The India Cable: ‘Tika Utsav’ Amid Vaccine Shortfall; ED Ignores Evidence of Rafale Kickbacks

Plus: Kashi Vishwanath dispute takes serious turn, fertiliser prices soar, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw’s vaccine elitism, Modi mocked for weird academic advice, and it’s raining unicorns

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 9, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

In an action replay of the Babri Masjid dispute, a civil court in Varanasi has asked the Archaeological Survey of India to examine the Gyanvapi Mosque, adjacent to the Kashi Vishwanath temple. The original plea, filed in 1991, claimed that Aurangzeb had pulled down part of the temple to make room for the mosque, which should be torn down, and the entire property should be handed over to the deity, Swayambhu Jyotirlinga Bhagwan Vishweshwar. An ASI team of five, including two members of the minority community, shall seek evidence of structural superimposition, alteration or addition at the site, the court said. Naturally, it will be found, even if it never existed. And be used to demand the mosque be turned into a temple, despite a 1991 law prohibiting the conversion of religious places.

Gyanvapi Mosque, the original holy well between the temple and mosque. Photo: Wikimedia

Today, Justice Rohinton Nariman observed in the Supreme Court: “Don’t see a reason why a person above 18 can’t choose his religion; there's a reason why the word ‘propagate’ is there in the Constitution.” Reiterating Constitutional basics is now a revolutionary act.

Following an Al Jazeera investigation, a broad coalition of Indian-American activists and US-based civil rights organisations has called on the US Small Business Administration (SBA) to probe “how Hindu right-wing groups received hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal Covid-19 relief funds.”

US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry has said that in practical terms, he does not seek net-zero compliance from India. He has also welcomed the activism of Disha Ravi, the woman arrested by the government on sedition charges for supporting the farmers’ protest on environmental grounds, remarking that often, adults must depend on young people to get them to behave like adults. In a strange and disconcerting move, the US Seventh Fleet “asserted navigational rights and freedoms approximately 130 nautical miles west of the Lakshadweep Islands, inside India’s exclusive economic zone, without requesting India’s prior consent, as required by international law. The US Seventh Fleet has been a marker of India’s ability to resist big power threats, but then… 

A Foreign Ministry spokesperson avoided a comment on backchannel talks with Pakistan, saying, “Our respective high commissions exist and are functioning. That is a very effective channel of communication.” He refused to confirm whether PM Modi will attend the SAARC summit in Pakistan, as reported in the Pakistani media

New Zealand has temporarily suspended the entry of travellers from India, including its own citizens, which has been opposed by community leaders. The move could spur other nations to put up curbs against travel from the world’s coronavirus capital. And Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has tested positive for Covid-19. The country today registered a record single-day spike of 1,31,968 new Covid-19 cases, pushing its infection tally to 1,30,60,542, with 780 new fatalities in a day, according to the Health Ministry update at 8 am today. 

Small and medium businesses in India have reported the highest rates of closure during the pandemic at 32%, rising from 24% in October while dropping from 46% in May, as per a new Facebook global report. Only 39% SMB leaders were confident of continuing their business for at least six months.

Rakeshwar Singh Minhas, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) commando who was abducted by the Maoists after the April 3 encounter at Tarrem in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma was released yesterday after a group of journalists acted as mediators to secure his release.

The Modi government ignored data from its own nodal agency on the horrific rise in child marriages during the pandemic and did nothing about the havoc wrought. At one point, in August last year, child marriages rose by 88% as economic distress among the poor increased.

Over 100 domestic pigs died in a Mizoram village and preliminary tests indicated African swine fever as the cause of the deaths. ASF is a highly contagious and deadly viral disease. It is not a threat to human health and cannot be transmitted from pigs to humans.

And as footfalls in brick and mortar dwindle ― malls report a 15-30% drop ― India has its 10th unicorn of the year, and the sixth this week. In its first financing push in a decade, social messaging platform Gupshup has picked up $100 million from Tiger Global. The other unicorns of the year are in sectors as diverse as insurance, health and construction materials. And following the acquisition of Whitehat Jr, the education platform Byju’s is reaching out to international markets with its ‘Future School’ platform, which will be available in the US, UK, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico in May.   

Blood money from Italy

The Modi government today informed the Supreme Court that the Italian government has agreed to pay Rs 10 crore as compensation to the kin of the fishermen killed by Italian marines off the coast of Kerala in 2012. It wants the case to be closed in a hurry: “There is some urgency since it is between the Indian and Italian government.” The vitriolic tirade against Congress chief Sonia Gandhi launched by Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, is in the past

India shies away from Taiwan claim

A Foreign Ministry spokesperson has denied that India sent vaccines to Paraguay on Taiwan’s request, in a move to counter China. He said that India is opening an embassy in Paraguay and a request for vaccines was made during a phone conversation between the foreign ministers. Subsequently, a shipment of vaccines was sent and no third party was involved, the spokesperson added.

India and China are holding the 11th round of military talks for resolving the situation at the Ladakh border. The last round was held on February 20 while the last round of diplomatic talks were held on March 12, under the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC). This is rather slow progress, considering the government’s announcement in Parliament that other issues would be taken up 48 hours after disengagement at the north bank of Pangong Tso was completed. But the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson has said, “There is no delayed meeting as you cited. I want to stress that the merits of the situation at the India-China border are very clear and the responsibility does not rest with the Chinese side.” 

Modi’s festive plan for pandemic

After having attempted to appropriate the credit for sending vaccines abroad ― Foreign Minister S Jaishankar had petulantly argued, “We are nationalists and have delivered vaccines to 70 countries. Those who consider themselves advocates of internationalism, have given vaccines in how many countries?” ― the Modi government has tried to backtrack from its loud claims to avoid domestic flak as stocks were depleted. Government mouthpiece ANI quoted a senior government official saying that the Modi government has so far provided Covid-19 vaccines to 83 countries and the total number of vaccines exported has reached 6.45 crore, of which only 1.05 crore have been sent as grants while 3.58 crore have been sent as commercial supplies. An additional 1.82 crore have been given to the Covax facility. 

The senior official also mentioned that these supplies are a part of contractual arrangements, on which manufacturing rights are contingent. If that is so, people are naturally asking, why was the Modi government claiming credit earlier? The BBC has more here, the report asks if India has enough doses and if it did the right thing by exporting.

Modi announced a ‘Tika Utsav’ ― a vaccination festival ― from April 11 to 14, drawing angry reactions as at least two states had to shut down vaccination centres as stocks ran out. Maharashtra’s health minister put out statistics that exposed the BJP’s partiality to the states it rules. The Union health minister’s assurance was not all that reassuring, considering the rate of vaccination. Half of Mumbai’s vaccination centres will be closed today due to a lack of vaccines. Amit Shah’s earlier tirade against Opposition-ruled states holds little water as the BJP-ruled states are in worse shape on the metrics of fighting the pandemic, something he selectively criticised Opposition parties for.

The WHO has rejected Serum Institute of India’s proposal seeking extension of the shelf life of Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, Covishield, from six to nine months, citing insufficient data. WHO has also sought a meeting with the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) to discuss the matter. The Indian regulator has unilaterally extended Covishield’s shelf life from six months to nine. Johnson & Johnson will soon begin trials in India of its single-shot vaccine.

ED’s silence on Rafale kickbacks

The third part of the Mediapart investigation into the 2016 Rafale deal is explosive, as the French news portal has accessed documents from Enforcement Directorate investigations into the middleman Sushen Gupta. It says that the kickbacks, paid through shell companies in tax havens, run into “several million euros”. The documents also show that Gupta was supplying highly classified documents from India’s negotiating team with Dassault – information that may have helped it strike a better price for the Rafale jets and the reason it pressed for the removal of the crucial anti-corruption clause in the agreement with the Indian government.

Rohingyas can be deported, but not summarily

After the Centre covered itself in glory by trying to deport a 14-year-old Rohingya girl, and forbade states bordering Myanmar from sheltering refugees, the issue of Rohingyas in holding facilities in Jammu is partly resolved: the Supreme Court has said that they cannot be summarily deported to Myanmar, without due process. However, the door to eventual deportation, which would contravene India’s international obligations towards human rights, remains open thanks to the Supreme Court’s reasoning, which the legal scholar Gautam Bhatia calls ‘complicity with genocide’.

There are reports that at least six lawmakers from Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD in Myanmar are sheltering in India after fleeing their country for fear of arrest by the military junta. Their presence is bound to create further diplomatic complications for New Delhi, which has been too clever by half from the beginning of the trouble, alienating everyone, including sections of India’s Northeastern population.

The Long Cable

Government’s vaccine monopoly reduces Modi’s ‘Jab Fest’ to a black joke  

MK Venu

With his great communication skills, PM Modi often invokes visual imagery which can captivate his audience. But it becomes somewhat surreal when it is invoked against the grim backdrop of the second big surge of Covid-19, with hospitals overflowing and the states complaining of vaccine shortages. 

Modi spoke to chief ministers yesterday and called for a ‘Tika Utsav’, a countrywide jab fest. Ironically, the festive spirit is called for when most states have just two days of vaccine supplies left. Maharashtra is in the eye of the storm for political reasons but other states like Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have also reported vaccine shortages. Sangeeta Reddy, co-owner of the Apollo Hospital group, told NDTV that there is a vaccine shortage at the district level in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

How do you define a shortage? Shortage in relation to what? TS Singh Deo, health minister of Chhattisgarh, hit the nail on the head when he said that if states get fewer vaccines than they can administer, going by overall demand, then it should be deemed a shortage. Demand has suddenly shot up because of the panic created by the second surge. We see serpentine queues in hospitals and medical stores in Tier 2 and 3 cities, where the virus is spreading much more this time. Currently, the overall supply of vaccines is roughly 4 million doses a day, but as the wave peaks, there could be a need to scale up immediately by over 50%. So each state might require a 50% increase in its quota immediately. This demand could grow further. 

The all-important question is whether the existing production capacity of just two manufacturers can meet the growing demand in the next few weeks. Modi’s invocation of a “festival of vaccinations” really depends on how fast the production of Covishield by the Serum Institute of India and Covaxin by Bharat Biotech can be scaled up from present levels. 

At present, Covishield constitutes over 90% of the vaccine supply. The Serum Institute has the capacity to produce 60 million doses a month and its promoter Adar Poonawala has been seeking bridge finance from the government to enhance capacity to produce 100 million doses to meet the growing demand. At present, the Serum Institute cannot meet even its current export commitment of over 60 million doses. 

Bharat Biotech, which makes Covaxin, has much smaller capacity, probably less than 15 million doses a month. Like the Serum Institute, Bharat Biotech had also asked for capital support from the government to ramp up capacity in February. Predictably, the babus have been slow to respond to the need for additional capital. 

The truth is that the Centre has been very slow in anticipating the need for capacity expansion to deal with a second surge of infections, which would require a much higher level of vaccination.  This problem has occurred largely because a bunch of bureaucrats at the Centre have been put in charge of decision-making on production and distribution capacity across the country. On the one hand, Modi argues that bureaucrats should not run businesses, and on the other, he totally centralises the business of procuring and distributing vaccines. Since the government is the sole buyer in a monopsony, it influences decisions on capacity expansion. If this had been left to the private sector, with the government just setting a price and subsidising the poor, things would have been very different.  

Why the Modi government is so insistent on centralising procurement is inexplicable. And when things go wrong, it blames distribution problems on the states. Union minister Prakash Javdekar yesterday said the Centre only procures the vaccines and distribution at the district level is the states’ responsibility. So, would Javdekar please explain the failure of BJP states? He must stop this blame game and accept primary responsibility. There are problems with the present system.

The basic approach is flawed. Governments, whether at the Centre or in the states, can never be efficient procurers and distributors, especially when capacity is virtually licensed, because the Centre is a monopsony buyer. This is exactly like the good old license raj. Only competition among vaccine makers and decentralised private distribution, with multiple players including Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Sputnik, could create the dynamics for smooth supply and prevent the current political football being played between the Centre and states. 

The larger blame for this suboptimal system must lie at the Prime Minister’s door. It is hypocritical on his part to talk about a vaccine festival when there is a shortage of capacity and a clear lack of vaccine players in the market, due to bad government policy. Pfizer had applied for a licence last December. It withdrew its application when tedious questions were raised by bureaucrats. Similarly, Sputnik V and Johnson & Johnson are writing for clearance from the authorities to start distributing. Questions which were ignored before allowing Covaxin and Covishield to start distribution are being raised with other credible players wanting to enter the market. If sarkari babus think they can run the vaccine production and distribution business, then we are doomed. We cannot afford this because lives and livelihoods are at stake. The damage bureaucrats do will take years to be undone.

It is time PM Modi takes some important decisions to undo the damage already done. After the lockdown last year, Modi spoke about how the great Mahabharata war was won in 18 days! That is history. Now, if we can’t win this war against a virus even with the benefit of the Brahmastra in the form of multiple vaccines, it would be a dreadful tragedy.


Class act

Biocon’s Kiran Mazumdar Shaw plumbed the depths, tweeting that income tax payers must be prioritised for the vaccine, since “if they die, how will the country survive?” Then she deleted the tweet, for a reason that’s worse. She claimed that she hadn’t been serious, and that Indians lack a sense of humour! The ignorance of such a prominent industrialist, often the toast of TV studios, is galling. She doesn’t seem to be aware that everyone, repeat everyone, pays taxes, even a person below the poverty line buying a packet of salt, because almost all goods bear an indirect tax. India, by the way, has shown a sharp decline of numbers in the middle class and a steep rise in poverty. Its billionaires have done exceptionally well, on the other hand. It was just a rotten tweet at the expense of the poor, who are disproportionately exposed to the pandemic.

Farmers to get direct money, arhtiyas suffer

Farmers in Punjab will be forced to get direct online MSP payment in the upcoming procurement season, after the Modi government rejected the Congress ruled state’s demand for exemption from the DBT route. “We have no option and choice,” Punjab Finance Minister Manpreet Badal said after a nearly two-hour meeting with Food Minister Piyush Goyal, who categorically told the state that the Centre will make procurements and reimburse related costs only if the state pays directly to farmers and not through arhtiyas. 

Prime Number: 58%
The hike in the price, effective April 1, of a 50 kg bag of di-ammonium phosphate (DAP), the most widely consumed fertiliser in India after urea, from Rs 1,200 to Rs 1,900, announced by the country’s largest fertiliser seller – the Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative (IFFCO). IFFCO has also significantly increased the maximum retail prices of other popular complex fertilisers with different NPKS (nitrogen, phosphorus, potash and sulphur) proportions.

Deep Dive

Tamil cinema for beginners

Politics, social tensions, and comedy all find a home in Tamil cinema. ‘Masters’ in looks at Tamil memes derived from popular cinema, which inserts itself into every aspect of life.

Murderously assaulted on camera like George Floyd, no action taken

Made to forcibly sing the national anthem. Beaten so badly that he later died of his injuries. The Washington Post reports that one year later, not a single member of the Delhi Police in the videos has been identified or charged for Faizan’s death during the Delhi riots.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Cricket is falling behind, says Samreen Razzaque ― this is what the Moeen Ali-Taslima Nasreen episode tells us about cricket’s tryst with identity and beliefs.

  • History will not be kind to the Indian judicial leadership of recent years, for it has undermined public trust in the institution. The new Chief Justice-designate NV Ramana has his task cut out to restore lost public faith in the judiciary and he must behave like TN Seshan, writes Harish Khare.

Listen Up

Caste in the city

Labour historian Juned Shaikh discusses his book Outcaste Bombay, which examines the interplay of caste and class in the city in the 20th century. With a focus on urban outcastes, it studies transnational processes — capitalism, Marxism, urban planning, literature — to trace their interaction with city-making and urban politics, selfhood and cultural life.

Watch Out

The dodginess of the Rafale deal

Yann Philippin of Mediapart has unearthed several new and disturbing details of the Rafale deal. He tells Mitali Mukherjee why he believes the Enforcement Directorate has enough material to conduct an investigation into kickbacks paid by Dassault Aviation in the Rafale deal, to the middleman Sushen Gupta. 

Over and Out

Police in Sri Lanka have arrested reigning Mrs World Caroline Jurie, after she allegedly injured a fellow beauty queen in an on-stage bust-up (see this space in The India Cable yesterday). Jurie crowned Pushpika De Silva Mrs Sri Lanka, but on second thoughts, she pulled the crown off again claiming, incorrectly, that she could not hold the title as she was divorced.

As Modi was mocked for giving dubious advice to students on attempting tough exam questions before the easy ones ― ironically, he avoids difficult questions himself ― the PM’s office and the Press Information Bureau deleted their tweets about the Pariksha pe Charcha 2021 event. Social media users and Opposition parties had a ball ridiculing the prime minister’s questionable suggestion. The full programme was available on Amazon Prime. People wondered if it was there thanks to the taxpayer’s money ― or worse, that it was hosted gratis by the streaming platform.

Music maestro Ilaiyaraaja and his composer son Yuvan Raja partner for the first time in the Thattiputa song. Ilaiyaraaja sings it in this video about the making of the song.

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.