Tuesday, April 21, 2009

in india, love hurts

With an increased emphasis on romantic love, and greater opportunities for women, more Indian marriages are breaking down.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
Published: April 21, 2009

NEW DELHI — In India, love is in the air. Unfortunately, so is the raucous noise of lover's quarrels and the soporific drone of the court judge.

The flawed, but familiar, bonds of tradition are fading away. And there's nothing to replace them except for what Danny DeVito identified in "The War of the Roses" as the “two dilemmas that rattle the human skull: How do you hang on to someone who won't stay? And how do you get rid of someone who won't go?”

For thousands of years, Hindu society had the first problem licked. Marriages were contracts of servitude that sent a daughter off to her husband's family home with a hefty dowry and the injunction not to complain, because it was a one-way trip. Now, though, India is working on DeVito's second dilemma.

Women are gaining independence through education and a more important role in the workforce. Divorce laws have been made more liberal, and progressive legislation has been adopted to curb “bride burning” to extort dowries. Women no longer have to suffer psychological or physical abuse. More couples live in nuclear families instead of with the husband's mother and father, which ought to make things easier but has instead resulted in a relaxing of the unofficial ban on a wife's family butting into the couple's business.

And, perhaps most significantly, a new cultural obsession with romance and personal fulfillment has raised the bar for a happy marriage.

“If people have to be romantic and romance has to endure through thick and thin, the idea can be that if romance withers, the marriage is ended,” says Patricia Uberoi, a New Delhi-based sociologist.

India does not track a national divorce rate, but some analyses of the number of divorce petitions filed in municipal courts indicate that divorce has doubled since 1990 in trend-setting Mumbai and Delhi.

“Statistically the number of cases on the docket has exploded,” says Prosenjit Banerjee, a Delhi divorce lawyer. That means that even though the number of courts devoted to divorce proceedings has grown to around a dozen over the past 10 years, up from just four or five, there are still more than 30 cases listed before each court every day.

The phenomenon has already spread beyond the cosmopolitan centers.
Though the broadest available figures, from the National Family Health Survey, still place the figure much lower, some estimates now peg the (once negligible) national divorce rate at close to 6 percent. The statistical discrepancy that can probably be attributed to the glacial pace of the Indian courts, since the NFHS counted the number of divorced people and other estimates focus on the number of divorce cases.

At least among Internet users, the problem knows no geographical boundaries. About 60 percent of the 50,000 customers who have registered with SecondShaadi.com, an online matchmaking service for divorced Indians that launched a year ago, live outside India's five largest cities; more than a third live outside the 20 largest cities. “In a few years, we may not even be talking about divorce and remarriage as a stigma anymore,” says Vivek Pahwa, the company's chief executive.

For men and women trapped in bad marriages, that's wonderful news. Rani, a 23-year-old woman from the provincial town of Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, for instance, applied for the courts after her husband sent her back to her parents a year into their marriage with a demand for a dowry supplement of 50,000 rupees (the equivalent of a year's salary in these parts). And when she gave birth to a daughter, her husband didn't even come to look at the baby. After three years of legal wrangling over the dowry — prohibited since 1961, though the law is widely flouted — she now says, “I want to be divorced this minute!”

But the state is flailing helplessly as it tries to balance tradition with modernity when it comes to the legal and law enforcement responses to marital discord.
Because a court-ordered divorce can take 15 years, women's attorneys often advise them to file dowry or domestic violence cases against their husbands instead, says Geeta Luthra, a lawyer who works on divorce and other women's issues. The criminal courts are equally slow, but the threat of being arrested and spending time behind bars while their lawyer argues for bail exerts pressure on men to settle. That's unfortunate, Luthra says, because the “eight false cases” are making the one genuine dowry petitioner more difficult to believe.

The domestic violence act of 2005 poses another kind of threat: An abused wife can be awarded any “matrimonial home” that she resided in during her marriage — whether or not her husband holds the deed. “The idea is that by scaring the husband and his family they'll force them to settle. And the settlement basically means money,” Banerjee says. “The law is certainly being abused. That's not my assessment, that's the assessment of the high court and the supreme court.”

For men like Rakesh, a middle-class Delhi resident, this means almost weekly trips to court and the police station's special cell for women.

After he refused his wife's demand to move into a second home that his family owned and rented to tenants, his wife filed a police case against him and threatened to have him, his aging mother, his two brothers and their wives thrown in jail for dowry violations he maintains are completely fictitious. He tried to come up with a compromise — he even rented a house for the couple to live in separate from his family. But when nothing worked he filed for divorce.

Now when he's not at the special police division devoted to women's issues suffering verbal abuse in the guise of police-enforced couples counseling, he spends his time wondering whether today is the day he'll get the warning he's going to be arrested and should seek anticipatory bail.

Still, the terms of the debate over dowry and domestic violence cases sometimes suggest what's at stake is a disagreement over the traditions of marriage.

For instance, a web site designed to help men victimized by false cases asks, “Wife forcing you to live separately? Wife does not respect you and is discourteous to your parents?”

This sort of thing cuts both ways, says Luthra. Perhaps understandably, women are less tolerant and more demanding than ever before. But it's not uncommon for a man to sue for divorce on the grounds that his wife refuses to do the housework, fails to play the good hostess when his friends drop by, or is impolite to her in-laws. On the other hand, Luthra says that these days, among couples who don't live with the husband's parents, the wife's mother may call with advice 10 times a day.

That's a problem any culture — traditional or modern — can understand.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

the greatest show on earth

Voting begins in India — yes, the world's largest democracy. Here's what you need to know.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
April 16, 2009

NEW DELHI — Half circus, half marathon, India's mammoth general election began Thursday, with some 140 million voters casting their ballots in a free-for-all that has so far defied pundits for a prediction.

After a campaign season that saw candidates climbing trees, hefting dumbbells, and delivering vitriolic speeches to draw attention, on the first day of polling, election officials transported electronic voting machines across mountain creek beds on horseback while candidates rolled up to file their nomination papers in imported luxury cars, rickshaws, horse-drawn carriages — even riding atop a funeral bier shouldered by supporters. It is little wonder that local reporters have taken to calling India's elections “the greatest show on earth.”

Apart from all the tamasha – or hoopla – the sheer scale of the enterprise is daunting. Because India is fighting simmering wars with Maoist rebels, Kashmiri separatists, and a host of other groups that routinely threaten violent retaliation if voters ignore calls to boycott the polls — and to curb the once-widespread practice of “booth capturing” by party strongmen — the election will take place in five phases between April 16 and May 13 so that some 2 million soldiers and police officers can be deployed to protect voters.

More than 700 million voters will eventually cast their ballots, choosing candidates from among more than 30 different political parties, before the results are announced May 16. And with the two main national parties — the Indian National Congress led by Sonia Gandhi and current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Lal Krishna Advani — waning in influence, there's a bigger role than ever for bit players and would-be king- and queen-makers of all shapes and sizes.

“What this election is going to decide is the future of coalition politics, and to what extent parties other than the Congress and the BJP can position their own alliance system,” said political analyst Praful Bidwai.

The contest already has dished up some interesting surprises. Varun Gandhi, a descendant of Jawaharlal Nehru, who defected from the family bastion Congress Party, emerged as the poster boy of the BJP's anti-Muslim agenda. Sajjad Gani Lone became the first major Kashmiri separatist leader to enter the electoral fray. And the Hurriyat Conference, an alliance of 26-odd Kashmiri separatist parties, for the first time decided not to issue a call to boycott the polls. Nobody knows what happens next.

Burned by the Congress Party's unexpected victory in 2004, few pundits are willing to make any predictions about this contest, which looks to be decided on a bewildering array of local issues in the absence of any galvanizing national debate. But an ear to the ground verifies that most poll watchers tacitly agree with the forecast laid out by local bookies, who have, naturally, been unable to resist laying odds on the outcome, though all forms of gambling are illegal here.

On the eve of phase one, odds makers were offering even money that the Congress will take at least 142 of the 543 parliamentary seats, a tally that would leave them more than 100 seats short of the majority needed to form a government and select the prime minister on their own, but put them in the driver's seat for any coalition that may emerge following the polls.

Despite the economic downturn and the previous government's perceived failures in its response to the terrorist attacks on Mumbai, the odds on the BJP are less favorable, with bookies offering even money that the Hindu nationalist party will win around 120 seats. The other possibility, though it appears remote, is that a so-called “third front” led by a block of communist parties and regional satraps could cobble together a majority piecemeal — something that has only happened once before in Indian history.

“We've only had one such experience in the past, in '96 to '98,” said Delhi University professor Mahesh Rangarajan. “Can one look at a coalition where the center of gravity shifts toward the smaller parties? Or will there be a coalition consisting primarily of the smaller, regional parties, supported by one of the larger parties? Either way, I think there is a shift of the center of gravity that is an underlying issue of this election.”

So far, though, it is also difficult to gauge exactly what is at stake. Recent electoral contests between the Congress and BJP have been seen here as a struggle between the model of secularism favored by the Congress — which offers a vision of a multicultural India that protects and supports the religious and ethnic practices of its diverse population — and the BJP's ideology of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, which in its strongest form advocates the suppression of the minority Muslim population and the conversion of India into a Hindu state.

However, this contest has so far suggested that whatever the beliefs of its hard core supporters, the BJP has decided to soft-pedal its more radical policies with an eye to wooing future coalition partners from among regional parties that lack strong ideologies but are uncomfortable with the open espousal of anti-minority policies.
Similarly — though Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has accused the BJP's Advani of “weeping in a corner” while the mob he whipped into a frenzy destroyed a historic mosque and Sonia Gandhi has accused him of taking orders from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a proto-fascist Hindu outfit with millions of members — the voters have heard this material so many times they know the script by heart.

As a result, the real battle will be fought at the ground level, on myriad local issues ranging from the suicides of debt-laden farmers to what road or bridge gets built where. And the result could throw up one of the most fractured and diverse coalitions ever to govern this limitlessly complex country.

“I think in some ways it is one of the most unpredictable elections that India has ever seen,” Bidwai said. "The regional parties and the state-level and sub-state parties now have something like 36 percent of the vote, whereas 25 years ago they had just about 10 or 11 percent. They have emerged as far more important, and that introduces a new kind of uncertainty.”

Some worry that a weak coalition government could be disastrous for India, coming in the midst of an economic crisis that calls for swift and decisive action. Manmohan Singh himself (a trained economist whose primary concern has always been India's rate of economic growth) on Wednesday told members of the Editors Guild of India that growing regionalism — and the weak coalitions it engenders — should be seen as a problem on par with terrorism and Maoist extremism.

But while it is true that past governments formed without a dominant party have crumbled swiftly, making an endless season of polls and repolls a disturbing possibility, experts point out that some short-term governments lacking clear popular mandates have been instrumental in pushing through crucial policies.

The coalition government led by the populist Janata Dal party's VP Singh, for instance, managed to push through a resolution on the demolition of the Babri mosque and a society-defining expansion of the job quota system to include the so-called “other backward classes” as well as the erstwhile untouchables, while Atal Behari Vajpayee's 13-day government of 1998 pushed ahead with India's first nuclear weapons test.

“Of course, that kind of government will be able to focus on only one or two or three tasks,” Rangarajan said. “It can't spread its energy across the board. But I have no doubt that the economy will be right at the top of the agenda [whoever wins]. Whichever government you have, there will have to be a broad stimulus, and I think there you will see some continuity.”

For now, all that is left to do is wait and watch — and place a call to the bookie.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

tigers of india: fearful symmetry

BANDHAVGAR AND PANNA, India — One sunny afternoon in March, officers of the Madhya Pradesh forest department crept up on a majestic Bengal tiger relaxing in the Bandhavgar National Park and shot it with a tranquilizer dart.

The tigress was then loaded into a truck and driven 150 miles — a trip of eight hours or so on India's rough roads — to the Panna Tiger Reserve.
The move was billed as one of the most modern and proactive steps that India's forest department has taken to protect the country's fast disappearing tigers.

But leading conservationists here say the truck might as well have driven the tranquilized beast all the way to China — the final destination of almost all the tigers that are killed by poachers. The Panna Reserve is no great place for tigers: Poachers abound, researchers claim the management there is inept, and the park has lost about 40 tigers the past five years.

Relocations like these aren't inherently disastrous. Wildlife scientists recognize that moving individual animals can be essential to protecting the population. Some experts from the commercial wildlife industry — like Les Carlisle, a conservation manager — think they will have to play an integral part in India's future conservation plans.

“Unless India changes from a passive management system where they sit and record what happens to an active management system where they try and intervene and prevent local extinctions and reintroduce species,” Carlisle said, “I don't believe the future of the tiger is great at all.”

But according to independent wildlife scientists who have studied Panna carefully, that's precisely the problem. Because neither the park management in Panna, nor anything about the way it is run has been changed, there is little reason to hope that the relocated tigress — or any of the others the forest department has committed to moving into Panna — will last much longer.

"Not a single tiger is left in Panna and it is imperative that the reasons for disappearance of tigers in the reserve are identified, and the causes of the tragic decline eliminated, before the re-introduction of any tigers from Bandhavgarh or Kanha," a panel of eight independent tiger experts wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last month.

The signatories are still incensed. “This whole sorry incident has proved without doubt that what we need is a dedicated, trained wildlife service,” said Belinda Wright, a former National Geographic photographer who now leads the Wildlife Protection Society of India. “This is playing with fire. Without taking the advice of tiger experts with decades of experience, they [the forest department officers] are just basically doing their own thing.”

It's not news that the tiger is critically endangered around the world. The majestic cat's numbers have declined to only about 3,500, from upwards of 40,000 at the beginning of the century, with subspecies such as the South China Tiger and Sumatran Tiger facing imminent extinction, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

But in recent years, the situation has been revealed to be much more dire than previously believed — in large part due to an apparent crisis plaguing India's “Project Tiger.”

For its last tiger census, India adopted a new way of estimating the surviving population. Instead of a simple method that extrapolated numbers from counting tiger tracks, the new census used satellite remote sensing, geographic information system, and global positioning system technology — in combination with camera trapping and other techniques — to estimate tiger and prey populations.

The results were stunning: Instead of the 3,600 tigers estimated to be living in India's forests in 2002, the more sophisticated census found there are really only about 1,400. In other words, either half of India's tigers (and a quarter of the world's total) were killed over the past five years, or they had never existed anywhere but on paper to begin with.

The unvoiced question became: Was Project Tiger, hailed as one of the world's most successful wildlife conservation programs since it was founded by Indira Gandhi in 1972, just an exercise in inventing numbers?

At first, according to researcher, Raghunandan Chundawat, the program worked. “From 1995 to 2002, in six years, we saw one of the finest recovery of tiger populations in Panna. It was one of the most successful stories in tiger conservation in the last three or four decades,” Chundawat said.

Why did it work? “It was partly due to the management at that time, and partly due to our presence. The guy who was [in charge] there [during those years] provided all the necessary support, and we were providing all the breeding tigers with radio collars and monitored them. We looked at every kill. When you have radio collars and you're watching the tiger 24 hours [a day] you provide a kind of security that's not possible any other way.”

The result was a survival rate of 90 percent for cubs, and, eventually, about seven tigers per square kilometer in the area.

Then, Chundawat alleges, a disaster happened. “In 2001, we had a change in the [park] management,” he said. “They started curtailing our activities, so we were not able to monitor the tigers 24 hours a day the way we should have. We lost a couple of tigers because of that, and when we raised the issue with the management, instead of working with us to determine why these tiger deaths happened and working it out, they canceled our permission [to work in the park altogether.]”

Chundawat was banned from the park for nearly a year, he said, during which time Panna lost more than 20 tigers, and the carnage continued in the absence of the intensive surveillance that his research project provided. But the official numbers — based on the same old method of counting tiger tracks — didn't change.

H.S. Pabla, chief conservator of forests for Madhya Pradesh, makes light of these charges. “There was a depletion in tiger numbers, but the reason was there was no breeding,” he said. “If there are no young ones coming from the bottom then the population is likely to go extinct. So naturally the only solution was to somehow start breeding in that area. We noticed there were some males there, but no females, so the hope was that if we brought in some females that they would start breeding.”

As far as independent tiger experts are concerned, that decision to relocate female tigers from Bandhavgarh to Panna is the proverbial smoking gun. As late as April 2008, the chief wildlife warden claimed in an article in Sanctuary Magazine that Panna had between 20 and 32 tigers and promised, “I would like to assure the world that the tiger density in the park has never been better.”

A month later his department wrote to the national authorities asking for permission to relocate two females. “In a month's time, how can this happen?” Chundawat said. “Now, I believe they have also written a letter to request the transfer of a male tiger. We lost females, we lost males, so what is left there?”

And with the authorities focused on hiding the problem, rather than fixing it, there is little hope that anything will change. “Panna has lost up to 40 tigers,” Wright said. “They've vanished into thin air. Until that is investigated and the reason for their disappearance is addressed, it is pointless to move tigers there. It's downright irresponsible.”