Wednesday, December 02, 2009

india's new license to rock

Forget Bollywood. India's independent music scene is headed in entirely new directions.

By Jason Overdorf / Global Post

NEW DELHI, India — Vijay Nair, would-be Richard Branson of Indian rock, was still a kid when he floated the country's first artist management company, Only Much Louder, back in 1999. All he really wanted to do was tour with some of the garage bands he loved. Now he's almost famous.

Here's what happened. Nair was a normal 16-year-old South Indian geek living (and rocking) in Mumbai and trying to fly under the radar of parents intent on turning him into an engineer, when he got a gig working for a web design company that was making sites for Indian bands. Then one day the members of Pentagram, an up-and-coming rock act, asked him if he'd like to be their manager. Bye bye, engineering school.

"Basically, what 17-year-old kid wouldn't jump at the chance to travel and hang out with a rock band," said Nair in a phone interview with GlobalPost.

His parents bought the story that it would only be a year “break” from studying before he went to college. But Nair soon had much bigger plans. Within a year he was managing two more acts, and he'd booked gigs for Pentagram in Glastonbury and Estonia — breaking the group into the “mainstream” world of European rock. And that was just the beginning.

Fast forward 5 years, and Only Much Louder has 14 employees, reps three bands exclusively as their official manager and arranges gigs for a bunch more. The company books about 200 gigs a year these days, and recently set up Counter Culture Records, its own record label and distribution arm — releasing more than 10 albums in the first year.

“The biggest thing that has changed is that artists now are only performing their own music, as opposed to covers,” said Nair. “That changes many things, because once you have your own material, then you can do albums, concerts with only your stuff playing — it changed the whole value chain in that sense.”

With $500,000 in annual revenue, OML isn't exactly poised to break into the Fortune 500. But as AC/DC's Angus Young will tell you, it's a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll. And with the British Council's selection of Nair for its International Young Music Entrepreneur award in 2010 and the naming of OML as one of India's coolest companies by a top business magazine, OML's already making waves.

More importantly, along with a handful of other startups, Nair's brainchild is giving the country's indie music scene license to, well, rock.

“Artist management as a concept never existed in India,” said Arjun S. Ravi, the founder and editor of the online music magazine indiecision. “The bands would either manage themselves or they'd have a friend who'd book them gigs. [OML] is creating a business model of the way things can be done in India. It's not the way things should be done, or how things can be done abroad, but it's how things can be done here. India is a very specific market.”

India's music industry has always been dominated by the soundtracks churned out by Bollywood. Penned and recorded by side musicians and so-called “playback singers,” this bouncy, upbeat pop music is then lip-synced by the film industry's mega stars and receives nearly limitless promotion through TV trailers and the country's dozen-odd music video channels. But even though famous playback singers and singer-composers like Slumdog Millionaire's A.R. Rahman occasionally perform at socialite weddings and awards ceremonies, the combination of Bollywood's heavily produced studio sound and the dominant role of side musicians rather than bands has until recently prevented the evolution of any real live music scene.

“Even in Bombay four or five years ago we did not have many venues that would have live music performances regularly,” said Ravi. “For awhile we only had one venue, and bands could not play anywhere.”

Now, however, with the emergence of Only Much Louder and similar companies, peer-to-peer file sharing and new internet-savvy bands, India's independent music scene is in the midst of an unprecedented boom.

“Over the last four years a huge number of venues have opened,” said Ravi. “Now when I sit down to list gigs in Bombay every week I list 20 to 25 gigs in just one week.”
Sales are climbing, too. According to a website devoted to the Indian music industry, non-Bollywood pop music now accounts for as much as 8 percent of the market — a dramatic change from yesterday's complete dominance of film and devotional music. And more radical changes are in the offing. According to consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers, India's radio industry grew nearly 40 percent from 2004 to 2008. But, just as in the rest of the world, music industry revenues dipped almost 15 percent last year. PwC says that means digital music will be the key driver of growth for India's music industry in the future — with digital's share of the pie growing to 60 percent in 2013 from 16 percent last year. That could be the web-savvy indie bands' chance to shine.

“The Internet has been the biggest boon,” said Nair. “Before that it was more or less impossible to reach out to people across the country, and now it's become fairly easy.”

Already, indie bands like Pentagram, the Raghu Dixit Project and Indian Ocean are breaking through into the mainstream music market. And as Bollywood seeks to reinvent its evergreen genre flicks, the fringes of the film business are beginning to look to the indies for source music instead of purpose-built studio tracks. Director Anurag Kashyap, for instance, tapped Indian Ocean for the soundtrack to his 2004 film "Black Friday," about the investigations following the 1993 serial Bombay bomb blasts. Though Anurag Basu selected Bollywood veterans Pritam Chakraborty and Sayeed Quadri for the soundtrack to his 2007 "Life in a Metro," for the first time instead of lip-syncers Pritam himself appeared in music video-style interludes within the film as the front man to a real-life rock band. And then last year Bollywood insider Farhan Akhtar created a real, though fictional, band for the surprise hit "Rock On!"

“People are getting bored of Bollywood, to be frank,” said Ravi. “Over the next four or five years, or maybe the next 10 years, we're going to get into a mindset where we're open to far more entertainment options.” And indie music will be a driving force through that transition, Ravi believes.

For OML, one day that could mean big bucks. The company has already begun to get nibbles from international players in the music business. But for now Nair is looking to take it slow and build a domestic music scene organically. That's why in November OML organized a conference for independent musicians in Mumbai called Unconvention — not for the artists they promote, but for the whole industry.

“They know that for them to grow as a company, the scene needs to grow, so it's not just about the bands that are there on their roster,” said Nair. “And I think people recognize that. Vijay [Nair] got a standing ovation at the end of Unconvention, and it wasn't one of those standing ovations that you're almost forced to give. It was a very genuine feeling.”

Monday, November 30, 2009

bollywood gets real

By Jason Overdorf | NEWSWEEK
Published Nov 27, 2009
From the magazine issue dated Dec 7, 2009

Midway through Vishal Bhardwaj's 2009 movie Kaminey (Scoundrels), the hero is captured by thugs looking to recover $2 million in stolen cocaine. As the goons torture him to find out where he's hidden the drugs, they run into a problem: he stammers so badly that they can't get a word out of him. So sing, they say. Out come his answers, to the tune of a popular song. Problem solved. Except the hero the thugs have captured isn't the thief. His twin brother, who lisps, stole the dope. And the twins haven't spoken to each other for years.

For those unfamiliar with Bollywood films, the scene, like the rest of Kaminey, plays as if it were directed by Guy Ritchie. From the tortuous plot twists to the ludicrous double speech impediment, Bhardwaj treads the tightrope between comedy and camp—keeping it just straight enough for the audience to suspend disbelief. But for aficionados of the Hindi-language genre, Kaminey is a revolutionary manifesto. It takes classic Bollywood tropes—estranged brothers, a case of mistaken identity, high drama approaching slapstick comedy—and presents them with Hollywood-style realism instead of Bollywood's wink-nudge mix of melodrama and posturing. At the same time, Bhardwaj makes clear that he sees Kaminey as a counterpoint to the terrible films Bollywood has churned out over the past two decades. The song that the stutterer uses to answer his interrogators, for instance, comes from Karan Johar's schlocky 1998 romantic comedy Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something Happens). To Bollywood fans, the message is clear: Bhardwaj is staking a claim as the true heir to the industry's classic legacy. "I have grown up on these kinds of films," the director says. "They are there in me, and there is nothing wrong with them. They have high kitsch value. It's just a matter of presentation."

For years, as competition from satellite television and Hollywood has hardened audiences to the old formulas, Bollywood producers and directors have been striving to create a new idiom that retains the charm of the genre's classics but is fresh enough to pack thea-ters. With a few exceptions, they've failed. But now a new crop of young directors, led by Bhardwaj, is reinventing the Bollywood film. Their movies still have songs, but the characters no longer lip-sync, and the dance sequences have a natural, unchoreographed feel. They've scrapped the cheesy multicolored costumes and are more likely to set their films on gritty streets than in glamorous mansions. "Kaminey would be able to compete with any film in the world in terms of its design, per-form-ances, inherent narratives, editing, pace—everything," says the Indian-born Hollywood director Shekhar Kapur, whose 1998 film Elizabethwas nominated for seven Academy Awards.

The stakes are higher than ever. The Indian entertainment and media industry is projected to grow 11 percent a year from 2009 to 2013, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers—well above the global average of 2.7 percent. Hollywood studios, encouraged by the global success of India-inspired projects like The Namesake and Slumdog Millionaire, want a piece of that pie. This year UTV inked an agreement to distribute movies for Walt Disney Pictures in India, following Disney's $200 million investment in UTV in 2008. With the release of this year's Chandni Chowk to China, Warner Bros. became the third major Hollywood studio to produce a Bollywood film. Indian billionaire industrialist Anil Ambani recently formed an $825 million joint venture to produce films with Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks. And early next year Ambani's film company, Reliance Big Entertainment, will release the multicultural romance Kites. Starring Bollywood hunk Hrithik Roshan and set in Las Vegas, Kites—purported to be India's costliest film ever—will get a heavy push in the U.S. market. "Indian companies are starting to realize that there's a world outside India, and you can make a difference by looking at the global market," says Timmy Kandhari, who heads Price-water-house-Coopers's India Entertainment and Media practice.

The new wave of competent, realistic, story-driven films is already beginning to overshadow the big-budget projects at the box office. This year both Anurag Kashyap's Dev.D and Kaminey outperformed Chandni Chowk to China. In 2008, little, innovative flicks like the terror-plot drama A Wednesday and Rock On!, the story of a Mumbai rock band reuniting for one last gig, earned better returns than more conventional Bollywood fare like the superhero action flick Drona.

Some of the biggest stars of the old-style genre films—Shah Rukh Khan, Amir Khan, and Priyanka Chopra, among others—have begun to embrace the new medium. Even Johar, who as the director of the glitzy but vapid films Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham remains the poster boy of everything wrong with Bollywood, has begun to show interest in coherent stories and realistic acting. "We're doing three movies with Karan Johar right now, and all three are much more heavy on script," says Ronnie Screwvala of UTV Motion Pictures. "Every single emotion in there is real."

As Kaminey's playful use of classic Bollywood tropes suggests, the best of the new movies still have at heart a self-reflexive interest in the old films. Kashyap's Dev.D, for instance, is the 10th remake of one of Bollywood's most successful classics, Devdas. Kashyap plays off previous treatments, which depicted the title character as a doomed romantic, to explore modern India's ideas about female sexuality. In his version, the elegant courtesan Chanda becomes a sex worker in Delhi's grimy ghetto, and the dreamy Dev is a filthy drug addict. But where prior versions condemned them to a tragic end, Kashyap allows them to find redemption in sexual love. And by practically throwing the audience's beloved story in its face, he turned a movie with the whiff of the art house—ordinarily the kiss of death in India—into a box-office hit. "Everybody thinks they know what Bollywood cinema is, and they often [associate it with] commercial Hindi cinema," says Emmanuel Grimaud, an anthropologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research, who worked on the film Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. "But nobody really knows what it is because it is changing so much. 'Bollywood' is just a label."

It's a label that still carries a lot of weight. Everyone is trying to lay claim to the new Bollywood, whether through feebly acted, poorly written films like A. R. Murugadoss's Ghajini or savvy hits like Kaminey. But the challenges remain great. "The headwind we got on Kaminey was incredible," says Screwvala. "It took everything we had to keep it going and market it and get it out there." It's the kind of triumphant ending that makes you want to break into song.

With Anita Kirpalani in New York

Find this article at

Thursday, November 26, 2009

mystery moot

Can anybody explain the Pakistan moot mystery? It seems the Pakistani press believes that meet is spelled with a double o instead of e. As in "Microbiology moot planned for December 15" and so on. Why? Is moot somehow shorter than meet? Does the omission of the horizontal bar on the e save precious ink? Does it just sound cooler?

It's a mystory to mo.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

the new delhi belly?

I ran across a pirate blog called "the new delhibelly" today. I don't know what to say. It would be hypocritical for a journalist to get too stroppy about plagiarism, or whatever name copying is. And even when I was a part-time college professor I was known to cut some slack.

I guess I'll just take it as flattery, and also a reminder that I should keep posting here, even though my "day job" now seems to suck out all my creative energy.

how can 39 million buffalo be wrong?

Indian farmers discover the beauty of mozzarella.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
November 19, 2009

NEW DELHI, India — A few years ago, when my Midwestern parents visited me in India, my mother provided a running commentary as we navigated our way through a long traffic jam on the famous Grand Trunk Road, which runs through Delhi on its way to Peshawar from Bangladesh.

“Water buffalo,” she'd point out. “Another water buffalo ... another water buffalo.”
Uh. Yep. Are we there yet?

Turns out Mom was right. India — the world's largest producer of milk — is home to 70 percent of the world's buffalo. But until recently, the market for milk powder and ghee (clarified butter) was so huge that nobody ever thought of using the country's millions of liters of buffalo milk to make mozzarella di bufala, the glorious cheese for which some would say it was intended.

Now, though, as more Indians learn about Western cuisines and farmers explore the export market as a way to boost their incomes, your insalata caprese may soon come from the land of yoga.

“The total buffalo population in Italy is 300,000 buffaloes,” said Manmohan Malik, managing director of Himachal Pradesh-based food processing company Himalaya International Ltd. India has 39 million.

Three years ago, Malik sensed an opportunity for Indian producers. After discovering from the National Dairy Research Institute that India's buffalo are the same variety as those that Italy has made famous for mozzarella di bufala, Malik pumped $2.5 million into a cheese-making project that he soon learned would require a nearly complete transformation of the processes used by local dairy farmers.

“We put up a big project, but we hit roadblocks in terms of the quality of milk available, and a lack of infrastructure,” Malik said.

The company had to invest in chilling systems, collection centers and training for its dairy farmer associates to ensure it got unadulterated, hygienic buffalo milk with the 4 percent-plus protein required to make top quality mozzarella.

“We are crossing the major hurdles in developing the proper milk system,” said Malik. “We realized that is the reason that more companies haven't ventured into this area — because the milk quality in India needs a big improvement.”

Nevertheless, today, with the help of Italian cheese expert Raffaele Cioffi, Himalaya International produces about $1.5 million worth of buffalo mozzarella annually, or about 5 tons a week. Most of that quantity is exported to the U.S. as frozen curd, then stretched at a Pennsylvania-based plant operated by Malik's joint venture partner. Shipping frozen curd from India is much cheaper than flying fresh mozzarella from Italy, and once the curds are thawed and stretched the resulting cheese is almost identical in quality. So India's export product can compete against not only America's domestic producers, but against the best Italy has to offer, Malik says. Top chefs (and Italians) may disagree with that claim, of course. But Himalaya's mozzarella has found a ready market.

“It is a specialty cheese used as fresh mozzarella in caprese and other salads, and by special, high-end pizzerias on the East Coast [of the U.S.],” said Malik. “A lot of Italian restaurants use it.”

Since Malik started making mozzarella, India has attracted several other cheesemakers, such as 27-year-old Italian Giuseppe Mozzillo, who runs Haryana-based Exito Gourmet. Mozzillo is still using cow's milk for his cheeses, but he is keen to switch to buffalo as soon as he can develop his supply chain, since buffalo mozzarella sells for about twice as much as cow milk cheese. Flanders Dairy, which operates a farm on the outskirts of Delhi not far from Mozzillo's, also produces bonconcini and Italian mozzarella. Even the Gujarat-based cooperative dairy giant Amul — a milk monolith that generates more than $1 billion in annual revenue — has dipped a toe into the water, making a bargain-basement mozzarella it markets as “pizza cheese.”

Their interest isn't hard to explain. Although there are big challenges to be overcome, the potential for Indian mozzarella is enormous. India produces about 100 million tons of milk a year, of which about 55 percent comes from the country's 40 million buffalo, according to the Animal Production and Health Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

Along with the export market, there's also a fast-growing domestic market for mozzarella and other cheeses. Over the past year or two, domestic cheesemakers like Flanders and Poshtick Foods — which operates a chain of Passion Cheese outlets — have found that their niche is expanding with the proliferation of local food boutiques and foreign specialty shops like Le Marche (a subsidiary of French retail group Geant Hypermarket) as well as the mushrooming of high-end hotels and restaurants.

Meanwhile, the general shortage of buffalo milk has compelled so many of the world's mozzarella makers to use sheep's or cow's milk that the Italian region most famous for its production sought and earned “Protection Designation of Origin” status — making Campania the Champagne of mozzarella — under European Union rules in 1993. India has already begun to put pressure on the EU to remove non-tariff barriers to its agricultural products in exchange for access to its own enormous, fast-growing market. But there soon may be an even more compelling reason for the world to sample India's buffalo mozzarella.

“If you go around the south of Italy, you'll see very few buffaloes,” said Sunil Bhu, who runs Flanders Dairy. “But buffalo mozzarella seems to be sold from Italy all over the world. It's a big question mark.”

meet india's organic tea king

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost

November 21, 2009 09:15 ET

DARJEELING, West Bengal — Swaraj Kumar “Rajah” Banerjee swept into his office wearing the khaki-colored, Raj-era planter's uniform that he has made his signature style since the 1980s. The outfit gives him an air that is at once aristocratic and vaguely military — and hints at a genius for marketing that has made him the driving force behind the organic movement on Darjeeling's famous tea plantations.

A London playboy of sorts in his 20s, Banerjee was lured back to India in 1970 by the promise of a colonial lord's idyll of riding and shooting on the family tea estate an hour's drive from Darjeeling. But when he was thrown from his horse, he had an experience that he describes as transcendent.

“Before I hit the ground, I had an out-of-body experience,” Banerjee tells me, deadpan. “I went to that zone where the soul goes when we cross over to another frequency — there is no death. And there was this beautiful cadenzas — light, music, no pathos, but melancholic — and the trees connected and transmitted this ululating chant, 'Save us, save us.'”

That evening, he told his parents he was moving back to the tea garden for good.
“They were delighted for the wrong reasons, and I was not going to tell them what I'd experienced earlier, because I'd have been certified insane,” Banerjee recalls. “But I knew I had to stay and bring the trees back. The voyage began then.”

Long before the organic movement took hold here, his mystical experience began to translate into monetary gains, both for the plantation and for its workers. To convert the tea estate to compost-based fertilizers, Banerjee created financial incentives for the tea workers to raise cattle and spread manure over the plantation's 550 acres of tea plants, and encouraged each household to raise five varieties of indigenous trees that he later purchased and used to reforest depleted areas of his land. The result is that today Makaibari has 1,070 acres of forest — including 300 acres of sub-tropical rain forest that are more than a thousand years old and play host to a greater variety of wildlife than many of India's national parks.

“His organics was a deeper organics than a lot of estates that would just follow the rules,” said Joseph Smilley, an organic certification expert with San Diego-based Quality Assurance International. “He created whole permaculture systems that allowed the people of the estate to benefit as well.”

Since earning organic certification in 1988, Banerjee has also built a biogas facility to convert surplus manure to cooking gas, a move that has stopped plantation workers from stripping the forests for their cook fires and also reduced indoor air pollution — which the World Health Organization estimates causes 1.6 million deaths a year worldwide, primarily among children and women. Meanwhile, though using organic methods costs as much as eight times more than using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the higher prices that the premium organic tea commands on the market — together with tea tourism and other initiatives — make up most of the difference. Makaibari's “single estate” tea has sold for world record prices at international auctions, for upwards of $400 a kilogram.

“It was approaches like that which differentiated him from some of the other organic growers who followed the rules but didn't do the big, transformational work to really make it successful both monetarily and ecologically,” said Smilley.

The success of the model is evident in the number of imitators, Banerjee says.
“The good news is that around 1988 to 1994 after we were certified organic, it was a very lonely time. People used to sneer at me,” Banerjee says. “[But] I'm happy to say that now 60 percent of the tea estates in the Darjeeling area are either under conversion or are certified organic.”

Featured in a documentary by French filmmaker Xavier de Lauzanne and countless travel and tea industry articles, Banerjee has emerged as the face of Darjeeling organics. And he's not quitting there. In neighboring Assam, tea gardens have been plagued by strikes by workers who allege that wages are pathetic and working conditions are inhumane. But in 2002, Makaibari became the world's first tea plantation to qualify under the Cologne, Germany-based Fairtrade Labelling Organization's standards, which allow producers of coffee, cocoa and (now) tea to charge customers a small premium to support a better standard of living for local workers. Under the scheme, the premium goes into an account managed by elected members — mostly women — from seven villages, who use the funds for development projects, such as setting up a computer center for the village children, creating a microcredit institution to finance medical care and education, and renovating village houses so they can be marketed to foreign tourists as “home stays.”

Though his success has driven his competitors to go organic, his love of the spotlight hasn't exactly endeared Banerjee to his rivals, who talk about his genius for marketing as though it hints at some inherent weakness in his tea. What they don't get is that by developing logos and distinctive packaging, Banerjee made Makaibari into the brand that stands for organic Darjeeling tea, as well as equitable treatment for his workers. And within the first five minutes of meeting the self-styled king of organic tea, it's clear that he could care less about detractors.

“It's difficult to give Raj too much credit, because he loves to take it anyhow,” said Smilley, chuckling. “You'd never use the word humble for Rajah, but basically the guy walks his talk.”

Banerjee's next step may be taking the organic movement off the plantation. Through Organic Ekta (or “Organic Union”), a joint project with U.S.-based Mercy Corps, Makaibari supports around 200 small organic farmers from local communities. Banerjee believes this could be the seed for something much bigger, and plans to branch out from tea and small farms to organic cotton fields and then on to pulses, rice and other Indian staple crops. He doesn't think it will take much. Some 80 percent of India's 800 million marginal farmers practice rain-fed agriculture — which means they have too little water to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In a sense, they're already organic, but they're too poor to capitalize.

“If we get networked strongly to enable the certification of these 640 million people and market their produce at a fair price,” says Banerjee, “then I think we're done: India will be the organic fruit bowl of the world.”

Let that steep for a few moments.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

the new bollywood

Welcome to the new Bollywood
Bollywood movies are suddenly starting to make sense. Hello Hollywood?

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
October 7, 2009

NEW DELHI, India — For years, India has been trumpeting the advent of revolutionary new films that turn the cliches of Bollywood on their head — twins separated at birth, “Six Million Dollar Man”-type special effects, ludicrous fight scenes and, of course, the songs. But most of the films that the industry hailed as creative were lifted from Hollywood — like "Kaante," a 2002 rip-off of "Reservoir Dogs" that somehow managed to be utterly terrible despite copying Tarantino almost shot for shot.

But behind the much-hyped script pirating, a slow-and-steady revolution has actually been underway. Thanks to the rise of multiplexes, as well as a new studio that has pushed inventive story lines, and a crop of exciting young directors, the New Bollywood may finally be here.

“It's here to stay, because the audience has accepted it,” said Ronnie Screwvala, head of UTV Motion Pictures. “These are commercially successful films, they aren't art films.” On the strength of backing the New Bollywood, Screwvala's UTV has become the industry's second-largest grossing studio.

Once upon a time, Bollywood movies thrived on the absurd. As stylized as Chinese opera, they played to cinema halls packed with cheering and hissing fans. But somewhere along the way, the luster began to fade.

“Now the odds are pretty high against the [conventional] movies that are focused higher on entertainment than on storytelling — though I wouldn't call them mindless,” Screwvala said. “The percentage of them bombing has been disproportionate.”

Though the successful campy extravaganzas still put up the biggest box office numbers, the new form of Bollywood films featuring more realistic acting, coherent plots and tighter scripts has grown more bankable. While the extravaganzas have descended into slapstick and self-parody, the so-called “multiplex films” have become more consistent as India's better directors have begun to crack the puzzle of how to incorporate the classic tropes of Bollywood into modern films. This year, half a dozen “multiplex films” have succeeded commercially, suggesting that a new golden age of Indian cinema could be on the horizon.

That could be important news for Hollywood, too, where its no accident that some of the hottest directors hail from as far afield as Mexico and Taiwan.

“Hollywood is coming to a stage where it desperately needs an infusion of creativity,” said Shekhar Kapur, a director who began his career in Bollywood before shifting to Hollywood and making the Oscar-nominated period film "Elizabeth." “You can see it in the films. When you start to depend so much on characters that were created 40 or 50 years ago, when you start to depend so much on remakes, you know that essentially they're running out of creative ideas.”

Three of New Bollywood's best films — each of which grapples with the legacy of classic Bollywood in its own way — showcase the directions in which the Indian industry is headed.

First, there's Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's "Delhi-6" (which refers to the postal code for the medieval heart of Old Delhi).

It's the story of an American-born Indian who takes his ailing grandmother back to Delhi so she can die in her homeland, and then falls in love with a “typical Delhi girl." Mehra's third film blends themes from classic Hindi cinema (reunification, the dying mother) with those of the glam fantasies of the '90s “non-resident Indian” genre (emigration and return). He modernizes the story, however, by avoiding stylized dialogue and Bollywood's biggest melodramatic cliches, like deathbed forgiveness (accompanied by wailing and buckets of tears), and by several sly inversions, such as the revelation that the “typical Delhi girl” whom the hero pursues is actually swapping her sari for jeans and a sexy top once she leaves the house for college. That Bollywood legacy Abishek Bachchan — the son of India's biggest film legend Amitabh Bachchan— signed on to play the hero shows how far the multiplex movie has come.

“What we tried with the movie is, we had songs, but there were no lip-syncs,” Mehra said. “So nobody was singing, and nobody was dancing.”

Though in some ways its story has the whiff of the art house, Anurag Kashyap's Dev D — this year's most popular multiplex film — marks a bolder departure from Bollywood's conventions, even as it utilizes them to entice and repel cinema goers.

The 10th remake of "Devdas" — arguably Bollywood's best-known story — renamed "Dev D," plays on the expectations stemming from the previous film treatments, which were dramatic tearjerkers about doomed love, to fuel a grimy, "Trainspotting"-inspired exploration of the fascination-repulsion that Indian culture holds for female sexuality. Moreover, Kashyap transforms the classic film's courtesan into a backpacker-ghetto prostitute forced into the trade after her boyfriend circulates a sex clip filmed on his mobile phone (based on a real incident at a posh Delhi school), and allows her to live happily ever after with the film's hero in a departure from the original that some viewers hailed as a new acknowledgement of the legitimacy of women's sexual desires.

“Dev D is a breakaway from Indian cinema's conventions because it shows the leading ladies as sexual and it's not afraid to talk about sexuality,” Kapur said.

Perhaps the clearest evidence that the “multiplex movie” directors have cracked the code, however, came with Vishal Bhardwaj's breathlessly awaited “Kaminey” ("Scoundrels"). Formerly known for Maqbool and Omkara — adaptations of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" and "Othello" — with "Kaminey," Bhardwaj shed all vestiges of the festival filmmaker and embraced the most outrageous cliches of classic Bollywood with admiral panache. And he nailed it.

"Kaminey" is the story of (you guessed it) twin brothers estranged when one of them turns to a life of petty crime. One has a stutter, the other a lisp. Both are played by up-and-comer Shahid Kapoor in a “double role,” another Hindi-film standby. Turning on a lost guitar case filled with 50 million rupees in crooked money, the ensuing plot features mistaken identity and even a film forgiveness scene when one twin convinces the other that he shouldn't blame himself for their father's suicide.

Even if you've never seen a Bollywood movie, you get the idea: This is like shooting the moon. But the most amazing thing — and testament to Bhardwaj's mastery of both the Indian and the Hollywood idiom — is that it works. With “look ma, no hands” hubris, Bhardwaj has already proven he can do Guy Ritchie in India.

The question for the future is: Can he do Ang Lee in America?

Monday, October 05, 2009

troubled ceos, relax: it could be worse

It ain't easy running an airline these days. Fuel prices see-saw. Nobody wants to travel. You have to take off your shoes every five minutes. And bankruptcy always looms just over the horizon. But listen to this, troubled CEOs: It could be worse; you could be in charge of Air India.

Yep. India's lumbering state-owned carrier has all your problems and more. Not only is the company on the verge of going bust, with customer service modeled on Aeroflot and efficiency learned from the Indian Administrative Service, but it's also got strike-happy pilots, a decrepit fleet, and a host of new low-cost competitors. And that's not all.

Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, the “Maharaja of the skies”--which has never been known for its brilliant spin doctors—now faces a veritable media feeding frenzy over the discovery of a pesky (and difficult to catch) rat aboard one of its birds and mid-air fisticuffs on another flight that saw the cockpit left unattended for several tense minutes after the co-pilot streamed out bench-clearer style to get his homey's back.

The funny thing is, there are probably still people who would fly on Air India if the price was right. Heck, I'm one of them. There are some places that only Air India will go. Plus, though their flight attendants have not been very easy on the eyes for a few decades, they incomprehensibly have the best food available in the air. Bar none.

Why else would the rats put up with the surly service?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Scientist reveals India nuke test fizzled

A top scientist's claim that India's 1998 nuclear test was a failure poses a big threat to Obama's nonproliferation plans.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
September 29, 2009

NEW DELHI, India — Days before President Barack Obama told the United Nations that he hoped to push through a universal treaty to ban all nuclear weapons testing by the end of 2010, a top Indian scientist threw New Delhi's security establishment for an atomic loop.

Kasturiranga Santhanam, the coordinator of India's 1998 nuclear tests, went public with allegations that India's much heralded Pokhran II test of a thermonuclear bomb 11 years ago was actually a fizzle.

“We are totally naked vis-a-vis China, which has an inventory of 200 nuclear bombs, the vast majority of which are giant H-bombs of power equal to three million tons of TNT,” Santhanam told reporters in New Delhi this week.

Naturally, the bizarre exercise in reverse brinkmanship (“About that bomb we told you we have...”) did not go down well. India's 1998 demonstration of thermonuclear capability — fission-based bombs with a force of 100 kilotons or more — was the cause of great celebration in a country still fighting for a voice in global affairs and sandwiched between a belligerent, hereditary enemy in Pakistan and a frightening potential future adversary in China.

By calling its success into question, scientist K. Santhanam, who was director of test site preparations for Pokhran II, shook the country's confidence in its nuclear deterrent at a moment when the long, frustrating peace process with Pakistan seems as futile as ever.

But for the rest of the world, Santhanam's bombshell amounts to a colossal preemptive strike against Obama's push for the nations of the world to sign a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by the end of next year — not to mention a potentially debilitating assault on last year's Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement. Already, opponents to the deal have begun echoing Santhanam's call for further testing of India's thermonuclear arsenal, and the lingering doubts about the efficacy of the country's bombs looks likely to tie Manmohan Singh's somewhat fragile coalition government's hands when the time comes to sign Obama's CTBT.

“We need to test again; it's just a question of when, not if,” said Bharat Karnad, a former member of India's National Security Advisory board and part of the group that drafted India's nuclear doctrine.

Of course, that may not have been true if Santhanam had kept his mouth shut. Since nuclear weapons are supposedly never to be used, whether the rest of the world believes they will work is more important than whether they actually do. And that's the simple fact that has flummoxed India's foreign policy experts, who are scratching their heads and asking, “Why now?” After all, Santhanam kept mum during the vociferous, three-year debate over the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, which also mandates an end to testing.

“[Now] the whole thing becomes unnecessarily subject to controversy and doubts and questions, and the public loses confidence in what the government is saying about the nuclear deterrent — which is totally pointless,” said Kanwal Sibal, who was foreign secretary in the BJP-led government that proceeded Singh's Congress-led coalition.

The Singh government subscribes to the theory that a “minimum deterrent” is sufficient to protect India from its nuclear neighbors, and even though that theory was predicated on the existence of a small number of effective thermonuclear missiles, most observers believe that Singh will not begin preparations of any kind for a resumption of testing. The big question is whether he can sell the country on agreeing to Obama's full-fledged moratorium.

Some say yes, others no.

“I cannot see India testing at all, unless the U.S. itself tests or China tests or Pakistan tests,” Sibal said. “Unilaterally testing makes no sense to me. The cost would be intolerable, not merely in terms of the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, but we'd be isolated internationally. We'd be seen as wrecking the international nonproliferation regime for no good reason.”

“Manmohan Singh may not be inclined to test during his tenure, which is another four years,” Karnad said. “But the idea is to nevertheless keep the testing option open.”
The implications of both testing and not testing are murky.

Even if India never tests another nuke, Santhanam's accusation that Pokhran II was a fizzle isn't as damning as it might sound. For nuclear scientists, fizzle is a technical term for detonations that yield 30 percent less concussive force than expected, and Santhanam himself acknowledges that India's thermonuclear device yielded an explosion equivalent to 15 to 20 kilotons of TNT — the rub is that it was intended to generate 45 kilotons. The minimum deterrent lobby argues that's powerful enough to dissuade Pakistan from getting any crazy ideas, and even if India's nukes pale in comparison with China's, they're still devastating enough to give any rational adversary pause.

But for others, the niggling fear remains that doubts about the capacity of India's nuclear bombs make it all the more likely that one day it may have to use them.

On the other hand, the global reaction to a new test is equally unpredictable. It would almost certainly spell an end to the Indo-U.S. agreement on civilian nuclear projects, and likely put its power projects with countries like France and Russia in jeopardy.

“I would expect that India would be placed in an international penalty box for some period of time and would be blamed for 'scuttling' efforts to bring a CTBT into force,” Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, confirmed in an email interview. The last time, India stayed in the penalty box for a decade, but U.S. sanctions prohibiting economic and military aid were waived after only a year.

The hawks in India's security establishment are growing more firm in their belief that the U.S. and Europe will not be comfortable isolating India from the global community for long this time, either, because it has emerged as Asia's only credible counterweight to China's growing military and economic might. “They might thrash about a bit and sound off a bit, but what option do they have?” Karnad said.

Apart from the paranoid, what developing nations hope to gain from their nuclear weapons is not so much security — though the contrasting treatment that the U.S. meted out to Iraq and Pakistan shows the value of deterrence in that realm — but a seat at the table. And that means Obama and the West have one big bargaining chip left to bring India into the nonproliferation fold: Sign the CTBT, get a seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

the best war movie never made

A few nights ago, I finally managed to watch The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow's nearly flawless movie about American sappers in Iraq. For the first hour and a half or so, I was completely riveted. Bigelow's directing and erstwhile journalist Mark Boal's writing were pitch perfect, and kept the suspense taut as a tripwire as the plot progressed from the tension of disarming bombs to the greater moral dilemma of policing an unfriendly population and identifying the insurgents among the innocents.

I'll try not to spoil too much of the movie--and, anyway, there's not much here that I'm skillful enough to describe; the way Bigelow ratchets up the tension really has to be watched for you to get it--but consider this master stroke. About a third of the way into the movie, the sapper team is out in the field when they run across a stranded jeep with a bunch of armed soldiers in front of it in what the GIs call "Haji gear."

There's a tense standoff in which Sgt William James--the loose cannon played with great nuance by Jeremy Renner--holds a man whose face is obscured by an Arab head scarf at gunpoint and repeatedly orders him to put his gun down and put his hands behind his head. The "Haji" finally complies, asking in an Oxbridge accent whether he can take off the scarf, and reveals the face of Ralph Fiennes. The allusion to the stylish introduction of the hero in countless war movies of the John Wayne type is unmistakable, and because Bigelow has been relentlessly knotting your gut with apprehension that somebody is going to blow himself up disarming a bomb for the past 30 minutes, it comes like a wave of relief. Ok, you think, now the fun is going to start.

Ten seconds later, a soundless sniper bullet cuts down one of the team, beginning a tense, fifteen minute skirmish where the enemy is a barely glimpsed shadow in the sand 800 meters away. Five minutes into it, Ralph Fiennes, the bluff hero in the style of Errol Flynn, catches his own soundless, anti-climactic bullet, and dies without a word.

I was already half-convinced this was the best war movie ever made at that point, just for the way it scared the piss out of me--so much better than the blab blab blab of Saving Private Ryan. But as the movie progressed, it got even more clever, more complex, and actually communicated some fairly strong emotional perceptions about the guilt of killing in battle, etc. (Again, better to see the film than to read me banging on about it).

Honestly, I felt like standing up and clapping at my DVD player.

Then, when it was almost over, about 2 hours in, without a single misstep, somebody pissed the whole thing away. After a stunningly tense climax that communicated clearly the whole dilemma of the soldier fighting against guerillas--all without a lot of talkie baloney--suddenly the two main characters get back into the Hum-V and start chatting away like they're on the couch with Oprah.

"Why do you put on the [bomb disposal] suit and take the risks?" --or something equally ridiculous and on the nose--says Sgt. Sanborn (played brilliantly up to this point by another actor I'd never heard of called Anthony Mackie).

Sgt. Jame / Renner wrenches himself into knots trying to make the scene work with his answer. But there's no way out. The writing is suddenly so utterly obvious and terrible, it's difficult to believe. I'm no Hollywood insider, but my deep research into the business (i.e. many hours spent watching Entourage) tells me that there's no way Bigelow / Boal screwed it up this badly after 2 hours of absolute brilliance. It had to be some pea brain studio hack who told them that the audience wouldn't get it, and they needed an explanation. But what a deflation!

The right end point for the movie has already passed. If they'd rolled credits right after the climax, with the two soldiers silent and defeated in the Hummer, audiences would have walked out of theaters feeling like they'd been hit by a baseball bat. But now that everything is so screwed up by the Oprah scene, they can't end it there, either.

Instead, we get Sgt. James back in the States with an obvious case of post traumatic stress disorder, shopping for groceries with the mother of his kid. After a few pointless (and oh so obvious) reaction takes, he re-enlists and the tour of duty countdown that has been a running theme from the first frame resets: Bravo Company (or whatever), 365 days to end of tour.

I wanted to shoot my TV. This was the best war movie ever. And then it wasn't. Thanks to some joker who doesn't know the difference between his screenplay and his Powerpoint presentation, it's now officially The Best War Movie Never Made.

I'd love to see the director's cut.

the coming war for water

Kashmir's mighty rivers are a source of strife on the subcontinent.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
September 21, 2009

SRINAGAR, Kashmir — Atop the disputed Baglihar Dam in the mountains of Kashmir, the Chenab River roars like a 747 as its silvery waters churn the dam's massive turbines and boil out over the ravine in a tremendous, spiraling white waterfall.

The air is moist, and a massive cloud of mist floats downstream toward the roadway, where moments ago a dozen busloads of soldiers headed for posts along India's border with Pakistan have rumbled across a narrow bridge.

“Even today, soldiers are moving up and down all the time,” says my translator and guide, Rashid Dangola, a white-haired houseboat owner from Srinagar who tells me that in the heyday of India-administered Kashmir's armed struggle for independence he would buy his booze from the army and his hashish from the militants.

These troop movements are indeed a constant part of daily life in Indian-controlled Kashmir, where the Indian army stations 600,000 to 800,000 soldiers — more than double the number deployed for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. A fragile cease-fire has held here since November 2003, but Kashmir remains one of the most dangerous places in the world. Anger over the bloody partition that divided India and Pakistan in 1947 and a bitter feud over the ownership of this majestic portion of the Himalayas have led the two subcontinental powers to three full-fledged wars and a perilous standoff in 2002, when many world powers feared the dispute would go nuclear.

There are many reasons for the Kashmir conflict. But perhaps the most important of them is the water that spews into the sky at my feet.

When the British drew the borders partitioning India and Pakistan, their cartographers failed to consider the run of the rivers that would feed the two countries. Kashmir's accession to India granted New Delhi control over the headwaters of the Indus — the lifeline of civilization in what is now Pakistan since 2600 B.C. And although a treaty for sharing the water was worked out in 1960, its foundation has begun to crack under the pressure of the two countries rapidly growing populations and the specter of climate change.

Shortly before he led Pakistan's troops into the Kargil War, a then-unknown Pakistani general named Pervez Musharraf wrote in his dissertation at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London that the issue of the distribution of the waters of Kashmir between India and Pakistan has “the germs of future conflict.” Because water is the one resource that neither India nor Pakistan can do without, many experts fear that one day the dispute over the Indus — already an incessant source of diplomatic skirmishes — will propel these two nuclear weapons states into an all-out war.

Battles over water are already mounting in number around the world, according to Peter Gleick, an expert at the Pacific Institute. But Kashmir could be the most dangerous flash point. According to a recent United Nations report, Pakistan's water supply has dropped from about 5,000 cubic meters per person in the 1950s to 1,420 cubic meters today — perilously close to the threshold at which water shortage becomes an impediment to economic development and a serious hazard to human health. India, at 1,750 cubic meters per person, is not much better off. Both countries' huge populations are still growing, and because most of the available water comes from the disappearing glaciers of the Himalayas they are extremely vulnerable to climate change.

“We already see evidence that the climate is changing water availability and water quality,” Gleick said. “Kashmir is a place where water may not be the worst of the problem, but like the Sudan, or like the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers or like the Nile, it's a growing factor in what is already a conflict situation.”

Perhaps worse still, it appears that hawks on both sides are attempting to use water to create an insurmountable impasse in the dispute over Kashmir, rather than acknowledging that the sharing of rivers forms a framework for the two enemies to cooperate. This unease was underscored just last week, when India objected to a Pakistani proposal to build a new dam in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, with the help of the Chinese.

In Srinagar's Cafe Arabica, I met with two Kashmiri journalists, Parvaiz Bukhari of the Mail Today and Muzamil Jaleel of the Indian Express. In most respects, the two seasoned reporters could not be more different. Bukhari, a former TV journalist, is a handsome, bearded man with a grave voice, and an eloquent turn of phrase. “In an abnormal situation, the normal becomes news,” he told me, referring to countless New Delhi newspaper articles that featured the cafe where we were meeting as evidence that Kashmir's long-curfewed nightlife was picking up.

Jaleel, by contrast, is ebullient and manic, and gushes with gossip. He stormed into our bull session shouting out his order to the barista across the room.
Both of them, however, were united in their cynicism about the saber rattling over water in India and Pakistan.

On the Indian side, Jaleel pointed out, right-wing politicians have sought to turn Kashmir into a Hindu holy land of sorts to make ceding any of its territory non-negotiable. This is the impulse behind the strong political support for the Amarnath Yatra, a new pilgrimage to a cave in the mountains above Srinagar where an ice formation resembles a lingam — a Hindu religious symbol representing the phallus of the god Shiva. The same motive lies behind a new festival called the Sindhu Darshan, which casts the Indus as a Hindu river, though it was the cradle of ancient civilizations in what is today Pakistan, long before Hinduism existed. “India is trying to turn the rivers of Kashmir into religious symbols,” Jaleel said.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the opponents of detente cast the battle for Kashmir as a struggle for survival to prevent governments there from giving any ground, according to a new report by Mumbai's Strategic Foresight Group. Recalling the standoff on the border in 2002, the report's authors argue that Pakistani ideologues immediately leaped to the conclusion that India planned to use water as a weapon without any prompting from New Delhi, and predicted that such a move would ultimately lead to a Pakistani nuclear strike. At the same time, a leader from an umbrella organization of Pakistani jihadi groups told a local newspaper: “Kashmir is the source from where all of Pakistan's water resources originate. If Pakistan loses this battle against India, it will become a desert.”

Though Indians tend to dismiss this kind of rhetoric as senseless paranoia, Pakistan's fears are not completely unfounded. Almost immediately after Partition, India diverted the Ravi and Sutlej rivers, depriving the city of Lahore and Pakistan's irrigation canals of water during the spring sowing season. Now, whenever a new Indian dam comes up, Pakistani commentators see the project as another move to starve them out. One Pakistani newspaper, The Nation, for instance, lumped Baglihar in with 50 others built “in gross violation of the Indus Waters Treaty,” lamenting “India simply cut off waters flowing into Pakistan, dealing a big blow to our agriculture and economy.”

Kashmiris on both sides of the border — or Line of Control, as it is known locally — are caught in the middle. The Indus Waters Treaty, drawn up in 1960, has prevented India and Pakistan from going to war over the rivers of the Himalayas for almost 50 years by granting India exclusive use of the three eastern tributaries of the Indus, the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej rivers, and granting Pakistan exclusive rights to the three western tributaries, the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab.

But it has also prevented development of irrigation and hydroelectric projects in Kashmir itself. The treaty caps the amount of land Kashmir can irrigate and sets strict regulations on how and where water can be stored — making hydropower projects on the Chenab, like the Baglihar dam, difficult to execute. And, increasingly, the limitations imposed on India by the treaty are becoming a motivating force in Indian-administered Kashmir's struggle for independence.

“It is the irony of history that the waters belonging to Kashmiris are being decided by India and Pakistan. They have robbed us of our own natural resources,” said Shabir Ahmad Dar, the diminutive but passionate chief superintendent of the Hurriyat Conference — an alliance of separatist parties. “They have signed a treaty that is leading us to war.”

As to why this is so, conspiracy theories abound among the common people of Kashmir who I came across while traveling around Srinagar and its environs with Sajaad Hussain, an activist who chairs an NGO called the J&K Research Development Trust. A fair-skinned Kashmiri with long, dirty-blond hair, Hussain, too, was outraged that India's most water-rich state was struggling to meet its own needs.

As cup after cup of salted tea flowed from the samovar in Hussain's house in Srinagar's politically volatile downtown region, an interesting picture emerged of the common Kashmiri's perspective on India's water dispute with Pakistan. Motivated in part by wishful thinking, the consensus here was that India uses the dispute with Pakistan as an excuse not to invest in Kashmir's infrastructure, because it fears it may one day have to give up its claims on the territory.

“They (India) say that Kashmir is an unbreakable part of India,” exclaimed one of the tea drinkers. “But they do not treat it that way.”

The next day, Haseeb Drabu, who as chairman of the Jammu & Kashmir Bank has struggled to finance many hydroelectric power projects in the state, told me a somewhat different story. “There are all kinds of conspiracy theories, but the fact of the matter is that the state government doesn't have any money.” Nevertheless, Drabu, too — however optimistic he is about the Indian-administered Kashmir's ability to exploit its water resources — firmly believes that water will increasingly become a source of conflict. “Water will be the most potent political weapon by which India will screw Pakistan, because they have a huge problem as it is,” Drabu told me. “[Eventually] they will sign off on whatever we say, and say give it [water] to me, because they have such big problems.”

Downstream from the Baglihar Dam, the executive engineer on the project explained over stacks of toast and mango chutney how serious the threat of conflict has already become. Not two weeks before, an alleged Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist captured near the border by the Indian army had reportedly revealed plans to attack the dam — which Pakistan has opposed from the outset, approaching the World Bank for arbitration in 2005. “Everything in this place is under threat,” the engineer said. “What can we do? We continue our work.”

Most Kashmiris feel the same resignation. But in their mouths it leaves a bitter taste.

india's hidden war heats up

As New Delhi steps up its fight against Maoist rebels, casualties mount

By Jason Overdorf

NEW DELHI, India — Deep in the jungles of the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, commandos from the police force's elite “Cobra” division launched a devastating surprise attack on an encampment of Maoist rebels last week.

Providing a wordless rebuttal to the prime minister's admission that India is failing in the protracted battle against the would-be revolutionaries, the police action took the commandos deep into Maoist-occupied territory. And together with a new blitz of government propaganda countering the rebels' claims to be fighting for justice for the common people, the push likely signals that India plans to step up action against rebels that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has identified as a graver threat to law and order than Kashmiri militants or terrorist infiltrators from across the border in Pakistan.

Simmering for nearly a decade, India's low-level war against these communist revolutionaries has been fought mostly under the radar, since the battleground lies in the remote jungles of some of the country's least developed states — like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa — where indigenous tribal peoples comprise a substantial part of the population. But as Singh pointed out in a recent speech to a gathering of police chiefs from the country's 26 states, the rebels have leveraged official complacency and local resentments to steadily gain ground against the state.

"I have consistently held that left wing extremism is, perhaps, the gravest internal security threat we face,” Singh said on Sept. 15, admitting that efforts to contain the rebels have failed to yield significant results.

Two days later, the subsequent one-two punch of the surge-like commando strike and the propaganda campaign — full page newspaper ads featuring photos of seven innocents allegedly killed by the Maoists and the slogan “Naxals (Maoists) are nothing but cold-blooded murderers” — hints at the strategy the government plans to adopt as the mostly hidden war heats up.

But it remains to be seen whether deploying crack commando units, whose numbers are limited, can generate real results against the Maoist's guerilla army, or whether media propaganda will be effective in diminishing support for the rebels among the dispossessed — for whom newspapers and television are often unknown luxuries.
Without a doubt, India needs a new strategy. According to the latest data released by the home ministry, roughly 220 districts across 20 of India's 26 states are variously affected by Maoist activity — a fourfold increase since 2001. At the same time, the Maoist struggle has surpassed Kashmir as the deadliest conflict on Indian soil, and the number of fatalities per year continues to grow.

The reason, says Ajai Sahni, an expert on terrorism at the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, is that India has yet to come up with a sustained, coherent response to the revolutionary threat. Political sensitivity has prevented the government from launching full scale, military-type actions against the rebels, and the piecemeal efforts to fight them with small units and civilian militias have been disastrous.

“How can you send men out in a 12-man force or 20-man force when you know that the Maoists are going to come in the hundreds, if not the thousands to overwhelm these posts? You cannot say to people, 'I've recruited you as a policeman, now go commit suicide.'”

At the same time, public and political sympathy is relatively strong for the Maoist cause — unlike the cause of Kashmiri separatists, for instance — because the inequalities and injustices of society are blatantly obvious and the Maoists have been very effective at tapping into resentments of controversial government actions like the acquisition of tribal land for mining projects.

“There is a bottom 7 to 10 percent of the population which has been treated very badly by Indian policy makers,” explained Ashis Nandy, a sociologist with the Center for the Study of Developing Societies.

Though a revolution is not on the cards anytime soon, the constant gains made by the Maoists over the past decade are of grave concern, because the disruption of public services in remote areas threatens to have a snowball effect.

“If they can create substantial disruptive activities across India, the government will be confronted with a situation that will get more and more difficult as time goes by,” said Sahni. “We cannot come to a situation such as what happened in Nepal, where they had no government anywhere except in Kathmandu.”

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

now available in high-def.... well, on the internet, anyway

Obsessed fans can now catch me in pixellated digital video. That's right: They've decided that I am destined for oversimplification and simpering, as well as great taglines like "Cute chicken" and "Sad story." Yes, folks. TV. Well, Internet TV. But that's just a million small steps away from the real thing. Anyway, everybody will be watching on his computer pretty soon, right?

Seriously. If you're curious, check this out to see how a good camerawoman and editor can make a rank neophyte look downright semi-professional:

You won't be surprised to learn that this is the first time anybody has asked me to work IN FRONT of the camera. Well, apart from The Rising. But it doesn't count if you wear a fake beard.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Want to grow rich in India? Think poor.

Economic crisis has turned the attention of India's corporate honchos to some of the country's biggest challenges.
By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
Published: August 26, 2009 06:29 ET

NEW DELHI — In India, the economic crisis may actually be good news.
During the salad days of the past decade, India's entrepreneurs grew fat selling gas guzzlers and palatial homes to the country's new rich, while ignoring the needs of the biggest segment of Indian consumers: the poor. It was an expatriate Indian, the University of Michigan's C.K. Prahalad, who first posited that there were millions to be made selling to the “bottom of the pyramid.”

Now that's starting to happen.

The rich aren't buying, and Indian businessmen are finally starting to look at the teeming masses as something more than cheap labor. The result could be the solution of some of India's most persistent problems — an abysmal housing shortage, chronic underemployment and an unsustainable rate of rural-urban migration, for instance.

“The slowdown was a great thing to happen to India,” affirmed management consultant Harish Bijoor, who said the downturn has encouraged companies to look beyond the “low-hanging fruit” in the urban market to the vast multitude of consumers in India's rural heartland — which still accounts for more than two-thirds of the country's population and some 60 percent of its gross domestic product.

“There are a whole slew of energy products, both solar and thermal, and cook stoves and all types of things, all of which are aimed at reducing fuel consumption or replacing traditional fuels,” said Vijay Mahajan, founder of BASIX, a microfinance company that provides credit to more than a million poor customers. “And there's a whole slew of clean drinking water products. These have both health and economic benefits.”

The best example of the upside of the downturn, so far, comes from the real estate sector. Throughout the boom years, posh high rises were the name of the game in Indian real estate. But as the buyers for $200,000 to $1 million apartments have dried up and falling property values have left builders scrambling to finance the completion of existing projects, a dozen-odd companies have begun to take interest in building housing for the nearly endless market represented by the urban poor.

Led by Tata Housing's so-called “Nano homes,” which will go for as little as $8,000, these ventures represent the entrance of respected business leaders into the low-income housing market, including figures like Jaithirth Rao (founder of outsourcing heavyweight Mphasis), Ramesh Ramanathan (founder of the citizen's action group Janaagraha) and established companies like Bangalore's CSC Constructions. The trust factor that these players bring has given this sector new viability, according to Subir Gokarn, chief economist at Crisil, the Indian arm of Standard & Poor's.

“The focus on the base of the pyramid to create scale businesses was overdue,” Jaithirth (Jerry) Rao said. “You can sell millions of homes in this category, whereas in the upscale category you can only sell tens of thousands.”

But real estate isn't the only sector where the financial crisis has had an unexpected upside for India's future. Almost every type of business — from refrigerators to motorcycles to computers to mobile phones — is now looking to the vast market represented by India's urban poor and the legions living in its villages. By increasing competition, this expansion lowers prices, connects the dispossessed to the broader economy and makes new, income-generating products affordable.

“Telecom is a great example. The kind of price at which a rural poor person can now talk to their migrated family members and so on is incredible,” said Mahajan. “That's all happened because of the penetration rush and price competition, and the same thing is beginning to happen in microfinance, it's beginning to happen in solar energy. The volumes attract new suppliers and as more suppliers come in, then competition sets in, and it's a win-win for all sides.”

The push to widen the footprint of broadband internet and boost the average revenue per user from low-income mobile subscribers, for instance, has put more muscle behind the network-based computing devices like Novatium's NetPC — which provides a computer, broadband access, software and support to consumers for a bundled price as low as $25 a month. Recently Airtel, India's largest integrated telecommunications company, launched a similar service, while Nokia has rolled out its Nokia Life Tools range of agriculture, education and entertainment services for consumers in small towns and rural areas. Samsung has launched Solar Guru, a solar-powered mobile phone.

The sales network for fast-moving consumer goods and products like motorcycles and refrigerators is also expanding into the rural hinterland. Motorcycle maker Hero Honda, for instance, has boosted its “touch points” in rural areas from 2,000 in 2006 to 3,500 in 2008, while Godrej Consumer Products Ltd. will appoint 1,500 wholesalers in small towns and villages this year, up from 500 last year.

Eventually, Godrej plans a presence in 50,000 of India's 650,000 villages. And the impact of this expansion on Indian villagers goes beyond simply being able to buy a greater range of products closer to home. With the purchase of a motorcycle or mobile phone, for instance, a rural Indian gets much more than a leg up on the Kapurs next door. He gets a “prosperity creator” that connects him to the job market 28 miles away, said Bijoor.

Next on the docket: clean drinking water, cheap electricity, basic healthcare and other bottom of the pyramid products and services that may attract the attention of big firms, as marketers “rob the rich” for premium products so they can also sell basic necessities to the poor.

“It's a Robin Hood marketing which is going to capture the hearts and the emotive imaginations of the largest numbers of consumers in this country,” Bijoor said.

Source URL (retrieved on August 27, 2009 21:40 ):

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

csi: new delhi

At India's first private forensic laboratory, business is booming.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
Published: August 19, 2009 07:11 ET

NEW DELHI — For Dr. KPC Gandhi, a former police inspector, the truth is an obsession.
He believes it's a fundamental human right that India's legal system is too overburdened to guarantee. That's why, in 2007, Gandhi set up India's first private forensic investigation laboratory, Truth Labs, a firm that will soon have offices in Hyderabad, Delhi, Bangalore and Jaipur.

“Crime can be stopped by involving and engaging and enabling and empowering the common people,” said Gandhi, who resigned from the police force after a 40-year career in forensic investigation to start Truth Labs. “Within one-and-a-half years, we started getting cases from the courts, including the high court, from the police, and from a large number of subordinate courts. I get calls from four or five people every day, asking for some consultancy about fraud or forgery.”

As India modernizes, more disputes are arising over inheritance, forgery, impersonation, marital infidelity and even corporate espionage. But because India has one of the world's smallest police forces, and because the civil and criminal courts face a backlog that runs into literally millions of cases, getting to the bottom of mysteries and resolving conflicts through the legal system is fraught with problems.

A simple dispute over a forged will, for instance, might take 25 or 30 years to resolve in court. Using techniques now world famous thanks to C.S.I., Gandhi promises a solution in 24 hours: the truth.

Truth Labs charges a little more than $100 per investigation, and the company waives even that nominal fee for destitute or deserving clients — like a teacher who lost his job because his superior had forged his initials on a document used to pilfer government funds.

“We're interested only in the people's welfare, finding the truth, and rendering them justice,” said Gandhi, who explained that Truth Labs primarily acts as a facilitator in the arbitration of disputes, rather than providing evidence for use in legal proceedings.

The cases that Truth Labs has solved range from paternity and inheritance disputes to criminal cases of forgery and fraud. In one case, an industrialist family from Mumbai approached Truth Labs for polygraph testing after a young bride confessed that her father-in-law had propositioned her when it was discovered that the husband was infertile and they were planning to have a test tube baby.

In another, DNA testing proved that a husband's suspicions about the paternity of his second child were unfounded — ending years of marital strife. And in a third, Truth Labs document experts verified that a will that had divided a family for more than two generations had been doctored by an unscrupulous cousin.

In all of these cases, like the majority that Truth Labs investigates, the guilty party confessed when he was confronted with scientific proof, and the certainty of the resolution allowed the disputants to move on with their lives.

“We are getting quality cases where a genuine problem arises that has been persisting in a family for generations, and they come to me and within a day or five days their problems are permanently solved,” Gandhi said.

It's a curious business model for India. Though the use of forensic science for preventing fraud was pioneered here during the British Raj by Sir William Herschel — who in 1858 concluded that the fingerprint was a "signature of exceeding simplicity" that defeated even the local genius for forgery — in modern times the Indian legal apparatus is no more known for cutting edge science than the bureaucracy is for its speed and efficiency.

Senior police officers readily admit that the most common form of investigation amounts to rounding up the usual suspects and slapping them around. And in several famous whodunits — like the 2008 murder of Aarushi Talwar, a 14-year-old girl who was found with her throat slit in her family's New Delhi apartment — blatant mishandling of evidence by bumbling constables has virtually precluded a genuine investigation.

According to Jagadeesh Narayanareddy, a professor of forensic medicine at the Vydehi Institute of Medical Sciences and Research Center in Bangalore, India's mortuaries lack basic facilities, a shortage of qualified personnel makes forensic investigation impossible in many cases and cultural prejudices often override science in cases involving rape or disputed paternity.

In rural areas, for instance, officials often skip autopsies for suspicious deaths, either due to medical ignorance or even to keep crime statistics low, while larger hospitals carry out autopsies as a matter of course whether they are needed or not — burdening personnel and putting unnecessary stress on the bereaved.

But it's just that kind of incompetence, along with the public's nearly complete lack of faith in the police and the court system, that makes Truth Labs a booming business.

“At a peak load, we can handle up to 3,000 cases a year,” Gandhi said.

As the backlog of cases in India's court system continues to mount, there's unlimited room for expansion.

“This has a larger role to play, because people are not fully aware of the services we offer. We expect every state will have these Truth Labs in the next 10 years,” Gandhi said.

Source URL (retrieved on August 20, 2009 01:07 ):

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

the ugly indian

Move over, America. The world has a new rude traveler to detest.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
August 10, 2009

NEW DELHI — The instant that the fasten seat belts light went out aboard Cathay Pacific's inaugural Delhi-Bangkok flight this summer, a chorus of metallic dongs erupted like a romper roomful of Ritalin-deprived 5-year-olds turned loose on an arsenal of xylophones.

The passengers were attacking their call buttons.

In seconds, flight attendants were up and running. By the time they began dishing out the special meals, tempers were beginning to fray.

“Whiskey!” demanded an old man with a white beard when the young Chinese flight attendant tried to put a meal in front of him.

“Sir, we are not serving drinks now,” the flight attendant replied politely. (Dong! Dong-dong! Do-Dong, dongdong!)

In the next row, another man, younger but no less eloquent, reached up to press his call button, and the flustered attendant caved and uncapped the Scotch.

“Arre, such a small peg she's given you,” the old man's companion protested.


Once the world loved to hate the Ugly American — fat, loud-mouthed and blissfully superior in his utter cultural ignorance. But since the economic crisis put the kibosh on American and European travel budgets, there's a new kid in town. India's rampaging outbound travel market has thrown a much-needed lifeline to the tourism industry in Southeast Asia, Europe and farther afield.

For those schlepping bags and serving drinks, though, the Ugly Indian can be so demanding that the lifeline sometimes looks like it has a noose at the end of it.

“It's a cultural thing,” said Pankaj Gupta, part-owner of Outbound Travels, a New Delhi-based travel agency. “In India, we have servants to do everything in everybody's houses mostly, so people are just sort of used to getting stuff delivered to them.”

Culture conflict has already resulted in several public relations debacles. In May, for instance, a group of Indian passengers caused a minor sensation in the local press when they leveled allegations of racism against Air France — saying that when their flight was delayed for 28 hours in Paris other passengers were transported to hotels, but the Indians were made to wait in the lounge. (The distinction was not made based on race, but on possession of a valid Schengen visa, the airline maintains).
In a similar incident in 2006, 12 Indian passengers accused Northwest Airlines of racism when they were offloaded and detained in Amsterdam for what flight attendants called “suspicious behavior.”

“Imagine arresting 12 guys just because they were changing seats and talking on their cellphones when the plane was taking off,” wrote Indian humorist Jug Suraiya in his Times of India column. “Everyone does that in India all the time, and no one gets arrested.”

But just as the American tourist's penchant for plaid never stopped France from chasing his dollars, the Indian tourist's insatiable thirst for Scotch hasn't made his rupees any less attractive. Tourism boards from a laundry list of countries have flooded Indian cities with delegations — or simply set up shop here. Airlines and hotels abroad have wooed Indian travel companies with bargain basement rates, and pulled out all stops to compete — throwing open their kitchens to traveling Indian chefs, topping up their in-flight entertainment libraries with Bollywood movies, and fighting tooth and nail for the right to host stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan for the Indian International Film Awards.

The reason is simple. Despite the downturn, India's travel market is still growing. According to the Pacific Asia Travel Association, more than 800,000 Indians are expected to visit Singapore this year, more than 669,000 Indians are expected to visit the U.S. and more than 625,000 are expected to visit Malaysia. Moreover, PATA expects the number of Indian visitors to Singapore, Malaysia and the U.S. to continue to grow rapidly through 2011.

“Since the economic crisis began, there has been a reduction in travel, but the reduction in travel by Indians has been very low compared to any other country,” said Gupta. “Indians are still traveling a lot. Maybe some people have downgraded, by say, instead of going to the U.S. traveling closer to home, but they're still traveling abroad.”

Many of these Indian travelers, of course, are erudite, suave, charming, or simply humble and polite — it's just that nobody remembers them. For every passenger aboard Cathay's Delhi-Bangkok run with his finger on the call button, there were three or four who were fast asleep, mummified in blankets, or peacefully guffawing at the mindless in-flight movies.

Most problems result from simple misunderstandings, explained Thomas Thottathil, spokesman for Cox & Kings, one of India's largest tour companies. “We sensitize our customers, our tour guides, and we also explain to our suppliers overseas — the hotels or whatever — that Indian travelers have their own needs, their own particular habits.” Because of that effort, Thottathil said his firm has not faced anything more serious than the occasional complaint that a hotel didn't provide dinner after 9:30 p.m.

Thottathil may well be onto something. A quick lesson about Indians' love of thrift, for instance, might ease international tensions in the air. What's the multicultural secret to a tranquil flight, you ask?

Five dollar whiskeys.

Monday, August 03, 2009

the stones of srinagar

On the streets of this political hotspot, chucking rocks at the police is the most cherished form of free speech.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
Published: August 3, 2009 06:43 ET

SRINAGAR, India — In Srinagar's Lal Chowk, or “red corner,” a hotbed of social unrest in a city that many residents believe to be occupied by a hostile Indian military, 26-year-old “Mohammad” is primed for the next call to action.

A handsome, muscular youth with a beard that would pass muster in Kabul and incongruously gelled hair, he has been a stone pelter — what locals here call the young men who engage in rock-chunking skirmishes with the police and security forces nearly every Friday — since he was 15 years old.

“I saw so many young boys had been killed by the security forces, so I said, 'Let me join this protest also,'” Mohammad says.

The protests that Mohammad — who did not want to reveal his real name for fear of retribution — is talking about have become part of daily life in Srinagar, the center of political life in the Indian part of Kashmir. Marches and the inevitable skirmishes that follow them are so common that the shopkeepers in Lal Chowk have grown accustomed to a three- or four-day work week. And stone pelting has become so inseparable from political demonstrations that the police themselves carry slingshots for firing back. The government even employs a special brigade of street cleaners to make sure that the pavement is cleared of ammunition.

To be sure, Kashmir is a state still reeling under insurgency, where militants strike at the government and melt back into the forest, and these angry, habitual protesters tell only their side of the story. But a talk with the proverbial man on the street shows that there's more to Srinagar's stone battles than simple hooliganism.

Despite India's claims to have won the hearts and minds of Kashmiris since the armed rebellion by militant separatists that raged from 1989 to 2003 declined to a simmer, the anger over what locals term the Indian occupation — and hatred for the police and the army — still run hot and deep.

“I became a stone thrower in 2004,” says 24-year-old Imran (also using a pseudonym). Dressed in a white Oxford-style shirt, he looks more like a middle class college student than a street thug. “That day, the troops had pulled some women out of their houses in my neighborhood and beat them up. So when the boys came out onto the streets, I joined them.” Since then, he's only grown more committed. “A boy I know is in a coma because he was hit in the head by a teargas shell,” he says.

From Delhi, the complex mire that is called “the Kashmir conflict” looks very different. The days when newspapers chastised the Indian army for human rights abuses and cataloged the long roster of “disappeared persons” are over. Today those reports have been replaced by repeated claims that “peace has returned to the valley,” premature announcements that Kashmir tourism is on the verge of bouncing back, and patriotic paeans to the ordinary soldier. Last year's election, in which voter turnout was high for the first time in many years, was also interpreted as a sign that the people were ready to accept India's dominion.

On the ground, though, Kashmir looks and sounds more like a territory already under occupation than one besieged by a foreign power. For one thing, the Indian army — some 600,000 soldiers, nearly one soldier for every ten civilians — is everywhere, not just on the border with Pakistan. For another, nobody here considers India's troops to be heroes. “If you talk to the people,” said Sajaad Hussain, an activist who heads an NGO called the J&K Research Development Trust, “You'll find 80 percent want independence. Maybe 20 percent want to go with Pakistan. Nobody is for India.”

That's likely an exaggeration. But in my brief wanderings, I wasn't able to turn up a single person who had good things to say about the Indian government. Almost everyone said they wanted Kashmir to be independent. Some of the more practical Kashmiris demanded autonomy — both political and economic — since that is a measure India has at least declared itself willing to consider. And others, still more jaded, simply hoped for demilitarization. This was not at all what I had expected. But in some ways, it made perfect sense.

For many years, watchdog groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned the Indian army for human rights violations in Kashmir, where the Armed Forces Special Powers Act gives the military the right to arrest civilians, seize property and shoot to kill and the Public Safety Act allows security forces to detain suspects for as long as two years without any sanction from the court.

In Srinagar, the security presence is unmistakable. Armed soldiers direct traffic at intersections. Flak-jacketed mine sweeping units patrol the roadside with sniffer dogs. Bunkers built from sandbags and razor wire blanket the city at strategic corners. And the stone pelters of Lal Chowk say they abuse these powers — storming into homes, beating protesters, and threatening activists with arbitrary detention under the Public Safety Act — to crush independence activists' freedom of expression. From that enforced silence, they say, comes the stone.

For 45 days prior to my visit, Kashmir had been rocked by protests over the alleged rape and murder of two young women from Shopian, a town located about 50 kilometers from Srinagar. Initially, local police and government officials, including the state's fresh-faced chief minister, Omar Abdullah, dismissed the case as an ordinary drowning. But the people of Shopian alleged that the two women had been raped and murdered — which was later confirmed after the protests forced the administration to conduct an autopsy — and claimed that the police forces had conspired to cover up the crime. After a month and a half of protests that stopped all economic activity in the area, four police officials were arrested for allegedly suppressing evidence.

Nothing has been proven in the Shopian case yet. “There have been some unfortunate incidents in the past, in some cases action was taken promptly and in one or two cases there is a perception of avoidable delay,” Home Minister P. Chidambaram has told the press. “Our intentions are good and there will be proper action. The state government will to go through investigations and punish the guilty.”

But for the disgusted local populace, no further investigation is necessary. Over the 20-odd years since militancy began, during which the army and police have enjoyed almost absolute power in Kashmir, these kinds of allegations are so common, one local resident told me, that for every one that makes news there are another dozen that never make national headlines. “Even the Shopian story took a week to come into the national papers,” explains Parvaiz Bukhari, a local journalist.

All of the young men I interviewed say that police officers have come to their homes and threatened to arrest them under the public safety act, under which alleged offenders can be jailed for as long as two years without formal charges.

“We say, 'Give us freedom,' and they say, 'You are a terrorist.'” said Aftab, another youth. “But we have no guns. Only stones.”

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

the futility of peace talks

It's hard to speak out against peace. So when Manmohan Singh defended himself Wednesday over a foreign policy snafu in Egypt that everybody from the opposition to backstabbers within Singh's own Congress party had been calling a “sellout” to Pakistan, I was prepared to be convinced. Singh is a good guy. He's smart. And he's not the sort who shouts and carries on to gain political mileage.

For those of you outside India, the snafu resulted over a joint statement that was issued after Singh met his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, where Singh agreed to resume so-called peace talks with Pakistan and appeared to agree to discuss the borders of Kashmir and admit to Pakistan's charges that India foments unrest in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.

Most people read the blunder as more evidence that India's foreign policy department—despite lots of talk that the US wants to offer India a bigger role on the world stage—simply isn't ready for prime time.

Some of the things that Singh told Parliament in his defense made sense, but I'm still wondering about India's decision to resume the so-called “peace process” with Pakistan. And I'm still completely positive that the wonks in charge of Indian foreign policy are groping blindly in the dark—knowing neither what India's role in foreign affairs should be, nor what stance they will take on the US, China, Russia, Pakistan, etc, nor how they might achieve their goals if they managed to define them.

The essence of the PM's speech was twofold. One, Pakistan had provided him a dossier outlining the evidence against the Pakistani terrorists involved in the Mumbai attacks which was more extensive and damning than any proof India's old enemy has offered before in this slow-and-tired dance around the issue of the “proxy war” Islamabad has waged against India for decades. This, Singh says, was enough to convince him that Pakistan is sincere in its efforts to rein in groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, which strike India from bases on Pakistani soil. So India's attitude must be “trust but verify.” Two, there is really no alternative to dialogue, because it's a question of resuming peace talks or moving inexorably toward war.

Sound convincing? Maybe.

But I'm not sure either point is valid. To Singh's first point, Pakistan's arrests so far have not been too impressive, and some of Islamabad's actions and public statements have appeared to be obfuscations and excuses for inaction, rather than progress reports. To his second point, the opposition of resuming the peace talks and returning to war is a false dichotomy. In fact, India was not at war with Pakistan between 1999 and 2003, when the so-called peace process began, and the two nations have not been at war since India halted the process after the Mumbai attacks. Nor, quite frankly, has it seemed that they are slipping ever closer to shots fired in anger. It appears more likely to me that both nations have concluded that full-scale war is not an option.

And that begs a peculiar question: What are the India-Pakistan peace talks meant to achieve?

Neither side is shooting at the other. From the Indian side, negotiations of the borders of Kashmir aren't on the table, and never will be. And from the Pakistan side, giving up claims to India-administered Kashmir is also an impossibility.

Is the sole purpose of the talks, then, to induce Pakistan to stop supporting terrorists that attack India?

In that case, they seem more like peace begging than peace negotiations. There's no carrot, and there's no stick. All that's under discussion are a few meaningless bus routes across the border and a useless cross-border trade that a senior Kashmiri journalist told me recently “benefits no one.”

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

a heaven on earth? not so much

With the tourists frightened away by Kashmir's separatist struggle, the famous Dal Lake is slowly succumbing to pollution.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
Published: July 28, 2009 07:36 ET

SRINAGAR, Kashmir — From the shores of Srinagar's Dal Lake, once described as heaven on earth, the water looks dull and brackish. The storied houseboats that were the summer playgrounds of India's British colonizers are lined up across what from this vantage appears to be a weed-choked pond, no larger than a football field.

The boats' garish decorations and cheery names — “New Australia,” “Sansouci,” “Young Dreams,” “The Golden Fleece” — hint at a Gatsbyish heyday of long, lazy afternoons and parties that echoed across the water through the night. But packed chock-a-block, in all their faded grandeur, most of the boats lie empty.
Dal Lake is dying, and along with it a remarkable culture.

“If you had seen Kashmir 20 years back, 30 years back, then half of the population lived in boats,” Rashid Dangola, owner of a houseboat named “Hilton Kashmir” tells me. “In the next 20 years, day by day, this culture will go.”

In fact, the football field-sized parcel where the Hilton Kashmir lies moored is only a tiny portion of the real Dal Lake, which spreads over six square miles but which over the last 30 years has shrunk to half its original size. It has been reclaimed by weeds and eventually land, paved over by the government in an effort to improve roadways and accommodate Srinagar's growing population, or simply converted to real estate and farmland by people in need of a place to live.

Only a small part of the remaining lake can be seen from the shore, because at its heart it is a sort of floating, rural Venice — a maze of canals, vegetable gardens and lotus-root farms where houseboats have been converted into souvenir stores and papier mache factories, and islands have been reclaimed to erect towering colonial brick houses.
These islands, and the “floating land” that an estimated 40,000 farmers use to grow eggplant, squash and tomatoes, multiplies every year. So do the people. And so does the waste they create. Garbage spills into the water from the Dal's banks, and a thick green scum covers canals that 20 years ago were splashing playgrounds for local children.
“[The] Dal has become a vegetable garden; where is the water body?” an exasperated high court Chief Justice Bashir Ahmad Khan reflected recently, as he issued a stern warning to the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA) and the Srinagar Development Authority (SDA), which have failed to arrest the lake's decline despite investments of some $125 million over the years.

As a rented shikhara — India's version of the gondola — ferries us through the lake's floating villages, Dangola tells me: “I was proud to bring people to this side, so they would understand how we live. But now it is all spoiled.”

Conventional wisdom once blamed the pollution problem on the lake's 1,200 houseboats, but in reality these boats account for only about 3 percent of the waste released into the lake. The real culprits are a succession of poor planners and the city of Srinagar itself — with a population of about a million — which releases tons of raw sewage into the waters of the Dal through 15 different drains along the shore. Moreover, due to a poorly thought out decision to pave over the network of canals that once linked the Dal Lake to several other bodies of water surrounding Srinagar and the fast-flowing River Jhellum, the waters here are now stagnant.

In June, Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh committed another $225 million — $60 million of which the central government has already rubber stamped — to build sewage treatment plants, purchase de-weeding machines and resettle nearly 10,000 families who live on the lakes network of islands. But Kashmir has been throwing money at the problem for years, and resettling the families who live in the lake would be tantamount to destroying it.

A two-hour shikhara ride along the shore and through the winding canals reveals that while claims of the lake's great beauty are somewhat exaggerated — it is by no means a crystal clear, glacial teardrop like Lake Tahoe — it boasts a unique and vibrant culture.

The enormity of the task at hand is also clear. Everywhere, clawing weeds choke the passages, and the water is covered with tiny specks of green algae, massing like something out of B-grade science fiction. The reason the plant life is so prolific — excessive fertilizer in the water — is evident, too.
From secluded pipes that are easy to spot from inside the lake, the coffee brown sewage of the city of Srinagar glugs untreated into the water. Though some years ago 6,000 families deemed to be “encroachers” without legitimate claim to houses in the lake were pushed out, the cleanup effort now appears to be limited to half-a-dozen dredging and weeding platforms — which patrol the waters, belching smoke, when the whim strikes their operators.

According to locals, it's a haphazard, rearguard action with little hope of success. The 6,000 displaced families have been replaced by some 20,000. The city's much discussed sewage system shows no signs of building itself. And even the dubiously expensive deweeding machines, parked in convenient proximity to shore while I was in town, seem to remain idle most of the day.