The India Cable: Vaccination Lags, Govt Offers Scientific BS; Shah’s Victory Claims Fact-Checked

Plus: Centre contradicts secretary on Covid, police brutality returns as pandemic grows, 105-year-old voter walks to poll booth, weird effects of technology on art business and politics of mapmaking

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 7, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

The Adani Group yesterday crossed the $100 billion-mark. Only three other Indian companies rank higher, and they took time to get there. India has contributed the most to world poverty during the pandemic. The middle-class has shrunk by a third.

India should have done more to protect jobs during the pandemic, a senior partner of global consultancy McKinsey said. Alok Kshirsagar said the UK ran a very effective programme to protect employment through the payroll protection initiative, while the US was not so effective because of poor targeting. “I think in India, frankly, we should have done more to protect employment in some way, shape or form,” he said.

If the Chinese side agrees, the 11th round of India-China military talks to resolve the standoff on the Ladakh border may be held on April 9. They would include discussions for resolving the situation at Gogra-Hot Springs and at the Depsang Bulge. The last round of military talks to resolve border tensions that began last May was held on February 20. 

A senior official of the Modi government, during a secretary-level meeting on the Covid-19 situation in the country on Monday, expressed apprehension that the ongoing Kumbh Mela could become a “super spreader” event. However, the Centre has ‘fact-checked’ that. The chief minister of BJP-ruled Uttarakhand said that all “unnecessary” restrictions imposed to contain the pandemic will be removed and asserted that “faith is stronger than fear”. The annual Kailash Mansarovar yatra may be cancelled this year, since no preparatory meetings have been held by the Ministry of External Affairs.

Published yesterday, the second report by the French news portal Mediapart has dug deeper into the Rafale jets scam and raised questions about the less than transparent manner in which the National Financial Prosecutor’s Office, or Parquet National Financier (PNF), effectively disposed of a 2018 complaint filed by well-known anti-corruption NGO Sherpa. It questions the sub-contracting to Anil Ambani’s defence company, days after it was formed. It’s enough to corner any government, but then… Rahul Bedi throws more light on the role agents like Sushen Gupta play in a major defence deal.

Indian authorities have twice declared that the pandemic is over, once in an infamous graph in May 2020, and then a committee declared, before the festival season last year, that the “peak had been reached.” But as The Economist now reports, India is recording more cases of Covid-19 than any other country, as “cases in India have been rising shockingly fast”.

(via The Economist)

BBC quotes doctors saying there is “no end in sight”. India detected 115,736 new cases of the novel coronavirus on Tuesday, the highest daily increase so far.

Mumbai’s commissioner instructed all assistant municipal commissioners to ensure the beaches stay shut till the end of the month. Distressing visuals have emerged from Madhya Pradesh of the police thrashing auto driver Krishna Keyer. His mask had slipped down his nose when he was on way to meet his ailing father in a hospital. His child stood by wailing. Action against the cops was taken only after the video went out, recalling the police barbarism during the 2020 lockdown. In its report ‘The State of the World’s Human Rights 2020/2021’, Amnesty International has slammed the Indian government for widespread “impunity”, and incidents in which police forced migrants to crawl during the lockdown. 

And there are thousands of fires raging in the Himalayas ― right across western and central Nepal, as well as in Uttarakhand. This year’s fire season is “the worst in living memory”.


Failing to vaccinate at scale, govt offers scientific BS

As the clamour for expansion of the vaccine drive to include all above 18 years increases, the Modi government has said there is no scientific rationale or reason behind the “jab for all adults” argument. “Vaccine strategy is simple. Vaccines are not to be given to those desirous of vaccines. They are to be given to those in need of vaccines,” said the Union health secretary, after Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray wrote to PM Modi demanding lowering the vaccine age to 25. The government’s argument is a cover-up for its inability to vaccinate more people and is not borne out by the practice in many countries, including China, the US, the UK or Israel. Eyebrows are being raised at the Indian government’s vaccine hesitancy. 

Without sufficient vaccination, the only alternative is a lockdown. But India’s economic recovery is still “shallow” and a month’s national lockdown can dent GDP by up to 2%, a report by BofA Securities has warned. “It remains to be seen if this second wave of Covid-19 cases subsides without a national level lockdown,” the report said. Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund upgraded its growth projection for India to 12.5% for FY22 from 11.5% estimated in January, but cautioned that it has not factored in the second wave of the pandemic and that the economic outlook of Asia’s third largest economy faces severe downside risk.

India’s services sector, which was limping back to normalcy, is again staring at a crisis as the second wave sweeps through the country. Travel, dining, shopping, salons and movies, which require contact or face-to-face interactions that many are now likely to avoid, are bracing for a long summer of struggle, just as they thought they had finally emerged from the economic maelstrom of the past 12 months. 


Judiciary dismally short of women judges 

The Supreme Court Women Lawyers Association has approached the top court seeking adequate representation in the higher judiciary, saying women’s participation in the justice delivery system is an important agent of societal progress and gender equality. In an application, they pointed to the dismal representation of women as judges in the Supreme Court and High Courts. Among the 1,080 sanctioned posts of permanent and additional judges, only 661 posts are occupied, and only 73 by women, accounting for just 11.04%, they said.


Strain on SII’s international obligations

The Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer, will be able to restart exports of AstraZeneca doses by June if new coronavirus infections subside in the country. But a continued surge could result in more delays because the company would have to meet domestic needs, and won’t be able to resume its contracted supplies for the UN-backed Covax scheme for the poor countries. On March 25, Covax announced a major setback in its vaccine rollout because a surge in infections in India forced SII to cater to domestic demand, resulting in a delay in global shipments of up to 90 million doses. See this Twitter thread for more details. The company has already been served a legal notice by AstraZeneca and is looking for investment from the government to augment production.

The ban on exports has put a “strain on our contractual obligations” to provide vaccines to other countries, the CEO said, adding that he has been fielding phone calls from heads of state. He said the shortage of raw materials like lab media could affect SII’s production of another vaccine, Novavax, which is still being tested in India. SII has signed a deal to supply Novavax to Covax, but pivoting to different suppliers of the raw materials would result in a delay of five to six months, he said.


TikTok owner gets relief

Chinese company ByteDance, owner of the popular video app TikTok banned by the Modi government last year, has been permitted by the Bombay High Court to operate its Indian bank accounts, which were frozen by the GST authorities over alleged tax evasion, after depositing Rs 78.91 crore in a state-run bank. The indirect taxes department has accused ByteDance of evading taxes, which the Chinese firm denied. 


The Long Cable

Tech triggers tulip mania in art, brings propaganda to mapmaking 

Pratik Kanjilal

Three weeks ago, Everydays: The First 5,000 Days by digital artist Beeple was picked up at a Christie’s auction by pseudonymous crypto evangelist and entrepreneur MetaKovan for $69 million. It was the first purely digital work sold by the auction house, and it sent the trade in NFTs (non-fungible tokens, signifying ownership of art) soaring. 

In April 2020, a WHO map showed parts of Ladakh in China, and Jammu and Kashmir in a different colour from the rest of India. In October, Twitter was hauled over the coals by a joint parliamentary committee for the same offence. It remained dissatisfied by Twitter’s explanation. But a very good explanation exists for all three events: they are unpredictable consequences of technological development. 

Metakovan was later revealed to be Vignesh Sundaresan, and he and his associate Anand Venkateswaran had bought Beeple’s work because they consider it to be a significant element of art history. But is it, structurally? In an article in The Atlantic, technologist and writer Anil Dash traces the origins of NFTs to a hackathon in New York City in 2014, where he worked with artist and programmer Kevin McCoy on a way to monetise graphics, at a time when work is freely shared online to the point that the idea of an original becomes meaningless. Dash refers to the booming Tumblr culture of the time, and borrowing and sampling have become drivers of creativity across platforms, from DeviantArt to Soundcloud.  

Their solution was to bind artwork to a blockchain, establishing unique ownership of the original through a non-fungible token (NFT). But there’s a catch, Dash explains ― it’s too cumbersome to encode every byte of an artwork to a blockchain, so typically, only the URL where the original is hosted is included. What happens to the ‘original’ if the hosting company collapses five years later? Does the image remain a valuable part of art history, as MetaKovan believes? Or was its value permanently established by the sale price, and Beeple’s image no longer matters?

McCoy and Dash’s intention was to create a system of unique identification of originals among millions of copies online, and in the phones and computers of users, to allow all creative artists to make a living from copy-able art. However, it seems to have created a new ‘tulip craze’ which seeks ever-higher price points for a few, to drive up a new speculative market for tycoons to stash their spare change. 

The Chinese aggression on maps of India and its neighbours can be traced not to a technological innovation, but to technology policy ― the system of open source and open access. In November 2020, there were reports that China had set up a village 2 km within territory claimed by Bhutan in the Doklam area, where it was involved in a standoff with India in 2017. Reading about it in the New York Times, coder and map fiend Nick Doiron went to OpenStreetMaps (OSM) to look at the location and fill in some details. He was surprised to find buildings already marked with a level of detail that was not available in the public domain. The map had been marked up by a Chinese handle (abusive, and accompanied by a nationalist bio note, how typical!) before the media stories about the new village appeared. This was propaganda, and it was successful ― the level of detail about the village made it a real landscape, and reinforced the image of an unstoppable China building out a new empire.   

OSM is an open map platform to which anyone can contribute, and whose data is used by numerous services we use every day, like Uber, Facebook and GPS devices. However, contributors can bring in their own perceptions and biases, and these can be picked up unwittingly by other mapmakers. In the Doklam map, perhaps this was done professionally, with the help of government and military information. 

Open platforms for text are even more vulnerable to bias than those for images, like map sites. Wikipedia depends on community self-correction, and has a cast-iron system of reference and review to weed out bad content. To preclude something like the Doklam map incident, it also has a code for conflict-of-interest editing. For instance, Indian Health Minister Harsh Vardhan can’t just wade into the Wikipedia page on Covid-19 in India and start editing at will. Another editor would just strike out his edits. But a few years ago, the Bangla Wikipedia became linguistically contested, with editors on either side of the West Bengal-Bangladesh border insisting that only their own edits were authentic. 

The same language is spoken on either side. The pronunciation is very different, though, and so are vocabulary elements ― especially very common words like those for ‘home’ and ‘water’. On this side, ‘water’ is jal, and over there, it’s paani. Over there, home is a basha, but here, it’s a bird’s nest. This completely unanticipated battle over drinking and nesting habits persisted for months, and was not completely resolved. And it arose because of a technology policy which demands a standardised language, even when none exists. 

The Bangla episode may be regarded as whimsical, though we must remember that Bangladesh was born out of a language movement, and they take such things in deadly earnest over there. But the map incident and the NFT tulip mania must be seen as serious instances of technology doing weird, unexpected stuff. 


Reportedly

Parties are making claims and counterclaims about their performance in the Assembly elections, and the media’s enthusiasm for highlighting Amit Shah’s claims is unabated. Ajaz Ashraf has fact-checked his claims so far. The press hails him as Chanakya and features his predictions as gospel truth, without ever mentioning his unblemished track record of getting the numbers wrong. One should never let facts get in the way.


Prime Number: 29.5%
The decline in vehicle registrations in FY21 compared to FY20, according to data from 1,225 regional transport offices in 32 states and union territories. While passenger cars and tractors recovered in the second half of the fiscal led by the festive season, demand for personal mobility and strong agriculture sector performance, sales of two wheeler, three wheeler and commercial vehicle companies remained below pre-Covid levels.

No self-reliance in crude oil

India’s domestic oil and gas production is declining as its energy consumption skyrockets, compounding the country’s energy insecurity. Oil output by ONGC and Oil India has declined by 30% in the last 20 years and the number of new wells dug has fallen substantially. The Modi government’s slogan of ‘Atmanirbharata’ has little meaning in this sector.


CoBRA commando in Maoist captivity

The outlawed CPI(Maoist) has claimed that CoBRA commando Rakeshwar Singh Manhas, who went missing after the April 3 ambush in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region, is in their custody and asked the state government to appoint interlocutors for his release.The Maoists have made no formal demands.

In Jammu, Manhas’ family hope that he would be released without harm. His wife Meenu said she had last talked to her husband at 9.30 pm on Friday and he told her that he was packing food and leaving for an operation. Manhas was posted in Chhattisgarh three months ago. “No CRPF or government official has visited us to brief us about the latest situation,” Meenu said.


Deep Dive

Social welfare in India

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed gaps in the infrastructure of direct benefit transfer (DBT) and the public distribution system (PDS), according to a report titled ‘Delivery of Social Protection Entitlements in India: Unpacking Exclusion, Grievance Redress, and the Relevance of Citizen-Assistance Mechanisms’.  It was collated by Dvara Research, Gram Vaani, researchers from IIT Delhi, the University of Montreal and the Tika Vaani project, under an initiative funded by Azim Premji University.

Around 55% of the DBT-related complaints from March to June were due to faulty Aadhaar linkage, spelling errors and blocked accounts, which led to unsuccessful crediting. In MGNREGA, 66% of the complaints were either problems with work allocation or wage payment processing, while 77% of all complaints pertained to people who had received no work. The analysis of PDS complaints highlighted that many citizens who needed government support were excluded from in-kind transfers under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana because they did not have a ration card, an eligibility criterion. The report also noted discretionary denial and quantity fraud by fair price shop officers.


Prathima Devi dead

Veteran Kannada actor Prathima Devi (88) passed away yesterday in her sleep. A pioneer in so many ways, she left her home in Udupi to follow her passion for acting in a touring theatre company when she was just 11. Her first film, Krishnaleela, released in 1947, when she was 13.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • The new Covid-19 variant in India can hack the immune system more easily. Prafulla Shriyan and Giridhara R Babu write about how we should fight it.


Listen Up

In a podcast with Sidharth Bhatia (a contributor to The India Cable) Bombay Begums lead actor Pooja Bhatt says that the OTT show depicts the real struggles of women. She makes a comeback on the screen after 21 years.


Watch Out

Abhijaan, the film on Soumitra Chatterjee which features the actor and was shot recently, before he passed away in November 2020.


Over and Out

While the influence of colonialism on Indian food has been closely researched, the colonisation of India also influenced global food ― kedgeree, fritters, chokha and a spread of desserts. 

When election officials visited the home of 105-year-old K Marappa Gounder at Karupparayanpalayam near Coimbatore to give him the consent form for postal voting, he humbly refused it. Yesterday, the centenarian walked to the Corporation Elementary School at Karupparayanpalayam, around 300 metres from his house, and cast his vote. According to Gounder, this has been his practice in every election since 1952, and he saw no reason to change the routine. 


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.