Rahul Gandhi’s shoes are a call to reclaim our right to privacy

The latest parliamentary fight is about Rahul Gandhi’s shoes. In a routine profiling exercise of prominent politicians, some police officers visited Gandhi’s home to ask about the colour of his eyes and the kinds of clothes he wore. This has proven to be enough of an excuse for the Congress party to accuse the BJP-led government of snooping.

While it may be true that this routine profiling was set up by Rajiv Gandhi when he was prime minster, if Narendra Modi wants more intimate details about Rahul Gandhi’s life, he would be able to access them without anyone else knowing whether such a search for information was ever made. India’s surveillance laws give the government sweeping powers without any oversight, and citizens don’t seem to care.

Thanks to the Raj

These modern laws are direct descendants of the ones the British set up in the 19th century. The Indian Telegraph Act of 1885 and the Indian Postal Office Act of 1898 gave the British the power to intercept any private message. The intelligence agencies Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and Intelligence Bureau (IB) now monitor social media networks freely. While this may be under the guise of counter-terrorism, according to Scroll, their search parameters reflect political slants as well.

Consider an example of the capability of these agencies. In 2006, the then National Security Adviser MK Narayanan, while visiting a secret surveillance facility, was asked to make a phone call to his office using his personal mobile phone. Soon after he was given a recording of that supposedly private conversation, which was intercepted by machines called “stingrays” placed in a parking lot of the same premises. Astonished, he told the officials to be careful with the new machine.

In less than a decade since, mass surveillance has become easier than ever. And without the right oversight there has been no control over the abuse of power these tools give to those who can wield it.

Revelations by Edward Snowden, an American intelligence agency contractor, have shown that the US government is using the internet—the very medium thought to be a tool for liberation and democratisation—for achieving its surveillance goals instead. Those leaks show that, along with the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, these “Five Eyes” dip into the global data pool and spy on anyone they can get their hands on, even if it is the head of a state such as Brazil.

Got nothing to hide?

The Snowden revelations have sparked a global debate about citizens’ right to privacy. Sadly, a lot of people still don’t care. A new survey by the Pew Research Centre found that 40% American respondents find it “acceptable” that the US government spies on them. That acceptability increases to 54% if spying is done on other citizens.

One reason many give when asked why they find spying acceptable is: “I’ve got nothing to hide.” And it’s not just ordinary citizens who say this but also the leaders of tech industry who have been accused of aiding such surveillance. Eric Schmidt said this when he was CEO of Google, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, claims that privacy is no longer a “social norm”.

But is it true? Not really, according to journalist and activist Glenn Greenwald who worked with Snowden on the revelations. He says, “People can say that they don’t value their privacy, but their actions negate their authenticity.” Take the example of Zuckerberg, who is currently suing his neighbour because he is worried about his privacy.

The trouble is that this kind of mass surveillance—where every click, keystroke or phone call can be recorded and analysed—is damaging to the human spirit. In the famous novel 1984, George Orwell describes just such a surveillance state, where “there was no way of knowing if you were being watched at any given moment”. This instinct, says Greenwald, “creates a prison in the mind, which is a more effective way of ensuring obedience than brute force.”

Even while the countries who pioneered such surveillance change to add greater oversight over their capabilities, Indians remain silent about their government’s overreaching powers. It’s high time we reclaim our fundamental right.

First published in Lokmat Times. Image by presidencymaldives under CC-BY-NC license.

Why India must invest more in science

You must have read that 38% of doctors in the US are Indians, as are 36% of scientists at the space agency NASA and so are 34% of Microsoft employees. Daggubati Purandeswari, former MP and the minister of state for human resource development under Manmohan Singh’s first term as prime minister, had heard this too. Unfortunately Purandeswari parroted those numbers in a Rajya Sabha session without verifying and, because those statistics are not true, shewas ridiculed in the press for it.

The true numbers are are estimated to be smaller (but still significant). About 5% of doctors in the US may be Indians or of Indian origin, same for about 5% of NASA scientists and perhaps a similar proportion of Microsoft employees. What is probably also true is that most of these people with an Indian connection studied abroad in top universities before taking on these prestigious jobs.

We love to brag about what our fellow citizens achieve, and it is great to see that patriotism. But, sadly, we also love to exaggerate our achievements and inflate our egos in the process.

While it is great that Indians abroad have achieved and keep achieving great things, we must also reflect upon the fact that the country doesn’t do enough towards training its young to achieve those things at home. And a reminder of these facts and fables is necessary today in light of the recently released Indian budget.

Stopping the brain drain

India invests less than 1% of its GDP  in scientific research. Compare that with China’s investment of nearly 2%, the US’s of about 3% and South Korea’s of almost 4%. India’s ambition of featuring among the big nations of the world is being cut short because of our poor investment in science, and the results show.

The Times Higher Education ranking of world’s universities released today does not feature a single Indian educational institute in the top 100. Brazil, Russia and China—countries often considered India’s equal in the global economy—all feature at least one university in the prestigious list.

This mattes because, while we like to proclaim proudly that we are a nation full of engineers and doctors, we must also face the reality that the best of them go abroad to fulfil their dreams and aspirations. India needs to do better to hold on to its talents, and the easiest way to ensure that is to invest more in creating world-class universities for higher education and research.

Many bright minds have paid attention to this problem, and there has been some progress. The new Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, for instance, are welcome developments, but they must be provided enough support to flourish. The recent budget for science has even not managed to keep up with inflation—it is only 3.4% more than that in 2014.

Dheeraj Singh of the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur thinks science departments need at least 15% more funds each year to live up to their promise. CNR Rao, former head of India’s Scientific Advisory council, told Nature, “There are scientists in India who want to do cutting-edge science. But to be competitive you need more funds.”

Paisa wise, Rupee foolish

And this plea is not without precedent. According to Space Foundation, for every $1 that the US government spends on NASA, the country’s gets $10 in economic benefit. Such a return is made possible because of the knowledge and expertise that NASA creates. Technologies such as global positioning systems used by smartphone users to find their location on a map and weather forecasting using satellites were developed by NASA researchers. The recent success of the Mars Orbiter Mission shows that Indian space research can do similar things with smaller investments.

Some may argue that India needs to invest in healthcare before it invents new rockets. While that argument has problems, even if accept it, the recent budget did worse for healthcare than for science. A 15% cut to the healthcare budget means that India’s health crisis is going to get worse. For all that prime minister Narendra Modi has promised, his actions speak louder than words. His government prefers the short-term benefits much more than long-term growth.

First published in Lokmat Times. Image credit: NASA.

Drug resistance risks sending humanity back to the 19th century

Swine Flu is back, and it is spreading with a vengeance. The total number of recorded cases in India has crossed the 20,000-mark and it has led to more than 1,000 deaths. While this number is much smaller than the number of those killed by the 2009 swine flu pandemic, it is worrying because the new strain appears to be harder to treat. According to Om Jaslok, director of the infectious diseases department at Jaslok Hospital in Mumbai, patients need to be treated with anti-viral medicine oseltamivir for an average of 10 days, which is twice the length of treatment in previous outbreaks.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) had warned of such a swine flu outbreak as far back as 2013. The phenomenon of pathogens developing resistance to drugs is not new. Those few pathogens that survive the onslaught of drugs pass on their traits to the next generation, giving birth to a drug-resistant strain. What is worrying is that drug resistance is increasing at a much faster rate than the pace at which humans can come up with new drugs or treatments.

Disaster-in-waiting

While flu epidemics come and go, drug resistance in persistent diseases is even more worrying. Take the example of malaria, the biggest single killer of humans since our species began walking on this planet. In the last century, the increased attention to malaria produced drugs that could effectively treat the disease. One such drug is chloroquine, which was widely used across the world and saved millions of lives. However, since the 90s, chloroquine is no longer a weapon in the medical arsenal. Mosquito parasites—responsible for causing and spreading malaria—have become resistant to the drug, and we have been forced to develop newer drugs.

A bigger worry is the development of antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics, first discovered in the early 20th century, turned lethal diseases, such as pneumonia, into treatable conditions. These drugs have become the bedrock of effective modern medical treatments. They are used in surgeries to protect patients from acquiring diseases via open wounds, and given to cancer patients to help boost their immunity against pathogens. But fewer of them are as effective today.

These antibiotic-resistant microbes are referred to as superbugs, and they kill ruthlessly. According to a report in the respected journal The Lancet, more than 58,000 newborns in India were killed in 2013 because of these superbugs, such as Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridium difficile. One particular enzyme, New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase 1 (NDM-1), which helps create superbugs has been named after where it is believed to have originated, and we currently have no way of countering the enzyme’s spread.

You can act

The economic cost of drug resistance is potentially huge. According to the 2014 Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, the accumulated loss to global output by 2050 can be as much as $100 trillion, which is more than 50 times the current GDP of India. Even such a dramatic prediction may be an underestimate, according to Jeremy Farrar, the director of Wellcome Trust, one of the world’s biggest biomedical charities, because the review only includes direct costs. For instance, if routine surgeries become impossible because of antibiotic-resistant bugs, they will have an effect on healthcare as a whole and lead to more deaths.

There are ways in which we can fight against drugs resistance. One way is to invest more in finding new and more effective drugs. But success down this route has become much harder to achieve. The pharmaceutical industry is undergoing a crisis, producing fewer new drugs. The other way is to slow down the march of drug-resistant microbes. This requires that governments, doctors and citizens to work together.

Farrar notes that we have been taking antibiotics for granted, treating them as consumer goods. They seem to be “ours to demand from doctors and ours to take or stop taking as we see fit.” This is a huge problem. People stop taking pills as soon as they feel well, but that doesn’t mean the microbes have been completely eliminated. Instead the partial course of antibiotics leaves a great number of mildly resistant microbes alive, which then spawn new generations and spread drug resistance.

If we are not to return our healthcare back to the 19th century, where infectious diseases killed rampantly, we must learn to respect these wonder drugs. Doctors must be conservative in giving out prescriptions. And, if there is no option, the least patients can do is take the full course prescribed.

First published in Lokmat Times. Image by NIAID.

Big Pharma cannot ignore developing world diseases anymore

We may not realise this but a lot of us today live better lives than those of medieval kings. Most people then died under the age of 40 and lived in constant fear of contracting diseases. The worst killers were infectious diseases, such as plague, caused by bacteria and spread by poor sanitation. The last century has seen us banish these evils with the help of antibiotics and easier access to better hygiene.

Sadly the benefits of medicine haven’t been spread evenly throughout the world. In developing countries, there remain many diseases that were eliminated in the developed world decades ago. One of the biggest causes for this is that Big Pharma finds it unprofitable. Because it is not the rich world that they affect, the economics of drug discovery – which admittedly requires huge investments – to treat poor people’s diseases do not work out in favour of the pharmaceutical industry.

A matter of timing

Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin – the first antibiotic – in 1928 was an accident, but the world had been waiting a long time for something like it. The timing couldn’t have been better. By then the pharmaceutical industry had begun to systematically search for new drugs. Governments had recognised the role that new medicines could play in improving health and, in turn, economic productivity. By the time World War II started, they had set up the right safeguards to allow the industry to mass produce drugs. Historical records suggest that Nazi Germany’s inability to produce enough penicillin may have played a role in their eventual loss.

As the decades rolled on, pharmaceutical industry, such as German company Bayer and British company Glaxo, grew bigger and bigger. Today, a bunch of these giants are collectively referred to as Big Pharma. And all of them have most of their operations in the rich world.

While India has a pharmaceutical industry, which is increasingly playing a bigger role in the global market, drug development is too big a challenge for it. That is because the price of drug development has been rising quickly. Today the development of a single drug can cost billions of dollars (lakhs of crores of rupees). And this has created a negative cycle, where Big Pharma mostly invests in the development of those drugs that will provide them a return on the billions of dollars they invest to develop it. The upshot is that poor people’s diseases are neglected.

Ignore no more

So severe has this neglicence been in recent years that the World Health Organisation now lists 17 diseases under a priority list of “Neglected Tropical Diseases”. These include dengue,chikungunya, rabies and leprosy. Even beyond that list, however, other diseases remain under-researched. These include malaria, tuberculosis and diarrhoea. All these don’t exist in the developed world, but cause millions of deaths in developing countries.

This must change. There are moral reasons for why letting millions die from preventable causes is wrong, but the nature of modern corporations is such that moral reasons work only in extreme circumstances. Fortunately, there is now a growing economic case. As markets in the west become saturated, pharma industry is looking to the emerging world, especially countries such as India and China, for a new market.

As they start coming they will first cater to the rich and the growing middle class, but these companies won’t be able to survive without serving the poor too. For instance, India’s patent laws force Western firms to provide compulsory licenses or provide their own drugs at cheaper rates, if the country’s courts find the drugs are essential but unaffordable. Instead of giving up their exclusivity, many firms are choosing the latter option. Profit margins will fall but sale volumes will rise.

With such changes underfoot, it is now time that Big Pharma also look to cater to poor people’s diseases. While the economic case to profit from such work is becoming stronger, governments could help through subsidies to attract these companies to begin their work sooner. The expertise and knowledge that they will bring could revolutionise healthcare for the poor.

First published in Lokmat Times.

Curious Bends – big tobacco, internet blindness, spoilt dogs and more

1. Despite the deadly floods in Uttarakhand in 2013, the govt ignores grave environmental reports on the new dams to be built in the state

“The Supreme Court asked the Union environment ministry to review six specific hydroelectric projects on the upper Ganga basin in Uttarakhand. On Wednesday, the ministry informed the apex court that its expert committee had checked and found the six had almost all the requisite and legitimate clearances. But, the ministry did not tell the court the experts, in the report to the ministry, had also warned these dams could have a huge impact on the people, ecology and safety of the region, and should not be permitted at all on the basis of old clearances.” (6 min read, businessstandard.com)

2. At the heart of the global-warming debate is the issue of energy poverty, and we don’t really have a plan to solve the problem

“Each year, human civilization consumes some 14 terawatts of power, mostly provided by burning the fossilized sunshine known as coal, oil and natural gas. That’s 2,000 watts for every man, woman and child on the planet. Of course, power isn’t exactly distributed that way. In fact, roughly two billion people lack reliable access to modern energy—whether fossil fuels or electricity—and largely rely on burning charcoal, dung or wood for light, heat and cooking.” (4 min read, scientificamerican.com)

3. Millions of Facebook users have no idea they’re using the internet

“Indonesians surveyed by Galpaya told her that they didn’t use the internet. But in focus groups, they would talk enthusiastically about how much time they spent on Facebook. Galpaya, a researcher (and now CEO) with LIRNEasia, a think tank, called Rohan Samarajiva, her boss at the time, to tell him what she had discovered. “It seemed that in their minds, the Internet did not exist; only Facebook,” he concluded.” (8 min read, qz.com)

+ The author of the piece, Leo Mirani, is a London-based reporter for Quartz.

4. The lengths to which big tobacco industries will go to keep their markets alive is truly astounding

“Countries have responded to Big Tobacco’s unorthodox marketing with laws that allow government to place grotesque images of smoker’s lung and blackened teeth on cigarette packaging, but even those measures have resulted in threats of billion-dollar lawsuits from the tobacco giants in international court. One such battle is being waged in Togo, where Philip Morris International, a company with annual earnings of $80 billion, is threatening a nation with a GDP of $4.3 billion over their plans to add the harsh imagery to cigarette boxes, since much of the population is illiterate and therefore can’t read the warning labels.” (18 min video, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight via youtube.com)

5. Hundreds of people have caught hellish bacterial infections and turned to Eastern Europe for a century-old viral therapy

“A few weeks later, the Georgian doctors called Rose with good news: They would be able to design a concoction of phages to treat Rachel’s infections. After convincing Rachel’s doctor to write a prescription for the viruses (so they could cross the U.S. border), Rose paid the Georgian clinic $800 for a three-month supply. She was surprised that phages were so inexpensive; in contrast, her insurance company was forking over roughly $14,000 a month for Rachel’s antibiotics.” (14 min read, buzzfeed.com)

Chart of the Week

“Deshpande takes her dog, who turned six in February, for a walk three times every day. When summers are at its peak, he is made to run on the treadmill inside the house for about half-hour. Zuzu’s brown and white hair is brushed once every month, he goes for a shower twice a month—sometimes at home, or at a dog spa—and even travels with the family to the hills every year. And like any other Saint Bernard, he has a large appetite, eating 20 kilograms of dog food every month. The family ends up spending Rs5,000 ($80)-7,000 ($112) every month on Zuzu, about double the amount they spend on Filu, a Cocker Spaniel.” (4 min read, qz.com)

Genetic testing is all the rage, but its promise is limited

New technologies often take decades to reach Indian shores. Not so in the case of genetic testing. Within 10 years of the launch of the world’s first direct-to-consumer service, genetic testing has found a booming market in India.

Your DNA, unless you have an identical twin, is unique. The idea behind any genetic test is to understand whether the sequence of bases in your DNA have something useful to tell you. Those on offer in India can cost anywhere from ₹1,000 to ₹50,000.

Who’s your daddy?

One of the most popular genetic tests in India is used to test paternity. Be it a doubting husband or a long-lost son, these “peace-of-mind tests” can set the record straight. Their effectiveness is so high that Indian courts have used paternity tests as definitive evidence. Take the example of Congress politician ND Tiwari. In 2008, 28-year-old Rohit Shekhar claimed that Tiwari was his biological father. After a long-drawn battle, the court ordered a paternity test in 2012 and closed the case in favour of Shekhar.

This is how paternity testing works. A child inherits half their DNA from each parent. For the test, DNA samples in the form of cheek swabs are taken from all three individuals. These samples are then treated with restriction enzymes, which cut each DNA at pre-determined places. These cut-up pieces are then suspended in a solution and run through a gel, which lets shorter pieces run faster than bigger pieces. The pieces show up as dark spots on a light background. If the parents are indeed those making the claim, the child’s DNA patterns will appear to be a combination of the patterns of the parents.

This technique, called DNA fingerprinting, was developed in 1984 and has also been used to produce forensic evidence in thousands of criminal cases. Instead of comparing a DNA sample of a child with two others, say, it could be used to compare DNA found in some hair at a crime scene with that of the accused perpetrator.

Not the oracle

Not all genetic tests are so effective at giving useful information though. Many companies market genetic test results as a fortune-telling scroll. They claim that, based on your genetic information, they can predict whether you will get a disease or not. This is far from the truth. At best, genetic testing for health outcomes can be seen as a weather map, where predictions can be true but quite often they aren’t.

Even if genetic testing companies make this clear in their fine print, they haven’t done enough to correct public perception. For instance, a 2010 European survey revealed that nearly half of those asked felt “all children will (soon) be tested at a young age to find out what disease they get at a later age”.

While certain diseases, such as Huntington’s disease, have specific genetic mutations to blame, most diseases are a combination of environment, lifestyle and genes. There is no “gene for breast cancer”. Genes are indeed powerful, and they influence our appearance, intelligence, behaviour and health. But unlike what the public believes, genes do not determine those outcomes.

These public beliefs matter because they can and will affect policy. After 13 years of debate, in 2008 the US passed the Genetic Information Non-discrimination Act to ensure that insurance providers do not discriminate customers based on their genes. Before the genetic testing market in India explodes to ₹800 crores by 2018, as some predict, we need a similar act to safeguard people’s privacy. And even after that, treat any genetic test results with skepticism and care.

First published in Lokmat Times.