Learning to be Terse

Vandana Shiva on Monsanto and Bt Cotton

Posted in Campus, Science, Skepticism, Society by Croor Singh on August 23, 2016

G. Padmanaban, the former Director of IISc and a biotech administrator and activist if there ever was one, gave a talk at JNC about the promise of genetically modified crops–and necessary precautions to take in their use. Padmanaban pulled no punches, and laid out the pro-GM position as clearly as I’ve heard it. (Disclosure: I changed my position on GM crops about a year ago on the basis of the scientific consensus on their safety. I do not think GM crops are a cure-all; the ecological impact of every new GM crop should be assessed carefully before widespread use is authorised.) His talk cleared up several misconceptions I had about GM crops simply because of where I (mostly) got my information from.

Vandana Shiva is a high profile opponent of globalisation in general and Monsanto’s monopoly over Bt cotton (and Bt brinjal, if the time comes). She says that the government should “control the price of Monsanto’s Bt cotton seeds“. This on the eve of an expected announcement from the central government on GM crop royalties. Her article is typical of articles written against GM crops, in that it’s vague, argues circularly, and would probably misinform the unwary reader.

OK, I’ll assume some explanation is necessary.

Monsanto added the gene from Bacillus thuringienesis (Bt) to the cotton plant’s genome, creating Bt cotton. Monsanto ‘owns’ Bt cotton, in that only Monsanto can decide who (else) gets to make or sell Bt cotton seeds. Monsanto charges such seed companies a royalty for using their technology. The companies presumably pass this on to farmers who buy seeds from them.

This is much like somebody making a song or a movie, and charging licensing fees for you to use them. (Several Indian) seed companies have licensed the Bt cotton ‘technology’ from Monsanto Mahyco, the subsidiary of Monsanto that owns Bt cotton rights in India.

The Indian government decided, in May this year, to cap prices for seeds. They also decided that royalties should be capped at 10% of the seed price for the first five years, and should decrease after that. The order also said that any company that wants to produce Bt seeds should be given a licence (much like the compulsory licensing for life-saving drugs that India enforces). The Indian government then withdrew the order, presumably under pressure from the industry, and said they’ll tell us what they’ve decided in three months, i.e. this week.

A wide range of positions on intellectual property is possible in a democracy, and the government will find some middle ground, as governments do. That the government used the essential commodities act instead of something else has been called into question, with people pointing out that seeds constitute about 5% of input costs for farmers and that setting royalty limits only serves the intermediaries between Monsanto and the farmers. 

The misinformation about GM crops, on the other hand, is staggering. Vandana Shiva’s article, for instance, is an incoherent muddle. Her central point that the Indian government should control the price of seeds is clear enough. But her article doesn’t even mention seed companies,  consistently making it seem as if farmers are directly indebted to Monsanto!

The article is rife with bad arguments and specious analogies. I made a list:

1)

300,000 farmers have killed themselves because of seed royalties.

About 300,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1995. But no clear link exists between farmer suicide numbers and the adoption of Bt cotton. If it’s true that seeds are 5% of the total input cost, though, a link seems unlikely.

2) I wouldn’t blame you if you came away from Vandana Shiva’s article thinking that farmers owe royalties to Monsanto, crop after crop, season after season.

By claiming to be the inventor of these seeds, Monsanto claimed to be the creator and owner of generations of seeds that reproduce themselves for life and the right to collect royalties from farmers.

Monsanto claiming ownership of the seed because it had the tools to shoot a gene with a gene gun into the cell of the plant is the equivalent to a doctor who has facilitated in-vitro fertilisation claiming parenthood and ownership not only of the child thus born, but of all its descendants in the future. Society will surely reject such a claim.

This is, as far as I can tell (and I’d happily stand corrected; down with the evil corporation and all that), absolutely untrue. Farmers do have the right to save their seeds and replant them. That the next generation of hybrid Bt cotton won’t be quite as resistant to bollworm as the first generation is called the loss of hybrid vigour, and is a feature of all hybrids, not just GM hybrids.

3)

Seed is the source of life. Life forms, forms of life – plants and seeds – are self-evolving, self organised sovereign beings. They have Intrinsic worth, value and standing. They multiply and reproduce.

This would be true if cotton plants could themselves somehow create the gene from the bacterium that provides bollworm resistance. Otherwise, this is just

4)

In Argentina, a judge rejected Monsanto soya bean patent, saying: “The writer of a book cannot claim to be the inventor of a language.”Monsanto is not writing the book of life. It is just scrambling the letters in total ignorance of what its “genetic modification” means at the level of the organism, the seed or the eco system. Claiming patents on seed and patents on life is therefore equivalent to claiming destruction as creation, ignorance as innovation.

The writer of a book has rights to what he’s written. That’s intellectual property. We can decide democratically whether, and how strictly, we want to enforce IP rights. But saying “the writer didn’t invent those words” in defence of plagiarism, say, is laughable. There’s a clear legal distinction between what’s patentable–the technology to add the Bt gene into cotton–and what isn’t–cotton itself.

There are legitimate concerns about GM crops. If GM crops turn out to be invasive, what ecological impact would that have? Sans proper farmer training/education, are we risking pesticide resistant super-pests? Vandana Shiva raises none of them in her article.

Abdul Kalam

Posted in People, Personal by Croor Singh on August 22, 2016

Among the most visited posts on the blog is a flippant piece on a speech our late President APJ Abdul Kalam made. In the post, I make fun of Kalam’s flubbing some grammar; I make fun of the circular nature of his prescription for world peace. I make fun of his earnestness.

I made fun; it’s easy to make fun.

Most of the pushback has been equally childish. “Go kill yourself” is not an argument, to say nothing of being ironic coming right after ‘how could you say such mean things’?

The true test of a man is in how he treats those he has power over, goes the saying. I work for somebody who saw first-hand how Kalam treated subordinates. Kalam saw right through people, RN says. He saw who could or couldn’t do what, and didn’t put hierarchy before knowledge. He made you feel special for being part of his team. RN’s words, as best I can remember them, were “if you could do what was necessary to get the project to work, he’d treat you like the most important person”. As a recruit into DRDO and then ISRO without a PhD, it took other great men–Satish Dhawan and Vikram Sarabhai (and Raja Ramanna, I think)–to see Kalam’s potential. Kalam’s contributions to the Indian missile defence programme dwarf those of anybody else any of us can name, PhD or not.

All of which is to say I’m thinking of writing again. The first post on my return has gone well. But one does not simply walk into mordor pick up where one left off with no indication of having introspected, of having seen time pass by.

I’ve made apologies for doing dumb things before. I daresay I’ll make them again. Let’s not call this an apology; perhaps that’s too strong a word. Let me say only that the point some commenters made on the original Abdul Kalam post that snark doesn’t always show wit or cleverness is well taken, and will be remembered as I try and get better at whatever it is I’m doing here.

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No, “Many Indians” aren’t interested in PV Sindhu’s caste

Posted in News, Skepticism, Society, Sports by Croor Singh on August 20, 2016

After the Brexit vote results came out, several news agencies (as well as the “fake” newspeople Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee) focussed on the fact that people were asking google “What is the EU?” the day after voting ended. It turns out that the number of people searching “what is the EU?” was about 1000–i.e. essentially zero compared to the 35 million people who voted one way or another in the Brexit referendum.

I think something similar is happening with a recent story in India on PV Sindhu, India’s silver medallist in Badminton in the Rio Olympics. NewsMinute is running a story that google searches for PV Sindhu’s caste have spiked after she won her silver medal. This is true, and can be checked quite simply by using Google Trends. But, as in the Brexit case above, a spike means very little unless accompanied by absolute numbers.

Newsminute provides one graph on absolute numbers, showing that 150,000 people searched for PV Sindhu’s caste in June 2016. They claim that, based on the recent spike, millions of people are searching for PV Sindhu’s caste. If that number seems suspect to you–as it did me–that’s because it appears it is.

pvsindhu_caste_newsminute

Here are my results from Google AdWords. First, the number of people who searched for “pv sindhu”, and “pv sindhu caste”:

pvsindhu_1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

pvsindhucaste_2

 

There were about 15,000 searches a month for PV Sindhu, and 170 searches a month for her caste over the last six months. Where newsminute got their 150,000 searches from I do not know, but that number is clearly rubbish. About 1% of all searches for PV Sindhu asked for her caste. This ratio holds even with the recent–and bloody well earned–spike in interest in her, as you can see below. If we accepted the NewsMinute number of 150,000 searches for “pv sindhu caste”, it would mean, with a factor of 100 for the spike, and a factor of 100 between the two search terms, that there were 1.5 billion searches for “pv sindhu”. Bullshit. [Edit (11PM): I realised after I posted this that the 150,000 is per month, whereas the hundredfold spike may have been per day. That means that my figure of 1.5 billion may be wrong. If so, it would mean, however, that on the day of her silver-medal win, there were (150,000/30) * (100 * 100)  = 5 crore searches for PV Sindhu. Which brings me back to: ‘Bullshit’.]

pvsindhu_caste_trends

Now, 1% in India is a lot of people, and NewsMinute could be forgiven for saying “many Indians” given that about 20,000 people have searched for her caste. But they have to explain why their numbers are so far off.

 

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Net neutrality nuance

Posted in Ethics by Croor Singh on April 17, 2015

Net neutrality should be inviolable.

However, when Mark Zuckerberg says “Net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected. We will never prevent people accessing other services, and we will not use fast lanes,” I agree with his definition of net neutrality.

Allowing companies to pay ISPs so that customers can access their websites for free is not different from allowing companies to set up toll-free phone lines, and does not violate net neutrality. Here’s what would be a violation of net neutrality:
Airtel stops a certain company from signing up for Airtel zero; Or
Airtel charges one company more per unit data than another; Or
Airtel speeds up loading times for one company’s website compared to another;
Or–and this is something they’ve already tried to do once–Airtel decides to charge users extra for data used for VoIP calls.

If the complaint is that people will tend to use the free websites more than competitors’ websites, that’s a question of monopoly, not neutrality. The great thing about the internet, of course, is that it doesn’t cost all that much to sample the field, and the costs are only going to decrease. Ask yourself: if hotmail were made free and gmail continued to cost bandwidth, would you switch (back) to hotmail? If myspace were made free, would you switch (back) to myspace?

This is not to suggest, at all, that companies should be allowed to police themselves. A regulator exists and should be empowered by law to enforce net neutrality strictly. But it helps nobody to confuse terms.

The colour-perception wars

Posted in Science by Croor Singh on February 27, 2015

No, I don’t mean race. Although that does bring to mind Woody Allen’s quip that people will always find something to fight about (HT Meenakshi for this line).

There’s this picture of a woman in a dress doing the rounds, and apparently starting huge arguments. People are freaking out, and what not.

black_blue_white_gold

Here’s something I haven’t seen suggested anywhere else: try a pinhole camera. Take a piece of paper (it works best if the piece of paper is thick and opaque). Punch a small hole–an actual pinhole is likely too small; try a paper-punch.

I see black and blue. Which I assumed was because of the lighting. So as I figure, using a pinhole should take away effects of the lighting and show up the ‘true’ colours in the picture. So what I expected when I tried this was that I would see hints of gold and white. Which happened.

But wait! There’s a twist. If my explanation above is right, people who see white and gold unaided should continue to see white and gold through a pinhole. This is NOT what happens, apparently (admittedly I only have an anecdote to go by). Why don’t you try it and tell me?

What language does a deaf person think in? Redux

Posted in Books, Science, Weblogs by Croor Singh on December 31, 2014

As background, read this blogpost from more than four years ago on which got an indignant comment recently. What I want to say in response is long enough that I thought I’d make it a post.

First–and only first because I want to leave the mea culpas for the end–I meant inconvenient to the speaker, not to the listener (who is really secondary to this discussion). And convenience isn’t simply a matter of convention: I can speak and brush my hair, say, at the same time, which somebody who has to sign with their hands can’t do. That’s all I meant.

Second, I don’t dispute that speakers of English, say, can sometimes “think in English”, where “think in English” is shorthand for “use some of the conventions of the language as a shortcut tool for thinking” (more about this in the “what I got wrong” section below). I’ve seen musicians talk to each other “in music”, so I can easily believe they’re capable of “thinking” in music. In my own experience, as I get more familiar with programming, it is sometimes easier to just “think in C++” instead of trying to translate some idea into C++. But, if this isn’t exclusively the only way to think (see below about the “if”), we still have to ask what happens when this isn’t the way the thinking happened. Answer: mentalese.

Now, on to what I got wrong:

a) I said “different versions” of sign language, instead of different sign languages. (Having never used a signed language,) I got this wrong.

b) My thoughts on whether language can affect thought have changed after I read Guy Deutscher‘s incredibly good books on language: both The Unfolding of Language and Through the Language Glass are masterpieces of persuasive writing and I highly recommend them. My favourite example from Through the…  is where Deutscher talks of a tribe in Australia whose language, Guugu Yimithirr, only contains the cardinal directions (North, South, East, West). Native speakers of this language, it seems, are able to keep track of which way is North far better than speakers of a language that also uses user-fixed directions – left, right, forwards, backwards(*footnote1).

This is not at all to say that speakers of this language don’t–much less can’t–understand what ‘left’ or ‘right’ are. They just have a point on the rest of us when it comes to keeping track of which way is North.

This is also not proof that the speakers of Guugu Yimithirr “think in” Guugu Yimithirr. The speaker of the language is forced to keep track of the cardinal directions in order to be able to talk coherently. If people “thought in” a certain language–if we could only “think in” a certain language–then we would be arguing that speakers of a language such as Guugu Yimithirr don’t understand the concepts of ‘left’ and ‘right’.

My point is this: “thinking in a language” is a convenient shorthand for letting the structure of the language guide your thinking; but we’re setting ourselves up for a lot of confusion if we take the idea literally.


Footnotes:

1) “Native” speakers are people who were raised from infancy speaking the language. Also, there’s a proper word for “user-fixed” directions

 

Net neutrality in India, or what Airtel will do next

Posted in Ethics, Society by Croor Singh on December 30, 2014

At 10% 20% (footnote 1), the fraction of the population of India that has (regular) access to the Internet may not be as high as in the developed world, but 20% of 1.2 billion is a significant number and India already has the third largest internet user-base in the world. And with the kind of penetration of mobile telephony that India has, it is only a matter of time before that fraction shoots up. In fact, it may already have started doing this: that fraction has doubled in the last three years.

A fifth of the country now has regular access to the internet. Internet access is, therefore, no longer a vanity; it is what might be called a public utility (like electricity or water) and should be to be regulated as such. Would you be OK with having to pay more for using electricity to power your computer rather than a TV? If not, you shouldn’t be OK with somebody forcing variably-priced internet upon you. This has long been the argument of supporters of a free (not as in beer) internet, activists for net neutrality.

The flashpoint recently was Airtel’s decision to start charging for using its network to make VoIP calls. Unsurprisingly, Airtel wants its customers to talk over their mobile telephony network rather than use their network to make calls over the internet. It looks like they were only testing the waters, though, because they’ve now rolled back the proposed tariffs. About which, two thoughts:

1) Like the article at medianama says, they’ve possibly only done this to force TRAI to make a decision, and you can imagine how good they feel about their chances to do something like this.

2) What airtel did here was both a clear violation of net neutrality and something that would cost the end-user money. The more insidious threat to net neutrality will come when airtel (or some other company) partners up with skype – make calls on skype free, but you’ll have to pay for any other VoIP service; I don’t know if we’ll see the same kind of backlash from the public then as we’ve seen now.


 

*fn1: The numbers I remembered were 5% for the world as a whole and 10% for India. Good thing I decided to look up the numbers, then.

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I’ve got one finger for the two-finger test

Posted in Ethics, Society by Croor Singh on October 8, 2014

I wrote, in the wake of Mulayam Yadav’s ‘Boys will be Boys’ comments at an election rally in mid-April, about the two-finger test having been ruled illegal. This was in early-March. I feared that women would continue to get harassed by the medical establishment.

The worst manifestation of this lunacy was the two-finger test to determine whether a woman reporting that she’s been raped is ‘habituated to sex’. I say was; it was standard procedure until about a month ago; I have no doubt that there are doctors who haven’t got the memo.

There are times when I wish I had been wrong, jaded, overly cynical; that people turned out to be better than I feared. Desperately. This is one of those times.

After interviews with medical students from across India, The Ladies Finger reports that

Many well-intentioned and well-framed bits of legislation are passed by the government, but their larger reach into the worlds of law enforcement and medicine is never guaranteed. Often, the different branches of the state – the police, the law, the health apparatus – function in a deeply discordant way. So, has the passing of these regulations snowballed into a greater awareness within the medical community, especially amongst students? Our short answer – and yes, it is a chilling one – is a resounding no.

The interviewees put up every defence of the indefensible you can think of. Apparently, medical students aren’t above victim blaming. And this isn’t gender-specific. Female medical students seem as oblivious to what rape survivors go through, or what the two-finger test supposedly tests or how horrendously unreliable it is as the men.

The article points out that there seems to be a systemic and ingrained mistrust of women. If the students don’t bring in enough misogyny, their education makes sure they leave with it.

Underlying the whole procedure is the idea that women lie and falsely accuse as a matter of routine. When we pressed medical students about why they though this, the answer was the same bone-rattling chorus we kept hearing: “this is what we’ve been taught”.

“When their teachers teach the wrong thing, they might disagree. But then the textbooks say the same thing and that leaves them little space to make an argument.”

 

The roster of pseudo-medical rationalisations for the two-finger test that medical students come up with, or are taught, or both, is victim-blaming institutionalised. Do read the whole article for the authors’ trenchant good sense.

The two-finger test is a problem that needs to be dealt with at many levels, beginning with the judicial system. There are efforts being made by various people and organisations in the medical fraternity and outside to change this system. If brought to the court, the question of a woman’s sexual history needs to be resolutely ignored. If there was willingness, a law could be passed banning the test from medical and judicial practice. And while that will probably take time, doctors should be responsible for spreading negative awareness about the test. Medical students also need to be taught better.

When classes are conducted to teach medical students, they are taught to be distant and objective – to reduce all knowledge to scientific distillations. Their textbooks make up some of the bedrock from which their worldviews spring. For them, medical textbooks are right because they have dispensed with the messiness of social life in favour of ‘facts’. But have they? Contrary to their own self-perception, medical students are not taught to ignore the social world in favour of everything scientific. Instead, they are taught to perpetuate a particular social vision in which women often appear as yet-to-be-proven liars with potentially dubious sexual histories.

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An infinitely long Maxwell’s demon in a vacuum

Posted in Science by Croor Singh on September 19, 2014

UPDATE Sep 27: Work intervened. More on this in a bit, but I thought I should say something before then. Like Saikishan points out in the comments, the Carnot engine argument is flawed. The idea of generating power from the temperature rise caused by the train is laughable. I’ll say why. I’ll also argue why I think the idea that energy can be extracted from the small scale motion of turbulence is also deeply flawed. Soon.

There’s this article doing the rounds about the Indian central government getting a letter from a gullible Gujarati man who thought he had a brainwave when he realised that moving objects drag the medium they are in (air) behind them, and leave eddies of flow in their wakes. “All that wasted energy! Let’s put a windmill there and extract it all, why don’t we?”

So went he forth and sent a letter by post to the Prime Minister’s Office. (The article makes double mention of the fact that he sent his letter by post. That’s either wonderfully subtle mockery, or just blind luck.) And apparently the PMO saw fit to send this letter to the Railways asking for expert opinion.

The PMO, in turn, forwarded it to the Railways Ministry, asking it to explore the “techno-economic” feasibility of the idea, and sought regular updates.

The expert opinion was, of course, that this is a useless idea:

“A train will pass the windmill in less than 20 seconds. Even if there is a train every 15 minutes, a windmill can operate for only 25 minutes per day. This will not be viable economically. Further, the energy produced by the windmills would have to come from the trains only, which will consume extra energy[…]”

I have no problem with people sending silly ideas to engineers in the railways. I’m sure whoever got the job of explaining why the idea is silly had a lot of fun with it. I thought I would too.

So what’s wrong with sticking a windmill next to a train? The good people of the railways point out that this would be a huge investment that’s only ever going to be ‘switched on’ 25 minutes a day. Philistines, I tell you. What stops them from working with infinitely long trains and infinitely many windmills? Unfortunately, even with infinitely long trains and infinitely many windmills, there’s the little matter of the second law — the no-free-lunches law of thermodynamics.

Stick a windmill–indeed or any mechanism–next to a train and whatever energy the mechanism produces has to come out of the fuel the train burns. (There would be additional losses too.) As proof by reductio ad absurdum, imagine an ideal engine (a Carnot engine) running the train; i.e. the train’s already running at the maximum possible efficiency. The addition of the windmill draws extra work out of the fuel that the train is burning, and fucks with the second law. And as we all know, the second law is Tony Montana.

The infinitely long train idea is out, then. How about a mechanism that captures energy from the random motion of the turbulence that the (finitely long) train leaves behind in its wake? I can think of two inter-related problems with this.

The first one is logistical: what is the mechanism you have in mind that “knows” when the train has passed by? Because if the mechanism is in place when the train is passing by, it will affect the flow around the train, and therefore change the drag on the train, and therefore effectively draw energy from the train’s fuel source. At which point we’re back to fucking with Tony Montana.

The second problem is fundamental. Can you extract energy from the random motion in a medium? The idea of extracting energy from the wake behind a train is a rehash of the very old problem of Maxwell’s demon: a mechanism that can separate the ‘hot’, i.e. faster moving, molecules in a gas from the ‘cold’ ones. If you think about it, all you need is two compartments with a tube connecting them which only allows ‘hot’ molecules to pass in one direction, and only allows ‘cold’ molecules to pass in the other direction. And soon enough, one of the compartments will be full of ‘hot’ gas, and the other full of ‘cold’ gas. And of course, nothing of the sort is physically possible without violating the second law. Why this is so has to do with information and energy being equivalent, but I shan’t say more about this here.

In conclusion, windmills need large-scale movement of the air around them, i.e. they need wind, in order to extract energy. And changing the large-scale flow around a moving object has to be paid for with interest in increased drag, owing to the second law. The second law of thermodynamics also precludes any attempt at extracting energy from the small scales (albeit in a different way from above).

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Rape isn’t rape

Posted in Ethics, Society by Croor Singh on May 12, 2014

There are relics of colonial rule which we as a country seem desperately to want to cling to. The criminalisation of homosexuality is a perverse case in point, with the highest court in the land seemingly holding one fuck-awful section of the IPC a century and a half old above constitutional rights to freedom, dignity, privacy, life. The party which will presumably rule this country for the next five years has said it will continue this mockery of human dignity.

We’ve just been given another glimpse of what may be to come. A Delhi court has ruled that a man cannot rape his wife, lack of consent and the use of force be damned:

“The girl was more than 21-years-old at the time. Thus the girl and accused being legally-wedded husband and wife and the girl being a major, the sexual intercourse between the two, even if forcible, is not rape and no culpability can be fastened upon the youth,” Additional Sessions Judge Virender Bhat said while absolving the youth of the charge of rape.

I know none of the particulars of the case, and the NDTV article does nothing at all to make anything clear (the woman met her husband in December 2013, but the marriage was solemnised in March 2013?). But what the judge said in his ruling will harm more than just this poor woman. This ruling will become another in the list of cases where nothing was found wrong with marital rape.

The judge is, strictly, correct. According to what is the law today, a man cannot legally rape his wife if she is an adult. (But, you say, how can a woman even be married if she isn’t an adult? The law until 2010 said that age limit was 15. Raising the age to 18 was the ‘compromise’ Indian lawmakers struck.)

Isn’t it time we fixed this stupid law? Sexual violence against women is staggeringly common(fn1). And a significant majority of the instances of sexual violence are committed by acquaintances. I don’t know what fraction is marital rape, but surely the only acceptable number is zero. (fn2)

I can’t imagine what the woman must have gone through. And she’s among the lucky ones who can get a case registered and take it to court. For every one of her, there are many others who either can’t or don’t report sexual violence against them, or aren’t even taken seriously enough to be given a hearing. (fn3) Or, if they are, they’re put through mind-numbing ordeals.

HT: Srikanth, who pointed me to the court ruling and hopes the Supreme Court will do something about this.


Footnotes:

1) One in three women will face some sort of sexual assault in her lifetime. That number is just depressing.

2) Two-thirds of rapes are committed by people who aren’t strangers to the victims. The page at the link also says 28% of rapes are by an intimate.

3) 60% of sexual assaults aren’t reported. 97% of the accused will never serve jail time. India’s conviction rate (for cases that are actually reported) is 24%.

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