Friday, December 19, 2008

india's new wave

A community of Krishna devotees combines surfing and spirituality on the shores of Karnataka

By Jason Overdorf/Mulky, India
DESTINASIAN (December 2008)

ON A STEAMY AFTERNOON IN SOUTHERN KARNATAKA, Jack Hebner—a.k.a. Bhakti Gaurava Narasingha, a.k.a. Swamiji, a.k.a. Guru Maharaj (“Great Teacher”)—steps off a Mangalore jetty onto the rocks that form the pier’s foundation. He slides his Pope surfboard into the chocolate brown waters of the Arabian Sea for the epic paddle out to India’s busiest surf break, which sees maybe a handful of surfers a couple of times a month.

Hebner’s 61-year-old muscles aren’t all they used to be. “A couple years ago, I got down to do some pushups, and I couldn’t get one. That’s when I told myself, ‘The Swami’s life is too sedentary.’ ” So instead of fighting the white water, Hebner paddles out through the harbor and around the jetty to get outside the break. It’s a one kilometer slog, and by the time he’s made it, three of his disciples —among the first Indians to take up surfing—have already dropped in on a bunch of waves. Since there’s no lineup anywhere along India’s 7,500-kilometer coastline, that’s easy to do. It takes Hebner 15 minutes or so to recover his breath. Then he knee-paddles into a curling two-meter swell, drops in, and rides it as majestically as anybody known as the Great Teacher could be expected to do.

A guest at Hebner’s Ashram Surf Retreat in the nearby town of Mulky, I watch for a few more minutes before paddling out myself. I’d stumbled across Hebner and his crew online a few months earlier back home in Delhi. Even though I’d never caught a wave in my life, I’d seen enough clips from movies like Endless Summer to convince myself that one day I had to learn. When I read about Hebner and the Mantra Surf Club he cofounded two years ago, it was like, well, karma.

Jack Hebner, who took the name Swami Narasingha in 1976, isn’t your typical surfer. For one thing, the sun-burnished native of Jacksonville Beach, Florida, doesn’t drink, and he has kept a vow of celibacy for three decades. For another, he’s a devotee of the Hindu god Krishna. But it’s that eccentric combination of passions that brought him in the early 1990s to India’s southwestern coast, where he’s now working to develop a surfing community that reveres the ocean, helps the poor, and wakes up every morning at 4:30 to pray. Led by Hebner and Rick Perry (another American follower of Krishna, who goes by the name Baba), they call themselves “the Surfing Swamis.” According to Hebner, a recognized Hindu guru with almost 200 local disciples, “Surfing isn’t just about getting in the water and catching a few waves, it’s about something much deeper than that. It’s about a spiritual experience.”

The spiritual experience offered by his Ashram Surf Retreat—which, at US$60 a night, can seem a little too monastic at times—isn’t for everybody. That’s probably why this bizarre hybrid of commune, temple, and hotel has only two guest rooms. The resident devotees—who include Hebner, Perry, a California couple, and five young Indian brahmacharyas (novice monks)—all chip in to keep the place running, shopping for food, cleaning, teaching guests to surf, and so on. Every morning they hold a prayer service that involves blowing a conch shell, ringing cymbals, singing, chanting, and just about everything else that inspired the invention of the Do Not Disturb sign. Although the food is satisfying enough after a few hours in the pounding waves, it is strictly vegetarian. Alcohol and drugs are forbidden, and guests are requested to abstain from sex. Those caveats aside, however, I can tell you that I enjoyed myself thoroughly. I also lost four kilograms and kicked the gout that had been troubling me for weeks. And, yes, after three days of long paddles, lungfuls of water, nosedives, and brutal wipeouts, I learned to surf.

INDIA’S COASTLINE INCLUDES at least 200 surfable river mouths and countless bays, coves, and points, all of which hint at the presence of secret waves. It’s completely uncharted territory for surfers, and every break is deserted; in India, almost nobody knows how to swim, let alone surf. But it won’t always be so. According to India Today magazine, the subcontinent’s adventure-tourism business—including trekking, climbing, caving, diving, and paragliding—is growing at more than 35 percent a year, and has the potential to attract half a million foreign tourists annually. Surf safaris could be just over the horizon, considering that many of India’s known surf spots boast awe-inspiring cultural attractions, such as the ancient Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu and the dramatic Juggernaut Festival at Puri in Orissa. Indeed, the buzz has already started. Last year, one of Hebner’s
team led a group of professional surfers and photographers for Surfing Magazine on a two-week photo tour of southern India. The legendary French surf explorer Anthony “Yep” Colas has included India in the latest volume of his World Stormrider Guides, while filmmaker Taylor Steel is said to be featuring the country in his next surfing documentary. And with the Surfing Swamis spreading the word locally, India’s undiscovered breaks won’t be deserted for long.

The best place for beginners is the Ashram Surf Retreat’s home break in Mulky, a sleepy hamlet near Mangalore (about 360 kilometers from Karnataka’s state capital, Bangalore, offically Bengaluru) on India’s southwestern coast. The retreat itself is nestled in a grove of palm and banana trees at the mouth of the Shambhavi River, so you don’t even have to load up the jeep to hit the water. It’s a long paddle out to the local beach breaks—named, in good surfer tradition, Baba’s Left, Tree Line, Swami’s,
and Water Tank—but if you time it right, you can ride the river current out and catch the tide coming in when you call it quits, a big energy saver after two or three hours of surfing. The jetty in Mangalore, which provides a more predictable wave than the river mouth, is about an hour’s drive away. There are also some interesting day trips available to the local Jain and Hindu temples, and the ashram has a boat for wakeboarding and snorkeling trips to nearby islands. That’s good news for would-be learners,
because, believe me, you may not be up to surfing every day.

On my first day at the ashram, I woke at 6 a.m. as instructed by Govardhan, the Californian charged with getting me up on a board. By the time I’d fixed myself a cup of coffee, I could hear the trumpet of the conch shell announcing the beginning of prayers, and then the muted beat of the drum, the tinkle of finger cymbals, and the familiar chant: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Unlike the temple worshippers that I have cursed soundly from ill-positioned hotel rooms in Indian cities from Ahmedabad to Lucknow, the Surfing Swamis don’t feel compelled to shout the house down to express their spirituality. So the service offered a pleasant, if somewhat surreal, soundtrack as I finished the novel I’d brought with me (there are no TVs or phones in the rooms). At 7 a.m. we hit the beach.

Looking back at my notes, I see that I’ve written “Baptism by fire this morning.” It was grim. The wash was murky from the churn, a light rain was falling, and the waves were breaking almost on top of each other, in some places crashing vertically into foam instead of rolling gradually toward shore. Again and again, Govardhan helped me drag the board—a giant learner model as unwieldy as a canoe—out into the surf, and again and again I was pummeled, swept under, and pulled into shore by the leash securing the board to my ankle. This must be what water torture feels like, I thought. I took it in 30-minute intervals, between which I stood gasping on the beach with a few fishermen, who evidently looked upon Govardhan as some kind of freakish water god. Even most of India’s fishermen, it seems, can’t swim; for them, the ocean is a fearsome place to earn a living, or to die trying. And here was a bunch of guys playing on it like it was a roller coaster. Even I earned some grudging respect for my apparent willingness to undergo a painfully slow form of drowning. Bottom line: don’t believe the “flat as a pancake” stories you hear from ravers back from a New Year’s trip to Goa, when the Arabian Sea is as calm as Buddha himself. India’s southwest coast is not only for beginners. It gets some big waves—up to six-meter breakers during the October–December post-monsoon season.

After breakfast, I slept most of the day. That night I had an audience with Hebner, whom I’d come to call Swamiji in his official capacity as guru of the Sri Narasingha Chaitanya Math (his 200-member ashram in Mysore) and the Ashram Surf Retreat. Like most people, I knew a bit about the so-called Hare Krishna movement, which is perhaps most renowned for its widely criticized (and now banned) fundraising efforts in American airports. But I didn’t know that the radical social movement had made a gradual transformation to something more like a conventional church since the death of its founder, Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada. And I certainly didn’t know that many of Prabhupada’s followers, like Hebner, had been repelled by the growing commercialism of the movement and distanced themselves from the official “church”—the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON. Frankly, I’d half expected to find a throwback society of brainwashed freaks, though my morning on the water with the Surfing Swamis had already disabused me of that notion. Now, I was treated to the full story of Jack Hebner’s metamorphosis into Swami Narasingha, a humorous yarn that ventured as far and wide as the famous Morningstar Commune in California, Mama Papauna’s hellfire-and-brimstone Huelo Door of Faith Church on Maui, and some of the less religiously tolerant countries of Africa. By the end of the tale, at least in the context of India, Hebner’s beliefs struck me as eminently normal. He, too, was an easily recognized character. Citing the military careers of his father and brother, he told me, “I’m the saffron sheep of the family. The orange sheep.” Semi-employed, penniless, and free-thinking, I could relate—at least for a week.

Two days later, when the guys convinced me to paddle out beyond the break and I finally dropped in on a two-meter wave that I rode all the way into shore, I began to understand a little of the whole surfing-spirituality connection. Okay, my performance was more like that of Sandra Dee in Gidget than surf celeb Kelly Slater in Step Into Liquid. But even a guy who’d once bailed from the Osho International Meditation Resort in Pune because they wanted me to buy an orange robe could feel the vibe. For days, I’d been fighting the ocean—this omnipotent, amorphous, drowning thing—and now I was at once surrendering to and mastering its blind energy. It wasn’t hard to see how you could find a metaphor in that.

For more information about India’s nascent surfing scene and Jack Hebner’s Ashram Surfing Retreat, visit the Mantra Surf Club at

surfin' swamis: catching waves, and spirituality, in india

By Jason Overdorf -- for GlobalPost in The Huffington Post

NEW DELHI -- Swami Bhakti Gaurava Narasingha paddles hard and drops into a 6-foot wave off the coast of Mangalore in South India.

As the 61-year-old surfer cuts left and races down the face of the wave spiralling toward the wastewater treatment plant up the beach, half a dozen local fishermen look on with bemused fascination at the aging white dude, who also goes by his given name of Jack Hebner.

Though India has 4,500 miles of coastline and gets 20-foot waves during the monsoon season, fear of the ocean and beaches that double as toilets have prevented surfing from catching on. But Hebner and his followers -- who call themselves "the Surfin' Swamis" -- are seeking to change all that with India's first surf ashram, or religious community.

"Surfing isn't just about getting in the water and catching a few waves," Hebner says. "It's about something much deeper than that. It's about a spiritual experience."

Hebner -- a Hindu monk from Jacksonville Beach, Florida, who doesn't drink or smoke and took a vow of celibacy 30 years ago -- isn't exactly what you picture when you think of a surfer.

But it's that weird combination that in 1991 brought Jack to India's southwestern coast, where he's working to start a surfing community that reveres the ocean, helps the poor and wakes up every morning at 4:30 a.m. to chant "Hare Rama, Hare Krishna."

Hebner has been a devotee of the Hindu god Krishna since the early 1970s, when he became a disciple of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the controversial Hare Krishna movement in America.

However, like many Krishna devotees, he severed his association with the official inheritors of Prabhupada's American movement, the International Society for Kriskna Consciousness (ISKCON), not long after the guru's death in 1977.

He didn't give up his beliefs, though. He went to India, where the worship of Krishna, or Vaishnavism, goes back thousands of years.

With more than 200 Indian disciples in Mangalore and Mysore, Hebner has shown that Krishna consciousness can still find an audience among lifelong Hindus. "I'm like the saffron sheep of the family -- the orange sheep," says Hebner, whose brother and brother-in-law were already career U.S. military men when he began to float around Krishna communes.

One of the keys to respectability has been self-sufficiency. The American Hare Krishnas, best remembered for the bald devotees in orange robes who chanted "Hare Rama, Hare Krishna" in airports and bus stations to raise money for their communes, were condemned for their unconventional fundraising tactics.

But Hebner's ashram doesn't beg, they earn. In addition to renting rooms (and boards) to surfers, the monks do web design work contracted through a San Francisco company called Alian Design, and they run a Bangalore-based art gallery and a local bottled water company.

"We don't go out and ask for any money," says 21-year-old Kunjabihari, one of Hebner's Indian disciples. "To support the ashram, we start businesses. That's where the surfing comes in." Residents donate all their earnings from the ashram businesses to the commune.

By teaching India to surf alongside ancient monuments like the Shore Temple at Mamallapuram and the pilgrimage city of Dwarka, where according to Hindu mythology Lord Krishna is believed to have set up the capital of his empire 2,500 years ago, Hebner may also introduce the world to its last undiscovered breaks.

So far, Hebner and the Surfin' Swamis have taught about a dozen locals to surf, and they have already made a big dent in the perception that India's waters are flat as a pancake.

Last year, one of Hebner's disciples led pro surfers Justin Quirk, Warren Smith and Jesse Columbo as well as photographers for Surfing Magazine on a two-week photo tour of South India. This year the Surfin' Swamis will host another set of pros sponsored by Surfer Magazine. Anthony "Yep" Colas is featuring India in the next edition of World Stormrider Guide, known as "the surfer's bible." And surf filmmakers Taylor Steel and Dustin Humphrey are including India in their next movie.

Global financial crisis aside, the Surfing Swamis' timing looks to be right. McKinsey & Co. predicts that by 2025 the Indian middle class will grow tenfold to 500 million people. As Indians get richer, they're getting braver, too.

According to India Today magazine, the adventure tourism business -- including trekking, climbing, caving, diving and paragliding -- is growing at more than 35 percent a year, with the potential to attract another half a million foreign tourists.

Two of Hebner's Indian disciples -- Kunjabihari and Kirtanananda -- have already floated a company called Surf Adventure Enterprises that offers surf tours and lessons and sells gear online. The 20-something Indian youths consider working for Krishna the opportunity of a lifetime.

"My dream is to promote surfing in India," says Kunjabihari. launches January 12, 2009.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

buying peace of mind

India turns to the private sector for security New Delhi can't provide.

Jason Overdorf
From the magazine issue dated Dec 22, 2008

India's private-security industry has exploded in recent years, thanks to the country's longstanding terrorism problem and its inept police forces. Now business is likely to grow even faster in the wake of the Mumbai killings.

Just ask Vikram Singh, India's best-known private detective. Singh, who favors natty clothes and a Hercule Poirot mustache, has had a career that embodies the meteoric growth of his profession. Now chairman of the Central Association of the Private Security Industry (CAPSI), the 60-year-old former intelligence officer bet on the security business 30 years ago, when the Indian industry had no major players and security meant hiring an untrained guard with a club and a whistle. But Singh saw potential, and in 1995, he talked George Wackenhut, founder of the U.S.-based Wackenhut Corp., into forming a joint venture. Six years later, Singh sold his stake to focus on his own investigation agency, Lancers, which is now India's top-rated risk-consulting firm.

Now others are trying to get into the world's hottest market for private security, valued at $2 billion to $3 billion and employing 5.5 million personnel. Even before the Nov. 26 Mumbai attacks, the Indian industry was growing at an astounding clip of 35 percent. This year alone saw the founding of 200 new companies, and the sector expects to add 1 million new employees in 2009, which would make it India's largest employer. And that figure dates from before the attacks. Six international companies from Israel and Germany have also approached CAPSI about providing antiterrorism training, and surveillance-equipment companies are flocking in.

The reason is simple, says terrorism expert Ajai Sahni. India's police are dramatically understaffed, ill equipped and overburdened. "Our public systems are collapsing because there has for decades been insufficient investment in agencies meant to protect civilians," Sahni says. India has 1.45 police for every 1,000 citizens, less than half the global average, according to the United Nations. Meanwhile, the gap between rich and poor, sectarian tensions and external terrorist threats have all intensified, driving demand for protection. India's crime rate is rising, and incidents like the recent lynching of a multinational's CEO have stoked fears. Then there are the more than 4,000 terrorist attacks India suffered between 1970 and 2004.

The government's failure to respond has left the field open for private operators. But that's raised its own problems. The quality of many firms is questionable; around 200 Indian firms approach international standards, at least on paper, but 15,000 more operate under the radar without much training or background checks for personnel. Poorly enforced regulations mean that most guards earn less than the legal minimum wage. "It's by and large an exploitative industry, with poorly qualified, poorly trained recruits being flogged out by largely mercenary security agencies," said Sahni. The rent-a-cops are also barred by law from carrying guns, which can make them poor substitutes for the real deal.

Post-Mumbai, many Indian companies are demanding more sophisticated protection and better-trained, better-educated guards. Consumers are also migrating to globally recognized brands. "In the U.S. or Europe, security professionals get paid $25,000 to $60,000 a year," Arjun Wallia, chairman of Walsons-Securitas, said. "Whereas in the security industry here you get $100 a month. You pay peanuts, and you get monkeys."

The central government has also finally stepped in and, and after 10 years of lobbying by CAPSI, introduced legislation that requires firms to get a license and set norms for training and compensation. Among other things, the new law requires companies to give their guards a minimum of 160 hours of training. CAPSI is also making improvements voluntarily. It has formed agreements with three state governments to organize job fairs in rural areas and provide training facilities, and it is in talks with four other states.

In the meantime, business is booming. Singh says that about 25 percent of the work done by India's police could be outsourced. Already New Delhi is considering entrusting CAPSI with access control for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and high-ranking police officers are keen to farm out grunt work. The Army chief of staff estimates that 80,000 troops currently work as security guards and is considering outsourcing some of those jobs at noncritical locations, says Singh.

If these programs succeed, private security firms, rather than the beleaguered public sector, could soon become the country's first line of defense. In many ways, they already are.

© 2008

Monday, December 08, 2008

india's obama?

How the "Dalit Queen" is changing India, and slapping foes with sandals

By Jason Overdorf -- GlobalPost
December 12, 2008

NEW DELHI, India — As her lavish birthday celebration approaches, Mayawati Kumari, a powerful politician known for fiery speeches and a diva's temperament, has once again run into controversy. This time, it's not the size of her cake or her diamond necklace that has her in trouble with India's muckraking press, but the alleged murder of an engineer from the state's public works department by one of her party workers.

There's a thin line between politicians and gangsters in India, with as many as a third of the politicians forming the government of various Indian states facing criminal charges. But when a member of Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) — a party dedicated to uplifting India's oppressed Dalits — runs afoul of the law, it gets special attention.

This time around, the Indian press immediately jumped to the conclusion that the accused — a BSP member of the legislative assembly in Uttar Pradesh, where Mayawati is chief minister — committed the alleged murder in the course of extorting money for Mayawati's annual birthday bash on Jan. 15. But now the police say there was no basis for the extortion motive reports.

Because she is a Dalit herself, Mayawati's birthday party has always been controversial. But due to her rising political power, the desire among her rivals to take her down a peg is today stronger than ever.

For centuries India's Dalits, the outcasts once called untouchables, were considered subhuman. Upper-caste Hindus forced them to do society's most humiliating jobs — like cleaning filth from toilets and sewers — and if they resisted, they were beaten, raped, dismembered or murdered.

Atrocities like these still occasionally take place. But today Mayawati is giving these long-persecuted people hope that soon they may win truly equal status in this obsessively hierarchical society. As parliamentary elections approach this spring, she has emerged as a likely kingmaker and a dark horse possibility for the prime minister's office.

The daughter of a clerk in the government's telecommunications department and his illiterate wife, the pugnacious leader — known for her fiery speeches and diva's temperament — is sometimes called "the Dalit queen" and sometimes simply "Behenji," or "older sister."

A graduate of Kalindi College in Delhi, she holds bachelor's degrees in law and education, and worked as a teacher until joining politics in 1984, when she was instrumental in forming the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) with her mentor, Kanshi Ram, who was at that time India's most prominent Dalit politician.

Eclipsing her mentor, Mayawati rose to prominence as a Dalit leader through strident rhetoric — frequently calling upon her people to beat the Brahmins with shoes.
But in a move that prompted some observers to call her India's Obama, she has radically reinvented herself in her bid for the nation's highest office.
Last year, Mayawati led the BSP to a stunning victory in her home state of Uttar Pradesh, becoming chief minister through a seemingly impossible alliance with the high-caste Brahmins she once threatened to slap with her sandal.

That was in itself an enormous achievement, as no leader has been able to win an outright majority in Uttar Pradesh — India's largest state — for a decade and a half.
But because Uttar Pradesh is a bellwether state with 114 million voters, and neither the Congress Party or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been able to achieve an outright majority in national polls since the early 1990s, it also means that Mayawati could very well determine who will be India's next national leader.

In a bid to make that happen, Mayawati is pushing the regional BSP nationwide. In state elections held in November, the BSP contested more seats in Delhi, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh than ever before, and in each of the four states the party increased the number of its representatives in the assembly and won a higher portion of the votes than ever before.

"This is the first time a Dalit leader has attained such stature, as head of a vast social coalition consisting of haves and have nots," said Delhi University professor Mahesh Rangarajan. "She's the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, which has more people in it than Pakistan or Bangladesh. It's a state with 190 million citizens."

That's an impressive feat for any politician. But for a Dalit, it means even more.
"It is a really big achievement," said Chandrabhan Prasad, one of India's few Dalit journalists. "She has made Dalits visible and respectable. Earlier, people hated her or disliked her. Now they fear her."

no fanning the flames

India avoids lashing out at Pakistan and its own Muslims after the Mumbai attacks.

Jason Overdorf and Sudip Mazumdar
From the magazine issue dated Dec 15, 2008

Most people probably expected the Nov. 26 terrorist attacks on Mumbai to lead to another showdown between India and Pakistan. After all, the last time Islamic militants carried out such a major attack, on Delhi in 2001, the Indian government massed troops on the Pakistani border. Now as then, evidence suggests that the militants were trained and equipped by groups operating in Pakistan. And to dampen the flames, Washington has so far done little more than suggest that Islamabad cooperate with the Indian investigation and crack down on suspects.

Last week, when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited the region, thousands of Indians did take to the streets of Mumbai, Delhi and other cities to protest. Yet while there were a few scattered chants of "Death to Pakistan," the marchers, who carried roses, candles and posters, directed most of the ire not at India's perennial enemy, the terrorists, or the ruling Congress party. Their anger was reserved for India's politicians in general. The protesters' slogan: "Enough is enough."

The marchers had plenty to be mad about. According to the University of Maryland's Global Terrorism Database, India has suffered more than 4,000 terrorist attacks since 1970, with an average of about one killing per day. But India's leaders have taken little action to protect the population, even while ensuring themselves heavy security. The government also appeared clueless in the face of the Mumbai attacks and took hours to respond.

Yet there's been remarkably little jingoism in the overall reaction. India's leaders, its media and its population—even the far right—have largely rejected the kind of anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim rhetoric the terrorists must have hoped for. This forbearance won't last forever, especially if Pakistan fails to cooperate with India's demand for a crackdown on militants. But for the time being, India is surprising many Western observers—and even some Indian ones—by maintaining a resolute calm and refusing to rattle its saber.

Despite comparisons in the Indian media, the nation's reaction so far to "26/11" has differed profoundly from America's response to 9/11, Spain's to 3/11 or London's to 7/7. Indians have neither rallied round their leader and demanded he pull up the drawbridges, as Americans did to George W. Bush, nor rushed to throw out a bungling government, as the Spanish did to José María Aznar after he misled voters about the involvement of Basque separatists.

There have been no clashes between Indian Hindus and Muslims. Nor has there been a swing to embrace Hindu nationalism. Indeed, opposition politicians who have sought to capitalize on the mayhem have been roundly punished for it. For example, Narendra Modi, the BJP chief minister of Gujarat, rushed to Mumbai after the attacks to lionize the slain head of Maharashtra's Anti-Terrorism Squad. But Mumbai denizens greeted Modi with boos and accused him of political opportunism.

The official response, meanwhile, has been studiously measured. India's home minister and both the chief minister of Maharashtra and his deputy have resigned. A review of India's intelligence system has begun and New Delhi has called on Pakistan to extradite 20 suspects. Pranab Mukherjee, India's foreign minister, has sent mixed messages in recent speeches, first ruling out military action against Pakistan and then, during Rice's visit, reversing tack and warning that India will use "all the means at [its] disposal." But overall, the government's behavior has been anything but warlike.

The reason, says Mahesh Rangarajan of Delhi University, is that "India has learned that a hysterical response does not serve any purpose." Experience shows that rash action only makes things worse. Congress party sources point out that massing troops on the border, as the BJP-led government did following terror attack on India's Parliament in December 2001, accomplished nothing—except to ensure that the BJP was roundly criticized for raising tensions. Senior government sources also admit that India can't behave like America did after 9/11 because India is "not a superpower and does not have that kind of capability," says a senior government official.

Out of necessity, then, New Delhi has turned to realpolitik. That's taken the form of "maintaining the pressure, getting the U.S. and other allies to put equal pressure on Pakistan without actually ratcheting up tension and weakening [Pakistani President Asif Ali] Zardari's position too much," says a top official who asked to remain nameless because he wasn't authorized to speak to the press.

In eschewing militarism, India is placing tremendous faith in the United States and the international community. Pundits, for example, have called on India to make its case against Pakistan at the U.N. Security Council. But this strategy is risky, for India will feel betrayed if the international or U.S. response remains tepid. And so far, the signals from Washington haven't been promising. Rice, on her visit to New Delhi, said that "there has to be direct and tough action," but she seemed—at least to Indians—to water down that message when she visited Islamabad.

Indians are already frustrated with Pakistan's behavior and its rejection of India's call to extradite the suspects. "What is disquieting is that the Pakistanis are resorting to a technical response by saying, 'Give us evidence and we will respond'," says former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. "They're resorting to the old, stock responses, and that is sending a negative message and raising demands on the Indian side to hurt Pakistan."

Should this continue, domestic pressure will mount from the public, as well as the BJP and the radical Hindu nationalist right—especially with a national vote looming next year. The BJP will begin hammering Congress for its failure to stop terror, and if there is no action in Pakistan that, too, will come into play. "The BJP pitches its whole propaganda on that terrain," says Delhi-based political analyst Praful Bidwai.

For the time being, though, Indians are watching and waiting. The details of Rice's visit remain unclear. But unless she asked for and received quiet assurances that Islamabad intends to take some immediate, concrete steps, conditions could worsen for all parties, America included—after all, the terrorists who strike at India also work on Pakistan's western border with Afghanistan. As for India, if it feels that its forbearance has yielded nothing, this sense of betrayal could cause events to spiral out of control, bringing India and Pakistan—nuclear-armed nemeses—back to the brink once more.


Friday, December 05, 2008

a jolt to the middle classes

Rage over the Mumbai attacks is changing the nation's politics.

Jason Overdorf

When Adlai Stevenson remarked that in a democracy, people get the government they deserve, he could have been talking about India. This country's middle class is reknowned for its apathy at the polls. By ceding the electoral process to the uneducated, poverty-stricken masses, they have allowed opportunistic politicians—many of whom face criminal charges—to thrive by encouraging riots and distributing booze. The crisis in Mumbai may have jolted middle-class voters out of their torpor. As Condoleezza Rice made a lightning trip to the subcontinent this week to keep tensions between India and Pakistan from spiraling out of control, thousands of middle-class Indians in Mumbai, Delhi and other major Indian cities took to the streets to protest against India's politicians, regardless of the party they belong to or whether they were in or out of power. The movement was spontaneous and amorphous, but the anger was palpable. Milind Deora, who at 32 years old is among the youngest members of the Indian Parliament, was the only politician who dared show his face among the throng. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jason Overdorf about how the middle class anger against politicians—which included calls to vote "none of the above" in the next election and to stop paying taxes—could become a real force for change. Excerpts:

Newsweek: What do you think about the protests in Mumbai and other Indian cities against the country's politicians?

Milind Deora: In Mumbai, at least, it was a welcome step to see India's urban middle class out on the street protesting and demanding accountability from the government. I, too, took part in the protests at the Gateway of India. I went there as someone who has lived in the city, who was born in the city, and not as a member of Parliament or a politician. I think that anger and frustration and perhaps that feeling of being violated and let down by the government is definitely justified. But there has to be some solutions in place, and people have to be much more constructive. The kind of messages going around, which were all politicians are bad, and governments are bad, won't do anything to help the situation. If this is not channeled in the right way, we'll lose an opportunity.

Did the people there perceive you as the enemy, because you are a politician, or were you spared because of your youth?

There were some people who were saying, "You are a politician, and you guys have failed us." There was this anti-politician rage, for sure. But the majority of people were happy to see me. They were shaking my hand and saying, "Milind, get us out of this."

At some level, there are many things that only the government can do, and the government, by nature is made up of politicians. How do you think the protesters can take their enthusiasm for action and make it matter?

The solution is to have more powers given to local governances; a devolution of powers from the state government to Mumbai. This is an opportune moment to demand that. If there's one thing that people should demand of the government, it's that, because tomorrow this anger could be about a collapse in terms of civic infrastructure, not a terrorist attack necessarily. We need to fix the governance system and use this as an opportunity to do that.

Some politicians tried to use the attacks to gain political mileage, but they were greeted with disgust by the people. Is it possible that a politician who focuses on these administrative issues you're talking about could capitalize on this anger?

I think they could, and I'm trying to do that. But it is unfortunate. If people were disgusted by [the blatant political opportunism] then they should give these politicians and their parties a befitting reply in elections. The sad thing is, I think that once this is over and the dust settles, not only will politicians get back to their politics, but so will the electorate.

The kind of action that needs to be taken to improve security is complex, so it's difficult to sell as an election platform. Has there been talk about how to boil these complex reforms down into a campaign message?

Right now the focus is not on our communications strategy. Right now the aim is to focus on what the government is trying to do—to overhaul the entire system. The political communication part of this will come much, much later.

Your party, the Congress, sacked the home minister, as well as the chief minister and deputy chief minister of Maharashtra. Does that kind of action send a message that politicians will be held accountable, or is it just a game of musical chairs?

I think that removing chief ministers and home ministers who failed to reassure the people and failed to lead from the front can help. But 90 percent of the difference will come from re-looking at the security establishment, and that means much more than just the home minister. That means the entire bureaucracy, the intelligence agencies, the policing capability, all of that needs to be looked at and realigned.

Were you encouraged that this protest was directed at all politicians, rather than the ruling Congress party?

I didn't go there and think of it as what is the political mileage for the Congress and what is the political mileage for me. I still haven't got down to thinking of it in that sense. Even if I had not been an MP, I would have been there. I felt it was my duty to be there and show solidarity with what is happening. For me it was encouraging to see the middle class out on the street protesting, but it was also saddening to see their blind rage against politicians and the government.


Friday, November 28, 2008

down but not out

Despite the bloodshed, India's confidence is already shining through.

Jason Overdorf and George Wehrfritz
NEWSWEEK (November 28, 2008)

You couldn't strike a blow closer to the heart of Indian finance. Mumbai's downtown waterfront—the setting of the terror attacks—has been the national economic gateway since the days of the British Raj; its stock exchange sits between the two hotels besieged by gunmen, and the country's largest business groups are all headquartered nearby. So one might imagine that the gunmen who killed at least 155 people had done grave damage to one of the world's fastest growing major economies—and they'd be wrong. "There are far more important things going on in the global economy at the moment than terrorism in India," says Daniel Melser, senior economist with Moody's in Sidney. As horrific as the attacks were, he adds, "the economic impact will be secondary."

In the coming days and weeks, India's resilience will be on full display. The show of confidence actually began Friday, when Mumbai's main stock exchange—open even as Indian commandoes were still clearing the area of terrorists—rose slightly on the day, in contrast to the NYSE post 9/11, or London markets after the 2005 bombings, which fell sharply. It may well fall further as the full impact of the worst terror attacks to hit Mumbai since a coordinated bombing campaign destroyed the stock exchange, targeted the main railway station and killed some 250 people in a single day back in 1993, but most experts agree that the jitters will eventually subside. "In the short term I'd expect that the effect will be completely negative," said Saumitra Chaudhuri, a member of the prime minister's economic advisory council. "People who do business with India will think twice about visiting, and they'll also think twice about taking any Indian exposure. But all this will pass in a month or two, [and] I don't think in the medium to longer term there will be any lasting damage."

The attacks, in short, haven't changed the India "story" that investors find so alluring. The country remains a standout among emerging markets for its large middle class, thriving service sector and low export dependency. Unlike much of the rest of Asia, its economy is driven mainly by household consumption, which makes it uniquely resilient in today's global downturn. And with growth centers in a variety of industries and geographic locations across the country, the economy isn't vulnerable to a knockout strike of the sort any terror group could deliver. All of which should keep domestic growth relatively robust and prevent foreign investors from growing too skittish—provided Indian authorities quickly reestablish order. The latest attacks "obviously escalated things … so threat perceptions [will] go up dramatically," says Subir Gokarn, chief economist at Crisil, the India arm of Standard & Poor's. "One could take New York, which despite 9/11 got back on its feet, as an example. I think Mumbai will do the same, provided the system responds strongly. That's where the uncertainty is now."

India's tourism industry is unlikely to escape a major shock. "Incredible India"—the government's flashy tourism promotion campaign—is now virtually certain to fall short of its goal of doubling arrivals from last year's five million by 2010. It may even move backwards, as did Bali's tourism trade after the 2002 nightclub bombings, losing more than a third of its traffic overnight. Yet in truth, Indian tourism is anything but incredible in a numerical sense, so all the specter of terrorism can do is erode its already small base. By comparison, Bali alone will garner 2 million foreign visitors this year, and China is expected to improve upon the 137 million it attracted in 2007. With India's GDP at about $1 trillion and tourism contributing just more than $10 billion of that, the impact of even a major slowdown would be minor.

Experts are focused on two real risks. One is that India's counterterrorism preparedness won't improve. The challenge is to remake a tiny national police force comprised mainly of high-school graduates trained to do little but wield sticks to keep unruly crowds in order. The second risk is that terrorists like the ones who paralyzed Mumbai will incite sectarian unrest between India's Hindu majority and their Muslim neighbors, who make up just 14 percent of the country's 1 billion people. Indeed, with national elections due next year, the incentive is there for leaders of political parties divided along religious and geographic lines to ramp up the extremist rhetoric to rally their core supporters—regardless of what it does to India's business climate.

So far most politicians seem to be taking the high road. L.K. Advani, leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has toned down his oft-vitriolic Hindu nationalism and called for a unified response to the terror attacks from all political parties. Gokarn says the accommodating tone is "very encouraging" but adds that, to be effective, bipartisanship must beget "an institutional framework that the next government can very quickly act on, regardless of who is in office." If not, and additional terror attacks create the impression that India's security situation is deteriorating, the gloss that its economy emits could start to come off the India story.


the rise of the hindu right

Jason Overdorf
From the magazine issue dated Dec 1, 2008

It's election season in India, and that's bad news for the hapless Congress party. Six states go to the polls in the coming month, in what some experts are calling a bellwether for next year's general election. And though the races are too close to call, some pundits say Congress is likely to fare poorly. But that's not the worst of it. The slack in four of the contests may be taken up by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—a Hindu nationalist organization that's surging in strength in a new, more aggressive form. In an especially worrisome twist, police say they recently uncovered possible links between BJP-associated Hindu nationalist organizations and suspected Hindu terrorists—a first for a mainstream Indian party.

The BJP's renewed appeal can be explained, at least in part, by timing. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is not known for his political acumen, Congress has lost the last eight state elections in a row. Now the worldwide financial crisis has sent inflation spiraling and slowed growth, further damaging the government's chances. The BJP hopes to capitalize on the bad economic conditions when voters head to the polls in Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Jammu and Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram and Rajasthan this month. While nothing's guaranteed, many observers expect Congress to get trounced. "Their machine is in tatters," says Mahesh Rangarajan, a Delhi University political analyst.

While that's bad for Congress, it wouldn't necessarily be a problem for India—but for two things. First, the state elections could well forecast the fate of the Congress-led ruling coalition, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), in next nationwide poll, which must take place before May 2009. (The UPA's own rural-development minister recently said the state votes represented a "mini general election.") And second, the BJP has taken a nastier turn since it last led the country in 2004.

To get a sense of the shift, consider the BJP's candidate for prime minister this time around. Lal Krishna Advani is an aging rabble-rouser who in the mid-1990s helped gather a huge Hindu mob that tore down the 16th-century Babri Mosque, leading to riots that killed more than 2,000 people (Advani was later cleared of criminal charges). He is far more radical than his predecessor, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who served as prime minister from 1998 to 2004. And Advani's heir apparent is Gujarat's chief minister, Narendra Modi—who has been denied entry to the United States for his alleged role in the 2002 riots in Gujarat that killed more than 1,000. Not long after the riots, Modi warned a crowd that Muslims were trying to erode India's Hindu majority by having many children. "We have to teach a lesson to those who are increasing the population at an alarming rate," he said.

Then there's the alleged terror link. Since Oct. 24, the state of Maharashtra's Anti-Terrorism Squad has arrested 10 Hindu nationalists—including a lieutenant colonel in Army intelligence, a prominent Hindu spiritual leader and a former party worker from the BJP's student wing—for suspected involvement in a 2006 attack previously blamed on Muslim extremists. The case has yet to come to trial and the suspects maintain they are innocent. But the news, if true, would mark the first known terrorist bombing in India's history involving Hindu extremists—rather than Muslim radicals, separatists or Maoist revolutionaries—and the story has shocked the country. Rather than disown the suspects, however, BJP grandees have leapt to their defense. On Nov. 10, party president Rajnath Singh said that "whosoever believes in nationalism cannot be a terrorist," and on Nov. 12 he complained that "this government is targeting Hindu spiritual leaders without evidence … We find this investigation very suspicious."

The explanation for the BJP's rightward tilt lies with its increased reliance on its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). During the Vajpayee years and in the run-up to the 2004 national elections, the BJP generally tried to divorce itself from anti-Muslim vitriol and the RSS. But the debacle of that campaign—in which Congress won a stunning victory despite the consensus that the BJP had presided over an economic boom—gave nationalists the upper hand. The BJP's defeat reminded its leadership that it remains a cadre-based party united by its ideology, not a charismatic leader. And the bulk of those cadres come from the 4.5 million-member RSS. The RSS advocates a philosophy known as Hindutva and favors turning India into a Hindu state (the country's population is 80 percent Hindu) and designating religious minorities as second-class citizens. Without its nationalist ideology it wouldn't be clear what the BJP stood for. On most issues, the party's positions are actually very similar to Congress's (both parties advocate further economic reform and increased ties to the United States, for example).

The RSS is now suspected of connections to terrorism. Some of the current suspects belong to a heretofore-unknown group called the Abhinav Bharat, which is not officially linked to the RSS but espouses an identical Hindutva ideology. And the Anti-Terrorism Squad claims to have established links between the suspects and official RSS outfits. "You actually have for the first time evidence linking all kinds of front organizations of the [RSS family]," says political analyst Praful Bidwai. Since the '90s there have been several incidents of "accidental explosions at bomb-making operations run by [Hindu] fanatics," Bidwai says. "But this is the first time … the RSS has been linked to a conspiracy."

You might assume that such ties, unless repudiated, would hurt the RSS's popularity and the BJP's electoral chances in India, which is the world's largest democracy and a secular one at that. Unfortunately, that's not how things have transpired in the past. In fact, some of the BJP's prior electoral victories followed bouts of incendiary anti-Muslim hatred and actual violence. Vajpayee was first elected prime minister following the Babri Mosque riots, for example, and the mayhem in Gujarat in 2002 helped Modi win a thumping victory in that state, even though—or because—he was blamed for delaying police action to protect Muslims. Now, by casting the government's terror investigation as an anti-Hindu conspiracy, the BJP hopes to repeat this formula today and unite the faithful. "The various wings of the [RSS]—and it's a vast organization—will rally together," says Rangarajan.

If the electorate follows suit, it could lead to another big victory for the BJP—but a big step backward for India as a whole.


an underpoliced society

Jason Overdorf
In a terrifying attack that held India riveted for the past 48 hours, a group of highly trained and deeply committed terrorists seized top Mumbai hotels and a prominent downtown building Wednesday, holding more than 200 people hostage for the better part of two days. As special-forces operations to rescue hostages and flush out terrorists wind down, investigators are only now beginning to piece together how the attackers got into the city and took over the properties. India's foreign minister and others within the government are beginning to point the finger of blame at Pakistan—whose intelligence service India believes is a habitual sponsor of terrorist activities on Indian soil.

NEWSWEEK's Jason Overdorf spoke with Ajai Sahni, editor of the South Asia Intelligence Review and executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, a New Delhi-based think tank that studies terrorism, about the implications.

Newsweek: How are these attacks different from previous terrorist attacks on Indian soil?
Ajai Ajai Sahni: First is the fact that the sheer scale of attacks is unique. We've had similar kinds of attacks in Jammu and Kashmir fairly regularly, commando-terrorist attacks. We've also seen something comparable in terms of the type of attack in Delhi and the attack on Parliament in 2001. So the pattern is not completely new to certain areas. But it is certainly new in Mumbai, and the sheer scale is unprecedented.

Moreover most attacks outside Jammu and KASHMIR—with the exception of the Parliament attack—have been bomb attacks, usually improvised explosive devices variously placed in soft targets. This is the first time we've seen something like this in a major urban center with quite as many participants. We're certainly looking at between 40 and 50 terrorists who appeared to have landed and launched the attack on Mumbai.

I saw a quote from intelligence sources that an attack of this nature would take 2-3 months to plan. Does that sound like a reasonable assessment?
It's not only a question of a plan. I would like to suggest that [the attack] would have taken a much larger time to mount because the kind of training that is evident and the degrees of motivation that are evident in these terrorists would take literally years to generate.

So this is probably the most organized attack we've seen in India?
You see there are different types of organizations. In the Mumbai blasts in 1993, you had extremely meticulous planning required. What I'm talking about here is a much longer gestation in terms of preparation of manpower—compared with what would be required for the mere placement of bombs.

What conclusions do you draw from that if any?
Well, you've had fedayeen-type attacks in other theaters in India—certainly in Jammu and KASHMIR and in the Parliament attack in Delhi. But this represents a simple escalation of scale in such attacks that will create definitive problems. And what it has also demonstrated is the enveloping vulnerabilities of the Indian system; we do not really appear to have the necessary defenses in place to quickly contain the impact. Even if we are not able to prevent such attacks (and no country can expect to completely exclude the possibility of such strikes), certainly the capacity for containment of the attack is extremely wanting.

News reports suggest that Israelis, Americans and Brits were singled out, segregated and held—possibly for hostage negotiations. What is the significance of this focus on foreigners?
The significance of this focus on foreigners is these are regarded as the prime enemy group, so to speak, by people who are engineering these attacks. Beyond that there does not seem to be any intention on the part of the terrorists to negotiate for any kind of deals or concessions, or the release of prisoners. No such thing has been discussed. It appears that they seem to have come here simply to kill and to die. So we do not see any meaningful kind of effort to initiate negotiations during these attacks.

At this point does there seem to be any kind of signature that could link these attacks to any group that Indian intelligence is already tracking?
There are several little factors that tell you [the perpetrators are] among a certain limited group of suspects. But there are no hard signatures. Fedayeen attacks of this nature on a much smaller scale have been often witnessed in Jammu and KASHMIR and the groups responsible have mainly been Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. If you look at the Parliament attack case, it was principally JEM involved there. What we are seeing is that the possibility of a large number of Indian citizens may also have been involved. There is no definitive identification at this juncture, although several people have been arrested and several of the terrorists have been killed. So we are looking at the usual group of suspects but we are still not definitively clear about their identity.

An outfit called Deccan Mujahedeen is taking responsibility.
That does not exist. That's a red herring intended to divert attention, an effort to project that this is an internal Indian problem, that this has nothing to do with outside forces. Whether Indians were involved in this or not, this could not have been executed without outside assistance or backing.

What are the major repercussions of this attack? The head of Mumbai's antiterrorism squad and several other top cops were killed. Is that a major foul up by law enforcement, to have such key figures exposed on the front lines?
The difficulty here is that once again we have a force that is barely learning how to cope with these things. This is, as far as Mumbai is concerned, an unprecedented pattern of attack. They haven't had something like this before. And the problem in India is that we do not have any systems in which large proportions of force and force leaderships are trained to respond to terrorist attacks. You've basically got a system where you learn on the job. And regrettably the price for that kind of extremely inefficient system is usually paid in blood.

Intelligence sources are saying the attacks bear the hallmarks of an international conspiracy. Do you read that as a precursor to claims that Al Qaeda or Pakistani intelligence may be involved in these attacks?
It would be one or other. I don't know if it would be Al Qaeda per se. But it could be Al Qaeda-related groups, certainly. Even Lashkar-e-Toiba is under the umbrella of Al Qaeda. All these groups we are speaking of as suspects are in some sense linked historically to Al Qaeda. All these groups are also linked to the Pakistan intelligence establishment. So we don't see the possibility of an operation of this scale being mounted without the backing of groups that either currently or historically have links with Al Qaeda or Pakistan intelligence.

In last couple of years, the scope of domestic involvement in terrorism has come as a wake-up call to Indian intelligence. Do you think there is always a reluctance to look inside India's borders first?
I think there is a problem of perception over here with Indian media rather than any problem with the intelligence or law enforcement agencies. Because they have been identifying and neutralizing Indian groups for certainly the past two decades, including Islamist groups in India. So there is no suggestion that they only look for outsiders. It is clearly recognized that even where outside agencies are involved, there are Indian facilitators … as partners or participants in terror attacks. And now we find Indian initiators. But I don't see any proclivity to try to brush this under the carpet in enforcement agencies. They follow what they find as leads. Yes, in certain cases you might find there is a tendency to start looking at groups that have international linkages at the very outset, but that's because of precedent rather than bias. If groups that have been involved in the past have been Pakistan-backed or Pakistan-based, then when a new attack of a certain pattern occurs, it is natural to look in that direction. That becomes the principle line of your investigation, but it doesn't necessarily dictate your conclusion.

What is significance of the timing? Elections are underway.
No significance whatsoever. Because if you take a look at the pattern of attacks, you will always find something or the other happening—elections, big international meetings, etc. These are post facto linkages that we try to establish in trying to determine unique motives. There are no unique motives. The motives of these attacks is basically to inflict the most harm on the system as is possible. And to propagate the extremist cause to the widest possible audience. That's it. This is a long war. Every time a new sort of bullet is fired you don't ask why these people are shooting at us. It's basically part of that long war.

A hostage situation like this is relatively unusual for India. Are there any precedents or policies in place about whether or how to negotiate?
Hostage situations are per se not new. But unfortunately there seems to be no clarity or consistency in the actual policies adopted. After such an event, there is usually a great deal of posturing, and declarations that there will be "no negotiation with terrorists" are made. But the particular government or particular negotiators on the ground and their perceptions determine the direction and outcome of any particular hostage crisis. So I'm afraid even if there are policy declarations, they have never been consistently followed.

In 1993 India saw terror attacks that were a response to anti-Muslim rioting. Do you think the opposite could happen now—i.e., community unrest because of these attacks?
Mumbai has been seeing many such attacks. Ever since 1993, there have been attacks of varying magnitudes every year or two—more than one a year. In each case … there has not been [major] rioting. If there has been rioting at all, it has been occasionally by the community that has lost a lot of people. For example, after the Malegaon bombing [an attack on the predominately Muslim town of Malegaon last September], there were Muslims rioting against the police or rioting in general against public property or private property. There have been no riots targeting the other community. So I would like to suggest that a certain measure of maturity has been visible in the popular response to this. I cannot say the same for certain elements of the extremist fringe groups who seem to be rather eager to prove their machismo and aggression.

Is an investigation into alleged Hindu terrorists a political powder keg, or are most people still relatively even-keeled about the situation?
I personally think people are still relatively even-keeled. If anything, this should impose a greater measure of restraint on the political parties that have been going a bit overboard in politicizing the issue of terrorism, whether it is perpetrated by Hindu extremists or Muslim extremists. As far as mainstream parties are concerned, I think there will be pressure for moderation after these attacks. There has been a very, very slow inching towards a consensual understanding of terrorism. Unfortunately it has not yielded a consensual policy as yet. But I suspect this will build greater public pressure on political parties to stop playing partisan politics, and get down to the fundamental issue of how best to respond …

The fact of the matter is you have Hindus who are terrorists. You have Muslims who are terrorists. You also have Christians who are terrorists. And you will find several other denominations that have proven their capacity for terrorism. We must realize that terrorism is simply a method by which civilians are intentionally targeted. That's it.

This is the sixth attack this year and the political party BJP is claiming the government is soft on terror. But the media is also wondering if India has become a soft target. Is India vulnerable to terror attacks because of any particular failure in the police system? Or is that because it is such a huge place it is difficult to police?
I think India is extremely vulnerable. And the fundamental reason for that is that this is a state that has neglected security for decades. Investment in policing was considered a nondevelopmental—and consequently wasteful—expenditure. We are one of the most under-policed societies in the world. We have a ratio of 126 police per 100,000, whereas the Western ratio is 250-500 plus per 100,000.

Also, our police are under-equipped and under-resourced across the board. There is no really hard counterterrorism core to policing in India, despite our decades of experience as a target of terrorism. Consequently there is absolutely no doubt that India is vulnerable to terrorism and will remain so in the coming years.

I think this government as well as its predecessor has been equally inept and equally neglectful on the issue of terrorism …The principle task of law enforcement and law-and-order management and counterterrorism is the state's under the Indian constitution. It is the responsibility of the state governments that are run by various parties in the country. All major parties have some states under their control. With very rare exceptions, the quality of counterterrorism has been abysmal.

This is one of the first times in recent years that such high-profile places have been attacked. Will that have an impact in drawing more attention to the issue?
This is not first time. There have been several attacks that have targeted the elite. The most significant of these was the Parliament attack, where the core of system of governance, the democratic polity itself, was attacked. And that did see a much higher quantum and quality of response than any preceding attack. So it is correct to believe that attacks on elite targets tend to provoke a greater and more effective response on government's part.


Monday, October 20, 2008

the alleged booker prize

By Jason Overdorf
(Outlook India, October 27, 2008)

Normally, when an Indian wins the Booker Prize, the country rallies round to cheer, and even the most dubious "voracious readers" from the pages of Stardust suddenly develop an interest in literature. But Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger was never a book Indians wanted to read, and even with the much-coveted stamp of approval from abroad, it's hard telling whether it will get the 1,00,000-copy boost in sales experienced by Kiran Desai's Inheritance of Loss.

Consider the front-page Times of India story that announced the news. The first paragraph cites as the reason for the win Adiga's "alleged ability to offer insights into the struggle of a developing nation on the rise"—effectively condemning the Booker winner as a fake. The conventional and obviously objective alternative would have been to say, "In awarding the prize, the judges praised Adiga's skill in providing insight into the struggle of...." 'Alleged', which to the newspaper man implies somebody is being accused of a crime and the lawyers are worried about a case of libel, is a word used to skewer. Any editor will tell you that its use here was no accident.

From the beginning, The White Tiger received an uncomfortable reception. The author (a friend of mine) is, if not actually a foreigner, then foreign-returned, which my wife tells me ranks even lower on the totem pole. Worse still, regardless of his ethnicity, he was a writer for Time magazine, and therefore guilty of writing bad stuff about India: that the people here are poor; they suffer from diseases like polio and tuberculosis that have been eliminated across much of the world and similar nonsense. And he did it in the book, too! The White Tiger is about a guy from Bihar, for goodness sake! Naturally, the reviews, and even some of the news articles, are peppered with backhanded compliments.

But there are worse things than being called poor. Compared with Inheritance of Loss, The White Tiger is more compelling, better written, and—and this is the really important thing—less Orientalist.

Inheritance of Loss infuriatingly propagates the "little brown men doing cute little things" rubbish, that by all rights should have disappeared with India's colonists. But Indian readers overlooked this allegedly cute stuff about Anglo-Indians and Nepali immigrants and their silly ways, because of the book's nostalgic, patriotic content. Though The White Tiger has its own broad brush moments, that kind of pandering—cheap, tired jokes about "peculiar" Indian English and the like, with which that schlocky, much-praised tome Shantaram was chock-full—is largely absent. The trouble is that The White Tiger is gleefully vicious in lampooning the middle class who are, regardless of the tired accusations about "writing for the foreign market," Aravind's true audience.

It's a familiar reaction. The critics of the foreign correspondent corps insist we are always banging on about poverty and filth, when we should be pointing out the five-star hotels. But stories about India's slowness in eradicating poverty, malnutrition, disease and the like are rarer than you think. Aravind has called The White Tiger "a result of my secret, uncensored articles", because it is almost impossible to get anything into Time or The Economist or Newsweek about the problems that India has had for decades and—because they are too big, or the system is too flawed, or whatever—hasn't been able to solve. Poverty is bad. It is everywhere. But it is not news. When articles on these topics appear, nobody should be surprised. The same thing appears in the Times of India every day and Outlook every week.Nor should they be angry, unless the writer tries to imply that some white guy could step in and sort the mess out in a year or two.

It's the other kind of foreign correspondent rubbish, the Orientalist crap, that ought to get people incensed. Why does every article have to begin with a woman in a colourful sari, squatting in the dust? Why are western readers so concerned with the fate of tame elephants, snake-charmers and eunuchs? And why do we always find somebody to quote who speaks in Indian English as unbelievable as that invented by Gregory David Roberts? Because it's exotic, because it's allegedly cute. But it makes you all out to be little brown folks, funny but inscrutable.

I, for one, would rather be called poor. And I'd rather have somebody, like Aravind, to make me angry about it.

space you can use

India may now be the world leader in deploying satellites that assist practical work on the ground.

Jason Overdorf
From the magazine issue dated Oct 27, 2008

Nobody would mistake India for a leader in outer space. Many Indians are hopeful that the launch this week of the Chandrayaan I spacecraft, which will orbit the moon in search of water, will mark a turning point for the nation's space program. The Indian mission will carry instruments for the U.S. and European space agencies in addition to its own Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). Judging from local media coverage, Indians are following the mission almost as closely as the gyrations of the stock markets.

The Indian space program is already far ahead in one respect: its use of space technologies to solve the everyday problems of ordinary people on the ground. For more than 20 years, India has been quietly investing hundreds of millions of dollars in its earth-sciences program with an eye toward helping farmers with their crops, fishermen with their catches and rescue workers with management of floods and other disasters. "India is leading the way in the approach towards the rationale for earth observation," says Stephen Briggs, the head of the European Space Agency's (ESA) Earth Observation Science and Applications Department.

Measured by the number and sophistication of their satellites, America and Europe may be ahead of India. But with an annual budget of about $1 billion—less than a tenth of NASA's—ISRO covers a lot of ground. It has built and launched 46 satellites, which provide data for at least nine Indian government ministries. Its 11 national communications satellites are the largest network in Asia, and its seven remote sensing satellites map objects on Earth at a resolution of less than a meter. These form the backbone of a series of practical initiatives that, according to a Madras School of Economics study, have generated a $2 return for every $1 spent. "We have clearly shown that we can give back to the country much more than is invested in the space program," says ISRO chairman Madhavan Nair.

The satellite network is the fruit of an effort begun in 1982 to connect India's remote—and often roadless—regions to radio, TV and telephone networks. By 2002, ISRO had expanded satellite TV and radio coverage to nearly 90 percent of the country, up from 25 percent.

India's investment in Earth observation satellites over the years comes to only about $500 million per satellite, about a tenth of the cost of its Western counterparts. After introducing a satellite service to locate potential fish zones and broadcasting the sites over All India Radio, ISRO helped coastal fishermen double the size of their catch. For the government's Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission, begun in 1986, satellites have improved the success rate of government well-drilling projects by 50 to 80 percent, saving $100 million to $175 million. Meteorological satellites have improved the government's ability to predict the all-important Indian monsoon, which can influence India's gross domestic product by 2 to 5 percent.

Next, ISRO plans to roll out satellite-enabled services to hundreds of millions of farmers in India's remote villages. In partnership with NGOs and government bodies, it has helped to set up about 400 Village Resource Centers so far. Each provides connections to dozens of villages for Internet-based services such as access to commodities pricing information, agricultural advice from crop experts and land records. ISRO's remote-sensing data will also help village councils develop watersheds and irrigation projects, establish accurate land records and plan new roads connecting their villages with civilization as cheaply and efficiently as possible. One ISRO partner—the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation—has used satellites to conduct 78,000 training programs for more than 300,000 farmers in 550 villages, teaching them about farming practices like drip-and-sprinkle irrigation, health-care awareness programs for diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, and information about how to access government services. Using satellites to guide reclamation of 2 million hectares of saline and alkaline wastelands is expected to generate income of more than $500 million a year.

The United States and Europe may have beaten ISRO to the moon, but India's vision might just show the way for mankind's next giant leap.


Sunday, September 21, 2008

the real space race is in asia

As China tries to catch up to the United States and Russia, its regional neighbors are fast on its heels.

By Mary Hennock, Adam B. Kushner and Jason Overdorf
From the magazine issue dated Sep 29, 2008

If the weather holds, China plans to celebrate another milestone on its long march to the moon this week in a PR extravaganza that will rival its Olympic performance a few weeks ago. Fittingly, a Long March II-F rocket will take off from the Jiuquan launch center in Gansu province carrying three astronauts on China's third mission to low Earth orbit. After a live broadcast of the launch and heartwarming made-for-TV linkups between the crew and their families, the ruggedly handsome Zhai Zhigang will open the hatch and emerge into outer space. It will be China's first spacewalk and another step in its ambitious plan to build its own space station by 2015 and—if the rumors are true—to put astronauts on the moon by 2020.

The display will no doubt be lauded as yet another indication that China is ready to join the ranks of the world's space titans, Russia and the United States. But are these missions cause for worry in Washington and Moscow? The Soviet Union performed the first spacewalk in 1965 when Aleksei Leonov stepped out of a Voskhod II capsule, and the United States did it later that year when Ed White left his Gemini capsule. Although the ability to launch payloads can also be used to lob bombs, the military implications of a manned program are virtually nil: nobody has yet figured out what humans can do in space that robotic weapons can't do better.

China sees its spacewalk as a way of proving that it belongs with the United States and Russia in the top tier of space-faring nations. But its true opponent in this space race is not the West so much as its Asian neighbors—India in particular. India has in recent years transformed its space program from a utilitarian affair of meteorological and communications satellites into a hyperactive project that seems designed to make a splash on the world stage. Its robotic-exploration program is scheduled to launch a probe on Oct. 22 that will orbit the moon for two years. And Japan is considering expanding its well-established (if less ambitious) space program—which includes research on the International Space Station and a respectable commercial satellite business—and exploring military applications. Against this backdrop, Beijing's dominance is not unshakable. Just as the Soviet Union's launch of its Sputnik satellite back in 1957 was only a fleeting victory, China's recent accomplishments have provided merely the opening salvos in a modern-day Asian space race.

The two biggest forces driving the race between China and India are their insistence on self-reliance and the idea that space exploration feeds national prestige. Naturally, the two ideas work in tandem. India was shut out from NASA and European space missions for years after testing its first nuclear bomb in 1974; now many technologies for its space program have been developed by Indian engineers with little outside help. (India has agreed to carry U.S. and European payloads on its moon launch.) Beijing has watched U.S.- Russian cooperation on the International Space Station rise and fall with their diplomatic relations. "The most important thing is that China has developed and formed its own system for space aviation independently," says Huang Hai of the China Aviation Science and Research Institute. Ouyang Ziyuan, a space expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, summed it up to People's Daily: China's program "suggests comprehensive national strength …, increasing China's international prestige and the cohesive power of the Chinese nation."

Beijing's space program electrified the competition when astronaut Yang Liwei orbited the earth in October 2003. Last year China shot down an aging weather satellite, adding an arms-race quality to the battle for prestige. It is now constructing its fourth launch base, on Hainan Island, for a new 25-ton booster rocket that will carry aloft modules for its space station, which will be permanently staffed. Also ahead: robotic moon landings (a data-gathering probe is already in orbit) and even a rumored manned trip to the lunar surface—a prospect that provoked a minor crisis in Washington, culminating in President George W. Bush's State of the Union promise in 2004 to establish a permanent U.S. moon base. Despite technology export controls imposed by the United States, China's commercial satellite business is thriving. It has launched 79 satellites altogether—10 of them in 2007. This year India has launched 11 satellites, including nine from other countries—and it became the first nation to launch 10 satellites on one rocket.

The United States and the Soviet Union were racing in the context of a cold war, but India and China are vying for leadership in a competitive marketplace of people and knowledge industries. It's about developing technology, talent and markets. All of which has stimulated Chinese technology: sensors built for space have ended up in GPS systems, washing machines and other products. The Chinese hope to spin out their rockets and orbiters into inventions and products they can patent. And "they're now right up in the world class of robotics," says British scientist Martin Sweeting, CEO of Surrey Satellite Technology, which built Beijing a pollution-monitoring satellite for the Olympics and does work on China's moon rovers.

None of this has gone unnoticed abroad. China's manned space program "shook up all the neighbors because the Chinese asserted, 'We are the dominant regional power'," says Jim Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. After China used a ballistic missile to blow up the aging weather satellite in January 2007, scattering debris into low orbit, Japan's Parliament overturned a law isolating its space program from military uses, and its space agency is trying to capitalize on the new mood by requesting a 29 percent budget increase at a time when the general science budget is growing by only 1 percent per year. The public, however, worries more about the social problems of an aging population than beating China to the moon. As a stable democracy and charter member of the world's most advanced economies, Japan simply has less to prove.

The repercussions of China's program were felt most strongly in Delhi, where the 36-year-old space program is now ramping up its moon project at launch speed. China first sent a man into space in 2003, and India won't achieve that goal until 2015, but according to unofficial schedules, China will beat India to a moon landing by only a year. Reaching the moon is the childhood dream of Madhavan Nair, chairman of India's space program, which is now spending about $1 billion per year, compared with an estimated $2.5 billion a year in China. If all goes well, at the end of October India will launch the $100 million Chandrayaan-I, its first lunar orbiter, using the workhorse Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. The orbiter will fire a probe at the moon's surface, kicking up a cloud of lunar dust that scientists will analyze from afar—and it will plant the Indian flag in lunar soil. Its successor, Chandrayaan-II, a cooperative effort with Russia (and, therefore, one looked down upon by Chinese analysts), is expected to land a rover on the moon by 2012. The space agency, if it can persuade Parliament to fund all its dreams, aims to put a man on the moon by 2020, followed by robotic missions to Mars, a nearby asteroid and the sun—an agenda even more ambitious than China's.

The Indian space agency is careful to defend the program as more than an ego competition with the Chinese. It argues that its space program has earned a return of $2 on every dollar invested by the government, according to Nair. For example, its remote sensing satellites, which map the Earth's surface at a resolution of close to one meter, have helped find well water in dry regions, saving the government's drill boring program $100 million. And, while only a few years ago Indian space officials ruled out manned missions as too expensive and of dubious scientific value, they now speak—just like the Chinese—of mapping the moon for deposits of aluminum, silicon, uranium and titanium, probably with an eye to lunar mining. "I don't think we're in any race as far as the space program is concerned," says Nair. "We have our own national priorities, and based on those priorities we try to concentrate on developments which will benefit the people."

Moon shots for the masses? "If you ask people [in the space agencies], they will never acknowledge there is a competition," says Pallava Bagla, the author of "Destination Moon," a book about India's moon mission. "But subliminally there is a definite race there." The two sides don't talk about it because, says the Stimson Center's Michael Krepon, "for Beijing, you don't want to put New Delhi on the same playing field. For New Delhi, you don't want to acknowledge anxiety." Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan, a member of Parliament and Nair's predecessor, says that in addition to luring Indian engineers from the high-paying IT divisions into astrophysics, the space program will "establish our credentials in the international community." It makes India a player.

The benefits of manned missions for the military are only somewhat clearer. Beijing's satellite shoot-down last year demonstrated the potential vulnerability of objects in space. Its space program—which is ultimately run by the Army—got its start when engineers took military rockets and stuck capsules on the tip. And despite Delhi's claims to the contrary, Western analysts suspect that booster technology developed for India's civilian space program is used by its military arm. But the quick way to strengthen military rockets is to fund them directly, not to fly moon missions. By the same token, ground-based and orbiting lasers would probably make better antisatellite weapons than missiles. "The U.S. military and the Russian military searched for years for good reasons to put military people in space and never found any," says John Logsdon, senior fellow at America's Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Still, a space race is a risky way to boost national status: after all, a catastrophic accident while attempting merely to repeat this step for mankind would be a historic humiliation. But the risk is not without rewards. Successful space flight is a kind of national advertisement for satellites and, more broadly, quality control. "[China's] manned space program has gone a long way to proving to potential customers that their products are safe," says Theresa Hitchens of Washington's Center for Defense Information. In these days of global competition, that's a message both China and India desperately want to send.

With Akiko Kashiwagi in Tokyo


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

quiet revolution

While Asia reels from a food crisis, India is benefiting from three years of investment in farming.

Jason Overdorf
(Sep 13, 2008)

The food crisis earlier this year hit developing countries particularly hard, but India has fared surprisingly well. That's partly because India had already gone through a crisis of its own, three years ago, when surpluses were depleted; agricultural output was hardly growing; and farmers were committing suicide in record numbers. For this reason, agricultural productivity has been a hot-button issue for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. To keep his party in power, Singh needed not only to increase food production, but also to increase farmer incomes and end a debt crisis. Despite these gains, India lags behind China and Vietnam in productivity. P.K. Joshi, director of the New Delhi-based National Centre for Agricultural Economics and Policy Research, spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jason Overdorf about the challenges India faces. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: India produces only about half as much rice per hectare as China, the world's largest producer, and just about a third less than Vietnam. Why are India's crop yields so low?
P.K. Joshi: We need not compare China's yield and India's yield, because of several reasons. The first reason is that India is a very heterogenous country, from irrigated area to rain-fed area and rice is also grown in very marginal areas. So the average productivity seems to be very low. If we look to our irrigated areas, the yields are very high compared to any part of the world, and in rain-fed areas they are low because of less water and other factors. In China, they are using more than two-and-a-half times [the fertilizer that] Indian farmers are [using]. And China is growing hybrid rice, which has very high potential, and because of their governance system, they distribute the seed, and the farmers have to produce that variety.

In India, we have a democratic society, and the farmer is free to choose any variety or any hybrid. If the farmer has enough money to buy good seed, he does. But if not, he uses his own seed (from the year before). Another reason is the length of growing season. You know, in China, they take one crop per year. If you see our farmers, in Punjab they are growing rice and wheat in one year. In Haryana, rice and wheat. In some parts of West Bengal, the entire Indo-Gangetic Plain, three rice crops are being taken up per year. So if you compare the double crops, it will be on par with the Chinese one crop per year.

Should India be doing more to encourage farmers to use hybrids?
Yes, definitely. If we are speaking particularly about rice, then I would say that in rice, the hybrids have very high potential. There's a difference between high yielding varieties and hybrids. A hybrid is a cross between two different male and female plants, but the varieties are self-pollinating, so the hybrid has higher potential.

One issue for India's agricultural productivity appears to be water scarcity. Does India need more irrigation projects?
We do not have a water scarcity. But the issue of water management is important. We need to harvest water; use it more appropriately, use it more judiciously.

Has India invested sufficiently in agriculture, or has it fallen behind China and other Asian nations?
These countries are investing huge in agricultural research and also in agricultural development programs. In India, we [used to have] a huge surplus--if you go only six years back we used to have a huge buffer stock [of food grains]. [Unfortunately] we wanted to get rid of that buffer stock, either by subsidizing food or through many different social safety net programs. We started reducing poverty through these distribution programs, so investment in agriculture was reduced. And I would tell you that right now, this government has started increasing investment in agriculture, but it's still lower than what it used to be in 1970, if we compare in terms of percentage of agricultural GDP.

Why hasn't India been able to boost agricultural investment further? Singh has talked about this as a big issue since he came into office.
During the last three years, a lot of investment has been done in the agriculture sector because there was a serious crisis in Indian agriculture three years ago. Everybody was talking about agrarian distress. Farmers were committing suicide. And agricultural growth was less than 2 percent, while the target was 4 percent and more. The government [made] agriculture [a top] priority. Investment started increasing. Programs were tuned to increase agricultural production. [Prices were controlled] so they didn't rise as quickly as they did in the global market. The result was that when there was a serious food crisis around the world this year, India was almost comfortable. We were importing wheat two years ago, but for the past two years we have not thought about importing wheat. We now have a surplus in rice as well as wheat.

For several years, the growth rate of India's agricultural output has been slow. Apart from more investment, what does India need to do to rejuvenate the green revolution?
We expect the same kind of green revolution, which we witnessed in the mid 60s and early 70s. But we have an unnoticed revolution in Indian agriculture. If you look at sugar production, if you look at cotton, or dairy milk production, poultry or fish, or horticulture--which is vegetables and fruits, even maize--you see that the production of these commodities has remarkably increased. Also, you will notice that this year we had record food grain production--230.5-million tons. We have not seen that kind of food production during the green-revolution days. At that time, the reason we realized it was a revolution was that we were hungry. There was a famine in 1966, and suddenly production increased. Now that kind of hunger is not there, so we are ignoring the increase in production.

The introduction of genetically modified crops has been a controversial topic in India. Why are Indian farmers and activists concerned about GM foods?
Among activists, the apprehension is that [GM crops] may adversely affect [human] health. There's no evidence so far, globally, that it will. But activists [worry about] playing with nature and using genes from other organisms to change another species. The proponents feel that the future lies with these genetically modified crops, because the [cultivation] area is shrinking for crops, and you have to increase production. Production can be increased only by increasing productivity.

Even during the green revolution period, when high-yielding varieties came, there was a lot of apprehension. I still remember in 1967-1968 activists saying that it would create [stomach ulcers and that] the taste is not good. From the health point of view, the nutritional point of view, there was no negative effect during the green revolution. So may be the case with genetically modified commodities.

A lot of farmers seem to be shifting from essential grains to horticulture and cash crops to take advantage of the end consumer's higher spending power. Is it a concern from a food security standpoint that they're switching away from food grains?
As our incomes are increasing, as urbanization is taking place, as globalization is unfolding, the demand of the consumers is shifting away from cereal based diets to high-value commodities or processed commodities. Horticulture crops like fruits and vegetables have increased, milk products have increased. You now see lots of ice cream parlors--demand for processed dairy products [is rising]. Farmers are responding.

All these commodities are perishable in nature. If there is a sudden increase in production, there is a flood in the market and prices crash like anything because farmers cannot store these commodities. So what we need are good cold-storage facilities, we need the cold chains [to refrigerate products on the way to market]. And I feel that the government alone can't develop so many cold storage facilities or these cold chains. The participation of the private sector is very important, in this context, to integrate the markets.

Why does so much of India's agricultural production spoil on the way to market or in storage? I've read some estimates that peg the waste as high as 40 percent.
Largely, it is the perishable commodities. In the case of grains, it is only through rats and rodents and some storage problems. But in perishable commodities the waste is extreme. This is because the markets are not well integrated; there are missing markets; the roads are not good.


Monday, August 11, 2008

when more is worse

India's vast plan to build a bevy of new schools will fix only half the problem: quantity, not quality.

By Jason Overdorf
NEWSWEEK (Aug 9, 2008)

On the sprawling campus of Delhi University, the fear in July was as palpable as the excitement. For several weeks, prospective students rushed from college to college desperately combing admission lists for their names. Never before has India offered a better chance at a comfortable life after graduation. But never has getting a seat at one of the nation's universities been so hard. And for those who do land a spot, the troubles are just beginning.

Although India's economy and its job markets are booming, the nation's university system, which has been struggling for years, has recently hit a full-fledged crisis. The country's post-secondary schools currently offer only enough spots for about 7 percent of India's college-age citizens—about half the Asian average—and face a crushing faculty shortage. Already 25 percent of teaching positions nationwide are vacant, and 57 percent of professors lack either a master's or a Ph.D., according to a recent regulatory report. Curriculums are outdated, forcing companies to spend millions of dollars on "finishing schools" for new employees. Infrastructure is crumbling even at top schools like the famed Indian Institutes of Technology, where once cutting-edge laboratories have grown obsolete. And incompetent (or, as many allege, corrupt) regulators have let fly-by-night colleges proliferate while keeping out elite foreign universities keen to break into a potentially lucrative education market.

There is one ray of hope: for the first time in decades, the nation's leader has finally recognized the gravity of the problem. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called India's university system "dysfunctional" and embarked on the boldest educational reform program since Jawaharlal Nehru. But hamstrung by India's unwieldy bureaucracy and by ideological opponents, Singh may manage to dramatically expand the size of the country's higher education system without addressing many of its underlying problems.

Singh, himself a former economics professor at Delhi University, has promised to open 72 new post-secondary schools over the next five years, including eight new Indian Institutes of Technology, seven new Indian Institutes of Management, five new Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research and 20 new Indian Institutes of Information Technology. To fund them, he's promised to boost the government's higher education spending ninefold, to $20 billion annually, during the five-year period that began in 2007.

But these changes may wind up addressing India's quantity problem without affecting its quality crisis. Already up to 75 percent of India's 400,000 annual technology grads and 90 percent of its 2.5 million general college grads are unable to find work. That's not due to a lack of jobs, according to the National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom)—it's due to a lack of skills. "For a long time after Independence, we were trying to solve the employment problem. Now we're trying to solve the employability problem," said Vijay Thadani, head of the Confederation of Indian Industry's committee on education. Loosening the purse strings will help Singh improve infrastructure and expand access for students, but it will take more than money to solve the faculty shortage, revamp outdated courses, encourage innovation and crack down on diploma mills. Indeed, rapid expansion could make these problems worse.

To be fair, Singh has tried to address the quality crisis. In 2005, he appointed a dream team of academics, planners and business executives to the National Knowledge Commission with a mandate to redesign India's entire education infrastructure by this October. Led by chairman Sam Pitroda—the architect of the nation's telecommunications network and thus no stranger to bureaucratic hurdles—the commission published a comprehensive set of recommendations in January 2007, focusing on "expansion, excellence and inclusion." Among its proposals, the commission advocated not only expanding the state university system but also diversifying sources of financing to include private participation, philanthropic contributions and industry links. It also suggested introducing frequent curricular revisions, moving away from the present system of standardized university-wide exams in favor of internal assessments of students by their professors, and setting up an independent regulatory authority. Yet while Singh's government has allocated a huge sum for building more universities and improving inclusiveness by expanding the quota system, it has yet to make progress on the crucial regulatory elements of the commission's plan.

That could prove disastrous. At present, India has no less than 16 different supervisory bodies for higher education, few of which are independent and all of which are of questionable efficacy. Mostly due to bureaucratic inertia, they've so far blocked attempts to modernize curriculums and methods of evaluation. They haven't done a good job at policing, either. Shoddy for-profit colleges have proliferated even as internationally respected foreign providers have been barred from opening up branch campuses and have struggled to get their joint programs certified. The All India Council of Technical Education, for example, has approved thousands of substandard private engineering colleges—many of them founded by profit-minded politicians. But it has refused to recognize the Indian School of Business, a private institution founded by former McKinsey & Co. managing director Rajat Gupta. And political wrangling at the parliamentary level (engineered by Singh's erstwhile communist coalition partners) has stymied legislation to allow foreign universities to set up campuses, even though Cornell, Columbia, and Stanford universities have all sent high-ranking delegations to the country on exploratory missions.

The will to reform remains strong, at least at the top. But the prime minister and his allies haven't succeeded in actually getting much done. In his introduction to the National Knowledge Commission's second report, published this January, Pitroda warned, "there is still resistance at various levels in the government to new ideas, experimentation ... external interventions, transparency and accountability, due to rigid organizational structures with territorial mindsets." If those obstacles can't be overcome, he wrote, "increasing resources could well result in more of the same." In other words, India could end up throwing good money—a lot of it—after bad, something this nation and its students could ill afford.