Monday, November 28, 2011

Rice 2.0: Golden rice a golden opportunity?

Genetically modified golden rice could save millions of lives, but in India it may never get into the ground.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (November 28, 2011)

NEW DELHI, India — When Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer unveiled genetically modified golden rice a decade ago, they promised to save millions of lives across India and other developing countries by providing the poor and malnourished a ready source of betacarotene.

But in India, opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMO) may well kill the initiative before it takes off.

“I have no hesitation in saying that we will make all efforts to stop it,” said Devinder Sharma, an agricultural researcher and farmers' advocate based in the Punjab.

In many respects, golden rice represents the fantastic potential of GM foods. But because of the method used to create it — piggybacking genes from maize on a kind of bacteria found in the soil to induce the plant to produce betacarotene in the rice kernel — opposition remains fierce.

Environmentalists fear the new variety might spread and overwhelm other native crops. Anti-globalization activists fear that the new technology represents the thin end of the wedge for multinational corporations seeking to make slaves of the small farmer. And advocates of organic farming fear that “tampering with nature” may result in unknown health costs.

“Sensible people should be aware that this [opposition] is not scientifically justified at all,” said Adrian Dubock, executive secretary of the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board and the architect of the project designed to distribute golden rice to the world's poor.

And those fears could be costly, according to Dubock. While the vision problems associated with Vitamin A deficiency are better known, it also causes immune system problems that are especially vicious among pregnant women and newborn children.

“The latest WHO figures [from 2005] have shown that between 23 and 34 percent of child mortality could be prevented by having a universal source of vitamin A,” Dubock said. “Similarly, with mothers about 40 percent of maternal mortality could be prevented.”

Proponents of technological solutions to the world's food and nutrition problems believe golden rice could be the answer.

After some tweaks to the original strain, the latest generation of the genetic modification — known as the r event — promises to provide as much as 50 percent of the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin A for poor people who consume as little as 40 grams of golden rice a day. At least one study of a theoretical plan to give the modified rice to poor farmers claims that it would be 50 percent more efficient than the current efforts to provide dietary supplements.

And the technology's inventors compelled the owners of the patent, a biotechnology company called Syngenta, to allow poor farmers around the world free access to the new variety as long as they earn less than $10,000 a year — ostensibly eliminating fears about industrialized agriculture that have plagued other GMO crops like Monsanto's Bt Cotton.

“All the normal arguments don't apply here,” said Dubock. “This is a gift from the inventors.”

Here in India, however, farmer advocates and environmental activists view that gift as a Trojan Horse.

“They are using the humanitarian window to actually push for GM acceptance. This is a PR exercise, nothing beyond that,” said Sharma. “Once you accept golden rice, you're accepting all kinds of GM crops. That's their agenda.”

How paranoid that sounds depends on your faith in the world's multinational corporations and multilateral aid agencies. According to a Golden Rice Project backgrounder, “If golden rice is successfully introduced, it will additionally facilitate similar projects in the future.”

Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, research is already underway on genetically modified bananas, cassava and sorghum — as well as another version of golden rice that incorporates iron, zinc, protein and Vitamin E. And Bayer, Mogen, Monsanto, Novartis and Zeneca all waived patents to allow golden rice to be given away free to poor farmers. That was not the case for Bt Brinjal or Bt Cotton.

Researchers in the Philippines are optimistic that they will submit all the necessary safety information to the government as early as 2013 and many believe that the introduction of golden rice as a staple crop will follow in short order.

But in India — where the problem of Vitamin A deficiency is much larger in scale — it promises to take much longer.

India has already introduced the golden rice gene into locally grown varieties in isolated greenhouses, as mandated by law. But before it can be distributed to farmers, researchers must conduct additional trials in real-world conditions in isolated fields and satisfy additional safety regulations.

Assuming that goes well, then planners must work out a strategy for introducing the crop without damaging India's lucrative export trade in Basmati rice — since contamination of a single shipment with a few grains of GMO rice could scare off importers in the European Union, where consumer anxiety over GM food is high.

“Currently we can say we are in the product development phase,” said S.R. Rao, who in his former role as director of India's Department of Biotechnology first pushed for introducing golden rice in India.

“The future of golden rice will depend on how we address regulatory concerns, how we communicate to the public and how we generate public acceptance. That is the challenge.”

In India, opposition to GMOs has never been stronger. Despite three years of research that cleared a GM variety of eggplant as safe for cultivation and consumption, last year activists succeeded in blocking the introduction of Bt Brinjal — a pesticide-resistant strain developed by Monsanto and Maharastra-based Mahyco.

Opposition to Bt Cotton — which now accounts for more than 40 percent of the cotton grown in India — has also gathered steam as activists link corporate control over seeds to debt-related farmer suicides that have killed upwards of 5,000 farmers in the cotton-growing region of Maharashtra since 2005, though researchers have attributed the problem to various other causes as well.

As New York Times columnist David Rieff argued recently, advocates of organic farming are gaining sway over the technology-friendly agriculturalists bred by the green revolution with the ascendency of India's right to food movement.

“Because of the Bt Brinjal fiasco, there is a lot of demoralization in the scientific community,” said Rao. “While the regulatory system is working to an extent and the guidelines are getting slowly, slowly built up, at the end of the tunnel there is no light.”

For golden rice, that leaves a complex web of opposition that goes beyond health and safety concerns that GMO proponents argue have no foundation in science.

For example, initially Indian opponents of GMOs used some cocktail-napkin math to claim poor women would have to eat seven to nine kilograms of rice per day to get the benefits that golden rice advocates promised. When researchers created new varieties to deliver more betacarotene, their opponents moved the goalposts, introducing the problem of too much Vitamin A — which can reach toxic levels through supplements, but not from the body's conversion of betacarotene.

Simultaneously, critics question whether the poor people targeted by the program have the reserves of body fat needed to absorb and process a micronutrient like betacarotene into Vitamin A. Moreover, they argue that pushing a “monoculture” that would reduce the biodiversity of rice might put India at risk of an ecological disaster like the Irish potato famine — in which a potato blight killed around a million people dependent on a single staple crop for food.

“We are faced with what happened during the potato famine at any time,” said Sharma, in a characteristic example of the activist reaction to technology-based solutions. “It can happen in the case of rice. The narrower the genetic base, the greater the problems you are facing.”

That's an alarmist view. Despite decades of industrialized agriculture around the world, there has been no event similar to the potato famine since the 19th century.

However, some farmers and health workers in India and other countries have noted detrimental effects from the so-called monocultures brought about by the introduction of high-yield hybrids — particularly during India's green revolution.

In the Garwhal region of the Himalayas, for instance, activists from Beej Bachao Andolan (Seed Savers) re-introduced indigenous strains of rice after a drought decimated the green revolution's high-yield hybrids. And in the breadbasket region of Haryana and Punjab, environmental groups allege that high rates of certain cancers are the result of the massive doses of chemical fertilizers and pesticides required for green revolution crops.

That means that, at least in India, golden rice could face a long wait.

“It's still in the advanced research stage,” said Rao. “We want to determine by the end of the year whether we are ready to enter the regulatory approval phase, through field trials. So we are scheduled for a major review in the next month.”

Saturday, November 19, 2011

East Asian Summit: Obama's Asia reboot puts India in pivotal, but risky position

For India, with great power comes great responsibility, and risk.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (November 19, 2011)

NEW DELHI, India — America's renewed focus on Asia puts India in a pivotal position to increase its influence in the region and around the world. But that increased stature also comes fraught with risk.

This week, U.S. President Barack Obama reversed two decades of policy drift, marking an “emphatic return of the United States to Asia's center stage,” according to C. Raja Mohan, a senior fellow at New Delhi's Center for Policy Research. And the stakes could be even higher than during the Cold War.

“As the U.S. begins to deal with this challenge, there's bound to be an arms race and more militarization of the region, and China is bound to respond,” Mohan said. “This is going to produce a whole different set of alignments, new confrontations and new tests for the entire region.”

Following an announcement that the U.S. would open a new military base in Australia and the forceful claim that America is “here to stay” as a “Pacific power,” Obama landed in Indonesia to join the East Asian Summit for the first time on Friday.

At the invitation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the U.S., along with Russia, implicitly enters the multilateral forum to add some much-needed muscle in the wake of China's efforts to enforce its claims on the disputed South China Sea.

“The fact that they invited the US itself was a recognition that if you are in a cage with an 800-pound gorilla, you should at least invite another one into it to provide a balance,” said Mohan.

Meanwhile, along with Australia, Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam, Washington is backing the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership as an alternative to the China-led “ASEAN Plus Three” scheme for regional economic integration.

The resulting shakeup in alignments could offer a tremendous opportunity for India, which is seeking to expand its influence in Asia through its so-called “Look East Policy.” But that opportunity is not without risk.

America's shift from Afghanistan to Asia will make India an even more attractive “strategic partner” for the U.S. The other Asian nations' rising fears of Chinese aggression offers a new role for New Delhi as a hedge against Beijing as Singh tries to push forward with a free-trade agreement with the countries of ASEAN.

However, India cannot afford to embrace the American agenda so fully that it aggravates growing fears in China that it is part of a U.S.-led containment strategy, or present the impression that it is ganging up with Asia's smaller nations to close China out. Already, India has gone nose-to-nose with China over an oil-drilling pact with Vietnam in the disputed South China Sea, and deployed three Brahmos cruise-missile regiments along its border with China following a number of Chinese incursions and provocations. Soon, New Delhi will recruit 100,000 new soldiers for posting along the same frontier.

In that context, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's consecutive meetings with Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Friday morning gave some indication of the tightrope that New Delhi will have to walk.

“As we saw in meetings with Obama and Wen Jiabao, India is going to engage both the powers,” Mohan said. “While it strengthens relationship with the US, it will try to normalize its relationship with China.”

Thus, following weeks of heightened tensions over India's move to pursue joint oil projects with Vietnam in parts of the South China Sea, to which Beijing lays claim, Singh was careful to emphasize that India's nascent engagement with ASEAN would not come at China's expense. Singh told Wen that India wanted to pursue “the best of relations” and pointed out how, on issues like climate change, the two nations had cooperated to their mutual benefit on the global stage.

Yet just a few minutes before, the Indian leader was endeavoring to tighten the U.S. embrace. Meeting with Obama, he offered concessions on a nuclear liability law that U.S. firms say will prevent them from capitalizing on the landmark civilian nuclear pact that kicked off the strategic partnership in 2008. In other words, Singh pushed forward the very deal that first convinced Beijing that he was signing on to a secret containment pact.

Call it the new non-alignment.

Just as during the Cold War, when India was a leading figure in the Non-Aligned Movement of countries that tried to avoid joining the U.S. or the Soviet Union, New Delhi will try to steer a middle path between the world's new superpowers. But even during the Cold War, when India could do little but sit back and watch, being non-aligned never meant total neutrality. The U.S. moves to back Pakistan in the 1950s propeled India to "non-align" itself toward Russia — which supplied the bulk of its weapons for decades. And the new non-alignment could be just as tricky.

“India's relationship with the Soviet Union was driven by the Sino-Soviet split and Sino-Indian differences, so there was a balance of power element to India's relationship with Russia,” said Mohan. “If China continues to be hostile to India's interests in the subcontinent, or is unwilling to make reasonable approaches to settling the border dispute, then you can visualize a scenario where India may be non-aligned, but it does more things with the U.S.”

Monday, November 14, 2011

Self-immolations spread from Tibet to the diaspora

China's rising economic might is making the plight of the Tibetans look more desperate than ever.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (November 14, 2011)

NEW DELHI, India — A week ago, Migmer Tenzin, a 26-year-old Tibetan exile, set himself on fire outside the Chinese embassy in New Delhi.

He wanted to show his solidarity with the monks and nuns burning themselves to death in protest against China's suppression of religious freedom in Tibet, he explains.

“I just tried to show to every nation and every human being what is happening,” Tenzin told GlobalPost, speaking in broken English from his hospital bed in New Delhi.

“If I die in this action, it is OK. Our brothers and sisters in Tibet have also died in self-immolations. Unfortunately, the policeman was so fast that they stopped the fire and I am still alive.”

Tenzin, who doctors expect to make a full recovery after receiving skin grafts for serious burns on his legs, is not alone in those feelings of desperation.

As nearly a dozen religious leaders inside Tibet have tried to burn themselves to death this autumn, an uncomfortable realization is beginning to strike home in the diaspora. There's a grim reason for the mounting tide of self-immolations in the homeland they may never see. Now, perhaps more than ever before, China is winning the battle for Tibet.

“The power that China is getting right now, nobody can stop them,” said Norbu Lodoe, a 32-year-old exile living in New Delhi.

Tensions have been escalating over the past year, according to Srikanth Kondipalli, a specialist in Chinese affairs at Jawaharlal Nehru University. First the Dalai Lama relinquished his political powers. Then the exile community elected a new democratic government, implicitly challenging the legitimacy of China's autocratic rule. And finally, the Dalai Lama has repeatedly hinted that he may break from tradition in choosing his successor — perhaps going so far as to reincarnate himself before he dies — to cheat Beijing of an opportunity to put forward a hand-picked rival.

Yet China has not shown the slightest willingness to give ground on the religious leader's demands for greater religious freedom and legitimate autonomy for Tibet.

“All these things put together, the elections, the self-immolations, the Dalai Lama's observations on reincarnation and the developments in Tibet, as well as no talks so far between Tibetans and Chinese, all these indicate that the tension is growing,” said Kondipalli.

So far, nine Tibetan monks or former monks and two Tibetan nuns in Sichuan province have set themselves on fire since March, according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Six of them are believed to have died. In the most recent case, on Nov. 3, Palden Choetso, a 35-year old nun from Tawu, died after she set herself on fire.

The Chinese government has responded to the protests with mass arrests, imprisonment, and possible killings by the security forces, the human rights watchdogs said in a press release. Those arrested included 300 monks from Kirti monastery, who the authorities said were taken away for “patriotic education.”

“Years of restrictions on Tibetans’ rights have led to further unrest and acts of desperation,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in the statement. “It is clearly time for the Chinese government to fundamentally rethink its approach by listening to and addressing Tibetans’ grievances.”

Unfortunately, Beijing is doing just the opposite.

“For a long time, we have been following His Holiness the Dalai Lama's advice of nonviolence,” said Pema Tsering, a 65-year-old India resident who escaped Tibet in 1959.

“Since 1979, the Dalai Lama has proposed a middle path whereby we go back to Tibet with an autonomous government under the People's Republic of China. But the communist government has not shown any recognition or willingness to talk.”

Since the mid-1990s — when the United States abandoned efforts to make China's most-favored-nation trading status contingent on its human rights record — Beijing has rebuffed every effort of the Dalai Lama to open negotiations for increasing religious freedom in Tibet.

Moreover, as its economic might has continued to increase, China has taken the battle further, successfully exporting its repression of dissent to its neighbors in South and Southeast Asia, where Vietnam recently cracked down on members of the Falun Gong religious sect.

Despite pledging to improve its track record on human rights in its bid to host the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing, for example, in the leadup to the games China stepped up the crackdown.

Chinese authorities crushed protests in Tibet — allegedly killing more than 150 people, according to the Tibetan government-in-exile. As calls for a boycott of the opening ceremony faded, Beijing prevailed upon neighboring Nepal to arrest hundreds of Tibetan exiles to prevent them from demonstrating in solidarity. And when the protests cost them nothing, the Chinese sought to up the ante.

In June 2010, Nepal sent at least three escaping Tibetan refugees back to China, violating a United Nations-brokered “gentleman's agreement” under which Kathmandu pledged in 1989 to allow fleeing Tibetans safe passage to India. Similarly, in June of this year, Washington was compelled to urge Kathmandu to register Tibetan exiles born after 1990 — the last time a census of Nepal's Tibetan refugees was conducted.

“Since some time ago, the Nepal government has stopped renewing or issuing fresh refugee cards, so the community is facing very, very tough times in Kathmandu,” a Tibetan exile in Nepal told GlobalPost.

In October 2010, the Nepalese authorities blocked local efforts to participate in elections for the Tibetan government-in-exile, seizing ballot boxes to prevent local refugees from voting for the exiles' first prime minister.

On Nov. 1, the Nepalese government once again arrested dozens of protesters in an effort to scuttle what Beijing calls “anti-China activities” — only to face renewed protests and an attempt at self-immolation by an as yet unidentified Tibetan exile chanting “Long live Tibet.”

“There is immense pressure from the Chinese on the Nepal government in the recent days,” said Siddartha Gautam, chairman of Nepal's Lumbini Foundation, a Buddhist non-profit that works with the local Tibetan community.

Indeed, according to a spokesman for Nepal's home ministry, Kathmandu may crack down further on the Tibetan community if protests continue as a likely visit by the Chinese premier approaches on Dec. 21.

“This will lead to a situation where the government may have to slash all the facilities being granted to the Tibetans residing in Nepal, such as that of their freedom to move even,” said spokesman Sudhir Kumar Saha. Saha specified that the government may decide to put a ban on Tibetan exiles' business activities and their freedom of movement within the country if protests continue.

Chinese affairs specialist Kondipalli says there's no sign, so far, that India will follow suit.

As a condition of providing refuge for the Dalai Lama and other Tibetans who escaped the Chinese invastion of Tibet in 1959, India agreed that it would not provide a base for exiles to engage in political mobilization. But unlike Kathmandu, New Delhi allowed the elections of the government-in-exile to proceed without interference last year, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently met with the Dalai Lama against Chinese objections.

Still, the suppression of protests, and even arrests, are not unknown in India, either. And in some regards, at least, China has succeeded in converting the Tibetans into a bargaining chip for India, rather than a humanitarian cause.

Recently, the censors ordered a Bollywood film to cut a scene that depicted protesters waving Tibetan flags, even as the Indian media questioned the Chinese ambassador over maps that depicted parts of Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh as belonging to China.

Similarly, Beijing has used India's suppression of separatists in the disputed territory of Kashmir to prevent New Delhi from pushing too hard on Tibet.

In 2009, the Chinese embassy in India began issuing stapled visas to Indians from Kashmir, implicitly rejecting the validity of their Indian passports. Soon after, India's foreign minister was compelled to plead with his Chinese counterpart to be "sensitive to our concerns on this very vital issue for India, just as we have been sensitive to Chinese concerns, for instance on the Tibet Autonomous region and Taiwan," India's Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao told journalists in 2010.

“India has its own problems with human rights in Kashmir, so it doesn't want the finger pointed at itself,” said Abanti Bhattacharya, a professor of Chinese studies at Delhi University. “India is rather in a dilemma at supporting such a cause.”

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Nepal's other revolution: Red turns to pink

Thanks (unexpectedly) to Maoist rebels, Nepal is emerging as Asia's pioneer for sexual minority rights.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - November 9, 2011

KATHMANDU, Nepal — In the quiet courtyard of Dechenling Garden, a Bhutanese restaurant on the fringes of the capital’s bustling backpacker ghetto, Nepal's first openly gay member of parliament sips on a lime soda during a short break in his busy political schedule.

His name is Sunil Babu Pant. A young, maverick politician with dark, wavy hair and a close-trimmed goatee, Pant has already emerged as a leader reminiscent of Harvey Milk in his San Francisco heyday, pushing tiny, conservative Nepal into the forefront of the battle for gay rights.

"Nepal is going through tremendous transformation — politically, socially, economically, legally — so a lot of communities who had no space or voice before have emerged," Pant told GlobalPost.

Thanks, unexpectedly, to a Maoist rebellion and subsequent decade-long civil war, Pant and other activists have already made some big strides — and they're inching closer to making Nepal the first Asian country to legalize gay marriage. But the struggle for the rights of sexual minorities is intensifying here as lawmakers haggle over a new constitution nearly five years after the peace deal that transformed the tiny Himalayan kingdom into a democratic republic in 2007. On one side is a patchwork coalition that supports a more progressive platform, including gay rights, and on the other is a conservative alignment that believes gay marriage would threaten the religious fabric of Nepal's traditional Hindu society.

“A strong attack is going on against Hindu culture, Hindu religion and Hindu society,” said Shankar Pandey, a former legislator and central coordinator of National Religion Awareness Campaign, which urges its followers to adhere to the Hindu way of life. Like many conservatives, Pandey believes that homosexuality is an affront to the country's Hindu heritage.

Strangely, the new social and political space for sexual minorities has sprouted from the seeds of Nepal's attempted Maoist revolution. The Maoists — guerilla fighters who draw their support from the rural poor — were hardly liberals when it came to sexuality. Still, their hard-fought insurgency shook the establishment enough that no one political party has been able to achieve a clear majority in post-war elections, and that has increased the power and influence of small parties and tightly knit constituencies.

But after Nepal's major political parties reached a pivotal agreement to demobilize the former soldiers of the Maoist army Nov. 1 — paving the way for the drafting of a new constitution — it's not yet clear if all of those groups will be able to capitalize on those gains as the period of political turmoil comes to an end.

“It is not liberality, it is just unruliness,” said Pandey. “When there are no rules, no system set, whatever the environment or pressure groups want is what goes.”

In Pandey's view, Pant's entry to the legislature is a perfect example.

The founder of a non-profit advocacy group called the Blue Diamond Society and a gay-oriented travel agency called Pink Mountain Travel & Tours, Pant worked for the rights of gays, lesbians and other sexual minorities at the grassroots level for 11 years before entering electoral politics.

But when rules favoring Nepal's long-established political parties — and the conservative elites of Kathmandu — were suspended for the post-war Constituent Assembly elections, Pant saw a window of opportunity. For the first time, as a concession to the Maoist argument that past elections had not addressed Nepal's ethnic diversity and vast economic inequalities, more than half of the 601 legislators would be chosen through “proportional representation” — which allots seats to parties based on the proportion of votes they receive rather than granting seats only to candidates who win a plurality in their constituencies. Suddenly, there would be a host of new players.

"During the Constituent Assembly election we thought it was a good opportunity to lobby the political parties," Pant said. "We went from party office to party office and said we are a significant population, and if you include our cause in your party manifesto we can vote for your candidates. We took it lightly, just hoping that they would buy that idea."

To Pant's surprise, not only did the Maoist party take him seriously — it led the way in adopting resolutions related to gay rights. Meanwhile, the tiny Communist Party of Nepal-Unified (CPN-U), unrelated to the Maoists, asked him to stand for election himself.

"We had no expectations, no resources, no experience, nothing," he said.


The CPN-U didn't win an assembly seat in the formal election, but the party won enough votes to earn five seats under the rules for proportional representation. And because the party had carefully monitored the districts where it had done well, the tireless work of Pant's team of gay rights activists paid off. The party rewarded him by allotting him a seat in the new assembly.

As it turned out, the CPN-U's most votes came “exactly from those 15 districts where Blue Diamond Society has branches and we did the election campaign," Pant said, explaining his success.

Pant and other activists have already accomplished a great deal for Nepal's sexual minorities —people who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, transgender and intersex (those born with physical characteristics of both genders). With the conservatives' cherished rules in flux, the gay rights lobby succeeded in convincing Nepal's Supreme Court to instruct the new government to repeal age-old laws that made homosexuality a crime in 2007. A year later, the court directed legislators to draft new laws guaranteeing equal rights for sexual minorities and convene a committee to consider the implications of legalizing gay marriage in the new constitution. And this year, the Central Bureau of Statistics officially allowed transgender and intersex citizens to classify themselves as "third gender" for the purposes of the census.

"Previously, people thought [homosexuality] was an unnatural condition," said 25-year-old Durga, a student activist at Tribhuvan University. "But after 2007, people are changing. Now they are able to accept people from the LGBTI community in their villages and even in their families."

But despite progressive court rulings and nascent social transformation, homosexuals and transgenders continue to face discrimination and harassment. Even in Kathmandu, which thanks to higher incomes and the thriving tourist industry is Nepal's most cosmopolitan city, the absence of any real gay scene compels many young men to cruise the local Ratna Park for sexual partners. That leaves them vulnerable to police persecution. And though the police deny the charge, gay activists allege that the authorities have also recently begun "investigating" young men staying together in local hotels, according to Roshan Mahato, the 29-year-old president of the Nepal Sexual and Gender Minorities Student Forum.

“We only take action when these people are seen [engaging in sexual activity] in a public place. If they are doing anything openly,” said Nepal police spokesman Binod Singh. “Otherwise, the police doesn't interfere in their personal activities.”

The threat that this essentially conservative, traditional society will backslide on its reforms remains ever present, especially with a new constitution slated to take shape over the next few months. The issue of demobilizing the Maoist army settled, negotiations will now focus on the structure of a new, federalist government. As a result, loyalties will likely solidify around ethnic and regional identities, perhaps robbing smaller minority groups of the influence they have enjoyed during the interim. It is also unlikely the new system will incorporate as much proportional representation as the interim elections.

Even during the negotiations for the new constitution, some roadblocks have have emerged to the Supreme Court's progressive instructions on equal rights for sexual minorities.

In June, for instance, Nepal burst onto the radar of the world's gay community when an American lesbian couple was married in a Hindu ceremony that Pant's Pink Mountain travel agency helped to organize at a local temple. But that same month, the Ministry of Law and Justice submitted an updated penal code that specifically limited marriages to unions between a man and a woman and again defined homosexual acts as "unnatural sex offenses.” Similarly, in July, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to issue a passport to a transgender person, citing a limitation of their software system.


Pant says that despite those bumps in the road, Nepal will not reverse gears. Several legislators immediately objected to the law ministry's proposed recriminalization of homosexuality. Pant believes that indicates the political parties that he convinced to include rights for sexual minorities in their manifestos before the Constituent Assembly elections in 2008 will stay the course in 2012. Moreover, even the National Religion Awareness Campaign's Pandey agrees that sexual minorities' rights should be protected. And he says his insistence that marriage should not be considered among those rights cost him his position with the Nepali Congress.

“We believe everyone must have the right of protection. But where the word of marriage is concerned, that is different,” said Pandey. “Hindus believe marriage is only for procreation, not just for relation. Marriage is for the production or creation. Where there is no creation possible, there marriage cannot be imagined.”

Pant insists that narrow vision of Hinduism — which has no definitive text like the Bible or the Koran — radically oversimplifies the relationship that the religion, and Nepal, have had with sexuality for centuries. During Gaijatra, for instance, young men dress as women as part of a religious procession. Similarly, the Lakhe dance, performed during Indrajatra by masked dancers wearing lavish hairdos and colorful frocks, is “very much a reflection of gender non-conformity.”

“It's a small country, but there's a lot of diversity living in harmony and the indigenous culture has always been much more liberal in terms of rights, expression, sexualities,” Pant said. “Also, the Hinduism, Buddhism and mix of Tantrism has always been pretty liberal in terms of sexuality and gender roles.”

The young legislator is trying to prove that with his travel agency, Pink Mountain. Following the successful public relations effort of Nepal's first lesbian wedding — which generated headlines around the world in June — Pant aims to bring thousands of gay, lesbian and transgender travelers to Nepal by promoting the country as a gay-friendly tourist destination.

Pink Mountain offers a weeklong wedding and honeymoon package — Hindu or Buddhist — for around $10,000, as well as opportunities to do volunteer work related to sexual minorities. And this summer Pant's travel agency endeavored to turn Gaijatra, a traditional Nepali Hindu holiday that involves cross dressing, into “Gay Jatra” — an international gay pride event on Aug. 14. Tourist turnout wasn't so hot, as it happened, but more than 500 local gays and lesbians danced and chanted slogans in Narayanghat, a town about 160 kilometers south of Kathmandu, local press reported, noting that this was the first time that a large number of gay activists have demonstrated for their rights outside the capital.

“He completely screwed our annual Gaijatra festival, which he turned into Gay Jatra. It's actually a festival devoted to families who've lost their near and dear ones over the past year,” said Kunal Tej Bir Lama, a local restaurateur from the gay community. “But it turned into a spectacle of very badly overdressed drag queens.”

Lama worries that Pant's public relations campaigns — while they generate headlines and support from the plethora of international non-profit organizations based in Kathmandu — have made the LGBTI community seem more radical and more exotic than necessary.

“Because of his actions and campaigns, yes, a lot of people are aware of who the gay people are and what they do, but a lot of them also have very, very, very skewed perception of the whole thing,” said Lama said. “They think that most of us are just guys who dress up as girls, who put on a lot of heavy makeup, bad fashion, and basically work as prostitutes.”

Monday, November 07, 2011

Shiva's Rules: Union strikes threaten India Inc.

This year's spate of strikes gives an ominous glimpse into a possible future for Indian manufacturing.

Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - November 7, 2011

Editor's Note: The Shiva Rules is a year-long GlobalPost reporting series that examines India in the 21st century. In it, correspondents Jason Overdorf and Hanna Ingber Win will examine the sweeping economic, political and cultural changes that are transforming this nascent global power in surprising and sometimes inexplicable ways. To help uncover the complexities of India's uneven rise, The Shiva Rules uses as a loose reporting metaphor Shiva, the popular Hindu deity of destruction and rebirth.

NEW DELHI, India — This autumn, some of India's highest paid industrial workers took to the picket line.

One of the largest and longest running industrial actions to hit the country's manufacturing sector in recent years, the strike by employees at Maruti Suzuki's Haryana automobile factories sent an ominous signal.

In the '60s, '70s and '80s, frequent strikes and lockouts slowed India's industrialization, costing companies millions and causing industry to abandon some states like Kerala and West Bengal altogether.

Now it looks like those days of industrial turmoil may be on the way back. It couldn't have happened to a more important symbol of the new India.

Maruti Suzuki is the showpiece success story of India's post-1991 economic liberalization. One of the country's most respected companies, it ended years-long waiting lists for cars built by Hindustan Motors. And it paved the way for investments by the world's largest car makers by proving that manufacturing in India could be profitable.

The joint venture, in which Suzuki Motor Corp. owns a 54 percent stake, became the largest contributor to its Japanese parent's bottom line in 2009.

This fall's strike, which resulted in a wider-than-expected 60 percent plunge in Maruti's profits for the second quarter, suggested the company — and India — may be entering a new era.

“It's everybody's dream to work for a multinational company like Maruti Suzuki,” said 25-year-old Pradeep Singh, vice president of a new, independent union that workers at the company's Manesar plant fought to establish this fall. “But once you get hired and see the reality, it's a big disappointment.”

Singh is typical of India’s disgruntled union laborers. He has achieved what might be described as the Indian dream. His father, a farmer, ekes out a living from an acre or so of land. But Singh left the fields behind and effectively broke into the middle class with his job at Maruti.

He normally earns about $300 a month — nearly three times the national average income. Like many of today's workers, however, Singh has higher aspirations. Now, along with around 30 other union leaders, he’s under suspension for his activities during the strike, convinced fighting is the only way to get India Inc. to share its growing prosperity with the work force.

“Maruti is No. 1 when it comes to profit,” Singh said. “But when it comes to salary, it's around seventh or eighth.”

India's large corporations have faced 10 major strikes in the last three years, and things may well get worse before they get better. This year alone, there have been strikes and protests at Coal India, Bosch India, Air India, Comstar, Ceat Tyres, Volvo Buses and at textile factories in Punjab, according to Outlook Business.

“If the management does not learn to deal with the sensitive dimension of labor and their circumstances, I am afraid these kinds of things may increase,” said Kuriakose Mamkootam, a professor at Ambedkar University who has written extensively about industrial relations in India.

“There is already what I would call a hidden, unexpressed sense of grief and violence amongst the people.”

That tension stems partly from the gradual dismantling of India's socialist economic policies begun by then-Finance Minister Manmohan Singh in 1991. But successive governments' reluctance to swallow the bitter pill and reform some of the country's tougher labor laws has also contributed to the friction.

Prior to 1991, national unions helped put in place tough labor laws.

One such law forces firms with 100 or more employees to seek government approval before they can fire workers or close down. Labor laws also prevent companies from reassigning workers to different tasks, so there is no way for companies to adjust to changes in the market.

As a result, the official employees of companies like Maruti have it pretty good.

But because of those very same laws, those official employees make up a very small fraction of the work force.

Knowing they can't fire or reassign workers, India's large companies simply don't hire them. Instead, they outsource work to the so-called “unorganized sector,” which comprises companies with fewer than 100 employees. Or they employ contract workers through middlemen.

As a result, only 7 percent of India's 400 million laborers are employed by firms large enough to be compelled to follow the rules. The rest toil in grim sweatshops, often for less than the national minimum wage.

Efforts at reversing course have already been painful.

Since 1991, governments have increasingly looked the other way as even the largest firms assigned a greater portion of the workload to contract laborers whom they could not only hire and fire more easily, but also pay less.

“An in-between community is being created that can neither get a job, nor continue in agriculture, and they are being used as an army of reserve labor by capitalists to keep wage levels and other rights of the workers at a low point,” said Tapan Sen, general secretary of the Communist Party-affiliated Center of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).

For instance, the official Maruti employees were angered by company payment policies. Only about half of their ostensibly generous salary is guaranteed, workers say. The other half is a “production performance reward” that can be slashed by as much as 20 percent every time a worker takes a day off. Moreover, showing up a minute late in the morning — or from the seven minute break you get between 7 a.m. and noon — will cost you half a day's pay, the union alleges.

“In any manufacturing company, especially in assembly line operations, discipline on timings in shopfloor is crucial to the overall process. There are well-organized breaks for lunch, tea etc for every worker,” a Maruti Suzuki spokesman said, via email.

Base salary cannot be reduced for employees who miss work, and workers who lose their production performance reward can get it refunded if their attendance improves within three months, he added.

Those are not the only footnotes to the Indian dream, though.

Nearly half of the employees at Maruti's Manesar plant weren't “regular workers” at all, though they showed up every day, too, and performed much the same work. So while 1,000-odd regular workers like Pradeep Singh could hope to earn about $300 a month if they didn't miss any days, 1,200 contract workers could only earn about $120, said Satvir Singh, who heads CITU in Haryana.

“Salaries at Maruti Suzuki are the industry best for permanent workers and higher than stipulated wages by state government for contract workers,” Maruti's spokesman said.

Similar conditions prevail at companies like Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India, Nokia and Voltas, according to Outlook Business. It may not be coincidence that all of those firms have recently faced strikes.

“The only common thread is the issue of contract labor,” said Rajiv Kumar, secretary general of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. “That is quite clearly spreading all over the country.”

Now, though, the government looks set to double down.

On Oct. 25, just days after Maruti's striking workers returned to work, India's cabinet approved a landmark manufacturing policy. Designed to create 100 million new jobs, it aims to boost the manufacturing sector's output to 25 percent of GDP by 2022 from the current 16 percent — where it has stagnated since 1980.

But the new plan won't deliver the key reforms to improve infrastructure, facilitate land acquisition and ease labor laws that industry maintains are necessary. Instead, it simply calls for the creation of seven or so islands — mammoth industrial parks known as National Investment and Manufacturing Zones — where the usual rules won't apply.

As a staff editorial from India's Economic Times suggested, it is a “fine example of a policy for the sake of a policy.”

Or maybe it is something worse.

According to union leaders and industry representatives alike, successive governments moves to work around strict labor laws have played an important role in souring relations between labor and management.

In the controversial Special Economic Zones set up to encourage export-related industries, for example, companies misused their gated properties to fence out unions and violate labor laws, says CITU's Sen.

Similarly, new government sympathy for industry and a reduction in the number of labor inspectors to one for every 200 factories has weakened the enforcement of laws related to wages and working conditions, says Krishna Shekhar Lal Das, an industrial relations expert at the Institute for Integrated Learning in Management.

But at the same time, India's failure to reform its labor laws altogether has had disastrous consequences. On the one hand, the tough rules continue to prevent the manufacturing sector from growing, because India's tiny sweatshops can't compete with China's mammoth factories. Yet, on the other, by fighting to keep laws on the books that don't apply to most workers, the trade unions have ensured that for most of the poor neither wages nor working conditions can improve.

“They are working for a labor aristocracy, because their interests are tied to them,” Kumar said. “The real poor in this country cannot afford to be unionized.”

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Nepal: Formal closure to civil war

The Himalayan nation has reached a deal that essentially demobilizes the former rebel army.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - November 2, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — Nepal may have eliminated the single largest obstacle standing in the way of a resolution to the country's decade-long civil war.

But there are plenty of obstacles remaining.

After five long years of negotiations following the end of the conflict, the Himalayan nation's major political parties settled on a deal late Tuesday that paves the way for the final dissolution of the rebel army.

The deal will see the former Maoist soldiers, who fought government forces from 1996 to 2006, integrated into the national army — or sent home with a fat severance check.

Many tout the move as a step in the right direction, given that the deal essentially demobilizes the nearly 20,000 former rebels.

But with that stumbling block out of the way, next comes the nitty-gritty work of making a new government. Ironing out the details and drafting a constitution are surely going to remain contentious. The deal is likely going to take much longer than the month the political parties have allocated.

Nepal's civil war was started by the Maoist Communist Party in 1996, with the aim of overthrowing the monarchy and establishing a "People's Republic of Nepal." It ended with a peace deal 2006, which has since been monitored by the United Nations.

An estimated 15,000 people were killed during the conflict, and more than 100,000 displaced.

"We have concluded yet another chapter of the peace process. The main task now is to implement this," Prachanda, the leader of the Maoists, told reporters after signing the agreement Tuesday.

Under the deal, Nepal's main political parties — which include the Maoists and the Nepali Congress, among others — agreed to integrate as much as one-third of some 19,600 former Maoist soldiers into the country's official security forces, Reuters reported. The other two-thirds will receive a rehabilitation package including education, vocational training and financial aid of up to $11,500 to start a new life.

The former soldiers who are included in the national army will be restricted to non-combat operations, such as the construction of development projects, emergency-rescue operations and patrolling forests.

“This is really a major breakthrough,” said Prashant Jha, a Kathmandu-based political commentator.

“For the first time there's a formal agreement on the details of the peace process. Now the key challenge is implementing the agreement that has been signed.”

Indeed, the deal eliminated the most contentious issue of the peace process, which has made little headway since the shooting stopped five years ago.

“With the future of the combatants out of the way, there's no obstacle to moving ahead on the constitution,” said Anagha Neelakantan, senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Nepal.

No obstacle, that is, but politics.

Although Nepal's various political factions have been discussing the drafting of a new constitution for several years — as United Nations deadlines whooshed by — there is still no formal agreement on the most essential questions about what form the country's new government will take.

And because these actors include erstwhile monarchists and Maoist revolutionaries, not to mention a long list of ethnic groups competing for the country's scant resources, ironing out a deal won't happen overnight. Or, most likely, even within the month proposed in Tuesday night's agreement, according to Neelakantan.

For example, there is a broad consensus that Nepal's former unitary government will be scrapped in favor of a federalist structure to help address the vast inequality between the central Kathmandu Valley and poorer areas of the country — a major reason the Maoists first took up arms.

But there is no such agreement on how power will be shared between the central and state governments, on what grounds the states will be formed, or even how many states the tiny, mountainous country will eventually have.

“For any state that has historically been centrally administered to move to a federal model is a challenge,” said the political commentator, Jha. “What complicates it in Nepal is that this is a very diverse country, with many different ethnicities and many minority groups.”

That makes for tough questions, such as whether states should be formed along ethnic lines or named for ethnic groups.

But at least some of the framers of the new constitution hope to address longstanding grievances regarding social and economic inequalities related to ethnicity, caste and region with leveling measures called “preferential rights” that may prove even more contentious.

“Restructuring of the state into federal units will potentially be a hard negotiation, but the parties are still closer than they were a year ago,” said Neelakantan. “This is the start of formal closure on the war. That's the really important thing.”