Air India Refuses to Disclose PM Narendra Modi’s Flight Records Under RTI Act

New Delhi: Records pertaining to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s chartered flights for visits abroad cannot be disclosed under the RTI Act due to security concerns as per instructions from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), the national carrier has said in response to an application filed by an activist under the transparency law.

In his RTI application dated February 2, 2018, Commodore (Retd.) Lokesh Batra had sought to know from Air India the dates of invoices raised for chartered flights provided by it for foreign visits of the prime minister since November 2016, and the dates of forwarding each of these bills to the civil aviation ministry and the external affairs ministry.

According to Batra, he got a response from the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) who said he cannot furnish information sought by him, and also sent him an e-mail communication from the PMO to Air India on the issue.

In that email, sent to an Air India official on December 26, 2016, the PMO had said, “Records pertaining to PM’s flight have certain information which may have security implications and are, hence, exempted from disclosure under clause (g) of Section 8(1) of the RTI Act, 2005.”

“As such, the Air India is advised not to disclose information relating to PM’s flight to such RTI queries,” it said.

It was not clear what had prompted the PMO’s email in 2016.

Section 8(1)(g) of the RTI Act exempts from disclosure information that would endanger the life or physical safety of any person or identify the source of information or assistance given in confidence for law enforcement or security purposes.

Batra had mentioned in his RTI application, “It is observed that still there are considerable delays in settling the chartered flight bills and invoices of Air India in respect of foreign tours of the PM. On the other hand, Air India is being bailed out with huge tax payers’ money.”

After receiving Air India’s response, citing the PMO’s instructions, Batra wrote to the national carrier saying that there is no provision in the Act to deny information without giving reasons as per section 7(1) of the Act or without quoting the CIC or court orders for denial of Information.

Air India has responded to his letter saying, “We never deny any information which is available as per our records of accounts dept. As per provision in the Act we are not supposed to supply any copy of our document or as per section 7(1) of the Act, which is informed by PMO.”

Batra has also written to the PMO calling the instruction to Air India a “serious lapse”.


To Delete or Not to #DeleteFacebook, That is the Question

There are no easy answers beyond ensuring that we as citizens do not surrender our privacy to darker forces until a global  internet governance regime is in place

For the last few days, I’ve been grappling with an unexpected existential crisis over whether or not to delete  my Facebook. While the harvesting of data of 50 million Facebook users in America for political gain, without consent, is unconscionable, the issues the Cambridge Analytica scandal has raised — of privacy, consent and data security — highlight perhaps the biggest challenge of the 21st century — that of governing the internet.

Since joining Facebook a decade ago, I’ve found it fun and extremely serendipitous — finding people I had long lost contact with, school friends, or making new friends, courtesy conversations on other’s pages. It is also useful in allowing me maximum contact with a vast family with minimum effort. All these reasons that made so many of us join Facebook dulled us into complacent comfort, consenting without reading the fineprint or understanding the ramifications of giving up so much of ourselves each time we voluntarily tagged photos, did random personality quizzes and checked into different places.

In the absence of clearly spelt out rules of governance, we didn’t see that this seamless syncing of our virtual world with the real world was creating a Frankenstein’s monster that could turn on us. We had no way of knowing that those fun quizzes telling us whether Rome was the perfect city to live in, or yellow was our aura colour, or which 1980s’ popstar we would be born again were fodder for political analysts, tasked with profiling us to either influence our politics or reinforce our biases — sometimes with violent consequences. The privacy settings we checked off perhaps ensured safety from criminals, but each time we took and allowed these quizzes to access our friends’ list and photographs in order to proceed, we surrendered a little more of ourselves.

It is this heady addiction to Facebook — logged in 24/7 on our computers and phones — that has brought us to this pass. As individuals we have become data points for commercial gain, and perhaps far more dangerously, political gain — without the remotest pretense of permission.  The developers of these quizzes mapped our food habits, book choices, political ideologies and concerns and monetised that information by selling it to the highest bidder. In the case of the political consulting company, Cambridge Analytica, members of Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign management bought and used the information of 50 million Facebook users to send targeted political messaging aimed to influence voters during the contentious 2016 American Presidential race.

Several reports indicate that it was Trump’s predecessor, former President Barack Obama whose campaign team first discovered the immense possibilities of using Facebook for political gain in 2012. It is also true that if it weren’t for the fact that liberal America is still reeling with shock since Trump’s win, perhaps such a scandal may never have come to light, nor would we be having a global conversation on fake news, even though so many of us in India have been voicing concerns over the spread of unchecked propaganda and fake news on social media for the last few years.

It is now time to recognise that as enraged as we might be over the Cambridge Analytica scandal, this is only one of several alarming realities to contend with in our social media-driven world — most importantly, as concerned citizens who follow the rule of law, our own roles in surrendering ourselves to tech giants. Our smartphones are loaded with all kinds of personal data — phone numbers and photographs, financial information, travel, reading and shopping preferences. Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple together know everything there is to know about us through our online habits — a reality that makes it imperative for us to seek ways of plugging the damage since these companies, irrespective of the outrage, are probably here to stay.

But like everything else in our technology-dependent universe, all attempts to plug the damage come with their own dilemmas. The European Union is prioritising privacy concerns over fears of political misuse — misinformation and attack that can pose threats to democratic functioning as we know it. Germany, on the other side, has already passed legislation warning social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Google against fomenting hate speech. The law demands that networks remove illegal content as defined in Germany’s criminal code promptly, else face fines of up to Euro 50 million each time they fail to act.

Social networks became popular because they allowed individuals to exercise absolute freedom of speech. Unless their broad community standards are breached and reported as abusive, these networks have provided an uninterrupted, unfiltered flow of information and ideas to a vast global population that feels empowered to challenge the relevance of mainstream media in today’s polarised world. Last year, Facebook itself said it took down an average of 288,000 posts a month based on reports of hate speech and violent content.

On March 12, ten days before the scandal over Facebook’s data breach for political gains broke, Mazurki Darusman, chairperson of the United Nations Independent Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar, blamed Facebook for playing a key role in what the UN Human Rights Commissioner called the possible genocide of Rohingya Muslims last year. Darusman said Facebook was a huge part of public, civil and private life in Myanmar, used both by citizens and government, but it had “substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and conflict within the public…Ultra-nationalist Buddhists, through their own pages were inciting violence against Rohingya and other ethnic minorities.”

Facebook, under fire globally for the spread of hate speech well before this latest scandal,  has been proactively trying to promote what it calls “counter speech” through various initiatives engaging young people, civil society organisations and celebrities in efforts to promote narratives of tolerance, diversity and acceptance on the platform. Whether these efforts are noble, or simply geared towards taking the heat off from growing accusations of fomenting hate worldwide is debatable, but the initiatives have yet to see any substantive results.

In India, where Facebook crossed 240 million users last July, (over 10% of the platform’s global user base)  efforts are further complicated by the fact that fake news, propaganda and hate speech all exist and circulate within the same ecosystem of political and religious polarisation. Many more, especially rural and older populations who cannot or will not  go through the complications of logging on via email, simply use their smartphones to access the now encrypted instant messaging service WhatsApp, acquired by Facebook for $16 billion in 2014.

Today, WhatsApp’s co-founder Brian Acton is one of the biggest names leading the #deletefacebook campaign, urging us all to care about privacy, as we well should. But WhatsApp in India is fast becoming a bigger concern. Its encryption may well protect our privacy, but examples abound of its inability to prevent the spread of fake news and incitement to violence.  WhatsApp’s ease and falling prices of both smartphones and data has meant we are flooded with unverified, unfiltered, often uninformed communication, even misinformation. In an extreme comparison, some have even voiced concerns over the potential of WhatsApp in India to become that of the radio in Rwanda where 800,0000 Tutsis were killed in three months in 1994. The radio became the trigger that incited and mobilised the Hutus.

Perhaps that’s a stretch, but in December 2010, Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine that the rise of “‘interconnected estate’ where any person with access to the internet regardless of living standards or nationality is given a voice and has the power to affect change” will create both opportunities and challenges to established institutions as we know them and warned of the potential of these connection technologies for both good and evil. Given the potential for abuse and manipulation in charged political times, there is no question of state control or regulation of social networks by those in power. The fact that social networks like Facebook must be accountable for galloping roughshod over our rights is equally unquestionable.

Under these circumstances, can these platforms self-regulate? More importantly, given this massive breach of faith by Facebook, its unclear how long it will take to re-establish trust in their motives even if companies pledge to improve their data security systems and guidelines. As we ponder these challenges, there are no easy answers at the moment, beyond perhaps ensuring that we as citizens of the internet educate and empower ourselves enough not to surrender our freedoms of privacy and expression to darker forces, until a global  ‘internet governance’ regime is agreed upon with the involvement of all stakeholders — tech giants, civil society and governments.

Meanwhile, whatever we have already put out there on social media exists somewhere in the ether. Deleting or not deleting accounts today doesn’t change the fact that our metadata is already secured on their servers somewhere. A download of ones Facebook archive will give a sense of just how much about us they know, both with and without our active consent. Therefore, my existential dilemma continues. Perhaps it’s a question I will pose to my friends on Facebook, who from the number of people I continue to see online, are grappling with the same questions.

Maya Mirchandani is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation and an independent journalist.

UN chief expresses concern over deaths of Indian journalists

Advocacy group The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemned the killings of Sandeep Sharma and Naveen Nishchal

UN chief Antonio Guterres has expressed concern over the deaths of two journalists in India and the violence against mediapersons across the globe.

“We, of course, are concerned about anything that would suggest the harassment or violence against journalists, anywhere in the world and would do so in this case,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’s deputy spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters at the daily press briefing here yesterday.

Mr. Haq was responding to a question on the UN’s response to the recent deaths of two Indian journalists in the line of duty.

Sandeep Sharma, 35, a reporter for a local television channel in Madhya Pradesh’s Bhind district, died after he was mowed down by a truck. Sharma had complained about threats to his life after he carried out a sting operation on illegal sand mining.

In Bihar, Naveen Nishchal, a journalist who worked for a Hindi daily, was among two persons killed when an SUV rammed into their bike in Bhojpur district, with the family alleging that it was a case of murder and that a former village head was behind it.

Advocacy group The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemned the killings, and called on the Indian authorities to determine the motive and bring to justice those responsible for Sharma’s death.

Sharma’s colleague Vikas Purohit, who witnessed the collision, told the CPJ that he took Sharma to the local hospital where the journalist was declared dead from injuries sustained in the crash.

Mr. Purohit said both he and Sharma began receiving anonymous death threats last year after publishing two stories in July and October 2017 on alleged police corruption and illegal sand mining.

“Authorities must thoroughly investigate the killing of journalist Sandeep Sharma and determine if he was targeted because of his reporting,” said CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Steven Butler from Washington D.C.

“This tragic incident may well be a failure of local authorities to provide adequate security to a reporter who had received death threats,” he said.

A quick guide to BS-VI fuel norms that will kick off in Delhi from April

The sulphur content in BS VI fuel is substantially lower than that of BS IV fuel.

On April 1, Delhi will be the first city in our country to have fuel that is BS VI complaint. India currently operates on Bharat Stage IV emission norms for two-, three- and four-wheelers.

In a bid to bring down pollution levels and having cleaner cars on the road, the Government has decided to skip directly to BS VI norms by 2020.

This brings India closer to the world as Euro VI emission standards have been in place since 2014 across Europe. It is a bold move, when you look at one of the world’s biggest polluters: America. Vehicular pollution is America’s biggest carbon dioxide source, even as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief has put scientific evidence aside and said it’s not a cause of global warming. In fact, the EPA governs petrol and diesel vehicles on the same parameters, while Euro and Bharat differentiate between the two.

What are emission norms?

Let’s say this together: Vehicle pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels has played a big role in global warming. The need to cut down the emission levels is what led to the formation of such norms that limit vehicular emissions across the globe, with Europe’s Euro 1 coming into force in 1992 with the objective of having all vehicles comply by 1993. Europe has moved at a brisk pace by putting in place more stringent norms every 3-5 years and is currently operating at Euro VI emission standards. The Bharat emission norms that came into force in 1991 for petrol and ’92 for diesel were basic and primarily governed carbon monoxide output from vehicles. India introduced Euro I emission standards in 2000, by which time Europe was already operating at Euro III norms. We have been slower to implement change, primarily due to the costs involved and the quality of fuel available. With India moving on to Euro VI/ BS VI standards, we will finally be at par with Europe and that is quite a feat. For BS VI, the stipulated CO emissions for diesel vehicles is 0.50 g/km and for petrol is 1.0 g/km, NOx is regulated at 0.080 g/km for diesel and 0.060 g/km for petrol, while particulate matter (PM) is set at 0.005 g/km for both. We should see a substantial drop in air pollutants, especially for diesel vehicles, as current BS IV figures are 0.25 g/km NOx for and 0.025 g/km PM.

What are car companies doing about BS VI?

Vehicle manufacturers are investing in the tech to deliver according to the new guidelines, but they’re unlikely to release cars before the deadline, because new engines mean new costs. Mercedes-Benz India has introduced their S-Class with BS VI-compliant made-in-India engines two years prior to deadline.

What is the implication of cleaner fuel?

The sulphur content in BS VI fuel is substantially lower than that of BS IV fuel. Currently the sulphur content in our fuel is at 50 parts per million (PPM) while BS VI fuel has a sulphur content of 10 ppm.

How does all this matter to me?

There is a lot of talk about how cleaner fuel will damage your current vehicle. After all, a number of BS IV vehicles will still be running on our roads even in 2020 and this is a cause of concern. The truth is that cleaner fuel never hurts. Sure, it won’t make your car emit cleaner emissions, but it won’t damage the engine either. The only real impact to the layman will be the cost of a litre of fuel as BS VI fuel is expected to cost more.

Look at it this way: what you pay out on a bike or car, you save on medical bills and your lungs won’t look like that of a smoker.

Source : The Hindu

Increasing threat to Himachal riverine ecology due to hydro projects, tourism, industrial pollution

Letter to Manisha Nanda, principal secretary to the chief minister and additional chief secretary, Environment Science & Technology, Information & Public Relation, Tourism & Civil Aviation, Government of Himachal Pradesh:

We are writing to you on the Day of Action for Rivers across the world on behalf of the concerned citizens of the State. We are drawing your attention to the massive crisis being faced by the precious Himalayan Rivers of our state in the wake of unprecedented pollution. More than ever before the rivers are under threat due to the five major developmental activities:

  • Hydropower Projects
  • Urbanisation and Tourism
  • Industrialisation
  • Sand Mining
  • Climatic Changes

The above activities are being carried out in the absence of proper planning, impact assessment and carrying capacity studies and monitoring by the environment regulatory agencies of the State.

The key threats that the Himalayan rivers face are the burgeoning pollution with sewage, industrial effluents and the absence of water in the rivers. These are the urgent problems that have had several ecological, social, cultural and economic impacts that are becoming irreversible. In the attached report a detailed analysis has been carried out of the threats faced by the five major rivers of the state. Each of the rivers and the threats they face have been examined. This report is not comprehensive but we hope that it will urge the government to take steps in the right direction.

We believe that until and unless a larger policy change occurs there is little hope to save the Himalayan rivers. For immediate action here are 10 points, our demands, that we want the government should start working on seriously:

  1. Declare Wild, Free flowing Rivers: Of the major rivers it is now the Chenab and Satluj in Upper Kinnaur as well as Spiti that remain free flowing. Given that these are high altitude regions and are ecologically fragile and more at risk due to climatic variations, these should also be declared as ‘Eco sensitive zones’ and no-go for major construction activity. On Yamuna, the Tons and Giri both are important life lines of the local community and the only non polluted sections of the river basin upstream these need to be conserved as well given the impending threat of two large dams (Renuka and Kishau) in this region. In fact a review of the Upper Yamuna Basin Agreement is warranted given that 5 states are involved and a Cauvery like situation would mean increasing tensions amongst the riparian states and communities.
  2. Protect small streams and tributaries: Some of the smaller streams and tributaries of the major river basins need to be marked for their fragility not just from a single view point but given that they support ecological diversity and livelihoods. The Tirthan is a brilliant example of this. Thriving fish farms on the river, small home based eco tourism initiatives and cultural preservation all becomes possible in such an environment. Similarly some of the other streams on Ravi – like the Hul streams in the Saal valley which also feed into the drinking water needs of the valley as well as Chamba town, needs to be declared as a no-go zone not just for hydro projects but also for large scale sand mining, polluting industries and unplanned construction of both roads and buildings. List of such streams/tributaries on each of the rivers needs to be drawn up. Other examples are Kerang, Ropa, Spiti (Satluj).
  3. CIA mandatory for all Hydropower Projects before new projects: Cumulative Impact Assessment studies for Hydropower Projects on the river basins need to be undertaken in a, independent, thorough and multi-disciplinary fashion. While the studies for Satluj, Chenab and Beas are already complete – there has been little local consultation in carrying out these studies. Further, these studies have become a mere formality as the process of giving environment and forest clearances for hydroprojects has been de-linked from the CEIA process. Environmental groups have been demanding that until the complete studies are carried out there must be a moratorium on further hydro development in Himachal.
  4. Strict Actions on illegal Sand Mining: As far as Sand mining is concerned if the orders of the NGT and High Court are strictly implemented, and the mining is regulated or even stopped in the streams and rivers, the revival would take place in a short period of time. The regional regulatory bodies need to start acting immediately on this, especially for the small streams.
  5. Controlled and regulated construction: Tourism and Urbanisation need serious policy measures that strengthen the role of regulatory agencies as well as work towards models that are not large and commercial in nature but small scale and community owned and managed. Urban bodies as well as Panchayats need to involve community representatives in development plans where health of the river is placed as the central concern. Four laning projects and blind road widening are not just damaging the forests but also increasing erosion and the siltation on our rivers. These need to be reviewed thoroughly.
  6. Book violators dumping industrial effluents in rivers: Special attention needs to be paid to monitoring and regulation of industrial pollution in areas like Baddi Barotiwala Nalagarh and Paonta Sahib. Common Effluent Treatment Plants have failed miserably and an effort needs to be made to monitor pollution at the source as well as treat the effluents there. Industries violating norms should face closure as well as punitive action rather than just false threats and show cause notices. The Himachal Pollution Control Board needs to be well staffed and held accountable.
  7. Involve local community in river protection, regulation to support PCB and other bodies:Beas, Ravi, Satluj and Lower Stretches of the Yamuna (tributaries) – or already critically polluted – that are in the red, can be at least monitored strictly by the Pollution Control board again in consultation with communities. At present the Pollution Control Board and the Irrigation and Public Health department’s roles have either been made redundant or they have been working to ensure least hindrance to ‘developers’. In this regard the Amendments in the Hydropower Policy of 2006, which were made in 2014 and 16, need to be withdrawn as they dilute the process of NOCs from these departments prior to approval of hydro projects. The role of these regulatory agencies needs to be strengthened with community involvement in ensuring compliance to existing legislations that protect rivers and riparian rights.
  8. Monitor discharge and environmental flows: In the context of e-flows when main rivers have been plugged with projects, there is a need to do following: Where there are cascade of projects the projects they should discharge sufficient amount of water and all the small streams joining the river should be kept free of projects so that fish can migrate in these small for streams for spawning. As mentioned earlier, the rivers which don’t have projects should be kept free of the project so that all the biodiversity present can be protected. In recent years, the Expert Appraisal Committee on River Valley projects of MoEFCC has proposed a minimum e-flow of 25 to 30% in some cases. To ensure that this is implemented for all hydropower projects that are functioning.
  9. Rivers and Forests are to be protected together: Rivers will be under threat if the entire ecosystem is not protected. This also means working harder to protect the biodiversity and quality of our forests. Increasing deforestation by diversion of forests for large development projects is a huge threat. Further, forest forest due to the proliferation of Chir Pine have deteriorated the quality of soil and led to more erosion. These forests need to be converted back to mixed forests. There needs to be more community involvement in management of forests. The Forest Rights Act 2006, if implemented in full spirit will strengthen community control and ownership over forests around river basins (which mostly fall under the category of ‘Forest lands’). This would also mean having the responsibility of conserving and protecting these resources. Unfortunately, the Himachal government has the poorest track record in FRA implementation with the State government and forest bureaucracy impeding rather than facilitating the filing of claims process. The focus has been on ‘individual rights’ rather than CFR (Community Forest Rights).
  10. Prepare an action plan for all the rivers of the State: The State environment department should carry out regional consultations and prepare action plans for each of the river basins with the involvement of local community representatives, citizens groups, environmentalists and experts along with chosen government departments.
  11. It is only through a policy shift as well as a new initiative in environment governance can we protect the natural heritage of the State, on which our survival entirely depends.

    Looking forward to your response.


    • Ranjit Singh Negi, Him Lok Jagriti Manch, Kinnaur
    • Abha Bhaiya, Jagori Grameen, Kangra
    • Ratan Chand, Saal Ghati Bachao Sangharsh Morcha, Chamba
    • Subhash Mendhapurkar, SUTRA, Solan
    • Kulbhushan Upmanyu, Himalaya Bachao Samiti and Himalaya Niti Abhiyan, Chamba
    • Mohender Salariya & Manuj Sharma, Chamba Rediscovered, Chamba
    • Ishan Marvel, Samgh Foundation, Kullu
    • Prem Katoch & Vikram Katoch, Save Lahaul Spiti, Keylong
    • Takpa Tenzin & Sonam Targay, Spiti Civil Society, Kaza
    • Rigzin Hyerappa, Jispa Bandh Sangharsh Samiti, Darcha
    • Subodh Bhod, Lara-Sumata Sangharsh Samiti, Tabo
    • Shanta Kumar, Hangrang Ghati Sangharsh Samiti, Nako
    • Rishi Bhalaik, Satluj Bachao Jiven Bachao Abhiyan Samiti, Rampur
    • Sumit Mahar, Himdhara Collective
    • Prakash Bhandari, Himachal Van Adhikar Manch