BBC BLOGS - Soutik Biswas's India

Archives for June 2010

Killing for 'honour'

Soutik Biswas | 04:31 UK time, Wednesday, 23 June 2010


Haryana couple Manoj and Babli were killed in 2007 (Photo: Shakti Vahini) You can get killed for falling in love in many parts of India. Especially, if you or your lover - and sometimes, spouse - "defy" the preordained rules of the country's fiendishly complex caste system. You can invoke the ire of your family and community and get killed if you marry within your caste, outside your caste, within your sub-caste and so on. You can also get killed for marrying outside your religion.

For many years, urban Indians believed such "honour killings" only happened in remote rural areas, mainly in the northern states of Haryana, Punjab and parts of Uttar Pradesh. Now, they are being reported from the capital Delhi - two couples and a girl in the past week alone. At least 26 others have been killed in Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh in the past 18 months. In neighbouring Punjab, one of India's most prosperous states, police records talk about 34 "honour killings" during the past two and half years - that's one killing a month. The police admit that many more killings may go unreported.

Sociologists say the rising number of such killings point to a collision between the old and young, the conservatives and the liberals, between old India, residing in its villages, and new India, thriving in its cities. They say as India becomes more urbanised, young men and women flock to its crowded cities, looking for work and love, far away from the watchful eyes of their elders and communities. They go to work, and often, fall in love, and invite retribution from their families.

So, very often, such freedom is short lived, as the boys and girls are duped into "meetings" by their families and relatives only to end up being killed brutally. The majority of the murders, police say, are carried out by the girl's family - the family's "honour", the families say, is at stake when their daughters get involved with lower caste men. The killers and their kin are frighteningly unrepentant about murdering their own. "I have no regrets," the uncle of one of the girls whom he allegedly killed recently told journalists, "I will punish them all over again if given another chance."

So what about the myth about that "honour killings" happen only in villages? In this age of globalisation, India lives with one foot in the villages, and the other in cities. Urbanisation is incomplete; there is a lot of urban-rural overlap. Entire families do not migrate to cities, and links with villages remain strong. So although there is more freedom for youngsters to work and mingle in cities, if they end up chosing partners of a lower caste, their elders and communities who live in villages can easily object. "It is a ressertion of community control over those individuals and families on which elements of democracy, capitalism and globalised economy have encroached," says Prem Chowdhry, a scholar who has investigated such killings for decades.

"Honour killings" are not merely about caste. Sociologists believe it's also about sections of the society that are intensely anti-women. In Haryana - the state with possibly the highest number of cases - more women have begun working. Expansion of women in the workforce between 1981 and 1991 was 63%; the increase of men in the workforce during the same period was 26%. Educated women, many village collective heads tell privately, are a "menace".

There are also some baffling double standards. How else can one explain the fact that men in Haryana routinely "purchase" women for marriage from other, lower castes - and even religion - from other parts of the country because there are too few marriageable girls available in their villages?

India has ignored "honour killings" - a lawyer recently called a "national scandal" - for too long. It has denied that they have happened, pointing to its neighbour, Pakistan, as the place where they are prevalent. Human rights groups across the border have generated enough noise and forced their rulers to introduce laws to stop honour killings. In comparison, an Indian representative at a United Nations committee in 2000 actually denied reports of "honour killings" of women.

A spate of killings in the ruling Congress party-led state of Haryana - where traditional village collectives have been actually found to order such killings - and now in Delhi has prompted the country's Supreme Court to ask the government what it is doing to prevent them.

It's good that India has finally woken up to this reprehensible crime. The courts are asking the governments to protect couples who defy tradition. There are reports of an impending law against such killings, like in Pakistan. But citizens, politicians and rights groups need to stand up and protest loudly. Because "honour killings" are no longer India's best kept secret.

Why is India not at the World Cup?

Soutik Biswas | 11:09 UK time, Friday, 18 June 2010


A Brazil fan in the Indian city of CalcuttaWhy does a country of a billion people with a red hot economy fail to produce a football side which qualifies for the World Cup?

As another edition of the world's greatest sporting event picks up pace, Indian football fans indulge in a familiar ritual of proxy worship. They slip into Argentina and Brazil - their two favourite teams - tee shirts and drape themselves in their flags, paint their icons on walls, and celebrate raucously when their favourite foreign team wins.

India's ranking in world football is a miserable 133. To put this into perspective, Burkina Faso, Benin, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Haiti and Fiji rank higher.

India can take solace in some backbencher consolation that others in its neighbourhood are doing worse: Bangladesh (157), Sri Lanka (159), Nepal (161), Pakistan (165) and Bhutan (196). This is truly the bottom heap of the 202 football playing nations in the world.

It wasn't always like this.

Playing barefoot with reasonable ball skills, India actually qualified for the World Cup in Brazil in 1950 - the only time it has done so. But lack of foreign exchange, the prospects of a long sea journey and an insistence on playing barefoot meant that the team never made it to Brazil.

India even picked up the gold in football in the first Asian Games in 1951, beating a suitably booted Iran by a solitary goal. In 1956, after having put on its boots, India reached the semi-final in Olympics football, the first Asian country to do so. It stood fourth in the tournament. In 1962, India again picked up the football gold in the Asian Games.

Thereafter it was all downhill. India never qualified for the Olympics after 1960. It picked up a bronze in the 1970 Asian Games in Bangkok, described by commentators as "the swan song of Indian football".

So why can't a country where a third of its population is under 14 years of age - a nursery of potential footballers - with a long history of club football can't put together 11 young men who can kick ball and take it to the World Cup?Boys playing football in India

There was never a lack of football fans in the country. When I was growing up in Calcutta, the local football league matches played out on rough grounds with rickety stands were packed to the brim. There were football magazines and fan clubs aplenty. Only when World Cup football began beaming live on TV in the mid-1980s we discovered that the gods we had worshipped locally were made of clay.

Regular football leagues take place in at least eight states, but club football in India is pseudo-professional with a strong degree of amateurism.

Also, football, like most things in India, is run by politicians, who have wrested control of most sports - the chief of the football federation now is the federal aviation minister. Lack of professionalism, cronyism, indifference and politicisation is not letting the game thrive, so fans have deserted it to root for their international heroes. Sponsors are indifferent because the quality of the game is appalling.

In retrospect, it would appear that India was never serious about football the way it was about cricket. The All India Football Federation, which runs the game in India, was formed in 1937, but took more than a decade to get affiliated with FIFA, the world's apex football body. India insisted on playing barefoot when other nations were putting their boots on and the game was changing fast.

There have been occasional bursts of hope followed by darkness again. India's only football icon of sorts is a not-so-young player called Baichung Bhutia from the small north-eastern state of Sikkim. He was the first Indian player to sign up with an European Club and had an indifferent three-year stint in the third tier of the English league. Bhutia brought some glamour and respect back to the game in India, but what can one player do? Half a dozen foreign coaches have been hired over the years to whip the national side into a competitive outfit, but nothing much has happened.

So, India, sadly, remains an enthusiastic spectator without a team at the World Cup. As my friend and writer, Indrajit Hazra, quips: "We don't have to paint like Leonardo to appreciate the Mona Lisa. With World Cup football, too, we have mastered outsourcing our entertainment."

Did you see a tiger?

Soutik Biswas | 05:51 UK time, Monday, 14 June 2010


A tiger conservation advert in IndiaDid you see a tiger?

At Corbett National Park, home to some 160 of India's fast-depleting population of tigers, nearly everybody you meet asks you this question - BlackBerry-fiddling fellow tourists, bored-looking guides, drivers, souvenir shop owners, the trauma care attendant-turned-masseur who rubs me down at the resort spa, the mahout taking children for a joyride on his elephant, the guard who sits forlornly with a torch and a stick to shoo away anglers who come to prey on the exquisite golden mahseer gliding in the waters of the Kosi river.

When I tell them I just missed seeing one, they smile ruefully, because most of them haven't seen the tiger either. Most of my friends who go on regular tiger spotting "missions" usually return disappointed. They commiserate with me when I tell them that I saw exactly one tiger pug mark, lots of elephant turd, one old hoary tusker in a cluster of trees, lots of handsome deer and frisky monkeys, some boar and many other not-so-interesting animals. I tell them I waited for a long time after hearing the deer braying deep inside the jungle - I had read somewhere that it's usually an alarm call sparked by a tiger lurking around. The deer brayed on, the sky turned orange with a fast setting sun. I moved on with my elusive and what promises to be eternal tiger hunt.

As I drove up outside the park, a group of breathless people descended on our jeep.

"He was here, he was here, just striding across the grassland," a gnarled old man shouted.

Who was where? I inquired, rather foolishly.

"Tiger, tiger! You missed it by a minute!"

Upon hearing this, a jeep load of anxious tiger enthusiasts behind me turned their vehicle and sped off into the forests again. I let the tiger prowl in peace. It's all about getting the tiger out of your system, I assured myself.

When Jim Corbett, the legendary hunter who lived in these parts and after whom the park is named, was alive, tigers may not have been so elusive. Going by his hair-raising tales of hungry man-eaters - one of them had apparently devoured more than 400 people before it fell victim to Corbett's gun - there were plenty of the cats roaming in the forests then.

Corbett died in 1955. Nearly four decades on, India had more than 4,000 tigers. By the turn of this decade, their numbers had dropped to a little over 3,500. Today, the government reckons, their numbers have drastically dwindled to 1,411. The numbers, by the government's latest admission, "indicate a poor status of tiger population outside the tiger reserves and protected areas" in the 17 states where the tiger is found.Corbett National Park

The government says that the tiger population "by and large" in the 39 tiger reserves and protected areas in these states is "viable", possibly meaning it is reasonably healthy. Millions of dollars have been poured into conservation efforts in these tiger havens. But only half of the 80 locations where the tiger is found in India are protected. A little over a third of the tigers actually live in unprotected areas where, experts say, they are at the mercy of poachers and victims of habitat destruction and prey depletion. These are not happy tidings for the world's largest population of the magnificent beast.

There's more bad news. All is not well with even the pampered tiger reserves. A recent government assessment found that 16 of the 39 reserves were faring poorly, while 12 were doing well. Nine others were plodding along satisfactorily.

Poaching, of course, remains a big problem. A recent investigation found that tribal hunters receive orders for 60 tigers a year. These tigers are trapped, killed, skinned and body parts collected and preserved. Poachers often work in collusion with corrupt forest guards. The cat has been wiped out from two reserves already.

Habitat destruction is another threat. Environmentalists say local forest communities should be empowered to play a greater role in guarding and preserving forests and wildlife. Sceptics argue that they end up earning much more by killing tigers than saving forests.

India says part of the problem is China, which is allegedly the biggest market for tiger parts. Unless China cracks down and the demand for tiger parts goes down, the poaching will continue, experts say.

There are worries about the rising tide of people like me who descend in hordes on the reserves for their tiger fix. Some 70,000 people visit Corbett alone every year. Tourist lodges have sprouted all around the forest - many of them owned by politicians. Amid a flurry of recent reports that the government was planning to ban tiger tourism, federal forest minister Jairam Ramesh admitted that tourism in the 39 reserves, "particularly in the core areas, will be strictly regulated."

There are new, daunting challenges - many of the tiger reserves are in areas which are Maoist strongholds, and nobody quite knows whether a bloody man-animal conflict is brewing in these parts. The government says "special crack teams" are being sent to these parts, but nobody quite knows how they are going to end up fighting the well-armed rebels who are already challenging the might of the Indian state.

So is India losing its fight to save the tiger? Going by their plummeting population, it appears so. There isn't enough political will to save the tiger: a well-funded federal authority to conserve tigers has been in existence since 1973, but it has clearly not risen to the challenge. The fact that poaching and forest fire figures haven't been updated since 1998 on its website hints at a lack of seriousness.

So, did you see a tiger? At this rate, anyway, the chances are getting bleaker by the day.

What is wrong with India's bureaucracy?

Soutik Biswas | 16:04 UK time, Thursday, 10 June 2010


India government offices in DelhiIn English, August, Upamanyu Chatterjee's wry novel on an Indian civil servant's year in a dull and sticky backwater, a new recruit discovers that he learns nothing from his colleagues. "For a very short while he worried about his ignorance," Chatterjee writes about his protagonist, "and then decided to worry about it properly when others discovered it."

Chatterjee should know a thing or two about Indian bureaucrats; he is one himself. "District administration in India," he writes, "is largely a British creation, like the railways and the English language, another complex and unwieldy bequest of the Raj." More than 60 years after independence, it remains largely so.

So is it any surprise that a new report says that India's bureaucracy is one of the most stifling in the world? The respondents - Asian business executives - said India had the worst levels of excessive red tape. In reality, the poor suffer most from red tape, which acts as an incentive for bribery.

Many bureaucracies around the world are bloated, slow-moving, rigid and self perpetuating. This is grimly exemplified in Jim Hacker's introduction to the civil service in the first episode of the British comedy Yes Minister. "Well briefly, Sir, I am the permanent under secretary of state, known as the permanent secretary. Woolley here is your principal private secretary, I too have a principal private secretary and he is the principal private secretary to the permanent secretary. Directly responsible to me are 10 deputy secretaries, 87 under secretaries and 219 assistant secretaries. Directly responsible to the principal private secretary are plain private secretaries, and the prime minister will be appointing two parliamentary under secretaries and you will be appointing your own parliamentary private secretary."

Like the UK and other countries, India hires it civil service recruits through competitive examinations. But its bureaucrats also face being moved around much more frequently than elsewhere. At least half of those working for the Indian Administrative Service - the country's fabled "steel frame" - spend less than a year in a single position, studies have found.

They can also end up working for India's vast number of state-run factories, hotels and airlines without much experience. So an official administering a small north-eastern state ends up running an ailing airline or a senior policeman can head up a liquor company. Most state-run companies - Air India is a good example - are poorly run, critics say, and perpetually in the red.

Bureaucrats are also hobbled by interference as politicians promote, demote or transfer them at will. There is corruption among a section of officers. Few alternate between state and federal governments, leading to accusations of provincialism in the ranks. More worryingly, some officers are perceived as champions of their religious or caste-based communities and act as "protectors" of their group's interests.Slum in Delhi

India has a range of forward-looking policies but a poor record on implementing them - for which many say bureaucrats must take a major share of the blame.

It's not as if those in charge are blind to the need for civil service reform: I have counted nearly three dozen reports and committees set up by the government since 1947 to streamline and modernise the bureaucracy. "There is growing concern that our civil services and administration in general have become wooden, inflexible, self-perpetuating and inward-looking," said one government paper.

The question is why does a bureaucracy which does a fine job in some areas - rehabilitating tsunami victims, managing millions at religious festivals, conducting the world's biggest elections - struggle to conduct day-to-day affairs of the state smoothly?

The answer may be simple. India's bureaucrats need to be insulated from political influence, observers say. They deserve transparent appointments and promotions and fixed tenures. The civil service needs a code of ethics. But most important, as one analyst says, is the need to develop a "climate of probity in public life".

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