The HINDU Notes – 10th June 2021 - VISION

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Thursday, June 10, 2021

The HINDU Notes – 10th June 2021


📰 Green economy and mobility key aspects of draft 2041 master plan

It also focuses on affordable housing, in-situ rehabilitation

•A dedicated Green Development Area (GDA) for incentivising large-scale implementation of green economies, transit-oriented development aligned with mass transit, multi-modal integration and facilitation of first and last mile connectivity are some of the key aspects of the draft Master Plan for Delhi (MPD) 2041, which was placed in the public domain while inviting suggestions and objections from stakeholders.

•Addressing pollution and climate change by promoting clean economic activities and minimised vehicular pollution by creating multi-modal hubs and encouraging green mobility are some of the aspects the MPD-2041 concentrates on. The draft states that polluting industries will not be permitted to operate within Delhi and the list of such industries will be periodically updated by the Delhi government and DDA.

•The draft also highlights the enhancement of a “Green-Blue Infrastructure” by taking into account the Aravali ridge, the Yamuna, forests, wetlands, parks and other assets.

•“The GDA policy has been proposed for green belt villages and it permits restricted development and prescribes substantial proportion of land to be maintained as wooded area and green cover,” according to the draft MPD – 2041.

•Affordable housing and in-situ rehabilitation of those living in slums and JJ clusters were other key aspects outlined by the MPD-2041 and the draft document said that in unauthorised colonies “settlement level improvements” are required to make all parts of the settlement accessible for emergency vehicles like ambulances and fire tenders.

Forms of workspaces

•Apart from creation of strategic hubs of high investment, the draft MPD-2041 also lays out a plan for facilitating new forms of workspaces. “A finer network of decentralised workspaces in the form of small warehousing for e-commerce, co-working spaces for start-up economy shall be facilitated. The plan provides adequate space norms and facilities for supporting informal economies,” the document read.

•According to the draft MPD-2041, an area-based improvement approach will be adopted for revitalising the commercial and socio-cultural hubs of the city, including areas like Connaught Place, Mandi House, Pragati Maidan and Shahjahanabad (Walled City).

•Improved connectivity and transport infrastructure, shift from private to shared mobility and making the Capital “walkable and cyclable” are other key aspects mentioned in the MPD-2041.

•“A Comprehensive Mobility Plan (CMP) shall be prepared for Delhi to achieve systematic integration across all levels and modes of urban transport,” the draft MPD-2041 stated.

📰 Central deputation of officers very low: DoPT

DoPT tells States that not sending enough officers may affect future cadre review proposals.

•With the States not nominating enough officers for Central deputation, the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) has shot off a letter to the State governments, cautioning them that not sending enough officers may affect future cadre review proposals.

•For instance, Uttar Pradesh has over 500 Indian Administrative Service officers but data show that only 32 IAS officers are presently on Central deputation.

•West Bengal has around 280 IAS officers but only 11 are posted with the Central Ministries.

•Bihar fares better with 32 IAS officers on Central deputation out of 208, whereas 28 out of the 167 IAS officers of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre are serving the Centre.

•Out of the 241 Gujarat cadre officers, 27 are posted with the Union government. Rajasthan has deputed 13 out of its 247 IAS officers to the Centre.

•An official of Uttar Pradesh cadre, however, said it was not that officers were not willing to go on Central deputation but the no-objection clearance was hard to come by. The final clearance is given by the Chief Minister.

•“Many officers from Uttar Pradesh have applied but they are not getting a clearance,” said the official.

•As per norms, States have to depute All India Services (AIS)officers, including Indian Police Service (IPS) officers, to Central government offices and at any point it cannot be more than 40% of the total cadre strength.

‘Very minimal’

•In a letter to States on June 4, the DoPT has said “the number of nominations received so far has been very minimal and as such the representation of officers from various cadres/ services, especially at the deputy secretary/director level, is extremely low.”

•The DoPT had sent a similar communication in December 2020 but in the past two years it has not been able to fill vacancies at the director and joint secretary level in various Central ministries.

•Around 40% or 390 CSS posts are at the joint secretary level (more than 19 years experience) and 60% or 540 such posts are at the rank of deputy secretary (nine years) or director rank (14 years of service).

Serious gaps

•“…. every cadre is allowed a deputation reserve to ensure that officers have the opportunity to work on deputation including that under the Central Staffing Scheme [CSS], which adds to their experience. The utilisation of this reserve is low and this underutilisation, particularly at the deputy secretary/director level, causes serious gaps in cadre management. This aspect will also be kept in view by the DoPT while considering cadre review proposals, to be received in future. The cadres that have not been forwarding adequate nominations for the CSS at various levels may have to settle for less number of additional senior duty posts in future by way of corresponding reduction,” the letter stated.

•The DoPT has stated that officers nominated for Central government posts should not be more than 54 years.

•“It is also requested to ensure that the officers who are on the verge of promotion, as may be relevant, during the year are not nominated, often necessitating their early repatriation to avail of promotion in the cadre. It may be ensured that the names of only those officers are forwarded who are likely to remain available under the Central Staffing Scheme for full tenure,” it said.

Norms changed

•Last year, to tide over the crisis, the DoPT changed norms and made it mandatory for IAS officers from 2007 batch onward to mandatorily serve for two years in Central deputation within first 16 years of their service if they wanted to be empanelled for a joint secretary rank in the future.

•Before any officer of the AIS is called for deputation to the Centre, his or her concurrence is required. The Establishment Officer in the DoPT invites nominations from the State governments. Once the nomination is received, their eligibility is scrutinised by a panel and then an offer list is prepared, traditionally done with the State government on board.

📰 Revive free ration scheme for migrants, activists urge PM Modi

‘Implement SC directive at the earliest’

•The Centre must operationalise the Supreme Court’s recent orders to ensure migrant workers’ welfare by reviving and expanding last year’s Atma Nirbhar scheme to provide free rations to such workers and other needy people who do not have ration cards, according to three activists who are intervenors in the case in the top court.

•They have written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and all Chief Ministers to push for urgent implementation of the Supreme Court orders on May 13 and 24, directing that all migrant and stranded workers be provided dry rations and cooked food.

•“During this time of crisis, it is unconscionable to not provide basic food and social security to the economically vulnerable workers of the country,” said the letter to the Prime Minister, written by Anjali Bhardwaj, Harsh Mander and Jagdeep Chhokar. “At a time when the government has record high stock of foodgrains — 100 million tonnes as per the FCI website — and there is acute distress among the working poor, this stock must be used to provide rations to all those in need. Food security net must not only be restricted to ration cardholders,” they added.

‘Double crisis’

•The Centre’s current COVID-19 relief scheme only provides additional free grain to ration cardholders, while last year’s Atma Nirbhar Bharat Scheme offered free food to eight lakh migrants, stranded workers and others without ration cards. “This year, the situation is even grimmer, with people dealing with the intense double crisis of health and economic distress, building up into the gravest humanitarian crisis of many decades. Meagre savings that the working poor had were exhausted in coping with the lockdown last year,” said the letter.

•The activists also urged the PM to ensure that the Supreme Court’s directions regarding the registration of migrants, unorganised sector and construction workers were also followed. “Many of the actions by the States entail first actions by the Union government,” they said.

•In the letter to Chief Ministers of all States, the activists called for cooked food to be provided to migrants through community kitchens as the court had directed, apart from the distribution of dry rations. They also urged that cash transfers be given as compensation for the loss of livelihoods due to lockdowns imposed by States, pointing out that they were essential to help vulnerable communities meet expenses such as rent, medical needs, milk, cooking oil and gas.

📰 Centre announces hike in MSP for paddy, pulses, oilseeds

Farmer groups unhappy with the increase in paddy price.

•The Central government has hiked the minimum support price (MSP) for common paddy to ₹1,940 a quintal for the coming kharif season, less than 4% higher than last year’s price of ₹1,868.

•The decision was taken by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs on Wednesday.

•In a bid to encourage crop diversification, there were slightly higher increases in the MSP for pulses, oilseeds and coarse cereals. Both tur and urad dal saw the MSP rise by ₹300, a 5% increase to ₹6,300 a quintal, while the highest absolute increase was for sesamum, whose MSP rose 6.6% to ₹7,307. Groundnut and nigerseed saw an increase of ₹275 and ₹235 respectively. However, maize saw a minimal hike of just ₹20 to ₹1,870 a quintal.

•The MSP is the rate at which the government purchases crops from farmers, and is based on a calculation of at least one-and-a-half times the cost of production incurred by the farmers. This year, the MSP for bajra was set at 85% above the cost of production, while the MSP for urad and tur will ensure 60% returns. The MSPs for the remaining crops were mostly set around the stipulated 50% above the cost of production.

•The announcement comes at a time when farm unions have been protesting for more than six months on Delhi’s outskirts, demanding legislation to guarantee MSP for all farmers for all crops, and a repeal of three contentious farm reform laws.

•Terming the announcement a jumla (false promise) as it did not account for the full cost of production, farmers’ groups under the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) noted that some increases, especially for maize, did not even keep pace with inflation. “There is no mechanism that guarantees that every farmer can get at least the MSP as the floor price in the market. Therefore, this is a meaningless concept as far as farmers are concerned, and that is why this movement has been asking for a statutory entitlement for all farmers so that a remunerative MSP can be ensured for all farmers,” said the SKM.

•Briefing the press after the meeting, Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar reiterated that the MSPs were here to stay.

•The hike in rates was proof of the Centre’s commitment, the Agriculture Minister said.

•On the protests, he said the Centre was always ready to hold talks, but the unions had not accepted the options presented to them for suspending the three laws.

•“If they want to talk about any other option other than a repeal of these laws, we are ready to discuss and arrive at a solution,” he told journalists earlier.

‘Deliberate policy move’

•The Centre said the higher rate of returns being promised for urad, tur and oilseeds was a deliberate policy move. “The differential remuneration is aimed at encouraging crop diversification,” an official statement said.

•“Concerted efforts were made over the last few years to realign the MSPs in favour of oilseeds, pulses and coarse cereals to encourage farmers shift to larger area under these crops and adopt best technologies and farm practices, to correct demand - supply imbalance. The added focus on nutri-rich nutri-cereals is to incentivise its production in the areas where rice-wheat cannot be grown without long term adverse implications for groundwater table,” it added.

📰 At home: On children orphaned by COVID-19

Governments must protect the interests of children orphaned by COVID-19

•Disasters may bring out the innate generosity of people, but sometimes even well-intentioned initiatives may go wrong. Many believe that children orphaned by calamities are free for adoption and that growing with well-off adoptive parents will give them a shot at a better life than they can get from impoverished surviving relatives. However, adoption can be an option only when the children’s safety and welfare can be ensured. By ordering that no adoption of children orphaned since last year should be permitted contrary to the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015, the Supreme Court has made one more benign intervention to mitigate the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. It had earlier passed various orders on the economic and health aspects of the pandemic, including those aimed at the protection of migrant workers, prisoners and jail staff and the people at large. When its attention was drawn to advertisements and messages inviting people to adopt children who have lost one or both parents to COVID-19, the court warned that no such adoption could be permitted without the involvement of the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA). It is important that the order is adhered to, as past experience shows that the danger of children falling victim to traffickers under the guise of adoption is ever-present. Even when they reach the hands of genuine adoptive parents, there is a possibility that they will be uprooted out of their social and cultural milieu through inter-country adoptions without the option of growing up with a relative or adoptive parents closer home being explored.

•Many may recall that following the December 2004 tsunami, there were ill-advised campaigns calling upon the people to adopt children rendered orphans in several Asian countries. It took a while for some affected countries to wake up to the reality that lax enforcement of adoption rules may have led to child trafficking in some cases. In the present situation, it appears that the Union government and the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights are quite alive to the problem. The NCPCR is collecting details of children affected by the pandemic from all State governments and the administration of Union Territories. It has drawn the Supreme Court’s attention to public announcements by some unscrupulous agencies inviting interested people to adopt the children and also disclosing the children’s identities. The court’s order asking all authorities to prevent illegal adoptions and fund-collection in the names of the affected children came in response to this. The court has also passed orders for the continuance of the children’s education and other steps to coordinate the implementation of schemes in their favour. These orders are a necessary reminder to the authorities that they have a special responsibility to protect the interests and welfare of children in times like this.

📰 Encouraging accord: On global minimum tax

The political will shown by G7 to ensure fairness in revenue sharing is a good augury

•The Finance Ministers of the G7 nations appear to have heeded the advice to ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’ when they agreed last week to set a global minimum tax of at least 15%. With the COVID-19 pandemic having caused the world economy to shrink by an estimated 3.5% in 2020 and forced most countries to dip into their coffers to mitigate the fallout, the seven richest nations opted to use the opportune moment to plug a key loophole in the international tax regime. In a communique, the G7 Ministers stressed that as part of efforts to secure a ‘Safe and Prosperous Future for All’ they would strongly back the broader efforts under way through the G20/OECD to address tax challenges arising from globalisation and digitalisation of the economy. The rapid and relentless march of technological advancement, especially in the domain of global communications and connectivity, has resulted in a world economy where the digital sphere, estimated in 2016 at $11.5 trillion or over one-sixth of global GDP, is exponentially outpacing overall economic growth. The increasing digitalisation has, however, exacerbated the challenges to taxing multinational corporations, which have sought to minimise their total tax outgo by recognising a bulk of their revenue in low-tax jurisdictions.

•The OECD, which is with the G20 spearheading the ‘Inclusive Framework on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting’ initiative aimed at ending tax avoidance, estimates that countries are collectively deprived of as much as $240 billion in tax revenue annually due to avoidance by MNCs. As the OECD’s Secretary-General noted in a statement welcoming the G7 deal, such distortions “can only be effectively addressed through a multilaterally agreed solution”. The G7 also agreed on “an equitable allocation of taxing rights, with market countries awarded taxing rights on at least 20% of profit exceeding a 10% margin for the largest and most profitable multinational enterprises”. For India, estimated to be losing more than $10 billion in revenue each year to “global tax abuse” by MNCs according to the Tax Justice Network and one of the more than 90 countries that have joined the BEPS framework, a wider agreement at next month’s meeting of G20 Finance Ministers and central bank Governors could have far-reaching implications. India could benefit from the levy of taxes on MNCs including technology and Internet economy giants, which have taken advantage of the loopholes in the global tax system. While there are still wrinkles to be ironed out, including the issue of local levies on digital transactions, the political will to ensure greater fairness and equity in revenue sharing is a positive augury.

📰 Strong-arm tactics weaken democracy

The Central government’s designs in West Bengal serve to undermine the structure of federalism

•The results of the bitterly contested West Bengal elections were declared in early May. It has been more than a month since the Trinamool Congress won with a massive mandate, but the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Central government still seem unable to get over the BJP’s loss in the State. The BJP has tried every tactic in the book to put the Mamata Banerjee government under pressure, including resurrecting corruption charges against four leaders (three from the Trinamool and one who was formerly with the party), and serving a show-cause notice to the now-retired Chief Secretary of West Bengal. The State Governor has played a partisan role both before and after the election. The Centre’s actions could be seen at one level as cynical politicking at a time when all its energy should be focused on mitigating the impact of COVID-19. At another level, these designs serve to undermine the structure of federalism and democracy.

•Let’s look at the events — of the recent arrests and the show-cause notice, and the Governor’s role. The latter is an issue with historical antecedents and is not unique to West Bengal or the current BJP government.

Arrests of Trinamool leaders

•On May 17, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested three Trinamool leaders, including two State Ministers, in connection with the Narada sting operation, carried out in 2014, showing top Trinamool leaders allegedly taking bribes. The footage had surfaced before the 2016 West Bengal Assembly elections. In 2017, the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate launched investigations into the scam. It is the timing of the arrests now that has raised suspicion, as did the sanction for prosecution given by West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar to the CBI just days after the election result. Moreover, the CBI’s failure to proceed against former Trinamool leaders Suvendu Adhikari and Mukul Roy, both of whom are accused in the case but have defected to the BJP, has justifiably provoked allegations of political vendetta and bias on the CBI’s part.

A bureaucrat in controversy

•The second event that has caused friction between the Trinamool government and the Centre is the controversy over the former Chief Secretary of West Bengal, Alapan Bandyopadhyay. Mr. Bandyopadhyay was scheduled to retire on May 31 but had been given a three-month extension by the Centre on the State government’s request. However, days before his original retirement date, he was unexpectedly asked to report to the Department of Personnel and Training in New Delhi on May 31. This order came hours after Ms. Banerjee skipped a review meeting on Cyclone Yaas with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Kalaikunda air base in West Bengal. While the rules allow the recall of IAS officers from States, the Centre usually does so with the concurrence of the State government. That was not the case here. The Trinamool government predictably refused to release him and asked for the order to be rescinded. When that did not happen, Mr. Bandyopadhyay resigned from his post. He was immediately appointed Chief Adviser to Ms. Banerjee.

•While Mr. Bandyopadhyay’s resignation may have temporarily stymied the Centre, it promptly responded by serving him a show-cause notice for violation of Section 51(b) of the Disaster Management Act, 2005. According to Section 51(b), anyone refusing to comply with the directions of the Central or State government or the National Executive Committee or State Executive Committee or District Authority can be jailed or fined or both. The show-cause notice was issued because Mr. Bandyopadhyay did not stay back for the meeting on Cyclone Yaas with Mr. Modi and left with Ms. Banerjee to oversee relief work. Mr. Bandyopadhyay responded to the notice saying he was merely following the orders given to him by the West Bengal Chief Minister. While several lawyers and bureaucrats believe that the Centre’s position is untenable in a court of law, its actions once again highlight its intention to target an Opposition government at all costs.

Governor’s role

•While the recent controversies do not bode well for federalism or indeed democracy, it is the West Bengal Governor’s actions that have had the most corrosive impact. Ever since his appointment, Mr. Dhankhar has needled the State government in every possible manner. However, since the election result, he has, in the words of a political analyst, taken the place of the “political Opposition” in the State. While there is no denying that there has been post-poll violence in parts of Bengal, Mr. Dhankhar went overboard in describing the situation as “total lawlessness and anarchy”. In a breach of protocol, he even visited violence-affected areas along with the BJP’s elected representatives.

•Though Mr. Dhankhar’s actions might be in keeping — in intent though not in degree — with many contemporary and past governors, they once again raise questions about the role of a governor. During the long period of Congress dominance, the governor’s position had largely been reduced to furthering the Centre’s interest in the States. While the Congress did occasionally appoint eminent personalities and technocrats as governors, such as Gopalkrishna Gandhi in West Bengal, the position by and large was reserved for superannuated politicians and party loyalists. The latter practice has continued under the Modi government.

•There was a heated debate in the Constituent Assembly in 1949 on the role of the governor. Members such as H.V. Kamath, K.T. Shah, Rohini Kumar Chaudhuri and Bishwanath Das were critical of the powers of the governor. They viewed the position as a relic of the colonial era, one that was “capable of creating mischief”. Das, a Prime Minister of Orissa Province in colonial India and later Governor of Uttar Pradesh, was one of the most vocal critics of the position. He had presciently noted that since the governor was appointed by the Centre, it was quite likely that he or she might not be acceptable in an Opposition-ruled State, especially if the “power to give administrative pin-pricks is vested in the governor”.

•B.R. Ambedkar attempted to address these misgivings by making a distinction between the “functions” and “duties” of a governor. He concluded that the governor was not a representative of a “party” but of the “people” of the State. There was arguably enough ambiguity in this formulation for a governor to be an activist and partisan, if he or she so desired. Ambedkar’s faith in the Centre and governors seems misplaced since most governors, especially in recent times, have proved to be representatives of the party that appointed them and not impartial constitutional authorities. The very fact that governors are expected to resign when there is change of government at the Centre is proof of that. Indeed, the West Bengal Governor’s actions illustrate the fears of the critics in the Constituent Assembly.

•If the Centre continues with its methods of using Central agencies and the Governor to keep up the pressure on the West Bengal government, it might score political points in the short term. However, in the long run, this will weaken India’s federalism and democracy. It also paradoxically hurts the BJP’s prospects in a State where it needs to politically mobilise against a party with a big mandate and not resort to strong-arm tactics.

📰 The promise and perils of digital justice delivery

Phase 3 of the e-Courts project can harness technology for service delivery without increasing surveillance risks

•In popular perception, Indian courts are not associated first with the delivery of justice, but with long delays and difficulties for ordinary litigants. According to data released by the Supreme Court in the June 2020 newsletter of the e-Committee, 3.27 crore cases are pending before Indian courts, of which 85,000 have been pending for over 30 years. Can technology be used to revolutionise India’s courts? Yes, but only when it operates within the constitutional framework of the fundamental rights of citizens. If not, technology will only further exclusion, inequity and surveillance.

The e-Courts project

•The e-Committee of the Supreme Court of India recently released its draft vision document for Phase III of the e-Courts project. Phases I and II had dealt with digitisation of the judiciary, i.e., e-filing, tracking cases online, uploading judgments online, etc. Even though the job is not complete, particularly at the lower levels of the judiciary, the project can so far be termed a success. This has been particularly so during the COVID-19 pandemic, when physical courts were forced to shut down. Despite some hiccups, the Supreme Court and High Courts have been able to function online. This was made possible by the e-Courts project, monitored by the e-Committee.

•Phase III of the e-Courts project, however, has reached the stage in a trilogy where the franchise starts trying to do too much and goes off the tram line. On the surface, the objectives remain noble. There is commitment to the digitisation of court processes, and plans to upgrade the electronic infrastructure of the judiciary and enable access to lawyers and litigants.

•However, the document goes on to propose an “ecosystem approach” to justice delivery. It suggests a “seamless exchange of information” between various branches of the State, such as between the judiciary, the police and the prison systems through the Interoperable Criminal Justice System (ICJS). It has been pointed out by organisations such as the Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project that the ICJS will likely exacerbate existing class and caste inequalities that characterise the police and prison system. This is because the exercise of data creation happens at local police stations, which have historically contributed to the criminalisation of entire communities through colonial-era laws such as the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, by labelling such communities as “habitual offenders”.This is of particular concern since the data collected, shared and collated through the e-Courts project will be housed within the Home Ministry under the ICJS.

A cause for concern

•Several individuals and organisations have warned against the zeal of the data collection exercises contemplated by the draft proposal. The “seamless exchange of information” relies on large-scale gathering and sharing of data. Data collection is by itself not an evil process. In fact, data can be a useful tool for solving complex problems. For example, to address the problem of cases pending simply for service of summons, Phase II of the e-Courts project saw the development of the National Service and Tracking of Electronic Processes, a software that enabled e-service of summons. It is only when data collection is combined with extensive data sharing and data storage that it becomes a cause for concern. The Supreme Court must take care not to violate the privacy standards that it set in Puttaswamy v. Union of India (2017), especially since India does not yet have a data protection regime.

•Data can be useful when it provides anonymous, aggregated, and statistical information about issues without identifying the individuals. This could be made possible in Phase III by encouraging uniformity and standardisation of entry fields. Unfortunately, there has been a dangerous trend towards creating a 360-degree profile of each person by integrating all of their interactions with government agencies into a unified database. This approach has been perfected by social media platforms and technology companies, and the government is now trying to do the same. The difference is that when technology companies do this, we get targeted advertising, but if the government does it, we get targeted surveillance.

•This 360-degree approach is the main objective of Phase III. Once any government department moves online, their pen-and-paper registers will become excel sheets, shareable with a single click. Localised data will become centralised. Holdovers from the analog age ought not to have an issue with this process, since it can lead to great advancements in problem-solving. However, it is the next stage which is a cause for concern even for the most vocal proponents of the digital age, which is integration with other agencies.

•When integrating data from all the lower courts, the intersection lies at the higher judiciary, because those are the appellate authorities connecting all the lower courts. When integrating data of the courts and police stations, the intersection lies with the individual citizen, since it is the citizen’s interaction with these branches of the state that is being monitored. While it is understandable why the courts could reasonably benefit from access to police and prison records, courts deal with a variety of matters, some of which may be purely civil, commercial or personal in nature. No clear explanation has been offered for why the Home Ministry needs access to court data that may have absolutely no relation to criminal law. This process serves no purpose other than profiling and surveillance.

Role of technology

•Since the Phase III vision document is a draft, there is still an opportunity to abandon the ecosystem approach. The objectives were to streamline judicial processes, reduce pendency, and help the litigants. To continue to do that within the framework of our fundamental rights, the e-Courts must move towards localisation of data, instead of centralisation. The e-Committee must prevent the “seamless exchange” of data between the branches of the state that ought to remain separate. Technology plays an important role in the project, but it cannot be an end in itself.

📰 South Asia’s healthcare burden

Despite the debilitating pandemic, state investment in the health sector remains deeply inadequate.

•On May 18 this year, India recorded 4,529 deaths from COVID-19, the highest daily death toll recorded in the world after the United States in January saw 4,468 deaths. As India combats the pandemic, its neighbours are experiencing spillover from the menacing second wave. The virus has swept through Nepal, while Sri Lanka added as many as 78,218 cases in May. Pakistan crossed over 200 daily deaths in April, its highest since the pandemic started. The situation in Bangladesh is precarious, given the recent detection of the highly contagious Delta variant. Bhutan is the only exception, with only one death and 1,724 cases so far. The country’s success stems from a well-funded and prepared public health system with stringent measures, responsible citizenship, and an accountable government.

•As bodies piled up at overcrowded crematoriums in India in the last few months, several things were to blame — “super spreader” events, a fragile health infrastructure neglected for decades, citizens not following health protocols, and logistical mismanagement. What has exacerbated the situation is a subpar public healthcare system running on a meagre contribution of a little over 1% of India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). While the private medical sector is booming, the public healthcare sector has been operating at a pitiful 0.08 doctors per 1,000 people, falling miserably below the World Health Organization’s (WHO) prescribed standard of 1:1000. India has only half a bed available for every 1,000 people, which is a deficient figure even for normal days.

•Bangladesh and Pakistan fare no better, with a bed to patient ratio of 0.8 and 0.6, respectively, and a doctor availability of less than one for every 1,000 people. While ideally, out-of-pocket expenditure should not surpass 15% to 20% of the total health expenditure, for India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, this figure stands at an appalling 62.67%, 73.87% and 56.24%, respectively.

•The situation in rural India, where people largely rely on threadbare healthcare facilities, is disconcerting. Numerous distressing reports have emerged in the media, from patients being treated on the hospital floor for lack of beds, to some walking hundreds of miles just to get to a hospital, let alone one with oxygen or drug supplies, and many being left to resort to homemade concoctions and local quacks. Further, the fact that hundreds of healthcare workers have succumbed to COVID-19, unable to seek a bed in the very hospitals they serve, is telling.

•While India has the world’s third-largest military expenditure, its health budget is the fourth-lowest. In Pakistan, even amidst the pandemic, the defence budget was increased by 12% in the fiscal year 2020-21, to $7.85 billion, while the spending on health remained around $151 million. Not too far behind is Bangladesh, with decades of underfunding culminating in a crumbling public healthcare system, pushing people to opt for private medical care even if it means exorbitant health payments. Major public sector investments by the ‘big three’ of South Asia, i.e., India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, are towards infrastructure and defence, with health taking a backseat. A quick look at pre-pandemic sectoral allocations explains the chronically low status of human development indicators in the three countries.

Learning from Southeast Asia

•South Asia can take lessons in pragmatic healthcare policy from Southeast Asia, which has prioritised investments in healthcare systems while broadening equitable access through universal health coverage schemes. From Vietnam’s preventive measures focused on investments in disease surveillance and emergency response mechanisms, to even countries like Laos and Cambodia making a constant effort towards improving the healthcare ecosystem, all have done much better than their South Asian peers.

•It took a debilitating global pandemic to push South Asian policymakers to direct special attention and resources towards strengthening the health systems. But is it too late? Though the Indian government in this year’s budget highlighted an increase of 137% in “health and well-being” expenditure, a closer look reveals a mismatch between facts and figures. Learning from the devastation unleashed by the pandemic, South Asian countries must step up investment in their public healthcare sectors to make them sustainable, up to date and pro-poor; most importantly, the system should not turn its back on citizens. Given the high chances of another wave or even the impending crisis of climate change, stopgap measures ought to be replaced by a well-thought-out vision and political commitment for long-term healing.

📰 The murky space of ‘social audio’

While apps like Clubhouse give a push to innovation, privacy and data rights remain out of focus

•Clubhouse, a new social networking app based around audio rooms, surpassed 2 million Android downloads across the world last month. The key feature of the app is the unique medium — audio — through which its users interact. This distinguishes it from well-established social media and messaging platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, WhatsApp, and YouTube, which employ text, images, video, or a combination of three. In Clubhouse, the concept of old-school text chat rooms is replaced with the immediacy of the human voice. The app neither has any separate texting features, nor the option to create elaborate online profiles, thus keeping the focus purely on audio-based interaction.

•Besides choosing their interests, users can also join various ‘clubs’, which are groups of members that share a common interest. After joining, users may get alerts for rooms hosted by such clubs. Clubs can also be used to interact with other people with whom they might share similar interests. A person can even start a club of their own, or ‘drop-in’ into any room mentioned on the Home or Explore page, as a listener or a speaker during a discussion.

Regulation challenges

•The very nature of the app raises a number of questions on privacy and security. Audio rooms are likely to throw up new challenges for data regulators, who are yet to find effective ways to regulate traditional social media platforms. Audio-based interactions are faster and in real time, mirroring real-life far closely than text-based interactions. Hence, traditional methods of content moderation may not work here. Further, on an app like Clubhouse, cyberbullying and trolling, driven by sexism, racism and communalism, can be even more damaging.

•The app allows a person to join any room that their friends are a part of, which may allow anyone to ‘stalk’ a person as they move from room to room; the app even sends notifications to their followers. The experience on Clubhouse, therefore, involves constant hyper-awareness about how every action is being broadcast to followers. This is in contrast to popular platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and others, which, for all their flaws, allow browsing in relative invisibility. This awareness, along with a fear of being judged, might limit people from exploring the app’s content.

•Concerns have been raised over how Clubhouse temporarily records the audio in a room while the room is live, “for purposes of investigating the incident”, and deletes it when the room ends. However, with the lack of end-to-end encryption, the data is still potentially accessible. Furthermore, this recording is done without the consent of the user.

•According to privacy expert Alexander Hanff, the platform’s practices are violative of numerous provisions of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), including rules on security, proportionality and necessity principles and confidentiality of communications (Article 5), rules related to consent for processing of personal data (Article 6), and provisions on data protection by design and by default (Article 25).

•According to a report by the Stanford Internet Observatory, the back-end infrastructure of Clubhouse is supplied by a Chinese start-up called Agora. The report also mentions a possibility of the Chinese government accessing raw audio, as well as other security flaws.

•It is important to note that India still lacks a stringent data protection law, and thus, its users are far more susceptible to data breaches and privacy violations. Currently, the Central government and WhatsApp are locked in a legal battle over the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, which require breaching encrypted channels to trace the originator of messages. The lack of end-to-end encryption in Clubhouse could thus make it an easy tool for government surveillance.

•Clubhouse also seeks permission to access users’ contacts, which is a significant privacy concern, as it gives the app information about people who might never even join it in the first place. If a user chooses not to share their contact list, they are not allowed to send invites to others. In turn, the contact list is shared not only with app developers but also with people in a user’s contact list. There is no mechanism to control who can follow whom, which further affects privacy and contributes to the ‘harassment’ culture.

•App permissions on smartphones have always raised questions of privacy. Even apps that are meant for limited purposes, such as sharing or managing files, or playing music or videos, often require permissions to access the phone’s camera, contacts, or call history.

The big picture

•The rise of Clubhouse cannot be studied in isolation. It is one of the several apps that have grown popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, as millions of people stuck in their homes look for new methods to communicate with each other. But its flaws aside, Clubhouse, with its promise of revolutionising social media and communication through audio rooms, represents an attempt to innovate and provide an alternative to traditional platforms.

•In competition law terms, one way through which powerful firms like Facebook and Twitter can be challenged is by exploiting opportunities in spaces that are adjacent to the market where these firms reign supreme. This is what upstarts like Clubhouse are trying to do, as ‘social audio’ is one such adjacent market that has opened up only recently.

•However, as has been observed over time, the Big Tech will strive to protect their dominant positions in one of two ways — either by simply acquiring the potential competitor, known as a ‘killer acquisition’, or by copying the unique features of their competitor apps and adding them to their own platforms.

•The Big Tech giants already enjoy, thanks to their massive user base, access to more data and network effects (a phenomenon whereby a product or a service gains additional value as more people use it). Thus, they have often made clones or added features of newly popular apps to their already bloated platforms. When Snapchat introduced stories, mainstream platforms also came up with the feature a few years later. Similar trends were noticed when Zoom shot to fame and Google introduced Google Meet, or when TikTok became popular and Instagram launched ‘reels’. With Clubhouse’s growing popularity now, Twitter has introduced ‘Spaces’, and Facebook is working on a similar feature as well. But this time, LinkedIn, Discord, Reddit and Spotify have also joined the bandwagon. One wonders what this means for innovation in the world of tech. However, it remains to be seen whether such moves will affect Clubhouse, which was valued at $4 billion as of April 2021.

•For the average user, Clubhouse might seem like a great, lightweight app with an innovative premise. But it does not offer much in terms of privacy and data protection, and in that sense, it is not very different from traditional platforms. Apps like Signal are an exception in this regard. While the market of ‘social audio’ is likely to soon become a battleground, the medium won’t truly progress until innovation is balanced with respect for privacy, security and data rights.