The India Cable: Vaccine Gap Doubled Without Advice; Botched Black Ops May Cost India Dearly

Plus: FIRs against Twitter and tweeters, first post-vax death confirmed, Chin state CM is refugee in Mizoram, women returning to Test cricket, and in UK, Delta dubbed ‘Johnson variant’

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

Snapshot of the day
June 16, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

After spending months increasing the challenges to mass vaccination, the government has now announced that online registration is not mandatory. The Union Health Ministry said yesterday that any adult can go to the nearest vaccination centre, register on-site and get the shot on the same visit. The statement, clearly made to address serious concerns the Supreme Court had raised about the digital vaccine divide, says that the CoWIN platform is just one of many modes of registration for vaccinations, apart from walk-ins. However, realising that digital registration is impractical and discriminatory, the state government of West Bengal, for instance, has been accepting walk-in registration for months.  

A public health expert has alleged that in March, he alerted the authorities to the spread of the variant subsequently named B.1.617. The government responded that he had communicated information, and not a warning. Facing criticism about the high price of Covaxin in private hospitals, Bharat Biotech has defended the costs saying that the price of Rs 150 per dose to the Centre is “non-competitive and not sustainable in the long run”. Covaxin, the country’s only indigenously developed Covid-19 vaccine, has kept its price at Rs 1,200 per dose to private hospitals.

A district-wise survey by the Hindustan Times reveals that India’s vaccination drive is becoming skewed towards cities and towns, and rural India is increasingly left behind. A person living in urban India is at least 1.8 times more likely to receive a Covid-19 shot than someone living in the hinterland — a matter of concern because around 65% of India resides in rural India.

Schools are expected to reopen in autumn, and in May, a children’s vaccine was reported to have no adverse effects. In the latest development, Phase 3 trials for Zydus Cadila’s ZyCoV-D have begun on 100 children at ICH hospital, Kolkata. Nationwide, the trial covers 1,500 children aged 12-18. 

The Modi government doubled the gap between the two doses of the Covishield (AstraZeneca) Covid-19 vaccine without the advice of the scientific group that it said recommended the increase, three members of the advisory body told Reuters. The Ministry of Health had announced the decision to widen the gap from 6-8 weeks to 12-16 weeks on May 13, when supplies were falling short and the pandemic was surging. It said the extension was recommended by the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (NTAGI), based on real-world evidence, mainly in Britain. Yet the NTAGI scientists, classified by the government as three of the 14 “core members”, said the body did not have enough data to make such a recommendation. The issue is significant because several studies have established that a single shot of Covishield/AstraZeneca provides only 30-35% protection against the Delta variant.

In the UK, Britain’s Opposition Labour Party blamed the surge in Delta variant cases, which has forced a four-week delay to ending the country’s lockdown until July 19, on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s reluctance to ban travel from India, where the highly infectious variant was first identified. Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds went and named it the “Johnson variant”.

India yesterday formally acknowledged the occurrence of AY1, the coronavirus variant that is closely related to the prevailing Delta variant. AY1 or B.1.617.2 has a mutation named K147N that has been associated with the Beta variant, first identified in South Africa, which is linked to high infectivity. Niti Aayog’s VK Paul said it was not yet a variant of concern in India, “or one which has adverse consequences to humanity. We don’t know much about this yet and are studying it, including the prevalence in India.” Sounds like it’s Throwback Wednesday. Recall earlier confident assurances of Indian ministers and officials, which seriously dented India’s reputation for forecasting and planning. 

After a gap of seven years, Indian women will return to Test cricket with a clash with England. Classic and star batsman Cheteshwar Pujara, a few days before the World Test Championship final versus New Zealand at Southampton on Friday, said, “I think Test cricket needs to survive and with this WTC Final, it will definitely help.”


Government confirms first post-vaccination death

The Union Health Ministry has confirmed India’s first Covid vaccine-related death since the beginning of the coronavirus vaccination campaign and classified seven other post-vaccination deaths as “indeterminate”, indicating there is no evidence to connect them to the vaccines. A 68-year-old male died on March 21 after receiving the vaccine, of anaphylaxis or severe allergic reaction, but it’s not clear if the person had received Covishield or Covaxin. 

The confirmed death has come out in a report on causality assessment results of 31 reported cases of Adverse Events Following Immunization, approved by the National AEFI Committee, carried out on February 5, March 9, and March 31, and submitted to the Centre on June 4. It said that 18 deaths were classified as having an inconsistent causal association to vaccination (coincidental, not linked to vaccination), seven were indeterminate, three cases were vaccine product related, one was an anxiety-related reaction and two cases were unclassifiable.


Tamil Nadu Covid deaths much higher than official numbers 

Deaths related to Covid-19 in six government hospitals in Tamil Nadu in April and May could be 8.4 to 9.8 times higher than the toll of 863 declared by the government in the same period, a report by the NGO Arappor Iyakkam has claimed. The NGO arrived at this conclusion after examining death certificates issued by the six hospitals ― Government Rajaji Hospital in Madurai, Coimbatore Medical College Hospital, Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Medical College Hospital in Trichy, Vellore Medical College Hospital, Karur Medical College Hospital and Tiruppur Government Hospital. 

According to the NGO, in April and May 2021, the hospitals issued 11,699 death certificates. The report concluded that there were 7,262 more deaths in April and May 2021 compared to the numbers in 2019, and 8,438 more deaths than were recorded in 2020 during the same period. 


UP cop FIRes indiscriminately, minister scolds Twitter, on Twitter

Twitter, journalists, fact-checkers and the Opposition have been FIRed by UP Police, for allegedly not tweeting the correct facts about the Ghaziabad attack in which an elderly Muslim man was beaten up and ostensibly forced to chant Jai Shri Ram. The man, Abdul Samad Saifi, has made the claim in a video statement and a written complaint. The FIR has named AltNews journalist Mohammad Zubair, journalist Rana Ayyub, media organisation The Wire, the Congress’s Salman Nizami, Maskoor Usmani and Shama Mohamed, writer Saba Naqvi and social media giant Twitter Inc and Twitter Communications India. The complainant is, yes, a UP policeman. The Law Minister has been verbosely defending the action ― on  Twitter. In BJP-ruled states, attackers are usually let off lightly, while journalists face the law. Here’s a little background. In a statement on the latest FIR – the third in 14 months that the UP police has fied against it for different news reports – The Wire says this is an attempt to criminalise the reporting of anything other than the official version of events.

Twitter yesterday said it has appointed an interim chief compliance officer and the details of the official will be shared with the IT Ministry directly. But “government sources” say that Twitter hasn’t appointed any compliance officer. The government had issued a notice to Twitter, giving it a last chance to “immediately” comply with the new IT rules and warned that if it didn’t adhere to the norms, it would lose protection from liability under the IT Act. But it is important to note that the government does not decide who is protected as an intermediary, and who is not. Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT headed by Congress leader Shashi Tharoor has summoned top officials of several social media giants, including Facebook and Twitter, to depose on Friday.


Tax reduction on vegetable oil imports likely

To contain food inflation, the Modi government is considering reducing taxes on vegetable oil imports after cooking oil prices hit record highs last month, reports Reuters. As the world’s top edible oil importer, India spends $8.5-$10 billion annually on imported vegetable oils and the recent price surge will inflate its bloated import bill further. Vegetable oil is India’s third-biggest import after crude oil and gold. 

India’s vegetable oil imports have surged to 15 million tonnes from 4 million tonnes only two decades ago, according to industry estimates. It could touch 20 million by 2030, trade and industry experts say, boosted by a growing population with higher incomes and a taste for rich food. The local vegetable oil industry has argued that the government, which earns Rs 350 billion from taxes on edible oil imports, should use some of it to urge farmers to switch to oilseeds. But the government is relying only on the tax rate to control volumes and prices.


The Long Cable

From Latifah to Choksi, botched Black Ops can be counter-productive

Siddharth Varadarajan

For the second time in three years, the Modi government is in the eye of an international storm over coercive acts performed on the high seas either directly – by its special forces – or individuals allegedly operating on its behalf against persons of intereast whose ‘rendition’ the ordinary process of law may not have easily allowed.

In March 2018, Praveen Swami reported in the Business Standard, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi authorised a secret Coast Guard operation to intercept a yacht carrying runaway Dubai royal Latifa Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum after key national security officials advised it was necessary to secure India’s counter-terrorism and strategic interests”. Later that year, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions formally took up the matter of the high seas abduction of the princess with the Indian government.

While the Indian government has denied accusations of involvement in the unsavoury episode, a London court last year concluded that an eyewitness account of Sheikha Latifa’s abduction by Indian special forces commandos was accurate and that her father’s submission that the operation was an attempt to “rescue” her was false.

The judge said that the “description of the way in which Latifa was treated by the Indian security services … does not give any indication that this was a ‘rescue’ rather than a ‘capture’”… The final words that [her Finnish friend and eyewitness] heard Latifa shouting say a great deal. She was pleading for the soldiers to kill her rather than face the prospect of going back to her family in Dubai,” he noted.

If indeed the Modi government deployed its special forces to accomplish Latifa’s illegal rendition to the UAE, the motive is likely to have been to secure the UAE’s cooperation in short-circuiting formal extradition proceedings and quickly handing over Christian Michel. The British businessman was wanted in India for his alleged role in the Agusta Westland helicopter scam, a case the Modi government hopes to use to discredit the Congress party’s leadership. The issue figures in Michel’s bail application before a Delhi court and nothing more need be said about it.

But last month’s botched attempt by a group of individuals to kidnap fugitive diamantaire Mehul Choksi in Antigua and bring him to Dominica from where Indian officials hoped to quickly fly him back home suggests the temptation to do away with due process is spurring new heights of official recklessness.

Choksi’s lawyers have filed a criminal complaint with the British police in which they have sought an investigation into four men they claim were involved in the alleged kidnapping, including a London-based businessman with links to the Modi government. Scotland Yard has acknowledged receiving the complaint but whether it can exercise jurisdiction and then substantiate Choksi’s allegations is not clear. And with India pressing the Dominica high court for the fugitive’s return to face justice back home, these questions may well remain purely academic.

However, this much is clear: Choksi did not leave Antigua voluntarily and the player with the most to gain politically from his arrival in Dominica is the Narendra Modi government. Modi was accused of not doing enough to prevent Choksi and his nimble-fingered relative, Nirav Modi, from fleeing India in the first place, so bringing one or both back would help restore his credentials. The government is still buffeted by the effects of India’s disastrous second Covid wave and it is possible that its managers thought a James Bond-style action to bring Choksi back would help turn the tide of public opinion.

What they have not factored in is the enormous damage this botched operation has caused to India’s reputation as a country founded on the rule of law. To be sure, Indian security agencies have played fast and loose with the law within the country’s boundaries: abductions and custodial killings are routinely presented as ‘encounters’ and even if a section of the media is skeptical, the courts rarely intervene. But the exporting of official impunity beyond India’s borders is a different matter altogether. Perhaps India’s geopolitical heft will allow it to get away with international judicial scrutiny for its actions in the Choksi and Latifa cases. But the downside is that all Indian fugitives, current and future, can now credibly point to information in the global domain to make the point that political considerations come in the way of due process in India. And that will surely make securing extraditions the proper way even harder than they already are.


Reportedly

Everyone is looking towards India’s largest state, where polls are due next year, to signal the direction of national politics. Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav is making his moves quietly. Five of the nine MLAs expelled by Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati over the last four years met him yesterday ― Aslam Raini, Aslam Ali Chowdhari, Muztaba Siddiqui, Hakim Lal Bind, Hargobind Bhargav, Sushma Patel, Vandana Singh, Ramvir Upadhyay and Anil Singh. There were 18 BSP MLAs in the 403-member Assembly. Samajwadi Party MLA Irfan Solanki criticised the “oppressive nature” of Mayawati and the Bharatiya Janata Party. “BSP and BJP MLAs are scared of expressing themselves, that is why they are coming to the SP,” he claimed. The emerging view in the SP is that the party will fare better by fighting the elections without an alliance with the Congress, whose strike rate, it fears, will pull down any electoral alliance of which it is a member.


Myanmar state CM flees to Mizoram

The chief minister of Chin state in coup-hit Myanmar has joined over 9,000 people who have fled to Mizoram in recent months. Salai Lian Luai crossed the border on Monday night and took refuge in the remote Champhai district. He is among over 20 lawmakers from Myanmar sheltering in the northeastern state. He is a leader of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy. Earlier, the Mizoram government had urged the Centre to see the influx of refugees as a humanitarian crisis.


Prime Number: $3.4 trillion
The pandemic in India has seen rising inequalities and the skewed graph of the stock market is far from the realities of the economy. Financial wealth grew 11% to $3.4 trillion in 2020 despite the pandemic, the Boston Consulting Group estimated, at par with the compounded annual growth rate for the five years before 2020.

Deep Dive

Protest is not a “terrorist act” vulnerable to UAPA. The Delhi High Court has found no prima facie case against Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Iqbal Tanha. The Delhi Police will appeal the orders in the Supreme Court. They are recommended reading: Asif Iqbal Tanha Judgment | Natasha Narwal Judgment | Devangana Kalita Judgment.


Trade unions to protest on June 26

Ten central trade unions will hold a day-long nationwide protest on June 26 in collaboration with farmers’ unions to seek a host of demands, including the repeal of recently approved farm laws, labour codes and an income transfer scheme for the poor. The central unions including the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU), Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS), among others, said in a joint memorandum that they would continue to agitate for better jobs, a decent work environment, better compensation and equality at work, and give full support to farmers who will complete seven months of agitation on June 26.


No Haj for Indians

The Haj Committee of India has announced that all applications for the pilgrimage this year stand cancelled as Saudi Arabia has stated that only a limited number of people residing in the kingdom will be allowed to perform Haj, due to the pandemic.


India’s most liberal blood donor

Read about Blood Brother, the Kashmiri man who is India’s biggest blood donor, in The Guardian. The ‘blood man’ of conflict-wracked Kashmir has donated 174 pints since 1980, but feels ‘crushed’ by poverty.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • The Delhi High Court’s bail orders for Natasha Narwal, Asif Tanha and Devangana kalita are especially significant as they provide the first instance of regular bail – i.e., bail on merits – being granted to individuals who have been charge-sheeted under the UAPA in the Delhi riots cases, says legal scholar Gautam Bhatia.

  • Electoral bonds give political power to companies, wealthy individual donors and foreign entities, thus diluting the universal franchise of one voter, one vote. The winner of this arrangement is the ruling party, whether at the Centre or in a state, and the loser is the average voter, write Rakesh Dubbudu and Inayat Sabhikhi.

  • Senior Colonel Zhou Bo (retired) writes in South China Morning Post that China and India have every reason not to become foes and the border issue should not be a perennial curse, as the two nuclear neighbours can ill afford even a conventional war. 

  • Ever since the new DMK government assumed office on May 7, official statements are using the term ‘Union government’ and not ‘Centre’ for Delhi, write Sruthisagar Yamunan and Shoaib Daniyal. The Constitution describes India as a “Union of States” and therefore, the ideal reference to the Centre would be the “Union government”, say DMK leaders. 


Listen Up

Sidharth Bhatia (a contributor to The India Cable) is in conversation with former Prasar Bharati CEO Jawhar Sircar, the articulate retired IAS officer, on the perils of trying to link pensions with how pro-BJP you are.


Watch Out

Dr Ashish K Jha, Dean of the Harvard School of Public Health is an extraordinary communicator. It is clear yet again in this address to ISEC on ‘Governance, policy decisions and lessons on how to manage a pandemic’. He has tough things to say on the extent of the under-counting of cases and the dead in India (00:32:00 on under-counting). Don’t miss the Q and A.


Over and Out

A documentary based on the magical words that the Salim-Javed team (writers Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar) spun, is to be produced by Salman Khan, Farhan Akhtar and Zoya Akhtar. It would be called Angry Young Men.

Delicious biryani? Compliments to the robo-chef. Automated ghost kitchens are coming to traditional Indian cuisine. 

And the extraordinary backstory of the plan to reintroduce the extinct cheetah back in India.


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.