1. Quad leaders for ‘open, free’ Indo-Pacific
Focus on vaccines, climate change, emerging tech makes group a force for global good, says PM Modi
Members of the Quadrilateral framework, or Quad, will become “closer than ever before”, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Friday, in his address to the first-ever leadership summit of the grouping.
Addressing the virtual summit, Mr. Modi, President Joe Biden of the United States, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison highlighted cooperation among the member countries to beat the COVID-19 pandemic, with joint partnership on vaccines and emphasised the need for an “open” and “free” Indo-Pacific region.
“We are united by our democratic values and our commitment to a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. Our agenda, covering areas like vaccines, climate change and emerging technologies, make the Quad a force for global good. We will work together, closer than ever before on advancing our shared values and promoting a secure, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” said Mr. Modi, who described the Quadrilateral framework as an “important pillar of stability in the region”.
The member countries agreed to ensure “equitable” access to vaccines. A joint statement, titled ‘The Spirit of the Quad’, said: “We will join forces to expand safe, affordable, and effective vaccine production and equitable access to speed economic recovery and benefit global health.”
Mr. Biden emphasised that the Indo-Pacific region should be governed in accordance with human rights.
“And we’re renewing our commitment to ensure that our region is governed by international law, committed to upholding universal values and free from coercion. We’ve got a big agenda ahead of us,” Mr. Biden said.
Mr. Morrison laid out the agenda of the Quad in the near future. “We join together as leaders of nations to welcome what I think will be a new dawn in the Indo-Pacific through our gathering,” he said.
Prime Minister Suga acknowledged the new dynamism that the Quad had received because of the meeting of the top leaders. “With the four countries working together, I wish to firmly advance our cooperation to realise, a free and open Indo Pacific, and to make a tangible contribution to the peace, stability, and prosperity of the region, including overcoming COVID-19,” he said.
The Quad had been taken to the “apex level”, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said during a special briefing on the leaders’ summit.
“We are all committed to free and open, inclusive, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific. Today’s summit adopted a positive vision to address contemporary issues with vaccine cooperation. Leaders agreed to strengthen, peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region,” said Mr. Shringla, who described the focus on the vaccines as the “most pressing”.
He said the U.S., Japan and Australia would finance the vaccine initiative that India welcomed. “We look forward to participating in the initiative whole-heartedly. During the discussion there was wholesome appreciation of the Vaccine Maitri initiative,” Mr. Shringla said.
The vaccine expert working group, a critical and emerging technology working group, and a climate working group for technology, capacity building and climate finance were cleared during the summit. The Foreign Secretary also said the Quad leaders had agreed to meet in person in the coming months.
“The Quad does not stand against anything, it stands for something,” Mr. Shringla said, explaining that the Quad was a value-based grouping that was trying to deal with the need for vaccines, climate change and other such issues. He informed that the issue of military takeover in Myanmar came up during the discussion among the leaders.
- China’s unilateral claim on the Nine-Dash Line in the South China Sea; rapid warship building its first overseas base in Djibouti; and its surface and subsurface activities in Indian Ocean beyond the Malacca Straits have alarmed regional countries like India and Japan about increasing Chinese ambition.
- In this context, the idea of Quad was first mooted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007.
- However, the idea couldn’t move ahead with Australia pulling out of it, apparently due to Chinese pressure.
- In December 2012, Shinzo Abe again floated the concept of Asia’s “Democratic Security Diamond” involving Australia, India, Japan and the US to safeguard the maritime commons from the Indian Ocean to the western Pacific.
- In November 2017, India, the US, Australia and Japan gave shape to the long-pending “Quad” Coalition to develop a new strategy to keep the critical sea routes in the Indo-Pacific free of any influence (especially China).
- Quad is criticised by China as asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Opportunities for India Under Quad Arrangement
- The maritime space is a lot more important to China than engaging in opportunistic land grab attempts in the Himalayas.
- A huge chunk of Chinese trade happens via the Indian oceanic routes that pass through maritime chokepoints.
- In the event of any chinese aggression on borders, India by cooperation with Quad countries can potentially disrupt chinese trade.
- Hence, unlike in the continental sphere where India seems facing a ‘nutcracker like situation’ due to China-Pakistan collusion, the maritime sphere is wide open to India to undertake coalition building, rule setting, and other forms of strategic exploration.
Emerging as a Net Security Provider
- There is a growing great power interest in the maritime sphere, especially with the arrival of the concept of ‘Indo-Pacific’. For instance, many european countries have recently released their Indo-Pacific strategies.
- With India, located right at the centre of the Indo-Pacific geopolitical imagination can realise the vision of a ‘broader Asia’ that can extend its influence away from geographical boundaries.
- Moreover, India can build around collective action in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, monitoring shipping for search and rescue or anti-piracy operations, infrastructure assistance to climatically vulnerable states, connectivity initiatives and similar activities.
- Further, India with Quad countries can check imperialist policies of China in Indian ocean region and ensure Security and growth for all in the region.
Issues Related to Quad
- Undefined Vision: Despite the potential for cooperation, the Quad remains a mechanism without a defined strategic mission.
- Maritime Dominated: The entire focus on the Indo-Pacific makes the Quad a maritime, rather than a land-based grouping, raising questions whether the cooperation extends to the Asia-Pacific and Eurasian regions.
- India’s Aversion of Alliance System: The fact that India is the only member that is averse to a treaty alliance system, has slowed down the progress of building a stronger Quadrilateral engagement.
2. Bureaucrats cannot be State Election Commissioners: SC
‘Independent persons should hold post’
The Supreme Court on Friday held that independent persons and not bureaucrats should be appointed State Election Commissioners.
A Bench, led by Justice Rohinton F. Nariman, in a judgment, said giving government employees the additional charge of State Election Commissioners is a “mockery of the Constitution”.
The top court directed that the States should appoint independent persons as Election Commissioners all along the length and breadth of the country.
‘Give up post’
It said government employees holding the post of State Election Commissioners as additional charge should give up the post.
The Supreme Court said its direction should be followed strictly.
The independence of Election Commissions cannot be compromised at any cost, the Bench said, adding that it was “disturbing” to see government employees manning State Election Commissions as an add-on job.
The judgment criticised the Goa government for giving its Law Secretary the additional charge of State Election Commissioner.
“Under the constitutional mandate, it is the duty of the State to not interfere with the functioning of the State Election Commission,” the Bench said.
The judgment came on an appeal against an order of the Bombay High Court which had set aside the election notification issued by the Goa State Election Commission in the municipalities of Margao, Mapusa, Mormugao, Sanguem and Quepem.
The Supreme Court ordered the Goa State Election Commission to issue a notification for panchayat polls within 10 days and complete the election process by April 30.
State Election Commission:
The Constitution of India vests in the State Election Commission, consisting of a State Election Commissioner, the superintendence, direction and control of the preparation of electoral rolls for, and the conduct of all elections to the Panchayats and the Municipalities (Articles 243K, 243ZA).
The State Election Commissioner is appointed by the Governor.
As per article 243(C3) the Governor, when so requested by the State Election Commission, make available to the State Election Commission such staff as may be necessary for the discharge of the functions conferred on the SEC.
The ECI and SECs have a similar mandate; do they also have similar powers?
The provisions of Article 243K of the Constitution, which provides for setting up of SECs, are almost identical to those of Article 324 related to the EC. In other words, the SECs enjoy the same status as the EC.
In Kishan Singh Tomar vs Municipal Corporation of the City of Ahmedabad case, the Supreme Court directed that state governments should abide by orders of the SECs during the conduct of the panchayat and municipal elections, just like they follow the instructions of the EC during Assembly and Parliament polls.
How far can courts intervene?
Courts cannot interfere in the conduct of polls to local bodies and self-government institutions once the electoral process has been set in motion.
Article 243-O of the Constitution bars interference in poll matters set in motion by the SECs; Article 329 bars interference in such matters set in motion by the EC.
- Only after the polls are over can the SECs’ decisions or conduct be questioned through an election petition.
- These powers enjoyed by the SECs are the same as those by the EC.
3. Inflation quickens as Jan. IIP contracts
Retail price gains hit 3-month high of 5.03% in Feb. on food, fuel costs; industrial output shrank 1.6%
Retail inflation quickened in February to 5.03%, a three-month high, spurred by higher food and fuel prices, official data released on Friday showed.
Food price inflation as measured by the Consumer Food Price Index (CFPI) accelerated to 3.87% last month, from 1.96% in January. While the prices of oils and fats surged 20.8% from a year earlier, those of pulses and products climbed 12.5%, while meat and fish prices increased 11.3%, eggs (11.1%) and fruits (6.28%).
Prices of vegetables, which have been softening in recent months, saw the contraction narrow to 6.27%, after falling 15.8% in January.
Inflation in the transport and communication category was 11.4%, a sharp jump from January’s 9.3%.
The spurt in retail inflation mainly originated from higher food inflation, said Sunil Kumar Sinha, Principal Economist at India Ratings and Research.
“Weakening of base effect in February 2021 contributed to higher food inflation. Vegetable prices remained in deflationary mode for the third consecutive month. However, deflation slowed down considerably to 6.3% in February 2021,” he added.
Mr. Sinha added that higher retail prices of fuel due to a combination of higher crude prices and elevated excise duties pushed transport and communication inflation to a four-month high.
“Health inflation… at 6.3% was a 17-month high and is turning structural,” he added.
Factory output retreats
Industrial production contracted 1.6% in January, mainly on account of a decline in output of capital goods, manufacturing and mining sectors, Press Trust of India reported, citing a separate official release.
Output of the manufacturing sector, which constitutes 77.6% of the Index of Industrial Production (IIP), shrank by 2% in January, as against a growth of 1.8% in the same month last fiscal.
‘Some distance to cover’
“The contraction in IIP numbers at -1.6% for January comes as a bit of surprise after turning positive in December (1.04%),” M. Govinda Rao, Chief Economic Adviser, Brickwork Ratings, said in a statement. “The manufacturing sector continues to contract at 2% and shows that we still have some distance to cover before the economy recovers,” the economist added.
“Going forward, the excess liquidity in the system combined with volatility in fuel prices can pose an upward risk to inflation,” Dr. Rao said. “The RBI might take some measures to drain excess liquidity,” he added.
Inflation can be defined as a calculated surge in the average prices of goods and services for a longer duration in the economy. It is a macro concept, wherein the effect of inflation is seen over a large basket of goods. The ultimate effect of inflation is that the value of money is reduced i.e., the purchasing power of money is reduced.
As per RBI, an inflation target of 4 per cent with a +/-2 per cent tolerance band, is appropriate for the next five years (2021-2025).
Types of Inflation
The different types of inflation in an economy can be explained as follows:
This type of inflation is caused due to an increase in aggregate demand in the economy.
Causes of Demand-Pull Inflation:
- A growing economy or increase in the supply of money – When consumers feel confident, they spend more and take on more debt. This leads to a steady increase in demand, which means higher prices.
- Asset inflation or Increase in Forex reserves– A sudden rise in exports forces a depreciation of the currencies involved.
- Government spending or Deficit financing by the government – When the government spends more freely, prices go up.
- Due to fiscal stimulus.
- Increased borrowing.
- Depreciation of rupee.
- Low unemployment rate.
Effects of Demand-Pull Inflation:
- Shortage in supply
- Increase in the prices of the goods (inflation).
- The overall increase in the cost of living.
This type of inflation is caused due to various reasons such as:
- Increase in price of inputs
- Hoarding and Speculation of commodities
- Defective Supply chain
- Increase in indirect taxes
- Depreciation of Currency
- Crude oil price fluctuation
- Defective food supply chain
- Low growth of Agricultural sector
- Food Inflation
- Interest rates increased by RBI
Cost pull inflation is considered bad among the two types of inflation. Because the National Income is reduced along with the reduction in supply in the Cost-push type of inflation.
This type of inflation involves a high demand for wages by the workers which the firms address by increasing the cost of goods and services for the customers.
Remedies to Inflation
The different remedies to solve issues related to inflation can be stated as:
- Monetary Policy (Contractionary policy)
The monetary policy of the Reserve Bank of India is aimed at managing the quantity of money in order to meet the requirements of different sectors of the economy and to boost economic growth.
This contractionary policy is manifested by decreasing bond prices and increasing interest rates. This helps in reducing expenses during inflation which ultimately helps halt economic growth and, in turn, the rate of inflation.
- Fiscal Policy
- Monetary policy is often seen separate from fiscal policy which deals with taxation, spending by government and borrowing. Monetary policy is either contractionary or expansionary.
- When the total money supply is increased rapidly than normal, it is called an expansionary policy while a slower increase or even a decrease of the same refers to a contractionary policy.
- It deals with the Revenue and Expenditure policy of the government.
Tools of fiscal policy
- Direct Taxes and Indirect taxes – Direct taxes should be increased and indirect taxes should be reduced.
- Public Expenditure should be decreased (should borrow less from RBI and more from other financial institutions)
- Supply Management measures
- Import commodities that are in short supply
- Decrease exports
- Govt may put a check on hoarding and speculation
- Distribution through Public Distribution System (PDS).
Measurement of Inflation
- Wholesale Price Index (WPI) – It is estimated by the Ministry of Commerce & Industry and measured on a monthly basis.
- Consumer Price Index (CPI) – It is calculated by taking price changes for each item in the predetermined lot of goods and averaging them.
- Producer Price Index – It is a measure of the average change in the selling prices over time received by domestic producers for their output.
- Commodity Price Indices – It is a fixed-weight index or (weighted) average of selected commodity prices, which may be based on spot or futures price
- Core Price Index – It measures the prices paid by consumers for goods and services without the volatility caused by movements in food and energy prices. It is a way to measure the underlying inflation trends.
- GDP deflator – It is a measure of general price inflation.
Effect of Inflation on the Economy
The effect of inflation on the economy can be stated as:
- The effect of inflation is not distributed evenly in the economy. There are chances of hidden costs for different goods and services in the economy.
- Sudden or unpredictable inflation rates are harmful to an overall economy. They lead to market instability and thereby make it difficult for companies to plan a budget for the long-term.
- Inflation can act as a drag on productivity as companies are forced to mobilize resources away from products and services to handle the situations of profit and losses from inflation.
- Moderate inflation enables labour markets to reach equilibrium at a faster pace.
Important Terms related to Inflation
- Disinflation: Reduction in the rate of inflation
- Deflation: Persistent decrease in the price level (negative inflation)
- Reflation: Price level increases when the economy recovers from recession based on value of inflation
- Creeping inflation – If the rate of inflation is low (upto 3%)
- Walking/Trotting inflation – Rate of inflation is moderate (3-7%)
- Running/Galloping inflation – Rate of inflation is high (>10%)
- Runaway/Hyper Inflation – Rate of inflation is extreme
- Stagflation: Inflation + Recession (Unemployment)
- Misery index: Rate of inflation + Rate of unemployment
- Inflationary gap: Aggregate demand > Aggregate supply (at full employment level)
- Deflationary gap: Aggregate supply > Aggregate demand (at full employment level)
- Suppressed / Repressed inflation: Aggregate demand > Aggregate supply. Here govt will not allow rising of prices.
- Open inflation: A situation where price level rises without any price control measures by the government.
- Core inflation: Based on those items whose prices are non-volatile.
- Headline inflation: All commodities are covered in this.
- Structural inflation: Due to structural problems like infrastructural bottlenecks.
4. ‘Centre to infuse ₹14,500 cr. into banks under PCA soon’
Indian Overseas Bank, Central Bank, UCO Bank may benefit
The Finance Ministry is likely to decide on infusion of ₹14,500 crore mainly in banks that are under the RBI’s prompt corrective action (PCA) framework, to improve their financial health.
Indian Overseas Bank, Central Bank of India and UCO Bank are currently under this framework that places several curbs, including on lending and management compensation.
The Ministry has almost finalised its names of probable candidates for capital infusion, sources said.
The infusion will be made in the next few days, the sources said, adding the biggest beneficiary of this round of capital infusion would be the banks that are under the PCA framework.
The capital infusion will help these banks to come out of the RBI’s enhanced regulatory supervision.
‘Funds from market’
Most large state-owned lenders — including State Bank of India, Punjab National Bank, Bank of Baroda, Canara Bank, Union Bank of India and Indian Bank — have already raised money from market sources, including share sale on a private placement basis.
For the current financial year, the government had allocated ₹20,000 crore for capital infusion into PSBs to help them meet their regulatory requirements.
Prompt Corrective Action (PCA)
- PCA is a framework under which banks with weak financial metrics are put under watch by the RBI.
- The RBI introduced the PCA framework in 2002 as a structured early-intervention mechanism for banks that become undercapitalised due to poor asset quality, or vulnerable due to loss of profitability.
- It aims to check the problem of Non-Performing Assets (NPAs) in the Indian banking sector.
- The framework was reviewed in 2017 based on the recommendations of the working group of the Financial Stability and Development Council on Resolution Regimes for Financial Institutions in India and the Financial Sector Legislative Reforms Commission.
- PCA is intended to help alert the regulator as well as investors and depositors if a bank is heading for trouble.
- The idea is to head off problems before they attain crisis proportions.
- Essentially PCA helps RBI monitor key performance indicators of banks, and taking corrective measures, to restore the financial health of a bank.
- The PCA framework deems banks as risky if they slip some trigger points – capital to risk weighted assets ratio (CRAR), net NPA, Return on Assets (RoA) and Tier 1 Leverage ratio.
- Certain structured and discretionary actions are initiated in respect of banks hitting such trigger points.
- The PCA framework is applicable only to commercial banks and not to co-operative banks and non-banking financial companies (NBFCs).
- It may be noted that of the 21 state-run banks, 11 are under the PCA framework.
|Non Performing Asset A non performing asset (NPA) is a loan or advance for which the principal or interest payment remained overdue for a period of 90 days. Banks are required to classify NPAs further into Substandard, Doubtful and Loss assets. Capital Adequacy Ratio (CAR) The CAR is a measure of a bank’s available capital expressed as a percentage of a bank’s risk-weighted credit exposures. The Capital Adequacy Ratio, also known as capital-to-risk weighted assets ratio (CRAR), is used to protect depositors and promote the stability and efficiency of financial systems around the world.|
- RBI can place restrictions on dividend distribution, branch expansion, and management compensation.
- Only in an extreme situation, would a bank be a likely candidate for resolution through amalgamation, reconstruction or winding up.
- RBI may place restrictions on credit by PCA banks to unrated borrowers or those with high risks, but it doesn’t invoke a complete ban on their lending.
- RBI may also impose restrictions on the bank on borrowings from interbank market.
- Banks may also not be allowed to enter into new lines of business.
Challenges and Issues
- PCA is an exceptional action and impacts the rating of the bank as well as consumer confidence. This is detrimental in the long run as it impacts the credit history of the bank and raises questions about its management.
- PCA can accelerate the loss of market share and cause further decline of the position of the public sector banks in the financial system in favour of private banks and foreign banks.
- PCA is seen by government as hindering economic growth therefore is arguing for easier lending policies by relaxing the PCA norms and aligning them to global norms.
- The tussle between RBI and government can negatively impact the image of India as an investment destination.
5. Bring down benzene emission at fuel outlets, says panel
Fix vapour recovery system to improve air quality: NGT-appointed committee
A joint committee appointed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to study air pollution in Kerala has recommended the installation of vapour recovery system at fuelling stations and retrofitting of diesel vehicles with particulate filters to improve air quality.
The report submitted before the Southern Bench of the tribunal pointed out that petrol refuelling stations were a major source of benzene emissions, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter 2.5 concentration. “Therefore, installation of vapour recovery system is an important step in improving air quality. This is to be implemented in coordination with the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organization [PESO] shortly,” it said.
The joint committee comprises officials of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Central and State Pollution Control Boards, and the CSIR-National Environment Engineering Research Institute, Chennai. The committee was directed to assess the ambient air quality levels in the State, especially in Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Kochi, Alappuzha, Kozhikode, Thrissur, Kasaragod, and Kannur.
The panel recommended stringent action against industrial units that do not comply with emission norms.
The Pollution Control Board has already suggested retrofitting of emission control devices of generators and replacing diesel generators with gas-based ones.
Other recommendations include promoting battery-operated vehicles and banning old diesel vehicles in a phased manner, greening of open areas, and creation of green buffers along traffic corridors.
The short term measures recommended include strict action against visibly polluting vehicles (to be initiated by the Motor Vehicles Department), introduction of wet / mechanised vacuum sweeping of roads, controlling dust pollution at construction sites, and ensuring transport of construction materials in covered vehicles.
Study in June
The tribunal has asked the committee to assess the air quality in the post-pandemic phase to study the scenario when activities are expected to peak.
The committee has said that the study could be held in June, anticipating that educational institutions may reopen, and public transport will return to normal.
Benzene Pollution is a colourless or light-yellow chemical that is liquid at room temperature. It has a sweet odour and is highly flammable. Benzene is formed from both natural processes and human activities.
Natural sources of benzene include volcanoes and forest fires. Benzene is also a natural part of crude oil, gasoline, and cigarette smoke. Normal environmental concentrations of benzene are unlikely to damage animals or plants. It does have a low to moderate toxicity for aquatic organisms, but this is only likely to be apparent when high concentrations arise from significant spills.
The indoor benzene exposure is often higher than outdoor. The outdoor air usually contains a low level of benzene from tobacco smoke, gas stations, motor vehicle exhaust, and industrial emissions. The benzene in indoor air comes from products such as glues, paints, furniture wax, and detergents.
Further, fuels such as coal, wood, gas, kerosene or liquid petroleum gas (LPG) for space heating and cooking also lead to higher benzene concentration indoors.
Polyurethane is used majorly its two major applications, soft furnishings and insulation. Its thermal decomposition consists mainly of carbon monoxide, benzene, toluene, oxides of nitrogen, hydrogen cyanide, acetaldehyde, acetone, propene, carbon dioxide, alkenes and water vapor.
6. Editorial-1: The new media rules are a tightening noose
What is worrying is the executive’s idea that users need to be protected against the very media that seek to inform them
The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, notified towards the end of February by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology should not come as a surprise because it is of a piece with the systematic incremental erosion of the freedom of speech and expression that has marked the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rule under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The fate, or the final shape, of the notification will depend on the way the two petitions already filed against it in courts in Kerala and Delhi are decided upon. But the more worrying aspect of this clumsily veiled move by the executive to keep the media — particularly the standalone digital news media, which have generally proved more defiant and inconvenient for the government than the mainstream press or television channels — on a leash is the way it invokes and insinuates the idea that the public, or the users, need to be protected against the very media that in fact seek to make them critically informed citizens, thereby making their democracy that much richer and deeper.
A redress mechanism
For all appearances, the overarching intent of this new set of rules is to put in place a grievance redressal mechanism for the end user or consumer of social media and over-the-top (OTT) platforms and the digital news web portals. That, of course, would normally be an unexceptionable public purpose. But in an already vitiated climate of overweening political and religious majoritarianism, where the street tends to (and is often egged on to), whip up and aggressively nurse and drive a sense of outrage or hurt on any and every issue, irrespective of institutional procedures or safeguards, the nature and scope of the bulk of grievances can easily be imagined.
Further, the smaller or medium-sized independent digital news and current affairs portals, which are for the most part struggling to stay afloat irrespective of whether they are newer startups or have been around for a few years, will be the ones hardest hit by this redress requirement. Any criticism of the ruling party or government could trigger an orchestrated avalanche of grievances. The notified rules set out an elaborate time-bound three-tier process whereby each and every such grievance is first handled at the level of the portal itself by its own grievance officer, and if not satisfactorily settled, passes on to the self-regulatory body of the sector or industry, and if yet not resolved, moves further up to an inter-ministerial oversight committee of the central government.
Regulation by the government
The sheer process of such grievance handling can stymie the operations of a relatively smaller digital venture in the news and current affairs space. The process, further, makes a mockery of the concept of self-regulation, with an inter-ministerial committee of government officials in effect becoming an appellate authority over the self-regulatory exercise. This would be self-regulation by the media organisation and the industry at the government’s pleasure; regulation by the government masquerading as self-regulation by the news media entity or industry. What is worse, the notification gives the Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, ad hoc emergency powers to block any content the government considers problematic even without such token procedure.
Negation through distortion of the idea of self-regulation is really the nub of the matter, at least as far as the section pertaining to publishers of news and current affairs in the notification is concerned. Real or imagined grievance out there becomes an alibi for this clumsy sleight of hand whereby the government can in effect prescribe, oversee and overrule so-called self-regulation by the publishers. It would be a joke if it did not have such serious implications.
Poses a financial threat
A measure like this, moreover, jeopardises the very sustenance of the already financially straitened and functionally beleaguered digital news media — unless that is the very intention. Monetisation avenues become scarce, and investors and brands run scared because of what they see as political considerations supervening upon business interests and a whimsical media policy regime in constant flux.
What makes this notification seem more diabolic than ham-handed censorship is the buzz around the same time about confabulations between groups of ministers and journalists — some of them proactively furthering the ruling party’s ideology and agenda, some easily pliable, some perhaps unwary and unwittingly roped into the discussions — and the classification of the journalists by the BJP caucus involved in this exercise based on how cosy or distant they are seen to be to the establishment. It then seems to be part of a concerted move by the government to bring the more critical sections of the news media to heel.
Eroding pillars of democracy
The case for organic self-regulation by the news media as against by an external authority or body becomes more focused and urgent in the context of this notification and the many anecdotal symptoms of a censorship mindset we see growing around us. It is important to take a step back and remind ourselves that the fourth estate, or the fourth pillar, is as much a player as the other three pillars — the executive, the legislature and the judiciary — in the separation of powers scheme of our constitutional democracy.
Although the freedom of the press per se is not an explicitly prescribed fundamental right in the Indian Constitution, and is, rather, a derivative right from Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(g) which give every citizen the right to free speech and expression, and to practise any profession respectively, these freedoms have in practice become constitutive and definitive of the fourth estate in the country. That fourth pillar of democracy must be in a dynamic relationship of checks and balances vis-à-vis the other three pillars: the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. It is a healthy tension among the four pillars that keeps the democratic edifice strong and vibrant.
The fourth estate in India, though, has increasingly been at the receiving end of draconian executive acts, invocations of legislative privilege and judicial intolerance. If the fourth estate is to be treated by the executive as an inconvenience to be sidelined, surely the other pillars, the judiciary and the legislature, lay themselves open to the same fate. Already characterisations of democracy, like the illiberal democracy in Orbán’s Hungary or authoritarian democracy here at home, are intimations of the uncertainties ahead. Surely, the body blow delivered to our democracy by the Emergency of 1975-77 must be, more than a bad memory, a lesson at this conjuncture.
At the risk of sounding tongue in cheek, this notification also begs the question as to why the government should go to such devious lengths to trammel press freedom when there are deadlier weapons in its armoury, including the archaic Sedition law and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, which it has shown little reluctance to use against critical voices.
Truth is getting unstuck
The situation harks back to the beginning of 18th century England, when the idea of the press freedom that we take (or now no longer take) for granted was being fought and suffered for, and secured inch by inch. The mindset of the establishment then was on telling display in the observation of Chief Justice John Holt while giving sweeping powers to the authorities to invoke seditious libel: “If men should not be called to account for possessing the people with an ill opinion of the government, no government can subsist; for it is very necessary for every government that the people should have a good opinion of it.”
To this flagrant belief could be traced the origins of truth not being allowed as a legal defence in a case of libel, which had such enormous consequences for truthful journalism. It took a very long time to change that premise and make truth a valid defence against libel. Now, again, truth seems to be coming unstuck as a value. This contentious notification takes it an absurd step further. A blatant measure of government regulation of the news media is sought to be passed off as self-regulation by that same news media. If that is not post-Truth, what is?
The Supreme Court (SC) had observed that the Government of India may frame necessary guidelines to eliminate child pornography, rape and gangrape imageries, videos and sites in content hosting platforms and other applications.
- An Ad-hoc committee of the Rajya Sabha laid its report after studying the alarming issue of pornography on social media and its effect on children and society as a whole and recommended for enabling identification of the first originator of such contents.
- The government brought video streaming over-the-top (OTT) platforms under the ambit of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
New Guidelines for Social Media/Intermediaries:
Categories of Social Media Intermediaries:
- Based on the number of users, on the social media platform intermediaries have been divided in two groups:
- Social media intermediaries.
- Significant social media intermediaries.
Due Diligence to be Followed by Intermediaries:
- In case, due diligence is not followed by the intermediary, safe harbour provisions will not apply to them.
- The safe harbour provisions have been defined under Section 79 of the IT Act, and protect social media intermediaries by giving them immunity from legal prosecution for any content posted on their platforms.
Grievance Redressal Mechanism is Mandatory:
- Intermediaries shall appoint a Grievance Officer to deal with complaints and share the name and contact details of such officers.
- Grievance Officer shall acknowledge the complaint within twenty four hours and resolve it within fifteen days from its receipt.
Ensuring Online Safety and Dignity of Users:
- Intermediaries shall remove or disable access within 24 hours of receipt of complaints of contents that exposes the private areas of individuals, show such individuals in full or partial nudity or in sexual act or is in the nature of impersonation including morphed images etc.
- Such a complaint can be filed either by the individual or by any other person on his/her behalf.
Additional Due Diligence for the Significant Social Media Intermediaries:
Appointments: Need to appoint Chief Compliance Officer, a Nodal Contact Person and a Resident Grievance Officer, all of whom should be resident in India.
- Compliance Report: Need to publish a monthly compliance report mentioning the details of complaints received and action taken on the complaints as well as details of contents removed proactively.
Enabling Identity of the Originator:
- Significant social media intermediaries providing services primarily in the nature of messaging shall enable identification of the first originator of the information.
- Required only for the purposes of prevention, detection, investigation, prosecution or punishment of an offence related to sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, or public order,
- Or of incitement to an offence relating to the above or in relation with rape, sexually explicit material or child sexual abuse material punishable with imprisonment for a term of not less than five years.
Removal of Unlawful Information:
- An intermediary upon receiving actual knowledge in the form of an order by a court or being notified by the Appropriate Govt. or its agencies through authorized officer should not host or publish any information which is prohibited under any law in relation to the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, public order, friendly relations with foreign countries etc.
Rules for News Publishers and OTT Platforms and Digital Media:
- For OTT:
- Self-Classification of Content:
- The OTT platforms, called as the publishers of online curated content in the rules, would self-classify the content into five age based categories- U (Universal), U/A 7+, U/A 13+, U/A 16+, and A (Adult).
- Parental Lock:
- Platforms would be required to implement parental locks for content classified as U/A 13+ or higher, and reliable age verification mechanisms for content classified as “A”.
- Display Rating:
- Shall prominently display the classification rating specific to each content or programme together with a content descriptor informing the user about the nature of the content, and advising on viewer description (if applicable) at the beginning of every programme enabling the user to make an informed decision, prior to watching the programme.
- For Publishers of News on Digital Media :
- They would be required to observe Norms of Journalistic Conduct of the Press Council of India and the Programme Code under the Cable Television Networks Regulation Act 1995 thereby providing a level playing field between the offline (Print, TV) and digital media.
- Grievance Redressal Mechanism:
- A three-level grievance redressal mechanism has been established under the rules with different levels of self-regulation.
- Level-I: Self-regulation by the publishers;
- Level-II: Self-regulation by the self-regulating bodies of the publishers;
- Level-III: Oversight mechanism.
- Self-regulation by the Publisher:
- Publisher shall appoint a Grievance Redressal Officer based in India who shall be responsible for the redressal of grievances received by it.
- The officer shall take decision on every grievance received by it within 15 days.
- Self-Regulatory Body:
- There may be one or more self-regulatory bodies of publishers.
- Such a body shall be headed by a retired judge of the SC, a High Court or independent eminent person and have not more than six members.
- Such a body will have to register with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
- This body will oversee the adherence by the publisher to the Code of Ethics and address grievances that have not been resolved by the publisher within 15 days.