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Gold Scam: Vijayan’s best hope is his ex-principal secy. doesn’t turn hostile

(This is a reprint from NewsBred).

If I was Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, I would be a very worried man today.

My principal secretary, M. Sivasankar, has been shown to have nexus with one Swapna Suresh (see pic) who holds the answer to the mammoth gold smuggling racket now unfolding in the state.

I mean I am in final year of my term, a good four-plus years in office now, and yet have been indifferent to gold smuggling which is more popular in the state than matadors in Spain.

My customs guys tell me the gold smuggling is doubling every year, for instance, what was 251kg seized in 2018 ballooned to 540kg last year. All my airports are competing in contraband gold hauls: Calicut (232kg), Cochin (220kg), Thiruvananthapuram (209kg) and Kannur (471kg) airports have provided a windfall in just over a year.

I mean I can fret that my opposition has chosen its moment to perfection, with state elections due in a few months, and the blow-off is to hurt my brazen projection as an honest foot soldier of my equally honest party, CPI-M, why would my voters believe me? After all, they gave me just a solitary seat out of 14 contested in the 2019 General Elections. What’s left now since Kannur, the den of contraband gold, is the constituency I am identified with.

Okay, there is merit when I say that the diplomatic baggage seized with Rs 15 crore worth of gold on Sunday was a question best answered by the UAE consulate in Kerala. But how do I now backtrack when I have publicly pronounced that Swapna Suresh was an employee on “contract” with the state IT department and the Opposition releases documents showing Swapna Suresh sending invitations to dignitaries for the “Space Conclave 2020” this January?

And my principal secretary? I mean how do I convince the people that he, Sivasankar, was a duffer acting on his own whims and fancies in stealing a job for Swapna Suresh as a business development manager in the IT department and not acting on my behest? I mean he had Swapna Suresh recommended by PricewaterhouseCoopers for the job, and the state IT department asserting Swapna was a graduate when her brother has conceded that she had not even completed the state school board exams? I mean you read layers and layers of this deeply embedded scandal in this piece to have an idea of its extent.

There is little denying that lakhs of Keralites work in Dubai. And that it takes just free air-tickets to find carriers of illegal gold to India for personal use in small quantity. I mean a kilogram of gold on a person’s body, carried by some hundred willing, could bring 100kg of unaccounted gold in the God’s Own Country.  The Corona pandemic has been a god-send for these enterprising. I mean you charter a plane for Rs 13-14 lakhs, put aboard dozens of distressed citizens, and bingo, the illegal gold is home.

The situation turns comical if you consider this situation: I board a Jet Airways flight from Dubai and am carrying 10kg of gold. I don’t embark at the transit airport of Delhi where a “carrier” boards the flight. We both land at Kannur airport, he picks my gold-laden bag as his own, and the parcel is home.

Still, you have incidents where dozens of people are caught carrying gold in their rectums. A nubile flight attendant hiding 13kg of contraband gold under her dress. A popular method is to melt gold into seed-shaped chips and hide it in dates; or converted into gold belt-buckles or torch batteries. Get this right: Over a thousand kilogram of gold is smuggled into India every day.

And why do you think people go to this length to smuggle gold into India? For one, 24 carat gold is negligible in India. Two, the import tariffs (12.5%) and GST (3 %) is prohibitive. Three, Indians love gold and festive seasons are boom time; Four, yes, you got it right—it’s so easy to bring contraband gold home.

Now, Vijayan’s best hope—his only hope–is that his principal secretary, now former, doesn’t point fingers at him. Centre of course is keen to get to the bottom of it, as asserted by Union minister of state, M Muraleedharan who also happens to belong to Kerala. If he could pin down Vijayan, the state could belong to him. Vijayan has a job to douse the flame leaping around him. Corona Virus and all can wait.

 

Is India testing enough? Or is there a method in this madness

(This is a reprint from NewsBred).

These are bad times for jokes but the one by India’s premier health agency looks particularly awful when it says it’s “testing” less than it could.

India is doubling the count of its Corona Virus patients twice every week and 40 have perished in the last 24 hours but the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) simply hasn’t cast its net wide enough to assure an anxious nation of a billion plus.

India is dawdling at 190,000 tests put together as on Sunday which bears a sorry comparison with the United States (2,700.000), Italy (1,000,000) and Spain (350,000), three nations reeling the most under the unforgiving pandemic.

India today isn’t short of hands or testing kits. It’s good enough for 20,000 tests a day. It also isn’t shy of promising 100,000 tests a day soon. So what’s stopping it from showing its full hand to the growing footprint of the killer virus?

Specific and not random tests

It would seem India’s strategy is more by design than neglect. India has so far preferred to do tests only on those who have shown symptoms. Such information is either being relayed by patients themselves or a confirmed case is being followed up. In no case, suspects are allowed to visit nearby designated hospitals on own.

It appears there is a corollary to such caution. A nursing home in Washington made headlines for being the biggest harbinger of disease to nearby community. The Virus arrived on the host-patients and spread itself on staff, security and residents without distinction. Wuhan in China bears reports on patients calling up on routine health issues and ending up infecting those unfortunate to be around them.

The red flag of mass testing is obvious too. How do you do it? By rounding up people and allowing the disease to hop and spread to the last man in the queue? Instead, India’s healthcare is opting to swarm around hot-spots in the country of which they have identified a few dozens. It’s here that they are rolling up sleeves and getting into combat mode. Mass testing with lockdown in place doesn’t quite make much sense to them.

No community spread yet

India still maintains it’s in Phase Two of the spread, that it is still local and not communal which would’ve set alarm bells ringing. It went into a lockdown mode when there were still only 150 cases on the chart. Italy, Spain and France in contrast shut itself up at least 7-10 days prior but their cases–and fatalities–were already in thousands. The horse had already bolted.

India could also take comfort that out of its 707 districts, only 325 so far are in the infected list. It’s fatality roll of just over 300 isn’t cause for panic yet. The people have so far stoically borne the pains of a lockdown. Indeed, they are bracing for an extension of lockdown without quite throwing up.

It’s not to say India is out of woods yet. It’s a long summer ahead. Slums remain a major worry. Dharavi, one of Asia’s biggest in Mumbai, is racking up patients steadily. Delhi, India’s capital, has sealed off at least two dozen of its infected pockets. The western state of Mahrashtra which houses India’s commercial capital Mumbai, accounts for nearly half of India’s total deaths. India hasn’t turned the corner yet.

India, for sure, would ramp up tests in coming days. It’s also almost given that more cases and more fatalities would show up. It would hope it’s still manageable. And that its’ strategy of testing visitors, and enforcing lockdown when the numbers were still low, was a clincher. Else, it would rue it didn’t test enough when the time was still on its side.

Corona Virus: India enters the stretch when the wheels could come off

(This is a reprint from NewsBred).

India stood as one behind its prime minister Narendra Modi’s call to “isolate” itself on Sunday but there is a fear that the deadly Corona Virus could be laughing in the background—or in the midst of 1.3 billion people.

Any world leader could have swooned at such a doting citizenry which stood indoors and came out with pots and pans; conch-shells and bells at an appointed hour to extol India’s medical warriors in the frontline against the pandemic virus. But Modi’s words in the aftermath are one of caution: “Stay indoors”.

For the moment, Modi’s message is directed at residents of 80 districts of 22 states which have officially been “shut down.” But for grocery and medical shops, nothing moves. This figure, if the example of rest of the world is anything to go by, is due to shoot skywards in coming days, if not hours.

Nations, mauled by this virus, have shown a spike after the first 250 cases are detected. Thus, Italy went from 322 to 41,000 cases in 24 days. Spain (261 to 17,000) and the United States (233 to 14,000) went into a tailspin in just two weeks. Germany (262 to 14,000) and France (285 to 11,000) nosedived in a mere 16 days. United Kingdom took a dozen days to find its 270 cases balloon to 3,200.

India crossed its 300-patient figure last Saturday.

India, on its part, is stretching itself thin to buck this trend. Trains have stopped running as India’s migrant poor, who work in cities and different states, are coming in hordes on platforms to return home. It’s Capital, Delhi, is now formally under curfew. Most states are shutting shops, entertainment malls, restaurants, metros etc. in cities to ensure people stay indoors. Only essential services like grocery and medicine shops are exempted.

All signs indicate that India is fearing the worst. Its health ministry held a press conference on Sunday to confess they are mostly using anti-viral drugs to combat the menace. “But then countries most developed, having the best of

scientific and medical infrastructure, haven’t been able to come to grips with it,” said the official rather sheepishly.

The preparation for the worst-case scenario is underwhelming. New labs are being taken into the fold but they add only 60 to the numbers which is battle-ready from the State’s side. Schools are being converted into quarantine-wards. Medical staff in the business of testing suspect cases is complaining of inadequate protection. India would lose the battle if its medical personnel take to heels. Then there would be no stopping the marauding virus.

A committed, aware citizenry is thus India’s best bet. And there could be no better man than Modi for the task as millions swear by him. His secretariat is holding meetings with honchos of other states to get real on the situation. States increasingly are offering money and free food to aid India’s poor, without a formal job and now shunned by the shops and householders who usually seek them out on a day-to-day basis.

Isolation seems to be the first and possibly best bet for the Indian state. Many of its citizens believe that the rising temperatures could stall its spread. Some hope Indians have the requisite immunity system within their frames, having grown up in less than perfect environment, to combat virus. Nobody knows for sure.

For the moment though the nation is on its Sunday-high. The recent heat generated on Kashmir or the recent Citizenship Act is doused. Families are rooting for neighbours they hadn’t noticed previously. Indian flags are being unfurled on balconies and roof-tops. There is celebration at the sight of empty streets—quite eerie, Orwellian, for this otherwise would signify the end of the world.