CURRENT AFFAIRS – 06/06/2023

CURRENT AFFAIRS – 06/06/2023

Eye on oil

India must bring pump prices of petrol and diesel in line with global oil prices

The world’s largest grouping of crude oil producers, commonly known as OPEC+, agreed on Sunday to extend ongoing production cuts into 2024 as it seeks to keep oil prices from falling amid concerns about a global economic slowdown. OPEC major and leading producer Saudi Arabia also voluntarily vowed to reduce output by an extra 1 million barrels per day (bpd) in July, sending international oil future contracts higher on Monday. The more than 20-nation OPEC+ bloc, which has been striving to curtail supply in order to support prices in the face of flagging demand, had in a surprise move in April announced additional output cuts amounting to 1.66 million bpd. That move’s impact on prices was, however, shortlived and benchmark Brent crude futures have largely remained below $80 a barrel, after briefly rising above $87 in the wake of the surprise output cut in April. For India, which imports more than 80% of its crude oil requirements, the combined Saudi-cum-OPEC+ announcements of supply curtailment are a cause for some concern given the potential they have to push up global oil prices. Still, with India having sharply increased its purchase of crude from Russia since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and the consequent western sanctions against Russian energy exports, the price India pays for an imported barrel of oil has been steadily declining.

As of last week’s close, the average monthly price of India’s crude oil basket had declined by as much as 38% from its June 2022 peak of $116.01 a barrel to $72.39. While there is a good likelihood for some near-term uptrend in global oil prices as a result of the latest OPEC+ move, India has through its stepped-up imports of Russian crude — it bought a third of its oil from the sanctions-hit country in March — substantially buffered itself from any appreciable adverse impact. Still, the softening in crude purchase prices has not percolated to the Indian consumer. Pump prices of petrol and diesel have remained unchanged since May 22, 2022, with the governments at the Centre and the States, and the oil marketing companies unwilling to forego any revenue, possibly as a way of insulating themselves from any rise in costs in the future. With retail inflation showing signs of easing in recent months and private consumption spending data showing a distinct lack of vigour as a result of the inflationary erosion in consumptive capacity, policymakers must reassess their stand on fuel prices. While the demand for bringing oil products under the ambit of GST so as to help rationalise fuel prices is unlikely to be met any time soon, especially given the revenue implications for States, the Centre can take the lead and provide a fiscal fillip to the economy by cutting its levies on the key transport fuels.


Dealing with deepfakes

An ‘upgrade’ from Photoshop

On May 28, the wrestlers protesting peacefully in New Delhi were tackled to the ground, arrested, and boarded in a van to keep them from disrupting the inauguration of the Parliament building. Shortly after, a photo appeared to show four of the beleaguered wrestlers posing with wide smiles for a selfie in the van.

If you had believed the photo to be real, you might also have believed that the wrestlers had orchestrated a clash with the police and that they wanted to be photographed while being ‘roughed up’. This is what the person who created the photo may have intended. Though it emerged later that this photo had been morphed, and was not a deepfake, creating such visuals has become child’s play. Deepfaking is a significant ‘upgrade’ from photoshopping images as it transcends the limits of human skill. Here, machines iteratively process large amounts of data to falsify images and videos, sometimes in real time, and with fewer imperfections.

Deepfake images and videos thus have an unsettling legacy. People worldwide have already used the technology to create a video of Barack Obama verbally abusing Donald Trump, hack facial recognition software, manufacture ‘revenge porn’, etc. On May 22, a deepfake image purporting to show a towering column of dark smoke rising from the Pentagon received sober coverage from a few Indian television news channels. The image was soon found to have been machine-made.

As with other modern technologies set on the information superhighway, there is no way for us to go back to a time when people didn’t have the tools to falsify media elements at scale. Alongside deepfaked images and videos, we have chatbots that mimic intelligence, but we can’t tell the difference when they make a mistake. This leads some to believe certain information to be ‘true’ simply because a machine gave it to them.

Then again, these tools have also been used for good. Using deep learning, the ALS Association in the U.S. founded a “voice cloning initiative” to restore the voices of those who had lost it to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Deep learning has also been adapted in comedy, cinema, music, and gaming. Experts have recreated the voices and/or visuals of visual artist Andy Warhol, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, and rapper Tupac Shakur, among others, enhancing our ability to understand, and even reinterpret, history (although some of these attempts haven’t been free of controversy).

Redeemable technology

As such, despite its potential to rupture the social fabric, deep learning is entirely redeemable, just like the kitchen knife or the nuclear reactor. The focus, in turn and as usual, must be on how we wield it. This is also the question that generative artificial intelligence like ChatGPT has been forcing us to ask. The major technology companies behind ChatGPT et al seem to have been driven by ‘can we do this?’ rather than ‘should we do this?’, although not without exceptions.

Our still-evolving experience with solar geoengineering offers a useful, if also imperfect, parallel. Solar geoengineering involves modifying the climate to be favourable over one part of the planet, by blocking sunlight, but which invariably has planet-wide consequences. Many scientists agree that this is dangerous and have called for a moratorium on the use of this technology and for international cooperation led, if required, by a treaty.

Clumsy though it may seem, deepfakes merit a similar response: laws that regulate its use and punish bad-faith actors, and keep the door open for democratic inputs to guide the future of such a powerful technology. A good starting point could be what political philosopher Adrienne de Ruiter wrote in 2021, which is to protect against the “manipulation of hyper-realistic digital representations of our image and voice.” This, she said, “should be considered a fundamental moral right in the age of deepfakes”. And a stepping stone for us, as individuals, is to become more scientifically, digitally, and public-spiritedly literate. Then, we will be able to look past an implausible photo and bring to light its concealed creator.

For now, among all the countries, China has responded strongest. It has banned deepfaked visuals whose creators don’t have permission to modify the original material and which aren’t watermarked accordingly. The success of this policy is no doubt assured by the country’s existing surveillance network. Every measure short of this requires at least an ampoule of self-restraint. And that is rooted in the kind of people that we are.

Despite its potential to rupture the social fabric, deep learning is entirely redeemable, just like the kitchen knife or the nuclear reactor. The problem is how we wield it.


Accidents decline, but expenses on safety remain low


A cursory look at historical data on railway accidents gives the impression that such incidents are a thing of the past. The Indian Railways saw an average of about 1,390 accidents per year in the 1960s. The number has dramatically dropped to 80 per year in the past decade. But the triple-train collision in Odisha’s Balasore, one of the deadliest in India, raises questions about safety in rail travel.

Here, train accidents refer to consequential train accidents: those that resulted in loss of human life, loss of railway property, caused injuries, and interrupted rail traffic. Derailments formed close to 70% of all accidents since 1990-91, followed by level crossing accidents, collisions and fires in trains (Chart 1). The chart shows the year-wise number of accidents under various categories.

Chart 2 shows the number of passengers killed in consequential accidents since 1990-91. The tragedy in Odisha that claimed at least 275 lives stands out. The number of deaths in this single incident is higher than the annual fatalities of the last 16 years. The Railways recorded zero fatalities in 2019-20 and 2020-21 due to consequential accidents. In 2020, when questioned by the NITI Aayog chief about the fact that 30,000 people had died over three years due to trespassing and other untoward incidents around railway premises, the Railways said it had no control over casualties due to trespassing or negligence or carelessness on the part of passengers and that efforts were being made to sensitise the public.

Notably, among the consequential train accidents, 55% had occurred due to negligence or failure of the Railways staff. About 28% of accidents were attributed to the failure of persons other than the Railways staff, and 6% had occurred due to equipment failure. A preliminary investigation has suggested a possible failure of the signalling system in the Balasore tragedy. Chart 3 shows the share of various causes in train accidents.

In the 2023-24 Union Budget, the Railways received a record allocation of ₹2.40 lakh crore. However, when capital expenditure on crucial activities related to safety such as track renewal and signalling and telecom are considered, their shares dwindled or stagnated over the last few years. Allocation for track renewal dipped to 7.2% and expenditure proposed for signalling remained at 1.7% in FY24 when considered as a share of budgetary support for capital expenditure (Chart 4).

The Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK) fund was created in 2017-18 with a corpus of ₹1 lakh crore to provide financial support for critical safety-related works and to curb accidents, including those at unmanned level crossings. However, a Parliamentary Standing Committee report in March 2023 observed that “appropriations to the RRSK has been falling short ever since it was introduced.” The Committee also noted that the Railways did not meet the target of earmarked allocations for the previous five years.

The major causes of derailments are rail fractures, weld failures, track defects and rolling stock defects. As per a Ministry of Railways document on safety performance, the track forms the backbone of the Railways transportation system and needs to be safe. According to a white paper by the Ministry, 4,500 km of track should be renewed annually. However, data show that the target set by the Railways is much lower than the level suggested by the white paper. In the past seven years, the Railways could not achieve this level barring one year. Chart 5 shows the target of track renewal set by the Ministry and the target achieved in that year.


NIRF: IIT-Madras retains number one spot

The National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF), under the Union Education Ministry, announced the India Rankings 2023 of higher education institutions here on Monday.

The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras retained its position as the best educational institution in overall ranking for the fifth consecutive term, while Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru was rated the best university in the country for eight years in a row.

Miranda House, Delhi was ranked the best college and the Indian Institute of Management, Ahemdabad the top management institute. The National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research, Hyderabad was named the best institute in the field.

The All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi was ranked the best medical college and Saveetha Institute of Medical and Technical Sciences, Chennai got the honour of top dental college. The National Law School of India University, Bengaluru was rated the best law college in the country. The Indian Institute of Technology, Madras also received the honour of best engineering college for the eighth consecutive year.

Research category

The Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru also stood first in the research institutions category for the third consecutive year. The IISc was followed by Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia as second and third best universities.

National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research, Hyderabad topped the ranking in pharmacy for the first time, pushing Jamia Hamdard to the second slot.

The IIT-Roorkee got the first place in architecture and the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru retained its top ranking in law for the sixth consecutive year. “Colleges in Delhi maintained their dominance in the ranking of colleges with five colleges out of the first 10 colleges from Delhi,” the Union Education Ministry said in a statement.

Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi took the top slot in agriculture and allied sectors. The Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur topped the innovation category.

The Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru and the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi were ranked the second and third best institutes, respectively, in the overall category. Hindu College, Delhi and Presidency College, Chennai were named the second and third best colleges, respectively,. The IIMs in Bangalore and Kozhikode secured the second and third positions, respectively, in the management institutes ranking.

Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh and Christian Medical College, Vellore were ranked the second and third best medical colleges.

Releasing the report, Minister of State for Education and External Affairs, Rajkumar Ranjan Singh, said the India Rankings have served as a valuable tool for students in selecting universities.

The five broad categories of parameters identified in the NIRF are teaching, learning and resources, research and professional practice, graduation outcome, outreach and inclusivity, and perception. For the 2023 rankings, 5,543 unique institutions applied for ranking.


Satellites,  AI to help certify fields growing organic cotton

Soon, a satellite in space could be involved in determining whether your favourite cotton dress is organic.

A new initiative by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) plans to combine data from satellite images and artificial intelligence (AI) to keep track of cotton certification in India.

The project is a collaboration between ESA, GOTS and AI company Marple that will automatically classify cotton fields in India in line with cultivation standards.

Under ESA’s Business Applications and Space Solutions programme, the initiative will train AI models to ‘read’ ESA satellite data to identify and classify cotton fields in India.

“This project highlights how space solutions can have a positive impact on the world and is the kind of innovation that ESA supports through its Business Applications and Space Solutions programme,” Guillaume Prigent, Business Development and Partnerships Officer at ESA, said in an email to The Hindu.

The project will help GOTS to generate accurate estimates of organic cotton yields in specific regions by incorporating standardised yield metrics.

GOTS is an alliance of four organisations — Organic Trade Association (US), the Internationaler Verband der Naturtextilwirtschaft (Germany), The Soil Association (U.K.) and the Japan Organic Cotton Association (Japan) — that brings together the textile and organic industries to promote organic textiles.

The initiative will identify cotton fields that meet predetermined standards as well as support those that demonstrate potential for a seamless transition to organic cultivation through the use of traditional and ecologically friendly farming practices.

The primary objective of the collaboration is to bolster the integrity of organic cotton by developing advanced risk assessment techniques and to prevent fraud throughout the supply chain.

The approach is expected to bring a greater number of small-scale farmers into the certified organic sector and supply chains, creating new economic opportunities for them and their communities.

It could also help address the escalating consumer demand for organic cotton within the textile industry.

The programme has already had a successful pilot run in Uzbekistan, one of the world’s top cotton producers, in 2021. The data from the pilot project showed a 98% accuracy in differentiating between organic cotton fields and conventional ones.

The project will be implemented across various cotton-growing regions in India where organic cotton production plays a significant role. The first results are expected to be available in late 2023.

The initiative will identify cotton fields that meet predetermined standards as well as support those that demonstrate potential for a seamless transition to organic cultivation.