Five Things That Happened Last Week (And What to Make of Them)

Jacinda Ardern and the fine art of exiting office

The MP, former minister and Congress Party leader, Jairam Ramesh, who will turn 70 next year, posted an interesting tweet on his timeline the other day. News had broken about New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern, 42, who had announced that she was stepping down from her post as the country’s leader on account of what can be described as burnout. Announcing her decision, Ardern had said: “I believe that leading a country is the most privileged job anyone could ever have, but also one of the more challenging. You cannot and should not do it unless you have a full tank plus a bit in reserve for those unexpected challenges.”

Ramesh’s tweet lauded that decision and said: “Legendary cricket commentator, Vijay Merchant once said about retiring at the peak of his career: Go when people ask why is he going instead of why isn’t he going. Kiwi PM, Jacinda Ardern has just said she is quitting following Merchant’s maxim. Indian politics needs more like her.” Great point, that, about Indian politics. The thing, however, is that in his own party, the recently elected president, Mallikarjun Kharge is 80; and although she has stepped down from the president’s position, Sonia Gandhi who continues to be the real supremo of the party is 76 and keeps indifferent health. What’s more, her son, Rahul, who enjoys the privilege of being a sort of on-and-off leader of the party is 52 and is considered to be young and still evolving.

But then that is the story of Indian politics. India is a young country but its politicians are old, many of them dodderingly so. In 2022, the median age of an Indian was 28.7 years, compared to 38.4 for China and 48.6 for Japan. Yet, even though 65% of Indians are below the age of 35, the average age of its MPs has been over 50 for decades. And, typically, the so-called “young” nation’s leaders have been pretty old. Take, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Next September, he will turn 73. And, although the average age of his council of ministers has dropped from 61 to 58, most of his key ministerial colleagues are 60-plus. Contrast that with the fact that government officers in India have to retire at 58 or 60; Supreme Court judges at 65; and high court judges at 62.

Let’s go back to New Zealand. Ardern, who has indicated that burnout is the main reason she is hanging up her boots has, since she assumed office in 2017, handled several big challenges (albeit in a small country with a population of around 5 million) including a terror attack, the global pandemic, a volcanic explosion and so on. She also had a daughter during her term and created ripples when she brought her to the United Nations during an official visit. Yet, at 42, she has decided that it is time to call it quits.

Calling it quits is, however, not in the DNA of most Indian political leaders and even bureaucrats. Most of them are unable to reconcile to a life without the trappings of power. That is why we see fair numbers of bureaucrats jockeying into politics when their official bureaucratic tenures reach the end. Many, with the right sycophantic credentials, end up as governors of states or head commissions or secure similar sinecures where the perks and status that they enjoyed during their earlier careers can still be somewhat intact.

So Ramesh (the tweeting politician mentioned before) is quite right actually. Indian politics needs more people like Ardern who don’t cling on to power after their fizz has turned flat. But then the onus for doing so is with people like him and his ilk.

New BBC docu on Modi raises hackles

A new two-part BBC documentary, titled ‘India: The Modi Question’, has, among other things, shows that a hitherto secret British government investigation into the 2002 Gujarat riots, which left over 1,000 people dead, found that Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was then the chief minister of Gujarat was “directly responsible” for the communal violence that had ravaged the state. The investigation, according to the BBC documentary, also found that the extent of the violence was much greater than what was reported and that the motive behind the riots was to purge Muslims.

While in the years after the riots rocked Gujarat, Indian courts have dismissed allegations against Modi and his then government in Gujarat, the shadow of the Gujarat riots and widespread violence against Muslims during that period has been haunting him and his former colleagues, notably the Union home minister Amit Shah who was also Gujarat’s home minister in 2002.

The BBC documentary was briefly streamed on YouTube but later yanked from the platform. Now it can be watched only on the BBC iPlayer that works within the UK and not outside that demarcated geography. Predictably, the documentary has been divisive. The official reaction of the Indian government has been to label it as propaganda that smacks of “a colonial mindset” and an anti-India stance by the British prime minister Rishi Sunak in order to prove his British loyalty. Liberal and left-leaning circles, however, have lauded the BBC for its investigative efforts to get to the truth behind the riots and the involvement of Modi and his government in Gujarat then. Meanwhile, in case you are wondering, much of India’s mainstream media have sided with the government’s view on the documentary.

Perhaps older politicians are better for India

Lakya Suryanarayana Tejasvi Surya, 32, is an Indian politician, a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist paramilitary volunteer organisation, and a BJP MP in Parliament. He is also famously the man who opened the emergency exit door of an airplane while on board. Luckily, it did not lead to a disaster. Surya is believed to have said that his hand accidentally touched the handle of the emergency door and it opened.

To anyone who has flown on an aircraft, the emergency exit door usually is not touch sensitive. Also, opening it when a plane is not in an emergency situation is unlawful. Surya’s party colleague and aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scindia, however, made light of what could have been a disastrous thing by saying: “It’s important to look at the facts. The door was opened by him by mistake when the flight was on the ground and after all checks, the flight was allowed to take off. He also apologised for the mistake.”

As far as we know, Surya has not been censured or has had to pay for his “mistake”. Life goes on as normal for him as it usually does for most privileged members of India’s power elite when they break the law. But, (and see the segment on Jacinda Ardern above) perhaps India needs older, greying and wiser politicians rather than whippersnappers whose hands can wander when they are sitting in an aircraft.

Women wrestlers accuse coaches of sexual harassment

Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, 66, is a six-time MP and head of the Wrestling Federation of India. He has also been recently accused of sexually harassing women wrestlers for many years. Women and men wrestlers who have been staging protests have alleged that Singh as well as coaches at the national camp for wrestling in Lucknow have been exploiting women wrestlers systematically.

Singh and others have, for the moment, denied the allegations but as investigations get going the truth will, hopefully, emerge. For a long time women in Indian sports have been discriminated against and this is not the first time that allegations of exploitation have been made. However, it is the first major concerted protest against people in power in India’s sports arena. One hopes that others will be inspired by such protests to open up about similar instances in other sports.

Google, ChatGPT and the imminent battle over AI-powered bots

I asked ChatGPT, a chat bot developed by OpenAI, an American artificial intelligence lab, which has become a big craze around the world: “What is Google Deep Learning?” In seconds, the bot replied: “Google Deep Learning refers to the various deep learning technologies and services developed by Google, such as TensorFlow and the Google Brain team. These technologies and services are used for a wide range of applications, including image and speech recognition, natural language processing, and predictive analytics. Google has also developed various deep learning models and algorithms, such as the Google Neural Machine Translation system and the Google DeepMind AlphaGo program, which have achieved significant breakthroughs in their respective fields.”

The reason why I asked ChatGPT that question was because of the imminent competition that it might face. Even as ChatGPT becomes a rage (it can answer any question as long as it pertains to pre-2021; it can write essays; create lyrics for songs; and almost everything that a human can do), Google, which has a subsidiary called DeepMind, is believed to be working on a ChatGPT killer that it claims to be better, faster and safer than ChatGPT. Must ask ChatGPT what it thinks of that!

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Five Things That Happened This Week(And What to Make of Them)

Five Things That Happened This Week(And What to Make of Them)

India’s Himalayan region under constant threat

Joshimath (also known as Jyotirmath) is a small town in Uttarakhand in the foothills of the Himalayas. With a population of less than 25,000, Joshimath is an important portal town, the starting point that leads to several popular trekking routes, mountain climbing destinations, and, of course, to a pilgrimage center, Badrinath, which is held in great reverence by Hindu devotees. But early in January, the little town was in the news for the wrong reasons. Around midnight of January 2-3, several houses collapsed in a part of the town with cracks in buildings turning into wide chasms and walls and foundations crashing down.

Although the incident did not result in casualties, the authorities had to evacuate hundreds of families, including those whose homes had been destroyed but also others whose dwellings had turned perilous. The region around the foothills of the Himalayas, particularly in northern states such as Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, has been zones threatened by landslides and related natural calamities for several years now. In 2013, in another Uttarakhand town, Kedarnath, a popular pilgrimage destination for Hindus, a sudden cloudburst and the resultant flash floods wiped out most of the town and claimed more than 6,000 lives.

There are two broad factors that make the area in the foothills of the Himalayas so prone to natural disasters. The first is the tertiary effects of global climate change. These have caused rainfall patterns to change–the cloudburst and resultant impact on Kedarnath is one example of how potentially dangerous the results of changing weather patterns can be. The second is a more directly man-made reason. The Himalayas are a relatively young range of mountains and it is believed that subterranean tectonic shifts are continuing in the area. Yet, over the years there have been rampant human incursions in the zone in the form of indiscriminate construction and the setting up of industries. Even a casual observer can see how the sides of mountains and hills have been transformed into haphazard urban sprawls, often as a consequence of thoughtless and completely environmentally unfriendly endeavors.

In Joshimath, residents had been complaining about cracks appearing in their homes for years. More recently, before the catastrophe struck, according to one account, a delegation of residents went to the state capital Dehradun to petition the chief minister of the state about their fears and predicament. Their main fear was the construction of a power plant by the government-owned National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC). The corporation’s project included tunneling and building roads in the area, which were believed to destabilize the terrain. The team that went to meet the chief minister apparently got a five-minute audience and there were no follow-ups by the authorities.

But such expressions of fear and warnings had fallen on deaf ears before. Last year, the state government organized a team of scientists, geologists, and researchers to conduct a geological survey of Joshimath. The group found that buildings and homes in the town were showing dangerous signs of land erosion, partly caused by intensified rainfall as well as ongoing construction and development activities that they recommended be curtailed immediately. The government did nothing. 

If that was the genesis of the catastrophe that the little northern town faced in early January, it is also a story that ought to act as a reminder to the authorities of all of the regions in India that skirt or span the foothills of the Himalayas. In Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, particularly, construction and development activities have been going on without concern or caution. If these are not curbed, we could expect a spate of catastrophes such as Joshimath or Kedarnath.

Is there a lesson to learn from the World’s “happiest country”?

For five successive years now, Finland has emerged (on the basis of a global survey) as the world’s happiest country. While Finns (disclosure: this author lives in Finland) tends to downplay the findings of the rankings, recently a Finnish philosopher and psychology researcher gave her analysis of why the country keeps topping the list of happy countries.

The survey itself, titled the World Happiness Report, is based on a survey where respondents are asked to “value their lives today on a 0 to 10 scale, with the worst possible life as a 0.” It also includes factors such as social security, life expectancy, and the degree of corruption. The higher the social security and life, the happier people would tend to be, and, obviously, it would be the other way around for corruption.

Why are people in Finland so happy with their lives? The researcher, Frank Martela, who works at the reputed Aalto University in Finland, says there are three main factors that are at play.

First, Finns don’t brag about their happiness nor do they compare their lives with others. In fact, wealth and material possessions, at least relatively, are not accorded much priority. The president of the country is known to mow his own lawns or shovel snow in his yard. The prime minister is known to routinely clean her own home. And, says Martela in a guest column he wrote for CNBC: “I once ran into one of the wealthiest men in Finland. He was pushing his toddler in a stroller toward the tram station. He could have bought himself an expensive car or hired a driver, but he opted for public transportation.”

Martela’s tip No.1: “Focus more on what makes you happy and less on looking successful. The first step to true happiness is to set your own standards, instead of comparing yourself to others.”

Second, Finland is blessed with natural resources such as forests, lakes, and the sea. More than 75% of the country is forest and there are around 188,000 lakes. For a population of around 5.5 million, that is a lot of nature. And Finns love it and routinely spend time in natural surroundings. Because Finnish cities and towns are compactly built access to forests, lakes, rivers, and seas are easy. 

Martela’s tip No.2; “Spending time in nature increases our vitality, and well-being and gives us a sense of personal growth. Find ways to add some greenery to your life, even if it’s just buying a few plants for your home.”

Third, is the aspect of trusting one another. Martela quotes research from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) to show the correlation between trust and well-being and describes a “lost wallet” experiment in 2022. In it, the honesty of citizens was tested by dropping 192 wallets in 16 cities around the world. In Helsinki, the capital of Finland, 11 of the 12 wallets dropped were returned to the owner. 

Martela’s Tip No.3: “Think about how you can show up for your community. How can you create more trust? How can you support policies that build upon that trust? Small acts like opening doors for strangers or giving up a seat on the train make a difference, too.”

Could Indians follow these three simple tips to improve their well-being and happiness? What do you think? Write to us.

(This segment includes excerpts from Frank Martela’s column in CNBC)

Another governor spats with a state government

Governors of Indian states are usually titular positions. They are appointed by the President of India but in practice, the appointments are of candidates who are very strongly recommended by the central government of the day. Often the governorship is a post-retirement reward for trusted political leaders, ex-ministers, and so on, but almost always they are people who owe allegiance to the ruling party at the Centre. The governor, like the President, is more of a figurative position with little executive powers that fall into his or her domain of responsibilities.

Yet, inherent in the office of a governor is the potential for conflict with his state’s executive. Take, for instance, R.N. Ravi, the governor of Tamil Nadu who was appointed in 2021. A quick recap of Ravi’s antecedents: he was governor of Nagaland and governor of Meghalaya before he became governor of Tamil Nadu. But, and more importantly, he has served in the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and was appointed the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee in 2014. He was then appointed Deputy National Security Advisor of India in 2018. If you glance at those dates, it is not difficult to see which regime at the Centre to Ravi owes his allegiance.

Now, in Tamil Nadu, the government in power is led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which is opposed to the Bharatiya Janata Party. Recently, Ravi in a speech at an event asked Tamil Nadu’s civil service aspirants to put the Centre’s interests over the State’s–an outlandish suggestion considering that the civil servants are assigned to be part of a state’s cadre and, therefore, report to the state’s executive. Then at his customary address at the state’s legislative assembly, he omitted some of the paragraphs in his speech that referred to Dravidian governance and, instead, suggested that Tamil Nadu should be renamed Tamilagam, ostensibly because, in some interpretations, the term Nadu implies a higher degree of autonomy for the region. The state government took umbrage at the suggestion and soon the fracas spilled out to the streets with BJP and DMK cadres clashing.

Governors’ spats with state governments are not new in India. Instances of such confrontations have happened in Telangana, Maharashtra, and Kerala recently. Is it prudent for governors to elbow into what are usually the responsibilities of a state’s executive? Perhaps a debate on the issue would be timely.

World’s “best” restaurant will close in 2024

Noma, in Copenhagen, is considered to be the world’s best restaurant. Run and co-owned by the head chef René Redzepi, it is famously difficult to get a reservation at the restaurant. Bookings are typically done three months in advance and reservations can only be made on the 6th of every month. Usually, when lines open for bookings, a few thousand people call or contact the restaurant to get a table and all bookings get exhausted in a couple of hours.

But things seem to have changed in the post-pandemic era. While globally many restaurants have had to close down or change the way they operate (some posh fine-dining places have introduced takeaways or deliveries), last week Noma, a sort of rarefied shrine for gourmets around the world, announced that it was shutting down operations.

Chef Redzepi has, in an interview, said that Noma will now have to completely rethink its model and may return in 2025 as a giant “food lab” where its kitchen will focus on food innovation and developing new flavours. The new Noma could create pop-up restaurants worldwide instead of a permanent one

Noma, which has three Michelin stars, opened in 2003 and is considered to have revolutionized the world of fine dining by introducing what is now known as New Nordic dining, which focuses on seasonal products and local ingredients.

Since it opened, Noma has consistently topped the rankings of best restaurant surveys and Redzepi has continuously innovated with his recipes, ingredients, and presentation of food. Of course, all of that doesn’t come cheap. For a multi-course tasting menu dinner at Noma, the minimum cost per person could be at least US$500.

World’s longest river cruise… in India

If you have 51 days free and around Rs 20 lakh lying around spare, take a cruise down the Ganges. Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagged off MV Ganga Vilas, the world’s longest river cruise, in Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi. A total of 32 Swiss tourists will take the maiden journey to reach Dibrugarh in Assam via Bangladesh, traversing almost all of the length of India’s longest river.

The cruise vessel, MV Ganga Vilas is the first such vessel to be made in India. In 51 days, it will travel 3,200 km.

Billed as a moving five-star hotel, the cruise vessel has 18 suites and a capacity of hosting 36 passengers. Besides, it has accommodation for 40 crew members. The ship is 62 metres in length and 12 metres wide and needs a draft of 1.4 metres. It also has a spa, salon, and gym. During the journey, passengers will be able to see 50 tourist destinations, including world heritage sites, national parks, and cities such as Patna, Kolkata, Dhaka, and Guwahati.

During the inauguration of the cruise, Prime Minister Modi was quoted as saying: “India has everything that you can imagine. It has a lot beyond your imagination. India cannot be defined in words. It can only be experienced from the heart.” And, of course, your wallet, if you choose to go on the cruise!

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Five Things That Happened Last Week (And What to Make of Them)

In A State of Callousness

The level of cruelty, rage, and viciousness that pervades our society is not demonstrated better than it is on the streets of Delhi. It is the capital city of India and is often considered by the government as the city that showcases the country. And it is teeming with people. According to latest estimates, nearly 33 million people live in the Delhi metro area. And there are more than 11 million registered vehicles in the city. As in most large and overcrowded cities across the world, in Delhi too much of the city’s social behaviour, attitudinal quirks and other everyday attributes are showcased shamefully on its streets.

The streets of Delhi stand out especially when it comes to its vehicular movement, the way people drive and their general attitude towards rules that regulate the flow of traffic. Road rage, indifference of car drivers towards pedestrians, towards traffic rules, or towards smaller vehicles such as two-wheelers and three-wheelers, is a shameful hallmark of life on Delhi’s streets. 

So, when in the early hours of New Year’s day this year, a grievous incident took place on the streets of the city, it might not have come as a surprise if it were not so horrendous: a car full of five men, presumably drunk and boisterous, driving fast and callously collided with a scooter driven by a young woman of 20. The woman’s friend who was riding pillion was injured but the driver herself got her leg stuck on the underside of the car, which sped on for seven kilometres before the men inside realised what they had done. By then, the woman was dead.

The outrage that erupted (and is still spreading) in the city is all about how gory and brutal it must have been for someone to be dragged that way to her death but consider this: after colliding with the scooter, the car did not stop. This is where the crux of the problem is on Delhi’s roads. The instances where after an accident, especially at night or the early hours of the day, a car or any other vehicle that is involved in it stops to see what happened or to call for help are almost non-existent. Most cars that hit a smaller vehicle or a pedestrian consider speeding away as a better choice. It is not only sad but barbaric that a car driver who may have perpetrated an accident doesn’t deem it as his or her responsibility to stop and check on the victims of an accident that he or she is involved in. It is a pity that we live in a city whose true uncivilised face is revealed on its streets–time and again.

…And in a state of national Fremdschämen

Just when you thought things probably couldn’t get worse than the horrendous incident described above, comes the news of an Indian man aboard an Air India flight from New York to Delhi. Now, in my observation, many Indians (full disclosure: I am one!) display a sharp change in behaviour in certain environments. In restaurants, for instance, you can often see it in how terribly and rudely they treat servers and other staff; in places where there are orderly queues you can find some of them behaving as if such things as waiting for your turn are completely alien to them; and so on.

But the biggest personality change in some Indians takes place aboard aircraft. There is probably something about being at a high altitude, albeit in a pressurised cabin, which affects their head. And, apparently, it can affect everyone. I was once travelling in the business class section of an aircraft on a flight from Europe to India and I spotted the wife of a well-known business tycoon in one of the seats. Her behaviour was appalling: she constantly yelled at the cabin crew; demanded champagne, by shouting and mispronouncing the word uniquely; and by making a veritable nuisance of herself. It was shameful and brought to mind the German word Fremdschämen, which is the act of being embarrassed for somebody else who is behaving in an embarrassing way.

Nothing could evoke that sort of embarrassment more than the incident that occurred on the Air India flight that I referred to in the beginning of this item. While on the flight, a man, presumably drunk, exposed himself to a woman co-passenger and, wait for this, urinated on her. After that, the man kept exposing himself to the woman before finally going back to his seat. When the woman passenger later complained, the airline, now owned by the Tata Group, took “action” by suspending the man from travelling on the airline for 30 days. It wasn’t before outrage erupted on social media that a police case was filed.

What sort of a damaged psyche must you have to do something as bizarre and disgusting as what Air India’s passenger did? Why is it that many of us turn into demons and behave worse than the wildest of animals when we are in public spaces such as an airline or a restaurant? We don’t know and it is only a deep embarrassment that one can feel.

The British royal family is a nonstop soap opera

Last week, in the runup to the publication of his memoir, titled Spare (a term that appears to be in contrast to his brother, William, who is the heir to the throne), Prince Harry made some revelations that have created ripples. A couple of years ago, he  and his wife Meghan Markle had given up their roles as working members of the British royal family and had settled in California. Now, first in a series streamed on Netflix, and then in interviews and now in a book, Harry, the younger son of King Charles III and the late Princess Diana, has been on what seems like a campaign against the royal family. His accusations range from the family’s alleged mistreatment of his wife (who is half African-American) to animosity between him and his brother.

In the book, Harry alleges that his brother physically attacked him and knocked him on the floor during an argument over Meghan and her role in the family. 

While many in Britain fawn over the monarchy and the majority of Britons support that institution, the current royal family of the Windsors has given much fodder for entertainment. When the late Diana was alive, the rift between her and Charles made headlines that made for voyeuristic fare. Diana’s own escapades and dalliances, Charles’ extramarital affair with Camilla who is now his Queen consort, Harry’s own rather wild youth and so on, all of it was like a soap opera playing out for the vicarious pleasure of millions of people around the world. Besides nosey reporters and photographers documenting the affairs of the royal family, there spawned several TV series, films and spoofs. 

The latest allegations by Harry against his brother are yet another addition to the sometimes amusing but often sordid incidents that emanate in public about the British royal family. Many believe Harry’s memoirs and his revelations will eventually amount to nothing and are like those of mid-level celebrities and that if Buckingham Palace or Kensington Palace (where William and his wife live) do not react to them, they will just peter out.

There is, however, one aspect of the allegations that Harry has made that could have significant consequences. Harry has alleged that his family leaked and planted negative stories about him and his wife to the press. If there is a shred of truth in that then it could obviously have serious repercussions and cast the royal family, always held in the highest esteem by the British public, in an undesirably doubtful light. If there is a single point in the allegations by Harry that the palace must respond to, it is that.

A court order brings relief for Haldwani residents

In the northern state of Uttarakhand, more than 50,000 people, mostly Muslim, living in Haldwani town with their homes allegedly encroaching on land owned by the Indian Railways faced eviction following a state government order passed last December. They were to be evicted within a week.

Uttarakhand has a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in power and because the majority of those who were to be evicted were Muslim, many believe there is a communal angle to the government order. The protests against the state order were polarising with right-wingers comparing them to protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC)in 2019-20 in Shaheen Bagh in South Delhi, while left-wingers and liberal observers tended to view them as a fight for rights.

For now, with the Supreme Court putting on hold the demolition of the 4,000 plus homes in Haldwani there is relief, albeit temporary, for residents.

Covid in China: Will we know the facts?

Even as a resurgence of the Covid virus occurs in China and the government withdraws its zero-Covid policy (a very strict isolation and restriction on movement), the Chinese government has stopped releasing case data on a daily basis and has confirmed only 22 deaths from the virus since December. However, the real picture could be a lot different.

According to a BBC report, the deaths of several Chinese public figures in recent weeks and months cast a shadow of doubt over the official figures that the government releases. The deaths include that of an opera singer Chu Lanlan who was 40; the actor Gong Jingtang who was in his 80s;  and several writers, academics and scientists, including 16 scientists from the country’s top science and engineering academies who died between 21 and 26 December.

In the highly censored and regulated Chinese media, it is difficult to find accurate reports about the cause of these deaths but some observers are piecing together bits of information to find that the data released by the government could be underreporting and that, in reality, China’s healthcare and hospital facilities could be under tremendous pressure.

Meanwhile, more countries are deciding to impose controls, tests and other precautionary measures on people travelling to them from China.

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Five Things That Happened Last Week (And What to Make of Them)

A corporate icon with feet of clay

When it comes to successful corporate leaders, CEOs, or business tycoons, India’s mainstream business media have usually been hagiographical in their features, stories or reports (quick disclosure: for a large part of my long career as a journalist, I have been part of that endeavour). The tendency to to puff up business personalities or add extra hype to their achievements is something that has been ubiquitous in business publications, particularly in the 1990s. It is during the latter part of that decade that Chandha Kochhar’s public image began getting built up.

Her rise, first at the Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India (ICICI), which she joined as a management trainee, and then at the bank it became, was always celebrated by the media. Kochhar and a few of her women colleagues were handpicked and groomed by the then head of ICICI, the legendary Narayanan Vaghul who transformed the organisation and, uncommon in that era, gave women managers the opportunity to break the glass ceiling and get positions in the C-suite, which was, especially in Corporate India and particularly in the banking sector, till then a rarefied preserve for men.

Kochhar eventually became chairperson of ICICI Bank and was feted regularly by various forums–topping the rankings of women CEOs, popularity polls, and so on. Till her reputation took a nose-dive. It happened in the most sordid of ways but one that is very common in Indian business: corporate cronyism. The details of how Kochhar allegedly got her bank to sanction loans worth ₹3,250 crore to the Videocon group, which in a suspected quid pro quo, invested in her husband, Deepak’s renewable energy venture, are by now well-known. Kochhar has fallen from grace and she and her husband are now in jail. 

Some media have still lamented Kochhar’s fate and described her rise and fall from grace as an unfortunate saga. The fact, however, is that in India we often tend to accord disproportionate credit and praise upon people who are probably just doing their jobs. Kochhar was a banker and not a bad one for much of her career. Was she extraordinary in her achievements? Probably not till she got embroiled in the scam that combusted her career. 

The thing is that the scandal that involves her is not even an ingenious one. There is nothing original nor new about cronyism in Indian banking. Legions of bankers have over the years had nexuses with business and industry. Instances of banks lending money to ventures and companies that are doomed to fail are myriad in Indian corporate history. Most of what Kochhar’s bank lent to Videocon turned into bad debt. And instances where quid pro quo of the kind that she is involved in are as common as kickbacks to bankers are for large loan sanctions.

The lesson from the Kochhar saga should be that the media ought to exercise self-restraint and control when it comes to reporting or writing on business personalities. Restraints and controls that stop themselves from getting carried away.

Killer Indian cough syrup strikes again

An Indian made cough syrup has been identified as being a child killer drug. First, nearly 70 children in Gambia died after being administered the drug. And then, more recently, 18 children in Uzbekistan succumbed similarly. The company that made the syrup that killed the Uzbekistani children, the Noida-based Marion Biotech, says it has suspended production of the syrup. But while a debate rages on about the culpability of the company, little action has been taken against it.

India is billed as being the pharmaceuticals capital of the world, primarily because Indian pharma companies are adept at making generics and equally adept at keeping costs and, therefore, prices down. Incidents such as the ones caused by the killer syrup can dent that reputation and hobble India’s ambition of a drug supplier to the world.

That is one consequence of the deaths in Gambia and Uzbekistan. The bigger one is about what happens to the pharma companies involved in these incidents? If human lives have been the toll that has had to be paid for their alleged action, should not the strictest punishment be meted out to those who are in charge of the companies? Till date, however, there has been no indication of such action. That is truly unfortunate. 

Will China’s economy overtake the USA?

The Economist recently did a thought provoking story about whether China could become the largest economy in the world by taking over the USA’s. First, the facts. China has a population that is more than four times the US’s ( China’s pop. is 1.4 billion; the US’s is 331 million). Second, in terms of purchasing price parity (PPP), or rates of currency conversion that try to equalise the purchasing power of different currencies, by eliminating the differences in price levels between countries, China’s GDP overtook America’s six years ago. 

However, when converted into dollars and using the normal exchange rates, China’s GDP, says The Economist, was $17.7 trillion compared to the USA’s $23 trillion. The magazine also says that China’s growth is slowed down by several factors and that could mean that it could lose out in the catch up game. China’s severe lockdowns when Covid breaks out, its depressed industrial and business sentiments because of fresh regulations on tech and other sectors that were rapidly growing before could all affect GDP growth. According to the magazine, the Chinese economy, which grew at 8.1% in 2021, may be “lucky to grow by even 3% this year”. So, it could take a while before China tops the list of the world’s biggest economies.

Regression continues unabated in Indian “culture”

It is 2023 and in India, and religious sentiments are being hurt because of a skimpy outfit that a film actor–Deepika Padukone–has worn in a forthcoming film in which she co-stars with Shahrukh Khan. The hurt sentiments are not because of the skimpiness of Padukone’s outfit–it is a bikini–but because of its colour (it is orange or, if you like, saffron) and the lyrics of a song that accompanies her and Khan’s dance in the film (the lyrics describe the colour as being “besharam” or shameless and also that the “world has not seen my true colours yet”). 

The sentiments are so badly hurt that some people have burnt effigies of Padukone and Khan in north India and many have called for a ban on the song. The board that certifies films in India has also instructed the filmmakers to edit the film appropriately. While no official statement has been forthcoming, it is believed that the protests may well have been instigated by the Bharatiya Janata Party, whose symbolic colours feature saffron, a hue similar to orange. 

Thin-skinnedness is so rampant in the Indian scenario today that it is scary. Also, could it be that we are waiting for a day when there could be a call for a ban on one of the most common ingredients in an originally Muslim dish, biryani–saffron? 

Crime goes digital… sort of

This one is designed to begin the year on a macabre note. According to media reports, a man in Uttar Pradesh who was arrested on suspicion of killing his wife may have done so after googling “how to commit a murder”. Police said he also allegedly tried to buy poison from a B2C e-commerce site, Flipkart and also searched Google to see whether he could buy a gun online. 

Crime in the age of Google may not be clever but it certainly can be unconventional.

Covid spread to India

Five Things That Happened Last Week (And What To Make Of Them)

Will Covid’s resurgence in China spread to India

Public memory is notoriously short-lived. As a new and highly contagious Covid virus strain spreads in China with fears that it might kill more than a million people in the coming months, the response in India has ranged from being blase and indifferent to moderate concern. Some reactions to the situation in China can even seem downright smug. Adar Poonawala, CEO and founder of Serum Institute of India, said in a tweet that  “we need not panic given our excellent vaccination coverage and track record. We must continue to trust and follow the guidelines set by the Government of India.” 

Serum Institute of India, an Indian company, is the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines and the chief supplier of Covid vaccines in India. In late 2021, the Serum Institute announced that it had produced more than 1.25 billion doses of the Covishield vaccine (an Oxford/Astra-Zeneca formulation). That number of doses is a highly laudable achievement but how effective have Covid vaccines been? The instances of people who have been vaccinated with multiple doses of anti-Covid vaccines succumbing to the virus run into millions globally and as of now the efficacy of different vaccines in preventing infection is largely unproven. Some theories suggest that “fully vaccinated” people can still get infected by the virus but the symptoms can be mild. To be sure, however, there have been significant numbers of vaccinated individuals who have required serious medical care when they got infected by the virus.

Meanwhile, the Covid virus has been mutating continuously. The current strain that is spreading in China has been called the BF.7 and is a sub-variant of the Omicron strain. BF.7 first emerged a few months ago when it started replacing earlier variants.

What do we know about the BF.7 strain? First, the fact that it is less likely to be neutralised by antibodies from vaccinated people or those infected by the virus than say the original virus emanating from Wuhan in 2020 was. Second, the new variant has an R-value of 10-18. That means one infected person can transmit the strain to 10 to 18 other people. Third, BF.7 is more likely to spread quickly and infect or re-infect people, including those who are vaccinated.

Last week, a CNN report based on leaked notes from Chinese health officials suggested that “almost 250 million people in China may have caught Covid-19 in the first 20 days of December”. If that is right, it means around 18% of China’s 1.4 billion people have been infected by Covid. That is a staggering number and the rest of the world needs to take note of that as countries cobble together strategies to prevent a resurgence of the virus in their regions. 

In India, when the virus first broke out in 2020, it spread mainly because of unpreparedness. Isolation, lockdowns and administering vaccines is a daunting tasks in a country with a population that rivals China’s but has health and other infrastructure that may arguably be much less efficient than in China, which is economically far stronger than India. 

Last week India’s health minister advised people to take precautions against Covid-19, including getting vaccinated and wearing masks. Random testing of international travellers arriving at Indian airports has also been mandated. The second phase of Covid’s spread in India took a huge toll on lives, livelihoods and the economy in India. We also witnessed how difficult it is to implement and ensure restrictions aimed at containing the spread of the virus. It is time for the central government and local authorities to devise strategies well in advance to check the virus’ spread instead of waiting till it is too late or being complacent about the vaccine coverage that the country has achieved.

Meanwhile, in China…

After spreading in China’s bigger cities and towns, the new variant of the Covid virus could now spread in rural areas as migrant workers go back to their villages for the Chinese New Year in late January. More than 500 million Chinese live in rural China and after the country removed the restrictions on the movement of people, they could face the risk of infection as workers come back from the cities. 

The risk of the virus spreading in rural China is higher because of the lack of adequate healthcare infrastructure and already there are estimates that cases are surging in the rural areas. 

The Nordics beckon Indian techies

India’s information technology professionals have now become so ubiquitous globally that much of the international perception of India’s human resource skills centres only around that: India is almost synonymous with software coders… of, if you like, coders who are cheaper than those in most other parts of the world. The number of coders in India is roughly estimated to touch 10 million in 2023. Little wonder that the world looks at India’s skilled professional hordes of software coders and programmers huddled in front of screens busy coding. In many parts of the world, it represents a cheap source of software professionals. The latest to focus on that pool of skills is tiny Finland.

With a population of 5.5 million, Finland is a tiny country but its technology needs are big. Recently, Finland’s employment minister Tuula Haatainen visited India and signed an agreement that is aimed at making it easier for Indian software techies to move to Finland and live and work there. The Hindu quoted Ms. Haatainen who said: “We see that India has such a pool of professional talent that we need in Finland. We need more workforce, we need talent, we need professionals, skilled people. If they want to enter Finland, I see that it is valuable for both sides, that people go abroad, and also earn and learn something there.”

Finland is an ageing country where the workforce is only around 2.5 million. But the needs on the technology front are high. But Finland isn’t the first choice of Indian techies. There are just around 1500 Indian students in the country and 15,000 Indians living there. But Finland wants to see the number of work-related Indian immigrants double and that of students treble by 2030.

Was the World Cup 2020 final the best ever?

Well, many think so. When Argentina won this year’s FIFA World Cup in a nail-biting final against France, and the image of the team’s captain and superstar Lionel Messi being hoisted on the shoulders of his teammates while carrying the trophy became iconic, many things were achieved altogether. Messi, 35, capped his career (he is to retire soon) by winning the sport’s topmost trophy; Argentina wrested the title of world champions from dominance by European countries since 2006; and, on a more personal front, it was the victory of Messi against his Paris Saint-Germain club teammate Kylian Mbappé, another top star of this year’s tournament. 

The Argentina-France final was won on penalty kicks after the two teams drew 3-3 in regular play. The results: Argentina won 4-2 on the kicks. Several analyses of finals over the past years have suggested that this year’s finals have been the best both in terms of the run-up to the finals as well as the final match itself. 

Imran Khan in a sex tape “scandal”

Fake or not, Pakistan’s former president and one-time star cricketer who enjoyed a high glamour quotient in his younger days is caught in the midst of a “scandal”. Audio clips have been leaked on YouTube by a Pakistani journalist that purportedly depicts Khan in intimate conversations with a woman. 

Khan lost power earlier this year and his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has alleged that the leaked conversations are fake and aimed at discrediting him. There are allegations that the tapes may have emanated from the current prime minister and Khan’srival, Shebaz Sharif’s office.

The said audio clips are graphic and the conversations, allegedly between Khan, 70, and two identified women refer to intimate acts of sex and some crude references. 

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Weekly News Wrap

Five Things That Happened Last Week (And What To Make Of Them)

Indo-Chinese border tensions rise… again!

More than a year after their last skirmish, last week Indian and Chinese forces clashed again along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the 3,440 km-long disputed border that is not clearly demarcated between India and China in the Himalayas. The government officially informed Parliament that Chinese soldiers had tried to intrude into Indian territory in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang sector but were successfully thwarted by Indian forces, which were well-prepared for the attack.

There was an element of chest-beating hyper patriotism in Indian media reports about the incident. One news agency’s choice of words in its report on the clash when it said that the Indian troops deployed in the area of face-off in Tawang sector “gave a befitting response to the Chinese troops and the number of Chinese soldiers injured in the clash is more than the Indian soldiers”. In contrast, the official Chinese response was more muted. China’s Foreign Ministry gave no details of the scuffle in Tawang but said the situation on the border with India was generally stable. Beijing also called on New Delhi to implement the consensus reached between the two countries and adhere to the spirit of the various agreements and accords signed by both sides to maintain peace and harmony.

That will be easier said than done. The two sides have been attempting to de-escalate tensions along the border since 2020 when in a bigger clash, at least two dozen troops were killed. There is a bit of fuzziness about the facts surrounding the latest skirmish. New Delhi said last week that the most recent clash was in Tawang but China claimed it was in the Dongzhang area and that contrary to the official Indian view, it was Indian troops that had illegally tried to enter Chinese territory.

Much of the ambiguity over the Indo-Chinese clashes is because of the nature of the LAC. It is not demarcated accurately and because of the presence of many lakes, rivers and snow-capped hills and mountains, the topography can shift because of natural causes (for example, melting glaciers or heavy snowfall). This can bring troops from either side in confrontational situations that are often not predictable.

Then there is the genesis and history of the dispute between the two countries over the region. At its core it is all about this: Beijing believes the region that forms the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh is traditionally part of China as “South Tibet”, while New Delhi disputes that and claims that it is part of India. 

Besides the fuzzy nature of the LAC, both India and China have been building defence infrastructure along the border at a high pace. This itself has sometimes led to clashes. In 2020, when India built a road to access a high-altitude air base. Since then, there have been attempts at de-escalating tension along the LAC and there have been regular military-level talks. But clashes have happened periodically till a little over a year back when the two sides decided to disengage. This December’s clash broke that entente.

China and India have fought just one actual war–in 1962, when India suffered a humiliating defeat. Yet, although there has been no full-scale offensive from either side, the simmering tension along the LAC could lead to potential threats: both countries are nuclear powers; both have large mutual interests in commerce and trade; and geo-politically a crisis between the two could have ripple effects across the globe. Talking to settle disputes is probably the only way out for the two.

How independent will NDTV remain under its new owner?

Recently, in an interview with Financial Times, Gautam Adani, who now owns NDTV, said he had big plans for the media conglomerate. He wanted to build it into a global news brand. Adani, whose empire spans industries ranging from ports to power generation, told FT that India didn’t have a single media outlet “to compare to Financial Times or Al Jazeera”. Seemingly refreshingly, the richest man in Asia also said that he saw his purchase of NDTV as a “responsibility” and not a business opportunity.

There was a catch, though, in his references to NDTV in the FT interview. Adani’s takeover of NDTV has raised questions about the future of the news organisation. NDTV has been one of the few remaining mainstream media organisations that have demonstrated independence at the cost of riling up the establishment. Whether it has been truly unbiased and objective is open to debate but it has (unlike some of India’s largest media groups)  been unafraid to be critical of authorities, including the current Modi regime.  Adani told FT: “Independence means if the government has done something wrong, you say it’s wrong. But at the same time, you should have courage when the government is doing the right thing every day. You have to also say that.”

Aren’t governments supposed to be doing the right thing every day? So does a media outlet have to say so every time the government does the right thing, which is,by the way, its duty towards the citizens it governs? 

I don’t know about you but this thing about cheering every time the government does the right thing, which is what its job is, doesn’t appear to bode well for NDTv’s future. But then, I may be a bit of a cynic. Dear reader, I do hope that you are too!

Has the West stolen Yoga and made it worse? 

In any large western city, the sight of people rushing about with rolled yoga mats slung on their shoulders is more common than it is, say, in India. In India, where yoga originated some 5,000 years ago, it has millions of practitioners but it does not have the commercialisation and the resultant commodification that marks its expansion in the West. And now, there is a backlash to all of that.

Yoga practitioners and teachers are accusing the west of appropriating an integral part of the Indian practice of well-being by wiping out the tradition and history of yoga and replacing it with an alien western model that includes branding, marketing and massive commercialisation. According to some estimates, in 2019, the global yoga industry was worth an estimated US$37.46 billion, and it’s expected to balloon to US$66.23 billion by 2027.

Indian practitioners allege that in the west the practice of yoga has also been “whitewashed” with hardly any Indian instructors and an ethos that is predominantly ethnically white. More specifically, Indian practitioners and yoga gurus allege that yoga has become yet another workout regimen and has been stripped of its cultural and historical narrative. Others have called it the “colonisation” of yoga–something that has become inaccessible to people of colour and ethnically diverse groups. 

While part of these allegations might be valid–branded yoga pants and other accessories can cost a lot and membership to yoga clubs in the west is not cheap–could the outrage against yoga’s commercialisation also be a ‘sour grapes syndrome’? After all, what stops Indian entrepreneurs and yoga practitioners from using modern marketing tools to spread the ancient practice themselves? And, if they think they are the custodians of yoga’s history and traditional values, they could even blend their marketing strategy with those so-called authenticities. Instead of looking at the West’s massive adoption of yoga as an appropriation, we should look at it as a missed opportunity.

Prohibition doesn’t work and that’s a fact

Last week, more than 60 people died in a Bihar district because they drank illegally distilled alcohol. This is not the first time that illegally distilled liquor has killed people in Bihar. Since 2016 when Bihar imposed prohibition in the state, the number of people dying or being seriously ill because of consumption of illegal liquor has been rising steadily. Hundreds have died in the state since the Nitish Kumar-led government imposed a ban on liquor.

Historically, prohibition has always been a difficult policy to implement. When the US had prohibition in the 1920s, it is believed that alcohol consumption actually went up and the government lost massive amounts of tax revenue because all of what was being consumed was illegal. The US had to abandon the policy in 1933.

In India, Gujarat has had prohibition since the state was formed in 1960 but an apocryphal story goes that its neighbouring state, Rajasthan, has a massively high rate of per capita sales of alcohol because much of what is sold there is smuggled into Gujarat. Other states such as Haryana, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Manipur have, in the past, imposed prohibition but have had to repeal the law when they found it difficult to implement.

Perhaps it is time for Bihar too to realise that prohibition does not really work. 

Covid’s spread in China could be a global threat

After widespread protests led the Chinese government to ease Covid-related restrictions, the situation in China has turned for the worse. The country is now facing what experts are calling the world’s largest Covid surge during the pandemic. According to Chinese public health service officials, as many as 800 million people or nearly 60% of the population could be infected over the next few months. Some predictive models estimate that nearly half a billion people could even die because of the virus.

Given that the virus had been believed to have originally broken out in China in the city of Wuhan in December 2019, this can mean things have come full circle. But considering how the virus had then spread across the world for two years ravaging lives, livelihoods and the global economy, if the resurgence of Covid in China is real, it could be terrible news for the world. It is time for countries to review their policies and reinstate measures to restrict the spread of the virus again.

Secrets Of A Good Night Sleep

Study Discovers Secrets Of A Good Night’s Sleep

A good night’s sleep can be beneficial to both the mind and the body. But what determines how much sleep we require, and what causes us to sleep more deeply? Researchers from the University of Tsukuba have discovered a signalling pathway within brain cells that controls the length and depth of sleep in a new study.

“We examined genetic mutations in mice and how these affect their patterns of sleep,” says senior author of the study, Professor Hiromasa Funato. “We identified a mutation that led to the mice sleeping much longer and more deeply than usual.” The researchers found that this was caused by low levels of an enzyme called histone deacetylase 4 (HDAC4), which is known to suppress the expression of target genes.

Previous studies on HDAC4 have shown that it is greatly affected by the attachment of phosphate molecules in a process known as phosphorylation. When this occurs, HDAC4 tends to move away from the cell nucleus, and the suppression of certain proteins is reduced. The researchers were interested in whether this phosphorylation of HDAC4 would affect sleep.

“We focused on a protein called salt-inducible kinase 3, otherwise known as SIK3, which phosphorylates HDAC4,” says Professor Funato. “We previously found that this protein has strong effects on sleep.” The team found that when there was a lack of SIK3 or when HDAC4 was modified to prevent phosphorylation, the mice slept less. In contrast, when the mice had a more active version of SIK3, which increased the phosphorylation of HDAC4, they slept a lot more. They also identified a further protein, LKB1, which phosphorylates SIK3, and has similar sleep-suppressing effects when deficient.

“Our findings indicate that there is a signaling pathway within brain cells from LKB1 to SIK3 and then to HDAC4,” says study co-senior author, Professor Masashi Yanagisawa. “This pathway leads to the phosphorylation of HDAC4, which promotes sleep, most probably because it affects the expression of sleep-promoting genes.”

The team carried out further experiments to identify the brain cells in which these pathways regulate sleep. This involved altering the amounts of SIK3 and HDAC4 in different cell types and brain regions. The results indicated that signaling within the cells of the cortex regulates the depth of sleep while signaling within the hypothalamus regulates the amount of deep sleep. For both brain regions, the excitatory neurons, which can activate other neurons, were identified as playing a key role.

These results provide an important insight into how sleep is regulated, which could potentially lead to a greater understanding of sleep disorders as well as the development of new treatments. (ANI)

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News Wrap

Five Things That Happened Last Week (And What to Make of Them)

What BJP’s victory in Gujarat means for Modi and his party

For many observers the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s sweeping victory in this month’s assembly elections in Gujarat was perhaps a foregone conclusion. The party won a record 156 of the182 seats in the state. It is the highest number of seats that any party has won in Gujarat’s electoral history ever since the state was created in 1960. The previous record for the highest tally was the 149 seats that the Congress won in the state in 1985.

By all reckoning, for the Congress that is ancient history. Since then, and more so since 1995, it has been a steady downhill journey for the Congress. In the latest elections, the Congress managed to win just 17 seats, down from 77 that it had won in 2017. As for the newest contender in Gujarat’s electoral politics, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), whose leader, Arvind Kejriwal, drove an energetic campaign in the state, managed to win just five seats.

What does this mean for the BJP? More importantly, what does it mean for Prime Minister Narendra Modi whose home state is Gujarat and who has been chief minister there for more than a dozen years?

A lot, it would appear. Winning in Gujarat for Modi and his party was non-negotiable. It had to happen and it did. Years of being in power in the state may have built up a fairly strong anti-incumbency sentiment among voters. It didn’t. A major disaster such as the collapse of the Morbi bridge that killed at least 135 people could have swung the sentiment among voters. It didn’t. The state has had an indifferent track record on administration and the fact that it has had chief ministers replaced at least twice during the previous term of the government could have affected voters’ decisions. They didn’t.

So what were the factors that led to the BJP’s impressive sweep in the 2022 elections in the state? First, it was the towering influence that Modi enjoys in the state. For Gujarat’s voters, it is Modi whom they see as their leader, their homegrown leader who now leads the country. Neither incumbent chief minister Bhupendra Patel nor any other BJP leader in the state really matters. In Gujarat, Modi appears to be the supreme leader who makes the difference for voters there.

Then, of course, it is the near-collapse of the electoral machinery of the Congress party in the state. The Congress is still coming to grips with its newly elected party leadership after Mallikarjun Kharge assumed charge as president of the party. Its local leaders in the state have not been consequential and, in general, at least in the run up to the recent elections, its eye has not been on the ball. Obviously, the collapse of its strongest political rival has helped the BJP.

The third factor, surprising as it may seem, which has helped the BJP is AAP’s entry into the fray. AAP’s vigorous (if less financially endowed) campaign focused on issues that affect the common man–education, free supply of electricity and water and so on–but it failed to wean voters away from the BJP. What it did, instead, was to cut into the vote shares of the Congress, hobbling the latter’s status as BJP’s prime challenger even further. So Kejriwal and his party really helped the BJP pull off its impressive victory. Ironic, isn’t it?

There was some consolation for the Congress, however. In Himachal Pradesh, where elections were held around the same time, the party won 40 of the 68 seats, ousting the incumbent BJP government. In the previous elections, the BJP had won 44 seats in the state.

What does the Congress’s victory in Himachal mean? For one, in that northern state since the early 1990s, the government has alternated between the BJP and the Congress–each ruling for a term till the other displaces it. In fact, since 1985, the state has usually voted out an incumbent government. So, the Congress’ victory could be seen as a continuation of the oscillating pattern. 

Yet, it is also a morale booster for the Congress, which badly needs uppers and mood-lifters. It has seen a series of electoral debacles, exodus of leaders, and a general lack of cohesive direction in its political strategy. 

Oh, and just in case you thought that the Congress had finally managed to sever its tether to the Nehru-Gandhi family, please note that last week after the Himachal Pradesh victory, its party leaders vied with each other to credit Priyanka Gandhi, the daughter of former president of the party Sonia Gandhi and the sibling of another former president of the party Rahul, for the victory in Himachal Pradesh. Amen!

China’s mysterious ‘Bridge Man’

The recent protests in China against draconian restrictions on civil rights and movement by individuals across several cities has been compared to the Tiananmen Square massacre of the late 1980s when the state’s military and security forces cracked down against pro-democracy protests. This time around the protests were against the government’s action and stipulations after a fresh wave of Covid infections took hold of many populous cities in the country.

Many of those restrictions have now been rolled back after popular protests locally and outrage that was sparked globally. But behind the protests was an individual who remains shrouded in mystery. In mid-October, a man known as Peng Lifa hung two banners over a busy highway crossing in Beijing that attacked China’s regime headed by president Xi Jingping. The banners variously had slogans such as “We want food, not Covid tests”; “We want reform, not Cultural Revolution”; “We want freedom, not lockdowns”; “We want votes, not a ruler”; “We want dignity, not lies”; and “We are citizens, not slaves.” One of the slogans also attacked Xi directly: “Remove the despotic traitor Xi Jinping!”

Predictably, the Chinese government reacted immediately. The banners were removed and Peng is believed to have been apprehended. But two months later when the first protests started spreading across China’s cities, it was these very slogans that Peng had hoisted that were adopted by the protestors. And Peng is considered by many Chinese citizens as the real hero of the protests.

But here is the sad part of the story. Peng, who is believed to be a techie with interests in physics and philosophy, has disappeared from public life and is likely in custody. His fate is unknown and most fear that the authorities may have taken severe action against him. In the hugely regulated media environment in China, however, he is celebrated and lauded as the “lone warrior”.

Germany busts a domestic terror group

Last week Germany busted a domestic terror group that is believed to have had plans to overthrow the government. The group, headed by a 71-year-old German aristocrat and including retired military personnel, and a former MP for the far-Right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), was apparently planning a coup aimed at overthrowing the government and re-negotiating the terms of the post-second World War settlement.

The far-Right group had links to the QAnon, a conspiracy theory and cult that has emanated in the US and which believes that a cabal of Satanic and cannibalistic paedophiles conspired against the former US President Donald Trump during his term in office. In Germany, the QAnon has had an influence among the far-Right movement and among the Reichsbürger (or Citizens of the Reich) whose members deny the existence of Germany’s post-World War II federal republic. They believe that the current administration is still occupied and influenced by the Western powers that made up the allies–the US, UK, and France. 

The busted group members are believed to belong to these and other groups and the authorities believe that they had plans for an alternative government and a strategy to infiltrate the defence forces. Many members of these groups have their own “passports” and “driver’s licences” and distribute and display other propaganda material. German intelligence agencies estimate that there could be around 21,000 members of the Reichsbürger in the country. The recent crackdown is proof that the government takes the threat seriously in an environment where across Europe there is a marked upsurge in ultra-Right wing movements.

A hint of good news for the Indian economy

Last week the World Bank had some good tidings for India’s economy. It revised upwards the estimate for its growth forecast of GDP growth for 2022-23. According to the revision, the GDP growth rate for the year now stands at 6.9% compared with October’s forecast of 6.5%. According to the Bank, India is well-positioned to fight off any global headwinds that might occur because of recessionary trends elsewhere in the world.

In particular, the Bank has upgraded its growth prediction for India on account of what it sees as strong private consumption and investment in the quarter-ending September performance.

The World Bank’s India Development Update report — Navigating the Storm — upgraded the country’s growth prediction on the basis of its September quarter performance “driven by strong private consumption and investment” that saw 6.3% growth in its GDP. This is significant because it comes at a time when the forecasts for most other economies in the world,especially in the west, have been quite dismal.

Warnings of the world’s worst recession

The encouraging forecast for India comes at a time when the world’s biggest asset management firm, Blackrock, has warned of a recession that could be worse than any that the world has seen before. According to a Blackrock forecast, a worldwide recession is imminent soon as central banks boost borrowing costs aggressively to tame inflation and this time, the firm feels it could lead to more intensive and widespread market turbulence across the globe. 

According to the Blackrock report titled 2023 Global Outlook, the global economy has already come out of a 40-year period of stable growth and inflation and is now on the verge of entering a period of instability. This regime, marked by unpredictability, is expected to stay, according to Blackrock.

Moreover, the report has highlighted that policymakers will find it difficult to support markets the way they might have done in past recessions. BlackRock, founded in 1988, is the world’s largest asset manager, with US$10 trillion in assets under management as of January 2022.

fetuses of women

Working In High Temp Puts Stress On Fetus

According to new research, the fetuses of women working in the fields in intense temperatures can show signs of strain before their moms do.

The study, which involved 92 pregnant subsistence farmers in The Gambia, is the first to measure the impacts of heat stress on the fetuses of manual workers.
Findings include that for every degree Celsius increase in heat stress exposure there was a 17% increase in the fetal strain as indicated by raised fetal heart rate and slower blood flow through the umbilical cord.

Overall, the team led by researchers at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Unit The Gambia at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and LSHTM found that even a modest rise in body temperature from performing manual tasks in extreme heat produced evidence of physiological strain in both mother and fetus.

The research is published in The Lancet Planetary Health.

Dr. Ana Bonell, Wellcome Trust Global Health Clinical Ph.D. Fellow at LSHTM and lead author said: “Climate change has led to increasingly extreme temperatures worldwide and Sub-Saharan Africa is particularly vulnerable to climate impacts. Our study found that pregnant subsistence farmers in The Gambia commonly experience levels of extreme heat above recommended outdoor working limits and that this can have significant effects on their health and the health of their babies. The results suggest we have to find effective interventions to protect these women and reduce adverse birth outcomes.”

Study author Jainaba Badjie from MRC The Gambia at LSHTM said: “Despite the growing scientific evidence linking maternal heat exposure to adverse birth outcomes, including premature birth, low birth weight, and stillbirth, up until now there has been little research into the physiological mechanisms responsible for these outcomes. We urgently need to understand these mechanisms so that we can find better ways to support mothers and babies in these conditions.”

For the study, participants in West Kiang, The Gambia, were encouraged to perform their usual daily tasks during field visits and were fitted with a wearable device to record maternal heart rate, skin temperature, and estimated energy expenditure.

Portable ultrasound devices were used to record fetal heart rate, and umbilical artery blood flow at the start of each visit (used as the baseline), at a mid-point during a worker’s shift, and then at the end of the shift.

Maternal symptoms of heat illness were also collected. Nausea, vomiting, headache, dizziness, weakness, muscle ache, fatigue, and dry mouth were common among participants, with over half of the women reporting that they experienced at least one symptom during field visits.

Analysis of the data showed strong links between heat stress exposure and maternal heat strain, which was also found to be associated with fetal strain. Maternal heat stress was also strongly linked to fetal strain even when controlling for maternal heat strain, indicating that other biological factors need to be considered.

The researchers suggest that an important physiological factor to consider in future work is the diversion of blood from the placenta to the skin which appears to occur at lower core temperatures than highlighted by previous studies. The findings also highlight the need for further work to identify and evaluate interventions that will help pregnant agricultural workers in Sub-Saharan Africa to adapt to working in extreme heat. (ANI)

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Leisurely Lives of Pakistan's Army Generals

The Leisurely Lives Of Pakistan’s Army Generals

An army’s role around the world is to protect its country from perceived and actual threats and to ensure national security. But in Pakistan, where extortion and corruption are rife, the army takes on the role of the mafia.

With a dubious record of toppling elected governments, installing puppet dictators, and plundering the country’s resources to fund the lavish lifestyles of its generals, the Pakistani army is truly unique in its functioning.

Most recently, General Qamar Jawed Bajwa has come under fire for what many are calling a questionable accumulation of wealth while he was head of the Pakistani Army.

A recent investigative report by the website, Fact Focus, out of Pakistan, revealed Pakistani Army General Qamar Jawed Bajwa and his family’s suspected financial and tax information.

The report raises many questions as to the Bajwa family’s disproportionate accumulation of wealth during the General’s tenure as Army Chief, and to the Army’s financial transactions in general.

In an ironic twist, Pakistan, instead of vowing to investigate the Bajwas’ financial situation, has ordered an investigation into what they call the “illegal” and “unwarranted leakage” of the family’s tax information.

Bajwa’s blue-eyed boy, Munir is appointed as Pakistan army chief; it will be business as usual with no heads rolling for the rampant corruption plaguing the Pakistani army. Financial mishandling, corruption, and influence peddling by generals for personal gain have been the subject of several scandals in Pakistan.

At the beginning of this year, data leaked from Credit Suisse, an investment banking firm registered in Switzerland, revealed information about 600 accounts linked to 1400 Pakistani citizens. Account-holders included several key politicians and generals, including the ex-ISI chief, General Akhtar Abdur Rahman Khan.

“Expose like this coming out is nothing new. It has been well-known for a long. We also know the case of a Pakistani General who fled from Pakistan and opened a chain of pizza huts in the US. So it’s nothing new”, says, Defence Expert Lt Col JS Sodhi (Retd)

One of the Pakistani Army’s biggest scandals remains its appropriation and sale of land in the name of welfare and providing housing for its officer cadre.

On 27 August 2016, an article titled ‘Lust for Land’ was published in the Pakistani newspaper ‘Dawn’. In the article, Pakistani freelance columnist and former civil servant, Irfan Husain, exposed the reality of multiplying defence societies and the Pakistani Army’s insatiable hunger for land.

Several other reports from Pakistan have claimed that the Pakistani Army is using government land to fulfill commercial interests.

The Army has built shopping malls, cinema halls, and marriage halls on government land.

The military appears interested in many lands and commercial entities, ranging from petrol pumps to huge industrial plants.

Money earned by rentals of these properties is being given to the families of Army officers.

In Pakistan, many petitions have also been filed over the failure to implement laws to protect lands from the military mafia.

Though the Supreme Court of Pakistan has criticized the military establishment in the past for their involvement in commercial pursuits, the practice continues.

While Pakistan has descended into a deep economic crisis, military officers have been given taxpayer-funded land allocations worth millions.

J S Sodhi further added, “Well the fact that today Pakistan is on the brink of being declared a bankrupt nation. They have no money with them. We have seen the recent floods in which one-third of Pakistan was under water.”

Pakistan recently ranked 140th out of 180 countries on the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) 2021 by Transparency International, dropping 16 spots from the previous year.

In Pakistan, corruption is so ingrained within the military that it seems unlikely that the appointment of a new General, or even of new political leadership will be able to change the functioning of the country’s most powerful institution.

As Pakistan descends deeper into economic and political instability, the Army’s top leaders continue to enjoy an enrichment of power and finances. (ANI)

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