DisFact: PMCARES Ventilators. Jio's 5G plan. Self-censorship in Indian media.

Hello there,

I have three set of articles to share today:

First, an investigation of ventilators procured by the Indian government for COVID-19 management under the PMCARES fund. Three articles for HuffPost India.

Second, I explored Jio’s 5G game plan for LiveMint.

Third, my take on the state of free press in India, for n3Mag.

PMCARES Ventilators Investigation

1. AgVa

In the last week of May 2020, we began working on a story on what we thought would be a celebration of Indian ingenuity: A startup called AgVa had teamed up with Maruti Suzuki to build what they claimed was the world’s cheapest, smallest and most advanced ventilator.

They had just bagged an order to supply 10,000 ventilators under the PMCARES fund.

As our investigation progressed, we were troubled by what we found: Doctors who had used AgVa ventilators shared their accounts, former employees described a worrying lack of rigour and confessed how the company had fudged software, and two government clinical evaluation committees said the ventilators were not suitable for ICUs and should only be used in hospitals that had backups.

Aman Sethi and I wrote a two stories on AgVa ventilators for HuffPost India.

Story #1: Govt Panels Flag Issues With AgVa Ventilators Bought By PMCARES Fund (June 24)

Story #2: PMCARES Ventilator Maker AgVa Fudged Software To Hide Poor Performance, Ex-Employees Say (July 4)

Investigating AgVa was my most challenging journalistic assignment till date. The complete story remains untold — we have more open leads to work on.

I want to briefly share what happened after we published these two stories:

1. “Fake News”: As a standard practice, before publishing any story, we contact all stakeholders, to give them a fair chance to respond, and get their perspective. AgVa responded, the government did not.

But after the story was out, the Press Information Bureau—the nodal agency for communicating to media on behalf of the Indian government—declared our first report “fake news”, without responding to the specific problems we had raised about the company’s product.

I have thoughts on this, but let’s keep that for later. I just wanted you to know how the government responded.

2. Political tamasha: After the second article was published, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted our report. With Mr Gandhi’s tweet, our story—that was otherwise ignored by news outlets—was picked up. But then, it became less about the specific problems we had flagged and more about political personalities: about Rahul Gandhi, about Narendra Modi. Our investigation was presented as accusations from one political leader against the other. AgVa’s founder said: “Rahul Gandhi is not a doctor. He is an intelligent man. He should have done due diligence before making such allegations.”

As I write this, AgVa ventilators have been delivered to hospitals across India. And they are being exported abroad.

2. Anomalies in ventilator procurement

We continued to explore the ventilator procurement beyond AgVa and found how opaque and arbitrary this whole process was. For instance, Trivitron Healthcare, a 23-year old Chennai-based medical technology company, got government orders worth Rs 373 crore to build 7,000 “basic” and 3,000 “advanced” ventilators at a time when they did not even have a product — not even a working prototype.

Now that they have made the product, and claim to have cleared the approval tests, the government is not issuing dispatch orders. Not just to them. For others too.

PM CARES ventilator order

The procurement was just riddled with anomalies. You can read it here.

Inside Reliance Jio’s game plan for 5G

At Reliance’s 43rd Annual General Meeting in July, Jio’s chief Mukesh Ambani said: “Jio has created a complete 5G solution from scratch, that will enable us to launch a world-class 5G service in India, using 100% home grown technologies and solutions." (emphasis added)

An editor at Mint asked me to dig into Jio’s plan. My reporting indicates that Jio’s claim of building a 5G solution “from scratch”, “using 100% home grown technologies” is classic fake-it-till-you-make-it.

While publicly the company is pushing the 100% make-in-India rhetoric, it is actually integrating different components of the telecom network, building some on its own, procuring the rest—a strategy made possible by a global push towards open standards and softwarisation of telecom networks.

I also wrote about the version of 5G Jio wants to build in the near future—the one they are lobbying for at official forums. This version, experts told me, can’t exploit the full potential of 5G. It will save costs for the company, allowing it to leverage parts of the existing 4G network for providing 5G service. But the outcome will likely be a better version of 4G with higher capacity, rather than the “true 5G" the world is anticipating.

I learnt a lot reporting this story for Mint. You can read it here.

How interlinked economic and political forces create self-censorship in India

Most contemporary discussions on press freedom begin with some sort of rankings: X country slipped Y positions on Z index—that’s evidence something wrong is happening. But I remain deeply skeptical about any methodology that claims to quantify press freedom. It's hard. 

That’s because the everyday experience of being inside a newsroom, the anxieties journalists live with and forces that shape editorial decisions stay hidden from the outside world — all they get to see is the output, which, however egregious, doesn’t capture the true extent of the rot in the Indian press.

Drawing on my personal experience and listing few specific instances, I give a glimpse of how self-censorship happens — which I believe is a bigger problem than explicit censorship: it happens subtly and parasitically cripples the institution of journalism. Read here.

That’s it for today. I will write again when I have more stuff to share. Take care!