Friday, April 15, 2005

an american u. rises in afghanistan

(This article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education in April 2005).

The groundbreaking ceremony for the American University of Afghanistan, the country's first private, American-style university, took place in Kabul last month.

The university, which plans to open in 2006, is patterning itself after other American-style institutions abroad, such as the American University of Beirut. It will provide courses in management, communications, and the liberal arts for 1,100 undergraduates. All courses will be taught in English and will be open to students from Afghanistan and the region.

The university will aggressively reach out to young Afghan women, Afghan higher-education officials said. It plans to build appropriate facilities and housing for women, award scholarships to poor women, and hire female professors.

The U.S. government is supporting the university with a multiyear commitment of more than $15-million, Laura Bush, the first lady, said in a speech in Kabul last month. She visited a teacher-training institute, where she spoke of the importance of educating women.
Those pushing for the new university believe there is sufficient interest among Afghans and Afghan-Americans to sustain a private institution.

President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan attended the groundbreaking ceremony, along with Sharif Fayez, Afghanistan's former higher-education minister, who is interim president of the new university. The Asia Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group, has signed a grant agreement with the U.S.

Agency for International Development to act as the new university's fiduciary agent for one year. During that time, it will develop a set of financial and administrative systems for the new university and help it raise grant money from AID and other donors.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

intriguing offers

Indian airlines has two new promotional schemes worth checking out. With the first, called Bumper Super Saver, you get 16 flight coupons that are valid for one year for around Rs. 65,000. Each coupon is good for a one-way flight, though a handful of the longest journeys, like Delhi-Trivandrum, require two coupons. It works out to a decent bargain for those who need a little flexibility but definitely plan a few journeys, if you do the math. A single APEX ticket for Delhi-Bangalore, purchased 28 days in advance, will run you more than Rs. 5000. Multiply that by 16 and you get Rs. 80,000--for non-refundable, non-changeable tickets purchased more than a month in advance. For seven day advance tickets, you're already up to Rs. 9000 a ticket, or Rs. 144,000. Even if you're making some cheaper short hops, it looks to me like this is a good deal if you make 6 roundtrips a year with less than 7 days notice, based on the average seven-day fare for some 70 routes. (It means you'll get 8 unrestricted roundtrips for the average price of 6 seven-day fares). The second scheme, Smart Super Saver, may be an even better deal. This one allows you to buy, for example, four flight coupons valid for 90 days for Rs. 26,000, which would compare favorably with ordinary full-fare tickets. There are no restrictions and the coupons act just like tickets, applicable to frequent flyer programs, etc, etc.

Nevertheless, I'd like to hear from somebody who has used the schemes--do they screw you by telling you no seats are available, etc? Or has Indian Airlines seen the light ahead of the entrance of a slew of low-cost operators this summer?

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

getting away from it all

Indians are buying vacation homes where they never did before.
By Jason Overdorf
Newsweek International

April 11/18 issue - Natarajan Viswanathan wanted a place to get away from it all. "Madras was getting too strangulating," says the 74-year-old retired leather exporter. But instead of looking to the southern hill station of Ootacamund—"Ooty" to the generations of British colonists and upper-class Indians who have repaired there to escape the heat of the plains—he chose to build a vacation home in the small, undeveloped town of Kotagiri, an hour's drive from the Raj-era hill station. As it turns out, Viswanathan was something of a trendsetter: since he built his place a year ago, he has seen a dozen more vacation homes pop up, and four of his friends now have him scouting out property.

The market for vacation homes is gathering steam in India, tracking the booming housing market. No separate statistics exist for secondary as opposed to primary residences, but the home-loan market is increasing at a compounded annual rate of 30 percent. With salaries rising and interest rates dropping precipitously—from 16 percent in 1995 to about 8 percent today—the average age of home-loan seekers has fallen, and the size of the loans sought has risen by as much as 50 percent. That means more and more middle-class Indians are joining the elite in buying holiday homes—not only in traditional hill stations away from the baking plains but in new beach and resort communities as well.

Developments like Sahara Group's Amby Valley, a 10,000-acre, resort-style getaway a few hours from Mumbai (formerly Bombay), are generating huge interest, according to international real-estate firms Cushman & Wakefield and Chesterton Meghraj. Market surveys also indicate strong demand for less-expensive homes in similar, if somewhat less opulent, environs. "The upper-middle class and middle class are definitely getting into [the vacation-home market]," says Sandesh Savant, a property consultant based in Pune, near Mumbai. In addition to resort communities, he says, Mumbai residents are looking at farmhouses or homes on the coast south of the city. Since India's poor infrastructure makes road journeys trying, proximity is key for those looking for a second home. "My work and everything is in Bombay, so accessibility is very important to me," says Niloufer Kapadia, a 55-year-old gallery and cafe owner from Mumbai who recently built a house in nearby Ali Bagh. "I wanted a weekend home that would eventually become a retirement home."

Crowded Mumbai, where the stressful lifestyles approximate those of bustling New York, is ahead of the curve. But vacation-home buyers are emerging in other major Indian cities, including Bangalore, Chennai (formerly Madras) and New Delhi. The area surrounding Shimla—a Raj-era hill station six hours from Delhi—has become a favorite among residents of the capital.

For now, most Indians buying second homes consider the property an investment, says Chanakya Chakravarti, joint managing director of Cushman & Wakefield India. That means that demand is highest for developments commuting distance from urban areas that offer "suburban lifestyles," complete with swimming pools and golf courses. But the firm predicts the nascent growth in the purchase of genuine vacation-homes far from primary residences—which make up perhaps two or three of every 10 second-home purchases now—will mature into a boom over the next three years. "All it takes is for one project to really take off," Chakravati says. And a few gracious invitations extended to unsuspecting weekend guests.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

law & order in kathmandu

Reports of the demise of Nepal have been greatly exaggerated, if my recent visit to Kathmandu is any indication of the way things are going next door. International organizations claim there has been a total collapse of law and order, but apparently tourists who frequent Sam's Bar in Thamel, where drinking and carousing continues apace, have not checked their email lately for warnings from the state department. It is true that the Maoists continue their attacks elsewhere in the country and the lives of villagers caught between the army and the rebels have become desperate by all accounts. But the biggest problem the country faces is not the dismissal of the government by the king--those who still insist that democracy is cure for all ills notwithstanding--but the fear-mongering and real danger that have crushed Nepal's tourism industry. The blow to the country's GDP must be enormous--certainly big enough to prompt the king or, one day, the prime minister, to offer some serious developmental sops to the rural areas that have so far been excluded from the prosperity available in the capital. Put roads, electricity, airports, universities, and, most importantly, jobs on the table, and see whether even the sternest ideologues bow to realpolitik.