CURRENT AFFAIRS – 08/05/2023

CURRENT AFFAIRS – 08/05/2023

Improve technology to detect IEDs

IEDs are among the most potent tools deployed by the Maoists
Ten jawans and a civilian driver, who were returning in a van following an anti-Maoist operation, were killed in a blast caused by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada on April 26. The IED was planted beneath a metalled road. The was so forceful, it created a huge crater on the road.
Though this attack, which according to the State police had been carried out by the proscribed Communist Party of India (Maoist), is under investigation, the larger issues of the use of IEDs and of tackling such devices must be seriously addressed at different levels — the government, industry, the Maoists, and the security forces — despite the government’s claim that the base of the Maoists has shrunk and violence has decreased.
IEDs are among the most potent tools deployed by the Maoists. Even a small formation of the Maoists can cause huge damage to the security forces by using an IED. Therefore, the recent theft of about 7,000 detonators by suspected Maoists from West Singhbum, Jharkhand, is alarming.
The technical equipment used by the security forces to detect IEDs has its limitations. If the quantity of metal in the IED is low or the IED is planted deep under the road, mine detectors may fail to find it. Though hundreds of IEDs are detected and diffused every year, the search party could always miss a few due to technical reasons. Ground-penetrating radar, which can detect recent disturbances in the soil subsurface, has also not proved successful because it is susceptible to generating false alarms. As not much research and development has been undertaken in this field, the Central government and industry must join hands to improve technology to detect IEDs. Also, the details printed on boxes containing detonators are not sufficient to trace the source of the detonators and punish the guilty. The Central government must, therefore, amend rules and make the manufacturers accountable for unique identification of detonators.
The disrespect of the Maoists even for slain jawans is no longer surreptitious. In January 2013, during the autopsy of a jawan, an IED was found implanted as a booby trap inside the abdomen, in Latehar. India is a signatory to the Geneva and Hague Conventions which regulate the means employed during warfare, so that casualties are checked. The Maoists deliberately and grossly violate international humanitarian laws — the use of landmines is banned internationally as they are non-discriminatory, lack precision and cause unnecessary or excessive suffering.
It is well known that in addition to the security forces, many civilians, including children, and animals have also been victims of IED attacks. In the April 26 incident, the body parts of the 10 jawans and the driver were found strewn everywhere, making it difficult to collect them and hand them over to the grieving families in a respectable manner. India must raise the issue of the use of IEDs by the Maoists at appropriate international platforms so that the Maoists are forced to respect international humanitarian laws and stop using these devices. This may be taken up despite the fact that the armed struggle of the Maoists does not technically fall under the ambit of ‘internal armed conflict,’ which the Maoist sometimes claim.
The latest reports indicate that the current focus of the Maoists is to intensify the use of booby traps, snipers (with telescope) and remote IEDs. Previously, before elections, the Maoists would not only plant numerous IEDs, but also make thousands of ‘spike holes’ in jungle areas to inflict fatal injuries on jawans. The technical department of the Maoists seems to have gradually developed technology to remotely blast the IEDs. The use of technology such as unmanned aerial vehicles and drones may be useful to check suspicious movement, but the security forces need to improve their tactics too.
Knowing that the Maoists have also blasted mine protected vehicles in the past, the use of vehicles should be permitted only after securing the road from ambushes and IEDs. A visual search must be carried out cautiously or deep enough, up to about 100-150 metres on both sides of the road, to check the presence of suspicious elements or wire ends. Every effort needs to be made to detect, diffuse or avoid these brutal devices.
R.K. Vij is former Director General of Police of Chhattisgarh. Views are personal 

More than a story

False narratives and propaganda should be countered, but not through a ban
The demand for a ban on The Kerala Story, a film apparently based on the instances of a few women joining the Islamic State, is ill-conceived. It is to the credit of the Supreme Court and the High Courts of Kerala and Madras that they did not yield to the clamour for proscribing the movie. It garnered adverse publicity because of a teaser that made an exaggerated claim that 32,000 girls have gone missing in Kerala, presumably to join the terrorist group. However, the film-makers have agreed to withdraw the teaser and carry a disclaimer that the film’s content is fictional. The film’s more notable feature is that it has been denounced as undisguised propaganda. Those seeking the ban accuse its makers of trying to stoke communal passions and the projecting of a fake narrative against Muslims. However, even if that is true, any ban on the film will be counter-productive. Bans can be overturned by courts, and they tend to evoke curiosity about the film and often end up making more people form opinions on its content. In effect, it enhances the propaganda value, and furthers the ulterior motive, if any. It is now legally settled that once a film has been certified by the statutory authority, there is really no case to ban one. Laws pertaining to public order indeed empower the police and local authorities to stop a film’s screening, but it will be perilous to do so every time a group demands a ban.
Reports from Tamil Nadu and Kerala suggest that threats of protests have resulted in multiplexes and some cinema owners choosing not to screen the film. It is normally the local authorities who have a duty to provide adequate security, as ruled by the Supreme Court. However, rather than the law, it is prudent assessment of the ground situation that helps them make a decision. What is also condemnable is the attempt to make political and electoral capital out of The Kerala Story. The Prime Minister himself has alleged that only those who support terrorism will criticise such a movie. It does not behove high constitutional functionaries to communalise the debate over the film. Protests against an allegedly false narrative about a State or a community will not amount to backing terrorism. The fear that the film purportedly grapples with — that young people may be targeted for radicalisation — should be addressed by isolating extremist elements and fostering better understanding among communities. The mischief wrought by a false projection of reality is best undone through exposing the falsehood and the underlying motive, and not through hasty bans.

A position paper, China’s image, and what it means

Harsh V. Pant
is Vice-President for Studies and Foreign Policy at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi and Professor at King’s College London
Beijing’s position paper, on its policy in Afghanistan, is reflective of its recent efforts to present China as a nation that is now heavily invested in addressing ‘international hot button issues’
In early April this year (12-13), the Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Qin Gang, along with his counterparts from Russia, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan met in Samarkand for the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries. The meeting coincided with the release of a position paper by Beijing on its policy in Afghanistan. Titled, ‘China’s position on the Afghan Issue’, the 11-point paper is important for two reasons, the first vis-à-vis China’s involvement in Afghanistan, it gives a clear indication of Beijing’s policy towards the crisis-ridden country and the areas it will prioritise in its engagement with the Taliban moving forward. Beyond Afghanistan, the paper is reflective of China’s recent efforts to refashion how it is viewed internationally — from a country bent on disrupting the current world order to one which is heavily invested in addressing ‘international hot button issues’ objectively with no motivations to further its vested interests, unlike America.
The context of the policy choices
The paper first delineates the core principles which inform Beijing’s policy choices — the ‘Three Respects’ and ‘Three Nevers’, i.e., China respects the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan and the ‘independent choice’, religious sentiments and national customs of the Afghan people. These principles are put in opposition to the policies followed by the West which, according to Beijing, are informed more by geopolitics and their vested interests.
As per China, Afghanistan is currently transitioning from a period of turbulence under a United States-backed government to relative stability under the Taliban. A consistent trope throughout the paper is the West’s failure in fulfilling its commitments to the country. Its decision to intervene militarily and enforce its conception of democracy without taking into account the distinct characteristics of Afghanistan is blamed for starting the crisis in the first place. Deriding the U.S. for imposing unilateral sanctions and illegally freezing Afghanistan’s foreign reserves, China calls for a reversal of these actions. In response to Washington’s failure to introspect, Beijing commits to help Afghanistan move towards a more sustainable form of economy.
Using groupings without the U.S., its allies
Urging the international community to view the Afghan issue in a ‘comprehensive, balanced and objective manner’, China advocates using alternative regional groupings which do not include the U.S. and its allies, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the Moscow Format Dialogue, the Foreign Ministers’ group which just met, and the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Trilateral Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue, for discussing the Afghan issue. This will help Beijing in promoting an alternative model as opposed to the battered approach of the West, allowing it to focus more on its priorities and form a consensus among Afghanistan’s neighbours.
Framing its involvement in purely humanitarian terms, good neighbourliness and mutual respect for its neighbours, Beijing has avoided acknowledging its own interests in the country. It blames the current turmoil in the world, with the presence of multiple crises and renewed competition, for forcing it to adopt a ‘proactive approach’, arguing how countries are urging China to take charge as the U.S. has abdicated its responsibility. This characterisation of its actions is done to mask how stability in Afghanistan is also important for Beijing to attain its own security and economic interests in the country and to present a counter to U.S. hegemony, both politically and financially.
For China, the threat of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan and its potential to harm Chinese interests and personnel are very real. Calling for a bilateral and multilateral approach to respond to the ‘Three Forces’ of terrorism, extremism and separatism, China urges the Taliban, regional countries and the international community to crack down on terror groups, specifically the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, and help Afghanistan in augmenting its counterterrorism capabilities. The question of refugees and narcotics and their cross-border trafficking are also highlighted. Owing to its strategic location, Afghanistan is also economically very important for China: for its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and due to the presence of vast mineral resources.
Since the beginning of 2023, China has taken incremental steps to entrench its image as a major country playing a crucial role in ensuring global governance and providing a ‘moderate and pluralistic environment’ for dialogue. The release of the concept paper on the Global security initiative and the peace proposal on Ukraine which preceded the position paper on Afghanistan signal Beijing’s quest to modify its image and solidify its role as a responsible mediator. Its apparent success in bringing Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table and the visits by leaders from Europe are projected as an indicator of Beijing’s growing influence.
While the Taliban have welcomed the paper and China’s ‘long-term political support’ to the country, China’s success in Afghanistan will remain contingent on what it could offer to the Taliban. China’s high-sounding rhetoric on the linkages between Afghanistan and China has failed to materialise into an increased footprint on the ground. For India, China’s continued engagement with Russia and Iran, along with the Central Asian countries will be consequential in understanding how their policies will shape and what it would mean for India’s interests in Afghanistan.

India’s first national water-body census

Monitoring waters: A fisherman casts his net at Madhure Kere lake on the outskirts of Bengaluru on April 1. AFP
What is the importance of a water-body census? How has the census thrown light on rainfall patterns? What are some of the shortcomings with respect to the data collected? Does the data give insight into natural ecosystems and how water bodies sustain them?
The story so far:
The findings of the first-ever water body census, conducted by the Ministry of Jal Shakti, was published recently.
Why is a water body census necessary?
India is facing a water crisis with groundwater decline, biodiversity loss, and climate change increasing the frequency of floods and droughts. In this context, water bodies are important. They buffer against climate variability, holding flood waters for use in dry periods. They contribute to food and water security as well as livelihoods by recharging groundwater and providing water for irrigation and livestock. They also have cultural and ecological significance. However, water bodies are increasingly under threat from pollution, encroachment, urbanisation, and drying. If they are to be conserved and managed effectively, we need action plans which require baseline data. As water bodies are managed by different agencies from State to local to private entities, the data must be uniform and easily accessible. To actually manage water bodies, we need contextual and traditional knowledge of communities which are to be integrated with formal data. While data on reservoirs and rivers has been available on the India Water Resources Information System (WRIS) for the last few years, there has been no data on smaller water bodies that are the lifeline of rural India and critical cultural, flood-control and recreational spaces in cities.
How was the census conducted?
The massive effort expended in the first-ever water body census was much needed. The census’s objective was to develop a national database with information on the size, purpose, ownership, status, and conditions of water bodies. It covered all natural and human-made units bounded on all sides for storing water, irrespective of condition or use.
A software for data entry and a mobile app for capturing the location and visual of the water bodies were developed, and data-processing workshops were conducted to train the surveyors in all States and Union territories.
The census was built on existing and publicly available satellite-derived datasets. These datasets are extremely rich, allowing citizens to hone in on a specific village and download the historical time series data on each water body. However, they only include attributes that can be observed from space. The water body census thus, extends this to social characteristics including ownership, use and condition.
What does the data show?
Such a large national effort allows us to compare spatial and temporal trends of water bodies across the country. These are some of the observations based on the data:-
(a) Most water bodies in the country are very small — the vast majority of India’s water bodies are less than one hectare (ha) large. This means locating and keeping track of them is likely to remain a challenge. The traditional way to map these water bodies, using satellites, may not work, which is why the mammoth effort expended in ground-based tracking is very welcome.
(b) The water bodies show regional patterns that correlate with rainfall — in general, in drier States like Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan, water bodies tend to be larger and publicly held. In the wetter parts of the country, like Kerala, West Bengal, and States in the northeast, more than three-quarters of the water bodies are privately owned. In drier States, the water bodies are primarily used for irrigation and groundwater recharge while in wetter States, domestic use and pisciculture dominate. Mid-sized water bodies are largely panchayat-owned.
(c) Most water bodies have never been repaired or rejuvenated — several water bodies were classified “not in use”, meaning despite the recent interest in rejuvenating water bodies, most of them have never been repaired or revived.
How can the census improve?
While the census was a clearly Herculean effort, we must take care when interpreting the data.
First, there are some clear gaps. Water bodies have an important role in supporting biodiversity. They harbour fish that birds feed on and provide roosting and breeding spaces for resident and migratory birds. These ecological functions are related to the size and location of the water bodies. But the latest water body census does not address any questions about this. The report itself noted in its preamble that water bodies “support healthy ecosystems”, yet the focus was exclusively on human use, which means only pisciculture or fish farming, which is seeded and does not reflect natural biodiversity.
In classifying water bodies in terms of reasons of abandonment or disuse, “others” emerged as a significant reason, on par with “drying up” in a few States, but far ahead of other specific categories such as industrial pollution, construction, and salinity. One possibility is that the census questionnaire may have left out the most common reasons like eutrophication, sewage pollution, and solid waste dumping.
Secondly, there are inconsistencies in the census. The census groups water bodies into five types: ponds, tanks, lakes, reservoirs, and water conservation schemes. Its glossary defines a pond as a smaller water body than a tank, while “water conservation structures” might include check dams and percolation tanks. However, these categories are not mutually exclusive — many tanks that were traditionally used directly for irrigation serve primarily as recharge structures today. Based on the data, it appears that in Karnataka, these were classified as ponds and tanks serving the purpose of irrigation, whereas in Maharashtra these were classified as water conservation structures, primarily serving the purpose of groundwater recharge. The sources of irrigation statistics for the two States suggest neither State has much tank irrigation.
Third, the data was not standardised across States. Some States like Gujarat do not show any water bodies not being in use, whereas Karnataka reports almost 80% of its water bodies as being in a state of disuse. This suggests differences in interpretation by the enumerators.
There are some other concerns as well. For example, the map for north Karnataka seems suspiciously empty. Since the original geotagged data does not seem to have been made available yet, it is unclear if some districts were skipped or if they genuinely had a lower water-body density.
Notwithstanding these shortcomings, it is crucial that the government continue such nationwide censuses of a vital resource, with modifications. This first edition itself provides high-level indications on the way forward by detailing ownership, state of use, and the costs of construction and repair. It points to how and why water bodies must be restored, which agency’s capacities need to be strengthened, where and how much funds are needed, and who will benefit from such efforts. If such censuses are conducted every five or 10 years, over time, they will accurately represent emerging trends and the state of water in the country as a whole.
Dr. Veena Srinivasan is the Executive Director of the Water, Environment, Land and Livelihoods (WELL) Labs, a research centre based at the Institute of Financial Management and Research (IFMR) Society and Krea University.
  • India is facing a water crisis with groundwater decline, biodiversity loss, and climate change increasing the frequency of floods and droughts. In this context, water bodies are important.
  • The first water-body census’s objective was to develop a national database with information on the size, purpose, ownership, status, and conditions of water bodies. It covered all natural and human-made units bounded on all sides for storing water, irrespective of condition or use.
  • The first edition itself provides high-level indications on the ways forward by detailing ownership, state of use, and the costs of construction and repair.

What is Bluesky, the latest micro-blogging platform in the market?

Are Twitter users searching for alternative social media platforms? Could Bluesky be the company that takes Twitter’s place? How does the latest social media website function? Why is membership to the platform restricted?
Since Elon Musk’s takeover, Twitter has been constantly in the news. The social media company’s workforce has dropped from nearly 8,000 to around 1,000. Alongside the drop, technical glitches and outages have increased. Separately, as the blue tick verification and API access become paid features, several users are searching for alternative social media platforms. Though the decentralised Mastodon emerged as an early contender, Bluesky has come to the fore as a potential claimant to Twitter’s throne.
What is Bluesky?
Bluesky is a micro-blogging platform and social website built on the AT Protocol (Authenticated Transport Protocol). Bluesky might be classified as a Twitter competitor due to its founding team but it is different in terms of its structure, as it is meant to form part of a decentralised ecosystem. Users of apps built on the AT Protocol would be able to move between platforms without losing their followers, media, work, and data. This account portability, as the feature is called, is a major part of the AT Protocol’s structure.
Bluesky says its founding mission is to “develop and drive large-scale adoption of technologies for open and decentralised public conversation.”
Who is behind Bluesky?
The CEO of Bluesky is Jay Graber, a software engineer with a background in cryptocurrency. Bluesky was launched in 2019 by former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who chose Ms. Graber to lead the project. Twitter and Bluesky were meant to eventually connect and work with each other, but the companies ended their service agreement last year. Since then, Mr. Dorsey has admitted that mistakes were made in how Twitter handled certain content moderation debates.
Could Bluesky replace Twitter?
Not anytime soon. Bluesky is currently in private beta, meaning that only a select group has been allowed to join via invite codes. Others interested in trying it out can add themselves to a waitlist. Regular Bluesky members are also given a new invite code at periodic intervals that they can share with new applicants they deem trustworthy.
Bluesky said it had more than 50,000 users at the end of April but maintained that it would distribute invites at its own discretion to maintain the integrity of the platform. Based on this announcement, it is unlikely that Bluesky will replace Twitter any time soon, as it continues to grow its membership at a highly controlled rate.
What is it like on Bluesky?
Screenshots of Bluesky profiles retweeted by its CEO show a user interface similar to Twitter, with options to comment, share, or “heart” posts.
Celebrity users appear to be seeing fewer “likes” and “shares” when compared to their Twitter platforms, due to the smaller number of participants on Bluesky. Platform users also have the ability to set their domains as their handle, making it easier to link their accounts across ecosystems, and authenticate their identity.
While Bluesky aims to achieve a more decentralised structure, it is currently being regulated by an official team and is hosted on a single server, according to tech outlet The Verge.
How will content be moderated?
The new social media platform has defended its invite code sign-up process, claiming that it is easier to restrict sign-ups than clean up network abuse after quickly letting in a large number of users. On its website, Bluesky says that it will follow automated filtering, manual admin actions, and community labelling to moderate content. Users will be able to add labels to posts based on their own values, and other users can also adopt these, if they wish to do so.
Even so, Bluesky encountered one of its first challenges with content moderation when users targeting the posts of a controversial Bluesky member discovered that the block function was not yet available. This was later added. Users spreading hate or bullying others have been banned from the platform.
How is Bluesky different from Mastodon?
While Bluesky and Mastodon both strive to be decentralised social media platforms, Bluesky is still highly controlled by its team of creators, and entry is based on an invite code. On the other hand, Mastodon has multiple servers that users can join or apply to join, making it less controlled in terms of entry. Mastodon is also older, going back to 2016. Its servers saw over 2.5 million active users late last year and its popularity surged after Twitter came under Mr. Musk’s leadership. However, Mastodon’s active users soon dropped to less than two million, reported The Guardian. Complaints included the fact that Mastodon’s multiple server structure confused users, and that it lacked a significant user base. Meanwhile, Bluesky is newer and opting for a more regimented release of its product.