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