Friday, November 22, 2019

Event of the day

We are super-excited to be part of a Facebook Live conversation with JobsForHer, an amazing company that helps women start, restart and rise in their careers. Founder Editor Lakshmi Chaudhry will be talking to JobsForHer Founder/CEO Neha Bagaria about Broadsheet, the importance of being well-informed—and why it is critical to women’s success at the workplace. We will be doing this between 2pm and 4 pm today. Watch, ask questions, or even heckle from the sidelines! Just come on over and join us! Here’s the event link.

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The biggest news story today, explained.

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A big brouhaha over electoral bonds

Electoral bonds hardly seem the stuff of political drama or intrigue. But a massive Huffington Post investigation—combined with reporting from other sources—has put these financial instruments at the heart of a heated and very important debate. We explain why—hopefully without sending you to sleep:)

The first thing to know: Introduced in 2017 by the Modi government, electoral bonds are a new-ish way to donate to political parties. And they were touted as a clean replacement for in-cash donations—which have long been a way to funnel black money into politics. In 2018-19, Rs 6000 crore were donated using electoral bonds, of which—as per a Quint audit—Rs 4500 crore may have gone to the BJP.

How do these things work? Let’s say X is an individual or company that wants to donate to a political party. Here’s what X would do:

  • Go to a designated State Bank of India, present his KYC details, and purchase his bonds.

  • He can choose bonds of different values: Rs 1,000, Rs 10,000, Rs 1 lakh, Rs 10 lakh, and Rs 1 crore. These essentially are like cash—i.e. the bond itself doesn’t have X’s name or details.

  • Then he can present these bonds to the party of his choice—which then has to redeem them within 15 days of their purchase. 

  • As per the law (on the books, anyway), there are four 10-day windows each year during which these bonds are issued. The government can open an additional window of 30 days if Lok Sabha elections are being held that year. 

The key aspect: of the bonds is anonymity of the donor. The political party does not have to declare how much money X gave it—or even that X gave it any money. What this means is:

  • We know that in the first batch issued in March 2017, electoral bonds worth a total of Rs 222 crore were issued. 

  • We know the BJP received 94.5%—or Rs 210 crore—of those bonds. 

  • We also know bonds accounted for 20% of the total funds raised by the party in 2017-18. 

  • But we the public don’t know who bought these bonds and gave them to the BJP—or any other party for that matter.

Wait, this is a good thing? Well, it depends on who you ask. In a 2018 Facebook post, then Finance Minister Arun Jaitley argued, "This [anonymity] is necessary because once this disclosure is made, past experience has shown, donors would not find the scheme attractive and would go back to the less-desirable option of donating by cash." But while hearing a Supreme Court petition to block the scheme in April, then Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi disagreed: “If the identity of the donor is unknown, your entire exercise to eliminate black money becomes a futile exercise. Black money only becomes white.” That case is still in court.

So tell me about the investigation: The five-part series is based on unpublished government documents obtained by transparency activist Commodore Lokesh Batra (Retd.). And it’s already created a furore in Parliament. Each part relates to a different aspect of the electoral bonds. 

Part #1, the Reserve Bank of India: In the run up to the grand unveiling of electoral bonds back in 2017, the government encountered a teeny hitch: legalising such bonds would require amendments to the Reserve Bank of India Act. Documents published by HuffPost show that top RBI officials vehemently objected to this “bad precedent” that they insisted would encourage “undesirable activities.” And they were most upset with the new amendments which:

  • Removed the ban on foreign companies which could now donate to any political party.

  • Removed the cap on the amount that a single company can donate—which was earlier set at 7.5% of its average annual profit earned over the past three years.

  • Removed the clause that required companies to disclose details of their political donations in their annual statement.

Part #2, the Election Commission: Last winter, when asked about the EC’s view in Parliament, the government insisted that it had not received “any concerns”—which turned out to be a lie. Huffington Post has now published a strongly worded letter written by the EC in 2017. Its basic argument: The anonymous bonds—along with the amendments to company donation laws—will “lead to increased use of black money for political funding through shell companies.”

Part #3, the State Elections: Remember the four 10-day windows to buy these bonds? They have to be sold in specific months: January, April, July and October each year. And the rule exists to limit the potential of uncontrolled money laundering. But as the memos published by Huffington Post show, the government repeatedly broke that rule last year. It opened ‘emergency’ windows before key state elections—in May 2018 before the election in Karnataka, and again in November before Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh etc. 

Part #4, anonymity angle: The government has long argued that it is absolutely necessary to hide the identities of donors to encourage them to give white money. But guess what? They may not, in fact, be anonymous at all. 

  • A previous Quint investigation revealed that each bond carries a secret alphanumeric code that is visible under UV light—and it can be used to link the identity of a donor to a political party. 

  • At the time, the government issued a strong denial, calling it “a random serial number”.

  • But documents published by Huffington Post reveal otherwise. The SBI pushed for and got permission to put in a unique serial number that allows it to track the bond. So it knows exactly who purchased it and who cashed it in. 

  • The reason: “Without unique identifiers, the bonds could be forged, and accounting for them would be impossible.”

  • The other reason: SBI has to turn over this information if asked by law enforcement officials or the courts in the course of a criminal case.

  • To sum up: the donors are invisible to everybody except a government-controlled bank. And a government-controlled agency—be it CBI or the Enforcement Directorate—can force it turn over that information.

Part #5, expired bonds: Remember the 15-day rule? That political parties have to cash the bonds within 15 days of their purchase. The last part of the Huffington Post investigation shows that the government readily bent even that rule to allow an unnamed party deposit Rs 10 crore in expired bonds.

The bottomline: Between March 2018 and January, 2019, donors purchased bonds worth Rs1,407 crore. This year, SBI sold bonds worth 62% more than last year. Nearly Rs 6000 crore in bonds were cashed in the last financial year. The Rs 1 crore bonds accounted for more than 91% of that staggering total. Throw in Rs 10 lakh bonds, and that number jumps to 99.7%. Jiska danda, uski bhains. 

Learn more: We strongly recommend Huffington Post’s investigative series on: The RBI, the Election Commission, state election funding and lack of anonymity. It’s worth your time to check out and assess the evidence for yourself. Also worth your time: Quint’s investigation of the serial numbers. The Week has numbers on the most recent sale of bonds in October—and they show an alarming increase. Indian Express has an explainer on electoral bonds. The Telegraph reports on the ruckus in Parliament over them.

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already bored with the Grammys this year

Israel slated for third election this year:The nation went to polls in April and again in September. And each time, Benjamin Netanyahu failed to secure a majority coalition. His rival, Bernie Gantz, was finally given a chance to take a shot—but he has failed as well. Most likely outcome: a third election. But only after a 21-day period when any politician can try and cobble together a 61-seat majority. In related news: Netanyahu has just been charged with bribery and fraud—the first sitting Israeli PM to earn that honour. Haven’t been tracking Israel’s hot political mess? Read our explainer here. (Associated Press)

Uber is recording your ride: The company plans to roll out a feature that will allow its app to audio-record your ride—apparently to improve passenger and driver safety. Yes, the user will have to activate the feature using the Safety Toolkit. But once she does so, neither the driver or the passenger will have access to these recordings (?!). But the passenger can ‘submit’ the recording to customer support when they report a safety issue (?!). All of which sounds far too complicated, deeply invasive and entirely unnecessary. The good news: there are no plans to bring it to India as yet. (The Verge)

The Grammy nominations are in: Bruce Springsteen was shut out entirely. Beyonce was passed over for the top three categories, and Taylor Swift didn’t get a nod for Best Album for the second year in a row. Feeling pretty good right now: Lizzo, Billie Ellish and Michelle Obama. (ABC News) 

A huge solar energy breakthrough: Heliogen is an under-the-radar startup backed by Bill Gates. And the company claims to have discovered a way to use AI and a field of mirrors to create “a solar oven”—which can reach temperatures that are a quarter of those on the sun’s surface. And here’s why this is huge: “The breakthrough means that, for the first time, concentrated solar energy can be used to create the extreme heat required to make cement, steel, glass and other industrial processes.” Point to note: These industries are responsible for more than a fifth of global emissions. 🤞🏽🤞🏽🤞🏽 (CNN)

Oh look, there are bugs on Mars: A highly respected entomologist William Romoser claims that NASA photos show evidence of insect- and reptile-like creatures on Mars. Others think that Romoser is quite literally seeing things—a common problem with human vision known as pareidolia. No, we’re not going to explain that one to you. (BigThink)

Sony aur Reliance ki shaadi: The Japanese company is readying to enter a joint venture with Ambani-owned Network 18. The plan: to merge their entertainment channels to create a new company. The plan will help Sony scale its India operations while Reliance will get access to Sony’s global content—which will be critical for its plans for Jio. (Times of India)

Joker 2 is in the works: with the same director, Todd Phillips, and lead, Joaquin Phoenix. (Hollywood Reporter)

Indian cricket is going pink: Virat and the boys will play the first day-night match with a bright pink ball. The Indian cricket board has long been resisting its allure, deeming this lacquered version “unpredictable and experimental.” But pink has finally prevailed. Indian Express has everything you would ever want to know about its charms.

Can bacteria be beautiful? Sure, if you’re looking at ‘agar art’. The canvas: gelatinous plates used to grow cultures as a canvas. The paints? Microbes of every kind that produce a dazzling array of colours. These are the gorgeous winners of this year’s competition hosted by American Society of Microbiology. (National Geographic

Your daily quota of sunshine: includes the following:

  • Photographers asked Roger Federer to stand still for their shots, so he did this.

  • The startling resemblance between Phil Collins and this Baby Jesus.

  • Arnab Goswami invited Pakistani politician Altaf Hussain—who is seeking asylum in India—on his show. Hussain encountered an unexpected speech impediment.

  • Ambassador Ameya Nagarajan highly recommends this list of the 40 best novels of the decade.

  • Star Wars nerds, a delightful treat for you. A long meditation on that all-important question: ‘Did Yoda F***?’.

  • This amazing streetie who is the Uttarakhand police ki shaan—the first ever indie recruit of their dog squad.

  • This confused pooch watching football on TV

  • This wildly inaccurate but fun Buzzfeed quiz that guesses your age based on your mixtape choices.

  • This eye-popping photo of a lightning bolt strike right next to an Airbus on a runway
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Stuff we buy, use or love.

A List of Excellent Party Games
Tired of cards, Scrabble and Monopoly? Here are some options that are far more fun and cool for game nights at home with friends and family.
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When it’s gonna be a long, drinking night…

With your mates, bring out Cards Against Humanity. The game itself is super simple (read: is highly suitable for inebriated players), and dubs itself as “a party game for horrible people.” Think of it as a far cleverer ‘I Never’ except every bit as lewd, crude and rude—happily minus the need for embarrassing confessions. But don’t play it around kids, acquaintances or your more decorous friends. Get a better sense of the game and how it works over at (Bonus: if your friends are bringing their kids along, pack them off to the next room with Apples to Apples in hand.)

Price: Rs 1,299 | Cards Against Humanity | Amazon

The informer 2

When you want a lively game for all sorts…

Try Codenames, a Czech word-guessing game with a cool secret agent twist. It’s both easy to learn and sufficiently challenging to keep everyone engaged. The team game needs at least four players, but the more the merrier. Warning: Couples who can give each other secret code words or insider clues have an unfair advantage. (TheNextWeb’s ‘love letter’ to Codenames has more info if you need it).

Price: Rs 1,199 | Czech Games Codenames | Amazon

The informer 3

If you want a game with political intrigue…

Secret Hitler is perfect for you. Think betrayal, intrigue, deception and sabotage. Players are divided into two groups: liberals and fascists plus, yes, a Secret Hitler. Liberals have to come together to prevail. And the hidden fascists have to trick them into failure. Among them, their leader who has to figure out a way to come to power. The game requires a large group—say 6-10 players—to truly get cooking. What we love most: It gets everyone talking and scheming. Also: totally paranoid. (To know more, check out Forbes’ detailed review)

Price: Rs 5,616 | Secret Hitler | Amazon

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