BBC BLOGS - Soutik Biswas's India

Archives for July 2010

Will Britain's India charm offensive work?

Soutik Biswas | 09:30 UK time, Wednesday, 28 July 2010


Spectator magazine coverCan Britain charm India? wonders Spectator magazine with a cover illustration inspired by the oldest oriental cliché - a snake charmer (David Cameron, in this case, who is making his first visit as prime minister to India) trying to rouse a drowsy and a rather contended looking snake (India). Jo Johnson, former Financial Times Delhi correspondent and now a Conservative MP, writes in the magazine that Britain's relationship with India is outdated. A friend in Delhi says the cover cartoon is a good example: the inability to get over a colonial vision of a land of hippy snake charmers, lumbering elephants, sleepy hill stations and stubborn natives!

The magazine also hints at a confused UK view. On the one hand, it says, Britain's aid agencies tend to see India as an "impoverished aid recipient"; on the other, Mr Cameron and his ministers will be there "begging for India's money". Mr Cameron himself makes no bones about it. "Economic power is shifting - particularly to Asia - so Britain has to work harder than ever before to earn its living in the world. I'm not ashamed to say that's one of the reasons why I'm here in India," he wrote in The Hindu newspaper.

So has India outgrown Britain? Or, as my colleague Sanjoy Majumder wonders, does India really care? Or does the new India, as Mihir Bose suggests in an essay, value its British past but is no longer in awe of it?

Some of the colonial tradition endures - India's civil service (sluggish and in dire need of reform), its army (largely professional, non-sectarian and apolitical) and the English language (once the pan-Indian language of the elite which now everybody aspires to learn as a passport to jobs). Maybe even cricket, which sociologist Ashis Nandy famously described as an "Indian game accidentally discovered by the English".

But many believe that the British - and Indians themselves - have always overestimated the influence of Britain on its former colony. As early as in 1964 British broadcaster and author Malcolm Muggeridge wrote: "As the years pass, British rule in India comes to seem as remote as the battle of Agincourt." David Cameron in India

One reason, many Indian analysts say, is that most of the colonial experience was extremely unsavoury. They point to the tendency of the British rulers to cultivate local elites, empowering some of them and dividing the masses. (Lord Macaulay who spearheaded the founding of India's education system, suggested it set up natives who were "Indian in colour and blood, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect".)

The collaboration with entrenched elites strengthened feudalism in what was already a deeply hierarchical society. Income, urbanisation, education and health care stagnated. Average economic growth in the first half of the century under British rule was 1%. Colonial trade was extractive and exploitative, leaving India poorer. Sunil Khilnani, a leading scholar, says "the cultural reach of British rule was steady as far as it went, but it was never very deep". Even the colonial understanding of this complex nation was suspect, many say. Winston Churchill famously predicted that if the British left India the country "will fall back quite rapidly through the centuries into barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages".

Post-Independence, in Jawaharlal Nehru's "non-aligned" India, Americans were seen by India as the new colonisers. But Indians continued to flock to the US chasing jobs and businesses. In the mid-1980s when the first big rock concert came to India, the Delhi audience sang along to Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street band's sardonic anthem, Born In the USA. "I didn't know you knew the lyrics!" the surprised singer said. Over the decades, as India has found its place in the world economy, the old distrust is gone, and the civilian nuclear deal has brought the two countries closer than ever before. Indians adore Bill Gates. The young love listening to Black Eyed Peas and Green Day and watching Angelina Jolie and Tom Cruise.

It will not be easy for Mr Cameron to retrieve lost ground: America's trade with India is three times that of Britain's, India is not happy with restrictions on non-EU migration and politics - like the Labour Party's insistence on raising the Kashmir issue in the past - can end up souring relations. "I know Britain cannot rely on sentiment and shared history for a place in India's future," Mr Cameron says. Both India and Britain will he hoping that he walks the talk.

The bias against housewives

Soutik Biswas | 08:47 UK time, Monday, 26 July 2010


Indian womenAre the lives of housewives cheaper than those of their husbands in India? Going by the evidence, yes.

Families of housewives who die in road accidents end up receiving less compensation than those of working men. In a recent case, the Motor Accidents' Tribunal more than halved the compensation the family of a deceased homemaker was entitled to.
This, despite the husband's plea that she was earning money by working from home, and that her death had led to the family losing emotional support, love and affection.

Last week, the Supreme Court ordered higher compensation, after the husband challenged the appeal. In an emphatic and sensitive judgement it said:

The gratuitous services rendered by the wife with true love and affection to the children and her husband and managing the household affairs cannot be equated with the services rendered by others.

A wife/mother does not work by the clock. She is in constant attendance of the family throughout the day and night unless she is employed and is required to attend the employer's work for particular hours.

She takes care of all the requirements of husband and children including cooking of food, washing of clothes, etc. She teaches small children and provides invaluable guidance to them for their future life.

The odds are heavily stacked against women in India anyway. It remains a nation of stay-at-home wives, though more women are going out to work. Housewives play a key role in keeping families together in a country with virtually no government-aided social security. A 2008 study showed barely 13% of women - between 18 and 59 years - work.

Only 18% of women work in the organised sector, the majority in farms. Just 10% of seats in parliament are held by women. Only 9% of companies have any participation by women in ownership. No wonder India ranked a lowly 116 in the 179-country Gender Development Index in 2006.Census of Indian women

Last week, the Supreme Court found that the bias extended to the country's census. It said that the census appeared to club women who were doing household work, looking after children, fetching water, collecting firewood with beggars, prostitutes and prisoners who are "not engaged in economically productive work".

That's about 367 million "non-working" women, according to the 2001 census. Analysts say such systemic, institutional gender bias in a mainly patriarchal society will take decades to erode.

To be true, stay-at-home wives are becoming rarer - and having a harder time - all over the world. Peter Letmark, a journalist in Sweden who is working on a series on 21st century parents, says that they are a "near extinct species" in his country. "The few who still do exist, he says, "don't really dare to go public with it." In neighbouring Norway, membership of a housewives' association has plummeted to 5,000 from 60,000.

In the US, according to census findings, stay-at-home wives are usually younger, less educated and with lower family incomes. Katrin Bennhold, a journalist, recently wrote that social engineering to encourage more working mothers is a "blunt tool, and some worry that the freedom of working mothers has come at the expense of making outcasts of a minority who want to do things differently".

Many economists believe that the value of unpaid work is sometimes more than that of the manufacturing sector. Writing about the decline in real wages in the US, economist Paul Krugman said: "I don't mean to imply that there's something wrong with more women working, but a gain in family income that occurs because a spouse goes to work isn't the same thing as a wage increase. In particular it may carry hidden costs that offset some of the gains in money income, such as reduced time to spend on housework, greater dependence on prepared food, day-care expenses, and so on".

Why isn't the contribution housewives make to the economy computed and shown up to the world? Why not include unpaid housework in the GDP? As Bennhold says: "Working mothers have a stake in this, too: They still do most of the unpaid work in their homes." All over the world.

India and China: 'Myths' of economic growth

Soutik Biswas | 07:37 UK time, Thursday, 22 July 2010


India farm workersThe twin stories of India and China are the most dramatic in the world economy. In 1820, the two countries contributed to nearly half of the world's income. In 1950, their share was less than a tenth; and currently the two contribute to a fifth. By 2025, their share of world income will be a third, according to projections.

China, of course, hogs most of the glory. India was ahead of China in 1870 as well as in the 1970s in terms of per capita income levels at international prices. But since 1990, China has surged ahead of India - China's per capita income growth in the past two decades has been at least double the rate that of India.

Both remain the world's fastest growing big economies. The conventional wisdom is that decades of socialist controls and red tape stifled enterprise in both countries. Market reforms and globalisation helped uncork the genie and unleashed massive entrepreneurial energies. This, in turn, led to a decline in poverty and increase in economic growth. Commentators have called this the unshackling of "caged tigers", among other things. Others have waxed eloquent on the two giants spawning "three billion capitalists", redefining the next stage of globalisation.

Is that really the case? In a provocative and brilliantly argued new book, one of India's leading economists Pranab Bardhan argues that a lot of "hype and oversimplification" has distorted recent accounts of the two economies. Mr Bardhan, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, mines critical data and offers incisive analysis to offer a more nuanced picture.

The truth, as he shows, is much more sobering than the hype.

In Awakening Giants, Feet of Clay: Assessing the Economic rise of China and India, Mr Bardhan says it is not clear whether economic reforms are mainly responsible for the recent high growth in India.

Reforms have made the country's corporate sector more vibrant and competitive. But, he says, most of the Indian economy is not in the corporate sector, which absorbs only 6% of India's labour force. The fast growing info-tech sector - India's pride- employs less than 1% of India's workforce. Services - financial business services and telecommunications where reforms may have made a significant impact - constitute only about a quarter of the total service sector output. "It is yet to be empirically and convincingly demonstrated how the small corporate sector benefiting from reforms pulled up a vast informal sector," says Mr Bardhan.

Globalisation's impact on economies has been a divisive issue with economists. Some say it sharpened inequities and made the poor poorer; others believe it has pulled lots of people out of poverty.

Mr Bardhan isn't very sure about either.

He cites India's national household data, which suggests that poverty did not decline sharply in 1993-2005, when India experienced extensive opening up of its economy. Social indicators like child health remained - and remain - abysmally poor. At the same time, the growth rate in agriculture, where most of the poor work, has declined somewhat in the past decade. This is largely because of the decline of public investment in farm infrastructure and has nothing to do with globalisation, argues the economist.A road in China

Globalisation also does not appear to have helped in boosting India's social development indicators, Mr Bardhan suggests. How else can one explain that Gujarat, the country's richest, high-growth, reform-friendly state, has a higher percentage of underweight children than sub-Saharan Africa?

Mr Bardhan suggests China's stunning growth rates (9% on an average) in the early years of liberalisation - 1978 to 1993 - happened because of domestic factors - farms reforms, distribution of land cultivation rights - which raised rural incomes.

Also, contrary to popular perception, China's growth has not been primarily export driven, the book argues. Mr Bardhan shows how domestic investment and consumption have been the main drivers of China's growth. No doubt globalisation and economic reforms have trigged off economic growth but, as Mr Bardhan argues, most of us may have overstated their importance.

Have the India-Pakistan peace talks collapsed?

Soutik Biswas | 13:34 UK time, Friday, 16 July 2010


Indian Foreign Minister SM Krishna and his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi Are India and Pakistan back to square one as far as peace talks are concerned? Has the dialogue between South Asia's warring neighbours - which appeared to be limping back to some normalcy in the past six months - collapsed?

Triggering off this frenzied debate in India has been Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi's surprising outburst on Friday blaming India for the talks deadlock: "It seems India is not mentally prepared to engage in a dialogue," he said.

Mr Qureshi's feelings appear to have been provoked by familiar frustrations that have traditionally bedevilled ties between the two sides. Only this time, Pakistan appears to be complaining about India's inflexibility - meaning, among other things, a refusal to discuss thornier issues like Kashmir - impeding a fair dialogue. This is nothing new. India has always held Pakistan is obsessed with Kashmir; Pakistan says India cannot see beyond alleged Pakistani involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

What prompted Mr Qureshi's sudden broadside against India even as his Indian counterpart was getting ready to board the flight to Delhi? Many in Delhi say that the Pakistani establishment was seething after India's Home Secretary, GK Pillai, accused the Pakistani spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence of being involved in the Mumbai attacks on the eve of the talks. Some are already wondering whether the comments were deliberately aimed to derail the talks - Delhi's foreign policy pundits talks about hawks and doves in the government who are divided over the need for talks with Pakistan. On the other hand, most Indians believe that the Pakistani leadership is not doing enough to rein in militants launching attacks on India, and clerics indulging in hate campaigns against India.

What left most baffled was Mr Qureshi's personal attack on Mr Krishna, that he kept interrupting their meeting by taking calls from Delhi - something which many in India find a breach of diplomatic etiquette. Mr Krishna has denied the allegation.

But then nobody expected any dramatic breakthroughs in the Islamabad talks. The Indian media echoed the sentiment in their coverage today. One bland headline simply said: "India, Pakistan decide to remain engaged." That is how low expectations are in India about ties with its estranged sibling these days.India-Pakistan peace rally in Lahore

But browsing the Pakistani media, I came away with the impression that the frustration was higher on the other side of the border. The News, a Pakistan daily, lamented that the talks had "collapsed, not for the sheer absence of the right momentum, but because of India's inflexibility."

Clearly, Mr Qureshi's outburst will make it difficult for India to sell the talks to its people - a leader of the main opposition BJP, a Hindu nationalist party, has already demanded that talks be called off. But the two sides need to keep talking. Because when it comes to two nuclear-armed hostile neighbours, not talking can be more perilous for both. Pakistan's frustration with a stalemate should not surprise many. "Stalemate [between India and Pakistan] seems to be more attractive to each side than finding a solution," says Stephen Cohen, a regional specialist at the Brookings Institution, a US foreign policy think tank. The problem is that this prolonged, agonising stalemate hurts the people of both the countries, and ensures the region's future remains in jeopardy.

Deja vu in Kashmir

Soutik Biswas | 15:33 UK time, Thursday, 8 July 2010


A protester in KashmirKashmir is on the boil again. Some 14 civilians, mostly teenagers and young men, have died in clashes with security forces since June. Most of the Muslim-majority valley has either been under a curfew or shut down, and soldiers have staged a flag march in the capital, Srinagar.

The usual, banal recriminations have begun. The governments - federal and state - blame "outside elements", local separatists and opposition parties for stoking protests. The separatists and opposition parties point to a collapse of governance and failure to respect the pro-freedom sentiments of Kashmir's people. Analysts say the mess is again a result of the government's "failure of imagination" in moving forward on this restive region.

The truth may be more prosaic.

Look at the pattern of killings - they are grimly similar. Stone throwing protesters come out in hordes and security forces fire in "self defence." A young man is killed and more protests follow. A shot is fired again, and another one dies. And so it goes on. Heart rending scenes mark the funerals and pictures of the dead young men evoke chilling responses. "Each passing day," a Kashmiri girl writes on Facebook reacting to a picture of a blood stained boy killed in the firing, "any hope left dies just inside me, just withers away, just vapourises bit by bit, and when hope dies, nothing remains, nothing." India cannot afford an alienated Kashmir.

Why are so many young people dying in demonstrations in Kashmir?

Security forces say they are forced to fire because the stone throwing mobs are often unpredictable and violent - one report suggests some 200 policemen and paramilitaries have been injured in the stone throwing in the past month. But stone throwing as a form of protest in Kashmir dates back to the 1930s - the present chief minister's grandfather led such demonstrations against the region's rulers. In central Srinagar - some call it Kashmir's Gaza Strip - the tradition has endured.

Rights groups and many Kashmiri people say that using maximum force to subdue stone throwers is a brutal, exaggerated response. They say that security forces in Kashmir have fought militants for over two decades, and are not trained for civilian crowd control. A Kashmiri friend of mine says, "There are very few places in the world where civilian protests are controlled by men with live ammunition and AK-47s."

The government has been making noises about raising a special force dealing in modern crowd control techniques - using water cannons, the malodorous and non-lethal "skunk" spray, noise machines, for example - but nothing has happened so far. In Kashmir even tear gas canisters and rubber bullets have killed protesters raising suspicions that security forces are not properly trained to use them. Security forces in Kashmir

Heavily armed police and paramilitaries taking on civilian protests can only heighten tensions in a region where sentiments remain fragile, and things can spiral out of control very fast. Surely, many ask, it does not take a lot of imagination to form a special crowd control force for the region.

Kashmir requires delicate handling, but governments appear to botch up whenever the going seems to be relatively good. The 2008 agitation was triggered off when the local government decided to transfer to a Hindu religious trust 100 acres of land, sparking off widespread protests among Muslims - the decision was later rescinded. Last summer the alleged murder of two women by security forces plunged the valley in unrest. This year, it began with the death of a young stone thrower in police firing. Most Kashmiri people I speak to wonder: Why don't the authorities learn from past mistakes?

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