The India Cable: Supreme Court Steps in After High Courts Blast Covid Handling, Fear is Centre May Now Get Free Pass 

Plus: In data-driven world, fiddling with data is cardinal sin, Covid found in 27k vaccinated, Karnataka allows cremations, burials at home, consumer sectors brace for shock, Waheeduddin Khan dead

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
April 22, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

‘The system has collapsed: India’s descent into Covid hell’. That’s the headline in the Guardian, and nothing could be more apt, on a day nearly 3.15 lakh tested positive and more than 2,100 died of Covid-19. This is the largest number ever on a single day in any country, since the pandemic began. The New York Times says ‘India’s Health System Cracks Under the Strain as Coronavirus Cases Surge’.

Reuters notes that “many Indians are pillorying Prime Minister Narendra Modi over his response to a scary surge in coronavirus cases, sickened by him addressing tens of thousands of people at state election rallies and letting Hindu devotees congregate for a festival.Tags like #ResignModi and #SuperSpreaderModi have trended on Twitter in the past two days, as bodies piled up in mortuaries and crematoriums, and desperate cries for hospital beds, medical oxygen and coronavirus tests flooded social media.”

And here is BBC World on India’s second wave:

At a time when high courts from Delhi and Gujarat to Uttar Pradesh have hauled the government over the coals for its mishandling, the Supreme Court has now suggested it will run the judicial review from here on. Not everyone agrees this is a good thing; indeed, going by the apex court’s record in protecting people in the face of official indifference last year, the consensus is that its latest intervention will end up giving the Centre a free pass.

Trinamool MP Mahua Moitra has been more blunt: “SC says Covid hearings in diff HCs ‘creating confusion & wasting resources’, may move all to SC. SC did nothing on migrants, let 2nd wave happen & now when Delhi HC slams Centre, SC comes to its rescue?” she tweeted. Oh, and the BJP’s favourite lawyer, Harish Salve, who happened to be putting in a (virtual) appearance at the time got picked as amicus curiae. Early indications are that the high courts are unwilling to stop playing their constitutionally mandated role.

Malayalam journalist Siddique Kappan, lodged in Mathura Jail in Uttar Pradesh under the draconian UAPA in the Hathras  case, has tested positive for the novel coronavirus. He has been shifted to jail hospital after his health deteriorated. Four judges of the Supreme Court have tested positive for Covid-19 and one of them sought hospitalisation in AIIMS. Some were conducting regular proceedings until Monday. Congress leaders Shashi Tharoor and Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury have tested positive.

The Indian Medical Association lists 756 doctors across the country who died of coronavirus and are eligible for compensation of Rs 50 lakh announced by the Modi government last year. However, the government has disbursed compensation only to the kin of 168 deceased doctors.

France will impose a 10-day quarantine for travellers from India to prevent the spread of a worrying Covid-19 variant. London’s Heathrow Airport has refused to allow extra flights from India before the country is added to the UK travel red list on Friday. Canada is also considering curbs on India flights.

India’s Covid-19 situation has been a trending topic in China. Tian Guangqiang of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences reflects the broad sentiment, in the context of recent relations with China ― essentially, it’s a warning: “India is currently at a critical juncture. If the country wants to get out of the predicament, it needs to actively promote cooperation with other emerging economies, including China, in fighting against the virus and boosting economic recovery, rather than continuously playing geopolitical games.”

India’s social media platforms have changed dramatically in the past few days. Frantic posts reveal the scale of India’s crisis as people plead for hospital beds, medicines, CT scans, oxygen and even food for the elderly in quarantine.

A day after it published a viral report on India exporting nearly 9,300 metric tonnes of oxygen in the first three quarters of 2020-21, Moneycontrol pulled down its story. The corrigendum said the report “was causing unnecessary panic” and portrayed a “misleading picture”. But the real story is of how Kerala is managing its medical oxygen supply, as the state has sent tankers to Goa, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. But in UP, individuals can’t buy oxygen, though there is no room in hospitals. Amid severe shortage of oxygen for Covid-19 patients, the administration has issued an order and stationed officers at a Greater Noida oxygen manufacturing plant to check movement of oxygen cylinders, hindering supplies to hospitals in the national capital. Amidst these and other reports of oxygen provincialism, especially by BJP ruled states, the Union home ministry on Thursday afternoon declared that “no restrictions shall be imposed” on oxygen manufacturers to restrict supplies to the state they are located in and that there shall be free inter-state movement of oxygen.

Finally the state secret is out. Here is the Modi government’s strategy to deal with the pandemic.

India’s oxygen crisis

It is hard to believe that a country which was exporting oxygen till a few weeks ago is now struggling to supply its hospitals. The severity of the crisis was brought home when Max Hospital had to approach the Delhi High Court for an urgent hearing at 8 pm last night, when it was left with supplies only for a couple of hours. Additional Secretary Sumita Dawra, in charge of oxygen supply, told the court that while the country’s production capacity, both industrial and medical is around 7,200 metric tonnes a day, and the requirement is over 8,000 MT due to the Covid situation. 

The court blamed the Centre, explicitly stating that it was prioritising business over the lives of patients. It “seems human life is not important for the state,” the court said in a severe indictment of the government. “Our concern is not just for Delhi, we want to know what the central government is doing with regard to oxygen supply across India,” it said and added, “what is the Central government doing? If this is the situation in Delhi, we are sure it is the same in other states.”

“The Centre has assured that there will be unobstructed supply of oxygen to Delhi. We hope that the requirements of hospitals and oxygen supply will continue to Covid patients and others until we take up the matter tomorrow,” the order said. Here is a look at why hospitals are running out of oxygen.

The Centre yesterday marginally increased quotas of oxygen for eight states, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Uttarakhand, apart from the national capital, where the hospitals have been sending out SOSes due to interrupted supply lines since Monday. The Union health secretary said in a press briefing that out of nearly 7,500 MT oxygen being produced in the country, 6,600 MT or 88 % had been used in the hospitals yesterday. But it also paraded three doctors, including the head of AIIMS in Delhi, who said, “Oxygen is a treatment, just like a drug.” Seriously, Doc? 

Cremate at home, says Karnataka

Owing to a steady rise in Covid-19 deaths, the Karnataka government has allowed families to cremate or bury bodies of Covid-19 victims in their own land or farm house. This has been approved to decentralise the process and allow family members to bid goodbye to their loved ones without having to queue up at crematoria and burial grounds. There have been complaints about lack of space and long queues.

The health department in Gurugram reported four Covid-19 deaths on Tuesday and four more on Wednesday, but cremation ground staff say they have performed the last rites of at least 106 bodies by Covid-19 protocols till late evening yesterday. “Sandesh's reporters went to 21 cremation grounds in Ahmedabad on April 16 night”, PTI’s Rajkot correspondent tweeted, “and found more than 200 bodies being cremated as per COVID-19 protocol. Gujarat govt says only 25 died of COVID in the city on April 15.”

India a country of particular concern for religious freedoms

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent bipartisan commission, has recommended for the second year in a row that the State Department put India on a list of ‘Countries of Particular Concern’ for the worst violations of religious freedoms in 2020.  It recommended that the administration impose targeted sanctions on Indian individuals and entities for ‘severe violations of religious freedom’. A second recommendation was for the administration to promote interfaith dialogue and the rights of all communities at bilateral and multilateral forums “such as the ministerial of the Quadrilateral [the Quad]”. Another recommendation, this one to the US Congress, was to raise issues in the US-India bilateral space, such as by hosting hearings, writing letters and constituting Congressional delegations. Last year India had denied visas to members of USCIRF who wanted to visit India for their assessment. 

The key concerns of the 2021 report include the Citizenship (Amendment) Act which went into effect in early 2020 and which fast-tracks citizenship for non-Muslim refugees from South Asian countries. The report says, “Mobs sympathetic to Hindu nationalism operated with impunity,” and used “brutal force” on Muslims in Delhi’s riots in February 2020. On the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the report says, “The consequences of exclusion – as exemplified by a large detention camp being built in Assam – are potentially devastating…”

Efforts to prohibit interfaith marriage – such as those in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh ― are also highlighted as a concern. “These efforts targeting and delegitimizing interfaith relationships have led to attacks and arrests of non-Hindus and to innuendo, suspicion, and violence toward any interfaith interaction,” the report notes. In an apparent reference to the Tablighi Jamaat Markaz in March 2020, the USCIRF says, “At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, disinformation and hateful rhetoric ― including from government officials ― often targeted religious minorities, continuing familiar patterns.”

India complains to UAE about Pakistani demand

Pakistan’s demand for India to roll back its August 5, 2019 decision on Jammu and Kashmir will not help in creating a conducive atmosphere for restarting talks between the two nations, the Modi government has conveyed to the United Arab Emirates, which is mediating between the two nuclear powers. This was conveyed to the UAE when External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had a meeting with Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi on Sunday. Jaishankar and Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi visited Abu Dhabi recently, at the same time.

Consumer-focused sectors suffer again

Maharashtra has announced a state-wide complete lockdown till May 1. As more and more states impose localised lockdowns to save lives, consumer-focused sectors are likely to bear the brunt of the second wave. Hotels, aviation, consumer retail, tour and travel, multiplexes and high beta sectors like autos, financials, select consumer discretionary are expected to be worst hit. Several sectors which benefited from pent-up demand last year won’t have the same support, because there won’t be repeat purchases. While the first order impact of the second wave will be on the same set of economic agencies/sectors as in the first wave, the second order impact may be somewhat wider. Economists have already sounded the alarm, with urban unemployment at 10.72% on April 18.

The Long Cable

In a data-driven world, fiddling with data is a cardinal sin

Pratik Kanjilal

Long, long ago in a Planning Commission that now seems impossibly remote, it used to be fashionable to complain that India is “data-rich but information-poor”. Data about everything was amassed in silos littering the policy landscape. It was treated as sacred, and its integrity was scrupulously defended, because it was the input for the Five Year Plans, the blueprints for material progress. The census, the world’s biggest administrative exercise, was conducted like a rite, and the ritual purity of the data collected was absolute. Industry, employment, income and health data were similarly honoured. 

But in the era before cheap computing power, India’s rich data was mined for specific information, in line with clearly defined policy goals. And ironically, now that shiny computers are here, data science is an attractive career option and India is information-rich, its data can no longer be trusted. 

The cause is the government’s passion for withholding data to hide the bad news. It was first seen in 2016, when the Labour Bureau quietly stopped its employment survey. After it was caught out and recommenced, in 2019, its findings were found to be much sunnier than those of the National Sample Survey Office, which placed unemployment at a 45-year high. However, the government tried to hold back the data, even after clearing it for publication. The whistle was blown by two members of the NSSO, who resigned in protest.

Now, as the pandemic surges, official data on morbidity and mortality has been abandoned in favour of anecdotal data, which is traditionally derided in statistics. The government is paying, by loss of credibility, the price for downplaying the number of deaths due to Covid-19. It claims fewer deaths on the precious ground that prior conditions are the proper cause of death, and Covid-19 only precipitates the event. The Union health minister persists in claiming a low death rate due to Covid-19, a myth that has been propagated from the beginning of the pandemic, and was discussed in all seriousness by unsuspecting health professionals overseas.

Following liberalisation, India became a breeding ground of lifestyle disorders, all of which qualify as prior conditions. A huge component of our population was morbid long before the novel coronavirus began to cause mortality. Attributing most deaths to prior conditions falsely reduces the enormity of extra deaths caused by the virus. It looks good only on paper, and naturally, the official death rate is no longer seen to be reliable. The media, from the usually pliant Gujarati press to the Financial Times, are relying on visible if anecdotal evidence ― the funeral pyres burning day and night in the cities of north India, like watch-fires in medieval wars.

Data analysis is the bedrock of policymaking, and when data is suspect, policy decisions become flawed. Covid-19 causes viral pneumonia, severely compromising lung function. If data on the death rate had not been fiddled with, it would have been clear last year that millions of patients would need oxygen support this year. Anecdotally, doctors report that the virus variants in northern and western India this year require over 50% more oxygen to be deployed. But relying upon the official data showing low death rates, hospitals and the government did not see the need for extra oxygen supplies ― the crucial support input in managing Covid-19 ― and the result is the wildfire of funerals that we have seen this week.

Now, let us change gears from the sublime stupidity of concealing data to the ridiculous adventure of denying its existence, as in the fake Bhima Koregaon case, in which people have been put away for years without trial, on the charge of conspiring against the Union of India. The charge was based upon data ― incriminating files found on the laptop of an alleged conspirator, Rona Wilson. It is now confirmed by the US forensic company Arsenal Consulting that this data, crucial evidence in the case, was planted on Wilson’s laptop by a file dropper. However, this has been rejected on the slender ground that Indian courts can trust only Indian forensic labs. That is not how science works. It relies upon tests being replicable. Relying on a technicality is specious.

Not only has the government fiddled with data to turn a public health crisis into a disaster, it is also in a false position in the Bhima Koregaon case, which is seen as a human rights problem internationally, for rejecting data that is credible enough to investigate. It will take India ― its scientists, researchers, institutions and government ― a long time to shrug off such taints. In a data-driven world, playing around with the facts is a cardinal sin. The world, as the Chinese say, “will seek truth from facts”.


BJP caught spinning

The Modi government may be dysfunctional when it comes to supplying oxygen or providing free universal vaccination, but it is totally on the ball in PR, propaganda and media management. As international media coverage, a barrage of social media posts and criticism from the independent Indian media embarrassed it for wreaking havoc on millions, the PMO allegedly sent a WhatsApp message to all its friendly editors. Unfortunately, one of them leaked the message (read it here), which is truly surreal. Sample this: “But the sad part is that media which speaks truth to power, is not able to speak truth to the Opposition.” Because of the leakage, unfortunately, even godi media pets like Times Now and Republic had to tone it down a bit, but stayed true to the script. 

Prime Number: 27,062
That's the number of people who have tested positive for Covid-19 after taking either one or both doses of Covishield or Covaxin. Considering the overall number of vaccinations, only two to four per 10,000 breakthrough infections have occurred, which is a very small number, as per government officials.

Zoji La opens

The Zoji La Pass, which connects Kashmir to Ladakh and is one of the two lifelines for the region, was opened yesterday by the Border Roads Organisation after a closure of 110 days this year, as compared to an average of 150 days in previous years. The pass was kept open until as late as December 31, when troops in Ladakh were (and remain) deployed to deal with the Chinese PLA’s ingress across the Line of Actual Control. The second lifeline, the 425-km Manali-Leh route, had opened in March-end, but intermittent snow led to its closure. A couple of hundred vehicles passed through the stretch for 25 days or so until the route was blocked by more snowfall.

Islamic scholar Waheeduddin Khan passes away

Islamic scholar and Padma Vibhushan, Maulana Waheeduddin Khan is among the casualties of Covid. With his translation and commentary on the Quran, he was very much his own person, and rejected stereotyping. He won the Rajiv Gandhi Sadbhavna Award and was a fierce proponent of coexistence and fraternity in a plural society. A spiritual man with a keen interest in questions about the meaning of Islam, he had written over 200 books. He edited Ar Risala, an Urdu magazine he started in 1976, and subsequently, its English and Hindi versions. He was also the father of the editor of the Milli Gazette, Zafarul Islam Khan, former Chairman of the Delhi Minorities Commission.

Deep Dive

The security of India’s borders

The details of the many issues India must confront as it prepares to live with troubled borders. Sushant Singh (a contributor to The India Cable) analyses in this Briefing Note for the Stimson Center how despite statements to the contrary, India’s military remains resource-constrained, overstretched, and vulnerable because of a two-front threat from China and Pakistan.

Government threatens Forest Act again

The Modi government is once again making a move to amend the Indian Forest Act, 1927. Its last effort was met by a serious pushback from civil society. 

Social media help ― and a bit of hell

Last week, Mumbai resident Shasvathi Siva had an unpleasant experience. Seeking information on ventilators and plasma for a critically ill relative, she had shared her phone number on Twitter, as many others have done in desperation. She found a ventilator, but that wasn’t all she got. As her number was passed around, she got unsolicited and traumatising messages, complete with obscene photos.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Nature magazine delves in detail into questions about the science behind India’s shocking surge, which has a massive impact on the world. 

  • As far as the Indian establishment is concerned, it definitely knows the best course ahead – put curbs and controls on both democracy and oxygen, writes Sidharth Bhatia (a contributor to The India Cable)

  • The economics and pricing of the Covishield vaccines and the government’s own decision to pay higher prices raise more than a few questions, writes Prosenjit Dutta.

  • In ‘Lockdowned Cinema’ in EPW, Hrishikesh Ingle discusses various aspects of the social consumption of cinema in the lockdown. 

  • Suhrith Parthasarathy writes that a movement in Tamil Nadu seeking to free temples from the state really wants to supplant the state with powerful private interests, and reinstate hierarchical divisions removed by reform.

  • Jignesh Mevani and Meena Kandasamy say that the latest forensic evidence about how Bhima Koregaon case accused Rona Wilson’s computer was tampered proves the NIA’s case against the incarcerated activists rests on a forgery. They demand the ‘Bhima Koregaon 16’ be released.

Listen Up

Hear from members of The Lancet Citizens’ Commission on Reimagining India’s Health System, a cross-sectoral initiative to lay out the path to universal health coverage in India. Its guiding principle is that structural change toward universal health coverage can only be achieved through consultative and participatory engagement with the diverse sectors involved in healthcare and, most importantly, with India’s citizens.

Watch Out

In a conversation with Mitali Mukherjee, former Union secretary of health and family welfare K Sujatha Rao says the centre is abdicating its duty towards the vaccine drive by allowing private companies to set prices completely independently.

Over and Out

Not the seven deadly sins, but watch in six minutes the five major stages of mismanagement and callousness over a year, which defined how the government dealt, or did not deal, with the pandemic.

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.