The News Editorial Analysis 20th Dec 2021

The News Editorial Analysis 20th Dec 2021

The News Editorial Analysis 20th Dec 2021

Persist with probe

It is difficult to disagree with the argument that there cannot be a parallel probe by any inquiry commission into the allegations of unlawful surveillance using the Pegasus spyware after the Supreme Court ordered an independent inquiry. It is no surprise, then, that the top court has stayed the functioning of the Commission constituted by the West Bengal government and headed by retired judge, Justice Madan B. Lokur. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had taken note of the allegations of surveillance that possibly targeted personages in West Bengal, and was on good legal ground when she took the first legal step towards unearthing the truth. It was a step that was warranted by the circumstances then, given the Union government’s refusal to acknowledge that it possessed such spyware or whether those identified by an international media investigation as targets were subject to any sort of surveillance in the country. Reports by an international consortium of journalists said that 300 out of 50,000 likely targets of Pegasus spyware were Indians. Subsequently, the Government also refused to cede any ground in the Supreme Court, and declined to give a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ reply to the Court’s questions. Stonewalling attempts to raise it in Parliament and sticking to its guns in Court, the Government inevitably invited an order from the Court for an independent investigation. It is significant that the Bench, headed by the Chief Justice of India, N.V. Ramana, ruled that the bogey of national security was not an adequate reason not to have a credible inquiry into the allegations.

A fresh report suggesting that Pegasus was used to target jailed activist Rona Wilson’s mobile phone underscores the urgent need to persist with the investigation into the illegal use of the spyware in India. U.S. forensic investigation company Arsenal Consulting has said Mr. Wilson’s phone was attacked as many as 49 times and it was successfully infected by the time he was arrested in June 2018 for alleged involvement in the Bhima Koregaon case. Earlier, the firm had claimed that NetWire, a remote access Trojan, was used to plant letters on Mr. Wilson’s computer. Advocate and co-accused Surendra Gadling was also targeted in the same manner. These developments raise suspicion about the genuineness of the evidence being relied upon to try him and others for an unsubstantiated Maoist plot. There is little doubt that the Court-ordered probe by experts supervised by a panel headed by the retired Supreme Court judge, Justice R.V. Raveendran, should be taken to its logical conclusion and the country be told whether Pegasus, or any other spyware, was used to infect mobile phones and other devices of lawyers, activists and journalists, among others. There is much riding on this judicially overseen inquiry, and it behoves the government of the day to extend its full cooperation and not pose any impediment to its independent functioning.

Age and marriage

Good intent does not guarantee favourable outcomes. Coercive laws without wide societal support often fail to deliver even when their statement of objects and reasons aims for the larger public good. Within days of the Union Cabinet approving a proposal to raise the age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years, the same age as for men, the Government listed it for legislative business in Parliament this week. If passed, various personal and faith-based laws which govern marriages in India now, including The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, the Special Marriage Act, 1954, and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, will have to be amended. In her Budget speech last year, Finance Nirmala Sitharaman had announced that the Government would set up a task force to look into the age of a girl entering motherhood with an aim to lower maternal mortality rates, improve nutrition levels as well as ensure opportunities to women to pursue higher education and careers. With these targets in mind, a panel headed by former Samata Party chief Jaya Jaitly was set up in June last year. The panel submitted its report in December 2020. Though the objective looks good on paper, merely raising the age of marriage without creating social awareness and improving access to health care is unlikely to benefit the community it wants to serve: young women not yet financially independent, who are unable to exercise their rights and freedoms while still under the yoke of familial and societal pressures.

According to Ms. Jaitly, raising the age of marriage is one of its recommendations, which include a strong campaign to reform patriarchal mindsets, and improved access to education. As per the National Family Health Survey (2019-2021), 23.3% of women aged 20-24 years married before 18, which shows that the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, has not been wholly successful in preventing child marriages, especially among the poor. Women’s rights activists point out that parents often use this Act to punish their daughters who marry against their wishes or elope to evade forced marriages, domestic abuse, and lack of education facilities. Hence, within a patriarchal setting, it is more likely that the change in the age limit will increase parents’ authority over young adults. A good, but not easy, way to achieve the stated objective is to take steps to counsel girls on early pregnancies, and provide them the network to improve their health. The focus must be on creating social awareness about women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, and ensuring girls are not forced to drop out of school or college. Laws cannot be a short cut in the path to social reform.

Can India become a technology leader?

The News Editorial Analysis 20th Dec 2021

Every time a technology giant chooses an India-born techie as its leader, there is a justifiable swelling of pride in the country, but also some disappointment. Despite having so many celebrated technologists around the world, why is India still not a major player in technology? India has the potential to occupy the upper echelons of the global technology ladder if only it identifies its shortcomings and acts upon them urgently.

The popular narrative is that India’s failures are linked to its inability to make use of the market-driven growth opportunities. The country’s earlier commitment to planning and the public sector continues to damage its chances, so the argument goes, even after the 1991 economic reforms. And so, the talented left the country in droves for the U.S. Indeed, as of 2019, there were 2.7 million Indian immigrants in the U.S. They are among the most educated and professionally accomplished communities in that country.

An invisible hand

No doubt, the U.S. is a country of fabled opportunities. However, what is less known is than an invisible hand of the government has been there to prop up each of the so-called triumphs of enterprise and the free market. Research by Mariana Mazzucato shows that the state has been crucial to the introduction of the new generation of technologies, including the computers, the Internet, and the nanotech industry. Public sector funding developed the algorithm that eventually led to Google’s success and helped discover the molecular antibodies that provided the foundation for biotechnology. In these successful episodes, the governmental agencies were proactive in identifying and supporting the more uncertain phases of the research, which a risk-averse private sector would not have entered into.

The role of the government has been even more prominent in shaping the economic growth of China, which is racing with the U.S. for supremacy in technology. A little over a decade earlier, China was known for its low-wage manufacturing. Even while being hailed as the ‘factory of the world’, China had been stuck at the low value-adding segments of the global production networks, earning only a fraction of the price of the goods it manufactured. However, as part of a 2011 government plan, it has made successful forays into ‘new strategic industries’ such as alternative fuel cars and renewable energy.

The Chinese experience

China’s achievements came not because it turned ‘capitalist’, but instead by combining the strengths of the public sector, markets and globalisation. China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs) were seen as inefficient and bureaucratic. However, rather than privatising them or letting them weaken with neglect, the Chinese state restructured the SOEs. On the one hand, the state retreated from light manufacturing and export-oriented sectors, leaving the field open for the private sector. On the other, SOEs strengthened their presence in strategically important sectors such as petrochemicals and telecommunication as well as in technologically dynamic industries such as electronics and machinery.

When India inaugurated planning and industrialisation in the early 1950s, it was possibly the most ambitious of such initiatives in the developing world. Public sector funding of the latest technologies of the time including space and atomic research and the establishment of institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) were among the hallmarks of that effort. Many of these institutions have over the years attained world-class standards. The growth of information technology and pharmaceutical industries has been the fastest in Bengaluru and Hyderabad. However, the roadblocks to progress have been many, including India’s poor achievements in school education.

In 1991, when India embraced markets and globalisation, it should have redoubled efforts to strengthen its technological capabilities. Instead, the spending on research and development as a proportion of GDP declined in India from 0.85% in 1990-91 to 0.65% in 2018. In contrast, this proportion increased over the years in China and South Korea to reach 2.1% and 4.5%, respectively, by 2018.

Supply and demand factors

Despite the setbacks, India still possesses favourable supply and demand factors that can propel it into the frontlines of technology. The number of persons enrolled for tertiary education in India (35.2 million in 2019) is way ahead of the corresponding numbers in all other countries except China. Further, graduates from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) programmes as a proportion of all graduates was 32.2% for India in 2019, one of the highest among all countries (UNESCO data).

Without doubt, India needs to sharply increase its public spending to improve the quality of and access to higher education. An overwhelming proportion of tertiary students in India are enrolled in private institutions: it was 60% for those enrolled for a bachelor’s degree in 2017, while the average for G20 countries was 33%, according to OECD.

India — which will soon have twice the number of Internet users as in the U.S. — is a large market for all kinds of new technologies. While this presents a huge opportunity, the domestic industry has not yet managed to derive the benefits. For instance, the country is operating far below its potential in electronic manufacturing. Electronic goods and components are the second largest item, after oil, in India’s import bill. Also, the country’s imports are almost five times its exports in this industry (based on 2020-21 data).

High-value electronic components needed in the manufacture of, say, mobile phones are technology- and design-intensive. Big multinational companies control these technologies and corner the bulk of the revenues. China has used its large market size as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the foreign firms: stay in our markets only if you localise production and share technologies with the local firms. Meanwhile, there have been aggressive efforts to enhance China’s own technological strengths through its research institutions and SOEs.

The ‘Make in India’ initiative will have to go beyond increasing the ‘ease of business’ for private industry. Indian industry needs to deepen and broaden its technological capabilities. This will happen only if universities and public institutions in the country are strengthened and emboldened to enter areas of technology development for which the private sector may have neither the resources nor the patience.

Over the last three decades, PSUs in India have been judged mainly on the short-term fiscal benefits they bring. Instead, they should be valued for their potential long-term contributions to economic growth, the technologies they can create, and the strategic and knowledge assets they can build. A strengthened public sector will create more opportunities for private businesses and widen the entrepreneurial base. Small and medium entrepreneurs will flourish when there are mechanisms for the diffusion of publicly created technologies, along with greater availability of bank credit and other forms of assistance. The next big story about Indian prowess does not have to be from the U.S., but could come from thousands of such entrepreneurs in far-flung corners of the country.

Jayan Jose Thomas is a Professor of Economics at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi and Ashoka University’s China India Visiting Scholar for 2020-21

Mixed record for SC’s expert panels

The Supreme Court has stayed the proceedings of West Bengal’s Justice Madan B. Lokur Commission of Inquiry into the Pegasus allegations.

The reason for the stay is ostensibly because the apex court is seized of the case and has itself formed an expert technical committee overseen by former apex court judge, Justice R.V. Raveendran, to examine allegations that the Centre used Israeli software Pegasus to spy on citizens.

The Justice Raveendran Committee was formed by the court in October to ensure “absolute transparency and efficiency”. The court had asked the committee to submit its report “expeditiously” and posted the next hearing after eight weeks.

But committees formed by the court in the past in an earnest effort to uncover the truth or to broker peace have had mixed results.

Take the case of an October 2020 order of the court in the stubble-burning case. The court formed a one-man committee of Justice Lokur to protect Delhi NCR from air pollution caused by stubble burning in the neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana.

But the order came to nothing and was put on hold by the court itself when the Centre promulgated the Commission for Air Quality Management in the National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas Ordinance of 2020.

Again, the court, with best intentions in mind, formed a four-member committee of experts “to listen to the grievances of the farmers on the farm laws and the views of the government and make recommendations”.

At one point in the 11-page order of January 2021, the three-judge Bench led by then Chief Justice of India Sharad A. Bobde had expressed the hope that the committee “may create a congenial atmosphere and improve the trust and confidence of the farmers”. It was reported that the committee gave its report.

Meanwhile, the government repealed the three controversial farm laws and the protesting farmers have headed home. Recently, one of the members of the committee, Anil Ghanwat, told the media that the report could play a certain “educational role” and should be made public.

The past months had seen Supreme Court’s Justice V.S. Sirpurkar Commission repeatedly seek extensions because of the pandemic to complete its probe into the deaths of four men, accused of the gang-rape and murder of a veterinarian, in an alleged encounter with the Hyderabad Police on December 6, 2019. In the Ramjanmabhumi dispute case, the constitution of a mediation committeedid not stop adversarial litigation in court and the final judgment in favour of the Hindus.

Six nations call for ‘immediate’ aid for Afghans

India and Central Asian nations share a “broad regional consensus” on Afghanistan, said a regional conference of Foreign Ministers in Delhi on Sunday that proposed the use of the India-run terminal at the Chabahar port in Iran as a route for trade.

A joint statement issued at the end of deliberations at the third India-Central Asia dialogue, hosted by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar for the Foreign Ministers of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, said it was important to provide “immediate” humanitarian aid for Afghans.

Sources told The Hindu that the Ministers had confirmed the participation of the leaders of their respective countries at India’s Republic Day celebration when they will hold a summit-level dialogue with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Central Asia dialogue comes a month after National Security Adviser Ajit Doval hosted his five counterparts from the region for a security dialogue focusing on Afghanistan.

“Ministers noted that there is a broad ‘regional consensus’ on the issues related to Afghanistan, which includes formation of a truly representative and inclusive government, combating terrorism and drug trafficking, central role of the UN, providing immediate humanitarian assistance for the Afghan people and preserving the rights of women, children and other national ethnic groups,” the joint statement said.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Jaishankar said that the six nations all shared common “concerns and objectives” in Afghanistan.

“We must find ways of helping the people of Afghanistan,” he added.

India sent a shipment of medical aid by air to Afghanistan earlier this month, but the bulk of its planned aid, including 50,000 tonnes of wheat, is still being discussed with Pakistan, the External Affairs Ministry said on Thursday.

The five Foreign Ministers travelled to India, sending their deputies to Pakistan for a Organisation of Islamic Cooperation meeting.

Turkmenistan Foreign Minister travelled to Islamabad on Saturday, and held bilateral talks with Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi.

While none of the countries recognise the Taliban, only Tajikistan has taken a strong stand against any bilateral contacts with the group after it took control of Afghanistan in August. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have re-opened their missions in Kabul.

They have also exchanged ministerial level visits with Kabul, as have Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic. India has thus far met Taliban leaders publicly only twice, in Doha and Moscow.

The dialogue also discussed how to increase links. India-Central Asia trade is quite small at present, accounting for less than $2 billion, most of which comes from Kazakh oil exports to India.

Cautious welcome for Gadchiroli’s first jumbos

The herd of 22 wild elephants that has been in Kanker, Balod, Gariaband,and Dhamtari districts of Chhattisgarh for the last nine years, has successfully surmounted the last natural barrier to settle down in its new habitat in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra.

Conservationists say the habitat is ideal for elephants but express concern on possible human-elephant conflict during tendu leaf collection and in case of crop damage.

“The team of Chanda Hathni has entered the forest of Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra,” Satovistha Samajdar, Divisional Forest Officer of Dhamtari district told The Hindu.

The herd is very gentle, well behaved and even responds to the calls of the Balod and Dhamtari district field forest staff members, Mr. Samajdar said.

Peaceful stay

According to the forest officials, the Chanda Hathni herd entered Dhamtari district from Balod district forest ranges somewhere in February 2021.

The forest officials narrated two interesting incidents during the herd’s stay in Balod. After the male tusker departed, the herd was blessed with a baby. The forest officials also managed to change the radio collar of Chanda Hathni that got damaged in September 2021.

The group of 22 elephants that has been in the forested areas in Dhamtari district for about 10 months, started travelling westwards in September without doing any harm to other wildlife or humans.

First settlers

It eventually reached the outskirts of Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra categorised as tribal dominated with about 76% of its area is covered with forest, an official said. The main river basin of the district is the Godavari, while Vainganga, Pranhita and Dina are three other major rivers flowing through the district, he said.

However, the district does not have any records of regular and resident elephants. In fact, the State was overwhelmed when in 2006, a herd of elephant entered Maharashtra from adjoining Karnataka.

The State government has drawn a long-term mitigation plan of about ₹1.4 crore to ensure safety to the elephants, and acquired drones for aerial monitoring of the animals’ movement in the night to ensure safety of villagers.

Action plan

According to Deputy Conservator of Forests, Gadchiroli Division, S.R. Kumaraswamy, although this herd has appeared peaceful and harmless so far, it was being monitored closely and officials are preparing an action plan if it decides to stay in the district.

Along with the excitement is concern of human-elephant conflict.

Poshan data under wraps for ‘privacy’

Data recorded in the Poshan (Nutrition) Tracker have not been made public in the interest of privacy of women and children, the government told Parliament last week.

“The data that we deal with within the Poshan Tracker, to maintain the privacy of women and children in our country, especially the minor children whose data should not be publicly made available, is an issue which is close to my heart. My pledge is to honour the privacy of women and children who are serviced by the Government of India in collaboration with State Governments across the anganwadi systems in the country,” Smriti Irani, Minister for Women and Child Development, told the Lok Sabha on Friday.

The Minister was responding to a question from YSRCP MP Goddeti Madhavi on why nutrition indicators recorded in the tracker were not in public domain.

Critical tool

The tracker is one of the important pillars of the Poshan Abhiyan and helps the government monitor services delivered at 12.3 lakh anganwadi centres and record nutritional indicators of 9.8 lakh beneficiaries, including children in the age of six months to six years as well as pregnant women and lactating mothers. Anganwadis provide six services, which include supplementary nutrition in the form of hot-cooked meals and take home ration, immunisation and pre-school education.

The Government has spent ₹1,053 crore to develop the tracker. Of the total, ₹600 crore was spent on procurement of smartphones, followed by ₹203.96 crore on smartphone recharge and maintenance, ₹180.68 crore on incentives to anganwadi workers and helpers for using the technology and ₹68 crore on training. These details were provided by the Ministry of Women and Child Development to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education, Women, Children, Youth and Sports which tabled its report recently.

Limited details

On its Poshan Tracker website (, the government hosts a dashboard which provides only limited administrative details at national, State and district levels. This includes total attendance on a given day, vaccinations, take-home ration and hot cooked meals delivered. But it provides no information on the nutrition status of the beneficiaries such as stunting and wasting among children or prevalence of anaemia.

The parliamentary committee in its report raised several questions on the effective use of the Poshan Tracker.

It sought that key performance indicators be constantly monitored and uploaded on its website and a State-wise progress report be maintained “so that identification of those deprived of the benefits can be made on a real-time basis for timely remedial measures.” The committee also recommended that the Ministry put in place a monitoring mechanism to ensure there were no gaps in distribution of food packets to anganwadi beneficiaries

Violations of 1970 U.N. Convention by U.S. Museums

The idol-collecting cabal has been increasingly critical of many much-needed actions by states including criminal prosecutions and civil forfeiture of stolen property in recent years. What is baffling is that these are conditions that these nations have agreed upon when they signed the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The Convention urges “States Parties to take measures to prohibit the trafficking of cultural property and provides a common framework on the procedures to prevent their import and export”.

With specific reference to restitution, Articles 7 and 13 of the UNESCO Convention provide the relevant provisions. For objects inventoried and looted from a museum or public or religious monument, Article 7 provides that states should “undertake appropriate measures to seize and return any cultural property stolen and imported”. Article 13 states that parties are responsible at the national level in terms of restitution and cooperation. According to UNESCO, “The return and restitution of cultural property is central to the Convention and its duty is not only to remember but to fundamentally safeguard the identity of peoples …”

The US has increasingly been looked upon as a trailblazer with proactive and aggressive action—mainly due to high-profile seizures, especially by the NYC district attorney’s office—to tackle the illicit antiquities market. We highlight the cases of two museums in the US and how they continue to blatantly violate the basic tenets of the UN statute. 

First, let us look at The Walters Art Museum. Gary Vikan, former director of the museum and columnist, in his piece ‘Why US museums and the antiquities trade should work together’, starts off interestingly: “For years, the AAMD [Association of Art Museum Directors] required of its members that they only ‘not knowingly’ acquire or accept as gifts works of art that had been exported from their country of origin in violation of national laws.” So how did the museum accept the Krishna with butterballs sculpture from the now arrested and indicted art dealer Subash Kapoor in 2004 without any paperwork beyond 1981, long after the UNESCO Convention? And the museum still continues to hold it!

More interesting is the provenance of an amazing 10th century bronze of Shiva and Parvati, which as per the museum’s own provenance disclosure makes for a rather sad reading: “Bashir Antiquities, New Delhi; purchased by John and Berthe Ford, Baltimore, February 1989; given to Walters Art Museum, 2008.”

This means it was acquired in Delhi in 1989 in blatant violation of India’s Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972, which the museum was aware of.

There are more obvious red flags in the following acquisitions: 

A Dancing Ganesha from Uttar Pradesh that the museum says is from the 9th/10th century. The provenance reads: “Ramesh Kapoor [brother of the arrested Subash], New York; purchased by John and Berthe Ford, New York, July 25,1983; given to Walters Art Museum, 2004.” Note that there is no provenance prior to 1983.

A 9th century sandstone Ganesha with an even stranger provenance (or the lack of it): “Mr. and Mrs. John G. Ford, Baltimore [date and mode of acquisition unknown]; Walters Art Museum, 1987, by gift”. We had a big ceremony to welcome the over-100-years-old Annapoorna in Varanasi in November and here we have a 11th century Saraswati, from the same place, acquired by The Walters Art Museum from known and self-confessed smuggler William Wolff with a strange question mark in its own admission. The provenance reads: “Present in Varanasi, India (?); acquired by William Wolff, New York; purchased by Walters Art Museum, 1969.” 

The UN website for the 1970 Convention has this interesting reference that is useful to debate the above case: “For cases of return … that do not fall under the preceding provisions, such as objects stolen from private property or coming from illicit excavations or not yet listed, bilateral negotiations between States are encouraged … . The UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee (ICPRCP) can also be solicited to facilitate bilateral negotiations between States concerning requests for the return and restitution of cultural property. The return or restitution of cultural property will therefore be carried out in the spirit of the 1970 Convention.”

Vikan, in the column mentioned earlier adds: “A final, decisive blow to America’s antiquities-collecting ecosystem came in 2008 with the rewrite of the AAMD’s acquisition guidelines, which now includes this critical passage: ‘AAMD members normally should not acquire a work unless research substantiates that it was outside the country of probable modern discovery before 1970.’” That is, they are still not willing to follow the spirit of the UN Convention and are hiding behind the ‘before 1970’ fig leaf.

Now take the case of The San Diego Museum of Art. The museum’s policy on accepting donations starts with these lines: “All donations must undergo curatorial review before being accepted”, and ends with, “If the object is accepted for the collection and the donor wishes to declare it as a tax deduction, the donor is responsible for obtaining a third-party appraisal.”


The News Editorial Analysis 19th Dec 2021


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