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JULY 27, 2017


Questions of age

  • The Supreme Court has shown due restraint in declining to apply the provisions of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act to mentally retarded adults whose mental age may be that of a child. It would have been tempting to give a purposive interpretation to the term ‘child’ under POCSO, which refers to those below 18 years of age, and rule that it encompasses those with a ‘mental age’ of a person below 18.
  • POCSO is meant to protect children from sexual offences. To extend it to adult victims based on mental age would require determination of their mental competence. This would need statutory provisions and rules; the legislature alone is competent to enact them. Judicial conferment of power to trial courts to treat some adults as children based on mental capacity would, in the Bench’s opinion, do violence to the existing law protecting children from sexual offences.
  • It is now up to the legislature to consider the introduction of legal provisions to determine mental competence so victims with inadequate mental development may effectively testify against sexual offenders.

Time to change course

  • Since December 2015, Chennai has limped from one extreme weather-related shock to another — the floods, the failed monsoon of 2016, Cyclone Vardah, and now the water crisis. Chennai’s defining element is water. But the city shows scant regard for this precious but dangerous resource.
  • Located squarely in the intervening floodplains of three rivers on a high-energy coastline, Chennai is a disaster-prone location. Any badly located city can be vulnerable merely by virtue of its location.

The importance of Ennore

  • Ennore Creek, a sprawling 8,000-acre tidal waterbody, is a place where climate change and disastrous land-use change converge.
  • When cyclonic weather pushes the sea surging landwards, or when rainwaters from the two rivers come rushing to meet the sea, the waterspread in the creek swells to its majestic fullness. Come rain or storm surge, the availability of room for the rain or sea water to stay is what keeps the city from going under.
  • The creek offers another protection too. It buffers the rich aquifers of the Araniyar-Kosasthalaiyar Basin from the sea, and keeps salt water from invading groundwater resources that supply several hundred million litres daily to Chennai even during the worst droughts.

Seeds of disaster

  • Political leaders and bureaucrats have been told that the creek is a protected waterbody, and that encroaching on it is both illegal and dangerous.
  • But neither impending danger nor illegality has stopped the State government from clearing KPL’s proposal to construct coal yards, warehouse zones, car parking and export terminals for Ford, Hyundai and Nissan on 1,000 acres of Ennore wetlands. Justifying the decision taken in June, the State Coastal Zone Management Authority published a new map — subsequently exposed to be a fraudulent map — that denied the existence of the 6,500-acre creek.


Privacy in the public domain

  • Privacy is not a concept like the other fundamental rights. Moreover, our notions of privacy have changed and will continue to change. If there is one major catalyst for this change, it has been technology.
  • Two common ways of understanding privacy are through secrecy and anonymity.
    • We believe that our bank balance must be private. Companies do not normally make public the salaries of all their employees. Universities do not make public the marks or grades of their students in a way that violates the privacy of the student.
  • These notions of privacy are based on the need for security and protection.
    • We do not want to divulge certain things about our wealth or life practices since they may be used by others to potentially harm us. So privacy becomes a way of protecting individuals or groups. But we also often overthrow privacy arguments for security purposes. We do not object to giving our biometrics when we apply for visas or when we join some private jobs.
  • Contemporary technology has made possible many new innovations that have changed the very meaning and significance of privacy.
    • From smartphones to the darknet, the fundamental trajectory is one to do with privacy.
  • Today, in times of growing privatisation, the greatest challenge to privacy comes from the private sector.
    • Social experiments have shown that people are willing to have private information about themselves made public if they receive some monetary advantage.
  • Today, privacy has been deeply compromised through the offering of ‘free’ goods – free emails and free Internet access!

The state and private players

  • Very often when we worry about questions of privacy, it is about the role of the government or the state.
  • However, information about individuals is arguably much more in the private domain today than it is within various governments.
  • Private groups know best the power of the idea of privacy.
    • They use this notion to protect themselves from governments and the public. They also realise that the greatest market that is perennially available to them is the market of trading information on privacy.
  • A related problem is that the government has begun to look more and more like the private sector. Today, almost all politicians are rich entrepreneurs and hold powerful business interests.

No free lunches

  • The price we pay for modern technologies is not only money.
  • We are seduced by the amount of free things we get in a technological gadget. The websites are free; we can download millions of books and songs for which we had to pay earlier.
  • The major cost that we pay is the cost of our privacy — the information on each one of our private lives and, through this information, more effective control on how we act and behave.
  • This raises deeply troubling questions about making privacy a fundamental right. How will the Supreme Court judges be able to give a judgment on privacy as a fundamental right without also making possession, and the making, of technology as ‘rights’? How can they do this without imposing controls on predator technologies that enter the social world in the guise of making our lives comfortable? Some might argue that technology is only an intermediary tool that enables certain things, both good and bad.