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Archives for December 2009

India's year in review

Soutik Biswas | 17:48 UK time, Monday, 28 December 2009

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Indian woman selling national flagsIt has been a strange year.

On the one hand, some stability returned to politics with the Congress party managing a fairly comfortable majority in the general elections. After the horrors of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, India actually went through 2009 without a terror strike. The economy appeared to have weathered the worldwide recession. Indian science and cricket scaled new heights.

On the other hand, the year held out ominous portents - Maoist rebels are threatening to go to war with the Indian state; food inflation is threatening to negate the gains of improved growth; and, egged on by the movement for Telangana, homegrown separatism is rearing its head again. There is growing suspicion that the country's natural resources are being bartered away cheaply. All this - and more - could turn 2010 into an extremely restive year.

Here's my pick of the defining events of 2009:

THE END OF HARDLINE HINDU NATIONALISM?

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) proudly calls itself the "party with a difference". By the end of the year, India's main opposition was a party with many differences - within. When it was trounced by Congress at the general election, its fortunes hit rock bottom. Since then nothing has gone right: its leaders have bickered bitterly and openly; and one of them was banished , ostensibly for writing a book on Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

Party president and paterfamilias LK Advani looked jaded, and as the year wound down he handed over the baton as leader of the parliamentary party to a younger colleague. He also handed over the party presidency.LK Advani of BJP

Whatever the changes, the BJP appeared lost. Critics say that ideologically, the party is past its sell-by date - still making noises about building temples, refusing to come to terms with the fact that India has grown up and strident Hindu nationalism has lost its vote-catching lustre.

Others say the BJP's only hope appears to lie in reinventing itself as a modern day, right-of-centre, Indian Conservative party. But observers find the leadership uninspiring. They say the party's best chance of revival is a dramatic slide in Congress fortunes.

RAHUL GANDHI'S SECOND COMING

He began as a gawky politician with a disarming smile that won him more female admirers than serious followers. But Rahul Gandhi, the latest scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, showed some serious political mettle this year.

Travelling through the northern Indian heartland - especially in Uttar Pradesh - Mr Gandhi quietly worked on rejuvenating his party's grassroots network and attracting younger talent, his supporters say. His party staged a comeback of sorts in Uttar Pradesh - a return from virtual politician oblivion after two decades.Rahul Gandhi mask

Mr Gandhi has his work cut out for him - revitalising Congress and making it less of a family enterprise. Apparently he believes the party should go it alone, bucking the current narrative of coalition politics. Most analysts feel he may be wrong on this, and that coalition politics is here to stay in a complex country like India. 2010 will prove whether Mr Gandhi can help maintain his party's momentum - and even perhaps take up the cabinet position which he has repeatedly been offered.


BEATING THE RECESSION

India, by and large, escaped the ravages of the global recession. Its conservative banking system and lower exposure to the world economy possibly saved the day. But to be fair, thousands lost jobs and companies stopped hiring and slashed costs. Spending plummeted and the property bubble burst. India workers waiting for jobs

Now Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is holding out the hope of slightly higher growth - 7% plus - in this fiscal year. Companies have begun hiring again and spending is up. However, many economists believe that India's growth is not pulling enough people out of abject poverty, while deepening the divide between the haves and the have-nots. Even if India hits double-digit growth like China, there will be no reason to party when a third of its people live in dire poverty and milions of children go underfed. Why does an increasingly rich country treat its poor so shabbily?


SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL?

When Tata Motors unveiled the world's cheapest car, everyone sat up and took notice. The buzz around the rear-engined, four-passenger, 624cc Nano, whose basic model costs $2155, had been immense - one magazine wrote that it embodied a "contrarian philosophy of smaller, lighter, cheaper" transport.Nano

The Nano is a nifty little car all right. User reviews have been mixed: most say it's great value for money, but caution that it may not be the safest car on the road. Others believe it's safer than the wobbly three-wheeled auto-rickshaw. Next year will tell whether Nano is a path-breaker or a risky gimmick. Customers seem to know what they want. The Nano's order books - more than 200,000 orders and counting - are full. Newsweek magazine, meanwhile, worries about potential "global gridlock" caused by Nanos and their ilk.


INDIA'S OSCAR MOMENT

In the days before the Big Hype, Bhanu Athaiya,a Bollywood costume designer, picked up India's first Oscar for costume design for her work in Gandhi. That was in 1982. Nine years later, the celebrated auteur Satyajit Ray was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, joining such greats as Charlie Chaplin, Jean Renoir and Akira Kurosawa.

But India went truly Oscar-crazy only in 2009 when music director AR Rahman and sound recordist Resul Pookutty picked up a golden statuette each for their work in Slumdog Millionaire.AR Rahman

The redoubtable Rahman - dubbed the Mozart of Madras, where he lives and works - is India's finest music composer and a brilliant crossover musician. Pookutty's triumph showed how Indian movie technicians are today on a par with the best of the world - even the worst Bollywood tripe these days has a sheen and technical verve which is impressive.


AN ACCOLADE FOR INDIAN CRICKET

India defeated Sri Lanka at home to become Test cricket's reigning champions. The team's awesome batting line-up is difficult to match. The bowling has improved vastly. The fielding can be infuriatingly inconsistent though.

In a country where cricketers are worshipped like gods and are the highest paid in the world, India cannot afford to slip up. There seems to be talent aplenty: hungry, young players coming up from smaller towns and villages are flocking to the game. The only threat to India's cricketing fortunes, say critics, comes from the country's notoriously fractious and inept cricket officialdom and the riches of the shorter Twenty20 game. Will mammon crush nationalism in what a sociologist called an "Indian game accidentally discovered by the British"? Watch this space.


OVER THE MOON

When India pulled the plug on its inaugural Moon mission in August, 10 months after it was launched, some questioned whether it had "delivered the good science" it had promised. Two months later, Chandrayaan, as the mission was called, was hailed as a "grand success" after helping find evidence of water on the Moon. The mission cost less than $100m and fetched an enormous amount of goodwill for the country's bright space scientists. One newspaper crowed, One Big Step for India, A Giant Leap for Mankind. This time, few minded the hyperbole.

AN INDIAN ENRON

It had all the makings of an Indian Enron - one of the world's largest software companies, Satyam, found itself embroiled in India's biggest-ever corporate fraud. Its founder admitted exaggerating its cash reserves by nearly $1bn. That was in January. Thousands of jobs, millions of dollars worth of shareholders wealth and India's corporate reputation was at stake. The government waded in and appointed directors to run the beleaguered company. Satyam

Four months later, the fraud-hit firm found a suitor - a local company called Tech Mahindra - which picked up a stake of more than 30% in the company. And in June, the company, amazingly, announced a profit of more than $10m.

Rebuilding Satyam is a work in progress. But the fact that the company managed to stay afloat and fight back despite its founder and eight others facing charges of criminal conspiracy, cheating and forgery for stealing millions of dollars from the company is a testament to the spirit of its workers and a steely resolve by the government-appointed directors who refused to let the company crash.

What next? I hope 2009 has not been the lull before a storm. For the moment, enjoy the festivities. See you in the new year!

Fasting: India's new politics of blackmail?

Soutik Biswas | 16:42 UK time, Tuesday, 22 December 2009

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Mahatma Gandhi on a fast in 1933Mahatma Gandhi's protest fasts became the benchmark for non-violent agitation. Suddenly, fasting is all the rage again. These days Indian politicians and protesters are almost queuing up to fast to press their demands. But many believe fasts in India are now often disingenuous and devalue Gandhi's legacy.

As former Indian minister Mani Shankar Iyer says: "Gandhi was a master of asymmetrical politics. In his hands the fast became a powerful political and ethical statement. When turned into the politics of blackmail, it loses it ethical purpose."

These days, when Indian politicians fast - think of feisty Bengal leader Mamata Banerjee opposing a car factory on farmland; and more recently, Telangana leader K Chandrasekara Rao demanding the creation of a new state - they do so with the covert threat of violence. As they "stop" taking food, their supporters flex their muscles and make menacing noises about the storm ahead if their demands are not met.

Fasting politicians lost their credibility a while ago. I remember one comic book fast many years ago in Calcutta in which a national politician would break off for a juice or a snack in a little tent at the back of the podium. This week, an Andhra Pradesh politician ran away from a secure hospital even as he "fasted" against the proposed new state of Telangana.

Blackmail and fear are driving political negotiations in India today. Politicians, community and sect leaders provoke supporters to burn property and if necessary, kill, to further their interests. If the violence fails and the state doesn't respond, then leaders go on a protest fast, holding out the threat of more violence.

The state, of course, should take much of the blame for allowing such sordid politics. Take Telangana, for example. Despite wide political consensus, successive governments have sat on the demand for a new state for the past four decades. Then opportunistic politicians come along and, in effect, hold the state to ransom. Procrastination and, as social worker Medha Patkar says, "the state's cat and mouse game", lead to such politics.

Ms Patkar, who has fasted against big dam projects, says such protests can have meaning. "Every fast has broken the ice, broken deadlocks, taken things further, contributed to our own empowerment and the involvement of people with us." Do India's politicians have such noble intentions, many wonder?Irom Sharmila on a fast


Some also feel that even as the state succumbs to this politics of blackmail - the government says it had to say yes to Telangana because Mr Rao's condition was deteriorating - it appears uncaring about the fate of a woman who has been fasting for nine long years.

Irom Sharmila, the brave 37-year-old from Manipur, wants a draconian law repealed in her state. She has been arrested, re-arrested, force-fed by the state. Ms Sharmila doesn't hold out threats, and her supporters don't talk the language of violence. Even her critics say her demand has immense merit. But when the state gives legitimacy to the politics of fear and blackmail, people like Ms Sharmila don't stand a chance.

Should India allow euthanasia?

Soutik Biswas | 12:44 UK time, Thursday, 17 December 2009

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Aruna ShanbaugDoes Aruna Shanbaug deserve to die? Journalist Pinki Virani believes so. She says Ms Shanbaug should be freed from the indignity and suffering that she has endured for the past 36 years. Confined to a hospital bed after being nearly strangled with a bicycle chain by her rapist, she has been in what doctors call a "persistent vegetative state" - severe brain damage, but not in a coma for most of the time since November 1973.

Ms Shanbaug, now 61, is unable to hear much, barely able to move and understands very little. She's force-fed dutifully twice a day and kept alive by nurses. She used to be one herself. Life mocks her every living moment: refusing to leave her, it condemns her into a humiliating compromise - a netherworld between life and death.

So Ms Virani, author of a chilling book on Ms Shanbaug, has now petitioned the Supreme Court with a plea that she be allowed to die - if she is not fed for a few days, she says, the former nurse will stop living. Mercy killing is illegal in India, so it will be interesting to see how the Supreme Court handles what could turn out to be a landmark case.

Ms Shanbaug's condition brings to mind two similar, high-profile cases in recent times.
Last year Italy's top court awarded a man the right to disconnect the feeding tube that kept his comatose daughter alive for 16 years. And in 2005, a brain-damaged Florida woman Terri Schiavo died after her feeding tube was removed, following a seven-year legal battle between her husband and parents. Ms Schiavo had been in a vegetative state for some 15 years.

Euthanasia is a contentious issue the world over - the Economist magazine once said that "few laws have been drafted to regulate the delivery of death". The Netherlands was the first country in the world to legalise euthanasia seven years ago. In Italy, euthanasia is illegal, but Italian law upholds a patient's right to refuse care and the potential contradiction has led to thorny legal disputes. Passive euthanasia is possible in Sweden following new medical guidelines allowing doctors to halt life-extending treatment if the patient asks. Germany has a fuzzy law on assisted suicide - it is legal, but it cannot involve a doctor because it would violate his Hippocratic oath. And in Switzerland, assisted suicide is legal and non-physicians can be involved.

India lags far behind on the issue of euthanasia or assisted suicide. In a country where attempting to take one's life remains a criminal offence, it is difficult to see a court venturing into the minefield of the right-to-die issue. A prominent right-to-die activist said years ago that an Indian court "is not yet geared to the concept of allowing a person to be assisted in suicide." No wonder no human rights lawyer has taken up Ms Shanbaug's case in the past 36 years.

Also, I wonder whether the overburdened legal system will have the stamina to examine the merits of Ms Virani's brave petition: the Supreme Court alone has a backlog of over 50,000 cases. But if the courts revisit the country's derelict laws and help trigger a debate on whether euthanasia or assisted suicide could be negotiated in a complex society like India's, Ms Shanbaug's life in indignity would not have been in vain.

India's bizarre sex surveys

Soutik Biswas | 08:49 UK time, Tuesday, 15 December 2009

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valentinesimlaap226.jpgIt's that time of the year when Indian magazines publish sex surveys mapping the carnal capabilities of a billion people. It has become an annual ritual of sorts: the magazines presume that since India is changing rapidly, the sexual habits of its people must be following suit.

I love the way the surveys are packaged. One, this year, calls itself the Beta Male Special. Others have been called The Naked Truth, Sex and the Single Woman and the more prosaic What Men Want.

I also love the questions and the answer options. "What was your first time like?" asked a survey last year. "Mind blowing, terrible or don't remember?" We were relieved to learn that, for the overwhelming majority, it was "mind blowing". Who says Indians are prudish about sex?

The certitudes on sexual behaviour in these surveys would put Gay Talese to shame. One showed a "more sexually carnivorous urban Indian willing to break taboos and batter boundaries". But, it moaned: "The appetite is clearly greater than the menu". Phew.

A recent one says that in 2009, Indian males have suddenly become more gender sensitive and turned into Beta Males, whatever that means. "Not the dominating, growling, impatient bedroom partner but a clever young man, quickly aroused and usually satiated. He now understands that sex, like anger, politics or the handling of a TV remote control needs some strategy, some fair play," says the survey. Sounds like Neanderthal man has finally grown up into a sexual savant of sorts.

I still don't know how the Indian male is "strategising" through the minefield of amour and sex because the magazine never told me. I look forward to clues in next year's survey, unless Indian man slips back into Neanderthal mode again.India art show

But what I love most is the heart of the survey: the cold statistics.

Some 47% of respondents in the Punjabi city of Ludhiana, famous for its hosiery and cycle-making, say they have committed adultery. In Nagpur 25% of men apparently prefer one-night stands. In historic Lucknow, 32% of men are sexually attracted to Westernised women "with an independent attitude". Some 37% of men belonging to Le Corbusier's noveau riche Chandigarh and 26% from crummy Patna say they masturbate because it helps to relieve stress.

My favourite: one survey rated Hyderabad the kinkiest Indian city - 45% of respondents approved of kinky ways to woo their spouses and partners. The last I heard about the city, a battle-weary politician demanding a separate state had ended a hunger strike, and there was a political crisis going on. Anything kinky about that?

Of course, sex surveys have a mystery about them, so there is no explanation for these bizarre 'findings'. Don't ask frivolous questions about why Nagpur men prefer one-night stands, while Mumbai men love long-term relationships. And before I leave, did you know that 72% of women in Mumbai and 83% of women in Chennai say they are more likely to kiss a shaved man? Don't ask me why. But if you live in either city, you might want to get rid of that moustache and stubble. Fast.

Does India need more states?

Soutik Biswas | 14:02 UK time, Thursday, 10 December 2009

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A boy reading a newspaper in Hyderabad, Andhra PradeshIt is not surprising that the movement for a new Indian state has been resurrected in Andhra Pradesh.

It was here that an emotive movement for "linguistic autonomy" was begun by its majority Telugu-speaking people after independence. That led to the formation of Andhra Pradesh state and eventually resulted in India's internal map being redrawn on the basis of the language spoken by most people in a region - the process took a decade to complete, ending with Punjab state in 1966.

Though overwhelmingly successful, "linguistic states" have revealed inadequacies - and more states have been carved out since for other reasons. For one, some Indian states are unwieldy because of their size or population or both - undivided Bihar was the size of the Federal Republic of Germany; the present, truncated Uttar Pradesh has a population equivalent to Brazil's and more than Pakistan's. So there has been talk about dividing Uttar Pradesh further into four new states - Harit Pradesh, Avadh, Purvanchal and Bundelkhand.

Clearly, there are other identities in India which are not founded in language - caste or more importantly, a shared cultural identity, are some of them. Some states in the north-east were carved out to assuage tribal anxieties at being swamped by more resourceful and advantaged outsiders.

You have to visit the Telangana region to see how different it is from the rest of the state although people share the same language. Also, many say, if you have nine "Hindi-speaking" states, why can't you have two "Telugu speaking ones"?

Others say new states don't serve any purpose. They end up benefiting entrenched local elites and the middle class, and leave the poor in the lurch. They point to Jharkhand which was carved out of southern Bihar in 2000 - nine years on, many of its people have turned to Maoists, and its politicians are embroiled in some of India's worst corruption.

A number of north-eastern states carved out of Assam are accused of becoming fiefs of local elites or kleptocracies. The issues of lack of development and growing corruption are untouched. Creating financially unstable states, critics say, can lead to even more problems.People protesting in favour of a Telangana state

Others say new states remain works in progress - among them Uttarkhand and Chattisgarh, despite the latter's current woes and a strong Maoist presence. It has taken some four decades for Haryana and Himachal Pradesh to turn into successful states. And India still has relatively few states given the size of its population: with some 300 million people, the US has 50 states; India with its billion-plus people has only 28.

Clearly the federal government faltered over Telangana. It could have held all-party talks before announcing the first steps towards a new state. Instead, it made an unilateral midnight announcement, thinking everybody would fall into line.

Will all this lead to the Balkanisation of India, as some fear? Before India divided states along linguistic lines, a leading newspaper warned such a move would encourage reactionary forces. "They will lay an axe at the very root of Indian integrity," it said. The newspaper got it horribly wrong. The naysayers will possibly get it wrong this time too.

Best of times for Indian cricket?

Soutik Biswas | 18:29 UK time, Tuesday, 8 December 2009

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India cricket team after their win against Sri Lanka in Mumbai"After the horrors of a decade ago," says a cricket writer, "these are the best of times". He was talking about India which became the world's top-ranked Test team after routing the visiting Sri Lankans in Mumbai on Sunday. He was remembering the 1990s when India inevitably choked while playing abroad, and the team's performance took a beating.

So how significant is this achievement? It is definitely one to raise a toast to, but many sensible commentators rightly suggest that fans should not lose their head over it. Remember, India climbed to the top of the ICC rankings without beating Australia and South Africa - two of the world's toughest Test playing sides - on their turf, but that's how quirky rankings can be. As my friend Clayton Murzello writes: "It makes you wonder what sense do the rankings really make? But then, that's what happens when superiority or inferiority is decided only by statistics."

It's been a long, strange trip to the top of the Test pile for India. After Sunday, it had won 101 of the 433 Tests it had played in its 72-year Test history. (It has lost 136 and drawn 195 games.) That's a modest win rate of 23%. Compare that with India's one-day stats - 351 wins in 727 games since 1974, a win rate of nearly 50%.

Now look at India's most formidable foe, Australia - 333 wins in 714 Tests since 1877. That's an impressive win rate of 46%, double that of India.

But there is an interesting catch, pointing to the improvement in India's fortunes: since 2000, India has won 40 of the 103 Tests it played, and the win rate has climbed to nearly 40%. But during the same period, Australia clocked up an amazing win rate of over 68%, winning 77 of 112 Tests.

India's resurgence began with the maverick Saurav Ganguly taking over the reins of the team, and becoming one of its most successful captains ever with a curious mix of aggression and intransigence. Saurav's heir MS Dhoni carries the mantle of captaincy with a cool head.

So, it is time for some celebration, but, as commentators like Clayton say, "let us not go overboard" with this ranking feat. India's batting line up is undoubtedly the strongest in the world now, but its bowling, despite a decent pace battery, can be very patchy and infuriatingly inconsistent. India's fabled spin bowling reputation appears to be on the wane - and there are no exciting upcoming spinners on the domestic circuit. The team still lacks a top class all-rounder, a must in today's game.

So there is a lot of work to be done to make India a team that dominates world cricket, the way West Indies and Australia did not very long ago. Maybe this will never happen as the game mutates into Cricket Lite with newer, crowd-pulling, shorter versions of the game - including, who knows, even Tests in the future. What do you think?

The unending tragedy of Bhopal

Soutik Biswas | 13:40 UK time, Thursday, 3 December 2009

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A boy disabled by the Bhopal gas leak playing cricketTwenty five years and several thousand dead and disabled men, women and children later, answers to most of the thorny questions about the world's most horrific industrial tragedy are still blowing in the wind in Bhopal.

Why has the compensation to the victims been so paltry? Why is there a thick fog over the extent of contamination of groundwater in the Union Carbide factory neighbourhood? Caught between NGOs and a secretive Big Government, nobody is quite sure what is happening.

And above all, many ask why those responsible have been allowed to go free? After all, they say, money - whatever the amount - cannot compensate for a crime of such magnitude, whether committed because of negligence or sabotage. If this happened in the West, campaigners say, the company would have been held to account, perhaps driven to bankruptcy by compensation claims. But since this is India and the poor are dispensable, justice in Bhopal has been a travesty.

Also what about the blot to Bhopal's image and its inglorious reputation as a 'gassed' dystopia? Locals say the city lost its innocence after the tragedy. "Life in Bhopal had been laid back and gentle. But the gas tragedy changed all that. Nowadays everybody whinges, that's all that they do," says Raj Kumar Keswani, the city's best-known journalist. "Also, the tragedy divided the people. In a strange way, people who got compensation are often reviled by people who didn't."

Mr Keswani should know. He has lived all of his 59 years in Bhopal and was the only journalist who cried himself hoarse for two years before the tragedy, saying the Union Carbide plant had lax safety procedures and that the city was "sitting on a volcano". He had written a series of articles on the doomed plant, petitioned the courts and worked the politicians. Nobody listened to him. The shut Union Carbide factory in Bhopal

After the tragedy he challenged the government, accusing it of a sell-out to Union Carbide - the Indian government sued the company for $3bn but settled for 15% of the amount - and Mr Keswani became a mythic hero of sorts: Dominique Lapierre, for example, mentioned him in great detail without once talking to him while writing another best-seller. "He wrote that I used to go around in a car with a bagful of CDs because I was a music lover. Those days, as a struggling journalist, I had an old scooter and CDs hadn't even come to India," Mr Keswani laughs. This is one of my favourite Bhopal stories - it tells you how fact and fiction blur in the chaos of India.

The gas tragedy, in a perverse way, actually ended up oiling parts of the grassroots economy of Bhopal. As thousands of dollars of still inadequate compensation money poured in, this sleepy city was transformed, say its residents. Bhopal never had an economy of its own to speak of apart from one state-owned behemoth; the city of Indore to its west was always the commercial hub. Also, Bhopal belongs to one of India's most backward states - Madhya Pradesh - with human development indicators comparable to sub-Saharan Africa.

Twenty-five years later, Bhopal is a mini boom town, largely a result of India opening up its economy and partly because of the money that flowed in after the tragedy. It got some decent new hospitals, property grew and the city became the headquarters of a powerful vernacular media group which also publishes Harry Potter in Hindi. New malls are coming up and dozens of new private colleges - most of which are now suffering from lack of students - have opened up. Finally, Bhopal appears to giving its bustling cousin Indore a run for its money

Today, a street-smart, English-speaking social activist and darling of the international media and a street-fighting, hardboiled activist help the victims, in their own way, to live and fight for compensation. Maimed by gas, Bhopal's lost generation struggles to survive and to make sense of what is happening around them - pictures of children whose futures have been snuffed out by the gas make one's blood boil and leave a feeling of numbness and helplessness.

An anniversary like Bhopal's should be a solemn time to remember the dead and pledge to help the living dead, not become circuses of the kind they have become today. 1984 was India's annus horribilis - the army stormed the Golden Temple, Mrs Gandhi was assassinated, Sikhs were massacred in revenge - but, in hindsight, Bhopal must count as the greatest tragedy of them all.

The story of Bhopal, as Mr Keswani says, is a story of a proud city and its people cheated and betrayed by a country and the world. For India, it is a collective shame and a disturbing reminder that its poor don't matter. Most of the time anyway.

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