Monday, June 24, 2013

Kerry declines to play America's chief salesman in India

Analysis: Despite vigorous lobbying by executives, the secretary of state remains quiet on economic reform. Experts say that's the right strategy.

NEW DELHI — America’s secretary of state often plays the role of lead US salesman abroad, urging governments to buy products and to facilitate foreign investment.
As such, American executives have been pushing John Kerry hard to get India to further open its markets to American investors.
But as Kerry’s agenda unfolds here at the start of his three-day visit, it’s becoming increasingly clear that he won’t fulfill those demands — at least not publicly.
Sources here in New Delhi say that’s probably the right approach, even for business.
Already, the current Indian government agrees with America's agenda many issues, particularly economic ones. Exerting too much pressure, particularly in open forums like press conferences and official speaches, they say, is likely to backfire.
The reason: Indians distrust lobbying from US industry, so stumping for reforms can fuel opposition claims that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's United Progressive Alliance government is the puppet of exploitative US corporations.
“This [government] is the best team you can assemble for a market reform agenda. So pushing these people hard does not make sense. It is not in their competence to change the political situation here,” said Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian ambassador to the US.
On arriving in India Sunday for the fourth annual India-US Strategic Dialogue, Kerry surprised some observers by focusing on climate change in his first speech. He did touch on broader economic issues, as well as broader security concerns as the US prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan.
But Mansingh said this approach indicates Kerry has come to India with a sound strategy.
“He didn't bring in any of these contentious [trade] issues,” Mansingh said, indicating that more can be accomplished by talking with India's US-friendly business leaders behind closed doors.
“I think he did well in pointing out three major sectors – climate change, economic cooperation and security. There are plenty of issues in these three sectors for the two countries to discuss without getting into a heated debate.”
Kerry stuck to that script at a press conference following his meeting with Indian foreign minister Salman Khurshid on Monday. He mentioned blandly that the two leaders discussed trade and other economic issues. But he devoted more time to defending the National Security Agency's PRISM electronic surveillance system and to urging countries not to offer refuge to whistleblower-and-accused-spy Edward Snowden, whom Kerry called “a traitor to his country.”
He also reiterated his call for India to assist with elections in Afghanistan next year and praised India for cooperating with efforts to encourage Iran to comply with the International Atomic Energy Agency, as well as announcing a $150,000 aid package for the victims of flooding in the Himalayas.
The US-India Business Council and similar lobby groups had urged Kerry to press India to alter several key economic policies, on matters such as drug patents and preferential market access for companies with local manufacturing units Lobbyists had also demanded less onerous limits on foreign direct investment in potentially lucrative areas for US firms, such as the defense and insurance sectors.
But those efforts ignored the political reality in India, where Singh and his team are keen on economic reforms but can't sell them to their coalition partners.
The politics appear to be shifting, however. Due to a plummeting rupee, the country desperately needs foreign direct investment to meet its development goals and stabilize markets. If the US business lobby can get out of its own way, the government may just succeed in expanding market access for American firms.
Last week, the rupee fell to an all-time low of almost 60 to the US dollar after US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke forecast a reduction of America's stimulus package, causing foreign investors to sell some $300 million in Indian stocks. That means India now faces a “growing strain to fund the widest current-account deficit in major Asian countries,”according to Bloomberg.
Virtually the only weapon that Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has left in his arsenal is to throw open more industries to direct investment by foreigners
“Given the current economic situation... the proclivity of the Indian government to open up to more [foreign direct investment (FDI)] will be higher at this juncture,” said Dharmakirti Joshi, chief economist at the credit ratings agency Crisil.
Before Kerry's visit, finance ministry officials said India was poised to eliminate the 74 percent cap on FDI in the telecommunications sector — though companies with local manufacturing would still have an advantage. And plans are afoot to increase the limits on FDI in defense to 49 percent from today's 26 percent, giving US firms better access to one of the world's largest and fastest growing markets if, again, they're willing to invest in making products in India.
That means that, at least in public, Kerry was wise to let India's economic situation speak for itself.

Friday, June 14, 2013

India's population to overtake China's sooner than expected

Will scary UN numbers on India's soaring population spark a dangerous kneejerk reaction?

NEW DELHI — India's population is set to outstrip China's as much as 15 years earlier than previous estimates, according to a new United Nations report. But the real concern is that the scary UN numbers could trigger a drastic and counterproductive government response.
“This is bound to cause a kneejerk reaction,” said demographer A.R. Nanda, a former secretary in India's ministry of health and family welfare. “[But] a state-directed, top-down, targeted approach of sterilization creates more problems, as well as adverse outcomes for women's health.”
According to the 2012 revision of World Population Prospects, released by the UN on Thursday, India's population will overtake China's around 2028. Previous forecasts had suggested that India wouldn't catch up until 2035 or even 2045.
By 2028, both countries will have around 1.45 billion people, the UN said in a press release. Meanwhile, the world as a whole will be groaning under 9.6 billion people by 2050, as developing nations continue to display high fertility rates.
In India, the danger is that policy makers will see the new numbers as evidence their present efforts to control the population aren't working and push for more aggressive sterilization targets, Nanda said.
Already, India's National Population Stabilization Fund has brought back controversial, incentive-based sterilization — which critics say have turned operating theaters into veritable assembly lines. According to a recent Bloomberg report, a stunning 4.6 million women were sterilized in India last year, many of them cut open with rusty scalpels and left to recover on concrete floors.
These programs are founded in the logic of the 1980s, reinforced by the perception that China's “one-child policy” is yet another example of the great benefits of its enviable totalitarian government.
But Nanda points out that China's fertility rates were plunging long before the one-child policy was drafted, thanks to the greater speed with which the communist government provided access to health care and education. India's fertility rates remain higher essentially because it started that process later and has been slower in improving the lives of its people.
“Our voluntary family planning program in India has not been backed up by a base of social development — access to health, access to education, access to employment has been slower [to emerge] than in China. That has been the substantial difference between the two countries,” Nanda said.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

India: Where being a bad boyfriend can be a crime

When Bollywood actress Jiah Khan committed suicide, police accused her boyfriend of "abetting" her death. When does being a bastard become a crime?

NEW DELHI, India — You've heard of assisted suicide. What about “abetment of suicide?”
That's right. In the wake of the suicide of up-and-coming British-Indian Bollywood actress Jiah Khan on June 3, the young star's boyfriend was taken into police custody on Tuesday for alleged “abetment of suicide.” But was he Dr. Death, or just a bad boyfriend?
According to Indian law, and the dictionary, abetment means aiding or encouraging. But Indian boyfriends frequently face criminal charges just for being, well, bastards—just as they are sometimes charged with rape because they don't follow through on promises of marriage.
Breaking up is hard to do, but illegal? What do young Indians think?
“It does make sense, because in her [suicide] letter she has specifically said that she has gone through a very bad time—she also had an abortion—just because of her boyfriend,” said Hemant Jain, a 20-year-old college student. 
“He promised her that they would get married and sent her a bouquet saying that he wanted to break up. That's not right, na?”
The boyfriend in question, 22-year-old Sooraj Pancholi, was remanded to police custody until June 13 by a Mumbai court. According to the prosecution, his detention was necessary to interrogate him about allegations that he threatened, assaulted and raped Khan, contained in a suicide note that was discovered three days after the actress hanged herself. 
“I guess the family, at least, deserves to know,” said Shreya Krishna, a 19-year-old college student. “If that calls for blaming the boyfriend, I guess it's OK. [Whether a crime took place] is for the police and the courts to decide.”
“I don't think anyone can be charged for something like this,” said Devika, a 25-year-old artist, who asked that her surname not be published.
More from GlobalPost: India women: segregated for safety
“You do have a responsibility, but I don't know if it can be charged as a criminal offense, because you don't know what that person [who killed herself] was going through internally.”
Mumbai prosecutors think you can—though India's Supreme Court has ruled that to convict someone for abetment the state must prove both intent and a direct act on the part of the accused that led the deceased to commit suicide.
“Under Section 306 of the Indian penal code, the essential ingredient of abetment [of suicide] is the intention of the person accused of the crime,” said Rajinder Singh, a criminal lawyer affiliated with the Delhi High Court. “It is a very serious offense, with a punishment of up to ten years also.”
The case touches on several new realities of Indian life. 
Even as more and more young people are dating, having sex and living together without getting married, in both the city and the village there remains tremendous social pressure on women to conform to traditional notions of propriety. Just last week nine brides were thrown out of a government-sponsored mass marriage in the state of Madhya Pradesh after they “failed” a pregnancy test. 
And the rapid social changes may be taking a heavy toll, as suicide is now the second-most common cause of death among Indians between 15 and 29 years old, according to a study published in the Lancet.
However, the real question shouldn't be whether Pancholi was a bad boyfriend, but rather whether he actively encouraged Jiah to kill herself or aided her in some way. Otherwise, his so-called crime derives from an action taken by his victim, rather than anything he did.
Say what you want about a guy who (allegedly) promises to marry his girlfriend, beats her up, gets her pregnant, and then dumps her. But you can't say he's any worse, or deserves any more jail time, than another guy who does the exact same thing, just because one girlfriend killed herself and another did not.
Except in India.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Israeli sex offender taps India's booming surrogacy trade for baby girl

Sex offender's use of surrogate highlights need for regulatory oversight.

NEW DELHI, India — The revelation that a convicted sex offender from Israelsucceeded years ago in hiring a surrogate mother and taking a baby girl home from India sent shock waves through India's booming, controversial surrogacy industry this week.
But there is little that India or Israel can do at this point to influence the fate of the little girl, who is now 4 years old.
“The child is not going to be removed from the home now because according to the law in Israel if there's no proof that the parent is severely harming the child [the authorities] cannot take the child out of the home,” Elizabeth Levy, director of international relations at the Jerusalem-based National Council for the Child (NCC), told GlobalPost.
After receiving an anonymous tip via email, the NCC confirmed through its own investigation that the man caring for the young girl was a convicted sex offender, Levy said. He had spent 18 months in jail previously for sexually abusing young children under his supervision, the Jewish Chronicle reported.
The nonprofit group said they informed the police, Israeli social services and the girl's school of their findings. Israeli authorities placed the man under observation and compelled him to undergo psychological counseling, but no other legal action can be taken — partly because authorities believe the man is the girl's biological father.
Further, the NCC investigation hasn’t turned up any evidence of current abuse. “There's no proof that he's harming the child. The child has not complained about any misconduct on the part of her father,” Levy said in a telephone interview with GlobalPost.
For many Indians, that's hard to accept. But experts say there aren't legal grounds for Indian authorities to take action, either. Neither are there rules in place to stop another convicted pedophile from hiring an Indian surrogate mother tomorrow — an oversight that has prompted calls for the speedy passage of a bill to regulate the industry that has been pending since 2008.
The surrogacy trade in India started in 2002, when the government declared the practice legal, and has experienced a boom over the past five years or so.  Though official numbers aren't available, rough estimates suggest that the surrogacy business is already worth more than $350 million a year, according to a recent report by the New Delhi-based Sama Resource Group for Women and Health. Meanwhile, industry estimates suggest that some 50,000 people visit India annually seeking surrogate mothers, resulting in around 2,000 births per year — and providing livelihoods, albeit controversially, to thousands of poor, unskilled women.
As a move to bar gay men from India's surrogacy business showed earlier this year, regulating the industry is morally complex. New restrictions and new levels of bureaucratic oversight — whether well-meaning or founded in ignorance — can be very bad for business. After the rule against gay men was instituted, an industry expert told GlobalPost he expected it would mean losing a third to half of India's present customers to places like Thailand.
But, while increased regulation may limit business, the cost of ignoring potential problems when determining fit parents can be extraordinarily high — as the case in Israel reveals.
“The biggest problem is that in our country [India] there is no written law regarding surrogacy. Surrogacy is seen as a private contract between two willing parties,” said Rekha Aggarwal, a Supreme Court lawyer who specializes in adoption cases.
That means that there are no background checks required for parents who wish to hire an Indian surrogate to bear a child for them. And as long as these clients can prove that they are the biological parent of the baby, the more stringent rules governing adoptions don't come into play. Indeed, in many, if not most, cases, the biological parent soon establishes that the baby is a foreign citizen.
Currently, the NCC has not been able to learn anything about the surrogate mother employed by the convicted sex offender in Israel, or the agency he might have used in India, Levy said. Without more details, Indian rights workers are stumped about how to proceed.
“We tried to get more information about which part of the country the child came from,” said Bharti Ali, an activist with the New Delhi-based Haq Center for Child Rights. “They [the Israelis] don't have much information, so we're struggling as a result.”
In both countries, the case has prompted calls for stricter regulations.
In India, child rights advocates have stressed that the government should move rapidly to pass the Assisted Reproductive Technology Bill, pending since 2008, and to institute background checks for clients seeking surrogacy like the ones used to screen adoptive parents.
Similarly, in Israel, the NCC wrote to the Ministry of Health demanding effective regulations for parents who choose to employ surrogates outside the country.
“On one hand, legislation will facilitate the process for good and worthy citizens who have chosen (often with no other choice) to become parents through surrogacy abroad and find themselves with a child born abroad with no regulated status and without rights,” the letter argued.
“On the other hand, the legal regulation of foreign surrogacy will allow screening of those requesting to go this route in order to avoid situations that are often discussed such as having children for the purpose of trafficking or abuse.”
For now, though, the 4-year-old girl is caught between two countries, in the arms of a potentially dangerous father.
“This child is like nobody's child,” said Aggarwal. “The Indian government can't touch that baby, because she doesn't have Indian citizenship. She's nobody's baby now, as far as the government is concerned.”

Thursday, June 06, 2013

India: Buried in garbage

As India's economy grows, the country's poorly managed trash sites are overflowing.

NEW DELHI, India — The signs of India's garbage crisis are everywhere.
In the slums of New Delhi, piles of refuse slated for recycling tower over the shanties.
In the posh colonies of the wealthy, so-called ragpickers — who make a living selling scrap metal, glass and other recyclable items — pull garbage out of primitive concrete enclosures to sort it on the street.
They cast aside anything they can't sell, while stray cattle and half-wild dogs wade through plastic bags and bottles to root out kitchen scraps.
On highways and city streets, potato chip packets and betel nut wrappers blow in the wind, clogging up rain gutters just in time for the monsoon.
It looks like hardly any of the stuff makes it to designated dump sites.
But the real emergency remains out of sight.
New Delhi’s 16.75 million people make it one of the biggest cities on the planet, and their combined waste is massive. The city generates nearly 10,000 tons of garbage — equal to the US average weight of about 5,000 cars — every day.
That volume is expected to double over the next decade or so.
Yet the city's four dump sites — most of which aren't sophisticated enough to be called landfills — are already overflowing.
At the Ghazipur dump site, in East Delhi, for instance, ragpickers scramble over a pile of filth that towers 100 feet or higher.
And while experts estimate the city will need some 500 acres of new landfills to process the city's mounting waste, only 100-odd acres have been targeted for waste-management projects, and even those sites have been delayed by India's notorious problems acquiring land.
“If you go to Ghazipur on a summer day, it's unbearable as soon as you get out of your car,” said N.B. Mazumdar, senior technical adviser at IL&FS Environmental Infrastructure & Services.
“You feel a blast. You feel as if you are inside an oven. The dust, the smoke, the heat. And there inside you will find so many ragpickers, from children to old people, rummaging through waste. What is this? This is hell!”
Outside the capital, the problem might be even worse. Last year, citizens across the country protested against the garbage pileup — with the villagers of Vilappisala, in Kerala, lying in the road to prevent trucks from adding to a dump site they say has dangerously polluted the local aquifer.
Burning trash remains one of the largest sources of air pollution, despite mushrooming factories with little monitoring from the Central Pollution Control Board, and the overflowing garbage contaminates water sources and breeds vermin.
In Mumbai, for instance, failure to collect garbage has contributed to the growth of a huge population of stray dogs, drawing leopards from Sanjay Gandhi National Park into urban areas where they maul and sometimes kill poor slum dwellers.
Leopard attacks are only the most exotic way that garbage can kill. Across India, rabies resulting from stray dog bites accounts for 20,000 deaths a year.
Meanwhile, trash fires are responsible for about 20 percent of Mumbai's air pollution. Every year they spew into the air some 2,500 times the amount of toxins emitted by all 127 ofFrance's waste-to-energy plants, according to a recent editorial by Ranjith Annepu of the Global Waste to Energy Research and Technology Council.
No doubt the situation in other cities is as bad or worse.
Some hope may be on the horizon from public-private partnerships and new initiatives to make money from waste.
For instance, an IL&FS composting plant in Okhla, an industrial neighborhood of southeast Delhi, processes about 200 tons of garbage per day, reducing 80 percent of it to humus-rich fertilizer that is badly needed in India due to low carbon content in the soil. (This year, the plant earned about $50,000 worth of carbon credits under the United Nations' Clean Development Mechanism in the process).
In Ghazipur, IL&FS has ambitious plans to build a new waste-to-energy plant that will slowly eat away the massive tower of trash. And the company is seeking ways to supplement the incomes of 450 small local dairy farms with a biomass plant and to provide better housing for about 375 slum families associated with the Ghazipur flower market and other local cottage industries.
Similarly, other Indian companies such as Arora Fibres, Hanjer Biotech Energies and Cerebra are tapping the never-ending flow of garbage to manufacture packaging material, generate “refuse-derived fuel,” or RDF, for use by cement plants and other factories and mining thousands of tons of electronic waste for precious metals.
But there are massive hurdles to overcome.
Municipal governments are loath to raise property taxes to finance projects that could turn garbage into a renewable resource. Thousands of city garbage collectors shirk their jobs, while sharp-eyed, motivated ragpickers — potentially the most valuable resource for sorting-dependent units like the Okhla composting plant — remain “self-employed” and hungry. And the recent plunge in international prices for carbon credits has made it virtually impossible for either composting or waste-to-energy facilities to make a profit.
Perhaps worst of all, precious few Indians have realized that the country's garbage culture has to change.
“On the one hand, we've progressed a lot in different fields. We use the best gadgets. We want the best comforts,” Mazumdar said.
“But on the other hand, we just don't look at the waste basket in our kitchen, or what we're doing when we litter the streets. Behaviorally, we don't tend to be responsible enough.”