Saturday, April 30, 2011

India: soldiers under stress

A soldier turned on his own unit in Kashmir, killing 4 and raising specter of morale crisis in Indian army.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - April 30

NEW DELHI, India — An Indian soldier stationed in Indian-administered Kashmir opened fire on his own unit Thursday, killing four comrades and again raising the specter of a morale crisis in the world's second-largest standing army.

“In an unfortunate incident today [Thursday] morning, Havildar [Sgt.] Abhay Kumar, for unexplained reasons, fired at his own colleagues resulting in the death of one junior commissioned officer and three other ranks," local newspapers quoted army spokesman Lt. Col. J.S. Brar as saying.

Apparently triggered by Sgt. Kumar's anger over a public dressing down he received from a superior officer, the alleged fratricide was the first incident of fragging in Indian-administered Kashmir in two years. Various measures have been implemented to ward off such incidents and to boost troop morale "such as constant counseling by superiors and religious teachers, regular rest, yoga and other such means," according to Brar.

But as India simultaneously reduces the numbers of boots on the ground in the disputed territory and seeks a better engagement with the local population to win hearts and minds, the shooting raises concerns that despite a lull in militant activity, the psychological pressure on soldiers is as great as ever.

"The soldiers come to Kashmir from mainland India," said Noor Ahmad Baba, a professor at Kashmir University. "They come from a different sociocultural context. They have no empathy with the people, and the people have no empathy with them. The people of Kashmir don't trust them and they don't trust us."

After a rash of fragging incidents in 2006, which saw 23 cases of fratricide among the country's armed forces, the Indian army took a number of measures to relieve the pressure on soldiers in fraught areas like Kashmir, where the government is battling separatists.

Along with a pay raise and an increase in food rations for troops stationed above 12,000 feet, the army liberalized its leave policy to allow soldiers to deal with family problems — a major source of stress, according to a study by the Defence Institute of Psychological Research.

And though both suicides and fratricides continued — there were 520 such cases between 2006 and 2009, according to a statement given in parliament by the defense minister — as of last year the new measures had brought suicides down to an all-time low and virtually eliminated fragging.

But according to Dr. Rajat Mitra, a psychologist who specializes in violent behavior, the army's efforts have been mainly cosmetic. Untrained and inexperienced psychologists were dispatched to treat troops in the field and counseling programs were designed to meet deadlines rather than to provide real help, he said. One military officer asked Mitra to recommend someone less-experienced when he objected to the timebound, goal-oriented therapy program, Mitra said.

Moreover, even though introducing yoga classes might sound touchy-feely, no effort has been undertaken to change the culture of command — in which officers are disdainful toward the feelings of their men and reluctant to treat them humanely.

"In this situation, the [soldier] was humiliated in front of other people and he was teased about it," Mitra said. "The same thing could have been done by him in a more gentle and empathetic manner, and it would have been more effective."

Interestingly, there is little correlation between the fierceness of combat and these incidents, as suicides and fratricides spiked in Kashmir even as militant violence waned. In fact, studies found, it was most often grinding problems with family members left back home that drove soldiers to violence — not the fear of battle or post traumatic stress disorder.

Through interviews with around 200 officers and 900 soldiers stationed in Kashmir, Col. K.C. Dixit, a research fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, found that most cases of violence and suicide stemmed from problems like marital discord, property disputes and heavy debts rather than stress related to policing an insurgency-affected region.

In 2008, for instance, 13 out of 18 suicides and attempted suicides resulted due to domestic problems, two from failed love affairs and two due to previously diagnosed psychological disorders. Only one case was traced directly to the stress of active duty.

Nevertheless, in at least one respect, so-called "operational stress" is likely to get worse before it gets better as India seeks to turn its million-man army into a modern fighting force.

There is a wide cultural gap — sustained by an inherently prejudicial system — between soldiers and officers, though it has never been linked officially to morale problems.

According to Stephen P. Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta of the Brookings Institution, India suffers an "acute shortage" of junior officers because the country's economic rise has made a military career less attractive for the middle class. The army leadership has resisted reforming the system to allow enlisted men to win commissions based on performance in the field.

"Even if you are good, you cannot hope to rise, so there is a deep sense of frustration," said Mitra. "There's a feeling of us versus them. That runs very deep."

Friday, April 22, 2011

India's untouchables make millions

Members of the lowest caste have proven themselves as entrepreneurs and India's elite is turning to them for business advice.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - April 22, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — Not long ago, some of India's most influential economic planners sat down with a group of Dalits — India's erstwhile untouchables — to get, of all things, some business advice.

Though brutally oppressed for thousands of years, Dalits have benefited from education and job quotas in recent years. Some have struck out on their own to become entrepreneurs — and successful ones at that.

India's Planning Commission, which formulates the government's five-year spending plans, is taking notes.

"To be honest, the Planning Commission was stunned to find out the scope and size of our businesses," said Milind Kamble, a 43-year-old construction business owner who heads the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

"We told them we are also contributing to GDP also and generating employment also."

India's Dalit castes were once forced to perform jobs that the Hindu religion deems polluting — like sweeping floors, making shoes and cleaning toilets.

And even though India outlawed untouchability in 1950 and established quotas in government, higher education and public sector jobs, Dalits still suffer from social and economic discrimination, according to a recent book by economist Sukhadeo Thorat. Dalits are still twice as likely to be wage laborers than Indians from other castes, for instance, and they are still routinely denied access to tea shops, water pumps and barber shops.

However, since the economic liberalization of 1991 — when India dismantled the planned economy system of quotas for manufacturing — a growing number of the Dalits have — without connections or capital — had varying degrees of business success.

"Including mine, most of the big Dalit-owned businesses are 15 years old," said Kamble. "With the emergence of globalization and the disappearance of the License-Permit Raj, many opportunities appeared and many of us jumped on them. Multinationals started rushing in, and business expanded in a big way."

The 30 Dalit business owners who met with the Planning Commission — which formulates the five-year plans that map out for the government how best to spend its resources — are just the tip of the iceberg, the Dalit chamber of commerce claims.

According to a spokesman, the Maharashtra-based organization has more than 1,500 members. Kamble estimates that there are 10 times that number of Dalit entrepreneurs across India. Combined, their companies generate about $4.5 billion in revenue and employ more than 50,000 people. And apart from gaining access to education through mandatory "reservations," they built their businesses without government help.

"The Planning Commission was stunned when they asked how many of us used government schemes to build their businesses," said Kamble. "Only one entrepreneur from Mumbai raised his hand and described how he'd applied for $20,000, spent three years visiting government offices to chase his money and finally got $15,000."

For the government advisory body, that was more inspiring than depressing — considering the increasing clamor for the expansion of welfare programs, escalating demands for establishing education and job quotas for more and more groups, and calls to extend the job quota system to the private sector as well as government jobs.

"The Dalits reframed the topic from give me the grants and reservations ..." said Boston Consulting Group's India chairman Arun Maira, a member of the Planning Commission since 2009. "Any time someone starts to make suggestions from a very practical exposition of their own situation ... that's a very interesting conversation to have."

Local press reports suggest that the Planning Commission is now considering measures such as launching executive training programs for Dalit business owners at the prestigious Indian Institutes of Management, raising the limit on loans offered to Dalit businesses through the main government program for encouraging industries run by economically weaker sections of society and making Dalit entrepreneurs eligible for special lending rates from key state banks.

But according to Surinder Jodhka, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University who recently conducted a study of first-generation Dalit entrepreneurs, the Planning Commission is trying to present a picture that looks rosier than the reality warrants — precisely because of the renewed calls for state intervention that threaten efforts to liberalize the economy further through labor reforms and other measures.

"There are of course [Dalits] who are doing very well," Jodhka said. "But the absolute numbers in proportion to the Dalit population is statistically insignificant. To see it as a trend or something which is going to become a routine thing is an overstatement."

Meanwhile, the obstacles preventing most Dalits from pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps go way beyond discrimination.

Most Dalits have almost no assets, so startup loans are nearly impossible to get — even when the government announces a special scheme. As new entrants, they lack the familial and social connections on which most small-scale businesses depend — a problem that can be exacerbated by prejudice. And in a country where trade has always been connected to caste, many find it difficult to master the intangible "style" of the marketplace. They simply don't fit in.

Take the case of 68-year-old Ratibhai Makwana, who heads an Ahmedabad-based plastics conglomerate called Gujarat Pickers. With more than $20 million in annual revenue, Makwana's company has been growing more than 10 percent per year for the past three years. But it wasn't easy getting started.

When his father tried to break into leather manufacturing — a natural extension of a traditional "polluting" occupation — in 1962, banks refused to grant him a loan. When they expanded into textiles, their association with leather-making meant that they had to deal with high-caste middlemen rather than sell directly to the mills. And once they were granted a distributorship, their high-caste rivals organized a boycott.

"This all happened because I was a Dalit," Makwana said.

Rajender Gaikwad, the 49-year-old head of GT Pest Control, tells a similar story. Once a sprayer himself, today he employs 400 people in four Indian states, has already opened for business in Singapore and plans to enter Malaysia and Thailand soon. But he faced plenty of obstacles along the way.

"I had no money. I used to take money from money lenders even on high interest rate of sometimes 20, 25 percent," Gaikwad said. "And back when my business was still small, a lot of the checks people used to give me would bounce. People were not giving me my hard-earned money."

Those stories don't surprise Jawaharlal Nehru University's Jodhka. Surveying prosperous regions in Punjab, he found that lack of access to loans or capital forced most Dalit entrepreneurs into businesses like running a small grocery shop or an agency for a cooking gas distributor. Fewer than 2 percent operated more capital-intensive enterprises such as hotels or factories.

"People need jobs. People need secure employment," said Jodhka. "Entrepreneurship is fine ... but it's tough. Whatever has happened over the last 70 to 80 years has been due to state policies — the new Dalit middle class, Dalit politics, etc. If you ask them, they all give credit to reservations."

However committed they are to self-reliance, Kamble, Makwana and Gaikwad agree. All three of them argued that India's system of job and education quotas must be continued for 10 to 25 years to complete the uplift of the oppressed castes.

All three also suggested that the government could redefine the conventional wisdom about quotas to include not just jobs and seats in universities, but also business loans, tax breaks and advantages in the tender process for government contracts.

"This is only the beginning," said Gaikwad. "Businessmen are coming forward, but they need support from the government. If the government supports entrepreneurs, then there will be lot more people like me."

Thursday, April 07, 2011

The Shiva Rules: India's nuclear nightmare?

Critics say India is woefully unprepared to handle the world's largest nuclear plant.

By Jason Overdorf
April 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.

JAITAPUR, India — When Vijay Raut talks about the government's plans to throw the villagers of Madbad off their land to make way for the world's largest nuclear power plant, his voice quickly rises in volume. The tendons stand out in his neck as he describes how government officials and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL) have trampled local resistance.

“Is this a democracy?” demands Raut, who was jailed along with some 18 protesters after what local police termed a riot in early March. “They came and started the survey without even explaining the purpose properly to us. Then they would not let us talk as a single voice. When they came to negotiate for the land in 2006-07, if at all you could call it that, they would not let us even stand around as a group. Individual farmers were called in to tell them their land was being acquired.”

Residents like Raut have strong incentives to fight. As yet undiscovered by travelers, this part of the Konkan coast in the Indian state of Maharashtra — about 150 kilometers from foreign tourists' beloved Goa — rivals the beauty of romantic locales like Puerto Vallarta. But local fishermen and mango farmers are not the only ones who should be concerned.

When the United States inked a controversial civilian nuclear agreement with India in 2008, the biggest fear for Americans was that the pact would encourage other would-be nuclear weapons states by letting India skate past the non-proliferation treaty. But after the near-meltdown in meticulous Japan last month, it's beginning to look like the real risk may come from the reactors themselves — even as the world's nuclear industry looks to India and China to spark a renaissance in nuclear power.

Can India handle disaster?

"In contrast [to Japan], in India we are most disorganized and unprepared for the handling of emergencies of any kind of even much less severity," said A. Gopalakrishnan, former chairman of India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), in an email to GlobalPost. "The AERB's disaster preparedness oversight is mostly on paper and the drills they once in awhile conduct are half-hearted efforts which amount to more [of] a sham."

India suffers from an increasingly worrisome shortage of electricity. Today, the country faces a shortfall of around 10 percent. Blackouts, or "power cuts" due to load shedding, are a daily reality in most areas, and nearly half the households in the country don't have electricity. Meanwhile, demand for power is rising more than 10 percent a year due to industrialization and rising incomes.

But is the country's plan to dramatically increase its production of nuclear power the solution?

In Jaitapur, a cluster of villages about 375 kilometers from Mumbai, New Delhi has inked an agreement with France's Areva Group to build the first two of a planned six Evolutionary Pressurized Reactors (EPR), each capable of producing 1,650 megawatts of electricity, in what promises to be the world's largest nuclear power facility when it is completed.

But according to the plans dangled before the nuclear industry in the course of negotiating the India-U.S. civil nuclear pact, that's only the first step in a breakneck sprint. In 2008, India boosted its forecasts for nuclear power production from a target of 20 gigawatts by 2020 to 275 gigawatts by 2050 to entice the nuclear suppliers' group to grant a waiver allowing it to import civilian nuclear technology and fuel. After getting the waiver, it boosted the target again, to 455 gigawatts by 2050 — a hundredfold increase in its present capacity.

The speed of that expansion is frightening — especially considering India has already had several near misses.

India's track record

According to Benjamin Sovacool, an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore, "the Tarapur nuclear power plant suffered a partial meltdown in 1979; a fire and explosion forced the closure of the Narora power plant in 1993; the Rajasthan Atomic Power Station at Kota leaked radioactive water into a lake for two months until it was detected in 1995; and, in December 2006, one of the pipes carrying radioactive waste from the uranium enrichment facility at Jadugoda burst and distributed highly radioactive materials as far as 100 km away."

India's nuclear establishment has repeatedly downplayed the risks at its facilities since the Fukushima crisis, and the regulatory board's chairman, S.S. Bajaj, disputed some of the reports cited in Sovacool's paper. "India has not experienced any accident in its nuclear power plants involving release of radioactivity in public domain," Bajaj said in an emailed reply to questions from GlobalPost.

"The worst accident was the Narora fire in 1993, which resulted in station blackout. Operators were able to successfully implement the necessary emergency operating procedures, and cool the core safely. Based on the experience from this event, detailed reviews and upgradations [sic] were carried out at all [nuclear power plants] in India," he said.

The need for an independent regulator

Safety is hardly the only issue of concern when it comes to India's plans for nuclear expansion.

Even as the central government debates changes to land acquisition laws that led to deadly riots in West Bengal in 2007, it's steamrolling ahead with a forcible "land grab" in Maharashtra to smooth the way for the first big-ticket nuclear project signed after the India-U.S. nuclear pact.

In what critics allege is quid pro quo for French support for the move to let India bypass the non-proliferation treaty, India granted the contract to Areva without inviting tenders from competitors — potentially making the green power generated by the project too costly for ordinary Indians to afford.

And the lines separating India's nuclear industry and its nuclear regulator are too blurry to allow for independent assessment of risks.

“It is probably time to have an independent regulatory authority which is separate from the Department of Atomic Energy, something on the lines of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the United States," Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said in an interview with the Indian Express earlier this month, following claims that conflict of interest influenced the regulatory board's radiological impact assessment for the Jaitapur project. On Wednesday, he wrote a letter to the prime minister opposing large nuclear parks like the one proposed for Jaitapur, saying "Jaitapur will have 10,000 MW capacity. Is it wise?"

Even before the disaster at Fukushima, Areva's plans for Jaitapur had prompted serious questions from Indian anti-nuclear groups like the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP). Apart from general objections related to the size and potential impact of the project in the case of an accident, the coalition drew attention to Areva's design for the pressurized reactors — which it criticized as an "untested" technology.

The safety of the reactors' failsafe controls been called into question by nuclear regulators in Finland, the United Kingdom and the United States. And the pressurized reactor projects that Areva has underway in Finland and France have been plagued by delays caused by apparently basic errors in construction — like failing to pour concrete or weld steel structures to technical specifications. Scholars opposed to nuclear power agree.

Areva's growing pains

"The previous design from Areva [the N4, four units built in France in the late 1990s] had design flaws that were only discovered after plant completion, and the construction record at Olkiluoto and Flamanville is awful," said Stephen Thomas, professor of energy policy at the University of Greenwich. "Until Areva has units built to time and cost and they are operating reliably, why [should India] take the risk?"

In an emailed response to queries from GlobalPost, Areva said that the safety authorities who questioned the designs for pressurized reactors said the issues identified "do not put into any doubt the overall safety of the EPR reactor itself" and added that the U.K.'s Health and Safety Executive has already accepted its designed modifications.

Concerning its construction problems, the company declined to specify the cost overruns that errors and delays entailed. But it pointed out that its added experience since means it is unlikely to face the same problems in India. Arguing that even its first installation has proceeded swiftly in comparison with other "first of its kind" reactors, the company said that the two pressurized reactor projects in China it began subsequently are "well within schedule and budget" and will be finished in less than 50 months.

"This shows the impressive learning curve of the new EPR reactor series, which NPCIL [Nuclear Power Corporation of India] will also benefit from in India," according to the company email.

"Isn't it amazing that the world's largest nuclear builder ... is arguing teething problems?" said Mycle Schneider, a Paris-based energy consultant who opposes nuclear power. "This is supposed to be a mature technology, even if the design has been modified. This is not a revolutionary reactor, it's called an evolutionary reactor. One wonders if after 40 years of operational experience and building experience, how much time do they need to get over teething problems?"

The local opposition

In Jaitapur, they wonder why their land should be the proving ground. Unlike the villages of so-called "backward regions" where India is pushing ahead with equally controversial mining projects, the towns and villages of the area that will be affected by the Jaitapur project are thriving — even in places the government's Environmental Impact Assessment classifies as "barren land," locals say.

From the baking hot, rust-colored inland hills, land owners cut porous, red laterite stones to sell to builders across the state for about 50 U.S. cents a brick, generating ready capital that they use to lay down topsoil and plant mango trees — which the hard stone below allows them to irrigate with well water or water brought in tankers.

The unique conditions make the area famous for the Alphonso variety, known as "king of the mangoes," which India recently agreed to export to the U.S. in exchange for Harley Davidson motorcycles. There is evidence of this thriving industry everywhere around the affected villages — whether it's mango saplings, workers mining stone or constructing new buildings, or the burnt ground that identifies a plot where diggers will soon begin to cut laterite.

As for the agricultural potential of the land already acquired for the project, the government has cordoned of the area, and does not even allow journalists to enter it for inspection.

In short, it's a place to which economic development is coming organically, where unemployment is not an issue, and where locals fear industrialization could kill the golden goose — considering that buyers already recognize that the mangoes produced here are superior to those grown closer to the highway. Milind Desai, a local doctor turned anti-nuclear activist, says that's why only 112 out of more than 2,000 farmers in the proposed plant zone have accepted checks from the government for their property (which has already been taken over without their consent).

"People here are happy with their economic situation," said Desai, who was also jailed by the local authorities earlier this month. "We're not looking at high salaries, but neither are people waiting on street corners to try to pick up jobs doing day labor."

The Nuclear Power Corporation maintains that the Jaitapur facility will cause no significant damage to the local environment, and Areva argues that both the site location and several innovations in the design of its pressurized reactors will make the Jaitapur project much less vulnerable to natural disasters than the older reactors of Fukushima — incorporating a double concrete shell to protect the reactor building, housing the fuel pool in a separate building protected by its own double shell, and incorporating three independent cooling systems to prevent overheating in the event one of them fails, for example.

But the manner in which India's nuclear agencies and state-owned NPCIL have pursued clearances for the project suggest that neither the project's cost, nor the rights of local residents, nor the impact to the environment nor the safety of a reactor design were ever considered as serious questions. They were simply hoops to jump through along the way.

What about due diligence?

Beginning in 2005, for example, when the agency responsible for developing India's nuclear power capabilities, the Department of Atomic Energy, authorized the head of NPCIL to push ahead with the Jaitapur project, the all powerful nuclear agency more-or-less granted the company the right to override any opposition to set up the plant in an open letter addressed “to whomsoever it may concern.”

The letter had its desired effect with all government agencies quickly falling in line, and “fast-tracking” work on the project. Records of meetings held by the Expert Assessment Committee for nuclear power, for example, are shallow enough to imply that they viewed their evaluation of the project as a formality.

At the final Nov. 15, 2010, meeting in which the project was granted “partial” environmental clearance, one of the conditions put forth by the assessment committee reads as follows: “The requisite prior clearance from AERB for the plant design and their safety shall be obtained.”

Two weeks earlier, at a meeting held Oct. 28, the committee had requested a huge list of information including details of how the plant would be decommissioned, the rehabilitation and resettlement plan, and how much water and land would be used by the project. On the same day the committee had also visited the project site for the first time. In this context, the sudden partial clearance granted to the project suggests that the committee was passing the buck rather than exercising due diligence in assessing risks.

Is safety is more than an afterthought?

Areva has been chosen, the site for the plant has been selected, the environmental impact assessment has been completed and the land has already been forcibly acquired from the locals by the government. Yet according to an email from the chairman of India's nuclear regulator, the official safety review of Areva's design for pressurized reactors has not even begun.

"AERB’s formal review of [the] EPR [design] will commence once we get an application from NPCIL along with the detailed Safety Analysis Report," Chairman S.S. Bajaj said by email. "So far AERB’s involvement has been limited to giving comments on [the] draft Technical Assignment document being discussed by NPCIL with Areva."

Meanwhile, the environment minister isn't the only one to suggest that the nuclear regulatory board lacks the muscle to do its work independently. Konkan Bachao Samiti, a local non-governmental organization at the forefront of opposition to the Jaitapur project, told GlobalPost that in one of their meetings with officials from the assessment committee, one of the officials clearly mentioned that the agency was under pressure from the French government.

Further, the NGO claimed that regulatory board refused to sign the minutes of the meeting saying that they did not have recordings of the meeting. The NGO also said that board always recorded their meetings. More recently, Greenpeace India claimed to have obtained evidence through a Right to Information request showing that the Jaitapur site is located in a level 4 seismic zone according to the Geological Survey of India, not level 3 as senior officials with NPCIL said data from the Indian Metrological Department indicates.

"In the case of earthquake engineering, the [NPCIL] strategy is to have their favorite consultants cook up the kind of seismicity data which suits them, and there is practically no independent verification of their data or design methodologies," according to former AERB chairman Gopalakrishnan, who commented prior to the allegations by Greenpeace. "A captive AERB which reports to the [Department of Atomic Energy] makes the overall nuclear safety management in India worthless."

For many, that will make India's dreams of expanding its nuclear power production a hundredfold over the next 40 years sound like a nightmare.

Additional reporting by Praveen Kurup in Mumbai.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

India's aid money-go-round

Rising India sends money abroad, even as it fails to spend it to alleviate poverty at home.

By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - April 6, 2011)

NEW DELHI, India — A few weeks before Bill Gates and Warren Buffett brought their Giving Pledge road show to India in an effort to persuade the country's budding billionaires to donate more to charity, state donors in countries like the United Kingdom engaged in a spirited debate.

The question: With an economic boom and rising ambition turning India itself into a donor nation, does it still make sense for more developed countries to keep shoveling dollars its way?

There's two sides to the story, of course.

Despite its rapid economic growth, India is still battling poverty and disease on a massive scale, thanks to its huge population. And the new prosperity is not trickling down fast enough to warrant much celebration among its millions of rural farmers.

But too much money to spend can be a bad thing, too. According to a recent report by India's Comptroller and Auditor General, the government failed to spend some $20 billion in foreign aid last year thanks to problems rolling out public works programs — which meant foreign funding actually cost India about $20 million in penalties.

It's not that the money wasn't needed. According to the report, the unspent funds were intended for some 16 areas where India faces acute problems — including some $5 billion allotted for urban development, $2.5 billion for building roads, $2 billion for agriculture and rural development and $2 billion for improving water supply and sanitation.

In its characteristically dry style, the audit office blamed "inadequate planning" for the failure, hinting obliquely at the country's notorious bureaucratic sloth. (Project delays in general will cost India some $28 billion this year, equal to a third of total government spending.)

But even as the large-scale projects funded by agencies like the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank languish and penalties mount for unspent loans, nonprofits on the front lines of India's battle against poverty say that the country's efforts to project itself as a newly arrived economic power have hurt their ability to raise money.

"If you go to the West or other countries, you will see all the news about Indians on the Forbes list and the IT boom and all the good news about India," said Anand Joshua, marketing head of World Vision India. "But the other side of India, the India that is languishing, that news is not there overseas."

It's not only media perception. India may have been the world's largest recipient of foreign aid back in the 1980s, but these days New Delhi has been steadily reducing the number of countries from which it will accept bilateral aid.

India has also been spending aggressively in neighboring nations like Afghanistan, where it is the fifth largest aid donor — as well as Africa, where it has dramatically stepped up aid to compete with China. International aid agencies have taken note.

Earlier this year, the U.K.'s Department for International Development made waves with the announcement that it would freeze bilateral funding for projects in India at 280 million pounds a year until 2015, shifting focus to the poorest areas of the country and moving to tie up with private companies to fund projects. But it was hardly alone. According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), American economic assistance to India fell from about $175 million in 2006 to about $130 million in 2009. And the Netherlands has also reduced funding for India-based aid projects dramatically.

As a result organizations like Oxfam India are facing a "severe funding crisis," according to local press reports. The Times of India recently reported that Oxfam India has less than a third of the funds it would normally expect for the year, and Netherlands-based Hivos is coping with a 40 percent cut in its India budget. Meanwhile World Vision India's Joshua said his organization had to scale back its plans by 30 percent this year due to funding constraints.

"Now when foreign donors come to India they say you have enough wealth in India to take care of your own poor," Joshua said.

The government's miserable failure to spend the aid it already receives will make it even harder to convince them to open their wallets.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Mahatma Gandhi watch: India avoids adding insult to injury

Indian state bans controversial book about Gandhi, but government stops short of making insults to the leader a crime.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - April 1, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — A controversial new biography of Mohandas K. "Mahatma" Gandhi has kicked up a predictable furor in India, where assaults on free speech have become increasingly common in recent years.

It appears, however, that the government will stop short of making any insult to Gandhi punishable as a crime.

"It's a clear case of the undesirable deification that everyone does when it comes to someone like Gandhi, and also a lot of our other great men of the past," said Jai Arjun Singh, an Indian book reviewer. "[We have] this idea that he must be seen as a saint, not a human being who achieved extraordinary things."

Already this week, the Indian state of Gujarat banned the book, called "Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India," following assertions by the local press that Joseph Lelyveld's biography claims Gandhi was a bisexual racist who left his wife for a German bodybuilder.

Soon after, central government politicians reportedly sought to make insulting the former pacifist leader and Indian symbol a crime. The harsh reaction was not surprising.

While India's muckraking newspapers and magazines ensure that freedom of the press remains one of the country's most cherished values, freedom of speech has been under assault.

A New Delhi court recently ordered police to file charges of sedition against novelist Arundhati Roy and Kashimiri separatist Syed Ali Shah Geelani for making anti-India speeches at a conference on the Kashmir conflict. And Lelyfeld now joins a growing list of eminent authors whose books have been officially banned.

In Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena, a far-right political party, last year forced Mumbai University to remove Rohinton Mistry's "Such a Long Journey" from its syllabus, and earlier compelled the state government to ban James Laine's "Shivaji — The Hindu King in Muslim India."

Similarly, Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi spearheaded a fight to ban Javier Moro's racy biography on her life, which she called "fictionalized." And despite its literary community's immense love for Salman Rushdie, India's politicians were quick to ban "The Satanic Verses" in an apparent move to court the conservative Muslim vote.

"This is a country where hundreds of thousands pride themselves on having copies of [Adolf Hitler's] 'Mein Kampf' in their houses and treat it like a management guide, and we're talking about banning this sort of thing," Singh said.

Earlier this week, Indian law minister M. Veerapa Moily said that the central government would move to ban Lelyveld's biography, telling journalists that the book is “baseless, sensational and heresy and denigrating to a national leader," according to local news reports.

And on Wednesday the Indian Express newspaper quoted sources in the law ministry saying that Moily was seeking to amend the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act of 1971 to make any action or gesture that shows disrespect to Gandhi an offense punishable as a crime. Moily later backed away from any legal action related to the book, saying, "My stand is that since the author has himself denied any adverse remarks on Mahatma Gandhi, no further action is required."

The current political furor stems more from sensationalist reviews than from Lelyveld's book.

"The word bisexual never appears in the book," Lelyveld told an Indian television station. "The word racist only appears once in a limited context relating to a single phrase and not to Gandhi's whole set of attitude or history in South Africa."

Even a cursory dip into the biography reveals that it is on the whole a generous and admiring portrait of India's most beloved leader, written in a matter-of-fact style that could hardly be called salacious.

But in the passages dealing with Gandhi's relationship with Hermann Kallenbach (the bodybuilder), Lelyveld clearly invites reviewers to make their own conclusions.

Calling Gandhi's friendship with Kallenbach "the most intimate, also ambiguous, relationship of his lifetime," Lelyveld quotes Tridip Suhrud, a scholar, as saying the two men were a couple.

Lelyveld asks rhetorically "what kind of couple were they?" in the same passage that he quotes Kallenbach as saying that they lived together "almost in the same bed" and Gandhi as saying he destroyed Kallenbach's "logical and charming love notes" to him.

And later, after warning that "selective details" can "easily be arranged to suggest a conclusion," he launches into a long description of Kallenbach's "taut torso," then quotes at length a letter in which Gandhi tells the architect and bodybuilder, "Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in the bedroom," and reveals that cotton wool and Vaseline "are a constant reminder" of his absent friend, whom he wants to show "how completely you have taken possession of my body."

Lelyveld never uses the word bisexual. But he invites readers to think it, first with suggestive language, and finally with a second rhetorical question: "What are we to make of the word 'possession' or the reference to petroleum jelly, then as now a salve with many commonplace uses?"

Lelyveld concludes with what appears to be feigned ignorance.

"The most plausible guesses are that the Vaseline in the London hotel room may have to do with enemas, to which [Gandhi] regularly resorted, or may in some other way foreshadow the geriatric Gandhi's enthusiasm for massage...."