The India Cable: Vaccine Clearance Could be Days Away, Population Explosion is a Myth 

Plus: Tesla to enter India soon, 2020 a bad year for journalists, film on JNU blocked by censors, Modi’s metro fib, and Hindu Mahasabha seeks assurance that vaccines have nothing to do with cows  

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
December 29, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

The chief of the All India Hindu Mahasabha and the Sant Sabha suspects an “international conspiracy to destroy religion by using cow’s blood, meat or fat in the name of corona vaccine and medicine.” In 1857, Barrackpore and Meerut rose in revolt on similar suspicions. Do we face a middle class anti-vaxxer rising now? 

The Mahasabha is confused by history. The word ‘vaccine’ does derive from the Latin vacca, which means ‘cow’. But that’s only because Edward Jenner made the world’s first vaccine, against human smallpox, from the pus of cows infected with cowpox, which he termed Variolae vaccinae. Smallpox has been eradicated, and cows have no place in vaccine development labs any more. 

Europe launched its vaccination drive on Sunday, and on Monday India started a dummy run for vaccine delivery in four states spanning the regions ― Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab, and Assam. The Serum Institute of India, which is manufacturing the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine candidate, expects regulatory clearance in days rather than weeks. However, only a small fraction of the population can be vaccinated, and a vaccine shortage is expected in the first half of 2021. Meanwhile, Union Minister of State for Health Ashwini Choubey has tested positive for coronavirus. 

The Home Ministry has extended Covid-19 control measures until January 31, partly due to the emergence of a new variant of the virus in the UK. Six people who travelled to India from the UK were found to be positive with the new variant: three of the samples tested positive in NIMHANS, Bengaluru, two in CCMB, Hyderabad and one in NIV, Pune. Nevertheless, the Sensex and Nifty hit record highs, propelled by the Brexit deal, the US stimulus package and optimism about the vaccine rollout. 

In October, as Harley-Davidson retired hurt from the Indian market, Elon Musk had tweeted to Tesla fans in India that his cars would be available here in 2021. Now, Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari has confirmed that the company will “start operations”. It will be a cautious beginning ― order booking in a few weeks and delivery in the second half of 2021. He also told The Indian Express that Tesla will face competition from Indian electric auto manufacturers, and India will become the “number 1 auto manufacturing hub in five years”. We’ll take the newspaper editorialists’ prescription. We’ll wait and watch. 

You can lose the elections but still be in the government. That is the message the BJP has sent out over the last six years, and its B-team in Kashmir, Altaf Bukhari’s Apni Party, has no qualms about engineering defections (which means buying, seducing, coercing or threatening elected members with active state support) to win the District Development Councils. On such foundations rests Prime Minister Modi’s claims of reviving real democracy in Kashmir. 

Newly elected members of the 20 DDCs in Jammu and Kashmir took the oath of office on Monday. However, People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate Waheed-ur-­Rehman Parra, who is in the custody of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and had sought a court order to take the oath online, could not do so “due to procedural issues”.

Anna Hazare, once a middle class hero hailed as the next Mahatma, has threatened to go on a hunger strike if his demands on issues concerning farmers are not met by the Union government by the end of January ― conveniently, Covid restrictions are scheduled to end that day ― and said it would be his “last protest”. Of course. We take him seriously, even if Arvind Kejriwal no longer does.

A day after Opposition parties criticised the ruling AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu for telecasting an image of Tamil saint and poet Thiruvalluvar in saffron robes on the state-run channel for school students, Kalvi TV, the school education department has clarified that it was a mistake

And the fib of the week comes to us early in the week, from the ever-giving Narendra Modi. Inaugurating India’s first driverless Metro train on Delhi’s Magenta Line (a network pushed by Congress chief minister Sheila Dixit), the Prime Minister said, “First Metro in the country was started due to the efforts of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.” Completely ahistorical bosh. India’s first Metro ran in Kolkata in 1984, when the Stalinist Jyoti Basu was chief minister, and owed much to the industry of Congressman ABA Ghani Khan Choudhury, who was minister for railways in the governments of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. Vajpayee had absolutely nothing to do with it. He was busy elsewhere, building an argument for a flat earth theory.   


JNU film banned from cinemas

Varthamanam, a Malayalam film with Parvathy Thiruvothu in the lead, has been denied permission for screening by the Kerala office of the Central Board of Film Certification. The film, directed by Sidhartha Siva, is about a young woman from Kozhikode who goes to Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi to research a freedom fighter, and the issues she has to face in her journey. Aryadan Shoukath, a senior Congress leader, is the film’s scriptwriter and producer. 

Though other members in the screening committee had suggested a few cuts, two members including advocate V Sandeep Kumar, a BJP leader, rejected the movie, which is highly critical of right wing politics, and said that it could disturb the peace. A screenshot of his deleted Twitter update is being shared, in which he says that the film, which is about the abuse of Dalits and Muslims in a JNU protest, seemed to be “anti-national”. In the deleted tweet, Sandeep wrote that he opposed the film because its scriptwriter and producer is Aryadan Shoukath, possibly referring to Shoukath’s religion or party. 


Bharat Biotech makes unethical promise 

Unable to find enough volunteers for trials of the indigenous Covaxin vaccine candidate, Bharat Biotech, which is producing the shot with ICMR, is promising recruits that the vaccine trial will protect them against Covid-19. It is not understood how an incompletely tested vaccine promises to be completely effective. Moreover, some of the volunteers would be on placebo, no more protected than someone who has received nothing. Haryana minister Anil Vij was part of the Covaxin trials and had to be admitted to a top private hospital after contracting Covid.


Farmers, government talk tomorrow

Protesting farmer unions have agreed “in principle” to a government proposal to hold the next round of talks on the new agricultural laws tomorrow, but said the Centre should have spelt out the agenda of the meeting in advance. The government’s invitation followed the unions’ proposal last week to hold talks today. Five rounds of formal talks held between the Centre and 40 protesting farmer unions remained inconclusive.

Apart from providing essentials, people are now donating books for protesting farmers. A total of 1,561 mobile towers have been impacted in Punjab by the protesting farmers, according to an official statement. The state has 21,306 mobile towers spread across its 22 districts.

While the government argues that it is giving farmers the advantage of free markets for their produce, the Modi government continues with non-market interventions. It has lifted the export ban on all varieties of onions, which was imposed in September due to a spurt in prices, with effect from January 1 next year.


Urban millennials felt Covid pinch 

A survey of urban millennials has revealed how badly their household budgets have been battered by the Covid crisis. More than three-fourths of the 10,000 people surveyed in 23 urban centres said they experienced financial stress after India’s lockdown. About half reported having to dip into their savings and about a third said they had to borrow to meet expenses. Unaddressed, this stress can spell a long demand slump in the economy.


The Long Cable

India’s population not exploding, both demographic politics and policy dangerously wrong 

Seema Chishti

This has to be among the big success stories of India. The overriding message that the National Family and Health Survey (NFHS) 5, also called India’s Health Census, conveyed was of dramatically falling fertility rates. India’s fertility rate is now below replacement levels (as measured by the Total Fertility Rate or TFR of 2.1) in 19 of 22 states. It implies that all talk of a population explosion is plain untrue and narratives built around fears of India’s population going out of hand are just not borne out by data. Speaking at a Population Foundation of India seminar last week KS James, director, International Institute for Population Sciences and a health expert and demographer, called it a “remarkable development”. 

Now, only Bihar, Meghalaya and Manipur have TFRs above 2.1. James did refer to what demographers call ‘momentum effect’, or the fact that population would continue to grow for a few years, as women who can give birth have already been born at the end of the last century. But fears fanning the petition in the Supreme Court by BJP leader Ashwini Upadhyay, asking for a population control law to enforce the two-child norm, and in the Rajya Sabha, a private member’s Population Regulation Bill 2019 introduced by Rakesh Sinha, suggesting curtailed fundamental rights for parents of more than two children, are wholly unjustified.

(Courtesy, Dr Niranjan Saggurti, Country Director, Population Council) 

India’s population growth rate has been decelerating slowly but surely, as witnessed by census data. It was 24.7% between 1971-81 and 17.7% from 2001-11. The Sample Registration Survey (SRS-2018) revealed that the urban TFR in India was down to 1.7, well below the replacement level of fertility. In terms of population, India is the second largest country in the world and set to pull ahead of China soon, but UN estimates of when that would happen keep getting pushed back.The Lancet on July 14, 2020 predicted that population decline in India could be far more rapid than thought of earlier. It projected that India is expected to reach its peak population of 1.6 billion by 2048, after which continual fertility declines would take its population to 1.1 billion in 2100.

That India has been able to prevent its population from skyrocketing, without taking recourse to coercive measures like neighbouring China’s restrictive one-child norm, must gladden hearts. But some things need urgent attention. The narrative, for a variety of political and social reasons, is about our  “teeming millions”, encouraging the practice of seeing people not as assets or resources, but as problems. This has enabled a politics which finds it easy to dismiss welfare economics or the capabilities approach, which were so necessary to develop a country like India.

The basis of divisive laws like the anti-conversion laws in the states of UP and MP, targeting inter-faith marriages and tearing apart India’s social fabric, are false fears of dwindling Hindu numbers propagated by political Hindu groups, as the fear of a population explosion of Muslims enjoys currency. It is this logic which legitimises the idea of forcibly preventing ‘marriages by conversion’. Fixing the narrative, by giving clear numbers of all communities showing declining TFRs, should take away the ammunition the ‘population explosion’ hypothesis provided. In the 21st century, despite regional variations, no doubt Muslim TFRs (2.7) are slightly higher than for Hindus overall (2.1), but the fall in the Muslim TFR (1.4) from 2001 to 2011, has been much more than for Hindus (1.0) and the gap has also been narrowing (down to 0.6).

India has been making much of a ‘demographic dividend’, assuming that its productive population would be among the youngest in the world for a long time and would give it an economic advantage for many years. That optimism needs tempering. Policies would need to be oriented towards taking care of larger numbers of the aged which it can expect in the near future, and thinking of healthcare in those terms. India has no plans anymore, but any preparation for the future would have to accept a different kind of reality, with its social and economic implications, and for the objective of health for all.

Worsening trends in child stunting and public health, combined with rising economic inequality and social strife as the productive population diminishes, point to a situation where India should worry about not just missing the bus, but losing the way altogether. It poses questions for which the current government appears to have no answers. The reality is stark. India’s population is not ‘exploding’ and our conversations as well as policy prescriptions must change in sync with this new reality.


Over 60 journalists, mainly in BJP-ruled states, faced criminal cases in 2020

The Free Speech Collective records in its report, Behind Bars: Arrests and Detentions of Journalists in India 2010-2020, a sharp rise in criminal cases lodged against journalists in India for their work. The majority were filed in BJP-ruled states. This has contributed to a deterioration in the climate for free speech in India. In the last decade, 154 journalists in India were arrested, detained, interrogated or served show cause notices for their professional work and a little over 40% of these cases fell in 2020. Nine foreign journalists faced deportation, arrest, interrogations or were denied entry into India.


Prime number: 63%
The percentage of residents in Assam who are yet to get Aadhaar cards, as the BJP state government is set to miss another deadline for Aadhaar enrolment. Aadhaar enrolment in Assam remained delayed for over four years owing to “citizenship concerns”, despite a pilot project in three districts in 2014. The state government even had to seek permission from the UIDAI to exempt residents in the state from mandatory linking of Aadhaar cards with bank accounts and other documents. 

The exercise was delayed due to apprehensions that illegal migrants might acquire Aadhaar cards and show them as proof of citizenship. The state government decided to start the process in May 2018 after the Centre clarified that Aadhaar neither confers nor is proof of citizenship.

John Lewis’ Gandhi-King exchange programme begins

US President Donald Trump has signed into law the Gandhi-King Scholarly Exchange Initiative which, among other things, paves the way for establishing an educational forum between America and India to study the work and legacies of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Written by civil rights icon John Lewis, who died early this year, and co-sponsored by Indian-American Congressman Ami Bera, the new law authorises $1 million a year through fiscal 2025 for the Gandhi-King Scholarly Exchange Initiative. It also authorises $2 million for just FY 2021 for the Gandhi-King Global Academy, and $30 million for 2021 for the US-India Gandhi-King Development Foundation.


India’s Cricket XI wins

Underdogs India minus Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Mohd Shami pulled off a spectacular victory in the prestigious Boxing Day Test at Melbourne, levelling the series after a dismal record of the lowest batting total ever, of 36 all out, in the previous Test. Gritty captain Ajinkya Rahane won a medal today named after and made from the belt buckle of the first aboriginal cricketer to receive such recognition, Johnny Mullagh. This is about Cricket Australia’s Reconciliation Action Plan. Besides, there is an interesting correlation with basketball. 


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • The stark military reality of a two-­front challenge, one that is likely to grow stronger over the years, must serve as a wake­up call for the political leadership in New Delhi, and encourage it to look for ways to ease the pressure from either front. It could also lead to a potential rapprochement with Pakistan, argue Lt Gen DS Hooda (retd) and Happymon Jacob.

  • Whatever form the next phase of India’s mission to eliminate undernutrition takes, reversals experienced by a majority of districts on nutrition indicators suggest that India needs to make food security a centrepiece of its overall development agenda, says SV Subramanian.

  • India would be more resilient had it resisted irrational exuberance and diagnosed and repaired early structural weaknesses like a poorly educated and underfed labour force and underinvestment in the rural sector, says Pankaj Mishra, arguing that the world’s most prominent democracies need to learn humility


Listen up

Navyug Gill of William Paterson University speaks on the recent farmers’ protests in India. He discusses the protests, Sikhism,Modi, global capitalism and how we can intertwine faith, anti-capitalism and dissent against the status quo to build new visions for the future. 


Watch Out

Shamsur Rehman Faruqi, the South Asian literary doyen who died on Saturday, was well known to fans of Urdu literature. Listen to him in English, discussing literary figures and poets like Ghalib and especially Mir Taqi Mir, about whom he wrote four volumes.

(from 08:58)


Rogues’ gallery 

To its embarrassment, the postal department in Kanpur has printed and released postage stamps of gangsters Chhota Rajan and Munna Bajrangi. It is actually not all that shocking, since stamps are no longer purely commemorative and issued by government fiat. Now, the public can pay the post office to print a stamp of their personal heroes and stick it on their mail. But a stamp of Chhota Rajan? In this darkest of years for UP, someone in Kanpur retains the subversive spark.  


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.