Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Nepal's other revolution: Red turns to pink

Thanks (unexpectedly) to Maoist rebels, Nepal is emerging as Asia's pioneer for sexual minority rights.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - November 9, 2011

KATHMANDU, Nepal — In the quiet courtyard of Dechenling Garden, a Bhutanese restaurant on the fringes of the capital’s bustling backpacker ghetto, Nepal's first openly gay member of parliament sips on a lime soda during a short break in his busy political schedule.

His name is Sunil Babu Pant. A young, maverick politician with dark, wavy hair and a close-trimmed goatee, Pant has already emerged as a leader reminiscent of Harvey Milk in his San Francisco heyday, pushing tiny, conservative Nepal into the forefront of the battle for gay rights.

"Nepal is going through tremendous transformation — politically, socially, economically, legally — so a lot of communities who had no space or voice before have emerged," Pant told GlobalPost.

Thanks, unexpectedly, to a Maoist rebellion and subsequent decade-long civil war, Pant and other activists have already made some big strides — and they're inching closer to making Nepal the first Asian country to legalize gay marriage. But the struggle for the rights of sexual minorities is intensifying here as lawmakers haggle over a new constitution nearly five years after the peace deal that transformed the tiny Himalayan kingdom into a democratic republic in 2007. On one side is a patchwork coalition that supports a more progressive platform, including gay rights, and on the other is a conservative alignment that believes gay marriage would threaten the religious fabric of Nepal's traditional Hindu society.

“A strong attack is going on against Hindu culture, Hindu religion and Hindu society,” said Shankar Pandey, a former legislator and central coordinator of National Religion Awareness Campaign, which urges its followers to adhere to the Hindu way of life. Like many conservatives, Pandey believes that homosexuality is an affront to the country's Hindu heritage.

Strangely, the new social and political space for sexual minorities has sprouted from the seeds of Nepal's attempted Maoist revolution. The Maoists — guerilla fighters who draw their support from the rural poor — were hardly liberals when it came to sexuality. Still, their hard-fought insurgency shook the establishment enough that no one political party has been able to achieve a clear majority in post-war elections, and that has increased the power and influence of small parties and tightly knit constituencies.

But after Nepal's major political parties reached a pivotal agreement to demobilize the former soldiers of the Maoist army Nov. 1 — paving the way for the drafting of a new constitution — it's not yet clear if all of those groups will be able to capitalize on those gains as the period of political turmoil comes to an end.

“It is not liberality, it is just unruliness,” said Pandey. “When there are no rules, no system set, whatever the environment or pressure groups want is what goes.”

In Pandey's view, Pant's entry to the legislature is a perfect example.

The founder of a non-profit advocacy group called the Blue Diamond Society and a gay-oriented travel agency called Pink Mountain Travel & Tours, Pant worked for the rights of gays, lesbians and other sexual minorities at the grassroots level for 11 years before entering electoral politics.

But when rules favoring Nepal's long-established political parties — and the conservative elites of Kathmandu — were suspended for the post-war Constituent Assembly elections, Pant saw a window of opportunity. For the first time, as a concession to the Maoist argument that past elections had not addressed Nepal's ethnic diversity and vast economic inequalities, more than half of the 601 legislators would be chosen through “proportional representation” — which allots seats to parties based on the proportion of votes they receive rather than granting seats only to candidates who win a plurality in their constituencies. Suddenly, there would be a host of new players.

"During the Constituent Assembly election we thought it was a good opportunity to lobby the political parties," Pant said. "We went from party office to party office and said we are a significant population, and if you include our cause in your party manifesto we can vote for your candidates. We took it lightly, just hoping that they would buy that idea."

To Pant's surprise, not only did the Maoist party take him seriously — it led the way in adopting resolutions related to gay rights. Meanwhile, the tiny Communist Party of Nepal-Unified (CPN-U), unrelated to the Maoists, asked him to stand for election himself.

"We had no expectations, no resources, no experience, nothing," he said.


The CPN-U didn't win an assembly seat in the formal election, but the party won enough votes to earn five seats under the rules for proportional representation. And because the party had carefully monitored the districts where it had done well, the tireless work of Pant's team of gay rights activists paid off. The party rewarded him by allotting him a seat in the new assembly.

As it turned out, the CPN-U's most votes came “exactly from those 15 districts where Blue Diamond Society has branches and we did the election campaign," Pant said, explaining his success.

Pant and other activists have already accomplished a great deal for Nepal's sexual minorities —people who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, transgender and intersex (those born with physical characteristics of both genders). With the conservatives' cherished rules in flux, the gay rights lobby succeeded in convincing Nepal's Supreme Court to instruct the new government to repeal age-old laws that made homosexuality a crime in 2007. A year later, the court directed legislators to draft new laws guaranteeing equal rights for sexual minorities and convene a committee to consider the implications of legalizing gay marriage in the new constitution. And this year, the Central Bureau of Statistics officially allowed transgender and intersex citizens to classify themselves as "third gender" for the purposes of the census.

"Previously, people thought [homosexuality] was an unnatural condition," said 25-year-old Durga, a student activist at Tribhuvan University. "But after 2007, people are changing. Now they are able to accept people from the LGBTI community in their villages and even in their families."

But despite progressive court rulings and nascent social transformation, homosexuals and transgenders continue to face discrimination and harassment. Even in Kathmandu, which thanks to higher incomes and the thriving tourist industry is Nepal's most cosmopolitan city, the absence of any real gay scene compels many young men to cruise the local Ratna Park for sexual partners. That leaves them vulnerable to police persecution. And though the police deny the charge, gay activists allege that the authorities have also recently begun "investigating" young men staying together in local hotels, according to Roshan Mahato, the 29-year-old president of the Nepal Sexual and Gender Minorities Student Forum.

“We only take action when these people are seen [engaging in sexual activity] in a public place. If they are doing anything openly,” said Nepal police spokesman Binod Singh. “Otherwise, the police doesn't interfere in their personal activities.”

The threat that this essentially conservative, traditional society will backslide on its reforms remains ever present, especially with a new constitution slated to take shape over the next few months. The issue of demobilizing the Maoist army settled, negotiations will now focus on the structure of a new, federalist government. As a result, loyalties will likely solidify around ethnic and regional identities, perhaps robbing smaller minority groups of the influence they have enjoyed during the interim. It is also unlikely the new system will incorporate as much proportional representation as the interim elections.

Even during the negotiations for the new constitution, some roadblocks have have emerged to the Supreme Court's progressive instructions on equal rights for sexual minorities.

In June, for instance, Nepal burst onto the radar of the world's gay community when an American lesbian couple was married in a Hindu ceremony that Pant's Pink Mountain travel agency helped to organize at a local temple. But that same month, the Ministry of Law and Justice submitted an updated penal code that specifically limited marriages to unions between a man and a woman and again defined homosexual acts as "unnatural sex offenses.” Similarly, in July, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to issue a passport to a transgender person, citing a limitation of their software system.


Pant says that despite those bumps in the road, Nepal will not reverse gears. Several legislators immediately objected to the law ministry's proposed recriminalization of homosexuality. Pant believes that indicates the political parties that he convinced to include rights for sexual minorities in their manifestos before the Constituent Assembly elections in 2008 will stay the course in 2012. Moreover, even the National Religion Awareness Campaign's Pandey agrees that sexual minorities' rights should be protected. And he says his insistence that marriage should not be considered among those rights cost him his position with the Nepali Congress.

“We believe everyone must have the right of protection. But where the word of marriage is concerned, that is different,” said Pandey. “Hindus believe marriage is only for procreation, not just for relation. Marriage is for the production or creation. Where there is no creation possible, there marriage cannot be imagined.”

Pant insists that narrow vision of Hinduism — which has no definitive text like the Bible or the Koran — radically oversimplifies the relationship that the religion, and Nepal, have had with sexuality for centuries. During Gaijatra, for instance, young men dress as women as part of a religious procession. Similarly, the Lakhe dance, performed during Indrajatra by masked dancers wearing lavish hairdos and colorful frocks, is “very much a reflection of gender non-conformity.”

“It's a small country, but there's a lot of diversity living in harmony and the indigenous culture has always been much more liberal in terms of rights, expression, sexualities,” Pant said. “Also, the Hinduism, Buddhism and mix of Tantrism has always been pretty liberal in terms of sexuality and gender roles.”

The young legislator is trying to prove that with his travel agency, Pink Mountain. Following the successful public relations effort of Nepal's first lesbian wedding — which generated headlines around the world in June — Pant aims to bring thousands of gay, lesbian and transgender travelers to Nepal by promoting the country as a gay-friendly tourist destination.

Pink Mountain offers a weeklong wedding and honeymoon package — Hindu or Buddhist — for around $10,000, as well as opportunities to do volunteer work related to sexual minorities. And this summer Pant's travel agency endeavored to turn Gaijatra, a traditional Nepali Hindu holiday that involves cross dressing, into “Gay Jatra” — an international gay pride event on Aug. 14. Tourist turnout wasn't so hot, as it happened, but more than 500 local gays and lesbians danced and chanted slogans in Narayanghat, a town about 160 kilometers south of Kathmandu, local press reported, noting that this was the first time that a large number of gay activists have demonstrated for their rights outside the capital.

“He completely screwed our annual Gaijatra festival, which he turned into Gay Jatra. It's actually a festival devoted to families who've lost their near and dear ones over the past year,” said Kunal Tej Bir Lama, a local restaurateur from the gay community. “But it turned into a spectacle of very badly overdressed drag queens.”

Lama worries that Pant's public relations campaigns — while they generate headlines and support from the plethora of international non-profit organizations based in Kathmandu — have made the LGBTI community seem more radical and more exotic than necessary.

“Because of his actions and campaigns, yes, a lot of people are aware of who the gay people are and what they do, but a lot of them also have very, very, very skewed perception of the whole thing,” said Lama said. “They think that most of us are just guys who dress up as girls, who put on a lot of heavy makeup, bad fashion, and basically work as prostitutes.”

Monday, November 07, 2011

Shiva's Rules: Union strikes threaten India Inc.

This year's spate of strikes gives an ominous glimpse into a possible future for Indian manufacturing.

Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - November 7, 2011

Editor's Note: The Shiva Rules is a year-long GlobalPost reporting series that examines India in the 21st century. In it, correspondents Jason Overdorf and Hanna Ingber Win will examine the sweeping economic, political and cultural changes that are transforming this nascent global power in surprising and sometimes inexplicable ways. To help uncover the complexities of India's uneven rise, The Shiva Rules uses as a loose reporting metaphor Shiva, the popular Hindu deity of destruction and rebirth.

NEW DELHI, India — This autumn, some of India's highest paid industrial workers took to the picket line.

One of the largest and longest running industrial actions to hit the country's manufacturing sector in recent years, the strike by employees at Maruti Suzuki's Haryana automobile factories sent an ominous signal.

In the '60s, '70s and '80s, frequent strikes and lockouts slowed India's industrialization, costing companies millions and causing industry to abandon some states like Kerala and West Bengal altogether.

Now it looks like those days of industrial turmoil may be on the way back. It couldn't have happened to a more important symbol of the new India.

Maruti Suzuki is the showpiece success story of India's post-1991 economic liberalization. One of the country's most respected companies, it ended years-long waiting lists for cars built by Hindustan Motors. And it paved the way for investments by the world's largest car makers by proving that manufacturing in India could be profitable.

The joint venture, in which Suzuki Motor Corp. owns a 54 percent stake, became the largest contributor to its Japanese parent's bottom line in 2009.

This fall's strike, which resulted in a wider-than-expected 60 percent plunge in Maruti's profits for the second quarter, suggested the company — and India — may be entering a new era.

“It's everybody's dream to work for a multinational company like Maruti Suzuki,” said 25-year-old Pradeep Singh, vice president of a new, independent union that workers at the company's Manesar plant fought to establish this fall. “But once you get hired and see the reality, it's a big disappointment.”

Singh is typical of India’s disgruntled union laborers. He has achieved what might be described as the Indian dream. His father, a farmer, ekes out a living from an acre or so of land. But Singh left the fields behind and effectively broke into the middle class with his job at Maruti.

He normally earns about $300 a month — nearly three times the national average income. Like many of today's workers, however, Singh has higher aspirations. Now, along with around 30 other union leaders, he’s under suspension for his activities during the strike, convinced fighting is the only way to get India Inc. to share its growing prosperity with the work force.

“Maruti is No. 1 when it comes to profit,” Singh said. “But when it comes to salary, it's around seventh or eighth.”

India's large corporations have faced 10 major strikes in the last three years, and things may well get worse before they get better. This year alone, there have been strikes and protests at Coal India, Bosch India, Air India, Comstar, Ceat Tyres, Volvo Buses and at textile factories in Punjab, according to Outlook Business.

“If the management does not learn to deal with the sensitive dimension of labor and their circumstances, I am afraid these kinds of things may increase,” said Kuriakose Mamkootam, a professor at Ambedkar University who has written extensively about industrial relations in India.

“There is already what I would call a hidden, unexpressed sense of grief and violence amongst the people.”

That tension stems partly from the gradual dismantling of India's socialist economic policies begun by then-Finance Minister Manmohan Singh in 1991. But successive governments' reluctance to swallow the bitter pill and reform some of the country's tougher labor laws has also contributed to the friction.

Prior to 1991, national unions helped put in place tough labor laws.

One such law forces firms with 100 or more employees to seek government approval before they can fire workers or close down. Labor laws also prevent companies from reassigning workers to different tasks, so there is no way for companies to adjust to changes in the market.

As a result, the official employees of companies like Maruti have it pretty good.

But because of those very same laws, those official employees make up a very small fraction of the work force.

Knowing they can't fire or reassign workers, India's large companies simply don't hire them. Instead, they outsource work to the so-called “unorganized sector,” which comprises companies with fewer than 100 employees. Or they employ contract workers through middlemen.

As a result, only 7 percent of India's 400 million laborers are employed by firms large enough to be compelled to follow the rules. The rest toil in grim sweatshops, often for less than the national minimum wage.

Efforts at reversing course have already been painful.

Since 1991, governments have increasingly looked the other way as even the largest firms assigned a greater portion of the workload to contract laborers whom they could not only hire and fire more easily, but also pay less.

“An in-between community is being created that can neither get a job, nor continue in agriculture, and they are being used as an army of reserve labor by capitalists to keep wage levels and other rights of the workers at a low point,” said Tapan Sen, general secretary of the Communist Party-affiliated Center of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).

For instance, the official Maruti employees were angered by company payment policies. Only about half of their ostensibly generous salary is guaranteed, workers say. The other half is a “production performance reward” that can be slashed by as much as 20 percent every time a worker takes a day off. Moreover, showing up a minute late in the morning — or from the seven minute break you get between 7 a.m. and noon — will cost you half a day's pay, the union alleges.

“In any manufacturing company, especially in assembly line operations, discipline on timings in shopfloor is crucial to the overall process. There are well-organized breaks for lunch, tea etc for every worker,” a Maruti Suzuki spokesman said, via email.

Base salary cannot be reduced for employees who miss work, and workers who lose their production performance reward can get it refunded if their attendance improves within three months, he added.

Those are not the only footnotes to the Indian dream, though.

Nearly half of the employees at Maruti's Manesar plant weren't “regular workers” at all, though they showed up every day, too, and performed much the same work. So while 1,000-odd regular workers like Pradeep Singh could hope to earn about $300 a month if they didn't miss any days, 1,200 contract workers could only earn about $120, said Satvir Singh, who heads CITU in Haryana.

“Salaries at Maruti Suzuki are the industry best for permanent workers and higher than stipulated wages by state government for contract workers,” Maruti's spokesman said.

Similar conditions prevail at companies like Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India, Nokia and Voltas, according to Outlook Business. It may not be coincidence that all of those firms have recently faced strikes.

“The only common thread is the issue of contract labor,” said Rajiv Kumar, secretary general of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. “That is quite clearly spreading all over the country.”

Now, though, the government looks set to double down.

On Oct. 25, just days after Maruti's striking workers returned to work, India's cabinet approved a landmark manufacturing policy. Designed to create 100 million new jobs, it aims to boost the manufacturing sector's output to 25 percent of GDP by 2022 from the current 16 percent — where it has stagnated since 1980.

But the new plan won't deliver the key reforms to improve infrastructure, facilitate land acquisition and ease labor laws that industry maintains are necessary. Instead, it simply calls for the creation of seven or so islands — mammoth industrial parks known as National Investment and Manufacturing Zones — where the usual rules won't apply.

As a staff editorial from India's Economic Times suggested, it is a “fine example of a policy for the sake of a policy.”

Or maybe it is something worse.

According to union leaders and industry representatives alike, successive governments moves to work around strict labor laws have played an important role in souring relations between labor and management.

In the controversial Special Economic Zones set up to encourage export-related industries, for example, companies misused their gated properties to fence out unions and violate labor laws, says CITU's Sen.

Similarly, new government sympathy for industry and a reduction in the number of labor inspectors to one for every 200 factories has weakened the enforcement of laws related to wages and working conditions, says Krishna Shekhar Lal Das, an industrial relations expert at the Institute for Integrated Learning in Management.

But at the same time, India's failure to reform its labor laws altogether has had disastrous consequences. On the one hand, the tough rules continue to prevent the manufacturing sector from growing, because India's tiny sweatshops can't compete with China's mammoth factories. Yet, on the other, by fighting to keep laws on the books that don't apply to most workers, the trade unions have ensured that for most of the poor neither wages nor working conditions can improve.

“They are working for a labor aristocracy, because their interests are tied to them,” Kumar said. “The real poor in this country cannot afford to be unionized.”

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Nepal: Formal closure to civil war

The Himalayan nation has reached a deal that essentially demobilizes the former rebel army.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - November 2, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — Nepal may have eliminated the single largest obstacle standing in the way of a resolution to the country's decade-long civil war.

But there are plenty of obstacles remaining.

After five long years of negotiations following the end of the conflict, the Himalayan nation's major political parties settled on a deal late Tuesday that paves the way for the final dissolution of the rebel army.

The deal will see the former Maoist soldiers, who fought government forces from 1996 to 2006, integrated into the national army — or sent home with a fat severance check.

Many tout the move as a step in the right direction, given that the deal essentially demobilizes the nearly 20,000 former rebels.

But with that stumbling block out of the way, next comes the nitty-gritty work of making a new government. Ironing out the details and drafting a constitution are surely going to remain contentious. The deal is likely going to take much longer than the month the political parties have allocated.

Nepal's civil war was started by the Maoist Communist Party in 1996, with the aim of overthrowing the monarchy and establishing a "People's Republic of Nepal." It ended with a peace deal 2006, which has since been monitored by the United Nations.

An estimated 15,000 people were killed during the conflict, and more than 100,000 displaced.

"We have concluded yet another chapter of the peace process. The main task now is to implement this," Prachanda, the leader of the Maoists, told reporters after signing the agreement Tuesday.

Under the deal, Nepal's main political parties — which include the Maoists and the Nepali Congress, among others — agreed to integrate as much as one-third of some 19,600 former Maoist soldiers into the country's official security forces, Reuters reported. The other two-thirds will receive a rehabilitation package including education, vocational training and financial aid of up to $11,500 to start a new life.

The former soldiers who are included in the national army will be restricted to non-combat operations, such as the construction of development projects, emergency-rescue operations and patrolling forests.

“This is really a major breakthrough,” said Prashant Jha, a Kathmandu-based political commentator.

“For the first time there's a formal agreement on the details of the peace process. Now the key challenge is implementing the agreement that has been signed.”

Indeed, the deal eliminated the most contentious issue of the peace process, which has made little headway since the shooting stopped five years ago.

“With the future of the combatants out of the way, there's no obstacle to moving ahead on the constitution,” said Anagha Neelakantan, senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Nepal.

No obstacle, that is, but politics.

Although Nepal's various political factions have been discussing the drafting of a new constitution for several years — as United Nations deadlines whooshed by — there is still no formal agreement on the most essential questions about what form the country's new government will take.

And because these actors include erstwhile monarchists and Maoist revolutionaries, not to mention a long list of ethnic groups competing for the country's scant resources, ironing out a deal won't happen overnight. Or, most likely, even within the month proposed in Tuesday night's agreement, according to Neelakantan.

For example, there is a broad consensus that Nepal's former unitary government will be scrapped in favor of a federalist structure to help address the vast inequality between the central Kathmandu Valley and poorer areas of the country — a major reason the Maoists first took up arms.

But there is no such agreement on how power will be shared between the central and state governments, on what grounds the states will be formed, or even how many states the tiny, mountainous country will eventually have.

“For any state that has historically been centrally administered to move to a federal model is a challenge,” said the political commentator, Jha. “What complicates it in Nepal is that this is a very diverse country, with many different ethnicities and many minority groups.”

That makes for tough questions, such as whether states should be formed along ethnic lines or named for ethnic groups.

But at least some of the framers of the new constitution hope to address longstanding grievances regarding social and economic inequalities related to ethnicity, caste and region with leveling measures called “preferential rights” that may prove even more contentious.

“Restructuring of the state into federal units will potentially be a hard negotiation, but the parties are still closer than they were a year ago,” said Neelakantan. “This is the start of formal closure on the war. That's the really important thing.”

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

India: burgeoning fast-food paradise

Across Indian cities, mushrooming malls are driving a revolution in the fast-food business.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - October 25, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — At the DLF Place mall in the upscale South Delhi neighborhood of Saket, shoppers and employees sit more or less side-by-side in a new “desi” food court, digging into traditional Indian dishes ranging from biryani to dosas to seekh kebabs.

There's something for everybody — at many tables three generations are sitting down together. But that's not the reason these traditional upstarts have succeeded in storming what was once the bastion of western brands like McDonald's and Pizza Hut.

Some of the city's most famous restaurants are represented here — some of them a century old — transformed by smart uniforms, cheery signage and shining show kitchens to look every bit as clean, efficient and modern as their multinational competitors. Welcome to the future of Indian fast food.

“[Quick Service Restaurants or] QSRs are quite successful in India,” said Arun Chanda, founder of New Delhi-based Mint Hospitality Consultancy. “Over the last five years, a lot of Indian companies have started getting into the franchising model and expanding into different cities.”

Credit marketers at DLF for inducing popular brands like Karim's, Nizam's, Moti Mahal, Nathu's Sweets, Rajdhani and Sagar Ratna — which had already launched multiple sit-down restaurants around New Delhi — to experiment with nascent fast-food franchises.

But the revolution is already underway across the country, as global chains seek to woo a broader cross-section of customers by incorporating traditional spices and ingredients into their menus. And local upstarts have begun to attract deep-pocketed financiers in the bid to build nationwide fast-food chains of their own.

“Even people who are into the five-star hotel business are thinking of getting into the QSR concept,” said Chanda.

According to Euromonitor and market-research firm RNCOS, India's $13 billion fast-food market is already growing 25-30 percent a year, and global players like Domino's, McDonald's and Yum Brands (KFC and Pizza Hut) are pushing into second- and third-tier cities.

Hardcastle Restaurants, development licensee for McDonald's in India, is planning a massive expansion, doubling its India stores over the next three years with an investment of $100 million. Meanwhile, Yum Brands plans to open 1,000 outlets — half of them KFC restaurants — on its way to $1 billion in revenue from India over the next four years.

Other multinationals like Burger King, Cinnabon, Dunkin Donuts, and Starbucks are not far behind — with stores already on the ground or aggressive launch plans underway.

With 60 percent of the Indian population currently under 30, it's no mystery why.

Call it irrational exuberance if you want, but this summer Indian investors judged Jubilant Foodworks — which owns the franchise rights to Domino's and Dunkin Donuts in India and sold about $150 million worth of pizzas last year — to be nearly as valuable as the U.S.-based parent company.

“We've now been in India for over 15 years, and we've actually seen the change right before our eyes,” said Amit Jatia, vice chairman of McDonald’s India. "The market is changing very significantly. People are eating out far more often than before, and I think the availability of international QSR brands has brought about that change.”

But as the success of DLF's “desi food court” suggest, the future of fast food in India isn't about pizza and burgers.

In deference to Indian religious sentiments, McDonald's doesn't even offer its signature Big Mac here, or any other beef or pork products. Instead, it offers the Chicken Maharaja Mac and items like the McAloo Tikki burger (a mashup of potatoes and peas, deep-fried and served in a bun), the McVeggie and the Paneer Salsa Wrap — along with the Filet-O-Fish, McChicken sandwich and Chicken McNuggets.

Similarly, Domino's and Pizza Hut don't offer any beef toppings, and offer a wide range of pizzas that incorporate traditional Indian ingredients and spices, such as the Domino's Keema Do Pyazza pizza, with onions, spicy minced goat meat and jalapenos, or Pizza Hut's Kadai Paneer pizza, with onions, green pepper, paprika, coriander and tofu-like unaged farmer's cheese. Food industry experts say these flavors are here to stay.

“We believe that we must respect the local culture. Therefore, around the globe we do products that are relevant for the local consumer,” said Jatia. “But we want uniquely McDonald's products. For example, we don't anticipate making a McDosa, but we have a Spicy Paneer burger. That has resonated very well with the Indian consumer. I feel that for global brands, a blend of local and international is the way forward.”

At the same time, Indian entrepreneurs are cracking the fast-food franchise model.

“We wanted to get the fundamentals right before we started expanding,” said Kiran Nadkari the CEO of Kaati Zone, a Bangalore-based chain. “Once you've got the back-end in place, you can expand rapidly. But during those early stages there's not much investment capital. So, for example, I bootstrapped for three years, from 2004 to 2007.”

Now, though, homegrown fast-food companies are expanding rapidly, and some are beginning to attract funding from venture-capital and private-equity firms. For instance, Kaati Zone — which sells Kolkata-style kathi rolls (spiced goat, chicken or vegetarian fillings wrapped in fried flatbread) — plans to add 80-plus new outlets to its 17 existing stores by 2013, with venture capital financing from Accel India, Draper Investment Company and Erasmic Ventures.

Mumbai-based Jumbo King — a 43-store franchise business that offers Maharashtra's famous vada pav (spicy, deepfried mashed potato on a bun) — plans to open 250 outlets this year. And Sagar Ratna — a 25-year-old South Indian food chain which bridges sit-down restaurants and fast-food outlets — recently sold a controlling stake in the company to New York-based India Equity Partners for $36 million. It plans to add 200 outlets to its 70 existing restaurants over the next three or four years.

“Even Jubilant took 15 years between when they started and their IPO,” said Nadkari. “Now, the valuation of Jubilant [which this summer nearly matched that of NYSE-listed Domino's Pizza Inc.] is showing investors that anything that's touching Indian consumers is hot, and they can get extraordinary returns from this.”

That makes India a burgeoning fast-food paradise — where you can get a six-course Rajasthani “thali,” or set meal, in 5 minutes flat, and then dash up the stairs or across the street to top it off with a McFlurry.

But it also means that someday soon, if all goes well, you just might be seeing some of these brands — or at least these flavors — at a shopping mall or street corner near you.

“We already export some of our products to the Middle East,” said Jatia. “We've done a lot of innovation work in vegetarian products, and there's a lot of interest across the McDonald's countries.”

Monday, October 24, 2011

India education: The chain school

Can a business model made famous by McDonalds revolutionize Indian education?

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - October 24, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — In a typical Delhi slum, sewage overflows from the drain alongside the street and scraps of colored paper and empty bottles tumble in the foul wind. Here and there, a spindly boy in threadbare briefs fetches water from the hand-pump and a baby, her eyes blacked with kohl, plays happily in the grime.

It's not an easy place to live. But even here, Ramesh Singh, a bicycle rickshaw driver, opted to send his son, Dhiraj, to a bare-bones private school when a pilot program for school vouchers gave him the chance several years ago.

“You saw when the teacher tested him,” Ramesh said. “He finished class three in government school, and he can't read anything!”

Rich or poor, Indians are abandoning the country's disastrously managed government-run schools in droves. Only about two-thirds of India's school-age children attend classes at all, and the fierce competition for places at private institutes means that waiting lists are enormous and it's difficult to win admission to any without pulling strings.

More discouraging still, because of its demographics India will need to build another 250,000 schools to meet its goal of universal enrollment by 2015. But that means there's a big opportunity, as well, some investors believe: India could well be the first country in the modern world where the business of educating kids from kindergarten through high school is, well, a business. Meet the would-be chain store of education: the Indus World School (IWS).

The school that Ramesh chose for Dhiraj, called R.S. Public School in homage to the legacy of Eton and Harrow, was not part of IWS or any other big corporation. When I visited the place, the paint was crumbling off the concrete walls. Its barred windows give it an aspect more penal than pedantic, and the children in the courtyard were forced to squint and shield their eyes against a fine grit whipped across the compound by the wind.

Still, at $6 a month, it cost less than the voucher that Ramesh received as part of a pilot program run by the Center for Civil Society, and the teachers actually showed up for work. Corporation-run chain schools would institute higher standards — perhaps even pioneering the franchise model in education.

"India needs entrepreneurs and organizations who are willing to build a scalable execution model of schools," said Satya Narayanan, chairman of Career Launcher. "In terms of numbers, these could translate into a chain of hundreds of schools over a five to seven year period."

With 14 schools in operation, mostly in second-tier cities but also including five rural schools, Indus World School has made a good start.

Earlier this year, the company secured second round financing from Gaja Capital Partners and sold an additional, undisclosed stake to Housing Development Finance Corp. for around $10 million — suggesting that the snowball is beginning to roll downhill. According to Narayanan, IWS hopes to operate 75 schools with over 40,000 students in five years time, which could pave the way for a wave of followers.

According to the entrepreneur, at least a dozen of India's large corporations are discussing similar ventures or investments. But the blue ocean market — 250,000 schools! — means he won't need to worry much about competition for bodies.

Nevertheless, Narayanan aims to make sure innovation isn't limited to the business model.

The company is steadily developing its own intellectual property for the curriculum, with a focus on age-appropriate linkages to career aspirations and higher education goals — music to the ears of middle-class Indian parents.

And the connection with Career Launcher — a test prep and college admissions advisory company that serves 100,000 from 225 outlets — ensures that IWS understands its target customers and their goals.

Can for-profit chain schools really step in where the state has failed — especially for students like Dhiraj Singh, whose parents can't afford to pay more than a pittance?

Studies of tiny, grassroots private schools and school vouchers suggest that the answer may be yes. So far IWS, like most elite Indian schools, offers scholarships for only a few hundred students. But the gathering momentum of the country's recently passed Right to Education law (RTE) could free up funds for private players.

"The RTE needs to be given an operating framework from the current 'intent' state," said Narayanan. "We can contribute immensely to [uplifting the poor] in just a generation if we can implement RTE smartly!"

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

In India, customers want the luxe life

Gandhi's homespun cloth or haute-couture? India goes up-market

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - October 12, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — When one of India's largest real-estate developers opened DLF Emporio — an exclusive shopping mall devoted to fashion designers and international luxury brands — the mall charged would-be patrons a stiff fee just to get through the doors.

The charge was about the equivalent of a week's salary for many Indians. The customers poured in anyway.

These days, the mall doesn't charge admission. But from the looks of things, it could still get away with it.

Even as the government debates whether 32 rupees a day (or about $0.65) is enough to survive on, the sellers of the world's most expensive and ostentatious brands are doing a booming business in India — a land whose most cherished idol once dressed in a loincloth stitched out of cotton thread he spun himself.

“The traffic in the mall has increased incredibly, because it's one of its kind in India,” said a salesman at Louis Vuitton's Emporio outlet. “We have all the luxury brands in a single location. That's a big advantage.”

Louis Vuitton, Ermenegildo Zegna and company aren't just for socialites and Bollywood stars anymore. Luxury retailers in New Delhi say that in India's major metropolitan cities, the market has expanded to include people from all professional backgrounds, and India's growing, and aspiring, middle class.

“We have a number of customers who come in to experience the store, even buying a belt or a shirt,” said a saleswoman at Ermenegildo Zegna. “We have a mix of customers. Yes, we do have lawyers who are looking for a business suit, but there are also people who need formal wear for social occasions.”

Clearly, the days when Mohandas Gandhi urged Indians to spin their own yarn and sew their own clothes are long gone.

Despite the economic downturn of the past year, India's market for luxury goods grew 20 percent last year to reach around $5.8 billion as top brands penetrated second-tier cities like Gurgaon, Pune, Chennai and Hyderabad, according to a new study conducted by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the global consultancy AT Kearney.

As the Hindu festival of Diwali approaches, and India enters the busiest shopping season of the year, CII and AT Kearney forecast that the country's luxury market will grow to $14.7 billion by 2015, despite continuing problems with infrastructure and curbs on foreign investment, the report said.

That's because even though the economy has slowed somewhat as the central bank works to rein in inflation, consumer confidence in India remains at an all-time high. In a recent survey conducted by Mastercard, for instance, more consumers in India were planning to buy luxury goods over the next year than in any other country in the Asia Pacific region, apart from Singapore — where the per-capita income is more than ten times higher.

“The kind of spending power people have is expanding, so Armani and Gucci is no longer a dream,” said Bhauya Nagpal, a salesman for Jimmy Choo.

According to CII and AT Kearney, jewellery, electronics, cars and fine-dining grew faster than expected, while apparel, accessories, wines and spirits have continued their strong growth. The market for jewelry, for example, grew 30 percent, compared with an expected 20 percent jump, while the fine-dining segment grew 40 percent versus expectations of a modest 10 percent blip.

That makes India the surprising darling of retailers combatting flagging sales in their traditional cash-cow markets in Europe and the U.S. Already, nearly all of the world's luxury brands are competing for a slice of India's new wealth, though currently the law limits foreign investment in single-brand retail businesses to 51 percent. Retailing experts say global brands will launch some 200 stores devoted to luxury brands by 2020.

Rolls-Royce sold 80 cars here last year, while Ferrari entered the market in May.

Zegna has tapped the haute Indian wedding market with a special “guru collection” of Nehru suits — named after Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister and the architect of its socialist economic policies — that run around $3,500. French apparel-maker Hermes unveiled a new range of limited-edition saris starting at $6,000 a pop over the weekend.

And even Paris Hilton recently visited the country to launch a luxury boutique that will sell her personal line of fragrances, handbags and apparel in Mumbai.

So what would Nehru think of the country's enthusiastic embrace of ostentation? Not so much, one expects. With more than 3 million wealthy households, India now has more affluent families than any European country, but the annual average income remains around $3,500. That's just enough for Zegna's take on Nehru's signature suit.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Blood diamonds: India plays the middleman

Conflict diamonds threaten Surat's booming polishing business.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - October 6, 2011

SURAT, India — This summer, the authorities in Surat, the commercial capital of the state of Gujarat, arrested two smugglers attempting to sell nearly a million dollars in so-called blood diamonds.

Close on the heels of similar busts, the arrest again raised fears that the chaotic conditions making this small city on India's Arabian coast the world's new diamond-polishing hub may also make it one of the weakest links in the fight to stop overlords from financing armies with the precious stones.

“Every month, diamonds are coming from Zimbabwe without a Kimberley Process Certificate (KPC),” said Kirti Shah, an elected official of the Surat municipal corporation who is also a diamond trader.

“But I'm the only person in the diamond market who will talk about it openly.”

Once known for processing small, cheap stones, Surat has gradually replaced Antwerp as the center for cutting and polishing nearly all of the world's rough diamonds — as local traders have invested heavily in technology and infrastructure to compete for large, flawless stones. (Antwerp remains a go-to for shoppers.)

Yet even as local factories have installed cutting-edge, laser-guided planning and marking software and the latest grinding and polishing machines, Surat's main advantage over polishers in Belgium and Israel remains its cheap labor force and a centuries-old, trust-based system of trading that keeps transaction costs low.

Every day, trading houses small and large rely on couriers to hand-carry millions of dollars worth of diamonds to Surat from Mumbai on local trains — with no protection but anonymity.

In Surat's markets, diamonds change hands on the street and zip back and forth across the city by motorcycle as traders haggle over prices. When a sale is finally made, nine times out of 10 the deal is done in cash, with nothing but a hand-written chit to record the transaction.

Last year, $30 billion worth of stones passed through this city, according to the Gem & Jewelry Export Promotion Council. That's 11 out of 12 of the world's diamonds.

And while there are no reliable estimates, it stands to reason that if nearly all of the world's legal diamonds make their way here, a good portion of the conflict diamonds do, too.

“It's a very big market,” said a senior investigator in the local branch of the directorate of revenue intelligence — the outfit responsible for combating smuggling, counterfeiting and other economic crimes. “So many brokers are trading on the pavement itself. It's very difficult to monitor.”

Diamond traders say that local press reports claiming that conflict diamonds comprise 15 to 30 percent of the market (citing unnamed sources) have exaggerated the problem. But with some 5,000 polishing units — around 1,500 of them tiny cottage industries scattered throughout the state — it's patently impossible to track each and every stone.

“This not a problem only for Surat, or only for India. It's a problem around the world,” said Damji Mavani, secretary of the Surat Diamond Association, which conducts seminars and other programs to raise awareness about conflict diamonds.

According to the revenue intelligence officer, who is not authorized to be quoted by name in the media, Indian revenue officials have only been monitoring the diamond trade since 2008, because diamond imports are not taxed.

Since the authorities began tracking the business, however, they have already busted traders with three consignments of blood diamonds, each valued around $1 million or more. In September 2008, revenue intelligence officials arrested two Lebanese men — Robai Hussain and Yusuf Ossely — with 3,600 carats in rough diamonds worth around $875,000 at the time.

This April, they caught two Indians — Jora and Prema Desai — allegedly attempting to sell 48,000 carats of conflict diamonds from Zimbabwe worth more than $2 million. And in August, Indian authorities arrested an Indian trader named Pravin Ajudiya and a Congolese national named Jean Tshinaga with some 10,000 carats in alleged blood diamonds valued around $950,000.

Writing in India Today magazine, journalist Shantanu Guha Ray recently cited local traders as saying that such conflict diamonds routinely come to Surat on dhows sailing from Dubai. But in each of the three cases broken by Indian officials, the alleged smugglers hand-carried the rough stones on international flights and were caught because of tips from local informants, the senior revenue official said.

“There may be many such carriers,” the revenue intelligence officer said. “But unless and until we get information, we cannot catch them.”

For opponents of the trade in conflict diamonds, India's frontier-style market presents a serious problem, mainly because the entire interdiction system hinges on documentation.

Since 2003, the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme has made it mandatory for diamond exporters to document every shipment of rough stones to certify that they do not come from conflict zones. According to the Diamond Trading Corporation — a subsidiary of De Beers, the world's largest diamond company — the scheme has ensured that blood diamonds account for less than 1 percent of the global trade, compared with 15 percent before there was any monitoring system.

But others are less sanguine about the certification scheme's success. Once a diamond is cut and polished, there's virtually no way to trace its origin, though a handful of retailers have tried to set up a method that would allow buyers to do so.

Meanwhile, the main market for cut diamonds is increasingly moving to countries like India and China, where the idea of “ethical consumerism” is even less common than it is in richer nations.

Last year, as the U.S. economy languished, around 70 percent of India's gem and jewelry exports went to diamond traders Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates.

“Essentially, illicit diamonds that bypass the early stages of the Kimberley Process (such as those from Gabon and Cameroon, or those smuggled from Cote d'Ivoire, Venezuela, or Zimbabwe) can be laundered through willing companies in the cutting and polishing industry,” Ian Smillie, chairman of the Diamond Development Initiative, wrote in a recent report.

“Arrests and the seizure of uncertified rough diamonds in the United States, the European Union, India and elsewhere demonstrate what may be the tip on an iceberg, one that the [Kimberly Process] has been unwilling to acknowledge or deal with.”

Non-governmental organizations like Diamond Development Initiative, Amnesty International and Global Witness have repeatedly criticized the Kimberley Process for failing to plug loopholes in the system, and, worse, for failing to crack down on offenders like Venezuela, Guinea, Lebanon and Zimbabwe.

But faith in the Kimberely Process has recently fallen to a new low. Activists walked out of a key meeting in June in what Global Witness termed a “vote of no confidence” triggered by a deal to allow Zimbabwe to sell diamonds from its violence-plagued Marange fields that “does not contain sufficient checks and balances to prevent substantial volumes of illicit diamonds from entering the global diamond supply chain.”

According to India Today, the deal allowed the Surat Rough Diamond Sourcing India Limited, a consortium of 1,500 diamond traders, to directly source rough diamonds from miners in Zimbabwe, making it more difficult for the Kimberley Process to track the stones.

Last year, Surat Rough Diamond Sourcing India Limited and the Zimbabwe government signed an agreement for the regular supply of diamonds worth $1.2 billion a year in exchange for training Zimbabweans in Surat's diamond-processing units, the magazine reported in May.

Many of those stones will doubtless wind up in Surat's “Mini Bazaar” — a small outpost compared to the main market in Mahidharpura, where there are some 50,000 traders, according to a local broker.

On a typical weekday afternoon here, hundreds of diamond brokers line the street. Clad in the standard cheap polyblend slacks, button-down shirt and rubber sandals, they sit on the back of motorcycles and on stoops, lean against shopfronts or squat on their heels, farmer-style, on the curb.

Behind them, in open-air shops, dozens of traders sit cross-legged behind rows of tiny desks, examining sachets of glittering stones with tiny jeweler's loupes.

If the roughs they came from once had blood on them, nobody would be the wiser, judging from the way polished stones change hands.

“Hello, hello, gentleman,” a local trader calls out from behind a tiny desk. Keen to make a sale, he spills a sparkling pile of half-carat diamonds onto the table from a paper sachet.

“All the documents are in Mumbai only, so there is no need to look at them,” he says when asked whether they are legal. “We buy the diamonds on trust.”

Monday, October 03, 2011

Analysis: India needs US-Pakistan friendship

Why India can't leverage the US-Pakistan spat, and what it means for regional stability.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - October 3, 2011

Editor's note: The idea for this article was suggested by a GlobalPost member. What do you think we should cover? Become a member today to suggest and vote on story ideas.

NEW DELHI, India — Indian diplomats and military strategists no doubt felt a twinge of satisfaction last month, when the just-retired chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staffs finally came out and accused Pakistan's spy agency of employing terrorist groups.

New Delhi had long hoped for a breakdown of ties between Washington and Islamabad that would put an end to billions of dollars in U.S. aid that it says Pakistan uses primarliy to amass weapons against India.

But as much as New Delhi may have hoped and prayed for such a rift, when the United States succeeded in patching things up following Adm. Mike Mullen's accusation that Pakistani intelligence was using the Afghanistan-based Haqqani terrorist network to wage a “proxy war” against U.S. forces, the sigh of relief was almost audible.

What India wants above all, is for Pakistan to stay in check. And the fact of the matter, experts say, is that the United States makes that possible.

“The unraveling of U.S.-Pakistani ties in recent days posed huge dilemmas for India,” said Harsh Pant, an academic with the Department of Defence Studies at King's College London.

It doesn't take much reading between the lines to see that whatever satisfaction India may have derived from hearing its own frequently repeated refrain from the mouth of America's highest-ranking military officer, it is more concerned about Pakistan being suddenly unleashed than it is about Islamabad's influence in Afghan peace talks or its diplomatic role in post-war Kabul.

That's because even though New Delhi has for years complained that the United States has overlooked Pakistan's alleged use of terrorist groups to wage a so-called proxy war against India, beginning with the Kargil conflict in 1999 and increasingly since Sept. 11, 2001 the United States has offered India its only leverage, however limited, over an increasingly reckless enemy.

“While there might be a sense of schadenfreude in certain circles in India, over the longterm [a rift between the United States and Pakistan] complicates the strategic realities for India,” Pant said.

Though “proxy war” has been its pet term for the Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence's activities for decades, New Delhi did not seize the moment following Mullen's statement to urge Washington to sever its military alliance with Islamabad. Rather, it issued a call for an extension of the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, which makes breaking that alliance impossible.

"For peace, stability and security in Afghanistan, it is imperative that the ongoing transition must be linked to the ground realities rather than rigid timetables,” India's Permanent Representative to the United Nations Hardeep Singh Puri told fellow delegates in the aftermath of Mullen's statement.

“This, the international community in its hurry to withdraw from a combat role in Afghanistan, will ignore at its own peril.”

Enemies since the bloody Partition that carved two independent states from the erstwhile British India, India and Pakistan have fought four wars since their creation in 1947 — three times over territory in Kashmir and once as part of modern Bangladesh's fight for independence from Pakistan.

But even though India has never lost, Pakistan has never given up. The region remains one of the world's hot spots, with many other conflicts threatening to boil over.

More recently, all eyes have been trained on the subcontinent since a terrorist attack on the Indian parliament and a subsequent nose-to-nose confrontation between Indian and Pakistani forces on the border raised fears of the world's first nuclear war in 2002.

But New Delhi's retreat from the brink then and its refusal to mobilize troops again after the November 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai suggest that another full-scale war between India and Pakistan is far less likely than once believed.

The reasons are simple. India's growing military superiority virtually rules out an invasion by Pakistan, particularly since Beijing has more or less made clear that its support begins and ends with looking the other way with regard to Islamabad's employment of terrorist groups to nip at India's flanks.

And Pakistan's substantial nuclear arsenal, superior missiles and well-equipped air force act as a more than sufficient deterrent to any military action by India — whatever the provocation.

“India has not shown interest in fighting, Pakistan or anybody. It has reacted to provocations rather than seeking to resolve its 'Pakistan problem,'” said Sunil Dasgupta, co-author of "Arming Without Aiming: India's Military Modernization."

By almost any measure, today Pakistan's military prowess simply does not compare with India's, according to figures tabulated by Global Firepower.

At $36 billion, India's defense budget is nearly six times Pakistan's expenditure of $6.41 billion, and if it came to financing a shooting war, New Delhi has $284 billion in foreign reserves to Islamabad's paltry $16 billion.

In terms of boots on the ground, India has a standing army of 1.33 million soldiers, versus Pakistan's 617,000. Its tanks and other land-based weapons outnumber Pakistan's by 75,000 to 16,000. Its navy is nearly 10 times larger, and its 2,462 military aircraft are almost double Pakistan's 1,414 — though some say Pakistan's pilots are both superior and better equipped, thanks to decades of American military aid.

There's only one problem, says G. Parthasarathy, a former Indian ambassador to Pakistan. And that's what America is only just beginning to confront.

“I'm glad that reality has dawned, rather late in the day,” said Parthasarathy, in response to Mullen's statement. “But [the Pakistanis] are not going to give up their jihadi assets. If you choose to keep your head in the sand, there's nothing we can do about it.”

Pakistan's singular focus on India — some might call it an obsession — and its willingness to employ any means necessary to frustrate its nemesis mean that it remains a serious threat for India.

Moreover, India's increasing regional role, and China's saber-rattling response, makes it impossible for New Delhi to match Islamabad's singleminded approach.

“India needs to deploy a substantial number of its forces along the Sino-Indian border, thereby attenuating its capabilities,” said Sumit Ganguly, a professor of political science at Indiana University.

“Separately, Pakistan has long adopted an asymmetric war strategy against India [by providing covert aid to terrorist groups] and conventional capabilities are not especially helpful in dealing with such a strategy. Also, because of Pakistan's nuclear weapons, India cannot respond using conventional forces.”

Things could well get worse before they get better. According to Pakistan's Ahmed Rashid, author of "Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia," Pakistan now faces economic strife, deadly ethnic tensions and an internal problem with the Islamic extremists it once fostered.

Meanwhile, civilian control over the military is at a low ebb. “Pakistan is on the edge of a precipice and one faulty step — either by the Americans or the Pakistan army — could plunge an already beleaguered state into meltdown,” Rashid wrote in a recent column for the BBC.

That leaves an ever-reluctant India — still punching below its weight, even as it seeks a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council — on the edge of a precipice, too.

“In the longterm, obviously, India and the U.S. are headed for strategic, economic, and social convergence,” said Dasgupta, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The policy challenge for the U.S. and India for some time now has been to figure out how to get from the short-term divergence over Pakistan to the long-term state of natural alliance.”

Thursday, September 29, 2011

India: bouncing back from the plague

After the plague hit Surat in 1994, an amazing thing happened: this Gujarat city cleaned up its act.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - September 29, 2011

SURAT, Gujarat — When an outbreak of the pneumonic plague struck Surat in 1994, the so-called “diamond city” took an unprecedented step, as far as India goes: It cleaned up its act.

Best known for its booming textile and diamond-polishing industries, Surat fell victim to the plague because it was among India's dirtiest cities — though its lackadaisical attitude toward garbage and sewage was by no means unusual in a country one might call hygiene-challenged.

But thanks to a coming together of public will and a host of reforms, Surat successfully went from one of the country's dirtiest cities to one of its cleanest in 18 short months.

Perhaps more remarkable, despite the exodus of S.R. Rao, the municipal commissioner who made it happen, Surat has more or less maintained its high standards, despite the city's rapid expansion over the past decade.

Is there a lesson here for the rest of India? Definitely. But it will take more than plagiarizing Rao's urban planning documents to get it done elsewhere — at least without a rash of epidemics.

“It's not a question only of the model, it's a question of the local people's behavior,” said K.D. Yadav, a professor of civil engineering at Surat's S.V. National Institute of Technology.

There's nothing like a dose of the plague to get a city thinking about hygiene, it turns out — especially a strain that's more virulent than the infamous Black Death.

Thus, in 1994, after 54 residents died and some 300,000 fled to escape a possible quarantine, the people who stuck around were willing to get with the program — working to eliminate the tons of garbage and overflowing sewers that had inundated the city with disease-carrying rats.

But the design of the system is instructive, too.

In an effort to make city officials more accountable, Rao divided the municipality into six zones, appointing a commissioner for each, so that it was crystal clear who was to blame for problem areas.

Rao ordered officials responsible for solid waste management to make personal field visits every day, rather than relying on dubious reports, and he instituted a grievance-redressal system for complaints and fines for violaters.

It sounds like basic stuff, and it is. The trick is that Surat made it work. And there the devil is in the details.

“At that time, the [Bharatiya Janata Party] BJP had won 98 out of 99 seats [in the municipal government], so there was no opposition,” said Hemant Desai, deputy commisioner of health and hygiene. “People believed it was for their benefit, so they cooperated.”

Thanks to that rare spirit of consensus, Surat was able to make a raft of changes to the system, almost overnight.

The city decentralized responsibility for garbage collection so thoroughly that each individual street sweeper answers for a specific stretch of road. Modern garbage trucks with closed beds conduct door-to-door collection of household trash every day — instead of the open bicycle-carts used in most Indian cities — and the garbage is taken directly to a local transfer center instead of being sorted on the roadside by collectors that moonlight in the recycling trade.

At the transfer stations for each zone, the city's 240 trucks unload 800-1200 kilograms of garbage to be sorted and collected into loads of 10 metric tons which go to the disposal site. And because the business is contracted out, and the contractors are paid by the ton, the garbage actually makes it to the weighing station.

Similarly, in wealthier sections of the city, there's a grant-in-aid scheme that allows 600 residential societies, who have the biggest stake in the cleanliness of their area, to take over their own sanitation system.

The entire system is computerized, so that residents' complaints come to the attention of city officials immediately, and the same sanitary workers that are virtually invisible in Mumbai and New Delhi are in Surat empowered to collect fines on the spot from people and businesses that dump trash on the roadside.

Instructively, it took a wee tweak of the system to make that happen — the sanitation department calls the fines “administrative charges” because it's not legally empowered to issue tickets — but its workers collect around $400,000 a year keeping residents on their toes.

In 2010, Surat dropped a notch to third in the rankings of India's cleanest cities, and the Gujarat Pollution Control Board has pointed out that the city's textile industry has not been nearly as successful in curbing industrial pollution as the garbage collectors have been in cleaning up the streets.

But even if it's less than perfect — it takes an eye well-schooled in Indian cities to see it as “clean” — Surat's transformation has already attracted would-be imitators from cities like Lucknow and Pune to study its garbage collection system, according to Desai.

And as the city population has doubled over the past 10 years, new residents have gotten at least one timely reminder that cleanliness has its benefits.

When a disastrous flood hit the city in 2006, Surat's showpiece sanitation system paid off, allowing workers to clear more than 300,000 metric tons of garbage and debris in less than a month, and Rao's successor in the city commissioner's office, S. Aparna, took advantage of the tragic destruction of the makeshift shanties of thousands of slum dwellers to relocate them into properly constructed, low-income housing she financed with money from the centrally funded Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM).

“We have been fortunate in getting officers who are really enthusiastic about development,” said S.V. National Institute of Technology's Yadav.

And that right there may be the lesson for India — even if it is bittersweet. Government works. But only if people make it work.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

India: fight to preserve dying languages

A new survey of India's hundreds of languages could have far-reaching political implications.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - September 18, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — This fall, a plucky Indian professor of English will fire the first shot in a battle to revolutionize how this large, diverse country perceives itself.

The key to his project: an army of some 2,000 volunteer linguists, translators and typists.

For the first time since the British Raj, Ganesh Devy's People's Linguistic Survey of India will catalog the nation's myriad tongues. The enormous exercise will call into question colonial definitions of civilization and ethnicity that have persisted through the 60-year history of independent India.

“This is one of our heritage treasures that we have not been overtly aware of,” said Anvita Abbi, a professor of linguistics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. “It's very important to conduct these surveys and catalog [these languages], because it will help us formulate the appropriate language policy. We do not have an appropriate language policy [in India] because we don't have an idea of the breadth and length of lingusitic diversity.”

Reminiscent of Sir James Murray's Oxford English Dictionary project — which drew on the knowledge of hundreds of volunteers, including a prolific murderer, for information about the origins of English words — the People's Linguistic Survey promises to be a remarkable resource for academic researchers and a vital aid in the struggle to preserve dying tongues.

But the growing stack of tomes may have broader implications, too, for India's education system, and even the political organization of its 28 states and seven union territories.

“This will provide good material for fresh thinking about cognitive categories in every walk of life,” said Devy, who is a professor at the the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology in Gujarat.

“If I may say so, in all modesty, perhaps this will come to be seen as one of the more important linguistic projects during the last 100 years in India,” he said.It is indeed a huge endeavor.

The original British language survey took some 30 years to complete. More recently, India's registrar general, which conducts the census, has taken 15 years to survey just four states.

But Devy's army of volunteers have already finished work in nine states. Progress is underway in seven more. The first results are slated, from Jharkhand, to be published in November — with Gujarat and Maharashtra ready for the World Languages Meeting in Gujarat in January.

Devy expects the entire project — including a series of books in English — to be finished by the end of 2014.

“I have been working with the languages of the tribal communities of India for the last 20 years, working with the tribal communities, so I have been able to set up quite a large network of individuals interested in looking at language identity, language loss, language empowerment, and issues like that,” said Devy.

It was through that network that the professor recruited an army of volunteers whose efforts have already put the government to shame.

“These volunteers include professional linguists, teachers, cultural activists, farmers and villagers. It is a cross-section of Indian society,” Devy said. “Of course, my list is deficient: I don't have any criminals or black marketeers.”

To aid researchers, each language will be detailed with a 1,000-word history, a brief glossary and some examples of poems and stories. And based on preliminary findings, the official number of Indian languages will likely rise from the Raj-era figure of 179 — of which a paltry 22 are officially recognized by the constitution — to nearly 900.

However, it's the main reason for the expected increase that makes the project revolutionary.

When British linguist George Abraham Grierson conducted his Linguistic Survey of India in 1894, he ignored the languages of many nomadic tribes. He classified as dialects many other tongues that local people used to define their ethnicities. And he neglected a large part of South India because the Nizam of Hyderabad in what is today the state of Andhra Pradesh refused to cooperate.

At least partly as a result, when first the British and then Indian authorities divided the country into language-based states, many sizable groups found themselves split by separate administrations and robbed of political influence in keeping with their numbers. For instance, planners deemed the Gond tribe insignificant because the Gond language had no written literature or written script (until 1928) — so the group was scattered across five different states.

“These states were formed irrespective of the number of speakers of languages,” said Devy. “To give you an example, the Munda group, the Santhal group, the Bhil group – they did not get their states.”

These linguistic boundaries have already proven controversial. Since 1960, when language-based agitations forced the Bombay State into today's Gujarat and Maharashtra states, nearly a dozen new states have been carved out on linguistic or ethnic grounds, and the troubles aren't over.

Ethnic rebellions still simmer across the country, demanding separate states, or even nationhood, for the speakers of Nepali, Bodo and other languages that borders — and, too often, government budgets — have ignored.

At the same time, Grierson's language survey, and independent India's subsequent propagation of its inherent prejudices, has had a disastrous impact on India's many indigenous tribes.

“The marginalized people are speaking marginalized languages,” said the University of London's Abbi.

In the most dramatic instances, languages — and sometimes the people who speak them — have simply ceased to exist. Last year, for example, when an 85-year-old Andaman islander named Boa Sr gasped her final breath, the Bo tribe and the Bo language were irrevocably lost.

“With the death of Boa Sr and the extinction of the Bo language, a unique part of human society is now just a memory,” Survival International's Stephen Corry remarked at the time. “Boa’s loss is a bleak reminder that we must not allow this to happen to the other tribes of the Andaman Islands.”

But even where tribal communities remain robust in numbers, the low status afforded to their languages has helped to keep them isolated and excluded from India's snowballing economic development.

"Only around 15,000 people in India speak Sanskrit, while some 80 million speak various tribal languages in central India alone,” said Shubhranshu Choudhary, founder of CG Net Swara, a mobile-phone based news platform for Indian tribal peoples. “Yet All India Radio, the only source of news for many rural Indians, broadcasts frequent bulletins in Sanskrit and none in these tribal languages."

Though various studies have shown that children learn better when taught basic concepts in their mother tongue before attempting to master a second language, India prioritizes just 22 out of the 900-odd languages that Devy seeks to catalog, and the state's promised free and compulsory education is most often available in fewer still.

“In the Constitution of India, there is a special schedule of languages, which alone receive official support,” said Devy. “When the schedule was created after independence, it had 14 languages. Now it has 22. All the funds for primary, secondary and higher education can go only to these languages.”

Not surprisingly, perhaps, tribal literacy rates lag behind those of the general population, and only about one-fifth of the so-called “Scheduled Tribes” noted by the Indian constitution as historically underprivileged are attending school, according to the latest census.

“If we don't include these langauges in our education policy, obviously we are discriminating against them,” said Abbi. “We have a reservation policy [that mandates quotas in jobs and higher education] for the [historically underprivileged] Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. But the reservations are for the tribe, not the language. This is the reason why tribals want to forget their languages.”

Meanwhile, the proportion of tribal peoples living below the poverty line, at nearly 50 percent, is also “substantially higher than the national average,” according to the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes.

“My aim is not to find which is the language that is spoken by fewer than 5 percent, and how will I revive that language,” said Devy, who founded a university for tribal peoples known as the Adivasi Academy in 1999.

“My aim is to see where a sizeable number of people exist, have a speech tradition, a language of their own, but because of the denial of the language in legitimate educational spaces this community is suffering on the developmental scale.”

Making sure the world knows that these languages exist is the first step.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

India: soft-core porn makes a comeback

Before the internet, Indian porn stars were big — literally — but the films showcased more sexuality than skin.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - September 7, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — On a hand-painted poster for a 1990s' grade-B Indian film "Qatil Jawani" ("Murderous Nymphette"), a plump and naked actress sits astride a shirtless man, her head thrown back in apparent ecstasy as the man's hands paw at her chest.

Once ubiquitous in so-called “morning shows” at theaters across the country, soft-core films like "Biwi Anadi Sali Khiladi" ("Innocent Wife, Cheating Sister-in-Law") and "Kaam Tantra" ("Principles of Sex") have slowly disappeared from the big screen in India with the increasing availability of hardcore pornography on the internet.

But now, as mainstream cinema sheds its former reticence about sex and female sexuality, Indians are beginning to take a second look at soft-core porn, this time for what it says about Indian culture.

This December, television soap magnate Ekta Kapoor will release “The Dirty Picture,” a mainstream Bollywood biopic about Silk Smitha — a skin-show specialist from the '80s who crossed over to perform sensuous so-called “cabaret” numbers in mainstream films.

More subtly, in this year's "Tees Maar Khan," a Hindi action comedy film, imported British-Indian bombshell Katrina Kaif made waves with the song, “Sheila Ki Jawani," or "Young Sheila." The song was an homage to the Hindi title of one of Silk Smitha's softcore flicks, “Reshma Ki Jawani," or "Nubile Reshma."

And in New Delhi this week, Wieden+ Kennedy (W+K) ad agency is presenting an exhibition of soft-core porn posters as, well, art.

“School kids, college students and even grown up men used to go to these movie halls just to see a glimpse of a woman bathing or a random love-making scene,” said W+K executive creative director V. Sunil, whose personal poster collection is on display in the exhibition called "Morning Show."

Before the globalization of sexuality that came with the internet, India's porn stars were big — literally.

Silk Smitha herself was no waif. Looking especially buxom packed into skimpy clothes, she knocked down evil thugs like bowling pins – highlighting a peculiar facet of India's soft-core porn.

The Indian films that were once labeled pornography were less about nudity and graphic sex than they were about female sexuality, according to Meena T. Pillai, a cultural critic at the University of Kerala — the state where the softcore porn industry was centered, due to its relatively liberal censor.

Apart from voluptuous stars and voluminous cleavage shots, the only real distinguishing factor of pornographic films was that they centered on a sexually aggressive woman, in contrast to the demure domestic ideal.

“You'd be shocked if you actually saw a Malayalam [language] softcore porn movie. [The camera] basically stops at the thigh. It doesn't ride further up than that,” said Pillai. “But the moment you show women's desire, that movie would automatically be labeled porn.”

I.V. Sasi's 1978 “Avalude Ravukal” ("Her Nights"), for example, was labeled soft-core porn simply because it dramatized the story of a prostitute and depicted the heroine — played by Sasi's wife, Seema — exercising her power over men by offering and denying them sexual favors.

Similarly, the titillating 1989 film “Layanam” — starring Silk Smitha — depicted three adult women seducing a young man.

Other soft-core hits, like “Air Hostess Girls,” apparently stuck to more tried-and-true scenarios.

To make up for any lack of skin, theater owners and distributors illegally spliced in random sequences from foreign films — splashes of nudity or even hardcore porn.

The practice was so common that in Kerala it earned its own classification as “bit cinema,” and occasionally found its way onto theater promos like the one for a film called “Honey, I Love You,” where a white woman in a bikini is embossed with the tag line: “THE GOOD PARTS. THE SEXY PARTS. THE BODY PARTS.”

Following Silk Smitha, the hottest heroine in the Malayalam porn business was a buxom young actress named Shakeela who just kept getting bigger as she got bigger — appearing in more than 50 movies.

“In Kerala, in the south, we like slightly bulky women,” explains Sunil. “Anyone with big boobs is a big thing.”

Delhi bomb: Experts see failure to adapt in terrorist strike

With an alphabet soup of intelligence agencies, India has ignored old-fashioned policing.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - September 7, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — Hours after a powerful explosion rocked central New Delhi, killing 11 people and leaving dozens more seriously injured, the city is still reeling.

But the spontaneous outrage directed toward Congress Party scion Rahul Gandhi when he attempted to visit some of the blast victims at a local hospital this afternoon offers a strong hint of where public opinion is headed.

The bottom line: Today's blast marked the 19th terrorist strike in the Indian capital in 15 years, and despite nearly as many revamps and restructures, neither today's Congress-led government nor its predecessors from the Bharatiya Janata Party, have taken effective measures to improve internal security.

Instead, “there has been a lot of utterly wasteful symbolism in the creation of a number of meta institutions that have no utility whatsoever,” said Ajai Sahni, executive director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management.

“Despite all our internal security problems for the past 60 years, we still don't have a counterinsurgency policy,” said Kishalay Bhattacharjee, internal security chair at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses.

“We do not have an anti-terrorism policy. So anything that is decided is very ad hoc. It's very knee-jerk and it's decided on the spur of the moment to allay the public fear or calm down the anger, and then it lapses back into non-implementation mode.”

At 10:17 a.m. Wednesday, an improvised explosive device reportedly made with ammonium nitrate was detonated among a crowd of people gathered outside the Delhi High Court.

Apparently hidden in a briefcase, the bomb generated a powerful explosion that killed several people on the spot and lacerated many others with shrapnel. By evening local time, 11 people had died from wounds sustained in the blast, and the tally of the injured had climbed to more than 70.

Every Indian politician of note and more than a few foreign luminaries expressed their horror and disgust. And opposition politicians declared their solidarity with the government in the midst of the crisis.

But when the usually nimble-footed Gandhi arrived on the scene at Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, where victims were being treated, angry bystanders shouted slogans demanding that he “go home or back to where he came from,” according to India's Economic Times newspaper.

Though Gandhi was just a stand-in for the government, or politicians, or the powers that be, the angry reaction was real and justified. From the 2001 attack on parliament to the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India's security establishment has had the same, tired response to terrorism, according to experts. They talk. They draw up some papers. Maybe they even create a new intelligence agency. But on the streets, where the actual work of policing happens, nothing changes.

“Forget about intelligence,” said Bhattacharjee. “We do not have the basic security and surveillance infrastructure working in this county. If you go to the mall or cinema hall, the metal detector is there, but half the time it doesn't work.”

In this instance, India's intelligence agencies reportedly had passed information about a possible terrorist attack on to the Delhi police. However, it was apparently not specific enough to generate an action plan. And that's precisely where the problem lies.

“The police is the weakest link in our addressing of internal security challenges,” said Bhattacharjee. “[For the system to work], the police has to be the strongest nodal agency. There is no army out here, or paramilitary forces working out here.”

Nevertheless, India has repeatedly ignored reform at the grassroots level in favor of snazzy acronyms and big-fix fantasies. The National Investigation Agency, for instance, was designed to eliminate information getting lost in the shuffle by providing a single node for intelligence about terrorism.

The National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) was constituted to do essentially the same thing for operations. And the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) — inaugurated Sept. 1 — is intended to put all that lovely intel together in a central database.

The only trouble is that India's problem isn't that it has too much information, or that it's too disorganized, says Sahni.

“The reality is we have very small flows of information from the ground,” he said.

The best case in point? The most effective measure to combat terrorism that India has proposed in recent years is a database known as the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network System (CCTNS). But the way that it is being introduced virtually guarantees its failure, Sahni believes.

“It's no use creating these big computer centers in Delhi if there isn't one computer and one man to operate it in every police station,” he said. “We are trying to do these things top-down, when we ought to improve the system from bottom-up.”

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Will the US lose Pakistan to China?

Analysis: Why India's biggest fear could offer salvation.

Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - August 8, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — With a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan on the horizon, India has been caught between cheering Washington's moves to rein in Pakistan's military and bewailing the possible fallout if America "loses" Pakistan to China.

Unlike the United States, which can take its guns and go home, India will have to deal with the fallout of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistani radicalism for the next decade.

A resurgent Taliban and the return of a radical Islamic regime in Kabul could create a new safe haven for anti-Indian terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba — the Pakistan-based terrorist organization responsible for the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai.

Some analysts fear that even as Islamabad works to bring the Taliban on board for a peace deal in Afghanistan, the Taliban leadership may help broker a settlement between Pakistan and various domestic terrorist groups like the Tehrik-i-Taliban, uniting the various jihadi organizations to focus on India, according to Indiana University professor Sumit Ganguly.

Realistically, the United States won't cut and run in 2014, but it will reduce its presence and convert its counterinsurgency operations into "counterterrorism plus," says Christine Fair, a professor at Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies.

The recent move to freeze $800 billion in military aid to Pakistan is probably as much a signal to Congress that the State Department knows what it's doing than an indicator of any real plans to change horses midstream.

But let's play what if.

Despite concerns about China's rising influence in the region, losing Pakistan — an unlikely, if not impossibly bold maneuver — could be the most profitable move Washington has made in the War on Terror since Sept. 11. And India could benefit even more than the United States.

The conventional wisdom in New Delhi is that China uses Pakistan as a tool to thwart India's rise as a regional power, while Beijing sees the growing strategic partnership between India and the United States as part of a broader effort to prevent China from developing interests any further afield.

But even though there is more than a little truth in those perceptions, the United States may have an opportunity to create a paradigm shift in the politics of the region with a change in the way it views Pakistan — paradoxically gaining influence by ceding power.

For 50 years, America has endeavored to create a strong, democratic ally in Pakistan by doling out billions of dollars in economic and military aid, only to watch with horror as it emerged as one of the most virulently anti-American countries in the world and a covert sponsor of terror, Lawrence Wright argued convincingly in a recent issue of the New Yorker.

Because aid flows through the military establishment and the Inter-services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), it seems, American cash has empowered a shadowy regime of spooks and soldiers at the expense of the legitimate civilian government. But that's not the only compelling case for turning off the tap now, as Islamabad attempts to extort a dominant role for Pakistan in post-war Afghanistan.

Washington could save billions of dollars a year and stick Beijing with the bill at a single stroke, even as it alleviates Chinese fears of containment or encirclement by granting it equal responsibility for guaranteeing security in its own backyard.

More importantly, granting China that responsibility would likely compel Beijing to take a leadership role in managing and reforming Pakistan, rather than stirring up trouble with the confidence that the U.S. is riding herd. It would also address a simple reality: China already exerts more influence over Pakistan than the United States.

"I don't think the Americans have done enough to reach out to China," said Fair. "I don't think they've done enough to reach out to Saudi Arabia. They have a lot more influence than we do."

Moreover, paranoid fears aside, Beijing has repeatedly shown it has no interest in pushing Pakistan over the brink. In 1999, the Chinese thwarted Gen. Pervez Musharraf by refusing to support him in the Kargil War against India, for instance. Likewise, it was Beijing (not Washington) that induced the Pakistani government to send troops in to root out Islamic militants barricaded in the Lal Masjid in 2007.

And, most recently, when Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani sought a Chinese pledge of support following Washington's decision to freeze $800 billion in military aid, Beijing maintained a studied silence.

"It is Pakistan that wants China more than China wants Pakistan," said Suba Chandran, director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies.

Neither the United States nor India can match China when it comes to playing hardball with Pakistan's military establishment. But both strategic partners could do a great deal more to promote Pakistan's civilian institutions if they focused on trade, according to Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council.

For instance, by expanding so-called "reconstruction opportunity zones" — where manufacturers enjoy preferential tariffs for exports to the United States — America could reduce the need for humanitarian aid at the same time it strengthens its economic ties with civilian Pakistanis. Similarly, removing various roadblocks could boost trade between India and Pakistan from today's $2 billion to $42 billion a year — creating a strong, new economic impetus for peace that might well spill over into Afghanistan.

"The pressure will grow on the military establishments to tone down their rhetoric and stop talking to each other as adversaries as the two countries economies are increasingly going to be linked," Nawaz said.

Meanwhile, said Chandran, a comparable increase in Sino-Indian trade promises to make China and India economic partners in the upcoming "Asian Century."

If, that is, China and India can resolve a niggling border dispute and Washington can convince Beijing that the Indo-U.S. strategic partnership is not part of a secret plan to keep China down.

Hollyworld: India in 3D

One savvy Indian entrepreneur bets against MGM, Sony, Disney, Warner Bros ... and, well, just about everybody.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - August 11, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — A few months ago, bargain-basement Bollywood filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt released India's first 3D film, a schlocky teen horror flick called "Haunted."

Against the odds, it was a sleeper hit — but not because of stellar performances or even slick marketing. Its success was due, largely, to one Indian entrepreneur's decision to take on the biggest Hollywood studios in the business.

The Indian film industry — until recently a "single genre" business of epic song-and-dance family tearjerkers — has never been much for costly special effects. But as Hollywood's biggest guns put their muscle behind 3D and Indian producers began pushing the envelope with films like Bollywood's "Krrish" and Tamil cinema's "Robot," Sanjay Gaikwad saw the glimmer of an opportunity for a cheap, Indian-made rival to Hollywood's 3D technology..

"In Hollywood, when they create the movies their main revenue comes from North America and they look at territories like India as incidental business, so the critical mass [for 3D] was coming from somewhere else," Gaikwad said.

"But in India, the kind of response that 3D content got was phenomenal, so obviously there was a lot of interest generated among Indian movie producers."

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the number of 3D releases in India has increased steadily over the past two years. Globally, eight of the top 20 grossing films in the first eight months of 2010 were 3D, compared with only three in 2009 and one in 2008, and the consultancy believes that the trend is set to continue despite risk of weak films diluting audience interest.

Meanwhile, 3D has already emerged as the biggest driver for Gaikwad's other business — the digitalizing of cinema screens.

As CEO of Mumbai-based UFO Moviez, Gaikwad had already revolutionized India's film distribution business by convincing thousands of single-screen theater owners in the hinterland to convert to digital — creating his own, cheaper alternative to the technology being promoted by Hollywood's Digital Cinema Initiatives, a virtual cartel comprising Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, 20th Century Fox, Universal Studios, The Walt Disney Company and Warner Bros.

So, when he saw James Cameron's "Avatar" fill multiplexes with audiences ready to pay a 25 percent premium for 3D, it was like deja vu.

"When we started our digital cinema business in 2005, we knew that when everything got digitized moving to 3D would be much easier than during the analog days," said Gaikwad.

"Eventually, it was proven when Hollywood studios started releasing a large number of 3D movies over the last two, two-and-a-half years. That is the time we realized 3D is here to say."

Ten years ago, Gaikwad convinced theater owners to convert to digital so they could download new releases instantaneously — filling seats by beating local pirates to the punch. But with 3D, it was a tougher sell.

Apart from a handful of multiplexes in metropolitan cities, Indian movie theaters earn 90 percent or more of their revenue from Indian films — not Hollywood blockbusters like "Avatar." After a decade of effort by DCI, the Hollywood cartel had only managed to sign up 76 theaters.

Meanwhile, until this year, no Indian had ever made a 3D film, and as long as only a handful of big city screens had the technology to show them, they weren't about to start, either.

"Unless you have that critical mass, you can't spend that additional budget for 3D content, and if you don't have any 3D content then people are not interested in investing in 3D infrastructure, so it was becoming like a chicken and egg story," said Gaikwad. "That is the time we decided to do something different."

To bridge the gap, Gaikwad's UFO Moviez spent a year-and-a-half creating its own 3D technology, which doesn't require a silver screen and costs about a third of what Hollywood's DCI 3D technology costs to install. Then, because the DCI agreement meant that he wouldn't be able to show films produced by the big seven Hollywood studios, he approached Indian cinema owners and offered to give them his 3D projectors for free, in exchange for a modest cut of the proceeds for upcoming movies — at 10-15 rupees per ticket.

"The capital cost is borne by UFO, whether it is changing the screen from the white screen to silver screen or by putting this 3D box and the additional projector," Gaikwad said. "Only when 3D movies are played do we recover our costs. That is how we started aggressively going into the market."

The bet is already paying off — at least in terms of expansion.

Currently, UFO Moviez has inked deals to install its 3D projectors in 200 Indian cinema halls, and Gaikwad says they will be up and running in 500 theaters by March 2012. But that's only the tip of the iceberg. UFO Moviez has tapped around $60 million in financing from Providence Private Equity. And with a planned investment of around $20 million, UFO is targeting 1,500 screens by the end of next year, ready to cash in on a wave of new Indian 3D content.

Ten made-in-India 3D films are reportedly slated for release this year, and according to the Bollywood rumor mill — "Haunted" made a big enough splash that the upcoming 3D films may well include the third installment of the blockbuster "Dhoom" franchise ("Dhoom 3 in 3D") and superstar Shah Rukh Khan's much anticipated superhero film "Ra.One."

The company will recoup its costs after just 10-12 Indian 3D releases. But can UFO Moviez go head to head against the DCI cartel and make money? Yes and no, says Gaikwad.

"The Hollywood Content has a [different] audience profile, whereas we still see 90 percent [revenue] from Bollywood movies and there's a large number of single screen theaters," Gaikwad said.

"Obviously, the single-screen theaters cannot afford the technology which is recommended by Hollywood studios so they are looking at the most cost effective without any compromise on quality. That is the solution which we have provided."

At the same time, though, UFO Moviez has cracked the window for Hollywood filmmakers who haven't pledged their souls to DCI to get their 3D films into more theaters across India, and the makers of movies like "Drive Angry," "Sanctum," and the "Nutcracker" have already leapt at the opportunity.

"Barring those seven studios, the other independent movies which come out of Hollywood are getting released on the UFO platform whether in 2D or 3D," Gaikwad said.

Of course, with only one film in the can, it's hard to say for sure if Gaikwad's 3D bet will pay off. He could sink or swim on the basis of a few terrible 3D movies, and Indian producers are notorious for their hit-or-flop, scattershot approach to the business. But the results from "Haunted" suggest that 3D could give an added boost to future genre-breakers in the vein of "Krrish" and "Robot."

An otherwise unimpressive film with C-list stars, "Haunted" had the biggest box office opening of any horror film to date in India, grossing around $3 million and nearly doubling its producers' investment. Meanwhile, theater owners reaped the benefits not only through packed houses but also through charging a 25-30 percent premium for tickets. Overall, 3D screen revenue was five times that of 2D screen theaters.

"Three to five years down the line, when we reach a critical mass of 1,500 to 2,000 theaters equipped with 3D, at least 5 percent of the content, or 100 films in Hindi and regional languages, will be released in 3D. At least 10 to 15 will do really serious business."

By that time, Hollywood may well have changed its tune.