Monday, February 27, 2012

India growth may be slowest in two years; Through the eyes of Asian Tiger Cubs; Softer side of Peshawar; Gujarat wounds fester, 10 years on

1 India growth may be slowest in two years (Reuters) India's economy likely grew at its slowest pace in more than two years during the final months of 2011 as high interest rates and booming input costs hampered manufacturing activity, a Reuters poll predicted. Gross domestic product in Asia's third-largest economy grew at an annual 6.4% in the quarter to end-December, according to the poll of 26 economists. That would be a significant slowdown from 6.9% in the previous quarter and would mark the fourth straight quarter of growth below 8%. "

The story is similar for China, where the economy grew at its weakest pace in 2-1/2 years in the same period, at 8.9%, as it struggles with sagging real estate and export growth. While the low growth rates in Asia's powerhouses are better than the feeble-to-no-growth in developed nations, there is a growing sense of pessimism India and China lack the momentum to support the faltering global economy.

2 Through the eyes of Asian Tiger Cubs (Khaleej Times) The rising generation of Asians has an expansive view of a broader Asia. They want to see more regional cooperation and integration. Through the Eyes of Tiger Cubs: Views of Asia’s Next Generation draws excerpts from more than 80 essays that tackle education, inequality, demographics, environment, governance, geopolitics and Asian identity. While Americans and Europeans fret about the rise of Asia, the young Asians featured in this book worry about a poor educational system, ineffective governance, bad jobs and environmental degradation. Particularly notable is a tectonic generational shift.

The Tiger Cubs’ grandparents came of age at a time of war, revolution, decolonisation and chronic poverty. The Tiger Cubs grew up in an era of unusual peace and unprecedented prosperity. They don’t remember Maoism or the Soviet Union. But they know the Internet and satellite TV and live in a world of always-on information. All but the poorest villagers have an idea of a world of prosperity and freedom. “There is no doubt,” writes India’s Rohit Pathak, “that the coming decade will be Asia’s.” But the biggest single stumbling block is poor governance.

3 India politicians can sell brands (Khaleej Times) It is amazing how the Indian politicians manage to remain in the public eye and also appear on the small screen, without most giving the impression of being drained out. They literally appear to be ever ready with words to aggressively lash out against their rivals. What is it that keeps them going, as the age pattern suggests, from their twenties to near 80s? They have the zest to remain strongly in the race as ace politicians till literally their life’s end. Equally baffling is their dress code, from hairstyle to dust free footwear, as if they have stepped out of some laundry, all in one piece.

Seriously speaking, they need to exploit this aspect commercially. Add the sale tag to politicians’ energy supplements, shoes/sandals, wrinkle-free clothes and of course lozenges to keep the throat and voice clear enough for speech as much as possible. Whether the politicians’ rhetoric sells enough to win them needed votes is not known but these commodities are bound to sell like hot cakes.

4 Softer side of Peshawar (Khaleej Times) Foreign reporters coming to Pakistan are often required to undergo survival training to prepare them for kidnappings, explosions and walking through mine fields. But talk about the city to archaeologists and historians, and an entirely different kind of fever might take hold of you. One of South Asia’s oldest living cities, Peshawar is renowned for the Gandhara art excavated nearby — pieces that reveal an astonishing syncretism: Buddhist sculptures showing Hindu gods, Greek mythological figures (Atlas is a favourite), Persian columns and other influences besides. And the Peshawar Museum has the world’s largest and most breathtaking collection of Gandhara art.

5 Gujarat wounds fester, 10 years on (The Wall Street Journal) A decade ago, just before religious riots claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, Imtiaz Ahmed Hussain Qureshi says he gifted a silver necklace as a wedding present to his Hindu neighbour’s daughter. That was the last act of friendship between the two households in Naroda, a suburb of Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s leading industrial town. Two months later, a Muslim mob attacked and killed 59 Hindus on a train near the Gujarati town of Godhra, about 135 kilometers from Ahmedabad. That sparked reprisal killings across the state, mostly of Muslims.

Naroda was no exception. Mr. Qureshi claims he saw the neighbour whose daughter had got married set fire to his house in a rampage of looting, burning and killing that targeted the area’s minority Muslim community on Feb. 28, 2002. When the dust settled, 11 people from Naroda’s 200 or so Muslim families were dead. Mr. Qureshi, a tall, well-built 38-year-old, and others in the Muslim community soon after filed a criminal lawsuit that alleges 86 people in the village, including his neighbour, took part in the murder, rape and looting. Mr. Qureshi is also an eyewitness in the case. Ten years later, the case is still on trial at the Ahmedabad High Court. The lack of a verdict has stopped wounds from healing.

In 2008, Mr. Qureshi bought his own house, a one-room-and-kitchen affair. It’s much smaller than the house that he abandoned in Naroda, which he rebuilt in 2004 with the help of an Islamic organization. But he prefers to stay away from the scene of the violence, although his brother and mother now live in part of the rebuilt house. “I’m still scared,” he says. “Not from the common public, but from the people involved.” Mr. Qureshi’s Hindu neighbor continues to live in his house in Naroda. Since the day of the riots, the two have not exchanged a single word, Mr. Qureshi claims. Every time their paths cross, Mr. Qureshi says, they both look away. That’s the same story for most of the other Hindus in the neighborhood, he adds. “We coexist, but in name only,” says Mr. Qureshi. “There is no interaction, no business, no talk between us at all.”

6 Dire work conditions of ship-breakers (Dawn) Mehdi Hassan was clinging to a greasy rope, toiling high inside the hull of an oil tanker, when he became another victim of lax safety standards at Pakistan’s Gaddani ship breaking yard. He suddenly slipped and fell to the floor in the dark. Unable to move all night with broken bones, and with no one around to help, he choked to death on toxic fumes. A steel section was cut out from the ship and when it fell into the sea, light came into the hull and co-workers saw Mehdi’s body.

Pakistan is full of dangers, with tens of thousands of victims of suicide bombings, sectarian violence and ethnic bloodshed which make big headlines across the world. There is another less dramatic, but dark, side of the South Asian nation that rarely captures attention —the large number of impoverished people forced to endure horrible conditions at work to survive. Fifteen thousand of them risk their lives every day, tearing down ships at Gaddani beach on the Arabian Sea coast, a 10 km-long death trap. They earn as little as $4 a day. Any second a giant steel plate can fall and crush dozens of people at a time. High tension cables often snap and decapitate. Deadly chemicals can slowly kill workers. Dozens died last year disembowelling vessels at an astonishing pace at the ship breaking yard, one of the biggest in the world.

Apprentice Abdul Rab, 20, is still haunted by the whipping sound he heard just before a cable sliced a co-worker in half. “It was so quick that he didn’t even get a chance to scream,” he said. Today, ship breaking companies in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh —the industry leaders —are vying for more vessels as intense competition between them drives wages even lower. Labourers at Gaddani who used to make $6 a day are now putting in the same hours for $4, a tough drop in the face of rising costs in Pakistan, especially for basic items like food.

7 Real cost of Fukushima disaster (Johannesburg Times) When Japanese nuclear disaster survivor Ayako Oga was invited to walk outside a Johannesburg restaurant on Sunday, she hesitated because she avoids the outdoors. In Japan, she usually stays indoors "because I cannot touch handrails or anything outside" because she fears radiation from the disaster. Oga used to live 5km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Now, in Fukushima "almost all children do not play outside and indoor amusement parks are doing a roaring business", said Oga.

"Schools monitor the time children spend outside. Children in Fukushima have frequent nosebleeds and dark circles under their eyes, but it is impossible to prove these are caused by radiation." She told journalists that every day citizens measure the radiation levels themselves as they no longer trust the government to do so honestly. Oga said some Fukushima farmers who were no longer able to sell their produce and could not claim sufficient compensation had committed suicide in despair.

8 India banks to lose $2bn on 2G loans (The Financial Express and Financial Chronicle) Global rating agency Moody’s Investors Service said Indian banks will find it tough to recover roughly $2bn lent to mobile telephony companies whose licences were cancelled by the Supreme Court. The apex court on February 2 cancelled 122 second-generation (2G) licences of eight companies after they were issued on a first-come-first-serve scheme in 2008 and asked the government to auction spectrum or airwaves that carry radio signals.

The agency said at least $2bn out of $18bn lent specifically to companies, which won licences in 2008, was risky. “We view these loans to be particularly at risk because they were extended mainly to small operators, many of which have no other sources of income than the activities that their licenses allowed them to conduct. “And in most cases, the only collateral backing the loans, were the very licenses that are now no longer valid,” the report said.

9 The trouble with English papers (Business Standard) If you really look at readership and time spent in most markets, English newspapers don’t look so good. In the last six years, while the circulation of English newspapers has gone up by over 70%, readership has crawled by just two per cent, going by Audit Bureau of Circulations data and the IRS. More importantly, the time spent reading English papers fell from about 46 minutes a day in 2006 to 43 minutes in 2011, says the IRS. It is not a big fall, but combined with crawling readership it is an indication that “stickiness” for newspapers is falling.

You could argue, of course, that the ad market has been expanding. The money advertisers spend on the print media (largely newspapers) rose from Rs 8,500 crore in 2006 to Rs 12,000 crore in 2011. While it is difficult to quantify, my guess would be that a large part of this growth is driven by regional-language newspapers. They, not English papers, have been the growth engine that has made India one of the most exciting print markets in the world.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Faster growth or poverty alleviation?; Cities and airports; Qatar is world's richest country; 'Face' of Gujarat meets 'saviour'; Aussies can be smug

1 Faster growth or poverty alleviation? (TN Ninan in Khaleej Times) India is doing relatively well on economic growth — an annual average of 7.9% — but as is often the case, poverty levels fall as incomes rise, but inequality grows. And such trends certainly make the government vulnerable in a populous democracy with 32% under the poverty line. How India meets the challenge of inclusive globalisation holds lessons for developing countries.

Underlying the debate is disagreement on basic facts, about how many “poor” people are in India. The government’s basic poverty line was redefined for 2004-05 as 19 rupees per day in urban areas and 15 rupees in rural areas — 50 rupees today are equal to US$1. On that basis, government said that 37% of the population was below the poverty line, revised to 32% for 2009-10. Another way to measure inequality is to look at the ratio of income between the top 10% and bottom 10% of the population. In India, the top 10% earns 8.6 times more than the bottom 10%. So India should expect to see inequality increase as its economy grows, the argument goes.

Is there a way of squaring the circle? Yes, if the large subsidies that go to the middle class could be cut to make way for programmes directed at the poor, if government delivery systems could be made efficient and less corrupt, or new methods adopted to ensure targeted delivery. Yet either plan would ruffle many feathers — and the media lends a megaphone to middle-class concerns, and the government would have to withstand a political firestorm. The problem is that the government, racked by scandal and riven by internal dissension, is in no position to run that gauntlet.

2 Cities and airports (MJ Akbar in Khaleej Times) Cities once had airports. The same airport now has every city. An airport once smelt of local history, or was perfumed by its culture. Stressed tourists began their tryst with Hawaii through military crates sitting around the tarmac since World War II. The tiled roofs and open walls of Denpasar offered the languorous smile of Bali. The gridlock of Tokyo began at Narita. Delhi offered sufficient evidence that the Third World still had some way to go before it reached the Second; its airport was a punishment posting for professionals and a trial for visitors.

Most airports now resemble the same mall playing cheap tricks on those trapped within its monotonous glass and chrome. The predictable brands that define modern merchandise occupy stalls in curved rows, offering leftovers at false prices. The fast food is neither particularly fast nor really food, just churned from a giant machine. Even the colourful bazar of Istanbul airport, once redolent with the chatter and spice of the 13th century at the foot of the Blue Mosque, is now an antiseptic, amorphous collection of trinkets produced by some politically correct junk manual.

3 Qatar is world’s richest country (The Financial Express) Qatar has been ranked as the world's wealthiest country in a new list compiled by US magazine Forbes. The Gulf State with a population of 1.7 million topped the list as the world's richest country per capita, thanks to a rebound in oil prices and its massive natural gas reserves. Adjusted for purchasing power, Qatar booked an estimated gross domestic product per capita of more than $ 88,000 for 2010.

Qatar, which will host the 2022 Football World Cup and is also in the running for the 2020 Olympic Games, has been a high-profile investor in recent times. The government is pouring money into infrastructure, including a deepwater seaport, an airport and a railway network. In second place on the list was Luxembourg, with a per capita GDP on a purchasing-power parity basis of just over $ 81,000. In third place was Singapore, which thrives as a technology, manufacturing and finance hub with a GDP (PPP) per capita of nearly $ 56,700. Norway and Brunei rounded out the top five positions in the list followed by the UAE, the US, Hong Kong, Switzerland and the Netherlands. A trio of politically and economically fragile African nations were listed as the poorest countries -- Burundi, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where GDPs (PPP) per capita are $ 400, $ 386 and $ 312, respectively.

4 The ‘face’ of Gujarat riots meets his ‘saviour’ (Soutik Biswas, BBC) How does it feel, I ask World Press Photo award winning photographer Arko Datta, to meet the subject of his best-known picture for the first time? Ten years ago, Arko's picture of a tailor named Qutubuddin Ansari became the face of religious riots which left nearly 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead in Gujarat. In the picture, Mr Ansari, then 28 years old, is standing on a narrow veranda. He is wearing a light checked shirt stained with dried blood. His faintly bloodshot eyes are glazed with fear. His hands are folded in an expression of obeisance, hiding a mouth agape. It's a disturbing study of fear and helplessness.

Ten years later, Arko and I are standing under the same veranda of an awkward looking two-storey building in a crowded lane, running alongside a busy highway in Ahmedabad, capital of Gujarat. The photographer and his subject have just met. Arko recollects that day: Mobs armed with swords and stones from Hindu neighbourhoods across the highway were crossing over and attacking and setting fire to Muslim shops and homes on the other side. People watched this grisly show from their homes across the road. His van sputtered on past the building where Mr Ansari stood when Arko looked back for a moment and saw his subject for the first time. He looked through the telephoto lens, and clicked, "three or four shots possibly, all in a fraction of a second".

Then he turned around and asked the soldiers to stop the van. "Looking through the fog of smoke, we spotted the group of people trapped on the balcony of a burning house. We told the soldiers that we were not moving until they rescued them," says Arko. The rest of the story comes from Mr Ansari: "We were trapped on the first floor for over a day, and we couldn't go down because fire was raging below. "And when I saw the military van pass by, I thought, 'This is our last chance'. I began shouting Sahib! Sahib! to the soldiers and folded my hands, and when I did that they looked back and returned," he says. A few soldiers were immediately positioned outside the house, and later in the day, as the fires below ebbed, Mr Ansari and his friends came down a stairwell.

"My life went into a tailspin. The picture followed me wherever I went. It haunted me, and drove me out of my job, and my state," he says. He ran away to Malegaon in neighbouring Maharashtra to live with his sisters and had been working there for a fortnight when a co-worker walked into the shop with a newspaper carrying his picture. His boss didn't want any trouble and fired him immediately. Next year, he left for Calcutta, but returned after a few months when he heard that his mother had a heart problem.

A few years ago, Mr Ansari bought a two-room tenement with a small tailoring shop for 315,000 rupees ($6,400) from his paltry savings and loans from friends and family. It is a modest home with a raised bed, a television, a few utensils, a shiny red refrigerator and a washing machine tucked away behind a curtain. Upstairs, he and his co-workers stitch more 100 shirts a week, and he earns up to 7,000 rupees ($142) a month. His family has grown to include an eight-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter. The eldest daughter is now 14 and wants to become a teacher. Arko has also moved on - he quit Reuters after nearly a decade of rich work, including covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and began a photography school in Mumbai.

Now Arko tells Mr Ansari of a personal tragedy that marked his coverage of the riots. He says he was sent to cover the riots even as his mother was in the last stages of cancer. His wife had called him every day during the time he was taking pictures of the mayhem, imploring him to return to be by his mother's bedside. "By the time I returned, she had slipped into a coma. I never got to speak to her. Three or four days later, she died. I have no siblings, and my father died when I was one. And I couldn't even exchange a last few words with my mum," he says. Silence descends on the room. Then Mr Ansari speaks. "I can understand your pain. Allah sent you to save us, brother. You did a greater good," he says.

5 Five reasons for Aussies to feel smug (Sydney Morning Herald) We’re not Greece, in case you were confused. I suppose our government's about as stable. But our collective fiscal funk has recently compelled Treasury supremo Martin Parkinson to point out this obvious geographical fact. So let's cut through the persistent gloom and doom and look at how our country stacks up.

1: Government debt and deficit. As a proportion of gross domestic product, the IMF says we owe 24%. The US has racked up 100% cent, Italy 120% and Greece 152%. 2: Resources and economy. Remember we were the only Western nation that didn't go into recession during the global financial crisis. One of the reasons was mining. An embarrassment of riches from resources means we can feed the insatiable industrialisation of developing Asia. 3: Interest rates. Here they are relatively high on a world scale, precisely because our economy is strong and needs to be kept in check, but they're also far lower than they were in the 1980s. 4. Employment and wages: Unemployment last month actually fell slightly to 5.1%. Want a little more perspective? In Greece they're contending with unemployment of more than 20% and a 22% cut to the minimum wage. 5: Retirement. God bless super. As controversial as its introduction was - and however inadequate it ends up being - it's a salvation for our sunset years. What's more, it's in our names and our control. Many Greeks are instead getting 12% wiped off their pensions.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Global integration and after; P&G to axe 5,700 jobs; Losses for big European banks; For cash, Sears sells stores; Syria -- fuelled by Chavez

1 Global integration and after (Khaleej Times) Over the past three decades, something has been going on in addition to global integration. The world’s mature economies have been piling up massive deficits – not just financial, but deficits of competitiveness: aging populations, rusting infrastructures, out-of-date education systems and antiquated regulations. Just as all emerging markets are facing the middle-income trap at once, so the developed world finds itself having to address all of its huge structural overhangs, and with great urgency, thanks to the ongoing financial crisis. The new “great game” of global competition will not wait to start play while we get our house in order. How to do that? Let me suggest three broad steps.

First, we must invest in the future. We need increased investments in areas like infrastructure, education and deep research, along with greater flexibility through smarter labour and trade regulations. Second, every player in this game needs to deliver unique value. This is something every business knows: If you want to be competitive, you have to be really good at something people value. Finally, government must become smarter, and I don’t just mean it should digitise its public services. Government is in desperate need of an infusion of modern subject-matter expertise.

What the discovery of the Western hemisphere was to the 15th century, the discovery of steam power to the 18th century and the discovery of electricity to the 19th century, the explosion of data will be to the 21st. Its economic and societal value is almost incalculable. If we seize upon this new resource, I believe future historians will look back on this moment not as a shift to lower expectations and growing gaps between haves and have-nots, but as the dawn of a new golden age of innovation, a time of widely shared economic growth and of global citizenship.

2 Procter & Gamble to cut 5,700 jobs (The New York Times) Consumer products maker Procter & Gamble plans to eliminate 5,700 jobs over the next year and a half as part of a cost-cutting plan. P&G said it hoped to save $10 billion by the end of the fiscal year ending in June 2016. The company, which is the largest of its kind, has experienced slowing sales in the US as consumers continue to spend cautiously. The company also has faced high costs for fuel, packaging and other commodities. The job cuts amount to about 10% of the company’s non-manufacturing work force. The company said that even though overall headcount will be reduced, hiring will continue in growth areas like China and in emerging markets.

3 Lloyds posts $ 4.4bn loss (The New York Times) The Lloyds Banking Group, partly owned by the British government, reported a loss for 2011 after it had to compensate some customers who were wrongly sold insurance. Lloyds said its net loss for last year was $4.4 billion. The loss resulted from a £3.2 billion provision the bank made last August after it inappropriately sold payment protection insurance, which covered customers if they were laid off or became ill. Despite the difficult economic conditions, Lloyds benefited from rising customer deposits and a reduction in its use of the wholesale funding markets.

4 Losses for three big European banks (The New York Times) Several of Europe’s largest banks provided a reminder this week of how much work remains to overcome the effects of the financial crisis that began in 2008 and the sovereign debt crisis that quickly followed. Burdened by their exposure to Greek government debt and other damaged assets, Royal Bank of Scotland, Crédit Agricole in France and Dexia, a French-Belgian bank, all reported quarterly losses.

5 For cash, Sears to sell stores (The New York Times) Sears Holdings has moved to allay fears that it could run low on cash this year, announcing plans to sell stores in transactions that the company says could raise nearly $800 million. But the deals also highlight the major challenges that Sears faces as it tries to stop a multiyear slump in its operations, analysts said. Sears may be giving up its most profitable stores in exchange for a quick cash infusion. In one of the transactions, Sears also expects current shareholders to foot the bill, potentially leaving them more exposed to the troubled retailer.

6 Isolated Syria gets fuel from Chavez (The New York Times) A day before the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn President Bashar al-Assad of Syria this month for his bloody crackdown on the uprising in his country, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela was conducting a very different kind of diplomacy on his own. A ship owned by the Venezuelan state oil company sailed into the Syrian port of Baniyas. The ship, making its second trip to Baniyas since December, appeared to be carrying fuel to help prop up the embattled Mr. Assad. The Venezuelan shipment flies in the face of international efforts to isolate Mr. Assad and pressure him to step down. The ship is named after a slave who was a wet nurse and nanny to Simón Bolívar, the national hero, whom Mr. Chávez idolizes. A Venezuelan shipping broker said the shipment probably carried diesel and possibly other types of fuel.

7 Volkswagen profits double (BBC) Profits have more than doubled at Volkswagen after the company delivered a record number of vehicles last year. It reported net profit of 15.8bn euros ($21.2bn) for last year, compared with 7.2bn euros in 2010. It delivered more than 8.2 million vehicles, up almost 15% on 2010. VW plans to spend 62bn euros on new plants and models in the next five years, as well as on research and development. It will also hire 50,000 more staff in the next six years. The company plans to be the biggest carmaker in terms of sales and profits by 2018.

8 India a fully taxed nation (Business Standard) How much tax can you squeeze out of Indians? India’s tax-to-GDP ratio is 15% (of which the Centre’s share is 10%). Compare that with the ratio in other countries. Among economies that are poorer than India, Bangladesh has a tax-to-GDP ratio of just 8.5%, and Pakistan 10.2%. As you go up the income ladder, the tax ratio climbs because it is non-subsistence incomes that are taxed. But even richer countries have lower or comparable tax ratios. Indonesia’s, for instance, is as low as 11%, and the Philippines’ at 14.4%. A much wealthier country like Malaysia has a ratio of 15.5%, while Thailand is at 17%. All these members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have higher per capita incomes than India, so their capacity to bear a higher tax burden is naturally greater.

An important way of getting more tax revenue is to introduce a comprehensive goods and services tax, which will plug many loopholes. The other way is to use information networks to detect evasion. For instance, nearly half of the income tax collection comes from just two per cent of taxpayers (715,000 people who report a taxable income of Rs 8 lakh or more). Yet, household surveys show that the number in that income bracket should be twice as large. If they could be traced, imagine what it would do to tax revenue.

9 We live in a house where … (Bikram Vohra in Khaleej Times) We belong to a house where: The remote control has lost its back and the batteries keep falling off. No one switches off the TV if they cannot find the remote control. We’d rather spend hours hunting for the misplaced remote control than just walk up to the TV and press the button. The cordless phone is so cordless that it disappears into the vaguest places only to have everyone frantically searching for it by dialling that thingee number you dial to get a ring and then tracking the phone around the house.

By that token the mobile has a dead battery when it is time to take to the road…only one little bar or a blinking light. The gas cylinder runs out 45 minutes before guests are to arrive on weekend for a lunch. All our sets of sixes are fives and fours, crystal glasses, chinaware plates, even table mats and tea and coffee sets. Every inanimate object becomes animate and works on a devilish schedule. That means you will never find a pen if you have to jot down an urgent phone number, the car keys will disappear every hour, the lighter will hide itself in the most incredible places, and the book that was here just a minute ago won’t be. Two days after the house is whitewashed and pristine it is a sign for rain to fall and, sure enough, the water will leak into the walls and leave those creped patches. This is called a natural arrangement. We live in a house where: Things don’t work but we do.

10 India PM and the ‘foreign hand’ (The Wall Street Journal) Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has now joined the chorus of Indian politicians blaming the infamous “foreign hand” for, well, just about anything they don’t like. In an interview published this week in Science magazine, Mr. Singh has blamed protests against the construction of a nuclear power plant in Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu, on non-governmental organizations and singled out US ones. He didn’t say the words “foreign hand” directly, but he might as well have.

When asked whether, following the nuclear disaster in Japan’s Fukushima last year, he thought there is still room for nuclear energy in India, Mr. Singh said: “Yes, where India is concerned, yes. The thinking segment of our population certainly is supportive of nuclear energy.” The “thinking segment of our population”? Really? Mr. Singh is dismissing all people who don’t agree with him as not thinking.

As Mr. Singh surely knows, protests against nuclear power in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere in India were by no means isolated incidents. The nuclear crisis that followed Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami sparked a global backlash against nuclear power. The Japanese government said no new reactor would be built in the country and in Germany, the government vowed to close down all its nuclear power plants by 2022. Elsewhere, including in the United Kingdom, nuclear expansion plans have since slowed down. No thinking people there, surely.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Greek bailout set to fail; Asian nations rush to borrow; India's Iran rationale; Pakistan feeding bomb, starving nation; Aurangzeb and Shivaji

1 Greek bailout set to fail (Larry Elliott in The Guardian) The most expensive sticking plaster in the world. A rescue deal with shallow foundations. That was the snap assessment of the markets on Tuesday about the deal struck in Brussels to spare Greece the indignity of going bust and to keep alive the myth that the euro is working. The pundits could be wrong. It is possible that the €130bn bailout will mark a turning point and in a decade's time Greeks will be looking back on the dark days of 2012 in the way that the newly prosperous Germans looked back in the 1960s to their war-ravaged economy in 1945.

Greece's national debt would be equivalent to 120% of its national output in 2020, putting it on a par with where Italy is today. Greece's biggest problem in the years ahead will be its dismal economic prospects, which will be made still more dismal by the destruction of demand being ordered by the European Union, the European Central Bank and the IMF.

The so-called troika is assuming that the Greek economy shrinks by 4.3% this year and holds steady in 2013, before growing at more than 2% a year thereafter. These projections are for the birds; Greece is currently contracting at an annual rate of 7% and for the troika's forecasts to be met the economy would have to stabilise immediately. That looks a tad improbable. The IMF admits that there is a risk of a deeper recession; what it doesn't say is that the risk is exceptionally high. In short, this is not the end of the Greek saga. The economy will continue to contract, the debt dynamics will get worse and before long there will be talk of a third bailout. That, though, will not arrive. Next time, Greece will jump or be gently shown the way to the exit.

2 British universities cut degree courses (The Guardian) The number of degree courses on offer at British universities has been slashed by more than a quarter in the past six years, new research suggests. It reveals that there are almost 20,000 fewer full-time undergraduate courses available now than there were in 2006. England, where tuition fees will rise to a maximum of £9,000 a year this autumn, has been the hardest hit, with almost a third fewer courses on offer, it claims. The report's authors found a sharp reduction in the total number of full-time undergraduate degree courses in Britain: a fall of 27% between 2006 and 2012.
In total, there are 51,116 degree courses available this year, compared with 70,052 in 2006.

Within the UK, England has seen a 31% fall in courses, while Northern Ireland has seen a drop of 24%, Wales 11% and Scotland 3%. Sally Hunt, University and College Union general secretary, said: "While successive governments have been dreaming up new ways to increase the cost of going to university, the range of subjects available to students has fallen massively. The UK's global academic reputation is built on the broad range of subjects available and on the freedom of academics to push at the boundaries and create new areas of study. "This report shows that, while government rhetoric is all about students as consumers, the curriculum has actually narrowed significantly.”

3 Asian countries rush to borrow (The Wall Street Journal) Asian companies are tapping bond markets at a record pace, worried that the euro-zone crisis may deepen and make it more difficult and expensive for them to secure funds later in the year, say bankers who arrange borrowing. The value of bonds sold by blue-chip companies across the Asian-Pacific region, excluding Japan, has hit $14 billion this year, an unprecedented amount, according to data provider Dealogic. The comparable figure for 2011, the year with the second-most issuance at this point since 1995, was $6 billion. The borrowers range from conglomerate Hutchinson Whampoa to India's Reliance Industries.

Other factors fueling the bond boom: Some Asian borrowers feel their currency will outperform the US dollar, thus issuing dollar-denominated bonds will see costs decrease. Another factor is a pipeline of deals shelved last year because of market turmoil.

4 When the web page comes to you (The New York Times) The world of Web marketing is based on the idea of search engine optimization, which means building Web pages that search engines can find and then drive readers to. But what if the right pages could come to you instead? BloomReach, a company based in Mountain View, California, claims it has such a method. Staffed by former executives from Google, Cisco, and Facebook, the company has spent three years developing a way to look at one billion Web pages a day, divine what kind of products and services they might have, and then by looking at a broad range of customer interests, deliver Web pages that have just the right items and descriptions to suit an individual consumer.

“There are 10 to the 30th power different ways just to describe flat panels,” Raj De Datta, co-founder and chief executive of BloomReach, said in an interview. As big data problems go, this one is pretty daunting. The core of their business is a “Web relevance engine,” which uses machine learning and search techniques to gather data on content and user behavior. It then adapts Web sites to show what the algorithm concludes is the relevant content for that viewer.

5 Indian call centres linked to US debt fraud (BBC) Indian call centres were used to swindle millions of dollars out of Americans, say US federal officials. Callers from the Indian centres posed as "phantom debt" collectors who targeted people who had applied for small online loans. The Federal Trade Commission said two-California based firms and their owner had made $5m from the fraud. FTC officials said this was the first case of its kind as more than 10,000 people across the country were cheated. More than 20 million calls may have been made over the past two years, with collectors using aggressive and threatening language to demand payment for debts that did not exist. Nobody actually owed them a dime.

6 Record number of passengers at Heathrow (BBC) The number of passengers using BAA's Heathrow airport rose 5% to reach a record 69.4 million last year while losses for the company narrowed. BAA made a loss of Pound Sterling 255.8m in the year to December 31, after losing £316.6m the year before.

7 India’s Iran rationale (Khaleej Times) For those questioning India’s opposition to Western sanctions against Iran, the answer lies in its long-held view that broad-based sanctions hurt the common people, not the government, especially since they add to UN-imposed sanctions. This, and its strategic interests, means that New Delhi has made elaborate trade and barter arrangements to pay for Iran’s oil supplies. Israel is India’s second largest arms supplier after Russia. Apart from defence and security, the links have diversified to include collaboration in agriculture, tourism, science and technology. Yet, New Delhi has stood steadfast with the Palestinian demand for a sovereign, independent, viable and united State of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital, as endorsed in the Arab Peace Initiative and relevant UN resolutions.

In such a milieu, the only area that India could have, perhaps, done better or can attempt to do in future is translating its growing stock in the international arena into robust diplomatic efforts to resolve conflicts in various hotspots. This includes proactively encouraging Asian mediation in the GCC-Iran conflict. This would, no doubt, test India’s diplomatic skills, but it should feel confident in being one of the few countries that is capable of simultaneously pursuing normal ties with Iran, Israel, the US and the GCC countries.

8 Yunus comes calling (Rahul Singh in Khaleej Times) Professor Muhammad Yunus, the only Bangladeshi ever to have won a Nobel Prize, has proved his point: Even poor, illiterate people had an entrepreneurial streak that could blossom if they were given sufficient the right incentives. That was the beginning of an economic revolution of sorts, not just in Bangladesh but in many other parts of the world as well, called “micro-credit”, or “micro-finance”.

There are now models like the Grameen Bank he thought up, in over 100 other countries. His latest venture, which he talked about passionately during his visit to the Bombay Gymkhana Club is what he calls “social business”. Basically, the idea is to start a company that pays no dividends to shareholders, but ploughs all the profits back to the company whose purpose is to serve social needs. Quixotic and impractical? That’s exactly what his critics said about micro-credit. He is out, yet again, to prove them wrong.

9 Pakistan: Feeding the bomb, starving the nation (Dawn) Pakistanis are fast becoming a wasted nation. The alarmingly high level of malnutrition observed in Pakistan in the past few years is far worse than what has been observed in the sub-Saharan Africa. Millions of Pakistani children have been identified as stunted, under-weight, and wasting because of hunger, disease, and poverty. While the future of millions of children is threatened by hunger, the civil and military elites in Pakistan continue to pour undisclosed billions into conventional and nuclear weapons. The leaders of the right-wing religious and political parties are also in step with the military establishment as they continue to mobilise the starving masses to support developing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

In 2006, the United Nations estimated that no fewer than 35 million Pakistanis were malnourished. For millions of other partially-fed Pakistanis, whose future is supposedly guaranteed by nuclear and other bombs, there is an urgent need to secure their present. Thousands of nuclear weapons did not prevent the Soviet Union from disintegrating after it failed to feed and clothe its citizens. Pakistan must avoid the same fate by putting bread before bombs.

10 New look at Aurangzeb and Shivaji (Dawn) Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and Maratha warrior Shivaji were arch foes, but why? Colonial historians followed by their Indian and Pakistani protégés have projected the rivalry as a religious one. Similar communal assumptions fuelled Partition. But the assumptions were false. In a landmark episode that defies bigoted stereotypes, Aurangzeb sent the Mughal army to protect the Hindu baniyas of Gujarat who were being plundered by Shivaji.

Facts as gleaned from history would reveal that Shivaji was indeed a great hero who represented the Maratha masses. And the masses in the Indian context mainly meant the peasantry, not their exploiters, which was usually the moneylenders and state. The baniya or the moneylender — the Hindu, Muslim, Parsi and also Christian variant — has been historically patronised by the state whose ultimate quarry inevitably happened to be the peasant. David Hardiman’s well-researched work Feeding the Baniya: Peasants and Usurers in Western India, which he published in 1996, etches the background of this class-based source of conflict in the western region of the agricultural country.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Greeks to suffer for five years; Capitalism going bankrupt?; 15,000 perish on India rail tracks; Business cards survive tech march

1 Greeks to suffer for five years (The Guardian) Greeks will suffer austerity measures for another five years as the price of their government securing a €130bn bailout to prevent national bankruptcy and chaos within the eurozone, it has emerged. The scale of the wage and spending cuts required to implement the rescue package prompted an array of analysts to raise the spectre of yet another Greek debt crisis later this year and the country's exit from the euro as recession deepens. But Olli Rehn, the EU economic and monetary affairs commissioner, said Greece had lived beyond its means for a decade and savage cuts in labour costs were vital to restore competitiveness and growth. José Manuel Barroso, the European commission president, said the deal "closes the door on an uncontrolled default, with all its economic and social implications that would mean chaos for Greece and the Greek people." The deal helped push the Dow Jones index in New York over 13,000 for the first time in almost four years.

2 Capitalism going bankrupt? (Al Jazeera) The world is a largely capitalistic economy - one that even communist China is embracing. But with a worldwide financial crisis, towering government debt and the public outrage of the 99 per cent, perhaps the free market is not free enough. The world's largest economy, the US, has a $15.2tn debt. According to Tea Partiers, that is because government spending and central bank meddling has distorted the market. Occupy campaigners, however, argue that capitalism brings excessive wealth to the few. To even the most fiscally unlearned, the disparity is obvious.

The Economic Policy Institute has found that 1% of US households control 42.7% of the country's assets. And with wealth, comes influence - 24.3% of all political donations in the 2010 election cycle were made by 0.01% of Americans. Sadly, the developing world gets left behind as well. According to the United Nations Children's Fund, the richest 20% of the world’s population control 82.8% of its income, while the poorest 20% control just 1%. Capitalism is often celebrated as the panacea for the world's financial problems but the focus now is on how the system is open to abuse, corruption and how it could benefit from taking a page out of the experiences of emerging economies.

3 On India rail tracks, 15,000 perish each year (Dawn) Almost 15,000 people are killed every year crossing India’s rail tracks in what a government report has described as an annual “massacre” due to poor safety standards. Pedestrians guilty of “unlawful trespassing” walk across the tracks at many unofficial crossing points, and about 6,000 of the deaths occur in the congested and frenetic city of Mumbai alone.

“No civilized society can accept such massacre on their railway system”, the report said, adding that efforts to improve safety needed to be put on a “war footing” to tackle the death toll. The fatalities equate to 41 people a day across India on the rail network, which carries 18 million people daily and is still the main form of long-distance travel despite fierce competition from private airlines. In addition to accidents when crossing the tracks, other causes of deaths include train collisions, falling from open doors and being hit by trackside poles. Most stretches of rail track in India are unfenced, allowing people to attempt crossings at any point.

4 Business card survives despite tech (San Francisco Chronicle) A product of French ingenuity during the reign of Louis XIV, the humble business card should be among the dead and buried in this era of social media and cloud computing. Mo Koyfman, a principal at the venture fund Spark Capital, captured the prevailing mind-set of many forward thinkers when he recently declared, "I despise business cards. Using them feels so horse-and-carriage."

"Business cards were originally invented for reasons of legitimacy," said Nathan Shedroff, design strategist at California College of the Arts. "But since the 1980s, when you could custom-print 50 fake cards and pass yourself off as anyone, a resume has become more trustworthy. (This is) the area in which LinkedIn is king." LinkedIn acquired CardMunch in January 2011, an app designed to scan and store the information on a business card, creating digital contact details.

Some analysts believe the business card has a secret lo-fi strength that even the most Asimov-esque flight of fantasy cannot replace: "The act of theater surrounding the exchange of a business card allows for flirtation, self-expression and recognition," said Shedroff. "Bumping may be fun, but in comparison to analog business card exchange, it's the difference between having sex and merely exchanging bodily fluids."

Greek bailout-II: $170bn; Ice-Age plant revived; 'Upcycling' buzzword in London; Syria hospitals are killing fields; Britain has a drinking problem

1 Greek bailout-II: $170bn (BBC) Eurozone finance ministers have reached agreement on a vital second bailout for heavily indebted Greece. The deal, which came after more than 13 hours of talks in Brussels, will provide Athens with loans worth more than 130bn euros ($170bn). Greece needs the funds to avoid bankruptcy on 20 March, when maturing loans must be repaid. In return, Greece will undertake to reduce its debts to no more than 120.5% of its GDP by 2020. After five straight years of recession, Greece's debts currently amounts to more than 160% of its GDP. The agreement could resolve Greece's immediate financing needs, analysts say, but seems unlikely to revive the country's shattered economy.

2 Ice-Age plant revived (The New York Times) Living plants have been generated from the fruit of a little arctic flower, the narrow-leafed campion, that died 32,000 years ago, a team of Russian scientists reports. The fruit was stored by an arctic ground squirrel in its burrow on the tundra of north-eastern Siberia and lay permanently frozen until excavated by scientists a few years ago. This would be the oldest plant by far that has ever been grown from ancient tissue. The present record is held by a date palm grown from a seed some 2,000 years old that was recovered from the ancient fortress of Masada in Israel.

Seeds and certain cells can last a long term under the right conditions, but many claims of extreme longevity have failed on closer examination. Eske Willerslev, an expert on ancient DNA at the University of Copenhagen, said the finding was “plausible in principle,” given the conditions in permafrost. But the claim depends on the radiocarbon date being correct: “It’s all resting on that — if there’s something wrong there it can all fall part.”

3 ‘Upcycling’ is buzzword in London (The New York Time) “Upcycling” is the buzzword in eco-conscious London. This season, Estethica, the display of reclaimed and sustainable clothes at London Fashion Week, included colorful work from students at the Central Saint Martins school, who created clothes from the ends of thread spools, fabric remnants and fluff from the bottom of factory machines. “They are designs from a younger generation,” said Orsola de Castro, creative director of the display’s eco section, sponsored by Mulberry. It has gone from “yummy mummies” to something much more contemporary, she added. Christopher Raeburn was a founding member of Estethica, but has grown his sporty, outerwear brand of sustainable and reclaimed clothes to encompass genuine fashion style.

4 In Syria, hospitals are killing fields (The Guardian) In Bashar al-Asad’s Syria, it is not just forbidden to speak, demonstrate and protest: it is also forbidden both to give medical treatment, and to receive treatment yourself. The regime has been waging a merciless war against any individual or institution capable of bringing medical aid to the victims of repression. "It's very dangerous to be a doctor or a pharmacist," a pharmacist from the Baba Amro neighbourhood of Homs says. Medical personnel are imprisoned – like the nurse in the nearby district of al-Qusayr, arrested the day after he showed around his hidden emergency-care centre, its carpets covered with plastic tarpaulins to protect them from blood – or killed, like Abdur Rahim Amir, the only doctor in that centre, murdered in cold blood in November by military security, while he sought to treat civilians wounded during the army's assault on Rastan to the north. Or tortured.

In Baba Amro, a nurse from the Homs National Hospital, imprisoned in September, describes the tortures he was subjected to by miming them: he was beaten with a club, blindfolded, whipped, suffered electric shocks, and hanged from the wall by a single wrist, on tiptoe, for four or five hours – a common practice that has its own name, ash-shabah. "I was lucky, they didn't treat me so badly," he insists. "They didn't break my bones." Sometimes, the regime's forces just insult them. A Red Crescent nurse, in her ambulance, was stopped at a checkpoint: "We shoot them, and you save them!" the soldiers berated them.

5 Britain has a drinking problem (The Johannesburg Times) Up to 210,000 people in England and Wales will be killed prematurely by alcohol over the next 20 years, with a third of those preventable deaths due to liver disease alone, health experts warned. Other alcohol-related deaths will be due to accidents, violence and suicide, or from chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, strokes, heart disease and cancer, the experts warned in a projection study in the Lancet medical journal. The warning comes after British Prime Minister David Cameron promised last week to crack down on excessive drinking, calling it a “scandal” that costs the taxpayer-funded National Health System an estimated 2.7 billion pounds ($4.3 billion) a year.

A study last week found that 7.5 million children in the US – more than 10% of child population – live with an alcoholic parent and are at increased risk of developing a host of health problems of their own. Steps to curb alcohol use feature three times in the WHO’s top 10 “best buys” for public health policies to reduce the burden of chronic diseases, which kill 36 million people a year worldwide.

6 Terminally talented (The Johannesburg Times) Melancholy is very choosy. Mostly, it prefers great company. It loves the exceptionally talented. It thrives in the artistically endowed. It torments the gifted. It haunts genius. Interestingly, it is the same gloomy emotion that inspires great music. Think of the songs of the biggest winner at this year's Grammy awards, Adele.
Many people might think that melancholy should be the affliction of those who don't know where their next meal is coming from - the sick, the unloved, the elderly, the unlucky in love, the forgotten, the homeless, the landless, the oppressed. Oh, no. Melancholy finds pleasure in those whose life seems to have purpose. But history shows us that, for the super-talented, melancholy lingers on, long after it has inspired a great song, created a moment in history or changed the world.

Melancholy remains, the superstars, sadly, go. When she couldn't bear the sadness that consumed her, English writer Virginia Woolf, before putting stones in the pockets of her jacket and drowning herself, wrote: "I feel certain that I'm going mad again; I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time." It was depression, a never-ending melancholy, that drove another writer, American Sylvia Plath, to swallow 40 sleeping pills. Who can forget that day, the eve of StValentine's Day, 11 years ago, when we heard the devastating news that piano genius Moses Taiwa Molelekwa had been found hanging next to the body of his wife, Florence, in their office in the Johannesburg cultural precinct Newtown. Whitney Houston, who had a long history of drug abuse, was found dead in her hotel room on February11. What exactly caused her death is not known, but the police said they had found alcohol and prescription drugs in the room. Then there were Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Ike Turner, Heath Ledger, Alexander McQueen, Jim Morrison. There isn't enough space to name them all.

7 Empty talk on Tahrir (Tim Sebastian in The Khaleej Times) Big Egypt, which creaked and trundled about its business for decades, is crying out for some certainty, some normality. The poor want to eat; the business community wants and needs to earn money; one in seven people, employed by the tourist industry, are desperate for the holiday makers to come back. And no one can understand why the dying goes on incessantly in the streets of Cairo and elsewhere.

I don’t hear too many predictions about Egypt’s future. But let me cite a couple of strong impressions: Egyptians have tasted revolution and will likely want to do so again. And no leader here can ever again count on a compliant, docile population. For now, though, the share-out of spoils from last year’s revolt is more or less complete. Real power has gone back to the military; a Parliament of new faces gets to do the talking; a president is due to be elected later this year. The only people who don’t seem to know that this uprising is over still argue and dream and make speeches in Tahrir Square.

8 Modi and the mobs (Manu Joseph in Khaleej Times) He is a talented Indian, who lives in the United States with his talented wife. He is an engineer with an MBA and works in a credit ratings agency. He is a law-abiding man, a good father and a good husband. Ten years ago it might have been unthinkable that such a person would admire a man whom some have accused of responsibility for the violence that led to the deaths of hundreds of people, who were stabbed, beaten or burned alive. But the talented Indian does, even as the 10th anniversary of the carnage falls this month.

That is the achievement of Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of the prosperous state of Gujarat, the most popular face among the leaders of the rightist Bharatiya Janata Party, and the man who the talented Indian believes will one day become the prime minister of India. Modi has managed to endear himself to a vast section of India’s economically powerful urban middle class and business community, at home and abroad, by resurrecting Hindu pride as a form of patriotism.Modi has grown in stature. He has portrayed himself as a man who can get things done fast for the people in his care — a man who could be prime minister. More than ever, the talented Indian sees a modern leader in Modi — an efficient man who can build roads and industries with great speed, even though, somehow, 10 years ago he was not efficient enough to save hundreds of Muslims from the “spontaneous reaction of the Hindus.”

9 India’s destiny not caste in stone (Andre Beteille in The Hindu) The association between caste and occupation is now more flexible than it was in the traditional economy of land and grain. Rapid economic growth and the expansion of the middle class are accompanied by new opportunities for individual mobility which further loosens the association between caste and occupation. Private television channels have created a whole world in which their anchors and the experts who are regularly at their disposal vie with each other to bring out the significance of the “caste factor,” meaning the rivalries and alliances among castes, sub-castes and groups of castes by commentators who, for the most part, have little understanding of, or interest in, long-term trends of change in the country. These discussions create the illusion that caste is an unalterable feature of Indian society. It will be a pity if we allow what goes on in the media to reinforce the consciousness of caste and to persuade us that caste is India's destiny.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Apple tops Nasdaq 100 value; A US county falls off financial cliff; Cultish belief of India elite in progress; Africa's religious divide

1 Apple tops Nasdaq 100 value (San Francisco Chronicle) 16.4%. That's how much market value in the Nasdaq 100 index is represented by just one company: Apple. The iPhone maker's weighting fell 8.2 percentage points at the end of April, when Nasdaq OMX Group rebalanced the index. (The move was designed to bring each company more in line with its market value.) Since then, Apple regained more than half of the lost weight because its stock surged 44%.

2 A US county falls off the financial cliff (The New York Times) One county jail here in Jefferson is so crowded that some inmates sleep on the floor, while the other county jail, a few miles down the road, sits empty. There is no money for the second one anymore. The county roads here need paving, and the tax collector needs help. There is no money for them, either.

There is no money for a lot of things around here, not since Jefferson County, population 658,000, went bankrupt last fall. This is life today in Jefferson County — Bankrupt, USA. For all the talk in Washington about taxes and deficits, here is a place where government finances, and government itself, have simply broken down. The county, which includes the city of Birmingham, is drowning under $4 billion in debt, the legacy of a big sewer project and corrupt financial dealings that sent 17 people to prison.

3 Cultish belief in progress for India elite (The Guardian) In the public discourse produced by the upper and middle classes in India – in newspapers and talk shows, in tweets and television soaps, in the comments that flood websites should anyone dare make a dissenting note – there is an uncomplicated, almost cultish faith in India as a success story. In this version of contemporary India, the material wealth of the upper and middle classes can only keep on increasing. The comfortable will get rich, the rich get richer. As for the poor living on 50 cents a day (perhaps as much as 77% of the entire population, according to one government report), they might see their lot improve. If not, they have only their lack of ability, effort and merit to blame.

Along with the corporations and the media, India's middle and upper classes were particularly eager supporters of Anna Hazare, a former soldier and social reformer. When rallying behind Hazare, elite Indians did not raise questions about inequality, in the way their country lags behind other poor countries in many social indicators. Those supporting the Hazare movement instead focused on government corruption as all that stood between their present wellbeing and future prosperity. If only the corrupt state would step aside in certain areas – obviously not Kashmir, Chhattisgarh or the north-east – the Indian elites could prosper even further.

The Hazare movement has since petered out, but its central idea, of the unique meritoriousness of the middle and upper classes of India, remains. It is an illusion, and it reminds me of the illusion among the middle and upper classes of another society, and that is the US. The lack of jobs in the US, something that earlier affected only those in manufacturing and the service industry, and therefore had an impact mostly on inner city African Americans, poor immigrants and rural whites, has now worked its way into the lives of the middle and upper classes, towards even people with expensive college degrees. In India, the elites shout themselves hoarse about emulating America – in its wealth, its swaggering confidence, its Hummers and parking lots – even as that America ceases to exist. Even in the land of manifest destiny, destiny has run into its limits, and it seems only a matter of time before the same turns out to be true for India's privileged classes.

4 Africa’s religious divide (Dawn) Sudan was bombing South Sudan again last week, only a couple of months after the two countries split apart. Sudan is mostly Muslim, and South Sudan is predominantly Christian, but the quarrel is about oil, not religion. And yet, it is really about religion too, since the two countries would never have split apart along the current border if not for the religious divide. The Ivory Coast was split along the same Muslim-Christian lines for nine years, although the shooting ended last year and there is an attempt under way to sew the country back together under an elected government. But in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest country by far, the situation is going from bad to worse, with the Islamist terrorists of Boko Haram murdering people all over the country in the name of imposing sharia law on the entire nation.

“Boko Haram”, loosely translated, means “Western education is forbidden,” and the organisation’s declared aim is to overthrow the government and impose Islamic law on all of Nigeria. In a 40-minute audio message posted on YouTube two weeks ago, the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, threatened that his next step would be to carry out a bombing campaign against Nigeria’s secondary schools and universities.

Christianity and Islam have been at war most of the time since Muslim armies conquered half of the then-Christian world, from Syria to Spain, in the 7th and 8th centuries. There was the great Christian counter-attack of the Crusades in the 12th century, the Muslim conquest of Turkey and the Balkans in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the European conquest of almost the entire Muslim world in the 18th-20th centuries. It is a miserable history, and in some places it is likely to continue for some time to come.

5 Sex change ops on the rise (Straits Times) A small but growing number of teens and even younger children who think they were born the wrong sex are getting support from parents and from doctors who give them sex-changing treatments, according to reports in the medical journal Pediatrics. An eight-year-old second-grader in Los Angeles is a typical patient. Born a girl, the child announced at 18 months, 'I a boy' and has stuck with that belief. The family was shocked but now refers to the child as a boy and is watching for the first signs of puberty to begin treatment, his mother told The Associated Press.

6 India tied up in knots on terror (Deccan Chronicle editorial) It is shocking to watch the antics of a clutch of Opposition leaders, regrettably led by West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee, a UPA partner, who have decided to oppose the setting up of a National Counter-Terrorism Centre. Looking at the CMs sheltering behind the principle of federalism to oppose the Centre’s decision to operationalise the NCTC early next month, there cannot be an iota of doubt that the motley group is intent on playing politics at the expense of the national interest. In their eagerness to show the ruling Congress Party down, Ms Banerjee, J. Jayalalithaa, Nitish Kumar, Raman Singh, Narendra Modi, Naveen Patnaik and N. Chandrababu Naidu — all senior politicians — have chosen to overlook the pressing concerns of India’s security even after the horrific, and humiliating, 26/11 attacks on Mumbai a little over three years ago.

The setting up of the NCTC was conceived 11 years ago. The question gained urgency after the Mumbai attacks. That outrage showed India was just not prepared to tackle global terrorism. Multiple Central organisations showed greater concern for jurisdiction and coordination issues. Real-time intelligence didn’t exist. The NCTC helps clear these cobwebs. International terrorists may rest assured that, going by these developments, Indians will not come together to defeat them. If a terrorist group had to be incapacitated without loss of time, that won’t be possible as state governments would insist that their policemen tag along after due permissions are obtained, and too bad if there’s a Sunday in between. Just imagine if Maharashtra had said “no” to the landing of the NSG after the 26/11 attacks on the ground that federal principles were being violated.

7 Airlines trim flights to India (Mint) Mumbai: At least six global airlines have in February cut flights in India, the world’s ninth-largest aviation market, hit by high cost of operations at local airports and a global economic slowdown that has compelled them to cut costs. In January, Malaysian low-fare carrier AirAsia said it would withdraw services to India from its Kuala Lumpur hub by March-end, citing a steep increase in costs at Delhi and Mumbai airports.

Regi Philip, who runs Cosmos Agencies, a Mumbai-based travel agency, said big airline groups are contemplating to combine flights as the market is deteriorating and fares will go up by 10%. “Several foreign carriers are closing down their marketing offices. To be sure, the loads too are not satisfactory for anybody. Consolidation of flights may give them slight relief in terms of yield,” said Philip. The rise in Delhi airport user fees will lead to an increase in fares and the cost of operations, Air France’s De Man, said in an email last month. “Effectively, Delhi airport is already one of the most expensive airports in Asia and the additional cost to airlines and passengers will run into many millions of dollars,” he said.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Great pals: Notorious theocracy and biggest democracy; Muslim double standards; Gross National Happiness; 'Linsanity'; Nomophobia-hit; Saving Mumbai

1 Great pals: Notorious theocracy and biggest democracy (The Wall Street Journal) The world's most notorious theocracy is desperately looking for a friend with deep pockets. It has found an unlikely candidate: the world's biggest democracy. India surpassed China last month to become the Islamic Republic of Iran's biggest customer for crude oil, undermining sanctions by the US and European Union to starve the mullahs of oil revenue. Ties between Delhi and Tehran also came into focus after Israel blamed Iran for a terrorist attack on one of its diplomats in New Delhi Monday. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government promptly began an investigation, but the question is why he hasn't already curtailed dealings with the Islamic Republic.

New Delhi justifies it as necessary commerce. India is heavily dependent on oil imports, 11% of which it gets from Iran. The puzzle is why New Delhi hasn't tried harder to find other energy sources. This isn't impossible: Japan has brought down its dependence on Iran in the last five years and is promising to do more. Mr. Singh doesn't even seem to be pressing Tehran for price discounts—Iranian crude is about to become a distressed asset, if it isn't already — which would at least lower the mullahs' revenue.

No one's accusing India of ideological kinship with the mullahs. Mr. Singh's government has said that it doesn't want a nuclear Iran and has voted against Tehran in the International Atomic Energy Agency. Yet now he's effectively enabling those nuclear ambitions by failing to stand with the coalition of nations trying to force Tehran to change course. While other liberal democracies agree about the Iranian nuclear threat, New Delhi apparently only sees pushy Westerners telling it what to do.

2 India police competency questioned (The Wall Street Journal) The blast that targeted the car of an Israeli diplomat in Delhi earlier this week prompted questions on whether terrorists see the city as a soft target. The attack was carried out with a so-called “sticky bomb,” an explosive device that was attached to the car. According to reports, it was the first time such a device had been used in India. While security officials anywhere in the world would’ve struggled to prevent the drive-by attack, reports on how Delhi Police have handled their research on the sticky bomb raise pretty big questions about their level of competence.

A Times of India report said that Delhi Police Commissioner BK Gupta had spent “hours” carrying out research into sticky bombs, and that printouts were distributed afterwards to explain how they work. But instead of describing the bomb used in Monday’s attack, the printouts looked a lot like the instructions for an online game, even saying how much damage sticky bombs could do “to the player.”

The report noted that the language of the police printout had actually been borrowed from an Internet game called “Terraria.” This is what Terraria says about the sticky bomb:“Sticky Bombs are a type of explosives crafted from one Bomb and 5 Gel. At point blank range, it can cause a total of 100 damage to mobs and 200 to the player.” (This is one of the top results that come up if you search “sticky bomb” on Google.) And this is what the news report quotes the Delhi Police printout as saying: “Sticky bombs are a type of explosives crafted from one Bomb and 5 Gel. At point blank range, it can cause a total of 100 damage to mobs and 200 to the player.”

3 Syrian uprising and the proxy war (Khaleej Times) The uprising in Syria put Ankara and Tehran poles apart. Hardly a day goes by that an Iranian official doesn’t threaten Turkey. This is no surprise. From the Syrian uprising to Iraq’s sectarian convulsions to Iran’s push for nuclear power, Ankara is the main challenger to Tehran’s desire to dominate the region.

The uprising in Syria put Ankara and Tehran at polar opposite ends of the regional and political spectrum. Given its democratic traditions, Turkey supported the revolution and sided with the protesters; authoritarian Iran continued its support for the Assad regime and backed his brutal crackdown on civilians. The Syrian uprising has become a zero-sum game: Either Bashar Al Assad will win, or the demonstrators will triumph. Likewise, it has become a proxy war between Tehran and Ankara, in which there will be only one winner. Both countries are slowly showing their hands in the region’s oldest power game. In the Middle East, there is room for one shah or one sultan, but not both a shah and a sultan.

4 Double standards of Muslims (Murtaza Razvi in Dawn) It’s not only the West, but also Muslims who have double standards, Pakistanis and Arabs more so than others. While the West keeps mum over Israel’s excesses against Palestinians, its Nato ally Turkey’s suppression of Kurds, India’s policy towards Kashmiris, Bahrain’s and Saudi Arabia’s oppression of their Shia citizens, Western leaders cry from the rooftops for the rights of Syrian, Chinese, Iranian and North Korean people living under a tyranny.

And now about us and our double standards. We want our madressahs and hijabs and missionaries preaching in the UK, which readily obliges because it respects your right to practise your faith (France and even Turkey will not allow half as much freedom to their Muslim populations), but here in Pakistan we won’t have the Ahmadis call themselves Muslim even though they recite the same kalema and pray the same prayer; we won’t allow Christian missionaries either. The Gulf is another story altogether. Most our of brotherly oil-rich people — read very honourable men, for women hardly count — have their rules of engagement listed according to your nationalities, rather the race. A white man from the US, say a doctor, draws a much higher salary than his plebian Bangladeshi counterpart even if both are graduates of the same American medical school! But neither can go to church in the holy kingdom, for no such place exists there.

Double standards abound. In the UAE Muslims can drink alcohol in a bar, but taking liquor is a punishable offence for them; in Qatar, it is your nationality, and not your faith, that decides whether you can legally consume alcohol: a Muslim from UAE, Turkey, Indonesia or India can, but a Muslim from Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia or Iran cannot. Yes, Islam emphasises on equality in social justice, as was enshrined in the de facto constitution which the Prophet of Islam hammered out in consultation with all concerned, and which became the basis of running the first Islamic state at Madina. He declared the neighbouring Jews and Christian tribes with whom he entered into a truce as part of the Ummah, in which each individual was bound by the same set of rules, obligations and privileges regardless of his/her faith. This was a true pluralistic aspect of Islam which its Prophet implemented and enforced by consensus in his own lifetime in the 7th century CE. Today the word Ummah has been robbed of its original meaning and popularly connotes Muslims only.

5 Extremism greater threat than terrorism (Dawn) Extremism is a greater threat to Pakistan than terrorism and reporting the incidents that violate norms of peaceful societies is not given due attention in the public discourse too. Speakers at the launch of Jinnah Institute’s report ‘Extremism watch: mapping conflict trends in Pakistan 2010-2011’ expressed concerns over rising intolerance among various groups and sects in society. Ejaz Haider, the executive director of Jinnah Institute, said extremism was a greater menace in terms of the state’s ability to deal with it rather than terrorism, and this fact enhanced the importance of studying extremism in the country. “This is a serious issue. People belonging to all groups and sects have the right to live,” Mr Haider said, adding: “With what is happening, we will ultimately be killing each other and this mindset will not take us anywhere.”

6 Save us from our defenders (Dawn) The Difaa-i-Pakistan Council (DPC) has announced its aim of defending us against the dangers we face today. But given the fact that the biggest threat to Pakistan comes from the extremist ideology of many of those who constitute the DPC, the question arises whether these holy warriors will confront the militants. Don’t hold your breath: during a recent DPC rally in Karachi, speaker after speaker made it clear that their real enemies are India and America. This assembled galaxy clearly failed to notice the uncomfortable fact that over the last decade, well over 30,000 innocent civilians and 5,000 security personnel have been killed in terrorist attacks launched by jihadi militants. Such mundane truths often escape our religious brigade. While focusing on American drone attacks, which while controversial, have been the most effective weapon against the militants in the tribal areas, they have conveniently overlooked the real cause of militancy. The moment these realities are pointed out to them, they go on about how these casualties are the result of the American war in Afghanistan.

7 Gross National Happiness (Dawn) Money makes the world go round. But as the euro debt crisis grinds on and anti-austerity protests gain momentum across the continent, I’ve been thinking: could Europe’s embattled leaders learn a lesson or two from a tiny Himalayan kingdom where happiness, not taxes, are a top priority? Bhutan where the former king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, began talking about gross national happiness in the 1970s, was the first to decree happiness a national policy.

The concept of happiness as a common public good is gaining ground. A United Nations resolution says happiness is critical in advancing economic growth and social progress. The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) now has a ground-breaking ‘How’s Life’ initiative which ranks countries on a happiness index. Europeans may not want to take a page out of tiny Bhutan’s book but those favouring a ‘beyond GDP’ agenda also include economists like Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz and Jean-Paul Fitoussi.

8 Air Australia collapse hits creditors (Sydney Morning Herald) The collapse of the international budget airline, Air Australia is set to result in unsecured creditors losing tens of millions of dollars. Hundreds of creditors - including passengers, airports and refuellers - are unlikely to recover the money owed to them because the airline's assets are minimal. Air Australia's airport terminal and fleet of five Airbus A330 aircraft and one A320 are all leased. The administrator, Mark Korda of KordaMentha, said his best estimate was that between $10 million and $20 million was owed on about 100,000 tickets, while millions of dollars more was likely to be owed to unsecured creditors, which would include airports, caterers, parts suppliers and governments.
9 ‘Linsanity’ leads for word of the year (Straits Times) The sporting world's newest craze has Lin-guists impressed. 'Linsanity,' the word that has encapsulated New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin's rise from bench-warmer to international sensation in less than two weeks, has thrust itself into the American English vocabulary and been translated into Mandarin, making it a strong, early candidate for 2012's Word of the Year, according to the American Dialect Society. Linsanity has been accompanied by puns such as 'lincredible,' 'linvincible,' 'linning' and 'Linderella'.

10 Women as payment in Afghanistan (San Francisco Chronicle) Shakila, 8 at the time, was drifting off to sleep when a group of men carrying AK-47s barged in through the door. She recalls them complaining, as they dragged her off into the darkness, about how their family had been dishonored and about how they had not been paid. It turns out that Shakila, who was abducted along with her cousin as part of a traditional Afghan form of justice known as "baad," was the payment.

Although baad (also known as baadi) is illegal under Afghan and, most religious scholars say, Islamic law, the taking of girls as payment for misdeeds committed by their elders still appears to be flourishing. Shakila, because one of her uncles had run away with the wife of a district strongman, was taken and held for about a year. It was the district leader, furious at the dishonor that had been done to him, who sent his men to abduct her. Despite being denounced by the United Nations as a "harmful traditional practice," baad is pervasive in rural southern and eastern Afghanistan, areas that are heavily Pashtun, according to human rights workers. Baad involves giving a young woman, often a child, into slavery and forced marriage. It is largely hidden because the girls are given to compensate for "shameful" crimes like murder, adultery and elopement, elders and women's rights advocates say.

11 Fake bonds worth trillions (BBC) Italian prosecutors say they have broken up an organised crime ring that was hiding trillions of dollars of fake US bonds. Worth $6 trillion, the bonds were found in three metal boxes in a warehouse in the Swiss city of Zurich. Italian authorities have arrested eight people and are investigating them for fraud and other crimes. Prosecutors are not sure what the gang was planning, but think they intended to sell the counterfeit bonds. Investigators, based in Potenza in southern Italy, say the fraud posed "severe threats" to international financial security.

12 Castrate child sex abusers: India court (The Times of India) A city court caused a stir on Friday when it asked legislators to consider castration as an alternative punishment for child abusers. "Castration is the most befitting sentence which can be imposed on any pedophile or serial offender but the hands of this court are tied as the statute does not provide for it... Indian legislators are yet to explore this as an alternative to conventional sentencing," observed additional sessions judge Kamini Lau. ASJ Lau sentenced a man to imprisonment for his "entire life" for raping his six-year-old niece and directed the prison authorities not to give him any remission.

13 Nomophobia and modern society (Deccan Chronicle editorial) A new study indicates that people in Britain are increasingly suffering from “nomophobia” — the fear of losing their mobile phones. Closer home, our able rural development minister Jairam Ramesh has lamented that women from villages nowadays demand mobile phones first, not toilets. What is it with a personal cellphone that it should be the focus of so much attention in so many modern humans — to the extent of effecting behavioural changes in them? True, the mobile does far more than allow instant person-to-person communication, regardless of geography. The big fear, of course, is that these devices have taken over our lives so much that we fret if they are out of charge for a while. Psychologists even recommend that we should all go on a digital “fast” sometimes — not just with cellphones, but also the Internet, video games and other gizmos of our times.

14 Saving Mumbai (TN Ninan in Business Standard) Mumbai has had its civic elections, but 46% voting suggests that the city’s residents don’t believe the elections will solve their problems. They may be right. The city has stopped growing (its population in 2011, at 12.4 million, was fractionally smaller than in 2001), it has water rationing, and little space for more public or private transport. Half its population lives in slums (the national urban average is less than 20%), so daily life is an aggravation — and expensive. Office rents are 50% higher than in Delhi, and four times Bangalore’; commuting times in trains that pack passengers like sardines are twice as long as anywhere else.

There is only one way for Mumbai to escape long-term decline: either free up the stretches of land occupied by the port and the navy and give the city a fresh lease of life, or escape to the mainland and create new growth centres, set up a new airport, and a different logic from that of an overcrowded island. If not, India’s Maximum City will continue to lose out. What Mumbai needs as a starting point is a city administration that is accountable to the city’s residents, and a directly elected mayor, as in all great cities — London, Paris, Berlin, New York… A newly elected BMC is no substitute.

15 India long on enthusiasm, short on execution (Tudor Brown, president and co-founder of UK-based chip designer ARM Holdings Plc, in Mint) India frustrates me. I see a lot of enthusiasm, but I don’t see much execution, I am sorry to say. Fundamentally, it is under capitalized. It is always trying to do things on the cheap. If I compare India and China, you could argue they both have come from equivalent positions in terms of gross domestic product or whatever. Yet, Chinese companies have raised the capital to buy not just ARM licences, but also the whole ecosystem needed in terms of electronic design automation (EDA) tools to build chips and get products out there. Indian companies are still talking about it.

But whenever we talk to Indian companies, the fundamental assertion is “we have got no money, so we need a cheap licence”. If you want to play on the world stage, you have to play by the world rules. Of course, costs are low in India, so you should be able to do things at lower cost. But you can’t expect companies like us, EDA companies and international suppliers to single India out as a special case. Then what about China and Brazil, which are doing things pretty much at full value?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Indian IT cos not global; Debt and leadership vacuum; Dynasty v/s democracy; Apps for alms; 5 kids starve to death per minute; Afghan fashion passion

1 Indian IT cos not global (The Wall Street Journal) Although India’s IT and BPO industry has crossed the landmark $100 billion in sales, it still has a long way to go before it becomes a truly global power house, says Bryan Cruickshank, global head of IT advisory at consulting firm KPMG. “Indian IT companies are not truly global companies,” Mr. Cruickshank said in an interview. “Companies like TCS and Wipro have demonstrated that they have scale,” he said. “But they haven’t demonstrated that they are global.” There’s no doubt about the industry’s scale. The sector, which had revenues of $101 billion in the current fiscal year, employs 2.8 million people, contributes 7.5% to India’s gross domestic product and has up to 25% of the share of total exports. The sector does business in 70 countries and employs 40,000 non Indians.

Mr. Cruickshank agrees that the industry has achieved a lot. “But,” he warns, “customers see them as “providers” of IT services and not someone they are necessarily turning to transform their business. They don’t have a lot of innovation, don’t see them as truly transformational.” Companies continue to be attracted to India because here they can find employees at the lowest cost, according to Nasscom. For a company in this sector to wear the global label, Mr. Cruickshank says it needs to meet certain criteria, including an ability to execute seamlessly across time zones and geographies and a blend of strong global processes that can be tailored to local requirements. It should also be able to understand and interpret local requirements using global themes.

2 Debt and the leadership vacuum (Khaleej Times) Americans’ relative indifference to the eurozone crisis is disturbing. With a huge exposure to European debt, export dependence on Europe and a reliance on corporate profits generated there, the euro crisis menaces both America’s economic recovery. Nevertheless, the US public and news media are focused on the Republican Party horserace, not paying attention to the crisis. Washington’s inability and unwillingness to show more leadership on this issue, despite America’s profound stake in the outcome, speaks volumes about the decline in US self-confidence and global influence in the wake of its own economic and foreign-policy shortcomings in recent years.

Outside of Europe, the United States has the most to lose if the European economy goes belly up. US exposure in Europe totals $3.7 trillion; $1 trillion of that is investment by major American multinational corporations, such as Ford, Dell and Caterpillar. The euro crisis highlights the fundamental dilemma facing the world economy: a leadership vacuum. The United States, once the indispensable power, is distracted, self-absorbed and relatively weakened at a time when Europe, and by extension the rest of the world, still needs the richest country to be actively engaged. There’s no prospect of Washington stepping in to rescue the day. Europeans must rescue themselves. The euro crisis is the test case for managing the world economy without Uncle Sam.

3 Dynasty v/s democracy (Khaleej Times) Businessman Robert Vadra – spouse of ruling UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s daughter Priyanka – recently created a kerfuffle of sorts by quipping that he wouldn’t mind jumping into the electoral fray himself if the “people want him to”. The Vadra episode spotlighted the politics of inheritance in the world’s largest democracy. The Gandhi family is the clear frontrunner in the dynastic sweepstakes. It is probably the world’s oldest democratic dynasty producing the only team of grandfather-daughter-grandson prime ministers that has ruled India for 37 of its 65 years as an independent state.

However, to be fair, nepotism is well-entrenched in the other Indian political parties as well, both at the state and national level. The ubiquity of famous monikers — Karunanidhi, Maran, Sangma, Abdullah, Pawar, Patil, Pilot, Mahajan, Badal, Singh, Scindia, Deora, Reddy, Yadav — is unmistakable especially as five Indian states go to polls this month. Even so, this near-monarchical tradition isn’t exclusive to India. It finds a resonance in other parts of the world as well. The world’s oldest democracy – the United States – has had the Adams’, Kennedys’ and the Bushs’. The more pertinent question is whether the emergence of political families means a weak political system and a dearth of strong institutions?”

4 An app for alms (Khaleej Times) The Awqaf and Religious Affairs Ministry has launched two new applications ‘How to Give alms’ (Zakat) and ‘Omani Calendar’, for iPhones and smartphones supported by IOS and Android systems. ‘How to give alms’ provides information about Zakat, its laws, provisions, obligations and the amount for different categories. The application is connected to the websites of the ministry and Ifta office, and to a website for global gold prices.

5 Five kids starve to death each minute (San Francisco Chronicle) Five children around the world die every minute because of chronic malnutrition, according to a report released Wednesday that also said that almost half a billion children are at risk of permanent damage over the next 15 years. A report from Save the Children said the deaths of 2 million children each year could be prevented if malnutrition were better addressed.

The report called chronic malnutrition a largely hidden crisis that affects 1 in 4 children globally. Global hunger has fallen markedly over the past two decades, but the 2011 Global Hunger Index found that six countries have higher rates of hunger today than two decades ago. Five of those countries are in Africa. The other is North Korea. The 2011 Global Hunger Index said that Congo, Burundi, Comoros, Swaziland and Ivory Coast have higher levels of hunger today than in 1990. Malnutrition numbers in Africa remain startling. The report said that nearly 2 in 5 children in Africa - 60 million children - are stunted. The average yield of staple cereals is a third less than in Asia.

6 Gap-toothed smile in fashion (The New York Times) These days gap-toothed smiles are regarded not just as a mark of fortune or, as they have been since Chaucer’s day, a sign of sexual rapacity, but also as a positively enviable fashion calling card. That impression was reinforced this week at a slew of shows in which randomly spaced front teeth, some as wide apart as goal posts, were the accent of the moment, as covetable as a swanlike neck or a chicly protuberant collarbone. Casting directors have been quick to mine the trend, turning teenage models into runway girls. So have magazine editors and marketers. The gap gained traction a couple of seasons ago when W magazine featured three models in an August fashion spread.

7 Calcutta to be painted blue (BBC) The eastern Indian city of Calcutta will be painted blue, a local minister has said. Government buildings, flyovers, roadside railings, and taxis are going to be painted in light blue colour, a minister in the ruling Trinamul Congress government said. Owners of private buildings will be also be requested to paint them in the same colour, the minister said. The capital of West Bengal, Calcutta is home to over 14 million people.

The colour of the city's famous yellow taxis are going to be changed to light blue and white, while a number of famous landmarks are likely to be repainted too, reports say. "Blue is a beautiful colour and is also soothing for the eyes," city mayor Sobhan Chatterjee said. A local Congress party spokesman said the government was "preoccupying itself with non-essential issues". The city's The Telegraph newspaper said the "notion of a cosmetic change is taken to unprecedented heights of innovation by the idea" of painting Calcutta blue.

8 Fashion turns a passion in Afghanistan (Dawn) A passion for fashion is not the first image that springs to mind when most people think of Afghan men, usually pictured in war reports wearing beards, turbans and carrying AK47s as accessories. But male beauty salons in downtown Kabul now hum with activity as young men update their hair and beards in the latest Western styles – indulgences that would have got them beaten or jailed just 10 years ago.

Since the Taliban fell from power in the 2001 US-led invasion, men in Kabul in particular have seized on a new freedom to be stylish or trendy. “Kabul boys have grown very passionate about their looks in recent years,” says a smiling 25-year-old Ali Reza as he sprays blonde highlights on the hair of The Saloon’s smartly dressed first customer of the day.

“This is embarrassing when you see our men dressing themselves like Americans and other infidels,” says an angry, turbanned, Mullah Naqibullah, drinking tea in a shop across from the The Saloon. “This kind of dressing is totally un-Islamic and against Afghan values. These people should be punished to remember they are Afghans and Muslims,” he says, pausing for a sip of green tea. “The Taliban would know how to deal with them!”

9 India mud wrestlers move to mats (Straits Times) Kushti (mud wrestling) is a traditional sport in India but more and more young athletes are now taking up mat wrestling. Coaches say this is to gain access to the top international competitions like the Commonwealth Games or the upcoming Olympic Games.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

When unemployed roam London streets; Hope a fiction for India's poor?; India: Despite the government; Investment banking bad for health; What CEOs do

1 UK jobless at 17-year high (The Guardian) George Osborne is facing growing pressure to take action to tackle long-term unemployment in next month's budget, after official figures revealed that 860,000 people have now been out of work for more than a year. Office for National Statistics showed the unemployment rate stuck at a 17-year high of 8.4% in the three months to December and the number of women claiming unemployment benefits at the highest level since 1995. The number of people out of work was up by 48,000 on the previous three months to 2.67 million, almost a third of whom have been unable to find work for more than a year.

Young people are also still bearing the brunt of the downturn, the ONS data showed, with 1.04 million 16 to 24-year-olds out of work in the three months to December, an increase of 22,000 on the previous three months. The unemployment rate among this group is 22.2%.

2 More quantitative easing likely by Bank of England (The Guardian) Sir Mervyn King left the door open on Wednesday to further doses of electronic money creation as the latest Bank of England snapshot of the economy said the UK would crawl its way through 2012. The Bank predicted a strong pick-up in output in 2013 and a slightly higher level of inflation than anticipated three months ago, but King warned that the economy was going through challenging times, in which "substantial headwinds" were hindering the recovery. In the City, analysts were left divided by the report, with some expecting further asset purchases when the current £50bn quantitative easing (QE) programme ends in May and others convinced that the Bank would call a halt to at £325bn.

3 When unemployed roam London streets (The New York Times) For almost two years, Nicki Edwards has been looking for work — any type of work. She is 19 years old, well-spoken and self-possessed. But like many young people in Britain, she could not afford to remain at her university, making it impossible to find a job. London’s youth riots last summer have closed even more doors to people like her.

Perhaps the most debilitating consequence of the euro zone’s economic downturn and its debt-driven austerity crusade has been the soaring rate of youth unemployment. Spain’s jobless rate for people ages 16 to 24 is approaching 50%. Greece’s is 48%, and Portugal’s and Italy’s, 30%. In Britain, the rate is 22.3%, the highest since such data began being collected in 1992. (The comparable rate for Americans is 18%.)

Experts say that the majority of those who took to the streets in London last summer were young people who were unemployed, out of school and not participating in a job training program. Classified by statisticians as NEETs (not in education, employment or training), they number about 1.3 million, or one of every five 16-to-24-year-olds in the country.

4 Is hope a fiction for poor in India? (BBC) "We try so many things," a girl in Annawadi, a slum in Mumbai tells Katherine Boo, "but the world doesn't move in our favour". Annawadi is a "sumpy plug of slum" in the biggest city - "a place of festering grievance and ambient envy" - of a country which holds a third of the world's poor. It is where the Pulitzer prize winning New Yorker journalist Boo's first book Behind the Beautiful Forevers is located. Annawadi is where more than 3,000 people have squatted on land belonging to the local airport and live "packed into, or on top of" 335 huts. It is a place "magnificently positioned for a trafficker in rich's people's garbage", where the New India collides with the Old. Nobody in Annawadi is considered poor by India's official benchmarks. The residents are among the 100 million Indians freed from poverty since 1991, when India embarked on liberalising its economy.

There's a bunch of young scavengers and thieves, ravaged by rats and high on white correction fluid, who live, work and die quickly. They are the young flotsam that India breathlessly parades as its demographic dividend when, in reality, the children, tired and brutalised, are already past their sell-by-date. The people of Annawadi are also caught up in the hideous web of corruption and official venality which hurts the poor most, and lead utterly dehumanising lives in a city that aspires to become India's Shanghai. It is far removed from the dreadful stereotype of the happy-poor Mumbai of Slumdog Millionaire.

5 Did the India general win? (Bikram Vohra in Khaleej Times) I am no great student of jurisprudence but having read and then reread all the news items on India General VK Singh’s court case I have been groping in the dark for a light and all I could get was a wet matchstick. Did he win? Did he lose? What was the verdict? Did the date change? Does he gain a year? What, what, what?

They say he did recover his honour. One of the attorneys was quoted to that effect. The same attorney said he is an honourable man and the media echoed the statement and no one in the government was blamed for any mess up since there was no mala-fide intent so these disparate elements. Where did someone like myself lose the plot? As far as I see, the General did not win his case but the attorney says that having received the court verdict and being satisfied with it, the General was swimming with logic when he withdrew his case because there was no reason to fight on. Really? What then was the point of it all if May10, 1950, has become mutually acceptable to General and the government alike. Am I the only cretin who is confused? And now that the government is smelling like roses rather than the manure that it should be reeking of, this case is closed.

Interestingly, the Congress will stand by in tearful farewell when the General departs on May 31, his honour in tact (though skeptics like me have no idea how it returned). The General will either get a governorship, a public sector plum job or be dispatched as an ambassador of goodwill. After all, with the elections round the corner what a nice patty cake ending to a story I never understood. Did you?

6 Four-hour rule for food in Singapore (The Straits Times) If your buffet meal tasted fresher than usual on Wednesday, here's why. New rules that mean caterers have to make sure their food is eaten within four hours have kicked in. The regulations have forced firms to tighten their schedules so meals are not left standing around for too long before an event. At least one firm has had to completely overhaul its operations. Indian restaurant chain Riverview Tandoor has hired three chefs who specialise in cooking on site, said its director of sales and operations Bhandari Rajender Kumar.

7 India: Despite the government (The Wall Street Journal) The book about India released a few years ago called “In Spite of the Gods” would better have been named “In Spite of the Government.” Because government has failed to supply basic needs, NGOs and private enterprise have stepped in to try to fill the gap. India is estimated to have over 3 million NGOs. But now we’ve come to a stage where even private facilities are stretched. For example, last month parents of pre-school age children were frantically trying to get nursery admission. They stood in queues for hours just to get an application form, and thousands of application forms were given out for dozens of places.

In a resource-constrained economy where one cannot rely on the government to provide services, as the Airtel advertisement rightly says, “Har ek friend zaroori hota hai” (“Each and every friend is necessary”). In India, our friends, relatives, neighbors and contacts become invaluable. They become our godfathers – the ones we turn to in our time of need. Here, being well-connected does not mean having 500 Facebook friends, high-speed Internet, or a combination of smartphone, tablet, and laptop; it means knowing a lot of influential people. If you’re ever faced with a crime situation, and are offered a gun or a contact to save yourself – leave the gun, take the contact.

In India, having many friends is not just nice but crucial. One may be able to help with securing your toddler’s school admission, another with getting your husband that coveted job interview, yet another with finding you a good gynecologist who won’t unnecessarily advice a Caesarian birth just to earn more money, and a fourth with getting permission to dig that tube well to ensure water supply for your home.

8 India is world’s top rice exporter (The Wall Street Journal) Amid all the depressing news about a slowdown in the economy, a plethora of scams and poor performance in cricket, India has at least one reason to celebrate: It has overtaken Thailand to become the world’s top exporter of rice. In less than five months after lifting a ban on exports of non-Basmati rice, India is shipping out more of the staple grain than any other country in the world, thanks to its cheaper prices, rising output and ample stocks. India’s rice stocks are big enough to hypothetically take care of the entire world’s import requirements for a year. Neighboring China, a traditional rival in several fields, isn’t a major trader in rice, though it remains the world’s largest producer.

India exported at least 2.7 million metric tons of rice from October through January. Thailand and Vietnam exported 2 million and 1.5 million tons, respectively, during the four-month period, according to industry and government estimates. Price-conscious customers in Africa and Indonesia are snapping up Indian rice, taking advantage of the bumper output. India’s federal government has forecast India’s rice output in the year that started Oct. 1 at a record 103 million tons, a 21% increase since 2000-01. Inventories are more than comfortable as the government was holding a stockpile of 31.8 million tons rice at the beginning of this month – that’s more than double the country’s mandatory minimum buffer requirements and just about equals the total global annual trade in rice.

Thailand and Vietnam have been comfortably perched as world’s top two rice exporters for years but the balance of trade recently started shifting – and not only due to India removing export restrictions in early September. It’s also because the Thai government has been buying rice at artificially high prices since early October to fulfill a pre-election promise to farmers. Thai rice is now at least $100 per ton costlier than India’s.

9 Investment banking is bad for health (The Wall Street Journal) Add investment banking to the list of things that could be dangerous to your health. A University of Southern California researcher found insomnia, alcoholism, heart palpitations, eating disorders and an explosive temper in some of the roughly two dozen entry-level investment bankers she shadowed fresh out of business school. Every individual she observed over a decade developed a stress-related physical or emotional ailment within several years on the job, she says in a study to be published this month.

Investment banking has long been a beacon for ambitious people who crave competition, big money, steak dinners and paid-for town-car service. The 100-hour workweek, these ironmen and ironwomen tell themselves, is just the opening ante in a high-stakes game. During their first two years, the bankers worked on average 80 to 120 hours a week, but remained eager and energetic, she says. They typically arrived at 6 a.m. and left around midnight. By the fourth year, however, many bankers were a mess, according to the study. Some were sleep-deprived, blaming their bodies for preventing them from finishing their work. Others developed allergies and substance addictions. Still others were diagnosed with long-term health conditions such as Crohn's disease, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and thyroid disorders.

10 India police: Stars of fake shootouts (The Wall Street Journal) The officer, Senior Inspector Pradeep Sharma, was once so widely revered that two Bollywood movies have been inspired by his exploits. Today Mr. Sharma is in jail, charged with killing a real-estate broker on behalf of a business rival in 2006, in what is known in India as a "fake encounter"—a murder that is falsely reported as a police shootout.

Faked police shootings are common in India, according to civil-rights groups, police officers and senior government ministers. In an interview, one of Mr. Sharma's close friends and police colleagues openly acknowledged that police shootouts have long been staged. India's policing crisis exposes how the nation, despite modernizing its economy the past 20 years, hasn't kept pace with improvements to its law enforcement and the judiciary. The phenomenon of the faked shootout grew in the 1990s, when gang warfare raged in Mumbai. The city recently has tried to rein it in by suspending or firing some cops, but the phenomenon has already spread to India's far corners.

The National Human Rights Commission recently reported that, over the past two decades, it has received more than 20,000 cases of people allegedly dying in judicial custody, and more than 4,000 complaints of people dying in police custody. Referring to the use of fake shootouts, former Mumbai police commissioner Julio F. Ribeiro said: "The middle class was, and is, in favor of it." People "are convinced that the judicial system doesn't work, so they support taking the shortcut and killing anyone suspected of wrongdoing," he said. India's courts are indeed overstretched. Currently there is a backlog of 30 million civil and criminal cases combined, according to the National Bar Association.

11 India public sector banks hiding bad loans (The Times of India) India’s finance ministry has written to several public sector banks pointing out that they have not set aside billions of rupees to cover for loan defaults, and have consequently overstated profits. The communication was sent to state-owned lenders earlier this month and is based on inputs received from Reserve Bank of India. As the regulator, RBI conducts Annual Financial Inspection of banks. In case of one bank, the extent of under-provisioning was in excess of over Rs 50bn over a three-year period. Had the bank set aside funds in line with RBI stipulations, the lender could have ended up reporting losses, the finance ministry pointed out.

12 What CEOs do with their time (Mint) Break-up of a 55-hour week of a CEO: 20 hours in miscellaneous activities including travel, exercise, and personal appointments, 18 hours in meetings, 6 hours working alone, 5 hours at business meals, and 2 hours each at public events, on conference calls and making phone calls.

13 Jayachandran’s cartoon in Mint, on castes and the Uttar Pradesh election.