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CRYPTO EXTORTION: THE LOOMING THREAT OF RANSOMWARE

India needs to develop a comprehensive anti-ransomware strategy post haste, otherwise coming days would see large-scale disruptions in various critical sectors ranging from manufacturing, public transport, power grids to healthcare and education.

Brijesh Singh and Khushbu Jain

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The US’ largest fuel pipeline paid $4.4 million to a gang of ransomware operators who breached into its computer systems recently. After the 7 May ransomware attack, the company took its pipeline system offline and supplies tightened across the US. Prices started rising and a number of US states declared an emergency.

In March 2021, the London-based Harris Federation suffered a ransomware attack and was forced to “temporarily” disable the devices and email systems of all the 50 secondary and primary academies it manages, resulting in over 37,000 students being unable to access their coursework and correspondence.

Bombardier, the Canadian plane manufacturer, suffered a data breach in February 2021. The stolen data of suppliers, customers and around 130 employees located in Costa Rica was leaked on the site operated by the Clop ransomware gang.

The globally renowned computer giant Acer suffered a ransomware attack and was asked to pay a record ransom of $50 million, by a cyber criminal group called REvil.

On 20 March 2021, the multinational IoT device manufacturer Sierra Wireless was hit by a ransomware attack against its internal IT systems and had to halt production at its manufacturing sites and the company was able to resume production after a week.

THE STAGES OF RANSOMWARE

1.     Infection: The victim’s machine is infected when/after a compromised website is accessed or when attachment is opened from a spam message.

2.     Data encryption: The victim’s files or devices are locked down via cryptographic keys that utilise the Public Key Infrastructure on either the infected machine or Command and Control server.

3.     Demand: A message demanding payment of a ransom for releasing the locked data or files is displayed by the ransomware software.

4.     Outcome: Which is based on the actions taken by the victim. Such as: In event the victim does not pay the ransom but is able to eliminate the ransomware and recover the locked data or files; another event when the victim pays the ransom through anonymous channels such as Bitcoin and, hopefully, receives the key to unlock the data or devices (not recommended though). If not the above two, then the event of non-payment of the ransom and subsequent destruction of the data or files; without a backup, the victim will suffer permanent loss.

IMPACT ON BUSINESSES

The impact of ransomware to an organisation is many-fold: Reputational damage, theft, financial losses, fines, and below the surface costs.

1.     Reputational damage: Taking a reputational hit may also affect the ability to attract the best talent, suppliers and investors. Losing trust of customers and stakeholders is one of the harmful impacts of the ransomware event as the overwhelming majority of people would not do business with a company that had been breached, especially in the event of failing to protect its customers’ data. This intangible loss will easily translate directly into a loss of business, as well as devaluation of the brand.

2.     Theft: Apart from monetary losses, stolen data can be worth far more to hackers, especially when sold on the Dark Web. For example, the 2015 ‘Hidden Data Economy’ report by Kaspersky Labs puts the value of login credentials to hotel loyalty programmes or online auction accounts at up to $1,400. Not to forget the intellectual property theft which may be equally or more damaging, with companies losing years of effort and R&D investment in trade secrets or copyrighted material also their competitive advantage.

3.     Financial losses: Ransomware costs businesses disproportionately when adjusted for organisational size. A casual stance on security could quite easily put you out of business.

4.     Fines: As if direct financial losses weren’t punishment enough, there is the prospect of monetary penalties for businesses that fail to comply with data protection legislation. The example of GDPR which in case of privacy breach attracts a fine of 2% to 4% of global turnover. And such regulation is forming shape globally which would threaten many growing businesses with insolvency.

SOME FAMOUS CASES OF RANSOMWARE ATTACKS

1. Ryuk, 2019 and 2020

2. SamSam, 2018

3. WannaCry, 2017

4. Petya, 2016

5. TeslaCrypt, 2015

6. CryptoLocker, 2013

7. AIDS Trojan or PC Cyborg, 1989

WHAT TO DO WHEN IT HAPPENS

In the event of ransomware attack, the victim must immediately engage incident response teams to limit the damage. A passive approach to ransomware poses a huge risk given the potential losses that may be incurred with a ransomware attack; both organisations and users must proactively plan to prevent and respond to ransomware attacks. The teams should immediately notify users and turn off infected devices. Additionally, a backup device should be deployed to run the network; train users on how to respond to a ransomware attack; continuously backup IoT data to back-end servers; prepare a backup of application and device configuration files.

SHOULD WE PAY?

There cannot be a straight answer to whether to pay threat actors. It is pertinent that companies balance the potential near-term benefit of decrypting data, which is not always guaranteed, against the risk of legal and reputational exposure for making a payment to a prohibited person or entity, not to mention the risk of increased targeting by threat actors once a payment has been made. Waiting will only complicate the situation. Thus, the only simple answer to the question is that companies should have a plan in place before an attack ever occurs.

LESSONS LEARNT & WAY AHEAD

Data stolen and leaked on publicly available websites could provide targeting attackers with victim data that could inform or guide future disruptive attacks. Cyber security awareness plays an important role in preventing cyber-attacks. A tailored (ransomware threats) educational framework as well as a tool which mimicked ransomware attacks proved to be playing a pivotal role in reducing ransomware infections. Moreover, technical countermeasures of verifying applications’ trustworthiness when calling a crypto library or minimising attack surface by limiting end-users privilege has proved effective in preventing ransomware attacks.

CONCLUSIONS

Alarmed by the impunity with which ransomware operators are disrupting critical infrastructure world over, the US government has formed a Ransomware Task Force (RTF). It convened in early 2021 with participants from governments, software firms, cyber security vendors, non-profit and academic institutions from across the world.

The task force is synthesising best practices across sectors, identifying solutions in all steps of the ransomware kill chain, targeting gaps in solution applications, and engaging with stakeholders across industries to coalesce around a diverse set of ideas and solutions.

India too needs to develop a comprehensive anti-ransomware strategy post haste, otherwise coming days would see large-scale disruptions in various critical sectors ranging from manufacturing, public transport, power grids to healthcare and education. Many would pay exorbitant sums in ransom as the gangs have evolved their tactics to double and triple extortion by leveraging the data stolen in such attacks.

Brijesh Singh, IPS, is an author and IG Maharashtra. Khushbu Jain is an advocate practising before the Supreme Court and a founding partner of law firm Ark Legal. They can be contacted Twitter: @brijeshbsingh and @advocatekhushbu. The views expressed are personal.

Alarmed by the impunity with which ransomware operators are disrupting critical infrastructure world over, the US government has formed a Ransomware Task Force. It convened in early 2021 with participants from governments, software firms, cyber security vendors, non-profit and academic institutions from across the world. The task force is synthesising best practices across sectors, identifying solutions in all steps of the ransomware kill chain, targeting gaps in solution applications, and engaging with stakeholders across industries to coalesce around a diverse set of ideas and solutions.

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Opinion

FARMERS NEED TO SEE THROUGH THEIR LEADERS, END PROTEST

Joyeeta Basu

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Seven-eight months on, some of Delhi’s borders are still blocked by groups of farmers sitting in protest against the three farm laws passed by Parliament following due legislative process and with a majority vote. Much has happened in these months, including the deadly second wave of the coronavirus that has left thousands dead and hundreds and thousands infected and often battling with post-infection complications. Amid this, these farmers have defied every Covid protocol including social distancing and masking, while staying put on Delhi’s borders. Allegations are that these gatherings have proved to be super-spreader events, with the farmers taking back the infection to their villages whenever visiting home, which has resulted in certain areas in states neighbouring Delhi becoming corona hotspots. But obviously, such has been the level of misinformation and disinformation spread about the farm laws that the protesting farmers are ready to put their and their loved ones’ lives at risk to try and put pressure on the government to repeal the farm laws.

Also in these months, what was initially proclaimed to be a non-political protest fighting for the rights of farmers has shed the fig leaf of being above politics. The fundamental premise of the protest was always political—to turn the Narendra Modi government into a lame-duck one by making it repeal the farm laws and thus not allowing it to undertake any reform-oriented activities. The only difference now is that the leaders of the protest have taken clearly partisan positions and are openly hobnobbing with opposition parties, a case in point being Rakesh Tikait, the leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Union. Tikait is an ambitious man and does not believe in staying confined to Delhi’s borders and so travelled all the way to West Bengal ahead of the Assembly elections there to campaign against the Bharatiya Janata Party. And now he believes he can play a role in the formation of a second/third political front in the Lok Sabha elections of 2024 against the BJP.

Recently, he again travelled to Kolkata and if media reports are to be believed, offered West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee the Prime Minister’s post if any such political formation comes to power in 2024. It’s a different matter though that Tikait’s immediate focus is on the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections that are scheduled to be held around February-March 2022. Ahead of that, whether he is working to establish himself as a Jat leader in the Jat belt of western Uttar Pradesh, or is working in tandem with opposition parties, particularly the late Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal, or both, is a matter of speculation. But what is more than apparent is that he is enjoying the national limelight and has no intention of calling off the protests in the near future—not at least up to the UP elections.

However, whether or not these protests have an impact on the elections next year will depend not so much on what Rakesh Tikait and fellow farmer leaders do, but on what both the Central and state governments do in terms of reaching the benefits of their schemes and their development work to the people, apart from of course ensuring the revival of the economy in a post-Covid situation. Also, healthcare infrastructure has to be kept in top shape so that India does not pay a high price in terms of either human or economic terms in case a possible third wave proves to be as virulent as the second one. For this vaccination has to be ramped up, while also giving a booster dose to the public health system in terms of infrastructure.

As for the farmers, it is time they looked after their own interests. As the government has been saying repeatedly, neither would MSP go nor the mandi system. The new laws offer the farmers certain choices, but do not scrap the old system. The protesting farmers need to realise that the “leaders” who are instigating these protests are driven by self-interest—political interest or financial interest or both. They are not driven by the farmers’ interests. The poor farmers are allowing themselves to be exploited by these leaders. It is time they returned home and took another look at the farm laws.

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Opinion

DIGVIJAYA SINGH’S GOOGLY TO ENTICE MUSLIM VOTERS MAY BOOMERANG

Those who say that Digvijaya Singh is a loudmouth must understand that his remarks over Article 370 abrogations were not off-the-cuff or personal opinions of a senior Congress leader. This is a part of the design to fan trouble in the Valley and give credence to those who seek to internationalise the issue.

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Senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh has come out with a fig-leaf defence after his clubhouse chats, wherein he had spoken about the Congress considering revoking Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir if it came to power at the Centre, became public. It is not an innocuous statement. Whatever he said is a part of the Congress’ design to influence elections in Uttar Pradesh, where the Congress may try everything in its arsenal to attract Muslim voters.

Let us first know what exactly Digvijaya Singh said so that misinterpretation is ruled out. While answering a query from a Pakistani journalist in clubhouse audio chat, he said: “…therefore, the decision of revoking Article 370 and reducing the statehood of J&K is an extremely, I would say, sad decision and the Congress party will certainly have a relook on this issue.” His defence after the statement got leaked was: “Those who are uneducated perhaps do not understand the difference between shall and consider.”

But there was never any confusion in his statement based on the nuance of ‘shall’ and ‘consider’. He had stressed that “the Congress party will certainly have a relook”. The senior Congress leader has bowled a googly that any person in the country would term anti-national.

Not only he has allowed anti-India vested groups to keep the issue alive, but he has also gone against the combined wisdom of Parliament that endorsed the decision. Indian democracy thrives because you raise your concerns in Parliament but once the decision has been taken, you bow before the combined wisdom of the House. Whatever was done on 5 August 2019 was done constitutionally.

Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury had committed a similar faux pas during a debate on the issue in Lok Sabha in August 2019 when he spoke of the UN resolution on Kashmir and questioned the Kashmir issue being described as India’s matter. While it did not deter the Indian Government, such reckless statements did give fodder to those seeking to internalize the issue.

Those who say that Digvijaya Singh is loud mouth must understand that it was not an off-the-cuff remark or personal opinion of a senior Congress leader. This is a part of the design to fan trouble in the valley and give credence to those who seek to internationalize the issue. Such statements coming from the opposition would be used by those opposing abrogation even if the Government’s decision has a finality attached to this.

Not that there is any chance of the BJP under Narendra Modi losing power in 2024, but even if one theoretically concedes the possibility, no political party can dare to change the decision. This is a different India and not the one immediately after post-Independence that allowed separate status for Jammu and Kashmir. That time there was euphoria after Independence and people thought the decision taken by their flamboyant beloved first Prime Minister was temporary and would get resolved soon. This was the promise made but it never happened and Pakistan occupied that part of Kashmir that rightfully belongs to India.

Adopting the policy of giving a thousand cuts to India, Pakistan launched full-scale wars but got defeated summarily. When it realized that it would not be able to defeat India in any conventional war, Pakistan adopted the policy of proxy war by sending terrorists from across the borders and organizing ethnic cleansing in Jammu and Kashmir. Indians have paid a heavy price for that decision of Nehru and we have lost the lives of many brave soldiers and civilians in Pakistan’s proxy war. From day one the BJP or its earlier incarnation, Jan Sangh had opposed special status to the State. The decision to abrogate Article 370 corrected the historical blunder and called the bluff of those who used to argue that the provision had become a permanent arrangement.

Ever since the abrogation of Article 370, more militants have been liquidated compared to the pre-2019 period and there had been a drastic reduction in the terror incidents. The militant outfits are not able to get enough youths to carry their flags. According to Northern Area Commander of Indian Army, Lieutenant General Yogesh Kumar Joshi: “Last year, there were 192 misguided youths who got recruited, this year there have only been 39 so far.” Youths are now getting engaged in constructive activities that would give them jobs and increase their professional competence.

“Lot of opportunities have been provided to the youth. Many educational organizations have been opened such as Super-30 for Medical and Super-50 for Engineering, to keep the youth engaged and away from the gun culture that they were exposed to all these years,” he told a major national TV channel.

Why did Digvijaya Singh issue such a statement that does not match with the national consensus? He was pandering to the Pakistani establishment and those sections there that might still believe that they can foment trouble in Kashmir. Also, some Congress leaders, in particular, go overboard when they interact with Pakistani media. Otherwise, any sane person would have said this is the decision of Parliament and we would rate the decision based on whether it has helped the State to gain on development parameters.

But such statements need Statesmanship and not narrow-minded political brinkmanship that is sure to produce disaster. But you cannot expect such political maturity from the Congress which has put its own survival before the interest of the country. On Kashmir, the entire country needs to be one since it has a bad political legacy that has acted as fodder to international media.

A party that is headed by a person of foreign origin and has leaders of questionable integrity and affiliations needs to wear nationalism up its sleeves. But whether it is the issue of two surgical strikes on Pakistan, purchase of Rafale fighter aircrafts, dealings with China, or relations with Pakistan, the Congress has gone against the nation’s mood. This explains why it is criticized as being ‘anti-national’. Senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar admitted on a Pakistani Television Channel in 2018 that the Congress could not prove charges on Rafale but it had managed to dent the image of the Government.

Aiyar had committed a Digvijaya Singh kind of hara-kiri during his visit to Pakistan in 2015. While participating during a panel discussion on a Pakistani News Channel Duniya TV he said that the only way to improve relations between India and Pakistan was to dethrone Modi and bring the Congress in power.

This is what he had said during the discussion: “First remove Modi, otherwise there would be no movement forward. And whenever talks progress…” the TV anchor interrupted him and asked: “Who are you referring to when you say remove Modi? Are you telling this to the ISI?”

Aiyar said: “I want to say that we will have to wait for four more years. These panelists are very optimistic that both India and Pakistan can improve bilateral relations under Modi, but I don’t feel so.”

When asked by the anchor what was the way out, Aiyar retorted: “Bring us in and remove him.” Duniya TV anchor commented: “Only you can remove him,” to which Aiyar replied, “you will have to wait till then.”

Aiyar who had said that Narendra Modi would never become the Prime Minister but could sell tea at the Congress headquarter was miffed and felt humiliated when he could not prevent the Modi juggernaut. So, he gave vent to his frustrations in Pakistan. But he had crossed the Lakshman Rekha of not speaking out of turn on foreign policy. Relations between countries are not dependent on which party is in power. The entire nation speaks as one. Aiyar had actually sought help in Pakistan to remove the Indian Prime Minister. No sane person would do so.

But insanity becomes a design if more people do a similar act. His party colleague and former foreign affairs minister Salman Khurshid praised Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at an event in Islamabad in 2015 and criticized the Modi Government for not responding to ‘Pakistan’s overtures for peace in South Asia the way it should have.’ This was shocking since he knew the niceties of international diplomacy and the stand of India. The Congress appeared to be determined to paint itself as a saviour and the Modi Government a villain in Indo-Pak relations.

Digvijaya Singh’s statement is clearly aimed at polarizing Muslims on the eve of elections in Uttar Pradesh. There are two main contenders of Muslim votes in the State— the Bashujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party. Congress has become a marginal force. Getting Muslim votes might bring votes from some others as well could be the calculations of the Congress.

The Congress assumption might be based on the understanding that most Indian Muslims would oppose the scrapping of Article 370 and most of them want better relations with Pakistan and they have not appreciated surgical strikes or snapping off ties between the two countries. If it is so, it is a serious issue and shows the way Congress looks towards Muslims— that they will oppose strong India or that their loyalties lie elsewhere. It is the same thinking that persuaded Mahatma Gandhi to support the Khilafat Movement in the 1920s in exchange for the support of Muslim leaders for the Non-Cooperation Movement against the British. This clearly stated that a Muslim’s extra-territorial loyalty must be appreciated and respected.

The Congress of today is desperate for political revival and compromising national interest is a small price to be paid for this. The biggest test lies in Uttar Pradesh, and the party may like to use its much-hyped leader Priyanka Vadra— who would project herself as a Brahmin face despite confusion about her true religious calling. She wears Cross and the Hindu symbols with aplomb, depending on the political necessity. There is nothing wrong if one can be a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu at the same time. Nobody should have objections. But when one wishes to use identity politics on road to political recovery such questions are bound to arise.

Can Congress disown Digvijaya Singh and take a bold stand on Article 370? A clear answer is no, since this would confuse Rahul Gandhi’s target voters. And the prime focus is not the 2024 Lok Sabha elections but the 2022 elections in Uttar Pradesh. In November 2020, Congress had become a part of the GUPKAR alliance in Jammu and Kashmir that demanded the restoration of Article 370. It did not criticize Dr. Farooq Abdullah for saying that he would take China’s support for restoration.

The Congress’ approach emanates from the traditional understanding that Caste Hindus will vote for their castes. The Congress calculates that it has spread enough lies to malign the BJP and its leaders. But Rahul Gandhi would do well to remember that the issue of nationalism has over-shadowed caste differences in many elections. The optics created by the Congress and other opposition parties might create confusion among voters in the short run, but when they go out to vote they would find it extremely tough to vote the BJP out and bring in forces that are inimical to strong India. The BJP does not have extra-territorial loyalty. People may criticize the BJP or even abuse it if angry but they won’t sink the boat in favour of untrustworthy parties or their leaders. For them, the BJP is a part of the family.

The writer is the convener of the Media Relations Department of the BJP and represents the party as a spokesperson on TV debates. He has authored the book ‘Narendra Modi: The Game Changer’. The views expressed are personal.

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Opinion

DELHI UNIVERSITY UNDER A CLOUD IN ITS CENTENARY YEAR

Pankaj Vohra

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The country’s premier university, Delhi University, in its centenary year, is in the grip of a major crisis resulting from apparently “illegal and questionable actions” of the ministry for Human Resources Development. The major contentious issue is that the university has a person functioning as the acting Vice Chancellor without the requisite approval of the Visitor, in this case the President of India. Prof P.C. Joshi was appointed as the VC by the ministry following the superannuation of Prof Yogesh Tyagi, who spent the last few months of his tenure under suspension. The objection of those well conversant with the Delhi University Act, its Statutes and Ordinances is that the ministry could not have unilaterally appointed Prof Joshi to serve, even in an acting capacity, without the matter getting the Visitor’s nod.

Here too, there are some alarming serious views that emerge. The Vice Chancellor usually appoints his team of the PVC, the Dean of colleges and the Director, South Campus, soon after assuming office. Prof Tyagi had himself not followed many conventions and established practices in the university and when during the last year of his tenure appointed Prof Joshi as his PVC, he did not obtain the approval of even the Executive Council, which was merely informed, and also the appointment was done without the consent of the Visitor. In Delhi University, the practice has been that once the tenure of the VC ends, those appointed by him to assist him also have to go. In other words, their tenure is co-terminus with the office of the VC. Prof Tyagi retired on 9 March without being reinstated which itself raises many questions, and Prof Joshi was asked by the ministry to continue till such period, a new VC was appointed. In fact, his tenure would have automatically ended with that of Prof Tyagi and in that case, the Registrar should have convened a meeting of the EC to take stock of the situation and to seek the final advice from the Visitor in this regard.

As per knowledgable sources, the Registrar or the senior-most Professor of the university should have been asked to take over for the interim period or whoever the Visitor deemed fit to discharge the functions. Instead, Prof Joshi continued to perform the functions of the VC. The second problem that has arisen is that Prof Joshi also superannuated as professor in the university on 31 May, thus his continuation becomes questionable even on the above grounds. A PVC is appointed from among the professors in the university and if the person ceases to be a professor, how can he be the PVC or the acting VC. To make matters worse, the HRD ministry has not sent any file regarding the DU VC’s position and even the Search Committee has yet to be fully constituted for the appointment of a regular Vice Chancellor.

The DU Executive Council in its meeting had suggested a panel of seven names from which two were picked up by the Dean of Colleges; P.C. Joshi declared that he would not preside over the meeting since he was himself a candidate. The two names—Yogendra Narayan, former Defence Secretary and Secretary General of Rajya Sabha, and Prof Raj Kumar, Vice Chancellor of the Punjab University—exist only in a file that has not been sent to the Visitor to enable him to nominate his own nominee to make the search committee complete. This inordinate delay is on account of the ministry sitting over the DU issue deliberately or inadvertently.

Delhi University certainly does not need to be treated in such a shabby manner in its centenary year where the actions of the acting Vice Chancellor could be legally challenged. There are nearly 20 odd universities which do not have regular VCs and it is high time that the Prime Minister’s Office should intervene and get the matters sorted out. There are more than half-a-dozen ministers in the present government who are the alumnus of this prestigious institution which is crying for help.

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Opinion

LINKING SCHOOLS WITH HIGHER EDUCATION

Higher education needs to come forward in a big way to improve the quality of school education in general and secondary education in particular.

Prof. Ved Prakash

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The growth of higher education has to be synchronous with the school education in the long run. Although well recognised, it needs to be reiterated that the growth of education in most of the developing societies shows commensurate progress across elementary, secondary and post-secondary sectors of education. It has been substantiated through a number of longitudinal studies conducted across the globe. However, there seems to be some incongruity insofar as transition rates in Indian school system are concerned. It requires a whole series of corrective measures as it has serious policy implications for higher education in the country. One of the serious shortcomings of the Indian education system is the lack of linkage across different sectors of education. They have been working in isolation for long as if they have nothing to do with each other. Of them, the higher education sector is primarily responsible for this malaise as it has failed in providing desired level of academic support to its feeder sectors.

It is quite perplexing to find declining trends in transition rates across different sectors, while there is an upward trend in enrolment. Transition rates seem to be moving on a sliding scale as is evident from 2018-19 data. While the transition rates from primary to upper primary and from elementary to secondary are found to be 91 and 90 respectively, it is as low as 69 from secondary to higher secondary. An analysis of the District Information System for Education (DISE) data over a period of five years from 2014-19, reveals another kind of incongruity in transition rates across different sectors of school education. While it shows declining trends from primary to upper primary and elementary to secondary for three consecutive years in a row from 2015-18, a similar trend is seen only for a year (2016-17) in the case of secondary to higher secondary. If we are to attain 50% Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in higher education within 2030, as envisaged in the National Education Policy (NEP), 2020, then it is necessary to ensure commensurate upturn in transition rates across all sectors of school education.

The declining trends of transition rates at school stage would continue to be the main impediments, if not addressed through academic interventions at school stage, to the overall growth of higher education. There are multiple reasons for these declining trends which need to be appreciated and appropriately addressed by the university system in a time bound manner. It is vital to understand that when students transit from one stage to another stage or change classes within or between schools, their teaching and learning are invariably calibrated in accordance with the intended learning outcomes. Some of the critical factors like acclimatisation of students with unacquainted ambience, their social and emotional adjustments are not given as much attention as they deserve. It is primarily because these aspects are not adequately addressed in our teacher training programs.

These problems get accentuated as students move upward because of the load of curriculum and lack of individualised instructions. It not only makes a negative impact on their learning but also affects their ability to withstand the academic pressure and the test of time leading to continuous decline in transition rates in all subsequent stages of education. There are also other factors like socio-personal, academic attainments, average annual dropout rates that contribute to declining trends. With an average annual dropout rate of about 17%, at secondary stage, the transition rate from secondary to post-secondary is going to be much less than the number of places available at that stage. Furthermore, all those who would graduate might not make the cut to higher education due to a variety of reasons like poor marks, fierce competitions, limited seats, financial constraints and several other family obligations.

It is evident that we are losing out a large number of learners at every stage of education and which is why we have been still struggling with the universalisation of elementary education, let alone universalisation of twelve years of schooling. Global experience shows that transitions are more successful in those schools where teachers ensure seamless learning by way of preventing vulnerable students from their disengagement with learning. Since there is an acute shortage of such schools in the entire country, urgent measures need to be taken to ensure seamless learning right from lower primary to senior secondary, without which it would not be possible to realise the goals that have been set in the NEP, 2020. This obviously requires, among others, policy interventions at the level of teacher preparation.

Transition rates across different stages of education can be improved substantially if institutions persistently focus as much on students’ adjustments and acclimatisation as on academic attainments. They need to proactively address curricular as well as social and personal issues of vulnerable students who would predominantly be from marginalised groups of the society. The curricular areas at school stage provide a feeder to the knowledge domains in higher education. Such disciplines, having poor enrolments at the school stage, need to be strengthened to improve the quality and intake in such disciplines so that the higher education system does not remain starved for want of appropriate intakes in those subjects of study. This would of course require proper attention and linkage between school education and higher education which is presently not as appreciable as it ought to be.

Interdisciplinary approach to education is a catchword expressing the reality of higher education in the current context. This orientation to education needs to be attempted through curriculum reforms at secondary education by avoiding insularity of subject disciplines. The current tendency of independent streams like science, commerce, humanities, medical and non-medical need to be merged in such a way that the students can choose from amongst various subjects which cut across physical sciences, biological sciences, social sciences and mathematics. This would require a revisit to curriculum practices at the secondary stage which is generic to orientation to higher education. This is going to help improve the transition rates across different stages of school education. But these curricular changes cannot be accomplished without the active participation of eminent experts from higher education.

Higher education needs to come forward in a big way to improve the quality of school education in general and secondary education in particular. This can be done, among others, by organising continuous professional development programmes for school teachers in different subjects by the higher education system. School teachers need to be familiarised with the developments in curricular areas so that their focus remains on ensuring that nothing is taught which has to be unlearned at the higher education stage. It needs to be noted that major curriculum development projects which have influenced school education all over the world have emanated from the campuses of higher education institutions. This approach has also been instrumental in improving the quality of school education and that in-turn has provided a much better foundational edifice for curriculum reforms even at the higher education level. The higher education system in India is presently insulated from the school education sector in this regard and the gap that exists needs to be bridged through this strategy.

University departments in education, sciences, and social sciences need to generate innovations in pedagogy in the curricular areas of school education so that such an output provides a face-lift to teacher education which is so very vital for the overall qualitative improvement of both school and higher education. Another priority concern in education in the current context is Vocational Education and Training (VET) leading to skills development. Secondary education pass-outs should be one of the feeder streams to the vocational courses at the higher education level, at least in some areas, and it should also provide vertical mobility. Therefore, vocational education at the school stage needs to be strengthened. The present picture is not very encouraging and in its present form it is not going to provide vocational orientation to higher education which is the need of the hour.

There is a need for strengthening certain academic reforms such as semesterisation, choice-based credit system, comprehensive internal evaluation at school stage for the purpose of improving transition rates from school education to higher education. The present position indicates a lot of confusion and lack of will to implement such reforms even at the higher education stage in several universities. Another significant aspect that requires urgent attention is the reform at the level of teacher education. The Education Commission (1964-66) had made a significant recommendation of bringing teacher education for all stages of school education under the umbrella of the university system. This was done to provide a very vital interface between school education and higher education for a holistic and qualitative development of school education. This recommendation has not been implemented thus far. Perhaps the idea can be put to some scholarly discourse now to analyse the implications and possible strategies for realising the objectives in the larger interest of both the school and higher education.

India has the largest system of higher education in terms of number of institutions. But there is hardly any institution of higher learning, except the NCERT, which institutionalised the culture of active engagement with schools. The time has come when higher education institutions across the country should take proactive steps to improve the quality of school curriculum, pedagogical processes, assessment techniques and continuous professional development programmes. They should also undertake action research to improve academic attainments, organise motivational lectures, science exhibitions, summer schools and summer camps to improve the overall quality of school education without which Indian higher education will continue to remain woefully deficient both in quantity and quality.

The writer is former Chairman, UGC. The views expressed are personal.

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Opinion

AGRA HOSPITAL WHERE 22 PATIENTS DIED SHOULD BE CHARGED WITH MASS MURDER

Pankaj Vohra

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In a shocking revelation, the owner of a hospital in Agra has claimed on a video that went viral, that he had directed the oxygen supply to some patients to be discontinued for some time to determine, who all could survive without it. As a consequence of this ‘mock drill’ 22 patients died both in the Covid and non-Covid areas of the medical institution. Although the Uttar Pradesh authorities have ordered an inquiry to go into the claim and have suspended the licence of the hospital, yet a strong case is made against those responsible for this gross callous behaviour. If the inquiry establishes any kind of wrongdoing, the owner and all those involved in this brainless exercise should be charged with mass murder, and their case should be put before fast-track court to dispense justice.

These kinds of drills should only be carried under normal circumstances and with adequate precautions and close monitoring by the authorities. In any case, before embarking on this misadventure, the owner and others should have at least kept the district administration posted so they could have also deployed a backup plan.

The entire episode is bizarre and insane and if it had happened in a developed country, lawsuits would have ensured that the hospital authorities would have gone out of business for a long time. In any case, mock drills or real-time things do not mostly work when the actual situations occur. In the early 1980s, the Delhi Fire department learned for the first time that its equipment was inadequate to handle multi-storey fires after a huge blaze at the Gopala Towers at Rajendra Place broke out.

Helicopters that were deployed to pour water from above made things worse since the rotors fanned the fire further. It was in June and the Fire hoses could only go up to a particular height which was not sufficient to bring things under control. The Fire department did not have the requisite equipment to deal with the situation. It was only later that Snorkels and Turn Table ladders were acquired.

Even now, the Fire services in the NCR, particularly in Gurgaon need to be strengthened. With so many multi-storied structures, one shudders to think what would happen if some major untoward incident was to take place. The Disaster Management Committee and the Crisis Management Group, have meetings and plans which need to work when something actually happens.

One can recall that when the Indian Airlines aircraft was hijacked to Kandahar, the telephone numbers at the crisis management office were all found to be outdated. The preparations should factor in various aspects including the presence of multiple authorities that call the shots in the country. Delhi appears to be better prepared than most cities but its contradictions do not seem to be evident to the authorities.

There is an urgent need to review all the plans that have been put in place for any kind of emergency so that things don’t backfire at the apt time. Prevention is the best cure for most situations.

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Opinion

HOW MODI GOVERNMENT IS EMPOWERING FARM ECONOMY

It is time for India’s Opposition and pressure groups to wake up, smell the coffee and change their mindset because the agriculture reforms by the Narendra Modi government are pro-farmers and the new farm laws are indeed India’s ‘Glasnost’ moment, as these reforms will usher in greater transparency in the country’s farm sector. For this government, ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’, is not just a slogan.

Sanju Verma

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What has the Modi government done for the well-being of India’s farm community? This is a question that is often asked. Well, for starters, the government has been transferring cash directly to farmers. Over Rs 1.35 lakh crore has been paid (via PM-KISAN, since its inception, in December 2018) to over 12 crore farmers. From just 255 million tonnes in 2012-13, under an inept Congress regime, to 297.5 million tonnes in 2019-20 and 303.34 million tonnes of foodgrain production in 2020-21, is a vindication of how India’s self-sufficiency, with an exportable surplus in the foodgrain space, has added to India’s economic heft. The latest data available with the Food Corporation of India (FCI) shows wheat procurement crossed 418 lakh metric tonnes (LMT) till May 29, 2021, in the ongoing rabi marketing season (RMS), higher than 390 LMT in RMS 2019-20. The current year’s wheat procurement figure is the highest ever in post-independent India. This is also the first time that wheat procurement has crossed the 400 LMT mark. The record wheat procurement comes just after the all-time high procurement of paddy. In the 2020-21 Kharif marketing season (KMS), paddy procurement crossed 789 LMT, compared to 773 LMT in KMS 2019-20, according to FCI data.

Given the hue and cry over Minimum Support Price (MSP), it is only apt to ask, what has been the track record of the Modi government? Without an iota of doubt, the track record on MSP has been exemplary. Minimum Support Price (MSP) is a form of market intervention by the Central government, to insure agricultural producers against any sharp fall in farm prices. For the 2021-22 crop year, the Modi government raised the MSP of paddy (common variety) by Rs. 72, to Rs 1940 per quintal from Rs 1868 per quintal in the year-ago period. The MSP of Grade A variety of paddy has also been increased by Rs. 72 to Rs. 1960 per quintal this year from Rs. 1888 per quintal last year. Among coarse cereals, the government increased the MSP of jowar (hybrid) by Rs 118 to Rs 2738 per quintal from Rs 2620 per quintal last year.

A similar increase has been made in support price of jowar (Maldani) to Rs 2,758 per quintal for the 2021-22 crop year. The government increased the support price of bajra by Rs 100 to Rs 2,250 per quintal from Rs 2,150 per quintal last year, while ragi support price has been increased by Rs 82 to Rs 3,377 per quintal from Rs 3,295 per quintal last year. The support price of maize has been increased marginally by Rs 20 to Rs 1,870 per quintal for the 2021-22 crop year from Rs 1,850 per quintal last year. The government has made concerted efforts over the last few years to realign the MSPs in favour of oilseeds, pulses, and coarse cereals to encourage farmers to shift to the larger area under these crops and adopt the best technologies and farm practices, to correct the demand-supply imbalance. The added focus on Nutri-rich, Nutri-cereals is to incentivise their production in the areas, where rice-wheat cannot be grown without long-term adverse implications for groundwater table.

To boost pulses and oilseeds’ production and reduce the country’s dependence on imports, the government increased the support price of tur and urad dal by Rs 300 to Rs 6,300 per quintal each. Moong support price has been increased by Rs 79 to Rs 7,275 per quintal for the 2021-22 crop year.

Among Kharif-grown oilseeds, the government increased the support price in the case of sesamum by Rs 452, to Rs 7,307 per quintal and that of groundnut by Rs 275 to Rs 5,550 per quintal for the 2021-22 crop year. Sunflower seed MSP has been increased by Rs 130 to Rs 6,015 per quintal from Rs 5,885 per quintal. For oilseeds, the government has approved an ambitious plan for the free distribution of high-yielding varieties of seeds to the farmers for the Kharif season 2021 in the form of mini-kits.

The special Kharif programme will bring an additional 6.37 lakh hectare area under oilseeds and is likely to produce 120.26 lakh quintals of oilseeds and edible oil amounting to 24.36 lakh quintals. On fertilisers, retail prices of di-ammonium phosphate (DAP) recently rose in line with global markets, but the government increased the subsidy portion to ensure farmers continue to get the key soil nutrient at Rs 1,200 per bag. In effect, subsidy on DAP was raised by a massive 140% from Rs 500 to Rs 1,200 per bag.

Coming to the Modi government’s track record, the numbers speak for themselves. MSP payment to farmers for paddy rose by 2.4 times to Rs 4.95 lakh crore between 2014 and 2019 under the Modi government, as against only Rs 2.06 lakh crore, under the previous, Congress-led regime, between 2009 and 2014. MSP to farmers for wheat increased by 1.77 times during 2014-19, to Rs 2.97 lakh crore, compared to Rs 1.68 lakh crore in the 2009-14 period. MSP payment for pulses surged by a whopping 75 times under the Modi government to Rs 49,000 crore from 2014-19, compared to a measly Rs 645 crore, under the Congress-led UPA-2. Payment to farmers for Oilseeds and Copra also surged 10 times under the Modi government, to Rs 25,000 crore, during the last five years, in comparison to MSP payment of just Rs 2,460 crore, in the period from 2009 to 2014, under the Congress-led, United Progressive Alliance (UPA) establishment.

Has the Modi government been fair to farmers in Punjab? Well, the straight answer to that is a loud and clear, ‘yes’. In April and May 2021, a little over Rs 21,000 was paid to wheat-growing farmers as MSP, of which a solid Rs 8,200 crore was paid to farmers in Punjab alone. Do the farm bills dismantle the existing ‘APMC-Anaj Mandi’ structure? No, they do not. Going forward, farmers will have the choice and freedom to sell their produce either at APMC designated wholesale Mandis or in ‘Trade Areas’. There will be no taxes or levies of either State or Central government, on trade conducted in these ‘Trade Areas’, thereby reducing the cost of transaction in the entire food chain, from farm to fork. Hence, the whole narrative that ‘Trade Areas’ are anti-farmer is false.

Talking of farm infrastructure, the Modi government launched a new Agriculture Infrastructure Fund worth Rs/ 1 lakh crore, meant for setting up storage and processing facilities, which will help farmers get higher prices for their crops. The government launched the Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana – a flagship scheme for focused development of the fisheries sector in the country, with an estimated investment of Rs. 20,050 crore during a period of the next five years. The Modi government also launched a Rs. 15,000 crore Animal Husbandry Infrastructure Development Fund with an interest subsidy scheme to promote investment by private players and MSMEs in dairy, meat processing, and animal feed plants, a move which is expected to create 35 lakh jobs. So the government has been working at strengthening farm infrastructure. This, along with the new Farm Laws (in abeyance temporarily), will boost the productivity of the agrarian sector to areas beyond just growing traditional crops like paddy or wheat.

The Farm Laws also allow for contract farming, whereby farmers can enter into contracts, at a predetermined price, even before the crop has been harvested, with private companies, aggregators, food processors, and exporters. This is an unprecedented reform, as it allows farmers to lock in a good price for their harvest and insulates them from any post-harvest, product-related, or price volatility. The formation of 10,000 Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) is on track. These FPOs are largely clusters or groups of farmers who are brought together so that credit and other assistance can be extended to them. There are already about 5000 FPOs in India, of which only a handful are private. More than 3900 FPOs are affiliated to NABARD or small farmers’ agri-business consortium (SFAC). Hence allegations of corporatisation and blanket privatisation of Indian agriculture are baseless.

Huge growth has been seen in the export of cereals with the export of non-basmati rice growing by 136.04% to $4794.54 million, wheat by 774.17% to $549.16 million, and other cereals (millets, maize, and other coarse gains) by 238.28% to $694.14 million in FY21. India’s agriculture exports (including marine and plantation products) have beaten the pandemic, registering a growth of 17.34% to $41.25 billion in 2020-21. In Rupee terms, the increase in agri exports is 22.62%, with exports during 2020-21 amounting to Rs 3.05 lakh crore as compared to Rs 2.49 lakh crore during 2019-20.

India’s agricultural and allied imports during 2019-20 were USD 20.64 billion and the corresponding figures for 2020-21 are $20.67 billion. Despite Covid, the balance of trade in agriculture has improved by 42.16% from $14.51 billion to $20.58 billion.

For agriculture products (excluding marine and plantation products), the growth is 28.36% with exports of $29.81 billion in 2020-21 as compared to $23.23 billion in 2019-20. India has been able to take advantage of the increased demand for staples during the Covid period. Huge growth has been seen in the export of cereals with the export of non-basmati rice growing by 136.04% to $4794.54 million; wheat by 774.17% to $549.16 million; and other cereals (millets, maize, and other coarse gains) by 238.28% to usd 694.14 million.

The organic exports during 2020-21 were $1,040 million as against $689 million in 2019-20, registering a growth of 50.94%. Organic exports include oil cake/meals, oilseeds, cereals and millets, spices and condiments, tea, medicinal plant products, dry fruits, sugar, pulses, coffee, etc. Exports have also taken place from several clusters for the first time. For instance, the export of fresh vegetables and mangoes from Varanasi and black rice from Chandauli has taken place for the first time, directly benefiting farmers of the area. Exports have also taken place from other clusters viz. oranges from Nagpur, bananas from Theni and Ananthpur, mangoes from Lucknow, etc. Despite the pandemic, export of fresh horticulture produce took place by multimodal mode, and consignments were shipped by air and sea to Dubai, London, and other destinations from these areas. Hand holding by the Modi government, to build market linkages, post-harvest value chains, and an institutional structure such as FPOs, enabled North East farmers to send their value-added products beyond the Indian borders. Cereal exports have done well during 2020-21. The country has been able to export to several countries for the first time. For example, rice has been exported to countries like Timor-Leste, Puerto Rico, Brazil, for the first time. Similarly, wheat has been exported to countries like Yemen, Indonesia, Bhutan, and other cereals have been exported to Sudan, Poland, Bolivia.

Sugarcane-growing farmers too have benefitted in a big way, via an export subsidy of Rs. 3500 crore that was announced last year. The FRP of sugarcane at Rs 285 is 175% if the cost of production. The decision to increase ethanol blending to 20% by 2025 and increase procurement and capacity build-up of ethanol from 38 crore litres in 2014 to 195 crore litres, are big moves. In-principle approval was given last year to 185 sugar mills and standalone distilleries to avail Rs. 12,500 crore of loans for capacity addition of about 468 crore litres of ethanol per annum, as part of Modi government’s efforts to achieve 20% blending with petrol. In the last two years alone, 70 ethanol projects were sanctioned loans of Rs 3600 crore. Under the ethanol interest subvention scheme for molasses-based distilleries, the government in September 2020 also opened a window for 30 days to invite more applications from sugar mills and distilleries. In the normal sugar season, about 320 lakh tonnes of sugar is produced against domestic consumption of 260 lakh tonnes.

This 60 lakh tonnes of surplus sugar which remains unsold, blocks funds of sugar mills to the tune of about Rs 19,000 crore every year, thereby affecting liquidity positions of sugar mills resulting in accumulation of cane price arrears of farmers, the ministry said.

To deal with surplus sugar stocks, the government is providing financial assistance to mills for the export of sweeteners.

However, India being a developing country can export sugar by extending financial assistance for marketing and transport only up to 2023 as per WTO arrangements. For long-term solution to deal with surplus sugar, the government has therefore been encouraging diversion of excess sugarcane and sugar to ethanol for supplying to Oil Marketing Companies (OMCs) for blending with petrol. The move would not only reduce import dependency on crude oil but will also enhance the income of sugarcane farmers.

Financial assistance is being extended by way of interest subvention for 5 years at a 6% rate of interest against the loans availed by sugar mills and distilleries from banks, for setting up their projects. The existing installed capacity of molasses-based distilleries has reached a massive, 426 crore litres. In 2020-21, the target has been to supply 325 crore litres of ethanol to OMCs for achieving 8.5% blending. In the next few years, with 20% ethanol blending with petrol, the Modi government will be able to reduce the import of crude oil, a step towards being Aatmanirbhar in the petroleum sector and this will also help in increasing the income of farmers and creating additional employment in distilleries.

To cut to the chase, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, famously said, “Mind is never a problem; Mindset is”. Well, it is time for India’s hapless opposition and pressure groups to wake up, smell the coffee and change their mindset, because the agri-reforms by the Modi government are pro farmers and the Farm Bills are indeed India’s “Glasnost” moment, as these reforms will usher in greater transparency, in India’s farm economy. For the Modi government, ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’, is not a mere slogan. The journey of the “Bharatiya Kisan” from being the “Annadata”, to also becoming the ‘Urjaadata’, is at the core of Modinomics.

The writer is an economist, national spokesperson of the BJP, and the bestselling author of ‘Truth & Dare: The Modi Dynamic’. Views expressed are her personal.

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