is likely to join the NR Congress of N Rangasamy, which has tied up with the BJP for the polls ahead.


Prime Number: Rs 4.02 lakh crore
The total cost overrun of central infrastructure projects on February 21, which is 18.14% of their original cost. Of 1,739 projects, 12 are ahead of schedule, 247 on schedule, 539 delayed, 448 projects reported cost overrun and 209 projects reported both time and cost overrun with respect to their original project implementation schedules.

Deep Dive

A detailed look in The New York Times at the evolution of Indian women, as portrayed in recent Hindi films like Tribhanga, Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitaare and others. Refreshingly, they depict women and mothers taking unconventional routes to “taking charge of their fate”. 


Academics chafe at government curbs

The government is considering making changes or clarifications to its recent order that required academic institutions to seek prior approval before organising international seminars or conferences online. The academic and scientific community had objected to the order, with two of the largest and oldest science academies writing to the government, saying that it would lead to “a complete halt on all topical scientific discussions”. The apprehension is very real, since government departments cannot be expected to respond to applications in anything like real time. And if they do, there is no guarantee that certain topics and international scholars are prohibited by them.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Because the Modi government craves the world’s attention but recoils from its scrutiny, and busily nourishes paranoia about foreign treachery to turn the political into the patriotic, Gideon Haigh writes in The Australian that the world of cricket cannot be immune to this poison.

  • On International Mother Language Day, the Bangladeshi poet Daud Haider wrote that indigenous languages ― some of them spoken by millions ― increasingly have a localised and restricted existence, overwhelmed by global markets, global economics and global corporates. 

  • Modi’s plan to make a new Singapore in Gujarat falls flat as it was never the right place to build a global mart. Bereft of any economic logic, the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT) may only appeal to the local wealthy shopping for tax-free dollar products, writes Andy Mukherjee.


Listen Up

At best, only three in 10 Indians are vegetarian ― more realistically, less than two in 10. Yet, India is compellingly portrayed as a land of vegetarians in popular culture. Balmurli Natarajan and Suraj Jacob discuss the politics of the myth of vegetarianism in India.


Watch Out

Renowned historian Irfan Habib talks to Faizan Mustafa about the Babri Masjid and claims that the Taj Mahal was a Shiva temple


The flashmob that stays on

This image of the farmers’ protests vividly conveys its magnitude, in a manner that words never could:


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.