The Union Budget 2021, announced last week by Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, is being lauded for its growth-oriented approach. Many corporate analysts of note and senior leaders of the Indian professional community have analysed every detail of this Budget and offered astute observations on its short and long-term implications. Gautam Khaitan, Senior Corporate Advocate, speaks to The Sunday Guardian on the subject, especially the legal implications of the Budget on corporate entities.
Khaitan began his legal journey in 1991, at a time when India was witnessing its worst economic crises. His background and practice over the years, has made him an authority on economic subjects related to the affairs of our country. “I remember when India was badly struggling with the twin deficit. Everyone was pessimistic about the future of the Indian economy. I was a young boy with many dreams and aspirations. Back in those days, when I was an entrepreneur, India was politically unstable,” recalls Khaitan.
While the whole country was in turmoil in 1991, Khaitan remembers things changing with the formation of a new government at the Centre, under the leadership of P.V. Narsimha Rao. “First the formation of the new government, followed by the opening of the Indian economy, was a big relief to us,” he says.
His father and eminent lawyer, late O.P. Khaitan, foresaw the underlying boom in the corporate world with the liberalisation of the Indian economy. At the same time, he established his own legal firm—O.P. Khaitan & Co—to exploit the immense opportunities that were sure to arise. Gautam Khaitan joined the firm in 1993.
Before long, there was an immense rise in foreign investment in India, which further led to international disputes and foreign arbitration. O.P. Khaitan & Co. emerged as one of the primary law firms working on high level mergers and acquisitions in India. In fact, within a decade, the firm had gone international, handling litigation for corporate behemoths outside India.
Through a long and strategic career, Khaitan has made a prominent name for himself in the corporate legal fraternity. He is currently the Managing Partner of the firm and heads its corporate division. His forte lies in corporate and litigation work for various leading multinational and national companies, banks, and financial institutions, including but not limited to mergers, demergers, acquisitions, joint ventures, structuring transactions, collaborations, Facility Documentation, External Commercial Borrowings, and arbitrations. He also serves as director of various leading corporate houses.
As an affirmed authority on the legal implications of the budget for corporates, he shares his thoughts on this year’s plan by saying, “The most significant change for corporate entities is the disallowance of depreciation on goodwill for present and future deals. Further, the depreciation on goodwill on deals done earlier cannot be claimed from 2020-21 onwards. This step will hurt the profitability of several listed and unlisted companies. Some other changes that have implications for corporate entities include the classification of the Manufacturing and Service Sector as ‘Small Scale Industries’; the decriminalisation of the Limited Liability Partnership Act in line with the Companies Act; the exemption of Stamp Duty on transfer of business or immovable properties by Government Companies in case of disinvestment; and the provision of major incentives for startups.”
Khaitan is particularly optimistic that this Union Budget will boost corporate investment to a great degree. According to him, “Significant measures have been put in place to boost corporate investment including an increase in Foreign Direct Investment in the insurance sector; the proposal of a stake sale by the government in public sector companies and financial institutions, including two public sector banks and one insurance company; allowing FPIs to provide debt funding to InvITS and REITS; enhancing digital payments; and encouraging the use of artificial intelligence in governance. The consolidation of securities laws and the proposed decriminalization under the LLP Act marks an important move. Reducing the timelines for reopening past tax cases will reduce tax litigation however, not allowing the depreciation on goodwill will be a major dampener for M&A transactions.”
This year’s Union Budget seems clearly aimed at an economy severely impacted by Covid-19, evident from the detailed action plan for ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’. Khaitan asserts that there are some positive points, such as, “the focus on capital investment to push growth, the re-introduction of Developmental Financial Institutions, special allocations for Covid vaccination programs, the decision to expand fiscal deficit to provide growth impetus, all of which indicate a long-term vision to make a self-reliant India.”
However, he also highlights certain issues that have not been addressed by this year’s Budget. “It does not offer any relief to those who suffered massive income loss owing to the coronavirus pandemic. It would have been nice to see some emphasis on the needs of the poor, working class migrants, agricultural labourers, etc. Further, the unexpectedly large fiscal deficit numbers entail huge borrowings, much beyond market expectations. Government bond yields have hardened too. The Finance ministry and the RBI will have to work closely together to check the rise in yields and ensure that the budget does not ultimately result in a sharp rise in borrowing costs across the board.”
Overall, from the viewpoint of corporate entities, Gautam Khaitan lauds this year’s Union Budget as being growth-oriented and well-thought.
The writer is a lawyer who pens articles for various newspapers and publications, and on her blog www.nooranandchawla.com. She can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Farmer-centric innovation: Emerging trends and open spaces in agri-tech
The/Nudge Centre for Social Innovation presented a discussion on ‘Emerging Trends and Open Spaces in agri-tech’ to spark farmer-centric innovation that improves economic, social, and environmental outcomes and increase the income of small and marginal farmers in Indian agriculture. NewsX was joined by the expert panel which included Anil Kumar SG, Founder & CEO, Samunnati; Mark Kahn, Managing Partner, Omnivore; and Sudha Srinivasan, CEO, The/Nudge Centre for Social Innovation and moderated by Priya Sahgal, Senior Executive Editor, ITV Network.
In an attempt to build a better future for our farmers and focusing on especially the small, marginal and women farmers, Sudha kickstarted the conversation and said, “We started with the mission to launch and nurture India’s top talent to solve our most critical developmental challenges. There are so many social problems that technology can disrupt in particular, standing out as that space where more than half of India’s poor are engaged in some form of agriculture. The pathways out of poverty see roadblocks in the form of social norms that technology has the potential to disrupt. Technology can reduce the volume of inputs that go into the soil which later translates to the ability of the farmer to sell while meeting the standards of fuel density of pesticides or whatever’s preventing them from accessing, the range of possibilities was very wide. Unfortunately, as you look at active investments in the last few years, a lot of it is customer and consumer proximity. This is almost a void in the farmer-centric space that puts the farmer at the centre, making their livelihood important.”
Mark expressed his views on trends in agri-tech in India and abroad, “The amount of investment coming into agricultural tech startups annually in India was $15 million a year. In this past 12 month period, we’ve probably crossed $600 million. So it’s been up into the right over the last decade, it is better than it was earlier. When we talk about the kind of trends that we’re seeing globally and in India, the global agri-tech is different from the Indian agri-tech. Indian agri-tech is in some ways better positioned. The defining characteristic of Indian agriculture is the fact that you have 130 million farmers farming in an average landholding up just slightly more. No other nation in the world has that. If you think about all the debates we’re having from a policy perspective, about our Mandi system, our dairy economy which instead of working with large dairy farms like everywhere else in the world the biggest trend we see in Indian agriculture is digital outreach. We now can build a base layer to reach all of these disparate groups although every farmer does not have a smartphone. If we take one of our portfolio companies they are reaching about six lakh farmers. We, at Omnivore, say profitability, sustainability, and resilience are the three big challenges faced by Indian agriculture.”
Talking about how agri-tech is helping the small and marginal farmers and addressing the access to technology for the small farmers, Anil said, “The moment one gets into agriculture and talk about smallholder farmers the number one dimension is the smallholder which is where the rubber meets the road. The second dimension is the sector as a whole to the expanse of what agriculture is as a sector. Now, making the horizontal and vertical is where the entire benefit to the smallholder farmer would have to operate. Before getting into how technology is going to help the farmer I’ll digress a little bit and also share what is declining. I completely agree with both Sudha and Mark saying that things have changed significantly in the last few years, especially in the last five years. In addition to the capital inflows that Mark mentioned, the entire agriculture ecosystem is seeing the buoyancy: an ecosystem level, not only the entrepreneurial side that we are seeing but also the enablers that the ecosystem is seeing has not been absorbed as I have spent about 21 years of my professional experience in banking in the rural area. Things have changed significantly in the last five years in addition to the capital inflows. There is a lot of energy in the ecosystem. The moment you see this energy in the ecosystem, there are two dimensions. One is each one of us is several of the entities that are operating in this space and are looking at addressing one or two critical parts of this ecosystem agriculture. On the vertical capital, somebody is looking at satellite imagery in terms of monitoring and some entities are looking at horizontally. How can we be aggregators of all of these individual interactions? The collaboration of this horizontal and vertical is what will bring technology on its way. You take the benefit of technology, the attribution and the result of the technology contributing Rs 200 in their pocket is an important message. How can technology translate into upliftment in the livelihood is the single largest factor that will determine the adoption rates? The beauty of an ecosystem being active would also mean the smallholder farmer could adopt these technologies. Some players can also play the role of making these technologies.”
Throwing light on funding and the early stages of the incubation and how they prove over the years, he said, “The other way of looking at it is the number of integrations that have mushroomed. If you see the lifecycle of an entity reaching up to a stage of being able to get seed funding, there is an incubation and plan to touch the incubators. There is proof of concept and production capability and demonstrating a reasonable scale is when you get into the equity space. And the same thing CAG report also talks about more than 2000 startups in agriculture in various forms and shapes. From a banker point of view, when there is some distance to cover and a significant gap that is not in the equity funding at the seed stage but it isn’t working capital. Many entities don’t need equity but need working capital to deploy their solution product or technology to the intended users. Some of these entities struggle due to the way a debt fund looks at is still very traditional and rudimentary. They would look at the percentage of the activity, financial returns, profitability etc. But the agri-tech space is very young. You cannot expect a technology company in agriculture to have demonstrated a vintage of deploying their operations and showing sustainable financial records that’s not available yet.”
Sudha, who comes from the field of socio-entrepreneur, said, “One thing to note is the changing demographics of rural India. There’s a generational shift, far more farmers today, who are digitally illiterate, have aspirations beyond doing what their parents did. The pandemic also showed us the exodus from the urban centres back to the villages, although a lot of them might come back. We still need to look at India’s development in a more distributed manner that reduces the dependence on the urban centres and revitalises rural economies. Agriculture already is the labour of the sector. For me, the single biggest whitespace is the opportunity in near farm industries, something that goes beyond the activity of sowing, tilling, reaping, harvesting, to expand additional revenue streams for the farming communities.”
Responding to what else can be done to encourage farmer-centric startups financially, Anil said, “Before getting into how we can encourage financially I also want to bring in the demand now the transitory role that technology can bring to it is changing the visual of what agriculture would mean. The moment you say a farmer, and agriculture, we get the visual that of drudgery and impoverished farming family, not making much end, not getting a fair deal of what they’re producing and at the receiving end of everything. How can we make technology that drives the youngsters into agriculture and can we transition this visual to the young generation working with the gadgets? On his farm, happy children running around, mechanisation happening, and making a productive yield out of agriculture. And the bridge to these two worlds is technology, and this technology would also be the incentive and could also be the catalyst for youngsters to move from a physical directory (agriculture in an actual sense) to high tech farming which is where our country is moving towards.”
INDIA-UNITED STATES STRATEGIC WINDOW OPENS IN THE INDO-PACIFIC
As two major democracies grappling with the ‘China challenge’, India and the US might fare better by joining forces against the Dragon. Close ties between the two nations in this scenario will not only be a wise move in terms of strategy and security, but also benefit each other’s economies and strengthen their fight against climate change and Covid-19.
After President Joe Biden’s inauguration, diplomatic circles worldwide and American strategic think tanks were abuzz with a single pertinent question—will the new administration be as tough as President Donald Trump against China? Given the “bipartisan hatred against the Dragon in the US political circles”, President Biden and his administration faced the enormous challenge to keep the legacy of Trump’s “anti-China stand, including curbs and a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific Ocean to keep the Dragon rattled”.
From the Indian point of view, what most were interested to see was whether New Delhi would get the same “pampered treatment” and significance as a partner in the US diplomacy and strategic affairs in the Indo-Pacific region while confronting China’s arbitrary expansion. India seems to have retained that significant partner status, which was strongly endorsed by not only the phone calls between President Biden and PM Narendra Modi, but also a flurry of diplomatic and strategic communications by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defence General Lloyd Austin and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan with their Indian counterparts within weeks of assuming office.
The recent high-level Quad ministers’ meeting involving the foreign ministers of India and the US along with other key partners, Australia and Japan, puts to rest all questions raised about the Biden-Modi strategic compatibility. In fact, diplomats and Asian experts feel that India’s importance in US security planning and strategic affairs to jointly confront China in the Indo-Pacific region is on the cards. Former diplomat and South Asian affairs expert at the Johns Hopkins University, Walter Andersen, strongly feels that the importance of India to US security planning in the Indo-Pacific region is underscored by the multiple contacts of high-level officials of the new Biden administration. China’s growing power and assertiveness is the driving factor for both the US’ focus on the Indo-Pacific as well as the growing interest of other key Asian powers like India, Japan, and Australia in closer ties to the US.
Andersen says, “These US officials have talked of India as a `critical and preeminent partner’, underscoring a long-held US view that India, with its huge population, growing economy, nuclear capable military and critical position jutting down into the middle of the Indian Ocean to the south and a long-contested border with China to the north, is critical to preventing China from becoming the hegemonic Asian power.”
To make this strategic partnership even louder and clearer than Trump’s presidency did, Secretary Blinken has connected with his Indian counterpart three times between January 29 and February 8 in person-to-person conversations and then at the February 18 ministerial with the members of the so-called Quad.
Andersen adds that the strategic thrust given to the Quad under Biden has a wary approach, similar to its predecessor, to what it has called the “Chinese challenge”. While not the equivalent to an Asian NATO, there is a cooperative security dimension to the Quad, with annual naval exercises that Australia has just rejoined after a decade-long hiatus following a Chinese protest. “In a crisis, the four are now able to cooperate with each other on security matters. While Blinken is not the first senior US official to talk of US-Quad or US-Indian partnership, he has set the foundation for a further expansion of the security relationship, should both the US and its three Asian partners require it. They now have the basic security architecture to do so,’’ says Andersen, a specialist on Indo-US diplomatic affairs.
Satoru Nagao, a non-resident fellow at the Hudson Institute and an expert on India-US-Japan security relations, says, “Despite the Biden administration saying that China is the “most serious competitor”, they are restructuring their China policy. It is expected that the long term purpose of their China policy will be the same as that of the Trump administration’s, but the ways may be different. The Biden administration is under process to come out with a clear policy towards China, and they need to collect more information. Therefore, this Quad meeting is important for the US to understand what kind of opinion other Quad members (India-Japan-Australia) have as information.’’
Nagao also agrees with Andersen on India’s significance in the Quad for the US’ new strategic push in Indo-Pacific region. The Japanese expert on Indo-Pacific affairs says, “For the US, the Quad is cooperating with India. The other two (Japan and Australia) are formal allies for the US. India is only a newcomer for the US. Therefore, the Quad meeting is an important meeting for the US to communicate with India.”
However, he added, “The Quad is different from an India-US bilateral meeting. The topic is more focused on security. And along bilateral relations with the US, India-Japan, India-Australia, Japan-Australia also exchange opinions at the same time. The Quad meeting is writing a big security picture in the Indo-Pacific.”
Apart from Quad dynamics emerging in the Indo-Pacific, the closer India-US ties are becoming a major worry for Beijing, which has gradually started to perceive New Delhi as a competitor. Andersen says, “The recent Chinese agreement with India to pull back troops and security infrastructure in eastern Ladakh along the disputed Line of Actual Control may be Beijing’s recognition that continued Sino-India tensions are driving India closer to the US. New Delhi has the room for maneuver on security issues as it is unwilling—at least so far—to consider a military alliance with the US against China and is careful to phrase Quad issues as something less than an alliance against China—unless provoked by China.”
The US and India see China as a common enemy and regional threat due to the latter›s arbitrary expansionist agenda. To keep the pressure on China and maintain the regional military balance in East Asia, there are ways to engage and confront China, says Nagao. “First, China’s repeated disregard for international law when laying claim to new territory. Dr. Lobsang Sangay, the President of the Tibetan exile administration, expressed that the Dalai Lama considers the disputed territories of both Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh to be a part of India. Thus, there is a high possibility that China’s claim to areas along the India-China border is legally baseless. If so, the US and India must continue to respect the rule-based order grounded in current international law… Second, China’s behavior in the South China Sea is a valid reason for the US and India to create multiple fronts at the same time. For example, if India cooperates with the US, India will not need to deal with all the Chinese fighter jets at once, because China is likely to keep some of their fighter jets in their east side against the US (in the East China Sea and South China Sea), and vice versa.”
There is more beyond Quad as a mere security dialogue. In fact, there’s an opportunity in waiting for India and the US to beat China in the economic sphere while winning the confidence of smaller nations reeling under Beijing’s “debt-trap diplomacy.’’ India’s strategic cooperation with the US in Asia will not only promote regional security, but also economic cooperation. China has invested hugely in smaller countries. These smaller countries, due to the huge debt, are hesitant to criticise China.
Nagao says, “If India and the US reduce China’s income, it is the right way to deal with China. However, it is also true that the US needs to assure its allies and like-minded countries that the strong position toward China will not stop the economic development of those siding with the India-US alliance. Indeed, the current economic system in the Indo-Pacific is dependent upon China. Many global companies built their factories in China. Many companies are selling their products within China. Thus, economic structure itself needs to change. India and the US should relocate their factories and find new markets elsewhere and two nations need to support small countries› infrastructure and markets instead of China.”
Interestingly, for many like Andersen, the Covid pandemic brought India and the US together on a far stronger note. Not only did India’s global stature rise in terms of the vaccine diplomacy it launched under PM Modi, but the pandemic also made the two look beyond mere foreign policy goals. “They have a common interest in containing Covid-19 and India, the world’s largest producer of vaccines, has the industrial capacity to produce a large part of the world’s needs. With various strains still in the air and the US Covid death toll now at 5 lakh people, chances of renewed outbreaks exist. The two can be strong as ever in what many see it as Biden-Modi health diplomacy,” says Andersen.
Not to miss, the two democracies, which have fought global terrorism together since the 9/11 attacks, are set to script a new partnership in climate change with both Biden and Modi on the same page when it comes to saving the globe from climate risks. Says Andersen, “Both can work together to handle climate change as such dangers threaten both the melting Himalayan glaciers for India and rising water levels in coastal US.”
So, it seems like the strong strategic window of India-US diplomacy opens in the Indo-Pacific!
Dream big is my success mantra: Taxolawgy founder Farooq Haque
Farooq Haque, Founder and CEO of Taxolawgy recently joined NewsX for a chat as part of its special series NewsX India A-List. Farooq not only gave us an insight into his journey from being a CA to a successful entrepreneur but also on how certain businesses can thrive in the new normal.
Speaking about his journey and how it all led to Taxolawgy, he said, “The journey has been a rollercoaster ride. When I was doing my CA, it was quite difficult but that experience taught me a few lessons such as being resilient and to stand up and fight again. These two lessons that I learned as a student helped me throughout my career. In 1998, when I cleared my CA exams, I followed my passion rather than the norms of the industry. I started my own coaching business. Although at that time, it was not called a startup, it was a startup for sure. In two to three years, I became a top coach in Nagpur. Then I faced a dilemma, what to do next? What should you do once you reach the top of the mountain? You can either sit there and enjoy and let the money come in or dream of something bigger.”
“I dreamt of something big and came down that mountain, left Nagpur and went to Mumbai which was a bigger market. This led to another difficult phase in my life. Setting up your business is not that easy so I struggled for almost two years. Then, I moved to Pune and found myself again at the top of the game. Somewhere in 2013 when I was leading a very busy life, taking classes in Mumbai, Pune, Nagpur and many other cities, I realised this is not the thing for the future. There has to be something better than this. There has to be a way through which I can reach multiple places at the same time. That’s when I came up with the idea of video classes. In 2013, I left the business of face-to-face classes and started an ed-tech company called Yo EduTech Solutions Pvt Ltd. We were the pioneers of CA online classes in India. That journey started in 2014 and continued till 2019. In 2019, I realised that there are still much better oceans out there. When GST came in, we realised that we need to have a global knowledge base, especially for taxation. So, we started building a knowledge platform where we can share knowledge. During this phase, my colleague Divya Varma came up with the idea of a freelancing portal wherein we can provide opportunities to chartered accountants and lawyers of this country. That’s how Taxolawgy came into existence and she is the Chief Operating Officer of the company as well as Co-Founder, “ added Farooq.
He shared with us the concept of Taxolawgy and his vision for the company, “We built Taxolawgyas a platform where we can collect all the domain experts such as legal experts, financial experts, website developers, digital marketers, cost accountants, and others working in a business environment and give services to businesses on a global scale. We wanted all of them to come on our platform Taxolawgy.com and provide services on a global scale. It is called Taxolawgy as it started as financial domain, tax and law are the main aspects of it but slowly we expanded it on a much bigger scale. Currently, we have over 3000 experts on-board, all experts of different domains from India, Australia, the Philippines, the US and other countries.”
Along with Taxolawgy, Farooq is also the man behind successful online portals like BookMyWizard, and YoWorkPlace. Giving us an insight into these projects, he shared, “We started Taxolawgy in 2017 after GST came in. While working on this portal we realised that there are a lot of other opportunities out there. Artificial Intelligence is coming in a big way and into everything. However, when it comes to sharing real knowledge based on experience and wisdom there is nothing better than human interaction. The way one human can communicate real knowledge, understanding, and lessons to another person are through human communication. Therefore, we built BookMyWizard which is based on human intelligence and the transfer of human knowledge through human connection. We are using technology for that. What we want is that people who are experts in their domain, who are wizards of their domain, should share their knowledge with people out there and we need this on a big scale today. The world is moving so fast that people want to learn fast. They can’t attend a large number of lectures and classes to gain knowledge. If I am stuck somewhere in my venture like coding then I need help instantly. The way to do that is to connect to a domain expert. That’s what we are trying to build with BookMyWizard. The experts, who are wizards and experienced in their fields, can help people through mentoring, training, or consulting.”
When asked about YoWorkPlace, Farooq replied, “When the pandemic struck, everyone was working from home. Even today most people are working from home and big companies have said that they will continue working from home till the end of 2021. During this stage, when people realised the benefits of work from home and a lot of research was done, I had an intuition that the world is going to move permanently. The way people work is going to change in the future and remote working is going to be the thing. With YoWorkPlace, we are building a complete ecosystem around that. We realised that people who are hired for a job in an office are suddenly shifted to work from home so they face a lot of problems as they were not meant to work from home. You need a complete ecosystem to survive.”
On a parting note, when asked if the pandemic has been an opportunity for all his businesses, he answered, “Yes, I think we were at the right place at the right time. Remote working needs a lot of things to come in, including creating job opportunities. What is happening right now is that people are hired to work from the office but they are working from home. The companies who hire these people hired them as they were living in that place. The location was most important but it is going to become redundant in future as talent will rule. We want to make that shift. We should not hire someone based on his or her location but because of their talent. Since people are working from home, they feel lonely at times. To overcome that, we are building a robust community and network which will provide them with several activities and events for skill development. We are also working towards building a robust network of co-working spaces because if you are not able to work from home, you can go to a nearby co-working space, hire it and work from there.”
WHY WE SHOULD NOT CREATE UNWARRANTED EXAM HYPE
The government, in association with teachers, parents and communities, has made wonderful efforts to ensure that students continue learning as smoothly as they can during the Covid-19 pandemic. After all the challenges faced and initiatives taken over the past year, everyone must rest assured that each student is well-equipped to face the upcoming examinations.
A video of the Delhi government’s Director of Education addressing school students in their classroom, telling them to “attempt every question even if it means just copying out the question again”, has raised eyebrows and become a subject of public disdain. Later, on being queried, a senior member of the Education Department clarified that the official’s statement should not be “misinterpreted” and that it is part of an attempt to encourage students in “a very bad year” as lots of them have lost out on their writing practice, and that the official was trying to tell students to “not be disheartened, not worry about the CBSE or anyone else, and just write”.
However, no clarification can justify the statement which was made. It was negative and discouraging for teachers who made Herculean efforts to complete the syllabus and also for the hardworking students who, despite the lockdown, used all available digital tools to study.
The year-long lockdown has been a matter of deep worry for one and all, especially for students, parents, teachers, administrators and law makers. A large number of questions were raised in both the Houses of Parliament during the current session about the impact of the lockdown on education and students. For instance, Ram Nath Thakur, asked a Starred Question (No.117) on 11.2.2021 in the Rajya Sabha to Ramesh Pohkriyal Nishank, Minister for Education, about the closure of schools due to COVID-19 and the action taken by the government to compensate for the loss of study hours. There were also questions in the Lok Sabha by Prathap Simha and Tejasvi Surya (SQ No.81 on 8.2.21) regarding online education. The minister informed the Parliament that education being a concurrent subject, his Ministry had taken a whole range of initiatives in the best spirit of cooperative federalism to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. Instructions were issued to the States and UTs from time to time for ensuring continued education with quality and equity.
The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) conducted a survey in July 2020 with the help of Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan (KVS), Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti (NVS) and the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) to understand the scenario of online learning among school students including girls and the children of migrant workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The NCERT prepared an ‘Alternative Academic Calendar’ and Students’ Learning Enhancement Guidelines. The guidelines suggest models for the following three types of scenarios to ensure that no student is deprived of the reach to education during the pandemic: learning enhancement for students without digital devices, learning enhancement for students with limited accessibility to digital devices, and learning enhancement for students with digital devices.
Further, a multi-pronged approach has been adopted by leveraging technology to reach the students. Digital Infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing Digital infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing (DIKSHA), Study Webs of Active-learning for Young Aspiring Minds (SWAYAM), SWAYAM PRABHA (32 TV channels), MANODARPAN for psychosocial support to students, teachers and families for mental health and emotional wellbeing, PRAGYATA (Plan, Review, Arrange, Guide, Yak (Talk), Assign, Track and Appreciate), etc. have been put to good effect. Guidelines on digital education, e-textbooks using e-pathshalas web portal and mobile apps for Android, iOS and Windows are being used by schools, colleges and universities to provide learning facilities. Where internet facility is not available, SWAYAM PRABHA—one class, one TV channel—is being used to impart education. Besides, community radio stations and a podcast called Shiksha Vani by the CBSE are also being used effectively in remote areas where online classes are difficult. The Ministry is also implementing Samagra Shiksha, under which a number of initiatives for the promotion of education are being taken viz., opening of schools in the neighborhood to make access easier.
To a question in the Rajya Sabha (USQ No.1177 on 11.02.2021) by Elamaram Kareem on the reduction in syllabus by the CBSE, the Minister replied that the CBSE has rationalised the syllabi for major subjects of classes IX-XII only for the purpose of summative examinations 2021 as a one-time temporary measure to mitigate the effect of school lockdown. The CBSE has reduced the syllabi by 30% for the purposes of the 2021 Board examinations for classes X and XII. The concept of ‘Fail’ has also been done away with and replaced by ‘Essential Repeat’ with effect from the 2020 Board exams.
To a question by Sanjay Singh (USQ No.1164 on 11.2.2021), the Minister replied that online classes are being conducted at schools by employing various digital tools. Various efforts have been made for the creation of a digital infrastructure which would not only be helpful in the current circumstances but would also be a valuable asset for online learning in the future. The steps taken by all the states are in the report, India Report Digital Education June 2020. Learning programmes were also started in the form of offline learning tools – radio, community radio and CBSE podcasts, toll free numbers, missed call and SMS-based requests for audio content, localised radio content for edutainment, etc. The mediums of TV and radio have been used for students who do not have digital means, besides the learning enhancement and online education guidelines which were issued on 19 August 2020 for the benefit of all stakeholders.
Responding to the question of Derek O’ Brien (USQ 1145 on 11.2.2021) in the Rajya Sabha about displaced migrant workers’ school-going children, the Minister replied that his ministry issued guidelines to all the states and UTs for the identification, smooth admission and continued education of migrant children on 13.07.2020. States have been asked to identify and enrol all children of migrant workers without any procedural hassles and maintain a database of the migrant children admitted. The Minister said that he had a series of meetings with the states/UTs where he reiterated the whole range of measures, outlined above, that have been taken to meet the challenges. Also, during the pandemic period, mid-day meals in the form of food security allowance/dry ration have been provided to students at the elementary level.
A comprehensive initiative, PM e-VIDYA, has been launched for infusing technology with equity. This overarching initiative covers in its ambit DIKSHA, Swayam Prabha, comprising of 32 dedicated channels, of which 12 channels are “one class, one TV channel”, e-content for Open School, extensive use of radio, community radio and podcasts, and e-content for visually and hearing-impaired students. DIKSHA has 1,65,204 pieces of e-content and during the pandemic period between March to October 2020, it had over 5000 million page hits and over 450 million QR scans for the e-content of textbooks. Hundreds of videos on maths and science prepared by the teachers of JNV and KVS have also been uploaded on DIKSHA. There were 70 crore total learning sessions as on 18 October 2020. Under the Vidya Daan scheme, teachers, private bodies and experts contributed 38,206 contents, of which 29,069 have been approved and are available to students. Open Virtual Labs (Olabs) too were tied up with to facilitate practicals for senior students. E-comic books were released to continue learning joyfully and imbibe critical thinking skills. Measures were also instituted to address the issues of cyber safety and prevent cyber bullying.
Under online MOOCs, there were 92 courses and 1.5 crore students enrolled, On Air-Shiksha Vani, DAISY (Digitally Accessible Information System) by NIOS for the differently-abled, e-Pathshala, National Repository of Open Educational Resources (NROER) to develop e-content and energise books, telecast through TV channels, e-learning portals, webinars, chat groups, distribution of books and other digital initiatives. Besides, states also managed the critical task of providing digital education at the doorsteps of the students. Social media tools like WhatsApp groups, YouTube channels, Google Meet, Skype, e-learning portals, TV, radio, etc., were used to the hilt. A total of Rs 5784.05 crores was allocated under Samagra Shiksha alone to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 during the current fiscal year. An online course for 42 lakh school teachers has been launched too, wherein 16 lakh teachers were trained as on 22 October 2020 and 17 crores courses conducted on the DIKSHA platform.
My conversations with the Education Ministers of states like Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Manipur, Karnataka, Uttarakhand and Rajasthan and with the senior officials of many states have made it emphatically clear that in areas of poor connectivity, other available means were put to use effectively with the willing cooperation of the community. To everyone’s delight, the attendance percentage was higher than the usual school attendance. This proves beyond any manner of doubt that despite the pandemic, our students and their parents, the teachers, the line departments and the community made wholehearted and sustained efforts to learn and impart education, thanks to India’s fast expanding digital architecture. Our students are well-equipped mentally and emotionally to write the Board exams.
Thus, the talk of ‘copy the questions’ is absurd and undermines the self-esteem and ability of our students and the honest efforts made by the teachers to impart education. In the hoary tradition of India, meditation, concentration and self-study occupy preeminent place. Eklavya’s story is more apt and inspirational in these pandemic times. Our students have faced the challenges of the pandemic with grit, determination and great perseverance, made full and proper use of digital tools and they will surely come off with flying colours in the exams. Exams are like festivals—let us celebrate them instead of fearing them.
The author is former Additional Secretary, Lok Sabha, and a scholar of comparative governments and politics. The views expressed are personal.
On a mission to solve data-related problems using AI, Sachin Sinha talks about IQLECT’s novel database BangDB
Sachin Sinha, the founder, and CEO of IQLECT, recently joined NewsX for an insightful conversation on Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence as part of special series NewsX India A-List. On a mission to solve data-related problems using Artificial Intelligence, IQLECT aims to create a cost-effective AI-enabled data analytics platform.
“Our mission is very simple, we want to simplify and democratise the way data is being ingested, processed and analysed so that any big or small company can leverage the intelligence of data, apply it in the ongoing operations and take the benefits of the data. We work towards simplifying the whole procedure and make it available for everyone, not just the big enterprises,” he said.
IQLECT presents a method of converging everything data-related to its clients so that one doesn’t need to collect different data from different sources. He shared, ”We have created a platform and if you think of it as a black box, then what comes at the top is the set of solutions that are domain-specific. We have created different applications that cater directly to all kind of domains, where all the user has to perform is a sign-up and get ready to receive benefits of the platform.”
Speaking about the range of product lines offered by IQLECT to its clients, Mr Sinha said, ”If someone is running, let’s say a consumer internet service, and wants to understand every single user in a better way so that they can ensure engagement to have a better conversion rate at the end of the day; what they can simply do is take our ShopIQ app. Once you plug it in, you will start getting all the intelligence instantly, which is the core of your every single customer on the visitor domain. You can then decide what appropriate action needs to be taken.” When asked about the expansion of IQLECT, Mr Sachin expressed that not only big but small businesses are also collaborating with the organisation and the company’s focus is currently on the infrastructure domain.
Talking about their most highlighted product BangDB, a novel database and first of its kind from Asia, that performs 2X better than most of the leading big products in the market, he emphasised, ”We want to analyse the data as it is being generated. If you see this from a layman’s perspective, data, like vegetables, are perishable in nature. If you don’t use it immediately, the value of it gets decreased by 80%, so you need to capture the data in order to extract the intelligence. BankDB comes with an inbuilt streaming engine and processing workflow, which you can utilise to ingest any kind of data. As long as you have BankDB, it can ingest any kind of data irrespective of its shape, colour, and size.” What makes the product novel is that it is completely built in India- from scratch, which makes it best in the world.
On the incorporation of Artificial Intelligence in BangDB, Mr Sinha added that the product allows the user to have a predictive analysis as it requires latency in terms of rapidness. ”You need AI to be present where the data is, instead of taking the data to the AI. Since BangDB deals with the data, we can not offload the responsibility of AI to the user. Hence, what we have done instead, is integrate both the AI and the data together and the data remains right where the BangDB is. Once you have the BangDB, you have the AI as well as the streaming, which will allow you to easily ingest the data and the AI would then do the predictive analysis.”
Throwing light on its market functionality of India, Mr. Sinha said that the risk-taking capabilities in the market have increased over the years. BangDB has filed for dozens of patents and already got a few, along with backing from many leaders. The community version of the database is free of cost and allows the user to ingest and extract data and intelligence. As IQLECT looks to take head on with some of the leaders in the global market , Mr Sinha said on a concluding note, “We are the only company from India, which has created such a high-core tech platform.’
It’s a pleasant surprise: Shreya Ghoshal as Angana Morey hits No.2 on Billboard Triller Global Chart
Popular singer Shreya Ghoshal recently got candid with NewsX in an exclusive interview as a part of its special series NewsX India A-List, wherein she spoke about her latest song release Angana Morey, her musical journey and more. Angana Morey is garnering a phenomenal response in India and around the world.
Not only the song is being loved by the listeners but is also smashing records of popular singers like Selena Gomez and has made it to number 2 on Billboard’s Top Triller Global chart. Angana Morey is even more special to Shreya as it is in collaboration with her brother Soumyadeep Ghoshal.
Expressing her gratitude to all the love and appreciation coming her way for Angana Morey, Shreya said, “While making this song, we did not have any such expectations. I think it’s a pleasant surprise, it’s a great feeling! Not just me, especially the fans are rejoicing. Somewhere they always hoped that Shreya or as they call me Shreya Di, will make it to the Billboard one day. So it’s a sweet gesture and I feel very happy, I hope it’s the start.”
Sharing insights from the making of Angana Morey, Shreya further added, “Angana Morey was born in the lockdown, so it was a very interesting experience. Soumyadeep is a fabulous musician. This was our 2nd project together. Over the phone and on video calls, we only talk about music and the possibilities of doing so many different things. So, he pushed me into it and said that don’t worry about what the trends are or what are people doing off late, whatever you want to do, you should do and stop thinking about it. That is how Angana Morey was born. This is a very different kind of a song from my kitty anyway and that’s why I went Indie and when you are doing independent music, you have no pressures of following any rules. So, I broke all of them and did a slightly classical-based number with a very modern, electronic and transient, groovy kind of a song.”
Talking about her first song and how that proved to be a ‘game-changer’ for her, Shreya said, “The first song that I did, would always be the most momentous experience and time of my life. Devdas- Bairi Piya, it changed my life. I was about 16-years-old. Being called for a song like that by Sanjay Leela Bhansali for a film of that stature, was definitely unexpected. It was amazing, and from there onwards, there has been no looking back. There have been many more such songs, milestones, concerts, world tours and experiences, which of course have added so many different layers to my life and how my journey has moved from here to there. But, it’s too hard to count them now, it’s lovely! I am very blessed but I will always look back at my first song, my first film as the most sentimental and the most emotional and important milestone of my life.”
The interview ended on a musical note with Shreya singing one of her songs, Ghar More Pardesiya from the film Kalank.
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