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India's census: The good and bad news

Soutik Biswas | 12:00 UK time, Thursday, 31 March 2011

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Indian people

India's latest census - and the country's 15th since 1872 - brings good and bad tidings.

The country has added 181 million new people over the past decade, the equivalent of the population of Brazil, which is the fifth largest country in the world. With 1.21 billion people, India now accounts for 17% of the world's population. UN forecasters say that by 2030 India will overtake China as the world's most populous nation.

The good news is that at 17.64%, the rate of growth between 2001-2011 represents the sharpest decline over a decade since Independence. The growth rate was at its lowest between 1941-1951 when it was 13.3%: that was a time of famine, religious killings and the transfer of populations in the run-up to partition. The growth rate was more than 24% between 1961 and 1981. So a 17.64% growth rate points to a slowing down that will cheer those who are concerned about how India will bear the burden of its massive population.

The bad news for those with such concerns is that India still has more than a billion people, and this number is rising. Indian politicians and policy planners speak eloquently about how this population will fetch demographic dividends, and ensure India's growth story.

But such optimism may be unfounded if the state is unable to harness this potential. It is very easy, warn social scientists, for this demographic dividend to turn into a deficit with millions of uneducated, unskilled and unemployed young people on the streets, angry and a threat to peace and social stability. "There is nothing to brag about our population growing and crossing China. Do we know how we are going to skill all these people?" asks India's top demographer, Ashish Bose.

The government would like to say that the dip in population growth has to do with pushing a successful contraception programme in the country. But social scientists say that with rising urbanisation, it is no surprise that population growth is on the decline. Increasing urbanisation leads to nuclear families in small homes paying high rents in increasingly expensive cities. Having more children does not help matters.

The biggest shock in this census is the decline in the child gender ratio at 914 girls (under the age of six) for every 1,000 boys. This is the lowest since Independence and it looks like a precipitous drop from a high of 976 girls in the 1961 census.

Social scientists and demographers believe that the decline in the number of girls all over the country - in 27 states and union territories - points to deeply entrenched social attitudes towards women, despite economic liberalisation and increasing work opportunities.

They link sex determination tests and female foeticide - banned in India, but still quite widespread due to lax enforcement - to the rising costs of dowry, a practice which even the burgeoning middle classes have been unable to get rid of. "Marriages have become costlier, dowries have been pricier, so there is a lot of social resistance to having girl children in the family," says Mr Bose.

One demographer told me that when they went counting a family during the census in the patriarchal northern state of Haryana, he found that it didn't count the girls. When asked why, they told him that the girls would be leaving the family after marriage anyway.

The government says it will reconsider its policies to make sure that this shameful trend is arrested. I take this to mean that they want to make sure that anti-sex determination laws are enforced strongly. But increasing the numbers of girls requires a shift in attitudes and more imaginative policies. In Bihar, for example, the government is giving away free bicycles to girls to go to school. And Gujarat has launched vigorous drives to check female foeticide and educate girls.

The census has also thrown up an interesting conundrum. How do you explain that the overall gender imbalance has narrowed when the number of baby girls being born has plummeted? This census found 940 females to 1,000 men, up from 933 females in 2001. This is the highest since 1971, and just a shade lower than 1961. This contradiction confounds social scientists. Is this a statistical discrepancy which needs to be investigated further?

One more piece of good news. The literacy rate has shot up to 74% from about 65% in the last count. More hearteningly, new female literates outnumbered male literates during the past decade. Ten states and union terriorities achieved a literacy rate of above 85%. The quality of education may be uneven and debatable, but this is an achievement India can be proud of.

The chequered history of cricket diplomacy

Soutik Biswas | 10:13 UK time, Tuesday, 29 March 2011

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India and Pakistan flags being made to be handed over to cricket fans before the World Cup match between the two countries

Will Indian PM Mammohan Singh's cricket diplomacy pay dividends? Will it help thaw what former Indian diplomat and minister Shashi Tharoor calls "cold peace" between India and Pakistan? "Cold peace", Mr Tharoor says with characteristic flourish, can easily tip over into "hot war" or melt into warmer friendship.

But can cricket help? Will the presence of Indian PM Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani and their respective entourages at Wednesday's semi-final between India and Pakistan help revitalise the jaded peace process? Or will cricket diplomacy merely end up causing nightmares for the harried organisers of Wednesday's game which will be held at a small stadium in Mohali in Indian Punjab?

Reports from Mohali suggest that the politics of the event is threatening to take centre stage. "The cricketers have suddenly become the bit-part actors in the drama," writes analyst Sharda Ugra. "The two states and their prime ministers have struck. The Indian invited and the Pakistani accepted which now leaves the local hosts worrying about more than whether their sofas and carpets are spruced up and smelling of roses."

Politicians, Ms Ugra says, have certainly made things difficult for organisers. "Hosting prime ministers is one thing, but where the devil can the 50-strong "entourages" that will accompany each of them, be fitted in?" she wonders. "Surely their Honourable-nesses could have watched the game on some giant LED television? " It's a good question.

Cricket diplomacy between India and Pakistan has a chequered history. Sometimes it has come as an icebreaker; at other times; it has merely marked a deceptive lull before another storm.

Former Pakistani President General Zia-ul-Haq started it all when he came to India to watch a Test match between the two sides in February 1987 as part of his "cricket for peace initiative". Delhi had launched a huge military exercise on its border during the winter, and a rattled Islamabad had bolstered troops on its borders in response. The game in Jaipur turned to be a dismal affair, plodding to a draw after rain washed out a day's play and Pakistan objected to sawdust being strewn on the pitch. Two games later, Pakistan grabbed its first Test series win in India.

During the game, the grapevine buzzed, President Zia apparently whispered to Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi that Pakistan had the nuclear bomb. Later, using pointed metaphors, he reportedly asked Indian reporters: "Why do you ignore my sixers to Indian bouncers?" The "peace initiative" came a cropper - though the tension on the border was defused, Indian-administered Kashmir exploded into full blown militancy two years later. Much of it, India alleged, was plotted, fanned and executed by groups across the border.

Some believe that cricket diplomacy may have sometimes actually helped in lowering the temperature between the two countries. They point to the two sides resuming cricket ties in January 1999 - after a decade-long hiatus - just six months after the two countries exploded nuclear devices. In India, the regional right wing Shiv Sena objected violently: its supporters dug up the cricket pitch and demonstrated outside the Pakistani embassy in Delhi, attacked the cricket board's offices in Mumbai and threatened to release snakes in the stadiums.

On field, things were more cordial. Former Pakistan foreign secretary Shaharyar Khan, who was the team manager, remembered a "certain maturity" among the crowds watching the games in this landmark home series. "Good performances were appreciated without bias," he wrote. "The teams interacted sportingly on the field."

Ten thousand Pakistani fans crossed the border to watch a one-day game at Mohali. Mr Khan remembers the "memorable" hospitality shown by Indians - shop owners and taxi drivers gave out discounts to fans from across the border, and a generous Punjab government organised a free Bollywood film show for Pakistani cricketers and a free dinner for visiting fans. He called the 1999 tour "a huge diplomatic and public relations" success.

A few months later, the war in Kargil neutralised cricket's gains. Relations between the siblings deteriorated. Only in 2004 - three years after the failed Agra summit between the two sides - the then Indian PM Atal Behari Vajpayee travelled to Pakistan for a regional summit to break the ice as India announced a cricket tour of Pakistan. "Mr Vajpayee has, in fact, opened the innings," said Mr Khan who was by then chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board.

Pakistan was to host an Indian team after 19 years. Twenty thousand visas were issued to Indian fans for the five-week tour. It was a resounding success and Indian fans returned with incredible stories of Pakistani hospitality. India won both the Test and one-day series, both closely fought.

A year later, Indian PM Manmohan Singh tried his hand at cricket diplomacy. He invited former president Pervez Musharraf to watch a one-day match between the two sides in Delhi in April 2005. Pakistan thrashed India by 159 runs and won the six-match one-day series 4-2, an amazing comeback after trailing 0-2. Opening for Pakistan, Shahid Afridi scored 44 quicksilver runs in 23 balls, and returned later to pick up two Indian wickets.

Off the field, Mr Musharraf savoured every moment of the game. He later wrote:

Unfortunately for my hosts, the match turned out to be an embarrassment for India because one of Pakistan's star batsmen, Shahid Afridi, clobbered virtually every ball that the Indians bowled at him. Many of his hits headed straight for our VIP enclosure. Like any normal cricket fan I wanted to jump out of my seat shouting and clapping, but I had to control my enthusiasm in deference to my hosts.

Before the match was over, we left for our discussions. It goes without saying that I was dying to get back to the exciting match. So during our official one-on-one meeting I suggested to the prime minister that we go back to see the last hour of the match and also distribute the prizes. I made him agree in spite of his concerns about security. But then, as the meeting continued, my staff kept sending in notes informing me about the collapse of the Indian team when its turn came to bat. India's entire team got out long before the end of the game. Tightly repressing any outward signs of my inner joy, I had to inform Manmohan Singh that the Indian team's batting had been wasted and there was no point in another visit to the stadium.

Boys will be boys, some might say, but they obviously don't know cricket, or the importance of a match between Pakistan and India.

Mr Singh's foray into cricket diplomacy fetched mixed results, say analysts. The two leaders talked about Kashmir, and conflicts over Siachen and Sir Creek. "Coming after a series of failed summits, the conversation between Mr Singh and Gen Musharraf was a game-changer," says analyst C Raja Mohan. "At least for a while."

Three years later, nine gunmen attacked Mumbai and more than 170 lives were lost. India blamed Pakistan-based militants for plotting the terror attack - and peace talks were shelved again.

Will Mr Singh be luckier the second time around? Cricket has suddenly sprung in what could turn out to be a season of bonhomie between India and Pakistan. But relations between the two have been frosty and precarious for long, and it is unfair to expect the cricketers to improve them. Let the cricketers play an exciting game. Let the politicians talk, because silence pays no dividends in this stormy relationship. If things work out in the end, cricket, as Shashi Tharoor says, will only be the "icing on the cake".

India vs Pakistan: The return of the epic

Soutik Biswas | 16:20 UK time, Friday, 25 March 2011

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File picture of an India-Pakistan cricket match

George Orwell said sport is "war minus the shooting". In a wickedly revisionist twist to this epithet, many describe India-Pakistan cricket as "war minus the nuclear missiles".

Many would say the same of Wednesday's World Cup cricket semi-final match between India and Pakistan in India's Mohali, not far from the Pakistan border. Listen to the metaphors ex-cricketers are serving up to describe the epic encounter. Vivian Richards says this is "the best war that can be fought ... a war without weapons". Imran Khan insists - quite correctly - that there will be a "curfew in the subcontinent on the day of the match". He also flags up a concern: "I hope it is played in the right spirit."

Khan's concern is understandable. The two sides haven't played a single match on each other's soil since the 2008 Mumbai attacks. With ties between the two neighbours plummeting, Pakistani cricketers have been kept out of the lucrative Indian Premier League after the first season. Since the attacks, the two sides have played each other only twice: Pakistan won a 2009 Champions Trophy game in South Africa by 54 runs, while India won a closely fought 2010 Asia Cup game in Sri Lanka by three wickets with one ball remaining. So the pressure on both sides playing in Indian Punjab will be enormous.

And not many expected an India-Pakistan semi-final this World Cup. The subcontinental twins had been disgraced - ousted unceremoniously by minnows - in the last edition of the Cup in West Indies in 2007. And in the run up to this edition, Pakistan cricket had reached its nadir with three top players found guilty of corruption and the usual selection controversies. A team which appeared to be in a shambles has already confounded pundits and proved that they excel when in trouble.

So Pakistan have won five of the six league games and decimated the West Indies in the quarter-finals.They boast of two of the four top wicket takers in the tournament: captain Shahid Afridi and Umar Gul have picked up 35 wickets between them so far. And thus, this epic battle has been literally foisted upon Indian soil by Pakistan, a rousing victory of sports over politics.

No one believes that Wednesday's game will help ease relations between the squabbling neighbours despite Indian PM Manmohan Singh's cricket diplomacy. Nobody believes that it will pave the way for resumption of bilateral cricket ties, which have been disrupted in the past by wars, the demolition of a mosque, an attack on the Indian parliament and religious riots. The irony is that India and Pakistan had become quite comfortable with winning and losing as they played more frequently before the Mumbai attacks: the two sides played a Test series every year between 2003 and 2007. The honours had been even: India and Pakistan had won one series each and drawn the remaining two. "These days," wrote Indian scholar Ramachandra Guha, "Indians don't take failure as national humiliation. Perhaps they consoled themselves that the country surpassed Pakistan in all spheres. It had better scientists, better writers, a more vigorous film industry, and was a democracy besides."

Will Wednesday mark a return to the old days of crude nationalism and jingoism? I hope not. I hope fans from India and the few thousand from across the border will be generous in their cheer for both the teams. Who can forget the time when Pakistan lost to India during the 1996 World Cup? Fans in Pakistan smashed TV sets, a college student fired a hail of bullets from a Kalashnikov into his TV set and then on himself, another fan died of a heart attack, captain Wasim Akram received death threats, a fan filed a petition in the court against the "disappointing performance" and a cleric said Pakistan would never win at cricket so long as a woman - Benazir Bhutto was the prime minister - ruled the country. Even the plane carrying the players had to be diverted to Karachi as irate fans waited in Lahore carrying expletive-laced banners and rotten eggs. Surely such passions have abated with the passage of time.

So who will win this "final before the final"? Though Pakistan has an overwhelming 60% win rate against India in one-day games, history is heavily stacked against them in the World Cup: it has lost all the four previous encounters with India. Imran Khan says India begin as favourites. But mercurial Pakistan could easily provide the most tantalising twist in the tail.

What is Sarah Palin doing in India?

Soutik Biswas | 19:00 UK time, Friday, 18 March 2011

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Sarah Palin


What is Sarah Palin doing in India? The former vice-presidential nominee and Alaska governor is famously travel-shy and a largely unknown entity in the subcontinent.

Though her reality Alaska TV show premiered this month (aired on Monday nights) it doesn't appear to have been a hit with audiences addled on political scandals, cricket and soap. People are not even sure what Ms Palin knows about and thinks of India. "I am very excited to visit India," she has been quoted as saying in what appears to be her only observations on the country so far. "Americans have a great respect for the world's largest democracy."

Ms Palin, who arrives in India barely three months after President Obama's high-octane visit, is a key speaker at a glittering annual conclave organised by India Today Group, a large media conglomerate. She shares this widely-attended mega-talkfest with such speakers as Germaine Greer and Fatima Bhutto, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Niall Ferguson and Mohammed ElBaradei.

The theme of the conclave is "the changing balance of power". India Today owner-editor Aroon Purie believes America's supremacy is being challenged. "A feisty former vice-presidential nominee from America," said Mr Purie, while opening the conclave, "who will be our gala night speaker [on Saturday] will surely disagree with this."

Clearly, there are high expectations of Ms Palin, who will speak about her vision of America.

Whether or not Ms Palin knows much about India, few Indians know what she stands for. On a frenzied Internet debate on the conclave site, a woman participant says it would be "interesting" to have a woman in the White House "after a black president". She is promptly admonished by another respondent - gender unclear - who writes: "Shaking my head at the naive casual support thrown by a woman to a woman who does not support rights of women such as the right to her own body." Please "familiarise yourself with Sarah Palin [and] her political views," implores the writer.

But to put Ms Palin's appearance at a private Indian conclave down to a sizeable fee - the organisers are reported to have paid thousands of dollars to marquee speakers such as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Pervez Musharraf in the past - and a paid holiday, might be unfair.

Indian commentator Pranay Gupte, who describes the conclave as the "biggest private-sector megaphone in the world's largest democracy", says Ms Palin's journey to India is an important one: she will be able to discover how politics works in the subcontinent, seek to deepen her "geopolitical education" about South Asia, experience the "colours" of India and hear from Indians their concerns about China's rise.

The media coverage of Ms Palin's visit has so far been subdued, though one expects things will heat up over the weekend, when she makes her appearance.

The Times of India wonders whether the trip is a build-up to a White House bid in 2012. Others back home take the opposite view. A blog in The New Hampshire Union Leader, the leading newspaper in a state that hold's the US's first primary, speculates that Ms Palin's visit means that she is not interested in contesting the elections. The blogger Andrew Cline writes he finds it difficult to believe that "someone who makes a trip to India a higher priority than a trip of New Hampshire is a serious presidential candidate". So, he writes, "chalk this up as one more bit of evidence that she's probably not running". A Huffington Post cartoon is acerbic - one of the characters in it says that Ms Palin is going to India "probably because she can't see it from her house in Alaska" (a reference to an ABC interview in 2008, when she talked about Russia being visible from an Alaskan island).

But what is quite certain is that Ms Palin will be well received. As a rank newcomer, she has novelty value with the audiences. Also, as analysts like Gupte say, India loves women leaders - India's most powerful leader is Sonia Gandhi, the Congress party chief and daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi, the country's most powerful prime minister ever. Indians also have traditionally loved Republicans. So while Ms Palin's journey to India may never be fully explained - unless she comes clean to the Delhi glitterati in audience on Saturday night - it will possibly end up provoking a lot of interest. To mop up that kind of attention in the world's largest democracy cannot be a bad thing for any aspiring US presidential candidate.

India's 'fake' pilots

Soutik Biswas | 04:00 UK time, Thursday, 17 March 2011

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Airplane in India

Is it safe to fly in India? On the face of it, yes. One of the world's fastest growing aviation markets - nearly 50 million passengers flew domestically last year, up 18% from 2009 - has a sturdy safety record. Last year's Air India crash at Mangalore was the first in nearly 10 years. But some recent disquieting developments have rattled air passengers and raised serious doubts about the quality of the people who are flying what most believe are reasonably well-maintained machines.

Federal aviation authorities say they will be checking the licences of some 4,000 pilots flying commercial aircraft after allegations that at least four were found to have fake documents. Two have been arrested for using fake certificates to obtain licences.

The first, a pilot from the perpetually ailing, state-owned Air India, apparently fabricated his qualifications. The other, who was arrested last week after damaging the aircraft during landing, was found to have used fake documents to get her licence. The licences of the other two pilots are apparently riddled with irregularities, and both have reportedly disappeared.

According to one report by news channel CNN-IBN, a pilot who was caught cheating during a flying test in the US in 2000 and denied a licence, got a commercial licence on his return to India by forging his qualifications and has since been working as a senior pilot with Air India. Air India spokesman Kamaljeet Rattan would not discuss that particular case with the BBC. But he tells me the airline is scrutinising the papers of a dozen pilots. "It's nothing very serious, and not at all scary," he says. "These are routine checks."

Senior aviation officials echo the views of Mr Rattan. "Fake licences are very few so there is no need to panic," says Bharat Bhushan, India's most senior civial aviation official. But there are suspicions that pilots cannot be faking their papers without some inside help. And aviation analysts believe this is the time to crack down. "This is a very serious issue," Kapil Kaul of Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation tells me. "When pilots are faking their certificates it is a criminal offence. It points to a systemic failure. Airline operators also cannot absolve themselves of responsibility. They need to have more vigorous checks. And decisive action needs to be taken against the pilots."

As if all this was not enough, last week the government announced that 57 pilots reporting for duty had tested over the limit for alcohol in the past two years. All were prevented from joining their aircraft. The issue was raised in parliament - according to a parliamentary document I have seen, the pilots were employed by every leading private airline as well as Air India. Ten were sacked; others had their licences suspended or were taken off the flight roster.

The airlines have been keeping a low profile on this - like Mr Rattan they want to play down the severity of the problems. By and large Indians appear to have been reassured by the government announcement. There's been no public outcry. But concerns about the quality of some pilots have been around for a while. Last August former civil aviation minister Praful Patel was asked in parliament whether commercial pilots had been drunk on duty. He replied there had been no such incident. Another MP actually asked Mr Patel this year whether "under-trained pilots are flying commercial flights... risking the lives of hundreds of passengers". Again the minister denied any such possibility.

Although the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA)is a respected and tested regulator, experts say that breakneck growth has presented regulatory challenges across the industry from the airline operators to their government overseers. The number of domestic air passengers is expected to grow 9%-10% annually to more than 150 million by 2020. India now has some 15 airline operators with a fleet of 400-plus planes. The number of airports has shot up to 82 from 50 in a decade. Pilots faking papers is not unheard of. In China 200 pilots were found with fake papers in 2008, according to the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation. The Philippines also faced a similar problem. India now has the world's fourth largest number of domestic fliers after the US, China and Japan. Many here are hoping such growth does not come at the expense of passenger safety.

Why India's big, fat weddings will never stop

Soutik Biswas | 14:02 UK time, Friday, 4 March 2011


A marriage reception for a politician's daughter in India

The big, fat Indian wedding returned to the front pages of newspapers this week: reportedly a $55m gig with 20,000 guests, a Bell helicopter as dowry, a 100-dish menu, a dozen TV screens showing a video feed of the proceedings, and even a $5,000 tip for the groom's barber. The groom's father - a rich Congress party politician and real estate magnet, exemplifying the intersection of politics and new money in India - wryly remarked that the media reports of the wedding were speculative.

For the Congress party-led government whose credibility is battered by a tsunami of corruption scandals, the hugely ostentatious wedding by a party member should come as an embarrassment, many here feel. One minister is reported to have said recently that nearly 15% of India's grain and vegetables is wasted through "extravagant and luxurious functions". Party chief Sonia Gandhi has pleaded with her workers to be frugal and her MPs to fly economy class. The embattled PM, Manmohan Singh, had feebly exhorted businessmen to refrain from ostentatious displays of wealth because such "vulgarity insults the poor". But what he possibly forgets is that the poor in India are actually insulted every day by many of the men and women they vote into power.

The government is apparently working on a law to curb waste at extravagant weddings and functions. No law will be able to change soon a people and society that remain deeply hierarchical, feudal and class-conscious. At one end of the scale a hapless farmer may take ruinous loans from money-lenders to host a wedding beyond his means. At the other end a billionaire unabashedly builds the world's priciest home (more than $1bn) in Mumbai where half the people live in slums. All this is symptomatic of a society which thrives on perpetuating inequity. With near double-digit growth, there's going to be more money to throw around and flaunt. So don't expect any lame law to curb India's vulgar, overblown weddings any time soon.

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