Monday, 5 May 2014

Inter-caste Marriage: A Real Measure to Eliminate Caste Based Discrimination

Standing in the polling booth, I thought that reaching 18 grants us at least one freedom - the freedom to vote whomsoever we want. You might be thinking we get so many rights after getting to the age of 18, e.g. we become eligible for marriage, get the license and capability of taking decisions related to our life. But how far is it true? Today I will focus on one such freedom i.e. the freedom to get married with the person of our choice, particularly when our choice belongs to another caste in the Indian social structure.

The Caste Barrier to Marriages 
For years, Indian society has had an orthodox mindset. Indian sociology (a book by G.S. Ghurye) defines six features of caste, and marriage is one of them.

The practice of endogamy (marrying within a confined community) is believed to have emerged around 2000 years ago when the Hindu religious text Manusmriti (The Laws of Manu) was written, which supports the practice of endogamy.  Many citations of inter-caste marriage before that period suggest that inter-caste marriages were common before that period. 

In the traditional Indian society, members of each caste and sub-caste were to marry within their own endogamous group. Any violation of this rule was a serious offense, the punishment for which was usually excommunication from the caste. Moreover, considering inter caste marriage as a taboo is not just a rural phenomenon; even the educated families are not much present numerous examples. 

The gravity of the situation has increased more and more with time, due to continued hardening of the social beliefs. There has been an increasingly aggressive response of the society against inter-caste marriages. In the cases of love affairs in the past, only family members concerned used to intervene. However, nowadays, the intervention of outside groups in such affairs has become a trend; recent attack on Divya-Ilavarasan of Dharampuri is testimony to this.

Why inter caste marriage – Why not? 
The very first answer to people who condemn inter caste marriages is – Why not? When we support love marriages, we automatically support inter-caste marriages, because love does not see caste, religion, faith etc.

Taking legal perspective, love marriages (irrespective of caste) are legal under Special Marriages Act, 1954.  Even the Supreme court of India, the highest authority in Indian democracy, also held the view that inter caste marriages are in national interest and are a unifying factor where caste system is a curse ( See Article).

Even history doesn’t deny the notion of inter-caste marriages. For example, Santanu married Ganga and later Satyabati; both were from outside his own caste. In 160 B.C., Agnimitra, a Brahmin king, married a Kshatriya princess Malavika. Majority of historians believe that the practice of endogamy didn’t start until around 2000 years ago, before which, very few restrictions existed on marriage.

Who resists?
Recently, my friend's cousin got married for the second time. His first marriage was to the women of his choice who didn’t belong to his caste. However, the guy had to succumb to continuous resistance from his parents, had to break the bond of his first marriage and got married to the woman of his parents’ choice. The thing that shatters me the most is that if our society considers marriage as an unbreakable bond (a common saying that marriage is a bond that persists for 7 lives); how can they disapprove a marriage that has already happened.

I assume that most of the readers have heard of Khap Panchyats, and majority of readers would also condemn their acts in the name of "honor killing". What is the difference between those sinners and people denying inter caste marriage in the name of whatever excuse they have? In fact, this difference is a very thin line that can be crossed anytime. So, I would suggest those people, before condemning Khap Panchayats, they should be ready to answer the question, “what if their children were to marry outside the caste?” keeping the lame excuse of "It would be better if our children give us half of what we have provided them" aside.
Even if parents concede to their children’s wishes, it’s the society that doesn’t let them. Now, we can ask the philosophical question – What is society; rather, what constitutes the society? The answer is simple; we are the society, society emerges from us. If we want the society to change, we need to change first and then spread that change.

Social perspective: Practical answer to caste based discrimination
When we compete with the West in culture, technology, and development, we need to modernize our thoughts to rise above petty issues.

Few people give argument that it will lead to clash in culture and values.  If that is the case, there should not be any communication or trade between states because they are of different culture, and same stands for different communities too. India is gifted with diverse cultures; then why we are so scared of unifying people from different cultures for the common good while maintaining diversity (I am trying to emphasize and assume here that girl is not bound to forget her culture after marriage). Moreover, this amalgamation of different cultures will put an end to mindless racism and discrimination on the basis of caste in our exotic land.

Wouldn’t we want our next generation to be more peaceful and more socially acceptable to different people in the world?

Restriction on feeding and social intercourse will also go when physical intercourse is acceptable to the higher castes; assuming we don’t want any taboo on social intercourse. So this caste based discrimination can be uprooted through inter-caste marriages. I will go so far to say that if we want to end this division of country on the basis of castes, inter-caste marriages are the fastest and the most effective solution.

Political Perspective: Answer to caste-based politics
It is no news that Indian politics has been revolving around the notion of castes for at least a couple of decades. This change in Indian political system, marked by caste mobilization and narrow identity politics is worsening the problem of caste-based discrimination. In the Ilavarasan case, the government and the police failed to take action against members of the dominant caste even though they knew well that they were doing something illegal, because of vote bank politics.

Unless we emerge united, we cannot fight this dirty politics where corrupt politicians come into power making promises to a certain set of castes, instead of having any motivation to serve in the country itself. This kind of politics serves nobody’s purpose and divides India while those corrupt politicians fill their pockets with everyone’s money irrespective of what the caste of a person is.

Medical Perspective: Better Genetic Adaptation
There is an interesting observation from the point of view of genetic adaptation, if you consider people from different castes to be of different genetic structures. This is an answer to the people who propagate the concept of Pureblood . First of all, we need to understand that the concept of Pureblood has nothing to do with blood (We transfuse blood to people all the time in hospitals).

The concept of PureBlood comes from the concept of evolution that certain sections of society have evolved to a better genetic structure over time. It might be true, but it does not support the negative impacts of inter-caste marriages. Moreover, the tendency of genes to try to evolve to a better structure supports the concept of inter-caste marriages. The idea is that, if we assume that two castes are different genetically, on inter-caste marriage, the genetic set of the child has more good qualities to choose from than just marrying people with similar genetic structure (genes have tendency to choose the best from the constituting genes).

This was just one aspect of how inter-caste marriages can be advantageous from the medical point of view. In her article, Dr. Shuchita Vatsal explores the medical/genetic upsides of an inter-caste marriage in detail.

What needs to be done?
Education has broadened the scope of thinking and helped people develop analytical powers. We need to do better in education sector to provide people with better thinking level so that they grow above these barriers of caste.

A survey revealed that 80% of women, adversely affected in inter-caste marriages, belonged to the Dalit community. This incites fear in women from Dalit community from taking the step of going for an inter-caste marriage. One possible remedy is to make changes in the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and encourage by giving incentive to the people taking initiative in this direction that could be in the form of reservation.

Financial incentives can also be given by the government to encourage youth and to make them independent (as done in one such government scheme here ).

Summing Up
We discussed that marriage is one of the features in the Indian caste system. The inter-caste marriages will attack on remaining five features of the caste system and ultimately help in eliminating the oppressive caste system as Dr. B.R. Ambedkar said, "it will cause disappearance of caste - based Segmental Division of Society". Economic divisions, class etc. will still remain, but that is currently being dealt by reservation.

After all, a marriage is considered as the union of two souls, which never requires caste, creed, and other customs of the society; it only requires that happiness, understanding and peace should always remain there in the family. Moreover, inter-caste and inter-religion marriages serve as a beacon light for social equality. In order to eliminate the perils of the caste system, it has become incumbent that there should be a lot more inter-caste marriages. As we close this discussion, I would like to quote Dr. Ambedkar again "Caste is a mental state, therefore it cannot be eradicated through constitutional measures alone”.

It is time we gave a second thought to our hypocrisy in which we applaud movies like "Two states", but we don’t have the guts to accept inter-caste marriages in front of the society. 

This article solely expresses the views of the author on subject matter. It is not intended to conflict with individuals' views. Please feel free to comment to suggest improvements or report problems.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Heartbleed Bug Explained

The biggest recent fuss in the field of computer science gains notoriety day by day. Online references to the bug have multiplied over time. Anyone having basic understanding of the field of computer science and programming would know that bugs in software are very common and they come and go daily. So, what is Heartbleed and what makes it unique and so notorious?

To skip all the background and technical details skip to the section Simplified explanation of the Heartbleed bug.

What is Heartbleed?
It is a serious vulnerability (a software bug) in the popular cryptographic software library OpenSSL. This bug allows a malicious user (commonly called hacker) to steal protected information over a communication channel secured by the SSL/TLS encryption, which has OpenSSL lying at its implementation.
Specifically, this bug lies in the Heartbeat extension of OpenSSL.

What is SSL/TLS?
Transport Layer Security (TLS) and its predecessor, Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) are cryptographic protocols designed to provide security for communication over Internet.  SSL/TLS protocols essentially are a set of specifications that define the mechanism for a secure communication.

Where do we see SSL/TLS?
Secure communication over Internet uses the SSL/TLS protocols. Most of the confidential information over Internet is communicated using the HTTPS application protocol that utilizes SSL/TLS protocols. Nearly all websites, web servers, chat servers, network appliances where confidential and private information can be exposed use SSL/TLS; examples include Bank websites, payment gateways, email providers, social networking websites and numerous other websites.

What is OpenSSL?
OpenSSL is a cryptographic software library that provides an implementation of the SSL and TLS protocols too. It is considered the de facto library used for incorporating SSL/TLS security on a website. So, if a website uses SSL/TLS security, there are very high chances that it uses OpenSSL implementation.

If there are vulnerabilities associated with using SSL/TLS security, why use it at all?
The vulnerabilities are not associated with the SSL/TLS protocols; the vulnerabilities exist in specific implementations. It is like saying, if items from my house can be stolen; why not leave them out in the open?  :)

Okay, if the vulnerabilities exist in specific implementations; are there other implementations of the SSL/TLS protocols?
Yes, there are a host of other implementations of the SSL/TLS protocols. See A Comparison of TLS Implementations for a comparison of such implementations. That said, OpenSSL is a very popular cryptographic library that has proven to be highly reliable and efficient over time. A bug does not make it a bad choice (since the bug has already been fixed); it is natural for other implementations to have their own set of problems too.

What is the heartbeat extension?
OpenSSL introduced an extension called Heartbeat around December 2011, with its 1.0.1 build release.  The extension’s task was to help avoid reestablishing sessions so that the SSL sessions could be kept alive for longer durations.

How does the Heartbeat extension work?
Without going into the intricate details of the headers formats, we can have a simple understanding of the Heartbeat extension. 

When a session is established, the server and the client (or the two peers) establish session keys. However, after regular intervals, the client and the server need to verify each other’s identities because of a variety of security reasons (like  session hijacking). 

One approach is to establish another session. Since, establishing a session requires multiple steps, this is considered inefficient.

Another approach (the one that the heartbeat extension follows) is to setup two code words in the beginning, one for the client and one for the server. Now, after some time (called a Heartbeat), the server asks the client back for its code word (of course, encrypted by the session key). If the client replies with the correct answer, server knows that the client is authentic. If the client cannot reply, or gives an incorrect reply, the server asks for reestablishment of session (asks again for the password).

Similarly, the client verifies the server’s identity by requesting the client’s code word. If server is unable to reply correctly, the client asks for re-verification of its certificate.

Okay, then, what exactly is the Heartbleed bug? 
As we already saw, an exchange of secret code words is performed during a persisting session to verify the identity of two communicating peers.

However, due to the Heartbleed bug, the client not only has access to the session key but also an arbitrary chunk of memory on the server side (similarly server has access to client’s memory).

The client, while verifying session, send a request to the server to return back the client's secret code word that was established earlier. In the request, client also sends the size of the data it expects the server to return. Even if the secret code was a few bytes long, the client can always request a bigger chunk of memory (an upper limit of 64 KB in one heartbeat). The server fulfills the request giving that amount of memory data back to the client (starting from the key’s location in the memory). 

So, if a client is a malicious client, it can keep sending heartbeat requests to the server potentially accessing up to 64 KB of arbitrary memory every time. That portion of memory can contain highly confidential data, including the server’s private key (access to which gives unrestricted access to the server), other user’s data etc.

Can you skip the technical details and explain in simple terms?
Okay, let’s skip all the encryption stuff. Let us imagine a scenario where you visit a bank. The receptionist asks you for your secret key (the password) to enter the bank. You also ask the receptionist for her identification. Once, you are satisfied with her credentials, you tell her the password. She verifies the password and lets you access the inside of the bank.

However, you two also setup code words for further communication. You tell the receptionist your code word and the receptionist tells you her code word. Receptionist passes these code words to all the bank’s employees, so that anyone who knows them is an employee and anyone who doesn’t is not.

Now, you are sitting in the waiting room waiting to be assisted. Now, an employee comes to assist you. However, instead of asking your password again (having to verify it from the system), he simply asks for the bank’s code word. You ask him your code word first. He tells you your code word and establishes that he is an authentic employee of the bank.

However, the employee is infected by the deadly heartbleed bug. So, while asking your code word, you tell him how many words you are expecting.  He tells you the correct code word but also tells other visitors' code words, and the bank’s code words for other visitors too, depending on the number of words you said you were expecting.

This knowledge gives you unnecessary access to private information related to other visitors. You can even impersonate as one of them.

To throw in a little technicality, the situation with OpenSSL is not as bad as the bank’s, because code words are not stored as plain texts. They are encrypted using session keys. So, just to decipher the code word, or any part of memory that was leaked, a hacker would first have to hijack a session (basically know who to attack).

Bugs in software come and go, what makes Heartbleed so unique?
The severity and ease of exploitation of the bug makes it so notorious.

The bug is very easy to exploit, does it leave the Internet insecure to all hackers?
No, it doesn’t.  The reason is, a hacker has access to arbitrary chunk of memory but he doesn’t know what part of memory (or what information) he is getting. Essentially, all he might be getting could be garbage or could be the bank account’s password of a user. It takes a mediocre hacker to exploit the bug but someone very good to get important information out of the leaked data.

How do I know that I was attacked?
You don’t. The exploitation of the bug leaves no traces, so there is no way to know if someone has already accessed your confidential information. However, if something bad hasn’t happened yet, there are pretty good chances that you weren't attacked.

How do I ensure that Heartbleed no longer affects me?
The OpenSSL developer community promptly fixed the bug, and fixes have been pushed by most operating systems. All you have to do is update your OpenSSL with the latest set of updates. After that, ask your users to change their passwords to protect from any future information theft due to an earlier password leak.

For background information on the Heartbleed bug, visit the Wikipedia article on Heartbleed.

Most of the explanations in the post are oversimplifications intended to be understandable by most readers. Please feel free to report any mistakes and give your invaluable suggestions. 

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Extension must for smooth internet surfing

Google Chrome browser

Adblock plus
Blocks the advertisements on the websites
Speeds up browsing
Get rid of unnecessary advertisements

FastestChrome- Browse Faster
Browsing Flawless and quick
Automatically adds extra pages to the first page for eg. For search results- just need to scroll up and down to access

Google dictionary
You can easily select a word, and particular definition is popped up

Skip Ad on Youtube
Escaping ads in youtube

YouTube Downloader
Download a youtube video at desired resolution

Youtube Options
Set default setting for youtube videos(size of the window, visibility of ads and annotations etc.)

Black Menu for Google
Get easy one click access to google menu(maps, translate, web, images)

Fed up of opening facebook, gmail , twitter to check notifications. Try this. It aggregates the notifications for Gmail, Facebook, Twitter and more.
Similar to google reader to read the content of your favorite sites.

Media hint
Access videos banned outside the country.

P.S.- not available in the chrome web store. Goto and get free from there.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Section 377

In a major setback to gay rights activists, the SC recently dismissed a petition seeking review of Suresh Kumar Koushal judgment and held that homosexuality or unnatural sex between two consenting adults under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code(IPC) is illegal and will continue to be an offence. This order quashed the hopes of law reform.
Moreover as India takes a step back, UK prepares to legalize the same. The Indian SC re-criminalized gay relationships based on a colonial law that the UK has given in the heritage. Contrary, UK government has make a announcement promising a deadline for same sex marriages.

Lets get a bit familiar with the Section 377 and its history. Then we will talk about its consequences.
What does Section 377 say?
Section 377 says that "Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal commits an unnatural offence and can be punished with up to life term." This is an archaic colonial law established in 1860 that banned sexual intercourse on the basis of its nature as "against the nature". Moreover Section 377 is not unconstitutional.
In 2009, Delhi high court had ruled that Section 377 was against constitutional values and human dignity, which clearly violates the human right of an individual. Here argument made by SC against the HC ruling is that, the Delhi HC has relied upon the judgments of other foreign countries which cannot be applied blindfolded for deciding the constitutionality of Indian law.

In the landmark Naz Foundation case, the Delhi High court stuck down the provision of criminalized consensual adults from having homosexual intercourse. The effect of the decision was that though homosexual intercourse was no longer illegal, Section 377 would remain in the statute books and could be used to prosecute other unnatural sex acts. Then the PIL by Suresh Kumar Koushal, whose interest was to protect cultural values of India society was filed. And here the SC overruled the judgment of Delhi High Court stating the reason that "LGBT individuals form a diminutive fraction of population and this Section 377 is not used frequently, the decision does not hold water.
Gay rights activists’ plea that Section 377 criminalizes a group of people and deprives them of equal citizenship was also rejected by a Court that held on to a textual reading that the law only criminalizes certain acts but not people or identity.

Though prosecution of consenting homosexuals was infrequent, Section 377 was used by the police to harass and intimidate sexual minorities.
 The 2.5 million LGBT community is categorized as a high-risk group by the Department of AIDS control, as prevalence of HIV is 7 times higher in them than the others.  In addition, the existence of this provision also prevented sexual minorities from accessing sexual healthcare without risking harassment or arrest.
The community would also face threats and intimidation or even blackmailing.

Way Forward:
This decision of SC is termed as 'retrograde' as it has brought back medieval prejudice and has also curtailed liberal values and human rights.  In majority of the cases, wherever the executive had failed and did not held constitutionally enumerated fundamental rights  to life and equality, the court had stepped in. This time it should not shy away from correcting a centuries-old law. With this decision, it seems like judicial route has been closed to bring the law in line. Now there are few ways forward.
One of them is the application of curative petition, which allows the Court to take cases even after dismissal of review petition provided that it involves gross miscarriage of justice and violation of natural justice. But as the track record of previous cases suggest, this route does not appear to be optimistic. Since the review petition was dismissed without even a oral hearing.
The another way is making use of Parliament's prerogative to amend Section 377 in tune with the social circumstances. Though the Union government too was in favor of High Court's view, it had left it to the SC to decide on the penal provision. With the upcoming elections, this legislative amendment is neither priority for Congress part nor for BJP(Indian cultural reasons).
The last but not the least route is to make benefit of the federal structure. As the Indian Penal Code comes under Concurrent List of Constitution, State Legislatures may amend a central law subject to approval of President. As this issue was well handled by the State Court as compared to Apex court, the legislative interventions at State level seems to be the most feasible way out.

Above all, it is a test of humane values, fairness and dignity in a society. It is important that institutions of the state acknowledge the importance of these values.

Friday, 21 February 2014

India US relations: One aspect-Arms

The arrest of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragde makes us rethink on the existing diplomatic policy of India with US. The blossoming of ties with the US has become an important diplomatic asset for India. Historically, these relations were somewhat thorny and adverse. But after the dissolution of Soviet Union in 1991, India began to get closer to United States. Recent developments include the rapid growth of India's economy and bilateral trade, closeness between the computer industries, a geopolitical coalition to balance China and the 2008 India US Nuclear Deal in which long standing American opposition was reversed. The prominent challenge of this relationship is that its quite asymmetrical in many aspects from trade, culture to economic and military transactions. The Obama administration's reluctance to accommodate Indian interests on major issues has created deep differences that are questioning the resilience of the partnership.

Here we are going to discuss one of such aspect- US arms sales to India. With the advent of technology, the US has emerged as a World class arms supplier, as evident in being India's largest arms supplier, leaving behind Russia and Isreal.
This development can be attributed to Indo-US civilian nuclear deal. Though it haven't yet proved to be a significant deal in regard to energy, but it has been successful in opening the door to major US arms sales.  With little prospect of substantial amount of output, it remains a worthless deal on energy. Failure to deliver a single operational nuclear power plant for so many years is a testimony to this fact.

The rise in arms sales from mere 100 million dollars to billions of dollars yearly might be projected as required boom to survive in the world race, or as advancement of India's security interests. But at the peak of Khobragade affair, awarding US with another mega-contract- a $1.01 billion deal foe 6 additional C-130J military transport aircraft, let alone the imposing of any penalty, is a sign of some flaw in our foreign policy.

US has security alliance and strategic partnership with Pakistan since 2004, strategic partnership with China since 1997. Then why US has given so special treatment to seek some special results from the relationship ? The major question arises here - Is this relationship is sustainable when we have our regional adversaries on the same end as we are, leave alone the long run prospects.

This fact is widely acceptable and makes sense that no country can ever emerge as a major international power in a complete sense, if it remains dependent on imports to meet even its basic defense needs. Capacity to acquire and develop one's own resources is the foremost requirement to become a powerful nation.
In contrast, India has emerged as the world's biggest arms importer since 2006, accounting for 10% of all weapons sold globally. Is this fact is a thing to proud or to shame? These stats can suggest that we are leading in a well planned military power, but deep inside these lack strategic direction and long term perspective.

This dependency is making India subjected to external pressures, and keeping it devoid of its capabilities. Further financially it is a major burden on taxpayers. These defense transactions are hugely prone to compromises and corruption as demonstrated by Bofors scandal, Break missile Scandal. This factor can explains why India is not able to repeat the indigenous success it has gained in other sectors where imports are least possible like space, missile, and information technology.
Some experts suggest that displacement of Russia as India's largest arms supplier has been a diplomatic game played by US as happened in early 70s with Egypt.

The major concern is not that we are importing but is that are we importing the worthy things in a transparent and fair manner? There is lack of competitive bidding and transparency in arms deal. There was one case -buying 126 fighter jets- where India called out for bids, but American firms' performance was miserable even in first round.

A major well known rule of foreign diplomacy is that it must be backed by leverages to maximize the advantages for both sides. Though India contributes to a number of contracts with the US, but is has not yet successful to make use of them to persuade US to stop arming its rivalry Pakistan against India. India has not even tried to access American market with competitive  IT and pharmaceutical companies, which currently are facing number of US non tariff barriers.

The four-point declaration of intent signed by US with India last year include to move beyond the sale of complete weapon systems to co-production through technology transfer. According to which, efforts to identify specific opportunities for collaborative weapons will be pursued in accordance to national policies and procedures. There is lot to do in that direction. For the time being, US has now willing to co-produce some smaller defensive units with India, like Javelin anti-tank missiles. But such restricted access to technology should not serve the way US is expecting-to secure additional multibillion dollar contracts.

Need is to make US willing to sell high-precision conventional arms, anti-submarine warfare systems, long range air- and sea-launched cruise missiles, and other conventional counterforce systems that could tilt the regional military balance in India’s favor?
A wise India would consider declaring a moratorium on arms purchases from all sources to give itself time to strategize its priorities and clean up its procurement system. A moratorium of just three years will save the country a whopping $20 billion without compromising national security. With non-traditional threats — ranging from asymmetric warfare in the form of cross-border terrorism to territorial creep through furtive encroachments — now dominating India’s security calculus, procurement of more mega-weapons to meet traditional security challenges must wait until the nation has added strategic direction to its defence policy.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Politics of Subsidies

    Seems like every political party is luring a common man to gain his support. Recent two moves of AAP and Congress -Subsidization and free distribution of electricity by AAP and subsidization of LPG cylinders from 9 to 12 by Congress suggest the same.

    On the one hand the government are trying to cover these actions under the umbrella of welfare of people and to earn votes, on the other hand various Economists and opposition are not missing their opportunities to condemn their policies. The economists have expressed reservations on increasing the burden of subsidies while the opposition is crying that it will lead to fiscal indiscipline.  All these disturbances raise the most basic question: What exactly the subsidy - a boon or curse or just a charity shop to make political gains by wooing the voters.
    RBI governor Rnagrajan stated- "we need to get careful with these expanding and misdirected subsidies". Hopefully this statement answers this basic question. But it does not explain the term 'misdirected' which is crucial to cut down anything. We will focus on various repercussions of these moves on the state economy. And for that we need to study the increasing gap between the government saving and expenditure.

    The recent move of Union government to increase number of cylinders from 9 to 12 will cost the exchequer an additional Rs. 5,000 crore annually.  This step might bring some relief to millions of middle class and poor Indians who are battling high rates of inflation during recent times. But the cost to public exchequer is definitely going to deteriorate the state of Indian economy.

    At this moment of time, resources needed to foot the bill for the fuel, food and fertilizer subsidies are not sufficient. Here comes a new term to  create illusion- "convenient accounting". This term refers to pushing this year’s expenditure to the next fiscal’s accounts. The Finance Ministry plans to book in next financial year, 2014-15, the expenditure that will be incurred on subsidies during the remaining months of the current fiscal (January-March). This will keep the fiscal deficit for 2013-14 within the target of 4.8 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) — at least on paper.

    The Budget Estimates (BE) for 2013-14 for these subsidies is Rs.2.21 lakh crore. The Finance Ministry has not so far raised before Parliament a demand for additional grants for these subsidies. However, as per latest official data, at the end of November, 2013, the fiscal deficit was already 94 per cent of the BE for 2013-14. With four months still to go in the current fiscal year, the Finance Ministry has limited space to manage the fiscal deficit, the excess of the government’s expenditure over its income. The UPA Government has not been able to garner through disinvestments the Rs.40,000 crore projected in the Union Budget. Moreover, tax collections are growing at a rate less than the target of 19 per cent. Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has pressed in budget cuts in social schemes in an election year to keep the fiscal deficit below 4.8 per cent but they are not going to be enough.

    Mr. Chidambaram has said that the UPA Government will not let the India’s fiscal deficit for 2013-14 breach the 4.8-per cent target. International rating agencies have warned that a slip-up will trigger a rating downgrade for India.

    This situation has dramatically undermined the confidence in the government’s ability to manage the macro-economy.
    After having a quick glance over the current state of economy, lets try to figure out why this is happening and what is the way out? Lets have a look over the need of subsidy and various issues out of it.
    The broad purpose of subsidy is redistribution of income, offset market imperfections and other social policy objectives as needed.

    Subsidies have fiscal effects, trade effects and redistributive effects. And the most lasting and worrisome effect is that it creates vested interests and acquire political hues. And subsidies have tendency to continue indefinitely irrespective of regime. Subsidy have proliferated in India for several reasons:
    1. Wide expansion of governmental activities: Even after 20 years of privatization, governmental activities have substantial amount of area to work on. These sectors includes social policy, railways, food security, fertilizer and monetary policy.
    1. Weak determination of governments to recover costs from the respective users of the subsidies: Subsidies amounted to 14% of GDP, but the Tax GDP ratio in India is 17.7, one of lowest in the world. We have 42500 super rich(having income greater than 1 crore), but our tax collection doesn't justify it. There is a government document,
    Statement of revenue  foregone which lists the income which government  could have earned but hadn't earn. In India, for every 100 Rupees, government is leaving 60 Rupees unearned. Sometimes, this revenue forgone is given to big industries and taxpayers as part of concessions and sometimes it is the inefficiency to collect.  Effective corporate tax rate is 20% instead of 33% on paper. Further due to the complicated procedures for paying tax, a common man prefers evading tax rather than getting involved into it.
    1. Low efficiency of governmental activities- Wide spreading corruption is the overt testimony for this. 39% of subsidized kerosene is stolen. Malpractices in targeting results in inclusion and exclusion errors accounting to more gap between the needy and the better offs.

    The most general issues arising from subsidies are: a) distortionary effects of agricultural subsidies on the cropping pattern, b) their impact on inter-regional disparities in development, c) the sub-optimal use of scarce inputs like water and power induced by subsidies, d) Inadequate targeting of subsidies, e) discouraging effect on economic growth of sectors not covered by the subsidies, and last but not least f) environmental sustainability.
    An example of sustainability issues arising from the subsidy structure can be seen in problems of water and energy consumption in agricultural sector. During green revolution, liberal subsidy in irrigation resulted in decline of groundwater from 20 cm per year in Punjab to 3 to 5 meters in Gujarat.

    As subsidies are politically sensitive, nobody wants to take stand on rationalizing it. At present subsidy in India is footed on 3 fs- food, fuel and fertilizers which are making a burden on public exchequer. And the more worrisome concern is that it is not well targeted resulting in nulling out of the overall objective of subsidy.

    The requirement of subsidy in the country like India cannot be denied in a country where social and economic inequality is prevalent. But its appropriate projection is a must condition.

    The Way Forward
    1. First and foremost need is to reduce the overall scale of subsidies. And energy subsidy could be the most important sector to focus to bring sustainable economy.
    2. Another thing is that there is no subsidy on productivity related sectors. Like infrastructure(one dimension is connectivity), skill development,  education, health, life standard. India spend less on these which would be beneficial in long run. Further essential needs should be subsidized. According to UNESCO, India has lowest public expenditure on higher education per student in the world- an important parameter in deciding the wellness of a country. Even World bank has criticized India for increasing economic inefficiency due to its vast subsidy bills.
    1. There is need is to create subsidy for job creation in small sectors rather than supporting just only industry giants by giving concessions.
    1. There is urgent need to fill the holes in the existing economic policies and bring transparency in the procedures(as in concession given to corporates).
    2. Further policy arbitrariness should be eliminated. As seen in the recent decision of increasing cylinders from  6 to 9 and then 9 to 12 cylinders. While Verrapa Moily himself gave the statement average requirement in India is 6.9 per person and more than 89% people are sufficient with 9 cylinders. Then there was no reason to increase it to 12.
    3. As fuel subsidy constitutes major amount of total subsidy and also with the rising price of oil products  in international market and increasing subsidy, the rates of petrol are quite fluctuating. We need to focus more on self dependency rather than relying on imports by increasing production and encouraging conservation
    1. Subsidy should be correctly targeted, introduction of technology, computer based system will be helpful.
    1. Demolishing public sector monopolies and promoting private investment so as to increase production.
    2. Preventing natural resources by incentivizing environmental friendly technologies. Energy economy and a budgeted carbon emission were a means of achieving ecological sustainability, and one way of getting there was to cut “unjustified elements” of subsidies.
    3. Governments must ensure sustainability through regulatory and price-cum-incentives approach and also that companies adhered to the overall national sustainability agendas.
    4. Outcome based calculation and reviewing periodically to eliminate unnecessary things.
    5. Clarity on the proposed term for any scheme.
     These reforms are necessary to form a multipronged national strategy to fight against the setbacks of subsidy.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Right to Privacy

After the much controversial PRISM surveillance program by US there Whistle-blower, recent information breaches raise  focus on privacy and security concerns. With the growth of modern technology and communication system, the potential of invading one's privacy has increased drastically. Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who pulled back the curtain on the United States' internet surveillance programme,  said of mass-surveillance dragnets that “they were never about terrorism: they’re about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They’re about power.”
Phone tapping, CMS(Central monitoring system), NETRA are few of the recent attempts by India to fight against security breaches.
According to News reports, Netra — a “NEtwork TRaffic Analysis system” — will intercept and examine communication over the Internet for keywords like “attack,” “bomb,” “blast” or “kill”. It is the first attempt by Indian Government at mass surveillance rather than surveillance of predetermined targets. It will scan tweets, status updates, emails, chats and even voice traffic over the Internet (including from platforms like Skype and Google Talk) in addition to scanning blogs and similar public parts of the Internet. Thus, while phone tapping and the CMS monitor specific targets, Netra's working area is vast and indiscriminate.

 This article discusses the evolution of right to privacy in India and how it is being protected now. First of all, lets take a look over its origin. At the eve of independence, Constituent Assembly out rightly rejected the right to privacy in the Constitution. Similarly a proposal to provide citizens with a fundamental right against unreasonable governmental search and seizure was also rejected by Constituent Assembly, which if accepted at that time, would derive the principles in the Constitution from which US derives its protection against state surveillance against own country's citizens. Then, the guardian of the Constitution, Supreme Court interfered and came with the view that other rights guaranteed in the Constitution would be seriously affected if the right to privacy was not protected.
And In Kharak Singh vs. The State of UP, the court recognized "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses and papers" and declared that this right cannot be violated. This includes the unauthorized intrusions into homes as interference.

Unfortunately, this judgment was too conservative about the circumstances in which the right could be applied. Majority of judges held the view that "shadowing a person could not be seen to interfere with that person's liberty", which is quite contradictory to the contemporary and universally acknowledged principle that there is a "chilling effect" on expression and action when people know or suspects that they are being watched.
As defined by Supreme Court, the right to privacy now extends beyond government intrusion into private homes, thus not limited to only places. Thus any breach of this right for surveillance of communication must be for permissible reasons and should comply with just, fair and reasonable procedure. Any violation of this procedure is open to a constitutional challenge.

After touching the grounds of history, lets focus on the much hue and cries over mass-surveillance program by Netra. What's new about it, when phone tapping and target surveillance has become a normal thing. So, there is a difference between these  two. In target surveillance, proper reasons have to be given for surveillance of people concerned. While in mass surveillance, there are significant risks of arbitrariness when executive power is exercised in covet form. European Court of human Rights stated that the extent of discretion conferred and the manner of its exercise must be transparent enough to protect individuals from arbitrary interference. Similar principles were laid down over phone tapping which require that the nature of offences which give rise to such interception orders, the procedure to be followed, storing the data obtained, and circumstances where these tappings should be erased be made clear.
Further, our safeguards apply only to targeted surveillance and require written requests before interception or telephone tapping can be carried out. CMS makes this process more opaque by making it more opaque because now state can intercept communication directly, without making requests or anything. And there is no accountability and know how whether the requisite paperwork was done.

Another question arises is -How far Netra like system is going to serve for its cause? A very basic question arises- Will anti social elements and culprits use Bomb, Blast, Kill in their conversation? Don' they have code words for it? Isn't it easy to mock the identity at every level, conceal it and communicate in a manner that is impossible to track. So, who is going to affect then, probably who is not aware of all these. Are we blocking from the common man who doesn’t know how to tweak the system? These mere questions reflects the serious flaws, caveats in the very aspect of Netra.

 More importantly, India should understand, after supporting "Right to Privacy in the Digital Age" in General Assembly on December 18,2013, there remains a little relevance for such systems. The resolution calls upon states to end violations of privacy by ensuring that national legislation complies with obligations under international human rights law, and “to review their procedures, practices and legislation regarding the surveillance of communications, their interception and collection of personal data, including mass surveillance, interception and collection, with a view to upholding the right to privacy by ensuring the full and effective implementation of all their obligations under international human rights law.”

India has no transparency yet in terms of disclosing the quantity of interception taking place every year and notification to people whose communication was intercepted. We don’t even have any external oversight body or similar independent regulatory body to prevent this abuse of surveillance systems.

There is need to maintain “a necessary balance” between security and privacy concerns. Unfettered and unwarranted mass surveillance poses a threat to any democratic country as it threatens various rights which are reinforced by right to privacy such as right to freedom of thought, association and movement.

Women disappearance: Gender Inequality: Reflection of a deeper malady

Recently in Birbhum district, a tribal woman was tied to a tree on the orders of a tribal and was allegedly  gang raped as a punishment for falling in love with a man from a different religion.
What are the reasons behind such ghastly incidents?
What might be consequences of these? Is there a lack of political will to crack down on such councils which are running in gross violation of law or are there some others layers to it as well?  Or there is meagre representation of women in the political arena? Or Women have become a challenge in race of getting their rights, hence are being denied for their most basic right, that is, right to vote.

In 1936, Bombay legislative council debate, the speech by BR Ambedkar clearly stated that "the community which denies equality and promotes orthodoxy and encourage prejudices in favor of inequality, casteism, sexism . Can these communities can be trusted for justice? I don't believe we should surrender ourselves in hands of such communities".

For ages it was believed that the different characteristics, roles and status accorded to women and men in society are determined by sex, that they are natural and therefore not changeable. 

Incidents like Birbhum indicates the mentality of our society on one hand, and on the other hand it represents the political unwillingness of the concerned authorities. India is a democratic country, atleast in words and deeds as far as elections are concerned. Elections are held at regular intervals for State Assemblies and Parliament, how far they are fair and transparent is a debatable question. But, they do not reflect the true consent of people because a large number of women are "missing" from the electorate. According to an estimation, more than 65 million women (approximately 20% of the female electorate) are missing in the voters list. Thus, what these elections reveal is the preferences of a population that is more or less skewed against women. And this preference is also a key factor in gender inequality.

The "missing women" phrase was coined by Amartya Sen. He did a study a found that the ratio of women to men in the population is suspiciously low in developing world. The worsening sex ratio in India reflected the gross neglect of women. Missing of 100 million women was attributed to gender discrimination. And the key reasons found were- "boy preference at the birth", "mistreatment of young girls", "partiality throughout the life". Similar study showed that the number of female deaths from intentional injuries or  violence was alarmingly high in India.

There is agreement over the fact that the phenomenon of gender inequality is one of the most prominent problem faced by the developing world recently. And the way out is only through political action and public policy.
A study carried out by the professors at the Indian School of business computed the sex ration in the electorate across all the states in India over last 50 years. The analysis brings upfront 3 shocking facts:
  1. The absolute number of missing women has increased four times from 15 million to 68 million. This indicates the worsening of the trend with time. In terms of percentage, it has gone up from 13% to 20%.
  2. The adverse sex ratio for backward states like Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh has become worse. And this trend has not significantly changed over the 50 years.
  3. With the exception of few states like Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, the sex ration in the electorate is far worse than the general sex ration in the population.
These trends suggest that there  are more missing women voters in the population, so, fewer female voters can raise their opinions through elections. Political decision are based on election outcomes which also under-represent the female population. It is not a true reflection of the female policy preferences.
Not all the women who are eligible to vote in Indian elections are registered to vote and, hence, missing from the electoral list.

These worsening gender inequality in Indian electorate has long lasting consequences due to the democratic system of governance in India. Politicians compete to get elected and their policy preferences are also different, and this adverse sex ration make it more likely to neglect the preferences of women.
Competitive electoral process make this situation worse by perpetuating the gender biased policies in India. Because the fact is that the politicians respond to their vote banks or the existing electorate in the population and not the missed ones.
The participation of these missing ones would definitely going to influence the government policies and decisions. Unfortunately, even if an individual politician is not biased against women in his policy preferences. But the binding with party, the electoral competitiveness, and the will to win ensure that he chooses policies in favors of his traditional electorate which is male dominated in India.
This can easily explain why gender bias has persisted in Indian society for so long.

Despite having a well functioning democracy from such a long time, and higher per capita income,  India is the worst performer in the Gender Inequality Index(GII) of the World Bank. GII is the indicator for loss of achievement due to gender inequality within a country. It is based on measures of labor participation and empowerment. India is ranked 133rd out of 146 countries and even lags behind Iraq and Sudan which frequently faced war and adversaries

Way Ahead
Many opine that women's reservation in Parliament and State Assemblies can address this gender bias problem in India. But the not so successful experiment of women's reservation at the level of Panchayat since mid 1990s suggest the limited impact of the solution.
Professors at Indian School of Business coined the term-"compensatory justice", which suggest that the impact of the reservation depend on the exact nature of reservation policy.
 For example, if seats are reserved on a quick rotation basis then there might be no long-term policies favoring women and thereby having minimal impact. On the other hand, if seats are reserved for a certain number of election rounds then the impact would depend on the basis of the reservation at the constituency level. The objective of compensatory justice is that it should start with those constituencies where the neglect is highest. Thus the reservation policy of a constituency should be based on the gender ratio there. Because an adverse gender ratio is a measure of neglect of women in that society, and it would work in more localized and targeted way.
However, again the challenge is competitive electoral process. Even in reserved constituencies where there are less women than men, women political candidates who compete with each other to get themselves elected might choose policies which favor men. And again the whole process might perpetuate gender-biased policies.
To summarize, the competitive electoral process in Indian democracy with or without women’s reservation will fail to deliver policies that are not gender-biased. In the presence of missing women, whose consent cannot be taken into account in the electoral process, democracy will fail to deliver policies that promote women’s welfare (especially in those situations where there is a divergence in opinion between men and women). India can begin to address this disaster by first recognizing that an adverse gender ratio is a human rights problem which is an outcome of the sustained, gross neglect of women. And the solution for this lies outside the competitive democratic system, may be in the society first.

The importance of gender equality can be summarized in UN Secretary General Kofi Annan statement, "Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance." There is a need for new kinds of institutions, incorporating new norms and rules in the real world that support equal and just relations between women and men. 

(Don’t) Waste the Thunder, Recycle

6:30 PM, I pressed the doorbell of my flat. As I was waiting for my brother to open the door, my eyes fell on a dozen cold drink bottles ...