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Monthly Archives: November 2011

On the draft privacy bill…

There is some good news for those who are worried about the impact of UID on privacy. A senior bureaucrat in the department of personnel and training told ET that the draft bill on privacy, currently being drafted by the DoPT, makes it clear that no institution can share a person’s data with a third party without the individual’s consent.

a small story out today on the draft right to privacy bill. this was written as a followup to another story i wrote last month about the new threats to privacy in an age of biometrics. see that one too. anyway, the draft bill is expected to be back in the public domain for comments before finalisation. will have to keep tabs on it to ensure such clauses stay intact.

Why the Banking Correspondent companies are unhappy with the UIDAI

Today’s ET carries this story about the ongoing tussle between the UIDAI, the body tasked with developing the architecture for delivering cash transfers, and the banking correspondent companies, which will have to do a part of the actual delivery.

Broadly, the UIDAI thinks villagers should be able to access their bank account through any BC terminal and has, ergo, notified a set of specifications which have the BC industry up in arms. They charge that the UIDAI specifications are too narrow and exclusionary — only biometric (so people cannot identify themselves using, say, numeric codes), only online (putting previous investments in smart cards, etc) at risk.

There is merit in both arguments. I am convinced of the need for interoperatability. In the existing dispensation, most villagers can access their accounts only from the local BC agent. Which leaves them entirely at the BC agents mercy. While working on this story, I spoke to a ex-employee of a BC company who told me that 70-75% of the BC agents in Punjab are either sarpanches or their kin. It is BC companies which handle NREGA payments, etc, in Punjab (and elsewhere). And the village elite have figured that becoming BC agents is a ‘soopar’ way to hold onto their hegemony inside the village.

Needless to say, this is also a complete corruption of NREGA which was, remember, pathbreaking in how it took payment away from the guys who were allocating work. And started putting cash right into bank accounts.

Interoperatability would solve those problems by leaving villagers free to go to whichever BC agent they please. And yet, there are questions. How should standards be determined for networks? Take what Abhishek Sinha, the head of EKO, a small BC which lets people access their accounts through mobile phones, says in the story. Public infrastructure, he says, needs to be open and non-prescriptive at the front-end. “Different villagers might be more comfortable authenticating their identity through a card, a phone, a fingerprint or a numeric code. The network should be able to accommodate all those options, and leave room for innovation.”

This is a story I need to drill deeper into. Some of the official reasons why the BCs oppose interoperatability are disingenuous. Among other things, I was told most villagers stay in their own village and so, do not need interoperatability. An argument which, at a time of rising migration, boggles the mind.  Even this assertion of past investments going bad is not true for all BCs. Most of whom already have biometric devices. Further, biometric devices which are more or less already compliant with what UIDAI wants.

Seems to me that the larger threat lies in the proposed move to bring all BC accounts into banks’ core banking software. And in interoperatability. That is the hunch, anyway. Now to see whether it is correct or not.

when claims of indian exceptionalism run into bhopal gas survivors

in a month, it will be 27 years since the gas leaked out of that tank in union carbide’s bhopal plant. it is an event which has never quite lost its ability to shock people — the scale of the disaster; the state’s brutal abandonment of the gas affected; the subsequent discovery that households living near the plant’s toxic dumps and drinking the groundwater there were reporting severe abnormalities in new borns and high incidences of cancer; rapidly followed by the bhopal administration siting — wait for it — the new agricultural grain mandi about 500 metres away from these erstwhile evaporation ponds where carbide used to dump its slurry and, for good measure, allowing new houses to come up in the area; the hospital erected to take care of the gas victims slowly turning them all away and treating the city’s affluent instead… i could go on.

three days ago, my edit page editor, tk arun, and i found something new to be horrified by. new documents have been unearthed which reveal that…

Weeks after the tragic Bhopal gas leak in December 1984, the Indian government mutely accepted a settlement offered by Union Carbide Corporation (UCC). Among other things, UCC’s offer outlined the quantum of compensation to be paid out to victims and how injuries were to be categorised and compensated. In exchange , it wanted “extinguishment” of all claims against UCC, its Indian subsidary, Union Carbide India Limited, and its staff.

and, wouldn’t you know it, the government agreed. hook, line and sinker. take a look at this story. it briefly explains what the proposal was, why it was flawed. and yet, the bureaucrats and the rajiv gandhi government accepted the whole thing. no application of thought. even though the scale of the accident (india’s first industrial accident which involved communities living around the plant and not just the workers) far outstripped provisions in existing laws.

and you know the worse bit? it has been said that nothing challenges the idea of india as much as the bhopal gas tragedy. not really. there are a thousand unfolding/unfolded bhopals in this country. plant after plant under-represents the risks they expose local populations to. poverty forces people to live close to these. others, to work in them. their pollution leaches, usually untreated, into rivers and the earth. and the safety mechanisms rarely work.

these are not generalised rants. a friend, who did his phd on the nuke plant at kudankulam, told me once that the plant had told locals about low noise levels. not about the threat of radiation. as for the other assertions. poverty pushes people to live in cheaper, if higher risk, areas — slums along the riverside, next to drains. as for the pollution, i am reminded of a trip as a freelancer to orissa. plants were dumping waste into the hirakud dam’s reservoir! incredible, that. because those waters are then used for irrigation. in the same trip, i also heard about how plants would switch off their smoke/pollution capturing systems to save on bijli (electricity).

and 27 years after bhopal, while we have better laws, we continue to be crap at enforcing them.

not a country given to learning from its much-feted past, india.

ps – also see this story written last year after the court awarded two year jail terms, a mere 26 years after the event, to some of the staff and senior managers in UCC’s Indian ops.

and now for something completely different

in the middle of october, i took two weeks off and went travelling. i flew my cycle to panjim. pedalled from there to palolem, a beach in south goa. then cabbed it to dandeli, the wildlife sanctuary in north karnataka. a day of birdwatching and trekking followed. and then, i cycled to anshi tiger reserve. and then, after a day of traipsing about in the rainforest/semi-evergreen forest, i pedalled down to karwar. rested for a day there. and then pedalled to gokarna.

shortly after getting back, i wrote this timepass little column for et. classic marketing con, this one. para one sells the dream of a cycling vacation. para two says you do not even need to be fit to cycle. para three sells the dream some more. and then, the sucker punch — para four. which talks about the gear you MUST have.

i told you. a classic marketing con. 🙂

that said, the trip was great. my first cycling holiday. and it went like a dream. will have to do more of these. and soon. and i should take a shot at writing about the experience itself. the experience of cycling, i mean. not about the places i went to and the stuff i did. but an article in the mould of tim krabbe’s the rider. or matt seaton’s the escape artist. or robin harvie’s the lure of long distances. or ted bishop’s riding with rilke. or melissa holbrook pearson’s the perfect vehicle.

the last two books are about motorcycling. something i used to be passionate about till a couple of years ago. in both, it is the experience of being on the motorbike which gets scrutinised.

take something as simple as downshifting as the bike enters a turn and then accelerating out as the turn ends. you ease up on the throttle as the turn draws near. your left hand draws in the clutch. the left foot taps the gearshift. the bike downshifts, starts to slow as you enter the turn. next, even as the heel reverts to its earlier position, the left hand gently releases the clutch. by now, you can see the end of the turn and so, the right hand gently squeezes the throttle open and the bike, given that it is in a lower gear, slingshots — there is no other word for it — out of the turn.

and here is the thing. for downshifting, that is five actions executed in a tightly defined sequence by two hands and one foot in less than a second. what is this if not choreography. a dance between me and my buce (which is what i call my bullet).

it is strange that this spirit, this experience, gets described so rarely. strange that it gets written about so rarely even though it is the experience — of running, cycling, motorbiking or whatever — which draws us to them.

while on that, here is something i had written ages ago to some friends. “nothing sticks in my mind as much as that bike ride to ladakh. i can close my eyes and summon up entire reels of images. and then, there are fragments. downshifting, leaning and then accelerating out of the gentle curves that comprise the highway that connects the hill stations of almora and nainital. or, another road, i forget which one, where, for a magical moment, the bike passed underneath the shadow of an eagle circling in the sky. it was geometrically perfect. i saw the eagle’s shadow move on the road towards my bike. and then, the shadow covered the bike’s tank for a fraction. and then passed by. what are the odds of something like that? that a bike moving since morning from delhi and the shadow of an eagle circling since whenever would actually meet on a road?”

some day, i will have to take a stab at writing about this cycle ride. it will be good to try and write something evocative. to try and describe cycling as the body and the soul experience it. as opposed to my usual cut and dried analytic stuff.

some day. hmmm.