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Fake fundraisers & funeral pyres : How do India’s Covid vultures sleep at night?

Move away, you wretched scavenger birds, because there is a vulture drone flying over the burning ghat.

First of all, referring to them as Covid vultures is a misnomer. And that’s not just because it is an insult to the vulture, a noble bird which performs a scavenging role that may seem disgusting to us but nevertheless is crucial for the ecosystem to sustain. It is also because the term limits our understanding of the wide variety of ways in which India’s Covid vultures are monetizing our dead. Calling them vultures is a bit like referring to a Boeing 747 as a “flying auto-rickshaw.” The former is just too versatile for the description to make sense.

Consider all the ways in which the dead and dying can be useful to the vulture journalist. The first and most obvious is old fashioned ambulance chasing. You find a family desperately trying to find a place in hospital for their loved one. You shove cameras in their face and record their cries for help. The more the despair in their eyes, the more compelling the coverage. If you can, you shove something in the face of the one gasping for breath. Then you wait. Because you don’t want to cash out too early. If that person dies, your video footage will be worth more money.

However, the second wave saw this perversion taken to a sick new level. They followed the dead bodies all the way to the crematorium and took pictures of rows of burning funeral pyres. Some of these pictures were taken from a very great height to capture a full panorama view, which I can only suppose is drone footage. After all, I suppose the New York Times had taken out a global tender of some sort and they don’t compromise on quality. So move away, you wretched scavenger birds, because there is a vulture drone flying over the burning ghat.

The pandemic took millions of lives all across the world, but did you see such coverage from anywhere else? In New York, they piled hundreds of bodies into freezer trucks, where they still lie today, over a year later. Entire neighborhoods in Italy and Spain turned into death valley, but the dignity of the departed was not violated like this. Not for the voyeuristic pleasure of others.

You have to understand their compulsions. When the pandemic began, these people must have taken huge advances from Western media, anticipating a collapse of the health system in India. But India went for a swift nationwide lockdown that saved hundreds of thousands of lives. They tried to squeeze out whatever they could from the lockdown misery, but nothing could be as dramatic as scores of funeral pyres. Meanwhile, the West went through a second wave and an even deadlier third wave. In other words, both demand and supply were choked up.

Things were different when the second wave eventually hit India. The West had mostly recovered by then. Or at least, the Americans had come around to the idea that seven hundred deaths per day (equivalent to around 3000 deaths per day in India) means nothing at all. India’s Covid vultures had to make sure they were good for the advances they had taken, plus a year’s interest, denominated in US dollars.

Then, I guess someone had the bright idea to also start selling the pictures online. Indeed, why stick to the traditional mandi system, paying commissions and middlemen, when you can make more by selling on the open market? Something that struck me here was not the high prices they were asking, but their strange choice of numbers, like Rs 17,000, Rs 23,000 and something like that. How did they come up with that price point? Did they do market research to find out how much customers would be willing to pay for pictures of dead bodies from India? We will never know.

I also wonder who bought these pictures. Media organizations for sure. But did individuals also buy them? For what? To use as wallpaper on their desktop? A screensaver perhaps with a series of pictures of burning funeral pyres from various cities… I wonder how the families of the dead would feel about this. Don’t forget that the journalists probably took a series of pictures and then selected the ‘best’ ones. How would you like to know that the funeral pyre of your loved one was judged as ‘not sensational enough’ for the front page of the New York Times?

I might be picking too much on the photojournalists here, who are rather low on the scavenging chain. Real journalists don’t get out of their homes to make money. They write columns. The real money in news is always in writing opinions.

And so they did. They opened their laptops, got out their morning coffee and snuggled themselves into their favorite writing corners in their homes. To show the world the ‘truth’ by means of op-eds. These are like word pictures, except you don’t have to wait in the heat and general unpleasantness of a crematorium to get the perfect shot. The top newspapers abroad often pay their op-ed writers as much as $1 or $2 a word. This means a thousand word essay could sell for as much as one and half lakh rupees, minus some of those pesky forex conversion charges. Everyone hates them, I know…

I wonder about the economics of these deals. During the second wave, did these columnists charge a “surge fee” to foreign newspapers? Or was it that so many people offered to write columns that their wages got depressed? But my guess is that these newspapers follow the celebrity system. A small number of celebrities get the most retweets and so they get to corner the market.

But the top celebrities went a step further. If your columns are going to create a sensation in the West, why not cash in by creating additional revenue streams? Why not plug your article on your Twitter handle, get thousands of likes and retweets and use that reach to solicit donations to your “team” for Covid relief? There are well-meaning people everywhere who would like to help. I should note here that only the truly lazy would forget to register an NGO and start collecting donations into their personal accounts.

Of course, for those willing to put in just a tiny bit of hard work and register the NGO, there are better rewards. Shady foreign interests want to bundle money to you? No problem. If they deposited money in your personal account, you would owe taxes on it, which could be 30% or more. Instead, they make a donation to your “non profit” NGO which buys you — the head of the NGO — say an expensive car or a new home. It’s the same money, just a lot more that it otherwise would have been.

And this is why they created a racket of misinformation around PM Cares. The fund that paid for thousands of ventilators and will now pay for the education of children orphaned by Covid. The more donations went into PM Cares, the less people would give to the vacation fund of Covid vultures.

But there is one thing no foreign money can buy — a good night’s sleep. The traditional wisdom goes that the more ill gotten gains you have stashed away, the more scarce your sleep becomes. So how are these people managing any?

I am guessing this is one of those things where they have truly learned from the vulture. You see vultures have adapted to carry special gut bacteria and chemicals within their system. These allow them to eat rotting flesh safely, without getting sick. India’s Covid vultures might have evolved something similar. Perhaps an over supply of sleep inducing hormones.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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Abhishek Banerjee
Abhishek Banerjee
Abhishek Banerjee is a columnist and author.  

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