The India Cable: SC Asks Centre What Nation Wants to Know; Retired Officers Decry Gag Order

Plus: US releases some vaccines on compassionate grounds, states assert that Centre must procure, I&B Ministry tweets wrong India map, Google apologises to Kannadigas for ugly algo incident

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 4, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Suspicions of a lab leak in Wuhan triggering the Covid-19 outbreak, debunked across the scientific establishment and the press last year, are back in the news, and US President Biden has sought a clear answer from his spooks. Its return owes something to the crowdsourced effort DRASTIC, a group of mostly faceless online researchers whose findings appear in social media threads. A key sleuth is The Seeker, an Indian in his late 20s addicted to chai, who lives in eastern India and uses a traditional dance mask from his native West Bengal for his Twitter logo. Joining the dots that he and his collaborators have found on the internet produces an intriguing picture. Katherine Eban, author of a highly regarded book on the rot in India’s pharma sector, has an excellent round-up of the the ‘lab leak’ story in Vanity Fair.

From the foreign minister hyping up every single dose of vaccine sent abroad (even those under commercial contracts or under obligations to COVAX) as #VaccineMaitri, we now have a 180 degree change of tack with the MEA spokesperson saying that “it would not be right to talk about supply of vaccines abroad just now, as we have repeatedly conveyed." 

In a first of kind initiative, the government has signed a purchase order for a vaccine that has yet to be proven and cleared. Meanwhile, the mystery of vaccine numbers has taken an unexplainable turn. The journalist Poonam Agarwal finds that the Modi government claims to have supplied more vaccines to the states than it has bought. The difference, she says on the basis of RTI replies, is around 7 crore doses. Who was shot up with these phantom doses?  

“While we in the United States are celebrating the vaccination of teenagers, my family members are trying to survive this surge in India — and, of course, they are among the privileged in that population. Poorer urban residents and rural citizens are being decimated,” an Indian-American doctor recounts his double life. The LA Times has a detailed article on how Covid-19 is “ravaging the countryside”.

Army Chief General MM Naravane was in Kashmir yesterday as the ceasefire at the Line of Control with Pakistancompleted 100 days. Meanwhile, with China increasing its military deployment and raising new infrastructure at friction points along the LAC, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said, “The process of disengagement remains unfinished.” That’s an understatement.

Making serious allegations against BJP ally and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar on Wednesday, MLC Tunna Pandey stated that he would expose Kumar’s involvement in the 2009 liquor scam and see him in jail. Reacting to Pandey’s allegations, the Bihar BJP’s disciplinary committee on Thursday served him a show cause notice, after the JD(U) took a strong stand.

‘Baba-e-Taleem’, the Trichy-born Dr Mumtaz Ahmed Khan, 86, renowned educationist and founder of the Bengaluru-based Al Ameen Educational institutions, has died of Covid-19.

Becks Krishnan, a 45-year-old Indian who was on death row in the United Arab Emirates for killing a young Sudanese boy in a road accident in 2012, will be freed and can return to his family in India. He was saved by prominent NRI businessman and philanthropist MA Yusuffali, who helped to pay “blood money” of nearly Rs one crore.

The coronavirus variant of concern Delta, first discovered in India, is more likely to lead to hospitalisations than the Alpha variant first detected in Kent, UK, data from Public Health England suggests, raising further concerns about its spread across Britain, which is set to reopen on June 21. Delta, also known as B.1.617.2, is now the dominant variant in the UK, accounting for up to 75% of fresh cases. Delhi’s April surge, we now know, was also due to Delta taking over from Alpha. 


On compassionate grounds, India gets some vaccines from US

US Vice President Kamala Harris spoke to PM Narendra Modi to inform him of President Joe Biden’s decision to distribute 25 million vaccines globally. She also called President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of Mexico, President Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala and Prime Minister Keith Rowley of Trinidad and Tobago, who is chair of Caricom, a grouping of Caribbean states. By the end of June, India would receive its portion of 6 million vaccines from the US President’s discretionary quota, which will be shared with several countries including Kosovo, Haiti, Jordan, Egypt, Canada, South Korea and Mexico. New Delhi will also get a share of 7 million vaccines meant for Asia under the COVAX scheme, run by GAVI, for 92 poor countries. As will Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Maldives in South Asia.

India’s case was helped by international media reportage with images and videos of death and devastation. US NSA Jake Sullivan said that allocation was based on urgency and crisis in  partner countries. He mentioned the surge in India, “where we’ve seen gripping images coming from”. The BJP had decried media for running those images. The White House also announced the lifting of Defense Production Act ratings on the AstraZeneca, Novavax, and Sanofi vaccines. It was a longstanding demand of Indian vaccine manufacturers, as DPA ratings give American manufacturers priority access to vaccine inputs, at their expense. Reuters explains how the system works here. A desperate Modi government claims, as per the foreign secretary, to be in discussions with Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson for importing and local manufacturing of vaccines. 


States assert: Centre must buy vaccines

After Kerala and Odisha, the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh has written to his counterparts over the need for central procurement of vaccines, and called for coordination. The Chief Minister said that no one responded to global tenders floated by the states, and that was a cause for alarm. The Congress is skeptical about how serious the two ‘on the fence’ CMs are about confronting the Cenre on a matter where the latter is clearly at fault. In a letter to the PM and the other Opposition states, the Kerala chief minister had wanted the Centre to procure vaccines, as was the norm earlier. There is pressure already on Modi, after the Supreme Court called his vaccine policy “arbitrary and irrational”. 


On SDGs, Kerala leads, Bihar trails, Gujarat below average

Niti Aayog’s State Index 2020-2021 of the Sustainable Development Goals offers political ammunition to the Opposition, as Kerala retains the top spot and widens its lead. Bihar is at rock bottom. In Goal 2, hunger, Gujarat is below the national average. RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav sarcastically congratulated Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar “for the WORST performance” and mocked “the driver of double-powered double-engine government! Kerala gave 0 seats to BJP and it retains TOP rank, Bihar gave 39 out of 40 LS seats to BJP and is worst performer.” UP, whose CM is also trotted out as a fine administrator, maintained its rank at the bottom of the heap.


Now, audio conversation haunts BJP in Kerala

The BJP finds itself in a new controversy ― its ally Janadhipathya Rashtriya Party (JRP)’s state treasurer Praseetha Azhikode has alleged that state BJP President K Surendran gave Rs 10 lakh to popular tribal leader CK Janu to come back to the NDA. Praseetha has released an audio conversation that she purportedly had with Surendran, days before Amit Shah’s visit, in which they discussed paying CK Janu. CK Janu was the NDA candidate from Sulthan Bathery and lost by a big margin. 

Janu had returned to NDA after a two year gap on March 7, 2020 and was welcomed at the concluding function of the BJP’s Vijaya Yatra in Thiruvananthapuram, in which Home Minister Amit Shah took part. Newsminute reports that the recent controversy has erupted at a time when the BJP finds itself embroiled in a hawala investigation.


The Long Cable

SC asks Centre what the nation wants to know

MK Venu

The Supreme Court has rightly described the Centre’s vaccination policy for the 18-44 age group as “prima facie arbitrary and irrational”. But what is infinitely more important is that the apex court has demanded answers to key questions which citizens have been asking for months.

Most crucially, the SC has directed the Centre to place before it full details of all vaccine procurement negotiations in the past. The government recently claimed it had been negotiating with US pharma companies since July 2020. If so, what progress was made over nine months, is a moot question.

Much more critical than imports are the details of negotiations conducted by the PM in a hush-hush manner with both the domestic producers, Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech, since November 2020. It is open knowledge that since last year, both SII and Bharat Biotech have been seeking a clear picture ― a pre-order and capital support so that they could rapidly increase capacity. Timely action then would have produced capacity by March which will now be seen only by the end of July. The SC must conduct a detailed inquiry into how five months ― from November to March ― were lost without any substantial pre-ordering from the domestic producers, or capital support to them for expansion. In fact, the apex court should seek specific details on these counts from SII and Bharat Biotech, of what transpired between them and the PMO since last December.

The apex court has done well to ask for such details, as they lie at the root of the severe shortage of vaccines in the near term, which is posing a huge risk to both lives and livelihood. Balram Bhargava, director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research, has officially stated that the required supply rate of 10 million jabs per day would be feasible only by the end of July, or early August. Many experts contest whether even this target can be reached. If SII and Bharat Biotech together had been given a pre-order for 300 million vaccines a month last December, India would have been vaccinating by March at the rate it plans to achieve by August. 

This is the biggest failure of PM Modi. The states have absolutely nothing to do with what transpired between the Centre and the domestic vaccine companies from November to March. The state governments were brought into the picture only on May 1, when the Centre arbitrarily decided to provide jabs for the 18-44 age group.

The Supreme Court has rightly asked the Centre to provide legal justifications for evolving a separate set of discriminatory parameters for this age group. If the government could provide free vaccinations for the 45-plus age group, including frontline health workers and other vulnerable groups, why were the same rules not extended to the 18-44 age group?

The court has also asked how the Centre arrived at a higher price, to be paid by states for procuring domestic vaccines, whereas it had procured the very same vaccines much cheaper in the first round. And, of course, what was the basis of apportioning quotas to the states and private hospitals? The SC has asked the Centre to present a precise road map of vaccinations in the weeks and months ahead, and how it will spend the Rs 35,000 crore budgeted for the purpose. Needless to say, there is no transparency on these counts. 

In short, the SC has asked all the questions that anxious citizens have been asking. When the Centre’s law officer suggested to the court that policy-making is best left to the executive, the SC gently but firmly said, “Policy-making continues to be the sole domain of the executive. The judiciary does not possess the authority or competence to assume the role of the executive … This separation of powers does not result in courts lacking jurisdiction to conduct a judicial review of these policies.”

With this, the SC has made it clear that it will continue to examine the vaccine policy against the backdrop of India’s past practice of universal vaccination, which requires the Centre to fulfil its constitutional obligation of protecting the right to life. Especially so in the middle of a devastating pandemic, which has taken an unprecedented toll already. It remains to be seen whether the Centre will transparently answer all the questions the court has asked. Or would it prefer to deliver its reply in a sealed cover? 


Reportedly

The government officially tweeted, from the verified handle of the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, a map which wrongly depicted India’s international boundaries. Subsequently deleted, it showed the Shaksgam valley (which India considers to be part of Ladakh), ceded by Pakistan to China, and not part of India. Maps have always been a sensitive issue for the Indian government, with The Economist taking to labelling maps ‘strategically’ to avoid controversy. Since we now have a hyper-nationalist government that cries sedition, and denounces people as anti-national at the slightest opportunity, what is the appropriate punishment for the I&B minister? Especially since one of the charges the government has laid against Twitter in its recent war on the social media platform is a Ladakh-related cartographic error.


Review of state laws

A review of state laws and functioning of state assemblies by PRS has revealed some noteworthy patterns, some of which should cause concern. In 2020, the legislatures of 19 states (for which data was available) met for an average of 18 days in the year, due to Covid-19. Between 2016 and 2019, they met for an average of 29 days a year. In 2020, states passed an average of 22 Bills (excluding Appropriation Bills).  Karnataka passed 61 Bills, the highest, while Delhi passed one Bill, followed by West Bengal and Kerala, which passed two and three Bills, respectively. State legislatures pass most Bills without detailed scrutiny.  In 2020, 59% of Bills were passed on the very day that they were introduced. Only 9% of Bills were passed more than five days after introduction.


Naami-daami suit, PM Cares ventilators linked

Scroll.in has investigated why the Modi government spent Rs 2,250 crore on ventilators which don’t work. It found that BJP-ruled states knew of malfunctions but did not raise the alarm. The Centre had placed orders with companies with no prior experience in making ventilators. Two companies invite special scrutiny ― AgVa of Noida and Jyoti CNC of Rajkot which, The Wire reported last year, once counted among its major shareholders a businessman who had controversially gifted an expensive suit to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, monogrammed with his name.


Prime Number: 46.4
The sharpest fall in the fortunes of the services industries is being seen in the second wave, with the Purchasing Managers’ Index falling to 46.4 in May from 54 in April. A reading below 50 reflects contraction. The composite PMI for India also fell to 48.1 in May, from 55.4 in April.

Deep Dive

The Supreme Court’s hurried clearance of Delhi’s Central Vista Redevelopment Project goes against traditional judicial protection to civic participation and takes away public open spaces for government use. Nearly 90% of land once open for public recreational use along Delhi’s Rajpath has now been reclassified as “government offices”. Article 14 reports on the Central Vista project and the loss of public trust.


Retired officers speak up about gag order

In interviews to Karan Thapar, a former head of R&AW and a former Army chief, popularly known as the hero of Kargil, have spoken critically of a recent amendment to the Central Civil Service Pension rules which require retired officers who worked in an intelligence or security-related organisation to seek prior government clearance before speaking on subjects connected to the “domain of the organisation” or based upon “expertise or knowledge gained by virtue of working in that organization”. AS Dulat, who had worked in AB Vajpayee’s PMO, said the amendment was “very sad”, and that “it’s not right”. Gen VP Malik said the amendment “requires a review” because it is “overarching”. Writing in the Quint, another former army officer, Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh, said it was “petty” of the government to threaten the pension of retired folks.


Kerala wins KSRTC trademark

After the long drawn out battle over intellectual property rights with its Karnataka counterpart, the Kerala Road Transport Corporation has won the legal right to its trademarks ― the acronym KSRTC, the logo of two elephants and the name Anavandi ― associated with the state-run transport corporation. The two had been fighting over the acronym ‘KSRTC’ for the last seven years. Even now, buses and websites of both RTCs use it, causing confusion across state borders. 


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Harish Khare writes that nothing personifies the fall from grace of the RSS’s presumed moral guardianship of the BJP better than their stance during the Covid-19 crisis ― a time of unprecedented pain and grief to millions, caused by the PM’s megalomania.

  • This will be remembered as the summer that held up an unforgiving mirror to us as a nation and showed us, at just past three score and ten, how badly we had aged, writes Navtej Sarna.

  • While it is not “the end of the road for India’s GST” as some political commentators have claimed, the Council does need careful nurturing — and the ball is firmly in the Centre’s court, writes Najib Shah.

  • Economic growth accompanied by widening divergence between labour and capital ―  the earnings of wage workers and those of corporations ― and between rural and urban areas, is a sure sign of a worsening crisis. Calling it a ‘recovery’ is a faulty proposition, writes Himanshu.

  • The Modi government is seeking tighter control of digital media amid a wave of discontent over India’s Covid-19 pandemic response and other policies, writes Kunal Purohit for The South China Morning Post.

  • Rohit Inani writes that while the government believes that the economic impact from the second Covid-19 wave will is slowly reversing, economists point to signs of a growing rural crisis, and call for urgent relief measures to ward off long-term damage.

  • Sushant Singh (a contributor to The India Cable) writes that India’s waning democratic credentials and its desire to see diplomacy towards its smaller neighbours through the narrow prism of security has reduced its influence in South Asia, while China has muscled its way in.


Listen Up

The second wave of the pandemic saw localised lockdowns across India that brought economic activities to a halt. What has been their impact on unemployment and labour force participation? Yamini Aiyar, president of the Centre for Policy Research, speaks to Mahesh Vyas of the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy.


Watch Out

Political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta delivered the Lawrence Dana Pinkham Memorial Lecture on ‘Who is interested in truth? Reflections on our times’, at the Asian College of Journalism’s annual convocation (from 00:46:13).


Over and Out

Two new documentaries offer intriguing insights on how the Beatles’ 1967 escape to study transcendental meditation shaped the band and India, baffled the KGB – and had Ringo Starr surviving on a diet of baked beans. Here is the trailer of one.

Kannadigas are up in arms because a Google search on “ugliest language in India” was returning ‘Kannada’ as the result. BJP and AAP leaders, and the voluble Mohandas Pai, have demanded an apology from the search giant. Google apologised, in Kannada. The algo that did the damage can’t apologise, because it speaks only programming argot. Anyway, no one ever claimed it’s a fair world. Googling “sweetest language in the world” ― a search that many seem to have done ― returns ‘Bengali’. The French can eat humble pie, cordon bleu


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.