Daily Current Affairs 22.11.2022 ( How different is the new data protection Bill?,The need to have full disclosure on electoral bonds and political funding,Centre sets standard for e-commerce reviews,ndustry seeks Budget measures to spur demand amid global slowdown,The dissenting judgment versus the razing of equality,Fireproofing India from global turbulence,The geoheritage value of Ram Setu)

Daily Current Affairs 22.11.2022 ( How different is the new data protection Bill?,The need to have full disclosure on electoral bonds and political funding,Centre sets standard for e-commerce reviews,ndustry seeks Budget measures to spur demand amid global slowdown,The dissenting judgment versus the razing of equality,Fireproofing India from global turbulence,The geoheritage value of Ram Setu)


1. How different is the new data protection Bill?

Has the right to portability and right to be forgotten been removed from the latest draft of the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2022? Has the Central government been given more rule making power? What are the duties imposed on data principals?

The story so far:

The latest draft of the data protection law — the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2022 (DPDP Bill, 2022) — has now been made open for public comments. This article deals with various themes within the Bill including data localisation requirements, whether children are considered as data principals, the regulatory framework of the Bill and the penalties it imposes.

What are some of the data protection rights that the Bill is missing?

The DPDP Bill, 2022 misses out on two main rights for data principals. The first is the right of data portability. The right to data portability allowed the data principal to receive in a structured format all the personal data they had provided to the data fiduciary and data that the data fiduciary generated on the data principal while processing for provisioning of its services. This empowered data principals by allowing them to choose between different platforms and enhanced competition between data fiduciaries to increase consumer welfare. For example, if the data principal was not satisfied with the social media platform they were currently using, they could request for porting of their data to another social media platform and avail of its services without having to provide all their personal data again. The DPDP Bill, 2022 does not provide for this right.

The second right foregone is the right to be forgotten. While not a right per se, the right to be forgotten allows the data principal to ask the data fiduciary to stop the continuing disclosure of their personal data. This has to be balanced with the right to freedom of speech and expression and the right to information for all other individuals. The DPDP Bill, 2022 subsumes this right under the right to erasure. This conflation between the general right to erasure with the right to be forgotten which is specific to disclosure of personal data compromises on the right to freedom of speech and expression of other individuals.

How does the draft Bill treat the personal data processing of children?

With regard to the personal data processing of children, the DPDP Bill, 2022 carries forward the approach of its previous iterations. A major issue that remains is that the age of digital consent, which is the age at which an individual can consent to their personal data being processed, continues to be 18. This means that parental/guardian consent would be required to process the personal data of children and adolescents below the age of 18 years. In effect, this would mean parental consent would be required every time they want to access the internet. This becomes an issue for three reasons. First, the high threshold of 18 years negates evolving capacity as it does not recognise that the consent of a toddler is different from that of a teenager. Second, it would result in unequal access to the internet and, finally, requiring consent from parents would hamper autonomous development of children since parents may not want them to be exposed to viewpoints contradictory to their own. Such restrictions are in violation of India’s obligations under the Convention on Rights of the Child.

What changes have been made to data localisation requirements?

One of the most emphatic departures of the DPDP Bill, 2022 from the Personal Data Protection (PDP) Bill 2019, has been in the context of cross border data flows. The PDP Bill, 2019 provided for a three-tiered categorisation based on which personal data could be moved across borders. While the government was interested in restricting cross border data flows of sensitive personal data and critical personal data to allow for ease of lawful access and to maintain “digital sovereignty”, these data localisation requirements were severely contested by the industry as they would lead to significant increase in compliance and operational costs in terms of higher data storage charges and security risks.

The DPDP Bill, 2022 aims to strike a balance between these concerns by allowing for cross border data flow to “countries and territories” notified by the Central government. However, the draft legislation fails to provide any guidance or criteria for the consideration of the Union government while making this notification. The criteria is left to the Central government itself to be specified under its rule making power.

What is the design of the regulatory framework proposed under the Bill?

In comparison to the regulatory framework conceptualised under the previous iterations of the draft law, where the proposed regulator, the Data Protection Authority, was enshrined with significant powers of regulation making, enforcement and adjudication, the current draft considerably reduces the scope of the proposed Data Protection Board of India (DPB). Out of the 22 clauses in the DPDP Bill, the Central government has been provided with rule making power in around 14 clauses.

This becomes problematic for several reasons. First, the government forms one of the largest data fiduciaries in the country. It processes personal data of millions of Indians for provisioning of services and benefits, issuance of permits, licences and official IDs and for law enforcement generally. As such, it becomes important the agency making the rules should be at an arm’s length from the government so as to ensure impartial protection of the interests of data principals. Vesting these powers with the Union government which would itself be subject to these rules creates conflict of interest. For example, the government has the power to specify “fair and reasonable” purposes for which it can process personal data without consent.

Similarly, it can make rules on data protection obligations of data breach, data protection impact assessments, data audits, information that can be requested from a data fiduciary which the government will itself be subject to in its capacity as a data fiduciary. Moreover, the DPDP Bill, 2022 fails to provide adequate legislative guidance for framing these rules. This leads to the concern of excessive delegation of legislation.

Lastly, the Central government exercises greater control over the proposed DPB because it will appoint members of the DPB, set out the terms and conditions of appointment and lay out the functions that the DPB will perform.

What is the framework for state based processing of personal data?

Carrying forward the approach from the PDP Bill, 2019, the current Bill also provides considerable exemptions to the state’s processing of personal data. First, as stated above, the Union government has the power to specify “fair and reasonable” purposes for which it can process personal data without consent. Second, an exemption from most data protection obligations is provided if the processing is undertaken “in the interests of prevention, detection, investigation of any offence or any other contravention of any law” This may be in violation of the “necessity and proportionality” test laid down by the Supreme Court in Puttaswamy vs Union of India. A complete exemption can be provided for when personal data is being processed “in the interests of sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, maintenance of public order or preventing incitement to any cognizable offence relating to any of these”. Lastly, and this is an addition to the PDP Bill, 2019, the Union government can now notify exemption to certain data fiduciaries based on just the “volume and nature of personal data” processed, irrespective of the purpose for which it is being processed.

Moreover, storage limitation does not apply to government agencies which means they can continue to retain personal data for an unlimited period of time even when the purpose of processing ceases to exist and there is no legal requirement to store the data.

What is the nature of penalties provided for in the Bill?

The DPDP Bill, 2022 marks a number of departures from the PDP Bill, 2019 in the way it conceptualises penalties. First, the quantum of penalties that can be imposed, with the cap being placed at ₹500 crore, are of a much higher magnitude than provided for under the PDP Bill, 2019. Second, unlike the PDP Bill, 2019 the DPDP Bill, 2022 creates no offences. Third, in a move that can be seen as disempowering the data principals, the DPDP Bill, 2022 does not allow them to seek compensation from data fiduciaries for harms they have suffered due to unlawful processing. Fourth, in a very unusual move and perhaps the only one of its kind among data protection legislations, the DPDP Bill, 2022 places duties on data principals. If they are non-compliant, it could lead to penalties upto ₹10,000. Some of these duties include being in compliance with the “provision of all applicable laws” when exercising rights and not registering “false or frivolous” complaints with the data fiduciary or the DPB. Such provisions may hinder data principles from exercising their rights for fear of penalties.

The writer is a research fellow at the Centre for Applied Law and Technology Research, Vidhi Centre for legal policy

(This is the second of a two-part series on the draft Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2022)

2. The need to have full disclosure on electoral bonds and political funding

If political donations do not have complete transparency, voters are stuck with a ruling party with unlimited resources, being subject to relentless election campaigns, while donors surreptitiously and directly influence policy

According to an RTI reply, electoral bonds worth 10,246 crore have been sold by the State Bank of India (SBI) since the instrument was launched in March 2018. In this article dated June 16, 2021, Rakesh Reddy Dubbudu elaborates how electoral bonds have further obscured political party funding.

In 2014, the Delhi High Court held that both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were guilty of illegally accepting donations from two companies registered in India but whose controlling shareholder was Vedanta, a foreign company. The court held that this was in contravention of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA), 1976, as the donations accrued from “foreign sources” within the meaning of law.

Following this indictment, the two parties came together in the last memorable bipartisan move. In 2016 and 2018, the government amended the FCRA through the annual Finance Bills, to retrospectively legalise the violations. The amendments and subsequent changes brought in by the current government enabled new and regressive pathways that afford full anonymity to corporate and foreign political donors.

A new form of anonymity

While recently hearing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), the Supreme Court downplayed the concerns of the corrupting influence of anonymous corporate and foreign money. It offered us voters the suggestion of “match the following”.

Earlier, only profit-making domestic companies could contribute to political parties; now loss-making companies can too. Earlier, foreign companies or companies where the controlling stake was held by a foreign company couldn’t contribute; now they can. India’s political parties could theoretically be fully funded by a foreign company operating in India or by a foreign entity through a shell company.

In 2017, the then Finance Minister said anonymous cash donations to political parties would be reduced from ₹20,000 to ₹2,000 to ensure greater transparency in political funding. However, the concurrent introduction of electoral bonds brought a new form of anonymity to thousands of crores of donations. It drastically reduced public and legislative oversight. Only the ruling party via the State Bank of India (SBI) has a full account of all donations being made via electoral bonds, to itself and to Opposition parties. Parliament, the Election Commission and the Opposition parties do not have this information, nor do the public.

The ADR PIL challenges electoral bonds as unconstitutional. In March 2021, the Supreme Court refused to stay the sale of electoral bonds before the West Bengal elections. Instead, the judgment listed several documents which supposedly establish a paper trail on donations — “all that is required is a little more effort to cull out such information from both sides (purchaser of bond and political party) and do some ‘match the following’.”

This is impractical and plainly incorrect. The Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2005 enables easier access to information held by public authorities. No ordinary person has the resources to navigate documents on obfuscating government websites or pore over income tax returns. The few civic and non-profit organisations that attempt to simplify information to enable accountability have been systematically delegitimised.

Suggesting a “match the following” is incorrect for three reasons. If we set aside individual donors and focus just on registered entities, we will find that the full scale of registered entities is unknown. Even if registered companies filed annual financial statements, many do not disclose political donations. Crucially, political parties do not need to disclose their electoral bond donors either.

According to back-of-the-envelope calculations, there are close to 25 lakh potential donors comprising just companies and firms. This includes about 12.6 lakh active private limited companies as of January 31, 2021. Unlike what is stated in the judgment, the annual reports of all these companies are not readily accessible on the website of the Ministry of Corporate Affairs. More than 12 lakh firms filed income tax returns for the assessment year 2018-19. Firms, unlike companies, have no regulatory mandate to submit their annual reports except for filing their annual tax returns, since their functioning is regulated by Acts other than the Companies Act of 2013.

Even if these documents are indeed filed and available in the public domain, they will not specify donations to parties. Conveniently, the Finance Bill of 2017 amended Section 182 of the Companies Act of 2013 to remove the requirement for declaring disaggregated donations to political parties. At best, company statements might have a total aggregate amount of all donations, including philanthropic ones. If we are lucky, these might be sub-categorised as “political contributions through electoral bonds.” Nowhere are donations to specific political parties required to be mentioned.

Even if one combs through these documents to find an actual political donation, there is nothing to match it with. Political parties do not need to disclose their electoral bond donors. Strictly speaking, political parties are not even supposed to know their electoral bond donors. The only requirement is the annual audit reports with a total of all donations received via electoral bonds. These reports are submitted with great delays. For instance, the audit reports for 2019-20 of major national parties were made available on the Election Commission’s website only a few days ago. The BJP’s report is not yet available as the Election Commission extended the deadline for the submission of Annual Audit Reports for 2019-20 to June 30, 2021. Even if these reports are submitted on time, there is no way to match a donation of a company to that received by a political party as only aggregate amounts are available.

Hence, the “match the following” suggestion of the Supreme Court falls flat on its face. It is impossible for an average voter to pore over documents of lakhs of entities and track potential company and firm donors.

Further, recipient-wise information is unavailable. Unlike the tall claims of electoral bonds enabling transparency, it is only RTI applications with the SBI that offer a glimpse into the crores of money funding political parties, and therefore influencing public policies. If they chose to, the Supreme Court or the legislature could order full and real-time disclosure, to the actual benefit of transparency and accountability. Instead, meagre civil society resources are expended in filing PILs and RTI applications, at significant personal risk.

Winners and losers

In effect, electoral bonds give political power to companies, wealthy individual donors, and foreign entities, thus diluting the universal franchise of one voter-one vote. Every vote is not equally valuable if companies can influence policies through hidden donations.

The winner of this arrangement is the ruling party, whether at the Centre or in a State, and the loser is the average voter. Companies and political parties could exercise moral leadership and voluntarily disclose the identity of recipients and donors, as the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha recently did. Till then, voters are stuck with a ruling party with war chests of resources, being subject to relentless election campaigns, while donors surreptitiously and directly influence policy.

3. Centre sets standard for e-commerce reviews

The framework will be rolled out on November 25; it may become mandatory after a trial for some days and will be applicable to every online platform that publishes consumer ratings

The Centre is bringing out a standard for publishing product reviews on e-commerce platforms from Friday. To start with, the standard will be voluntary, but could become mandatory later after observing compliance with the standard by such platforms. The framework for the standard was prepared by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS).

Rohit Kumar Singh, Secretary of the Department of Consumer Affairs, told presspersons on Monday that the framework was meant to safeguard and protect consumer interest from fake and deceptive reviews on e-commerce platforms. If made mandatory, the violation of the standard, titled “Indian Standard (IS) 19000:2022 Online Consumer Reviews — Principles and Requirements for their Collection, Moderation and Publication”, can invite punishment for unfair trade practice or violation of consumer rights. Once made mandatory, a consumer may submit grievances to the National Consumer Helpline, consumer commission or the CCPA, against misleading reviews. “The standards will be applicable to every online platform which publishes consumer reviews,” Mr. Singh said.

The guiding principles of the standard are integrity, accuracy, privacy, security, transparency, accessibility and responsiveness, he said. “The standard prescribes specific responsibilities for the review author and the review administrator. For the former, these include confirming acceptance of terms and conditions, providing contact information, and for review administrator, these include safeguarding personal information and training of staff,” Mr. Singh added.

The standard also provides for methods for verification of the review author to check the traceability and genuineness of the review author. “The standard is expected to benefit all stakeholders in the e-commerce ecosystem, that is, consumers, e-commerce platforms, sellers, etc. It will help usher in confidence among consumers to purchase goods online and help them take better purchase decisions,” the Secretary said.

Taking cognisance of the impact of fake and deceptive reviews and protection of consumer interest in e-commerce, the Department of Consumer Affairs constituted a committee to develop a framework for checking fake and deceptive reviews on June 10, 2022.

Mr. Singh said the BIS had consulted all e-platform giants before drafting the guidelines, and responses from the public were also invited. He said the BIS will come out with a certification process in the next 15 days to check whether a company was complying with these standards. “E-commerce players can apply for certification of this standard with the BSI. Many other countries are also struggling on how to handle fake reviews,” he said, and added that the Ministry does not want to bulldoze the industry.

4. ndustry seeks Budget measures to spur demand amid global slowdown

Finance Minister Sitharaman begins pre-Budget consultations with business leaders, with focus on industry, infrastructure and climate change in the meetings; industrialists urge reduction in income tax burden on households, import duty cuts

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Monday began consultations for the 2023-24 Union Budget, with industry captains seeking measures to revive domestic demand and create jobs to counter headwinds from slowing global growth.

Apart from a reduction in the income tax burden for households, industry captains urged the government to bring petroleum products, ATF and electricity into the GST regime, cut import duties and expand the scope of tax rebates granted to exporters.

“At this crucial juncture of geopolitical uncertainties, high inflation and slowing world economic growth, calibrated steps to enhance domestic sources of growth would be crucial to maintain a steady economic growth trajectory,” PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Saket Dalmia told top finance ministry officials.

The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) suggested significantly lowering income tax slab rates for individuals earning up to ₹20 lakh, arguing that the ‘brunt of inflation falls on taxpayers in the lower and middle-income group’.

“While the cost of living has increased, there is no respite in the income tax liability which has remained constant squeezing these taxpayers from both ends,” CII noted, and flagged the widened differential between personal and corporate tax rates.

“The highest marginal rate for individuals has now gone up to 42.7% against the normal corporate tax rate of 25.2%. The huge gap in the tax rates… is leading to several structuring decisions being adopted in favour of corporate model (for example, proprietorship business moving to company format),” CII pointed out.

Monday’s meetings focused on issues of industry and infrastructure.

5. Editorial-1: The dissenting judgment versus the razing of equality

It is after many years that we have a judgment which elaborates on the meaning of equality under India’s Constitution in its true and expansive spirit. Here I am not referring to the majority judgment in the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) case, but the minority opinion of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) U.U. Lalit (now former CJI) and Justice Ravindra Bhat. It may be a dissenting judgment but it gives us strength to fight for the promise of equality which forms the core of the Constitution.

The 103rd Amendment inserting Articles 15 (6) and 16(6) to the Constitution, permits 10% reservation in educational institutions and public employment for those from the EWS. This reservation explicitly excludes persons from the Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and the Other Backward Classes (OBC) categories. The majority judgment of Justices Dinesh Maheshwari, Bela M. Trivedi and J.B. Pardiwala upheld the constitutionality of the amendment and held that such exclusion was justified because the SC, ST and OBC categories had reservations under Articles 15(4), 15(5) and 16(4). They held that a ‘mere violation of the rule of equality does not violate the basic structure of the Constitution unless the violation is shocking, an unconscionable or unscrupulous travesty of the quintessence of equal justice’ and that ‘if any constitutional amendment moderately abridges or alters the equality principles, it cannot be said to be a violation of the basic structure’.

This brings us to the principle of equality and its place in the Constitution. Can the guarantee of equality be violated and if so, would the identity of the Constitution survive? The Supreme Court of India has held that in understanding what forms part of the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution, that inviolable part which can never be tampered with or altered, equality is an integral part of it. It is one of those core features without which the Constitution will not be recognisable and can never be taken away, however ‘minor’ such violation may be.

Turning intersectionality on its head

If poverty is the criterion for reservation, it is a matter of record that the bulk of the poor in the country are from Dalit, Adivasi and Bahujan communities due to centuries of stigma and discrimination they have experienced. How can they be excluded based on their caste status? The dissenting judgment eloquently recognises that human beings do not exist in separate distinct ‘silos’. A person who is poor, would also most likely be from an oppressed caste background, minority religion, female or may have a disability, and in fact many of these conditions may be the reason for her poverty. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognises that “discrimination may cause poverty, just as poverty may cause discrimination”.

The EWS amendment turns the theory of intersectionality on its head. The concept of intersectionality is a lens for seeing the way in which various forms of inequalities often operate together and exacerbate each other. Crenshaw argues that we may talk about race or caste inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality or disability, but fail to see how some people can be often subject to all of these, and the experience is not just the sum of its parts. Instead of recognising the aggravated discrimination faced by persons at the intersections of caste and poverty, the EWS amendment punishes them for being at the intersections. By excluding the SC and ST communities, the amendment actively discriminates against them. Justice Bhat and CJI Lalit point out painfully that if poverty is the criteria for reservation, then can it be justified that an Adivasi girl would not be entitled to such opportunity because she already has existing reservations, although she falls under the EWS description? It would amount to her gender and Adivasi status being used to discriminate against her and from denying her the opportunities for the EWS. They argue that this convenient way of putting people within “silos” fails to locate the individual within a collective and reduces her visibility in the debate. Reservations on the basis of caste in Articles 15(4) and 16(4) are not privileges or benefits, but reparative measures meant to level the field for communities facing social stigmatisation. To use this as a ground to deny EWS reservation to the poorest, based on their social backwardness and legally acknowledged caste stigmatisation, the dissent held that it would amount to discrimination which is prohibited under the Constitution.

The essence of equality

The dissent also makes the link between equality, non-discrimination and the abolition of untouchability. First, it recognises the importance of Article 15(1) or the obligation of non-discrimination on the grounds of caste, race, sex, religion and place of birth as an integral part of the Equality Code. This is important, because Article 15(1) has been one of the least used Articles in our Equality Code. Courts have historically been reluctant to give a finding of discrimination on any of the prohibited grounds under Article 15(1). Second, the dissent reiterates the importance of Article 17 on the abolition of untouchability in any form. It recognizes that Article 17 imposes an obligation on the state to prohibit caste discrimination in any manner and is not only part of the Equality Code but indeed the entire framework of the Constitution. Thus, the dissent states that the obligation not to exclude or discriminate against SC/ST communities by reason of the express provisions in Articles 17 and 15(1) constitutes the essence of equality, and this can be said to be part of the basic structure of the Constitution. This is by far the most crucial part of the dissenting judgment, and we would all be at a loss if we fail to recognise its importance.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Olivier de Schutter in his latest report states that prohibitions of discrimination generally focus on status-based discrimination on grounds such as sex, caste, race or ethnicity, religion, age, disability or sexual orientation. These grounds are deemed particularly “suspect” because they are largely immutable. The report states that recognising these status-based horizontal inequalities is essential since victims of discrimination on the grounds of status are disproportionately represented among people living in poverty.

Poverty or socio-economic disadvantage would be a useful marker for reservations, but can poverty have exclusions on the basis of caste? The dissent holds that the Equality Code under Articles 14, 15, 16 and 17 of the Constitution promotes the inclusiveness of all sections of society, and the EWS amendment which excludes people based on their caste would destroy our constitutional ethos of non-discrimination.

I would argue that the upholding of the 103rd Amendment, which is sought to benefit persons on the ground of poverty and excludes members of communities which faced continual discrimination and whom poverty afflicts in the most aggravated form, marks the annihilation of equality under the Constitution. It will open doors to only creating more exclusions and distinctions within our society and may lead to damaging the very identity and the soul of the Constitution.

6. Editorial-2: Fireproofing India from global turbulence

Firefighting and fireproofing as national responses to crises are concepts that merit serious study in the emerging global geopolitical, geo-economic and security landscapes. Firefighting attaches itself to reactive responses to crises that arise from a lack of preparedness, lack of capacity, lack of national will and cohesion between different instruments of statecraft.

These are among several other factors that could act singly, or coalesce together to dent national power significantly. Notwithstanding its measured success and steady growth in several areas, India is no stranger to firefighting in domains as diverse as fixing societal fault lines, plugging economic fissures and scrambling to recover from national security setbacks. In some cases, governments in power have ridden on the resilience of the Indian people to mitigate the adverse effects of the crisis. In others, good leadership, albeit reactive in nature, has often stopped the spread of the fire and initiated measures that have helped in ensuring better preparedness for future contingencies.

Specific issues and strategies

It is now time to reflect on whether a transforming India with visions of a five trillion dollar and a 10 trillion-dollar economy in the decades ahead, needs to reflect hard on developing fireproofing strategies to insulate itself sufficiently from the plethora of crises raging across the world, all of which have the potential to slow down or even derail India’s rise in the decade ahead. While globalisation essentially led to widespread economic prosperity, it also forced countries to peel off some of the inbuilt insulation that existed within the international economic order and created several vulnerabilities.

While extremism, hyper-nationalism, the unequal distribution of wealth, migration and the adverse impacts of climate change are fissures that have impacted the whole world and need to be addressed globally, there are specific ones that individual nations need to develop strategies to counter. If ‘stormy seas’, repeated references to security challenges and Black Swan/Grey Rhino events and winning local wars dominated Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s discourse during the recently concluded 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, it is evident that there is a tacit acceptance within the second most powerful nation on the planet that difficult days are ahead.

Two races to handle

How does India go about navigating the next few years? Does it have the capacity to run two races simultaneously: the first one being the long distance one of achieving the status of a developed country by 2047, and the second one being the more daunting middle-distance run that has already begun in the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine crisis and growing Chinese power that seeks undiluted regional hegemony and power-parity with the United States at the global level? Fireproofing is one such strategy that India needs to consider across the Diplomacy, Information, Military and Economics (DIME) paradigm, with an added S that encompasses Society and creates a DIMES challenge for India to navigate.

While strategic autonomy in a multi-polar world may be an aspirational outcome, with balancing and hedging emerging as key Indian diplomatic strategies, the limits of Indian national power in the face of an exponential rise in China’s national power cannot be hard to perceive. Hard choices will have to be made on the recalibration of existing strategic partnerships and exploring alliances.

While there is optimism on the economic front that India is resilient enough to weather a global energy crisis or a financial depression, there is still considerable distress at the bottom of the pyramid. This is where the fireproofing of the economy in the medium term must concentrate on poverty alleviation on a war footing; universal education and health care; creation of jobs and raising the other parameters of the human development index. This is where India’s economic insulation lies.

On deterrence

From globalisation to heightened securitisation is where the world is headed. Deterrence has always been at the heart of India’s fireproofing against both internal and external threats since Independence. However, the flavour of deterrence has largely been reactive and rarely kept pace with the rapidly changing character of war and mechanisms of internal dissent. There have been attempts in recent times to migrate to a more proactive and even preventive strategy of deterrence, though a lack of capacity and doctrinal guidance will hamper this in complex situations. It is considered that credible coercive capabilities against external threats and better strategic communication to plug internal fissures and cracks should form the heart of fireproofing strategies in the security realm.

Notwithstanding the resilience of the Indian people, significant fireproofing is needed within Indian society and the information domain to stand firm in the face of multiple fissiparous vulnerabilities. Evolving societies are subject to periodic churn, and in India’s case this churn has coincided with several events on the global stage such as the weaponisation of the information domain and social media.

With its large and ethnically diverse population, multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-lingual demographic profile, staying cohesive will present the biggest challenge to India’s leaders. And this demands sagacity and statesmanship of the highest order if India is to stay the course over the next decade.

Fireproofing will not be easy; it will demand greater discipline from the Indian people. However, this will be a small price for India to pay for staying on track in pursuit of its core national interests.

7. Editorial-3: The geoheritage value of Ram Setu

On November 10, the Supreme Court gave the Centre four weeks’ time to file a response clarifying its stand on a plea by former Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy seeking national heritage status for the ‘Ram Setu’.

While the story of the controversial Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project (SSCP) can be traced back to the British, who proposed creating a channel to link the Palk Strait with the Gulf of Mannar, it was only in 2005 that the project was inaugurated. Separating the shallow sea consisting of the Gulf of Mannar in the south and Palk Bay in the north is a somewhat linear coral ridge called Adam’s Bridge or Ram Setu. This runs between Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu and Thalaimannar in Sri Lanka. The SSCP, if completed, is expected to considerably reduce the navigation time between the east and west coasts of India.

Concerns about the project

Though the CSIR-National Environmental Engineering Research Institute ruled out any serious environmental risk and certified the feasibility of the project, concerns have been raised on the stability of the proposed channel and its environmental impact. Computer models suggest that the central, eastern and north-eastern parts of the Palk Bay may be impacted by waves of higher energy. This means that these areas also receive more sediment, rendering them more turbid. The models also indicate that waves enter the Bay from its north and south, corresponding to how the channel is aligned.

The area is also vulnerable to cyclonic storms. A cyclone in 1964 was so powerful that it wiped out the town of Dhanushkodi. Such storms can cause the local sedimentary dynamics to go haywire. Finding safe places for dumping dredged material without harming terrestrial or marine ecosystems is therefore a big challenge. Emissions from ships traversing the narrow channel will pollute the air and water. And if a rogue ship carrying oil or coal is grounded or strays from its course within the canal, it could cause an ecological disaster. While environmental groups have been protesting against the project for the huge environmental cost it would entail, religious groups have been opposing it as they believe that the structure, which is mentioned in the Ramayana, is of religious significance.

In 2003, space-based investigations, using satellite remote sensing imagery, by researchers at the Space Applications Centre in Ahmedabad concluded that Ram Setu is not man-made, “but comprises 103 small patch reefs lying in a linear pattern with reef crest, sand cays and intermittent deep channels”. Cays, also known as keys, refer to low-elevation islands situated on surfaces made of coral reef. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that Ram Setu is a linear ridge made of coral reefs and forms a shallow part of the ocean that is being constantly impacted by sedimentation processes. Like the Great Barrier Reef, the Ram Setu is also a continuous stretch of limestone shoals that runs from Pamban Island near Rameswaram to the Mannar Island on the northern coast of Sri Lanka.

During a global glaciation period that began around 2.6 million years ago and ended 11,700 years ago, the Indian coast, including parts of the Sethusamudram, may have been raised above water. The post-glaciation period witnessed a steady rise in sea levels around the world. The coral polyps could once again have grown higher on the newly submerged platforms. And in time, the platforms may have been used by migrants to cross oceans. The Ramayana refers to a putative land bridge in this region; believers hold it as the structure that Lord Rama and his army built to reach Lanka. This ridge may have been used in the distant past as a migratory route.

Need for protection

The coral reef platforms between Thoothukudi and Rameswaram in the Gulf of Mannar were notified as a marine biosphere reserve in 1989. More than 36,000 species of flora and fauna reportedly live there, flanked by mangroves and sandy shores which are considered conducive for turtles to nest. This is also a breeding ground for fish, lobsters, shrimps and crabs. Of the 600 recorded varieties of fish in the region, 70 are said to be commercially important. This area is already threatened by discharge from thermal plants, brine run-off from salt pans, and illegal mining of corals. The SSCP, if it becomes a reality, will be the final blow to this sensitive environment and to the livelihoods of the people there.

While considering this issue from a believer’s point of view, it is also important to consider this feature from a ‘geoheritage’ perspective. The geoheritage paradigm is used in nature conservation to preserve the natural diversity of significant geological features. It accepts the fact that geodiversity, consisting of varied landforms and features representative of dynamical natural processes, is under threat from human activities and needs protection. The natural heritage of a country includes its geological heritage. The value of abiotic factors like geology, soils and landforms is also recognised for their roles in supporting habitats for biodiversity. India’s ‘tryst with destiny’ does not begin at Harappa or the Vedic Period; it goes back billions of years when the Indian tectonic plate moved thousands of kilometres from the south of the equator to its present location. The Ram Setu carries the unique geological imprints of an eventful past. Therefore, it needs to be preserved not just as a national heritage monument, but also as a geoheritage structure as defined from a scientific perspective.

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