Current en Thu Apr 01 17:54:20 IST 2021 new-sti-policy-will-put-india-among-top-three-scientific-superpowers <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>ASHUTOSH SHARMA, WHO</b> is secretary to the Government of India, heading the department of science and technology, believes that India requires a robust science, technology and innovation (STI) ecosystem since it is an important enabler of economic growth, social welfare and better livelihood.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, he touched upon a range of issues including the opening of the sensitive geospatial sector, the importance of accurate mapping in mitigating the effects of natural calamities like the recent Uttarakhand flash floods and the possibility of a Central subscription plan for science journals and magazines.</p> <p>Excerpts from the interview:</p> <p><b>Where does India stand globally in STI? Will the new STI policy help us compete with the best in the world?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India is number three in the world in the number of scientific publications, PhDs produced and startups. Our innovation index has made a rapid climb to the top 50. However, quality, relevance and absorption of R&amp;D needs strengthening. It is now widely recognised that scientific advances and innovation are not only promoters of economic growth, but also crucial instruments for socially and environmentally sustainable development. The draft STI policy aims to provide relevant directives to the Indian STI ecosystem in order to realise the aspirations of technological self-reliance and place India among the top three scientific superpowers in the coming decade.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Since STI is an important enabler of economic growth, social welfare and better livelihood for the citizens, a robust STI ecosystem will be of immense benefit. Moreover, a strong emphasis on science communication and citizen science in the STI policy is a timely step to improve participation of citizens in science.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Your views on the decision to open up India’s mapping and geospatial sector?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Survey of India has the mandate of surveying and mapping. Geospatial data includes location information and attribute information and it usually involves information of public interest such as roads, localities, rail lines, water bodies and public amenities. Geospatial data is pervasive, but important. It is important for planning, decision-making, governance and developmental activities. It keeps in mind the security needs of the country and is done in concurrence with security agencies under the ministries of defence and home affairs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What is its impact on the economy?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The mapping business is worth about Rs20,000 crore a year and it is expected to touch Rs1,00,000 crore in the next ten years. Its impact on the economy would be many times more. The impact of mapping on services, logistics and infrastructure [will be huge]. The geospatial data combines location information, attribute information (the characteristics of the object, event, or phenomena concerned) and often temporal information or the time at which the location and the attributes exist. We need to be accurate in mapping with faster speed across the country, which government agencies alone may not be able to perform. So, we have decided to rope in private players as well. It allows a level-playing field for government and private entities. Moreover, government agencies collect data using taxpayers’ money, and it must be freely shared with private companies at a fair price. It, however, does not include security-related data like what is provided by military establishments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>How did you manage to convince the security agencies?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We have considered security concerns using the best global practices. For instance, there is a negative list of attributes including nuclear reactors and military bases. The guiding principle is, whatever is easily available globally, should not be regulated. Besides a negative list of attributes, the physical access issue has also been taken note of in order to address the concerns of security agencies.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>There is a lot of talk about a single Central subscription plan for science journals and magazines. Is it feasible?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>No other country as big as India has ever tried such an approach before. This is an important vision to empower every Indian with the power of scientific knowledge. Admittedly, it is a difficult issue, and multiple stakeholders such as publishers and other knowledge producers and consumers need to work together to resolve it. However, the underlying philosophy and direction is clear.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Can the STI policy change the way industry, academia and research institutions work in our country as all of them are working on their own, mostly without any kind of synergy?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The STI policy has formulated an elaborate strategy to build strong bridges among industry, academia and research institutions so that collaborations bring additional and substantial benefits to each one of them and to the country. The policy aims to develop mutual understanding and respect between Saraswati and Lakshmi (knowledge and wealth) for the good of all.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>There is buzz about scientific social responsibility (SSR) on the lines of corporate social responsibility. Can you please explain?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The draft SSR policy is being formulated and has been submitted for cabinet approval. It focuses on building synergy among all stakeholders in our scientific knowledge community and developing direct linkages between science and society. The aim of SSR is to reach students, farmers, MSMEs (micro, small and medium enterprises), startups and others to empower them with the substantial scientific information, infrastructure and human resources at our command.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Do we have enough mechanisms to prevent yet another flash flood, like the recent one which caused devastation in Uttarakhand?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We do not have enough mechanisms to predict natural calamities like what happened recently in Uttarakhand, but the speed and accuracy of mapping will certainly aid disaster management. I would say early warning by accurate and real time data can mitigate the impact of disaster.</p> Fri Apr 02 11:43:57 IST 2021 rising-prices-are-disrupting-home-budgets <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>PRAKASH PITRODA RUNS</b> a carpentry business on the outskirts of Mumbai. Though the Covid-19 pandemic hit the business hard, in the past few months it has been picking up along with the turnaround of the economy. But Pitroda has a new challenge to deal with—the rising costs of groceries. “Prices have increased a lot now and I need to spend more on the essentials. Yet, I have not been able to increase my rates proportionally because business has still not picked up in a big way,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While petrol prices touching 0100 in certain cities grabbed the headlines, the sharp spike in the prices of essentials is what people like Pitroda are more worried about. Almost everything from edible oils and soaps to consumer durables and cars has become more expensive and a fresh round of hikes is in the offing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Soybean surged more than 12 per cent between December 2020 and February 2021, on top of the 33 per cent increase through 2020, according to CARE Ratings. Similarly, sunflower prices increased about 15 per cent and palm oil prices gained 33 per cent. Prices of raw materials like palm fatty acid distillates (PFAD) that is used in personal care products, and copra (dried coconut kernels, from which oil is obtained) have also seen double digit hikes, forcing makers of consumer goods to raise prices.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The rise in metal prices is forcing automobile companies and consumer durable manufacturers to hike prices. Copper prices are up 37 per cent and iron ore is up 70 per cent this year to hit 10-year highs. Aluminium prices have risen 16 per cent this year. Maruti Suzuki, India's largest carmaker, and Hero MotoCorp, the largest two-wheeler maker, have announced price hikes from April 1.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India saw one of the strictest lockdowns after the breakout of the pandemic last year. That led to a sharp decline in consumer demand. Production also reduced drastically as factories and mines, too, were shut. When the economy began to reopen, however, demand rebounded at a faster-than-expected pace. The sharp rebound surprised even the optimists, and factories have been unable to keep pace with demand, leading to a surge in prices.</p> <p>“Nobody expected demand would move up so much,” said Kamal Nandi, president of appliances industry body CEAMA. “As demand has shot up in many countries, demand for raw materials has risen significantly. With supplies unable to keep up with demand, there is a shortage and that is leading to an increase in prices. Be it steel, copper, aluminium, plastic or chemicals, everything is going up.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As economies reopened and people started going back to work, demand for personal mobility went up, boosting crude oil prices. Coupled with high taxes, it has led to a record rise in retail fuel prices. This, in turn, has led to transportation and logistics costs going up for companies.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Suman Chowdhury, chief analytical officer at Acuite Ratings, said that in anticipation of a recovery in global demand and supply cuts by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, India’s crude oil basket firmed up by 8 per cent in March alone. This is in addition to the near 40 per cent increase between November 2020 to February 2021. “This is reflecting in the very sharp rise in retail fuel prices. The price increase [of essentials] we are seeing is because of the pass-through of the higher transportation cost,” said Chowdhury. Owing to the rise in diesel prices and a pick-up in demand, truck rentals have risen 10 to 12 per cent in the past few weeks.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The consumer price index (CPI) inflation rose to its highest in three months, touching 5.03 per cent in February. It was 4.06 per cent in January. Food inflation rose steeply to 3.87 per cent from 1.89 per cent in the previous month, and core inflation, excluding food and fuel, rose to around 5.8 per cent.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With commodity prices expected to remain high, industry experts say there will be more price hikes in the months to come. Nandi said the consumer durables industry had already raised prices by 6-8 per cent and they would go up a further 5-7 per cent between April and May.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Many FMCG companies have raised prices in categories like soaps and toiletries. Godrej Consumer Products Ltd, a leading manufacturer of soaps, saw a 4-5 per cent overall pricing-led growth in the December quarter and another calibrated price hike was done in the January-March quarter, said Sameer Shah, head (finance) for India and SAARC, Godrej Consumer Products.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This rise in prices across categories would have an impact on consumer sentiments, especially in discretionary spends, say economists. “As long as it is a necessity, it will not make a huge difference. For instance, you must buy toothpaste, soap and edible oil. So, there is no choice there. In discretionary goods, however, you will think twice. For instance, if refrigerator prices have gone up, I may continue using my existing refrigerator,” said Madan Sabnavis, chief economist at CARE Ratings.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Given the weak consumer sentiments, companies are reluctant to pass on the entire input cost increases in the retail price. “The strategy we have adopted is to have calibrated and judicious price hikes,” said Shah. “There is still a gap between palm oil prices and the end consumer prices. In the very short term, if there is a serious trade-off between margins and growth, we will skew more towards growth.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Reserve Bank is closely watching these price movements. In its monetary policy committee (MPC) meeting in February, it left the benchmark repo rate (the rate at which the RBI lends to commercial banks) unchanged for the fourth consecutive time at 4 per cent and vowed to continue with its accommodative stance as long as required to revive growth. Minutes of the meeting show the MPC members were mindful of the rising commodity prices.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Upside risks to the outlook for inflation persist. First, core inflation remains stubborn and will warrant close monitoring as it has the potential to render the recent fortuitous improvements in the macroeconomic outlook stillborn. Second, rising international commodity prices are being watched the world over with concern as heralding the return of inflation. For India, the relentless hardening of international crude prices is worrisome, especially as their impact on inflation is amplified by disproportionately high excise duties,” said Michael Patra, deputy governor of RBI. The Central bank is expecting retail inflation at 5.2 per cent in the quarter ending March 31, 2021, and in the 5.2-5.0 per cent range in the first half of 2021-22.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With the second wave of the pandemic gaining momentum in various parts of the country, restrictions and lockdowns have been reimposed in several cities. This could have an impact on consumption and put the brakes on the economy. In such a situation, it is going to be a tough balancing act for the common man.</p> Thu Apr 01 17:53:24 IST 2021 uneasy-encounters <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A Mahindra Scorpio laden with explosives found 500m away from the house of India’s richest man; the sudden death of the owner of the vehicle, who had reported it stolen; the arrest of a police officer; and a letter by a police commissioner accusing the home minister of corruption. The recent developments in Maharashtra have all the ingredients of a riveting crime thriller. The dramatis personae are the high and the mighty of politics and police. And it tells the story of the pathetic state of law and order in the state.</p> <p>The can of worms in Mumbai and Maharashtra police was opened by the mysterious death of Mansukh Hiren, the owner of the Scorpio which was found outside Antilia, the residence of Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani in south Mumbai, on February 25. Twenty gelatin sticks weighing a total of 2.6kg were found in the vehicle.</p> <p>It was the Crime Branch that traced the Scorpio to Hiren, a Thane-based auto spare parts businessman. He told them that the vehicle was stolen on February 17, after it broke down while he was headed to Mumbai; he had registered a complaint at the Vikhroli police station on February 18.</p> <p>On March 4, Hiren had written to Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and the police commissioners of Mumbai and Thane complaining that the investigating agencies were harassing him.</p> <p>On March 5, Hiren’s body was found in Thane creek at Retibunder, Mumbra. There was a mask around his neck and he was gagged with cloth.</p> <p>Surprisingly, when opposition leader Devendra Fadnavis raised Hiren’s death and questioned the government’s failure to protect him during a discussion in the assembly on March 5, Home Minister Anil Deshmukh, who had not been informed about the developments by his officials, was caught unawares. Unable to explain the lapse, the government handed over the probe to the Anti-Terrorism Squad, which was probing the Scorpio bomb scare. While the police had dubbed Hiren’s death as suicide, the ATS registered a case of murder and criminal conspiracy on March 7.</p> <p>Fadnavis alleged that assistant inspector Sachin Vaze, who was close to the ruling dispensation, was the first to reach the Scorpio, even before the team from the nearby Gamdevi police station. He said Vaze knew Hiren as there was evidence of a phone conversation between them in 2020. An encounter specialist, Vaze was suspended in connection with the custodial death of Khwaja Yunus, an accused in the 2002 Ghatkopar bomb blast case. He quit the service in 2008 and joined the Shiv Sena, but the Thackeray government reinstated him last year citing Covid exigencies.</p> <p>On March 9, Fadnavis, while speaking in the assembly, read out details from the statement of Hiren’s widow, Vimla. According to Fadnavis, the statement said Vaze was Hiren’s customer and the Scorpio was in the inspector’s possession from November 2020 to February 5, 2021. The statement also said Hiren had told his wife that Vaze had asked him to get arrested and he would ensure his bail in two or three days. On March 2, Hiren told his wife that Vaze had advised him to write to the chief minister, the home minister and the police commissioners of Mumbai and Thane that he was being harassed by the police and the media. “Considering all this, I feel that my husband has been murdered and I suspect that Sachin Vaze is responsible for it,” said Vimla in her statement.</p> <p>The government had been defending Vaze all this while. Deshmukh said Fadnavis was targeting Vaze because he had arrested television news anchor Arnab Goswami in the Anvay Naik suicide case. The defence collapsed when the National Investigation Agency arrested Vaze in connection with the Scorpio bomb scare case on March 13. On March 17, the government transferred Mumbai police commissioner Param Bir Singh as director general of Maharashtra Home Guards and appointed Hemant Nagrale the new commissioner.</p> <p>Meanwhile, the ATS arrested Vinayak Shinde, a cop in suspension, and Naresh Gor, a bookie, in connection with the Hiren murder. Shinde was serving a life term in the Lakhan Bhaiya encounter case and had been out on parole since June 2020.</p> <p>In an interview after Param Bir Singh’s transfer, Deshmukh attributed it to serious lapses in the investigation of the Scorpio bomb scare and the Hiren murder case. “The lapses were not acceptable. Therefore, the chief minister and I decided to shift him immediately for an impartial probe,” he said at an event of the Lokmat media group.</p> <p>Incensed by these remarks, Param Bir Singh dashed off a letter to Thackeray and Governor B.S. Koshyari, accusing Deshmukh of corruption and interference. He alleged that Deshmukh had repeatedly instructed Vaze to collect money from bars, restaurants and other establishments in Mumbai.</p> <p>The letter triggered an earthquake in the political establishment. Deshmukh issued a statement denying the allegations. “The allegations are part of a conspiracy to save himself and malign me and the MVA government. Why was Singh silent even after Vaze’s arrest for so many days? It was only on March 16, when he realised that he would be transferred, he deliberately asked a few questions to ACP Patil and conveniently got expected answers,” he said on March 20.</p> <p>In a media briefing in Delhi the following day, NCP chief Sharad Pawar said that the allegations were serious and a reputed retired IPS officer should conduct an inquiry. However, at a meeting of senior NCP leaders at Pawar’s residence in Delhi, everyone questioned the timing of Singh’s letter and urged Pawar to back Deshmukh. Pawar was told that Deshmukh had tested positive for Covid-19 and had been hospitalised in Nagpur in the first half of February and was in quarantine till February 27.</p> <p>On March 22, Pawar made an U-turn from his ‘allegations are serious’ remark and backed Deshmukh. He said that a decision on Deshmukh would be taken by Thackeray, hinting that the NCP was in no mood to sack Deshmukh.</p> <p>The BJP rushed to puncture Pawar’s claim that Deshmukh was in quarantine by releasing a video clip of the minister speaking to the media on February 15. “Deshmukh flew to Mumbai in a private jet on February 15. According to police records of VIP movements, Deshmukh was at Sahyadri guest house in Mumbai on February 17 from 3pm onwards, and then on February 24, he travelled from his residence to Mantralaya and back,” said Fadnavis.</p> <p>Minister Nawab Malik, however, rejected Fadnavis’s claims and said that Pawar had never said that Deshmukh was in quarantine in Nagpur. “Deshmukh was in Mumbai from February 15 onwards after he returned from Nagpur in a private jet,” he said. “When he was discharged from the hospital in Nagpur, reporters were waiting outside and he spoke to them sitting on a chair. That was not a press conference. Also, he hasn’t been to Sahyadri guest house or Mantralaya during his home quarantine period. All he did was exercising in the garden of his residence at night,” he said.</p> <p>The drama is unlikely to end anytime soon. In its response to Param Bir Singh’s petition demanding a CBI probe into his allegations, the Supreme Court asked his counsel to approach Bombay High Court.</p> <p>Thackeray’s last statement on the issue was on March 11: “Sachin Vaze is not Osama Bin Laden. It is not right to target a person, hang him and then investigate.” He has said nothing since.</p> <p>The question is, will he show the courage to defy Pawar and show Deshmukh the door or be content with cosmetic changes like changing his portfolio?&nbsp;</p> Thu Mar 25 16:11:25 IST 2021 moving-pieces <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>On March 24,</b> former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis claimed that Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray sat on an “explosive” report on the issue of transfer of police officers, prepared by former commissioner of state intelligence Rashmi Shukla.</p> <p>According to Fadnavis, Shukla had obtained permission to tap certain phone numbers. These numbers belonged to middlemen who secured postings for police inspectors and IPS officer alike. “The report was submitted by the commissioner of intelligence to Maharashtra director general of police Subodh Jaiswal on August 25, last year,” said Fadnavis. “The next day, the DG sent the report to Seetaram Kunte, additional chief secretary (home), and recommended that the report be brought to notice of the chief minister, and that a CID inquiry should be ordered. The chief minister was given a detailed briefing about it. He then sent the report to Home Minister Anil Deshmukh. No action has been taken on the report so far.”</p> <p>Fadnavis also claimed that the MVA government, instead of taking action, blocked Shukla’s promotion and promoted officers junior to her. She was eventually promoted to the rank of director general of police for civil defence. “This post was specially created as it did not exist earlier,” stated Fadnavis.</p> <p>Senior NCP cabinet minister Nawab Malik dismissed Fadnavis’s claims. “Shukla submitted a report on officers who were lobbying to get choice postings, but in reality, less than five per cent of them have been shifted,” said Malik. “There has been no corruption in this.” He also said that Shukla was illegally tapping phones since the formation of the MVA government.</p> <p>But, senior police officers feel that deserving officers of high integrity often do not get key postings. “I get calls even in the matters of appointment of public prosecutors in routine cases, instructing me on whom to appoint and whom to avoid,” said a senior IPS officer who requested anonymity. “The personal secretary to the home minister, mentioned by Param Bir Singh in his letter, is known to throw his weight around and meddle with the workings of the police.” The officer also mentioned an incident where Rs2 crore was demanded from a lady police officer for a posting in Pune.&nbsp;</p> Thu Mar 25 16:06:45 IST 2021 was-wrong-to-reinstate-vaze <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Q/<b>How has this controversy affected the Mumbai Police’s image?</b></p> <p>A/It has deeply dented the image of the Mumbai Police, which has always been known as a premier force comparable with Scotland Yard. But controversies keep happening. It will come out of it. All we need is good leadership, which is lacking now.... The Mumbai Police’s image has taken a beating because of the non-professionalism of senior officers and the allegations that they manipulated their postings using their good relations [with politicians] or by money.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Q/<b>Do you think political patronage of corrupt cops is responsible for this?</b></p> <p>A/Yes. Because of inefficient and non-professional leadership, the morale of the force is low and nobody is willing to take action against criminals. Political interference has always been there; it is like this air you breathe. But it is your choice to take it or leave it. That is where leadership comes in. If you are non-corrupt, risk-taking and efficient, no politician will come to you asking for anything. During my tenure, politicians never came to me asking for anything illegal. Asking is their job, denying is your job. If they have given the post [on] your asking, they will control you. But if you have earned it on merit, you will be the controlling authority. In recent times, top police officers have requested [postings] so [the force] has compromised on candidates.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Q/<b>Param Bir Singh has worked under you. Would you call him a competent officer?</b></p> <p>A/When he was with me as deputy commissioner (crime) in 1998—I was joint commissioner then—he was competent. I can say that because I wrote his ACR (annual confidential report).... He has now climbed ranks and I am not aware of the changes he has gone through.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Q/<b>Was it wrong to reinstate Sachin Vaze and give him a Crime Branch posting?</b></p> <p>A/There is a procedure to review all suspended officers periodically, and the competent authority takes a call on their reinstatement. But if only [Vaze] and nobody else was reinstated, then there is something fishy. And the way he was given the plum post... that was wrong. The politicians might have brought him in, but it was the executive authority that gave him the important cases. I do not think the chief minister or home minister told the leadership which cases to hand over to Vaze. So, it was wrong to reinstate him when he was facing a murder trial, working in the Shiv Sena and running private companies. It is additionally wrong to give him the most important post and allow him to jump hierarchy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Q/<b>Do encounter specialists misuse their position and turn into liabilities?</b></p> <p>A/There is nobody called encounter specialist and there is no word ‘encounter’ in legal parlance. Section 100 of the Indian Penal Code says that anybody can use the right to private defence when it comes to protecting one’s property, modesty and life. That is the law under which the police is doing it. Trigger-happy inspectors are an idea romanticised by Mumbai’s media and Bollywood. From 2002, there has been no shootout in Mumbai, so there is no place in Mumbai for any of these so-called encounter specialists. They are irrelevant now.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Q/<b>Does a transfer racket exist in the police force?</b></p> <p>A/It is widely spoken about and we have reasons to believe that it could be there.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Q/<b>What do you think of this entire exercise?</b></p> <p>A/It was a juvenile attempt by imbecile people to extort money from the richest person. That, too, by planting a non-explosive gelatin stick without a detonator. The problem is that because of this the image of the police has taken a beating. It was a misadventure. Moreover, how can an officer being in the police attempt to commit a crime?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> Thu Mar 25 16:03:18 IST 2021 shadowy-police <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>The sprawling premises</b> of the Mumbai commissionerate in Kalbadevi is largely quiet on a regular day. The Crime Branch teams would be in the field and senior officers would be engrossed in files on crime in the city. But, in the last few days, there has been a flurry of activity.</p> <p>On March 19, for instance, the National Investigation Agency team led by Inspector General of Police Anil Shukla reached the commissionerate for a meeting with the new commissioner, Hemant Nagrale. NIA sleuths had already been there to collect evidence from the office of encounter specialist Sachin Vaze after the Union home ministry handed over the Antilia bomb scare case to the agency.</p> <p>It was a new low for the Mumbai Police when the NIA found incriminating material from Vaze’s cabin. Incidentally, Vaze—an assistant police inspector—had his cabin on the same floor as senior Crime Branch officers. Vaze was arrested by the NIA on March 13. In the coming days, the NIA may record statements of senior police officers. If it unearths a money trail, the Enforcement Directorate is also likely to open an inquiry.</p> <p>Senior Mumbai Police officers said the alleged terror-cum-extortion racket was “waiting to explode”. When the Mumbai underworld was at its worst, the stature of encounter specialists had risen. They were celebrated and enjoyed political patronage as their work helped governments claim credit for improving law and order.</p> <p>“But, slowly, when the crime graph went down, some of these cops faced inquiries and others, like Vaze, even got arrested,” said a senior officer, who did not wish to be named.</p> <p>The NIA probe against Vaze has once again drawn attention to the case which led to Vaze’s suspension in 2004. Investigators may attempt to decipher any patterns or similarities in the modus operandi. But, the body of the victim, Khwaja Yunus, was never found. The case is still pending in court.</p> <p>Ajay Raj Sharma, former Delhi<br> Police commissioner, said the reinstatement of sharpshooters and encounter specialists after being suspended was a bad precedent set by the Mumbai Police. “When any state police force becomes a force of the ruling party, the latter starts using it and, in turn, allows concessions to officers to bring in their own men,” said Sharma. “Nothing can be worse than using police officers to make money for the ruling party by extorting the public.”</p> <p>There are questions about Vaze’s return to the force, too. He was reinstated to assist with Covid-19 duties. But, it is learnt that Vaze was not given pandemic duties. Instead, he was brought back to the Crime Branch, where he reported directly to the top brass and was involved in high-profile cases.</p> <p>“All national police committees have given recommendations to free police from the clutches of political parties in power,” said Sharma. The recommendations, which include non-interference by the ruling party in transfers, postings and appointment of police chiefs, are pending before the Union home ministry. In the meanwhile, the IPS and the ruling parties, said Sharma, should guard against creating “Frankenstein’s monsters” by forging dangerous ‘mutually beneficial’ arrangements.&nbsp;</p> Thu Mar 25 15:54:08 IST 2021 close-encounters <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>ON MARCH 3,</b> Nahid Karishma, deputy superintendent of Assam Police, and her team waited patiently for hours at the Diphu railway station in Karbi Anglong district in southern Assam. She had intel on a terror attack being planned at the railway station. In fact, she had been gathering intelligence for weeks about the activities of the banned Dimasa National Liberation Army (DNLA).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Nahid and her team intercepted a man with a Chinese grenade just before he reached the platform. “A major disaster was averted,” said Satyaraj Hazarika, deputy inspector general of police. “It was an operation based on Nahid’s collection of intelligence at the district level.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The intelligence, however, has been piling up. The DNLA, allegedly, is supported by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM), one of the biggest insurgent groups in the northeast, and it is planning an explosion at Dhansiri market. Another warning says the United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I) is threatening oil installations in the state and recruiting youth. Yet another one says Bodo youths are regrouping in the villages of Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) to create a new militant group. Then across the border in Bangladesh, there is a surge in anti-India activities by the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In addition to all these, there are about a dozen warnings about subversive activities being planned during the assembly elections in the state. Ironically, the elections were supposed to be a litmus test for the Narendra Modi government’s claim that insurgency had been curbed in the state that had long been a hotbed of separatist movements. “Assam remains a focal point in the northeast,”said Lt General Shokin Chauhan, former chairman of the Ceasefire Monitoring Group in Nagaland. “It is the richest state and it connects all the northeast states. Most of the extortion by insurgent groups and criminal elements is connected to rich people in the state because of tea gardens and industries.” It is also a transit route for insurgents.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Assam has been a tinderbox over the past few months. It witnessed widespread protests over the government’s move to implement the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in the winter of 2019-2020. While the BJP is maintaining a strategic silence on it, the Congress is keeping the pot boiling through its anti-CAA campaign and cobbling up a grand alliance with Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF, Bodoland People’s Front, CPI, CPI (M), Bodoland Democratic Front and Anchalik Gana Morcha.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Assam-Bengal corridor has also become active on the security graph with the police from both states trying to track the movements of JMB and its associated operatives. After a blast in Burdwan in Bengal in 2014, a few JMB men were arrested in Assam. “We have information that Islamic fundamentalist groups are trying to expand territory,”said Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta, director-general of Assam Police. “They are taking advantage of the proximity with Bangladesh, hiding in border districts and making forays into Assam and West Bengal.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A political blame game has also begun with BJP holding the Mamata Banerjee government responsible for rising “radicalisation” in West Bengal. “If you see last several years’ record, police forces of other states have intelligence about terror activities in West Bengal but the state administration does not seem to be aware or equipped to handle it,” said Sukanta Majumdar, BJP MP from Balurghat. He said the NIA’s probe into the Burdwan blast brought out how the state was vulnerable to terror activities. “There are congregations being held by radical outfits in the state who are propagating extremism and have cross border support,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Police say there was a high-level meeting of JMB functionaries in Dhubri in May 2020 for planning operations in Assam and West Bengal. But the arrests of two JMB cadres in Hooghly and Murshidabad by a special taskforce on May 29 and June 2 foiled the plans. The Assam Police, however, believe a new wing of the JMB has come up.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Meanwhile, the Islamic State terror module in lower Assam is using the remnants of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, which was busted in 2010-2011. These cadres, trained in Afghanistan and Bangladesh in making bombs, have been carrying out a recce of venues of important political meetings, said a counter-terror official.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A Kerala-based extremist organisation, too, is recruiting in Assam by cashing in on the anti-CAA sentiments. There are recruitment and training camps in Barak Valley, Goalpara, Nagaon, central Assam and Char areas. “These fundamentalist groups are trying to acquire a secular clout and are using the CAA to mobilise support, but they are not getting credence among the minority community,” said Mahanta.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is also a growing threat from dreaded outfits like ULFA and NSCN (Khaplang). The kidnapping of two employees of Quippo Oil and Gas Infrastructure Limited on December 21 by a joint group of ULFA and NSCN (K) showed that they were trying to fill their coffers before the elections. Intelligence inputs have warned that these outfits may try to extort from parties and candidates, and influence voters.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A year ago, 1,615 militants belonging to different factions of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) surrendered before the authorities, which led to the signing of the Bodoland Territorial Region Accord (BTR). A historic peace deal between the state, the Centre and Bodo stakeholders, BTR was the third accord signed in the past 27 years to end the violent movement for a separate Bodoland.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While the accord changed the name of the Bodoland Territorial Area District (spread over Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri) to Bodoland Territorial Region, there was no mention of a separate Bodoland state. However, after the signing of the agreement, K. Batha, a key NDFB leader, left for the jungles. Batha has now returned with G. Bidai, the dreaded army chief of the banned outfit, and he is reportedly trying to build a militant group by recruiting Bodo youths.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ranjit Basumatary, former general secretary of the NDFB(S), said Batha’s return was a setback to the Bodo peace process. Basumatary, who is now an executive member of the Bodoland Territorial Council, has urged the Union home ministry not to delay the implementation of the clauses of the accord, which include monetary assistance, recruitment of NDFB cadres in government jobs, ex gratia payment and rehabilitation, and a special assistance package. “There is trouble in the lower BTR areas as youth are joining Batha because they have no means of sustenance,” he said. “We are still waiting for the special assistance promised by the Centre.”</p> Thu Mar 18 17:15:13 IST 2021 real-steel <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>On the shores of the mighty Bay of Bengal in Visakhapatnam, the upcoming executive capital of Andhra Pradesh is a city within a city. Known locally as ‘Ukkunagaram’, the Vizag steel city is a walled enclave spread across nearly 20,000 acres, with its own distinct identity and culture. Employees and their families from all over the country occupy its 8,000 residential quarters, surrounded by lush green spaces and serviced by well-laid roads and systematically planned structures. But their lives have turned upside down following the decision of the Narendra Modi government to privatise their employer, the Rashtriya Ispat Nigam Limited (RINL) or the Vizag steel plant. The vibrant enclave has suddenly become an island of anger, hopelessness and uncertainty.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“I have lived here for 25 years. I wanted my two children to get jobs at the plant and settle down here. Now, I do not know whether I will be able to keep my own job,” said a 50-year-old skilled worker who is originally from a village in the adjoining Vizianagaram district. Most employees share such concerns. P. Naveen (name changed), who is in his early 30s, has been working at the plant for five years. He grew up in an upper-middle class household in Hyderabad and went to a reputed college. “Here I never felt like living in a typical government quarters and that is the reason why I could adjust. It has a cosmopolitan feel to it.” Unsure of what lies ahead, Naveen is now looking to shift to another city.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The cabinet committee on economic affairs approved 100 per cent disinvestment in RINL in January, and a few weeks later, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman reaffirmed the government’s decision to privatise the plant. The move has raised concerns among its 17,000 permanent employees and 15,000 contract workers. “My mother gave away 23 acres of our farm land for the project in the 1980s,” said Vijay Krishna, an employee. Land for the plant and the township was acquired from more than 16,000 farmers of 60 villages. Krishna is upset that his family’s sacrifice has gone in vain. “Did we part with our land so that some private player can turn it into a real estate venture and make huge profits? What am I left with? I have two daughters of marriageable age and I know that I will be among the first ones to be sacked as I am old and can be easily replaced,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The employees have set up a Joint Action Committee (JAC) comprising 26 unions and associations to oppose privatisation. They have launched a relay hunger strike which has now crossed 30 days. Bike rallies and public meetings are being held in Visakhapatnam and in other parts of Andhra Pradesh. The JAC has invited students, teachers, professionals and people from all walks of life to join them. The unions have served strike notice to the management, warning that they will intensify their agitation from March 25 if their demands were not met.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The Centre did not spend a single rupee on the plant for the last 10 years,” said Ayodhya Ram, a senior employee of the plant and convener of the JAC. The initial capital investment was Rs4,890 crore. The Centre and the state government have recouped Rs43,000 crore so far in the form of dividends and taxes,” said Ram. “When the plant has provided employment to so many people and has created assets, why does the Centre want to sell it?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ram and others who oppose privatisation also have an emotional connect to the plant because of its history. In 1967, as many as 32 people died in police firing while protesting against the Central government’s reluctance to sanction the nation’s fifth steel plant in Andhra Pradesh. At the time, 67 MLAs and 7 MPs resigned in support of the demand, and the slogan “Vishaka Ukku, Andhrula Hakku” (Vishaka steel is Andhra’s right) reverberated across the state. A large number of farmers surrendered their land, which was seen as an act of sacrifice for the development of the state. In 1971, prime minister Indira Gandhi laid the foundation stone for the project.</p> <p>The plant became operational in 1991 with a capacity of 3.3 million tonnes (MT) per year. With three blast furnaces, the annual production now is 7.3 MT. Yet, the plant has never been allocated a captive mine, forcing it to procure iron ore at market price, which is three times more expensive. With the steady rise in the price of iron ore, the plant now has a debt of more than Rs21,000 crore, reporting losses for the past six years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Y. Siva Sagara Rao, former chief managing director of RINL, wrote recently to the prime minister that the plant could be saved by merging it with the Steel Authority of India Limited and the National Mineral Development Corporation to form a steel giant. He said resource sharing would decrease the cost of raw materials and would increase production. “In our country, 112 MT of steel is produced annually, of which only 18 per cent is from the public sector. This is a very small share and the government does not have much control,” said Rao. “It is not good to let the private sector control the industry. If the Centre implements my proposal, the production of steel by the government can go up to 30 per cent and it can break the [private sector] monopoly.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy has written to the prime minister to consider measures to revive the plant, which include allotment of captive mines and financial restructuring. Yet another proposal is to monetise the land owned by the company as it sits on a real estate goldmine. According to local developers and property dealers, each acre under RINL could fetch up to Rs10 crore. The entire land bank, according to market estimates, is worth more than Rs1.5 lakh crore. Employees fear that private players might be more interested in capitalising on the land than running the plant.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is not just the employees who are concerned about the plant’s privatisation. Union leaders say more than two lakh people are indirectly dependent on the plant. Shops specialising in mechanical and industrial spare parts dot the areas on the periphery of the township. There are also stores catering exclusively to employees who stay outside the township.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Interestingly, the issue has brought together bitter political rivals—the ruling YSR Congress and the opposition Telugu Desam Party (TDP). Jagan is planning to lead an all-party delegation to meet Modi on the issue. Local BJP leaders are on the back foot in the face of the public opposition. The BJP’s local ally, the Jana Sena Party of actor Pawan Kalyan, too, is finding it difficult to back the disinvestment decision. The bigger political question, however, is whether the YSRCP will take an aggressive stand against the Centre or continue to have cordial relations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Political analyst Telakapalli Ravi said the issue would prove to be a major setback for the BJP. “The party will never be accepted in Andhra Pradesh after this. The people are already upset with the BJP for not granting special status to the state. Its decision to sell the plant will only add to the negative image. Pawan Kalyan, too, will find it hard to convince his followers to keep the alliance intact,” he said. Ravi, however, pointed out that Jagan is unlikely to risk a confrontation with the Centre. “He cannot afford to do so. He has not made any negative comments against the BJP.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The JAC is roping in national trade union leaders, farmer leaders and celebrities to join the fight. Telugu superstar and former Union minister Chiranjeevi has tweeted in support of saving the steel plant. Support has also come in from neighbouring Telangana. Information Technology Minister K.T. Rama Rao, who is the son of Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao, has expressed solidarity with the protesting employees.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The sale of public sector companies hardly ever attracts much public support and sympathy. But that is not the case with us,” said Narsing Rao, chairman of the JAC. “This government is trying to privatise the agricultural sector and the industrial sector. We want to make Vizag the centre of the fight against the privatisation policy of the government.”</p> Thu Mar 18 21:08:32 IST 2021 sleuthing-season <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>On February 22, Central Bureau of Investigation officers called up Shantiniketan, the sprawling South Kolkata bungalow of Trinamool Congress leader Abhishek Banerjee. The agency wanted to question his wife, Rujira. Abhishek, the Diamond Harbour MP, is seen as the political heir of his aunt, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The CBI alleges that Trinamool Youth Congress general secretary Vinay Mishra, an accused in a multi-crore-rupee coal scam, had routed money to Rujira’s bank accounts in Bangkok. CBI sources said that Rujira used to hold a Thai passport. There is speculation on whether she was born in Bangkok. She had met Abhishek during her college days in Delhi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As Rujira gave the CBI officers an appointment for the following day, they went to question her sister Menaka, who was also allegedly linked to Mishra. A leader with wide support, Mishra is known to be close to Abhishek.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The coal case is one of three major investigations that the CBI has sunk its teeth into weeks before the assembly elections in the state. Apparently, coal worth crores of rupees was illegally taken from mines managed by Eastern Coalfields Limited (ECL) in western parts of the state like Asansol, and sold in the open market. ECL is a subsidiary of Coal India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>THE COAL LOOT</b></p> <p>The first information report in the case, a copy of which THE WEEK has, was filed last November. The CBI named five top ECL officials and one Anup Majhi, aka Lala, who used to buy coal from ECL. The FIR also mentioned some Central Industrial Security Force personnel, members of the mines’ security force.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The report also said that criminal elements were illegally excavating and stealing coal in “active connivance of the officials of ECL, CISF, Indian Railways and other departments concerned”. The CBI said illegal mining started in May 2020, soon after the Covid-19 lockdown began.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“During inspections, a large number of vehicles and equipment used in illegal coal mining, [along with] illegally excavated coal [were] seized,” said the CBI report. The agency has only raided Eastern Railway areas till now; it requires the state government’s permission to raid other regions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Public servants allowed Anup Majhi and other unknown private persons to misappropriate national property entrusted to them,” said the report.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Majhi is a director of Mark Enclave Private Limited, a company headquartered in Kolkata. “The company bought coal from various organisations, including ECL,” said the CBI report.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Said a CBI officer investigating the case: “Being a businessman, he came close to many Trinamool leaders… and allegedly paid bribes to ECL officials and the ruling party of Bengal. Vinay Mishra is key among them.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In addition to the coal business, Majhi also owns hotels in Purulia and Durgapur, and a private hospital in Durgapur, said sources. “He has friends in all political parties. The Trinamool is the recent beneficiary,” said a senior state police officer who was posted in Asansol three years ago.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On February 12, a division bench of the Calcutta High Court had stayed a single-judge order of the same court, which had restricted the investigation to Railway areas. Majhi, who is absconding, then approached the Supreme Court, which is hearing the matter.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Bengal government also raised jurisdictional issues saying that the CBI, being a Central agency, could not carry out probes in the state. The state had, in 2018, withdrawn consent for the CBI to investigate in Bengal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The CBI is grilling the ECL officials and has also called three state police officers for questioning. One has appeared, two are yet to do so. “The police officers will have to pay a heavy price for doing illegal acts to [help] the Trinamool Congress,” said state BJP vice president Biswapriyo Roychowdhury.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The CBI has not accused Rujira, Menaka or Abhishek in the case, but more than 10 Trinamool leaders are said to be on the CBI’s radar. “We will evaluate everybody’s bank accounts,” said a CBI officer in Kolkata. “Rujira’s IT statement has been sought. She had a passport from Thailand.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Interestingly, minutes before the CBI officers reached Abhishek’s house on February 23, Mamata had visited Shantiniketan and paraded Abhishek’s six-year-old daughter in front of the media before leaving.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Later, the CBI officers then questioned Rujira and, an hour later, reported to their seniors in Delhi. “She (Rujira) refused to give proper answers,” a CBI source told THE WEEK. “In fact, she avoided all the questions.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Suvendu Adhikari, who recently left the Trinamool for the BJP, said that such investigations made him use words such as tolabaaz (extortionist) for Abhishek. “Not only is Mishra his close friend, Mishra used to look after the posting of all senior police officers of the state,” he said. “He wears costly clothes, ornaments and accessories. The money deposited into the Thai accounts of madam Naroola (Rujira’s maiden name) came from the proceeds of coal smuggling.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Neither Abhishek nor Rujira could be reached for comments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The CBI is now looking for Mishra, who is also absconding. Mishra is known to be close to some senior IPS officers in the state, many of whom are allegedly involved in the coal theft case. In fact, one of Mishra’s brothers is a state police officer.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>BENGAL’S COW BELT</b></p> <p>The CBI, apparently under the strict supervision of the prime minister’s office, is investigating the allegation of cattle smuggling into Bangladesh. The trade is reportedly worth around 0500 crore a year, and allegedly involves international smugglers, and officers of the Border Security Force and the state police. Though cattle smuggling is also common in Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura, Bengal reportedly accounts for about 80 per cent of the trade.</p> <p>Unlike in the coal case, the CBI’s target in cattle smuggling is not a political party, but the state police. As many as eight top officers are under the scanner, including two of the rank of additional director general and three of the rank of inspector general. The agency has issued notices to them, but they are yet to appear.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The CBI has raided the homes of several prominent businessmen in Murshidabad, North 24 Parganas and Kolkata; they were apparently in touch with the suspected IPS officers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>According to CBI sources, like in the coal case, the CBI first went after a Central body—the BSF—before booking people in the state. Interestingly, in both coal and cattle cases, the perpetrators were allegedly close to the Trinamool. CBI sources said both Majhi and Enamul Haque, the kingpin of the cow smuggling operations, have been close to the Bengal administration and also some Central agencies.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The case began in 2018, when the agency arrested BSF commandant Jibu Mathew from Kerala. They recovered 047 lakh from him and tracked down commandant Satish Kumar in Kolkata in November 2020. The CBI then tracked down a number of BSF officers who had been allegedly conniving with state police officers to smuggle cattle across the border for years. Apparently, both Kumar and Mathew were used by Haque, a Delhi-based businessman who allegedly supplied cattle to Bangladesh using his BSF sources. According to the CBI, Haque, who has offices in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, had his people in different local cattle markets, from where he would buy the animals.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Apparently, Amit Shah zeroed in on the cattle smuggling when he took charge as Union home minister in 2019. He soon deployed senior IPS officer Pankaj Kumar Singh as the chief of the BSF eastern command. More than a year later, Singh, as special director general, seems to have not only curbed the smuggling, but also helped the CBI’s probe.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Haque has allegedly been involved in the trade for 16 years, and is rumoured to have connections with insurgent groups in Bangladesh. CBI sources said cattle smuggling was related to fake currency rackets, which in turn were linked to insurgents; the National Investigation Agency has already proven this. The Enforcement Directorate is also running a parallel investigation to look into the money laundering aspect.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Haque’s alleged connections with top IPS officers—and the CBI summoning them—has caused a furore in the state. The state administration, which has been in a battle with the CBI for a few years, is also feeling the heat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The state BJP said that the police had no option but to fall in line. “They are worried,” said Roychowdhury. “They will have to pay a heavy price because they trafficked cows to an Islamic country, which slaughtered our holy animal. The Central agency would not spare them.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath also brought up the issue during his rally in Malda on March 2. “People’s sentiments are being hurt through cow smuggling, but the state government remains silent,” he said.</p> <p>Adhikari, meanwhile, claimed that Haque, too, had links with the Trinamool. “It will be revealed soon, just wait,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The CBI first arrested Haque in 2019, but he got bail. He was arrested again in January 2021, after the Calcutta High Court withdrew his interim bail.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Though a couple of the IPS officers have gone to court to contest the CBI summons, the agency is hoping that, given the magnitude of the case, the court would allow it to book the perpetrators. Also, the fact that the agency first went after the BSF might help remove any political colour from the investigation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>ALCHEMIST SCAM</b></p> <p>The Enforcement Directorate arrested former Alchemist Group chief K.D. Singh in a Ponzi scheme case from his house in Delhi on January 14. The agency said it suspected that the former Trinamool Rajya Sabha member had transferred more than $15 million out of India and was in the process of moving his business to another country. Apparently, he was planning to flee India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Singh had been on the radar of various investigating agencies, including the CBI and ED, for years. His company was part of the several Ponzi companies, including Saradha, which the CBI has been investigating since 2014. He had stepped down as the chairman of the Alchemist Group in 2013, and is now its emeritus chairman.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>According to a 2018 inquiry by the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), based on market audits, the company had collected money on the promise of better returns from around 25 lakh people in various states. “More than five lakh people went to court,” said lawyer Arindam Das, who is representing investors at the Calcutta High Court. “Now imagine the (number of those who have) not come to court yet. They are scattered all over India, including in states like Jharkhand, Odisha and Kerala, and even in the northeast.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>SEBI had, in 2018, first noticed the Alchemist Group’s ploy of misusing the money and attempting to park it abroad. Singh was a Rajya Sabha member then. Soon after the money laundering case blew up, Mamata Banerjee contacted him; he has been dormant since.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The political connection between Singh and Mamata has armed the opposition. They alleged that, in 2011, Singh had funded the helicopter charters of senior Trinamool leaders during the election campaign. “It is alleged that the then opposition leader, now chief minister, rode the helicopter which was arranged by Singh,” said a CBI officer.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>However, Singh’s relationship with the party soured after the Narada sting operation on several Trinamool leaders in 2014. It was allegedly done at Singh’s behest.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The SEBI report of 2018, a copy of which THE WEEK has, said, “K.D. Singh is allegedly in the process of siphoning off around $100 million, earned by duping innocent public in the guise of a fake deposit scheme, in buying companies abroad via tax havens in association with the business head of a Mumbai-based, family-owned group with international presence.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The report was submitted in a sealed envelope to the court in 2018. Another report was filed in 2019; the court recently sent both reports to the CBI for investigation. “Perhaps they have mentioned this (Mumbai company) to the higher officers of the agency,” said a CBI officer. “But it has not been made public yet. When the matter is revealed to us we would investigate their roles.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In its report, SEBI also said that Singh was involved in many other activities. “He has entered into a deal with a Greek business owner, whereby a new entity is being created in Cyprus, for which €10 million have been kept in an escrow account till the Greek company ownership is transferred to Cyprus. Subsequently, the aforementioned business head (Singh) would acquire the company and apply for EU (European Union) residency and passport,” said the report.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>SEBI also said that Singh was in the process of buying real estate in Mykonos island, Greece, to “construct safe vacation homes and to acquire pubs, restaurants and strip clubs in Athens, which he is planning to combine with his vacation homes to create a private party club worth €5 million.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Kolkata Police had formed a special investigation team in 2017 to probe Singh and the group. But there has been no headway. The CBI, according to the Calcutta High Court, will also look into why no investigation was conducted. As alleged in the Saradha case, it would ascertain whether there was pressure from the state government to drop the case.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With just weeks left for the assembly elections, Mamata’s opponents, especially the BJP, would be hoping that the various cases will damage her chances of being re-elected.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>However, the BJP would not want Mamata to be portrayed as a martyr. She had recently reminded the BJP: “Remember, a wounded tiger is more ferocious than a fit tiger. I am a Bengal tigress.”</p> Thu Mar 04 17:32:07 IST 2021 we-are-helping-the-cbi-burst-the-cattle-smuggling-racket <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Cattle smuggling is a burning issue in this election. Why is so much smuggling happening?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is happening. No point in denying it. But I must tell you that the number has gone down drastically in the past one year.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What is the situation in Bengal?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bengal had the largest share of such smuggling. In 2019, it used to be around 40,000; last year it went down to 11,000. We should not be complacent. We are cracking down on it in a major way.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>There could be underreporting.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I do not deny that. But there cannot be such a drastic change without massive success. You need to give credit to our boys. Only a small percentage of such cases goes underreported.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Is the change because the CBI is cracking down on it?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Indian government has decided to control it and the BSF is a professional force that has helped the CBI in a big way.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Some senior BSF officials were caught.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That is why I cracked the whip on the errant people after I joined [in 2019]. I have given names of 15 BSF officials to the CBI. We have already taken disciplinary action against half a dozen people. I would never allow the good names of the officers and jawans to be sullied by a few corrupt people.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Have you taken any long-term decisions to stop the menace?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The border is porous and many areas have water bodies crossing the international border. So, when I personally investigated, I found that [the smuggling] increases during the monsoon. It is easier to put cattle in the water; they would swim across. We have scientifically analysed the data and have come to some conclusions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Is the Bangladesh border force helping you?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>They are serious about drug smuggling. They are probably not too concerned about cattle smuggling.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Cattle smuggling is an issue everywhere. Why is the BSF so concerned about Bengal?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is severe in Bengal. Statistics would tell you. I am addressing the problem in the entire eastern region, wherever the BSF is posted.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>There has been talk of officially accepting trade across the Bangladesh border like it happens on the Myanmar border. That can reduce smuggling.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Such markets are already functioning in Tripura. In Bengal also, the option is open. I think the foreign ministries of both countries could sit together and evaluate this. The BSF can then be engaged.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Senior Bengal ministers have claimed that the BSF is campaigning for a particular party in border areas.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I think the Election Commission has taken up the matter. I want them to furnish details. Give us the names of those who are doing it. Mere blaming would not work; evidence is required.</p> Fri Mar 05 12:52:31 IST 2021 ready-to-sell <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>IN FEBRUARY 2020,</b> Prime Minister Narendra Modi set a target for Indian defence exports: $5 billion by 2024. Last month, the Union cabinet cleared the export of Akash missile systems and formed a high-powered panel to grant swift approval to export military hardware. Besides Akash, surface-to-air missile systems, the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile and larger weapon systems can now be sold to “friendly foreign” nations that have a robust system to manage these assets. It will also help improve strategic ties with them. Until now, India has only exported ordnance and smaller armaments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Experts believe that apart from Akash and BrahMos, other missiles like Prahaar and the air-to-air Astra have huge export potential. Astra, which has a range of 100km, is now entering the production stage after completing successful trials from the Sukhoi Su-30MKI jet. Two things hampered the sale of indigenously developed missiles: the lack of effort to sell and a strong lobby of First-World nations that dominates defence markets. India also lacked a policy to push defence exports, despite defence scientists seeking export permission since 2005.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Interestingly, from 2015 to 2019, India was the world’s second-largest importer of weapons, after Saudi Arabia. India imported 9.2 per cent of the arms produced globally. India did though manage to export defence equipment worth Rs10,745 crore in 2018-19, seven times the figure in 2016-17.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>According to an observer in South Block, efforts are on to fast-track the long-promised sale of BrahMos and Akash to Vietnam. This deal with China’s neighbour is also a clear message to Beijing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India’s missile programme took off in 1982, when prime minister Indira Gandhi decided to develop indigenous missile systems. She formed a Missile Study Team with A.P.J. Abdul Kalam as its head. The team recommended the phased development of five missiles—Trishul and Akash surface-to-air missiles, Nag anti-tank missile, Prithvi short-range ballistic missile and Agni.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Four decades on, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kenya and Algeria have expressed their interest in the Akash, which is capable of targeting aerial assets within a range of 25km. The missile was inducted into the Indian Air Force in 2014 and the Army in 2015. Defence officials claim that Akash is around 50 per cent cheaper than its competitors. Other Indian systems like radars and sonars, too, cost only a quarter to one-fifth of similar systems available in the global market. All export versions will be different from the ones inducted into the Indian armed forces, as no country sells the best variant.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The 290-km range BrahMos, which has a range of 290km, is being eyed by Indonesia, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Vietnam and the Philippines. All formalities have been completed with the Philippines—including a green light from Russia, as the missile development project was a joint venture—and the matter is awaiting final approval from the cabinet committee for security.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>William Selvamurthy, a scientist who served as chief controller of research and development at the Defence Research and Development Organisation, says that India was running First World industries because it has the world’s fourth-largest air force and its requirements are huge. “There was a lot of pressure on India to not develop missile systems,” said Selvamurthy. “Countries dominating the field of missile technology do not want any other player in the global market. They had put restrictions under non-proliferation treaties.” He said India is now strong enough to make a decision. “With selling missiles, we will be competing with the US, Russia and other European nations,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Retired Air Vice Marshal P.K. Srivastava, who served in Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL), the manufacturer of the Akash, says that it took close to 20 years for the missile to reach this stage. It took a lot of time to progress from design drawing to production drawing, he said, followed by about 1,000 corrections and modifications before it was finally inducted into the armed forces. So far, the armed forces have ordered Akashs worth Rs24,000 crore; a Rs10,000-crore contract is in the works.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Initially, we (BDL) wanted to set up the whole supply chain by involving private players and go for bigger numbers later,” said Srivastava. “I feel the time is now ripe for us to (export). We must pitch Akash as the cheapest in its category. We can give Israel a good fight, which also sells cheap military platforms in the segment.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>He added that there was no policy to export as India never intended to sell. “We always had the capacity, but never thought of exploiting it,” he said. As talks are on about upgrading the Akash to the Mk-II variant, the Mk-I can be safely sold.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On the export potential of BrahMos, India is considering multiple options. A. Sivathanu Pillai, architect of the BrahMos missile, told THE WEEK that the priority was to first meet the requirement of Indian defence forces. During his tenure as chief of BrahMos, nearly 14 countries expressed interested in the missile.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Pillai said that as India is now a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), it can sell missiles with a range beyond 300km. “We are definitely interested in exporting, but not the best systems,” said Pillai. “In the case of exporting the Akash, of which other versions are available, there should not be any issue. But while exporting a BrahMos-type missile, which is a ‘winning weapon’, we need to be careful.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>BrahMos NG, which has a limited range, can be exported, he said. The BrahMos’s range is now being extended to over 400km; efforts are under way to test an 800km variant by the end of this year. The Indian armed forces have placed a Rs36,000-crore order for the BrahMos.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Pillai also highlighted an additional issue: “If we go in for exports, our priority may be shifted because of multiple government-to-government agreements. Our mind will be diverted if the focus is on selling.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Former DRDO scientist Ravi Gupta partly blames the armed forces for preventing exports. He said unless a weapons system is inducted in significant numbers at home, external buyers will not trust the platform. “Sadly, we were the only country in the world which was working against its own national interest,” said Gupta. “In India, the induction of a military platform takes more time than its development.” He added that because of huge kickbacks in defence deals, the indigenous sector did not get the desired attention.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The situation is changing fast as many indigenous platforms, including the recently approved Tejas light combat aircraft, have been ordered for the armed forces. There is an effort to cut imports and bring the indigenous defence industries together to meet the demand at home.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Defence scientists have maintained that India is considerably self-reliant, and that once we start exporting, a market will be formed outside and private players can also join. “Not only defence PSUs, but private sectors of the Indian defence industry, too, have grown,” said Selvamurthy. “The ecosystem has changed and it is time to go in for exports.”</p> Thu Mar 04 16:03:18 IST 2021 brahmos-is-ready-to-meet-all-export-requirements <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Defence exports worth $5 billion by 2024. Is it realistic?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Looking at the maturity of our defence technology, this goal seems quite realistic and is also the need of the hour. The government is very proactive on the defence exports front. And I firmly believe that now is the time when 70 years of investment in defence R&amp;D should be paid back. As defence scientists and technologists, we can repay our nation with indigenous technology development, revenue generation and employment creation. The $5-billion export target would encourage the Indian defence and aerospace industries to gain entry into newer markets for their long-term, sustainable growth prospects.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>To achieve this target, what support are you getting from the government?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The government’s main objective here is to facilitate defence exports. Some time ago, our defence attaches [had been instructed] to be proactive on the military exports front. As a result, we are getting several inquiries about our weapon systems and their export potential.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If we look at manufacturing, a huge capability has been created in the defence technology sector. These manufacturing capabilities need to be completely exploited to create wealth and generate employment. It would lead to next generation technology development within the country.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>How does BrahMos Aerospace fit into this?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Defence sales are mostly government-to-government business, and hence, it is a prerogative of the government to find out whom to export to or with which nation we can negotiate. This is because export of defence products is often a strategic decision. So, we are completely aligned with any such thinking of our government. BrahMos Aerospace is fully geared to meet all export requirements even while fulfilling the needs of our armed forces, as we have a robust manufacturing capability.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I also feel that for the first time, we are being greatly encouraged by our government to actively take part in national and international defence exhibitions. While doing so, we are learning the tricks of [defence] trade and export.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Will the export version of BrahMos be different from what our armed forces are using?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Every nation has its own defence strategy. So, it solely depends on the customer on what kind of system it wants. There cannot be anything superior or inferior.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Could you share some of the future plans of BrahMos Aerospace?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Last year, we came out with a new version of BrahMos that is designed for coastal security. It is a shore-based weapon system and the Indian Navy has taken approval from the DAC (defence acquisition council) to deploy this system to safeguard India’s vast coastlines. BrahMos is reinventing itself almost every year by coming out with different versions to meet the requirements of the Indian armed forces. Looking into the future, we believe that BrahMos can be re-engineered and with reduced dimensions and other features, we can develop the BrahMos NG (next-generation) version. This NG can be integrated into the Light Combat Aircraft and the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) as well as on other platforms like the MiG-29 and Sukhoi-30. In a few years, we hope to come out with a hypersonic missile which will be able to travel for longer distances and longer duration as well.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Please throw some light on capabilities of BrahMos</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>BrahMos is a supersonic cruise missile with a range of 290km. We have developed (variants). It can be launched from sea, sub-sea, land and air. We can launch it against land and ship targets. BrahMos has become the most trusted weapon in the Indian military’s armoury. It has the capability to destroy a target as large as a frigate. BrahMos has validated its immense destructive potential several times during a series of successful test firings conducted by the armed forces last year.</p> Thu Mar 04 16:00:38 IST 2021 digital-detox <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Marketers have long</b> been using software tools for profiling customers. Now governments and law enforcement agencies worldwide are heavily investing in technologies that use application programming interface, crawlers and charts to analyse social media users’ posts, tags, pictures and tweets for building profiles and carry out sentimental analyses to identify the causes they are against or sympathetic to.</p> <p>In India, intelligence agencies and state police forces have set up social media monitoring labs to carry out overt, discreet and covert probes. These tools help cyber sleuths collect, analyse and segregate data. The cyber cell of the Delhi Police, for instance, has more than 250 people monitoring social media platforms through what it calls “social listening”—gleaning raw volumes of live data running into hundreds of terabytes. Occasionally, experts and volunteers are also being brought in to assist in monitoring the virtual world which has become the new battleground to shape public opinion, fuel sentiments, instigate agitations and wage proxy wars.</p> <p>During the Delhi riots last year and the recent farmers’ protests, the cyber patrollers had a challenging job at hand, as social media was abuzz with rumours and propaganda. The Delhi Police processed a large amount of data to identify the rioters in the first case. In the second, they arrested Disha Ravi, a 22-year-old Bengaluru based activist, for allegedly sharing a ‘toolkit’ with Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who tweeted it. A Delhi court, however, granted her bail saying there was “scanty” and “sketchy” evidence to back charges of sedition and asserted that citizens could not be jailed simply because they disagreed with government policies. The police now have the tough job of proving that the toolkit was prepared in collusion with Khalistan supporters and was part of a global conspiracy to defame India.</p> <p>Ravi’s arrest had created a huge hue and cry on social media over infringement on the right to privacy and free speech. The case seems to have resulted in key learnings for both the police and the netizens. The real challenge before the police is not just proving Ravi’s culpability, but nabbing the alleged perpetrators of the proxy war. “Proxy wars by anti-India forces can only be defeated if the actual culprits are booked,” said Dr Gulshan Rai, former national cybersecurity coordinator. “The aim should be to defeat the perpetrators and not allow attention to get diverted away from it.”</p> <p>Establishing which content attracts penal provisions and which does not has become a tricky challenge for enforcement agencies. “There is a need to have reliable evidence and for that reliable capabilities need to be developed to analyse and present unquestionable evidence,” said Rai. The evidence in the virtual world, he said, was fragile and needed to be collected quickly.</p> <p>Enforcement agencies need sophisticated systems and processes, and close cooperation with various organisations in the private and government sectors to keep up with online offenders. An Open Source Intelligence operation (OSINT) carried out by the name of Disinfo Lab had come in handy for the Delhi Police in connecting the dots of the Khalistani propaganda. An OSINT investigator said open-source data and digital evidence are critical to counter anti-India propaganda being carried out from foreign soil.</p> <p>A separate investigation unit of the Delhi Police cyber cell traces digital footprints by contacting telecom service providers and social media platforms to identify the actual perpetrators and verify the evidence. The unit is comparatively new, and most of the cases being handled by the cyber cell of Delhi police are in the trial stage in different courts. “The trials take long and gathering evidence to join the dots takes time. Moreover, social media offences are also a growing trend in cybercrime investigation,” said an official.</p> <p>How do cyber sleuths decide which social media activity attracts penal provisions?</p> <p>“We are aware that the aim of proxy wars is to use unsuspecting targets who will unknowingly spread misinformation and fake news or propagate the secessionist agenda. So simply sharing content may not attract penal provisions. But the responsibility rests upon the creators of the primary content to explain their motives. They need to explain why they generated such content in the first place,” said another cyber cell sleuth.</p> <p>In 2020, the Supreme Court revisited the requirements for admissibility of electronic evidence under section 65 B of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872. “The prosecution needs to comply with the law which mandates that a certificate needs to be provided by a third person that the digital evidence has not been tampered with or altered. This person will be cross-examined in court,” said Supreme Court lawyer Pavan Duggal, chairman of the International Commission on Cybersecurity Law. In effect, this provision is aimed at preventing investigators from tampering with the digital evidence to nail the accused.</p> <p>Duggal pointed out that the 2008 amendment to the Information Technology Act made almost all crimes in digital media a bailable offence. “The accused can get bail and there is a chance the evidence is destroyed later,” he said. Moreover, many social media platforms' servers are abroad and those countries are slow in sharing information.</p> <p>India has signed mutual legal assistance treaties with several countries, including the US, where the servers of many social media giants are located. Police, however, need to take the bureaucratic route to access information from those countries. Because of these constraints, the chances of conviction are quite low in cybercrime cases. “This is the reason why the conviction rate is less than one per cent in cybercrimes in the country,” said Duggal.</p> <p>So, is social media monitoring by police forces a boon or a bane for the general public?</p> <p>Anyesh Roy, DCP, cyber cell unit of Delhi police, said the emerging threats on social media and proxy wars by inimical forces had not only put police forces on alert but also provided lessons to citizens to access only credible information. “Citizens should avoid sharing unverified information. Social media has a tendency to artificially flare up sentiments, manipulate and project local issues as bigger issues, resulting in actions that can cause enmity or create conflict on the ground,” he said.</p> <p>One of the first central agencies to set up a dedicated social media monitoring cell was the National Technical Research Organisation. IPS officer Muktesh Chander, who led this effort in 2012, said the learning for this technical intelligence agency, which functions under the Prime Minister’s Office, came from the 2011 riots in London where the Metropolitan Police effectively used Flickr to publish images of suspects in the riots along with announcements on Twitter. Similarly, in 2010 in Canada, Toronto Police started a social media programme and shared success stories of cyber undercover operations with Indian counterparts.</p> <p>Clearly, India has arrived late on the social media monitoring platform. The need of the hour is to take real measures to boost the confidence of netizens in free and fair investigations in cybercrime cases. To begin with, the Delhi Police is looking at creating a perception management unit run by 50-odd private and government officials to boost the image of the police “virtually”.&nbsp;</p> Thu Feb 25 16:17:30 IST 2021 maps-unbound <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>It was just</b> 10 years after the Battle of Plassey (1757)—which paved the way for the start of British rule in India—that the colonisers established the Survey of India, which today is India's oldest scientific institute. The British were ruling a new land, and, their need for cartographic details of the region, fuelled by their thirst for discovery, soon had them launch the phenomenal scientific exercise, the Great Trigonometrical Survey. This not just helped them map the land, but also understand its curvature.</p> <p>The GTS was an exploration like none other, famously known for killing more men—malaria, tigers and scorpions waiting to claim survey parties—than any contemporary war. From 1800 onwards, the surveyors braved forests and floods, snow and sickness, as they trod into hostile lands. Sometimes, these expeditions were conducted in such secrecy that the surveyors even calibrated their stride to ensure they knew the distance covered at the end of the day, by the number of steps they had taken—which was surreptitiously recorded by moving prayer beads, one bead for a certain number of steps.</p> <p>Was it any surprise then, that the British rulers guarded their cartographic repository jealously, making it a laborious exercise in red-tapism for anyone who needed a map? Then, as in now, knowledge was power, and maps were those scrolls of knowledge that helped win wars, extend territory and even rule well.</p> <p>Independent India inherited its erstwhile rulers' paranoia about letting maps out in the public domain. It also added further layers of protection, with the ministry of defence bringing the distribution of topographic maps under the Official Secrets Act in 1967. “India has a fraught neighbourhood and many security challenges,” explains Lieutenant General Girish Kumar VSM, retired, former surveyor general of India. “However, realities have changed now, with technology making these maps freely available to people. It was time to ease the restrictions.”</p> <p>And, that is exactly what the government did in a bold move on February 15, when it announced its new geospatial policy, which frees all geospatial data obtained using public funds, except classified data, from the quagmire of prior approvals and security clearances. What this in effect means is that map makers and those who use maps are free to use the data without the fear of being dragged to jail for violating the Official Secrets Act.</p> <p>Private firms, as well as researchers, had long been seeking a change in the strict map policy. So outdated was the map rule with the needs of the nation that often, even government departments had to wait endlessly for permits coming through. This was certainly not in sync with the requirements of a nation with huge developmental ambitions. The government's National Map Policy of 2005, which got implemented only a decade or so later, divided maps into two categories—defence series and open series—and made the open series available for the public. However, there were so many riders, that in effect, people said the move was merely putting old wine in a new bottle. For instance, any map prepared on a scale larger than 1:4 million required a one-time security clearance, any value addition on such a map required further vetting. So, even adding the information about a new pothole on a road in a navigation map, technically, needed to be vetted by the government.</p> <p>In fact, so tight was the map regime, that a huge swathe of activities being done today—for instance, a food delivery service providing its customer with the real-time location of the delivery boy—was illegal. The government did not catch people for these “violations”, knowing how redundant the rules were, or perhaps, because it was too short-staffed, but this did not eliminate the risk of an enterprising businessman or techie finding himself spending the night in lockup.</p> <p>The February 15 announcement, therefore, has come as a pleasant surprise. Ashutosh Sharma, secretary, department of science and technology, announced: “There is no point in withholding data that is already freely available globally, sourced through satellite imagery. Now, the restrictions will be more on attribution rather than the area of surveying, the government's role would be to ensure sensitive material does not get attributed to maps.”</p> <p>The government also used this move to give a booster shot to the Atmanirbhar Bharat drive, giving <i>desi</i> players the environment to grow in. The deregulation is complete only for “Indian entities”, said Sharma. Foreign entities would still need permissions. Also, only Indian entities can acquire and own high-definition data (a resolution of 1m horizontally and 3m vertically), and store it within India. Data can be licensed to foreign entities, not owned by them. Similarly, only Indian entities can map terrestrial mobile street views, or map and survey territorial waters.</p> <p>“The policy is beyond expectation,” said Rakesh Verma, co-founder, chairman and managing director of MapmyIndia, the country's largest location technology and digital mapping company that has tied up with the Indian Space Research Organisation for providing geospatial services. He pointed out how challenging it was to gain market share when global giants gobbled up space. Android phones, for instance, have a deal to pre-install Google Maps on all their devices.</p> <p>By government estimates alone, the geospatial and solutions industry is pegged as a Rs1 lakh crore business by 2030. Geospatial solutions are intrinsically required in modern-day living, whether it is for finding the easiest way out of the city or locating the nearest Swachh Bharat toilet. “Today, 14 per cent of the GDP goes into logistics and distribution,” said Verma. “Using geospatial data ably can reduce this to 9 per cent.”</p> <p>There are questions on how the government will ensure that geospatial data remains within India. It is reported that there are rumblings of disapproval within the MoD over the geospatial policy. “There will always be violations,” said Kumar. For instance, South Korea, he said, has a tight geo-fencing of services, which does not allow downloading beyond its national borders. “[But] we can monitor services, see who is accessing what and from where, by using technology properly.”</p> Thu Feb 25 15:54:00 IST 2021 poach-and-win <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>EARLY IN THE MORNING</b> on February 22, even as Puducherry was recovering from flash floods caused by heavy rainfalls a day before, iron barricades were being put up on the water-logged roads leading to the legislative assembly. The eerie silence surrounding the French colonial style building, guarded by a large posse of policemen, was broken only by the chirping of the birds from the nearby Bharathi Park. Soon, MLAs and ministers started arriving at the assembly complex, as the Congress government led by V. Narayanasamy was seeking a vote of confidence.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Clad in a white dhoti, a crisp white shirt and a shawl in Congress colours, Narayanasamy looked determined, sending out a message that he will not give up without a fight. As the assembly session started, the chief minister made an impassioned speech listing the achievements of his government. He criticised the BJP and the All India N.R. Congress led by opposition leader and former chief minister N. Rangaswamy for their attempts to topple his government. “Kiran Bedi (who was replaced as lieutenant governor on February 18) and the Modi government entered into a conspiracy to ensure the fall of our government,” he said. He accused the BJP of committing “political prostitution” and blamed it for “unpopular” schemes like demonetisation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Narayanasamy’s comments on demonetisation led to chaos in the assembly as the opposition benches rose in protest against the attack on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “This is not a public meeting,” said A. Anbalagan, legislature party leader of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. But it did not stop Narayanasamy who said Bedi interfered in his administration “on the instruction of her bosses in Delhi”. As the confidence motion was taken up for voting, he said the three MLAs nominated by Bedi without consulting the council of ministers should not be allowed to vote and walked out with his MLAs. A while later, Speaker V.P. Sivakolundhu announced that the motion was defeated. “The speaker is the BJP’s stooge,” said chief whip R.K.R. Anantharaman. Rangaswamy, however, blamed the Congress leaders for the party’s defeat. “They have lost the confidence of the people as they did not work for their welfare,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Narayanasamy government went into crisis mode in mid-January after minister A. Namassivayam and MLA E. Theeppainthan resigned and joined the BJP. Soon more MLAs—Malladi Krishna Rao, A. John Kumar and K. Lakshmi Narayanan of the Congress, and K. Venkatesan of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)—also quit, bringing down the strength of the Congress-DMK alliance to 12 in the 30-member assembly. “The BJP lured them by offering money,” Narayanasamy told THE WEEK in an exclusive interview.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sources told THE WEEK that one of the resigned MLAs had debts close to Rs2 crore and that he got the BJP’s help to settle the dues. Another MLA who ran a private lottery and a cable TV business came under the scanner of the income tax department. “He was shaken as he was summoned by the IT department to Chennai. He rushed to Delhi to bail himself out of the crisis and soon came his resignation,” said a senior Congress leader.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Namassivayam has his share of grudges against Narayanasamy. The Congress went to polls in 2016 with him as its chief minister candidate. But with the help of his influential friends in Delhi, Narayanasamy outmanoeuvred Namassivayam and became chief minister. He also took over as Puducherry Congress chief after removing Namassivayam from the post.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Dinesh Gundu Rao, Congress in charge for Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, said Union Home Minister Amit Shah threatened the MLAs and also made them huge offers. The BJP, however, denied that it was behind the ongoing crisis. “The BJP did not offer anyone anything. We have no role in the crisis,” said state BJP president V. Saminathan, who was nominated as an MLA by Bedi. He had contested the 2016 elections and got only around 1,500 votes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The 30 assembly constituencies in Puducherry are spread across four districts–Puducherry, Karaikal, Yanam and Mahe. The Congress has a strong presence in Karaikal, Mahe and Yanam and the BJP seems to have a well thought out strategy to target the Congress strongholds. It has made a calculated political move by replacing Bedi with Telangana Governor and former Tamil Nadu BJP president Dr Tamilisai Soundararajan. The decision seems to have been influenced by its assessment that the Congress and Narayanasamy have been gaining sympathy among the public ahead of the assembly elections because of the aggressive role played by Bedi. Bringing in the Tamil-speaking Soundararajan will help blunt the Congress attacks about an ‘outsider’ targeting local leaders.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Narayanasamy, who was hoping to deflect the anti-incumbency factor by blaming Bedi, no longer has that option. Moreover, he will have to beat back the challenge of his erstwhile colleagues like Namassivayam, Krishna Rao and John Kumar. The Congress, which suffered a split in 2011 when Rangaswamy walked out to form the N.R. Congress, cannot afford to lose more leaders. Its chances in the upcoming polls depend on gaining the sympathy of the voters by convincing them that it was the victim of unscrupulous political practices engineered by the BJP. The party also suffers from the apathy and neglect of its central leadership. No national leaders had visited Puducherry after Narayanasamy took over in 2016, till Rahul Gandhi came on February 17 to kickstart the party’s election campaign.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Congress also needs to ensure that the DMK remains a part of the alliance. “We do not have any issues with the DMK as of now,” said Gundu Rao. “We had issues when [DMK leader] S. Jagathrakshagan said the party would contest all 30 constituencies. All that has been sorted out and the DMK continues to be in our alliance,” he said. But the DMK has been largely indifferent to the Congress’s recent woes. It suspended its defected MLA K. Venkatesan only a day after he submitted his resignation. Moreover, the party has refused to expel him. DMK president M.K. Stalin has been silent on the developments and issued a statement only on the day Bedi was removed. But he did not blame the BJP for the political crisis, although he said the DMK would fight the elections in the company of the Congress after Narayanasamy lost the trust vote.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As far as the BJP is concerned, the recent political developments have given it an opening in Puducherry, where the party has only a negligible presence. In 2016, BJP candidates lost their deposits in all the 18 constituencies they contested in. But with president’s rule—which could even go on for up to six months—a possibility in the light of the recent political developments, the party will be able to set and control the agenda, especially with someone like Soundararajan in the Raj Niwas. The BJP will also use this opportunity to assess the viability of forming a government in alliance with the N.R. Congress, the AIADMK and the Congress rebels. But it has so far been unsuccessful in this endeavour.</p> Thu Feb 25 17:17:33 IST 2021 do-not-want-to-comment-on-bedi-performance <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Q/ You have been governor of Telangana for more than a year. But the role of a lieutenant governor is quite different.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/I am happy that I was given this responsibility by our Home Minister Amit Shah ji, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ji and our honourable president. This is an additional responsibility. I will discharge my duties as per the Constitution. The responsibilities of the governor and the lieutenant governor are different. The lieutenant governor is more accountable and has more responsibilities. The governor’s role is to approve an elected government’s cabinet decisions. Here anything can be decided by the lieutenant governor. In a Union territory, there should be a smooth relationship between the elected government and the lieutenant governor to run the administration effectively.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Was Kiran Bedi removed because she did not have a smooth relationship with the elected government?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ I have just taken over as lieutenant governor. I do not know what happened earlier and the nature of her relationship with the elected government. But now my work is to ensure that peoples’ welfare is given prime importance. The first file I took up was on providing aid to SC/ST students and the second one was on HIV patients. The third was the letter submitted by opposition MLAs saying the elected government has lost the majority.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Is the BJP working towards implementing its Congress-mukt Bharat (Congress-free India) slogan in Puducherry, too?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ I am the constitutional head of a state and I cannot comment on political questions. Any elected government will have to have the numbers to run the government effectively. If there is political instability, then the people are the sufferers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Do you think Bedi became unpopular because she was very active in day-to-day administration and former chief minister V. Narayanasamy was gaining sympathy among the public because of her aggressive role?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ I do not want to comment on this. I do not know what actions she had taken during her tenure. When I met her, I thanked her for the service she rendered to the people of Puducherry. But each person will have his or her own way of functioning. And it was most probably Ms Bedi’s style of functioning. My primary focus is that the people are superior and they have more powers in a democracy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I do not want to comment on her performance or on the chief minister’s comments. But I understand that certain schemes that are beneficial to the people of Puducherry were withheld. I will certainly look into this and ensure that the welfare schemes are carried out effectively.</p> Thu Feb 25 16:52:40 IST 2021 bedi-incorrigible-soundararajan-biased <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Q/What do you have to say about the fall of your government?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/Our government assumed office in 2016 with the support of 18 MLAs. The N.R. Congress and the BJP began targeting me after I won the Nellithope assembly byelection in November 2016. Since then, I have been thwarting their plans to destabilise my government. While these parties were targeting me, the then lieutenant governor Kiran Bedi interfered in the day-to-day affairs of the government and was trying to run a parallel government by holding review meetings of departments. She is an incorrigible element and nobody can correct her. I fought her every single day, and ultimately we succeeded when she was thrown out of Puducherry. The new lieutenant governor Tamilisai Soundararajan, who also belongs to the BJP breed, has begun acting in a biased manner. Whatever be the situation, I am a fully satisfied man. We have almost completed our tenure and there are hardly 10 to 15 days left for the model code of conduct to come into effect. The BJP has toppled our government at the fag end of our tenure.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/What does the BJP gain from toppling your government with just two months left for the tenure to end?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/The BJP did not want the Congress government to be in power during the elections. They did not even want a caretaker government of the Congress. The BJP always wanted to rule Puducherry by proxy and has plans to merge it with Tamil Nadu. They tried to topple my government for the past four years but failed. However, the people of Puducherry will teach them a lesson.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Five Congress MLAs and one MLA belonging to your ally, the DMK, resigned in the past few weeks. Does it mean that they did not have confidence in their own government?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/The BJP lured them with false promises. It has been using investigating agencies to threaten people in Puducherry much like it had done in other states where it toppled governments. Why did these people leave after enjoying power for five years? Why did they not complain earlier? Why did they not raise issues two years back or even last year? They knew the term of the government was ending, and they joined the BJP as it would be lucrative for them.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Why do they find the BJP lucrative?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/I know the BJP’s game plan. But these MLAs do not. No one except those from the RSS can occupy positions in the BJP. They will lure people from other parties, use them and dump them. This is what happened in Madhya Pradesh. They took Jyotiraditya Scindia. He was the number two in the Congress in the state, but today he is nowhere to be seen.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/You say the Congress and the DMK will go to the people. What will you tell them?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/Our election agenda will be disclosed at the time of campaign. We cannot disclose it to the media.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Will the BJP be able to make an impact in Puducherry in the upcoming elections?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/In 2016, 18 candidates of the BJP contested and all of them forfeited their deposits. The BJP state unit president got just 1,400 votes, but he was nominated to the assembly. Another MLA who was nominated had got just 165 votes. This is the pathetic condition of the BJP in Puducherry. The people of Puducherry want a secular front.</p> Wed Feb 24 19:42:17 IST 2021 age-of-treason <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It was a tweet by Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg in support of the ongoing farmers’ protests in India that landed 22-year-old Disha A. Ravi, a Bengaluru-based climate activist, in the police net. The Delhi Police picked up Disha from her residence in Soladevanahalli, north Bengaluru, on February 13, suspecting her role in creating and sharing the “toolkit”(a document with campaign information) that Thunberg shared on February 4.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The cyber cell team of the Delhi Police alleged the toolkit had exposed the conspiracy by an organised overseas network to “instigate”the farmers’protests—especially the storming of the Red Fort on Republic Day—against the three farms laws passed by the Centre. They said it was created by Canada-based pro-Khalistani organisation Poetic Justice Foundation and it had an “action plan”for a digital strike and a call for physical protests outside Indian embassies and local government offices.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Four Delhi cops in plain clothes arrested Disha and took her to Delhi. Disha was remanded to police custody for five days by the Patiala House court. She denied being part of any conspiracy, and said that she was only supporting the farmers. She said she had made only two edits to the toolkit, but was not the creator of the document.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>According to Delhi Police, Disha shared the toolkit with Thunberg on Telegram, and asked her to “act on it”. Later, she asked Thunberg to hold it back as their names were on it and they might get booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. “The call was to wage economic, social, cultural and regional war against India. In this process, they all collaborated with pro-Khalistani Poetic Justice Foundation to spread disaffection against the Indian State,” said the cyber cell in a series of tweets.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On the day Thunberg had tweeted the link to the contentious toolkit, the Delhi Police filed an FIR against the creators of the toolkit on charges of sedition, criminal conspiracy and promoting hatred. The police have&nbsp;procured a non-bailable warrant against&nbsp;two other activists, Shantanu Muluk and Nikita Jacob, who are part of the alleged conspiracy. Both Muluk and Jacob had attended a Zoom meeting organised by PJF on January 11 and the founder of PJF Mo Dhaliwal had contacted them, too, alleged the police. The duo moved court, seeking interim protection from police action.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On February 16, the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court granted a 10-day transit anticipatory bail to Muluk, giving him protection from arrest by the Delhi Police. The next day, the court granted&nbsp;transit bail for&nbsp;Jacob, too, for three weeks.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In Muluk’s plea, accessed by THE WEEK, the 34-year-old resident of Maharashtra’s Beed district sought bail on the grounds that the Delhi police had stationed itself in his hometown for three days and seized several materials. The application also mentions that Muluk “is one of the founder members of XR India, an environment-centric platform which joined the farmers’&nbsp;coalition and displayed the information regarding the ongoing protest”. His contention was that he is innocent and was only extending his support to the farmers who were the actual dissenters. Speaking to THE WEEK, Muluk’s advocate Satej Jadhav said that the application mentioned that it would be destructive for Muluk’s life and family to carry a false blot of being an anti-national and requested for bail for the purpose of engaging a lawyer in Delhi to seek appropriate relief.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On the same day, senior advocate Mihir Desai argued for 29-year-old Nikita Jacob’s transit bail. In her plea, Jacob states that she has “no religious, political or financial motive for researching or editing or circulating communication packs/toolkits for raising awareness, let alone to incite violence, riots or cause other harms”. Jacob, in her petition, expressed apprehension that under the guise of investigation she might be arrested in a “false and frivolous” case and a media trial.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Jacob has been vociferously leading environmental causes in Mumbai and is a member of Extinction Rebellion, a global community of climate change activists. Muluk, an aerospace engineer, quit his job last year to research social ecology and focus on the drought-prone Vidarbha and Marathwada regions. While Muluk has been named by the police as the ‘owner’ of the document shared by Thunberg, the other two have been named as ‘editors’.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Thunberg’s tweet had set off alarm bells in the Delhi Police cyber cell, which has been monitoring social media 24x7, especially since early 2020 when the Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests turned violent in the capital. The Delhi riots were followed by the farmers’ protests in September, which peaked on January 26. Multiple agencies have been active on social media to counter what they call the “proxy war” on the country.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>According to police sources, vulnerable sections of the society like activists, journalists, think tanks and NGOs are being targeted by spy agencies like the Pakistan intelligence agency ISI, Khalistani separatists and other anti-national forces. Which is why social media tools like texts and tweets that have embedded links or use words like “war”or “terror” have caught the attention of cyber sleuths.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Investigating agencies, who have probed the genesis of the toolkit, say they have found a global network of Khalistani operatives backed by the ISI, unknown faces like activist Peter Friedrich and known yet forgotten Khalistani operatives like Bhajan Singh Bhinder alias Iqbal Choudhury. Friedrich has been traced to Malaysia, while Bhinder is learnt to be operating from the US. What is common is that both are alleged to be involved in the decades-old K2 (Khalistan and Kashmir) conspiracy of the ISI.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>According to security agencies, Bhinder was associated with Lal Singh, who was allegedly involved in a conspiracy to assassinate former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1985, during one of his visits to the US. At that time, the FBI had raised an alarm over his activities. Lal Singh had plotted other assassinations of top political leaders in Punjab and was arrested in 1992.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Indian agencies have been alerting their counterparts in the US about the continuing militant Sikh activities in India originating from US-based Sikh extremist organisations. India is looking for more cooperation from US authorities to unearth the foreign links to the latest conspiracy involving the toolkit.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Whether Disha and others were directly part of the conspiracy will be a matter of investigation. The police said Disha was connected to Muluk and Jacob through a Puneet, who is based in Canada. The reason why Disha sent the toolkit to Thunberg will also be probed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Disha’s arrest, on the other hand, has triggered widespread outrage in the country. Climate activists, students, academics and politicians including Shashi Tharoor, Sitaram Yechury and Arvind Kejriwal are demanding the immediate release of the activist.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), an umbrella body of farmers’ unions, has also condemned the arrest and demanded her immediate release. The Coalition for Environmental Justice, a climate group in India, dubbed Disha’s arrest an “extra-judicial abduction” and alleged the arrest had violated all norms laid down by the Supreme Court for arrests and detentions. The NGO Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms (CJAR) issued a statement that Disha should have been produced before the competent court in Bengaluru for obtaining transit remand as she was being moved between states.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Delhi Police has denied any excesses on its part, saying that the right procedures were followed during her arrest and that the law “does not differentiate between a 22-year-old and a 50-year-old”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Staying woke</p> <p>Disha Ravi, a graduate in business administration from Mount Carmel College, launched the Bengaluru chapter of Fridays for Future—a climate campaign launched by Greta Thunberg in August 2018—along with two friends on March 15, 2019.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In a conversation with THE WEEK in January 2020, Disha had recalled how the movement for climate justice started in India with youth networking on the internet, planning climate strikes, holding awareness programmes at schools and colleges and involving in clean-up drives and tree plantation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“What was striking about our campaigns is the encouraging response of the younger generation, when adults were in denial of climate change,” said Disha. “If school students were concerned about their future, many young professionals took up greener (sustainable) jobs as they did not want to indirectly contribute to environmental degradation. It has inspired many others to make lifestyle modifications.” Disha works for Bengaluru-based Goodmylk, a vegan milk enterprise that also produces plant-based food.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>An advocate for minimalism, Disha and her friends are against hyper consumption, which she noted leads to over-utilisation of resources and increases waste generation. Her love for everything “local” was cultivated much before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to go vocal for local.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It was not just Thunberg’s climate strike that inspired Disha to be a climate activist, but her life experiences, too. Her house in Bengaluru had seen flooding during heavy rains, like most low-lying areas in the city. Additionally, her roots in a farming family sensitised her to the perils of climate change.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“My motivation to join climate activism came from seeing my grandparents, who are farmers, struggle with the effects of the climate crisis,” said Disha. “At the time, I was not aware that what they were experiencing was the climate crisis because education about the climate is non-existent in this country. Millions of people are affected by the crisis every single day but there is no action. We, the youth, will take action, we will unite and organise for a just and equitable future.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Last September, when Disha was one of the four activists of colour featured in&nbsp;Vogue&nbsp;magazine, she told them: “The fact that you would choose to listen to a white person on the same issue rather than a person of colour is environmental racism.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Interestingly, FFF in India has had several run-ins with the government in recent times. In July 2020, FFF along with Let India Breathe and There is no Earth B, led a campaign against the draft bill of the contentious Environment Impact Assessment notification and asked citizens to send emails to Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar demanding withdrawal of the draft. The websites of FFF were blocked and the Delhi Police sent notices to the domain hosts of the website, because of its “objectionable contents, unlawful activities or terrorist act that threatened the peace, tranquillity and sovereignty on India”. The police had invoked the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and sent FFF a notice under the Information Act for sending “too many” emails to the minister. Both were later withdrawn.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Only a government that puts profits over people would consider asking for clean air, clean water and a liveable planet an act of terrorism,” Disha had stated in an interview with Auto Report Africa.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Inspired by the likes of primatologist Jane Goodall, who spent 25 years in the jungles of Asia and Africa studying chimpanzees, Disha hopes to build a career in ecological conservation and restoration, and to bring all the people affected by climate catastrophes on a common platform, say her activist friends. But her arrest has certainly jolted social activists and college students alike as they see it as the state’s bid to crush dissent.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>—<b>with Namrata Biji Ahuja and Pooja Biraia Jaiswal</b></p> Fri Feb 19 14:35:18 IST 2021 rogue-rock-and-a-deluge <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Some time ago—a week or earlier, we do not know yet—a chunk of rock around 400m in diameter broke off from its parent mountain in the Nanda Devi range of the Garhwal Himalayas, about 5,600m above sea level. It hit an overhanging glacier a few metres below. Unlike glaciers that form on valleys, overhanging glaciers are more unstable, formed over rocks jutting out of a mountain slope. Together, rock and ice tumbled down, snowballing into a huge mass. Close to where this event occurred is a larger glacier, one which has been surveyed and named Raunthi glacier, which feeds the Raunthi stream below it. The tumbling avalanche fell into the stream at a height of 3,500m above sea level, damming it temporarily and creating a lake. The entire situation was precipitous and the dammed-up water was building up in pressure. To add to the instability, there was fresh snowfall. The inevitable happened on the morning of February 7, as the water burst through the embankment. Down the narrow gorge, the ephemeral lake emptied itself, sending a volley of material from the embankment, too.</p> <p>This was the flash flood that hit the Chamoli area at around 10am, washing away two power plants and claiming at least 30 lives. Over 170 people are missing.</p> <p>A team of five glaciologists from the Dehradun-based Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology (WIHG) headed off to the city of Joshimath in Chamoli district the next day. Though they did not reach the glacier, which is in an inaccessible area, they took pictures of the area from a helicopter. They also studied satellite maps, and added it to what they saw and analysed, before coming up with the sequence of events that led to the flood. “This is just the preliminary report,” says Kalachand Sain, director, WIHG. “We have many unanswered questions. We are still studying the event.” The conclusions the team reached was because they noticed a fresh scar on the mountain and guessed that that was where the rock broke off. They are studying satellite images of the area to get a better idea of when it happened.</p> <p>Observers feel that the rock fall may have happened recently, perhaps just a day or two before the flash flood. “Anything earlier than that would have been picked up by satellite imagery,” says Naresh Kumar, former director of DRDO’s Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment.</p> <p>The first question that came up immediately after the event was whether the construction activity downhill caused the rock to break off. Scientists are cautious with their response, and say a lot more has to be studied before they can conclude whether the rock break was a natural event or anthropogenic in nature. Sain notes that the incident occurred several thousand metres above the Tapovan region, where the power plants are. Other scientists, too, believe that the development work is unlikely to have triggered the rock break. The project is more the victim than the perpetrator, says Anjal Prakash, research director, Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, and lead author of the sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “However, it is a lesson for the need of greater impact and risk assessment for any infrastructural project,” he says.</p> <p>The incident baffled the scientific community, especially since it was first called a “glacier burst”, which is usually unheard of during the winter months when snow is still accumulating. The initial theory was that of a GLOF (glacier lake outburst flood), and while the incident above is technically that of a lake outburst, it was not an old, established lake, but a very recently formed and unstable one. There is even a sabotage theory, and scientists say that all theories are possible, but there needs to be evidence to back them.</p> <p>The Himalayas are a very vulnerable landscape. As earth’s youngest, tallest and still-growing fold mountains, they are also the most populated mountain region, supporting 1.3 billion people. Plate tectonics, which keep pushing the mountains higher, also cause massive temblors, and regular rockfalls, landslides and avalanches. The higher reaches are glaciated. There are so many of them, large and small, that neither is there a proper count, nor have most been surveyed.</p> <p>Despite a lot of interest and research, the sheer vastness of the landscape and its unapproachability means that these realms have not yet been properly surveyed. Only a handful of glaciers—important ones like Gangotri—are monitored regularly. There might be several glacier lakes, even subsurface ones, that might not be picked up by satellite imagery, explains A.P. Dimri from Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of Environment Science and member of the international Hindukush Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Programme. Within India alone, the snowy Himalayas stretch across 2,500km and have around 10,000 glaciers. “It is not possible to study them all,” says Sain. This icy landscape, where the air is thin and there is no human habitation, holds deep secrets. Naresh Kumar says that one such question is why there are more such incidents on the Garhwal side of the mountains and not in the Himachal and Kashmir region.</p> <p>While it is tempting to point the finger of blame on climate change, the villain of the age, scientists urge caution, saying the facts must come out first. The Himalayas are vulnerable to climate change. There are many scientific papers which show how rising temperatures have caused glaciers to shrink and upset the fine climactic and geological balance in the Hindukush Karakoram Himalaya (HKH) region. The region is known as the “third pole” as it has the largest reserves of fresh water after the Arctic and Antarctic.</p> <p>The Indian Space Research Organisation studies show that 75 per cent of the glaciers are retreating “at an alarming rate”. While the jury is still out on whether this particular incident is also a victim of climate change, Prakash points out that there is no ambiguity about the fact that the region requires better monitoring and assessment. A distinct feature of a climate change event is that it occurs when and where it is least expected to. Thus, had the region been monitored well, and had there been a warning system in place, perhaps the loss of lives from the flood could have been minimised. Easier said than done, though, given the vastness of the landscape and the limitations on funding.</p> <p>The incident also brings into focus the delicate balance of development and conservation. Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat was quick to note that it is wrong to blame development of the region on the incident. Given that the Himalayas are among the poorest regions in the world, and that the development requirements of the people are great, such issues are going to pop up with every incident.</p> <p>“We need to think of even lesser impact projects, now,” says Prakash. “Hydel power could be generated at lower scales through several run-of-the-river turbines, each lighting up a few villages. I have seen this being done in Nepal.” Alternatively, he suggests greater thrust be given to solar and wind energy generation in these areas.</p> <p>However, in these geologically unstable regions, the issue is not just about the impact of a project on the ecology. It is also about having a system of early warning and evacuation when an incident occurs. In this case, had that rock fall been noted when it occurred, scientists could have calculated the risk of it triggering an avalanche or flash flood and sent warnings to people downhill. But then, how possible will it be to monitor this vast ice land in real-time?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> Thu Feb 11 17:00:16 IST 2021 a-rivers-reminder <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It is past midnight when we are able to reach the Tapovan tunnel, one of the two epicentres of the Uttarakhand disaster. It has taken us 22 hours to get here, making our way through narrow, winding mountain roads, a slew of stone and rubble landslides and a jam of trucks and cars every few kilometres.</p> <p>To get to the tunnel where earthmovers are wrestling with metal, mud and rocks, one has to wade through ankle-deep slush that pulls you down like quicksand. The slush has been a major challenge for the rescue operations that are being led by Deputy Inspector General Aparna Kumar, a woman officer of the Indo Tibetan Border Police. A record-breaking mountaineer, Kumar tells me how there has been no communication with anyone inside and the black hole of information is only making matters worse.</p> <p>Only once did someone’s mobile phone ring, hinting at a sign of continuing life. For family members who stand in the freezing cold—the temperatures are sub-zero—the wait is the hardest. I meet a father whose young son is trapped inside, and the elder brother of 25-year-old Deepak, a civil engineer, who is also among those about whom there has been no news for three days. “I called his phone. It just said, ‘out of network area’,” Deepak’s brother says softly, preparing himself for the worst.</p> <p>Despite the heroic efforts of the ITBP, the National Disaster Response Force, the Army and the civil police, time is running out. The chances of pulling out anyone alive are diminishing. There is very little chance of there being enough oxygen inside and then there is the serious danger of the workers dying from hypothermia before the rescue teams can get to them. “But if we can save even one life,” says Kumar, “we will not give up.”</p> <p>Through the night, they are at it. They take turns to take quick breathers, warming themselves around a small makeshift fire. Ambulances stand by, prepared for the worst.</p> <p>Briefly, it seems the machines have had luck in clearing out blockage to the tunnel. Soldiers make their way inside on foot, but have to retreat again after a few metres—the slush they encounter could suck them into the tunnel, too. “I cannot risk that,” says Kumar.</p> <p>The site of the other rescue operation—the Rishiganga hydroelectric project—has been completely washed away. Here the ITBP has been able to recover bodies carried away by the rage of the river. Ironically, the project stands near the village of Reini, where the state’s first environmental movement—the Chipko movement—began. Even recently, the villagers attempted to stop this project by taking it to court. But in the now familiar development debate between big and small dams, they lost. Today, their I-told-you-so moment brings neither relief nor redemption.</p> <p>In this state, the tragedy only brings an acute sense of deja vu. As we drive from Delhi to Joshimath, in the small villages of the state, local residents want to know when too many tragedies will be too many. The locals tells us that no lessons have been learnt from the 2013 floods—also a calamity I reported from the ground. It takes the women to really call out the inconvenient truth. “They call our land <i>devbhoomi</i> [land of gods], but we have ruined everything that is sacred about the mountains. Between construction and corporatisation and all of it being unregulated, we have destroyed the mountains,” Iti Devi tells me.</p> <p>I witness what she is saying with my own eyes. Over years of coming to the mountains, I have never seen them this denuded, and frankly, this ugly. Everywhere we look, the mountainsides are being blasted, drilled and dug up. Buildings are coming up right on the Ganga. It is almost as if a collective death wish has plagued the state. Or the belief that whenever the next calamity strikes—as it will—it is something that will happen only to other people.</p> <p>While we worship the Himalayas, we have conveniently forgotten what the data tells us. Even if dramatic interventions are made and global warming is reduced, a little over 30 per cent of the glaciers along the Hindukush Karakoram Himalaya ranges could melt by 2100. And if carbon emissions remain uncontrolled, then that number could rise further—the loss could soar to two-thirds.</p> <p>But as we drive through mountains that look more like a wreckage site, stripped of both green cover and dignity, it is almost as if everyone is going through the hand-wringing motions in a formulaic sort of way. And, the basic lesson that the pandemic and lockdown first taught us has been lost again. A villager reminds me of what that lesson is. “We are meant to tailor our lives to the rules of the earth,” he says. “We cannot write the rules and make the earth live to our playbook. That is what the river is teaching us.”&nbsp;</p> Thu Feb 11 16:58:25 IST 2021 making-peace-with-nature <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Seeking sustainability</b> and food security, as part of the relations between humans and their immediate surroundings, is deeply rooted in Judaism. The Torah (Hebrew Bible) teaches that mankind was created, in part, to protect and care for God’s creation.</p> <p>The “Do not destroy” (<i>bal taschit</i>) concept in the Talmud (Jewish law) is an affirmation of God’s possession of land. There is the commitment to the creation, and to one another, by avoiding destruction or degradation of land. According to the teaching, it is mankind’s responsibility to preserve and sustain the earth. In reference to preserving nature and preventing destruction, the Torah instructs us not to cut down fruit giving trees.</p> <p>Another important commandment is about the seventh year or the sabbatical year (<i>shmita</i>), which is obeyed to the letter to this day. Intensive farming is perceived as a threat to sustainability, so farming must be halted every seventh year to allow the soil to rejuvenate itself. “Six years you may sow your land and gather in its produce. But in the seventh [year] you shall release it and abandon it; the poor of your people shall eat [it], and what they leave over, the beasts of the field shall eat. So shall you do to your vineyard [and] to your olive tree[s] (Exodus 23:10, 11).</p> <p>Such ancient understanding of the need to preserve the natural balance, and to formulate the relation between humankind and its surroundings, is inspiring, and we should draw from this when discussing climate change and man-made environmental degradation.</p> <p>A pandemic has shaken the world in 2020, causing deaths, forcing people to stay isolated indoors, and countries to close their borders, leading to economic adversity not seen in recent times. The new year has begun with a potent mix of hope and anxiety; while several countries are still reeling from the deadliest phase of the pandemic, others have started mass vaccination. However, even as the world grapples with the coronavirus, climate change requires much more and urgent attention.</p> <p>As the economist Jérôme Jean Haegeli said, “Covid-19, like climate change, will be a huge test to global resilience. However, while Covid-19 has an expiry date, climate change does not, and the failure to ‘green’ the global economic recovery now will increase costs for society in the future.”</p> <p>The dark cloud of the pandemic, however, has a silver lining to it. The pandemic showed how societies can tackle a global challenge by taking responsible, collective actions and by implementing strict, tangible measures for the greater good. Moreover, complete lockdowns in countries such as Israel and India led to cleaner air, and better and greener environment. This reflects an inflection point in the climate change crisis, which gives the world a unique opportunity to influence and drive action towards mitigating climate change.</p> <p>The point is, if we learn from the pandemic, we can better address climate change by being more informed about the repercussions of inaction, and be better equipped to save lives and prevent the worst possible outcome. The current crisis can prepare our response to the next one.</p> <p>For various reasons, mainly necessity, Israel has been a global leader in tackling climate issues. Located in a semiarid climate zone, with over 60 per cent of its very limited land mass covered by desert, it is a hotspot for global warming. However, with innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity, the country has developed an infinite number of solutions for environmental challenges; solutions that it can share with the entire world.</p> <p>A water-scarce country only 20 years ago, Israel now exports water to its neighbours. It has made huge strides in water purification, recycling and desalination; close to 90 per cent of its wastewater is purified and recycled for use in agriculture. Imagine the effect a similar rate of recycling globally would have on reduction of greenhouse gases, environmental pollution and destruction of natural ecosystems!</p> <p>Israeli farmers have made significant achievements in desert farming with the pioneering use of precise irrigation and innovative technology. Israeli technology has reduced water requirement for irrigation by more than 30 per cent, and has simultaneously increased groundwater levels through efficient management and maintenance of traditional water storage structures.</p> <p>Israel has invaluable experience in, and data on, raising forests in semi-arid and low-precipitation areas. It has been engaged in a massive reforestation effort in the last century and is probably the only country in the world that has more trees today than it did 50 years ago.</p> <p>Israel has been a world leader in reducing coal consumption and is committed to halt coal usage by 2025. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has unveiled Israel’s carbon emissions targets for 2050, aiming at an ambitious 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases over the next 30 years. Today, renewable energy sources are positioned at the top of Israel’s agenda to guarantee a sustainable future.</p> <p>Israel has also welcomed partnership with India in the quest for a future with low carbon and pollution levels, and a future based on green energy through the International Solar Alliance (ISA) that reduces dependence on fossil fuels.</p> <p>The signing of recent Abraham Accords significantly increases the possibility of regional cooperation with our neighbours in the Middle East, with it in the field of climate innovation. Such cooperation is critical to preventing the effects of the climate crisis. It will also enable the transfer of renewable energy and water. Climate change is therefore an excellent opportunity to build regional collaborations that will enable the expansion of economic activity and create a platform for regional integration.</p> <p>Israel and India share key commonalities despite their vastly different geographic, economic and demographic size, as well as distinct cultural and historical circumstances. Both are centres of scientific and technological advancement, while rooted in ancient civilisations with an illustrious cultural and intellectual legacy; both serve as vibrant, liberal democracies in challenging geostrategic surroundings; both are committed to serving as constructive members of the international community in the advancement of sustainable development goals. As such, cooperation in fields related to climate change carries great potential for future collaborations.</p> <p>The two countries are working closely on implementing water management techniques. So far, 29 centres of excellence have been established in India to share knowledge and develop skills in agriculture and water management, and seven desalination plants using Israeli technology have been installed along the coasts of India.</p> <p>India and Israel have signed an agreement to cooperate in health care and medicine, including sharing of expertise in building climate resilient infrastructure and support of ‘green health care’. The cooperation also underlines their joint efforts in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.</p> <p>Ties between Delhi and Jerusalem have expanded beyond the realms of security and defence, trade and investment, and technology and innovation. Israel-India cooperation in climate change is a great opportunity for both countries to take forward the vibrant cooperation in science and technology, health care, space, agriculture and water management. Adopting a ‘green way of thinking’ across all sectors will be key for climate resilience, and India and Israel together can lead the world’s efforts for making peace with nature.</p> <p><b>The writer is Consul General of Israel to South India, Bengaluru&nbsp;</b></p> Thu Feb 11 16:54:16 IST 2021 there-is-no-bar-on-any-kind-of-political-activity <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Manoj Sinha was appointed lieutenant governor of the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir last August. An IIT-BHU graduate, Sinha has thrice represented Ghazipur in the Lok Sabha and was minister of communications and minister of state for railways in the first Modi government. He was one of the frontrunners for the post of UP chief minister after the BJP won the 2017 assembly polls. In 2019, he lost to Afzal Ansari of the Bahujan Samaj Party in the Lok Sabha elections.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sinha’s appointment is seen as the Union government’s attempt to address the political vacuum created after the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. As lieutenant governor, he has been on a development mission. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, he spoke about the path to strengthening development and democracy in the Union territory. Excerpts:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>How has been the experience as lieutenant governor?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It has been good. I must say the people of Jammu and Kashmir are very capable. For some reason, this capability has not been tapped properly. The status that J&amp;K should have achieved in economic development has not been achieved. But there are a lot of opportunities.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What challenges and opportunities have you identified?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Villages in J&amp;K are unlike the rest of the country, where people have access to basic necessities like roads, drinking water and electricity. I consider it one of the biggest challenges for the government. We have prepared a plan and are committed to providing access to basic necessities in the next few years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Around 2,000 people have died of Covid-19 in J&amp;K. But the pandemic has largely been under control. How was it done?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We controlled it with effective measures. We also took help from the prime minister and the World Bank to upgrade our health infrastructure. We are now in a position to provide ventilators in district hospitals, too. The prime minister has also sanctioned two All India Institutes of Medical Sciences, [nine] medical colleges and a bone and joint hospital to augment the health infrastructure.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What are the projects in the pipeline to upgrade the health infrastructure?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the new industrial policy that we have unveiled, the service sector has been given industry status. We are planning to develop at least two medi-cities, one each in Kashmir and Jammu. A medi-city will have a hospital, a diagnostic centre and medicines. We will work to extend, through the private sector, similar facilities to other districts.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The policy also offers an incentive of Rs28,400 crore in the years to come. The scheme will take industrial development to the block level and encourage new investment. It covers a GST-linked incentive, which is quite large compared to the Rs1,150-crore incentive prime minister Vajpayee had announced. We are giving 50 per cent subsidy on investment up to Rs500 crore in backward areas. The service sector will cover tourism, horticulture, food processing and packaging.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What has been the response from major industrial houses in India?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The way industrialists are contacting us, I am confident that in the next few years, J&amp;K will get an investment of Rs20,000 to 25,000 crore. Five lakh people will get jobs. We have started to reform laws in line with the new policy. There will be single-window clearance for industrial projects. We are also working on improving infrastructure.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Power crisis is a major issue. What is being done to address it?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We have never been able to generate more than 3,500MW in J&amp;K. When I chaired the meeting for winter preparedness, I was very worried about what would happen to Kashmir in the winter. But I am happy that compared with the previous years, we are providing up to 20 per cent more electricity this year. We have also decided to replace damaged transformers—in 48 hours in rural areas, and in 24 hours in urban areas. We have achieved a success rate of 96 per cent in this regard.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We recently signed a memorandum of understanding with NHPC Ltd. The hydel power sector is getting an investment of Rs52,800 crore. We are working to generate more than 200MW from other sources. Our transmission and distribution system is very weak, so we recently invited experts to discuss the matter. They prepared a plan for Jammu, and will visit Kashmir next month. Our goal is to provide 24-hour power supply in J&amp;K. You will see visible change in the next eight months.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The first ever elections to district development councils were held two months ago. It was the first major political activity after the revocation of the special status. You must be happy about the success.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is not about my satisfaction. People of Kashmir and the country are satisfied at the successful conduct of the polls. The elections were free, fair, and concluded without any incident of violence. Some people may make statements under political compulsion; but deep down everybody agrees that such a smooth exercise has never been witnessed before. I would like to thank the voters for their enthusiasm. I am surprised that DDCs were not constituted here when the 73rd and 74th [constitutional] amendments [related to panchayati raj] were implemented in the rest of the country. DDCs will get funding from the government and play their role in the development of J&amp;K.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The polling was 52 per cent overall, but only 35 per cent in Kashmir.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It needs to be compared with the turnout in the last Lok Sabha and local body polls. In the districts, the turnout was three times more. You need to also understand that the people came out to vote despite the severe cold. In South Kashmir, 90 per cent of seats had remained vacant in the last panchayat polls. In the DDC polls, 96 per cent were filled.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Many people feel that the low turnout in the DDC polls reflects the public anger at the revocation of Article 370.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I reject such explanations. If people are angry about the revocation, then they wouldn’t have voted. The way people participated in the polls, I think Article 370 is no longer an issue.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Would you agree that the Gupkar Alliance played its role in strengthening democracy by participating in the polls despite holding a grudge against the revocation of Article 370?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In a democracy, all political parties should take part in elections. This is not a new thing they have done.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Former chief ministers Mehbooba Mufti and Farooq Abdullah have alleged that the Centre is harassing them through agencies like the Enforcement Directorate.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The institutions of the country do their work. Nobody is being harassed or targeted. What Farooq sahab and Mehbooba Mufti have said is proof that they are free to say whatever they want. It means there is freedom to indulge in political activity. There is no bar on any kind of political activity. But freedom to indulge in anti-national activities will not be allowed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The new domicile law and industrial policy have sparked fears of demographic change. What is being done by the government to dispel such fears?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The domicile certificate merely proves that a person is a resident of J&amp;K. This [talk about demographic change] is a conspiracy to spread a myth. As for the land laws, the old laws were full of contradictions. For example, the ceiling of 182 kanals (22.75 acres) fixed in the [1950] Big Landed Estates Abolition Act was superseded by [the ceiling of] 100 kanals (12.5 acres) in the 1976 Agrarian Reforms Act. Yet both provisions continued to coexist, creating contradiction. What is wrong in abolishing that?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Similarly, the old agrarian act prohibited the selling of land distributed to tillers even after 44 years. This was leading to benami [transactions]. Another example is the Prohibition of Conversion of Land and Alienation of Orchards Act, 1975. It not only prohibited alienation of orchard land, but also restricted the creation of new orchards. If you need [to grant] permission to create an apple orchard, such a law needs to be changed. And, I am saying this with great responsibility, 90 per cent of the land in J&amp;K is agricultural land. Nobody can touch that land, not even the residents of J&amp;K. And if you don’t allot land for industries, how will industries come? That is why we are creating an industrial estate and have earmarked 3,000 acres for that. Another 3,000 acres is being identified.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The government has filed a review petition in the High Court against its decision to strike down the controversial Roshni Land Act, which gave proprietary right to occupants of state land. Why?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The primary responsibility of the government is to protect the rights of the poor. We believe there are a lot of poor people who have unjustly become victims of the court’s ruling against the Roshni Act. We have filed a review petition to provide relief to such people. We have requested the court that we should be permitted to make a law whereby poor people who have benefited from the act can be treated differently from affluent beneficiaries. We have also requested the court to allow us to form a task force under its supervision to identify the major beneficiaries of the act. Our intention is clear: those who have violated the law shall be dealt with.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Some people allege that the government filed the review petition because most of the beneficiaries of the Roshni Act are people of Jammu, where the BJP has wide support.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I reject such insinuations. People in Kashmir as well as Jammu got land [under the act]. There was more land in Jammu than Kashmir. I cannot change this difference.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>When will the delimitation process be completed?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The delimitation commission works under the Election Commission of India. Once the commission completes its work, the EC will decide on the assembly elections. I want to say this to those who doubt whether assembly elections will be held in J&amp;K: the prime minister stated on Independence Day that the polls will be held after delimitation is done. The home minister of India has also said in Parliament that the polls will be held after delimitation is completed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The Union government recently merged the J&amp;K cadre of civil services with the Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Mizoram and Union territory cadre. This has reinforced a sense of disempowerment, as officers from J&amp;K will not be able to serve in their home turf.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I don’t agree. I think a better option is now available for the people. J&amp;K is part of the country. I want to assure those who think this will lead to disempowerment that their rights will be protected. We have also implemented reservation for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes in J&amp;K. They have now been implemented for the benefit of people.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Are you satisfied with the security situation in J&amp;K?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I think the security situation is very good. The forces have an upper hand. There is excellent coordination between the Army, paramilitary forces and the J&amp;K Police. The situation is so much better that Gulmarg and Pahalgam have come alive again and film crews have returned.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>There is a feeling among journalists that the government is harassing them. They are summoned to police stations and questioned about their reports. Is there a policy to intimidate journalists?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I say this with full responsibility: no one will meddle in the work of mediapersons, nor will anyone harass them. But mediapersons should also know their responsibility. If there is an encounter and someone wants to go and capture photos, that is not reporting. I want to assure friends in the media that nobody will be allowed to unnecessarily take action against any journalist.</p> Fri Feb 05 10:45:57 IST 2021 disunion-territory <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>ON JANUARY 18,</b> S. Jagathrakshagan told DMK cadres that he would end his life if he failed to win all 30 constituencies in the upcoming Puducherry assembly elections. The Arakkonam MP, who was recently made the party’s election in-charge in Puducherry, launched a scathing attack on the Congress government, blaming it for the lack of jobs in the Union territory. “Puducherry should have been turned into heaven by now,” he said. “Under the leadership of M.K. Stalin, the DMK will form the government.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The rift between the alliance partners—the DMK and the Congress—was out in the open. A few days later, Public Works Department Minister A. Namassivayam and MLA E. Theepainthan left the party. They joined the BJP in the presence of Union Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP president J.P. Nadda in Delhi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Namassivayam’s rebellion within the Congress had begun as early as 2016, when he lost the chief minister’s chair to V. Narayanasamy. Though he was a senior leader and minister, Namassivayam had been upset with Narayanasamy’s way of functioning for quite some time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Defections are not new to the Puducherry Congress. A decade ago, the party was split when N. Rangaswamy quit to form his own N.R. Congress. However, the Congress remained powerful in the region. “There is no loss for the Congress,” Narayanasamy told THE WEEK. “Namassivayam does not have a strong following even in his own constituency.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>However, the defections just months before the elections would hurt the party. Sources said that many others, including Health Minister Malladi Krishna Rao and a few legislators, including A. Johnkumar—who had vacated his seat for Narayanasamy in 2016—are in touch with the BJP. Also, highly placed sources in the Congress said that MLAs K. Lakshminarayanan and V. Vijayaveni could jump ship any time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Apparently, the legislators feel suffocated in the Congress. “The chief minister does not let anyone function independently,” Namassivayam told THE WEEK. “None of the grievances I aired were addressed. I was left with no option.” He had written a letter addressing his complaints to the party leadership; it was reportedly ignored.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Namassivayam had played an important role in building up the Congress in Puducherry and once headed the UT unit. Sources said that though he did not have a strong vote base, the BJP might field him as chief ministerial candidate.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>According to sources, it was BJP national general secretary B.L. Santhosh who conceived and executed the defections. Apparently, one of his confidants, Nirmal Kumar Surana, had been camping in Puducherry for the past seven months, holding meetings with ministers and MLAs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The idea is to bring a BJP government in the Union territory and reduce the Congress to the maximum possible extent,” said a Congress leader in Puducherry on condition of anonymity. “The DMK will also go with the BJP if the Congress loses.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>He said the friction in the alliance began in October 2020 and has been simmering. Narayanasamy, Puducherry Congress president A.V. Subramanian and Lok Sabha member V. Vaithilingam had reportedly briefed the Congress leadership in Delhi about this many times. The trio had also informed the leadership about the emerging cracks within the party, the possible defections, and also the strained relationship between the UT government and Lieutenant Governor Kiran Bedi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On January 24, when Rahul Gandhi visited Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, Narayanasamy held a closed-door meeting with him for several hours. “Rahul Gandhi said that he will take a call at an appropriate time,” said Narayanasamy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Apparently, Bedi had become a thorn in the side of the government ever since she became lieutenant governor in 2016. On January 8, leaders of the Congress-led ruling coalition protested against Bedi. There were placards saying “Go Back Bedi” and even Narayanasamy sat in the protest. “She is not allowing an elected government to function,” said the chief minister. “She interferes in the day-to-day administration of the government.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Congress organised such protests twice in January.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“I am not meddling in the administration,” Bedi told THE WEEK. “As an LG, it is my duty to ensure that the government is run for the welfare of the people.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bedi’s intervention aside, there seems to be strong anti-incumbency against the Congress government. There is buzz that there might even be attempts to topple the government, citing lack of numbers in the assembly, before the election dates are confirmed. Of the 30 seats in the assembly, the Congress holds 12, the DMK three, and an independent, one. The opposition camp has 11—the N.R. Congress seven and the AIADMK four. Three seats are vacant—two because of the recent defections and one because a Congress MLA was disqualified for anti-party activities last year.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, there could soon be a situation where the numbers do not add up for the Congress. Narayanasamy and Speaker V.P. Sivakolundhu, however, said that there was “no threat” to the Congress government. “People who enjoyed power for four and a half years have left the party for their own interests,” said Narayanasamy. “The people of Puducherry will know what to do with them. People who join the BJP in Puducherry and Tamil Nadu will lose their political relevance.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BJP, however, might not be the biggest problem for the Congress. The strained relationship with the DMK could be its downfall.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Though Stalin said that the alliance was intact and that Jagathrakshagan’s was just an emotional speech, the DMK, notably, did not take part in the protests against Bedi, despite being invited. Sources even said that if the DMK wins more than 10 seats in the upcoming elections, it might join hands with the BJP to form government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Apparently, Jagathrakshagan, who is seen as the DMK’s moneybag, would be the party’s chief minister choice. Sources said that the DMK wants to reduce the Congress’s influence within the alliance in Tamil Nadu; it has just begun the game from Puducherry.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Numbers game</b></p> <p>Total 30 (+3 nominated)</p> <p>Congress 12</p> <p>DMK 3</p> <p>Independent 1;<br> supports Congress</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Opposition</b></p> <p>AINRC 7</p> <p>AIADMK 4</p> <p>Nominated 3 (BJP)</p> <p>Vacant 3</p> Thu Feb 04 18:37:49 IST 2021 we-have-felt-hostility-from-the-dmk <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>DMK leader S. Jagathrakshagan said that his party will contest in all 30 constituencies in Puducherry. What do you have to say about this?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The DMK leadership and Jagathrakshagan have already clarified that this was said to boost the morale of the cadres, which every party leadership does during elections. DMK leader M.K. Stalin said the alliance (Congress-DMK) would be discussed after the election dates are announced. He also said that the alliance will continue. Similarly, our leader Rahul Gandhi has said that Stalin will be the chief ministerial candidate of our alliance in Tamil Nadu. So, there is perfect understanding between the Congress and the DMK.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>But the DMK seems to be opting out of the alliance. Do you see any particular reason for it?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are no cracks in the alliance as of now. We have had a good relationship over the past four and a half years. The DMK was with us inside and outside the assembly. They supported us in every forum and we have reciprocated. But suddenly, we have started feeling an unfriendly, hostile attitude from the DMK. But this, too, will be settled in the near future and the alliance will stay intact in the interest of the people.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Will the Congress go it alone in the elections?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As of now, as I said, the alliance is intact. But there have been several occasions when we have contested alone and won. The alliance is for the leadership to decide.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>How will the recent exodus of leaders affect your party?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Namassivayam was a minister in my cabinet and Theepainthan was a prominent face and MLA. But except these two, no prominent face from our party has left to join the BJP. There are not even 10 people with Namassivayam. Even people from his own constituency have disowned him. The people he appointed when he was chief of the Puducherry Congress unit have also resigned, which means they were just loyal to him and not the party. With him, the BJP may not be able to claim victory in Puducherry.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Will you be the chief minister candidate for the Congress-DMK alliance?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is for the high command to decide. I have done my duty as chief minister.</p> Fri Feb 05 10:42:37 IST 2021 interference-can-be-seen-as-timely-intervention-too <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>IN HER FIVE-YEAR </b>tenure as lieutenant governor of Puducherry, Kiran Bedi has been constantly at loggerheads with the government. Elected representatives have accused her of interfering in issues of governance. Bedi, however, says that what is seen as interference can be termed as timely intervention. Excerpts from an exclusive interview:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>You have been a proactive lieutenant governor, but that has led to allegations of interference in governance.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As per the Constitutional provisions, the lieutenant governor is an administrator with clearly assigned legal responsibilities. Besides service and policy matters, she is the head of the consolidated fund of Puducherry, which makes the position responsible for the financial health of the Union territory.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The political establishment has been selective, in the past and present, on the Constitutional role of the lieutenant governor, hence the allegations. What is [seen as] interference can also be termed as timely intervention.We must know that due to political compulsions, certain tough decisions cannot be taken by elected representatives, as it impacts [their] constituencies. But the same constraint does not loom large on the administrator. Hence, the lieutenant governor’s office can be decisive in people’s interest.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>An MLA once came up to me and said, “Madam, it is good what you are doing, as we could not have done this politically. Please do not mind our opposition to it in public, as we have our compulsions.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For many of them, it is taking one stand in public and another behind the scene. Whereas the lieutenant governor’s office goes by the law and the rules of business.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Chief Minister V. Narayanasamy sat on a dharna against you.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>They called it off. There was an outcry from people over the mass inconvenience. Better sense prevailed. Besides, it was festival time, and everyone wanted to be with their families.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>It is often alleged that the governor’s office works at the behest of the Centre. What do you make of the Centre-state tussle? Should the governor’s role be redefined?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As long as the dichotomy of an elected legislature with an administrator… remains, this [Centre-state tussle] is likely to continue. It is inherent in its conception. Change of any kind can come only from Parliament.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Without the Centre’s financial and experiential mentoring, Puducherry would have been deficient in several ways. It is the good budgetary support and the 98 Centrally sponsored schemes that provide for all sections of society in Puducherry.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Please share your experience at Raj Nivas.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There has never been a dull moment in Raj Nivas. It has been an insightful experience on the intricacies of public administration―dealing with the elected, appointed and the people, many with demanding and conflicting interests. [We were able to] protect the voiceless against entrenched interests, most of all from ‘middle men’…. The strict implementation of the government of India policies provided the foundation for this transformation…. We have had regular visitors’ day at Raj Nivas. In normal times, people would come from all over the world, and I would meet them. Raj Nivas was also an open house for grievances. On three evenings every week, all were heard on first-come-first-serve basis. And we followed up on the matter, too. It has been worth the effort. It gave us and the people a sense of belonging.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What legacy will you leave behind?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Good practices of an accessible, transparent, responsive and accountable Raj Nivas, and communicating non-hierarchically. Also, the intensive use of technology to facilitate seamless communication. It is and can remain a ‘people’s nivas’.</p> <p><b>What are your future plans after completing your tenure?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I strive to remain hungry [for knowledge], to be of value to myself and all I connect with in any way. I have plenty waiting back home. I know one life is not enough to learn and do. I wish to remain a student. [I will be] more on a self-learning mode.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Do you intend to return to active politics?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I have all along been in public administration… since 1972, when I joined the Indian Police Service.</p> Fri Feb 05 10:41:48 IST 2021 vax-indica <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Hector Cueva Jacome</b> was one of the 60 diplomats who went to Hyderabad on a ministry of external affairs (MEA) excursion to see India’s vaccine production facilities last December. Jacome, the ambassador of Ecuador to India, and his wife, Toya Cardenas, then signed up to participate in the clinical trials of Covaxin, India’s first indigenous vaccine for Covid-19, by Bharat Biotech. The couple took the jab earlier in January and are now waiting for their second shot on February 2.</p> <p>“We are fine. No [adverse] reactions, no side effects,” he says. Jacome’s participation in the trial goes a long way in removing apprehensions around the safety of the vaccine. “It was not a decision I took on the spur of the moment,” says Jacome. “I have been in India for eight years. More than a diplomat, I am a man of science. I trust India when it comes to medicines and vaccines.”</p> <p>Ecuador may be a small country in South America with a population of just 1.74 crore, a mere fraction of New Delhi’s. However, Jacome’s assertion of faith in India’s pharma sector is a welcome one for South Block’s new diplomatic outreach, Vaccine Maitri. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s “thank you” to India, in which he depicted Lord Hanuman flying over the seas, carrying the new <i>sanjeevani</i>—the vaccine—was another eyeball-grabbing endorsement aimed at, and will be noticed by, global audiences. It also ironed out creases caused by Brazil seeking the vaccine before India was ready to sell.</p> <p>Over the last few days, India has been sending Covishield vaccine to its neighbours, a much-welcome gift in these times, and stealing a diplomatic march over the bigger player in the neighbourhood, China. Ten lakh doses to Nepal, shortly after the country’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali’s visit to New Delhi goes a long way in healing the rupture in India-Nepal ties. Similarly, in Bangladesh, a 20 lakh-dose gift was a warm gesture following on the summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Subsequently, Bangladesh has placed an order of three crore doses directly from Serum Institute of India. In Bhutan, Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles, too, the gifts from India set rolling their mass inoculation programmes. Sources say that central Asian, African and Latin American nations, too, may get vaccine aid in the days to come.</p> <p>Vaccine Maitri ticks many boxes in India’s international position, like ‘neighbourhood-first’ cooperative multilateralism and South-South cooperation. Earlier, India did the same with its drug diplomacy, dispatching the pills in vogue at various stages of the pandemic. China, while being the leading supplier of active pharmaceutical ingredients, does not have the same reputation with drugs and vaccines. India, on the other hand, is on solid ground here. Prime Minister Modi had, way back in last April’s extraordinary G-20 virtual summit, made a case for freeing Covid-19 drugs and medicines from intellectual property rights, making the research more accessible to people through the generic market. His proposal, however, did not get much support from the west, for obvious reasons.</p> <p>In a world where access to vaccines has always been skewed, the disparity is stark now. The developed west is sitting with a cache of expensive vials, loath to share with others, while many poorer nations are scrambling to get access to any number of doses they can get. China made the first move with its Sinovac, as did Russia with Sputnik, giving approvals before efficacy was established, but have not notched a diplomatic score yet. Trust is vital, and here it is Pune and Hyderabad that have the trust.</p> <p>Brazil’s first experiment with the Chinese vaccine was not a savoury one, and, even though Sinovac is the main vaccine in the country’s immunisation programme, they are now using locally-produced doses, not Beijing-imports. Beijing has reportedly agreed to donate 10 lakh doses to Cambodia, too. The catch is that it wants Cambodia to order more, from the funds donated by China. India, on the other hand, always maintains that its aid comes free of any clauses and baggage. Though India’s aid comes with no clauses, a Sri Lankan daily, <i>The Island</i>, had raised the question whether the vaccine push is also a push towards consolidating the Colombo Port Trust project and other items on India’s Sri Lanka agenda.</p> <p>“India’s position as ‘vaccinator of the world’ was established much before the pandemic,” says Oommen C. Kurian, who leads the health initiative at the Observer Research Foundation. “Vaccine Maitri is a well-thought-of move, where India is packaging its established capacity with smart realpolitik.” Vaccines have just started rolling out. It will take months, even a couple of years, for the world to inoculate itself against Covid-19. These gifts, therefore, are a sneak-peak into what is coming soon, he says.</p> <p>COVAX, the global initiative by Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and WHO to take vaccines to the have-not nations, depends largely on India’s production capabilities. According to MEA, India is producing two vaccines now, Covishield and Covaxin; four others are in the active clinical trial phases and 15 other candidates in the pre-clinical trial phases. Sputnik, the Johnson &amp; Johnson single-dose shot, as well as nasal doses, all will have a huge Made in India supply. MEA spokesperson Anurag Srivastava says the government has carefully calibrated domestic demand, for its phase-wise immunisation rollout, before sending out the vaccines.</p> <p>The Vaccine Maitri hoopla—tweets, videos and photos of grateful recipient nations—may boost the government’s international image within India. The diplomatic gains may or may not last, however, there is nothing to lose from the Vaccine Maitri push, either. It does not make a huge dent in the budget to give away a few free doses. But in the final analysis, historically, when there is a comparison of the two Asian giants, it will always be remembered that while the virus emerged from the lab or market of one, its nemesis came from the other one’s laboratories.&nbsp;</p> Thu Jan 28 16:27:45 IST 2021 planning-at-least-one-unmanned-gaganyaan-mission-in-2021 <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Dr K. Sivan, who was recently given a one-year extension as the head of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), has his hands full, with India fast-tracking its space programmes delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Sivan’s priorities this year are to implement space reforms and fast-track the Gaganyaan and the Chandrayaan-3 missions. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, he talks about ISRO’s priority programmes, international collaborations and also about how private players can play a more meaningful role in India’s space programme.</p> <p>Excerpts from the interview:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Q/ <b>What are your priorities after the pandemic-hit 2020?</b></p> <p>A/ Our highest priority is to implement space reforms. We are establishing IN-SPACe (Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre) for which we are accepting applications. We are also interacting with the industry. Our main space mission this year will be Gaganyaan, the work for which is moving fast, and Chandrayaan-3, for which we have concluded the configuration. We also have the science mission, Aditya-L1. Other projects such as [the radar imaging satellite] RISAT-1A are also moving ahead. In the next couple of months, we expect to finish the development of our Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV). We are also concentrating on new technologies such as electric propulsion and indigenisation in the satellite area. For the Aditya-L1 mission, we are waiting for the payload to be developed by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics. We hope to schedule it by the end of 2021.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Q/ <b>What is the current status of astronaut training for the Gaganyaan mission?</b></p> <p>A/ The four selected astronauts from the Indian Air Force have been deputed to ISRO. Their training is going full steam ahead in Russia and they will be completing their generic training by March or April. It primarily focuses on their ability to withstand the harsh environment—including severe cold weather and the sea and forest environments. As part of the generic training the astronauts also have a few theory classes. The generic training has been successful. In simple terms, the astronauts’ bodies are ready for the flight. After their return from Russia, they will be imparted mission-specific training. A few Air Force doctors are also part of the training programme in Russia to help the astronauts. They were in Russia during the initial stages of the training and they returned when their presence was not required. Now they are going back again.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Q/ <b>What kind of mission-specific training are the astronauts expected to undergo?</b></p> <p>A/ The astronauts will be trained to handle emergency situations and this part of the mission-specific training will be done in Bengaluru, mostly at the ISRO’s Satellite Integration and Testing Establishment (ISITE). It will be an ongoing training and will continue till the launch of the mission. The aim of this continuous training is [to ensure physical fitness].</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Q/ <b>Is there any expected launch date for the Gaganyaan manned mission?</b></p> <p>A/ The designs for the mission are getting finalised and now the realisation will start. Right now I cannot tell you the exact [launch] date. Initially our target was to finish the two unmanned Gaganyaan missions by July 2021 and the manned mission by December 2021. Because of the pandemic, everything has been delayed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Q/ <b>What is the status of the unmanned missions?</b></p> <p>A/ We plan to have at least one unmanned Gaganyaan mission this year. We need two successful unmanned missions before the manned missions. In the space environment, there are a lot of ‘unknown unknowns’, which we are not able to understand before the flight. This applies to all missions and not only Gaganyaan. For space missions we take at least two development flights. During the first development flight, we look for any technical deviations of whatever we were expecting and whatever has happened. Based on this observation the second development flight is launched. The aim is to bring out unknown issues... which we had not anticipated on ground.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Q/ <b>Any update on the Chandrayaan-3 mission?</b></p> <p>A/ For Chandrayaan-3 we have incorporated a new system based on the recommendations of the national-level committee [of academics and ISRO experts]. Currently, the Chandrayaan-3 systems are under realisation. This project, too, was affected by the pandemic. It has now been fast-tracked, but I cannot give you the exact time-frame of its launch.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Q/ <b>What are the major differences between Chandrayaan-2 and Chandrayaan-3 missions?</b></p> <p>A/ In Chandrayaan-2, we had an orbiter, a lander, and a rover inside the lander. Since the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter is already functioning, Chandrayaan-3 will not have an orbiter. We have a propulsion system to take the Chandrayaan-3 lander and the rover to the moon. The Chandrayaan-2 orbiter will be utilised for all the orbiter functions of Chandrayaan-3. Data generation from Chandrayaan-2 orbiter is currently going on. Recently we published the Chandrayaan-2 phase 1 data from the orbiter for public use, which is being used by many people for scientific purposes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Q/ <b>What is your view on the involvement of private players in India’s space programme?</b></p> <p>A/ ISRO has been primarily carrying out all the major space activities in India. These include building rockets, satellites and launch vehicles, and also launching satellites, establishing ground stations, acquiring data from satellites and providing space-based services to the public. Now we are enabling private players to carry out space activities. They will be allowed to build and launch rockets and satellites and can have their own ground stations. This does not mean taking away any ISRO activity. Our missions will continue, but private players will also be allowed to do such work. Space activities involve a lot of complicated safety, security and legal aspects. We need a mechanism to regulate all these. They also require huge infrastructure. Private players will not be required to build huge facilities as they will be allowed to use ISRO’s facilities.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Q/ <b>What is the status of different space policies other than space reforms?</b></p> <p>A/ We are preparing a remote sensing policy, launch vehicle policy and space exploration policy. We have released our SATCOM policy for public comments and it will now be going for cabinet approval. Our remote sensing policy, too, has been put in the public domain. Comments from the public will be given due consideration and technical issues will be addressed. Under space reforms, the public sector unit NSIL (NewSpace India Limited) is now entitled to carry out commercial missions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Q/ <b>What about your collaboration with international space agencies?</b></p> <p>A/ We have a collaboration with Russia for training astronauts. We are collaborating with the French National Centre for Space Studies (CNES) for flight surgeons’ training. Another programme with the CNES is for launching a Thermal infraRed Imaging Satellite (TRISHNA). We have collaborated with NASA for an aperture radar satellite. We are planning to collaborate with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) for another moon mission after Chandrayaan-3.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Q/ <b>What about the Venus mission?</b></p> <p>A/ We are yet to reach the definition stage.&nbsp;</p> Thu Jan 28 14:57:06 IST 2021 big-brotherhood <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Two seemingly unrelated</b> events that took place in the first week of the new year might have a critical, seminal impact on our lives if put together. One was messaging service WhatsApp asking users to agree to its privacy update, giving time till February 8 to agree to conditions that included sharing data with its parent company, Facebook, or stop using the messaging service. Though the rollout of the update was quiet, as a pop-up on the chat window, it did not go unnoticed. With one in every four Indians using the messaging service, it soon sparked off seething discontent and criticism.</p> <p>The other was the BJP’s Lok Sabha member Meenakshi Lekhi announcing that the Joint Parliamentary Committee she was heading had finished its deliberations on the Personal Data Protection Bill (PDP Bill) and that it was ready to be tabled in the budget session of Parliament.</p> <p>The common link between the two? The vexing issue of personal data and privacy.</p> <p>While WhatsApp and its alternatives became the topic of debate from Twitter trends to family conversations (many, ironically, on WhatsApp itself), the PDP Bill barely got newsprint, despite India’s chequered past in protecting data privacy. The bill itself has been shifting form, reach and substance right through. As Lekhi hinted a week ago, the very name of the bill is to be changed, besides 89 other changes, one new clause and two new amendments.</p> <p>But, is the indignant Indian WhatsApp user missing the forest for the trees?</p> <p>The new terms of service integrate WhatsApp with Facebook, though the company claims only conversations with business accounts will be impacted. “Messages between loved ones and friends remain encrypted. That’s not changing,” reiterated WhatsApp’s global head Will Cathcart.</p> <p>But not many are convinced. “Big Tech has always been clandestinely collecting personal data, but new WhatsApp rules show that they are now in loot mode,” said Virag Gupta, cyber security lawyer. “WhatsApp has the closest involvement with a person’s life, and naturally, the public is concerned over the new data sharing mechanism.”</p> <p>Interestingly, all the metadata sharing (like phone number, contacts and group info) in the new update is already being done, at least since 2016. “There are no material differences between the current privacy policy update and the existing data collection and processing policies of WhatsApp other than the bid to integrate the Facebook family of apps,” said Kazim Rizvi, founder, The Dialogue, a tech policy think tank. “The major change is in relation to messaging that takes place with a business that uses the WhatsApp API (a separate Facebook offering for big businesses to handle large-scale customer interactions). User chat with a business account may be analysed, and if the business entity uses third party infra, they may be shared with such third party service providers. In these cases, the end-to-end encryption label will not be shown on the chat.”</p> <p>Deeper integration of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram serves many purposes. More data means better profiling—all the better for its core targeted advertisement-revenue model. But it gains added significance considering Mark Zuckerberg’s planned foray into e-commerce and the mainstream launch of WhatsApp Pay digital payment gateway. The Facebook founder shelled out 040,000 crore for a slice of the Reliance Jio pie last year. Getting policy permissions from customers also preempts any future government regulation, ranging from antitrust cases in the US to the PDP Bill in India.</p> <p>WhatsApp apart, Indian privacy interests could be better served by an equal, or more, vigil on the PDP Bill. An outcome of the Supreme Court’s epochal ‘Right to Privacy’ judgment, this bill has seen a great game of invisible powers at play, throwing hurdles at every step. Though supposed to be based on the recommendations of the Sri Krishna Committee, the bill that was tabled in Parliament in the winter of 2019 had major deviations. So much so that fears of data guzzling Big Tech pale in comparison with the free hand the government machinery gets in the draft bill. An uproar in Parliament saw the bill going to Lekhi’s JPC, curiously bypassing Parliament’s Standing Committee on IT, headed by the Congress’s Lok Sabha member Shashi Tharoor.</p> <p>The final provisions of this bill that are passed as law could well define the future course of privacy in India. “This bill will govern the collection, processing, storage, usage and protection of the personal data of all Indian residents,” said Vaibhav Lall, founder of Khojdeal and a digital marketing expert.</p> <p>In fact, the delay has cost Indians dear. For instance, WhatsApp’s new privacy update is not applicable to users in Europe, as the EU has a strict data protection rule prohibiting such kinds of data sharing. If the bill had been passed into law, the Data Protection Authority, to be set up as per its provisions, would have had jurisdiction over the WhatsApp rules and could have decided whether it is legally permissible.</p> <p>After Aadhaar and Aarogya Setu, the data protection bill could well be the next battleground for privacy in India. “We hope it will bring in strong checks and balances for data fiduciaries to collect and process user data,” said Rizvi. “There is a constant tug of war between national security and privacy.” Big Brother could well be a scarier prospect than Big Tech, for all you know. &nbsp;</p> Thu Jan 14 14:30:43 IST 2021 messages-between-friends-and-loved-ones-remain-protected <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Q</b>/<b>WhatsApp seems to have opened a Pandora’s box with the new privacy policy notification. There are concerns among Indian users about privacy and data mining.</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/At our core, our primary goal is to provide people with private and secure communication, and we never want that to be in doubt. First, messages between friends and loved ones remain protected by end-to-end encryption, which means we cannot see them. That is not changing with this update, and we are fully committed to protecting and preserving the security of private chats.</p> <p>We started updating our privacy policy last month to provide transparency about our practices including how we plan to support more businesses on WhatsApp, which has emerged as an enabler for businesses, particularly during the pandemic. We will be building new and optional features for people to shop on WhatsApp. This will be available to all, but it will be people’s choice whether or not to choose to do so.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b>If the move is part of the company’s business/e-commerce plans, what is the need for such sweeping access to personal data?</b></p> <p>Even though these are optional features we think it is important for everyone to know how we protect and secure their information. Not everyone may talk to a business today, but some will in the future. Hence, it is important that everyone is aware of these options. Apps need to periodically provide updates to their users that explain their collection practices and that is what we have done here. There is a lot of confusion out there, but aside from these business tools, this update does not ask for any new permissions compared with 2016.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b>Putting it into perspective with Facebook’s tie-up with Jio and planned foray into e-commerce, how will it help Indian consumers?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/We want to enable any business to operate on WhatsApp, which means giving them the ability to host their chats wherever they want to store them and giving them the ability to display their catalogue and ultimately facilitate checkout right from a chat.Through our investment in Jio, we are going to bring millions of small businesses and the customers they serve into the digital economy. This will make it easier for businesses to connect with their customers and close sales.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b>Earlier, it was announced that there was no data sharing arrangement between Facebook/WhatsApp and Reliance/Jio. Does it change now?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/This update does not change that in any way.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b>Isn’t it unfair to give users just two options—agree or stop using WhatsApp altogether?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/It is a good question, though it is common for apps to do this. It is our responsibility to spell out how we operate and work in full, in one place. Again, this update does not ask for more data related to personal communication.</p> Thu Jan 14 14:28:44 IST 2021 dose-too-far <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>With its “staggered”</b> procurement of 1.1 crore doses of Serum Institute of India’s Covishield (at Rs200 plus taxes a dose) and 55 lakh doses of Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin (at Rs295 a dose), India has kicked off what is said to be the world’s largest immunisation drive against Covid-19.</p> <p>In the first phase, three crore health care and frontline workers will be administered two shots of either of the approved vaccines, four weeks apart. While the vaccine launch may signal the beginning of the end of the pandemic, when it comes to public health priorities, the government will have to do a balancing act. One of the challenges is to ensure access and equity in vaccine distribution. Another is about building a strong mechanism to report adverse events.</p> <p>“Despite all the planning, there will be some hiccups,” said Dr Vineeta Bal, former professor, National Institute of Immunology, Delhi. “For instance, at some places they may be related to cold chains and logistics. At others, a doctor may not be able to reach on time to deal with an adverse event.” The government’s plan of drawing upon the country’s experience and mechanisms of conducting elections may not work. That process does not involve taking informed consent and counselling, both of which are essential in a vaccination drive, she said. “Though vaccines are safe and adverse events rare, it would be crucial to rightly identify any events post immunisation, and be able to provide timely and adequate treatment,” said Bal.</p> <p>In such a situation, what is bound to help is that the first lot to be vaccinated are health care workers. “The rollout is beginning with this captive population,” said Dr Shahid Jameel, director of Trivedi School of Biosciences, Ashoka University, Haryana. “Among the 30 crore beneficiaries divided into various priority groups, these [three crore] are the most orderly and so, the easier ones to begin with.”</p> <p>To obtain full licensure, further data on side effects, adverse events and efficacy would need to be gathered and analysed from this lot, before the government can scale up the programme to other high-risk populations. While the government has been training vaccinators, certain gaps remain to be filled. For instance, Dr Balram Bhargava, director general of Indian Council of Medical Research, had said that Bharat Biotech had been asked to generate standard operating procedures for the administration of Covaxin in “clinical trial mode”. Those SOPs have not yet been released.</p> <p>“Health care workers are more likely to identify and report any adverse events, as they know how to deal with them,” said Dr Jacob John, professor, Christian Medical College, Vellore. “In any vaccination drive, adverse events are bound to happen, but what is crucial to know is their severity. That data has to be transparent. It will allow better decisions on scaling up, and build confidence in the system.”</p> <p>India’s vaccination drive coincides with a steady decline in active cases. Currently, India has around 2 lakh active cases, and a case fatality rate of 1.4 per cent. In a pandemic, the declining caseload and a high rate of sero-positivity pose unique challenges for vaccine developers and manufacturers. First, evaluating for efficacy in phase 3 trials becomes trickier. In India, there are at least five other vaccine candidates still in the fray. While the Zydus Cadila candidate is beginning phase 3 trials and Sputnik is in phase 2/3 trials, the candidates from Gennova and Biological E may begin phase 2 trials by March, according to health secretary Rajesh Bhushan.</p> <p>“Once the pandemic slows down and a vaccination drive has begun, the motivation for participants to be part of a trial goes down, and recruitment becomes a challenge,” said Jameel. In phase 3 trials, participants are divided into vaccine versus placebo groups, and subsequently, evaluators wait for a certain number of people to be exposed to infection to judge efficacy. “Now, if the pandemic has slowed down, it will take a longer time to reach that threshold of infections (cumulative number in both the placebo and vaccine groups), and hence, trials take longer,” said Jameel.</p> <p>The government wants to vaccinate 30 crore people in the priority groups by mid-2021. In the initial months, supply of an adequate number of doses might be a challenge. Though the government has not yet made this distinction in its vaccination strategy, one way of maximising the limited number of doses would be prioritising on the basis of history of exposure to the virus, said Dr Nimesh Gupta, head, immunology, National Institute of Immunology. “We have seen both the durability and the good quality of immunological memory in Covid-19 patients in India. So, individuals who are exposed to this virus and have good antibodies against it, could be in the last slab of receiving a vaccine. We must quickly generate data to see if a single dose immunisation can serve as a ‘booster immunisation’ in such antibody positive individuals,” he said.</p> <p>As the vaccination drive progresses, the government will need to address the issue of expanding access to vaccines beyond priority groups. For those outside the priority groups, it could take up to a year until vaccines would be available in the open market, said Jameel.</p> <p>Pertinent issues around demand and supply of the vaccine will be revealed over the next few months. But, in the rush to attend to this, the government would have to be careful that other public health priorities are not compromised. Already, the health ministry has postponed the Polio National Immunisation Day. “In all these months of the pandemic, we may have ramped up our tertiary care infrastructure such as hospitals and quarantine centres, but vaccination is about primary health care,” said Bal. “There, we are still falling short. Compromising on routine immunisation might just mean more cases of diphtheria, TB and meningitis.”</p> Thu Jan 14 14:11:59 IST 2021 forced-exit <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>For more than</b> four decades, Satpal Nischal had been running a jewellery shop on Hari Singh High Street, one of Srinagar’s prominent commercial hubs. On December 31, a gunman entered his shop and shot him dead. “At 6:10pm, I heard a (popping) sound twice. I thought it came from the electric wires,” said Rakesh, Satpal’s elder son. “Then I saw a boy firing at my father with a pistol.”</p> <p>Rakesh said several bullets also hit the spot where his son Param was seated minutes before the attack. “Since it was closing time, Param had gone to fetch the car from the parking lot,’’ he said. “We rushed daddy to the hospital where doctors pronounced him dead.”</p> <p>The cold-blooded murder of the 70-year-old jeweller has created widespread fear in the area. Satpal is the first person to be killed apparently for having obtained a certificate under the new domicile law which was introduced after the revocation of Article 370. The new law allows people who have lived in Kashmir for more than 15 years to buy immovable property. Earlier, only permanent residents could buy immovable property in Jammu and Kashmir. (A permanent resident is someone who was a state subject on May 14, 1954, or has been a resident of the state for 10 years and has lawfully acquired immovable property.) Both separatists and local political parties are opposed to the new law and have accused the BJP of using it to change the demography of Jammu and Kashmir.</p> <p>The Resistance Front (TRF), a new militant group which has become active after the revocation of Article 370, has claimed responsibility for Satpal’s murder. The police believe that the new group is the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in disguise. “The Resistance Front conducted an intelligence-based operation in Srinagar in which an RSS agent, who was posing as a businessman, was neutralised,” said a statement by the group. “The individual was an active participant in the demographic change and settler colony project run by hindutva fascists to alter the demography of Kashmir. The Resistance Front had already warned that any Indian national irrespective of faith, caste or colour, who comes to Kashmir to settle here, will be treated as an agent of the RSS and not as a civilian.”</p> <p>The police are investigating the claim made by TRF and also possible business rivalry in Satpal’s killing. They have collected CCTV recordings from the area. Cameras installed by the Nischals have been out of service since December 18.</p> <p>Sitting at his home in Indira Nagar, an area administered by the Cantonment Board of 15 Corps, Rakesh said the family had been living in Kashmir since the 1970s and considered themselves Kashmiri. “We are originally from Sialkot in Pakistan and came to India after the Partition,’’ he said. “I was born in Srinagar, attended school and college here and then joined my father’s business.’’ He ruled out the possibility of business rivalry being the reason for his father’s murder.</p> <p>Rakesh said the family sold its second jewellery shop at Jehangir Chowk two years ago and purchased another one on Hanuman Mandir Lane, a famous jewellery market in Srinagar. “But what is wrong with that? Even this house is in the name of our uncle who is from Jammu,” he said.</p> <p>He said he was thankful to the local people who condoled his father’s death. “The people of Kashmir are extremely humane and we are here because of their support,’’ he said. “Otherwise I would have rented out this house and lived a peaceful life.’’</p> <p>Satpal’s killing has brought the focus back on the unpopular domicile and land laws introduced after J&amp;K’s political reorganisation on August 5, 2019. It remains to be seen what impact TRF’s threat will have on the Centre’s ambitious industrial policy for J&amp;K, which envisages allotting around 6,000 acres to leading business houses of India. The land will be rented, leased or sold. Negotiations are on with business houses like the Tatas, Reliance and the Hinduja Group. The government hopes to secure investments worth Rs30,000 crore in the next two years. It wants to boost horticulture in Kashmir and is roping in online retailer Flipkart to showcase products of local artisans and craftsmen.</p> <p>The J&amp;K government has issued over 20 lakh domicile certificates against the 21.99 lakh applications it received till September. As many as 16,27,461 of those certificates were issued to permanent residents and their children, while 1,72,565 were issued to state subject applicants and non-state subject applicants and their children.</p> <p>Tehsildars started the process of issuing domicile certificates last June. But it was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. As per the new domicile law, any person who has been living in Kashmir for 15 years or more is entitled to obtain a domicile certificate. For the employees of the Central government, public sector undertakings and nationalised banks, the residency requirement is only 10 years. Students who have passed their class VIII and X examinations from educational institutions in J&amp;K are also eligible to obtain a domicile certificate, which is mandatory for government jobs.</p> <p>Going by the 2011 Census, of the 29 lakh non-Kashmiris working in J&amp;K, 14 lakh are eligible for domicile certificates under the new law. Most of them are from the states of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. They were drawn to J&amp;K by its better wages, pleasant climate, low crime rate and free education till the university level. But the murder of a non-Kashmiri for obtaining a domicile certificate could complicate matters for them and also for the security establishment.&nbsp;</p> Thu Jan 07 16:23:26 IST 2021 hasty-shot <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>“<b>I am hurt</b>. Indian science is getting bashed up,” said an exasperated Dr Krishna Ella, managing director of Bharat Biotech. He was addressing a news conference on January 4, a day after the Drugs Controller General of India approved two Covid-19 vaccines, including Covaxin, which was developed by his company in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research.</p> <p>Ella’s worked-up state was the result of a spate of criticism his company faced after Covaxin got the DCGI’s approval. Bharat Biotech had submitted to the regulator data from phase 1 and 2 trials; this includes safety and immune response generated among the population under trial. However, no efficacy data, or phase 3 data, was submitted. Ella said the approval was given under the provisions of the New Drugs and Clinical Trials Rules, 2019, and that Russia and China, too, had granted approval for their vaccines without phase 3 data. He said the company had already recruited over 23,000 volunteers for the phase 3 trials as against a target of 26,000 people.</p> <p>Still, the DCGI’s approval for Covaxin in the absence of any phase 3 data has left experts puzzled. “This is nothing but an enormous dilution of the regulatory processes,” said Dr Satyajit Rath, former professor, National Institute of Immunology, Delhi. Emergency approvals are being given all over the world. “But we know the rationale behind those decisions,” he said. “Here, we don’t know what data, evidence and cost benefit analysis were taken into account. Such conduct encourages vaccine hesitancy.”</p> <p>The approval for Covaxin is based on a certain provision in the new rules which permit approvals if “remarkable efficacy is observed with a defined dose in the phase 2 clinical trial of an investigational new drug for the unmet needs of serious and life-threatening diseases”. Dr Balram Bhargava, director general of ICMR, said Covaxin got restricted approval as it was proven to be safe and showed strong immune responses. Moreover, the manufacturing company managed to enrol more than 23,000 participants for the phase 3 trials. Bhargava also cited high efficacy in animal challenge models as a key feature of Covaxin. The vaccine will be administered in the “clinical trial” mode, said government officials. “It implies that it will be given with consent, there will be no placebo (no control arm) and there will be closer follow up,” said Bhargava.</p> <p>This new protocol, too, has left experts befuddled. “It is unclear whether this is an expanded phase 3 trial or a modified phase 4 trial, or a new trial per se. In the absence of such details, there are only conjectures and confusion,” said Dr Anant Bhan, a Bhopal-based researcher in bioethics and global health. Emergency approvals for vaccines after completion of phase 2, and with phase 3 trials ongoing, have been given in the past as well, for instance, during the ebola outbreak. “But the considerations were different back then, given the much higher mortality [50 per cent], was only given to a few people and monitored closely,” said Bhan.</p> <p>It appears that the subject expert committee (SEC) which examined the Covaxin application was initially hesitant in giving its approval in the absence of any efficacy data. “We are perplexed by the abrupt change in the SEC’s thinking. On December 30, it asked Bharat Biotech to provide the efficacy data, in addition to the safety and immunogenicity data for further consideration of its application,” said Malini Aisola, co-convener, All India Drug Action Network (AIDAN). On January 2, when the SEC met again, Bharat Biotech requested further consideration of its proposal, keeping in mind the mutated strain of Covid-19. “At this stage, the SEC appears to have relented and recommended granting restricted approval,” said Aisola.</p> <p>AIDAN has also raised concerns about Covishield, the other vaccine approved by the government. The Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII) is doing a bridging study for the Indian version of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. Participants in the study are being given two standard doses 28 days apart. However, there is “no corresponding efficacy analysis” reported for such a dosing regimen in the published data of the UK and Brazil trials, said activists from AIDAN.</p> <p>India approved Covishield two days after the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine received approval in the UK. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) of the UK assessed the efficacy of the vaccine based on 131 symptomatic cases in a group of 11,636 people, merging data from two trials held in the UK and Brazil. “In these data, there were wide variations in the interval between doses (from four weeks to 26 weeks) and in the strength of the doses. There were also differences in the designs of the UK and Brazil trials, and between them and the SII’s Indian trials,” said activists.</p> <p>In India, the protocol approved is two doses, given four to six weeks apart. An interim analysis of two full doses at an interval of less than or equal to six weeks showed that the efficacy estimate was 53.4 per cent, based on 28 symptomatic cases among the 3,400 trial participants (aged 18 to 55 years) in the UK and Brazil. The sample, however, was too small to provide a robust estimate. In that context, it is unclear how the current dosing regimen and time interval between the doses was arrived at, said activists. Covishield received the approval based on immune response data from 100 participants.</p> <p>In a few days, India will begin what Prime Minister Narendra Modi has described as the largest vaccination programme in the world. The CoWin software is being fed with the details of about 3 crore health care and frontline workers who will be the first recipients. Indian manufacturers will soon start exporting their vaccines to several countries across the world as well. History will, however, record that India failed in adopting a fair and transparent regulatory process, which is integral to the success of any major vaccination initiative.&nbsp;</p> Thu Jan 07 16:05:55 IST 2021 strain-spotting <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>The Covid-19</b> story had begun to appear hopeful with early approval for at least two vaccines and over 4.4 million doses administered already. But on December 14, scientists in the UK sounded the alarm once again. SARS-CoV-2, they said, had acquired several mutations, giving it the ability to spread faster. First spotted in September, mutations in SARS-CoV-2 were seen in two-thirds of the cases in London by mid-December. Since then, many countries reported the presence of the new variant, indicating its rapid spread. On December 29, India joined the list—of the 114 UK returnees who tested positive, six had the new variant.</p> <p>The new strain has 17 mutations that are significant, to the extent that they have rendered the virus more contagious (by up to 70 per cent), reports from the UK suggest. No effect on the severity of disease, change in symptoms or mortality has been found, yet. But scientists say that early studies show it is better at entering human cells and infecting them. “Three main mutations are important. The N501Y mutation seems to be responsible for the efficient binding of the receptor-binding domain of SARS-CoV2 spike protein with the ACE2 receptor,” said Dr Sunit Singh, professor, Banaras Hindu University. The ACE2 receptor is a protein on the surface of many cell types and provides the gateway for SARS-CoV2 to infect the cell.</p> <p>“The second mutation (amino acid deletions) might be responsible for helping the virus evade the human immune system,” said Singh. “The third mutation, P681H, might be helpful in the cellular entry of this virus after infection.”</p> <p>Viruses mutate all the time, said Singh. The flu virus changes often and demands a tweaked vaccine for protection almost every year. “The degree of mutations may differ,” he said. “Each virus is different. For the most part, mutations are deleterious for any virus. Under exceptional circumstances, though, they may help the virus in adapting better in causing infection.”</p> <p>A growing concern is the potential impact of the mutations on the vaccines, given that the changes have occurred in the virus’s spike protein area, an area most vaccines are targeting. But some experts feel otherwise. “The SARS-CoV-2 spike is a big protein,” said Dr Nimesh Gupta, head, vaccine immunology laboratory, National Institute of Immunology. “The new variant may escape few antibodies that are made against the ‘old unmutated parts’ of the virus, but it cannot escape the large number of antibodies targeting different parts of the virus spike protein. So, any such variant with few mutations is not alarming for the ongoing vaccines.”</p> <p>Despite the reassurances, experts concede that an evolving virus, which is trying hard to evade the body’s immune system, remains a matter of concern. In India, it has brought to fore the need to enhance genomic surveillance; the logic being if you look hard enough, you may find something. “But we have not even been looking,” said Dr Rakesh Mishra, director, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad. Sequencing a proportionate number of positive samples is part of a routine surveillance strategy. According to the WHO, between 5 to 10 per cent of all SARS-CoV-2 viruses have routinely been sequenced in the UK. In India, 0.05 per cent of samples were being sequenced until now, which is low, said Mishra.</p> <p>“We have the second largest number of infections in the world,” said Mishra. “There is a chance that the virus might be undergoing changes here as well. Doing whole-genome sequencing (WGS) as part of routine surveillance helps plan better. It can help us catch any significant mutation early, and design our containment strategies better.” The importance of doing WGS can also be understood from the fact that the mutation acquired by the new variant has also helped it trick diagnostics. “Tracking any new mutation early is absolutely crucial so that the diagnostics can also catch up,” said Mishra.</p> <p>On its part, the government seems to have finally “woken up”. Last week, members of the National Task Force for Covid decided that routine genomic surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 from representative samples is essential. A plan to conduct WGS for five per cent of Covid-positive samples was agreed upon.</p> <p>A genomic surveillance consortium under the National Centre for Disease Control, New Delhi, too has been proposed. The exercise will help understand the spread of the virus and in locating any changes to the genetic code. Generating data from genomic surveillance can be immensely useful. For instance, it can be used to identify super-spreader events, outbreaks and trends in mortality.</p> <p>The new variant has also sparked a debate on the role of immunocompromised patients. “In the current scenario, it seems like the evolution of this virus happens within the immunocompromised hosts during an extended period of infection,” said Gupta. “It seems that the virus has got an opportunity to make it a ‘better fit’ while staying in the body for a long time without any resistance from the already compromised immune system. This may happen in any part of the world.”</p> <p>India, too, has to watch out for the immunocompromised hosts. “We should be more careful now and any immunocompromised patient with Covid-19 should be managed with adequate treatment in a very controlled manner,” he said.</p> <p>As far as the new variant’s impact on patients goes, Gupta feels that there might be hope for Indians. “If we are able to control the virus in the early phase, either by some cross-reactive protection or by having a well-synchronised immune response, we will have an advantageous outcome,” he said. Strong traits of both the cross-reactive and SARS-CoV-2 specific protective immunity in Indian patients have been seen, Gupta said. “Most of us with a competent immune system should be able to mount strong immune responses to any such variant,” he added.</p> <p>But Gupta cautions that with this variant there will be higher chances of the virus spreading to the vulnerable population. “So, until we start with the vaccination, any variant with higher transmissibility is indeed a major concern,” he said. “Vaccines may come, but [precautionary] measures still remain crucial to containing the pandemic,” said Mishra. Despite an evolving foe, the fight can still be won.&nbsp;</p> Thu Dec 31 14:05:01 IST 2020 pandemic-paradigm <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>It was a common</b> sight in college campuses—students streaming through the corridors from one lecture room to another. But as educational institutions reopen, this may no longer be the norm; at least until herd immunity to Covid-19 is achieved. For now, lecturers will go to students. This is one of the measures that colleges are implementing to ensure student safety.</p> <p>St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, is planning to hire additional security; they would be authorised to check students’ timetables and usher out those who have finished their day’s classes. All co-curricular activities will be held online, and the canteen and library will not have seating facility. Moreover, furniture in common rooms will be reduced so that they are used only for essential activities and not as gathering spots.</p> <p>Rajendra D. Shinde, principal, St. Xavier’s College, said that learning will be blended, with 40 per cent of teaching remaining online. “[On campus], we have planned for open-door lecture rooms or auditoriums with the AC strictly switched-off,” he said. “If possible, lectures with a smaller number of students would be conducted in spaces with shade or even in the main hall or the main library.”</p> <p>The new normal is here to stay. In college libraries digital infrastructure is being upgraded and administrative offices are using more online transactions. Shinde said this would save time and energy for applicants as they could submit documents or make payments round-the-clock. Colleges are also planning to implement staggered attendance and mandatory health screening.</p> <p>Chocko Valliappa, vice chairman, The Sona Group of educational institutions, said there would be more project-based work. “I feel [the] classroom will become a place more to discuss doubts and the teacher will become less of a sage on the stage and more of a guide on the slide,” he said. The focus on online learning will continue for most institutes. Prof Madhu Veeraraghavan, director, TAPMI, Manipal, said that the b-school had introduced an “industry-guided course of independent study”. “The guidance will be via technology enabled platforms,” he said. “We are also introducing project-based courses which will leverage technology. However, online classes will be continued based on regulatory requirements and guidelines. We see critical processes like summer placements and final placements still being conducted online. We are working on processes to augment our online student admission process.”</p> <p>There is no doubt that institutions will need to continuously benchmark and upgrade their systems, processes and structures. “We will embrace a hybrid teaching-learning model that combines the positive aspects of technology with in-person mentoring and hands-on experimentation,” said Rupamanjari Ghosh, vice chancellor, Shiv Nadar University. “We believe that 2021 needs to be a reset for higher education. University education should drive, and not just respond to, industry and technology.”</p> <p>Online internships and placements are likely to continue in 2021. Deepon Das, a final year MBA student at TAPMI, did his internship online with Bosch. It involved market research, where he had to interact with car dealers and bike workshop owners virtually. “The internship began in April and ended in June,” he said. Das has been staying at his home in Chennai ever since he left the campus in March. He said that his final placement also happened online. “Links were sent to the candidates,” he said. “I was placed in an IT company after rounds of discussions and online interviews.”</p> <p>There was concern about the job prospects of students in tier-2 and tier-3 cities. But, Anchal Kamboj, from Seth Jai Parkash Mukand Lal Institute of Engineering and Technology, Yamunanagar, Haryana, said she got offers from three IT firms, including Infosys and TCS. However, she says that there is a drop of at least 50 per cent in the number of companies visiting campus and a majority of the students are yet to be placed. “The uncertainty for students continues,” she said.</p> <p>Valliappa said that students at the Salem-based Sona College of Technology have been placed in companies such as Infosys, Virtusa and Hexaware with an “average salary of 05lakh per annum”. He said that students with specialisations in cloud computing, cyber security, artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics process automation, data science and, especially, health care analytics, are getting better starting salaries.</p> <p>Many institutes have also realised that placement opportunities are comparatively less and are going the extra mile to help the students. For example, TAPMI is carrying out extensive research on potential recruiters and is speaking to many sources and tapping into their alumni network to help the students. “The students should never let a crisis go waste and rather they should use this time to build skills through certification and online courses,” said Veeraraghavan. “While building new skills, they should always work to find a match between their preferences and market opportunities. In this new global environment where VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) reigns supreme, those who can best understand the complexity and develop expertise in decision making under these conditions will be the ones who can lead.”</p> <p>IIT Kharagpur is tackling the new normal with innovations such as a digital pad to do board work online and evaluation through time-bound online tests. The institute will also conduct open-book exams where students have to email soft copies of their answers to the professors.</p> <p>Syllabus completion is on track and as institutes reopen only practical classes are pending, in most cases. “Prior to the reopening we took feedback from parents, students and faculty members and then formed the guidelines,” said Prof V.A. Kothiwale, registrar, KLE Academy of Higher Education and Research, Belagavi. “We also conducted online sessions with parents to alleviate their concerns and queries. The students have been given the flexibility to work at their own speed.”</p> <p>At the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), final year exams have been prioritised. Most of the final semesters ended with only a few days of delay. “There is no delay as far as the final semester exams are concerned,” said Prof M. Rizwan Khan, chairperson, department of English, and director, Internal Quality Assurance Cell, AMU. “The classes ended in the second week of December. For medical students, we are following the regulations of the medical council and likewise for engineering courses, the guidelines of the regulatory bodies are being followed.”</p> <p>The new mode of learning also had its share of positives. As Ruhi Jain, a final year economics and statistics student at St. Xavier’s College, said: “Online classes saved me from daily commute in crowed Mumbai local trains.” But, she still misses the campus. “Being around friends and meeting them regularly and now being restricted to Zoom calls... it has been an altogether different experience,” she said. Despite the threat of the pandemic, there is a longing among students to go back to campuses. The young are restless and want to get on with life.&nbsp;</p> Thu Dec 31 13:45:06 IST 2020 stainless-steel <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It was a punishing year in more ways than one. Raging street protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Indian Citizens flagged off a crisis-ridden year. Then the country shot up to the top of the Covid-19 charts, while the economy plunged. Border tensions with China soared. The spectre of lakhs of migrants trudging back to their hometowns and villages in the wake of a strict lockdown became the defining picture of the country's fight against the pandemic. Unemployment figures reached an all-time high.</p> <p>If the year began with protests, the final month provided Prime Minister Narendra Modi his biggest challenge of 2020 as thousands of farmers laid siege on the national capital, seeking a repeal of three contentious farm laws passed by the Centre.</p> <p>Despite the crises, his popularity remains untarnished, save for the effects of the farmers' unrest, the full political impact of which is yet to be ascertained. Opinion polls in recent months, including in the run-up to the assembly elections in Bihar, showed that the prime minister still commanded high approval ratings. The National Democratic Alliance retained power in Bihar riding on the back of the goodwill Modi continues to enjoy among the electorate.</p> <p>Brand Modi appears to have come out stronger than ever, providing for a compelling exercise to understand what makes Modi so popular despite the hardships people have faced this year.</p> <p>In a political landscape where chief ministers Arvind Kejriwal, Pinarayi Vijayan, Uddhav Thackeray and Mamata Banerjee all saw their graphs fluctuate thanks to a mixed report card on fighting the pandemic, and where efforts made by Rahul Gandhi to turn a new leaf in Covid times brought him limited success, Modi remained head and shoulders above the political repercussions of the times. So, what makes Brand Modi seemingly unassailable?</p> <p>The virus attack in the early months of 2020 brought the nationwide anti-CAA-NRC agitation to a halt. Not that the ruling dispensation was worried about any negative impact of the protests as it would have only helped consolidate its voter base. The contentious legislation was in sync with the ruling party’s hindutva agenda. Also, much to the discomfort of Modi's opponents, Covid-19 also provided the Modi government with a reason to blame the economic downturn.</p> <p>Modi's ability to communicate and convince is well known; like with demonetisation in 2016, when people, though inconvenienced, were convinced that the prime minister’s war on black money was for their own good. Similarly, despite the hardships of the lockdown, the prevailing sentiment was that tough measures were required to control the pandemic.</p> <p>The prime minister took complete political ownership of the hard lockdown announced in March. He said he had drawn a <i>lakshman rekha</i> at the doorsteps of the people to save their lives. He promised that a complete 21-day closure of the country would break the chain of infection.</p> <p>The sudden lockdown announced by Modi, however, is understood to have had a huge economic cost and his critics say it caused one of the biggest humanitarian disasters. Medium- and small-scale enterprises were hit hard, unemployment levels soared and lakhs of stranded migrant workers were forced to trudge thousands of kilometres to their villages. However, Modi eloquently spoke of the need to make sacrifices in tough times and explained to the masses that the situation would have been even worse if it was not for the lockdown.</p> <p>Also, if the perceived success of the initial lockdown was attributed to Modi—which included rallying the people to light diyas or clang utensils to signify unity against the virus and pay tribute to health care workers—he distributed the political costs of extending the lockdown by involving the state governments in the decisions taken thereafter. Chief ministers of opposition-ruled states complained that while Modi took the credit for all the good work, the heavy lifting was left for them to do, without financial support from the Centre.</p> <p>Modi announced a special financial package of 020 lakh crore, or 10 per cent of the country's GDP, to tide over the economic impact of Covid-19, and even as critics said it was just smoke and mirrors, he made it seem like a grand project that would make India great again. He invoked themes of nationalism and <i>atmanirbharta</i> (self-reliance) by calling for promoting local manufacture.</p> <p>The failures of the machinery of governance could not be pinned on him. He was above criticism. There were numerous accounts of stranded migrant workers who blamed their home state rather than the Centre for their plight. If the traders had a problem with a decision by the Centre, they blamed the finance minister or the commerce minister for their troubles.</p> <p>Modi kept himself above the nitty-gritty of the fight against Covid-19 or the measures taken to deal with the economic slump. He stuck to addressing the nation with big announcements.</p> <p>When questions were raised on the Chinese intrusions, Modi again deftly avoided going into the details. He urged the people to go local—to replace Chinese products with Indian alternatives. The tweaking of the FDI policy with regard to Chinese investments and the ban placed on Chinese apps were aimed at sending a message to the domestic audience as much as giving a signal at the international level. He got into the strongman mode with his visit to Ladakh and the much-publicised tank ride in Jaisalmer on Diwali.</p> <p>The Bihar elections presented in a microcosm the secret of his success. There was tremendous anger among the migrants, but they blamed Chief Minister Nitish Kumar or even local functionaries for their problems. If the people failed to get the benefits announced by the Centre during the pandemic, including free rations or money transfers, they were convinced that the fault was that of the state administration. Moreover, all the schemes that they have benefited from—be it gas cylinders, toilets or housing facilities—were identified with Modi. Bihar was evidence of Modi's publicity infrastructure succeeding in establishing him as the main benefactor of the people and the political dividends that can be incurred by focusing on the last-mile delivery of schemes.</p> <p>All the same, over the last few months, Modi has attempted to recraft his image as a hindutva icon. With his flowing white beard and long hair, Modi donned a sage-like look in time for the <i>bhoomi pujan</i> (ground breaking) ceremony for the Ram Temple in Ayodhya that marked an important milestone for the BJP and the RSS. The transformation was further emphasised by the images of Modi feeding peacocks in the lawns of his official residence, making him appear as a leader detached from worldly vices.</p> <p>Helping Modi's cause is the failure of the opposition to counter him. Over the last six years, the opposition has failed to put enough pressure on the Modi regime. Moreover, opposition unity has been elusive when needed the most, and tenuous if at all the so-called like-minded parties came together on a common platform. The prime minister has remained unmoved and unruffled by their demands and protests. His political rivals have been circumspect in taking him on directly on account of his popularity, fearing that it may backfire on them. This was seen in Bihar again, where the NDA's campaign was powered by Modi, but the rival camp desisted from attacking him and stuck to local issues.</p> <p>An exception has been the Congress' Rahul Gandhi, who donned a new avatar during the pandemic, engaging with issues of current importance and critiquing Modi’s handling of the pandemic, the migrant crisis, the Chinese intrusions and the farmers' protests. However, the effectiveness of Gandhi's attacks has been questioned by his own party colleagues, who doubt the political prudence of taking on Modi directly. Inherent in their questioning of the former Congress president's strategy is the perception that Gandhi—or any other leader for that matter—cannot match up to Modi or be considered by the people as a credible alternative to him on the national scene.</p> <p>The only real scare for Modi was the farmers’protest outside Delhi. The lengths to which Modi has gone to convince farmers about his government's intent on passing the agricultural laws show how serious the trust deficit is among the farming community. Speaking in Varanasi, where he attended the Dev Deepawali event, Modi said his government's intention was as “pious as the Ganga <i>jal</i>”. “Some farmers are sceptical as they have been duped for decades,” he said. In his Mann Ki Baat address earlier, he said his government was committed to the welfare of farmers and defended the passing of farm bills.</p> <p>What makes it especially challenging for Modi is that he is facing open criticism from a non-political quarter that does not belong to the liberal side that opposes his ideology and policies anyway. In an unprecedented call, the farmers announced a boycott of BJP functionaries.</p> <p>While agreeing to repeal the farm laws would amount to a huge loss of face for him and make him come across as someone whose hand can be forced, not bending to the farmers' demands also has its political risks. Modi's critics say it was his over-confidence that brought him to this juncture, pointing out that the bills were passed despite the reservations of the farming community. He now runs the risk of looking disconnected from ground realities for underestimating the response of the farming community.</p> <p>In adverse circumstances, Modi has so far succeeded in emerging more popular than before. However, tomorrow is another day. &nbsp;</p> Thu Dec 17 22:54:10 IST 2020 divided-over-a-house <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Sir Herbert Baker, the architect of the Parliament house, had originally envisaged a triangular structure. But Sir Edwin Lutyens, who designed New Delhi, proposed a circular design and prevailed upon his junior to alter the plan. And thus was built the Colosseum-like building, said to have been inspired by the Chausath Yogini Temple in Madhya Pradesh. Then, in 1928, just a year after the building was inaugurated, Lutyens conceptualised a mirror image of it to be constructed at a stone’s throw from the original structure to house the secretariat of the then Council House.</p> <p>Over nine decades later, as the designs of the new Parliament house, envisioned as a triangular edifice, were unveiled and the foundation of the structure laid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the throwback to the past was unmistakable. In its vision and scope though, it is a break from the old and seeks to represent, in Modi’s words, the aspirations of a new India, even as the proposed Parliament building and the Central Vista Project that it is a part of have been mired in controversy. Questions abound with regard to the concept, intent and the procedures adopted. There are also allegations that it is guided by political agenda.</p> <p>The new Parliament house is grand in scale. A 64,500sqm, four-storey building, it will seat 888 members in the Lok Sabha chamber, with an option to increase it to 1,224 seats during joint sessions. The Rajya Sabha chamber will seat 384. To be built at an estimated cost of Rs971 crore, it is scheduled to be ready in time to commemorate India’s 75th Independence Day in 2022.</p> <p>HCP Design, Planning and Management, the design consultant for the project, said the architecture of the new building is similar to the present one but does not mimic it. “It emerges from the logic and exigencies of modern construction. The architectural strategy is to harmonise the two buildings such that they work in conjunction,” the firm said in an e-mail response.</p> <p>The building, as per HCP, will take reference from the present structure and other buildings of the Central Vista, and the classical, folk and tribal arts and crafts of India. The Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha interiors will have reference to the national bird and flower respectively and the national emblem will crown the new Parliament house. HCP said the plot on which the new building is proposed is triangular in shape, therefore a triangular building makes the best use of the available space.</p> <p>The ruling dispensation insists that there is an imperative need for a new building since the present structure is unable to cope with the growing demands of space, amenities, security arrangements and technology. The Lok Sabha Secretariat, in a statement, said that there were not enough seats for members; during joint sessions, temporary seats had to be arranged in the aisles. Also, being a heritage building, there was difficulty in meeting fire safety norms, and the electrical, air-conditioning and plumbing systems were proving to be costly to operate and maintain, it said. The building did not conform with the requirements of Zone V seismic vulnerability, it pointed out. Another argument in support of a new building is that the number of members will increase when a delimitation exercise is carried out, and the present building will not be able to accommodate the additional members.</p> <p>“We kept making changes in the Parliament building to meet the growing demands in terms of creating more space and facilities,” said Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla. “At first, it was a single-storey building, then it became two and finally three floors. Due to the alterations carried out, the basic nature of the building also changed. The need for a new Parliament has been felt for many years now.”</p> <p>However, experts opposed to the project are not convinced about the need for a new building. “No study has been carried out with a view to retrofitting or making adaptive reuse of the Parliament building, which is a norm for all buildings all over the world,” said Lt Col Anuj Srivastava (retired), an architect from the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi. “Several parliament buildings internationally are much older. This building is less than 100 years old. It is not enough to just say that we are running out of space and hence we will build a new Parliament.”</p> <p>According to the Lok Sabha Secretariat, the custodian of the building, studies undertaken by various agencies have pointed out that the building will have to be vacated for 18-24 months to carry out structural retrofitting, relaying of electrical and mechanical services and air-conditioning. “The need for a new Parliament building was recognised by previous speakers, too, who sent their proposals to the government for a new Parliament house to be constructed,” said Birla.</p> <p>In 2016, then Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan had written to the Union urban development ministry, proposing the need for a new Parliament house. Her predecessor Meira Kumar had said that the building was “weeping” from overuse and structural deterioration. Her proposal for a new building had, however, run into opposition from the left parties.</p> <p>Srivastava, who is one of the petitioners in the Supreme Court against the project, questioned the delimitation argument. He said the exercise was caught in a debate as it was seen as rewarding states with a poor record in population control. “There is no confirmation on when and if at all the delimitation exercise will be undertaken,” he said. “In 2001, the exercise was put off for 25 years. Also, according to the Economic Survey, the population of India will start declining in 2061. So do we really need this huge building?”</p> <p>The criticism is that the Rs20,000 crore Central Vista Project is being carried out without adequate public consultation or discussion with experts or a parliamentary debate. Birla, however, said that all stakeholders were consulted. “A proposal for the new Parliament building was made by the presiding officers in both houses of Parliament, after which it was taken up by the general purposes committee, in which leaders of different political parties and chairpersons of parliamentary committees are present,” he said.</p> <p>There is outrage over the project getting cleared during the Covid-19 lockdown—the Central Vista Committee, in an online meeting on April 23, cleared the new Parliament building. The decision was taken in the absence of the panel’s non-governmental members, including representatives of The Indian Institute of Architects and the Institute of Town Planners, India.</p> <p>Balbir Verma, who represents The Indian Institute of Architects in the committee, said, “We, the non-governmental members, sent a letter seeking a postponement of the meeting. But the government went ahead with it. We received the minutes of the meeting, but we could not raise objections. How could we? We had not seen the plan. We were not present in the meeting.”</p> <p>Verma said that at the very start, experts had raised the issue of flawed criteria for selecting the design consultant. Instead of an open competition, as has been the norm, a procedure akin to a tender was adopted, and there were six competitors. “There ought to have been an open design competition on the lines of what was done for the National War Memorial or the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts,” said Verma. “And the criteria were flawed. It was how much was their financial turnover. How can you have a financial criterion while selecting a design?”</p> <p>According to Rajeev Suri, a petitioner in the Supreme Court against the project, the procedural requirements for an environment impact assessment have been flouted by the government. As per the rules, there should have been a cumulative impact assessment for the entire project. “However, the impact assessment was done only for the Parliament [house] and approval sought in a piecemeal manner,” he said. “The assessment, as per the rules, should have been conducted by the state government and not the Centre. Also, the expert advisory committee took over the role of appraiser and cleared the project.”</p> <p>Suri said that there were grave concerns with regard to the impact on the ecosystem of the area. “The trees in the area are home to a number of birds and other creatures,” he said. “We moved an urgent application in the Supreme Court, and it took cognisance of the uprooting of trees for the project. But the damage was done by then. As many as 404 trees had been uprooted.”</p> <p>The Central Vista Project has been criticised for seeking to alter the historical character of New Delhi. “This is how India and the world knows New Delhi,” said historian Sohail Hashmi. “When people outside of India think of us, two images that come to their minds are the Taj Mahal and then the Rashtrapati Bhavan and the two secretariat buildings. This is the profile of Delhi. You are going to do away with it without any consultation.” HCP, however, said that none of the original Lutyens and other key buildings would be demolished.</p> <p>The project, it is alleged, is driven by a political agenda—that of Modi’s desire to leave his imprint on New Delhi, and in the process obliterate signs of the erstwhile dominance of the Nehru-Gandhis on the country’s power dynamics. His critics say it is a ‘vanity project’, with Congress leader Jairam Ramesh describing it as “Modi Mahals”. They say that the government’s priorities are misplaced, and it is heartless to spend so much on the project at a time when the country is going through an economic recession and fighting the Covid-19 pandemic. The timing of the <i>bhoomi pujan</i> for the new Parliament building was also not lost on his opponents, coming as it did amid a raging farmers’ protest.</p> <p>“The act of laying the foundation stone of a Rs971 crore Parliament building is equal to opening a cake shop after snatching the bread of the farmers,” said Congress’s Jaiveer Shergill. “At a time when the country is going through an economic recession and dealing with a pandemic, public money is being spent on constructing buildings merely to satisfy the government’s ego.”</p> <p>This journey from the old to the new is ambitious, yet deeply controversial.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> Thu Dec 17 22:22:59 IST 2020 winning-alliance <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>US President-elect Joe Biden, in his acceptance speech after clinching the presidential polls, proudly proclaimed, “I am Jill’s husband,” bringing into focus America’s next first lady. In 2015, in an election of a smaller scale, a similar scene played out when Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party swept the assembly elections in Delhi. He pulled his wife Sunita in front of the cameras, introducing her to the world and thanking her for being a pillar of support for him. In the next state polls, Sunita, having resigned from the Indian Revenue Service, plunged into campaigning for her husband as he spent time campaigning for the party’s other candidates.</p> <p>The image of a politician’s spouse has traditionally been that of a smiling, hand-waving personality who surfaces during election time. They are seen as their partner’s main supporter, projecting him or her as a wholesome family person who can be trusted to take care of the constituents.</p> <p>But the role of the political spouse extends to much beyond that, bearing a greater share of the responsibility of looking after the home front. Their statements, attire and connect with the voters are taken note of.</p> <p>Political spouses do not come out of a common mould. In recent memory, Gursharan Kaur, known for her graceful demeanour, was seen as adding to the decency that former prime minister Manmohan Singh was known for. On the other hand, Rabri Devi, wife of Lalu Prasad, became a leading example of a spouse who would fill in for her husband when he was named in a case. There is also the case of Dimple Yadav, who emerged from the shadows of the family elders to support husband Akhilesh Yadav as he dissociated from the old guard of the Samajwadi Party.</p> <p>Some have developed an intense engagement with their partner’s constituency, too. They have their own voices and independent identities. Some are outspoken, like Amruta Fadnavis, wife of former Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, who has unabashedly been taking on her husband’s critics on public fora.</p> <p>For long, the focus had been more on political wives, with the husbands not subjected to the same level of expectation. Now, the husbands are more visible than before, be it Union Minister Smriti Irani’s husband, Zubin, or Sushma Swaraj’s husband, Swaraj Kaushal, who was a proud cheerleader for his wife. Kaushal was content to be in the background despite his own notable achievements as a Supreme Court lawyer and governor of Mizoram.</p> <p>A political spouse is under constant public scrutiny. Their conduct could impact the career of the politician and this often places restrictions on what they can or cannot do. Sometimes, the professional activities of the spouse proves to be a liability for the leader, like the allegations against Robert Vadra being an Achilles heel for Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.</p> <p>The world of the political spouse is indeed uneven and ridden with challenges.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Best of both worlds</b></p> <p><b>Charu Singh Chaudhary, </b><i>wife of Rashtriya Lok Dal leader and former MP Jayant Chaudhary</i></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b style="font-size: 0.8125rem;">The glittering world</b> of high fashion and the dusty hamlets of western Uttar Pradesh are worlds apart. However, straddling these two distinct realms forms a huge part of the life of fashion entrepreneur Charu Singh Chaudhary.<br> </p> <p>She curates collections of clothing and jewellery, as owner of the South Delhi fashion store Zooki, with the same ease as she dons the hat of <i>bahu</i> of the Chaudhary clan in the agrarian belt of Mathura and Baghpat. Charu says it is not so much of a leap for her since she is a small-town girl who grew up in different parts of the country. “They are very different worlds. But I am who I am,” said Charu. “I don’t lead a very glamourous life. I lead a quiet life. Even in my engagements, I am more entrepreneurial. At the end of the day, you cannot change who you are. I have grown up in small towns of the country. I have seen the real India.”</p> <p>Charu comes from a Punjabi family with no political connect. She and Jayant were classmates at Shri Venkateshwara College in Delhi University, where they fell in love. Charu was not apprehensive about getting married into a political family. “We married young. So, I really never thought about it like that. Also, our families were comfortable, and we sort of went with the flow,” she said.</p> <p>Passionate about fashion and design, Charu worked towards her aim of opening a multi-brand, multi-product store. She left a corporate job and pursued a jewellery design course from the London chapter of the Gemological Institute of America. But Charu had to put her dream on hold as she became preoccupied with her responsibilities as a mother of two girls. The store opened a few years ago in South Delhi. She had just moved it to a luxury mall when lockdown halted her plans to upgrade.</p> <p>“I see my role more as a facilitator and balancer for my husband,” said Charu, on her role as the spouse of a political leader. “In politics, the highs and the lows can be very dramatic. I try to ensure there is a comfortable space for him to come back to [at the end of the day].”</p> <p>Jayant entered active politics only some years after their marriage. Charu says the first public meeting she attended alone was a memorable one. “It was for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. My husband could not make it so I turned up alone. People were very kind to me. The response really stays with you,” she said.</p> <p>It was during her first roadshow for her husband in Chhaprauli, Baghpat, ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, that she fully understood the legacy of Chaudhary Charan Singh, Jayant’s grandfather and former prime minister of India. “It was unlike anything I had witnessed,” said Charu. “The number of people who turned up was mindboggling. It was supposed to be a six-hour roadshow, but it went on well past 1am. That was when I experienced the full extent of <i>dadaji</i>’s connection to that place. Up until then, it was theoretical.”</p> <p>At home in the world of fashion, Charu is also at ease on the campaign trail.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Her city, her rules</b></p> <p><b>Maya Shankar, </b><i>wife of Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad</i></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b style="font-size: 0.8125rem;">After decades</b> of having an aversion to politics, Maya Shankar made the biggest turnaround of her life when she campaigned for her husband, senior BJP leader and Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. A loyal Patnaite, Maya recalls ribbing Prasad that if she did not canvass for him, he may not even win, as the city knew her better. Prasad retorted: “<i style="font-size: 0.8125rem;">Samay samay ki baat hai</i> (how times have changed).”<br> </p> <p>It was Prasad’s first electoral outing, having been a member of the Rajya Sabha prior to that. If he was recognised as a homegrown leader, Maya held her own as a history professor of four decades at Patna University and had an active social life in the Bihar capital. “The advantage of being a teacher is that you have a student in every house,” said Maya.</p> <p>As Prasad moved to Delhi in 2000 to involve himself in national politics, Maya stayed back and made a name for herself as an academic, a promoter of classical dance and music, and as a social worker as member of the All India Women’s Conference. “Women should have engagements that are independent of their husbands,” said Maya. “My identity is not dependent on my husband’s profile as a minister.”</p> <p>“I may be a minister’s wife, but I drive my own car. I like to do my own chores and go out to buy groceries. People are surprised. Some friends tell me I should keep security [guards]. I ask them, what for? I am in my own state, my hometown. I have nothing to fear,” she said.</p> <p>Maya met Prasad at Patna University. She was studying history, and he was a student of political science. Those were the heady days of the Emergency. Prasad plunged headlong into student politics, while Maya was more worried about the loss of two academic years as a result of the movement.</p> <p>“It was more like an arranged marriage,” said Maya. “Our families knew each other well. Our fathers were eminent lawyers in the Patna High Court. While my family was completely apolitical, Ravi’s family had a strong political legacy. His father was one of the founding members of Jan Sangh in Bihar.”</p> <p>Over the last two decades, with Prasad in Delhi, Maya divided her time between Patna and the national capital. She looked after the education of their two children. Maya speaks about the unseen restrictions that the spouse and children of politicians have to deal with. “Suppose I am teaching and an issue with political connotations comes up. I should not give people an opportunity to accuse me of any bias. Nobody should say that since my husband is in the BJP, I am going around with the hindutva card,” she said.</p> <p>For the same reason, even as she campaigned for Prasad in 2019, Maya did not skip a single lecture. “I was very particular about my responsibility towards my students,” she said. A proud academician and a woman of varied interests, she has held up the rear guard for Prasad in their city.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Rolling up her sleeVEs</b></p> <p><b>Chitra Singh, </b><i>wife of Congress leader and former MP Manvendra Singh</i></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b style="font-size: 0.8125rem;">Manvendra Singh</b>, son of the late BJP leader Jaswant Singh, made his electoral debut in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, contesting from Barmer in Rajasthan. Manvendra lost by just 16,000 votes. “He gave a good fight to the main opponent, who was a two-time MP from the area,” said his wife, Chitra. “But I could not get over the fact that he needed just 16,000 more votes to win. So, I set out to analyse the voting pattern and find out the reason for my husband’s defeat.”<br> </p> <p>When Chitra analysed the election data, she discovered that only 15 per cent of women turned up to vote. Women in the area, especially Rajput women, do not come out to vote, she was told. At once, Chitra started working on improving the voting turnout of the women in Barmer.</p> <p>She began holding separate meetings for women. “The first meeting was attended by about 50 women. The second meeting had more,” she said. “After four to five meetings, the men also wanted to come and listen to me. I said they could come, but there would be a barricade between them and the women. They came, but stood a little away from the tent.”</p> <p>Chitra’s meetings made an impact, and in the 2004 general elections, Manvendra won by 2.73 lakh votes. The voting percentage of women in Barmer had shot up to 65 per cent. “The Rajput women began relating to the fact that a <i>bahu</i> of a known Rajput family was going door-to-door and holding meetings. It made them feel that they, too, should come out and vote,” said Chitra.</p> <p>Born in a conservative Rajput family in Chittorgarh, Chitra was up against the traditional mindset that a girl’s domain was limited to domesticity. She feels this is destiny’s way of helping her fulfil her dream of becoming a civil servant.</p> <p>Chitra initially had apprehensions of Manvendra’s electoral plunge. “He was a journalist and a territorial army officer. When he contested his first election, I was carrying our daughter, and my son was only two. I was very nervous. I said to him, ‘How are we going to survive if you leave your job?’” said Chitra.</p> <p>Now, she is so popular in the constituency that there are demands to give her a ticket. “I have always told the people that one person from the family in politics is enough,” she said.</p> <p>The last few years have been a challenging time for the family with a string of defeats. Chitra says the most heart-breaking one was her father-in-law’s defeat in Barmer in 2014. Jaswant Singh, denied a ticket by the BJP, had contested as an independent. “For a man of that stature, someone who had worked so hard in the constituency, for him to lose at that age was tragic,” said Chitra. “I worked the hardest that time—18-20 hours a day. That was the first time an electoral defeat made me cry.”</p> <p>Manvendra switched from the BJP to the Congress in 2017, and ended up losing to BJP’s Kailash Chaudhary in 2019. “We have not given up,” said Chitra. “I tell the people that even if they did not vote for my husband, I will continue to work for them.”</p> <p>For Chitra, her tryst with Barmer goes beyond elections.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Constant&nbsp;</b><b style="font-size: 0.8125rem;">amid changes</b></p> <p><b style="font-size: 0.8125rem;">Owen Roncon,</b> <i style="font-size: 0.8125rem;">husband of Congress leader and former MP Priya Dutt</i><br> </p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b style="font-size: 0.8125rem;">The run-up</b> to their marriage in 2003 had plenty of drama. Priya Dutt’s family, especially her brother Sanjay, had reservations about Owen Roncon. And the years that followed their wedding have also been anything but placid. Though the Bandra boy won the confidence of the Dutt family, he and Priya had to deal with challenges of a different nature.<br> </p> <p>Two years after they tied the knot, Priya’s father Sunil Dutt passed away, and she was suddenly thrust into politics. Priya was fielded in the byelection from Mumbai North West, her father’s seat. Moreover, she was nine months pregnant. Owen was a pillar of support for her at the time, utilising his expertise in event management and marketing to manage her campaign. When Priya was back on the campaign trail just three days after her delivery, Owen took care of the baby.</p> <p>“In the next election, she was carrying our second child. I said to her, ‘Please do not fight any more elections,’” Owen joked.</p> <p>The two first met ahead of a fundraiser that Owen was managing for the Dutt NGO Adapt. “I had to meet the trustees to take the final approval on the project. Priya was a trustee, and we became really good friends,” he said.</p> <p>Though both Owen and Priya lived in the same area, they had different backgrounds. Priya bore the rich legacy of her famous actor parents. The family was known for its commitment to social and political causes. Owen came from a completely apolitical set-up. His father was a pilot for Air India, who, Owen remembers, blindly voted for Sunil Dutt.</p> <p>Owen’s first political assignment was his father-in-law’s campaign for the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. The campaign addressed the youth and was run mainly in colleges. Sunil won the election and was made Union minister of youth affairs. “Of course, I claimed credit for it, saying it happened because of the youth campaign,” said Owen.</p> <p>He admires the values that the Dutts stand for, especially Sunil. “He was a man of discipline. None of us could even touch his official car, let alone ride in it. If Priya was travelling back with him to Mumbai, he would downgrade himself to economy rather than upgrade her,” said Owen. He says Priya is like that, too. Though he helps his wife in her campaigns, he refrains from interfering in or even commenting on her decisions.</p> <p>One of the founders of Fountainhead, an event management company, Owen says the politics has had an impact on his professional sphere. There are companies that refuse to sign him on because of his political association. “There have been situations where government contracts have not come to me,” said Owen. “But there is no regret. Luckily, I have a strong group of business partners who take care of all the interaction with the government.”</p> <p>Despite all the tumultuous changes in their lives, Owen continues to be the same Bandra boy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The write path<br> </b><br> </p> <p><b>Renu Hussain</b>, <i>wife of BJP leader and former Union minister Shahnawaz Hussain</i></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Their love story began with a chance meeting in a city bus. For the boy, it was love at first sight. The girl took her time to make up her mind. They soon exchanged letters. The boy proposed marriage in only his second letter. But they had to wait for nine years for it to happen. The religious divide, after all, had to be bridged.</p> <p>Renu Hussain (née Sharma) belongs to a Punjabi Brahmin family, while Shahnawaz Hussain comes from an aristocratic Syed family in Bihar. Their families opposed the alliance. BJP leader Uma Bharti, a good friend of the couple, tried to persuade the two families, but they would not budge. Acting on her advice, Shahnawaz and Renu got married in 1994. The kin eventually came around.</p> <p>“Love triumphed in the end,” said Renu. “My family dotes on him, and I get so much love and affection from my in-laws. I did have apprehensions about going into a different culture, but I was accepted wholeheartedly.”</p> <p>Tying the knot with Shahnawaz was only the beginning of some life-changing events for Renu. Four years after their marriage, Shahnawaz got his big break in politics. He was fielded by the BJP from Kishanganj in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections. He lost that election, but won from the same seat the following year and was appointed a minister of state in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. In 2001, he became a cabinet minister.</p> <p>“Both our families had nothing to do with politics,” said Renu. “I used to think his inclination towards politics was a passing interest. He studied engineering and even had a job. But he surprised all of us as his involvement in politics grew.”</p> <p>As a teacher in a government school in Delhi and a known figure in Hindi poetry circles, Renu maintained her independent identity. “Shahnawaz asked me why I needed to continue working. But I was clear that I would not leave my job,” said Renu.</p> <p>In the collections of poetry she has published, she does not hold back from voicing her political opinions. “Writers are free in their thought process. No pressure works on them,” she said. “It is a writer’s duty to put a mirror to the society. If I am not honest in my writing, then what is the point of it?”</p> <p>Renu says Shahnawaz admires her passion for writing and her commitment to teaching, and they give each other space to revel in their interests. “I do not impose my literature on him just as he does not impose his politics on me,” she said. Love, said Renu, also teaches you to give your partner space.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Coach for life</b></p> <p><b>Virender Poonia</b>,<i> husband of Congress MLA Krishna Poonia</i></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b style="font-size: 0.8125rem;">Virender Poonia </b>is never seen on the campaign trail with his wife, the athlete-turned-Rajasthan MLA Krishna Poonia. It is a matter of ethics as he is employed with the Indian Railways. This is in contrast to Krishna’s career as a discus thrower, where Virender doubled as her coach. Virender played a huge role in honing Krishna’s skills, which resulted in international acclaim.<br> </p> <p>Virender, a hammer throw national champion, identified the potential in Krishna. She had participated in athletics in college, but it was only after marriage that she trained professionally. “She is six feet tall. She has a good arm span and I knew that with proper training she could [excel] in discus throw,” said Virender.</p> <p>When Krishna began training in 2000, the couple had to make a lot of sacrifices. Virender gave up his hammer throw career as they could not bear the costs of training two athletes. Krishna, a new mother then, also had to deal with the pangs of being away from her infant son.</p> <p>The hard work bore fruit. Krishna got noticed at the international level when she won the bronze medal at the 2006 Asian Games. Her moment of glory was winning the gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Games (CWG). Krishna became the first Indian woman and the first Indian since Milkha Singh (1958) to win gold in a track-and-field event at the CWG. Virender won the Dronacharya award two years later.</p> <p>Back in Virender’s village, Gagarwas in Churu district, Krishna was celebrated as a role model. “She was the first woman in our village not to keep a <i>ghoonghat</i> (headscarf),” said Virender. “I did not want her to stay behind the veil. She was criticised for it. But now, villagers want their <i>bahus</i> and <i>betis</i> to be like Krishna.”</p> <p>She was offered a Congress ticket for the 2013 state elections. Originally from Hisar district in Haryana, she contested from Sadulpur, the constituency under which Gagarwas falls. She lost the election, but continued working in the area for the next five years, coming back to win in the 2018 polls.</p> <p>“Krishna worked really hard. She would leave at 7am and come back late in the evening. She met every person in the constituency. It was a difficult seat for the Congress to win. But she did it,” said Virender.</p> <p>He insists his involvement in her political career is limited to guiding her and taking care of backend operations. “I have never even attended a political rally,” he said.</p> <p>Accusations of him taking active part in her politics are done to tarnish their image, he says. And with them receiving death threats, too, Virender says they are still getting used to the “ups and downs of politics”. “The negativity can really bog you down,” he said. But he believes their sporting spirit will help them through the challenges.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Enhancing engagement</b></p> <p><b>Meenakshi Seshadri, </b>wife of&nbsp;Congress MLA Krishna Byre Gowda</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b style="font-size: 0.8125rem;">Meenakshi Seshadri </b>met Krishna Byre Gowda in the US in 2002. She was an IT professional and he was working as a project associate. They fell in love, and soon got married in a modest ceremony back home in Bengaluru.<br> </p> <p>The couple returned to the US and had just started building a life together, far from the political activity of their families in Karnataka, when a phone call in 2003 shook them. It was the news of the death of Krishna’s father C. Byre Gowda, who was a minister in the Janata Dal state government until 1999.</p> <p>Krishna rushed to India to complete the final rites of his father, with a return ticket in hand. But he ended up staying back, acceding to the pressure to take over his father’s political legacy. Meenakshi says Krishna called her before deciding. She reluctantly agreed.</p> <p>Meenakshi’s grandfather H.S. Seetharam was once mayor of Bengaluru. “Both Krishna and I did not feel the political baggage till 2003,” she said. “We were encouraged to have a career [of our own]. In the US, we were far removed from what was happening in India.”</p> <p>As Krishna cut his teeth in his first election from his father’s constituency, Meenakshi learnt how to build a lasting connect with the electorate. She realised that she needed to constantly engage with the constituents. Krishna had to shift from Vemgal, a rural constituency, to Byatarayanapura in Bengaluru, in 2008 following delimitation, and Meenakshi worked out a range of activities for the urban seat.</p> <p>“I started finding things that I could get involved in, but I was clear that it would not be political. So, I have a team and we work on issues such as garbage management, environment and education,” said Meenakshi.</p> <p>She has been holding camps where services are provided to people, such as Aadhaar enrolment or help with pensions. “Our camps are open to all people. We hold them without a party symbol. My husband, as a representative of the people, is supposed to help everyone, not just the people who voted for him,” she said.</p> <p>Meenakshi feels that she is able to enrich her husband’s political involvement through her own understanding of the issues. “I can go deeper than him since I can devote more time and come back with a better insight. Also, women open up to me and share their ideas and thoughts,” said Meenakshi.</p> <p>She balances her work in the constituency with the demands of being an IT consultant, which requires travelling. There have been times when she has considered quitting her job to devote more time to the constituency. But Krishna does not encourage that.</p> <p>Meenakshi says the couple does not let politics dominate their lives. “Krishna and I take time out and indulge in activities such as biking or hiking or going on short vacations,” she said. While Krishna is a certified ocean diver, Meenakshi loves to go to yoga retreats. Her aim right now is to find the perfect work-life balance.</p> Thu Dec 17 18:05:56 IST 2020 i-am-in-favour-of-maximum-debate-but-not-disruption <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>With laws passed by legislatures and decisions taken by presiding officers coming under judicial scrutiny, there was a growing feeling that the balance between the three organs of the state—legislature, executive and judiciary—was being upset, said Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla. This, he said, was at the heart of the deliberations at the recent conference of presiding officers in Kevadia, Gujarat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In a detailed interview, Birla further said a committee of presiding officers is looking at how to limit the Speakers' powers and its report will be submitted to the government for amending the law.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Responding to the criticism that crucial bills were passed without being sent to parliamentary committees, Birla said that legislations that were extremely important and formed under special circumstances were passed following discussion in the house itself. He also added that the new Parliament building should be a matter of pride for us, and no one should object to it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Excerpts from the interview:</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What are the findings of the recent All India Presiding Officers' Conference?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The first conference was held in 1921, when the National Assembly was in place. This was the centenary year and the 80th conference. The theme was the importance of the three organs of the state—legislature, executive and the judiciary—working in coordination. They should not encroach on each other's jurisdiction. There is a growing feeling that the balance is getting upset. Also, since our Constitution makers placed people at the centre of their endeavour, the legislature is the most important part of the Constitutional framework.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Is there a concern with the decisions of the courts?</b></p> <p>Laws made by the legislature can be scrutinised by the judiciary. But the courts cannot make laws. However, it is not about making allegations and counter allegations. It is not about any specific court order. Sometimes, the executive or the legislature also overstep their bounds.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The Speaker's powers under the Tenth Schedule have been debated.</b></p> <p>At our 79th conference, we discussed the Tenth Schedule or anti-defection law. There was a consensus among presiding officers that our powers under the law should be limited, such as the number of days in which a petition can be decided. For the first time, an institution has said its powers be cut back. A committee under Rajasthan Assembly Speaker C.P. Joshi was formed to deliberate on it. When the committee submits its report, we will forward it to the Centre and the state governments for amending the law.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Was this deliberation prompted by court orders?</b></p> <p>Under the Tenth Schedule, the Speaker has unlimited powers, and the courts have also commented on it. Questions have been raised on the powers the law endows upon the Speaker. However, the presiding officers felt that just as we do not comment on judicial orders, the judiciary should not encroach on our functioning.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What challenges have you faced in ensuring smooth conduct of business?</b></p> <p>It is no doubt challenging. However, with cooperation of all, the house has functioned properly. While there was high productivity, we also followed the procedure. For every bill, be it Article 370 or Citizenship Amendment Bill or the law on Triple Talaq, the discussion exceeded the time allocated. Political parties have their own ideologies and manifestos, which reflects in the stand they take in the house. But there was cooperation from all on majority of the issues and most of the bills were passed unanimously, without division of votes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What is the role of Parliament during a pandemic?</b></p> <p>During a pandemic, the legislature has a huge role to play. Despite COVID-19, we convened Parliament, with all the safety measures in place. In ten days, 25 bills were passed. We sat for 36 hours more than was planned. The attendance during the session was higher than in normal times.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The monsoon session was curtailed. Can the winter session be held?</b></p> <p>There was consensus among all parties that since there was a high risk of COVID infection despite the safety protocol in place, we should curtail the session. It is for the government to decide on convening a session of Parliament depending on the circumstances and based on discussions with other parties.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Why can't a virtual session be held?</b></p> <p>We do not have a provision for holding a virtual session in our rules of procedure. We will have to amend the rules to allow for it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>There is a growing concern with regard to unruly behaviour by MPs in the house.</b></p> <p>In the past, we have seen furore in the Lok Sabha, sloganeering, waving of placards and adjournments. The people are not in favour of such behaviour. You are free to hold protests on the streets. I am committed to giving adequate time to all members to speak in the house. I am in favour of maximum debate, but not disruption.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Is a common set of norms for the entire country being prepared to deal with house disruptions?</b></p> <p>At the 79th conference, a committee was formed under Uttar Pradesh Speaker Hriday Narayan Dikshit to discuss common rules for legislatures. For example, in Chhattisgarh, there is a rule for automatic suspension of members who enter the well of the house, so [we need to see] if it can be followed elsewhere, too. Another issue under our deliberation is the need for state assemblies to have a minimum number of sittings. In some places, the Assembly runs for just ten or 15 days.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Opposition parties say bills are being passed without the scrutiny of parliamentary committees. The three farm laws, for instance.</b></p> <p>The farm laws were basically ordinances. Whenever the house demands, bills are sent to standing committees. Legislations which are extremely important and formed in special circumstances are discussed in the house itself and passed. The committee is only a smaller version of the house. In the committee, since the cameras are not there, members rise above politics and place their viewpoint.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has alleged that the opposition's voice is muzzled in Parliament.</b></p> <p>It is for everyone to see that I have always given the opposition members more time than is allocated. I have always given adequate time to the members of his party. Irrespective of which party a person belongs to, he is, for me, a Member of Parliament first.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>You wrote to parliamentary committees, asking them not to take up issues pending in courts.</b></p> <p>The directive was in accordance with the rules of procedure of Parliament that issues pending in a court will not be taken up by a parliamentary committee. It was felt that I had stopped a committee from proceeding on a specific issue. However, it was not for any one particular panel.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>You initiated an exercise to assess the effectiveness of parliamentary committees.</b></p> <p>It was done to assess the execution of the recommendations of the committees—how many were accepted by the government and why some of them were not accepted—so that the effectiveness of the committees is maintained and their suggestions are implemented.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>There is unrest in the committee on information technology. BJP MP Nishikant Dubey wrote to you, demanding the removal of Congress' Shashi Tharoor as its chairman.</b></p> <p>Correspondence keeps taking place. I have urged everyone to work, rising above politics, [and] that they should not play the role of government and opposition in the committee and discuss how development of the IT sector can happen. Members have a right to put forth their demands.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The post of the Deputy Speaker of the Lok Sabha has been vacant for a record time.</b></p> <p>It is for the government to initiate the process for appointment of the Deputy Speaker, just as they did for the post of the Speaker.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The foundation stone for a new Parliament House has been laid. Why do we need a new building?</b></p> <p>This Parliament building was built to house the National Assembly. Its construction began in 1921 and concluded in 1927. There has been a sea change in the circumstances since then. We kept making changes in this building based on our needs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>From the security point of view, a new building is required. Members should get proper work spaces and be able to use new technology. Also, Delhi has Type V earthquake susceptibility.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In Parliament, on many occasions, the need for a new building was discussed. Speakers sent their proposals to the government. Both houses of Parliament had urged the prime minister regarding this, that when we are completing 75 years of our journey as a democracy, we should have a new Parliament building.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India is the world's biggest democracy and our Parliament House should reflect the diversity of our country, its diverse arts and crafts. When we complete 75 years of our independence in 2022, both houses of Parliament will meet in the new building.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What about the present Parliament building?</b></p> <p>We will discuss with all the parties how the present Parliament House can be used.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>There is criticism about the expenditure on the project when the country is fighting COVID-19.</b></p> <p>If infrastructure will not be developed, how will we generate employment? As many as 2,000 people will be employed directly and 9,000 indirectly. More than 200 industries will be employed. The funds for the pandemic are not being cut to construct the Parliament. It involves a cost of only Rs 982 crore. The new Parliament House should be a matter of pride to us. No one should object to it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> Fri Dec 11 19:04:07 IST 2020 headstand-hoo-ha <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Recently, actor Anushka Sharma, who is now in the third trimester of pregnancy, posted a throwback picture on Instagram, in which she is seen performing shirshasana, or a headstand. Even though the post had all necessary disclaimers in place, it was anything but convincing to see a pregnant Anushka, who has less than a month to go for her due date, pulling off a headstand (albeit with support from her husband, Virat Kohli). This, when most expecting mothers decide to stay away from anything that would involve risk of injuries.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“I was astonished,” said Dr Ranjana Sharma, a consultant gynaecologist in Apollo Hospitals, Delhi, “She is almost full term now. Why take such a huge risk, especially at a time when the body’s balance is compromised? One needs to know one’s limitations as an expecting mother.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It was not the first time Anushka tried the headstand. As she claimed in her post, shirshasana has been a part of her yoga routine for years, and her doctor recommended that she “do all the asanas she had been doing pre-pregnancy, barring twists and extreme forward bends.” Which is why when the couple was having a routine practice session at their home in Dubai, with Sharma’s long time yoga teacher, Eefa Shroff, on a Zoom call, Eefa promptly captured “their moment together”, without giving it a second thought.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Said Eefa to THE WEEK, “The picture was actually taken to capture and showcase the couple’s extraordinary chemistry and the perfect alignment that looked so beautiful with the two of them at the opposite ends of gravity. The headstand has always been a part of Anushka’s normal workout routine. She has done it several times, and there was nothing extraordinary about it, except that she pulled it off so well with a weight over five kilos as an expecting mother.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Anushka’s undeterred passion for fitness has sparked off a heated debate among her fans, yoga experts, doctors, fitness gurus, and, most importantly, expecting moms. They argue that even if the inversion is indeed helpful or even beneficial for the physiology of an expecting mother, is it worth taking the risk?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Swati Singh, 35, is in the third trimester of her pregnancy, and due early next year. But, unlike Anushka, Swati is treading cautiously when it comes to practicing her asanas. “I was shocked at first, but then it was also inspiring to see Anushka pull it off so brilliantly,” she said, “I don’t think I have half the fitness she has to take this big a risk.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Swati attended a yoga camp in Ghaziabad in the fifth month of her pregnancy, and recalls being asked to “strictly avoid shirshasana as it falls under the high-risk category of asanas for pregnant women” and, instead, was encouraged to practise numerous other poses that “provide more benefits and are least risky”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even as prenatal yoga as a wellness exercise for expectant mothers—that encourages stretching, relaxation and focused breathing while reducing anxiety and stress—has been hailed by one and all across the board, yoga experts such as Hrishi Yogendra contest an “over-cautious approach.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Said Hrishi, “In pregnancy, doing any inversion is never a challenge. It is because of the fear of injuries that most people avoid it. But, doing an inversion is actually good for the overall physiological health of an expecting mother. Even if she [Anushka] does an inversion just a day prior to the delivery, it is perfectly fine.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Namita Piparaiya, yoga and ayurveda lifestyle specialist, said doing a headstand during pregnancy has more risks than benefits.... “It is okay if headstand does not feature in your list of yoga asanas to do during pregnancy,” she said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What makes shirshasana so pertinent for an expecting mother is its impact on the body’s lymphatic system, which plays a key role in removing wastes and toxins and in maintaining immunity against pathogens. Said Hrishi, “Yoga works to increase the flow of lymph and relieve lymphatic congestion through inversions, which reverse the effect of gravity and drain lymph and used blood from the legs and stimulates the flow of lymph up through the core of the body. Also, it helps in pulling blood back to the heart, at a time when too much blood is going down to the limbs. This way the circulation improves, the nervous system calms down and the entire body is in complete relaxed mode.” He said one has to practise the headstand regularly even before pregnancy, so as to be comfortable doing it and avoiding injuries. “You cannot possibly start off experimenting a headstand for the first time in your pregnancy because there is no doubt that the risk of injury is extremely high in a headstand,” said Hrishi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Interestingly, getting into an inversion is one thing and holding onto it is quite another. And, that is where one’s mental strength comes into play. Said Eefa, “One has to train the mind or the psyche to be able to sustain shirshasana for a longer period of time and Anushka has oodles of both, mental and physical strength. She does headstands at least once a week and stays put in the position for about a minute. Through all of her second trimester, we have worked on strengthening her shoulders and back. But she’s always been in the best of health. Now in the last trimester, we are doing tons of hip-openers including janu shirsasana and upavistha konasana.” Eefa has been training Anushka for over six years and has been into yoga for the last 20 years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“But the question still remains, why do it unless it is a matter of life and death? asked Sharma, “One of the biggest risks of an inversion caused in a pregnant woman is the looming risk of the baby turning upside down inside the womb. What does one do then? Additionally, because of a change in hormones during pregnancy, the joints and ligaments in the body are loose and more vulnerable to disbalance. In addition, in an inversion, the placenta, uterus and the baby are together, adding so much more weight on the woman’s diaphragm, which is very risky.” Her voice finds an echo in Dr Rajeshwari Pawar, a gynaecologist from Pune’s Motherhood Hospital. “It makes sense only for those who have done that. This is not a good time to experiment,” she said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Goa-based Samita Sethi, mother to a nine-month-old daughter, took to a number of other asanas during her trimesters in order to overcome the inactivity, lethargy and mood swings that are usually associated with pregnancy. She did the sarvangasana, which comes very close to shirshasana, and is a safer alternative to it, offering the same benefits and minimal chances of injury. Sethi also regularly practiced a lot of asanas for pelvic opening or hip-opening to create space for the baby to come out easily including bhadrasana or the auspicious pose, the paryankasana, malasana and veer bhadrasana, or the warrior pose, which is ideal for pregnant women during the first and second trimesters to help build leg strength in order to support the growing baby. However, during the third trimester, the pose is likely to become more challenging.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Said Sethi, “I also took up leg strengthening postures as well as asanas such as ushtrasana, which can help in relieving back pain that is very common during pregnancy due to increased weight, specifically on the belly region.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Experts concur that a pregnant lady can do all kids of asanas, and that only forward bending asanas, extreme back bends, side bends or twists of any kind have to be avoided. Hip-openers do help a lot. “But we advise women to really start exercising much before pregnancy and continue thereafter so that they have a smooth journey. Exercising or yoga is not limited to a particular circumstance in life, it needs to be an on-going routine. When expecting one need perform only those asanas which help in the smooth growth and delivery of the baby,” said Pawar.</p> Fri Dec 11 11:39:24 IST 2020 battle-of-bunker-hill <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Temperatures in eastern</b> Ladakh have dipped to -20 degrees Celsius, but the spirit of the Indian Army is soaring. Apart from keeping a check on enemy troops, Indian soldiers are guarding themselves from the fierce Himalayan winter.</p> <p>Extreme winter clothing, sleeping bags, highly nutritious food, drinking water, kerosene—these are some of the basic items that soldiers in 8x8ft bunkers on the Rezang La heights need to survive. To fight, he needs compact battle kits containing weapons, ammunition and communication equipment.</p> <p>With more than 50,000 troops deployed on the India-China border—the biggest such deployment since 1962—the Army is looking for ways to ride out the harsh winter. Defence scientists are offering multiple solutions to keep soldiers fighting fit for high-altitude warfare. Laboratories of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) are looking at ways to reduce the acclimatisation period of troops and help soldiers keep themselves mentally and physically fit.</p> <p>In early October, a team of DRDO scientists visited the Army’s 14 Corps headquarters in Leh. They proposed more than two dozen winter-gear accessories and other inventory that would help soldiers survive extreme weather conditions. The proposals include a high-altitude water purification system, oxygen-enriched shelters, space heating devices, sleeping bags that can be used at -50 degrees Celsius, high-nutrition quercetin bars and solar-powered shelters.</p> <p>Ladakh has low oxygen levels and extreme weather. According to defence scientists, the atmosphere in eastern Ladakh, which is 15,000ft above sea level on an average, can have adverse physiological, psychological and hormonal affects that can lead to acute mountain sickness, high-altitude pulmonary oedema and high-altitude cerebral oedema. At present, the Army follows an 11-day acclimatisation regimen for its troops, done in three stages at different altitudes (9,000ft, 12,000ft and 15,000ft).</p> <p>Though the Indian Army has four decades of experience in deployment in Siachen, the number of troops deployed there is much less than the deployment in Ladakh this time. Three new approaches have been proposed to the Army to reduce the acclimatisation period and speed up deployment. Prior deployment of soldiers at a moderate altitude, putting them through intermittent hypoxia (as training to survive in low-oxygen atmosphere) and providing oxygen shelters are the new methods.</p> <p>Dr A.K. Singh, director-general of life sciences at DRDO, said maintaining optimal combat efficiency in extreme weather has for long been an objective for the Army. A similar rapid deployment, he said, was last attempted in 1999, during the Kargil war. “Our scientists are working with military doctors for enhancing troop acclimatisation by physical, physiological and psychological interventions,” said Dr Singh.</p> <p>Indian and Chinese troops have been engaged in a standoff in Ladakh since May. The deployment of troops in eastern Ladakh is being done on the lines of the Siachen pattern—a 90-day deployment cycle before a soldier is replaced by another one. Military strategists believe that, with the trust deficit between the two sides, large-scale deployment of troops will be the new normal on the Line of Actual Control.</p> <p>The Indian Army has just completed setting up habitats for troops in eastern Ladakh. But these habitats are only at the base camps, not at forward posts. Also, 11,000 sets of special winter clothing have been brought from the US. “Due to the unforeseen situation on the border, the Army had no option but to go for emergency purchase from foreign players. But we have the capability to produce such winter clothing,” said a DRDO scientist. “We are already in touch with the local industry to make it available. And we would be able to provide such clothing in the next six to eight months.”</p> <p>The extreme winter clothing produced by the Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences (DIPAS) in Delhi is a three-layered modular system. Each kit weighs around 5kg. The clothing is waterproof, breathable, abrasion resistant and effective even in -50 degrees Celsius.</p> <p>“It is almost one-fourth the cost of winter clothing that we import,” said the scientist. “All [extreme winter] clothing requires down feathers (fine bird feathers found under the tougher exterior feathers) to minimise heat transfer and keep it lightweight.” To tackle the issue of availability of feathers, scientists are exploring whether duck feathers can be used, since they are water repellent.</p> <p>Another helpful tool is a space heating device that runs on kerosene. The devices are efficient and they do not release hazardous carbon monoxide. The Army has placed a Rs267-crore order for them.</p> <p>To provide drinking water on icy heights, DIPAS has come out with a solar snow melter. Trials at Khardungla in Ladakh and Tawang found that these portable, manually operated snow melters are very helpful. “The issues faced by soldiers may not be new, but the scale is different this time,” said Singh. “All efforts have been made to cater to the requirements of the Indian Army, as the logistics burden has increased manifold.”</p> <p>Defence scientists have set goals for themselves to develop new systems in the next few months. In the pipeline are modular garages for tanks, diesel generators that work at -50 degrees Celsius, solar-power shelters, rugged battery chargers, portable mobile cuboids and crevasse cross-bridges.</p> <p>“Every solution cannot be a panacea for all problems,” said a defence scientist. “To meet future requirements, there is a need for more synergetic efforts between the DRDO, the armed forces and industrial partners, wherein the services and the industry view DRDO not only as developers, but also as their collaborative partners.”</p> <p>An Army also marches on its stomach. A soldier needs to have around 4,500 calories a day to survive in high altitude. So the ration includes energy bars, chocolates, fruits and vegetables. O.P. Chaurasia, director of the Leh-based Defence Institute of High Altitude Research (DIHAR), says his laboratories are providing at least 28 types of vegetables to the Army. Set up after the 1962 war, DIHAR conducts research on agro-animal activities in extreme cold and high altitude. “In Ladakh, hydroponics (growing crops without soil) and micro-farming seem the only viable options,” said Chaurasia. “With this, limited quantity of fresh vegetables can be grown and it is developed to suit the Ladakh condition.”</p> <p>Researchers at DIHAR have used their technology to grow vegetables like radish, broccoli and cabbage using low-intensity lights and limited amount of water. DIHAR scientists have also been researching on whether Bactrian camels in the Nubra valley, whose double humps can carry a load of 170kg, can be trained to transport ration and weapons. During the Kargil war, said Chaurasia, DIHAR researchers had successfully trained Zanskar ponies with the same objective.</p> <p>Surviving in a bunker at -40 degrees Celsius is like living the life of a caveman, said Major General Amrit Pal Singh, former chief of operational logistics of 14 Corps. “We (the Army) are holding hilltops, peaks and clifflines. And you cannot carry stores to those points. You are actually living like a caveman by crawling into the hole and making a little warm space for yourself. Good clothing, nutritious food and frequent rotation to avoid physiological and psychological ailments are the only ways to protect the soldiers.”&nbsp;</p> Thu Dec 03 19:16:03 IST 2020 military-r-and-d-is-a-continuous-and-time-consuming-process <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>A few months</b> ago, Ajay Kumar Singh, director-general of the life sciences wing of the Defence Research and Development Organisation, was heading a team of defence scientists to innovate affordable medical equipment for Covid-19 management. But with India and China still locked in a standoff at the border, his team has been tasked to step up efforts to equip soldiers for high-altitude warfare. In an interview with THE WEEK, Singh shared his views. Excerpts:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Q/ <b>After the Ladakh standoff, has the DRDO been asked to carry out innovations and studies for the benefit of soldiers?</b></p> <p>A/ The DRDO’s life sciences labs proactively provided habitability solutions like improvised space-heating device, oxygenated shelters, anti-frostbite formulation, and fresh and nutritious food in collaboration with several stakeholders. Our high-altitude region labs have contributed in developing technologies that ensure availability of fresh produce to armed forces throughout the year.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Q/ <b>Can you share some special efforts made by defence life sciences scientists for the Indian Army for high-altitude operations?</b></p> <p>A/ A team of scientists recently visited forward posts in a high-altitude region. Several products have been delivered to the troops for their trial and use and it is also planned to oxygenate existing shelters. DRDO has provided ergonomically designed backpacks and sleeping bags suitable for temperatures up to -50°C. Research and development (R&amp;D) is also underway to develop extreme winter clothing using indigenous textile technologies.</p> <p>DRDO life sciences labs have been working in close collaboration with the Army for enhancing troop acclimatisation by physical, physiological and psychological interventions. Different modalities like pre-acclimatisation of soldiers at moderate altitude, use of Intermittent Hypoxia Training (IHT) in the plains and use of pharmacological agents as strategies have been suggested for rapid induction of troops after extensive R&amp;D. In addition, the recommendation of tenure of posting at different altitudes and of nutritionally balanced ration scales has been made and are being followed by the Indian Army.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Q/ <b>DRDO scientists are often criticised for disappointing armed forces when it comes to meeting their requirements.</b></p> <p>A/ Military R&amp;D is a continuous and time-consuming process, which involves synergy between various stakeholders. The R&amp;D contributions made by DRDO are palpable and are acknowledged by the armed forces. However, to meet futuristic requirements, there is a need for more synergistic efforts between the DRDO, armed forces and industrial partners, wherein the services and industry view DRDO not only as developers, but also as their joint collaborative partners.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> Thu Dec 03 19:12:41 IST 2020 a-permanent-void <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>The shock that </b>Ahmed Patel’s demise has evoked in the Congress is a testimony to his stature in the party. A recurring theme in the tributes was the sentiment that it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to replace Patel, and that the crisis-ridden party needed him most at this juncture.</p> <p>The significance that Patel succeeded in endowing the post of political secretary to the Congress president with was best expressed in an evocative homage penned by Sonia Gandhi, where she described him as her most trusted colleague, who she could depend on without any questions being asked.</p> <p>The Gandhis will miss Patel when it comes to reaching out to the dissenting voices. After all, Patel was a friend of many of the 23 writers of the ‘letter of dissent’, and acted as a bridge between them and the party leadership. He had the authority and the political resourcefulness to deal with such situations.</p> <p>There is a vacuum in terms of whom the leaders should approach to have their grievances heard.&nbsp;At the moment, it is felt that there is no one in the party with the same level of authority.&nbsp;</p> <p>Said senior leader Digvijaya Singh, “At a personal level, I have lost a friend and a colleague who I trusted, and in whose political analysis and decisions I had deep faith. The Congress has lost its most trusted and committed leader at a time when it needed a person like him the most.”</p> <p>Patel’s passing marks the end of an era for the Congress since he represented a certain way of functioning, which is expected to see a change with Rahul making a comeback as president. The generational change will be best evident when the party gets into negotiations to form alliances for the assembly elections in early 2021. There will be no Patel, who could leverage the goodwill and respect that he enjoyed beyond party lines, and had great shrewdness to reach out to allies to drive a hard bargain.&nbsp;</p> <p>Gen-next leaders Jitin Prasada and Dinesh Gundu Rao—who were given the charge of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, respectively—would be at the helm of alliance discussions. Similarly, it will be up to Rahul’s confidant—Jitendra Singh, who is in charge of Assam—to prepare the party for assembly elections post-Tarun Gogoi, and to deal with the various factions in the state unit.</p> <p>Said senior leader Saifuddin Soz, “While it is a great loss to us, the Congress has to rise to the occasion…. In two to three months, many outstanding issues are expected to be thrashed out.” They say it is an exercise in futility to talk about substituting Patel since he fit perfectly into the role designed specifically for him, in a structure that Sonia had put in place, reflecting her style of functioning, and that it is not necessary that Rahul should follow the same format.</p> <p>“Patel&nbsp;was the bridge between the party leadership and the party. Sonia<i> ji </i>had created the structure. This kind of a structure was unique to the leadership of Sonia<i> ji,</i>” said Sanjay Nirupam, senior leader from Maharashtra.</p> <p>It is being discussed now whether veterans such as Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot or former finance minister P. Chidambaram may have a greater role to play as crisis managers. After all, Gehlot has doused many a fire and is known for his connections beyond the party. Chidambaram is a well-regarded persona, and had a role to play in keeping Sachin Pilot in the Congress when the young leader rebelled.</p> <p>There is also speculation over who will be Rahul’s Patel—whether it will be K.C. Venugopal, who has emerged as a key link between the party and Rahul, or Randeep Singh Surjewala,&nbsp;who enjoys Rahul’s confidence and had the biggest promotion in the recent reshuffle.&nbsp;</p> <p>Among the other names being discussed are Rajeev Satav, who is known to be close to Rahul and is amongst his fiercest defendants; Jitendra Singh, a long-time Rahul confidant, and bureaucrat-turned-politician K. Raju, an eminent member of Rahul’s office and a key advisor.</p> <p>It is not necessary that Rahul will have a political secretary. He can do away with the post, and instead place a team that he reposes his trust in.&nbsp;</p> <p>Rahul’s inner circle may not have the same kind of political tact or authority that Patel had to deal with leaders within and outside the party. Critics of the present style of functioning also say that now is the time for the party leadership to get truly hands-on instead of depending on a go-between.</p> <p>However, there is also a view that a leader needs a person or persons to act as a link between him and the party.&nbsp;“As a leader of the party, you have to deal with multiple issues. You need someone who is like a go-between or a shock absorber. And, to serve this purpose, you need someone trustworthy,” said a leader close to Rahul.</p> <p>The Patel era is over, and with the Sonia era, too, coming to an end soon, it remains to be seen if Rahul rises to the occasion and gets the party to rally around him.&nbsp;</p> Thu Dec 03 18:56:34 IST 2020 win-either-way <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>FOR THE FIRST</b> time since the revocation of Article 370 and the bifurcation of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, major regional parties in Kashmir are returning to electoral politics. Elections to the newly-created District Development Councils (DDCs) are being held in eight phases from November 28 to December 22.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The 280 DDC seats—14 each in 20 districts—were created after the Union government amended the J&amp;K Panchayati Raj Act in October. Elections will also be held to fill more than 12,000 vacant seats in panchayats and over 230 seats in urban local bodies.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What has made the election politically significant is the decision of the members of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration to fight the polls together. The declaration, which reaffirmed support for Article 370, was signed by seven parties—the National Conference, the People’s Democratic Party, the J&amp;K People’s Conference, the CPI(M), the Awami National Conference, the J&amp;K People’s Movement and the Awami Ittehad —at National Conference president Farooq Abdullah’s Gupkar Road residence in Srinagar on August 4, 2019.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The seven parties formalised the alliance this October with Farooq as president, former chief minister and PDP president Mehbooba Mufti as vice president and JKPC leader Sajad Lone as spokesperson. Initially there was a feeling that the alliance would boycott the polls, but on November 7, it announced the decision to join the fray.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BJP said the “Gupkar gang” wanted foreign forces to intervene in Jammu and Kashmir. “The Gupkar gang also insults India’s tricolour,” tweeted Union Home Minister Amit Shah. “Do Sonia ji and Rahul ji support such moves?’’ Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala denied that the party was a member of the alliance. His party's president in J&amp;K, Ghulam Ahmad Mir, however, said the Congress had “district-level alliance" with individual parties of the alliance.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Former chief minister Omar Abdullah of the National Conference said he understood Shah’s frustration. “He had been briefed that the alliance was preparing to boycott the elections. This would have allowed the BJP and the newly-formed king's party a free run in J&amp;K. We didn't oblige them,” Omar tweeted. The king's party jab was aimed at the JK Apni Party formed by former PDP leader Altaf Bukhari with the backing of the BJP.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Political observers said the decision of the alliance to contest the elections had disrupted the BJP’s plan to extend its reach to another layer of power in Jammu and Kashmir and render the National Conference and the PDP irrelevant at the grassroots. They said the alliance would win a major chunk of seats in the Kashmir region and pose a challenge to the BJP in Jammu with the support of the Congress. But it may not be easy. “A boycott or low turnout will cause problems for the alliance,” said an observer.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the absence of a legislative assembly, the DDCs are likely to emerge as major power centres. Council members will get direct funding from the Union government for development work. Winners will also get a head start when assembly elections are held.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BJP has named Union Ministers Anurag Thakur and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and the its national spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain to oversee the campaign. South Delhi MP Ramesh Bidhuri, a prominent Gujjar leader, has been tasked with mollifying the Gujjar-Bakarwal tribes who are angry about the demolition of their hutments in the forests of Pahalgam.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The main plank of the BJP campaign continues to be the abrogation of Article 370. “The Congress’s alliance with the Gupkar gang proves beyond doubt that it is seeking support from those who seek the support of China and Pakistan to bring back Article 370,” said Thakur.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While the contest in Kashmir is largely between the alliance and the smaller parties and independents, the fight is more intense in Jammu. Some constituencies are even witnessing intra-family battles. Nadeem Azad and Mustafa Azad, nephews of Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, are pitted against each other in Changa constituency in Doda district. At Kalkote in Rajouri, Anita Thakur and Sushma Thakur, whose husbands are brothers, are involved in a close contest.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Union government has deployed 25,000 additional personnel of the Central Armed Police Forces to beef up security. Many candidates have been housed in cluster accommodations because of security concerns. Mushtaq Ahmed, the PDP candidate contesting panchayat elections from Khaigam in Pulwama, said he had not been allowed to go home since November 9. Another candidate said the police would sometimes ask them to finish their campaign and return to the hotel by 4pm. “How can we cover all the villages in our constituency and report back on time,” he complained.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Omar and Mehbooba said the government was locking up candidates opposed to it, using security as an excuse. “If the security situation is not conducive for campaigning, what was the need to announce the elections,” tweeted Omar. A senior officer, however, said the security threat was real. “This year, more than 12 political activists, most of them belonging to the BJP, were killed by militants,’’ he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite the high threat perception, the DDC polls have attracted many young men like Hamid Rather and Javid Ahmed. Rather, a 30-year-old doctoral scholar, is contesting from Pattan in Baramulla as an independent candidate. He said the elections presented an opportunity to better the lives of the people in his area. “I can't imagine women in our villages going out to fetch drinking water for their families,’’ he said. Ahmed said his motivation to jump into the poll fray was to combat the growing menace of drug addiction.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The active participation of the independent youth and the coming together of the regional parties may have foiled the BJP’s plan to push them to the fringes of the political landscape. But their participation in the DDC polls has not only lent credibility to the exercise, but also legitimised the administrative changes imposed in Kashmir. It will also help the BJP counter international criticism over its handling of the Kashmir issue.</p> Thu Nov 26 19:33:22 IST 2020 system-revamp <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>THERE IS AN</b> apocryphal story about how Kashmir has politically engaged with Delhi over the years. In the early 1950s, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru asked Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad how much public support he had. Bakshi replied that all 40 lakh people in the state supported him. Nehru posed the same question to Sheikh Abdullah and got the same answer. Bakshi had dislodged the Sheikh, with the help of Delhi, to become prime minister of the state. Nehru sought to know how both of them could claim the same number. They told Nehru that it was possible, as everything depended on whom Delhi supported.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Delhi’s support has been crucial to who runs the show in the state. The politics of the state since the beginning has been such that people also look towards the person who has Delhi’s support,” said a veteran RSS leader who worked in Jammu and Kashmir. “This time, Delhi has made it clear that it is not with anyone. And this has opened up a whole range of possibilities.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Home Minister Amit Shah is monitoring the BJP campaign, as the poll results will be billed as a referendum on Article 370 that had given special status to Jammu and Kashmir. Also, a favourable result will strengthen the party’s nationalism pitch elsewhere in the country, particularly in states where elections are due next year.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The government’s aim is clear: create a new breed of leaders from the grassroots who can challenge the existing players, and subsequently build an ecosystem where the talk of independence or autonomy is no longer relevant.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“These elections will give birth to new leaders who are intelligent and pragmatic,” said Union Minister of Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. The biggest takeaway from these elections, he said, was how people were participating in the process instead of listening to the separatists or alliance leaders. “Their influence is on the wane,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BJP has seized the opportunity to attack the Abdullahs and the Muftis, the two political families that have ruled the erstwhile state. Tarun Chugh, who is in charge of BJP affairs in the Union territory, said two private companies, Abdullah &amp; Sons and Mufti &amp; Sons, had wrecked Jammu and Kashmir, both administratively and economically. “The 025,000-crore land scam under the Roshni scheme points the finger at the two families who built their own empires,” he said. The CBI is investigating the scam.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Union government’s Kashmir policy will be tested through these polls. “It is the first real test for local self-governance in Jammu and Kashmir and it is a good sign,” said former home secretary G.K. Pillai. “But we must remember that nothing works perfectly the first time.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In its mission to herald political change, the Union government has lent support to independent political initiatives and candidates. The BJP is also keen that the smaller Muslim groups like Gujjars, Bakarwals and Shias gain prominence.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Mohammad Abdullah Paswal, 25, contesting as an independent in Bandipora Arin, is the only candidate from the Gujjar-Bakarwal community in the area. Paswal hails from Kundara village, which got electricity only in 2018. “My village is in such a far-flung area that no one has even heard of it. Development is a far cry, and illiteracy is rampant,” he said. “Electricity, health and education systems are missing. The DDC polls are an opportunity to alleviate the suffering of my people.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A home ministry official said that the Kashmir policy used to be largely related to internal security, Pakistan and Article 370, but now it was only about development. The next big challenge for the home ministry, which controls key administrative functions in a Union territory, is the effective devolution of powers to local bodies.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Mir Junaid, president of the newly formed Jammu Kashmir Workers Party, said one of the main reasons for democratic processes not being successful there was electoral infrequency. “Another flaw was that the local bodies had near zero role in the developmental process.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Junaid said the new laws and the inclusion of a new chunk of people in the voter list had made the DDC polls unique and exciting. Paswal, who has a master’s degree in economics, said many educated youth were in the fray this time to shape the future of Jammu and Kashmir.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ansari, a former interlocutor of Jammu and Kashmir, said the DDC elections should have followed assembly elections. Not much had changed on ground since the dissolution of the PDP-BJP government, said Ansari. “For DDC elections, most contestants are unable to campaign owing to militancy and government-imposed restrictions on mass canvassing,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While a heavy troop deployment is expected to curb terror attacks, security officials said parties should abstain from labelling rivals as anti-nationals and creating divisions on cultural identities. “Only an unrestrained and free election campaign, mobilising public opinion and dialogue for peace, can motivate people to step out and cast their votes in a free and fair manner,” said an official.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Will these elections herald political change in the troubled region? The process, however slow, may have started.</p> Thu Nov 26 19:30:29 IST 2020 article-370-has-been-buried-370km-deep <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>UNION MINISTER MUKHTAR</b> Abbas Naqvi kickstarted the BJP's campaign for the local bodies elections in Jammu and Kashmir with a series of rallies and meetings in the Union territory. He drew crowds and listened to people's complaints about hardships due to the internet ban and the Covid-induced economic slowdown. He said people treated Article 370 as history and were asking what it had got them in the past 70 years. Excerpts from an interview:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What is your feedback from the state?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The biggest takeaway is the involvement of people in the political process. The elections are being held to the district development council for the first time in 70 years. People from far-flung areas, be it Uri, Baramulla or Kupwara, are participating in the process. This is a very positive message. The results will be good for the BJP. These elections will break the arrogance of the family parties. These parties thought people would not participate so they had decided to boycott the polls. But they were forced to change their stance when they witnessed the crowds. We see this as victory before the elections.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What does the BJP intend to achieve through these elections?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The (Gupkar) alliance leaders claimed that the BJP would not even find candidates in the valley. Today the BJP is contesting in more than 95 per cent of the seats. This has demolished their assumption. The BJP is getting, thanks to Prime Minister Modi, an enthusiastic response. People see him as a big world leader. The issues like communalism and separatism are in decline.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The Gupkar alliance is pitching for the restoration of Article 370. Is it an emotional issue for the people?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With the end of Article 370, over 370 problems of the people have been solved. All Central government schemes are getting implemented there. People have found this to be a very positive development. Article 370 has been buried 370 kilometres below the ground, and even 370 births will not bring this provision back. So, people are looking at Article 370 as history. The alliance may be raising the issue, but it is not finding any traction among people. People are asking what they have got in 70 years. Only political families gained.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Will these elections be a referendum on the Article 370?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It will be a referendum on people's participation in the democratic process. How strong and effective it is.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The BJP has always been seen as a Hindu party. Is the perception still the same in the valley?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Modiji's image is visible in the valley. People believe in him. The party has never indulged in communal campaign. People feel that development is happening without discrimination, and that they are getting empowered. All the schemes were implemented there. The impact is visible on the ground. People have isolated the separatists. In earlier elections, the separatists always played a role. But in this elections they are not to be seen.</p> Fri Nov 27 11:05:06 IST 2020 left-in-a-muddle <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Being a communist, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan may not believe in good times and bad times. But he will certainly approve of the famous quote by Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky that “everything is relative in this world, where change alone endures”. For Vijayan and the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, the past few months have been more than enough proof of Trotsky’s concept of change.</p> <p>The slide in the political fortunes of the LDF government has been dramatic. Not so long ago, it was winning accolades from everywhere, even internationally, for the effective handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and for the social welfare measures it launched during the lockdown. A survey held in July by a television channel had predicted that the LDF could even break Kerala’s 40-year-old record of voting out the incumbent government. Nearly 86 per cent of the respondents wanted Vijayan to be chief minister again.</p> <p>But all that changed on July 5 with the seizure of 30kg gold from a diplomatic consignment addressed to the United Arab Emirates consulate in Thiruvananthapuram. The smuggling case took a political turn once it was revealed that the main accused, Swapna Suresh, had a close relationship with Vijayan’s all powerful principal secretary M. Sivasankar. Though Sivasankar was removed from the post the very next day, the damage was done.</p> <p>The National Investigation Agency (NIA) is now probing the case and other Central agencies like the Enforcement Directorate, the customs department and the CBI are also involved, with a special focus on the chief minister’s office.</p> <p>Disowning Sivasankar was not an easy task for Vijayan. The chief minister had earlier defended him when he was blamed for signing a data-handling contract with a US-based firm called Sprinklr without following due procedure. Even the CPI, the second major constituent in the LDF, had come out against the contract, but Vijayan said Sivasankar just made an “error in judgement” under pressure from the rising Covid-19 numbers. “The chief minister trusted Sivasankar absolutely as he had been a major asset to the government. The fact that both are very much result-oriented brought them closer,” said a source who had interacted with both closely.</p> <p>A former chief secretary said Vijayan was an efficient administrator with attention to minute details. “It is unbelievable that he failed to notice such a huge mistake happening right under his nose. It is certainly his failure as an administrator,” he said. The former bureaucrat could be right as the opposition continues to target Sivasankar to get to Vijayan. “The chief minister is trying to escape by blaming everything on a government official. Who is more tainted, the administration or the party, that is the only dispute,” said opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala.</p> <p>The Enforcement Directorate said Sivasankar had shared confidential information pertaining to major government projects and had intervened to clear the baggage containing the smuggled gold. Sivasankar’s case, however, seems to be just the beginning of the woes in store for the Vijayan government. Higher Education Minister K.T. Jaleel, who has been assigned the task of capturing the Muslim vote bank, is now a “person of interest” in cases of illegal import of food material and religious texts through diplomatic cargo sent to the UAE consulate without prior permission from the Union government—violating the Customs Act, the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) and the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA). The opposition says some of the packets Jaleel received contained gold. The NIA, the ED and the customs department have questioned him and investigations are still on.</p> <p>The biggest setback for the Vijayan government has come, perhaps, in the LIFE Mission case. The Livelihood Inclusion and Financial Empowerment Mission, popularly known as LIFE Mission, is one of the flagship projects of the government, which is aimed at providing low cost housing to the homeless. According to the ED, Suresh, who was then officially affiliated with the UAE consulate, received a commission of Rs4.48 crore from a construction company called Unitac Builders for a project to construct 140 flats in Thrissur district and a share of it went to Sivasankar. The flats were sponsored by the Emirates Red Crescent, a humanitarian organisation under the UAE government.</p> <p>The ED arrested Sivasankar after it found material and digital evidence that showed that he had assisted Suresh in money laundering. ED officials said there was corroborative evidence to show that Sivasankar introduced Suresh to his chartered accountant, and asked him to help her with her finances. According to investigators, the chartered accountant and Suresh opened a joint locker at a State Bank of India branch in Thiruvananthapuram. Each time money was deposited or withdrawn, Sivasankar was informed about the transactions. An ED official said Sivasankar, who was holding an important position in the government, did not ask for the source. “This implies that he helped Suresh in laundering money which was the proceeds of crime,” said the official.</p> <p>Another allegation against Sivasankar is that he leaked confidential information of prospective bidders in the LIFE Mission project to Suresh, who allegedly used it to swing deals. The ED accessed hundreds of WhatsApp chats between Sivasankar and Suresh from April 2018 to July this year, which showed that Sivasankar allegedly shared information of prospective bidders and quotations under the project. It was found that 26 of 36 projects went to those whose names were mentioned by Sivasankar even before the tender was opened. “There is corroborative evidence of kickbacks received by Suresh. The Unitac CEO has also admitted that payment was made to Suresh and she has confessed to receiving it,” said an investigator. The ED is likely to examine all major government projects overseen by Sivasankar.</p> <p>Adding to the woes of the chief minister, the ED has issued summons to his additional private secretary C.M. Raveendran. Chennithala said Vijayan was worried as the probe had almost reached him. But an undaunted chief minister hit back saying the summons by an agency did not make Raveendran a culprit. Meanwhile, Raveendran has informed the ED that he has tested positive for Covid-19 and the agency has asked him to report after he is medically fit.</p> <p>The CPI(M) believes there is a political understanding between the BJP and the Congress to malign the LDF. “It took only a day for the Narendra Modi government to order a CBI inquiry into the LIFE Mission project, which has built thousands of homes for the poor,’’ said former MP and CPI(M) state committee member M.B. Rajesh.</p> <p>The state government has de cided to take on the Central government over what it feels is vindictive targeting of the only left government in India. It has revoked the general consent given to the CBI to take up any case in the state without prior permission. An LDF MLA moved a privilege motion alleging that the ED’s inquiry halted the state government’s project to provide free housing for the poor. The ED said it had the legal authority to ask for the files related to the project as the financial transactions were suspicious. A senior ED official said section 23 of the PMLA gave the ED the mandate to probe the LIFE Mission project and related monetary transactions. “Investigation into the alleged kickbacks does not stall the project and the state government should not try to impede the probe,’’ said an official in New Delhi.</p> <p>The ED is racing to file its prosecution complaint against Sivasankar as it is required to file a chargesheet within 60 days from the date of arrest under PMLA. The NIA, too, is likely to file its chargesheet in December since the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), mandates the agency to file a chargesheet within six months of registering a first information report. This is the first time UAPA has been invoked to investigate a gold smuggling operation, deeming it to be detrimental to economic stability. The NIA has so far arrested 21 persons out of 35 public and private individuals who are under investigation, while 12 persons are on bail.</p> <p>Critics of the Vijayan government blame the extreme centralisation of power under the chief minister for the crisis. “Whenever a left government is in power, the CPI(M) has always had the upper hand in all matters. But this time, the party and the government are under Vijayan’s tight fist. All these lapses happened because of that,” said political observer Joseph C. Mathew. “Earlier, the personal secretary of the chief minister would invariably be a senior party leader. But Vijayan wanted a professional for reasons better known to him and the results are there for everyone to see.”</p> <p>Senior journalist B.R.P. Bhaskar, too, said Vijayan’s centralisation tendencies led to the present crisis. “We all know that Vijayan took all the decisions related to the government and the party,” he said. “That may have made the system more efficient for a short period, but on the whole, it has led to huge flaws.”</p> <p>Even more devastating for the government was the arrest of Bineesh Kodiyeri, younger son of CPI(M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan. Bineesh was arrested by the ED in Bengaluru after his name came up in a Narcotics Control Bureau investigation. It forced Kodiyeri to step down from the post of party secretary, although he cited health reasons for the unprecedented step.</p> <p>State Congress president Mullappally Ramachandran said the government had lost the moral right to continue. “It is so shameful to say that the son of a senior party leader has been arrested for <i>benami</i> transactions,” he said. Kerala BJP spokesperson Sandeep Warrier said the people had realised that the LDF government was just as bad as the Congress-led United Democratic Front government.</p> <p>The sudden change in the fortunes of the LDF government is something hard to miss. “Unfortunately for the LDF, all these controversies have happened at a time when a second term was almost certain. Now the government and the CPI(M) are under a thick cloud of suspicion,” said political commentator Jacob George.</p> <p>The controversies have raised a question mark about the “left character” of the Vijayan government, according to some left sympathisers. “I have heard many comrades saying that the allegations were nothing compared with what UDF governments had to face in the past. But they forget that it is the moral correctness that makes the left stand apart,” said Mathew. “The left should do some serious introspection. If not, a plight worse than what they experienced in Bengal and Tripura awaits them.”&nbsp;</p> Thu Nov 19 19:10:44 IST 2020 son-set-boulevard <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>One of the</b> more circulated photos on social media these days in Kerala shows Bineesh Kodiyeri, the younger son of former CPI(M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, standing at the entrance of AKG Centre, the party’s state headquarters. With the image of the party symbol—hammer, sickle and star—right above his head, Bineesh exuded power and confidence.</p> <p>But Bineesh is no longer in Kerala. Nor is he free. He was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate on October 28 in a money-laundering case linked to a Bengaluru-based drug trafficking racket, which was busted by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB). Mohammed Anoop, who was arrested by the NCB, said Bineesh used to finance his businesses. The ED believes that Anoop is Bineesh’s benami partner and said it found cash deposits worth more than 05 crore in Bineesh’s three bank accounts in the last seven years against his total declared income of 01.2 crore. Under pressure, Kodiyeri has already stepped down from the party secretary’s post, citing health reasons.</p> <p>Bineesh, 36, has always been a flamboyant character. He buys fancy numbers for his cars. He bought two established cricket clubs in his cricket-obsessed hometown Thalassery and named those after him. Always eager to flaunt the power of their surname, Bineesh and his elder brother Binoy have frequently courted controversies. When his father was home minister of Kerala, Bineesh ventured into the real estate business, and his name got linked to many shady deals. Bineesh also acted in small roles in Malayalam movies. Though his roles were insignificant, he was close to industry bigwigs. Bineesh is also part of the cricket administration in Kerala.</p> <p>While the CPI(M) said Bineesh should be punished if he was found guilty, his wife, Renita, said the BJP was using the ED to settle political scores. “The allegations that Bineesh is a don and that he has huge assets are lies. He owns a hotel, which was bought by pawning my mother’s land,’’ she said.</p> <p>The BJP, however, said the ED would prove that Bineesh was into drugs and illegal businesses. “He roamed free till now because of the unethical arrangement between the UDF and the LDF,’’ said BJP state president K. Surendran.</p> <p>The CPI(M), which has clear guidelines even on how the family members of its cadre should live, is feeling the heat. “The problem is that a certain image has been created in the media about Bineesh that anyone can raise allegations against him and people will believe it,’’ said a young state committee member of the CPI(M).</p> <p>Veteran journalist B.R.P. Bhaskar said Bineesh was morally bound to behave in a more responsible manner as the son of a left party secretary. “I am sure that Kodiyeri was aware of the perception about his sons,” he said. “If he did not do anything to correct them or he failed in doing so, he is also at fault.’’</p> Thu Nov 19 19:06:04 IST 2020 tragedy-of-errors <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>M. Sivasankar was</b> clad in a crumpled blue T-shirt with red and white stripes when he was brought to the Enforcement Directorate office in Kochi on October 29, the same dress he was wearing when he was arrested from a hospital in Thiruvananthapuram the previous day. Looking dishevelled, he was a far cry from the dapper, all powerful principal secretary of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.</p> <p>Sivasankar is currently in the ED’s custody in the gold smuggling case. The agency believes that he intervened to clear the diplomatic baggage containing smuggled gold at the Thiruvananthapuram international airport on behalf of Swapna Suresh, an accused in the smuggling case. Sivasankar had earlier appointed her in a key post in a project under the information technology department, although she did not have the required qualifications. The ED said Sivasankar shared confidential government information pertaining to major projects such as the LIFE Mission project with Suresh, which was used to swing deals.</p> <p>Sivasankar, who joined the state service as a deputy collector, was conferred with IAS in 1995. He was handpicked by Vijayan when he became chief minister in 2016. As the chief minister’s principal secretary, Sivasankar wielded immense power and he ran many of the flagship projects of the government, much to the displeasure of some senior IAS officers. “The IAS power centres never treated him as an equal as he was a ‘conferred one’. So when he got power, he used it to the hilt,” said an officer in the state secretariat.</p> <p>A retired revenue secretary said Sivasankar was a very able officer who left his mark in all posts he held. “I have worked very closely with him and I have never sensed any issues,” he said.</p> <p>Even opposition politicians do not question Sivasankar’s efficiency. “The Sivasankar I know is a brilliant officer. He was a man of action and was good at clearing bottlenecks,” said P.K. Abdu Rabb, who was education minister in the previous United Democratic Front government. Former electricity minister Aryadan Muhammed, too, shared a similar opinion.</p> <p>Sivasankar was not a stickler for rules. A retired IAS officer said he ignored procedures and was bothered only about results. And, he loved his drink. “It has been his weakness from the time he joined. He preferred to drink with his junior staff rather than with fellow IAS officers,” said a source.</p> <p>“What is happening with Sivasankar reminds one of Shakespeare’s dramas,” said a former chief secretary. “It is so dramatic and tragic.”&nbsp;</p> Thu Nov 19 19:03:21 IST 2020 sail-or-dive <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>When HMS Hercules joined the Indian Navy as INS Vikrant in 1961, India became the first Asian power to have an aircraft carrier. That single carrier was enough for several decades, since no other Asian power wanted to control the Indian Ocean. Today, though, when the Chinese navy is projecting power with two carriers, while building a third and planning for two more, India is finding itself at sea.</p> <p>India’s second carrier—Vikrant, which is the first to be made in India—is getting fitted at Cochin Shipyard; naval engineers have been drawing up designs for a third. But in February, Gen Bipin Rawat poured cold water on their blueprint. As chief of defence staff, whose job is to prioritise military procurement, Rawat questioned the wisdom of having three carriers. Carriers, he said, were expensive and vulnerable to torpedoes. He favoured submarines, citing the Navy’s worries about its dwindling underwater capability. Or, he asked, why not develop shore-based capabilities?</p> <p>Rawat’s idea, apparently, is to build more submarines and develop islands in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea into “unsinkable strategic hubs”. He has left the call to the defence ministry, which he said might review its decision after INS Vikrant becomes operational.</p> <p>The main argument against carriers is indeed their cost. India’s lone carrier in operation, the Russian-made Vikramaditya, cost a whopping 012,500 crore ($2.35 billion). Vikrant is expected to cost 019,590 crore ($2.8 billion). Its sister ship, which naval designers have been working on since 2012 and want to name Vishal, is expected to cost between 075,000 crore and 01.5 lakh crore.</p> <p>Rawat’s comments have triggered a debate on whether carriers are white elephants. “They cost a packet and if hit by one enemy torpedo, all this will sink to the bottom of the sea,” said a Navy officer.</p> <p>Abhijit Bhattacharyya, member of the London-based think tank International Institute of Strategic Studies, said: “Between a submarine and an aircraft carrier, the former is comparatively economical and safer to operate, is difficult to be detected, and does not require an accompanying flotilla of surface vessels.” He added that the visible deterrence provided by a carrier battle group was something a submarine could not achieve.</p> <p>Unlike submarines, carriers operate in battle groups—with destroyers, corvettes and frigates accompanying them—and thus have no stealth element. They are visible, and therefore vulnerable, to ships, aircraft and submarines. Many maritime strategists, too, have been arguing for a submarine-centric force. The debate is as old as the start of the Cold War, when the US acquired carrier after carrier, while the Soviet Union went for fleet after fleet of silent submarines.</p> <p>The trends led to two rival maritime doctrines—of sea control (by American carriers) and sea denial (by Soviet submarines). The rivalry and divergence got reflected in the Indian subcontinent, too. While India went for a carrier as far back as 1961, the Pakistan Navy put a premium on submarines. After the 1970s, however, India acquired submarines, too.</p> <p>The doctrines also evolved out of geopolitcal compulsions. India, like the US, has a long coastline and, therefore, can have bases from where carrier battle groups can operate. Pakistan, like Russia, does not have much of a coastline, and thus cannot have many bases.</p> <p>All the same, most modern navies are seeking to balance both types of assets (carriers and submarines) and doctrines (sea control and sea denial). The oceans now have 41 aircraft carriers that belong to 13 navies. The US operates 11 carriers and 70 submarines. The Russians and the British, having toyed with the idea of making do without carriers for nearly a decade, are coming back with one carrier each. The Royal Navy commissioned the 65,000-tonne HMS Queen Elizabeth and a second carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, is in its last leg of completion. Japan, which did not have any since World War II, now has three. Australia, France, Italy and Spain have one each. Even Thailand, which operates a helicopter carrier, HTMS Chakri Naruebet, may soon upgrade it to carry airplanes.</p> <p>The latest argument against carriers is that even if sea control is the preferred doctrine, it can be achieved by developing islands as bases, from where aircraft, surface ships and submarines can patrol thousands of sea miles around. But carrier enthusiasts argue that carriers are essentially tools for projection of power (“100,000 tonnes of diplomacy,” as Henry Kissinger said), which cannot be achieved with shore-, submarine- or island-based platforms. Also, carriers have full-length flight decks capable of carrying, arming, deploying and recovering aircraft. A carrier battle group (CBG) that has destroyers, frigates, corvettes and submarines provides operational flexibility, with an ability to relocate up to 500 nautical miles in 24 hours. It can sanitise more than 200 nautical miles around it at any given time. Its primary missions can switch dramatically from air defence and strikes against surface ships, to strikes on shore targets and hunting submarines. “The US achieved air superiority in the Gulf War with the use of aircraft from carriers,” said a rear admiral.</p> <p>India’s first Vikrant, a 20,000-tonne vessel, played a key role in enforcing the naval blockade of East Pakistan during the 1971 war, and its Hawker Sea Hawk planes struck Chittagong and Cox’s Bazaar. Its crew earned two Maha Vir Chakras and 12 Vir Chakras. Vikrant’s successor, Viraat, did not get a chance to bloody itself in combat, but threatened to starve Pakistan with a blockade of the Arabian Sea during the Kargil war.</p> <p>General Rawat’s preference for shore-based facilities over carriers, said former navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash, was like comparing apples and oranges. “Shore-based strike has its own place to support naval operations and the aircraft carrier operating in the middle of the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean has a completely different role to play. To show that shore-based facility is a replacement of aircraft carriers is a complete fallacy,” he said.</p> <p>Naval officers say Rawat, being an Army officer, may not understand the imperatives of maritime strategy. “In an increasingly hostile operational environment, the aircraft carrier is the only platform that provides comprehensive access to littoral spaces, for surveillance and effective sea command,” said an officer.</p> <p>The Navy has been maintaining that it needs at least three carriers to fulfil the increasing demands that are made on it every day. It is now being asked to police not only the Arabian Sea against Pakistan, but also the Bay of Bengal, and virtually the entire Indian Ocean from Malacca Strait to the Persian Gulf against the Chinese and other hostile powers, including pirates, gun-runners and terrorists.</p> <p>While submarines are best for sea denial, carriers control seas and project power. “The carrier sits at the heart of India’s maritime strategy,” said Abhijit Singh, head of maritime policy initiative at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF). “Regardless of the debate surrounding [the new Vikrant], the Navy is unlikely to give up its demand for a third aircraft carrier.”</p> <p>The Navy says the cost argument is fallacious. The 65,000-tonne Vikrant, it said, will finally cost about 049,000 crore (without the aircraft), but the money has been spent over 15 years. Moreover, as the ship is expected to serve around 45 years (twice the life of any other warship), “the cost is peanuts”, said the officer.</p> <p>Vishal is expected to cost $7 billion to build, and the fighter jets, helicopters and reconnaissance aircraft will cost another $5-8 billion. Anticipating the high-cost objection, the Navy has already scaled down the number of fighters from 57 to 36.</p> <p>While India is caught in the desirability debate, China is seeking to permanently position three or four warships and submarines, including a nuclear one, in the Indian Ocean. “It is only a matter of time that this task force is replaced with a CBG,” said an officer. “By 2028, there could even be two Chinese CBGs floating around.”</p> <p>Said Admiral Prakash: “If China decides to send three aircraft carriers into the Indian Ocean, then no amount of submarines, destroyers or frigates can tackle it. Aircraft carriers are the only answer to such a situation.”</p> <p>The Navy also points out that building a carrier is in tune with the government’s Make in India policy. Today, only a handful nations—the US, Russia, Britain and France—can design and build heavy (40,000-plus tonnes) carriers; India is one of them. “A carrier-building project generates a lot of industrial skills and jobs, especially in the micro, small and medium enterprises sector,” said an officer in the Navy’s design bureau. The money spent, said the officer, will be mostly ploughed back into the country.</p> <p>Dr Harsh Pant, research fellow at ORF, said carriers should be prioritised over other capabilities. “It would boil down to an assessment of threat perceptions,” he said, “and what capabilities are best suited to manage them in the short to<br> medium term.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The latest argument against carriers is that even if sea control is the preferred doctrine, it can be achieved by developing islands as bases, from where aircraft, surface ships and submarines can patrol thousands of sea miles around.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> Fri Nov 13 12:32:10 IST 2020 vote-of-no-thanks <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>WITH JUST MONTHS</b> left for the assembly elections, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee stares at the possibility of losing a community she claims to have nurtured well.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At the forefront of the possible political realignment stands Furfura Sharif of Hooghly, a powerful Muslim shrine that had swung the community’s vote into Banerjee’s kitty in 2011.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Muslims in Bengal, who form close to 30 per cent of the population, largely follow either of two religious institutions—the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind (which conforms to the Deobandi ideology) and Furfura Sharif.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While followers of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind are found mostly in Kolkata, Howrah, a small part of North 24 Parganas and the two Dinajpur districts in north Bengal, Furfura Sharif holds sway in south Bengal—in districts such as Hooghly, Burdwan, Murshidabad and North and South 24 Parganas—which account for 120 of the 294 assembly seats.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The followers of Furfura Sharif vastly outnumber those influenced by the Jamiat, whose leader in Bengal, Siddiqullah Chowdhury, is a minister in Banerjee’s cabinet.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The strongest challenge to Banerjee comes from Abbas Siddiqui, a pirzada (religious leader) from Furfura Sharif, who has been holding congregations in remote villages of south Bengal and bashing her for not doing enough to uplift the community.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Siddiqui first saw red when eight Trinamool Congress Lok Sabha members were absent during the voting on the Citizenship Amendment Bill last year. He had asked then why the chief minister had sent “such girls to Parliament who are useless?”He was referring to two of the MPs who were actors.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Siddiqui, in his early forties, has been in touch with the Election Commission and hopes to launch a party in December. But even before that, he had put forward the idea of an alliance with Banerjee, asking for 44 seats.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) had also offered support in exchange for 50 seats. Said party state in-charge Syed Zameerul Hasan: “Ninety-four seats (AIMIM plus Siddiqui’s party) are nothing compared with the anti-incumbency she is facing. If she agrees, she can get the complete Muslim vote and defeat the BJP.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The negotiations are on, but Banerjee is apparently reluctant to share. “She wants all the power,” said Hasan. “Let the Bihar elections end. We will then have a final word with the TMC. Our party president will then decide the final course of action. Banerjee is not trustworthy.” While the Asaduddin Owaisi-led AIMIM has not started its public campaign, it has been quietly contacting Muslims in the state for a year.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Siddiqui, however, has not been so subtle. His congregations are openly political. In the past six months, he has conducted more than 40 rallies in North and South 24 Parganas.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“I do not need her (Banerjee),” he said. “I have told her that if she wants to keep the BJP at bay, she must come to an understanding with my party.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Traditionally, Furfura Sharif leaders had been close to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) after independence. The shift happened because of the Sachar committee reports of 2006, which painted a bleak picture for Muslims in Bengal. The leaders then sided with Banerjee in the next elections in the hope of a better future.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Siddiqui and his followers, however, believe that she has not done nearly enough. “For the past 10 years, the chief minister has done nothing good, not only for the Muslims, but also the poor dalits and adivasis,” said Siddiqui. “In fact, we are worse than before.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Muhammad Yahya, chairman of the Bengal Imams’ Association, agreed that there had been “hardly any change” in the past decade, but added, “At this moment, I doubt the efficacy of any political outfit emerging for Muslims as we face other threats. It is difficult to become successful.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That Siddiqui was a threat to Banerjee became evident when Trinamool workers reportedly attacked his congregation in Bhangar (South 24 Parganas) last month. “Yes, he speaks on politics in his religious meetings, and there can be arguments made against it,” said Mosharaf Hossain, a social activist in Bhangar. “But, no one should forget that he is our religious guru. People have not taken the attack on him lightly.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In that light, Siddiqui told THE WEEK that if he did not reach an understanding with Banerjee, the chances of which seem high, he would put up candidates in most Muslim-majority constituencies.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“You call her a Muslim lover,” he said. “But the way she tortured my Muslim workers and throttled democracy in Bengal is beyond imagination. I do not think after this [attack] there would be any chance of an alliance.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What about an alliance with Owaisi? “I have respect for him,” said Siddiqui. “But a decision on an alliance will be taken after I consult my party.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Not all in Furfura Sharif are happy with Siddiqui’s moves. “What he is doing is will help the BJP,” said his uncle, Toha Siddiqui. “How could he do that? We are totally frustrated.” He said that while some people do understand that Siddiqui might split the Muslim vote and help the BJP, a majority of Muslims in the rural belt still support him.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Perhaps,” said Hossain, “they are more concerned about the corruption during Cyclone Amphan, handling of the pandemic and lack of development than the emergence of the BJP.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sources said Siddiqui would string together an alliance with the AIMIM, various adivasi organisations in Bengal, particularly in Burdwan, Birbhum and North and South 24 Parganas. The AIMIM would field its candidates in the northern districts.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In pre-independence India, the Muslim League had successfully brought together Muslims and downtrodden Hindu castes. “Those times were different” said Yahya. “Today is sharply different from those times—politically, historically and geographically.” He added that the dalits of today might not respond to the call for an alliance with Muslims.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Mohammed Salim said that, for any talks to take place, Siddiqui would first have to assure them that he would not ally with either the Trinamool or the BJP.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As the Trinamool currently controls the Muslim vote, a dip of even 5 to 10 per cent in the community’s support would land Banerjee in trouble. And she knows that. A few months ago, Banerjee started giving stipends to Hindu priests and doles to Durga Puja committees. She had earlier given money to Muslim clerics, but this was routed through the state waqf board.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“How can she give money from the government exchequer to Hindu priests or any other religious heads?” said Siddiqui. “Our Imam did not beg her. They are getting their rights from waqf properties.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Siddiqui has a clear agenda for Bengal. He will campaign for a liquor ban, death sentence for rapists and the handing over of Muslim and adivasi properties to the communities. “Muslims are not even recruited in government madrassas in Bengal,”said Siddiqui. “For long, [Banerjee] has been hitting us with the fear of the BJP. Those days have ended.”</p> Fri Nov 06 18:55:04 IST 2020