Thursday, July 31, 2008

grassy knoll post 2: smoking gun?

OK, maybe it's not a smoking gun. Or a lone gunman. But the Mail Today reports that all of the unexploded bombs discovered in Surat were found by BJP activists (i.e. representatives of the party in power, and ostensibly "responsible" for failing to stop the deadly terrorist attack in Ahmedabad). No less than eleven of the bombs were discovered by one party worker.

Carefully avoiding libelous language (but not grammatical errors) Kamran Sulaimani writes:

"About two dozen bombs were discovered in the city, some at unlikely places--tucked behind hoarding bills and up on trees. But no one appears to know who first spotted a bomb.... The police seem to have been tipped off about most of the bombs by one group of BJP activists. But in most cases they weren't the ones who spotted the bombs. They were told about it by others. Now, in being asked, they seem to have forgotten who were the people who told them about the bombs."

Among the master sleuths was one Bhimji Budhna, who tipped off the cops about 11 of the 22 recovered bombs. A BJP corporator, he "doesn't remember who informed him about the bombs." But he was pretty good at finding them. He found one hanging from a tree, another hidden behind a billboard, and a third behind a tree guard (whatever that is).

Another guy, Sanjay Kapooria, who isn't a party member but Budhna described as "one of us," actually brought a bomb to the police station, where he claimed he'd fished it out of a trash can near his jewelry shop. Obviously a very courageous fellow, he says that after 18 unexploded bombs were recovered, he was sure that this one wouldn't go off either.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

grassy knoll post: i don't wanna sound paranoid...

I don't want to sound paranoid. But it seems a bit dodgy to me that Gujarat managed to find and defuse 22 bombs in Surat the day after 18 exploded in Ahmedabad. Isn't that a little convenient? Like, Whoa, the police are incompetent--wait a minute, they're heroes! Or, from the opposite perspective: Whoa, the terrorists are evil geniuses--wait a minute, they're stupid morons....

Saturday, July 26, 2008

soft target

As an email from the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) taunts intelligence agencies with the promise of future terrorist attacks--daring police to stop 18 bombs in Ahmedabad BEFORE they went off--it is beginning to appear that India is the proverbial soft target. Several critics, including the Home Minister, had already laid into the intelligence bureaus for working at cross purposes, withholding information from one another, and generally acting incompetently. And few (if any) investigations into the deadly terrorist attacks perpetrated on Indian soil over the past five years have yielded any results. Yes, the authorities announce that they see evidence of the tried and true "foreign hand," and level (apparently unfounded) accusations at Pakistan or Bangladesh, and round up the usual (Muslim) suspects for interrogation. But in the end, nothing comes from their efforts.

It's entirely possible that these cases are simply too difficult to solve. And certainly the last thing India needs is a draconian anti-terrorism law that the incompetent police can use to persecute minority groups. But one wonders whether recent efforts--like the FBI visit intended to share info about forensic investigation--will have any effect, and whether greater international cooperation, as well as a complete overhaul of the Indian intelligence services, are warranted.

Friday, July 25, 2008

businessweek: india beats china over longterm

Businessweek's William Nobrega argues that India will surpass China over the longterm because authoritarian governments always get out of the gate fast but falter late, while democracies build momentum as they slog onward.

He makes an interesting case. For instance, he points out:
"Since the 1980s, the Chinese government has focused on developing an export-driven economy supported by an artificially undervalued currency. Foreign direct investment was encouraged while domestic consumption was limited. Massive infrastructure projects were initiated, fueled by a growing trade surplus, with cities sprouting up in the hinterlands like some mythical phoenix. For years, the Chinese economy benefited from these policies with double-digit gross domestic product growth, vast foreign currency reserves, and ever increasing capital inflows.

But now the economic and social distortions have begun to appear with rising inflation rates, numerous asset bubbles, looming overcapacity, and rampant institutionalized corruption. The Chinese government finds itself in a quandary. If the government allows its currency to rapidly appreciate to reduce inflation it will drive down exports and fuel unemployment. If it fails to quell inflation, social unrest will quickly unfold."

But when it comes to the reasons that he cites for India's impending triumph over China, I'm not so sure that he knows what he's talking about. Here he goes:

Reason #1 - Property Rights

"As India becomes urbanized many families will choose to sell or borrow against their land so that they can start businesses, buy apartments, or provide education opportunities for their children. India is at the beginning of a gradual migration that is being driven by the development of high-end manufacturing and other sunrise industries that will require a vast pool of semiskilled and skilled labor. This migration will create an increasingly urban India that is expected to attract more than 200 million rural inhabitants to urban centers by 2025, primarily in what are known as secondary or "B & C" cities.

This transition will facilitate the sale of land holdings by an estimated 30 million farmers and 170 million other individuals indirectly tied to the agricultural sector. The sale of these holdings is expected to generate more than $1 trillion in capital by 2025. This capital will have a multiplier effect on the Indian economy that could exceed $3 trillion. The development of the mortgage-backed security and asset-backed security markets, driven by financial institutions like Citigroup (C), will create the liquidity required to free up this capital."

Meanwhile, in China he says:

"China, by contrast, has no rural property rights. China's 750 million rural residents who lease land are at the mercy of the local and regional government as to what compensation they will receive, if any, when they are forced from the land as a result of development, infrastructure improvements, etc. Additionally they have no right to borrow against their lease, and as such they have no assets. In fact, the Chinese government's official figures state that more than 200,000 hectares of rural land are taken from rural residents every year with little or no compensation."
The result is not unexpected, with over 87,000 mass incidents (or riots) reported in 2005, a 50% increase from 2003. Many provincial governments in China have begun to use plainclothes policemen to beat, intimidate, or otherwise subdue any peasant that dares to oppose these land grabs."

Can anyone say Nandigram?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

nothing wrong with veda

Suvir Saran's India venture, Veda, suffered from bad reviews when it opened. Maybe it was the hype of a foreign-returned Indian who'd made a splash in New York (with a hip and stylish joint called Devi). Or maybe it was just that Indians don't like to pay a lot for Indian food, unless it's sanctioned by a five star hotel. But by and large the verdict was: It's not worth it.

I beg to differ.

I stayed away from Veda on the strength of the nay sayers for what must be a couple years, but now that I've finally tried the joint, I have to say that the food is pretty damn good. Definitely better than most of the Indian restaurants in town (especially where the vegetarian is concerned), and WAY better than most of the new "Western" and "fusion" restaurants of the Tabula Rasa-Blanco-Nu Deli ilk (by and large terrible). I didn't sample too much from the menu, so I might be wrong. But it's definitely worth a try.

Also, the bar is a very cool, chilled out place to relax -- very much like New York in ambiance, without too much noise -- and the drinks are comparatively cheap. Where most of the snooty joints in town are charging Rs. 200 for a 12-oz beer (which they incorrectly call a pint), Veda only charges Rs. 90. Cocktails are Rs. 275 or something, compared with as much as Rs. 450 elsewhere.

It ain't cheap, I know. But it is cheaper.

us to give pakistan f-16s to fight terror

The NYT reports that the US is slated to shift $230 million intended for anti-terrorism aid to supply Pakistan with F-16 fighters instead. Pakistan has rarely (if ever) used this type of fighter as air support for anti-terrorism operations, though the F-16 is an important part of its deterrent force in its ongoing conflict with India.

Obviously, this is a dumb idea. Sell Pakistan jets if you want, as long as you make the same offer to India. But don't give them away. Especially when the so-called anti-terrorism efforts are limited to platitudes and expressions of helplessness.

the long knight

It may not be the best Batman movie, but it's definitely the longest. I've never been grateful for an intermission in an English movie before, but during the Dark Knight I decided it was much needed. Our party was running out of food and water, and we'd instituted rationing. But Shailaja was beginning to eye my leg hungrily. And that was before Heath Ledger started doing that thing with his lips (a tick that emerges after the Joker's capture).

Seriously, I think the only reviewer I've read who nailed this one was Newsweek's David Ansen, who called the film a "sometimes oppressive" epic, and lamented, "You may emerge more exhausted than elated. Nolan wants to prove that a superhero movie needn't be disposable, effects-ridden junk food, and you have to admire his ambition. But this is Batman, not Hamlet." Call me shallow, but I wish it were a little more fun."

By the way: Hamlet was too long, as well.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

the new yorker's brilliant obama cover...

A good satire is always "offensive," to use the watchword of 1990s political correctness. That's why it works. Now that the New Yorker cover featuring a turban-clad Obama touching fists with his wife looking like a Black Panther in fatigues and Dr. Jay style Afro has been reproduced in the Indian papers, everybody can duly express his outrage.

But one thing that can't be done anymore with impunity is reproducing the thinly veiled innuendos about Obama's alleged foreign / Muslim heritage and emphasis on his race--e.g. when a flap erupted over his supposed dissing of a kid who wanted to give him a fist pump (in fact the kid asked him to sign his arm). That's why the New Yorker cover is brilliant. It steals the thunder from the right wing and exposes their sniping and conniving for what it is: Racism and Xenophobia.

making friends

I'm guessing this one will put me at the top of the India-bashers list for a few days.... Not to mention winning me a few friends among the rich and powerful.

Where Blood Runs Thick

By Jason Overdorf
(Newsweek July 21, 2008)

For some time now, Indian firms have been growing in competitiveness; companies like Tata, Reliance, and the Aditya Birla Group now rival giant Western multinationals like General Electric and Procter & Gamble. The conventional wisdom has also been that Subcontinental powerhouses are getting more sophisticated. Management is becoming more professional, too; bullish analysts point to the recent merger of Ranbaxy (India's largest drugmaker) with Japan's Daiichi as a sign of a new willingness among India's CEO scions to move beyond the walled garden of family firms and team up with smart outside companies.

Now a very public fight between Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Industries Ltd. and Anil Ambani's Reliance Anil Dhirubai Ambani Group—the billion-dollar refineries to telecoms rivals created when the brothers divided the family assets after a soap-opera-style split in 2005—underscores how much work remains. The brothers are battling over Anil's planned merger of his Reliance Communications unit with South Africa's MTN Group, which would create one of the world's ten largest telecoms companies, worth an estimated $70 billion and with 116 million subscribers worldwide. Mukesh has effectively stymied the deal by invoking his right of first refusal on any sale or transfer of Anil's shares in the company.

Nor are such tantrums limited to the Ambanis—many family-owned Indian monoliths still favor insider deals, hire relatives over better-qualified outsiders, squabble unproductively, and ignore independent directors' advice, according to a managing partner at a private-equity company that invests in such firms. The bottom line: don't look for the next Jack Welch on the Subcontinent any time soon.

finally, I get a eunuch story... now i'm a real foreign correspondent

All these years as a foreign correspondent in India, and I've never written a eunuch story. At first I took that as a point of pride. I didn't write about snake charmers or elephants, either. But then I started to feel a little niggling shame, a little peer pressure. Come on, my conscience whispered, everybody's doing it. Eventually, I succumbed. Who knows, maybe I'll go on an all snake charmers & tantrics, all the time, binge.

Anyway: Here it is

New job-training program aims to improve lot of India's eunuchs

By Jason Overdorf
Toronto Globe and Mail

NEW DELHI -- Following the example of India's 18th-century Mughal rulers, who used castrated men or hermaphrodites to guard their harems, the government of the eastern state of Bihar plans to post eunuchs as guards in girls dormitories, colleges and hospitals.

"We are trying to prepare a plan for them so they can be involved in normal economic activity of society," said Vijay Prakash, a principal secretary in the state social welfare department. "They will be trained to work as security guards and for other types of activities which suit their temperament or in which they have developed certain expertise. They will also be involved in promoting activities related to women and child development and AIDS education."

The program will begin as early as this summer, Mr. Prakash said. The department estimates that about 2 per cent of the state's population of 100 million are transgender.

Known as hijras in the Hindi-speaking north, the so-called third sex has a 4,000-year history in India, where they comprise a distinct religio-ethnic group. Most hijras are born as men, but renounce their gender and sexuality to worship the mother goddess Yellamma, also called Renuka. Traditionally, the castration ceremony was performed, at great peril to the recipient, by an elder of the community. Sex reassignment surgery is not available in India, and even today many hijras go to quacks or fly-by-night hospitals to be castrated, which, though it is not compulsory, gives them higher status among their peers.

Ostracized by their families and mainstream society, hijras live in communal homes headed by their gurus. Because discrimination prevents them from taking ordinary jobs, they earn money through prostitution or begging--and sometimes by extorting funds by threatening to lift their saris and expose their mutilated genitals.

This is not the first time that Bihar—a state with a dismal reputation for lawlessness and poverty--has capitalized on their unique position in society. In 2006, the Patna Municipal Corporation used eunuchs as tax collectors in what became one of its most successful revenue drives, as habitual tax evaders preferred to pay up rather than have hijras singing and dancing on their doorsteps for the whole neighborhood to see. "That was slightly negative," says Prakash, "since they were used to pressurize people to pay. We want to use them in a more positive way." Taking advantage of the hijras' traditional method of earning money—singing for alms at weddings and birth ceremonies—the government will train them to communicate messages about child development, family-planning and other important issues through their songs. "They're great singers, and whenever a child is born they go to the house," Prakash explained.

"They [the hijras] consider themselves to be outside of the society, and their interactions with society have been very, very negative," says Dr. Hetukar Jha, a sociologist based in Bihar. "Although I welcome this move, the government needs to study their culture and habits to find out the best points at which to expand their interactions with [mainstream] society." Otherwise, Jha argues, the added visibility of these new roles could create additional problems for the ostracized group.

Though they held respected positions in the courts of India's Mughal rulers—Central Asian Muslims who ruled India from the 16th to the 18th century—today hijras are often attacked and persecuted, according to the New Delhi-based People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). Salacious rumors still circulate accusing hijras of kidnapping children for castration, and apocryphal stories of hijras who passed themselves off as women in order to marry unwitting heterosexual men are common. These myths stoke fear and revulsion, provoking hate crimes ranging from rape to disfigurement with acid and even murder, according to PUCL, which has documented dozens of cases of such abuse.

Because homosexuality remains illegal in India—under Section 377 of the Indian penal code hijras and other homosexuals may be sentenced to a prison term of 10 years to life--corrupt policemen also routinely harrass the transgender community. "They're subjected to violence on a day to day basis by the community and the police, and there's no legal framework to deal with it," said Arvind Narain, a lawyer with the Alternative Law Forum, which represents marginalized groups and communities.

As the protectors of the state's young women, though, the state hopes the eunuchs will regain some of the respect they once commanded.


Tuesday, July 08, 2008

robbing the poor to feed the rich

This week, the Delhi food and civil supplies department cracked down on scams to defraud the public distribution system (which distributes goods at a reduced price to the poor), reports the Times of India. The investigators found 170,000 fake ration cards had been used to cheat the system, exposing what basically everybody already knew to be true: There are disgustingly immoral people out there, pitiless in the extreme, who are robbing the poor to make themselves rich. Apparently, this is a business that can make you hundreds of thousands of dollars, if you have no conscience or self-respect.

Apart from the obvious, I'm disgusted that these people are tacitly sanctioned by society--their friends, neighbors and relatives, who must have some idea what is going on. We need not send these thieves to jail to stop this kind of thing from happening; just ostracize them from decent society. If people "cut them dead" (as they say in 19th century novels to refer to the act of pretending somebody doesn't exist) in the street--even their close relatives--the shame would be too great for anybody to take on. But, on the contrary, their supposed cleverness in making the system work for their own pathetic ends is actually admired! So much so, that some, at least, are not ashamed to brag about their nefarious schemes.

Newspaper editors: If the court system is so incompetent that these scum will never be convicted, then do us all a favor and publish detailed accounts about them, including their names, addresses, and exactly the way they screwed the system, devoting as many words as you do to those "feel good" stories about the victims of terrorist attacks when you are trying to make the events more "real." Stealing from people on the brink of starvation is murder by another name, and those guilty of it should pay a far higher price than being dropped unceremoniously from the list of approved shopkeepers (or whatever slap on the wrist is the current method).

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

signs of trouble

Delhi's traffic woes continue, with flyovers falling on cars, jams slowing the average speed during rush hour to 16 kmph, and the Bus Rapid Transit System (otherwise known as the great gridlock creator) sinking into neglect and disrepair as the government tries to lull voters into forgetting about it. The latest, though, is a story in today's Express about Rs. 1.6 crores (i.e. 160 million rupees, or about 4 million dollars) that has been spent to erect road signs in the leadup to the Commonwealth Games in 2010. Apparently, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit finds them "odd."

I'm not sure which signs are the new ones. But I can tell you this. Delhi's road signs are terrible. There are hardly any of them, and most of those that do exist are written in 12-point type and hidden behind a bush or secreted behind a public toilet, where a driver cannot see them unless he stops, gets out of the car, and asks a dozen passersby to help him in the search. The large ones that are legible are useless. Consider the signs leading to the flyovers that are meant to tell you what lane you should be in so that you don't miss the turn for where you're going. They show three arrows, all pointing up, indicating the various choices, e.g. Khelgaon Marg (up arrow), IIT (up arrow) and Delhi airport (up arrow). These signs are supposed to imply that you should keep left if you want Khelgaon Marg, but they unwittingly indicate you should be in the middle lane for IIT and the right lane for the Airport, and that you should go straight for all three destinations. In fact, there are more than four lanes (all in constant flux of course). If you want Khelgaon Marg you don't want to go straight at all, you want to go below the flyover and turn right or left. And if you want IIT or the airport it doesn't matter a bit what lane you're in, as long as you stay on the flyover. Because the signs are so bad, you constantly find drivers reversing down the flyover after realizing they've screwed up. More annoying, there's a simple solution to the problem, which the government sign painters would have hit upon immediately had they done the briefest of surveys of international signage standards. The answer: the arrows for the left lane should point DOWN if you're meant to go below the flyover. Better still, there should be a warning a kilometer before the flyover that says something like "Next intersection Khelgaon Marg, Keep left". Of course, I'd be happy if they actually labeled the roads. And stopped the practice of changing their names every few meters to honor a new leftist leader. But that's just me.