The India Cable: ‘Trust Us’, Centre Tells SC; But Where is Modi's Vaccine Policy for the Country?

Plus: Clinicians want guidelines, Dhaka drops India, takes Chinese vaccine, Uttarakhand High Court slams Kumbh, KR Gouri Amma dead, Asaram seeks herbal treatment in Covid epicentre

A newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas | Written by MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam | Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

Snapshot of the day
May 11, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

With Narendra Modi and Amit Shah missing in action, the sound of silence is painfully audible as Indians fight for their lives more or less on their own, abandoned by an apathetic, arrogant and incompetent central government. But cornered in the Supreme Court, the Centre has raised a din and pushed back, warning that “overzealous, though well-meaning, judicial intervention may lead to unforeseen and unintended consequences.” It has urged the court to “trust” the executive, though executive inefficiency has already brought on unimaginable consequences. An open letter to NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant tells him how the government has destroyed the NGOs which could have delivered aid during the pandemic. It also tells him, and the government, to get going or shut up. 

In the neighbourhood, Bangladesh, tired of waiting for Indian vaccines that are indefinitely delayed, awaits its first major shipment from China, due for delivery tomorrow. In Nepal too, where India defaulted on its commitments and cases are skyrocketing, the second dose of China-made Vero Cell vaccine is likely to be administered from May 15, say Nepal dailies.

P. Kandaswamy, former Inspector General in the Central Bureau of Investigation, who had arrested Home Minister Amit Shah in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case, has been appointed Director of Vigilance by the MK Stalin’s DMK government in Tamil Nadu. 

Self-styled godman Asaram Bapu, who is serving a life term for raping a teenager, has sought bail from the Rajasthan High Court for “ayurvedic treatment” in Haridwar after testing Covid-19 positive. The choice of venue is reckless, given current circumstances ― Haridwar is the Covid epicentre of Uttarakhand. 

Science has been a casualty in the Covid-19 battle, but concerned clinicians, public health professionals and scientists have written an open letter to thePrincipal Science Advisor expressing concerns about plasma therapy for Covid-19. They have asked for evidence-informed guidelines at par with global scientific standards. The World Health Organisation declared a coronavirus variant first identified in India as a global “variant of concern,” which may be readily transmissible. B.1.617 is being studied by scientists around the world (much less in India, unfortunately) as they seek its role in the devastating Covid-19 surge in India. WHO Chief Scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan has clarified her widely-reported quote, saying that the variants are being studied but the efficacy of vaccines is beyond doubt. 

A frustrated telecom department has asserted that there is no link between 5G technology and the spread of Covid-19. It urged the public not to be misguided by rumours circulated on social media.

With lockdowns and curfews imposed in several cities and states, and the health crisis growing rapidly, migrant workers have begun to return home in large numbers. The Kerala government says it is opening camps to shelter an anticipated 2,06,808 migrant workers across the state.

Congress party leader in the Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury has written to the President, seeking a session of Parliament on the pandemic and its management, to ease the suffering of the people.

Natasha Narwal walked out of prison last night on three-week interim bail granted by the Delhi High Court, a day after her father died of Covid-19. The law, writes Shahrukh Alam, sees ‘terror’ in the roadblock Natasha is accused of organising and which has kept her in prison for a year without bail, but not in patients gasping for oxygen.

China has equipped its border troops facing India with a modified truck-mounted rocket. Digital versions of PHL-03 long range multiple rocket launchers are mass-deployed to an artillery battalion of the PLA’s Xinjiang Military Command, CCTV said at the weekend.

A Muslim was elected pradhan (panchayat chief) of Rajanpur village in Ayodhya district, UP, about 150 kilometres from Lucknow. In this village, there is only one Muslim family; the rest are all Hindus. Hafiz Azimuddin defeated seven rivals, all from the majority Hindu community.

KR Gouri Amma, one of the founder leaders of the Communist movement in Kerala, passed away in Thiruvananthapuram this morning. She would have turned 102 in July. She was the only surviving member of the first elected Communist ministry in Kerala. A minister in Kerala for six terms, and MLA for nearly five decades, she was once tipped to be chief minister.

And dung therapy, which was talked up during the pandemic, has reached the pages of the New York Post


UP corpses float into Bihar

Several bodies, decomposed, bloated and suspected to be of people who succumbed to Covid-19, were yesterday found floating in the Ganga in Buxar district of Bihar, which borders Uttar Pradesh. The local authorities are investigating if these corpses are floating down from Varanasi, Allahabad, Ghazipur or other locations in UP. Locals claim that the district administration is “in denial over many such unfortunate incidents involving residents of Buxar”. They claim that because of a shortage of wood, many families are forced to dispose of bodies in the river. Often, family members of a Covid victim are not handed over the body by the administration, which claims that it would perform the last rites observing the Covid-19 protocol, they say. The BBC puts the number of bodies at about 40.

In Haridwar, pandemic norms are being openly violated during the last rites, for which people are coming in greater numbers due to the ongoing surge. They are not wearing masks or keeping their distance.


Kumbh superspreader, says Uttarakhand High Court

Madras, Bombay, Karnataka, Delhi and now Uttarakhand ― the High Courts continue their withering scrutiny of governmental neglect during the second wave. 

The Uttarakhand High Court focused on several points yesterday, while examining the policy of a state which has been instrumental in amplifying the second wave. It chastised the BJP government for ignoring expert opinion: “In January 2021 the scientific community kept on warning about the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, the State did not pay any heed.” It also termed this year’s Kumbh Mela as a super-spreader event affecting the whole country, which the state government carelessly allowed. It noted that its affidavit has been drafted “very cleverly” so as to scuttle the court’s previous orders. It observed that though Haridwar is the epicentre of the pandemic in Uttarakhand, there isn’t a single government lab there. The court gave 11 instructions to the state to secure people’s lives, and it must re-file its affidavit by May 18. The matter will be heard on May 20.

A report in The Caravan magazine last week had quoted BJP sources as saying that the previous chief minister lost his job because he had wanted restrictions at the Kumbh. Trivendra Singh Rawat himself now denies a link, telling the Times of India, “I don’t think that the Akhadas were displeased” with what he was planning. But he added: “I had apprehensions about the infection spreading and therefore my government had made plans accordingly. It is not right for me to comment on anything as the facts are now before the people.”


Again, Modi government tries online gag  

The Modi government has told social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to control misinformation and content that could “disturb public order”. The advisory reminds social media companies that they are classified as intermediaries under the law, and instructs platforms to “initiate awareness campaigns” among users to not circulate “any false news or misinformation”. The government has not made this advisory public. 

While the present advisory does not explicitly advocate more censorship of criticism, the government has, on at least two instances, tried to scrub social media of critical posts under the pretext of controlling misinformation and preserving public order. During the farmers’ protests earlier this year, the government had ordered Twitter to block multiple tweets and accounts using the hashtag #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide. Recently, the government used similar language when justifying the takedown of over 50 tweets, some critical of the government. 


Fuel prices hiked yet again

After a two-day pause, state-run oil companies have once again raised petrol and diesel rates by 26 paise per litre and 33 paise a litre, respectively. In Delhi, petrol is retailing at Rs 91.53 per litre and diesel at Rs 82.06 a litre, an all-time high. In the run-up to the state elections, the Centre had tactically stalled price hikes temporarily to stem gathering public outrage. India has the world’s highest fuel taxes, a whopping 69%, according to an assessment last year.


The Long Cable

To save lives and livelihoods, Modi must declare vaccine policy immediately

MK Venu

The Centre has told the Supreme Court that it should trust the wisdom of the executive in implementing the right vaccine policy. However, the fact is that there is no clearly articulated national vaccine policy. 

The states have been left to negotiate prices and volumes to vaccinate the 18-44 age group and there is no clarity on the quantum of vaccines that will be made available for the next three months, after which a production expansion of Covisheld and Covaxin is expected. Until the end of July, the country will have to make do with the existing domestic capacity of 70 million doses a month. Based on domestic capacity, a little over 2 million doses can be administered per day until end-July. The imported Russian vaccine Sputnik V is also meant to be administered from the third week of May, but no estimate of quantities has been provided by the company. It would probably depend on the price negotiated by the government.

Clearly, the government finds itself in a weak bargaining position since it has lost four months since January, when it could have ordered larger quantities from domestic producers at better prices. Indeed, the Centre and Serum Institute of India could negotiate a price of Rs 150 per dose for the initial lot of Covisheld partly because the pandemic didn’t seem so threatening then, and the government was taking the risk of fast-tracking regulatory clearances. The situation has changed qualitatively and the Centre admits in its affidavit to the Supreme Court that due to “peculiar” and “unprecedented circumstances”, it is pursuing a policy in which states are being permitted to negotiate prices with various manufacturers in India and abroad. What the affidavit doesn’t state explicitly is that the vaccine makers have more power to dictate terms now, given the “unprecedented” conditions brought on by the second wave. 

The Centre has also admitted in its affidavit that it cannot invoke statutory pricing norms ― by imposing a fixed price on producers ― because differential pricing and competition is needed for building sustained production in the country. This is another admission that the vaccine producers now have the leverage to bargain, in the wake of the second wave. 

How does the Centre deal with this predicament? One way is for the Centre and the states to work together and negotiate a bulk discount with vaccine producers for supply of 1 billion vaccines. If every state strikes a separate deal, it brings down the collective bargaining power of government. It is a better idea for the Centre and states to buy through one window, and the states can then pick up their share. 

If the second wave peak recedes in a few weeks, the Centre and states can wrest back some of their bargaining power, which is based on the ability to place big orders. For this to work, the Centre has to clearly spell out its policy. At the moment, its only policy seems to be abdication of responsibility, by telling the Supreme Court that the states are responsible for vaccinating the 18-44 age group.

Prime Minister Modi is solely responsible for India’s vaccination policy mess as it has developed from November 2020 to April 2021. There is no escaping this reality. He can now retrieve the situation by taking the Opposition on board and formally announcing free vaccination for 800-900 million Indians via public health centres. The Centre and states cannot afford to act as multiple, fragmented entities in implementing a national immunisation programme. The government (Centre plus states) must act as one to bargain for the best price, but administering the vaccines can be a decentralised exercise. This would require clarity of thought and purpose. Vaccination policy cannot be allowed to become a political football. It is the Centre’s primary responsibility to ensure this, and it is absolutely essential if India is to save lives and livelihood in the medium term. 

The time-sensitive nature of the vaccine policy has shockingly eluded the Modi government. Now, the PM needs to prioritise urgently. His spin doctors are busy projecting him as a champion of patent waiver and the mass production of vaccines in India. That would take its own time, as WTO negotiations are very complex and it is not easy to go from IP waiver to manufacturing unless the technology and manufacturing process is also shared. What is needed immediately is to make vaccines available for a critical mass of Indians over the next six months. We roughly need 8-10 million vaccinations a day to jab 800-900 million people with two doses by the end of the year. Is the Centre equal to this task?


Reportedly

In the West Bengal Assembly elections, the BJP trailed in 10 Lok Sabha seats out of 18 which it had won in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. These include the Raiganj and Asansol seats of two Union ministers, Debasree Chaudhuri and Babul Supriyo, MP Locket Chatterjee’s Chinsurah and the Midnapore Lok Sabha constituency of BJP state president Dilip Ghosh. Though the party’s tally has gone up to 77 from 3, this phenomenon will cost the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. That all 77 newly elected BJP MLAs in West Bengal will have central security cover won’t help their image, either.


Apple’s India expansion stalled

Apple’s efforts to diversify production from China to India have been hit by the Covid-19 crisis, and analysts wonder if India can ever become a smartphone manufacturing and export hub. According to a report by Taiwanese news agency CNA on Saturday, Foxconn confirmed that 10 Chinese engineers in Chennai have Covid-19. Wistron Corporation, another key player in Apple’s manufacturing chain, which had seen labour violence earlier, closed its plant in south India for five days after a spate of Covid-19 cases.


Olympic wrestler absconding

Delhi Police have issued a lookout notice against the country’s only two-time individual Olympic medalist, Sushil Kumar. The champion has been absconding since May 4, after a young wrestler died in a brawl at Chhatrasal Stadium. Police have registered a case of murder and an investigation is underway.


Prime Number: 1,952
Thats the number of railway employees who have died of Covid-19 since March 2020. About 1,000 are getting infected every day.

Deep Dive

Monsoon gusts that drive wind farms are inexplicably slowing, and experts are blaming climate change catalysed by global warming and erratic rainfall patterns. India’s renewable energy transition dreams are at stake due to fickle winds.


Virus takes toll on central forces

A total of 271 personnel of the seven central armed police forces ― CRPF, BSF, CISF, ITBP, SSB, NSG and NDRF ― have succumbed to the pandemic so far. The CRPF has lost 108 personnel, the highest among all the central forces. 


J&K LG loses handle, gets it back

The official Twitter handle of Lt Governor of Jammu and Kashmir Manoj Sinha was suspended briefly yesterday with Raj Bhawan officials maintaining that it was a technical error. The @OfficeOfLGJandK handle with over 50,000 followers had an account suspension notice displayed with a line below reading “Twitter suspends accounts which violate the Twitter Rules”. The handle was subsequently restored.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • India’s inability to prioritise public health infrastructure improvement has prevented it from claiming to be a regional power. It has emerged as a loser allowing its bête noire, China, to fulfill its regional ambitions, writes Sanjay Kapoor.


Listen Up

Nilanjana Bhowmick shares her thoughts on farm protests in India in episode 187 of The Quarantine Tapes. She wrote a recent cover story on women leading the farmers’ protests in India. She talks about the hope she has seen in those protests, and what it means to have women at the front of the movement.


Watch Out

Director and now actor, SJ Suryah talks about Bruce Lee, acting, directing, God, second chances, Karthik Subbaraj, climbing mountains, wanting to be tamed by other directors, Rajinikanth​​, philosophy, and Radha Mohan’s Bommai, in which he plays a mannequin painter.


Over and Out

Lalita Krishna, an Indo-Canadian from Toronto who has been making documentaries for over 20 years, is winner of the prestigious Don Haig Award, for lifetime achievement. It’s Asian Heritage month in Canada, but ‘Asian’ isn’t a one-size-fits-all term for many Canadians. It leaves several ‘Asians’ confused.

The story of the Supreme Court’s experiments with Artificial Intelligence: SUVAAS and SUPACE demonstrate first generation AI technologies for the Indian justice system. SUPACE mines files for facts like date, time, place, etc. It can prompt questions and answers relevant to the case at hand. SUVAAS translates English judgements into nine other languages, and vice-versa. 

A family of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka have been in detention in Australia as “unlawful non-citizens” for three years. The Murugappans are a family of four: mother Priya, father Nades, Kopi, and her three-year-old sister Tharunicaa. They are Australia’s most famous asylum seekers, but not known by their surname ― they’re “the Biloela family”, named after the small town where they lived for four years.


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.