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Issue 10

Banking on the Government

March 15th–16th, 2021 witnessed the congregation of 10 lakh bank employees in protest and solidarity against the much-debated privatisation of two public sector banks (PSBs). Banking services such as loan approvals, cheque processing and cash withdrawals were disrupted — estimates suggest that a total of 2.01 crore cheque instruments (valued at Rs 16500 crore) were left unprocessed in Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai. It was the United Forum of Bank Unions (UFBU) — an umbrella organization comprising 9 trade unions — that blew the war horn, calling for a strike against the decision announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharam during the Union Budget as a part of the government’s disinvestment plan

Voicing concerns over employee welfare and job security that could potentially be threatened by the privatization of PSBs, the trade unions also exhibited apprehensions about the implications for the economy. They echo arguments from the classic dichotomy of public sector banks and commercial banks, suggesting that such a move would prove to be detrimental to the Indian financial landscape. 

Worries precipitated by this decision date much earlier than the announcement itself since India’s long march on the road of privatisation has been in the works for years. In the banking sector itself, IDBI bank was privatised in 2019 while 14 other banks were merged in the last 4 years, foreshadowing the possibilities of further privatization. While such asset reductions are a part of the government’s strategic sales, they also stem from a cause of concern over the efficiency of PSBs. 

While the public sector is not completely devoid of pressures to earn a profit, a certain level of efficiency is expected. The PSBs’ share of bad loans, as compared to that of commercial banks, raises eyebrows. Banks claim that they have been in the green — quoting a profit of Rs 1,74,000 crore. However, the bad loans valued at Rs 2,00,000 crore led to net losses. But are profits or NPAs the best measures of efficiency for PSBs? 

Given that the private sector operates with a profit motive, it is but natural to use profit and loss accounts to measure the success of a commercial bank. The rise in conversation about fiscal stability also factors in the significance of NPAs in estimating a bank’s financial health. However, the measures of efficacy cannot be the same for PSBs and private sector counterparts. The mandate and role of a public sector bank is simply too different from that of a commercial bank. 

Historically, PSBs have been entrusted with achieving financial inclusion, poverty reduction, increasing access to credit, and other social objectives, thereby acting as beacons of social banking. Ever since the nationalisation of the State Bank of India in 1955, PSBs have played a crucial role in acting as financial intermediaries, channelling savings (particularly from rural and suburban areas) into the economy. Doggedly pursuing social objectives, these banks have been strong drivers of the success of many welfare policies. For instance, PSBs were responsible for opening 16.5 crore Jan Dhan accounts as part of the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana. In contrast, private banks only opened 68 lakh accounts. 

With the poor financial infrastructure post-independence, PSBs have been essential to making banking and financial services accessible in the remote regions of the country. In many ways, it is this progress in financial inclusion that has been an engine of growth by bringing unproductive savings into circulation. Tapping into the closed vaults of rural savings, PSBs encouraged saving in banks that mobilised resources and money that was otherwise stagnant. An example of the contribution of PSBs to the financial architecture is the State Bank of India that achieved 100% inclusion by covering 31,729 villages during the financial year 2014. State-owned banks also contributed to fostering an entrepreneurial environment by extending credit facilities to vulnerable groups and weaker sections that may not have the necessary collateral to secure loans in private banks. 

Any bank’s greatest asset will always be Trust. Without the public’s faith in the brand and institution, a bank will never be able to garner savings and deposits. Previously, crises like the Yes Bank crisis of 2020 have raised questions on commercial banks’ ability to manage liquidity, inspiring a feeling of uncertainty in the public. With the notional commitment of the government to fiscal stability, public sector banks emerge as symbols of trust causing the general public to hold at least one account in a PSB. Hence, the role of a state-owned bank extends beyond its social obligations — it acts as a propagator and preserver of faith in the banking system for the masses. 

Public sector banks also possess strategic importance for the country — they support key industries with stressed assets such as aviation, mining, iron and steel etc. By supporting these industries, PSBs ensure that certain strategic sectors of the economy are protected and preserved due to the role they play in ensuring stability, employment or the smooth functioning of the economy. Hence, the loans extended to these sectors are greater in PSBs than in commercial banks, subsequently leading to greater NPAs as well. The bad loans from these key industries, coupled with the NPAs from extending loans to vulnerable social groups, explain sufficiently why PSBs suffer from a greater percentage of non-performing assets. Are NPAs still the strongest measure of efficiency between commercial and public sector banks? Probably not. 

Due to the very difference in the mandates and incentives of the private sector and public sector banks, it is folly to believe that a profit-driven, private sector bank can do what a PSB does. The strong tug of the profit-motive and responsibilities to shareholders impose a natural limit to the amount of social contribution a commercial bank can make to the economy; especially, given that many cases involve a direct trade-off between profits and pursuing social objectives. Hence, calls for privatisation of PSBs imply a simple trade between social responsibility/financial inclusion and profits, or what one might term ‘efficiency’. While the government can certainly get rid of a few bad apples in the basket by dumping poorly managed/underperforming PSBs, any economy like India should retain a certain proportion of public sector banks in the financial architecture to encourage equality, welfare, and fair access to financial services.

Whether the two banks being privatised are inefficient is a matter of economic analysis, but one must be careful with the metric being used. One can argue that the 2 banks being currently privatised still leave enough social bankers to strengthen the financial fabric of the economy, but we know which sides the trade unions will take. As we possibly head towards a more privatised, profit-driven India, the question remains — can we still bank on (read: with) the government to ensure the strength of our financial landscape? 

Advaita Singh is a second year economics student at Ashoka University and is the president of the Economics Society.

Categories
Issue 8

Racy Raj Tales: Miscegenation in British India

Despite all romantic notions about love and desire, the choice of a sexual partner has seldom remained just a matter of mutual agreement between two partners. Governments and regimes have, through different time-periods, attempted to control, and channelize people’s sexualities, in the name of ‘social order’. Relationships that do not subscribe to the cultural codes of behaviour, and threaten the patrilineal descent of the race or community, are regarded as aberrations. Such relations do not receive social sanction, as they challenge socially constructed rules, and are thereby labelled as forbidden or ‘illicit’. 

The British Raj in India witnessed several such ‘forbidden liaisons’. The British East Indian Company was particularly preoccupied with the issues of love, sex, and marriage with regard to the sexual health of the sahibs and memsahibs, because of various ‘risks’ that were associated with uncontrolled space of the ‘exotic east’. Victorian codes of conduct were directly antithetical to the unrestricted native morality, and the Indian society was understood to have a more relaxed notion of bodily shame (reflected in the traditional gossamer cotton clothing that barely seemed to cover their bodies), which the British believed indicated at the absence of moral order. According to them, this could lead to the breakdown of the British society stationed in India by encouraging similar patterns of behaviour amongst the sahibs and memsahibs. Moreover, the tropical climate could lead to moral laxity, and ultimately jeopardise the imperial enterprise.  

Before the arrival of the memsahibs in the nineteenth century, the ICS officers of the Company married catholic women of the Portuguese descent. The sahibs also kept bibis, and maintained zenanas, which was far more economical than taking on the expenses of maintaining a European wife. Such arrangements could end if the officer left a particular regiment. If there were children, the sahib was not bound to provide for them. However, even though such alliances were not binding because they were interracial in nature, they had the same status as that of a legally formalised matrimony. Moreover, Bibis were not simply for utilitarian purposes, and the officers often praised the tender and loyal bibis they consorted with. Moreover, such forms of cohabitations were not known as ‘forbidden liaisons’ until the nineteenth century, when they became stigmatised due to the increasing concerns over miscegenation in the Raj. 

Sexual practices in the Raj were quite lenient up until the rise of venereal disease outbreaks amongst British officers, after which the Company was forced to amend the rules regarding sexual health of the white officers. Prostitution was widespread at the time, and while the Company understood the importance of brothels for maintaining order amongst the often-lonely ranks of sahibs, they understood the need to curb infections. Brothel houses came to be closely monitored and regulated to prevent diseases, as the idea of contagion came to be linked with anything related to the ‘Other’, or native. Prostitution was not banned because an active sexual life could ensure the physical robustness of the sahibs and prevent pent up desires and frustrations that could possibly result in under-productiveness. Regiments even had European madams manage brothel houses for their officers. With the nineteenth century, when batches of young women called the ‘fishing fleet’ came in looking for husbands in the Raj, interracial couplings gradually became condemnable, as the Company wanted to prevent the dilution of the white race in India. 

Due to the expansionist nature of the empire, British women’s sexuality was closely governed. Memsahibs were understood to be vulnerable in the native space, due to their susceptibility to tropical illnesses, and due to the added fear of sexual violation. Racist stereotypes surrounding the native man’s carnality buttressed such suspicions, especially in light of the accounts of abuse and violence against British women during the revolt of 1857. Recent feminist historiography has revealed that such rumours stemmed from biases and prejudices rather than actual realities, and were meant to perpetuate the fear of the ‘Other’ among the British officers/community/etc. in India. However, such notions served to deepen the prejudice against interracial marriages. The issue of miscegenation deeply concerned the British administration also because the children of mixed couplings came to be tabooed. The presence of the Anglo-Indian race was a rude reminder of the racial crossings, and the resultant dilution of the white race in India. 

Nonetheless, a number of interracial relationships were borne out of the Raj. Not only did sahibs have children with native women, there are several cases of European women falling in love with and marrying Indian men. Unlike popular perception, the men who courted and wed white women were not licentious natives who fetishized white skin, but devoted husbands who deeply cared for the women they married. Some of the stories of such unlikely matches are extremely tender and romantic, and allow us an insight into fulfilling mixed unions that dispel stereotypes. Yet, the postcolonial imagination continues to fetishize such relationships. A good example is Indian Ink by Tom Stoppard. 

It must be said that during the colonial period, the so-called ‘transgressive’ marriages and subversive liaisons occurred despite the political and social repercussions. Such instances become testament to the fragility of social conventions and orthodox belief systems that attempt to negate sexual agency of the people. While it is difficult to draw direct parallels between the ‘forbidden liaisons’ of the Raj, and what constitutes as forbidden today, in the current political climate, it is not altogether impossible to locate similarity in the regimentalisation of love and desire in contemporary times. The idea of ‘forbidden’ remains rooted in the social divisions, be it class, caste, race, cultures, etc. and relationships that attempt to transcend these boundaries automatically are labelled as taboo or criminal. Interracial marriages during the Raj provoked as much backlash as inter-caste and interfaith marriages do today. 

Indeed, governments since time immemorial have attempted to curtail sexual and romantic desires, to maintain ‘social order’. However, history and literature demonstrate the sheer subversive quality of love as transgressive amours not only take place in spite of societal and political restrictions, but also are also consistently idealised and romanticised. The ultimate ineffectuality of the State or governments in the matters of the heart and soul can serve as a heady reminder of the potency of love and desire across time and culture.

Ipshita Nath teaches English Literature at University of Delhi. She is currently a doctoral candidate with Jamia Millia Islamia, and wrote her thesis on postcolonial representations of memsahibs in Indian literature. Her book of short stories, The Rickshaw Reveries, was published by Simon & Schuster India, in March 2020.

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).

Categories
Issue 7

Who is Deciding What You Watch? Fiction and Move Towards New Indian Censorship

The term ‘controversy’ refers to a “public discussion and argument about something that many people strongly disagree about, think is bad or are shocked by.” But why is it relevant here? The makers and actors of the web series Tandav, released on Amazon Prime Video last month have found themselves apologizing to the public for allegedly “hurting religious sentiments.” But let me tell you, this cannot really be termed as a controversy. It is not the first time that the term has been used to emphasise on the reactions of a certain group towards a fiction released on OTT (Over-The-Top) platforms. Clearly, the Indian media loves the term when it comes to addressing the reasons behind a significant rise in moral policing. The question arises, what then qualifies them to be called a ‘controversy’? Not saying that the content of the series is perfect, it has its issues which need to be critiqued, but that isn’t the focus of this piece.

Why did Tandav self-censor?  

FIRs against the series have been filed in states of Uttar Pradesh, Mumbai, Bihar, and Bengaluru so far, starting with BJP MLA Ram Kadam filing a police complaint in Mumbai and UP’s BJP MP Manoj Kotak writing to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to ban the series and apologise for “hurting sentiments.” At this point, one could ask – was there a “public discussion and argument” about it? Certainly not. Then whose “sentiments” are those? Leaders from a particular political party and the Police in these states filing FIRs at such a portrayal is a function of the religious group that they seem to align with. These sentiments are individualistic or concerned with a fragment of political leadership and could not be equated with that of the entire Hindu population of the country. However, it seems to have concerned the overall cast and crew of the show. The maker, Ali Abbas Zafar and several actors took to Twitter to unconditionally apologize and thanked the I&B Ministry for their guidance and support in the matter. In addition to this, they at once agreed to drop those sections of the show. 

This kind of censorship commonly referred to as self-censorship by the makers of the show, even before a legal order was passed by concerned authorities to do so, could be perceived as resulting out of fear. This culture of fear and intolerance has been perpetuated by repeated threats issued by religious bodies such as the Karni Sena, a Rajput organisation that has continued to incite violence against several creations of the Hindi film industry. In this case, they have announced an award for Rs 1 crore to the one who would chop off the tongue of the makers, even when the cast and crew has repeatedly apologized online and self-censored. Noteworthy it is that the maker and lead male actors of the show, Saif Ali Khan and Mohd, Zeeshan Ayyub have Muslim identities. Considering the state of politics in the country under the ruling government with the recent Anti-CAA/NRC protests, it appears that religion has played a crucial role in majoritarian powers deciding what viewers can watch. UP Chief Minister, Adityanath’s media Chief Advisor’s tweet on the same, and FIRs by members of political parties against the maker reveal the religious biases of the party in question. It forcefully restrains dissemination of that particular thought which seems to act against their religious beliefs. These leaders’ take on the issue alongside the crew’s swift submission towards those claims are moralistic in nature. One could perceive their actions collectively to be sensitive to popular support, leaders in terms of political gains and crew in terms of monetary ones. These motives make Tandav “controversial.” What one requires is a public discussion regarding the moralistic standards upheld by these two sections of the society, the stances taken by them in lieu of their hidden motives, rather than controversialize the content and members associated with the show for their thoughts that led to their fiction. 

The New Surveillance State 

What’s missing here is a legal development, definitive to this case. What the Indian audience received as a legal outcome is the recent statement by Union Minister of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Prakash Javadekar, where he cites “a lot of complaints against some serials available on OTT platforms” and states that the Ministry will soon issue guidelines regarding them. This came after the Government brought films and audio-visual programmes over online platforms under the purview of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in November 2020. These guidelines would control the release of content on digital spaces, especially OTT platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar and more. This outright claim to control content on the web translates into control of a specific section of the internet by the Ministry. Considered to be in public interest, without involving the public in the conversation is quite ironic and diminishes the fundamental rights of the viewers, and furthers moral policing. The assumptions and predictions about the future of fiction on these platforms boils down to the question: who is deciding (quite literally) what we watch?

Fiction and Subversion of Imagination

“The web series ‘Tandav’ is a work of fiction and any resemblance to acts and persons and events are purely coincidental,” tweeted Ali Abbas Zafar, in the official statement by the cast and crew of Tandav. Fiction as a medium, is imaginary, that is, not based on true facts and/or events. And most Bollywood productions use this narrative art form to produce creative content for consumption by all sections of India’s population, complemented by its dissemination over OTT platforms. A consumer survey suggests that the most popular category of content watched in India on OTT platforms is movies and web shows. The form and platform together provides the creators with innate freedom to delve into issues that shape and reshape the society in diverse ways, borrow from society, and depict it  through dynamic, intense metaphors through storylines. Although content circulated are subject to healthy critique from viewers and rightly so, the move to assert control over their content under the discretion of certain leaders is oppressive and disrespectful to the viewer’s right to access multimedia, especially online. This act of taking decisions on behalf of the viewers, undermining creative freedom of the producers and digital space of the OTT platforms, restrains freedom of the consumers to access specific content and their right to critique. Earlier, the understanding of human life through fiction released over streaming platforms were not burdened by the jurisdictions of the Centre. When one proceeds to censor an imaginative art form, it is not only controlling the produced content, but at the same time the imagination itself. The angry FIRs by leaders upon depiction of Hindu deities in a certain light in a work of fiction attempts to curb the initial thought that goes into the writing process. This conscious effort to monitor ideas and stories before they are propagated infantilizes the viewers’ agency, and leads to subversion of thought.

The ‘fictional’ aspect now makes creations vulnerable to the guidelines. The imagination, ideas challenging the mainstream social structures, complemented by statements made by binary political leaders towards them inculcates fear and perpetuates it within the system at the same time. With the recent statement by Prakash Javadekar, it becomes certain that it is not ‘we’ who will in the future determine what ‘we’ want to consume online, at least in a ‘democracy’ like India. Till then, happy viewing!

Ariba is a student of English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

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 3

Putting Civil Society In Its Place

Much has already been said on the most recent amendments to India’s Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). Op-ed writers have opined. Editors have pontificated. Civil society leaders have cried themselves hoarse, warning of the threat the amendments pose to both development and democracy.

Graphic from an article by Forbes India.

They all agree that the amendments are ill-conceived, ill-timed and probably ill-intentioned. It’s clear that the new provisions will deter international donors, cut smaller organisations’ access to overseas support, render nonprofit work in research, policy analysis, advocacy and capacity building more difficult and add considerable friction to transactions involving international funds. Few NGOs would survive the 360 days the law now afford enforcement agencies to freeze their finances and operations while they mount a prosecution, even if they are eventually proven entirely innocent of the charges. Many have pointed out the stark contrast between the ostentatious welcome provided to Foreign Direct Investment in the private sector and the minefield which international funding to civil society must traverse. Others have remarked on the relative opacity permitted to funds contributed to political parties via electoral bonds compared with the stringent scrutiny required of nonprofit incomes. For those seeking ease of doing philanthropy, one channel remains – the PM CARES Fund.

Graphic from The Hindustan Times

Less has been heard on the intent of the additional constraints the amendments impose. The government claims that international contributions to NGOs in India have been misused and that compliance with the onerous reporting required for such funds has been lacking. It has not, however, provided any evidence that the pre-amendment 2010 law was inadequate to the task of remedying such malfeasance. The cancelling of over 23,000 FCRA registrations since 2010 suggests otherwise. 

Coming on the heels of the praise lavished on NGOs by senior government functionaries for their outstanding humanitarian response to both, the COVID-19 pandemic and the nationwide distress caused by the summary measures taken to control its spread, the creation of new impediments to civil society work is nothing short of mystifying. As recently as October 17, 2020, the Prime Minister has sought to include civil society as a key partner in the plans to deliver coronavirus vaccines to all Indians.

What might one infer from these contradictions? Some clues might be discerned in the arguments put forth by senior government functionaries. They posit a ‘pure’ form of voluntary civil society action unsullied by formal organisational structures, partnerships with government or the addition of policy advocacy to the civil society repertoire. The government’s warmth towards this form of civil society action is manifest in its outreach to ‘service delivery’ NGOs for both, input to policy and to fill in the vast gaps in last mile public services from healthcare to education, skill development, sanitation and the like. It is also visible in the boundaries defined for the deployment of corporate philanthropy in the form of mandatory CSR. On the other hand, its intolerance for civil society work that focuses on human rights, environmental justice, amplifying muted voices, holding government or business to account, and defending democratic freedoms is equally evident in the kind of NGOs that have been singled out for punitive action, a list that includes Amnesty, Greenpeace, INSAF, Lawyer’s Collective and the like. 

The message is crystal clear. Comforting the afflicted is good, afflicting the comfortable is absolutely not. Silent, unquestioning delivery of services by nonprofits, and the philanthropy that supports such work, is fine, even praiseworthy. Any challenge to policy, in design or implementation, is unacceptable. Most Indian donors have proven themselves amenable to these restrictions, either because their own goals are in sync, or to protect themselves, their assets and their interests. International donors focused on augmenting government plans and programmes too will face no significant barriers. It is only the ‘black sheep’ who must be deterred, closely monitored, and made vulnerable to intimidation and harassment through a maze of regulatory hurdles.  

It is precisely for these reasons that the International Commission of Jurists has roundly condemned the new amendments to the FCRA as unconstitutional and in violation of international law on freedom of association. They echo the 2016 criticism by the first UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association who described the 2010 version of the FCRA as failing the test for allowable restrictions on the right to association developed by international human rights bodies.

It completes a vision of state, and executive, supremacy with every institution designed to counteract such untrammelled concentration of power reduced to cheerleader status at best, subservience at worst. At another time and place this vision was embodied in a slogan that has since come to signify some of humanity’s darkest deeds: ‘Ein Volk. Ein Reich. Ein Führer.’

Parliament, the media and, arguably, the judiciary have all been corralled to varying degrees. Women, Dalits, Muslims and other minorities are regularly reminded of their ‘aukat’. Civil society too, is being shown its place.

Ingrid Srinath is Director of the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy at Ashoka University. The views expressed here are entirely personal.

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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Uncategorized

To End or Not to End Privacy

Imagine, if you will, a murder. Some letters are found, all written in a strange language. In Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” it took Sherlock Holmes to decipher such a script and find the murderer.

Inventing a secret language is rather difficult, except that we now have standardized ways to do it: encryption algorithms. Essentially, we have language-inventing software, which can create different languages based on a secret password. If you know the password, you can translate the language back into plain English. Today’s techniques produce incredibly secure ciphers that would leave even Holmes clueless. 

This has led to governments trying to subvert or weaken cryptography. Inevitably, every time an atrocity occurs, we hear this argument again and again. Donald Trump has stated that the US should be able to “penetrate the Internet and find out exactly where ISIS is and everything about ISIS.” It was perhaps David Cameron who best articulated this sentiment: “In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people, which even in extremis, with a signed warrant from the home secretary personally, that we cannot read? … are we going to allow a means of communication where it simply isn’t possible to do that? My answer is no, we are not.” The justification, of course, is that these powers are needed by “intelligence agencies and security agencies and policing in order to keep our people safe.”

The “deal”, then, is this: You can communicate securely, as long as you make the encryption easy enough for The Government to decipher. This “easy enough” requirement is currently being enforced by various means, including the infiltration and bribery of companies that produce commercial cryptographic software. Many activists and technologists have written about the ethical problems with having a government that is capable of snooping on all of our communications. I argue that legalising this is not only unethical, but operationally impossible.

I am sure you can already spot the problem — if something is easy enough for one person to decipher, then it is easy enough for many others. You cannot have one and not the other, since our government employees are not magically cleverer than their US, Chinese, or Russian counterparts, or the many cyber-criminals that prowl the internet. Broken security renders us vulnerable to anyone with the expertise, not just some government agencies. Mathematical laws care little for the laws of any country.

A commonly proposed solution is for the government to have some kind of “backdoor,” such as a master key. This is difficult to do, both technically and operationally. Given that we have substantial problems implementing and deploying our current (comparatively simple) systems, shifting to such a complicated new technology would inevitably lead to more security holes.

Even if one government has a master key for a certain set of encryption systems, we still have problems. What if the master key gets stolen? We are artificially introducing a critical weakness — such a key would certainly be a prime target for any adversary, and having the key stolen is not a negligible possibility. Over the past few years, hackers have been able to steal everything from the blueprints of the F-35 fighter jet, to financial data from credit rating agencies, to healthcare data from hospitals. Trusting governments with master keys when they haven’t been able to safeguard their own military technology seems like a terrible idea.

Further, if a criminal knows that the government has a master key to software #420, she’s not going to use it. She’ll find a system with no master key (these, of course, already exist). So, the people suffering from weak encryption are mostly going to be law-abiding citizens, who will now be more vulnerable to hackers.

The global nature of the internet adds yet another layer to this. Other governments are not going to sit around and use compromised (from their point of view) communication systems – they’ll build their own software, probably with their own master keys, and stop trusting software made by residents of other countries, essentially creating import control on software. How would multinational companies secure their data? Would they be required to provide keys to every government in the world, or, perhaps a branch of the UN? The creation of a global body to govern these master keys presents a herculean challenge. Further, nothing prevents the governments from adding their own backdoors to subvert that body as well.

Practically every expert in the field believes that subverting cryptosystems (and the bulk surveillance that inevitably accompanies it) is foolish, immoral, and dangerous.

This is why companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft are supporting stronger encryption. Some people who don’t really understand how encryption works have come up with many good reasons for exceptional access backdoors and opined that regulators and legislators must find a way to provide some privacy while allowing law enforcement access. This won’t work. Yes, there are many good reasons for having backdoors (roll-down windows on airplanes might have many advantages), but the numerous fatal problems that they create should have obviated this discussion long ago. Governments should stop trying to build backdoors and support strong, end-to-end security and privacy.

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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Uncategorized

Should India’s environment laws give the State so much power?

By Mansi Ranka

The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) rolled out the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification in March 2020 and introduced changes to environmental governance for the country. These changes focus on making environmental clearance a swift and easy process while giving public consultation a backseat.

The draft has led to widespread public concern. About 100 environmental groups and individuals have opposed draft EIA 2020, calling it anti-environment and anti-people. One of the main causes for distress in the new draft is an exemption from prior environmental clearance to about 40 different industries like clay and sand extraction, solar thermal power plants and common effluent treatment plants. This ex post facto environmental clearance puts aside the primary goal of environmental protection to focus on achieving ease of business. In April, the Supreme Court held that such practice would be detrimental to the environment and that development must be approached through an “ecologically rational outlook”.

The other main cause of concern is the dilution of public consultation. The new draft exempts projects from the public hearing, an important opportunity for local communities to learn about the project and demand social obligations from them. This gives the corporations power to officially evade local development needs, which were anyway rarely met. environmentalists have accused the government of using EIA to expand their own political control by favouring corporations by legitimising environmentally degrading projects.

The new EIA draft incorporates systemic weakness into the law, making environmental violations the norm for corporations. The Ministry does not even pretend to see EIA as anything more than a bureaucratic instrument to make environmental clearance (EC) easier. 

Environmentalists have been arguing for the need to strengthen environmental law more than ever, as we are already experiencing climate change in the havoc wreaked by floods nationwide. The letter sent to the MOEFCC also proposes that we go back to the EIA 2006 notification. But in reality, that is not all that better either.

The MOEFCC is currently reviewing the public comments that they have received on the draft. Right now, it is important to think about what it is that will really help strengthen the environmental law in our country. How can the law ensure that big corporate profit does not override people’s welfare and environmental protection?

The state controls the distribution of state-owned natural resources. What is the safeguard against the exploitation of this power? What if the government allocates natural resources in a way that contradicts public welfare?

A similar question was brought up before the Supreme Court, in the 2011 public interest litigation after the 2G scam. The PIL raised questions about the State’s ownership of natural resources and their fair distribution. The judgement clarified the Supreme Court’s position on who distributes natural resources by saying, “Natural resources belong to the people but the State legally owns them on behalf of its people and …  is empowered to distribute natural resources.” So, the State has the power to decide what happens to natural resources. But on what basis does the state decide? The judgement goes on to say, “while distributing natural resources, the State is bound to act in consonance with the principles of equality and public trust and ensure that no action is taken which may be detrimental to the public interest.”

Thus, as long as we trust the Indian State to “act in consonance with the principles of equality and public trust”, we can be certain that it will distribute natural resources for the “common good”. The judgement concludes that the State should be the trustee or guardian of the people in general, and hence be responsible for natural assets.

Trusteeship is a Gandhian socio-economic idea, which holds that wealthy people should be the trustees and ensure the general welfare of the poor people. The theory relies on Gandhi’s conviction that capitalists aren’t beyond redemption and the wealthy could be persuaded to help the poor by becoming more egalitarian.

Now, the Indian State is supposed to act as this trustee and ensure common good. How does the state define this ‘common good’? Historically, the state has not acted in ways that can foster this kind of trust. The state has often wished to ascertain huge profits through corporations by allowing them to monopolise. This is obvious in the draft EIA 2020. The “common” good then becomes economic development by few big players. This is excluding the very people it was supposed to act as trustee for. And yet, the State can claim to handover natural resources for exploitation to a few players in the name of common good and public trust.

Furthermore, the draft EIA is pushing for people to be excluded from participating in this process, making the idea of common good paternalistic. The tilting of the scale to give the trustee unchecked power is possible under this idea of trusteeship. This is because in Gandhi’s theory it heavily relies on subjective goodness in the capitalist, the trustee, to act for general welfare. It is necessary to question this of trusteeship. Can the state function as a true trustee without mechanisms to ensure accountability and transparency?

Mansi is a student of philosophy and environmental studies at Ashoka University. Her other interests include performing arts, politics and octopuses.

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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Myth Theory – Dum Maro Dum

By Devdutt Pattanaik

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, April 24, 2011.

Cannabis is an illegal narcotic in most parts of the world, even India. Its more deadly form is called Marijuana. From it comes some of the most lethal addictive organic drugs that ruled the party circuit until the arrival of even more lethal, even more potent, even more addictive chemical drugs.

But still, it is amazing to see Indian television soap operas directed at women showing Bhang being prepared from leaves of the Cannabis plant and consumed by the family during Holi. We have Bollywood songs where heroes and heroines run around trees consuming Bhang and singing “Jai Jai Shiv Shankar” and then we have the famous “Dum Maro Dum” with a very young and very beautiful Zeenat Aman surrounded by hippies smoking pot, hoping it will destroy all sorrow. No one is upset or outraged. An acknowledgement that Cannabis is sacred in India — it is sold in the temple markets of Varanasi, Puri and Nathdvara. Every sadhu smokes this potent drug.

Shiva, the hermit, smokes Cannabis. He is described as always being on a high. There are miniature paintings showing Parvati making Bhang for her husband. She berates him for always being in a hemp trance and never doing household chores. Krishna’s elder brother, Balaram, is known for his fondness for Bhang. Bhang drinking is a common part of rituals in Vaishnav temples. It is called a coolant to calm the short-tempered Shiva and Balarama.

Not just cannabis, many stimulants and depressants, including alcohol are part of sacred and social traditions all over the world. Vedic priests kept referring to Soma which enabled the mind to take flight! Homer’s Odyssey refers to lotus-eaters who lie around all day doing nothing. Across Arabia and Africa chewing narcotic leaves known as Khat is a part of the tradition. Ancient Egyptians called it divine food. Betel nut is an alkaloid that gives a chemical high when chewed and is famously consumed in every household in South Asia in the form of paan. In tribes, shamans have used chemicals to transport themselves to the world of spirits. Alcohol is served to Kala-Bhairav and other fierce deities. Wine is a sacrament in Christianity.

In modern times, most of these have been deemed as substance abuse agents and are banned in different capacities in different parts of the world. We want to create a world where no one takes any chemical stimulant. We want to force people to be good. And so now, people who smoke cigarettes which contain tobacco, have to stand outside buildings and smoke like criminals. Tobacco is deemed evil because it causes cancer. Even fatty and starchy food are being slowly treated as evil as they also cause disease. The worst sin of the 21st century is to eat a high-calorie meal.

This use of law to control human behavior did not exist in ancient times. There was a tendency to trust the human will, human intelligence and the human ability to self-regulate. Modern society seems to have lost faith in human beings. Modern society does not want to allow humans to take responsibility for their own lives. It therefore uses laws to control human behavior, domesticate them into perfection. Invariably it fails. Prohibition simply spawns a booming black market. And I realize this when I hear — much to my disquiet — well-educated and affluent boys and girls describing how they snort lines of cocaine in the toilet cubicles and how it makes them feel ‘cool and dangerous’.

This article was first published at https://devdutt.com/. Republished with the author’s permission.

Devdutt Pattanaik is a medical professional by training and writes on relevance of mythology in modern times. He has authored 41 books and over a 1000 columns and has also appeared on television.

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).