Attorney General Confirms Sedition Law Under Review; In India, Musk's Bird Will Not Fly Free
Rs 1 trillion duty shortfall, India-China trade shows under-invoicing, RBI test flights digital rupee, JJ Irani dead, Byju’s founder regretfully seeks profit, Northeast disarmed to save Amur falcon
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
November 1, 2022
“The raw material used for repairing the bridge can only be produced by a specialised company. Nothing is happening to this bridge for at least 8-10 years,” Oreva Group MD Jaysukhbhai Patel had said on October 26, while inaugurating the “repaired” Jhoolta Pull in Gujarat’s Morbi. Four days later, the bridge collapsed. Ahmedabad-based Oreva won the tender for repair and maintenance in June 2020 and work began seven months ago. While the FIR does not mention the Oreva Group, nine of its junior officials were arrested by the Morbi police on October 31. The bridge was “inaugurated” by Patel, with his family in attendance, on October 26, the Gujarati New Year.
Sandipsinh Zala, Chief Officer of the Morbi Municipal Corporation, claimed that the body “only found out that the bridge was functional on October 29… This is a huge municipality. We cannot be in the know of everything that happens here.” With a population of 2 lakh, Morbi covers 46.58 sq km. But the Oreva group re-inaugurated the bridge on October 26 with heavy media coverage. Later, a company spokesperson told the media that the bridge collapsed because there were “far too many people on it, more than its approved capacity.” The Oreva Group is responsible for selling tickets and preventing crowding on the bridge.
The Centre is staring at a combined shortfall of up to Rs 1 trillion in excise and customs revenues in FY23, mainly because of duty cuts on edible oil and petroleum products. The Budget had set a target of Rs 3.35 trillion for excise and Rs 2.13 trillion for customs.
The rupee has been falling for 10 months versus the dollar, its longest losing streak since 1985. It depreciated 1.8% in October. The last positive month was December 2021. It’s now on course for its worst annual performance in almost a decade, and it would have been worse without the RBI’s intervention.
China has claimed that bilateral trade with India was $103 billion in the first nine months of 2022, but India’s data shows just $91 billion. Trade experts attribute the gap to under-invoicing of shipments by Indian importers to avoid duties. India’s imports from a partner country cannot be equal to its exports to India, which is free on board (FoB), whereas imports include cost, insurance, and freight (CIF), and should be higher. However, it is the reverse with China.
Attorney General R Venkataramani yesterday told the Supreme Court that the Centre is in the process of reviewing criminal laws, including Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (sedition), and “something may happen in the winter session of Parliament”. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, also appearing for the Centre, submitted that chief secretaries had been directed to stop filing new cases under the law and hold current cases in abeyance.
DIGIPUB India, a collective of independent digital news portals, has strongly condemned Delhi Police searches in the homes of the editors of The Wire following a complaint of criminal defamation filed by BJP IT cell chief Amit Malviya. The statement expressed serious concern about the danger of these searches “being used as an excuse to seize and duplicate confidential and sensitive data held by The Wire.” The association also said that the investigation could become “a tool to further worsen the already fraught state of journalism in India”. Other senior journalists have spoken up. “All democrats must share our deep concern over the Delhi Police’s reported ‘search’ of the residences & devices of The Wire’s Siddharth Varadarajan and MK Venu,” said N Ram, among others. The devices of Founding Editor Sidharth Bhatia, Deputy Editor Jahnavi Sen and of product-cum-business head, Mithun Kidambi, along with those of Varadarajan and Venu, have been seized. The seizure from Kidambi began at 2.30 am this morning and lasted till 5 am. The Wire’s statement said that editors and staffers cooperated fully but all devices and hard disks were seized without sharing their hash values – a unique string used to validate the integrity of a device and its data.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has said he supports a caste-based census and making public the data of the Other Backward Classes. In Kothur, Telangana, he said the socio-economic caste-based census was introduced by the Congress and it is important for people to understand the composition of the Indian population. He said there is high anti-incumbency in Gujarat and the AAP presence is just sound and fury, giving the advantage to the Congress.
BBC Hindi underscores the ‘election connection’ to parole and furloughs granted to Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim, who has been in jail since 2017, convicted of rape and murder.
Russia dominated Saudi Arabia as the world’s fastest-growing major supplier of fossil fuels in October, relegating the kingdom to third place. Iraq was India’s top oil supplier, according to data from Vortexa. Saudi Arabia’s decline in India’s oil market has coincided with Russia’s rise, and ironically occurred amid growing diplomatic ties between Riyadh and New Delhi. Russian oil has become the mainstay of Indian refiners in only six months. It took decades for West Asian suppliers to do that.
The Competition Commission of India, in the news most recently for hefty fines imposed on Google, is headless. It has an acting chairperson and is short-staffed. In addition to the chairperson, the CCI needs two members for the quorum required for taking key decisions.
More than three days after violence broke out at a rally organised by a tribal organisation in Shillong on October 28, no arrests have been made, though Meghalaya Deputy Chief Minister Prestone Tynsong had said the police would take “necessary steps”. The rally against unemployment was organised in central Shillong by the Federation of Khasi, Jaintia and Garo People. Protestors in masks attacked passers-by. “Ha ri la jong, katba mon!” they shouted in Khasi. “In my own land, I can do as I wish to.” An eyewitness told Scroll.in that the protestors targeted non-tribal residents. A similar rally was held on October 20. Assembly elections are due early next year.
After a meeting of the All India Islamic Madrasah affiliated with Darul Uloom Deoband, President of the Jamiat Ulama i Hind Maulana Arshad Madani told the media that they were not against modern education at all. “We also want the children of our nation to become engineers, scientists, lawyers and doctors. They should prepare for appearing in competitive exams and get success, but we also want our child to learn religion and its beliefs first because just like the nation needs doctors, lawyers, barristers and engineers everywhere in life, in the same way, our nation needs a better Mufti and a better religious scholar.” Madani said madrasas did not want government aid. He asserted the nationalist credentials of Madrasas by speaking of their role in the freedom struggle.
Edtech unicorn Byju’s founder sought forgiveness from 2,500 employees in the firing line as he seeks profitability by the end of FY23. “I realise that there is a huge price to pay for walking on this path to profitability,” Byju Raveendran wrote in an internal letter. “I am truly sorry to those who will have to leave Byju’s.” The Bengaluru-based unicorn has been facing backlash from employees laid off recently. Byju’s did not respond to a query from Mint.
Kalanamak is a traditional variety of paddy with a black husk and a strong fragrance, and is regarded as a gift from Lord Buddha to the people of Sravasti when he visited the region after enlightenment. The Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI) has successfully tested two new dwarf varieties — Pusa Narendra Kalanamak 1638 and Pusa Narendra Kalanamak 1652. Talk about having your name written on a grain of rice! But IARI has said that the new name is in recognition of the institute’s association with the Acharya Narendra Dev University of Agriculture and Technology in Ayodhya, where the two varieties were tested.
Jamshed J Irani (86), the steel man of India, died in Jamshedpur late last night, according to Tata Steel. Irani was associated with Tata Steel for over four decades. He retired from its board in June 2011.
Company filings by Punjab National Bank reveal that its profits in the second-quarter have declined by 63%; they are at Rs 411 crore, down from Rs 1,105 crore in the same quarter a year ago. Tata Steel yesterday posted a 90% fall in net profit for the quarter ended September. Wal-Mart India, which operates Best Price Flipkart wholesale stores, suffered losses mounting to Rs 299.01 crore in FY22 despite revenue growth. The company, in which Flipkart acquired 100% interest in July 2020, reported a net loss of Rs 200.80 crore in FY21.
Many Indians have been raving about ‘Indian-origin’ persons holding high office in the UK, but resurrected Home Secretary Suella Braverman remains deeply controversial and her position looks increasingly untenable. Yesterday, she admitted that she sent official communications from her government email account to her personal ID six times while home secretary in the Liz Truss administration between September 6 and October 19.
Two poll-related pleas to be heard
The Supreme Court yesterday agreed to examine a plea challenging the Centre’s decision that enables linking electoral roll data with Aadhaar. Justices SK Kaul and Abhay S Oka tagged the petition filed by Major General SG Vombatkere (retd.) with a similar pending matter. “Petitioner has drawn attention to 2019 Aadhaar judgement to contend that only if some benefit is sought to be conferred then Aadhaar can be mandatory but not to deny rights, and the right to vote is the highest of such rights.”
The apex court will examine another petition challenging a provision in election law that disbars undertrials, persons confined in civil prisons and convicts serving their sentence in jail from casting their votes, while convicts out on bail can vote.
Falling freight volume shows economic activity down
Select weekly indicators of economic activity declined towards the end of October, Business Standard reports. The Railways carried less goods in the last week than in the corresponding period last year. Freight volume declined 2.68% year-on-year, compared with a 1.96% growth in the previous week. Freight revenue grew 2.32% in the last week, compared to 10.54% previously. The number of air passengers dipped to around 360,000 on a seven-day moving average basis as of Sunday.
The government has sharply raised the base import prices of crude and refined palm oil and crude soya oil, as global prices jumped. The government revises base import prices of edible oils, gold and silver every fortnight, and the prices are used to calculate import tax. India is the world’s biggest importer of edible oils and silver and the second-biggest consumer of gold.
RBI to test-fly digital rupee today
The RBI will commence the first pilot of the central bank digital currency (CBDC) – the digital rupee – for the wholesale segment from today, for settling secondary market transactions in government securities. It said that the use of the digital rupee is expected to make the interbank market more efficient, as settlement in central bank money will reduce transaction costs by pre-empting the need for settlement guarantee infrastructure and collateral.
“Other wholesale transactions and cross-border payments will be the focus of future pilots, based on the learnings from this pilot,” the RBI said. Nine banks will participate in this pilot.
Northeast disarmed to save Amur falcons
Officials in the Northeast have banned the use of guns and airguns and confiscated catapults and nets to safeguard the small Amur falcon, which makes an autumn pit stop on their way to sunny South Africa. Forest officers patrolled Assam, Nagaland and Manipur states to make sure no one disturbs the raptors, which were widely hunted by locals. Huge fishing nets used to be stretched from trees across rivers to trap the birds, or they were shot. Thousands were harvested every day for sale and consumption in roasts and curries. In 2012, Conservation India estimated that 12,000 falcons were being killed every day during the peak of the migration.
Their arrival is a spectacular sight, with huge flocks darkening the skies, tired after the long flight from Russia and China. After a break of a few weeks, they fly non-stop across the Arabian Sea – eating insects while in flight – to reach southern Africa, more than 10,000 km away.
The Long Cable
Watch the birdie!
On Friday, as he launched sweeping changes after taking control of Twitter, Elon Musk tweeted: “The bird is freed.” Musk is a free speech absolutist, but the internet is no longer the digital Wild West of the 1990s, a space apart from real life where the frontier spirit was upheld by vertical men on a horizontal landscape. Now, all the dreadful baggage of the real world, which robs vertical men of agency, has leaked into the internet ― banks, insurers, schools, armies, the police, rules, regulations, etiquette, propriety. Freedom is now boxed in. It’s meaningful only within a context limited by lines which cannot be crossed.
Musk immediately earned a dressing down from Thierry Breton, the European Commission’s internet market commissioner, who tweeted back:
And ironically, that very day, the Indian government notified the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules, 2022, which permit it to comprehensively censor social media, including Twitter. The purpose of the rules, which were released for public discussion on July 6, is to contain Big Tech. Stakeholders had objected, pointing out that they amount to censorship.
Here’s how it might play out: Permanently aggrieved Uncle takes offence at a post, complains to the grievance officer of the social media intermediary (Twitter, for instance), and is told that the post is within the platform’s tolerance limits. Earlier, that would have been the end of the story, unless Uncle took the matter to court. Now, however, Uncle can approach a Grievance Appellate Committee made up of three government appointees, “one of whom will be a member ex-officio and two independent members,” who can instruct the platform to respect his hurt sentiments and take down content.
Originally, the Rules had envisaged a single appellate body. But the version notified says that the government can constitute as many as it wants ― all made up of government appointees. No other form of recruitment to the appellate bodies is contemplated.
When Musk ejected former Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal, many Indians hoped that it was a turn for the better, because Agrawal was perceived to have bucked to the takedown demands of the Modi government ― which, incidentally, leads the world triumphantly in this category even if it falters in other metrics, such as the freedom of the press. In April last year, for instance, as Covid cases soared, India requested the takedown of tweets criticising its pandemic management.
However, with the amended IT rules notified on Friday, and with babu-led triumvirates soon to fan out in all directions, such requests will be redundant. The freedom of speech is now relative to local frames of reference. The Continent is scrupulously pragmatic in striking a balance between the right to free speech and community interest. But in India, the frame has sagged dangerously out of true, and the right to question the government and the ruling party (no distinction remains) and their commitment to the public interest, is automatically regarded as criminal. India’s frame looks like a cage within which Elon Musk’s little birdie cannot be free, no matter how hard he watches it.
The PM is in Morbi today, to meet those injured in the collapse of the suspension bridge. But the sky show, photo-ops and campaigning continued all day yesterday, drawing appalled criticism. Glimpses of the air show by the aerobatic team of Indian Air Force at the Rashtriya Ekta Diwas Parade in Ekta Nagar, Kevadia were run by Prasar Bharati, hours after and a few kilometres away from the site of the tragedy. Accountability? Nine persons of the Oreva Group were arrested: two managers, two contractors, three security guards and two ticket window clerks. And yesterday, the Gujarat government repainted and repaired the Morbi Civil Hospital before the Prime Minister's visit. Priorities, when over 140 persons are dead!
Prime Number: 3
Umar Javeed, Aaqib and Sukarma Thapar forced Google to cough up a fine of Rs 1,338 crore for abusing its dominant market position due to Android. At the time, Javeed and Thapar were research associates with the Competition Commission of India, and Umar’s younger brother Aaqib was studying law at the University of Kashmir. Read this IANS story here.
The rapid rise in popularity of Ambedkarite Buddhism in India is an interesting and relatively little-known phenomenon. It’s only 66 years old, and 87% of Buddhists pledge allegiance to it.
Opeds you don’t want to miss
Sonia Gandhi married for love but over time, a sense of duty has guided her life, writes Vir Sanghvi.
Dhirendra K Jha writes on the unmissable mainstreaming of the Hindu Right’s hatred for Muslims.
A short-sighted view of development is seen in the government’s reluctance to enforce its pollution control law and its keenness to dilute regulatory scrutiny of emitters, writes Shibani Ghosh.
Madan Sabnavis writes that policymakers cannot bask in the comfort of 7% GDP growth. A slowdown in the West will seep through and ultimately harm India’s growth prospects.
A vaguely defined multi-aligned strategic convergence sounds good, but it isn’t if India remains unable to define its interests in foreign policy and trade, writes Deepanshu Mohan.
Shubhomoy Bhattacharjee lists the reasons for India to be dismayed about the global Financial Action Task Force (FATF) taking the pressure off Pakistan.
CP Chandrasekhar and Jayati Ghosh explain why the rapid depletion in RBI’s forex reserves by over $100 billion is worrying.
Shoaib Daniyal writes that the BJP’s strong push for even more Hindi in government jobs and educational institutions reinforces the trend of advantaging people whose mother tongue is Hindi, and attempting to shut out non-Hindi speakers from jobs.
For BCCI, the same match fees for less than two dozen elite women players makes for superb optics, writes Sharda Ugra. How about higher central contracts for the elite women’s game? Why not start with domestic contracts for men and women together, and equal match fees as in New Zealand?
Should governments sell liquor and run lotteries? Nimai Mehta, an economist and statistician at the American University, Washington, DC and Jayan Jose Thomas, a professor of economics at IIT-Delhi, discuss the ever-contentious issue with Prashanth Perumal.
World renowned band Gypsy Kings traced their roots to Rajasthan, and visited India to jam with the source of their music ― Rajasthani musicians. Here’s an impromptu jam in Delhi.
Over and out
Jodhpur’s Abdul Sattar Biba, the 64-year-old bangle seller who runs popular Bibaji Churi Wale, speaks of the hands he has held. His tiny shop, which specialises in lacquer and glass bangles, is one of the repositories of Rajasthani culture and its deep syncretic roots.
Rishi Sunak’s wife Akshata Murty is not only heiress to a fortune but has also lived a life divided between three continents. BBC News spoke to some of the people “she has rubbed shoulders with along the way.”
Meet Sriram Krishnan, the Indian techie helping billionaire Elon Musk with Twitter.
Namma Yatri, the ride-hailing app put together by Bengaluru’s auto-rickshaw drivers to take on Uber and Ola, officially launched today in what Deccan Herald calls “a David vs Goliath battle”.
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