Developments in Russia and Ukraine
As the Russia-Ukraine war goes on, the overall military situation continues to be characterized by the status quo of the last few months. In recent times, it is also evident that Russia has escalated the hostilities and entered the Ukrainian town of Marinka. The capture of Marinka by Russian forces is regarded as the biggest territorial advance by Russia since the fall of Bakhmut in May 2023. The Russian forces are now intensifying their efforts to expand control over key towns in the Donbas region.
However, the capture of the decimated town of Marinka has come at a big cost to Moscow. Russia’s ongoing tank troubles and depleted resources in the aftermath of the capture may hamper its ability to capitalize on the town’s beneficial geography or exploit the win. It is also notable that Russia was close to capturing the town of Marinka in June 2023, right after their big capture of Bakhmut. The fact that the Russians could declare victory in Marinka finally in December 2023 – almost six months later – reveals the serious military limitations of the country. Despite these changes, Ukraine is also continuing with its counter-offensive and has downed various Russian fighter jets, besides leading the offensive against Crimea. The war in Ukraine has finally reached Russian territory, with increased raids by Ukrainian sabotage groups into Russia’s border regions and the regular shelling of Russian cities.
The continuing military travails of Russia in the ongoing war are further supplemented by its depleting diplomatic capital. Due to recent political developments, Russia is rapidly losing leverage in Central Asia as well as in the Caucasus, having alienated Armenia. Furthermore, its relationship with Beijing has also predictably become purely transactional, as almost all Chinese partnerships do. A recent example of this is China’s exploitation of Russian energy vulnerabilities, as seen through Beijing’s refusal to invest in the Power of Siberia-2 natural gas pipeline, which is important to Moscow in offsetting the losses incurred after Gazprom’s withdrawal from the European market due to the war. At the same time, China also continues to insist on substantial discounts for Russian gas, thereby demonstrating its superior “bargaining power.” As it is, the gas supplies currently flowing through the Power of Siberia-1 pipeline are already being sold to China at almost half the price of rates for the European markets. This shows that Beijing only supports Moscow to serve Chinese interests, for example, leveraging Russian anti-Western narratives in its own propaganda and treating the Russian Far East as a “resource colony” to be exploited.
Furthermore, there is a notable lack of progress in joint Russia-Iran projects, with Russian investments in Iran not yielding any results. Even on the BRICS front, the expectations of Moscow have been belied, as its dream of creating some kind of an anti-western alliance or a common currency is nowhere on the horizon.
Besides these diplomatic setbacks, the internal situation in Russia is not very positive either, despite massive Russian propaganda efforts. An independent poll recently found that, for the first time, more Russians favor talks with Kyiv than continuing the war to a victorious conclusion. The Russian Field research group queried more than 1,600 Russians at the end of October and found that 48 percent favored beginning negotiations with Ukraine while only 39 percent opposed doing so. This is the first documented time since the beginning of the full-scale invasion that Russians have been divided in this way.
The deteriorating domestic situation in Russia is further demonstrated by the fact that at a time when ordinary political representation is blocked and participation in most protests remains dangerous, the Russian people have intensified the only available safe channel for airing their grievances viz. by writing letters to Putin. The Russian Presidential administration now receives more than 100,000 letters a month addressed to Putin that touch on the adverse impact of the war in Ukraine for ordinary Russians. These letters contain complaints about the poor treatment of contracted soldiers, problems with mobilization, inadequate medical treatment for the wounded, and failure to regularly rotate soldiers from the front, among others.
While these letters reflect the sentiments and suffering of ordinary Russians, underground movements against Russia also continue. These movements are particularly characterized by a regionalist/provincial agenda of autonomy. For instance, a movement known as the “Free Ingria” movement discussed possible independence for St. Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast at its most recent conference.
The anti-Putin sentiment is so steady that even the Russian military is now no longer immune to it. In recent weeks, Russia has witnessed increased reports of violence against military personnel. The violence includes demonstrative retaliation against Russians who avoid conscription and attempts to send wounded soldiers to the Ukrainian front. Those who refuse to go on the attack are subjected to particularly cruel methods of coercion. These increasingly repressive methods are stirring up discontent, not only among the domestic population but within the Russian military’s ranks as well. That the Kremlin continues to send recruits to the front without officially declaring a second wave of mobilization is particularly negative and reeks of weakness. Even the boundaries of law no longer matter. In blatant violations of the law, Russian military officials are even recruiting students regardless of whether they have completed their studies, or their health categorizes them as unfit for service, with recruits often having no opportunity to challenge the summons.
All this has massively increased the distrust within Russia. Putin has singlehandedly managed to break the spirit of his own people in a way rarely seen before. The outcome of such challenges may not be immediately visible to the world, but they are certainly eating Russia from within, leaving its minor military victories hollow.
Developments in Science and Technology
One of the most remarkable aspects of the past year, as it draws to a close, is the pathbreaking momentum achieved in the field of technology. The past year saw the rapidly rising pervasiveness of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in major aspects of our everyday lives. From ChatGPT and its competitive variants to debates on Metaverse and various dimensions of reality to AI-powered smart devices, the debate around AI now no longer evokes wonder but has started evoking existential questions and dilemmas. These dilemmas acknowledge the irreversibility of the AI revolution, even as the debate turns from wonder and fascination with AI to questions about how to co-exist with this rapidly rising technology.
As the year ended, an interesting aspect of this debate was highlighted by the lawsuit initiated by New York Times (NYT) against OpenAI and Microsoft – which have powered the ChatGPT technology. NYT sued these companies for the unlawful use of its copyrighted content through their generative AI technology. Such generative AI platforms can merely scrape the Internet to build and train themselves. Such AI systems are, after all, built on the back of work done by creators of original content which is then synthesized through an algorithm and presented as fresh information by the AI systems. The NYT, in its lawsuit, alleged that OpenAI and Microsoft used its content without payment to create products that substitute for The Times and steal audiences away from it, besides depriving it of subscription, licensing and advertising revenue. NYT further alleged that millions of its articles were used to train automated chatbots, which now compete with the news outlet as a source of reliable information.
The controversy highlights not only the debate on diminution of Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs), but also the massive challenge of regulating an AI that is always changing itself. In this context, governments are now trying to play catch-up, as the focus of the nations moves from military applications of AI to also encompass its civil regulation. Besides the passage the AI Act by European Union and UK-sponsored AI Safety summit, India also took the initiative by hosting a summit of the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence (GPAI) in New Delhi recently, in which it tried to highlight not only the benefits of AI, but also the risks associated with it and the need for its regulation in civil domains such IPRs, privacy, security, fairness and other such difficult questions. The inter-governmental debates now also encompass public safety issues such as those posed by Frontier AI – highly capable foundation generative AI models that could possess dangerous capabilities and pose severe risks to public safety – as well as the common pervasiveness with which deepfakes are being used.
Criminal Law Overhaul
The winter session of the Parliament, coming in the wake of BJP victory in state assembly elections, took place amidst intense acrimony and dramatic developments in the Parliament. The session witnessed a serious security breach in Parliament, the suspension of record 146 Members of Parliament (MPs) and the disqualification of TMC MP, Mahua Moitra, over cash-for-query scam. Despite this, a number of bills were passed in this session.
Amongst the most crucial of such bills were the three bills which aim at bringing about a change in the criminal law system of the country to dismantle the colonial era architecture – The Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC) will be replaced by the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita (BNS); the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (CrPC) will be replaced by the Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita; the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 will be replaced by the Bharatiya Sakshya Adhiniyam.
Bharatiya Nyaya (Second)
Sanhita Bill, 2023
The following are the key changes made in this bill:
First, terrorism has been defined in very specific terms in this bill. Section 113 of the revised Bill has modified the definition of the crime of terrorism to entirely adopt the existing definition under Section 15 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA). The UAPA, often labeled as draconian, defines as a terrorist act any act ‘with intent to threaten or likely to threaten the unity, integrity, security, economic security, or sovereignty of India or with intent to strike terror or likely to strike terror in the people or any section of the people in India or in any foreign country.’ The offence is punishable with death or imprisonment for life. Those who conspire, abet, incite, or facilitate the commission of a terrorist act could face imprisonment ranging from five years to life.
The definition of terrorism has also been expanded to include threats to monetary stability and economic security.
Second, section 86 of the revised Bill defines “cruelty” against a woman by her husband and his relatives, which is punishable with a jail term of up to three years. Akin to Section 498A of the IPC, 1860, the new bill defines cruelty as, (a) willful conduct likely to drive a woman to commit suicide or cause grave injury or danger to the life, limb, or health (whether mental or physical); or (b) harassment of a woman to coerce her or any person related to her to meet any unlawful demand for property or valuable security.
Third, section 73 stipulates that those who print or publish ‘any matter’ concerning court proceedings in rape or sexual assault cases without permission would be punished with a two-year jail sentence and a fine. This is to ensure that identities of rape victims are not made public.
Fourth, provision of either death penalty or life term has been introduced for gangrape of minor and for mob lynching. The latter is for cases when a mob of five or more people commit murder based on factors such as race, caste, community or personal belief.
Fifth, section 377 from IPC,1860 has been read down entirely. Moreover, the Parliamentary panel recommendations have also not been included in the new bill. The panel had made two important recommendations. First, it had suggested that adultery should be criminalized in a gender-neutral manner since it is crucial to safeguard the sanctity of the institution of marriage. Second, the panel had – in keeping with the Supreme Court judgement in Navtej Singh Johar v. UOI (2018) which had decriminalized consensual same-sex relations between adults, while keeping other provisions of section 377 – recommended that non-consensual same-sex relations should be retained as criminal offence.
Unfortunately, the new bill does not include either of the two recommendations. This means that adultery is no longer an offence, and neither are there special criminal provisions for rape committed in same-sex intercourse.
Sixth, the new bill introduces Clause 69 to tackle the menace of love jihad, by criminalizing deceitful promise to marry. Deceitful means include sexual intercourse not amounting to offence of rape, false promises of employment or promotion, inducement or marrying after suppressing identity.
Seventh, for the first time, tackling organized crime has been brought under ordinary criminal law. In cases of organized crime, the laws give the state vast powers of surveillance and the standards for evidence and procedure are also relaxed in favour of the state. In the new bill, if death is caused due to organized crime, the punishment will range from life imprisonment to death penalty. In case there is no death, the bill mandates a minimum prison sentence of five years which may extend to life imprisonment. A separate category of petty organized crime has also been introduced, which criminalizes theft, snatching, cheating, unauthorized selling of tickets, unauthorized betting or gambling, selling of public examination question papers.
Finally, the new bill introduces sedition in a different and wider form. Apart from a name change from rajdroh to deshdroh, the new provision brings under its ambit aiding through financial means acts of subversive activities and those encouraging feelings of separatist activities.
Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha (Second) Sanhita, 2023
The following are the key changes made in this bill:
First, community service has been defined as a new form of punishment under Section 23 of the revised Bill. Community service is ‘work which the Court may order a convict to perform as a form of punishment that benefits the community, for which he shall not be entitled to any remuneration.’ A Magistrate of the First or Second Class has been specifically empowered to impose this punishment, to encourage a more reparative approach to minor crimes.
Second, handcuffing, under section 43(3), has been restricted to select heinous crimes like rape and murder instead of extending its usage to persons who have been accused of committing ‘economic offences.’ Further, the power of the police to use handcuffs has been expanded beyond the time of arrest to include the stage of production before court as well.
Third, section 187(3) of the bill talks about police custody beyond the initial 15-days of arrest. The new bill implies that the prescribed 15-day-period of police custody can now be an aggregate of shorter periods of custody sought over the entire period of investigation lasting 60 or 90 days (depending on the nature of the offence.) While the Parliamentary panel had flagged that the provision could be misused since people, particularly those hailing from marginalized backgrounds, may be subjected to extreme custodial violence, these concerns were not taken into account in the new bill.
Fourth, section 172 of the bill talks about Preventive Detention. Under the revised bill, the detained person must now be produced before the Magistrate or released in petty cases within 24 hours.
Bharatiya Sakshya (Second) Bill, 2023
A significant change in the new bill concerns section 61. This section of the bill allows the admissibility of electronic evidence by underscoring that an electronic record shall have the same legal effect as a paper record, subject, however, to requirement for a certificate under section 63.
Overall, the three bills, while making the task of overhaul of criminal law more concise and pointed, do not represent a very major departure from the laws they are replacing.
Other Major Bills Passed in the Winter Session:
Bill – The Telecommunications Bill, 2023
Contents – The Bill seeks to replace the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 and the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933.
Contents – Authorization will be required from the central government to: (i) establish and operate telecommunications networks, (ii) provide telecommunications services, or (iii) possess radio equipment.
Contents – Telecommunication may be intercepted on specified grounds including security of the state, public order, or prevention of offences. Telecom services may be suspended on similar grounds.
Contents – The central government may provide for measures to protect users such as requiring prior consent to receive specified messages, and creation of a do not disturb register.
Bill – The Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization (Second Amendment) Bill, 2023
Contents – The Bill amends the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019. The Act provides for the reorganisation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir into the union territories of Jammu and Kashmir (with legislature) and Ladakh (without legislature).
Contents – The Bill reserves one-third of all elected seats in the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly for women. This reservation will also apply to the seats reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the Assembly.
Contents – The reservation will be effective once the census conducted after the commencement of this Bill has been published. Based on the census, delimitation will be undertaken to reserve seats for women.
Bill – The Chief Election Commissioner and Other Election Commissioners (Appointment, Conditions of Service and Term of Office) Bill, 2023
Contents – The Bill replaces the Election Commission (Conditions of Service of Election Commissioners and Transaction of Business) Act, 1991. It provides for the appointment, salary, and removal of the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and Election Commissioners (ECs).
Contents – The CEC and ECs will be appointed by the President upon the recommendation of a Selection Committee. The Selection Committee will consist of the Prime Minister, a Union Cabinet Minister, and Leader of Opposition/leader of the largest opposition party in Lok Sabha.
Contents – The salary and conditions of service of the CEC and ECs will be equivalent to that of Cabinet Secretary, which is determined by the government. Under the 1991 Act, it was equivalent to the salary of a Supreme Court Judge, which was determined by an Act of Parliament.
Contents – The Bill has been in controversy due to perception of increased influence of the central government in the matters of appointments and salary of the CEC and ECs.
COP28 Annual Climate Summit: Much Ado About Nothing
The annual 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has followed a predictable pattern. The COP was being held at a time when global warming was breaking new records. The year 2023 was already confirmed to emerge as the hottest year ever. Several months in 2023 set new temperature records. More than 80 days during 2023 happened to be at least 1.5 degree Celsius warmer than pre-industrial times.
At the same time, every assessment showed that the world was not doing enough, and that the 1.5-degree target was rapidly slipping out of hand. COP28, therefore, was expected to stimulate more ambitious climate actions, particularly between now and 2030. Viewed in the face of the climate emergency, the latest COP again fell well short of expectations.
The deadlock among countries over the questions of responsibility for climate finance, technology transfer and extent of mitigation continues as before. With these perennial problems, the outcome was also a watered-down document.
The key takeaways from COP28 in 2023 are:
Fossil fuel phase-out:
This was the most hotly contested issue at COP28, and the reason for a prolonged deadlock. The role of fossil fuels in causing global warming had never been even acknowledged in any earlier COP decision, but this was getting increasingly untenable. After many deliberations, the final agreement called upon countries to contribute towards “transitioning away” from fossil fuels, “so as to achieve net zero by 2050”. There were no time schedules and no targets. Some countries were even extremely disappointed that the term “fossil fuel phase-out” had not even been used.
Tripling of Renewable Energy:
This was an expected outcome, and the only one that contributes to additional emission reductions between now and 2030. The COP28 agreement calls upon countries to contribute to tripling of global installed capacity of renewable energy and doubling of annual improvements in energy efficiency. Together, these two measures have the potential to avoid emissions of about 7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent between now and 2030, more than all the net result of all the other climate actions being currently taken. Tripling is a global target, and it is not incumbent on every country to individually triple its current installed capacity. It is thus not clear how this tripling would be ensured.
Phase-down of coal:
Coal was already singled out for phase-down in the Glasgow COP in 2021. In this COP too, the Glasgow language was reiterated. There is nothing about how this phase-down is to be measured, or from what baseline.
Methane emission cuts:
The agreement talks about “accelerating and substantially reducing non-carbon-dioxide emissions globally, including in particular methane emissions by 2030”. Methane is the most widespread greenhouse gas apart from CO2, accounting for nearly 25 per cent of all emissions. It is also about 80 times more potent than CO2 in causing global warming. Methane emission reductions can therefore bring substantial benefits. But several countries, including India, are extremely opposed to any mandate to cut methane emissions, mainly because one of theie major sources happens to be agriculture and livestock.
Loss and Damage Fund:
For the poor and vulnerable countries, this was the most important outcome. The money from the fund is meant to provide financial help to countries trying to recover from climate-induced disasters. A decision to set up a Loss and Damage Fund had been taken last year at COP27 in Sharm el-Shaikh but it had not been created, and no money had been promised. COP28 operationalised this fund on the opening day of the conference, and several countries, including hosts UAE, made funding commitments. By the end of the conference, commitments worth about US$ 800 million had been made. This is a meagre amount compared to the cost of the climate crisis facing humanity. Therefore, the fund appears to be toothless for all practical purposes.
Global Goal on Adaptation:
This was another important step developing countries had been waiting for. Historically, adaptation hasn’t received enough attention, or resources, as compared with mitigation activities, mainly because adaptation is largely a local endeavour. Its benefits also are mostly local. But developing countries had been arguing that a global framework for adaptation was necessary to bring more attention to it. While the COP at Glasgow in 2021 had setup a two-year work programme for a global goal on adaptation, COP28 finally adopted this goal. However, mere adoption of this goal will merely remain a formality until a lot more is done to operationalize adaption, by identifying indicators for adaptation and making financial provisions to realize adaptation activities/projects.
Thus, in terms of overall assessment, it appears that despite much hype, like its predecessors, COP28 too turned out to be more about signaling than doing. In terms of concrete achievement, even with all that has been agreed upon, we are nowhere close to averting the impending climate doom facing humanity. This COP is priding itself on making a mention of fossil fuels for the first time – an irony considering that fossil fuels are responsible for the climate crisis. It is also priding itself on – again for the first time – linking climate change impacts to biodiversity, health and food security. These pledges represent the kind of minimalism whose agreement should have been a long-forgone conclusion. But when minimal staring points become end-term commitments, there is little that can be done to avert the crisis facing us.