Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Boom in tech jobs; La Tribune ends daily print run; India shrine goes green; Poll-time pyrotechnics; Bill Gates' frugal tastes; Books and bans

1 Technology jobs boom unlike other sectors’ (San Francisco Chronicle) Hiring in the technology sector is gaining momentum. Among US technology companies with a market value of more than $100 million, almost 50 increased employment by more than half in the most recently reported two-year period, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Some small and midsize businesses boosted payrolls by almost fivefold, underscoring the resilient demand for Internet services, software and electronics.

Rohit Dhingra is one face behind the statistics. He went to Columbia Business School in New York so he could land a consulting job. Instead, he got hired by a company making computer gear in Silicon Valley. "A few years back, it just would have been a slam dunk that you want to do investment banking," Dhingra said. "The future of financial services does not seem as bright." While the broader unemployment rate dropped to 8.5% in December, reaching a three-year low, few companies outside of technology have as voracious an appetite for workers. In the software and services industry, 74 companies with more than $100 million in market value expanded their workforce by at least 10%. That was more than any other industry group measured by Bloomberg.

2 La Tribune sold, ends daily print run (Paid Content) France’s national La Tribune newspaper said Monday’s edition was its last daily print copy, as its owner’s sale to a regional publisher and an online ad group was announced. The pair - France-Economie-Regions and web group Hi-Media - will axe 115 of 165 staff, play up the paper’s website and revert to a weekly, journal-style print run. It is the second closure of a French daily in two months. In December, France-Soir’s owner Alexander Pugachyov, sad he would end that title’s print edition and publish only online, with the loss of 89 out of 127 jobs. La Tribune describes it as “the symptom of a sickness’, and “a tragic epilogue, which comes after 27 years of turbulent and complex history”.

3 Indian cricket’s end of an era (BBC) All good things have to come to an end - but the end in Adelaide over the weekend was brutal. India were routed in an overseas cricket Test for the eighth time in a row - four by an innings and two by more than 290 runs. The team's fabled batting line-up, stuffed with ageing legends, lay in ruins, mowed down by a bunch of terrific young Australian speedsters. The Adelaide annihilation came on a flat track holding no terrors. The last time Indian cricket went through a similar ordeal was back in the 1960s, when they lost 17 overseas games on the trot.

India managed to pass 300 runs only twice in the past 16 Test innings in England and Australia. This from a team in which four batsmen - Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Sehwag - have an incredible 45,611 runs between them. (It didn't help that their wayward bowlers picked up only 93 wickets in the two series, while England and Australia picked up all of the 160 Indian wickets in eight Tests.) Cricket, like most things in shining India, is marked by hubris, cronyism, conflict of interest, and many such moral conflicts. So don't expect any searing and transparent post-mortem of the team's performance, or a sensible plan for the future. It will be a rocky road ahead.

4 India shrine goes green (BBC) Surrounded by seven hills, high above lush green forests is the temple town of Tirumala. The crown jewel is the dazzling gold-plated temple of Lord Venkateshwara. Located in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, this is not just one of Hinduism's holiest shrines, but also one of the richest. It has an annual income of $340m - mostly from donations. Between 50-100,000 people visit this temple every day. This puts enormous pressure on water, electricity and other energy resources. Now the temple is using its religious influence and economic might to change the way energy is used here. Developing reserve forests around the temple to act as carbon sinks, the management has transformed the environment.

Inside the temple complex, a large multi-storey building is dedicated to just one thing - cooking free meals for pilgrims. Several cooks work in tandem stirring large pots of rice, curry and vegetables. Nearly 50,000 kilos of rice along with lentils are cooked here every day. Located on the roof of this building are rows of solar dishes that automatically move with the angle of the sun, capturing the strong sunlight. Then the energy is used to convert water into high pressure steam, which cooks the food in the kitchen below. Generating over 4,000kgs of steam a day at 180º C, this makes the cooking faster and cheaper. As a result, an average of 500 litres of diesel fuel is saved each day. By switching to green technologies, the temple cuts its carbon emissions and earns a carbon offset, or credit, which they can sell.

(In contrast, the authorities at the Sabarimala temple are seeking more forest land for ‘developmental’ work.)

5 Poll-time pyrotechnics (Khaleej Times) Austerity is clearly not a virtue with Indian politicians on a campaign trail. As clamorous electioneering gets underway for the looming assembly elections in five states — Uttar Pradesh (UP), Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur – flamboyance has edged out frugality. Despite the Election Commission’s stringent directive that no candidate exceed his poll spend limit of Rs 1.6m per constituency, cash is sloshing about everywhere. From spiffy SUVs to choppers to chartered planes to slick e-campaigns, a cache of baubles are being deployed to woo the electorate in the world’s largest democracy.

No less gobsmacking are the candidates’ personal assets (which have to be publicly declared as per rules). Punjab’s politicians are clearly leading the rich man’s club. So what if the state itself is hurtling towards a debt of Rs 720bn by this fiscal-end? Congress’ Kewal Singh Dhillon (MLA from Barnala), for instance, has declared assets worth a whopping Rs 1.36bn. “Mercedes and Lexus are my favourites cars,” says Dhillon. Akali Dal President Sukhbir Badal – coming in a notch lower at Rs 764 million — counts rearing of exotic birds and Arabian horses at his stud farm as his “hobbies”. Uttar Pradesh’s ‘dalit ki beti’ aka Chief Minister Mayawati – who publicly frowns at her MLAs’ ‘wasteful’ expenditure including lavish weddings — will be moving about in half a dozen-odd planes and helicopters. The BJP will keep seven helicopters and two planes at its leaders’ beck and call. Ditto Samajwadi Party – the pioneer in the chopper business from the time it ferried the Bachchans, Sanjay Dutt, Jaya Prada and a whole caboodle of Bollywood stars for its raucous rallies in 2007.

6 Muddying the oath (Khaleej Times) There have always been close links between doctors and pharmaceutical and medical device-making companies, not just in India. These links often lead to unethical practices not in keeping with the hippocratic oath. Patients are the main sufferers. Here are a few of the sharp practices that some of the large drug firms indulge in.
They invite doctors to so-called “conferences” and “conventions”, which are usually held at exotic locales. The airfare — business class, of course — and hotel expenses — five-star, needless to say — are borne by the companies. Hence, these jaunts are nothing less than paid holidays, which the doctors accept happily. The pretext is that at such meetings, mutually-beneficial ideas are exchanged, up-to-date medical know-how imparted and the doctors return home better informed and therefore able to treat their patients with the latest medicines and technology. That is the thin legal veneer, but the real purpose of the pharmaceutical companies is quite different. Their prime intent is that the doctors should prescribe the medicines manufactured by these companies to their patients.

7 Bill Gates’ frugal tastes (Sydney Morning Herald) Bill Gates has frugal tastes. Asked to name his luxuries, he lists DVDs, books and takeaway burgers. It is hard, however, to think that any fast-food outlet would get rich on Gates's custom. During a long list of engagements beginning well before dawn, he consumes nothing but cans of diet cola. For America's wealthiest citizen, austerity is relative. The retinue of staff and the private jet hint at a fortune said to be approaching £40 billion.

As he told pupils at a south London school he visited last week: "If I hadn't given my money away, I'd have had more than anyone else on the planet. Ninety-nine per cent of it will go." Bill Gates moves seamlessly between worlds. His day in London started in the VIP suite of a television studio and shifted to a school assembly hall before he left for Davos, where he announced a new US$750 million package to fight Aids, malaria and TB. Accustomed to morphing from the subsistence farms of Africa – the focus of his latest effort – to the salons of prime ministers, he does not see himself as a global power broker. "I hope they're having a good time up at the top table, but I doubt they're discussing diarrhoea and malaria."

8 Bailout packages for stressed Indian states (Business Standard) Bailout packages for fiscally stressed states are in the works, as the government seeks to garner political backing for the key policy reforms it plans to fast-track after the five state elections. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has been demanding a bailout package from the Centre to improve the fiscal situation of the severely debt-ridden state. The Trinamool Congress leader’s blocking of foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail and other policy measures of UPA-II is being seen, among other things, as a reaction to the delay in a bailout package for West Bengal.

The state government is scheduled to present its first Budget immediately after the Union Budget. The official said since it would be difficult for the Centre to help just one state, a comprehensive package for other states in trouble was being worked out. West Bengal is reeling under Rs 151 bn of interest payments and Rs 69bn of prepayments for 2011-12. State finance ministry officials say the situation can’t be tackled by raising tax revenues. “The bigger picture is not manageable easily, with the state’s total debt at Rs 2trn — that can’t go away easily,” said an official. The fiscal situations of Punjab and Kerala also indicate the two states have financially deteriorated considerably.

9 Bans are bad – on books or booze (Wall Street Journal) Most poor people in India, such as daily wage labourers, have no savings to speak of but spend what they earn on a day to day basis. In economist’s terms, they are “liquidity constrained.” Thus, even if they wanted to, many simply wouldn’t have the extra cash on hand to stock up in advance of a dry day, and would have to go without. Intertemporal (or interspatial) substitution affects not just liquor stores but the wider hospitality industry. Weddings too are affected by dry days. According to a news report, about 4,000 marriage parties in Punjab scheduled for Jan. 28-30 were postponed or moved to nearby Haryana as those are slated to be dry days due to state elections.

The bottom line is that government policies either to ban books or booze are at their core not only paternalistic and illiberal, but differentially affect rich and poor. Dry days are maybe a nuisance, but the banning of books is a whole other level of thought control. We’re still very far from Orwell’s dystopic nightmarish world in which even “thought crime” is punishable by death, but we ran dangerously close to it when even a long distance video link with Mr. Rushdie became impossible for his critics to stomach and the threat of violence hung in the air.

10 Like Facebook (Financial Expresss editorial) Facebook’s IPO, which will value the company between $75-100 billion and will raise an estimated $10 billion, is the latest in a series of social media company IPOs. Last year, 19 US companies—including LinkedIn, Pandora Media, Groupon and Zynga—raised $6.6 billion, according to Bloomberg data, which is why investors are almost drooling at the prospect of Facebook’s mega-IPO. To further put things in perspective, Google is currently valued at $188 billion, after around 13 years in operation. Facebook, only about 7 years old, is already aiming at a valuation of around half Google’s current value.

Facebook’s valuation far surpasses most of its internet peers, with Amazon currently valued at $88.85 billion, eBay at $41.04 billion, Yahoo at $19.53 billion, Groupon at $13.1 billion and Netflix at $5.3 billion.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Old techies can't get hired * Americans' taste for business * The Next 4 billion * Women are savvier car buyers * India realty firms in asset sales

1 Old techies can’t get hired (The New York Times) Silicon Valley may be booming again, but times are still tough for the 200 out-of-work professionals who crowd into Sunnyvale’s City Hall every Thursday morning. Most of them hold advanced degrees in engineering and have more than a decade of experience in the technology sector. They are members of ProMatch, a government-financed support group and “interactive career resource center” for educated older workers who have suddenly, and usually involuntarily, found themselves on the job market. Most have been out of work for months. While Web-based companies like Facebook and Google are scouring the world for new talent to hire, older technology workers often find that their skills are no longer valued. Part of the problem, analysts said, is that many of the companies shedding jobs are technology manufacturers, while most of the companies that are hiring are Internet-based.

Cisco Systems, a maker of computer networking equipment that is Santa Clara County’s largest private employer, laid off 1,331 workers last year. The semiconductor sector, which used to be the lifeblood of the South Bay’s economy, has lost 4,600 jobs since 2008. “The pace of change is just breathtaking,” said Russell Hancock, president and chief executive of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a research group backed by businesses and local governments. “We’ve entered a strange new world. There are opportunities, but they are different. You have to be edgy and supercreative.”

2 UN’s suggestions for a better world (BBC) Growing inequality, environmental decline and "teetering" economies mean the world must change the way it does business, a UN report concludes. Health and education must improve, it says. Subsidies on fossil fuels should end, and governments must look beyond the standard economic indicator of GDP. The High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability was established in 2010 by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. world community," she said.

3 Americans’ taste for business (BBC) Tom Ryan is just your typical, easy-going American entrepreneur - he wants to take over the world. Mr Ryan is founder of restaurant chain Smashburger, one of the fastest-growing companies in the US. From just one outlet in Denver in 2007, it now has more than 150 branches nationwide, and will later this year open its first foreign sites in Kuwait, Canada and Costa Rica. Mr Ryan, a restaurant industry veteran, says: "Everyone said the burger industry in the US was too crowded for a new entry, but I was sure there was a place for a new chain offering much higher quality than the established players." Smashburger is far from unique in the US. The likes of Google, Twitter and Facebook may not make hamburgers, but all three were also just start-up businesses not too many years ago. Facebook was only established in 2004, and Twitter was not set up until 2006.

Facebook was first started in a university dormitory, and Google's early days were based in a garage. But as the US continues to produce a wealth of start-up companies that quickly grow to dominate their marketplaces, what are the reasons behind America's continuing entrepreneurial success - and can they be copied? Mr Ries says that when it comes to supporting entrepreneurship, the US has some key advantages over Europe and other parts of the world. "There are definitely cultural factors in the US's favour, perhaps most importantly a willingness to tolerate failure," he says. "In Europe if you fail in business you are going to find it very difficult to borrow money the next time around, but in the US it is almost seen as a useful experience to have gone through." Mr Ries adds that this all makes American entrepreneurs more willing to take risks. "On top of this, some European countries have very high personal liability levels for entrepreneurs, which is a terrible mistake," he says.

4 Investigation into the death of nun Valsa John Malamel last year in Jharkhand (Wall Street Journal) The story of Sister Valsa’s death is one of greed, lust, friendship, betrayal, faith, and brutality. It is set against the backdrop of a conflict between two major forces shaping India today: Industrialization and the preservation of traditional ways of life.

5 The next 4 billion (Wall Street Journal) First there was the bottom of the pyramid. And now there’s the global emerging middle class, or as consulting firm PwC puts it, the “Next 4 Billion.” Seeing the slowdown in the developed economies, companies with global businesses should creates goods and services for the emerging middle class across the developing world to grow their business, PwC says. PwC defines the “Next 4 Billion” as countries that have an average annual per capita income that ranges between $1,000 and $4,000, and that, together, are home to four billion people – or more than half of the current global population of 7 billion. Apart from India and China, this group includes Indonesia and countries in Latin America and Africa.

Globally, about 2.3 billion people are currently in this market segment and it’s only going to get bigger, thanks to high birth rates and above-average economic growth in many countries in the group. The report says that it will represent a combined annual market in excess of $6 trillion by 2021. Although income levels in this group are still pretty low—In India, for instance, incomes in this group range from $1.75 to $5 per day—collectively, these consumers have a large purchasing power.

6 Women seen as savvier car buyers (Wall Street Journal) When it comes to buying or leasing a car, men can learn a lesson or two from their female counterparts. Women, according to recent studies, are more informed and level-headed than men in the vehicle showroom — a place long-considered an arena for gladiatorial gamesmanship. “Men tend to rely on what is assumed they know and what they believe they know,” said Sergio Stiberman, chief executive and founder of LeaseTrader.com. “When women approach car shopping, they believe in the importance of asking all the necessary questions, even if they think they might know the answers,” he said. Many men revel in the gamesmanship of car buying that many women just aren’t interested in.

“Men get all excited about going out to buy a car and talk about how they’re going to one-up the salesmen and get a great deal,” said Anne Fleming, president of Women-drivers.com, a consumer ratings site. “I’ve never heard or seen any comments from women like that.” Women do more research and, as a group, are considerably more pragmatic in their vehicle choices. They tend to be more concerned about safety issues and reliability than horse power and acceleration. Nearly 74% of men ranked aesthetics a major issue, at No. 3, compared with just 46% of women — dead last among the top nine concerns — who did.

7 India realty firms start mega asset sales (Mint) Real estate companies across cities, pushed into a corner, have kicked off plans on an unprecedented scale to sell assets so they can trim their bulging debt and generate cash flows. About a dozen large developers, including the country’s top realty firm, DLF Ltd, are raising about Rs150bn by monetizing their assets, according to estimates by Mint. Real estate analysts say that while the rush to sell assets resembles what transpired after the slowdown of 2008, this time it is more widespread. Earlier, it was mostly DLF and Unitech Ltd that wanted to exit largely non-core assets in non-prime markets, but now even mid-size builders are trying to sell assets they don’t want to develop immediately.

DLF, which had a debt of Rs 225bn at the end of September, raised Rs 35bn by selling non-core assets in the first two quarters of this financial year. DLF’s plan is to raise about Rs 100bn through this route over the next few years, Mint reported in January.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Global economy deep in danger zone; Trade deficit for Japan; Record net profit for Apple; Worrying win for India's extremes; UK debt hits a trillion

1 Global economy deep in danger zone (BBC) The world's economy is "deeply into the danger zone" because of risks from the eurozone, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has said. The IMF predicts the global economy will grow by 3.25% in 2012, down from an earlier forecast of 4%. The growth forecast for the UK economy has been cut to 0.6% from 1.6%. But the eurozone is set for a "mild recession" in 2012, with GDP expected to shrink by 0.5%, compared with a previous forecast of 1.1% growth.

2 Trade deficit for Japan (BBC) Japan has announced its first annual trade deficit in more than 30 years, a setback for a country known for its exports including cars and electronics. The deficit came in at 2.49 trillion yen ($32bn; £20bn) for 2011, the finance ministry said. Japan's imports rose 12% and its exports fell 2.7%, compared to the previous year. The decline in exports was attributed to the impact from the earthquake and tsunami on 11 March.

The deficit underscores the pressure that Japanese exporters have come under since the disaster. Factories were damaged and supply chains disrupted for major exporters including Toyota Motor and Sony. Exporters' problems have been exacerbated by further disruptions to production in some of their Thailand facilities due to flooding, as well by a rising yen, which makes Japanese products more expensive overseas. "It reflects fundamental changes in Japan's economy, particularly among manufacturers," said Hideki Matsumura of Japan Research Institute. "Japan is losing its competitiveness to produce domestically."

3 Record net profit for Apple (BBC) Apple reported record-breaking net profits for the three months to 31 December 2011 of $13.06bn, up 118% from the same period in 2010. The company also sold 37 million iPhones, more than twice as many as it sold in the last quarter of 2010. "Apple's momentum is incredibly strong, and we have some amazing new products in the pipeline," said chief executive Tim Cook. The firm is expected to release its iPad 3 in March this year. "We are very happy to have generated over $17.5bn in cash flow from operations during the December quarter," said Peter Oppenheimer, Apple's CFO. "Looking ahead to the second fiscal quarter of 2012, we expect revenue of about $32.5bn and we expect diluted earnings per share of about $8.50."

4 Worrying victory for India’s extremes (BBC) The Sir Salman Rushdie pull-out - first physical, and then virtual - from the Jaipur literature festival must come as a huge embarrassment for India, a nation that openly talks about its aspirations of becoming a superpower. Once again, the so-called "mighty" Indian state has succumbed to threats of violence from fringe, trouble-making religious groups. Once again, it has been proved that it only requires the threat of violence to hold India to ransom.

Once again, politicians - from right to left of centre to communists - remained speechless bystanders, showing how a politics of compromise and cowardice has numbed India. Once again, worryingly, it shows how Indians are becoming inured to frequent assaults on free speech and an ineffectual state. The mob rules, so why risk your life taking it on? Sir Salman's failure to speak at the festival, many would argue, is India's collective failure. "This has always been a contested country. This kind of bigotry will carry on," said author and Tehelka magazine editor, Tarun Tejpal, in a conversation at the festival. Mr Tejpal is correct. It is the duty of the state - and Indians - to stand up and contest this kind of bigotry.

5 UK debt hits a trillion (The Guardian) The governor of the Bank of England has warned that the path to economic recovery would be "arduous, long and uneven" after official figures showed the UK national debt had hit £1tn for the first time. Sir Mervyn King said the huge debt burden built up by consumers, banks and the government in the good years would weigh on the economy for years to come. "After the steepest downturn in output since the 1930s, the UK economy is in the process of rebalancing," he said. Given the size of the debts accumulated by consumers, banks and the government before the credit crisis in 2008, "the path of recovery is likely to be arduous, long and uneven".

News that the government now owes a total of £1tn underlines the scale of the task facing the Treasury in bringing the public finances under control, although the monthly public finance figures also showed that the chancellor, George Osborne, is making progress in tackling the deficit – which is the gap between the government's revenues and expenditure. Official figures released on Tuesday showed total public sector net debt (excluding impact of the 2008 banking bailouts) rose to £1.004tn in December, equivalent to 64.2% of GDP, up from 59.4% a year ago. "[This] shows the unsustainable level of spending this country built up over the past few years, and shows why it is critical for our nation's future that we deal decisively with the deficit," a Treasury spokesman said.

6 Gaddafi strikes back from the grave (Johannesburg Times) Muammar Gaddafi loyalists have seized control of a Libyan town and raised the ousted regime's green flag. The seizure of Bani Walid comes as Libya's new leaders struggle to unify the oil-rich country three months after Gaddafi was captured and killed. Hundreds of well-equipped and highly trained remnants of Gaddafi's forces raised the green flag over Bani Walid's buildings after hours of clashes on Monday, said Mubarak al-Fatamni, head of the local council. The attacks, which have led the authorities to declare states of emergency in several areas, are the latest breakdown in security. Protests have surged in recent weeks, with people demanding that the interim leaders deliver on their promises.

7 No more resumes for some firms (Wall Street Journal) Union Square Ventures recently posted an opening for an investment analyst. Instead of asking for résumés, the New York venture-capital firm—which has invested in Twitter, Foursquare, Zynga and other technology companies—asked applicants to send links representing their "Web presence," such as a Twitter account or Tumblr blog. Applicants also had to submit short videos demonstrating their interest in the position. Union Square says its process nets better-quality candidates and the firm plans to use it going forward to fill analyst positions and other jobs. Companies are increasingly relying on social networks such as LinkedIn, video profiles and online quizzes to gauge candidates' suitability for a job. While most still request a résumé as part of the application package, some are bypassing the staid requirement altogether.

8 Stream it like Malkapur (Isher Judge Ahluwalia in The Financial Express) Malkapur, a small town in Satara district of Maharashtra, with a population of about 40,000, has shown the way. It is delivering water 24x7 to all its residents as a result of concrete steps taken by the Malkapur Nagar Panchayat (MNP) with support from the Maharashtra Jeevan Pradhikaran (MJP), a state government entity. Malkapur, located on the outskirts of the city of Karad, is a new urban area. I had the privilege of participating in a recent seminar of the Asian Development Bank, which focussed on best practices in urban development in Asia. The story of the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA) is an outstanding example of public sector turnaround. I wondered when we will see something like this happening in India. There are some examples of public private partnerships delivering continuous supply of water, but can our public sector do the same? Well, Malkapur has done it! It is indeed a home-grown initiative driven by the public sector while engaging and involving the multiple stakeholders.

9 Who gets the traffic ticket for autonomous cars? (International Herald Tribune) Even as Google tests its small fleet of self-driving vehicles on California highways, legal scholars and government officials are warning that society has only begun wrestling with the changes that would be required in a system created a century ago to meet the challenge of horseless carriages. What happens if a police officer wants to pull one of the autonomous vehicles over? When it stops at a four-way intersection, would it be too polite to take its turn ahead of aggressive human drivers (or equally polite robots)? What sort of insurance would it need? These and other implications of what Google calls autonomous vehicles were debated by Silicon Valley technologists, legal scholars and government regulators last week.

10 Chennai low on 'walkability' (The Hindu) Chennai enda up last in a list of 21 Asian cities surveyed for ‘walkability’, or how good they are for pedestrians. (Being a pedestrian in Chennai, I can say no study is required to make that finding. I fear for the day some two or three-wheeler may knock me while I’m on a footpath.)

11 The trouble with turmeric (The Hindu) Turmeric farmers in Tamil Nadu's Erode district have stopped auctions to protest price crash and draw the government's attention to plummeting prices. Turmeric prices went from Rs 8,000 per quintal in 2008-09 to Rs 17,000 the next year, and has now dropped to Rs 6,000. Many farmers who rushed in to grow turmeric, enthused by the price of Rs 17,000, are now in trouble. (Remember the great vanilla rush some 10 years ago?)

Monday, January 23, 2012

'Discouraged workers'; China's new corporate champs; Getting the loot back; Rise of Islamist parties; Slavery in Asia; Growing 1% of Indians

1 ‘Discouraged workers’ (BBC) The outlook for the global labour market has worsened from last year, the International Labour Organization (ILO) says. It called the situation an "urgent challenge" and said governments needed to create 600 million jobs over the next decade. The ILO said it was more pessimistic because of the weaker global economy. It added that globally some 1.1 billion people were either unemployed or living in poverty. One bright spot was the ILO's finding that job creation was pushed up by good economic conditions in large emerging economies in Latin America and East Asia.

In its report, the ILO said that there are 29 million less workers in the global labour force than they forecast before the economic slowdown started in 2009. Those 29 million people are referred to as "discouraged workers", or people that have decided to stop looking for work because they think they are unlikely to find a job. If these discouraged workers were counted in the total jobless figures, then that would push the global unemployment rate to 6.9% from 6%, the ILO said. That is about 225 million people worldwide.

2 China’s new corporate champs (BBC) Is China capable of producing more than inexpensive manufactured goods? The answer, increasingly, is 'yes.' In 2011, China's exports consist of more than consumer products like toys, shoes and clothing - the Middle Kingdom is exporting world-class technology through a new breed of multinational companies. Regardless of whether it is Haier in the consumer goods area, Huawei in the technology space, or Mindray in the healthcare sector - Chinese companies are making a growing name for themselves in developed markets like Europe and the US.

Chinese companies are perceived by some as opportunistic firms with a "land-grab" mentality that lacks well thought-out long-term strategy. Western executives often cite the large scale investments by Chinese companies in Africa's resources sector as an example of this type of behaviour. These same executives also argue that Chinese companies' fast growth will likely not be sustainable in the longer term due to their short-sighted business practices. In reality though, Chinese companies have been developing local innovations that are suited for their home country but can also be adapted for overseas markets to boost ongoing growth.

3 Rahul’s ploy in UP (Khaleej Times) Rahul Gandhi has succeeded in capturing substantial attention of media with his projection as a ‘kingmaker’ in India’s Uttar Pradesh state politics. Rahul is optimistic that his strategies will succeed in turning the Dalit (lower Hindu caste) vote-bank, Mayawati’s main political plank, in favour of Congress. Mayawati, a leader of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is the sitting UP Chief Minister. Rahul has earned substantial media coverage by eating at Dalits’ residence and interacting with them. But the real question is, to what degree can this media-hype be expected to turn into votes in support of Congress?

If Rahul succeeds in turning UP votes in favour of Congress, this will facilitate his stepping onto the central stage as Congress nominee for the prime ministerial position. Considering that Congress won only 22 seats in 2007 and 25 in 2003 UP assembly polls, only a magic-wand can help Rahul turn the political tide in his party’s favour. In the 2007 elections, Mayawati’s party bagged 206 seats. Rahul’s campaign has yet to cover the entire state, and Congress has taken a lot of time in finalising its candidates. There is a view that perhaps Congress has deliberately indulged in this strategy. If Congress fares well, Rahul can easily take the credit for his being in command in UP. If Congress fails, the blame may be given to the weakness of the candidates. Now, it is to be watched whether Rahul’s strategy will work or not.

4 Getting the loot back (Khaleej Times) One year ago, the eyes of the world focused on Tunisia as its ruler, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, fled the country, allegedly with millions of dollars in gold and assets on his airplane. The government of Tunisia is now working with the international community to recover Ben Ali’s ill-gotten gains. The process will be slow, complicated, and multi-jurisdictional, but it will lay down a marker for future dictators.

When other past dictators, such as Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier of Haiti, fled their countries, they often retired in comfort, living off their plundered assets in French villas and estates. This time, the international community is working to ensure that such outrages are stories of the past. The World Bank estimates that $20 billion to $40 billion is stolen every year from developing countries. International cooperation on recovering these assets is critical to the anti-corruption movement.

5 January popular for divorce (Daily Dispatch) New trends show that married couples choose the beginning of the year as the best time to file for divorce. Matthew Yazbek, attorney and partner of Yazbeks Attorneys, said divorces and separations of couples were particularly prevalent at this time of the year as a result of unresolved issues carried through from the previous year. Yazbek said spouses generally used the time before Christmas holidays to resolve emotional difficulties. These include divorces “so that they can enjoy a rather stress-free holiday and obviously a new year without the burden of pending matters which are unpleasant, particularly with regard to divorces”.

6 YouTube’s daily views at 4bn (Straits Times) YouTube is streaming four billion online videos every day, a 25% increase in the past eight months, according to the company. The jump in video views comes as Google pushes YouTube beyond the personal computer, with versions of the site that work on smartphones and televisions. According to the company, roughly 60 hours of video is now uploaded to YouTube every minute, compared with the 48 hours of video uploaded per minute in May.

7 Islamist influence in Arab world (Dawn) Human Rights Watch’s criticism of western policies towards the Arab world makes eminent sense, seen in the light of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s final departure from Yemen and the victory of Islamist parties in the Egyptian elections. Mr Saleh left for the US after apologising to his people for “any shortcomings” — a gross understatement, for he leaves behind him a nation in tatters after a civil war which killed nearly 2,000 people. In Tunisia, post-Ben Ali elections last October led to the victory of an Islamist party, Ennahda, a phenomenon also witnessed in neighbouring Morocco. In Egypt, however, the victory of the Islamist parties has been sweeping after results finally became available.

We do not know what results the Libyan elections, as yet uncertain, will produce, and how Syria will go if and when President Bashar al-Assad falls. But there is no doubt that the absence of all avenues of dissent throughout the Arab world for decades helped not the liberal parties but the Islamist ones, which because of better organisation and motivated cadres managed to increase their influence with the people. The 676-page HRW report attributes highly negative motives to western democracies’ Arab policies. Briefly, it says western policies were guided by a fear of political Islam, and this made them rely on secular dictators to ensure regional stability, secure uninterrupted oil supplies, maintain peace with Israel, stifle migration to the West and crush Islamist parties. The report considers this policy counterproductive, and asks the West to accept the change which the Arab Spring has wrought, adopt pro-people policies and “abandon the autocrats and embrace rights”.

8 Slavery in Pakistan, Bangladesh, India (Dawn) The term slavery has various connotations; however the most aberrant remains the literal ‘buying and selling’ of humans for the most atrocious and abominable purposes. The atrocities carried out against humans ‘by humans’ never cease to amaze me. Contrary to prevalent beliefs, slavery was the first crime against human rights, to be recognised and abolished, but ironically it is still one of the most apparent problems of developing countries. In countries, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, the never-ending list of modern slavery practices is sufficient enough to raise a red flag.

Pakistan is an agriculture based economy which is one of the many reasons why feudalism is such a common ‘phenomena’ in Pakistan. Bonded labour or debt bondage is the most revolting from of contemporary slavery which is more common in agricultural countries. According to various surveys, an estimated population of 1.8 million Pakistanis are held in debt bondage. The female workers/family members are subjected to beatings and sexual abuse. Dalits, or lower-caste Hindus, face the brunt of such atrocities because they are still considered as minorities in Pakistan. Many children are trafficked to the UAE and other Arab countries, where camel races are considered a sport for the elite, also become a part of the vicious slavery cycle.

9 The Economic Times editorial: If India aspires to be a liberal democracy, it must stop banning books.

10 Growing 1% of Indians (Business Standard) Households with an annual income of Rs 1.25m are increasing rapidly. Bhashar Seetharam and Varsha Das are a double-income-no-kids couple residing in Mumbai. Together, they bring home Rs 1.8m in household income per year. They belong to a hallowed club: they are part of India’s one per cent — households having an annual income of over Rs 1.25m, shows an analysis by the Centre for Macro Consumer Research (CMCR) of the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) for 2010-11. The research houses call them the affluent or the rich.

The cut-off to enter India’s one per cent – Rs 1.25m – is nothing to write home about compared to global standards. The cut-off point for the top one per cent in the US varies from about $500,000 to $700,000. If one takes the lower figure ($500,000, equal to Rs 26m), it is over 20 times the Indian figure. Adjusted for purchasing power parity, it would be around 10 times. India’s one per cent club is growing rapidly. In 1993-94, the top quintile or top 20% of households in India accounted for 37% of total income. This grew to 53% of total income in 2009-10, and is expected to touch 59% by 2014-15. In contrast, the bottom-of-the-pyramid accounted for just nine per cent and middle-income 17% of total private consumption.

11 When power gets to the head (Business Line) A senior journalist in India’s Uttar Pradesh state smiled and said: “All the IAS officers are rooting for Mulayam Singh. They find it easier to work with him… And they won't have to remove their footwear either. Oh yes, access to the state’s chief minister Ms Mayawati is allowed only bare-footed, I am told! This conjured up images of a bureaucrat wiping Ms Mayawati's shoes and WikiLeaks alleging how a special aircraft once fetched Mayawati's footwear from Mumbai!

But there is general consensus on how politicians are getting more arrogant. Mr Sarat Pradhan, a journalist-cum-political analyst points out that Ms Mayawati “is excessively obsessed about her own image and wants to become immortal as a Dalit leader and, hence, so many of her own statues. But the more disturbing trend appears to be the Gandhi scion Rahul Gandhi too expecting, and getting, deferential treatment from very senior Congress leaders. “Gone are the days when Congress leaders used to call him Rahul, put an arm around him, and so on. Now, it is only Rahulji,” says Mr Pradhan. It appears strange when contemporaries of Indira Gandhi address him as Rahulji,” he adds.

Mr Ramesh Dikshit, former Professor of Political Science at the Lucknow University says when they turn from “politicians to rulers, some people allow power to get into their heads and do turn arrogant.” Some of them even allow their party leaders and cadres to touch their feet. “But often politicians do not like people falling at their feet, but are unable to prevent it. Now, tomorrow, if a senior Congress leader decides to fall at Rahul Gandhi's feet, who is to be blamed” asks Mr Dikshit.

12 Infosys avoids ‘risky’ euro clients (Financial Chronicle) Worried over the intensifying European crisis, Infosys has stepped up measures to contain revenue risks and restricted its customer bases in Europe and the US to only those with a minimum international credit rating of A+. The IT major has taken the step in view of a steep increase in premium for credit risk insurance. Infosys chief financial officer V Balakrishnan said his company normally undertakes independent credit ratings evaluation. To support its own evaluation, Infosys also relies on external credit rating agencies, especially global agencies. Infosys has names like Bank of America, Wall-Mart, Deutsche Bank, General Motors, Citibank and others among its clients.

13 India bureaucracy wrapped in red tape (Mint) The image of the quintessential babu — a portly, middle-aged man clad in a safari suit or kurta, chewing paan—is as intrinsic to the national character as cricket or Bollywood. India’s bureaucracy has long had a bad reputation among its citizens and foreigners alike, and now, a new study by a Hong Kong-based organization, Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (Perc) Ltd, ranks Indian bureaucracy as the absolute worst in the region, lower even than Vietnam or the Philippines. The consultancy studied 12 Asian countries, including Japan, Singapore and China, and rated bureaucracies on a scale of one to 10 (higher being worse). India scored 9.21, comfortably worse than Vietnam and Indonesia.

This does not come as news to the millions of Indians who run into roadblocks while trying to access even the most basic services provided by the state. Attempts at reform have fallen by the wayside. And so the Indian civil services remain much the same as they were in newly independent India, although India itself has changed.

The conference room spy; Flaunting wealth in China; Disrupt or be disrupted; Log off and live life; Sri Lankans -- Eye donors to the world

1 The spy on the conference table (International Herald Tribune) One afternoon this month, a hacker took a tour of a dozen conference rooms around the globe via equipment that most every company has in those rooms; videoconferencing equipment. With the move of a mouse, he steered a camera around each room. In one room, he zoomed out through a window, across a parking lot and into shrubbery some 50 yards away where a small animal could be seen burrowing underneath a bush. With such equipment, the hacker could have easily eavesdropped on privileged attorney-client conversations or read trade secrets on a report lying on the conference room table. In this case, the hacker was HD Moore, a chief security officer at Rapid 7, a Boston-based company that looks for security holes in computer systems. His latest find: Videoconferencing equipment is often left vulnerable to hackers.

2 Flaunting wealth in China (The Guardian) There was a minor riot in Beijing last week. The Apple store was attacked. Its offence? Not being willing to sell sufficient numbers of the iPhone 4S. Buyers had queued all night and things turned ugly when it became clear that many of those in line had not the faintest idea what an iPhone was. They belonged to teams hired by middlemen who knew that every handset bought was resaleable for an additional £100. In London they riot to steal things. In Beijing, they riot because they cannot buy them. For a first-time visitor to China, the most astonishing aspect of the country is the worship of wealth. The mayor of London may like to be seen riding around on a bicycle. That is not the style of the mayor of Beijing.

It is all surface froth, of course: there will still be 1,299,000,000 Chinese who do not buy an Audi. But it is the flaunting of wealth that is so shocking, because the entire economy floats on a sea of migrant workers willing to go anywhere for a day's pay. Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution sent intellectuals to live as peasants. Embracing capitalism has created a class of urban plutocrats. All the best restaurants have these private rooms, so the rich and powerful do not have their meal spoiled by the offensive sight of their fellow citizens.

The majority of the Chinese people do not yet seem to even have their noses pressed to the windows. They are too busy hoping to get rich, or just trying to make ends meet. But the one-child policy is openly flouted by the rich, who simply pay the fine or arrange for the birth to take place in Hong Kong. Not one young person talked, even in their cups, of revolution. There are too many people doing too well for such thoughts. But it does not take a clairvoyant to ask how long it can last.

3 Youngest circumnavigator (BBC) To sail around the globe alone is as tough a sporting challenge as you can get. But Laura Dekker has achieved just that - at the age of 16. She is the youngest person to complete the feat but it has not earned the Dutch teenager a place in the record books. The Guinness Book of Records does not have a category for "youngest sailor" for fear the accolade would give pushy parents a potentially damaging incentive. Nevertheless with her proud family, eager journalists and St Maarten's prime minister watching, there's no doubt the Dutch schoolgirl's achievement will go down in the history books - ones that were written at sea rather than studied in class.

4 Why China is investing in Thames Water (BBC) Perhaps the most important cause of our economic malaise is that for years as a nation we have been living beyond our means, in deficit with the rest of the world. By contrast China has been consuming far less than it produces, accumulating vast surpluses. So as we work down our debts, the hope of the government has been that the Chinese could be persuaded to invest some of their vast surpluses in our infrastructure, in a way that would ease the pain of our economic slowdown and would yield a decent return to China over the long term.

That's why the Chancellor of the Exchequer was so delighted that China's sovereign wealth fund, China Investment Corporation, which controls more than £250bn - has bought a stake of almost 9% in London's water and sewage business, Thames Water. China is buying a small stake in a long established stable business, currently controlled by an Australian investment firm, Macquarie, rather than taking a risk on improving the fabric of the UK.

5 Disrupt or be disrupted (Johannesburg Times) George Eastman was ''not especially gifted'' according to the academic standards of his age. When his father died, he dropped out of high school, aged 14, to support his family. Ten years later, in 1877, he wanted to go on holiday and record the trip. The photographic equipment of the day was a camera the size of a microwave. To learn how to use it cost him $5, or a third of his weekly salary. He never made the holiday trip, but spent the next three years trying to simplify this early photographic process and April 1880 was the genesis of what would become the Eastman Kodak film company.

Photographers loved its Kodachrome film, which Neil Armstrong used to take pictures on the moon; and Paul Simon even wrote a song about it. What's more, Kodak was the first company to make a digital camera, in 1975, nogal. Now, the iconic originator of the "Kodak moment" has filed for bankruptcy. It was killed by its own invention, which it spectacularly failed to capitalise on.
Last week there were other, much more hyped announcements that imperilled other age-old businesses ripe for similar disruptions. The publishing industry is ripe for disruption - and the book publishers especially are on notice, having seen what the self-publishing might of Amazon's Kindle store offers. As the famous maxim goes, "You have to cannibalise your own business before someone else does."

6 Cruise liner’s sunken reality (Khaleej Times) The sinking of the giant Italian-American cruise liner “Costa Concordia” is among the most amazing and bizarre events in modern nautical history. From preliminary findings, it seems Captain Francesco Schettino was guilty of dereliction of duty for steering his 290 metre-long vessel perilously close to the island of Giglio’s rocky coast.

Speaking as an old salt, I find the new, 4,000-6,000-passenger cruise Leviathans far too large for either enjoyment or safety. They ride too high in the water and are top heavy, posing potential problems of stability in high seas. These floating cities pollute in spite of storing garbage and waste, disturb marine life, and swamp small ports with mobs of passengers. However, cruising remains one of the safest modes of transport. But it’s best to avoid tired, third-hand ships with outdated safety systems and cruises run by firms or nations with a poor record for seamanship or maritime responsibility. Like cut-rate airlines, their rock-bottom prices attract the lowest common denominator of maritime passengers.

7 Log off and live life (The Dawn) “I think all this Facebook stuff should just stop!” said Hamza Yusuf, co-founder of Zaytuna College, at a recent Islamic convention. “Live your lives. Go out; take walks amongst trees.” I did a Google search on Facebook and Twitter addictions, and I got so many hits that I decided not to bother backing up claims of widespread social media addiction. Some people can’t seem to get uninterrupted sleep through the night because of their cravings to check Facebook comments and messages and to see how many of their tweets are retweeted and faved.

The first thing people do, including I, when they wake up in the morning is log onto social-media platforms. What’s mind-boggling is that people have to disable social media networks to get their lives back. One tweeter who had to bid farewell to his 25,000 followers late last year wrote in his confession. “What did I get out of it? Certainly not fortune or fame — on Twitter I was, for the most part, anonymous,” wrote Larry Carlart. “But for me, every tweet was a performance.” He was fired from work because of his “performance” on Twitter and a month later he separated from his wife. And it is only fitting to let him tell you where he went wrong: “Instead of tweeting to reflect on my life, tweeting had become my life.”

8 Sri Lanka – Eye donors to the world (The Dawn) This gift of sight is so common here, it’s become an unwritten symbol of pride and culture for Sri Lanka, an island of about 20 million people. Despite recently emerging from a quarter century of civil war, the country is among the world’s largest cornea providers. It donates about 3,000 corneas a year and has provided tissue to 57 countries over nearly a half century, with Pakistan receiving the biggest share, according to the nonprofit Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society. "People ask me, ‘Can we donate our eyes while we are living? Because we have two eyes, can we donate one?”’ said Dr Sisira Liyanage, director of Sri Lanka’s National Eye Hospital in the capital, Colombo, where the new eye bank is based. ”They are giving just because of the willingness to help others. They are not accepting anything.”
The desire to help transcends social and economic barriers. Prime ministers pass on their corneas here along with the poorest tea farmers. Many Sri Lankans, about 67% of whom are Buddhist, believe that surrendering their eyes at death completes an act of ”dana,” or giving, which helps them be reincarnated into a better life.

9 Priyanka’s dressing sincerity questioned (Wall Street Journal) Is Priyanka Vadra, daughter of Sonia Gandhi and sister of Rahul, being insincere when she wears handloom saris every time she visits Amethi, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’s family constituency? Television news anchor Sagarika Ghose recently chastised Ms Vadra for wearing traditional saris when visiting the rural constituency in impoverished Uttar Pradesh, when in Delhi she opts to wear fashionable Western clothes such as trousers, shirts, jeans and t-shirts. Ms Ghose interprets this as a neo-feudal or even neo-colonial gesture on Ms Vadra’s part, “doing a sort of Passage to India routine of ‘mingling easily with the natives,’” as she pungently puts it.

Perhaps what is so jarring is the stark contrast between her Delhi attire and what she wears when she meets the rural poor. Surely this is obvious to everyone, presumably even the rural poor who must have seen television or newspaper pictures of the trendy Ms Vadra back in Delhi. Ms Vadra is no doubt sincere in her affection for India’s rural poor, but the way she signals it through her dress creates the opposite effect.

10 India a superpower or superdunce? (The Economic Times editorial) In the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) international competition for children's learning, India came 72nd out of 73 countries. The Annual Status of Education Report (Aser 2011) reveals that the proportion of Class 5 children able to read a Class 2 text has fallen from 53.7% in 2010 to 48.2% in 2011. The proportion of Class 3students able to do simple subtraction sums is down from 36.3% to 29.9%. India is bidding to be a superdunce rather than superpower.

The government's two flagship programmes, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the Right to Education Act, emphasize huge spending on school infrastructure and teacher training. But learning outcomes have not improved at all despite Rs 1trn of extra spending in the last five years. Desperate parents find free government schools so bad that they have shifted massively to private schooling. The proportion of children in private schools is up from 18.7% to 25.6%, with another 26% going for private tuitions. The puzzle is that not even the huge shift to private paid education shows up in improved learning outcomes.

11 Berggruen laments India red-tapism (Financial Chronicle) Global billionaire investor Nicolas Berggruen, founder and President of Berggruen Holdings, has lamented the red-tapism involved in setting up business in India saying it is slowing down investments in the country. "In 2006 we had announced an investment of around $ 300 million, but due to slower pace of growth here, we have been able to invest only half of that amount so far," Berggruen said. The company has invested in hotels under Keys brand, car rental services, real estate and education sector.

"We started operations in India five years back from a scratch. The growth is much slower in here. It takes longer to build businesses here than anywhere else," he said. Taking permissions and other administrative work takes too long in this country, he added. Globally Berggruen Holdings' investments are estimated to exceed $ 3 billion. The company has made than 100 direct investments in over the last 20 years.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Why students leave engineering track; Italy's big reforms; Amazon 'fulfilment' centre in India; Malawi women fight to wear pants; Driving in China

1 Why students leave the engineering track (The New York Times) Amid broader discussions about the future of the American work force, the National Science Foundation has released a comprehensive report on the state of engineering and science in America. Perhaps swayed by statistics about the shortage (and correspondingly high wages) of engineers and scientists in the US in the last decade nearly one incoming freshman in 10 have said they expected to major in engineering. But the share who actually complete degrees in engineering has been about half that.

What accounts for the high attrition rates? Maybe some of it has to do with aptitude, or encouragement, or good role models and mentors. But Philip Babcock, an economist at the University of California, Davis, suggests that a lot of it has to do with homework. He found that in 1961, full-time students spent about 40 hours each week in class and studying. By 2003, they were investing about 27 hours a week.

The typical engineering major today spends 18.5 hours per week studying. The typical social sciences major, by contrast, spends about 14.6 hours. STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) have also had less grade inflation than the humanities and social sciences have in the last several decades. Given the study habits shown above, this probably isn’t surprising; courses with higher grading standards will often require students to study harder to get an A. So maybe students intending to major in STEM fields are changing their minds because those curriculums require more work, or because they’re scared off by the lower grades, or a combination of the two.

2 Vodafone cleared of tax dues in India (BBC) India's highest court has ruled that Vodafone is not liable for taxes and penalties of up to $4.4bn. The judgement could relieve pressure on other foreign companies facing similar tax investigations in India. The case centred on Vodafone's $11bn acquisition of the Indian assets of China's Hutchison Telecommunications in 2007. Vodafone said it did not owe tax on the deal, as the assets were held by a firm based in the Cayman Islands.

In May 2007, Vodafone's Dutch subsidiary acquired a 67% stake in CGP Investments Ltd, a Cayman Islands registered company which held the Indian telecom assets of Hutchison. It was presented with a tax demand of 112 billion rupees, currently worth $2.2bn. The Indian government subsequently sought penalties of up to 100% of the original bill.

3 Big reforms in Italy (BBC) The Italian government has approved a controversial series of reforms designed to boost its ailing economy. Measures include allowing more taxi licences and permitting pharmacists to give discounts on some medicines. The government's aim is to end restrictive practices and increase competition, but critics say small businesses will be harmed. Earlier, Italy unveiled a 5.5bn euro package for investment in infrastructure. Standard and Poor's cut Italy's rating by two notches last Friday to BBB+, citing concerns over the economic outlook, and Fitch Ratings has warned it could do the same by the end of the month unless progress is made.

4 Amazon’s first ‘fulfilment’ centre in India (Guardian) Amazon is setting up its first "fulfilment centre" in India as the world's largest internet retailer tries to break into the world's second most populous nation. Fulfilment centres are giant warehouses that help store products, ship them and handle returns quickly. The fulfilment centre is based in Mumbai, the biggest city in the country, according to job listings on Amazon's Indian careers website. The company spent heavily last year setting up more than 10 new fulfilment centres in the US. The company also lists centres in China, Germany, Japan and the UK on its website, but currently lists none in India. Fulfilment centres cost a lot to set up, so Amazon's efforts to start one in India signal that the company is serious about getting into the country's $550bn retail market.

5 Malawi women march for right to wear pants (Johannesburg Times) About 2,000 Malawian women staged a protest against attacks on trouser-wearing women, who were stripped in the streets this week by a gang of unemployed youths and sidewalk vendors. "We have to say no to abuse against women. We have to fight for women's rights," Vice President Joyce Banda told the women. Banda is the country's first female vice president. On Wednesday police announced that 15 men had been arrested in connection with the incident, prompting President Bingu wa Mutharika to defend women's right to wear whatever they liked. Until 1994, women in this deeply conservative poor nation were banned from wearing pants, during the long dictatorship of Kamuzu Banda.

6 China’s driving schools and the art of war (Johannesburg Times) China is rapidly becoming a country on wheels and its crowded driving schools are racing to churn out licensed drivers as fast as cars roll off the assembly lines. But judging by the daily smash-ups and blatant disregard for even basic traffic rules on China's roadways, quantity seems to have trumped quality at many schools. China surpassed the US in 2009 to become the world's largest auto market. According to official data, China granted 22.69 million driving licences in 2011 alone, bringing the total number of licensed drivers in the country to 236 million at the end of 2011.

But no amount of classroom work or simulated driving may prepare drivers for the roadways that more closely resemble slow-moving battle grounds than transportation arteries. In 2010 alone, China reported 3.9 million road accidents that killed 65,225 people and injured 254,075. Lack of experience is often cited as a key reason behind the rocketing number of accidents. It's enough to make one nostalgic for simpler days when millions got around on bicycle.

7 ‘Apartheid made South Africa rich’ (Charles Hoffman in Johannesburg Times) I am a great fan of Jonny Steinberg’s writings, but his recent assertion in the Sunday Times that Apartheid, with all its inefficiencies, actually held back SA’s economic development calls for a response. You cannot think away Apartheid and assume the alternative would have been some efficient and liberal dispensation immune to the post-independent African story.

In my view, if Apartheid never happened (if the Afrikaner was never here?) there is no reason to believe that SA would be any different today from any other ex-British ruled African country – that is a poor and collapsed state. And why did none of the other post-independent African countries flourish despite having none of the Apartheid inefficiencies? Why did they all fast collapse? Why did SA in contrast become this rich and modern state, albeit much “skewed”? Of course all this does not justify Apartheid, but it at least brings some perspective to the legacy of our past.

8 Fitch lowers India growth estimate (Khaleej Times) Fitch Ratings cut India’s growth estimate for the current fiscal year, citing record interest-rate increases and a global economic slowdown. “The combination of a tightening of monetary policy, which was implemented to tame persistent inflationary pressures, and a weaker global economy is likely to weigh on India’s growth,” Fitch said on Friday. India’s economy may expand 7% in the fiscal year through March 2012, from an earlier estimate of 7.5%, Fitch said. The World Bank this week cut India’s 2012 forecast by 1.9 percentage point to 6.5%.

9 Stop the ‘Chindia’ talk (Business Standard) Figuring out the gap between the two “rising giants of Asia” is an instructive study. For instance, China’s GDP in 2011 was $6.99 trillion, or nearly four times India’s $1.84 trillion. Could India have avoided falling so far behind China? After all, when China began its Four Modernisations in 1978, the two economies were of roughly the same size ($145-148 billion). Even in 1991, when India began its reforms, China’s economy was only 40% bigger than India’s $268 billion. The answer is that, in many ways, India in 1991 was already two decades and more behind China on key indicators, and it has not closed the gap.

For instance, China’s literacy rate in 1991 was 78%, whereas India’s was just 52%. Ditto with life expectancy; China’s in 1991 was 70 years. Twenty years later, India had a tally of only 64 years. China’s goods exports are about six times India’s. Move to research, and China has a citation index that is twice as good as India’s. In the space programme, China sent its first man into space in 2003; India hopes to do it in 2015, but is likely to take longer. As for infrastructure, China has more than 30,000 km of expressways on which traffic speeds go up to 120 kmph; India has a few hundred kilometres.

China has a whole inter-city network of high-speed trains, five times as many Internet users, and nearly a million MW of power generation capacity. India has only fractionally increased its train speeds since the first Rajdhani Express of 1969, and even if the country doubles power generation capacity every decade, starting from 150,000 MW in 2010, it will take more than a quarter century to get to where China is today. The smallest gap is in the mobile phone population. And the largest gap perhaps in the quality of political leadership — China is able to produce a new crop of top-rung leaders every decade, in Beijing and in the provinces and large cities, whereas India’s political parties offer little beyond an upper crust. As for sport, India got one gold medal in the last Olympics, China got 51. The cold message to all Indians: stop talking of the two countries in the same breath, and dump the “Chindia” coinage. For why does India not bracket itself with Iran, whose economic size in relation to India (1:4) is broadly the same as India’s to China?

10 India cannot even think of growing at 7% (Shankar N Acharya, economist and policy advisor, in Financial Chronicle) My worry is that we could be in for less than 7% growth not just this year or the next but for quite a few years. This is because we are not doing anything about some of the fundamental problems we face -- the energy shortage, for instance. You will agree that there have been little reforms between 2004 and 2011.

I don’t wish a crisis. But I see a crisis building up on two or three fronts. I am worried about the external balance of payments front. The trade gap is at 10% of GDP. The current account deficit is already 3.5% of GDP. The external debt today is at the highest level in absolute terms and it is primarily commercial and of shorter term. We may talk about foreign exchange reserves of $300 billion, but $300 billion in today’s context is nothing. It can disappear in no time. We are vulnerable to external shocks. Then I fear that we can get caught in shortages — of energy, of infrastructure, water and of other res¬ources unless we do act on those fronts. We could then be investing 30% of the GDP, but would still be constrained to grow slowly.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Finance is not evil; Apple eyes $10bn textbook biz; Islam's pluralism; Love India, but can't live here; Social media burnout among India youth

1 Finance is not evil (The New York Times) When I spoke at a college recently, I was startled by one question: Is it immoral for students to seek banking jobs? The corollary question is this: Is it unethical to make millions in private equity? My answer to both questions: no. I’ve been sympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street movement, but, look, finance is not evil. Banking has contributed immensely to modern civilization. By allocating capital to more efficient uses, banking laid the groundwork for the industrial revolution and the information revolution.

Likewise, the attacks on private equity seem over the top. Private equity firms like Bain Capital aren’t about destroying companies and picking over the carcasses. Rather, the aim is to acquire poorly managed companies, make them more efficient (sometimes by firing people but often by rejiggering the business model) and then resell them at a profit. That’s the merciless, rugged nature of capitalism.

When young people go into finance, I hope that they’ll show judgment, balance and principles instead of their elders’ penchant for greed and rigging the system. Just as Communists managed to destroy Communism, capitalists are discrediting capitalism. So university students would be wrong to mock their classmates who choose Citigroup over CARE. Banking and private equity aren’t evil, and I would never urge college students to stay away. Maybe today’s young socialist sympathizers, along with healthy regulation and a loud public outcry, can help rescue capitalism from the crony capitalists.

2 Apple seeks $10bn textbook industry on iPad (San Francisco Chronicle) The size of the US textbook industry is $ 10bn, according to the Association of American Publishers. The market has become a tantalizing target for Apple, which is trying to replace paper books with iPad versions. Apple also wants to empower "self-publishers" to create new kinds of teaching materials, people familiar with the matter say.

3 Windows revenues decline 6% (The Guardian) Microsoft has suffered a 6% decline in revenues at its Windows division, as competition from smartphones and tablet computers combined with the impact of floods at components factories in Thailand dented worldwide sales of personal computers. Windows revenues fell to $4.7bn in the three months ending 31 December, down from $5bn during the same period in 2010.

4 India’s child cotton workers (BBC) Civil rights activist Jignesh Mevani describes the conditions endured by India's child cotton workers: The noise was deafening and air in the factory in northern Gujarat was so thick with cotton dust it was like a snowstorm at night. Women and girls, some no more than 10 or 11, fed machines with raw cotton picked from the nearby fields. It is a process known as ginning - one end of a commercial supply chain that ends up as clothes and textiles in high street shops around the world. Globally, annual revenues from the industry are measured in the trillions of dollars.

"The workers' lives are terrible," said Mevani, an activist who was our guide. "They are not paid the minimum wage. There are no safety precautions. There are many children." One was Kali Gamar. She thought she was 10, but wasn't sure. She was with her older sister, Ashi, who said she was 20. "We came here four or five months ago from Rajastan," said Ashi. "Now we live here. The work is hard. We don't know where our parents are. They are working somewhere." Some estimates put the number of cotton child workers in India as high as half a million. None of the retailers we contacted agreed to be interviewed on this issue. In response to the BBC findings in Gujarat, the British government said businesses were encouraged to remain vigilant about the work conditions for products they buy from overseas.

5 Sale of Saddam’s ‘buttock’ (BBC) A company director has been arrested on suspicion of illegally keeping part of a statue of Saddam Hussein taken from Iraq in 2003. Jim Thorpe, director of Trebletap, was questioned over the company's plans to sell the 2ft bronze piece of buttock. The piece was brought to the UK by the firm's founder Nigel Ely but failed to sell at an auction in Derby after failing to meet its reserve price. Derbyshire police said the Iraqi government had made a complaint to the Metropolitan Police last week via the Iraqi Embassy. Mr Thorpe was questioned on suspicion of breaching Section 8 of the Iraq (UN Sanctions) Order 2003 before being released on bail pending further inquiries. Under the order, anyone possessing Iraqi cultural property must give it to the police. Mr Ely, a former SAS soldier, used a sledgehammer and chisel to remove the portion when the statue was brought down in central Baghdad at the end of Hussein's reign. He said he planned to sell it to raise money for charity but withdrew it from sale at an auction in October after it failed to meet its £250,000 reserve.

6 Islam’s pluralism (The Dawn) While Islam stresses on the unity of humanity, it also recognises human diversity and gives valuable principles to deal with ethnic, racial and religious differences in society. However, this pluralistic dimension of Islamic teachings has received little attention in our time. There are several verses in the Quran that underline human pluralities, such as social, biological and religious differences. According to the Quran, all human beings are from the same soul but they have been created with differences. The following verse beautifully depicts human plurality: “O humankind We [God] have created you male and female, and made you into communities and tribes, so that you may know one another. Surely the noblest amongst you in the sight of God is the most God-fearing of you. God is All-Knowing and All-Aware” (49:13).

7 I love India, but can’t live here (Khaleej Times) Dilli O Dilli. A city with ancient history stamped with the intense imprints of myriad marauding cultures. In the “new” Delhi, beggars with maimed children knock on the frosted car doors of rich businessmen in Mercs and BMWs. Bentleys and Lamborghinis are also in evidence. While there on vacation, India’s first Formula One car race was under way with great fanfare. The inimitable Lady Ga Ga was performing. While I was there, the world’s seven billionth person was born in the populous state of Uttar Pradesh. And all this while, the multitudes of rural poor continue to stream into this tumultuous city, hoping to find jobs, squatting under the flyovers that link and link and link till one can go round and round getting lost in all the endless traffic.

Sitting in the lush Gymkhana Club lunching with four ladies all of whom have lived, at some point, in the UAE, we sipped our delicately spiced lemon and coriander soup and talked about how our lives had changed since we left the Emirates to settle down in India or North America. None of us can say with certainty that we don’t miss the wonderful life in the UAE. The hot topic of the day was if India should indulge in the Formula One and spend millions of dollars while a huge chunk of the population lives on less than $1 per day. Meanwhile, on the second day of my trip, my laptop got stolen. By then I was paranoid and driving my daughter nuts with my safety/security concerns. “Mom,” said my 26-year old daughter who was born in Sharjah but now has made Canada her home, “I love India but I don’t think I can live here.”

8 Social media burnout among Indian youth (Business Standard) Youngsters in urban India have started experiencing social media fatigue, logging on less frequently to social networks like Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Orkut, Linkedin, Myspace, Friendster, Hi5 and BigAdda than when they initially signed up, according to a survey. The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham) conducted the survey to examine current usage trends among youngsters. Assocham representatives interacted with about 2,000 youngsters (an equal number of males and females) in the age group of 12 to 25 years in the urban centres of Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Chandigarh, Chennai, the Delhi-NCR, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Lucknow, Mumbai and Pune between October and December, 2011.

"Tech overload is apparent among youth and their fixation with social media seems to be eroding as they have started focusing on more important things than grooming their digital identities," said Assocham Secretary General D S Rawat while releasing the findings of the survey. About 75% of the total sample said they created a profile or an account on almost each of these websites, which was a fad when they were just launched. However, most of them said they barely use them anymore and prefer sticking to a single site. "Although social networking is the most popular online activity, youngsters have started finding social media boring, confusing, frustrating and time-consuming as they surf these websites less frequently and tend to surf other informative websites, send e-mails, search the internet and play games instead of accessing their accounts, hardly responding to comments and other material posted on their walls," said the survey.

9 Race for Muslim votes in Uttar Pradesh (Business Line) Maulana Syed Kalbe Jawad, one of the most important Shia leaders in the country and Member, All India Muslim Personal Law Board, is not cagey, but genuinely circumspect, when he says, seated in his house on a windy and freezing night in Lucknow: “The UP Muslims are totally undecided on who to support in this election. They are not confused, but hesitant, about backing this party or that, because, honestly, no party has done anything for their welfare.”

Muslim youth suffer a sense of insecurity, he says. “The police can knock any time on their door, pick them up under false charges, imprison them. The courts may declare them innocent after five years, but their lives are ruined for ever. And those who wrongly implicated them are not punished.” Of the four main contenders in UP, the BJP is the only one without any designs on the substantial 18% Muslim vote — Maulana Jawad claims it is actually 20%. Of the other three — the Samajwadi Party, Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party — vying for Muslim vote, the SP has really promised them the moon this time — 18% reservation. Muslims are expected to influence the outcome of the UP results in at least 130 constituencies where their numbers are concentrated. Keeping this in mind the BSP has fielded 84 Muslim candidates, the SP 75 and Congress 61.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

UK debt 500% over GDP; Pay cut at Goldman Sachs as profits halve; School with a difference in Jo'burg; China's new route to Indian economy

1 UK debt goes 500% over GDP (The Guardian) Britain faces a difficult challenge over the next decade as it slowly adjusts to an economy less dependent on debt-fuelled growth, according to new research by McKinsey. An international study found Britain had the highest level of debt after Japan, that the debt had risen over the past three years to more than 500% of national output, and that on current trends it would take until 2020 for UK households to return debt levels to the pre-bubble trend. The report says this burden could leave the economy vulnerable when interest rates have to rise to more normal levels from their current record low of 0.5%.

2 Goldman Sachs cuts pay as profits halve (BBC) US banking giant Goldman Sachs has cut its pay and bonus payments during 2011 to $12.2bn. It said its total compensation - including staff bonuses - was down 21% from 2010. The bank also said that its quarterly profits had more than halved from the previous year, but still beat analysts' forecasts. In the whole of 2011, Goldman said that it made 47% less in profits than in 2010. The bank said that it had cut total staff numbers by 7% in 2011 - to 33,300 people, meaning the average compensation per member of staff is about $366,360.

3 School with a difference in South Africa (Johannesburg Times) It is early Monday morning and, after rising at 4am for the early flight from Bloemfontein, I was not in the mood for small talk. I expect the teachers on their first day back from the holidays to exhibit that semi-depression that we all go through on returning to hard work. It is exactly the opposite at Leicester Road School in Kensington, Johannesburg; these teachers are bristling with excitement, almost literally jumping for joy.

The first thing that strikes you is that nobody talks about academic results. The emphasis at Leicester Road is on caring, and the vision and mission statements on the school website are filled with words of compassion and belonging. "What is the thing you talk about most on your governance agenda?" I ask the chairwoman of the governing body. "That the children are okay; that the parents are okay; that the teachers are okay."

In the cut-throat and competitive focus on academic results, and the threats that teachers and principals are subjected to by the authorities if they do not perform, this school puts care and compassion for their people first. This applies to all. Renee Abrahams is only the fourth principal in 73 years at Leicester Road and the teachers also tend to form part of a stable personnel tally; after all, who would want to leave this place? As the teachers begin filing out of the staff room, the principal reminds them of a borrowed theme to guide them in 2012: "Dream more, learn more, become more." My kind of school.

4 China finds a new route to Indian economy (The Wall Street Journal) India's economy rarely opens the front door to China. But New Delhi shouldn't be too concerned that China has found a new point of entry. Reliance Communications Ltd. opened a window this week. India's second-largest mobile phone carrier by number of subscribers was under pressure to refinance $1.18 billion of foreign-currency convertible bonds. In the current market, that looked like a stiff challenge, as lenders in the U.S. and Europe struggle with their deteriorating economies.

Enter a consortium of Chinese banks to bail out the Indian company with a loan paying just 5%. The deal gives the banks the sort of exposure to India's fast-growing communications space that Chinese companies couldn't get otherwise. The Reliance loan deal puts the Chinese banks in a strong position over a prominent Indian business. It might also help China Inc. get more leverage in the Indian economy.

5 Ambanis’ mixed fortunes tell the India story (The Financial Express) Tales of the Ambani brothers' mixed fortunes tell the same story -- declining opportunities for investment in India. Mukesh may be cash-rich while Anil is in stark need of funding. Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Industries is considering a share buyback, in which Mukesh himself is thought unlikely to participate. The firm has net cash of around $10 billion. But the buyback announcement suggests a dearth of sound investment opportunities for India's richest man. That's not good news for the Indian economy, reinforcing the impression that political paralysis is stifling investment.

Nor is it good news for Anil. Reliance Communications, whose share price nearly halved last year, is saddled with around $6 billion in net debt. Anil has been trying to sell his telecoms tower unit for almost two years. In the absence of hard cash from the sale of his infrastructure, Anil has this week raised funding from several Chinese banks to refinance $1.18 billion of outstanding convertible bonds.

Neither story paints a hopeful outlook. Indeed, the tale of the Ambanis is a microcosm for corporate India: some businesses are struggling to unwind excessive leverage while others can't find productive uses for their surplus cash.

6 India Muslims get quotas, not skills (Mint) Only one out of every six Muslim children entering an Indian school stays till his matriculation. I use “his” deliberately; the figures are worse for girls—only two out of five Muslim girls enter schools, and fewer than one-tenth complete secondary education. Such low enrolment figures and high dropout rates mean that only one of 25 undergraduate students, and barely one out of 50 postgraduate students in Indian universities, is a Muslim. India defines literacy rather generously, and yet Muslim literacy rate is only 59.1%. According to the Rajinder Sachar committee’s report in 2006, Muslim enrolment at the Indian Institutes of Management was 1.3%, and at the Indian Institutes of Technology, out of 27,161 students, only 894, or some 3.3%, were Muslim.

Given such a bleak picture, one would think that Maulana Abul Qasim Nomani, the rector of the Darul Uloom Deoband, would know his chief priority: to ask the government to implement the Sachar report, identify the root causes and fix those, instead of tinkering at the margins. But Nomani seems to have a more pressing concern: keeping Salman Rushdie out of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Politicians and clerics gain by keeping the population uninformed. They fight chimeric battles and offer illusory benefits to Muslims, who want education and jobs. Instead they get quotas, and not skills.

7 Cartoon in Financial Chronicle, featuring the India Army chief who is fighting a legal battle with his government on his date of birth: 'I want to retire as a general who fought a major war'

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Fresh crisis warning from World Bank; Israel civilisations clash; Rise of corruption in South Africa; Syrian nail bombs; Citigroup to cut 5,000 jobs

1 World Bank’s crisis warning (Sydney Morning Herald) The World Bank says the global economy is on the edge of a new financial crisis, deeper and more damaging than the one that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Its latest six-monthly assessment of global economic prospects halves its forecast for growth among high-income countries, and pushes its forecast for countries using the euro into negative territory. It has slashed its global growth forecast for 2012 from 3.6% to 2.5%. High-income nations are forecast to grow at 1.4% rather than 2.7%. The euro area's economy will shrink 0.3%. However, the bank warns "even achieving these much weaker outcomes is very uncertain".

"The downturn in Europe and weaker growth in developing countries raises the risk that the two developments reinforce one another, resulting in an even weaker outcome." Although contained for the moment, there is a risk of a "much broader freezing up of capital markets and a global crisis similar in magnitude to the Lehman crisis". In the event of such a crisis, "activity is unlikely to bounce back as quickly as it did in 2008/09, in part because high-income countries will not have the fiscal resources to launch as strong a countercyclical policy response or to offer the same level of support to troubled financial institutions".

The World Bank said the financial turmoil caused by the escalation of the sovereign debt crisis in Europe was spreading to both developing and high-income nations and was generating ‘‘significant headwinds’’. It said capital investment to developing nations had fallen by nearly half compared with a year ago. Europe appeared to be in recession and growth in several major developing nations (Brazil, India, Russia, South Africa and Turkey) had slowed, partly as a result of a tightening in domestic policy.

2 Israel’s clash of civilizations (The New York Times) Women carefully guarded. Women scientists barred from speaking at a podium. Ultra-Orthodox men spitting on an 8-year-old girl deemed immodestly dressed. In Israel, which gave the world a very special woman leader in Golda Meir, and where young women are drafted like their male counterparts, and women played a significant role in the success of early Zionist settlements, the rise of the ultra-Orthodox is posing a huge challenge at the very core of society. Moshe Halbertal, a professor of Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University, says that whereas a century ago secular nationalism and socialism challenged the religious establishment, “today the issue is feminism.’” Rabbis are losing sleep over this, he added, just as the Islamic world – particularly post-Arab spring – ponders the place of women. Where do you see this going? The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, too, relegate women to second place. Is this just a sign that traditional structures have yet to adapt to the 21st century?

3 Kim Jong-un won’t last, says brother (The Guardian) The eldest son of North Korea’s late leader Kim Jong-il has predicted the regime would soon fail, with or without reforms, according to a new book that the author says is based on emails and interviews with Kim Jong-nam. The book says that Kim Jong-nam – who has never met the new leader, his half-brother Kim Jong-un – described the dynastic succession as "a joke to the outside world", and said even his father had originally opposed the hereditary transfer of power. "The Kim Jong-un regime will not last long," Kim Jong-nam is said to have written, forecasting a power struggle. "Without reforms, North Korea will collapse, and when such changes take place, the regime will collapse."

4 Rising corruption worries South Africa auditor general (The Sowetan) Investigations into corruption and financial mismanagement involving provincial government departments are piling up. Provincial departments throughout the country face a collective 1,640 investigations as a result of irregular activity, particularly in supply-chain management - a division through which contracts and tenders are awarded to national and provincial departments. Auditor-General Terence Nombembe this week revealed a shocking number of probes into these departments, hinting that corruption might be spiralling out of control. The auditor-general's report notes that "the extent of investigations commissioned suggests a control environment where fraud and financial misconduct are not prevented". President Jacob Zuma's home province is listed in the report as one of the places with high rates of unauthorised expenditure.

5 Beggar, thief and clerk (The Dawn) In the beginning there were beggars, one or two or four folded on sidewalks at traffic lights or lingering in alleys and outside bazaars, hands spread before shaved and showered men going to work, housewives carrying bags of tomatoes and potatoes. Those were the slightly better days of old, when beggary was a recourse and not a profession. Now, as reams of newspaper articles and media exposés have told us, beggary is a business with all the sophistications of revenue projections and market shares.

In Karachi, in the area behind Boat Basin, training schools can be found where children ‘purchased’ from hapless villages afflicted by floods or fighting are brought for instruction. They are taught the speedy calculations of money and manipulation, who will give and not give. The beggar is the most benevolent of Pakistan’s new agents of redistribution. His arsenal is emotion, persistence, guilt — small, sly dramas of filth, suffering and destitution played out in parts before his targets.

The beggar and the thief are the visible assailants in an unequal society. Inside stuffy offices, up crumbling staircases are the secret thieves who enable their own acts of redistribution — some more overtly than others. The clerk at the water board office who wants a few hundred rupees to pass a paper to his boss, it seems, is complicit in small acts of thievery, practised by the righteous criminals of Pakistan. The beggar, the thief and the clerk are Pakistan’s modern-day agents of change, far from the armchair sort that march at rallies and gulp down whatever new elixir of hope is pedalled at such occasions, or are proffered on Twitter.

6 Anti-dowry game a hit in India (The Straits Times) A new online game in India called 'Angry Brides' which seeks to highlight the problem of illegal dowry demands for women has attracted more than 270,000 fans. The game by online matchmaker shaadi.com - inspired by the hugely popular 'Angry Birds' game - sees players attack prospective grooms greedy for dowry with a variety of weapons, from a brick-red stiletto to a broomstick. The three grooms - an engineer, a doctor and a pilot - dodge the attacks while demanding dowries starting at 1.5 million rupees. Each time a player hits a groom, he or she wins money towards a virtual anti-dowry fund.

7 Learning from a shoe-man (The Dawn) “They chased the dog out, lest it pollute the mosque. But they left these men inside, ignoring the filth hidden in their hearts. Who will clean the mosque now?” I looked back and saw a strange man sitting on the steps of the shrine. He did not look poor — yet he was doing a job only the poorest do. He looked after the shoes of the visitors who had to take them off before entering the shrine and the adjoining mosque. In return they threw a few coins before him. Nobody knew his name. Everybody called him “jootaywala,” the shoe-man. He saw me looking at him and smiled. “Don’t believe what you see. Seek more,” he said. I ignored him and went inside.

Someone was singing a devotional song: “What will you get from this bowing and prostrating when your heart is still attracted to sins? Clean your heart first and then come to worship. Chase the dog out of your heart,” I heard the shoe-man say to a group of people gathered around him. Then he started telling them the stories of Mullah Nasiruddin, a legendary character popular in the Muslim world.

“Mullah came to a wedding reception in his usual dress of coarse cloth and nobody took any notice of him. Nobody asked him to sit. Nobody served him food. He went back, put on his new silk coat and returned to the reception. Now he was taken to the best table and made to sit with the notables of the city. When the food came Mullah dipped his sleeve in the soup and said ‘eat, my coat, eat. The host was surprised and asked Mullah why he was doing that,” the Shoe-man said. “When I came in my usual dress, nobody welcomed me, but my new coat made all the difference. So I gather that the invitation was for the coat, not for me,” said Mullah Nasiruddin. Perhaps that’s why there is always a crowd at the shrines of the Sufi saints. They give knowledge without arrogance.

8 Syria’s nail bombs (The Dawn) For 20-year-old Mohamed, joining the Friday protests in Doma city was more of an act of adventure than support for a cause. Yet to understand the reason behind the demonstrations, he was unaware of the dangers that lay therein and the concern behind his mother’s warnings. On the first Friday of November 2011, he witnessed the horror his mother had forewarned him about. As protestors gathered after Friday prayers, chanting slogans against Bashar al-Assad, Mohamed heard a loud bang and fell on the road. Everyone suddenly panicked and rushed for cover. “I was scared when I heard people saying ‘nail bombs exploding, run away before getting hurt’,” he explains. Soon after the first wave of explosions, the protestors went back to help their injured friends. “I could not believe what I saw. People were crying helplessly with pain while others rushed to provide first-aid.”

According to witnesses, nail bombs are launched in the heart of a demonstration from a car and as bombs explode amongst the demonstrators, the vehicle disappears. Dozens of common iron-nails rocket in the air, causing injuries to people sitting as far away from the street as homes and offices. Following several reports of protestors’ disappearance from Syrian hospitals, victims prefer self-treatment in makeshift field clinics instead of seeking aid at local hospitals. The mortality rate, however, remains high. “It is difficult to take critical cases to hospitals because we know they will be killed there anyway. This way, at least we get to bury them ourselves,” says Abu Zaid.

While the use of nail bombs is prohibited internationally, Syrian security forces have been using them against protestors since last August. “Most nail bombs are fired on the left side of demonstrations for a higher possibility of damages to the heart,” says Khalid from Homs who has survived several such attacks.

9 Citigroup to cut 5,000 jobs (Mint) Citigroup Inc., the third biggest US bank by assets, on Tuesday said fourth-quarter net income dropped 11%, missing analysts’ estimates for an increase, to $1.17 billion, or 38 cents a share, from $1.31 billion, or 43 cents, a year earlier, on a slump in trading revenue. Trading declines mirrored results at JPMorgan Chase and Co., which last week said revenue in every investment banking business fell from a year earlier. Citigroup’s earnings slump capped a year for chief executive officer Vikram Pandit, 55, in which the shares slid 44% amid concern that troubled European countries would default. The New York-based bank on Tuesday in a statement said it will eliminate 5,000 employees, with about 25% coming from the securities and banking business.

Monday, January 16, 2012

EU's bailout fund downgraded; Urban Chinese outnumber rural; Murder of a child servant; Erosion of institution of editor; Investment summit realities

1 EU’s bailout fund is downgraded (BBC) Credit ratings agency Standard & Poor's has downgraded the EU bailout fund to AA+ from AAA. The European Financial Stability Facility's (EFSF) rating is based on the ratings of the countries that guarantee it. S&P's downgrade of France and Austria on Friday meant there were not enough AAA rated guarantors for the fund to maintain its top rating. The downgrade could affect the EFSF's ability to raise money cheaply. S&P said the EFSF could regain its AAA rating if it obtained additional guarantees. Alternatively, the fund could be endowed with less money, which would be better guaranteed. BBC business editor Robert Peston says that, following the S&P downgrades, the bailout funds are endowed with what looks like a puddle or pond, rather than a great sea of money stretching beyond the horizon.

2 Disaster in birth (Khaleej Times) When India got its independence in 1947, its population was around 360 million. Today, it is 1.2 billion, more than three times as much (the statistics for Pakistan are even more startling, from a 35 million population to 185 million, a six-fold increase). No rocket science needed to conclude that if India had been able to control its population growth rate, its people would have been better fed, educated and housed. In 1947, almost half of India was covered by forests that teemed with an incredible variety of wildlife. Now, the forest cover is down to 20%, with several species of fauna and flora either extinct or on the endangered list, the tiger and the lion being the most prominent. Last October 31, the world’s population reached the seven billion mark. And it is still growing by an unsustainable 75 million a year, almost all the growth being in the poorest parts of the developing world. The UN projects it will reach nine billion by 2050 and then soar to over 10 billion by the end of the century. We have been warned.

3 Urban Chinese outnumber rural (The Straits Times) China has revealed that the number of people living in cities outnumbered those living in the countryside for the first time, as more and more people leave rural areas to seek better economic opportunities. Urban dwellers now represent 51.27% of China's entire population of nearly 1.35 billion - or 690.8 million people - the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said. China has for centuries been a mainly agrarian nation, but economic reforms undertaken more than three decades ago have triggered breakneck growth and a huge population shift to cities and coastal areas.

4 Murder of a child servant (The Dawn) It is sad that child labour exists in Pakistan and sadder still that the child labour pool is inexhaustible and growing bigger. All of them lose their childhood in the servitude, but what is horrible is that some lose even their lives. Most of the estimated three million children in the unskilled workforce in the country are employed in the shadow economy but a significant number serve as domestic help. Ali Shan, 11, was such a servant, employed by a couple living in Sector G-13 to look after their seven-month-old child and do other house chores. His master, Mudasar Abbas, is a Grade 18 officer in Nescom. On January 5, his wife Atiya Al-Hussain informed police that Shan had committed suicide by hanging himself with curtain in the living room.

However, the Golra police who arrived to investigate found that circumstantial evidence did not found her claim. Shan’s body was not hanging but standing on its knees from a curtain that was still on its railing with its lower portion passing through the sweater he had on. That made the police arrest Abbas and his wife Atiya on murder charge. Police’s suspicions were confirmed by the autopsy. The body bore no sign of hanging, nor any injuries. Instead the autopsy suggested the boy had been strangled as his neck had a round mark and not the ‘V’ mark that signifies a hanging.

It was not the first incident of killing of a domestic servant at employer’s house. On July 24, 2010, teenaged housemaid Salima Bibi was found dead with a bullet in her body at the house of her employer in G-10/1. Her employer also had claimed that she committed suicide by shooting herself with his pistol. Another housemaid had died at the hands of her employers in the Bhara Kahu outskirts the previous year. Her brutally tortured body was found in a wooded area near Rawal Lake on January 15, 2009. She was hit on her head and her neck was slit as well as strangulated.

5 Jokes on Team India (The Economic Times) When India’s cricket captain MS Dhoni was banned from playing at Adelaide because of the slow over-rate in the third Test at Perth, the joke going around was that Dhoni should have actually been rewarded and not penalised since the slow over-rate ensured that the match, which began on Friday, went into the third day on Sunday when office-goers in Australia have their weekly off and are free to go to the stadium to watch cricket! A news channel's headline saying "Dhoni banned for one Test, Sehwag to lead" also evoked quips. A fan wondered whether it would have been simpler to flash a headline saying "Dhoni banned, Sehwag to lose"!

Team India has also inspired cartoonists and not just in India. In 1974, when the Indian Test team was bundled out for 42 at Lord's, the Punch magazine carried a cartoon where a wife tells her husband who has just come out of the toilet at the stadium that "You should have gone before we left home. The entire Indian second innings is over." With Team India's consecutive losses in Australia inspiring more and more alliterative headlines, it remains to be seen whether "Mauled at Melbourne", "Shamed at Sydney" and "Pounded at Perth" will be followed by "Annihilated at Adelaide".

6 Erosion of institution of editor in India (Indian Express) Underlining that “watchdog journalism” is “vibrant journalism” in a changed and changing world, Vice President Hamid Ansari said it stands for rights and freedom and does not “entertain and titillate”. He said the media being the fourth estate “should shape perceptions and also the national agenda”. Experience, he said, shows that the best guarantee for safeguarding public interest is to have strong and independent-minded editors — an endangered species today. "The slow erosion of the institution of the editor in Indian media organisations is a reality. When media space and media products are treated solely in terms of revenue maximisation strategies, editors end up giving way to marketing departments.”

Maintaining that media norms is an issue of public debate, the Vice President said: “We have, as yet, not had an informed debate in the country on the issue of multiple-ownership and cross-ownership nor a cogent national media policy that covers all platforms.” This, he said, was at variance with the practice of other developed democracies. “The impact of the emergence of a handful of media conglomerates spanning the entire media spectrum in moulding public opinion, generating political debate and safeguarding consumer and public interest is a moot question,” he said. Biases, Ansari said, have prompted the media to resort to “sunshine journalism” where the focus is on the glass that is quarter-full rather than that which is three-quarters empty. “When this occurs, the role of the media as a defender and upholder of public interest does get dented and relegated to the background.”

On journalism, Ansari pointed to three aspects that he finds noteworthy. “First, it has become evident that technology is neither value-neutral nor inherently equity-driven. The hard work of defining and implementing a value system and a vision for an organisation, a society or polity cannot be substituted by technology.” “The convergence between news media, entertainment and telecom has eroded the demarcation between journalism, public relations, advertising and entertainment. So is the case between business, commerce, philanthropy, politics and profession. It is not clear where public interest ends and private interest begins, where profit ends and the not-for-profit begins, where government ends and the non-government begins, where one’s fist ends and the other’s nose begins. This has significantly enhanced the complexity of our working and personal lives and created new ethical dilemmas that lie at the core of many issues of public debate today.”

“Third, the public purpose of journalism that guided us in an earlier era has changed. Gandhiji was probably the first editor in the history of Indian journalism to have started a newspaper for the express purpose of breaking the law governing the publication of newspapers. He was also one of the first editors to be prosecuted for sedition. It was this public purpose of journalism that had propelled Ramnath Goenka into the newspaper business,” Ansari said.

7 Hype and reality of investment summits in India (Business Line) After a break of two years, the CII-Partnership Summit (January 12-13) was revived in Andhra Pradesh. This time, there was renewed excitement and enthusiasm, reflected in the signing of 243 MoUs with investments worth Rs 6.47trn. The two-day Summit seems to have given a boost to the sagging image of Hyderabad and Andhra Pradesh as a favoured investment destination. But the hype generated by the MoUs has raised many eyebrows. How much of this will fructify on the ground? Further, corporates are requesting ready infrastructure, power subsidy and a range of incentives, which governments are sometimes eager to offer. However, MoUs may not have a bright future, in view of funds becoming scarce, power availability being a concern and government finances being stretched. Anyway, there seems to be no great sanctity attached to MoUs, which have often remained just that.