The India Cable: Suspected Covid Corpses Float In Ganga; Central Vista May Finally Be Delayed

Plus: Natasha Narwal gets bail after father’s death, WHO expert concerned about Indian variant, Chinese Line of Separation on Everest summit, Fauci says vaccination only answer for 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
May 10, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

(WhatsApp spin, by unidentified Atmanirbhar artist)

The G7 prep meet, for which India’s external affairs minister went to London where he then ended up getting quarantined, has turned the heat on UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, for being rash enough to venture into face-to-face meetings at a time when Indian numbers are exploding:

The meet intends to gather like-minded democratic nations to present a united front to authoritarianism, and has ticked off China, Russia and Iran, besides committing to increase vaccine production. India, which is increasingly accused of authoritarianism in the UK press, and of bungling its vaccine programme, remains on the side of the angels. That’s diplomacy.

For perspective, there’s this wonderful chart of the counters to narratives that the Modi government and its covert and overt supporters are putting forth to defend the indefensible. And, here is how the government’s false narratives fuelled the second Covid-19 wave. And tearing into the tissue of lies presented by the state government, the Uttarakhand High Court has declared that the Kumbh Mela was a superspreader event whose effects are being felt even in remote regions. This is a developing story. 

Mahavir Narwal, father of Natasha Narwal, who has been jailed under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act on flimsy charges without bail, died of Covid yesterday afternoon. Mahavir was a well-known activist of the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samity and senior member of the CPI(M). He was not able to speak to his daughter in jail. Only his son Aakash, who is younger than Natasha, was with him in Rohtak, Covid-positive and in isolation. This video shows Mahavir and his brave daughter. Narwal has been granted three weeks’ interim bail, because there is no one else to perform the last rites of her father. Last week, Natasha had asked for bail to meet her ailing father. The court said it would hear her on Monday. As a poem by Swarajbir, editor of Punjabi Tribune says, ‘That Monday has disappeared from the calendar. Judge sahib, you will spend the rest of your life searching for that Monday’.

आप ने कहा था, आप उसकी फ़रियाद
सोमवार को सुनोगे

जज साहिब, वो सोमवार अब नहीं आयेगा

वो सोमवार, अब कैलंडर से गायब हो गया है

जज साहिब, आप सारी उम्र
इस सोमवार की तलाश करते रहोगे।

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who heads the Left Democratic Front government in Kerala, sent out a progressive message on the occasion of Mother’s Day, stating, “The self-sacrificing mother is a much-glorified image. Often, this restricts women’s freedom and self-sufficiency. The Left stands for equality that transcends gender. On this Mother’s Day, let us welcome our mothers outside the confines of our homes into a wide world.”

Public health researchers asked Health Minister Harsh Vardhan to present evidence after he asked people to have dark chocolate with 70% cocoa content to beat Covid-19 related stress. Anant Bhan, a bioethics researcher working in Pune and Bhopal, asked, “Where is the evidence in a Covid context?” Bhan asks for too much, because the minister has been promoting yoga businessman Ramdev’s dodgy nostrums for Covid-19. 

The neighbourhood is reeling under India’s failed promises to supply vaccines, along with the depredations of the Indian variant of Covid-19. Nepal has spiralled out of control and now Bangladesh’s crisis is being linked to India’s. India’s vaccine maitri has come under stinging criticism. About 6.6 crore doses of the vaccine were exported, enough for the entire adult population of Delhi and Mumbai, and 60% of exports were to countries with a lower rate of cases/deaths than India.

The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) reports that 73.5 lakh jobs were lost in April, of which 34 lakh were salaried jobs. The small and medium sectors are struggling to hold on against the second wave of Covid-19, which struck before it had recovered from the ravages of the first. 

The suspense is over and the mask is off: Himanta Biswa Sarma took the oath as chief minister of Assam, after bullying the dynamic duo of the BJP into accepting his control over the majority of MLAs, leading to the resignation of former CM Sarbananda Sonowal. Will Sarma, formerly the state’s health minister ― who said, in the thick of the campaign, that no masks were necessary in his state ― now ask the Assamese to mask up? Former Uttarakhand chief minister TS Rawat was fired by the BJP for arguing, very reasonably, that allowing a full-scale Kumbh Mela would result in a public health disaster. The BJP and RSS felt it was bad for the UP elections due next year. But the unholy mess that they have pushed the country into isn’t a winning card at all.

Lalu Prasad Yadav is out of jail and hospital and attended a party online meeting on Sunday. Tejashwi Yadav, his son and leader of the Opposition in Bihar, delivered the introductory speech and said that his father was unwell, his oxygen levels hovering around 85. Puducherry Chief Minister N Rangasamy tested positive for coronavirus yesterday and will be treated in Chennai. 

Saudi Arabia has welcomed the decision by India and Pakistan to observe a ceasefire along the Line of Control and backed a dialogue between the South Asian rivals to address all outstanding issues, including Kashmir. The kingdom’s position was articulated in a joint statement issued by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia late on Saturday after a meeting between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. Pakistan’s foreign minister tweeted to clarify that “nothing about Jammu and Kashmir can be India’s internal matter”. In a recent TV interview, he had said that the revocation of Article 370 was “India's internal matter”. 

Conservative Party leader Pam Gosal is the first Indian Sikh to become a member of Scottish parliament.

It was a chaotic Sunday for Indian football as Bengaluru FC was asked to leave Male (Maldives) for violating Covid-19 safety protocols ahead of its AFC Cup playoff against Eagles FC. All Group D fixtures in the same event stood postponed hours after ATK Mohun Bagan reported two positive cases.

Petrol and diesel prices today hit record highs across the country after rates were increased for the fifth time in a week. Maharashtra has joined Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh in the league of states with petrol selling at over Rs 100 per litre. The Union government levies Rs 32.90 per litre of excise duty on petrol and Rs 31.80 on diesel. Oil companies, which have in recent months resorted to an unexplained freeze in rate revision, had hit a pause button after cutting prices marginally on April 15. This coincided with peak electioneering in five states including West Bengal. When voting ended, oil companies indicated an impending price hike in view of firming trends in international oil markets. 

Bilingual poet K Satchidanandan, former secretary of the Sahitya Akademi, had his Facebook account temporarily suspended on Friday. He had shared a viral video clip from a World War II film dubbed in Malayalam, showing Hitler having an apoplectic fit upon losing the Kerala election. The poet alleged that on April 21, he had received a warning from the platform for demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Modi. 


Supreme Court will hear Covid-19 case on Thursday

The Supreme Court was scheduled to take up a suo motu matter on ensuring essential supplies and drugs, and about the Centre’s controversial vaccine policy. After the formation of the National Task Force for ensuring adequate supplies of oxygen and essential drugs, the court may now focus on the Centre’s vaccine policy, which came under criticism for allowing differential pricing for the states. A bench of Justices DY Chandrachud, L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat will take up the matter on Thursday, along with a host of petitions, including one seeking withdrawal of all advertisements for the Kumbh Mela at Haridwar. Technical glitches led to the postponement.

The Centre’s affidavit to the top court defends its policy, asserting that it conforms to the mandate of Article 14 and Article 21 of the Constitution, and therefore requires no interference by the Supreme Court. Further, the Centre has stated that in times of grave crisis, the government needs discretion to formulate policy in the larger interest. The vaccination drive is an executive policy, and the wisdom of the executive should be trusted.

At the last hearing, the Supreme Court had sharply commented that the vaccination policy violated Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution, being arbitrary and undermining the right to health. The rate of vaccinations has been falling after the Centre’s new vaccine policy came into force, leading to sharp public criticism and a suspicion that it does not have a plan. The PM and home minister have maintained a studied silence on the pandemic. Ministers, too, are keeping PM Modi’s mentions to a minimum on social media. 


In UP’s rural disaster, corpses float in Ganga

“In villages, people are dying of ‘cough and fever’; let alone testing, the cure is also left to God,” Dainik Bhaskarreports from 13 Uttar Pradesh villages adjacent to the Madhya Pradesh border. The situation in rural UP is an unmitigated disaster. The wife of a BJP MLA could not find a hospital bed in Agra after trying for hours, even after her husband spoke to the district magistrate. Union Minister Santosh Gangwar has been forced to write to UP CM Adityanath that officers are not answering phone calls and patients are being forced to visit multiple facilities before being admitted to a hospital. 

The BBC reports on the humanitarian disaster and administrative collapse in the PM’s own constituency of Varanasi. It also reports that fears that the Kumbh Mela would be a super-spreader, could be coming true, with reports of Kumbh returnees testing positive, pushing UP over the edge. Bodies, believed to be of Covid-19 patients, are being found floating in rivers in the state. News is coming in from Bihar, bordering eastern UP, of 100 bodies of the Covid dead floating in the Ganga. 


Counting the dead accurately

Three top global experts have given their estimates of the actual number of deaths, compared to the official figures of the Modi government. Ashish Jha estimates that the actual deaths are around six times more, while Bhramar Mukherjee puts the actual figure in the range of two to five times the official figure. Murad Banaji calculates the actual deaths to be three to eight times the official numbers. And 1,496,460 is the number of Covid dead that the University of Washington-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) has estimated India will add to its tally by September, given current projections. At worst, it can be over 1.74 million, it estimates.

Deepak Patel has been putting out local news reports from Gujarat on his Twitter feed to show that the official numbers do not reflect the actual toll. Besides reports about the unreliability of official data in Western media, Washington Postdid a full page story on the vast discrepancy in the number of dead. Even the crematorium in Delhi run by the army has increased the number of pyres five times and the team operating it can barely get some rest at night. In Delhi’s crematoriums, the punishing pace of work has had an impact on the caste-based division of labour which is very much a part of funerals even if no one likes to talk about it.


India can become variant breeding ground

WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan has said that the double mutant strain in India is potentially resistant to vaccine protection. Dr Swaminathan said that the huge number of infections in India also increases the chances of new and more dangerous variants emerging. “The more the virus is replicating and spreading and transmitting, the more chances are that… mutations will develop and adapt.” Worryingly, she said that once variants “accumulate a lot of mutations [they] may ultimately become resistant to current vaccines.” She also blamed “huge social mixing and large gatherings” for the massive second wave. 

There are many unanswered questions in India as research has been slow amidst governmental complacency. VICE reports on the prevalence of repeat infections in India


Kappan’s wife sends UP contempt notice

Kerala journalist Siddique Kappan’s wife Raihanath Kappan has sent a notice of contempt to the UP government alleging non-compliance with the Supreme Court’s order and for submitting wrong/misleading information before the court regarding his medical status. The Supreme Court had on April 28 directed that Kappan be shifted from Mathura Jail in UP to a government hospital in Delhi for medical treatment. Pursuant to this order, he was shifted from Mathura Jail to AIIMS, New Delhi, and was under treatment since April 30.

The notice states that none of his family members or his lawyer were informed about his  progress till May 7. Significantly, it alleges that despite the Supreme Court’s order, which states that Kappan could be shifted to Mathura Jail only after he recovered, he was discharged from AIIMS on May 7 before he recovered. Kappan was Covid-negative according to the affidavit submitted before the Supreme Court, but in a letter received on May 8 by MP ET Mohammed Basheer from AIIMS, it was stated that he was Covid-positive.


If not the actual pandemic, the outrage may delay Central Vista 

The Modi government, which has come under intense criticism for splurging on vanity construction while the country battles a raging pandemic may go slow on the Central Vista redevelopment project after all  Barring two ongoing projects, the new parliament building and the ‘beautification’ of Central Vista Avenue (Rajpath), the Centre may slow down other projects in the Central Vista Redevelopment Scheme, urban development ministry ‘sources’ – a euphemism for the minister – have let it be know.

The ministry has secured environmental clearances for new residences for the vice president and the prime minister, but the bidding process has not yet begun. Residential buildings were to be completed by the end of 2022, but now the government is thinking of delaying them. The Centre had planned to complete the entire Central Vista project costing Rs 23,000 crore by 2024 – coincidentally the year of the next general election – but the deadline had already been extended to 2026. Due to the impact of the second wave of Covid-19, the government may further delay the project.


Fitch warns of more waves

Fitch Ratings has warned that India’s slow pace of vaccination means that the country could remain vulnerable to further waves of the pandemic. Principal Scientific Advisor K VijayRaghavan did an about-turn in 24 hours on the prospect of a third wave. After announcing that it is inevitable, he says it can be prevented.


Reportedly

Rajya Sabha MP and public maverick Subramaniam Swamy is retraining and retargeting his heavy artillery. Already cutting about the Prime Minister’s Office and the BJP’s IT Cell, his public statement saying that the PM’s hand-picked Foreign Minister Jaishankar was “dressed like a waiter” is reminiscent of a similar attack he had launched on Arun Jaitley in 2016, for wearing a western style jacket and tie rather than a bandgala. Swamy also has called for several floors in the BJP’s lavish new headquarters to be turned into a Covid care facility. So, Swamy is friends no more?  


An LoS at Mt Everest?

As a precautionary measure, China will set up “a line of separation” at the summit of Mount Everest to prevent the mingling of climbers from Covid-hit Nepal and those ascending from the Tibetan side, Chinese state media reported on Sunday. Everest base camp on the Nepalese side has seen coronavirus cases since late April. The Nepalese government, starved of tourism revenue, is yet to cancel the spring climbing season from April to early June. It was not immediately clear how the line would be drawn and enforced on the summit, a tiny, perilous and inhospitable area the size of a dining table.


BJP youth chief apologises, and is seen to be doing so

Hiding from media cameras and even his own team, Youth BJP chief and MP Tejasvi Surya on Thursday night visited the South Zone war room in Bengaluru to apologise to staffers whom he had publicly insulted two days earlier. His openly communal targeting of Muslim employees was shocking even by the Sangh parivar’s standards. Though he made it clear there should be no audio or video recording of his visit, BBMP staffers did not trust him and recorded his conversation with staffers and took photographs of him apologising. Surya tried to deny it but failed miserably.

“If the MP thought he could do a sting, well, we can, too. We don’t believe a word he says. It is because of him that many have not come back to work and some are going to be removed. The future of youth is now at stake,” said the staffers.


Deep Dive

Arzan Tarapore finds that the still-unresolved Ladakh crisis has created a new strategic reality for India ― political hostility with China and increased militarisation of the Line of Actual Control ― which imposes unequal costs. India is likely to defer military modernisation and maritime expansion into the Indian Ocean — which would impair its ability to compete strategically with China. In contrast, China incurred only marginal material costs; it was probably more concerned about the prospect of continued deterioration of its relationship with India. Even that was largely reduced by the disengagement plan.


Prime Number: 2,118
That’s the number of branches of government banks closed in the last fiscal year. The Bank of Baroda lost most heavily ― 1,283 branches were closed or merged.

Fauci says vaccination only answer for India

Getting people vaccinated is the only long-term solution to the Covid-19 crisis in India, America’s top public health expert Dr Anthony Fauci said as he called for scaling up vaccine production domestically and globally. “The endgame of this all… is going to be to get people vaccinated… India is the largest vaccine-producing country in the world. They’ve got to get their resources, not only from within, but also from without,” Fauci, Chief Medical Advisor to US President Joe Biden, told ABC News.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • The history of independent India is one of political and humanitarian crises followed by self-renewal, and recovery from Covid-19 can hardly be doubted. Whether democracy can also regenerate seems, at this dark hour, a less certain prospect, writes Steve Coll in The New Yorker

  • In homage to Tughlaq, Narendra Modi cunningly reversed his catastrophic sequence ― he started with the currency. Having purged the economy with his killer cure, demonetisation, he has now, in a bold and original move, decided to wreck the capital without transferring it, writes Mukul Kesavan.

  • Omkar Goswami writes that India’s government, for a change, needs to answer questions on how it is handling the pandemic. 

  • Pulapre Balakrishnan writes that the lesson from the Green Revolution is that India has recovered from extremely trying crises, under the most adverse of circumstances, in the past. It is entirely possible to replicate this now, but we need sincere and competent leadership.

  • Don’t call the Western press biased, because if Covid is the biggest human tragedy of our times, then journalists have to show it, tell it, write it, says Rama Lakshmi.

  • India is not faced with just a healthcare crisis. This is a full-blown crisis of governance. We, the people, need to use our vote at the next available opportunity hold those in power accountable, writes Abhishek Sudhir.

  • Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon write that governmental grab of what is ours is what makes the Central Vista project deeply flawed. Since it is being made while we grapple with the most terrifying period of our lives, the Central Vista project will become the symbol of national trauma.


Listen Up

How do we make sense of the madness around us? First, with the rational, scientific approach: gather data, build models, keep refining and iterating, get closer and closer to the truth. Gautam Menon joins Amit Varma and describes the exciting field of biophysics and his work in building mathematical models of infectious diseases — especially Covid-19.


Watch Out

Devi Sridhar and Fareed Zakaria discuss what the Indian government can do to mitigate the crisis caused by the mishandling of the pandemic.


Over and Out

Sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions from a volcanic eruption in the Caribbean reached India on April 16, 2021 sparking fears of increased pollution and acid rain in the north. Sulphur dioxide reacts with water to form sulphuric acid which can come down with rainfall. La Soufrière erupted on St Vincent in the West Indies on April 9.

Virologist Kanta Subbarao, director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne, Australia, stalks respiratory viruses around the world with a petri dish.

Some curious numbers emerged when the Ministry of Health tallied vaccinations of those aged 18-44. On Sunday, just two people were vaccinated in Chandigarh, Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland. And in Puducherry, just one got the shot. We’d love to know who it was.


NOTE: In an earlier version of today’s edition, it was wrongly stated that S. Jaishankar was still quarantined in a London hotel. In fact, he returned to India on Saturday and has said he and other members of his delegation have since all tested negtive.


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.