Editorials - 09-01-2021

After students were given the option to take the GRE exam from home due to the lockdown, allegations of fraud have surfaced, especially in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.R. Ravikanth Reddy, Sumit Bhattacharjee&P. Sujatha Varmareport on the network of aspirants, ghostwriters and coaching institutes involved in the scam

During the COVID-19 lockdown, 22-year-old Nishita wanted to give the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), an admission requirement for many graduate schools in the United States and Canada, one last shot. Nishita was dissatisfied with her previous scores of 300 or less out of a maximum score of 340 in the first two components of the exam: verbal reasoning and quantitative reasoning. Her dream was to secure admission to one of the prestigious Ivy League universities in the U.S., and an impressive score in the GRE was an important step towards that goal.

While she was preparing for the exam, Nishita got a call that gave her a flicker of hope but also made her uneasy. The caller, who had apparently got her number from the database of a coaching institute, told her that she would be guaranteed a score of 320 if she was willing to pay Rs. 60,000. This score, the caller said, would be facilitated by a ‘helper’ if Nishita chose to take the ‘GRE at Home’, a facility offered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which administers the GRE, during the lockdown.

“I was stunned but I continued the conversation just to understand the mechanism. I gently rejected the offer as I thought it was a prank call,” says Nishita, an engineering graduate and a native of Telangana. However, when she shared the conversation with a few friends and cousins, Nishita was surprised to learn that such a ‘facility’ was already in place and some test takers had already gained from ghostwriters. Nishita finally did not take the exam.

Soon after the ETS gave aspirants the option of taking the exam from home, Hyderabad, Vijayawada, Guntur, Krishna and a few other regions have apparently emerged as hubs of fraud. In some places, students and parents say they were charged as much as Rs. 90,000 by callers. These hubs are spread across Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, fertile grounds for such dubious activities given the craze for emigration to the U.S. since the mid-1990s following the Information Technology boom.

A well-oiled mechanism

Rahul, 22, who is in his final year of engineering at a college in Vijayawada, says he found himself in a similar situation. An unknown caller promised to improve his scores in the verbal and quantitative reasoning papers. Rahul says an acquaintance, whom he refused to name, got a ghostwriter to do the test for him and got a score of 325/340.

Shravani, 23, from Visakhapatnam, says she too got a similar offer for the verbal and quantitative reasoning tests. The third component of the GRE exam, analytical writing, requires the candidate to write an essay. No ghostwriter would help her there, the caller told her. Shravani’s friend, Karthika, was initially willing to take the risk as she was sure that she would not be able to score more than 300. However, having developed cold feet now, she has not decided whether she should allow a proxy to write the exam.

While candidates from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh narrated similar stories, GRE candidates in Tamil Nadu and Kerala say they have received no such calls offering them ‘helpers’ to secure good scores by hook or by crook. Mukunthan, an aspirant from Chennai, who is preparing for the exam through a coaching centre, says he has received messages from many institutes advertising their programmes, but none of them assured him high scores with assistance for the exam. Similarly, Daniel Varghese, Director of the Thiruvananthapuram-based Centre for American Studies, rules out the possibility of such groups finding takers in Kerala. A matter of concern, however, is that several GRE aspirants from Kerala usually make a beeline for coaching institutions in Hyderabad in spite of the high standards of training provided in their own State, says N.M. Babu, former senior faculty of English, University College, Thiruvananthapuram. “There have always been allegations that candidates who appear for such exams from or in Hyderabad have a high rate of success than those appearing elsewhere,” he says.

When a reporter fromThe Hinducontacted an institute which has been in the business for years, the owner promised a good score for the “candidate” for a negotiated sum. He instructed the reporter, who said he was the father of a student, to travel to Guntur with two laptops a day before the exam. He assured the reporter that his “son” would score 320 if the “father” paid Rs. 55,000 in addition to the GRE’s official fee of $213, which is about Rs. 15,800. The owner also said that the GRE score would depend on the amount that the parents or student was willing to pay, which could be anywhere between Rs. 55,000 and Rs. 85,000. He claimed that there is a full-fledged system in place with “experts” to handle the exam for candidates. The owner said the student would have to choose to take the GRE from home but go to Guntur a day in advance and answer the exam from the institute.

A few teachers who take classes for the quantitative and verbal components of the exam say they have also been approached by those running the racket to write the exam for a huge sum, an offer which they say they turned down. “It is estimated that the business in the Krishna-Guntur region in the next three months can alone be worth about Rs. 30 crore,” a teacher says.

Conversations with students and institutes revealed that there is a well-oiled machine in place that helps students cheat and secure good scores in the fiercely competitive exam taken by tens of thousands every year. The scam seems to involve a chain of participants ranging from aspirants to teachers to ghostwriters to coaching institutes. While the matter has been reported to ETS, the testing service is yet to take any specific action.

Modus operandi

Narsi Reddy Gayam, an MIT professional who promotes Promac, a company that trains about 3,000 students every year for competitive exams like the GRE in Hyderabad, explains the modus operandi. “Experts,” he says, sit across the test taker at the centre. The questions on the screen are captured by a mobile phone camera placed at a certain angle so that the act is not caught by the computer camera monitoring the test takers constantly. Then the “expert” indicates the answers to the candidate either through a slip or a hand sign.

Another method involves “experts” operating from different locations. Candidates start the test and scroll through the 20 questions in each of the four sections by clicking the ‘next’ option. As the question rolls by, the image of the question is captured on a mobile phone camera and sent to a team of “experts” sitting at different locations. Since the time limit for each section is 30 minutes, the “experts” revert with the answers quickly. All the candidate has to do is scroll up and tick the correct answer.

In the earlier version of the GRE, a candidate could not move to the next question without answering the first. But in the updated system, a candidate can move up and down the 20 questions in each section. This has helped fraudsters, says a senior teacher at a coaching institute who has been approached by a few students for guidance on the issue.

ETS representatives dispute these claims. They say the test takers are asked to lock the door and show the room at a 360-degree angle before the test begins. This is done to ensure that no one is hiding in the room. Mohammed Samiuddin, a senior consultant at the India Resource Centre, a partner of ETS, says the software doesn’t allow mirroring of the screen. A proctor monitors even the eye and facial movements of the test takers and any suspicious activity is reported immediately, he says.

Madhumitha from Chennai, who took the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) from home corroborates Samiuddin’s claims. She says she was asked to provide a 360-degree view of the room and was asked to sit straight facing the camera.

A student of the College of Engineering, Guindy, Chennai, also supports Samiuddin’s argument. He says the monitoring is quite stringent. He was alerted a couple of times when there were ambient noises, he says. “I was taking the test from a closed room but the mic picked up the sound of an autorickshaw on the road,” he says. He was immediately given warning alerts though he had not moved out of the vision of the camera, he says.

But Samiuddin agrees that there is fraud taking place, particularly in Hyderabad. “Some people seem to be exploiting certain shortcomings of the system after the test starts,” he says. The ETS has been alerted about the scam, he adds. But no candidate has approached the ETS with facts that have been verified, he says.

Samiuddin says there can be no impersonation as the candidate’s photograph is captured during the exam. The entire test session is recorded and the photo from the test session is made available in the ETS data manager.

Like students, some teachers also say cheating is extremely difficult. A. Jothikannan Vibedu, a GRE trainer who teaches the quantitative section in Coimbatore, says it is extremely difficult for the candidates to cheat as they have time to only solve the questions. “Students need time to understand the questions and then give the correct answer. It is impossible for someone to solve the questions and send the answers to the candidate in such a short period,” he says.

The software used by ETS, ‘ProctorU’, doesn’t capture the sound in the room, says Narsi Reddy, contradicting what the Chennai students say. He thinks that this is being exploited by scamsters. “ETS should take this scam seriously. Else, the GRE will lose its credibility just like the TOEFL did after a similar fraud was unearthed by the Hyderabad police in 2011. There are hardly any TOEFL takers now,” he says.

Suspicious scores, and inquiries

Unusually high GRE scores during the lockdown and calls by prospective test takers to coaching institutes seeking information about ghostwriters was what led to suspicion this time. Doubts also emerged when scores of over 310 became quite common in the ‘GRE at Home’ papers. Agencies that provide coaching to students say they were shocked to see high scores among students with limited capabilities. While 270-280 is the average score in GRE, the ‘GRE at Home’ exam threw up unusual figures of 310 and 325.

There was an inkling that something was wrong when some candidates scored 167 and 168 in the verbal and quantitative sections but only about 2-2.5 out of 6 in the analytical section. The analytical component is difficult to copy as the language skills of candidates are tested through an essay, which the prompters can’t improve given the time constraint. “Those who score 165 and more in the verbal and quantitative sections generally score well in the third section too, but this scenario was different,” says Reddy.

Candidates apparently also tried their luck on a website called passpsychometric.com, which offers assistance on payment. A note on the website says, “You can pay PassPsychometric to pass your Numerical, Verbal, Logic, Diagrammatic, Inductive, Abstract, SJT, Personality and other psychometric tests - alleviating you from any unnecessary concerns of how to pass the daunting online reasoning psychometric tests!” ETS says it is aware of this website and is looking to take legal action. The website does not list any phone numbers. A query submitted byThe Hinduthrough the ‘contact us’ section on the website did not elicit any response.

Samiuddin agrees that websites are openly advertising such facilities but because they use Virtual Private Networks (VPN), they remain untraceable. He also says candidates need to be wary of exploitation. “At least 80% of such fraudsters may be fooling students with false claims. They know students are afraid that their scores will be cancelled if they report that they were cheated,” he says.

Informing ETS

Over a month ago, some candidates and the Manya coaching centre informed ETS about the scam. After an initial complaint to ETS Support, Manya executives informed ETS’s India partner, Learning Links Foundation (LLF), of the details of the scam in a phone call on December 9. The LLF promised to escalate the issue at the ETS headquarters. On December 15, LLF reported that the head of the ETS Office of Testing Integrity would investigate the matter further.

On December 18, Manya Vice President Vandana Marda wrote again to LLF as well as to senior ETS officials, including John Kochanski, senior director of corporate strategy and business development at the company’s headquarters in New Jersey. She suggested that ETS suspend home testing, noting that the scam endangered the credibility of the GRE.

“Waiting anxiously to hear from ETS on resolving this. Perhaps ETS should close down GRE home testing immediately till such time you have found a foolproof method to conduct the test,” read the email, seen byThe Hindu. “Please keep us updated of the steps ETS is planning to take. Perhaps ETS should involve PR agencies to spread awareness about the fraudulent activities happening and should notify students to not become victims,” the email said.

In a later email to ETS, Manya also threatened to report the scam to the police as a case of cybercrime, but has not yet done so, saying that would be the “last resort”.

Manya says up to 80% of students who would normally enrol for GRE coaching are now only opting for IELTS (International English Language Testing System) coaching. The English language test, which is run by British Council, can only be taken at testing centres and not at home and is therefore not susceptible to fraud.

A question of credibility

Some students, desperate to secure admission to a good college, are willing to pay a substantial amount to cheat the system. Two months of GRE coaching classes cost about Rs. 18,000 while scamsters charge about Rs. 60,000-Rs. 70,000 depending on the score the student desires.

Several universities and colleges have already waived test scores as requirements for admission this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Any indication that home testing scores are suspect could lead to lower use of GRE scores as a criterion for admission going forward. “We cannot have another U.K.-like incident,” says another teacher in Visakhapatnam, who was approached by middlemen. The teacher is referring to an incident from six years ago when candidates were caught having the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) exam faked for them. Back then, by the time the investigation was completed, the students had finished their courses and had taken up jobs only to be charged of this crime. Deportation notices were sent to them. These students in the U.K. have been fighting deportation for many years and their work visas have been revoked.

The revelations on ‘GRE at Home’ are similar. It is believed that this is happening not just in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana but may have spread to other States, though in lower numbers, as coaching institutes, through which operations are channelised, are well-networked across the country.

“Students should not risk their future by falling into such traps. They may be jailed or deported if their scores are found to be acquired using dubious means,” says Professor G.V.K. Reddy, Professor at the Vardhaman College of Engineering, who also guides students on GRE and U.S. admissions.

Reddy recalls how actor Felicity Huffman was sentenced to imprisonment for paying thousands of dollars to have one of her daughter’s SAT scores inflated.

K.H. Vasudev, Regional Manager for Manya’s Andhra and Telangana business, says there must be more awareness. “In a few cases where blatant cheating was detected by the proctor, students are reporting that their exams got terminated, or that their scores got cancelled,” he says. “If ETS is later forced to recognise the widespread cheating on home tests, say after six months when students have been admitted into colleges, we may even see students getting deported. This will cause embarrassment to the families and the country.”

ETS responds

On January 7, a month after Manya flagged the issue with ETS, the head of the ETS Office of Testing Integrity thanked the coaching centre for sharing its concerns. There was no indication of specific action being taken, and Manya plans to reply asking for more clarity.

In response to queries fromThe Hindu, an ETS spokesperson said the company will investigate complaints and ban students connected to scamsters, but will also continue to conduct at-home testing even after COVID-19 is no longer a threat.

“ETS is aware of this website [passpsychometric.com] and we are taking immediate legal action to have it taken down to protect the integrity of our tests,” said a spokesperson. There was no mention of complaints going beyond this particular website.

Since the launch of home tests nine months ago, “tens of thousands” of test takers have registered for them in India alone. “The at-home offerings will continue to be part of ETS’s product portfolios to provide students with as many testing options as possible even in a post-COVID world,” said the spokesperson. The response further stated that “in our decades of experience, we know that no matter the format, there will always be a small number of individuals who will seek an unfair advantage. This is why ETS has an Office of Testing Integrity that constantly reviews, investigates and acts on these matters. As such, we continue to stand by the validity of our scores.” The ETS spokesperson also warned that “test takers risk having their scores invalidated, and being banned from testing by ETS if found to be connected to these scams.”

Names of candidates have been changed to protect their identity. Additional reporting by Priscilla Jebaraj (New Delhi), Sujatha R. and Pon Vasanth B.A. (Chennai), and Sarath Babu George (Thiruvananthapuram)

Public commitment in civic projects and procurement of professional services are areas that need definite improvement

The Supreme Court of India has cleared the decks for the intensely contested new Parliament and Central Vista projects in New Delhi. Limiting itself strictly to ‘the procedures sanctioned by law’, the majority judgment concluded that the government had followed all processes as stipulated by the regulations and could go ahead with the construction. This may have put an end to the litigation but it does not necessarily mean that such disputes and bitter situations would not recur. The critical questions on ensuring public commitment in civic projects, improving participatory processes in city-building, and effective procurement of professional services remain unanswered. Inadequate regulations that do not incorporate best practices will remain as they are. As judicial reviews are hesitant to direct changes to the mandated regulations, enduring solutions have to be found by improving them through political persuasion and public pressure.

Delhi as the most visible case

It would be erroneous and unproductive to think that redevelopment of the Central Vista is a unique case,sui generisas it was argued in the Supreme Court, and hence the issues. The Delhi project is only the most visible of instances, but the problem is widespread. The imprudent planning and reckless abandonment of Amaravati, the proposed capital for Andhra Pradesh, is but an example. In this project, confusion abounded: plans were erratically changed, the chosen architect was dropped when the project moved towards construction and a new one appointed. After acquiring vast areas of land through a controversial method, the project was abandoned, leaving farmers and others agitated and in difficulty. Failure to effectively address such instances has cumulatively eroded the possibilities of course correction. It is not that there were no efforts to challenge them, but all attempts often hit the dead end of obsolescent regulations.

Though many issues demand attention, immediate regulatory improvement is needed in two critical areas: public participation and architectural services procurement. First, the point of the participatory process. As an elected body, the state has the mandate and authority to draft civic projects and urban policies. While there is no argument on this, citizens often challenge the claims that they are unalloyed in their public purpose. The flip flop over the Amaravati project, where two elected governments made reckless decisions, is a case in point.

Accountability factor

As political scientists have explained, most governments ensure that whimsical agendas do not drive public projects by institutionalising ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ accountabilities. ‘Horizontal accountability’ is about creating interrelated state organisations such as heritage committees and environmental regulators to keep a check. ‘Vertical accountability’ concerns citizen oversight, which currently is limited to elections. The government often argues that horizontal accountability is in place and works well, while citizens, who are unconvinced given the poor track record, have argued for better and expanded vertical accountability such as an improved participatory process.

It is not that the provision for consultation is absent. In select areas such as master planning, regulations mandate stakeholder consultations. However, the processes are vague. They do not stipulate clear objective measures to determine whether stakeholder discussions meet the test of public consultation. As a result, citizens are at the mercy of an official or judges’ interpretation. This was on display in the case of the Central Vista. The majority and dissenting judgments used two different yardsticks to measure public participation and arrived at two contradicting conclusions. There is a lesson or two to learn from the Land Acquisition Act’s abusive use and its subsequent changes. The Act was changed to reduce misuse by spelling out the consent required from a minimum number of landowners. Similarly, in urban projects, clear benchmarks such as the number of meetings, diversity of participants and response time have to determine whether a consultation is inclusive and effective. Regulations have to unambiguously state what prior disclosures are needed when meetings have to be held and insist on publicly listing reasons for accepting and declining suggestions.

Choosing the designer

A second regulatory change is required for choosing designers for public projects. Design is a complex service that requires a high level of creativity to meet functional, performative and aesthetic needs. It has a significant bearing on creating public assets and judicious use of taxpayer’s money. Poor choices disastrously impact downstream construction activities, building use, city functioning, and value for money. Though the majority and dissenting judgments in the Central Vista project did not find any fault in the manner architecture consultants were appointed, some of the issues raised remind us that the processes of procuring designs services could be improved.

Barring a few instances of open competition, which is an ideal way to choose from a larger pool of solutions, the state follows the alternative method of closed procurement. Here, select architects who meet a set of prerequisites are invited and choices made from the designs they have provided. To execute this, the government, from the methods recommended by the Ministry of Finance, adopts the Quality- and Cost-Based Selection (QCBS). The method allows for stipulating prerequisites for consultants, placing higher weightage on their technical competency and relatively lower weightage on financial proposals. This is meant to prioritise quality and not low price. However, two sets of issues undermine its professed advantage. The first set of problems arise from the range of weightages allowed between technical and financial proposals. It is observed that unless weightage on technical qualification exceeds 80%, firms that quote lower fees can outdo better design firms. The second and a more critical set of issues is related to steep prerequisites and a lack of clarity in evaluative criteria and standards for design assessors.

Reducing the entry barrier

Many public projects insist on steep turnover conditions for architecture firms to qualify. The assumption is that the more considerable the turnover, the better it is in terms of expertise. Those familiar with the design profession know that creative outcomes are not a function of the firm’s scale. Steep entry requirements eliminate medium and small size firms and enable only a handful of large firms to qualify. This detrimentally reduces the pool of choice.

Going forward, where open competitions are not possible, the next best alternative is to mandate a method that reduces the entry barrier. In this regard, one could take cues from the suggestions made by the Architects’ Council of Europe when it faced a similar situation. It advocated dropping turnover requirements and laid an emphasis on qualitative selection criteria. Second, professional services could be disaggregated into design services and project development and management, thereby enabling better design focus. Third, weightage placed on design value has to be unambiguously clear and fixed. Given that more than 65% of the registered architects in India are below 35 years and many firms are medium sized, such procurement changes are all the more necessary.

On state capacity

Whenever a case for adopting better practices is made, policymakers argue that developing countries such as India have a relatively low state capacity. Hence, higher standards set in the matured economy and sustained by governments with higher capacity cannot be hastily implanted. The prevalent argument is that practices will improve as economic growth happens and as the country builds capabilities. On the face of it, such an incremental approach appears to make sense. However, it needs to be moderated in light of two facts. A comparison of responses to the novel coronavirus pandemic by India and the United States has shown that state capacity is not always directly proportional to wealth but more connected to will. Two, state capacity does not grow on its own as wealth increases. It improves only when the state is committed to doing better.

A. Srivathsan is a professor at CEPT University, Ahmedabad. The views expressed are personal

It can only be fair to argue that the country has done well in countering Chinese moves in eastern Ladakh

In the murky and chameleon-like world of contemporary geopolitics, adopting a sceptical approach to analyses and evaluation is often the best way forward. Nine months is a reasonable period to arrive at a holistic and reasonably acceptable evaluation of crises across domains. That the world was caught napping and brought to its knees by the COVID-19 pandemic is an undisputable proposition. In the grey zone at the global level is the absence of a definitive prognosis on the decline and rise of American and Chinese power, respectively.

Chance for middle powers

The two heavyweights are jabbing at one another without anyone of them being able to deliver that decisive knockout blow. The contest promises to be a long-drawn one that could last decades and result in several bouts across domains ranging from the traditional military and diplomatic spaces to new frontiers such as space, cyber and the cognitive domain. As the two powers engage in a strategy of exhaustion, middle powers such as India must see an opportunity to redefine their place in the world order.

Alexander L. George, a pioneering American political scientist who published several path-breaking works on deterrence and coercion in a career spanning over six decades, is best known for his work on coercive diplomacy. It is instructive to benchmark the happenings in eastern Ladakh against four of his variants of coercive diplomacy — a gradual turning of the screw, a try-and-see, a tacit ultimatum, or a full-fledged ultimatum. As the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) engaged in unprovoked transgressions through May 2020 that sought to alter the existingstatus quoin eastern Ladakh, it did so in a progressive manner that much resembled the graduated turning of the screw and then waiting to see India’s response. This was critical for the Chinese to decide whether it could replicate similar transgressions elsewhere along the Line of Actual Control.

An immediate Indian military response in the form of aquid-pro-quowas among the options that was demanded by shrill voices across constituencies of strategic watchers. This was correctly not subscribed to by India’s strategic establishment, which decided instead to adopt the try-and-see approach. In this phase of the crisis, India sought to engage in mild forms of coercion that involved the building up of forces to achieve parity on the ground. It was also the first time ever that the Indian Air Force could display its capabilities in Ladakh in all its roles, giving an indication that a serious demand was being made by India from the People’s Liberation Army to restorestatus quowithout an explicit threat or a time limit laid down by India.

The escalatory ladder

Interestingly, as India’s defensive posture was strengthened militarily, so did the coercive content in its diplomacy and economic posturingvis-à-visChina. Having failed to coerce the People’s Liberation Army to withdraw by mid-July, India had two options as per the escalatory ladder laid out by Alexander George. It could issue an indirect or tacit ultimatum that would involve an implicit and tightly controlled tactical action, thereby demonstrating resolve and intent. Or, it could issue a full-fledged ultimatum followed by multi-dimensional military action that could lead to a limited conflict. If avoidance of war and winning without fighting lies at the heart of both Kautilya and Sun Tzu’s approach towards statecraft, the People’s Liberation Army’s initial moves and the deliberate Indian response conformed to a predictable journey up the escalation ladder that stopped at a tacit ultimatum.

Equally applicable to the eastern Ladakh crisis from Alexander George’s repository of ideas are the psychological variables that impact the effectiveness of coercion, particularly the ‘dangers of misperceptions and miscalculations under the stressful conditions of crises’. Ringing true is also his emphasis on the ‘importance of political leaders having a good understanding of adversary leaders, their mind-sets and domestic constraints’.

Synergy in handling China

In eastern Ladakh, the People’s Liberation Army unrolled its tactical plans with speed and transgressed with the requisite stealth. However, at the operational and strategic level, the Chinese engaged in significant overreach and did not expect the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force to mobilise in strength and slip into their operational roles at high altitude with ease. The comfort levels of the Indian Army with absorbing attrition and offering an impactful riposte like the one it did by occupying key heights overlooking People’s Liberation Army positions, makes one wonder whether the People’s Liberation Army has ceded the psychological high ground it had gained in May. At the strategic level, the refusal of India’s political establishment to push the panic button in May, and the synergised politico-diplomatic-military approach by the Indians during negotiations have been a welcome departure from the past.

If one looks at the crisis through the prism of a larger global and regional context, or even through the more focused lens of coercive diplomacy, there are several positives for Indian statecraft, particularly in the diplomatic and military realms. India is astatus quopower and this is ingrained in its strategic DNA and associated strategies of deterrence and coercion. This implies, and history is testimony to the possibility, that when faced with adversaries who are either irrational or revisionist, there is every likelihood of India initially being rocked onto the back foot during a crisis that involves either the application or the show of force. Response strategies to such situations are where there is much ground still to be covered.

India has militarily recovered well, diplomatically played hard-ball and strategically postured deftly despite the constraints of the ongoing pandemic. While it is too early to predict the trajectory of events when the snows melt, the Chinese have bitten off more than they can chew and could be looking for a face-saving solution. When such a possibility emerges with the kind of power asymmetry that exists between the two countries, it can only be fair to argue that India has done well in countering Chinese coercion in Ladakh with its own brand of counter-coercion.

Arjun Subramaniam is a military historian and strategic commentator

NSO projections of GDP seem overly optimistic even as the economy rebounds

The first advanced estimates of economic output for the current financial year posit a picture of an economy rebounding robustly in the second half from the pandemic-induced slump of the preceding two quarters. The National Statistical Office on Thursday projected that GDP in the 12 months ending March would total almost Rs. 134.4-lakh crore in constant prices, reflecting a 7.7% contraction from the preceding year’s figure. To reach that level, the NSO has assumed that output will recover vigorously in the third and fourth quarters. After contracting by almost 16% in the April-September period, it sees GDP being just a mere Rs. 10,400 crore short of the year-earlier second half’s figure. It is this mathematical projection that is hard to square with the economic reality revealed in both the NSO’s more detailed sectoral output forecasts as well as other emerging trends from ground-level activity. Both the expenditure side and gross value added (GVA) across various industries point to the high degree of optimism implicit in the NSO’s assumptions. Private consumption expenditure — the single biggest component propelling GDP, at well over 50% — is estimated to shrink 9.5% in the full year, after contracting nearly 19% in the first half. This presupposes that consumers have largely shed their wariness to spend in the face of COVID-19 and have begun to set about consuming goods and services at close to pre-pandemic levels, the dampening impact of lost jobs and reduced incomes notwithstanding. GVA data for manufacturing and services, however, seem to belie this postulation.

While the NSO expects manufacturing to shrink 9.4% this fiscal, albeit narrowing from an almost 20% contraction in the first half, it sees the crucial GVA services component of trade, hotels, transport, communication and broadcasting contracting 21.4% (the most among all the GVA constituents) over the 12-month period. Clearly, with the mandated social distancing norms having taken the highest toll on high-risk indoor activities, it is this omnibus services sector which contributes almost a fifth to overall GVA that is bearing the brunt of the pandemic-related restrictions. The forecast for government spending also appears far too upbeat. The NSO sees government final consumption expenditure (GFCE) jumping 17% in the second half, erasing the first-half’s contraction and buoying the annual figure to a growth of 5.8%. The end-November fiscal deficit data show the government lagging well behind its budgeted revenue and capital expenditure targets, and with just four months to go and revenue receipts continuing to underwhelm, it is hard to fathom how the GFCE can increase so appreciably in the second half. True, the NSO has furnished a caveat that its estimates are likely to undergo sharp revisions. The upcoming Economic Survey could move away from these overly optimistic assumptions with a more sober assessment of the economy.

To expect women to stay indoors for their safety is to deny them their freedoms, rights

Unnao. Hathras. And now Badaun. The dirge continues as news of another horrific alleged rape and murder emerged from Uttar Pradesh on Sunday. A 50-year-old anganwadi worker, who visited a temple, was found brutally battered outside her home at a village in Badaun district. After she succumbed to the injuries, a depressingly similar pattern came to light: the police had dithered with both the post mortem and in registering an FIR. The culprits, a priest and his two associates, were arrested by Thursday night, with the State government saying that stern action would be taken. What came as a shocker, however, was the reaction of a senior member of the National Commission for Women who visited the family. Chandramukhi Devi was quoted as saying, “I tell women again and again that they should never go out at odd hours under anyone’s influence… I think if she had not gone out in the evening or was accompanied by any child of the family perhaps this incident could have been avoided.” Such remarks worsen the situation for women who have to battle against skewed societal gender conditioning. When insensitive utterances emanate from a national commission actually meant to uphold women’s rights, it reeks of a primitive mindset wherein lawlessness is overlooked and responsibility pinned, perversely, on the woman for ensuring her own well-being.

All the hard work put in by women in all spheres including science and technology comes undone by such crude statements. The equal rights movement means nothing if women are stopped from going out whenever they want to or need to, day or night. But it is also imperative that with society steeped in gender prejudices, the government, police and family must step up to provide a safe environment. In 2019, the NCRB data show 88 rape cases were recorded every day in India with U.P. reporting the second-highest number at 3,065 cases. But records never tell the whole story for many rapes are not reported due to social stigma. Although after the Nirbhaya incident in 2012, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act laid down the rules for stringent punishment, crimes against women continue, pointing at other issues that should be addressed from patriarchal mindsets to poor policing. For gender parity, more women must join the workforce, but thereby hangs another sorry tale. According to Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy data, women accounted for 10.7% of the workforce in 2019-20 and many lost jobs due to the pandemic. By November 2020, the CMIE reported that men recovered most of their lost jobs but not women. It is a matter of shame that even in 2021, women are asked to stay indoors at night instead of reaching for the moon.