“Tout est bien qui finit bien (All is well that ends well),” says the French proverb. Yes, the Rafale fighter jets have come. In 2001, the government decided that it needed 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) for the Indian Air Force (IAF), thus started the saga of selecting and acquiring the plane which fitted best the requirement of the nation’s strategic needs. And now in July 2020, nineteen years later, the five planes flew in to Ambala!
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, while on a visit to Ladakh, complimented the IAF for “its rapid deployment of assets” at forward locations on the eastern Ladakh border, after China walked in at several spots, uninvited. Singh added that the Balakot strike and the current combat readiness have sent a strong message to India’s “adversaries”. Well, let’s hope China gets it.
A day later, a national Indian newspaper reported that the IAF Commanders’ Conference would be carrying out “an in-depth review of the country’s air defence system which will include deployment of the first batch of Rafale fighter jets in the Ladakh sector”. It added that the main focus of the Conference was to deliberate on the overall situation in eastern Ladakh and in other sensitive sectors including in Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Uttarakhand.
There is no doubt that the Central Sector, especially Barahoti, Lapthal and Sangchamalla, is today particularly vulnerable to fresh large-scale Chinese intrusions. Due to the difficulty of the terrain, a strong Air Force could be of a great help, or at least a deterrence.
The commanders would have discussed the deployment of first batch of five Rafale jets in Ladakh, soon after the French aircraft is officially inducted in the IAF fleet. Few in India are aware of the meaning of the word ‘Rafale’; it is simply a “gust of wind” in French.
An initial Request for Information had been issued in 2001; the Request for Proposal was only released in 2007, but the then Defence Minister, A.K. Antony wanted to add new clauses to his already complicated Defence Procurement Policy (his successor, Manohar Parrikar, said that though he read the policy, he could not understand it!). More ‘complications’ were in stock, but after a long process, in January 2012, the French firm Dassault Aviation was finally selected among six contenders for supplying 126 planes to the IAF.
Many then thought that the “Big Deal” would soon be signed; three years later, it was still going through incredible procedural issues! The reasons were not the quality of the combat aircraft, but rather more bureaucratic and political hurdles coming in the way.
While on a visit to France in April 2015, realising the difficulty with the transfer of technology to Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd and to avoid going back to the starting blocks, Prime Minister Narendra Modi opted for 36 “off-the-shelf” planes. At that time, the French probably believed that “off-the-shelf” would be rather simple; they probably thought that like in a supermarket; you take what you need from the shelf and proceed to the cashier.
Paris soon realised that India was an incredible democracy where media can write on behalf of competitors; anyone wanting some publicity can go to the court and delay the process for months or years and the Opposition can always find fault in the process and block the functioning of Parliament.
This is without taking into account the babus, the most “efficient” in the world. Once everything was decided, they stepped in; the Law Ministry raised several new points about liability, bank guarantees, arbitration and a higherthan-usual offset clause.
A “senior official involved with the matter” (how a babu dealing with such sensitive contracts can freely speak to journalists is a mystery) told a prominent Delhi-based newspaper that he was “left wondering as to how India could agree to all the stipulations suggested by the French side”.
But at the end, as always in India, the “truth” prevails, and in September 2016, India and France signed an inter-governmental agreement (IGA) for the acquisition of 36 fighter jets. The saga was far from over; some Opposition party wanted the details of the armament supplied by Dassault and its partners. As a result, the IAF would have to wait four more years before getting what they were crying for.
Does it mean the Rafale will be a game changer? Probably not, because we can still hope that President Xi Jinping has some wisdom left and will not enlarge the confrontation into an armed conflict; but nothing is sure with a deeply unstable Middle Kingdom.
The arrival of the Rafale jets will have in any case a strong deterrent effect on China. Despite Beijing’s propaganda (called today Information Warfare), China can’t match the French plane today. It is not that Beijing is not trying.
On 20 July, Jamie Hunter reported in The War Zone: “China is building a brandnew variant of its Chengdu J-20 Mighty Dragon stealth fighter. Chinese air power watchers and a number of media stories suggest that the production of the long-expected J-20B commenced this summer. The variant will likely feature upgraded powerplants that will add thrust-vectoring controls (TVC) as well as increased power to the J-20’s capabilities, and possibly more.”
Something China should not forget is: If the Indian political leadership had decided to use the IAF in 1962, the fate of the war would have probably been the opposite. Last year, I had the opportunity to interview Wing Commander ‘Jaggi’ Nath, MVC (with bar), who for three years (1960-62) flew over Tibet in top-secret reconnaissance missions; his conclusions were that China had no Air Force on the Tibetan plateau in 1962; India could have won the war. The Wing Commander explained: “If we had sent a few airplanes (into Tibet), we could have wiped the Chinese out and everything could have been different. The Chinese would have never dared do anything down the line.”
It is one of the greatest tragedies of India’s modern history which will surely not be repeated.
The writer is a French-born author, journalist, historian, Tibetologist and China expert. The views expressed are personal.
Non-personal data: Tread wisely in the new gold rush
India’s effort to regulate the non-personal data space stirs up various questions, whose answers will determine the course of business, economy, citizen rights and national sovereignty.
There is a distinction between rival and non-rival goods. Material goods cannot be used by multiple people at the same time, making them rival goods. On the other hand, information, ideas and data are non-rival which means they can be used by multiple people at the same time without reduction in their value or utility. Exclusive property rights which apply to material rival goods are inherently unsuitable to the non-rival domain. Reuse of the same set of data and information for multiple purposes is also not an issue. If one has it, do not exclude others from having it too. This reduced excludability has created the root cause for property rights problems in digital information technology such as: (a) piracy of copyright protected digital products, (b) privacy issues in personal data, and (c) private ownership of data.
The case of non-personal data coming out of sensor readings, or aggregated data which has been anonymised, is different, as it is not produced with a creative human effort. Hence the intellectual property associated with such data is not at par with a design or a formulation or a trade secret.
The Government of India recently received a report from the ‘committee of experts’ working under the chairmanship of Kris Gopalakrishnan. This expert committee was set up to deliberate a ‘Non-Personal Data Governance Framework’ with the following terms of reference:
1. To study various issues relating to Non-Personal Data.
2. To make specific suggestions for consideration of the Central Government on the regulation of Non-Personal Data.
While aspects of personal data protection, individual privacy and liabilities of various stakeholders are well covered under the (proposed Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, the current report opens a Pandora’s box in terms of ownership, economic utility, ethics and governance framework for non-personal and aggregated data.
Today’s economy is fast turning into a data economy, and market forces have created giant monopolies which hoard personal and non-personal data from various interactions and sensor readings. These data points streaming out of personal devices, cameras, measuring meters, QR code scans, administrative data from smart cities can lead to enormous gains in understanding about public health, security, economy and governance measures.
Adam Thierer in his book, Permission less Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom, asks a fundamental question: “Should the creators of new technologies seek the blessing of public officials before they develop and deploy their innovations?”
The answer to this question is polemical. The rise of tech giants which thrive on user generated data has created data monopolies and data barons. These behemoths not only create ‘big data’ every moment, but they have deployed huge compute and complex architectures which are beyond the reach of any innovator or new entrant to collect, access or process, let alone derive value from it. They also shape the environment in which businesses operate to create huge entry barriers utilizing a first mover advantage. It is time that public data is considered as a species of commons and not the sole property of the business or organisation which generates it during the course of its transactions or commerce. While data as a commodity is being monetised through data brokers, it is not available to researchers, governments, startups and the public at large.
Unlocking of big data from the confinements of proprietary ownership will need to have standards, interoperability and norms of sharing in place before we reap its benefits. Apart from the commercial value of the data, there is a great potential to improve dimensions of human life like: (a) public health; (b) personal safety and (c) violence against the person. And with benefits comes the potential for misuse as the dramatic reduction in the cost of conversion, copying and transmission of digital content between carriers significantly reduces the natural excludability barriers conferred on information by its material carrier and technology becomes more ubiquitous.
Data has a net asset value, and despite the rapidly growing volume and economic importance of data in the digital economy, legal aspects surrounding data are somewhat ambiguous because there is no well-established property right regime for data. Ambiguity on aspects of data ownership, access and trade, and De facto data ownership dominates and often leads to fragmentation or anti-commons problems in data. Similarly, there are multiple areas of law or different legislative regimes that surround or cover data but none of them covers the whole field of data related issues. For actors within the data economy, this scattered legislation presents significant challenges. This is especially true regarding non-personal data, since the rules under the Information Technology Act and pending Personal Data Protection Bill provide lex generalis for personal data while the free flow of non-personal data regulation only regulates specific issues. Some issues are regulated whilst some are not.
Data trustees and stewardship
In order to ensure that data sharing processes are transparent, privacy is safeguarded and individual control over data is enabled, the data stewardship models will play an important role. This can be implemented effectively if principles of independent governance, transparency and purpose limitation are adhered to.
The defining qualities of stewards: (a) to be able to exercise independent governance and (b) act as impartial and neutral actors with no conflicting interests or desire to commodify data, can be put in action by instating a trustee board that provides oversight and checks for compliance of the steward.
In order to increase transparency, information about key decisions or actions taken by the steward that may have implications for the sharing of stakeholder data must be made available to concerned parties. Purpose limitation requires that the steward restrict data processing for anything outside the scope of consent that was negotiated with beneficiaries. The possible routes to achieve this are via consultations to secure consent and build data use policies and form data sharing agreements.
The world will generate about 90 zettabytes (approximately a billion terabytes) of data in 2020. By 2025, worldwide data is expected to grow to 175 zettabytes. Digital Information has replaced oil as the world’s most valuable commodity. In order to become a digital economy, India needs to develop a new architecture for systematic data collection and grading, data access and sharing, and data analytics among a wide variety of organisations.
Data value chains that cut across organisations currently do not exist. The risks and uncertainties associated with data sharing between organisations, even between divisions or branches in the same organisation, are inhibiting data sharing and therefore the need for foundational standards to bring clarity to intended users across new data value chains, establish common parameters, allow for interoperability, and set verifiable data governance rules to establish and maintain trust between participants and with regulators.
India’s effort to regulate the non-personal data space stirs up various questions, whose answers will determine the course of business, economy, citizen rights and national sovereignty. A fresh approach to non-personal data should lead to greater digital transparency, removal of entry barriers for smaller players, improve choice and efficiency, improve competition and create a level playing field for all.
Brijesh Singh is Inspector General of Police, Maharashtra, and Khushbu Jain is a practising advocate in the Supreme Court. Views expressed are personal.
Mohammad Rafi: The eternal voice of India
Forty years have passed since Mohammad Rafi, arguably India’s greatest playback singer, passed away, yet his songs continue to enthrall billions of people the world over. Rafi’s sudden death had left the entire film industry in a shock, and actor Shammi Kapoor, for whom the singer sang some of his most memorable songs, confessed that on 31 July 1980, he had actually lost his voice. Life for him, like innumerable Rafi fans, was never the same again. When his body was being laid to rest in the Juhu graveyard, it poured non-stop. It was evident that even the Gods were crying and the heavy rain did not prevent his admirers from paying their homage.
The singer’s versatility was unmatched by any of his contemporaries, and he provided perfect playback for actors as diverse in talent as Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand, besides comedians like Johnny Walker and Mehmood. There was hardly an artiste who did not sync his lips with Rafi’s voice. Kishore Kumar, another doyen of the times, held him in very high esteem and once when attempts were made to run Rafi down, wrote a letter to the Filmfare, that even he was a great Rafi fan. Not many people know that the phenomenal singer also lent his voice to Kishore Kumar, not once but on at least four occasions. Although people found it odd to believe that a gifted artiste like Kishore would have needed someone to sing for him, the fact is that both in Ragini where Rafi crooned “Man Mora Banwara” to O.P. Nayyar’s music or Shararat when Shankar Jaikishen composed “Ajab hai dastan teri hai zindagi”, it was Rafi who sang for Kishore.
The hallmark of the notable singer was that he had great humane values as well. When Laxmikant Pyarelal embarked on their musical journey, Rafi just accepted Re 1 as token money for his first rendition under their baton, while wishing them a bright and musical future. Many of his philanthropic activities came to light post his demise as some of the beneficiaries went to his home to pay their respect. Every singer has clones but no one could ever imitate him completely. The Anwars, Shabbir Kumars and Jaspal Singhs, all tried to sing the way the thespian sang, but always fell short of his high exacting standards. Even at the peak of his glory, he always rehearsed before going to the recording room. There was a time when Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar had differences over the royalty issue, sending the entire industry into a panic mode. Shankar Jaikshen, the top most composers of the time, who also provided music for innumerable Lata hits, chose to side with Rafi when it came to recording duets. Lata was replaced by either Suman Kalyanpur or Mubarak Begum. But to everyone’s relief, the dispute was short-lived.
Rafi was the King of melody and along with Manna Dey, Mukesh, Talat Mehmood, Kishore Kumar and Mahindra Kapoor will always be remembered.
Opposition must speak carefully on diplomacy, national security
In the book, Why We’re Polarized, Vox’s Ezra Klein quotes Princeton political scientist Markus Prior on the nature of political coverage transforming over the years. According to him, the critical factor is not access to political information, but interest in the said political information. Prior says, “The digital revolution offered access to unimaginably vast vistas of information, but, just as important, it offered access to unimaginably more choice. And that explosion of choice widened that interested/ uninterested divide. Greater choices let the devotees learn more, and the uninterested know less.” This is one of the reasons Republicans and Democrats live in “nearly inverse news media environments”.
Since the current-day media presents us with a dichotomous picture, issues of electoral importance lose their balance on the scale. This interest in political information has given a choice to the voter to strengthen a narrative that he/she thinks is relevant. Digital penetration has skyrocketed in the last five years. Smartphones and cheap data have summoned democracy at their fingertips. This perception, amplified by the media, sometimes transforms into a concrete political agenda that parties rally on, like in the case of the “India Against Corruption” movement.
Charting new territory
Matters such as national security have made a foray, electorally, for the first time. Other primetime debates of the past in the likes of corruption, unemployment, and inflation have found their abode in the distant pavilion. An outward look at issues such as national security is in continuation with the narrative the BJP was building for the voters in 2014. If the 2014 campaign ran on the plank of development, 2019 was about a projection that said that the development could come only if there’s a certain sense of security. It seems logically linear to bring these issues up.
But like never before, national security has started negating electoral prospects for a party or a candidate, if the voters choose to act upon it. A certain degree of novelty exists in this discourse of laying importance on regional geopolitics. A lot of the criticism for the government came majorly from internal issues, and this effectively deflected them all. The Opposition remained divided. There was no single platform/issue on which the previous elections were held. The Opposition was not equipped with a response when these outward-looking issues spiralled during the election campaign. From a slightly more dynamic perspective, issues of national security are a relatively strong point for the BJP during the polls. Campaigning on national security was not just a useful talking point, but also a “masterstroke”.
In more ways than one, national security became a major electoral issue in the 2019 elections. Historically, it has been different. In 1965, immediately a year after the passing away of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, India waged war against Pakistan and secured a decisive victory. Despite these two significant factors coming into play, the Congress’ vote and seat share reduced, though they managed to form the government. In 1999, soon after the Kargil war with Pakistan, Atal Bihari Vajpayee won the general elections but couldn’t sustain it till the next Lok Sabha polls in 2004. After 26/11, one of the biggest attacks by a terror outfit on Indian soil, the UPA managed to bounce back in 2009. Before the previous general elections, there was a section of political pundits and election observers who said that issues of national security might not necessarily be taken seriously by all the voters. Without further ado, they were proven wrong. While unemployment, farmer distress, and jobs were the main concern for many, the Balakot airstrikes seemed to turn the fortunes for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The political spectrum in India has been chasmic, to say the least in recent years. The political differences are not layered anymore, unfortunately. These binaries have ensured that the political debates on any subject remain black and white. Centralising the blame on the Prime Minister for all matters, big and small, has earned the Opposition a reputation of being “compulsive contrarians” (as Arun Jaitley used to call them). The BJP may not have offered anything new on the platter, but the recent developments most certainly come with political baggage of the past for the Opposition.
For instance, a little more than a decade ago, Nepal faced a triangular power contest. India was responsible for brokering a deal between the rebel Maoists and the political parties. As soon as the Maoists dropped arms and decided to contest elections, they were voted to power in less than three years. The then PM Pushpa Kamala Prachanda visited India, created a buzz in South Block, hugged Dr Manmohan Singh, attended a special lunch hosted by Sharad Yadav and even spoke at business chamber meetings. Since then, there has been no looking back for the comrades in Nepal. This has put India on a very sticky wicket since then. Professing about what changes need to be made to Nepal’s policy seems packed with chicanery at this juncture, after everything that’s happened.
The memory-span of voters may be short-lived, but the Opposition needs to exercise precaution while flagging any criticism on matters of national security. Matters of national security and integration are a special, restricted plane of debate. It is not wrong to raise the right questions, but the approach has to be careful since these issues are subject to heavy public scrutiny. Stand by the government in times of crisis. Show some statesmanship. Offer better alternatives in terms of policies and leadership. Just being critical will not paint an image of offering a credible alternative to the BJP. National interests must be kept in mind, regardless of who is in power and who isn’t.
Focus on dual technology to strengthen defence capability
While India has fared well in the past with visionary legends like A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, it further needs to enhance indigenous defence capability with dual-use technology.
Earlier this week two Sukhois escorted five Rafale fighter jets in the Indian skies. It was a spectacular moment, which brought joy and filled every Indian’s heart with pride. Even the media newsrooms were abuzz and excited about the arrival of the new generation air power.
The touchdown of the first instalment of the new-generation fighter aircraft brought about a much-needed feelgood factor in the backdrop of Chinese tension at Ladakh. The magnificent aircraft, which are now part of the Indian Air Force arsenal, are known for their deadly ability to strike air-to-air targets from up to 150 km. They bring with them a sense of security.
They can safely hit land targets 300 km within enemy territory. The French aircraft are the first major air defence acquisition in 23 years after Sukhoi jets were imported from Russia. While China kept quiet when this event played out, Pakistan’s response was predictable.
Anything which makes India powerful is a thorn in Pakistan’s flesh. A spooked Pakistan Foreign Ministry reacted by urging the world community to take note of “India’s efforts to amass military capabilities beyond its genuine security requirements.” Clearly, Pakistan is rattled with the development especially in the backdrop of the beating it got in Balakot.
The late President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Kalam’s reply to a student he once gave is a betting reply to Pakistan. When a student asked him why a peace-loving person like him tasked his country’s scientists and engineers to build missiles, he replied: “In the 3,000-year history of India, barring 600 years, the country has been ruled by others. If you need development, the country should witness peace, and peace is ensured by strength. Missiles were developed to strengthen the country.” Historically India has never overemphasised its defence needs over the development. It has only acquired what was required.
It is ironical though that India has to repeatedly remind the world community that it is a peace-loving country. But when push comes to shove India knows how to defend itself. There was a time when India did not get support from the world to enhance its weapon capability. Yet under the leadership of Kalam India developed missile, submarine and nuclear weapons technology.
The multi-billion Rafale purchase for the country’s self-defence is much required and gives an edge over the inimical neighbours. But this need also brings an understanding of the need for indigenisation of defence technology. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had given a major push in direction under the Make in India plan after he took over in the first term.
The concern is while India is importing new-generation fighter aircraft from France, China is making aircraft of matching caliber in its own country. This has been possible due China’s shrewd use of dual-use technology it has acquired from the US over the decades. India needs to harness this aspect.
As we know dual technology could be used for both peaceful purposes and development of weapons, for example nanotechnology. While over the decades the US became majorly dependent on China for outsourcing manufacturing it had no option but to transfer the technology. China not only used the technology transfer to enhance its manufacturing sector but also to build a robust defence capability. China over the decades has been discreetly using the US knowhow to develop offensive warfare technologies. It is another thing that their technology has not been war tested for a long time.
India had made several strides in the acquisition of dual use technology from the US and other countries since the 1980s. Over the years it has developed knowhow to develop advanced systems and technologies such as nanotechnology, information technology, communications satellites, artificial intelligence, robotics, and unmanned systems along with nanoweapons.
When India carried out nuclear tests in 1998, the world woke up to the country’s capabilities both in terms of its scientists and use of technology. It raised several eyebrows. Following the tests India faced a tough time of the US sanctions which continued until President George W. Bush after 9/11 terrorist attacks decided to waive off the sanctions. It was though a tactical move but following this decision India also got its share of dual-use technology transfer from the US.
US Undersecretary of Commerce Kennith Juster and Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal met to establish the US-India High Technology Cooperation Group, which sought to stimulate bilateral hightechnology commerce and strengthen the relations between the two countries.
In this understanding the two countries understood the importance of enhancing trade in ‘dual-use’ items, including controlled ‘dualuse’ goods and technologies while protecting the national security and foreign policy interests of both the countries.
In spite of India having a good track record in this regard when Kanwal Sibal travelled to Washington he was asked about critical remarks coming out of the US Congress regarding nuclear, high-tech, and space technology transfers between US and India. He gave a befitting reply. He said in the US policies are not simply made by the administration; they are also made by Congress. So there is tension within the US system.
He added, India is not a member of Nuclear Proliferation Treaty and it does not subscribe to Missile Technology Control Regime. Yet, there is to be nuclear and space cooperation. Since India is not a party to the instruments that exist to deal with non-proliferation or missile technology, there is a conundrum. He had said; “Our answer is we are what we are.”
While India has been under close scrutiny of usage of dual-use technology, China has had its way all along. A report in 2003 stated that China ranked third in the world in the number of patent application cases concerning nanotechnology, only behind the US and Japan. But one year later China owned 12 per cent of the world’s total nanotechnology patents.
When the developments of China’s military programme became known, the US Defence Department in its annual report said Beijing has and will continue to enhance its satellite tracking and identification network — the first step in establishing a credible anti-satellite weapon capability. China could only destroy or disable satellites only by launching a ballistic missile or space launch vehicle armed with a nuclear weapon. However, there are many risks associated with this method. On the basis of interest China showed in this field, DIA had a strong sense that Beijing was eventually capable of developing a laser weapon capable of damaging or destroying satellites.
This realisation had also prompted India to take up dual-use technology more aggressively. Realising its mistake of unbridled dualuse technology transfer to China, the US became inclined to aid India in the use of transfer of dual technology as a balancing act. However, India has not been able to benefit from the transfer of technology as much as China did.
While in the short term there is a need to strengthen defence capability through necessary imports like Rafale, in the long run India must indigenise its capabilities in the sector. In his inaugural speech at Defexpo 2020, PM Modi announced formulation of a long-term integrated plan for 15 years. If such a programme were to succeed, then it is essential to take industry on the same page well in advance about armed forces requirements with specifications and timelines.
The PM also emphasised that the government is working earnestly to promote defence manufacturing in the private sector. He informed of a slew of measures which have been initiated to make it easier for the private industry to have a stake in defence manufacturing including the decision to open up DRDO patents free of cost to Indian private manufacturers.
During the Defexpo unprecedented 1,000 exhibitors and 15 lakh visitors visited the exhibition of live demonstrations of military capability in mock operation settings. Defence Ministers from 30 countries also participated.
India has increased its defence budget from Rs 3,40,921 crore in 2017-18 to Rs 4,71,378 crore for 2020- 21. This increase becomes important among the competing demands of modernisation and sustenance. India faces multiple threats and needs to be prepared for full-spectrum war.
In order to achieve this goal India must make best use of available dual-use technology. Simultaneously, it must also develop indigenous capability. This could happen by bringing on board able scientists. There is a need to make extra effort to retain capable Indian scientists in the country by giving them adequate incentives. Otherwise, a sizable population of Indian scientists land in the US and Europe to develop dual-use technology, which would eventually take decades to reach India.
The defence sector must also promote private partnerships by removing the bureaucratic hurdles. The relationship should have a clearly demarcated expectations and delivery mechanism.
India needs to enhance its road and infrastructure in forward areas on priority basis. A lot of work has already begun in this direction but it needs to be expanded all along the borders. The country also needs to upgrade its missile systems and further upgrade space technology, especially with regard to surveillance satellites. Last but not the least, cyber warfare is one area where the country has good capability but it needs more push for getting an edge in this area as well. Imagine if arrival of Rafale aircraft brings so much happiness to Indians, the joy will multiply several times when the country makes its own similar aircraft.
WHAT WILL BE PRIME MINISTER MODI’S FOCUS ON 15 AUGUST?
While it’s neither easy nor advisable to second guess Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it would be interesting to pen down some of the key points that he could be raising during his Independence Day address to the nation on 15 August this year. Interesting because the build-up seems to have begun.
For starters he will of course have to make some reference to the Covid pandemic and India’s reaction to it. This, strangely enough, is a topic he has not been very forthcoming about. During the initial stages of the lockdown we did get a couple of his televised addresses but these soon petered out (about six in all). There has been criticism that we locked down too soon, that the government was caught off-guard by the migrants’ exodus, that our bailout packages were neither adequate nor correctly tailored to address the crisis at hand. Will the PM take these criticisms head on, or will he brush these off as “Opposition propaganda”?
Will he use the fact that he implemented the world’s largest lockdown as a stand-alone achievement and let everything else pass off as collateral damage? After all, “Largest” and “Biggest” are words that fit neatly into the 56-inch chest-beating narrative. And to be fair, during the initial stages of the lockdown there were those (business leaders included) who praised him for having the nerve to shut down a country so huge, commenting that no other leader in India had the political capital to pull this one off. Certainly PM Modi had the political capital, but has he squandered a chunk of it in the implementation? Pragmatism says yes but politics says no, especially when the Opposition hasn’t done much to commend itself in the meantime.
And, yes of course, the much publicised Ram temple bhoomi pujan will be marked as an achievement. The event provides just the right setting for the “Hindu Hriday Samraat” in the backdrop of the coming Bihar and UP elections. The date of the bhoomi pujan clashes with the first anniversary of the revocation of Articles 370 & 35A in the Valley; both are a subtext of the same narrative. One Nation, One Constitution was a key mention of his speech last year.
However, one arena that will be of particular interest would be foreign policy. Lockdown began soon after US President Donald Trump’s visit to India. Foreign policy experts are since divided about the success of the visit especially since it didn’t yield any tangible benefits for India. This is election year in the US, so will the PM harp about his (now not-so) special relationship with Trump, or will he bide his time and see which way the geopolitical wind blows. But a bigger concern than Trump is our immediate neighbourhood, primarily the standoff with China. Again we haven’t heard the PM go as high voltage on this as he does about Pakistan. Will he shift the focus to Pakistan again, or will he hear his thoughts on China’s betrayal? Our equation with Nepal too is at an alltime low and that is worrying because while it’s a smaller country than both China and Pakistan, it is a part of our HUF, the larger Hindu Undivided Family.
Lastly, being Modi, he is known to take a grand event and use the platform to focus on something very basic. Such as the Swachh Bharat Mission and Jan Dhan Yojana (2014), to the Jan Arogya Abhiyan, national healthcare scheme to impact 50 crore Indians in 2018, to the Jan Jeevan Mission focusing on making drinking water available to all households (2019 speech). To be sure he’d have another scheme tagged and identified for 2020. He has already announced the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana to give 80 crore people free food grains till November. Given that the economy is still to pick up, I think we can safely expect more outreaches on these lines.
Technology is a means & not an end
Internet was supposed to bridge the information gap and create an even society. But the disturbing aspect is that this might only be the beginning of discrimination for poor children in the country.
Recently a news article published somewhere in obscure corners of newspapers read, “With no computer or smartphone, 16-yearold student commits suicide after failing to attend online classes.” The only smartphone available in this home was apparently broken and could not be repaired in the lockdown situation. On the other hand, many kids have the privilege of learning using tablets, customised to their needs and abilities, being provided by online learning platform companies.
This is quite ironic given that there is a wide belief that the Internet has bridged the information gap and created an even society enabling information symmetry. The disturbing aspect is that this might only be the beginning of discrimination for such kids. This also uncovers a major flaw in the methods through which modern technologies are being implemented indiscriminately without sparing a thought about likely collateral damages. In her book, Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil, an American mathematician, explains how the algorithms used for shortlisting of applicants for admissions to the US universities are being manipulated by the thriving industry of tutors and coaches to tailor the applications to suit these algorithms. At the receiving end are deserving students who cannot afford coaching or tailor-made applications.
The latest survey on the Household Social Consumption on Education in India during 2017-18, released by the National Statistical Organisation (NSO) in July 2020, conveys that the average expenditure per student at secondary level in a government school is Rs 4,078 as compared to Rs 20,804 in private unaided schools. In all, 77% of the students studying in the government institutions are receiving free education, while only 2% in rural areas and 1% in urban areas, studying in private unaided schools, are receiving free education. As per the numbers, most of the students studying in government schools are coming from the lower strata of society with limited capacity to spend on education. The issue of affordability of education is more important for urban poor. As per the NSO report, in rural areas the major reason for neverenrolment for persons of age between 3 and 35 years was “not interested in education” while in urban areas, the reason was “financial constraints”. Further, nearly 4% of rural households and 23% of urban households possessed a personal computer. Nearly 24%of the households in the country had Internet access in the survey year. The proportions were 15% among rural households and 42% among urban households. Remember, Internet access doesn’t mean Internet affordability. Households in the vicinity of a five-star hotel might have easy access to it but not necessarily the affordability to enjoy a dinner in its up-class restaurant. So, in case of technology implementation on a wider scale, accessibility is not the only constraint but affordability is equally important. This also not to be ignored that, in order to make the education affordable in an off-line mode, various supports in the form of free books, school bags etc, are given to the students.
Now, in case, all these students are subjected to online education, which requires at least one smart terminal device and an Internet connection of decent quality, then this will become a typical case of having a hammer and treating everything as a nail head. The complication in this entire affair is that this will no more remain a case of students at government schools versus private schools. It has potential to create layers within a school where some students can afford a laptop or phone while others cannot. Please spare a thought about the students from Economically Weaker Sections who got admitted in private schools under the Right to Education.
Through the document ‘Pragyata’, the Ministry of Human Resource Development has issued guidelines for digital education. The ministry recommends use of both synchronous and asynchronous modes of digital students based on the availability of end user devices with different segments. Synchronous mode is real-time Internet-based online classes, while asynchronous modes are defined as radio, TV, emails, SMS, MMS, podcasts. Now, the question which arises is: As the availability of user devices depends on the financial capabilities of the households, can the students of the same class be segregated between synchronous and asynchronous modes?
This issue of the Internet being the perpetuator of disparity, which is coming into light in the domain of education due to this forced lockdown during this pandemic, is just a fig leaf. The bigger issue is related to the way new technologies are being implemented seemingly without enough thought, resulting in more exclusions than inclusions. Social media is a glaring example of the same. People on social media platforms tend to interact with others who have the same belief systems. They form groups to troll and abuse people who have different views or beliefs. Society is more divided on such platforms than in real sense. The gender bias of the Internet is captured by Jarett Kobek in his book, I Hate the Internet. He mentions, “Women must develop their own Internet! They must group together and engineer a new, gynocentric Internet and they must exclude all the stupid assumptions of men in its implementation and design.” So, the bigger issue is the loss of human angle in the implementation of new technologies.
Now compare this with the other technological developments which have taken place in earlier centuries. One of them happened in the transportation sector. Right from the days of ‘ferries’ in ancient times to 17th century ‘Omni Bus’ of Paris founded by Blaise Pascal, and 19th century ‘Horse Drawn Railways’ to the latest development of ‘electric buses’, the development in public transport marched shoulder-to-shoulder with developments in the area of private transport. Multiple options are available in the last miles for connecting nodes to hubs. In case of the classic example of urban metro rail systems in India, multiple last-mile options are available based on affordability. Right from the cheapest option of walking to the station to cycle rickshaw, electrical rickshaw and the option of parking one’s own car in the parking area, anyone and everyone has options of their own affordability capacity and choice. And in case the Metro itself is not affordable, the option of taking a bus or auto-rickshaw is always available. The same people-centric approach led to the establishment of Public Call Offices (PCOs) and made telecom services accessible to the commoners and resulted in the telecom boom in the country.
So, what is the difference? The difference is the people-centric approach and planning, keeping in view the entire potential user base, which is not guided solely by profit motives forcing only limited options on the people. It is worthwhile to highlight that solutions coming out of the people-centric planning do not become an end in themselves but become a catalyst to create many dependent and semi-dependent ecosystems. For example, better transportation facilities enabled creation of sub-cities providing affordable housing to the masses having means of earnings in metro cities. PCOs became enablers of a self-sustained ecosystem of entrepreneurs who later diversified into other ventures.
What then is the solution? At a broader level, the solution comes from Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft. In his book, Tools & Weapons, he recommends that the creator of future technologies should not only come from disciplines such as computers and data sciences but also from social and natural sciences and humanities. He mentions that the technology sector has not been an even place for women and minorities to build a career. An exclusive group of techies cannot generate inclusive ideas.
Coming back to the present issue of discriminatory nature of online education, the approach of one size fits all, shall have to be dumped. We cannot wait till Internet and end user terminals become available to all. Based on the parameter of accessibility and affordability, proper segmentation at micro level may be done. This can result in identification of clusters of schools, villages, blocks or districts having the same level of affordability and accessibility of technology. Based on this, various synchronous and asynchronous modes of instructions enlisted in ‘Pragyata’ and other available solutions can be applied for target segments. In remote rural and semi-urban areas, Community Radios can be used for parting classroom sessions. Local schools can collaborate to schedule combined sessions for all students of the same class. Philanthropy can also play a big role. Like books, refurbished smartphones and laptops with limited functionalities and bundled Internet can be given to the students. A user, on an average, changes smartphone every 18 to 24 months. Our homes are full of unused smartphones of previous versions and generations. Many NGOs take old clothes and household articles for distribution to the needy. These unused smartphones can be made part of those articles.
At the end, the solutions will come from the place where India is most ripe with innovative ideas, the grassroots. As was the case in another interesting news item recently. It was about a teacher in Dumka of Jharkhand using loudspeakers to teach his 200 students who did not have access to Internet and smartphones but had a willingness to attend classes during the lockdown.
The author is a former Indian Telecom Service officer, currently with Government e-Marketplace. The views expressed are personal.
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