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Why Corbett tiger reserve needs immediate attention

The current crisis of Corbett Reserve is not a new one but the speed and volume with which these surreptitious illegal construction and tree felling have been pushed with impunity have threatened environmentalists including wildlife conservationists as well.

Amita Singh

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What comes from Jim Corbett Tiger Reserve is not news for anyone. It is a true narrative of the ignorance and casualness with which MOEFCC has been looking at forest and wildlife crimes notwithstanding chest beating at COP26 which has just ended with revived understanding about how these forests can be a gold mine of trade in carbon credits. The tiger reserves (TR) of India are increasing in numbers from 9 in 1973 to 52 today as Ramgarh Vishdhari Tiger Reserve (RVTR) in Bundi district of Rajasthan joins the list this year. A rising number of reserves do not adequately reflect upon ‘business as usual’ attitude of Central or State administration towards conservation of wild life and their habitat. Those grave management concerns including wildlife crimes which were expected to be seriously addressed, continue to pose immense threat to forest ecosystems. A defensive Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has avoided taking a tough position against real culprits and the ground based forest officials remain unsupported as they always were. All mafias with dilettante operations within reserves continue to be insulated from legal action. Despite the Supreme Court and the High Court issuing directives for survey and investigation of illegalities taking place inside Corbett reserve, its implementation is bogged down in technicalities expressed by the State government including questioning the very legitimacy of appointment of Sanjiv Chaturvedi as the investigation officer by the PCCF.

India has come a long way from an era when wild life crimes were taking place with impunity at the heart of Delhi including a power packed Chanakyapuri that provoked PM Indira Gandhi to take up this issue with special concern. The credit of looking towards these mauled reserves unquestionably goes to Indira Gandhi, who immediately after becoming the Prime Minister in 1966 kickstarted activities for environmental and wildlife conservation. The IUCN (International Conservation Union) was hosted in India for the first time before setting up a Task Force to Draft the Wildlife (Protection) Act (WLA) and then getting Parliamentary clearance to the Act in 1972. With a base framework of management in place, nine Tiger reserves were constituted which were governed by Project Tiger Conservation Programme. The WLA was amended in 2006 to provide for the enforcement of Project Tiger through the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) which was established in December 2005 on recommendation of Tiger Task Force.

The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) was constituted under section 38 L (1) of Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. The NTCA is headed by the Environment Minister as its Chairperson and the Environment Minister of State (MoS) as Vice Chairperson under section 38 L(2). NTCA also has three members of Parliament, the Secretary of Environment Ministry and other members which are drawn from an expert professional domain and from departments of Law & Social Justice, Tribal Affairs, National Commission for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Panchayati Raj, Forest and Wildlife Conservation Departments. The NTCA’s inclusive and transdisciplinary constitution in itself is a reflection of maturity and partnerships aimed at appropriate enforcement of Rules in tiger conservation and management of Reserves on India. The authority derives its power from section 38 O (1) of WLPA, 1972 and functions under the guidance of Chairperson, Vice-Chairperson and other members.

Powers and functions of the NTCA are prescribed under section 38 O (1) and (2) of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, as amended in 2006 but section 38 O(7) and 38 O(2) hold value regarding this controversy. The former section ensures that the tiger reserves and areas linking protected areas and tiger reserve are not diverted for ecologically unsustainable uses and the latter suggests that, the NTCA may, in the exercise of its powers and performance issue directions in writing to any person, officer or authority for the protection of tiger or tiger reserves and such person, officer or authority shall be bound to comply with the directions.

Such controversies as earlier stated have marred most reserves. Last year in Tamil Nadu’s Srivilliputhur-Megamalai Tiger Reserve an illegal road building and subsequent construction in the Core area of the reserve was undertaken. Roads cut through the circulatory system of reserves and gradually lead to its extinction. The Srivilliputhur-Megamalai Tiger Reserve maintained a vital forest contiguity between the Periyar Tiger reserve in Kerala and the Kanyakumari forests down below to the other southern rim. Reserves have a sacrosanct Core area that prohibits even a cosmetic entry of even a benign activity in it. The manner in which Stalin’s government has been stuck before the NTCA for deciding to proscribe and issue an injunction against illegal sanctions granted by the previous AIADMK government has put the government’s political position to a litmus test. Government that sanctioned crores for metal roads inside the reserve had blatantly ignored a crucial fact in managing reserves which lies in sustaining its contiguity for a spill-over buffer of wild populations with neighbourhood reserves and forests. On receiving the petition from environmentalists the Forest Department directed the Wildlife Warden to inspect the area. It is blatant violation of the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 in which NTCA and Supreme Court appointed Central Empowered Committee approvals were required by law. This concern also goes beyond wildlife concerns alone, as the dense evergreen forests which are destroyed through illegal constructions have also been sources of water channels of Vaigai river in Tamil Nadu and the Mullayar river in Kerala.

A similar controversy arose in the Balangir Reserve Forest in Odisha. In Jan 2019, more than a thousand trees were chopped off to make helipad for Prime Minister’s prospective visit. The Khurd-Balangir railway line was to be flagged off. Little did the forest department think how this activity would permanently damage the Reserve ecosystem. Also, permission to cut down trees was again not taken as reported by the Balangir Divisional Forest officer Sameer Satpathy.

Drawing from the above cases, Corbett controversy is in line with the state of Reserves in India. The Uttarakhand Forest Minister Harak Singh Rawat’s rejection of Investigating Officer on grounds of his appointment by PCCF Rajiv Bhartari instead of Chief Wildlife Warden J.S.Suhag has derailed appropriate investigations demanded by the Court. The complaint filed by Gaurav Bansal before the National Tiger Conservation Authority demanded the NTCA and the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) to verify the felling of ten thousand trees when permission was given only for 163 trees by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) in its meeting held on 21st September 2020. (Seeking permission under Section 2 of Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 for non-forestry use of forest land is a prior condition for any activity inside Reserves). The DIG of CZA and the Director Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR) issued notices to the PCCF and to the Chief Wildlife Warden (CWLW) of the State on allegations of tree felling in the Kalagarh division of the CTR for the PM’s Gujjar Sot , Pakhrau Tiger Safari. The petitioners clearly established that the activities permitted inside the CTR was contempt of the Supreme Court order in a Writ Petition (Civil) No. 47 of 1998 of Navin M Raheja Vs. Union of India and Others wherein it was observed that ‘no tree whatsoever shall be felled in the Corbett Tiger Reserve by the State or anyone else’. Technically two major issues needed investigation, first; felling of ten thousand trees and second; illegal constructions inside the reserve. While it may appear to be a case of tiger conservation but it involves a host of questions to be raised in a forest ecosystem conservation.The NTCA had conducted a field visit of the Pakhro and Morghatti zones of Kalagarh forest division which falls in the buffer zone of the tiger reserve and found in its Report of 22nd Oct. that illegal construction of buildings, bridges and water bodies had been carried out there without the prior sanction of authorities or financial sanctions and many “illegal” construction of buildings without statutory approvals or sanctions were found on Kandi road, Morghatti road, Pakhrau forest rest house and also near water body near Pakhrau forest rest house. The Survey also referred to the possibility that forest officers may have forged government records to allow such illegal constructions and therefore recommended immediate demolition of illegal constructions followed by ascertaining an accurate number of trees felled through remote sensing at the National Remote Sensing Centre.

In February this year even the Supreme Court bench of Chief Justice SA Bobde and Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian had come heavily on the State authorities and issued notices to the MOEFCC, State Ministry of Environment, NTCA, National Board of Wildlife (NBW) and officials of CTR for their violations of Section 38 (O) of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, which provides that Tiger Reserves shall not be diverted for ecologically unsustainable uses, and in case it is required, than it is mandatory for the State to take prior approval from NBW and NTCA. The Uttarakhand High Court ordered the MoEFCC and also the state’s top forest and wildlife officials to inspect the Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR) and submit its action-taken report by November 9 on complaints about illegal constructions and felling of trees in the tiger reserve. The order found that these works were in violation of Indian Forest Act 1927, Wildlife (Protection) Act 1971, and Forest (Conservation) Act 1980.

Now looking into the controversy which erupts on Sanjiv Chaturvedi’s appointment by the PCCF and not Chief Wildlife Warden (CWW) as the latter being legally authorized to appoint Investigation Officer. Chaturvedi is the Chief Conservator of Forest (research) based in Haldwani, a Magsaysay awardee with a spotless reputation of honesty and impartiality but that doesn’t seem to be of much importance before Rawat who suggests that the IO should be selected by the CWW. Lets do a status check on whois authorized by law?

In State government the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) is the Head of Forest Force in the Apex Scale of Pay Level 17.There is another PCCF who is not the Head of Forest Force and falls in the HAG+ Scale of Pay Level 16. The position of Chief Wildlife Warden (CWW) comes only below the Additional PCCF which is at HAG Pay level 15. So legally and administratively the PCCF is the right authority to appoint an IO for any forest area within the state. Mr. Rawat’s objection may appear obvious on segmented reading of the Wild Life Conservation Rules that, ‘The Chief Wildlife Warden (CWLW) is the statutory authority, under the Wildlife Protection Act, who heads the Wildlife Wing of the department and exercises complete administrative control over Protected Areas (PAs) within a state’ but prior to this the Rules clearly establish that, ‘The State Forest Department is vested with the task of administration and management of forests, including wildlife reserves. State Forest Departments are headed by Principal Chief Conservators of Forests (PCCF) who are officers of the Indian Forest Service (IFS)’. These Rules further say that, “The Forest Department is charged with the tasks of protection and law enforcement within forest areas through the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of all forest and wildlife offences.  Officers over a certain rank are also vested with quasi-judicial powers to deal with cases of encroachment, seizures of illegal wildlife produce, and other notified forest offences.” This section should leave no one in doubt that there is no discrepancy in the appointment of IO by the PCCF as PCCF is the right authority with quasi-judicial powers to deal with investigations on encroachments, wildlife crimes or tree felling inside Reserves.

The current crisis of Corbett Reserve is not a new one but the speed and volume in which these surreptitious illegal construction and tree felling has been pushed with impunity has threatened environmentalists which includes wildlife conservationists as well. Forest is an ecosystem intertwined with varieties of identifiable and not so identifiable lives which inhabit the terrain. Depends who is seeing it. Judiciary is expected to take a firm stand on any illegality inside forest habitats and help change administrative attitudes of ‘business as usual’ so that the government could honestly progress on its commitment to COP26 made in Glasgow recently.

The author is president, NDRG, and former Professor of Administrative Reforms and Emergency Governance at JNU. The views expressed are personal.

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Opinion

LEADERS REMEMBER AHMED PATEL, SONIA GANDHI’S TROUBLESHOOTER

Pankaj Vohra

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Ahmed Patel was without any doubt the most powerful functionary of the Congress in this century. On his first death anniversary on Thursday, several top leaders paid tributes to him, recalling his pronounced role during the presidentship of Sonia Gandhi without mentioning that in fact, he was the de facto chief of the grand old party. This is not an exaggeration that he wielded more influence on the central leadership than anyone before him. Some veterans try and compare his understated but exalted position with that of R.K.Dhawan and Makhan Lal Fotedar, but Ahmed Patel had a much larger say in political matters for a considerable long period. His opponents accused him of being responsible for the decline of the Congress and often claimed that Sonia Gandhi had outsourced the party to him for day-to-day affairs and he did what he pleased, sometimes without the knowledge of the High Command. Ahmed’s grip over the organization started loosening once Rahul Gandhi came on to the political scene and though the entire Gandhi family paid homage to him on his anniversary, it was an open secret that Rahul wanted his role to diminish. The astute and perceptive former political secretary realized this and had shifted his strategy to maintain an extremely low profile while getting his way in crucial matters. In the recent past, the appointment of D.K.Shiv Kumar as the Karnataka State president was engineered by him even though Rahul was not in his favour and because the Vokkaliga community to which he belongs is essentially with H.D.Deva Gowda. Shiv Kumar got the job because he had facilitated the stay of Congress MLAs from Gujarat when Ahmed was contesting for a Rajya Sabha seat facing stiff competition from the BJP whose strategy was designed by Amit Shah. Ahmed was victorious and till this day, some questions have been raised on who was responsible for giving him the additional two votes which he required to retain the seat. These are untold stories of politics. Ahmed also played the most significant part when the Maharashtra government was formed after an alliance between the Congress, NCP, and the Shiv Sena. Like most things good or not so good done by him, he never took credit and allowed others to boast about their achievements.

Ahmed’s USP was that enjoyed cordial relations with top leaders of other parties as well and it was not surprising that after his demise, Prime Minister Narendra Modi allowed his family to occupy his official residence, 23 Willingdon Crescent for as long as they wished. They finally moved out in July. In sharp contrast, the Congress High Command did not hold even a single prayer meeting for him in the national capital, and according to the political buzz conveyed to the family that there was no need for this in the capital since condolence gatherings had taken place in Karnataka, Maharashtra and some other places.

The problem in Congress is that the leadership has not been able to find a suitable replacement for him. There is nobody close to the Gandhis who is accessible and thus in any position to address the grievances of state functionaries and ordinary workers. There is nobody to even speak to established leaders. Thus, this vacuum is hurting the party which should have by this time given greater responsibility to the likes of Kamal Nath, Ashok Gehlot, and Bhupinder Singh Hooda. Ahmed Patel like everyone else had his fault lines as well, but no one can doubt that Sonia Gandhi’s dependence on him was absolute and he was perhaps the only one who could get his way through the complicated decision-making process in the party. The erosion of the Congress started during his lifetime but the party is grappling with its worst phase with no one there to oversee the political road map and its implementation.

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Opinion

Gati Shakti: PM Modi’s masterplan for connectivity

Be it Purvanchal Expressway or the upcoming Jewar airport, the ability to coordinate seamlessly with the state government concerned and translate vision into reality has been the high point of PM Modi’s holistic, development-oriented agenda.

Sanju Verma

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Gati Shakti, National Master Plan for multi-modal connectivity, heralding a new chapter in governance, on October 13. Gati Shakti, a digital platform, will bring 16 ministries including Railways and Roadways together, for integrated planning and coordinated implementation of infrastructure projects. It will incorporate the infrastructure schemes of various ministries and State governments like Bharatmala, Sagarmala, inland waterways, dry/land ports, UDAN, etc. Economic Zones like textile clusters, pharmaceutical clusters, defence corridors, electronic parks, industrial corridors, fishing clusters, and agri zones will be covered to improve connectivity & make Indian businesses more competitive. It will also leverage technology extensively including spatial planning tools with ISRO imagery developed by BiSAG-N (Bhaskaracharya National Institute for Space Applications and Geoinformatics). This multi-modal connectivity will provide integrated and seamless connectivity for the movement of people, goods, and services from one mode of transport to another. It will facilitate last-mile connectivity of infrastructure and also reduce travel time for people. In line with the goals of Gati Shakti, Mumbai Port Trust, for instance, is undertaking a slew of projects, seeking harmony between the needs of cargoes and ships on one hand and the needs of the city and citizenry on the other. Gati Shakti project is yet another instance of how cooperative federalism is something that the Modi government is fully committed to.

Needless to add, with the resolve of Aatmnirbhar Bharat, the foundation of India for the next 25 years is being laid stoutly and soundly, by the Central government. People of India, Indian industry, Indian business, Indian manufacturers, and Indian farmers are at the centre of this great campaign of Gati Shakti, which is a people-centric, futuristic, mega initiative. What sets the Modi government apart from erstwhile, lethargic, Congress-led regimes, is the fact that we have not only developed a work culture of completing the projects in time, but efforts are underway to complete projects ahead of time. With the whole-of-government approach, the collective power of the Central government is being channelled into fulfilling these infrastructure-oriented schemes. Gati Shakti is an extension of holistic governance, therefore, in more ways than one.

Over the years, the signage ‘Work In Progress’ became the symbol of lack of trust, with cost and time overruns, being the hallmark of all that was wrong with the decrepit Nehruvian model, that was repeatedly flogged for decades together, by successive Congress regimes. But today’s 21st century India, is leaving behind old systems and practices, that emanated from the “Command Economy” model of Nehru and his dynastic proponents. Today’s mantra under PM Modi is: ‘Work For Progress’.

Wealth for progress, plan for progress, and preference for progress, underline the inclusive approach of the Modi government.

The subject of infrastructure in our country was never a priority for most political parties, for decades together. This, even though it is globally accepted that the creation of quality infrastructure for sustainable development is a time-tested way to create a virtuous cycle of economic activities that create employment on a large scale. Due to the wide gap between macro planning and micro implementation, problems of lack of coordination, lack of advanced information, thinking and working in silos— all these factors led to hampered construction and wastage of government resources and budgets. Gati Shakti project will therefore be a force multiplier and working based on this master plan, will result in optimum utilisation of resources.

The first interstate natural gas pipeline in India was commissioned in 1987. After this, till 2014, i.e. in 27 years, only a 15,000 km long natural gas pipeline was built. Today, work is underway on a war footing for a more than 16,000 km long gas pipeline across the country.This pipeline is slated to be completed in the next 5-6 years. Again, in the 5 years before 2014, only 1900 km of railway lines underwent doubling. In the last 7 years alone, more than 9000 kilometers of railway lines have been doubled. In the 5 years before 2014, only 3000 km of railways were electrified. In the last 7 years alone, more than 24000 kilometers of railway tracks have been electrified. Before 2014, the metro rail was running on only about 250 km of track. Today the metro has been expanded up to 700 km and work is going on in the 1000 km new metro route. In the five years before 2014, only 60 panchayats could be connected with optical fibre. In the last 7 years of the Modi government, we have connected more than 1.5 lakh gram panchayats with optical fibre, in a grand testimony to what resolute political will can achieve.

To increase the income of the farmers and fishermen of the country, infrastructure related to processing is also being expanded rapidly. In 2014, there were only 2 mega Food Parks in the country. Today 19 mega Food Parks are functioning in the country. Now the target is to take their number to more than 40. There were just 5 waterways in 2014, today India has 13 functional waterways. Turnaround time of vessels at the ports has come down to 27 hours from over 41 hours in 2014. The country has realised the pledge of One Nation, One Grid. Today India has 4.25 lakh circuit kilometers of power transmission lines compared to 3 lakh circuit kilometers in 2014.

With the development of quality infrastructure, India can realize the dream of becoming the business capital of the world. PM Gati Shakti will be the driving factor. Just as JAM (Jan Dhan, Aadhar, Mobile) trinity revolutionized accessibility of government’s welfare schemes to the people, PM Gati Shakti will do the same in the field of infrastructure. With the Gati Shakti National Master Plan, India’s economic growth will find greater traction through major infrastructure upgrades, that will cut logistics costs and enhance efficiency. Essentially, the Gati Shakti project will be an integrated umbrella of over Rs 111 lakh crore worth of projects, under the National Infrastructure Pipeline (NIP) for the period 2021-25. This includes reducing the ratio of logistical costs to GDP that has prevailed at over 14%, before PM Modi took charge, to an aspirational level of sub 8%. Reducing vehicular emissions to meet climate change commitments, curtailing input costs on fuel, a fillip to efficiency in port operations, improvement in cargo handling capacity, and cutting vessel turnaround time, will be the added benefits and byproducts of the ambitious Gati Shakti project. The observations in the Economic Survey for 2020-21 underscore the role of active Centre-State partnerships for infrastructure building. Significant delays to projects can often be traced to hostile land acquisition decisions that alienate communities or violate environmental laws.

It is to the Modi government’s credit that environmental integrity has never been compromised and rehabilitation of affected people has always been given utmost priority. The Jewar airport’s strategic location will create over 1 lakh job opportunities for the young from adjoining areas: Aligarh, Hapur, Greater Noida, Ghaziabad, and Bulandshahr.

The airport will be spread over 1334 hectares of land and will have a capacity to serve around 1.2 crore passengers, annually. That number will go up to over 7 crore passengers from 2040 onwards. Job opportunities will come not just from work at the airport but also from allied industries like storage, defence, and food. But beyond all these numbers, what stands out is the fact that the UP government spent Rs 4326 crore on the acquisition of land, rehabilitation, and resettlement. Be it Purvanchal expressway or the upcoming Jewar airport, the ability to coordinate seamlessly with the concerned State government and translate vision into reality has been the high point of PM Modi’s holistic, development-oriented agenda.

The writer is an Economist, National Spokesperson of the BJP and the Bestselling Author of ‘Truth & Dare-The Modi Dynamic’. Views expressed are the writer’s personal

To increase the income of the farmers and fishermen of the country, infrastructure related to processing is also being expanded rapidly. In 2014, there were only 2 mega food parks in the country. Today 19 mega food parks are functioning in the country. Now the target is to take their number to more than 40. There were just 5 waterways in 2014, today India has 13 functional waterways. Turnaround time of vessels at the ports has come down to 27 hours from over 41 hours in 2014. The country has realised the pledge of ‘One Nation, One Grid’.

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Opinion

NEW EDUCATION POLICY: THE GATEWAY TO VISHWAGURUTVA

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“Param Vaibhavam Netumetat Swarashtram…” (I shall strive to take my country to its highest glory). This feeling of supreme glory could not be achieved from the rules or laws borrowed from some foreign power, but from Indian norms, traditions, and historical examples. By changing the policies made during the colonial rule, which aimed only at making Indians the clerks of the British, emphasising on India’s glorious history, society, philosophy, knowledge-science, guru-shishya tradition, Indian languages, Vedic studies, etc. The New Education Policy (NEP) was announced last year. Today, on the completion of one year, the positive effect of this policy is being seen in educational institutions, research institutes, and many institutions related to social life. Many experiments like the translation of technical education books in Indian languages by AICTE, the vision of inter-disciplinaryness, integrated, and comprehensive approach in subjects, and Indian knowledge tradition are being implemented at the ground level. The NEP has also made it clear that the education policy is not only concerned with formal educational institutions but also with all those aspects of social life where the individual influences the society through his conduct and behaviour. Education policies, when only clerks or employees, if they are made to make, their resources are also limited. 

The objective of the NEP is to make every person an Indian and India to be a world leader, so its means are not limited to formal educational institutions but apply to wide areas. There is clear evidence in ancient Indian Vedic texts that people from geographical places like Aryavarta, Brahmavarta used to take the initiation of human behaviour and conduct. The then education system, guru-shishya tradition, and environment-friendly education are some of the important facts that are the main dimensions of the education of that time. Even today there is a great need for environment-friendly education. The education policy borrowed from abroad will always force the advocate to wear a black coat (whether the season is summer or winter), environment-friendly education will allow him to groom according to the environment. Borrowed education will become the cause of linguistic slavery, mental slavery, and others, whereas the NEP will allow calling for freedom according to the environment. 5+3+3+4 formula contained in education policy, facilities for health and nutrition along with education, adjustment of skill development in education, experiments like social experience in education and science inherent in Indian knowledge, philosophy, Vedic mathematics, and environmental elements 

together will help solve modern problems. The high character model of the teacher will also develop necessary character qualities like character building and personality development, which to date have never been given a place in the old education policies. The dream of Vishwagurutva is not achievable only by formal education. In the areas where education exerts its influence, such a seal of Indianness is necessary in those areas, that clears the filthy stigma of slavery and paves the way for a brighter future.                   

The writer is Assistant Professor, Tilkamanjhi Bhagalpur University, Bihar.

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Opinion

Fungible: The idea at the centre of the NFT sensation

NFTs could transform the way digital goods are created, consumed, and traded online and Indians are also ready to test waters.

Suravi Sharma Kumar

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What makes NFTs special is that each one represents something unique, and not interchangeable with anything—in other words, not “fungible”. This is what distinguishes them from cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, which are fungible—interchangeable—even though they use the same software technology (blockchain technology) as NFTs. NFTs serve as a kind of deed proving ownership for original editions of various digital artefacts—whether works of art, sports collectables or music albums. Even a tweet can be monetised with an NFT.

Once Indian megastars Amitabh Bachchan dropped his NFT collection and Salman Khan announced his partnership with NFT marketplace Bollycoin declaring the imminent launch of his digital assets. Indians are all set to test the NFT waters. With my limited knowledge of digital economics/assets, I sat down glued to my laptop screen surfing the internet for information on the freewheeling world of ‘non-fungible’ tokens. I pondered on the expanded phrase of the three letters — NFT to have an ‘idea or some understanding’ of the nature of the asset — fungible, a Latin term that has come to mean ‘interchangeable’ now helps to define unique digital objects selling for phenomenal prices.

In the three initials that make up the name, the N for “non” and the T for “token” are straightforward enough, but what about that F for “fungible”? Although the word “fungible” looks like “fungus” and its plural “fungi,” I discovered that there’s no etymological connection; “fungus” has a different Latin root. ‘Fungible’ goes back to the Latin word “fungibilis” meaning “useful,” in turn from the verb “fungi” meaning “to perform.” The same root gives us such words as “function” and “perfunctory.” 

In English, “fungible” entered legal and financial circles in the 17th century for contracted goods that could be replaced by equivalents without breaking the contract such as a quantity of grain that could be substituted with an equal amount of similar grain.

After hours of surfing, I realised that the latest internet trend around the digital asset is uniting such disparate worlds as art, sports, music, and gaming in an investment frenzy: “NFTs”. It also says that what makes NFTs special is that each one represents something unique, and not interchangeable with anything — in other words, not “fungible”. This is what distinguishes them from cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, which are fungible — interchangeable — even though they use the same software technology (blockchain technology) as NFTs.

NFTs serve as a kind of deed proving ownership for original editions of various digital artefacts — whether works of art, sports collectables or music albums. Even a tweet can be monetised with an NFT: Twitter founder Jack Dorsey auctioned off his first post to the site for $2.9 million.

The new kind of digital collectable item is stamped with a unique bit of code that serves as a permanent record of its authenticity and is stored on a blockchain, the distributed ledger system that underlies bitcoin/ cryptocurrencies. These collectables can be bought and sold like trading cards, and the nature of blockchain technology means that once a token is created, it can’t be deleted or counterfeited. That makes it useful for artists, musicians, and others who want to create limited edition digital goods.

NFTs in all possibilities could transform the way digital goods are created, consumed, and traded online. Some news organisations have already experimented with selling NFTs, and YouTubers and other online influencers have begun creating their own lines.

Some of the NFT buzzes are shallow hype, no doubt. The cryptocurrency world is full of scammers and get-rich-quick hustlers whose projects often fail. Critics point out that NFTs and other cryptocurrency-related projects require enormous amounts of energy and computing power, making them a growing environmental hazard.

There are also legitimate questions about what, exactly, NFT buyers are getting for their money, and whether these tokens will turn into broken links if the marketplaces and hosting services that store the underlying files disappear.

But there’s something real here that is worth taking seriously. For decades, artists, musicians, and other creators have struggled with the fact that, on the internet, making copies of any digital artefact is trivially easy. Scarcity — the quality that gives offline art its value — was hard to replicate online, because anyone who downloaded a file could copy and paste it an infinite number of times, with no loss in quality.

Block-chain technology changed that by making it possible to stamp digital goods with a cryptographic marker of authenticity and keep a permanent record of its ownership. You can copy the file contained in an NFT, but you can’t fake the digital signature behind it, which gives collectors of rare digital goods some peace of mind. And NFT fans think the technology could be used to keep track of all kinds of goods in the future — titles to houses and cars, business contracts, and wills.

Creators can even attach a royalty agreement to their NFTs, entitling them to a cut of the profits every time their assets are resold.

It’s easy to be sceptical of NFTs. But I’m cautiously optimistic about them, for the simple reason that they represent a new way for creative people to eke out a living on the internet.

For years, traditional media companies have resisted new, internet-based distribution strategies because they viewed them — often correctly — as a threat to their business models. Most things on the internet were free, and things that weren’t free could be easily pirated or copied. If you wanted to get paid for your creations, your best options were to create a paywall, hire an army of lawyers to enforce your copyright or put yourself at the mercy of a licensing service or a huge social media network, which might share some of its advertising revenue with you, if you were lucky or exceptionally good.

Digital subscriptions are one way for creators to take back control of their destinies. NFTs could be another. By making it possible for artists and musicians and the kind to turn individual works into one-of-a-kind digital collectable items, NFTs could erode the economic dominance of social media middlemen and give more power back to the people who are producing creative and interesting things.

The writer is a medical doctor (pathologist) and holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of London. The views expressed are personal.

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Opinion

KATHERINE TAI’S VISIT STRENGTHENS INDIA-US TRADE RELATIONS

Joyeeta Basu

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It is becoming increasingly clear that contrary to earlier fears, under President Joe Biden, India-US partnership is on track to achieve greater heights. That he, like his predecessor Donald Trump, understands the significance of this relationship, not just as a means to contain China but also to explore the full potential of having the world’s two most robust democracies being on the same page on a host of issues—from a secure and open Indo-Pacific to climate change, health and trade. This became clearer during US Trade Representative Katherine Tai’s visit to India this week, with speculation starting if India and the US have taken the first steps towards a much elusive trade deal. There was much excitement in 2019 that India would be able strike a trade deal with the US when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was visiting the US, but apparently, the US side under President Trump was not keen on any such deal and were asking for too many concessions—remember Mr Trump throwing tantrums about Indians imposing a high import duty on Harley Davidson? Lest we forget, it was during the Trump presidency that the then US Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer withdrew the itsy-bitsy concessions that India was receiving under the “Generalized System of Preferences” (GSP), which gives certain tariff concessions to developing and least developed countries exporting their products to the US. This in turn impacted around 12% of India’s exports to the US. India had exported goods worth $6.3 billion under GSP in 2018.

That a lot of ground since 2019 has been covered became apparent from the joint statement issued by the United States-India Trade Policy Forum post the meeting between Union Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal and United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai in New Delhi, saying that the US would consider India’s request for restoring India’s GSP “beneficiary status”.

It was also significant that the United States-India Trade Policy Forum (TPF) was revived after a gap of four years. As Ambassador Tai said, “The trade relationship between our two countries is a priority, both for President Biden and for me. That’s why it was important for me to come to India and relaunch the Trade Policy Forum on my first trip to Asia.” There were some worries about India-US trade ties in the last four years, that were not helped by US companies such as GM, Harley Davidson and Ford leaving the country. Ford shutting its manufacturing in India has hurt India in particular, as the company was sending cars to the US from its Indian plant and with their exit, around 4,000 Indian employees and thousands more in the ancillary industries have been affected. But these hiccups have not stopped India-US bilateral merchandise trade witnessing a “robust rebound” in the January-September 2021 period. As the joint statement pointed out, this “showed almost 50 per cent growth over the same period in the previous year; bilateral merchandise trade in the current year is poised to surpass US$ 100 billion mark”. As Katherine Tai had pointed out on Monday, there was a huge potential for India-US trade particularly in areas such as the digital economy, services, health-related trade, and agriculture. Hence, it was all the more necessary for a platform like the TPF to be revived, so that it can lead to “regular engagement” to address “outstanding bilateral trade concerns and allow the two countries to explore important, emerging trade policy issues”. The TPF working groups on agriculture, non-agriculture goods, services, investment, and intellectual property are also being revived to address “issues of mutual concern” regularly.

The meeting took place in keeping with what Prime Minister Modi and President Biden had said in their 24 September 2021 bilateral—of developing “an ambitious, shared vision for the future of the trade relationship”. Taking off from there, it is but natural that the two countries would speak of the importance of India-US “trade and economic partnership in addressing global challenges”—the biggest challenge/dragon in the room being China. Hence, with the aim of achieving a “shared vision of a transparent, rules-based global trading system among market economies and democracies”, the two countries also promised to work “collaboratively and constructively in relevant multilateral trade bodies including the WTO, the G20, and the OECD”. The sub-text in all this is the need to counter China’s violation of a “rules based global order”, be it in the Indo-Pacific or in different economic fora.

The two sides also discussed securing global supply chains, and the importance of critical and emerging technologies and how all these issues are being worked upon inside the Quad framework. There was also mention of the need for “regular sharing of perspectives on…cyberspace, semiconductors, AI, 5G, 6G and future generation telecommunications technology”.

In other words, if the two democracies join hands, their economic influence can go a long way in counterbalancing Chinese influence on the world. Observers see in this the seeds of an India-US trade pact being sown. And if a trade pact takes place, will some sort of a security pact also become a reality? After all, no containment strategy can work by divorcing trade from security and vice versa. It should not come as a surprise to anyone if Beijing is found to be watching these meetings closely.

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Opinion

Religion-free governance must for secular India

Secularism is not just political and social expediency but a need for survival of all the unique richness of what we call ‘India’

Amita Singh

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A question that has perplexed public and political life since ancient times is about the role of religion in governance. Indian Constitution had been far ahead of many decolonized nascent peer republics post-World War II in firmly instituting ‘secularism’ in the pride of place ‘The Preamble’ that it deserved.

Secularism also falls in line with the legitimate enlightened interpretation of ancient Indian scholar of state-craft, Kautilya (350-275 BCE) who candidly wrote that every King’s primary responsibility is towards the economic well-being of his subjects and in doing so, nothing else should come in the way. In the third book of his comprehensive work Arthaśāstra, he writes, ‘A matter of dispute has four feet— law, transaction, custom, and royal edict; (among them) the later one (royal edict) supersedes the earlier one’ and he holds no doubts in claiming that, ‘royal edict supersedes established religious law and custom’.

The failing of the ecclesiastical authority in their ability to interpret supernatural order and their disability on preventing anarchy in community structures of society was well debated by scholars of enlightenment like John Locke and highlighted in manifold expressions of the founding father of the American Constitution, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson had no qualms about ‘inalienable rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness’ to be achieved by what he coined as, ‘wall of separation between church and state.’ It is strange to witness a contemporary strategic turnaround in Indian governance to be closely working in collaboration or in the subordination of same leaders of religious organizations which have a proven record of suffering from serious deficits of world view both on state authority or of jurisprudential concerns which construct stable societies. What Marsilius of Padua wrote in his 1324 book, Defensor Pacis about the Church, which should legitimately be a congregation of faithful and not of priests, has become a concern for the faithful Hindus of today. The secular and liberal Hindu way of life which evolved through centuries of self-criticism is being narrowed down to the edicts of these organizational (Mathas, Peethams & Ashrams) priests. In the recent Hindu festival, Diwali, the worst form of this psyche manifested itself when those opposing firecrackers due to environmental concerns were discounted or hounded as non-Hindus. Faith drops dead before religious guillotines which have now become part of Indian governance.

State authority ought to be secular, not for the fact that it is prescribed in the Constitution or that it has become a weapon of opposing RSS-backed BJP regime, but for our progress. Secularism is not just political and social expediency but a need for survival of all the unique richness of what we call ‘India’. I fail to understand, how can the sophisticated Rubina born as my neighbour in Moradabad or Naheed’s family that fed me Senwai and Dahibara on Eid, or the mischievous Nishat growing up together in Lucknow become two nations in our later lives? It is preposterous to even think that these Indian Muslims who mostly disliked Muhammad Ali Jinnah for his illogical two-nation theory, as well as his origin in Gujarati Khoja Shia Muslims (later changed to Sunni), could be mocked for being supporters of Jinnah. For all practical purposes and from ethnographic logic, Jinnah would be closer to our Gujarati leaders than to the Muslims of UP and Chandni Chowk. As it appears, this ceaseless reverberation of ‘muslims as anti-nationals’ and Hindu supporters of Muslims as ‘Urban Naxals’ is a form of ‘Apaddharma’ (apada+dharma or dharma during the emergency) to use a term from the narratives of the present regime. This deviant metaphor of Dharma (truth, selfless-ness & morality) and Adharma (amoral hedonism) has now seeped through every institutional capillary of the state circulatory system. The Twelfth Book of Epic Mahabharata Śānti parva or the “Book of Peace” mentions Apaddharma which justifies many wrongs. A story from Chhandogya Upanishada (8-6 BCE) explains it better. ‘Ushakti was starving due to drought and famine in his area. He walked towards better villages in search of food. On way, he found a man-eating something. He begged to have some but the man refused as he had already eaten through it. However, on repeated pleadings, that man gave his half-eaten food to Ushakti. After Ushakti finished eating, the man offered him water from his clay pot but Ushakti walked off in a huff saying that to save his life he ate his half-eaten food but now that he can manage why would he drink from his used water pot’. This Appadharma which justifies discretionary use of state machinery to arrest, punish and imprison citizens for the sake of what is believed to be dharma for the nation, is a dangerous trend in governance which camouflages the nation’s million ailments waiting to be treated through sustainable socio-economic tools.

Secularism is embedded in Indian life and culture with much shorter anecdotes of communal disharmony over a larger-than-life canvas of composite culture. It has survived through the rise and fall of ancient Indian Kingdoms and the works of revered Kautilya and his depiction of ‘Secular State’. Kautilya’s state is borne out of his rationalist thinking in which creating avenues of employment to all inhabitants irrespective of their graded position in the State. The concept outshines his famed book and is better handled by transdisciplinary scholars who are well versed in ancient history, Sanskrit, Social Sciences, and Warfare. Religion and theology have always been a diversion from current problems. Indian scholarship on secularism is well acknowledged by the most notable scholars of the West. In the early 20th century, a leading social scientist on bureaucracy, Max Weber in The Vocation Lectures (2004, ed. D. Owen and T. Strong ) attributed to Kautilya’s Arthashastra the claim to be the first classical formulation of Machiavellianism. Further, Roger Boesche (2002) took pride in calling Kautilya the First Great Political Realist. Something has gone wrong about such cherished ideals which are now gradually fading out only to be substituted by a militant theological state?

The realist of modern India ‘Sardar Patel’ emphasized secularism as an unassailable political ideal of independent India. In the letters exchanged between him and many contemporary political leaders as obtained from Navjivan Trust Ahmedabad (Durga Das 1972), he has written that anything other than secularism was a pernicious idea to weaken the country. In one of his speeches in the Constitution Assembly, he made it clear that, ‘it was in the interest of all to lay down real and genuine foundations of a secular state in India as if there was only one community’ and later added that, ‘in the long run it is in the interest of all to forget that there is anything like a majority and a minority in this country.’ Patel’s displeasure with RSS was quite open when he rejected and dismissed it for its non-allegiance to the Indian flag and Constitution. In his meeting with Golwalker in 1949, he did not mince his anger in instructing him to eschew destructive methods and adopt a constructive role, particularly the suicidal policy of the Savarkar Group of which Godse, the assassin of Gandhi was an exponent. There are many letters exchanged between him and Nehru where Patel seems to be a stronger proponent of Secularism and how it needs enforcement. One of his greatest tools for enforcement of secularism was an apolitical civil service, independent from politics but with strong Constitutional safeguards since they are needed to provide their correct and fearless opinion to the Minister. At one point he is observed to have said, ‘Today my Secretary can write a note opposed to my views. I have given that freedom to all my Secretaries. I have told them, ‘if you do not give your honest opinion for fear that it will displease your Minister, please then you better go. I will bring another Secretary’. I will never be displeased over a frank expression of opinion.’

The writer is president of Network Asia-Pacific Disaster Research Group, Senior Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, and former Professor of Administrative Reforms and Emergency Governance at JNU. The views expressed are personal.

The realist of modern India ‘Sardar Patel’ emphasized secularism as an unassailable political ideal of independent India. In the letters exchanged between him and many contemporary political leaders as obtained from Navjivan Trust Ahmedabad (Durga Das 1972), he has written that anything other than secularism was a pernicious idea to weaken the country. In one of his speeches in the Constitution Assembly, he made it clear that ‘it was in the interest of all to lay down real and genuine foundations of a secular state in India as if there was only one community’.

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