Asset Monetisation Short On Equity; PLA Wargame A Warning Shot

Govt ramps up facial recognition, Delhi leads world in CCTVs, Gujarat’s pandemic death rate ‘dubious world record’, 8 rights groups seek Pegasus probe, Covid sent by ‘God’s supercomputer’, says min

A newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas | Contributors: MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam | Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

Snapshot of the day

August 27, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

A recent joint operation drill in which the People’s Liberation Army in Tibet deployed more than 10 combat units to seize a battlefield from their ‘enemy’ on a peak in the Himalayas was designed to send a warning to India, reportsSouth China Morning Post. The Tibet Military District under the Western Theatre Command, which is responsible for China’s border with India, mobilised several brigades divided into two teams: the PLA and a rival “blue army”, according to a video aired on state broadcaster CCTV on Wednesday.

Eight rights and privacy groups have said that the Indian authorities should “immediately, independently, and credibly investigate the government’s alleged use of advanced spyware to target activists and apparent opponents.” They are Access Now, the International Commission of Jurists, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, PEN America, the Centre for Democracy and Technology, Civicus, and Human Rights Watch. They seek sweeping reforms to introduce judicial and parliamentary oversight of government surveillance, at par with international standards on privacy and other civil liberties.

Gujarat has a “dubious world record”: “The highest percentage increase in deaths recorded in a single month anywhere in the world, a rise higher than Ecuador’s 411 per cent spike during April 2020 and Peru’s 345 per cent swell during April 2021.” New work released yesterday by researchers at the Harvard TC Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Medical School and the University of California, Berkeley, found 480% extra deaths in Gujarat in April 2021, when daily new cases rose six-fold from 2,400 in early April to 14,000 by the end of the month. The Union Health Secretary said yesterday that India is still in the middle of the second wave. It isn’t over yet.

The ‘Warren Buffet indicator’, the ratio of market capitalisation to GDP, is dangerously high at 104%, say market watchers. Anything over 100 is. “Delayed revival in corporate earnings and a potential third wave remain key risks to the ongoing up move in Indian stocks”, reports Livemint, quoting experts.

Calling it an attack on the freedom of the press, the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh has quashed an FIR against journalist Asif Iqbal Naik, who had reported on custodial torture by police in the region. “No fetters can be placed on the freedom of press by registering the FIR against a reporter, who was performing his professional duty by publishing a news item on the basis of information obtained by him from an identifiable source,” the court said, adding that press freedoms were “vital for the functioning of any democratic country”. Naik had reported in April on a victim, Kishtwar resident Akhtar Hussain Hajam, in the Early Times, Jammu.

The Allahabad High Court has quashed all criminal proceedings against Dr Kafeel Khan over his speech about CAA and NRC at a protest meeting at Aligarh Muslim University in December 2019. Khan had spent seven and a half months in jail in Mathura after a case was registered by the UP Police, and the National Security Act was invoked. The court had observed that the speech delivered by Dr Khan was a call for national integration. Last year, it had ended his detention under the NSA.

The Supreme Court yesterday asked the Centre whether it can immediately release funds from the PM-Cares Fund for the education of children who have lost parents or guardians to the pandemic. A two-judge Bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao and Aniruddha Bose underlined the need for children to be in school, since education is a fundamental right. PM-Cares, which denies being a public body, operates in complete opacity, and has mopped up public funds. Four days after it was established, it had a corpus of Rs 3,076 crore, of which Rs 3,075.85 crore was listed as “voluntary contributions”.

A hundred and fifty interns of GMERS Medical College in Gujarat’s Junagadh who were on strike for non-payment of the Covid allowance they were promised, have been suspended and marked absent, says the Gujarat Intern Doctors’ Association. Four months’ allowance is pending.

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation yesterday allowed the Boeing 737 Max to take to the Indian skies again. The model was grounded worldwide in March 2019 after two crashes in a short span of five months, shortly after takeoff. Errors generated in the automated safety system by angle of attack sensors could not be manually overridden. Hurried development may have brought on the problem. 

BBC has a fascinating report on Indian-American gay couples in the US who cannot marry traditionally. They are finding novel ways to solemnise their partnerships.

Yahoo! India in a response to the new and controversial IT Rules for digital intermediaries has declared it is shutting down its India sites. No fresh content will be published. 

Reuters reports that former communications minister in the Afghan government Sayed Sadaat is now a bicycle delivery man in Leipzig. He moved to Germany in September 2020. 


The better to see you with

The government is ramping up its surveillance capabilities. Indian Railways has deployed a network of almost 500 facial recognition cameras to track millions of commuters, reports the Financial Times. Developed by Russian startup NtechLab, the network has been in use for a month at 30 railway stations in Gujarat and Maharashtra. NTech’s facial recognition projects in Russia are backed by the Kremlin, and state defence industry conglomerate Rostec has invested in them. In Moscow alone, the company has deployed more than 150,000 cameras for the city administration.

For five years, India has been escalating its use of video surveillance, including facial recognition, in at least 40 government-funded projects tracked by independent researchers at AI Observatory. An open tender has been issued for the integrated National Automated Facial Recognition System. Delhi has surpassed former front-runners London and Shanghai in CCTV coverage (see Prime Number below). 


Marital rape OK by Chhattisgarh HC 

Flying in the face of progressive rulings delivered by several courts and sending gender rights back to the Stone Age, the Chhattisgarh High Court has held that “sexual intercourse or sexual act by a man with his wife, the wife not being under 18 years of age, is not rape.” It has also observed that “unnatural sex” defined under Section 377 will be seen to constitute rape. 

India is among only 36 countries where marital rape is yet to be criminalised. The UN Committee on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in 2013 had recommended that India must “ensure that marital rape is defined as a criminal offence.” The Justice JS Verma committee set up in the wake of protests over the December 16, 2012 gang rape had concurred. 


Tamil Nadu sees communalism, caste behind syllabus-making

Delhi University’s decision to remove from its syllabus the works of Sukhartharini and Bama, Dalit authors from Tamil Nadu, has kicked up a political storm in the state, with Chief Minister MK Stalin issuing a strong statement against viewing everything through the lens of “politics of communalism”.  Stalin called upon the university and the Union government to immediately restore the works to the curriculum. 

A story by Mahasweta Devi was also removed. Sukhartharini said, “I am not surprised at all. I would only be surprised if my works continue to be part of the syllabus. I think this is what has been happening for a long time. I think caste has played a role in this decision.”


Gujarat HC refuses to reverse read-down of anti-conversion law

The Gujarat High Court yesterday turned down the state government’s plea to modify a recent order staying the operation of Section 5 of the new anti-conversion law. The Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act, 2021, which penalises forcible or fraudulent religious conversion through marriage, was notified by the BJP-led state government on June 15. Similar laws are in force in BJP-run Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

On August 19, the High Court stayed sections 3, 4, 4A to 4C, 5, 6 and 6A of the amended Act. They shall not operate if a marriage is solemnised between people of different religions “without force or by allurement or by fraudulent means”.


The Long Cable

By monetising, govt appropriating tomorrow’s revenues today, without compensating future generations

MK Venu

The Modi government does not seem to have fully thought through the myriad conceptual and operational problems it might face in its mega public asset monetisation programme to raise Rs 6 lakh crore over the next four years. Public assets in sectors like airports, railways, roads, power, ports, gas pipelines, mining and telecom have been built painstakingly with the taxpayer’s money over the past 70 years. Now suddenly, these assets, which form the nation’s backbone infrastructure, are being offered to private players via long term leases of 25-50 years. It is tantamount to the government fully appropriating today, future cash flows to accrue over 30-50 years from these assets. 

Whether it is 28,600 circuit km of power transmission lines run by Power Grid Corporation or 8,154 km of gas pipeline built by GAIL, or 160 coal mining projects ― which together are valued at close to Rs 1 lakh crore ― the government is offering these assets to private sector management on long lease but realising the entire bulk rental value today. On paper, the government says it will own the assets during the long lease period, which will be operated by the private sector. But effectively, they will be fully depreciated to zero value at the end of the period. 

The key conceptual issue here is this: the Modi government wants to appropriate at once all future earnings from assets owned by the taxpayer, but there is no clarity on the compensation offered to the taxpayer. Imagine that as a taxpayer, you own a small portion of a gas pipeline or mineral deposit. Your earnings from it for the next 30 years are being captured today by the government. What you get in return is not clear at all, except a vague promise that this money will be used to create more infrastructure assets. In a hugely mismanaged revenue deficit financing framework, a large part will go towards paying salaries and meeting other current expenditures. 

There is a major issue of inter-generational equity here. The government must clearly articulate it in an official document. How will the government compensate subsequent  generations if it appropriates all their future earnings today? A clear framework of inter-generational equity needs to be spelt out to justify such a massive monetisation of public assets, listing new assets to be created or promising national debt reduction. 

And what of implementation, PM Modi’s weakest link? The government has failed to achieve simple PSU divestment and privatisation targets so far. It is unable to find a buyer even for a blue chip oil company like BPCL. One can imagine what will happen in a complex 30-40 year outsourcing project to the private sector.

Big global pension funds refuse to buy into such a programme unless there is stability of long term contracts and assurance of independent regulation. The Niti Aayog has suggested forming sectoral Infrastructure Investment Trusts (INVITs) on the basis of the initial experience of leasing assets of Power Grid Corporation. 

The public assets will be transferred to a separate entity to be financed by such trusts, which will act like mutual funds in which global and local funds will have shares. However, global funds are demanding that their management should not be dominated by members of the public sector, which would create conflict of interest. Moreover, for fossil fuel assets like coal mines and hydro/thermal generation plants, there will be no long-term investors. Global finance is shunning such assets under their environment and social governance policies. 

In effect, perhaps four or five big corporate groups with access to bank funds will bid for airports, ports, coal mines, gas pipelines and power generation projects for long term lease operations. This could lead to massive wealth concentration even if the government remains nominally the owner. This is the point Rahul Gandhi has raised ― that these public assets may end up with a few corporate groups which already enjoy some degree of monopoly. 

There is also the larger question of political stability. If leasing is done without consensus ― as is the Modi government’s tendency ― a future government can renege on such contracts. The Modi government must take all stakeholders on board, whether it is the Opposition, trade unions, senior public sector staff or civil society in general. Seventy years’ worth of public assets cannot be leased out on a whim. 


Reportedly

In response to questions on the gang rape of a student in Mysuru, Karnataka’s ministers are walking from one insensitive and ridiculous statement to another. Yesterday, Tourism Minister Anand Singh said that “young lovers and newlywed couples should not go to secluded places”, echoing Home Minister Araga Jnanendra. Pilloried for it, he then said that the “Congress was raping” him.


Prime Number: 1826.6
Delhi has the highest number of CCTVs, 1826.6 cameras per square mile according to a Forbes global survey of cities. It is a dodgy distinction, but AAP leaders including the chief minister are flaunting it. 

Supreme Court may resume physical hearings

The Supreme Court may resume limited physical hearings in a hybrid mode from September 1 on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, when sessions are usually lengthy. Mondays and Fridays, when miscellaneous matters are heard, which remain completely virtual. Virtual hearings have been the default since March 2020, when the pandemic began.


India vaccines no good for Hong Kong entry

Indians resident in Hong Kong fully vaccinated in India are not eligible for direct entry. Hong Kong recognises only vaccination in countries on the World Health Organisation’s list of Stringent Regulatory Authorities. India is not among the 36 countries

Though the AstraZeneca vaccine is recognised by Hong Kong, people who have received Covishield, the Indian brand, must undergo a 21-day “washout” period in a third country which Hong Kong does not see as high-risk, followed by another 21-day quarantine in a Hong Kong hotel, reports The News Minute.


Deep Dive

The ‘Net Zero’ challenge for India: M Rajshekhar writes that “adding decarbonisation to the to-do list of a country already battling high emission levels, modest mitigation options, rising inequality and a slowing economy, is easier said than done – but necessary.”


Covid sent by ‘God’s supercomputer’

“Nature has decided who would get infected, who won’t and who would be taken away from Earth. A list on it is prepared in God’s computer. It’s not any normal man-made computer, but God’s own supercomputer. The computer decided on sending the Covid-19 virus to Earth with 2% mortality,” Chandra Mohan Patowary, who handles transport, industries and commerce and three other departments in the BJP-run Assam government, said in Kamrup on Wednesday. He also blamed the WHO for failing to find a cure for a “small virus”.


Neeraj Chopra counters right-wing propaganda

Neeraj Chopra, who brought India its first first Olympics gold medal in athletics, has earned widespread praise for snubbing bigots and asking people to not “further vested interests and propaganda”. Comments in a recent interview in The Times of India regarding Pakistan’s javelin thrower Arshad Nadeem at the Tokyo Olympics were misrepresented on social media and right-wing websites. 

Chopra had said that he wasn’t initially able to locate his javelin during the event because Nadeem had been “moving around” with it before his first throw. “Javelin throwers keep their personal javelins in one place before any event and all athletes can use them… it’s a rule. So obviously, it was not wrong of him to prepare with my javelin,” he clarified.


Opeds you don’t want to miss


Listen up

Head of the Sport Business Insights Group at Victoria University, Melbourne, Hans Westerbeek speaks on The Hindu’s ‘In Focus’ podcast on how to spend on sport. If neither the economy nor the people are in good health, the focus should not be on a few medal-winners, but on using sport creatively to strengthen social bonds and build appreciation for physical activity.


Watch Out

Watch Rana Banerji, the encyclopaedic former special secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat in charge of Pakistan, flesh out details of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the role of Pakistan, and their implications.

Over and out

Despite several hits, actor Emraan Hashmi says he regrets the tag of “serial kisser”.

‘Rehman Music Sheets’, on AR Rehman’s three-decade dominance of the popular film music scene, kicked off yesterday on YouTube. The first episode features Mani Ratnam, who recruited him for his runaway hit Roja.

India has always been a solid market for Swedish supergroup ABBA. Indians of a certain vintage look forward to their first release in 39 years, announced on a tantalising website. Due out on September 2. Thank you for the music!

That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you tomorrow, on a device near you. If The India Cable was forwarded to you by a friend (perhaps a common friend!) book your own copy by SUBSCRIBING HERE.