Editorials - 10-02-2021

The new combative strategy to ‘push back’ requires sober analysis, with the issue being how and against what and whom

The target audiences of Indian diplomacy’s public articulation and responses are changing radically as shown by the statement of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), of February 3 (https://bit.ly/2MQlqlJ), on singer Rihanna’s tweet. The direction of Indian diplomacy’s external publicity is no longer confined to other governments, international organisations, external and domestic political and business elites, and conference halls and negotiating tables. It now extends to international “celebrities”, some of whose status is determined very largely by their pop star status. It also seeks to take into account apparent and latent sentiment on the Indian streets not only to clarify India’s diplomatic positions or refute allegations and misperceptions but also to whip up sentiment on issues important to the government. Finally, it aims to forcefully convey to foreign audiences, India’s unwillingness to accept perceived or real interference in the country’s domestic affairs.

New, assertive norms

This development is part of the government’s impatience with the norms of old-fashioned diplomacy. It is in keeping with the emphasis on establishing a personal rapport with global leaders and what has been often stressed by the External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar — the need to take risks to advance Indian positions and interests. Thus, new and assertive norms are being adopted which, at least till now, have demonstrated a disdain for international liberal opinion. It is beyond dispute that new directions for Indian diplomacy, in form as well as in substance, should be constantly sought. But the test of innovation can only be one: is it more effective in advancing Indian objectives?

It is on this basis that the MEA statement and the widespread social media activity that followed need to be judged. While the statement’s origin will not be authoritatively known, it can be legitimately surmised that it was/could not have been through the normal processes of the MEA. Hence, it would have been on the basis of a political decision. The hash tags attached to the statements lend credence to this view as also the intensely orchestrated social media response from Indian personalities to tweets by Ms. Rihanna and others. There is nothing intrinsically wrong in building public opinion; all governments as well as groups do so. It is part of the global political and diplomatic processes but must be part of a careful strategy to achieve objectives. Otherwise, it can be counter-productive.

Mr. Jaishankar tweeted after the MEA statement: “Motivated campaigns targeting India will never succeed. We have the self-confidence today to hold our own. This India will push back”. These combative words require a sober analysis.

There is little doubt that Khalistani groups in western countries would have sensed an opportunity to fish in troubled waters of the farmers’ agitation in the Punjab. There should also be no doubt that the Pakistani generals, who have continuously sought to keep the embers of the Khalistan movement warm, would be looking for opportunities to create trouble. This is notwithstanding that the patriotism of Indian Sikhs and their contributions to the nation are beyond question. Thus, it would not be surprising at all if there are “motivated campaigns” against India under way on these issues.

Self-assurance, past and now

Mr. Jaishankar’s assertion that the India of today is self-confident to hold its own is of course true, but it can be argued that right from Independence, India has displayed the self-assurance not to take things lying down; only the methods may have been different. Again, there can be no quarrel with the External Affairs Minister’s warning that India will “push back”. The issue is not about should India “push back” but how and against what and whom. The answers to these questions hold the keys to the effectiveness of diplomacy whose ultimate target audience has to be not domestic sectional interests but global opinion and in the context of India’s external interests.

In this context, a look at the way the Narendra Modi government handled criticism from liberal sections abroad, of the administrative steps taken in Jammu and Kashmir after the constitutional changes of August 2019 and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), and the protests that followed, are instructive. India then refused to purposefully engage its international liberal critics though it publicly asserted security concerns for the administrative steps and laid stress on the point that the CAA did not impinge on the rights of the Indian minorities. Indeed, the government treated its global media critics with disdain, with Mr. Jaishankar emphasising that India’s reputation was not decided by a ‘newspaper in New York’. Certainly, there was no frenzied response on social media to the allegations against the government on human rights matters through all these episodes.

Ponder over direction

On this occasion, was the severe response to Ms. Rihanna’s tweet on account of her large social media following while the popular reach of global liberal opinion especially in the Trumpian era was limited? Was the object to deter foreign critics from lending their names to “manipulated campaigns”? Was it thought that if more celebrities joined, the farmers’ protest would be energised? If these were the thoughts behind the decision then there is a need to check if it succeeded or gave an oxygen boost to the Rihanna tweet.

Also, it is difficult to imagine that foreign critics like Ms. Rihanna, or for that matter of the Greta Thunberg kind, would be deterred by a concerted Indian pushback of the nature that has been undertaken. In the days of conventional diplomacy, the Rihanna tweet would have perhaps been just ignored, at least officially. But now ‘the times they are a-changin’. So, is what the MEA doing headed in the right direction? Perhaps, the erudite External Affairs Minister should ponder over this, and in doing so also take into account his earlier avatar, as a diplomat.

The Delhi police have filed a first information report (FIR) against unknown persons who prepared a ‘toolkit’ which was attached to the first tweet of Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg. The FIR revealed that those undertaking “motivated campaigns” were actively undertaking efforts to embarrass and even harm India through the farmers’ protest. A benign view of their objectives can be dismissed.

India should of course press the governments concerned, especially of Canada, to take action against Khalistani elements. The fact though is that these countries, Canada in particular, have shown scant regard for Indian concerns on this account and it is unlikely that they will change course now. Through all this the question that still remains is whether the social storm unleashed in India after the Rihanna tweet would deter other foreign celebrities from pursuing the now amended ‘toolkit’. And when have criminal cases based on this kind of an FIR ever reached fruition?

The rise of liberal opinion

Finally, it is not the Rihanna-like celebrities who will pose the real challenge in the coming months to the Narendra Modi government, but liberal opinion in democratic western societies. And, it will have far more traction with the advent of the Joe Biden administration in the United States. A pointer is the interaction of top U.S. Congress members in the India Caucus had, recently; asking India to ensure that “norms of democracy are maintained and peaceful protests and demonstrations be allowed”, with this being conveyed to India’s Ambassador to the U.S., Taranjit Singh Sandhu. The government would be now conscious of engaging international liberal opinionrather than merely dismissing it. This does not imply coming under pressure on matters of critical importance to Indian interests. But it does mean taking recourse to traditional diplomacy even if it is stodgy and unappealing to sections of nationalist Indian opinion.

Vivek Katju is a retired diplomat

It may serve hyper-nationalism, but shutting the world out will hurt India’s citizenry as well as national interest

The developments of February 3, 2021 marked the crystallisation and popular production of a new posture in India’s engagement with the world — that of hard sovereignty. The posture delivers a firm message: outsiders have no stake in India’s internal affairs, especially as it undergoes profound and rapid changes, some of which are deeply disturbing. The posture is unprecedented and dangerous; we will do disservice to ourselves if we endorse it. And policy informed by it will expose inconsistencies in our external relations.

New posture

Over the past 18 months or so, the establishment had been regularly fielding international criticism and expressions of concern on domestic developments such as the changes within Jammu and Kashmir, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)-National Register of Citizens protests and the ensuing Delhi riots. One of the elements in its reactions was the assertion that these were India’s internal matters which its democratic polity was capable of resolving. The references to internal affairs conspicuously foregrounded the domestic dimension of the state’s sovereignty.

Against this backdrop came the press statement by the External Affairs Ministry on February 3. It expressed official India’s displeasure at social media remarks by well-known figures, including a global celebrity and an activist, on the response to the farmers’ protests. Official facts were put forward. The claim was made that ‘vested interests’ had tried to derail the protests and sully India’s international reputation. ‘Celebrities and others’ were advised to ascertain facts before commenting on the matter and to resist the temptation of sensationalising it.

This detailed and somewhat oddly phrased statement was measured in its operative part. However, it ended with two hashtags. One suggested that there was propaganda, presumably global, against India. The other sought to rally Indians against it. Soon, celebrities, partisans of the regime at the Centre, and a large body of concerned Indians picked up where the statement had left off. The hashtags were extensively used as a multitude of statements containing expressions of respect for the farmers and the need to resolve the issue amicably while calling for Indians to stay united swirled about on Twitter.

From the intellectual churning arose the posture on hard sovereignty. Sachin Tendulkar’s loaded tweet captured the underlying theory. The statements by outsiders threatened to compromise India’s sovereignty. They could watch the internal goings on, but had no right to participate in them. Only Indians could ‘decide’ for India, and they had to remain united as a nation. Tendulkar had drawn the boundary line. The posture had been popularly produced.

India has jealously guarded its sovereignty since independence. However, its past sovereignty posture was deployed towards progressive goals. It was a bulwark against great power bullying and it asserted the autonomy of weaker nations. In contrast, the new posture seeks to fend off international criticism of unpleasant domestic developments. While this may suit hyper-nationalism, it will harm national interest.

First, India’s global game of status seeking and strategic influence plays out on the turf of liberal democracies. The Prime Minister’s claim of having enhanced India’s international prestige has had as its ace reference point the recognition offered to him, and by extension India, by principally conservative forces within western democracies. Remove the spectacles of bonhomie with former U.S. President Donald Trump, warm relations with former U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, the tactical use of the‘Ab ki baar’ slogan, the events of Madison Square Garden (2014), Wembley Stadium (2015), the London townhall (2018), ‘Howdy, Modi!’ (2019), ‘Namaste Trump’ (2020) as well as the New Delhi tea with former U.S. President Barack Obama and the claim weakens.

On the strategic front, five of India’s key partners in the Indo-Pacific context are democracies: Japan, Australia, the U.S., the U.K., and France. Four of these are liberal and western. A special understanding exists among liberal democracies because they share common norms and beliefs. That human rights are universal and inviolable is one of them, and this gives governments and the civil society within liberal democracies the moral authority to nudge, criticise or rebuke a partner that doesn’t match up. Democracies measure each other by higher standards. This explains the pushback of varying degrees from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and even Mr. Trump in the past two years. It also explains the concerns expressed by western legislators and human rights bodies. If the establishment adopts a hard sovereignty posture soaring on the wings of strident domestic sentiments, it would encounter greater diplomatic friction. India’s global game would also be adversely impacted.

Siege mentality

Second, hard sovereignty invariably tends towards national isolationism and siege mentality. Chances are high it would further strengthen the national-scale parochialism being encouraged by the rhetoric of Aatmanirbharta (self-reliance). Such trends have an uneven impact. Those who championed hard sovereignty would soon be at an elite sporting event in a western capital. But they would have left their fellow citizens beleaguered. At a time when public sympathy for dissenters is at a discount, critics are being labelled, and institutions are falling short on their constitutional obligations, hard sovereignty falls like an axe on the sapping morale of non-violent social movements. Social movements do not follow the diktats and rhythms of sovereign states. They draw energy through transnational solidarities and bring about important policy corrections within and across states. Case in point: Black Lives Matter, which our celebrities supported. Imagine the consequences of being further marooned for social struggles hitherto considered indispensable to the health of Indian democracy.

Finally, it would increase the susceptibility of our neighbourhood policy to criticism on the grounds of inconsistency. Consider the CAA, 2019. Although the letter of the amendment doesn’t state it, the accompanying public discourse has carried an indictment of India’s Muslim-majority neighbours insofar as their treatment of minorities is concerned. Is it unlikely that we will hear governments and others within our neighbourhood decry us for interfering in their internal affairs? Indeed, the Pakistan Foreign Office took this line in December 2019 as the CAA was passing parliamentary process. It won’t be surprising if others followed, especially if equations turned sour, as they periodically do on the subcontinent. Consider also how it would undercut the effectiveness of what is principally a tactical arsenal even if it is grounded in facts: pointing out the dismal human rights situation in Balochistan to the liberal democratic world. If we are discomfited at expressions of solidarity with protesting farmers, why should the international liberals offer us traction?

India’s reputation had long been the soft power capital it deployed to meet its hard power shortfall as it pursued its international ambitions. As that reputation suffers, the country’s options lessen and effectiveness shrinks. Scarcely a welcome development for a ‘leading power’. We must counter interventionist remarks coming from vested interests. But we must be discerning as well, for some critics may mean well.

Atul Mishra teaches international relations at Shiv Nadar University. Views are personal

Keener scrutiny of the technology platforms of India’s States can lead to improved public services and user confidence

On January 13 this year, subscribers of English newspapers in India woke up to full-page advertisements from WhatsApp on the front pages. Earlier in the week, WhatsApp had announced an upcoming change to its privacy policy, which led to growing concerns around privacy among many users, and who started switching over to other messaging services such as Signal and Telegram. This led WhatsApp to issue the advertisements, which committed to protecting the privacy of its users. This unprecedented move by the Facebook-owned company indicates that Indian consumers are becoming more aware and concerned about data protection and privacy — a trend that has become stronger in the recent past.

Platforms and COVID-19

The issue of privacy is crucial for government technology platforms and services as governments typically have a monopoly in providing public services, unlike the private sector. Hence, “porting out” or “digital migration”, as seen in the case of WhatsApp, is not an option. What is needed instead, is an examination of government technological platforms to create better awareness. We saw this in action in the case of Aadhaar (the Government of India’s biometric digital identity platform) and Aarogya Setu (the Government of India’s contact tracing application during the novel coronavirus pandemic).

Since the announcement of the first lockdown on March 24, 2020, at least 35 mobile apps that specifically address COVID-19 were developed by 25 States and Union Territories of India. Of these, 27 mobile apps provide general information on COVID-19 and seven allow tracking of nearby COVID-19 cases. Of all the mobile apps, 15 have a quarantine tracking feature and at least four of these require prior registration with the State Health Department.

An assessment of the 35 mobile applications revealed that 17 mobile apps provide information on COVID-19 hospitals while only three apps provide information on isolation beds. Some of the mobile apps also facilitated the home delivery of essential items, such as groceries and medicines, while seven allowed users to apply for mobility passes.

Still a case of digital exclusion

The development of COVID-19 mobile apps was well-received and perceived as a strong proactive initiative, especially by sections of the population that were digitally empowered. However, as of October, 2020, more than 40% of mobile phone subscribers in India lack access to Internet services. This includes those with feature phones that have no Internet and when added to those with no mobile phone at all, India’s digitally excluded could be more than 50%. Hence, while the creation of mobile applications makes information readily available to those with the technology to access it, it does not solve the problem for individuals and communities that remain excluded digitally.

No consistency, privacy issues

The data above implies that the mobile applications developed have not benefited from the standardisation of information and a coordinated development approach. The analysis shows that the various mobile apps on COVID-19 operated by the different State governments lack consistency in terms of the features, functionalities, and frequency of information updates they offer. As information was being updated manually in many of the mobile applications, the data in the mobile application was different from the actual data, leading to multiple sources of truth. Hence, the governments should continue to set up functional helplines, auto-diallers, SMS text messages, and other channels to ensure that the digitally restricted have access to the same information as the digitally empowered — especially during crises such as the pandemic.

Coming back to privacy, most of these State mobile apps also differ significantly on the data privacy they provide, depending on the information or permissions they request from the user. We observed that 31 of the 35 mobile apps request access to location services, nine mobile apps request access to device ID and call information, five mobile apps request access to Bluetooth settings,15 mobile apps request access to the camera, three mobile apps request access to contact information, and three mobile apps even request access to the user accounts on the device.

It seems that these data requests may not meet the two commonly accepted principles of data privacy — necessity (is the data necessary for the mobile application to achieve its goal?) and proportionality (is the collection of data proportionate to the extent to which an individual’s right to privacy is being infringed?). The mobile applications developed could have proactively followed established principles of privacy by design, such as minimal data collection and end-to-end data security. The redundant features of numerous mobile apps of States on COVID-19, duplication of efforts, non-uniformity in data-privacy, and confusion among the end user point toward a larger need for an open, interoperable, application programming interface (API)-based microservices architecture that can integrate (or host) the State digital applications with the central government’s application.

Possible solutions

The adoption of an API-based microservices architecture and federated database structure with an appropriate governance framework could address these issues. It would allow, for instance, Aarogya Setu to integrate with the myriad of State mobile apps to offer both its standard services, that is, contact tracing and real-time information on cases as well as State-specific customised services or sub-applications such as information on hospital beds and grocery shops, among others.

Many countries in Europe have considered moving from an information flow that is centralised to a decentralised information flow for contact-tracing applications. This was largely driven by concerns regarding privacy, as centralised databases can have a higher risk of data leaks and security breaches. Besides, a decentralised information flow, owing to information residing in many individual systems and not in a centralised system, increases the cost while reducing the reward of effecting a successful breach.

Several mobile apps of the State governments employ a centralised approach. Hence, in the future, design considerations of these mobile apps should evaluate the need for a centralised approach and ascertain whether the same goals can be achieved through a decentralised information flow.

Given the presence of structured audits that continuously put the spotlight on Government of India-backed technologies, extending the same level of scrutiny to technology platforms developed by the States brings the opportunity of improved public services overall, and the public confidence needed to encourage wider adoption.

Carsten Maple is a Turing Fellow and Professor of Cyber Systems Engineering in WMG at the University of Warwick, U.K. Venkat Goli leads the Centre for Responsible Technologies at MSC (formerly MicroSave Consulting). The article was produced as a part of the India Pandemic Technology Review Project

The Uttarakhand government continues to ignore evidence that hydropower projects in the fragile region exacerbate disasters

In 2018, while travelling through the villages near the India-China border in Niti Valley in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, I stopped at Reni village, the birthplace of the iconic Chipko movement. The way to Reni was dotted with hydropower projects that were marred by controversy. The villagers complained about the rampant flouting of norms by the hydropower developers, which forced them to protest against such projects.

Flouting all norms

On February 7, two such hydropower projects located close to Reni suffered damages from flash floods that left 31 dead and 175 people missing. The barrages of the 13.2 MW Rishiganga hydropower project, which is located on the river Rishiganga, only a few metres from Reni, and NTPC’s 520 MW Tapovan-Vishnugad hydropower project, on the River Dhauliganga, about 4 km from Reni, were completely damaged. It is important to note here though that dams are not victims of disasters; they, in fact, exacerbate disasters.

While the actual cause of the February 7 floods is under investigation, pegging it as a natural disaster may be incorrect. A June 26, 2019 order of the Uttarakhand High Court questioned the use of explosives on the Rishiganga site — that too for illegal mining in the name of dam construction. The use of explosives has repeatedly been questioned for dam construction, and the construction of other infrastructure projects, such as roads, in the fragile Himalayan State.

Other than this, deforestation takes place when dams are constructed. While compensatory afforestation is the norm, it is often flouted. The construction material that is supposed to be dumped on separate land is often dumped into the rivers. It would be naïve to assume that a disaster in Uttarakhand that involves dams was ‘natural’.

The Chopra Committee report of 2014 brings more clarity on how dams exacerbate a disaster such as floods. The committee was formed in October 2013 after the Supreme Court ordered the Union Environment Ministry to constitute an expert body to assess whether dams exacerbated the 2013 floods in the State where over 4,000 people were killed, mainly in the Kedarnath Valley. The committee was headed by environmentalist Ravi Chopra and comprised 10 other members including geologists and biodiversity experts. Its report mentions how dams exacerbated the 2013 deluge, mainly as riverbeds were already raised from the disposed muck at the dam construction sites, and could not contain the sudden increased flow from floodwaters. The report presents evidence to prove that dams are not only damaged in floods, they also cause immense damage in downstream areas. This is because as floodwaters damage a barrage, they increase the destructive capacity of the water that flows downstream of the barrage. The Chopra Committee suggested that 23 of the 24 proposed dam projects it reviewed be cancelled for the potential damage they could do. However, even after all these years, the matter remains pending in the Supreme Court, and environmental norms for dam construction continue to be flouted in Uttarakhand.

In an affidavit submitted on December 5, 2014 in the Supreme Court, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change acknowledged the adverse impact of dams in the 2013 floods, but to no effect.

Impact of climate change

To make matters worse, Himalayan glaciers are receding and disintegrating as a result of climate change, and the snow cover in the Himalayas is also thinning. Research also shows how an increased number and volume of glacial lakes should be expected as a direct impact of increased temperatures. For dams, this means rapid increase or decrease in the reservoir water level. It also means that the projections on the life of a dam reservoir may not stand due to erratic events, such as floods, that could rapidly fill a reservoir with muck and boulders brought along with the floods.

There is also the threat of earthquakes. In terms of earthquake risk, Uttarakhand lies in Seismic Zone-IV (severe intensity) and Seismic Zone-V (very severe intensity). Ignoring this, many dams have been constructed in zones that are under high risk of witnessing severe earthquakes.

Irrespective of the evidence, the Uttarakhand government plans on continuing to build dams as a source of revenue. The State plans to construct up to 450 hydropower projects of 27,039 MW installed capacity. Clearly, the Uttarakhand government has chosen to ignore the disastrous impacts of rampant dam-building. It is clear that dams worsen disasters, and for this to be ignored by the State authorities is unfortunate.

Kavita Upadhyay is a journalist from Uttarakhand, who has extensively reported on the State’s environmental disasters. She’s a graduate in Water Science, Policy and Management from the University of Oxford

The law must be interpreted to provide additional protection to children against sexual assault

The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act was enacted in 2012 especially to protect children (aged less than 18) from sexual assault. The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Act admitted that a number of sexual offences against children were neither specifically provided for in extant laws nor adequately penalised. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by India in 1992, also requires sexual exploitation and sexual abuse to be addressed as heinous crimes. It was therefore felt that offences against children be defined explicitly and also countered through commensurate penalties as an effective deterrence.

It was in this backdrop that the recent judgment of the Bombay High Court, inSatish Ragde v. State of Maharashtra, in which the accused was acquitted under the POCSO Act, came under massive criticism. The Bench acquitted a man found guilty of assault on the grounds that he groped his victim over her clothes and there was no skin-to-skin contact between them. As this judgment was likely to set a dangerous precedent, the apex court stayed the acquittal.

Section 7 of the POCSO Act, inter alia, says that whoever with sexual intent touches the breast of the child is said to commit sexual assault. Whereas Section 8 of the Act provides minimum imprisonment of three years for sexual assault, Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) lays down a minimum of one year imprisonment for outraging the modesty of a woman.

IPC and POCSO: Differences

The difference between POCSO and IPC, as far as the offence of sexual assault is concerned, is two-fold. One, the definition of ‘assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty’ given in the IPC is generic whereas in POCSO, the acts of sexual assault are explicitly mentioned such as touching various private parts or doing any other act which involves physical contact without penetration. ‘Sexual assault’ in POCSO specifically excludes rape which requires penetration; otherwise the scope of ‘sexual assault’ under POCSO and ‘outraging modesty of a woman’ under the IPC is the same. Two, whereas the IPC provides punishment for the offence irrespective of any age of the victim, POCSO is specific for the protection of children. Higher punishment is provided under POCSO not because more ‘serious allegations’ of sexual assault are required but because the legislature wanted punishment to be more deterrent if the victims are children. Therefore, once the act of ‘outraging modesty with the use of assault or criminal force’, which is nothing but ‘sexual assault’, is proved, the requisite punishment must be slapped under POCSO if the victim is a child.

The essence of a woman’s modesty is her sex and the culpable intention of the accused is the crux of the matter in the cases of sexual assault. InVishaka v. State of Rajasthan(1997), the Supreme Court held that the offence relating to modesty of woman cannot be treated as trivial. InPappu v. State of Chhattisgarh(2015), the High Court of Chhattisgarh, though it acquitted the accused under Section 354 of the IPC as the offence was found lacking in use of ‘criminal force or assault’, convicted him for sexual harassment under Section 354A which requires ‘physical contact’ and advances as a necessary element. This case also pertained to squeezing the limbs and breasts of a 13-year-old girl but the High Court did not venture into the area of skin-to-skin contact.

It will not be out of place to mention here that the Sexual Offences Act 2003 of the U.K. says that touching (with sexual intent) includes touching with any part of the body, with anything else or through anything. The POCSO Act might be silent on such niceties; it is the bodily integrity of a woman that needs to be protected. Therefore, in the absence of any specific provision in the POCSO Act which requires skin-to-skin touch as a mandatory element of an offence, any interpretation which dilutes protection to children must be declaredultravires.

R.K. Vij is a senior IPS officer in Chhattisgarh. Views are personal

Execution will be critical for the strategic disinvestment policy unveiled in the Budget

The government’s spending plans for 2021-22 hinge on better compliance lifting tax collections, and an ambitious plan to raise non-tax revenue. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has announced large-scale monetisation of government sector assets, including vast tracts of land, and is banking on disinvestment receipts of Rs. 1.75-lakh crore. This includes likely inflows from the strategic sale of entities such as Air India and BPCL, carried forward from this year’s plans. The listing of LIC could be completed as well, with necessary amendments in the Finance Bill, and that alone could bolster the revenue kitty. Most significant, however, is the new strategic disinvestment policy for public sector enterprises and the promise to privatise two public sector banks and a general insurance company in the year. The policy, promised as part of the Atma Nirbhar Bharat package, states the government will exit all businesses in non-strategic sectors, with only a ‘bare minimum’ presence in four broad sectors. These strategic sectors are — atomic energy, space and defence; transport and telecom; power, petroleum, coal and other minerals; and banking and financial services.

In India’s brief but tortuous history of disinvestment since it began listing PSUs on the stock markets through minority stake sales in the 1990s, this is undoubtedly the boldest stance yet. On intent, it goes further than the A.B. Vajpayee government’s sales of a dozen-odd PSUs, from hotels to bread makers. Some, including Balco and Hindustan Zinc, where the government still has residual minority stakes, have fared much better under private management. It can be no one’s case that India’s public sector remains at the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy. Apart from raising precious revenues, the sale or closure of such firms will help the exchequer stop throwing good money after bad, and funnel it into more productive endeavours. It is not clear why it took the Narendra Modi administration so long to articulate this plan or make headway on this front even without such a blueprint, as the PM had declared, back in 2014, that the government had no business being in business. Now that the policy is in place, tactful execution will be as critical as dealing with the usual pockets of resistance that would crop up. While stock markets are on a high, the financial capacity of potential bidders may not be optimal, thanks to the pandemic. Among its multiple challenges, the government will need to create confidence in the sale processes, ensure a semblance of fair valuations, give officers some cover from potential post-transaction witch-hunts by auditors and investigating agencies, sequence the sales so that the economy does not face shocks or create monopolies, and most of all, manage electoral pressures in jurisdictions where these units would be located. A single controversial transaction could scuttle the momentum behind such a plan and India can ill afford it.

Healthier substitutes without any change in the taste or cost of food are now available

Come January 1, 2022, India will join a select group of countries limiting industrial trans fat to 2% by mass of the total oils/fats present in the product. India would thus be achieving the WHO target a year in advance. In mid-2016, the trans fat content limit was halved from 10% to 5%, and in December 2020, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) capped it to 3% by 2021. While trans fat is naturally present in red meat and dairy products, the focus is on restricting the industrially produced trans fat used solely to prolong the shelf life of products at less cost. While the government’s notification specifically mentions edible oils and fats that are used as ingredients, it also applies to emulsions such as margarines. Targeting these ingredients would in effect result in reducing the trans fat content to 2% in all food items as these two are the major sources of industrial trans fat. Also, even when the fat/oil contains less than 2% trans fat, repeated use at high temperature can increase the trans fat content. The focus on cutting down trans fat content in food arises from its proclivity to negatively alter the lipoprotein cholesterol profile by increasing the level of bad cholesterol (LDL) while decreasing the level of HDL or good cholesterol. These changes in the lipoprotein cholesterol profile increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

In 2004, when Denmark became the first country to limit industrially produced trans fat content in all foods to 2% of fats and oils, it faced resistance from much of Europe, including the European Commission. However, many countries have since adopted similar restrictions themselves. In fact, in April 2019, the European Union (EU) adopted a new regulation — from April 2021 — to limit the amount of industrially produced trans fat to 2% in all foods sold within the EU. According to a 2020 report of WHO, 32 countries already have some form of mandatory limits on trans fat. The benefits of reducing trans fat can become quickly apparent, as seen in Denmark; three years after the cap came into effect, it saw a reduction of about 14 deaths attributable to cardiovascular diseases per 1,00,000 population. It is now well known that trans fat can be completely eliminated and replaced with healthier substitutes without any change in the food taste or cost. According to WHO, a dozen large multinational food companies have already committed to eliminate industrially produced trans fat from all their products by 2023. With a year’s notice, it should be possible for the multinational food companies to redouble their efforts to meet the FSSAI standard, while Indian companies that have earlier been able to cut the level of trans fat as in the FSSAI limit, should have no excuse not to meet the current capping.

His Royal Highness the Duke of Connaught yesterday performed the most important of the functions which comprised his mission and nothing brings out the true character of that mission more clearly than the message that he conveyed to the members of the Legislative Assembly from His Majesty the King-Emperor as well as the speech in which he amplified that message. We have time and again insisted that the object of the mission was the apotheosis of the Reforms and if tireless beating of the big drum could be accepted in evidence of accomplishment then has the Duke’s mission achieved its purpose. The people of India, outside that circle with whom Dukes and especially Royal Dukes areipso factoon the righteous side, will view with a boredom not unmixed with amusement this last supreme effort in that gentle art of window-dressing which has attained such a tremendous development since the advent of a Premier and a Secretary of State who have been quick to realise the value of advertisement in politics. They know what the Reforms are worth and how far short they fail of what they consider their due and they refuse to be bamboozled into translating the magnificence of the bringer of the gift into the gift itself.

The Army has begun flag marches in West Bengal to make its presence felt in the biggest peace-keeping operation in the country since Independence — to help maintain order during the elections in this State stricken by senseless political violence [New Delhi, February 9]. The equivalent of nearly four divisions of troops are being deployed in the 16 districts and the greater Calcutta region to face any emergency that might arise during the next one month, before West Bengal goes to the polls on March 10. A PTI report from Calcutta said Army units have begun patrolling “trouble prone” northern and eastern parts of Calcutta. A joint control room to maintain liaison between the civilian and army authorities has also been set up at the city police headquarters. The army has also moved into Burdwan and the industrial town of Asansol and other “vulnerable areas” in Burdwan district.