Government Questions 'Methodology’ of All Adverse Reports; 'Missing EVMs' Controversy Resurfaces
Rana Ayyub grounded at airport, sunflower oil prices to soar, SBI faces HR crisis, govt taxes crypto exchanges, Kaziranga rhino count grows and Kim Stanley Robinson’s cli-fi dystopia set in UP
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
March 30, 2022
After spending several months in jail for the “crime” of cheering the Pakistani cricket team for its victory over the Indian team last October, three Kashmiri students in Agra have finally been granted bail by the Allahabad high court. Their ordeal has not ended – the charges against them remain – and their fate is not unique. Just a few days ago, a Muslim woman in Karnataka was booked and jailed for greeting the people of Pakistan on their republic day.
Mumbai-based journalist Rana Ayyub was yesterday prevented from flying to London to address an event organised by the International Centre for Journalism on online harassment of women journalists. She was also slated to deliver the keynote speech on Indian democracy at the International Journalism Festival in Italy. She alleges that she had announced these engagements weeks ago, “yet the ED (Enforcement Directorate) summons very curiously arrived in my inbox after I was stopped.” She was to speak on the absence of freedoms ― especially journalistic ― in India. Being stopped at the airport illustrates precisely that. Several leading journalists saw this as an example of all that is wrong with Indian democracy, as it attacks individuals who do not toe the line and treats journalism, dissent and criticism as crimes. Reporters Sans Frontieres has objected strongly and called for “an immediate lifting of these restrictions.”
“You will be shocked to know about missing EVMs. Reports as given to RTI activists by BEL that 9,64,270 EVMs and by Electronics Corporation of India (ECIL) that 9,29,992 EVMs are missing and not returned. Almost 19 lakh EVMs are missing and nobody knows where they have gone! Can these EVMs be operated again? How are you keeping quiet?,” Congress MLA HK Patil raised this query during a debate in the Karnataka Assembly yesterday. Speaker Vishweshwar Hegde Kageri told the Assembly that he would use his office to seek an explanation from the Election Commission about the 19 lakh "missing" EVMs. The issue first surfaced in 2019 when Frontline reported the story. The Election Commission of India’s response was to suggest the missing machines were with the state election commissions, even though BEL and ECIL’s RTI replies clearly stated that the EVMs had been supplied to the ECI.
Just ahead of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to India this week, the Biden administration is sending its chief strategist on sanctions against Russia, Deputy National Security Adviser Daleep Singh. Singh is due in Delhi for meetings on Thursday, while Lavrov will meet External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and other officials on Friday. The US Deputy NSA’s visit also coincides with that of British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who will hold meetings at South Block and address a think tank event jointly with Jaishankar on Thursday. Meanwhile, the EU said that it was “not pleased” by India’s votes of abstention at the UN on Ukraine resolutions, but believes that they continue to share the same values on the global order. EU’s special envoy on the Indo-Pacific Gabriele Visentin also said that “a bolder stance is needed from all democracies.”
On April 11, India and the US will hold their first dialogue in the 2+2 format since the Biden presidency began. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar will meet US counterparts Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Meanwhile, there is more trouble for the confirmation of the Biden administration’s designated US Ambassador to India, Eric Garcetti, with even some Democratic senators unsure about his nomination, reports Politico. His confirmation has been formally put on hold by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley.
Before this month is over, the Union government proposes to sell up to 1.5% of its stake in the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) to raise Rs 3,000 crore. That the offer will be open on March 30-31 was made known by India's premium oil and gas producer in a stock exchange filing yesterday.
A sharp rise in international coal prices in the last one year is causing electricity generation and distribution companies such as Tata Power and Adani Electricity to raise tariffs from the next financial year for Mumbai consumers, reports Business Standard. Tata Power is likely to raise its electricity tariff by Rs 1.10 a unit while Adani consumers are facing a marginal hike of Rs 0.15-0.25.
Adani Gas has raised compressed natural gas (CNG) prices in Ahmedabad by 37% while Gujarat Gas has increased rates in all its operating areas in Gujarat by 30%. CNG prices have risen sharply in the rest of the country too in the past six months, on the back of a push by city gas distributors to cover their increased cost and maintain strong profit margins.
India will set up hybrid power projects by providing grants in three islands off Jaffna, effectively replacing the Chinese loan-based venture cleared by Colombo last year. This is the third Indian energy project coming up in Sri Lanka’s north and east, after the recent agreements for National Thermal Power Corporation’s solar venture in the eastern Sampur town, and the Adani Group’s renewable energy projects in Mannar and Pooneryn in the north. The Hindu reports that a media clarification issued by Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defence has brought to light two recent defence pacts it has signed with India that neither side officially announced till date. It referred to the “receipt of the Floating Dock Facility from the Government of India at no cost” and the provision of “Dornier Reconnaissance Aircraft” by India to Sri Lanka “free of charge”.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT has questioned Facebook officials over allegations that its ad algorithm unfairly promotes one political party, the BJP. It was also confronted with claims that it rewards hate content and lacks Indian language experts for platform integrity. Facebook is said to have told the panel that the algorithm runs independently and does not differentiate between political and non-political ads. The Reporters’ Collective and ad.watch analysed data of 5,36,070 political advertisements placed on Facebook and Instagram from February 2019 to November 2020, and concluded that Facebook’s “advertising platform systematically undercut the political competition in the world’s largest electoral democracy, giving an unfair advantage to the BJP.”
Researchers have cast doubt over the legitimacy of rising pro-Russian posts on Indian Twitter after the Ukraine conflict, reports the New York Times. The prevalence of accounts claiming to be from Indian users indicates that India’s social media landscape has become an important destination in the effort to influence public opinion of the war in Ukraine. The massive support for Putin in its anti-US commentary from Hindutva Right Wing media outlets in India has caught the attention of the Washington Post as well.
The government yesterday avoided a direct reply to a question in the Lok Sabha on whether WhatsApp conversations and other digital information could be tapped by its agencies, just saying that only authorised law enforcement agencies were empowered to intercept, monitor or decrypt any digital information as per provisions of IT Act.
The government does not see tanking demand as a crisis, but others do. The ratings agency Icra yesterday sharply lowered India’s economic growth forecast for FY2022-23 to 7.2% from 8%, as rising fuel and commodity prices “are expected to impact domestic demand.”
The BJP government in Karnataka has cited the Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowments Act to justify debarring non-Hindu traders from temple fairs. But most experts say this is a “deliberate misinterpretation” and cannot stand the test of law, if the courts are fair arbiters.
The State Bank of India, India’s biggest, is apparently in dire straits. Employees are suffering severe stress because of the management’s arbitrary decisions. A senior human resource executive of the bank has been forced to write to all local head offices, expressing grave concern at the violation of basic principles of HR policy and demanding to know whether the regions have initiated corrective measures.
The Internet Freedom Foundation has a deeply disturbing ready reckoner on the Criminal Procedure (Identification) Bill 2022.
A Delhi court has granted bail to Aumkareshwar Thakur, accused of creating the Sulli Deals app on Github, which conducted mock auctions of Muslim women. “Accused is a first-time offender and a young person. As such, prolonged incarceration would be detrimental to his overall wellbeing,” reasoned the court. According to the Delhi Police, bail was also granted to Neeraj Bishnoi, alleged to be the conspirator, and creator of the Bulli Bai app.
The numbers of the greater one–horned Indian rhinoceros in Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve have increased by 200 in four years, the latest census has revealed. The last rhino census conducted in 2018 had put the number at 2,413.
The Lucknow-based Army Central Command hosted a two-day exercise yesterday and today, in which the Northern and Eastern Army Commanders, besides those of the Western Air Command and the Eastern Air Command, participated. The Army Chief is present there today, in what is seen as an exercise to take stock of the security situation along the LAC and strategies in place, as well as areas which need more attention.
Indian startup founders are flocking to Chile, reports restofworld.org. It finds that “some entrepreneurs from India see Chile as a launchpad into the US market, but many are just as happy to stay in Latin America.”
Seven Indian-origin persons have been charged by US federal authorities with insider trading in a scheme through which they made over a million dollars in illegal profits. Hari Prasad Sure, Lokesh Lagudu and Chotu Prabhu Tej Pulagam are friends and worked as software engineers at Twilio, a San Francisco-based cloud computing communications firm, said the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Former Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli saw his brand value drop by 21% to $185.7 million in 2021. However, he still topped the rankings in a new survey of most valuable Indian celebrities by consultant Duff & Phelps. Actor Ranveer Singh jumped to second spot this year, with a brand valuation of $158 million, followed by Akshay Kumar, Alia Bhatt and MS Dhoni. Olympic silver medallist PV Sindhu was ranked 20th.