BBC BLOGS - Soutik Biswas's India

Archives for January 2010

Ms Mayawati's statue protection force

Soutik Biswas | 16:00 UK time, Friday, 29 January 2010

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MayawatiFifty-three-year-old Ms Mayawati rules over a state where a quarter of India's poor live. With a population of more than 160 million - that's as many people as Brazil - Uttar Pradesh has some of the worst human development indicators. Government healthcare is a shambles, infant mortality is steep and millions of children are underfed. Endemic corruption means that potentially everything - from jobs to development projects - are up for sale. And the state's finances are precarious: the fiscal deficit leapt by nearly 50% in 2007-2008.

All this has not deterred Ms Mayawati, an icon for India's 160 million low caste Dalits, also known as 'untouchables', from splurging $1bn (£0.6bn) dollars on monuments of herself and other low-caste leaders. Courts have sought explanations about such profligate spending of tax-payers money, and opposition politicians have pilloried her.

Ms Mayawati is now calling for the creation of a separate police force to protect the statues she has built. This will bleed Uttar Pradesh further: she wants to spend more than $10m (£7.1m) to set up the force and another $3m (£1.6m) yearly to maintain it. This again, in a state, where law and order is poor, and even government officers have been murdered while carrying out their duties.

What is driving Ms Mayawati into what her critics describe as chronic megalomania when there are more pressing matters of the state to attend to?

For one, she feels her political opponents would destroy the memorials once she is out of power. One of them, Mulayam Singh Yadav, has even spoken about the need to "bulldoze" the monuments. So by creating a force by law, she is trying to make sure that the memorials are secure and not neglected even when she is out of power.

Many believe that Ms Mayawati's latest moves could be to do with her growing political insecurity. Securing one's legacy through building monuments will not work in modern-day India where aspirations are high. Dalits are no longer willing to wait endlessly for their lives to improve.

Ms Mayawati's fabled social engineering skills in building impregnable and impossible caste-based coalitions are fading as members of the upper castes and Muslims begin to move away from her party. If she leaves behind a lot of garish monuments and nothing much else, Uttar Pradesh will suffer more. But, more importantly, India's most deprived lower caste people will be the biggest losers. Will Ms Mayawati turn out to be the goddess that failed?

The India-Pakistan cricket fiasco

Soutik Biswas | 16:05 UK time, Monday, 25 January 2010

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Protests against the non inclusion of Pakistani players in KarachiThe row between India and Pakistan over the failure to include Pakistani players in the upcoming edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL), the world's richest privately-run Twenty20 cricket tournament, has to be the most intriguing one in the history of the game in the troubled subcontinent.

Eleven Pakistani players - the team, by the way, won the World Twenty20 championship six months ago - are on the list of players to be auctioned for this year's IPL. One of them was the best bowler in the inaugural edition of the tournament, a heady razzmatazz of instant cricket and carnival. Their papers are in order and their visas ready. But when the auction takes place, none of these players finds any takers. All the eight teams shun them.

Not surprisingly, there is outrage in Pakistan. Slighted players talk about a "conspiracy" against them, and about politics despoiling sports. The government says the non-inclusion of players is a snub. It stops a parliamentary delegation from visiting India and makes noises about boycotting the upcoming World Cup hockey tournament and the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Effigies of the IPL commissioner Lalit Modi are burnt on the streets. The Indian government washes its hands off the affair saying that the IPL is a privately-run tournament, and it has nothing to do with it.

The cricket teams, owned by business houses, private entrepreneurs and Bollywood stars, initially say they were not convinced about the availability of the players. Then, they make some unconvincing noises about security risks involved in protecting Pakistani players. They end up saying they owe no explanation to Pakistan for why their players were not picked.

Was the auction just a charade? If security of the players was the deciding issue, why were they not told in advance that they would not be picked? Why invite the guests in the first place, and then shut them out from the party?

Many cricket fans want an explanation from the IPL. The tournament is a purely private business. As in any business, the market is the king. To shut out the Pakistani players defies the laws of the market. It surely could not have been an economic decision: some of the players on the list are among the best in the world in this format of the game.

So what did happen? Was there pressure by the Indian government on the IPL authorities? If so, why had the government cleared their visas? Most commentators have offered lame explanations. "The IPL will be poorer for the absence of some extraordinarily gifted cricketers, but this is just another victory for those that infect us with hatred," wrote Harsha Bhogle. "To believe there is a conspiracy against cricketers from Pakistan is wrong. It is the times we live in." Pakistan cricket team

Pakistani players, however, believe that the tense political climate took its toll. Many believe that IPL authorities took a last minute decision to tell the teams to leave the Pakistani players out. Relations between the IPL authorities and the Indian government have been strained since last year's fiasco when the latter forced the tournament out of the country to South Africa because of security concerns at home. Were the IPL authorities now trying to ingratiate themselves with the Indian government by asking the teams not to pick up any Pakistani players?

Whatever the reason, this episode suggests the IPL can never run as a purely independent business operation in the subcontinent given the stormy relationship between India and Pakistan. Sports and politics are intertwined in this part of the world; and that it why the subcontinent's sporting reputation is feeble. This fiasco will leave the tournament under a cloud and short changes the fans who pay to watch the world's best players in action.

Mr Basu's Bengal

Soutik Biswas | 12:18 UK time, Tuesday, 19 January 2010

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Jyoti BasuI grew up in Calcutta - the beleaguered capital of India's eastern state of West Bengal and former capital of the British empire - when Jyoti Basu ruled the roost. He was running the world's longest running democratically elected government, we were reminded all the time. It didn't mean much to us as power cuts crippled the city, businesses were hounded out by belligerent trade unions, English teaching was banished from state-run primary schools and the quality of health and education suffered a precipitious decline. Communist party cadres took control of every part of life. Most agree that it was an "economic and cultural revolution" which set Bengal back by half a century. And the state is still struggling to get back into its groove.

So when Mr Basu passed away on Sunday at the age of 95, he left behind an extremely contentious legacy. Many find it strange that the English-educated Mr Basu - a member of the upper middle class who turned to communism after studying law in England - could have presided over what many call the ossification of Bengal and its people. Much later, Mr Basu admitted that doing away with English education - a move he rescinded after many years - and promoting intransigent trade unionism were mistakes. But by that time it was too late.

Mr Basu and his Communist government in Bengal began with high hopes and a stirring commitment to landless peasants. There were sweeping, though incomplete, land reforms. He restored social order to a restless state which had suffered famine, partition, religious rioting, an influx of refugees from neighbouring Bangladesh, Maoist violence and bloody political strife. Mr Basu also remained steadfastly secular. I remember talking to a senior police officer in Bengal years ago who said he would like to "mow down Muslim slums and drive their residents out of the city" but he couldn't do it because Mr Basu's government would tolerate no such thing.

These are considerable achievements, but that is where Mr Basu and his government ground to a halt. For the rest of close to three decades, Mr Basu, most say, practised the politics of least resistance, compromised with radical unions and gave birth to a cult of mediocrity by packing institutions with party workers. Bengal slid into a curious inertia, marked by a notoriously poor work culture, joblessness and little growth. As one commentator wrote after his death, Mr Basu, India's longest serving chief minister, achieved so little when he could have achieved so much with his redoubtable political stature. There was an oddity about a gentleman communist like him, says one commentator, who preferred "to go along with philistines."

Yet, the people of Bengal kept on voting him back to power. So can all the blame be laid at Mr Basu's door? Possibly not. Analyst Swapan Dasgupta wonders whether Mr Basu's "exalted status is a reflection for the Bengali distaste for both achievement and change". In that sense, Basu and Bengal, he says, "were made for each other". It is a damning indictment of the Bengali, but, being a Bengali myself, I know there is a lot of truth in this assertion. Globalisation is now forcing changes on Bengal and Bengalis, and things are slowly changing. Bengal's helmsman lived a rich life, but left his state infinitely poorer.

Why are Indian students being attacked in Australia?

Soutik Biswas | 10:13 UK time, Tuesday, 12 January 2010

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Protests against attacks on Indian students in AustraliaWhat is happening to Indian students in Australia? Why have they been mugged, knifed, set alight, and murdered, mostly, in Melbourne, Australia's proud multi-racial melting pot city where, according to my colleague Nick Bryant, people from 140 nations live side-by-side?

Nearly a year after the attacks began, nobody is quite sure. Already, in the new year, two Indians have been attacked - one murdered; and the other allegedly set on fire in Melbourne. What we know for sure is that the number of Indian students wanting to study in Australia has slumped by almost 50%, diplomatic relations between the two countries have soured and grim travel advisories have been issued by the Indian government to students in Australia.

People here say they still don't know why Indians are being targeted. Have the attacks followed a pattern? Do the victims have some kind of a common profile or background? How do the number of attacks on Indians compare with attacks on other expatriate groups? Are the attacks concentrated in a specific area? How many of these attacks could have had a racist motive?

Australian police have said the attacks appear to be random with no evidence they were racially motivated.

In the absence of any clarity - I have not read a single major investigation into these attacks in the Australian media, or the outcome of any official probe - the shrill sections of the Indian media, especially TV news networks, have gone ballistic.

Every other night, we have news presenters telling us over on-screen captions like 'Indian Burnt In Australia' that Australia is a racist country, and that Melbourne is the most racist city of all. An Indian newspaper cartoon even portrayed the Australian police as the Ku Klux Klan.

Nobody contests the fact that Indians have the right to feel worried, very worried, about the spate of attacks. More than 70,000 Indians are studying in Australia; nearly a fifth of the international enrolments are from the subcontinent. There have been reports that a number of the victims have enrolled in vocational courses, and live in poorer neighbourhoods to save money.

Australia has reason to worry about the attacks too. Education is the country's biggest export - after coal and iron ore - and international students contribute $13bn to the Australian economy every year. Australia, by one estimate, could easily lose $70m because of the attacks.

It's a no-brainer that Australian authorities need to investigate each of these attacks thoroughly to come to a considered and precise explanation as to why they happened and quell the growing mistrust between the two countries.

If Australians believe that sections of the Indian media are hyperventilating over the attacks and behaving irresponsibly, Indians believe that there is not enough information coming out from the Australian authorities over the attacks. They - and Indian student groups in Australia - feel the Australian media isn't doing enough to highlight the issue.Indian student Nitin Garg who was murdered in Australia

Many Indians I have spoken to find the discourse in the Australian media on the spate of attacks superficial. Tim Colebatch, an editor at Melbourne Age, writes that such incidents happen "because human beings are imperfect creatures. They can be selfish, they can be hateful, they can enjoying hurting, even killing, other humans. It happens here, it happens in India, it happens everywhere."

Mr Colebatch then tries to offer some clues to why Indians may have been attacked. One of the victims, Nitin Garg, was taking a short cut through a park when he was murdered, while Australians "instinctively know that their parks are not safe at night, and avoid using them as short cuts". And so, he writes, Mr Garg has "become another victim of our epidemic of alcohol abuse, our tolerance of extreme violence in films and screen games - and yes, of the Romper Stomper racism that seems to live on among teenagers in the western suburbs, now directed against Indians instead of Vietnamese."

Alcohol abuse and exposure to violent films can hardly be a problem with Australian youth alone. And fringe racism exists in many countries in the world. Mr Colebatch's interesting observations notwithstanding, Indians feel that they are in the dark about the spate of attacks.

Harbingers of hope for India in 2010?

Soutik Biswas | 11:05 UK time, Friday, 8 January 2010

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Indian boy with tricolour paint on his faceHas India's "Deciding Decade" begun? A study, done by a Delhi-based economic research firm along with a leading newspaper, thinks so. It says that India's GDP can grow at an average annual rate of 9.6% for the next 10 years even if there were no reforms. Incomes will double, the middle class will burgeon and urbanisation will proceed at breakneck speed.

Now the bad news. Even with this scorching growth, more than 250 million people of a total population of 1.3bn will still be "very poor" in 2020, the study says. That's not all: not even 100 million Indians will be graduates or post graduates despite the growth. Clearly, without radical reforms in education and infrastructure taken up with missionary bipartisan zeal, millions of Indians will still be hungry, poor and illiterate. Are India's politicians and bureaucrats up to the task? On present evidence, hardly. But we all live in hope.

The decade has also begun with a rash of good news stories. The government is planning to give out passports within three days of verification, make compulsory baby seats in cars and provide cheaper food for the poor. At least one state is launching madrassas or religious schools where English will be the medium of instruction. The government is also promising to introduce more women-friendly laws, harsher punishment for sexual crimes and fast track courts. All this just proves how much ground India has to cover. And Indian governments are famous for making announcements that take months, sorry, decades to implement. So we will wait and see.

But there is a piece of truly good news that holds out hope for India. Bihar, India's basket case state - poorest, most lawless, underdeveloped - appears to have clocked the fastest rate of growth during 2008-2009. If the Bihar government is to believed, the state's growth rate - 11.4% - is higher than India's industrially developed states. It is being attributed to good governance, buoyant revenues, increased government spending and a swelling unorganised private sector. If this is true then Bihar has all the makings of a miracle economy.

Bihar's remarkable "turnaround" shows the way for India, in a way. It also proves, as political philosopher Pratap Bhanu Mehta says, that "for the first time in modern Indian history, Indians, including the very marginalised, have a sense that change is possible: our destinies are ours to shape".

A sobering thought to keep in mind though. Impressive growth figures are unlikely to stun the poor into mindless optimism about their future. India has long been used to illustrate how extensive poverty coexists with growth. It has a shabby record in pulling people out of poverty - in the last two decades the number of absolutely poor in India has declined by 17 percentage points compared to China, which brought down its absolutely poor by some 45 percentage points. The number of Indian billionaires rose from nine in 2004 to 40 in 2007, says Forbes magazine. That's higher than Japan which had 24, while France and Italy had 14 billionaires each. When one of the world's highest number of billionaires coexist with what one economist calls the world's "largest number of homeless, ill-fed illiterates", something is gravely wrong. This is what rankles many in this happy season of positive thinking.

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