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"Happiness can be defined, in part at least, as the fruit of the desire and ability to sacrifice what we want now for what we want eventually" - Stephen Covey

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Wapo Article on Russia Ukraine War

Hopes that Ukraine will be able to reverse Russian gains are fading in the face of superior firepower

By Siobhán O'Grady ,

Liz Sly and

Ievgeniia Sivorka

Ukraine is running out of ammunition as prospects dim on the battlefield

Hopes that Ukraine will be able to reverse Russian gains are fading in the face of superior firepower

SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — The euphoria that accompanied Ukraine’s unforeseen early victories against bumbling Russian troops is fading as Moscow adapts its tactics, recovers its stride and asserts its overwhelming firepower against heavily outgunned Ukrainian forces.

Newly promised Western weapons systems are arriving, but too slowly and in insufficient quantities to prevent incremental but inexorable Russian gains in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine, which is now the focus of the fight.

The Ukrainians are still fighting back, but they are running out of ammunition and suffering casualties at a far higher rate than in the initial stages of the war. Around 200 Ukrainian soldiers are now being killed every day, up from 100 late last month, an aide to President Volodymyr Zelensky told the BBC on Friday — meaning that as many as 1,000 Ukrainians are being taken out of the fight every day, including those who are injured.

The Russians are still making mistakes and are also losing men and equipment, albeit at a lesser rate than in the first months of the conflict. In one sign that they are suffering equipment shortages, they have been seen on videos posted on social media hauling hundreds of mothballed, Soviet-era T-62 tanks out of storage to be sent to Ukraine.

But the overall trajectory of the war has unmistakably shifted away from one of unexpectedly dismal Russian failures and tilted in favor of Russia as the demonstrably stronger force.

Ukrainian and U.S. hopes that the new supplies of Western weaponry would enable Ukraine to regain the initiative and eventually retake the estimated 20 percent of Ukrainian territory captured by Russia since its Feb. 24 invasion are starting to look premature, said Oleksandr V. Danylyuk, an adviser to the Ukrainian government on defense and intelligence issues.

“The strategies and tactics of the Russians are completely different right now. They are being much more successful,” he said. “They have more resources than us and they are not in a rush.”

“There’s much less space for optimism right now,” he added.

Ukrainian forces remain resolute. In a cafe in the front line town of Slovyansk, two Ukrainian soldiers on a break from the trenches nearby recounted how they were forced to retreat from the town of Dovhenke, northwest of Slovyansk, under withering Russian artillery fire. Thirty-five of their 100-strong unit were killed in the assault, typical of the tactics Russia is using. “They destroy everything and walk in,” said one of the soldiers, Vitaliy Martsyv, 41.

“There is nothing there,” Andriy Tihonenko, 52, said of Dovhenke. “It’s all burned down.”

As troop fatalities mounted, the surviving soldiers felt “more motivated to hold our position,” Tihonenko said. To retreat after their comrades were killed defending the town, he said, would have felt like treating their deaths as insignificant.

But eventually, the defensive line was no longer effective, the two men said. With more than one-third of their force killed, the remaining soldiers had no choice but to pull back.

“Sometimes you feel down,” Tihonenko said. “But then you realize war is war — and you have to finish it.”

Russian artillery pummels Ukraine forces as Russia advances in eastern Ukraine

But the odds against the Ukrainians are starting to look overwhelming, said Danylyuk, the government adviser.

“The Russians are using long-range artillery against us, often without any response, because we don’t have the means,” he said. “They can attack from dozens of kilometers away and we can’t fire back. We know all the coordinates for all their important targets, but we don’t have the means to attack.”

Ukraine has now almost completely run out of ammunition for the Soviet-era weapons systems that were the mainstay of its arsenal, and the Eastern European countries that maintained the same systems have run out of surplus supplies to donate, Danylyuk said. Ukraine urgently needs to shift to longer-range and more sophisticated Western systems, but those have only recently been committed, and in insufficient quantities to match Russia’s immense firepower, he said.

Russia is firing as many as 50,000 artillery rounds a day into Ukrainian positions, and the Ukrainians can only hit back with around 5,000 to 6,000 rounds a day, he said. The United States has committed to deliver 220,000 rounds of ammunition — enough to match Russian firepower for around four days.

The majority of the American M777 howitzer artillery guns that U.S. officials said would enable Ukraine to match Russian firepower are now in use on the battlefield, according to the Pentagon. Yet the Russians continue to advance.

Four of the more sophisticated and longer range HIMARS multiple-rocket launcher systems that the Ukrainians had long requested from the United States are on the way, along with three similar systems pledged by Britain. But the Ukrainians will first have to be trained how to use them, and they are still weeks away from reaching the battlefield, U.S. officials say. The Pentagon has hinted that more systems will be made available once the Ukrainians have demonstrated they can be used.

But the Russians started the war with about 900 of their own similar systems, and although the Ukrainians claim they have destroyed hundreds, the Russians still have hundreds left, Danylyuk said.

The Russians have meanwhile adapted their tactics in ways that have let them take full advantage of their firepower by remaining at a distance from Ukrainian positions, pounding them relentlessly, then taking territory once the Ukrainians have been forced to retreat.

The Russians are also doing a better job of combining their arms, of using close air support and deploying dismounted infantry, said Rob Lee, a former U.S. Marine now with the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Russian officials have claimed they are advancing more slowly than during the initial invasion to avoid civilian casualties. Instead, however, the tactic helps reduce Russian casualties while inflicting heavy losses on the civilians who live in the towns and villages being targeted, analysts say.

“I’m afraid of every single boom or sound,” said Irina Makagon, as she sat in her kitchen in Kostiantynivka, a town near the front line that has suffered intense bombardments. She was sitting in her kitchen earlier this week when a boom and a whistle heralded an incoming shell that crashed into the house next door, killing a young man.

'They're in hell': Hail of incoming Russian artillery tests Ukrainian morale

The Ukrainians are still fighting well and can inflict tactical pain on the Russians when the opportunity presents itself, said Dmitri Alperovitch of the Silverado Consultancy, citing Russia’s disastrous attempt late last month to cross the Siverskiy Donets river; hundreds of Russians were killed and scores of military vehicles destroyed. The Ukrainians are also conducting successful drone strikes against Russian positions and supply columns, he said.

Russia has not released casualty figures since March. “But when you look at what’s happening, I’d be shocked if the Russians are sustaining casualties anywhere close to what the Ukrainians are right now,”

Alperovitch said. Manpower is less of a problem for the Ukrainians than the shortages of ammunition and equipment, said Danylyuk, who put the number of men who have signed up to potentially fight at 6 million. But Ukraine doesn’t have the equipment, including protective gear and guns as well as artillery systems, to field all those willing to volunteer. “We would be sending them to their deaths without equipment,” he said.

The Russians face manpower shortages too, after the heavy losses they suffered in the earliest days of the war. Western officials put the number of Russian deaths at 15,000 to 20,000 so far, with as many as a third of the original invasion force rendered unfit for combat due to injuries, capture and equipment losses after the disasters of the first two months.

But Russia has regenerated its forces to a greater extent than anticipated by many military analysts, bolstering its depleted army by as many as 40,000 to 50,000 men over the past two months, by increasing the age of the reserve force, deploying new forces and refurbishing units that had been decimated, Danylyuk said.

For now, the Donetsk River stands in the way of significant new Russian advances. Western officials say they expect that Russian troops will soon secure full control of the town of Severedonetsk and then are likely to turn their attention to the town of Lysyshansk, on the opposite bank of the river, which would put them in full control of the region of Luhansk. After that, they can be expected to target the larger region of Donetsk that Russia has partially controlled since 2014.

Lysyshansk will be a tougher challenge because the Ukrainians control the high ground, and the Russians’ artillery strength is less of an advantage in close urban combat, said Konrad Muzyka, director of the Warsaw-based Rochan Consulting defense consultancy. Russia may find it difficult to sustain its recent gains for much beyond that, given the losses it has suffered so far, he said.

But if the Russians manage to breach the river, they could start to make rapid advances, he said.

“The Ukrainians are resting their defense on the Donetsk river. If Russia successfully crosses the river, my concern is that the Russians will enter Donetsk with their full might, and then the Ukrainians might be overwhelmed,” he said.

Sly reported from London. Heidi Levine in Slovyansk contributed to this report.

Wednesday, June 08, 2022

State of the Civil Aviation Sector in India

By Tanvi Vipra - March 2022

India is one of the fastest growing aviation markets in the world. Its domestic traffic makes up 69% of the total airline traffic in South Asia. India’s airport capacity is expected to handle 1 billion trips annually by 2023. The Ministry of Civil Aviation is responsible for formulating national aviation policies and programmes. Today, Lok Sabha will discuss and vote upon the budget of the Ministry of Civil Aviation. In light of this, we discuss key issues with the aviation sector in India.

The aviation sector came under severe financial stress during the Covid-19 pandemic. After air travel was suspended in March 2020, airline operators in India reported losses worth more than Rs 19,500 crore while airports reported losses worth more than Rs 5,120 crore. However, several airline companies were under financial stress before the pandemic affected passenger travel. For instance, in the past 15 years, seventeen airlines have exited the market. Out of those, two airlines, Air Odisha Aviation Pvt Ltd and Deccan Charters Pvt Ltd exited the market in 2020. Air India has been reporting consistent losses over the past four years. All other major private airlines in India such as Indigo and Spice Jet faced losses in 2018-19.

Sale of Air India

Air India has accounted for the biggest expenditure head of the Ministry of Civil Aviation since 2011-12. Between 2009-10 and 2020-21, the government spent Rs 1,22,542 crore on Air India through budgeted allocations. In October 2021, the sale of Air India to Talace Ltd., which is a subsidiary of Tata Sons Pvt Ltd, was approved. The bid for Air India was finalised at Rs 18,000 crore.

Up to January 2020, Air India had accumulated debt worth Rs 60,000 crore. The central government is repaying this debt in the financial year 2021-22. After the finalisation of the sale, the government allocated roughly Rs 71,000 crore for expenses related to Air India.

In addition to loan repayment, in 2021-22, the government will provide Air India with a fresh loan (Rs 4,500 crore) and grants (Rs 1,944 crore) to recover from the shock of Covid-19. To pay for the medical benefits of retired employees of Air India, a recurring expense of Rs 165 crore will be borne by the central government each year.

In 2022-23, Rs 9,260 crore is allocated towards servicing the debt of AIAHL (see Table 1). AIAHL is a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) formed by the government to hold the assets and liabilities of Air India while the process of its sale takes place.

Privatisation of Airports

Airports Authority of India (AAI) is responsible for creating, upgrading, maintaining and managing civil aviation infrastructure in the country. As on June 23, 2020, it operates and manages 137 airports in the country. Domestic air traffic has more than doubled from around 61 million passengers in 2013-14 to around 137 million in 2019-20. International passenger traffic has grown from 47 million in 2013-14 to around 67 million in 2019-20, registering a growth of over 6% per annum. As a result, airports in India are witnessing rising levels of congestion. Most major airports are operating at 85% to 120% of their handling capacity. In response to this, the government has decided to privatise some airports to address the problem of congestion.

AAI has leased out eight of its airports through Public Private Partnership (PPP) for operation, management and development on long term lease basis. Six of these airports namely, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Lucknow, Guwahati, Thiruvananthapuram, and Mangaluru have been leased out to M/s Adani Enterprises Limited (AEL) for 50 years (under PPP). The ownership of these airports remains with AAI and the operations will be back with AAI after the concession period is over. The Standing Committee on Transport (2021) had noted that the government expects to have 24 PPP airports by 2024.

The Committee also noted a structural issue in the way airport concessions are given. As of now, entities that bid the highest amount are given the rights to operate an airport. This leads them to pass on the high charge to airline operators. This system does not consider the actual cost of the services and leads to an arbitrary increase in the cost of airline operators. The Ministry sees the role of AAI in future policy issues to include providing high quality, safe and customer-oriented airport and air navigation services. In 2022-23, the government has allocated Rs 150 crore to AAI, which is almost ten times higher than the budget estimates of 2021-22.

Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS-UDAN)

The top 15 airports in the country account for about 83% of the total passenger traffic. These airports are also close to their saturation limit, and hence the Ministry notes that there is a need to add more Tier-II and Tier-III cities to the aviation network. The Regional Connectivity Scheme was introduced in 2016 to stimulate regional air connectivity and make air travel affordable to the masses. The budget for this scheme is Rs 4,500 crore over five years from 2016-17 to 2021-22. As of December 16, 2021, 46% of this amount has been released. In 2022-23, the scheme has been allocated Rs 601 crore, which is 60% lower than the revised estimates of 2021-22 (Rs 994 crore).

Under the scheme, airline operators are incentivised to operate on under-served routes by providing them with viability gap funding and airport fee waivers. AAI, which is the implementing agency of this scheme, has sanctioned 948 routes to boost regional connectivity. As of January 31, 2022, 43% of these routes have been operationalised. As per the Ministry, lack of availability of land and creation of regional infrastructure has led to delays in the scheme. Issues with obtaining licenses and unsustainable operation of awarded routes also contribute to the delay. As per the Ministry, these issues, along with the setback faced due to the pandemic acted as major obstacles for the effective utilisation of funds.

Potential of air cargo

The Standing Committee on Transport (2021) had noted India’s cargo industry’s huge potential with respect to its geographical location, its growing economy, and its growth in domestic and international trade in the last decade. In 2019-20, all Indian airports together handled 3.33 million metric tonnes (MMT) of freight. This is much lower than the cargo handled by Hong Kong (4.5 MMT), Memphis (4.8 MMT), and Shanghai (3.7 MMT), which are the top three airports in terms of the volume of freight handled. The Standing Committee on Transport (2021) has noted inadequate infrastructure as a major bottleneck in developing the country’s air cargo sector. To reduce such bottleneck, it recommended the Ministry to establish dedicated cargo airports, and automate air cargo procedures and information systems to streamline redundant processes.

The Committee has also highlighted that the Open Sky Policy enables foreign cargo carriers to freely operate cargo services to and from any airports in India having customs/immigration facilities. They account for 90-95% of the total international cargo carried to and from the country. On the other hand, Indian air cargo operators face discriminatory practices and regulatory impediments for operating international cargo flights in foreign countries. The Committee urged the Ministry to provide a level-playing field for Indian air cargo operators and to ensure equal opportunities for them. The Ministry revised the Open Sky Policy in December 2020. Under the revised policy, the operations of foreign ad hoc and pure non-scheduled freighter charter service flights have been restricted to six airports - Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata, Hyderabad, and Mumbai.

Rising cost of Aviation Turbine Fuel

The cost of Aviation Turbine Fuel (ATF) forms around 40% of the total operating cost of airlines and impacts their financial viability. ATF prices have been consistently rising over the past years, placing stress on the balance sheets of airline companies. As per recent news reports, airfares are expected to rise as the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is making ATF costlier.

ATF attracts VAT which is variable across states and does not have a provision for input tax credit. High rates of aviation fuel coupled with high VAT rates are adversely affecting airline companies.

The Ministry, in January 2020, has reduced the tax burden on ATF by eliminating fuel throughput charges that were levied by airport operators at all airports across India. Central excise on ATF was reduced from 14% to 11% w.e.f. October 11, 2018. State governments have also reduced VAT/Sales Tax on ATF drawn on RCS airports to 1% or less for 10 years. For non-RCS-UDAN operations, various state governments have reduced VAT/Sales Tax on ATF to within 5%. The Standing Committee on Transport (2021) has recommended ATF to be included within the ambit of GST and that applicable GST should not exceed 12% on ATF with full Input Tax Credit.

For more details, please refer to the Demand for Grants Analysis of the Ministry of Civil Aviation, 2022-23.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

The Turkish Drone that changed the nature of warfare

By Stephen Witt

The New Yorker

The Bayraktar TB2 has brought precision air-strike capabilities to Ukraine and other countries. It’s also a diplomatic tool, enabling Turkey’s rise.

A video posted toward the end of February on the Facebook page of Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, showed grainy aerial footage of a Russian military convoy approaching the city of Kherson. Russia had invaded Ukraine several days earlier, and Kherson, a shipbuilding hub at the mouth of the Dnieper River, was an important strategic site. At the center of the screen, a targeting system locked onto a vehicle in the middle of the convoy; seconds later, the vehicle exploded, and a tower of burning fuel rose into the sky. “Behold the work of our life-giving Bayraktar!” Zaluzhnyi’s translated caption read. “Welcome to Hell!”

The Bayraktar TB2 is a flat, gray unmanned aerial vehicle (U.A.V.), with angled wings and a rear propeller. It carries laser-guided bombs and is small enough to be carried in a flatbed truck, and costs a fraction of similar American and Israeli drones. Its designer, Selçuk Bayraktar, the son of a Turkish auto-parts entrepreneur, is one of the world’s leading weapons manufacturers. In the defense of Ukraine, Bayraktar has become a legend, the namesake of a baby lemur at the Kyiv zoo, and the subject of a catchy folk song, which claims that his drone “makes ghosts out of Russian bandits.”

In April, 2016, the TB2 scored its first confirmed kill. Since then, it has been sold to at least thirteen countries, bringing the tactic of the precision air strike to the developing world and reversing the course of several wars. In 2020, in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan’s dictatorial leader, Ilham Aliyev, used the TB2 to target vehicles and troops, then displayed footage of the strikes on digital billboards in the capital city of Baku.

The TB2 has now carried out more than eight hundred strikes, in conflicts from North Africa to the Caucasus. The bombs it carries can adjust their trajectories in midair, and are so accurate that they can be delivered into an infantry trench. Military analysts had previously assumed that slow, low-flying drones would be of little use in conventional combat, but the TB2 can take out the anti-aircraft systems that are designed to destroy it. “This enabled a fairly significant operational revolution in how wars are being fought right now,” Rich Outzen, a former State Department specialist on Turkey, told me. “This probably happens once every thirty or forty years.”

I spoke with Bayraktar in March, via video. He was in Istanbul, at the headquarters of his company, Baykar Technologies, which employs more than two thousand people. When I asked him about the use of his drones in Ukraine, he told me, “They’re doing what they’re supposed to do—taking out some of the most advanced air-defense systems and armored vehicles in the world.” Bayraktar, who is forty-two years old, has a widow’s peak, soft eyes, and a slightly off-center nose. He was flanked by scale models of new drones, mounted on clear plastic stands, which he displayed to me with the unconcealed pride of an aviation geek. “Any U.A.V. built today to fly, I pilot it myself, because I, like, love it,” he told me. Bayraktar, who has more than two million Twitter followers, uses his account to promote youth-education initiatives, celebrate Turkish martyrs, and post pictures of new aircraft designs. “Some people here consider him like Elon Musk,” Federico Donelli, an international-relations researcher at the University of Genoa, told me.

In May, 2016, Bayraktar married Sümeyye Erdoğan, the youngest daughter of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s President. Erdoğan is the leader of a political Islamist movement that, the analyst Svante Cornell has written, wishes “to build a powerful, industrialized Turkey that serves as the natural leader of the Muslim world.” Turkey’s arms industry has grown tenfold in the past twenty years, and most of the country’s military equipment is now manufactured locally. “The Bayraktars, and particularly the TB2s, have turned into the flagship of the Turkish defense industry,” Alper Coşkun, a former Turkish diplomat, told me.

Turkey borders Iran, Iraq, Syria, Armenia, Georgia, and the European Union, and it faces Russia across the Black Sea. Donelli told me that the shifting allegiances and complex politics of the region reminded him of Europe in the days before the First World War. “In Bayraktar, they have a kind of genius who can change the historical path of Turkey,” Donelli said.

Erdoğan has held power since 2003. During that time, he has seized control of the courts and the press, amended the Turkish constitution, and advocated for a return to traditional roles for women. Journalists critical of the Erdoğan regime have been beaten with baseball bats and iron rods, and opposition activists have been sentenced to decades in prison. But Turkey’s economy is stagnating, and its inflation rate rose to seventy per cent during the past twelve months. In 2019, Erdoğan’s party lost the mayoralty of Istanbul, which it had held since the nineteen-nineties. The TB2 is a spectacular propaganda machine, and Erdoğan has used its success to promote his vision for Turkish society. As Bayraktar told me, “In this day and age, the biggest change in our lives is driven by technology—and who drives the changes? The ones who create technology.”

Bayraktar and his family live on Baykar’s grounds, which he compared to a university campus, with sports facilities and a park that he called “bigger than Google’s.” While we spoke, his mother, Canan; Sümeyye; and the couple’s four-year-old daughter, also named Canan, were eating dinner in an adjacent room. Bayraktar told me that he was one of the oldest engineers at Baykar, and that many of the firm’s programmers are women. “My software side comes from my mother,” he said.

Bayraktar was born in Istanbul in 1979, the middle of three brothers. His father, Özdemir, the son of a fisherman, graduated from Istanbul Technical University and founded an auto-parts company; Canan, his mother, was an economist and a computer programmer in the punch-card era. The brothers were introduced to machine tools at an early age. “We were working, all throughout our childhood, in the factory,” Bayraktar told me. By the time he was a teen-ager, he was a competent tool-and-die-maker. Özdemir was also an amateur pilot, and as a boy Selçuk would survey Turkey’s splendid geography from the window of his father’s plane. “A small aircraft, it’s like sailing in there,” he told me. “You feel like a bird.” Bayraktar was soon building radio-controlled airplanes from kits, sometimes modifying them with his own designs. “I was hiding my model aircraft under my bed, and working on it secretly,” he said. “I should have been studying for my exams.”

Bayraktar’s radio-controlled aircraft prototypes impressed academic researchers. In 2002, after graduating from Istanbul Technical, he was recruited to the University of Pennsylvania. For his master’s degree, he flew two drones in formation at the Fort Benning Army base, in Georgia. Bayraktar then began a second master’s, at M.I.T., where he pursued the difficult and offbeat goal of trying to land a radio-controlled helicopter on a wall. His adviser, Eric Feron, remembered Bayraktar as a dedicated craftsman and an observant Muslim, with a passion for youth education. He recalled Bayraktar’s enthusiasm when he tutored Feron’s daughter in her mathematics homework, and the time he demonstrated his helicopter to a troop of Girl Scouts. “He was a good pilot,” Feron said. “But I did not understand all that he was after until I got invited to his wedding.”

While Bayraktar was a student, the United States was using Predator drones to strike targets in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bayraktar disapproved of U.S. foreign policy—“I was obsessed with Noam Chomsky,” he told me—and engaged in social activism with other graduate students, most of them foreigners. But he was drawn to the autonomous vehicles. While still enrolled at M.I.T., he began building small prototype drones at the family’s factory in Istanbul.

Özdemir set out to secure government support for Selçuk’s drones. Özdemir was friendly with Necmettin Erbakan, an Islamic nationalist and a vitriolic critic of Western culture. Turkey had been a secular republic since the nineteen-twenties, but Erbakan, ​​a professor of mechanical engineering, believed that by investing in industry and grooming technological talent the country could become a prosperous Islamic nation. In 1996, Erbakan had been elected Turkey’s Prime Minister, but he resigned from the post under pressure from the armed forces, and was banned from politics for threatening to violate Turkey’s constitutional separation of religion and the state. (Erbakan, who had developed connections with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, blamed his ouster on “Zionists.”)

Bayraktar briefed Erbakan on his work, and by the mid-two-thousands Bayraktar was spending his school breaks embedded with the Turkish military. The Bayraktar family also had ties to Erbakan’s protégé, Erdoğan, who was elected Prime Minister in 2002. Bayraktar’s father had been an adviser to Erdoğan when he was a local politician in Istanbul, and Bayraktar recalled Erdoğan visiting the family house.

Bayraktar’s first drone, the hand-launched Mini U.A.V., weighed about twenty pounds. In early tests, it flew about ten feet, but Bayraktar refined the design, and soon the Mini could stay aloft for more than an hour. Bayraktar tested it in the snowy mountains of southeastern Anatolia, surveilling the armed rebels of the P.K.K., a Kurdish separatist movement. Feron recalled his astonishment when he contacted Bayraktar in the mountains. “He has no hesitation to go to the front lines, to really the worst conditions that the Turkish military can go into, and basically be with them, and live with them, and learn directly from the user,” he said. Bayraktar told me he prefers to field-test a drone in an active combat theatre. “It needs to be battle-hardened and robust,” he said. “If this doesn’t work at ten-thousand-feet elevation, at minus-thirty-degrees temperature, then this is just another item that you have to carry in your backpack.”

Bayraktar began developing a larger drone. In 2014, he débuted a prototype of the TB2, a propeller-driven fixed-wing aircraft large enough to carry munitions. That year, Erdoğan, who was facing term limits as Prime Minister, won the Presidential election. A popular referendum had given him control of the courts as well, and he began using his powers to prosecute political enemies. “They arrested not only a quarter of active-duty admirals and generals but also many of Erdoğan’s civil-society opponents,” Soner Cagaptay, who has written four biographies of Erdoğan, told me. Bayraktar dedicated his prototype to the memory of Erdoğan’s mentor, Erbakan. “He gave all his life’s work to changing the culture,” Bayraktar said. (In his posthumously published memoirs, Erbakan asserted that, for the past four hundred years, the world has secretly been governed by a coalition of Jews and Freemasons.)

In December, 2015, Bayraktar oversaw the first tests of the TB2’s precision-strike capability. Using a laser to guide dummy bombs, the drone was able to strike a target the size of a picnic blanket from five miles away. By April, 2016, the TB2 was delivering live munitions. The earliest targets were the P.K.K.—drone strikes have killed at least twenty of the organization’s leaders, along with whoever was standing near them. The strikes also taught Bayraktar to fight for the airwaves. Drones are controlled through radio signals, which opponents can jam by broadcasting static. Pilots can counter by hopping frequencies, or by boosting the amplitude of their broadcast signal. “There’s so many jammers in Turkey, because the P.K.K. had been using drones, too,” Bayraktar said. “It’s one of the hottest places to fly.” Turkey’s remote-controlled counterinsurgency was thought to be the first time a country had conducted a drone campaign against citizens on its own soil, but Bayraktar, citing the threat of terrorism, remains an enthusiastic supporter of the campaign.

That May, he married the President’s daughter. More than five thousand people attended the wedding, including much of the country’s political élite. Sümeyye wore a head scarf and an immaculate long-sleeved white dress from the Paris designer Dice Kayek. By then, the Turkish state had taken on an overtly Islamic character. In the nineteen-nineties, the hijab was banned in universities and public buildings. Now “having a hijab-wearing wife is the surest way to get a job in the Erdoğan administration,” Cagaptay wrote. Bayraktar regularly tweets Islamic blessings to his followers on social media, and both Sümeyye and the elder Canan wear the hijab.

Like Bayraktar, Sümeyye is a second-generation member of Turkey’s Islamist élite, and she graduated from Indiana University in 2005 with a degree in sociology. “She has great ethics,” Bayraktar told me. “She’s a real challenger.” Other people describe her as a fashionable, feminist upgrade on her father’s politics—a Turkish version of Ivanka Trump. “Women have lost significantly under Erdoğan in terms of access to political power,” Cagaptay told me. “When there are women appointed in the cabinet, they have token jobs.”

In June, 2016, terrorists affiliated with ISIS killed forty-five people at the Istanbul airport, and soon a new front was opened in Syria, where Turkey used Bayraktar’s drones to attack the short-lived ISIS caliphate. (The drones were later turned on Syria’s Kurds.) In July, a small group inside the Turkish military staged a coup against Erdoğan. The coup was chaotic and unpopular—the main opposition parties condemned it, a conspirator flying a fighter jet dropped a bomb on the Turkish parliament, and Erdoğan was reportedly targeted by an assassination squad sent to his hotel. Erdoğan blamed the followers of Fetullah Gülen, an exiled cleric and political leader who now lives in Pennsylvania, and purged more than a hundred thousand government employees. (Gülen denies involvement in the coup.) Bayraktar was now part of Erdoğan’s inner circle, and his drones were marketed for export.

Bayraktar is a Turkish celebrity, and his social-media feeds are crowded with patriotic reply guys. When he gives talks to trainee pilots, which he does often, he wears a leather jacket decorated with flight patches; when he tours universities, which he also does often, he wears a blazer over a turtleneck. In our conversation, he referred to concepts from critical gender theory, spoke of Russia’s violations of international law, and quoted Benjamin Franklin: “Those who give up essential freedom for temporary security deserve neither security nor freedom.” But he is also an outspoken defender of Erdoğan’s government. In 2017, Erdoğan held a constitutional referendum that resulted in the dissolution of the post of Prime Minister, effectively enshrining his control of the state. Using politically motivated tax audits to seize independent media outlets, his government sold them in single-bidder “auctions” to supporters, and a number of journalists have been jailed for the crime of “insulting the President.” Erdoğan frequently sues journalists, and Bayraktar has done so, too. He recently celebrated a thirty-thousand-lira fine levied against Çiğdem Toker, who was investigating a foundation that Bayraktar helps run. Bayraktar tweeted, “Journalism: Lying, fraud, shamelessness.”

Bayraktar’s older brother, Haluk, is the C.E.O. of Baykar Technologies; Selçuk is the C.T.O. and the chairman of the board. (Their father died last year.) In addition to being used in Ukraine and Azerbaijan, TB2s have been deployed by the governments of Nigeria, Ethiopia, Qatar, Libya, Morocco, and Poland. When I spoke with Bayraktar, Baykar had just completed a sales call in East Asia, marketing its forthcoming TB3 drone, which can be launched from a boat.

Several news sources have reported that a single TB2 drone can be purchased for a million dollars, but Bayraktar, while not giving a precise figure, told me that it costs more. In any event, single-unit figures are misleading; TB2s are sold as a “platform,” along with portable command stations and communications equipment. In 2019, Ukraine bought a fleet of at least six TB2s for a reported sixty-nine million dollars; a similar fleet of Reaper drones costs about six times that. “Tactically, it’s right in the sweet spot,” Bayraktar said of the TB2. “It’s not too small, but it’s not too big. And it’s not too cheap, but it’s not too expensive.”

Once a fleet is purchased, operators travel to a facility in western Turkey for several months of training. “You don’t just buy it,” Mark Cancian, a military-procurement specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me. “You have married the supplier, because you need a constant stream of spare parts and repair expertise.” Turkey has become adept at leveraging this relationship. It struck a defense deal with Nigeria, which included training the country’s pilots on TB2s, in exchange for access to minerals and liquefied natural gas. In Ethiopia, TB2s were delivered after the government seized a number of Gülenist schools. Unlike dealing with the U.S., obtaining weapons from Turkey doesn’t involve human-rights oversight. “There are really no restrictions on use,” Cancian said.

Buyers are also supported by Baykar’s programmers. The TB2, which Bayraktar compares to his smartphone, has more than forty onboard computers, and the company sends out software updates several times a month to adapt to adversarial tactics. “You’ve seen the articles, probably, asking how World War One-performance aircraft can compete against some of the most advanced air defenses in the world,” Bayraktar said. “The trick there is to continuously upgrade them.”

Much of the drones’ battlefield experience has come against Russian equipment. Russia and Turkey have a complicated relationship: Russia is a key trading partner for Turkey, Turkey is a popular holiday destination for Russian tourists, and Russia is overseeing the construction of Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, which, when completed, will supply a tenth of the country’s electricity. In 2017, Turkey angered its allies in NATO when it bought a Russian missile system, triggering U.S. sanctions. Still, both Turkey and Russia are seeking to restore their standings as world powers, and even before the war in Ukraine they were often in conflict.

In the Libyan civil war, Turkey and Russia backed opposing factions, and the TB2 faced off against Russia’s Pantsir-S1, an anti-aircraft system that shoots missiles at planes and can be mounted on a vehicle. At least nine Pantsirs were destroyed; so were at least twelve drones.

Another theatre opened in the Caucasus in 2020, when Azerbaijan attacked the ethnic-Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Last month, I met Robert Avetisyan, the Armenian representative to the United States from Nagorno-Karabakh, at a café in Glendale, California. Avetisyan told me, “During the first several days, Azerbaijan was not successful, in anything, until the Turkish generals took the joysticks.” Armenia has a security alliance with Russia, which provides most of its military equipment, some dating to the Soviet era. For six weeks, TB2 drones bombarded that equipment relentlessly; one independent analysis tallied more than five hundred targets destroyed, including tanks, artillery, and missile-defense systems. “We lost the air war,” Avetisyan said. TB2s also targeted Armenian troops, and footage of these strikes was shared by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense. A six-minute compilation of the videos, posted to YouTube midway through the war, shows dozens of variations on the same scene: Armenian soldiers, cowering in trenches or huddled around transport trucks, alerted to their impending death by the hiss of an incoming bomb before a blast sends their bodies hurtling through the air.

Avetisyan sent me a translated statement from Arthur Saryan, a twenty-seven-year-old veteran of the war. Saryan had been standing with a small deployment of soldiers when his unit was hit by a bomb at around two in the morning. “We had no idea that we were the target,” Saryan said. “We heard it only two or three seconds before it hit us.” The bomb created a fireball. “Everyone was burnt. All the bodies were burnt and the cars immediately caught fire.” Six soldiers were killed, and seven were wounded. “It was a horrible scene,” Saryan said.

Bayraktar’s TB2 drones fly slowly, and their propellers should be easy to locate. But in Nagorno-Karabakh the drones seemed to evade enemy reconnaissance, either through radar jamming or through technical incompetence. “A striking feature of the video clips was the utter helplessness of the doomed systems,” the Israeli missile expert Uzi Rubin wrote, after reviewing Azerbaijani footage of precision air strikes. “Some were seen being destroyed with their radar antennas still rotating, searching in vain for targets.” The Azerbaijanis also deliberately triggered enemy radar by flying unmanned crop dusters at Armenian positions. If the Armenian missile launchers took the bait, revealing their location, they were destroyed by TB2s.

Turkey and Azerbaijan share close linguistic and political ties, but the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict represented a new level of coöperation. “There’s such cultural affinity between the Azerbaijanis and the Anatolian Turks—they say, ‘One nation, two states,’ ” Outzen, the former State Department specialist, told me. “Now they’re starting to say, ‘One nation, two states, one army.’ ” This is bad news for Armenia, which is wedged between the two. Turkey has not acknowledged its role in the Armenian genocide of 1915, and the Azerbaijani President, Aliyev, has referred to Armenia as “a territory artificially created on ancient Azerbaijani lands.”

Such claims have led the influential Armenian diaspora to block Western components from being used in Bayraktar’s drones, through both congressional action in the U.S. and pressure on manufacturers. But an analysis of a downed TB2 in Nagorno-Karabakh revealed that the aircraft was using a G.P.S. transponder made by the Swiss manufacturer Garmin. The company issued a statement saying that it had no supply relationship with Baykar, and that the transponder was commercially available. Nevertheless, Bayraktar has sought to reduce his reliance on Western components; in a recent Instagram post, he claimed that ninety-three per cent of the TB2’s components were now manufactured in Turkey. Bayraktar’s development cycle has a D.I.Y. element that can make the Pentagon’s practices seem out of date. “Our services are so culturally tied to a cumbersome acquisition process,” Andy Milburn, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told me. “What he’s doing is so modular, so replaceable.” Feron, Bayraktar’s graduate adviser, recalled the aftermarket modifications that Bayraktar made to store-bought drones. “Sometimes in the aerospace industry they do a lot of simulations, but they never touch the machine,” Feron said. “He’s much more of a builder.”

Last October, Ukraine announced that it was constructing a factory outside Kyiv to assemble Bayraktar’s drones. Shortly afterward, Ukraine released video of a TB2 conducting a strike against an artillery position in the contested eastern region of Donbas. The Air Force colonel who runs Ukraine’s drone program has not revealed his identity, citing security concerns, but in 2019 he travelled to Baykar’s facility in western Turkey for three months of training. “I loved it there,” he told Al-Monitor, an online newsletter.

“The acquisition of certain systems—like the TB2 and the American Javelin anti-tank missile—may actually further incentivize a Russian invasion instead of deterring one,” the military analyst Aaron Stein wrote in a prescient blog post in December. In February, Russia invaded.

The early days of the war looked like a repeat of Nagorno-Karabakh. Publicly available footage suggests that TB2s destroyed at least ten Russian missile batteries and disrupted the Russian supply lines by bombing transport trucks. In the past few weeks, though, the release of strike videos has slowed. This may be due to security concerns, but it’s also possible that the Russians have caught up—the TB2 has no real defense against a fighter jet, and in the lead-up to the invasion the Russian military trained against the drones. In early March, Ukrainian officials announced that they were receiving another shipment from Baykar; by the end of the month, a tally of press releases showed that Russia claimed to have shot down thirty-nine TB2s, which would likely constitute the bulk of the Ukrainian fleet. Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, was initially enthusiastic about the TB2, but in April, at a press conference in a Kyiv subway station, he downplayed the aircraft’s importance. “With all due respect to Bayraktar, and to any hardware, I will tell you, frankly, this is a different war,” he said. “Drones may help, but they will not make the difference.” Still, a couple of weeks before, Alexey Yerkhov, the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, had complained about the sale. “Explanations like ‘business is business’ won’t work, since your drones are killing our soldiers,” Yerkhov said, in remarks addressed to the Turkish government.

In our conversation, Bayraktar condemned Russia’s actions but declined to discuss operational specifics. “Let’s not put any of these countries at risk,” he said. “If any poor Ukrainian was hurt, I would be very sad. I would be responsible on the day of judgment.” Bayraktar’s software upgrades respond to customer feedback, and his designs continue to evolve. His latest production drone, the twin-prop Akinci, can fly to forty thousand feet and can be equipped with jamming countermeasures. In March, he tweeted a picture of the prototype for Baykar’s first jet, the Kizilelma, which resembles an autonomous F-16 without a cockpit. (In addition to the military vehicles, there is also the Cezeri, a human-size quadcopter, which Bayraktar has termed a “flying car.”)

Bayraktar is also investing in autonomy, and told me that he was ahead of the competition in this area. “That’s what our expertise is,” he said. “Push a button, and the aircraft lands.” An autonomous drone might find its way home if its communication links were severed. To develop such systems, Bayraktar will need to retain programming talent, but Erdoğan’s regime is struggling against brain drain. “I, personally, know a whole bunch of people who have left,” Cagaptay said. “In Turkey, they don’t see a future for themselves.”

“Sometimes oppression is worse than death,” Bayraktar told me. He was referring to Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself against the Russian invasion, but, a month after we talked, the Turkish civil-rights campaigner Osman Kavala was sentenced to life in prison, after a politically motivated trial that Amnesty International called a “travesty of justice.” On May 1st, the Ukrainian defense ministry resumed releasing footage from Bayraktar’s drones, showing them striking a pair of Russian patrol boats. Another video released that day showed Ukrainian soldiers, against a backdrop of destroyed Russian vehicles, dancing, laughing, and singing Bayraktar’s name.

Saturday, May 07, 2022

RBI MPC Announcement

On the basis of an assessment of the current and evolving macroeconomic situation, the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) at its meeting today (May 4, 2022) decided to:

Increase the policy repo rate under the liquidity adjustment facility (LAF) by 40 basis points to 4.40 per cent with immediate effect.

Consequently, the standing deposit facility (SDF) rate stands adjusted to 4.15 per cent and the marginal standing facility (MSF) rate and the Bank Rate to 4.65 per cent.

The MPC also decided to remain accommodative while focusing on withdrawal of accommodation to ensure that inflation remains within the target going forward, while supporting growth. These decisions are in consonance with the objective of achieving the medium-term target for consumer price index (CPI) inflation of 4 per cent within a band of +/- 2 per cent, while supporting growth.

The main considerations underlying the decision are set out in the statement below

Assessment

Global Economy

2. Since the MPC’s meeting in April 2022, disruptions, shortages and escalating prices induced by the geopolitical tensions and sanctions have persisted and downside risks have increased. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has revised down its forecast of global output growth for 2022 by 0.8 percentage point to 3.6 per cent, in a span of less than three months. The World Trade Organization has scaled down projection of world trade growth for 2022 by 1.7 percentage points to 3.0 per cent.

Domestic Economy

3. Domestic economic activity stabilised in March-April with the ebbing of the third wave of COVID-19 and the easing of restrictions. Urban demand appears to have maintained expansion but some weakness persists in rural demand. Investment activity seems to be gaining traction. Merchandise exports recorded double digit expansion for the fourteenth consecutive month in April. Non-oil non-gold imports also grew robustly on the back of improving domestic demand.

4. Overall system liquidity remained in large surplus. Bank credit rose (y-o-y) by 11.1 per cent as on April 22, 2022. India’s foreign exchange reserves declined by US$ 6.9 billion in 2022-23 (up to April 22) to US$ 600.4 billion.

5. In March 2022, headline CPI inflation surged to 7.0 per cent from 6.1 per cent in February, largely reflecting the impact of geopolitical spillovers. Food inflation increased by 154 basis points to 7.5 per cent and core inflation rose by 54 bps to 6.4 per cent. The rapid rise in inflation is occurring in an environment in which inflationary pressures are broadening across the world. The IMF projects inflation to increase by 2.6 percentage points to 5.7 per cent in advanced economies in 2022 and by 2.8 percentage points to 8.7 per cent in emerging market and developing economies.

Outlook

6. Heightened uncertainty surrounds the inflation trajectory, which is heavily contingent upon the evolving geopolitical situation. Global commodity price dynamics are driving the path of food inflation in India, including prices of inflation sensitive items that are impacted by global shortages due to output losses and export restrictions by key producing countries. International crude oil prices remain high but volatile, posing considerable upside risks to the inflation trajectory through both direct and indirect effects. Core inflation is likely to remain elevated in the coming months, reflecting high domestic pump prices and pressures from prices of essential medicines. Renewed lockdowns and supply chain disruptions due to resurgence of COVID-19 infections in major economies could sustain higher logistics costs for longer. All these factors impart significant upside risks to the inflation trajectory set out in the April statement of the MPC.

7. As regard the outlook for domestic economic activity, the forecast of a normal southwest monsoon brightens the prospects for kharif production. The recovery in contact-intensive services is expected to be sustained, with the ebbing of the third wave and the growing vaccination coverage. Investment activity should get an uplift from robust government capex, improving capacity utilisation, stronger corporate balance sheets and congenial financial conditions. On the other hand, the worsening external environment, elevated commodity prices and persistent supply bottlenecks pose formidable headwinds, along with volatility spillovers from monetary policy normalisation in advanced economies. On balance, the Indian economy appears capable of weathering the deterioration in geopolitical conditions but it is prudent to continuously monitor the balance of risks.

8. Against this background, the MPC is of the view that while economic activity is navigating the vortex of forces confronting the world with resilience on the strength of underlying fundamentals and buffers, the risks to the near-term inflation outlook are rapidly materialising, as reflected in the inflation print for March and the developments thereafter. In this milieu, the MPC expects inflation to rule at elevated levels, warranting resolute and calibrated steps to anchor inflation expectations and contain second round effects. Accordingly, the MPC decided to increase the policy repo rate by 40 basis points to 4.40 per cent. The MPC also decided to remain accommodative while focusing on withdrawal of accommodation to ensure that inflation remains within the target going forward, while supporting growth.

9. All members of the MPC – Dr. Shashanka Bhide, Dr. Ashima Goyal, Prof. Jayanth R. Varma, Dr. Rajiv Ranjan, Dr. Michael Debabrata Patra and Shri Shaktikanta Das – unanimously voted to increase the policy repo rate by 40 basis points to 4.4 per cent.

10. All members, namely, Dr. Shashanka Bhide, Dr. Ashima Goyal, Prof. Jayanth R. Varma, Dr. Rajiv Ranjan, Dr. Michael Debabrata Patra and Shri Shaktikanta Das unanimously voted to remain accommodative while focusing on withdrawal of accommodation to ensure that inflation remains within the target going forward, while supporting growth.

11. The minutes of the MPC’s meeting will be published on May 18, 2022.

12. The next meeting of the MPC is scheduled during June 6-8, 2022.

RIL Results overview : Q4 2021-22

Consolidated EBITDA - 125,687 Cr Rs which is a 5 year CAGR of 17.7%

Net profit at 67,845 Cr Rs up 26% YoY

Reliance Retail - Revenue/EBITDA - 27%/26% YoY Gain
EBITDA - 12,423 Cr
Customer Base - 193mn


Digital Services

EBITDA - 40,268 Cr
Revenue/EBITDA - 11%/18% YoY Gain

ARPU @ 167 Rs
Jio Fiber now the largest broadband service in India since its launch in two years
Data traffic - 91.4bn GB up 46% YoY

O2C and Oil/Gas

EBITDA - 58,179 Cr Rs
EBITDA up almost 40% YoY
O2C contributed to 52% of incremental EBITDA

Debt position
Gross Debt - 266,305 Cr
Gross Cash - 231,490 Cr
Net Debt - 34,815 cr

Monday, May 02, 2022

Divestment in India

On October 8, 2021, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs approved the bid placed by Tata Sons Private Limited to acquire the government’s entire stake in Air India. The transaction is expected to be completed by December 2021. In the Union Budget for 2021-22, the central government pegged the receipts from disinvestment at Rs 1.75 lakh crore. In the Budget speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that the government will complete the disinvestment of Air India, Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited, and IDBI Bank in 2021-22. In light of this, we look at the trends in disinvestment receipts of the central government over the years.

Since 2010, barring two years (2017-18 and 2018-19), the central government’s actual receipts from disinvestment have consistently fallen short of the budget estimate. In 2017-18, 37% of the disinvestment receipts were raised from the strategic disinvestment of Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL), and 24% were raised from the listing of various central public sector enterprises (CPSEs). In 2018-19, government raised Rs 45,080 crore from exchange-traded funds and also concluded the sale of REC Limited.

So far, in the current financial year, the central government has raised only 5% of the disinvestment target that was set in the Budget (Rs 9,111 crore, excluding receipts from the sale of Air India and its subsidiaries). The Standing Committee on Finance has noted that the disinvestment process usually takes a long time with some entities even undergoing a fourth iteration. In as many as 21 cases, cleared by the Union Cabinet since 2015-16, the central government is yet to conclude strategic disinvestment transactions.

Strategic disinvestment involves sale of a substantial portion of the government’s shareholding in a CPSE (up to 50% or more) along with transfer of management control.

In the last six financial years, all the transactions where the government sold more than 51% of its shareholding in CPSEs, along with transfer of management control, have involved another CPSE picking up the government’s stake. In 2017-18, the government raised Rs 36,915 crore from the sale of HPCL to the state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited. Similarly, in 2018-19, the government received Rs 14,500 crore from the sale of REC Limited to Power Finance Corporation Limited which is another state-owned company in the power sector.

Several strategic disinvestment transactions have been in the pipeline for a long time. For instance, sale of Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited, approved in November 2019, is yet to be concluded.

Exchange-traded funds have brought the maximum disinvestment receipts for the government The government uses various methods for disinvestment. In the last six years, the most significant modes of disinvestment have been exchange-traded funds (ETFs), offer-for-sale (OFS), strategic disinvestment, buybacks, and initial public offer (IPO).

An ETF is a basket of stocks. The government has two primary ETFs: (i) CPSE-ETF and (ii) Bharat 22 ETF. Between 2015-16 and 2020-21, the government raised the maximum disinvestment receipts from ETFs.

OFS involves the sale of government’s shareholding in listed CPSEs in the stock market. However, even this has involved CPSEs buying significant stake in other government companies. For instance, in 2015, Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) picked up 45% of a 10% OFS in Coal India Limited. In March 2013, LIC bought 71% of 5.82% stake sale in Steel Authority of India Limited.

New Public Sector Enterprise (PSE) Policy aims to privatise CPSEs across sectors

According to the new PSE policy, the central government has divided most sectors into strategic and non-strategic.

In strategic sectors, the government will maintain a bare minimum presence. The remaining entities will be considered for privatisation, merger, subsidiarisation or closure. Sectors categorised as strategic include: (i) atomic energy, space and defence, (ii) transport and telecommunication; (iii) power, petroleum, coal and other minerals, and (iv) banking, insurance, and financial services.

CPSEs in non-strategic sectors will be either privatised or closed.

Certain sectors such as development financing/refinancing institutions, major port trusts, and CPSEs providing support to vulnerable groups have been kept out of the framework.

Sources: Department of Investment and Public Asset Management; Union Budget documents; 25th Report of the Standing Committee on Finance, March 16, 2021; Annual Report (2018-19), Department of Investment and Public Asset Management; New Public Sector Enterprise (“PSE”) Policy for Atmanirbhar Bharat, Department of Investment and Public Asset Management, February 4, 2021; “LIC picked up 71% of shares divested by govt in SAIL on Friday”, The Economic Times, March 26, 2013; “In Coal India stake sale LIC bought almost 50% of shares on offer”, The Economic Times, February 2, 2015; PRS.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Severance TV Series : Original with seriously good acting

An Original Series despite looking like a 80s drama masquerading in a futuristic science fiction world

By Ben Travers on Indie Wire



Midway through the “Severance” premiere, senior manager Ms. Cobel (Patricia Arquette) is in the midst of disciplining new department head Mark S. (Adam Scott). Having already dangled a carrot to no avail, she decides to pick up the stick. “You know, my mother was an atheist,” Ms. Cobel explains, walking around her desk to stand over her confused subordinate. “She used to say there was good news and bad news about hell: The good news is that hell is just the product of a morbid human imagination. The bad news is whatever humans can imagine, they can usually create.”

The vague yet haunting threat is mostly lost on Mark, but it’s clear to viewers. Lumon — the massive, mysterious conglomerate Mark and Ms. Cobel work for — has created its own little circle of hell: the “severed” floor, where a select group of employees volunteer to bifurcate their memories between what happens at work and what happens at home. That means when Mark starts the day sitting in the parking lot, weeping uncontrollably, he has no memory of why (or that he was even crying) by the time he takes the elevator down to the windowless bowels of his office. A switch is literally flipped as he moves between floors, activating an implant in his brain that separates Mark from his life outside of Lumon. When he goes home at 5:15 p.m., those memories are restored, but he then loses any recollection of what happened underground.

Both an excellent premise for a conspiracy-thriller and an eerily believable bit of science-fiction, the practice of severance is just one brilliant idea in a series built from many. Created and executive produced by Dan Erickson, the Apple TV+ series showcases its own exciting imagination, from building a unique office environment to fitting a sinuous story into nine expertly calibrated episodes. Ben Stiller directs six of those entries (notably, the first and final three) with an unsettling symmetry; balancing and unbalancing compositions in order to undercut the inherent comforts of routine and uniformity. Paired with the surprising particulars of Lumon’s culture (nothing can prepare you for the parties) and meaningful narrative twists, “Severance” condemns a hellish corporate culture while remaining suspenseful, enlightening, and oh so much fun.

It also takes full advantage of a talented ensemble. At Lumon, Mark is joined by Dylan (Zach Cherry), Irving (John Turturro), and fresh recruit Helly (Brit Lower). Dylan is immediately recognizable as someone too smart for his job. His desk is covered with company rewards — erasers (“mostly decorative, since we don’t have pencils”), finger traps, etc. — all earned for finishing ahead of schedule, all covered in the company’s blue and white branding. Irving, meanwhile, looks down on these perks as “children’s” toys, preferring to realize his reward in an honest day’s labor. By-the-book and loyal to his Lumon overlords, Irving still suffers from strange visions dreams: black ooze spilling from the cubicle walls, covering his ’80s era computer monitor and keyboard, threatening to envelop him along with his station.

Rounding out the Macrodata Refinement department is Helly. New to the team, she serves as our initial, empathetic audience proxy, asking many of the questions we want answered. What do they do at Lumon? No one knows. Why did they decide to be severed? No one will tell them. Who are they? A first name and last initial are all they get (Helly R., Mark S., etc.). Personal details of their lives outside are only doled out in general sentiments during “wellness checks,” but Helly isn’t willing to wait. She tries to leave. She tries to quit. But she can’t. Only “outies” (what employees are called when outside the office) can resign; “innies” can ask to leave, but those requests are almost never approved. After all, if you don’t have to remember the nine worst hours of your day, why would you ever leave?



Or so one theory goes. Claims like these are enough to turn even the most gullible individual into a skeptic, but “Severance” is clever in revealing which obstacles are put in place by shady company strategies and which are self-inflicted. Erickson’s story zeroes in on how much corporations can take from their employees and how little is offered in return, without letting individuals completely off the hook. The result is a consistently tense thriller broken up by peculiar humor and genuine humanity. Stiller’s contributions are immense. His biting, satiric wit is all over “Severance” — which marks his second-straight prison break story after 2018’s “Escape at Dannemora” — but its the way his camera works with the savvy production design (courtesy of Jeremy Hindle) that truly pops. The oners down an endless maze of white corridors. The way cubicle walls slide up and down to trap workers in tight frames. The contrast between the timeless stasis of antiseptic office life and the bristling cold of a messy existence above ground. It’s a striking, immersive design, if you’re on or off the clock.

As the season progresses, the practice of severance becomes more and more crucial to the series’ world-building. The procedure is both highly controversial and growing in popularity. Lumon may have invented the mind-altering device, but other companies (and perhaps even the government) are looking to use it on their own people. But as the stakes tied to severance’s perceived success skyrocket, so do the personal concerns of each employee. Scott, who played the soulless corporate villain gutting Life Magazine in Stiller’s 2013 feature “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” flips the script and delivers career-best work. Subtle, precise, and always relatable, he imbues each version of Mark with distinct physicality, while maintaining their connection through an innate curiosity and simmering frustration. It would be easy to play the role as two parts; instead, Scott works to make the audience see Mark as one person. (Lower, who we mainly see as Helly’s innie, is also superb, and Arquette tears into her duplicitous manager with a masochistic conviction.)

Whether you invest in the allegory, character arcs, or both, “Severance” hits its marks. Compulsive on an episode-to-episode basis and unshakeable in between sittings, there are so many ideas swirling, so many pieces moving, it would be easy to overlook the immense lift needed to give the show its clarity. Erickson and his writing staff deserve a ton of credit. The season plays out cleanly and efficiently; episodes range from nearly 60 minutes to a crisp 40; cliffhangers abound, but they’re earned. (Season 2 needs to be greenlit, shot, and delivered to me immediately.) This is serialized storytelling that knows how to make the most of its episodic format.

If hell is the nadir of human imagination, “Severance” is easily one of its highs