The India Cable: Real GDP to Contract 7.7%, Swaminathan Says Farm Recommendation Not Followed

Plus: National nutrition system has collapsed, Babri acquittal appeal filed but not by CBI, NCW member blames rape victim, US scolds India on digital tax, Tumkur bride marries guest after groom flees

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
January 8, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

In 2020, we thought it couldn’t get worse, but this is turning out to be a buggy year. Just a week into 2021, as the transmission rate of Covid-19 is finally declining in most states, the bird flu is back in Alappuzha and Kottayam, and there are reports from six northern states.  The Centre has sent a team of scientists to Kerala, and almost 70,000 ducks and chickens have been culled in the state. Stocks of poultry companies like Venky’s will bear watching today. 

Facebook, which has performed spectacularly poorly in controlling hate speech on its platform worldwide, has locked Donald Trump’s account for at least two weeks, or “until the peaceful transition of power is complete.” The sudden act of contrition was urged by major investors in the company, who have finally held it responsible for the damage done to democracy by the reluctance of platforms to interfere with hate speech. It remains to be seen if the precedent set will influence the operations of Facebook and WhatApp, which it owns, far from home. 

India’s real GDP during 2020-21 is estimated to contract by 7.7%, the Modi government said as part of its first advance estimates of economic growth. If the final numbers for GDP are as predicted on Thursday, this will be the sharpest contraction since independence, according to Bloomberg. The economy had last witnessed a contraction in 1979-80, when the growth rate shrunk by 5.24%. Reuters is optimistic that the bad news would “prompt the finance minister to make a push for growth in the budget next month”. However, this government scorns reality as a doom scroll. For months, it has been talking up narrow-band signals, like the uptick in the auto industry, as evidence of a general economic recovery.   

Chandrakant S Pandav, who has devoted his professional life to advocacy for iodine use and the elimination of anaemia, has bluntly told The Hindu that he “is depressed and angry” at the “collapse” of the nutrition system. Despite the rise in malnutrition and undernutrition which must have resulted from the economic shutdown during the pandemic, three apex committees on nutrition which recommend policy direction and monitor implementation have not met at all during the pandemic, though they are required to do so every quarter.    

Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh on Thursday announced free sanitary pads for high school and college girls. The BJP seems to be dragging its heels over the issue of implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act ahead of the Assembly elections in West Bengal and Assam.

The brutal gangrape and murder of a 50-year-old woman in Uttar Pradesh’s Budaun district could have been avoided if the victim had not gone out in the evening or was accompanied by a child of her family, according to Chandramukhi Devi, a member of the National Commission for Women. What next, Madam Member, kill all women at birth to preempt unpleasantness later in life? After an uproar, Devi denied her previous statement, though it is on video. She did not offer an apology.     ]

The CBI is unapologetic about not filing an appeal against the acquittal of all the Hindutva leaders in the Babri Masjid demolition case but two witnesses to the crime have managed to do so in court, just before the 100 day time limit expires.

Elon Musk’s fortune is over the moon. He has overtaken Jeff Bezos to become the world’s richest person. Nirav Modi’s lawyer raised a British court’s judgment blocking the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the US on the ground of mental health, as the embattled diamond merchant appeared via videolink before a court in London for final submissions in his battle against extradition to India.

Republic TV journalist Arnab Goswami, an accused in abetment of suicide case, failed to appear before a court in Raigad district of Maharashtra on Thursday, prompting the prosecution to seek a warrant against him, but was eventually granted exemption from personal appearance.

BCCI chief and former Indian cricket captain Sourav Ganguly, who underwent angioplasty following a mild heart attack, was discharged from hospital yesterday. Cardiologist Dr Devi Shetty, who had examined him earlier, declared him fit to fly planes and run marathons


Will kisans overshadow jawans on Republic Day? 

Farmers led a tractor rally on Thursday as a prelude to the march in the capital that they are planning on January 26 when ordinarily, only jawans are on the march in the Republic Day parade. There were four marches on the perimeter of the national capital, which has been surrounded by agitating farmers for more than 40 days.

The country’s top political leadership is growing increasingly worried about the impact of the farmers’ protest on military personnel from Punjab and Haryana, most of whom are from farming families. Many ex-servicemen from these states, including decorated veterans of wars with Pakistan, have been participating in the agitation on Delhi’s borders.

A group of farmers disrupted the speech of BJP MLA Vikram Saini while he was enumerating the feats and the schemes of the government at a kisan mela (farmers’ fair) at Khatauli town of Muzaffarnagar on Wednesday and told him bluntly that they were not interested in the achievements of the BJP government.

Today, farm leaders are talking once again with the Centre. “The government may still be adamant, but the truth is that the farmers’ movement has come so far that the government is under pressure. The image that the Modi government had chalked up, that it never takes back any statement it makes, that image has been shattered,” said Joginder Ugrahan, who heads the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan), Punjab’s biggest. This was the union which had demanded the release of activists and intellectuals jailed without trial, and was predictably vilified by the government.    

Photo: Kisan Ekta March

Swaminathan, farmers concur

Prof MS Swaminathan has spoken. He says it is much better to ensure and fix the MSP according to a realistic cost assessment, which is not what the government is doing. The Centre has been claiming to implement the Swaminathan report, but has not, says he. “At least 50% more than the weighted average cost of production” is the benchmark in the fifth report of the National Commission on Farmers, which he chaired. “When we recommended 50% over costs, we meant complete costs, called C2, which includes all assumed costs. In fact, that is what farmers are also demanding,” he said in an interview.


Indian-American is US army CIO 

One of the highest-ranking Indian-American civilians in the US Department of Defense, Dr Raj Iyer, has taken over as the first Chief Information Officer of the US Army after the Pentagon created the position in July last year. Equivalent in rank to a three-star general, Iyer will supervise an annual budget of $16 billion for the US Army’s IT operations. A native of Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu, he grew up in Bengaluru and graduated from the National Institute of Technology Trichy before moving to the US.


Have horse, will trade

Decades after the question of horse trading was settled, the Supreme Court on Thursday issued notices to the Centre and the Election Commission to examine whether lawmakers who resign to topple an elected government and later join hands with the rival political faction for the lure of ministerial berths should attract disqualification under the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution. Of course, the same court has not heard the petition on the validity of electoral bonds for three years.


Again, police find no ‘love jihad’

The Uttar Pradesh government has told the Allahabad High Court that the state police had dropped charges against one Nadeem for allegedly trying to marry a woman from Muzaffarnagar with the intention of converting her. In its affidavit, the government said that during the investigation, no evidence was found that Nadeem had “any illicit relations with the woman”. Further, no evidence was found in support of the allegation that Nadeem was trying to convert her, as alleged by complainant Akshay Kumar in an FIR on November 29 last year.


The Long Cable

Are you trying to be funny?

Sidharth Bhatia

The great American comedian George Carlin was an equal opportunity offender, but his favourite target was religion. Though born into a Catholic family, he frequently took aim at Christianity, rubbishing it in terms that may be unsuitable for a family newsletter.

Though he did rouse the ire of Christians, no one arrested him and shoved him into jail. In India, he wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. Some offended private citizen would file a complaint against him and the police would take him away in handcuffs.

As has happened to Munawwar Faruqui. The hapless up-and-coming funnyman had not yet begun his act in Indore when a Hidutva activist, Eklavya Gaur, walked up to the stage and declared that the funnyman had made jokes about Hindu gods. And jokes about Amit Shah, which may be equally blasphemous.

Faruqui protested, as did the audience, but Gaur invoked some old videos and filed a complaint. The video he referred to had long since been taken down, but Gaur was not mollified ― clearly he had come with a plan. The police swung into action with uncharacteristic speed and took Faruqui into custody. Gaur is the convenor of some organisation called the Hindu Rakshak Sangathan and, more crucially, the son of a BJP MLA. His word counts.

Young up-and-coming comedian Agrima Joshua was luckier, in that she was not actually arrested, but for a short time, the entire might of the state of Maharashtra came down upon her. No less than the home minister of the state called for the police to take action against her.

Her ‘crime’ was an alleged joke about the Maratha king Shivaji. A year ago, apparently, she had made digs about a large statue of Shivaji that the state is planning to build in the sea off the coast of Mumbai. Various citizens have protested against this proposal, some even pointing out the engineering hazards involved, but Joshua didn’t go that far. She was making fun of the credulity of people on Quora about the subject.

She received death and rape threats and while the government arrested some of the perpetrators, it did not let up the pressure on Joshua. Ultimately, she apologised and the matter fizzled out, but not before causing serious trauma to her.

These two examples show the disparate nature of what can get someone ― in authority, or an activist ― angry, and the consequences that can follow. The list of what is verboten as humour is infinite and changes by the minute. Some subjects are constant ― religion is a strict no-no, our current Supreme Leader and his deputy are out of bounds and many other political leaders, too, are ring-fenced by vigilante followers. Then there are the icons, mythological, historical or otherwise.

And of course, there are the courts, as Kunal Kamra discovered. In November, he tweeted about the Supreme Court and the Chief Justice deciding to speedily hear Arnab Goswami’s plea, in contrast to its glacial speed in responding to similar pleas by others. A lawyer in Mumbai got angry and wanted to proceed against him. Attorney General K K Venugopal gave his consent to file contempt charges. “The said tweet is grossly vulgar and obnoxious,” Vengugopal harrumphed.

Why have we become so touchy, as a nation and as an establishment? No doubt social scientists will have many theories, but it is obvious that as the country progresses on many other fronts, in terms of tolerance, we have regressed.

The country has a strong tradition of satire and comedy ― in the village Ramlila, things can often become ribald, as no divine figure is spared. The notion of the vidushak is embedded in our culture. Kings and emperors had jesters in their durbar to bring them down a peg or two ― Birbal in Akbar’s court is a good example. And of course, folk songs and the movies are full of instances in which religion, mullahs and pandits are made fun of, as are politicians.

Comedians are safety valves, saying the unsayable for us to laugh and get some steam and frustration out. Clamping down on them so ruthlessly would only be a chilling factor, discouraging other comedians from straying too far from safe, anodyne subjects. That curbs freedom of expression and is generally bad for a liberal, democratic society.


CBI is asleep but Babri appeal filed just ahead of deadline

Two witnesses are appealing to the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court against the acquittal by the CBI Special Court of all 32 accused (including LK Advani and MM Joshi) in the Babri demolition case. By law, an appeal to a higher court is to be made within 100 days of the lower court verdict, but the CBI was disinterested despite requests from key witnesses. So Babri Masjid Action Committee lawyer Zafaryab Jilani decided to appeal on the last day on behalf of two witnesses whose houses were torched by Ram mandir campaigners. 


Reportedly

The Election Commission has already started gearing up for the Tamil Nadu assembly elections due in May 2021, starting with the babus who will be on election duty. In a recent letter to state Chief Electoral Officer Sathyabrata Sahoo and chief secretary K Shanmugam, the Election Commission has stressed the need to transfer officers who have completed three years at a posting, and to ensure that no officer is posted in their native district.

Officers who are to retire within six months and those facing disciplinary action recommended by the EC for earlier poll duty lapses shall not be designated for poll duty. Further, officials who will complete three years in an election-related post before May 31 will be transferred. The Tamil Nadu government has transferred more than 50 IAS and IPS officers, including collectors and superintendents of police of more than 20 districts, in the last two months.


Deep Dive

Land Conflict Watch is a data research project that maps and analyses ongoing conflicts over land and resources in India. Its network of researchers spread across the country, who combine academic rigour with factual reportage to collect data that answer questions about conflicts and their impact on the environment, industrial investments and people, says that at present 787 conflicts are reported, with a total of 7.4 million people affected.

Screenshot: Land Conflict Watch

USTR finds Indian digital equalisation taxes unfair to US business

The US Trade Representative’s office has slammed India’s digital services tax, which it said discriminates against US companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook. The USTR’s findings released on Wednesday were based on its Section 301 probe into digital taxes levied by a number of countries, and could result in retaliatory tariffs. Underlining the ‘discrimination’, the report pointed out that of the firms subjected to India’s equalisation levy of 2%, 72% are US companies.


Prime Number: Rs 50,000 crore
That’s how much top telcos Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea must pay to renew spectrum permits. But analysts find that only Jio needs to renew, since the others are already holding a surplus. This is going to be the most boring spectrum auction ever. 

It’s the bank manager’s funeral

It’s like holding a corpse to the bank manager’s head. The body of a farm labourer in Bihar was carried to his bank by his neighbours to demand money for his cremation. Mahesh Yadav, 55, died early Tuesday after a lengthy illness. He had no family and his body was found by neighbours several hours later. The villagers searched his home for valuables to pay for his funeral, but unable to find any, they instead took his bank passbook that showed he had Rs 1,17,500 in his savings account.

That afternoon, they took the passbook ― and Yadav’s corpse ― to his bank, refusing to leave until the branch manager released the costs. After over an hour, he gave them the money (Rs 9,914) and they finally left the bank with his body for the cremation ground.


Kozhikode park a model for renovation

A park in a Kozhikode suburb that has been renovated as a model for refurbishing other parks in the state has now caught the attention of many, who think it resembles a European street. As queries poured in about the park after its pictures went viral, Kerala Tourism Minister Kadakampally Surendran shared the pre-renovation and post-renovation photographs of the park.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • An editorial in The Hindu cautions the authorities to curb the spread of two variants of avian flu, H5N1 and H5N8, before they are able to infect large numbers of humans. Significantly, this time, crows are being infected, and they have a huge presence in human habitats.  

  • Pratik Sinha and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen discuss disinformation and its rapid spread versus the evolving ability to challenge it through effective fact-checks. They identify the Achilles’ heel of old media: “A fundamental driver of disinformation is powerful people who lie, and who have weaponised the journalistic convention of quoting powerful people verbatim in headlines, even if what they say is untrue.” Familiar faces come powerfully to mind.  

  • Atanu Biswas analyses why people buy lottery tickets ― lakhs are picked up across the country. These people are up to paying a “dream tax”. But perhaps, our society should construct economic structures that offer them brighter, more realistic dreams instead.

  • The sarsanghchalak’s statement divides us, the people of India, on the spurious grounds that Hindus are automatically and naturally patriotic whilst the rest of us are not. This is not just untrue, it’s also wicked, argues Karan Thapar. It seeks to sow the seeds of doubt, suspicion, distrust and, eventually, difference between Indians.

  • Jawhar Sircar worries over Covid-19’s long-term effects. “If social distancing and work from home are here to stay, our human engineering may need complete rewiring.”

  • For Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan to impose an economic cost on stone pelters, but not on those who shout communal slogans, warps the very idea of democratic conduct. Hindutva groups will likely be emboldened. Aijaz Ashraf says words matter and can even take lives.


Listen up

Kate Imy explores the negotiation of religious identity, military service and imperial power in 20th century British India. How were preconceived British imperial notions of religion and loyalty to the state attached to indigenous South Asian communities frustrated by the way Sikh, Muslim, Hindu, and Nepali Gurkha (Hindu and Buddhist) soldiers engaged by the state performed their political and religious identities as part of the British Indian army?


Watch Out

Does our judiciary function independently? Are our courts able to deliver timely justice without fear or favour? Has the Supreme Court become an ‘executive court’? Justice Madan B Lokur, N Ram, Menaka Guruswamy and Tarunabh Khaitan weigh in.


Tailenders

Groom flees, bride marries wedding guest

A bride married a guest after the groom decamped before the wedding ceremony in Tumkur in Karnataka. On the day of the wedding, the groom’s girlfriend had threatened to drink poison in front of the guests if he carried on with the nuptials, which is why he left, it is reported. A few hours later, a guest and the bride agreed to marry instead.


Rush of emotion

Mohammed Siraj, the cricketing debutant making waves Down Under, had continued playing even when his father passed away. The video of him brushing away tears as the Indian national anthem was played yesterday at the Sydney Cricket Ground made us all emotional. He spoke about what he felt then.

And the fastest-travelling tweet of January 7: “Due to travel restrictions, this year the United States had to organise the coup at home.” It has spread so rapidly in the wild that it may be too late to identify the author. 


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.