Friday, March 13, 2009

india: taking a bite out of politics

A host of new nonprofit election watchdogs and citizens' groups are starting to make a dent in middle class apathy.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
March 13, 2009

DELHI — When Anil Bairwal boots up his computer and scours the newspapers each morning, he may be doing more for the pursuit of justice than any Indian cop.
By training, he's a software engineer, not a police officer. But he and the other members of his team — a network of activists and organizations known as the National Election Watch — have dedicated themselves to making sure criminals don't end up in charge of the government.

Bairwal is at the forefront of a new, and surprising, trend that could have significant implications for the world's largest democracy.
India's middle class — which is still too small to be a decisive voice at the polls — is famous for political apathy.

Campaigns don't come down to issues, but instead often rely on mobilizing party workers to pass out free booze to voters in the slums. In some states, criminal gangs intimidate poor farmers into voting for their leader, while in others party cadres allegedly harass and threaten non-sympathizers, sometimes confiscating their voter registration cards. Money and muscle has become so important that every major party relies on candidates charged in criminal cases to deliver the vote.
The situation has become so dismal that nearly a quarter of the legislators in India's recently dissolved parliament had criminal cases pending against them — and not just for white-collar crimes. The charges included 84 cases of murder, along with other violent offenses.

But just as Indian democracy seems to be hitting its lowest ebb, educated Indians are beginning to strike back. Crime and corruption — it turns out — is a strong catalyst.
It all started in 1999 when Trilochan Sastry, then a professor at the respected Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, approached some of his colleagues with a half-baked idea for a guerrilla hit on the nation's unresponsive political parties. Everybody knows that Indian politics is teeming with crooks, he said. But nobody does anything about it.

Sastry suggested filing a lawsuit demanding that candidates divulge their financial assets and criminal records when the parties file their nominations. His friends and fellow professors tried to talk him out of it. After all, they were academics — politics was beneath them. But Sastry recalls that he “didn't see any other way out, any other way to bring about change in the system."

About a year later a Delhi court ruled in their favor. And Sastry and several colleagues — now calling themselves the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) — received the first sign that, despite all evidence to the contrary, common sense might sometimes prevail in Indian politics.

But the feeling was short-lived. Political parties tried to squash the bill, forcing ADR all the way to the Supreme Court before the new rules went into effect in 2003.
Along the way, Sastry's partner in the fight, another business school professor named Jagdeep Chhokar, found time to earn a law degree so they'd be better equipped for the battle. “What shocked us the most was the way the whole process was rationalized by seemingly very decent, upright, law-abiding people in the political establishment,” Chhokar says.

Not surprisingly, therefore, litigation wasn't enough. Even after they were required to disclose their criminal records, all the major parties fielded a host of candidates with pending criminal cases in 2004, with the result that 128 out of 543 members of the last legislature faced ongoing criminal cases while they were in office. At least two were serving life sentences for murder.

“The sole criterion for a candidate has become what they call 'winnability.' Not his character, not his performance, not his competence, not his ability to assess national issues.” explains Arun Shourie, a former journalist who is now a leading member of the Bharatiya Janata Party. “In this way, people you would not give a job to — in fact you'd make sure that they don't come near your organization — have become part of the legislature.”

That's where footsoldiers like Bairwal, who gave up a top-level job with a multinational software company to become ADR's national coordinator, come in.
Because requiring politicians to divulge the most dubious facts about themselves didn't stop them from running for office — or winning — ADR set up the National Election Watch to make sure that the press and the voters know exactly how many robberies, kidnappings and murders their honorable member of parliament is alleged to have committed.

The group has mobilized 1,200 organizations and thousands of volunteers to track the activities of dozens of political parties in the run-up to elections, allowing them to spring into action as soon as a candidate is announced. Researchers comb through past affidavits to see whether the candidate has declared criminal cases in the past, and whether there has been any major change in his or her financial assets. Then they name names.

This year they are not only lobbying the press and holding public rallies. Soon they will begin sending weekly text messages with details of politicians' criminal records to voters. “You would think that political parties would do proper background checking of the candidates and then field somebody who would be good for the people, who would be good for the society,” says Bairwal, who over the past two weeks has traveled to nine states and met with more than 100 partner organizations. “But as you can see from the records, that's not the case.”

So far, results have been mixed.

In the last state election that ADR tracked, the number of candidates with alleged criminal pasts dropped to about 12 percent from 25 percent, but the number of alleged criminals who actually won seats remained flat.

The Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance government named Shibu Soren coal minister, even though he was on trial for multiple murders (he was later convicted, then acquitted on appeal). And neither of the two party heavyweights have managed to purge alleged (or even convicted) criminals from their ranks. “[BJP leader] L.K. Advani made a statement on the 18th of October that they will not give tickets to people with criminal backgrounds, even if they are winning candidates,” says Chhokar. “And then in the four or five state [subsequent] assembly elections, there were criminals galore.”

But the man who started it all remains optimistic. “The parties have publicly announced that they're not going to put up candidates with criminal records,” Sastry says. “They have not kept that promise, no doubt. But at least they have started reacting.”

The real tipping point will come when voters do the same.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

the house in ill repute

New rules have exposed just how many thieves and murderers sit in India's Parliament.

Jason Overdorf
March 16, 2009

Indian members of Parliament went home last week amid hoots and howls, derided as the sorriest lot ever to disgrace the halls of the world's largest democracy. The 14th Lok Sabha, or People's House, met for only 46 days in the past year—the fewest ever—because of disruptions caused by its many dubious members. One in 10 members didn't participate in a single debate. Eleven M.P.s were expelled for taking bribes. The coal minister was compelled to step down when he was convicted of murder (though he was later acquitted on appeal). And when the opposition called for a confidence vote, several members had to be transported to the People's House from the big house—where two of them are serving life sentences for murder—to participate. As the legislators adjourned last week, House Speaker Somnath Chatterjee wished them good riddance: "You do not deserve one paisa [cent] of public money," he scolded. "I hope all of you are defeated in the next election."

That's not likely. Parties in India have long used allies with shady pasts to influence voters. But as the power of the national parties waned—accelerating in the late 1990s—because of the rise of caste- and ethnicity-based regional players, alleged and convicted criminals began to play a broader role. No single party has won enough parliamentary seats to govern alone since the Congress party did so in 1984, and the number of seats won by India's six national parties—which include the Congress, the BJP and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—fell from 477 in 1991 to 388 in 2004. Now, in many constituencies, there are four or five significant parties, and the share of the vote needed to win a seat has fallen as low as 15 percent. As a result, criminal strongmen no longer need to throw their support behind a leading politician, because the number of votes they need is small enough that they can win elected office themselves. With regional players well positioned for the next general election on April 16, there is some chance that a politician who has undergone a criminal investigation could become the prime minister.

The 14th Lok Sabha was the first in which it was crystal clear just how many members were alleged crooks. Thanks to new rules pushed into law by a group of fed-up college professors after years of resistance from dozens of political parties, candidates for the Lok Sabha for the first time had to disclose their assets and criminal records. The disclosures seemed to have little impact on the 2004 election: 128 of the 543 winners had faced criminal charges, including 84 cases of murder, 17 cases of robbery and 28 cases of theft and extortion. Many face multiple criminal counts—including one M.P. who faces 17 separate murder charges—and no major party is beyond reproach. Because the disclosure requirement is new, it's impossible to plot a trend line, but most experts say the situation is deteriorating. "The general opinion is that the influence of criminals in politics is steadily increasing," says Himanshu Jha of the National Social Watch Coalition.

Indian law bars convicted criminals, not alleged criminals, from running for office, but a loophole allows even convicts to continue in politics as long as the case is under appeal. In India, that can mean 25 or 30 years, the course of an entire career. And the problem goes well beyond alleged criminals who hold elected office.

Due to a fractured electorate and rampant flouting of campaign-spending limits, gangsters have muscled into positions of influence close to Parliament, and the problem is spreading. While the middle class protests, party workers distribute liquor and cash to woo voters in the slums. In lawless states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, thugs intimidate poor farmers into toeing the line. In riot-torn Gujarat and West Bengal, party cadres are alleged to harass and threaten nonsympathizers, sometimes confiscating their voter-registration cards. And elsewhere, aspirants like Raj Thackeray of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena—known for beating up migrants coming to Mumbai to hunt for jobs—use vandalism masked as street demonstrations to raise their political profiles. "Whether you call them goons or you call them political activists," says Jha, "it is becoming a blurred line."

The havoc created by India's criminal politicians is wide-ranging. Criminals seek political office to enrich themselves and gain protection from prosecution, and they easily pervert the police and the administration to their private purposes. When police officers or magistrates attempt to enforce the law, a powerful M.P. can engineer their transfer; in 2005 M.P. and convicted murderer Mohammed Shahabuddin of Bihar arranged the transfer of a magistrate who had sought to bar Shahabuddin from the district as a threat to public order.

Even on a matter as vital as last year's nuclear pact with the U.S., the alleged criminality of key politicians is believed to have made a crucial difference in the path India chose. When Singh and the Congress party opted to go ahead with the pact, their allies from the left parties withdrew their support for the government, forcing a confidence vote. After some frenzied horse-trading, the legislators of the Samajwadi Party—whose leader, Mulayam Singh Yadav, was under scrutiny for corruption by the Central Bureau of Investigation—switched positions to support the nuclear pact and volunteered to replace the left parties in the coalition. The government survived, and the pact went through. But soon after, stories of mysterious briefcases full of cash traveling from party offices to the homes of M.P.s began to circulate. The CBI—often criticized for acting as a political tool of the ruling party—dropped its case against the Samajwadi Party leader. And the probe into the "cash for votes" scandal fizzled before it even started.

The major parties are not above all this. In the outgoing Parliament, 26 Congress M.P.s and 29 BJP M.P.s faced criminal charges. About a fifth of the representatives of the two major parties were under investigation. Nor has either party been shy about giving ministerial posts to politicians accused of serious crimes. For example, Congress installed Shibu Soren as coal minister even though he was at the time under trial for the alleged kidnapping and murder of his former personal secretary and the alleged massacre of 11 people in sectarian violence. (He was later acquitted in both cases.) "The sole criterion for a candidate has become what they call 'winnability,' not his character, not his performance, not his competence, not his ability to assess national issues," says Arun Shourie, a former journalist who is now a leading member of the BJP. "In this way, people you would not give a job to—in fact, you'd make sure that they don't come near your organization—have become part of the legislature."

Come April, experts agree, the list of candidates competing for office is likely once again to be significantly shorter than the list of criminal charges against them. Even the mainstream political parties have resisted change. When the college profs first mobilized as the Association for Democratic Reforms in 1999, filing suit to force candidates to disclose criminal records, it sailed through the Delhi courts. Then the BJP, the Congress and 20 other political parties united to stymie the new rules through legal technicalities, delaying implementation for years. ADR member Jagdish Chhokar says the official resistance proved two things: that "the political establishment can be united" on an issue they care about and "that the government can be efficient," at least in defense of thugs in office.

Standards have indeed fallen so low that neither the BJP nor the Congress have pledged to eliminate even violent offenders from their rosters and instead must rely on the argument that their criminals are cleaner on average than others'.

"Neither the Congress nor the BJP have people with serial, cognizable offenses," says BJP spokesman Rajiv Pratap Rudy, arguing for a distinction "between crimes of moral turpitude" and "heinous" crimes. Congress spokesman Satyavrat Chaturvedi says, "I can't say there's never been a case where a criminal has been given a ticket, [but] professional criminals, habitual criminals, those people will not get tickets."

It makes one wonder: How many murder charges are required before you're considered unfit to represent the good people of India?

With Sudip Mazumdar in Kolkata


under an indian sun

Can an upstart Indian DVD maker beat Google to the punch in solar energy?

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
March 7, 2009

NEW DELHI — Ratul Puri, the 35-year-old executive director of Moser Baer India, looks like Adrian Brody's kid brother and talks like he swallowed the last four volumes of the Harvard Business Review. But he's no puffed up heir to the throne of daddy's business.

Since Puri returned to India from college in the United States in 1994, he's helped transform Moser Baer from a rinky-dink maker of floppy disks into a $400 million high-tech company that straddles business as diverse as the optical media, home entertainment, consumer electronics and solar energy sectors.

Today, Moser Baer is among the world's top five makers of blank CDs and DVDs, and virtually owns the Indian market for storage media. In 2007, after the company discovered a method of making pre-recorded DVDs at about half the price of existing technologies, Puri spearheaded a move into home entertainment that has already revolutionized the Indian market — where the company has acquired more than 10,000 titles and slashed the retail price of DVD movies to about $1 from $10-$15 before it entered the sector. And in 2008 it began unveiling a range of DVD players, LCD TVs and other consumer electronics products that independent observers have said offer the same features and quality of leading international brands for a tenth of the cost.

But the company's most exciting move is its venture into making thin-film solar energy panels, where its expertise in shaving down costs has the potential to spark a revolution in this power-starved country. “India has a massive opportunity in solar. Five, ten, fifteen years down the road it can be amongst the world's largest markets,” Puri told GlobalPost in a recent interview.

That enthusiasm might seem unrealistic from an Indian company that until a couple of years ago was known exclusively for stamping out blank DVDs, especially now that lower oil prices and financial turmoil have stilled some of the clamor for clean energy. But Puri claims that his enormous CD and DVD volumes actually give him more experience in coating thin-film silicon — the essential technology that Moser Baer's solar cells will employ — than virtually any other company in the world. “We plan to have 600-odd megawatts of capacity by 2010,” he said, “which will get us to the magic $1 a watt [that it will take to compete with conventional power].”

Moser Baer plans investments of nearly $3.2 billion in research, development and manufacturing of solar power products — the "thin film modules" and other silicon bits and pieces that make solar power work.

The key to success, Puri says, will be the company's expertise in lowering manufacturing costs. One of the first Indian manufacturers to successfully compete internationally, Moser Baer entered high-tech manufacturing at a time when the general consensus was that Indian manufacturing was a basket case.

In one of the dustiest places on the planet, the company built a massive “clean room” for disk manufacture that required an air conditioning unit that takes up the entire second floor of the factory, and installed their own diesel-fueled power generation facility, since even a brief electricity outage would spoil the melted silicon. And that was at a time when nobody believed blank CDs could be made cheaply enough to replace floppies. “There isn't one big factor [to cutting costs], it's a lot of little factors,” Puri said. “Ten years ago, it would have been impossible to believe that you could have a DVD that you could sell for 10 cents a disk and make money, but today it's real. So similar to that in the solar space.”

Already, touching $1 a watt would put the Indian firm in some pretty elite company. Only a handful of firms claim to have reached that price point so far, including U.S.-based First Solar and Nanosolar, which has received financial backing from Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Nanosolar uses — attention science fans — copper indium gallium diselenide to build its solar cells, while First Solar uses cadmium telluride-based cells. For its part, Moser Baer uses amorphous silicon. All three technologies have their proponents.

But making DVDs has convinced Puri that he can lower the costs of producing amorphous silicon cells again and again. “We're designing new anti-reflective coatings which then impact the light, we've driven the thickness of the glass down, we've tried to design a better system of components around the basic panel to take costs out, we've innovated a lot on the process recipes, which allows much higher throughput for the facilities,” he said. “It's a lot of little things that contribute to that road map to a sub $1 a watt price point.”

If the company gets there by 2010, that could help India leapfrog to clean energy the way it bypassed terrestrial telephone networks and went straight to cellular, which would be good news for the rest of the world. Despite the much-heralded nuclear deal with the United States, even 20 years down the road, nuclear energy will supply only a tiny fraction of India's power needs. “What does that mean for India, or more importantly, what does it mean for the rest of the world? Where will India get its energy from? It will get it from coal,” Puri said. And that means as many as 300 coal-fired power plants spewing a giant brown cloud over Asia.

But if solar gets here first, that could be different. “Maybe instead of 300 coal plants, it will only have to build 150. That might be an acceptable path.”

Monday, March 02, 2009

women on top -- india

By Jason Overdorf
Monocle (March 2009)

For almost 30 years, you couldn’t get married in north India without a Bajaj Chetak scooter. The reason: no dowry was complete without the classic workhorse. But today, India’s scooter business – like the country – is in the throes of a revolution. Stricter laws are slowly wiping out the dowry system. And it is future brides, not grooms, who have become the scooter makers’ target audience.

In the early 1990s, women on scooters were so rare that riding one earned my wife the nickname “scooter walli madam”. Nobody would have predicted that top scooter companies such as TVS Motor, Hero Honda and Kinetic Motors would soon be wooing India’s newly liberated women with snappy jingles, women-only showrooms, and a battery of colours as extensive as any lipstick rack. “At stage one it was establishing the relevance of the product,” says McCann- Erickson’s Dileep Ashoka, who leads the ad team for TVS Scooty. “Then it moved into a more emotional territory of being the girls’ ‘first keys to freedom’ and then into a more assured attitude to appeal to free- spirited girls.”

In one 2006 Scooty ad, a group of roadside Romeos taunt Bollywood actress Preity Zinta’s character on the way to college because she is riding a pink scooter. When they arrive at class, they find that Zinta is the professor. “Never underestimate the power of pink,” she says.

Publicis Ambience raised the stakes in its ad in 2007 for the Kinetic Flyte made by Kinetic Motors in association with Taiwan’s SYM (managing director of Kinetic, Sulajja Firodia Motwani, is pictured above on the right, with executive vice-president of SYM, Harrison Liu). Bollywood actress Bipasha Basu fronted the campaign which spoofed the Scooty with pink-clad Barbies singing, “We’re bubbly like our scooters, we’re girlie like our scooters.” Basu tells viewers: “Today’s women aren’t girlie like dolls, they’re smart and confident.”

Hero Honda’s Pleasure has pushed the envelope even further. The ads for the Pleasure hint at the fact that owning a scooter means freedom from chaperones. For instance, the bride and groom exit their western- style wedding ceremony to find a robin’s-egg blue Pleasure. This time, though, the bride takes the handlebars and the groom straddles the pillion. The message is clear. The days of the dowry are fading fast. And where scooters are concerned, women are on top.