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Date: 30 October 2019
  • A Nepali mountaineer on Tuesday smashed the speed record for summiting the world’s 14 highest peaks, racing up all “8,000ers” in just six months and six days, organisers said.
  • The previous record for the 14 mountains above 8,000 metres tall was almost eight years.
  • “MISSION ACHIEVED! says @nimsdai from the summit of #Shishapangma,” read a post on Mr. Purja’s Facebook page, while a statement quoted him as being “overwhelmed and incredibly proud” after his 189-day feat.
  • “It has been a gruelling but humbling six months, and I hope to have proven that anything is possible with some determination, self-belief and positivity,” the 36-year-old said. “We started with nothing, but look how far we’ve come.”
  • Starting with Italy’s legendary Reinhold Messner in 1986 — who on Tuesday praised Mr. Purja’s “unique mountaineering accomplishment” — around 40 climbers have climbed the Earth’s 14 highest mountains, but none have come close to Mr. Purja’s speed.
  • The late Polish climber Jerzy Kukuczka took seven years, 11 months and 14 days in 1987. South Korean Kim Chang-ho completed the challenge one month faster — although unlike Mr. Kukuczka and also Mr. Purja, he never used supplementary oxygen. Mr. Purja, a former member of the Gurkhas — a brigade of Nepalis in the British Army — as well as the elite Special Boat Service, kicked off “Project Possible” in April.
  • In the first part of his record attempt, Mr. Purja ticked off Annapurna, Dhaulagiri, Kanchenjunga, Everest, Lhotse and Makalu in just one month.
  • A month later, Mr. Purja tackled the notorious Nanga Parbat at 8,125 metres

Questions grow over NGO’s invite to MEPs

  • The Hindu made several calls to its Delhi office in Safdarjung Enclave, and tried to reach official in-charge Sujay Dhawan, but was unable to elicit a response.
  • On Monday, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesperson clarified that the “MEA is not involved and not coordinating the visit.” The fact that these MEPs then met Mr. Modi, Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu and were hosted for meals by the National Security Adviser’s office and the MEA, however, has raised questions about the manner in which the delegation, the first foreign group to visit the Kashmir Valley since August 5, was organised.
  • Amid the developments, two MEPs from the UK-based Liberal Democrat Party (LDP) claimed that they were “disinvited” from the India visit after they asked for unfettered access to local Kashmiris and journalists during the visit. According to their correspondence with Ms. Sharma, MEPs Chris Davies and Irina Von Weise had confirmed a meeting with her in Brussels at the European Parliament on October 10 to discuss the arrangements for the visit. However, hours before the meeting, Ms. Sharma wrote to cancel it and said that she could not “take any more MEPs at this stage.”
  • Protesting the treatment of its MEPs, the LDP issued a statement on Tuesday in London. Mr. Davies told The Hindu that he was “surprised” when he first received the invitation as he had addressed the European Parliament on his “concerns over Kashmir”. “I replied that I was happy to accept on the condition that during my time in Kashmir I would be free to go wherever I wish and talk to whoever I wish, unaccompanied by military, police or security forces but accompanied by journalists.”
  • Ms. Sharma replied that it was their responsibility to ensure protection to the MEPs, but “a little security” would not hinder their work.
  • It is unclear on whose behalf Ms. Sharma was able to guarantee security, nor is it clear why the government and the MEA, which regularly organise visits of foreign parliamentarians to India, did not undertake the organisation itself.
  • The visit has also come in for criticism from the Opposition parties in India who have questioned the “far right” antecedents of the MEPs.
  • Most of them belonged to anti-immigrant, right-wing parties like Germany’s AFD, UK’s Brexit Party, Italy’s Forta Italia, France’s National Rally Party and Poland’s Law and Justice Party.
  • Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (or Koodankulam NPP or KKNPP) is the single largest nuclear power station in India, situated in Koodankulam in the Tirunelveli district of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Construction on the plant began on 31 March 2002,[3] but faced several delays due to opposition from local fishermen. KKNPP is scheduled to have six VVER-1000 reactors built in collaboration with Atomstroyexport, the Russian state company and Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), with an installed capacity of 6,000 MW of electricity.
  • Unit 1 was synchronized with the southern power grid on 22 October 2013 and since then, has been generating electricity at its warranted limit of 1,000 MW. The original cost of the two units was ₹ 13,171 crore, but it was later revised to ₹ 17,270 crore (US$2.6 billion). Russia advanced a credit of ₹ 6,416 crore (US$0.97 billion) for both the units. Unit 2 attained criticality on 10 July 2016 and was synchronized with the electricity grid on 29 August.
  • In 2015, Nuclear Power Corporation Ltd (NPCIL) announced a price of ₹ 4.29/kW·h (6.4 ¢/kW·h) for energy delivered from Kudankulam nuclear power plant.
  • The ground-breaking ceremony for construction of units 3 & 4 was performed on 17 February 2016. Due to operators and suppliers requirement to insure the next two units at ₹39,747 crore (US$5.75 billion), the cost of units 3 & 4 amounted to twice the cost of units 1 & 2

Indians are the least active: Study

  •  India has emerged as the least active country among 18 countries including the U.S., the U.K., Japan and Singapore, according to a report by fitness solutions firm Fitbit. It said an Indian user walked an average of 6,533 steps daily. Indians were also the second-most sleep deprived after Japan, getting an average night sleep of 7 hours 1 minute, the report said.
  • Based on aggregated and anonymised user data insights from 18 countries, the Fitbit report found that “Indians are the least active and log in only 6,533 steps daily, the least amongst all 18 countries which is 3,600 steps less than the average of the most active country — Hong Kong. Average active minutes (32) also fare the lowest in the grid, it added.
  • Hori Habba, also known as Hatti Habba, Kobbari Hori Competition is a rural sport in which hundreds of trained and decorated draught cattle and bulls are made to run through huge crowds Catchers try to subdue the cattle and snatch away prizes such as copra, cash, gift items tied to them. The sports is practiced mainly in Shivamogga, Haveri and Uttara Kannada districts of the Indian state of Karnataka during theDeepavali festival.
  • Jallikattu is a similar sport practiced in the Indian State of Tamil Nadu.

An evolution

  • The concept of RCT is quite old; instances of RCTs can be traced back in the 16th century. However, the statistical foundation of RCT was developed by British statistician Sir Ronald Fisher, about 100 years ago, mostly in the context of design of experiments.
  • In my experience I have seen the proportion of events by the same treatment varying between 10% to 35% in different clinical trials. Is it due to unknown distribution of treatment effects, and/or other external effects such as hospital care, hospital location, etc? Thus, for an unbiased evaluation of the treatment, its performance needs to be compared with some ‘control’, which maybe ‘no treatment’ at all or an ‘existing treatment’ other than the treatment under study.
  • The next task is to allocate the patients among two treatments/interventions at hand. Patients might prefer some treatment to the other. Prior knowledge of the treatments to be applied to them might induce a ‘selection bias’ due to unequal proportions of patients opting out from the study. ‘Randomisation’ is a procedure used to prevent this by allocating patients using a random mechanism — neither the patient nor the doctor would know the allocation.
  • ‘Control’ and ‘randomisation’ together constitute an RCT. In 1995, statisticians Marvin Zelen and Lee-Jen Wei illustrated a clinical trial to evaluate the hypothesis that the antiretroviral therapy AZT reduces the risk of maternal-to-infant HIV transmission. A standard randomisation scheme was used resulting in 238 pregnant women receiving AZT and 238 receiving standard therapy (placebo). It is observed that 60 newborns were HIV-positive in the placebo-group and 20 newborns were HIV-positive in the AZT-group. Thus, the failure rate of the placebo was 60/238, whereas that of AZT was only 20/238, indicating that AZT was much more effective than the placebo. Drawing such an inference, despite heterogeneity among the patients, was possible only due to randomisation. Randomisation makes different treatment groups comparable and also helps to estimate the error associated in the inference.
  • The early applications of RCTs were mostly within the agricultural field. Sir Ronald Fisher himself was very reluctant to apply statistics to social sciences, due to their ‘non-experimental’ nature. RCT got its importance in clinical trials since the 1960s, so much so that any clinical trials now-a-days without RCT were being considered almost useless.

Marking a change

  • Social scientists slowly found RCT to be interesting, doable, and effective. But, in the process, the nature of social science slowly converted from ‘non-experimental’ to ‘experimental’. Numerous interesting applications of RCTs took place in social policy-making during the 1960-90s, and the ‘randomistas’ took control of development economics since the mid-1990s. About 1,000 RCTs were conducted by Prof. Kremer, Prof. Banerjee and Prof. Duflo and their colleagues in 83 countries such as India, Kenya and Indonesia. These were to study various dimensions of poverty, including microfinance, access to credit, behaviour, health care, immunisation programmes, and gender inequality. While Prof. Banerjee thinks RCTs “are the simplest and best way of assessing the impact of a program”, Prof. Duflo refers to RCTs as the “tool of choice”.
  • There has been tremendous international attention on Finland’s Basic Income experiment (2017-18), where 2,000 unemployed Finns between ages 25-58 were randomly selected across the country, and were paid €560 a month instead of basic unemployment benefits. Results from the first year data didn’t have any significant effect on the subjects’ employment, in comparison with the control group comprising individuals who were not selected for the experimental group. Essentially this was also an RCT.
  • Critics of RCTs in economic experiments think that in order to conduct RCTs, the broader problem is being sliced into smaller ones, and any dilution of the scientific method leaves the conclusions questionable.
  • Economists such as Martin Ravallion, Dani Rodrik, William Easterly, and Angus Deaton are very critical of using RCTs in economic experiments.
  • Randomisation in clinical trials has an additional impetus — it ensures that allocation to any particular treatment remains unknown to both patient and doctor. Such kind of ‘blinding’ is central to the philosophy of clinical trials and it helps to reduce certain kinds of bias in the trial. It is believed that the ‘outcome’ or the ‘treatment-response’ might be influenced if the patient and/or the physician are aware of the treatment given to the patient. However, such kind of ‘blinding’ is almost impossible to implement in economic experiments as participants would definitely know if they get any financial aid or training. Thus, randomisation must have a much less impact there. Often, economists miss such an important point.
  • However, unless randomisation is done, most of the standard statistical analyses and inference procedures become meaningless. Earlier social experiments lacked randomisation and that might be one reason that statisticians such as Sir Ronald Fisher were unwilling to employ statistics in social experiments. Thus, “RCT or no RCT” may not be just a policy decision to economics; it is the question of shifting the paradigm. The “tool” comes with lot of implicit baggage. With randomisation dominating development economics, implicitly, economic experiments are becoming more and more statistical. This is one philosophical aspect which economists need to settle.
  • Apparently, for the time being, many would concur with Harvard economist Lant Pritchett who criticises RCTs on a number of counts but still agrees that it “is superior to other evaluation methods”. The debate would continue, while the randomistas continue to gain momentum at the moment.
  • Some earlier cases
  • In some cases that dealt with the issue of a UCC, the apex court’s observations have been unnecessary obiter dicta (such as in Mohd. Ahmed Khan v. Shah Bano Begum, 1985). In some others (such as in Sarla Mudgal v. Union of India, 1995, in which four Hindu men converted to Islam to take second wives), the court’s observations have been reflective of flawed and problematic judicial reasoning. Instead of condemning the men in Sarla Mudgal, the court demonised Muslims by saying, “Those who preferred to remain in India after the partition, fully knew that the Indian leaders did not believe in two-nation theory or three-nation theory and that in the Indian Republic there was to be only one Nation — Indian nation — and no community could claim to remain a separate entity on the basis of religion” (sic). It also stated there “there is an open inducement to a Hindu husband, who wants to enter into second marriage while the first marriage is subsisting, to become a Muslim”. In this judgment, the court completely negated the idea of legal pluralism; overlooked the fact that while all Congress leaders including Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and Mahatma Gandhi voted for Pakistan, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad stood his ground and voted against it; overlooked V.D. Savarkar’s two-nation theory; and also overlooked the history of the Hindu Right’s resistance to the Hindu Code Bill.
  • With reference to the court’s judgment in Jose Paulo Coutinho, it is important to understand that the reality of Goa is a little complex. The Goa Civil Code of 1867, which was given by the Portuguese, begins in the name of God and the King of Portugal. Uniformity is not necessarily a promise for gender justice. On the opposition of Hindus, the Code permitted limited polygamy for Hindus on certain conditions, including “absolute absence of male issue, the previous wife having completed 30 years of age, and being of lower age, ten years having elapsed from the last pregnancy”.
  • The Code gives certain concessions to Catholics as well. Catholics need not register their marriages and Catholic priests can dissolve marriages performed in church. Church tribunals are similar to the so-called Sharia courts and dissolution by them is mechanically approved by the High Court. Why the court did not, as a first step towards a UCC in Goa, recommend the adoption of a reformed Hindu Code Bill in preference to the Portuguese Civil Code is not clear.
  • The provision of matrimonial properties being jointly held and equally divided between spouses on divorce exists under the 1867 Code. However, through pre-nuptial contracts, parties may opt out of this joint ownership of properties. In many marriages, would-be wives are forced to sign on dotted lines. Thus, even where such joint ownership of assets exists, the control over property remains with the husband. Even the Goa Succession, Special Notaries and Inventory Proceeding Act, 2012, enacted by the BJP government in 2016, mentions the surviving spouse only as the fourth preference in Section 52 (order of legal succession), after descendants, ascendants, and brothers of the deceased.
  • As far as Muslims are concerned, the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act of 1937 has not been extended to Goa. Muslims of Goa are governed by Portuguese law as well as Shastric Hindu law.
  • The majority in Shayara Bano v. Union of India (2017) did hold freedom of religion subject to restrictions under Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution as absolute. Even the right to follow personal law had been elevated to the highest status of fundamental right. UCC is only one of the directive principles. The Supreme Court rightly held in Minerva Mills Ltd. v. Union Of India (1980) that “to destroy the guarantees given by Part III [fundamental rights] in order purportedly to achieve the goals of Part IV [directive principles] is plainly to subvert the Constitution by destroying its basic structure.

Futility of one nation, one law

  • Since personal laws are in the Concurrent List, they may differ from State to State. The framers of the Constitution did not intend total uniformity or one law for the whole country. States have made more than a hundred amendments to the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Indian Penal Code. The law of anticipatory bail differs from one State to another. Even BJP governments in different States, including Gujarat, have reduced fines under the amended Motor Vehicles Act despite the Centre justifying the hefty fines. This proves the futility of one nation, one law.
  • Not all Hindus in the country are governed by one law. Marriages amongst close relatives is prohibited by the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955, but is considered auspicious in the south. The Hindu Code Bill recognizes customs of different Hindu communities.
  • Even the Hindu Succession Act of 1956 made several compromises and could not make daughter a coparcener till 2005. Wives are still not coparceners. Even today, property devolves first to Class I heirs and if there are no Class I heirs, then to Class II heirs. While heirs of sons are Class I heirs, those of daughters are not. Even among Class II heirs, preference is given to the male line. If a couple does not have a child, the property of not only the husband but also of the wife goes to the husband’s parents.
  • Similarly, there is no uniform applicability of personal laws among Muslims and Christians. The Constitution protects the local customs of Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram.
  • In fact, let’s leave aside discriminatory personal laws; even land laws enacted after 1950 in a number of States are gender unjust. These laws have been exempted from judicial scrutiny and have been included in the Ninth Schedule.
  • No blueprint of a UCC has been prepared yet. No expert committees, like the Hindu Law Committee of 1941, has been constituted so far. Several provisions of codified Hindu law such as solemnization of marriage, satpati, kanyadaan, the sacramental nature of marriage, income tax benefits for the Hindu joint family, and absolute testamentary powers may not find a place in the UCC. Provisions like dower (payment by husband) or nikahnama (prenuptial contract) are to be incorporated in the UCC. Will Hindus accept these changes?
  • Last year, the Law Commission had concluded that a UCC is neither desirable nor feasible. Indeed, it is best to enact a UCC in a piecemeal manner.
  • India’s Afghanistan conundrum
  • The U.S.’s current policy in Afghanistan puts India in a tough spot and Pakistan in a good place Less than two months after U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly called off talks with the Taliban, Washington is laying the ground to resume them. That this is happening before Afghanistan has a new government — the results of its September 28 election are yet to be announced — underscores the administration’s haste. U.S. officials are escalating battlefield pressure on the Taliban. This is part of a likely effort to soften up the insurgents and get them to return to the negotiating table and make concessions (read: ceasefire) that they refused to make the last time around.
  • Meanwhile, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, has resumed his shuttle diplomacy. In recent days, he’s held meetings on reconciliation with EU and NATO leaders. He also made a trip to Islamabad, which reportedly included a meeting with a Taliban delegation.
  • At the same time, Mr. Trump continues to telegraph his desire to pull troops from Afghanistan. Witness his recent decision to remove U.S. forces from Syria and his grumbling about “endless wars”. With the 2020 U.S. presidential election fast approaching, a politically embattled Trump wants to be able to tell his base that he’s bringing troops home.
  • The U.S.’s policy in Afghanistan is to resume talks with the Taliban and reach a troop withdrawal deal before Mr. Trump decides to initiate a unilateral withdrawal — that is, a removal of troops with no deal or ceasefire.
  • This won’t be easy. The Taliban, unlike the U.S., has the luxury of being in no rush to reach a deal. It has little incentive to accede to Washington’s likely demand of agreeing to a ceasefire before a troop withdrawal accord is signed, especially because doing so would deprive the Taliban of violence which serves as a powerful tool of leverage.

 In a tough spot

  • For India, the implications of the U.S.’s current policy in Afghanistan are stark: It puts India in a tough spot and Pakistan in a good place.
  • If U.S. talks with the Taliban resume, this puts Afghanistan back on a reconciliation path that, if successively seen through, would produce a political settlement that features a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban. That’s not a preferred endgame for India.
  • If talks fail, an intensifying war means that Afghanistan would suffer rapid destabilisation, thereby constraining India’s ability to operate in Afghanistan, a key strategic partner. Meanwhile, for Pakistan, a resumption of talks that produces a settlement, resulting in its Taliban ally occupying a political role, would work just fine. If Afghanistan falls into chaos, this would serve Islamabad’s interests as well because the Taliban would grow even stronger — and possibly seize power by force.
  • Even before Mr. Trump called off talks, Islamabad had an upper hand over New Delhi in Afghanistan. Pakistan was an instrumental facilitator of a U.S.-Taliban negotiation meant to lead to an eventual outcome — a Taliban power-sharing deal — that would have served Islamabad’s interests. India, meanwhile, was left on the outside looking in, while Kabul, its key partner, was excluded from the talks. In fact, New Delhi’s dilution of Article 370 may have been, at least in part, an effort to push back against Islamabad’s upper hand in Afghanistan.

Difficult decisions

  • In the coming months, New Delhi could have some difficult decisions to make. If the situation continues to deteriorate, with no end to the war in sight, India will need to figure out how to secure its interests in a country where it has a significant footprint. If talks resume, it will need to decide how or if it should try to play a role in them. Finally, if there is a reconciliation process and the trend lines point towards a settlement resulting in a Taliban power-sharing role, New Delhi will need to weigh whether it’s worth trying to engage with its bitter rival’s powerful asset. These are tough questions. But then again, when it comes to policy in Afghanistan, nothing is easy.