Headlines that matter

Government’s big tax move

  • In 2012, the government rewrote the tax code and gave itself the power to go after merger and acquisition (M&A) deals all the way back to 1962. 
  • Suitably empowered, it slapped on big capital gains taxes on two global companies—Cairn Energy and Vodafone—for previous transactions. The total amount collected: Rs 81 billion (8,100 crore)—of which Rs 78 billion (7,800 crore) was taken from Cairn Energy alone.
  • At the time, the BJP termed it “tax terrorism”—but despite gaining power in 2014, the NDA government has done nothing to change the law. 
  • And in recent years, two international arbitration tribunals have unanimously ruled against the Indian government.
  • Yesterday, the government finally embraced the writing on the wall—likely triggered by Cairn’s aggressive efforts to recover the $1.2 billion awarded in compensation by the tribunal.
  • The Finance Minister announced the plan to nullify the 2012 clauses on retrospective taxation—and refund the amount paid in these cases without any interest.
  • The Telegraph has details on the latest move. Indian Express has the history of this disastrous bit of policymaking. The Hindu explains why most experts are happy. Our explainer on Cairn Energy does a good job of explaining what this retrospective tax fight is really about.


Apple to track child sex abuse

The company—under pressure from law enforcement and child protection groups—has unveiled a new plan to track those who trade in child pornography. A tool called ‘neuralMatch’ will scan and detect known images of child sex abuse on iMessages. If it finds a match, the image will be reviewed by a human who will notify the police. And it will somehow do all this without breaking end-to-end encryption—i.e. without actually reading the messages. Child trafficking activists are delighted, but privacy advocates are not:


“Matthew Green of Johns Hopkins, a top cryptography researcher, was concerned that it could be used to frame innocent people by sending them harmless but malicious images designed to appear as matches for child porn, fooling Apple’s algorithm and alerting law enforcement—essentially framing people.”


A Patanjali palm oil empire?

Baba Ramdev’s corporate empire plans to set up palm oil plantations in Meghalaya. This is part of the expansion of the group’s oil processing company Ruchi Soya. And work is already underwayincluding field surveys for high-value cultivation that yields cheap oiland Ramdev says operations will start soon. Why environmentalists are horrified:


“Ecologically, there is an overwhelming consensus that oil palm is unmitigatedly detrimental. Oil palm expansion is one of the largest drivers of the loss of virgin forest in Southeast Asia. About 55% of the plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia replaced natural forests and the expansion of such plantations has caused a green cover loss in Thailand, Myanmar and Papua New Guinea.”

Shillong Times has more on this story. Related good reads: This older piece in Down To Earth on the ecological impact of palm oil plantations in the Northeast; our big story from November looks at India’s addiction to palm oil. 

A secret Indian base in Mauritius

Al Jazeera has uncovered what may be a naval facility on the remote island of Agalégawhich is 1,100 km from the main island and is inhabited by 300 people. The evidence: Satellite images that reveal the construction of two big jetties and a runway that is more than three kilometres long. According to a security expert:


“It’s an intelligence facility for India to stage air and naval presence in order to increase surveillance in the wider southwest Indian Ocean and Mozambique channel…Based on my personal information, my conversations with all these people in my circle, the base will be used for the berthing of our ships and the runway will be mostly used for our P-8I [surveillance] aircraft.”


But both India and Mauritius insist that the construction project is not for military purposesand that the infrastructure is for the islanders. Al Jazeera has a lot more details on this mysterious project.


Speaking of building stuff: India has built the world’s highest road in Ladakh at an altitude of 19,300 feet. This is higher than a Mt Everest base camp. Point to note: Airplanes fly at 30,000 feet, so this is almost 2/3rds of that distance. Also: It has broken Bolivia’s record which was 18,953 feet. (NDTV)


Tamil textbook drops caste surnames 

A Class XII textbook has removed surnames that signify caste identity of renowned scholars. For example: Iyer has been x-ed from U.Ve. Swaminatha Iyerwho is now U.Ve. Swaminathar. This is part of the broader trend toward eliminating caste signifiers in names of streets, districts and even transport companies. (The Hindu)

Speaking of caste: New government data shows that 63% of undergraduates who drop out of the top seven IITs belong to disadvantaged groups—who enter via reservations. Almost 40% were from the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities—with the SC/ST percentage reaching as high as 72% in some institutions.  But the Education Minister insists that there is no reason to worry, claiming these students leave “mainly on account of securing seat in other departments or institutions of students choice or on any other personal ground.” The Hindu has more on this worrying but unsurprising data. 


Louis Vuitton has got game

The luxury fashion brand has jumped into the gaming arena with an offering titled ‘Louis the Game’ to mark the 200th birthday of its founder, Louis Vuitton. You play as Viviennethe company mascot created from its logoand travel a magical landscape on the way to a birthday celebrationwhile collecting items that unlock postcards. The main aim is PR for the brand and its founder. That said, the game offers its own rewardsincluding 30 NFTs. Why this matters:


“What these virtual environments have in common, though, is they’re part of what’s become known as the metaverse, a term for the expanding realm of digital worlds where humans are spending more [of] their time, and their money. It has attracted interest from all sorts of companies, including Facebook.”


The game is available on iOS and Android. See a snippet of the gameplay below (extended version here): 


In other tech-related news: Those much-anticipated disappearing WhatsApp photos and videos are finally here. This View Once feature allows you to send a pic or video that will disappear instantly once opened. They won't be saved in the recipient's camera roll or their WhatsApp photos. You’ll need the latest version of the app to make this happen. (Mashable)


Softbank bets big on… dogs!

The global super-fund led a $75 million funding round for Embark Veterinary Inc—a biotech startup that uses DNA analysis to extend the lifespan of pooches. How it works: The company offers genetic testing that screens for more than 200 health risks—based on which it makes recommendations about what the dogs should eat, which meds they should avoid etc. They aim to increase the canine lifespan by three years by the end of this decade. One telling detail about this big Softbank spend: Embark is currently processing the DNA of a dog belonging to SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son. (Bloomberg News)


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