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Daily Current Affairs 29.08.2022 (The concerns around Aadhaar-Voter ID linkage, Revisiting the S. Subramaniam Balaji vs Tamil Nadu judgment, The cyber threat to mobile banking, ‘Working on a comprehensive legal framework for digital economy’, A public judge with an uncertain legacy, Japan’s continuing struggle with gender parity, Sops for votes, PIN code @50 years)

Daily Current Affairs 29.08.2022 (The concerns around Aadhaar-Voter ID linkage, Revisiting the S. Subramaniam Balaji vs Tamil Nadu judgment, The cyber threat to mobile banking, ‘Working on a comprehensive legal framework for digital economy’, A public judge with an uncertain legacy, Japan’s continuing struggle with gender parity, Sops for votes, PIN code @50 years)

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1. The concerns around Aadhaar-Voter ID linkage

Why is the Election Commission keen on voters linking their Aadhaar with voter IDs?

There have been instances of block officers mandating the linking of Aa dhar with Voter IDs after the Election Commission’s campaign to promote the linkage of Voter ID and Aadhaar which began on August 1.

Form 6B provides the format in which Aadhaar information may be submitted to the electoral registration officer. However, the option to submit other listed documents is exercisable only if the voter is “not able to furnish their Aadhaar number because they do not have an Aadhaar number”.

Civil society has highlighted that linking of the two databases of electoral rolls and Aadhaar could lead to the linkage of Aadhaar’s “demographic” information with voter ID information, and lead to violation of the right to privacy and surveillance measures by the state.

Trishee Goyal

The story so far: Reports have surfaced online of instances where block level officers have asked individuals to link their Aadhaar with their Voter IDs, failing which their Voter IDs could be cancelled. This comes in the aftermath of the Election Commission’s (EC) campaign to promote the linkage of Voter ID and Aadhaar that began on August 1. In the first ten days since its launch, the campaign saw almost 2.5 crore Aadhaar holders voluntarily submitting their details to the EC.

Why does the government want this?

The EC conducts regular exercises to maintain an updated and accurate record of the voter base. A part of this exercise is to weed out duplication of voters, such as migrant workers who may have been registered more than once on the electoral rolls in different constituencies or for persons registered multiple times within the same constituency. As per the government, linkage of Aadhaar with voter IDs will assist in ensuring that only one Voter ID is issued per citizen of India.

Is the linking of Aadhaar with one’s Voter ID mandatory?

In December 2021, Parliament passed the Election Laws (Amendment) Act, 2021 to amend the Representation of the People Act, 1950, inter alia. Section 23(4) was inserted in the Representation of the People Act, 1950. It states that the electoral registration officer may “for the purpose of establishing the identity of any person” or “for the purposes of authentication of entries in electoral roll of more than one constituency or more than once in the same constituency” for citizens already enrolled, require them to furnish their Aadhaar numbers.

To reflect this amendment, in June 2022, the government notified changes to the Registration of Electors Rules, 1960. Rule 26B was added to provide that “every person whose name is listed in the roll may intimate his Aadhar number to the registration officer”. Although, the use of discretionary language throughout the amendments have been accompanied by assurances by both the government and the EC that linkage of the Aadhaar with Voter ID is optional, this does not seem to be reflected in Form 6B issued under the new Rule 26B.

Form 6B provides the format in which Aadhaar information may be submitted to the electoral registration officer. Form 6B provides the voter to either submit their Aadhaar number or any other listed document. However, the option to submit other listed documents is exercisable only if the voter is “not able to furnish their Aadhaar number because they do not have an Aadhaar number”. To that extent, the element of choice that has been incorporated in the amendments seem to be negated or at the very least thrown into confusion.

Why is the mandatory linking of Aadhaar to the Voter ID an issue?

The preference to use Aadhaar for verification and authentication, both by the state and private sector, stems from two reasons. First, at the end of 2021, 99.7% of the adult Indian population had an Aadhaar card. This coverage exceeds that of any other officially valid document such as driver’s licence, ration cards, PAN cards etc that are mostly applied for specific purposes. Second, since Aadhaar allows for biometric authentication, Aadhaar based authentication and verification is considered more reliable, quicker and cost efficient when compared to other IDs.

But these reasons do not suffice the mandating of Aadhaar except in limited circumstances as per the Puttaswamy judgment. It needs to be considered whether such mandatory linkage of Aadhaar with Voter ID would pass the test of being “necessary and proportionate” to the purpose of de-duplication which is sought to be achieved. In Puttaswamy, one of the questions that the Supreme Court explored was whether the mandatory linking of Aadhaar with bank accounts was constitutional or not. The Court observed that the mandatory linking of Aadhaar with bank accounts was not only for new bank accounts but also existing ones, failing which the individual will not be able to operate their bank account. The Court held that depriving a person of their right to property for non-linkage fell foul of the test of proportionality. Even though the situation at hand is slightly different in that other means of verification and authentication are allowed if the person does not hold an Aadhaar, given the wide coverage of Aadhaar, the current design would in effect mandate Aadhaar linkage. In this context, it needs to be considered whether requiring an Aadhaar holder to mandatorily provide Aadhaar for authentication or verification would not be considered violative of their informational autonomy (right to privacy) which would allow them to decide which official document they want to use for verification and authentication.

Moreover, in Lal Babu Hussein (1995), the Supreme Court had held that the Right to vote cannot be disallowed by insisting only on four proofs of identity — voters can rely on any other proof of identity and obtain the right to vote.

What are the operational difficulties?

First, the preference to Aadhaar for the purposes of determining voters is puzzling as Aadhaar is only a proof of residence and not a proof of citizenship. Therefore, verifying voter identity against this will only help in tackling duplication but will not remove voters who are not citizens of India from the electoral rolls.

Second, the estimate of error rates in biometric based authentication differ widely. As per the Unique Identification Authority of India in 2018, Aadhaar based biometric authentication had a 12% error rate. This led the Supreme Court to hold in Puttaswamy that a person would not be denied of benefits in case Aadhaar based authentication could not take place. This concern is also reflected in the previous experiences of using Aadhaar to clean electoral rolls. A similar exercise undertaken in 2015 in Andhra and Telangana led to the disenfranchisement of around 30 lakh voters before the Supreme Court stalled the process of linkage.

Lastly, civil society has highlighted that linking of the two databases of electoral rolls and Aadhaar could lead to the linkage of Aadhaar’s “demographic” information with voter ID information, and lead to violation of the right to privacy and surveillance measures by the state. This, however, would seem to be the case with the use of any other officially valid document to verify or authenticate the identity of the voter. This would leave the EC with the option of verifying its information only through door-to-door checks. It also needs to be noted that the Puttaswamy judgment, after reviewing the Aadhaar architecture, held that the use of biometric based authentication and verification, did not lead to the creation of a “surveillance state”. To address these concerns, one needs to have enforceable data protection principles that regulate how authentication data will be used.

What is the way forward?

Even as the amendments have been made and the EC has launched a campaign for linkage, a writ petition has filed with the Supreme Court challenging the same. It challenges the amendments as being violative of the right to privacy. The Supreme Court has transferred the writ to the Delhi High Court.

In the meantime, it is important that the government clarifies through correction in Form 6B that the linking is not mandatory and expedites the enactment of a data protection legislation that allays concerns of unauthorised processing of personal data held by the government.

2. Revisiting the S. Subramaniam Balaji vs Tamil Nadu judgment

What is the significance of this judgment in the context of the current debate surrounding freebies by political parties?

The Supreme Court referred to a three-judge Bench a series of petitions seeking a judicial direction that political parties who make “wild” promises of largesse should also reveal in their poll manifestos where they will get the money to pay for them.

The 2013 Balaji judgment states that election manifesto promises do not amount to ‘corrupt practice’ under Section 123 of the Representation of People Act. 

This revisit by the Supreme Court on its earlier judgment is unique as the court is exploring whether judicial parameters can be set on a purely political act of promising freebies.

Krishnadas Rajagopal

The story so far: On Friday, the Supreme Court referred to a three-judge Bench a series of petitions seeking a judicial direction that political parties who make “wild” promises of largesse should also reveal in their poll manifestos where they will get the money to pay for them. The reference is a shift from the court’s own stand in the S. Subramaniam Balaji vs Tamil Nadu judgment of 2013.

What happened?

In the Balaji case judgment, a Division Bench of the Supreme Court had held that making promises in election manifestos do not amount to a ‘corrupt practice’ under Section 123 of the Representation of People Act (RP).

However, the Supreme Court is now worried that freebies promised by political parties to win elections could bleed the public exchequer dry. The Court said that parties who form the government riding the wave created by their pre-poll promises of “free gifts” are bleeding the State finances dry by actually trying to fulfil their outlandish promises using public money.

The Supreme Court has therefore decided to revisit the Balaji verdict.

What triggered the Balaji case?

The course of events started in 2006, during the run-up to the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) released its election manifesto announcing a scheme of free distribution of colour television sets (CTVs) to “each and every household” which did not have one if the party was voted to power. The party justified that the TV would “provide recreation and general knowledge to household women, more particularly, those living in the rural areas”. The party swept to power in the polls and decided to implement its scheme and portioned off ₹750 crore from the budget for the project. The government finally distributed 30,000 TV sets across the State. In 2011, rival All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and its alliance also announced its election manifesto with free gifts to “equalise” the gifts offered by the DMK. AIADMK promised grinders, mixies, electric fans, laptop computers, four gram gold thalis, a cheque of ₹50,000 for women’s marriage, green houses, 20 kg of rice to ration card holders (even to those above the poverty line) and free cattle and sheep. Mr. Balaji, a resident of Tamil Nadu, challenged the schemes introduced by the parties in the Madras High Court. He said the expenditure to be incurred by the State from the exchequer was “unauthorised, impermissible and ultra vires the constitutional mandates”. The High Court dismissed his case, following which he had moved the apex court.

How did the case play out?

Mr. Balaji, represented by senior advocate Arvind Datar, said the State cannot act in furtherance of “eccentric principles of socialistic philanthropy”. He argued that the promises of free distribution of non-essential commodities in an election manifesto amounts to electoral bribe under Section 123 of the RP Act. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India has a duty to examine expenditures even before they are deployed. Money can be taken out of the Consolidated Fund of the State only for “public purposes”. The distribution of goods to certain sections of people was violative of Article 14 of the Constitution.

In response, the State of Tamil Nadu countered that promises of political parties do not constitute corrupt practice. Political parties are not the State and ‘freebies’ is a nebulous term which has no legal status. The promises implemented by the party after forming the government is an obligation under the Directives Principles of State Policy. The State is only doing its duty to promote the welfare of its people. The promises are implemented by framing various schemes/guidelines/eligibility criteria etc. as well as with the approval of the legislature. Thus, it cannot be construed as a waste of public money or be prohibited by any statute or scheme.

The court’s judgment held that promises by a political party cannot constitute a ‘corrupt practice’ on its part. It would be “misleading” to construe that all promises in the election manifesto would amount to corrupt practice. The manifesto of a political party is a statement of its policy. The question of implementing the manifesto arises only if the political party forms a government. It is the promise of a future government and not of an individual candidate. However, the court agreed that freebies create an “uneven playing field”. It had asked the Election Commission of India to consult political parties and issue guidelines on the election manifesto and make it a part of the Model Code of Conduct.

Why is the Court’s move to review the Balaji judgment significant?

In its order, the court foresees that “freebies may create a situation wherein the State government cannot provide basic amenities due to lack of funds and the State is pushed towards imminent bankruptcy”. The court said it wants a transparent debate before the three-judge Bench on whether an “enforceable” judicial order can stop political parties from promising and distributing ‘irrational freebies’. The case is unique as the Supreme Court is exploring whether judicial parameters can be set on a purely political act of promising freebies.

3. The cyber threat to mobile banking

The lack of adequate cybersecurity and the dearth of talent in banking could potentially lead to a further rise in cyberattacks on user devices

According to a 2020 Statista survey across 25 States in India, two-third respondents said they had a smartphone. Of these, half said they sent and received money digitally, and about 31% said they had a mobile app for banking. Nearly 14% said they used their mobile phones for banking-related purposes.

Global cybersecurity firm Kaspersky warns of an increase in cyberattacks on Android and iOS devices in the Asia Pacific (APAC) region. One mobile banking trojan, called Anubis, has been targeting Android users since 2017. Roaming Mantis is another prolific malware targeting mobile banking users.

There is push from regulators to make payment platforms interoperable at a time when the demand for technical experts is a serious concern in the banking industry.

John Xavier

As cash transactions become a thing of the past, an increasing number of people’s interactions with their bank or bank accounts happen through their smartphones. According to a 2020 Statista survey of five thousand odd households across 25 States in India, two-third respondents said they had a smartphone. Of these, half said they sent and received money digitally, and about 31% said they had a mobile app for banking. Nearly 14% said they used their mobile phones for banking-related purposes. This number further jumped as the COVID-19 pandemic made a lot more people switch to digital modes of payment instead of transacting with cash. Convenience and quickness in completing payments via mobile applications also played a key role in accelerating this trend. This acceleration brings along with it a vulnerability: an increased threat of cyberattacks on mobile devices.

Kaspersky’s view of the threat

Global cybersecurity firm Kaspersky warns of an increase in cyberattacks on Android and iOS devices in the Asia Pacific (APAC) as more people switch to mobile banking in the region. According to Kaspersky’s senior malware researcher Suguru Ishimaru, mobile banking Trojans are dangerous malware that can steal money from mobile users’ bank accounts by disguising the malicious application as a legitimate app to lure unsuspecting people into installing the malware. (A Trojan is a malicious code or software that looks legitimate but can take control of your device, including smartphones.)

At the APAC Cyber Security Weekend conference on Thursday, Mr. Ishimaru pointed out two prominent malware campaigns that operate in the region and target smartphone users in several countries.

Trojans let loose

One mobile banking trojan, called Anubis, has been targeting Android users since 2017, and its worldwide campaigns have hit users in Russia, Turkey, India, China, Colombia, France, Germany, the U.S., Denmark, and Vietnam. The malware has continued to be one of the most common mobile banking trojans with one in 10 unique Kaspersky users encountering a banking threat from the malware. The perpetrators infect the device through legitimate-looking and high-ranking malicious apps on Google Play, smishing (phishing messages sent through SMS), and BianLian malware, another mobile banking Trojan, Mr. Ishimaru noted.

Roaming Mantis is another prolific malware targeting mobile banking users. The group attacks Android devices and spreads the malicious code by hijacking domain name systems (DNS) through smishing exploits. Kaspersky’s research team has been tracking the malware since 2018; and between the start of 2021 to the first half of 2022 alone, they detected nearly half a million attacks in the APAC region.

Mr. Ishimaru said that while this threat group is known for targeting Android devices, their recent campaign has shown interest in iOS users. The group targets users by sending smishing texts with a short description and a URL landing page. If a user clicks on the link and opens the landing page, they are redirected to a phishing page. For iOS users, the landing page mimics Apple’s official website; while Android devices download another malware. And once the individual inputs their login credentials and proceed to the two-factor authentication, the attacker gets to know the user’s device and login details.

“There is a notion that iOS is a more secure operating system,” Mr. Ishimaru said. “However, we [users] must take two things into account — the increasing sophistication of mobile bankers’ social engineering techniques and malware arsenal and the possibility for human errors.”

Interoperability compounds problems

Mobile payment platforms like Google Pay, PaytM, PhonePe, Square, PayPal, and Alipay have benefited from the shift in consumers’ adoption of mobile banking.

As a result, they have also permanently changed the payments game to their advantage. But these platforms are operating in a closed-loop payment world where a Google Pay user can send money to another bank account via only the search giant’s payment platform. This is similar to how Visa and Mastercard operate as they let payment transactions happen only within their own networks, not between each other.

This business model could change “driven partly by regulators that prefer open, standardised platforms that lower barriers to entry,” according to an Accenture report on banking trends in 2022.

Some countries are already making payment platform providers change their business model. China, for instance, has ordered its internet companies to offer their rival firm’s link and payment services on their platforms. In India, a new law demands all licensed mobile payment platforms to be capable of providing interoperability between wallets. The push from regulators to make payment platforms interoperable comes at a time when the demand for technical experts is a serious concern in the banking industry.

The shortage of technology, engineering, data and security experts needed by banks to realise their digital aspirations tends to hide a much wider problem: banks’ appeal as first-choice employers of all kinds of talent has faded, Accenture’s report adds. The lack of adequate cybersecurity and the dearth of talent in banking could potentially lead to a further rise in cyberattacks on user devices. And until this mismatch is fixed, it helps to be careful and extremely cautious when using a mobile device to make payments. Apart from the usual digital hygiene practices like keeping the phone up-to-date and rebooting regularly, consumers can ensure they use their phones for banking only when the device is connected to a secure VPN. iOS 16 users can turn on the Lockdown Mode as it limits the device’s functionality and protects it from any potential malware.

4. ‘Working on a comprehensive legal framework for digital economy’

We have consistently held that India’s laws must be implemented by every company operating in the country, says Minister for Electronics and Information Technology

Union Minister for Railways, Communication, and Electronics and Information TechnologyAshwini Vaishnaw talks about the policy road map for the digital economy, the focus on making India Atmanirbhar (self-sufficient) in telecom technology, and the recent allegations that the Indian government forced Twitter to employ its agent. He also talks about the government’s plans to improve amenities for railway customers, bring in new engines and upgrade trains, along with efforts to boost revenues from freight services.

What is the policy road map you have envisaged for the telecom and IT sectors?

We are working on a comprehensive legal framework for the digital economy. It has four dimensions. First is telecom. Telecom is the primary medium of accessing digital services. So, a new telecom Bill to replace laws made in 1885 and 1930 is at an advanced stage of drafting. The stakeholder consultation process is about to be completed. Second will be the data protection Bill. Third is a comprehensive digital India Act that we are preparing to replace the IT Act of 2000 vintage. These are three Bills. Now beyond this, there are certain policy frameworks, for example the national data framework that we have uploaded for consultation, then cybersecurity framework… these are outside the law, but more like a policy framework because of the ever-changing technology landscape.

There won’t be a separate law for cybersecurity?

Cybersecurity is a constantly evolving area. Globally, it has been dealt with a techno-legal framework where technology plays a big role and policy is there to support the technology. I don’t think that by putting a law for cybersecurity the threat will vanish. It has to be a techno-legal solution. For that, we have to continuously invest in infrastructure, new processes, training people and making common citizens aware. However, we have to be always on alert to counter ever new threats.

Twitter’s ex-security chief Peiter Zatko has alleged that the company may not have the competency to protect its users and their data. Comment

That’s a very serious concern. If they have any flaws in data protection, they will be held accountable. We expect that each and every social media platform should utilise the best available technologies. They should definitely do everything that is required to protect users’ data. And it is mandated by their own policies…this is a very fair expectation. If they don’t do it, of course they would be held accountable.

Mr. Zatko has also alleged that the Indian government forced the microblogging platform to put a government agent on its payroll and grant access to sensitive user data?

I read in the news that Twitter has categorically denied this in front of the parliamentary committee.

From a policy perspective, how is the government looking at balancing privacy with using data to offer better services? 

The principles of data protection and privacy are now well established all over the world. What is important is to create an easily implementable, highly accessible implementation structure, so that the citizens living in remote areas can also get the same level of grievance redress mechanism that citizens living in cities would get. That is what we need to really work upon — accessible, inclusive, and equitable structure. When a citizen gives data to the government based on a consent framework, and the government uses data analytics to provide better service… as long as it is part of that consent, it fits into all the principles.

Our focus now is to make sure that the implementation of these principles and data protection framework should be in tune with the modern times, should be accessible to everybody, should be very easy to implement and should be born digital. It should not be like we are trying to create a paper system for a digital world. The new draft should be out soon, and we will bring it to Parliament in the Budget Session.

For content removal from social media platforms, will the law enforcement of the country — and not the companies — have the final authority?

Yes. This framework is there across the world. If you look at the per capita number of requests made for taking down content that is not in consonance with the laws of the country, India is among the lowest. Our country’s laws must be followed by anybody who is working in India. It cannot be that they (social media companies) say that ‘this is my idea of what the Constitution should be’. We have consistently held that India’s laws must be implemented by every company operating in the country.

Where will the equipment for 5G network largely come from?

It will not just be foreign companies. We are building a strong ecosystem in India. In fact, by next year, we will be exporting telecom technology to the world. The whole technology stack for telecom services comprises four distinct parts: core network, radio network, telecom equipment and mobile handsets. C-DOT (The Centre for Development of Telematics) and a consortium of academic institutions have developed and tested a very robust core for 4G. On 4G core, they have now built a 5G core, which is almost ready. Reliance Jio has also developed their own core. Then, we have the radio network, which interacts between the consumer and the tower. Our PLI scheme and the start-up ecosystem has today brought out at least six radio designers and manufacturers. We are integrating all these radios in the C-DOT core. So, building that ecosystem means that we can now take our solution to the world. Similarly, in telecom equipment manufacturing, with the PLI scheme, 30 telecom equipment manufacturers have invested and started production. The fourth part is mobile handset. Close to 25% of all the mobile handsets manufactured in India today are 5G-enabled. Manufacturers are ready to ramp the production of 5G devices up to 70%-80%. Entry level 5G handset today costs about ₹15,000 and is likely to come down to ₹10,000-₹12,000 very soon. There are about six or seven developed countries whose telecom services providers have sent serious definitive inquiries to Indian system integrators as to when the C-DOT technology stack will be fully ready. It is ready and tested, and soon it will be rolled out across the country on 1 lakh sites. Once it is installed on let’s say 15,000-20,000 sites then technology is treated as proven.

So, we will have those credentials and by next year we will be ready to export telecom technology to the world. So this is one sector where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Atmanirbhar Bharat vision is being realised very well.

What about manufacturing semiconductors?

We are making excellent progress. Typically, these decisions take 14 to 18 months. January 1 this year is when we uploaded the policy. Hopefully, we should be able to conclude this entire process within this year itself and the first fab may get going this year. It could in fact be multiple fabs along with a very good design ecosystem. The world is looking for a reliable and trusted partner like India.

The Cabinet recently approved a ₹1.64 lakh-crore relief package for State-owned BSNL. This follows a similar ₹70,000-crore package announced in 2019. What gives you the confidence of a turnaround this time?

The package of 2019 has made BSNL a stable entity. Last financial year it made operating profit (at the EBITA level). Now from this level, we have to make it a growing company in terms of number of subscribers, revenue and profitability.

For this, the first step we are taking is to give a very robust 4G network to BSNL. C-DOT-developed technology under PM’s Atmanirbhar Bharat programme has been rigorously tested. We will roll out the 4G network in the coming months and very rapidly we’ll upgrade it to 5G. So, by the end of 2023, BSNL would have started offering 5G services which will increase the revenue potential and the number of customers.

The second big thing in BSNL is the very significant increase in the number of broadband subscribers. Today BSNL is adding close to 1 lakh new fibre connections every month. These two elements are the revenue items.

Third, our laser sharp focus on reducing the cost and increasing the revenue. So that gives a clear directional thrust to BSNL’s journey and we believe that BSNL will become a good market stabilising force in the coming years. BSNL is also playing a very important role in reaching out to the unconnected places and bridging the digital divide. For MTNL, most of the work has already shifted to BSNL. MTNL’s balance sheet is very complex, it has a huge debt on it, so we are working on it.

For the Railways, is the current growth in freight services enough to offset losses from passenger services?

Hon’ble PM has given us a very clear mandate that the entire passenger experience has to totally transform. The first thing in this is railway stations. So today about 50 railway stations are getting totally redeveloped to world-class standards.

Second is getting a new generation of trains. The new Vande Bharat train is getting tested for 180 kmph speed and the results are excellent. Simultaneously, we are working on totally new types of engines with 9,000 hp engines. Conventionally, we have been doing 4,000 hp and 6,000 hp.

The new engines are the latest technology of engines and will be designed and manufactured in India. Then for short point-to-point distances, for example, 30 km-40 km from a big city a totally new generation of metro trains which will run on the Indian railway tracks is being manufactured. These will replace the MEMU and DEMU trains. So we are upgrading the entire spectrum of trains. And over the next two years, you will see all these things coming on to the tracks.

The third is the safety of passengers. We are scaling up installation of Kavach (indigenously developed train protection system) to 3,000 km this year as against the Budget target of 2,000 km.

On the cargo side, last year we added 185 million tonnes (MT) extra. This is phenomenal as in the past Railways added 20MT-30MT. This year, we are on track to add almost a similar amount of new cargo. Over the past 70 years, the Railways has been losing its market share to the road and last year we started the journey of gaining market share. This journey will continue this year. That will have a big impact on India’s logistics cost. The only way to reduce it is to have more and more rail share.  Our passenger subsidy is now ₹62,000 crore… nearly 55% subsidy given to everybody. So how do we fill that gap? That gap has to come from having more and more cargo. So all these initiatives will transform passenger experience on Indian Railways.

With the improvement in amenities, is there a case for raising fares?

We are not considering raising passenger fares. Over the last eight years the Railways has consistently moved in a direction of improving passenger amenities, improving the passenger experience — from cleanliness to running trains on time to having station amenities… Simultaneously we are focusing on having more cargo. The result of eight years is now visible.

Will we be able to achieve a 96% operating ratio this year?

With the huge passenger subsidy of ₹62,000 crore and pension expenses of ₹55,000 crore and salary and wage bill of ₹1 lakh crore, the social obligations of Railways are more important. Profit is not the motive. Within all these socio political and economic constraints we are doing everything possible to balance revenue and expenses.

Timelines for the key dedicated freight corridors project has seen multiple extensions. What is the current status of the project?

The project started in 2007. Till 2014, the number of tracks commissioned was zero km. Since 2014, we have commissioned 1,350 km and that is a huge number. It has started operating and running about 180 trains a day. We have started getting the benefits of two freight corridors.

Digital Economy

The digital economy refers to economic activity that uses electronic communication and digital technologies to provide goods and services. The main building blocks of the digital economy are

  1. The internet. This enables firms to offer goods for sale and enables consumers to browse for goods that they need.
  2. E-mail. Electronic communication enables very cheap, instantaneous communication across the world. It can be used to send information and requests very quickly.
  3. Digital automation. Firms can use the processing power of computers to make decisions on output, prices and how to reach consumers.
  4. Digital payments – credit cards, Apple Pay, Google pay, bitcoin, bank transfer. A digital economy is moving us towards a cashless society.
  5. Increasingly the digital economy relies on AI, mass use of electronic data and automated technology
  6. Social media. To a lesser extent, social media is an aspect of the digital economy. With individuals using it share recommendations about business.

Essential Elements of Digital Economy

Digital Economy facilitates and executes the buying and selling of products and services through electronic transactions undertaken by means of the internet. Its essential elements are:

  1. Digitalization and using Information and Communication Technology (ICT), rigorously.
  2. Knowledge codification
  3. Conversion of information into commodities
  4. Organizing work and production in modern ways.

Advantages of the digital economy

Greater information

The internet has enabled consumers to have greater information and choice. For example, it makes it easier to compare prices between firms. It also brings information to a person’s fingertips.

Time saving

For the user, time is a determining factor when making purchases, managing their finances, traveling or even working.

Reduced costs

The digital economy considerably reduces the costs for the merchant and the maintenance of his business.

Increases flexibility

The flexibility that financial technology provides can be seen at all levels of exchange transactions – From the user and the numerous payment methods to the possibility of buying from anywhere in the world.

Provides more information and decision-making power

The power of decision for the user defines many things and the use of the digital economy is exactly that, more information for better decision making.

Process reinvention

The digital economy removes many of the barriers that previously defined the way certain processes are carried out. A clear example is work, which took a 180º turn with technological advances that allow, for example, working from home, making tele-working one of the most widely used alternatives today due to the multiple benefits it combines.

Lower barriers to entry

In some markets, aspects of the digital economy make it easier for new firms to enter. The digital economy has brought many new services which were inconceivable before, such as online home deliveries for grocery to dating apps.

Creates significant data which can give new insights

The mass production of data can help inform governments and charities about what is happening in the economy. For example, in tracking of COVID-19 spread, the use of an app on mobile phones may indicate where local hotspots emerge.

Contributes to Economic Growth:

 The widespread digital economy has recorded tremendous growth and innovation as well as it can be broadly applied to other economic sectors.

Creates new jobs

Digital economy has given a boost to jobs too. In the last few years, the development of mobile apps has solely created millions of jobs worldwide.

Improves public services

A set of global access to broadband and a powerful information and communication technology services ecosystem provides a platform to improve service delivery in core sectors.

Rise in e-commerce

A recent growth in e-commerce transactions has been reported in the last few years. And all credit goes to the digitalization of commercial activities, due to which developing, buying, distributing, selling and tracking of products and services, has become much simpler, competitive, and profitable.

Digital delivery of goods and services

From aviation to banking, entertainment to education and insurance to hotel booking, one can easily get the goods and services of their need, online.

Transparency

In the digital economy, major commercial transactions take place online, which eliminates cash transactions, and ultimately increases transparency and reduces corruption.

Expands business opportunities

Digitalization enables small firms and businesses to actively participate in international buying and selling of goods and services.

Limitations of Digital Economy

Cybersecurity

An exponential increase in cyber threats has been reported in recent years due to increasing digitalization in the economy. Except if cybersecurity is countered successfully, it will not be easy to develop a safe and trusted environment, which is conducive to the growing business.

Disruptions in labour markets

Though it is assumed to create new job opportunities, there is also a risk related to the speed of labour market changes and destruction of basic jobs. As everything will be digitized and automated, processes that involve labour and manual work will be avoided and is replaced by technology-oriented work, which will result in loss of jobs and may also widen income inequality.

Strong infrastructure requirement

It requires strong infrastructure concerning internet, telecommunication and mobile industry. For the development of such industries, heavy investment is required, so as to link all the cities, towns and villages.

With the emergence of the digital economy, consumers can get easy and quick access to information, due to the digitization of the content. Moreover, sharing of information with their friends and acquaintances is now just a click away.

Monopoly power

Despite the potential for new start-ups, many aspects of the digital economy have become dominated by firms with monopoly power. For example, Amazon has cornered the market for online sales, meaning many firms have to go through the Amazon market place to reach consumers who go to Amazon out of habit. Similarly, Google and Facebook have all developed very strong brand loyalty and market share in their respective markets. This has made a few tech giants very profitable.

Addictive nature of technology

Whilst, in theory, the internet can save time, e.g. finding bus times is much easier with internet than paper copies, this time saved may be outweighed by the time we waste checking Facebook, twitter, internet searches. Also, the sheer volume of information can cause us to drown in information and lose sight of what we actually need. More choices do not necessarily lead to better outcomes.

Privacy issues

Harvesting and using data has become big business. Facebook collects a large range of data on its users and this has been bought by political interests who can give very targeted political ads to its users.

Bypassing of labour laws

The digital economy has created a trend towards using self-employed freelancers, who are not protected by the same labour laws. For example, delivery drivers for Uber drivers have often been employed on zero-hour contracts. This enables firms to cut labour costs, be more flexible, but it can leave workers without sick pay or employment protections.

Social media has led to more graphic content

The anonymous and distant nature of social media has exacerbated trends to personal attacks and the posting of conspiracy theories or posting of violent/sexual images. The digital economy has enabled the proliferation of content that is damaging to human well-being.

Disruption patterns.

The pace of digitalization can lead to structural unemployment, with some unskilled workers increasingly losing out to skilled workers. Combined with the monopoly power of big tech firms, it is causing an increased inequality in society, which may lead to feelings of alienation and unfairness.

Environmental costs

Digital economy does not always imply a ‘green solution.’ Data centres use electricity and cause CO2 emissions. In the US, data centres account for around two per cent of U.S. electricity use in 2014.

A bigger potential cost is how the digital economy encourages a ‘throw-away’ culture. E.g. the planned obsolescence of mobile phones and computers, encouraging consumers to buy new models, leading to greater use of raw materials.

Some Initiatives taken to digitize India

Infrastructure

Under this initiative, the Government provides multiple programs that facilitate a reliable digital infrastructure. The following are some of the programs under this:

  • AADHAR: One of the key strengths of ‘Digital India’, wherein every resident of the country is given a unique identity number.
  • Bharat Broadband Network (BBNL): This is the custodian of Digital India. The creation of the National Optical Fiber Network (NOFN) has been mandated in India.
  • Centre for Excellence for Internet of Things (CoE-IT): The main objective of the center is for creating domain capability and innovative applications.
  • CERT-IN: This is formed with the intention to secure Indian cyberspace.
  • Common Services Centres (CSCS): CSCs are the access points for the delivery of essential public utility services, healthcare, social welfare schemes, financial, education, and agriculture services.
  • Cyber Swachhta Kendra: The purpose of this is to generate secure cyberspace by detecting botnet infections in India and to notify, enable cleaning, and secure systems of end-users so as to prevent further infections.
  • Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana: This is one of the flagship programs of the Power Ministry (MoP) and is designed to provide a continuous power supply to the entire rural India.
  • DigiLocker: A digital wallet to empower citizens digitally.
  • Digital Saksharta Abhiyaan (DISHA): This aims to provide IT training to 52.5. lakh persons.
  • Digitize India Platform: This platform provides digitization of scanned document images or physical documents.

Services

Under this initiative, the Government has introduced multiple online services to facilitate greater reach and accessibility:

  • Accessible India Campaign and Mobile App: This nation-wide flagship campaign is for achieving universal accessibility for enabling people with disabilities to gain access to equal opportunity.
  • Agrimarket App: This mobile application aims to keep farmers abreast with the crop prices and avoid distress sale.
  • Beti Bachao Beti Padhao: This aims to provide equal opportunity to a girl child, a chance to be born and be educated.
  • BHIM (Bharat Interface For Money): This makes payment easy and quick using UPI.
  • Crime and Criminal Tracking Network & Systems (CCTNS): This aims for nationwide networking infrastructure for the evolution of an IT-enabled state-of-the-art tracking system around ‘Investigation of crime and detection of criminals.’
  • Crop Insurance Mobile App: This app can be used to compute the insurance premium for notified crops based on the area of coverage, amount, and loan amount in the case of loanee farmers.
  • Digital AIIMS: A distinctive health identification number for every patient visiting AIIMS was generated on an Aadhar platform.
  • E-Granthalaya, E-Panchayat, E-Hospital, E-Pathshala, E- prison: All of these provide digitalization of services like libraries, hospitals, schools, and prisons.

Empowerment

Under this initiative, the Government provides e-governance, skill development, and infrastructure development initiatives:

  • Aadhar Enabled Payment System (AEPS)
  • BPO Scheme
  • Digidhan Abhiyaan
  • MyGov
  • National Mission on Education using ICT
  • North East BPO Promotion Scheme (NEBPS)
  • NREGA – Soft
  • OpenForge
  • PayGov India
  • Smart Cities
  • Pradhan Mantri Jan- Dhan Yojana (PMJDY)
  • Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY)
  • PAHAL (DBTL)
  • Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS)
  • Visvesvaraya PhD Scheme For Electronics and IT

5. Editorial-1: A public judge with an uncertain legacy

The tenure of the 48th Chief Justice of India did not live up to the promise and the hope it held out at the beginning

Justice Nuthalapati Venkata Ramana was the 48th Chief Justice of India (CJI) and only the second judge from Andhra Pradesh to occupy this position after Justice K. Subba Rao in 1966-67. He was appointed to the High Court of Andhra Pradesh in June 2000 while the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance was in power and came to the Supreme Court in February 2014, being among the last judges to be appointed by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance Government. His tenure as CJI for one year, 124 days began with widespread hope that an extremely strong executive would be held accountable and that the most pressing constitutional issues of our times would be heard and adjudicated upon. However, as is evident now, that did not play out and it ended up being a tenure that promised so much and delivered very little on those fronts.

Institutional malaise

One of the most striking faultlines of Justice Ramana’s leadership came from his own farewell comments. For an outgoing CJI to acknowledge and apologise for the breakdown of the listing and posting of cases speaks to a far deeper institutional malaise. It is curious that he apologised for not paying much attention to the listing process and it is just as curious that Justice U.U. Lalit, the incoming CJI, immediately identified reforming the listing process as an urgent area of concern. The stark contrast in prioritising the listing process for course correction presents a very odd picture for those of us who watch the Court from outside. While this might seem insignificant to laypersons, it is exactly these listing and allocation processes that decide what gets decided in the Supreme Court and who decides it.

To effectively understand Justice Ramana’s legacy, it is important to understand the prevailing situation in the Supreme Court when he took over as the CJI. After the various controversies that plagued the tenures of Justices Dipak Misra, Ranjan Gogoi and S.A. Bobde as CJIs, the Supreme Court was considerably weakened as an institution. The lead up to his CJI tenure in the early parts of 2021 and first few months as CJI were seen as hopeful indicators of a resurgence. Orders on bail under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), fixing gaps in dowry death law, medical assistance to Siddique Kappan and powerful speeches on criticism, dissent in a democracy, and the need to guard against tyranny were sources of hope.

Largely disappointing

However, Justice Ramana’s judicial contribution as CJI was disappointing. His orders keeping the sedition law in abeyance and preventing its further use until its constitutional validity was determined will perhaps be his most lasting judicial legacy as CJI. His judgment striking down provisions of the Benami Transactions (Prohibition) Act for arbitrary and overbroad criminalisation is also significant but it is obvious that Justice Ramana avoided constitutional questions that were political minefields. Cases on electoral bonds, the constitutional validity of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, dilution of Article 370, hijab ban in schools, reservations for Economically Weaker Sections, and Aadhaar amendments raised important constitutional questions that needed urgent resolution but were not listed.

The hearings on Pegasus revealed the extent of the difficulty currently faced by the Court in getting answers from the executive. The manner in which only very limited parts of the Pegasus committee’s report were revealed continues the troubling trend of secrecy and opaqueness in fact finding in such matters. Complicating this approach was the rather inexplicable prioritisation of the ‘freebies’ case in the last few days of his tenure. In an issue where the Court’s jurisdiction and competence are rather doubtful, spending crucial judicial time on it sent rather odd signals.

In many ways, his judicial legacy as a judge of the Supreme Court seems to carry more weight than his legacy as the CJI. Justice Ramana’s orders on Internet restrictions in Kashmir, bringing the office of the CJI under the Right to Information (RTI) Act and his track record on the death penalty all indicated potential for deep constitutional thinking that was not delivered upon ultimately. In particular, his judgment in Accused X pushed the law forward on the manner in which issues of mental illness must be considered during sentencing.

Bright spots in administration

It is perhaps on the administrative side that Justice Ramana leaves his most lasting legacy. Before he took over as CJI, there was a 22-month deadlock on collegium recommendations. As CJI he ensured 11 appointments to the Supreme Court (nine in one go) and over 200 appointments to various High Courts. As part of this, Justice Ramana has also ended up ensuring that India will have its first female CJI in Justice B.V. Nagarathna between September-October 2027. However, on appointment of judges during his tenure, two issues raised significant concerns. The failure to elevate Justice Akil Kureshi to the Supreme Court despite his seniority, performance, and reputation and the decision to transfer Justice Sanjib Banerjee from being the Chief Justice of Madras High Court (with a strength of 75 judges) to the Meghalaya High Court (with four judges) needed answers that never came. Another issue that has received far less attention has been Government’s resistance to appoint Nagendra Ramachandra Naik, Aditya Sondhi (who has since withdrawn himself from consideration) as judges of the Karnataka High Court and Saurabh Kirpal as a Delhi High Court judge. These issues with elevations, transfers, and appointments show the complicated relationship between the Court and the Government. In that light, ensuring over 200 appointments is no easy task and it demonstrates an ability to navigate tricky waters with the Government.

Some faultlines

Justice Ramana himself was appointed as a judge of the Andhra Pradesh High Court in June 2000 when he was the Additional Advocate General to the Chandrababu Naidu (Telugu Desam Party)-led Andhra Pradesh government. Ram Jethmalani was the Union Law Minister under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government at that time and more than a decade later, in February 2013, interesting facts about Justice Ramana’s appointment emerged. The Supreme Court was hearing a petition, argued by Ram Jethmalani, that Justice Ramana could not continue as a High Court judge. The Supreme Court Bench comprising Justices Aftab Alam and Ranjana Desai pointed out to Ram Jethamalani that it was under his leadership that the Law Ministry had pushed for Justice Ramana’s appointment despite it being twice rejected by the Supreme Court collegium (as documented by V. Venkatesan).

Another controversy that marred Justice Ramana’s tenure in the Supreme Court has been the complaint and investigation into the purchase of land at very low prices by his daughters in the Amaravati capital region of divided Andhra Pradesh. The gag orders on the media to prevent reporting on the case by the Andhra Pradesh High Court in September 2020 (through the then Chief Justice J.K. Maheshwari) were wholly inappropriate. Though the Supreme Court stayed the High Court’s gag orders, the situation worsened with the complaints by Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, against Justice Ramana. This forced the Supreme Court to initiate an in-house inquiry that eventually dismissed the complaints. Through a terse statement released by the Court, the complaints were dismissed and declared that the inquiry report would remain confidential. The fact that Justice Ramana was hearing a matter that sought to hasten hearings in corruption cases involving Members of Parliament/Members of Legislative Assemblies and the potential consequence for corruption cases against Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy only served to make this entire episode murkier.

Justice Ramana has perhaps been the most visible CJI in the history of the Supreme Court. One of the most striking images from his tenure has to be the image of him, in December 2021, riding in a decorated bullock cart with a large number of people around him on a visit to his village in Krishna district after taking over as the CJI. The unprecedented intensity and extent of the reportage involving Justice Ramana’s public engagements, including Op-Ed page contributions in national newspapers, speaks to an effort to redefine the relationship between the CJI, the Supreme Court and the people of this country. However, by virtue of this extended exposure, it did seem that the transformative constitutional vision of the CJI was more evident outside court rather than inside it. Perhaps the most enduring question of Justice Ramana’s legacy will be why he could not bring a transformative constitutional vision into the Chief Justice’s court.

6. Editorial-2: Japan’s continuing struggle with gender parity

Investing in women’s education and health may have limited impact if it is a society trapped in gender norms

According to recent data, Japan recorded the lowest total births in 2021 at just about 8,10,000. Japan also ranked lowest among the developed countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2022. The two statistics are connected by one factor — gender norms. Usually, we associate low gender equality with poor developing countries. However, gender inequality emanates from many sources, lack of resources being one, gender norms being the other. As a country transitions from developing to developed, the former may be taken care of, the latter is not guaranteed. With a target of transforming India into a developed country by 2047, there are some lessons we should learn from our eastern friend, Japan, the world’s fourth largest economy.

Developed, yet a low rank

Japan ranked abysmally low (at 116 out of 146 countries) in the Gender Gap Index 2022. This makes Japan the worst performer amongst the G7 group, where most of the countries ranked between 10 and 27, barring Italy at 63.

What explains this low rank for a highly developed country? Japan has a perfect score on gender equality in educational attainment. In fact, 15-year-old Japanese girls (and boys) score higher than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average in scientific and mathematical literacy and reading performance. Health and survival of women including healthy life expectancy also stands near a perfect score of 0.97. Japan’s overall low rank in the Gender Gap Index stems from the low presence of women in leadership roles and politics. It ranks below 130 when it comes to women in Parliament and women as senior officials and managers. Women hold a mere 10% of Japan’s parliamentary seats (as of April 2022) as compared to around 30% or more in the G7 countries. Japan has not had a female head of the state in the past 50 years.

Widespread mindset

Controversies around sexism in Parliament, company boardrooms and at leading institutions, are common. For instance, in 2021, the head of the Tokyo Olympics Committee, also a former Prime Minister, received global backlash and was forced to resign for his sexist remarks about why women should not participate in board meetings as they talk too much. In political speeches, women have been referred to as birth-giving machines (told to bear at least three children). Although such statements were later retracted with apologies after public backlash, they reflect the social mindset towards women in general. A few years ago, medical schools in Japan were reported to have rigged the entrance examination scores of female candidates, penalising them for their gender to ensure that 70% of the students enrolled were males. Why? Ostensibly because women tend to leave the medical profession later in life due to marriage and child-bearing responsibilities.

Evidence from Japan suggests that high per capita income does not guarantee gender equality as the latter is usually rooted in social and cultural norms. Japanese society is founded on, and still conforms to, very strong gender norms of what men and women should do. It is still common to refer to one’s wife as kanai, translated as the one inside the house. An office worker in Japan is often referred to as salaryman — again, a gendered term. The image of a typical salaryman is that of a family-wage earning man who works overtime including weekends. Staying at work till the boss does and then joining late evening nomikai or conversation over drinks are the expected norms in Japanese work-life. This makes it impossible for married women, usually the primary caregivers, to have strong careers. Most women, therefore, engage in part-time and low-paying jobs such as secretaries and assistants. Mothers returning to the labour market receive a ‘mommy track’ career path which involves little or no progression. Women are perceived unsuitable to be leaders which reflects in their low numbers as company heads (8%). Japan has less than 5% women in middle management and senior management in the central government. Japanese women earn about 57% that of men, making this wage gap one of the worst among OECD countries.

The socio-economic impact

What are the consequences of such gaps? This inequality explains the sharp decline in marriage rates and fertility in Japan which is amongst the worst in rich countries. Marriage rates in Japan have fallen by 50% since 1970 and fertility has fallen to 1.3 children per woman (2021). The high opportunity cost of caregiving and motherhood has made Japanese women perceive marriage and childbearing as a burden. This has created double trouble for the long-stagnant Japanese economy. Low marriage rates have led to a fall in consumption and investment as singles consume and invest less than households. For example, singles tend to rely more on rental housing rather than owning a house. Low birth rate implies a steady decline in the future workforce and a rising pension burden of an aging population on the fiscal account. The big wage gap in male-female income suppresses domestic demand as half of its population relies on low wages and temporary jobs.

‘Womenomics’ and reality

In an effort to revive the stagnant Japanese economy, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe laid emphasis on ‘womenomics’ as one of his key policy measures. It aimed at boosting female labour participation, and increasing the percentage of women in leadership positions to 30% by 2020. This goal however was not achieved and even Abe’s own cabinet struggled to meet the target. The deadline was revised to 2030.

Will this goal be achieved? Last month, Japan’s land ministry hired an all male lecturer staff to deliver a course on community development to public servants and added 15 women only after strong public backlash.

Japan’s struggle with gender parity teaches us that investing in women’s education and health may have limited impact if that society is trapped in gender norms that restrict women from capitalising these investments for themselves, the society and the country. Policymakers must take cognisance of such evidence as this can trap us into other economic problems as we chalk out the path for a developed India by 2047.

7. Editorial-3: Sops for votes

Promising gifts in run-up to polls, not welfare, is the real ‘freebie’ issue

After considering the formation of an expert body to examine the issues relating to political parties promising free goods to voters in their election manifestoes, the Supreme Court has stayed its hand and referred the issue to a three-judge Bench. Also referred for deeper consideration is the correctness of an earlier judgment in S. Subramaniam Balaji vs Tamil Nadu (2013), which ruled that making promises in a manifesto would not amount to a corrupt practice. The proceedings before a Bench, headed by the now retired Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana, last week, offered crucial perspectives on the political economy of welfarism, socialism and pre-election promises of ‘freebies’. Over the few hearings, the Bench moved from vague references to ‘freebies’ to making rational distinctions between welfare schemes and socio-economic concessions on the one hand, and poll-time announcements of material goods and items as incentives to vote. This clarity itself was lacking in the initial stages, as omnibus references to ‘freebies’ and raillery against political parties for their approach to welfare dominated the discourse. Those who have approached the Court against irrational promises found support from the Union government. Following Prime Minister Narendra Modi making public comments disapproving of the ‘freebie’ culture, the Government’s stand is no surprise.

However, the Government was reluctant to examine the issue through discussions among political parties and favoured a judicially appointed panel. But, such a panel may not achieve much. Most parties oppose any fetters on their right to appeal to voters through means of their choice and, if elected, use their mandate to distribute finances and resources as they deem fit, subject to law and legislative approval. Therefore, it is no surprise that the Bench has included in its reference, questions on the scope of judicial intervention in the matter and whether any enforceable order can be passed. The two-judge Bench judgment in 2013 had examined the issue in the backdrop of the DMK coming to power in 2006 on a promise to distribute television sets to the poor and implementing it. It ruled that the Directive Principles of State Policy allow such schemes and that spending of public funds on them could not be questioned if it was based on appropriations passed by the legislature. It also concluded that poll promises by a party could not be termed a ‘corrupt practice’. That Bench had also rejected the argument that giving benefits to everyone, that is, the poor and the well-off, would violate the equality norm in Article 14. When it came to state largesse, it said, the rule against treating unequals as equals would not be applicable. Does this amount to implying that the Directive Principles can override fundamental rights, as the petitioners have argued? This too awaits examination.

8. Editorial-4: PIN code @50 years

The system of postal code may not be operationally relevant in the new role of post offices

India Post introduced a six-digit Postal Index Number (PIN) code on August 15, 1972, the day the silver jubilee of India’s independence was observed. The idea was to give a unique identity to all physical addresses of the country in terms of the delivery jurisdiction of the post offices. This code was expected to help in bypassing the challenge of inaccurate addressing and ensure accurate and fast delivery by post offices. Now it is time to introspect whether the system succeeded in achieving its purpose in the last 50 years.

The postal code, known differently in different countries viz. postcode, zip code, etc, is an alpha-numeric or numeric number that is included in the postal address for easy identification of the sorting-district and the addressee’s delivery post office. The codes were introduced nationwide in Germany in the year 1944, Singapore (1950), Argentina (1958), the U.S. (1963), Switzerland (1964), India (1972), and the U.K. (1974). Introduction of sorting machines in the West in the 1960s also necessitated the introduction of codes since the machines could not read the addressee’s post office easily if described in writing. The Universal Postal Union says that 160 countries of the world have so far introduced postal codes.

Speeding up the sorting

The post code revolutionised the system of manual postal sorting as the sorters are not required to keep in memory the locations of thousands of post offices. To what extent did the PIN code succeeded in speeding up the sorting in India? It is intriguing that even after five decades, a substantial volume of mail in India is not PIN coded. The Government took efforts to educate the citizens to write the PIN code of the addressee on the mail. It succeeded to a small extent. Until about a decade ago, government offices and the billers of the utility services were the biggest culprits. In cities such as Delhi and Kolkata, where sorting work is done by machines, mails without PIN code must be coded separately before they are put to sorting machine, causing delay in processing at the sorting centres.

Of late, the proportion of PIN-coded mails in India started improving after the introduction of computerised billing by utility service providers and the launching of KYC norms by banks, where providing complete and accurate addresses is mandatory. Now, new challenges have come up. Personal mail has almost vanished after the revolution of mobile telephony in the last two decades. What remains with the postal system are documents and e-commerce parcels where there is stiff competition from the couriers. Is the present structure of PIN code capable of handling that challenge?

The PIN code helps in taking a piece of mail to the addressee’s post office. The delivery jurisdiction of the post office is normally divided into beats and there is a postman assigned to each beat. Beat sorting at the post office is done manually in India.

Can we think of integrating the beat code with the six-digit PIN code? The PIN code in that case will not only identify the addressee’s post office but also the concerned beat. If the post office makes the mobile number of the delivery person of the beat available, citizens may even leave instructions to him regarding his convenience to take delivery.

Machines to the rescue

Nowadays, the letter sorting machines, flat sorting machines (handling packets) and parcel sorting machines have tremendous capacity for sorting in a day. With the dwindling volume of personal mail, it is not impossible to sort all incoming mail and shipments at one circle or regional hub, making the concept of sorting-district redundant. Even the beat-sorting, which is done at the level of the post office, can be done in the circle hub, if the beat code is integrated with the PIN code.

The logistic system associated in processing of e-commerce articles is intrinsically different from that of handling personal mails. A postman used to go to his beat in a bicycle along with a hundred mail pieces for delivery. But he needs a vehicle for delivery of fewer number of e-commerce parcels. For that, we need to centralise the parcel delivery centres and mechanise the beats. This in the long run may even call for rationalisation of PIN codes.

The system of postal code that was introduced 50 years back may not be operationally relevant in the new role of a post office. Is India Post ready to take that challenge? Though the code was originally designed to help postal operations, today it is used by couriers, e-commerce players and various other service providers as a means of locational identification of a person. This aspect also needs to be kept in mind before rationalising the PIN code.

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