BBC BLOGS - Soutik Biswas's India

Archives for April 2010

Indian cricket's unanswered questions

Soutik Biswas | 17:05 UK time, Thursday, 29 April 2010


India cricket teamAfter the storm, finally some plain speaking. The newly-appointed interim chief of the Indian Premier League, Chirayu Amin, has said that a clean-up of the crisis-hit cricket tournament has begun. The details are still perfunctory, apart from the fact that officials are trying to get hold of some documents they say have gone missing from the IPL office. IPL boss Lalit Modi has denied wrongdoing.

But what must gladden the hearts of cricket lovers is Mr Amin's vow to scrap the gaudy after-match parties - a money-spinner where people paid up to $1,000 to rub shoulders with starlets, models and exhausted players. The parties had nothing to do with the game, of course.

While he is at it Mr Amin may also consider getting rid of the irritating two-and-a-half minute-long sponsored "strategic time out" breaks during the games which raked in more advertising money. Can you imagine an international football match being broken into four segments just to squeeze in more TV advertising? There is nothing wrong in tweaking the game to earn a little more money. But, as cricket writer and historian Mukul Kesavan says, it also means "making changes conservatively and, crucially, resisting the impulse to trade in the integrity of the game for revenue".

Mr Amin said he hasn't decided about the cheerleaders at the matches. I don't know what others think, but I find it mindless - at many grounds, the girls have complained of being teased and jeered by loutish fans. Also, what about the inappropriate ritual of franchise owners hanging around player dug-outs? Clearly, lines need to be more firmly drawn.

But all this is still a far cry from the root and branch reform, without which critics say Indian cricket will remain a cosy oligarchy accountable to nobody. Until the next crisis.

Mr Amin has admitted with some humility that the IPL governing council members were in the dark about the alleged financial misdealings of the event.

Many believe an apology is not enough. How can a governing council which admits to sleeping on the job be entrusted with investigating the same allegations? "A governing council that exercises no oversight," says Mr Kesavan, "should either dissolve itself or should be dismissed."

Also, many ask, how can two former cricketers - Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri - who are members of the same council as well as IPL match commentators be entrusted with the job of shaping next year's tournament?IPL cheerleaders

And what about the potential conflict of interests within the board - members owning and promoting IPL teams, for example? What about making the board's books public?

There are no answers yet from the cricket board bosses. And the chances are, most fear, there will never be.

Critics say there is a near conspiracy of silence when it comes to the issue of transparency that involves the board (itself an opaque institution), franchises (suspected to be withholding owner information), commentators (silent on the controversy during the tournament) and the media (uncritical about everything about the IPL until the scandal broke.) There is a sense of deja vu here - everybody was silent about the bookies mingling with the cricketers in the run-up to the match fixing scandal at the turn of the decade until two reporters - who did not cover cricket - broke the story.

Without transparency, there will be no trust between the men who run, support and report on the game and its fans. As sports writer Rohit Brijnath implores: "So fellows, first, make good policy. Second, let commentators criticise - it gives a game legitimacy. Third, don't compromise the integrity of the game. So ban advertising breaks during overs. Cricket is being played."

An opportunity to reform Indian cricket

Soutik Biswas | 10:58 UK time, Sunday, 25 April 2010


Lalit ModiThe dramatic midnight suspension of Lalit Modi, controversial chief of the Indian Premier League (IPL), over allegations of corruption in the cricket tournament, should mark the beginning of a serious effort to clean up the game in India.

Forget the IPL, neck-deep in allegations of financial misdemeanours and sleaze after just three seasons. (Mr Modi has denied the allegations.) This is Indian cricket's worst crisis since the match-fixing scandal at the turn of the decade. And if Indian cricket sneezes, world cricket will catch a cold.

So will Mr Modi's likely departure from his "billion dollar baby" - as the IPL was described by a largely uncritical media before the scandal broke out - be a panacea for Indian cricket's problems?

No. The rot in the running of Indian cricket, most believe, starts right at the top.

For evidence, look at the way the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is run. With a net worth of more than $1.5bn, the BCCI is cricket's richest and one of the world's wealthiest sports bodies. But it is registered as a non-profit organisation, is not required to make its books public and till very recently was a recipient of generous tax exemptions because it claimed that promoting cricket was a "charitable activity"!

Politicians control the levers of power in the board. And there are brazen conflicts of interests - one board member bought an IPL team after allegedly tweaking the rules, while the chairman of the selectors of the national team is a brand ambassador for another team. Nobody bats an eyelid and the show goes on.

Many say that the cricket board - which also runs the IPL - should be reconstituted as an autonomous statutory body, where people holding office will be public servants and accountable to fans. Its books should be open to the public and its operations should be transparent. All this could be led by an independent regulatory body made up of respected professionals from the world of finance and law.

But that is just one part of the story. Many believe that Mr Modi and the allegations over the IPL - rigging of team bids, opaque financial disclosures, nepotism, political meddling - are just symbols of a larger malaise afflicting India itself.IPL match

As the country hurtles from a closed, controlled economy to free market capitalism, regulation is weak and suspect, they say. The upshot, the fiercest critics say, is cronyism and corruption at times reminiscent of the early days of capitalism in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. More discreet commentators speak of a "system" which is unable to handle the heat of the free market.

So it is with cricket. In his engaging book on Indian cricket, A Maidan View, sports journalist Mihir Bose was prescient when he wrote that it was a matter of worry that the Indian cricket board "continues to behave as it were a street trader, eager for the loot but unable to either plan for it, let alone manage it". Bose felt the "essential contradictions" of the country and its cricket have not vanished. "Change has come, enormous change," he wrote, "but it has come far too quickly to be assimilated."

It is not only cricket which is suspected of being run by a cosy cartel of people linked to powerful politicians. There is a strong suspicion that India's natural resources are being bartered away in similar fashion, fuelling the Maoist uprising in mineral-rich lands. A lack of credible regulators, as the IPL again suggests, will only make matters worse.

Mr Modi's suspension could also turn out to be merely an episode in a long-running soap opera. Over the weekend, TV networks were gleefully reporting leaks that the income tax department was probing allegations of match fixing against 27 players in last year's IPL, which was played in South Africa for security reasons. It is another matter that the income tax department is not tasked with - and does not have the skills to - detect matching fixing; and that cricket is one of the most difficult games to fix.

But even if there were an iota of truth about bookies mingling with cricketers in South Africa last year, and players disclosing game information to help them, it would be cricket's Black Sox scandal, and the end of the game as we know it. The row over allegedly rigged team bids and shady team ownership will then look like a minor matter. IPL match crowd

Fans in India have nowhere to turn to except cricket. So the game will not perish, and neither should the IPL, which has turned out to be a hit despite critics who hate its crude grammar and loud razzmatazz.

But the IPL should play by the rules of the free market and prune its appetite for greed. Team ownership and sponsorships should be transparent and public, and everybody should pay their taxes. (In what is a scandalous sideshow of the row, the IPL wrangled entertainment tax waivers on tickets, resulting in loss of revenues to a state where tens of thousands of debt-ridden farmers have committed suicide.)

Indians have become inured to - even callous about - corruption, so there is a real possibility that Mr Modi will be made the fall guy, and there will be no meaningful, demonstrable change in the running of the cricket. At the same time India is largely a reactive society - only crises and scandals sometimes lead to real reforms. IPL-Gate - as many networks are describing the row - could then actually end up cleansing and reforming the cricket board, and the game could actually emerge stronger. It is time to restore the dignity of Indian cricketers and their fans.

The tragedy of Shashi Tharoor

Soutik Biswas | 07:54 UK time, Monday, 19 April 2010


Shashi TharoorWhen Shashi Tharoor joined the Congress-led government as a junior foreign affairs minister after a rousing electoral debut last year, he was hailed as a great, young hope for a new emerging politics. At 54, he is still a toddler by Indian political standards.

Mr Tharoor's credentials were impeccable. He had been a top UN diplomat who had even taken a shot at the secretary general's job, albeit unsuccessfully. He was erudite (a prolific writer of novels, non-fiction and columns), articulate (a delight for English TV networks) and adept at using social networking tools to reach out to his supporters (more than 700,000 followers on Twitter). He appeared to be a far cry from the stereotypical subcontinental politician.

Once in government, Mr Tharoor led a charmed life. First he was ticked off by the government for staying in a luxury hotel at a time when his recession-hit government was preaching austerity. (Mr Tharoor argued that he was paying his own bills, but moved out of the hotel anyway). Then his frenzied Twittering got him into trouble - on at least two occasions he appeared to have irked his party with his messages. He finally ran out of luck on Sunday night after the government could not countenance his involvement with a cricket team in a tournament neck deep in allegations of corruption and sleaze.

In many ways, Mr Tharoor's inglorious departure is a big blow to urban, English-speaking Indians who believe that the country's politics needs people like him to change the rules of the game. "Tharoor's predicament should give no joy to those who have yearned for freshness in politics. He had his chance but let human frailties and the air of India cloud his judgement," writes analyst Swapan Dasgupta. "His unavoidable fall will be celebrated by those who want politics to remain a closed shop."

Was Mr Tharoor's fall a result of blithe insouciance - or what Mr Dasgupta calls "smug superciliousness" - that made him think that he could never do any wrong? Or was he naïve enough to get involved in the auction of a team in a controversial cricket event, as alleged? It is difficult to say. Mr Tharoor has maintained his innocence and said that nobody ever raised any questions about his integrity in his career as a UN diplomat.

But most analysts say it was a bit reckless of him to allow a close aide to turn up for the auction of a cricket team in which a woman friend of his was picking up equity, allegedly free. They say it was improper for him to even call up the chief of the Indian Premier League to discuss matters relating to the team. All this, they say, doesn't ring quite true with a telling Twitter message from Mr Tharoor last week, before he handed in his resignation: "Thanks for all the support and good wishes. You folks are the new India. We will 'be the change' we wish to see in our country. But not without pain!" Social networking will never win votes in India. In the end, writes Swapan Dasgupta, "a man who sought 'new politics' was brought down because he couldn't rise above old politics". That perhaps really sums up the tragedy of Shashi Tharoor.

Time to clean up Indian cricket?

Soutik Biswas | 18:40 UK time, Friday, 16 April 2010


IPL match In its third season, the Indian Premier League is a smash hit on the field. Off the field, the credibility of this tournament is taking a drubbing.

The ongoing row between high-profile minister, Shashi Tharoor, and the brash and flamboyant chief of the IPL, Lalit Modi, is threatening to open a can of worms and give a bad name to the way cricket is run in India.

The row could now represent Indian cricket's darkest moment since the match-fixing scandal in the 1990s. It's a dismal drama with allegations of bribery, intimidation, shadowy dealings, opaque financial disclosures, and alleged favours to a businesswoman, well-known to the minister. The cast has now extended to include a whole bunch of obscure IPL team owners, a senior federal minister and a controversial chief minister. All sides have denied the charges flung at them.

Do cricket fans really care about this unsavoury row? It is difficult to say - as the third IPL season draws to a close, the grounds remain full and the cricket also remains largely crowd-pleasing. But then Indians don't lose their faith in cricket so easily. Remember the match-fixing scandal which led to the banning of several senior cricketers, including a former captain? The crowds returned to the grounds quickly to worship their gods, and Indian cricket, under a new captain, actually emerged cleaner and stronger after the crisis. The game is resilient, and the fans will stand by it.

But the latest controversy once again puts a spotlight on how cricket is run in India. Outlook magazine editor and cricket lover Vinod Mehta says that the IPL row smacks of a "culture of sleaze that the event has spawned". His magazine broke the match-fixing story.

The bigger question is one of transparency and probity. A tournament which is India's showcase to the world cannot be allowed to sink under allegations of corruption and grimy business dealings. Indian cricket runs world cricket - 70% of the world's cricket revenues are from here. IPL was initiated by the Indian cricket board. This controversy raises questions about the governance of cricket in India - and the way the game is being controlled by politicians who have wrested control of its state cricket boards and their links with businessmen.

"If IPL turns out to be a bag of sleaze, it will be a big blow to India's image," says sports journalist Mihir Bose. I couldn't agree more. Sure, wounded fans will return to the grounds, but the damage to India's image will be grievous. Many commentators agree that Indian cricket needs more transparency and a strong, independent regulator. The way to start is at the top and make the cricket board's books and dealings open to the public. The same applies to the ownership of the IPL teams. This will prove to the world that not only do we play and love cricket intensely, but we can run it well too.

A cross-border marriage stripped of romance

Soutik Biswas | 13:22 UK time, Monday, 12 April 2010


Sania Mirza and Shoaib MalikThe subcontinent's biggest tabloid story in a long time has finally ended. Hopefully. Sania Mirza and Shoaib Malik have married after what resembled a fast-paced pulp thriller involving a spurned woman he was alleged to have married and then divorced amid bitter recriminations. As if this was not enough, there was a high-pitched jingoistic media debate about who owns Mirza now - would she turn out to play tennis for Pakistan? (Mirza, who is currently ranked a lowly 92 in the world, insists she will continue to play for India.) This was the kind of tabloid frenzy to which the usually staid and conservative media in India and Pakistan are unaccustomed.

The Mirza-Malik wedding was the "romance that gripped two nations", according to The Guardian. In reality, the treatment given the story completely stripped it of its romance. News networks vied with each other to dig up dirt about Malik and his alleged ex-wife, Ayesha Siddiqui. "Your jaw drops at the performance the stand-up anchors put up," wrote media critic Sevanti Ninan. "Grown men and women paid to harangue, and to sell the proposition that this is and can be the only matter of earthshaking importance for a large country of a billion-plus people."

Things appeared to be no better across the border with the story dominating the Pakistani news networks. "What we saw on our screens was tabloid journalism of the sort usually purveyed by the dregs of the profession," fumed the Dawn newspaper. "In a country racked by militancy and terrorism, should a celebrity marriage dominate the news on a day when dozens are killed in suicide attacks?"

Personally, I heaved a sigh of relief when news of the wedding came in. The tipping point for me came when one of India's star TV news anchors asked Mirza whether she and Malik, a former Pakistani cricket captain, discussed the Mumbai attacks and the Taliban when they were together. Sania laughed the question away, saying something to the effect that they were like a normal couple, who talked about normal things, instead of dissecting the roots of Islamic radicalism.Cricket bats with pictures of Sania Mirza and Shoaib Malik in Pakistan

This is not the first - or the last - subcontinental marriage, despite the tensions between the two neighbours. Thousands of Muslim families from the former princely state of Hyderabad moved to Pakistan after the partition of India and many retain links with their relatives who stayed behind. Every year, a number of cross-border marriages take place with Pakistani grooms picking up Hyderabad brides. Two of my friends are married to Pakistani women and apart from minor quibbles over visa delays, they face no problems. Malik is not the first Pakistani cricketer to marry an Indian - former batsman Mohsin Khan wed Bollywood starlet Reena Roy in the 1980s. (The marriage later broke up.)

So what is the big deal about the Mirza-Malik wedding? I suspect it was the element of lasciviousness that made it the biggest story in the subcontinent. I hope the fuss is over and the couple are left alone to get on with their marriage.

India's rights revolution

Soutik Biswas | 09:56 UK time, Thursday, 8 April 2010


A pavement school in IndiaIndia is in the grip of a "rights" revolution. The poor stand to benefit most, as they gain legally enforceable rights. These guarantee them education, food, health, a public works-for-cash programme and government information, among other things.

Ensuring the basics in life remains the biggest challenge for India, six decades after independence.

Take food. Some 43% of Indian children younger than five are underweight - far above the global average of 25% or sub-Saharan Africa's 28%. India is a lowly 65th among 84 countries in the Global Hunger Index. Half of the world's hungry people live in India.

So the proposed right to food, entitling a poor family to 25kg of rice or wheat at three rupees (seven cents) a kilogram is good news. The bad news is that identifying the deserving poor is a challenge - there are four different government estimates of the very poor or below poverty line (BPL) people floating around. States may inflate numbers of beneficiaries to corner more federal benefits. Then there is the notoriously leaky public distribution system, from where food is often siphoned off by a triad of low-level bureaucrats, shop owners and middlemen.

Nobody can deny that the right to education - every child aged 6-14 can demand free schooling - is critical: an estimated eight million children in that age group do not attend school in India. India's 61% literacy rate lags behind Kenya's 85%. But critics point to a lack of teachers - India would need more than a million teachers just to implement the right - and say there are simply not enough schools to cope with the increased demand.

Rights don't work miracles. But activists say they are an urgent social intervention to empower the poor in a highly iniquitous society, where it is difficult for the poor to access officials to air their grievances and secure their entitlements. "In a hierarchical society, rights-based movements are a way of moving towards equality," says leading political scientist Mahesh Rangarajan. Also, they put pressure on the state to deliver - the right to information, despite glitches, is making government more accountable.A child in a Delhi slum

Studies show that sensitive political and bureaucratic leadership combined with grassroots awareness and an engaged local media can translate rights into reality and improve the lives of the poor. Activists point out that money is not a problem - the economy is doing well, revenues are buoyant, federal health and education outlays have been increased. The government has pledged more than $5bn to send 10 million poor children to school.

The cynicism over rights mainly comes from India's burgeoning educated upper middle class. It is mostly not engaged with public institutions at all - its members rarely serve in the lower ranks of the armed forces, teach in state schools or work for the government. Yes, there are valid concerns about whether the state has the capacity to deliver on rights. Yes, the Indian state continues to focus on maintaining law and order and collecting revenue. Delivering services is not its strength. Rights could actually help it move towards a functioning welfare state. I would like to hear stories from you - and people you may know - who are reaping the benefits of the rights revolution.

India's epic head count

Soutik Biswas | 08:51 UK time, Thursday, 1 April 2010


India population clock in DelhiMy favourite story about counting India's people comes from the country's best-known demographer Ashish Bose.

"Collecting accurate age data is one of the biggest problems in India," he said. "If you visit an Indian village, many men will overstate their age, thinking people will take them more seriously. On the other hand, women, as in many parts of the world, will understate their age, and say they are younger!"

So is our census data riddled with overage men and underaged women? I asked him, slightly alarmed. Mr Bose laughed. "Don't worry," he assured me. "We have enough technologies and methods at our disposal to correct these distortions."

That doesn't come as a surprise in a country of a billion-plus people which has launched its 15th census. Although China may have the biggest head count in the world, India, say demographers, carries out the most comprehensive census - it has been doing one regularly since 1872.

The logistics are mind-boggling and the process usually works without glitches. This time, more than two million enumerators and supervisors will visit over 240 million homes, 600,000 villages, 7,000 towns and 600 districts with questionnaires to carry out household listings followed by a census of the number of people in the country. The process will stretch over 11 months, consume more than 11 million tonnes of paper, and cost at least $1bn.

First comes the elaborate recording of information of homes, including assets people own - computers and mobile phones have been added this time. It's an invaluable database of the purchasing power and habits of Indians. After that the enumerators will fan out across the country with the census questionnaire, where smaller, but vital questions will be asked - name, age, citizenship and occupation are some of them.

Policy makers and pundits will keenly await the results of this epic census and answers to some of India's most intriguing demographic questions.

Will northern states, for example, continue to be major contributors to India's population growth? India's fertility rate has dropped by just 40% in the past three decades despite southern India's having reached "replacement fertility" rate, demographers say. Ashish Bose reckons that the northern states' share of population growth between 2001 and 2026 will be around 50%, while in the south it will be around 12.6%.Young Indians

This will translate into a demographic dividend as northern India will stay young, while the south faces rapid ageing. By 2025, demographers say, India's population will still be very young, with a median age of 26. But the median age in the south would be around 34 - similar to Europe in the late 1980s, they say.

There are some quibbles though. Many have demanded that the census should also find out about caste, the complex social order which assigned people a place in the social hierarchy based on their occupation. After all, they say, many affirmative action programmes in India are targeted at caste-based groups, and a proper enumeration of caste will help government to direct such programmes to the deserving more smoothly.

But demographers like Ashish Bose have opposed this. "People can easily lie about their caste status. If an upper-caste respondent finds that declaring himself lower-caste will get him government goodies, he can drop his surname or change his name and commit fraud," he says. The other problem is that census enumerators have no right to counter a respondent's reply; and thus such fraud could go unchecked. So the jury is still out on whether caste should make a comeback - only once, in 1931, was caste included in the census.

With or without the inclusion of caste, the census remains an Indian achievement of epic proportions. There is little doubt about that.

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