Tuesday, May 26, 2009

india's new government takes shape

The bar has been set high for Prime Minister Singh's first 100 days.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
May 26, 2009 20:03 ET

NEW DELHI, India — Most of the time, nobody expects too much out of the government in India.

The business of politics is business as usual, and the entrenched bureaucracy and revolving-door leadership seems designed to perpetuate the moribund status quo. But this election's surprise result has raised hopes so high that the shine could come off Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's big victory in as little as three months.

On the eve of swearing in the rest of his cabinet to complete the formation of the government Tuesday, Singh comes to power at a very difficult time. India is proving to be less immune to the global economic crisis than was originally supposed, stimulus packages and populist policies have left the country with a disturbingly high deficit, and observers from the left and right poles of the ideological spectrum are expecting bold, decisive actions in the new government's first 100 days — a ridiculously brief moment of time for an Indian administration.

“Even if you can't get a lot done in a hundred days, you can at least lay out a set of priorities that will be focused on in each ministry,” said Subir Gokarn, chief economist at Standard & Poor's Asia Pacific. “If it doesn't come, the judgment repercussions will be fairly significant. The hope will start to die quite quickly.”

Most people will be expecting more than that. During the campaign, Singh himself promised to come out with a new economic stimulus within his first 100 days in office, and greedy appetites have been whetted by the action plans leaked by various government departments.

The 100-day actions being bandied about by bankers, economists and editorial writers comprise a wish list of social welfare measures and economic reforms that would be a tall order for a five year term. Thanks to the perception that the new government won't face opposition from allies, it includes items like starting a national urban poverty mission to complement the last term's rural employment guarantee scheme, boosting government revenue by divesting bloated state-owned enterprises, and further slashing bank lending rates for farmers and the poor. It also involves releasing some of the $8.5 billion of government money for infrastructure projects that has been stuck in the pipeline, and a host of other measures.

The initial signs look promising. For instance, the ministry of road transport, highways and shipping is reportedly planning to review and correct the implementation problems that derailed the national highways development program during Singh's first term, when the department failed to award contracts for road projects worth some $10 billion.

Similarly, the telecom ministry has vowed to finally get moving on the auction of 3G and Wimax licenses to spur further growth in the broadband Internet business. And reports are surfacing that the finance ministry is preparing for initial public offerings of state-owned companies like hydropower firm NHPC, Oil India Limited and infrastructure consultancy Rail India Technical and Economic Services, which would provide much needed revenue for the treasury.

Observers have also interpreted Singh's first moves in appointing cabinet ministers, announced Saturday, as a good sign. In the six key ministries that have been allotted — finance, home, external affairs, agriculture, defence, and railways — he has brought back experienced loyalists with reputations for efficiency, and managed to cede only the railways to an ally with the potential to be mercurial. The rest of the cabinet posts were yet to be announced at the time this article was published.

In many other areas, this government already has a course chalked out for it by the various commissions and study groups Singh set up during his first term, which the Congress party mentioned specifically in its election manifesto. These groups include bodies devoted to reforming the bureaucracy; addressing social security for the millions of workers employed by tiny, unregulated sweatshops; restructuring commodities pricing and other policies to boost the agricultural sector; and improving the quality and availability of education from the primary to postgraduate level. There are some 34 bills pending from the last parliamentary session, many of them stemming from these bodies.

But level-headed observers of India's political system say India has always been brilliant at forming committees and making plans; it's the actual doing that's the weakness. They also suggest that making hard choices may be nearly as difficult for this government as it was for the previous one. To start with, the economic crisis has rejuvenated the hoary old socialists of the Congress (at its nadir inspiring Sonia Gandhi to laud the nationalization of banks). But more importantly, the difficult economic times will mean that everybody is looking for handouts and that money will be tighter than ever.

“In the immediate future, there are fiscal issues,” said Gokarn. “How do you create resources that will sustain an infrastructure investment program, particularly as foreign investment inflows look to be rather sporadic and not very large over the next couple years? The other agendas will start to flow from that, depending on whether you have enough resources for the government to play a role or not.”

That means, like always, it will be easy to give things away—whether in the form of price subsidies or job programs—by increasing deficit spending. But it will remain difficult to initiate real change. What could be worse for Singh, is that there won't be anybody to blame for lack of progress this time around—the handy role of the Left last time--and the electorate's high expectations means that tolerance for business as usual will be especially low.

the whiskey diaries

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost

May 26, 2009 06:28 ET


NEW DELHI — A funny thing happened while Scottish whiskey makers were fighting to pry open India's tightly controlled, protectionist liquor market: A mass market Indian booze maker in Bangalore decided to develop its own premium, small-batch single malt — and launch it worldwide.

What's more, the stuff is pretty darned good.

Indian owned and operated Amrut Distilleries has been distilling malt whiskey since the early 1980s, because India's excise laws prevented it from sourcing it abroad, and the company needed malt to mix with molasses-based alcohol to produce what's known in the trade as “Indian whiskey.”

As Indian consumers grew more sophisticated, though, the company started aging its malts longer and longer. And then one day, the patriarch of the family-owned business, chairman Neelakanta Rao Jagdale, pulled the trigger. “It was around '98 or '99, when we had enough [quantity] of matured malt whisky, that we thought, 'Why can't we look at the possibility of producing our own single malt?'” Jagdale said in a telephone interview with GlobalPost.

Drawing on the expertise of Scottish consultants and a large network of professional tasters, the company spent the next four years developing its first single malt, and another two years developing a marketing plan. The first bottles hit shelves in the United Kingdom in 2004 with little fanfare. But over time, the Indian distillery — which produces nearly a million cases of mid-range Indian whiskey for every case of single malt — has slowly been collecting accolades. So far, it has won silver and bronze medals at the International Wine and Spirits Competition, at the Wine & Spirits Magazine International Spirits Challenge, and last year its Blackadder single malt was awarded the top prize in the sub-50 euros categories by Malt Maniacs.

Frankly, nobody was more surprised than the Indians. “Being an Indian and having tasted only molasses-based Indian whiskies for decades, you normally scoff when somebody says that India has produced a decent dram,” said Krishna Nukala, a Hyderabad resident who has rated more than 1,000 single malts from Scotland, Japan and other countries as a member of Malt Maniacs. “[But] Amrut's whiskey is as good as any SMSW (single malt Scotch whiskey) that is produced any where in the world.”

And like Japanese Scotch makers, Amrut is succeeding. “Currently we are selling in the UK, where we have our global office, as well as in France, Germany, Belgium, a little bit of Italy and Holland as well,” Jagdale said. “The only major market that we have yet to enter is the United States.”
And India.

It may sound weird, but Amrut's single malts are only for export. That's because India has to be the strangest liquor market in the world. Due in part to the famous “Patiala peg” (the frightening large serving favored in the Punjab), India is the globe's biggest whiskey consumer — downing about 90 million cases a year. But that doesn't mean it always goes down smooth. Thanks to Gandhi's ideas on prohibition, booze is banned in Gujarat and attracts punitive taxes in other states. The sugar lobby has ensured that traditional tipples (a.k.a. “country liquor”) remain illegal. And though the premium market segment is growing fast, ludicrously high taxes on imported spirits still ensure that so-called Indian-Made Foreign Liquor — the locally produced, molasses-based, artificially flavored versions of vodka, gin and whiskey known in these parts as IMFL — remains the unrivaled king of the hill.

Now, that looks set to change. Scotch exports to India rose 19 percent to a value of £7 million in 2008, according to Scotch Whiskey Association estimates, even though genuine Scotch made up less than 1 percent of India's spirits market and the association has approached the European Union about making an official complaint to the World Trade Organization over India's prohibitive taxes. Single malts, too, are on the rise. Forecasting near 50 percent growth rates in single malt consumption, Bacardi launched Dewar's White Lable, Dewar's 12, Dewar’s Signature, Aberfeldy 12 and Aberfeldy 21 in India last year, and there's plenty of competition.

“There's a lot of room for growth, because the alcohol industry itself is changing from lower quality spirits and country liquor to higher quality alcohols,” said Jagdale, who also revealed that Amrut plans to start selling its own single malts in India by the beginning of next year.

That said, the jury is still out on whether Amrut will be able to call its single malts and other whiskeys “Scotch.” Last year, under pressure from the Scotch Whiskey Association, China agreed to prohibit any whiskey makers whose products are made outside of Scotland from calling their beverages Scotch, and a similar campaign is underway in India — which might be more amenable to the Scots' argument if its own claims on Basmati rice had been successful.

But to Jagdale, a malt by any other name, if it's a top-quality one that is, would smell as sweet.

“We are in the position to make high-quality malt whiskey which is equal and comparable to any malt whiskey in the world today,” he said. “Having been in the business so long — I am the second generation, and my son is the third generation — there is a bit of satisfaction that we all feel. I feel very happy that we are able to be in that class.”

Sunday, May 24, 2009

from the network that brought you MTV: child marriage

Can a TV sensation in modern India change an ancient tradition?

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
May 24, 2009

NEW DELHI — Defying all the conventional wisdom about Indian television viewers — notorious for dogged allegiance to campy soap operas that pitted idealized brides against scheming mothers-in-law — the hottest show on TV today is a progressive, heartwarming drama about a plucky little girl caught up in an illegal child marriage.

Called Balika Vadhu, or “Child Bride,” and set in rural Rajasthan, where marrying off daughters before they hit puberty is still a common practice, the show has caught the imagination of urban viewers across the board and throughout India, ushering in a revolution of sorts in cable television programming.

It has helped Colors, an upstart channel launched by Viacom and Network18 in July last year, supplant Rupert Murdoch's Star Plus as the most-watched Indian television network — a title Star Plus held for nine years running. And it has unleashed a new wave of progressive programming devoted to issues facing India's “distressed daughters.”

“What started out as a 0.8 rating on Balika took us about 13 weeks to get to 8,” said Rajesh Kamat, Colors' chief executive officer. That means 8 percent of the entire television audience is watching the show. “Typically an episode that peaks for us would touch about 17 million people,” Kamat said. “If you were to take a monthly average, it would be in the 72 million zone.”

Development workers are pleased, but skeptical about the impact such shows can have from a cable television platform that doesn't reach the poor people depicted on screen. “In the rural population very few people are watching this kind of serial,” said Sharmistha Basu, a consultant at New Delhi's International Center for Research on Women.

“Hardly any people have a television set, and especially not a channel like Colors that comes only on cable or dish TV. But in the rural-urban transition zone, people are watching it, and it is starting a dialogue about child marriage. If migrant laborers from rural areas are coming to work in these areas, they can take back those words to their villages.”

This isn't the first time Indian television has flirted with shows about serious issues. In 2005, USAID helped fund a family drama that focused on the still-pervasive problem of aborting female fetuses to try for sons. Before that the BBC World Service Trust teamed up with Doordarshan, India's state-owned, free-to-air television channel, to create a detective series that raised awareness about HIV/AIDS. But this is the first time such shows are being launched for profit, and the first time that they are striking a chord with such a wide swath of cable viewers who aren't captive to state-owned television.

And it marks a huge change. For nearly a decade, India's lucrative cable market was dominated by a single soap opera — "Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi" ("Because a mother-in-law was once a daughter-in-law, too") — and a host of imitators. Dressed in glam saris and sparkling with jewelry, the women of these shows plotted and schemed, remade themselves through cosmetic surgery and returned from the dead, all the while promoting the regressive message that women's only source of value and power came through marriage and childbirth.

“Normally we said it was very regressive, and at one level it was, because it was always in a joint family setup where the women never did anything except fight with each other, and were bound by tradition,” said Shailaja Bajpai, longtime television critic for the Indian Express newspaper.

Because as much as 50 percent of the television audience comprises women, programming can potentially play an important role in inspiring new thinking about the way daughters — and unborn girls — should be treated. For example, though child marriage is illegal and the average age at which marriages take place is rising in India, its rural backwaters still account for almost half of the world's prepubescent brides, according to UNICEF.

Apart from taking away their childhoods, these unions also frequently take away their lives, as UNICEF calculates girls between 15 and 19 are twice as likely to die from pregnancy-related complications as women between 20 and 24 — a fact that may contribute to India's high maternal and neonatal mortality rates. Girls who give birth before the age of 15 are also five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s.

“There is a legal measure here and our government is also trying to do a lot of incentive schemes for delaying marriage,” Basu said. “But the main problem is the internalization of these values by the people.” In villages, she says, people believe marrying their daughters off before they hit puberty is the only way to be sure they go to their weddings as virgins — which is essential to the family honor. “The government is not able to crack this norm.”

Only time will tell if television can achieve what the government can't.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

give it a good shake

By Jason Overdorf

Outlook Magazine
May 25, 2009

As far as I’m concerned, India’s latest election was just more proof that somebody needs to pick this country up by the ears and give it a good shake. There are too many parties, too many leaders, too many analysts, too much alphabet soup—do we really need DMK, PMK, AIADMK and DMDK? Can anyone really tell them apart? Also, the whole election thing takes way too long. Even an old-fashioned cricket match can be resolved in five days—and none of those days are dry days.
Nobody seemed to know what this election was about—reservation, the economy, terrorism, development, Hinduness or who gets to be the boss. Everyone was looking for a back door into 10 Janpath—er, 7 Race Course Road. The poor voted in droves, though they knew it wouldn’t make a difference to them who wins. The rich didn’t vote at all for the same reason. And I couldn’t find any party workers giving away free booze in my neighbourhood.

It’s over now, of course. But it’s hard to believe anything will be different. Once upon a time, Indian elections were supposedly ruled by anti-incumbency. But an Indian politician’s career is never dead, even if he’s caught red-handed taking payoffs from defence contractors or convicted of murder. Anybody thrown out manages to weasel his way back in, so rather than making government accountable, the democratic process has become a sort of revolving door. You walk through, put a stop to everything your predecessor was doing, start your own schemes, steal everything you can, and walk out again. For those on the sidelines, it’s like being forced to watch the first four episodes of American Idol—the ones with all the talentless buffoons—over and over again. Or a series of cricket matches that continually end in draws.

As a dumb American, I didn’t get a vote (which is probably lucky for everybody), but I am not going to stand on ceremony, or some hokey journalist’s creed, to remain objective. Even though Narendra Modi seemed the most likely to solve the problem of overpopulation that I complain about so much, I was pulling for Mayawati, or Laloo to somehow become PM. I usually root for the underdog when I don’t have a stake in a fight. But my real reasons were selfish: I might be forced to interview the winner.

I know that if my wish ever came true, I’d have to put up with an awful lot of stuff about India’s Obama, an endless rehash of every sting, scam and fiasco of the past two decades, and another interminable debate on reservations—all more boring than back-to-back episodes of The Big Fight. But there would be compensations. Laloo and Mayawati are terribly funny.

Everybody understands that about Laloo. He is like the class clown who constantly failed his exams. But like every trickster, and every class clown, he still manages to prove himself cleverer than everybody else. Mayawati’s jokes are deadpan—erecting dozens of statues of herself, making Brahmins part of her low-caste constituency, and holding an enormous birthday party financed by, she says, the gifts she has received from her many followers. But when you think of all the cant we get from the rest of the crop, you start to see that Mayawati’s straight-faced spoofs are even funnier than Laloo’s smirking ones.

So, if Laloo or Mayawati ever took the PM’s chair, it would matter. The old hobby horses of political debate—corruption, development, reservation—would be turned inside out. And those who have been taking turns at the top would have to do more than wait a few years for their turn to come around. They might have to change. In short, India would get a good shake!

Monday, May 04, 2009

meet india's first porn star

A racy cartoon attracts millions and, of course, controversy in conservative circles.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
Published: May 4, 2009

NEW DELHI — Thanks to an anonymous group of computer geeks, India's first international Internet porn star is fast becoming this conservative country's answer to Wonder Woman — and Monica Lewinsky.

But here's the trick: The steamy web seductress is a cartoon.

Turning the tables on Bollywood's demure heroines — who've only recently started agreeing to lip-to-lip kisses on screen — “Savita Bhabhi” (or sister-in-law Savita) is a buxom, recently married housewife who knows what she wants and how to get it.
Bored with her workaholic husband, she seduces door-to-door salesmen, neighborhood cricket players, even a not-so-subtle stand-in for the gray-bearded Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan — a move that earned her some flak from Indian entertainment channels.

Though pornography is illegal in India, Savita Bhabhi's sexual misadventures, published on savitabhabhi.com with scripts based on fantasies submitted by fans, have attracted a huge following, according to one of the strip's anonymous creators, who goes by the screen name Deshmukh.

“We get 60 million unique visitors every month. The average time a visitor spends on our site is more than 10 minutes,” the site administrator told GlobalPost by email. “Almost 70 percent of our traffic is from India, while the rest is from the U.S., U.K. and more than 80 other countries.” (Read more about my interview with this secret creator of Savita Bhabhi, here).

Part of the reason for its success is its diversity. With the help of volunteers — recent posts on the Savita Bhabhi fan site read “Urgent! Calling all script writers!” and “We need translators! Are you up for it?” — Savita's creators publish the strip in 10 different Indian languages, along with English.

By all appearances, it's a tough job. In another recent fan post, a user named Srinkar pleads, “If possible, develop your Bengali language up to date, as most of us are eagerly waiting to take the maximum pleasure through the mother tongue.” Indeed.

But the secret to Savita's popularity isn't so much her Pamela Anderson proportions as her roots in Indian culture. Complaining about a long digression featured in one episode, a user called Sex Drive explains, “The reason SB is so popular is because people fantasize about a sari clad bhabhi being so raunchy and sexually liberated. You take her out of the equation and the fantasy just ends there.”

Dr. Prakash Kothari, an eminent Bombay sexologist, explains. “Bhabhi means sister-in-law, or brother's wife. Most men are quite intimate with and take advice from their bhabhi. It's someone who's there to advise you, to help you, to make fun of you, to crack jokes, whom you can ask any intimate questions.”

And an object of sexual fantasy? In Indian culture, sex with your bhabhi isn't taboo on the order of Oedipus, the doc says, but it isn't kosher, either. “It's not welcome, it's not permitted, it's not accepted by society. Having advice from your own bhabhi is acceptable, but having sex with her is not.”

“[A] bhabhi is the Indian version of a MILF,” explained Deshmukh, who came up with the idea for the comic while boozing it up with fellow Indian exiles in the U.S. “Though in literal terms it means your “brother’s wife” — that is not the meaning here. For an Indian youngster his first fantasy is normally the newly married hot woman in the neighborhood who is referred to as a hot Bhabhi. Hence it seemed only natural that our hot heroine whom the entire neighborhood lusts after be called Savita Bhabhi.”

There's obviously a spoof factor here. But the slightly zany aspects of an impossibly curvaceous middle-class housewife slipping out of her sari for, say, a “special massage” from her servant boy doesn't account for Savita Bhabhi's massive following.
That lies in the cleverness of the comic's creators, who have tapped into current anxieties about the social changes brought about by modernity as well as nostalgia for past forms of printed entertainment.

“One of the reasons for creating SB was to also portray that Indian women have sexual desires too,” Deshmukh said. “India is a country which is still sexually repressed and I feel that for it to break the shackles, it is the women of India who are going to have to come out first. We are already seeing that in a way, and hopefully SB will do her bit to help in this revolution.”

That repression — and the temptation to escape it — is a big part of the comic's appeal, explains sociologist Sanjay Srivastava, the author of "Passionate Modernity: Sexuality, Class and Consumption in India." “It plays upon a well-established male anxiety and desire — wanting and being scared of the modern woman,” he said. “It's good to have a modern woman as a girlfriend, but [as the serial cuckolding of Savi's husband illustrates] it's dangerous to have her as a wife.”

At the same time, though, Savita Bhabhi offers a bit of humor for the 30-something generation who grew up with the ubiquitous Amar Chitra Katha comics depicting tales from Hindu religious mythology. “[It] also borrows from that artwork,” says Srivastava. “So for some people some of the pleasure is that it's a kind of satire of those religious comic books.”

Nevertheless, not every bastion of tradition is unassailable, according to some fans.
“I am not able to log on to the website as it is banned in UAE,” writes Bhushan Ar. “I tried with proxy but no use ... kindly help guys, I am the newest fan of bhabhi.”