1. The Assam-Meghalaya border firing
What is the boundary dispute between the two States? Does the current incident have bearing on this dispute? What has been the response from the governments of the two States? Have there been political ramifications in Meghalaya considering its bound for elections next year?
A bid by the Assam police and forest personnel to catch alleged timber smugglers from Meghalaya led to the killing of six people at a place claimed by each State to be within its territory. Apart from heightening tensions along a stretch of the interstate boundary, the incident sparked protests and stray cases of violence in Meghalaya’s capital Shillong and a temporary suspension of vehicular movement between the two States. It also led to a delay in the process of resolving the Assam-Meghalaya boundary dispute.
What led to the firing?
Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma agreed with his Meghalaya counterpart Conrad K. Sangma that the firing at about 3 am on November 22 was unprovoked. But the Assam government has insisted the incident had nothing to do with the boundary dispute and was the fallout of its crusade against the smuggling of timber by miscreants who operate on either side of the undefined sections of the 884.9 km boundary between the two States. But the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), taking note of a memorandum by Mr. Sangma, attributed the firing to the border dispute, “a larger issue pending for long”. Had the dispute been settled, such type of incidents would have been averted, the commission said on November 29. The commission further said the incident allegedly happened after the detention of a timber-laden truck, chased by the Assam police and forest personnel, at Mukroh village. The villagers became agitated upon the entry of Assam police and forest personnel and surrounded them, leading to the firing. Five villagers and an Assam Forest guard were killed, the NHRC said.
What was the immediate fallout?
What seemed to be a local incident from far became fodder for pressure groups in poll-bound Meghalaya to rail against the Sangma-led coalition government for failing to protect border residents. Stray cases of arson, vandalisation of Assam-registered vehicles, and attacks on security personnel and civilians — mostly non-tribals — marked the protests in Shillong. For six days after the incident, Assam police restricted the movement of vehicles to Shillong and other parts of eastern Meghalaya for security reasons. Assam-based taxi operators also prevented Meghalaya-registered vehicles to enter the State. Tourism in Meghalaya was hit hard in a year it had recorded the highest number of footfalls with many tourists cancelling their trips and some cutting short their stay to get out of uncertainty. The complications arising out of the Mukroh incident also delayed the process of resolving the boundary dispute between the two States in the remaining six of the 12 sectors. “We may not be able to go for talks immediately,” Mr. Sangma said on November 29. The dispute in the other six sectors was resolved through an agreement on March 29.
How is the boundary dispute linked to the incident?
Although the Assam government claims to the contrary, the fact that the two governments refer to the place of the incident by two names makes it apparent that the boundary dispute is intertwined. While Meghalaya says the place is Mukroh in West Jaintia Hills District, Assam claims it is Mukhrow or Moikrang in West Karbi Anglong district. The village is also very close to Block 1, one of the six dispute sectors that remain to be resolved. Whatsoever may be the dispute between the two States, the NHRC said the police have to use restraint in such situations and examine the standard operating procedure for firing by the armed forces in areas of a border dispute. It also asked the Union Home Secretary and the Assam Chief Secretary to examine and evolve mechanisms or suggest measures to prevent such type of incidents.
How did the boundary dispute start?
Meghalaya, carved out of Assam as an autonomous State in 1970, became a full-fledged State in 1972. The creation of the new State was based on the Assam Reorganisation (Meghalaya) Act of 1969, which the Meghalaya government refused to accept. This was because the Act followed the recommendations of a 1951 committee to define the boundary of Meghalaya. On that panel’s recommendations, areas of the present-day East Jaintia Hills, Ri-Bhoi and West Khasi Hills districts of Meghalaya were transferred to the Karbi Anglong, Kamrup (metro) and Kamrup districts of Assam. Meghalaya contested these transfers after statehood, claiming that they belonged to its tribal chieftains. Assam said the Meghalaya government could neither provide documents nor archival materials to prove its claim over these areas.
After claims and counter-claims, the dispute was narrowed down to 12 sectors on the basis of an official claim by Meghalaya in 2011.
2. Are ransomware attacks increasing in India?
What happened at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences? How does a ransomware infect a computer? How many organisations in India are working toward cyber-crime responses and prevention?
On November 23, e-services at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) were crippled by what is being suspected to be a ransomware attack. The Delhi Police’s Intelligence Fusion & Strategic Operations have registered a case and launched investigations to identify the perpetrators, while cyber security experts are employing software tools for data recovery. They have been able to retrieve a significant number of files. However, pending sanitisation of the entire network and its nodes, all hospital services are currently being executed manually. AIIMS has a Local Area Network comprising more than 6,500 computers supporting the institute, its hospital, centres and other departments. While a probe is underway to determine if essential safety protocols were in place, measures are being taken to thwart any such attack in the future.
What is ransomware?
Ransomware is a type of malicious software, used by cyber criminals, to infect a computer system by blocking access to the stored data by encrypting the files. A ransom is then demanded from the owner in exchange for the decryption key.
While it is not yet clear as to how exactly the AIIMS computer systems were targeted, the malware may usually be injected remotely by tricking the user into downloading it upon clicking an ostensibly safe web link sent via email or other means, including hacking. It can spread throughout the network by exploiting existing vulnerabilities. Ransomware attacks can also be accompanied by theft of sensitive data for other sinister motives.
How serious are ransomware attacks?
Preliminary findings by cyber experts have indicated that at least five of the AIIMS’ servers that hosted data related to more than three crore patients were compromised. In India, several cases of ransomware attacks targeting commercial and critical infrastructure have been reported in the recent past. In May, Spicejet had faced such a threat, while Public Sector Undertaking Oil India was targeted on April 10. Cybersecurity firm Trellix, in its third-quarter global report, has identified 25 major ransomwares in circulation. According to the Interpol’s first-ever Global Crime Trend report presented at its 90th General Assembly meeting in Delhi this October, ransomware was the second highest-ranking threat after money laundering, at 66%. It is also expected to increase the most (72%).
Which agencies in India deal with cyber-attacks?
Set up in 2004, the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) is the national nodal agency that collects, analyses and circulates inputs on cyber-attacks; issues guidelines, advisories for preventive measures, forecasts and issues alerts; and takes measures to handle any significant cyber security event. It also imparts training to computer system managers. The National Cyber Security Coordinator, under the National Security Council Secretariat, coordinates with different agencies at the national level on cybersecurity issues, while the National Critical Information Infrastructure Protection Centre has been set up for the protection of national critical information infrastructure. According to the government, the Cyber Swachhta Kendra (Botnet Cleaning and Malware Analysis Centre) has been launched for detection of malicious software programmes and to provide free tools to remove the same, while the National Cyber Coordination Centre works on creating awareness about existing and potential threats.
3. SC worried over effect of GM crops on livelihood of women farm labourers
Petitions challenge environmental nod given to GM mustard; petitioner says widespread use of herbicide-tolerant crops will encourage farmers to spray chemical weed-killers, leaving large amounts of toxic chemical residue on the crops
The Supreme Court on Wednesday expressed concern about the plight of thousands of women agricultural labourers in rural areas traditionally engaged in de-weeding as they would be part of the human cost if the government permitted the commercial cultivation of herbicide-tolerant crops such as GM mustard.
“In rural areas, women are experts in removing weeds. They are a part of the labour force in agriculture in India. It brings them employment… You know it is because women started agriculture that humankind stopped being nomads and we saw the sprouting of civilisations,” Justice B.V. Nagarathna observed orally while hearing challenges against the environmental clearance given to genetically modified mustard by the Centre.
Justice Dinesh Maheshwari, the lead judge on the Bench, agreed that women were an integral part of the Indian agricultural landscape from paddy fields to tea estates, across the country.
“They work in knee-deep water in the fields, bending the whole day and working,” Justice Nagarathna said.
Senior advocate Sanjay Parikh, for a petitioner, said the widespread use of herbicide-tolerant crops would encourage farmers to spray chemical weed-killers, leaving toxic chemical residue in large amounts on the crops.
‘Not meant for India’
“The Supreme Court’s own Technical Expert Committee [TEC] had said that these GM crops were not meant for agriculture in the Indian context. They may be suitable in the western context where there are large farms, but not here,” Mr. Parikh argued.
Advocate Prashant Bhushan, for activist Aruna Rodrigues, submitted that India had 5,477 varieties of mustard, which would be at risk. He argued that the regulatory system under the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), which cleared the environmental release of Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11), a genetically engineered variant of mustard, was “horrendous” and riddled with conflict of interest.
Mr. Bhushan said the Department of Biotechnology had funded DMH 11 and then was part of the regulatory mechanism. The environmental release of the hybrid mustard variety was cleared despite warnings from the parliamentary committee and the Supreme Court’s Technical Expert Committee report calling for its ban. Besides, the government had not placed the biosafety dossier on the GM crop in the public domain.
He said the Supreme Court-appointed member of the GEAC, Pushpa M. Bhargava, had said the commercial cultivation of GM mustard would open the door wide, for multinational corporations.
He said GM mustard, if approved for commercial cultivation, would be the first genetically modified food crop available to Indian farmers. He recalled how Bt Brinjal was withdrawn by the government years ago after the regulatory system was found riddled with inconsistencies.
“Hybrid crops should not be released in the open fields and allowed to contaminate other crops… It would trigger a chain reaction which would be irreversible,” he said.
Mr. Bhushan said the testing of the GM crop was “completely flawed”. There were no labs capable of doing bio-safety tests.
The Attorney-General will argue on behalf of the government on Thursday.
Genetically Modified (GM) Crops
- They are that type of plants whose DNA has been modified through genetic engineering for embedding a new trait to the plant which does not occur naturally in the species.
- Genetic engineering aims to transcend the genus barrier by introducing an alien gene in the seeds to get the desired effects and the alien gene could be from a plant, an animal or even a soil bacterium.
- Across the world, GM variants of maize, canola and soybean etc , are available.
GM crops in India
- Bt cotton:
- Bt cotton, the only GM crop that is allowed in India, has two alien genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that allows the crop to develop a protein toxic to the common pest pink bollworm.
- On the other hand, Bt cotton is derived with the insertion of an additional gene, from another soil bacterium, which allows the plant to resist the common herbicide glyphosate.
- Bt Brinjal:
- In Bt brinjal, a gene allows the plant to resist attacks of fruit and shoot borer.
- In Bt brinjal, a gene permits the plant to resist attacks of fruit and shoot borers.
- Previously, the government has put on hold the commercial release of genetically modified (GM) mustard due to stiff opposition from anti-GMO activists and NGOs.
- DMH 11 Mustard:
- In DMH-11 mustard, developed by Deepak Pental and colleagues in the South Campus of the University of Delhi, genetic modification allows cross-pollination in a crop that self-pollinates in nature.
- Global variants:
- Across the world, GM variants of maize, canola and soybean, too, are available.
Legal position of genetically modified crops in India
- In India, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) is the apex body that allows for the commercial release of GM crops.
- In 2002, the GEAC had allowed the commercial release of Bt cotton.
- Use of the unapproved GM variant can attract a jail term of 5 years and a fine of Rs 1 lakh under the Environmental Protection Act,1989.
- The Central government had for the first time exempted certain types of genome-edited crops from the stringent regulations applicable on genetically modified or GM crops, paving the way for further R&D on them.
- The Ministry of Environment and Forests had, in the order, exempted SDN1 and SDN2 genome edited plants from Rules 7-11 of the Environment Protect Act (EPA) for manufacture, use or import or export and storage of hazardous microorganisms or genetically engineered organisms or cells rules-1989.
- Recently ,the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) issued guidelines easing norms for research into Genetically Modified (GM) crops and circumventing challenges of using foreign genes to change crops profile
- FSSAI issued an order on February 8, 2021, setting the permissible limit for genetically modified organisms (GMO) in imported food crops at 1%.
Advantages of GMO crops
- It improves production and raises the farmer’s income.
- It reduces the use of pesticide and insecticide during farming that might be great moves for the betterment of the food supply.
- It can feed a rapidly increasing population because it shows dramatically increased yields.
- It can produce more in small areas of land.
- The production imposes high risks to the disruption of ecosystem and biodiversity because the “better” traits produced from engineering genes can result in the favouring of one organism.
- Hence, it can eventually disrupt the natural process of gene flow.
- It increases the cost of cultivation and is more inclined towards marketization of farming that works on immoral profits.
- The transgenic crops endanger not only farmers but also the trade, and the environment as well.
- Inadequate Safety Assessments: The current safety assessments are inadequate to catch most of the harmful effects from the GM crops. Moreover, the regulatory regime in India about GM crops has never been assessed thoroughly about the GM risk assessment in Indian conditions.
4. SC seeks Centre’s response on evolving a programme to protect Great Indian Bustard
The Supreme Court on Wednesday sought the government’s response about evolving a “Project Great Indian Bustard” conservation programme like the Project Tiger to bring attention to the peril faced by the critically endangered bird.
Project Tiger is touted by the government as one of the most successful conservation programmes for a single species in the world.
“Can we not have a focussed approach by the Environment Ministry involving something like Project Tiger? Take instructions on it. Have a word with the Minister and come back to us on it,” Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud addressed Attorney-General R. Venkataramani and Additional Solicitor-General Aishwarya Bhati, appearing for the government. The court is hearing a series of petitions highlighting the numerous deaths of Great Indian Bustards due to power transmission lines criss-crossing their habitat in Gujarat and Rajasthan.
In its order, the Special Bench, including Justices A.S. Bopanna and V. Ramasubramanian, directed the Chief Secretaries of Gujarat and Rajasthan to undertake and complete a comprehensive exercise within four weeks to find out the total length of the transmission lines in question and the number of bird diverters required in the priority areas of the birds’ habitats.
The court was not, however, for the time being, ready to agree with the Centre’s plea to expand its expert committee formed in April 2022 to study the problem.
The government wanted the court to allow the Additional Secretary of the Renewable Energy Ministry and the Chief Operating Officer of Central Transmission Utility of India Ltd. to join the committee as domain experts on transmission lines. Instead, the Bench said the expert committee was free to consult the firm’s officer for his expert opinion for now.
Great Indian Bustard (GIB)
- One of the heaviest flying birds endemic to the Indian subcontinent.
- State Bird of Rajasthan
- Untamed, Arid grasslands.
- A Maximum number of GIBs were found in Jaisalmer and the Indian Army-controlled field firing range near Pokhran, Rajasthan.
- Other areas: Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
- As per the studies conducted by Wildlife Institute of India, there are around 150 Great Indian Bustards left across the country which includes about 128 birds in Rajasthan and less than 10 birds each in the States of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
- Protection Status:
- IUCN Status: Critically Endangered.
- Listed in Wildlife Protection Act’s Schedule 1.
- Threats to the Bird:
- Hunting, Intensification of agriculture, Power lines.
Indian Initiatives for Protection of GIB
- ‘Habitat Improvement and Conservation Breeding of Great Indian Bustard-an integrated approach’:
- The Ministry with financial support from National Authority for Compensatory Afforestation Funds has sanctioned an outlay of Rs. 33.85 crores for the duration of five years for the programme titled ‘Habitat Improvement and Conservation Breeding of Great Indian Bustard-an integrated approach’.
- The objective :
- to build up the captive population of Great Indian Bustard and to release the chicks in the wild for increasing the population and also to promote in-situ conservation of the species.
- Task Force:
- The Ministry has also constituted a Task Force for suggesting Eco- friendly measures to mitigate impacts of power transmission lines and other power transmission infrastructures on wildlife including the Great Indian Bustard.
- The Great Indian Bustard has been included in the Appendix I of Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) on the basis of a proposal submitted by India.
- It was also the mascot of the prestigious 13th CMS Conference of Parties held in Gandhinagar giving wider publicity for the conservation of the species.
- Important habitats of Great Indian Bustards are designated as National Parks/Sanctuaries for their better protection.
- The species has been identified for conservation efforts under the component ‘Species Recovery Programme’ of the Centrally Sponsored Scheme (CSS)-Development of Wildlife Habitat.
- Directions of the National Green Tribunal (NGT): NGT ordered a time-bound action plan for the implementation of mitigation measures such as installation of bird diverters and their regular maintenance and monitoring by power agencies.
- A Bustard conservation breeding centre in Rajasthan has been set up in Jaisalmer.
- Conservation Reserves: Great Indian Bustard habitats to be declared as conservation reserves.
- Project Great Indian Bustard launched by the Rajasthan government
5. Editorial-1: An Indian recipe to quell micronutrient malnutrition
When it comes to nutrition, or more specifically micronutrient malnutrition, there is an urgent need to address the maladies that poor nutrition can inflict on the masses, especially given the diverse populations in India.
Malnutrition exacerbates the magnitude of the public health crises we face, and is India’s most serious challenge and concern. As in National Family Health Survey-5 data, every second Indian woman is anaemic, every third child is stunted and malnourished, and every fifth child is wasted. According to an FAO Food Security Report for 2021, India ranks 101 out of 116 countries in the Global Hunger Index 2021, with a 15.3% undernourished population, the highest proportion of stunted children (30%), and wasted children (17.3%).
The picture the Global Nutrition Report 2021 paints is cause for concern, noting that stunting among children in India is significantly higher than the Asian average of 21.8%.
Since the 1920s, developed countries and high-income countries have successfully tackled the issue of malnutrition through food fortification. Of late, the low-and middle-income countries, such as India, have pursued food fortification as one of the strategies to tackle micronutrient malnutrition. Put simply, food fortification is the process of adding nutrients to food. For instance, rice and wheat are fortified with iron, folic acid and vitamin B12, and salt fortified with iron and iodine. Iodised salt has been in use for the past few decades.
The rice programme and anaemia
Pilot projects on the distribution of fortified rice have been taken up in select States, including Maharashtra (Gadchiroli district) as part of a targeted Public Distribution programme for the masses. The programme has been a success in terms of preventing cases of anaemia — from 58.9% to 29.5% — within a span of two years, prompting the central government to declare the scaling up of the distribution of fortified rice, the major staple diet of 65% of the population, through the existing platform of social safety nets such as the PDS, ICDS and PM-POSHAN.
Experiences from the different States on the fortified rice project, so far tally with the results of global programmes that use fortified food as a cost-effective strategy. The health benefits accruing from food fortification have made 80 countries to frame laws for the fortification of cereal flour, and 130 countries with iodised salt, where 13 countries have mandated rice fortification. The encouraging results of the pilot programme in Gadchiroli have prompted the proposed large-scale food fortification programme, which includes fortified rice in all all safety net government schemes. The study found a promising reduction (29.5%) in the prevalence of anaemia among women, adolescent girls, and children put together in Gadchiroli district.
Noon meal scheme in Gujarat
In Gujarat, an eight-month long study on multiple micronutrient fortified rice intervention for schoolchildren (six-12 years) in 2018-2019, as part of the Midday Meal Scheme, found increased haemoglobin concentration, 10% reduction in anaemia prevalence, and, more importantly, improved average cognitive scores (by 11.3%).
Iron deficiency anaemia is a major public health concern, because it is responsible for 3.6% of disability-adjusted life years or DALYs (years of life lost due to premature mortality and years lived with disability) according to the World Health Organization (WHO) — i.e., a loss of 47 million DALYs, or years of healthy life lost due to illness, disability, or premature death (2016).
According to NITI Aayog (based on WHO meta-analysis on the impact of rice fortification), a rice fortification budget of around ₹2,800 crore per year can save 35% of the total or 16.6 million DALYs per year with no known risk of toxicity. In India, the cost of one DALY lost due to iron deficiency anaemia (IDA) is approximately ₹30,000, while the cost of averting an IDA-related DALY is only ₹1,545, resulting in a cost-benefit ratio of 1:18. Rice fortification, which costs less than 1% of the food subsidy bill (2018-19), has the potential to prevent 94.1 million anaemia cases, saving ₹8,098 crore over a five-year period.
Need for precautions
Despite the programme’s proven efficacy, activists have expressed concern that excess iron overload from fortified rice has been dangerous for Jharkhand’s tribal population suffering from sickle cell anaemia and thalassaemia. Iron levels in fortified rice range from 28 mg to 42.5 mg, folic acid levels from 75 mcg-125 mcg, and vitamin B12 levels from 0.75 mcg to 1.2 mcg (FSSAI standards). Considering the per capita intake, in a family of three members with a rice consumption of approximately 60 grams per person, the additional intake is 2.45 mg of iron. This in fact compensates our daily losses of iron from the body, which is 1 mg-2 mg per day.
Food fortification, according to stalwarts of nutrition, is a cost-effective complementary strategy to address multiple micronutrient deficiencies. Thus, given its proven efficacy and cost-effectiveness, food fortification can help us in reducing micronutrient deficiencies and address overall health benefits. The intervention, carried out with precautions, is the key to the malnutrition issue which the nation continues to grapple with.
6. Editorial-2: Cease and desist
The BBMP had no business outsourcing electoral work to an NGO
The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike’s decision to cancel permission provided to an NGO, Chilume Educational Cultural and Rural Development Trust, to conduct a house-to-house survey to enhance voter awareness, was a belated but necessary one. BBMP, the Bengaluru civic body, has claimed that the NGO had violated the conditions, which did not allow the collection of voter identification details. It is alleged that the NGO utilised BBMP identification cards to secure voter data through a door-to-door survey and stored the data in an app created for that purpose. The NGO’s brazenness, whereby voters were deceived into believing that the collectors were with the BBMP, suggests the incompetence and the callousness of the municipal corporation of one of India’s largest cities. The data collected, such as Aadhaar, phone number and voter ID, could be easily harvested for use by parties besides constructing the meta data and profiles of potential voters. Such data are especially coveted by political parties that thrive on exclusionary politics as it allows them to target specific communities and localities with diverse demographics. If the BBMP’s purpose was to simply enhance voter awareness, there was no express need to outsource this to a non-governmental third party. The corporation must ensure that any data stored are immediately deleted and legal actions taken against the NGO.
The continued absence of a data protection law in India, and the fact that the Government’s most recent draft Bill is light on protection from the misuse of data by the state, have added to the graveness of the situation. Recently, there have been several reports of block level officers of the Election Commission of India (ECI) asking individuals to link their Aadhaar with their voter IDs, and that a failure to do so could lead to their voter IDs being cancelled. Such mandatory linking would be incorrect as it has been legally established that Indian voters can use any of the prescribed identity documents to establish their eligibility to vote. While the use of Aadhaar numbers to ascertain proof of residence makes it easier for ECI officials to verify electoral rolls and to avoid duplication of the voter id, there is also the threat of disenfranchisement of genuine voters as Aadhaar biometric authentication has been known to be less than fool proof. The ECI is better off in doing door-to-door verification and in reminding voters to check and update their voter id by accessing the websites of its respective electoral officers. Instead, the search for easy technological fixes or outsourcing is sure to result in a failure to prevent the misuse of personal information.