Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Number of the day: 30 billion

We all know that crop burning has a severe impact on public health, and has lead to an enormous spike in pulmonary diseases. A new US study offers a first-ever estimate on its economic cost: $30 billion (Rs 2 lakh crore). That’s how much three states—Delhi, Haryana and Punjab—pay every year due to the effects of burning stubble. The price of burning firecrackers: $7 billion or nearly Rs 50 thousand crore.

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The biggest news story today, explained.

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The big question: Kitne casualties the?

It’s the question that the government can’t quite lay to bed. And it’s not because the opposition won’t let it go. The latest controversy was sparked by comments made by none other than Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa.


What happened? At news conference in Coimbatore, Dhanoa was asked about the casualty count at Balakot. He said: “The IAF is not in a position to clarify the numbers of casualties—the government will clarify that. We do not count human casualties; we count what targets we have hit or not. We hit our target.” He also added: “We can’t count how many people have died: that depends on how many people were there.”


Why does this matter? The government has been both insistent and inconsistent in its accounts of the body count—both in official and ‘unofficial’ statements. Here is a quick sampling:

  • The Foreign Secretary: On the day of the strikes, February 26, Vijay Gokhale read out a statement which said: “In this operation, a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated.”

  • Leaks to the media: According to The Telegraph, the 300-plus number flashed in media headlines came from “a senior Union minister [who] had briefed political spokespersons about the figures. The spokespersons in turn passed on the figure to reporters through off-the-record briefings, an informal agreement under which the information can be reported but without identifying the source.”

  • Over the weekend, however, Union Minister S S Ahluwalia claimed there were no casualties. The aim of the strikes was to show that India can “pinpoint that area and can destroy it.”

  • Almost at the same time, party chief Amit Shah declared that the strike had killed over 250 terrorists at election events in Gujarat. He also said, “When the Indian Air Force laid out the facts at a press conference… if we don’t believe that, then, as a citizen of this country, we should be ashamed. Those who are asking for proof are helping Pakistan and strengthening its intentions.”


Has the Air Force confirmed the count? The Indian military has never laid out any ‘facts’ on the casualty count—including at the press conference referenced by Shah. The inter-services top brass said, “It will be premature to give the number of casualties”—and were careful to focus only on damage to the Jaish-e-Mohammad camp. In his latest statement, Dhanoa is taking exactly the same line.


Complicating matters: is this latest account of the strikes from Indian Express—perhaps the first in the Indian media that is independently sourced and not reliant on ‘government officials’. The paper spoke to a relative of a student who was present at the JeM madrassah—calling it the “first direct account” from the IAF target. He told his family that he was woken by a “massive exploding” sound which “was not far away, it was quite close.” He and the others went back to sleep, and were woken up and evacuated by soldiers a few hours later. While the Express doesn’t quite spell it out, none of this suggests there was significant damage (human or otherwise) to the seminary.


So what’s next? The Opposition leaders have already seized on the discrepancy between the statements made by the military and the government. AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal immediately tweeted, “Amit Shah is saying that 250 died and the armed forces have lied. Amit Shah is calling the armed forces liars.” Congress is demanding that PM Modi apologise to the Air Force for using it for “false propaganda.” Expect a lot more of the same over the coming week.


The bottomline: The Indian military has been put in the impossible position of defending its integrity without contradicting the government it serves. And that’s both sad and wrong.


Learn more: The Indian Express story on the seminary student’s account is a must read. The Telegraph has details of Dhanoa’s presser, including his comments on whether the IAF hit its target, the dogfight in Kashmir, and Abhinandan Varthaman’s return to duty. The Wire reports on the Pakistan government’s post-Balakot crackdown on banned terror groups—which includes freezing the assets of all banned groups, which presumably includes JeM.


In related Indian military news: A New York Times story is making waves for sounding an unwelcome alarm: “India’s armed forces are in alarming shape. If intense warfare broke out tomorrow, India could supply its troops with only 10 days of ammunition, according to government estimates. And 68 percent of the army’s equipment is so old, it is officially considered ‘vintage.’” This is indeed significant news, coming on the heels of a near war between two nuclear nations. Yet the reporting is wholly framed in terms of India’s inability to serve as an adequate anti-China chowkidar on the US’ behalf. Oh, wait, it’s the same reporter who wrote that ghastly nostalgia piece on Goa as a white hippie paradise. Lol! (New York Times)

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wondering if you can survive yet another Ambani wedding  


A shocking investigation into World Wildlife Fund: “In national parks across Asia and Africa, the beloved nonprofit with the cuddly panda logo funds, equips, and works directly with paramilitary forces that have been accused of beating, torturing, sexually assaulting, and murdering scores of people.” And their victims are most often indigenous people who share these forests with the animals. The Buzzfeed investigation is a difficult but important read on the pitfalls of a single-minded conservation philosophy. (Buzzfeed)


RIP Luke Perry: The teenage heartthrob of ‘Beverly Hills 90210’ and reigning hot dad on ‘Riverdale’ died at age 52 of a massive stroke. This thoughtful CNN tribute by Jill Filipovic goes beyond the usual nostalgia to examine what it means to lose a middle-aged teen idol... when you’re getting up there yourself.


Oppressing women does not violate Google policy: So says the company, defending its decision not to remove the Saudi government app Absher from its playstore. What does Absher do? It allows Saudi men to specify when and where women are allowed to fly, grant or revoke travel permission, and render specific airports or destinations off-limits. Google and Apple have been under pressure from US lawmakers to take the apps off their platforms. Apple has not responded as yet. (Newsweek)


It’s yet another Ambani wedding: Akash Ambani is the latest Reliance heir to sashay down the aisle in grand style. Latest round of festivities: A Harry Potter-themed party with a life-size replica of Platform 9 3/4 and the dinner table at Hogwarts. It’s kind of dorky, sweet, and very un-Ambani. Yes, there’s video of the decorations, if not the party itself. (India Today)


The first Vogue Hong Kong is a resounding dud: Luxury brands in China can never seem to get it right. Over the past three months. we’ve had the Dolce & Gabbana fracas, then came the great ‘freckles’ brouhaha. Now, the Hong Kong edition of the upmarket fashion mag put its foot in it by featuring model Gigi Hadid on its first cover. That would be the same Hadid who had to pull out of Victoria Secret’s Shanghai show because locals were outraged by her “racist” squinty-eyed imitation of Buddha. Umm, so pick Hadid any way? Vogue HK’s publisher’s response a few weeks back: “What happens in Hong Kong is completely independent than other places in the world.” That was then, this is now: Vogue pulled the cover from its insta account, and deleted all associated negative comments—without explanation. (South China Morning Post)


Meet the Gupta brothers who hijacked South Africa: Think of them as the Bellary brothers of Johannesburg. Mining barons, raised in cramped family quarters in the backwaters of Saharanpur, who went on to capture an entire government, “a modern-day coup d’état, waged with bribery instead of bullets.” The story, penned by novelist Karan Mahajan is long, but also vivid and compelling. We predict a Netflix series in the making. (Vanity Fair)


Say hello to the dark mode of FB Messenger: But you will need to send a moon emoji to activate it. (BGR India)


Modi biopic turns into ‘The Burning Train’ sequel: Filmmakers of a biographical documentary on the PM set a train bogey on fire to recreate the Godhra attacks of 2002. Western Railways apparently donated this “mock bogey” as a sacrificial lamb for a good cause. However, no one told the Western Railways Chief PR Officer who declared, “[A]s far as I know, they wanted to shoot something recreating the Prime Minister selling tea on railway platforms.” Hmm, not quite. (Indian Express)


The trickle-down misery of demo-GST double whammy: This is a close-up look at Indore where small business owners—already struggling with demonetisation—were effectively crippled by the introduction of GST. Their financial woes have in turn created a vast army of unskilled labour who are literally begging for work. It’s a must-read lesson in unintended consequences even for supporters of these policies. (IndiaSpend)


South East Asia has a turtle problem: A whopping 1,529 turtles and tortoises of different species were found in four pieces of unclaimed luggage at the Manila airport,. They were wrapped in duct tape, but happily still alive. Last week, 3,300 pig-nosed turtles were smuggled into Malaysia by boat. Why? Because they are considered both a delicacy and (of course!) an aphrodisiac. Yes, we humans can decimate entire species just to get it up. (BBC)


Airtel’s got a brand new phoren roaming plan: Actually, it has three, and they’re a whole lot cheaper than any of the rest, including Jio. But—and it’s a big ‘but’—they only offer voice calling. No data or SMS included. Not so great if you’re a WhatsApp addict. But perfect for that 30-second ‘I’m okay, mom’ phone call. (Times of India)


In more ‘deep fake’ news: A few months ago, a bunch of AI experts launched, which features alarmingly real-looking images of fake AI-generated people. Now, two University of Washington professors have created (which is set up like a quiz you can take) to creep us out further -- and to educate us on how to spot fakes. Yeah, we flunked.


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Unexpected, thought-provoking and always worth your time

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The ‘plastic surgery’ edition

Behold the great peril for aging men

Women have long been terrorised into erasing their laugh lines, wrinkles, grey hair—the very same ‘flaws’ that make some 60-plus old Hollywood male star a ‘silver fox’. Well, Mother Nature has a way of levelling the body shaming field. Say, hello to ‘neck vagina’—a variation of the ‘turkey neck’ caused when neck muscles weaken with age. Most fittingly, the sufferer-in-chief is none other than Donald ‘grab em by the p***y’ Trump. And yes, there is a surgery for it. We are mostly delighted that there is such a thing called ‘neck vagina’. Yes, we are 12-years old.


Read: How to Avoid the Neck Vagina | Mel Magazine

Sex, Love etc 2

Help, My Nose Is No Longer ‘On Trend’!

It’s one thing to retire a pair of skinny jeans or grow out a bob because it’s been declared ‘over’ by fashion gurus. But what if your Kim-sized butt job is no longer cool? Social media has made plastic surgery normal for millenials who are changing themselves to attain the perfect "Instagram face" that assures #selfie likability. But that ideal will inevitably change… and soon. What happens to your Kylie-inspired monster lips then?


Read: What Happens When a Plastic Surgery Trend Dies? | Fashionista

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