Wednesday, June 29, 2011

India: Is free speech on the way out?

India faces new threats to freedom of speech as technology advances and citizens gain more access to information.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - June 29, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — With a vibrant, critical press and a strong culture of dissent, India stands out as one of Asia's strongest champions of freedom of speech.

But even as new technologies give citizens greater power to exercise that freedom, the government is making efforts to the contrary.

On the one hand, Indian authorities are capitulating to extremist groups and political parties that demand the banning of books and films claimed to be offensive. On the other, they are flirting with outright curbs on freedom of speech — with new laws governing internet content and the print media.

It's a dangerous cocktail.

“The risk of abuse of these laws to silence speech is going to be very, very high.”
~Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch

In recent months, India drafted new rules for the web that will allow anyone to demand that internet sites and service providers remove supposedly objectionable content based on a sweeping list of criteria.

Charges of sedition were used to try to silence author Arundhati Roy and activist Binayak Sen, two of the country's most prominent citizens. Sen spent two years in jail before the Supreme Court freed him on bail this April.

Joseph Lelyveld's controversial biography of Gandhi joined the list of hundreds of books to be banned with little regard to their actual contents. And Maqbool Fida Husain, one of the country's most feted artists, died in exile imposed on him by legal harassment and death threats from extremist groups that objected to some of his paintings.

Even before the rules for internet speech were notified under the IT act in April, the Department of Information Technology had quietly blocked 11 websites, the Center for Internet and Society discovered through a recent Right to Information (RTI) request.

Bloggers and social media activists fear that the new rules, which also regulate posts on YouTube, Facebook and similar sites, will set off a constant battle against bans. While the law requires these sites to remove so-called "objectionable content" within 36 hours of receiving a complaint, critics say there's no mechanism for the site or initial user to defend the posting.

Moreover, the definition of objectionable content — which includes anything that is "harmful, threatening, abusive, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory, pornographic, libellous, invasive of another's privacy, hateful, disparaging, racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable, relating to money laundering or gambling" — is vague enough that anything at all might meet the criteria for a ban.

"It [the new list of rules] is in direct violation to the freedom of speech," Pavan Duggal, a Supreme Court lawyer who specializes in cyber law, told the Times of India.

At the same time, even as the rapid expansion of television news channels, newspapers and magazines suggest that India's free press is as vital as ever, critics argue that certain stories have become more difficult to tell.

Early this year, the information and broadcasting ministry urged print publications to write more positive stories, even as it proposed amendments to the Press and Publications Act giving the state greater control over content. Among other measures, the amended law would allow local officials to suspend publication and bar anybody convicted of terrorist acts or any other act that endangers the security of the state from printing a newspaper or magazine.

And while the broadcast ministry continually calls for "self-regulation," other forces ensure that self-censorship remains rampant.

Various media outlets have begun the practice of accepting payment for certain types of news — even political reports — while journalists who expose crime and corruption regularly face violent attacks.

Though police this month apprehended several suspects in the slaying of a Mumbai crime reporter, most of the assaults on journalists go unremarked and unpunished, according to a recent report by the India-based Media Foundation. The alleged perpetrators range from political parties to corporate thugs to the police themselves, according to a press release.

Meanwhile, the legal and financial obstacles to reporting from India's poor rural areas are greater than ever, according to Shubhranshu Choudhary, a former BBC journalist who now runs a mobile phone-based radio news network in Chhattisgarh. Most rural Indians can't read the newspaper and can't afford television, for instance. But even though the government recently allowed FM stations and community radio, news broadcasts are still banned across the dial — apart from the government-friendly reports by state-owned All India Radio.

Newspaper reporters based outside of major cities are paid a percentage of the advertising revenue they collect, rather than a straight salary, so they are beholden to local corporations rather than their readers or editors. And, increasingly, television rating points (TRPs) rather than editorial standards define the value of news, Choudhary said, citing several television channels' recent decision to remove their reporters from Chhattisgarh — seat of a Maoist rebellion which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and others have described as the greatest threat to India's security.

"Chhattisgarh does not have even a single TRP box," Choudhary said. "They're very clearly saying, whatever happens in Chhattisgarh, why should we bother?"

Sunday, June 19, 2011

India: deadly drug trials

A $400 million market for clinical trials puts desperate Indian patients at risk.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - June 19, 2011

CHENNAI, India — India's huge population, many of whom have hardly been exposed to medication, makes it one of the world's most promising markets for drug research.

But as the $400 million business accelerates, critics say it is exposing the dark side of the country's health-care sector.

"The regulations are weak, implementation is nonexistent, and ethics seem to be taken very lightly," said Anjali Shenoi, a researcher with a New Delhi-based women's health advocacy group called Sama.

"We feel like it is a growing problem, especially with India growing as a clinical trial hub, and more and more research being conducted by CROs [contract research organizations]."

Last week, the drug controller general of India — the top industry regulator — officially censured nine firms for failing to compensate the families of patients who died during clinical trials over the past year. But critics say the real story lies in the overall numbers, and the drug controller's tardiness in taking action.

According to the official figures, more than 1,500 Indians have died in the course of clinical trials since 2008 — 670 last year alone. And even though few of those deaths were reported to be treatment-related, there is no independent audit system to investigate the fatalities that occur during clinical trials.

Some see the booming industry as a ticking bomb.

Indians are desperate for affordable medical treatment. The government accounts for only 15 percent of health spending, and some two-thirds of patients pay the entire cost of care out of pocket. More than half of the poorest 20 percent of the population must sell property or borrow money to pay their medical bills, and yet, government spending on health care has declined.

Meanwhile, and instead of national health insurance or more widely subsidized health care, the government is promoting clinical research — the target of which is its poorest people.

Since India amended its laws governing drug research in 2005 to allow companies to conduct clinical trials in India at the same time as they are being conducted abroad, the research industry has expanded dramatically. Clinical trials are up to 60 percent cheaper to conduct in India than in developed countries, and companies are cashing in.

According to the drug controller, the number of Indian contract research organizations registered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has nearly tripled since the early 2000s, from 60-odd to 150. And more than 1,000 clinical trials are officially registered with the Indian Council of Medical Research, though that number is low compared with the number of trials underway in the United States.

As high as Indian authorities are on the industry, critics say that the method of oversight — which relies on decentralized, independent ethics committees — is woefully inadequate.

Thousands of institutions are involved in drug testing, not only in major cities but in small provincial towns across the country, according to Amar Jesani of the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics. But while companies are required to register the trials themselves, there is no comparable system for registering the ethics committees charged with evaluating their research protocols.

Only a handful of the hundreds of ethics committees have any official accreditation, which means that most of the supposed watchdogs have never been evaluated or audited by any outside agency themselves. Most of them do not publish any details about the number of clinical trials they have evaluated or what methods are used to monitor drug testing.

"There's a complete mystery about how they function," Jesani said.

But they aren't functioning very well, a trickle of press reports suggests.

Last year, after seven young girls died during testing of a new vaccine for the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease that can cause cervical cancer, Sama and Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, another non-governmental organization (NGO), conducted a fact finding study. The NGO probe allegedly found evidence of serious ethical violations in the design and execution of the project — which was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and carried out by PATH, an internationally respected nonprofit.

Sama and Jan Swasthya Abhiyan alleged that for "informed consent" researchers routinely relied on school officials, for example, claiming the parents of the research subjects were not available. Parents and girls who participated in the study said they were told that the vaccine would prevent uterine cancer — though they were not clear about what that meant.

Some may not have understood the nature of the project, as the NGO report quotes one mother as saying, "Since it was a vaccine being given by the government, we all trusted it blindly and considered it reliable, like any other vaccine that was given as part of the immunization program."

A subsequent government investigation found that the seven deaths were “most probably unrelated to the vaccine." And though it upheld most of the NGOs' findings in its report, the government described the ethical violations as "minor deficiencies" — downplaying the importance of informed consent, the most vital aspect of medical ethics for clinical trials.

PATH defended the way the study was conducted.

"PATH and its Indian collaborators worked with two ethical review committees in India and one in the United States to design study protocols and informed consent materials," Dr. Christopher Elias, president and CEO of PATH, said in statement following the controversy. "PATH is confident that these procedural safeguards informed and guided all aspects of study implementation and conduct."

Similarly, an independent study of clinical research sponsored by the Mumbai-based Center for Studies in Ethics and Rights, found that multinationals like GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca also skirted the boundaries of medical ethics.

Evaluating clinical trials of drugs for breast cancer, acute mania and schizophrenia, journalist Sandhya Srinivasan and researcher Sachin Nikarge found that the pharmaceutical companies took advantage of patients who were desperate for any kind of medical care and, in the case of psychiatric patients, probably incapable of providing genuine informed consent.

While AstraZeneca did not respond to the journalists' inquiries, Johnson & Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline defended their research practices.

"We have well trained physicians and scientists to explain protocols to patients and answer any questions to obtain and document informed consent ... with particular attention to relevant language, literacy, cultural and societal issues," Johnson & Johnson said in response to questions emailed by Srinivasan and Nikarge. "Our trials are open to internal and external audit. We don't enroll anyone for whom appropriate consent is not given."

"Global study protocols are ... designed to ensure appropriate local standards of care are provided to eligible participating patients," GlaxoSmithKline said in a similar statement.

Yet in each of the trials that Srinivasan and Nikarge investigated, they had concerns about whether some patients were denied effective treatments for their illnesses because of their participation in the research project.

For instance, the Center for Studies in Ethics and Rights report claims that psychiatric patients suffering from mania and schizophrenia were denied the normal treatment for their diseases and given placebos during clinical trials — likely because placebo-controlled studies are faster and more conclusive than studies that compare the experimental drug to an existing treatment.

And, though the company concluded it was “not considered treatment related," one schizophrenic patient in the placebo group committed suicide during the trial of an anti-psychotic manufactured by AstraZeneca, the report says.

"The moral of the whole story is the regulators are sleeping," Jesani said. "They are doing nothing."

Friday, June 17, 2011

Blame Gandhi: Did the great pacifist kill India, Inc.?

To avert a disastrous impending labor shortage, India needs to train 500 million skilled workers by 2022.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - June 17, 2011

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

NEW DELHI, India — Not too long ago, a scandal of sorts hit Indian newspapers.

Though millions of Indians remain unemployed or underemployed, the country's lagging brick-and-mortar industries had imported tens of thousands of Chinese workers — on business visas, no less — to build and operate power plants, steel mills and telecommunications towers.

"The Delhi airport was built by Chinese labor," said Dilip Chenoy, chief executive of India's National Skill Development Corporation, referring to the most prominent example of India's efforts to improve its dismal infrastructure.

But the uproar didn't last long for the simple reason that India can't afford to shut down.

Despite its huge working-age population, India faces a potentially debilitating shortage of skilled workers.

According to one emerging vocational education firm, only about 5 percent of India's 400-million strong labor force has received any formal training, compared with 70 percent in Germany and 95 percent in Korea. Importing skilled workers from China — on or off the books — is only the most dramatic manifestation of the problem.

Across the board, the shortage of skilled laborers has reduced productivity and cut into profits. Poaching workers from competitors has become a common practice that drives up wages, threatening to derail India's manufacturing revolution before it has even begun.

The wrong revolution

The crux of the problem is that India has never really industrialized.

India's service-related businesses account for more than half of GDP, while manufacturing contributes only 15 percent. And though China's economy is only four times larger than India's, its manufacturing sector is 50 times larger. Meanwhile, China has some 500,000 vocational training centers, compared with India's 10,000 obsolete Industrial Training Institutes.

Blame revolutionaries. Brutal Mao Zedong killed millions with his Great Leap Forward in China, but his drive for steel and obsession with collectivization arguably kickstarted the country's industrialization. China's ghastly Cultural Revolution terrorized intellectuals, but it also lionized laborers and solidified the building blocks of the nation.

Meanwhile, in India, there was Mohandas K. Gandhi, pacifist with a spinning wheel. Gandhi's insistence that his followers spin their own cloth as a protest against British imperialism laid the groundwork for decades of socialist policies.

While these policies provided the poor with jobs that saved them from starvation, they also discouraged technology and restricted companies from developing economies of scale. This more robust growth may have pulled India's masses out of poverty once and for all.

Gandhi's kinder, gentler revolution also left the caste system intact, assuring that there would be no prestige in physical labor for the rest of his century.

For decades India's industrial policies channeled Gandhi. Hundreds of products were reserved for small-scale companies to manufacture. Because these small-scale companies were too numerous to regulate, the policy effectively nurtured hundreds of thousands of sweatshops.

Thanks to India's ongoing economic reforms, many products — including some with a high growth potential, like apparel — are no longer reserved for small-scale industry. Still, many of the sweatshops persist.

Where large companies make money through economies of scale, sweatshops increase profit margins by paying low wages and cutting corners. And the Indian workers — and Indian industrialization drive — continue to pay the price.

That's because at the same time that India inadvertently created a breeding ground for sweatshops, it also passed strict labor laws that set minimum wages, mandate safety standards and make it very difficult to fire workers.

Sweatshops are only economically viable as long as they flout India's strict rules. But large companies can't fly under the radar and must comply. If they can't fire workers when the going gets tough, it doesn't make much sense to hire them in first place. What does make sense is contracting the work out to the very sweatshops that flout the rules.

The upshot is that only a handful of industries — like automobile and motorcycle manufacturing — have managed to attain economies of scale and begun to compete on the global stage.

More than 90 percent of India's work force is still employed in the so-called "unorganized sector," where neither safety standards nor minimum wage laws can be enforced. Where there is no money for boots and hardhats, there is surely none for technology or training.

"It varies a lot by sector, but we are seeing shortages anecdotally in several areas," said Ramya Venkataraman, head of the India education practice at the consulting firm McKinsey. "In some cases it [the skilled labor shortage] is constraining growth, and in some cases it is increasing the cost of doing business.

"At the current capacity, we'll be able to skill about 50 million people in 10 years," said Venkataraman, "versus the 500 million we need to train. So there's a severe shortage."

The opportunity in crisis

To avert disaster, India's normally ponderous policy makers have acted with speed and creativity.

Recognizing that the country needs to train 500 million skilled laborers by 2022 if its current economic growth is to continue, the government has mobilized private industry to solve its own impending crisis. A new corporation has emerged to identify and fund vocational education businesses, much like a development bank.

Economic planners may well have turned India's biggest headache into its most lucrative business opportunity — estimated at more than $20 billion.

Designed to help create large-scale, for-profit vocational training companies and funded with around $300 million in seed capital, India's National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) has already lured companies like Global Talent Track, TeamLease Services and Manipal Education's IndiaSkills into the sector. The hook: NSDC offers low interest-rate loans and support in developing certification standards, providing financial aid for students and promoting vocational education.

Among the largest players, Centum Learning, an associate company of telecom billionaire Sunil Mittal's Bharti Group, has partnered with NSDC to form Centum Workskills India, a joint venture that aims to train 12 million people across 11 states by 2022. Similarly, Everonn Education has teamed up with NSDC to train another 15 million. And Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services has inked a joint-venture deal with NSDC to build 100 skill development centers over the next five years.

In all, NSDC has so far approved $150 million in funding for 29 ventures that will train 40 million youth in diverse trades over the next 10 years. But this isn't by-the-numbers government work — with companies looking to get their front feet in the trough. And it's not charity work, either.

With 51 percent private sector funding and eight out of 12 of its board members representing private industry, NSDC offers better terms than commercial banks, but it takes a hefty 27 percent stake in exchange. It also demands that its partners guarantee job placement for 70 percent of their trainees.

Meanwhile, the big guns aren't getting into the business out of so-called "corporate social responsibility." They're in it to make money.

"It's not easy to monetize this space, so the motivation cannot be only revenue and profit," said Sanjeev Duggal, chief executive of Centum Learning Ltd. "But definitely our objective is by our fourth year to be crossing 500 crores [$110 million] in revenue."

The most needed job skills indicate how high the stakes are for India's economy.

According to estimates by ICRA Management Consulting Services, by 2020 India's construction industry will need 33 million more skilled crane operators, electricians, welders, masons and so on; the textiles and clothing industry will need 26 million loom and sewing machine operators; and the automobile and autoparts manufacturing industries will need 35 million machinists, mechanics, salesmen, etc.

In short, India's aspirations of boosting manufacturing output to 25 percent of GDP by 2025 — creating 100 million jobs and bringing hundreds of millions more people out of poverty in the process — may well hang in the balance.

"We have to build in skill-training capacity now," said NSDC's Chenoy. "We can't wait. In the next two to three years we have to put in place a skill-training capacity of at least 40 million people a year."

By connecting training programs more closely to employers, India hopes to ensure that courses are designed to meet industry's needs and to introduce an effective certification system so that employers recognize the value of a trained and certified welder, say, and are willing to pay more for him than for an someone who went through the informal apprentice system.

Changing the image of skilled labor

But those in the vocational education market say there are many more challenges to overcome, starting with convincing young people that a marketable skill can be more valuable than a college degree — at least when industry considers three out of four engineering graduates unemployable.

"Over the years vocational training has always been looked down upon and thought of something that's meant for losers," said IndiaSkills' chief executive Hari Menon, who expects his business to grow tenfold in its second year of operations. "Everybody chases a Bachelor's of Commerce or Bachelor's of Arts, however unemployable that makes them."

The trouble is that India can't afford to rely on supply and demand in the labor market to drive young people into vocational education — that would mean the full impact of the crisis had already hit. That's why NSDC plans to blanket the country with ads designed to put the pride back in blue collar work, said Chenoy.

But it will take more than slogans. The private sector needs to overhaul vocational education, starting with knocking down the artificial wall between academic degrees and skills certifications, said Neeti Sharma, an executive at TeamLease, India's largest staffing company. Currently, there are no community colleges in India, so there's no such thing as a vocational "degree." Moreover, once a student enters the vocational track there's virtually no way for him to get back into the university stream — and vice versa.

That's why TeamLease is working in Gujarat to set up the country's first vocational university. Similarly, Global Talent Track, which has partnered with multinational computer networking firm Cisco Systems Inc. and some 900 colleges across 15 states, recently tied up with the University of Kashmir to train degree students with the job skills that employers are looking for.

"In this country, traditionally, skills and education have always followed two different paths," said Global Talent Track chief executive Uma Ganesh.

Without question, skilled workers get paid more than unskilled ones, and vocational training can mean the difference between work in the unorganized sector — without benefits or job security — and a future with a growing national firm. But even though training firms say their graduates earn 10 to 50 percent more as a result of their training, recruiting isn't easy.

Employers pay more for skills, but so far they haven't started paying extra for workers with training certifications, and students are still reluctant to pay for training outside of "glamor programs" like computer programming and flight attendant schools.

Moreover, the companies and nonprofits that offer vocational education programs say that government-funded programs that are free for students are only partly effective: It helps them get students through the door, but doesn't ensure that they graduate. According to the head of one vocational program, the dropout rate for students on complete scholarships is as high as 70 to 80 percent. It falls to 10 to 20 percent among students paying all or part of the fee themselves.

"Today, the biggest challenge is that industry is not mandating certification," said IndiaSkills' Menon. "So the prospective learners feel that I can always walk into a company and get a job, and even if I'm certified it doesn't create any differential or positioning for me in industry when it comes to pay."

Even young people who are desperate for jobs don't necessarily understand the value of skills training, said Girish Singhania, who started Edubridge Learning to bring rural Indians into the modern job market in 2009.

Recruiters have to be equal parts salesman and social worker to get prospects to enroll. After enrollment, the company has to cajole them to stay on to graduate, encourage them to migrate and take a job at the end of the program, and then coach them on the importance of working hard once they're on a company's roster.

"The most important challenge we face is the mindset of the people living in these areas," Singhania said. "The mindset is just to accept things as they are and not try to change their careers."

To make India an industrial powerhouse, the mindset of the entire country will have to change.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

India: yoga's inflexible guru

Analysis: How Baba Ramdev's hunger strike undermines the anti-corruption movement.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - June 8, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — The tragedy of Indian politics is that it usually plays as farce.

So it was this past weekend, when a police raid on a popular guru's hunger strike turned violent, and then abruptly comical. The guru dressed like a woman to escape but was nonetheless captured and whisked away to his Himalayan retreat.

Swami Baba Ramdev, a television yogi with a mass following in India, had organized the fast in New Delhi against corruption in India. He has called on the government to introduce tough anti-corruption legislation and to pursue billions of dollars in illegal funds abroad.

On Sunday, police dispersed the crowd of 40,000 people using batons and tear gas, leaving at least one protester in critical condition. Ramdev was exiled to the Hindu pilgrimage city of Haridwar, where he continues his fast to compel the government to bring back so-called "black money" stashed in secret foreign bank accounts.

A rustic and conservative figure, Ramdev has over the past five years built a health and philosophy empire comprising some 34 companies, which brought in an estimated $250 million last year, according to Indian press reports. Preaching simple yoga techniques, he has rapidly amassed an audience of millions for his televised yoga program, now supported by two broadcasting firms.

But by classing homosexuality as a psychological failing and making the unsubstantiated claim that his breathing exercises can cure cancer and HIV — not to mention grow hair — he has ensured that most of his followers are conservative, rural and small-town Hindus who are being steadily left behind in India's climb toward modernity.

As such, his presence may actually hurt the anti-corruption movement more than it helps — as he has insisted on measures that are impractical or irrelevant, such as eliminating notes higher than 50 rupees (about $1) in denomination, or introducing the death penalty for corrupt officials.

But as ridiculous as Ramdev makes the debate, like Rush Limbaugh, he raises the volume so much that he cannot be ignored. Gurus and babas — whose claims of asceticism inspire absolute trust from their followers — have often intervened in Indian politics, mobilizing mass movements to block the reform of religious laws and even bring down governments.

So it came as no surprise that within a matter of hours, nearly every politician felt compelled to take a position on Ramdev in order to gain or defend political capital. Nearly every opposition politician had something to say against the brutal crackdown, while the Congress slammed Ramdev and his attempt to enact laws without the inconvenience of votes.

Old-timers from the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) resurfaced to join the fun. A journalist tried to whack a Congress Party spokesman with his shoe (he was thrashed soundly for his trouble).

A delegation of opposition Bharatiya Janata Party leaders — so pleased with the way the wind was blowing that one of them broke into a jubilant jig outside Mahatma Gandhi's mausoleum — met the president to call for an emergency session of parliament to browbeat the government.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh delivered a defensive public apology for the crackdown. “It is unfortunate that the operation had to be conducted, but quite honestly, there was no alternative,” he told journalists.

And Ramdev himself, once again clad in his characteristic orange garb, again returned to center stage — via television news — to grin, roll his eyes and hint that a mysterious "secret mission" had caused his normally omnipresent right-hand man to disappear.

As mad as it sounds, however, the situation is serious.

Singh's Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government has been pounded by corruption accusations even before Ramdev began his fast, and neither its jailing of the former telecom minister nor its capitulation on including prominent members of civil society in the drafting of a powerful new ombudsman law has succeeded in muting the anger.

So, when Ramdev entered the fray, what had up to this point appeared to be a naive and altruistic effort turned overtly political.

Although Ramdev and the Hindu-nationalist RSS party have denied any affiliation, the guru's Hindu identity, his right-wing politics and his strong sense of nationalism make them natural allies. And with Ramdev's move to take over the anti-corruption movement — which was earlier championed by social activist Anna Hazare, who also launched an anti-corruption hunger strike — the symbolism of the struggle changed abruptly.

However critical he was of the government, Hazare, with his white suit and Gandhi cap, symbolized change from within the tradition of the Congress Party, though he is not a member. Ramdev's orange robes, on the other hand, stand for the BJP — known colloquially as "the saffron party" — even though Ramdev is not a BJP party member either.

The government's crackdown on Ramdev's fast has completed the movement's shift, and many observers are calling it a foolish miscalculation.

Until now, the anti-corruption agitation has existed outside mainstream politics, since the average Indian was convinced that the entire political class was equally corrupt.

Meanwhile, the BJP has been riven by factionalism and struggled to find an issue that would excite voters and make it stand out. Now, the BJP is not only united behind a popular issue, but in Ramdev it may also have discovered a new way to mobilize faithful Hindus.

The leading ideologues of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), who spearheaded the faith's first rise to power in the 1980s, have now taken prominent positions in the post-crackdown protests.

Former BJP president L.K. Advani, for instance — once accused of inciting the mob that destroyed the Babri mosque, believed to have been built at the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram — rose from the almost dead to lead the delegation that called for an emergency session of parliament.

Uma Bharti is another whose fiery speeches whipped up passions in the late 1980s and early '90s, when the Hindu-Muslim riots erupted across the country. She was invited to rejoin the BJP on Tuesday after more than five years in the wilderness, following her ousting for defying the party's central leadership in 2005. Other stalwarts are waiting in the wings.

That's where the farce turns tragedy again.

Hazare's protesters might have been naive to think another law could solve India's all-pervasive corruption problem. But at least they were sincere.

The entrance of saffron-clad Ramdev into the fray, and the scent of blood from the government's crackdown on his supporters has left behind, put an end to that sincerity, replacing it with cold, political calculation. It's no longer about fixing the problem, in other words, but using it to gain political mileage.

Thus, on Monday, representatives of Hazare's so-called "civil society" movement against corruption boycotted meetings to discuss the very law that Hazare had fasted to secure. Leaders of not only the BJP but also the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) and Communist Party of India (CPI) declined to provide their views on six outstanding issues hampering the bill, sandbagging until an actual draft appears for them to oppose.

And the government itself, worried that the public is beginning to believe that it is stonewalling, now aims to push the bill ahead before July with or without Hazare's men.

Whatever form that law takes, and whatever chicanery it takes to pass it, the moment that it might have made a difference is over. Now it's just politics as usual.

Monday, June 06, 2011

India: after Osama bin Laden

America's biggest victory in the war on terror changes nothing for India's lonely battle.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - June 6, 2011

Editor's note: The killing of Osama bin Laden has changed everything. Or has it? In this ongoing series Al Qaeda: What's Next?, GlobalPost senior correspondents worldwide investigate the uncertain future of global terrorism and religious extremism – from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Egypt, India, China, Africa, Southeast Asia, the former Soviet republics and beyond.

NEW DELHI, India — In the immediate aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden, India was torn between hopes and fears about how his death might change the rules of America's war on terror.

Initially, there appeared to be definitive proof that Pakistan's military establishment, if not its civilian government, was aiding and abetting terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda.

Given this proof, optimists in India's security establishment hoped that the U.S. might take aggressive steps to rein in the rogue state — perhaps even cut off the flow of military aid or move in to tackle Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group responsible for the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai.

At the same time, pragmatists feared the vacuum left by Osama would allow a new militant leader to emerge, one who would force India into the cross-hairs.

Worse, it looked like this new leader might well be Pakistan's Ilyas Kashmiri, Al Qaeda's third-highest commander. But preliminary reports of Kashmiri's death by U.S. drones on Saturday has all but quashed that expectation.

In the weeks since the bin Laden raid, however, Washington has backed off its accusations that the top brass of the Pakistani army or the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) played a role in hiding Osama.

And as Washington back-pedals, India's hopes wither, leaving only the fear behind.

When U.S. President Barack Obama visited India in November, he made much of the "strategic partnership" between the United States and India. Just last month, U.S. Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano visited Mumbai and New Delhi to pay lip service to joint efforts in counterterrorism.

Despite these claims, however, Osama's killing has driven the point home: India is alone in its own war on terror.

"For decades, no movement of terror in India was acknowledged by the Americans," said Ajai Sahni, head of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management.

"Two thousand-plus people would be killed in a theater, and you'd be reporting two incidents, three incidents, five incidents with 20 killed, 25 killed — that's it. We used to laugh."

The more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same.

India has suffered more terrorism-related casualties than perhaps any other country since Sept. 11, 2001 — none of them directly related to Al Qaeda.

In more than half of the 21 incidents in which the attackers could be identified, they represented Pakistan-based terrorist organizations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI), and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) — all of which evidence suggests are supported, at least to some degree, by the Pakistani army and intelligence.

Confessed terrorist David Headley, testifying in the Chicago trial of an alleged co-conspirator, identified two active ISI officers who provided training and logistical support for the Mumbai attacks, though he later claimed that the spy agency's top leadership may not have known about the plan.

And from the U.S. diplomatic cables obtained and published by Wikileaks, it is clear that regardless of what they might have said publicly America's representatives in the region have never been naive about Pakistan's role in encouraging terrorists.

Yet almost before Osama's blood was dry, Washington signaled that it would continue to support its military regime, first with a damage control visit by Sen. John Kerry, and then with a surprise visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The message was clear.

"[Lashkar-e-Taiba chief] Hafiz Saeed is sitting pretty in [Pakistan], spewing venom, and the Obama administration is still thinking of devising the next financial fix to try and persuade Gen. [Ashfaq] Kayani to do the right thing," said Sumit Ganguly, a political scientist at Indiana University. "Our gullibility and cowardice in forthrightly confronting this duplicitous regime is simply boundless."

India's problem has never been Al Qaeda, and its enemy No. 1 was never Osama bin Laden, Ilyas Kashmiri or even Hafiz Saeed.

India's war on terror is a war against the military-intelligence establishment of Pakistan, which means that its enemy No. 1 enjoys the financial backing of the richest and most powerful nation in the world.

"Terrorism in India is a proxy war," said Sahni. "It's a covert war in which Islam has been used as a mobilizing force by the Pakistani army and Pakistani intelligence services and the Pakistani civil governments."

But even as America continues its policy of vociferously condemning and tacitly accepting Islamabad's insistent distinction between the terrorist groups whose efforts are focused on India and those waging global jihad, some of the most recent developments suggest that their ideologies are steadily converging. India-focused groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba may already be conducting joint operations with Al Qaeda itself.

Last week, for instance, Headley testified that he shifted allegiance from Lashkar to Al Qaeda at the urging of a former Pakistani military officer who told him Lashkar was "conducting the ISI's jihad and we should conduct God's jihad."

One of the central claims of the book published by Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad just before he was murdered last week was that it was actually Al Qaeda No. 3 Ilyas Kashmiri who sold the script for the Mumbai attacks to the ISI, which then tapped Lashkar-e-Taiba to carry it out.

And bin Laden himself may have been working to establish a "grand coalition" of Pakistan-based terrorist groups under the umbrella of Al Qaeda when he was killed, according to the Guardian.

"LeT is not a franchise [of Al Qaeda]. Neither is JeM or HuJI," Stephen Tankel, a terrorism expert affiliated with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"[But] these groups coordinate and collaborate with Al Qaeda to varying degrees. All of them are part of the global jihad. They are also heavily influenced, especially in LeT's case, by the bilateral India-Pakistan relationship," he said.

At least from India's perspective, that puts America — which is trying to play both sides — on the wrong one.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Delhi's rich race to rid themselves of their Bentleys

An alleged car smuggler exposes the dark side of India's red-hot luxury market.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - June 1, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — Luxury automobiles have joined the litter along New Delhi's streets in recent weeks.

Following up on an anonymous tip last month, police recovered an Aston Martin and a Bentley gathering dust on the side of the road in Vasant Vihar, an upscale neighborhood favored by expatriates and wealthy Indians.

But the owners who abandoned their vehicles weren't simply looking for an upgrade, officials from New Delhi's Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) say.

They ditched the cars in the hope of avoiding prosecution in an ongoing probe into a New Delhi car dealer's multimillion dollar smuggling ring — which police allege involves a British businessman and diplomats from North Korea and Vietnam.

Already, some 40 luxury cars — including Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Hummers, Aston Martins, Rolls Royces and Bentleys owned by film stars, cricket players and politicians, police say — sit forlornly in a police impound lot.

And as investigators gradually uncover the details of the alleged international smuggling racket run by car dealer Sumit Walia, an intriguing story about the dark side of India's red hot luxury market is starting to emerge.

According to charges filed against Walia by the DRI and the Delhi Police, Walia allegedly bribed diplomats from North Korea and Vietnam — and perhaps other nations — to allow him to import cars in their names.

Because diplomats are allowed to import personal cars duty-free, the scheme helped him avoid customs duties, that otherwise run as high as 100 percent, when he sold the cars on to the real customers.

But that wasn't the only method Walia used, according to a police report filed by Benoy Berry, Burundi's Honorary Counselor in India. Berry claims that Walia simply stole two Range Rovers and a Porsche that Walia imported for him, and police say some of the other imported vehicles may have been stolen in Britain, France, Singapore and Japan before being brought to India.

Based on the cars recovered so far, the DRI estimates that the smuggling ring cost the treasury at least $2.5 million in taxes.

To be sure, Walia wouldn't have had a tough time finding customers.

Despite its hefty import penalties, India is the world's second fastest-growing market for luxury cars, behind China's. At the time police picked up the Bentley and the Aston Martin, Ferrari was due to open its first dealership in just a few days — joining the ranks of Rolls Royce, Lamborghini, and Bugatti and Maserati.

Legal sales grew by 60 percent last year, as the booming economy powered the purchase of some 16,000 high-end automobiles. Meanwhile, tax evasion is ubiquitous, with cash stashed in safety deposit boxes all over Delhi and every other Indian city, and as much as $1.4 trillion in so-called "black money" stashed in numbered accounts in tax havens abroad.

According to a report in the Indian Express, a local English-language daily, the DRI has asked the Ministry of External Affairs to discuss the alleged involvement of diplomats in the smuggling ring with the North Korean and Vietnamese embassies.

The DRI is also investigating the alleged involvement of Ashwin Kalra, a British citizen that Walia named as an associate upon his arrest. Kalra reportedly runs a U.K.-based company called A.K. International, which the authorities say may have supplied some of the automobiles involved in the case.

India: atheism in the land of a thousand gods

A scrappy group of young Indians takes on karma — and dogma.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - June 1, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — Lalit Mohan Chawla, a 19-year-old college student, was having doubts about God.

Every classroom had a picture of the late Sathya Sai Baba and every day the teacher forced him to meditate while imagining the guru's benevolent hand resting on his head — all this despite the troubling allegations of sexual misconduct in the guru's past.

The school yoga instructor talked about energy in a way that contradicted everything Lalit read in his science books.

"He said we had to use a [yoga] mat, to prevent our energy from flowing into the earth," Chawla said.

"I felt that was completely stupid. But if you do not bring a mat, you will be spanked. I got spanked once. Not because I refused to bring my mat, because I forgot to bring my mat. I never refused to bring the mat, I never refused to meditate. I mean, who wants a spanking — that's all." Lesson learned.

Years later Chawla is an atheist. And he is not alone.

Spurred by online social networks, atheist and "free thinker" support groups are mushrooming in India's major cities. The groups want to help non-believers — like Chawla, who hasn't told his parents — stick to their convictions in the face of societal pressures. Moreover, they hope to turn atheists into activists.

"We aim to register as a national organization, which requires us to have a presence in a number of states in the country. So, at present we are focused on building regional groups in the major cities," said Ajita Kamal, editor of the website,, that has spawned most of India's atheist social networks.

India — where millions throng to the spot where a statue of Ganesha is said to be drinking milk and an absolute faith in God's will trumps every traffic law — is renowned for belief.

But as a recent survey reveals, the Western perception of India's benign, hippie spirituality is a fantasy. Despite 60 years of democracy, India remains one of the world's most repressive societies, according to a global study published in Science last week. And even as political groups routinely use religion to stoke hatred and provoke deadly riots, the constitution and the law seem bent on intertwining — rather than separating — religion and the state.

Longterm, that's what the atheists, or free thinkers, aim to change.

"We want secularism to be defined in this country," said Aarti Tikoo Singh, a member of the Delhi Freethinkers. "So far nobody knows what it means. Everybody assumes that it means I have absolute freedom to religion, and that's how all the communities and individuals play this game. India is now the epitome of religiosity. Globalization has just pushed it even further. It's now a massive industry."

Just living day-to-day as an Indian atheist can be a challenge.

During a chat over coffee with some members of the Delhi Freethinkers, the discussion repeatedly circled back to the risk of falling back into religion to fit in or to please parents. Even those who had openly renounced God for clean, cold logic admitted that sometimes the power that ritual and convention hold over their parents is simply too hard to break.

"Many of us say that it is good to come out. It has helped the gay community. Now everyone is comfortable with gays," Chawla said. "I know I should come out. I know it's good. But I don't. I don't find sense in fighting with my family, arguing with my family all the time. So I compromise."

Even though Singh's parents had accepted her as an atheist, when she got married a few years ago her parents said she couldn't have a civil ceremony. To them, a civil ceremony would would have implied something was not right in the household.

In the end, she agreed to be married with the ceremony of her husband's Sikh faith.

"Their argument was, 'What will the relatives say?'" Singh recalls.

That's a bridge that 22-year-old Aayushi Awasthy has yet to cross, though she says she's resolved that religion won't play a role in her marriage, and she won't accept an arranged match.

She says being an atheist has empowered her in other ways. She has resisted parental pressure to go into teaching over business — which is what she really wants to do. "For me, there's no fear of the unknown," she said. "I'm not scared to go out in the dark."

Six percent of Indians said they had no religion in a recent survey. Still, self-described, out-of-the-closet Indian atheists are few in number — especially compared with the country's enormous population.

Set up in January, for example, the Delhi Freethinkers group has around 95 members (including Chawla) and expects to cross 100 before meeting again next month, while similar groups in Bangalore, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kochi, Pune and Kolkata have amassed at most a few hundred more members over the past six months.

But if you pull together older groups of the godless, from India's vibrant communist tradition, for example, and from the various organizations that have focused on exposing the fraudulent "miracles" that charlatan god men use to fleece the poor, it starts to look like scientific rationalism as a belief system is gaining a toe hold.

"Religion is indeed considered part of your identity in India, but that is changing, at least amongst the growing middle class, which is our demographic by virtue of the fact that we're organizing online," said Kamal.

"But we're focused on more than just religion. There are many other areas in which critical thinking and scientific skepticism are needed in India. Indeed, there are many self-identified atheists who gladly buy into illogical and/or pseudoscientific ideas."

To change that, India's new atheists are taking the battle from the masses to the classes, moving beyond the pioneering work that rationalists like Narendra Nayak and Sanal Edamaruku have done to debunk claims made by astrologers, tantriks and god men.

By organizing debates and discussion groups, the new activists aim to raise awareness about atheism — an Indian census taker will still object to writing "not applicable" under religion — among middle-class and wealthy Indians who have never questioned God, fate, or even astrology.

And before the end of the year, the Delhi group hopes to be running programs to teach school children to question and think, rather than accept and memorize.

"Our objective is not to tell others not to believe in God," said 67-year-old Rajesh Kher, who's stuck to his convictions for four decades. "Our goal is to get people to think."