Thursday, July 25, 2019

Price of the day: Rs 199

Netflix is launching a mobile-only streaming plan for the low, low price of Rs 199 a month. And it is restricted to use on a single mobile device. This package is available only in India… for now. The reason for the rollout: the company added only 2.7 million global customers last year, well short of its target of 5 million. That bit of bad news sent its stock tumbling last week. Hence the good news for us Indians.

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The biggest news story today, explained.

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Every Indian’s right to information

The government passed an amended version of the Right To Information Act in the Lok Sabha. It is, however, meeting fierce resistance from the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. Its fate may prove decisive for the most basic democratic right of all Indians.


The RTI act explained: Passed in 2005, the law gives every citizen the right to seek information from any government institution on any matter—all this by filing an RTI application which costs Rs 10. There are obvious exclusions to this right such as matters of national security, law enforcement etc. But the act also requires the Information Commissioner to offer a clear and legitimate reason for turning down an RTI application.


Who are these Information Commissioners? The RTI Act established an independent Central Information Commission which is headed by a Chief Information Commissioner and ten Information Commissioners. It also instituted a mirror version of the CIC at the state level. And the entire controversy centres on their salary and tenures.


What about their salaries etc.? The original RTI bill specified salaries and tenures for the Information Commissioners. The tenure was set at five years. And it stated that the salaries, allowances and other terms of service of “the Chief Information Commissioner shall be the same as that of the Chief Election Commissioner,” and that of an Information Commissioner “shall be the same as that of an Election Commissioner.” 


So what’s changed? In the amended bill, the government has the power to decide both their salaries and tenures at will. 


And this is a big deal because…: The commission and commissioners were set up to be an independent body—free from political influence like the election commission (no snickering, please!). The amendment essentially turns the government into the commission’s employer. It can drastically reduce salaries and tenures in order to render them ineffective. 


The bigger picture: Since its institution, the RTI Act has been steadily weakened. The UPA routinely stalled or delayed responses to applications. That trend worsened under the NDA which has left four of the ten Information Commissioner posts unfilled. In many cases, the government has simply refused to release information on dubious grounds. These amendments will render the law entirely toothless by defanging those required to execute it. And as one activist explains, “This first amendment will give the government further chance to amend the law.” Slippery slope etc.


So what happens now? The amendments passed easily in the Lok Sabha where the BJP has a comfortable majority. But the issue has reenergized the Opposition, which is determined to put on a united front to block its passage in the Rajya Sabha. The NDA has 116 members in the upper house, five short of the majority mark. And independent parties like Naveen Patnaik's Biju Janata Dal are siding with the Opposition on this one. Realising it doesn’t have the numbers, the government pulled the bill from the Rajya Sabha agenda yesterday. So we’ve hit ‘pause’ for now. 


The bottomline: Despite problems in implementation, the RTI Act remains an important tool for ordinary citizens. Around 60 lakh RTI applications are filed each year. And it has been responsible for exposing some of the biggest scams in recent years. Losing that right will be a huge blow to democracy.


Learn more: Indian Express explains the amendments in greater detail, and it reports on the Opposition’s plan to stall seven NDA bills in the Rajya Sabha. This Wire op-ed—penned by a former Central Information Commissioner—explains why the amendments are dangerous. Quartz has a must-read on how the Modi government is killing RTI. The Better India offers an excellent guide on how to file an RTI application.

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buying must-read books you’ll never read

Bob Mueller contradicts his president: The independent counsel appointed to look into Russian interference in the 2016 US election finally testified in front of Congress. The Democrats asked him leading questions, and he offered some damning answers—but none of them were new. “I would say generally,” he responded when asked if Trump “wasn’t always being truthful” in his answers to Mueller. He called Trump’s openness to receiving foreign assistance “problematic” and the “new normal.” But most of the media focus was on one exchange. Question: “Director Mueller, the president has repeatedly claimed that your report found there was no obstruction and that it completely and totally exonerated him. But that is not what your report said, is it?” Mueller’s answer: “Right, that is not what the report said.” Is this big news? We don’t think so. (New York Times)


The Booker longlist is out: and it includes two yet to be released books from literary giants Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie. The Guardian has a handy and concise cheat-sheet to the books that made the list. 


The #MeToo panel is baaack! Remember the star-packed panel that was constituted after MJ Akbar was forced to resign? The one that was quietly dissolved with zero information on whether it ever met or what it decided. Well, it has revived itself, this time with Amit Shah as its chief because “Home Minister Shah has a zero-tolerance policy towards these matters.” Of course he does… Just look at his past record. (Scroll)


In other #MeToo-related news: Kim Kardashian’s personal photographer Marcus Hyde has been exposed as an A-grade sleaze by an upcoming model. He offered to do Sunnaya Nash’s photos for free if she sent him nude pics—and she exposed him on Instagram. Since then, Ariana Grande (who worked with Hyde) has spoken out in Nash’s support. Multiple women have revealed numerous Hyde-related stories involving not just solicitation, but also sexual misconduct and assault. No word from Kimmie. (People)


In more #MeToo-related news: Hindi rock band Mallroad Project has put out an anti-sexual harassment rock ballad titled ‘Thurky Boss’. The tune and the animation isn’t really to our taste (which is dubious at best) but the sentiment is spot-on. Be sure to check it out for yourself. (Rolling Stone)


Bad news for Indian meat-eaters: A new study finds a strong correlation between regional cuisine and diabetes—the higher the consumption of meat and seafood, the more people are likely to have diabetes. It’s the reason why West Bengal and Kerala are at the top of the diabetes charts, while Rajasthan and Haryana are at the bottom. (Quartz)


Dear Prime Minister: Forty-nine leading luminaries—including Aparna Sen, Mani Ratnam, Anurag Kashyap and Ramachandra Guha—have written to PM Modi. The letter calls for an immediate end to lynchings and flags the weaponization of the ‘Jai Sri Ram’ chant. (NDTV)


In other Hindutva-related news: We enjoyed reading this lively walk through Indian history sparked by a terrible act of vandalism in Hampi. Many, including Bangalore MP Tejaswi Surya, implied Muslims were the culprits… until the real perpetrators were revealed to be fools digging for treasure (all of them Hindu). Lots of heckling ensued, but this scathing response makes all the same points using Hampi’s own history as ammunition. (Firstpost)


Oh look, fat shaming served with your clothes: In the United States, online shoppers found a little goodie tucked alongside their Forever 21 order—a sample Atkins diet bar. And they seem to have been mostly sent out with plus-size clothes…🙈(Jezebel)


What’s better than puppies? Puppies snuggling like this with babies, of course!


F*** the government, F*** Boris: That’s the title of a rap song that has become an anthem for angry protesters in the UK. The funnier side of this rage: this video remix featuring Boris Johnson himself.


The priciest sneaker ever: The Nike ‘Moon Shoe' was one of the first pairs of sneakers sold by the company back in 1972. It just sold for a whopping $437,500 at a Sotheby’s auction. Also: it’s ugly. (The Guardian)

The man who built the retweet: thinks it destroyed Twitter forever. Did the RT instantly weaponise outrage and misinformation? The short answer is yes, and the longer version is worth a read. (Buzzfeed)

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Unexpected, thought-provoking and always worth your time

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The 'Messed Up Brain' Edition

We all know that our mind can play tricks on us, but the knowledge does little to protect us. These two essays show how our brains irrationally process numbers—be it the number on a price tag or the number of human casualties.

No, Rs 0 is not a great deal 

‘Buy one, get one free!’ All of us have been lured by that seductive offer of a freebie at one time or another. That’s called the ‘zero price effect’ and it is why we make bad spending decisions.

Read: The shady economics of ‘buy one, get one free’ deals | The Hustle

Sex, Love etc 2

That’s too many deaths to care about

We read the headlines day after day: Millions are near starvation in Yemen; thousands were killed in an earthquake etc. But here's the kicker: the greater the scale of a human tragedy, the more indifferent we are to the suffering. The reason: a phenomenon called psychic numbing, where our empathy decreases when the number of victims increases—even from one child to two!

Read: Why it’s so hard to get people to care about mass suffering | Vox

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