Monday, December 29, 2008

who wants book shelves?

Readers - We have four cane book shelves for sale or swap (if you have anything interesting). They're six-shelves apiece, about four feet tall and two feet wide. They work perfectly fine, but we've outgrown them and replaced them with a mammoth wooden set.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

india on the fly

(I finally dug this one out of the pdf that the magazine sent me)

Fishing for the legendary Mahseer in the Himachal foothills of the Himalayas

By Jason Overdorf

MY FEET MUST BE BLEEDING, I KEPT THINKING. I COULDN’T know for sure because I was wading barefoot across a freezing Himalayan river in my underwear, and Prahalad, my leather-soled fishing guide, wouldn’t stop long enough for me to check. But there was no turning back. I was in the middle of the river now, and I really, really wanted to catch one of the golden mahseer that I hoped to find on the opposite bank. Besides, Prahalad had a viselike grip on my hand. And he had my pants.

The mahseer (Hindi for “great fish”) has a storied reputation from the days of the Raj, when India’s British colonizers introduced sport fishing to the subcontinent. Jim Corbett, the famous hunter, considered wrestling the mahseer more exciting, even, than stalking man-eating leopards and tigers. And Rudyard Kipling went so far as to write that the mahseer was a game fish “beside whom the tarpon is as a herring, and he who lands him can say he is a fisherman.”

To Atlantic anglers, those are provocative words. But they’re not unfounded. The
mahseer is one of the world’s largest scaly freshwater fish, capable of growing more
than a meter long and weighing up to 90 kilograms—though the record for one taken
with rod and reel, set in 1946, is 54 kilos. A beautiful fish with green and gold scales the size of silver dollars, the mahseer bears a resemblance to the Chinese carp (a distant relative) and the prized tarpon. An opportunistic predator, the Himalayan variety will strike flies and spinning lures, as well as live bait. It hits like a ton of bricks and fights like hell, too—sometimes snapping an 18-kilo test line like it’s cotton string. The golden mahseer, found in the rivers of the
Himalayas, is swifter and lighter than the monstrous humpback mahseer of south
India’s Cauvery River. But experts say the golden mahseer is more aggressive. It’s also harder to catch. As dams mushroom in the Indian Himalayas and local villagers
empty the best pools, you have to trek deeper and deeper into tiger country to land one of these legendary fish.

This spring, I traveled from Delhi up the old Grand Trunk Road with my 64-year-old father to try to hook one. The trip was organized by Himalayan Outback, a three-year-old company started by a young Indian outfitter named Misty Dhillon, whom a number of graybearded mahseer fanatics have called “the future of Indian angling.” Compared with those of the United States, Europe, or even South America, India’s sport-fishing industry is virtually nonexistent. After the British left India, interest in sport
fishing waned, and a rapidly expanding—and hungry—population stripped the rivers of fish. Something of a revival began in 1977, when Britons Robert Howitt, Andrew Clark, and Martin Clark made a comprehensive survey of India’s rivers as part of their
so-called Transworld Fishing Expedition. A few years later, Howitt convinced the Indian government to protect a section of the Cauvery River from overzealous meat fishermen, giving rise to events like the Mahseer Maharaja World Cup and a steady influx of international anglers. But the golden mahseer of the Himalayas is only now starting to get the same kind of attention, and Misty Dhillon is a good part of the reason why. A quick Internet search on the mahseer shows that he’s written dozens of articles about fishing in the Himalayas, and doggedly farmed them out to every forum, Web site, and discussion board he could find. Today he’s one of a handful of Himalayan outfitters (perhaps the only one) who makes the lion’s share of his revenue from catch-and-release fishing.

“A lot of companies here say they’re angling specialists, but they really sustain their businesses through wildlife tours or rafting,” he says. “We’ve focused on angling, and all our clientele is pretty much angling right now.”

Misty is also leading an effort to prove that the golden mahseer, unlike its fat-bellied cousin down south, will take a fly. “People used to say that you can never catch this fish on a fly, but I believed that you could,” he says, adding that he began experimenting with his own fly lures a few years ago. “That was important, because fly fishermen are the ones who have the money and the passion to be able to afford to come to these wild areas. Now, pretty much all of our work is fly fishing.”

The survival of the golden mahseer could well be at stake. India is hard at work on dozens of hydroelectric projects in the Himalayas, and locals still fill their larders using dynamite, gill nets, bleaching powder, and truck batteries—practices that kill every fish in the water, big or small. As a result, the mahseer has already disappeared from waters in heavily populated areas like the Thumaria, Deoha, and Dhora reservoirs, according to a recent report by the Wildlife Institute of India.

Outfitters like Misty have so far proven to be the best defense. By leasing the fishing rights to sections of rivers like the Yamuna, Ramganga, Ganges, and Alaknanda, angling and rafting companies have assumed responsibility for curbing pollution and poaching. “In prime habitats—our clients want to go to the finest areas—companies like us are doing a lot of education,” Misty told me. “Our main strength is that our staff is all local. When they go to the villages and say, ‘Look guys, if you dynamite you’ll probably make 500 rupees for every 10 fish that you kill, but if
you get a job with Himalayan Outback, you stand a chance of making a lot more money,’ it really means something. Where we are operating, people are actually seeing the benefits.” So far, no detailed studies have been undertaken to track the results. But the condition of the rivers near outfitters’ fishing beats and rafting camps suggests that the scheme is working.

For our trip, my dad and I hiked about two hours into the Himalayan foothills of Himachal Pradesh to reach Misty’s fishing camp on a tributary of the Yamuna—a location that he wants to keep secret from his competitors. “It’s a fishing expedition in the real sense of the word, unlike, say, Alaska, where you’re flown into a remote section of river and you’re fishing out of a lodge,” he’d told me before I left. “Here, you’re trekking and experiencing a lot of local culture. It’s more of a real expedition.”

Even with porters carrying our gear, it was a pretty tough slog up and down the steep, narrow trail that the local villagers use to walk to the nearest road, and now and then I asked myself whether I had overestimated my dad’s physical limits. But Misty was right about the beauty of the place. The psychological fatigue of seven hours swerving around trucks, minicabs, and bullock carts on the Grand Trunk Road evaporated in the crisp air, and looking down at the snaking, green-and-blue river from the track, I made a mental note to escape the noise and dust of Delhi more
often. The year before, my dad and I had made a trip out to central Oregon to fish for trout on the Deschutes River; Misty’s “secret” tributary was just as beautiful.

The fishing camp was comfortable enough, if rustic. Accommodations were canvas, army-style tents large enough to stand up in. There was a shower tent with heated bucket water for bathing and another tent with a freshly dug latrine, a pile of dirt, and a shovel. No 400-threadcount sheets; no electricity. But the beds were soft enough that I never failed to get less than nine hours of sleep, completely dead to the world after the sun went down. We never had to lift a finger, and the camp staff looked after us as expertly as a moderatepriced Indian hotel. A cook equipped with a propane stove, two dogsbodies, and running water from a hose attached to a mountain spring a few hundred meters up the hill managed some fairly impressive culinary feats for the bush, though I will say that “continental” fare should be struck from the menu by all trekking, rafting, and fishing companies throughout India (as well as most hotels). Spaghetti bolognese was never meant to be hammered out of ground mutton and sprinkled with chips of goat bone.

The only problem was one frequently encountered on this sort of expedition: no fish. I’d been to the Ramganga River in April the year before—not for a fishing trip, unfortunately—and I’d seen entire schools of mahseer hunting in the shadows along the bank. No such luck this time; February to May is supposed to be a strong season, but the winter had been unusually long, and a week of sporadic rainstorms had lowered the water temperature even further. Despite our best efforts, fishing hard for four or five hours a day over the course of two days (one day was wasted as we hunkered down to weather a freezing drizzle, finally declaring it a write-off and returning to our sleeping bags), we never felt a tug, never glimpsed a ripple, and certainly never hooked a fish.

That’s probably why I agreed to cross the river, against my better judgment, even though I hadn’t thought to bring along a pair of wading shoes. As with all stupid decisions, I knew it was a mistake before I started out. But I blundered along anyway, and before long I was hip-deep in ice-cold water, dead certain that I was
doggedly turning my half-numb feet into hamburger. And I still didn’t get a nibble.
The only upside? When I finally hobbled back to camp, my miraculously unscathed feet
were toasty warm for the first time on the trip. Come to think of it, they were burning hot.

Most of the mahseer fishing camps in the Himalayan foothills are in Himachal Pradesh or Uttaranchal, a 7- to 10-hour drive from Delhi. For Himalayan Outback’s Camp Mahseer—the fishing spot featured in this article—the outfitters will meet guests at the New Delhi airport and travel with them by train (a comfortable three-hour trip
on the Shatabdi Express) to Ambala, from where you’ll travel another hour by car to the trailhead. From there, it’s about a 90-minute trek to the campsite; this takes you over some steep hills, so even with porters carrying your gear you need to be moderately fit.

The official seasons for golden mahseer fishing are October– December and February–June, depending to some degree on the timing of the monsoon. Like salmon, the Himalayan mahseer migrates to spawn, traveling upriver once or twice a year, during which time they have little interest in feeding. The major migration takes place in
July and August, during the peak of the monsoon and snowmelt, when the rivers are at their highest levels. Weather-wise, February through early May is the most comfortable period for fishing.

Himalayan Outback (91-987/ 280-6359; offers a six-day Classic
Fishing Adventure at Camp Mahseer, on its secret Yamuna tributary, from US$200 per
person per day, depending on the season. The outfitter can also arrange a variety of
different float trips on the Ganges, Yamuna, Alaknanda, Ramganga, and Mahakali rivers, ranging from 5 to 15 days.

Another reputable operator, Otter Reserves (91-124/256- 4794;
focuses on fishing beats in Pancheshwar (on India’s border with Nepal) and the Ramganga Valley, outside Corbett National Park in Uttaranchal. Camp conditions and offerings are similar to those offered by Himalayan Outback.

For more comfortable accommodations, consider Vanghat River Lodge (91-971/924-3939;; doubles from US$70 plus US$50 per day of fishing), which has five spacious cottages on the Ramganga River. –JO

shankar acharya on the economic crisis

Shankar Acharya, who earned his PhD in economics from Harvard in 1972, was India's chief economic adviser from 1993 to 2001. Currently he's an honorary professor at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations. I spoke with him last week about how India will be affected by the current global economic crisis.

JO: What's your latest read on economic growth for next year?

SA: All these things change very fast these days with the changing situation in the world economy and in India, but with that caveat I would say that there's a reasonable chance that our growth rate in the coming financial year, 2009-10, will be in the region of 5 to 6 percent.

JO: Does it continue to get more negative?

SA: I think so, but I think that's true the world over. If you look at IMF projections for the US or the UK or Europe or Japan, the IMF puts out these projections normally twice a year, and in the last five months tehy've done four sets of projections and each has been significantly worse than the preceding one. That's the way the world is going at present. What you're seeing in the world is what you're seeing in India. With the passage of every month, this is a more serious problem for all parts of the world than they thought a month ago.

JO: Does this 5-6 percent take into account the projected job losses?

SA: Job losses will be there, and they will continue to be there. A lot of the job losses have to do with the direct export sectors, like textiles, leather, garments and all that sort of stuff, and there are a certain amount in the software/IT space as well, and in the fincl sector certainly. A generally scaling down of expectations among busiensses across the board, barring one or two here and there. So I think the job losses are there. We don't know how long it's going to continue, or just how large and how bad it's going to get.

JO: I'm assuming, correct me if I'm wrong, that you expect a slowdown in exports and foreign investment. Does that account for the entire slowdown in growth?

SA: No, there are other things at work. The slowdown in exports is a strong factor, because exports account for 22-23 percent of India's GDP. And as you know the most recent data that we have, for the month of October, shows a 12 percent drop in exports—at least goods exports. And a similar number is expected for November. But it's not limited to exports. Exports are linked to the rest of the economy. Also what has happened is that growth of investment is slowing very fast. There's a lot of cancellations or postponements of projects across the board, as people realize that there is a very substantial slowdown of growth in India – it's not a recession, but it's a substantial slowdown, where we're going from over 9 percent growth to possibly under 6 percent growth in the span of a year or so. That's a sharp, sharp correction, so all the businesses that had geared up their investment and employment plans are having to rescale quite swiftly. Some companies here and there are of course facing negative growth, so that's leading to job losses. And even the ones that are growing in output terms may be undergoing job losses because they hired people last year on the premise that there would be continued rapid growth. That is no longer a tenable premise.

JO: From the rest of the world's perspective, 5 or 6 percent growth looks pretty good. What accounts for India's continued strong domestic demand?

SA: I think there are several reasons. One is of course is that domestic demand, if you take the aggregate of the Indian economy, is over three-quarters of the total, whereas in, say, China, domestic demand would be perhaps 50 percent because so much of the demand comes from exports. That's one reason why relative to East Asian economies India is somewhat insulated from the global trade slowdown—but only relative to them. I'm not saying we're insulated. Then of course from a sectoral point of view, nobody expects the rate of agricultural growth will be changed one way or the other by what is going on because it's somewhat autonomous. It's more dependent on monsoons and things like that. So if we get a reasonable monsoon next year, we'll see agricultural growth on the order of 3-4 percent, as we've seen in the past two or three years. Of course that accounts for hardly 20 percent of the overall economy, but it's good to know that part is insulated. And the services part of the economy, which accounts for over half of the Indian economy, it's up to about 55%, is expected to be more resilient in how much it slows down. Areas like telecom are expected actually to grow quite fast. With all this 3G and things like that. There are similar areas in services. Govt services will show some growth because of the pay increases that went through 3 mos ago with the sixth pay commission. And there are a few other things like that. I think that there will be a slowdown in some service sectors, like finance, externally oriented IT and software, airlines and restuarnants and hotels and all that. But the rate of change downward will be more moderate than in industry, which will take a sharper hit. It has already done so: the industrial production data for October points to a – after 15 years it dropped for the first time by about 1 percent. It's never been in negative territory before that. But it's all consistent with what we know about the various sectors, commercial vehicles, autos, textiles – they're all being affected.

JO: To get simplistic, are these companies that are still growing investing on the basis of future speculation or is the number of people who are able to buy some of these products and services still growing?

SA: It's hard to pinpoint. Basically, when you've had an economy growing at 9 percent for several years, that has a lot of momentum, and it takes a while for everybody to adjust their plans and activities. And that's just as well. I think we'll have a better idea a few months down the road when we have clearer data about what's happened to which sector.

JO: Are there any sectors that are very important to domestic demand? For example, construction, which employs a lot of people who are coming from agriculture, and creating a new class of wage-earners?

SA: Construction is a very important sector, but I suspect it's a sector that will continue to show a lot of activity. Again, not perhaps at the rates we've seen in recent times, but because quite a lot of construction is driven by govt funding, and as you know the govt is continuing to spend quite heavily and has recently done another fiscal stimulus. While I expect a considerable slowdown in construction related to private projects, it may be somewhat cushioned by things like roads and so on, which continue to be built out of govt funds. But where some of these roads are being built by private-public partnership, there may be financing issues, delays and so on. So it's still hard to tell.

JO: Things like roads and some other infrastructure projects are growth multipliers, right? Because they connect new sets of people to the market who weren't connected before?

SA: That's exactly right. It's similar to telecom. Telecom also is a great connector, we've seen in India. It's not a rich man's toy. A lot of low-income businesses and street vendors and so on find cheap mobile phones extremely useful for conducting business. That has been a big growth story in recent years, and I think it will continue quite well despite the problems we're seeing.

JO: You mentioned government spending will be important. What do you think of the stimulus package that the government has unveiled so far? The reaction seems to have been negative, but that may have been industry lobbying for sops.

SA: I think that could be. To my mind the recent stimulus that was announced a few weeks ago is a fairly modest one, but the really big stimulus I think came – it wasn't announced as a stimulus, it was more a matter of getting spending authority from parliament for decisions already taken months earlier. But in October the government passed through parliament a huge supplementary expenditure demand – without the approval of parliament they can't spend more than the budget. And this was about 240,000 crores – or about 4.5 percent of GDP. A lot of it was not instantly spent in cash. It was for things like petroleum bonds or fertilizer bonds to petroleum and fertilizer companies who had not been able to raise their prices [despite the rise in oil prices], and instead of compensating them in cash the government has given them these bonds. But what that means is that those prices have remained low in a period when international prices were going up, leading to these very high subsidy requirements. In itself, one would say that's a bad thing, and it is a bad thing, leading to high fiscal deficits and all that. But given that we were suddenly going through a period where other components of demand were collapsing, having additional spending power in the hands of those who buy fertilizers and those who buy petroleum products was a good thing. So all that fiscal stimulus really occurred in October. Some of it was in pure cash as well – roughly half of that 4.5 percent of GDP was for cash expenditures on things like the pay commission increases to government wages and salaries, like the farm loan waiver, like additional spending on the rural employment guarantee, and so forht. That was really the big additional spending if you like, for this fiscal year at least, rather than the recent 20,000 crores that we saw announced last week.

JO: One thing that seemed significant, or the most debated, was their efforts to stimulate the construction or real estate sector. The reaction was “too little, too late.” Do you think the demand for low and middle incoem housing will allow growth to continue or is something else needed to boost that sector?

SA: I think time will tell. I think the initiatives taken have been quite good. As you know they've recently announced that government owned banks – tehy've essentially said that all these banks must lend at a rate below 9.25 percent or so for housing up to 20 lakhs, and there's a special provision for those under 5 lakhs. Those are good initiatives, because it's a way of using the government's control over parts of the banking system in a useful way, because there's been a problem of on the one hand the cnetral bank is reducing its interest rates, but it's not going through the system. There's been a transmission problem, which, again, is happening all over the world. But here's a case wehre government-ownership of 70 percent of the assets in the banking system can be used to serve a good public purpose, provided of course the lending is done in a sensible way. I think a lot of the people who say not enough is being done are catering to the higher end of the housing and real estate market, and, really, that's a case of overexpansion and expecting the good times to roll forever. There has to be a correction there. They have to lower prices, and it's painful, and one or two companies may go bust.

JO: And some may need to change their business models, and they may be trying to avoid that pain...

SA: It is genuinely painful for enterprises. I'm not trying to minimize this, and it's a big adjustment. In many cases an extremely painful adjustment. But the reality is, nowhere in the world can the government bail out every enterprise simply because times are hard.

JO: To get back to the contrast between India and China, have the two central banks taken different financial policies.... In the past India was criticized for not being expansionary enough, but now they're starting to look clever.

SA: I don't know enough about what exactly has happened on that in Chian. My sense was that both these countries have been somewhat cautious in engaging with international finance, and that has stood both these countires in good stead in terms of exposure to toxic assets. But in terms of whether one has more space in monetary policy than the other, I'm not competent to comment. I think China has more space in the fiscal area, because the fiscal postion of their central and state government is much stronger, so they're in a much better position to take on additional spending. And they're usually better at implementing additional spending on infrastructure and things like that without running into problems of excessively high fiscal deficits and so on.

JO: Do you think the Central Bank will drop rates more rapidly from now?

SA: They will do that in a calibrated way because they also have to worry about pressure on the exchange rate and things like that. Too rapid a declien in short term policy rates would create problems in that arena. They will do so, and they have been doing so. They dropped policy rates from 9 to 6 or so, and tehy've dropped reserve requirements from 9 to 5.5 percent. SO both in terms of pumping in fresh liquidity and lowering rates, it's been the fastest loosening of monetary polciy ever in India.

Friday, December 19, 2008

india's new wave

A community of Krishna devotees combines surfing and spirituality on the shores of Karnataka

By Jason Overdorf/Mulky, India
DESTINASIAN (December 2008)

ON A STEAMY AFTERNOON IN SOUTHERN KARNATAKA, Jack Hebner—a.k.a. Bhakti Gaurava Narasingha, a.k.a. Swamiji, a.k.a. Guru Maharaj (“Great Teacher”)—steps off a Mangalore jetty onto the rocks that form the pier’s foundation. He slides his Pope surfboard into the chocolate brown waters of the Arabian Sea for the epic paddle out to India’s busiest surf break, which sees maybe a handful of surfers a couple of times a month.

Hebner’s 61-year-old muscles aren’t all they used to be. “A couple years ago, I got down to do some pushups, and I couldn’t get one. That’s when I told myself, ‘The Swami’s life is too sedentary.’ ” So instead of fighting the white water, Hebner paddles out through the harbor and around the jetty to get outside the break. It’s a one kilometer slog, and by the time he’s made it, three of his disciples —among the first Indians to take up surfing—have already dropped in on a bunch of waves. Since there’s no lineup anywhere along India’s 7,500-kilometer coastline, that’s easy to do. It takes Hebner 15 minutes or so to recover his breath. Then he knee-paddles into a curling two-meter swell, drops in, and rides it as majestically as anybody known as the Great Teacher could be expected to do.

A guest at Hebner’s Ashram Surf Retreat in the nearby town of Mulky, I watch for a few more minutes before paddling out myself. I’d stumbled across Hebner and his crew online a few months earlier back home in Delhi. Even though I’d never caught a wave in my life, I’d seen enough clips from movies like Endless Summer to convince myself that one day I had to learn. When I read about Hebner and the Mantra Surf Club he cofounded two years ago, it was like, well, karma.

Jack Hebner, who took the name Swami Narasingha in 1976, isn’t your typical surfer. For one thing, the sun-burnished native of Jacksonville Beach, Florida, doesn’t drink, and he has kept a vow of celibacy for three decades. For another, he’s a devotee of the Hindu god Krishna. But it’s that eccentric combination of passions that brought him in the early 1990s to India’s southwestern coast, where he’s now working to develop a surfing community that reveres the ocean, helps the poor, and wakes up every morning at 4:30 to pray. Led by Hebner and Rick Perry (another American follower of Krishna, who goes by the name Baba), they call themselves “the Surfing Swamis.” According to Hebner, a recognized Hindu guru with almost 200 local disciples, “Surfing isn’t just about getting in the water and catching a few waves, it’s about something much deeper than that. It’s about a spiritual experience.”

The spiritual experience offered by his Ashram Surf Retreat—which, at US$60 a night, can seem a little too monastic at times—isn’t for everybody. That’s probably why this bizarre hybrid of commune, temple, and hotel has only two guest rooms. The resident devotees—who include Hebner, Perry, a California couple, and five young Indian brahmacharyas (novice monks)—all chip in to keep the place running, shopping for food, cleaning, teaching guests to surf, and so on. Every morning they hold a prayer service that involves blowing a conch shell, ringing cymbals, singing, chanting, and just about everything else that inspired the invention of the Do Not Disturb sign. Although the food is satisfying enough after a few hours in the pounding waves, it is strictly vegetarian. Alcohol and drugs are forbidden, and guests are requested to abstain from sex. Those caveats aside, however, I can tell you that I enjoyed myself thoroughly. I also lost four kilograms and kicked the gout that had been troubling me for weeks. And, yes, after three days of long paddles, lungfuls of water, nosedives, and brutal wipeouts, I learned to surf.

INDIA’S COASTLINE INCLUDES at least 200 surfable river mouths and countless bays, coves, and points, all of which hint at the presence of secret waves. It’s completely uncharted territory for surfers, and every break is deserted; in India, almost nobody knows how to swim, let alone surf. But it won’t always be so. According to India Today magazine, the subcontinent’s adventure-tourism business—including trekking, climbing, caving, diving, and paragliding—is growing at more than 35 percent a year, and has the potential to attract half a million foreign tourists annually. Surf safaris could be just over the horizon, considering that many of India’s known surf spots boast awe-inspiring cultural attractions, such as the ancient Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu and the dramatic Juggernaut Festival at Puri in Orissa. Indeed, the buzz has already started. Last year, one of Hebner’s
team led a group of professional surfers and photographers for Surfing Magazine on a two-week photo tour of southern India. The legendary French surf explorer Anthony “Yep” Colas has included India in the latest volume of his World Stormrider Guides, while filmmaker Taylor Steel is said to be featuring the country in his next surfing documentary. And with the Surfing Swamis spreading the word locally, India’s undiscovered breaks won’t be deserted for long.

The best place for beginners is the Ashram Surf Retreat’s home break in Mulky, a sleepy hamlet near Mangalore (about 360 kilometers from Karnataka’s state capital, Bangalore, offically Bengaluru) on India’s southwestern coast. The retreat itself is nestled in a grove of palm and banana trees at the mouth of the Shambhavi River, so you don’t even have to load up the jeep to hit the water. It’s a long paddle out to the local beach breaks—named, in good surfer tradition, Baba’s Left, Tree Line, Swami’s,
and Water Tank—but if you time it right, you can ride the river current out and catch the tide coming in when you call it quits, a big energy saver after two or three hours of surfing. The jetty in Mangalore, which provides a more predictable wave than the river mouth, is about an hour’s drive away. There are also some interesting day trips available to the local Jain and Hindu temples, and the ashram has a boat for wakeboarding and snorkeling trips to nearby islands. That’s good news for would-be learners,
because, believe me, you may not be up to surfing every day.

On my first day at the ashram, I woke at 6 a.m. as instructed by Govardhan, the Californian charged with getting me up on a board. By the time I’d fixed myself a cup of coffee, I could hear the trumpet of the conch shell announcing the beginning of prayers, and then the muted beat of the drum, the tinkle of finger cymbals, and the familiar chant: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Unlike the temple worshippers that I have cursed soundly from ill-positioned hotel rooms in Indian cities from Ahmedabad to Lucknow, the Surfing Swamis don’t feel compelled to shout the house down to express their spirituality. So the service offered a pleasant, if somewhat surreal, soundtrack as I finished the novel I’d brought with me (there are no TVs or phones in the rooms). At 7 a.m. we hit the beach.

Looking back at my notes, I see that I’ve written “Baptism by fire this morning.” It was grim. The wash was murky from the churn, a light rain was falling, and the waves were breaking almost on top of each other, in some places crashing vertically into foam instead of rolling gradually toward shore. Again and again, Govardhan helped me drag the board—a giant learner model as unwieldy as a canoe—out into the surf, and again and again I was pummeled, swept under, and pulled into shore by the leash securing the board to my ankle. This must be what water torture feels like, I thought. I took it in 30-minute intervals, between which I stood gasping on the beach with a few fishermen, who evidently looked upon Govardhan as some kind of freakish water god. Even most of India’s fishermen, it seems, can’t swim; for them, the ocean is a fearsome place to earn a living, or to die trying. And here was a bunch of guys playing on it like it was a roller coaster. Even I earned some grudging respect for my apparent willingness to undergo a painfully slow form of drowning. Bottom line: don’t believe the “flat as a pancake” stories you hear from ravers back from a New Year’s trip to Goa, when the Arabian Sea is as calm as Buddha himself. India’s southwest coast is not only for beginners. It gets some big waves—up to six-meter breakers during the October–December post-monsoon season.

After breakfast, I slept most of the day. That night I had an audience with Hebner, whom I’d come to call Swamiji in his official capacity as guru of the Sri Narasingha Chaitanya Math (his 200-member ashram in Mysore) and the Ashram Surf Retreat. Like most people, I knew a bit about the so-called Hare Krishna movement, which is perhaps most renowned for its widely criticized (and now banned) fundraising efforts in American airports. But I didn’t know that the radical social movement had made a gradual transformation to something more like a conventional church since the death of its founder, Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada. And I certainly didn’t know that many of Prabhupada’s followers, like Hebner, had been repelled by the growing commercialism of the movement and distanced themselves from the official “church”—the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON. Frankly, I’d half expected to find a throwback society of brainwashed freaks, though my morning on the water with the Surfing Swamis had already disabused me of that notion. Now, I was treated to the full story of Jack Hebner’s metamorphosis into Swami Narasingha, a humorous yarn that ventured as far and wide as the famous Morningstar Commune in California, Mama Papauna’s hellfire-and-brimstone Huelo Door of Faith Church on Maui, and some of the less religiously tolerant countries of Africa. By the end of the tale, at least in the context of India, Hebner’s beliefs struck me as eminently normal. He, too, was an easily recognized character. Citing the military careers of his father and brother, he told me, “I’m the saffron sheep of the family. The orange sheep.” Semi-employed, penniless, and free-thinking, I could relate—at least for a week.

Two days later, when the guys convinced me to paddle out beyond the break and I finally dropped in on a two-meter wave that I rode all the way into shore, I began to understand a little of the whole surfing-spirituality connection. Okay, my performance was more like that of Sandra Dee in Gidget than surf celeb Kelly Slater in Step Into Liquid. But even a guy who’d once bailed from the Osho International Meditation Resort in Pune because they wanted me to buy an orange robe could feel the vibe. For days, I’d been fighting the ocean—this omnipotent, amorphous, drowning thing—and now I was at once surrendering to and mastering its blind energy. It wasn’t hard to see how you could find a metaphor in that.

For more information about India’s nascent surfing scene and Jack Hebner’s Ashram Surfing Retreat, visit the Mantra Surf Club at

addendum to how the bluelines can learn from the smoking ban

From the comments:

Perakath exposed my ignorance and made some points worth digging out of the comment pages --

Every [Blueline] bus has the owner's name and address painted in small letters near the rear "door", or lack thereof.

I believe the police routinely impound 'killer' bluelines and cancel their licences. But the problem with the individual ownership system is that it's very easy for another relative to step in and take over the licence. The government's plan to introduce corporate fleet ownership and consequent accountability is an attempt to overcome this. And it's a plan that might work. If a Tata group company were running the buses, say, I'm sure they'd train their drivers well and remove incentives to speed.

You're right about how it should be easy to phase out Bluelines, though. They could do it in one swoop, if they wanted to. Further, if the DTC could sort out its issues and actually operate with a view to making a profit, it's losing crores of rupees in opportunity costs every month. Why have Bluelines at all? A monopolistic DTC would generate far more revenue for itself, if they introduced enough buses to satisfy the demand. Chennai is an example of how it can work-- there are no private stage carriage operators in Madras.

another law, another committee

Another law, another committee. That's the upshot of the Indian government's response to the attacks on Mumbai. And it would be stupid to blame the Congress/UPA. The only thing that the opposition has asked for is a somewhat tougher law.

Folks, India is great at passing laws and forming agencies. But the agencies don't work, so the laws are not enforced. In a country where 90 percent of workers don't receive the minimum wage despite some of the world's most progressive labor laws, and where the courts cannot successfully prosecute the most simple and straightforward offenses, it is ridiculous to hope that these measures will make a difference to India's security.

Ajai Sahni makes some good points in an editorial on this subject. But I would argue that India faces far more serious obstacles than financing when it talks about creating its own version of America's FBI and Department of Homeland Security.

India has enough money for the job -- even the best and brightest here receive salaries that are far lower than first year FBI agents. But the country has yet to shed its pervasive attitude of bureaucratic indifference. It's like Chris Rock says (to paraphrase): You don't deserve any praise for doing what you're supposed to do. But in India, bureaucrats who actually do their jobs are virtually heroes. And don't make any mistakes: It will be bureaucrats that run the super new federal anti-terrorism agencies.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

jewish reaction to mumbai

In an interesting piece that explores whether singling out the Jewish victims of the Mumbai attacks for special sympathy was justified, the Jewish Daily Forward takes the community to task for a sort of ethnocentrism in persecution.

The talking point for the article:

On December 5, just one week after terrorist atrocities left at least 180 dead in Mumbai, The Jewish Week of New York published a blistering editorial, consecrating the event as one more milestone in antisemitism.

“And so Mumbai joins Kishinev, Hebron, Berlin, Babi Yar, Maalot, Sbarro’s, Sderot (we could easily mention 150 other sites) to the annals of sudden infamy,” the editorial’s opening declared. Titled “Another Day in Infamy,” the piece mourned the six Jews killed in Mumbai’s Chabad outreach center during the attack and invoked the “more than 2,000 Jews killed by Islamic terrorists in the last decade alone.”

But as Larry Yudelson, a veteran journalist and observant Jew, wrote on his popular blog, Yudeline, “You wouldn’t know from this paragraph — or the eight that follow — that nearly 200 non-Jews were killed in the coordinated terror attacks, whose primary targets were foreigners in Mumbai. The official paper of the UJA-Federation of Greater New York treats them as unpersons.” It was, he wrote, “a particularly egregious example of the particularistic Jewish response.”

I'm not sure why, but India itself seemed to focus more on the handful of Jewish victims than its own dead in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. Maybe it was the cute kid whose parents were both killed. Maybe it was that they thought it needed to be "sold" to the international community that this wasn't just another spat over Kashmir. But to my mind the idea that the attackers targeted foreigners and Jews was oversold.

I preferred Fareed Zakaria's statement, reproduced below from a Newsweek Q&A:

NEWSWEEK: The events on the ground are unfolding rapidly. But knowing the country as well as you do, what strikes you about the reports we've heard so far?
FAREED ZAKARIA: I think one of the misconceptions we're seeing so far is the assumption that these attacks were aimed primarily at foreigners. Look at their targets. The two hotels they attacked—the Taj and the Oberoi—are old, iconic Indian hotels. It used to be true that these places were affordable only by Westerners. But this is no longer true, and it's one of the big changes over the last ten years in India. The five-star hotels today are filled with Indians. Businessmen, wedding receptions, parties…these are real meeting places now, and even those who cannot afford to stay there often pass through the lobby.

So you think if the aim was to hit Americans, Brits or other Westerners, there would be more target-rich environments?
Absolutely. There's a Marriott, and a Hilton, a Four Seasons….The big American chains all have hotels there, and there are many more distinctly American targets. The Taj and the Oberoi are owned by Indians. My guess is that there will be a lot of Indians involved, and that this will generate a lot of domestic outrage.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

how the bluelines can learn from the smoking ban...

One thing that was curiously absent from all the news articles today about the killing of two kids in Delhi by one of the "killer" Blueline buses was the name of the company that owns the bus. The driver was named in some articles, but none of the papers we get (TOI, HT, Express, Hindu, Mail Today) could tell me the company's name. Perhaps we'll get that info later in the week, but I doubt it. And that's a shame.

This is the first good example of how the government could learn from the success of the smoking ban. Just as the threat of the loss of their liquor license -- the equivalent of "the death penalty" for a bar -- was enough to get the city's bars and restaurants to enforce the smoking ban, the (real and enforced) threat to take away the license to operate of THE COMPANY responsible for a Blueline bus that kills a pedestrian (or, say, 5 pedestrians in separate incidents, if you think that's too hard on these rapacious firms) would end this problem overnight. For too long, the government has been talking about "phasing out" the Blueline buses -- a process which should not be difficult at all. All they'd have to do is buy the firms and their buses and institute new policies to mirror the DTC's -- no great public transport genius, to be sure, but not a murderous one either. But that's not even what is required. What they need to do is punish the driver's through the criminal system -- with real, rapidly enforced, sentences for vehicular manslaughter when they're guilty of reckless driving (sometimes when they hit bikes or whatever, it's the biker's fault). And to punish THE COMPANIES with the civil court system -- forcing them to pay huge settlements to the families of the people they kill, at the very least, and taking away their license after a few repeat offenses.

In fact, this is even more obvious in this situation than in the case of the smoking ban. Bar owners never did anything to encourage their patrons to smoke, but now they're compelled to take the role of the police in enforcing the ban. Meanwhile, the drivers of the Blueline buses speed and drive recklessly because the companies behind the buses don't pay them enough unless they get enough passengers -- which is impossible if they drive safely. So the companies are directly responsible for the deaths that their drivers cause, and therefore should be held legally and morally responsible for making sure they drive safely.

i'm the wrong person to write this...

India rightly congratulates itself on its dogged free press, which in many ways is superior to America's these days, though the latter is feted more often. But it occurred to me today that we may be missing the point. If the point of the free press in a democracy is to educate the people so that they can vote, our focus on the English-language media (OK - I concede that maybe it's MY focus, hence the title of this post) is misguided: Essentially, it's like looking at the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books to talk about the state of the media in America. Because just as those hallowed intellectual rags don't reach the heartland, India's English-language press doesn't reach the voters.

America's intellectual press -- even a comparatively "mass" market outfit like the New York Times -- recognizes this, so it spends a good amount of its time and space analyzing and deconstructing the real mass media. But India's myopic focus on its tiny middle class (not intellectual, but also not important as a voting bloc) has prevented any attention from falling on the sources of information that "the people" do receive.

So, my question is: What's happening on Hindi TV?

I'm the wrong person to write this, because I don't understand enough Hindi to tell you. But my impression from the bits and pieces of conversations I've listened to -- mostly from people who hardly watch Hindi news, either -- is that the Hindi channels cover most of the same stories that the English channels cover, only with a slightly more salacious style, and perhaps a few less scruples. I'm curious whether someone can tell me, however, if the Hindi channels do anything different on issues like the killer Blueline buses--where English TV just tries to jerk our heartstrings for the poor folks who get run down. Apparently it is common knowledge that these buses are owned by mafia types with connections within the government -- ripe fodder for investigative journalism if I ever heard it -- but when the English press decides this is worth looking into, nobody really cares, because the readers of the English press don't ride the bus and don't vote in large enough numbers to matter. If the same thing was divulged on Hindi TV night after night, including the names and addresses of bus companies and their political patrons, I suspect matters might be different.

Then again, maybe that's happening already. If so, I'd like to know about it.

before you scrap it....

I was one of the first to blast the BRT (bus rapid transit system, for those of you in the USA) as an ill-conceived disaster. But now that Sheila Dikshit has been re-elected and parliament is calling for the BRT to be scrapped, I'm starting to think that we ought to consider carefully before we bring out the bulldozers. The reason: Whatever India's strengths, getting things right the first time has never been one of them.

Most of the commentary on the BRT has been motivated by the very justified desire to kill the thing. I hate it, too. And I'm angry every time I have to make my bizarre, circuitous detour to avoid it (U-turn under the Savitri flyover, cut left across traffic to cut through GKI M-Block market, and then down past Archana and N-Block to the LSR road). But because of this hatred, and because none of the people who write about these things actually ride the bus, my suspicion is that we're all missing some major points.

Yes, the BRT was badly designed, or badly built if it was not built to specs. But it is foolish to look at it and say that we've made 4 car lanes into 2, or that this route takes ten times the traffic that the model in Bogota handles. The reason is that the BRT was designed not only to make life easier for the poor people who have to fight Delhi's miserable bus system every day, but also to encourage people to give up their cars and ride the bus.

Yes, in retrospect this seems like an absurd goal (OK - even beforehand it seemed ludicrously unlikely). But because everybody has been intent on pointing out the obvious reasons that the BRT makes life hell for car owners, there are several reasons that it has failed that nobody (or at least very few people) have pointed out. And these are the most important ones.

First, the BRT doesn't go anywhere. Yes, it gets you from the Outer Ring Road to Defence Colony, and once it was dreamed it would get you all the way to ITO. But how were you supposed to get to the bus stop on the Ring Road? How were you supposed to get from ITO to your final destination? By DTC or Blueline bus? By auto? Dropped by private car? No public transportation system will win over people who own cars until it becomes more convenient and/or significantly cheaper than driving. Right now, neither the BRT/bus system nor the Metro is either, except, in the case of the Metro, for a lucky few who both live and work near stations. The BRT planners got it half right -- they made it miserable to drive your car. But they didn't make it pleasant enough to ride the bus.

Second, there aren't enough buses. The point of dedicating a lane to buses is not to allow them to whoosh down the road at 70 km per hour like the white Ambassadors with the red lights on top. The point is to move the maximum number of people down the road in the shortest possible time. All measures of the time it takes to go down the route--dutifully reported in the press--are therefore irrelevant. As anybody who rides the bus anywhere in the world knows, it's not the time you spend IN the bus that matters; it's the time you spend WAITING for the bus. This shortage of buses is also a major reason why the guys (like me) sitting in traffic in their cars hate the system so much: the bus lane is always empty. If there were buses cruising down it and passing me every 15 seconds, it wouldn't look like a wasted lane.

And if those buses could actually take me somewhere I wanted to go, and I could get to the bus stop conveniently from my house, I'd happily give up my car.

converting to islam

Chander Mohan, the erstwhile deputy chief minister of Haryana, recently converted to Islam so that he could take a second wife under Indian law. It's not the first time this has happened (to keep outsiders up to speed). India's controversial "civil code" sets different laws for marriage among Hindus, Christians, Muslims, etc., one of which is that Muslims are allowed to take multiple wives (as per the Koran, I suppose).

There are several reasons why Mohan's conversion--an apparently cynical act--is bad for India, not least that it encourages the failed justice system to go on putting its head in the sand over divorce, which is almost impossible to achieve by any other method than mutual consent. But the most important problem with these cynical conversions, which happen every few years, is that they encourage the false belief that all Indian Muslims have four wives and 16 children--promoted by the loony Hindu right to justify hatred, and supported by a typically massive and ungrammatical campaign of disinformation. The Indian press have, with justification, taken Mohan to task. But nobody has really talked about the real problem: For some reason, the guy can't just go get a divorce.

A segment of Indian society believes that "the institution of marriage" is falling apart due to a rising divorce rate. But I would argue that it's never been stronger, and it will only get stronger still as divorce becomes more prevalent and women make further gains in employment and education. The traditional institution is simply servitude. My maid, for example, has five kids (she's a Hindu), a husband who takes her salary and beats her for her trouble, then sits around the house all week watching TV. (He watches the news, and fights with her son, who wants to watch MTV). But she can't leave the guy, because then she'd be the rape victim of every Tom, Dick and Harry who lives in the slum. And she can't get a divorce and go look for somebody who treats her like a human being, because that would take 20 years in court.

Once upon a time I visited a women's self-help group in one of Delhi's satellite towns (a glorified village, really), and met a dozen or so women just like my maid. Averaging about 22 years old, they'd been "politicized" or whatever by a group affiliated with the women's wing of the communist party--meaning they had been made to know how badly they were being treated, and that they actually had the right to more. But there wasn't too much for them to do, apart from leave their husbands and move back in with their parents. And not all of them could even achieve that, due to financial difficulties. So they sneaked off to meet their secret rebels, suffering still. At least not in silence, if that is something worth mentioning.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

learning from the smoking ban

The smoking ban, love it or hate it, has been remarkably, unexpectedly, well-enforced. My suspicion is that the reason for this is that bars and restaurants are afraid they'll get their liquor license revoked if they allow patrons to ignore the ban, and there are just enough committed non-smokers to make them think somebody will complain. For some reason -- perhaps the same committed non-smokers -- there also appears to be no feeling that all they'll need to do is spread some money around the among the investigating officers if the police do get involved.

I have been pretty stunned by the success of the ban, frankly. I figured it would be like the periodical crackdowns on speeding or drunk driving -- a two-week binge, soon to be forgotten as everybody got back to their usual habits. Not so.

I wonder if there's anything to be learned here for other enforcement / implementation problems. If making the violator premises -- rather than the actual violator -- pay (the liquor license issue) is what makes the scheme work, can the same thing be applied to something like illegal dairies (the root of the stray cattle problem)? Littering (which is apparently the govt's next target)? Perhaps if residents and resident associations are made liable for fines, they'll be able to police behavior themselves? It sounds ridiculous, but it works for the bars and restaurants.... I've never seen anybody light up and just tell the waiter to get lost if he said it was now against the rules, even though that's standard behavior everywhere else.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

buying peace of mind

Jason Overdorf
From the magazine issue dated Dec 22, 2008
India's private-security industry has exploded in recent years, thanks to the country's longstanding terrorism problem and its inept police forces. Now business is likely to grow even faster in the wake of the Mumbai killings.

Just ask Vikram Singh, India's best-known private detective. Singh, who favors natty clothes and a Hercule Poirot mustache, has had a career that embodies the meteoric growth of his profession. Now chairman of the Central Association of the Private Security Industry (CAPSI), the 60-year-old former intelligence officer bet on the security business 30 years ago, when the Indian industry had no major players and security meant hiring an untrained guard with a club and a whistle. But Singh saw potential, and in 1995, he talked George Wackenhut, founder of the U.S.-based Wackenhut Corp., into forming a joint venture. Six years later, Singh sold his stake to focus on his own investigation agency, Lancers, which is now India's top-rated risk-consulting firm.

Now others are trying to get into the world's hottest market for private security, valued at $2 billion to $3 billion and employing 5.5 million personnel. Even before the Nov. 26 Mumbai attacks, the Indian industry was growing at an astounding clip of 35 percent. This year alone saw the founding of 200 new companies, and the sector expects to add 1 million new employees in 2009, which would make it India's largest employer. And that figure dates from before the attacks. Six international companies from Israel and Germany have also approached CAPSI about providing antiterrorism training, and surveillance-equipment companies are flocking in.

The reason is simple, says terrorism expert Ajai Sahni. India's police are dramatically understaffed, ill equipped and overburdened. "Our public systems are collapsing because there has for decades been insufficient investment in agencies meant to protect civilians," Sahni says. India has 1.45 police for every 1,000 citizens, less than half the global average, according to the United Nations. Meanwhile, the gap between rich and poor, sectarian tensions and external terrorist threats have all intensified, driving demand for protection. India's crime rate is rising, and incidents like the recent lynching of a multinational's CEO have stoked fears. Then there are the more than 4,000 terrorist attacks India suffered between 1970 and 2004.

The government's failure to respond has left the field open for private operators. But that's raised its own problems. The quality of many firms is questionable; around 200 Indian firms approach international standards, at least on paper, but 15,000 more operate under the radar without much training or background checks for personnel. Poorly enforced regulations mean that most guards earn less than the legal minimum wage. "It's by and large an exploitative industry, with poorly qualified, poorly trained recruits being flogged out by largely mercenary security agencies," said Sahni. The rent-a-cops are also barred by law from carrying guns, which can make them poor substitutes for the real deal.

Post-Mumbai, many Indian companies are demanding more sophisticated protection and better-trained, better-educated guards. Consumers are also migrating to globally recognized brands. "In the U.S. or Europe, security professionals get paid $25,000 to $60,000 a year," Arjun Wallia, chairman of Walsons-Securitas, said. "Whereas in the security industry here you get $100 a month. You pay peanuts, and you get monkeys."

The central government has also finally stepped in and, and after 10 years of lobbying by CAPSI, introduced legislation that requires firms to get a license and set norms for training and compensation. Among other things, the new law requires companies to give their guards a minimum of 160 hours of training. CAPSI is also making improvements voluntarily. It has formed agreements with three state governments to organize job fairs in rural areas and provide training facilities, and it is in talks with four other states.

In the meantime, business is booming. Singh says that about 25 percent of the work done by India's police could be outsourced. Already New Delhi is considering entrusting CAPSI with access control for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and high-ranking police officers are keen to farm out grunt work. The Army chief of staff estimates that 80,000 troops currently work as security guards and is considering outsourcing some of those jobs at noncritical locations, says Singh.

If these programs succeed, private security firms, rather than the beleaguered public sector, could soon become the country's first line of defense. In many ways, they already are.

© 2008

Saturday, November 15, 2008

in defense of anand jon?

I am stunned to see that several people in the Indian fashion industry have seemed to defend designer Anand Jon following his conviction on 1 count of rape and 15 counts of sexual assault by a US court. The difficulty of obtaining a conviction in rape cases--especially "acquaintance rape" such as these attacks--is notorious. There are huge gray areas where consent is concerned that trip up jurors, and a significant subconscious prejudice remains against women who file rape charges. For that reason, convictions generally require a massive preponderance of evidence and/or the testimony of more than one victim.

In some regards, this case was easier to prosecute because it included charges of statutory rape--i.e. having sex, whether consensual or not, with a girl or boy who has not yet reached age 18. Some quail at calling this child molestation--for what magic transformation occurs between 17 and 18--but the line must be drawn somewhere and in Jon's case one of the victims was just 14.

However, what is more striking than that is the dubious argument that this is some kind of conspiracy against Jon by models disgruntled because he did not use them in his shows after he slept with them. Filing a rape or sexual assault case in the US, as in India, is no picnic. The victims are subjected to unpleasant scrutiny of all kinds, the rumor mill begins circulating (as is clear by this conspiracy theory) and they are forced to divulge details about a traumatizing and humiliating experience. That seven different girls came forward to accuse Jon and testify against him is--if not completely damning for those of us who weren't in the courtroom to hear the evidence--certainly grounds for a strong assumption that justice has been served.

Several myths lie at the heart of the Indian disbelief in Jon's conviction--that a handsome man cannot be a rapist because he is capable of finding consenting sex partners; that nice, clean, wealthy men are not rapists; and that rape without violence is not rape.

Friday, November 14, 2008

state elections...

An interesting interview with Mahesh Rangarajan, a Delhi University political analyst, on the upcoming state elections in Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Jammu & Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram and Rajasthan:

JO: What do you think the BJP's chances are in the upcoming elections?

MR: At this moment I would say that they can bank on substantial dissatisfaction with the union government on the question of inflation, which is very important in the states going to polls. Most of these are states with very large numbers of poor people. Inflation also happens to bite the middle class in a significant way. Second, I do think they gain from the redistricting. The way the boundaries of the seats have been redrawn increases the weightage of the towns and urban seats, and in the most recent elections in most of these states were as long ago as 2004, and with the exception of Delhi in the northern states they did well—you know Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh. So I think they've got a bit of an edge.

JO: Assuming they do well, does that carry over into next year's general election?

I really don't think it does carry over, and I think the reason is very specific. Both in 2003 and 1998 the party which did well in precisely these elections triggered early general elections; in '98 the Congress did well in most of these states and it precipitated a crisis which led to the downfall of the Vajpayee government. In 2003, Vajpayee read the results in a certain way—at least the party read the results in a certain way; we have reason to believe he was not so clear—and you know in both of these cases we saw that the advantage in these states did not carry over into the general elections. There are two reasons. These states are fairly atypical of vast regions of India, because primarily both the two big parties are the contenders for power. This is not true in the entire Gangetic basin, which is where most Indians live, and it's not true in significant parts of South India, like Andhra and Tamil Nadu. The other thing is that up to now these states have not had a strong third force. Not in the last two decades at least. In the absence of a third force, a regional party, a strong lower caste or marginal caste party, the results are very skewed. So I'm not sure they are that typical of the country.

Having said that, a good performance in this election will definitely give an enormous morale boosting shot to whoever does win. They will be raring to go for the general election. In that sense it's very important. It's important for party morale and the mood in the leadership, perhaps less so as an indicator of where the country is going.

JO: So it kind of helps you keep your party members in line and maybe in forming alliances?

MR: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think to both these parties these are among the very few states – there are 6 to 8 states depending on how you count them – where the fight is between these two. In the rest of India, either neither is in contention or only one is in contention or a major regional force is in contention in a very important way. So of course it helps them in terms of their bargaining power and standing. I also think it's an important election because it's the first election since this economic crisis has struck—the slowdown, as opposed to food price inflation. We will have some sense, particularly in Rajasthan, which has a small but significant industrial base, so is the slowdown really biting, particularly in the towns, export-oriented units? Is globalization hurting? If you look at Madhya Pradesh, one of the major products of Madhya Pradesh is soybeans. Now soybean prices have crashed. I think – I don't recall the figure, you can check it – I think it went from 43 to 26 or something like that. It's a huge crash and it happened after the sowing. Now farmers are set to take a huge harvest in, and they're not sure what to do, because even if they sell all of it it will be at a very substantial loss. This of course takes us to the next question: Who are they going to blame for their plight? Will it be the state government or will it be the center?

JO: Or will they understand that the government has no control over that [issue]?

MR: Even if the government has no control, the government can definitely do something. Government has eased credit for a lot of big industries, and it has done it very fast. I guess in the current situation nobody can complain about that. But there are other sections [of society] that are going to say, 'Why him and not me?'

JO: Right.

MR: Of course, of these states Delhi is also very important. It's a small state, and it's a very pampered Union Territory with lots of federal funds and so forth. But I still think it's important. The Congress has ruled Delhi for 10 years, which believe me none of us ever thought was possible. This is a natural BJP city – at least the city of the '60s and '70s, which was the time that Advani and Vajpayee really rose to their present stature. So I think for the BJP taking Delhi back is very, very important. It is not to be measured in terms of numbers. It's symbolically of enormous significance to them, and they've put a lot into the battle for Delhi.

JO: So that would again be sort of a moral victory, or would it have any other....

MR: ...Definitely! No, it has. You see, people don't realize it, but Delhi's per capita income over the last decade has outstripped Mumbai's for the first time in history. It's got a huge middle class, it's got an incredibly large consumer base. It's incidentally also got a very large number of poor people in the unorganized sector. So it might give you a sign of where urban India is going. And because it is 14 million people, and there are people in Delhi drawn from virutally all the parts of India—I'm a South Indian; people don't know this but there are 2 million Southerners in Delhi; it's a huge number—so I wouldn't say it's a microcosm but it is a city of some significance to them. Also, whoever takes Delhi will preside over the Commonwealth Games, and you know, for politicians those things do matter. I think it's a very important election also because it's the first after these recent bomb blasts.

JO: Apart from the bomb blasts – there have been bomb blasts all over – but also this linking of Hindu extremists to terrorism. What impact do you think that will have?

MR: Who knows? It could go either way. One way it could be is that there's a deep abhorrence of these groups, and these are fringe groups but some of them have affiliations with elements within the BJP. And some elements of the BJP—particularly their party president who's gone out of his way to defend these people.

JO: So in one way it may turn into a sort of referendum on that issue [of Hindu extremism]...

MR: They're trying very hard to make it that. I think the battle plan from the BJP point of view is that they're going to argue that these people are being framed. And they're being framed only because they're Hindu. And I think that is already servicing as a very important plank. We have to see what the people think. AT this point it's very difficult to gage whether that argument is finding resonance with the people or not.

JO: What do you think it would mean if it does find resonance with the people?

MR: Look, I think that this politics of Hindu pride or Hindu hurt—these are their terms, not mine—will never go away. It will always be there. But you know, it ebbs and flows, and we've been through a period in which it was ebbing, so maybe the ebb is over and it's started flowing. I think one of their problems – and this is something that they're all willing to admit – is that they've not been able to find a symbol with the enormous potential that the Ram symbol had in the '90s, or the Kargil war had at the end of the '90s. In the beginning of the '90s they had Ram, which of course symbolizes their ideology and politics very clearly, and there happens to be a very important disputed spot as well. And in the late '90s with Kargil it was of course a defense of national territory, so it became a sort of nationalism, war, and all that. Now, look at the picture almost 10 years on. Where is the symbol? They tried Ram Sethu. It didn't work. Or it doesn't seem to have worked. They tried the Jammu issue, and the government gave way. They're a movement in search of a rallying point and a symbol. Will the Sadhvi who has been subject to interrogation by the police, or the serving officer in the army, or the former [head of] the Bhonsla Military School—will these people become the rallying symbol? Frankly, I don't know. But I'm not so sure. It will help rally their own people, that it will definitely do. The various wings of the parivar—and it's a vast organization—will rally together. They rally together when they feel they are being attacked.

The problem for this government – I'm talking about the Congress – is that it doesn't have anyone who does the political part of it. Let me assume that there is something against these people, the sadhvi, whatever. Whether there is or not the courts will decide. But politically, I would have expected the Congress to go on a huge offensive, and say, you know, that that party [the BJP] created the atmosphere, the climate, where this could happen. I'm very struck because ten years ago, in her first election meeting in Ram Lila Maidan, Ms. Sonia Gandhi actually began by saying that the BJP is a party which espouses the same ideas which inspired the man who was the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi. She was very careful. She didn't say he was a member of the RSS—he was not at the time—but she said that he believed in the same school of thought. That sends a signal that the Congress is willing to take the battle into their camp. The minute you say that, they will react and say he was not one of us. He was not a member, he left the RSS, he was in the Mahasaba, and he left the Mahasaba. We have nothing to do with him... You know, they go on the defensive. But that's not happening.

The Congress's core issue is very, very serious. I see these six elections – if you include Jammu & Kashmir and Mizoram.... If you ask me, see, the Congress is facing a score of 0-8. They have lost eight state elections in a row. Lost means they didn't come to power. IN some cases they were in power, in some cases they hoped to come to power, in some cases they couldn't have come to power but they could have bettered their record, let's say in UP, but they didn't. It's a deep crisis within the party. The Congress is a party that likes to win. They rally around the members of the Gandhi-Nehru family because those people know how to win. They're not born to rule. They rule because they rally the people and the rank and file of the party are convinced that they can reach out to the people, that they have their finger on the pulse, that they understand the mood of the times and they set the agenda. You have to give Sonia Gandhi the credit that it 2004, she stuck it out and kept saying that India Shining won't work. You know, if you read Ed Luce's book, she told Ed Luce in a very understated way, “I don't know about the papers but when I go out into the countryside and talk to people, they don't think things are that good, and my party's assessment is that we're going to do much better than all of you think.” She was right.

But now, five years on, is this a party – her, the PM – have they actually lost touch with the popular mood? Have they lost the ability to reach out? It often happens. Being in power always carries that risk. And more particularly, the person who is supposed to take charge, because we all know who he is [I.e. Rahul Gandhi] what has he actually done to energize this party? You know, our state elections are like national elections if you look at the numbers. They're so immense! It's organizationally a great challenge. And I would have expected him by this time to be out [campaigning]. Not in St. Stephen's College—it was like a walkabout by a rock star, which was great. But is he reaching out beyond that circle? I don't know. I would expect Rahul Gandhi to take the battle into the RSS camp on the bombs, saying you know my grandmother died, my father died, I'm opposed to the cult of violence, whatever. He's not doing that. Why? I'd expect him to go out and say we're facing a major economic crisis, but you know we're going to have the second-fastest growing economy in the world because of the outstanding leadership of our economist prime minister, and I am standing with him. He is going to run the government but my mother and I are going to give him all the support he wants. Will you help me? He's not saying that. What is he saying? What's the message? There's none.

JO: Yes, there's a kind of silence, or a kind of reactive stance....

MR: No, no. There's something much more serious going on. I think their machine is in tatters. I think it's worse today than it was five years ago, strange as it may sound. You look at each of the states—this state [Delhi] is different, because Sheila Dikshit is an incredibly capable leader; I think she's going to lose the elections, but that's a completely different matter. After ten years, we expect anybody to lose the election. But look at the other states. There's no clarity of leadership. There's very little clarity of the social profile [I.e. the different castes and communities that the party will woo]. The party is being run by remote control by general secretaries in Delhi. Obvious natural leaders who emerged from these states have not been put back in charge – Digvijay Singh, Ashok Gehlot-- I don't know. I actually think this party.... Somewhere in their heart of hearts the fight has gone out of them, which is bizarre, because the Congress normally fights incredibly hard.

JO: In the Gujarat election, there was that question about do we want to go down that road of criticizing the BJP for the riots because in a way it serves up the ball for them to bring back Hindutva. So they avoided mentioning that with Modi until the end, when after being criticized by the press Sonia Gandhi brought it up....

MR: ...and the way that she brought it up actually played right into his hands.

JO: Do you think that something like that is going on now?

MR: I don't know. My reading of Gujarat was that they were never in the race. He [Modi] fought the election in a completely new way. He marginalized his own party. He marginalized all the front organizations. He rendered them toothless. He fought effectively. He was the candidate in all the 182 constituencies, which is something that is very new for the BJP. The BJP is essentially a cadre driven party with an ideology—like the old Commie parties or the Nazi party or whatever. But he didn't fight it like that. He fought it as The Leader. And the way he did it, you have to give him credit organizationally. He used two groups very interestingly. One was the elected leaders of the panchayats. The other was the cooperatives. Nobody has realized this out here [in Delhi]. The key organizers were the leaders of the panchayats and the cooperatives—all out of personal loyalty to him. And he fought the elections – Gujarati asmita pride was there, and Gujarati asmita has a Hindu color to it, no doubt. But the other dimension is in the economy. It's not the big projects – it's not the petrochemical factories and fertilizers or IT—it was hard economic achievements. Jobs in terms of industrialization of the small towns. The huge transformation of agriculture, particularly cotton, but also groundnut. SO it's a very unusual state where agricultural growth and the growth of the manufacturing sector played to the advantage of the government. Hindu society is multi layered – at the top there is the Brahmins and then there are the dominant landed classes in Gujarat, the Patels – he reached out below both of these. IF you look at the BJP in Gujarat, he has brought in the backwards and the tribals in a big way. And, it has to be very clear that he has done this completely unrepentant about his past [association with the 2002 Ahmedabad riots]. That was not the central point this time, because I've traveled a little in rural Gujarat, and it was a little disconcerting how matter of fact people were about what happened, but that was not the main driving force this time.

I don't think the Congress was ever in the fight in Gujarat. At times they looked like a pale copy of the BJP. I'm forgetting the name [but] in Surat, the person who fought for the Congress—Rahul Gandhi campaigned in his constituency—was one of the major perpetrators and accused in the Surat riots of 1993. Horrific riots. They're were among the most horrific riots in this country's history. There were at least 8 people who were RSS / BJP people who went over to the Congress and were given tickets. This may not be known to you, but Muslims knew it. And I'll give you a statistic. Gujarat is around 9 percent Muslim and they're 182 seats, so you should have around 16 Muslim candidates. The last time Congress won the elections it was 1985. It had 26 Muslim candidates of whom 18 won. This time it had six. It had eight people who had been accused in riots who were from the BJP / RSS. They were far more communal than Narendra Modi had been in public. So I think the Congress doesn't know what to do. On the one hand it's willing to do anything to get elected, including being a pale copy of the BJP and Modi. On the reverse, as you rightly say, they suddenly say Oh we're very secular and we're going to attack them. People have seen through this. And I think it's a very serious issue for the Congress. IF you look at the mood of the minorities today—not only Muslims but also Christians—the feeling is that this union government is incapable of protecting us. That is very serious.

JO: So they're getting it from both sides, being accused by the BJP of being soft on terror, and by the minorities of failing to protect them?

MR: They're getting it on both sides. Yes, yes, yes. It's very interesting. I'll give you an example. In '47-'48 when the riots were very bad in this city, Jawaharlal Nehru was fighting for control. I'm forgetting the name of his officer but I think it was Kanungo who was in the police; he told him “Look, I want the Walled City quiet.” Kanungo drove to Jama Masjid and he arrested six of the Hindu Mahasaba people and two of the Akadis (?), and he paraded them in an open jeep for three hours. He manacled them in handcuffs, and he announced, “If anybody does anything, I will take care of these men.” And things died down. There's a reason: Nobody questioned Jawaharlal Nehru's sincerity. You may have disagreed with him; you may have called him a Muslim lover; but you wouldn't have questioned either his personal courage or his integrity. Something has happened to this government.

I think this Batla House shootout in Delhi was a very serious turning point. I do not know who those guys were. I do not know if the cops fired first. I have no idea. But the mood among educated Muslims is that the police are trigger happy. It's a very serious issue. What every one of them says is something very interesting. They say, “You know, in 1993 there was the bomb blasts in Mumbai, which were horrific, and there were the [anti-Muslim] riots [that followed]. 80 percent of the bomb blast accused have been convicted. Less than 1 percent of those accused have even been tried in the case of the riots. And there's been a Congress government in Mumbai since 1999 and a Congress government in the center since 2004. You know, I feel this government doesn't realize what thin ice it's skating on. Look, with the Hindu middle classes, the party's over. These are groups who move really fast. They were toasting Manmohan Singh in 2004. That's all over. Now they're looking at the housing loan rate, which was at seven and now it's at 11 percent; they're going to look at inflation; they're going to look at the stock market; they're going to look at the crisis in housing—it's completely collapsing; and of course they're going to listen to the BJP guys saying you're under threat, somebody's going to bomb you and these guys are not protecting you, they're letting people walk free. They [the Congress] have to find their own voice, and they'd better do something soon. They better do it fast. I'm not able to see any sign of that, but let's give them their due, maybe they know something we don't.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

sonal shah denies links to hindu nationalism

In case anybody reads this who doesn't read the Indian press, Sonal Shah, the member of Obama's team who was a member of the VHP's American branch as part of a charitable relief project, has clarified that she has no interest in the chauvinist policies of the Hindu right.

Goes to show that all of us should be sure to check the antecedents of the groups to which we donate our time or money. They could be one step removed from organizations that we have no desire to support.

Friday, November 07, 2008

obama linked to loony hindu group?

The Hindustan Times reports today that one of Obama's top advisers is a member of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a chauvinist group that in India has advocated the founding of Hindu suicide squads to target Muslims.

According to the story, Sonal Shah, an Indian-American adviser on Obama's transition team, was a national coordinator of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America campaign to raise funds for Gujarat earthquake victims in 2001. That sounds pretty innocuous, I know. But the Indian press has often shown links between charitable Hindu organizations and the more dubious activities of the VHP. Also, the story goes on to say that Sonal's father, Ramesh, works with the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)--which has its roots in fascism and advocates turning India into a Hindu state. He was involved with the RSS's Ekal Vidyalayas project--which are single-teacher primary schools that promote "Hindu values" among the children of tribal regions--as part of the "reconversion" movement that demonizes Christian missionaries claiming that they are tricking or forcing Hindus to convert to Christianity.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

sahibs who loved india

Continuing my time-honored tradition of reviewing books that I haven't read....

What's up with the title of this one? Sahibs Who Loved India. Isn't that like White Guys Who Loved Jazz?

Why should we care about these guys. OK, I get it that there are some cracking adventures from the Raj era, when plucky young British chaps would dress up like natives and darken their faces with boot polish to go undercover on the frontier (and whatnot). But shouldn't that "Foreign Devils on the Silk Road" type stuff be strictly for British consumption?

And if it's really so normal, how come there aren't any titles like Americans Who Loved Russia or Africans Who Loved America?

Are Indians really so interested in these elusive sahibs? And, if so, why? Wasn't it the sahibs who first presented the idea that India was crowded, dirty, and cultureless? I mean, that is, before they "discovered" Buddhism and all that stuff that they are meant to have done?

Monday, October 20, 2008

the alleged booker prize

It's less Orientalist and doesn't trap you in the little-brown-man box

(Outlook India, October 27, 2008)

Normally, when an Indian wins the Booker Prize, the country rallies round to cheer, and even the most dubious "voracious readers" from the pages of Stardust suddenly develop an interest in literature. But Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger was never a book Indians wanted to read, and even with the much-coveted stamp of approval from abroad, it's hard telling whether it will get the 1,00,000-copy boost in sales experienced by Kiran Desai's Inheritance of Loss.

Consider the front-page Times of India story that announced the news. The first paragraph cites as the reason for the win Adiga's "alleged ability to offer insights into the struggle of a developing nation on the rise"—effectively condemning the Booker winner as a fake. The conventional and obviously objective alternative would have been to say, "In awarding the prize, the judges praised Adiga's skill in providing insight into the struggle of...." 'Alleged', which to the newspaper man implies somebody is being accused of a crime and the lawyers are worried about a case of libel, is a word used to skewer. Any editor will tell you that its use here was no accident.

From the beginning, The White Tiger received an uncomfortable reception. The author (a friend of mine) is, if not actually a foreigner, then foreign-returned, which my wife tells me ranks even lower on the totem pole. Worse still, regardless of his ethnicity, he was a writer for Time magazine, and therefore guilty of writing bad stuff about India: that the people here are poor; they suffer from diseases like polio and tuberculosis that have been eliminated across much of the world and similar nonsense. And he did it in the book, too! The White Tiger is about a guy from Bihar, for goodness sake! Naturally, the reviews, and even some of the news articles, are peppered with backhanded compliments.

But there are worse things than being called poor. Compared with Inheritance of Loss, The White Tiger is more compelling, better written, and—and this is the really important thing—less Orientalist.

Inheritance of Loss infuriatingly propagates the "little brown men doing cute little things" rubbish, that by all rights should have disappeared with India's colonists. But Indian readers overlooked this allegedly cute stuff about Anglo-Indians and Nepali immigrants and their silly ways, because of the book's nostalgic, patriotic content. Though The White Tiger has its own broad brush moments, that kind of pandering—cheap, tired jokes about "peculiar" Indian English and the like, with which that schlocky, much-praised tome Shantaram was chock-full—is largely absent. The trouble is that The White Tiger is gleefully vicious in lampooning the middle class who are, regardless of the tired accusations about "writing for the foreign market," Aravind's true audience.

It's a familiar reaction. The critics of the foreign correspondent corps insist we are always banging on about poverty and filth, when we should be pointing out the five-star hotels. But stories about India's slowness in eradicating poverty, malnutrition, disease and the like are rarer than you think. Aravind has called The White Tiger "a result of my secret, uncensored articles", because it is almost impossible to get anything into Time or The Economist or Newsweek about the problems that India has had for decades and—because they are too big, or the system is too flawed, or whatever—hasn't been able to solve. Poverty is bad. It is everywhere. But it is not news. When articles on these topics appear, nobody should be surprised. The same thing appears in the Times of India every day and Outlook every week.Nor should they be angry, unless the writer tries to imply that some white guy could step in and sort the mess out in a year or two.

It's the other kind of foreign correspondent rubbish, the Orientalist crap, that ought to get people incensed. Why does every article have to begin with a woman in a colourful sari, squatting in the dust? Why are western readers so concerned with the fate of tame elephants, snake-charmers and eunuchs? And why do we always find somebody to quote who speaks in Indian English as unbelievable as that invented by Gregory David Roberts? Because it's exotic, because it's allegedly cute. But it makes you all out to be little brown folks, funny but inscrutable.

I, for one, would rather be called poor. And I'd rather have somebody, like Aravind, to make me angry about it.

space you can use

India may now be the world leader in deploying satellites that assist practical work on the ground.

Jason Overdorf
From the magazine issue dated Oct 27, 2008

Nobody would mistake India for a leader in outer space. Many Indians are hopeful that the launch this week of the Chandrayaan I spacecraft, which will orbit the moon in search of water, will mark a turning point for the nation's space program. The Indian mission will carry instruments for the U.S. and European space agencies in addition to its own Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). Judging from local media coverage, Indians are following the mission almost as closely as the gyrations of the stock markets.

The Indian space program is already far ahead in one respect: its use of space technologies to solve the everyday problems of ordinary people on the ground. For more than 20 years, India has been quietly investing hundreds of millions of dollars in its earth-sciences program with an eye toward helping farmers with their crops, fishermen with their catches and rescue workers with management of floods and other disasters. "India is leading the way in the approach towards the rationale for earth observation," says Stephen Briggs, the head of the European Space Agency's (ESA) Earth Observation Science and Applications Department.

Measured by the number and sophistication of their satellites, America and Europe may be ahead of India. But with an annual budget of about $1 billion—less than a tenth of NASA's—ISRO covers a lot of ground. It has built and launched 46 satellites, which provide data for at least nine Indian government ministries. Its 11 national communications satellites are the largest network in Asia, and its seven remote sensing satellites map objects on Earth at a resolution of less than a meter. These form the backbone of a series of practical initiatives that, according to a Madras School of Economics study, have generated a $2 return for every $1 spent. "We have clearly shown that we can give back to the country much more than is invested in the space program," says ISRO chairman Madhavan Nair.

The satellite network is the fruit of an effort begun in 1982 to connect India's remote—and often roadless—regions to radio, TV and telephone networks. By 2002, ISRO had expanded satellite TV and radio coverage to nearly 90 percent of the country, up from 25 percent.

India's investment in Earth observation satellites over the years comes to only about $500 million per satellite, about a tenth of the cost of its Western counterparts. After introducing a satellite service to locate potential fish zones and broadcasting the sites over All India Radio, ISRO helped coastal fishermen double the size of their catch. For the government's Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission, begun in 1986, satellites have improved the success rate of government well-drilling projects by 50 to 80 percent, saving $100 million to $175 million. Meteorological satellites have improved the government's ability to predict the all-important Indian monsoon, which can influence India's gross domestic product by 2 to 5 percent.

Next, ISRO plans to roll out satellite-enabled services to hundreds of millions of farmers in India's remote villages. In partnership with NGOs and government bodies, it has helped to set up about 400 Village Resource Centers so far. Each provides connections to dozens of villages for Internet-based services such as access to commodities pricing information, agricultural advice from crop experts and land records. ISRO's remote-sensing data will also help village councils develop watersheds and irrigation projects, establish accurate land records and plan new roads connecting their villages with civilization as cheaply and efficiently as possible. One ISRO partner—the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation—has used satellites to conduct 78,000 training programs for more than 300,000 farmers in 550 villages, teaching them about farming practices like drip-and-sprinkle irrigation, health-care awareness programs for diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, and information about how to access government services. Using satellites to guide reclamation of 2 million hectares of saline and alkaline wastelands is expected to generate income of more than $500 million a year.

The United States and Europe may have beaten ISRO to the moon, but India's vision might just show the way for mankind's next giant leap.


Tuesday, September 30, 2008

social networking

I don't pretend to be an expert on Internet businesses. But I can't help but wonder why I keep getting invites to join new social networking sites like so late in the game. Once in awhile I'll join one of these (otherwise useless) networks because I'm looking for the email address of a potential source, and that's the only place I can turn up through a google search. But otherwise, I don't see the point. Why would I want to monitor a dozen different web pages for mostly redundant functions--email, instant messaging--and nonsense info that I don't really care about. I've experimented with facebook, and I can see the appeal (a little). If nothing else, you can see what your old acquaintances look like now that they're old. And you can obsessively endeavor to one-up your rivals with more friends, better trips abroad, more attractive photos of yourself and your kids, etc. But facebook is a colossal waste of time, and most of the time I'd rather go out and have a beer than poke somebody or send them a virtual pint. And any network I establish on Orkut, hi5, etc. is bound to be even worse.

One email inbox, free of spam, and occasional missives from people I like. That's really all I want. Maybe some kind of efficient, all-encompassing professional directory with the work phone numbers & email addresses of every conceivable bureaucrat, corporate flack, and university professor. But I'm not holding my breath for that. Perhaps I'm unlike the usual "consumer" of this crap because I'm not stuck in a cubicle, and if I don't have any work I can just switch off my machine and go read a book or see a movie or whatever. Or perhaps I'm just an old, over-the-hill Luddite.

But please, stop inviting me to join your network. If you want to tell me something, send me an email. Or if worse comes to worst, I'm on facebook, waiting for google to integrate it with all their virtual photo albums and what have you. But I'm drawing my line in the sand there.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

the new space race is in asia

As China tries to catch up to the United States and Russia, its regional neighbors are fast on its heels.

By Mary Hennock, Adam B. Kushner and Jason Overdorf
From the magazine issue dated Sep 29, 2008

If the weather holds, China plans to celebrate another milestone on its long march to the moon this week in a PR extravaganza that will rival its Olympic performance a few weeks ago. Fittingly, a Long March II-F rocket will take off from the Jiuquan launch center in Gansu province carrying three astronauts on China's third mission to low Earth orbit. After a live broadcast of the launch and heartwarming made-for-TV linkups between the crew and their families, the ruggedly handsome Zhai Zhigang will open the hatch and emerge into outer space. It will be China's first spacewalk and another step in its ambitious plan to build its own space station by 2015 and—if the rumors are true—to put astronauts on the moon by 2020.

The display will no doubt be lauded as yet another indication that China is ready to join the ranks of the world's space titans, Russia and the United States. But are these missions cause for worry in Washington and Moscow? The Soviet Union performed the first spacewalk in 1965 when Aleksei Leonov stepped out of a Voskhod II capsule, and the United States did it later that year when Ed White left his Gemini capsule. Although the ability to launch payloads can also be used to lob bombs, the military implications of a manned program are virtually nil: nobody has yet figured out what humans can do in space that robotic weapons can't do better.

China sees its spacewalk as a way of proving that it belongs with the United States and Russia in the top tier of space-faring nations. But its true opponent in this space race is not the West so much as its Asian neighbors—India in particular. India has in recent years transformed its space program from a utilitarian affair of meteorological and communications satellites into a hyperactive project that seems designed to make a splash on the world stage. Its robotic-exploration program is scheduled to launch a probe on Oct. 22 that will orbit the moon for two years. And Japan is considering expanding its well-established (if less ambitious) space program—which includes research on the International Space Station and a respectable commercial satellite business—and exploring military applications. Against this backdrop, Beijing's dominance is not unshakable. Just as the Soviet Union's launch of its Sputnik satellite back in 1957 was only a fleeting victory, China's recent accomplishments have provided merely the opening salvos in a modern-day Asian space race.

The two biggest forces driving the race between China and India are their insistence on self-reliance and the idea that space exploration feeds national prestige. Naturally, the two ideas work in tandem. India was shut out from NASA and European space missions for years after testing its first nuclear bomb in 1974; now many technologies for its space program have been developed by Indian engineers with little outside help. (India has agreed to carry U.S. and European payloads on its moon launch.) Beijing has watched U.S.- Russian cooperation on the International Space Station rise and fall with their diplomatic relations. "The most important thing is that China has developed and formed its own system for space aviation independently," says Huang Hai of the China Aviation Science and Research Institute. Ouyang Ziyuan, a space expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, summed it up to People's Daily: China's program "suggests comprehensive national strength …, increasing China's international prestige and the cohesive power of the Chinese nation."

Beijing's space program electrified the competition when astronaut Yang Liwei orbited the earth in October 2003. Last year China shot down an aging weather satellite, adding an arms-race quality to the battle for prestige. It is now constructing its fourth launch base, on Hainan Island, for a new 25-ton booster rocket that will carry aloft modules for its space station, which will be permanently staffed. Also ahead: robotic moon landings (a data-gathering probe is already in orbit) and even a rumored manned trip to the lunar surface—a prospect that provoked a minor crisis in Washington, culminating in President George W. Bush's State of the Union promise in 2004 to establish a permanent U.S. moon base. Despite technology export controls imposed by the United States, China's commercial satellite business is thriving. It has launched 79 satellites altogether—10 of them in 2007. This year India has launched 11 satellites, including nine from other countries—and it became the first nation to launch 10 satellites on one rocket.

The United States and the Soviet Union were racing in the context of a cold war, but India and China are vying for leadership in a competitive marketplace of people and knowledge industries. It's about developing technology, talent and markets. All of which has stimulated Chinese technology: sensors built for space have ended up in GPS systems, washing machines and other products. The Chinese hope to spin out their rockets and orbiters into inventions and products they can patent. And "they're now right up in the world class of robotics," says British scientist Martin Sweeting, CEO of Surrey Satellite Technology, which built Beijing a pollution-monitoring satellite for the Olympics and does work on China's moon rovers.

None of this has gone unnoticed abroad. China's manned space program "shook up all the neighbors because the Chinese asserted, 'We are the dominant regional power'," says Jim Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. After China used a ballistic missile to blow up the aging weather satellite in January 2007, scattering debris into low orbit, Japan's Parliament overturned a law isolating its space program from military uses, and its space agency is trying to capitalize on the new mood by requesting a 29 percent budget increase at a time when the general science budget is growing by only 1 percent per year. The public, however, worries more about the social problems of an aging population than beating China to the moon. As a stable democracy and charter member of the world's most advanced economies, Japan simply has less to prove.

The repercussions of China's program were felt most strongly in Delhi, where the 36-year-old space program is now ramping up its moon project at launch speed. China first sent a man into space in 2003, and India won't achieve that goal until 2015, but according to unofficial schedules, China will beat India to a moon landing by only a year. Reaching the moon is the childhood dream of Madhavan Nair, chairman of India's space program, which is now spending about $1 billion per year, compared with an estimated $2.5 billion a year in China. If all goes well, at the end of October India will launch the $100 million Chandrayaan-I, its first lunar orbiter, using the workhorse Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. The orbiter will fire a probe at the moon's surface, kicking up a cloud of lunar dust that scientists will analyze from afar—and it will plant the Indian flag in lunar soil. Its successor, Chandrayaan-II, a cooperative effort with Russia (and, therefore, one looked down upon by Chinese analysts), is expected to land a rover on the moon by 2012. The space agency, if it can persuade Parliament to fund all its dreams, aims to put a man on the moon by 2020, followed by robotic missions to Mars, a nearby asteroid and the sun—an agenda even more ambitious than China's.

The Indian space agency is careful to defend the program as more than an ego competition with the Chinese. It argues that its space program has earned a return of $2 on every dollar invested by the government, according to Nair. For example, its remote sensing satellites, which map the Earth's surface at a resolution of close to one meter, have helped find well water in dry regions, saving the government's drill boring program $100 million. And, while only a few years ago Indian space officials ruled out manned missions as too expensive and of dubious scientific value, they now speak—just like the Chinese—of mapping the moon for deposits of aluminum, silicon, uranium and titanium, probably with an eye to lunar mining. "I don't think we're in any race as far as the space program is concerned," says Nair. "We have our own national priorities, and based on those priorities we try to concentrate on developments which will benefit the people."

Moon shots for the masses? "If you ask people [in the space agencies], they will never acknowledge there is a competition," says Pallava Bagla, the author of "Destination Moon," a book about India's moon mission. "But subliminally there is a definite race there." The two sides don't talk about it because, says the Stimson Center's Michael Krepon, "for Beijing, you don't want to put New Delhi on the same playing field. For New Delhi, you don't want to acknowledge anxiety." Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan, a member of Parliament and Nair's predecessor, says that in addition to luring Indian engineers from the high-paying IT divisions into astrophysics, the space program will "establish our credentials in the international community." It makes India a player.

The benefits of manned missions for the military are only somewhat clearer. Beijing's satellite shoot-down last year demonstrated the potential vulnerability of objects in space. Its space program—which is ultimately run by the Army—got its start when engineers took military rockets and stuck capsules on the tip. And despite Delhi's claims to the contrary, Western analysts suspect that booster technology developed for India's civilian space program is used by its military arm. But the quick way to strengthen military rockets is to fund them directly, not to fly moon missions. By the same token, ground-based and orbiting lasers would probably make better antisatellite weapons than missiles. "The U.S. military and the Russian military searched for years for good reasons to put military people in space and never found any," says John Logsdon, senior fellow at America's Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Still, a space race is a risky way to boost national status: after all, a catastrophic accident while attempting merely to repeat this step for mankind would be a historic humiliation. But the risk is not without rewards. Successful space flight is a kind of national advertisement for satellites and, more broadly, quality control. "[China's] manned space program has gone a long way to proving to potential customers that their products are safe," says Theresa Hitchens of Washington's Center for Defense Information. In these days of global competition, that's a message both China and India desperately want to send.

With Akiko Kashiwagi in Tokyo