Archive for ‘India alert’

09/06/2017

India has made primary education universal, but not good

IN 1931 Mahatma Gandhi ridiculed the idea that India might have universal primary education “inside of a century”.

He was too pessimistic. Since 1980 the share of Indian teenagers who have had no schooling has fallen from about half to less than one in ten. That is a big, if belated, success for the country with more school-age children, 260m, than any other.

Yet India has failed these children. Many learn precious little at school. India may be famous for its elite doctors and engineers, but half of its nine-year-olds cannot do a sum as simple as eight plus nine. Half of ten-year-old Indians cannot read a paragraph meant for seven-year-olds. At 15, pupils in Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh are five years behind their (better-off) peers in Shanghai. The average 15-year-old from these states would be in the bottom 2% of an American class. With few old people and a falling birth rate, India has a youth bulge: 13% of its inhabitants are teenagers, compared with 8% in China and 7% in Europe. But if its schools remain lousy, that demographic dividend will be wasted.

India has long had a lopsided education system. In colonial times the British set up universities to train civil servants, while neglecting schools. India’s first elected leaders expanded this system, pouring money into top-notch colleges to supply engineers to state-owned industries. By contrast, Asian tigers such as South Korea and Taiwan focused on schools. Of late, India has done more to help those left behind. Spending on schools rose by about 80% in 2011-15. The literacy rate has risen from 52% in 1991 to 74% in 2011. Free school lunches—one of the world’s largest nutrition schemes—help millions of pupils who might otherwise be too hungry to learn.

Pointless pampered pedagogues

However, the quality of schools remains a scandal. Many teachers are simply not up to the job. Since 2011, when the government introduced a test for aspiring teachers, as many as 99% of applicants have failed each year. Curriculums are over-ambitious relics of an era when only a select few went to school. Since pupils automatically move up each year, teachers do not bother to ensure that they understand their lessons. Overmighty teachers’ unions—which, in effect, are guaranteed seats in some state legislatures—make matters worse. Teachers’ salaries, already high, have more than doubled over the past two rounds of pay negotiations. Some teachers, having paid bribes to be hired in the first place, treat the job as a sinecure. Shockingly, a quarter play truant each day.

Frustrated by the government system, and keen for their children to learn English, parents have turned to low-cost private schools, many of which are bilingual. In five years their enrolment has increased by 17m, as against a fall of 13m in public schools. These private schools can be as good as or better than public schools despite having much smaller budgets. In Uttar Pradesh the flight to private schools almost emptied some public ones. But when it was suggested that teachers without pupils move to schools that needed them, they staged violent protests and the state backed down.

India spends about 2.7% of GDP on schools, a lower share than many countries. Narendra Modi, the prime minister, once vowed to bump up education spending to 6%. However, extra money will be wasted without reform in three areas. The first is making sure that children are taught at the right level. Curriculums should be simpler. Pupils cannot be left to pass through grades without mastering material. Remedial “learning camps”, such as the ones run by charities like Pratham, can help. So can technology: for example, EkStep, a philanthropic venture, gives children free digital access to teaching materials.

The second task is to make the system more meritocratic and accountable. Teachers should be recruited for their talents, not their connections. They should be trained better and rewarded on the basis of what children actually learn. (They should also be sackable if they fail to show up.) The government should use more rigorous measures to find out which of a hotch-potch of bureaucratic and charitable efforts make a difference. And policymakers should do more to help good private providers—the third area of reform. Vouchers and public-private partnerships could help the best operators of low-cost private schools expand.Mr Modi’s government has made encouraging noises about toughening accountability and improving curriculums.But, wary of the unions, it remains too cautious. Granted, authority over education is split between the centre and the states, so Mr Modi is not omnipotent. But he could do a lot more. His promise to create a “new India” will be hollow if his country is stuck with schools from the 19th century.

Source: India has made primary education universal, but not good

05/06/2017

India passenger bus crash kills 22 – BBC News

At least 22 people have been killed after a bus they were travelling in collided with a truck in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

The crash happened early on Monday in the city of Bareilly, 251km (155 miles) from the state capital, Lucknow.

A senior police official said all 22 victims had been charred badly and could not be immediately identified.

The passenger bus had caught fire following the collision. Police are searching for the driver of the truck.

India road crashes kill 146,133 people in 2015

The AFP news agency quoted police as saying the doors of the bus jammed after the collision, trapping passengers inside.

A few people managed to escape by breaking open the windows of the vehicle.

The chief spokesman of the Uttar Pradesh police, Rahul Srivastav, said the bus was carrying 41 passengers, and that those who were injured had been rushed to hospital.

The condition of many of them is said to be serious, and officials warn that the toll is likely to rise.

India has the world’s highest number of road deaths, with an accident taking place every four minutes.

Most crashes are blamed on reckless driving, poorly maintained roads and ageing vehicles.

Source: India passenger bus crash kills 22 – BBC News

26/05/2017

Indian population is bigger than one-child China’s, claims academic | World | The Times & The Sunday Times

India has overtaken China and become the world’s most populous country, according to an academic who believes that Beijing has overestimated the number of its citizens by as much as 90 million.

With none of the infamous birth control policies that China enforced for decades, India had been expected to become No 1 in the next five to ten years.

However, Yi Fuxian, a researcher and critic of China’s one-child policy, says that the Chinese authorities have greatly overstated the country’s real fertility rate since 1990.

At a conference in Beijing, Mr Yi concluded that China was home to 1.29 billion people at the end of last year, not the 1.38 billion that is Beijing’s official estimate.Mr Yi’s calculations would put China’s population lower than that of India, whose government estimates that the Indian population is 1.33 billion. Yesterday China’s “ministry of births”, the national health and family planning commission, rejected his claims.

“Some people ignored the birth population data issued by the state statistics bureau after revision, make no analysis on the raw data of population census and random surveys, directly gathered, and believe 2015’s total fertility rate is 1.05,” the commission said. “This is completely not in accordance with the real situation.” It said the 2016 fertility rate — births per woman — was 1.7.

Mr Yi, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose book Big Country with an Empty Nest was published in Hong Kong and banned on the mainland, said that the government’s denial came as no surprise.

“I am confident in my research,” he told The Times. If the public knew the true numbers then they and policymakers would have stopped the policies and the commission would have been closed years ago, he added.

He called on China to abolish all restrictions rather than just allowing two children per family, a reform introduced last year.

Its one-child policy was introduced in 1979 and was phased out gradually. There were many exceptions: ethnic minorities were exempt and some families could have a second child if the first was a girl.

The title of the world’s most populous nation probably remains with China for the time being, according to other experts. He Yafu, an independent demographer in Guangdong province, said China’s official population statistics probably are inflated “but it’s impossible to be that much [90 million]”.“China’s population must have exceeded 1.3 billion but is less than 1.4 billion. Figures from social insurance and other areas can also prove that it’s definitely more than 1.3 billion,” Mr He said.

“It’s already too late to abolish the family planning policy because according to surveys, even if the policy was totally relaxed only 5 per cent of families will have a third child. Therefore policy-loosening won’t have too much effect on China’s birthrate.”On online forums Chinese people debated the news. “We don’t want to wear the hat of world’s No 1 population country,” wrote one poster on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. “Hurry up to give it to India!”

Another sympathised with Mr Yi’s sceptical view of official Chinese statistics, saying: “It’s very normal. The family planning commission made up data for its own long existence, which already wasn’t news a long time ago.”

Source: Indian population is bigger than one-child China’s, claims academic | World | The Times & The Sunday Times

26/05/2017

India opens longest bridge on China border – BBC News

India has inaugurated a 9.15km (5.68-mile) bridge over the Lohit river, easily its longest ever, which connects the disputed state of Arunachal Pradesh with the north-eastern state of Assam.China claims Arunachal Pradesh as its own, and refers to it as “southern Tibet”.

Beijing recently strongly objected to India’s decision to allow Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama to visit the state and has also protested against the development of military infrastructure there.

But India has defended its right to do so.”With China getting more and more aggressive, it is time we strengthened our physical infrastructure to defend our territory,” India’s junior Home Minister Khiren Rijiju, a native of Arunachal Pradesh, told journalists.China renames places disputed with India

Why India is planning a new road near the China border

China accused of Indian incursion

Mr Rijiju had earlier said that “Arunachal Pradesh is part of India and that reality will not change, regardless of who likes it or not”.

Construction of the Dhola Sadiya bridge began in 2011.

“It was real tough work, a major engineering challenge, and the speed was slightly affected by some compensation issues,” said an official from Navayuga Engineering, the company which constructed the bridge.

India has defended its right to upgrade its military defences along the border with China

However, it was completed on schedule.

Apart from the bridge, India is constructing a two-lane trans-Arunachal highway, upgrading a World War Two vintage road and undertaking a further four projects to widen roads.

Another project, to upgrade a chain of advance landing grounds for heavy lift transport aircraft, has also moved at some speed. This is expected to improve India’s strategic airlift capabilities.”We need infrastructure to move up troops and supplies if we have to fight the Chinese and this bridge is a great thing,” retired Major General Gaganjit Singh, who has commanded a division in the state, told the BBC.”India did not develop physical infrastructure in Arunachal Pradesh for two decades after the 1962 war as many stupidly believed the Chinese would use the roads if they attacked again. But now we are on the right track.

“India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh has also stressed the importance of developing physical infrastructure in the state, as part of efforts to defend a long border with China.”We want peace, but peace with honour. We need to be capable of deterring anyone who may think we are weak,” Mr Singh told members of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police force that guards parts of the frontier with China.

His remarks followed Beijing’s strident protests against the “development of military infrastructure in a disputed province”.

Officials hope the bridge will also facilitate development and increase tourism

India has already raised two mountain divisions and is going ahead with raising a strike corps to beef up its defences against China.

“But troop strength is useless if we don’t have the roads and bridges to move them fast when we are threatened. Moving them with heavy equipment quickly to the battlefront holds the key to victory,” Major General Singh said.

A military engineer told the BBC that the Dhola-Sadiya bridge was capable of supporting 60-ton battle tanks.

Locals are also excited about the opening.

“It was unimaginable that this crossing could be bridged at a point where six rivers meet, all flowing into the mighty Brahmaputra,” Gunjan Saharia, a resident, told the BBC.

“I promise this will not just be a military thing, it will help develop the economy of remote regions of Assam and Arunachal, and it will attract tourists in large numbers,” Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal said.

The bridge will also reduce travel time by as much as eight hours for communities on either side of the river.

“It will be great for us, as much as it will be great for the army,” Dimbeswar Gogoi of Sadiya told the BBC.

Source: India opens longest bridge on China border – BBC News

24/05/2017

India’s electric vehicles push likely to benefit Chinese car makers | Reuters

India’s ambitious plan to push electric vehicles at the expense of other technologies could benefit Chinese car makers seeking to enter the market, but is worrying established automakers in the country who have so far focused on making hybrid models.

India’s most influential government think-tank unveiled a policy blueprint this month aimed at electrifying all vehicles in the country by 2032, in a move that is catching the attention of car makers that are already investing in electric technology in China such as BYD and SAIC.

The May 12 report by Niti Aayog, the planning body headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, recommends lower taxes and loan interest rates on electric vehicles while capping sales of petrol and diesel cars, seen as a radical shift in policy.

India also plans to impose higher taxes on hybrid vehicles compared with electric, under a new unified tax regime set to come into effect from July 1, upsetting car makers like Maruti Suzuki and Toyota Motor.

The prospect of India aggressively promoting electric vehicles was a “big opportunity”, a source close to SAIC, China’s biggest automaker, told Reuters.

“For a newcomer, this is a good chance to establish a modern, innovative brand image,” the source said, although they added the company would need more clarity on policy before deciding whether to launch electric vehicles in India.

Earlier this year SAIC set up a local unit called MG Motor which is finalising plans to buy a car manufacturing plant in western India. A spokesman at SAIC did not comment specifically on the company’s India plans.

Warren Buffett-backed BYD already builds electric buses in the country, while rival Chongqing Changan has said it may enter India by 2020.

BYD said in a statement the company would have “a lot more confidence” to engage in the Indian market if the government supported the proposed policy. The company said it would look at increasing its investment in India but did not give details on how it would expand its business and market share.

HIGH COSTS

While the Niti Aayog report has not yet been formally adopted, government sources have said it was likely to form the basis of a new green cars policy.

If so, India would be following similar moves by China, which has been aggressively pushing clean vehicle technologies. But emulating China’s success could be tough.Electric vehicles are expensive due to high battery costs, and car makers say a lack of charging stations in India could make the whole proposition unviable.

The proposed policy focuses on electric vehicles, and is likely to also include plug-in hybrids. But it overlooks conventional hybrid models already sold in India, such as Toyota’s Camry sedan, Honda Motor’s Accord sedan and so-called mild hybrids built by Maruti Suzuki.

Hybrids combine fossil fuel and electric power, with mild hybrids making less use of the latter.

In doubling down on electric power India would be shifting away from its previous policy, announced in 2015, that supported hybrid and electric technology.

That could delay investments in India, expected to be the world’s third-largest passenger car market within the next decade, according to industry executives and analysts.

“All these policy changes will affect future products and investments,” said Puneet Gupta, South Asia manager at consultant IHS Markit, adding that most car makers would need to rethink product launches, especially of hybrids.

ECONOMIC GAP

Mahindra & Mahindra is the only electric car maker in India but has struggled to ramp up sales, blaming low buyer interest and insufficient infrastructure.

Pawan Goenka, managing director at Mahindra said the company was working with the government and other private players to set up charging stations in India. Mahindra was also focusing on developing electric fleet cars and taxis, Goenka said.

The cost of setting up a car charging station in India ranges from $500 to $25,000, depending on the charging speed, according to a 2016 report by online journal IOPscience.

While the proposed policy suggests setting up battery swapping stations and using tax revenues from sales of petrol and diesel vehicles to set up charging stations, it does not specify the investment needed or whether the government would contribute.

“For full electric vehicles, the economic gap remains huge and the charging infrastructure needed does not exist,” said a spokesman at Tata Motors. The company makes electric buses and is working on developing electric and hybrid cars.

DELAYED PLANS

Most automakers have focused on bringing in hybrid models that are seen as a stepping stone to electrification. Toyota recently launched its luxury hybrid brand Prius in India, while Hyundai Motor plans to debut its Ioniq hybrid sedan next year.

Maruti’s parent Suzuki Motor, along with Toshiba and Denso, plans to invest 20 billion yen ($180 million) to set up a lithium ion battery plant in India which would support Maruti’s plan to build more hybrids.

But the apparent sharp shift in policymakers’ thinking in favor of electrification is forcing automakers like Toyota and Nissan Motor to seek more clarity before finalising future products for India, while Hyundai may delay new launches.

Toyota, the world’s No. 2 carmaker by sales, had planned to have a hybrid variant for all its vehicles in India, but the company’s future launches would now depend on the new policy, said Shekar Viswanathan, vice chairman of its Indian subsidiary.

Nissan, which plans to launch a hybrid SUV later this year, said in a statement it was waiting for more clarity before deciding whether to bring electric cars to India.

A plan by Hyundai to launch at least three hybrid cars in India in 2019-2020 would likely to be delayed, said a source.

Hyundai did not comment on queries related to delays.

“If the government will be aggressive on electric vehicles and not support other technologies, companies will need to rethink investments,” said an executive with an Asian carmaker.

Source: India’s electric vehicles push likely to benefit Chinese car makers | Reuters

22/05/2017

Indian woman ‘sets new Everest dual ascent record’ – BBC News

An Indian has climbed Mount Everest twice in under a week in what may be a new woman’s record for fastest double ascent of the world’s highest peak.

Anshu Jamsenpa, a 37-year-old mother-of-two, reached the summit on 16 and 21 May, tourism official Gyanendra Shrestha confirmed to BBC Nepali.

The current Guinness record for woman’s fastest double ascent is seven days.

News of Ms Jamsenpa’s climbs came as at least three climbers were killed on the mountain over the weekend.

An Australian climber died on the Tibetan side, while a Slovak and an American died on the Nepalese side. Rescuers have failed to locate a fourth climber – who is from India – who disappeared shortly after reaching the summit.

Hundreds of mountaineers are hoping to scale the world’s highest peak before the monsoon sweeps in next month.

 

It’s the second time Ms Jamsenpa, who is from the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, has notched up an Everest double ascent. Her previous feat was in 2011, but those ascents came 10 days apart.

She will now have to approach Guinness World Records to register her climbs after they have been certified by Nepal’s ministry of tourism.

The current woman’s record was set by Nepalese climber Chhurim Sherpa in 2012.

Apart from her two double ascents, Ms Jamsenpa also scaled the mountain in 2013.Her husband, Tsering Wange, told the BBC that her plan was always to do a double ascent twice, but her second attempt did not succeed in 2014 due to an avalanche and in 2015 because of the devastating Nepal earthquake.

Source: Indian woman ‘sets new Everest dual ascent record’ – BBC News

22/05/2017

India announces policy for strategic partnerships in defence | Reuters

India on Saturday finalised a policy that would allow local private companies to work with foreign players to make high-tech defence equipment, in a boost to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bid to cut reliance on imports.

The policy, whose finer details are still to be formalised, will initially allow the entry of private companies into the manufacture of submarines, fighter aircrafts and armoured vehicles through foreign partnerships, a statement issued by the Defence Ministry said.”In future, additional segments will be added,” the statement said.

Industry experts have said that delays in finalising procurement policies have undermined India’s efforts to get local, largely inexperienced, companies to tie up with foreign manufacturers, a necessary step if domestic firms are to utilise the latest technology.

Prime Minister Modi has vowed to reverse India’s dependence on imports by building a local manufacturing industry. The government is forecast to spend $250 billion on modernisation of its armed forces over the next decade.The policy, announced on Saturday, would allow Indian companies to partner with global defence majors “to seek technology transfers and manufacturing know-how to set up domestic manufacturing infrastructure and supply chains,” the statement said.

Foreign manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, BAE Systems and Saab are looking to India as one of the biggest sources of future growth.

Source: India announces policy for strategic partnerships in defence | Reuters

18/05/2017

Why are millions of Indian women dropping out of work? – BBC News

Why are millions of women dropping out of work in India?

The numbers are stark – for the first time in India’s recent history, not only was there a decline in the female labour participation rate, but also a shrinking of the total number of women in the workforce.

Nearly 20 million Indian women quit work between 2004-05 to 2011-12

The labour force participation rate for women of working age declined from 42% in 1993-94 to 31% in 2011-12

Some 53% of the total drop – the largest chunk – happened among women aged 15-24 and living in villages

In rural areas, the female labour force participation rate dropped from 49% to 37.8% between 2004-05 and 2009-10

While more than 24 million men joined the work force between 2004-5 to 2009-10, the number of women in the the work force dropped by 21.7 million

Using data gleaned from successive rounds of National Sample Survey Organisation and census data, a team of researchers from World Bank have attempted to find out why this is happening.

“These are significant matters of concern. As India poises itself to increase economic growth and foster development, it is necessary to ensure that its labour force becomes fully inclusive of women,” says the study, authored by Luis A Andres, Basab Dasgupta, George Joseph, Vinoj Abraham and Maria Correia.

So what accounts for the unprecedented and puzzling drop in women’s participation in the workforce – at a time when India’s economy has grown at a steady pace?

Women need better and more suitable job opportunities outside farming, the authors say

Predictable social norms are attributed to women quitting work in India: marriage, motherhood, vexed gender relations and biases, and patriarchy.

But they may not be the only reasons. Marriage, for example, does affect the rate of participation of women in the workforce. But in villages, the workforce participation rate of married women has been found to be higher than that of unmarried women – whereas in the cities, the situation is reversed.

Significantly, rising aspirations and relative prosperity may be actually responsible for putting a large cohort of women out of work in India.

Remember, the largest drop has been in the villages.

After calculating the labour force participation rates and educational participation rates (young women in schools) the researchers believe that one plausible explanation for the drop in the participation rate among rural girls and women aged 15-24 is the recent expansion of secondary education and rapidly changing social norms leading to “more working age young females opting to continue their education rather than join the labour force early”.

The study says there has been a “larger response to income changes among the poor, rather than the wealthy, by sending children to school”.

Also, casual workers – mainly women – drop out of the workforce when wages increased for regular earners – mainly men – leading to the stabilisation of family incomes.

“Improved stability in family income can be understood as a disincentive for female household members to join the labour force,” says the study.

Many women work outside the home, and on their farms

“This largely resonates with the existing literature, which suggests that with rising household income levels, women in rural India withdraw from paid labour and engage in status production at home.

“But dropping or opting out of the workforce to go to school and get an education may not ensure that these women will eventually go to work.

After studying the relationship with the female labour participation rate and levels of educational achievements, the researchers found that having a high school-level education was “not found to be an incentive for women” to work.

The lowest rate of participation is among those who had secured school and high school education in the cities and villages. And the rate is actually highest among illiterates and college graduates.

But there has been a general drop in the rate in recent years, indicating that irrespective of educational attainments, “the incentive for women to participate in the workforce has declined over this period”.

Will new maternity law help keep Indian women in work?

The Indian women who took on a multinational and won

To be sure, India has a poor record of female participation in the workforce: the International Labour Organisation ranked it 121 out of 131 countries in 2013, one of the lowest in the world.

Also, India is not an outlier when it comes to women dropping out of the workforce.

Between 2004 and 2012, the female labour force participation rate in China dropped from 68% to 64%, but the participation rate remains very high compared with India. In neighbouring Sri Lanka, for example, the participation rate has dropped, but only by 2%.

“India stands out because of a such a sharp decline within such a short period. In levels, it is very low in international rankings now,” the researchers told me.

Indian woman auto rickshaw driver Rajani Jadhav pose for photographs during her training session of rickshaw driving in Mumbai, India, 14 April 2017.India needs to offer more opportunities to women, the researchers say

Clearly women need better and more suitable job opportunities, outside agriculture. Rural labour markets need to offer jobs that are acceptable and attractive to women and their families.

The World Bank study suggests that gains will not be realised unless social norms around women’s – and men’s – work also change:

“Strategies to communicate the importance of women’s work should take into account the roles of women, husbands and in-laws.”

Also, as another study says, the “ongoing decrease in the availability of farm-based work, has led to women focusing on economic activities within their households”. Should home-based workers then be counted as members of the labour force?

Source: Why are millions of Indian women dropping out of work? – BBC News

18/05/2017

Indian cabinet approves plans to build 10 nuclear reactors | Reuters

India’s cabinet approved plans on Wednesday to build 10 nuclear reactors with a combined capacity of 7,000 megawatts (MW), more than the country’s entire current capacity, to try fast-track its domestic nuclear power programme.

The decision by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government marks the first strategic response to the near collapse of Westinghouse, the U.S. reactor maker that had been in talks to build six of its AP1000 reactors in India.Westinghouse, owned by Japan’s Toshiba, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March after revealing billions of dollars in cost overruns at its U.S. projects, raising doubts about whether it can complete the India deal.

India has installed nuclear capacity of 6,780 MW from 22 plants and plans to add another 6,700 MW by 2021-22 through projects currently under construction. The 10 additional reactors would be the latest design of India’s Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor.

“This project will bring about substantial economies of scale and maximise cost and time efficiencies by adopting fleet mode for execution,” the government said in a statement.

“It is expected to generate more than 33,400 jobs in direct and indirect employment. With manufacturing orders to domestic industry, it will be a major step towards strengthening India’s credentials as a major nuclear manufacturing powerhouse.”

Westinghouse has said it plans to continue construction of its AP1000 plants in China and expects to bid for new plants in India and elsewhere, without elaborating on how it plans to do so.

Indian companies such as Larsen and Toubro, Kirloskar Brothers Limited and Godrej & Boyce welcomed the government’s move.

Sanjay Kirloskar, chairman of Kirloskar Brothers Limited, said: “nuclear power plants will go a long way in reducing the perennial energy deficit,” while Larsen and Toubro’s director S.N. Roy called the move “bold and historic.”

Source: Indian cabinet approves plans to build 10 nuclear reactors | Reuters

04/05/2017

Aadhaar: Are a billion identities at risk on India’s biometric database – BBC News

Shyam Divan was arguing a crucial petition challenging a new law that makes it compulsory for people to submit a controversial biometric-based personal identification number while filing income tax returns.

“My fingerprints and iris are mine and my own. The state cannot take away my body,” a lawyer told India’s Supreme Court last week

Defending this law, the government’s top law officer told the court on Tuesday that an individual’s “right to body is not an absolute right”.

“You can have right over your body but the state can restrict trading in body organs, so the state can exercise control over the body,” Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi said.At the heart of the latest challenge are rising concerns over the security of this mega biometric database and privacy of the number holders. (The government says it needs to link the identity number to income tax returns to improve compliance and prevent fraud.)

India’s biometric database is the world’s largest. Over the past eight years, the government has collected fingerprints and iris scans from more than a billion residents – or nearly 90% of the population – and stored them in a high security data centre. In return, each person has been provided with a randomly generated, unique 12-digit identity number.

For a country of 1.2 billion people with only 65 million passport-holders and 200 million with driving licenses, the portable identity number is a boon to the millions who have long suffered for a lack of one.

Indians will need the identity number to receive benefits from more than 500 welfare schemes

States have been using the number, also called Aadhaar (Foundation), to transfer government pensions, scholarships, wages for a landmark rural jobs-for-work scheme and benefits for cooking fuel to targeted recipients, and distribute cheap food to the poor.

Over the years, the number has taken a life of its own and begun exerting, what many say, is an overweening and stifling control over people’s lives. For many like political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Aadhaar has transmuted from a “tool of citizen empowerment to a tool of state surveillance and citizen vulnerability”.

People will soon need the number to receive benefits from more than 500 of India’s 1,200-odd welfare schemes. Even banks and private firms have begun using it to authenticate consumers: a new telecom company snapped up 100 million subscribers in quick time recently by verifying the customer’s identity through the number.

‘Forcibly linked’

People are using the number to even get their marriages registered. The number, says Nikhil Pahwa, editor and publisher of Indian news site MediaNama, is “being forcibly linked to mobile numbers, bank accounts, tax filings, scholarships, pensions, rations, school admissions, health records and much much more, which thus puts more personal information at risk”.

Some of the fears are not without basis.

The government has assured that the biometric data is “safe and secure in encrypted form”, and anybody found guilty of leaking data can be jailed and fined.

But there have already been a number of leaks of details of students, pensioners and recipients of welfare benefits involving a dozen government websites. Even former Indian cricket captain MS Dhoni’s personal information was mistakenly tweeted by an overzealous enrolment service provider.

The fingerprints and iris scans are stored in high security data centres

Now a disturbing report by The Centre for Internet and Society claims that details of around 130-135 million Aadhaar numbers, and around 100 million bank numbers of pensioners and rural jobs-for-work beneficiaries have been leaked online by four key government schemes.

More than 230 million people nationwide are accessing welfare benefits using their numbers, and potentially, according to the report, “we could be looking at a data leak closer to that number”. And linking the number to different databases – as the government is doing – is increasing the risk of data theft and surveillance.

The chief law officer believes that the outrage over the leaks is “much ado about nothing”.

“Biometrics were not leaked, only Aadhaar numbers were leaked. It is nothing substantial. The idea is biometrics should not be leaked,” Mukul Rohtagi told the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

The government itself has admitted that it has blacklisted or suspended some 34,000 service providers for helping create “fake” identification numbers or not following proper processes. Two years ago, a man was arrested for getting an identification number for his pet dog. The government itself has deactivated 8.5 million numbers for incorrect data, dodgy biometrics and duplication. Last month, crop loss compensation for more than 40,000 farmers was delayed because their Aadhaar numbers were “entered incorrectly by banks”.’

‘Mass surveillance’

There are also concerns that the number can be used for profiling. Recently, authorities asked participants at a function in a restive university campus in southern India to provide their Aadhaar identity numbers. “This is not only a matter of privacy. The all pervasiveness of the Aadhaar number is a threat to freedom of expression, which is a constitutional right,” Srinivas Kodali, who investigated the latest report on data leaks, told me.

Critics say the government is steaming ahead with making the number compulsory for a range of services, violating a Supreme Court order which said enrolment would be voluntary. “The main danger of the number,” says economist Jean Dreze, “is that it opens the door to mass surveillance.”

AadhaarDetails of millions of Aadhaar number holders have been leaked

Nandan Nilekani, the technology tycoon who set up the programme popularly known by its acronym UIDAI, believes concerns about the safety of the biometric database are exaggerated.

He says the identity number has cut wastage, removed fakes, curbed corruption and made substantial savings for the government. He insists that the programme is completely encrypted and secure. “It’s like you are creating a rule-based society,” he told Financial Times recently, “it’s the transition that is going on right now.”

Abused

More than 60 countries around the world take biometric data from its people, says Mr Nilekani. But then there are nagging concerns worldwide about these databases being abused by hackers and state intelligence.

In 2016, personal details of some 50 million people in Turkey were reportedly leaked. (Turkey’s population is estimated at 78 million.) In 2015, hackers stole more than five million fingerprints after breaching US government networks. In 2011, French experts discovered a hack involving the theft of millions of people’s data in Israel.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta has written that the lack of a “clear transparent consent architecture, no transparent information architecture, no privacy architecture worth the name [India doesn’t have a privacy law], and increasingly, no assurance about what exactly you do if the state decides to mess with your identity” could easily make Aadhaar a “tool of state suppression”.

So a lot of lingering doubts remain. How pervasive should an identity number be? What about the individual freedom of citizens? How do you ensure the world’s biggest biometric database is secure in a country with no privacy laws and a deficient criminal justice system?

In many ways, the debate about Aadhaar is also a debate about the future of India. As lawyer Shyam Divan argued forcefully in the top court, “people are reduced to vassals” when the state controls your body to this extent.

Source: Aadhaar: Are a billion identities at risk on India’s biometric database – BBC News

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