Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Daily News Mail - News of 20/05/2015

The Big Data conundrum
  • Why is the government so anxious to make the ownership of an Aadhar card, which is officially voluntary, practically mandatory? Why did the online fashion store Myntra.com recently turn app-only, which means you can’t shop on it through the website or mobile browser but only by downloading the app?
  • Why is Facebook developing solar-powered drones to beam Internet from the sky? And why do both Facebook and Gmail keep badgering you for your cell phone number?
  • What is the need for something called internet. org when there is already an Internet out there? Why does our government want to invest in ‘Smart Cities’ when it is unwilling to invest adequately on education?
  • The answer to all these questions, as Bob Dylan might have said, is flowing in optic fibre cables. If not, it is definitely stored in a non-meteorological cloud somewhere. Its name: Big data.
  • The UID-Aadhar project will be the largest such citizen database on the planet. The reason Myntra wants its customers to transact only from apps is that consumer data is most valuable when tied to specific individuals, as it enables a closer tracking of user behaviour. It is also why Google, Facebook, and other tech companies want your mobile number.
  • It is because Mark Zuckerberg does not possess a search engine like Google does — which, as the entry point to the Internet for most people, is the ultimate instrument for generating consumer data — that he wants to start another, smaller ‘internet’ for those who cannot afford the full-size one.
  • As for Smart Cities, it is a blatant scheme to ensure that every citizen is dragooned into a digital grid at all times, so that she secretes a non-stop data trail from birth to death. This data trail, or big data would be continuously captured and processed for optimal value extraction (read monetisation).
  • If a world governed on the basis of big data is indeed the future, then what does this bode for humanity? The dominant consensus right now is overwhelmingly positive. But if we delve deeper, the use of big data and what it would entail for the future of human lives will unravel a problematic picture.

Make parties’ funding public: petition
  • A petition was filed in the Supreme Court on May 19 to declare political parties “public authorities” under the Right to Information Act, making them liable to disclose their financial assets for public scrutiny.
  • The plea was filed by RTI activist Subhash Agarwal and the Association for Democratic Reforms, an NGO whose legal battle led to the Supreme Court judgment in 2002 making it mandatory for electoral candidates to declare their criminal antecedents.
  • It arraigns political parties, including the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, for not complying with repeated orders by the Central Information Commission (CIC) to disclose their assets.
  • The CIC, in both 2013 and on March 16, 2015, had declared all national and regional parties public authorities under the Right to Information Act, 2005. The petition argues that both orders were “final and binding.”
  • The petition questions the non-compliance of the parties with these two orders, and wants the apex court to direct national and regional parties to disclose complete details about their income as well as expenditure, entire details of donations and funding received by them irrespective of the amount donated and full details of donors making donations to them and to electoral trusts.
Core role in governance
  • The petition argued that political parties should come under the RTI law as they play a core role in governance, and in fact enjoy a “stronghold” over their elected MPs and MLAs under Schedule 10 of the Constitution. The Schedule makes it compulsory for MPs and MLAs to abide by the directions of their parent parties, failing which the member stands to be disqualified.
  • Besides, the plea contended that it will be within the average voter’s fundamental right to information to know the financial details of political parties to make an informed choice.
  • “Under Section 29A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, all political parties must affirm their allegiance to the Constitution of India and such allegiance is made compulsory for the purpose of registration under sub-section (7) of Section 29A. Therefore, political parties so registered must furnish information to the public under the right of information under Article 19(1)(a), since right of information has been held to be a part of freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a),” the petitioners, represented by advocate Prashant Bhushan, said.
No acche din for higher education
  • Not a single Indian institution of higher learning figures in the list of top 200 universities prepared by The Times Higher Education Supplement.
  • The government’s first Budget has not delivered achhe din for higher education in the country. The Union Budget for 2015-16 has reduced funds for higher education to the tune of Rs.3,900 crore in its revised budget estimates for the financial year 2014-15. The government has revised the figure to Rs.13,000 crore, as against Rs.16,900 crore for the plan allocation. The overall education budget of the Modi government is down from Rs.82,771 crore to Rs.69,074 crore. The government has also revised allocation for the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) — which is a Centrally Sponsored Scheme (CSS), launched in 2013 that aims at providing strategic funding to eligible state higher educational institutions — to Rs.397 crore as against Rs.2,200 crore in the original Budget.

Move towards centralisation
  • Besides cuts in state funding which is a critical area of concern, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government’s overall approach to education is destructive of autonomy, creativity and diversity. The manner in which the state is intervening in higher education is causing concern among both teachers and students. There are alarming proposals to change the very nature of higher education. The most disturbing is the proposal to revive the Central Universities Act of 2009 which will require the Central universities to follow a common admission procedure and common syllabus. Even though the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime and the current National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government have been remarkably similar in their desire to introduce changes in the higher education system, most of the UPA’s major proposals got drowned in the Parliament logjam which continued till the last session of the 15th Lok Sabha. Also, there was some debate and opposition within the UPA government which could be another reason why the government couldn’t implement its agenda. This government is pursuing the reform agenda much more aggressively leaving little scope for dissent and disagreement.
  • The Central University (CU) Act seeks to replace the existing Central universities with one single Act which would require all universities to follow a “common” admission and “common” syllabus along with “transferable” faculty. India’s higher education system, serving a large and heterogeneous population, should ideally support a diverse and decentralised system. However, the CU Act will do the opposite; it aims at centralisation and homogenisation, ignoring the specificities and uniqueness of each university. Each University’s Act has a specific context and mandate, and each has developed its own pattern of knowledge production and reproduction. For example, the Delhi University Act (1922) was in response to the need to provide for the educational needs of an emerging India and incorporates a wide college network. The founding ideas of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, on the other hand are quite different from other institutions. The impulse for the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Act (1966) was to institutionalise the values and vision of “national integration, scientific temper, and humanism”. These Acts have shaped their curriculum, academic ethos, teaching and research. Nullifying these Acts would be a blow against diversity and pluralism as well as to minimum autonomy without which a university cannot function and flourish. It will narrow the space for innovation and create a teaching culture where creativity and critical thinking will be curbed.

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