Saturday, February 27, 2010

Sunday, February 21, 2010

the lepers of india: still untouchable

A new generation of lepers has never been infected with leprosy.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
February 21, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — When 20-year-old Arjun Nair's father discovered that he had contracted leprosy, he was so afraid of transmitting the disease to his sons that he immediately sent Arjun and his brother away to a hostel school run by missionaries.
Some 10 years later, Arjun is back in Delhi, his education still incomplete, and his job prospects dim. “Originally, the school offered classes up to 12th standard,” said Arjun. “But they had a lot of problems with fights breaking out between the older kids, so they sent the older kids back home.”

A resident of a modern-day leper colony in East Delhi comprising the neighborhoods of Tahirpur and New Seemapuri, Arjun is part of a curious group of second-generation Indian lepers. These youths have never been infected with leprosy, but remain trapped in an ostracized welfare community because of the dreaded disease's assault on their parents.

Subsidized by the government and often educated by Christian missionaries, they suffer from all the social problems that affect the marginalized around the world, from India's transgender hijras to Europe's Roma, said Vineeta Shanker, executive director of the New Delhi-based Sasakawa India Leprosy Foundation (SILF).

“They have internalized the societal rejection,” said Shanker. “They say, 'Even when we go to government schools, the teacher puts us in a corner. She doesn't put us in the first row. We have no friends except girls from our own colony.'”

Leprosy is today curable and it is far less infectious than once believed — 95 percent of people are immune and it cannot be transmitted by casual contact, as many people fear. Though its complete eradication is considered to be medically impossible, India officially “eliminated” the disease in 2005, after a targeted program reduced the level of incidence to fewer than one case per 10,000 people. So the only real reason for isolation colonies like Tahirpur and New Seemapuri is ignorance. Sadly, India has that in abundance, which is perhaps why the country still has more than a thousand leper colonies.

For second-generation “lepers” isolation cuts deeply. Feelings of alienation strain the relationships between parents and children, who depend on their parents' government stipends and income from begging for survival, but also resent the social stigma that comes along with that money. And at the same time, their understanding of the working world is perhaps even more limited than their opportunities.

“The kids want to do well. They have high aspirations. Everybody we talk to says, 'We don't want an ordinary, low-paying job. We want at least 10,000 rupees a month; otherwise we aren't interested,'” said Shanker. “But they have very little to enable them to achieve their goals.”

India declared treating certain castes as untouchable in 1950 and the constitution reserves around 20 percent of government jobs for people from those backgrounds. But even today lepers, and their children, are virtual untouchables, regardless of their caste.

According to a 2007 survey conducted by the International Association for Integration, Dignity and Advancement, leprosy-affected families across India face serious discrimination. Of 4,512 leprosy-affected persons surveyed, 1,259 were illiterate. Most of the children were not in school, and only 30 were in college. The job market was tough on them, too, with 712 people begging for a living and another 994 unemployed.

Despite the discouraging statistics, Arjun and the several other young men I met in New Seemapuri put a brave face on things, downplaying the handicap that living in a known leper colony places on them. Older men, like 28-year-old Kaimuddin Khan and 32-year-old Bhupender Kumar, have resigned themselves to the idea that their lives will likely be circumscribed by the boundaries of the leper community. But they focus on the positive.

“We have opened a small shop with the help of a government scheme for leprosy-affected people,” said Kumar. “We're actually squatting illegally on the property, but because this is a lepers' area nobody bothers us.”

However, youngsters like 17-year-old Tipu Sultan, who is studying in ninth class, still dream that one day they can live integrated lives. “As long as I keep studying, everything is fine,” said Sultan. “I don’t think I have any problems now because my Mom and Dad have leprosy. But I can't say what will happen in the future. I do feel I will be able to get a job, but I don't know where. My wish is to get a job outside of the colony, but I don't know if I can.”

Source URL (retrieved on February 22, 2010 02:03 ):

Thursday, February 18, 2010

from worst to near first

How India's most desperate state transformed itself to become a model for the rest of the country.

By Jason Overdorf | NEWSWEEK
From the magazine issue dated Feb 22, 2010

For centuries, it seems, the northern Indian state of Bihar has been plunging downhill. Once the seat of one of the world's most glorious empires, the state was first devastated by colonial policies that enshrined feudal landlords, then shunned by a succession of Indian governments, and finally riven and destroyed when the seeds of caste and class conflict matured into a small-scale civil war in the 1970s. As the militias of upper-caste landlords clashed with revolutionary guerrillas fighting for the oppressed, and caste-based political agitations threw up a series of incompetent and allegedly corrupt governments, state services ground to a halt, highways disintegrated, bridges crumbled, and career criminals ascended from the back rooms of party offices to take seats in the state legislative assembly, and even the Indian Parliament itself. By the 1990s, brazen and deadly highway robberies put an end to traveling after nightfall, and as business activity plummeted, kidnapping for ransom was declared the state's only growth industry. The so-called Republic of Bihar—viewed as a criminal fiefdom beyond the purview of the government of India—was effectively a failed state. "Institutions had collapsed," says Nand Kishore Singh, a member of the upper house of Parliament. "Law and order had come to a grinding halt."

This January, however, Bihar posted some stunning statistics that go a long way toward confirming that, since taking office in 2005, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has done the impossible. Despite the economic crisis and three years of droughts and floods, Bihar posted 11 percent average annual economic growth over Kumar's five years in office, making it the second-fastest-growing state in India, the second-hottest major economy in the world after China. In what were once impassable badlands, the administration laid 6,800 kilometers of roads, built 1,600 bridges and culverts, and cut journey time in half in many areas. Car sales eclipsed kidnappings, as crimes by roving bandits fell steadily from 1,297 to 640 and kidnappings for ransom dropped from 411 to 66 between 2004 and 2008. In a state that many Delhi residents once feared to visit—despite its allure as home to Bodh Gaya, the site where the Buddha attained his enlightenment—the number of foreign tourists shot up from 95,000 to 356,000 over the past two years.

These figures were so astounding that critics lost no time in belittling them. How could backward Bihar be growing nearly as rapidly as booming Gujarat, a longstanding leader in industries ranging from textiles to pharmaceuticals? The economic growth in Bihar stems from state spending, not investment, many pointed out. All Indian states collect and report their own economic figures to the Central Statistical Organization, and Kumar must have cooked the books in Bihar, others alleged. Those charges are almost certainly wrong. There's a small margin for error. But large-scale reporting fraud is unlikely, and things have indeed changed dramatically in Bihar. "We never had a functioning state—neither before independence nor after independence," says economist Shaibal Gupta, who heads the Asian Development Research Institute in Patna, the state capital. "Under Nitish Kumar, for the first time the state started functioning marginally. And with the improved functioning of the state, things have dramatically improved."

Kumar's nascent success represents more than just the light at the end of the tunnel for one failed state. It could be a guide for other states that are struggling with many of the same issues. Almost 20 years ago, after a visit to a site in Bihar where a guerrilla army of untouchables had slaughtered a village of landlords with harvesting sickles, the travel writer William Dalrymple bemoaned the collapse of Bihar. But he also suggested that the state was not so much backward, as India's newspapers often described it, as it was forward: a trendsetter for the rest of India that presaged ballot-rigging, caste-based social upheaval, and the criminalization of politics as national phenomena. This dismal view appeared to be correct, as India's vaunted democracy descended into simple caste-based gerrymandering, knee-jerk -"anti--incumbency" made mockery of the accountability that free elections are meant to enshrine, and an ever-increasing number of alleged gangsters made their way into the national legislature. "In the '80s and '90s, there was a wave of caste-related politics, where development didn't seem to matter," says Baijayant "Jay" Panda, a member of Parliament from Orissa, a state that has faced similar problems. "But I think that was a phase. We have matured as a democracy. Voters today are going beyond those concerns and looking at issues like good governance and development and electoral promises being kept."

Like his main rivals, Kumar, 58, is a career politician, who served three terms as a minister in the central government since the late 1980s. A teetotaler known for his simple lifestyle, he has a reputation for probity that propelled him to the helm of Bihar's government in 2005. Because he did not appear to have amassed any fortune or to have used his position to bring any family members into the usually lucrative business of politics, voters perceived him as outside the established patronage system. In a state that had been dominated by politicians catering to an alliance of the Muslim and middle-caste Yadav vote, Kumar set out to build a "coalition of extremes" that includes the high-priest and warrior castes and voters from among the erstwhile untouchables. Even as he did so, however, he sent voters a message that he was more committed to developing the state than protecting his caste fellows, and that he would end the 15 years of increasingly hostile class war under Lalu Prasad Yadav, a charismatic demagogue who as chief minister exploited lower-caste hatred for the state's unreformed feudal landlords. With a brio worthy of Falstaff, Yadav had enshrined his relatives and caste fellows in positions of power, and observers blamed him for his cronies' excesses. His brothers-in-law, Sadhu Yadav and Subhash Yadav, for instance, have figured in police investigations of the alleged embezzlement of millions of dollars in flood-relief funds and the alleged abduction and torture of an official of one of India's state-owned banks. Neither has been convicted of any crime. Lalu himself was accused of complicity in the embezzlement of millions of dollars in state funds intended for fodder, livestock, and farm equipment, for which he was in and out of jail several times before he was acquitted of amassing "disproportionate assets" for a man of his position in 2006.

Kumar changed the rules. He reversed Bihar's plunge into chaos by doing something that was highly unusual in the state—and indeed in all of India: he focused on competence over patronage. To improve delivery of government services, Kumar broke the long trend of overcentralizing state powers, and delegated more financial and administrative powers to officials in the field. He updated archaic rules that made civil engineers seek minister-level approval to spend absurdly low amounts of money. These moves eliminated the huge backlogs of simple matters piled up on senior officials' desks. He also reestablished the cabinet meeting as a weekly event, held every Tuesday, where in years past the cabinet sometimes did not meet for months.
Kumar then redefined the basic functions of institutions, essentially requiring offices to do the work they'd been assigned. He ended the widespread "transfer industry," which sold coveted bureaucratic posts to the highest bidders, and handpicked bureaucrats known for their competence. He ensured them that he would honor the set three-year tenure of postings rather than shuffling them around before they could deliver. One such official built 259 bridges and turned around a loss-making state-owned infrastructure firm during his three-year watch; as a reward, he's been charged with building the state's new roads and hospitals. To speedily fill thousands of vacancies in the police force that had left the state at the mercy of criminals, he tapped already trained personnel from among the state's ex-soldiers—who in India retire in their 40s. He publicly supported the police after they made high-profile arrests of criminals who had previously enjoyed political protection. Those jailed included not only a member of Parliament from the state's main rival political faction (who had dared the state police chief to arrest him on live television) but also an assemblyman from Kumar's own party who had made his own TV spectacle, threatening to have a group of reporters killed for filming his drunken altercation with the staff of a local hotel. Kumar managed to redress the state courts' abysmal conviction rate by instituting fast-track courts and working with the judiciary to focus on career criminals' most easily prosecuted offenses to ensure that they swiftly found themselves behind bars. The moves resulted in nearly 39,000 convictions between 2006 and 2009, compared with an average of less than 10,000 in previous decades. Those convicted included a dozen state legislators and members of Parliament like Mohammad Shahabuddin, Pappu Yadav, and Munna Shukla, all three of whom are now serving life sentences for crimes including kidnapping, intended murder, and murder.

Rebuilding the police and courts has reaped clear economic benefits. Now rickshaw drivers say they earn more money because people are traveling after 8 p.m. Shopkeepers say their take has increased because they no longer have to bribe the police or pay off local thugs. By retooling the bureaucracy in charge of implementing state projects, Kumar has been able to boost spending on government programs. Bihar's outlays on projects ranging from building roads to training new primary-school teachers rose from $320 million in 2001 to $3.5 billion last year, significantly outpacing the growth in central government funding for Bihar. "Earlier, the funds were not even reaching to the district level," says Manoj Rai, Delhi director of the Society for Participatory Research in Asia. "If you take the old quote that out of one rupee, only 15 paise reaches to the people, in Bihar, it was not even reaching to the district [administrators] from the state." Among other things, that increase meant more -teachers—more than 100,000 added in the primary schools since Kumar took office—and better oversight of doctors and staff working at rural health centers. Primary-care centers that used to see 30 patients a month now see 3,600—because people have a reasonable expectation that the doctors have shown up for work.

Still, Bihar continues to rank dismally on every major social indicator, and there are few signs that the poorest of the poor have benefited much from the new economic growth. More than half of Bihar's 82 million people live below the poverty line, compared with about 40 percent for the rest of India; both the infant-mortality rate and -maternal-mortality rate are higher than the national average; and some 70 percent of the state's inhabited areas are not linked by motorable roads.

Bihar's course correction may well mark a watershed moment for India. At a time when coalition politics limits centralized control, the nation needs competent, accountable provincial governments to continue its emergence as a global power. There are similarly encouraging signs from other local and regional leaders. Delhi's Sheila Dikshit has staved off her opponents by successfully tackling pollution and improving city infrastructure; Gujarat's Narendra Modi has retained power by attracting investment and creating jobs, despite his alleged role in deadly Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002; and Orissa's Naveen Patnaik has won an unprecedented third term in one of India's laggard states by improving law and order, stimulating industry, and cracking down on corruption. The common thread is that political leaders are realizing that anti-incumbency and gerrymandering aren't insurmountable: they can win reelection by delivering economic development and ousting the corrupt or incompetent from their parties' dockets.

Because of his state's longstanding reputation as a basket case, Kumar, perhaps more than any other, has shown that even India's darkest corners can make progress against crime, corruption, and caste- and creed-based demagoguery. In recent days, Kumar faced a rebellion from within his own party that may illustrate one of the costs of dismantling the patronage system. But if he can hold onto power in the state elections this fall, and perhaps even if he can't, the trendsetter state will confirm that India's democracy and its voters have reached a new stage of evolution.

"Whether he wins or loses, the signal has gone out very clearly," says PRIA's Rai. Kumar's predecessor, Lalu Yadav, "used to say development does not help you to win elections. Now the same man has started using development jargon." Whoever takes office next term will have to do it on the promise of electricity, roads, and jobs, and they'll be accountable for their promises now that Kumar has broken the perception that all politicians are the same and change is impossible. "Politically, Kumar has won," says Rai. "Electorally, he may lose. But that's not important."

What's vital is that India's most backward state is now finally moving forward.
© 2010

going greens: india's golf boom

Half a billion Indians live in poverty. The other half lives to golf.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
February 13, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — Germany's Marcel Siem took advantage of a last-minute putting tutorial from India's top-ranked women's amateur to take the lead on opening day of the country's newest international golf tournament this week. Tipped to slow greens that foxed other European players, Siem notched an eagle and several birdies by stiffening his stroke to avoid leaving his putts short. But fans still hold out hope for local favorite Jeev Milkha Singh, ranked 59th in the world.

Underway this week at the Indian capital's new DLF Golf & Country Club — a plush course built by one of the country's largest real estate developers — the Avantha Masters is the highest paying professional tournament ever played in India, offering prize money of $2 million.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Known internationally for its slums, India is going green. Putting green. Aided by corporate support and a rising middle class, golf is fast becoming big business in India. Over the past five years, new courses have mushroomed all over the country, and golf-related retailers and manufacturers are beginning to set up shop here to exploit a potentially vast future market.

Meanwhile, the number of amateur tournaments and the prize money for winning has increased manifold, while a number of professional events are also springing up — 24 pro tournaments alone in 2010. And golf tourism is emerging as a lucrative travel business, as players from Japan and Southeast Asia fly in on charter weekends to take advantage of India's bargain basement greens fees.

“We are just short of 200 courses, and we expect that we will put up in the next decade more than 100 courses,” said Ashit Luthra, chairman of the Indian Golf Union. “It is becoming a corporate sport.”

India's skyrocketing residential real estate market has played a big part in the boom. Designed by Arnold Palmer, whose name has become synonymous with beautiful courses, the DLF Golf & Country Club opened for play in 1999, at the beginning of a decade-long burst of activity in the Indian golf scene. Located in Gurgaon, Haryana, a satellite city close to New Delhi that plays host to a large number of multinationals, the golf club was built to attract wealthy Delhi residents to the city's hinterland.

Now virtually every major real estate developer in India is turning to golf as a way of marketing their properties to an elite that once valued an address in the urban center above all. Jaypee Greens, for instance, focused its recently completed 452-acre development in Greater Noida — the latest of Delhi's increasingly far-flung suburbs — on an 18-hole course designed by Canada's Graham Cooke. For an encore, the company is building a top-end residential project around a 2500-acre “sports city” that will feature golf courses as well as a motor-racing track and other facilities. According to the company, golf helps it attract elite customers and sell its properties for more than double the price of neighboring residential projects.

“Golf is actually a major driver for our business,” said Manu Goswami, head of business development at real estate developer Jaypee Greens. “It's pretty amazing the number of people who are getting into it.”

Retailers are also beginning to see India's potential. This January, Callaway Golf, the billion dollar company known for creating the “Big Bertha” driver, launched a wholly owned subsidiary to tap the local Indian market and penned a marketing deal with Jeev Mikkha Singh, the top-ranked Indian player in the world. The launch follows the entry of TaylorMade Golf, a division of adidas, in 2003.

"Callaway Golf's international business spans more than 110 countries and accounts for over half of the Company's annual revenue," George Fellows, Callaway's chief executive, was quoted as saying in a press release. "We see great potential in the Indian market and are looking forward to introducing our products.”

It's been a long road. India's Royal Calcutta Golf Club was the first such club outside Great Britain when it was built, in 1829, five years before the construction of Scotland's St. Andrews and 60 years before the game made its way to America. But even though the sport continued among India's elite throughout the 20th century, its strong associations with capitalism and colonialism prevented golf from breaking out of the competitive sports arena to become a top leisure activity. Until now.

“India is not active enough in the 30-plus age group to get into racket ball or tennis, so the 30-plus segment is looking for a softer game like golf,” said Jaypee Greens' Goswami.

Though the market is still tiny compared with the U.S., about half a million Indians play golf today, and Callaway forecasts that number will grow at an annual rate of 25 to 30 percent for the next few years, compared with 2 to 3 percent in America.

What's more, as an increasing number of Indian pros break into the big money and sports in general attain greater acceptance among the middle class with the success of athletes like tennis player Sania Mirza, the new players taking up golf are no longer limited to Indians who can trace their wealth to the days of the British Raj.

Earlier this year, a former caddie whose father worked as a laborer took home $200,000 by winning the Indian Open. And in Kolkata, Indrajit Bhalotia's Protouch golf academy has teamed up with a school for slum children to teach some of the poorest kids in India the proverbial rich man's game.

One reason is that apart from the posh courses that real estate developers are hiring the world's best designers to build, India is also beginning to witness growth in the cheap, open-access public courses that can democratize the game. Greens fees at most courses run less than $11 and many courses charge as little as $1. But even at the top courses fees are a fraction of the rates charged elsewhere in Asia.

And that makes golf tourism a potentially lucrative proposition for India's travel sector. Thanks to colonial-era courses located in the Himalayan hills and tea estates, and others sprinkled with historical monuments, India boasts some unusual attractions for the golf tourist. The greens of the Agra Golf Club boast a stunning view of the Taj Mahal, the links of Delhi's Qutub Golf Course lie in the shadow of the 12th-century Qutub Minar, and courses across the country promise everything from stunning desert landscapes to lush coffee plantations. Several travel agents are already marketing Indian golf holidays to tourists from Japan and Southeast Asia — who have already made Malaysia and Thailand popular haunts.

“If we market it well, we can get a flood of tourists coming in,” said Luthra. “But for that, we need more and more courses.”

Source URL

Thursday, February 04, 2010

adventure travel: the great himalaya trail?

Why walk Everest, K2, and other mountain giants? Because they are there.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
February 4, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — The Himalayan range — home to Everest, K2 and more than 100 peaks exceeding 21,000 feet in height — is without question the most well-known and most awe-inspiring set of mountains in the world. But as a trekking destination, the majestic snow-capped range has a long way to go.

Of the six countries that the Himalayan range crosses, only Nepal has succeeded in tapping the growing interest in adventure tourism, while nations like Afghanistan, Bhutan, China and Pakistan have failed to capitalize on their high-altitude potential due to strict regulations and internal strife. Even India has not made much progress, although it accounts for most of the main Himalayan range and offers a more or less safe and friendly, if not hassle-free, experience for tourists.

“Today, we are one-tenth of Nepal in adventure tourism,” said adventurer and guidebook author Depi Chaudhry, who says India doesn't track these numbers. “We have a substantial portion of the Himalayas. But we haven't been able to leverage that.”

As India's neighbor to the east prepares for a big marketing push with its “Visit Nepal” campaign in 2011, however, Chaudhry has thrown his lot in with a group of freelance trekkers, climbers and writers who are fighting their own battle to promote the Himalayan trekking industry — with guerrilla tactics.

Logging thousands of kilometers and hundreds of thousands of words, Chaudhry and fellow guidebook writers Robin Boustead, Gary Weare and Jamie McGuinness are struggling to map and promote a commercial trekking route that crosses the Himalayas from end to end.

Billed as The Great Himalaya Trail, or GHT, the traverse will cobble together dozens of marketable legs to draw some of the 30,000-plus tourists who do the popular Everest Base Camp and Annapurna Circuit treks in Nepal each year to other regions. The dream is that one day, a traverse of the entire route could be the life-long goal for every serious trekker in the world.

“I spend far too much time thinking about how to do it,” said Boustead, who recently completed a guidebook for the Nepal section of the GHT. “I have every intention of trying to do the first ever continuous walk — not taking a break for seasons, which is what has happened with the only other two attempted traverses. There's a very convincing case for creating a continuous trail that could be run over the course of a year or perhaps 14 months.”

Such long-distance trails are already popular in many other countries. The Appalachian Trail, which runs through the Eastern United States' Appalachian mountain range for 2,174 miles from Georgia to Maine, sees thousands of “sectioners” every year — and nearly 10,000 cult-hero “thru-hikers” have traversed the entire route in a single trekking season since the 1930s. The 220-mile Coast to Coast Walk across northern England boasts a similar following, as does the shorter Tour du Mont Blanc, which circles the famously sublime peak on a route that passes through parts of Switzerland, Italy and France.

But no long-distance hiking trail in the world has overcome the political and logistical obstacles that confront the GHT. High passes and inclement weather make traversing the Himalayas nearly impossible in a single season, much of the route is inaccessible by road, and many trailheads are hundreds of kilometers from the nearest airport.

But those obstacles to commercial trekking pale in comparison to the political barriers to establishing a difficult to monitor overland route crossing six countries at odds over territory, human rights violations, diplomatic bullying and even cross-border terrorism. Even in peaceful, liberal India, for example, substantial portions of arguably the most desirable high-altitude traverse are closed to foreign trekkers because they pass through sensitive border areas under dispute between India and China or India and Pakistan.

However, Boustead believes the time is ripe for pushing the envelope. Though many routes remain closed or permit-only, India has for many years used mountaineering feats as a political tool — most notably with Colonel Narinder “Bull” Kumar's 1978 race to claim a series of summits on Kashmir's Siachen Glacier, today the focus of India's standoff with Pakistan.

And in recent years India has apparently been exploring commercial trekking and mountaineering as a way of solidifying its claims on disputed territories. In January of this year, for instance, the government announced it was removing restrictions and opening to climbers 104 mountain peaks from the Leh and Ladakh regions along India's border with China and Pakistan.

“If you're going to assert your authority over a region, the best way to do that is by controlling access and allowing people to go there,” said Boustead, who bemoans the restrictions on trekking in some of India's most impressive mountains. “Why is there no Nanda Devi circuit? It's the most well known mountain in India. Why isn't there a Kanchenjunga circuit?”

So far, only the Nepal segment of the Great Himalaya Trail is officially open for business, with an established route map and nine well-defined legs serviced by various outfitters. But the team is working speedily to bring the rest of the trail online. According to Chaudhry, the map of the India route is “by and large” complete.
Having walked about 60 percent of the trails in the course of researching his book, "Trekking Guide to the Western Himalayas," he envisions splitting the GHT into about eight legs suitable for commercial trekking in India. And he thinks the trail can be up and running in 2010. “Most of these trails do exist historically, whether it was used by the shepherds to walk from one village to another, or for trading, or for marriage purposes,” Chaudhry said. “It's just that they've not really been popularized.”

In March, the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development will hold a conference in Kathmandu to bring together all the parties interested in the GHT, which the nonprofit organization views as a means “to attract repeat visitors to the Himalaya region, and to divert them into lesser visited rural mountain areas as a tool for poverty reduction in poorer mountain districts.” Bringing together stakeholders not only from Nepal and India but also from Bhutan, China and Pakistan, the conference aims to explore the viability of promoting the GHT as a region-wide project. Boustead, for one, believes that it represents a crucial opportunity.

“It's a watershed moment for adventure tourism in Asia,” he said. “There are long distance walking trails in Africa, South America, North America, Europe and Australia. But there are no formal long-distance walking trails in Asia.” The GHT could not only be Asia's first such route. It's a natural to be the most famous long-distance trail in the world.

“The Himalaya is an obvious choice,” Boustead said. “It's defined, it's well-known, it has the highest peaks on earth. There's lots of draw cards.”

Source URL:

Monday, February 01, 2010

goa's tourism boss links sexual assaults to bikinis

A shocking case provokes outrage. The local government blames swimwear.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
February 1, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — Once upon a time, the beaches of Goa were known for free love. But as a string of high-profile sexual assaults on tourists culminated in the alleged rape of a 9-year-old Russian girl last week, the idyllic strip of sand along the Arabian Sea is fast gaining a fearful reputation.

The answer? According to the state's ministry of tourism, those cute pre-teens in two-pieces are asking for it.

“You can't blame the locals; they have never seen such women. Foreign tourists must maintain a certain degree of modesty in their clothing. Walking on the beaches half-naked is bound to titillate the senses,” New Delhi's Mail Today newspaper quoted Pamela Mascarhenas, Goa's deputy director of tourism, as saying Friday.

GlobalPost could not reach Mascarhenas for comment. But a spokesman for the Goa tourism department confirmed that — far from marking a departure from official policy — the official's remark echoed previous statements by the tourism minister himself.

“I have not talked to her [Mascarhenas] on this issue directly,” said Swapnil Naik, director of the Goa tourism department. “But I think that sentiment has also been echoed by our minister in one or two statements. There is a degree of cultural shock for our native population when they see certain type of dressing.”

Goa has been on the boil since Jan. 28, when a 9-year-old Russian girl was allegedly raped by two Indian men. Following close on the heels of the alleged rape and murder of Scarlett Keeling, a British teenager, in 2008, the incident sparked an immediate media feeding frenzy, as local TV channels broadcast interviews with the victim's mother and the 9-year-old girl herself. The ongoing story culminated Jan. 30 with a scare headline reading, “No Bikinis On Goa Beaches.”

Naik said that there is no plan to ban bikinis. “It's totally false,” he said. “There was no such statement made.”

Earlier in January, Goa Tourism Minister Francisco Pacheco announced that the government would no longer feature women in bikinis in its advertisements. The state has not barred other tourism organizations for promoting fun in the sun, and it has not yet made any noises about imposing a dress code on the state's revelers.

But weeks before Mascarhenas' remark, the minister's statement irked many Indians, who felt it implied that rape victims invite assault by dressing in particular ways. “Goa is a family holiday destination and not a sex tourism destination,” Pacheco said Jan. 7. “We will make sure that bikini babes do not symbolize Goa tourism in future.”

“In India they still morally land the responsibility on the victim if the victim is a woman, because of cultural conditioning,” said 35-year-old Anurashi Shetty, a resident of Donapaula Goa. “[The impression is always that] she must have done something to provoke it. It's a national mindset.”

That mindset includes many government servants.

“The general impression that the government felt is going out to the domestic tourists and others is that Goa is a place where you can dress whichever way you want, and that may be one of the reasons for the rape cases and security problems we have been having recently,” Naik said.

On Jan. 29, Goa police arrested Aman Bharadwaj, prime suspect in the alleged rape, in Mumbai. The central government and Goa administration have reportedly both been under pressure from Russia's embassy in New Delhi. But the speedy apprehension of a suspect may not warm diplomatic relations for long as India's glacial court system grinds down victim and accused alike.

After the incident, the embassy criticized the Goa police for failing to protect tourists and threatened to recommend that Russians — the second-largest group of visitors to Goa — avoid the state in the future.

"We are shocked and deeply outraged by the reports about the disgusting incident in India's well-known resort in Goa when a 9-year-old child from Russia became another victim of a rapist," the Russian Embassy said in a statement.

Comments about the way the 9-year-old victim may have been dressed will not be a balm on Goa's troubled waters.