DisFact #4: India's #MeToo moment; Crony capitalism

Due to certain professional commitments, I was unable to send this newsletter on Saturday. I apologise for the delay.


Good morning, readers!

I am Samarth Bansal. Welcome to DisFact, my weekly India newsletter. Do let me know what I can do better, what you would like to see more of, or any other comments. If you like reading this newsletter, please spread the word. If you’ve been forwarded this email, sign up here. For archives, check here.


#MeToo. Sexual harassment. Power.

Three things happened this week:

First, in global news: the Nobel Peace Prize.

“In the midst of a global reckoning over sexual violence, a woman who was forced into sexual slavery by the Islamic State and a Congolese gynecological surgeon were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for their campaigns to end the use of mass rape as a weapon of war” (New York Times)

In a year when women have turned the world’s attention to an epidemic of sexual abuse in the home and in the workplace, the award cast a spotlight on two global regions where women have paid a devastating price for years of armed conflict and was a rebuke to what Ms. Reiss-Andersen described as the failure of the global community to prosecute perpetrators of wartime sexual violence. (New York Times)

Second, from the USA: The US Senate voted to confirm judge Brett Kavanaugh to the supreme court. “The confirmation is a major victory for Republicans after sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh threatened to sink his nomination in recent weeks.” (BuzzFeed News)

The bitter political fight crystallised the polarisation of the Trump era. It also became a cultural litmus test of the year-old #MeToo movement, which inspired women to speak out about incidents of sexual harassment and abuse, as it collided with the patriarchy of a political establishment dominated by ageing white men.

The Guardian has put together key moments from Kavanaugh’s confirmation battle in this video:

Third, at home: it appears India is at the cusp of its own #MeToo movement.

“The director of celebrated film Queen, Vikas Bahl, best-selling author Chetan Bhagat, and former executive editor of The Times of India and ex-DNA editor-in-chief Gautam Adhikari were among those accused of sexual harassment, as allegations against names from the film, media and entertainment industries swept social media on Saturday” (Indian Express)

As women shared their stories, that ranged from verbal to physical assault, including snapshots of social media chats showing persistent propositioning, identifying with the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns, the allegations set off a debate on how many of those accounts fell within the definition of sexual harassment at work place. Organisations linked to many of those named said they were taking action. (Indian Express)

How did it start: With Tanushree’s Datta allegations (see the last issue of DisFact) against Nana Patekar, where she alleged that the actor had misbehaved with her while filming a song for the 2008 film, Horn Ok Pleasss. On Saturday, the actress filed a police complaint.

Opening Twitter at any moment in the last three days meant discovering new names. (See Sandhya Menon’s timeline)

Read these stories:

Women are declaring that they are not going to take it anymore. But the problem won’t be solved until those in positions of power face consequences for their actions. Few thoughts:

1. Yes, #MeToo is as about sexual harassment. But it is more so about power.

It takes a decade or more for patterns of social behaviour to change. #MeToo is just one year old. It is not about sex so much as about power—how power is distributed, and how people are held accountable when power is abused. Inevitably, therefore, #MeToo will morph into discussions about the absence of senior women from companies and gaps in average earnings between male and female workers. One protection against abuse is for junior women to work in an environment that other women help create and sustain. (The Economist)

Read more: How One Harasser Can Rob a Generation of Women (New York Times)

2. In many of the recent revelations, there were people who knew what was happening and didn't do enough to stop it.

  • Anurag Kashyap knew about allegations against Vikas Bahl.

  • AIB co-founder Tanmay Bhat received “specific, detailed allegations” in a “personal conversation” about allegations against comedian Utsav Chakraborty. But the group continued to work with him. (NDTV)

(Both apologised)

3. This episode reminds me of my undergrad days at IIT Kanpur: the pattern was similar. We knew something was wrong. We saw how obviously inappropriate sexist practices were normalised as part of “culture”.

It was in my last semester when the debate about sexual assault touched its peak: six students were suspended following complaints by two girls. After I graduated, a girl wrote a long Facebook post, describing an incident where a batchmate had assaulted her—and she named the boy.

But we—the campus community—didn’t do enough to fix things. Many didn’t even acknowledge the problem. I wonder: when will the movement reach college campuses? And if that happens, will it lead to some significant change?

4. Why women speaking up is a big deal? Look at this statistic: 99% of sexual violence cases in India go unreported. And homes are apparently the most unsafe place for women. “The average Indian woman is 17 times more likely to face sexual violence from her husband than from others” (Livemint)

5. #MeToo is the first step. It should not be the end.

Systemic sexual harassment and discrimination can seem like impossible problems to address. Social media campaigns like #MeToo, which ask women to post with the hashtag if they've ever experienced assault or harassment, can raise awareness about its widespread nature — but can also be paralyzing. While scandals across different fields share common themes, they also require industry-specific, and company-specific, solutions. Look for people in your field who are working to combat discrimination and harassment and help them. Trying to effect change among the people you work with most closely can often have an outsize result, even if it seems like a small drop in a big pool.  (Bloomberg)

In the coming days, we will learn about the actions that organisations will take against their employees who have been named in this fallout. Let’s see.


Crony capitalism, exemplified

Free markets are at the heart of global capitalism. But that’s not how capitalism always works. The nexus between the business class and the political class distorts markets and undermines competition: tweaking regulations to favour a company; favouring family and friends for government contracts. That’s crony capitalism.

I keep hearing about Ambani-owned Reliance in this context. Here are three stories — two from this week and one from a few months ago—that illustrate how crony capitalism works.

FIRST: India: the creation of a mobile phone juggernaut (Financial Times)

In this piece, FT looks at some of the concerns raised about the stellar rise of Reliance Jio—basically, looking at policy changes that were favourable to the growth of the company.

In particular, it has been accompanied by persistent questions about how much it owes to the elder Mr Ambani’s business acumen or to favourable political and regulatory decisions

SECOND: Reliance Jio Phones as freebies (Business Standard)

See this Twitter thread by Business Standard’s Kumar Sambhav Srivastava, which I have reproduced here, with minor changes.

What: In the run-up to the upcoming state elections, the Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan governments are distributing free smartphones to connect with over three-fourths of their populations.

These schemes would give a big benefit to one company: Reliance Jio.

In Chhattisgarh: Reliance Jio has won the bidding to bring network to 5 million families. The government will give the company free land for 10 years to establish 1000 new towers. Jio will get these 5 million families as captive users. For two years, they will have to necessarily use Jio SIMs. It is compulsory.

In Rajasthan: The Rajasthan government gave an early-bird advantage to Jio without even floating a tender. Though the scheme was opened to all companies, the first set of instructions to district administration were to give Jio phones to up to 10 million families on government expenditure with "co-branding".

Why this matters:

Distribution of electronic appliances by incumbent governments before Assembly polls has been common in many states. But the smartphone schemes of these two states are unique as they allow the incumbent governments to constantly communicate with voters, even while collecting their individual data, in arrangement with the telecom companies.

The phones will have pre-installed apps: BJP-promoted Narendra Modi app and the Raman Singh app.

Apart from the apps for delivering public services, the Chhattisgarh government also wants to install the apps for popularising “new initiatives... of the government” and “capturing citizens’ opinion/sentiment on various issues”.

The Chattisgarh government wants to employ data analytics, including social media analytics, to draw insights.

THIRD: Reliance Foundation’s non-existent Jio Institute among India’s six Institutions of Eminence (Indian Express)

Remember the Institute of Eminence controversy?

Here is an old but related story. Just read this lede:

On November 21, 2015, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) held the first meeting on a proposal to set up world-class universities, later called Institutions of Eminence (IoEs), to enter top global rankings and encourage investment. The Secretary, Human Resources Ministry, in the room was 1979 batch IAS officer Vinay Sheel Oberoi.

Cut to April 4, 2018 when Reliance presented its Jio Institute bid for IoE status to an expert panel. Vinay Sheel Oberoi was in the room again but this time as a member of the Reliance team. (Indian Express)

Why this is significant

Bureaucrats joining the private sector after retirement isn’t uncommon but official records accessed by The Indian Express under the RTI Act show that Oberoi brought to Reliance an insider’s knowledge of the framing of the policy under which the Reliance bid was chosen for the eminence tag. (Indian Express)

Isn’t this crony capitalism?


The Big Hack: How China Used a Tiny Chip to Infiltrate U.S. Companies

(Bloomberg Businessweek)

This is the most explosive cyber security story I have read in a while.

What: Citing 17 unnamed intelligence and company sources, Bloomberg reported that Chines spies compromised America’s technology supply chain: they placed computer chips inside equipment used by almost 30 U.S. companies (including Amazon and Apple) as well as US government agencies.

The goal: “long-term access to high-value corporate secrets and sensitive government networks.”

Companies denied: Both Apple and Amazon have strongly denied the report. UK’s cyber security agency also backed the two tech giants.

Economics of the cyber attack: “The vulnerability is the price of modernity.” Bloomberg’s Matt Levine argues that the story should not be read as one about “computer hardware or national security or supply-chain management, but about the epistemology of capitalism.”

Our lives are, increasingly, lived on and through computers, and a deep lesson of this story is that not even the smartest engineer at Apple Inc.—not even all of the engineers at Apple combined—can fully understand how those computers work at every level. More than that, our business works through global supply chains, and no one involved in a complicated global supply chain can fully comprehend it.

For the most part this is a good feature of modern life: By distributing knowledge, and creating networks of trust and trade to unlock that distributed knowledge, we enable complexity, and we can build more and better products and do more and better stuff and have a greater total sum of useful knowledge. But it does put a lot of stress on those networks of trust and trade. If someone decides to insert a rice-sized hack into the computer’s supply chain, you can’t easily protect yourself. You can’t fully grasp the computer, or the supply chain; the checks and trust networks are themselves disaggregated. The vulnerability is the price of modernity. 


Interesting reads

There are no short cuts to building State capacity (Hindustan Times)

In this timely column (Aadhaar verdict), Yamini Aiyar, president and chief executive of Centre for Policy Research, argues that “much of the debate and experimentation with technology is based on the flawed assumption that technology can allow us to bypass State failures.”

This is best understood by examining the link between corruption in welfare programmes and identification — the primary rationale offered and endorsed by the Supreme Court for linking Aadhaar to government subsidies. As a technology, Aadhaar is designed to address the problem of false identity or ghost beneficiaries. But, as activists and researchers have repeatedly pointed out, ghost beneficiaries are not the only form of corruption. In Jharkhand, for instance, Karthik Muralidharan’s work on PDS highlights that quantity fraud, where legitimate beneficiaries were given only a fraction of their entitlement, rather than identity fraud was the key driver of corruption. In Rajasthan, an Id-insights study finds that non-availability of ration was a key reason beneficiaries did not receive PDS.

In both cases, it is likely that leakage will be reduced far more effectively by focusing on the pipeline problem of movement of grains to PDS stores rather than last mile benefiacry “authentication”. The point is that Aadhaar and associated technologies are only as effective as the problem they are trying to solve.


Tenure of CJI Dipak Misra: 400 days of tumult for the 'Master of Roster' (Business Standard)

Dipak Misra, the 45th Chief Justice of India, retired on Tuesday. He adjudicated important cases like Aadhaar, Section 377, Sabarimala, Hadiya and Judge Loya case. But his tenure witnessed major controversies. This story is a good wrap.

CJI Misra's 400-day tenure as the head of the 'strongest judiciary in the world' was not without its share of ups and downs, though. His tenure came to be marked by an internal tussle in the top judiciary over how Supreme Court benches were formed and the CJI came under attack from the opposition. He became the first CJI in the history of the Supreme Court against whom the opposition tried to move an impeachment motion. The motion was rejected by the Vice President.


I reported on the illicit trade in human organs. Now people from all over the world email me trying to sell their kidneys (Los Angeles Times)

I’ve received nearly 50 such emails, so many that I’ve created a filter to route all messages containing the word “kidney” to a separate folder. Last month I got a Facebook message request from Colombia, which was how I learned the Spanish word for kidney is riñon.


Talk to me

Comments? Feedback? Suggestions? Write to me at samarthbansal42@gmail.com or hit reply to this email. And if you find this helpful, please spread the word. Thank you!