Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Nepal's other revolution: Red turns to pink

Thanks (unexpectedly) to Maoist rebels, Nepal is emerging as Asia's pioneer for sexual minority rights.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - November 9, 2011

KATHMANDU, Nepal — In the quiet courtyard of Dechenling Garden, a Bhutanese restaurant on the fringes of the capital’s bustling backpacker ghetto, Nepal's first openly gay member of parliament sips on a lime soda during a short break in his busy political schedule.

His name is Sunil Babu Pant. A young, maverick politician with dark, wavy hair and a close-trimmed goatee, Pant has already emerged as a leader reminiscent of Harvey Milk in his San Francisco heyday, pushing tiny, conservative Nepal into the forefront of the battle for gay rights.

"Nepal is going through tremendous transformation — politically, socially, economically, legally — so a lot of communities who had no space or voice before have emerged," Pant told GlobalPost.

Thanks, unexpectedly, to a Maoist rebellion and subsequent decade-long civil war, Pant and other activists have already made some big strides — and they're inching closer to making Nepal the first Asian country to legalize gay marriage. But the struggle for the rights of sexual minorities is intensifying here as lawmakers haggle over a new constitution nearly five years after the peace deal that transformed the tiny Himalayan kingdom into a democratic republic in 2007. On one side is a patchwork coalition that supports a more progressive platform, including gay rights, and on the other is a conservative alignment that believes gay marriage would threaten the religious fabric of Nepal's traditional Hindu society.

“A strong attack is going on against Hindu culture, Hindu religion and Hindu society,” said Shankar Pandey, a former legislator and central coordinator of National Religion Awareness Campaign, which urges its followers to adhere to the Hindu way of life. Like many conservatives, Pandey believes that homosexuality is an affront to the country's Hindu heritage.

Strangely, the new social and political space for sexual minorities has sprouted from the seeds of Nepal's attempted Maoist revolution. The Maoists — guerilla fighters who draw their support from the rural poor — were hardly liberals when it came to sexuality. Still, their hard-fought insurgency shook the establishment enough that no one political party has been able to achieve a clear majority in post-war elections, and that has increased the power and influence of small parties and tightly knit constituencies.

But after Nepal's major political parties reached a pivotal agreement to demobilize the former soldiers of the Maoist army Nov. 1 — paving the way for the drafting of a new constitution — it's not yet clear if all of those groups will be able to capitalize on those gains as the period of political turmoil comes to an end.

“It is not liberality, it is just unruliness,” said Pandey. “When there are no rules, no system set, whatever the environment or pressure groups want is what goes.”

In Pandey's view, Pant's entry to the legislature is a perfect example.

The founder of a non-profit advocacy group called the Blue Diamond Society and a gay-oriented travel agency called Pink Mountain Travel & Tours, Pant worked for the rights of gays, lesbians and other sexual minorities at the grassroots level for 11 years before entering electoral politics.

But when rules favoring Nepal's long-established political parties — and the conservative elites of Kathmandu — were suspended for the post-war Constituent Assembly elections, Pant saw a window of opportunity. For the first time, as a concession to the Maoist argument that past elections had not addressed Nepal's ethnic diversity and vast economic inequalities, more than half of the 601 legislators would be chosen through “proportional representation” — which allots seats to parties based on the proportion of votes they receive rather than granting seats only to candidates who win a plurality in their constituencies. Suddenly, there would be a host of new players.

"During the Constituent Assembly election we thought it was a good opportunity to lobby the political parties," Pant said. "We went from party office to party office and said we are a significant population, and if you include our cause in your party manifesto we can vote for your candidates. We took it lightly, just hoping that they would buy that idea."

To Pant's surprise, not only did the Maoist party take him seriously — it led the way in adopting resolutions related to gay rights. Meanwhile, the tiny Communist Party of Nepal-Unified (CPN-U), unrelated to the Maoists, asked him to stand for election himself.

"We had no expectations, no resources, no experience, nothing," he said.


The CPN-U didn't win an assembly seat in the formal election, but the party won enough votes to earn five seats under the rules for proportional representation. And because the party had carefully monitored the districts where it had done well, the tireless work of Pant's team of gay rights activists paid off. The party rewarded him by allotting him a seat in the new assembly.

As it turned out, the CPN-U's most votes came “exactly from those 15 districts where Blue Diamond Society has branches and we did the election campaign," Pant said, explaining his success.

Pant and other activists have already accomplished a great deal for Nepal's sexual minorities —people who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, transgender and intersex (those born with physical characteristics of both genders). With the conservatives' cherished rules in flux, the gay rights lobby succeeded in convincing Nepal's Supreme Court to instruct the new government to repeal age-old laws that made homosexuality a crime in 2007. A year later, the court directed legislators to draft new laws guaranteeing equal rights for sexual minorities and convene a committee to consider the implications of legalizing gay marriage in the new constitution. And this year, the Central Bureau of Statistics officially allowed transgender and intersex citizens to classify themselves as "third gender" for the purposes of the census.

"Previously, people thought [homosexuality] was an unnatural condition," said 25-year-old Durga, a student activist at Tribhuvan University. "But after 2007, people are changing. Now they are able to accept people from the LGBTI community in their villages and even in their families."

But despite progressive court rulings and nascent social transformation, homosexuals and transgenders continue to face discrimination and harassment. Even in Kathmandu, which thanks to higher incomes and the thriving tourist industry is Nepal's most cosmopolitan city, the absence of any real gay scene compels many young men to cruise the local Ratna Park for sexual partners. That leaves them vulnerable to police persecution. And though the police deny the charge, gay activists allege that the authorities have also recently begun "investigating" young men staying together in local hotels, according to Roshan Mahato, the 29-year-old president of the Nepal Sexual and Gender Minorities Student Forum.

“We only take action when these people are seen [engaging in sexual activity] in a public place. If they are doing anything openly,” said Nepal police spokesman Binod Singh. “Otherwise, the police doesn't interfere in their personal activities.”

The threat that this essentially conservative, traditional society will backslide on its reforms remains ever present, especially with a new constitution slated to take shape over the next few months. The issue of demobilizing the Maoist army settled, negotiations will now focus on the structure of a new, federalist government. As a result, loyalties will likely solidify around ethnic and regional identities, perhaps robbing smaller minority groups of the influence they have enjoyed during the interim. It is also unlikely the new system will incorporate as much proportional representation as the interim elections.

Even during the negotiations for the new constitution, some roadblocks have have emerged to the Supreme Court's progressive instructions on equal rights for sexual minorities.

In June, for instance, Nepal burst onto the radar of the world's gay community when an American lesbian couple was married in a Hindu ceremony that Pant's Pink Mountain travel agency helped to organize at a local temple. But that same month, the Ministry of Law and Justice submitted an updated penal code that specifically limited marriages to unions between a man and a woman and again defined homosexual acts as "unnatural sex offenses.” Similarly, in July, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to issue a passport to a transgender person, citing a limitation of their software system.


Pant says that despite those bumps in the road, Nepal will not reverse gears. Several legislators immediately objected to the law ministry's proposed recriminalization of homosexuality. Pant believes that indicates the political parties that he convinced to include rights for sexual minorities in their manifestos before the Constituent Assembly elections in 2008 will stay the course in 2012. Moreover, even the National Religion Awareness Campaign's Pandey agrees that sexual minorities' rights should be protected. And he says his insistence that marriage should not be considered among those rights cost him his position with the Nepali Congress.

“We believe everyone must have the right of protection. But where the word of marriage is concerned, that is different,” said Pandey. “Hindus believe marriage is only for procreation, not just for relation. Marriage is for the production or creation. Where there is no creation possible, there marriage cannot be imagined.”

Pant insists that narrow vision of Hinduism — which has no definitive text like the Bible or the Koran — radically oversimplifies the relationship that the religion, and Nepal, have had with sexuality for centuries. During Gaijatra, for instance, young men dress as women as part of a religious procession. Similarly, the Lakhe dance, performed during Indrajatra by masked dancers wearing lavish hairdos and colorful frocks, is “very much a reflection of gender non-conformity.”

“It's a small country, but there's a lot of diversity living in harmony and the indigenous culture has always been much more liberal in terms of rights, expression, sexualities,” Pant said. “Also, the Hinduism, Buddhism and mix of Tantrism has always been pretty liberal in terms of sexuality and gender roles.”

The young legislator is trying to prove that with his travel agency, Pink Mountain. Following the successful public relations effort of Nepal's first lesbian wedding — which generated headlines around the world in June — Pant aims to bring thousands of gay, lesbian and transgender travelers to Nepal by promoting the country as a gay-friendly tourist destination.

Pink Mountain offers a weeklong wedding and honeymoon package — Hindu or Buddhist — for around $10,000, as well as opportunities to do volunteer work related to sexual minorities. And this summer Pant's travel agency endeavored to turn Gaijatra, a traditional Nepali Hindu holiday that involves cross dressing, into “Gay Jatra” — an international gay pride event on Aug. 14. Tourist turnout wasn't so hot, as it happened, but more than 500 local gays and lesbians danced and chanted slogans in Narayanghat, a town about 160 kilometers south of Kathmandu, local press reported, noting that this was the first time that a large number of gay activists have demonstrated for their rights outside the capital.

“He completely screwed our annual Gaijatra festival, which he turned into Gay Jatra. It's actually a festival devoted to families who've lost their near and dear ones over the past year,” said Kunal Tej Bir Lama, a local restaurateur from the gay community. “But it turned into a spectacle of very badly overdressed drag queens.”

Lama worries that Pant's public relations campaigns — while they generate headlines and support from the plethora of international non-profit organizations based in Kathmandu — have made the LGBTI community seem more radical and more exotic than necessary.

“Because of his actions and campaigns, yes, a lot of people are aware of who the gay people are and what they do, but a lot of them also have very, very, very skewed perception of the whole thing,” said Lama said. “They think that most of us are just guys who dress up as girls, who put on a lot of heavy makeup, bad fashion, and basically work as prostitutes.”

Monday, November 07, 2011

Shiva's Rules: Union strikes threaten India Inc.

This year's spate of strikes gives an ominous glimpse into a possible future for Indian manufacturing.

Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - November 7, 2011

Editor's Note: The Shiva Rules is a year-long GlobalPost reporting series that examines India in the 21st century. In it, correspondents Jason Overdorf and Hanna Ingber Win will examine the sweeping economic, political and cultural changes that are transforming this nascent global power in surprising and sometimes inexplicable ways. To help uncover the complexities of India's uneven rise, The Shiva Rules uses as a loose reporting metaphor Shiva, the popular Hindu deity of destruction and rebirth.

NEW DELHI, India — This autumn, some of India's highest paid industrial workers took to the picket line.

One of the largest and longest running industrial actions to hit the country's manufacturing sector in recent years, the strike by employees at Maruti Suzuki's Haryana automobile factories sent an ominous signal.

In the '60s, '70s and '80s, frequent strikes and lockouts slowed India's industrialization, costing companies millions and causing industry to abandon some states like Kerala and West Bengal altogether.

Now it looks like those days of industrial turmoil may be on the way back. It couldn't have happened to a more important symbol of the new India.

Maruti Suzuki is the showpiece success story of India's post-1991 economic liberalization. One of the country's most respected companies, it ended years-long waiting lists for cars built by Hindustan Motors. And it paved the way for investments by the world's largest car makers by proving that manufacturing in India could be profitable.

The joint venture, in which Suzuki Motor Corp. owns a 54 percent stake, became the largest contributor to its Japanese parent's bottom line in 2009.

This fall's strike, which resulted in a wider-than-expected 60 percent plunge in Maruti's profits for the second quarter, suggested the company — and India — may be entering a new era.

“It's everybody's dream to work for a multinational company like Maruti Suzuki,” said 25-year-old Pradeep Singh, vice president of a new, independent union that workers at the company's Manesar plant fought to establish this fall. “But once you get hired and see the reality, it's a big disappointment.”

Singh is typical of India’s disgruntled union laborers. He has achieved what might be described as the Indian dream. His father, a farmer, ekes out a living from an acre or so of land. But Singh left the fields behind and effectively broke into the middle class with his job at Maruti.

He normally earns about $300 a month — nearly three times the national average income. Like many of today's workers, however, Singh has higher aspirations. Now, along with around 30 other union leaders, he’s under suspension for his activities during the strike, convinced fighting is the only way to get India Inc. to share its growing prosperity with the work force.

“Maruti is No. 1 when it comes to profit,” Singh said. “But when it comes to salary, it's around seventh or eighth.”

India's large corporations have faced 10 major strikes in the last three years, and things may well get worse before they get better. This year alone, there have been strikes and protests at Coal India, Bosch India, Air India, Comstar, Ceat Tyres, Volvo Buses and at textile factories in Punjab, according to Outlook Business.

“If the management does not learn to deal with the sensitive dimension of labor and their circumstances, I am afraid these kinds of things may increase,” said Kuriakose Mamkootam, a professor at Ambedkar University who has written extensively about industrial relations in India.

“There is already what I would call a hidden, unexpressed sense of grief and violence amongst the people.”

That tension stems partly from the gradual dismantling of India's socialist economic policies begun by then-Finance Minister Manmohan Singh in 1991. But successive governments' reluctance to swallow the bitter pill and reform some of the country's tougher labor laws has also contributed to the friction.

Prior to 1991, national unions helped put in place tough labor laws.

One such law forces firms with 100 or more employees to seek government approval before they can fire workers or close down. Labor laws also prevent companies from reassigning workers to different tasks, so there is no way for companies to adjust to changes in the market.

As a result, the official employees of companies like Maruti have it pretty good.

But because of those very same laws, those official employees make up a very small fraction of the work force.

Knowing they can't fire or reassign workers, India's large companies simply don't hire them. Instead, they outsource work to the so-called “unorganized sector,” which comprises companies with fewer than 100 employees. Or they employ contract workers through middlemen.

As a result, only 7 percent of India's 400 million laborers are employed by firms large enough to be compelled to follow the rules. The rest toil in grim sweatshops, often for less than the national minimum wage.

Efforts at reversing course have already been painful.

Since 1991, governments have increasingly looked the other way as even the largest firms assigned a greater portion of the workload to contract laborers whom they could not only hire and fire more easily, but also pay less.

“An in-between community is being created that can neither get a job, nor continue in agriculture, and they are being used as an army of reserve labor by capitalists to keep wage levels and other rights of the workers at a low point,” said Tapan Sen, general secretary of the Communist Party-affiliated Center of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).

For instance, the official Maruti employees were angered by company payment policies. Only about half of their ostensibly generous salary is guaranteed, workers say. The other half is a “production performance reward” that can be slashed by as much as 20 percent every time a worker takes a day off. Moreover, showing up a minute late in the morning — or from the seven minute break you get between 7 a.m. and noon — will cost you half a day's pay, the union alleges.

“In any manufacturing company, especially in assembly line operations, discipline on timings in shopfloor is crucial to the overall process. There are well-organized breaks for lunch, tea etc for every worker,” a Maruti Suzuki spokesman said, via email.

Base salary cannot be reduced for employees who miss work, and workers who lose their production performance reward can get it refunded if their attendance improves within three months, he added.

Those are not the only footnotes to the Indian dream, though.

Nearly half of the employees at Maruti's Manesar plant weren't “regular workers” at all, though they showed up every day, too, and performed much the same work. So while 1,000-odd regular workers like Pradeep Singh could hope to earn about $300 a month if they didn't miss any days, 1,200 contract workers could only earn about $120, said Satvir Singh, who heads CITU in Haryana.

“Salaries at Maruti Suzuki are the industry best for permanent workers and higher than stipulated wages by state government for contract workers,” Maruti's spokesman said.

Similar conditions prevail at companies like Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India, Nokia and Voltas, according to Outlook Business. It may not be coincidence that all of those firms have recently faced strikes.

“The only common thread is the issue of contract labor,” said Rajiv Kumar, secretary general of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. “That is quite clearly spreading all over the country.”

Now, though, the government looks set to double down.

On Oct. 25, just days after Maruti's striking workers returned to work, India's cabinet approved a landmark manufacturing policy. Designed to create 100 million new jobs, it aims to boost the manufacturing sector's output to 25 percent of GDP by 2022 from the current 16 percent — where it has stagnated since 1980.

But the new plan won't deliver the key reforms to improve infrastructure, facilitate land acquisition and ease labor laws that industry maintains are necessary. Instead, it simply calls for the creation of seven or so islands — mammoth industrial parks known as National Investment and Manufacturing Zones — where the usual rules won't apply.

As a staff editorial from India's Economic Times suggested, it is a “fine example of a policy for the sake of a policy.”

Or maybe it is something worse.

According to union leaders and industry representatives alike, successive governments moves to work around strict labor laws have played an important role in souring relations between labor and management.

In the controversial Special Economic Zones set up to encourage export-related industries, for example, companies misused their gated properties to fence out unions and violate labor laws, says CITU's Sen.

Similarly, new government sympathy for industry and a reduction in the number of labor inspectors to one for every 200 factories has weakened the enforcement of laws related to wages and working conditions, says Krishna Shekhar Lal Das, an industrial relations expert at the Institute for Integrated Learning in Management.

But at the same time, India's failure to reform its labor laws altogether has had disastrous consequences. On the one hand, the tough rules continue to prevent the manufacturing sector from growing, because India's tiny sweatshops can't compete with China's mammoth factories. Yet, on the other, by fighting to keep laws on the books that don't apply to most workers, the trade unions have ensured that for most of the poor neither wages nor working conditions can improve.

“They are working for a labor aristocracy, because their interests are tied to them,” Kumar said. “The real poor in this country cannot afford to be unionized.”

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Nepal: Formal closure to civil war

The Himalayan nation has reached a deal that essentially demobilizes the former rebel army.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - November 2, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — Nepal may have eliminated the single largest obstacle standing in the way of a resolution to the country's decade-long civil war.

But there are plenty of obstacles remaining.

After five long years of negotiations following the end of the conflict, the Himalayan nation's major political parties settled on a deal late Tuesday that paves the way for the final dissolution of the rebel army.

The deal will see the former Maoist soldiers, who fought government forces from 1996 to 2006, integrated into the national army — or sent home with a fat severance check.

Many tout the move as a step in the right direction, given that the deal essentially demobilizes the nearly 20,000 former rebels.

But with that stumbling block out of the way, next comes the nitty-gritty work of making a new government. Ironing out the details and drafting a constitution are surely going to remain contentious. The deal is likely going to take much longer than the month the political parties have allocated.

Nepal's civil war was started by the Maoist Communist Party in 1996, with the aim of overthrowing the monarchy and establishing a "People's Republic of Nepal." It ended with a peace deal 2006, which has since been monitored by the United Nations.

An estimated 15,000 people were killed during the conflict, and more than 100,000 displaced.

"We have concluded yet another chapter of the peace process. The main task now is to implement this," Prachanda, the leader of the Maoists, told reporters after signing the agreement Tuesday.

Under the deal, Nepal's main political parties — which include the Maoists and the Nepali Congress, among others — agreed to integrate as much as one-third of some 19,600 former Maoist soldiers into the country's official security forces, Reuters reported. The other two-thirds will receive a rehabilitation package including education, vocational training and financial aid of up to $11,500 to start a new life.

The former soldiers who are included in the national army will be restricted to non-combat operations, such as the construction of development projects, emergency-rescue operations and patrolling forests.

“This is really a major breakthrough,” said Prashant Jha, a Kathmandu-based political commentator.

“For the first time there's a formal agreement on the details of the peace process. Now the key challenge is implementing the agreement that has been signed.”

Indeed, the deal eliminated the most contentious issue of the peace process, which has made little headway since the shooting stopped five years ago.

“With the future of the combatants out of the way, there's no obstacle to moving ahead on the constitution,” said Anagha Neelakantan, senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Nepal.

No obstacle, that is, but politics.

Although Nepal's various political factions have been discussing the drafting of a new constitution for several years — as United Nations deadlines whooshed by — there is still no formal agreement on the most essential questions about what form the country's new government will take.

And because these actors include erstwhile monarchists and Maoist revolutionaries, not to mention a long list of ethnic groups competing for the country's scant resources, ironing out a deal won't happen overnight. Or, most likely, even within the month proposed in Tuesday night's agreement, according to Neelakantan.

For example, there is a broad consensus that Nepal's former unitary government will be scrapped in favor of a federalist structure to help address the vast inequality between the central Kathmandu Valley and poorer areas of the country — a major reason the Maoists first took up arms.

But there is no such agreement on how power will be shared between the central and state governments, on what grounds the states will be formed, or even how many states the tiny, mountainous country will eventually have.

“For any state that has historically been centrally administered to move to a federal model is a challenge,” said the political commentator, Jha. “What complicates it in Nepal is that this is a very diverse country, with many different ethnicities and many minority groups.”

That makes for tough questions, such as whether states should be formed along ethnic lines or named for ethnic groups.

But at least some of the framers of the new constitution hope to address longstanding grievances regarding social and economic inequalities related to ethnicity, caste and region with leveling measures called “preferential rights” that may prove even more contentious.

“Restructuring of the state into federal units will potentially be a hard negotiation, but the parties are still closer than they were a year ago,” said Neelakantan. “This is the start of formal closure on the war. That's the really important thing.”