Govt Knew Law Didn't Allow Regulation of Online News Content; Cinema Faces Vigilante Censorship

Plus: In pandemic, only 22% schools had internet, SG's tea but no chat for Adhikari, LoC ceasefire brings peace, Indians saving less, Delhi HC supports strays, and hottest places to not be at in India

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
July 2, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Throughout the fracas over the new Information Technology Rules relating to content regulation, a number of critics have argued in court that they are without legal force. Following an RTI query, The Morning Context finds that the critics are right ― while the government insists that the rules flow from the Information Technology Act 2000, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the Intelligence Bureau have stated in official documents that no law empowered the Union government to regulate online content. The ministry had written of the need for fresh legislation, but it was ignored and then took a U-turn. The IT Rules are controversial because they allow the Union government to compel media responses to ‘grievances’, adjudicate on them and even order the takedown of news.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta is in the eye of a storm following reports that BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari – a defector from the Trinamool Congress – might have met him. Any meeting would be highly inappropriate given that Mehta represents the CBI, which is probing cases where Adhikari’s name has also figured. Mehta issued a statement on Friday acknowledging that Adhikari came to his office but said he was given a cup of tea and sent off without a meeting. However, the very fact that Adhikari – now the BJP’s top man in Bengal – tried to meet Mehta does not reflect well on the ‘anti-corruption’ credentials of his party.

Zydus Cadila has applied for emergency use approval of its indigenously developed Covid vaccine, which showed a 66.6% efficacy in an interim analysis. It is also evaluating a two-dose regimen and the immunogenicity results of the shorter course were found to be comparable with that of a three-dose regimen. The drug regulator has refused to grant emergency use authorisation to the single-dose Covid-19 vaccine Sputnik-Light, while ruling out the need for conducting a phase-3 trial in the country.

The WHO says that Covid-19 vaccines authorised by it for emergency use should be recognised by countries as they open their borders to inoculated travellers. The move could challenge Western countries to broaden their acceptance of two apparently less effective Chinese vaccines, which the UN health agency has licensed but most European and North American countries have not. 

Indian news reports claim that under pressure from India, nine European countries ― Austria, Germany, Slovenia, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Spain, Switzerland and Estonia ― have decided to accept Covishield, as and when they open their borders to citizens of countries hit by deadly Covid variants. But a fact check by SchengenVisaInfo claims that only five will admit visitors vaccinated with products still not recognised by the European Medicine Authority. That includes Covishield.

Meanwhile, Delta, the variant first discovered in India, is all over Africa, where just a little over 1% are vaccinated. It has been detected in 97% of samples in Uganda and 79% in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Cases in Africa are rising by 25% every week. “The speed and scale of Africa’s third wave is like nothing we’ve seen before. Rampant spread of contagious variants pushes the threat up to a whole new level,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s Regional Director for Africa. The opening ceremony of the Olympics is about three weeks away, and Tokyo is witnessing a surge in Delta cases. Kazuhiro Tateda, president of the Japan Association of Infectious Diseases and a government adviser, says it’s “very, very worrying”.

New project investments in India were down 13% in the June quarter, falling back from the bump in the preceding quarter, CMIE data shows. Public sector projects took a bigger blow than the private sector. The Economic Times reports, quoting data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, that the rural unemployment rate fell by around 2% in May, and that data on e-waybills, power consumption and “mobility indicators” suggest an uptick in June. And work generated under NREGA – the rural safety net for the indigent – was the lowest in three months.   

Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait has spoken sharply of surging prices, and accused the government of being run by industrialists. Hikes in the price of LPG cylinders and milk, not to speak of almost daily rises in auto fuel prices, have attacked shrinking incomes during the pandemic.

Stating that animals have a right to be treated with compassion, respect and dignity, the Delhi High Court has asked the Animal Welfare Board of India to designate areas in consultation with Resident Welfare Associations, where dogs can be fed in the national capital. The court has said that it is the moral responsibility of every citizen to protect animals. The court also directed the board to ensure that every RWA in Delhi constitutes an Animal Welfare Committee.

Petrol prices were hiked again today. Fuel rates are on fire and have gone past the Rs 100 per litre mark in more cities across the country. Of the 730 districts, there are now 332 districts where petrol is selling at a price beyond Rs 100 per litre.

And four years after a notice was issued by the city corporation, Amitabh Bachchan’s bungalow plot in Juhu will lose a bit of territory to a road widening project. 


School-going India falls into the digital divide 

In the academic year that began and ended with schools closed due to Covid-19, only 22% of schools in India had Internet facilities, according to data released by the Education Ministry. Among government schools, less than 12% had access to the net in 2019-20, while less than 30% had functional computer facilities. In Assam (13%), Madhya Pradesh (13%), Bihar (14%), West Bengal (14%), Tripura (15%) and Uttar Pradesh (18%), less than one in five schools had working computers. Government schools are way on the wrong side of the digital divide, with less than 5% of UP’s having the facility. Just three states — Kerala (88%), Delhi (86%) and Gujarat (71%) — have Internet in more than half their schools. 


No review of SC’s backward classes judgment

The Supreme Court has dismissed the Union government’s review plea against its verdict on the power of state governments to add new communities to the list of ‘backward classes’ entitled to reservation. A five-judge bench headed by Justice Ashok Bhushan said, “We have gone through the review petition filed against the judgment dated May 5, in Writ Petition. The grounds taken do not fall within the limited ground on which review petition can be considered.” The issue at hand is Maharashtra’s decision to provide reservation for Marathas, invalidated by the court, on the grounds that the 102nd amendment to the Constitution, introduced by Narendra Modi in 2018, had taken away this power from the states. The Modi government argued that this was not the case but must now live with the reality that its poor drafting is to blame for the undoing of Maratha reservation – an initiative the erstwhile BJP-led government of Devendra Fadnavis had taken in 2018.


Vaccination rate slumps

India’s vaccination programme has slumped again in the last three days with 41 lakh vaccinations being carried out on Thursday (till 8 pm) preceded by 27.54 lakhs and 36.46 lakhs in the preceding two days. On June 21, when the new vaccination regime kicked in, nearly 91 lakh doses were administered, followed by more than 60 lakh doses for four days and over 50 lakh doses on two days. The Sunday that intervened processed only 17.15 lakh doses. Even if they maintain their latest pace of vaccination, 10 of the 15 most populous states will take three to nine months to give the equivalent of one dose to their entire population above the age of 18. Thirteen of them will take six to 19 months to administer two doses.

For July, the Centre has earmarked 12 crore doses – 10 crore of Covishield and 2 crore of Covaxin – for the states. The allocation spells a daily vaccination rate of about 40 lakh, which is significantly lower than the government’s target of 1 crore vaccinations every day to cover the target population of 94.47 crore with both doses. In an affidavit in the Supreme Court, the government said the 12 crore doses would include 3 crore for the private sector, but Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan tweeted that they would be “over and above'' the 12 crore.  

The Times of India reports that in comparison with “other large Asian countries (both economy and size of population)”, India’s Covid deaths per million is among the highest.


No infiltration across LoC, less violence in Kashmir

Nearly four months after India and Pakistan agreed to “strictly observe all agreements on ceasefire” along the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir, Army Chief General MM Naravane has confirmed there had been a marked change since the ceasefire agreement ― there had been no infiltration from across the LoC and all the parameters of violence in Kashmir had dropped. On China, the Army chief said the developments along our northern borders during the past year are a stark reminder that in order to preserve our territorial integrity, the armed forces must continually prepare and adapt to the exigencies of modern wars. He also said that there was an environment of trust between the two sides due to talks at military and diplomatic level.


Household savings take a hit

The Centre for Economic Data and Analysis at Ashoka University looks at the categories of gold, business and real estate, using CMIE data for year on year changes at a quarterly level. The data for these three categories demonstrates a broad decline in intention to save in these instruments since October-December 2019. This means the process of economic recovery will be tougher than was evident from income data.


The Long Cable

I&B proposes vigilante censorship to purge cinema of reality 

Sidharth Bhatia

The Union government is escalating its efforts to go after the Indian film industry and control maverick filmmakers who don’t toe the official line. A series of steps have been initiated with little or no consultation with the stakeholders or parliamentary debate, that will inhibit producers and directors from making films that reflect social realities.

A new proposal mooted by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry will allow the government to hold back a censored film, even if it is passed by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), on the basis of “public complaints”, an astounding and clumsy attempt to manage and control content. There is no dearth in India of busybodies and vigilantes who are quick to take offence and lodge a complaint with official bodies and courts. Some of them are backed by community and political organisations. More often than not, the producer, who has invested big money in the film, and is worried about bad publicity, quietly gives in. Now, these complaints could even get certification reversed.

Naturally, the entire film industry is up in arms — 1,400 people, including filmmakers Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Bannerjee and actor Shabana Azmi, have signed a protest petition. Legal challenges have also been mounted.

Almost all of the industry is funded by either a handful of corporate studios or ‘informal sources’; the government plays no role. The filmmaker only has to raise finances and then get the film released. The film also has to pass through the CBFC, commonly known as “getting a censor certificate”, but this entire process allows directors a fair amount of creative freedom. The century-old film industry, though largely conformist, has produced more than its share of mavericks and eccentrics who make the stories they want to, the way they want to.

Documentary filmmakers often raise a small budget from family, friends and sympathisers to make hard-hitting films that do not conform to the idiom of the mainstream film industry. Inevitably, they have run into problems with the establishment of the day. Anand Patwardhan had to fight prolonged court cases for the right to show his films Bombay: Our City and Father, Son, and Holy War and if this new proposal becomes law, there is little or no chance of such films ever being released.

The government’s move has to be seen in the context of two other recent decisions which aim to curb such freedoms. The first was the new IT Rules which, in one broad sweep, went after independent, online news publications and streaming (OTT) platforms. The latter have to appoint grievance officers to handle complaints, and they will be kept busy. Given that many platforms have shown films that starkly portray issues that big budget films don’t, will the funders want to take a chance?

IN 1990, Kannada filmmaker KM Shankarappa had legally challenged a provision in the original 1952 Cinematograph Act that allowed the government to reverse certification. He won his case and the Supreme Court upheld the decision, thus sealing the matter once and for all. The Modi government has once again revived that original provision. Will it stand up in court this time?

Accurate figures are not easy to come by, but the film industry was estimated to have earned a revenue of $3.7 billion in 2020, though the pandemic and closure of cinema houses impacted it in a big way. But it is definitely on a growth path and with OTT platforms providing yet another avenue for exhibition and revenue, the overall size is only going to expand.

But growth doesn’t mean much if creative filmmakers are curbed. Does the government want only films that it approves of? Lately, many ultra-nationalistic and Hindutva-glorifying films have been made which have pleased the powers that be. By itself, that is not a problem, but with these new measures to control the industry, it is a fair chance that only films that echo these themes will get by unscathed.


Reportedly

Did the Modi government act in undue haste when it gave VRS to thousands of employees of BSNL and MTNL in 2019? Two years later, the public sector telecom companies are struggling to keep going. Apparently, the drastic surgery failed and now the very employees who were given the golden handshake are being rehired as consultants. The Telecom Ministry has stalled such hiring till the matter is examined thoroughly, but time is running out fast for the government, as it repents at leisure.


India too hot to handle

Here are the 10 hottest places in India on Thursday, according to Skymet weather: Ganganagar (Rajasthan) (all in Centigrade): 45.8; Churu (Rajasthan): 45.4; Pilani (Rajasthan): 44.7; Bikaner (Rajasthan): 44.4; Narnaul (Haryana/NCR): 44.0; Hisar (Haryana): 43.5; New Delhi: 43.5; Gwalior (Madhya Pradesh): 43.4; Rohtak (Haryana): 43.4; Aligarh (Uttar Pradesh): 43.2.


Prime Number: 48.1
The seasonally-adjusted IHS Markit India Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) declined to 48.1 in June from 50.8 in May, contracting for the first time after 11 months. In PMI parlance, a score above 50 means expansion while one below 50 denotes contraction.

Talking sex in Clubhouse

Four Malayali women, Kafeela Parvin, Shaheeba VK, Wafa Hussain and Mahafoosa met on Clubhouse, the popular social media voice app, at the beginning of the month. They have been instrumental in creating discourses around female sexuality, masturbation, marriage, dowry and higher education. It has led to frustration and outrage among sections of society in Kerala as screen recordings were shared across social media platforms. It created a hullabaloo among Malayalis and the app and its users were strongly criticised for “overrepresentation of sexual content in cyberspace”. 


Deep Dive

“Cricket is having its Moneyball moment”. When Twenty20 was launched, it was clear that the game of cricket had changed for good. Now a team of data evangelists are taking the sport to the next level, says this piece in Wired UK.


UK graduate visa route now open

The graduate visa route, announced last year by UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, is open for applications from this week and is expected to particularly benefit Indian students, who choose their degree courses based on the prospect of work experience. The graduate route is designed for international graduates who have been awarded their degree from a recognised UK university to stay on and look for work for at least two years.


Abhimanyu youngest chess grandmaster

Indian-American Abhimanyu Mishra, 12,  has become the youngest chess grandmaster ever, breaking the record held by Sergey Karajkin since 2002.  Hailed as a prodigy, Abhimanyu was introduced to chess by his father Hemant at the age of two and never looked back. At the age of six, he became the youngest national champion in the US. At nine, he was the youngest National Master. 

In the summer of 2019, he got the attention of his chess hero, Garry Kasparov. On November 12, 2019, Abhimanyu made history by becoming the youngest International Master, eclipsing the record held by India’s Praggnanadhaa by 17 days. He lives in New Jersey, and the family is from Bhopal. 


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • The NITI Aayog, “which seems to have appropriated the role of court jester for history to record,” has an opinion on everything but a solution for nothing. Rathin Roy terms the Union government “fiscally ineffective”, sparing just 0.4% of GDP on healthcare in the pandemic, against a global average of 1.2%. 

  • Acquitted and now free of UAPA charges, activist Akhil Gogoi says, “Amit Shah should resign because of my acquittal.”

  • Why is Malayalam cinema, not Bollywood, India’s rapid-response unit for Covid films? Namrata Joshi explains in The Guardian.

  • Prof Amartya Sen, a “citizen of everywhere”, talks to The Financial Times about his early life and his long battle for a fairer world.


Listen Up

Recently, the Supreme Court heard a plea on compensation to the families of those who have died of Covid-19 or post-Covid complications, and agreed that it must be paid. Dr Abhay Shukla has been working on public and community health issues for over 35 years and is national co-convenor of the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan. In this podcast, he explains the multiple reasons why compensation must be paid.


Watch Out

Watch the official lyric video for Ramesh Sharma’s powerful documentary Ahimsa, composed and sung by U2 and AR Rahman.


Over and out

A big mugger crocodile was spotted swaying confidently down the streets of Kogilabanna village in Karnataka’s Uttara Kannada district yesterday. It was released back into the Kali River by Forest Department officials. 

A birdwatcher and co-chair, IUCN Hornbill Specialist Group, Aparajita Datta has documented pictures and details on some of the fruits that hornbills eat and disperse in the forests of Arunachal Pradesh. She has documented around 100 tree species in their diet. 

The People’s Archive of Rural India, PARI, has a picture of master dyer Abdul Rashid’s most valued possession, a frayed ‘master book of colour codes’, a guide that he has been developing since the 1940s, when he began practising the traditional Kashmiri art of dyeing.


That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you on Monday, 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.