What’s Changing Around Us and Why it Matters

A look at shifts that will continue to influence our lives, thinking and behaviour in the near future.

Privacy as a fundamental right

On August 24, 2017, the Supreme Court of India declared privacy a constitutional right. It was a rare unanimous judgement that has far-reaching implications for Indians.

As defined in the judgement, privacy includes at its core the preservation of personal intimacies, the sanctity of family life, marriage, procreation, the home and sexual orientation. Privacy also connotes a right to be left alone. Privacy safeguards individual autonomy and recognises the ability of the individual to control vital aspects of his or her life. Personal choices governing a way of life are intrinsic to privacy. Privacy protects heterogeneity and recognises the plurality and diversity of our culture. However, what appears to be less clear are the implications the judgement will have on the use of state power in collecting personal information, as it recognises that there are compelling state interests in collecting such information.

For the common man to experience the true rights bestowed by this judgement, we need to see the establishment of a detailed and transparent information architecture detailing which agency or vendor shares what information with whom. This should go hand in hand with proper privacy architecture and a channel to protect yourself if the state messes with your identity.

To question or not to question

Never before has our ability to question things come under such intense scrutiny as now. Are we losing our ability to think as a country? This was quite evident across the country on the issue of ‘sedition’ at JNU. While the intellectuals were delivering lectures on nationalism with much clarity, easily understandable to the students of JNU, the rest of the people in the country could hardly make out anything constructive from these debates. The fact that there is a disconnect between the ‘public’ and ‘intellectuals’ is something that needs to be acknowledged.

news channels – ostensibly designed to represent public thinking and spirit in a vibrant society – have been reduced to a ‘shouting business’. In the absence of measured channels and dialogue, there is no room for a critical culture to evolve in India.

Do we need an alternative platform to discuss alternative views while steering clear of noise and propaganda? Its ultimate aim should be to engage the public in thinking about the kind of society they want to live in. But all of this calls for us to develop the faculty of ‘doubting’ since it is that which leads to questioning.

How do you make the public question? Especially in a technological and informational age where knowledge systems and information per se become the instruments of power and domination. Can professionals like you and me play the role of uncovering the hidden public issues that otherwise remain behind technocratic walls? Can we use our expertise in our respective fields to help the public in challenging the hegemonic designs of today’s informational and technocratic age? To nurture a role like this, there is the prerequisite need of a secular society where all and sundry have equal social and economic rights irrespective of their religious adherence. Questioning is the very foundational aspect of democracy that religious and cultural groups are trying to suppress so that their hegemony in society persists.

So, in 2018, will you begin to question?

Vivek Rana
is the CEO of The PRactice.


When women find voice

The Harvey Weinstein case has opened the floodgates, it seems, for women all over the world to step forward to call out sexual misconduct by men in positions of power. Women and men took to social media in their millions in the ‘#MeToo’ campaign, making it a watershed moment drawing attention to the rampant problem. Much has been written and continues to be written about the topic. Perspectives range from being completely objective to being purely personal. The broader questions being asked globally are:

– Is disclosure enough? How does society make amends and change the situation?
– Is disclosure always fair? What of the male lives ruined by a single ‘accusation’?
– Will the socio dynamics between men and women change and what will be the implications both in the workplace as well as socially?

In the Indian context while we have had at least three high profile cases of women from the entertainment sector speaking out about their sexual abuse perpetrators, the context and climate is far more complex. People express views more privately – they are not ready to make waves; be it stars or just ‘everyday victims’. The social stigma for the person as well as their extended family, the ability to be shut out from careers and livelihoods, the ingrained values of a patriarchal society where boys grow up with a sense of entitlement – all these make for a very different, multi-layered and complex social context for Indian women to find their voice. The signs are there. Some are feeling more empowered to do so. The true journey to finding voice fearlessly has a long and tortuous way forward – but there are clear indications that the movement can gain momentum.

Consenting adults and gender justice

The Supreme Court has issued notice that it intends to re-examine Section 497 of the IPC on adultery, a legal provision that it sees as ‘archaic’. It wants to re-examine it on the grounds that it absolves the woman of any liability in a prosecuted cause, that it goes against gender neutrality and treats a woman as a possession, thereby denting her independent identity as a woman.

From a woman’s perspective, it reinforces the submissiveness of women within a marriage. It plays to the overarching patriarchal structure of society and state. The argument against it is that no marriage or alliance should take away one’s right over one’s own body. “The question here is whether the state should be entering into a private space between two consenting adults”, says Talish Ray, Managing Partner TRS law offices and Project Director, Girlsgottaknow (an information initiative for young women).

There have been other developments aimed at furthering gender justice. The Lok Sabha bill criminalising triple talaq is one. Technology, through platforms like Tinder, is empowering woman with previously unheard of levels of freedom to explore relationships. It would seem that finally gender politics are moving in favour of more equality and justice for women. But societal pressures to toe the patriarchal line remain strong and binding and it will be a while before that changes. We can just say the wheels are in motion.

Sylvia Mason 
oversees creative is planning and strategy at The PRactice.


The politics of censorship

The Padmavati row once again exposes the hypocrisy of our society and political system. The basic tenets of democracy are again being held hostage by hot-headed nationalism and certain vested interests. For its part, the government seems unable or disinclined to safeguard the interests of storytellers and story lovers. It has once again sacrificed constitutional guarantees such as freedom of expression at the altar of divisive politics.

The facts around the issue are well known. Padmavati, experts say, is not mentioned in any recognized historical text. Her story first appeared in a Sufi composition which is treated as a source for the history of Mewar. The main objection raised here involves the alleged distortion of historical facts, something that could have been handled in an objective manner. However, such issues typically don a saffron colour and become hot button items on the agendas of political parties.

There is more to this than meets the eye. There could be other motives to explain why the issue has been allowed to dominate the news. Is it a ploy to divert attention from questions on demonetization, GST and dwindling jobs, driving people’s attention from economic worries to less weighty concerns of nationalism and Hindutva?

Possibly. But while our political parties continue to exploit such opportunities, creative license in storytelling takes another blow to its chest.

Luna Biswas
is Vice-President (for Emerging Sectors and Life Sciences) at The PRactice


The rise of the age of algorithms

Predictive reasoning, the key to guiding machine behaviour, has been transformed over the last few decades. When Alan Turing designed the initial machine, machine behaviour was driven by certain specific inputs and was dependent on the man-machine interface. Due to the fragmented nature of connectivity, to feed machine learning. Computing was largely number driven, electromechanical in approach and limited by both people’s assumptions and reach.

What then is different today? Largely seamless connectivity and expanded reach have enabled the rise of self-learning software that is steadily replacing people. This software, or AI, is non-judgemental, flexible and eliminates the bias inherent in human induced reasoning. The codes that form AI are not set in stone but exist in transforming predictive reasoning based on real-time interaction between machines and people.

With human bias being gradually removed from the picture, we are entering a new era in analytics. It has also raised questions about what happens as algorithms/software keep increasing in sophistication, along with the self-awareness to generate machine behaviour devoid of human bias and correlated thought. The news story last year about Facebook bots communicating in their own self-developed language underscores this reality. It’s something we need to be mindful of, without giving in to alarmism.

Arijit Sengupta
is Vice-President (Advocacy/Public Policy & Communication) at The PRactice