1. How the maiden flight of ISRO’s SSLV went awry
Why did the ISRO prefer a SSLV over the PSLV or GSLV? What was the designated function of the satellites on-board the vehicle?
The SSLV D1/EOS-2 mission was carrying two satellites — the Earth Observation Satellite-2 (EOS-2 and AzadiSAT. However, the mission failed to place the satellites in their required orbits, and the satellites, as they were already detached from the launch vehicle, were lost.
The EOS-2 offered advanced optical remote sensing operations while the AzadiSAT on the other hand was a collective of 75 tiny payloads integrated by students.
The malfunctioning of a sensor resulted in placing the satellites in an elliptical orbit, rather than a circular orbit. Satellites that orbit the Earth are mostly placed in circular orbits. One reason is that if the satellite is used for imaging the Earth, it is easier if it has a fixed distance from the Earth.
The story so far: On August 7, ISRO got ready for the first developmental flight of the SSLV-D1/EOS-2 mission. The launch took place from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota. The Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) D1/EOS-2 mission, was carrying two satellites — the Earth Observation Satellite-2 (EOS-2) which weighed about 135 kg and AzadiSAT which weighed about eight kg. The mission aimed to place the EOS-2 in a circular low-Earth orbit at a height of about 350 km above the Equator and inclined at an angle of 37 degrees. The initial part of the story was successful with the launch vehicle operating smoothly. However, the mission failed to place the satellites in their required orbits, and the satellites, as they were already detached from the launch vehicle, were lost.
What was the purpose of the SSLV-D1/EOS-2 mission?
The purpose of this mission was to place the two satellites in circular low-Earth orbits at a height of about 350 km above the Equator. The larger one, the EOS-2 which was designed and developed by ISRO, offered advanced optical remote sensing operations. It would have operated in the infrared region and could have served many purposes, from imaging for climate studies to simply keeping an eye on Earth.
AzadiSAT, on the other hand, was a collective of 75 tiny payloads weighing around 50 grams each, which were integrated by students. It carried tiny experiments which would have measured the ionising radiation in its orbit and also a transponder which worked in the ham radio frequency to enable amateur operators to access it.
Which part of the mission succeeded and where did it fail?
The SSLV was composed of three stages powered by solid fuels and these three performed their function as planned. However, when it came to the stage when the satellites had to be set in orbit, there was a glitch which resulted in the satellites being lost forever. With a degree of openness that is unprecedented in ISRO, it was announced that there was a malfunctioning of a sensor which resulted in placing the satellites in an elliptical orbit, rather than a circular orbit. The ellipse or oval shape of the elliptical orbit is elongated in one direction and compressed in another (the so-called major and minor axes, which are like two radii of the ellipse). The shortest height above the Earth of this oval orbit was only about 76 km.
Why were the satellites lost?
If the closest distance to the Earth is only 76 km, as it happened this time, there is an atmospheric drag experienced by the object at that height. Thereafter, unless adequate thrust is applied to overcome the drag, it will lose height and fall towards the Earth because of gravity and may eventually burn up due to friction.
What went wrong with the launch?
Today rocket technology has progressed to such a stage that even if the course of the rocket is altering from its planned course, there will be sensors that feed back this information to a system. This will immediately trigger a course correction which will restore the trajectory of the rocket. There are many sensors as well as a built-in redundancy. That is, even if one or two sensors fail, there will be others that take over and effect the course correction. In the present case, the announcement was that “failure of a logic to identify a sensor failure and go for a salvage action caused the deviation.” This could possibly imply that either redundancy was not built in, which is highly unlikely, or perhaps that it was built in but did not kick off due to a technical glitch.
Why do we need to develop an SSLV when we have successfully used PSLV and GSLV?
The PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) and GSLV (Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle) are quite powerful and can carry huge loads. To place an Earth Orbiting Satellite in a low Earth orbit, one does not need such power horses. The SSLV can easily carry small-to-medium loads from 10 kg to 500 kg. It is less expensive. The three stages being powered by solid fuel is another advantage. Solid fuel is easier to handle, whereas handling the liquid propellants used in the PSLV and GSLV is more complex.
What is the difference between circular and elliptical orbits?
Mostly objects such as satellites and spacecrafts are put in elliptical orbits only temporarily. They are then either pushed up to circular orbits at a greater height or the acceleration is increased until the trajectory changes from an ellipse to a hyperbola and the spacecraft escapes the gravity of the Earth in order to move further into space — for example, to the Moon or Mars or further away.
Satellites that orbit the Earth are mostly placed in circular orbits. One reason is that if the satellite is used for imaging the Earth, it is easier if it has a fixed distance from the Earth. If the distance keeps changing as in an elliptical orbit, keeping the cameras focussed can become complicated.
2. On guardianship and adoption of minors
What are the multiple laws on adoption and custody of minors? What has the panel recommended with respect to the LGBTQI community?
A Parliamentary Standing Committee tabled its report on August 8, 2022, in both Houses of Parliament on the ‘Review of Guardianship and Adoption Laws’. In its report the committee has said that there is an “urgent need to amend the HMGA and accord equal treatment to both mother and father as natural guardians.”
The Supreme Court’s landmark judgment in Githa Hariharan vs Reserve Bank of India in 1999 challenged the HMGA for violating the guarantee of equality of sexes under Article 14 of the Constitution.
The Adoption Regulations, 2017 is silent on adoption by LGBTQI people and neither bans nor allows them to adopt a child.
The story so far: A Parliamentary panel has recommended conferring equal rights on mothers as guardians under the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act (HMGA), 1956 instead of treating them as subordinates to their husband, and has called for joint custody of children during marital disputes. It has also proposed allowing the LGBTQI community to adopt children.
What are the recommendations of the Parliamentary panel on guardianship and child custody?
The department-related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice tabled its report on August 8, 2022, in both Houses of Parliament on the ‘Review of Guardianship and Adoption Laws’. In its report the committee has said that there is an “urgent need to amend the HMGA (Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, 1956) and accord equal treatment to both mother and father as natural guardians as the law violated the right to equality and right against discrimination envisaged under Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution.”
In cases of marital dispute, the panel says there is a need to relook at child custody which is typically restricted to just one parent where mothers tend to get preference. It says courts should be empowered to grant joint custody to both parents when such a decision is conducive for the welfare of the child, or award sole custody to one parent with visitation rights to the other.
On adoption, the Committee has said that there is a need for a new legislation that harmonises the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 and the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act (HAMA), 1956 and that such a law should cover the LGBTQI community as well.
What does the law say on guardianship? How do courts grant child custody?
Indian laws accord superiority to the father in case of guardianship of a minor. Under the religious law of Hindus, or the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, (HMGA) 1956, the natural guardian of a Hindu minor in respect of the minor’s person or property “is the father, and after him, the mother: provided the custody of a minor who has not completed the age of five years shall ordinarily be with the mother.”
The Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937 says that the Shariat or the religious law will apply in case of guardianship according to which the father is the natural guardian, but custody vests with the mother until the son reaches the age of seven and the daughter reaches puberty though the father’s right to general supervision and control exists. The concept of Hizanat in Muslim law states that the welfare of the child is above all else. This is the reason why Muslim law gives preference to the mother over the father in matters of custody of children in their tender years.
The Supreme Court’s landmark judgment in Githa Hariharan vs Reserve Bank of India in 1999 challenged the HMGA for violating the guarantee of equality of sexes under Article 14 of the Constitution of India and the court held that the term “after” should not be taken to mean “after the lifetime of the father “, but rather “in the absence of the father”. But the judgment failed to recognise both parents as equal guardians, subordinating a mother’s role to that of the father. Though the judgment sets a precedent for courts, it has not led to an amendment to the HMGA.
The panel’s proposals on guardianship have been made by the Law Commission of India in its 257th report on “Reforms in Guardianship and Custody Laws in India” in May 2015 as well as its 133rd report in August, 1989 on “Removal of discrimination against women in matters relating to guardianship and custody of minor children and elaboration of the welfare principle”
What about cases of marital disputes?
In cases of marital disputes, some courts such as the Punjab and Haryana High Court and Bombay High Court have framed rules to grant joint custody or shared parenting. But senior lawyer Anil Malhotra says instead of this “patchwork” there is a need to amend the law, including the Guardians and Wards Act, 1890 to introduce concepts such as joint custody.
Can queer and transgender people adopt children in India?
The Adoption Regulations, 2017 is silent on adoption by LGBTQI people and neither bans nor allows them to adopt a child. Its eligibility criteria for prospective adoptive parents says that they should be physically, mentally and emotionally stable, financially capable and should not have any life-threatening medical condition. Single men can only adopt a boy while a woman can adopt a child of any gender. A child can be given for adoption to a couple only if they have been in a marital relationship for at least two years. The HAMA which applies to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists allows men and women to adopt if they are of sound mind and are not minors. Activists say LGBTQI people who seek adoption face institutional discrimination because of stigma. Therefore, the law should be amended to include them as eligible candidates including when they apply as non-single parents such as when they are in civil unions or married for which there is no legal recognition in the country as yet even though the Supreme Court legalised gay sex in 2018.
3. Can women be true representatives of the people?
How women legislators are breaking stereotypes and asserting their presence in the Indian Parliament
Sadia Hussain’s article, ‘Performance of Women in Parliament: A Quantitative Study of Questions by Women Members in Lok Sabha (1999-2019)’ draws attention to women’s performance in the Lok Sabha through a quantitative analysis of the questions posed by women leaders on the floor.
With more women representatives in Parliament, it is imperative to look at their performance. Women’s performance during the Question Hour session becomes relevant as it is a space where legislators act free from party regulation. It becomes imperative to analyse whether descriptive representation transforms into substantive representation.
It was found that contrary to general belief, women representatives asked more questions on health and family welfare, human resource development, home affairs, finance, agriculture and railways than women’s issues.
Rebecca Rose Varghese
Hussain, Sadia, ‘Performance of Women in Parliament: A Quantitative Study of Questions by Women Members in Lok Sabha (1999-2019)’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 57, Issue No. 31, July 30, 2022
Literature on the workings of Parliament and its performance has been scarce. Very few academic papers have covered critical reviews of the institution. Even less are research works on women’s performance in leadership positions or how they participate and represent people in political spaces. Sadia Hussain’s article, ‘Performance of Women in Parliament: A Quantitative Study of Questions by Women Members in Lok Sabha (1999-2019)’ draws attention to women’s performance in the Lok Sabha through a quantitative analysis of the questions posed by women leaders on the floor. It contests claims that women members act as silent dolls or ‘gungi gudiyas’ during the Question Hour in Parliament and that they act as mere token representation in political spheres.
Women in politics
The article contextualises women’s position in Indian electoral politics. Nivedita Menon’s work on feminist theory and politics in India asserts how India has not had a single women’s movement that challenged patriarchal and gender norms in the last two decades. Women have had to use alternate methods to come to power. Education and wealth have aided women in political participation. Studies suggest that more women have started to organise themselves into economic groups, and financial freedom has pushed them to be more politically active. The decreased gap in voter turnout between men and women is a positive sign toward gender inclusivity in the political sphere. The 2019 general election was a historic moment for women’s politics, as it saw 78 women elected to the lower house of Parliament for the first time since independence where only 22 women were present in the 543-member Lok Sabha. But the author explains that this number is still not representative of the actual proportion of women in the country.
Access to power versus participation
With more women representatives in Parliament, it is imperative to look at their performance. Women’s performance during the Question Hour session becomes relevant as it is a space where legislators act free from party regulation. Substantive representation or acting in the interest of those represented defines the quality of a leader. It becomes imperative to analyse whether descriptive representation transforms into substantive representation.
Do women members only represent women, or do they represent the general public that voted them into positions of power? Do they ask questions only about “softer issues” such as women and child development, health, and sanitation, shying away from discussions on national security, finance, agriculture, and railways?
The author analyses these research questions through the study of parliamentary sessions. The questions asked during the Question Hour of Parliamentary sessions between the years 1999 to 2019 were specifically chosen as they involved four general elections with governments completing their full five-year terms with two different ruling coalitions. As part of the evaluation, the number of questions raised by representatives, the Ministries under which they fell, and the content of questions including terms like ‘women’, ‘girls’, ‘rape’, ‘crimes against women’ and ‘maternal’, were collected and categorised.
The study reveals how descriptive representation transforms into substantive representation. It goes against the popular notion that women members only touch upon softer issues or that they are silent spectators in Parliament.
Though men asked more questions and participated in more debates than women, there has been a substantial increase in the number of questions women asked. Moreover, contrary to general belief, women representatives asked more questions on health and family welfare, human resource development, home affairs, finance, agriculture and railways than women’s issues. Male legislators asked more questions on issues concerning women than their female counterparts. These are very welcoming signs as the representatives were seen not to be held back by gender stereotypes.
Intersectionality of identities became an important factor in the questioning capacity of representatives. Members from marginal States, irrespective of gender asked fewer questions. Women from the BJP, irrespective of whether they were in power or representing the Opposition, asked the most number of questions. Party affiliations, education, regional background, ethnicity, caste and the age of women members played a role in the number and content of questions asked in the lower house. Thus, the author explains the danger of considering women as a homogenous group and how identities intersect and influence the political representation of women.
The paper studies the friction between the burden women bear to represent women’s issues more and on the other hand, being concerned in representing the issues pertaining to the general public at large. While women are expected to bring a feminine quality into the public political domain, they are breaking stereotypes by simply behaving like their male counterparts.
Analysing these debates on gender and politics, using the performance framework, one concludes that the problem of under-representation of women is only superficial.
What lies underneath is the problem of structural inequality, wherein women are marginalised at different levels. Through examples of Latin American Parliaments, the author explains how proportional representation will lead to a better representation of women’s interests.
Moreover, representation becomes a phenomenon that cannot be isolated from society. Social, cultural, economic, religious and political factors affect the process.
The increased political participation is a positive sign toward gender inclusivity and equality in the political sphere. But it has a long way to go, considering the socio-economic and cultural conditions that still socialise women into being averse to politics, hindering them from pursuing politics as a career.
4. Bangladesh river water deal likely
Joint River Commission meeting to decide on agreements on Kushiyara, Ganga
India and Bangladesh are likely to ink at least one major river agreement later this month, The Hindu has learned.
The planning for the agreement is being tightly guarded by officials on both sides as water sharing between the two countries is considered a sensitive subject given the fact that it often takes political meaning.
Apart from the major agreements under discussion, sharing of data of river waters and better flood control planning are expected to feature in the upcoming meeting of the Joint River Commission (JRC) that will meet in the last week of August ahead of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s September 6-7 India visit.
In response to a query, The Hindu learned that there is a “strong possibility” that an agreement on the Kushiyara that flows from Assam into Bangladesh is part of one such agreement that may get “done” during the JRC.
A diplomatic source also hinted at a “major agreement” involving the Ganga may also be taken up as there is a “strong urge” to achieve a big river agreement ahead of Prime Minister Hasina’s visit, which may be her last trip to Delhi before Dhaka goes into election mode next year.
Teesta waters agreement
The Awami League government has been insistent on sealing the Teesta waters agreement, which has eluded settlement so far. Now, it is understood that India has agreed to offer Bangladesh a package on river waters-related deals that will be considered a significant advancement in terms of sharing of river resources with Dhaka.
While political ties between Delhi and Kolkata have been a reason that apparently stalled Teesta waters, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was in Delhi last week and met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on issues that are relevant to her State.
Ms. Banerjee’s visit, which came against the backdrop of the tightly guarded India-Bangladesh negotiation, has contributed to the speculation on river water sharing between India and Bangladesh.
Convening the JRC has been a long-pending demand of Bangladesh as the ministerial-level meeting was last held in 2010.
Indo-Bangladesh Joint Water Commission
- India and Bangladesh share 54 common rivers.
- Hence, both the countries agreed to expand cooperation on water resources-related issues.
- For this, a Joint Technical Working Group will be set up to provide inputs on the cooperation.
About Joint Rivers Commission Framework
- Joint River Commission Framework was constituted under the Indo-Bangla Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Peace, signed in 1972.
- It was established with a view of maintaining communication systems between 2 countries.
- The commission is headed by Water Resources Ministers of both countries.
Teesta Water Dispute:
- Teesta River is a tributary of the Brahmaputra (known as Jamuna in Bangladesh). It is flowing through India and Bangladesh.
- The river rises in the eastern Himalayas.
- It flows through the Indian states of Sikkim and West Bengal to Bangladesh and enters the Bay of Bengal.
- However, the Teesta river water sharing agreement has not been signed due to opposition from West Bengal.
- River is a State subject.
5. Editorial-1: Withdrawal of the data Bill was a bad move
The enactment of the Personal Data Protection Bill into law would have helped create a framework for redress
In a surprise development last week, the Government withdrew the Personal Data Protection (PDP) Bill, 2019, thereby abruptly halting the country’s quest for a national data protection law that had been in the works for over five years. The reasons for the Government’s decision are brief and cryptic. The short circular issued by the Minister of Electronics and Information Technology simply states that considering the report of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) — it had proposed 81 amendments and made 12 recommendations — “a comprehensive legal framework is being worked on”. “In these circumstances”, the Government proposed to withdraw the Bill and present a new Bill “that fits into the comprehensive legal framework”.
Multiple iterations, to no avail
Interestingly, there is no elaboration on what such a “comprehensive legal framework” entails. The Government could enact a fresh privacy legislation or a comprehensive data protection law (covering both personal and non-personal data). Alternatively, it could subsume data protection under its ongoing attempts at revising the existing Information Technology Act, 2000. It could also enact a digital markets law, along the lines of the European Union’s Digital Services Act, focusing on competition and innovation in the digital space. Unfortunately, the Ministry’s circular leaves us with no clarity on the way forward.
The Ministry’s attribution of the withdrawal to the JPC Report is also at odds with the proposed amendments of the JPC, which did not recommend withdrawing the PDP Bill in favour of a comprehensive legal framework.
The lack of clarity is compounded by the fact that the circular does not establish any timelines on when the new Bill will be introduced in Parliament, or when it will be passed. This is particularly important, given the drafting history of the PDP Bill. When the Supreme Court of India affirmed the right to privacy in its historic K.S. Puttaswamy judgment in 2017, the nine-judge Bench of the Court referred to the Government’s Office Memorandum constituting the B.N. Srikrishna Committee to suggest a draft Data Protection Bill. The committee released its draft Personal Data Protection Bill in 2018, which was the first public articulation of a data protection law in India.
Subsequently, when the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Aadhaar Act, the majority emphasised that it believed that “there is a need for a proper legislative mechanism for data protection”. It “impressed” upon the Central government to bring out a “robust data protection regime” through the enactment of a law based on the recommendations of the Srikrishna Committee Report, with modifications as deemed necessary.
In December 2019, the Government introduced the PDP Bill, 2019 in the Lok Sabha as a comprehensive personal data protection regime. Considering the importance of the Bill and the controversies associated with various provisions, the Bill was referred to the JPC for its recommendations. In 2021, the JPC suggested multiple amendments to its re-worded Data Protection Bill, 2021, which privileged state exceptionalism over individual privacy, while continuing to strictly regulate corporate action.
Now, after five years of hard work and three iterations of data protection legislation, the Government has wasted its efforts to protect our privacy.
The PDP Bill, 2019, as well as the JPC’s recommendations in the suggested Data Protection Bill, 2021, suffered from serious lacunae, leading Justice Srikrishna to criticise the Bill for its potential to turn India into an “Orwellian state”. First, the Bill’s expansive exemptions allowed the state to exempt the entire application of the law simply as if it was “expedient” to do so in the interest of national security or public order. These exemptions did not need to be tabled before Parliament and there was no provision for review or oversight of the Government’s decision. In fact, Member of Parliament Jairam Ramesh pointed out in his dissent note, “government agencies are treated as a separate privileged class whose operations and activities are always in the public interest and individual privacy considerations are secondary”.
Second, the PDP Bill, 2019 as well as the JPC’s version established a strong regulator (the Data Protection Authority) with a lot of power, but very little independence or accountability.
Third, the Bill imposed a strong data localisation mandate, requiring companies to store all sensitive personal data and critical personal data (which was not defined) in India. Despite concerns around surveillance and increased cost of compliance expressed by civil society and the private sector, the Government did not endorse cross-border data transfer.
Finally, the JPC recommended subsuming the regulation of personal data and non-personal data within a single legislation, even though it undermined the Puttaswamy mandate to ensure protection of personal data.
Increasing digitisation, issues
However, despite these real concerns, it was, and continues to be, imperative to enact data protection legislation urgently. India currently has over 750 million Internet users, with the number only expected to increase in the future. The Government is also making a strong push for a ‘Digital India’, with increased focus on digitisation of access to health, ration, banking, insurance, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a greater focus on the inter-linking of data, whether through facial recognition, Aadhaar, or the Criminal Procedure (Identification) Act, 2022.
At the same time, India has among the highest data breaches in the world. It has been reported that around 18 of every 100 Indians have been affected by data breaches since 2004, with 962.7 million data points being leaked, primarily personal data points such as names and phone numbers. Without a data protection law in place, the data of millions of Indians continues to be at risk of being exploited, sold, and misused without their consent.
Unlike state action, corporate action or misconduct is not subject to writ proceedings in India. This is because fundamental rights are, by and large, not enforceable against private non-state entities. This leaves individuals with limited remedies against private actors. They can either seek action under the inadequate and ineffective provisions of the Information Technology Act, or file civil/criminal proceedings before a court of law (which itself is time-consuming and expensive).
A personal data protection legislation would remedy this lacuna by providing individuals with proper grievance redress options and creating sufficient deterrence among private actors. Inadequate and flawed as it was, the enactment of the PDP Bill into law would have marked a beginning in providing a redress framework. Instead, we are left with the vague promise of a “comprehensive legal framework”, with no timeline in sight.
Consult, work on fresh law
Where, then, do the Government’s actions leave us? It is imperative that the Government soon introduces a fresh data protection legislation, drawn after proper public consultation. Such a law should take into consideration the criticisms that have been raised by civil society as well as the private sector. It should be extensively discussed and debated in Parliament.
Even if the PDP Bill is not the most privacy-respecting law, it provides a certain desirable level of protection to the personal data of individuals. Once enacted, there is always scope for judicial review (based on challenges to provisions that are potentially unconstitutional) and parliamentary amendment (by legislators incorporating feedback on the working of the law). That is why even the justifiable criticisms around the PDP Bill, 2019 or the JPC’s recommendations do not justify its withdrawal. After all, there is no reason to let perfect be the enemy of good.
6. Editorial-2: Fair trial goes beyond courts, to the police and media
The media needs to aid mechanisms that aim to preserve the basic principles of the justice system
Recently, the Chief Justice of India objected to the lack of media accountability in the media’s coverage of legal issues. His remarks came less than a month after the Delhi police admitted to informing the media about the outcome of AltNews’ co-founder Mohammed Zubair’s bail hearing before the judicial order was even pronounced in open court. While the matter of how this information was known to the police remains an open issue, it is problematic that a considerable portion of its news coverage depicted the remarks of the police officer as fact without waiting for the judicial order.
The police as source
In criminal cases that attract the most sensationalist media coverage, media attention is often drawn toward investigation and early trial stages, with a notable disconnect from eventual outcomes of trial that follow several months or even years after an arrest. This makes the police a crucial source for the media and communication between the two institutions is often a starting point of the troubles of media trials. Unregulated divulgence of case details by an eager police force and disproportionate reliance on this information by the media (to the detriment of the judiciary and other sources), results in a public stripping of the rights that typically accompany a fair trial.
Reportage of this nature violates the presumption of innocence and the right to dignity and the privacy of suspects, the accused, victims, witnesses and persons closely related to them. They often face social ostracisation and difficulties in retaining employment, making them vulnerable to crime and exploitation.
Ineffectual media policies
Though the police are meant to be an independent agency, tasked with truth-seeking (ostensibly an objective shared with the news media), this is not always the case. Police narratives are sometimes designed to achieve political goals, and the media’s ready acceptance of these narratives does little to prevent their insidious effects. Given the media’s ability to shape political opinion, law enforcement agencies are sometimes under pressure to selectively reveal certain facets of the investigation or to mischaracterise incidents as communal or systemic. Just a few years ago, the investigation of the Bhima Koregaon violence (2018) was marked by a slew of motivated arrests of popular dissenters critical of the Government. While the investigation was underway, the police exposed letters purportedly written by these activists that were still undergoing forensic analysis. While these letters received extensive news coverage, none of them was presented as evidence in court.
The police, when independent from political and corporate influence, are more concerned with demonstrating dynamism and efficiency, rather than the protection of civil liberties. Courts have repeatedly directed law enforcement authorities not to reveal details of their investigations, especially the personal details of the accused, before trial is complete (notably, the Supreme Court in Romila Thapar vs Union of India, (2018) 10 SCC 753). Despite this, statutory restrictions on the police to maintain confidentiality are rare, with Kerala being one of the few States to have disallowed photographs and parades of persons in custody within its Police Act. Most other States have issued disparate media policy guidelines with weak enforcement mechanisms through administrative circulars whose contents remain unknown to the public. The Ministry of Home Affairs issued a sparse office memorandum outlining a media policy over a decade ago, but this is of limited value given that ‘Police’ is an entry in the State List and thus falls primarily within the jurisdiction of State governments. In any event, the slew of media reports on arrests, complete with residential and age details of suspects and their photographs, is a strong indication that these internal orders, where they exist, are ignored.
Most police departments do not have dedicated media cells, making officials of all levels authoritative sources of information and blurring the boundaries between an official and informal police account of events. As a result, the evidence-based narrative of criminal cases presented by the police to a court varies significantly from the account provided to the news media, much to the detriment of the persons involved in the case, and the justice system as a whole. A range of stakeholders now demand stronger regulation of communication channels between law enforcement and the media. In an ongoing case, the Peoples’ Union for Civil Liberties asked the Supreme Court to issue guidelines to regulate media briefings by the police to ensure fair trial. This has left the judiciary with no choice but to deliberate on binding directives to the police.
Indifference of the media
Problematic news coverage of criminal cases arises when reporters absolve themselves of any duty to contextualise information revealed by the police. Media ethics extend beyond verification of facts. Apart from making sure that police narratives are accurate before making them public, reporters bear the burden of translating the significance of police versions in a criminal trial. For example, many reports mention “arrest” without any information about whether such arrests are conducted in the course of investigation or after filing of a charge sheet — an important indicator of the degree of certainty with which the police can assert the claim that they are indeed criminals.
Ignorance of these nuances of the justice system has significant implications for citizens whom it is meant to protect, and contributes considerably to the public apprehension and mistrust in the system. Some of this negligence can be attributed to the changing nature of the newsroom responding to deadlines externally set by competing social media accounts that now qualify as news. With the growing financial pressures on media organisations, beat reporters specialising in crime and legal reporting are becoming rare.
Current media regulation is limited, and rightly so. Government regulation is not uniform for print and television media and enforcement of these regulations, where it occurs, is slow. In any event, Government regulation of the media is problematic and likely to increase politicisation of the press. Self-regulation set-ups such as the National Broadcasting Standards Authority and Indian Broadcasting Foundation are membership-based and easily avoided by simply withdrawing from the group. This weak regulatory environment effectively leaves reporting norms to the conscience of reporters and their editors.
Unfortunately, given the narrow goals of both institutions, it serves neither the interest of the police nor the media to deliberate how information should be disseminated while protecting the persons involved in the case. However, with an increasing call for media regulation, it is now in the immediate interest of the media and the general interest of free press, that media institutions look inward to find an answer to what is essentially an ethical crisis. The media’s immense power to shape narratives regarding public conceptions of justice makes it a close associate of the justice system, bringing with it a responsibility to uphold the basic principles of our justice system. The media should feel subject to the obligation to do its part in aiding mechanisms that aim to preserve these principles. On the other hand, a structured and well-designed media policy with training and enforcement mechanisms is the need of the hour for the police.
7. Editorial-3: Space to learn
The failure of SSLV does not have to be a demoralising lesson
The booming excitement over the maiden launch of the Indian Space Research Organisation’s new rocket, the small satellite launch vehicle (SSLV), turned to disappointment soon after. This was because the satellites that the vehicle was carrying failed to be placed into the desired orbits and were lost. Breaking a tradition of withdrawal and silence after a failed mission, ISRO announced the details of why the satellites were lost without losing time. The three stages of the SSLV rocket, with their solid propellants, performed as expected and detached smoothly to raise the remaining stages through the determined trajectory. However, in the terminal stage, there was malfunctioning of a sensor, which led to the satellites being placed in an elliptical orbit instead of a 356 km, low-Earth, circular orbit. An elliptical orbit is defined by its long and short axes, just as a circle is defined by its radius. The short axis of the elliptical orbit achieved was small and the height the satellites were above the earth was only about 76 km. At this height, the atmospheric drag would hinder the progress of the satellite and if a huge thrust is not provided, the object would lose height and fall back to the earth, perhaps burning up; in any case it will be invariably lost to the control room. This is what happened to the two satellites being carried by the SSLV.
The SSLV has been promoted as the next workhorse rocket of ISRO after the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). Measuring just two metres in diameter and with a height of 35 m, it is indeed smaller than the PSLV which has been used to place satellites of a wide range of masses. The fact that PSLV carries smaller satellites, too, is something of an overkill, and those with masses up to 500 kilograms can be sent up using the SSLV instead. The SSLV uses solid propellants and this is more economical and easier to handle than the liquid propellant stages of the PSLV. The SSLV has the flexibility to launch multiple satellites, and satellites can be launched on demand — as the rocket requires minimal launch infrastructure. All these features make it very attractive for commercial earth observation and communication. Strategically, too, it makes sense to separate the ranges of mass being carried. This time, however, success was not to be, and the 135 kg Earth Observation Satellite EOS-02 and the 8 kg nano satellite, AzaadiSAT, were both lost. What stood out in this episode was the direct communication of S. Somanath, Chairperson, ISRO, and making available the initial analysis quickly for the benefit of all concerned. It is well known that space agencies around the world invest in testing much more than India does. India’s approach, though seemingly economical, might extract a cost at some point. Success in such circumstances is remarkable; and failure a lesson that comes at a cost.