• According to the ‘Tek Fog’ expose by the news portal The Wire, the BJP has access to a secret app called ‘Tek Fog’ that can hijack social media, automate hate, and targets thousands of accounts with just a click. The report, when it came out, created a sensation. While A TMC MP has said Tek Fog “has serious ramifications and could jeopardise national security,” a parliamentary panel headed by a Congress leader has sought a response from the Home Ministry.

    So, what exactly is Tek Fog? How does automated trolling work, and is it really scalable? What does the Tek Fog expose mean in the context of investigative journalism that straddles the domains of technology, privacy, free speech and politics?

    We explore these questions in this episode.

    Guest: Samarth Bansal, an independent journalist who runs The Interval, a fortnightly newsletter

    Host: G. Sampath, Social Affairs Editor,  The Hindu

    Edited by Reenu Cyriac

  • On January 17, two Indians and a Pakistani were killed in a massive explosion in Abu Dhabi. The blast is believed to have been the result of a ‘drone attack’ by Yemen’s Houthi rebels. This attack on the capital of UAE has once again drawn the spotlight to a conflict that has been going on in the region for seven years – the war in Yemen.

    This war, which broke out in late 2014 during a period of political instability in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring protests, has become really complicated, with multiple warring factions –the Saudi-backed coalition, the Houthis, the Southern Transitional Council, or the STC, which is another separatist group, besides other countries such as France and the UK which have been helping the Saudi-backed coalition. All of this has triggered what is believed to be the worst ongoing humanitarian crisis in the world.

    What are the factors driving this conflict? What is at stake for the different players? And is there any chance of peace returning to the region any time soon? 

    Guest: Stanly Johny, The Hindu’s International Affairs Editor

    Host: G. Sampath, Social Affairs Editor, The Hindu

    Edited by Reenu Cyriac

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  • Kazakhstan, the largest and richest of the Central Asian republics, is in turmoil. The country has been rocked by massive protests since the start of the New Year. The protests have also been marked by violence and looting. While the immediate trigger seems to be a hike in LPG prices, they protesters did not relent even after the government announced that it will roll back the price hike. As violence escalated, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev gave orders to shoot at the protesters without warning. He has also claimed that foreign elements are behind the protests. He turned to Russia for help in quelling the protests, and things seemed to have settled down somewhat, after 2,500 Russian troops landed in the country.

    What exactly are the factors driving these protests? Is there really some foreign involvement? What are the geo-political implications of Russian troop presence in Kazakhstan? We discuss all this and more in this episode.

    Guest: Stanly Johny, The Hindu’s International Affairs Editor

    Host: G. Sampath, Social Affairs Editor, The Hindu

    Edited by Reenu Cyriac

  • The Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, or the FCRA, has been in the news once again. India’s NGO sector had an unpleasant start to the new year as it emerged that around 6,000 of them had lost their FCRA licence.

    NGOs and other institutions that do charitable work have to register under the FCRA to be able to receive foreign donations. Hence, cancellation or loss of an FCRA licence could mean that they may no longer be able to continue their day-to-day work, to pay salaries, and may even be forced to shut down. This has livelihood implications for people employed in the social sector.

    In this edition of In Focus, we get to the fundamentals of the whole FCRA phenomenon. Why do NGOs need an FCRA licence? Do other entities that receive donations, such as political parties, for example, face the same level of regulatory scrutiny? How transparent is the process of granting or cancellation of licences?

    Guest: Kabir Dixit, an advocate-on-record at the Supreme Court who has been handling FCRA matters

    Host: G. Sampath, Social Affairs Editor, The Hindu

    Edited by Ranjani Srinivasan

  • On January 3, India began vaccinating a section of its teenagers, with Covaxin. About 7.4 crore children, between the ages of 15 and 18, are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. As of Saturday, over 2 crore children had received the first dose of their vaccine. Only Covaxin was approved for use in this age group, even though, last October, India's first DNA vaccine, ZyCoV-D, had been granted emergency use authorisation for use in children above the age of 12. Some experts have argued that since COVID-19 in children is, in general, not severe, the entire adult population should have been vaccinated first -- over 90% of the eligible population has received the first dose, but second dose coverage remains less than 70%. However, others have pointed out that now that adult vaccination is well underway and progressing, the programme needed to be opened to children as well. 

    India has also announced precautionary doses -- a third dose of the vaccine -- for healthcare and frontline workers as well as adults aged above 60 with co-morbidities. The move comes amidst a global surge in COVID-19 cases, with new variant of concern, Omicron, dominating. Unlike some other countries however, India will give beneficiaries the same dose they had for the first two -- either Covishield or Covaxin, without any mixing of the vaccines.

    So how did the children's vaccination programme come about, and how is it progressing? Do all adults need a booster dose or will only those at risk require it at present? How does the precautionary dose help protect vulnerable individuals? And will we see more variants in the future?

    Guest: Dr Srinath Reddy, President of the Public Health Foundation of India 

    Host: Zubeda Hamid 

    Edited by Reenu Cyriac

  • The first big event of the Badminton calendar in this year is happening in New Delhi – with the 2022 India Open set to take place from January 11 to 16. There is a great deal of anticipation around the event as it could see a potential rematch of the two finalists of the World championships last month – Kidambi Srikanth and Singapore’s Loh Kean Yew.

    There is also a lot of excitement as India suddenly seems to have a great number of high quality male shuttlers and some excellent prospects, including the likes of Lakshya Sen. Given the abundance of talent, what are India’s prospects at the India Open and for the rest of the Badminton calendar in 2022? Can Kidambi Srikanth reverse the outcome of the World Championship final if he runs into Loh at the India Open? And how are the chances for PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal?

    We discuss these questions and more in this episode.

    Guest: Rakesh Rao, Deputy Editor (Sports) at The Hindu.

    Host: G. Sampath, Social Affairs Editor, The Hindu

    Edited by Ranjani Srinivasan

  • The top-ranked tennis player in the world and arguably one of the all-time greats Novak Djokovic was held for four days in a detention centre in Australia, apparently because his unvaccinated status rendered his entry visa invalid. The showdown between the Australian federal agencies and Novak Djokovic was today settled in court, with a Federal Circuit Court judge ruling in Djokovic’s favour. It quashed the cancellation of Djokovic’s visa and ordered his immediate release from detention.

    While details of the events at the airport leading to Djokovic’s detention are still emerging, the whole episode has raised questions about vaccination, sport, and how rules are imposed, or not imposed. We don’t know, for instance, why Australia did not inform Djokovic earlier that his ‘medical exemption’ was not valid or that it was not enough to guarantee him entry into Australia. Why wait until he was already on Australian soil? And what about the effect of all this on his preparations for the Australian Open, assuming he gets to play it?

    We discuss all these questions in detail in this episode.

    Guest: Rakesh Rao, Deputy Editor (Sports) at The Hindu.

    Host: G. Sampath, Social Affairs Editor, The Hindu

    Edited by Reenu Cyriac

  • Sudan, a country ravaged by repression and instability for a long time, is again in turmoil. Civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok announced his resignation in a televised address on January 2. Since 2019, Hamdok had been leading a transitional government in which power was shared between the military and the civilian leadership. But the military overthrew the government in a coup in October, and Hamdok was kept under house arrest. Following international pressure, the military made a deal with Hamdok, and on November 21, he returned as Prime Minister.

    And now, he is gone again, leaving the military fully in command of the levers of power. Why exactly did the military pull the plug on the joint civilian-military governance arrangement in October? Why did Hamdok make a deal with the military in November, only to quit a few weeks later in January? And what are the chances of Sudan making a successful transition to democracy? We explore all these questions with Stanly Johny, The Hindu’s International Affairs Editor.

    Host: G. Sampath, Social Affairs Editor, The Hindu

    Guest: Stanly Johny, International Affairs Editor, The Hindu

    Edited by: Ranjani Srinivasan

  • The Department of Posts under the Ministry of Communications has released a Draft Approach Paper for creating a Digital Address Code or DAC for each and every address in the entire country. The DAC is to do for addresses for Aadhaar has done for identity – create a unique ID, using geo-spatial coordinates.

    The idea of a digital address code is a very ambitious one. While it can potentially transform the available national infrastructure for business, it also has implications for conduct of the Census, National Population Register and conduct of elections. Strangely, the proposal for this massive undertaking is yet to be widely debated. Why does India need a Digital Address Code? Who are likely to be its likely beneficiaries? Will it further exacerbate privacy concerns? Will it increase the possibilities of surveillance? How have other countries approached the idea of a digital access code?

    We look for answers to all these questions and more in this episode.

    Guest: Srinivas Kodali, an inter-disciplinary researcher with a special interest in data standards, cities, cyber security, and the internet.

    Host: G. Sampath, Social Affairs Editor, The Hindu

    Edited by Reenu Cyriac

  • Schools began opening across the country in September this year, following the devastating second wave of COVID-19. By then, most of India's 24 crore students, had been out of schools for close to 18 months -- most children in kindergarten and first standard had never set foot in a classroom. The Annual Status of Education Report 2021, released last month, throws up some important facts about how students and teachers have fared over the pandemic years. Significantly, there was an increase in the proportion of children not enrolled in school, compared to pre-pandemic figures from 2018. Government schools saw a rise in enrolments, up from 64.3% in 2018 to 70.3% in 2021, while private schools recorded a dip -- from 32.4% in 2018 to 24.4% in 2021.

    Another important factor the survey highlighted was that online education, demonstrably, did not work for all -- while smartphone availability in homes almost doubled from 2018 to 2021, and 67.6% of students on average had a device at home, over a quarter of them had no access to it at all.

    But what needs to be done, going forward, in what is, arguably an unprecedented situation? A vast number of children may not be at the level that their grade and curriculum demand. What can schools and teachers do to deal with this? Do States need to frame policies and guidelines to help children get back on their feet, academically? Do we need to move away from a narrow, curriculum-driven approach that our school systems presently focus on?

    Guest: Dr. Rukmini Banerji, Chief Executive Officer of Pratham Education Foundation

    Host: Zubeda Hamid

    Edited by: Ranjani Srinivasan

  • The ghastly killing of six innocent coalminers and another nine civilians and a soldier on December 4 in the Mon district of Nagaland has sent shockwaves through the Northeast and the rest of the country. The clamour for the withdrawal of the draconian Armed Forces (Special) Powers Act has grown, with the chief ministers of Nagaland and Meghalaya, both allied to the BJP, demanding that the Act be withdrawn.

    The Oting village incident also raises a question mark on the fate of the still-to-be-made-public 2015 “framework agreement” signed between Naga insurgent groups and the Centre in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

    Also in the spotlight is the state of the 1997 ceasefire between the Centre and the NSCN-IM, the principal Naga insurgent group. Much will depend on how the Modi government acts to prosecute the soldiers responsible for the Oting killings. A change of tack on security policies that undermine the elected government and state police will also be under the scanner.

    We discuss these and more in this episode.

    Guest: Rahul Karmakar, Guwahati-based Special Correspondent of The Hindu

    Host: Amit Baruah, Senior Associate Editor, The Hindu.

  • Tensions have been rising at the Ukraine-Russia border. There has been a massive troop build-up on the Russian side, within 300 km of the Donbas region in Ukraine. This is a live conflict zone where the Ukrainian government has been battling Russia-backed separatists. While the West has accused Russia of trying to intimidate Ukraine, the Kremlin has, in turn, accused the West of manufacturing ‘anti-Russia hysteria’, holding that troop mobilization within Russian borders is no one else’s business.

    Another dimension of the rising tensions is that last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that there had been a coup plot against his regime by a group of Russians and Ukrainians. Russia, however, has denied any role in the alleged coup attempt.

    So, what exactly are the points of conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and what does Putin hope to achieve through this troop build-up? We explore these questions and more in this episode.

    Guest: Stanly Johny, The Hindu’s International Affairs Editor.

    Host: G. Sampath, Social Affairs Editor, The Hindu

  • There is much that is still unknown about Omicron, the newest Sars-CoV-2 variant, that has been designated as a 'variant of concern' by the World Health Organisation. The variant was first reported in South Africa on November 24, and has since, spread to over 15 countries or regions, as of now. In response, several countries have begun imposing travel restrictions and closing borders, similar to what we saw happening last year, during the initial waves of the pandemic. 

    Omicron is a heavily mutated strain, with over 32 mutations in the spike protein of the virus, some in part of the protein required for binding to human receptor proteins for entry into cells. This has raised concerns that the variant may be more transmissable and also that it may hamper the efficacy of our current treatments for the disease. Another concern has been that the variant may have vaccine escape properties. However, scientists will require possibly several more weeks before they can determine whether any of these concerns are valid.

    What do we now know about the variant? Are travel restrictions and bans really effective, given that the new variant is already spreading? With India having vaccinated nearly 80% of the eligible population with the first dose and about 38% with both doses, what more needs to be done to take measures against the new variant? 

    Guest: Dr. Shahid Jameel, Virologist and Fellow at OCIS and Green Templeton College, University of Oxford

    Host: Zubeda Hamid

  • Over the last decade, India has seen the emergence, or re-emergence, of a number of infectious diseases. Not only have seen an alarming surge in the number of dengue and chikungunya cases, we've had Zika and Nipah virus cases, and even an Ebola scare. This is in addition to existing diseases that we are still battling -- such as tuberculosis, malaria, Kala Azar and others, and all while India battled the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years.

    Some estimates indicate that about 60 per cent of infectious diseases and 70 per cent of emerging infections of humans are zoonotic in origin, with two-thirds originating in wildlife. India, a tropical country, that is still, in many parts, grappling with inadequate sanitation, overcrowding, and lack of adequate access to healthcare, has also, of late, been subject to extreme climate events -- all of these, and other factors such as human encroachment into wildlife terrain may also be playing a role in the emergence of infections or surge in cases.

    What do we know about why these infections come in spurts? Are there any vaccines for them and if not, why not? Is India particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases? And what can the government do to prepare and strengthen our already over-burdened healthcare systems?

    We speak about this and more in the podcast.

    Guest: Dr Priscilla Rupali, Professor Department of Infectious Diseases Christian Medical College, Vellore

    Host: Zubeda Hamid 

  • The sudden televised withdrawal of the three contentious farm laws by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on November 19 was as dramatic as pushing through the three Bills by voice vote in the Rajya Sabha in September last year. Gripped by a still-to-be explained urgency, these three laws were issued as Presidential Ordinances in June 2020.  

    There is little doubt that Mr. Modi’s hand was forced by the relentless agitation launched by the farmers of Punjab, Western U.P. and Haryana, who have been sitting on Delhi’s borders since November last year, demanding the complete withdrawal of the three laws. The writing on the electoral wall, as many analysts have pointed out, has also been clearly read by the Prime Minister as the states of U.P. and Punjab slip into election mode.  

    Farmer leaders, meanwhile, are firm that minimum support price, or MSP, should be given statutory shape by the Centre even as they have deferred a decision on whether or not to withdraw their agitation to the end of November.   

    We discuss the future of agricultural reforms in this episode.

    Guest: Ajay Vir Jakhar, Chairman, Bharat Krishak Samaj 

    Host: Amit Baruah, Senior Associate Editor, The Hindu  

  • The welfare of convicts who have been sentenced to death is probably the last, if at all it figures, in anyone’s list of welfare priorities. Since their entire identity gets reduced to one act -- the crime they are accused of – they are generally dehumanised, and people find it difficult to understand why we should care about the mental health of someone convicted of, say, gang-rape or a brutal murder – the ‘rarest of rare’ cases where the death penalty is invoked.

    But there are problems in the way the criminal justice system deals with the mental health of under-trials and prisoners, and perhaps nobody is more victimised by systemic issues than prisoners on death row. A new report, titled, ‘Deathworthy: A Mental Health Perspective of the Death Penalty’ has come up with empirical data on mental illness and intellectual disability among death row prisoners in India. The study, which is the first of its kind, has found that an alarming 62% had a mental illness and 11% had intellectual disability. Given that most of these convicts are from marginalized communities with poor socio-economic and educational indicators, the report raises some hard questions about equity, justice and the responsibility of the courts, the prison system, the State and society at large towards protecting the dignity of those deemed ‘deathworthy’.

    We speak with the project head and lead author of this study in this episode.

    Guest: Dr Maitreyi Misra, Founder of Project 39A at National Law University, New Delhi

    Host: G. Sampath, Social Affairs Editor, The Hindu

  • Every year in November and December, the residents of Delhi and the National Capital Region, find it hard to breathe. Toxic air chokes the lungs, doctors advise people to avoid outdoor walks and runs, hospital outpatient services overflow with people facing respiratory problems, and there is a call for emergency measures to bring the air quality index down from severe to satisfactory. Meteorological conditions such as cold air and a drop in wind speeds combine with the year-long emanation of pollutants into the air from industries, vehicles, construction as well as stubble smoke, along with festive firecrackers -- and together they contribute to the noxious air that prevails across the Indo-Gangetic plain at this time of the year.

    What happens to your lungs and body when you breathe in polluted air on a daily basis? How does this impact our health long term? Where does India stand in its pollution levels compared to the rest of the world? And what urgent action can governments take to protect, and help provide cleaner air for future generations?

    We speak on this and more in this episode. 

    Guest: Vivek Chattopadhyaya, Sr Program Manager, Clean Air and Sustainable Mobility of the Centre for Science and Environment

    Host: Zubeda Hamid

  • These days, if you turn on the TV, there is no escaping the flood of advertisements urging you to invest in cryptocurrencies. Everyone seems to be busy getting rich from bitcoin and other cryptos. A host of crypto-exchanges have attracted funding from global investors and are promising the moon to retail investors. But these crypto-exchanges themselves are not comparable to a conventional stock exchange such as the BSE or the NSE, which bear some of the risks of a trade, whereas the crypto-exchanges don’t.

    However, the government has allowed this sector to mushroom in a regulatory vacuum. How real are the risks for investors putting their money into an unregulated ‘asset class’? When is a regulatory regime likely to kick in? And how likely is it that we can transition to a regulated ecosystem without some pain to retail investors?

    We seek to answer these questions and more in this episode.

    Guest: Vivek Kaul, business journalist and author who has written extensively on the recent crypto-currency boom in India

    Host: G. Sampath, Social Affairs Editor, The Hindu

  • On November 2, Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai shared a post on micro-blogging site Weibo accusing a senior Communist party leader, Zhang Gaoli, of sexual assault. The post was immediately censored, and there has been no news about Peng Shuai since then. Peng, who was ranked world number 1 in doubles in 2014, is a big star in China. The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and several tennis stalwarts, from Chris Evert to Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka, have expressed concerns about Peng’s whereabouts and safety. They have also called on Chinese authorities to investigate her allegations.

    But in a strange twist, on Wednesday, Chinese state media shared an email purportedly written by Peng Shuai to WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon, in which she says that the allegations of attributed to her are not true and that she was just “resting at home and everything is fine.” Simon, in response, has questioned the authenticity of this email, and said that “Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source.”

    It is not often that senior Party members face public accusations of sexual wrongdoing. So, who is likely to face repercussions over these allegations – is it going to be Peng herself, for going public about a Party official, or will it be Zhang Gaoli, for causing embarrassment to the Party? And where does the Chinese Communist Party stand with regard to feminist politics and the #MeToo movement? We look for answers to these questions in this episode.

    Guest: Ananth Krishnan, The Hindu’s China correspondent.

    Host: G. Sampath, Social Affairs Editor, The Hindu

  • The issue of prohibition has always been a contentious one in India. Five years ago, the state of Bihar imposed total prohibition – a policy that reportedly got Chief Minister Nitish Kumar votes from women electors.

    Reports of illicit liquor deaths have been coming in regularly from Bihar since the prohibition policy was imposed. Around Diwali, as many as 40 persons died from drinking illicit liquor in the districts of Samastipur, Gopalganj and West Champaran.

    Should there be a total ban on liquor? Do bans help or turn people to drinking more dangerous forms of liquor? When the world is moving towards legalizing drugs like marijuana, why are Indian states banning the sale of liquor?

    Guest: Nikhil Dey, founder member of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information

    Host: Amit Baruah, Senior Associate Editor, The Hindu