Daily CUrrent Affairs 15.03.2021 (Myanmar Protest, National Population Register)

Daily CUrrent Affairs 15.03.2021 (Myanmar Protest, National Population Register)


1. Centre likely to allow residents to fill their NPR details online

No ‘biometrics or documents’ will be collected, says Home Ministry report

The Centre will allow residents to fill the National Population Register (NPR) form on their own, through the online mode, a month before the door-to-door enumeration by Census officials starts.

After filling the form online, residents will get a reference code that they can mention to the field enumerator at the time of her or his visit, according to a senior government official.

The details of the respondent will be displayed on a mobile application developed for conducting the Census exercise but no “biometrics or documents” will be collected. These details will then be stored in the system.

The first phase of the decennial Census exercise — the House-listing and Housing Census — along with updating the NPR was scheduled to be held from April 1, 2020. It was postponed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and is unlikely to be held this year. The second and main phase of Census — the population enumeration — was to be concluded by March 5 this year.

As reported by The Hindu on January 21, 2020, residents were to be given an option to self-enumerate only in the second phase.

As per an annual report of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, the option will now be made available for updating the NPR also. The NPR earlier collated in 2010 and 2015 has an electronic database of more than 119 crore residents.

According to the recently published report for the year 2019-20, there will be a three-pronged approach for updating the NPR database — self updating, wherein it is proposed to allow residents to update their own data fields after following some authentication protocols on a web portal; updating of NPR data in the paper format; and the mobile mode.

The report said that a “pretest” on updating the NPR had been undertaken in select areas of the States and the Union Territories, except Assam, along with the pre-test of the Census. “The demographic and other particulars of each family and individual are to be collected/ updated during the updation exercise of NPR. No documents or biometrics would be collected during updation of NPR,” the report said.

As reported, the pretest for the first phase of the Census and the NPR, involving 30 lakh respondents, was conducted from August 12 to September 20, 2019.

The report said the government prepared the NPR of all the “usual residents” in the country in 2010 by collecting specific information of each resident. “The NPR is prepared under various provisions of the Citizenship Rules, 2003, framed under the Citizenship Act, 1955. In 2015, a few fields such as name, gender, date and place of birth, place of residence and father’s and mother’s name were updated and Aadhaar, mobile and ration card numbers were collected. To incorporate the changes due to birth, death and migration, there is a need to update it again,” it said.

Additional queries

The questions for the fresh NPR have not been made public yet but the pre-test conducted in 2019 included additional questions, such as the date and the place of birth of the father and mother, the last place of residence and mother tongue, Aaadhar (optional), Voter ID card, and mobile phone and Driver’s Licence numbers. States ruled by non-BJP parties have expressed apprehensions regarding the additional questions.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced on February 1 that ₹3,768 crore had been allocated for the Census in the financial year 2021-22. Though no separate budget for the NPR has been allocated in this fiscal, ₹3,941.35 crore was approved for updating the NPR in 2019-20.

Around 30 lakh enumerators — government officials and government school teachers — will each be assigned the responsibility of collecting details from about 650-800 people through both the online and offline modes.

The Registrar-General of India (RGI) is presently conducting field trials of the first phase of the Census and the NPR through the mobile application in a block, each comprising 50-60 households, in all the States and Union Territories.

Widespread dissent

The NPR’s link with the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the yet to be implemented Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019, has been opposed by many States and civil society groups.

The Citizenship Rules framed in the year 2003 say that the NPR is the first step towards the compilation of the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC), or the NRC. The CAA passed by the Parliament on December 11, 2019, allows citizenship on the basis of religion to six undocumented communities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, who entered India on or before December 31, 2014. Though the government has denied that the CAA and the NRC are linked, there are apprehensions that the CAA followed by a countrywide NRC, will benefit non-Muslims excluded from the proposed citizens’ register, while excluded Muslims will have to prove their citizenship.

The Union Home Ministry informed the Lok Sabha on February 4, 2020 that “till now, the government has not taken any decision to prepare the NRIC at the national level”.

However, in March 2020, the Ministry filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court that preparation of the NRC is a “necessary exercise for any sovereign country for mere identification of citizens from non-citizens”. It submitted that it is “the responsibility entrusted on the Central government “to identify/detect illegal migrants and thereafter, follow the due process of law”.

At the peak of anti-CAA/NRC/NPR protest in the country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a public rally on December 22 in Delhi that “there had been no discussion, no talk on an NRC for India since his government had taken power in 2014”.

On December 9 the same year, Union Home Minister Amit Shah told Parliament that “there is no need to create a background for NRC, we are clear that NRC ought to be done in this country, our manifesto is the background”.

National Population Register

The National Population Register (NPR) updation exercise will be undertaken alongside Census 2021.

  • It will be conducted by the Office of the Registrar General of India (RGI) under the Home Ministry.
  • Only Assam will not be included, given the recently completed National Register of Citizens (NRC).

National Population Register


  • It is a list of “usual residents of the country”.
    • A “usual resident of the country” is one who has been residing in a local area for at least the last six months, or intends to stay in a particular location for the next six months.

Legal Provisions:

  • The NPR is being prepared under provisions of the Citizenship Act 1955 and the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003.
    • It is mandatory for every “usual resident of India” to register in the NPR.


  • The data for the NPR was first collected in 2010 along with the house listing phase of Census 2011.
    • In 2015, this data was further updated by conducting a door-to-door survey.
    • However, with the use of Aadhaar as the key vehicle for transfer of government benefits in the last few years, the NPR has taken a backseat.


  • The NPR exercise is conducted at the local, sub-district, district, state and national levels.
    • The NPR will collect both demographic data and biometric data. Biometric data will be updated through Aadhar details.
      • In the 2010 exercise, the RGI had collected only demographic details.
      • In 2015, it updated the data further with the mobile, Aadhaar and ration card numbers of residents.
      • For the 2020 exercise, it has dropped the ration card number but added other categories.


  • It will streamline data of residents across various platforms.

    • For instance, it is common to find a different date of birth of a person on different government documents. NPR will help eliminate that.
    • It will help the government formulate its policies better and also aid national security.
    • It will help to target government beneficiaries in a better way and also further cut down paperwork and red tape in a similar manner that Aadhaar has done.
    • It will help in implementing the idea of ‘One Identity Card’ that has been recently floated by the government.
      • ‘One Identity Card’ seeks to replace duplicate and siloed documentations of Aadhaar card, voter ID card, banking card, passport, and more.

Privacy Concern:

  • There is no clarity on the mechanism for protection of the vast amount of data that will be collected through NPR.

NPR and the NRC:

  • Unlike the NRC, the NPR is not a citizenship enumeration drive, as it would record even a foreigner staying in a locality for more than six months.
    • With the government insisting that the NRC would be implemented across the country, the NPR has raised anxieties around the idea of citizenship in the country.

      • All this is happening in the backdrop of the NRC in Assam which has excluded 19 lakh among the 3.3 crore who had applied.
      • NRC countrywide would only happen on the basis of the upcoming NPR.
      • After a list of residents is created (i.e. NPR), a nationwide NRC could go about verifying the citizens from that list.

2. At least 38 killed in Myanmar protests, says advocacy group

Military declares martial law in two Yangon townships

Myanmar security forces killed at least 38 people on Sunday, 22 of them in the Hlaing Tharyar district of Yangon, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners advocacy group said. The toll would equal that of March 3, which had previously recorded more deaths than any other day.

Myanmar’s junta late on Sunday imposed martial law in two densely populated Yangon townships.

More than 80 people have been killed since in mass protests since the military ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi — a toll expected to rise dramatically after Sunday’s violence.

The junta has repeatedly justified its power grab by alleging widespread electoral fraud in November’s elections, which Ms. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won by a landslide.

State-run media announced on Sunday that Yangon’s massive Hlaing Tharyar township and the neighbouring Shwepyitha township will be placed under martial law. The vast and impoverished townships are known as factory hubs and home to garment factories.

The junta “gives administrative and judicial martial law power to the Yangon regional commander… to perform security, maintain the rule of law and tranquility more effectively,” said an announcer on state-run TV.

Soldiers and police have in recent weeks been staging near-daily crackdowns against demonstrators calling for a return to democracy — deploying tear gas and firing rubber bullets and live rounds to quell anti-coup protests.

In Hlaing Tharyar township, police and soldiers clashed violently with protesters wielding sticks and knives who hid behind makeshift barricades.

Protesters using cut-out trash cans as shields managed to retrieve protesters who were wounded in the clashes when the security forces opened fire, but a doctor said not all could be reached.

“I can confirm 15 have died,” the doctor told AFP, adding that she had treated about 50 people and expects the death toll to climb. “I cannot talk much — injured people keep coming,” she said before hanging up.

UN slams bloodshed

The United Nations’ envoy for Myanmar on Sunday strongly condemned continuing bloodshed.

“The international community, including regional actors, must come together in solidarity with the people of Myanmar and their democratic aspirations,” Christine Schraner Burgener said.


Military Coup in Myanmar

Recently, the Myanmar military has grabbed power in a coup – the third time in the nation’s history since its independence from British rule in 1948.

  • one-year state of emergency has been imposed and democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been detained.
  • ‘Coup’ is generally described as a sudden, violent, and illegal seizure of power from a government.
Myanmar Location:

Myanmar, also known as Burma, is in South East Asia and neighbours Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh, China and India.Demography:

It has a population of about 54 million, most of whom are Burmese speakers, although other languages are also spoken. The biggest city is Yangon (Rangoon) but the capital is Nay Pyi Taw.Religion:

The main religion is Buddhism. There are many ethnic groups in the country, including Rohingya Muslims.Polity:

The country gained independence from Britain in 1948. It was ruled by the armed forces from 1962 until 2011, when a new government began ushering in a return to civilian rule.In the 2010s, the military regime decided to transition the country towards democracy. Although the armed forces remained powerful, political opponents were freed and elections were allowed to be held.The NLD won the 2015 election, the country’s first free and fair election participated by multiple parties, and formed the government, raising hopes that the country is on its way to full transition to democracy.  

Key Points

  • About the Military Coup:
    • In the November 2020 parliamentary election, Suu Kyi’s party National League for Democracy (NLD) secured the majority of the seats.
    • In the Myanmars’ Parliament, the military holds 25% of the total seats according to the 2008 military-drafted constitution and several key ministerial positions are also reserved for military appointees.
    • When the newly elected Myanmar lawmakers were to hold the first session of Parliament in 2021, the military imposed a state of emergency for one year citing massive voting fraud in the parliamentary elections.
  • Global Reaction:
    • China: ‘All parties in Myanmar will properly handle their differences under the constitution and legal framework to maintain political and social stability’.
    • USA: The USA President threatened to reimpose sanctions on Myanmar following a coup by the country’s military leaders and called for a concerted international response to press them to relinquish power.
    • ASEAN Countries: ASEAN’s current chair, Brunei, called for ‘dialogue among parties, reconciliation and the return to normalcy’.
      • Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia expressed concern, while Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines noted that this was Myanmar’s ‘internal affair’.
    • India’s Reaction:
      • India supports the process of democratic transition in Myanmar.
      • Though India has expressed deep concern over recent developments in Myanmar, cutting off from the Myanmar military is not a viable option as India has significant economic and strategic interests in Myanmar and its neighbourhood.
  • India’s Strategic interests in Myanmar and its relations with Myanmar Military:

    • India’s Relationship with Myanmar Military:
      • India’s military-diplomatic outreach to Myanmar became a cornerstone of its Act East policy.
      • On the eve of the recent visit of the Foreign Secretary Chief of the Army Staff to Myanmar in 2020, Myanmar handed over 22 Indian insurgents from across the border and it was decided to ramp up the sale of military hardware to Myanmar, including 105 mm light artillery guns, naval gunboats and more recently, lightweight torpedoes.
      • Recent example of cooperation is that Myanmar has begun to vaccinate itself with the 1.5 million doses of Covid vaccine sent by India, while putting China’s 3,00,000 doses on hold.
    • India’s Interests in Myanmar:
      • Infrastructure and Connectivity: India has cultivated several infrastructure and development projects with Myanmar, which it sees as the “gateway to the East” and ASEAN countries:
        • Operationalisation of the crucial Sittwe port in Myanmar’s Rakhine state by 2021 is committed.
        • India assists infrastructure projects such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway and the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project.
          • The Kaladan project will link Kolkata to Sittwe in Myanmar and then from Myanmar’s Kaladan river to India’s north-east.
        • The two countries signed the Land Border Crossing Agreement in 2018, which allowed bona fide travellers with valid documents to cross the border at two international points of entry/exit- Moreh-Tamu and Zokhawthar-Rih.
    • Security: India has been concerned over some militant groups like the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) from the North-East region taking shelter in Myanmar.
      • Indian needs perpetual support and coordination from Myanmar for the maintenance of security and stability along its North East border areas.
    • Rohingya Issues: India is committed to ensuring safe, sustainable and speedy return of Rohingya refugees from refugee camps of India and Bangladesh.

      • Building on the progress made under the Rakhine State Development Programme (RSDP), India has recently proposed to finalise projects under phase-III of the programme, including setting up of a skills training centre and upgrading of agricultural mechanisation.
    • Investment: With Indian investments of over USD 1.2 billion, Myanmar holds considerable importance than any other country in South Asia.
    • Energy: The two countries are also expanding partnership in the area of energy cooperation.
      • Recently, India approved an investment of over USD 120 million in the Shwe Oil and Gas project.

3. Right to dissent is central, says Sainath

Veteran journalist strikes a dissenting note in Index Monitoring Cell report

Pointing out that the right to dissent should be the central focus of press freedom, independent journalist P. Sainath struck a dissenting note in the report submitted by the Index Monitoring Cell (IMC), set up by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry with stakeholders to improve India’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index and to evolve an objective yardstick to gauge media freedom.

“The right to dissent is very central…You know there are people filing FIRs and taking legal action against journalists (and other citizens) under the Epidemic Act, Disaster Act, sedition laws. We are shutting down the Internet for six months or more for whole regions,” Mr. Sainath made this observation, in his 12-page dissent note, along with three indices with a complete list of journalists and activists and stand-up comedians who have been arrested and intimidated by the State in the last one year.

Mr. Sainath pointed out that the report failed in its objective to analyse the World Press Freedom Index (of Paris-based Reporters Without Borders or RSF), and India’s performance in it with a view to identify areas of strengths and concern related to press freedom in India.

To draw attention to the stranglehold of several laws on press freedom, Mr. Sainath pointed out 52-media related laws and their misuse by the State in intimidating journalists, adding that there was a complete lack of accountability of the state in the misuse of laws.

The 15-member committee, which had four meetings between May and December last year, has four journalists and government functionaries. Chaired by Kuldeep Singh Dhatwalia, Principal Director General of the Press Information Bureau, the committee has 10 government employees.

Among the key recommendations is the decriminalising of defamation. India is one of the few countries in the world to criminalise defamation.

The panel has also recommended that consent of the Press Council of India is a prerequisite before filing an FIR against the media or a publication.

The meeting of the panel comes in the backdrop of a steady decline in India’s ranking in press freedom.

World Press Freedom Index 2020: Reporters Sans Frontieres

India has dropped to two places on the World Press Freedom Index, 2020 to be ranked 142nd out of 180 countries.

Key Points

  • Norway is ranked first in the Index for the fourth year running.
  • South Asia in general features poorly on the index, with Pakistan dropping three places to 145, and Bangladesh dropping one place to 151.
    • China at 177th position is just three places above North Korea, which is at 180th.
  • Impact of Covid-19 on Journalism: The coming decade will be decisive for the future of journalism, with the Covid-19 pandemic highlighting and amplifying the many crises that threaten the right to freely reported, independent, diverse and reliable information.
  • India’s Performance Analysis
    • Reasons Behind Decline in India’s Performance:
      • Pressure on the media to accept the nationalist government’s Hindu line.
      • The “coordinated hate campaigns” waged on social networks against journalists who dare to speak or write about subjects that annoy Hindutva followers. The campaigns are particularly severe when the targets are women.
    • Improved Security of Journalists: With no murders of journalists in India in 2019, as against six in 2018, the security situation for the country’s media might seem, on the face of it, to have improved.
    • Press Freedom Violations: There have been constant press freedom violations that include police violence against journalists, ambushes by political activists, and attacks instigated by criminal groups or corrupt local officials.
World Press Freedom Index It has been published every year since 2002 by Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) or Reporters Without Borders.Based in Paris, RSF is an independent NGO with consultative status with the United Nations, UNESCO, the Council of Europe and the International Organization of the Francophonie (OIF).OIF is a 54 french speaking nations collective.The Index ranks 180 countries and regions according to the level of freedom available to journalists.The parameters include pluralism, media independence, media environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency, and the quality of the infrastructure that supports the production of news and information.  

4. Editorial-1: The job crunch and the growing fires of nativism

Unless States in India have the autonomy to create jobs, they will only resort to reserving existing jobs for locals

The Haryana government has recently passed legislation that mandates companies in Haryana to provide jobs to local Haryanvis first, before hiring people from outside the State.

The unemployment rate in Haryana is the highest of all States in India, as per data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, or CMIE ( A whopping 80% of women in Haryana who want to work cannot find a job. More than half of all graduates in Haryana are jobless. The jobs situation in Haryana is staggeringly dismal.

Many factors control jobs

Politically, 11 out of the 18 million voters of Haryana do not have a regular job. World history warns us that when such a vast majority of adults are jobless, it inevitably leads to social revolutions and political upheavals. So, it is entirely understandable that the democratically elected Haryana government panicked and chose to reserve the few available jobs for its own voters.

Haryana is not alone in this quandary. The cabinet of the government of Jharkhand approved similar legislation to reserve jobs for Jharkhand residents. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu announced a similar proposal to reserve jobs for Tamils in its manifesto for the upcoming Assembly elections. Many States in India have embarked on this nativism adventure to protect the interests of the vast number of their jobless locals.

Predictably, this has attracted criticism from economists and commentators, as it militates against their liberal idea of a free economy. ‘Focus on creating more jobs, not on reserving the few available ones’ is the popular refrain. But, it is a false binary. Creation of new jobs is not entirely in the control of State governments. It is a complex interplay of multitude of factors.

States and key parameters

Job creation is obviously an outcome of the performance of the larger economy. If say, the American giant retailer, Amazon, believes that the Indian economy is poised to grow robustly, it may choose to expand its operations in India. The Chief Minister of a State in India has limited control over the management of the larger economy and thereby, attract new investors and businesses who can create jobs. When Amazon, enticed by a buoyant Indian economy, decides to expand its Indian operations, then presumably, the State governments can compete to lure Amazon to their State and help create new jobs.

Ostensibly, Amazon needs abundant high quality skilled and unskilled labour, land at affordable prices, uninterrupted supply of electricity, water and other such ‘ease of business’ facilities for its expansion. State governments in India can theoretically compete with each other on these parameters to attract Amazon to set up operations in their State. Further, any tax advantages that a particular State can provide vis-à-vis others will increase its attractiveness for Amazon. In fact, this is exactly what happened in America in 2018 when Amazon decided to build its second headquarters and various States, towns and cities publicly competed with each other to woo Amazon and its jobs to their area. But, realistically in India, in very few of these parameters can a poorer State compete against a richer State to attract Amazon.

Critical factors

An elected State government can certainly, during its five-year tenure, attempt to provide high quality local infrastructure to attract new businesses. State governments also have the ability to provide land at affordable prices or for free to attract investments. However, the availability of skilled local labour is a function of many decades of social progress of the State and cannot be retooled immediately. After the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), State governments in India have lost their fiscal autonomy and have no powers to provide any tax concessions to businesses. So, while State governments have the ability to use land and local infrastructure as tools to attract businesses, they do not have control over immediate availability of skilled manpower or to use taxes as a tool to lure. In America, States compete against each other vigorously using tax concessions and land offers to bring new jobs to their States.

But, beyond all these, the most critical factor in the choice of a location for a large business is what economists term as the ‘agglomeration effect’ — the ecosystem of supply chain, talent, good living conditions and so on. A State with an already well-established network of suppliers, people, schools, etc. are at a greater advantage to attract even more businesses than the States that are left behind. Put simply, if Amazon’s competitor Walmart is already established in Karnataka, then there is a greater incentive for Amazon to also locate itself in Karnataka to take advantage of the established ecosystem. This leads to a cycle of the more prosperous States growing even faster at the expense of the lagging States.

The ‘3-3-3’ danger

This phenomenon is already evident in India’s increasing economic divergence among its States. In previous published joint research, I have called this the ‘3-3-3’ effect — the three richest large States (Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka) are three times richer than the three poorest large States (Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh), in per-capita income, compared to 1.4 times in 1970. This gap between the richer and poorer States in India is only widening rapidly and not narrowing, due to the agglomeration impact of modern economic development paradigms.


In the absence of a level playing field and with no fiscal autonomy, it is enormously difficult for developing States in India to attract new investments and create new jobs. In this context, an elected government that operates on a five-year electoral cycle, confronted with a powder keg of millions of jobless voters will understandably resort to seemingly ‘paisa wise, rupees foolish’ appeasement policies to salvage whatever it can of an ominous employment situation. After all, how is the Haryana government’s policy to restrict labour movement into its borders and protect jobs for locals any different from the Prime Minister’s ‘self-reliant India’ initiative to restrict goods movement into India’s borders and protect local jobs?

The potent combination of widening inter-State inequality, a ‘rich States get richer’ economic development model, an impending demographic disaster and shrinking fiscal autonomy for elected State governments in a politically and culturally diverse democracy will inevitably propagate nativistic sub-nationalism among the various States of India. Until the economic playing fields for the various States are levelled and much greater fiscal freedom provided to the States, “don’t protect but create jobs” will only remain a topic of a hollow lecture and moral sermons.

5. Editorial-2: Forestalling a cyber Pearl Harbour

It would be a grievous error if India were to underestimate the extent of the cyber threat it faces, especially from China

The threat posed to key Indian entities by antagonistic forces such as China is beginning to merit critical attention in all the right quarters. This follows revelations by the U.S.-based cyber security firm, Recorded Future, which were carried by the media in the United States.

Infrastructure as target

According to a despatch by The New York Times (, in the lead-up to the India-China border clashes, Recorded Future had found an increase in malware attacks targeting the Indian government, defence organisations and the public sector. Also that, coinciding with Chinese incursions in Eastern Ladakh, certain Indian power facilities had been targets of a cyber attack. Furthermore, that there was still some evidence of ongoing intrusions, though the intensity of the activity appeared to have ceased by mid-February 2021.

A needless controversy did erupt in the wake of these disclosures, as to whether the October 2020 blackout in Mumbai was directly linked to this cyber attack. State authorities in Maharashtra attributed the blackout to the attack by the Chinese cyber group, but authorities in Delhi blamed it on human error. Far more crucial than merely assigning blame, and what should have been of real concern, is that key infrastructure facilities, such as the power sector, were now in the crosshairs of a hostile China, which appeared intent on deploying cyber weapons to target India. China’s intention evidently is to keep India in thrall, while outwardly demonstrating a conciliatory posture, such as vacating some of the areas in Eastern Ladakh that it had occupied post April 2020.

The reported events are a wake-up call for India, and it would be a grievous error if India were to underestimate the extent of the cyber threat posed to it by China. Indian government agencies, such as the National Critical Information Infrastructure Protection Centre (NCIIPC) and the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) may have more information on China’s aggressive cyber campaign, but if what Recorded Future has indicated is true, viz., ‘that since early 2020, there has been an observation of a large increase in suspected targeted intrusion activity against Indian organisations from Chinese state-sponsored groups’ concentrating on infrastructure targets, including the power sector and ports, then India needs to be on its guard.

At least 10 Indian distinct power sector organisations are said to have been targeted, in addition to two Indian ports. What adds verisimilitude to these revelations is the identification of the network infrastructure viz., AXIOMATICASYMPTOTE, whose servers are known to be used by RedEcho, a China-linked activity group, that targets India’s power sector, and facilitates the employment of a malware known as ShadowPad. ShadowPad is a network intrusion malware affiliated to both the Chinese Ministry of State Security and the People’s Liberation Army. ShadowPad is depicted as a “back-door ‘Trojan’ malware which creates a secret path from a targeted system to a command and control server to extract information”. If indeed the future is digital, and if China has indeed embarked on an all-out offensive of this nature, India needs to adopt comprehensive measures to forestall a potential ‘Cyber Pearl Harbour’, as far as India is concerned.

An offensive by China

Across the world, Beijing does appear to be engaged in a major cyber offensive, directed not only against countries like India but against many advanced nations as well. In attempting this, what China is doing is essentially exploiting to perfection the many vulnerabilities that software companies (essentially those in the West), have deliberately left open (for offensive purposes at an opportune time). Exploiting this loophole, and also turning matters on its head, it is companies in the western world that are now at the receiving end of such antics, having ‘left vulnerabilities for future exploitation’.

Chinese cyber espionage sets no limitations on targets. Towards the end of 2020, and as the world prepared for large-scale deployment of COVID-19 vaccines, their attention was directed to vaccine distribution supply chains around the world. A global ‘spearphishing campaign’ targeting organisations responsible for vaccine storage and transportation was reportedly unleashed, and while concrete evidence as to which country was indeed responsible for this is not available, the shadow of suspicion has fallen mainly on Chinese hackers. Their objective seems to have been targeting vaccine research, gaining future access to corporate networks, and seeking sensitive information relating to COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

Cyber warfare by others

Very recently in 2021, several thousands of U.S. organisations were hacked in an unusually aggressive Chinese espionage campaign. The Chinese group, Hafnium, which has been identified as being responsible for this breach, exploited a series of flaws in the Microsoft software, enabling attackers to gain total remote control over affected systems. Each hour of the day, thousands of Microsoft servers were compromised as a result, till the breach was discovered.

While Chinese cyber espionage may be the flavour of the month, what must be recognised is that many other countries, including the U.S. and Russia, do engage in the same kind of cyber warfare. Little is publicised about western cyber espionage, and while these may not match that of either China or Russia, it does happen. The U.S. has extensively publicised Russia’s cyber antics from time to time. Best known are accusations of Russia’s cyber interference in the U.S. presidential elections in 2016, which approached the level of a major scandal. Russia is currently the prime suspect in one of the greatest data breaches concerning the U.S. Federal government, involving the Departments of Defence, Energy, State, Homeland Security, Treasury, etc. Headlined SolarWinds, the late 2020 breach is a prime example of the damage that can be caused by a cyber attack.

Sharpening attacks

Cyber attacks and cyber espionage could rewrite the history of our times. We are witnessing only the tip of the iceberg at present and most nations are truly unaware of the extent to which breaches are taking place. Nations should beware and be warned about how cyber attacks can bring a nation to its knees. This was well demonstrated way back in 2016, when a major attack on Ukraine’s power grid took place and set an ominous precedent in this respect. The attacks were carried out by skilled cyber security professionals, who had planned their assaults over many months, testing the quality of the malware, carrying out detailed logistics planning, and conducting a very sophisticated operation. The Ukraine example should be a wake-up call for India and the world, as in the intervening five years, the sophistication of cyber attacks and the kind of malware available have become more advanced. India, could well be blindsided by Chinese cyber attacks on critical infrastructure if the latter sets out to do so, unless prophylactic measures are taken in time.

There are no readymade solutions to counter the cyber offensive emanating from different quarters. No nation can hope, or can claim, to be insulated from such attacks. The U.S. seemed to fully wake up to the cyber threat only in 2017 when U.S. security tools were hacked, having preferred for long to indulge in a kind of ‘active defence’ by seeking to hack enemy networks. U.S. President Joe Biden is now understood to have included a sum of over $10 billion for cyber security in his COVID-19 Relief Bill, which is clearly intended to improve U.S. ‘readiness and resilience in cyber space’.

Part of Beijing’s world view

From an Indian perspective, the Chinese cyber threat could prove to be truly daunting. The reasons for this are many. China’s analysis of the state of current relations between China and India is that they remain antagonistic to the point of ‘de-coupling’, and the confrontation between Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ‘Community with shared future for mankind’ and India’s current posture could lead to a ‘long period of volatility’. As India grows closer to the U.S., this gap between the two key Asian nations can be expected to become still wider.

Under Mr. Xi, China has forged a firm nexus between authoritarianism, global ambitions and technology, and is determined to transform the global order to advance its interests. ‘Cyber’ could well be one of China’s main threat vectors employed against countries that do not fall in line with China’s world view. China’s 2021 Defence Budget (amounting to $209 billion) gives special weightage to the Strategic Support Force (SSF), which embraces cyber warfare — an ominous portent that bodes little good for countries that posit a challenge to China’s ambitions, such as India. Drawing up a comprehensive cyber strategy, one that fully acknowledges the extent of the cyber threat from China, has thus become an imperative and immediate necessity.

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