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Issue 7

Taking from the Rich: Reddit, GameStop and the Consequences of Greed

Near the middle of 2019, a Reddit user, known as “Roaring Kitty” boasted his $53,000 investment in “GameStop” a declining video game company. GameStop bought and sold video games, and it isn’t hard to see why that kind of model seems unsustainable in the streaming and digital age. u/RoaringKitty made his post on a subReddit known as “r/WallStreetBets” henceforth known as WSB. Every commenter on WSB cried out that this investment was foolhardy, that GameStop was dying but u/RoaringKitty paid them no heed and continued to keep his investment there. Today, that $53,000 stake is worth $48 Million. How did this happen? 

To begin, we need to understand a few terms. 

What is a share? 

When a company is formed, it’s corpus consists of a set of discrete units. The owners of these discrete units are shareholders and become direct stakeholders invested in the company. In the case of GameStop, there are roughly 65 million shares up for grabs. 

What is a short? 

A short is a financial action one can take concerning shares. While the obvious way of profiting off of stocks is to buy some shares, wait for the prices to rise, sell and profit off of the differences, there is a means of profiting off of the fall in the price of a share. The way to do this is through “shorting”.

What one does is, when they anticipate that the price of a company’s shares is going to drop in value, they “borrow” shares from shareholders, sell them at current market prices, then once the price drops, they buy the shares back and “return” them, and keep the difference for themselves. Now, when one shorts a given company’s stock, it is legally required to eventually return the borrowed shares. This means they have to buy back the shares, regardless of what they cost. 

In the case of GameStop, hedge funds (financial institutions that profit through the buying and selling of stocks and shares) shorted 140% of GameStop’s shares. How do you short 40% more shares than those that exist? Well, that’s actually not too wild. Essentially, shares can be double-counted. Suppose I buy a share in GameStop and then lend it to a broker who intends to short it. This broker sells it to another customer, named say, Saman. Now, to Saman, this is just another share, there is no association with me, so she can further lend the share to someone else who could short it. This way, we can have over a 100% short interest. 

What did u/RoaringKitty do?

Now, u/RoaringKitty didn’t just brag about a weird investment, he noticed something nobody else did: GameStop wasn’t a dying company. GameStop had reasonably large cash reserves, they didn’t have much debt, and with the release of the new PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series, the chain of stores was doing alright. 

Roaring Kitty started talking about his investment on YouTube, Reddit, and TikTok, and people began to notice. Specifically, Michael Burry. Some of you might know him from Christian Bale’s portrayal of him in The Big Short, but for those who don’t, Burry was one of the first people to realize that there was a crisis imminent before the 2008 Economic Crisis and made a massive profit off of it. Burry, at last count, made a 1400% profit off of his investment in GameStop in just under 5 months. 

This discourse on GameStop’s financials, as well as public filings showing massive short interests from various hedge funds like Citron and Melvin Capital, became the seeds of a perfect storm. u/RoaringKitty mobilized r/WallStreetBets with the information that GameStop was viable fuelling thousands of members of the subReddit to buy millions of shares. This artificially drove the price of GameStop stock up hundreds of dollars and decimated the short position of various hedge funds. Melvin Capital lost nearly $4 billion throughout January. 

While initially, buying GameStop stock was sound financial advice, eventually anti-billionaire, anti-hedge fund rhetoric swept the subReddit, and users decided that keeping the stock was now a moral crusade to crush meddling Wall Street titans. You can find posts like this across the website describing their hatred for Wall Street money movers, and this no doubt fueled the stock buying. Eventually, various influencers, including Elon Musk joined the bandwagon, advocating to buy GameStop and crush the short sellers. Musk specifically dislikes shorting since firms have tried to short Tesla several times over the years. 

Robinhood, a free, fee-less trading platform began restricting trading GameStop stock, to avoid “volatility” in the stock market. Now, as surprising as it may sound, Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump Jr. all cried out that this was anti-competitive and anti-capitalist, you’d never expect to see the three of them agree on anything, let alone the free market. Robinhood was only the first of several services to restrict trading, an act that has led to several class-action lawsuits. This leaves a valuable question on the table, who gets to truly “regulate” the market? Why is social market manipulation “volatility” while a few billionaires doing it is a “hustle”? The actual nature of power within market structures has been exposed, and it cannot be allowed to fade from public memory. The “free” market is a selectively free market. 

Now, as trading continues it is to be seen which forces buckle first, the Redditors, or the hedge funds. As the value fluctuates, there are ripple effects across the industry. This entire incident is also provoking a series of questions about the power of social media. A user on Reddit mobilized millions of dollars through thousands of small traders, and apps like Parler managed to mobilize thousands to storm the US Capitol. While one shouldn’t conflate the two events, there needs to be cognizance of how these networks hold the power to organize people in ways that the people are not prepared for. But beyond that, the story is still unfolding, and we need to ask ourselves, who wins at the end of this? How do we even imagine “winning” in this scenario? And, where does this leave us? 

Vibhor is a third-year economics major, and frequent Redditor, with an interest in economic history, behavioural science and decentralised systems. He is a frequent critic of the free market and enjoys reading about market failure and similar shenanigans.

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Issue 7

The Biden-Harris Campaign: Representation or Presentation?

On 20th January, as Joe Biden was sworn in as United States of America’s 46th president, Democrats celebrated Donald Trump’s departure from the office while also rejoicing in Kamala Harris’ entry. Kamala Harris, the vice-president with several firsts, has been the talk of the news cycles ever since she was picked by Joe Biden as her running mate, after she suspended her own presidential campaign in August.  USA’s first woman, Indian-American, Asian vice president’s candidacy has added onto the world’s fixation with US politics because of the position and the power the country holds in global affairs. It is extremely important to acknowledge and appreciate Harris reclaiming space where women, especially black and other women of colour are constantly overlooked, silenced and shut — as also noted by Harris in her speech. This joy gets doubled when one looks at it as a victory that comes off at the heels of an administration that has  enabled white supremacy. 

Though Kamala’s Harris’ entry is a historical win for the United States of America in most means, people of the country are looking at Kamala Harris unidimensionally, and reducing her existence to only her identity:  Indians, both in USA and abroad, have been quick to claim her as their own, just like they have always been with every successful member of the diaspora, with remote links that root them back to the homeland. The internet is flooded with people from all over the world, especially Indians reacting to someone who “looks like them” making a place for herself in a majoritarian white-male office. From people calling her “Kamala Aunty” to Mindy Kaling claiming that her toddler does not see a difference between Harris and Kaling herself, Indians, mostly Hindu, out of which a significant portion is upper caste, immediately appropriated every aspect of Kamala Harris’ existence to make it their own. Many feminists are referring to Harris as “girlboss”, a term most commonly used to describe women in power, that has been criticised time and again for straying away from activism. 

Such a reductionary approach to a politician is definitely not new but it is dangerous as it tends to be used as a weapon by the candidates to mask their intentions and mislead the voters into buying a revisionist identity. Kamala Harris’ campaign is often seen focusing on Harris “going back to her roots”, whether it is making dosas with Mindy Kaling or talking about the importance of idlis and festivals in her mother’s house, time and time again we have seen Kamala Harris’ identity been marketed as an identity tool to appeal to a particular kind of vote bank — the upper castes from the Hindu diaspora through quick and lazy surface level tropes. Identity Politics, that is crucial for bringing forward a diverse panel to avoid trampling of minorities in the country, is increasingly being misinterpreted and reduced to a marketing tactic that caters to the “feel good” sentimentality without actually bringing any tangible change. 

Representation holds concrete value, however, only when the candidate reflects back onto the struggles of the community they claim to represent. There is nothing about Kamala Harris’ candidature that separates her from her white colleagues and opponents. . It is extremely hypocritical of Harris to bring up her “Jamaican roots” and talk about smoking pot as a youngster and claiming to be for the legalisation of the same. when she saw around 2,000 marijuana related convictions during her term in San-Francisco.  All this is just talk that profits off people’s struggles by giving them a false sense of relatability when in reality it is hollow, keeps stereotypes alive,while enabling divide and rule of the proletariat. This kind of playing on the sentiments of the voters also helps the public hold their representatives less accountable — the marketing strategies of the campaign are rolled out in such a manner that only diverts all attention to just one part of the candidate, their persona, completely taking away the focus from their policies and ideology.  

During the peak of Black Lives Matter movement in America, the Jamaican side of Kamala Harris’ identity was brought out time and again. She called herself a proud black woman, talked about her experience as a black student in college, told the public about the societies she was a part of in college that helped her get a deeper understanding of her community and its struggles, she calls herself a “progressive prosecutor”. However, if one looks at her past actions, we can see how during her term alone in California, more than ⅔ of the men killed by police officers were people of colour, of which a majority were unarmed. She was also responsible for holding black men longer in jails when they were eligible for release just to extract cheap labour out of them. It is disheartening to see an important movement that seeks to bring resolution to racial disparity in the country being twisted to fit a political campaign and agenda, when the candidate does not comply with anything that the movement stands for. Kamala Harris’ campaign runs in a similar manner to that of any big co-operative, where they take people’s real struggles, and capitalise on them under the false pretense of bringing forward a social change — like how brands do with LGBT struggles during the pride month.   

Kamala Harris has also constantly referred to herself as a feminist beacon, who purportedly understands women’s struggles when her activites have shown otherwise. Harris has not done much that aligned with the feminist movement, more so, she has been dangerous to the sex workers and the trans community alike. In 2008, Kamal Harris opposed the Proposition K, which was directed at decriminalisation of sex work and prevention of STIs. She argued that Proposition K unfurled “a welcome mat for pimps and prostitutes to come into San Francisco”. Her campaign completely ignores this past of Kamala, which had put women into danger and continues to show her as a feminist crusader and a “girlboss” who would bring a fresh perspective and voice into the US politics. She willingness of people to selectively see their candidates as it seems fit to them, makes it even more convenient for the campaign to do so. She also claims to be pro-decriminalisation of sex work but has not even commented to make amends to this action she undertook as an attorney general. 

The Democratic party during the Biden-Harris campaign has shown exactly what happens when neo-liberals twist the identity politics model, and reduce it to a weapon that centres itself around one aspect of an individual’s identity and uses it as a ladder while aligning with interests do nothing to dismantle a pre-existing model, all the while disillusioning the masses into believing that they would bring some concrete and effective change. 

Madhulika Agarwal is a third year English and Media Studies major who is interested in literature by children and for children. When she is not lamenting over her tiktok career that ended before it could start, she likes learning about animals and reading books with good art in them. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 7

“Mark as Read” to “Mark has Read”: Privacy Policies in India

There are three imponderables when it comes to Privacy: the definition of privacy in today’s data-is-the-new-oil world, how to balance the desires of the individual and the powers-that-be (government or local law enforcement), and how to actually implement and enforce these ideas, once we’ve come up with them. In short, it wouldn’t be too wrong to say that we don’t really know what we’re doing when it comes to privacy!

Further, there’s usually a dichotomy proposed between privacy and security: you can have privacy, but that means criminals/terrorists would be able to operate without the government being able to track them. So, if you want to have security from all these evil people, you must consent to let the government snoop on your data as well.

This is actually a common thing: to protect the population from the wiles of food producers, the government sets up certain standards that these producers must obey. The government may send inspectors to check upon the processes followed, and then punish producers who do not conform. Here, however, every single one of us is a producer.

Fortunately (or otherwise) this relentless production of data by individuals is mediated by companies like Facebook, who collate and process this data, profiting from the detailed profiles they build of us in the process. So, it might be possible to regulate things simply by applying the regulations on these corporations instead of at an individual level. But it also means that there are now two entities (albeit with somewhat different incentives) who may want to read what we write, i.e., the government and the corporation. One thing is very clear: individual-level policies are insufficient. Most people do not (and cannot be expected to) have a deep understanding of privacy issues – just like we don’t all have a deep understanding of food safety norms. Some kind of aggregated negotiation tactic, then, appears to be the only solution.

Given that the government (an entity interested in seeing our data) is the one representing the population in this negotiation, civil society must be extremely vigilant about what the details are. Many people (loosely) propose some structure of the following nature: private messages between individuals must remain secret, both from the government and the corporation. However, if the government comes to the corporation with a warrant, the latter must hand over the data. This last bit, of course, is impossible in an “end-to-end encrypted” system, where only the sender and receiver can read information.

WhatsApp’s recent change is an interesting nuance in this 40,000-ft view. Your private messages in WhatsApp are still end-to-end encrypted and unreadable to anyone but the parties directly involved: nothing has changed on that front. What many may not have noticed, is that WhatsApp actually makes two different apps: one for private use, and one for businesses. WhatsApp’s new policy allows them to look only at communications with these business accounts.

Note that WhatsApp could already look at the metadata: they would know, for example, that you had been chatting with a number of mattress companies (but might not know what kind of mattresses you were looking for). Facebook could then advertise mattresses on your feed. With this new policy, WhatsApp can share data about your interactions with business accounts, so that Facebook can find and suggest the exact kind of mattress you were looking for. As far as changes in privacy go, it’s actually rather minor. Your private messages are just as private as before.

As discussed above, even an end-to-end encrypted system can reveal a lot about one’s preferences and behaviour; this is actually the main difference between WhatsApp and Signal. They use the exact same set of encryption protocols; WhatsApp provides more services (e.g., it is rolling out payments in India), but retains metadata. Signal retains no metadata whatsoever. It just knows the time you last logged in and some other basic information, nothing more, and backups are encrypted. In either case, your actual chats are end-to-end encrypted and cannot be seen by anyone else; this is with the notable exception of backups: unencrypted backups (WhatsApp does not have an option to encrypt) can be read by Google or Apple (and thus by a government with a warrant).

Any state regulation on these encryption and privacy policies would be incredibly difficult, and that’s without getting into the international nature of the problem (what happens with software written in Germany that facilitates a chat between a Japanese citizen and an Australian citizen, with the latter physically residing in India?). I think the short answer is “non-starter”. 

Perhaps the nearest we can get is a set of minimum standards, some rules about consent, and privacy scores. Such consent rules are also hard to frame, e.g., “a corporation cannot access any data belonging to a user without direct, time-limited consent, with sufficient granularity (not all-or-nothing options)”, but we have a lot of good lawyers who I am sure can do a much better job of this than I! In the short term, however, the best idea is almost certainly privacy scores, calculated by an independent government agency, providing something like a star rating to companies operating in India: this could be one way to provide citizens with the information they need to choose what is right for them. 

Debayan Gupta is currently an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Ashoka University, where he teaches a course on security and privacy as well as an introductory programming class. He is also a visiting professor and research affiliate at MIT and MIT-Sloan. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 7

Issue VII: Editors’ Note

Straying from a long-standing tradition of burdening the New Year with all our hopes, dreams and expectations, with our first Issue of 2021, we bring you a newfound sense of cautious optimism. Aditya Burra revisits the recent test series between India and Australia to commemorate the heroics of Miya Bhai Mohammed Siraj whose grit paved the way for a historic triumph for India, raising our collective hopes. Nishant Chadha helps break down the Union Budget recently announced to drive Indian economic recovery, also enabling us to question the pitfalls of inequality in the hopeful discussions of a ‘V-shaped growth’. With our vaccination drive well-underway, Gautam Menon offers a much-needed perspective from the Indian scientific community on the controversial rollout of Covaxin. While we finally have reason to hope for a return to the ‘old’ normal with the vaccines, we also explore consent, choice and the state’s role in an ambitious yet rushed inoculation drive. 

As the initially peaceful farmers’ protests gradually erupted into violence, they urged us to not only critique the farmer bills in question as Karantaj Singh does but also reflect on India’s historic relation with non-violent movements and what it means to deviate from it. We also highlight how protests are different this year, with a fresh perspective on rappers that have used their vernacular to mobilise mass support around socio-political issues. This spirit of mobilisation has also translated into the Yugma Network’s Global Action Week which, as Anjali Dalmia describes, combines art and environmental activism to highlight on-ground realities. Moving to our swiftly increasing collective online presence, Debayan Gupta explains the insufficiency of individual-level policies in addressing privacy-related issues. We also raise important questions about creativity on social media, censorship that is slowly spreading its wings over Indian OTT platforms, and the business of news reporting; even analysing the recent TRP scandal through the Netflix show Bridgerton. 

Let us hope as the year goes on we continue in our efforts to heal and regrow, and never shy away from speaking out about what’s important, as we intend to do through our platform.

— Saaransh Mishra, Devika Goswami, Akanksha Mishra, Ridhima Manocha and Muskaan Kanodia

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Issue 7

Activity, Art and Activism: Anjali Dalmia’s Experiences as an Environmental Activist

Anjali, why did you choose the environment over everything else that might have come your way?

I have realized over time that this question of why did you choose to work in the environment is actually a privileged way of thinking about it. We are privileged to be apolitical. And it’s the same thing with social or environmental work – social and environmental justice, in general, is very tied together. I would say in that perspective, it’s not a choice, it’s something that we all at this point need to be working towards because it is impacting everyone yet only a handful of people are working for it.

You talked about environmental justice and that brings me to my next question: environmental justice and sustainability are terms that are often thrown around. If you were to define these terms, how would you do so?

I don’t want to say that I have a very strong definition or a complete understanding of either of them. To address them or to start de-tangling them is like reorganizing the entire world from scratch. I think that’s why they are loaded terms. 

The way I have been trying to navigate environmental justice for the past few months has largely been tied to social justice. Who is the justice actually for? What does it mean for different communities? The term justice itself is very subjective – it means extremely different things to different people. For example, certain communities’ rights over the Commons is justice for them, but when you look at it from a caste angle, Commons are a place where there’s a lot of caste discrimination against Dalits. That is not justice in that case.

Overall, if I were to think of the term, it would largely mean local governance and self-determination of how people would like to use their surroundings, their resources and how they would shape their community. Another important part of environmental justice is looking at our economic structure, which is left out very often but it’s very much a root of our behaviours and the way the world functions right now. Looking at human desires and behaviour is also, I think, a very important part of environmental and social justice. That’s how I would begin navigating it, I wouldn’t say that’s a definition. 

When it comes to sustainability, it’s a term that I am trying to figure out because it brings into question – what it means to sustain and at what level does that sustenance happen? Sustenance for different groups of people are different, depending on their socio-economic, cultural background etc. and in many ways, I do feel that sustainability is a large buzzword. For example, sustainable development is another term to make ourselves feel good about the development that we are doing. I am not a hundred percent convinced by the word, so I don’t prefer to use it that often. It’s the bare minimum that we do to feel like we are working towards something, which is also good.. I think sustainability works at a largely individual level to that extent but it doesn’t address the fundamental socio-economic – class, caste differences. 

What motivated you to start Yugma Network? How is it different from other organisations working for environmental justice?

Yugma wasn’t something that any of us ever intended to start. The Environmental Impact Assessment Movement that we undertook is really what set off the plan for Yugma. We worked towards translating information and discussions into local languages with the help of young people in different regions, to have a broader reach. We realized the dearth of environmental organisations in local Indian languages since most of them are in English and only reach a small section of society. We met amazing people that genuinely wanted to contribute to the environmental movement and we decided to continue working even after the EIA movement. For us, the goal is always to bring out the voices of those people who are directly affected by a lot of the projects that are happening. 

To answer your second question, I think it goes back to the model of scaling-up versus scaling-out, not in the sense of within the organizations but as collaborations. I want to move back to doing things smaller within the community, forming strong bonds with people who are also doing related work. That is a value we try to imbibe in Yugma.

Mobilisation by youth organizations to ensure environmental justice has significantly increased over  time. What do you think inspires these movements?

One part of it is the community spirit. Secondly, I think a lot of it is awareness –  that motivates young people, especially because they feel they’re making a difference. The biggest thing for me and a lot of young people is the concern for the kind of world that we are going to grow up in. When you start internalizing it, it does get scary sometimes. There lies this concern for our rights, our present as well as our future, for other humans and non-humans both. Especially in recent times, I think a lot of movements have been shaped by a gradual disappearance of democracy in the country and I think there’s a lot of anger around the way that our rights are slowly being taken away; it has led people to mobilise and act on it. 

Why do you believe people look at the environment as an ‘issue’ distanced from their daily lives?

I think people fail to see the connection between their human conditions and the environment.I think a lot of it is shaped by common discourses, media and marketing in general. 

In people’s minds, cutting a forest is much more of an environmental issue than for example, destroying a wetland. And it’s just because we have grown up seeing the forest or the tree as a symbol of the environment. Even though destroying a wetland may have way more of an impact perhaps on the local ecology of that area. To answer what is an environmental issue, you also have to ask the question of, whose perspective are we looking at? Who is defining this issue? Discourse is shaped by those directly affected by it, and by what the media itself chooses to focus on. 

Yugma Network recently became a member of YAStA (Youth Action to Stop Adani), which had largely declared the week (27th January – 2nd February) as the Global Week of Action. Could you tell us a little bit about how Yugma got involved in the project?

Yugma was part of one of the organizations who conceptualised YAStA. The larger message that we are trying to address is the general corporatisation of our lives, resources and livelihoods. It privatizes a lot of what used to happen out of goodwill or through a community. It ties into the way our economic structure is tied to environmental and social justice because it gives a lot of power to a handful of people who are accumulating a lot of profit and that becomes their main motive to do things. Our reason for joining YAStA was to raise our voices against this injustice and this taking away of our rights. Despite communities not wanting certain projects, corporates go ahead with it. Coming from an urban space, I think we do have the privilege of having access to a lot of resources and tools which we can help to put out a lot of this information.

This Global Week of Action has listed down concerts and webinars as part of the programme. How do events like this and ‘Pass the Mic’ contribute to the movement?

Sessions of music, films, and art are mediums that make it easier for people to engage with issues that might seem daunting  at first.  The other thing is that art and culture bind people together and create a community, just like protests and movements do. 

I think it’s really important to pass the mic to those who are affected by these issues. The point is to let those who are working towards the issue, or are directly affected by it, talk about what they are facing and are working towards. That is largely what we mean by passing the mic. If we have the means to create a platform, we would like to create and share that platform with other stakeholders. 

Why do you think art and activism is the way to go about it when there are already various laws enacted and jurisdictions in the direction of environmental protection and conservation?

I would say the first question to ask is do we even have laws and jurisdiction to protect the environment. When I say environment, I am including communities, people, rights, everything in this. Because if you look at a lot of our laws, for example, the EIA, it is there to assess the impact that something might have on the environment and the local community. But the purpose with which the law was put out was to ease things for businesses. Unfortunately, that’s the case with a lot of laws in India –  they’re poorly formulated, go unrecognised by many, and are rarely upheld by courts. 

The other thing is that a lot of these environmental laws are built within the economic system. So they are looking at how to 5 acres of land so that we can use the 15 over there for something else. This is where art and activism become so important. It’s the way to hold these authorities accountable. I think activism is very often taken in the wrong way that it’s just holding up signs and protesting or marching to places, but I would say that even education is a part of activism, state policies are a part of activism, even having conversations is part of activism. Activism just means being an active citizen. From that perspective, art and activism can bridge that gap in our environmental laws right now. Is looking out for our surroundings and other humans and non-humans, only the states’ job? We can’t just say “it’s in the laws, so everything will run smoothly”. As individuals, we have a large part to play in ensuring that we have environmental and social justice. Even if the laws were good, I would say you still need activity, activism, and art in any community.

Anjali is a co-founder of the Yugma Network, The Project Amara (sustainable menstruation for all), and PLANT: People’s Living Archive of Native Trees. She also works with SAPACC (South Asian People’s Action for Climate Crisis) Maharashtra & Youth and was the Environment Minister of Ashoka 2020-2021.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 7

Creators, Creativity and Instagram: Are We Losing Ourselves to Social Media?

If you’re an active Instagram or Twitter user and under the age of forty, there’s a high chance you’ve thought about your personal “brand”. What image of yourself are you putting out there? How accurate, and more importantly, how popular, is that image? You might have even considered how with just a little work and some luck, you could be the next big thing.  

In 2018, Instagram introduced the Creator Account. While previously users could choose between personal and business accounts, the launch of creator accounts showed that Instagram recognized influencers as their own category, and an important category at that. These accounts weren’t restricted to established influencers- anyone could switch from a personal to a professional account, no high follower count or blue checkmark necessary. Instagram now has over 900 million users and a large influencer presence. The global influencer market is growing fast, going from 0.8 billion USD in 2017 to 2.3 billion USD in 2020. Naturally, anyone would want to tap into that market, especially since being an influencer seems to consist largely of recording yourself doing various enjoyable things.

 According to Instagram, the Creator Account helps you control your online presence, understand your growth and manage your messages. The ‘growth insights’ also show you how often a post is saved or shared, and map the changes in your follower count to your content. Over time you can collect a highly accurate understanding of what your audience likes, and what you should do more of. This makes sense for businesses whose aim is to attract customers and turn a profit, but what does it mean for so-called creators? The fact that likes, shares and follows are the only responses measured by Instagram insights tell us that any piece of content is only as valuable as the volume of audience engagement it produces. For full-time influencers, higher audience engagement leads directly to a higher income from sponsored posts. The internet boom and the level of connectivity in our lives have led to every waking hour being an hour where you could potentially be working, posting, and reaching an audience. Every waking hour can now return a profit. Add to this the fact that your entire career could revolve around your social media accounts, with no coordination or collaboration required, and the line between ‘work’ and ‘life’ starts to get very blurry indeed. 

Not everyone is looking to be an influencer, but passive consumers are just as addicted to their phones. In many ways, the addictive nature of social media is a feature, not a design flaw. Tristan Harris, an ex-design ethicist at Google, compared mobile phones to slot machines, since every time you pull the lever (in this case, check your phone) you stand to win exciting rewards- likes, followers or texts. He says this philosophy is embedded in many of the apps we use. The more content you create and the more engagement you receive, the higher the reward. Striving for influencer levels of fame is only a natural progression in the Instagram addiction cycle. 

 In his book After the Future, media activist Franco Berardi says that the idea that we should all be capitalists and risk-takers is what brought down labour movements of the eighties. He says, “The essential idea is that we should all consider life as an economic venture, as a race where there are winners and losers.” This idea seems just as popular, if not more popular today. Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram abound with inspirational content promising that if you just work hard enough you too could be a self-made billionaire, and those billions might be one post away. Social media now represents a lucrative career choice for children and young adults. A 2019 poll found that vlogger/YouTuber was the most popular career choice for children in the US and UK. 

Unlike the film, television and music industries, social media lets you create and post anything, at any time, from anywhere in the world, to a potentially infinite audience. This accessibility is part of what makes social media so tempting. The most popular media sharing platforms, like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and more recently, TikTok, are all free and available worldwide. This democratization of the media space is a good thing when it leads to the amplification of marginalized voices. But more often than not, social media rewards volume and quantity over meaningful exchange. In her book ‘How to do Nothing’, artist Jenny Odell talks about her experience of this phenomena in the aftermath of Trump’s election: “It is this financially incentivized proliferation of chatter, and the utter speed at which waves of hysteria now happen online, that has so deeply horrified me and offended my senses and cognition as a human who dwells in human, bodily time.” When the majority of our time is spent online, it becomes harder to feel connected to, and care about, the spaces we actually inhabit. Being constantly bombarded with news and information might make people aware of important issues that have long been ignored, but can also lead to burnout and exhaustion, which then negates their ability to do anything about those issues. 

In the past year as we were forced to stay inside, social media became so ubiquitous in our lives that it was difficult to separate the virtual from the real. However, it also allowed people to connect in a time of deep suffering and loneliness around the world. Social media has also changed the lives of millions of people around the world, be it through a fashion blog or a viral cover of a famous song on YouTube. Hearing these stories makes the idea of quitting social media even less appealing, because if it happened to them, then it could always happen to you. Is that chance worth the price we pay, sacrificing our time and attention? Only time will tell. 

Rujuta Singh is a student of political science, international relations and media studies at Ashoka University. Some of her other interests are fashion, music and writing. 

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Issue 7

The Cost of the Cure: Understanding the Implications of India’s COVID-19 Inoculation Drive

Union Minister Amit Shah’s bold call for a duel to challenge vaccine skeptics came exactly a week after the Indian government’s inoculation program against COVID-19 was launched on 16th January 2021. The ambitious plan aims to vaccinate 300 million healthcare and frontline workers in its first phase using the vaccine derived from the Oxford-AstraZeneca candidate AZD-1222, dubbed Covishield in India, and Covaxin, produced by Hyderabad-based biotechnology company, Bharat Biotech and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).

Despite initial optimism, the program has witnessed low turnout rates, due to widespread misinformation and safety concerns. The root cause of doubt about the program stems from the announcement by the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) on 3rd January 2021, when Covaxin and Covishield were given emergency use approvals. While the approval for Covishield was unsurprising, given its established efficacy in all three phases of trials abroad, it was the seemingly hasty rollout of Covaxin that caused a stir. 

Criticism of the vaccine primarily focused on the absence of Phase 3 clinical trial data, since the trials have not yet concluded. The initial backlash against the approval of Covaxin was met with officials responsible for India’s COVID-19 response claiming that it would be used as a “back up”, in case of the need for extra doses given the emergence of the new UK strain of the virus. Moreover, it was also made clear that Covaxin would only be administered in “clinical trial mode”, where its recipients would be asked for their consent and proper monitoring for side-effects would follow

However, this stance towards the vaccine changed a few days later, when it was announced that both vaccine candidates will be treated at par with one another.  According to Dr Samiran Panda, a scientist at the ICMR, the circulation of the vaccine essentially implied a single-arm clinical trial, where a placebo wouldn’t be used and results wouldn’t be published under a peer-reviewed journal. Moreover, vaccine recipients would not have the option to choose between Covaxin and Covishield. It was this sudden change of positions that raised concerns. 

Consent, Choice and the State

The question about individual choice and consent is critical to the discourse around the inoculation mission. The lack of choice between vaccine candidates has affected turnout rates with only around 56% of eligible individuals getting vaccinated due to concerns among healthcare and frontline workers about the controversy surrounding its fast-paced rollout.

Ethical concerns regarding consent plague the program – should recipients, who aren’t willing participants of a research study, not be allowed to choose between two vaccines that differ in terms of proven efficacy and safety? Given the major difference between the vaccine candidates, how can consent retain its true value when it directly robs an individual of their agency to make personal medical decisions? Most crucially, should the state have the authority to directly or indirectly force the hand of citizens in making informed medical choices?

The decision of the rollout of Covaxin under current conditions seems even more dubious at a time when essential workers are invaluable and at the highest risk of contracting the virus. 

Shifting Positions and Unwelcome Surprises

The behaviour of the Indian state and its important bodies in relation to its treatment of Covaxin is also perplexing. The very approval of a vaccine that hasn’t yet completed Phase 3 clinical trials raises alarm. The third phase of trials is critical since it provides for the closest possible model of how a vaccine candidate will behave when administered to a large population.

The vaccine’s intended use has also been disputed. The DCGI had claimed that it would be administered in an open-label clinical trial to ascertain its efficacy against the UK strain of the virus. In direct contradiction, Bharat Biotech managing director Krishna Ella has stated that there was no “confirmatory data” indicating that Covaxin works against it, and has suggested that this form of vaccine circulation was sprung upon him by the government.

The sheer disconnect between the understanding of India’s major regulatory body and the vaccine manufacturer not only is a matter of concern but also sets a worrisome precedent. Moreover, the suggestion that Bharat Biotech was unaware of the government’s expectation of the vaccine’s use can also lead to long-lasting implications for public trust in regulatory bodies and affect state standards for treatment approvals in the future. 

 Vaccine Diplomacy and Anti-Nationals
The past year has been marked by governmental positions that encourage the idea of India as a major player in the global response against COVID-19. The consequence of the same is the attachment of national pride to India’s vaccine response.  Hence, in the face of concerns about the vaccine, critics of the vaccination program have been liberally deemed ‘anti-national’, an all-too-familiar narrative that conveniently sensationalizes every aspect of the matter except its core problems.
Given that Covishield is relatively cheaper than Covaxin, it is important to question the government’s decision to purchase and circulate a vaccine that is yet to produce Phase 3 trial data. Moreover, India has only exported doses of Covishield so far despite having purchased 3.85 million doses of Covaxin, which is peculiar given the government’s otherwise confident domestic narrative around the vaccine. These facts paint a murky picture – one where India seems to be balancing domestic needs and international ambitions, with the former placed in relatively more uncertain territory than the latter.It is necessary to establish that the crux of the concerns surrounding Covaxin pertains to the confusion around its intended usage, authorization prior to completing Phase 3 trials, and the issues of recipient consent and choice. A pandemic is the worst possible time to sow skepticism around medicine. At the same time however, it is important to recognize that the consequences of any missteps in approval or administration of treatments can trigger mass disillusionment from life-saving scientific treatments for years to come. Given as things stand in India, one can only wait and observe what unfolds.

Aarohi Sharma is a Psychology student at Ashoka University. Her academic interests primarily focus on the intersection of politics and psychology in society.

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Issue 7

Bridgerton: A Regency Tale of Surveillance and Information Control

In February 2021, the Netflix show, Bridgerton, (based on the books by Julia Quinn) became the most streamed show on their platform after being viewed by 83 million households. But while we were busy fawning over the lavish balls and romantic storylines, did we happen to overlook a critical theme about the nexus of the media and mass surveillance? What is this nexus, what are its implications, and how has Republic TV emerged as India’s very own Lady Whistledown?

Bridgerton revolves around the lives of the influential families in 1813, Regency London. The show is rife with scandals and secrecy, all promised to be revealed by Lady Whistledown, the anonymous author of the town’s latest gossip column or scandal sheet.

The show begins by Lady Whistledown declaring that she knows everyone who is reading her paper, a way of subtly signalling that they are all being closely observed. She derives her information from a combination of surveillance or observation and leaked information through various networks (for example, gossiping maids who hear everything about the lives of their employers). 

As Whistledown starts revealing secrets and exposing the scandals of the high-society families, it becomes evident that through her society papers she can not only influence and manipulate the public opinion but also bring dishonour to certain families and impact the existing social hierarchies. 

Soon people start factoring in her presence in their social behaviour. Knowing that she’s lurking around, waiting to expose their secrets, the people of the town start to self-censor themselves. This is a common behavioural phenomenon which occurs when people know that they are under surveillance, and it serves as an excellent tool to exercise control over a population. In London during the 1800s, there existed a myriad of social rules and norms that were imposed on the people by society. For example, if a woman were to be seen alone with a man, then it would be assumed that her honour had been compromised. The society also frowned upon the free expression of one’s sexuality and enforced very strict gender roles. Any divergence from such norms would have potentially led to a scandal. 

Whistledown’s society papers display how if one person had a combined monopoly over surveillance and the media then they could significantly shape the society and make it conform to certain standards that they deemed fit. This kind of control could also be harnessed and exploited by those in power for their personal gains.

What’s even more alarming is that Whistledown’s readers accept whatever she writes with the utmost trust. Her word is seen to be “as good as gospel”. This is because news about influential people or celebrities automatically becomes sensational and thus even a small, probably fake rumour can also spread rapidly, with little attention paid to the credibility of the source. Unfortunately, this practice of ‘sensationalizing’ the news has found its way into the world of TV Journalism as well, an area where credibility should ideally matter the most. 

This is because as people’s attention spans decrease, they feel the need to be constantly entertained. Thus, news channels have begun to employ various theatrical elements to supplement their reports. This is because unlike Lady Whistledown, news channels are faced with immense competition and they must resort to these theatrics in order to increase their TRPs. 

A survey conducted in 2020 by CVoter with a sample size of 4500 people across the country found that 73.9 per cent of the people surveyed feel that news channels in India “are more of entertainment than real news”. And 76.7 per cent said that TV News channels and TV serials both “sensationalise and scandalise everything”. This only goes to show that the credibility of TV journalism has declined. Now that they are functioning primarily for entertainment, these channels aren’t that different from Lady Whistledown’s society papers, as they are both used for societal control. 

Consider the Republic TV. After observing 1779 prime-time debates the Caravan found that Republic TV was consistently biased towards the Modi government, it’s policies and ideology. In addition to this, the channel is also said to have focused less on pressing issues such as the state of the economy, education or health and more on drawing attention away from these issues. Their analysis also revealed that the channel has consistently attacked those to oppose the ruling government. 

Caravan’s analysis also revealed that Republic TV has consistently attacked those to oppose the ruling government. News channels have the power to shape public opinion and it’s obvious that this space can be exploited to put forward certain political agendas.

In addition to this, the government of India has amped up its mass surveillance on its citizens in recent years. And has specially cracked-down on various social media platforms. By surveying our social media activity, the government has been able to silence countless journalists, artists, etc. In addition to this, the Uttarakhand police recently declared that the police can now deny a citizen the clearance required for obtaining a passport if they post ‘anti-national’ posts on social media. By creating such laws and going after individuals who question the current regime, the government has set the precedent for what counts as acceptable behaviour on these online platforms. All this stands to be the government’s not-so-subtle cue for the public to begin self-censoring themselves on social media. 

But so far this has not worked. Protests and political dissent transitioned to social media platforms in the wake of the lockdown. And now these virtual spaces have evolved to be conducive to political dissent. And as for Lady Whistledown, she may be in control of the society at the moment, but any day now, the people of the town could discover better things (provided by unbiased and more credible information sources) to dwell on and her scandal sheets will become irrelevant.

Ashana Mathur is a student of Economics, International Relations and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

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Issue 7

Museums of Democracy: How the Central Vista Project highlights the Importance of Curating History

This is primarily because any history we read, hear, or watch, is refracted, it is shaped by the person or thought process that is engaged in the exercise of compiling it. The difference between History with the capital ‘H’ and history as everything that happened in the past is crucial. The former is carefully picked out from the latter – a series of events  and artefacts chosen to tell a story. The historian then carefully selects these ‘chosen ones’ to help shape the narrative they wish to see furthered; a narrative that is intrinsically based on the politics of the day.

The question raised then is why should someone care about this act of selection now? The answer is simple, everyday instances like the renaming of roads, the demolition of buildings and the rebuilding of common spaces reinforce this act of selection. One such undertaking that makes one stop and think about this is the Central Vista Redevelopment Project.

The project aims to renovate 86 acres of land in New Delhi, including historical buildings like the Parliament House, the Rashtrapati Bhawan, and the India Gate. Moreover, the National Museum is also set to be taken down and rebuilt where the current North and South Blocks stand in the Central Secretariat. The area, associated with affluence and political power is commonly called Lutyens Delhi after the architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker who designed it when the capital was shifted to Delhi in 1911 under the British rule.

Ever since its announcement in September 2019 by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, the project has come under scrutiny for violations of municipal and environmental law as well as change in land use. Following this, the Supreme Court gave it the green light in January 2021. Close to a month prior to January, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation of a new Parliament building under a Hindu ceremony. The ceremony itself was allowed when the government reassured the court that no demolition or construction would begin until the final decision had been received. 

The focus of this article, however, is to draw attention to something that seems fairly inconspicuous at first but can have lasting impacts on how we associate our present with our past. The act of demolition and consequently rebuilding employs the historical process mentioned earlier – that of selection and by extension erasure of what gets chosen to be rebuilt and featured. With the National Museum for instance, the idea is that North and South Blocks will be able to house more historical artefacts. However, which artefacts are highlighted and how are questions that remain to be answered. 

The entire episode reminds me of something Susan Sontag said in relation to photography – “[To photograph] means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and, therefore, like power.” While she was talking about the act of framing something within photographic borders, the idea at its crux seems especially relevant here – when somebody controls the framing of the past, they wield power. Perhaps, therefore, the same self-reflectivity is required for the curation of renovated spaces.

While the words ‘heritage’, ‘redevelopment’ and ‘conservation’ paint rosy pictures in one’s mind about the building of new spaces, they actually point to the larger question of historical knowledge production. Buildings and architecture has always been used to assert power, symbolise progress and display grandeur. The act of rebuilding is not unique either, as history is replete with examples of the same. That being said, the question, especially with an edifice like the National Museum is its current housing of historical artefacts, and the process of curation that will go into the remade property. 

While the aforementioned already acts as a repository of history, the other buildings like the current Parliament House are receptacles of public memory of post-colonial India while themselves being colonial products. The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) is a prime example of a building set to be taken down which is associated with the memory of a former Prime Minister. Founded by Kapila Vatsyayan, it is a space where art has found expression during nationally significant events. Keeping the relevance of these in mind therefore becomes important as contemporary history may be memory for now, but it will not remain so for the coming decades. This highlights the importance of preserving not just historical remains but also elements of post-independence public memory that have not become canonical History yet.

Preserving public memory, if nothing else, can create context. They point to the uncomfortable understanding that even if features do not fit proposed narratives, they cannot be razed. For instance, the reason behind the decision to withdraw the candidature of colonial Delhi and Shahjahanabad as UNESCO World Heritage sites in 2014 has been traced by some to their legacies rooted in the Mughal period and the colonial era. While the legacies may cause discomfort to some, their significance cannot be dismissed.

The Central Vista Project sheds light on the importance of history and public memory. The fact is that the past cannot speak for itself. Whatever the past says, it does through the actors who consolidate it. The thing to keep in mind then in light of the project is this – demolishing heritage buildings should not open up the passageway to raze history.

Sanya is a student of History, International Relations and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

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Issue 7

Road to Recovery: A Conversation on Covaxin with Prof. Gautam Menon

What exactly do clinical trials for a new vaccine involve? 

The first step after a potential vaccine is developed is to try it out on animals to check that it is not toxic and that it leads to an immune response. If this step is successful, the next stage is to move to human trials, where these preliminary trials are called phase 1 trials.

In such trials, healthy volunteers (typically 20-50 in number) are injected with one of a range of possible doses of the vaccine, to determine the optimal and safe dose, starting from very small doses. Whether the vaccine elicits an immune response is also verified. In phase 2 trials, the immune response is examined further, and questions of side effects and safety are also explored in a larger group of volunteers, typically more than 100.

Finally, phase 3 trials involve administering the vaccine to a much larger group, often tens of thousands of people, selected to be representative of the population. These trials are called “randomized control trials”. In these trials, about half the participants enrolled are given a placebo, something that is harmless to the body, while the other half is given the vaccine. No one knows, not even the doctors administering it, whether the injection contains a placebo or the real thing.

In India, emergency use authorization has been granted to two vaccines: Covishield, made by the Serum Institute of India and Covaxin, made by Bharat Biotech.

Since Covaxin didn’t complete its phase 3 trials and publish them, what can we confidently say about its efficacy? 

At the moment we can say little since there simply is no data yet. In the much smaller phase-1 and phase-2 trials, the vaccine elicited a robust immune response, making antibodies against the virus. The vaccine was also shown to be safe in appropriate doses. It is based on an inactivated whole-virus vaccine platform which is well-understood. However, it is important to understand that efficacy—whether a vaccine works well at preventing you from getting the disease under ideal conditions—is not a simple and immediate consequence of immunogenicity, the ability of a vaccine to provoke an immune response. That is why we need phase 3 trials in the first place.

Is there a broader misunderstanding of immunogenicity and efficacy? What is the difference and why is it important? 

A vaccine should certainly provoke a response from the immune system. That’s central to how vaccines function. But whether it works in preventing people from getting the disease – protective immunity – is a harder question and there are a few things that could go wrong. One extreme case is that getting vaccinated might, paradoxically, increase your chances of severe disease, through what is called ADE or antibody-dependent enhancement. Another possibility is a vaccine-associated enhanced respiratory disease, in which antibodies induced by the vaccine bind with viruses and form immune complexes that clog the lungs. These are possibilities that a phase-3 trial should rule out.

How is Covaxin going to complete phase 3 trials?

What should happen, in principle, is the following: The scientists running the trial will wait till a certain number of people, a number pre-approved in the trial protocol, within the group that received an injection, are diagnosed with COVID-19. They then go back and check whether these people belonged to the group that was administered the placebo or the actual vaccine. If there are many more cases in the placebo group than the vaccine group than can be accounted for by chance, that suggests that the vaccine works in protecting against developing the actual disease.

The problem is that it may take some time to reach this stage of having a predetermined number infected with the disease. Since most people develop no or only mild symptoms of the disease, they may not notice they have been infected.

A second problem is that phase-3 trials are being done in a background where a good number of people have already been infected in the past, so are immune to the disease for at least some time, as far as we know. These people won’t develop the disease even if they encounter an infected person.  

Finally, currently in India, all this is happening in the background of a steadily decreasing number of new cases. This makes it harder to have new infections in the trial group.

Why aren’t people given a choice on which vaccine they would prefer? 

The government, which is, after all, making these vaccines available for free at this point, may have wanted to ensure that they did not appear to be favouring one over the other when granting emergency-use approval. Perhaps there is also an element of national pride in this, in that Covaxin is a fully indigenous vaccine while Covishield is the result of a collaboration with international groups, at Oxford University and the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca.

What, according to you, is the biggest health concern with not having any efficacy data on Covaxin? 

Whenever one is administering a vaccine to a healthy person, one would like to know that it has been worth it. Does the vaccine, for example, provide protection against the disease to more than 50% of the population it is administered to? A phase-3 trial, precisely because it is so large and planned as a randomised control trial, is a good way to ask this question as well as to look out for possible rare but serious side-effects of being vaccinated.

Would it have been a better move to rollout Covaxin after phase 3 clinical trial data was published? Why do you think it was encouraged over other alternatives? 

It would have been better to rollout Covaxin after the efficacy data became available, in my opinion. Data demonstrating good efficacy and safety, which could have taken another month or so to obtain, would have spoken for itself.

Of course, these decisions have to be made based on available information as well as projections for what might happen in the future, such as new variants that are more transmissible. There are certainly cases where granting emergency use authorisation might have been justified. This is why scientists as well as the lay public need to understand the basis on which these decisions were made.

The committee that approved Covaxin distribution may have had data that was shown to it that suggested that it was efficacious. We don’t know because neither the names of the committee members nor the minutes of their deliberations are available to us.

Transparency should always be a central consideration in such matters, especially since you will be vaccinating people who are healthy and you don’t want to compromise on safety.

Considering how the vaccination drive is going right now, do you think vaccine hesitancy is slowly eroding and that target numbers will be met? 

Yes, the numbers of those getting vaccinated each day are steadily increasing. That is a good sign. Unlike in the USA and some other developed countries, there is no strong anti-vaccination movement in this country and people are accustomed to large-scale immunization programs, such as the pulse polio campaign.

Do you think the vaccine rollout should’ve been critiqued more or less than it was by the Indian scientific community? What could have been different?

I think the sections of the scientific community that critiqued the Covaxin rollout did the right thing. Prof. Shahid Jameel of Ashoka University and Prof. Gagandeep Kang of the CMC Vellore, in particular, were sane voices in this, pointing out gently, but firmly, the need to stick to established procedure. One has to ensure that the public does not feel that they would be guinea pigs. Several fellows of the Indian Academy of Science also signed a document expressing their concern.

I was dismayed at the counter signature campaign, supporting the Covaxin rollout, from a group of 49 medical doctors and scientists. Their arguments made little sense to me.

Can anything be said about whether the current vaccine candidates can be effectively used for the new strains of the virus?

There is some encouraging news of the effectiveness of some of the international vaccines against the new strains, although perhaps not at the same level. Bharat Biotech has claimed very recently that its Covaxin was effective against the UK variant of the virus. Our understanding is rapidly evolving.

Do you think that the overall vaccine development process has changed in the course of the global effort in formulating a COVID-19 vaccine?

Absolutely. I thought, as many others did, that a period of 18 months to two years would be the minimum time required for a vaccine to be distributed. That we managed to do this in less than a year is a remarkable achievement. Without our ever-improving knowledge of both basic and applied science, this would simply have been impossible. Indeed, it would have been impossible even a decade ago.

I am, in many ways, proud of what India has achieved. The Serum Institute of India, located in Pune, is the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer. Bharat Biotech, the manufacturers of Covaxin, has a manufacturing plant that is the largest of its kind in the Asia-Pacific region. It is a respected company which exports therapeutics and vaccines across the world. India itself produces 60% of global vaccines. The Director-General of the WHO commented recently that “…the production capacity of India is one of the best assets the world has today”.

As an Indian, this does make me very happy.

Gautam Menon is Professor of Physics and Biology at Ashoka University as well as Professor of Theoretical Physics and Computational Biology at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai. He works in biophysics as well as in, more recently, the modelling of  infectious disease.

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