Saturday, 20 December 2014

Mr Nadda, don’t forget the Daridra Narayan (Sunday Guardian)

M.D Nalapat is the Editorial Director of The Sunday Guardian.

The Health Minister needs to set about ensuring that India become the world’s manufactory for affordable medication.
Union Health Minister J.P. Nadda
ahatma Gandhi constantly spoke of the "Daridra Narayan" — the poor and the disadvantaged. However, successive "followers" of his have favoured policies that ignore the interests of the poor in favour of promoting the cause of the wealthy. In practice, policymakers framing policies appear to have focused their attention not on the poorest individual they have met, but the richest, ensuring that the latter get more goodies, usually at the expense of the former. Now news reports have emerged that the Ministry of Health is refusing to act on a plea by Cipla, a domestic drug company known for its generic products, to waive patent rights in five drugs for which the patent is held by a multinational company known for the unaffordable prices it charges for several of its products. Indeed, the Ministry of Health has in the past as well been very stingy in the use of the powers granted to it to ensure that medication be made available at prices affordable to those who are not millionaires. Section 66 of the Patents Act, which seeks to empower the state to override efforts by companies to use the excuse of patents to charge predatory pricing for life-saving medication, has been used only twice during the past two decades, even when the situation facing millions of patients is desperate. While the US and its allies across the Atlantic constantly talk of "human rights", they have ensured the often painful death or continued suffering of millions of the underprivileged by the way in which they have protected the profits of a handful of drug companies at the expense of the general welfare. Indeed, Cipla and other generic drug manufacturers from India have over the years faced considerable harassment from governments which claim superiority over others in their adherence to human values. Killing poor patients by depriving them of affordable medication is clearly not in their list of desirable values.
Now that J.P. Nadda has become the Union Minister for Health, it is expected of him that he will place the interests of the "Daridra Narayan" above that of billionaires while taking decisions. What is needed is to ensure that more action get taken on the lines of that done by the Manmohan Singh government in 2012, which sharply brought down the price of a cancer drug by allowing a domestic manufacturer to make the medication and sell it at a small fraction of what was being charged by the multinational corporation, which till then had a monopoly over manufacture. Hopefully, now that President Barack Obama appears in the final two years of his term in office, to be closer to the idealist he seemed to be while first campaigning for the job, he will reverse his administration's policy of blocking rather than encouraging generic medicines from India into competing with higher-priced alternatives. Unless universal healthcare in the US is made affordable, it will never have the welfare benefits sought by supporters, and for healthcare to be affordable, the Indian generic drug industry needs to be encouraged and not suppressed.Already, India has become a haven for the poor across the globe who have thus far been denied medication at affordable prices. Health Minister Nadda needs to set about ensuring that this country becomes the world's manufactory for affordable medication, but for this to happen, he has to reverse the mindset of those in government who have succumbed to the lobbying of multinational companies and their army of supportive NGOs. The Supreme Court of India is the fountain of justice to which the people of this country can turn to, should multinational companies and their well-funded lobbies attempt to use the legal system in order to delay or even block efforts by the Health Ministry to ensure affordable medicine for all, rather than continue with a situation in which multinational monopolies charge prices which 95% of the people of India would be unable to afford. Rather than concede defeat before the battle has even been joined, the Ministry of Health should examine the need for the medications sought to be manufactured by domestic companies and act wherever the public interest is involved. An international campaign needs to be launched by India on the shameful way in which millions of seriously ill poor are being condemned to death and suffering because of the obstinacy of governments that should know better. Certainly patent protection needs to be given, but this ought not to get tweaked into indefinite extension of monopolies. Also, while the costs of research do need to be met, such discoveries ought not to become an excuse for price gouging. We are not talking of lipstick or haute couture, but medicines. We are talking of the difference between life and death, between illness and health.
It is expected of the government that it will stand by the poor in the matter of licensing drugs for domestic manufacture rather than succumb to the siren call of lobbyists. The Health Minister needs to be made aware that already such monopoly interests appear to have made deep inroads into the decision-making levels in his department. Instead, what is needed is a policy designed to ensure that India becomes the global laboratory and producer of affordable medicines, a development which would benefit even those countries now standing in the way of such policies.

India unprepared to counter cyber warfare (Sunday Guardian)

‘India suffered two power grid blackouts in 2012, which were assumed to be routine overdrawing of power. Possibility of a cyber attack was never examined.’
MADHAV NALAPAT  New Delhi | 20th Dec 2014
Military experts warn that the cyber sphere will be the means through which future wars, espionage, economic destruction, creation of paralysis through mass eruptions and social tensions through misinformation get waged. As yet, however, official focus is on conventional warfare, although even that will increasingly have a cyber dimension. Regarding information security, although more than $100 million was spent two years ago in procuring RAX telephones to ensure security of communications within the Government of India, officials warn that several of the units are as yet unused, and that "each day, crucial information on decisions impacting national security get intercepted because of cell phone conversations by senior officials". A senior official pointed out that "RAX phones are allocated only to officers of Joint Secretary level and above, when the fact is that it is junior officers who make the initial file notings guiding decision-making". He warned that intelligence agencies of foreign countries, as well as corporate conglomerates "focus their attention on junior officials, knowing that even the most sensitive files either originate from them or finally get back to their level from higher echelons". It may be mentioned that the RAX system got introduced 35 years ago, but has yet to be improved in order to take account of changes in technology and in the nature of threats. An official pointed out that international service providers routinely allow intelligence agencies in their home countries full access to the conversations routed through them in the countries where they are located.

Another example of official obtuseness in cyber communications is that lower level officials seeking an "nic" (government) email account still have to go through a cumbersome procedure of applying for the same and getting it approved, a process which can take weeks. "Instead, what is needed is to make an 'nic' account automatic for all officials", a senior official pointed out, adding that "nic email is cumbersome and lacks several of the features of Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail", with the result that the latter get preferred even for communications involving official matters. Worse, "hacking into nic mails has become commonplace". Another official pointed out that despite multiple warnings by the Ministry of Home Affairs, "most official computers are still connected to the internet" and therefore vulnerable to hacking and interception from locations across the globe. A senior official claimed that "none of the data with government is secure".
This is in a context where cyber threats are multiplying across the globe. In 2013, more than 60% of the data passing through undersea cables in the Pacific Ocean got routed through servers in China for nearly 20 minutes. Three years ago, US authorities discovered "worms" in its power grid software that — if activated — could shut off electric supply across much of the country.

"India suffered two huge power grid blackouts in 2012, which were assumed to be routine overdrawing of power. The possibility of a cyber attack was never examined", a senior official warned, adding that "to the Indian establishment, the cyber world is something of interest only to their children".

Given the country's talent, developing cutting-edge cyber capability would be possible for the government. At present, small cyber task forces exist within DRDO, NTRO, R&AW, IB and the armed forces, but as yet, according to senior officials, none of these is approaching the standards needed to keep India secure from cyber threats. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken of Digital India, as yet concrete action to translate his wish into reality appears to be missing even after 26 May 2014. Instead of seeking to assist in the development of homegrown versions of Yahoo!, Google, WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, "all that the government is doing is continuing the Manmohan Singh policy of facilitating their monopoly in the Indian market", an official claimed. He added that "domestic competitors such as Flipkart find themselves enmeshed in trouble from mysterious quarters when they seek to challenge global competitors even in the domestic market". It may be pointed out that as yet, Government of India does not require information on how, for example, the overseas travel and study of dependents of senior officials and policymakers is being funded, in contrast to countries such as the US or (since Xi Jinping took charge) China, where such information is routinely docketed.

In contrast to India, its northern neighbour (China) has developed homegrown alternatives to each of these platforms, with names such as WeChat, Sina Weibo and Baidu, so that the vulnerability created by platforms over which state agencies in India have no control gets eliminated. In contrast, successive governments in India have ignored such a need, indeed with several top policymakers becoming avid users of foreign platforms. "They forget that the Muzaffarnagar and Saharanpur riots were fanned through social media platforms, which were also used to create fear within the northeastern community in Bangalore", an official pointed out, adding that "for a country of India's size and complexity, it is criminal that as yet, cyber platforms and much of telecom is outside the control of government agencies". He warned that "street violence fuelled via social media platforms is very possible in mid-2015, especially if economic growth fails to rise".

Another official pointed out that @shamiwitness and @elsaltador were uncovered by a foreign newspaper rather than by authorities in India. He added that "this is just a single example of a pattern of inattention to the threat posed online". This is a threat that blunderbuss laws restricting freedom of speech such as the Information Technology Act are ill-equipped to deal with.

North Korea's cyber attack on Sony, which caused the corporation to freeze distribution of a film on President Kim Jong Un, is only the latest in a lengthening chain of cyber-attacks, including the 2011 US-Israel Stuxnet attack on Iran's nuclear programme, which almost caused a nuclear accident at Bushehr. In India, although 10% of the Union Budget gets allocated to defence, of this, less than 0.5% is spent on cyber protection and offensive capabilities. Experts within the system warn that "lack of attention to what has become a country-paralysing weapon of mass destruction has resulted in India having very poor defences against a determined cyber attack". They warn that daily, cyber attacks take place, including on domestic companies, that leach secrets or slow down processing, and that awareness of such threats is still very low within decision-makers across the board in India. "Prime Minister Modi has drawn attention to drug addiction in his radio talks. The PM should now talk of cyber threats and the need for vigilance", an expert pointed out, adding that "much more work needs to be done by his own government if the PM's desire for a secure Information Superhighway is to get realised".

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Could Gandhiji have been saved from Godse? (Sunday Guardian)

M.D Nalapat is the Editorial Director of The Sunday Guardian.
British authorities were aware of the plan by Nathuram Godse and his associates to kill the Mahatma, yet did nothing about it.

Memories long consigned to oblivion get re-ignited by stray events. The controversy following the mention of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by Nathuram Vinayak Godse on 30 January 1948 at Birla House, Delhi, brought back memories of a discussion with one of the finest individuals this columnist has ever met, Astad Dinshaw Gorwala. Then in his teens, the gap of half a century between this columnist and Gorwala did not prevent a friendship where the college student spent several late afternoons at the former civil servant's apartment in (what was then named) Ridge Road in Mumbai, talking about a country that seemed to be moving towards a direction undeserving of the genius and qualities of its people. White-haired, passionate about wrongs both real and perceived, Gorwala in effect held a series of lecture classes for a single student on the country's leaders and their shortcomings. His writing was fierce, so much so that Jawaharlal Nehru ensured that his column got stopped in the Times of India. Not finding — or trusting — any existing newspaper to carry his views sans censorship, Gorwala launched Opinion in 1960, a journal to which this columnist contributed a few articles before it was stopped in 1975 after the declaration of the Emergency, but not before its editor had penned a sharp rebuke of Indira Gandhi. Gorwala was impeccable in his conduct, whether in office or out of it, but saw clearly that not all his former colleagues in the ICS favoured that difficult path. One of his edits was headlined "Liengar", a commentary on then RBI Governor H.V.R. Iyengar, who had clearly been responsible for some action seen by Gorwala as indefensible.
During an afternoon spent discussing the points that could be made in an article, Gorwala became silent, and disappeared into his own thoughts for many minutes. After a pause, he began speaking very slowly and deliberately of a conversation he had had in 1949 with a police officer about the murder of Mahatma Gandhi. According to this official, British authorities were aware of the plan by Nathuram Godse and his associates to kill the Mahatma, yet did nothing about it. Indeed, they were asked to ignore the developing plot, which had been reported by them to "the highest authority", which would mean Governor-General Lord Louis Mountbatten. Gorwala recounted what the police official (who was a Briton) had told him, which was that they were ordered to keep information secret (about the Godse plot) from Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Home Minister Ballabhbhai Patel. Interestingly, Godse had come close to killing the Mahatma four years earlier, when, armed with a knife, he stalked him during a meeting, only to be pushed away by a policeman. And ten days before Gandhiji met his end, Godse's friends were caught while detonating a guncotton bomb, and had their room searched and themselves tailed.
After the Mahatma was assassinated, the officer and his mates were warned by a superior not to mention the warnings or the surveillance. His presumption was that the concealment was ordered in order to avoid the obloquy that would ensue should it become known that Gandhiji could have been saved, but many years later, Gorwala had a different theory.
In his view, a cold-blooded decision may have been taken that the Mahatma was now expendable and that his sudden death would weaken the position of Home Minister Patel, whom the British disliked for his post-1947 firmness in rejecting views seen as less than fair to India's interests. Was Prime Minister Nehru told of the plot? Gorwala was no admirer of India's first Prime Minister, but he was certain that Nehru had been kept in the dark. "The English knew that Panditji's emotion usually got the best of his intellect in any encounter with the facts." Nehru loved Gandhiji and would never have allowed him to die. Neither would Patel have, had he known of the plot in the detail mentioned by the police officer. But then Gorwala felt he was perhaps being unfair on the British, a race he respected, so he gave the police officer's alternative view, which was that the few in the know simply refused to believe that Nathuram Godse would actually see the plot through, and therefore did not take him seriously. However, the official claimed that Godse had been shadowed by plainclothes police on his way to Birla House, and that his procurement of a Beretta semi-automatic revolver became known to the Intelligence Bureau before 30 January.
The excuse, that Mountbatten spoke off the cuff when he shouted out that "it was a Hindu who did it", has been accepted by all, so incurious are we about our history. But the Viceroy was known to have a military punctiliousness, and was not given to wild conjectures.
How was the Governor-General sure that it was a Hindu who killed Gandhiji just minutes after the assassination, when nothing was certain except that a titan had fallen? Whether it be the murder of the Mahatma or the manner of the death of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, successive governments in India have refused to allow citizens to look beyond the canned explanations of sarkari historians or the official recounters of events. The death of the Mahatma at the hands of a Hindu became the excuse to make India the only democracy where discrimination against the majority community has become the norm.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

‘Swiss club’ delays Modi’s reform drive (Sunday Guardian)

11 politicians, 16 serving and retired senior officials, four lawyers and six business executives form the core of the ‘Club’.
MADHAV NALAPAT  New Delhi | 13th Dec 2014
Key officials and others are working overtime to block, or at a minimum, delay, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's reform agenda. These individuals are part of the "Swiss Club" whose core consists of 11 politicians, 16 serving and retired senior officials, four lawyers and six business executives, each having substantial illicit accounts in offshore havens, and who have for decades acted as agents for foreign entities eager to dump overpriced products in India. The existence of the club was first revealed in the 2 November 2014 issue of this newspaper (Officials confident PM Modi will prevail over 'Swiss Club'). While honest officials committed to Prime Minister Modi's reform agenda are seeking to undo the attempted sabotage of the Modi reforms by the "Swiss Club", the latter are concentrating on tarnishing the reputation for probity and efficiency of Prime Minister Modi. "The political base of the NDA government rests on a single brick, which is public faith in the integrity and commitment of Modi, and it is this that is planned to come under attack. "
To generate scandals about the Modi government, selective leaks are being planned of those instances where the "Swiss Club", taking advantage of the lack of administrative experience of several ministers, is conniving at short-circuiting of procedures, which then could be subject to adverse interpretation in the courts. An official gave the example of some coal allocations (including that made through a government trading entity), which has reportedly "dispensed with the earlier policy of allocating coal to the first three bidders, with L1 getting 60%, L2 25% and L3 the balance 15%". This, officials say, has been altered to give the top bidder (L1) the entire allocation, a change in policy which has angered entities left out of the allocations. Although such decisions may have been based on merit, yet "it would be easy to levy charges of favouritism in Parliament and the media", these officials warn. Another claim is that "there has been a delay in filing FIRs against some of those named in the HSBC list of account holders". The real purpose behind such leaks would be to "slow down decision-making once again to the crawl that was present during the UPA decade", said a senior official, who pointed out that there was a much higher level of efficiency shown by the Modi PMO as compared to the Manmohan Singh PMO. Another attempted scandal-in-the-making concerns a senior opposition politician, who has been reported by officials as trying to ensure that a Mumbai-based construction mogul escapes from legal difficulties connected to the 2G scam. The ex-minister has reportedly warned that he would expose individuals in the present dispensation if the construction mogul as well as two reputed hawala operators now under arrest were not let off. Officials committed to the PM's programme say that they are confident that "PM Modi will reject any pressure" and that he would allow the law and the facts to dictate the decisions of the government, no matter who gets affected, even if they be from his own party.
The "Swiss Club" is busy seeking a season of scandal commencing early next year to recreate the Commonwealth scam period, this time with the NDA government in the dock. It may be noted that members of the "Swiss Club" abuse each other in public, but work jointly in private to protect each other and their friends. They are also active in tarnishing the reputations of those opposed to them, often by using their influence in the Income-Tax Department, CBI and other agencies for the purpose, besides of course the media. An official claimed that the club began its work of sabotaging the Modi government immediately after the 16 May 2014 poll victory of the BJP, "when information about individuals being considered for top posts was deliberately doctored, so that those close to the 'Swiss Club' had their records expunged of misdemeanours, while those opposed to the club were accused of wrongdoing of which they were innocent". Naturally, as such assessments were secret, those against whom false allegations were made were unable to defend themselves, especially as such charges made in secret were usually followed by false information fed to media channels to publicly blacken the names and records of those opposed to the Swiss Club. Officials warn that the influence of the club on tainted elements in the government's investigating and reporting machinery gets used to try and ensure that only those regarded as favourable to the Swiss Club get into key positions after vetting, with those outside the club's influence excluded by untruths and innuendo retailed in secret. Those officials eager to assist Prime Minister Modi to succeed in his reforms claim that PM Modi is aware of the efforts at sabotaging his quest for the best and the cleanest to serve in his team, and has been keeping a watch on all key officials to ensure that "bad apples" get replaced with honest officials.
However, the "Swiss Club" has ensured that the hunt for black money has thus far yielded dismal results, while the "big fish" outed by the BJP as corrupt during the 2014 campaign still enjoy immunity. The club is seeking to divert official attention away from the estimated $1 trillion illegally held abroad to black money in India. The SIT, filled as it is by officials familiar only with the present system rather than outside experts of integrity, is reported to be in the process of recommending yet more regulations and curbs, most of which are likely to do little to curb black money, but will further inhibit the investment climate in India and increase harassment. "The Swiss Club is the channel through which key politicians in all parties secrete cash abroad, so these politicians are united in protecting the members of what is the most powerful club in India, for fear that otherwise they themselves will get exposed", a senior official claimed. His colleague added that "bigwigs in previous governments who were part of the club saw to it that opposition politicians got paid off so as to get immunity even if there was a political upset, as in the 2004 or 2014 Lok Sabha polls". The obstacle facing such elements is Prime Minister Modi, which is why "the club is in overdrive seeking to tarnish the name of the PM, first by targeting a few of his ministers".
During Manmohan Singh's time, there existed a cosy system in the bureaucracy, where the senior-most landed the top posts irrespective of integrity or merit, and afterwards rewarded subordinates with tribunal, commission and other posts. Prime Minister Modi has rejected a calendar-based appointments system and gone for merit instead in key appointments, thereby annoying those who did little but rose far. Such elements are seeking to scare the junior bureaucracy by floating the rumour that PM Modi wants to lower the Central retirement age to 58, just as Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar has done in Haryana. The senior official said that "bureaucrats in Delhi are being warned by the Swiss Club that Delhi state will follow Haryana's lead and lower the retirement age, should the BJP come to power after the next Assembly polls".
The six-month extension given to Cabinet Secretary Ajit Seth (on grounds of need and efficacy) has resulted in some 1978 and 1979-batch IAS officers getting uncertain about their prospects. "The fact is that the PM expects performance, and protects those who work hard", an officer pointed out, adding that "for long, deadwood has clogged the system and needs to get replaced". It is precisely such "deadwood" that is working to implement the mandate of the Swiss Club, which is to damage prospects for speedy implementation of the Modi reforms.
Officials say that the PM is, these days, paying significant attention to the Home and Finance Ministries together with his close colleagues, Union ministers Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley. Both ministries are crucial to the success of his plans for reform, and are filled with elements close to the "Swiss Club", which is why both have been expert during the UPA days in blocking growth prospects and essential changes in procedures and rules. As yet, change is still too slow for comfort, despite the PMO's efforts. This is largely because of the bureaucratic slowdown created by "Swiss Club" elements, which have, for example, caused the piling up of over 900 personnel files, with even appointments of mid-level officials now being held up for months. The sharp decline in manufacturing last month has combined with the fact that, as a top official warned, "equity investment into India has been steadily declining even after the NDA came to power, while only debt has been rising fast", adding that "high debt flows into India were caused by the RBI policy of super-high interest rates". His colleague said that "only growth in equity investment will bring long-term value. Debt just increases vulnerability to external shocks". An officer pointed out that only 20% of the target of Rs 250,000 crore of extra tax revenue budgeted for the current financial year has been met, while the deficit target was overshot last month.
His colleague warned that "trying to squeeze higher taxes out of a declining production base, the way (former Finance Minister) Chidambaram did, will be toxic for the economy. The only way out is the Modi formula of extensive reforms in processes." However, this is an uphill task, given the "vested interests entrenched within the establishment, especially at senior levels, who have an interest in the present system, which enables leakages and punishes honesty".
By secretly lobbying against the decisive moves made by the PM, the "Swiss Club" is generating confusion in some ministries. In the Environment Ministry for example, there have been abrupt reversals of decisions on genetically modified foods (which are considered safe in the US), and in matters as urgent as the need to generate hydropower in Uttarakhand, which has several rivers ideally suited for the purpose. The effort is to stop or at least delay Prime Minister Modi's reforms, although these are making a significant impact on the overall economic climate, notably in ensuring a lower rate of inflation in essential commodities, more transparent decision-making, the scrapping of archaic laws and cumbersome procedures, the boosting of future employment through changes in labour laws and encouragement to job creation by changing land laws passed by the UPA which make the setting up of manufacturing units impossibly difficult. "But for Modi, the Indian economy would now be in recession", an official pointed out, although adding that the present rate of growth needed to be doubled. His colleague added that "The Swiss Club is only interested in protecting their illegal wealth and in helping the foreign interests which hold them in trust, and these are being threatened by the PM". Hence the developing plan to target the PM and his government within the coming months, so that decisions slow down and changes in procedures get abandoned. "We need a few members of the Swiss Club to be made accountable, and hopefully honest officers will ensure that this takes place", an official said, adding that "the battle between the reformers backing the PM and those seeking to sabotage change is far from won".