The India Cable: Recession Strikes, Vaccine Divides, Censorship Fears for Netflix, YouTube

Plus: Arnab back to the attack but others stay caged, law for NGOs locked and loaded, inequality widens, and surprise ― new study says crime fell in Lalu’s ‘jungle raj’

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
November 12, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

Having secured bail from the Supreme Court, Arnab Goswami was released from Taloja Jail, and erupted from the sunroof of his car, yelling “Vande...” The motherland has nothing to do with it, because bail is a right. But everything else is wrong here, as the Supreme Court reduces itself to a bail court for the influential. Break ke baad, Goswami went directly to the Republic TV studio to continue his attacks on Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and Mumbai Police Commissioner Param Bir Singh. 

The results of the Bihar election still invite interpretation. Tejashwi Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal wants a recount in marginal seats, alleging that postal ballots in the RJD’s favour were discarded. The Prime Minister reads the result as an endorsement of NDA policies, particularly of the containment of Covid-19. Migrant workers from Bihar, who make up a huge component of the migrant workforce, were dealt a grievous blow by the sudden lockdown and the economic collapse which followed. Asaduddin Owaisi, whom the Congress had called a vote-cutter working on behalf of the BJP, but whose party won five seats in Seemanchal nevertheless, has said that the Mahagathbandhan lost because they did not speak of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or the National Register of Citizens. The Congress is the notable under performer of the election. Victory under their belt, a section of BJP supporters in Bihar celebrated the election result by vandalising a mosque in East Champaran.

Protesting Gujjar leaders have reached an agreement with the Rajasthan government and called off their agitation. Drishti Rajkhowa, second-in-command of the militant group United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent) has surrendered in Meghalaya. After reports that India and China are close to agreeing to a three-stage disengagement plan (see yesterday’s Cable), the Chinese insistence on restricting India’s patrolling to Finger 3 on the northern bank and making the area upto Finger 8 a buffer zone has emerged as a stumbling block. For more context, see this thread by Sushant Singh:

India’s GDP is likely to contract by 8.6% for the July-September period, sending India into a recession for the first time in history, according to an RBI report. The government has allowed airlines to extend operation to 70% of capacity, up from 60%. Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine candidate shows 92% efficacy in interim data. Phase 3 trials will continue for six months, and the present data set is too small to arrive at a definite conclusion. Cases in Delhi continue to surge, and have breached the 8,500 per day mark. 

Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams has dismissed an employee of the Sri Venkateswara Bhakthi TV channel for mailing a porn link to a devotee in Hyderabad. He is believed to have been blind drunk at the time. The pioneering Telugu channel provides devotional programming round the clock and covers poojas and rituals in the Tirupati temple. The browser history of office computers shows that their users are deeply devoted to porn. 

The vaccine divide

The world’s markets soared on the news of a successful vaccine candidate, but it could bring a new divide to the world, and within nations. Less urbanised nations and those without deep pockets will not be able to deliver it rapidly and effectively. India would require a cold chain that stays reliably at -70 Celsius, from airports to hospitals everywhere, at the very least. Equipping primary health centres is simply unthinkable. Even a small delivery network would require completely new cold chain equipment and transport, which must be budgeted for. The government is in talks with vaccine makers, but there is no indication that it has considered the details of financial outlay for logistics. 

“Based on the cost of the Pfizer vaccine, the logistics of ultra-cold storage ― I don’t think we are ready and I think this is something that we need to weigh the benefits and the costs very, very carefully,” Gagandeep Kang of Vellore Medical College has said. Other public health professionals, too, feel that India does not have the capacity to deliver a vaccine requiring a subzero cold chain. Finally, economics will determine how India responds to the devil’s alternative. Immediate deployment would exclude the bulk of the population in the countryside. Waiting for a more suitable candidate would leave the entire population at risk. 

India recorded 47,905 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, pushing the tally to 8.68 million and the toll has risen by 550 to 128,121 deaths so far. Several prominent scientists and doctors have cast doubts on reports that overall infections are dropping in India. The lower numbers might be explained by the increased use of less reliable tests and fewer tests being administered. Experts generally agree that the number of infections has far outstripped efforts to track them in India, like elsewhere, and that infections in the country may still get considerably worse. 

A sero-survey conducted in the third week of October in Delhi found 25.5% prevalence of antibodies against Covid-19. Authors of the report, however, said it was because antibodies take time to develop after contracting an infection and that they remain detectable only for a limited period. Researchers caution that absence of antibodies in infected people cannot be conclusive evidence that they are unprotected from the disease. Studies have shown that lungs weakened by pollution are more vulnerable to coronavirus, suggesting that the city is facing a double disaster. The virus figures have been spiralling and the Delhi government shows no sign of being able to get them under control yet.

Bailing out Arnab

Hours before Arnab Goswami drove out of Mumbai’s Taloja jail on interim bail Wednesday evening, the Republic TV owner and his wife Samyabrata Ray moved a Mumbai court to seek anticipatory bail in a second criminal case registered against the family for assaulting Alibag police officials during his arrest on November 4. The prosecution has also filed a reply before the court opposing his plea, protesting that Goswami has no fear of the law and may influence witnesses in the case if granted protection. Indeed, he resumed transmission immediately on release, and lit into the chief minister and police chief. The court is likely to hear the plea on Thursday.

Arnab Goswami celebrates his release. Photo: Twitter/Republic TV

In the primary case of abetment of suicide, most lawyers agree that Goswami deserved bail, but from a sessions court, not the court of final appeal. By giving him bail, the Supreme Court has supported the ideal of personal liberty, but undermined the equally important idea of procedural justice. It has made the lower courts smaller, and reduced itself to a bail court for the rich, famous and influential. 

In the course of Goswami’s hearing, Kapil Sibal, representing the Maharashtra government, reminded the bench that the Malayalam journalist Siddique Kappan was directed to a sessions court when he approached the Supreme Court. He was held while going to Hathras to report on the gang-rape there, and has not been allowed to meet either his family or his advocates for over a month. 

The fast-tracking of Goswami’s plea has drawn attention to numerous other cases filed under draconian laws, without just cause, where neither procedure nor bail is a right. It’s a long list.

Historic first: Recession

India entered a technical recession in the first half of 2020-21 for the first time in its recorded history. The RBI’s monthly bulletin for November has assessed the GDP contraction in the July-September quarter of 2020-21 at 8.6%, following the 23.9% contraction in the April-June quarter. The National Statistical Office will release the GDP data for the second quarter on November 27. The RBI said the Indian economy may register positive growth in the October-to-December quarter after six months of contraction, if the economic upturn sustains till the end of the year. It had earlier forecast, in the monetary policy announcement last month, that the Indian economy could contract by 9.5% in 2020-21. 

While economic indicators have improved compared to April and June, Vivek Kaul shows that in 17 out of 21 key measures, the country is still worse off than a year ago. By August 2019, an economic slowdown had set in and so comparisons are against an already weak base. Parameters like new investment and demand for MGNREGS tell us that the economy is on a weaker wicket despite attempts to give the picture a positive spin, showing month-on-month improvement.

On Mumbai attacks, Pakistan admits

Pakistan’s top investigative body, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) yesterday admitted that 11 terrorists involved in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks conducted 12 years ago were Pakistanis. These names find mention in a list of nearly 1,200 prepared by the FIA. Indians noticed that Masood Azhar, Hafiz Saeed, Dawood Ibrahim and some other A-listers were missing.

The Long Cable

Government’s control freaks go online

Sidharth Bhatia

An Information and Broadcasting Ministry, in this day and age of rapid advances in communication technology, is an anachronism, a throwback to a more controlled economy and culture, in which the government wanted to control or at least dominate the flow of information in the country.

But trust the political and bureaucratic classes never to give up control of, well, control. In a move that betrays more than a whiff of interference, even censorship, the Modi government has decided to bring ‘Films and Audio-Visual programmes made available by online content providers” – a phrase which would cover YouTube as well as OTT platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime etc., and also “news and current affairs content on online platforms”  – under its ambit. The aim to bring India’s burgeoning digital news and entertainment media under some form of control by regulation.

What this will mean in practical terms has not been spelt out, but some implications are clear. Under the Cinematograph Act, 1952,  Indian films are subject to ‘certification’ by official bodies, which is a euphemism for censorship before they are allowed to be publicly screened. A similar procedure may eventually be put in place for films and series, Indian and international, that will be streamed on these platforms, though it will require an amendment to the 1952 law.

So far, there has been no restriction and the results are there to see ― a flowering of bold, innovative and unusual themes and realistic dramas, besides films that are politically forthright. What is more, the platforms themselves were exercising discretion and ensuring that cultural boundaries were respected. The new cinema was, for the most part, refreshingly exciting and was hungrily lapped up by audiences.

Serials like Leila, about a futuristic, dystopian society and Paatal Lok, about the underbelly of the Indian law and order machinery, brought new themes to people’s digital screens. Right wing Hindu groups had objected to Leila and many other shows for implicit criticism of the establishment. Will such shows ever be passed by a committee appointed by the government if digital content is to be treated on par with movies shown in theatres? The specifics of this move are still vague and the government has only taken a first step, but the overall direction is clear.

More troubling is the decision to make the I&B ministry the overlord of digital news sites. News is not censored in India. Newspapers have no restrictions and no licensing requirements, apart from registration of the title. Television channels have to get a broadcasting licence from the government – a step that has become arbitrary and difficult in recent years – but are not censored (though some of the nightly fake news and noise tempts the baser instincts). And that is how it should be.

Digital news publishers which, for the most part, are lone, independent voices in an ocean of conformist and compromised media, have become a success with the public despite phenomenal handicaps such as lack of funding. Clearly a lot of their coverage, which asks questions of the government, is being seen as inconvenient. If the purpose of assigning digital news to the nodal authority I&B ministry is a prelude to the introduction of a new law governing online news and current affairs, the aim will clearly be to ensure that digital news media outlets do not get out of hand.

Is the government planning to issue licences to set up digital news sites, as it does for TV? Will social media giants like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, also be regulated under the new order? And what happens to foreign news sites which Indians can access anyway? The details of what exactly the government plans to do will be known soon enough. Journalists, long used to complete and total freedom, are not going to let it be restricted, and resistance is almost certain. Entertainment platforms are more business-minded, as is the film industry, which is in any case used to dealing with the Central Board of Film Certification. But in the end, the audiences will be short-changed and deprived of good independent cinema.

Snow leopard census

Uttarakhand forest officials and the Wildlife Institute of India have commenced the first rigorous census of the elusive snow leopard, whose habitat ranges across the uplands of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh. They are also found in Jammu & Kashmir, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. In the first phase, the focus is on sightings by locals, which are being tracked with GPS by about 150 forest officials. The census is scheduled to be completed by December 2021. 

Prime Number: 21%
The percentage of national income captured by the top 1% in India in 2019, up from 11% in 1990, according to a report by the World Inequality Lab. The bottom 50%, in contrast, has only 14.7% share of national income in 2019, down from 22.4% in 1990. Globally, inequality has widened during the pandemic

Bolting the door

New rules were notified on Wednesday for the Foreign Contributions Regulation (Amendments) Act (FCRA 2020), which give no breathing space to NGOs receiving overseas funding. Analysts say the Rules offer neither relief nor better clarity on certain ambiguities under the Act. In fact, these Rules have only tightened the bolts, they conclude.

Deep Dive

Old Jungle Raj saying

Rakesh Chandra of TISS looks at National Crime Records Bureau data of 45 years and finds that Bihar did better than other states ― including Gujarat ― in the 1990s on the reduction of crime. He says it unfairly earned the sobriquet of Jungle Raj country during Lalu Prasad Yadav’s tenure. The biggest irony is that the quinquennial crime growth rate ― that is, the rate every five years ― “registered a fall of -18.32 per cent in the first term of Lalu Prasad (a perceived enabler of criminality in Bihar’s history) as against a rise of 17.34 per cent during the first term of Nitish Kumar (known for sushasan and development), which further went up to 33.25 per cent in his second term.”

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Technology powering the National Digital Health Mission architecture may have the potential to transform healthcare services but for that to happen, government regulators and startup innovators need to work together to ensure that health data is collected, stored and processed in a legally compliant manner. Private companies cannot be given unregulated backdoor access to coveted personal healthcare data. Vishal Gondal writes that privacy has to be non-negotiable.

  • Though the discussion on migrant workers is over with the Bihar elections, their story is far from over, argues Priya Ramani, speaking of the collapse of livelihoods and dreams.

  • Rafia Zakaria in Dawn looks at the election of Kamala Harris through a Pakistani lens. She writes; “Pakistani women also need to think about transcending barriers and breaking ceilings. As Harris’s election reveals, over 200 years of history, of obstacles and exclusions all in the favour of white men, can be overcome if a woman and her country come together.” 

  • But what does the Biden-Harris victory mean for India and Hindu nationalism, asks Akanksha Singh in the South China Morning Post. If Indians believed US-India relations were on solid ground given the bond between Trump and Modi, does a Biden-Harris government portend “bad news and a political investment gone awry”?

  • India has bipartisan support in the US but more questions on minority rights will be raised, predicts Seema Sirohi. While Biden may overlook ‘acrimony’ from India’s right wing against the Democrats, the Hill Democrats ‘have longer memories and keep the receipts’. 

  • Since the economic and military gap between the two Asian giants have widened, China is pressing forward to create new buffer zones in the border area, says Kunal Singh. With every crisis, China aims to expand its claims and lay down new limits for Indian patrols. 

Listen up

On Grand Tamasha, Former Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of India Viral Acharya checks the health of India’s economy, the “silent crisis” afflicting India’s financial sector, the future of central bank independence in India, and the role that Indian economists based overseas can play back home.

Watch Out

It is Birdman Salim Ali’s birth anniversary today. Born in Mumbai on November 12, in 1896, Salim Moizuddin Abdul Ali was not only a bird lover but also a naturalist. He was the first Indian to conduct systematic bird surveys across India and wrote several books that popularised ornithology in India. When he  received the Gold Medal of the British Ornithologists’ Union in 1967, he became the first foreigner to receive the honour. Watch this gem from the Films Division and spend some time with him In the Company of Birds.

A lesson for anti-immigration walas

Those who speak of “termites” and “immigrants” interchangeably, cynically and aggressively, should read the story of the couple behind the leading Covid-19 vaccine: Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci, who founded BioNTech. Sahin, 55, was born in Iskenderun, Turkey, but grew up in Cologne, Germany, where his parents worked at a Ford factory. He met Türeci early in his career. Now 53 and chief medical officer of BioNTech, she was born in Germany, the daughter of a Turkish physician who immigrated from Istanbul. 

On the day they solemnised their marriage, Sahin and Türeci returned to the lab after the ceremony. Where else? Sahin said he and Türeci learned about the vaccine’s efficacy data on Sunday night and marked the moment by brewing Turkish tea at home. Şerefe!

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, book your own copy by SUBSCRIBING HERE.