The India Cable: Violence at Apple Unit a Strategic Failure, India’s HDI Rank slumps as Region Surges

Plus: On farmers, UK says our politics are their politics, priest suicide at protest, Delhi digs in, Congress storms out of defence committee, Facebook loses face and Supreme Court hears Arnab, Odomos

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 17, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

After protesting farmers rejected the Centre’s proposed amendments to the contentious farm laws and insisted on repeal, the Supreme Court has stepped in to break the impasse. It proposed a committee of unions, but farmers think it’s pointless without repeal. However, they read the court’s intervention as a moral victory. Today, the court asked for an assurance from the Centre that it would not implement the farm laws while it hears the matter. The court closes for vacations from tomorrow and the Chief Justice, who heard the matter today, will not be available. Merry Christmas!

Sliding downhill two notches, India ranks 131 among 189 countries in the UNDP’s 2020 Human Development Index, a key measure of a nation’s health, education, and standards of living. Bhutan, ranked 134 last year, has leapfrogged India to 129; Sri Lanka is ranked 72 and Thailand 79. 

The price of cooking gas or LPG has been increased by Rs 50 per cylinder, the second hike this month. A subsidised cooking gas cylinder priced at Rs 497 in Delhi in June 2019 is Rs 147 dearer now. Amid price hikes, India’s diesel sales fell 5.2% in the first half of December compared with the same month last year, signalling that industry has not reached pre­-Covid levels. Diesel consumption is a key parameter linked to economic growth, accounting for about 40% of refined fuel sales in India. Auto parts makers recorded a 34.6% decline in revenue in the fiscal first half year on year, due to the nationwide lockdown.

The cabinet has approved the sale of 2,251.25 MHz of spectrum across seven bands at a reserve price of Rs 3.92 lakh crore, for 4G services. The sale is expected to be wrapped up before the next financial year, and will bring some relief to the cash-strapped government. No wonder the floor price is lower than TRAI’s recommendation

The Eastern Army Commander has said that the Indian and Chinese armies had taken “some precautionary deployment” in the eastern sector of the Line of Actual Control but there was gradual de­escalation due to the winter. He acknowledged that after the Galwan Valley incident of June 15, mutual trust on the LAC between India and China had evaporated, and stability is far away.

A court in Raigad district on Wednesday took cognizance of a chargesheet filed against Arnab Goswami and two others in an abetment of suicide case and asked the trio to appear before it on January 7. Maharashtra NCP chief and state minister Jayant Patil on Wednesday claimed that more than 10 MLAs were “unhappy” in the BJP and may be inducted.

Today, the Supreme Court dismissed a petition by Arnab Goswami challenging a Mumbai police FIR which accuses him of spreading disaffection within the force by running stories of rebellion against the Police Commissioner. Goswami had sought the striking down of the Police (Incitement to Disaffection) Act of 1922 as unconstitutional and violative of Articles 19 and 21. 

After wending its way through an appellate tax body and the Allahabad High Court, Odomos has appeared in the Supreme Court. The deep question of law involved is whether it attracts an 18% GST rate, depending on whether Odomos is found to be an insecticide, a repellent, a medicine or chemical chaff that confuses mosquitoes. Goodknight also appeared in a cameo role. 

And India is playing its first pink-ball (day and night) test match overseas, in Australia today.


UK speaks officially about farmers

In a statement likely to embarrass the Modi government, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that he discussed the protests by farmers with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, which was not highlighted earlier. “I discussed the situation with Foreign Minister Jaishankar. Obviously, we respect the fact that the reforms going through your system here are domestic reforms. Of course, they have elicited the protests that you refer to, and your politics, in some sense because of the Indian diaspora in Britain, is our politics,” Raab said.

The Modi government had taken a very strong stand against Canada when its Prime Minister raised the issue of peaceful protests by farmers, and issued a demarche to its ambassador. But the government has so far been silent about US and UK lawmakers raising this issue. Now, the UK government has officially spoken of the matter. And the UK Prime Minister is to be chief guest at the 2021 Republic Day event.


Uniforms, not border security

The Parliamentary Committee on Defence witnessed a stormy session and Rahul Gandhi and other Congress members walked out, alleging that the panel’s time was being wasted in discussing armed forces’ uniforms instead of the crucial issue of national security. Gandhi was not allowed to speak at the meeting by panel chairman Jual Oram (BJP) when he sought to raise the issues of Chinese aggression and better equipment for soldiers at the border in Ladakh. 

The issue of uniforms of the Army, Navy and Air Force was being discussed in the presence of Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat when Gandhi intervened to say uniforms can be left to the military brass and  that the political leadership should instead discuss national security and strengthening the armed forces fighting the Chinese in Ladakh. 


Unprecedented security at Delhi’s borders 

After farmers intensified their ongoing agitation, Delhi Police have installed nine layers of barricades ― three layers of iron barricades with barbed wire on top, three layers of concrete jersey barriers locked with iron chain, one layer of iron containers filled with sand and two layers of sand-laden dumpers ― at Singhu, Tekri and Ghazipur borders to prevent the entry of protesters into the national capital. A senior police officer said this is the first time that Delhi has made such massive security arrangements for a protest. Around 8,000 security personnel are deployed at the borders. 

Farmer leaders welcomed the Supreme Court’s observations on Wednesday as a “moral victory” but added that setting up a new committee would not resolve their concerns unless the hurriedly-passed laws are scrapped. In a letter to Agriculture Minister Narendra Tomar the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, a platform of farm unions leading the protests, has urged the government not to hold parallel negotiations with farmers or vilify them as ‘anti-national elements’. The government is concerned as the strategy of vilification which it used against the Shaheen Bagh protests is not working. This time, food providers are ranged against the BJP government and that is bad news, insiders concede.


The last word, and the first suicide

Sikh priest Sant Ram Singhji (65), of Nanaksar Singhra Wale from Karnal shot himself at the farmers’ protest, leaving behind a suicide note stating why he chose to take his own life. Those at the venue say he was busy distributing quilts until yesterday. Hear him speak a day before he died: “Farmers are sitting here for their rights. The government must give them their rights.”


Facebook loses face

Facebook’s fact-checking team has not found any content that necessitates a ban on the Bajrang Dal, the social media giant’s India head Ajit Mohan told the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, chaired by Congress leader Shashi Tharoor. Congress MP Karti Chidambaram, along with Tharoor, questioned Mohan about the recent Wall Street Journal report that the social media giant is reluctant to ban the Bajrang Dal due to financial reasons and concerns over the safety of its staff. 

If the Bajrang Dal content did not violate its policies, BJP MP Nishikant Dubey asked Mohan, why didn’t Facebook deny the WSJ report?

Incidentally, in the recent case of a marriage which was broken up by the UP Police as ‘love jihad’,  and the woman suffered a miscarriage by her own account, the Bajrang Dal had made an appearance


India drops further in HDI Rankings

Dropping two spots further from its previous position, India on Wednesday ranked 131 among 189 countries in the Human Development Index 2020. Neighbours Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan improved their indices but India and Pakistan have floundered.

India’s gross national income per capita fell to $6,681 in 2019 from $6,829 in 2018 on purchasing power parity (PPP) basis. India’s life expectancy at birth in 2019 was 69.7 years. In neighbouring Bangladesh, it is 72.6 years. The life expectancy in Pakistan is 67.3 years. 


The Long Cable

Apple unit violence embarrasses Centre’s strategic pipe-dream

MK Venu

The Modi government has assured Apple’s contract manufacturer of a speedy investigation into the violence and arson in its Bengaluru facility on Saturday. Quoting top government sources, The Economic Times yesterday reported that the “Centre wants to limit damage to the country’s image” following the violence in Apple Inc’s manufacturing facility run by the Taiwanese company Wistron. So far, 158 workers have been arrested.

Why does the incident invite intervention and assurances from Delhi? The Prime Minister has obviously taken a special interest in luring Apple from China to India, and the initiative represents the leitmotif of the Atmanirbharta project launched at the peak of the pandemic, amid unprecedented border tensions with China. It is a strategic objective. 

Weaning a top global brand off China is important, even if it remains in the realm of the imagination. China still has 90% of all factories assembling Apple products and nearly 48% of its component suppliers. It is deeply embedded in Apple’s worldwide supply chain and India is a minnow in this respect, though full of new ambition. 

In terms of optics, the incident in the Wistron facility is bad news for India because it comes at the very beginning of the government’s ambitious project of chipping away at Apple’s deep presence in China. It is also unfortunate that the cause of the violence was frustration and anger among workers and engineers whose salaries had been halved, though the mobile sector was doing very well during the pandemic. Apple says it has launched its own probe into whether Wistron was following labour compensation norms. The labour problem comes at a time when most BJP states have started over-zealously following the new labour code which gives immense leeway to employers to dilute workers’ rights.

So far, the focus is on how the industrial violence will damage India’s image abroad. No one is really going into why salaries of workers were reduced by half by the most profitable global tech giant, whose wealth has grown manifold during the pandemic. With its $260 billion annual turnover and $55 billion net profit ― more than the profit of all listed companies in India put together ― Apple Inc must follow stringent norms for workers’ welfare. Its India revenues grew 29% to Rs 13,755 crore in 2019-20.  Reducing worker’s salary by 50% after doing so well seems indefensible.

Last month, Union Minister for IT and Telecom Ravi Shankar Prasad, while inaugurating the annual Bengaluru Technology Summit, said, “During the Covid-19 period, nine out of 11 components from Apple manufacturing have shifted from China to India.” He confidently claimed that Apple and other mobile manufacturers will help drive the next phase of Atmanirbharta in the digital space. In the same speech, he said the Telecom and IT sector was growing impressively during the pandemic. If that is so, why did the workers at Apple’s most important contract manufacturing factory suffer big salary cuts? A day after the violence, the IT minister said that large global companies are increasing their footprint in India and the transition has to be made in an “orderly manner and free of discord”.

It may be pertinent to remind Ravi Shankar Prasad that sensible rules and regulations, whether in the labour code or farm laws, will play the most critical role in making transitions in the political economy “orderly and free of discord”. The violence in Apple’s facility in Bangalore must take us back to the core issue being highlighted by many economists ― the consistently falling share of worker’s wages and the rising share of corporate profits, having worsened post-pandemic, will be difficult to sustain in the long run. Discord is built into this arrangement, whether it concerns industrial labour or farm workers.


Reportedly

India will have to spend $1.4-1.8 billion in the first phase of a coronavirus vaccination programme, even after getting support under the Covax global vaccine-sharing scheme, according to estimates by the GAVI vaccines alliance. India, which has the world’s second highest caseload of Covid-19, plans to inoculate 300 million people over the next six to eight months, likely with vaccines from AstraZeneca, Russia’s Sputnik, Zydus Cadila and the domestic Bharat Biotech. The scale of the funding challenge India faces, with 600 million shots required in the first wave alone for critical workers and people most at risk from COVID-19, is huge. 

If India gets 190-250 million shots of the vaccine under the Covax facility ― a best case scenario ― then the Modi government would need to line up about $1.4 billion to make up for the shortfall, according to an unpublished report prepared for GAVI’s three-day board meeting which began on Tuesday. However, if India received a lower allocation of 95-125 million doses, then the cost to the government of procuring additional shots would go up to $1.8 billion. India’s 2020-21 central budget allocated just under $10 billion to healthcare.


Left sweeps Kerala local bodies

The ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) has pulled off an emphatic victory against all odds, defeating the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in Kerala’s local body elections, considered a semi-final before assembly elections due in April-May 2021. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) secured one extra municipality to its tally of one out of 86 municipalities. They moved up from 9 to 23 in 943 panchayats and from 1,244 to 1,600 in 21,865 wards from 2015.


Prime Number: $4 billion
That is the amount invested by China in India’s neighbourhood this year, including $1.93 billion in Pakistan, $1.25 billion in Bangladesh, $450 million in Sri Lanka and $280 million in Myanmar, as per the American Enterprise Institute. The investments in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka were all under China’s Belt and Road Initiative. 

India sends fire to Sundance

Ajitpal Singh’s Fire in the Mountains and Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s Writing with Fire are the two Indian films selected for the Sundance Film Festival, which will be held from January 28 to February 3. Writing with Fire follows Dalit women who record stories of oppression and discrimination and form what may be the world’s first digital agency of its sort.

Photo: https://www.tfiny.org/films/detail/writing_with_fire

The dentist is not in

Former JNU student leader Umar Khalid, arrested in a northeast Delhi riots case, alleged before a court here on Wednesday that he has not been given any medical treatment by the Tihar jail authorities for his toothache for the last three days. Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Dinesh Kumar directed the jail superintendent to provide proper medical treatment to Khalid as per the prison rules. The court directed the jail authorities to file a compliance report within two days. If a dentist was not available in the jail until the next day, Khalid may be taken to a dentist outside the prison.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Vir Sanghvi writes, “If you suggest to minorities that they have no voice in India, where the Hindu majority rules, eventually, they will come to the conclusion that they have no stake in India, either.”

  • Supriya Nair on a new novel in Pakistan that tells the story of the transformation of citizens from “voters to celebrity chasers”, who will be left in the dust after the circus leaves town. This is familiar ground, even if it’s across the border.


Deep Dive

The woman shunted out of history of India’s top business school

Today is the 100th birth anniversary of a pioneering management educationist, institution builder and the first faculty member of IIM Ahmedabad. Chinmay Tumbe’s essay on Kamla Chowdhry reflects on her long and accomplished life, free of the shadows that others have cast on it for so long. She was more central to the IIMA project than has ever been publicly acknowledged. Digging into new archival evidence, Tumbe shows that sexism played a defining role in Chowdhry’s professional life, almost certainly barring her from becoming the first director of the institute she helped found. 


Listen up

Dinyar Patel, author of Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism, speaks to Kirk Meighoo about the 19th century activist who founded the Indian National Congress, was the first British MP of Indian origin, and inspired Gandhi and Nehru. Mahatma Gandhi called Dadabhai Naoroji the “father of the nation”, a title that is reserved today for Gandhi himself. Patel examines the extraordinary life of this foundational figure in India’s modern political history, a devastating critic of British colonialism who served in Westminster as the first-ever Indian MP, forged ties with anti-imperialists around the world and established self-rule or swaraj as India’s objective.


Watch Out

A fine debate on the challenges that the vaccine faces in India. By what process will it be approved or rendered safely admissible? Faye D’Souza speaks to Dr Shahid Jameel, Dr K Srinath Reddy, Murali Neelakantan, Poonam Muttreja and Dinesh S Thakur. The section starts at 01:34.


The view from space

A NASA image of India that’s for real, unlike the fakery we see every Diwali on social media. On Instagram, NASA has put up a long-exposure image of the snow-capped Himalayas taken by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station. Delhi and Lahore are lit up like jewels, despite the infamous smog in those parts.

A post shared by NASA (@nasa)

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.