Wednesday, November 25, 2015

India's Holy Cow Vigilantes

By Jason Overdorf

Newsweek (November 2015)

Outside the 150-year-old Tangra Slaughter House in Kolkata, India, a line of cows stretches down the lane alongside the arched, colonial-style building. There are no fixed prices for beef here, so the noise of a dozen shouted negotiations fills the air. But it's not all business as usual. Photography is prohibited, at least for today, and I'm allowed inside only after agreeing to keep my notebook in my pocket and not ask any questions. The beef-and-leather business is sensitive in the country where “holy cow” is not a throwaway phrase.

“People are scared,” says Syed Faiyazul Haque, a supervisor at a Kolkata tannery. “There’s an atmosphere of fear.”

That’s because at least three Muslims suspected of eating or transporting beef have been killed in recent weeks. Hindu nationalists have been campaigning for a countrywide ban on slaughtering cows, which they consider holy animals, and religious tensions are rising.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pushed the issue of cows to the center of its campaign for elections in the northeastern state of Bihar during October and November. The aim seems to have been to consolidate the Hindu vote by casting Muslims as the chief enemy, and thus counteract divisions among high- and low-caste Hindu voters who favored the party’s opponents. Yet Modi’s party suffered a crushing defeat. The BJP and its local allies took just 58 out of 243 assembly seats in the Bihar polls.

Muslims and many secular Hindus across India celebrated the election result, expressing hope that the prime minister who came to power preaching economic development, not Hindu triumphalism, would return to that message. But for beef and leather traders, and perhaps for India’s bid to attract more foreign investment, it may already be too late.

Traders involved in the leather and beef industry in Kolkata say vigilantes have stopped large numbers of trucks transporting cows, hides and carcasses since the anti-cow slaughter campaign accelerated last month. Many transporters are reluctant to take the risk, after a trucker accused of carrying cattle carcasses was killed in October by a Molotov cocktail in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. Because one carcass or hide looks much like another, not even the unrestricted buffalo trade is safe. And the charged atmosphere makes it all too easy for local police and inspectors to demand payoffs.Despite the cultural taboo on killing cows, slaughtering them for meat and hides is legal in five of 29 Indian states, including West Bengal, where Kolkata, the former capital of British India once known as Calcutta, is considered the center of the trade.

“This is a reflection of anti-Muslim propaganda in India,” Udayan Bandyopadhyay, a political scientist affiliated with the University of Calcutta, says of the recent attacks. “In order to gain mileage, the [Hindu nationalists] are making a partition in society between Hindus and Muslims.”

Even in ordinary times, the country’s meat-and-leather trade is a strange business. Last year, India, which is 80 percent Hindu, emerged as the largest beef exporter in the world. Combined with leather, the industry is worth some $10 billion. How's that possible?

It is partly because under a system drawn up by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the meat of Indian water buffaloes, which Hindus do not consider holy, is classified as “beef.” Exporting cow meat is banned, though cowhide accounts for around a third of India’s leather exports. Yet in Kolkata, tannery workers say the mix of buffalo hide to cowhide has fallen from 50-50 to 80 percent buffalo in recent weeks. Since the first attacks on transporters in September, buffalo-processing factories have also been facing shortages.

“Our drivers are stopped while they carry buffaloes. There is fear among drivers,” says DB Sabharwal, a Hindu, who's secretary of the All India Meat & Livestock Exporters Association.

In most states, and sometimes even in Kolkata, that's technically illegal. Along with bans on cow slaughter and the consumption or possession of beef, various states have made it a crime to sell or transport cows out of their jurisdiction if they are destined for the butcher. In states where cow slaughter is legal, a “fit-for-slaughter” certificate is required to document that the animal in question is more than 12 to 14 years old or “permanently incapacitated for breeding, draft or milk due to injury, deformity or any other cause,” according to the Ministry of Agriculture. But that rule too is frequently flouted, according to people opposed to killing cows.The domestic market is more complicated. While cow slaughter is permitted in only five states, the animals are everywhere. There's no separate meat industry. But a mammoth dairy industry and the traditional use of draft animals means there are more than 190 million cattle in India, compared with about 90 million in the United States. As tractors replace bullocks in agriculture, around half of these animals are becoming a drain on the farmers' resources. And while Hindu nationalist organizations have set up nursing homes for hundreds of thousands of superannuated cows, it's no surprise that many farmers prefer to sell them rather than put them out to pasture.

The result is a tortuous path of payoffs, smuggling and don't ask, don't tell. The not-quite legal nature of the business means there are no large firms buying cows and shipping them to Kolkata—or smuggling them to Bangladesh. Animals pass through a chain of transporters before they’re sold for slaughter. Then middlemen collect meat and hides into the larger consignments needed by the leather businesses and other industries that rely on tallow and other by-products, says Shahid Akhtar, managing director of a leather goods manufacturer called Elrich International. “Those people will have problems now,” he says. “The police or vigilantes will confiscate the items, then corruption will increase. This has started to happen.”

It's not clear how devoted to the issue Modi is, or how beholden he'll be to the larger, parent organization of the BJP—a uniform-wearing cadre of activists called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose second “supreme leader,” Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, was an admirer of Adolph Hitler.

It's not all Hindus vs. Muslims. Middle-caste Hindu merchants dominate the leather export business. Some lower caste Hindus eat beef, though many have adopted high-caste food taboos in a bid to avoid discrimination. So do many of the country's dozens of indigenous tribes. Many self-declared secularists and atheists partake too—some viewing it as a badge of tolerance or rationalism. Yet Hindu nationalists and some ordinary Hindus look on killing cows much the way devout Muslims view drawing cartoons of Muhammad—something they say Indian secularists would never countenance.

Modi's critics still blame him for the tardy police response to the 2002 riots that killed at least 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus when he was chief minister of Gujarat, his home state, though he was exonerated in court. Opponents have taken him to task for delayed and wishy-washy public statements in response to attacks on churches, belligerent statements from Hindu nationalists and the recent cow-related violence. For instance, he waited 10 days to speak out against the September 28 lynching of a man wrongfully accused of eating beef.

Arun Shourie, once one of the BJP's most respected leaders but now marginalized under Modi, believes the prime minister’s silence was deliberate—and it was interpreted as a green light by rowdier sections of the movement. After an incident of inter-religious violence occurs, other members of the BJP and affiliated organizations keep it alive by making provocative statements, Shourie said in a televised interview with a national channel. Only after weeks pass does Modi comment, and then it is to say something cryptic. “It almost comes out as if it is by design,” said Shourie.

Supporters reject such criticism. “To defame Modi, a negative campaign is coming from the so-called secularists,” says Surendra Kumar Jain, All India Secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Hindu nationalist group leading the push for a national ban on cow slaughter. Vigilante action has to be understood in the context of the failure of law enforcement, he says. “Suppose a woman is being raped? Will you stand by and wait for the police?”

It's not only the beef and leather industry that is at stake. India has climbed in the World Bank's ease of doing business rankings and has replaced China as the most popular destination for foreign direct investment since Modi came to power in 2014. But both the devastating loss in Bihar and the flirting with sectarian strife could further derail his plans for the economy.

The vituperative atmosphere will make it more difficult to reach a consensus with the opposition. And the election loss itself means Modi is drifting further away from a majority in Parliament, where several proposals for big bang economic reforms have already withered and died.

“Along with a possible increase in violence, the government will face stiffer opposition in the Upper House as the debate turns away from economic policy,” Moody's Analytics said in a November report. “Modi must keep his members in check or risk losing domestic and global credibility.”

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Blood, guts and glory: India's boxers hit pay dirt

They got India's first pro-boxing event off the ground. We go behind the scenes with the man who may well be the Don King of India
By Jason Overdorf
GQ India (November 2015)

An hour after the scheduled start time, Jaisingh Shekhawat, the 30-year-old chief organizer of India’s first professional boxing event, burst into the improvised pre-fight green room in a panic, his brow beaded with sweat. “What the hell’s going on?” he snapped at coach Mahavir Singh, busy supervising a last-minute briefing of the nine Indian match judges. Shekhawat caught me watching him and winced. “Mismanagement,” he said ruefully, juggling his portfolio and walkie-talkie.

All around the green room – repurposed from the drivers’ waiting area in the basement parking garage of Delhi’s Select Citywalk Mall – the fighters displayed a monastic calm. Punjabi heavyweight Gurlal Singh, to fight Haryana’s Vikas Hooda in the first of four scheduled matches, stood in the corner like a B-movie Hercules as three hangerson laced up his groin protector. Thai super bantamweight (55.3kg) Khunkhiri Wor Wisaruth was taping the hands of American super middleweight (76.2kg) Clinton Smith, while Smith’s opponent for the night, 13-time national champion Dilbag Singh, casually slipped on a glove and sunk a joke-hook into a friend’s belly to test it out, punctuating the punch with his devilish, 100-watt grin.

If anyone here had reason to sweat, it was Shekhawat, a slim, slicklooking guy with brushed-back hair and gold hoops in both ears. The delayed start put his newly formed North Indian Boxing Association (NIBA) at risk of failing to complete the programme before 10pm, when the permit for the outdoor plaza upstairs would expire. If the authorities shut them down before the end of the main event — a 12-round contest between Indian Neeraj Goyat and Filipino Nelson Gulpe, competing for the vacant World Boxing Council (WBC) Asian Welterweight Championship - the dream of bringing pro boxing to India would be confirmed a fiasco.
Already, one of the biggest news stories to emerge from the farcical pre-fight press conference the day before was a Hindustan Times article headlined “Nothing professional about pro boxing’s India debut”. And tonight, WBC Asia head Patrick Cusick was still fielding basic questions from the judges and referees about pro-level rules and scoring – which differ widely from the amateur game.

Maybe it didn’t show, but more than a year-and-a-half of work hung in the balance.

Jaisingh Shekhawat was always a boxing fan, and participated in a few state-level tournaments before getting into the marble business in his home state of Rajasthan. He had long thought there was a potential market for professional boxing in India, but it took the drive of his old trainer Mahavir Singh (best known as the coach of Olympic bronze medallist Mary Kom) and Neeraj Goyat (arguably India’s keenest pro) to get the idea off the ground. With six professional fights in China and Thailand, as well as a brief stint in India’s Mixed Martial Arts Super Fight League, 23-year-old Goyat had made connections with foreign managers and WBC officials while he was abroad. So when he emailed WBC head Cusick about a licence to hold events in India, he got a response.

Slowly, things came together. Ruling out a stadium – fearing nobody would turn up – the team decided on a free, open-air event that would draw a crowd from passersby. They convinced Cusick they weren’t just blowing smoke, and completed the paperwork to obtain the WBC licence. Handshakes were made with top boxers whose amateur careers were over and who wanted to go pro. Rahul Gokhale of Serendipity Marketing Solutions was pulled in to manage the event. Most importantly, Rakesh Naudiyal, a former international amateur boxer, convinced Kashmiri Marbles to come on board as their major sponsor, contributing around ₹10 lakh rupees – about a fifth of the event’s total budget.

Yet, when Naudiyal told me about it all, I was skeptical — not least because they were approaching me for advice.

I’ve been a hack boxer since learning the basics in a Beijing gym that doubled as a karaoke bar and brothel in 1998, picking up trainers in Boston, New York, Hong Kong and Delhi as I’ve moved around. I’d also venture I’m probably the biggest boxing fan on the Subcontinent. But that’s where my expertise ends. (Full disclosure: Naudiyal has been my friend and training partner since 2005.)

The idea wasn’t to get rich, everybody agreed. It was to give Indian boxers an opportunity to showcase their talent. Most of the team had volunteered their time, and apart from outside contractors like Gokhale, nobody expected to make a rupee off the event. Shekhawat certainly had no illusions he was going to be the next Don King — the notorious American promoter who dominated professional boxing from 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle” between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman through the reign of Mike Tyson in the Eighties — known as much for his slimy business deals as his lightning shock of hair and hi-glint smile of pure evil.

“At the India [amateur] camp, there will be 40-some boxers in every weight class,” said trainer Mahavir Singh. “But only the top one gets the chance to compete in the Olympics. The second, third and fourth guys don’t ever get an opportunity. We want to provide a platform for them.”

My first meeting with Shekhawat, in April this year, was like a Chinese fire drill. Naudiyal was late, so Shekhawat, Mahavir and I stood around in the blazing sun outside the PVR Cinema hall in Basant Lok Community Centre. Neither was comfortable with English, so I was stuck with my “idhar se left, udharse right” taxi Hindi until Kamaljit and a few others turned up. Finally, we tramped up four flights of stairs to a stuffy office that was smaller than an aloo tikki cart. A steady string of beefy guys filled it up until Naudiyal arrived, whereupon we hit critical mass and moved downstairs again. Scouts were dispatched to find a more suitable spot, which turned out to be a McDonald’s. So I viewed the crew’s laptop PowerPoint presentation and dispensed my wisdom, such as it was, over fries and a Coke at a curvy first-floor banquet table.

“As they like to say in America, ‘styles make fights’. You don’t want two match technical boxers who’ll spend the whole night playing defence,” I told them, among other non-pearls.

With that meeting as context, my experience of the pre-event press conference was very different from that of the Hindustan Times writer. I was just gobsmacked that they had actually done anything. “With no money!” exclaimed Naudiyal’s friend Arun Kunal, owner of Add on Entertainment, who’d volunteered to handle public relations.

Patrick Cusick looked out over the audience of reporters gathered at The Lalit hotel. “We’ve been watching the development of boxing in Asia for the last 15 years,” he said. “Ten years ago, we went to China, and now they have their first world champion. We believe India can progress as quickly, if not faster.”

Ninety minutes after official fight time, after countless announcements that the first bout was going to start “in a few minutes,” the announcers were running out of material. “Hurry up and light the lamp,” said one, once they’d wrangled the obligatory-but- not-really-important VIPs onto the stage. When tapers were finally put to the aarti, Shekhawat looked like his doctor had just informed him that his biopsy was negative.

Despite the delays and the 40-degree heat, the crowd hadn’t given up. The 350 ringside chairs for invited guests were full. By the angles of their noses, seemingly every boxer in North India was in the house. Curious onlookers were lined up 20 rows deep in the plaza beyond the guest area, and another dozen rows packed the mall’s first floor balcony.

A hesitant cheer went up as the first fighter, Haryana heavyweight Vikas Hooda, was announced. A thin plume of fog sputtered from the smoke machine, then nothing, as Hooda jog-stepped through the archway and raised his fists in the air.

The thing was finally underway. Somebody must have told Hooda and Gurlal Singh that the fans wanted a knockout, because they hammered hooks to each other’s ribs with no more thought to defence than a couple guys chopping down trees. With the first big blows to the head – sweat flying like shooting stars under the lights – the crowd was hooked. After four workmanlike rounds, when Hooda, in his pro debut, was announced the winner, the emcee didn’t have to exhort the crowd to cheer.
Next up, 13-time All India amateur champion Dilbag Singh squared off against American Clinton Smith. It was the kind of mismatch typical for a top amateur’s debut in the pros – where the idea is to get your guy some easy wins and build up his reputation. Smith was listed in the programme as having 18 wins and 5 losses, but in fact he was a Muay Thai and Mixed Martial Arts fighter. A gristly, tattooed 39-year-old with a shaved head and goatee, he’d told me in the green room that he had five pro Muay Thai bouts, two MMA, but he’d “more or less never boxed before.” Once Dilbag figured that out, it was a matter of Smith being tough enough to avoid a knockout. By that measure, he acquitted himself well. Between rounds, a freshly mohawked Dilbag winked at the ring card girls and grinned at his buddies in the peanut gallery. Smith barely laid a glove on him.

By the time Delhi’s own Balbir Singh was introduced for his super bantamweight bout with Thailand’s Khunkhiri Wor Wisaruth, a veteran of 11 pro fights, the crowd had gotten into the swing of things. The loudest roar of the night rose as Balbir pranced out of the now functioning fog.

From the opening bell, it was clear Balbir didn’t think the stringy Wisaruth had the punching power to keep him off. He bullied the smaller Thai around the ring, winging wild punches and pushing Wisaruth to the ropes, until the Thai drew him into a clinch to get his bearings. When the Indian referee separated them, Balbir let go a hook that caught Wisaruth on the chin. The Thai stumbled back and dropped to the canvas, and the crowd went wild. Even by professional boxing’s more liberal rules, “hitting on the break” is illegal, and Balbir’s punch had the look of a premeditated, flagrant foul. But the Indian referee acted like nothing had happened and gave Wisaruth an eight count when he popped to his feet. For a second, disbelief passed over the Thai’s face, then the realization that he was in the stewpot for a bit of “home cooking” – a staple of professional boxing.

A minute later, Balbir floored him again, this time with a shoulder block, and again the referee pretended nothing was amiss. Wisaruth tried to stick and move after that, but Balbir put him on his back with a straight right in the second round, and seconds later, another right put Wisaruth down and out.

India’s first pro boxing card had its first KO.

Now for the main event: Neeraj Goyat vs Nelson Gulpe for the Asian welterweight championship.

A good-looking and charismatic kid with an easy smile and a mop of curly hair, Goyat was the reason the programme had come together. Unlike most Indian boxers, who quit the game as soon as they get a sports quota job, Goyat was hungry. Though he didn’t have the pedigree to match Dilbag and Balbir, at just 23 he had more years left in his prime. With six fights in China and Thailand, he was already India’s most experienced professional. And along with Dilbag, he’d inked a deal with Las Vegas-based Guilty Boxing to cover his living and training expenses. On the other hand, with two wins, two losses and two draws, he didn’t have the kind of record for people in the fight game to call him “a prospect”. And he hadn’t done anything to merit being invited to fight for the WBC’s vacant Asian welterweight title apart from being born in India. (At 8-4-0 and 3 KOs, Gulpe was a little more legit.)

“I’ve been fighting at super lightweight (63.5kg), but there was no vacant title in that weight class,” Goyat had told me a couple hours before fight time, tucked up to his chin under the blankets in his hotel room, Mujhse Dosti Karoge blaring from the TV. “That’s why I played welter weight this time.”

In the greater scheme of professional boxing, it’s a meaningless belt. The WBC Asia is to the WBC what Italian basketball is to the NBA, and even at boxing’s highest level, an alphabet soup of competing sanctioning bodies plague the sport (the World Boxing Association, the International Boxing Federation, the World Boxing Organization and on and on).

“It’s just to get India on the map,” said Kiwi referee Bruce McTavish, a veteran with more than 100 title fights on his resumé. “It’s showbiz.” But for Goyat, a win would mean an end to being treated like Smith or Wisaruth: “an opponent”, expected to lose. “After this event, people will come to me to fight,” Goyat told me. “Organizers will ask me to come to their countries. Sponsors will come to us.”

A victory might even earn Goyat a fight in Vegas. His promoter, Guilty Boxing chief executive Puneet Dureja, a non-resident Indian with 25 years experience in movie and television distribution, has purportedly signed a deal with America’s CBS Sports Network to stage a series of international fight cards featuring boxers from ten different countries over the next 12 months.

From the opening bell, Goyat took the fight to the taller Filipino, whose punches looked sluggish. Goyat pushed Gulpe back to negate his longer reach, but let Gulpe control the distance and ate a couple four-punch combinations for it. But in the end, he went back to crowding the Filipino, ducking and weaving when Gulpe tried to fire back. The strategy worked.

Compared to Balbir’s knockout, Goyat’s lopsided technical win, drawn out over 12 three-minute rounds, was an anti-climax. But in other respects, it was exactly what Shekhawat’s NIBA and the WBC needed.

When the scores were announced, Goyat’s supporters lifted him onto their shoulders in the centre of the ring and thrust a microphone into his hand.

“I’m India’s first professional boxing champion!” he shouted out in Hindi.

“If the fighters come prepared and the main event is handled in a professional manner, then it will be a success,” Cusick had told me the day before, and at that moment, a success is what it was. It was only a day or two later that the real cracks started to show. Rumours swirled that one of the main sponsors had reneged on a promise to provide ₹15 lakh and Shekhawat hadn’t been able to pay the fighters. Then Rahul Gokhale, of Serendipity Marketing, wrote me to accuse Shekhawat of stiffing him on two of the agreed ₹5 lakh fee for arranging the venue, promotional materials and managing the event.

“NIBA used my office infrastructure, manpower and consultation services for two months, and apart from that the event cost is also not paid. All commitments regarding the payment failed, and now everyone is absconding,” Gokhale wrote in an email.

Shekhawat took my call a few minutes later and assured me he was not absconding. He was very much in town, and had sent Gokhale a WhatsApp message offering to meet.

“I haven’t disappeared. I’m very near his home,” Shekhawat said.

He didn’t deny that they’d agreed on five lakhs. But he said he was withholding the final two lakhs because he wasn’t satisfied with the job Gokhale had done. Among the issues: Gokhale had promised an aluminium scaffold for the light system, but had provided an iron one; and the LED lights hadn’t been functioning for the first match. The crux of the matter, though, was the delay.

“The show was 90 minutes late. I was searching for him, where is Rahul, where is Rahul? He was nowhere to be found.”

Gokhale disagreed. “As far as I was concerned, the event was quite seamless,” he said. “Nothing went wrong.”

According to Cusick and McTavish, none of the foreign fighters complained that they had not received their money. However, it wasn’t clear if those amounts matched the sums that the team had bandied about in their discussions with me – which included match fees of as much as one lakh and post-fight bonuses ranging from₹50,000 to 5 lakh for the winner of the main event.

“As far as my purse I was given exactly what I was promised, no haggling,” Smith wrote in an email. “I am not at liberty to discuss [the] total... But I will say I hope they call me again.”

When I called Goyat, he was more cagey. The organizers had given a cheque for his match fee and the ₹5 lakh bonus for winning the title to a friend in Delhi. But he wasn’t bothered about cashing it, he claimed.

“I didn’t fight for the money. I fought to make history,” said Goyat. “This is the first professional boxing championship to be held in India. I don’t want it to be the last.”

Unpaid bills, dodgy match-ups, an incompetent-if-not-crooked referee — to the uninitiated, all that might sound a bit, well, unprofessional. But to the boxing cognoscenti, where this sort of scheming is more common than not, it may be a hint that Shekhawat and India’s newborn pro boxing industry may already be punching above their weight.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

India: Facebook sold my baby!

The buying and selling of children is shockingly commonplace in India.

By Jason Overdorf 
(GlobalPost - May 3, 2013)
NEW DELHI, India — When police in the north Indian state of Punjab announced the arrest of a grandfather for allegedly selling his infant grandson on Facebook, the news immediately went viral.
But the real story is hidden behind the headline: The buying and selling of children is shockingly commonplace in India.
“The numbers are shocking now,” said Bhuwan Ribhu, a lawyer who works with the Save the Childhood Movement, a New Delhi-based nonprofit that fights child trafficking and other forms of exploitation.
According to official government estimates, around 90,000 children went missing in India in 2011 alone. And while police contend that many are runaways whose return home is never reported, nearly 35,000 remain untraced, and only 15,000 of the total cases were ever investigated.
Indeed, the Facebook baby was lucky — even if the anonymity offered by the internet may present an ominous threat in the hands of more savvy criminals. Police acted swiftly to recover the infant boy after his mother, Noori, complained that her father-in-law, Feroz Khan, had allegedly told her the baby had died and spirited him away with the aid of hospital staff.
“After investigations, we found the grandfather of the child had struck a deal with a man in Delhi and had roped-in the nursing staff to smuggle the baby out of the nursing home,” Ishwar Singh, commissioner of police in Ludhiana, told the Telegraph. “We have arrested four people including the grandfather. We have also booked the buyer from Delhi."
That is hardly the experience of most parents. Since 2007, when the exposure of a serial killer in Nithari, on the outskirts of New Delhi, revealed that local police had ignored parents' pleas that their children had disappeared, evidence has piled up showing that officials continue to disregard complaints of missing children.
More from GlobalPost: No babies for gay couples in India
When GlobalPost visited the homes of parents with missing children for an earlier report, it was painfully clear that the economic status of the families plays a disturbing role in the treatment of their cases.
The desperate circumstances of the slums encourage the authorities to believe that children have simply run away. And sometimes, the plight of the family prompts suspicion that a family member — like the grandfather of the Facebook baby — may be involved in the disappearance.
According to child protection experts, however, cases in which parents or other family members knowingly sell their children are rare. More often, the family is duped into surrendering their child with the promise that he or she will be given a job and a better life in the city — sending home money every month. Some cash changes hands, but it is described as an advance, and most likely intended to sow seeds of guilt among family members that later help stymie any official investigation.
“In the majority of the cases we deal with the child is being taken away with the promise of a better job or a better life and then disappears,” said Ribhu, who the night before had participated in the rescue of a trafficked girl from a house in New Delhi where she was being held.
Earlier this year, India enacted a strong new law prohibiting all forms of human trafficking — whether for labor, slavery, sex or adoption — proscribing a prison term of seven years to life. But the new law has yet to make a difference, as it has not yet been backed by widespread institutional changes, says Ribhu.
Just days before the alleged sale of the Facebook baby, India's capital erupted in wide-scale protests when citizens learned that police had allegedly offered the father of a 5-year-old rape victim a bribe to try to prevent him from revealing that they initially refused to investigate her disappearance.
The delay in the investigation took on new meaning when the brutalized child was found, 40 hours later, in another apartment of the building where her family lives. (She remains in the hospital where she has been treated for severe internal injuries.)
It appears this young girl represents the norm. An investigation by India's Mail Today newspaper, covering six New Delhi police stations, found that despite the new directives, police are still reluctant to file cases when parents come to report missing children. In some cases, they allegedly pressured parents to withdraw their complaints, while in others they demanded money before they would take action, according to the report.
Child protection experts are not the least bit surprised.
“Out of the 10 children who are going missing every hour, only one case is being investigated,” said Ribhu. “These children are all being put into various kinds of exploitation. And a child who is being sold on Facebook is not even a part of this figure.”

India: Watershed unlikely from Pakistan election

Analysis: Pakistan's democratic transition may not be so historic for India-Pakistan relations.

By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - May 16, 2013)

NEW DELHI, India — His first act as Pakistan's prime minister was to wave an olive branch in India's general direction, but Nawaz Sharif's victory doesn't necessarily position him to take major steps to improve cross-border relations.
Here's why:
Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) won close to an outright majority in the weekend polls. With 123 out of 272 directly elected assembly seats, he can form the government without the aid of a significant ally.
India hopes that means Sharif will not have to deal with political adversaries as he seeks to re-establish civilian control over state policy.
But despite his near majority, Sharif relies on Islamic fundamentalist parties for support. His rivals contend that one reason his campaign was successful was that the Pakistani Taliban did not target him for attack.
To many, that suggests a tacit agreement that he will not try to stop the country from sinking deeper into the mire.
“It's useful, obviously, to have a majority,” said Rajiv Sikri, a career Indian diplomat and author of “Challenge and Strategy: Rethinking India's Foreign Policy.”
“But as we know the civilian government is not the only center of power in Pakistan. There is the army, there is the judiciary, there are the religious parties, and he is quite dependent on them, and of course there is the ever-present factor of the United States.”
Sharif's early remarks condemning terrorism, in which he said Pakistan would “never again” allow its soil to be used as the launchpad for terrorist attacks on India, are the most exciting sign that he intends to initiate a major shift in policy.
But many question his ability to pull it off — especially when a single ill-timed strike from the Lashkar-e-Taiba or a similar terrorist group can put paid to thousands of hours of peace talks.
“He would probably be wiser if he were to go a little slowly rather than rush anything,” Sikri said. “He doesn't want to frighten the army into any rash step.”
Sharif's history could work in India's favor.
Pakistan's prime minister from 1990 to 1993 and again from 1997 to 1999, Sharif was deposed by a military coup and exiled to Saudi Arabia in a fruitless and probably insincere effort to crack down on corruption.
So, he knows all too well the problems with an elected government that serves at the pleasure of the army chief. And he has a personal as well as a political stake in righting the balance of power.
That will require normalizing India-Pakistan relations, for a start.
The source of the Pakistani military's power is the fear of a conflict with India. And improved trade relations could jumpstart the economy in ways that would simultaneously loosen the grip of the army and (possibly) rob the Islamists of some of their recruits.
But Brahma Chellaney of the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research said it's too early to tell whether Sharif will be able to facilitate a better relationship between the two prickly neighbors.
“It is too early to conclude that the recent election marks the advent of a mature, stable Pakistani democracy,” Chellaney wrote by email.
“Sharif faces a major challenge to make the army and the [Inter-services Intelligence agency] (ISI) more accountable. Unless he achieves some tangible progress on that front, he will find it difficult to achieve structural economic or foreign-policy reforms."
And it takes two to tango.
Despite Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's apparent willingness to sacrifice whatever tiny amount of political capital he commands to establish a lasting peace with Pakistan, India itself is due to go to the polls in 2014.
Even if Singh's United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government opts, bravely or foolishly, to seek some kind of historic agreement with Islamabad in a last-ditch bid to win votes, Sharif will have to evaluate the wisdom of striking a deal with a lame duck with two broken wings.
For that reason, more than any other, Sharif's engagement with India will probably be limited to fine sounding words and perhaps a spontaneous jaunt across the border to watch a cricket match or visit a shrine. At least until 2014.

Monday, April 22, 2013

India's young Hindu radicals

Is a group of young Hindu radicals terrorizing the college town of Mangalore a sign of a coming culture war?
By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - April 22, 2013)

MANGALORE, India — Inside the Mangalore city jail, Subhash Padil, a 29-year-old foot soldier in a far right Hindu organization, leaned in to make himself heard through the wire mesh of the visitor's window. Half a dozen of his fellow inmates crowded around him.

With an orange lungi wrapped around his waist, sarong-style, and a saffron towel draped over his shoulders, Padil dressed in the guise of a temple priest. His moralistic protestations against his incarceration for an alleged attack on a birthday party held at a local bed and breakfast last year make him sound like one, too.

“When we came in, the girls were half naked and everyone was drinking,” he said, through a translator. “They claim it was only a birthday party. But if that was all that was going on, why would they hold it at a guesthouse instead of at home?”

Last July, journalist Naveen Soorinje caught Padil and other alleged members of the Hindu Jagarana Vedike on video as they roughed up a group of 20-something party-goers they claimed were up to no good. For exposing the Hindu group's violent answer to moral policing, the journalist spent more than six months in jail.

The real shock, however, was the virulence of the young Hindu radicals he exposed.

More than half of India's 1.2 billion people are under 25 years old, a potential demographic dividend that optimists say could add two percent per year to the country's gross domestic product over the next 20 years.

But contrary to conventional wisdom, it's not all Facebook, MTV and sexting in “Youngistan” — Pepsi's clever tag for this generation now coming into its own. Instead, even as English-speaking India appears to be growing ever more tolerant of dating, live-in relationships and even intercaste marriages, Mangalore's birthday party battle and similar conflicts across the country hint at a simmering culture war beneath the surface of India's economic growth.

“If they truly suspected that there were drugs at the party or that the boys were taking pictures of the girls in compromising positions to blackmail them, they should have stopped to assess the situation and confirm something like that was really going on,” said Soorinje, who was finally released from custody after months of protests from civil rights organizations and other media personnel.

“But you can see from the video that they just stormed through the gate and started the attack.”

The Morality Police

A small, coastal city in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, Mangalore seems like an unnatural hotbed for Hindu radicals. It's only about 200 miles from Bangalore, the IT hub that has become the public face of India's economic rise. And thanks to dozens of educational institutions like St. Aloysius College, whose colonial-era towers overlook the Arabian Sea from the center of town, the city throngs with young, upwardly mobile Indians studying to be doctors, nurses, executives and engineers.

On a typical afternoon at a local branch of Cafe Coffee Day, the unofficial capital of Youngistan, several couples from the local colleges sit together, their heads drawn together over the excuse of a notebook. In one corner of the cafe, a Muslim girl sits with her bearded boyfriend, strappy pink sandals peaking out from beneath the head-to-toe black of her chador, while in another, a Hindu guy with a soul patch has pulled his chair around the table to sit next to his girlfriend. And later that night, at a local bar called Froth on Top, the crowd of young college students drank pitchers of beer, looking no different from any such group in any country around the world.

But there's more here than meets the eye.

Over the past five years — according to news reports collected by the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), India's oldest and largest human rights organisation — Mangalore and the surrounding coastal area has witnessed more than 100 incidents of so-called “moral policing,” similar to the homestay attack in July.

“If a boy and girl walks together, that is not Hindu culture, they will say,” said Swebert de Silva, principal of St. Aloysius College, where students have protested against the self-appointed moral police.

“Or women drinking in a pub. Or young people gathering together and drinking a little beer. That is not Hindu culture.”

Most of the incidents compiled by PUCL involved members of radical groups such as the Hindu Jagarana Vedike, Sri Rama Sene and Bajrang Dal. In January 2009, for instance, around 40 alleged members of the Sri Ram Sene attacked young men and women drinking at a local Mangalore bar called “Amnesia — the Lounge,” claiming they were violating Indian culture. In August 2011, some 30 to 40 alleged members of the Bajrang Dal reportedly broke up a birthday party being held at a local farmhouse, claiming it was a rave.

“If I'm married and I'm having children of age 20 or 25 and I flirt with a girl who is the age of 14, and my intention is to spoil her, and some alert social activists ... stop us, how can you say it is moral policing?” said Franklin Monteiro, a local leader from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“First they will ask whether they are married or they are lovers, or whether they are having the permission of their parents,” Monteiro said. “These three questions they will ask first. If they belong to the same [religious] community, they [the vigilantes] will leave, just like that.”

But in contrast, in dozens of cases compiled by PUCL, members of various right-wing outfits reportedly dragged young people off buses, sprang on couples and hauled them into the police station, or beat them up on the spot.

Many of these attacks stemmed from the real or imagined perception that a Muslim boy had sought a connection with a Hindu girl — which right-wing ideologues have characterized as “Love Jihad.” And in almost all of these instances that involve the local police, the authorities appear to have tacitly sanctioned the vigilantes' actions by holding the couple for questioning, calling their parents to retrieve them, or releasing them only after ascertaining that both the boy and girl are Hindus.

“Nobody is stopping it,” said Suresh Bhatt, vice president of the Karnataka chapter of PUCL. “We're terribly concerned that the lawkeepers, the police and the politicians, are turning a blind eye.”

Activists from PUCL and other like-minded organisations trace such incidents of moral policing — as well as dozens of reported attacks on Muslims accused of slaughtering cows and on Christians accused of trying to convert Hindus — to the recent rise to power of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Karnataka.

The BJP and the Hindu Jagarana Vedike, Sri Rama Sene, and Bajrang Dal are all official offshoots, or ideological allies, of a massive, informal political “family” known as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), PUCL activists said.

The increase in these interreligious skirmishes — whether they're related to the bogey of “Love Jihad,” cow slaughter, or conversion — is part of a well-planned RSS campaign strategy, according to critics.

“For us, the final is the Sangh Parivar (RSS family), we are all activists of the Sangh Parivar,” said the BJP's Monteiro. “For us, the final and the most holiest part of life is to protect this country, as well as the culture of this land, which has been practiced by our elders.”

In Mangalore, the campaign began in the late 1990s, when a communal clash between Hindus and Muslims offered the RSS and other proponents of its ethnic nationalist ideology of “Hindutva” or “Hinduness” an opportunity to woo low caste Hindus away from competing socialist and communist movements, according to K. Phaniraj, a professor at the nearby Manipal Institute of Technology.

But since 2008, when the BJP came to power in Karnataka, the lines have blurred between the grassroots exploitation of tensions between religious communities and official sanction from the authorities. When the government proposed a bill to ban cow slaughter, for instance, local police tacitly allowed hooligans to enforce the ban, though it never became law. And for more than a month last year, the official police website for the district that includes Mangalore featured a photo collage highlighting the supposed public service activities of the RSS (which the group's opponents say are nothing more than recruitment efforts).

“I call it Hindutva fascism,” Phaniraj said. “I make no bones about it.”

Class and caste, town and gown

As disturbing as that sounds, that aspect of the issue is little more than politics as usual for India, where the RSS and Hindu nationalism has been a potent force since 1925.

And though various speeches reported by local media suggest otherwise, some RSS members and sympathisers say that the organisation has quietly shunted to the side the outright fascist ideas of Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, one of its principal early ideologues. (In his written works, Golwalkar calls for non-Hindus to adopt Hindu culture or submit to remain “wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation” and appears to endorse Hitler's decision to purge Germanyof the Jews, though perhaps not his methods).

“There might be a small section of the RSS which is anti-Muslim,” said 31-year-old Brijesh Chowta, an RSS member who cautioned that his statements represented only his personal views. “But if you look at the organisation, they say Hindutva is not a religion. Everybody can practice their religion, but it's about being Indian first.”

What's new, and of greater concern to the more liberal citizens of Youngistan, is the idea that India's modernization may not be diminishing the ranks of the true believers, and their conservatism may be contagious — encouraging Christian and Muslim fundamentalism.

At a recent regional meeting, 80 percent of the 85,000 uniformed “volunteers” that turned out were between 16 and 35, according to a 28-year-old member of the RSS who lives at its center in the city and works for the organisation full time. (He asked not to be named because he is not an official spokesman.)

Meanwhile, the regular attacks on Muslims that accompanied the Hindu vigilantes' moral policing sparked local college students to adopt the burqa and chador as a kind of badge of honor in the tussle between modernity, freedom and identity.

And the socio-economic dimensions of the conflict hint that it may soon grow more serious.

Apart from the alleged political machinations of the Hindu right, there is a class-and-caste, town-versus-gown element to these incidents of moral policing that some observers believe augurs trouble on the horizon.

While educated, upwardly mobile young people move forward to take better jobs, free themselves from the authority of their parents and embrace more liberal attitudes toward love and sex, another group may be growing increasingly lost, hopeless and angry.

According to Soorinje, the journalist jailed for his reporting on moral policing, for instance, four of the young men facing charges for the alleged attack on party-goers at the homestay in July do not have electricity in their homes.

“The reason that young people are attracted to these kind of [radical conservative] outfits is the uneven development we see in Mangalore,” Soorinje said.

“While we have so many colleges and shopping malls, the backward and uneducated tend to take what the leadership says about 'Love Jihad' and so forth at face value, because young men and women socializing together like the college students do is completely outside their sphere of knowledge.”

Saturday, February 16, 2013

It's (Not) Dead, Jim

I'm writing this post on a dead machine.  Or at least that's what the "service" techs at New Delhi's 4 Genius Minds, an Apple authorized service provider, would have you believe.

More like 4 Gullible Suckers!

Here's the story, as I've been tweeting on @joverdorf:

About a week ago, this beautiful Macbook Pro 13" drank a highball glass of vodka soda -- unadvisedly, of course.  I didn't witness the event.  But it went dead, and I got no response when I pressed the power button.  Only then did I observe the puddle of green apple scented liquid on the desk beneath the machine, and start sniffing the keyboard.

Getting screwed

$1400, down the drain?  So my early web research suggested. But I took it to 4 Gullible Suckers anyway.  They said they'd see what they could do, but the diagnosis would cost me 1500 rupees (about $30).  Fair enough, right?  I forked it over and came back two days later, only to be told that the machine had liquid damage that would cost Rs. 139,800 ($2500) to repair. (A new Macbook Pro 13" with the same features costs $1999 from the Apple Store).  On the upside, they said the solid-state hard drive was working, so if I went to Nehru Place and got somebody to stick it in an external case, I could recover the data.

Here's the report 4 Gullible Suckers gave me:

Work done:
1. Verify AC power presence with MagSafe LED indicating on or charge state.
2. Reset SMC (System Management Controller)
3. Disconnect all peripherals from unit.
4. Check battery indicator light array (Press button to activate) to verify that the battery is not dead.
5. Use a known good & correct type/wattage Magsafe Adaptor and AC cord connected to a known good AC outlet to test system.
6. Check the system with minimal configuration.
7. Disconnect keyboard flex cable from MLB to isolate power button. With display in open position, short MLB power pins to power on system

(I'm not an engineer. And I don't want to be too uncharitable. But that sounds a lot like the shaking and cursing the thing that I did myself).

Diagnosis Details:
Logic board faulty (Liquid damage)
Display faulty (Liquid spill)
Topcase faulty (Liquid spill)
CD drive faulty (Liquid spill)
HDD is working fine.
12th feb 1:59 pm, informed

Spare Replace / Estimated Repair Cost:
Inspection fee - Rs. 1500
Optical Drive, Super 9.5 mm - Rs. 12,900
Display Clamshell, Glossy - Rs. 39,200
Logic board, 2.66 Ghz - Rs. 72,500
Top case housing with keyboard - Rs. 13,700
Total: Rs. 139,800

Getting service

On to Nehru Place.  With the help of a friendly tout, I discovered The IThub deep in the bowels of a grungy, paan- and urine-stained building.

Abdul told me, "we can definitely put your hard drive in an external case. But why not let us try to repair your machine?"

"How much will it cost to look at it?" I asked, expecting a scam.

"Nothing. How much did they charge you at the place you took it before?"

I gave him the "Service Report" to scan.

"They charged him Rs. 1500 for a diagnostic!" he announced to the dozen odd people standing by.  General laughter all around.

I left with a functioning external hard drive, and hope that my Macbook might be salvageable.  Three days later, Abdul phoned me up.  "Sir, we have diagnosed your Macbook. If you want us to repair it will cost you Rs. 6000 ($110). It's so expensive because we had to replace the logic board." (4 Gullible Suckers price: Rs. 72,500, or $1350).

Do it, I said.

You can pick it up tomorrow after 11, he said.

Today I went back.  They whipped out the Macbook and booted it up.  But when I tried to type the password the keyboard wasn't working. So they took it back and fiddled some more. Chai was consumed. Business cards exchanged. Friendships forged. (A desi in town from Connecticut, a Delhiwallah who works at BBDO). A running twitter commentary unspooled.

"Sir, your keyboard is not working. We will try to source you another one."

I booted up the machine with a USB keyboard and checked "About this Mac."  What's this?  This machine had 8 GB ram. Now it has 4 GB.  More fiddling.  I checked it again.  The specs checked out.  And the machine was working.  I inserted a DVD.  Sure enough, the DVD drive was working.  I did a quick review:

Optical Drive, Super 9.5 mm - Rs. 12,900 -- Still working fine, despite 4 Gullible Suckers
Display Clamshell, Glossy - Rs. 39,200 -- Still working fine
Logic board, 2.66 Ghz - Rs. 72,500 -- Replaced for Rs. 6000 ($110 vs. estimate of $1300)
Top case housing with keyboard - Rs. 13,700 -- Not working, but manageable with USB 
Total: Rs. 139,800 -- Out Rs. 6000 plus Rs. 1500 for useless "official" diagnosis

Yep, the only thing wrong with it was the now-repaired Logic Board and the keyboard.  I took it home, and looked for a new keyboard/top case online.

Guess what: They are available for $125 or less.

Total cost: $110 plus $125 = $225 versus $2500.  Oh, yeah, and the $30 I gave to 4 Gullible Suckers for a life lesson.

Jugaad beats Macbook: 1-0.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

India: Music's new ambassadors

With the death of Ravi Shankar, Indian music lost its most famous ambassador. Here's who will carry the torch.

NEW DELHI, India — When sitar master Ravi Shankar finally succumbed to time last week, Indian music lost its first and most famous ambassador. But a healthy crop of musicians are carrying the torch — straddling pop, indie, Bollywood and classical genres. Here are some names to follow.
Classical music
Zakir Hussain — a former child prodigy who first toured the US in 1970 — has done for the tabla what Shankar did for the sitar. In 1992 and 2009, he collaborated with Mickey Hart, Sikiru Adepoju, and Giovanni Hidalgo on the Grammy-winning “Planet Drum” and “Global Drum Project” albums to introduce the world to Indian classical's curiously melodious drum. In earlier years, Hussain played with John McLaughlin's Shakti — one of the first efforts to fuse the rhythms and melodies of classical Indian ragas with the improvisations of western jazz — touring extensively in the late 1970s. He worked on the soundtracks of Francis Ford Coppola's “Apocalypse Now” and Bernardo Bertolucci's “Little Buddha.” And he's capitalized on the growing crossover audience for Indian films, and films made by the Indian diaspora, with acting cameos and soundtrack work for movies such as Aparna Sen's “Mr. and Mrs. Iyer” and Ismail Merchant's “The Mystic Masseur.”
“Aside from the fact that [Hussain] works magic on the tabla, I think it's his ability to align himself to various styles, various vocabularies of music [that has made him an important ambassador for Indian music],” said Chennai-based cultural critic Nandini Krishnan.
Other heirs to Shankar's legacy include slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya, whose “Calcutta Chronicles” was nominated for a Grammy in 2009; classical pianist Anil Srinivasan; and Uppalapu “Mandolin” Srinivas, who plays the mandolin (natch). In addition to “Calcutta Chronicles,” Bhattacharya won over Western fans with “Calcutta Slide-Guitar, Vol. 3.” (2005) and “Mahima” (2003) in collaboration with American guitarist Bob Brozman — both of which made Billboard's World Music Top Ten. Srinivas, who dueled with Miles Davis at the West Berlin Jazz Festival in 1983, has in recent years brought South India's Carnatic music to the global audience by collaborating with McLaughlin's Shakti and artists as wide-ranging as King Crimson's Trey Gunn and Chinese yangqin master Liu Yuening. And Srinivasan has brought his unique merger of classical piano and South Indian Carnatic music to audiences at New York's Lincoln Center, the Sydney Opera House and the National Center for the Traditional Performing Arts in Korea.
In other words, Shankar may be gone, but his legacy is bigger than ever.
“Most of us now are getting an opportunity to perform at mainstream venues as part of festivals,” said Srinivasan. “To a large extent this is something that Uday Shankar and Ravi Shankar created for Indian music.”
“[Second], you have Indian music inveigling itself into many different global music forms, starting with AR Rahman and going all the way down to myriad composers and choreographers and other people,” Srinivasan said.
“Rather than one person or group of people who are ambassadors, you have a lot of different influences and influencers. It's a certain philosophy towards composition that has changed worldwide.”
That brings us to Bollywood, where Grammy-winner A.R. Rahman and music directors like Amit Trivedi have introduced sounds from Indian folk and classical music into love songs and dance tracks and taken advantage of Indian film's growing global popularity to gain a wider audience.
“A music director like Amit Trivedi is different from the genius music directors from the '50s, who created a gorgeous sound but also brought in many of the nuances of Indian classical and light classical music, as it's called in India, into their compositions,” said novelist (and classical Hindustani vocalist) Amit Chaudhuri — whose own “This Is Not Fusion” project has created a minor internet sensation since he began it in 2003.
Trivedi's pathbreaking soundtrack to 2010's “Dev. D” in some ways redefined what Bollywood music could be — albeit in one of a new crop of independent films. Songs like "Emosanal Attyachar,” for instance, blend the raucous music of the brass bands that play Indian weddings with western-style rock influences and wordplay worthy of Bob Dylan.
“The singer used to be central for those older music director,” Chaudhuri said. “Now it seems the singer is just one element in a soundscape that these directors are creating.”
Beyond the Grammy-winning soundtrack to “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Jai Ho,” Rahman has won crossover fans with some of modern Bollywood's most memorable songs (think “Chaiya Chaiya”):
He's also collaborated with artists ranging from Michael Jackson to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Vanessa Mae — making him the top-of-mind choice for Indian music's new ambassador.
“What Rahman is basing his music on is a few [elements] picked up from Indian folk music, a few picked up from classical and a few picked up from Western music,” said Delhi University music professor Deepti Bhalla. “You cannot say it has a classical base or a folk base. It is a mix of everything.”
Still, not everybody is convinced that Bollywood's role as ambassador of Indian music is a good thing.
“The biggest influence on the West, or what the West understands as Indian music, is the sound of Bollywood,” said Krishnan.
“This amuses me, because several Bollywood composers have stolen popular Western tracks. Try 'Dil Mera Churaya Kyon' from Akele Hum Akele Tum and George Michael's 'Last Christmas', or 'Haseena Gori Gori' and Shaggy's 'In the Summertime.'”
Pop, indie and “new” fusion
The post-Shankar era is also bristling with Indian and Indian-origin pop, indie and fusion artists, who transcend borders and boundaries in ways that the sitar master couldn't have dreamed possible when he was teaching George Harrison to play.
In India, artists like singer-songwriter Raghu Dixit of the Raghu Dixit Project are starting to gain an international audience for Indian “indie” music:
while non-Bollywood popstars like Daler Mehndi have caught the ear of international artists such as the UK's Rajinder Singh Rai (aka Panjabi MC) and Jay-Z — making so-called “bhangra nights” a fixture at clubs in London, New York and beyond.
In the UK, indie artists like Talvin Singh and Nitin Sawhney have in recent years popularized a sub-genre of electronica known as “Asian Underground” that incorporates Indian instruments and melodies, whileCornershop's Tjinder and Avtar Singh brought Indian instruments and sampling to Britpop in songs like “Brimful of Asha.”
And the late-blooming US diaspora is now getting into the game, with Brooklyn-based Himanshu Suri and Ashok Kondabolu of Das Racist bringing an Indian vibe to hip hop and Brooklyn-based Rudresh Mahan Thapar and Vijay Iyer combining Indian sounds with Western jazz.
“[The UK's] Arun Ghosh, Vijay Iyer, and Rudresh Mahan Thapar all started out as western-style jazz players and they began to explore their cultural origins,” said Chaudhuri, who counts his own “This Is Not Fusion” as part of the same musical movement.
“It's a move away from the kind of Shakti-idea of fusion, where you had western harmonies and Indian instruments and raga and you brought the two together,” Chaudhuri explained. “This new music was done by people who were not looking at either Western or Eastern music from the outside.”
In other words: Maybe Indian music doesn't really need “ambassadors” any more.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

India: Food rots as people starve

By Jason Overdorf

(GlobalPost - July 16, 2012)

NEW DELHI, India — Never mind that a fifth of India's population remains undernourished and some 3,000 children die each day from hunger-related causes. By all appearances, India, or at least the Indian government, has too much food.

Last week, after the revelation that millions of tons of improperly stored grain would be ruined by monsoon rains, India lifted a four-year ban on wheat exports and cleared the way for the state-owned Food Corporation of India to send 2 million tons overseas. It also approved the release some 8 million tons of grain into the domestic market.

Shipping grain abroad while millions starve in India has elicited a strong response from critics.

“This is unpardonable. I see no reason why it is happening,” said farm policy analyst Devinder Sharma. “It is because there is no political will to feed the hungry that people are dying, not because there is no food.”

On paper, that hardly seems to be the case. India spends about $14 billion a year, or 1 percent of its gross domestic product, to provide subsidized grain to a third of its people — at least theoretically. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's administration is considering a move to enshrine the “right to food” in law and double the number of people eligible for subsidized grain.

But everywhere except on paper, the system can seem irretrievably broken. And India's mounting deficit has caused many right-leaning economists to question whether now is the time to spend even more money on a broken system.

Hunger, malnutrition and starvation are different, though related problems, so more calories isn't a cure all – particularly if all those calories come from wheat and rice. But even when everyone knows that people are dying because they have nothing to eat, the government appears incapable of making the welfare system function at its most basic level.

“The shocking thing is that many of these [starvation] cases have been followed up on by the media, many times,” said Ashwin Parulkar, a researcher with the New Delhi-based Center for Equity Studies who recently investigated the government response to starvation cases. “But the simple administrative tasks that are supposed to prevent these things aren't even enforced when these calamities have already happened.”

In rural Jharkhand, for instance, a woman whose husband starved to death two years ago was still waiting for a card certifying her as eligible for subsidized grain. When Parulkar confronted local administrators, they told him they would get her the card. They even gave him a specific date. But even after Parulkar published his findings in a thoughtful, six-part series for the Wall Street Journal's India Real Time blog, the woman still hasn't received it.

They have "no shame in admitting it hasn't been done,” Parulkar said. And "no shame in promising something they know they're not going to do.”

For several years now, India has complained of a so-called “paradox of plenty.” As higher yields have produced more and more rice and wheat, the Food Corporation of India (FCI) has snapped up ever larger amounts to prop up prices for the country's millions of farmers — until all the warehouses were full, and towering stacks of wheat and rice had to be abandoned to rot under the open skies.

But as much as the talk has centered around building more warehouses, or allowing retailers like Walmart into the market to whip the supply chain into shape, the problem was never about plenty, and it was never about storage. The problem was, and is, distribution.

India's food subsidy system was designed for two purposes. FCI buys grain at a so-called “minimum support price” to protect farmers from a crash when the monsoon delivers a bumper harvest. And it is supposed to sell or give away that grain at below market rates to protect the poor from starvation.

But no matter how much grain the government buys, no matter how many tons lie rotting in its possession, and no matter how many people go to bed hungry each night, the amount of grain it disperses to the poor never gets much larger.

“The refusal of the government to let go of these food grains is at the heart of [the problem],” said Biraj Patnaik, principal adviser to the Supreme Court on the proposed right to food law.

Since 2003, the government's “buffer stock” of food grains has rarely been less than double the prescribed norm, according to Kaushik Basu, chief economic adviser to the prime minister, writing in Economic & Political Weekly. Over the same period, as Indians continued to go hungry, wheat prices in India soared. They rose as much as 30 percent higher than international rates in the summer of 2010. Meanwhile time after time the FCI sold off its so-called excess on the international market for less than the price it could have earned at home.

“I see no justification for a hungry nation to be exporting food grains,” said Sharma. “How can you be so criminal in your thought process?”

The usual explanation is corruption. It's not that the government doesn't want to release its stockpiled grain to the poor, the argument runs. But there's little point to the exercise, since as much as 18 percent of rice and 67 percent of wheat intended for the poor is diverted before it reaches the target, according to a frequently cited study. And if that's not bad enough, corrupt traders sell a healthy portion of that diverted grain right back to the FCI for a minimum price — scamming the government into paying a subsidy for the same grain again and again.

But that's not the whole story. Theft of the grain intended for the poor has dropped significantly, according to economist Reetika Khera. And the most marked improvements have been achieved in states that have simultaneously reduced grain prices and expanded the system's coverage, Khera argues, citing moves by Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu to offer rice to everyone at the subsidized price of one rupee per kilogram. In other words, the closer the system comes to a universal subsidy for all, the better it seems to work.

Moreover, corruption isn't the only reason India stockpiles food while its people starve. India's economic liberalization, and the World Trade Organization (WTO), have also played a role, according to Jawaharlal Nehru University's Jayati Ghosh.

Since 1991, when, as finance minister, Manmohan Singh initiated the dismantling of India's planned economy, India has dramatically reduced public investments in agriculture and rural areas. Meanwhile, the WTO-related removal of trade restrictions forced Indian farmers to compete with “highly subsidized large producers in the developed countries, whose average level of subsidy amounted to many times the total domestic cost of production for many crops,” Ghosh wrote in a 2005 background paper for the United Nations' Human Development Report. The result was a “very pronounced” reduction in food grain consumption.

India's economic liberalization also resulted in deep cuts to the public distribution system. On the insistence of the World Bank (which had backed the loans that bailed India out of a financial crisis in 1991), the government scrapped its near universal food grain subsidy in favor of a system that targeted only below poverty line families in 1997.

Since then, millions of people have slipped through the cracks, unable to secure ration cards testifying to their poverty. The effort to separate the absolutely destitute from the very poor has added new complexity to a system already plagued by bureaucratic inefficiency, and, presumably, offered new opportunities for graft.

But the biggest embarrassment has been the government's effort to reduce costs by charging more for grain sold to above-poverty-line families. That effort has backfired miserably.

Between 1997 and 2000, FCI increased grain prices by 80 percent for below-poverty-line families, while the rates that above-poverty-line families had to pay doubled. But the prices were too high for the poor to afford, so the only result was that people bought less grain — and ate less. Instead of selling grain at a loss, the government wasn't selling it at all. The stocks mounted, increasing from some 18 million tons in 1998 to more than 50 million tons in 2003.

Over the past decade, the amount of grain purchased by below-poverty-line families has increased — mostly because states like Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have expanded coverage and offered additional subsidies over and above the FCI discount. But offtake at the above poverty line rate has remained low, even as market rates soared and states clamored for more, simply because the central government refused to sell, said Ghosh.

As a result, at last count the government had 82 million tons of grain in hand, hoarded for the emergency it never acknowledges has already arrived.

A cynic might well suggest that no real change is likely anytime soon. The proposed national food security bill aims to make the food distribution system work better by adding new enforcement mechanisms, as well as setting up soup kitchens, school meal programs and direct cash transfers to complement the existing subsidies.

But despite all the furor about its cost, the new and improved targeted system still relies on the broken method of trying to identify the poor – whose numbers rise and fall much more rapidly than the government can conduct economic surveys. It ignores evidence from the states that suggests universal subsidies work best.

And even after the expansion it will still cover a lot fewer people than the near universal food program India had until the 1990s.