Friday, December 28, 2012

India: To stop rape, start at the top

By choosing candidates facing rape charges, India's political parties have implicitly sanctioned the crime.
By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - December 28, 2012)

NEW DELHI, India — As angry protesters marched on India's symbolic seat of power last week, the nation's august members of parliament raged against the government's failure to stop violence against women.

They blasted the Delhi police for incompetence and insensitivity. And they cried out for the death penalty for six men accused of brutally gang-raping a 23-year-old woman aboard a private bus on Dec. 16. The woman succumbed to her injuries on Friday in Singapore, where she was being treated at a hospital, according to media reports.
In the story of India's battle against sexual assault, the honorable members ignored one important footnote: Every major political party has fielded and continues to field candidates facing criminal charges for rape, harassment and other crimes against women.
“We found that all these parties had given tickets to people of dubious backgrounds, involved in crimes against women,” said Anil Bairwal, national coordinator of the watchdog group National Election Watch. “It's the highest order of hypocrisy.”
According to mandatory self-declarations filed by candidates with the Election Commission and tabulated by National Election Watch, India's leading political parties have offered tickets to 27 candidates accused of rape and a whopping 260 candidates facing charges for crimes against women ranging from assault to harassment over the past five years. As a result, two members of the current parliament and six members of the various state legislative assemblies are facing rape charges, while 36 others face charges for lesser crimes against women.
Not one of India's major parties is innocent of the charge, and by some measure the two largest, national parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are the worst offenders, according to National Election Watch. While most of the rape accused hail from smaller parties, or from the regional Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, both based in Uttar Pradesh, 11 out of 36 legislators facing charges for crimes against women hail from the Congress and BJP. And out of the 260 candidates offered tickets despite facing such charges, the Congress and BJP account for 50.
Even amid the ongoing furor, Congress MP Abhijit Mukherjee, the son of President Pranab Mukherjee, was compelled to make a backhanded offer of resignation on Thursday after he made sexist remarks about women protesting India's failure to stop sexual assault. “If my party high command demands I will do that," he told a TV news channel.
And they're wondering why the people have taken to the streets.
“They don't treat violence against women as a serious issue,” said Rituparna, an activist affiliated with the Citizens' Collective Against Sexual Assault. “Any violence against women should be treated seriously, and not with callousness.”
The impact of that callousness goes far beyond discouraging women from bringing charges against their abusers, as it trickles down more readily than any economic growth. Between 2002 and 2010, as many as 45 women were raped by the police while in custody, according to the Asian Center for Human Rights — while Indian law, which requires prior sanction from the government before law enforcement personnel can be prosecuted, protected the officers responsible.
The same week as the Delhi gang rape, a woman in Uttar Pradesh claimed that a police officer who'd promised to help her prosecute her attacker had instead raped her himself.
A series of horrific stories, known in shorthand as “the Mathura case,” “the Rameezabee case” or “the Suman Rani” case, make it all too clear that Indian women are not safe from sexual assault in the country's police stations themselves. In the Mathura case, for instance, a 16-year-old girl was allegedly raped by two policemen in a Maharashtra police station while her unwitting parents waited patiently outside.
Where it comes to other security forces, such as the Indian army or paramilitary troops, the situation may be even worse. Women of Indian-administered Kashmir and Manipur — where the Armed Forces Special Powers Act grants the army untrammeled powers — have long complained that they are targeted for sexual assault. And in at least one notorious incident, at least 53 Kashmiri women were allegedly gang-raped by army personnel conducting interrogations related to the militant separatist struggle.
Protests against the decay of law and order and the callous treatment of victims of harassment and sexual assault continued this week in New Delhi, and across India. And though the protesters are now fewer in number, and have ceded contentious symbols such as India Gate and the house of the president to the police following a hamfisted crackdown over the weekend, the anger has not dissipated.
On Wednesday, for instance, a group of young women who had been part of protests at Jantar Mantar — a spot designated for expressions of civil disobedience — complained to the media that they had been detained and beaten up by the police the day before, according to theTimes of India. (Police confirmed they had detained 17 women but denied they had been mistreated).
From a spontaneous outpouring of rage — mostly characterized by calls for castration or the death penalty for the rapists — the protests have increasingly turned against the political establishment. After police turned water cannons, tear gas and canes on protesters over the weekend, a tardy and inarticulate statement from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was inadvertently sent to the media unedited, ending with him asking his minders, “Theek hai?” (“That OK?”).
The response, via Twitter and other social media, as well as the people shouting in the street, was a resounding "No."
But the anger is not so much directed at the Congress Party government currently responsible for law and order in the capital, as well as the nation. It's aimed at the corrupt, incompetent and hypocritical political class as a whole — exactly as it should be.
"People are being given a small space in Jantar Mantar that is barricaded on both sides,” a merchant seaman participating in the protest told the Times of India.
“The protest has clearly been hijacked by political groups such as [the BJP's student wing] Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, [the Congress' student wing] National Students Union of India, [the newly formed] Aam Aadmi Party and [yoga guru turned would-be kingmaker] Baba Ramdev.”
The trouble with that kind of hijacking, however, is it's almost certain to backfire.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

India: Music's new ambassadors

With the death of Ravi Shankar, Indian music lost its most famous ambassador. Here's who will carry the torch.

NEW DELHI, India — When sitar master Ravi Shankar finally succumbed to time last week, Indian music lost its first and most famous ambassador. But a healthy crop of musicians are carrying the torch — straddling pop, indie, Bollywood and classical genres. Here are some names to follow.
Classical music
Zakir Hussain — a former child prodigy who first toured the US in 1970 — has done for the tabla what Shankar did for the sitar. In 1992 and 2009, he collaborated with Mickey Hart, Sikiru Adepoju, and Giovanni Hidalgo on the Grammy-winning “Planet Drum” and “Global Drum Project” albums to introduce the world to Indian classical's curiously melodious drum. In earlier years, Hussain played with John McLaughlin's Shakti — one of the first efforts to fuse the rhythms and melodies of classical Indian ragas with the improvisations of western jazz — touring extensively in the late 1970s. He worked on the soundtracks of Francis Ford Coppola's “Apocalypse Now” and Bernardo Bertolucci's “Little Buddha.” And he's capitalized on the growing crossover audience for Indian films, and films made by the Indian diaspora, with acting cameos and soundtrack work for movies such as Aparna Sen's “Mr. and Mrs. Iyer” and Ismail Merchant's “The Mystic Masseur.”
“Aside from the fact that [Hussain] works magic on the tabla, I think it's his ability to align himself to various styles, various vocabularies of music [that has made him an important ambassador for Indian music],” said Chennai-based cultural critic Nandini Krishnan.
Other heirs to Shankar's legacy include slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya, whose “Calcutta Chronicles” was nominated for a Grammy in 2009; classical pianist Anil Srinivasan; and Uppalapu “Mandolin” Srinivas, who plays the mandolin (natch). In addition to “Calcutta Chronicles,” Bhattacharya won over Western fans with “Calcutta Slide-Guitar, Vol. 3.” (2005) and “Mahima” (2003) in collaboration with American guitarist Bob Brozman — both of which made Billboard's World Music Top Ten. Srinivas, who dueled with Miles Davis at the West Berlin Jazz Festival in 1983, has in recent years brought South India's Carnatic music to the global audience by collaborating with McLaughlin's Shakti and artists as wide-ranging as King Crimson's Trey Gunn and Chinese yangqin master Liu Yuening. And Srinivasan has brought his unique merger of classical piano and South Indian Carnatic music to audiences at New York's Lincoln Center, the Sydney Opera House and the National Center for the Traditional Performing Arts in Korea.
In other words, Shankar may be gone, but his legacy is bigger than ever.
“Most of us now are getting an opportunity to perform at mainstream venues as part of festivals,” said Srinivasan. “To a large extent this is something that Uday Shankar and Ravi Shankar created for Indian music.”
“[Second], you have Indian music inveigling itself into many different global music forms, starting with AR Rahman and going all the way down to myriad composers and choreographers and other people,” Srinivasan said.
“Rather than one person or group of people who are ambassadors, you have a lot of different influences and influencers. It's a certain philosophy towards composition that has changed worldwide.”
That brings us to Bollywood, where Grammy-winner A.R. Rahman and music directors like Amit Trivedi have introduced sounds from Indian folk and classical music into love songs and dance tracks and taken advantage of Indian film's growing global popularity to gain a wider audience.
“A music director like Amit Trivedi is different from the genius music directors from the '50s, who created a gorgeous sound but also brought in many of the nuances of Indian classical and light classical music, as it's called in India, into their compositions,” said novelist (and classical Hindustani vocalist) Amit Chaudhuri — whose own “This Is Not Fusion” project has created a minor internet sensation since he began it in 2003.
Trivedi's pathbreaking soundtrack to 2010's “Dev. D” in some ways redefined what Bollywood music could be — albeit in one of a new crop of independent films. Songs like "Emosanal Attyachar,” for instance, blend the raucous music of the brass bands that play Indian weddings with western-style rock influences and wordplay worthy of Bob Dylan.
“The singer used to be central for those older music director,” Chaudhuri said. “Now it seems the singer is just one element in a soundscape that these directors are creating.”
Beyond the Grammy-winning soundtrack to “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Jai Ho,” Rahman has won crossover fans with some of modern Bollywood's most memorable songs (think “Chaiya Chaiya”):
He's also collaborated with artists ranging from Michael Jackson to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Vanessa Mae — making him the top-of-mind choice for Indian music's new ambassador.
“What Rahman is basing his music on is a few [elements] picked up from Indian folk music, a few picked up from classical and a few picked up from Western music,” said Delhi University music professor Deepti Bhalla. “You cannot say it has a classical base or a folk base. It is a mix of everything.”
Still, not everybody is convinced that Bollywood's role as ambassador of Indian music is a good thing.
“The biggest influence on the West, or what the West understands as Indian music, is the sound of Bollywood,” said Krishnan.
“This amuses me, because several Bollywood composers have stolen popular Western tracks. Try 'Dil Mera Churaya Kyon' from Akele Hum Akele Tum and George Michael's 'Last Christmas', or 'Haseena Gori Gori' and Shaggy's 'In the Summertime.'”
Pop, indie and “new” fusion
The post-Shankar era is also bristling with Indian and Indian-origin pop, indie and fusion artists, who transcend borders and boundaries in ways that the sitar master couldn't have dreamed possible when he was teaching George Harrison to play.
In India, artists like singer-songwriter Raghu Dixit of the Raghu Dixit Project are starting to gain an international audience for Indian “indie” music:
while non-Bollywood popstars like Daler Mehndi have caught the ear of international artists such as the UK's Rajinder Singh Rai (aka Panjabi MC) and Jay-Z — making so-called “bhangra nights” a fixture at clubs in London, New York and beyond.
In the UK, indie artists like Talvin Singh and Nitin Sawhney have in recent years popularized a sub-genre of electronica known as “Asian Underground” that incorporates Indian instruments and melodies, whileCornershop's Tjinder and Avtar Singh brought Indian instruments and sampling to Britpop in songs like “Brimful of Asha.”
And the late-blooming US diaspora is now getting into the game, with Brooklyn-based Himanshu Suri and Ashok Kondabolu of Das Racist bringing an Indian vibe to hip hop and Brooklyn-based Rudresh Mahan Thapar and Vijay Iyer combining Indian sounds with Western jazz.
“[The UK's] Arun Ghosh, Vijay Iyer, and Rudresh Mahan Thapar all started out as western-style jazz players and they began to explore their cultural origins,” said Chaudhuri, who counts his own “This Is Not Fusion” as part of the same musical movement.
“It's a move away from the kind of Shakti-idea of fusion, where you had western harmonies and Indian instruments and raga and you brought the two together,” Chaudhuri explained. “This new music was done by people who were not looking at either Western or Eastern music from the outside.”
In other words: Maybe Indian music doesn't really need “ambassadors” any more.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

India: Cash for the poor, no strings attached

India aims to convert its massive welfare system from subsidies to cash. Here's why that isn't all good news.
By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - December 23, 2012)

NEW DELHI, India — India wants to overhaul its massive, creaking welfare system, replacing subsidies with cash. The idea is to circumvent corruption, streamline the process, and ultimately provide 720 million welfare-recipients with more of the benefit they were originally intended.
At least that's the idea.
Critics from across the political spectrum have voiced their concern. They worry the government is underestimating the challenges involved. Or, worse, simply floating a feel-good policy that promises to please both reform-minded economists and the massive voting block represented by the poor.
“It's made out to be a magic bullet to control corruption, because the money will go directly into bank accounts,” said Reetika Khera, a development economist from the Indian Institute of Technology (Delhi).
Currently, most recipients get a reduced price on goods like rice or kerosene if they have a ration card proving their income puts them below the poverty line. And they receive monetary benefits like scholarships and pensions through universities or local government offices, rather than direct payments.
“But there are problems associated with cash,” Khera added.
The stakes are high.
India spends up to 14 percent of its gross domestic product on various welfare programs. As of now, much of that money is wasted on administrative costs or stolen by corrupt officials. Rich and poor alike frequently complain that only one cent out of every dollar that India spends on its poor reaches the target. Though that is an exaggeration, it's not so far off the mark.
“Direct cash transfers, which are now becoming possible through the innovative use of technology and the spread of modern banking across the country, open the doors for eliminating waste, cutting down leakages and targeting beneficiaries better,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said at the end of November.
Finance Minister P. Chidambaram clarified recently that the government will convert 34 out of 42 welfare schemes to cash transfers across 43 districts starting Jan. 1.
That said, India's most costly welfare program, and the one where economists and activists are most concerned or excited about the conversion to cash, is the food subsidy – where new “right to food” legislation promises to expand coverage to more than 60 percent of the population. But the only programs that have been mentioned by name for conversion to cash transfers are scholarships, pensions and subsidized cooking gas. And leaders have reportedly decided to hold off on the most important programs — food, fertilizer and kerosene — according to India's Business Standard newspaper.
“I don't think anyone knows what is going on, or what is intended to go on,” said Bibek Debroy, an economist with the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, an independent think-tank.
The power of cash
The experts may be wary, but at least one below-poverty-line couple, Ramesh Kumar and his wife, Amarthi Bhen, is watching the calendar in anticipation.
In 2011, when a nonprofit offered 55-year-old Amarti Bhen and her husband the chance to receive about $20 in cash every month instead of their usual rations of food and kerosene, the couple leapt at the chance.
Slum dwellers who eke out a perilous existence collecting, repairing and then selling second-hand clothes, Bhen and her husband had actually been receiving their allotment of 15 kilograms of wheat, 5 kilograms of sugar and 6 kilograms of rice — unlike millions of destitute families.
But there was no telling when the supplies would arrive, so they wasted hours tramping to the shop to see if the sugar or wheat had come in. And the quality of the grain was so poor that they practically had to thresh it themselves — wasting valuable hours they could otherwise have spent sewing.
Once they began receiving their benefits in cash — as part of a pilot program set up by the nonprofit Self-Employed Women's Association and the Indian government — they saved time by buying their supplies at the local market. They also were able to use part of the money to buy nutrient-rich foods, such as chickpeas and lentils, instead of only wheat and rice.
“When we were getting cash, we got all the money at once and could buy all our supplies at the same time,” said Kumar. “We could also buy other things we needed more than rice and wheat, like daland tea and detergent [which they use for washing the clothes they sell].”
Conditional vs. unconditional
It is that proposal to allow the poor to decide how to spend their welfare benefits that makes the Indian scheme particularly bold — and controversial.
Until now, the largest cash transfer schemes, implemented with dramatic success in Brazil and Mexico, among other countries, were based on so-called conditional payments, issued to encourage the poor to take advantage of government services, rather than grants allowing them to shop on the open market. (Under Brazil's Bolsa Família or “family allowance” program, for instance, poor families receive payments from the government in exchange for enrolling their children in school or getting them vaccinated against contagious diseases).
In contrast, India appears poised to give the poor cash with no strings attached. Many in the development sector — and many of the poor themselves — fear that freedom of choice will allow men to take cash intended for food, cooking gas or school fees from their wives and spend it on liquor.
“Last year we did a survey in nine states where we asked what the people would prefer and why,” said Khera. Two-thirds of the poor opposed the changeover, citing worries about inflation, concerns about the distance to banks and markets, and fears about how they themselves might manage the money.
“Those who argue for cash say we shouldn't be patronizing, we should let the people decide,” Khera said. “But when we went and asked these 1,200 households, they all said they want food ... The men we were talking to [about getting cash instead of rations] said, 'No, no. We'll drink it up.'”
Some say the new scheme only addresses part of the problem.
Consider the food grain program. The government buys massive amounts of rice and wheat from farmers at a minimum support price (usually higher than market rates) to protect them from market fluctuations. Then it sells grain at below-market rates to the poor. So giving the poor cash instead of vouchers could change the dynamics of supply and demand — as happened in one pilot program in which residents of rural Rajasthan were given cash instead of kerosene.
It's also possible that cash transfers could accelerate a tilt toward the idea, already popular with a section of the elite, that privatization is the panacea for all of India's problems. Paying the poor instead of guaranteeing them services, for instance, might speed the wholesale abandonment of public education and health care that is already underway. (The public education system is already so terrible that the state is now compelling private institutions to provide scholarships to the poor — who are fighting desegregation-era-style impediments to entry, seemingly on a daily basis).
“In Brazil, they had public health centers, they had public schools, and people were not using them, so this was a way to get them to come,” said Khera. “Here, they want to say we'll give you money, and you just go and find your own [schools and hospitals].”
Don't believe the hype?
The prime minister may be right about technology opening doors. But walking through them will be easier said than done.
Despite a massive, ongoing government effort, only around 13 percent of rural households are connected to the banking system. A huge project to provide every Indian with a biometric-based ID number, called Aadhar, is progressing at a snail's pace. And the government has made no attempt whatsoever to cross-reference its paltry list of ID numbers with an income survey that would identify those living near or below the poverty line. (Currently, the list is in such a shambles that development economists like Delhi University's Jean Dreze argue that subsidized grain should be made available to anyone who wants it).
“I think they've just got their facts wrong — even on what linking with Aadhar can do and cannot do,” said Khera. “They've been told again and again about the sorts of issues that biometrics can and cannot deal with, and yet somehow the penny doesn't seem to drop.”
For all the hype, nobody has endeavored to figure out how much of the so-called “leakage” from welfare systems stems from fictitious recipients on the below-poverty-line rolls — the area where biometric identification could have an impact. But experts like Khera suspect that accounts for a small part of the losses.
That isn't the only reasons for skepticism. The announcement at the end of November that a sea change in policy will begin in January suggests a plan concocted in the world of fantasy, rather than messy old India. And the vagueness of the scheme — with only three out of a proposed 29 programs announced to the public — give it the distinct whiff of campaign rhetoric or a populist bid for voters' allegiance in 2014.
"The scheme reflects sympathy of [United Progressive Alliance] (UPA), Congress and the Delhi government for the poorest section of people on the issue of food security," Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi said last week.
Meanwhile, her son, Rahul Gandhi, likely candidate for prime minister in the next election, laid out the stakes for Congress Party workers.
“If we get this program right, we will win the next two general elections," Rahul reportedly told a meeting of Congress Party leaders from the districts where benefits are slated to be converted to cash in the first phase.
Booze and blankets have long been a staple of India's get-out-the-vote drives, after all. Direct deposits of cash money, facilitated by the miracle of technology, would save everybody a lot of trouble.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

India confronts its own brazen and spectacular violence

As Americans cope with Sandy Hook, Indians soul-search over a gang rape on a public bus, among other horrific crimes.
By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - December 19, 2012)

NEW DELHI, India — As America mourns children and teachers killed by a gunman at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary, India is confronting brazen and horrific acts of violence, too — though the problems here are not as directly tied to guns or mental illness.
Perhaps the most brutal such incident happened Sunday — even as America's tragedy still occupied television stations here — with the horrifying gangrape of a 23-year-old physical therapist in a New Delhi bus. The victim is now fighting for her life.
As the curtained bus floated ominously through the city, the victim, currently in critical condition, was raped repeatedly and sliced with a knife by her seven attackers before being beaten with an iron rod and finally dumped on the roadside. The young man with her, a 28-year-old software engineer, was also beaten within an inch of his life.
The brutality of the assault prompted doctors at New Delhi's Safdarjung Hospital to describe it as “probably the most grievous” rape case they had ever encountered — noting severe injuries to the woman's head, and abdominal wounds so vicious that while they attempted intestine repair surgery, “there was not much that could be done.”
Ostensibly committed to teaching the couple a lesson after the young man objected to comments that “only prostitutes choose to travel with men at night,” the crime prompted street protests and a parliamentary debate on Tuesday.
“The reason it's become such an emotive issue is that the expression of violence, particularly gender violence, is in a way a public event,” said Delhi University sociologist Radhika Chopra. “This is not secret violence. This is not happening in a dark corner of a street or shady corner of a park. It's on a bus. It's in broad daylight. It's on flyovers. It's in the most public spaces of all. And there are always people there.”
But the spectacular act of violence is only the latest in an obscene string of blatant crimes, committed almost casually, apparently without shame or fear of prosecution, that have prompted soul-searching here in India, similar to the kind that is under way in the US.
Last week, a gang of thugs beat up two men with whom they had a dispute over property outside a Haryana courthouse. Then, in broad daylight, the gang stormed the Gurgaon hospital where their victims had been admitted and shot them in their beds — paying no mind to the hospital staff and other witnesses.
Last month, liquor baron Ponty Chadha and his brother were killed in a Scarface-style hail of bullets on the outskirts of Delhi.
In September, a jilted lover in New Delhi went on a shooting spree, killing four people, including his ex-girlfriend, before putting a bullet in himself, while another woman was gunned down by men on a motorcycle after what witnesses described as a heated argument.
Incidents in which a Good Samaritan attempting to stop goons from harassing a woman gets stabbed or beaten to a pulp — as happened to a journalist with India's NDTV network last week — seem too numerous to count.
And rapes and other violence against women (and children) — often in plain sight — are reported at a rate of two per day in the nation's capital.
“Trials take almost eight to nine to 10 years, depending on the situation. Trials don't go to complete fulfilment and the conviction rate itself is fairly low,” said Pinky Anand, a New Delhi lawyer who works frequently on cases involving such violence.
“Given all these factors, the accused feel they can get away with this in society and will not be brought to book.”
The difference between India's tragedies and America's, of course, is that India has some of the world's strictest gun control laws, and these crimes don't have as direct a connection with mental illness.
Though civilians here are prohibited from owning all but the most rudimentary revolvers and shotguns — and licenses for even those weapons are very difficult to obtain — guns feature regularly in India's daylight crimes.
But it is rape, not shootings, that has prompted India's soul-searching. India is not known for quality mental health care, but it is radical socioeconomic change, rather than a public health failure, that underlies India's violence problem, experts say.
More from GlobalPost: Gun culture in India
Sociologists argue that the vicious rapes and other public acts plaguing India's National Capital Region — which includes New Delhi as well as neighboring areas of Haryana and Uttar Praesh — reflect a subconscious struggle for power.
On one hand, globalization and urbanization have brought new opportunities for women and the lower castes, putting pressure on traditional hierarchies. On the other, rampant corruption and the growing nexus between crime and politics — where both money and muscle are needed to win elections — have turned the “goonda” (hired thug) into a figure to cower before, rather than report to the police.
“The goon is, if you will, a very iconic figure of the fear, the anxiety, and the fact of power which cannot be controled, which has a nexus you have no sense of,” said Delhi University's Chopra.
“The exercise of power requires a public display of it and a public acknowlegement of it. These spectacular forms of violence in highly public spaces is part of this notion of power that can be used without any stopgate.”
According to Prem Chowdhry, a sociologist who has worked extensively on the intersection of gender, violence and caste, women of traditionally conservative states like Haryana are now leaving the house for work, attending universities, and asserting their right to property. Meanwhile, in these same areas, the practice of aborting female children has led to a skewed sex ratio. So the number of bachelors and the quantum of sexual frustration and resentment is rivaled only by underemployment as a social force.
When that resentment boils over, “rape is taken as a form of revenge or control,” Chowdhry said.