The HINDU Notes – 06th April 2018 - VISION

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Saturday, April 07, 2018

The HINDU Notes – 06th April 2018

πŸ“° ‘Skill India’ urgently needs reforms

There is no way the country can reap its demographic dividend without fixing vocational education

•Salvaging the Indian demographic dividend must be a key part of India’s growth story. In 2016, the Government of India formed the Sharada Prasad Committee to rationalise the Sector Skill Councils (SSCs), which are employer bodies mostly promoted by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the Confederation of Indian Industry and other industry associations, and improve ‘Skill India’. The committee submitted its report in 2016. Now over a year later, it may be prudent to look at the reforms it suggested and action taken in the vocational education/training (VET) system.

•The two goals in ‘Skill India’ are, first, to meet employers’ needs of skills and, second, to prepare workers (young and old) for a decent livelihood. The recurring theme in the report is its focus on youth. Each recommendation underlines that the VET is not just for underprivileged communities; it is not a stopgap arrangement for those who cannot make it through formal education. It is for all of us.

Streaming for students

•It suggests concrete steps to ensure a mindset change, such as having a separate stream for vocational education (in secondary education), creating vocational schools and vocational colleges for upward mobility, and having a Central university to award degrees and diplomas. Streaming would mean that the ‘diploma disease’, which is resulting in growing tertiary enrolment along with rising unemployment among the educated, would be stemmed. China, for instance, has such a separate stream after nine years of compulsory schooling, and half the students choose VET at the senior secondary level (after class nine).

•This requires a serious engagement of employers. Private vocational training providers (VTPs) that mushroomed as private industrial training institutes (ITIs) and National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC)-financed short-term training providers are no substitute for industry-employer engagement with each pillar of the VET ecosystem: secondary schools; ITIs, public and private; NSDC-funded VTPs; ministries that train, and firms that conduct enterprise-based training.

A global alignment

•The second recurring theme is the realisation of human potential. This means aligning the courses to international requirements, ensuring a basic foundation in the 3Rs, and life-long learning. It implies national standards for an in-demand skill set with national/global mobility that translates into better jobs. Short duration courses (with no real skills) that provide low pay for suboptimal jobs cannot be called national standards. Hence the current national standards have to drastically improve.

•This means that we should have no more than 450 courses — Germany has only 340 courses — in accordance with the National Classification of Occupations 2015 (which itself was based on the International Standard Classification of Occupations). Such trainees will be a national asset. What we have instead are nearly 10,000 standards, produced mostly by consultants. There cannot be thousands of standards (compressed into 2,000 qualification packs/job roles), and “delivered” to trainees in a matter of a few months. This is not what the National Skills Qualification Framework (NSQF) had recommended. The focus should be in strengthening reading, writing and arithmetic skills. No skill development can succeed if most of the workforce lacks the foundation to pick up skills in a fast-changing world. Vocational training must by definition be for a minimum of a year, which includes internship (without which certification is not possible). Short-term training should be confined to recognising prior learning of informally trained workers who are already working.

•The third theme is to do what is right when no one is watching you, because, as in other industries, the regulator has displayed a limited capacity to regulate. Cases of a conflict of interests, of rigged assessments and of training happening only on paper are not new.

•A recent parliamentary report on private ITIs has exposed yet another scam — the Quality Council of India’s approval for thousands of private ITIs. If the number of private ITIs has grown from under 2,000 to over 11,000 in five years, it points to a colossal failure of regulation, accompanied by a lack of quality training on offer at such ITIs.

•There is a huge ethics and accountability issue if there is no credible assessment board and when there are too many sector skill councils, each trying to maximise their business. The Sharada Prasad Committee had recommended that the number of SSCs should correspond to the National Industrial (Activity) Classification (which has 21 economic activities across the entire economy), but which is still way larger than Australia’s six. Little has happened except for the number of SSCs dropping from 40 to 39.

For a unification

•The first policy step should be towards a unification of the entire VET system. What we have today are fragmented pillars. Each of the five pillars does what it wants to, with no synergy. An NSDC-centric focus has left the skill development efforts of 17 ministries out of the same scrutiny. ‘Skill India’ can have an impact only when all of them work together and learn from each other. SSCs, which are supposedly industry representatives, should be engaging themselves with each pillar of the system, and not just NSDC-funded VTPs.

•The second step is to enhance employer ownership, responsibility and their ‘skin in the game’. Media reports often highlight the corporate sector lamenting about “unemployable youth”. The private sector places the onus on the government, treating it as a welfare responsibility, while the government looks to the private sector since it is the end consumer of skills. The result is that only 36% of India’s organised sector firms conduct in-firm training (mostly large ones, which are also the only ones that take on apprentices under a Government of India Act).

•We need a clear fix for this. In this regard the committee’s recommendation of a reimbursable industry contribution model (applicable only to the organised sector) should solve the perennial problem of poaching while providing a common level field. It could ensure reimbursements for those companies undertaking training while rewarding industry for sharing and undertaking skilling until everyone in the company is skilled. This will lay the foundation for making at least our organised workforce 100% skilled.

•The third policy step is in getting the government to recognise that decades have been spent in building a government-financed and managed, and hence supply-driven system.

Data gathering by sector

•Does the government, which is not generating much employment in the public sector, really know what industry’s skill requirements are in the private sector? Private employers do know this but there has been no serious effort by them to gather data. So the government needs to confine itself to roles it is capable of performing and not involving itself through multiple ministries in activities in which it has no comparative advantage.

•One such role is to have surveys, once every five years, through the National Sample Survey Office, to collect data on skill providers and skill gaps by sector. Such data can guide evidence-based policy-making, as against the current approach of shooting in the dark.

•Finally, we need more reflection from stakeholders on the actual value addition done by the skilling initiative. The NSDC, which was envisioned as a public-private partnership, receives 99% of its funding from government, but its flagship scheme has a less than 12% record of placement for trainees. The NSQF framework has seen little adoption in private sector. And, more than two-thirds of courses developed have not trained even one student so far.

•India can surely become the world’s skill capital but not with what it is doing right now. The reforms suggested by the committee can be a good starting point for we cannot let another generation lose its dreams.

πŸ“° Expanding the SC/ST Act

The 2015 amendments were highlighted recently in court

•The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015, was highlighted in the Supreme Court by the government as a significant step taken to affirm the trust of the SC/STs in the law. The amendments, which came into effect in January 2016, expand the original Act of 1989.

•The new offences include more instances of “atrocities” recognised as crimes against SCs and STs. These include forcible tonsuring of head, garlanding with footwear, denying a SC/ST member access to irrigation facilities, using or permitting manual scavenging, dedicating SC/ST women as devadasis, abusing in the name of caste, committing atrocities by dubbing someone a witch, social or economic boycott, preventing SC/ST candidates from filing nomination to contest elections, hurting a SC/ST by removing his or her clothes, forcing a SC/ST member to leave his or her house, village or residence, and so on.

•It adds certain IPC offences like hurt, grievous hurt, intimidation and kidnapping, attracting less than 10 years of imprisonment, committed against SCs and STs as offences punishable under the Prevention of Atrocities Act (PoA Act). Earlier, only those offences listed in the IPC as attracting a punishment of 10 years or more and committed on SCs/STs were accepted as offences falling under the Act.

•The Amendment Act introduced the establishment of exclusive special courts and special public prosecutors to try offences under the PoA Act, so that cases are disposed of expeditiously.

•The law requires these courts to take direct cognisance of an offence, and complete the trial of the case within two months from the date of filing of the chargesheet.

•The new law defines the term ‘wilful negligence’ in the context of public servants at all levels, starting from the registration of the complaint to dereliction of duty under this Act. More importantly, it adds a section called the ‘presumption as to offences’ — that is, if an accused is acquainted with the victim or his family, the court may presume that the accused was aware of the caste or tribal identity of the victim unless proved otherwise.

•The new law, however, does not touch Section 18 of the original Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989. This provision does not allow an accused person, who is alleged to have caused injury to and insulted a Dalit, to apply for anticipatory bail.

πŸ“° SC raps govt for passsing ordinance

Stays admissions of 180 students to Karuna, Kannur medical colleges

•The Supreme Court on Thursday rapped the Pinarayi Vijayan-led Kerala government for promulgating an ordinance to “blatantly nullify” last year’s apex court order freezing illegal medical admissions made in the State.

•Staying the Kerala Professional Colleges (Regularisation of Admission in Medical Colleges) Ordinance of 2017, a Bench comprising Justices Arun Mishra and U.U. Lalit passed a scathing order, accusing the government of trying to bulldoze the court.

Court observance

•“In our prima facie view, the ordinance in question blatantly seeks to nullify the binding effect of the order passed by this court. Prima facie it was not open to declare this court’s order as void or ineffective as was sought to be done by way of ordinance,” the Supreme Court observed in its order.

•“We, therefore, stay the operation of the ordinance and make it clear that no student shall be permitted to reap any benefit of any action taken and they shall not be permitted to attend the college or the classes or continue in medical colleges in any manner pursuant to the ordinance,” the Supreme Court ordered. It warned that any violation of the order “shall be treated seriously by this court.”


•On March 22 last year, the apex court cancelled the admission of 180 medical undergraduate students in the Kannur Medical College and the Karuna Medical College in Kerala owing to irregularities in admission procedure.

Zero tolerance

•The apex court had ordered the termination of 150 admissions in the Kannur college and 30 in the Karuna college, thus sending a strong message to private professional colleges that there would be zero tolerance if irregularities were found in admissions even at the cost of derailing the academic future of the students involved.

πŸ“° Was the SC right on the anti-atrocities law?

There was a need for the court to step in so that innocent people are not implicated

•The recent Supreme Court ruling on the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, is clear in intent and is nothing new. So, I am baffled by the reactions to the judgment. What it does is to direct the police to verify all the facts of a case before registering a complaint under the Act so as to ensure that justice is done to both the complainant and the accused.

•The Constitution, drafted by B.R. Ambedkar, premises equality before law, which means that all citizens of the country are equal, including Dalits and Adivasis. Ambedkar gave us the mantra of Bandhutva (brotherhood) and we all should follow it and protect all the citizens of this country.

Misuse of law

•But let us not be oblivious to the fact that there are a few people today who misuse the very law that was enacted to protect them. And if someone is misusing the law to level a false charge, what can possibly be wrong in saying that the complaint has to be verified at the preliminary stage by a preliminary committee before a formal charge can be made? And this is exactly what the Supreme Court has said. If a complaint is registered under the said Act, without verifying the facts of a case, isn’t one going against the very principles of natural justice? Shouldn’t every citizen get a fair opportunity to defend herself?

•But having said that, it is also a fact that investigating officers do not take cognisance of complaints filed by Dalits and Adivasis. Therefore, let me add that cases must be registered against erring police officers who have either delayed or avoided filing a complaint.

•The apex court has given a direction to thoroughly verify the facts of the complaint before registering the FIR of the complainant. The government has also informed the court that it does not intend to make any amendments to the Atrocities Act. Despite the submission, we witnessed a nationwide protest. Properties worth crores of rupees were damaged and people lost their lives. The question is, who is responsible for this?

•As for figures, chargesheets are filed in 77% of the cases filed. To my knowledge and following our discussions in Parliament, in 2014, about 40,000 cases were registered under the Act; in 2015, there was a slight drop; and in 2016, the figures were similar to the 2014 figures. There was a need for the court to step in so that unwarranted cases are not registered and innocent people are not implicated.

Rural and urban areas

•The reasons behind the low conviction, which is 15%, is because cases are registered without proper investigation and a simple accusation leads to an FIR which does not stand scrutiny in a court of law. This exercise is a way to harass people and is a complete waste of time — of both the police and the court.

•Also, one will find that in the figures provided by the government, more cases under the Act are filed in rural areas as opposed to urban areas where caste identities are blurred. It is easier to falsely implicate people in rural areas. Every time there is a fight or a dispute in rural pockets, it is given a caste angle and someone or the other gets implicated under the Atrocities Act. Just as a few false rape cases are registered to harass or settle scores under Section 376 of the IPC, it is not uncommon to find the Atrocities Act being similarly misused.

πŸ“° Surprise softening

The RBI’s inflation projections belie households’ and manufacturers’ expectations

•The Reserve Bank of India’s policymakers have acted predictably in opting to keep interest rates unchanged and in retaining the ‘neutral’ stance. Price stability, after all, remains the Monetary Policy Committee’s primary remit, and trend line retail inflation continues to run above its medium-term target of a durable headline inflation reading of 4%. But as with all central bank policy statements, it is not only the action but also what is said that is closely scrutinised for clues on what may lie ahead. The RBI’s bimonthly monetary policy statement, unfortunately, ends up sending mixed messages as its outlook for inflation and assessment of the factors contributing to price gains are at variance. The MPC has appreciably lowered its projections for CPI (consumer price index) inflation for the fourth quarter of 2017-18, and for the new fiscal year. It sees price gains having slowed to 4.5% over January-March — a full 60 basis points lower than the 5.1% pace it had projected in February. Forecasts for the first and second halfs of 2018-19 have also been substantially trimmed. Price gains in the first half are now in the 4.7-5.1% range (as against 5.1-5.6% projected in February), with inflation slowing in the second half to 4.4%.

•The key factors cited by the RBI in lowering its inflation projections are a “sharp decline in vegetable prices and significant moderation in fuel group inflation.” In extending the moderation in food prices in February-March as a major driver of the lowered trajectory for price gains in the new financial year, the RBI is not fully convincing on account of an assertion (of a “likely reversal in food prices in H1”) and an assumption (of a “normal monsoon”). Despite a private weather forecaster’s projection of normal rains from June to September, the MPC itself acknowledges the risks that temporally or spatially deficient monsoon rainfall could pose to food prices. Also, policymakers appear to have glossed over the RBI’s March survey of households’ inflation expectations — where prices are seen edging up over the three-month and one-year-ahead horizons — as well as feedback that manufacturers expect input and output prices to rise. Volatility in oil prices too have been played down. The other surprise is the decision to jettison Gross Value Added as the main measure of economic output and switch to Gross Domestic Product. While the assertion that GDP growth will strengthen this fiscal has given investors cause for cheer, the forecast of 7.4% is unchanged from the implicit projection from February. The messaging on the economy could have been clearer and more consistent.

πŸ“° Wilful default of loans hits honest taxpayers, says Kovind

President calls for more women to join India’s work force

•President Ram Nath Kovind on Thursday said wilful and criminal default on bank loans had hurt innocent citizens and honest taxpayers had to bear the brunt of such frauds.

•“Genuine business failures can happen. But when there is a wilful and criminal default on a bank loan, then it is families of our fellow Indians that suffer. The innocent citizen loses out, and ultimately the honest taxpayer bears the burden,” said Mr. Kovind, inaugurating the 34th annual general meeting of FICCI Ladies Organisation (FLO), one of the top industry bodies.

•“It is admirable that at the grass roots of our country — in small hamlets and among traditionally underprivileged and deprived communities — MUDRA entrepreneurs are striving to pay back their loans. These are hard-working Indians, many of them women. They are borrowing small sums as capital to set up little businesses,” he said, pointing out that only 8% of the 117 million MUDRA loans have turned non-performing assets (NPAs).

•The President’s remarks are significant as they come in the backdrop of serious concerns being expressed about the health of India’s banking sector after a series of scams unravelled and the fast multiplying NPAs.

Bank frauds

•Opposition parties, led by the Congress, have alleged that in the past two months bank frauds to the tune of Rs. 60,000 crore involving a dozen public sector and private sector banks have surfaced. Though political parties demanded a White Paper on the banking sector, a paralysed Parliament meant that the issue couldn’t be discussed.

•President Kovind also talked about the “spirit of justice and the rule of law” in what appears to be an indirect reference to the recent caste-related violence following the Supreme Court order on the SC/ST Act.

•“If our institutions and our society can be true to both the letter of the law and the spirit of justice, we can help every Indian realise her potential.,” he said.

πŸ“° ‘Tax on alcohol, tobacco to benefit poor’

Revenue can be used to tackle non-communicable diseases, says Lancet study

•Levying taxes on unhealthy products can produce major health gains for the poorest in society, especially if tax revenues are used to fund pro-poor programmes, noted a study published in the Lancet on Thursday. These unhealthy products include soft drinks, alcohol and tobacco.

•It added that poor and uninsured households are more likely to incur catastrophic healthcare costs from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and are more likely to forgo care for chronic health problems compared to higher income households.

•The paper does a comprehensive analysis of evidence on expenditure, behaviour and socio-economic status, and brings together data from across the globe.

•It presents a strong evidence that taxes on unhealthy products have the potential to produce major health gains among the poorest in society, who are disproportionately affected by NCDs.

•The evidence helps counter fears that such taxes will necessarily disproportionately harm the poor.

‘Cause and consequence’

•NCDs — cancer, heart disease and diabetes — cause 38 million deaths each year, 16 million of these are among people aged under 70.

•“NCDs are a major cause and consequence of poverty worldwide,” said Rachel Nugent from RTI International in Seattle, U.S., and Chair of the Lancet taskforce on NCDs and economics. “Responding to this challenge means big investments to improve healthcare systems worldwide, but there are immediate and effective tools at our disposal. Taxes on unhealthy products can produce major health gains, and evidence shows these can be implemented fairly, without disproportionately harming the poorest in society,” added Dr. Nugent.

πŸ“° RBI holds rates; cuts inflation forecast

Recent high frequency indicators point to further strengthening in economic growth, says Urjit Patel

•The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) kept interest rates unchanged in the first policy meeting of 2018-19, as expected, but surprised markets with a dovish tone that some interpreted as opening up the possibility of a rate cut, even as early as September. The six-member monetary policy committee opted, by majority, to hold the repo rate at 6%, with a sole member recommending instead that the policy rate be raised by 25 basis points.

•The central bank lowered its projection retail inflation for the first half of the current financial year to 4.7-5.1% from 5.1-5.6% and to 4.4% in H2, from 4.5-4.6%.

•Importantly, it emphasised that excluding the impact of house rent allowance of the seventh pay commission for central government employees, consumer price inflation is projected at 4.4-4.7% for April-September, and at 4.4% for October-December.

•The RBI said several factors were expected to accelerate the pace of economic activity in 2018-19.

•“While the MPC’s assessment of GDP growth in 2017-18 of 6.6% was lower than a year ago, which was 7.1%, there were important intra-year turning points, most notably investment demand accelerated in the second half of 2017-18 and recent high frequency indicators point to some further strengthening with capital goods production registering a 19-month high growth in January this year,” RBI Governor Urjit Patel told reporters.

•GDP growth is projected to strengthen from 6.6% in 2017-18 to 7.4% in 2018-19 — in the range of 7.3-7.4% in H1 and 7.3-7.6% in H2.

•“The monetary policy committee was of the view that the pace of economic growth could accelerate in 2018-19 on clearer signs of revival in investment activity and sustained improvement in global demand,” Dr. Patel said.

•The MPC noted that growth has been recovering and the output gap is closing which is also reflected in a pick-up in credit offtake in recent months.

‘Unexpectedly dovish’

•“This was an unexpectedly dovish policy with the RBI highlighting inflation risks but at the same time revising their forecasts downward,” said Abheek Barua, chief economist, HDFC Bank.

•The RBI’s inflation outlook cheered the markets as the yield on 10-year government bond slid 16 basis points to a four month low of 7.13%.

•“If this is a permanent shift in the paradigm of inflation management from a singular focus on bringing long term inflation down to 4% to a an approach that is more supportive of growth, then the RBI might go for a long pause,” Mr. Barua said.

πŸ“° RBI bars banks from dealing with virtual currencies

Central bank also mulls introducing digital currency

•The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has asked banks to stop providing service to any entity dealing with virtual currencies, with immediate effect.

•“In view of the associated risks, it has been decided that, with immediate effect, entities regulated by RBI shall not deal with or provide services to any individual or business entities dealing with or settling VCs,” the central bank said in a statement.

Three-month deadline

•Regulated entities that are already providing such services should exit the relationship within three months.

•After advising all stakeholders about the risks of virtual currencies, the central bank had decided to ring-fence the RBI regulated entities from the risk of dealing with entities associated with virtual currencies, RBI deputy governor B.P. Kanungo said. “However, we also recognise that the blockchain technology or distributed ledger technology that lies beneath the virtual currencies has a potential benefit for financial inclusion. We believe they can be exploited for the benefit of the economy,” Mr. Kanungo said.

•RBI also said it would explore introducing digital currency and had formed an interdepartmental group to study and provide guidance on the desirability and feasibility to introduce a central bank digital currency. The report will be submitted by end-June 2018.

πŸ“° RBI fiat on payment system operators’ data

To ensure data access for supervision

•The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has said all payment system operators’ data must be stored only within the country.

•The central bank gave the operators six months to comply with the directive.

•The move is intended to give unfettered access to all payment data for supervisory purposes, the RBI added.

•“In recent times, the payment ecosystem in India has expanded considerably with the emergence of new payment systems, players and platforms,” the RBI said in a statement on Thursday.

•“Ensuring the safety and security of payment systems data by adoption of the best global standards and their continuous monitoring and surveillance is essential to reduce the risks from data breaches while maintaining a healthy pace of growth in digital payments,’’ the RBI said.

Ind AS norms

•The RBI also deferred the implementation of Indian Accounting Standards (Ind AS) for banks by one year. Scheduled Commercial Banks (SCBs), excluding regional rural banks (RRBs), were required to implement Ind AS from April 1, 2018.

•“However, necessary legislative amendments are under consideration of the government. In view of this, it has been decided to defer implementation of Ind AS by one year,” the RBI said.

πŸ“° Can DNA be taken for Aadhaar, asks judge

‘An executive authority may even expand the meaning of biometrics’

•Justice D.Y. Chandrachud pointed out how the Aadhaar Act could allow the State, in future, to seek DNA, hair and even semen samples from citizens as “biometric information.”

•The judge, part of the five-judge Constitution Bench led by Chief Justice Dipak Misra hearing the challenge to the biometric ID programme, was referring to the open-ended language of Section 2(g) of the Aadhaar Act, which defines biometrics.

•In fact, Section 2 (g) defines “biometric information” as “photograph, finger print, iris scan, or such other biological attributes of an individual as may be specified by regulations.” The Act does not specify what the phrase ‘other biological attributes’ means. Nor does the Act prescribe any limit to biometric information. As of now, iris and fingerprint scans are taken.

•But Justice Chandrachud said an executive authority could even “expand” the meaning of biometrics through an administrative order.

•The judge asked Attorney-General K.K. Venugopal on Thursday whether Section 2(g) did not amount to “excessive delegation” of power to an executive authority. Mr. Venugopal said the biometric system was safe and accurate and would help to prevent money-laundering, bank frauds and income tax evasion. But the court countered that Aadhaar was not a panacea for every crime.

•Justice A.K. Sikri countered that bank frauds, causing losses of up to thousands of crores, was not facilitated by the perpetrators with multiple identities. These frauds occurred for lack of diligence on the part of banks and because bank employees were hand-in-glove with the perpetrators. Mr. Venugopal agreed that “incidents like Nirav Modi” would not have happened had banks shown due diligence.

•Justice Chandrachud agreed with Justice Sikri that Aadhaar was not meant to prevent or detect bank frauds. “We can understand when you talk about frauds in welfare schemes, but in the case of bank frauds, we don’t see what Aadhaar can do,” Justice Chandrachud said. “But if Aadhaar is linked to bank accounts, whenever there is a transaction it will be revealed,” Mr. Venugopal said.

‘Tax evasion must end’

•Justice Chandrachud said welfare benefits should reach the poor while money-laundering and tax evasion should end. “But can you extend Aadhaar for every transaction? Whether this will meet the test of proportionality,” he asked.

•The court questioned the government’s logic that the Aadhaar-mobile phone linking would help to check terrorism. Justice Sikri said an entire population could not be viewed as defaulters. He challenged the government’s argument that the right to food, employment and medical care superceded the right to privacy. The judge likened the exchange of right to food for individual privacy to “slavery.”

•Mr. Venugopal argued that Aadhaar would help to combat poverty. Justice Sikri said the gap between the rich and the poor was widening, with 70% of the wealth lying in the hands of a mere 1% .

πŸ“° Consent is crucial

Data science can help us get insights into key sectors but privacy shouldnot be compromised

•Data and data science have suddenly emerged into the spotlight. First, there was a data breach at Facebook, which saw allegations of the U.K.-based Cambridge Analytica (CA) illegally accessing over 87 million users’ information for personalisation of digital campaigns. Then there were allegations that the official mobile apps of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Congress party had sent user data without consent to foreign companies for analytical purposes.

•The rapid rise of data science can be attributed to the voluminous amount of information that is being generated with every activity of ours in this digital age — IBM says that 90% of the world’s data has been generated just in the last two years — and the strides concurrently made in the world of mathematical modelling, computation, and Artificial Intelligence-powered algorithms. These trends are creating unprecedented, far-reaching possibilities built on our growing capability to analyse vast quantities of the most complex of data in real time, and helping us get insights that can assist us in taking best-informed decisions across sectors.

•Data science generally tends to produce win-win scenarios for the practising organisations and their end users. For example, its application in election processes can make it possible for various political parties to understand their voters better, and to reach out to them more effectively. The insights derived after analysing feedback from the electorate can be used while creating manifestos, formulating policies, and selecting candidates — steps that can essentially usher in a more transparent and participatory democracy.

•Nevertheless, there are growing fears that applications of data science, along with large social media platforms with hundreds of millions of active users, could unduly subvert our democratic processes, and turn our elections into mere marketing campaigns. However, it should not be forgotten that similar fears in lesser degrees existed across time, while our mass communication technologies evolved from the print, to the radio, and then the television medium. Data-driven social media and digital platforms should be seen as yet another stage in this evolution.

•Facebook and CA find themselves in the dock, not for putting in action any of the applications of data science, but for illegally doing so. While major Indian political parties continue their mud-slinging over the hiring of CA, and oversharing their app data with third party analytical firms based overseas, the more pertinent deliberation should be if any of their activities related to data handling, from collection and storage to sharing and transfer, were done illegally, without the consent of the users. That would be a serious breach of trust, compromising the privacy of citizens. These events also call for the expedited creation of strong data privacy and protection laws, without which our newest fundamental right will remain easily exploitable words on paper.

πŸ“° ‘Data of over 5.6 lakh Indian users may have been tapped’

FB responds to notice regarding controversy involving Cambridge Analytica

•Responding to the notice from the Indian government, Facebook on Thursday admitted that data of over 5.6 lakh users of the social media platform in India may have been accessed without their consent in the ongoing controversy involving Cambridge Analytica.

•“We are investigating the specific number of people whose information was accessed by the app, including those in India. The numbers that we have now are that only 335 people in India installed the app [thisisyourdigitallife], which is 0.1% of the app’s total worldwide installs,” a Facebook spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

•It added, “We further understand that 5,62,120 additional people in India were potentially affected, as friends of people who installed the app. This yields a total of 562,455 potentially affected people in India, which is 0.6% of the global number of potentially affected people.”

•Facebook has over 20 crore users in the country.

•The U.K.-based Cambridge Analytica is accused of misusing data of millions of Facebook users to profile and influence voting behaviour.

Govt. sends notices

•The Indian government then sent out separate notices to Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, seeking response on whether data of Indian users was used. Cambridge Analytica has sought time to respond to the queries.

•A senior IT official told The Hindu that the government will wait for responses from Cambridge Analytica before deciding on the further course of action.

•In its response, Facebook has reiterated that “at no time did Facebook agree to Cambridge Analytica’s use of any Facebook user data that may have been collected by this app.”

•“Cambridge Analytica’s acquisition of Facebook data through the app developed by Dr. Aleksandr Kogan and his company Global Science Research Limited (“GSR”) happened without our authorisation and was an explicit violation of our Platform policies,” the social networking giant said.

πŸ“° Govt. forms committee to regulate news portals

The ministry has been consulting both National Broadcasters’ Association and Press Council of India for over a month on the issue.

•The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has instituted a committee to regulate online portals, including news websites, entertainment sites and media aggregators.

•The 10-member committee, formed on Wednesday, will include secretaries of the departments of Home, Legal Affairs, Electronics and Information and Technology, and Industrial Policy and Promotion. The CEO of MyGov and a representative each of the Press Council of India and National Broadcasters’ Association will also be part of the committee.

•In its order, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting noted that both print and electronic media are regulated but online media does not come under the ambit of regulatory mechanism.

•The content telecast on television channels are regulated in terms of the programme and advertisement codes under the Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994. Similarly, the autonomous body Press Council of India regulates the print media.

•The committee, broadly, will look at three things. One is to bring online information dissemination under regulation. Second is to propose a policy for foreign direct investment in this media. Third is to look at international best practices on such existing regulatory mechanism.

•Information and Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani had announced on Twitter that her ministry was working on bringing online news too under regulation mechanism. The ministry has been consulting both National Broadcasters’ Association and Press Council of India for over a month on the issue.

πŸ“° Milky Way core may have thousands of black holes

12 binaries traced within the vicinity of Sagittarius A

•Astrophysicists have detected a dozen black holes at the centre of the Milky Way galaxy. They say that there could be as many as 10,000 black holes there.

•The find provides the first evidence for a long-held theory that the massive black hole at the core of every large galaxy should be surrounded by thousands of smaller ones, the research team wrote in the science journal Nature .

•“We observed a dozen black holes” around Sagittarius A, the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, said study co-author Chuck Hailey, an astrophysicist at New York’s Columbia University. “But this is the tip of the iceberg,” he said. Black holes feast on gas and dust in their vicinity, but the X-rays they burp are sporadic and hard to observe from Earth. To try and overcome this difficulty, Mr. Hailey and a team decided to track down black hole “binaries” — duos occasionally formed when a black hole captures a passing star and binds to it.

•When the captured star has a low mass, the binary emits X-ray bursts that are weak but consistent and easier to detect.

•The team observed the X-ray signatures of 12 black hole binaries within three light years of Sagittarius A.

•Based on data from studying black holes closer to the earth, they extrapolated there must be about 500 binaries around our galaxy’s core in all.

•“The final step comes from theorists, who estimate that only about one in 20 isolated black holes will eventually find a companion star” to form a binary, Mr. Hailey explained. “So, multiplying by 20, we get around 10,000 isolated black holes” around Sagittarius A, he added.

πŸ“° Society must take a view on GM mustard: scientist

‘Commercial release of the seed is a socio-political issue’

•“The commercial release of genetically modified mustard wasn’t merely a scientific issue but a ‘socio-political one’ that required the understanding of a wide section of society,” K. VijayRaghavan, 64, Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA) said in an interview.

•He was formerly Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, that had funded the development of the seed. While the transgenic plant has been cleared for commercial cultivation by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee — a scientific body — it’s yet to be cleared by Dr. Harsh Vardhan, the Union Environment and Science Minister.

Scientific view

•“There’s the scientific view [that it’s safe and useful] and another, in my view, a very small number but more vocal with a contrary view. Scientists argue that you are giving equal time to a rational view and an irrational view and so a hard decision must be taken. In the case of GM, it’s important that society take a view. Science can bring evidence but the policy decision is a more complex process.”

•However India’s science academies needed to “speak more” and play a greater role especially in its advice to government on matters of science.

•“Indian science needs to get out from being intellectually not vibrant and exploring a vast space, into one which does. And India’s science academies need to play a special role,” said Mr. VijayRaghavan, a biologist and member of India’s prominent academies.

•While the Economic Survey in February said that India didn’t spend enough on science relative to its GDP, Mr. VijayRaghavan said resources would increase but the fact that there weren’t significant budgetary cuts to science showed that the “Prime Minister was seeing value in science” and directly intervening in matters of science.

•“Our process of delivery of funds does need improvement,” he emphasised.

•Last month, 150 scientists signed a petition demanding that Indian science establishments take more stringent measures to punish scientists and senior researchers proved guilty of sexual harassment.

Gender parity

•Government intervention on its own wasn’t enough to address problems of sexual harassment and gender parity in India’s research institutions. Rather, scientists should be talking about addressing them in their institutions and emulate organisations that have better policies and administrative practices in place, he added.

•Mr. VijayRaghavan, who’s the first PSA not connected to India’s atomic energy or space programmes, said improved battery technology and applying them for increased mobility and power would be “transformative” to the Indian economy and to this end solar and nuclear energy were critical to India’s fuel mix, he argued.

•Among his priorities, he said, would be to closely work with the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog as well as the other scientific ministries.

•“One must keep in mind the mandate and roles each Ministry has. There needs to be synergy between different groups. This is primarily about defining what each one’s goals are and about how to achieve them.”

πŸ“° Over 100 tiny plastic fibres present in every meal: study

Polymer gets into household dust and settles on plates

•People could be swallowing over 100 tiny plastic particles with every meal, according to a study which found that polymers from soft furnishings and synthetic fabrics get into household dust and settle on plates.

•Researchers from Heriot-Watt University in the U.K. made the discovery after putting petri dishes containing sticky dust traps on the table next to dinner plates in three homes.

•Up to 14 bits of plastic were found in the petri dishes at the end of a 20-minute meal — the equivalent of 114 plastic fibres falling on the average dinner plate given their much larger size.

•The scientists, from Heriot-Watt University concluded that the average person swallows up to 68,415 potentially dangerous plastic fibres a year simply through sitting down to eat.

Seafood comparison

•The researchers set out to compare plastic fibres found in mussels with the amount in the average household meal.

•They found fewer than two microplastics in each mussel and concluded that the average person can expect to consume 100 plastic particles a year through eating the shellfish. However, people will ingest anything from 13,731 to 68,415 plastic fibres in a year during meals because of household dust.

•“These results may be surprising to some people who may expect the plastic fibres in seafood to be higher than those in household dust,” said Ted Henry, professor at Heriot-Watt University.

•“We do not know where these fibres come from, but it is likely to be inside the home and the wider environment,” said Mr. Henry.

•The plastic fibres found in the home-cooked meals did not come from the food or the cooking environment, but from household dust, researchers said.

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