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Archive for the ‘RTI question’ Category

BT Brinjal: safe to eat?

September 24, 2010 1 comment

It seems that six Indian academies have declared bt brinjal safe. It is not at all clear if they have done so by making any kind of experiment on the seeds or the plant — my guess would be that they have not. More accurately, my guess is that none of the members of any of these academies have actually done a thorough testing of the seeds and the plants of bt brinjal in their laboratories. They may have asked their students or post-docs to run a series of tests, but I would be doubtful of even that.

More importantly, they have only said, apart from some babble about how “all genetically modified (GM) items pose a risk if the science behind them is flawed” which serves only to protet their own backsides, that they have “found no evidence that the protein used in creating Bt brinjal, Cry1Ac, is unsafe”.

That is not the issue! The genetically modified (GM) crop carry a special gene called a terminator gene, included in crops developed by Monsanto, like this one. The terminator gene ensures that the plant grown from the GM seeds will not be fertile themselves, and the seeds they produce cannot be used to produce the next generation of crops. This infertility is built into the genes, and these genes can migrate to nearby plants, rendering them infertile. It would seem that any gene that makes a plant infertile is not likely to propagate very far. But a new gene does not necessarily manifest itself in one generation. What if the genes transmitted through cross-pollination show up a few generations later? when it may be too late to do anything? And could such genes affect the fertility of animals who eat the plant or its seeds?

The academies do not seem to have said anything about these. I suspect they have no idea about these issues either. In fact I would be very surprised, based on the extrapolation of behaviour of my colleagues, if more than a handful of the scientists who comprise our academies ever think, except in terms of getting more funding, about the relevance of their research to society.

The least the academies can do is to put up the report as a pdf file somewhere, and let the people decide if bt brinjal should be allowed in.

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Mines and Maoists

May 5, 2010 Leave a comment

Today’s paper carries the headlines that Maoists have asked Mittal to keep his hands off the mines of Jharkhand. I am a little surprised that this is headline news, because I thought it was obvious the tribal areas were seeing a lot of violent protests — and often Maoism — because mining activities kept displacing the tribals and destroying the means of their livelihood. There is a clear historical correlation between Maoist activity and displacement. There is no information on the MOUs signed between the state governments and the mining companies, and these are treated as secret by the governments. So it would seem that the companies and the governments have something to hide. Perhaps headlines like these will make more people want to find out exactly what is going on between the mining companies and the tribals.

Gifts to the rich

April 25, 2010 1 comment

Thanks to Paranjoy Guha Thakurta for writing what must be in the minds of many — the government gets nothing by way of service taxes from doctors and lawyers, and could have gained an additional Rs. 10000 crores from taxing these two professions alone! And what he does not ask has been on my mind for a while — many doctors and lawyers with a private practice, i.e. outside a hospital or a firm, do not offer a receipt unless asked. Of course they always provide a receipt when asked, but many clients do not bother to ask for a receipt, especially if they are not reimbursed for the bills. Lawyers’ bills are not reimbursed in general anyway.

Guha Thakurta also mentions that `revenue foregone’, i.e. the revenue given up by the government by way of exemptions and concessions (and `incentives’ I suppose) to companies rose from Rs 4,58,516 crore in 2008-09 to Rs 5,40,269 crore in 2009-10. I wonder how much revenue is lost through not auditing the accounts of doctors and lawyers.

A possible RTI question would be how much income — outside salaries, if any — is declared by these professionals, and how many doctors and lawyers have been investigated by the Income Tax dept for lifestyles not appropriate to declared incomes.

Salaries of MPs

April 17, 2010 1 comment

For my previous post, I tried to look up the annual expenditure for the parliament and its members. Several sites show up in a search, many showing a figure of Rs. 855 cr (8.55 billion) for the salaries and concessions for the 534 members of the Lok Sabha. No source for this figure is given anywhere, but the parliament website lists the salaries and concessions.These figures were valid for 2001-2006. The site does not say if they have been amended.

So I find:

Monthly salary: Rs. 12000/- p.m.

Daily allowance: Rs. 500/- per day on duty (Lok Sabha/committee in session)

Constituency allowance: Rs. 10000/- p.m.

Office expenses: Rs. 14000/- p.m. (including Rs. 10000/- paid directly to people employed for secretarial work)

Travel: 32 air journeys/yr for the member and spouse or any number of companions or relatives! And these air travels, if unused, may be carried over to the next year. Plus rail fares and other fares.

Accommodation: Hostel is provided.

Electricity: 50000 units p.a.

Furniture washing allowance: Rs. 30000/- every three months.

Telephone: No charge for rental and installation plus 50000 calls p.a.Plus 20000 free calls p.a. for those with constituencies more than 1000 km away from New Delhi.

And lots of benefits for retired parliamentarians as well.

So the figures given on those pages are not totally without basis.

However, although these figures look huge when added up, I don’t find them really over the top. An MP does need to make a lot of phone calls to the home constituency and to other members of the same party or to other MPs. Most of these calls would be made by the personal assistant of the MP, in relation to what the MP is actually expected to do.

The MP will generally have a lot of visitors as well — furniture does get dirty when you have people using them all the time.

Electricity usage seems to be a little on the high side. A significant part of that is due to the air-conditioning. And I find it difficult to grudge the MPs their use of air-conditioning — anybody in a position of making decisions should be allowed to keep their cool, in my opinion.

32 air journeys are somewhat high, but not totally unexpected for those with constituencies away from the capital. But `any number of companions’ seems way over the top.

These figures do not include the hundreds (thousands?) of employees of the parliament and their expenses.

I would be very interested to know the total annual expenditure for salaries and allowances of everyone in the parliament, Lok sabha and Rajya sabha taken together. And the expenditure per day of session. Not that it would shame any of these MPs and stop them from creating a furore over trivialities.

Governance by telepathy

December 20, 2009 Leave a comment

The Eastern Metropolitan Bypass (often spelt Byepass by the authorities) has a new speed limit, and cameras to enforce it. Someone I know was fined today for driving at 73 km/h. Pictures of his car were taken by automatic cameras mounted somewhere on the E.M.Bypass, and he was fined Rs. 300 for driving above the speed limit of 60 km/h. That sounds all right, until you realise that the E.M.Bypass does not have a traffic sign displaying the speed limit, at least not anywhere on the stretch this person was driving.

Presumably the drivers need to have telepathic powers so that they can know and obey the speed limit.

RTI question: How many traffic signs clearly showing the speed limit are posted on the E.M.Bypass, on the stretch guarded by the automatic cameras?

Dubious medicines

December 9, 2009 Leave a comment

I  was checking up on the side effects of some medicines on the net, and found this list of dubious fixed-dose combination medicines sold in India. These are not approved in any developed country, and most of these are not approved by the Drugs Controller of India, hence illegal.

I am a little worried about the `most’. Is there any reason why any combination in this list is approved by the DCI? Especially since the rationale seems to be that these are not approved for use in any developed country? And why are these not marked in this list?

But there is a more important question. If some of these are illegal combinations, and they are being manufactured by established companies, why does the government stop at printing a list? They can easily take action against these companies. Why is no action being taken against the manufacturers and sellers of illegal medicines?

Is your number 24601?

November 28, 2009 Leave a comment

There seems to have been little debate on the unique identification number (UID) for every Indian. All discussion has been focused on how badly India needs this, but no discussion on why India needs such a system, and who will suffer from the failures of such a system.

Nandan Nilekani, erstwhile CEO of Infosys, was invited to head the project, leading to speculations that Infosys might benefit unfairly as a bidder for the project, which Infosys was quick to deny, of course. Still there was no debate.

Now Nilekani is saying that the UID will not be considered a proof of citizenship. This is very strange. Will they issue an Indian UID to non-citizens? That never seemed to be the deal. Does he also mean that the UID will not have citizenship information? Or that the UID cannot be used to confirm someone’s citizenship? If I have a UID, and my local voters’ list includes the UID,  will my UID card be sufficient to confirm my identity as a voting citizen at the time of elections?

What I found most interesting is Nilekani saying that the UID will be optional. So he is starting by giving up the possibility that every Indian will have a UID. So why is he in the job? For the privileges of cabinet rank? Or for the billions the UID project will generate for all the IT companies where he holds shares?

And will it be necessary to furnish the UID to avail of certain services of the government? Will private firms be able to check the database? Can the information stored against a UID lead to denial of service to an individual by private companies?

Update: Another article discussing some of the problems with the UID at this blog.