UPSC member Chhatar Singh resigns

Chhatar Singh took over as UPSC member on 2 September 2013. His term was due to end on 4 March, next year. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Chhatar Singh took over as UPSC member on 2 September 2013. His term was due to end on 4 March, next year. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

New Delhi: UPSC member Chhatar Singh has resigned, over three months after he was questioned by the CBI in connection with alleged irregularities in the allotment of 14 industrial plots in Haryana’s Panchkula.

President Ram Nath Kovind has accepted his resignation with effect from 22 September, an order issued by personnel ministry said.

Singh took over as member in the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) on 2 September 2013. His term was due to end on 4 March, next year.

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had on 5 June questioned former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Chhatar Singh in connection with the alleged irregularities in the allotment of 14 industrial plots. Singh was principal secretary to Hooda when the allotments took place.

The CBI has registered an FIR to probe corruption in the allotment of the industrial plots during Hooda’s tenure as the chief minister. According to the FIR, industrial plots were given to 14 people by allegedly manipulating certain provisions of the allotment. These included allowing them to submit their applications even after the last date of submission had ended.

The 14 people who had been alloted land had submitted their applications on 24 January 2012, whereas the last date of submission was 6 January, the FIR said.

Besides Hooda, who as chief minister was chairman of the Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA), others named in the FIR are retired IAS officer D.P. S. Nagal, then HUDA chief administrator, S.C. Kansal, then controller of finance, and B.B. Taneja, then deputy superintendent of HUDA.

The FIR also alleged that ineligible beneficiaries were alloted plots at rates lesser than the prevailing market rates, causing losses of several crores to the state exchequer.

It is alleged that the 14 plots, ranging from 496 square metres to 1,280 square metres, were allotted at throwaway prices after changes were made midway in the eligibility criteria.

All the allottees were allegedly related to politicians, bureaucrats and other influential people, including the then chief minister of the state.

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Free Basics mess: Facebook board member makes things worse by bringing up colonialism

Free Basics mess: Facebook board member makes things worse by bringing up colonialism
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Even before India’s internet regulator officially banned Facebook’s Free Basics platform, at least in its current form, it had already made its opinion of the social media giant evident. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India criticised Facebook for trying to turn a policy discourse into a majoritarian opinion poll, and called its campaign “crude” and “dangerous.” Now Marc Andreesen, a venture capitalist and director on Facebook’s board has made things even worse.

Andreesen had been involved in a discussion with Vikram Chachra, partner at an Indian seed capital firm, about the telecom regulator’s decision to ban Free Basics – Facebook’s product aimed at providing a version of the internet to users for free, with the social media company claiming it wanted to help connect those who don’t currently have access to the internet.

Andreessen’s reference to colonialism wasn’t the first time Facebook’s service had been compared to the East India Company, which (in short) provided “free” industrialisation to the country while slowly annexing land and eventually coming to rule the country.

Many had in fact made the reference to Free Basics being similar to colonialism, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s anguished op-ed wondering “who could possibly be against” Free Basics certainly had a whiff of the well-meaning colonial Westerner about it.

What was different about Andreessen’s colonial reference was that it was positive, bringing up the old argument that the East India Company and the British Raj had been good for India. (Shashi Tharoor had some thoughts on this, here).

Facebook was eventually not allowed to prevail in India because of the efforts of activists who argued that services like Free Basics violated the principle of net neutrality, which suggests roughly that all traffic on the internet should be treated the same.

Even if Free Basics claimed it was an open platform, the activists argued, it still could have potentially balkanised the internet. When the regulator eventually issued guidelines, it concluded much the same, saying services like Free Basics “militate against the very basis on which the internet has developed.”The regulator’s ruling has only spurred on the debate online in India, with some arguing that it was a knee-jerk decision because of the huge support that net neutrality activists had managed to drum up, while others insisted that it would help preserve the openness of the internet.

As you might imagine, Andreessen’s attempt to enter into this conversation by criticising “anti-colonialism” got a little pushback.

Andreesen deleted his original tweet about anti-colonialism, but continued to argue about Free Basics being good for India, before realising that Indian twitter had heard about him. Eventually, this happened:

But the incident also served as a reminder of how tone-deaf some of the attempts to popularise Free Basics in India were. After Facebook got initial push-back from the net neutrality community when it attempted to introduce Free Basics’ predecessor, Internet.org, into the country, it changed the name from something that sounded both like the internet itself and a non-profit (it is neither) and sought to make the platform more open.

When even this did not suffice, it unleashed a marketing blitzkrieg, buying up tremendous amounts of ad space in newspapers and on billboards around the country, attempting to sell the idea that poor Indians would benefit from Free Basics. It seemed to miss out on the mistrust Indians have for massive corporations claiming to give things away and, as Zuckerberg pointed out, could not understand who could possibly be against freebies.

Things then got even worse when Facebook attempted to use its platform and users to influence the debate on Free Basics. Facebook users were encouraged to tell TRAI that they supported the service, prompting the regulator to point out that it wasn’t a poll about the Free Basics, but a policy consultation on differential pricing.

Facebook also accidentally opened up the campaign to users outside India making it seem even more suspicious how it was using its global platform to lobby TRAI. It eventually attempted to pivot, but was still told by TRAI that its campaign had been crude and dangerous.

Andreessen’s latest foray into the field, though not a part of Facebook’s official marketing efforts, only seemed to confirm the tone-deaf nature of Silicon Valley’s response to the Indian debate.

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