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Great Indian Data Sale Should Be Reconsidered; Post-Poll Fuel Price Hike Seems Certain
US urges India to join ‘strong collective response’ against Russia, WhatsApp admins not liable for content, Bihar BJP MLA walks ‘go to Pakistan’ talk, Indians spend 1/3 of waking day on mobile apps
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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
February 25, 2022
Announcing a new round of sanctions against Russia, US President Joe Biden said President Putin would be a pariah on the international stage as a result of his attack on Ukraine and “any nation that countenances Russia’s naked aggression against Ukraine will be stained by association”. Asked if India was fully in sync with the US, he said: “We’re in consultation with India today. We haven’t resolved that completely.”
Prime Minister Modi did appeal to President Putin of Russia for the “cessation of violence” but the US and other countries are looking for India to take a clearer stand than that. A UN Security Council draft resolution calls Russia’s action “aggression”. India is likely to abstain, which will annoy the US and others.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Foreign Minister S Jaishankar late yesterday and urged a “strong collective response” to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the State Department said. “Secretary Blinken stressed the importance of a strong collective response to condemn Russia’s invasion and call for an immediate withdrawal and ceasefire,” the State Department said in a statement.
The Indian embassy in Ukraine yesterday asked Indian nationals to keep calm and remain safe wherever they are as Russia launched military operations in Ukraine. More than 20,000 Indians are stranded in Ukraine with no way to return to India. The government did not start evacuation operations last week. The embassy said that following the closure of Ukrainian airspace to civilian aircraft, alternative arrangements are being made to evacuate Indian nationals to the western part of the country.
The Centre yesterday said Indian passengers from Ukraine can return via Qatar. Since Ukrainian airspace is closed, it is not clear how they are to travel from Ukraine to Qatar to fly to India.
The Prime Minister’s Office has asked the Finance Ministry to reassess fuel excise levels. Oil marketing companies are losing Rs 10 lakh per day on retail sales of petrol and diesel, a CNBC-TV18 report said, fanning concerns that prices might be hiked after state elections end in early March. India cut excise duty on petrol and diesel by Rs 5 and Rs 10 a litre in the first week of November after retail prices skyrocketed, following a surge in international crude rates and a series of excise duty hikes. India had raised excise duty by a record Rs 10 per litre on petrol and Rs 13 per litre on diesel in May 2020 after international oil prices crashed to $19 per barrel. (See Prime Number below)
The State of Mobile 2022 report from data.ai, a global digital trends research organisation, reveals that Indians spent over 4.7 hours per day on mobile apps in 2021 on average — up 27% from 2019 — or around one-third of an average waking day. India is fifth in the global ranking of app-obsessed countries, with Brazil leading the pack at 5.4 hours per day, followed by Indonesia, South Korea and Mexico.
Singapore has raised concerns over the Indian ban on gaming app Free Fire, whose owner Sea Ltd lost $16 billion in market value the day it was imposed earlier this month, Reuters reports. India had announced a ban on 54 Chinese apps on February 14, claiming that they were transferring sensitive data to Chinese servers. Sea is headquartered in Singapore and trades on the New York Stock Exchange.
The India Meteorological Department has conﬁrmed persistent low clouds coupled with high humidity and visibility of 12 km at the site at Coonoor in Tamil Nadu on the day an Mi17 V5 helicopter crashed in ﬂames, killing Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat and others on December 8. Providing satellite images of weather conditions of the day, the IMD told the Tamil Nadu Police that the humidity was hovering around 95% with high winds at an altitude of 1.5 km.
The Indian Premier League 2022 will kick off on March 26. The Board of Control for Cricket in India has acceded to the demands of host broadcaster Star, which had asked for a Saturday opening. IPL will be staged in Maharashtra, with 55 games in Mumbai and 15 in Pune. Four stadiums have been selected. Twenty games will be played at Wankhede Stadium, 15 at Brabourne Stadium, 20 at DY Patil Stadium and 15 at the Maharashtra Cricket Association ground in Gahunje.
Control over the influential Telugu cinema is now a point of dispute between Chandrababu Naidu’s TDP and Chief Minister Jagan Reddy, whose ties are fraught. “Jagan harassing world class Telugu film in Telugu state”, asserts Naidu. Pricing for Bhimla Nayak, a Pawan Kalyan film, seems to have precipitated Naidu’s outburst this morning.
On February 16, when the Udupi Government Pre-University College for Girls reopened after a week-long closure imposed by the state government, a picture emerged of young girls, with one clad in a hijab, firmly holding hands and walking towards the college. The photo quickly went viral with many seeing it as a hopeful message in times of divisive anti-minority politics. The moment was captured by photojournalist Irshad Mohammed, who says “I wanted the outside world to see that there are students refusing to be divided, that there is another India that hasn’t fallen prey to politics. This is the India of my childhood.”
West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankar summoned an Assembly meeting on March 7 ― at 2 am. The timing generated considerable curiosity. Hours later, Assembly Speaker Biman Banerjee said it was a typo.
Sixteen-year-old Praggnanandhaa’s shock win over world champ Magnus Carlsen has prompted the BBC to look at how India is “emerging as a chess powerhouse.”
India is in the grip of sneakerisation. Sneakers held 40% of the footwear market three years ago and nearly 50% today, and are expected to touch 60-65% in three or four years.
IAF still uncomfortable about theaterisation
The Indian Air Force’s discomfort with the theaterisation model proposed by late General Bipin Rawat was again on display yesterday, when IAF Chief ACM VR Chaudhari said that “the primacy of who will do what cannot be determined by a pro rata system of who has a larger mass of forces or equipment.” He added that “the fundamental strengths of individual services must be brought together to deter potential enemies or decisively win the nation’s wars.”
WhatsApp admins not liable for content
WhatsApp admins cannot be held liable if members post objectionable material, the Kerala High Court ruled in response to a petition of a group admin against a case he faces about a porn video posted on his group. The High Court said admins can delete members but have no control over what they post, and set aside proceedings against the petitioner. The bench clarified that merely acting in the capacity of creator or administrator cannot be the ground for an offence, and the admin cannot be an intermediary under the IT Act. In December, the Madras High Court also said a group admin cannot be made liable for a member’s post, while quashing a case concerning a message intended to create animosity between communities.
Cairn saga end as government ponies up
The government has paid Cairn Energy Rs 7,900 crore, refunding retrospective taxes it had collected and ending a seven-year-old dispute that had damaged the country’s image as an investment destination. The government’s change of heart followed Cairn initiating seizure of the Indian government’s overseas assets ― ranging from apartments used by diplomatic staff in Paris to Air India planes in the US ― to recover the refund due, after it won an international arbitration which awarded a refund, interest and penalty.
The government in August 2021 had enacted new legislation to drop Rs 1.1 lakh crore in outstanding claims against multinationals such as Vodafone, Sanofi and SABMiller (now owned by AB InBev), and Cairn. About Rs 8,100 crore collected from companies under the scrapped tax provision are to be refunded if the firms agree to drop outstanding litigation, including claims for interest and penalties.
Fraud alleged with Army postal ballots
Taking cognisance of a video showing tampering of postal ballots for military personnel, the Election Commission has sought a report from the Pithoragarh District Magistrate at the earliest. The recording is from Didihat constituency in Uttarakhand. A man in Army uniform is purportedly seen ticking and signing several postal ballots in the video, which was shared by AICC general secretary and former chief minister Harish Rawat on social media on Tuesday. On the complaint of Didihat Congress candidate Pradeep Pal, an FIR was filed against unidentified persons.
The Long Cable
Reconsider the Great Indian Data Sale
A visible thread in the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been digital ― from threats of cyber attacks and social media disinformation campaigns, to international sanctions to cripple Russia’s access to high technology. The digital economy is a cornerstone of any industrialised and emerging country, and India has been voicing it’s ambitions, buoyed by the growth of startups into unicorns. This was reflected in recent policy measures, prominently captured in a report released on February 20, 2019, titled ‘India’s Trillion Dollar Digital Opportunity’. This figure becomes important for it has seemingly become a core policy objective of the Ministry of Electronics and IT. It was endorsed, post-pandemic, after a cabinet reshuffle by Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology, at a Nasscom summit in October.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with economic growth that leads to jobs and innovation to serve Indians. However, the recent ‘India Data Accessibility and Use Policy’ that has been put to public consultation takes a perilous path towards this goal. It is accompanied by a background note that uses the $1 trillion figure to justify the free sharing of data within government and it’s enrichment, valuation and licensing to the private sector. A preliminary question emerges: what will be the form of this data? While the policy does not specify it, there is some indication in the National Economic Survey, 2019.
The Economic Survey devoted an entire chapter to the economic potential of data and stated in its summary: “Governments already hold a rich repository of administrative, survey, institutional and transactions data about citizens, but these data are scattered across numerous government bodies. Merging these distinct datasets would generate multiple benefits with the applications being limitless … The private sector may be granted access to select databases for commercial use … Given that the private sector has the potential to reap massive dividends from this data, it is only fair to charge them for its use.” So, what will be sold is citizen’s personal data held by the government.
There are obvious risks to individuals, and in fairness the Economic Survey recommends the creation of a legal framework of data privacy. It is contestable whether all risks to such a data maximisation and exploitation policy by state entities can be mitigated by data protection law, but even that is missing. The existing draft recommended by the Joint Parliamentary Committee has core deficiencies. Prominent issues arise such as lack of autonomy for a data protection authority, overrides for consent, vague data sandboxes and exemptions for government departments. What makes it worse is further delay and confusion in the creation of a legal framework. This month Minister Chandrasekhar stated, “We will continue this conversation for a little bit longer, in my opinion. I don’t want to rush into something and then go back with more amendments.” One does not know how a legislative proposal submitted on December 17, emerging after more than four years with an Expert Committee and two years from the constitution of a Joint Parliamentary Committee, is now a more open conversation. Importantly, will this conversation be held in Parliament or at the Ministry of Electronics and IT? If it is at the Ministry, who gets a seat at the table, and is there a timeline? Forget about seeing light at the end of the data protection tunnel, we do not even know if it’s a dead end.
Many of the harms may also be uncharitably discounted by public officials as dystopian fantasies of luddites and activists removed from the imperatives of governance and industry. However, we do have recent administrative experience on why there is a need to reconsider this draft policy. One of the most prominent instances of the government licensing citizens data through the private sector has been through the Bulk Data Sharing Policy of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways in March, 2019. The policy permitted licences for vehicular data in the Vahan and Saarthi databases for Rs 3 crore annually. Writing an issue brief in ORF, Shashidhar KJ warned: “Current Bulk Data Sharing Policy must be revamped to protect the privacy of Indian citizens.” Reports emerged that vehicular data had been used by rioters in Delhi to identify persons by religion, based on vehicles parked at their houses.
While police investigations in these incidents are not public, and further information does not exist, the Bulk Data Sharing Policy was withdrawn on June 4, 2020. As per official minutes of an apex committee which records this decision, “There have been certain issues received in regard to the sharing of data in public, and whether bulk data shared with the stakeholders can be misused.”
The draft data access policy ignores the mistakes made by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways as it chases economic growth through greater data collection and licensing across all government ministries and departments. The safeguards are slender. There is a vague proposal for restriction of certain data sets but without clear criteria, it may not stand in the way of revenue generation for a cash-strapped ministry. Further, data anonymisation is a weak privacy preservation safeguard if not anchored by a data protection law that creates an independent authority that can enforce penalties.
We must all share the hope that India grows as a digital economy, for it promises a better future for all of us. However, it is not only Gandhian but extremely practical to consider the means to the end. Towards this, the government must seriously reconsider the draft data access policy.
(Apar Gupta is Executive Director of the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), which works to protect Indians and secures their digital rights. You can support their work here.)
“When our country had achieved Independence in 1947, Muslim community was given a piece of land in the form of Pakistan. They should have gone there. We do not want them in this country. They are increasing population and want to make India a Muslim state. Muslim leaders have agenda to make every country an Islamic state. We cannot allow that to happen. Hence we have demanded from the government the withdrawal of voting rights from them and make them second class citizens,” Bihar BJP MLA Hari Bhushan Thakur said yesterday, leaving no doubt about what his party really thinks. A party which has Pragya Thakur as MP would be comfortable with this demand coming from its Bihar MLA. But what about the state CM Nitish Kumar, a BJP ally ― a modern-day Dhritarashtra?
Prime number: 113 days
The number of days domestic fuel prices have not been raised by retailers, though they have been deregulated and are supposed to be fixed daily. Pump rates are aligned to a crude price of $82-83 per barrel, and would shoot up once elections end early next month, because it’s now $105 per barrel. The FY22 Economic Survey had assumed crude oil prices would average $70-75 per barrel for FY23.
Gita Aravamudan, a journalist who was married to one of the original ‘rocket boys’, explains that the real ISRO story, full of feats and failures, doesn’t need the embellishment and misrepresentations of the web series Rocket Boys. “These, unfortunately, will be the images that stay with the ordinary viewer, and not the audacity with which those early scientists envisioned India’s place in the world and the hard work that went into making that a reality. They built institutions and more importantly, they were well-qualified, internationally recognised scientists, who knew what had to be done and how,” she writes.
Op-Eds you don’t want to miss
New overseas scholarship guidelines reflect the Brahmanical order the Modi government wishes to install by creating a Hindu Rashtra. They fear young minds from marginalised communities would turn into questioning minds, writes Apoorvanand.
A state that till yesterday prided itself on being India’s most global corner is poised on the edge of an eruption of tribalism. It is almost as if Karnataka has been UP-fied, while UP itself looks to a different future, writes Santwana Bhattacharya.
As India seeks to equip itself to deal with the emerging strategic flux engendered by Ukraine, the right lessons need to be internalised in relation to strategic communication and national security, writes C Uday Bhaskar.
Meera Shankar writes that with the Ukraine crisis, America would focus much more on European security than on addressing China. This would give China a freer hand in the Asia Pacific, which is unfortunate for countries like India.
Depending on how long global oil prices remain elevated, the Ukraine tensions could put a question mark on the RBI’s credibility and upset the government’s budget calculations, writes Mint.
When it came to his own writings and publications, VD Savarkar clearly situated himself in the textual economy of the 20th century, in which copyright rules and royalties were to be respected and paid, writes Vinayak Chaturvedi.
Devangshu Datta writes that India is on the cusp of dominating the chess world with its crop of talented young players.
Karbala dar Karbala, a Hindi novel located in Bhagalpur of the 1980s, breaks new ground in writing about cities. It tells the story of how gangsters and communal outfits merged to make communalisation an everyday affair, writes Mohammad Sajjad.
For the echoes of the Sundarbans in Prague, read Saudamini Deo in Map Magazine.
In The White Review, Rhonda Feng writes of Amitav Ghosh’s The Nutmeg’s Curse: “The book is both an unauthorised biography of the spice and a call to reanimate our politics in a way that respects the agency or ‘vitality’ of non-human beings all around us.”
Sonia Faleiro talks about the dangerous developments in Indian democracy. The repression of the Muslim minority and restrictions on the democratic public sphere have taken on dramatic proportions, she says.
In the 14th Ahmed Ali Memorial lecture, Faisal Devji deliberated on the prospect of losing the present to history.
Over and Out
“You aren’t different”: The interaction between a Muslim woman and a Theyyam artiste playing the local Hindu deity Muthappan in Kasargod, Kerala, was caught on video by a bystander and is striking a chord with people of all faiths.
“Being alone doesn’t mean you’re lonely”: Preet Chandi, the British Army officer of South Asian origin who last month became the first woman of colour to trek solo to the South Pole.
Kyoto’s kimono artisans have set their sights on Indian saris to preserve Japanese heritage, as the production of traditional Japanese attire has been steadily declining for half a century with tastes shifting to Western-style clothing. Manufacturers in Japan are hoping to cash in on India’s growing economy and its market of 1.4 billion people.
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