Thursday, September 29, 2011

India: bouncing back from the plague

After the plague hit Surat in 1994, an amazing thing happened: this Gujarat city cleaned up its act.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - September 29, 2011

SURAT, Gujarat — When an outbreak of the pneumonic plague struck Surat in 1994, the so-called “diamond city” took an unprecedented step, as far as India goes: It cleaned up its act.

Best known for its booming textile and diamond-polishing industries, Surat fell victim to the plague because it was among India's dirtiest cities — though its lackadaisical attitude toward garbage and sewage was by no means unusual in a country one might call hygiene-challenged.

But thanks to a coming together of public will and a host of reforms, Surat successfully went from one of the country's dirtiest cities to one of its cleanest in 18 short months.

Perhaps more remarkable, despite the exodus of S.R. Rao, the municipal commissioner who made it happen, Surat has more or less maintained its high standards, despite the city's rapid expansion over the past decade.

Is there a lesson here for the rest of India? Definitely. But it will take more than plagiarizing Rao's urban planning documents to get it done elsewhere — at least without a rash of epidemics.

“It's not a question only of the model, it's a question of the local people's behavior,” said K.D. Yadav, a professor of civil engineering at Surat's S.V. National Institute of Technology.

There's nothing like a dose of the plague to get a city thinking about hygiene, it turns out — especially a strain that's more virulent than the infamous Black Death.

Thus, in 1994, after 54 residents died and some 300,000 fled to escape a possible quarantine, the people who stuck around were willing to get with the program — working to eliminate the tons of garbage and overflowing sewers that had inundated the city with disease-carrying rats.

But the design of the system is instructive, too.

In an effort to make city officials more accountable, Rao divided the municipality into six zones, appointing a commissioner for each, so that it was crystal clear who was to blame for problem areas.

Rao ordered officials responsible for solid waste management to make personal field visits every day, rather than relying on dubious reports, and he instituted a grievance-redressal system for complaints and fines for violaters.

It sounds like basic stuff, and it is. The trick is that Surat made it work. And there the devil is in the details.

“At that time, the [Bharatiya Janata Party] BJP had won 98 out of 99 seats [in the municipal government], so there was no opposition,” said Hemant Desai, deputy commisioner of health and hygiene. “People believed it was for their benefit, so they cooperated.”

Thanks to that rare spirit of consensus, Surat was able to make a raft of changes to the system, almost overnight.

The city decentralized responsibility for garbage collection so thoroughly that each individual street sweeper answers for a specific stretch of road. Modern garbage trucks with closed beds conduct door-to-door collection of household trash every day — instead of the open bicycle-carts used in most Indian cities — and the garbage is taken directly to a local transfer center instead of being sorted on the roadside by collectors that moonlight in the recycling trade.

At the transfer stations for each zone, the city's 240 trucks unload 800-1200 kilograms of garbage to be sorted and collected into loads of 10 metric tons which go to the disposal site. And because the business is contracted out, and the contractors are paid by the ton, the garbage actually makes it to the weighing station.

Similarly, in wealthier sections of the city, there's a grant-in-aid scheme that allows 600 residential societies, who have the biggest stake in the cleanliness of their area, to take over their own sanitation system.

The entire system is computerized, so that residents' complaints come to the attention of city officials immediately, and the same sanitary workers that are virtually invisible in Mumbai and New Delhi are in Surat empowered to collect fines on the spot from people and businesses that dump trash on the roadside.

Instructively, it took a wee tweak of the system to make that happen — the sanitation department calls the fines “administrative charges” because it's not legally empowered to issue tickets — but its workers collect around $400,000 a year keeping residents on their toes.

In 2010, Surat dropped a notch to third in the rankings of India's cleanest cities, and the Gujarat Pollution Control Board has pointed out that the city's textile industry has not been nearly as successful in curbing industrial pollution as the garbage collectors have been in cleaning up the streets.

But even if it's less than perfect — it takes an eye well-schooled in Indian cities to see it as “clean” — Surat's transformation has already attracted would-be imitators from cities like Lucknow and Pune to study its garbage collection system, according to Desai.

And as the city population has doubled over the past 10 years, new residents have gotten at least one timely reminder that cleanliness has its benefits.

When a disastrous flood hit the city in 2006, Surat's showpiece sanitation system paid off, allowing workers to clear more than 300,000 metric tons of garbage and debris in less than a month, and Rao's successor in the city commissioner's office, S. Aparna, took advantage of the tragic destruction of the makeshift shanties of thousands of slum dwellers to relocate them into properly constructed, low-income housing she financed with money from the centrally funded Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM).

“We have been fortunate in getting officers who are really enthusiastic about development,” said S.V. National Institute of Technology's Yadav.

And that right there may be the lesson for India — even if it is bittersweet. Government works. But only if people make it work.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

India: fight to preserve dying languages

A new survey of India's hundreds of languages could have far-reaching political implications.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - September 18, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — This fall, a plucky Indian professor of English will fire the first shot in a battle to revolutionize how this large, diverse country perceives itself.

The key to his project: an army of some 2,000 volunteer linguists, translators and typists.

For the first time since the British Raj, Ganesh Devy's People's Linguistic Survey of India will catalog the nation's myriad tongues. The enormous exercise will call into question colonial definitions of civilization and ethnicity that have persisted through the 60-year history of independent India.

“This is one of our heritage treasures that we have not been overtly aware of,” said Anvita Abbi, a professor of linguistics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. “It's very important to conduct these surveys and catalog [these languages], because it will help us formulate the appropriate language policy. We do not have an appropriate language policy [in India] because we don't have an idea of the breadth and length of lingusitic diversity.”

Reminiscent of Sir James Murray's Oxford English Dictionary project — which drew on the knowledge of hundreds of volunteers, including a prolific murderer, for information about the origins of English words — the People's Linguistic Survey promises to be a remarkable resource for academic researchers and a vital aid in the struggle to preserve dying tongues.

But the growing stack of tomes may have broader implications, too, for India's education system, and even the political organization of its 28 states and seven union territories.

“This will provide good material for fresh thinking about cognitive categories in every walk of life,” said Devy, who is a professor at the the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology in Gujarat.

“If I may say so, in all modesty, perhaps this will come to be seen as one of the more important linguistic projects during the last 100 years in India,” he said.It is indeed a huge endeavor.

The original British language survey took some 30 years to complete. More recently, India's registrar general, which conducts the census, has taken 15 years to survey just four states.

But Devy's army of volunteers have already finished work in nine states. Progress is underway in seven more. The first results are slated, from Jharkhand, to be published in November — with Gujarat and Maharashtra ready for the World Languages Meeting in Gujarat in January.

Devy expects the entire project — including a series of books in English — to be finished by the end of 2014.

“I have been working with the languages of the tribal communities of India for the last 20 years, working with the tribal communities, so I have been able to set up quite a large network of individuals interested in looking at language identity, language loss, language empowerment, and issues like that,” said Devy.

It was through that network that the professor recruited an army of volunteers whose efforts have already put the government to shame.

“These volunteers include professional linguists, teachers, cultural activists, farmers and villagers. It is a cross-section of Indian society,” Devy said. “Of course, my list is deficient: I don't have any criminals or black marketeers.”

To aid researchers, each language will be detailed with a 1,000-word history, a brief glossary and some examples of poems and stories. And based on preliminary findings, the official number of Indian languages will likely rise from the Raj-era figure of 179 — of which a paltry 22 are officially recognized by the constitution — to nearly 900.

However, it's the main reason for the expected increase that makes the project revolutionary.

When British linguist George Abraham Grierson conducted his Linguistic Survey of India in 1894, he ignored the languages of many nomadic tribes. He classified as dialects many other tongues that local people used to define their ethnicities. And he neglected a large part of South India because the Nizam of Hyderabad in what is today the state of Andhra Pradesh refused to cooperate.

At least partly as a result, when first the British and then Indian authorities divided the country into language-based states, many sizable groups found themselves split by separate administrations and robbed of political influence in keeping with their numbers. For instance, planners deemed the Gond tribe insignificant because the Gond language had no written literature or written script (until 1928) — so the group was scattered across five different states.

“These states were formed irrespective of the number of speakers of languages,” said Devy. “To give you an example, the Munda group, the Santhal group, the Bhil group – they did not get their states.”

These linguistic boundaries have already proven controversial. Since 1960, when language-based agitations forced the Bombay State into today's Gujarat and Maharashtra states, nearly a dozen new states have been carved out on linguistic or ethnic grounds, and the troubles aren't over.

Ethnic rebellions still simmer across the country, demanding separate states, or even nationhood, for the speakers of Nepali, Bodo and other languages that borders — and, too often, government budgets — have ignored.

At the same time, Grierson's language survey, and independent India's subsequent propagation of its inherent prejudices, has had a disastrous impact on India's many indigenous tribes.

“The marginalized people are speaking marginalized languages,” said the University of London's Abbi.

In the most dramatic instances, languages — and sometimes the people who speak them — have simply ceased to exist. Last year, for example, when an 85-year-old Andaman islander named Boa Sr gasped her final breath, the Bo tribe and the Bo language were irrevocably lost.

“With the death of Boa Sr and the extinction of the Bo language, a unique part of human society is now just a memory,” Survival International's Stephen Corry remarked at the time. “Boa’s loss is a bleak reminder that we must not allow this to happen to the other tribes of the Andaman Islands.”

But even where tribal communities remain robust in numbers, the low status afforded to their languages has helped to keep them isolated and excluded from India's snowballing economic development.

"Only around 15,000 people in India speak Sanskrit, while some 80 million speak various tribal languages in central India alone,” said Shubhranshu Choudhary, founder of CG Net Swara, a mobile-phone based news platform for Indian tribal peoples. “Yet All India Radio, the only source of news for many rural Indians, broadcasts frequent bulletins in Sanskrit and none in these tribal languages."

Though various studies have shown that children learn better when taught basic concepts in their mother tongue before attempting to master a second language, India prioritizes just 22 out of the 900-odd languages that Devy seeks to catalog, and the state's promised free and compulsory education is most often available in fewer still.

“In the Constitution of India, there is a special schedule of languages, which alone receive official support,” said Devy. “When the schedule was created after independence, it had 14 languages. Now it has 22. All the funds for primary, secondary and higher education can go only to these languages.”

Not surprisingly, perhaps, tribal literacy rates lag behind those of the general population, and only about one-fifth of the so-called “Scheduled Tribes” noted by the Indian constitution as historically underprivileged are attending school, according to the latest census.

“If we don't include these langauges in our education policy, obviously we are discriminating against them,” said Abbi. “We have a reservation policy [that mandates quotas in jobs and higher education] for the [historically underprivileged] Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. But the reservations are for the tribe, not the language. This is the reason why tribals want to forget their languages.”

Meanwhile, the proportion of tribal peoples living below the poverty line, at nearly 50 percent, is also “substantially higher than the national average,” according to the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes.

“My aim is not to find which is the language that is spoken by fewer than 5 percent, and how will I revive that language,” said Devy, who founded a university for tribal peoples known as the Adivasi Academy in 1999.

“My aim is to see where a sizeable number of people exist, have a speech tradition, a language of their own, but because of the denial of the language in legitimate educational spaces this community is suffering on the developmental scale.”

Making sure the world knows that these languages exist is the first step.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

India: soft-core porn makes a comeback

Before the internet, Indian porn stars were big — literally — but the films showcased more sexuality than skin.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - September 7, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — On a hand-painted poster for a 1990s' grade-B Indian film "Qatil Jawani" ("Murderous Nymphette"), a plump and naked actress sits astride a shirtless man, her head thrown back in apparent ecstasy as the man's hands paw at her chest.

Once ubiquitous in so-called “morning shows” at theaters across the country, soft-core films like "Biwi Anadi Sali Khiladi" ("Innocent Wife, Cheating Sister-in-Law") and "Kaam Tantra" ("Principles of Sex") have slowly disappeared from the big screen in India with the increasing availability of hardcore pornography on the internet.

But now, as mainstream cinema sheds its former reticence about sex and female sexuality, Indians are beginning to take a second look at soft-core porn, this time for what it says about Indian culture.

This December, television soap magnate Ekta Kapoor will release “The Dirty Picture,” a mainstream Bollywood biopic about Silk Smitha — a skin-show specialist from the '80s who crossed over to perform sensuous so-called “cabaret” numbers in mainstream films.

More subtly, in this year's "Tees Maar Khan," a Hindi action comedy film, imported British-Indian bombshell Katrina Kaif made waves with the song, “Sheila Ki Jawani," or "Young Sheila." The song was an homage to the Hindi title of one of Silk Smitha's softcore flicks, “Reshma Ki Jawani," or "Nubile Reshma."

And in New Delhi this week, Wieden+ Kennedy (W+K) ad agency is presenting an exhibition of soft-core porn posters as, well, art.

“School kids, college students and even grown up men used to go to these movie halls just to see a glimpse of a woman bathing or a random love-making scene,” said W+K executive creative director V. Sunil, whose personal poster collection is on display in the exhibition called "Morning Show."

Before the globalization of sexuality that came with the internet, India's porn stars were big — literally.

Silk Smitha herself was no waif. Looking especially buxom packed into skimpy clothes, she knocked down evil thugs like bowling pins – highlighting a peculiar facet of India's soft-core porn.

The Indian films that were once labeled pornography were less about nudity and graphic sex than they were about female sexuality, according to Meena T. Pillai, a cultural critic at the University of Kerala — the state where the softcore porn industry was centered, due to its relatively liberal censor.

Apart from voluptuous stars and voluminous cleavage shots, the only real distinguishing factor of pornographic films was that they centered on a sexually aggressive woman, in contrast to the demure domestic ideal.

“You'd be shocked if you actually saw a Malayalam [language] softcore porn movie. [The camera] basically stops at the thigh. It doesn't ride further up than that,” said Pillai. “But the moment you show women's desire, that movie would automatically be labeled porn.”

I.V. Sasi's 1978 “Avalude Ravukal” ("Her Nights"), for example, was labeled soft-core porn simply because it dramatized the story of a prostitute and depicted the heroine — played by Sasi's wife, Seema — exercising her power over men by offering and denying them sexual favors.

Similarly, the titillating 1989 film “Layanam” — starring Silk Smitha — depicted three adult women seducing a young man.

Other soft-core hits, like “Air Hostess Girls,” apparently stuck to more tried-and-true scenarios.

To make up for any lack of skin, theater owners and distributors illegally spliced in random sequences from foreign films — splashes of nudity or even hardcore porn.

The practice was so common that in Kerala it earned its own classification as “bit cinema,” and occasionally found its way onto theater promos like the one for a film called “Honey, I Love You,” where a white woman in a bikini is embossed with the tag line: “THE GOOD PARTS. THE SEXY PARTS. THE BODY PARTS.”

Following Silk Smitha, the hottest heroine in the Malayalam porn business was a buxom young actress named Shakeela who just kept getting bigger as she got bigger — appearing in more than 50 movies.

“In Kerala, in the south, we like slightly bulky women,” explains Sunil. “Anyone with big boobs is a big thing.”

Delhi bomb: Experts see failure to adapt in terrorist strike

With an alphabet soup of intelligence agencies, India has ignored old-fashioned policing.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - September 7, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — Hours after a powerful explosion rocked central New Delhi, killing 11 people and leaving dozens more seriously injured, the city is still reeling.

But the spontaneous outrage directed toward Congress Party scion Rahul Gandhi when he attempted to visit some of the blast victims at a local hospital this afternoon offers a strong hint of where public opinion is headed.

The bottom line: Today's blast marked the 19th terrorist strike in the Indian capital in 15 years, and despite nearly as many revamps and restructures, neither today's Congress-led government nor its predecessors from the Bharatiya Janata Party, have taken effective measures to improve internal security.

Instead, “there has been a lot of utterly wasteful symbolism in the creation of a number of meta institutions that have no utility whatsoever,” said Ajai Sahni, executive director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management.

“Despite all our internal security problems for the past 60 years, we still don't have a counterinsurgency policy,” said Kishalay Bhattacharjee, internal security chair at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses.

“We do not have an anti-terrorism policy. So anything that is decided is very ad hoc. It's very knee-jerk and it's decided on the spur of the moment to allay the public fear or calm down the anger, and then it lapses back into non-implementation mode.”

At 10:17 a.m. Wednesday, an improvised explosive device reportedly made with ammonium nitrate was detonated among a crowd of people gathered outside the Delhi High Court.

Apparently hidden in a briefcase, the bomb generated a powerful explosion that killed several people on the spot and lacerated many others with shrapnel. By evening local time, 11 people had died from wounds sustained in the blast, and the tally of the injured had climbed to more than 70.

Every Indian politician of note and more than a few foreign luminaries expressed their horror and disgust. And opposition politicians declared their solidarity with the government in the midst of the crisis.

But when the usually nimble-footed Gandhi arrived on the scene at Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, where victims were being treated, angry bystanders shouted slogans demanding that he “go home or back to where he came from,” according to India's Economic Times newspaper.

Though Gandhi was just a stand-in for the government, or politicians, or the powers that be, the angry reaction was real and justified. From the 2001 attack on parliament to the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India's security establishment has had the same, tired response to terrorism, according to experts. They talk. They draw up some papers. Maybe they even create a new intelligence agency. But on the streets, where the actual work of policing happens, nothing changes.

“Forget about intelligence,” said Bhattacharjee. “We do not have the basic security and surveillance infrastructure working in this county. If you go to the mall or cinema hall, the metal detector is there, but half the time it doesn't work.”

In this instance, India's intelligence agencies reportedly had passed information about a possible terrorist attack on to the Delhi police. However, it was apparently not specific enough to generate an action plan. And that's precisely where the problem lies.

“The police is the weakest link in our addressing of internal security challenges,” said Bhattacharjee. “[For the system to work], the police has to be the strongest nodal agency. There is no army out here, or paramilitary forces working out here.”

Nevertheless, India has repeatedly ignored reform at the grassroots level in favor of snazzy acronyms and big-fix fantasies. The National Investigation Agency, for instance, was designed to eliminate information getting lost in the shuffle by providing a single node for intelligence about terrorism.

The National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) was constituted to do essentially the same thing for operations. And the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) — inaugurated Sept. 1 — is intended to put all that lovely intel together in a central database.

The only trouble is that India's problem isn't that it has too much information, or that it's too disorganized, says Sahni.

“The reality is we have very small flows of information from the ground,” he said.

The best case in point? The most effective measure to combat terrorism that India has proposed in recent years is a database known as the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network System (CCTNS). But the way that it is being introduced virtually guarantees its failure, Sahni believes.

“It's no use creating these big computer centers in Delhi if there isn't one computer and one man to operate it in every police station,” he said. “We are trying to do these things top-down, when we ought to improve the system from bottom-up.”

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Has Indian e-commerce really arrived?

Homegrown Flipkart aims to give Amazon a run for its money.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - September 1, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — When rumors of's pending entrance into the Indian market began circulating earlier this summer, insiders from India's e-commerce industry weren't surprised.

Since the disastrous dot-com bust of 2000 shuttered as many as 1,000 Indian e-commerce sites, the business has quietly clawed its way back to prominence, with Indians expected to spend as much as $10 billion online this year, according to the Internet and Mobile Association of India.

And even though the bulk of that money goes to travel sites like and the Indian railways' booking portal, venture capitalists have already pegged the value of the country's most successful e-retailer,, at a whopping $1 billion, according to reports.

So has Indian e-commerce really arrived? Is Flipkart an Amazon slayer? Or does the investor feeding frenzy signal nothing more than the beginning of yet another Indian internet bubble?

“E-commerce in India is in a very nascent stage, so while there is a big chunk of demand, it hasn't been fulfilled in the manner it should have been by now,” said Ravi Vohra, Flipkart's vice president of marketing.

“We think Amazon's entry will give further boost to the momentum. We see the pie expanding with the entry of more players.”

The e-commerce business is indeed growing rapidly — with the size of the market increasing nearly 50 percent this year, from around $7 billion in 2010 to an estimated $10 billion by the end of 2011.

But the retailing of manufactured goods from books to cosmetics, which so far only accounts for around $450 million, according to Vohra, may well be poised for an even steeper growth curve.

The reasons are simple. Plane and train tickets have already assuaged customer anxiety about buying online. Flipkart and its leading competitors have licked the problems with delivery that plagued the first wave of Indian e-retailers. And even as shopping malls mushroom across the country, India's small-town consumers are gaining in wealth and sophistication at a much faster rate than physical stores can expand to reach them.

The book business is already feeling the heat. According to an executive who has worked with publishers and distributors, e-retailers like Flipkart can offer deeper discounts on books than the stores located in high-rent areas like malls and airports — though low-margin Mom-and-Pop retailers can still compete. Already, the executive says, many customers are just browsing in the mall or airport, and then going home to buy the title online.

“I prefer buying from Flipkart because their library is extensive, website efficient and delivery process prompt and painless,” said Tushar Burman, a Mumbai resident. “I do not buy books offline anymore, unless I happen upon an interesting one, on one of the rare visits to the bookstore.”

Founded in 2007 by Sachin and Binny Bansal, two Indians formerly employed at Amazon, Flipkart has succeeded by adjusting the e-commerce model to fit local conditions.

With credit-card penetration low, and the postal service and couriers notorious for lost and delayed shipments, the company pioneered a cash-on-delivery payment system and an in-house courier system that covers almost one-fourth of the country. Now selling music, movies, games and software, mobile phones and electronics, as well as books, the company reportedly does $6 million in sales per month.

Flipkart's market cap is only about a hundredth of Amazon's. But with the upstart's growing sales, the Bansals' former employer will need more than a slick web interface to knock them off the mountain. But is Flipkart worth $1 billion?

According to a July report by, that's the value set by a pending $150 million stake sale to private equity firm General Atlantic Partners.

Vohra refused to confirm or deny that valuation. But according to data collected by Venture Intelligence, rising prices have not deterred investors from placing ever larger bets on India's e-commerce companies — even though none of them has yet turned a profit.

Investment firms have pumped $140 million into e-commerce startups over the past six months, compared with just $48 million in 2010 — while the valuations of some startups soared four to six times, according to a recent article in Forbes India.

“The valuations … do look a bit stretched to me, even though there is strong consumer growth and adoption,” said Alok Mittal, managing director of venture capital firm Canaan Partners.

Currently, equity stakes in many startups are going for prices that value them at more than 10 times their gross sales. And even if those sales take off, the business model that Flipkart and others have pioneered to cope with India's supply chain challenges and wary consumers — free shipping, cash-on-delivery and deep discounts — suggests that at least some players may be boosting their losses with every new sale. Factoring in the whack for shipping, discounts, COD and returns, for instance, Forbes India estimated that a typical book might sell for almost 15 percent less than it costs the e-retailer to deliver it.

Of course, that's exactly the sort of thing people said about Amazon — which is set to begin operations in India by the beginning of next year. And some local booksellers say that Flipkart's numbers do add up.

“Discounts in the book business are very complicated to understand from outside. But there is a logic to it which Flipkart does understand,” said a Mumbai-based executive in the book-distribution business, who explained that most retailers only offer deep discounts on certain titles, where the price cut can be passed on to the publisher. “At worst, they are only as vulnerable as large-format retailers.”

Praveen Kurup in Mumbai contributed to this report from Mumbai.