Two Of Three Indians Exposed To Covid; No One Died For Lack Of Oxygen

Pegasus was in Bibi’s diplomatic bag, says Haaretz, US condemns use against press, activists, critics, how surveillance infects all lives, and in Frankfurt, Modi’s mugshot on vax certs is a joke

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

July 21, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

No deaths for lack of oxygen were specifically reported by any states or Union territories during the second Covid-19 wave, the Modi government informed the Rajya Sabha yesterday. Legally, this is correct ― the cause of death was respiratory failure. But morally, the callous bluntness of the government revealed that it either has no idea of the people’s suffering, or it does not care ― which is worse.  

On Instagram, Rahul Gandhi spoke caustically about the Modi government’s surveillance drive and Covid-19 callousness. In the Rajya Sabha, the RJD’s Prof Manoj Jha called for an apology (in Hindi) on behalf of the House to those whose deaths are not being acknowledged, and whose bodies were afloat in the Ganga. 

A total of 45,432 cases of mucormycosis were reported by states and UTs till July 15, of which 21,085 are receiving treatment and 4,252 have died, the government informed the Rajya Sabha yesterday. India has reported the first human death due to bird flu. An 11-year-old boy, admitted to AIIMS on July 2, was confirmed dead yesterday.

An Indian-origin couple in Melbourne, Australia, have been jailed for their “dirty secret”, as the court put it ― a domestic aged 67, who had been kept under wraps for eight years, who was underweight, toothless and had contracted a critical illness. After convalescing for two months in hospital, she now lives in an old age home in Melbourne. The case recalls the episode concerning Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade, who was charged with visa fraud concerning a domestic when she was Indian consul in New York City in 2012. 

It is bad enough that electoral bonds are secret and anonymous tools to fund political parties. Now, in a written reply to a Parliamentary question, the ball has been rolled further down the road: “The government seeks more time to furnish the replies.”

Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur has called Modi’s ‘Mann Ki Baat’ programme the “most popular televised radio programme”. But is its charm on the wane? In a written reply in the Rajya Sabha, the minister stated that programme revenues had dropped over 90% in the last fiscal from the peak in 2017-18. 

Grim details have emerged in a conversation on Newslaundry with an Afghan journalist, on the circumstances in which Pulitzer-winning Indian photographer Danish Siddique was killed. It suggests that press organisations need to be more responsible when their journalists are put at extreme risk.

India is the world’s largest producer of mangoes, which account for 40% of fruit exports, though the pandemic has dealt a blow. To boost sales, fruit-themed festivals and in-embassy tasting events have been held in Japan, South Korea and across several Gulf states.

After its members ― and chairperson, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor ― pushed, Parliament’s Standing Committee on Information Technology is taking up the NSO Pegasus Project surveillance scandal revelations. France, which has opened a full investigation, may have acted as a spur, too. It has emerged that most journalists targeted by the government using Pegasus are opposed to it, the security and diplomacy beats get special attention, and so do journalists associated with The Wire and the Hindustan Times.   

And in a few days, Nagaland will soon be in the democratically uncomfortable situation of being bereft of an Opposition, as the Naga People’s Front joins the ruling People’s Democratic Alliance. Apparently, this is a meeting of minds for a final solution to the Naga political question. In the experience of the world, of course, final solutions are highly suspect. 


US condemns use of Pegasus against press, activists and critics

The US administration has condemned the harassment and ‘extrajudicial surveillance’ of journalists and others, in reaction to reports published by a consortium of media houses that the Israeli company NSO Group’s spyware was used for illegal hacking and surveillance of individuals in India and other countries. “The United States condemns the harassment or extrajudicial surveillance of journalists, human rights activists, or other perceived regime critics,” a White House spokesperson said via email to The Hindu, in response to a query.

Haaretz sees Pegasus as part of the ‘package’, including military grade spyware, which Binyamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu extended to countries including India. “On each of these trips, Netanyahu announced the ‘development of reciprocal relations’, and he was accompanied on the plane by delegations of businesspeople. According to official press statements, they came from fields such as water and agriculture. But in reality, defence companies also participated in these visits. Most of the aforementioned countries are not fully democracies. Their regimes range from dictatorships to “electoral autocracies”, quasi-democratic states or nations pretending to hold free elections, but with severe authoritarian tendencies.”


Two out of three Indians exposed to Covid

The latest round of the national serosurvey was carried out by the Indian Council of Medical Research in the last 10 days of June and the first week of July in 70 districts, to gauge the real extent of Covid-19 infection in India. It reveals that 67.6% of the population above the age of six have been exposed to the virus. When extrapolated against the Indian population of about 135 crore, it means that over 90 crore Indians, or two out of every three people, may have already been infected with SARS-CoV-2, while nearly 40-45 crore people may still be vulnerable to the disease. It also means, as only about 3 crore Covid-19 cases were detected by early July, that for every confirmed case, nearly 30 infections were missed. 

The figures presented by ICMR Director General Balram Bhargava in a press conference yesterday also showed that the 69.6% seroprevalence in urban areas was slightly higher than the 66.7% in rural areas. Compared to the first national serosurvey in June 2020, when overall seropositivity was detected in less than 1% of the population, the jump in a year has been quite significant. The last national serosurvey by the ICMR in December 2020-January 2021 showed that 24.1% of people in India had antibodies against Covid-19. 


Secy Blinken in Delhi this month

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to visit New Delhi on July 27-28, though there is no official announcement yet from either side. After US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to India, this will be the second high profile visit of a member of the Biden administration. The state of the pandemic, vaccines, the American military withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Sino-India border crisis and Quad are likely to figure in talks.


SG says, be pragmatic, don’t seek compensation

The bench of justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah, which ordered Leichombam Erendro’s immediate release on Monday, has sought the written response of the Manipur government to his father’s plea for compensation for being sent to jail for two months for a Facebook post. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who appeared for Manipur, told the Supreme Court that Erendro was released from detention on Monday and the case filed against him under the stringent National Security Act was revoked. Things should be allowed to rest at that, and the petitioner should follow a pragmatic approach in acknowledging that relief has been granted, Tushar Mehta said. The bench said it was the petitioner’s choice to seek relief from the court and gave the state two weeks to file its response. The next hearing is scheduled on Aug 6.


The Long Cable

​​Aap chronology samajhiye: five ways surveillance has damaged democracy

By Seema Chishti

The government of India continues to deflect charges that it is a client of Israel’s NSO and has used the cyberweapon-grade spyware Pegasus to illegally snoop on citizens. So it is important to be fully mindful of the serious consequences of agencies securing information by targeting people illegally.

On November 1, 2019, reports of Pegasus being active in India first surfaced, and Whatsapp confirmed that 121 Indian activists, lawyers and journalists were targeted via chinks in their app by the spyware that eventually controlled their device. Twenty months on, as Amit Shah again invokes the C-word, the “chronology” of what happens when private information is obtained illegally, is far clearer.

A set of patterns is visible in the surveillance of activists, lawyers and journalists who otherwise refuse to be intimidated by authoritarian governments. One pattern, in which Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi was entangled, could result in cold-blooded murder. Data collected by ultra-invasive and silent snooping can generate sufficient information to kill. It also happened in the case of Mexico’s Cecilio Penida Birto in March 2017.

Another pattern, asForbidden Stories has reported, is clear from the case of journalist Omar Radi in Morocco, who received a six-year prison sentence last night. Amnesty suspected Radi was surveilled following his arrest in December 2019 for a tweet in which he criticized a court decision against human rights activists. From afar, “Amnesty’s tech team was able to walk him through the steps for inspecting his phone for infection — notably by looking at the system errors logged.” Radi told Forbidden Stories: “I was being punished for my work. They pile things up and eventually they look for a pretext to arrest the person.” Surveillance assists in finding pretexts for arrest, if regimes find it difficult to arrest someone simply for opposing them.

A third route was adopted in the case of a journalist in Azerbaijan. For nearly three years, Khadija Ismayilova’s phone was regularly infected with Pegasus. Intimate pictures were procured via surveillance and she was harassed as they were made public. The information released was enough to demoralise her and secure a jail sentence of 537 days.

The fourth route was used to target Moroccan historian Maati Monjib with Pegasus for a  year. Gathering enough evidence about his private life, armed intelligence agents raided his home at 9 am one day, “finding him and a female friend in his bedroom together. They stripped him naked and arrested him for ‘adultery’, which is a crime in Morocco. He spent 10 months in a Casablanca prison.” Surveillance helps by enabling tracking of the private lives of individuals to find just a sliver of a fact, from which a hook can be fashioned to hang a big charge from.

The fifth route concerns Indian activists ― the strange matter of the Bhima Koregaon detainees. No trials, no chargesheet, just years in jail, and one death behind bars. Eight of the 16 accused were targeted by Pegasus before being imprisoned. AsThe Washington Post reports: “In all, the telephone numbers of eight defendants jailed in the case appeared on a list of more than 1,000 numbers in India reviewed by The Washington Post. The phone numbers used by [lawyer and activist Sudha] Bharadwaj and seven others in the case were added to the list that included surveillance targets before their arrests. Three of their numbers were added in 2017, well before the event that police said precipitated the investigation.”

More importantly, in the case of Rona Wilson and Sudhir Gadling, who were surveilled by Pegasus and are in jail now, the American digital forensic firm Arsenal Consulting has found evidence of files being planted remotely on their computers. The firm has submitted reports of the planting to the National Investigation Agency (NIA). These files were precisely the ones cited as central to the serious charge being levelled against Wilson and Gadling. The NIA court and the Bombay High Court, where the detainees have appealed, are yet to hear the matter. The activists remain in jail.

Concerns about illegal snooping by hacking into devices and accessing personal and private information is not a trivial matter. In a variety of ways, it has been used to kill, implicate, jail and silence those who speak up and ask for accountability of regimes. This has an impact eventually on the quality of democracy, and the lives we all lead. The government must come clean on its relationship with NSO and military grade software being dropped onto the phones of its own citizens. A dangerous variant of the attack on Omar, Maati and Khadija has entered the lives of Wilson and Gadling. This virus affects us all, and the health of our democracy.


Reportedly

In BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, attempts are on to polarise before the Assembly elections. Under pressure from the RSS, VHP and others from the Hindutva cohort, the BJP state government is mulling changes in the draft of the new population bill. Deccan Heraldreports that the government plans to do away with incentives for couples having one child, which is currently part of the draft of the Uttar Pradesh Population (Control, Stabilisation and Welfare) Bill, 2021. The draft renders couples with more than two children ineligible for state government jobs, and also bars them from contesting panchayat elections, while those with two children would receive two additional increments, subsidy for buying houses and rebates in utility bills. Can’t they think things through before making announcements, or does it have to be like Modi’s midnight demonetisation disaster every time?


Two-thirds of fuel taxes from diesel

The retail price of petrol went up by Rs 3.83 a litre in May, Rs 4.58 in June and Rs 2.73 in July (up to July 16), while diesel rose by Rs 4.42 a litre in May, Rs 4.03 in June and Rs 0.69 in July (up to July 16). Excise duty on petrol was hiked from Rs 19.98 per litre to Rs 32.9 last year to recoup gains arising from international oil prices plunging to a multi-year low as the pandemic flattened demand. Duty on diesel was raised to Rs 31.8 from Rs 15.83 a litre, which has meant that two-third of taxes on fuel have come from diesel.


Prime number: 49 lakh
India’s excess deaths during the Covid-19 pandemic could be as high as 49 lakh, according to a new study that provides further evidence that lakhs more may have died from coronavirus than the official tally. The report by the Washington-based Center for Global Development, co-authored by India’s former chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian, included deaths from all causes since the beginning of the pandemic through June 2021. India has officially reported more than 414,000 deaths due to Covid-19, the third highest tally in the world after the US and Brazil, but the study adds to growing calls from experts for a rigorous nationwide fatality audit.

Tender for six P75-I subs issued

The government has issued a tender expected to be worth around Rs 50,000 crore for building six conventional submarines with fuel cell API under Project-75 India. The Indian companies identified as strategic partners, Mazagon Docks Ltd and L&T, will now select one partner each from the five global original equipment manufacturers, including firms from France, Germany, Russia, South Korea and Spain.


Deep dive

In a deeply globalised world, where spyware coded in Israel can impinge upon the lives of minister Prahlad Patel’s cook and gardener, or on those of the private secretaries of Karnataka politicians, the truth is everyone’s business. Read Forbidden Stories’ detailed account of the rise and fall of NSO, the Israeli company that manufactures the silent and secret military-grade spyware.


Blow to Jagan

In a major blow to Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, the Supreme Court has dismissed the state’s plea against quashing of criminal cases filed in connection with land transactions at Amaravati. A bench of Justices Vineet Saran and Dinesh Maheshwari noted that private sale transactions cannot be criminalised and that the concept of the offence of “insider trading” cannot be read into Section 420 of the IPC, or into any provisions in the scheme of the IPC.

The top court was hearing pleas by the state government challenging the January 19 judgment of the Andhra Pradesh High Court. The YSRCP government had filed criminal cases alleging that the respondents had bought land in Amaravati while privy to information from the Chandrababu Naidu government. Allegedly, they were told that the area would be developed as the state capital after the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh in 2014.


US lowers travel advisory for India

The US has lowered its travel advisory for India from the highest Level 4, meaning no travel, to Level 3, which urges citizens to reconsider travelling, amidst a drop in the number of Covid deaths and infections in the country. When last month's advisory was issued, India was struggling with a second wave of the pandemic with more than 3,00,000 new cases reported every day.


Opeds you don’t want to miss

  • ​​The list of potential targets — journalists, politicians, probably a Supreme Court judge and a former Election Commissioner — does not indicate that the surveillance was necessitated by national security or public safety concerns, says the lead editorial in The Hindu.The Indian Expresseditorial also says, “IT Minister got it slightly wrong. Trying to snoop on citizens unlawfully is what maligns Indian democracy.” Hindustan Times calls it, “An attack on citizens.”

  • Shanthie Mariet D’Souza writes that it could be scant months before New Delhi has to consider evacuating all its embassy and consulate staff from Afghanistan. In strategic terms, India’s loss would be Pakistan and China’s gain. In real terms, it would mean the erosion of goodwill of a friendly neighbour that looked up to India for support in times of need.


Listen up

Hear Rathin and Joy, two senior sports media professionals and avid quizzers, who “have fun with facts about music, books, film, sports, history, science, language.”


Watch Out

Yesterday, on its third anniversary, The South Asian Symphony Foundation presented ‘The Spirit of South Asia’, a digital musical offering by the musicians of the South Asian Symphony Orchestra. The Foundation is dedicated to peace in South Asia, guided by the belief that “music transcends borders and bridges divides”.


Over and out

The Untold Lives Blog of the British Library in London tracks new employees of the East India Company embarking on their first voyage to India, and what they were expected to pack. By the 1840s, this was a well-trodden path for British officials and one company was on hand to provision them. 

Tha absolute farce of having the PM’s picture on vaccine certificates, as revealed in Frankfurt. 

Eid Mubarak, everyone. Stay healthy, stay safe.


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