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A pill to kill: Tackling pharma counterfeiting

Pharmaceutical counterfeiting—which has seen a rise due to the pandemic—poses a threat to economies worldwide and endangers the lives of many in need. Sound legal measures and their strong enforcement, good use of technology and securing IP systems and distribution networks are crucial steps which must be taken immediately to counter this crime.

Brijesh Singh and Khushbu Jain

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Technology is a great facilitator, albeit a neutral one. One on hand, it enables ease of trade, transport and transactions, while on the other, it facilitates commission of crime, pollutes the environment and poses a danger to health and safety. The counterfeiting of pharmaceutical drugs and their sale is one such technology-facilitated crime.

The Covid pandemic led to a scramble for medicines, protective equipment and sanitizers. With the imposition of lockdowns and curbs on the movement of people, the online world rushed in to fulfill the demand. Virtual marketplaces for commodities in demand mushroomed, which also allowed for fake and counterfeit goods’ supply chains to rapidly grow and scale to global proportions, much beyond the reach and jurisdiction of respective national law enforcement agencies. With the involvement of organised crime networks, pharma counterfeiting has become a serious issue facing consumers, industry, and governments alike.

SCALE, EXTENT AND ECONOMIC IMPACT

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that counterfeit medicine accounts for 10 percent of the $300 billion pharma industry and that the increasing public use of online pharmacies has widened the market for counterfeit drugs.

A study by Sanofi says that medicine counterfeiting is more profitable than narco trade—$1,000 invested in falsified drugs can result in profits of $500,000, compared to profits of around $20,000 dollars for heroin trafficking.

National governments also bear the costs of pharmaceutical counterfeiting in three ways: the loss of tax revenues, the higher cost of healthcare due to the adverse effects of fake drugs, and the increased regulatory and enforcement cost of securing the legitimate supply chain.

The impacts of pharma counterfeiting are pernicious in many ways. More than 200,000 people, including children, die every year just due to fake medication for pneumonia and malaria. Those who survive are severely compromising on their medical and healthcare needs. Similarly, the costs of lost revenue are huge for economies and governments, running into billions of dollars worldwide. The loss of sales and reputational damage to legitimate producers is also significant as intellectual property rights are also infringed upon.

There is a double victimization of the patients who consume counterfeit medication as they suffer adverse health consequences and have to be treated for them. The social costs associated with organised crime, enforcement efforts and loss of jobs are significant, and so are the environmental impacts resulting in pollution and release of toxic chemicals from an unregulated activity.

COUNTERFEITING OVER INTERNET PLATFORMS

The trade of counterfeit goods via the Internet is the fastest growing area of illegal trade. Thus, the sale of counterfeit goods via the Internet is considered to be a contemporary security challenge. In order to ensure that: 1) illicit offers do not appear on the Internet; 2) if they do appear, they are taken down as quickly as possible; and 3) in any event, rapidly enough to prevent further transactions from taking place, few measures (operate simultaneously in real-time) that can be adopted are as under:

A.   It is crucial that all entities—customers, sellers and buyers—understand the counterfeiting phenomenon, its immanent risks to consumers and detrimental effects on IPR owners. Consumers can be active parties to eliminate counterfeiting. Internet platforms should explain that offering counterfeit goods is illegal and suggest precautions that buyers should take to avoid buying them. B.   ‘Proactive and Preventive Measures’ (PPMs) seek to ensure that offers of counterfeit goods do not appear online. They are a timely and adequate response to attempts to seek counterfeits, either before an offer is made available to the public or shortly after. By taking such measures, IPR owners and Internet platforms try to reduce online offers of counterfeit goods. Such measures may be technical and/or procedural and often require human intervention.

C.   Despite customer information and PPMs, counterfeit goods may still become available to the public on an Internet platform and, therefore, there is the Notice and Takedown System. The purpose of the Notice and Takedown System is to offer an uncomplicated, fair and expeditious procedure to remove online offers of counterfeit goods. In that case, IP right owners and consumers can notify the Internet platform concerned of the existence of such offers. This notification allows the platform to take appropriate action, including taking down the offer from the concerned website.

IP SYSTEM AND ITS IMPACT

One of the causes of counterfeit drugs is the prevalent worldwide IP system. Criminals typically counterfeit expensive patented drugs rather than generics as they follow money. One can say that the IP system has created the opportunity which criminals/counterfeiters exploit. Also, when the ostensible goal of the pharmaceutical IP system is to promote innovation then  counterfeiting  demonstrates  that  the  law  is  ill-suited  to  achieving  that  goal. This is especially true if alternatives are available which fund R&D without creating the pricing ratios found attractive by counterfeiters. The marginal cost of producing most name-brand drugs is a small fraction of the commercial price. An  annual  supply  of  a  well-known  antiretroviral triple  combination  drug  regime  in  the  United  States  costs  over  $11,000. The marginal price is not publicly known, but can be estimated.  Unlicensed generic  companies  sell  the  same  drugs in  sub-Saharan  Africa  for  $244  per  year. These  drugs  are  sold  at  45  times their  marginal  cost  (a  “pricing  ratio”  of  45:1). This  ratio  would  not  be  possible  without absent  IP  laws  and  the  related  branding  efforts  of  drug  companies. High pricing ratios attract counterfeiters. 

This is not an isolated example. Many patented drugs exhibit this profile. Industry  estimates  suggest  that  the  average  variable  cost  of  patented drugs accounts for an average of 15% of the final price, yielding an  average  pricing  ratio  of  more  than  6:1. Some  pricing  ratios  are  much  higher:  generic ciprofloxacin is sold in some places at less than 0.4% of the price  of  the  most  expensive  sources  in  the  U.S.,  a  pricing  ratio  of  246:1. Others have found pricing ratios of 200:1 in global markets for vaccines and contraceptives. In some uncompetitive generic drug markets, even generics might sell at a substantial premium over the marginal cost of production, thus attracting counterfeiters.  This uncompetitive market may well be related to a hang-over effect from related pharmaceutical laws, even with the expiration of the patent.

A  possible  solution  to  reduce  the  incentive  to  counterfeit  would  be  to remove   R&D   costs   from   the   retail   pricing   system. Fund   R&D   as   a   global   public   good   through   a   variety   of  approaches which will enhance  financial  access  to  patented  pharmaceuticals  by  low  and  medium income populations.   If  R&D  cost  recovery  is  removed  from the  retail  price  system,  then  the pricing  ratios described  above  collapse. All medicines would be sold essentially as generics.  This result satisfies the access needs of the poor and also  destroys  the  vast  majority  of the  incentive  to  counterfeit.    The  best solution to the scourge of counterfeit drugs may involve radical examination of  our  society’s  reliance  on  IP  law  for  recovery  of  pharmaceutical  R&D  costs.

TECHNICAL MEASURES TO PREVENT

Anti-counterfeiting security measures include technologies for detection of manipulation or tamper evidence, authentication or verification, replication which makes it difficult or expensive to copy, and traceability by verification of origin, authenticity and quality attributes.

Tamper evidence works by irreversibly indicating, through naked eye screening or automated alarm systems, any attempt at removing and substituting or breaking and concealing nameplates, product marking, or a seal placed on packaging or other housing, etc. Authentication involves several security features placed on marked products, packages, documents, etc. features for authentication, both overt and covert. Replication refers to the degree of difficulty involved in replicating a similar package and the security features on it, including covert features. Traceability is the ability to trace products or components in supply chains to preserve security by verification of origin, authenticity and quality attributes. 

Ideally, anti-counterfeit technology should possess a high level of security which is non-cloneable, higher product application and authentication speed, and it should adhere to proven standards, be difficult to remove and reapply, easy to check, have automatic authentication, be useable by consumers, and must be legally compliant by the industries.

NETWORKS OF COUNTERFEITERS AND ITS DISRUPTION

The manufacturing of counterfeit products is carried out on all continents both on an industrial scale and on a smaller and less sophisticated scale. The printing of medicine packaging and manufacturing of the medicines often takes place in different countries and then shipped to a final destination where they are assembled and distributed. The ongoing continuous change of hands masks the provenance of counterfeit medicines thus making tracing almost unachievable and making it hard to identify who is making the counterfeit drugs. Industry sources also indicate that counterfeiters engage in deceptive practices, marketing generic products as products manufactured by the original proprietary manufacturer. They are also known to remove and sell legitimate products from genuine packaging and replacing the products with counterfeit items. The legitimate products are then sold in grey markets.

Usually, it is seen that the counterfeiters disguised the activity by splitting the consignment, sending blister packs of tablets in one box and flat-packed cartons in which the blisters were to be packaged in another. Both were labelled as containing mobile phone covers, which was the case, while the falsified tablets and packaging were buried underneath the phone covers. The seized medicine contained no active ingredient.

MEASURES ADOPTED WORLDWIDE

The US STOP Act, enacted in October 2018, requires foreign postal authorities to provide advance electronic data (AED) on all packages or packets under 2 kg containing goods sent to the United States. AED includes the sender and recipient’s name and address and weight and value of the package and its contents, and this data is passed on to Customs and Border Protection.

In order to meet the emerging and future legislative, security and customs requirement in overseas destinations, the Royal Mail in the United Kingdom, since 1 January 2019,  has required shippers to provide electronic customs data when sending items (other than correspondence) to destinations outside the European Union.

The Council of Europe has developed the MEDICRIME Convention, which provides countries with a model legal framework for dealing with falsified medicines and other types of pharmaceutical crime that threaten public health. Under the said convention, dated January 2016, intentionally manufacturing, supplying, offering to supply and trafficking of falsified medicines is considered a criminal act. This treaty calls for a multilateral collaboration across nations, disciplines and sectors, and lays the ground for cooperation with and between international bodies such as INTERPOL, Europol, UNODC, the WCO and WHO, in order to put a stop to this international threat to public health.

CONCLUSION

Pharma counterfeiting by various estimates is more lucrative than illicit trade in narcotics. This coupled with inadequate regulation, enforcement, and sanctions, loopholes within the regulatory architecture and insufficient criminal penalties create a safe haven for counterfeiters and organised criminal gangs.

With the Covid pandemic increasing medicine demand, while simultaneously disrupting logistics for supply chains, counterfeiters and fraudsters are quick to take advantage of this windfall opportunity as law enforcement faces constraints on manpower and resources.

Apart from legal measures, the use of technology, better enforcement and securing of distribution networks, it is essential to perform a root cause analysis of the pharmaceutical counterfeiting trade. It may also be imperative to re-evaluate  the  foundations  of  the  pharmaceutical  IP  systems  to  see  if  a  better  world is possible, which ensures that the necessitous afford the medicines and pharma companies do not profiteer of genuine human privation.

Brijesh Singh, IPS is an author and IG Maharashtra and Khushbu Jain is a practisng advocate and founding partner of the law firm, Ark Legal.

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Opinion

INDIA’S TRYST WITH DESTINY CONTINUES 75 YEARS AFTER INDEPENDENCE A

A grateful Nation should recall the services of millions of freedom fighters and leaders who participated in movements of various kinds, some peaceful and some not so peaceful. They had only one objective that was to see their country free.

Pankaj Vohra

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The time has once again come to renew the pledges made by our freedom fighters as the country celebrates the 75th year of our independence on Monday when Prime Minister Narendra Modi shall address the Nation from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort. India has come a long way since Jawaharlal Nehru gave his passionate speech, `the tryst with destiny’ to mark the end of the British rule. Thereafter many Prime Ministers have used the occasion to present their vision of the way ahead and each one of them has contributed in some form or the other to take us forward. It is also a time to remember the martyrs such as Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru and many more, who did not hesitate to sacrifice their lives so that they could break the shackles of slavery. The immense contribution of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and his Azad Hind Fauj as also the manner in which those who started the Sepoy revolt in 1857 even though they paid a heavy price, can never be forgotten and should never be forgotten either. There are always lessons in History also in every struggle. One of the speeches I remember was made by Indira Gandhi who said that till the time there was poverty, hunger and disease, real Independence cannot be achieved. This continues to be a daunting task and though the present government appears to be doing the right things regarding development, a lot more needs to be done in this huge and vast country where people have aspirations and hope from those who govern them. Am reminded of Khalil Gibran, who wrote that they say that if you see a slave sleeping, do not wake him, lest he is dreaming of freedom. I say that if you see a slave sleeping, wake him and explain to him the meaning of freedom’’. A grateful Nation should recall the services of millions of freedom fighters and leaders who participated in movements of various kinds, some peaceful and some not so peaceful. They had only one objective that was to see their country free. Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation provided direction to the masses when they needed it the most though he died shortly after Independence, a victim of hate politics. It was a time when the country was also trying to come to terms with the unfortunate Partition brought about by ambitious politicians who helped the British to divide the Nation. This partition could have easily been avoided had our leaders stood their ground without allowing Mohmmad Ali Jinnah to have his sinister way. India is today fortunate that it is a democracy like many other great countries and has an elected government by the ordinary people. This is in contrast with dictatorial regimes in many parts of the world or monarchies where freedom of every kind is curtailed and crushed by insecure rulers. Therefore, we must all count our blessings and think positively. John Kennedy’s famous words, often repeated by Nehru come to my mind, “Do not ask what your country can do for you but ask what you can do for your country’’. Jai hind.

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25 years of Vishakha Guideline: Still a long way to go

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On 13 August 1997, the three-judge bench comprising Chief Justice JS Verma, Justices Sujata V. Manohar and Justice B.N. Kirpal, pointed out the ‘Legal Vacuum’ and thus the lack of rule of law when it comes to protecting a woman at the workplace, which is still predominantly patriarchal in nature. The social milieu still promotes a culture of silence among women. The bench gave the historical judgment “Vishakha v State of Rajasthan” (AIR 1997 SC 3011), famously known as the Vishakha Guideline.

The historical judgement is a landmark on various counts. First, it made the International Convention, especially the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women as the basis for national legislations paving the way for progressive laws and state accountability towards the international commitments. Second, it recognised specific vulnerability of women at workplace and the gap in existing laws, which it termed as “legal vacuum”. Third, the bench did not restrict itself but creatively used the powers conferred on the Supreme Court under Article 141 and 142 and laid down elaborate guidelines to deal with the menace of sexual harassment against women at workplaces.

The judgment remains to be a landmark as it elaborated the beauty of the Indian Constitution towards protecting the rights of individuals under Articles 14, 19(1)(g) and 21, and the responsibility on the Indian State underArticles 51(c), 73, 253 and Seventh Schedule.. The apex court referred to the above provisions which envisage judicial intervention for eradication of this social evil and pronounced the following,

“In view of the above, and the absence of enacted law to provide for the effective enforcement of the basic human right of gender equality and guarantee against sexual harassment and abuse, more particularly against sexual harassment at work places, we lay down the guidelines and norms specified hereinafter for due observance at all work places or other institutions, until a legislation is enacted for the purpose. This is done in exercise of the power available under Article 32 of the Constitution for enforcement of the fundamental rights and it is further emphasised that this would be treated as the law declared by this Court under Article 141 of the Constitution.”

The guidelines were quite elaborate and specifically dealt with the following: duty of the employer or other responsible persons in work places and other institutions; definition especially as to what constitute sexual harassment; preventive steps; criminal proceedings; disciplinary action; complaint mechanism; complaints committee; workers’ initiative; awareness; and where sexual harassment occurs as a result of an act or omission by any third party or outsider. It also stated that the Central/state governments are requested to consider adopting suitable measures including legislation to ensure that the guidelines laid down by this order are also observed by the employers in private sector.

However, it took almost 15 years for the Parliament to convert the guidelines into a law, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, in 2013. The moot question is why the legislature took so long to frame the law. Why is it that issues of gender continue to be given least priority by the Parliament even in times of an awakened human rights global world? Another illustrative example of the lethargy in legislating is seen evidently in the case of sexual crime victims of child marriage. The 2017 judgment of the Supreme Court in the matter, Independent Thought vs. Union of India [(2017) 10 SCC 800], where the top Court read down the Exception 2 of Section 375, Indian Penal Code (IPC), raising the age of Consent from 15 years to 18 years even for married girls at par with other girls. The same needs a formal amendment in the IPC, but even 5 years later the Government of India has not demonstrated any intent to make these changes. This is more so when the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021 was tabled in the Parliament, making corresponding changes in various laws, the required amendment in IPC was missing.

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013or the POSH law has indisputably come as an empowering tool for several working women and has strengthened the confidence in the ‘second sex’ to fearlessly voice her concerns with dignity. Since 2013, there has been a paradigm shift in the cloud of shame shifting from the complainant woman to the male accused of this act. The 2013 law mandates each organization with more than 10 employees to have an internal committee and a policy on prevention, prohibition, and redressal of sexual harassment at workplace for women. Further the Ministry of Corporate Affairs through the Companies (Accounts) Amendment Rules, 2018, makes ‘Disclosure of compliance under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act in the annual reports of private companies as mandatory. The businesses must be made accountable for ensuring adherence to human rights principles and these are must for an equitable growth and achieving the sustainable development goals 2030.

With 25 years of the law in place, it is time to fully recognise the issue at hand as a human rights issue and not one of gender. Prevention, as they say, is always better than cure and what best to practise this than now, after two and a half decades of the law in place.

Vikram Srivastava is an advocate and founder of Independent Thought and Leena Prasad is an advocate and Associate Director, Advocacy, Research, and Training. Udayan Care.

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Opinion

India at 75: The empowered woman

Women are a reflection of ethics, loyalty, decisiveness and leadership, says PM Narendra Modi.

Sanju Verma

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Among the many progressive measures by Prime Minister Modi, one that stands out for its sheer scale, size, reach and of course the manner in which it has revolutionized the lives of millions of Indian women, is the Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana (PMMY).Since inception, about 35 crore people have benefitted from total loans sanctioned, in excess of Rs 19 lakh crore. Of this 35 crore, over 70% of the beneficiaries are women, especially those belonging to the marginalised sections of the society. Similarly, cooking food,using a gas connection may not be a big deal for many but for the “eight crore-th” beneficiary of Modi’s Ujjwala scheme from Maharashtra, Ayesha Shaikh, getting a gas cylinder was nothing short of a major milestone.For this daily wager, Ayesha, who is a mother of five, from Ajanta village, the days of fetching dry wood from nearby areas for cooking on a humble ‘chulha’, billowing toxic smoke, are over.

India under PM Modi,has fully endorsed the United Nations in its “think equal, build smart, innovate for change’, motto, with regard to women empowerment. Now women have an opportunity to have permanent employment in the Indian Army and Indian Navy, something that was unthinkable earlier.

But if there is one thing that stirred the imagination of 1.4 billion people, more than anything else, it was PM Modi’s unabashed acknowledgement from the ramparts of the Red Fort, two years back,of how over 8000 Jan Aushadhi Kendras had provided around 5 crore sanitary pads at Re 1, to poor women in rural India. For Modi, an international leader of towering repute, to openly embrace and mainstream the issue of women hygiene,(menstruation) is not mere symbolism. By doing what he did, Modi sent a strong message,that for him, good governance is all about walking the talk, with no ifs and buts whatsoever.

From defining the nation’s first menstrual hygiene protocol, amending the Medical Termination Pregnancy Act of 1971,giving women reproductive rights over their bodies and increasing the fetal gestation period from 20 to 24 weeks, welcoming more women recruits in the NCC, which will now be extended to border and coastal areas, to criminalising the inhuman and unconstitutional practice of instant triple talaq and decision to increase marriageable age from 18 to 21 years for women, the Modi government has truly exhibited a bold, women friendly approach which is both mature and modern,and something,which no other government in post Independent India can dare boast of.

Banning commercial surrogacy which had led to mushrooming of illegal IVF and surrogacy clinics, was yet another bold move by the Modi government. According to the new laws, only married Indian couples, who have been together for a minimum of five years and have been deemed medically unfit by a doctor or practitioner to conceive children naturally,will be allowed to depend on a surrogate.

Women empowerment is not just about gender equality and gender justice. It also means more jobs, equal opportunities for growth and entrepreneurship. If there is one leader who has recognized women for what they are and who they are, it is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Whether it is providing free cooking gas via the famous PM Ujjwala Yojana ,or financial inclusion via PM Jan Dhan Yojana,or enabling women to leverage technology, a slew of schemes have been launched in recent years to empower women on the path of self reliance. Speaking of women empowerment, Mahila-E-Haat,a portal featuring 2000 products, is a bilingual online marketing platform that leverages technology to help aspiring women entrepreneurs, self-help groups (SHGs) and NGOs, to showcase their products and services.Among the many services provided by Mahila-E-Haat are, facilitating direct contact between the vendors and buyers and it is open to all Indian women above the age of 18.

The Modi government also launched the Mahila Shakti Kendra with presence in over 115 districts, to empower rural women with opportunities for skill development, employment, digital literacy, health and nutrition. The Modi government, few years back, also launched affordable “Working Women Hostels”, on a war footing, to ensure availability of safe and convenient accommodation for working women and single mothers, along with day-care facilities for their children, wherever possible in urban, semi-urban and rural areas.

Again, the Support to Training and Employment Programme for Women (STEP) scheme,is intended to benefit women who are in the age group of 16 years and above, across the country. The skills imparted include, but are not limited to, agriculture, horticulture, food processing, handlooms, tailoring, stitching, embroidery, zari, handicrafts, computers & IT-enabled services. Also,the Modi government’s Beti Bachao Beti Padhao initiative, is so much more than being just a mission statement, best exemplified by the surge in the sex ratio at birth (SRB) in Haryana, from 871 in 2015,to 914 in 2017, with districts like Panipat and Yamunanagar reporting SRB of 945 and 943 for every 1000 males. The increase in overall sex ratio is a combination of increased life expectancy of women and improvement in the sex ratio at birth or the number of female births for every 1000 male births. While the SRB last year rose to 929,the overall sex ratio stood at 1020 females for every 1000 males, with number of females exceeding number of males, for the first time ever. That again is a good sign. To cut a long story short, on every conceivable parameter, girls in India are far safer today than they were, say eight years back. Modi, is a truly progressive statesman with a liberated mindset; modern, sensitive, a thinking leader, who has uplifted scores of women by strengthening policy making tools, to deliver, where it matters most.

Sweeping amendments to the Juvenile Justice (Care & Protection of Children) Act of 2015, lowers the trial age for heinous crimes like rape and murder from 18 years, to 16 years. A 16-year-old will now be treated and punished like any other adult as per due process of law, under Sections 376 and 302 of the Indian Penal Code, which bodes well for young girls who are victims of sexual assault. Leftist cheerleaders who have been mocking the Beti Bachao campaign, would do well to know that the Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana, to facilitate the education of the girl child, has already reached out to more than 4 crore aspirational young women. Unarguably, however, the landmark achievement of the BJP government to further the cause of “Beti Bachao”, has been the over 11 crore toilets built in rural India under the “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan”, scheme.

Again, India has over 73,000 startups, with at least 45% of them having women entrepreneurs. Over 15% of India’s 105 Unicorns have women as the founders and that number is rapidly growing. Out of 78 ministers post the cabinet expansion in July 2021, 11 in Modi’s cabinet today, are women. This is the highest number of women in the Union Council of Ministers in the last 17 years.

“Women empowerment is crucial to India’s growth. Days of seeing women as just ‘home makers’ have gone, we have to see women as nation builders”, is something Narendra Modi tweeted in January 2014,even before he became the PM and that tweet sums up the progressive mindset of the Modi government, in more ways than one.Most importantly,India’s 15th President, Droupadi Murmu,is the embodiment of how “naari shakti” in Modi’s India, is essentially about the ability to dream, the willingness to work hard and the determination to succeed, unwaveringly and undeterred. That Murmu is also the first tribal leader who is now India’s First Citizen, as India celebrates 75 years of independence, makes Murmu’s achievements even more notable. Suffice to conclude by saying that in Modi’s India,a Santhali woman from a remote village in Mayurbhanj district in Odisha,is today the proud occupant of Raisina Hill. That inspiring journey of Droupadi Murmu is also an ode to the farsightedness and astute vision of PM Modi,who remains one of the most popular leaders globally and for good reason.

Ms Sanju Verma is an Economist, National Spokesperson for BJP and Bestselling Author of “The Modi Gambit”.

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Opinion

Digital Independence: Are we too late?

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In this century each of our lives is in a world where both our Physical beings and Digital being is playing a significant role in our daily lives. In contrast to our physical lives, we are barely aware of how our data sourced from our digital life is being used by its custodians, which might not necessarily be a government, but can instead be a multinational corporation which is based in a developed country, such as the United States.

People who live within the sovereign boundary of a country, their identity, information, and privacy are kept secured by the country or precisely by the government, like India. The Indian government relentlessly puts effort to safeguard the data of the citizens. But who does look after the very data– when people coexist across numerous virtual locations within a ‘web’?  How much are our identity and our data “safe” in that connected world? As data turns increasingly digital, a fierce race for ownership of data emerges simultaneously.  

Facebook can be considered a bright example to understand the phenomenon. According to Wikipedia, “if India’s Facebook audience were a country then it would be ranked in terms of the largest population worldwide”. Although Facebook is not a country, this American company holds a huge amount of data, including personal and private information, of more than 239.65 million Indians. Facebook not only holds our personal information but also tracks our daily routines, habits, behaviour, and communication. This extent of information about 239.65 million Indians is enough to help Facebook to influence decisions, both democratic and consumerist, at an individual level. The influence of Facebook on individual choices is known to all when it comes to what product they are to buy next. It is now a well-known fact that how it unleashed the prowess of its data bank during the Presidential elections in its own country. That makes one wonder, would they have any restrictions when it comes to the sovereignty of a democratic nation? Will they care to spare, for their benefit?

There was a time when the British, Dutch, French, Portuguese or Spanish, all went on “expeditions” to faraway lands. The British Queen Elizabeth the first was known for her enthusiasm for “exploring the sea”. History records the account of how their expedition turned into “Business” before they unleashed their spree to colonise. Eventually, they took complete control over the countries, making the indigenous territories to be their “subjects”. Though after the Second World War, this way of capturing markets fell out of fashion and later became extinct.

It is often said that «Data is to this century what oil was to the last one: a driver of growth and change. Flows of data have created new infrastructure, new businesses, new monopolies, new politics and—crucially—new economics.» Governments in various parts of the world are already fighting battles with tech giants for the fear of losing sovereignty over their people or jeopardising their security. It is essentially because colonising a country no longer requires an invasion with the military and war, but can simply be done by controlling activities through networks and databases with a single click from distant lands.

The use of the internet has exponentially increased in the last decade with the evolution of the Web from Web2.0 to Web 4.0, offering individuals a plethora of benefits of a connected world—be it communication or making a payment with a single click. When we give our data to Google Maps, we know we’re giving our private information in exchange for a traffic-free route to our destination — and we do this without thinking about how our personal data may be used by Google. And in the due course, we all are entangled in the apparently free web! Aren’t we?

Today our data is monitored, controlled and sold off by America to the whole world. This dominance of data is creating and contributing to the hegemony and monopoly of multinational corporations all around the world. This leaves us extremely vulnerable to the entire world. Because we do not expect a thief to be morally righteous. Gradually, borders will not decide control over people or a nation. Instead, control over data will be the key power. The future will become the slave of s/he who owns the data!

The Prime Minister leads the government with the mighty vision of making India Self-reliant—be it Food, Vaccines, Commodities or Defense machinery. It is about time that the government takes bold steps to make India “Self-Reliant” in the Digital space, to let not India become a colony once again! Before it becomes too late, all governments should join hands with the Union government to bring policies and techniques to safeguard our integrity and data sovereignty. The government must pledge to march for digital self-reliance.

But, what can an ordinary person do?

“We the people of India” should also realize the threat which we are already in and how malicious it can become. We need to raise our voices against this daylight robbery. But then, the question emerges “How could it be stopped? Where is the way out from this?” How can one live without the Digital World? After all, India certainly doesn’t want to fall behind in the race for growth and prosperity!

India is a country which is praised across the world for its innovations. If we look at the statistics, all the tech giants, those who are robbing us of, are run by none other than the Indian nationals, now settled abroad. Hence, would it be too much to dream that the Indians in India can make apps? Yes, it is difficult. But is it impossible?

“Qmamu”, the search engine stands shining bright as an alternative to Google and an answer to that doubt. Besides, Koo as an alternative to Twitter has already caught the attention of the netizens as per the data. Chingari, Josh, Moj, Mirtron, Leher, Kutumb all are made in India. There is no dearth of innovation and options in India.

India can robustly come up with search engines like Qmamu and apps like Koo, Josh, Chingari for each digital need, then one day the world will not only praise India as a nation with one of the most powerful militaries but also as a nation which is “Digitally Independent” with a strong Digital Defense Mechanism.

We must act, before it’s too late to become Digital Atmanirbhar Bharat.

PKD Nambiar is a Marketing Strategist, Entrepreneur and

a Political Anaylist.

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Opinion

INDIA NEEDS TO NUDGE NEPAL NOT TO FALL PREY TO CHINA’S DEBT-TRAP DIPLOMACY

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Nepal’s foreign minister Narayan Khadka visited China and held a meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi early this week amid apprehensions expressed by several experts that “Beijing is encouraging Kathmandu to live luxuriously with it on loan”. There are reports also, saying that the Nepalese foreign minister has “returned a happy man from China who offered Nepal a huge grant in return for Kathmandu’s assurances to stick to “One China’ policy. Is this an alarm bell for another debt-trap? This question is being raised now as India watched closely the Nepalese foreign minister’s visit to China and his various diplomatic and economic engagements out there. While India has been regularly cautioning all the neighbouring countries including Kathmandu against China’s debt-trap diplomacy, it needs to nudge Nepal more vigorously not to fall prey to this trap, given the reports about Beijing intensifying efforts to expand its influence in the Himalayan region. That Nepal should learn from Sri Lanka’s experience is what External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has underlined on several occasions. At the Munich Security Conference in February this year, Jaishankar without naming China, criticized Beijing for the debt-trap diplomacy it indulges in and cautioned the countries in the neighbourhood not to fall into the trap. He advised them to make “informed decisions”.

Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi as he arrived for a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing last month.

But what is worrisome is that China is consistently trying to convince Nepal to be mindful only of its own development “which is not possible without financial assistance from Beijing’. The Chinese diplomats over the last few months have reportedly been meeting their Nepalese counterparts with one luring offer or the other. The Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi during his talks with the Nepalese counterpart is learnt to have mounted pressure on Kathmandu to accept Beijing’s investment (read irrevocable debt) proposals. Wang Yi is also understood to have tried hard to carry forward the agenda to increase Chinese influence in Nepal by ensnaring the Himalayan nation in an “endless cycle of debt”.

According to Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Yi and Khadka discussed enhancing, among other things, “bilateral trade, connectivity network, health, tourism, agriculture, education.” Beijing reportedly assured Kathmandu to provide it with a 118 million USD grant for certain projects. This is what the Chinese government led by Xi Jinping used to do for Sri Lanka. What exposes Chinese ulterior motive is that not a single project has, so far, been completed under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for which an MoU had been signed in 2017 when Pushpa Kamal Dahal was the prime minister of Nepal. Why is China not working on the existing projects under the BRI when it is so caring about development in the Himalayan nation? It means that the Chinese government is using the BRI agreements as a weapon only to entrap the smaller and economically weaker countries like Nepal under the garb of infrastructure development, promising cheap loans. This is something that Kathmandu should avoid getting into. Unfortunately, Colombo could not resist the temptation of cheap Chinese loans offered on the pretext of development of infrastructure in the island nation. Many fear that China is trying to implement the same Sri Lankan formula to boost its debt-trap diplomacy in Nepal as well by luring it with Beijing sourced cheap projects.  

India needs to drive home the message in Nepal more forcefully that New Delhi’s goodwill comes with no strings attached. Moreover, Kathmandu should be vigilant and should learn from what happened in Colombo and other countries which signed ‘so-called’ agreements with China. Nepal needs to be reminded time and again that China through its infrastructure projects is making inroads in the Himalayan region in a bid to work against New Delhi’s interests only. In fact, China has nothing to do with the development of Nepal as its motive is something else. This is something that the Nepalese government should not close its eyes to. What is relieving is that Nepal under Sher Bahadur Deuba has so far played it safe. Unlike KP Oli who was pro-China, Deuba is moving cautiously in terms of diplomacy with Beijing. After assuming charge last year, he made his first international trip to India this April, with a visit to the holy city of Kashi added to the itinerary. He also promised not to allow use of Nepal’s soil for any anti-India activities, with an obvious reference to the Chinese agenda. However, India needs to maintain a close watch over dynamics of ties between Kathmandu and Beijing. After all, it is money that matters.

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Global geopolitics at the Line of Actual Control

It causes concern in New due to its striking similarity with the Chinese display of strength through the violation of Taiwanese Air Defence Identification in East China Sea. The article investigates the patterns behind the Chinese expansionist designs in its neighbourhood and whether India already has begun to be treated as an actor which can thwart such efforts.

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Since the Galwan Valley incident in June 2020, Indian and Chinese armed forces have been locked in an intense standoff at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh. To resolve the issue, the 16th Round of talks on the LAC at the Chushul-Moldo meeting point ended recently. Several issues pertaining to patrolling and location of forces have already been resolved in preceding deliberations. The current round holds significance for two reasons. First, it is happening in the backdrop of United States House of Representatives Speaker, Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. China has reacted very strongly to the visit, both diplomatically and militarily. Second, China has with increasing frequency flown its combat aircraft and Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) close to the LAC. It causes concern in New Delhi due to its striking similarity with the Chinese display of strength through the violation of Taiwanese Air Defence Identification (ADIZ) in East China Sea. The article investigates the patterns behind the Chinese expansionist designs in its neighbourhood and whether India already has begun to be treated as an actor which can thwart such efforts.

Comprehending China’s proclivity for assertions of sovereign claims is a task that has confounded both policymakers and strategists alike in the region. In East China Sea, the region where Taiwan is located, the Chinese claims reach further east to threaten Japan over Senkaku Islands. The South China Sea is rife with claims and counter claims by China, Philippines and Vietnam apart from Indonesia, for which the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) overlaps with China. Chinese approach, since its increased stature due to its growing economic clout has been to subdue states into submission and agreements. It has been successful in most of the border and territorial disputes viz. Russia, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. In the case of Vietnam, Japan and India it has been less successful diplomatically and militarily. Therefore, it adopts a gradual and incremental approach to achieve its objectives. In turn, this may be reflection of the regional standing and power of these countries. The dispute with Taiwan, in its historical circumstances, may be different. The Taiwanese situation, however, and the latest Chinese response to Nancy Pelosi’s visit provides hints and clues to its actions.

Taking a cue from the Chinese actions over Taiwan strait and frequent violations of the ADIZ, the Indian establishment has raised concerns over the recent activity in Ladakh. Chinese approach is to normalize People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s air sorties and RPAS flights very close to the LAC. New Delhi and its armed forces must be attentive and ready that the frequency of air activity will increase and gradually the aircraft will fly more closer to the LAC. The recent standoff and subsequent negotiations have focused on reducing the tensions and desisting from provocative actions from either side. At the end of the current round of deliberations, a Chinese Defence Ministry spokesperson revealed that a four-point consensus was arrived at during the talks between the top-level commanders. These four points don’t yield much in terms of their content regarding the issues at the LAC. Focusing on the need to carry on the negotiations and improving upon the bilateral relations in other fields is the gist of the consensus. The third point of the consensus refers to “effectively manage and control differences, as well as safeguard the security and stability in border areas until the issue is solved”, which means naught and is another way to convey that discussions should continue. This definitely works in favour of Beijing which may be biding this tough phase owing to the Taiwan crisis in the East. Point four of the consensus is a step back in time as it refers “to maintain communication and dialogue, and reach a mutually acceptable solution as soon as possible” and is effectively the phrase used by the Chinese during the beginning of the crisis. New Delhi and the commanders may do well to refer to the initial phase of the talks when the crisis started in May 2020.

The broader ramification of the protracted nature of the negotiations at the LAC is that India now has clarity on Chinese deeds and words. India has entered into a new phase of the global geopolitical competition. A significant strategic component of the United States of America’s (US) pivot to Asia is its sustained attention and effort to India. Recent announcement of joint annual exercise ‘Yudh Abhyas’, literally meaning War Practice by the US and India is another instance of military cooperation between the two countries. ‘Yudh Abhyas’ will be carried out in October and happens approximately 100 kms. from the disputed border between India and China. It will focus on ‘high-altitude warfare training’. The larger context is explained by a statement of the US Defense Department that “Partnership with India is one of the most important elements of our shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region”. The connect with global geopolitics is made amply clear. In a first, US Navy Ship Charles Drew arrived at Kattupalli Shipyard near Chennai for repairs following the agreements signed with the United States.

It will be an understatement to say that the new Cold War has set in, and New Delhi has major stakes as China has disputed land borders with India where friction is normal. Territorial and border disputes may not evoke the nationalist fervour as does the issue of Taiwan in China; however, they are matters of national prestige. Going by Chinese actions and intentions at the border, India needs to emphasize an early resolution of remaining issues at the border. Chinese remain the masters of the gradual encroachments and waiting game.

On the other hand, India over the last two decades has built a network of partnerships which will be crucial to overcome Chinese belligerence in the region, both at the land borders and in the Indian Ocean/ Indo-Pacific region. Strategic thinkers and policy makers alike have been keen to see India as an important actor in global geopolitics. Therefore, it is required that clarity and focus on Chinese words and actions remains a primary objective while strengthening Indo-Pacific partnerships intact.

The author is Associate Professor of Political Geography and Geopolitics at the Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, JNU.

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