Monday, June 21, 2010

with one eye on china, india moves into africa

India's Bharti bid redefines the race for the African continent.

By Jason Overdorf
Global Post, June 21, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — When Sunil Mittal, the 52-year-old chairman of Bharti Enterprises, recently announced the Indian mobile company's successful acquisition of Kuwait-based Zain's African operations, he flagged off the next stage in the so-called “race for Africa” between India and China.

This leg will be much more than a modern-day great game played for political influence and access to natural resources. And in this contest the tortoise may be set to sprint past the hare.

“The Indians are in there for the long haul, integrating economically, socially and politically,” said Harry Broadman, the author of "Africa's Silk Road: China and India's New Economic Frontier." “I think India is the sleeper. These are the businesses that are operating under the radar and will have a much more durable impact on the African economy, arguably, than the Chinese.”

With the $10.7 billion purchase, Bharti becomes the world's fifth largest mobile service provider in the world by number of subscribers, gaining 42 million customers and establishing a presence in 15 African countries. And Mittal, who helped to drive down Indian call rates, making talk time cheaper in India than in any other country in the world, is confident that he can redefine the African market. Given that African callers pay 10 times the Indian rate for talk time, his first step is likely to be a price war.

After an initial flurry of enthusiasm, skepticism has emerged about the impact Bharti's foray into Africa will have on the company's bottom line. Hard-nosed financial analysts have pointed out the difficulties involved in integrating operations from 15 different countries with different languages, cultures and regulations, and Standard & Poor's has already lowered Bharti's credit rating.

But long before it's confirmed as a success or failure, the merger could be even more important, symbolically, for India Inc., for whom Mittal has already played trend setter in countries like Bangladesh, where Bharti's purchase of Warid Telecom inspired a wave of similar deals.

Traditionally, India has been viewed as — and considered itself — a laggard in Africa, where China's deep-pocketed state-owned enterprises have snapped up land, oil and development projects. And the numbers have supported that view. As of April, for example, China had committed $8 billion dollars in investment, compared with India's $2 billion. Meanwhile, trade between China and Africa dwarfed trade between Indian and Africa by a third.

But Mittal believes that the sun has set on the era of state-supported investment, and Indian firms don't need financial aid to compete. “The government just needs to improve air connectivity with Africa, even if that means giving money to Air India,” he said in a post-merger interview with India's Financial Express newspaper. “And the industry would flock to Africa.”

He may be right. Over the past several years, as companies and investors have woken up to African economic growth, the profile of their investments in Africa has changed, said Broadman. While the conventional wisdom has credited resource-rich countries like Nigeria for Africa's growth, he argues in a recent paper, from 1998 to 2008 the most sustained progress came from non-resource dependent countries, where real gross domestic product grew 5.6 percent per year. China and India — whose investments in Africa are growing much faster than those of western nations — have taken note.

“You are seeing a diversification [in their investment], whether it's in consumer products, environmental cleanup products, or food processing,” Broadman said.

That diversification may shift the balance in favor of India.

Because of India's deeper historical engagement and greater cultural affinity with Africa, and because Indian investment on the continent is spearheaded by entrepreneurs, India's projects are more thoroughly integrated with the local economy. Where Chinese firms operate in enclaves, import Chinese workers and source inputs from companies back in China, their Indian counterparts more often build local supply chains and merge more thoroughly with the community. A recent survey, for example, found that almost half of ethnically Indian business owners in Africa had taken local citizenship, while 96 percent of ethnically Chinese owners had retained their Chinese nationality.

In extractive industries, and perhaps even in some types of manufacturing, this kind of going native may not be terribly important. But for sales and marketing — and for service industries like telecommunications — it's likely to prove essential.

Copyright 2009 GlobalPost – International News
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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Aging in India: Not the same old story

Demise of India's joint family system sparks boom in Florida-style retirement communities.

By Jason Overdorf

June 13, 2010 08:50

NEW DELHI, India — When 72-year-old Dr. Ram Das Agrawal decided he was ready to give up his Chhattisgarh medical practice a few years ago, he was eager to find a community where he could live out his remaining years in peace, without worrying about health care, safety, or the daily hassles of maintaining a home in India.

Shortly after his daughter married and moved to Alwar, Rajasthan, she helped her father find the solution. Among the first real estate complexes of its kind in India, Ashiana's Utsav at Bhiwadi is a 640-unit community for senior citizens where Agrawal not only enjoys the security of corporate-managed maintenance, 24-hour medical care on call and similar benefits, but also plays in table tennis tournaments and sings with a music club.

“It's beyond what I imagined,” Agrawal said. “I'm happy.”

India's economic boom is gathering momentum, like a snowball rolling downhill. But the country's strivers are fighting harder than ever for a piece of the pie — working longer hours, migrating to new cities or emigrating to richer lands. Today fewer than 40 percent of Indians live in so-called “joint families,” traditional arrangements where brothers shared the family home with their parents even after they'd married and had families of their own, according to real estate consultancy Jones LaSalle Meghraj.

To compensate, the rising middle class is turning to a new real estate phenomenon: Florida-style retirement communities.

“Their children have gone abroad or to other cities for jobs, and the parents are all alone,” said Santosh Dhamdhere, marketing manager at Atashri, a retirement community in Pune, Maharashtra. “Initially, when we started we were skeptical and had a low response. But now it is selling like hotcakes. There is a big market that is untapped.”

Untapped, and growing. It's true that India is one of the youngest countries in the world, and getting younger. By 2020, the average age of an Indian will be 29 years, compared to 37 for China and 48 for Japan. But thanks to higher life expectancy, India's elderly population is growing rapidly, too. The current elderly population of about 81 million people will nearly double to 150 million by 2020, with even more rapid growth in the numbers of people more than 80 years old, according to Help Age India, a non-profit organization that works on elderly-related issues.

To meet the projected demand, real estate developments for older people are mushrooming on the outskirts of cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Pune and Kochi. Paranjape Construction's Atashri Foundation has completed four retirement communities and has a fifth nearing completion around Pune, for example, and has typically sold all 100-200 units within a month of a new project launch.

Ashiana Housing has retirement resorts in Bhiwadi, Jaipur and Pune, with around 1400 one-, two- and three-bedroom units in total. Similarly, the Dignity Foundation operates a 25-acre project “for active and productive living for senior citizens” 90 kilometers from Mumbai (Bombay), while Riverdale Retirement Resort-home, in Kochi, Kerala, among others, operates an American-style assisted living facility.

“If you look at the top-seven cities in the country and the current working stage, on that basis, if you convert that into square footage for retired couples, I wouldn't be surprised if demand exceeds 5 to 6 million square feet,” said Sanjay Dutt, chief executive, business, at Jones LaSalle Meghraj.

A gleaming forest of golden-colored condominiums, Utsav at Bhiwadi, where Dr. Agrawal lives, offers myriad services that are tailor-made for older Indians who might not otherwise be comfortable living alone.

A single-gated community, the complex is more stringent about security than ordinary real estate developments — instituting a closed-circuit TV system, background checks for house maids and an internal postal system to eliminate the usual incessant to-and-fro of private couriers, for instance. Every flat has emergency call buttons to summon help, and there's a nurse on the site 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

And all the normal residential amenities — vegetable vendors, grocer, gardener, and so forth — are vetted and provided by Ashiana. The atmosphere is a lot like a college, with a student-union-like community center that boasts a theater, game room and restaurant, and an activities director organizes a series of events every month to encourage residents to build friendships and avoid feeling isolated.

“We've addressed all the fears of senior citizens,” said A. Gonogopadhyay. Ashiana Housing's corporate vice president, he was a key driving force in pioneering the retirement community concept, and now he's a resident. “Once you know you have that support,” he said, “you get extra vigor.”

Sadly, only a handful can afford this kind of care. Units at Ashiana's Bhiwadi complex range in price from around $40,000 to $65,000, for example, making them affordable for the upper middle class but out of reach for most Indians.

At the same time, new wealth has eroded the foundations of traditional values. Once the source of wisdom, child care, and financial support, many in India's older generation, who struggled to earn in a month what today's salaried class makes in a day, are viewed as obsolete. For the poor, health care for the aged is unavailable in most places, and with only two medical colleges across the entire country teaching geriatric care, that's unlikely to change soon. Worse still, only about 10 percent of the population has any form of pension, while another 12 million older people from below-poverty-line families get a stipend of about $5 a month.

“In India, old people have to work till they die,” said Mathew Cherian, Help Age India's chief executive.

Ageing isn't easy for the middle class, either. With the adoption of American-style retirement communities and nursing homes, Indian elders, and their children, have begun to confront some American-style problems. Retirees don't always find the paradise of card games, bingo, and like-minded company that their children imagine for them in retirement communities. Children living abroad feel guilty that they don't call and visit often enough, and their sequestered parents feel deserted and isolated.

“There's a lot of bitterness,” said Help Age India's Cherian.

“Feelings of isolation are always an issue as age advances, but it's a question of your own attitude also,” said Agrawal, who has clearly applied the lessons he learned treating patients to his own life.

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Friday, June 11, 2010

India: Bollywood does Hitler

What's up with all the Nazi symbols in India?

By Jason Overdorf
Global Post - June 11, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — You wouldn't expect a woman named Savitri Devi to be interred next to George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party. But Devi was no ordinary Hindu.

“Where Savitri Devi really hit the money was after World War II, when neo-Nazism morphed into a globalized form,” said British historian Nicholas Goodricke-Clarke. “It was talking about the white races against the colored people of the world, so therefore her globalized view of Aryans uber alles, transcending the limits of German nationalism, gave the post-War neo-Nazi movement an enormous fillip.”

Born Maximine Portaz in Lyon, in 1905, the French-Greek writer took the name Savitri Devi around the same time she devoted her life to Nazism and joined India's Hindu nationalist movement. Pop-philosopher, pseudo-academic, spiritualist and fascist, she penned “A Warning to the Hindus” to stir anxiety over the supposed threat posed by Christianity and Islam. She worked tirelessly to reconcile Hitler's cherished theory of the Aryan master race with the Hindu religion, and even argued that the Fuhrer was a living incarnation of Vishnu – one of Hinduism's principal deities. And, at least in part, it worked.

In a curious twist of fate — and ideologies — the weird love affair between a mostly brown nation and the world's most diabolical racist has turned out to be mutual. This week, for instance, Rakesh Ranjan Kumar, the director of a soon-to-be-released Bollywood biopic on Hitler, promised to reveal the Fuhrer's “love for India” (with singing and dancing?).

By all accounts, the film, which is titled “My Friend Hitler” and stars Bollywood stalwart Anupam Kher, is not hagiography, and Kumar, who said that an international release is planned for the film, is obviously courting controversy.

But it's inescapable that he's also aiming to tap the subcontinent's continuing infatuation with Hitler for box office returns. The dictator's autobiography, Mein Kampf, is a perennial best-seller here, where it is read by management students searching for business tips and budding Hindu nationalists seeking the inspiration behind Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh ideologue M.S. Golwalkar, whom historian Ram Guha aptly calls “the guru of hate.” And a few years back, nobody batted an eye when a restaurant called “Hitler's Cross” opened in cosmopolitan Mumbai, which has its own proponents of ethnic nationalism in the Shiv Sena and its offshoots.

"As a leader, [Hitler] was successful,” Kumar said at a press conference for the upcoming film, according to local news reports. “Why did he lose as a human being, what were the problems, what were the issues, what were his intentions, this is what we want to show."

So how did brown people come to love Hitler, and white supremacists come to love a brown country?

Devi found a ready audience for her deification of Hitler in wartime Calcutta, Goodricke-Clarke, author of a biography titled “Hitler's Priestess,” said in a phone interview. The local population, perhaps ironically, saw the Axis Powers as their future liberators. As Devi was preaching Hitler as Vishnu, Bengali freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose was arranging a meet with the Fuhrer in Berlin and forming his rebellious Indian National Army to fight with the Japanese against India's British colonizers. And Devi herself helped reconcile Hinduism's all-embracing ideology with the Hindu Mission's message of ethnic nationalism. A neo-paganist, she saw in Hindu India the living antecedent for the destroyed Egyptian and Greco-Roman cultures she admired and idealized, according to Goodricke-Clarke. “She related to this idea that the Indo-European people were the ones who came closest to perfection, and she saw Hindu India as the last place in the world that still celebrated the ancient pagan pantheon,” the historian said.

Later in life, though she settled in India, Devi fell out with the leaders of Hindu nationalism, Belgian scholar Koenraad Elst, a staunch defender of India's right, maintains in a recent article. He argues that the Hindu nationalist movement broke from Nazism early and definitively, when its founder VD Savarkar pledged support for the Allies and later for the formation of Israel. Moreover, he claims in a recent book, “The racial theory of caste is now a marginalized doctrine, championed only by people with a political agenda. It is espoused by white racists in the West and by ethnic separatists in India, strongly patronized and tutored by Christian missionaries.”

For neo-Nazis, Devi may have been the first person to claim that the Holocaust never happened. Her half a dozen-odd books, not including a memoir of her favorite cats, provided new pseudohistorical support for the theory of a mythical master race of fair-skinned Indo-Europeans. But, more importantly for neo-Nazi ideologues like Matt Koehl, Bill White, and James Mason — not to mention Charles Manson — Devi's writing helped to establish a kind of religious framework for Nazism. In 1982, shortly before her death, neo-Nazi publisher Ernst Zundel issued what must have seemed a tantalizing advertisement for a series of taped interviews with Devi and a new edition of her most influential work, “The Lightning and the Sun.”

“The Hitler cult revealed,” the notice read. “Discovered alive in India, Hitler's guru!”

Saturday, June 05, 2010

India's castes: Don't ask, don't tell, don't count?

For the first time in 80 years India may get a true tally of an ancient system.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
June 5, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — The 2,000-year-old Hindu caste system remains the most powerful force in Indian society.

Friendships, business ties and marriages live and die according to its dictates. Political parties carefully script their election tickets according to its mathematics. And an increasing number of government policies — including spiraling quotas for government jobs and university education — follow its logic.

But it's not polite to talk about it, and might even be dangerous to quantify it.

Yet in an unexpected turn, earlier this month the coalition-leading Congress Party led by Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh caved to pressure from opposition leaders and agreed to add a survey of India's myriad castes to the 2011 census, which began April 1. Weeks after the decision, jostling and debate rages on as India's politicians reflect over the potential upheavals that may result.

Many here fear that a new understanding of the various groups' numbers could disrupt the current political structure, while the upper crust fears another wave of escalating quotas will make it even more difficult for a young upper caste person to get a university education. But the momentum of caste politics makes a reversal seem impossible.

Broadly speaking, the caste system has Brahmins and Kshatriya at the top of the social order, followed by the trading castes known as Baniyas and scores of laboring castes such as the Yadavs, and beneath them all the erstwhile untouchables, whom the constitution calls the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

But the last official tally of the different groups was done in 1931, and present policies are based on extrapolations from those figures. An official count will no doubt have far-reaching and unpredictable implications.

Significantly, the caste census promises to determine just how many people belong to the country's so-called “Other Backward Classes,” or OBCs, who have made dramatic political gains since the Mandal Commission was formed “to identify the socially or educationally backward” in 1979.

Extrapolating from the 1931 census figures, the Mandal Commission estimated the number of OBCs at 52 percent of the population. It then went on to recommend that OBCs be included in the quota system for government jobs and higher education that had already been established for the erstwhile untouchables, and recommended increasing the proportion of reserved places from 22.5 to 49.5 percent of the total.

“[The] caste social order of the Hindu society and a large number of the other religious groups is oppressive,” said Rangarajan. “This is one way to open up some space. There is no magic wand. I see the caste census as part of that. It's fact finding.”

The caste census proposal is now sequestered in a council of ministers tasked with developing a plan for implementing the count – which the home ministry has argued could bring the whole census project crashing down, as the inclusion of caste might prompt people to fudge the numbers to ensure their group gets a healthy share of government benefits.

The new tally might justify a hike in spending for OBC welfare and scholarships, and it could have a dramatic impact on the controversial quota system.

Working backwards, the Supreme Court verdict on Mandal commission set a ceiling of 50 percent on job and education quotas and subtracted the existing reservations for untouchables to determine the quota for OBCs at 27 percent. But an official count is likely to spark fresh demands to make these quotas proportional to each group's representation in the population.

Already, the OBC leaders of the drive for the caste census, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Sharad Yadav, have stepped up their rhetoric. “In 20 ministries and 18 deparments, there is not a single OBC in the [highest paid] Group A category,” Sharad Yadav argued during a recent parliament session.