Dirty power

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced at the COP26 summit in Glasgow that India will install 500 GW of non-fossil-fuel energy generation capacity by 2030. In his analysis of Modi’s speech for The Wire Science, Kabir Agarwal wrote that the phrasing evokes a contrast with Modi’s announcement at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit on New York, where he said India would install 450 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2030.

Apparently, “non-fossil-fuel energy” is not the same as “renewable energy”, and that the biggest difference between them is hydroelectric power production.

As much as drastic climate action is warranted, it must also ensure we don’t privilege the ends at the cost of the means. For example, decarbonisation must happen such that the inevitable wealth loss, current and prospective, is distributed justly in society – such that the super-rich lose the most and the poor lose the least – and climate deals (both international and sub-national) should account for the corresponding mechanisms in their terms. Saving the planet by destroying the poor would be a meaningless triumph.

Such incrementalism demands that we consider our problems one step at a time. For example, first we must all agree to phase out fossil fuels and replace them with renewable sources of energy. Then we can get on to figuring out ways to incentivise manufacturing and installation, and then to energy storage, distribution and grid parity.

On this path, hydroelectric power seems to have been relegated to the “non-fossil-fuel” side sooner than other renewable sources – so much so that invoking it requires a careful shift in the language used to talk about it at multilateral fora.

But while the syntactic choice shouldn’t surprise us, it should remind us that the differences between hydroelectric power and solar and wind power are often very small.

An important one is the perception that hydroelectric power is dirty – but so are solar and wind today, albeit in more circuitous ways. The shift from fossil fuels to so-called ‘green energy’ is fundamentally a shift from extracting hydrocarbons to extracting minerals and metals instead. It doesn’t spell the end of extractive capitalism, or change the fact that mining is bad for the land, its life, the air above and the local micro-climate, or that solar and wind installations are not as pleasant as they sound.

Some of the world’s largest extant reserves of the specific metals, especially lithium and the lanthanides, and minerals required for the systems of the futuristic ‘green world’ – electric vehicles, wind turbines, solar panels, renewable-energy batteries and in fact everything ‘smart’ that promises to increase energy efficiency by adjusting demand according to supply in real-time – are located in Africa, South Asia and South America. These regions also host most of the world’s low- and middle-income countries, and are often the sites of extreme wealth inequality, unstable local governments and poor representation in high-level climate deliberations.

It is not unheard of, as in Bolivia, for governments to be erected on or trip over who gets the profits from mining these materials – the locals or privately owned conglomerates. An Oxfam review of the Africa Mining Vision in 2017, eight years after it was introduced, found that contrary to the vision’s goal to have mining on the continent benefit the people there, lax implementation and economic inequality were forcing countries to enter into deals with companies that were profitable in the shorter term but hurt later.

In addition, solar and wind power generation require substantial quantities of steel, plastic and concrete, most of which the world still produces using fossil fuels, and whose production releases significant quantities of carbon into the environment.

Taken together, solar and wind power are dirty as well, but perhaps just less dirtier than hydroelectric. Put another way, Modi’s new announcement roping hydroelectric power into the task of ‘greenifying’ India’s power generation mix only makes the mix dirtier than it already was.

Perhaps we’re giving hydroelectric short shrift because its turbine is located much closer to the ground its chassis has gouged out than ‘solar farms’ are to the sand removed from distant rivers or wind turbines are to the bauxite mined from a remote peninsula. And then there is the inundation that dams bring. The ‘dirtiness’ of hydroelectric power is much more in your face, whereas those of solar and wind are often hidden away as negative externalities.

A spate of accidents in Uttarakhand has only reinforced the awful reputation of hydroelectric power – and the recklessness of the people, including Prime Minister Modi, who make the decisions to build them the way they do.

Second, Modi must realise that solar and wind power need ‘cleaning up’, too.

The problem areas aren’t hard to find. In Gujarat, wind turbines are being installed on forest land and solar power plants have been flagged for “procedural” irregularities. In Karnataka, farmers and cattle-breeders have spoken out against the concrete foundations for solar farms that change soil-water interactions.

In Tamil Nadu, villagers had to mount a noisy protest to keep an Adani-built ‘solar park’ from guzzling water from a nearby river. In the Western Ghats, wind turbines have affected the diversity of predatory birds and the livelihoods of an indigenous population. In Assam, proponents of a solar power plant didn’t have patience for stakeholder consultation or the proper approvals before starting construction.

Incrementalism, especially if it’s quicker, is essential to ensure we make a just transition away from fossil fuels – while also committing to the possibility that things that are bad for the planet today needn’t always be so, through a combination of technological innovation and the value chain reshaping itself according to new incentives and sanctions.

If hydroelectric power is not “renewable”, perhaps this is an admission from the most powerful individual in India that it deserves to be discarded, not replicated. But equally importantly, Modi’s statement also visibilises the problems with solar and wind power, and reminds us that the cleanliness of our energy is fundamentally political. India, and other countries, need solar panels and wind turbines, but if our leaders in government don’t adopt them in sustainable, democratic and socially just ways, it will be just another meaningless triumph.

It’s great that the WHO isn’t just ‘not cutting corners’

Call me anti-national (and I’m sure many will) but I’m glad that the WHO isn’t just “not cutting corners” in the process of considering Bharat Biotech’s application for the UN body’s stamp of approval Covaxin but is also openly calling for more and more information from the company at periodic intervals.

This isn’t just a validation process in the larger scheme of things – which could imply something as banal as the WHO considering a really complicated application – but has also served to humiliate the Indian government’s instruments, from the clinical trial regulation apparatus to the prime minister’s office (let’s not forget that the PM is indeed a tool). The WHO’s process is resistant to “diplomatic” and “political” inputs, even as every meeting of its vaccine approval committee has concluded thus far with demands for more information from Bharat Biotech. This doesn’t prove that the Drug Controller General of India and the Central Drug Standards Control Organisation screwed up their vetting process to push Covaxin’s emergency-use license through earlier this year – but surely suggests it, and that’s just as well.

Everyone from Bharat Biotech’s upper management to Prime Minister Narendra Modi have failed to understand that bad data alone doesn’t cause vaccine hesitancy, that absent data has the same effect. The Indian government, specifically the Bharatiya Janata Party, dragged Covaxin to the centre of its vaccine triumphalism and afforded it the same privileges it has extended to other parts of government – trenchant opacity, approval sans data, vanishing accountability. As such, we were never talking about a product of the Indian medical research community as much as something resembling a corrupted political object, and that in turn should lead us to the conclusion that this vaccine deserved to be met with hesitancy, and the WHO’s repeated requests for more data indicates that it still deserves to be.

Thus far, the current government has seemed most responsive (albeit like a child, lashing out and hurting someone else) to the threat of humiliation. So, glad, even if I’m sure it will be short-lived. Once the WHO grants its approval (although there’s no guarantee), the government will certainly embark on a past-washing campaign, pressing its ministers to the task of weaving together an alternative history of why the approval process was unusually protracted. Is there any way we can preempt that?

The ‘one billion doses’ hype

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has addressed India’s people 10 times during the country’s COVID-19 epidemic. This is fairly regular but also not frequent – that is, Modi’s addresses are something of special occasions, especially since it’s one of the few ways he interacts with the people at large (he doesn’t like speaking to the independent media) and even if most of what he says is banal. In the latest edition, for example, he celebrated the fact that India had administered one billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines between January 16 and October 21, 2021.

Now, why was this point the subject of a prime ministerial address? It’s quite nonsensical. If you wait long enough, any country with at least 500 million adults is going to administer one billion doses of two-dose COVID-19 vaccines. It’s not an achievement – it’s the natural course of action, like pooping if you’ve eaten enough food or peeing if you’ve had enough water. Unless of course the prime minister considers the metaphorical pooping and peeing to be achievements as well – i.e. that vaccines were produced at all, distributed at all and pierced skin at all…

A little more than a year ago, the same government also claimed a 70% COVID-19 recovery rate in India as an achievement. It was the same logic, and the same perversion of common sense: on average, {X}% of people everywhere with COVID-19 will recover because, on average, {100 minus X}% of COVID-19 patients die – if you wait long enough. The question the prime minister should have answered then, and should be answering now, is why it took so long.

On the latter count: he promised in mid-January 2021 that the Union health ministry would vaccinate India’s 300 million frontline and healthcare workers by July. But as of September 30, 99% of healthcare workers had received at least one dose and 85% had received both doses. These figures are likely to be lower if frontline workers, like the police and municipal workers, are included. No doubt 85% is a big number, but we are also three months past the deadline and the delta variant has accentuated the difference between one dose and two doses.

So these figures only speak of a government that can’t plan properly and is destined to celebrate only that which will happen anyway.

(The penultimate paragraph above appeared in an article by my colleague Ajoy Ashirwad, published on October 22, 2021, as one of my inputs.)

He is never wrong

Akshay Deshmane reported for The Morning Context on October 20 that the Union environment ministry has reversed two important decisions it made earlier this year: (a) to invite private law firms to help amend the Indian Forest Act 1927 and (b) to oppose the Delhi high court’s directive to translate the new draft EIA notification to 22 languages and extend its public consultation deadline to December this year. These are both major U-turns in the sense that the original decisions were both obviously anti-democratic and had the government’s unwavering support, so to walk back on them is to admit that the government’s original stance on both counts was wrong.

Now, I’m of the firm belief that India is currently ruled not by a government but by an autocrat at the very top who likes to be seen pulling the ministerial strings when things go right but pushes some sod forward when things go sideways. I concede that this has pretty much been an ex post facto rationalisation, but it fits the facts every time and also draws some support from the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has his fingers not in some pies but in every pie. This would entail a certain failure rate – as would be statistically typical, as is normal – but if the government’s press releases and communiqués and ministers’ speeches are to be believed, he has never screwed up. Never. The incumbent government is also incapable of making any decision without his express approval, if not being entirely of his office’s initiative.

In this context, it’s notable that between making the two decisions and admitting that they were wrong, in July 2021, Prime Minister Modi reshuffled the Union cabinet, replacing a glut of ministers – and apparently also giving himself room to rethink some decisions without requiring a mea culpa or, at least and as has become so common, retaining plausible deniability. Among the new lot was Bhupender Yadav, brought in to replace Prakash Javadekar as the environment minister. And it was Yadav’s office that announced it wouldn’t challenge the Delhi high court and that it wouldn’t continue with the process to have private firms amend an important legal instrument.

Would the ministry, and the minister, have been so brave as to admit wrongdoing while they were still in the same office? Unlikely; it has seldom happened before. Would the prime minister have been so brave as to admit wrongdoing? Ha!

A similar thing happened with the outgoing health minister Harsh Vardhan and the incoming Mansukh Mandaviya, who said shortly after his new appointment that the health ministry didn’t do enough against India’s second COVID-19 outbreak in April-May this year. There’s no reason to stop believing that the prime minister is still pulling the strings, and there’s no reason to stop believing that he will continue to ‘prove’ he’s always right.

Featured image credit: Al Soot/Unsplash.

Political merch from a newsroom

Shekhar Gupta, the editor of The Print, shared the following image on his Instagram profile a couple days ago:

The post had the following note:

Since we so love politics at ThePrint, we are developing a range of gifting merchandise. This mug is one such example. In the course of the next few days I will share more with you. Please do say what you think. We will soon make these available for sale…

I will say what I think. This is a poor but on-point example of a news establishment convinced that it has a view from nowhere upon the world – wherefrom it can dispense both op-eds criticising one policy or the other, news reports that call out one political leader or the other, and merchandise that seeks to appease and profit from supporters of one political party or the other. This would be a view that affords the establishment the belief that the stuff of its reports, even when they get wholly dispiriting with stories of caste and class discrimination, state-sponsored harassment and unpunished demonstrations of physical violence, still only concern the shenanigans of one more political party in the long parade of India’s political parties – and not the symptoms of an unchecked autocracy toppling a democracy. That it is therefore okay to sell mugs and T-shirts emblazoned with images and symbols of different power-players to their supporters who are all, but of course, on equal footing.

No; The Print‘s decision here is as simple as profiting from Hindutva fandom.

Journalism professor Jay Rosen’s comments for the American political press, just before Trump’s ascent, are apt here:

These are people who live daily with “the partisan divide,” a cliché they helped make into a cliché. But on the chance that they’re being sincere let me be equally straight with them…

Every time you had to “leave it there” after ideologies clashed mindlessly, fruitlessly. Every dubious truth claim you had to let pass because challenging it might interrupt the flow or make you sound too partisan. Every time you defaulted to “will it work?” when the bigger question was “is it so?” Every dutiful effort you made to “get the other side” without asking if the number of sides was really two. Every time you asked each other “what’s the politics of this?” so you could escape the tedium and complexity of public problem-solving. Every time you smiled weakly to say, “depends on who you ask” before launching into a description of public actors who dwell in separate worlds of fact. Every time you described political polarization as symmetrical when it isn’t. Every time you denied that being in the middle was a position so you didn’t have to ask if it was a defensible one. Every time you excluded yourselves from a faltering political class.

Every pox you put on both houses because it felt good to float above it all. Every eye you rolled at the humorless scolds who rage at the White House Correspondents dinner. … Every time you pointed with pride to the criticism you were getting from both sides, assuming it meant you were doing something right when you might have been doing everything wrong. Every operative you turned into an expert. Every unprincipled winner you admired for their savvy. Every time you thought it was not up to you to judge when it was on you — especially on you — to assess, weigh and, yes, judge.

All of it, every moment like that had the effect of implicating you in this mess.

Jay Rosen, ‘Tone poem for the “leave it there” press’, PressThink

India today is not the land of a civil contest between different political parties but, more broadly, a contest for survival between one entity that has seized control of the national government, while being openly dissatisfied with the demands of running the country with a democratic apparatus, and a people who are constantly assailed by a pressure to conform to the upper-caste orthodox Hindutva way of life or suffer physical, social and mental violence. (Did the love of politics miss this?)

If, in this context, The Print is able to claim that it belongs to no camp, it quite simply belongs to that camp.

(Aside: Don’t come at me saying other political parties screw up, too. They do very much, but calling their bullshit out doesn’t require distancing oneself from objecting to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s nationalist programme – journalist or not – in the name of objectivity.)

Edit, 10:56 am: I’m told NewsLaundry has been selling similar merchandise for some time now, but the operational term seems to be ‘similar’. As one friend said about this T-shirt, for example: “The difference is between lampooning (NL’s brand) and apparently celebrating (Yogi as the Vitruvian man, Modi as Leonardo?).”

Featured image: Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Red Fort, August 15, 2021. Credit: Prime Minister’s Office/Wikimedia Commons.

ISRO’s national interest bullshit

For data and other objects, like images and videos, it places in the public domain, the Indian government attaches the GODL license – short for ‘government open data license’. The terms of this license are fairly straightforward: that

… all users are provided a worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive license to use, adapt, publish (either in original, or in adapted and/or derivative forms), translate, display, add value, and create derivative works (including products and services), for all lawful commercial and non-commercial purposes, and for the duration of existence of such rights over the data or information.

There is then an attribution requirement:

The user must acknowledge the provider, source, and license of data by explicitly publishing the attribution statement, including the DOI (Digital Object Identifier), or the URL (Uniform Resource Locator), or the URI (Uniform Resource Identifier) of the data concerned.

But despite the breadth of its permissions, the license isn’t obviously liberal because of some exceptions (emphasis added):

The license does not cover the following kinds of data: a. personal information; b. data that is non-shareable and/or sensitive; c. names, crests, logos and other official symbols of the data provider(s); d. data subject to other intellectual property rights, including patents, trade-marks and official marks; e. military insignia; f. identity documents; and g. any data that should not have been publicly disclosed for the grounds provided under section 8 of the Right to Information [RTI] Act, 2005.

Note the last one, (g). I have been interested in the GODL license because it is the license on images produced by ISRO and uploaded to the Wikimedia Commons catalogue. I have written about the problems with this licensing setup at length here (principally, a. the license only covers objects published after 2012 and b. ISRO retains the copyright on all its products through a separate statement on its website). In this context, the exception under Section 8 of the RTI Act is notable: it seems quite reasonable, except for the fact that the Indian government has of late applied this limitation to the most innocuous of queries under the Act.

A new case in point came with Pradeep Mohandas’s newsletter this morning. Twitter user @frustratedpluto filed an RTI applicatio with ISRO seeking answers to 10 queries, transcribed below from screenshots the user shared on Twitter. Look at the responses they received.

1. Provide what constitutes in Lander Sensor Performance Test (LSPT) Phase-3 test in general?

The information sought is exempted from disclosure under Section-8(1)(a) of RTI Act as it would prejudicially affect the scientific, technical and strategic interest of the state / country.

2. Has LSPT Phase-3 test for Chandrayaan-3 has been conducted? If yes, provide me when was it done? If no, provide when will it likely to be conducted?

The information sought is exempted from disclosure under Section-8(1)(a) of RTI Act as it would prejudicially affect the scientific, technical and strategic interest of the state / country.

3. Provide me the number of Lander Actuator Performance Test (LAPT) were done for Chandrayaan-2?

The information sought is exempted from disclosure under Section-8(1)(a) of RTI Act as it would prejudicially affect the scientific, technical and strategic interest of the state / country.

4. Provide me if any LAPT test done for five engine configuration?

The information sought is exempted from disclosure under Section-8(1)(a) of RTI Act as it would prejudicially affect the scientific, technical and strategic interest of the state / country.

5. Are there any LAPT planned for Chandrayaan-3 mission? If yes, then provide me names of ISRO facilities would be used to conduct it?

The information sought is exempted from disclosure under Section-8(1)(a) of RTI Act as it would prejudicially affect the scientific, technical and strategic interest of the state / country.

6. Provide me the location of NASA LRA Payload onboard Vikram lander of Chandrayaan-2? (Please illustrate on a diagram if possible).

The information sought is exempted from disclosure under Section-8(1)(a) of RTI Act as it would prejudicially affect the scientific, technical and strategic interest of the state / country.

7. Provide me finalised design of Chandrayaan-3 mission

The information sought is exempted from disclosure under Section-8(1)(a) of RTI Act as it would prejudicially affect the scientific, technical and strategic interest of the state / country.

8. Provide me the expected launch timeline of Aditya L1 and Exposat mission

Based on the present assessment and taking into account the COVID restrictions, the launch is planned in third Quarter of 2022.

9. Provide me the number of payloads for Aditya L1 have been received to ISRO from PI institutes?

The information sought is exempted from disclosure under Section-8(1)(a) of RTI Act as it would prejudicially affect the scientific, technical and strategic interest of the state / country.

10. Provide me how much time will Aditya L1 take to reach L1 point after being lifted off from ground?

Mission planning is under progress and it will be decided in due course.

This is an absolute travesty. Given the extent to which ISRO has invoked exemptions under Section 8 of the RTI Act, you might think Chandrayaan 3 is an orbital weapon, not an S&T mission. These replies, such as they are, have one of two possible implications: either, as @frustratedpluto has noted, they reflect an irresponsible laziness on the part of ISRO staff responsible for addressing RTI applications or they provide a peek into what the government considers to be proprietary information in the nationalistic sense – something to be fiercely guarded against threats as considerable, and as vague, as the national interest.

A notable government official said at a meeting I attended early last year that one shouldn’t attribute to malice what could be explained by incompetence. But here, confronted with a choice between these two causes of ISRO’s reticence, accusing it of something as slight as incompetence would be laughable.

This is more so when:

a) We have all been witness to a significant decline in ISRO’s outreach efforts over the last half-decade or so and, more importantly, the people’s and journalists’ ability to access its scientists for information on ISRO missions;

b) K. Sivan’s leadership of the organisation has been marked by statements from his and his colleagues’ offices that seem grossly out of touch with reality (perhaps most famously: Sivan’s comment that the failed Chandrayaan 2 mission was a “98% success”)

(A related point here is that by claiming that details of tests like the LAPT and the LSPT are central to India’s scientific and technical interests to the extent that ISRO can’t share their details, the organisation is letting itself, and its mandate and goals, become appropriated by the political establishment, as well as – thanks to its troll army – helping sustain narratives that the establishment is hard at work protecting India from previously unknown threats, one of which might be people like @frustratedpluto asking ‘dangerous’ questions about science missions); and

c) The country’s political leadership has made subtle attempts to coopt ISRO missions to its electoral advantage.

In fact, the importance The Party places on giving the impression that is in complete control of The Situation (which can be any situation) is impossible to overstate:

The current Government of India is clearly determined to constantly be right and constantly on higher ground, nothing less. To realise these conditions, it lies, evades, deceives and hides when a time comes for it to say it was wrong. When there is a mistake, or even when something entirely out of its control happens, it tries to lie the problem away, either to give the impression that the problem didn’t exist in the first place or that it has found a solution against all odds.

‘India COVID-19 Response Suggests ‘Scientific Superpower’ Tag an Impossible Dream’, The Wire Science, December 2020

On top of all this, @frustratedpluto has been trolled on Twitter for seeking details of the final design of Chandrayaan 3. I really cannot see a straight line between this question and the answer that sharing this information would “affect the scientific, technical and strategic interest” of India, but it is tempting to see here glimpses of the Supreme Leader’s Midas touch and its ongoing disruption of our scientific enterprise.

In this context, the GODL license may be small fry – but the fact remains that the government could take it away or limit its terms, in turn further affecting our access to even the photos and videos that ISRO produces, if the government behind it senses even a small threat to its sense of control, leave alone perfectly harmless details about upcoming science missions.

Featured image: ISRO’s PSLV C45 before launch (with modified colours). Credit: Twitter/ISRO.

Revisiting ‘The Resistance of the Time’

Let us visit the future – a suitable point of time located in one of the many tomorrows ahead of us, a tomorrow far enough to have left The Time behind. What do we see? We see, among other things, that many people spoke up. Many people did not. Many people who spoke up did not say what we wanted them to say. They said what others wanted them to say. A few even spoke words of their own.

What happens after a fascist regime ends? Will we want to remember who spoke up and who did not? Will we want to remember and punish those who did not say what we wanted them to say? Some of those who spoke up said all the wrong things, we say, and that was wrong because they were in power. They could have done something by doing the right thing.

I wrote this in January 2020, in a post reflecting on whether there exist reasonable grounds on which we could excuse someone for not speaking up against evil, in a time of evil, and whether, just as we are quick to identify and dismiss the more passive people in power, we also shrink the set of actions we accept as good or desirable. Since then a pandemic and many other disasters have visited the country, and most have yet to leave. In that post, I invoked the examples of three people, calling them K, H and L (there should have been no doubt who they really were, even if L refered to more than one person). This is what I had written of K:

K was a member of the government. He was a reasonable man and a smart man. He did not speak up at The Time. I imagine he did not want to upset his vengeful masters. I remember K as a good man because even though he did not speak up, he did a lot of good work when he was in the government. He advanced a variety of causes that people of my political persuasion would have appreciated if it weren’t for The Time being what it was.

Looking back from now, his name clearly belongs on the list of people who did not speak up.

But I know that if he had spoken up, he would have been removed from office and wouldn’t have been able to do all the other things that he did – things that continue to reap rewards to this day. These things probably did not make The Time end but then should they be discarded for this reason? To play the devil’s advocate: if K had spoken up against the government (assuming those were his views), the anti-fascist movement – such as it is – would have gained a prominent supporter, but his absence within government would have affected the prospects of those his department laboured for.

In fact, consider whether the policies he and his colleagues drew out to help whom they were paid to help in turn empowered those people to speak out with less risk to their jobs and lives.

Would it be unreasonable to expect resistance to work like we expect fundamental science to work: like trees, like the movement of continents, slowly but surely leading up to something great, which does not signal its value in flashing green lights as much as invites us take as much as we possibly can from it, in as many forms as we can imagine, in as much time as we need?

Between January 2020 and now, my impression of K has changed entirely. It seems extremely difficult for me to believe today that their actions – including their passivity in the face of a great abuse of power – could have been or are in good faith. Dr Balram Bhargava, the director-general of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), is not K, but a report published by the New York Times yesterday called Dr Bhargava out for crawling, after being asked to crawl, and modifying the ICMR’s communiqués on COVID-19 matters to suit Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s play-acted optimism that made his government’s response look effective, instead of the disaster that it was. The ICMR could have called the prime minister’s lies out – it knew his government was lying – but chose not to, and dismissed expert disagreement both within and without the body.

By failing in exactly this fashion, the ICMR is not a scientific body, and if it claims to be, it will be peddling pseudoscience, no different from the Ministry of AYUSH. It is a PR agency specialised in the modification of press releases and media statements related to health research and care. There is a particularly egregious line from the New York Times‘s report, quoted thus in The Wire Science:

Bhargava also directed scientists in late July 2020 to withhold data from the country’s first seroprevalence survey, which showed that infection rates were high in many cities. In a July 25 email that the New York Times said it had reviewed, Bhargava said “I have not got approval” to publish the data. “You are sitting in an ivory tower and not understanding the sensitivity… I am sincerely disappointed.”

Here is a man who has the gall to express disappointment that someone else did the right thing – in normal circumstances, the perfectly banal right thing – by choosing to not have observational data ‘reviewed’ (whatever that means) by someone who has no need to ‘review’ it. Under Dr Bhargava’s leadership, the ICMR has actively misled people about India’s COVID-19 epidemic, by failing to present scientific data because that was politically inconvenient, by endorsing drugs and therapies because that was politically convenient, by lying to itself and others – and now, who knows what else it has lied about. (Let’s use Bhargava’s name along with the ‘Dr’ honorific to reiterate that him being highly educated didn’t prevent him from being corrupt.)

Since “early 2020”, when the newspaper said political pressure on the ICMR’s offices increased, and today, the ICMR has been the PMO’s press office. And if K – or anyone else like him – continues to stay in this government hoping to “do good”, it will mean that their efforts thus far have seemingly amounted to squat (thousands have died not by the disease but by the state’s complacency), and that they can no longer claim any ignorance in abetting the malignant narcissism of the Supreme Leader.

The problems with one-shot Covishield

NDTV quoted unnamed sources in the Indian government saying it will be conducting a study to assess the feasibility of deploying the Covishield vaccine in a single-dose regimen instead of continuing the extant double-dose regimen.

At any other time, such a statement may have been sufficient to believe the government would organise and conduct a well-designed trial, publicise the findings and revise policy (or not) to stay in line with the findings, informed by socio-economic considerations. But the last 15 months have thrown up enough incidents of public-health malpractice on the state’s part to make such hope outright stupid. I’m fairly certain, especially if the vaccine shortage persists and the outbreaks on an upward trajectory in some parts of the country at the moment aren’t tamped down quickly, that the government is going to conduct a trial, not publish its methods and findings and push through a policy to deploy Covishield as a single-dose shot.

Of course I would be happy to be proven wrong – but in the event that I’m not, I’m already filled with a mix of sadness and fury. The government seems set on finding new ways to play with our lives.

News that the government is going to conduct a feasibility study broke to the accompaniment of a suggestion, by NDTV’s same unnamed sources, that Covishield was originally intended as a single-dose vaccine and that it was later found to be better as a two-dose vaccine. This is ridiculous to begin with, considering Covishield’s phase 3 trials around the world, conducted by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, tested the two-dose regimen.

But it is rendered more ridiculous because Public Health England (PHE) reported just a week ago that two doses of Covishield are necessary for a recipient to be sufficiently protected against infections by the B.1.617.2 variant. The PHE study found that one dose of Covishield had an efficacy of 33% against symptomatic COVID-19 caused by the variant, increasing to 60% after both doses. Has the Indian government forgotten that B.1.617.2 is becoming the more common variant circulating in the country? Or is laundering the national party’s image more important than the safety of hundreds of millions? (The latter is entirely plausible: in the last seven years, the country has seldom been larger than the supreme leader’s ego.)

The PHE study isn’t without its shortcomings – but I’d be more inclined to pay attention to them at this moment if:

  1. I didn’t have to contend with the non-trivial possibility that the Indian government will bury, obfuscate and/or twist the data arising from its assessment, and therefore we (the public) need to bank on whatever else is available;
  2. I didn’t have to contend with the fact that data from Covaxin’s phase 3 trial (which apparently went past its final interim-analysis endpoint in April) and Covishield’s bridging trial (which IIRC concluded on March 24) are still missing from the public domain;
  3. If we could access large-scale effectiveness data of the two vaccines (the National Institute of Epidemiology, Chennai, is set to begin collecting such data this week); and
  4. If there was any other reliable data at the moment about the two vaccines vis-à-vis the different variants circulating in India.

There is another problem. If Covishield is administered as a single-dose vaccine, its efficacy against symptomatic COVID-19 caused by B.1.617.2 viral particles is 33% – which is below the WHO’s recommended efficacy threshold of 50% for these vaccines. If the Indian government formalises the ‘Covishield will be one dose’ policy and if the B.1.617.2 variant continues its conquest, will the vaccine, as it is used in India, lose its place on the WHO’s vaccine list? And what of the consequences that will follow, including other countries becoming reluctant to admit Indians who received one dose of Covishield and one dose of the BJP’s way of doing things?

I would be wary, too. The longer the particles of the novel coronavirus are able to circulate within a population, the more opportunities they will have to mutate, and the more mutations they will accumulate. So any population that allows the virus to persist for longer automatically increases the chance of engendering potentially deadlier variants within its borders. One-dose Covishield plus B.1.617.2, and other variants, will set just such a stage – compounded by the fact that Serum Institute, which makes Covishield, has a much larger production capacity than Bharat Biotech, the maker of Covaxin.

(The PHE study also found that Covishield and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine had an efficacy of “around 50%” against symptomatic COVID-19 caused by an infection of the B.1.1.7 variant.)

In fact, the government could have made more sense today by saying it would prioritise the delivery of the first dose to as many people as possible before helping people get the second one. This way the policy would be in line with the most recent scientific findings, be synonymous with a single-dose campaign and keep the door open to vaccinating people with both doses in a longer span of time (instead of closing that door entirely), while admitting that the vaccine shortage is real and crippling – something most of us know anyway. But no; Vishwaguru first.

The political theatre of Vardhan v. Ramdev

Last week, Baba Ramdev made offensive remarks against allopathic medicine and against people desperately looking for oxygen for their loved ones hospitalised with COVID-19. On Sunday, Union health minister Harsh Vardhan sent a letter to Ramdev asking him to withdraw his comments. On Monday morning, news reports suggested Ramdev had done so.

However, it wasn’t clear why the Indian government – so trigger-happy against any small, even nonexistent, slights against “India’s reputation” – didn’t book Ramdev under the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 or any other law. Or is this not the right question to ask?

Compare Vardhan’s letter on Sunday to Ramdev to his letter on April 20 to former prime minister Manmohan Singh. A day earlier, Singh had written to Modi suggesting that the Centre give the states more flexibility to locally adapt the vaccination programme and share the Centre-company vaccine orders with the people.

In response, Vardhan lashed out, accusing Singh’s Congress party of “fuelling vaccine hesitancy”, spreading fake news and the states in which it was in power of being the biggest contributors to India’s second wave. It was a madman’s diatribe with no basis in fact or sense, designed to curry favour with his own party, and his Supreme Leader, instead of taking the opportunity to respond directly to Singh’s suggestions.

In contrast, Vardhan’s letter to Ramdev – whose remarks were as destructive as Singh’s were constructive – is cajoling. Here’s a translation by NDTV (the original is in Hindi):

The people of the country are very hurt with your remark on allopathic medicines. I have already told you about this feeling over phone. Doctors and health workers are like gods for the people of the country for whom they are fighting against the coronavirus risking their lives.

You have not only insulted Corona warriors, but have hurt the feelings of the people of the country. Your clarification yesterday is not enough to make up for it… I hope you will think hard on it and withdraw your statements completely.

A former prime minister and one of India’s greatest economists is met with blockheaded whataboutery whereas an unscrupulous businessman in cahoots with the national party and with no regard for the morals of public healthcare is coaxed gently into withdrawing his remarks, as if the minister is wary of tripping the wrong wire. This is political theatre pure and simple.

In a government apparatus that has never, in the last half-decade of its rule, done anything without the express permission of its prime minister, it’s not likely that Vardhan or Ramdev have violated this rule now. The big flip side of totally centralised power is that the buck never moves past the same person.

Ramdev was set up to say something offensive and Vardhan was set up push back in a display of understated authority, but authority nonetheless – to signal to the party’s followers that the government, despite so many expressions in India, the US and Europe to the contrary, is in charge and is looking out for the interests of healthcare workers, who show up in Vardhan’s letter as “Corona warriors”. Now that the project has accomplished its goals, the Supreme Leader and his office has allowed Ramdev to withdraw without consequence into his corporate offices and for Vardhan to bask in his ‘victory’.

But numerous healthcare workers have been offended by Ramdev’s remarks, many of them on Twitter, and so has the Indian Medical Association. Is the minister really looking out for anyone here apart from the party followers? This is the right question to ask.

Featured image: Harsh Vardhan and Baba Ramdev. Credits: MST/PIB and Kumari Anu/PIB, Wikimedia Commons.

Pandemic: Science > politics?

By Mukunth and Madhusudhan Raman

Former Union health secretary K. Sujatha Rao had a great piece in The Indian Express on January 14, whose takeaway she summarised in the following line:

Science, evidence and data analytics need to be the bedrock of the roll-out policy, not politics and scoring brownie points for electoral advantages.

However, we can’t help but be reminded of the difference between what should be and what will be. We all (at least those of us who have been on the same side since 2014) know what should be. But as we’ve seen with the National Registry of Citizens (NRC), the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) 2019 and most recently the farm laws, our present government doesn’t change its mind.

In the last example, the Supreme Court intervened to stay the laws’ implementation but the mediation committee it put together somehow wound up with most members being known to be sympathetic to the government’s position. So what will be, will be – and this is likely to be true vis-à-vis Covaxin as well.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already guaranteed as much by determining to foot the cost of 5.5 million doses of Covaxin using the PM CARES fund, which lies beyond public oversight. The Central Drug Standards Control Organisation also played its part by pushing through Covaxin’s approval on terms no one has heard of – and which no one can therefore falsify.

However, this isn’t a pitch for a nihilist position. When Sujatha Rao writes that the government should prize science, evidence and data more than politics and elections, she is right – but we must also ask why. The government has clear incentives to prioritise politics. By thrusting Bharat Biotech – Covaxin’s maker – to the forefront, Modi can claim his ‘Atma Nirbhar’ and ‘Make in India’ schemes have been successful. Also, two important state elections are around the corner: West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.

These are issues that people, but especially ‘Middle Indians’, have an eye on and according to which they vote. The government has also said it is approving Covaxin because it is concerned with the ‘UK variant’. While no reason can be good enough to justify the use of a vaccine candidate in the population sans data from phase 3 clinical trials, the government has effectively set up Covaxin to be failure-proof: if it works, it works; if it doesn’t, it becomes the fault of the variant.

Taken together, Modi’s biggest mistake here is criminal negligence – for pushing Covaxin in the absence of efficacy data (which leads to a cascade of ethical dilemmas) – especially since there are fewer questions over Covaxin’s safety. And negligence is a difficult case to stick to this party or in fact to many people.

Granted, public-spirited science teachers, communicators and journalists can take it upon themselves (ourselves) to persuade readers as to why Covaxin’s approval is really bad – that though everything may turn out okay, it sets a terrible precedent for what this government is allowed to do, how such unchecked power may wreak deadly havoc in future crises, and ultimately that we become a people okay with settling for less, increasingly blind to the banal incrementalism of evil.

In fact, if the mainstream press manages to forget concerns about vaccine apartheid within the country, the dominant narrative as the vaccine roll-out is a few months in is going to be: “India is doing just fine, thank you very much.”

But while the Modi government’s actions may only be negligent – albeit criminally so – in the domains of public healthcare and ‘scientific temper’, they amount to something more egregious if we include the political dimensions of our present moment as well.

None of this means words like those of Sujatha Rao are unnecessary. We need to never forget what should be, and we need to keep protesting for our own sakes. (“Protests sometimes look like failures in the short term, but much of the power of protests is in their long-term effects, on both the protesters themselves and the rest of society.” – Zeynep Tufekci) If we don’t, this government might pretend even less than it currently does that it is following some rules or guidelines from time to time.

However, limiting our exhortations to insist at every turn that “science is more important than politics during a pandemic” risks playing down the importance and influence of political motivations altogether – as well as assuming that the state machinery will automatically give way to scientific ones when lives are at stake.

A politician’s principal responsibility is not to govern but to win elections; good governance is a means to this electoral end. And the way people have voted for many decades attests to the reality of this incentive. While this claim may not be palatable from a theoretical point of view, consider it empirically: the Indian government has seldom responded to national crises to the detriment of potential electoral gains. Examples of such crises include the 1962, 1971 and 1999 conflicts, the nuclear tests and economic liberalisation. During the Emergency, the government itself embodied this crisis.

More recently, numerous ministers and diplomats urged the India and Pakistan governments to find diplomatic solutions after the Pulwama attack and also after the questionable Balakot airstrike, in early 2019. In previous years, they had been preceded by the disagreeable events of Aadhaar implementation, demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax. But Modi and his fellows won by a bigger margin in 2019 than they had five years earlier.

This happened partly because his success in elections rests on his impression as the Strongman of India, so his resolutions of choice involve flashy displays of strength and machismo.

Against this background: we need to admit political factors into the conversations we – rather, experts like health policymakers, heads of institutions, epidemiologists, healthcare workers, etc. – have from the beginning, instead of ruing the inevitable influence of politics later, so that we may anticipate it and take advantage of it.

For example, consider the conversation surrounding academic publishing. Academics perform most of the work that goes into publishing an academic paper (research, writing and reviewing). Publishing houses add only marginal value to journals – yet publishers charge exorbitant fees to access the results of publicly funded research once it is published. This is unfair, and many academics have said so.

However, the fact that publishing conglomerates are publicly traded companies whose primary responsibility is to generate profits for their shareholders finds little mention in conversations. In this case, the publishers’ profit-seeking motives are fundamental to the problem at hand – but are often disregarded in the first analysis (what should be) and subsequently bemoaned (what will be). For this to happen once is tragic; for it to repeat itself every few months is wasteful.

Similarly, the nationwide lockdown from March to July 2020 served a political purpose: it was a grand gesture, decisive, appealing to ‘Middle Indians’, in addition to supplying the government a pretext to disband protests against the CAA and the NRC. Just before the lockdown, the public conversation had been centred on what the government should be doing. However, most scientists and economists didn’t engage with the political dimension of this decision.

If we had, we may not have been side-tracked into conversations about weekend curfew versus night curfew, or cash transfers versus vouchers, etc. We would perhaps have recognised that our responsibility is not to operate within the parameters set by the government (“How effective was the lockdown?”) but instead recognise that the government’s decisions are politically motivated – so we can ask “Why lock down in the first place?”