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Archives for December 2010

India's tussle over new state of Telangana

Soutik Biswas | 08:40 UK time, Friday, 31 December 2010


Pro-Telangana agitation in February 2010

Will India get a new state in the New Year? The contents of an official report looking into demands for a new state, Telangana, to be carved out of southern Andhra Pradesh is to be made public next week. The final decision lies with the Indian parliament and the state assembly, which must pass a resolution approving Telangana's creation.

With a population of 40 million, the proposed Telangana state comprises 10 of Andhra Pradesh's 23 districts, including the state capital and India's sixth most populous city, Hyderabad. A bone of contention is, of course, Hyderabad. Opponents of the move are unhappy that the city, home to major information technology and pharmaceutical companies, would become Telangana's new capital.

Nobody has forgotten the violent protests for and against the new state which rocked Andhra Pradesh last year. After a panicky federal government announced the setting up of a committee led by retired Supreme Court judge BN Srikrishna, the movement, many said, had lost its head of steam. Nothing could be further from the truth, activists say. "The movement didn't cease at all. We moved on quietly," Kodanda Ram, who heads several pro-Telangana parties and organisations, told me when I visited him in Hyderabad recently.

There have been many pro-state protests in recent months. Over 100,000 pro-Telangana petitions were submitted to the committee. Activists say that over the year the movement has mobilised grassroots support. People are hoisting a white and green Telangana 'flag' these days. In July by-elections, the regional Telangana Rashtra Samithi party, which leads the statehood demand, won 10 of the 12 assembly seats in five districts. TRS leader Chandrashekhar Rao went on a fast to draw attention to the cause in 2009.

Pro-Telangana activists feel they have a strong case. They say the accent spoken in the region is different from the rest of Andhra Pradesh; they insist that the food is different too. Most of all, they say, the region has been neglected by successive governments. Mainly a peasant society, Telangana depends on antiquated irrigation for farming. Ground water levels have fallen precipitously due to wanton extraction in absence of canal-fed irrigation. Of the 34 districts in India which face acute farm distress, nine are in Telangana. Hundreds of debt-stricken farmers have taken their lives here. The poorest of the poor in an intensely feudal state live in Telangana - the number of tribes-people and Muslims here is higher than the state average. Many social scientists I spoke to believe that the creation of Telangana will lead to significant social engineering in a state and society dominated by two major castes: Reddy and Kamma.

"Telangana will be a radically different state with a different set of welfare policies," said Mr Ram, when I asked him what exactly a new state would achieve. That's what they said about Jharkhand, a tribal-dominated state carved out of dirt-poor Bihar. Today, Jharkhand is synonymous with brazen graft and maladministration. India's experiment with newer, smaller states has met with mixed results: some of them have done well; others have failed miserably.

A member of the Telangana committee has told reporters that the new report would offer several options with pros and cons. Telangana activists will not be happy to hear that. "There can be no compromises," said Mr Ram. "If the government does not accede to our demand there will be protests and hunger strikes. The administration will come to a halt." So brace yourself for some New Year trouble in India.

PS: 2010 began reasonably well for India, but the end of the year leaves a number of its formidable institutions under a cloud.

The government, led by what many believe is the cleanest prime minister in the country's recent history, is facing a series of embarrassing scandals - ministers, bureaucrats and influential officials allegedly giving away cheap telecom licences and inflating Commonwealth Games contracts.

The army is facing allegations of corruption - and former senior soldiers have been accused of stealing homes meant for war widows.

The media is facing scrutiny after some star journalists were heard cosying up to a corporate lobbyist on leaked tapes.

The judiciary wasn't above reproach either with fresh allegations surfacing against judges and a former chief justice.

And the year ended with the conviction of leading public health specialist and human rights activist Dr Binayak Sen for helping Maoist rebels. Most believe the trial was "manufactured". "It is not Sen's ideology that threatens us," wrote independent scholar Shiv Vishwanathan. "It is his ethics, his sense of goodness. We have arrested him because we have arrested that very sense of justice in ourselves."

None of this will help make India the superpower it wants to be. Even when a host of world leaders descended during the year-end to stitch up big-ticket business deals, a sign of India's growing economic muscle, most people were unmoved. It is difficult to feel good in an atmosphere of grime.

But there are things to look forward to in the New Year. Will India lift the cricket World Cup, which it will host with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh? Will Sachin Tendulkar hunt down more glories and strengthen his case for being the greatest cricketer ever? Wishing you a very happy New Year!

Stink over onion crisis is enough to make you cry

Soutik Biswas | 12:35 UK time, Wednesday, 22 December 2010


Indian woman wearing a garland made with onions during a protest against the price rise

A spectre is haunting India - the spectre of an onion-less life.

Onion prices have shot through the roof this week, climbing to an eye-watering 85 rupees ($1.87; £1.20) a kilo from 35 rupees only last week. Crop damage due to unseasonal rains has apparently led to a shortage. Traders have been hoarding stockpiles of the staple food to make a killing, despite official threats to punish them.

A fretful government has banned exports till mid-January to bring prices down, and cut import duties on the vegetable. The prime minister, we are told, is busy writing letters imploring his farm and consumer affairs ministries to bring down prices quickly. The opposition is breathing fire.

Onions have stormed their way to the front pages of newspapers and the top of TV news bulletins. I counted two dozen stories on onions in a dozen-odd English papers today. One editorial chides the government for the price rise and asks it to "know your onions". "UPA [United Progressive Alliance, another name for the ruling Congress-led government] lands in onion soup", is a particularly colourful banner headline in another paper. "Onions: Weep till March", bemoans yet another headline, alluding to a minister's deadline to fix the crisis. And a tabloid's onion edit - teasingly called "More at work than onions" - is strategically placed between one on a corruption scandal besieging the government and another on the sizzling alleged affair between the British actress Liz Hurley and the Australian cricketer Shane Warne.

Chefs and cookbook writers have come out in droves giving out free tips on how to cope without onions. "My advice, especially to those who want to eat out," says one chef, "would be to shift to different cuisines for a while as onions are primarily used in Indian cooking." So try European and other Asian foods, he advises. At home, he says, substitute onions with tomatoes and curds. Onion lovers may not find that a very convincing answer.

Everyone is concerned about the prospect of life without onions in India. Most worried of all are the politicians. In 1998, onion inflation was partly blamed for the unseating of the Hindu nationalist BJP government in Delhi's state polls. Political pundits insist that steep onion prices also contributed to the now-defunct Janata Party's debacle in the 1980 general elections.

So why do high onion prices drive Indians up the wall and unseat governments? One onion exporter said to a paper: "Why does the consumer never compare prices of onions with those of other vegetables? No vegetable is available at less than 40 rupees a kg in the retail market."

It's simple. Onion is a vegetable that no Indian kitchen can do without. It is also the most egalitarian of vegetables. A poor peasant or worker's sparse meal is incomplete without a bite of the pungent bulb. The onion is pureed, sauteed and garnished in the rich man's feast as well. It also occupies a unique culinary space in Indian cooking.

It is a must for adding taste and crunch to many vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. It is eaten raw as a salad, pureed for flavouring and sauce for meats and garden vegetables; used as a dip; fried as fritters and crisps. Rustic medicinal beliefs have it that it has healing properties and reduces acidity. Indians believe onions cool the body in the searingly hot summers and keep fungal infections away during muggy monsoons. In the old days Hindu widows kept away from onions after their husbands' deaths as the humble bulb was believed to have aphrodisiac qualities. How can you possibly compare such an exalted vegetable with any other?

Are India's rich not philanthropic enough?

Soutik Biswas | 15:25 UK time, Tuesday, 7 December 2010


Azim Premji

He has been called India's reluctant billionaire. There are many stories of publicity-shy software tycoon Azim Premji's frugal habits - flying economy class; taking an auto-rickshaw from the airport after not finding his car; borrowing magazines from the company library and living on its campus.

So it was not surprising when Mr Premji announced last week that he would donate nearly $2bn (£1.3bn) to fund rural education and development programmes in India. He may be - as Forbes magazine reckons - the third richest Indian and the 28th richest person in the world, with an estimated net worth of more than $17bn (£11bn). But he has also been seen as a model of a businessman of great rectitude. His Bangalore-based Wipro employs almost 100,000 people worldwide, and is one of India's most respected companies.

Mr Premji remains an exception in the world of Indian business. India has some 60 billionaires. The wealth of its top 10 billionaires equals 12% of its GDP, compared to just 1% in China, 5% in Brazil and 9% in Russia. The combined net worth of India's 100 wealthiest people is about a quarter of its GDP. But the philanthropic record of India's rich is patchy.

A few like the Tatas - who built and run the city of Jamshedpur and have a decent record in what is called corporate social responsibility - appear to have been more generous than the others. In recent years, India's billionaires have given away money to their alma mater, mostly foreign universities. A mobile phone giant has set up a foundation for underprivileged children; a tyre company has invested in containing HIV/Aids. The chairman of a leading software company has said he would set aside 10% of his wealth for philanthropy. A tea company has adopted several hundred villages. But one suspects that it all does not add up to much, considering the enormous concentration of wealth in the hands of India's rich and the power they wield.

Are Indians then too greedy to be philanthropic? Americans, for example, are known to be generous, giving away some $300bn - or 2% of the nation's GDP - to charity. There are no figures available for India - a much poorer country - but I am sure they will not be anywhere close.

I don't think some people are hardwired for altruism and others aren't - an act of charity is often spurred by an incentive of publicity and media coverage. Readers always responded handsomely whenever a magazine I used to work with launched a donation drive following a devastating flood or an earthquake. "You give not only because you want to help but because it makes you look good, or feel good, or perhaps feel less bad," write economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner in SuperFreakonomics. So, traditionally, India's businessmen have felt that they have contributed enough to society by giving away a lot of money towards building temples.

Many believe that India's rich are not generous enough and flaunt their wealth vulgarly in a country where the majority are poor. One reason could be that most Indian businesses are run by families and have mercantile origins. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once appealed to businessmen to share their profits with the common man, maximise profits "within levels of decency" and refrain from ostentatious displays of wealth because such "vulgarity insults the poor". Gurcharan Das, a writer and management guru who has worked with some of India's top companies, believes that Indian capitalism has begun to flower in the past few decades and wealth is "now being created" in plenty. He believes that the rich will begin to contribute to social causes in a big way soon, and Mr Premji's $2bn charity for education sets an "important" precedent. Time will tell whether Mr Das is being too optimistic.

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