Coronavirus

The Empty Hype Of India's 'Vaccine Diplomacy'

In a rush to bolster its image, the Modi government is giving away coronavirus vaccines that will do little for the country's international standing and would be better served at home.

COVID-19 vaccines arriving from India as a gift to Bangladesh
COVID-19 vaccines arriving from India as a gift to Bangladesh
Manoj Joshi*

-Analysis-

New Delhi has launched a virtual global blitz by exporting made-in-India vaccine candidates, some as a grant, and others commercially. Back home it is being tom-tommed as a major diplomatic coup that will enable New Delhi to make key breakthroughs, especially in its neighborhood.

How much of an impact will the Indian gesture really make? And is it really the right thing to do?

Truth be told, it's difficult to make an assessment, and that's because currently, vaccine diplomacy is in a domestic echo chamber where it's celebrated as yet another "masterstroke." Modi government's public relations target is, in reality, domestic opinion. The aim is to garner credit for the government's vaccine and, in doing so, make people forget its early and disastrous missteps.

But surely, our neighbors will be appropriately thankful. Won't they? Don't hold your breath.

In international relations, gratitude tends to be a highly overrated commodity. In the 1950s, the Soviets undertook the largest transfers of capital equipment in history by providing China with the wherewithal to set up entire industries, machinery, aircraft, cars, trucks, precision instruments etc. But by the mid-1960s, the Chinese viewed them as enemies.

Likewise, in the 1960s the United States provided India with massive aid to modernize its education, scientific and technical capacity, along with food aid and biotechnology for the Green Revolution. But by 1971, India and the United States almost came to blows.

Today's generation of Chinese and Indians would be unfamiliar with those events, despite the sheer scale of the assistance.

In international relations, gratitude tends to be a highly overrated commodity.

By that measure, the vaccine thrust is relatively modest — some 5 million free doses to Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Seychelles. There is another category of exports to Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Brazil and Bolivia, those being strictly commercial.

Brazil's message comparing the delivery of the vaccine to Hanuman bringing the Sanjivini plant played well in the Indian media, but one wonders whether it was a product of the BJP media cell or its counterpart in Brazil.

The delay in the arrival of the AstraZeneca vaccine candidate — called Covishield in India — irritated Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who wants to offset the credit being reaped by his centrist rival, the Sao Paulo governor Joao Doria (who had promoted the vaccine developed by the Chinese lab Sinovac, along with a local partner, and had already begun vaccination).

Note, the vaccine candidates exported are devised by a partnership between Oxford University and the British-Swedish company AstraZeneca, and are manufactured in India on contract by Serum Institute of India Ltd.

Oxford's and AstraZeneca's researchers published data from phase-three clinical trials of Covishield in The Lancet, where they wrote that the data indicated the candidate was safe and efficacious.

It's not clear whether Indians are also exporting the domestically devised Covaxin: This would be unconscionable considering Bharat Biotech, its maker, has yet to report any data from Covaxin's phase-three clinical trials. Incidentally, Bharat Biotech has applied for emergency use approval for Covaxin in the Philippines. In India itself, people have to sign consent forms before getting a shot of this vaccine candidate, since the national drug regulator has approved its rollout in "clinical trial mode."

A nurse fills dose of Covishield vaccine in an injection — Photo: Vishal Bhatnagar/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press

Data from phase-one clinical trials was available from a preprint paper uploaded online earlier, and which The Lancet published after peer review on Jan. 21, 2021. The researchers write in this paper that their study doesn't say anything about Covaxin's efficacy.

Bharat Biotech and the Indian Council of Medical Research are currently conducting Covaxin's phase-three trials. The data from this, involving about 25,000 volunteers, is expected to be available around March 2021.

It is difficult to blame South Block for using COVID-19 to promote its diplomacy. In that sense, we are only following the lead of China, which, from the outset, used the pandemic — which its own carelessness may have helped spread — for diplomatic purposes.

To change the COVID-19 narrative and show itself as a benevolent nation, China sent masks, PPE suits, gloves, testing kits and medical aid, as well as sold ventilators and other health equipment to countries like France, Italy and various Central and East European countries. Chinese foundations like the Alibaba Foundation and the Jack Ma Foundation also provided aid to various European countries.

So far, information on Chinese vaccines has been scarce. Researchers have published some data from phase-one and phase-two trials of the Sinovac vaccine. There has been conflicting information about its efficacy, with researchers in Brazil reporting 50.4% versus those in Turkey claiming 91.25%.

Another vaccine candidate by Sinopharm has undergone phase-three trials and has claimed 78% efficacy, while a study in UAE puts it at 86%. The international medical research community doesn't yet have fixed numbers to work with.

Generosity is fine when you have the wherewithal to be generous.

Several Asian countries like Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines have signed deals with Sinovac, and in January 2021, Indonesia unrolled its vaccination campaign with this vaccine. Turkey has approved Sinovac for emergency use and the company had deals in Brazil and Chile. The UAE and Bahrain have deals for Sinopharm.

In contrast to China, India doesn't have an image issue in pursuing COVID-19 diplomacy. But it has another problem: It has few equities to influence neighborhood opinion, such as loans, grants and military equipment. China is way ahead there. So if New Delhi is riding on the back of a COVID-19 vaccine to gain friends and influence people in the region, we can't begrudge that. You have to work with the instruments you have.

There is, however, one problem. Hundreds of millions of people have yet to be vaccinated. So has the government done the right thing in exporting 5 million doses? Surely those doses could have been used to inoculate vulnerable Indians at a greater speed?

A small group of rich countries, comprising just 16% of the world's population, have locked up 60% of the global vaccine supply, according to Duke University's Global Health Institute. Canada has enough to vaccinate its population six times over.

Generosity is fine when you have the wherewithal to be generous. But when your own population is deprived, it is nothing but foolhardiness. We must, of course, understand the commercial compulsions of Serum Institute, which must deliver on its contract. But it is difficult to celebrate South Block's vaccine diplomacy if necessary protection to vulnerable Indians is being delayed — because that delay means so much more illness and death.


*Manoj Joshi is a distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

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Green

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.


"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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