The India Cable: Vaccine Supply High, Coverage Low; UN Body Sees ‘Consequences’ in Michel Case

Plus: Amazon India head makes bail, OCI journalists need government permission, Myanmar coup refugees enter Mizoram, Rahul “inciting youth to another freedom struggle”, ‘Metro Man’ steps aside

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

March 5, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

‘Metro Man’ had a tough day yesterday ― it appears that he isn’t the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate for Kerala anymore after getting encouraging signals earlier. E Sreedharan had said a few days ago that to achieve his technocratic dream for Kerala, he would just have to be CM, and yesterday morning it had seemed that he was on his way, but the party backtracked, leading to much mirth in the Left Front and the Congress-led UDF.

The Tamil Nadu unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party on Thursday urged the Election Commission to restrain Congress leader Rahul Gandhi from campaigning in Tamil Nadu for the assembly election, for allegedly violating the model code of conduct. It also wanted the EC to direct the police to register an FIR against him for “inciting the youth to another freedom struggle.” Sounds like an award citation, doesn’t it? 

The Atlantic reports on the latest Freedom House democracy ratings and says that India has crossed a crucial threshold. Since Modi was reelected in 2019, he has “intimidated critics, subverted the independence of the judiciary, and adopted discriminatory policies against the country’s large Muslim minority.”

India vaccinated over 10 lakh beneficiaries yesterday – the highest number so far on any day. About 1.66 crore doses have been administered so far. The number of infections is showing a rise, but only a small number of states, led by Maharashtra, account for 85.51% of fresh cases. No deaths have been reported in 23 states and Union Territories in 24 hours. 

Letters like the one written by the CPI(M)’s Brinda Karat, demanding an apology from the Chief Justice of India for asking a rape accused if he intends to marry the vitim, and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy’s accusations against a senior Supreme Court Judge, amount to gross contempt of court, a Bar Council of India statement asserts. It says that freedom of speech and expression cannot be stretched to the extent of maligning and weakening the institution. “Comments made by Judges, not resulting in their orders, have no Legal sanctity, why then to raise a hue and cry on such comments?” Equally, one may ask, why do judges make throwaway comments which seem to encourage public prejudices?

While congratulating the Nasa team behind the Perseverance rover landing on Mars ― an Indian American space scientist, Swati Mohan, had handled the crucial deceleration stage ― US President Joe Biden remarked that Indian-Americans “are taking over the country”. The reference was to their prevalence in his own team. 

It’s the 100th day today of the farmers’ protest on Delhi’s borders, which has given the Centre sleepless nights. The India-sponsored resolution on declaring 2023 the International Year of Millets was adopted yesterday by consensus in the United Nations General Assembly. The Prime Minister has said that India is honoured to be at the forefront of popularising millets. Millet murukku was distributed in the General Assembly by the Permanent Representative of India. Campaigning for traditional staples is progressive, but it’s a little reminiscent of Soviet propaganda, too. 


Down Under, Hindu right attacks Sikhs

The Australian government has threatened to deport Hindu far right group members following four attacks on the Sikh community ahead of a March 15 round table in the Australian Federal Parliament. It will highlight concerns about New Delhi’s heavy-handedness and the suppression of dissent in dealing with the legitimate demands of farmers. It all started with a pro-farm bill ‘Tiranga Yatra’, followed by another rally that had provocatively stopped in front of a gurdwara. In these cases, the rally organisers and members of the Sikh community traded charges of intimidation.

But in two incidents which followed, there was no doubt about the targeted community. In one, a Sikh youth was chased down the streets and in the latest incident captured on CCTV, a group of Sikh men flee a gang, who smashed up their car with bats and hammers while they were in it. Meanwhile, the Australian Alliance Against Hate and Violence has held a press conference to raise awareness of the growing threat that Hindu far right extremism poses to social cohesion in Australia.

Amazon India head gets bail but debate on rules goes over the top

Clearly perturbed by the bad press the government of India is getting for its recent moves to control the digital space, especially OTT platforms, Minister for Information and Broadcasting Prakash Javadekar met several representatives of OTT platforms, including Alt Balaji, Hotstar, Amazon Prime, Netflix, Jio, Zee5, Viacom18, Shemaroo and MxPlayer, and said that the government would come out with a progressive institutional mechanism based on self-regulation for OTT players and develop a level playing field. The minister said that it merely requires them to disclose information and there is no requirement of registration of any kind with the Ministry. Furthermore, the rules focus on self-classification of content instead of censorship. OTT platforms are expected to develop an effective grievance redressal mechanism. No member will be appointed in the self-regulating body. An inter-departmental committee will be set up for unresolved issues, it appears.

A day after the Supreme Court – hearing Amazon India’s petition on the criminal case against its CEO for the web series Tandav – said that a few OTT platforms show “pornographic content” at times, the bench granted CEO Aparna Purohit bail but also urged the government to introduce a law that would bring rules with “teeth”.

With OTT platforms already reeling from the onerous new rules introduced last month, the stage is thus set for the government to take another bite at artistic independence.


Digital paranoia

The very possibility of adversarial and defiant noises being made, especially over digital media, gives this government the creeping horrors. Government servants in Jammu and Kashmir are now required to get CID clearance to be paid their salaries. The Jammu and Kashmir government also asks employees to declare their Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts. This apart, following loss of statehood, the Jammu and Kashmir police report directly to the Union Home Ministry, and it’s become much easier for the government to vigorously seek the extradition of Kashmiris living overseas


Christen Michel: Consequences for India?

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) found the Narendra Modi government culpable on every count on complaints made in the matter of extraditing and imprisoning without trial British businessman Christian Michel. It also warned that there would be consequences if the Indian government did not comply with its direction to release him immediately. It is likely to make the order public soon, say reports. Michel was extradited from Dubai and has been in custody for over two years, accused of bribing the Gandhi family in the AgustaWestland chopper deal.

Perhaps the most disturbing element of this sordid drama is the allegation, backed by the UN body, that Michel was the reward India secured for getting its special forces to apprehend Princess Latifah on the high seas off Goa and illegally render her to the United Arab Emirates, where she has been confined by her father, the emir of Dubai, ever since.


The Long Cable

Vaccines in plenty, but India’s coverage slowest

MK Venu

Predictably, the critical question of why India, with its huge vaccine manufacturing capacity, is still not ramping up production and vaccination, has landed in the Delhi High Court. In a suo motu intervention, the court has asked the Centre to explain the rationale for keeping “strict control” over the classes of persons who can be vaccinated at present. It also observed that the government is donating vaccines or selling them to other countries, rather than prioritising the vaccination of its own people.  

(Translation: “The manner in which India is serving humanity has made it a huge brand worldwide”: Prime Minister’s Office)

The government has been asked to file an affidavit giving the rationale for current controls on the class of people who can seek vaccination in the current phase. The court has also asked why vaccine companies are not manufacturing at full capacity and distributing commercially. These are the very questions that common folk have been asking for the past two months, but the Modi government is refusing to answer.

Major vaccine producers are still hoping that the government quickly buys in bulk the shots to be administered to the first 300 million population at $3 per dose, the price cap imposed by the Centre. After that, they want to sell their remaining stocks in the open market on commercial terms. But there is a dispute over that, too. The government wants to cap the open market price at $3. The companies are writing to the Health Ministry, saying that their costs are covered only at $5-6 per dose, and they want the freedom to price higher for those who can afford to pay. There is no harm in the relatively better off cross-subsidising the poor, who should get the vaccine for free. There is a budgetary allocation of Rs 35,000 crore to cover the subsidy incurred in delivering vaccines to the poor and vulnerable.

Why can’t Prime Minister Modi come up with a clear, two-track policy ― one to administer subsidised vaccines to the vulnerable and another to simultaneously allow commercial distribution at a higher price to those who are willing to pay, after the government has acquired 30 crore doses to meet its first stage requirement? At present, we have an odd policy of prioritising by the categories of age and comorbidity, though it makes eminent sense to open up the market for commercial sale because India does not have a scarcity problem. 

Vaccine manufacturers already have massive installed capacity. The businessman and philanthropist Azim Premji had suggested to Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman that a delivery target of 500 million doses in two months is easily achievable. But the government does not seem to grasp the urgency of the issue, which will profoundly impact India’s health as well as social and economic wellbeing. 

By one reckoning, even at the increased rate of vaccination being seen now, it could take up to three years to cover the entire population, which is unacceptable. One gets the impression that the top echelons of the government are not paying enough attention to the problem. Senior ministers seem to be more focused on the West Bengal elections at present, rather than on a nationwide vaccination programme, aligning all central and state agencies to work in campaign mode.  

Latest figures on vaccinations show that India has covered only 1.8% of its population. In South Asia, only Pakistan has done worse. Some consolation! China is reaching nearly 4% of its population, the UK has crossed 30%, the US is over 25% and Israel has vaccinated 96% of its citizens.

Indian public policy experts had expected that India would be among the leaders of the global vaccination programme, given the pre-existing infrastructure and experience built over decades in inoculating its population against other contagious diseases, and the fact that it is a vaccine production powerhouse. So far, these expectations have been belied. 


Reportedly

There’s news of the G-23, or the group of dissident Congress leaders ― former Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad got a visitor in the form of Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla. But what are the Haryana Hoodas up to? Former Haryana chief minister Bhupender Singh Hooda was seen in Dogri headgear at his first rally, but his son MP Deepender Hooda has consistently and actively been part of mainline Congress activities. He was most vocal in his support for farmers yesterday. But on the Freedom House report that downgraded India from ‘free’ status, he found an odd point to comment on ― the placement of Jammu and Kashmir on the NGO’s map, vaguely indicating that that was the most worrisome aspect of the report, not its findings. 


Mizoram receives Myanmar coup refugees

India has been careful to not alienate the Myanmar military, which has staged a coup and cracked down on massive protests with armed force. It is making vague statements even as it condoles the civilians killed. But that has not prevented four Myanmarese policemen from seeking refuge in India after crossing over in Champhai in Mizoram, a cross-border trading centre. Another report says that 20 people have crossed over. 

Border residents in Champhai and Serchhip districts claimed that at least 50 people from Myanmar have crossed over since March 3. All belong to the Chin ethnic group, to which the Mizo community of Mizoram belongs. There are no reports yet from Hnahthial, Lawngtlai and Siaha, the other three districts bordering Myanmar.


NSE loses face due to glitch 

A temporary telecom glitch at India’s largest stock exchange has rattled the country’s government and regulators. On February 24, the National Stock Exchange was forced to abruptly halt trading for four hours, and then extend trading hours to make up, due to a failure in telecom connectivity as the company’s two service providers simultaneously went down. This resulted in heavy losses for many investors. Among other things, the technical glitch could tarnish the reputation of Indian stock exchanges. 


Prime Number: Less than 30%
That’s the quantum of space given to sportswomen in sports news, according to a new research conducted by the BBC. It is an analysis of a sample size of over 2,000 editions of two English national dailies published between 2017 and 2020. The report is in Hindi.  

OCI card holders need permission to work as journalists in India, or do research

Firming up an announcement it had made last November, the Ministry of Home Affairs has issued new rules under the Foreigners Act which prohibit Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) cardholders from working as journalists as India, doing research or engaging in mountaineering or Tablighi activities without the permission of the Foreigners Regional Registration Office. The earlier rules gave OCIs parity with Indian citizens in all regards except the right to vote, buy agricultural land or work for the government.


As pandemic abates, jails to be filled again

The pandemic is on the wane. Good news for the general public, but not so for a certain section. The Supreme Court has directed 2,674 prisoners in Delhi, released on interim bail during the pandemic, to surrender within 15 days in view of the improving coronavirus situation.


Living easiest in Bengaluru

Bengaluru was adjudged the most liveable among 111 cities in India in the government’s “Ease of Living Index”, followed by Pune, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Surat, Navi Mumbai, Coimbatore, Vadodara, Indore and Greater Mumbai. Of the 49 cities ranked on the livability index in the “million-plus population” category, Delhi figures at number 13 and Srinagar at the bottom. Performance of the cities have been measured on four broad parameters – governance and social, physical and economic infrastructure. The “Ease of Living Index” is an assessment tool that evaluates the quality of life and the impact of various initiatives for urban development. 


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Sushant Singh (a contributor to The India Cable) writes in Foreign Policy that by agreeing to address each other’s core issues ― for Pakistan, Kashmir; and for India, Pakistan-backed terrorism ― the countries’ ceasefire promises to be the first step in a longer peace process. But both countries needed “help” to get to the negotiating table.

  • The cover of Time magazine has an image from the article by Nilanjana Bhowmick, ‘I Cannot be Intimidated. I Cannot be Bought’, on the women in India’s farmer protests.

  • Six essays on modern communication strategies and electoral dominance in The Economic and Political Weekly.

  • Rules relating to digital media cannot be made under the IT Act, writes Raghav Ahooja.

  • Julio Ribeiro writes that the tendency of the police, egged on by the ruling political dispensation, to fall back upon the sedition clause needs to be nipped in the bud before many more law-abiding citizens working in journalism or civil activism are put away by a government bent on snuffing out all criticism and opposition.

  • Ananya Bhattacharya writes that when registration for fresh H-1B visa applications opens on Monday, the Indian IT outsourcing sector ― once the biggest beneficiary of the visa ― won’t be holding its breath.


Listen Up

Dance in the movies

Author and scholar Usha Iyer talks to dancer Poorna Swami about the rich history of women dancing in Hindi cinema. They explore the agency and power dynamics that various Indian actors and dancers expressed over the decades, how dancing in cinema can be seen as a continuation of various Indian dance traditions, and discuss the roles played by women like Vyjayanthimala Bali, Helen, Madhuri Dixit and Saroj Khan.


Watch Out

What next for India, Pakistan?

India and Pakistan have agreed to honour an 18-year-old ceasefire agreement, but what’s next? TCA Raghavan, Lt Gen DS Hooda (retd), Srinath Raghavan, Rudra Chaudhuri and Indrani Bagchi discuss. 


Bangla stars train for politics, Farooq shakes a leg

In West Bengal, the ruling Trinamool Congress has organised a crash course for actors and directors who are joining up and could be the face of the party in many constituencies if incumbents are asked to step down. The BJP is also proposing to enlist many thespians and will also hold classes to turn them into ‘political celebrities’ from ‘social celebrities’. Could be a tough act.

News that the famous Karachi Bakery of Mumbai has shut down due to pressure from bigots who had an issue with the name, appears to have been a false alarm. The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and BJP supporters heckled them, no doubt, but it seems that they are relocating because their agreement with the landlord has ended. We’ll be watching this.

Meanwhile, here’s former J&K CM Farooq Abdullah shaking a leg at the wedding of the granddaughter of Punjab CM Captain Amarinder Singh.


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.