Tuesday, July 19, 2011

India meets the Motor City

Can Royal Enfield, the world's oldest motorcycle maker, finally achieve commercial success?

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - July 19, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — On a sweltering July afternoon, bikers roar around the tight circle drive of the Ashok Country Resort outside New Delhi. The signature thump of India's most beloved motorcycle — the single-cylinder, Royal Enfield Bullet — multiplies, escalating to a roar.

Across the hotel compound, other riders, still mud-spattered from their journey, tinker with bikes that have just returned from the 1,500-mile "Himalayan Odyssey."

The Odyssey, organized by Royal Enfield Motorcycles, goes from Delhi to a high mountain pass called Khardung La in the Ladakh region, and back again. Riders from all over India participate in the legendary ride, which started in 2003.

"It was positively the greatest experience of my life," said 27-year-old Khurum, a business consultant who hails from Pune, Maharashtra, having just completed the ride.

"I had a smaller bike earlier, but I always wanted to pick up an Enfield. ... When you have that kind of power between your legs, it's a different feeling."

Royal Enfield, born in Britain and transplanted to Chennai, is the world's oldest motorcycle company. But even though its Bullet motorcycle is perhaps the most recognized and beloved brand in India, for many years the company seemed doomed to eke out an existence as a kind of curiosity. Commuters swore by the bike, but it never quite achieved mass appeal.

Then came foreign competitors like Harley-Davidson, Triumph and Ducati, revving their engines on Enfield's home turf and threatening to leave the company in the dust.

But just as Enfield's prospects might appear at their darkest, the firm may actually be poised to turn its cult following into something it has always fallen short of: commercial success.

"We're at a very, very interesting inflexion point," said Royal Enfield chief executive Venki Padmanabhan, who was named to the position in February, in an interview with GlobalPost.

"Royal Enfield, if you track it through its 100 years of history, has been like a wannabe brand. It's got appeal, and it's always on the brink of commercial success, but it never gets over the hump. ... But since 2000 Siddartha [Lal], the owner, has really grappled with the demons of the brand."

Not long ago, Royal Enfield — which once made rifle parts for the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield, Middlesex — sold only around 25,000 bikes a year, while the 100 cc commuter bikes of competitors like Hero Honda sold in the millions.

But this year, under the guidance of Padmanabhan, schooled in Detroit's automobile industry, Royal Enfield aims to increase output to 70,000 bikes from last year's 52,000. A new factory capable of building 150,000 bikes a year will come online next year, and a second plant capable of building another 350,000 bikes a year is slated for three to five years down the road.

Considering this year customers had to wait a whopping eight months for delivery after placing an order for a new bike, it's about time.

"I'm writing on my blog: I'm making 40 percent more bikes than I did last year," Padmanabhan said. "If the waiting period's not budging, don't mistake us, we're not insensitive to it. But obviously we're not doing enough."

At the same time, the company aims to add three or four dealers a month to its present network of 180 sellers over the next three years, while boosting international sales in countries like the U.K., France, Italy, Spain and the United States. Royal Enfield sold only 2,500 bikes abroad in 2010, but wants to add another 11 markets to the 29 countries where the brand currently has a small presence by next year.

It's a big opportunity. India's market for two-wheelers is already huge — with buyers picking up around 12 million bikes and scooters a year. Experts forecast continued double-digit growth for years to come.

Foreign competitors like Harley and Triumph may pose a serious threat down the road, but for now Padmanabhan sees their entry as spurring demand for bigger, more stylish bikes and driving interest in motorcycling as a hobby and a lifestyle choice, rather than a cheap way to commute.

"The fact that all these big guys are coming in just means that leisure motorcycling will become a significant interest among young men," Padmanabhan said.

But is the Bullet biting off more than it can chew?

Padmanabhan says that the aggressive targets may seem sudden, but Royal Enfield has been putting the pieces in place for the better part of a decade. It started when 37-year-old Siddartha Lal — scion of the family-owned group, Eicher Motors, which owns Enfield — took the helm in 2000. Enfield had been losing money, and Lal's father, Vikram, was keen to shut it down. But Siddartha, a passionate Bullet lover, convinced Vikram to give him two years to turn the firm around — and then embarked on a crusade to reinvent the engine that had made it famous.

For decades, Royal Enfield's 350 cc and 500 cc Bullet was the only "big bike" available. Its classic British design — framed around a four-speed, single-cylinder, iron-barreled engine that harks back to the heyday of BSA, Norton and Triumph — remained essentially unchanged for 50 years. Fans forged a cult-like following that endured even as faster, cheaper and more reliable Japanese designs stormed onto the scene.

But that classic character was at once Enfield's greatest strength and its biggest weakness: It ensured that the Bullet attained an iconic status, like Levi's 501s or Harley-Davidson's Sportster, yet it also guaranteed that it would never sell in big enough volumes for commercial success.

The 50-year-old engine also had technical difficulties, according to Padmanabhan. "The fact was it was not reliable. It seized. It leaked," he said.

In 2007, however, Royal Enfield unveiled a new design with an integrated gearbox and fuel injection. To the dismay of hardcore fans, the company also moved the gears and brake — which had always been "backwards" — so that the gear pedal was now on the conventional left-hand side of the bike.

Designers worked long hours to make sure that the new engine still looked old, so that when the company launched the Bullet Classic 500 in 2009, it would appeal to the faithful as well as new converts. But there was one crucial problem: You can make a modern engine look old, but you can't make it sound old. Aluminum just won't thump like cast-iron.

A quick internet scan suggests that the reviews were mixed. Some called the muffling of the classic thump "blasphemy" and "complete suicide" for the brand. Others said the modern features are a good trade.

And sales numbers for the Classic — a retro-looking Bullet with the new engine and electronic fuel injection — suggest that even if Enfield has lost a few die-hards, it's gaining a foothold among young riders looking for a stylish bike that spends as much time on the road as it does at the mechanic.

Perhaps it's time for Royal Enfield to finally live up to the swagger of its old-school slogan: "Made like a gun ... goes like a Bullet."

India's injectable vasectomy

Birth control for men just took a giant step forward. Note the size.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - July 13, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — About 400 years ago, a bright spark came up with the idea to sheath his sword in a piece of sheep's intestine.

And the condom was born.

Since then, male birth control has mostly been tinkering with this initial design. Until now.

After a more than 30-year struggle, an unassuming Indian engineer named Sujoy K. Guha is on the brink of what could well be the most revolutionary contraceptive technology since the pill — and this time it's for men.

Called RISUG, which stands for "reversible inhibition of sperm under guidance," it essentially offers men a surgery-free, injectable vasectomy, which is good news in itself.

Better still, research on animals, including monkeys, has shown that this vasectomy is easily reversible. So what you get is a one-time, hormone-free sperm blocker that you can turn off whenever you want.

The impact could be huge for India, where sterilization is still the most often used method of birth control.

The numbers say it all. Today, only 3 percent of women are on the pill and 5 percent of couples use condoms. Meanwhile, some 37 percent of women undergo the comparatively dangerous tubectomy operation, while only 1 percent of men get vasectomies.

No wonder the drive to convince men to get conventional vasectomies is so intense that states like Rajasthan have offered cars, motorcycles and TV sets — not to mention gun licenses — as incentives to undergo the procedure.

"The fact that it does not involve cutting a body part and throwing a piece away carries a lot of psychological impact," Guha said. "That is one of the very major appeal points of RISUG. The second, of course, is the potential of reversal."

Guha's injectable vasectomy is not quite ready for prime time. But after laboring in obscurity for decades, the Indian scientist is now getting close to the finish line.

Stage three clinical trials — i.e. testing on people, not monkeys — are already underway in India. Some volunteers have been using the new form of birth control without a hitch for 15 years. The treatment could be available in limited release as early as 2012, though reversibility has not been established by human testing yet.

And thanks to an unusual alliance between Guha and Elaine Lissner, a San Francisco-based activist who has been pushing for better contraception for men since the 1980s, RISUG may also be coming to your U.S. doctor's office one day soon — under the trade name Vasalgel.

"In 2005, I got the chance to lead a small foundation and put some money towards what we'd been talking about all these years — to actually do something about it!" Lissner said via email.

"The foundation doesn't have a lot of money — just enough to do the first studies and show that it really works. But RISUG is so far advanced," she said. "It's the only non-hormonal method that's already been in use by hundreds of men — that it seems like a crime to ignore it."

As a result, even as RISUG clears the final hurdles for a commercial launch in India, Lissner's Parsemus Foundation is scaling up production of Vasalgel and preparing for preclinical trials in the U.S. The expectation is that the first U.S. clinical trials could begin as soon as 2012, though the foundation needs at least another $4 million in funding to shepherd the treatment all the way through the approval process.

Despite the remaining obstacles, Guha couldn't be happier.

"When I proposed this idea, I was laughed at and ridiculed," he said in a telephone interview with GlobalPost. "So it gives me a kind of good feeling that the concept may finally lead to some practical product."

It's been a long haul. In the early '70s, Guha was working on a project to kill the dangerous microbes in well water using a material that created an electrical charge in the pump mechanism.

When the government's family planning drive prompted him to focus instead on birth control, it occurred to him that the same principal could be applied inside the vas deferens — the vessel that's normally snipped in a conventional vasectomy.

It didn't take him long to discover that a polymer called styrene maleic anhydride, or SMA, would adhere to the walls of the vas deferens and create a positive electrical charge that zapped the negatively charged sperm as they passed through the vessel — killing or immobilizing them.

But proving that the treatment is safe and effective has been a long, arduous process of trial and error, hampered by bureaucratic sloth and a pathetic budget.

"We had no support from industry," Guha said. "And basically neither I nor my colleagues were really knowledgeable and experienced with respect to new drug development."

Part of the problem was the elegance of Guha's design, which from a marketing perspective was, frankly, too effective.

"To men, an ideal method would be cheap and long-lasting. To company shareholders, an ideal method would be expensive and temporary," Lissner explained by email.

"Pharmaceutical companies have no incentive to develop a cheap long-lasting method, and we can't expect them to take the lead. Men will get one if, and only if, they demand it of their governments," she said.

Not if Guha has anything to say about it. Having confirmed to his own satisfaction that the "injectable vasectomy" works and will also be reversible, he's now working on adapting the technology to provide additional benefits aside from contraception, so that more men would opt for the procedure.

At the top of his list are some very heavy hitters: HIV/AIDS and prostate cancer.

Guha believes the same gel used for RISUG can be used to deliver one of the most promising drugs in the fight against prostate cancer directly to the gland — eliminating the large doses and unpleasant side effects when it is taken orally.

Similarly, he proposes that at a lower dosage than the one used for contraception, the gel may be able to zap HIV so that men infected by the virus can ensure that it won't be passed on to their children or their partners.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Mumbai blasts complicate talks between India and US, Pakistan

Analysis: Three consecutive bombings in Mumbai set stage for tough Indian stance before Hillary Clinton's visit.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - July 13, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — India has so far refrained from blaming Pakistan for the three serial blasts that struck Mumbai Wednesday.

But the apparent terrorist attack will harden New Delhi's stance in upcoming peace talks with Islamabad, not to mention the next round of so-called "strategic dialogue" with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday.

Pakistan's newly appointed foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, is slated to visit New Delhi to meet with Indian foreign minister S.M. Krishna on July 26.

Islamabad responded immediately to Wednesday's blasts by issuing a statement of condolence.

"President Asif Ali Zardari, prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, the government and the people of Pakistan have condemned the blasts in Mumbai and expressed distress on the loss of lives and injuries," the statement read.

But however carefully politicians tread on both sides of the border, the danger these bombings pose to peace in the region — not to mention successful U.S. negotiations of the issues surrounding India's and Pakistan's competing visions of their roles in post-war Afghanistan — can hardly be exaggerated.

On Wednesday, three nearly simultaneous explosions rocked India's financial and film capital, killing 21 people and injuring more than 100. All three bombs were planted in garbage heaps in some of the most congested parts of the city.

Government officials immediately said that the explosions bore the hallmarks of a terrorist attack, and local police named two notorious terrorist groups, the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba and Indian Mujahideen. Officials called the Indian Mujahideen, which has used similar methods in the past, the prime suspect. Most often described as an indigenous Indian terrorist group, the Indian Mujahideen also receives support from Pakistan, according to India-based terrorism experts.

Though nearly three years have passed since the November 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, and the two nations have made progress in re-establishing so-called confidence-building measures designed to prevent a shooting war, India's anger toward Pakistan remains intense, and Mumbai, a beloved city, is an extremely sensitive flashpoint.

Immediately following the killing of Osama bin Laden, for example, the more hawkish media outlets here pumped army officials about India's own ability to conduct a similar commando raid on Pakistani soil. And it has been said countless times through informal channels that India cannot guarantee it will respond with the same stoicism it showed after the November 2008 attacks if confronted with another terrorist attack clearly linked to Pakistan's intelligence agency.

Yet however desirable they might seem, nobody expected much from the most recent round of talks, or any in the near future, between India and Pakistan. It's India's strategic dialogue with the United States where the damage might be done.

The U.S. decision to halt some $800 million in aid slated for Pakistan's military — much of it reimbursement for costs incurred in the fight on that country's border with Afghanistan — has pushed Islamabad into a position where it will be tempted to respond forcefully to further condemnations from New Delhi or Washington.

Presumably, the timing of that slap on the wrist was no accident. And announcing immediately before Clinton's visit to New Delhi that Pakistan's army has to fight for the right side if its generals want to keep cashing American checks was intended to add weight to the message.

To avoid granting terrorists undue sway over the content of the India-U.S. dialogue, Clinton and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cannot blink. The danger of escalation, or of squandering any small progress that may have been made in ironing out a plan for post-war Afghanistan, is strong.

But the risk of missing the moment is even stronger. Washington's recent signals that it is willing to play hardball with Islamabad have the potential to be a game changer in south Asia, but only if the United States holds fast.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

India: Wikipedia's next frontier

Wikimedia Foundation taps India for first foray into developing world.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - July 10, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — With growth slowing in the United States and Europe, Wikipedia has settled on India for the beachhead of its next round of expansion — which will see the seemingly ubiquitous online encyclopedia storm into the developing world for new users, and new contributors, in a host of languages.

The Wikimedia Foundation — which administers the online encyclopedia — is set to open its first foreign office in New Delhi in a matter of months.

The nonprofit has already mushroomed here in its typical guerrilla style. Wikipedia is the fourth most visited website among India's 100 million internet users.

Contributors and editors to Wikipedia are few in number compared with the United States and Europe, but the quantity of entries that they produce can be remarkable. One contributor alone said he had edited more than 14,000 pages and created so many that he's lost count.

That kind of enthusiasm is vital for Wikimedia. By 2015, the foundation aims to increase the monthly visitors to its sites to a billion people from around 400 million today, while boosting the number of articles available online to 50 million from 20 million, according to its latest strategic plan.

But the number of contributors — "the lifeblood of Wikimedia projects" — has plateaued around 100,000 active editors.

India's real promise, therefore, lies in its huge, young population and the rapid growth of internet penetration. Its 100 million internet users will as much as double by 2015, according to some estimates, as web-ready smart phones draw more mobile users online.

And due to a dearth of libraries and the infrequent revisions of government-mandated school textbooks, the demand for Wikipedia promises to be greater here than virtually anywhere in the world.

"Wikimedia is like an alternative market response to the failures of the state in India," said Anirudh Singh Bhati, a member of the executive council for the Wikipedia India chapter. "If a student needs information which is up to date they use mainly Wikipedia to get it."

To tap that potential, Wikimedia is working to promote 40 individual encyclopedia sites in Indian languages like Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, as well as mobilizing volunteers for programs like "Campus Ambassadors," which are designed to turn users into contributors, said Bishaka Datta, a Mumbai-based documentary filmmaker who was recently appointed to Wikimedia's board of directors.

"In India there are thousands of languages, so if you want to reach somebody who's been to school and studied in Malayam entirely, then that person has to be reached in Malayalam," Datta said.

That presents its own challenges. Nagging software issues make it difficult to enter text in Indian languages — none of which use the English alphabet. Discussions about the accuracy and neutrality of the encyclopedia entries must often be conducted in multiple languages.

And even though the non-English sites are vital for expansion, the advance guard of contributors and editors has come mainly from the portion of the population that speaks English (along with another language), so the number of entries on the Indian language sites has not grown as rapidly as it might have.

The Malayalam Wikipedia languished with only around 400 entries for its first three years, for instance, even though it is spoken by some 36 million people — most of whom live in Kerala, a state with an unusually high literacy rate.

India's desperate need for basic research materials, however, has already begun to act as a stimulus to the growth of the editing community, both in English and Indian languages. Last month, a Wikimedia team led by Hisham Mundol — a development sector expert recently hired to drive the expansion of readership and editor base in India — visited the university hub of Pune, Maharashtra to roll out the first Campus Ambassadors program outside the United States.

Academics like Rimi B. Chatterjee, a novelist and historian who teaches at Kolkata's Jadavpur University, are pioneering ways to leverage students' reliance (and over-reliance) on Wikipedia to motivate habitual rote learners to think about their research papers in new ways.

And the government of at least one state, Kerala, has embraced the online encyclopedia as an educational tool that can save it from using vital resources from its meager budget essentially to reinvent the wheel — a move that helped boost the number of entries on the Malayalam Wikipedia from 400 in 2005 to more than 18,000 today.

"I think the potential [for India] is huge," Datta said. "Platforms like Wikipedia can really equalize access. People in the [developing] countries of the Global South have always lacked access to knowledge and institutions. Something like this can really erase that inequality of access."

Friday, July 08, 2011

CSI India: Forensics reach new low

A court case against Delhi's top forensics lab reveals scientists faked credentials to get hired.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - July 7, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — It's hard to believe that India was once at the forefront of forensic science.

And yet, it's true. Once upon a time, 19th century British civil servants helped pioneer the use of fingerprints for criminal investigations in India.

Let's just say it's been downhill since then.

Rudimentary foul-ups routinely derail high-profile cases, like the unsolved 2008 murder of 14-year-old Aarushi Talwar. In everyday investigations of killings in rural India, officials most often avoid even a cursory autopsy in the interest of keeping crime statistics down.

And now, new allegations have emerged that suggest the malaise runs deeper.

Nearly a quarter of the scientists in New Delhi's top forensic investigation lab submitted fake documents or exaggerated on their applications in order to secure their jobs, whistleblowers have alleged.

"They chose people who did not have relevant experience in the field, particularly leaving out people who are available [and who have] relevant experience," said Delhi High Court lawyer C. Mohan Rao.

Rao represents two plaintiffs who allege that they were passed over for jobs at Delhi's state-run Forensic Science Laboratory that were instead given to unqualified recruits.

Seasoned observers can hardly be shocked by the allegations.

"In most cases, even if evidence is collected it may not be evaluated as quickly as possible," said Dr. Jagadeesh Narayanareddy, professor of forensic medicine at Vydehi Institute of Medical Sciences, Bangalore. "Usually the waiting period is three to six months, and if the evidence was not preserved properly, then definitely the results will not come properly."

By the numbers, killers were convicted in only about 45,000 of the 130,000-odd murders committed in India between 2005 and 2009 (the most recent year for which statistics are available) — which makes for a conviction rate of about 36 percent, or about half the success rate of most U.S. states.

But anecdotal evidence suggests that when suspects don't wilt under the third degree and forensic science is required to prove their guilt, that conviction rate drops precipitously.

In the past, these failings have been attributed to poorly trained junior police officers. In the Aarushi case, for instance, the Central Bureau of Investigation has claimed that police in the New Delhi satellite town of Noida, Uttar Pradesh, destroyed as much as 90 percent of the crime scene evidence.

But poorly trained police aren't the only problem, it now appears.

"In India, we only have government-run forensic science laboratories," said Narayanareddy. "That means that the government has to appoint the scientists. Recruitment takes their own sweet time ... [and] it's like any other government agency: They also hire substandard people."

According to four separate court cases filed over the past few months, at least 15 of the 70 scientists employed by Delhi's Forensic Science Laboratory allegedly got hired based on fictitious or irrelevant job experience and fraudulent certificates, India's Mail Today newspaper reported.

All of the scientists whose credential are in question were hired between August and December 2009, during which time 33 new scientists were recruited.

Using India's Right to Information Act, the plaintiffs learned that an apartment complex stood where the private lab cited on a job application was supposed to be.

Similarly, a former lab assistant in chemistry and a contract worker from the ballistics department were hired as experts in forged documents and cyber crime, respectively.

Meanwhile, a new recruit was hired to work in the lie-detection department based on experience she claimed to have gained working there herself — during years that the unit wasn't even up and running.

So far, no one has challenged any of the criminal cases that the lab has been involved in over the past 18 months, but these new allegations raise serious suspicions as to integrity of investigations conducted during that time.

In the past, the lab has been asked to make determinations in many high-profile cases, including the alleged gang rape of a 22-year-old woman by police officers in 2009.

"[If they hired] people who are not qualified, that is really a concern because then there would be a question mark about all their investigations," said Narayanareddy.