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What’s wrong if we gave info: Venkaiah Naidu asks on India “lobbying” for ratings upgrade

New Delhi: There is nothing wrong in the government presenting facts before an international ratings agency, Information and Broadcasting Minister M Venkaiah Naidu said today, striking a defiant note on being asked about reports that the government had “lobbied” Moody’s for a ratings upgrade and failed. This is perhaps the first time the government has acknowledged that it was in some dialogue with Moody’s for a rating review, though the minister did not take the name of the rating agency.

A Reuters report had said last week that while India criticised Moody’s ratings methods and pushed aggressively for an upgrade, the U.S.-based agency declined to budge citing concerns over the country’s debt levels and fragile banks. Winning a better credit rating on India’s sovereign debt would have been a much-needed endorsement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s economic stewardship, helping to attract foreign investment and accelerate growth.

File photo of Venkaiah Naidu. PTIFile photo of Venkaiah Naidu. PTI

File photo of Venkaiah Naidu. PTI

Previously unpublished correspondence between the Finance Ministry and Moody’s shows New Delhi failed to assuage the ratings agency’s concerns about the cost of its debt burden and a banking sector weighed down by $136 billion in bad loans, the piece went on to say.

On November 16, Moody’s affirmed its Baa3 issuer rating for India, while maintaining a positive outlook, saying the government’s efforts had not yet achieved conditions that would support an upgrade.

“Any agency rates on the basis of information available. What’s wrong if we gave information, placed facts before this agency? Rating is still done by them,” Naidu said while addressing media on achievements of two-and-a-half years of the Modi government.

In letters and emails written in October, the finance ministry questioned Moody’s methodology, saying it was not accounting for a steady decline in the India’s debt burden in recent years. It said the agency ignored countries’ levels of development when assessing their fiscal strength.

Rejecting those arguments, Moody’s said India’s debt situation was not as rosy as the government maintained and its banks were a cause for concern.

To another question on whether the Rs 2000 note will be withdrawn soon, Naidu said that concerns over this note being misused and RSS ideologue S Gurumurthy’ suggestion that it be withdrawn “will be kept in mind”. Does this mean the government will take Gurumurthy’s advice and put this particular currency denomination out of circulation soon?

This piece quotes an interview Gurumurthy gave to a television channel to say that the Rs 2,000 note was introduced only to meet the demand-supply gap after Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes were sucked out of circulation. And that the banks would be asked to hold back Rs 2,000 notes and replace them with lower denomination notes eventually.

Naidu gave out many statistics to buttress his assertion that the two-and-a-half years of the Modi government have been more productive than decades of Opposition rule.

Some stats:

The General insurance industry saw 29 percent growth with premium collection of Rs 9162.81 crore for the month of November.

Rabi sowing increased by 6.37 percent, number of foreign tourists was up by 9.3 percent and foreign exchange earnings increased by 14.4 percent this year

1,36,427 villages declared open defecation free, over three crore toilets built under ‘Swachch Bharat’

14.7 lakh houses approved under PM Awas Yojana. The minister is also known for coining catchy slogans on the go and he did not desist today from doing so. At various points during the interaction, he coined slogans like

Demonetisation is an anti-scam vaccine

It is our endeavor to transform this Desperate India to a New India.

Our government’s endeavour is to unleash the ‘might’ of money through a white money economy

India has changed, Congressmen haven’t

From red tape earlier to red carpet (for investors, under the Modi regime)

We want to create white money, opposition wants a white paper (On demonetisation)

In reply to a question on government’s lacking focus on the entertainment sector, Naidu immediately referred to Aamir Khan starrer ‘Dangal’ which has reported high box office collections since its Christmas release, in India and abroad. It is a little ironic that the minister chose to quote collections from a film where Khan is the lead, given its reported antipathy to comments this actor made sometime ago.

This story says e-commerce major was forced by people associated with the ruling party to end Khan’s contract as a brand ambassador after his comments were criticised by the BJP.

First Published On : Dec 29, 2016 18:49 IST

IndiGo, SpiceJet aircraft came face to face at Delhi Airport: Human error, says AAI

New Delhi: So the government has now confirmed it was ATCO (Air Traffic Control Officer) error which lead to a scare at the Delhi International Airport yesterday, when two aircraft allegedly came “face to face” and pilots of both had to apply brakes. The ATCOs are overworked, said a source, as not enough of them are available at any given time. He also said the concerned ATCO has now been de-rostered and future course of action will be clear after aviation regulator DGCA completes its enquiry into the incident. This source went on to clarify that at no time was the life of passengers aboard the two aircraft in any danger and that this was an instance of human error on a day when fog delays had anyway made more work for ATCOs. In fact, the SpiceJet flight which came close to the IndiGo aircraft had been holding departure for a long time due to low visibility.

In a rare statement, the Airports Authority of India (AAI) – which houses ATC function – said this evening that human error lead to a traffic conflict situation but there was no risk to passengers. “Indigo Airlines flight No 6E-769 from Lucknow to Delhi, after landing on runway-28 was taxing via Taxiway ‘E2’ for parking stand 12 as advised by ATC. Departing flight of SpiceJet Airlines No SG123 was not able to take-off from runway 28 due to poor visibility i.e. weather being below minima and therefore was waiting to return to Apron for parking.

Representational image. ReutersRepresentational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Accordingly the Controller instructed SG123 to taxi via taxiway C” and hold short of the taxiway ‘E2’ so that Indigo flight 6E-769 and SpiceJet flight SG123 would not conflict with each other. The traffic density being high and complex, the Air Traffic Controller inadvertently gave instructions to SG123 (the SpiceJet flight) to continue taxi via E to stand 130, mixing its location with the location of SG263 (another SpiecJet flight) which was holding on another taxiway ‘E’ for departure. However, SG123 also did not question the incomplete ATC instruction for taxing. These human errors resulted into traffic conflict situation. However, both aircraft stopped at safe distance and there was no risk to aircraft or passengers.”

The AAI further asserted that continuous efforts are being made by it to offset such human errors through Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), recurrent training to the controllers and introducing technology. “It may be noted that safety record of ATC provided by Airports Authority of India at Indian airports has been very good and comparable to best in the world.”

Yesterday, there was another incident at Goa airport which also made headlines. Early morning, 9W 2374 Goa-Mumbai Jet Airways’ flight “veered off the runway while aligning for takeoff”, the airline tweeted. It later said 12 passengers had sustained injuries and still later, it said all but five have been discharged. This incident made Goa’s Dabolim airport unoperational for a few hours.

A regulatory source had told Firstpost yesterday that the Goa incident is being treated as an accident and a team from Air Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB) will reach Goa by the evening to begin inquiries. This person also said a preliminary idea about what caused the aircraft to turn 180 degrees will be there only by Thursday. And Civil Aviation MInister A Gajapathi Raju tweeted that “thorough time-bound investigation and corrective action shall be ensured. Action will also be taken in case there is violation of procedures”.

The government knows that overworked ATCOs and the ‘human error’ factor could prove costly for aviation safety. Remember, India was downgraded by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the United States in 2014 for failing to have enough safety personnel and a restoration of the rating took many months.

The Air Traffic Control (ATC) is still short staffed. Sources tell us the manpower need is 3600 personnel and only about 2900 have been recruited till now. “These positions are being filled,”said an AAI official. A short staffed ATC apart, this story from Bloomberg quotes data from India’s safety regulator DGCA to say that air safety incidents which prompted regulatory action reached 280 this year till August, beating the 275 all of last year. It went on to predict that “At this pace, the number may rise to more than 400 by the end of 2016, making it the worst in three years for aviation safety”.

India is one of the fastest growing aviation markets across the globe and any increase in safety related incidents is obviously a cause for worry. DGCA officials say there is no cause for worry and incidents sometimes happen due to the “human” factor. They also add that the country is following all internationally mandated safety protocols.

Earlier this month, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her party TMC had created a furore by alleging that an IndiGo flight carrying the CM was not allowed priority landing at Kolkata airport despite the pilots seeking emergency landing due to a fuel shortage. This was stoutly denied by the airline, which said there was probably a miscommunication between the flight crew and the ATC about how much fuel the flight was left with. Instead of seeking an explanation from the ATC personnel, aviation regulator DGCA grounded IndiGo pilots in this case.

According to data provided by MoS Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha in Lok Sabha earlier this month, there were 409 safety violations by the crew of scheduled, non-scheduled and general aviation aircraft in the last three years.

First Published On : Dec 28, 2016 18:57 IST

India-Pakistan ties: Modi’s birthday wishes to Sharif don’t signal policy change

Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote a post in his Twitter account on Sunday:

His birthday wishes to his Pakistani counterpart have rekindled hopes that the stalled negotiations between India and Pakistan are about to resume. At least this, a section in the Pakistani press believes.

In fact, Pakistan’s Express Tribune has quoted an Indian diplomat in today’s edition saying that the Indian premier might review his current strategy towards Pakistan and offer another ‘olive branch’, possibly after state elections in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, scheduled to be held in March. The Indian diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity to the Pakistani publication, said that although the current public sentiment was not in favour of talks with Pakistan unless the issue of alleged cross-border terrorism was addressed, Modi knew how to galvanise public opinion.

“Whenever he (Modi) makes any overture to Pakistan, rest assured it will not be half-hearted,” the diplomat is quoted to have said.

Incidentally, last Friday, India’s external affairs ministry spokesman Vikas Swarup had said that India was prepared for talks with Pakistan, provided the latter ensured a peaceful atmosphere. “We have never refused talks, but Pakistan has to ensure a peaceful atmosphere. Pakistan needs to stop supporting terrorism. Pakistan should create a healthy atmosphere for talks,” he had said. In other words, the spokesman had clearly pointed out preconditions that Pakistan must fulfill before the resumption of bilateral talks by the two countries’ diplomats.

Against this background, how does one view Modi offering an olive branch through his birthday wishes? First of all, was it an olive branch at all as the Pakistani press suggests? Any answer to this question should be viewed in a historical context.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif. AFP

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif. AFP

India and Pakistan have fought four times, threatened each other many a time and quarrel most of the time. In between, they have talked of peace, negotiated some confidence building measures (CBMs) such as Liaqat-Nehru Pact (1950), Indus Water Treaty (1960), Simla Agreement (1972), Lahore Declaration (1999), Lahore-Delhi Bus Service, the “cricket diplomacy,” the resumption of the dialogue (Composite Bilateral Dialogue) between Pakistan and India in 2004. But then some crisis or other – in the form of war or a war-like situation – emerges. As a result, all the CBMs become null and void, the notable exceptions being the Indus water sharing treaty, the annual exchanges of the lists each other’s nuclear installations and notifying each other in advance in respect of ballistic missile flight tests.

And when the environment becomes little more manageable, mostly due to pressure from the civil society in both the countries and international demands, their leaders once again renegotiate, mainly to restore some of the CBMs that existed earlier. But again a new crisis in their bilateral relations invariably emerges. So the cycle goes on.

The above pattern has been noticed under the Modi regime too. Case in point: Remember how Modi had invited Sharif for his swearing-in ceremony. It was under his regime that last year (6 December) Indian and Pakistani officials, led by their respective national security advisers (Ajit Doval of India and Lt Gen (Retd) Nasser Khan Janjua of Pakistan) met at the neutral venue of Bangkok “secretly” to facilitate the foreign minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Pakistan on 8 December (even though it was shown as attending the Heart of Asia Conference). The Bangkok parley, perhaps, was the first instance of Indian and Pakistan officials utilising a neutral venue.

Going by the joint press release of the Bangkok meeting, “Discussions covered peace and security, terrorism, Jammu and Kashmir, and other issues, including tranquility along the LoC.” In other words, the talks, which lasted about four hours dealt with all important issues pertaining to bilateral relations. And that explains why though led by the NSAs, the talks also included the two foreign secretaries – S Jaishankar and his Pakistani counterpart Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhary.

However, the biggest peace gesture on the part of Modi was his stop-over at Lahore and a visit to Pakistan Prime Minister’s House there on 25 December last year on his return journey to Delhi from Kabul. For this gesture, Modi was criticised vehemently by the opposition parties in the country. But all these “peace overtures” of the Modi regime did not lead to the intended results.

Maybe Nawaz Sharif was helpless in reciprocating Modi’s sentiments, given Pakistan’s peculiar decision-making structure in which, it is the Army, not the elected leadership, that dictates the country’s policy towards India. And the results were there to be seen – terrorist attacks in Pathankot, Uri, Nagrota; relentless ceasefire violations on the line of control by Pakistan; and the months-long civil uprisings in the Kashmir valley sponsored by the Pakistani establishment.

But then, all this has been only one part of the story.

The other part of the story has been that unlike his predecessors, Modi has brought about some significant changes in the nuances in his approach towards Pakistan in this atmosphere of “no-talks”.

Whereas all his predecessors, including his party’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had only stressed on “Pakistan’s international isolation” following every major terrorists attack on India, Modi has gone steps ahead and simultaneously pursued threats and retaliatory measures against Pakistan. He has talked openly about Pakistan’s vulnerabilities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan; exposed Pakistan’s misdeeds in Pak-occupied- Kashmir, including Gilgit-Baltistan; and suggested the possibility of relooking at Indus-Water sharing treaty, hitherto considered unimaginable. Above all, the Modi government took a strategic decision at the apex level to go across the “Line of Control” to strike at the multiple terrorist bases simultaneously(so-called surgical strikes), as distinct from the previous routine retaliatory raids on other sides , all tactical decisions taken at the local commanders’ levels.

In other words, Modi is pursuing, to borrow American scholar Sumit Ganguly’s phrase, a ‘strategy of deterrence by punishment’, which implies that “Any time Pakistan provokes, be prepared to exact a cost”. The idea here is that if Pakistan realises that its misadventure against India has a cost involved(which Modi’s predecessors were not firm enough to extract), then it may be deterred. Of course, Ganguly, who has authored the recently released book titled “Deadly Impasse: Indo-Pakistani Relations at the Dawn of a New Century”, cautions that there is always that uncertain threshold of nuclear blackmail by Pakistan in this approach, but then “the strategy of deterrence by punishment” is worth pursuing.

And finally, in my considered view the most important change that has marked India’s policy towards Pakistan under Modi is questioning the very formula that was evolved by the then I K Gujral regime – the formula of pursuing the so-called “composite dialogue” that is aimed at building confidence building measures (CBMs) and “simultaneously” solving the “core disputes”, which for Pakistan is the solution of the so-called Kashmir dispute and for India is ending cross-border terrorism.

This is a formula that has not been practiced by two contending powers anywhere in the diplomatic history of the world. The CBMs are first attained so as to make the atmosphere conducive for the solution of the dispute; they lead to the solution, not otherwise. If there is the solution of the dispute or there is no dispute, the CBMs are redundant. That is why India and China ( or any other rivals, say the USA and the then USSR during the Cold War) have always said that the eventual solution of the boundary dispute will follow improvement in bilateral relations pertaining to other areas. But in case of India-Pakistan impasse, one sees this ridiculous composite dialogue approach that talks of development of the CBMs and solution of the core disputes “simultaneously”.

Therefore, the Modi government is right when it demands that Pakistan must stop supporting terrorism before normalcy is restored in bilateral relations. The Kashmir issue should not cloud the resolution of other irritants and that the best way to resolve the Kashmir issue is creating a conducive environment, which, so goes its logic, is possible when these “other irritants” – cultural and economic interactions, combating terrorism and transparency in nuclear weapons related matters etc. – are resolved.

This being the reality, what about the question whether or not the Modi government going to resume talks with Pakistan? Talks or no talks, Islamabad cannot satisfy New Delhi’s concerns over terrorism – in fact, it will never say that “terrorists” in Kashmir are not “freedom fighters”. On India’s part, it cannot satisfy Pakistan’s expectations in Kashmir – No government in Delhi will ever have courage to say that Kashmir is not the “inseparable “ part of India. In other words, there is that problem of “trust deficit” between the two countries. And as long as this deficit is there, the two countries will continue to engage in diplomatic shadowboxing, the intensity of which may vary from time to time.

First Published On : Dec 26, 2016 18:39 IST

Parasmal Lodha in ED net: How the deal-maker and influencer became a commoner

At an undisclosed lockup, Parasmal Lodha — known for his fetish for limousines, priceless watches, Cognac and mahogany beds — sleeps on the floor covered with prickly blankets, his meals comprise flatbread and lentils.

Officials of the Enforcement Directorate, who arrested Lodha on charges of illegally re-routing cash to make it look legal (read hawala), showed no mercy to the 60 year-old influencer, rejecting all pleas for special treatment, including home-cooked food. Lodha, claimed sources within the probe agency, did not like being treated as a commoner. To the wealthy across India, he was — over two decades — known as the three-word man: “Get it Done”. But now, Lodha had no choice.

“It’s interesting to see him in such a condition. In 40 years, life has turned full circle for Lodha and his crimes,” quipped an ED official, in an apparent hint about Lodha’s initial years when he had arrived in Kolkata in 1977 as a carpetbagger and sold stuffed betel leaves and flavoured paan masala in front of Poddar Court, an imposing building close to Lalbazar police headquarters.

Old-timers in Kolkata recall how Lodha and Nandu Pasari, a dealer of Raymond suitings, grew in stature and, of the two, Lodha started doing small-time brokering on behalf of Arun Poddar, owner of Poddar Court.

Parasmal Lodha being taken to court last week. PTI

Parasmal Lodha being taken to court last week. PTI

Lodha, thanks to Poddar, increased his network among Kolkata’s Marwari community, and using their financial prowess, wanted to take over the Peerless Group, then India’s largest residuary non-banking company, in 1987 by acquiring 50 percent of its shares and a seat on its board.

Chairman of Peerless PC Sen had complained to the Kolkata Police that Lodha had offered his staff loads of cash but when refused, Lodha even threatened to kill him using his contact with Dawood Ibrahim. Lodha was questioned by the cops but eventually let off. However, his attempt failed as the Left Front and Congress jointly staved off his bid —  CPM leader Somnath Chatterjee and Congress leader Priya Ranjan Das Munshi joined hands — and Lodha’s stake was down to 30 percent.

However, the Peerless misadventure proved to be the biggest springboard for Lodha, who was now seen as the best face for “deals and negotiations” in Kolkata, some in Delhi and Mumbai were also calling him for consultations.

But then came the second jolt when 43 people were charred to death in a deadly inferno that swept through the multi-storeyed Stephen Court in the heart of Kolkata in March, 2010. Lodha was rumoured to be the actual owner of the building, where he had flouted several rules and even built two extra floors bribing his way through. A team of the Kolkata Police had also arrested Sanjay Bagaria, the son-in-law of industrialist GP Goenka — a friend of Lodha’s — from a guest house of a paper mill in Saharanpur, in August 2010. Bagaria was one of the directors of Stephen Court Limited — the century-old architectural heritage building on the upmarket Park Street in Kolkata — and had gone missing after the inferno swept through the building. Interestingly, Lodha managed to extricate himself from the incident.

“Lodha had — by the mid-1090s — moved from Kolkata to Delhi and acquired expensive properties, including a huge farmhouse where he entertained guests,” said ED sources.

Among his friends were a host of retired judges with considerable influence on the judiciary, many cabinet ministers, corporate captains, and sons of the then prime minister PV Narasimha Rao. Lodha was a regular at the PMO in South Block.

Lodha expanded his wings even abroad. The ED is looking into his proximity with some influential Indian families in London and Kenya, even in Australia and whether those families benefitted from Lodha’s largesse. Having helped a top Indian conglomerate when his business deals in Australia went sour, Lodha was also seen in the forefront of a group helping a London-based family solve teething problems in its automobile business.

“He was seen as the ultimate saviour who knew the routes to instant cash. He wanted to try his hand into everything, including films,” claimed ED officials. It is reliably learnt that it was Lodha who helped the influential Renu Roy garner cash to finance Rituparna Ghosh’s award winning film, Unishey April, in 1994. He even lobbied for Roy to become the first woman president of Kolkata’s prestigious Saturday Club in 2007-2008, raising many eyebrows in the city.

ED officials claim Lodha had been under the scanner for almost a decade but “serious tracking” by the agencies started when it was claimed that he was the front to re-route financial packages offered by the Indian government to ailing jute mills in Bengal. Many jute mill owners were accused of diverting Central funds without refurbishing the jute mills. Some were also slicing off portions of jute mills into real estate zones. “Lodha was thick in it,” claimed ED officials.

Lodha also worked with influential Marwari tycoons in Kolkata who wanted to acquire heritage buildings close to the Ganges. He had an uncanny ability to get sanctions for extra floors and eventually legalise them by paying hefty bribes to the cops, state government officials and civic authorities. He was then jokingly called “Extra Floor Lodha”.

But his interests in real estate dimmed in late 1990s amd he shifted to cash re-routing, lobbying with the judiciary and started negotiating with many across India. Instead of shuttling regularly between Delhi and Kolkata, his new destinations now were Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad and Ahmedabad. Bollywood interested him immensely, Lodha often used small-time Bollywood actresses and models to impress his clients. Barely 10 days before his arrest, Lodha was in touch with a Bollywood starlet whose services he wanted for two of his clients.

It wasn’t just cinema and actors, however, as Lodha showed an interest in owning news channels. Always ready to strike a deal and completing it successfully, he was then known as “Deal Done Lodha”. He was always interested in the end result, often telling his conduits in simple words: “Kaam Hona Chahiye” which translates to “The work must happen”.

His name cropped up when many in Kolkata were being interrogated by the CBI in the Sharada scam. Lodha — or so claimed those who were interrogated — had urged them to sell licences to run news channels to Sudipta Sen of Sharada, promising them “high value deals” because of his clout with Sudipta.

Arrested last Thursday from the Mumbai Airport while trying to flee to Malaysia, allegedly for illegally converting demonetised notes worth Rs 25 crore into new currency for Chennai sand baron J Sekhar Reddy and lawyer Rohit Tandon, Lodha started showing his clout at the airport, virtually naming the entire UPA-I and UPA-II Cabinets and some ministers of the ruling NDA-led government as his friends. “His handset and messages folder looked like an encyclopaedia,” said a top source.

ED officials were tracking Lodha after New Delhi’s demonetisation moves, and eventually a dossier was prepared on the hawala trader and influencer, and clearances were sought from the Ministry of Home Affairs. “His huge influence was indeed a cause of worry for us,” claimed the ED officials.

No more.

Inside the ED lockup, Lodha is unable to crack a deal and nothing is happening to his satisfaction. He does not even have his expensive watch to see if time is on his side.

First Published On : Dec 26, 2016 12:38 IST

Fake news in review: Here are the top 10 forwards Indians (almost) believed in 2016

By Alison Saldanha

From currency to salt–very little escaped the reach of fake or fabricated news in 2016. Rumours spread from WhatsApp and other social media into the mainstream media. Institutions such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) had to step in and tell us what was true. Even Facebook and Google, two of the world’s biggest Internet companies, sat up and took notice.

Such news can have widespread reach: India is one of the biggest markets for several social media and communication companies–it has 160 million of WhatsApp’s one billion-plus monthly active users, 148 million Facebook users, and over 22 million Twitter accounts.

The potency of fabricated news came into focus after the 2016 US presidential elections. In the run-up to the ballot, fake news on the elections drew more engagement on Facebook than top-performing stories from major news outlets such as The New York Times, CNN, NBC News, or The Wall Street Journal, this BuzzFeed News analysis found. Other countries witnessed the rise of fake news too, according to this Guardian report, rendering it a global phenomenon in 2016.

Here are some of the most popular Indian fake news stories of 2016:

Unesco declares PM Modi best Prime Minister

Unesco has been one of the primary alleged sources of fake news in India. In June 2016, fake news broke out on WhatsApp groups, and other social media, that the UN cultural agency had awarded Prime Minister Narendra Modi the title of best prime minister in the world.

That rumour is still circulating on social media:

World billiards champion Pankaj Advani shared the news on Twitter congratulating PM Modi.

After media organisations pointed out the news was a hoax, Twitterati trolled Advani leading him to post this rebuttal:

Unesco declares Jana Gana Mana best national anthem

Another favourite Indian rumour involving Unesco is the claim that India’s national anthem–Jana Gana Mana–has been declared the “Best National Anthem In The World”. The fake news started in 2008 through email and then caught the UN agency’s attention. “We are aware of several blogs in India reporting this story, but can assure you that Unesco has made no such announcement concerning the anthem of India or any country,” a Unesco official told India Today in 2008.

Circulation of the rumour peaked around India’s Independence Day in 2016:

Unesco declares new Rs 2,000 note best currency in the world

Another fake Unesco certificate for India touched upon the notebandi crisis, as messages claimed the organisation had certified the new Rs 2,000 note as the “best currency in the world”. The message, shared widely on WhatsApp, claimed “Dr. Saurabh Mukherjee, head of cultural awareness department of Unesco announced this to media.”

The rumours caught the eye of the BBC, which reported that “thousands” of Indian WhatsApp users had “forwarded the message along with joyful emojis”.

New notes have a GPS chip to detect black money

Another notebandi rumour proliferated when PM Modi announced the withdrawal of old Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 notes on 8 November, 2016. In less than an hour, rumours circulating on WhatsApp of a nano geo-positioning system (GPS) tracking device embedded in the new Rs 2,000 notes gained traction. This chip, the messages said, would alert authorities if black money was hoarded .

The nano-GPS chip does not need any power source, the forward said, according to this Firstpost report. “It only acts as a signal reflector. When a Satellite sends a signal requesting location the NGC reflects back the signal from the location, giving precise location coordinates, and the serial number of the currency back to the satellite, this way every chip-embedded currency can be easily tracked & located even if it is kept 120 meters below ground level. The NGC can’t be tampered with or removed without damaging the currency note.” Mobile currency-scanner apps emerged claiming the app can scan new notes and have these authenticated by RBI, according to this Firstpost report.

The RBI has clarified the new notes contain security features such as latent images, coloured strip security threads, watermarks etc, but they do not have a chip installed, according to this The Hindu report.

Still, rumours are rampant. Recent news of authorities tracing hoards of illegally-held new notes seems to have further fanned rumours, and more YouTube videos explaining the placement of chips in the new notes are circulating on social media.

New notes have radioactive ink

Notebandi provided more fodder for fake news. Earlier this month, rumours began circulating that the RBI was using radioactive ink to print new Rs 2,000 and Rs 500 notes. The new notes include a “radioactive isotope of phosphorous (P32), which has 15 protons and 17 neutrons”. The fake news claimed the income-tax department was using the isotope to trace large quantities of cash held at a particular spot. The trace amounts of radioactive isotope employed in this exercise were not harmful to humans, according to WhatsApp messages, as FirstPost reported.

Even some banks fell prey to notebandi-related rumours, and were called out on Twitter.

WhatsApp profile pictures can be used by IS for terror activities

A WhatsApp forward, supposedly sent by the Delhi police commissioner, requested “moms” and “sisters” to delete their WhatsApp profile pictures for security purposes. These pictures were supposedly vulnerable to misuse by the terror group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS), whose hackers had access to citizens’ details and could easily steal their virtual identity, according to the forwarded message. The message further claimed that WhatsApp’s CEO had requested users do this for 20-25 days, while their team worked on enhancing the messaging application’s security features.

The message was signed off by an AK Mittal, who claimed to be Delhi’s police commissioner, but the phone number mentioned in the message had since been marked as “blacklisted” in Truecaller, which a caller identification application, according to this Indian Express report.

A Reddit thread discussing the WhatsApp message is here.

 RBI declares the Rs 10 coin invalid

Months before notebandi was announced, the message that the RBI had declared the Rs 10 coin invalid spread through WhatsApp, particularly to areas in Agra, Delhi and Meerut.

This confusion led shopkeepers, kiosk-owners, auto-rickshaw drivers and vendors to refuse the coins, according to this Hindustan Times report from September 2016.

In June 2016, the RBI had issued a new Rs 10 coin. At that time, rumours had spread that the old coins would now no longer be valid. WhatsApp messages made other claims too–two kinds of counterfeit coins have flooded the market, and that the RBI was phasing the coins out because of widespread circulation of fake currency–according to this Business Standard report. The RBI stepped in and clarified that the coins were indeed legal tender and those refusing to accept the currency could face legal action.

After the withdrawal of Rs 14 lakh crore–the value of bank notes withdrawn on November 8, 2016–the rumour resurfaced in Odisha, spreading panic and adding to the currency chaos as vendors refused to accept the coins, according to this NDTV report from November 2016.

Jayalalithaa’s ‘secret daughter’ and heir lives in the US

Soon after the death of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, fake news and photos of a secret daughter went viral on WhatsApp and social media. The message alleged that the woman in the photograph was Jayalalithaa’s daughter, who lived somewhere in the US in anonymity.

As it turns out, the woman in the photograph was not connected to Jayalalithaa and lived in Australia, according to popular singer and TV show host Chinmayi Sripada, who took to Facebook to dispel the rumours.

“She belongs to the family of renowned Mridangam Vidwan V Balaji,” wrote Sripada. Musician Trivandrum V Balaji also clarified that the woman in the photo was his sister-in-law.

Salt shortage in India

WhatsApp messages of a salt shortage (despite a 7,517 km coastline) in November 2016 triggered panic buying at markets past midnight, and caused a four-fold price-rise in some parts of the country. Western Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Maharashtra and Hyderabad were particularly affected by this bit of fake news, said news reports. The subsequent chaos to stock up on the essential commodity led to the death of a woman in Kanpur, while police baton-charged crowds and stopped mobs from looting grocery shops, according to this India Today report.

The government issued a clarification denying any shortage of the commodity. “We monitor the prices of 22 essential commodities on daily basis. As per the prices reported by centres from across the country, there has been no increase in price of salt whatsoever,” the department of consumer affairs said in a statement, as quoted in this The Times of India report.

Speaking at an event in Goa, PM Modi claimed the fake news was being circulated by “vested interests hurt by demonetization”, according to this IANS report. The prime minister’s claim is unverified.

“Nehru Govt has stood like a Banyan Tree”: Mark Tully

Fake news claiming former BBC India bureau chief Mark Tully called for support to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, while describing India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s government as standing “like a banyan tree, overshadowing the people and the institutions of India”, went viral on social media earlier this month. “Nothing grows under the banyan tree,” the message added.

The fake Facebook post reads: “For a year or so we may witness more of Dadris, more of Kaniyahas, more of Owaisi style shouting but finally if the *Society keeps its cool, acts maturely* and continues to perform we will sail through and the old forces will die a natural death.” The post claimed Tully made these statements while discussing “changes happening in MODI’S regime” in his new book, No Full Stops in India.

Tully rebutted the claims of the post in this Hindustan Times column, though the post still appears to be in circulation. Not everyone believed the statements were authentic but some did ask for confirmation, he wrote: “But some did think they were authentic, a few even congratulated me. The fact that people could believe such obvious fakes were genuine indicates the power of fake news…If the reports had been more credible, less absurd, my credibility would have been severely damaged.”

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First Published On : Dec 26, 2016 09:28 IST

Demonetisation deadline: Does govt has no plan to get back crores of NRI ‘white money’?

Despite all the love sprayed on NRIs and those multiple Pravasi Divas conventions held in various parts of the country for various ministers to iterate their love for Indians abroad the week of good cheer is a bit soured.

With good reason. As airlines hike up the cost of tickets by nearly 250 percent (from the Gulf for sure) and families largely opt to stay home there is also a tangible sense of loss from the enormous vat of Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 notes lying around the diaspora.

Awash in cash? PTIAwash in cash? PTI

Awash in cash? PTI

Assessed officially at 30 million people but probably higher by another five million with about Rs 5,000 being taken as the modest average lying with each person it comes to a sizeable Rs 15,000 crore and running.

Most of us keep a reasonable amount in high denomination notes with Rs 25,000 being the outer limit as per law to avoid delays at Indian airports in making foreign exchange and simply pull out the wads that have been lying under shirts and saris or used biscuit and chocolate tins to take a cab home and, in case banks are closed, have enough for Day One and Two.

The stories of long queues and no money and cards not working have made for a change in touching the base.

Relatives in the home country already stretched to breaking point are also not too keen to having us descend upon them en masse.

Rumours and half-truths that the government is listening to last moment pleas from community representatives for a delay in the 30 December deadline for these notes to be vacuumed in don’t seem to have much grounds and the odds are the Not Required Indian will stay not required. Perhaps in the grand scheme of things the sum from NRIs is not astronomical but why lose it.

The Customs form allows us to bring in Rs 25,000 though most of us carry less on each visit. And we do not take back much, just the leftover financial debris of the holiday.

This year the stress level has a different texture to it. For one, there is this fear that carrying banned notes might cause hassles at points of entry. No one wants to be taken aside because they are carrying six or seven crumpled notes. There is no logic in the fear but it exists anyway…there have been enough scare stories on the social platforms to make everyone a little concerned…and hugely confused.

And it does not make sense spending Rs 30,000 per passenger and more for a Y class ticket to make the end of the year deadline when such a low cast carrier ticket usually goes for Rs 10,000 or thereabouts. The situation as it stands is that these Rs 150 billion will be consumed by the clock. Come to think of it, the total is probably much more.

That these crores are going to be largely lost to the exchequer seems to be of no concern to the authorities. Even blue-collar labour has a note or two, often placed in their wallets for good luck by tearful parents sending their sons and daughters to foreign shores when they leave home…a kind of ‘shagun’ that has now lost its meaning.

You would think that one of the mandarins in the Ministry of Overseas Affairs would say, uh oh, that is a lot of money let’s create a blueprint for getting it back and instruct all banks to allow these monies to be sent by courier to the accounts up to Rs 25,000 and let it be accepted.

After all, look at the delicious irony. It is not black money. it is bright, shiny, pristine white money that people want to return.

Allowed to be in our possession by law. So why are NRIs being penalised indirectly for not breaking the law. Echo answers who?

First Published On : Dec 23, 2016 19:37 IST

Sixteen years since LeT attacked Red Fort: All you need to know about the terror attack

From Jawaharlal Nehru’s historic “At the stroke of midnight” speech on India’s independence day in 1947 to Narendra Modi‘s fiery “India will not bow before terrorism” address, Delhi’s Red Fort has always been witness to the greatest moments in Indian history. It has borne the marks of time and watched centuries of change sweep through the country.

But 16 years ago, it was on this day that the premises of the majestic fort were shaken up by gunshots, as Lashkar-e-Taiba militants shelled the military shelter inside the fort, killing two soldiers and one civilian.

The historic Red Fort is pictured in the old quarters of Delhi, India. Reuters

The historic Red Fort in the old quarters of Delhi, India. Reuters

The assault and the conspiracy

On a winter evening on 22 December, 2000, LeT militants sneaked into the Red Fort on the pretext of watching the light-and-sound show that retells the tale of the historic structure. According to a report in The Hindusix militants, with their arms hidden under leather jackets, entered the Red Fort around 7 pm through the Lahore Gate, the main entrance to the historic structure. They headed to watch the show scheduled for 7:30 pm. However, they later sneaked into the military shelters under the cover of darkness and fog.

According to another report in The Times of India, around 9 pm, the militants started firing indiscriminately on the guards of seventh battalion of Rajputana Rifles, killing two soldiers and a civilian guard. The militants then escaped through the Fort’s rear wall.

According to the report, the conspiracy was hatched in Pakistan and funded by top LeT operatives. The report further states that funds were transferred to terrorists through a Delhi-based hawala account operator, who was later nabbed by the Delhi police.

The Hindu report states that the prime accused, Ashfaq Ahmed, set up his base in India and opened a computer centre in Gaffur market as a cover for his activities. He then contacted five other terrorists — Abu Samal, Abu Sadd, Abu Sakhar, Billal and Haider, and set them up at a rented house in Delhi’s Batla House area. The terrorists did a recce of the Red Fort, it being a prominent tourist spot.

Ashfaq was later nabbed by the Delhi police based on some notes recovered from behind the Red Fort, according to the report.

The militants, the report states, had come to India on the behest of Pakistan’s intelligence wing ISI in 2000. The prime accused Ashfaq Ahmed, lodged at Tihar jail since 2000, came to India and married Rehmana Yousuf Farooqui, a girl of Indian origin. Rehmana was also arrested as she was reportedly in full knowledge of Ashfaq’s plan and assisted him. Another militant was later killed in an encounter on 26 December.

The legal battle

The Delhi police, after conducting an enquiry in the matter, finally filed a chargesheet against Ashfaq and 21 others in February 2001. However, the special sessions court hearing the matter framed charges only against 11, including Ashfaq and Rehmana, according to a report in Hindustan Times. The court sentenced Ashfaq to death, while his four accomplices, including his wife, were give seven years in prison. Two more militants convicted in the case were given a life term.

Ashfaq later approached the Delhi High Court against the verdict. The high court, however, upheld the lower court’s verdict and ruled that life sentences should be awarded to Ashfaq for waging a war against the country and murdering three people.

In a rare move, the Supreme Court put Ashfaq’s death sentence on hold in April 2014, according to Live Mint. Ashfaq appealed in the apex court that he has already served 13 years in prison, and the death sentence awarded to him would therefore be akin to a double punishment for one crime. He also petitioned that he had been suffering mentally and physically due to the long delays in judicial proceedings.

The apex court’s move was deemed rare as it had, in August 2011, upheld the sentence awarded by the sessions court and termed the attack on Red Fort as a “brazen and arrogant assault to overawe India”.

However, the Supreme Court in January 2016, took cognisance of Ashfaq’s appeal and has admitted his plea for a hearing. The Constitutional bench led by Chief Justice of India TS Thakur, hearing the matter, emphasised the finality of the death sentence and agreed to an open court hearing on why his punishment should be reversed, according to a report in The Indian Express.

As of now, Ashfaq is lodged at Tihar, and is awaiting the Supreme Court’s order on his fate.

First Published On : Dec 22, 2016 21:04 IST

RSS makes debut at Jaipur Lit Fest: Using political clout to settle ideological scores is problematic

Organisers of Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) have always been a bit cowardly, vulnerable to both political blackmail and bad press.

The defining headline of their pusillanimity appeared in a Hindi daily in the winter of 2009: ‘Sahitya ke manch pe sharaab.’ The bout of hypocrisy was triggered by the moral Taliban in the media that was shocked by an innocuous sight: The great Vikram Seth sipping wine on the stage while answering questions.

Author Krishna Sobti once asked someone to show her one writer who wrote while sipping milk, underlining the relation between drinking and literature. Specifically, if press clubs across India were to ban alcohol, many media houses would be forced to hire special med staff to deal with an epidemic of post-withdrawal symptoms. So, the natural response of the JLF organisers to the unnecessary moralising would have been to raise the middle finger, double the supply of wine at the Festival and three loud cheers for Seth.

Curiously, wine disappeared from the venue the next morning. It was replaced by packaged water, still, not even sparkling. Seth, too, retreated into a shell, only to emerge two years later with a glass in hand, filled with clear liquid to come up with this gem: “Now I am careful. Nobody can tell if this is gin or water.”

The point is, if organisers of the JLF can be rattled by a few whining, er, whining journalists, what chance do they have when facing bigger, powerful adversaries — the sponsors, the government, the BJP and its ideological mentors, the RSS.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

So, this year, the RSS is making its debut at the JLF. And some of the regulars, the ones who led the award-wapsi campaign, are out. According to the Indian Express, among those taking centre-stage this year would be Akhil Bharatiya Prachar Pramukh Manmohan Vaidya and Sahsarkaryavah Dattatreya Hosabale. “It coincides with another development. Some of the most prominent writers of the award wapsi campaign that took place around the intolerance debate — including Ashok Vajpeyi, Uday Prakash and K Satchidanandan, who have been JLF regulars — have apparently not been invited this year,” the newspaper reported.

In principle, RSS “litterateurs” have every right to interact with an audience, if not for anything else, at least because a literature festival is meant to celebrate freedom of expression. But, Vaidya and Hosabale should be under no illusion that they are getting the opportunity to participate because of their contribution to literature or for authoring bestsellers that have set the Amazon on fire. In fact, the entire Sangh Parivar can’t claim to have contributed even a fraction of former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s writings that are read across the world.

The RSS “litterateurs” have been invited only because of the traditional Indian system of reservation, of accommodating some people on the high table because of who they are, not because of the merit of their work. Had Hosabale and Vaidya been such great writers, the organisers wouldn’t have waited for almost a decade to recognise their contribution or invite them. So, obviously, this is more a case of bending, curtseying and genuflecting before the powers that be. And, when you have the Zee group, headed by Subhash Chandra, sponsoring the event, a bit of tail-wagging in front of the hand that feeds the bone is understandable.

This is not the first time politicians have invaded the JLF and its dictated its agenda. In the past, the organisers have invited Kapil Sibal, Kapil Mishra and even Shazia Ilmi pontificate over literature. Even local politicians, like Vasundhara Raje and Ashok Gehlot, have often used the stage to add a bit of literary gravitas to their public persona. (I remember the shocked expression on Gehlot’s face when the discussion turned a bit colorful and some participants started using their favourite Indian maa-behen words).

The problem, of course, is the use of political clout to settle ideological scores. It is indeed a shame if some writers and authors have been blacklisted because they stood up against the BJP government for promoting a culture of intolerance by returning their awards. This is deplorable, a form of fascism that would one day remove all independent voices, leaving literature to the mercy of yes-men like Anupam Kher.

But, then nobody expects JLF organisers to stand up to political bullying. Courage of conviction has never been one of their virtues. When asked to bend, they generally end up banning a writer. A few years ago, when asked by the Congress-led Rajasthan government not to invite Salman Rushdie, the self-proclaimed patrons of free speech and independent thought had banned the controversial author from interacting with the audience through a video link from London.

They say, alcohol infuses some courage into the veins of the poltroon. Unfortunately, for organisers of the JLF, even that would not be a suitable prescription. Vikram Seth would agree.

First Published On : Dec 21, 2016 14:58 IST

Demonetisation: Jaitley claims enough cash in system, but discrepancies emerge in RBI, govt numbers

New Delhi: Several new and large discrepancies have emerged in the stated positions of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and the government on the printing and distribution of new currencies following the demonetisation of Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 notes on 8 November.

These discrepancies include a highly unlikely surge in the supply of high-denomination notes in two days. They also show substantial divergence in figures given by the central banker and those given by the government in Parliament. And finally there’s an unexplained hiatus in the supply of notes for 11 days.

Either parliament has been misled, or claims about the supply by the RBI are flawed.

Representational image. ReutersRepresentational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Let’s look at the figures in chronological order:

On 28 November, the RBI issued a press release saying that the public had withdrawn Rs 2.16 lakh crore in new notes from accounts or ATMs till 27 November. As RBI chose not to give any break-up of this amount, it is fair to assume that some of this was in lower denomination notes of Rs 100 or less.

However, according to a written reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha, the Minister of State for Finance, Arjun Ram Meghwal, categorically stated that, by 29 November, a total of 1,608 million pieces (160.8 crore) of Rs 2,000 denomination and 156 million (15.6 crore) pieces of Rs 500 had been supplied — a total of 1,764 million pieces (or 1.76 billion) amounting to a little over Rs 3.29 lakh crore. The minister’s reply came on 6 December.

There are two significant points to note here:

One, that the government’s number implies that the currency disbursal had shot up by over Rs 1.13 lakh crore in just two days. This, when the RBI had supplied Rs 2.16 lakh crore in 17 days till then — at an average of only Rs 12,700 crore a day.

Moreover, Meghwal’s number pertained only to high denomination notes, whereas the RBI number was a mix of all denominations. In other words, the discrepancy between the two sets of numbers would have been even higher if the minister’s reply in Parliament had included the smaller denomination currency notes disbursed till 29 November.

Now things begin to get even more curiouser.

On the day the monetary policy was announced (7 December), the RBI revealed a new set of disbursal figures. The Deputy Governor of RBI, R Gandhi, said a total of Rs 4 lakh crore had been disbursed as of the previous day.

Of this amount, Rs 1.06 lakh crore was in smaller denomination currency notes, according to Gandhi, while the rest — Rs 2.94 lakh crore — implicitly, was by way of high-denomination notes.

This figure of Rs 2.94 lakh crore, which was announced seven days after the date of disbursal given in Parliament reply, is substantially less than the amount of Rs 3.29 lakh crore mentioned in the minister’s written statement about supply till 29 November.

Yet again, on 12 December, Gandhi, while speaking to reporters, said that a total of 1.7 billion notes of higher denomination of Rs 2,000 and Rs 500 had been issued to the public till 10 December.

That means, a full 11 days after Meghwal’s reply that 1.76 billion high-value notes had been disbursed by 29 November, the RBI was stating that the notes given out had been less or at best the same — if one assumes that he was giving a rounded-off figure of 1.7 billion.

Was the disbursal or printing of new notes stopped from 29 November to 10 December?

How does the RBI square with these discrepancies?

Further, the government has been talking about the printing presses working overtime. Economic Affairs Secretary, Shaktikant Das, told Doordarshan in an interview on 17 December that 80 percent to 90 percent of the currency being printed a few days after the demonetisation date was of Rs 500 notes.

According to Meghwal’s information, the amount of Rs 500 notes supplied till November 29, a full 20 days after demonetisation, was only Rs 7,800 crore (15.6 crore notes).

In comparison to the value of notes that were demonetised — Rs 8.58 lakh crore — the new Rs 500 notes amount to less than one per cent (0.91 per cent).

If we take Gandhi’s words at face value, then, even on November 10 — more than a month after demonetisation came into effect — there was not much change.

Of course, the Rs 2,000 notes, which the Economic Affairs Secretary has said were being printed for “months” are considerably more in circulation.

The value of such notes supplied on 29 November was Rs 3.21 lakh crore (160.8 crore x Rs 2,000) — almost 47 per cent compared to value of Rs 6.86 lakh crore (of Rs 1,000) demonetised. But Rs 2,000 notes are not easy to spend and have created a bottleneck in the cash economy.

Again, according to Gandhi’s information, till December 10, there seems to have been no change even in the Rs 2,000 notes circulated.

The shortage of notes, it seems, would continue much beyond the 50 days that the prime minister has mentioned.

First Published On : Dec 20, 2016 15:38 IST

Next US secretary of state Rex Tillerson had advised India to explore for oil globally

Exxon Mobil chief executive Rex Tillerson flew into balmy Goa a little over a decade ago, his giant aircraft carrying loads of Evian mineral water his office had advised him to drink during his maiden India visit. But Tillerson — now US president-elect Donald Trump’s choice for the post of secretary of state — didn’t display the sort of stiff attitude expected from a person of his stature but politely asked a butler at the Taj Exotica hotel to remove stacks of Evian bottles from his table and walked across the dinning hall to pick up a Himalaya bottled water for “the perfect Indian feeling”.

Saudi Aramco chairman, Abdullah Jumah, sitting close, smiled, describing to a friend Tillerson’s choice of water as “a noble gesture” because Exxon Mobil chairmen rarely break company advice and protocol. Within seconds, he had earned the warmth of the staff of the hotel, with many appreciating his refrain of “Thank You” for the smallest of deliverances.

His keynote address at the World Oil and Gas Assembly (WOGA) — considered by many as one of the finest oil and gas conferences in Asia organised by a Norwegian media outfit — offered the best worldview for India’s beleaguered hydrocarbon sector that left many completely baffled in the ballroom, heads of Indian oil and gas companies describing Tillerson’s speech a virtual eye-opener. “He told Indian companies to boldly explore oil and gas across the world rather looking inwards,” says Narendra Taneja, a top energy expert and WOGA convenor.

File image of Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson. AP

File image of Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson. AP

Once the speech was over, those in the room were in awe of Tillerson, one of the organisers timed the standing ovation a little over three minutes. A speaker, who had had read in US journals that Tillerson’s expansive desk in the Exxon Mobil headquarters at Irving, Texas is called “God’s Own Pod” because of job’s importance, asked Tillerson if he lived in a palace like all rich Americans.

Tillerson, laughed, and said he lived with his family in a ranch outside Dallas in rural settings. “I stay in a log house, not palace, close to nature. That’s my style,” Tillerson replied.

By then, he had already told his staff how he was liking Goa and it’s beaches, the brick and mortar of the Taj hotel did not interest the world’s most powerful executive. But he made queries about the Taj Mahal in Agra and some destinations in Rajasthan, including the tiger jungles of Ranthambhore, and top tourist destinations like Jodhpur and Jaipur.

In his special meetings with Indian tycoons like Reliance Industries head Mukesh Ambani, the then petroleum secretary BK Chaturvedi (who later became the cabinet secretary in Dr Manmohan Singh’s regime) and the then ONGC chairman Subir Raha, Tillerson talked about the Indian economy, people and poverty. “He found India a fascinating country and told the richest Indian that all political parties must work together if this great nation has to make a global impact,” says Taneja, a spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Tillerson, described by his friends and foes as “Mr Perfectionist”, was once disrupted when his assistant played out a slide even before the Exxon Mobil chairman had finished making his point. “A cursory glance at the technician (a member of Tillerson’s team) was enough to freeze him in his seat,” laughs Taneja.

And before the start of the conference, Tillerson’s staff — three advance teams had done background checks of the coastal state, its facilities and security arrangements — had told their boss that his maiden visit to India could be cut short because his aircraft had given jitters to the Indian Navy which had no space for the huge plane. Interestingly, the only available space taken up by India’s liquor baron Vijay Mallaya who refused to shift his plane. Eventually, the aircraft was sent to a parking bay at the Mumbai airport. It was a clear cut deviation because as per company rules, the Exxon Mobil boss cannot stay in a city in which his aircraft is not parked.

Before landing in Goa, Tillerson had a two hour stopover in the Indian Capital where he met the then petroleum minister Ram Naik — conversation details not revealed by the minister’s office, nor by the Exxon-Mobile communications team.

Tillerson, whose close ties with Moscow as Exxon’s main man in Russia, was also instrumental in pushing the state-owned ONGC-Videsh to strike a deal with Russian national oil company, Rosneft, to acquire a 20 percent participating interest in the Sakhalin-1 offshore project in north Pacific’s freezing waters. The deal, when signed was estimated at $1.7 billion, ONGC-Videsh’s largest ever overseas investment in 2001. Sakhalin-I has proven reserves of approximately 2.3 million barrels, its current output 250,000 barrels per day.

But the deal was not easy to sign. Many raised concerns about the project’s commercial viability and the Congress, then in opposition, called it dubious and economically disastrous. But the NDA government went ahead, defending the deal in Parliament in August 2001.

The criticisms fell silent when in 2006, New Delhi’s first share of Sakhalin-I crude docked at the Mangalore port in a Russian tanker berthed at New Mangalore port with VLCC (very large crude carrier). In a quick change of stance, the Congress hailed the project — virtually as its own — and pushed images of the then oil and gas minister Murli Deora receiving a bottled sample from the Russian ambassador in the Indian Capital.

Tillerson, true to his reputation, had the farsightedness needed by the Indian companies scouting for overseas acquisition.

First Published On : Dec 19, 2016 15:24 IST

Demonetisation: Traders push for Narendra Modi’s cashless economy, chart roadmap

In a somewhat unexpected move, the trading community in India — the drivers of the country’s cash-based economy — has decided to throw its full weight behind Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s demonetisation move, by signalling its intention to turn India into a ‘less cash’ economy.

Responding to Modi’s clarion call for a ‘less cash economy’, the trading community — a section of the economy that thrives largely on cash transactions, and often bears the stigma of doing so to avoid paying taxes — has come up with a roadmap to give a push to digital transactions.

Keeping in mind the fact that in India 98 percent of small business units lack the ability to transact digitally, the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) has chalked out a ‘10-point plan’ with an aim to change the contours of traditional trade transaction methods — from cash payment to the digital platform.

Confederation of All India Traders has chalked out a ‘10-point plan’ to shift from cash payment to the digital platform. ReutersConfederation of All India Traders has chalked out a ‘10-point plan’ to shift from cash payment to the digital platform. Reuters

Confederation of All India Traders has chalked out a ‘10-point plan’ to shift from cash payment to the digital platform. Reuters

Going by an NSSO survey, that shows that out of 5.77 crore small business units in the country, approximately 5.66 crore lack the ability to transact digitally, the plan to initiate small traders into digital transaction mode seems to be a humongous task. Add to this existing infrastructure bottlenecks, like lack of electricity and non-availability of internet, and the plan to go digital looks even more difficult.

After more than a month of demonetisation, most people, including the Supreme Court and the ruling government’s larger political family, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have raised questions over the faulty implementation of the move to root out black money. However, a large section of traders from across the country have come up with a plan to encourage cashless transactions, in effect giving a boost to demonetisation.

New Year’s Resolution

CAIT, an umbrella of more than 40,000 trade bodies and over six crore traders, has released a ‘white paper’ on ‘less cash transactions’. The resolution was reached at after two days of brain storming sessions in the national capital during the first week of December. The confederation will kick-start its initiatives across the country from January 2017.

“We’ll organise camps in the markets across the country, along with banks and digital payment solution providers, and train traders on how to go for digital payments. We’ll provide them various options ranging from e-wallet to point-of-sale machines, and the traders can choose what they want. Giving lectures in conferences won’t help. Both the government and CAIT have to handhold the traders,” CAIT’s national secretary general, Praveen Khandelwal told Firstpost.

CAIT’s road map for a ‘less-cash transaction model’

– Reach 50,000 trade leaders and create champions for promoting digital transactions; through them, reach out to 50 lakh traders across the country. More than 40,000 trade federations, associations and chambers have been roped in for this purpose.

– From January 2017, the CAIT, in association with banks and digital payment service operators will organise camps in markets etc.

– Adopt city/states to drive the ‘cashless policy’. CAIT will work on the lines of ‘100 smart cities’ and will aim to create at least 25 cashless cities over the three years.

– Organise workshops, seminars, training sessions and trader conferences for adoption of digital payments.

– Leverage social and digital media to create awareness.

– Focus on Tier-I, II and III cities and rural areas having no internet facility, so that a less-cash transaction system can be actualised.

– Seek government intervention and make local trade associations partners for training purposes.

– Engage with academics, economists, think-tanks and key influencers to communicate the value of e-payments among traders.

– Make shops a point-of-information to create help create awareness on digital payments.

“We’ve submitted a white paper along with our suggestions both to the government and the NITI Aayog. Besides, trade bodies, the government which has resources and a large network, needs to play a proactive role to educate and train traders to operate on the digital payment system. Besides, the government should also provide incentives at the merchant level to encourage the initiative,” Khandelwal said.

Deterrents

Transaction cost: Traders have mentioned the cost of transacting online as the biggest deterrent in the adoption of the digital payment system. While the transaction cost for debit card payment is limited to one percent, in credit cards, it ranges from one to two percent.

“The trader hesitates to pay transaction costs from his profit…it’s an additional burden on the customer. We’ve suggested to the government to subsidise the cost to the banks, e-wallet and mobile application operators,” Khandelwal said.

Security: Traders fear that their accounts accounts might get hacked. CAIT has demanded that the government and digital solution providers ensure that a security complaint system is put in place.

Lack of electricity and internet penetration: Technical issues can limit the spread of the digital payment net and can therefore reduce its efficacy as a replacement to cash payments.

Traditional mindset of traders: In spite of the countless safety measures and the ease of convenience, the mere fact that India has depended on cash forever has seeped into the inherent mindset of many traders. They trust what they can see, what they can hold and electronic money invokes an uneasy feeling among the more traditional traders.

“By organising seminars, camps and lectures, we’re trying to convince traders and small vendors to adopt a digital payment system. Once the Goods and Service Tax (GST) regime gets implemented, digital payment will be mandatory and there will be no transaction in cash or through cheques. Sooner or later, one has to go for it, so why not now. This will also help in creating a transparent business environment and will get rid of the stigma that the trading community indulges in dubious and unaccounted financial transactions,” Khandelwal said.

First Published On : Dec 15, 2016 07:18 IST

Assam Muslim bodies defy order to keep madrassas open on Fridays, govt not amused

New Delhi: The recent notification issued by the Assam government to keep all schools open on Fridays has resulted in a stand-off between the education department and Islamic organisations of the region.

The stand-off has provided the Congress with an opportunity which has been seen trying its best to flare the issue up by infusing secular versus communal debate.

Representational image of a madrassa in New Delhi. ReutersRepresentational image of a madrassa in New Delhi. Reuters

Representational image of a madrassa in New Delhi. Reuters

A meeting held among Islamic leaders at Badarpur in Assam last Sunday, decided to defy the order that they perceive as infringing upon the rights of Muslims. The meeting decided to keep madrassas closed on Fridays and open on Sundays in contravention to the government order on the weekly holiday of schools.

The government of Assam in an order issued last week said that all schools under the state government are to remain open on Fridays and closed on Sundays in a bid to bring in uniformity in the weekly holiday system in all the schools under the government.

The order on holidays did not go down well with the Islamic organisations as madrassas have been following the tradition of remaining closed on Fridays to perform mass prayers.

Ataur Rahman Majharbhuyan, secretary of North East India Naduwa Tu Tamir, an Islamic organisation of the region told Firstpost that the meeting decided that madrassa students will not attend classes on Fridays and will sit in classes on Sundays.

“Even if the government opens the madrassas on Fridays no student will attend classes. If no madrassa teacher  turns up on Sundays given the government order to remain closed on Sundays, the senior students of madrassas will teach the junior ones and will continue the classes defying the order,” he said.

In the sidelines of the meeting, some students of a madrassa in Badarpur on Sunday flung open the doors of Deorail Title Madrassa marking the beginning of the movement.

Siddek Ahmed, former Congress minister, who was also present at the meeting threatened to take the issue to the high court if the government of Assam did not roll back its decision.

“In the last six months of BJP rule in Assam, we have noticed that Muslims have been denied the right to do business and get appointed in government jobs turning them into second class citizens of the country,” he said without stating any empirical evidence as to which jobs and businesses have Muslims been denied and how.

Ahmed further added, “Now trampling upon the right to religious education of the Muslims the government has issued the weird notification to keep madrassas open on Fridays.”

Maulana Fazlul Karim, general secretary of Jamiyat Ulema E Hind said that the BJP-led Assam government has issued this blanket order in violation of existing rule which says that madrassas will remain closed on Fridays.

“The order is passed to appear anti-Muslim. Madrassas remain closed on Fridays even in Gujarat, the home state of the Prime Minister, let alone Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Punjab,” he said.

“Like madrassas even Sanskrit schools have a different rule for weekly holidays. Why the government is not compelling the Sanskrit schools to follow the same notification?” Karim asked.

Pranab Goswami, principal of a Sanskrit School in Assam informed told Firstpost that Sanskrit Schools do not follow the rule of having weekly holidays like other schools.

“We have holidays on every eighth day after full moon and new moon and next day after full moon and new moon. That way we have two holidays every fourth week,” he informed when asked about the holiday system followed by Sanskrit schools.

But the resistance from the Islamic organisations did not go down well with the government that is keen to implement the order.

Ramesh Chandra Jain, secretary to the department of education in Assam said, “We have ordered the madrassa teachers that it will be difficult for them if they do not follow the order. So they have to fall in line.”

When asked since Sanskrit schools have different rules for weekly holidays whether the new order is applicable to them also he said, “The rule is applicable to all schools. But Sanskrit schools do not  remain closed on Fridays.”

The stand-off between the weekly holiday of  madrassas is likely to make an impact on the Uttar Pradesh assembly election.

Haider Hussain Bora, secretary, All India United Democratic Front said, “The question is not about politicising the issue, but about the rights of our fellow citizens to practice their religion.”

He further questioned, “We are asking when Himanta Biswa Sarma was the education minister in the Congress regime he did not find any flaw about the weekly holiday system of madrassas. He found fault only after joining BJP. Does not this very fact signify that there is an intention to create differences in communal lines behind the order?”

First Published On : Dec 13, 2016 21:00 IST

Gen Suhag has under 3 weeks in office: Can India ever avoid political delays in naming service chiefs?

Come New Year, India will have a new Chief of Army Staff (COAS), as the incumbent, General Dalbir Singh, is due for retirement. The very fact that the central government is yet to announce his successor has already made news. In fact, the issue will only get further politicised, just the same way Dalbir Singh’s appointment was, two years ago. And it’s all because of a convention that the incoming COAS (or for that matter, the new chief of Indian Navy or Indian Air Force) be announced two months in advance, in order to make the transition smooth.

Invariably, the vice-chief of army staff, who in turn is the senior-most in the service after the COAS, is promoted to the chief’s post (normally a term of three years or the age of 62, whichever is earlier), provided he is not superannuated (turning 60) before the day of assumption (if he is made chief on his last day in office, then he automatically gets an additional two years as chief).

Dalbir Singh Suhag is due for retirement on 1 January, 2017. PTI file imageDalbir Singh Suhag is due for retirement on 1 January, 2017. PTI file image

Dalbir Singh Suhag is due for retirement on 1 January, 2017. PTI file image

This convention, it seems, has been broken by the government. Only a fortnight remains for the new COAS to take charge, but as The Indian Express reported, the Modi government has not yet appointed Lt Gen. Praveen Bakshi, who heads Kolkata-headquartered Eastern Command, and the senior most General to succeed Dalbir Singh as the vice-chief (that post had gone to a relatively junior officer). Nor has the government officially announced Bakshi as India’s next COAS. The newspaper speculates that Bakshi’s background as an armoured corps officer is being held against him, as the post of COAS usually goes to those coming from infantry. The only armored corps officer to have made COAS was General Krishnaswami Sunderji, more than two decades ago.

However, all this is not to suggest that General Bakshi will not be made COAS. The point is that the delay by the government in announcing a name is giving rise to all sorts of speculation. In case Bakshi is being ignored or superseded by a junior for the post of COAS, he will be the next such officer to suffer this fate, starting with General SK Sinha in 1983.

But, fact remains that the previous Manmohan Singh government had also raised many an eyebrow when it announced General Dalbir Singh as COAS in 2014. The then incumbent, General Bikram Singh, was to retire only on 31 July, 2014. But the outgoing government of Manmohan Singh announced the then vice-army chief, Lt Gen. Dalbir Singh Suhag, as next Army Chief in March, 90 days ahead of schedule, well before the standard two months. Going by convention, the announcement on the next COAS should have been made on or around 31 May, by which time there would have been a new government at the Centre. So why did the Manmohan Singh government make an announcement that should have been made by the Modi government? Why was the outgoing government in such a hurry? There has been no answer to this question.

Of course, the Modi government has more or less followed convention, by announcing the appointment of Indian Navy chief, Admiral Sunil Lanba, 40 days ahead of schedule (it should have been 60 days). Incidentally, his predecessor, Admiral Robin Kumar Dhowan’s appointment by the previous UPA government in 2014, also didn’t stick to the norms; his appointment came after an unprecedented gap of almost two months, after the equally unprecedented and untimely resignation of Admiral    Devendra Kumar Joshi. For two months, India did not a have a navy chief.

Going by convention, a serving chief has to not only be the senior most officer, but he also needs to possess experience of being a commander. Not all Lt Generals, Vice-Admirals and Air Marshalls are “commanders”. Unfortunately, the UPA government was not consistent in sticking to these established norms. While it wanted General Suhag, the senior most in the Indian Army having command experience, to succeed General Bikram Singh, it conveniently overlooked these norms in appointing Admiral Dhowan, who was not the senior most Vice-Admiral, and nor did he have any command experience. The Indian Navy has two operational commands — the Western Naval Command in Mumbai and the Eastern Naval Command in Vishakhapatnam. There is also the Southern Naval Command headquartered in Kochi, but it is a training command without real operational jurisdiction on high seas.

With the possible exception of Admiral Sushil Kumar, who was controversially made chief after the dismissal of Admiral V Bhagwat under the NDA regime in 1998, nobody heading the Southern Command has become chief. But in Admiral Dhowan’s case, this fundamental requirement of becoming a commander as perquisite for the consideration of the post of Naval chief was given a go by.

After the resignation of Admiral Joshi and Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, the flag officer commander-in-chief of the Western Naval Command was the senior most. As per established norms, he should have become the new navy chief. Predictably, however, he too resigned in protest, claiming being overlooked. The government reportedly overlooked him because quite a few naval accidents happened under his leadership of the Western Command, the reason for which Admiral Joshi had resigned earlier, under “moral grounds”.

This logic is dubious, to speak the least. First of all, as the armed forces in India are strictly under civilian control, any moral responsibility for the lapses should have been with the real leaders, which, in this case, was the defence minister. As Railways Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri once had resigned from the Union Cabinet after an accident; he did not ask the chairman of the Railway Board to quit. But then no Cabinet minister resigns under moral ground anymore.

So, could the government have turned down Admiral Joshi’s resignation, something Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had done in the case of General KS Thimayya, who had offered to quit following his souring of relations with the then Defence Minister Krishna Menon? Ships had sunk, aircraft had crashed and soldiers were killed in the past in peace time; but no chief had been punished. Nor for that matter do these mishaps affect the careers of the officers directly in charge, not adversely. So, why should these incidents have gone, first against Admiral Joshi and then Vice-Admiral Sinha?

It is this inconsistency on the part of the government of the day that unnecessarily makes senior military appointments a political issue. All the more so when confidential military matters are selectively leaked to the media from the South Block, as has been the norm in the last few years. See how documents regarding former Army Chief VK Singh’s actions in Jammu and Kashmir came to the political domain? There was nothing illegal on the part of VK Singh to launch “hearts and minds” campaigns in Kashmir to promote what he called “stability”, and another ex-army chief Shankar Roychowdhury called “sadbhavana”. But more importantly, General Singh’s actions had the complete approval of the then Defence Minister AK Antony. But Antony did not protest when his colleague, Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, demanded a CBI inquiry against General Singh.

But for these partisan considerations, it’s anybody’s guess what the government of the day can do about the appointments. I, personally, do not believe the principle of seniority is a must in determining a service chief. When in December 2011, US President Barak Obama nominated General Martin Dempsey as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in place of Admiral Michael Glenn Mullen, he hadn’t even completed one year of his four-year term that had begun in April. In fact, Obama picked him as Admiral Mullen’s successor just one month after making him Army Chief. Besides, he was not the senior most four-star officer in the US when his new job was announced.

Now, could General Dempsey have achieved the top military position in India, had he been an Indian officer? Our system, and factors such as age and political considerations play a more decisive role in an officer’s career than his competence. I think India needs competent service chiefs irrespective of age. And when one talks of age, I do not necessarily buy the logic that one should give positions to those who are relatively young on a platter. General Martin Dempsey may have been young, but then the fact also remains that the United States recalled General Douglas MacArthur back to active duty three years after he had retired as the Chief of the US Army Staff in 1938. General Peter Jan Schoomaker, who had retired in December 2000, was recalled to head the US Army in August 2003. The point to be reiterated is that it is ability that alone should matter.

India is one of the few democratic countries in this part of the world where the armed forces are strictly under civilian control. We should be proud of our armed forces that they have always treated the principle of civilian control as sacrosanct. It is therefore unfortunate to see the appointments of the chiefs of our military services becoming partisan issues with political overtones.

First Published On : Dec 13, 2016 19:29 IST

FCRA: Are political parties unique organisations, and thus above the law?

The past year-and-a-half or so has seen several instances of very prompt action having been taken against some civil society organisations (CSOs) based on suspicions and allegations of violations of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA). On the other hand, now we have a situation where a high court has held two organisations — which for all practical purposes, can be considered to be CSOs because these are neither government nor corporate business organisations — actually guilty of having violated the FCRA as far back as 28 March, 2014, and actually “directed” the Union of India to “take action as contemplated by law… within a period of six months”.

But, all the Ministry of Home Affairs — the administering authority for implementing FCRA and which took very prompt and stern action against other CSOs — did, as far as is known as a result of an RTI application, was (a) to write a letter to the Ministry of Corporate Affairs asking for “names of companies falling under the category of ‘foreign source’, who have donated to political parties, namely, Indian National Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party, during the years 2006-7, 2007-8, 2008-09 and 2009-10 and 2010-11,” and (b) forward the response of the Ministry of Corporate Affairs to the Election Commission of India.

If it sounds strange and mysterious, read on.

Having discovered that the BJP and the Congress had accepted donations from an electoral trust which, on removing the ‘corporate veil’ twice, was found to be actually controlled by a company registered in a foreign country, a CSO and a retired secretary to the Government of India, filed a public interest litigation in the Delhi High Court requesting that action under FCRA be taken against these two political parties since political parties are expressly banned from accepting donations from foreign sources by the FCRA. It was in response to this petition that the Delhi High Court pronounced its judgment on March 28, 2016, mentioned in the opening paragraph above.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Not having taken action commensurate with the offence, and after the two political parties had filed appeals in the Supreme Court, against the high court’s decision, the government of the day attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to amend the FCRA to get the two parties off the hook. This has been described in this column earlier.

It was during the hearings of those appeals in the Supreme Court on 22 and 29 November that the lawyers appearing for the BJP and the Congress to withdraw their appeals against the High Court order. It was widely reported in the media that the senior counsel appearing for the BJP and the Congress said that their clients had obtained clarifications from the government in the light of the amendment made in 2010 to the FCRA. The parties did not intend to pursue their appeals in view of the government’s assurance, …It was further reported that “Under the 2010 amendment, the government had relaxed the norms for political parties for receiving donations from foreign companies wanting to discharge their corporate social responsibility.”

Let us look at the “amendments made in 2010 to the FCRA”.

The FCRA was first enacted in 1976. It came to be known as FCRA 1976. In 2010, it was replaced by a new Act the preamble to which said “An Act to consolidate the law to regulate the acceptance and utilisation of foreign contribution or foreign hospitality by certain individuals or associations or companies and to prohibit acceptance and utilisation of foreign contribution or foreign hospitality for any activities detrimental to the national interest and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.” The Act passed in 2010 came to known as FCRA 2010.

The “amendments made in 2010 to the FCRA” referred to by the “senior counsel appearing for the BJP and the Congress” seems to be a misunderstanding or loose description. An exact rendition would most likely be amendments made “to the FCR Act of 2010 in 2016. There are two reasons for saying so. It is better to present them in the reverse chronological order.

The FCRA 2010 was amended as part of the Finance Bill 2016, surreptitiously, according to some commentators, and this amendment reads as follows:

“In the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act 2010, in section 2, in sub section(1), in clause (j), in sub-clause(vi), the following proviso shall be inserted with effect from 26 September, 2010, namely:

‘Provided that where the nominal value of share capital is within the limits specified for foreign investments under the Foreign Exchange Management Act, 1999, or the rules and regulations made thereunder, then, notwithstanding the nominal value of the share capital of a company being more than one half of such value at the time of making the contribution, such company shall not be deemed a foreign source’.”

The second reason explains why amendment of FCRA 2010 was considered so critical that it was made part of the Finance Bill 2016. A key paragraph of the Delhi High Court judgment of March 2014 says, “The interpretation of the term “foreign source” as defined under Section 2(1)(e) of the Act lies at the heart of the present controversy and begs for judicial consideration” (italics added).

It needs to be pointed out that Section 2(1)(e) of the 1976 Act became Section 2(1)(j) of the 2010 Act when the FCRA was revised in 2010, and that both these sections are identical. The reason for amending only one clause of this section is that it is this particular clause that qualifies Vedanta, Sterlite, and Sesa as “foreign sources” according to the Delhi High Court judgment.

It is important to note that what the “amendment” done in 2016 to the 2010 Act changes is “section 2, in sub section(1), in clause (j), in sub-clause(vi)” of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act 2010. This is important because of what the very second paragraph of the Delhi High Court judgment of 28 March, 2014, which was challenged by the two parties, says. This is reproduced below:

“Since the writ petition drew attention to donations made to politicalparties for the period up to the year 2009, we record at the outset that ourconcern is not with the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010 which has come into force on September 26, 2010. Our discussion of the legalposition would be with respect to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act,1976.”

The sagacity of the Delhi High Court judges has to be admired that they clarified this issue right in the beginning of the judgment, in 2014 itself when further amendment of the FCRA 2010 possibly could not have been predicted.

It should not be necessary to point this out to anyone that since FCRA 2010 did not exist in 2009 when the donations in question were made and accepted, the law in existence at the time of performance of the illegal action would apply and that was, and remains, FCRA 1976. Would it not be outrageous if an offence committed in 1980, for example, were to be tried under a law which came into force only in 2012? It is unbelievable that the senior lawyers representing the two parties had not read or were not conscious of the implications of the second paragraph of the Delhi High Court order that they were challenging. Why they chose to argue this way remains a mystery but it seems plausible that this may well have been the reason for withdrawal of the appeals.

It should not be hard to imagine what would have been the response of the home ministry if a CSO had been held guilty of having violated the FCRA. This is what shows that political parties, although neither government nor business organisations, are not being treated at par with other, mortal, CSOs, since no action is taken against them even after a high court has found them unambiguously guilty of having committed an offence against the law of the land.

Now that the high court judgment has, in a way, been reaffirmed, all eyes are on the home ministry to see what action does it take and when. A former secretary to the Government of India has already written to the home ministry to de-register the two parties.

Whether political parties are actually covered by the law of the land, like other CSOs, should be known soon.

First Published On : Dec 12, 2016 08:11 IST

Make in Odisha: Before declaring the conclave a success, CM Patnaik must iron out investors’ issues

The hype and hoopla over the ‘Make in Odisha’ conclave, the grand investors’ meet of the Odisha government that concluded in the state capital of Bhubaneswar last week, has certainly helped project a positive image of the state – with promises of new industries, jobs and faster economic growth.

But the dreams will only come true only if the whopping Rs 2.03 lakh crore investment assurances garnered at the conclave can fructify. Development of state projects have been perpetually bogged down by land disputes, raw material linkages and green clearances.

In that regard, it is too early to predict what the upshot of the venture will be, given the fact that the state has lacked inertia in most of the past projects, as they have mostly remained non-starters.

The Bhubaneswar conclave of Make in Odisha garnered Rs 2.03 lakh crore in investment proposals spread across 10 sectors. Firstpost/Kasturi Ray

The Bhubaneswar conclave garnered Rs 2.03 lakh crore in investment proposals spread across 10 sectors. Firstpost/Kasturi Ray

The state government has been on an investment inviting spree since the beginning of this year. It garnered proposals worth Rs 70,000 crore at the Mumbai conclave and Rs 90,000 crore in Bangalore.  The Bhubaneswar conclave, however, topped the lot with Rs 2.03 lakh crore investment proposals in 10 sectors. On face value, it is a big achievement, but distinct cracks and deep crevices of the past are ineluctable.

The state has been witness to Korean giants like Posco, Essar, Sterlite and Arcellor failing to make headway, even after 10 years of promises and struggles. Ease of doing business, particularly when it comes to paper work, as the government forgets, is not the only issue investors deal with when they plan to start their ventures.

It is important that the government should emphasise on easing raw material linkage, land availability and environmental clearances; all of which led to only 20 of the 250 projects promised becoming successful in starting production in the state between 2004 and 2015.

According to the World Bank report (2008), the state had achieved an 8.5 percent annual growth rate during the Tenth Five-Year Plan, 2002-07, in comparison to 7.8 percent for India as a whole.

It is during this period that industrial growth was exponential in Odisha – at 15 percent, much higher than the 9 percent growth rate for India. Naturally, investments also increased, but the momentum took a downward turn 2008 onwards. Till 2008, memorandums of understanding (MoUs) were signed dime a dozen, attracting investments worth Rs 5.69 lakh crores. But in reality, only Rs 2.45 lakh crore investments took off, while many backed off owing to land acquisition problems and raw material issues.

An Assocham report states Odisha as the third most preferred investment destination in the country. Naturally, as the state had adopted a friendly Industrial Policy Resolution (IPR) in 2015, aiming to ease business procedures.

But there is still a myriad of issues that needs to be focused on before inviting more investments and expecting them to bear fruit. The state government has identified 1,00,000 acres of land all over the state to create a land bank for facilitating the setting up of industries, with the Industrial Development Corporation Odisha in charge.

But how many acres are in possession of the government to immediately sanction to the investors? Timely allotment of land would help investors to expedite their project and also allow them enough time to look into environment clearances. A state abound with natural resources must also facilitate linkage of resources to the prospective investors. Moreover, economic prosperity and development of the state should not remain confined to the ruling party. The Opposition political parties too need to play a healthy role in a positive and proactive way like in other states.

At this juncture, with such high figure investments coming in, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, apart from sporting that winsome smile and declaring Make in Odisha successful, must ensure that his government does the needful to retain the interest of investors in the state.

He must negotiate for double the assured 1.4 lakh jobs and give the interested parties a conducive atmosphere by ironing out the wizened issues. Lest, the investments will only be considered a hogwash for the 15-year-old government that has been frantically trying to achieve a ‘developed’ tag status for the state.

First Published On : Dec 10, 2016 15:24 IST

AgustaWestland scam heats up, but will justice reach its logical end?

Close on the heels of the news of CBI filing charge sheet against the former Telecom Minister, Dayanidhi Maran, his brother Kalanithi Maran and others (including two former BSNL Chief General managers) in the illegal telephone exchange case that reportedly caused a loss of Rs 1.78 crores to the exchequer, has come the news that the CBI has arrested the former Indian Air Force chief SP Tyagi for allegedly accepting bribe in the AgustaWestland helicopter deal. Tyagi was reportedly arrested along with his cousin Sanjiv Tyagi and lawyer Gautam Khaitan. In February 2010, the then UPA government had signed a contract with UK-based AgustaWestland to purchase 12 x AW101 helicopters for the IAF at an estimated cost of Rs 3,600 crore.

Much has happened since the UPA government signed the deal with AgustaWestland in 2010 for procuring VVIP helicopters for the President, the Prime Minister and others. Three helicopters had been delivered to India before the deal was put on hold in 2013 after Bruno Spagnolini, CEO of AgustaWestland and Guiseppe Orsi, Chairman of Italian parent company Finmeccanica, were arrested in Italy on charges of bribing middlemen to acquire the deal with the IAF.

Representational image. ReutersRepresentational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

As a follow-up, AK Anthony, then Defence Minister, ordered a probe into the matter. The CBI registered a case against the former IAF Chief, Air Chief Marshal (ACM) SP Tyagi and 12 others, including his cousins and European middlemen, in March 2013. ACM Tyagi who commanded the IAF between 2004 and 2007 was accused by investigators in Italy and India of helping AgustaWestland win the helicopter contract by tailoring specifications at the instance of his cousins.

The specific allegations accused ACM Tyagi of reducing the required flying ceiling of the helicopters from 6,000 m to 4,500 m which helped AgustaWestland qualify. ACM Tyagi claimed that the change of specifications was a collective decision involving many departments. As per reports, the Enforcement Directorate alleges that payments were made through Tunisia-registered companies controlled by Switzerland-based intermediaries Guido Haschke and Carlo Gerosa and transferred to accounts in India and Mauritius.

In September 2014, ED arrested Gautam Khaitan on allegations of kickbacks in the 3,600 crore deal. However, in October 2014, an Italian lower court acquitted Orsi and former AgustaWestland chairman Spagnolini. Then in April 2016, a Milan Court of Appeals sentenced Orsi to four and half years and Spagnolini to four years in jail on charges of false accounting and bribing Indian officials including Tyagi. Earlier, in April 2016, Christian James Michel, the middleman in the deal had said he is willing to face Indian authorities for investigation, also writing a letter to the effect to PM Modi. Reasons why Michel had offered at this stage to cooperate are not known but he reportedly has links with the Gandhi family; so he could genuinely want to cooperate or try and lead the investigators up the gum tree.

When in May 2016 the AgustaWestland scam surfaced in media and Parliament rocked, it appeared the culprits, including high and mighty politicos and babus, would land up pronto in Tihar. But then things appeared to have cooled off. Now both the charge sheet against Dyanidhi Maran and Co and arrests in connection with the AgustaWestland scam are being attributed to Rakesh Asthana, recently appointed as the interim CBI chief. That intelligence agencies are not free from corruption and submit to diktats of political masters is quite well known.

One example of this was when the erstwhile UPA government even managed to pit the IB against the CBI for obvious political gain. But in the instant case of AgustaWestland, three things are relevant: first, over the past few months while ACM Tyagi and his Vice Chief were being questioned, no bureaucrat was summoned by CBI or ED; second, the CBI team that travelled to Italy did not probe Haschke for the jotting in his diary specifically naming the Defence Secretary, Joint Secretary (Air), AFA, DG Acquisition, CVC besides others — apparent beneficiaries? Instead, the CBI team visiting Italy during the UPA regime focused only on the role of IAF officers and some others, and; third, earlier this year, an Italian court had also exonerated ACM Tyagi of all charges.

There have been numerous articles and indications over the months that role of Shashi Kant Sharma, who was appointed CAG under exceptional circumstances by UPA, should logically be central to the ongoing AgustaWestland probe but there is no move yet to question him. Sharma, considered indispensable by Congress in MoD, has had the dubious distinction of being: DG Acquisition in MoD during signing the AgustaWestland VVIP chopper deal; Defence Secretary during closure of Army’s Technical Support Division through a sham board and during fake rumour of army coup; as CAG ignored SC order to appear in court “personally” for Contempt of Court for not executing SC orders on Rank Pay when Defence Secretary.

In the VVIP chopper scam, lowering of the QR was arbitrarily by ACM Tyagi, whether on suggested by his cousins or without, is illogical. To think that ‘any’ defence scam can occur without the involvement of the Defence Secretary and the DG Acquisition in MoD is downright stupid. A veteran ambassador, originally IAS, says when posted to MoD his first brief was to forget all else, just concentrate on what procurements are in pipeline and how much money could be made.

Most importantly, mystery remains who conducted trials abroad on representative helicopters and was BV Wanchoo, then Director SPG, on board during trials? Why did Wanchoo immediately step down as Governor of Goa when he was questioned in this regard? Was he protecting his political masters? MoD has reportedly asked CBI and ED to hasten the probe but it is to be seen if all involved would be interrogated and prosecuted guilty.

Scams in India have a way to be buried or go astray. Not only should the jottings of Haschke with regard to the AgustaWestland scam be probed, in the Purulia drop, Kim Davy (real name Niels Christian Nielsen) claimed it was Congress conspiracy in conjunction RAW and MI5 to overthrow the communist government in West Bengal. Are we really to believe that the probe was right in concluding that the Purulia drop was meant for a defunct organisation like Anand Margis? For that matter shouldn’t the Eurocopter Scam be probed; what bribes were taken, what part returned when the deal was called off, and what retained by whom? Justice in all cases including in AgustaWestland should be complete, not merely meted out to scapegoats.

The author is veteran Lieutenant General of Indian Army

First Published On : Dec 10, 2016 12:21 IST

AgustaWestland scam: Tyagi’s fate unknown, but defence deals highly prone to corruption

In what appears to be the rarest of a rare case, former Air Force Chief S P Tyagi has been arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for his alleged involvement in the scam of purchasing VVIP chopper deal worth Rs 3,700 crores with AgustaWestland in 2010(AW-101 deal). The CBI seems to believe that the retired Air Chief Marshal influenced the decision of procuring 12 choppers, meant for the use of the top leaders of the country, including the President and Prime Minister. In the process, he is believed to have received huge kickbacks along with his cousins, known middlemen in the arms-trade.

However, the former Air Chief has always denied his role to the CBI, ever since the investigating agency was entrusted the case to find out the truth by the then UPA government in 2013.

The whole episode, in my considered view , raises two important points — the record of the CBI in presenting a strong case in matters relating to defence procurements and the very procedure of procuring defence equipments, including the role of lobbying.

Let be it be noted straightaway that so far the record of the CBI in uncovering the defence scandals has been really pathetic, to say the least. One does not remember a single case that the CBI has solved in this regard.

We all know how the CBI was asked by the UPA government to investigate about half a score of, what it said were, corrupt defence deals under the NDA rule of Atal Bihari Vajpayee during which George Fernades was the Defence Minister. However, nothing came out of these investigations and the same CBI requested the court to close the investigations years later, but not before ruining the reputations of many officials and reputations for no fault of theirs. One hopes, the same will not be the case with the former Air Chief Tyagi. If he is proved guilty in the final analysis, nobody will shed a tear for him, but if he has been a convenient ploy to save the real guilty in the top political and bureaucratic establishments, then nothing can be more tragic.

Former IAF chief SP Tyagi. PTI

Former IAF chief SP Tyagi. PTI

It is strange that a retired Air Chief can play a role in signing a deal three years after his retirement. Tyagi retired in 2007 and the deal was signed in 2010. Let it be noted here that these helicopters, though bought by the Indian Air Force (IAF), were meant for the use of the VVIPs, these were not going to be used by the Air Force as such. That being the case, it is really a riddle for me that the IAF was asked to buy the helicopters. Those could have been bought and maintained by the civil aviation ministry.

Be that as it may, the exercise to procure VVIP helicopters began during the Vajpayee regime. The then National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra wanted changes in the quality requirements (QRS), that, in turn, were agreed upon and signed later by the then defence minister Pranab Mukherjee (now our President). As the then Air Chief, Tyagi did not have any role in this; in fact, he did not have the authority to change the QRS. And that being the case, if at all Tyagi did play a role in the conclusion of the deal in 2010, then that must have been as a middle man after his retirement. But, was he a middleman? The inference that he was is because two of his cousin brothers are known middlemen and that the former Air Chief was seen along with his cousins in some social and family occasions.

In my humble opinion, to be seen with relatives cannot be construed as agreeing with or partnering with them. Can one be responsible for the deeds of his her own adult children? Can one be liable for what his or own brother or sister, let alone a cousin, does? In India, we have seen many political families whose members belong to different political parties. Can Rahul Gandhi be held answerable for what his first cousin Varun Gandhi says or does? Can Delhi minister Kapil Mishra be held accountable for the omissions and commissions, if any, by her mother, who is a leading BJP member and former mayor? The point that I am making is that we should not go hyper and kill the reputations of people just because they are accused of some wrong doings. In a country like India, accusing is the easiest of things done; but conviction of the accused is the most difficult job to do.

This bring me to the second point — revisiting our defence acquisition process. We must ask why is the present system is so highly prone to corruption. Is it really impractical, despite its goal being laudable? The basic point is very simple — we must have value for the money that we pay for buying right arms and ammunitions( the qualitative requirements, known as QRs) from abroad at right price (by floating tenders) and at right time( shortest possible time).  And  that presupposes that the QRs are formulated in such a manner that they truly reflect the country’s  requirement, that there is an objective system of technical evaluation and that there are oversight agencies such as the Central Vigilance Commission(CVC), Comptroller and Auditor  General (CAG) and Central Information Commission(CIC) to ensure the due diligence.

Theoretically speaking, we have such a system in place. Practically, however, things are not working. Our technical evaluation system takes too long a time to give the green signal. Our oversight agencies exceed their briefs more often than not by not sticking to the process and going into questioning the rationale of the very decision to procure things, a role they are not technically equipped to play. As a result, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is in a dilemma. If it strictly plays by the way the oversight agencies look at the system, the desired result may not be obtained in time.  On the other hand if it circumvents the procedure, it faces objections from the oversight agencies. And this confusion leads to unnecessary delays.

Over the last two decades, we have been witnessing more and more scams in defence procurements, it is mainly because we have made lobbying illegal.

Even otherwise, there is room for fine-tuning the system that requires clearances in every possible stage of acquisition. A study shows that from the initiation to the signing of the contract, a procurement case has to sequentially go through 7 distinct stages like “Acceptance of Necessity”, “Solicitation of Offers”, and “Trial Evaluation” etc. Each stage consists of 6 to 10 approval points with each approval point having at least 2 submission points. Therefore, any acquisition has to be processed at about 60 to 80 processing points, involving military personnel, civilian officials in the MoD, the Defence Minister, the Finance Minister and the Prime Minister. This being the case, if there is any corruption involved in the AW-101 deal, or for that matter any other deal, then the system as a whole is to blame. And when one talks of the whole system, the major responsibility for the lapses remains ultimately with the Ministers who give the final clearance.
In my considered view, when the procedure is so complicated and requires so many clearances, and all this is all in the name of transparency, the opposite just happens. Because, as we know, in any license-permit raj, corruption thrives. And this is exactly happening in the MoD.

Finally, there is the vital point of lobbying, a natural practice. In fact, if over the last two decades, we have been witnessing more and more scams in defence procurements, it is mainly because we have made lobbying illegal. In essence, a lobbyist is like a lawyer. It is a legitimate activity in established democracies such as the United States, Canada, Germany and France. In fact, by keeping lobbying illegal, we are making our decision-making process non-transparent, hence more prone to corruption. We need people from across the spectrum to present their views to the decision-makers. There will be greater transparency if the lobbyists register themselves and disclose their activities and expenditure as is the case in the US. And once these activities are transparent, we will know who are the elected officials and the administrative bureaucrats the lobbyists have met.

That way, we will be able to know better the rationale behind a particular policy-decision and be in a better position to evaluate it. Of course, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikkar has been on record to favour such a process. Sooner he implemets it, better it is.

First Published On : Dec 10, 2016 09:33 IST

Demonetisation: Manmohan Singh writes a scathing critique of his own incompetence

A WhatsApp message that I received today questions the logic behind demonetisation in a cheeky sort of way. It reads:

“Economists who have supported present demonetisation: Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai, Ajay Devgn, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Baba Ramdev, Virendra Sehwag (sic), Virat Kohli. Economists who have openly opposed and criticized #demonetisation till now: 1. Larry Summers, Amartya Sen, Meera Sanyal, Raghuram Rajan, Manmohan Singh…” and so forth.

While juxtaposing the views of noted economists with achievers in other fields who may not be proficient in economic theories, the argument tries to colour the very idea of demonetisation as foolish. Problem is, the author weakens the case by providing partial information. Just as some economists have opposed demonetisation, many noted economists have backed it too. Therefore, by giving us partial information, the argument taps into the grey area between truth and falsehood with plausible deniability as an exit route.

PM Narendra Modi with former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. PTIPM Narendra Modi with former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. PTI

PM Narendra Modi with former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. PTI

This is also the dominating impression that emerges by reading Manmohan Singh‘s much-discussed column in Friday’s edition of The Hindu. Ever since his retirement from public life, Singh has undergone a curious transformation from a weak premiere to an outspoken, bold interventionist. After sleepwalking through his 10-year term as prime minister when he remitted power to his party boss in a stunning act of bad faith, the erudite economist these days is used by the Congress more as a moral tool to beat the present government with.

But the problem with this strategy is that though Singh has never been personally charged with making money for himself, his turning of a blind eye to the corruption scandal blazing all around him while occupying the highest seat of power weakens considerably his moral authority as an occupant of exalted preaching pulpit. Also, as this columnist has argued before, Singh has frequently let his political compulsions interfere with the objectivity of his assessment as an economist.

It is with some degree of curiosity that one went through Singh’s article to find if there were any new points in addition to the speech he had recently delivered in Rajya Sabha where he termed demonetisation as “organised loot and legalised plunder.”

Unfortunately, while the rhetoric quotient of Singh’s column remains high, he fails to furnish any convincing arguments against the currency ban. If, as he claims, the idea is a “mammoth tragedy” and a right, royal mess, the Cambridge-trained economist never dips into his famed erudition to present doable solutions.

Aside of the doomsday prophecy, Singh paints a sorry picture of India’s poverty, the plight of informal economy and the helplessness of the unbanked which ironically is the most scathing critique yet of his own incompetence as a policymaker and holder of public office with over four decades of experience.

Singh has never been given credit for his writing skills but he does a Mark Antony in his column. Taking a cue perhaps from Antony’s ‘Brutus is an honorable man’, Singh stresses on “the need to tackle black money” too frequently to punch a hole in the intention behind Narendra Modi‘s drive. Amid all the chicanery and figures of speech, two broad points emerge from Singh’s editorial. One, the breakdown of trust between the government and the people due to the sudden decommissioning of notes and two, the hardships that the populace has been subjected to.

“In one impetuous decision,” writes Manmohan Singh, “the Prime Minister has shattered the faith and confidence that hundreds of millions of Indians had reposed in the Government of India to protect them and their money.”

There can be no denying that Modi’s move has come as a rude jolt and the point that demonetisation may erode the trust in paper money issued by a sovereign nation is well-taken.

As has been noted, the populace, despite hardships, has been by and large rallying behind the government. Their trust in Modi’s purpose remains intact. Whether or not black money will be eradicated is for economists to argue and taxmen to calculate. The moot point, however, is that people still believe in Modi’s intention. BJP’s recent by-poll victories — voting for which took place well into the implementation of currency ban — in Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and sweeping wins in Maharashtra and Gujarat civic polls would indicate that the electorate has largely sanctioned the process, howsoever inconvenient.

However, when it comes to trust between the government and the citizens, Manmohan Singh should know that he was voted out of office because his government lacked the very trust that he now talks of. People may or may not be behind demonetisation but they were most definitely not behind the tsunami of scams that unfolded before their eyes during UPA 2 and they spoke by throwing the Congress out of power.

As far as the suffering of the poor is concerned, venerated economist Singh should know what is it that hurts the poor the most. It is corruption and Singh’s government was neck-deep in it.

Was the trust of the poor not shattered and confidence of millions not eroded when 2G, CoalGate, Adarsh Housing Society scandal, chopper scam, RailGate, banking sector scam, CWG scam exploded into public consciousness one after the other? Can Singh absolve himself of all responsibility? Does he not bear still the albatross of dishing out a corrupted government around his neck that made and kept people poor?

In a research paper written this year on institutional corruption and how it exploits the poor, Murali Patibandla of Indian Institute of Management Bangalore writes about institutional corruption (as) “a situation where influences within an economy of influence tend to weaken the effectiveness of an institution, especially by weakening public trust of the institution. In India’s case, the UPA’s rule from 2004 to 2014 presented large-scale corruption on several fronts. One can observe qualitatively that the public lost trust in the government… ********(italics mine)******* The coal blocks allocations was one of the biggest corruption scandals in India under the UPA rule from 2004-14. Even the Prime Minister’s office was accused of corruption in the allocation of coal blocks to powerful business men and groups…. The central government of the UPA regime allocated coal blocks to powerful business men at prices far below their opportunity cost. The CAG showed the magnitude of loss to the exchequer.”

As a celebrated economist, Singh, more than any other commentator, would know how “public lost trust in the government” because it saw the UPA 2 as a government of the crony capitalists, by the crony capitalists and for the crony capitalists. It is interesting and a little ironic that the man who headed this corrupted government now talks of erosion of trust between government and the people and tries to lecture the incumbent on it.

According to Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer, “corruption hits poor people hardest – with devastating consequences. A bribe demanded by a police officer may mean that a family can’t afford school fees or even food to eat. Corruption also means that the services people depend on — from drinking water to health clinics — suffer. They are often are of a low quality or not sufficient to meet society’s most basic needs. Corruption siphons off monies needed to improve them while also distorting policy decisions, such as where roads and schools are built.”

Singh appears to admit that Indian economy is too dependent on cash but just as the WhatsApp message quoted in the beginning of the piece, suffers from errors of omission, never explaining that too much cash in an economy makes it easier to generate black wealth.

He writes: “It is indeed true that India’s cash to GDP ratio is very high vis-à-vis other nations. But this is also an indicator of the Indian economy’s dependence on cash. Consumer confidence is an important economic variable in a nation’s growth prospects. It is now evident that this sudden overnight ban on currency has dented the confidence of hundreds of millions of Indian consumers, which can have severe economic ramifications.”

In an article published in January last year, Times of India details how Indians’ love for cash is placing a heavy burden on the economy. “The RBI and commercial banks annually spend around Rs 21,000 crore ($3.5 billion) in currency operations costs while citizens of Delhi alone spend Rs 9.1 crore and 60 lakh hours in collecting cash. The scale of this burden is unique to India considering that it is among the most cash-intensive economies in the world with a cash-to-GDP ratio of 12%, almost four times as much as other markets such as Brazil (3.93%), Mexico (5.3%) and South Africa (3.73%).”

And what is the cost incurred? According to the article, “There are many reasons why India has to pay such a high price. One is the need to frequently reissue notes due to poor handling — low-value notes have to be replaced in less than a year. The other reason is the need to frequently upgrade security features and replace old notes. There is a huge cost in pulling old notes out of circulation and replacing them. India also has unique issues in logistics and in some places the currency notes have to be transported by helicopter.”

It is indeed staggering that Singh, who as chief economic adviser to the government, RBI governor, chairman of Planning Commission, Union finance minister and finally as the prime minister of India for two terms failed miserably to bring the unbanked into the banking net and adopt more of the informal economy into the formal sector. He is correct in pointing out that these sectors have been hit hardest. But Singh fails to mention that what he failed to achieve in his various roles in public office for over four decades, Modi has done in less than four years.

In just over two and a half years, over 25 crore Indians have been brought into the banking net and now receive government subsidies directly into their account. There can be many mistakes in the implementation of demonetisation, but it is a truism that the only person who makes mistakes is the one who tried. Modi tried, maybe failed, maybe succeeded. The jury is still out. But Manmohan Singh did not even try. He would be well advised to maintain his silence.

First Published On : Dec 9, 2016 21:03 IST

Jayalalithaa’s legacy could help Panneerselvam prevent an AIADMK meltdown

Do leaders matter in politics? This is a question that plagues the minds whenever a powerful leader, having his or her distinct personalised (autocratic) style of functioning, dies while in office. It is only natural then, that many are interested in knowing the fate of Tamil Nadu politics, economy and social equations in the wake of the demise of its celebrated chief minister Jayalalithaa.

Jayalalithaa was not an ordinary leader. She was governing a state where the cult of personality politics has been an accepted phenomenon. It may be a little harsh to describe her as autocratic, but not many will dispute the fact that her style of governance was a little imperious. In that regard, speculations on the future of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) regime in the aftermath of the death of its topmost leader is perfectly understandable.

Of course, there cannot be any satisfactory answer to a question on the degree of relevance of leaders in human history. In itself, this question has always been ‘unsettled’. On one hand, we have thinkers like Karl Marx, who argued that leaders can merely choose from options that are strictly limited by factors far beyond their control and philosophers like Tolstoy, for whom leaders are merely artefacts to “explain events completely beyond their influence.”

Thousands attended the funeral of former Tamil Nadu CM J Jayalalithaa's funeral on Tuesday. PTIThousands attended the funeral of former Tamil Nadu CM J Jayalalithaa's funeral on Tuesday. PTI

Thousands attended the funeral of former Tamil Nadu CM J Jayalalithaa’s funeral on Tuesday. PTI

Whatever be the case, in genuine democracies, leadership transition is not a big issue as executive influence is typically moderated by independent legislative and judicial powers. On the other hand, however, there are stories of how leaders like Lenin, Roosevelt, Gandhi, Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Deng changed the history of mankind.

Be that as it may, there have been many scholarly works explaining what happens to a country when a strong leader dies. Of course, most of these studies deal with leaders who ruled a country; not a state or province as was the case with Jayalalithaa. However, lessons emerging from these studies are no less relevant in understanding the present scenario in Tamil Nadu in the aftermath of her death.

According to these studies, the consequences on the polity and economy depend on many related factors: The tenure of power of the departed leader and its stability (or lack of it); the manner of his or her coming to power (democratic elections, coup d’etat, or inherited position); the succession plan (or its absence); the resources (of the state or the country – rich or poor) and who controlled them (state-run interests, by oligarchs or by a small number of investors).

In their review of 79 authoritarian leaders (dictators) who have died in office from 1946 to 2014, Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantiz found that a majority of the regimes persisted after the autocrats’ death. Research by Benjamin F Jones and Benjamin A Olken – spanning 1,108 different leaders from 130 countries, covering essentially every nation from 1945 to 2000 (Cancers, heart attacks, strokes, and deaths by other natural causes took sixty-five of those leaders while in office. Another twelve died in accidents fiery, watery, and even equestrian) – also led to the same conclusion. Some features of their findings are worth noting.

If an autocratic or strong leader had been in power for long, he or she leaves behind a group of trusted colleagues or inner circle elites who enjoyed power along with the leader. These old guards have vested interests, in the aftermath of the death of the leader, to coalesce around a new successor rather than engage in political bickering and infighting. Failure to do so endangers their privileged access to power. In fact, since they were long used to run the system during the rule of the departed leader, they know how to maintain the status quo and add to the resilience of the regime.

On the other hand, whoever emerges as the new leader would not like to provoke resistance from the “old guard”, because these elements know how to maintain control over the levers of power and carry on the status quo or the legacy of the departed leader by distributing benefits to citizens (populist subsidies) and promoting the party’s ideology. All told, many personalised regimes rule with the aid of a political party. The new leader, therefore, is invariably encouraged by the old guard to co-opt people from the rival parties or groups by incentivising them to participate in the system.

In more senses than one, these features are very much visible in Tamil Nadu today. Belying all sorts of apprehension, there has been a smooth succession of power. New Chief Minister O Panneerselvam was one of the prominent inner-circle elites of Jayalalithaa and he is unlikely to disturb the “old guard” or deprive them of sharing the power in a state which is quite unlike Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. Tamil Nadu’s reputation is that of a state where populism, autocratic administrations and widespread corruption (common to both the DMK and AIDMK governments) have coexisted with economic growth and human development.

All told, Tamil Nadu is one of India’s richer and better-governed states, along with Maharashtra and Gujarat. So sharing power and privilege (inequitably though) along with the leader has never been an issue. Ironically, Tamil Nadu’s economic growth and development has been greatly facilitated by its autocratic or imperious leadership (in this DMK supremo Karunanidhi is not far behind the late MG Ramachandranor or Jayalalithaa).

The ‘near-deity’ status of the leader in Tamil Nadu has resulted in a streamlined decision-making process, leading to political stability and economic progress. And as has been consistent with a body of research, a country or state with political stability and growing economy rarely finds any problem or discontent during a leadership transition. Besides, as a constituent of democratic India, Tamil Nadu’s executive head is also under some limitations imposed by an independent judiciary, let alone a vibrant media.

The moral of the story is thus clear. The risk posed by a sudden vacancy in the leadership in Tamil Nadu does not mean that it is guaranteed to see a period of instability or that it won’t improve under new leadership. Therefore, various speculations suggesting that the AIADMK will disintegrate; that the opposition DMK will form a new government with one of the breakaway factions of the ruling party; that Sasikala, the departed leader’s long-standing friend, will not allow Panneerselvam smooth functioning; and that Panneerselvam can only survive through the Central government’s support by becoming a ‘yes-man’ of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, may well prove to be premature.

First Published On : Dec 7, 2016 21:36 IST

The real Jayalalithaa lay somewhere between an ‘Amma’ and an authoritarian

Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,

Unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d;

No reckoning made, but sent to my account;

With all my imperfections on my head,

                                                       – Hamlet

The above words could very well be the epitaph of Jayalalithaa Jayaraman. Except the very likely possibility that they won’t be used to eulogise the former Tamil Nadu chief minister. The last leg of Jayalalithaa’s journey towards her eternal resting abode was marked by an ‘unknowing’. In the sense that ever since she was admitted in a hospital after falling critically ill, some 75 days ago, she never emerged from that state.

It is said that death equalises everything. But does it?

Writing obituaries for political leaders like Jayalalithaa is always tough, especially amidst an ongoing national mass hysteria, showering her with exaggerated hyperbole.

It’s also equally true that the ‘real’ Jayalalithaa lay somewhere between her image as ‘Amma’ and as an authoritarian. She will certainly be remembered as a significant political leader and our assessment should, therefore, be confined to and be rooted in that sense of history.

The legendary historian RC Majumdar, who wrote the monumental three-volume ‘History of the Freedom Movement in India’, said: “There are some obvious difficulties in writing a history of the movement for freedom in India only fifteen years after it was achieved, and by one who has himself passed through the most eventful period in it…We are all too near the events to view them in their true perspective. I have been a witness to the grim struggle from 1905 to 1947, and do not pretend to be merely a dispassionate or disinterested spectator. I would have been more or less than a human being if I were so…Without denying this possibility, I have tried my best to take a detached view.”

Thousands attended the funeral of former Tamil Nadu CM J Jayalalithaa's funeral on Tuesday. PTIThousands attended the funeral of former Tamil Nadu CM J Jayalalithaa's funeral on Tuesday. PTI

Thousands attended the funeral of former Tamil Nadu CM J Jayalalithaa’s funeral on Tuesday. PTI

At the risk of oversimplifying, it can be said that if the rest of India practices a certain form of democracy, Tamil Nadu practices its own patented form characterised essentially by personality cults, harking right back up to Periyar. The phenomenon of how a mass agitation was premised on and spurred by misguided notions of linguistic purity swiftly degenerated into linguistic chauvinism and then to a raucous and often violent political culture of personality cults is a topic for academic research.

The world over, personality cults are banyan trees that allow nothing to grow under their sprawling shade. And one of its defining traits is this: ‘It’s not enough if anything good is done, but it is only I who should do it, or at least seen to be doing it. Else, it shouldn’t be done.’ Indeed, it’s nobody’s argument that no good comes out of it but the cost of and the trade off that accompanies this good is what should concern us.

Thanks to this brand of personality-centric democracy, politics in Tamil Nadu is dictated by emotionally-charged, grand vows by ‘great leaders’. Those who grew up in that milieu can distinctly recall how MG Ramachandran had once sworn that ‘as long as he was alive, he would not allow Karunanidhi to become the chief minister.’ Or the fact that after her humiliation in the early days, Jayalalithaa had vowed that the next time she would set foot in the Tamil Nadu Assembly would be as the chief minister.

This in turn gave rise to equally grand titles of ‘Kalaignar’, ‘Nadigar Tilakam, Makkal Tilakam’, ‘Puratchi Thalaivi’ and the rest. Vengeance was logically yet another immensely spicy ingredient to make this mix complete. The mass of supporters of the respective ‘great leaders’ had their share of blood upon capturing power, as the last thirty years in Tamil Nadu have shown.

To a dispassionate observer, this only represents an enormous squandering of valuable and proven leadership skills, not to mention the generational waste of human and other resources. Or more dangerously, and tragically, the phenomenon of what transpired in Tamil Nadu (and parts of Bangalore) in the aftermath of MGR’s death. According to a 1988 India Today report:

“For two days normal life was paralysed. Shops were closed, essential supplies were cut off, vehicular transport ground to a halt and passengers were stranded at railway stations and the airport. Vice-President SD Sharma was stuck at the airport for three hours…Madras succumbed to grief and anarchy – perhaps a glimpse, a brief foretaste of what lies ahead. Vandals began pelting stones, burning buses, uprooting road dividers, looting shops and setting ablaze and chipping and chiselling off the statue of Karunanidhi, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (DMK) leader and MGR’s arch political foe,”

“Hurling stones and shattering the window panes of Pals Restaurant on Mount Road. Rati, 21, assisted by a gang of at least 100 All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) members said: ‘Why should Madras survive when MGR has gone?’ R Chandrasekhar, 23, mourned: “The world will never see another leader like MGR.” Unmindful of the advancing police patrol, G Raja said: “With MGR dead, what is the use of us living?” the report said.

This brief, overall political-historical situation provides an objective backdrop to analyse Jayalalithaa’s legacy. She not only closely observed MGR’s style of functioning and his singular ability to manipulate and sway the masses his way, but imbibed it in her own long political career. The report added: “MGR’s special link with his people had a near psychic dimension to it. His style of governance was autocratic, his demeanour feudal, his attitude vindictive, his administration inefficient. But the people of that region, in their blind, mystic reverence for him, saw none of this…despite of his administrative failings. MGR, because of the sway he held over the masses, was able to perform a critical balancing act that made him not just a regional politician but a national figure as well.”

The similarities, however, run deeper. Like MGR, Jayalalithaa too ensured that there was no succession planning in the party, and it is anybody’s guess as to when an all-out war will erupt in the ranks of the AIADMK, like it had in 1988-89. But 2016 is not 1998, and for what it’s worth, the personality-cult political magic wand will no longer work. But there’s also an eerie similarity is the near-identical manner of their deaths. Firstpost had earlier hinted at a kidney ailment that was plaguing Jayalalithaa, who finally succumbed to a cardiac arrest on Monday. Now, compare this with India Today’s report on MGR’s death: “It is ironic that MGR who had been waging a losing battle with his kidney for the last three years should die of cardiac arrest.”

Yet perhaps that’s where the similarities end. There is some credence to the note that it’s time we saw Jayalalithaa independently, outside of the “prism of MGR.” Unlike MGR, Jayalalithaa had an incredible grasp of the nuances of administration. And unlike MGR, Jayalalithaa’s rather elite and anglicised education, and her scholastic achievements greatly helped her in her position as chief minister.

Similarly, in vastly changed circumstances since MGR’s time, Jayalalithaa proved that she was adept at adapting. For instance, in MGR’s time, the media was not as rudely intrusive or pervasive as it eventually became. The instance of Jayalalithaa’s deft handling of the media can be illustrated by her classic interview with a combative Karan Thapar (who was with the BBC back then).

Of her decisiveness and cool aggression, there can be no two opinions. Of her delivering on key electoral promises, there can be no doubt. Yet, all of this towards what ultimate end?

One of the merits of MGR was the fact that he shattered Karunanidhi’s divisive “Dravidian” ideological and political rhetoric that bordered on secession from the Indian Union. MGR wrote a separate script premised on his personality-centred mass appeal – of pro-poor and pro-farmer schemes. Tearing poverty was indeed a daily spectre that haunted most of the era of post-Independence socialist India. But in a post-liberalisation India, neither Jayalalithaa nor Karunanidhi had any excuse to indulge in cash-for-votes kind of electioneering, and rampant and destructive welfarism, which has created at least one generation of unemployable youth.

Equally, there are really no excuses for the numerous scams that dogged her entire career as chief minister. Or the fact that instead of resolving the Cauvery issue peacefully, she repeatedly allowed it to fester, perhaps to bolster her appeal as the messiah of the farmers. Or her avoidable assault against the Kanchi Shankaracharya Matham, that earned her the permanent ire of vast sections of Tamil Nadu.

These then are some of the facets of the aforementioned enormous squandering of valuable and proven leadership skills, which Jayalalithaa was amply endowed with. She never accepted defeat, and reinvented herself with remarkable defiance. Yet each time she re-emerged victorious, she put in motion the same vicious cycle of populism, corruption and the rest. In this light, one is amazed at the tragic futility of it all.

It is here that one needs to apply objectivity to accurately sift the personal struggles of Jayalalithaa from her contributions and legacy as a political leader. To recall Majumdar, we now have the luxury of knowing her life and leadership, and the impressions and influences thereof on people. While this clouds our own individual judgement, a future historian will equally have the luxury of taking a completely detached view in analysing her true legacy.

While it is undeniable that Jayalalithaa’s final exit has left a void in Tamil Nadu’s political landscape, it has also left us with a warning.

First Published On : Dec 7, 2016 19:18 IST

Jayalalithaa dead: A reluctant politician, who made welfarism part of statecraft

One of the first dents in Jayalalithaa’s (her name is sometimes spelled Jayalalitha) popularity was when she held a conspicuously ostentatious wedding for her foster son VN Sudhakaran who was the nephew of her close confidante Sasikala Natarajan.

This was in 1996 and people believed this was the most expensive wedding ever seen in Tamil Nadu with its two-kilometre long illuminated barat route, ten dining halls which could accommodate over 2.5 lakh guests and elaborate wedding pandal that covered over 75,000 square feet. Each wedding card was accompanied with a silver plate, silk sari and a silk dhoti and is said to have cost over Rs 20,000

Sudhakaran was said to be groomed to become Jayalalithaa’s heir and was getting married to Shivaji Ganesan’s granddaughter Sathyalakshmi.

A supporter Jayalalithaa holds her photo. ReutersA supporter Jayalalithaa holds her photo. Reuters

A supporter Jayalalithaa holds her photo. Reuters

By today’s standards, the wedding can hardly be described as ostentatious, overtaken as it is by other even more ostentatious weddings. If this wedding had cost her Rs 100 crore, twenty years later, mining magnet Janardhan Reddy’s daughter’s wedding held at the Bengaluru Palace Grounds is reported to have cost over Rs 550 crore. For the wedding of Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari’s daughter, about 30 chartered flights touched down in Nagpur.

An angry former chief minister M Karunanidhi had in 1996 asked how arch rival Jayalalithaa had spent so much money when she drew just rupee one as salary every month. Women groups and lawyers went to town over her extravaganza and managed to whip up a wave of anti-Jayalalithaa sentiment accusing her of misusing public machinery for a private function.

This was followed by police raids on her residence where they netted over 11,000 saris, 750 pairs of shoes and a three-pound diamond studded gold belt.

She found herself being accused of being another Imelda Marcos, the wife of deposed Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos, who was found (following raids) to have 3,000 pairs of shoes in her closet.

The adverse publicity saw the party losing elections in May 1996 and she herself was defeated from the Bargur constituency. This was a low period for Jayalalithaa because it saw 48 cases being slapped against her and her aide Sasikala. On 27 August 1996, she snapped ties with Sasikala and disowned her foster son Sudhakaran. December of the same year saw her being arrested and having to spend a month in prison.

This one month period must have been a learning curve for her because after her release, it saw Jayalalithaa emerge as someone who shunned ostentation. She dressed simply and wore no jewellery. She also publicly promised to change and devote herself to the welfare of her citizens.

She kept her promise and introduced several welfare schemes across the state. Following her re-election, she started a number of populist schemes aimed at creating a strong base for her party. In this, she succeeded.

Her Amma canteens, Amma pharmacies, the mixers and grinders, and colour TV sets given to the voters won her the hearts of the Tamilian people.

Even prior to her release from jail, she had a marked pro-people tilt. In 1991, she swept the elections with the AIADMK party winning 225 seats out of 234. The women in Tamil Nadu had rallied around in large numbers. And it was in one such election rally which I attended that she announced that all girl students passing the tenth standard would be given a bicycle.

The cradle baby scheme for girl infants who are deserted by their families along with TASMAC was also introduced.
These and several other welfare measures have ensured that Tamil Nadu has some of the best social indicators amongst all the states in the country. For a leader who was a reluctant politician and started out as an ostentatious displayer of power and pelf, it is no small matter that one of the principal reasons why she will be remembered for is making welfarism an accepted, even emulated, part of statecraft.

First Published On : Dec 7, 2016 08:04 IST

Jayalalithaa’s legacy: Industrial, social, crime rankings among India’s best

By Prachi Salve

Tamil Nadu’s 19th chief minister (she was also the 11th, 14th, 16th and 18th) J Jayalalithaa, who died on 5 December, 2016, was known for gifting her 72 million people a record set of freebies, but she also leaves behind a state that ranks among India’s top five in many social, crime and industrial indicators.

File image of late Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa. AFPFile image of late Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa. AFP

File image of late Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa. AFP

Tamil Nadu now has India’s lowest fertility rate–lower than Australia, Finland and Belgium–second best infant mortality and maternal mortality rate; records among the lowest crime rates against women and children; and has more factories and provides more industrial employment than any other Indian state, according to an India Spend analysis of various data sets.

However, financing the freebie culture came at a cost. Tamil Nadu witnessed a 92 percent increase in debt  over five years ending 2015, according to an India Spend analysis of state budgets in November 2015.

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Tamil Nadu’s education indicators have always been above the Indian average and have steadily improved during Jayalalithaa’s from 15 years stint as chief minister.

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Although Tamil Nadu regularly reports violence and discrimination based on caste, the state’s crime rates are among India’s lowest, particularly those relating to women and children.

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As regard industrial growth, Tamil Nadu has more factories than any other Indian state (37,378), according to the Annual Survey of Industries, 2013-14. Maharashtra ranks second with 29,123 factories, followed by Gujarat with 22,876. More people are engaged in industrial work (2.04 million) in Tamil Nadu of any Indian state; Maharashtra (1.8 million) is second and Gujarat (1.37 million) third.

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Tamil Nadu’s per capita income is India’s fifth highest, but the four states preceding it are substantially smaller. Among the country’s large states, it has the richest people.

Freebies come at a cost

Jayalalithaa is known for the freebie culture, which she did not begin but did expand, personalising it along the way. For instance, her 2011 election promises included 100 units of free electricity to every household, a free laptop for class 11 and class 12 students (with free internet connections), a gram of sovereign gold as marriage assistance, and four goats/sheep to families who lived below the poverty line. The laptops had images of “Amma (mother)”, as Jayalalithaa was popularly known. Other programmes also carried that name, such as Amma canteens (for subsidised food) and Amma medicals (for subsidised medicines).

While some programmes were applauded as having a social effect–such as the midday meal scheme, which Tamil Nadu pioneered before Jayalalithaa took office for the first time in 1991 and encouraged children to stay in school–they resulted in the fastest rising debt of any Indian state, as IndiaSpend reported in November 2015.

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Debt, per se, is not bad, if the state’s economic growth can sustain and service it. So, the key matrix is the debt as a percentage of the state’s gross domestic product (GSDP) or total economic output. Tamil Nadu’s debt-to-GSDP ratio at 20 percent is lower than the national average, an indication the state is growing despite the spike in debt.

(The author is an analyst with IndiaSpend)

First Published On : Dec 6, 2016 01:40 IST

Jayalalithaa cardiac arrest: Chennai re-emerges as a city of the wildest rumours

At around 6 pm on Sunday, PTI put out the following tweet, attributing this information to the AIADMK:

At around the same time, cardiologists, pulmonologists and a battery of critical care physicians were struggling to revive Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. She had suffered a massive cardiac arrest at 5 pm and had been immediately put on ECMO or extra-corporeal membrane heart assist device. This is a life-sustaining intervention to provide both cardiac and respiratory support to persons whose heart and lungs are unable to provide an adequate amount of gas exchange to sustain life. Either the party apparatus was blissfully unaware of the development or was deliberately trying to mislead everyone.

That Tamil Nadu’s political culture is famously opaque when it comes to disseminating information is well known. In this case, medical bulletins in the initial days only spoke of fever and dehydration and it was only when critical care specialist Dr Richard Beale was flown in from London to corroborate the line of treatment that people realised there was more than what meets the eye. For the better part of the 70-odd days, Jayalalithaa has been on the ventilator, as she is suffering from Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. She has also been given passive physiotherapy.

File image of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. PTI

File image of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. PTI

In fact, people reacted with surprise when she put her thumb impression on the forms of the party candidates in the by-elections. The reason given was that her right hand was swollen.

Only in the past two weeks or so when Apollo Hospitals chairman Dr Prathap Reddy has been speaking to the media, has there been some clarity on the chief minister’s condition. The discussion at the hospital centered around when Jayalalithaa could be discharged. But Sunday evening has pushed the situation back to square one. A top source grimly described the chief minister’s condition as “more than critical”.

But while the mainstream media has reported on Jayalalithaa’s health with restraint — not overstepping the line, refusing to speculate, WhatsApp has shown itself to be the spoilt cousin. With every forward giving incorrect information under the halo of authenticity, WhatsApp converted Chennai and several cities around the world into a web of rumours.

Many received WhatsApp messages that there would be an editors’ meet at midnight. No clue as to who had called for it. Some spoke of Section 144 imposed in Chennai. Again wrong. All of them designed to create panic and confusion.

On Twitter, several people tweeted mentioning the worst. Suddenly a lot many people “knew” a doctor working at Apollo Hospitals in Chennai or were “friends” with one of the doctors in the Aiims team.

As evening passed into the night, the media contingent (or circus, as the critics would like to say) had become very large. It will only get larger as Monday wears on. Battling sleep, tiredness, anxiety, rain and the mosquitoes of Greams Road. Jayalalithaa’s health is a big story to cover for all media — print, television and digital. Regional, national and international. But at the same time, it runs the risk of degenerating into a Peepli Live. Accuracy in disseminating news is the only way to fight rumour-mongering.

The entire Tamil Nadu police machinery has been on duty since 7 am on Monday, suggesting the law and order machinery is gearing up for something untoward. This kind of a bandobast has not been seen since 22 September when Jayalalithaa was admitted to hospital. What would really help is if the administration told the citizens the truth, so long as it didn’t compromise the law and order situation.

In October, more than 50 people were arrested by the Tamil Nadu police for spreading rumours about Jayalalithaa’s health. Many of these arrests were on the basis of complaints filed by the AIADMK IT wing. Ironically, the same party spread wrong information about its own leader.

Information — and accurate one at that — is always at a premium in Tamil Nadu. That makes the challenge of doing journalism all the more in the state. especially at a time like this.

First Published On : Dec 5, 2016 07:35 IST

Cashless economy: UPI apps provide ease of use and freedom to transact

Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s message in the latest Mann Ki Baat program on All India Radio was loud and clear. He exhorted the nation to start transitioning from less cash to cash less economy. This sounded like a big boost to the cards and digital wallet industry. In fact, this may not be true. India may soon not only be moving to cashless economy but might be moving towards card less economy. Digital wallets tied to specific banks or provided by specific merchants too may soon be history.

Dealing a deadly body blow to the card industry and proprietary digital wallet industry are two indigenous innovations. One is the purported move to have Aadhar chip embedded in smart phones which support Iris scans. And the other is the launching of Unified Payment Interface (UPI) by National Payment Corporation of India (NPCI).

In current scenario, when a purchase is made using a card it is swiped on the point of sale machine and a pin is entered to authenticate the card. This affects money transfer from the customer’s bank to the account of the merchant. In cases where money has to be transferred using a digital wallet, it is done using the digital wallet app. Money from one digital wallet can be transferred to another digital wallet provided they subscribe to the same provider ie PayTm, HDFC Chillr etc. This scenario is now set to change.

Representational image. ReutersRepresentational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Iris scan supported Aadhar card enabled smart phones provide for authentication through the mobile phone. Process is simple. If a transaction has to be made once the Iris is scanned, Aadhaar chip embedded in the phone will communicate with Aadhaar servers and provide instant authentication. Once the authentication is done, money transactions can be done. There will be no need of either a point of sale machine or a card for the purposes of transaction.

Alongside proposed Aadhaar enabled mobile phones, UPI, launched by NPCI with Reserve Bank of India is revolutionising the way digital wallets get used and transactions are made. Using UPI app, people can create their digital wallets and have a virtual private address. This virtual private address could either be the Aadhaar card number of just the mobile phone number of the person.

In case of any transfer to be affected, it can be done from one VPA to another without the restriction of these digital wallets being of the same bank or the same provider. Money in case of UPI enabled wallets always remains with the banks and transactions involving transfers are free. This is unlike the current digital wallets where money gets out of the banking system and in case money has to be sent to the bank there are charges for the same. With this ease of use and freedom to transact across participating banks it’s only a matter of time that UPI enabled apps will replace proprietary digital wallets.

UPI is also enabling person to person (P2P) transactions besides person to merchant (P2M) transactions. In P2P,  people transact among themselves using UPI enabled digital wallets. Once this happens even the 2.1 lakh ATMs may become redundant. Each mobile will become a payment device both accepting and making payments.

Making this a reality, are the current 371 million mobile internet users (35 percent of the population as of June 2016) in India, and approximately 108 crore Aadhaar card holders (as per UIDAI). These numbers coupled with an estimate 50 Million internet users getting added each year; Narendra Modi‘s wish for a cashless economy may well get realised much sooner than anticipated.

The author is Currently Additional Director General Home guards, Mumbai and former Controller, Legal Metrology, Maharashtra.

First Published On : Dec 3, 2016 11:28 IST

Demonetisation: As banks run low on cash, mood in queues turns less charitable

“Why not? Surely, we can take a bit of discomfort if demonetisation is meant for the greater common good.”

This was the mood at the queues at banks and their cash-vending machines a fortnight ago, around seven days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the big announcement. Three weeks on, the mood appears less charitable. There’s more irritation on the faces of people and they are more prone to picking fights with others for reasons they would have ignored earlier with a friendly smile. “Man! How long is it going to last? What the hell is going on?’’

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

The signs of frustration are hard to miss.

The pay-day rush has worsened the collective feeling. There are not too many bad words about the prime minister and demonetisation yet, but acerbic questions have started trickling in. “Where are the rich people in the queues? They have fun with black money and we, the middle class people, have to suffer like this,” a gentleman, around 60, tells you. He is tired of running to his bank at IP Extension in Patparganj every few days and feels he cannot take it anymore if the shortage of cash continues.

“The Rs 2,000 notes that banks offer are as worthless as the Rs 1,000 notes rendered useless. No one accepts them; if they do it, it is on the condition that you buy goods worth the amount. Nobody is prepared to let go of the Rs 100 and Rs 50 notes even if they have a good stock of both,” says another.

This is a common complaint everywhere.

The freedom to spend stands severely curtailed; and it has begun hurting the everyday activities of people. The neighbourhood grocer says he cannot give away notes of those denominations because he is not sure how long the cash problem will continue. Moreover, he has to pay with such cash for certain items he stores.

Older people, particularly pensioners, are a worried lot. The banks won’t pay them the whole amount deposited in their zero-balance accounts. They have resorted to rationing to meet the cash shortage and make it available to as many people as possible. The pensioners thus have to come back again and again and suffer the long wait to get money. A gentleman, around 80 years old, does not look happy about the prospect of coming back to the bank repeatedly. “Beta, pension ke liye wait karte-karte jaan na nikal jaye (I hope I don’t die waiting for my pension).” Why can’t there be separate arrangements for old people like him, he asked. Two of his friends concur.

The jury is still out on whether demonetisation was such a great move, but there appears little disagreement among the public that its execution has been shoddy. The government may have its explanation for the delay in the arrival of fresh cash, but there are not many takers for it now. The mood might get worse in the coming days as routine payments are disturbed and services are hit everyday, as a result.

There’s a lesson for the government in this: It should be extremely careful about dramatic moves that have potential for causing distress to the public. If the benefits of the move don’t far exceed the loss due to the disruption to normalcy caused by it, then there’s little point in pursuing it. One wishes the government had gone ahead with the cashless transaction drive with some caution and a solid Plan B in place.

First Published On : Dec 2, 2016 13:39 IST

SC’s National Anthem order raises questions about an individual’s fundamental rights

The Supreme Court called for a mandatory dose of patriotism on Wednesday.

In its ruling, a bench comprising Justices Dipak Misra and Amitava Roy, the SC ordered cinema halls across the nation to mandatorily play the National Anthem before screening of a movie and the audience must stand and show respect.

Even as the next hearing in the case has been scheduled for 14 February, there have been previous judgments, some of which show that the country’s highest court has taken into account an individual’s right, faith and belief.

Representational image. ReutersRepresentational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

First, let’s travel back 30 years ago to 1986 bringing to the fore an old debate on a citizen’s fundamental right — Bijoe Emmanuel & Ors vs State Of Kerala & Ors on 11 August, 1986. The apex court granted protection to three children, who belonged to the Jehovah’s Witness sect, when they did not sing along to the National Anthem in school. The court held that the children did not disrespect the anthem and that forcing them to sing was against their fundamental right to religion as the singing of it was against the tenets of their religion.

There is no provision of law which obliges anyone to sing the National Anthem nor is it disrespectful to the National Anthem if a person who stands up respectfully when the National Anthem is sung does not join the singing. Proper respect is shown to the National Anthem by standing up when the National Anthem is sung. It will not be right to say that disrespect is shown by not joining in the singing. Standing up respectfully when the National Anthem is sung but not singing oneself clearly does not either prevent the singing of the National Anthem or cause disturbance to an assembly engaged in such singing so as to constitute the offence mentioned in s. 3 of the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act. [527B-G]

Interestingly enough, this isn’t Justice Misra’s first case involving the National Anthem. As a judge in the Madhya Pradesh High Court, Misra passed an order on the “imperatives of showing respect to the National Anthem” quotes a report in The Indian Express. It has to be noted that the petitioner was none other than Shyam Narayan Chouksey, who filed the plea in this case as well — being successful both times. In November 2006, the apex court closed the case saying that the “questions of law were being left open” and allowed the movie (Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham), against which the case was filed, to be screened in its original form, minus any cuts to the scene involving the National Anthem.

Jana Gana Mana‘ penned by Rabindranath Tagore was first sung on 27 December, 1911, at the Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress — Tagore’s niece Sarala Devi Chowdhurani recited the song with some school students and in front of leaders such as Bishan Narayan Dar, Bupendra Nath Bose and Ambika Charan Mazumder, mentions this report in The Hindu. On 24 January, 1950, the assembly met to sign the Constitution of India and President Rajendra Prasad declared ‘Jana Gana Mana‘ as the National Anthem and ‘Vande Mataram‘ the national song.

Current laws don’t force a person to stand up or sing the National Anthem — case in point, this judgment of apex court in the case of Bijoe Emmanuel v. State of Kerala: “Proper respect is shown to the National Anthem by standing up when the National Anthem is sung. It will not be right to say that disrespect is shown by not joining in the singing.” Further, The Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971, categorically talks only about the prevention of singing the National Anthem, apart from insult to the National Flag and the Constitution.

Whoever intentionally prevents the singing of the Indian National Anthem or causes disturbance to any assembly engaged in such singing shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.

Earlier in 2016, the United States was similarly divided in its opinions, when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, chose to sit and then to kneel, rather than stand, during the national anthem before his team’s games. The New Yorker reports that while the team backed Kaepernick, with other players joining in, politicians like Ted Cruz denounced his act. The report goes on to say that the individual refused to stand “as a form of political expression”, protesting the treatment of African-Americans by the police and the society, at large. It also quotes a similar case where two girls belonging to the Jehovah’s Witness faith were punished for refusing to salute the flag and repeat the Pledge of Allegiance, a mandatory requirement by state law for students. This gave rise to West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, which The New Yorker says “stands as perhaps the greatest defense of freedom of expression ever formulated by a Supreme Court Justice”, Robert Jackson.

It has to be noted that the Home Ministry’s Orders Relating to the National Anthem of India does insist on standing during the National Anthem, but it is an advisory and doesn’t prescribe a penalty for failing to do so; there’s certainly nothing on sedition.

Finally, what will Rabindranath Tagore, the author of our National Anthem, think of this ‘patriotic’ order by the Supreme Court? He is not around to answer it, but perhaps this line from his 1917 essay Nationalism in India might serve as one.

India has never had a real sense of nationalism. Even though from childhood I had been taught that the idolatry of Nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.

With inputs from PTI

First Published On : Dec 1, 2016 18:01 IST

Nagrota attack: Qamar Bajwa or Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s India policy will not be any different

The dastardly terror-attack on the Nagrota army camp in Jammu and Kashmir took place on the same day that Pakistan got a new Chief of Army Staff in General Qamar Javed Bajwa. No wonder then that India’s former home secretary and now member of Parliament RK Singh said: “We need to take note of the fact that this is the (Pakistan) new army chief sending a message. His policy will be the same as followed by the predecessor.”

Whether Tuesday morning’s attack was Bajwa’s “opening stroke” or the “parting shot” of his predecessor in General Raheel Sharif is not exactly clear. As the attack, masterminded by the Pakistani Army and implemented by its ‘non-state’ agents, took place when Sharif was still in charge – he handed over the command to Bajwa on Tuesday afternoon.

Worse still, in his farewell speech, Sharif had virtually threatened India: “I want to warn India that considering Pakistan’s policy of patience and restraint as its weakness will be dangerous for India.” In contrast, in his interactions with the press soon after assuming office, Bajwa said: “Everything will be all right on the Line of Control (LoC) soon.”

The Nagrota attack took place on the same day that Pakistan got a new Chief of Army Staff in General Qamar Javed Bajwa. APThe Nagrota attack took place on the same day that Pakistan got a new Chief of Army Staff in General Qamar Javed Bajwa. AP

The Nagrota attack took place on the same day that Pakistan got a new Chief of Army Staff in General Qamar Javed Bajwa. AP

What did the new army chief mean when he said “all right”? This question assumes significance in context of the prevailing situation at the LoC, that is marked by high tensions between India and Pakistan, manifested in repeated outbreaks of cross-border firing, terrorists attacks in Uri and now Nagrota, unrest in Kashmir and India’s surgical strike in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).

Does this mean that peace will be restored? Or does it point to an escalation of the war-like situation that Sharif believes will be such that “India would not be able to forget it for generations to come and will be teaching its children about Pakistan’s surgical strike.”

It may be noted here that Sharif was quite hawkish towards India, the common perception being that his hostility stemmed from the 1971 war that Pakistan lost, in which two of his family members had died. On the other hand, Bajwa has a reputation of being a pragmatist. Though he has a rich experience of serving as Commander FCNA (Force Command Northern Areas) of Gilgit-Baltistan and as General Officer Commanding of 10 Corps (the Rawalpindi-based Pakistani Corps responsible for operations along the LoC in Jammu and Kashmir), his tenure was a period of relative quiet following the 2003 ceasefire accord between India and Pakistan.

As it is, Bajwa was the proverbial dark horse for the post of army chief. And if Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif chose him for the most powerful office in Pakistan, superseding two officers in the process, it was mainly because he prefers to keep a low profile and is not known for his hawkish views on what Pakistan’s politics and foreign policy should be.

The choice of Bajwa, therefore, is based on political considerations; though one cannot doubt his professionalism and experience. Nawaz expects his new army chief to be less-interfering in areas that any elected prime minister would consider as his exclusive domain. He does not want any interference while determining and implementing the core policies for governing Pakistan and promoting its cause and image in rest of the world. In other words, Nawaz hopes that Bajwa will go along with him in restoring the delicate civil-military relationship in Pakistan.

It may be noted here that it was Nawaz who, as prime minister back in 1999, had chosen General Pervez Musharraf as the army chief. And it so happened that it was Musharraf who eventually toppled Nawaz in a military coup. It was Nawaz again in 2013 who chose General Sharif (no relative of his) as the army chief.

It is true that Sharif did not turn out to be a ‘Musharraf’ and peacefully handed over the command, but the fact remains that a hyperactive Sharif did gravely undermine the prime minister’s position. He literally took over the responsibility of internal law and order by establishing numerous military courts to deal with those indulging in acts of terror; brought television and other forums of media under control; and dealt directly with policies concerning India and Afghanistan. In effect, Pakistan was ruled by Sharif from Rawalpindi, and not by Nawaz from Islamabad.

Army personnel take position during encounter after militants attacked an Army camp in Nagrota on the outskirts of Jammu on Tuesday morning. PTIArmy personnel take position during encounter after militants attacked an Army camp in Nagrota on the outskirts of Jammu on Tuesday morning. PTI

Army personnel take position during encounter after militants attacked an Army camp in Nagrota on the outskirts of Jammu on Tuesday morning. PTI

It is also worth-noting that Sharif was a ‘popular’ army chief, in the sense that Pakistani people at large supported his policies in fighting terrorism emanating from the so-called Pakistani Taliban. Unlike politicians like Nawaz and Imran Khan, who talked of “good Taliban, bad Taliban” and favoured “negotiations” with the religious extremists and coexistence with their hatred against non-Sunnis, Sharif decided to take them on.

After all, Pakistan has also been a victim of religious fanaticism, having lost as many as 50,000 people since 2001, including 16,000 military personnel, at the hands of Pakistani extremists. Sharif wanted Pakistan to come out of this partially “self-created bloodbath of terrorism.”

In a way, Sharif was pursuing, though more vigorously, the thesis of his predecessor General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani that, “the war against extremism and terrorism is not only the army’s war, but that of the whole nation. We as a nation must stand united against this threat. The army’s success is dependent on the will and support of the people.”

In fact, it was under Kayani that the Pakistani Army had come out with a new doctrine that, for the first time, talked of Pakistan facing a “multifaceted threat” and not just the threat “from India”. Sharif took this doctrine further by forcing the civilian rulers to agree upon a “National Action Plan” to defeat terrorism, under which 20,000 registered and 40,000 unregistered madrasas, or religious schools (where three million children are enrolled), were regulated to impart education on ‘moderate Islam’.

In his fight against fundamentalist extremists in Pakistan’s frontier areas (North Waziristan and Khyber tribal regions bordering Afghanistan), Sharif also started curtailing the activities of extremist groups (including the Al Qaeda) coming from Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, China, Russia, Chechnya, and many Arab states. These groups, according to experts, have turned between one-quarter to one-third of Pakistan into “no-go” areas.

The only dichotomy in Sharif’s approach was that he did not pursue this with regard to groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and other Punjab-based Sunni extremist groups because they were targeting India, including Kashmir.

In fact, he allowed the ISI to train and finance them and used these terrorists groups as a potent weapons against India. Here, he differed with Nawaz who wanted to respond constructively to the peace gestures coming from the Narendra Modi government. But ‘hate India’ is such a unifying slogan in Pakistan that Sharif vetoing Nawaz’s India-policy did not dent the former’s popularity.

The other reason for Sharif’s growing popularity was the increasing incompetence and corruption of the elected government, whose politicians depended on patronage, bribes, and a backward feudal culture for their survival. Of course, this trend did not start with Nawaz, but he is now its signing symbol, particularly after the release of the so-called Panama papers that “established” money-laundering by his family in foreign banks.

In fact, the situation is such that with each passing year, Pakistani people are becoming more comfortable with the Pakistani Army running even the country’s economy. The army now runs the banks, industries, vast housing projects, and the largest transport and construction company in the country. The army’s economic muscle is already so strong that it does not allow Parliament to make a full disclosure of its annual military budget.

As Ayesha Siddiqa wrote in her book, Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy: “‘Milbus’ (military capital used for the personal benefit of military fraternity) operates in three areas: Agriculture, manufacturing and services and at three levels: Through direct involvement of the military, obtaining unfair economic advantage for its subsidiaries and obtaining direct favours for individual members of the military fraternity.”

Despite constraints to evaluation posed by the lack of transparency, which the author laments, she puts through her main argument that the commercial ventures of the military’s subsidiaries use the influence of the military to obtain business contracts and inputs, financial as well industrial, at subsidised rates. This puts these ventures ahead of their competitors in the private sector. Obviously, this profitable connection with the economy is the reason why the Pakistani Army is unwilling to yield to civilian power.

All told, Pakistan has already become “an army with a country” rather than “a country with an army”. It is well established that there are three lakshman rekhas (limiting lines) that the army has drawn for the civilian prime ministers and presidents: One, they would not interfere in any manner in the organisational and administrative work of the armed forces. Two, they would abide by the advice of the army chief on matters of foreign and defence policies. Three, they would not interfere with the army-controlled nuclear weaponisation and missile programmes.

Will Bajwa forgo this legacy and make himself a pliant army chief of the prime minister? It is highly unlikely. There is a remote possibility of any significant shift in the existing civil-military imbalance in Pakistan. And this means that there will be no radical change in the heightened tensions with India. RK Singh is right in saying that Bajwa’s policy will be the “same as followed by his predecessor.”

First Published On : Nov 30, 2016 17:34 IST

Nagrota attack: A look at pervious attacks on military units shows lack of security measures

It was a dark day for India on Tuesday when a group of heavily-armed terrorists in police uniform stormed an army unit in Nagrota, about three kilometres from the 16 Corps headquarters on the outskirts of Jammu city on Tuesday morning, triggering an intense gunbattle that lasted for several hours.

Seven army personnel, including two officers, were killed in the attack before three terrorists were eliminated in an armed face-off which also involved a hostage-like situation with 12 soldiers, two women and as many children being held captive. All were later rescued, army spokesman said.

Security personnel take positions during a gun battle with suspected militants at the Army camp in Nagrota in Jammu. PTI

Security personnel take positions during a gun battle with suspected militants at the Army camp in Nagrota in Jammu. PTI

The attack has not only raised doubts about whether the surgical strikes conducted by the Indian army against terror launch pads across the Line of Control were actually effective or not but has also raised several questions about the security at military camps and units.

According to The Indian Express, intelligence services had been monitoring a Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) cell in Kashmir which had been plotting an attack on the 16 Corps headquarters in Nagrota for at least two weeks. Despite intelligence services warning of such an attack, the fact that attackers were still successful in infiltrating through the route to Nagrota says a lot about the security there.

Another report in The Times of India said that defence sources informed the newspaper that “very little follow-up action” had been taken after the recommendations of the tri-Service committee, led by former Army chief Lt Gen (retd) Philip Campose and constituted after the Pathankot terror attack. “Since the report was submitted to defence minister Manohar Parrikar in mid-May, few concrete steps have been taken. There were some general discussions with the three Service headquarters, which in turn have carried out some security audits of their bases,” the report quoted a source as saying.

Even if we ignore the major terror attacks on military installations which have taken place outside Jammu and Kashmir in India (like the Pathankot attack), and instead focus only on the attacks in Jammu and Kashmir (where tension has increased at the borders due to the deteriorating ties with Pakistan), the frequency of attacks on the army since 2015 points out how the security for our security personnel seems to have been ignored.

Here are the major attacks on military and paramilitary installations and units which took place in Jammu and Kashmir since 2015:

Attack on army installation in Samba (March 2015): Two terrorists opened fire at the camp of the 81 Armoured Regiment of the Army on the Jammu-Pathankot National Highway in Samba near Jammu. The two terrorists were killed but two security personnel and a civilian were also injured.

Attack on brigade headquarters in Kupwara (May 2015): Three terrorists were killed after they attacked the brigade headquarters of the army in Tanghdar sector of Kupwara near the Line of Control.

Terrorists kill army colonel in Kupwara (November 2015): A Colonel of the Army’s elite Para Commando force was killed and a policeman injured by militants during an operation near the LoC in Kupwara. The Commanding Officer of 41 Rashtriya Rifles Colonel Santosh, who was leading a search party, was critically injured when militants hiding in a dense forest area of Haji Naka opened fire.

Assault on army camp in Kupwara (November 2015): Three terrorists and a civilian were killed after the terrorists infiltrated a camp of Gorkha Rifles in Tanghdar. Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) had claimed responsiblity for the attack.

Attack on CRPF convoy in Anantnag (December 2015): Six CRPF jawans were injured when terrorist opened fired on their convoy on Srinagar-Jammu national highway in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district.

Pampore terror attack (June 2016): Eight CRPF personnel were killed and 21 others critically wounded when terrorists rained bullets on a bus carrying them at Pampore, near Srinagar, in what was a fidayeen attack carried out by LeT.

Attack on army convoy near Khawaja Bagh in Baramulla (August 2016): Hizbul Mujahideen terrorists attacked an army convoy on the Srinagar-Baramulla highway near Khawaja Bagh in Baramulla, killing eight people and injuring 22 others.

Assault on BSF camp in Kupwara (August 2016): An attack by terrorists on a BSF camp in Kupwara left three BSF personnel injured.

Uri attack (September 2016): In a terrible attack on the Army in many years, heavily armed militants suspected to be from Pakistan-based JeM stormed an army base in Uri in Kashmir killing 17 jawans. Located barely a few kilometres from the LoC and some 70 km from Srinagar, the base was subjected to the brazen attack by four terrorists at around 5.30 am, causing heavy casualties in the Dogra regiment which lost 17 of its men.

Attack on army, BSF camps in Baramulla (October 2016): Two terrorists and a soldier were killed and another soldier was injured after terrorists attacked army and BSF camps in Baramulla four days after India conducted the surgical strikes.

Attack on army camp in Handwara (October 2016): Terrorists attemped to storm a Rashtriya Rifles camp in the Langate area of Handwara. No security personnel were killed and all the three terrorists were killed.

With inputs from agnecies

First Published On : Nov 30, 2016 13:50 IST

Indians are protesting more and students in literate states are leading the charge

By Prabhpreet Singh Sood and Prince Singhal, IndiaSpend.com

Bengaluru: States with higher literacy levels report more protests, and nearly half of these protests were led by political parties, according to an IndiaSpend analysis of police data over six years.

The sharpest rise in unrest came from student-led agitations (148 percent) between 2009 and 2014, the period covered by the analysis, show the data, gleaned from the Bureau of Police Research & Development (BPRD), a national police agency.

Karnataka reported the most student protests (12 percent), despite a statewide ban on student unions in colleges. A high literacy rate and a concentration of educational institutions in the state could be the reason, said Venkatesh Nayak, coordinator, Access to Justice Programme with Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, an advocacy.

Up to 75.6 percent of Karnataka is literate (national average: 74 percent) and the state’s capital, Bengaluru, has more colleges (911) than any Indian city.

Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra together account for more than 50 percent of all protests recorded by the police between 2009 and 2014. Except Madhya Pradesh, all other states have literacy rates higher than national average.

Protests rise across India over five years, 200 every day

Between 2009 and 2014, 420,000 protests were held across India — an average of 200 protests every day nationwide (Table 1), and a 55 percent rise over five years.

The increase was mainly driven by Tamil Nadu and Punjab which, between them, registered nearly half the increase in protests nationwide.

Unrest grew across the country for varied reasons — communal (92 percent), government employee grievances (71 percent). political (42 percent) and labour (38 percent), our analysis shows.

Tamil Nadu leads the unrest on the streets

With almost 25 percent of the total number of protests, Tamil Nadu reported more agitations than any other state in the country. This is almost three times the number witnessed by the state that came second on the list, Punjab.

Agitations are the collective expression of dissatisfaction with government authorities, and social, political and economic establishments. They could relate to an array of issues–from education, essential services and transport facilities to wages, dalit issues and rights of women.

A protest gets recorded by the police either when prior permission is sought for holding it or when officials take suo-moto cognisance, based on information they gather.

Tamil Nadu has a history of high-profile agitations: From anti-Hindi agitations in the pre-Independence era to public expression of solidarity with the Tamils in Sri Lanka and marches against the Kudankulam nuclear plant.

MG Devasahayam, a former bureaucrat who was also actively involved in the Kudankulam protest, was of the view that this could be because governance in Tamil Nadu is not democratic enough.

“But there are also small parties that simply need to show their presence. So, on the Cauvery issue, there were hundreds of agitations,” said Devasahayam. “Everyone wants their name to appear in the media.”

Delhi, the country’s capital, was seventh in terms of number of protests–it reported nearly 23,000 in the period under study (Table 1). The city has designated demonstration sites, the best-known being Jantar Mantar, Ramlila Maidan and India Gate. Protests are a daily affair at these venues. These range from retired soldiers’ demand for “one rank, one pension” to protests that followed the Nirbhaya rape case in December 2012 and Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement.

The less empowered are less likely to agitate

Underdeveloped states, such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar — with 25 percent of India’s population collectively–accounted for less than 1 percent of agitations during 2009-14. These states are numbers one and three respectively on India’s population chart and have literacy rates much below the national average (Bihar has the lowest).

Similarly, undivided Andhra Pradesh, fifth in terms of all-India population ranking but with a literacy rate of only 67 percent, recorded only about 1.55 percent of all the agitations that took place in the country in the period.

The outliers and why they seem quiet

Kerala, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, and the northeastern states defy the link between protests and literacy. But that could be explained on the basis of their small populations.

In Kerala, the high court imposed a ban on bandhs — as protests are called colloquially — in 1997, which could also be one reason why protest numbers remain relatively low.

The northeastern states are generally considered to be politically volatile. But it is likely that in at least one state, Manipur, the absence of public protests can be attributed to the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which enforces curfew-like situation in the state, said Nayak.

Assam reported the most protests in the northeast: 17,357. The Bodoland issue — a long-simmering movement for a separate state for an ethnic tribe called the Bodos — the question of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and the diverse agendas of the many ethnic communities could be reasons.

Politics parties drive most stirs

Political parties and their affiliates are behind 32 percent of the protests recorded in the country. And if you add their student bodies and labour unions, the percentage goes up to 50 percent.

Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu together accounted for more than 60 percent of the political agitations held across India in six years. This is despite the fact these states had governments that had completed their five-year tenures during the period.

In Maharashtra, the number of demonstrations staged by political parties was large but their scale and intensity were not as high, said former state police chief Rahul Gopal. Political protests are often triggered by the need to be noticed by the electorate, he added.

Crowd control and how it varies across states

While 48 percent of 3,929 protests in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) were quelled by force, less than 0.1 percent of 109,548 demonstrations in Tamil Nadu — the state with the largest number of agitations — were similarly tackled.

Up to 45 percent of protests that attracted police force were in J&K alone. The agitations in the wake of the killing of Burhan Wani in July, 2016, were dealt with using pellet guns, a move criticised for mass blindings and other injuries it caused. (Table 3)

Over the last six years, the government has used police force to check less than 1 percent (3,972), according to the BPRD data.

Most instances of police force were reported from J&K, West Bengal, Manipur and Rajasthan. Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal have also seen a flurry of demonstrations against major developmental projects that caused displacement of native populations, said Nayak. (Table 2 & 3)

Force of any kind, especially firing, is resorted to only when there is a chance that the protest might turn into a riot, said Gopal.

“Bullets are the last resort,” he said. “Batons or just the presence of a high number of police personnel is enough to make sure that protests do not get out of control in most cases.”

The Supreme Court had observed in August, 2016, that while maintaining law and order is necessary, care has to be taken not to use force beyond what is “absolutely essential”. The apex court had issued the warning while hearing a petition alleging police brutality at a demonstration in support of Jammu migrants in 2007.

Dissent comes at a price

Agitations do lead to losses–both in terms of human casualties and damage to the economy and businesses.

The Bharat Bandh held two months ago, to focus attention on labour reforms, cost taxpayers about Rs 18,000 crore, said news reports. Ten days later, riots erupted in Karnataka over the Cauvery river row and resulted in a loss of Rs 22,000-25,000 crore, according to trade body ASSOCHAM.

Earlier in the year, violent agitations by Jats in Haryana cost northern states about Rs 34,000 crore, the PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry said in a statement.

Karnataka, which stands sixth in the list of states with most agitations since 2009, made headlines globally when curfew had to be imposed for a few days owing to rioting over Cauvery water. Bengaluru, which hosts offices of tech giants such as Google, Microsoft and Infosys, came to a standstill.

CNN, BBC and Wall Street Journal reported the water war to their audience and media houses back home ran stories with headlines that said the episode had sullied the IT hub’s image.

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Indiaspend.com is a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit

First Published On : Nov 30, 2016 09:33 IST

Demonetisation: Modi govt clains giant killing of black money but RBI data shows a damp squib

There is a famous couplet by Iqbal that, if loosely translated, goes like this: There must be something about us that ensures we are never destroyed or decimated even when the world has been our enemy for ages. Now, apply that to the current war on illegal cash by the Narendra Modi government: It seems there is really something about Indian cash that ensures its survival.

Note the figures.

On 8 November, when the prime minister announced notes of higher denomination would be outlawed with immediate effect, currency notes worth nearly Rs 14.5 lakh crore became illegal unless deposited in banks or used for select services.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTIPrime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

When the government outlawed the notes, it was said that the so-called demonetisation would help achieve three objectives: a) unearth black money stashed as cash, b) curtail funding of terror networks and c) destroy counterfeit currency.

It was also assumed a large part of the stashed cash would not be deposited and would be destroyed. Swept away by the euphoria, there were boisterous claims that money was being thrown into the Ganges or dumped in roadside bins.

But, on current evidence, it seems most of the money may actually end up getting legally tendered in banks, entering the system as white money. Whither kala dhan?

According to the RBI, since the 8 November announcement, currency notes worth Rs 8.11 lakh crore have been deposited in banks and Rs 33,498 crore (3 percent) have been exchanged. So, currency notes worth 60 percent of the total outlawed currency has already entered the system.

But, this does not mean 40 percent cash is still with people. Some portion of it was already with banks — in the form of cash held in ATM machines and in bank chests.

There is no readily available figure for money held in ATMs and banks on the night of 8 November. But, we can get a rough idea by looking at the average amount dispensed through the 2 lakh ATMs.

According to the RBI data, there were 1,03,651 on-site and 99,150 off-site ATMs in India in August 2016.

Collectively, they dispensed Rs 2,19,657.5 crore in the month of August to customers. (So far, the RBI has been able to pump back just around 2 lakh crore back into circulation. This, incidentally, is less than the amount withdrawn by Indians just through ATMs.)

So, the average cash dispensed daily through ATMs was around Rs 7,322 crore. And that could roughly be the amount held in them on any given day.

Similarly, bank branches all across India may have been sitting on cash to be dispensed through counters the next morning. Most of it would have been in notes of higher denomination.

Also, as pointed out here, a fourth of the cash in circulation may be with government agencies and thus accounted for and clean.

So, the amount still left in the hands of Indians could be much less than 40 percent of ‘demonetisation.’ And, with 32 days still left and smart money still waiting for the queues to end, the final deposit figures may stun the government.

What if most of the currency in circulation returns to the accounts? What if, as was presumed earlier, not much of it remains unaccounted or gets thrown away in the Ganges?

One, of course, it would imply that people managed to find the means to bring most of their cash back into circulation, derailing government’s dream of a windfall through a RBI write-off equivalent to the amount that doesn’t return. And ta-ta to rumoured plans of depositing Rs 15,000 cash in Jan Dhan accounts.

And two, it would mean Indians have found innovative means in this war against kaala dhan.

As Iqbal said, kuch baat hai ki hasti mit ti nahin hamari!

It seems the government is now wary of a situation where the ‘surgical strike’ on black money could just deliver loose change. (And there is no guarantee that the money that doesn’t return would be of hoarders — the poor, the old, those without bank accounts, those unaware of the government decision would also ed up losing their legitimately held cash.)

So, it has now introduced a revised form of voluntary disclosure scheme, where the penalty is just five percent more (and an added lock-in period) than the 45 per cent in the scheme that ended in September. And the narrative has shifted to cash-less India, a far-fetched idea.

But, recovering tax from deposits would be a tricky task. One, tax disputes go on for years — seven years is the legitimate period for a file to remain open. Two, there are just around 6,000 sanctioned positions of IT officers in India, around 1,000 of them are vacant. How many deposits and accounts will they be able to verify and bring under the tax ambit?

So, the gains may be few. And even if they are something to sing and dance about, making evaders cough up tax could take years.

The Modi government may have unfortunately rushed into a long war with illegal cash. And there is no guarantee that it would be able to demolish and destroy illegal cash.

Iqbal may be smiling.

First Published On : Nov 29, 2016 15:36 IST

Dealing with crimes against women in reality has become a matter of ‘jugaad’

Citing a new survey by ActionAid, an international women and child rights NGO, a report in The Times of India said that 41 percent of women in India have been subjected to sexual harassment or violence before the age of 19. The survey, covering a total of four nations — India, United Kingdom, Brazil and Thailand — revealed that women face harassment for the first time when they’re quite young. Survey further added that 6 percent have experienced it below 10 years of age. And to gain some more perspective here are the figures — Brazil at 16 percent, UK at 12 percent and 8 percent in Thailand.

This comes after the report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in August, stating that crimes against women had increased by 61 percent from 2010 to 2015, with a 43 percent increase in rape and 21 percent increase in cases of kidnapping.

Another survey by the National Crime Records Bureau pointed out that there was a dip in the number of rape cases in 2015 in comparison to 2014, but a spike in other sexual offences was noted, as well as an increase in abduction cases with the intent to force one to marry, in a report by The Indian Express.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

On the International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women, these statistics build a strong case for more action.

Let’s refresh our memory of the past few months: the rape of a minor in Nashik from the Maratha community, the rape of 12 students in Buldhana of Ninadhi Ashram school, a six year-old raped in a school in Bangalore, the Monica Ghurde murder incident are just some of the cases that have been registered, reported and picked up by the media.

Thereafter, let’s look at the completely shocking verdicts announced for others, as in the Scarlett Keeling murder and rape case, Patna High Court’s verdict on rape accused RJD MLA Raj Ballabh Yadav, and the Allahabad High Court granting bail to Asif Khan in connection with the rape of a 14 year old girl from Badaun. The 14-year-old had to even fight a legal battle to terminate her pregnancy after the incident, according to The Times Of India report. In the case of a 21 year-old Dalit student in Rohtak, in Haryana, she was raped for the second time in three years, when two of the five that were accused were released on bail, and after she refused an out of court settlement. All this and we haven’t even made a mention of female foeticide and dowry deaths.

It’s probably a good thing then, if beyond everything, some women have the luxury of being able to speak from their ivory towers to deny these crimes, going to show that they still retain greenness and trust in this world. But even if rape, trafficking, mutilation, domestic violence, exploitation, and coercion seem like far away realities to them, there is the problematically grey issue of consent.

A video titled Tea Consent, simplifies consent through the metaphor of tea and defines the line so one may not cross it, nor allow it to be crossed. The nuancing of this discussion, of knowing that one is not obligated to make tea, and that one can say ‘yes and then no’ over the ‘no means no’ argument, helps in raising awareness and normalising of all of one’s rights. Harassment is, after all, a form of discrimination, and this includes jokes, inappropriate remarks, threats, unwelcome physical contact, blackmailing and intimidation. Invasion of privacy in whatever way has to beget consequences.

But perhaps consent is a non-argument in a country wherein marital rape is still legal, nor even ordained with any seriousness. With public figures speaking and women’s wings of some parties saying things such as ‘women must not wear short clothes’ or ‘marriage is a sacred bond’ and ‘Indian society is woven by the divine element a woman carries within her,’ as revealed in this article by The Indian Express. Ironically, the same people then go on to speak out about Triple Talaq and argue about uniform civil code.

According to another report in The Times of India, our very own Union Minister for Women and Child Development has claimed that India was ranked among the lowest four countries in the world for rape, the dire, black paradox of the situation being that Maneka Gandhi revealed these statistics to an authority in Sweden when she went there in connection with the Delhi rape case incident. The report goes on to say that so many women, who have been sexually violated, do not come out to report crimes out of fear of further persecution and stigma.

The word ‘rape’ comes from the Latin word ‘Raptus’ which implies a violent theft. An article by Priyanka Rath in the India Law Journal, suggests that rape in India is considered as theft of a woman against the consent of her guardian (those with legal power over her). But what happens if the guardian (father, brother or husband) are the ones who rape her? In reality though, this is not even a theft of, rather a theft from a woman.

So many say that rape is political in nature, that it is the whiplash response of patriarchy to the feminist movement. But what about the underage six percent — little children, who don’t even know how to spell ‘agitation’? Aggression against them cannot, surely, be political. Is it not then indicative of the psychological rot within our country, of immense frustration and its unjust displacement, and a fearlessness that comes with impunity?

And speaking of crimes against juveniles comes with speaking about crimes by juveniles. We can hail the bill in the Rajya Sabha to alter the age at which one can be tried as an adult for rape to 16, but that still discounts the other teens, like in the Nashik rape case, who might walk away after three years in a correctional facility. Though contrary to our knee-jerk reaction to the delay in justice, the way to purge ourselves of the problem should hardly be to condemn perpetrators to capital punishment.

The first step to solving a problem is obviously to acknowledge that there is one. And this day thus goes a step above Women’s Day in value. Having a separate day to spread awareness, take stock and lick our wounds, may not be a solution, and maybe even less of a consolation, but one has to believe that this is germination in process.

It’s good news that the survey’s findings glint with a silver lining, showing that women are taking measures to protect themselves. The ActionAid India website shows 35 percent avoid parks and poorly lit areas, 36 percent change their travel route, 23 percent have said they make use of everyday objects like keys, and 18 percent arm themselves with devices like a rape alarms and pepper sprays.

Of course they shouldn’t have to avoid parks and poorly lit areas, or change their travel routes, or prep themselves with props. But at least they’re not staying back home.

One may endlessly argue against this protectionist approach, saying that it robs women of power, and that it objectifies them once again as something to be kept safe. But this seems to be such a movie-analysis like approach to talking about the issue of crimes against women. How can taking initiative to keep oneself safe be a bad thing? Wanting to be careful is genderless, not to mention especially necessary here when dealing with the ‘unfair sex.’

These multiple minute narratives of individuals are immensely hopeful, implying a certain robustness and coping – Indian jugaad at play once again, where help is never forthcoming.

First Published On : Nov 26, 2016 15:17 IST

Zakir Naik in letter says IRF ban attack on Muslims and to divert attention from note ban; threatens legal action

Controversial Islamic preacher Zakir Naik, whose NGO Islamic Research Foundation (IRF) was banned by the Narendra Modi-government for five years, has alleged that the ban was timed to the demonetisation announcement to divert media attention. In an open letter released on Friday, Naik termed the ban on IRF as an attack against ‘Muslims’ and has threatened to take legal action against the Modi-government against the move. Naik’s NGO was banned last week for allegedly aiding terror activities. This is the second open letter Naik is writing ever since Naik got into trouble and faced a series of investigations post the Dhaka attacks.

In the letter “to India”, Naik yet again sought to play the ‘muslim card’ saying IRF and himself were “set up for a ban.” Not very different from his first letter, Naik says the ban imposed on IRF is communal in nature. The radical preacher severely criticised the Modi government for banning the organisation and dubbed it a knee-jerk reaction.

“Like the demonetization fiasco, the Modi government’s IRF ban and its modus operandi has been distraught with senseless decisions and knee jerk actions. After having said that the Islamic International School will not be affected, the government goes ahead and freezes the School’s bank account. How will a school survive without its day-to-day expenses being met? We’re talking about the future of hundreds of school children here.”

Naik and IRF came under the government’s scanner after reports emerged that some of the terrorists behind the Dhaka restaurant attack were inspired by his speeches. Naik, in his letter, claims that the Modi government has absolutely no grounds for the banning. Naik has been banned by a few other countries including United Kingdom and Canada for his speeches that advocates the supremacy of Islam over other religions.

Zakir Naik. Reuters

Zakir Naik. Reuters

In his letter, Naik alleges that Modi-government had decided to ban IRF even before investigators submitted the reports on IRF:

“Before investigations were done, even before reports submitted, the ban was already decided. IRF was to be banned. Whether it was owing to my religion or some other reason, does not matter.”

Investigators had found evidence for IRF’s alleged links to terror activties. Recently,  National Investigation Agency (NIA) said that IRF  funded at least 300 people, some of whom travelled to the Islamic State areas of Syria and Iraq.

This came into light after the NIA carried out searches for three days at 20 premises during which records related to bank accounts and other financial activities linked with Naik and IRF were seized. NIA also plan to prepare a list of IRF members based abroad to track the money trail, reported DNA.

In addition to it, NIA has handed over a list of over 12 people, including Naik, his family members, close friends and organisations, to all 72 scheduled commercial banks to check whether these people had any account in these financial institutions. According to the above report which has quoted official sources,  NIA has sent notices to three private banks to freeze the accounts of Naik and others, which were found to be in operation during the three-day search by it that ended last night, till further orders. In both the letters, NIA has cited Section 43 of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for executing such action.

Further in his letter, Naik claims that this “unique ban” was imposed without anyone questioning him.  Since the Dhaka attacks, investigating agencies  have been scrutinising Naik’s speeches.Like this article in Firstpost argues, preachers like Zakir Naik “…typically play mind games with the enchanted listeners, often selectively quoting (rather twisting) the lines from sacred scriptures, to impose the ultimate idea of religious supremacy in the audience’s psyche and ultimately establish why one should embrace that particular religion. This is arguably the trade technique of televangelists…”

Naik has defended himself claiming that many times that his speeches have always dealt with communal harmony, and he has never supported terrorism.  Naik claims himself as an expert on comparative religion and often quotes lines from religious texts in his speeches.

Further in his letter, Naik reiterates that he is “one of the few” who have openly spoken against state-sponsored violence and terrorism. Naik’s arguments, “rather ignorance”, about the relation between religion and the idea of a secular nation are flawed but it is clear why it would convince those who believe in a religion’s supremacy over others. In a February 2012 video (removed from YouTube), addressing a large crowd, Naik implored Muslims to ‘fight for Islam’ and ‘disobey the law of the land if it goes against the law of the creator’. Saying “Vande Mataram,” Naik said, “is not desirable not just Muslims, even Hindus. Why? Because, Hinduism,” Naik says, speaks against the concept of idol worship and hence, it is wrong to bow to the land.”

The hypocrisy of Naik is glaring in the end of the letter, where the preacher, who throughout blamed the government for being communal, plays the communal card himself.

“Don’t such statements and many more by fanatics like Sadhvi Prachi and Yogi Adityanath require them to be arrested and tried under UAPA? Leave aside legal action, the government has neither condemned their actions nor reprimanded them. Is this draconian law mainly meant for Muslims? Muslims who’ve been practicing and propagating their religion peacefully and well within the constitutional framework? Does the UAPA now exist mainly to silence minority groups? I urge my Muslim brothers and sisters in India to rely on Allah alone, unafraid of this vicious campaign against them. Allah says, ‘And if you are patient and fear Allah, their plot will not harm you at all.’ (Al-Qur’an 3:120)”

You can read his full letter here:

Dr. Zakir Naik s Second Letter to India.pdf-page-001


Dr. Zakir Naik s Second Letter to India.pdf-page-002
Dr. Zakir Naik s Second Letter to India.pdf-page-003

Naik also threatens the government of legal action and says that the government is misusing their authority on people and “It needs to change for the future of every one of us.” Naik’s letter is explosive in the way it targets “Indian Muslims” as the preacher goes on to say that the Modi government will fail in its plans and adds that even though the government of India is misusing law to “scare the Indian Muslims”, he will strive harder to spread the message peace, “till my last breath.”

First Published On : Nov 25, 2016 18:50 IST

Fake currency racket: Hurriyat activists, army spies, murky policemen complicate task ahead

Security agencies in Kashmir have claimed to have unearthed a large-scale fake currency and hawala racket, one that involves a territorial army spy and some Hurriyat leaders as well.

According to police officials, several people have been apprehended in Kashmir over links with different incidents involving fake currency rackets and hawala transactions. Among the cases registered is the one where a territorial army spy and a police official were apprehended for receiving fake currency from across the border. The case was registered at Srinagar’s Ramunshi Bagh police station, and cops are investigating if any army personnel were involved in transporting the fake currency from Pakistan.

A top police official said that large batches of fake currency come from Pakistan, and sizeable chunks of money also reach militants involved in insurgency in the Valley. Between 2012 and 2014, police and bank authorities have recovered Rs 87.1 lakh in fake currency, while many cases are under investigation.

Image courtesy: Nicocrisafulli/FlickrImage courtesy: Nicocrisafulli/Flickr

Image courtesy: Nicocrisafulli/Flickr

Senior superintendent of police (SSP), Pulwama, Rayees Mohammad Bhat, seconded the argument that militants get fake currency notes from Pakistan. “Militants need money not only for their over ground workers (OGWs) but also for making local purchases like food and mobile phones. They hide in the forest areas, and use fake currency notes for local purchases,” he said. “This apart, there are also local militants using a different modus operandi: They print their own fake currency notes and use them between a big wad of notes to ensure it’s not detected. We have registered a lot of such cases.”

The National Investigating Agency (NIA) has also registered cases involving hawala transactions, which came to light after the arrest of a few Hurriyat activists. The NIA is investigating the role of the Naeem Geelani, the elder son of Hurriyat (G) chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani, in a case involving the “flow of funds from various overseas bank accounts”, meant to be used in separatist activities here.

The NIA investigation has revealed that in some of the cases, even Pakistan’s ISI officials were involved. The officials supply hawala money through their contacts to the Hurriyat activists in India. To evade detection and arrest, the accused even speak in code language. The ISI has roped in militants, who along with their contacts in Srinagar, had managed to get currency from across the border. In one of the cases, a Delhi-based businessman was found guilty of helping militants get their money from across the border.

Apart from this, under-invoicing is another trick used by militants to carry out hawala transactions, say police officials. “Trucks that carry trade items across the Line of Control (LoC) aren’t checked as thoroughly, which results in a high possibility of there being fake currency being transported in these trucks,” said a senior police official.

Superintendent of police, Sopore, Harmeet Singh, said that some traders even provide money to Hurriyat leaders here “on the instructions of their contacts in Pakistan”.

A senior official said that traders from Srinagar inflate the value of the goods they are plying, and also transport higher volume of goods. “The money which is earned through transport of goods in larger volume is given to the Hurriyat leaders here,” he said.

However, Farooq Ahmed Shah, custodian, cross-LoC trade, said that the government has put in place adequate security arrangements. “It will ensure that only genuine people are involved in the trade. We are conducting the trade in barter system. The police is better equipped to investigate any cases of doubtful transactions,” he said, adding that over 350 traders from Jammu and Kashmir are are involved in the cross-LoC trade. “The value of goods is reflected properly by the traders. We have also X-ray detection facilities for checking of the goods,” Shah said.

First Published On : Nov 25, 2016 18:09 IST

How did the poorest escape demonetisation? Simple, they don’t have money

By Mukta Patil, Shreya Shah and Swagata Yadavar, IndiaSpend.com

Dressed in a white dhoti or loin cloth, with a bright pink tilak or mark on his forehead, Chandu Kokre shepherded about 60 sheep along national highway 60, 30 km southeast of Mumbai, India’s financial capital. “It doesn’t matter to us,” the thin 28-year-old told IndiaSpend when asked about the Indian government’s delegitimising of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes–86 percent of currency in circulation by value. “We don’t have bills that exceed Rs 50 and Rs 100,” he explained.

Representational image. AFPRepresentational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

On 9 November, 2016, the Indian government scrapped Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, resulting in long queues to exchange these notes or withdraw money in lower denominations and reduced short-term income for many small-scale businessmen. But the poorest labourers, farmers, small business owners and shepherds like Kokre appear to have been affected less by the move because they either earn too little to save, or survive on what they themselves grow, found IndiaSpend reporters in rural areas of Pune, Ahmednagar and Palghar districts, and urban areas in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai.

As many as 269.3 million Indians–equivalent to the population of Indonesia–live below the poverty line of Rs 27 a day in rural areas and Rs 32 in urban areas. About 216.5 million of the poor live in rural areas, as IndiaSpend reported in October 2015. In Maharashtra–India’s richest state, by gross state domestic product, and the second most populous–19.7 million (17.35 percent) of 112 million are poor.

Several farming households told IndiaSpend they were not affected by the government’s move because they depended on their own produce for sustenance. That did not appear to be the situation in urban areas, where various media reports–such as this in the Indian Express, and this in the Hindustan Times–reported survival struggles.

As farming recedes across India, poor labourers proliferate

Narayan Deo Rinjad stood in the doorway of his brick house, in the village of Pandre Pade in Palghar district, about 120 km north of Mumbai, as a hen and its chicks explored the surroundings. “It hasn’t affected us much because we eat what we grow,” said the 43-year-old farmer, who lives below the poverty line, and grows rice, lentils, chillies and cucumbers.

Rinjad said the family buys oil, sugar and spices from the market but stocks up for 15 days to a month as the closest market is 5 km away. When the government announced that old notes would no longer be valid, the family had Rs 5,000 that they deposited in a bank, and withdrew Rs 2,000 . Rinjad added he didn’t plan to go the bank anytime soon, because he didn’t have an urgent need or time to spare from the sowing season; the last trip to the bank to deposit and withdraw money took four hours.

But the number of farmers in India is falling, while the number of agricultural labourers is increasing. Farmers–known as “cultivators” in census parlance–have reduced by 7 percent, from 127.6 million in 2001 to 118.6 million in 2011, as IndiaSpend reported in August 2014. Agricultural laborers rose by 36.8 million, or 34.2 percent, to 144.3 million in 2011 over the decade.

Source: Census of India

Daily labourers who work on farms and rural construction sites also said they had too little money to be affected hugely by the demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, but some said they weren’t taking money until their employers gave them small change.

Even if the poor have bank accounts, they may not use them

Krishna Shukla, 36, dressed in a faded shirt, paired with blue pants and an orange scarf, counted his wages for the day, all in denominations below Rs 50, which he had earned as a porter at the agricultural market in Vashi, south of Mumbai. “Where do we get to see a 500 rupee note?” he said wryly, explaining he spends 26 percent of his daily earning of Rs 300. He gives his savings to a friend who has a bank account to send back home to his village in Bihar.

Even though several laborers and farmers said they had bank accounts, many said they have zero or little money in the account, as they earn just enough for their daily needs. Out of the 25.51 crore new accounts opened under the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (Prime Minister’s People’s Wealth Programme), until November 2016, 23 percent had no money in them, according to finance ministry data.

Further, many still depend on informal family networks or moneylenders to send and borrow money.

Rani Devi, 34, came to Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Hospital, two months ago, to treat her rectal cancer. Her husband, a daily labourer in the northern state of Bihar, came with her, and hasn’t had a job since. The family spends Rs 200 a day surviving in Mumbai, and borrowed Rs 5,000 from moneylenders in the village, at an interest rate of 36 percent per annum.

Rani Devi, 34, came to Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Hospital, two months ago, to treat her rectal cancer. Her family has a bank account but doesn’t earn enough to save. Image courtesy: IndiaSpendRani Devi, 34, came to Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Hospital, two months ago, to treat her rectal cancer. Her family has a bank account but doesn’t earn enough to save. Image courtesy: IndiaSpend

Rani Devi, 34, came to Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Hospital, two months ago, to treat her rectal cancer. Her family has a bank account but doesn’t earn enough to save. Image courtesy: IndiaSpend

“We have a bank account but there is hardly anything left to save at the end of the day,” said Devi, her back resting on two plastic bags lined against the wall on the footpath outside the hospital–their makeshift home. She was unclear about how the ban of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes has affected their family.

Though some daily wage workers were paid in notes of Rs 100 or less, some weren’t. Jitendra Bhurkud, a daily wage farm worker in Palghar district, said his employer didn’t have Rs 100 notes, so he continued to work without pay. “We will get (money) once the employer has change,” he said.

Daily wage labourer Jitendra Bhurkud has worked without pay for the last two weeks. “We will take once the employer has change,” he said. Image courtesy: IndiaSpendDaily wage labourer Jitendra Bhurkud has worked without pay for the last two weeks. “We will take once the employer has change,” he said. Image courtesy: IndiaSpend

Daily wage labourer Jitendra Bhurkud has worked without pay for the last two weeks. “We will take once the employer has change,” he said. Image courtesy: IndiaSpend

Others said they had too little money to care about the move, but that their businesses were impacted by a paucity of small change. “We don’t have money, so it doesn’t affect us,” said Rasika Lohale, 41, who owns a small store in Wade Pali, in northern Maharashtra, adding that her business has fallen from Rs 500/600 to Rs 300/400 a day. “We don’t eat meat nowadays because we don’t have the money for it.”

Rasika Lohale, owner of a small shop, says her family hasn’t eaten meat in the last few days because her business has reduced about 50% because of a lack of small change. Image courtesy: IndiaSpendRasika Lohale, owner of a small shop, says her family hasn’t eaten meat in the last few days because her business has reduced about 50% because of a lack of small change. Image courtesy: IndiaSpend

Rasika Lohale, owner of a small shop, says her family hasn’t eaten meat in the last few days because her business has reduced about 50% because of a lack of small change. Image courtesy: IndiaSpend

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Indiaspend.com is a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit

First Published On : Nov 25, 2016 10:52 IST

Demonetisation survey: Has Narendra Modi hit political jackpot with economic move?

There is always a danger in posing too much faith in surveys and opinion polls. Ask Hillary Clinton. For one, psephology isn’t an exact art. Second, predicting election outcomes based on data — however scientific — is difficult because human behavior isn’t normative. To draw a sweeping conclusion from the findings of Narendra Modi App survey, therefore, would be to court risk and tempt failure.

However, while a survey in itself may not be an accurate indicator of ground reality because it might be subject to bad data or confirmation bias, taken together with other surveys of different methodology and sample size, anecdotal evidences and ground reports, it is possible to predict a trend. In the fickle world of politics where perception shapes reality, sighting an early trend may make all the difference.

And the trend that is visible from the plethora of surveys and reports indicate that Prime Minister Modi may have hit a political jackpot while trying to implement an economic reform.

File image of PM Narendra Modi. APFile image of PM Narendra Modi. AP

File image of PM Narendra Modi. AP

First, let us take a look at what the app-based appraisal on demonetisation that the PM had asked citizens to download and conduct, has thrown up.

In just over 24 hours since the survey was launched via the Narendra Modi App, a whopping 5 lakh respondents took part in the exercise. According to data released by narendramodi.in, till 3.30pm on Wednesday more than 90 percent of the respondents feel the government’s move to tackle black money is worth above four-star rating. 73 percent of them have given it a five-star billing. On the overall fight against corruption, more than 92 percent participants either rate the government as ‘very good’ or ‘good’. Around 57 percent of them rate the measure as ‘very good’.

More than 93 percent people have come out in support of the move to demonetise the old 500 and 1000 rupee notes and of the over 5 lakh responses, only 2 percent have rated the move as ‘very poor’. Almost 86 percent people believe that some so called anti-corruption activists are now actually batting in support of black money, corruption and even terrorist financing.

The Times of India has broken down the infographic further, detailing that the app-based survey received more than 400 responses every minute. The respondents were from 2000 different locations, with 93 percent of them in India. Also, 24 percent of those surveyed had responded in Hindi.

Notwithstanding the huge sample size of five lakh, the app-based opinion poll suffers from lack of incongruity. It limits itself to the urban or semi-urban middle class who can afford a smartphone and an internet connection. Critics have also pointed out that the questions are fashioned in such a way so as to stress on the moral positioning of demonetisation and are geared towards soliciting a positive opinion. Be that as it may, if there was widespread public anger and frustration over Modi’s incredibly disruptive move, no amount of spin in the questions would have prevented a backlash.

Broadly, then, the survey bears out other opinion polls that have thrown up a similar finding. The CVoter poll for Huffington Post India and Businessworld where 1,212 respondents in 252 Parliamentary areas across urban, semi-urban and rural areas took part, nearly 87 percent of respondents felt the move was hurting those with black money, and 85 percent felt the inconvenience caused by demonetisation was worth the effort of fighting black money. The survey, conducted on 21 November, also found that if the Prime Minister were to buckle under opposition pressure and roll back the demonetisation, support for him would nosedive by 61.6 percent.

Another poll, conducted by LocalCircles, surveying 9,000 people from across 200 Indian cities 11 days into demonetisation, found that only three percent people oppose Modi’s move and 79 percent say that they wouldn’t mind the inconvenience because it’s done for a greater cause.

From surveys, let us now shift to reportage. In ground report after ground report — some which go deep into the rural hinterlands to take a look at how the people who rely on the informal sector for livelihood in a predominantly cash economy, are coping with Modi’s sudden decision to suck liquidity almost entirely out of the system. And the picture is more or less consistent with the surveys. Nearly all of the reports indicate that despite huge hardships and inconveniences (the poor expectedly have been hit harder) people are firmly backing Modi’s decision.

We have Firstpost correspondent Bindisha Sarang visiting Gujarat’s Himmatnagar to assess the impact of demonetisation on rural lives and a huge data-driven effort by IndiaSpend (public-interest journalism non-profit) in rural Maharashtra throwing up findings that despite misery, people are appreciating the Prime Minister’s decision.

A similar report by Hindustan Times, which caught up with small electric goods shop owner Ram Sudhar in Mirzapur’s Jamui bazaar, finds out that people are willing to overlook the pain. On note ban, Sudhar told the newspaper: “Bhaiya, it is not a ban. If it was a ban, we would have been destroyed. They have only asked us to deposit the notes and given us time. I think it is a very good move. If our jawans can protect us 24 hours, we can stand in the bank queue for a few hours in national interest,” Sudhar said.

The implication — further reinforced by Modi app survey — is that the implementation may have been shoddy and last mile logistics may remain nightmarish, but people across the country cutting across all divides have taken the trouble in their stride in the hope for a better tomorrow.

First Published On : Nov 24, 2016 07:47 IST

Patna-Indore Express tragedy: Doesn’t rail safety merit same zeal as demonetisation?

Some subjects — like railway safety for example — do not lend themselves easily to political stunts; jolts that are meant to create dramatic and transformative policy changes.

Consider this Sunday’s Indore–Patna Express accident that killed over 140 people and injured 200 more. Most of the dead and the injured belonged to India’s underclasses, which continue to remain dependent on the vagaries of the neglected Indian railway system. Even on the register of rhetoric, railway safety does not figure on the agenda of politicians and governments. And things are no different for the present dispensation.

Over 140 people were killed in the Patna-Indore Express tragedy. PTI

Over 140 people were killed in the Patna-Indore Express tragedy. PTI

The terrible accident occurred at a time when the Narendra Modi government has — in one fell swoop — overturned the country’s entire monetary system. One cannot help but wonder why the government did not invest the same missionary fervour and energy it has put into demonetisation, in ensuring safety for millions of passengers who travel by train, especially when train travel continues to be very risky for millions of ordinary passengers. With the expansion of the civil aviation sector and proliferation of airlines, the well–heeled hardly ever travel by train any longer. Not only has the government neglected the plight of millions, a few months ago, it even initiated a mechanism that would inflate ticket prices based on the number of seats being filled in certain classes of the train.

As an article in The Washington Post on Monday pointed out, despite having the world’s third largest railway system, the Indian railway system “lacks modern signaling and communication systems. Most accidents are blamed on poor maintenance, outdated equipment and human error.” Moreover, the massive territorial reach of the railways notwithstanding, train accidents continue to occur with alarming regularity, killing large numbers of poor people. A 2012 government report put the annual death toll in train accidents at 15,000.

Faced with such a grim situation, several questions come to mind. Why did the central government not prioritise railway safety over the recovery of black money? Why is there so little discussion in the corridors of power about protecting lives of people at risk for doing something as ordinary as travelling by train? Why did the Modi government (although all previous governments are equally culpable) not push through measures as drastic as the monetary measures we are now witnessing, to put the railways squarely at the top of government’s agenda?

The possible answers draw attention to the cynical ways in which contemporary politics is conducted and policies are implemented. Every move is turned into a theatrical spectacle or a policy stunt that aims to create racy, eye–grabbing headlines, or capture votes by the dozen. The government headed by Modi that loses no opportunity to assume the role of a preacher preaching from the pulpit, is no different in this matter than the many governments before it. In fact, it can be argued — especially after demonetisation — that the present regime has shown itself to be more driven by political stunts than it predecessor, the Congress–led United Progressive Alliance. After all, Manmohan Singh, with his sombre demeanour, could hardly hold a candle to the theatrical personality of Narendra Modi.

The fact of the matter is, of course, that the issue of railway safety does not cater to the politics of the spectacle in the same way as, say, the recovery of black money or the introduction of a uniform civil code. This government is all about the spectacle. The slogan of “Swachch Bharat”, for example, though focused on a ‘dry’ subject, was nevertheless easy to turn into a media event. Remember those images of Modi wielding a broom stick — and how they dominated the news cycle? We could also think, in this context, of the sudden and massive government initiative to popularise yoga. Once again, images of the prime minister performing yoga in Janpath, with senior ministers clumsily following in his footstep, were good material for social media campaigns and publicity.

The recent demonetisation drive falls into this same genre of politics that looks to produce ‘shock and awe.’ Railway safety, is, by comparison, boring and mundane.

It is the matter of stock–in–trade, conventional policy reform. The government remains unmoved by the sheer urgency of the situation. Never mind that safety measures would directly impact the lives of ordinary citizens.

Following the loss of lives in the latest accident, the Prime Minister tweeted that he was “anguished beyond words,” and promised to modernise Indian railways. One would be entirely justified in asking Modi why the railways are so low on the list of priorities for his government. But one also has the sneaky suspicion that until the issue can be turned into a photogenic event, not much will happen.

First Published On : Nov 22, 2016 08:43 IST

Delhi pollution: ‘95% of China’s power plants have pollution filters; in India, 10% do’

By Alison Saldanha

Delhi’s smog may have made national headlines in early November 2016 – when air-quality levels exceeded by 40 times safe limits set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) – and subsequently receded from public attention. But as IndiaSpend was interviewing Pallavi Aiyer, author of Choked, a new book that investigates Delhi and India’s air-pollution crisis, the air was unhealthy or worse in the majority of 17 cities where our sensors are installed. Aiyer, a journalist who’s lived and reported from some of the most polluted cities in the world, including Beijing and Jakarta, argues that many countries have been in India’s situation, and India would do well to learn from their experiences. For instance, China – long regarded as an example of what not to do in controlling air pollution – has rapidly and efficiently improved its policies and air quality.

IndiaSpend’s Alison Saldanha spoke to Aiyer.

1) Recently, Delhi and the region around the capital reported 24-hour average air pollution levels (over 900 µg/m³ of PM 2.5, fine, toxic particles that embed themselves in respiratory and cardiac systems) nearly 40 times above the WHO’s guidelines (25 µg/m³). How hazardous is this? What makes our situation unique and particularly dangerous?

It is hazardous, with most pollutants at several times the acceptable limits. Fine particulate matter that is less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter has been linked to up to 16,200 premature deaths (and a staggering six million asthma attacks) per year in Delhi alone. There are reports that one of every four children in the Indian capital suffers from a serious lung disorder. Other constituents of air pollution such as Sulfur Dioxide, Ozone and Nitrogen Oxides are associated with a range of short-term and long-term health effects from reduced lung capacity, shortness of breath, to heart disease and even cancer.

But Delhi’s air pollution is not unique. India is a large, industrialising, populous, developing country and all countries in similar circumstances have undergone extensive episodes of polluted air.

Pollution is a multifaceted phenomenon that results from a combination of vehicular, industrial and household sources. The burning of fuels such as coal leads to noxious gases such as Sulfur Dioxide. Diesel engines spout huge amounts of Nitrogen Oxides. Construction dust contributes to coarse particulate matter. And all of these sources are responsible for finer particulate matter, what we call PM 2.5. The burning of trash and leaves in the winter, which is a common practice in northern cities, adds to the toxicity as does agricultural burning.

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Based on an analysis by Eric Dodge & Rohini Pande at the Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) at Harvard Kennedy School. First published here on IndiaSpend in January 2016

In addition to all these, Delhi also suffers from its geography. The Indian capital is landlocked, with few avenues for flushing toxic air out of the city unlike, say, Mumbai. It is also located in a highly polluted air-shed and badly affected by the industrial and agricultural activity across the northern plains of India.

2) PM 2.5 of over 250 µg/m³ can adversely affect even healthy persons, particularly posing a risk to infants and the elderly, says India’s Central Pollution Control Board. What makes these age groups disproportionately vulnerable?

Children are the most vulnerable because their respiratory defenses have not reached their full capability. They also breathe in more air per kilo of body weight than adults; so they take in more toxins per kilo of body weight than adults do. Moreover, children generally exercise outdoors more than adults.

The elderly are often frail and with failing immunity. They are also likely to have pre-existing medical conditions that can exacerbate and further complicate the effects of air pollution.

Source: World Health Organization’s 2016 report on ambient air pollution: A global assessment of exposure and burden of disease

3) Beijing no longer features in the WHO’s list of 20 most polluted cities. What are the lessons we can learn from their robust efforts to improve air quality? Could you elaborate on what they are doing that we aren’t, particularly with industries?

Although Beijing may still be a poster child for what not to do on the issue of pollution in the international imagination, China has actually undertaken far-reaching and difficult measures to ensure that the worst is over.

According to Nasa satellite data, the PM 2.5 levels across India got worse by 13 percent between 2010 and 2015, while China’s steadily improved. Last year was the worst on record for India in terms of particulate pollution and the best in China. PM 2.5 levels across China fell by 17 percent between 2010 and 2015, with quite a dramatic improvement towards 2015 (Beijing saw a 16 percent annual fall in PM 2.5 levels).

Source: Greenpeace India, based on data from Global Burden of Disease, A worldwide collaborative effort to measure the impact of health problems on people.

Source: Analysis by Greenpeace India, based on monthly Aerosol Optical Depth measurements from the NASA MODIS Aqua satellite.Note: Drag the slider to compare air pollution in 2011 and 2015.

China has instituted a broad, regionally coordinated system of air pollution monitoring, installed high-tech pollution abatement equipment on a majority of its power plants, as well as devised means to restrict car ownership in major cities. It has also developed a network of 1,500 air quality-monitoring stations in over 900 cities (India has only 39 such stations covering 23 cities). Significantly, China has instituted regional air quality regulations to ensure that air pollution is addressed jointly across city and state boundaries.

When it comes to industrial pollution, China’s biggest success has been the installation of basic pollution abatement equipment on a majority (95 percent) of its thermal power plants. In contrast, only 10 percent of Indian power plants have similar equipment. China’s coal use is also down and coal-fired power plants are increasingly efficient. Finally, the country has emerged as a leading producer of pollution-abatement equipment.

4) What are the systemic problems in implementation that need immediate attention to help India achieve better air quality nearly as soon as China has? (For example, staffing).

Setting deadlines for meeting national air quality standards, as well as five-year interim targets for reducing pollution at state and city levels is one measure. Regional action plans that cover entire air-sheds/regions and address all major sources of pollution, rather than focusing on just some, is another. More empowered and better-staffed pollution control boards are needed. India’s Central Pollution Control Board has 550 employees. The Delhi pollution control board has less than 200 staff. In contrast, the environmental protection bureau (EPB) of the city of Yantai in China’s Shandong province alone has 4,000 staff. We also need to develop more local-level environmental institutions to regulate and implement anti-pollution policies. India only has pollution control boards at the national and state levels. China has EPBs at national, provincial, prefectural, city or county, and district levels. It even has some EPBs at the multi-provincial level. Finally, it’s important to create a large network of monitoring stations in all major urban centres.

5) What are the notable international great smog events in history that Delhi seems to have paralleled this year after Diwali? What made these similar? And what makes Delhi different from those horror stories?

The path to clean air for even the countries that are today rich and safe is littered with horror stories. One example is the small industrial town of Donora, Pennsylvania, in the United States, which was engulfed by a putrid fog on 26 October, 1948. Unlike usual fogs, it did not dissipate, staying on the ground for five days. Twenty people died in Donora and 7,000 were hospitalised with respiratory problems. The cause was a weather anomaly that trapped toxic waste emissions from the town’s zinc smelting plant close to the ground. The Donora disaster brought air pollution into focus in the United States, and paved the way for the Clean Air Act of 1963 that was later strengthened in 1970.

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The air pollution levels in Lucknow, New Delhi, Allahabad, Chandigarh, Patna and Varanasi were 11 to 28 times above the World Health Organization’s guidelines when this story was uploaded at 8 PM on November 20, 2016, according to IndiaSpend sensors.

Similarly, in London, toxic smog trapped in a thermal inversion during a week in December 1952 is thought to have killed 4,000 people prematurely. This incident helped pave the way for England’s Clean Air Act in 1956.

Much closer to home, geographically and temporally, was last winter’s smog in Beijing which forced the city to trigger its first ever Red Alert, the highest tier of the four-colour smog warning system China set up in 2013. During this time, PM 2.5 levels in the Chinese capital exceeded 900-1000 µg/m³ in some parts of the city (the safe limit is about 50 µg/m³).

What makes Delhi’s fight against pollution today different from historic episodes is that research on the ill effects of dirty air is both more advanced and more widely disseminated. There is no need for us to reinvent the wheel. Technologies including pollution abatement equipment, renewable energy and better-grade fuel exist, that did not a half-century ago. Moreover, we now have a substantial urban middle class for whom making a daily wage is no longer the driving force of life–allowing health to become a motivating concern.

6) In your book, you’ve talked about pollution in the industrialisation phase in developed countries. How did they improve their air quality to present standards and what solutions can we in India takeaway from those experiences?

There was no magic wand. Air pollution is a man-made problem with practical solutions available. In the wake of horrific pollution and growing citizen disenchantment with dirty air, countries such as the US and UK enacted environmental laws. The US Clean Air Act established a national programme with allocated funding to research techniques for monitoring and controlling air pollution, as well as to enforce interstate air pollution regulations pertaining to vehicles and industry. It paved the way to the setting up of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an institution that consolidates pollution-related research, monitoring, standard-setting and enforcement activities into one body. The EPA has about 18,000 full-time employees.

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‘Choked’ by Pallavi Aiyar is exclusively available on the Juggernaut app.

The UK Clean Air Act introduced “smoke control areas” in some cities whereby only smokeless fuels could be burned. It helped shift homes towards using cleaner sources of heat such as electricity and gas, reducing smoke pollution and Sulphur Dioxide from household fires. The Act also included measures to relocate power stations away from cities.

7) Simply put, what should India’s to-do list be, when should action begin and how long do you think it will be before we see some improved air quality in the National Capital Region?

Concerted action should begin now for improved air quality to become a sustainable reality in about 15-20 years. It’s a long slog, but it will allow our children and grandchildren to stop choking and start breathing. The to-do list is long. Here are some essentials:

– Expanding the scope and quality of public transport.
– Stringent vehicular emissions norms and availability of high-grade fuel.
– Congestion charges and higher parking fees are steps to consider.
– Installing pollution abatement equipment on all power plants.
– Reducing coal usage.
– The development of a large network of monitoring stations in all major urban centers.

Since the general power grid regularly fails in Delhi and other Indian cities, wealthy residents, hospitals and businesses use diesel-generators in the city centre. A focus on making the grid more reliable will therefore also help slash ambient pollution during the summer months.

Finally, given the high percentage of PM 10 that originates from road dust, paving more roads to reduce the amount of dust is a must.

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8) What is your take on government air pollution monitoring sensors vis-à-vis the growing citizens’ movement of crowd-sourcing air pollution data from their own sensors, using laser eggs etc.?

The two should exist in conjunction. Government data can be usefully supplemented by crowd-sourced data. The former gives a broad overview while the latter can tell you what the situation in a specific location, at a given time, is. Laser eggs might not give the most accurate readings, but they give estimates that are good enough to base certain decisions on, like whether or not to exercise outdoors.

9) What is the to-do list for citizens in this movement toward better air quality?

Carpooling, composting and consuming with care. Avoiding polluting behaviours like trash burning or bursting firecrackers. Demanding change from elected representatives.

(The author is an assistant editor with IndiaSpend.)

First Published On : Nov 21, 2016 17:11 IST

Demonetisation: Is the Supreme Court poised to jump into the currency ban vortex?

In the past couple of days, the print and visual media have carried reports that the Supreme Court has called on the central government for details of the difficulties caused to the ‘common man’ and the measures to ameliorate them. This was in response to some PILs brought up before them.

One would have normally expected the apex court to have summarily dismissed the PILs, mentioning that the action was squarely in the competence of the Executive, and there was nothing remotely unconstitutional in the demonetisation measure. Indeed, some reports had also mentioned a comment from the bench in the apex court referring to ‘disturbances’ and ‘riots’. While the exact terminology and the context used by the bench were not immediately available, nor cited in full, it was a little surprising that such a reference apparently appears to have been made.

The Supreme Court of India. AFP

The Supreme Court of India. AFP

One writes this article with trepidation. Most people in India have the highest possible regard for our apex court, and see it as the final custodian, arbiter and guardian of our Constitution. Countless times in the past, the apex court has stood up for the common man, and taken strong, often unpleasant stance against the Executive when the occasion demanded it. Among the three pillars of the Constitution, the popular perception is that legislature has completely failed to perform any meaningful substantive positive role in the governance of the country. Its sole claim to fame is that ‘sovereignty’ vests in this body. It has no achievement to talk about in the past seven decades.

The Executive at the Centre and in the State, in popular perception, have a mixed record. While basic levels of governance have been assured by the Executive over time, the failures are palpable. Abysmal educational standards, unacceptable public health conditions, and a corrupt economic system, where arguably over 60 percent of the population is in near poverty, hand-to-mouth existence levels over 70 years of misgovernance are the net result of the Executive’s past performance. The political class has turned out in general to be purely interested in its own benefits, with very little interest in public affairs. They have suborned what was arguably one of the world’s best civil services to serve their immediate needs to the exclusion of the nation’s call for service. In this background, it can be argued that the judiciary had no option except to shine just by comparison; no doubt this is clearly true – in addition the higher judiciary in the country by and large has maintained some standards which are still highly appreciated by the thinking Indian.

This does not mean that all is well with the judiciary. The judicial system is still unable to deliver justice to the common man – expensive, dilatory and delayed justice is denial of justice. The district level and lower criminal courts are seen to be as corrupt as the police and investigative machinery; many high courts do not have a savoury reputation (one is consciously mild in making this point – one should hear corporates and lawyers privately discussing how cases are to be fixed); each civil and revenue case would take decades to reach conclusion; a judicial arbitration process is usually destined to span decades — the criticism can go on. No major steps for reforms have been taken in the matter of dealing with the menace of interminable adjournments; rampant, dilatory interlocutory orders; harnessing of technology for recording evidence and speeding up the trial process; humane treatment to under-trials; and flagrant abuse of the system by rapacious lawyers. The popular perception is that the legal system is ‘elitist’. If you have the money or political clout, you can handle it à la a Salman Khan or a Lalu. How much of the above is true, and how much is exaggerated prejudice, each person would have a view. All that can be said is that the system needs very serious reforms. One has not seen major steps underway to address these aspects with any kind of sustained attack.

Having said this, there is no doubt that the apex court still is dear in sentiment to most thinking Indians.

Clarifying and elaborating the rights of the citizen under Article 19, 21 and others, consistently championing the position of the common man against the predatory attacks of a rapacious executive have been the hallmark of the Supreme Court’s standing posture. While many have often argued against the encroachment by the judiciary into the turf of the legislature and executive, this has always been to sustain the basic position of the citizen.

Thus, for example, the periodical random pronouncements on pollution and environment, frequently staccato and often possibly ill-conceived without full comprehension or analysis of all relevant aspects, often based on arguments produced by competing counsel who may not represent the full interest of the common man – despite these shortcomings, in the face of paralysis of action by the executive, at least the issue is highlighted. Thus, for example, the total failure of the Delhi government and central government in addressing the Delhi air crisis is mitigated by the intervention by the Supreme Court, normally an issue which is totally in the domain of the executive. Such instances can be multiplied. The intervention in the administration of cricket, for example, is in light of abject failure of the Executive to address the glaring lapses in this field. Likewise, the issue of binding guidelines in postings and transfers of senior officers of the All India Services, normally which ought to be exclusively within the domain of the executive, was essential in the face of rampant misuse of such powers by the central and state governments. It is another matter that most state governments are in utter contempt of the Supreme Court’s orders in this regard. The Supreme Court’s intervention, even in matters fully in the domain of the Executive, are clearly essential when there is inaction by the Executive.

The danger, of course, is that having ‘tasted blood’, the process will not stop. In matters purely in the province of the Executive, where the Executive consciously takes action (well or ill, it is a matter of opinion), it is important that there should be no judicial overreach. All aspects of a particular major issue may not be available in the course of a short discussion or hearing. The apex court does not have the machinery to embark on a total and meaningful appraisal of the losses and gains from a major policy step. The long term policy-making for the economy should be entirely in the province of the Executive. In the matter of the current demonetisation, it will be a dangerous precedent for the apex court to come in with their own approach or comments or observations or directions.

First Published On : Nov 21, 2016 08:44 IST

Denial of demonetisation crippling FICN and terror networks is dangerous, self-defeating

A narrative has gained currency of late that the demonetisation drive is akin to using a Bofors gun to kill a mosquito. Proponents of this theory — the entire ecosystem of our intelligentsia who has never accepted Narendra Modi as India’s Prime Minister, the privileged urban class and the opposition — base their theory on two arguments.

One, whatever be the size of India’s shadow economy — and here they reveal deep skepticism about latest World Bank figures that put it around 23 percent of the GDP — black money is too entrenched in our system to be ferreted out by inconveniencing people.

They believe that there was no need for such a radical step that puts in jeopardy so many lives. Hidden in this charge is the assumption that black money does not visibly harm the poor, the marginalised and it certainly wasn’t a problem big enough to have triggered this amount of chaos. Having consistently labelled the prime minister as “all talk and no action”, “a propagandist who works the headlines”, post 8 November this amorphous group has amusingly shifted to advocating status-quoism.

Notwithstanding the political positioning at work here, the efficacy of Modi’s inordinately risky and deeply disruptive move to root out black money is however a legit question. The jury is still out whether there were less painful methods that could have brought similar results. But that is part of a larger, ongoing debate.

In this piece, we will tackle the second argument against demonetisation. The theory that de-commissioning of notes, as a way to snuff out the fake currency racket, is too much ammo for too insignificant an objective.

This argument is deeply flawed and reveals a total lack of understanding of what fake currency racket is, how it functions and the terrible cost it forces on us. It is also a callous argument to make in a country where more security forces die due to left-wing extremism and insurgency movements than even cross-border terrorism. The move to decommission higher denomination notes was as much targeted towards black money as demolishing this Fake Indian Currency Notes (FICN) industry that fuels terror networks in and around India, provides oxygen to forces of insurgency and serves to also destabilize the Indian economy.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

The tentacles of this industry spreads across Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and China. Through a complex network of smuggling that involves banks, couriers and even diplomatic channels, these notes are then circulated throughout India.

An India Today report by Gaurav C Sawant states how Pakistan — which imports printing paper and ink far in excess of its own requirement and uses it to print FICN in government presses in Punjab and Balochistan province — uses the counterfeit currency to fund terror modules in several parts of India including Maharashtra and Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Bengal and Bihar. According to the report, Pakistan’s ISI routes these high-quality fake notes through Nepal, Bangladesh, Dubai, Thailand and even China.

Another article in Firstpost details the intricate functioning of ISI’s FICN network through retired brigadier-rank officers of Pakistani Army like Lala, who procured and supplied ‘RBI’ (ISI’s code name for fake India notes) through an intricate network of couriers and smugglers. The report quotes intelligence agency sources as saying that Modi’s action against black money has demolished a section of the ISI headquarters in Rawalpindi. The direct route for FICN, says the report, ran through Munabao-Khakrapar and the Attari border while the indirect route saw money coming to India through the UAE, Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Singapore before arriving in Kathmandu and Dhaka.

And this is just one part of the FICN industry. The other major hub lies within India in West Bengal’s Malda, the border district where fake currency is smuggled in from Bangladesh. Subrata Nagchoudhury’s report in Scroll details how many residents in Kaliachak have gone into a state of shock since the prime minister outlawed the high value notes. The lucrative trade running into crores has stopped almost overnight with rumours abounding of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 bills being dumped in rivers and fields.

According to Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju, an estimated Rs 70 crore worth of fake currency is pumped into India every year and Rs 400 crore of such notes is known to be in circulation in the country at any given time. Addressing a news conference in Delhi on Friday, the minister said: “Smuggling of fake Indian currency notes from three international borders — Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal — has completely halted after the evening of 8 November”. The collateral damage, according to Rijiju, also included proceeds from illegal sale of drugs, opium, arms and hawala transactions.

This choking of funds has resulted in Naxals going into a panic mode with reports emerging of Maoists using the Jan Dhan accounts of poor villagers to park or exchange their extortion cash which by some estimates runs into Rs 7000 crores in Bastar region alone. Latehar SP Anoop Birtharay told PTI that leftist extremists are using villagers to deposit their money into bank accounts so that it can be converted into legal currency.

According to data from South Asia Terrorism Portal, since 2005 till 13 November, 2016, a total of 7,270 people have died due to Maoist insurgency attacks. The figure includes 2934 civilians, 1850 security forces personnel and also 2486 extremists.

Well, may the Left and Congress shout on the floor of the House that fake currency constitutes only 0.02 percent of the total currency in circulation but to use reductionist logic and shrink the role of fake currency in fuelling cross-border and left-wing terrorism in India is intellectual dishonesty of the worst kind.

First Published On : Nov 19, 2016 18:48 IST

Demonetisation: Arvind Kejriwal must end noisy street politics and return to work

I don’t care about Arvind Kejriwal — and it doesn’t matter for me at all even if he is a “chief minister” — as a politician. A veteran (former) academician who watched his theatrics since the days of the ill-fated India Against Corruption told me that the Aam Aadmi Party was “the most dangerous infection on India’s body politic and society”.

Think about it: his first stint as Delhi’s chief minister was remarkable for setting the ignoble record of a sitting chief minister taking to the streets like an irresponsible anarchist, his aide-de-camp Somnath Bharti’s infamous “midnight urine test”, and in general, doing everything but discharging his constitutional duty of governance. Small wonder then that he decamped in haste, earning widespread public ire as a “bhagoda“.

And as we see, even in his second innings, he’s back on the street.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee join hands at a mass rally against demonetisation of currency notes in New Delhi. PTI

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee join hands at a mass rally against demonetisation of currency notes in New Delhi. PTI

It takes hard work, patience, and calmness, and an ability to deal with, sustain and digest monotony, to govern. The easy route is what Kejriwal is familiar with: constitutional nihilism (for example, his notorious confrontation with Delhi Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung which could have been avoided), campaigns targeting the Prime Minister, maintaining radio silence on the record number of AAP MLAs being arrested and disqualified and the “internal inquiries” that have unfailingly absolved even the most criminal of his party’s elements.

Indeed, when you get a nihilist as a chief minister, your state plunges into smog-encompassed chaos. The October cover story of Open magazine, dedicated to the “unravelling of Kejriwal” exposes how he has almost turned Delhi into a surveillance state. The story also claims that AAP “made possible a near impossibility in traditional Indian politics: it drastically lowered old entry barriers to parliamentary politics that had been raised over the decades by parties that tended to handpick poll contestants either from prominent families or party cadres”.

But the route that AAP took to lower “old entry barriers” to politics was marked at every step by cynicism and flagrancy: it continues to regard itself above the Constitution. No wonder that it continues to attract disgruntled elements from across the spectrum comprising of existing political parties, wheeler-dealers, journalists, and NGO do-gooders. Indeed, it’s reasonable to say that Kejriwal’s style of operation resembles that of the head of an NGO-in-perpetual-protest.

This style of operation initially helped him score spectacularly but this is a gift that stops giving sooner than later as he must’ve learnt (or has he?) when he launched his tirade against PM Modi’s demonetisation. This latest version of anti-Modi stance truly marks the moment “when life came to a full circle for Kejriwal”: the doughty anti-corruption crusader has now transformed himself as a champion of anti anti-corruption. And his newfound best comrade-in-arms in this endeavour is Mamata Banerjee, the “first angry respondent” against Modi’s demonetisation announcement. Together, they have embarked on a “historic fight” against the move.

Indeed, with good reason, because both have much to worry about.

The PM’s demonetisation exercise is believed to have choked the supply of illegal money in the upcoming elections. To give only the latest instance, we can examine some of the deadly revelations (also see this Firstpost story for example) emanating from West Bengal’s Malda district as a great hub of fake currency and black money, which has now been rendered useless. Needless to say, this will have an impact on future elections, not just in West Bengal but across India. Indeed, it’s an open secret that the use of illicit money to bribe voters has almost become de rigeur in Indian politics.

Former chief election commissioner, SY Qureshi reportedly said last week that political parties start mobilising money months before elections are announced. However, “As elections are due in early 2017, the money must have begun to circulate already,” he said. But a bribe of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, even if distributed already, will be of little use now.

But Kejriwal’s woes run far deeper. In July this year, the Income Tax department raided the house of AAP MLA Kartar Singh Tanwar and found Rs 130 crore worth of unaccounted money. After smarting under this for a month, Kejriwal hit back with a promise that he would “put an end to ‘raid raj'”.

One could also cite the cases of AAP MLAs Amanatullah Khan (his office was raided by the anti-corruption officials with regard to a recruitment scam), MLA Gulab Singh and MLA Ritu Raj Govind. Helpfully, The Indian Express has provided a complete (and perhaps growing) list of all AAP MLAs “on the wrong side of the law”.

Meanwhile, the fleetingly short public memory — the same public which was once seduced by his only poll promise of sending “all corrupt politicians to jail” — has helped ensure that his promise lies permanently in cold storage. The most recent instance of Kejriwal trying to pull his cleaner-than-thou act on Captain Amarinder Singh on Twitter grandly exploded on his face.

But then even that doesn’t seem like a cause for Kejriwal’s current worry. Could it be that that Kejriwal and his outfit have run out of cash? Why else would AAP pull out of the upcoming Mumbai and Chandigarh civic polls within a week of demonetisation?

And even as I write this, Daily Mail has reported an explosive story captioned “Black Day for Kejriwal” in which, among other things, Kejriwal’s ex-colleague blogged about his former boss’ relationship with a “colleague 16-years younger”. However, Firstpost cannot independently verify the claims made in the blog. On the same day, UNI reported that Rajya Sabha MP Subhash Chandra has sued Kejriwal for criminal defamation.

And if this was not enough, in a classic case of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread, Kejriwal’s foolhardy move of trying to instigate people against demonetisation (watch this video) has earned him the spontaneous public sloganeering of “Kejriwal chor hai” (Kejriwal is a thief).

That should ideally tell him a thing or two but then he epitomises the classic proverb that says that you cannot wake up a man who pretends he’s fast asleep.

The author’s views are personal.

First Published On : Nov 19, 2016 16:47 IST

Demonetisation: Why Chandrababu Naidu is the only non-BJP CM to hail move

Andhra Pradesh chief minister and Telugu Desam Party (TDP) supremo Chandrababu Naidu, an important ally for the BJP in the south, is known for his penchant to look for ways to maximise his political clout.

Following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes from 8 November, Naidu has been on a gloat mission — he had written to Modi barely a week earlier demanding a ban on these denominations in an effort to curb black money.

As the Opposition gears up for a strident battle over the issue, Naidu too is gearing up — not to fight, but to defend the idea. Naidu has geared his administration to face the challenge posed by the cash crunch, particularly in Andhra, a state that serves as a junction to three states with the Bay of Bengal on one side.

File image of Chandrababu Naidu. News 18

File image of Chandrababu Naidu. News 18

A helping hand

As is done during times of natural calamities, the AP government set up a help desk at Vijayawada to help citizens sort out difficulties in exchanging demonetised notes at banks and post offices. A call centre and a toll free number (1800-599-1111) too was made available for information. A notification issued by Chief Secretary SP Tucker also put the state government administration on standby, cancelling all leave for cadres of essential services including the police and treasury departments, in anticipation of enormous confusion and rumour-mongering. “We put a five-member team on a 24/7 basis to answer calls and also guide callers to the nearest banks and ATMs, and also advised them to be prepared for a long wait,” said a spokesperson in the chief secretary’s office.

Besides organising IT-based feedback services from all 10 districts, Naidu also held teleconferences with district collectors on a daily basis to address the crisis. The public relations attempt worked well. Although Telugu news channels beamed the travails of the common man waiting at banks and ATMs through the day, they also telecast Naidu’s video conferences showcasing him as a “working chief minister”.

A past master in crowd management, Naidu directed officials to provide shelter, drinking water and also butter milk for the milling crowds at banks and post offices. His office also issued advisories on setting up counters for women, the elderly and handicapped to banks.

“In fact, Naidu’s office knew about the arrival of truckloads of new currencies ahead of us,” said a banker after the CMO advised them on where to send the fresh currency in view of the huge crowds and need for marketing agricultural produce.

Officials were also directed to source small change – Rs 50 and Rs 100 notes — from wherever possible, including hundis at places of worships and also toll gates, milk vendors etc to meet the shortfall of smaller denomination notes until the RBI delivered the new notes.

Naidu also wrote to the Ministry of Finance to focus on the ways and means to address the problems faced by people in the wake of demonetisation, particularly the hardest-hit communities of street vendors, transporters and petty traders.

Guidelines for the Centre

Naidu set the ball rolling for the Union government and Ministry of Finance by issuing guidelines and advisories to state administration and bankers within the state on what to do and how to tide over the crisis. All late payments for power, water, property taxes, excise, toll gates, school fees etc were deferred and advisories issued to provide non-stop services in spite of non-payments as per schedule. “It appeared as if Naidu was in charge rather than the bankers and the RBI at least in Andhra Pradesh,” said a senior official at the stock market at Visakhapatnam.

The Chief Minister’s Office issued press releases daily on what he wanted banks and the RBI to do, without bothering with whether he had the authority to advise or direct them. The CMO and the chief minister often advised banks to introduce multi-purpose counters instead of separate counters for withdrawals and deposits. He also wrote to the RBI to send more currency to Visakhapatnam, Tirupati and also Vijayawada in view of the ongoing infrastructure projects and taking into account the significance of the sea port of Visakhapatnam and religious tourism in Tirupati. “We don’t need Rs 2,000 notes, but only Rs 100 notes,” he said, in a request to RBI.

The AP government also threatened traders with the PD Act (Preventive Detention Act) if they resorted to hoarding or denial of essential commodities.

Government employees were roped in to help out people at banks, ATMs and also at bus stands, railway stations and airports along with the regular staff.

“We want the Centre to send us the new Rs 500 notes as it had already sent them to Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Only Rs 6,700 crore was deposited in the banks in Andhra Pradesh since demonetisation,” Naidu told the media on Tuesday evening.

Digital money focus

The TDP supremo also shifted focus on the use of digital money to tide over the crisis. Presently, only 18 percent of transactions in Andhra Pradesh are on digital mode and the government’s target is to increase this to a minimum of 30 percent by the end of the year. As part of this task, e-pass instruments (POS) were being installed at all PDS outlets.

Naidu lauded the efforts of West Godavari District Collector in issuing tokens at rythu bazaars (farmer markets) for small change which were redeemable at banks. This practice was replicated in four more districts during the weekly markets to facilitate farmers who brought their produce from across the state.

Addressing the parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday, Naidu also urged his MPs to build pressure on the Centre to provide swipe machines to traders and abolish transaction cost for online banking in toto. “Countries with lower education levels and less development are ahead of India in using mobile banking services,” he said, urging TDP MPs to press for policy framework for the popularisation of digital currency in villages and towns.

Politics of the opportune

Naidu is not openly all praise for Modi though, perhaps conscious that it might rebound on him. “Precautionary measures should have been taken to minimise difficulties to the public,” said Naidu speaking to reporters, adding, “To curtail the flow of black money, public must be encouraged towards electronic currency. The Centre must have taken adequate steps to increase online transactions.”

Naidu has a good reason to join the ‘Har Har Modi’ club. He needs money for his state and its brand new capital city Amaravati. “The Centre has promised over Rs 1.5 lakh crore in grants and investments in over 115 projects and schemes. But unless they are done before 2017-18, the purpose will not be served,” said state finance minister Yanamala Ramakrishnudu on the sidelines of a CII meet at Vijayawada while interacting with industrialists.

The TDP and the BJP are old friends — allies since 1996, except for a decade in between from 2004 to 2014 when the TDP was out of power in united Andhra Pradesh.

Opposition YSRC leaders therefore alleged that the TDP supremo and his son Nara Lokesh had converted their black money into white thanks to the advance information given to them by BJP leaders. “Lokesh’s benamis have converted almost Rs 13,000 crore into white a few days ahead,” said YSRC leader Bhumana Karunakar Reddy.

But TDP leaders insist that the campaign against black money was not new to the party. Way back in 2013, TDP invited Artha Kranti Pratisthan Chairman Anil Bokhale and extended support for his campaign against black money. They had also brought out booklets against former Congress chief minister YS Rajashekhar Reddy’s alleged corruption and impleaded themselves in the CBI case against corruption in EMAAR Group’s real estate activities in Hyderabad city, a case in which YSR’s son and YSRC party chief YS Jaganmohan Reddy was named.

First Published On : Nov 18, 2016 10:40 IST

Demonetisation: Reddy was ready with cash, PM Modi, what about pyre of the honest?

‘Ghar mein shaadi hai, paise nahin hai…’ Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at an event in Japan a day after announcing ‘demonetisation.’

So, what happens when there is a wedding at home and there is no money at home?

If you are G Janardhan Reddy, you invite thousands of people, spend several crores, publicly display your opulence and laugh at the shaadi-but-no-money joke.

And, if you are Jagdeesh Pawar, 50, of Sikar in Rajasthan, you just die. Because, ghar main shaadi hai paise nahin hai. Since Pawar’s story is a metaphor of our times, this tale of a wedding and many funerals, needs recounting.

While people like Reddy, the intended victims of ‘demonetisation’ were spending their crores — presumably none of it was old stashed cash — at a wedding, Pawar, the intended beneficiary, was getting victimised.

Pawar’s two daughters were to get married on 3 December. On Wednesday, he left home before dawn to exchange currency at a local bank. But, unable to withdraw or exchange after queuing up till noon, he returned home, told his family that it seems he won’t be able to arrange money, complained of chest pain and died a few hours later.

People stand at a closed ATM in Guwahati. PTI

People stand at a closed ATM in Guwahati. PTI

Pawar, like all fathers who plan for ages to get their children married, may have saved for years. He may have even withdrawn this money from a bank, or may have kept it in a box at home. But, all of it turned to scrap one fine night after just one speech.

Everywhere in the world, the law of natural justice is based on this premise: Not one innocent should suffer even if a hundred guilty get away.

Tell this to Reddy’s family.

Tell this to Pawar’s wailing daughters.

Tell this to the dozens who have reportedly died, thousands who have lost employment and millions whose trade has come to standstill.

If the noisy narrative dominating India at the moment is to be believed, the government has conducted a surgical strike with its ‘demonetisation’ drive. It is aimed at the dishonest, deshdrohis, beneficiaries of the 2G scam, financiers of terror networks, purveyors of counterfeit notes and those who sleep on wads of thick notes.

Pawar was just a chaiwallah.

If this is indeed a surgical strike and it is killing people like Pawar, who is the real insurgent, who is the target? Reddy?

Writing for The Indian Express, Pratap Bhanu Mehta argues that a new kind of national project has been unleashed on the nation where all individuality has to be effaced. “Every citizen will appear, alternatively, as a patriot or a criminal: The histories of their individual life worlds, whether they have bank accounts, how much cash they use, how far they live from an ATM, all these questions pertinent to the distributive consequences of these actions will be immobilised,” he writes.

Pawar just got his life effaced for the cause. He died, perhaps, a criminal waiting for the state to declare him innocent.

Like Pawar, almost the entire country is on the road, queuing up for cash, a metaphor of their monetary, fiscal innocence. Some believe they are part of some moral, ethical ritual that would cleanse their own souls through suffering and make the country better. Others, like many Hindus, think by making an offering, like at temples while seeking forgiveness for their sins of the past, their past would be laundered.

Janardhan Reddy. PTI

Janardhan Reddy. PTI

Tell a fool he is making a sacrifice for the interest of the nation, religion, God, for the greater common good. Tell him it would be rewarded with a life in a financial paradise, in the company of 72 virgins. He would go laughing to the gallows, willingly detonate RDX tied to his vest or queue up at an ATM.

But, what happens when the sacrifice doesn’t lead to the promised paradise? When consumption demand falls, businesses get wiped out, unorganised labour in the private sector gets retrenched, economy stagnates, Rs 2,000 notes become the new currency of corruption, weddings get postponed, funerals hastened and everyone becomes a potential victim of a tax raid?

When har-har Modi turns into, to use Mamata Banerjee‘s quip, ghar-ghar chor?

When there is a shaadi at home but no money?

When Pawars are dying and the Reddys are smiling?

First Published On : Nov 17, 2016 17:29 IST

Firstpost special report: How child labour has come to define crimes against children

From 2010 to 2015, crimes against children saw a steep rise from 26,694 cases to 94,172 cases — an increase of 252 percent. This is a statistic that should be a cause for much alarm and indignation. Of course, these are nationwide numbers and they need to be disaggregated for them to make more sense. But it is a question worth asking as to why crimes committed against children rarely evoke the kind of vehement public responses as crimes committed by children do.

Children are particularly vulnerable to exploitation for many reasons, including their dependence on adults, their lack of knowledge of their own rights and a relative lack of access to institutions which can support them. Child labour is just one example of a widely prevalent practice of crimes against children — in which all these three factors contribute.

Illustration_2_SG

Illustration by Satwik Gade for Firstpost.

P*, who presently lives in a children’s home run by Prayas JAC Society, is a case on how children can be particularly vulnerable. The 10-year boy is from Bihar, and comes from an extremely backward caste. In an extreme case of exploitation, although the boy worked for three years in all, his father got merely Rs 10,000 in exchange for this work. P worked in particularly dangerous conditions — in a bangle-making factory in Delhi. However, the alternative for him is not a promising one either — his father works as a farmer with a very meagre income, and the family had consented to him going to Delhi for work.

Indeed, a large number of cases of child labour in Delhi are characterised by dangerous work conditions or work hours that are not practically possible to monitor. For example, bangle-making is extremely risky work. As noted by a Unicef report, it involves joining the ends of a bangle over a kerosene flame, using fast-moving blades and using chemicals for decoration. Some cases of child labour involve kids working as full-time domestic helpers at homes along with their families.

In such cases, it is difficult to monitor working hours and the effect that such work on the child’s education.

Read the rest of the story here

*Names changed

First Published On : Nov 17, 2016 09:20 IST

Demonetisation: ‘Aakhir’ queue? Aam aadmi struggle for cash, big fishes appear nowhere

Since the government has already ordered bank staff to use indelible ink to mark those withdrawing money, here is another suggestion: Why not keep ballot boxes also at ATMs? We will know both the mood and hear the voice of the nation instead of believing what we all hear in our private echo chambers.

People standing in long queues to exchange their old Rs 500 and 1000 notes in Gurugram on Tuesday. PTIPeople standing in long queues to exchange their old Rs 500 and 1000 notes in Gurugram on Tuesday. PTI

People standing in long queues to exchange their old Rs 500 and 1000 notes in Gurugram on Tuesday. PTI

A week after the government’s surgical strike on currency notes, queues at banks and ATMs are getting longer and louder. What you hear in the queues is, a wag pointed out, a simple query: Aakhir queue?

It is impossible to reproduce the wisecracks and quips heard in these queues verbatim. But, suffice it to say: Money isn’t changing fast, the mood is. And, instead of laughing, most people have started crying.

Those outside banks are complaining of hardships in daily lives. Small traders are worried that business has come to a standstill. Construction activity has stopped. Builders have stalled ongoing projects. Farmers are waiting to sell their crops in the market but there is no cash in circulation.

In a park, where people gather after dark, a trader is wailing: “We will have to start from the scratch. This is like the new Partition of India, we are all being monetarily dislocated.”

The good thing about suffering is that it sounds noble only if it comes with the pleasure of knowing that others are suffering more. So, at the moment everybody is happy his nose is being cut to spike the rich man’s, ISI’s, Al Qaeda’s, Congress’, Mayawati‘s, Mulayam’s face. What he feels next would depend on what he sees next: His own bleeding nose or the disfigured face of the promised victim.

It will depend on how fast the promised change comes, both at the counters and in collective lives.

But, where are the intended faces in the ATM crowds? While the aam aadmi struggle, there is no sign of the big fish.

Where are they? One answer is simple, most of them have parked their money in various other hidden assets, their cash savings are not significant. As pointed out by Firstpost earlier, presuming that stashed cash is 50 percent of the currency in circulation, it is just 5-6 percent of the GDP. In essence, it is loose change.

And, even this loose change is getting absorbed. Here is how:

1. There are reports that networks of touts and bank staff are using identity cards in their possession to launder money for the hoarders of cash. Since there is no way of finding out how many times an ID has been used in different banks, it has reportedly turning into a neat business with a rate of return estimated to be 20-30 percent of the turnover.

2. Another set of touts are identifying people those who have legitimate borrowings from bank —money withdrawn and spent — to replace it with cash accumulated by someone else for a quick profit. For instance, if your account reflects Rs 2.5 lakh as withdrawal during the current financial year but you have spent that money, these touts will offer you this amount and seek just 70 percent in return.

3. The third set of launderers is of people hired to queue up at bank branches and get Rs 4,500 commission for a quick commission. They go from branch to branch, getting as much currency replaced as possible. Since the indelible ink will take some time to reach banks, this will go on for a while.

4. And the fourth category is of people with small sums — Rs 10-25 lakh — lying in cash at home. They are getting the amount adjusted through family and friends since the government has promised not to harass those who deposit small amounts, especially if they match I-T their returns.

While the aam aadmi struggles in those long queues by the day, the economy of greed goes to work at night.

You don’t need ballot boxes to know who is going to win this battle.

First Published On : Nov 16, 2016 18:17 IST

Firstpost special report: Why India’s juvenile justice system is fractured

From the first day that ‘M’* came to the children’s home with his mother, it was clear that he had witnessed a lot of violence and trauma. The 10-year-old boy was attention-seeking and belligerent, and he often picked up fights with other kids. Often, in the middle of a conversation, he would abruptly say, “Mujhe paagalkhaane bhej do; mujhe marna hai.” (Send me to an asylum; I want to die.) His story, and that of his family, unfolded over the next month.

Illustrations by Satwik Gade for Firstpost.Illustrations by Satwik Gade for Firstpost.

Illustrations by Satwik Gade for Firstpost.

The boy’s mother had lived at the children’s home for girls a decade ago. In September, she now returned to Prayas JAC Society’s office as an adult, seeking shelter and support. She had suffered vicious abuse at the hands of her husband, and so did her three children. On one occasion, M’s father brandished him with a hot steel utensil so badly that he could not walk for months. On several occasions, the father got him to steal from other people’s houses. It was under these circumstances that M had been arrested for a brief while by the police, at an age when he could barely understand the consequences of his actions.

Luckily for the young boy, he was let off.

But his case points to a larger reality of the juvenile justice system, one that rarely figures in acrimonious prime time debates. Since 1986, successive legislations dealing with juvenile justice have dealt with two broad categories of children. They have been referred to by different terms over time, and are presently understood as children in need of care and protection and children in conflict with the law. But as several cases indicate, these are not watertight categories, and the line between children involved in crime and children who face neglect or exploitation is often blurred.

Read the rest of the story here

*name changed

First Published On : Nov 16, 2016 17:00 IST

Demonetisation: Narendra Modi nukes Pakistan’s ‘RBI’, cripples ISI’s fake note network

Pakistan’s code word for high quality Fake Indian Currency Notes (FICN) is ‘RBI’ — Reserve Bank of India — which controls the monetary policy of the Indian rupee. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation policy abolishing Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 rupee notes, Faizabad bus stand in Rawalpindi, Pakistan has lost its charm for Lala, a former ISI officer, who coordinates the smuggling of FICN to India.

A retired brigadier-rank officer of the Pakistani Army, Lala, till last week was the key figure to procure and supply ‘RBI’ or FICN through an intricate network of couriers and smugglers. But, since Modi activated his ‘original RBI’ to junk high-denomination notes last week, there are virtually no takers for Lala’s ‘RBI bundles’ across the entire stretch of Muni Road in Rawalpindi, the northernmost part of Punjab province.

The chatter from across the border, intercepted by intelligence agencies, indicates that Modi’s action against black money in India has demolished a section of the ISI headquarters in Rawalpindi, where many fugitives from militant outfits like Babbar Khalsa, Khalistan Zinadabad Force and Indian Mujahideen used to hold meetings with ISI officials to infuse fake currency into Indian’s financial system with the twin motives of economic destabilisation and financing terror activities in India.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

The supply source

The ISI used to provide lucrative exchange rate with a profit of nearly Rs 300 per fake Rs 1,000 rupee note. A margin of these profits was paid by ISI to the field agents like Lala and underworld modules with multinational networks, popularly known in Pakistan as ‘office’.

Said ‘office’ was responsible for running an ‘hub and spoke’ business model that included smuggling FICN through both direct and indirect routes. The direct route was Munabao-Khakrapar and the Attari border, while the indirect route usually ran through the UAE, Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Singapore before arriving in Kathmandu and Dhaka.

The top secret intelligence agencies dossier reviewed by this writer for Firstpost show that China was recently included in ISI’s smuggling route to exploit commercial courier services. Shenzhen, a major city in Guangdong Province, located north of Hong Kong, had become a major hub for ‘office’ which used to export ethnic garment containers with carefully concealed FICN for onward transmission into India through Nepal and Bangladesh.

The ‘office’ used to run the operation with Suleman and Mulla in Bangladesh and Rana and Ansari in Nepal. Ansari, a Nepali politician from Lalitpur and close aide of Dawood Ibrahim, was arrested by Nepal Police in January 2014. However, until last year, Ansari was said to have maintained close links with ISI officials posted at the Pakistani embassy in Maharajgunj Chakrapath in Kathmandu.

It is no secret that Pakistani embassies abroad are using their diplomatic channels for FICN circulation and the crackdown started by Modi may perhaps render many undercover ISI officers jobless in South Asian countries. The secret dossier mentioned above said:

“There are a number of intelligence inputs available to indicate the involvement of Pakistani officials in Bangladesh, Nepal and Thailand of having assisted, managed and supplied FICN at times using the diplomatic bag to wholesale operations in those staging countries. The diplomats, who were associated with FICN trade, were also known to be involved in counter-intelligence operations against Indian diplomats in those countries.”

There are no authentic reports about the total circulation of FICN, however, inputs from various agencies and organisations involved in the detection of counterfeit notes suggest that the ISI may have pumped in over Rs 4,500 crore worthof  fake currency into India’s financial system.

As far as recoveries and seizures of FICN are concerned, government agencies had analysed three time periods — 2005-07, 2008-10 and 2011-13 — including 78 overseas seizures.

Of the 78 foreign seizures, there was the direct involvement of Pakistani nationals in 35 cases with 44 Pakistani nationals being arrested. Of the 28 seizures at foreign airports, 12 were from flights that originated directly from Pakistan while all others from flights transiting a staging-post country but originating in Pakistan,” the secret government note said.

Plugging the gaps within

The Central agencies responsible for generating and analysing economic intelligence are also monitoring the sources from where the most fake currency was either intercepted or reported, to strengthen the gaps, if any. With the introduction of new currency, which is learnt to have used highly specialised and exclusive technology, agencies believe that close imitations of genuine notes will be virtually impossible, unless ink supply by international companies to sovereign governments are compromised.

The Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU-IND) has already started analysing Counterfeit Currency Reports (CCRs) from banks that will help in tracking the supply sources in case the fake currency menace stages a comeback in the next couple of years.

The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) makes production and distribution of high quality FICN a terrorist offence and Intelligence Bureau (IB) recently in a note observed that CCRs collected and analysed by FIU should be shared with other agencies for immediate action as banks continue to report difficulty in registering FIRs.

First Published On : Nov 16, 2016 09:45 IST

PM Modi, Jaitley or Shashikanta Das on demonetisation — who should we believe?

View original –  PM Modi, Jaitley or Shashikanta Das on demonetisation — who should we believe?

PM Modi, Jaitley or Shaktikanta Das on demonetisation — who should we believe?

Contradictory statements issued in quick succession by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on one hand and Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley along with Economic Affairs Secretary Shaktikanta Das on the other, in regard to the permissible non-penalty cash deposits in banks, has raised a pertinent question: Whose word should the people of India believe?

The question gains importance in lieu of the recent demonetisation move by the government as it is unclear how the Income Tax department is going to pursue the deposits made by individuals under the Jan Dhan Yojana and in other dormant or non-existent accounts; including those opened for women.

Consider the following contradictory statements on the deposits:

Contradictory statements by PM Modi and Arun Jaitley on I-T dept scrutiny of Jan Dhan accounts is adding to the confusion in public. PTI

Contradictory statements by PM Modi and Arun Jaitley on I-T dept scrutiny of Jan Dhan accounts is adding to the confusion in public. PTI

While addressing a public rally in Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh on Monday, Modi, in his characteristic style, asserted: “Kuch afwah failai ja rahi hai, grahniyon ko bhadkaya ja raha hai…Meri matayen, bahane jab tak tumharaa ye bhai zinda hai. Meri mayaten, jab tak tumhara ye ladla jinda hai. Aap viswas kijiye aapne kadi mehnat karke jo panch pachas rupeya bachaya hai, uspar ek bhi sarkari officer ankh bhi nahi laga payega. Aap himmat ke saath bank me jama karwa dijiye, khata khulwa dijiye, vyaj bhi ayega. Mera Income Tax department aisi mata bahno ko puchega nahi ki ye dhai lakh rupa aya kahan se. (Rumours are rife that housewives are being provoked…My mothers and sisters, till such time this brother is alive, my mothers till such time your beloved son is alive, you have faith that the money you have saved by hard work…collecting five, fifty rupees…no government official would look towards that. You just show the courage to go to the bank, open your account and deposit it. You will get interest as well. My Income Tax department will not ask such mothers and sisters where did you get the Rs 2.5 lakhs from.)”

Contrast this with what Das said a day later on Tuesday. He claimed that all deposits were being closely scrutinised by the government and that those forcing the poor from across the country to make deposits – whose accounts were opened under the Jan Dhan scheme – particularly need to be beware.

After establishing that a “close watch” was being kept on the Jan Dhan accounts, he mentioned that in spite of an upper limit of Rs 50,000 on deposits, several instances were reported where Rs 49,000 were added to such accounts. These persons, according to Das, would be questioned and an investigation would be opened as per due provisions.

On Saturday, Jaitley too had focused on the spike in Jan Dhan account deposits, adding that they were being closely monitored by the revenue departments, including the Income Tax department.

Das’ statement, which appears to be in contravention with Modi’s assurance, is bound to create confusion, even panic among people at large; especially at a time when rumour mills are already keeping people on their tenterhooks.

The huge crowd that gathered for Modi’s rally, applauded his stand against black money and cheered following his assurances to the poor and women folk. The rally comprised mostly of Jan Dhan account holders. Any deviation by Modi’s bureaucrats on his assurances would not be taken kindly by people in these testing times.

More so, those who thought that they could bear the daily long queues to exchange Rs 4,500 per day have been deterred by the latest development. The government has now decided that if you have exchanged the notes once, then you are not at liberty to stand in the queues again to exchange the now demonetised Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes. To ensure this, the government has decided to put indelible ink on the finger of the person transacting, just as is done during voting in the elections.

The government’s decision to restrict repeat exchanges by the same individual comes following a feedback, as explained by Das, that the crowds at banks were not thinning because the black money hoarders were sending their people from one bank to the next on a daily or even hourly basis, to convert their black money into white.

Whatever be the rationale behind the government’s move, it will surely add to the load of the already over-burdened banking staff, potentially unleashing even more chaos in various parts of the country.

Even if the government has strong reasons to back its latest measure, the fact remains that a portion of black money was coming in hidden among other valid bank transactions – thereby defeating one of the main aims behind the demonetisation move.

Besides, there can’t be any empirical data on how big of an army of retainers or daily wagers a black money hoarder can deploy to exchange his otherwise invalid notes, and how big that amount can be, even if he continues to do so till the 30 December deadline.

The collateral damage in terms of the suffering of some genuine and needy people bearing the brunt of this move would only be known in due course of time. The consequent chaos and bad publicity would not endear the Modi government to the people, who have broadly supported its bold demonetisation move so far.

In his opening statement, Das said that the prime minister and the finance minister, along with other senior officials, had reviewed the situation. He effectively said that whatever he was saying at the press conference came after the deliberations and decisions made at the high level meet.

On Saturday, Jaitley had said that there was no bar on people standing in queues for a second time, but had added that ideally he or she should deposit his money in bank accounts and withdraw through cheque or ATM.

First Published On : Nov 15, 2016 18:04 IST

US election 2016: Why Donald Trump’s ‘American Manus’ politics will worry Indo-Americans

What does Donald Trump has common with Maharashtra MNS chief Raj Thackeray or PM Narendra Modi? Not much, except that Trump is the proponent of the American version of certain ideals and vision both Thackeray and Modi have stood for long — ‘Marathi manus’ politics and the idea of ‘Make in India’.

Donald Trump. ReutersDonald Trump. Reuters

Donald Trump. Reuters

In the US, Trump is Thackeray’s counterpart of ‘American Manus’ politics and is the Modi of ‘Make in America’ campaign. Trump despises anything other than American and has so far played inflammatory politics projecting his ‘American Manus’ stand, calling out to make ‘America great again’ and save jobs and private investments for locals, no matter what happens to the immigrant worker.

Trump wants, at least he says so, to put an end to the cross-border outflow of jobs and wouldn’t hesitate to accuse even IBM of shutting jobs in the US and shifting some to India.

Trump is a great admirer of ‘Make in America campaign’ much like Modi’s ‘Make in India’ programme. He wants people to make things in America, using Americans workers and for American people.

In this backdrop, for Indo-Americans in US and other non-American workers, Donald Trump should symbolise everything that they should fear about — further restrictions on work permits and policies such as massive tax deductions favouring the local businesses that would logically put Indians there at a disadvantage.

“We don’t really know what is going on in his mind,” said Anshul Prakash, associate partner at Khaitan & Co, who is an expert in labour law. “Anyway, it can’t be good for Indians given his stated policies.
Even there, he has conflicting views and the core idea seems to be protecting the local Americans,” Prakash said.

Hence, the choice shouldn’t be difficult for Indo-Americans between Hillary Clinton and Trump. While Clinton is considered to have better chances to emerge victoriously, any upset by Trump would mean an uncertain, worrying future for not just Americans, the Indian professionals in that country too.

Trump’s victory would mean nothing short of a disaster for Indian professionals in the US, especially with regard to his planned policies on H1-B Visa restrictions. Even companies, including Indian firms, need to fear Trump if he comes to power for he has openly declared that the Trump administration will make it difficult for them to move out of America.

“If a company wants to leave Minnesota, fire their workers and move to another country and then ship their products back into the United States, we will make them pay a 35 percent tax,” Trump said in his recent speech at Minnesota state.

Trump seems to have no mercy for those who compete for American jobs and companies which take jobs out of US. He even calls them thieves. As Firstpost noted in a recent article, just the other day, Trump blamed India and China for the ‘greatest job theft’ in US.

“America has lost 70,000 factories since China entered the World Trade Organisation, another Bill and Hillary backed disaster. We are living through the greatest jobs theft in the history of the world,” Trump said in Tampa, Florida on Monday.

“Goodrich Lighting Systems laid off 255 workers and moved their jobs to India. Baxter Health Care Corporation laid off 199 workers and moved their jobs to Singapore. Essilor Laboratories laid off 181 workers and moved their jobs, surprise, to Mexico. It’s getting worse and worse and worse,” Trump said.

Trump is a bigger fan of the ‘son of the soil’ politics Thackeray practices here and is even more passionate about his ‘Make in America’ plan much like Modi admirers his ‘Make in India’ movement.

If Trump becomes the next president of world’s largest economy, eight times bigger than that of India, it will be no good news for the Indo-Americans. Hence a choice shouldn’t be difficult for them today.

NDTV India ban: I&B ministry’s rejection of channel’s defence arguments leads to suspicions

At 10 pm on 21 April, 2014, NDTV Good Times ran a series called Why am I sill single?

The mandarins of the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) ministry at once decided that the programme was “vulgar, indecent and adult in nature”. Remember, it was the last month of the UPA government.

After issuing a show-cause notice and summarily rejecting the defence of the channel, the ministry ordered the channel to go off air for a day on 9 April, 2015, by which time the NDA government was in power.

During the Congress-led UPA rule (between 2005 and 2014), NDTV and its sister channels were hauled up by the I&B ministry at least eight times. So were many other channels. In 2013 alone, 14 channels were taken off air for periods ranging from one to ten days, largely for telecasting ‘A’ certified films or “obscene” content. The channels included Zoom TV, Comedy Central, AXN, FTV and ABN Andhra Jyothi (a conservative and respected Telugu channel).

Under the Modi regime, NDTV has got into trouble with the government thrice so far. So have many other channels, of course.

It is clear that irrespective of the party in power, the I&B ministry has been going after TV channels, armed with the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995 and the rules framed under it. For years now, the ministry’s pen-pushers have been gleefully playing the roles of Editors-in-Chief for the channels from their comfortable office in Delhi’s Shastri Bhavan and evidently enjoying themselves. Based on their subjective judgement of what’s right what’s not, they have been dishing out orders, and sometimes getting into even minute editorial management. In some past cases, they ordered channels to shift programmes to late hours.

While obscenity was the chief weapon that the ministry used against the channels earlier, national security is the new stick that the current government is beating the TV channels with.

Look at the three cases against the NDTV group under the present government:

1) The ministry said that the remark of Rajya Sabha member Majeed Memon during a programme on the channel called ‘Truth vs Hype – the riddle of Yakub Memon’ on 1 August, 2015, following the execution of Yakub, denigrated India’s judiciary. After prolonged proceedings, NDTV was let off with a warning on June 1, 2016 to be “careful” in future.

2) The ministry took objection to NDTV India’s description of Yakub’s hanging as “unfortunate” in a telecast on 30 July, 2015. This channel was also “warned”.

3) Then came the order last week asking NDTV India to go off air for a day on 9 November for having allegedly leaked “sensitive” details in its coverage of the Pathankot terror attack.

Senior editor of NDTV India Ravish Kumar.

Senior editor of NDTV India Ravish Kumar.

Surely, the government has a right to be worried over the leak of “sensitive” details, but the proceedings in the latest case against NDTV India do not seem to indicate that the channel compromised national security in any way. Here is how the case went:

The allegation against the channel was that, during its telecast on 4 January 2016, when the operation against terrorists in the Pathankot airbase was still on, it leaked details of the MiGs, fighter planes, rocket launchers, mortars, helicopters and fuel tanks inside. The channel was also accused of having revealed the existence of a school in the airbase.

On 29 January, NDTV India was issued a show-cause notice. The channel replied to it on 5 February.

In its reply, the channel said its coverage was “entirely balanced and responsible”. It said that, at a time when sections of the media were questioning delays in the counter-terrorist operations, NDTV India was only explaining to viewers why it became necessary for the security forces to go slow in a way lives of innocent civilians and defence assets at the airbase were not endangered.

As for leaking details of ammunition at the airbase, the channel pointed out that the information was already in public domain. To substantiate that, it submitted excerpts of coverage from ABP News, Zee News, India TV and The Hindu (2 January), The Telegraph, The Indian Express, The Times of India (3 January) and The Tribune and Hindustan Times (4 January).

The ministry was magnanimous enough to take a look at all this but only to summarily reject it, after indulging in plenty of nitpicking in its oral examination of the channel’s representatives on 25 July, 2016. Without any basis, the ministry ruled that while other newspapers and channels only supplied “bits and pieces” of information, NDTV India “appeared to give out” the exact location of terrorists with regard to sensitive military assets.

This gives rise to two suspicions. One: Confronted with evidence that other channels had given the same “sensitive” information, the ministry came up with a face-saving order. Two: The ministry, for whatever reason, was singling out NDTV India.

Considering the implications of all this for media’s freedom, the government must spell out exactly what was that information that NDTV India give out which others hadn’t-or repeal the one-day ban order on the channel at once. The fact that the previous government muzzled the channels does in no ways justifies the present government’s actions.

More importantly, it must be recognised by journalists of all hues that the very existence of Section 20 of the Cable Television Networks Regulation Act 1995, which empowers governments to ban channels at whim, has been posing a serious threat to the freedom of the Press whichever party is in power.

Though the existence of this 1995 Act and the excesses committed under it never came under serious scrutiny earlier, habitual Modi-baiters and self-styled liberals have raked up the latest case, painting the Prime Minister as media’s worst-ever enemy for their own reasons. But the reasons why they are saying it should not deflect us from what they are saying.

Enough has already been said about the dangers of having a government arrogate to itself the power of policing media, even if some channels go about their job of covering news in general, anti-terror operations in particular, irresponsibly.

Art of war: Why India should not worry too much about Chinese incursion in Ladakh

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near,” or so said general Sun Tzu in his oft-quoted The Art of War.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

It may seem lazy analysis to keep going back to an ancient Chinese military treatise to explain the dragon’s myriad moves, but Sunzi’s work remains one of the key guiding principles of Chinese foreign policy even today. The face-off in Ladakh since Wednesday, where People’s Liberation Army crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and “forcefully” stopped the construction work of an irrigation canal, has been described in Indian media as yet another example of Chinese bullying.

But such an interpretation would be misleading.

The Ladakh incursion is neither an example of Chinese imperialism nor an indication of Beijing’s nervousness over a civil construction project, though that is exactly the impression China wants to cast. Rather it’s a disguised attempt to gain leverage points at the crucial National Security Advisor (NSA)-level talks on Friday between Ajit Doval and his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi in Hyderabad.

And that is also the reason why, despite reports emerging of an incursion and aggressive behaviour from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) — around 55 of whom “took position” along the fuzzy LAC in Ladakh’s Demchok sector — the Indian army and the civil administration have sought to play down the incident.

The Chinese claim, that either side needs to take permission for construction work near the “disputed” border, is hogwash. Under the existing set of agreements and protocols nothing stops India from digging a canal and linking a hot spring to a nearby village under the rural employment scheme. New Delhi is also not obliged to share information with China over civil infrastructural projects.

The irony of China protesting against an alleged violation of agreement won’t be lost on anyone. From the “Nine-Dash Line” on South China Sea, construction of China Pakistan Economic Corridor through Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir to building a host of civil-military infrastructural projects on the Tibetan plateau, China has shown scant regard for international rules, laws and arbitration.

Daily Mail points out that China is building a railway line by 2020 from Chengdu (Sichuan) to Lhasa which will reach the Indian border. Another railway line to Kyirong and Nepal probably to be continued till Kathmandu and Lumbini is on anvil. A second international airport in Lhasa, a new airport in Nagchu, a four-lane highway between Lhasa and Nyingchi (Arunachal border) are also coming up. “And finally the improvement of NH 219 between Tibet and Xinjiang, cutting across Indian territory in the Aksai Chin area of Ladakh. All these projects have serious strategic implications for India, as the infrastructure built on the plateau has a dual use: civilian and military,” says the report.

India has not been sitting idle either. The government informed the Parliament last July that 73 roads of operational significance are being built along the Sino-Indian border by 2020. Chinese commentators writing for Indian publications have pointed out that Beijing is “worried” about India’s show of strength along the border that includes deployment of 120 tanks in Ladakh, conveniently forgetting China’s persistent and aggressive arms buildup over the years.

Hence we find a senior Army officer telling Times of India that there was “no Chinese incursion across LAC. The issues relating to construction projects on both sides of LAC are being resolved in border personnel meetings and flag meetings”.

Not just that, later in the day MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup denied having any information of any incursion with a caveat that were such a thing to happen, it will be handled through “established mechanism”. He urged the media not to “sensationalise it”.

What’s happening here? The crux of the territorial tango is that both powers are fully aware of each other’s moves and with the deftness of ballerinas, are playing along the script.

China's State Councilor Yang Jiechi (L) and India's National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. Reuters

China’s State Councilor Yang Jiechi (L) and India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. Reuters

But that doesn’t mean the incursion didn’t happen. It did. Therefore, the right question to ask is what leverages are the Chinese aiming for with such a manouvre? The answer lies in the recent quagmire that Sino-Indian relationship has fallen into, and the ongoing talks in Hyderabad between National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi that are expected to address some of the fractious issues. Chinese reasoning is simple. If India raises contentious points it will be beneficial for China to hold as many cards as possible up its sleeves.

A series of measures and counter-measures has seen a loss of confidence between the two Asian giants to the extent that China recently removed the last fig leaf on blocking India’s NSG membership, making it quite clear that it won’t back New Delhi’s bid unless a rule to include other non-NPT members (read Pakistan) is formulated. It also remains adamant on not letting Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Masood Azhar be designated as a terrorist by the United Nations, a key Indian demand.

The Ladakh incursion is one move in the game of geopolitical chess that allows China the room to anticipate and blunt India’s points of dissidence. It also simultaneously escalates Beijing’s displeasure over India’s decision to allow The Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh and a popular movement in India to boycott Chinese goods.

When two nations as big and influential as China and India engage, the subtext is far more important than the printed lines.

SIMI encounter: CM Chouhan must be held accountable for inefficient policing in MP

Following the encounter of eight suspected SIMI terrorists, who had escaped from Bhopal Central Jail on Monday, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan should really pause for a moment and introspect.

He must seriously ponder over why, under his administration, the biggest Indian state has seen a sharp decline in all aspects of policing – be it law and order, intelligence gathering or jail administration.

While the police force does have some brave and committed men, like Head Constable Ramashankar Yadav, who laid down his life in the line of duty while trying to stop the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) activists from fleeing, the incident does pose some serious questions.

What kind of police force did Yadav serve, where no backup was available to him? Why did no one come to his rescue? And why were no alarms raised to thwart the jailbreak attempt? It seems that men like Yadav are just exceptions in an otherwise inefficient MP police force.

Police investigate the encounter site in Bhopal. PTIPolice investigate the encounter site in Bhopal. PTI

Police investigate the encounter site in Bhopal. PTI

In his capacity as chief minister, Shivraj has done well on his moral and official duty to visit the martyred head constable’s home, pay his condolences, attend the last rites, offer ex-gratia and additionally sanction money for his daughter’s upcoming wedding.

He is also well within his right to blast his political rivals for politicising the ‘encounter’. He said that the political rivals raising questions over the encounter, couldn’t see the head constable’s supreme sacrifice.

“They could have spared two words for this martyr and shed a few tears over his martyrdom, which could have proved their compassion” Shivraj was reported as saying.

While dismissing the opposition’s charges against his government, he said: “The hardcore criminals have been eliminated. Who knows what kind of violence they could have unlashed if they managed to escape.”

On the other hand, Congress general secretary and former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijaya Singh had given an entirely different twist to the jailbreak episode. He questioned that how was it possible that only Muslim SIMI operatives managed to escape from the jail and not the Hindu ones. Again, it was alright for Shivraj to respond to that charge, as Digvijay’s commentary seemed to be angled for obvious political motives.

But the big question that remains is that why did Shivraj not weigh the situation and collect all the facts before going to the public with his tall claims about the ‘encounter’. Why did he compliment an incompetent police force for killing the eight SIMI terror operatives on a hill top, where they were surrounded from all sides with negligible chances of escape?

Though you cannot second guess the bravery and commitment of constable Yadav – whose two sons serve in the army and daughter was to be married in five weeks – the problem arose when Shivraj mixed the two narratives. Yadav’s death and the contradictory arguments made by senior police officers about the encounter, in a bid to cover up the cold-blooded killing of the SIMI operatives, are two very distinct equations.

Instead of trying to mislead the public by mixing the two narratives, here is something that should’ve concerned Shivraj more:

The Bhopal Central Jail was the first in India to get an ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation) 9001-2000 certificate in 2004 for its better amenities for inmates, about a year before Shivraj assumed office. But apart from the amenities, jails are as much about security. The ease with which the SIMI operatives fled reflects on the poor safety measures employed by the administration.

Security loopholes like the fact that all terror operatives were lodged in one jail; the CCTV cameras were not working; dining utensils issued were easily converted into knives; a long drawn jailbreak plan went unchecked; keys were made inside or smuggled from outside; the high walls were easily scalable; guards were sleeping on duty; the administration did not take any lessons from the Khandwa jail break by members of the same group; officers were busy lighting lamps and fire crackers while the criminals escaped, are all indicative of corrupt and inefficient jail management by the civil and police officials. In that regard, it is truly ironic that the jail’s website is full of ISO certifications and boasts of its safety records.

The manner in which hundreds of policemen conducted the hunt for the escaped activists, and how the supposed ‘encounter’ took place, reveals a saga of incompetence, inefficiency and even foolishness.

It clearly indicates that the MP police has never really engaged in a real encounter situation, at least lately. The chief minister and his government will have a difficult time in explaining the conduct of the state police force. From the videos of the encounter that have surfaced since then, it looks like the operation was conducted not by uniformed and trained police officers, but by a lynch mob out to kill a hated target.

The scenes emanating from the video, of policemen shooting with crude 303 rifles; fellow colleagues recording videos on their phones; conversing over unsecured wireless sets; some policemen firing from long distance; some shooting at dead bodies, all point towards the fact that the encounter was in all likelihood fake and foolish.

From the audio heard in these videos, it was clear that there was no chain of command. Everyone was shouting over each other and perhaps some villagers had also joined in as cheer leaders for the armed policemen.

How is this effective policing? Shivraj will have to introspect and come up with an answer.

Eight terrorists flee high-security prison, gunned down? SIMI encounter stinks of a set up

The most likely chain of events concerning the eight SIMI terrorists, who were gunned down in a gorge in Madhya Pradesh hours after their escape, is that this gang ‘executed’ a warder and needed to be punished. Not one of them was shot at to be wounded below the waist in an encounter where the return of fire is suspect.

Wouldn’t you want them alive so you could trace how they escaped and how they were helped?

Regardless of all the brouhaha about their escape from a prison and the incredible odds against that seeing as how no one knows yet how they accomplished this great escape, the eight terrorists would not have trotted 15 kilometres in a group and made themselves such an obvious target.

That is absurd.

Chief constable on duty who was killed during the encounter in Bhopal on Monday. PTI

Chief constable on duty who was killed during the encounter in Bhopal on Monday. PTI

Smart enough to get out of a jail and as this Firstpost article points out, they managed to get past every checkpoint and surveillance station including, watch towers and electric fences, these eight terrorists decided to lumber about in a state of togetherness and ended up in a cul de sac of a gorge from where there was no escape.

It defeats plain logic that they did not split up and go different ways. All forces, defensive and inimical, are taught that the first thing you do is split up. That is just plain common sense and these are not your run of the mill lawbreakers, these are active killers. Why would you stick together and funnel yourselves into a corner?

Eight strangers walking down the road in jail clothes? Why not just put up a neon sign? This is not a school picnic where you walk hand in hand.

You would take eight different routes to eight different places and use your network to find refuge and safety. They have a network. None of them would have been caught in ten hours. Okay, maybe a couple but the rest would have made good their escape.

Between 2 am and noon, that is a ten hour head start to catch trains, buses, cabs, motorbikes, hot wire cars, maim and rob strangers of money and clothes and food and vanish.

None of the eight commit a single act of violence in those ten hours or make any effort to obtain funds, steal clothes, attack civilians despite being high on adrenaline and born to kill. What do these “terrorists” do? They go into a conveniently located and relatively deserted canyon where they are easily tracked by the police and then shot and killed.

Consider this. Does it not call for a major conspiracy to have them get away from the jail itself? Not just one warder on duty but the several rings of security and the fences and the inexplicable silence and lack of awareness that seems to have permeated the correctional facility in those morning hours. Certainly, they were no paragons of virtue and a threat to the nation but the worrying part is that this encounter is so clumsily choreographed, that one is hard-placed to understand who directed it. Since they were terrorists, people in the country may let the splintering of the rule of law slither past. But what if tomorrow it is another far less dangerous undertrial who offends someone in the jail and is taken for a ride?

Najeeb didn’t just vanish: Why are JNU authorities not showing any sense of urgency?

It is tempting to pillory Kanhaiya Kumar and the other four high profiles of his tribe namely Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya, Rama Naga, Anant Prakash and Ashutosh Kumar for being relatively insipid in their role to find Najeeb Ahmed the student who has disappeared from JNU. But the higher priority would be to ensure his safety and get him back from wherever he is.

Former JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar. PTIFormer JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar. PTI

Former JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar. PTI

While Najeeb’s sister is playing the dominant role in the search or at least the call for it and in between slogan shouting and a few sundry gheraos and protest marches there is a sluggish texture to the usually vociferous JNU crowd who made headlines earlier this year with their controversial seminar at the Press Club in New Delhi, the general slowness of the investigation is patently obvious.

There is also the needless rant from Shehla Rashid a former vice president of the JNU Students Union who asks Kanhaiya why nothing is being done by him?

In parts, like the curate’s egg, it is a good question. How much is being done by anybody to find a young man who was seen being beaten up by a mob of ABVP goons, then dragged to the vice chancellor’s office and roughed up again as no one intervened.

Where did he go from there? The odds that rubbernecking students did not hang around to see what would happen next are very low. So when Najeeb came out of the office did he walk to his room, run to the gate, get into a car, be kidnapped, where were all the brave souls that inhabit this especially green grove of academe? Teachers, students, security staff. Did his friends not help him out at the time of his distress? Simply demanding to put more pressure on the police hardly comes off as concerted action.

Who were these ABVP guys, they are not incognito, surely in this huge span of time their post-mob frenzy period should produce cast-iron alibis. Where did each of you go next?

Najeeb could not just have vanished into thin air. One would opt for the scenario that he has gone into hiding for fear of his life but then at least in this hi-tech age he would have communicated his whereabouts to his family and the sister’s stress factor does not indicate this. And that makes it worrying because he could be incapacitated.

Is there any specific reason why the police have not been able to follow the trail despite having 12 suspects in custody?

With ten days since the young man vanished the trail, so to speak, is cold as ice. One can only conclude that Najeeb is either in another city with friends and relatives and has sought refuge and has got in touch with his immediate family but pushed them into silence. If that does not work for you has he been abducted by more goons and, if so, from where…his room, from under a tree, the hospital or clinic if he went there to have his wounds dressed, it is just not possible to have others involved in the scenario and go missing without leaving some eyewitnesses behind.

After you have been thrashed you either go for comfort, refuge or medical assistance. You don’t walk off into the wilderness without anyone knowing.

Certainly, the macabre thought comes to mind that the silence is ominous and God forbid does not indicate a much worse development. Until there is a body this option must lie on the side of the table.

I don’t think most people care whether the student is Hindu, Muslim or zebra striped. He is missing and he has to be found. Letting this mystery stay unresolved is not acceptable and there seems to be a lid on the outrage.

I watched the former spearhead of the JNU Kanhaiya Kumar give a sort of limp wristed speech to a crowd of farmers where he has supposed to have made the first mention of the disappearance. Wrong crowd, not much zest.

Curiously, even the media seems to be dragging its feet on this one and with the second week nearly coming to a conclusion since Najeeb was last seen the story for lack of a feed is slipping off the pages.

It will be a cruel shame if the Najeeb saga has no ending.

Come on, people, somebody saw something, somebody knows what happened…time to end the agony.

Quetta strike: Recent attacks in Pakistan and India follow an eerily similar blueprint

A group of fedayeen militants dressed in military fatigues storms an army facility, catching the targets by surprise and inflicting heavy casualties.

This seems to be the recurring theme of recent times of terror operations spawning out of Pakistan, the latest being the attack on a police training academy in the southwestern city of Quetta.

At least 59 people were killed and more than 100 wounded when gunmen wearing suicide vests stormed a Pakistani police training academy took hostages, government officials said on Tuesday.

Pakistani volunteers and police officers rush an injured person to a hospital in Quetta. APPakistani volunteers and police officers rush an injured person to a hospital in Quetta. AP

Pakistani volunteers and police officers rush an injured person to a hospital in Quetta. AP

More than 200 police trainees were stationed at the facility when the attack occurred late on Monday, officials said. Some cadets were taken hostage during the attack, which lasted five hours. Most of the dead were police cadets.

Mir Sarfaraz Bugti, home minister of Baluchistan province, of which Quetta is the capital, said the gunmen attacked a dormitory inside the training facility while cadets rested and slept.

Most of the deaths were caused when two of the attackers blew themselves up. The third was shot dead by Frontier Corps (FC) troops. At least 120 people were injured, Dawn reported.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but one of the top military commanders in Baluchistan, General Sher Afgun, told media that calls intercepted between the attackers and their handlers suggested they were from the sectarian Sunni militant group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ).

In August, a suicide bombing at a Quetta hospital claimed by the Islamic State group and the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar faction of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) killed 73 people, including many of the city’s lawyer community who had gone there to mourn the fatal shooting of a colleague.

Back in December 2014, in a similar fashion, Taliban insurgents storm an army-run school in Peshawar, killing 154 people, most of them children.

The massacre started when armed members of the TTP stormed the Army Public School in Peshawar killing over 140 people including more than 130 students. It was a seven-hour long siege that finally ended with the killing of all the terrorists by security forces.

In January this year, Pathankot Air Base in Punjab, India, was hit by five terrorists believed to be from Pakistan.

The militants stormed the base in the wee hours and the confrontation with the Indian army lasted for 15 hours after they breached a high-security security perimeter.The siege ended with the gunning down of the five terrorists.

The terrorists were reportedly members of Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad. The militants had hijacked a police officer’s car and driven it to the heavily guarded base — tactics used in earlier attacks by Pakistani-trained militants, reports the Business Standard.

An editorial in Pakistan’s Daily Times, quoted by IANS said, “On present trends at least, the post-Pathankot scenario has a chilling resemblance to post-Mumbai,” referring to the 2008 attack in Mumbai that left 166 people, including many foreigners, dead.

Punjab itself, in recent times, has become the new target of militant attacks in India. In late 2015, a police station in Gurdaspur was attacked in a similar manner.

The National Investigation Agency (NIA), in May, had said that wireless systems of the same kind were used in terror attacks which took place in Kathua, Samba and Pathankot.

Besides, modus operandi of the three attacks was same, convincing the NIA not to probe the three cases separately, reported Zee News.

In September this year, 19 soldiers and four militants were killed during an attack on an army camp in Jammu and Kashmir’s Uri town.

The militants broke into the base near the de facto border with Pakistan before dawn and lobbed grenades at tents and barracks housing soldiers, before opening fire with automatic weapons, the army said.

As militants adapt to these tactics with increasing efficiency, the defense establishments of the countries need to step up measures to counter the same.

With inputs from agencies

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil: Raj Thackeray ‘raising’ money from film producers for army is dubious patriotism

From making Marathis fight against Biharis, bullying actors, writers, and artistes, digging cricket pitches to turning into a self-anointed fundraiser for the Indian Army, Raj Thackeray has indeed come a long way.

Maharashtra Navnirman Sena Raj Thackeray. APMaharashtra Navnirman Sena Raj Thackeray. AP

Maharashtra Navnirman Sena Raj Thackeray. AP

From a patriotic Marathi manus fighting against immigrants, taxi drivers, and daily-wage earners, Thackeray has made the ultimate transition a modern Indian deshbhakt dreams of: He has put the gun to the film industry’s head for the Indian Army; become a real Sainik for the real Sena.

If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, extortion in the name of the Army must be its defining trait. Thackeray’s Money Navnirman Sena (MNS) has just proved it.

On Saturday, after a meeting with the democratically-elected chief minister of Maharashtra, the leader of the party with just one legislator in the 288-member Assembly, agreed to allow the screening of Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil.

It says a lot about the clout of Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis when he has to seek the approval of MNS, a party that was dumped by people with just three percent votes in the Assembly polls, for allowing the screening of a film cleared by every legitimate Indian institution. Raj Thackeray, it is evident, is the de-facto extra-constitutional Boss of the state and Fadnavis has been chosen just to act as an interlocutor between the MNS and the people it bullies.

Fadnavis has not only been forced to keep Thackeray in good humour but also been arm twisted into letting Thackeray set conditions for the film’s release. According to reports, Thackeray has insisted that producers of films that have Pakistani actors in the star cast will donate “Rs 5 crore” to the Army’s fund as penalty for working with the enemy and run an ode to our security forces at the start of the film. The MNS chief, after imposing a penitence penalty on Johar, also hoped that Indians would boycott the film.

Only Thackeray can answer how he arrived at the deshbhakti cess for the Army. If Thackeray’s logic that having Pakistani actors in a film insults our soldiers, is Rs 5 crore then the price of getting away with it? Once Johar pays that price, will the audience — the ones who watch Ae Dil Hai Mushkil in theatres instead of downloading pirated versions — be relieved of their moral burden and allowed to gleefully dance to the tune of the Breakup song, aware that the deshbhakti cess paid from the sale of tickets mitigates the pain of Uri? Almost like what we Indians habitually do: Offer a gift to God to seek pardon for a sin!

By any chance, did Thackeray, being such a fan of Bollywood, get inspired by Yash Chopra’s Lamhe? In that film, when Anil Kapoor is asked to pay a lakh for slapping Sridevi’s cousin over a property dispute, he hits them again five times and throws a few more bundles of money at them. Everything has a price, no?

Filmi comparisons apart, the serious question here is this: Is the Army willing to allow Thackeray and his party extract money in its name? If that be the case, will it legitimate henceforth for anybody to act as a fund-raiser for our soldiers by bullying businesses and businessmen? And since the deal was reportedly brokered in the presence of the Maharashtra CM, will our governments now get involved in such extra-constitutional deals?

If yes, we should be grateful to Fawad Khan and other Pakistani artistes. They have helped us figure out how to turn patriotism into a profitable enterprise.

Brics Summit in Goa: Vladimir Putin’s ‘screw’ remark proves he is Russia’s Donald Trump

There was something that happened at the Brics summit in Goa last weekend that escaped the attention it deserved.

Asked by a small group of Russian journalists covering the summit about the threat of more sanctions on Russia by western countries, President Vladimir Putin said that they could “screw themselves”.

A file photo of Vladimir Putin. ReutersA file photo of Vladimir Putin. Reuters

A file photo of Vladimir Putin. Reuters

Whether Putin meant the western nations can “screw” themselves or the sanctions can “screw” themselves is not clear. What is clear is that he did use the s- word, and apparently the faces of a couple of Putin’s aides present at his interaction, turned red with embarrassment. Not surprisingly, Kremlin pulled down this remark from the Russian government’s website.

And this should confirm to us why US Presidential candidate Donald Trump has taken a shine to Putin. Like birds of the same feather, men of the same tongue hit it off famously. But let’s talk about Putin first.

“… Putin saw his usual statesman-like demeanour crack..(in Goa),” said The Moscow Times. But many Russians, familiar with Putin’s singular lack of linguistic finesse, are aware that he doesn’t find it easy to keep up his “statesman-like demeanour”.

In fact, the dialect of Russian that Putin speaks is called Fenya. Russians would tell you that Fenya is the kind of language that thieves use. Some Russians not only frown at Putin’s choice of words but even his grammar. And Putin’s work as an undercover KGB agent in East Germany before he entered politics obviously did nothing to hone his language skills.

Putin’s 1999 promise that he would destroy terrorists wherever they are found— “including toilets” — is still remembered in Russia and the West with a grimace. So is his comparison of the US to a “hungry wolf” which “eats and listens to no one”.

Why Deve Gowda used the ‘screw’ word

This reminds me of the day in 1996 when Deve Gowda, then India’s Prime Minister, caused a flutter by mouthing the screw word. Later, he himself was surprised that he had said something like it.

“Don’t screw us,” he thundered to a stunned audience at the World Economic Forum at Davos, taking exception to the protectionist policies of developed nations. If Gowda’s outburst was dismissed as an innocuous slip of the tongue, it was because, unlike Putin and Trump, he had had no history of using the s- and f- words even in private conversations. Besides, it was an open secret in those days that Gowda was still taking English lessons to perfect his language.

But why is Putin angry?

The very mention of America gets Putin’s adrenaline pumping. If he is furious with the US more than ever before now, it’s because of the sanctions against Russia that followed his country’s intervention in Ukraine and later in Syria. The sanctions are hurting Russia.

Putin’s “bravado” in Goa only hides his fear of sanctions, says Kyiv Post, a popular Ukrainian paper. It said: “President Putin is indeed screwing someone over, but it’s not the West; he is screwing over his own people, over and over again, millions of whom are paying the price for their leader’s personal ambitions and interests.”

Donald Trump loves Vladimir Putin

Yes, he does. He has been saying so himself—well, almost.

Trump suffers no qualms about degrading women with his lewd, loud and crass comments and thinks nothing of using the f- or even p- words. “Grab them by the p***y,” he once said. “You can do anything.”

Trump perhaps finds that Putin is the only world leader who appreciates the language.

Trump said on Monday that America was “too tough” on Putin and that, if elected, he would meet the Russian leader even before he stepped into White House.

Earlier, there was an important tweet. It was one from Russia with love.

In the final US presidential debate on Thursday, Hillary Clinton dubbed Trump as Putin’s puppet.

But Hillary Clinton fails to see what binds Trump and Putin: The two men speak the same language. Trump and Putin are two sides of the same dollar—or ruble.

Is Putin Russia’s Trump?

There has been some silly talk about whether Trump is the American version of Modi—or whether Modi is India’s Trump. There is no comparison between the two.

Modi is more like Chinese President Xi Jinping. Both are ambitious and fanatically loyal to their countries. And their avid reading has tempered their language, if not politics. Xi can tell Putin things about Tolstoy’s War and Peace and leave the former KGB spy gaping in surprise. Forget Modi and Xi.

What’s more relevant to ask is whether Putin is Russia’s Trump. Or, if you like, whether Trump is the American edition of Putin.

Trumps and Putins stump media

When I reported Deve Gowda’s use of the screw word in the Davos speech, the Mumbai edition of The Times of India deleted it. But other editions kept it.

The New York Times is famously allergic to such vocabulary. The best example is from a 2004 story. Dick Cheney, then the US vice-president, told Senator Patrick Leahy on the floor of the Senate: “F**k yourself.” The Washington Post reported it verbatim, but the NYT had it this way: Cheney used “an obscene phrase to describe what he thought Mr Leahy should do”.

No wonder, the New York Times hates Trump. It’s recent editorial The Sleaziness of Donald Trump tells you why.

And no wonder Trump and Putin have become members of a mutual admiration society. Let the media screw itself.

Author tweets @sprasadindia

Dammed or Damned? Before reviewing Indus River Treaty, India needs to learn from the past

Based on reports in the media, the Indus River Treaty between India and Pakistan is under scrutiny by the Indian government. While there may be a geo‐strategic case for scrutiny of the treaty, there are serious geographical, geological and ecological issues that a relook of the treaty raises.

If a relook at the Treaty involves new dams, as suggested by some commentators, planning should take note of lessons from earlier dam construction in the Himalayas. The key issue is that the Himalayas are a ‘hot spot’ for environmental hazards – particularly great earthquakes, landslides and floods.

It is also home to very high biodiversity, both on land and in the rivers and lakes. Building large dams to gain a geostrategic advantage over Pakistan may not be the best approach for the rivers governed by the Treaty or for the people living near those rivers. If criteria other than geo-strategy are taken into account then these rivers may not be easy candidates for big dams.

Although the whole Himalayan range is earthquake‐prone, some areas have experienced earthquakes with magnitudes greater than eight on the Richter scale, referred to as great earthquakes, while others experience much lower levels of seismicity.

Before reveiwing the Indus River Treaty, India should take notes from earlier dam construction in the Himalayas. ReutersBefore reveiwing the Indus River Treaty, India should take notes from earlier dam construction in the Himalayas. Reuters

Before reviewing the Indus River Treaty, India should take notes from earlier dam construction in the Himalayas. Reuters

It is one of the ironies of the Himalaya that those areas that experience low seismicity are also places where river flows are relatively small. So rivers that flow from the Indian territory into Pakistan may be eligible for only small dams, which may be safe but the reservoirs would be small and thereby not achieve the purposes imagined by those re‐examining the Treaty.

In locations prone to great earthquakes, the design of dams will have to be stringent and therefore the construction will be very costly. For example, in 1997, geologist KS Valdiya commented unfavourably on the location and design of the Tehri Dam – one of the world’s tallest dams situated on the Bhagirathi River in the earthquake‐prone state of Uttarakhand.

Landslides are also a major hazard in the Himalayas. Dangerous landslides can be caused by filling of reservoirs where adjacent hill slopes are destabilised. An extremely well documented case occurred in 1963 in Italy when about 30 million cubic metres of water was displaced from the Vaiont Reservoir by a landslide, sending a wall of water over the wall and killing 2000 people downstream.

Landslides from other causes can create waves that destabilise dams and overtop dam walls and spillways, like dropping a brick into a bath. Landslides also add sediment to reservoirs and shorten their useful lives. The Himalaya is home to great landslides, proof that the phenomenon of giant waves in reservoirs is not a figment of scientists’ fevered imaginations. In fact the Himalaya is not just a ‘hot spot’ of environmental hazards, is one the world’s ‘great hot spots’.

And of course there are great floods. The most recent was the 2013 Kedarnath/Mandakini flood in Uttarakhand. This was not just ‘great’ but also a ‘perfect storm’. The monsoon reached into the high mountains earlier than usual, and when it met cold and dry air from the Arctic it generated one of the most severe rainfall events in living memory.

The analysis of this event by the renowned Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) has made clear what happened. Floods of the magnitude of the 2013 event recur in the Alaknanda river on average every 40 years. Before the 2013 event, the largest flood was in 1970, which was one of the factors that spurred the ‘Chipko Andolan’.

We know the average frequency of extreme floods from studying flood sediments from which it has been possible to reconstruct a flood history for the past 1500 years. However, the future may be bleaker than the past. The confluence of climatic phenomena that caused the 2013 flood will recur and possibly with greater frequency. As the Arctic warms, it will send out bursts of cold air more often.

It is particularly sobering to have found that most if not all of the large floods in the Alaknanda River over the past 1500 years have occurred when the Arctic was sending out such bursts into the Himalayas. Large floods can topple dams if the design is not sufficiently stringent. Floods also carry large amounts of sediment that reduce the lifespan of reservoirs.

Even more dangerous for people and dams are floods that are generated by the bursting of lakes made by landslides and glaciers.  These are common in the Himalayas, another reason to see these mountains as a ‘great hot spot of hazards’.

Most of the Alaknanda floods were probably the result of landslide lake bursts, but glacial lake bursts also pose an increasing threat as glaciers are reduced by rising air temperatures that create lakes which eventually burst leading to a flood.

India clearly needs electricity for the good of its people. Hydroelectricity is more greenhouse gas friendly than thermal power stations, although not to the extent claimed by its proponents. Given the problems, actual and potential, of large dams it would be best to build small run‐of‐river dams for the generation of electricity; so‐called “hydels”.

Many are already built and a lot more are planned. However, once again the 2013 flood in Uttarakhand has lessons for the future. Many of the hydel dams were damaged and some destroyed. The hydels in the Himalayas are built too close together to provide for the aquatic ecosystem’s needs.

More dams in the Himalayas should be planned while honouring the safety of people and the ecology of the area. Learning from historical disasters, landslides, floods and earthquakes, the government should also adopt a ‘disaster risk reduction’ approach. A new Indus River Treaty can have long term impacts on the Himalayan mountain range. The impacts will be positive only if it is well planned in advance.

Dr Robert J Wasson is a Senior Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore

Shivani Ratra is a Research Associate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore

Bhubaneswar fire: Grim reminder of hospital admin’s negligence, violation of norms

It is not even five years since the AMRI Hospital fire tragedy in Kolkata that killed 90 patients. In a similar disaster, a devastating fire at a private hospital in Bhubaneswar late Monday evening claimed 22 lives.

How many more patients in the ICUs need to die not due to critical illness, but due to an outbreak of fire before the government and the private hospital owners will wake up from their deep slumber to have a foolproof system in place?

According to the latest report available, 22 patients died after the fire broke out reportedly due to short-circuit at SUM Hospital’s ICU in Bhubaneswar last evening. Nearly 50 critically-ill patients were in the ICU when the fire broke out, of which 22 died either due to the fire or while being shifted to another hospital. Nearly 30 patients have been reported to be in serious condition.

Rescue work underway at the Institute of Medical Sciences and Sum Hospital in Bhubaneshwar. PTI

Rescue work underway at the Institute of Medical Sciences and Sum Hospital in Bhubaneswar. PTI

Despite the worst hospital fire tragedy at AMRI Hospital on 9 December, 2011, hospital administration in India continues to be in crisis. The deaths of patients in Kolkata and Bhubaneswar hospitals were not due to any natural disaster, but due to negligence on part of hospital management.

How could a fire take place in a sensitive zone like the ICU is beyond comprehension? Even if the fire broke out due to short-circuit as has been claimed, why it couldn’t be doused at an initial stage?

The hospital authorities may argue as happened in the case of AMRI Hospital that the inferno was an “accident” and not “intentional”, but it has been found in large number of fire incidents, including the one in Kolkata that lack of precautionary measures, improper safety measures and failure to deal with emergency situation had led to fire breakouts and deaths.

Some of the worst fire tragedies that took place in recent years

June 1997: Uphaar Cinema tragedy at Green Park, New Delhi — 59 people died.
August 2001: Private mental asylum at Erwadi, Tamil Nadu — 28 died.
January 2004: Srirangam marriage hall fire, Tamil Nadu — 57 guests died.
July 2004: Kumbakonam school tragedy in Tanjavur district, Tamil Nadu — 94 children died.
March 2010: At Stephen Court, a historical building at Park Street in Kolkata — 42 died.
December 2011: AMRI Hospital at Dhakuria in Kolkata — 90 patients died.

Investigations into all these cases revealed lack of preparedness to combat fire outbreak, lack of safety measures and violation of mandatory conditions in fire safety norms. No lesson has yet been learnt.

A case in point: AMRI Hospital, Kolkata

Post-Independence, AMRI Hospital, Kolkata stands to be the worst case in death of patients due to fire in a hospital.

Both investigations and academic studies revealed that the inferno at the hospital had been due to multiple factors like storage of highly inflammable substances in an illegally built basement in the hospital; lack of adequate fire-fighting equipment and trained staff to deal with the situation; dysfunctional fire-fighting equipment; fire brigade wasn’t informed when the fire broke out, which is against the protocol; faulty construction of hospital building; gas stove was used next to inflammable substances and electric cables didn’t have mandatory fire-proof casing that led to short-circuit.

According to a published research paper by Prof Mahesh Bendigeri and Prof Ramesh Olekar — Hospital governance in crisis: A case study of AMRI Hospital, Kolkata  in International Journal of Development Studies — the AMRI Hospital had violated fire safety norms, did not follow standard fire protocol and there was absence of internal audit system.

What regulation says

According to the National Building Code 2005, hospitals are classified as institutional buildings and therefore require fire-fighting equipment. At all times, the area around a hospital building must be kept clear for easy access of fire tenders (Note: This was absent in AMRI Hospital case). It has also mentioned clauses to be followed mandatorily while constructing a hospital or sanatorium. This is often violated in India.

The National Association of Fire Officers has a detailed checklist that recommends the hospitals and nursing homes to have active fire protection system, fire fighting installation details, fire prevention and awareness measures, and building plan.

But, in most of fire accidents it has been found that these measures were neglected.

Is it a repeat in the case of Bhubaneswar hospital?

Speaking to media, Tathagata Satpathy, BJD MP said, “It must have taken enough time for the fire to spread in such a manner due to which 22 patients died. It speaks of lack of fire fighting system and poor infrastructure in the hospital.”

The study by Bendigeri and Olekar further mentioned, “AMRI Hospital tragedy in Kolkata has brought to light many gaping holes and there is undoubtedly much work needed by both government authorities and hospital board. The government should set up committees to draft new guidelines considering the gaps existing in the present system and incorporate best international practices…Negligence in performing duties and not adhering to compliance of norms resulted into such cruel act showcasing poor governance.”

Was there a gap in the system? Did SUM Hospital fail to follow the mandatory norms and blatantly violated them as in the case of AMRI Hospital?

It’s the high time government acted in this matter to ensure no patients die due to fire, while in deep sleep.

Bhubaneswar fire: Grim reminder of hospital admin’s negligence, lack of safety measures

View article –  Bhubaneswar fire: Grim reminder of hospital admin’s negligence, lack of safety measures

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