Thursday, April 17, 2008

want a gun? get a vasectomy


Toronto Globe and Mail
(April 17, 2008)

SHIVPURI, India — Shivraj Singh already had three sons and a daughter, but what he really wanted next was a gun, so he got a vasectomy.

The 45-year-old Indian farmer is one of several men who recently took advantage of a creative population control program started in the gun-loving state of Madhya Pradesh. Under the scheme, men with vasectomy certificates can jump to the front of the waiting list for gun licences - so coveted around here that around 10,000 people apply every year even though fewer than 500 are awarded.

India, which has seen its population triple to 1.1 billion people since the 1940s, has long been striving to reduce the birth rate from the present five children per couple to 2.1. According to the Family Planning Association of India, sterilization is the country's most common form of birth control, but because of masculine pride, vasectomies are far less popular than female tubal ligations, even though the latter procedure is more fraught with complications.

"Among the uneducated, ladies think that if their husband gets the operation, then he might have trouble working," says Vimal Dwivedi, medical adviser to the FPA branch in Gwalior, the nearest large city. "And the men think that they might have problems with impotence."
Go under the knife, get a gun. Family planning officials in a remote part of India where everyone wants a gun have come up with novel way to promote vasectomies: You can't get a permit to fire bullets unless you get an operation to make sure you're shooting blanks. Photo by:
Enlarge Image

Go under the knife, get a gun. Family planning officials in a remote part of India where everyone wants a gun have come up with novel way to promote vasectomies: You can't get a permit to fire bullets unless you get an operation to make sure you're shooting blanks. Photo by: Jason Overdorf (Jason Overdorf/The Globe and Mail)
The Globe and Mail

Guns are helping to fight that ignorance. "Over the last eight years, the number of vasectomy operations has never crossed double digits," says Manish Srivastav, the 50-year-old district magistrate who came up with the guns for sterilization scheme. "Last year we had only eight, and the year before that just one." This year there were 174.

In rural, male-dominated societies such as Shivpuri, India's population has spiralled out of control because every family wants a son, and couples keep trying until they get one, sometimes resorting to selective abortions, which have brought the ratio of men to women down to 750 women for every 1,000 men in Shivpuri, well below the normal level of about 1,000 women for every 1050 men.

But the gun culture in this arid, rocky country, which adjoins a mazelike network of deep ravines called the Chambal River Valley, may be strong enough to overcome that. Gangs of bandits, known locally as dacoits, have preyed on the Chambal for centuries, robbing, killing and kidnapping villagers and townspeople, then disappearing into canyon hideouts.

Most are like Rambabu Gadaria, who was gunned down by police last year after a long reign of terror in Shivpuri. A ruthless kidnapper and extortionist whose unkempt beard fell past the third button of his shirt, he massacred 13 villagers who dared to oppose him in 2004.

In that atmosphere, self-defence is a strong motivator. "My village is near the forest, in an area that's infested with bandits," says Mr. Singh, who plans to buy a 12-gauge shotgun now that he's infertile.

Last year, a gang of bandits tramped out of the jungle while Mr. Singh was working in his field and stuck their homemade pistols and ancient shotguns in his face. He didn't have much cash, but they took the submersible pump he relied on to irrigate his crops and the motorized tiller he used to plow his fields.

Once they hear through the grapevine he has a gun, he says, they won't return.

But protection is only part of the reason firearms are popular here. Perhaps because of the romance associated with dacoits - sometimes viewed as proletariat rebels - or simply because a man's sense of his masculinity here is deeply tied to his ability to stand up for himself, owning a gun has also become a potent symbol of virility, power and izzat - or honour.

That is helping to encourage younger men to seek vasectomies, and to have the procedure before they have too many children.

"I'll march with my gun on my shoulder when I go to weddings and fire into the air to celebrate," says Devanand Sharma, who had the operation at just 26 after he'd had a son and a daughter. "People will look at me and think that I'm a big man. My honour will increase and I'll feel more important."

Special to The Globe and Mail

Saturday, April 05, 2008

the negotiator

Kamal Nath has become not only the voice of India in trade circles, but an advocate of the developing world.

Jason Overdorf
Newsweek Web Exclusive
April 5, 2008

Kamal Nath is India's Minister of Commerce & Industry, a position that due to India's rising prominence in global trade—both as a coveted market and a growing power in agricultural and industrial production—makes him an important figure in international affairs. Since assuming office as commerce minister in 2004, he's become the voice of the globe's developing countries in World Trade Organization negotiations. He brings the same perspective to the World Economic Forum meetings in Davos and similar high-powered international conferences. He spoke with NEWSWEEK 's Jason Overdorf. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What differences have you seen in the world's power elite, as represented by the attendees at Davos, the WTO negotiations, and similar events?

Kamal Nath: The constituents at the head table have changed. Where the WTO is concerned, the most important thing is that the manner of negotiations has changed. In the last round of the WTO, there were just 10-to-12 countries who got together, and the other countries never had a voice. It was decided by 12 countries, and everybody else had to fall in line. Today, in the consensus building process, developing countries have not only a voice, but a loud voice.

Why do you think that is?

With the changing global economic architecture, the mass of economic activity is shifting. At Davos, twenty years ago or even ten years ago, the invitees were mainly from the US and Europe, and it was for interaction between them. Today, many of those who are coming from Europe or the United States are coming for interaction with those from the East.

Do you also find that government actors are losing prominence and private actors are becoming bigger players?

As the GDP of countries—the growth of GDP in developing countries—gets more and more driven by the private sector, obviously the private sector assumes a voice which is pretty loud.

From your own agenda, I know you represent India, so that's obviously your main focus, but what else do you see as your role in these forums?

In these forums, it's not only the concerns of India, but the concerns of other developing countries also, which helps keeps the coordination among developing countries so that fragmentation does not happen.

You've emerged as one of the main negotiators for developing countries. Do you find that in these forums, forming relationships with the other attendees becomes very important in pushing your agenda forward?

A personal relationship is an important ingredient in negotiations, and there's an element of trust and greater sensitivity to fairness. And it can be very frank.

Apart from negotiating for the interests of the developing world in trade negotiations...
That is one part of my job. The other part has been really the India story—the investment story and the credibility of India. WTO is only one part, a very small part. For example, I went to Chicago for a trade policy meeting, and there were people there from agriculture, commerce, treasury. I asked them, how do you see the agriculture position globally. I know you share many views. How do you see agriculture in the world? And they said, you know we are very worried, we are thinking of putting reserve land in the US into agriculture.... These are things that are very important.

Now private players are playing a much more important role in shaping international policy, aren't they?

The biggest example is that every president or prime minister that comes to India is coming with a business delegation. He's coming with his trade minister, his industries minister—that's why I'm so stressed, because I'm the one who has to deal with it. Same thing with our prime minister. When he goes to another country, he goes with a trade delegation. It's an understanding that the business communitY are the players. The government can be the facilitator, but the players in economic growth are different. The government is only a facilitator and an enabler.

Does it raise concerns that the perspective of the poor will be lost in our rush to create more capital?

I don't think so. I think that the level of those who are in power think beyond their own profit. They also recognize that the growth of their economies and their country is necessary for the growth of their own company.


storm warning

The world could be one crop failure away from an actual food crisis. Market panic has already started.

By George Wehrfritz and Jason Overdorf
(Newsweek, April 5, 2008)

When all goes well, thunderheads tower above India's southwestern state of Kerala in early June, drenching the region's vital rice fields and ensuring a bountiful harvest. From there the summer monsoon plods northward to soak the baking plains and irrigate vital breadbasket regions that feed 1.1 billion people before arriving at the foot of the Himalayas in August. Forecasting this complex meteorological process has always been an obsession within India, but this year the world will be watching. Changes in the monsoon cycle can shrink India's total grain harvest by up to 20 percent, creating a shortfall of 30 million metric tons. During India's last crop failure, in 2002, the country had a massive reserve to fall back on. "Now," says Usha Tuteja, an agricultural economist at Delhi University, "we don't have enough buffer stocks to make up for one bad year."

India isn't the only danger zone today. A major storm battering the Philippines or Bangladesh at the wrong moment, a pest or plant-disease outbreak in Vietnam, or floods along China's Yangtze River like those that occurred in the mid-1990s would put serious strains on global grain reserves already depleted to levels not seen since the 1970s. Global markets are behaving as if a food shock is imminent.

In recent months the commodity prices of rice, wheat and corn has jumped 50 percent or more, pushing retail prices to levels unseen in a generation and prompting grain-exporting countries to curtail trade to suppress domestic inflation. On March 20, the World Food Program issued an emergency appeal for more funding to keep aid moving to the world's poorest countries. Last week World Bank president Robert Zoellick called for urgent global action on the part of rich nations "or many more people will suffer or starve."

Experts blame a variety of factors for today's food crunch. Poor harvests in Europe since 2005 and Australia's ongoing drought have crimped the pipeline of staple grains to world markets. Soaring demand for bio-fuels in response to $100-per-barrel oil is diverting crops. And the rise of Asia's twin giants—China and India—is turning them both into market-moving grain hogs. Add to that climate change and a decline in agricultural investment as a percentage of GDP worldwide, and there's little mystery to why food security is a pressing issue from Tokyo to Abidjan. "We're paying the price of complacency," says biologist Robert Zeigler, head of the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute.

The immediate crisis is one of confidence. As governments with grain surpluses tighten their grip on reserves, countries that rely on imported staples are scrambling to secure supplies. Driven partly by speculation, commodities markets have seen the per-ton cost of rice, wheat and corn surge by 50 percent or more since mid-2007. There are real supply issues, to be sure. But experts blame governments that inhibit grain flows, speculators betting on price spikes and fearful consumers who buy 10 sacks instead of one at the local markets for making the problem worse than it needs to be. When the United Nations' World Food Program issued an "extraordinary emergency appeal" to fill a $500 million funding gap last month, executive director Josette Sheeran said it was the first ever issued over a "market-generated crisis."

Unfortunately the government response is making the market squeeze worse. Richard Barichello, an economist at the University of British Columbia, argues that countries that have recently slapped new controls on exports—including India, Vietnam, Egypt and Cambodia—are putting politics ahead of economics. "It's a beggar-thy-neighbor policy," he says, that reduces incentives for farmers to grow more and leads to black marketeering.

The underlying problem with global food supplies is stark. After spiking dramatically in the 1970s following the introduction of scientific farming techniques during the Green Revolution, crop yields are now rising by less than 1 percent per year, which is half the annual increase in worldwide demand for grain and well below global population growth, now at 1.3 percent. The problem was largely invisible until 2000, when poor Asian harvests and surging regional demand conspired to draw down global grain stocks from 37 percent to 17 percent of annual consumption in three years—erasing a surplus that took a decade to accumulate.

Today's shortage punishes poor nations disproportionately. In countries with low per capita incomes, food is often the largest single component of household spending—up to 80 percent, compared with just 15 percent for the average American or European family. On the United Nations' list of countries most vulnerable to food shocks (according to their demand for imported food), Indonesia, the Philippines and Bangladesh rank first, second and fourth, respectively—and China and India make the top 10 due to their huge populations of rural poor. As grain prices push higher, "a lot of people are going to be forced to tighten their belts when they don't have any notches left," says environmentalist Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington. "The people who will be most affected are those who are on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder."

An emergency is now unfolding in what the United Nations calls "low-income food-deficit countries." Most are in Africa, including Congo, Sudan and Kenya. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's latest forecast, those nations will import 2 percent fewer cereals in 2007-08 but pay 35 percent more for its food bill "for the second consecutive year." It warned that if the WFP did not receive emergency funding by May 1, it might be forced to cut back aid to 73 million people.

The crisis has put rural development back on the global agenda. "We're coming off 15 years of neglect in research, technological development and [infrastructure] investment in agriculture," says Zeigler, who advocates a second Green Revolution aimed at boosting crop yields above demand growth for grains. In a speech in Washington last week, Zoellick called for a "New Deal for Global Food Policy" and said the bank would nearly double loans for agricultural development to Africa. Mitigating the global food shortage is expected to dominate discussions at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund's spring meeting this week in Washington.

Poor countries are now vulnerable not because food is unavailable but because they can't afford it. "If in a country like India there is a monsoon failure or some crisis in agriculture, the global food situation will become very, very precarious," says Devinder Sharma, an agriculture analyst in New Delhi. With demand from India and China on global markets, he warns that "the world will not have any food grains left for anybody else." That's a theory nobody hopes will be tested any time soon. Which is why the monsoon skies over Kerala are worth watching closely this year.