fractured earth

And now for something completely different

This year’s EOTY (end of the year) bike ride started at Guwahati, Assam, and ended at Miao, Arunachal Pradesh. The route (Guwahati, Mangaldoi, Dekhiajuli, Pabhoi, Majuli, Sibasagar, the coaltown of Margarita, Miao, followed by a visit to Namdapha Tiger Reserve) stretched along the north bank of the Brahmaputra till the river island of Majuli and then crossed over to the south bank before entering Arunachal. Moving from west to east, Assam seemed to change from day to day. The profile of the local population gradually changed (from Bengali influences to Muslim dominated to Axomiya hindus to a greater tribal composition as one neared the Arunachal border). As did the houses, diets and local markets.

Some pictures. That snap you see on top left is the endangered Pygmy Hog. The beneficiary of what is described by my biologist friends as India’s only successful wildlife reintroduction programme. The two snaps below it were taken as we (three friends and me) pedalled towards Majuli. The snap of haystacks in the middle was taken on the second day — en route to Orang National Park. The snap on the top right? That is the sort of house we saw in the initial days — houses with attached fishponds.

The snap of a bridge, mustard fields and the setting sun? That was taken en route to the ferry for Majuli (which stars in the next snap). The two misty snaps were taken the next morning in Majuli as we cycled to catch a ferry from Majuli’s eastern bank. That was a morning to remember — us cycling on the fine sand of the Brahmaputra’s riverbed, with the mist swallowing up everything beyond 20 or so metres. The next snap, of my sand encrusted cycle, was taken after this ride.

That shack you see was a place where we breakfasted shortly after getting off the ferry. The gent wearing the adidas sweatshirt was running that eatery along with his wife. The two people below him? We met them, at another tea-stall, on the way out of Sibasagar. Ditto for the young man from Bihar selling cakes, puffs and pastries from his cart. Around here, the houses had changed. We saw fewer houses with ponds. Most houses had a canal running out in front with these cane bridges over them.

Then came Margarita. And that is where the next set of snaps — like that of the vegetable sellers, including the one with the coal mine in the background — were taken. Around here, the houses (and the profile of the local population) had changed yet again. And then, we entered Miao. The vertical snap you see was taken inside Namdapha Tiger Reserve. The rest were taken in local markets in this part of Arunachal — the first set of women are selling, among other things, local turmeric. Rs 10 for each page’s worth. In the snap to the right, you will see what looks like white cookies in plastic bags. That is yeast, using for making local rice beer called Loh-Paani.

In the final snap, the woman holding up that newspaper belongs to the Apatani tribe — look at the facial tattoos. She was eating jalebis when I took that snap. This, of course, is little more than a random sampling of snaps. That week of cycling left us with more impressions than what a quickly-written blogpost can handle.

PS: It was a good break. No email. The phone on DND. The brain caught a break from its usual ADD, spending hours at a stretch cycling or reading. Two notable books from this trip: Jon Prochnau on the adversarial reportage by David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Mal Browne and others during the early days of the American quagmire in Vietnam. And another on Aristotle’s staggeringly accurate (and sweeping) effort to make sense of life’s diversity on Earth.

PS: You will have to forgive me the multiple snaps of my cycle — my Surly Cross-Check is tough and beautiful. And I keep photographing it.

PS: And here is a blogpost on the trip by my fellow cyclist Vidya Athreya.

‘Is the pain worth it?’: 50 days after demonetisation, rural South India has a few questions

On November 9, life suddenly came to a standstill in Chikka Tirupathi, Bagalur and Hosur. As in the rest of India, the first day of demonetisation in these towns abutting the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border was marked by problems in conducting day-to-day trading for small businesses and a frenzied hunt for Rs 100 notes for families.

The response to the government action was mixed on that first day. As the cash crunch sank in, small traders figured out that their businesses would take a hit until they replaced their Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. Slightly larger enterprises, such as Jivita who runs a tailoring shop in Bagalur in Karnataka, were more optimistic. “We have enough money for rotation [working capital] for a week,” she said.

On the whole, it was a day of uncertainty. Notebandi was a sweeping decision. People weren’t sure how long it would take to exchange their old cash and for the situation to return to normal. At a branch of the Indian Bank in Bagalur, a bank official was calm. “We will open tomorrow morning,” he said. “People can come with their passbooks and exchange their notes.”

On December 28, Scroll.in travelled the 30 km stretch between Chikka Tirupathi and Hosur one more time. How were people we spoke to on Day One doing on Day 50?

That is it. The last story of 2016. It has been a good year. Intense and packed with learning. Now to see what 2017 is like.

Happy new year, too. 🙂

Aadhaar shows India’s governance is susceptible to poorly tested ideas pushed by powerful people

This series has flagged a puzzling trend. State governments are struggling to use Aadhaar-based fingerprint authentication in ration shops. At the same time, a rising number of companies are integrating Aadhaar into their databases.

This is puzzling because from its inception, Aadhaar, India’s Unique Identification project, was pitched as integral to the modernisation of social welfare delivery in India.

Why is it failing at the job it was created for while proving useful elsewhere?

The answers vary depending on whom you ask. Former officials of the Unique Identification Authority of India, the government agency which issues Aadhaar numbers and manages the database, blame state governments and banks for poor execution of Aadhaar-based welfare delivery. State governments in turn blame banks and poor internet connectivity and the failures of biometrics-based technology.

These are – at best – incomplete explanations.

The roots of Aadhaar’s mission drift lie deeper.

An update from Patna’s Maroofganj mandi

ten days into #notebandi, patna’s Maroofganj mandi had frozen.

As demonetisation enters its second week, traders in Patna’s Maroofganj mandi are seeing something unprecedented.

In the last seven days, the supply of new stocks in this wholesale market, which supplies cooking oil, spices, rice, wheat and pulses to shopkeepers across Patna, has plummeted. The supply of cooking oil, for instance, is down by 80%.

Talk to traders selling spices, grains or pulses and you hear similar numbers. “Do you see how quiet this market is?” said an accountant at a rice shop. “Till 10 days ago, you would not have been able to walk down this street.”

In the same period, orders from shopkeepers have fallen steeply as well. Most of them cannot buy as much stock as before, said Abhijit Kumar, who runs a wholesale shop for spices, because they have only Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes – both derecognised as legal tender by the government.

The strange thing is: despite the contraction in both supply and demand, commodity prices are stable.

30 days later, around the 10th of December, i went back to the mandi seeking an update on how it is doing. Here is what we found.

Dilip Kumar Singh said the situation at the mandi was the result of some traders travelling to Gaya, Muzaffarpur and beyond to take advantage of low prices in parts of the hinterland. However, the traders this reporter met denied this. Instead, they flagged other concerns.

Sanjib Kesari, a wholesaler, said business had improved and more customers were now coming to the mandi. Prices, too, were moving – cooking oil, for instance, had risen Rs 3-Rs 4 in the last 20 or so days. But, the situation was nowhere near normal.

Wholesalers’ volumes remain modest. According to them, two factors are at work…

What happens to privacy when companies have your Aadhaar number?

Out today, the second part of my story on companies, aadhaar and privacy.

As the previous story in this series reported, some companies are using Aadhaar to share customer and business partner information. This could aid the rise of data-broking companies like Acziom in the United States that hold ever more detailed profiles of people.

With the number of private databases rising, the task of protecting the information of Indians is acquiring fresh urgency. This is because the downsides go beyond unnervingly accurate advertising.

Companies can use this data to customise pricing for you. As Propublica reported about Amazon and Uber, this may not always be in your best interest.

They can also be used to deny products, services or information to you. Google, as the Guardian reported in 2015, showed “an ad for a career coaching service advertising “$200k+” executive positions 1,852 times to men and 318 times to women”. In the process, they could deepen existing inequalities.

Or they can just peer into your personal life – as the taxi app Uber showed with its subsequently deleted “Rides of Glory” blogpost on what rides made between 10 pm and 4 am revealed about people’s sex lives.

Given such stakes, and the proliferation of the uses of Aadhaar, it is important to take a closer look at India’s privacy regime. Even as the use of customer data intensifies among Indian companies, what are the protections that exist?

How private companies are using Aadhaar to try to deliver better services (but there’s a catch)

Aadhaar, as India’s Unique Identity Project is called, aims to give a 12-digit unique identity number to all residents by collecting their fingerprint and iris scans. As of September, its database, maintained by the Unique Identity Authority of India, held the names, addresses and biometric information of more than 105 crore people.

The project was created by the United Progressive Alliance government in 2009 to reduce leakages in the country’s welfare programmes.

But, quietly, a range of private sector companies have started using it. This includes verification firms like Authbridge, banks like HDFC, telecommunications companies like Reliance Jio, among others.

So far, most discussions on Aadhaar have focused on its utility for welfare delivery and the risk of government surveillance. But as private sector companies incorporate Aadhaar into their systems, fresh questions and concerns are emerging about what this means.

The lid on illegal sand mining in TN might finally be lifted (but perhaps for the wrong reasons)

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