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India ‘drone sisters’ steer farming and social change

India ‘drone sisters’ steer farming and social change

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India 'drone sisters' steer farming and social change

Once a housewife in rural India, Sharmila Yadav always wanted to be a pilot and is now living her dream remotely, flying a heavy-duty drone across the skies to cultivate the country’s picturesque farmlands.

Yadav, 35, is among hundreds of women trained to fly fertiliser-spraying aircraft under the government-backed “Drone Sister” programme.

The scheme aims to help modernise Indian farming by reducing labour costs, as well as saving time and water in an industry hamstrung by its reliance on outdated technology and growing climate change challenges.

It is also a portent of rural India’s changing attitudes towards working women, who have traditionally found few opportunities to join the labour force and are often stigmatised for doing so.

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Read more: Rising women’s participation in Indian workforce likely led by distress

“Earlier, it was difficult for women to step out of the house. They were supposed to do only household chores and look after the children,” mother-of-two Yadav told AFP, after a day’s work crisscrossing a drone through the clear blue sky above a lush green field of young wheat stalks.

“Women who went out for work were looked down upon. They were taunted for neglecting their motherly duties. But now mindsets are changing gradually.”

Yadav was a homemaker for 16 years after marrying her farmer husband, with few job opportunities for women in her small rural hamlet near the town of Pataudi, a few hours’ drive from the capital New Delhi.

She will pocket 50,000 rupees ($600) after spraying 150 acres (60 hectares) of farmland twice over five weeks, a little over double the average monthly income in her native Haryana state.

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But she said her new occupation was not just a “source of income” for her. “I feel very proud when someone calls me a pilot. I have never sat in a plane, but I feel like I am flying one now,” she said.

Yadav is among the first batch of 300 women trained by the Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative Limited (IFFCO), the largest manufacturer of chemical fertilisers in the country.

The women trained as pilots are given the 30-kilogramme drones for free, along with battery-run vehicles to transport them.
Other fertiliser companies have also joined the programme, which aims to train 15,000 “drone sisters” across the country.

Read more: India’s women gig workers organise with WhatsApp, secret meetings

“This scheme is not just about employment but also [women] empowerment and rural entrepreneurship,” Yogendra Kumar, the marketing director of IFFCO, told AFP.

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“Women, who earlier could not step out of their houses owing to deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes and lack of opportunities, are coming forward with enthusiasm to take part,” he told AFP.

“They are now able to meet the household expenses on their own without depending on others.”

Kumar said that spraying fertiliser by drone was cost-effective, used less water and took a fraction of the time of manual spraying.

“One acre can be sprayed in just five to six minutes,” he said.

A little over 41 per cent of rural Indian women are in the formal workforce compared to 80 per cent of rural men, according to a government survey last year.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has championed the scheme and mentioned it in his annual Independence Day address last August, said he was pleased to see women at the forefront of a revolutionary new farming practice.

“Who would have thought until a few years ago that in our country women living in villages too would fly drones? But today this is becoming possible,” he said in a radio programme last month.

Women have to pass an interview before they are enrolled in the programme.

They then sit a written test after a weeklong theory course before another week of practical training.

In one of the classrooms welcoming a fresh batch of pilots, 23-year-old Rifat Ara said she was initially apprehensive about enrolling.

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But once she learned the ropes, she said there was no looking back. “I feel I can now earn something and also teach other women how to fly,” she told AFP.

“It’s a great feeling to be able to stand on my own two feet and be called a drone pilot.”

Nisha Bharti, an instructor for training school Drone Destination, said she had been heartened by watching the transformation of her pupils as they mastered their craft.

“When they first come here from the villages, they are so nervous. But by the time they finish the course, they become super confident,” she said.

“It is as if they grow wings and want to fly higher and higher.” 

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Microsoft’s UAE deal could transfer key US chips, AI technology abroad

Microsoft’s UAE deal could transfer key US chips, AI technology abroad

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Microsoft's UAE deal could transfer key US chips, AI technology abroad

Microsoft President Brad Smith said the tech company’s high profile deal with the United Arab Emirates-backed AI firm G42 could eventually involve the transfer of sophisticated chips and tools – a move that a senior Republican congressman warned could have national security implications.

In an interview with Reuters this week, Smith said the sales accord, many details of which are being reported here for the first time, could progress to a second phase that entails the export of crucial components of AI technology such as model weights, a crown jewel of AI systems that determine how powerful they are. Smith said there is no firm timeline for the second phase.

US officials have said that AI systems could pose national security risks, for example by making it easier to engineer chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. The Biden administration in October required the makers of the largest AI systems to share details about them with the US government.

To move forward, the deal would require the approval of the US Department of Commerce. Microsoft executives said the agreement has safeguards to protect Microsoft’s technology and prevent it from being used by Chinese entities to train AI systems.

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But those measures have not been made public, and some US lawmakers question whether they are adequate.

The closed-door nature of the negotiations between two private companies over the terms and safeguards on transfers of US technology have alarmed some lawmakers.

“Despite the significant national security implications, Congress still has not received a comprehensive briefing from the executive branch about this agreement,” Michael McCaul, the Republican chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the US House of Representatives, told Reuters.

Read more: Economic diversification: UAE and US to see more AI partnerships

“I am concerned the right guardrails are not in place to protect sensitive US-origin technology from Chinese espionage given the (Chinese Communist Party’s) interests in the UAE.”

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The Commerce Department already requires notifications and, in several regions, export licences to send AI chips abroad. But the Microsoft-G42 deal highlights gaps in US laws as regulators rush to keep up with fast-moving technology.

At present, for example, there is no regulation restricting the export of AI models, though McCaul and a bipartisan group of lawmakers this week advanced legislation that would give US officials more explicit power to do so.

Microsoft executives said the company welcomes a debate on a new legal framework governing the transfer of AI technology and that the deal with G42 requires the UAE firm to comply with US regulations as they evolve.

“Fundamentally, what we’re focused on is trying to ensure that American technology can move around the world safely and securely,” Smith said.

BEYOND UAE

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When Microsoft and G42 announced the deal last month, it was billed as drawing G42 closer to the US and spreading US technology influence amid strategic competition with China. Microsoft is investing $1.5 billion in G42 with Microsoft’s president, Smith, taking a seat on its board.

The companies did not give details about which technologies might be transferred to the UAE or other countries or which specific security safeguards would be put in place. Some of those details are being reported here for the first time.

The broad intent of the deal is for Microsoft and G42 to jointly take AI technology into regions where neither could do so as effectively alone. An early example is a deal in Kenya announced by the two companies on Wednesday.

Read more: US lawmakers advance bill to make it easier to curb exports of AI models

The Microsoft-G42 deal is an agreement between the two companies that requires each to give security assurances to their respective home governments, but there is no direct agreement between the US and UAE governing the transfer of sensitive technologies. The two companies could seek to transfer those technologies to other markets beyond the UAE, including places like Turkey and Egypt, Microsoft executives said.

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Smith said many of the details of the deal remain to be worked out, including how to protect what are known as AI “model weights,” which is the critical part of an AI model that defines how it responds to questions or prompts. Those weights are obtained by training an AI model with huge amounts of data, often at great expense.

Model weights currently cannot be encrypted while in use, and Smith estimated the promising technical approaches for doing so remain at least a year away.

Smith said Microsoft has considered several alternative options to protect its technology, including a “vault within a vault” that would involve physically separating parts of data centers where AI chips and model weights are housed and restricting physical access.

“I suspect by the time we’re done, we’re going to end up with a regulatory regime or trade export control approach that will be applicable broadly and not just to Microsoft and G42,” Smith said.

Under the Microsoft deal, G42 will also follow a “know your customer” rule to determine who is using Microsoft’s technology and will not allow Chinese firms to use it to train AI models, Microsoft executives said. US regulators have proposed a similar rule, but they have not yet enacted it.

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“We adopted a strategic commercial decision to partner with US companies when it comes to advanced technologies. And we’re very clear on the fact that in order to do so, we will need to adhere to the requirements and our partners and government regulatory requirements or export control regulations,” Talal Al Kaissi, an executive who handles partnerships for G42’s AI work, told Reuters.

Under the deal, Microsoft would have the ability to impose financial penalties on G42 and enforce them in arbitration courts in London, Microsoft said. That means Microsoft would not be forced to work through the UAE legal system to ensure G42 complies with its obligations and could seize assets in many countries if G42 is found in violation of the agreement, Microsoft said.

Precisely how US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo will allow the deal to move forward remains unclear. Smith said the provisions are “informal” and that “certainly with this Secretary of Commerce, one knows pretty clearly whether she approves or rejects something.”

In a statement, a Commerce Department spokesperson said any technology transfers would be governed by export controls, “including currently in force licensing requirements” for AI chips and “potential future controls.”

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Pakistan domestic, external debt to witness a substantial increase in FY25

Pakistan domestic, external debt to witness a substantial increase in FY25

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Pakistan domestic, external debt to witness a substantial increase in FY25

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Pakistan are currently also deliberating upon a framework concerning new government borrowings, as both the sources in finance ministry and the Washington-based lender fear an increase in loans in the next budget covering the fiscal year 2024-25.

Read more: More gas tariffs hikes planned as Pakistan eyes another IMF programme

Hence, the sources say that Pakistan could borrow from domestic and external sources another Rs10,433 billion – a massive amount that will propel the total debt burden to Rs87,346bn.

Out of this total, the sources say, domestic borrowing will witness an increase of around Rs7,636bn while external debt can jump by Rs2,797bn in 2024-25.

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Thus, the addition of these amounts will raise the total domestic debt to Rs53,878bn and the overall external debt Rs33,648bn.

Previously, it was reported that the government economic team has given an initial estimate of external financing of around $22 billion for the next fiscal year.

Read more: Pakistan external financing needs estimated at $22bn, lower power tariffs proposed for industries

As far as the current fiscal year is concerned, the sources are expecting domestic debt to reach Rs76,913bn by the time 2023-24 ends on June 30, as high interest rates are further worsening the already complicated debt repayment equation for Pakistan.

Read more: Govt bonds are borrowing instruments. High interest rates means more deficit

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On the other hand, external debt will jump to Rs30,671bn at a time when Pakistan is trying its best to revive economy amid record high interest rates.

The Pakistani authorities have also shared a macroeconomic framework for the next fiscal year with the IMF mission during the ongoing talks, sources say, with an estimated GDP growth rate of 3.7 per cent and inflation rate dipping to 11.8pc.

Read more: Pakistan sees 2024-25 inflation at 11.8pc, IMF thinks it will be 12.7pc

However, the IMF thinks that the GDP will grow at a slightly lower pace of 3.5pc while inflation is going to stay at 12.7 pc – a projection that is 0.9pc higher than the suggested by the Ministry of Finance.

Earlier this week, the IMF and Pakistan started policy-level talks, as the cash-starved Islamabad is looking forward to clinch another deal with the Washington-based lender while meeting all the tough conditions being attached to it.

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In India heatwave, Delhi labourers toil in ‘red hot’ conditions

In India heatwave, Delhi labourers toil in ‘red hot’ conditions

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In India heatwave, Delhi labourers toil in 'red hot' conditions

Working on a highway project in one of India’s hottest areas this summer, Banwari Singh handles iron bars that he says often turn “red hot”.

Temperatures hit 47.8 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit) last Sunday, among the highest recorded in India this year, in Najafgarh, an area on the outskirts of New Delhi where Singh works.

“This is among the hottest it has been in this area,” Singh, in checked trousers, a half-sleeved shirt, a bright orange safety vest and a hard-top hat, said.

“But we have no option. If we want to eat, we have to work whatever the conditions are,” said the 40-year-old, resting near a pillar he is helping to build.

The northwest of India is experiencing an unusually hot summer and the national weather office has forecast three times the usual number of heatwave days this May. Experts say climate change adds fuel to the heat.

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Read more: Climate change is slowing heatwaves, a phenomenon visible in Pakistan too

Delhi shut schools earlier this week as temperatures rose. Voters in India’s national election face the prospect of queuing this weekend in the sweltering heat.

Singh and other labourers, who earn around 500 rupees to 700 rupees ($6-$8.4) a day, say they dread the heat and some fall sick as a result of the hot conditions.

Water is available for workers to douse themselves regularly to beat the heat and some buy cool drinks from a makeshift shop nearby.

The deputy project manager, Vinay Sahani, said the company provides water for workers, and sometimes lemonade, and asks workers to rest after noon when temperatures peak. Work can resume after sundown, he said.

Sumit Goswami, 21, who had to take time off this week after a heat-related illness, said he has worked in hot conditions before.

“But this year it has become extreme,” he said. “Still, we have to continue because we have to support the family.”

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