1. Govt. will attempt to open corridor to Sharda Peeth in PoK for devotees: Shah
The Maa Sharda Devi temple in Kupwara, which was inaugurated by Home Minister Amit Shah on Wednesday.
It could be on the lines of the Kartarpur corridor in Punjab, says Union Home Minister after inaugurating the Maa Sharda Devi temple near the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah on Wednesday said the government would move forward to open a corridor to the Sharda Peeth in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK) on the lines of the Kartarpur corridor.
The Sharda Peeth, a revered site for the Hindu community, is located in the Neelum Valley in PoK across Teetwal village along the Line of Control (LoC) in Kupwara district of Jammu and Kashmir.
Mr. Shah was responding to a suggestion made by the convener of the Save Sharda Committee Kashmir, Ravindra Pandita, who requested that the Sharda Peeth corridor should be made operational on the lines of the Kartarpur corridor, which was opened in 2019.
The corridor links two important Sikh shrines — Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur district of Punjab and Gurudwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur, Pakistan — and allows pilgrims to travel visa-free. The Minister said the Peeth was a historical centre of India’s cultural, religious and educational heritage and the government — under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi — would definitely move forward to open it for devotees on the lines of the Kartarpur corrridor.
Mr. Shah also virtually inaugurated the Maa Sharda Devi temple at Kupwara on Wednesday. He said the architecture and construction of the temple was done according to the Hindu scriptures under the aegis of Sharda Peeth. The idol of Sharda Maa, donated by the Sringeri Math on January 24, was installed in the temple, he added.
“The reconstruction of Maa Sharda’s temple in Kupwara is a necessary and important step in the direction of discovery of Sharda-civilisation and promotion of Sharda-script. Once upon a time, Sharda Peeth was considered the centre of knowledge in the Indian subcontinent, scholars from all over the country used to come here in search of scriptures and spiritual knowledge. Sharda script is the original script of our Kashmir, which has been named after Maa Sharda,” he said.
Mr. Shah said that since the reading down of Article 370, the Kashmir Valley and Jammu were once again returning to their old traditions, civilisation and “Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb”. The government had taken efforts for cultural rejuvenation of the region, he added.
The Minister said systematic restoration and repair work was going on at 123 places, including many temples and Sufi places. In the first phase, 35 places were being renovated at the cost of ₹65 crore.
Mr. Shah said 31 mega cultural programmes were organised by identifying 75 religious places and Sufi shrines.
Twenty cultural festivals were also organised in the districts to help revive old heritage, he said.
2. SC to hear petitions seeking to criminalise marital rape
Exception two to Section 375 of the IPC decriminalises marital rape and holds that sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife, who is not under 18, without her consent is not rape
The Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to hear on May 9 a series of petitions seeking to criminalise marital rape.
A three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud heard an oral mentioning by senior advocate Indira Jaising for early listing of the case.
The Centre, represented by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, said it would take a day-and-a-half to present its arguments.
Mr. Mehta had earlier said the case not only had legal ramifications but also widespread social impact.
The Karnataka High Court had earlier held that a husband was liable to be charged for rape under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) if he has forcible sex with his wife. The Karnataka government had supported the High Court judgment in an affidavit in the top court subsequently.
Exception two to Section 375 of the IPC decriminalises marital rape and holds that sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife, who is not under 18, without her consent is not rape.
“A man is a man; an act is an act; rape is a rape, be it performed by a man the ‘husband’ on the woman ‘wife’,” the Karnataka High Court had observed in its decision, saying an accused should face trial regardless of the immunity in the penal code.
A Division Bench of the Delhi High Court had in May 2022 delivered a split verdict in a separate case on the identical issue. Justice Rajiv Shakdher, who headed the two-judge Bench, struck down as unconstitutional the Exception two to Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code.
However, Justice C. Hari Shankar, the Associate Judge on the High Court Bench, had rejected the plea to criminalise marital rape, noting that any change in the law should be carried out by the legislature since the issue required consideration of various aspects, including social, cultural and legal.
The petitioners, including one by activist Ruth Manorama, had argued that the Exception undermined women’s consent to sex and violated bodily integrity, autonomy and dignity.
3. Ghosts of Assamese folklore sighted in digital form with AI art
Closing the gap: AI-generated interpretations of Pixaas (left) and Burha Dangoriya, by Chinmoy Barma.
The spooks of Assam have become spookier with a digital makeover.
More than a decade ago, author Pranavjyoti Deka brought out a bilingual thesaurus on all things Assamese. One of the chapters was on some 60 types of ghosts and spirits – some benevolent, mostly evil.
Now, mechanical engineer turned short-film maker Chinmoy Barma has given a digital shape to some of these spirits through artificial intelligence-driven software.
Topping his list in an AI (Artificial Intelligence) art series, titled ‘Assamese folklore legends and ghosts’, is Bira. According to one of the earliest compilations by Pathsala-based Jayanta Kumar Sarma, Bira is among the most dangerous spirits and is usually controlled by sorcerers.
People across the State believe that a male Bira possesses boys or men and a female Bira possesses girls or women. It is also believed that the delirium of a possessed person ends only after a sorcerer or priest drives a Bira away with special rituals and chants.
Among the other spirits Mr. Barma developed digitally are Jokhini, the female spirit said to haunt pregnant women to steal their child; and Kon Bhoot, the king of ghosts sporting three legs and an eye on the chest but who has no neck.
The eerie quotient goes a notch higher with Ghorapak, a part-horse part-human creature, among the most feared in Assamese folklore. Villagers who claim to bump into one say that it is seen on river banks, ponds, and swampy areas at night.
Then there are the Puwali Bhoots, dwarfed mischievous ghosts that steal rice and sweets from the kitchens; the slender and long-limbed Dolua that primarily targets people passing by a bamboo grove; the short-and-dark Jaukar Paal that hunt in a group and feed off corpses; Pixaas or a bloodthirsty demon.
“Ghost stories told by my grandmother and picked up from villagers inspired me to mix horror, fantasy, social evils, and facets of Assamese culture to tell unconventional stories through films and art. Unfortunately, the options provided by AI platforms do not offer the Assamese motifs or images to give my creations a localised look,” Mr. Barma, based in western Assam’s Nalbari, told The Hindu.
That handicap made his AI avatar of Bordoisila, the storm goddess in Assamese mythology, appear more ‘Bollywood-like’ than Assamese. But Burha Dangoriya, a revered spiritual figure who is believed to protect Namghars or community prayer halls, came out closer to the one who occupies the Assamese subconscious.
Mr. Barma initially made a mark with 7th Sin, a 15-second film given a horror treatment to underline gluttony as a social evil. That film went to a Canadian festival.
Some of his other short-films straddle the known and the unknown. They include Ghorapak, which showcases the Ojapali folk dance form, and Jokhini, which incorporates a similar legend from Meghalaya.
He has also deviated from horror to make films such as Morome Ringiai on the relationship between a cow and a man mourning the loss of his wife, and Tezor Tukura, which uses traditional Assamese puppetry to critique the social misconceptions about menstruation.
4. China boosts South Pacific influence with Solomons port deal
A state-backed Chinese company has won a contract to develop a key port in the Solomon Islands, a major victory in Beijing’s quest to gain a strategic toe-hold in the South Pacific.
Solomon Islands’ government on Tuesday announced that the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation had been chosen to lead a $170 million project to develop the international port in the capital Honiara.
The Solomons have become the unlikely epicentre of a diplomatic tussle between China and the U.S., after it signed a secret security pact with Beijing in 2022. Both China and Solomon Islands denied the pact would lead to the establishment of a permanent Chinese naval base.
Major infrastructure projects in the sprawling South Pacific archipelago are increasingly reliant on Chinese investment, notably the construction of a new stadium for the upcoming Pacific Games in Honiara.
The Honiara port contract was revealed on the same day that White House envoy Kurt Campbell visited Honiara as part of Washington’s latest push to combat China’s swelling economic and diplomatic footprint.
Mr. Campbell met with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who was instrumental in turning Solomon Islands towards China after severing diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
5. Number of foreign businesses exiting India surpass new entrants
Since 2018, more than 550 overseas firms ceased operations in the country, while just under 470 companies set up business over the same period, official data show: analysts advise caution in interpretation given COVID, global economic slowdown
The number of foreign companies quitting India have exceeded the number of new entrants since 2018, with foreign businesses setting up shop in the country falling to at least a five-year low in 2022, as per official data.
While almost 470 new foreign investors set up business in India between 2018 and 2022, more than 550 overseas firms ceased operations and become inactive in the same period. During this period, 2019 was the only year when the number of foreign firms that started India operations (137) outnumbered the 133 firms that shut and became inactive.
In 2022, 64 new foreign investors started operations in India, the lowest figure since 2018 while just one new overseas business has begun operations (as of March 9) in 2023.
Firms exiting the country last year added up to 78, while two firms have closed operations between January 1 and March 9, data shared by the Minister of State for Corporate Affairs Rao Inderjit Singh in the Rajya Sabha show.
Investment experts advised caution in interpreting the data.
“A company may have been active in previous years and then shut down or become inactive in the said period,” said Sawant Singh, co-founding partner at Phoenix Legal. “Moreover, the reducing trend of companies setting up in recent years is on account of COVID and global recessionary trends,” he noted.
6. EDITORIAL-1: Abolition is the way
The issue is the death penalty itself, not merely the method of execution
Forty years after holding that the mode of executing prisoners by hanging cannot be termed too cruel or barbaric, the Supreme Court of India has now ventured to find out if there is a more dignified and less painful method to carry out death sentences. The idea of finding an alternative mode of execution, one considered less painful and involves little cruelty, has been part of the wider debate on whether the death penalty should be abolished. Judicial and administrative thinking have leaned towards backing both the idea of capital punishment and the practice of hanging. The Bench has sought fresh data to substantiate the argument that a more humane means of execution can be found. There are two leading judgments on the issue — Bachan Singh vs State of Punjab (1980), which upheld the death penalty, but limited it to the ‘rarest of rare cases’, and Deena Dayal vs Union of India And Others (1983), which upheld the method by ruling that hanging is “as painless as possible” and “causes no greater pain than any other known method”. The 35th Report of the Law Commission (1967) had noted that while electrocution, use of a gas chamber and lethal injection were considered by some to be less painful, it was not in a position to come to a conclusion. It refrained from recommending any change.
Even though the Supreme Court has not favoured abolition, it has developed a robust and humane jurisprudence that has made it difficult for the executive to carry out death sentences. It has restricted its use to the ‘rarest of rare cases’, mandated a balancing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances before sending someone to the gallows, and allowed a post-appeal review hearing in open court. At the same time, it has evolved a clemency jurisprudence that makes decisions on mercy petitions justiciable and penalises undue delay in disposing of mercy pleas by commuting death sentences to life. The question now before the Court provides yet another opportunity to humanise its approach further. Empirical evidence suggests that hanging need not result in an early or painful death, while there is a body of proof that shows electrocution and lethal injection have their own forms of cruelty. The Union government contends that hanging should be retained, not only because it is not cruel or inhuman but also because it accounts for the least number of botched-up executions. The real issue, however, is that any form of execution is a fall from humaneness, offends human dignity and perpetrates cruelty. Debating the mode only deepens the moral dilemma of whether the taking of life is the best response to the taking of life. If eliminating cruelty and indignity is the aim, abolition is the answer.
7. EDITORIAL-2: Final solution
Concerted effort alone can save earth from worst of climate change effects
The influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made public its final ‘Synthesis’ report, which is part of the Sixth Assessment Cycle. Since 1990, when the IPCC began publicising its compilation of global scientific research linking greenhouse gas emissions with changes in weather and climate, the evidence that human actions are nudging the world closer to irreversible cataclysms has only grown stronger. The IPCC’s various assessment cycles have played a significant role in it. There is little by way of new information in the latest report that was made public after weeklong deliberations at Interlaken, Switzerland. This is because it is a synthesis of reports that since 2018 have not only bolstered the human link in warming but also analysed, from multiple angles, the implications of not meeting the 2015 Paris Agreement, of endeavouring to keep temperatures from rising 1.5°C above pre-industrial times.
The report stresses the need for finance to flow from developed countries to developing countries and the need to compensate countries that are poised to lose the most from climate change, to help them build resilience. In a summary for policymakers, the latest synthesis report says that the planet’s best chance to keep temperatures below 1.5°C is to ensure greenhouse gas emissions are reduced to 48% of 2019 levels by 2030 and 99% by 2050. Currently, the policies declared by countries collectively, if implemented entirely, are poised to see temperatures rise 2.5°C to 3.2°C by 2100. The latest report may weigh in significantly at the next session of the Conference of Parties scheduled in Dubai in November where a Global Stocktake — countries laying out what they have so far done to achieve commitments laid out in the Paris Agreement — is likely to be the highlight of proceedings. The IPCC reports have generally been viewed as a portent of doom but the current report also talks about the falling cost of solar and wind power, and the expansion of electric vehicle fleets. However, Paris Agreement targets cannot be met without negative emissions, or carbon dioxide removal and would entail untested technologies that now appear to be impractically expensive. India has “welcomed” the report and said that several sections underline its stated position: that the climate crisis is due to unequal contributions, and that climate justice must underlie mitigation and adaptation. However, India must also not ignore the other message that only a concerted effort, with countries stretching beyond their comfort zones, can give the planet a fighting chance to stave off the worst.
8. OPEN ED-1: The road to ending tuberculosis
India has the perfect platform to enable the world to get to the end of TB sooner.
The world got a wake-up call in 1993 about tuberculosis (TB) when the World Health Organization declared it a global health emergency. The 1993 World Development Report labelled TB treatment for adults as the best buy among all developmental interventions. The response in the 30 years since has been short on urgency and long on processes. The current goal is to end TB by 2030, but clarity on definitions of ‘end’ and the means of verification are not fully in place.
The Global Fund
Following on the call first made in 2001 at the G7 in Okinawa, Japan, by Kofi Annan, and formalised at the next summit in Genoa, Italy, The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria began disbursing the first round of money directed towards the global TB epidemic in 2003. The story of how this new war chest against diseases of poverty did not remain confined to financing HIV programmes alone is for historians of public health to tease out. Twenty years on, the Global Fund has become the single largest channel of additional money for global TB control. But it remains hostage to the zero-sum games imposed on it from its donor constituents and between the champions of the three diseases the Fund was set up to provide additional financing for.
Mandated with the task of mobilising and marshaling a disparate set of actors towards the goal of ending TB, the StopTB Partnership got a formal presence on the board of the Global Fund close to seven years after it was constituted. The Stop TB board meets in Varanasi, India, this week, and will coincide with World TB Day (March 24).
Despite constraints, the global TB response has been adapting to changes: the HIV response has inspired ‘engagement’ of those affected by the disease; the use of molecular diagnostic tools developed to respond to acts of bioterrorism 20 years ago are the current state of the art for diagnosing TB. Using social safety programmes to address the poverty drivers of the TB epidemic and leveraging the “mobile and computational data revolution” to improve treatment outcomes have also begun shaping the trajectory of global efforts to end TB.
There are three key areas that remain under-served. Without strengthening or radically re-imagining them, the chances of success in ending TB by 2030 become slimmer. India’s leadership of the G20 and the focus on health could be catalytic, in the same manner that the Japanese G7 presidency in 2001 was for the creation of the Global Fund. Providing historical symmetry, Japan leads the G7 in 2023, providing leaders of both nations and groupings to act synergistically towards ending TB.
The first area — and the one likely to take the longest to mature despite exciting developments — is in the development and wide use of an adult TB vaccine. The current one, delivered at birth and useful particularly for children, is 100 years old. The experience with the COVID-19 vaccine development process gives us an understanding on how things can be done if there is collective will and action. It is also no surprise that Indian efforts feature prominently in the list of vaccines that are under development. The pitfalls of equitable distribution seen with the COVID-19 vaccines should definitely be avoided. This is again an area that plays to India’s capabilities.
The second area — one that can move much faster than the vaccine — is that of getting newer therapeutic agents for TB. After a development drought of nearly five decades, a few new anti-TB drugs are today available for widespread use, if only costs and production capacities weren’t constraints. Moving to an injection-free and shorter all oral pills regimen for TB (the current standard is for at least six months) will improve compliance and reduce patient fatigue. The effort to come up with a raft of newer drugs needs to accelerate so that when drug resistance shows up to the most recently introduced drugs — and it will, for this a battle for survival for the TB bacilli, and they are proven masters at surviving over millennia — we will have newer therapies available. Current estimates of drug-resistant TB are discouraging at best and alarming at worst. Not having a ready pipeline of newer drugs is repeating a folly from the past.
The third and most immediate area of action is within the space of diagnostics. There are exciting developments for use of AI-assisted handheld radiology with 90-second reporting and 95% plus accuracy for diagnosing TB. This is mature technology, and should be rolled out universally immediately. Sentinel, passive surveillance and interpretation of cough sounds for TB is another breakthrough area. This allows for unobtrusive home-level screening and monitoring and provides nudges for seeking treatment. This technology is ready for larger-scale use, and could potentially change the way public spaces can be monitored along with other air quality indicators. Confirmatory diagnosis using nucleic acid amplification is ripe for disruption. India convened the InDx diagnostics coalition in Bengaluru for COVID-19. This, and other biotech startups, should be incentivised to break the complexity of molecular testing and price barriers with affordable high-quality innovations. New innovations in this space should extend utilisation of present funds available for purchase of TB diagnostics to buy twice as much.
India’s G20 presidency this year, the Varanasi StopTB board meeting this week, and the United Nations High-Level Meeting on TB in September this year provide the perfect platform for India’s actions to speak loudly and will enable the world to get to the end of TB sooner.