Monday, April 22, 2013

India's young Hindu radicals

Is a group of young Hindu radicals terrorizing the college town of Mangalore a sign of a coming culture war?
By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - April 22, 2013)

MANGALORE, India — Inside the Mangalore city jail, Subhash Padil, a 29-year-old foot soldier in a far right Hindu organization, leaned in to make himself heard through the wire mesh of the visitor's window. Half a dozen of his fellow inmates crowded around him.

With an orange lungi wrapped around his waist, sarong-style, and a saffron towel draped over his shoulders, Padil dressed in the guise of a temple priest. His moralistic protestations against his incarceration for an alleged attack on a birthday party held at a local bed and breakfast last year make him sound like one, too.

“When we came in, the girls were half naked and everyone was drinking,” he said, through a translator. “They claim it was only a birthday party. But if that was all that was going on, why would they hold it at a guesthouse instead of at home?”

Last July, journalist Naveen Soorinje caught Padil and other alleged members of the Hindu Jagarana Vedike on video as they roughed up a group of 20-something party-goers they claimed were up to no good. For exposing the Hindu group's violent answer to moral policing, the journalist spent more than six months in jail.

The real shock, however, was the virulence of the young Hindu radicals he exposed.

More than half of India's 1.2 billion people are under 25 years old, a potential demographic dividend that optimists say could add two percent per year to the country's gross domestic product over the next 20 years.

But contrary to conventional wisdom, it's not all Facebook, MTV and sexting in “Youngistan” — Pepsi's clever tag for this generation now coming into its own. Instead, even as English-speaking India appears to be growing ever more tolerant of dating, live-in relationships and even intercaste marriages, Mangalore's birthday party battle and similar conflicts across the country hint at a simmering culture war beneath the surface of India's economic growth.

“If they truly suspected that there were drugs at the party or that the boys were taking pictures of the girls in compromising positions to blackmail them, they should have stopped to assess the situation and confirm something like that was really going on,” said Soorinje, who was finally released from custody after months of protests from civil rights organizations and other media personnel.

“But you can see from the video that they just stormed through the gate and started the attack.”

The Morality Police

A small, coastal city in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, Mangalore seems like an unnatural hotbed for Hindu radicals. It's only about 200 miles from Bangalore, the IT hub that has become the public face of India's economic rise. And thanks to dozens of educational institutions like St. Aloysius College, whose colonial-era towers overlook the Arabian Sea from the center of town, the city throngs with young, upwardly mobile Indians studying to be doctors, nurses, executives and engineers.

On a typical afternoon at a local branch of Cafe Coffee Day, the unofficial capital of Youngistan, several couples from the local colleges sit together, their heads drawn together over the excuse of a notebook. In one corner of the cafe, a Muslim girl sits with her bearded boyfriend, strappy pink sandals peaking out from beneath the head-to-toe black of her chador, while in another, a Hindu guy with a soul patch has pulled his chair around the table to sit next to his girlfriend. And later that night, at a local bar called Froth on Top, the crowd of young college students drank pitchers of beer, looking no different from any such group in any country around the world.

But there's more here than meets the eye.

Over the past five years — according to news reports collected by the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), India's oldest and largest human rights organisation — Mangalore and the surrounding coastal area has witnessed more than 100 incidents of so-called “moral policing,” similar to the homestay attack in July.

“If a boy and girl walks together, that is not Hindu culture, they will say,” said Swebert de Silva, principal of St. Aloysius College, where students have protested against the self-appointed moral police.

“Or women drinking in a pub. Or young people gathering together and drinking a little beer. That is not Hindu culture.”

Most of the incidents compiled by PUCL involved members of radical groups such as the Hindu Jagarana Vedike, Sri Rama Sene and Bajrang Dal. In January 2009, for instance, around 40 alleged members of the Sri Ram Sene attacked young men and women drinking at a local Mangalore bar called “Amnesia — the Lounge,” claiming they were violating Indian culture. In August 2011, some 30 to 40 alleged members of the Bajrang Dal reportedly broke up a birthday party being held at a local farmhouse, claiming it was a rave.

“If I'm married and I'm having children of age 20 or 25 and I flirt with a girl who is the age of 14, and my intention is to spoil her, and some alert social activists ... stop us, how can you say it is moral policing?” said Franklin Monteiro, a local leader from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“First they will ask whether they are married or they are lovers, or whether they are having the permission of their parents,” Monteiro said. “These three questions they will ask first. If they belong to the same [religious] community, they [the vigilantes] will leave, just like that.”

But in contrast, in dozens of cases compiled by PUCL, members of various right-wing outfits reportedly dragged young people off buses, sprang on couples and hauled them into the police station, or beat them up on the spot.

Many of these attacks stemmed from the real or imagined perception that a Muslim boy had sought a connection with a Hindu girl — which right-wing ideologues have characterized as “Love Jihad.” And in almost all of these instances that involve the local police, the authorities appear to have tacitly sanctioned the vigilantes' actions by holding the couple for questioning, calling their parents to retrieve them, or releasing them only after ascertaining that both the boy and girl are Hindus.

“Nobody is stopping it,” said Suresh Bhatt, vice president of the Karnataka chapter of PUCL. “We're terribly concerned that the lawkeepers, the police and the politicians, are turning a blind eye.”

Activists from PUCL and other like-minded organisations trace such incidents of moral policing — as well as dozens of reported attacks on Muslims accused of slaughtering cows and on Christians accused of trying to convert Hindus — to the recent rise to power of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Karnataka.

The BJP and the Hindu Jagarana Vedike, Sri Rama Sene, and Bajrang Dal are all official offshoots, or ideological allies, of a massive, informal political “family” known as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), PUCL activists said.

The increase in these interreligious skirmishes — whether they're related to the bogey of “Love Jihad,” cow slaughter, or conversion — is part of a well-planned RSS campaign strategy, according to critics.

“For us, the final is the Sangh Parivar (RSS family), we are all activists of the Sangh Parivar,” said the BJP's Monteiro. “For us, the final and the most holiest part of life is to protect this country, as well as the culture of this land, which has been practiced by our elders.”

In Mangalore, the campaign began in the late 1990s, when a communal clash between Hindus and Muslims offered the RSS and other proponents of its ethnic nationalist ideology of “Hindutva” or “Hinduness” an opportunity to woo low caste Hindus away from competing socialist and communist movements, according to K. Phaniraj, a professor at the nearby Manipal Institute of Technology.

But since 2008, when the BJP came to power in Karnataka, the lines have blurred between the grassroots exploitation of tensions between religious communities and official sanction from the authorities. When the government proposed a bill to ban cow slaughter, for instance, local police tacitly allowed hooligans to enforce the ban, though it never became law. And for more than a month last year, the official police website for the district that includes Mangalore featured a photo collage highlighting the supposed public service activities of the RSS (which the group's opponents say are nothing more than recruitment efforts).

“I call it Hindutva fascism,” Phaniraj said. “I make no bones about it.”

Class and caste, town and gown

As disturbing as that sounds, that aspect of the issue is little more than politics as usual for India, where the RSS and Hindu nationalism has been a potent force since 1925.

And though various speeches reported by local media suggest otherwise, some RSS members and sympathisers say that the organisation has quietly shunted to the side the outright fascist ideas of Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, one of its principal early ideologues. (In his written works, Golwalkar calls for non-Hindus to adopt Hindu culture or submit to remain “wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation” and appears to endorse Hitler's decision to purge Germanyof the Jews, though perhaps not his methods).

“There might be a small section of the RSS which is anti-Muslim,” said 31-year-old Brijesh Chowta, an RSS member who cautioned that his statements represented only his personal views. “But if you look at the organisation, they say Hindutva is not a religion. Everybody can practice their religion, but it's about being Indian first.”

What's new, and of greater concern to the more liberal citizens of Youngistan, is the idea that India's modernization may not be diminishing the ranks of the true believers, and their conservatism may be contagious — encouraging Christian and Muslim fundamentalism.

At a recent regional meeting, 80 percent of the 85,000 uniformed “volunteers” that turned out were between 16 and 35, according to a 28-year-old member of the RSS who lives at its center in the city and works for the organisation full time. (He asked not to be named because he is not an official spokesman.)

Meanwhile, the regular attacks on Muslims that accompanied the Hindu vigilantes' moral policing sparked local college students to adopt the burqa and chador as a kind of badge of honor in the tussle between modernity, freedom and identity.

And the socio-economic dimensions of the conflict hint that it may soon grow more serious.

Apart from the alleged political machinations of the Hindu right, there is a class-and-caste, town-versus-gown element to these incidents of moral policing that some observers believe augurs trouble on the horizon.

While educated, upwardly mobile young people move forward to take better jobs, free themselves from the authority of their parents and embrace more liberal attitudes toward love and sex, another group may be growing increasingly lost, hopeless and angry.

According to Soorinje, the journalist jailed for his reporting on moral policing, for instance, four of the young men facing charges for the alleged attack on party-goers at the homestay in July do not have electricity in their homes.

“The reason that young people are attracted to these kind of [radical conservative] outfits is the uneven development we see in Mangalore,” Soorinje said.

“While we have so many colleges and shopping malls, the backward and uneducated tend to take what the leadership says about 'Love Jihad' and so forth at face value, because young men and women socializing together like the college students do is completely outside their sphere of knowledge.”

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

India: Is education policy increasing inequality?

In 2009, India guaranteed its citizens the right to education. But critics say the policy is marred by a dangerous move toward privatization.

By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - February 27, 2013)
NEW DELHI — In the tiny, one-room shanty that she shares with her father, mother, brother and sister when she is home for the holidays, 11-year-old Babli answers questions about the private boarding school where she lives and studies for nine months of the year.
Babli Thakur, 11, poses for a picture in her dorm in the hostel building in Shanti Gyan International School, a reputed private school, in Delhi. 
(Sami Siva/GlobalPost)
“In my school, they teach English and different-different subjects,” Babli says. “We have more activities, games, football, table tennis, dancing, singing, yoga, musical instruments. There are also lots of cultural programs. My favorite subject is English.”
Typical of the makeshift homes of New Delhi's hundreds of “jhuggi (hut) clusters,” Babli’s house is an eight- by ten-foot cell, with a corrugated aluminum roof and concrete walls. There is no window. The ceiling is low enough to force an average-sized American to stoop.
Against the back wall, a cot stretches from corner to corner, where Babli's elderly father is sleeping off a bender. There's a desert cooler for the hot summer and a single, bare fluorescent bulb for light. A 21-inch television, bought on an installment plan, enjoys a place of pride atop the family's only other piece of furniture — a battered wooden cabinet.
The family's clothes — half a dozen faded outfits — hang from a steel pipe overhead that doubles as the center roof beam. Next to the front door, which leads to the gutter, a shower caddy nailed to the concrete holds four toothbrushes and a tube of toothpaste. In another corner, plastic jars hold a dusting of flour and foodstuffs next to a two-burner stove.
“I'm a casual worker at a thread factory nearby,” says Babli's mother, Santosha, the family breadwinner. She has been forced to stay home today, without pay, because the factory where she works in violation of India's labor laws is undergoing a government inspection. “I make 150 rupees ($3) a day,” she says, “working seven days a week, from nine in the morning to nine, ten, or sometimes eleven at night.”
Santosha, the family, and everybody crowded into the tiny room hope that Babli will fight her way out of this place to a better life.
As part of an experiment conceived by activist-educator Anouradha Bakshi, who runs a non-profit called Project Why, Babli attends an elite, English-language boarding school on the outskirts of the city instead of her area's government-run, Hindi-language school. By every available measure, that gives her a much better chance at breaking out of the slum. And it makes her a kind of advanced case study for a potentially revolutionary Indian government program designed to offer millions of poor families the chance to send their kids to private schools. For the lucky ones, it's like winning the lottery.
But even Bakshi herself, who fought school authorities and dipped into her own pocket to get eight slum kids into posh boarding schools, remains deeply worried that for the majority of the population the creeping privatization of India's education system will only increase inequality further.
“The government schools today, especially the primary schools, have mostly illiterate parents,” Bakshi said. “Ten years ago, 20 years ago, you had a better social mix in government schools. Because privatization hadn't really happened then.”
“What happened is the middle class moved out,” she said. “Unless you have a school system where several social strata learn together, you're not going to be able to rise. It's not by buying a mobile phone or getting a TV in your house that things are going to change.”
In 2009, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's United Progressive Alliance government pushed through a new law enshrining education as a fundamental right and guaranteeing free, compulsory education for every Indian up to age 14. The law sets requirements for schools — many of which lack basic facilities such as toilets. It prohibits schools from holding back or expelling students. It requires that surveys be conducted periodically to measure the school-age population of every neighborhood and make sure every child has a school to attend. It calls for the setup of school management committees — where 50 percent of the members are parents — to ensure schools are performing.
And it makes radical new demands of the country's private schools, which already serve about a third of India's elementary school students, although the government accounts for 80 percent of the country's schools.
Promising to reimburse schools for their fees, or at least the amount the government schools spend per student, Section 12 of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 (RTE) makes it compulsory for every private, unaided school to reserve 25 percent of the seats in its entry level class for poor or disadvantaged students. Meanwhile, government-aided private schools are required to provide free education to poor and disadvantaged children in proportion to the aid they receive from the government.
This year, the first such students entered first grade, in small numbers, at private schools around the country.
“It has the potential to be the world's largest school voucher program,” says Parth Shah, director of the New Delhi-based Center for Civil Society, which has long argued that India should adopt the “school choice” concept pioneered by University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman.
There are plenty of reasons to believe that the RTE policy is on the right track.
By the Gini coefficient that economists use to measure inequality, India is a more egalitarian society than China, Mexico, Thailand or the US. But a walk through New Delhi is proof enough that where the gap lies is at least as important as how wide it is.
Some 400 million Indians like Babli's family are fighting to survive on less than $1.25 a day, and despite the government's good intentions, they can't count on the state for low-cost housing, clean water, reliable public transport or much of anything at all.
Meanwhile, across town from Babli's slum, at the DLF Emporio luxury mall, every minute or so a Mercedes-Benz E-class sedan glides to a stop in front of the massive hoardings for Louis Vuitton and Dior. Valet parking runs 200 rupees ($4, a third more than Babli's mother, Santosha, earns in a day). At the busy atrium cafe inside, a cappuccino costs 310 rupees ($6). In the Gucci store, one of Delhi's top earners picks up a belt for 16,000 rupees ($300).
“Our constitution says that the income gap should be reduced, but it has not happened and it is not happening,” said Delhi High Court advocate Ashok Agarwal, whose organization, Social Jurists, has fought harder than anybody to get poor children into the country's private schools.
On the contrary, the gulf between rich and poor is getting wider. The gap between the incomes of the top and bottom tenths of India's population has doubled over the past 20 years, since India liberalized its economy in 1991. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) 2011 study, “Divided We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising,” India's top 10 percent of wage earners now make 12 times more than the bottom 10 percent, up from a ratio of six in the 1990s.
“It is one country, practically divided into two countries,” said Agarwal. “It's a very alarming situation.”
One of the biggest reasons may be growing inequality in education.
India has made vast strides increasing access to primary and secondary education over the past 60 years, and in recent years it has succeeded in boosting the literacy rate to 74 percent in 2011 from 65 percent in 2001.
But the country's government-run schools are failing, and Indians, including all but the poorest of the poor, are spending an ever-greater amount to send their kids to private schools.
According to government data compiled by researchers Rajesh Shukla and Mridusmita Bordoloi, spending on education was one of the fastest growing household expenditures over the past 20 years. And as that spending increases, the gap between the education that the rich and poor receive widens in proportion. In the latest nationwide survey of household spending, the bottom 10 percent of wage earners spent 1.9 percent, or about $15, on education, while the top 10 percent spent 13.5 percent of their much higher household expenditure — or about $550.
It's a thorny issue.
Public education was intended to be India's great leveler. But the country's government-run schools are in such a shambles that only a quarter of the teachers actually show up and only half of them do any real teaching. According to the New Delhi-based Center for Civil Society, a third of India's primary schools don't have permanent school buildings and one out of ten are so lacking in materials that there is not even a chalkboard. More than 1.4 million teaching posts are vacant in government schools. And fewer than 1 percent of the graduates leaving India's universities with a bachelor's degree in education were able to pass a Central Teacher Eligibility Test (CTET) introduced last year.
A classroom at the Project Why school, a New Delhi-based NGO engaged in education support of slum children, in Govindpuri. 
(Sami Siva/GlobalPost)
Most likely as a direct result, half of the Indian children who attend first grade drop out before reaching the fifth, and two-thirds drop out before the eighth. And that's despite knowing, in a vague way, that earning power grows dramatically here with even a basic education. A primary school graduate earns 21 percent more than an illiterate person, while a high school grad nets more than double and a college grad pulls in nearly four times more, according to a study by India's National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER).
Even budget private schools deliver better results than the vast majority of government-run schools. That's why proponents of the RTE's 25 percent quota for the poor and disadvantaged see it as revolutionary. And it's why parents of quota students at the private, unaided Sainath Public School in New Delhi jumped at the chance to get out of the government school system.
For Satish, a young shopkeeper who nets about $100 a month and lives in a slum house much like that of Babli's family, even the school's low, $20 per month charges would be unaffordable for him to send his seven-year-old daughter, Disha, there without government aid.
“The teaching is much better at private schools,” Satish said. “A lot of times, the teachers don't show up [at public schools]. There's no drinking water. The place is never cleaned.”
“Even if the teachers are there, they don't pay any attention to the students,” said Shabana Bano, the mother of six-year-old Mohammed Rihan, another quota student. “The teacher will be sitting in class and the students will walk in and walk out whenever they want and the teacher doesn't even notice.”
From private school, they expect much more.
“A government job will be great, and when I talk to my daughter she says she either wants to be a teacher or a doctor,” said Satish.
“The way we think is, our children will study, become someone, and show society what they can do,” said Bano.
That's great for the lucky parents. But already competition for places in the country's better private schools is so fierce that until most of them instituted online applications, parents camped out overnight just to pick up application forms. Similar welfare programs that depend on identifying Indians from the so-called “economically weaker section,” such as the public distribution system (PDS) for subsidized food and kerosene, have excluded millions of the destitute and have been crippled by fraud.
And critics like Project Why's Bakshi point out that only the most rudimentary of budget private schools, if any, exist in the rural areas peopled by the poorest of the poor. Meanwhile, the 25 percent quota may accelerate the flight of the most capable and concerned parents to private schools, thus undermining the effort to make teachers and administrators in the government system more accountable.
“The focus of RTE has become this 25 percent, with little else being talked about,” said the Center for Civil Society's Shah. “That, in a sense, is diverting attention from all the other things that need to be done to fix the system. This is just a quick-fix for the group of people who might benefit from the scheme.”

India: Leopards stalk Bollywood

Leopards living in the heart of Mumbai have mauled or killed more than 100 people over the past decade.

By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - March 20, 2013)

MUMBAI, India — Swetha Paghe, 50 years old, was crouching in the pitch dark when the leopard came for her this November.

The beast swiftly silenced her screams and dragged her from her slum colony on the outskirts of Mumbai into the scrub forest along the borders of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Her fellow villagers quickly formed a search party and set off for the hills. But by the time they found her, she was dead.

“Every day of your life, whether you're eating, drinking, or going outside, you're always wondering [if the leopard is going to come],” said Dilip Navsha Paghe, Swetha's 30-year-old son.

“Now we don't let the kids out of our sight at night,” said Paghe, who has three small boys.

Residents of Aarey Milk Colony and other communities that border the national park have good reason to be afraid of the dark. Over the past decade, the leopards that stalk Bollywood have mauled or killed more than 100 people — even straying onto the studio lots of nearby Film City.

But local news stories of bloodthirsty maneaters obscure an all too familiar reality: India's notorious civic failures, not Mumbai's leopards, are to blame for the killings. And, until recently, forest officials' response to the problem was actually making it worse.

Sanjay Gandhi National Park is a 100 square kilometer “wilderness” surrounded on three sides by a teeming megalopolis. Nearly 30 times the size of New York's Central Park, with a core area that is off-limits to ordinary citizens, the park is home to at least 21 leopards,according to a recent study.

But as many as a million tribal people and migrant laborers live in and around the urban wilderness. And because these communities have been ignored and neglected by the government, their settlements have actually spurred an increase in the leopard population and drawn the animals into the city, rather than driving them deeper into the forest.

“Nowhere else in the world will you see so much wildlife and so many people [living together],” said wildlife biologist Vidya Athreya, who led a yearlong research project on human-leopard conflict that involved the Maharashtra forest department, the Bangalore-based Center for Wildlife Studies and a civil society group called Mumbaikars for Sanjay Gandhi National Park.

“In America, all their wolves have been killed off. They're reintroducing them, and people are scared. In Europe, they have 20 people per square kilometer, and they don't want even one wolf per 100 square kilometers. In India, we kill [our dangerous animals], we poach them, and all that. But we don't think that they all should be wiped out. That's not there in our philosophy.”

Can that philosophy survive? Maybe. Certain tribal groups who have resided in the vicinity for centuries are permitted to build huts and gather firewood on the outskirts of the forest and even inside the park.

However, neither the city, nor state, nor central government has been able to stop migrant laborers from moving in illegally. And nobody provides the battery of services that is needed to prevent the leopard population explosion and protect people from their wild neighbors.

There is no garbage pickup and no plans to provide it, so the villages and slums attract legions of stray dogs. Fat and boisterous, these dogs have replaced the fleet deer and shy wild pigs to become the leopards' primary food source. There are no street lights, no sewers, and no toilets, so to relieve themselves childen and women like Swetha Paghe must squat in the dark near the rubbish heap — where leopards mistake them for their dogs, or settle for them, just the same.

“We tell the people, we meet the corporators, we tell the administration,” said Sunil Limaye, the forest official in charge of the park. “Everybody says, 'Yes, we will do it.' But nobody does it. That is clearly the problem.”

The result is that there are a whopping 57 dogs per square kilometer in the park region, according to the Mumbaikars for Sanjay Gandhi National Park study. The strays have not only lured the leopards to the forest's outskirts, but also spurred a concurrent population boom among the big cats. Using camera traps and spot-patterns to identify individuals, researchers found that the park is home to nearly twice the number of leopards that would be found in a more isolated forest.

“We found 12 females, six males, and three individuals which we couldn't identify [by sex], so a minimum of 21 individuals in Sanjay Gandhi National Park and Aarey Milk Colony, which is an area of about 120 square kilometers,” said the Center for Wildlife Studies' Athreya. “Each female leopard needs 10 square kilometers of territory, so by that account we should only have had 12 [leopards].”

“The density of large cats is totally dependent on prey. The more prey you have, the more [predator] animals you have.”

Until city and forest officials find a way to collect garbage and cull the area's stray dogs, the hope for local residents and conservationists is that a greater density of leopards doesn't necessarily mean more leopard attacks. Athreya argues that leopard attacks spiked between 2000 and 2004 (including 84 attacks in two years alone) primarily because widespread panic forced forest officials to trap and relocate supposed problem animals — mostly by dropping them deeper into the park itself.

“Any leopard seen anywhere, its home was Sanjay Gandhi National Park, by our definition,” Athreya said. “That was what used to happen until 2005. Leopards rescued in Nashik, leopards rescued in Pune ... were all sent into Sanjay Gandhi National Park. We thought that was the right thing to do.”

Instead of removing a threat, however, the relocations opened up a territorial vacuum for new leopards to move in. So attacks continued wherever a leopard was removed. Meanwhile, the relocated leopards grew more aggressive in targeting human habitations since they were thrown into ranges already occupied by hostile rivals. Or they just made their way back home, sometimes traversing hundreds of kilometers to get there.

“Everybody thinks trapping is the solution,” Athreya said. “But it actually worsens the problem.”

Since the forest department realized that relocation should only be used as a last resort — removing animals that have actually attacked people — the frequency of attacks has gone down dramatically. At the height of the relocation craze, between 2002 and 2004, there were some 84 leopard attacks in the area, an average of 28 a year. Between 2005 and 2010, the average number of attacks plunged to two per year.

But a dramatic increase in the human population has resulted in another spike in attacks — including seven fatal maulings in 2012 and several more this year. The number of people living inside the park has ballooned from a few hundred to at least 10,000 over the past five years, according to Jalpesh Mehta, whose non-profit Empower Foundation works with these communities. And with every attack, the forest department faces more pressure from local residents and the politicians who represent them to set traps and relocate animals.

Understandably, tempers run hot. On the night forest officials captured the leopard believed to have dragged away 50-year-old Swetha Paghe, angry villagers armed themselves with iron rods, knives and cleavers to try to prevent the wildlife rescue team from taking the animal away. Only with the help of police, and after a long negotiation, could forest officials and volunteers get the leopard out.

“People feel that we care more about the animals than we do about the people,” said Pawan S. Sharma, a volunteer who helped with the rescue. “Sometimes people say, 'You are waiting for something to happen, and only then you will act.'”

Saturday, April 13, 2013

India's 'Beach King'

Turning saving lives into a for-profit business, Yathish Baikampady started a revolution on India's neglected beaches.
By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - April 10, 2013)

MANGALORE, India — As the sun sinks into the Arabian Sea off Mangalore, 200 miles west of Bangalore in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, India's "Beach King" levers the cap off a beer and surveys his domain.

Down near the water, a group of college students dashes into the waves. Nearby, a large Muslim family — the adult women covered head-to-toe in black chadors — eats roasted corn from one of the beachside snack vendors. Further down the sand, young Koreans pose for pictures with a camel, while another family negotiates for a jet ski ride.

It wasn't always this serene. Five years ago, Panambur beach was deserted. India's poor swimmers feared its rough waters and years of neglect had left the sands littered with plastic bottles, chewing tobacco packets and the other indestructible detritus of the country's beleaguered beaches.

But that was before Yathish Baikampady (aka "The Beach King") completely revamped the mile-long stretch of coastline. Today, the revolution he started could well transform the tourism business not only in Karnataka but across the country, everywhere from Kerala to Orissa.

Goa's package of sun, sand and trance music attracts nearly 3 million tourists every year. But in general India is not known for its beaches, despite 200-odd days of hot, sunny weather a year and 4,200 miles of coastline. Across the country, locals treat the sands as a garbage dump or an open-air toilet — except on short stretches owned by hotels and resorts.

And nearly 30,000 people drown every year due to a lack of warnings about dangerous currents and a shortage of trained lifeguards. At Chennai's Marina Beach alone, for instance, as many as five people drown every month.

Not on Baikampady's patch of sand.

A longtime State Bank of India employee, Baikampady approached the local government in 2008, with a plan to privatize Panambur beach.

After winning a government tender to take control, Baikampady, who hails from coastal Karnataka's fisherman community, turned to local fishermen for personnel. He boosted the lifeguard staff to six lifeguards per one mile stretch, compared with about two lifeguards per mile on Mumbai's beaches.

He built beach cottages for tourists, started a daily cleanup program and banned cigarettes and chewing tobacco.

The result: Drownings dropped from 25 to five in his first year in charge, then zero over the next three years, as Baikampady's lifeguards saved more than 72 people.

In addition, he started a jet ski business that has boosted lifeguard earnings, and his Panambur beach is now the training center for lifeguard instructors for all India, training 60 instructors last year.

The public has taken notice.

“Now, on a weekend, we have more than 20,000-25,000 people,” says Baikampady. “Earlier, it was in the hundreds.”

The key to his success was a new business concept for India.

All of the other entrepreneurs competing for the beach essentially offered quotations for taking over its management in exchange for a fee. But Baikampady's winning bid promised to take over cleaning the beach, policing visitors and training and supplying lifeguards — all without taking a dime from the state. He proposed a unique “beach management company” that would run the beach for profit.

“We asked for exclusive rights for water sports, events held on the beach, parking, licensing vendors, and everything offered at the beach, and we said we'll pay the salaries for the lifeguards,” Baikampady explains.

The Beach King now employs 12 lifeguards — certified by Surf Life Saving Australia and the Pune-based Rashtriya Life Saving Society — as well around 20 additional park staff at Panambur.

The fishermen can continue to trawl the seas in the mornings before work and during the off-season, and the life-saving gig provides a steady monthly supplement that amounts to about half of what they formerly earned during a successful month netting fish.

Meanwhile, Baikampady has recently taken the contract for another local beach, as well as beginning to expand nationally. And the business model is starting to pay off.

“We are inching towards profits, but there are always things that pull you back,” said Baikampady, citing the salt water's relentless toll on the jeeps his team uses to patrol the beach.

“We are breaking even, and we have increased the salary of the staff. The most important thing is that they have stood by the concept.”

It's a modest success. But as India's domestic tourists grow richer and more adventurous, Baikampady has already won over some believers. And with state governments in Kerala and Orissa already expressing interest in Baikampady's model, soon the effects may be seen across the country.

“When my former [bank] colleagues ask me how I feel now, I say I have regrets. They say, 'What?' Then I say I regret I didn't leave the bank earlier.”