In your interest.
Online Personal Finance Magazine
No beating about the bush.
Government’s unresponsive attitude towards Bombay Telephone Users’ Association’s public meeting invite that discusses health hazards due to radiation
In January 2010, Usha Kiran apartments, on Carmichael Road in the plush South Mumbai area was in the news, after four of its residents died due to cancer caused by electromagnetic radiation (EMR) emitted from the cluster of cell towers located on the terrace of the opposite building, named Vijay Apartments. It was only after a protracted fight by the residents of several buildings in the vicinity that these towers were removed. Since then, there have been several instances where mobile phone companies have yielded to the demands of citizens and removed cell towers rather than face the consequences of negative publicity due to protracted legal fights.
But is the government sensitive to these concerns of the aam aadmi that it woos? Not if you were to go by its cold response to a public meeting to discuss the "Radiation Health Hazards from Cell Towers: Myth or Reality". The meeting has been organised by Bombay Telephone Users' Association (BTUA) on Saturday 29 January 2011 "to raise awareness among the citizens and to help government in taking required steps in resolving this issue." The Association has been requesting the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) to send a representative to attend the meeting with no success.
Experts from various fields will speak on the subject. The panel will consist of Dr RS Sharma from Indian Council for Medical Research, Anil Prakash representing Telecom User Group of India, New Delhi and Professor Girish Kumar, head of wireless from IIT Bombay, who is been researching the effects of EMR for the past couple of years.
"The aim of the programme is to bring together the citizens and experts who are concerned about the issue and share their knowledge on the subject. This will at least make the government aware, and required steps would be taken to curb the problems arising out of these towers." said Mr Achintya Mukherjee, secretary of BTUA.
"We have invited officials from DoT, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), but so far no confirmation has been received from them. Among the mobile network operators, IDEA cellular has confirmed that they will send their representatives" added Mr Mukherjee. Nor is there any participation from the BMC and the Maharashtra Government. It may be recalled that Prithviraj Chavan had stated in a written reply tabled in the Vidhan Sabha on 7 December 2010 that "the government is collecting feedback from concerned departments for framing comprehensive rules and regulations for installation of mobile towers by cellphone service providers in the state."
Government of Maharashtra, appointed a committee in March last year headed by additional chief health secretary to study the effect of mobile phone towers on public health. The committee had representatives from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and Tata Memorial hospital, recommended to ban such towers near schools, hospitals and it should be only restricted on rooftops of the building.
In 2008, DoT has laid guidelines stating that the antennae must not directly face a nearby building. Despite this many such towers are visible across the city, as it remains main source of revenue for the housing societies. Often these towers are illegal and violate health and safety norms.
Lack of participation from the government indicates clearly that "collecting feedback" is a mere formality. As in many other cases of consumer safety, the government will respond only to public interest litigation and only when it is directed by the judiciary.
The UID project which is being rolled out with much fanfare by the government has innumerable pitfalls. Here are a few of them
Aadhaar with its biometrics and the ability to facilitate convergence of information-bona fide or otherwise-has the potential to compromise privacy and put people in trouble.
When such privacy concerns are raised, the oft-repeated rhetoric among the educated middle class is: "I am a law-abiding citizen and I do not have much to hide and fear. So, why should I be concerned with my personal data, including biometrics, being stored under the Aadhaar project, especially if it can make my life convenient?"
Well, if you are one of those who thought likewise, here are a few plausible ways in which you could be in trouble, thanks to Aadhaar and its indiscriminate use in the not too distant a future.
Scenario 1: Techie tries to change his job…
Ram is an upwardly-mobile young techie who is proud of his status. He is in love with the digital world; not bothered too much about issues around privacy. He is active on most of the social networking sites. He is proud of his connectedness. He has been the first one to get Aadhaar; he felt it would make his day-to-day transactions a lot more hassle-free. He has submitted his Aadhaar ID to all his previous employers, since it afforded him some additional benefits and privileges.
Recently, he has got a call from an MNC promising him an overseas assignment. He is excited about the opportunity. He has had a successful technical round. However, to his dismay, he is rejected after the HR round.
Trying to find the reason, he contacts an acquaintance in the company. To his surprise, he comes to know that the culprit is Aadhaar. A background check using Aadhaar by a company engaged by the MNC has revealed his problems with his boss in one of the companies he had worked for a long time back. He is not given a chance to explain himself but is presumed troublesome and rejected. He curses himself for being overzealous in his usage of Aadhaar.
Scenario 2: Sham tries to buy Medical Insurance...
Though Aadhaar was optional in the beginning, most of the clinics and hospitals have started insisting on it citing identity reasons. Sham is a middle-aged IT manager who has seen the convenience of using digital identity cards in his office. It is logical for him to think that using Aadhaar would prevent any misplaced identity. He does not think twice when someone asks him for Aadhaar.
Over the past few years, given the stress of his job, he has had episodes of "High Blood Pressure", treated occasionally at a few local clinics. In all those clinics he has unwittingly used Aadhaar. His doctors have told him that there is nothing chronic or serious about his occasional high BP. He has been able to manage his condition with minor lifestyle changes.
Now that he is approaching middle age, he decides to take out a medical insurance cover for himself. Most of the insurance companies have started insisting on Aadhaar for enrollment. After completing all the required formalities, he gets his insurance policy. He is puzzled to find that he has been denied insurance coverage for 'heart ailments'. He versifies that his BP, ECG and other conditions were normal during the prescreening test. On further questioning, he is told that he has a preexisting high BP condition. The culprit - Aadhaar!
The insurance company has done a background search on him using his Aadhaar ID and found out that he had taken some medicine for high BP sometime back in the past, though he is no longer on any medication. His argument that he has no chronic heart condition goes in vain.
Scenario 3: Saralamma becomes a suspect in a crime she did not commit…
Saralamma is a retired school teacher; very law-abiding. As soon as Aadhaar is rolled out, she is the first to get one. Someone has told her that her pension collection and bank transactions would be a lot easier with Aadhaar. She is not the one who is too concerned about what data is being collected; most of which she does not understand anyway.
Recently, she has received some arrears. She has decided to buy some silverware for her only daughter. She has checked out a specific set, but decides not to buy, as the cost is beyond her budget. After a few days, to her surprise, she gets a call from a security agency. There is a theft at the same jewelry shop she had visited. One of the items in the set that she had looked at is stolen. As part of the investigation, fingerprints are collected from items in and around the set. They are run against the biometrics stored by the UIDAI managing Aadhaar.
Alas, one of the fingerprints on the silverware matches that of Saralamma. She is asked to explain as to why she should not be considered a suspect. Saralamma is aghast as she does not understand how she got linked to the crime she did not commit!
Scenario 4: John loses money on a transaction he did not make…
John runs a travel business. He maintains his account with a cooperative bank which has signed up with Aadhaar for complete authentication services. In addition to the account number, he is required to give his Aadhaar number and fingerprints (biometrics) to complete any transaction.
One of his assistants has his eye on this account. He has found out that if he could capture the fingerprints of his boss, he could have fakes made to defraud the system. He transfers the drinking glass which has his boss' fingerprints to one of the petty shops which have recently sprung up to create fake fingerprints using digital scans, illegally.
With the dummy fingerprints of his boss in hand, he successfully withdraws the money. When John gets his monthly transaction report, he is shocked to find a huge withdrawal. When he questions his bank, he is told the Aadhaar-based biometrics has confirmed his identity and there is not much they can do about it!
Scenario 5: Ajay's son is denied admission to school …
Ajay has lived most of his life in the US. He has relocated back to India a couple of years back. He admits his son to one of the pre-schools. As part of the admission process he is asked for his son's Aadhaar; it has become more or less compulsory to monitor the progress of the child. Unfortunately, Ajay's son has some minor developmental disability. His pre-school documents this fact against his son's Aadhaar.
Now that his son is six years old, Ajay is desperately looking for a school for his son. He can even afford admission to any of the newly started international schools. To his surprise, he finds most of the schools denying admission. On investigation, he finds that the unique identity provided by Aadhaar is the cause. A background checking agency, employed by the schools, has done a search based on the Aadhaar ID and discovered that his son has a mild development disorder. Given that information, none of the schools want to take a chance!
The above examples are just a small sample of the scenarios that are very plausible. Though Aadhaar is currently optional, it is apparent that overtime it would be mandatory. Even if some of the scenarios depicted above can be avoided with stronger privacy laws, in a country where enforcement is lax, one wonders whether such misuses can be completely prevented.
Vulnerability of securely-stored digital information to theft has been exposed by recent leaks that have surfaced both nationally and internationally. As someone has commented, a safe digital record is an oxymoron. Some of the recent experiments have amply demonstrated how biometric fingerprints can be duplicated using technologies that are almost homemade. If you are still skeptical, read Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes's story, The Adventure of the Norwood Builder.
(Ramdass Keshavamurthy is a Bengaluru-based Technology Consultant)
How long will the ‘common’ citizen wait for the system to cleanse itself? Good clean unadulterated fuel is your right. The time to act is now!
Fuel adulteration is a subject that your humble correspondent has been very familiar with over the last few decades, in his many roles-as a seafarer working on oil tankers carrying clean and dirty petroleum products, as a shipbroker working for Transchart-the Government of India's chartering division which used to and still hires ships, as a cross-country rally-driver always on the lookout for good clean fuels, as an employee of a multimodal shipping company which handled thousands of containers in India by road and rail, as a freight forwarder who for a very short while owned and operated a modest fleet of mini-trucks, as a close relative of people who own and operate filling stations in India, as a close friend of somebody whose family made their fortunes and was part of the largest oil distribution network in remote parts of J&K...
And finally, as a motoring media-person often on the roads who kept his eyes and ears open and refused to get co-opted by the various strong lobbies at play in this amazingly wide business.
So here are a few simple truths, which need to be brought out again, in the wake of the Sonawane murder off Manmad, Maharashtra, a few days ago. Incidentally, such acts of violence against people who try to expose crimes are becoming increasingly commonplace in Maharashtra lately, it would seem-and nowhere in this does it appear as though "immigrants" are to blame.
Here are a few noteworthy points:
1) There is nothing new about fuel adulteration in and around the Mumbai-Pune-Nashik spheres of influence, within which Manmad certainly falls. As an important rail and road junction, and also as an important staging point for a variety of Armed Forces movements, one would have imagined that the powers of the State, whether Central, State or local, would have prevailed to an extent where such rampant and flagrant crimes could be controlled. Far from it-as any small auto or jeep-taxi operator will gladly let you know-the complete area is beholden to the smuggled as well as adulterated fuel rackets.
2) What is "smuggled" fuel? Apart from small ocean tankers or "bunker barges" creeping into the Konkan coast inlets and discharging into smaller country craft for delivery upcountry, "smuggled" fuel also refers to fuel that is pilfered from the many Armed Forces formations in that area. The height of "smuggling" was reached a few years ago, when it was discovered that the extremely high quality aviation fuel used for the IAF's Sukhoi Mk-II aircraft based out of Pune had also been adulterated. Nothing much is known about what happened to that investigation, though it was reported in the media at that time, too.
3) The side-roads of Maharashtra, and there are many, especially in the areas where rail transport has not made a dent, are dotted with signboards proclaiming "diesel/petrol available here", even at locations where genuine filling stations are not exactly rare. A quick pit-stop here will reveal that most of this fuel is certainly not genuine-a strip of blotting paper is enough to double-check this 'petrol'. And they will always be flying flags proclaiming theirpolitical affiliations.
4) But the real games are played in and around the larger cities. The numbers are phenomenal, the middle-class is not likely to have the time or energy to protest-and the risks are non-existent-because the complete system has been co-opted. Certainly, it happens all over the country-but the open defiance with which it happens in Pune, a city where the octroi games add to the complete experience of adulterated everything, is unmatched elsewhere. With the exception, maybe, of Mumbai and Nashik.
Here is one such personal experience, dating back to the winter of 2005, when I was a resident of Pune. And operating as well as driving my own car there, a reasonably decent diesel car, but one that I knew every breath and pulse beat of.
If you live in any city for any length of time, you get to learn very soon which are the "good" filling stations, and which are suspect. By and large, the "CoCo", or "Company Owned Company Operated" pumps are reliable, and the long lines of motor vehicles waiting outside would bear testament. And then, there are those which are totally unreliable, which even the locals avoid.
One such filling station, operated by HPCL, was located inside the largely residential area of Aundh. Living in nearby Baner myself, I had been warned not to take diesel from there, by others in the same area. Despite this, one fine day when I was away, the office staff decided to top up the car-and took fuel from there.
I got into Pune, and as soon as I started driving the car, felt the difference in performance. So I went to the filling station in question, and asked to see the owner, the manager and the complaint book. The answer I got from the attendants was, in all three cases, that the owner was a senior Congress politician, Mr Datta Gaikwad, in those days loyal to Mr Suresh Kalmadi, who was also a leading HPCL distributor as well as kingpin in the automobile and fuel business in and around Pune and for that matter all over the Maharashtra and Goa belt, and that I could lump it but nothing and nobody was available.
In addition, I was given the usual spiel by the hangers-on about how non-Maharashtrians were damaging the fabric of the city, which was even then becoming the standard ploy.
So, in the next phase, I decided to escalate the issue to HPCL. One Mr Ingle was listed as the HPCL Area Manager, and his mobile phone number provided. I called Mr Ingle, who gave me, in turn, the royal run-around, and directed me to visit his office, offer a written complaint, provide him with samples, and do many more things, in triplicate and in three bottles full. Interestingly, within one hour of that phone call by yours truly, I started receiving calls from the dealer as well as his 'friends' who wished to meet me, to advise me. In Pune, people know what this "advice" means.
A lesser man would have given up at this juncture-but by then I was in full flow, so I escalated the issue by email and written letters to everybody there was at HPCL. Interim, of course, I made sure I avoided Aundh-because by then HPCL and their cohorts, one Mr GSV Prasad Gottipati, Chief Regional Manager, presiding, had started laying on the heat. Open threats, followed by tapping of telephone bills and data therein, as well as insinuations which were followed by a major campaign by no less than the Chief Manager, PR & Corp Communication, Laxman Motwani, to force me into withdrawing my complaint.
The matter then reached another level when the Maharashtra Herald, an independent newspaper in those days, organised a methodical survey of over 60 filling stations in the Pune-Pimpri-Chinchwad area, for fuel quantity and quality. The report was carried on its front page and was very illuminating. The MH was sold to the Pawars subsequently and the rest is media history.
Eventually, of course, somebody from assorted Directors and Chairman's offices offered apologies. Another bunch promised action. Some people got transferred around. And Life went on. Till Life stopped for Mr Sonawane. On a side road off Manmad. While his driver and assistant were threatened or simply ran for their lives, knowing the fuel mafia-who wants to tangle with big politicians or their henchmen, then?
Point here is this-the oil companies, state owned ones especially, have more clout with every segment of society than many other entities.
Fuel adulteration, from the shipping and refinery stage onwards, can not be carried out without their direct complicity. Efforts to find out more about tank-cleaning using the Right to Information (RTI) Act, for example, are met with stonewalling. There is no cogent response on what exactly is better with the so-called "premium" fuels. So, when the rot flows top-down, why are we surprised about the effect it has at the bottom of the pyramid, the last mile from tank farm to retailer-it is actually nothing more than a final cover-up and blame point for a racket that starts at the refineries in far-away Persian Gulf countries or closer home in India.
So, the unfortunate and fiery end that Mr Sonawane met off Manmad does not surprise me, though it certainly saddens me. It has made it to the media because he was a Government official, a senior one at that, and the open arrogance had reached a point where the perpetuators were simply not scared of anybody. They knew, and probably still know, that the system of fuel purchase and distribution in India will continue to protect them.
In a day and age when even pizza delivery companies can and do track their delivery staff by a variety of methods, when the quality and quantity of orange juice in tetra-packs can and is maintained flawlessly, when milk distributed loose using Mother Dairy tankers is of a quality that has become a benchmark internationally-we are to believe that the oil companies and the Ministry in charge cannot assure us unadulterated fuel?
The rot in the retail fuel business does not start and end at a small dhaba off Manmad. It certainly starts in the lofty towers of the Chairmen's office of the state-owned oil companies-and if anything needs to be fixed, it starts from there. Let us not just let it end with a hartal by Government officials in Maharashtra-as co-sufferers, we need to get a message across that Mr Sonawane did not die in vain-get out of your cars and bikes, and demand that you be given the complaint books, and write what you think and feel in them-today.
Today. Good clean unadulterated fuel is your right, Time to stand up and demand it.