Showing posts sorted by relevance for query Meghalaya. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query Meghalaya. Sort by date Show all posts

Friday, February 07, 2014

'Nearly 20 Lakh Private Arms Licensed In Half India': RTI

By Ashmit Sinha | INNLIVE

ALARMING SITUATION Governments across Indian states have issued 19.80 lakh private gun licences in 324 districts, or in just under half the country’s 671 districts.

States that have suffered terrorism and those with poor social indicators top the list. Uttar Pradesh, which has 16.50 per cent of the country’s population, has issued 11.23 lakh private licences, according to a government affidavit filed in the Allahabad High Court last year. The district-wise data were received over four years from queries sent to 600 districts; many didn’t respond. For the 324 that did, the average works out to 6,113 licences per district.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Plugging The Leaks, North-East India And Development

By Syed Sultan Kazi (Guest Writer)

For over a decade there have been reports of central funds meant for the north-eastern region going into the wrong hands. The Government of India has proposed creation of the post of joint director in the Central Bureau of Investigation exclusively for the north-east to check the leakage of development funds. Though late in coming, this is a welcome move.

The Government of India’s (GoI)proposal (25 March 2013) to create the post of joint director in the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) exclusively for north-east India to check the unabated leakage of development funds in the region is a right move though it has been late in coming. For over a decade now, there have been reports of central funds going into the wrong hands in the north-eastern region (NER). 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Survey: 'UPA To Lose 2014, Regional Parties Will Hold Key'

INN Live Election Desk

The Congress-led UPA is set to lose the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and regional parties will be a key factor in deciding who gets to rule India, said a survey just released. The INN Live-C Voter survey showed the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) gaining a winning edge over the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Regional parties, it said, were expected to get as many as 240 of the 543 Lok Sabha seats in 2014. 

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Should President's Rule Be Imposed To Create Telangana?

By M H Ahssan / INN Live

Contrary to the prevailing opinion, in this country, new state formation has never been smooth. Nor were the procedures exactly similar. Each state formation was unique and had followed a different sequence of steps.

The only thing common to all the state formations so far in Independent India has been the rigid applicability of Article 3 in its truest sense, where Parliament is given the supreme authority to carve out states irrespective of the opinion of the involved State Assemblies.

While the NDA followed a convenient procedure in the creation of Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand in 2000, where the state assemblies initiated the demand for separation, such a procedure is neither legally mandated nor is constitutionally prescribed and deviates from most other prior state formations. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

India Speaks 780 Languages, 220 Lost In Last 50 Years

By Nikhil Chinappa / Mumbai

No one has ever doubted that India is home to a huge variety of languages. A new study, the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, says that the official number, 122, is far lower than the 780 that it counted and another 100 that its authors suspect exist.

The survey, which was conducted over the past four years by 3,000 volunteers and staff of the Bhasha Research & Publication Centre (“Bhasha” means “language” in Hindi), also concludes that 220 Indian languages have disappeared in the last 50 years, and that another 150 could vanish in the next half century as speakers die and their children fail to learn their ancestral tongues.

Friday, September 06, 2013

The Telangana Prophecy: Will More States Mean Conflict?

With the government clearing Telangana as India's 29th state, long-standing demands for separate states in other parts of the country have gained fresh momentum. This could be a foretelling of many more states to come, but would that necessarily augur ill for the unity of India? Noted historian Ramachandra Guha shares his thoughts.

Earlier in August, the UPA government decided to give the nod to India's 29th state Telangana, predictably setting in motion a spate of debates across the country.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

New Initiative: Humble Jackfruit Eyes Haute Cuisine Status

By Swetha Reddy / INN Bureau

Of the abundant quantities of jackfruit grown in India annually, an estimated 70 per cent rots away, due to lack of awareness and difficulties of usage. Now, a joint initiative by an academic institute and a farmers' group seeks to change that. Sixty seven-year-old Prema Bhat Thottethodi, a farmer woman, was restless. Leaning on a walking stick, she was busy running around in the massive kitchen. Age and her knee-ache couldn’t deter her spirit. Later in the day, she stole the show by demonstrating many ‘unknown’ preparations.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Selling India To The World, The Great Indian Travel Crisis

By M H AhssanKajol Singh

Home is not where the travel heartland is this summer. Footloose but pennywise, Indian travellers are packing their bags for overseas destinations, shunning domestic attractions. Flying abroad has always held more spell over travelling within India, but over the last decade, Indian tourism had been attracting visitors with well marketed heritage hotels, beaches and experience destinations like Kumarakom in Kerala and the more exotic North-East route. But an unhealthy combination of exploitative airfares and steep hotel tariffs is dissuading Indian tourists from travelling within the country. It is also stopping foreign tourists from flocking in. It’s less expensive for the Indian middle class traveller to fly to Dubai or even London than to fly to Kochi or the Andamans. England, Singapore, Dubai, Germany, Croatia, Spain, France and Thailand are the new hotspots where it is easier to bump into someone from India than in Leh.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

GRIM FACTS: WHAT'S BEHIND A GLASS OF MILK?

By M H Ahssan / Hyderabad

INN throws light on some grim details about the cow in India, the world’s largest producer of milk.

You know that child who throws a terrible tantrum over a glass of milk. How he kicks and screams and refuses to touch the stuff? Haven’t you wondered what the fuss is all about? After all, it’s just a glass of milk.

It turns out the child may just have the right idea. The business of producing milk — indeed, the multi-crore rupee cattle industry it’s a part of — is sustained by a process of relentless cruelty towards animals, from birth till death, with little letup. Cruelty compounded by poorly defined, poorly implemented methods and gross violations.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

UNDERTRIALS IN JAILS: THE IDEA OF INJUSTICE

By Yogesh Vajpeyi (Guest Writer)

Commenting on pending cases under the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, the Supreme Court last month came out with a pithy comment on the plight of the undertrial prisoners languishing in Indian jails: “The laxity with which we throw citizens into prison reflects our lack of appreciation for the tribulation of incarceration; the callousness with which we leave them there reflects our lack of deference for humanity.”

Saturday, April 27, 2013

TERROR HAVEN: THE NASTY AND THE NORTHEAST

By M H Ahssan / Shillong

Manir Khan's 'operational area' was Assam. The sub-inspector with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence had executed two 'assignments' in the state. But he was third time unlucky, as Indian sleuths nabbed him from west Tripura in July 2010. 

Khan told interrogators that his duty was to ferry back “quality information” for better “tactical appreciation” of cross-national issues to his masters in Pakistan. In his initial visits, Khan had carried out “feasibility recces” of the Tripura corridor connecting Bangladesh-Tripura and Assam, says an interrogation report. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

India Is Asia’s Dharamshala – Why Not Learn To Love It?

The benevolence of politicians and bureaucrats is sometimes no benevolence at all. For some time now, there has been a trickle of Hindus from Pakistan coming to India on short-term visas, but their real purpose has never been in doubt: to flee discrimination and violence against Hindus in Pakistan.

Earlier this week, the home ministry granted a one-month visa extension to 480 Pakistani Hindus who have been seeking permanent resident status here.  An Indian Express report quoted a ministry official thus: “They will not be deported. Since it takes time to take any decision on their appeals, we have extended their visas for a month.”

Sorry, sir, this is no longer about 480 people. For the last 65 years, India has been facing an influx of people fleeing either religious persecution or ethnic strife or economic conditions in all our neighbouring countries. But we have simply refused to evolve a policy to address all these issues. We want to do everything on a case-by-case basis, or, better still, ignore the problem till it gets resolved illegally: by people acquiring Indian residency by stealth.

Given the numbers of illegal migrants – perhaps running into millions now – we have probably become the world’s biggest dharamshala, but that is something to be proud of. It validates the idea of inclusive India. What we cannot be proud of is that we have allowed this to happen by accident and exception, rather than by a clear-sighted policy.

Our inward immigration policy is a mess. We have separate policies (or default approaches) for Tibetans, for Nepalese, for Sri Lankan Tamils, for Bangladeshis, for Pakistani Hindus and for the rest. Then there are Muslim Rohingyas from Myanmar and Afghans (a motley group comprising Sikhs, Hindus and even Muslims) and what not – and we don’t have a clue what to do with them.

For a country that was artificially partitioned in 1947, it should have been obvious that people will migrate here and there. As a secular alternative to all our less-than-secular neighbours, we have always known that immigration will be more inward and less outward. As a democratic oasis in a largely undemocratic or autocratic south Asian region, we should have had policies to accept refugees fleeing persecution.

As a rapidly globalising country, we have known since 1991 that Indian companies need to recruit foreign professionals to work here just as we expect foreign governments to allow Indians to work in their countries.

But what we have now is a patchwork and illogical system that has been adapted to exigencies of specific situations at specific times.

The Tibetans were allowed in in Nehru’s time. But do we have a policy in case it finally becomes clear that they will never get an autonomous state inside China and can’t return? What if they have to stay here permanently? Will they be given full Indian citizenship?

The Nepalese, under the 1950 India-Nepal Friendship Treaty, are allowed almost free access inside India – almost like Indian citizens. This is the most liberal policy we have with our neighbours, and has remained on the statute book even though our political relationship with Nepal has gone from good to uncertain after the Communists entered government and ended the Hindu monarchy.

When it comes to Bangladesh, we have three policies – or non-policies: one for Assam, another for some north-eastern states, and yet another for the rest.

Under the Assam Accord of 1985, anyone who came to Assam before 1 January 1966 will be allowed to stay and become Indian citizens. Those who came between this date and 24 March 1971 were to be detected but not deported. They would be deleted from electoral rolls, but could get back after 10 years. The rest were to be detected and deported.

The accord has more or less been a dead letter, since politicians in need of immigrant votes refused to implement it. As for the remaining north-eastern states, migration is either fully illegal and politically accepted, or we have restrictions that apply even to Indian citizens.

In Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh, Indians need inner line permits to visit those states even as tourists. The Bangladeshis who enter India traipse around tribal Meghalaya, but have found an easy perch in Tripura. Together with pre-1947 migration, they have relegated the locals to minority status. As for Kashmir, Indians can tour the state but can’t buy property or settle there. Even if they marry Kashmiris, they can’t acquire property there.

As for potential workers and immigrants from the rest of the world, we have the most restrictive policy on board, where the intention is to debar foreigners from working here – unless they earn more than $25,000 per annum. This rules out any kind of work visa for foreigners in India beyond highly qualified technical personnel or short-term consultants – so forget about allowing for easy migration.

As a liberal, democratic country, India has an obligation to run a truly liberal and open immigration policy that does not discriminate. This is a country that took in persecuted people from ancient times to the modern era (Zoroastrians, Jews, Tibetans). We have even accepted invaders as our own.

This should be the broad backdrop against which we should frame a unified immigration and work permit policy. The policy should include the following:

First, we must have a clear policy for taking in refugees from persecution. It does not matter which religion or ethnic group the person belongs to. It is ironic that political parties are willing to plead the case of Bangladeshi Muslims, who can only be chasing economic opportunities here, but not Hindu refugees from Pakistan. At a later stage, we should be willing to take in even Muslim refugees from Pakistan – for who knows what will happen if the Taliban takes over Pakistan? Obviously, this policy needs safeguards, but if there is a will, we can put one in place.

Second, we must have a system of regularising long-term migrants who are settled here. The Assam accord specifically provided for that, but we didn’t implement it. We neither put in place an impenetrable fence to keep future immigrants out nor a system of formally recognising the Bangladeshis’ need to find work here – through a system of work permits or guest workers with no citizenship rights.

Third, India needs to work out a free-movement agreement (especially for tourism and work) with all its neighbours barring Pakistan. Setting a high salary limit of $25,000 for work permits may be all right for westerners, but not for our neighbours in South Asia. The threshold needs to be much lower.

Fourth, residency permits and citizenship norms need to be easier. Currently, it takes 12 years for a foreigner to get citizenship by naturalisation, and seven years if they are married to an Indian citizen. One wonders why this waiting period needs to be so long. Seven years is too long a wait for a marriage to be seen as legitimate enough to warrant grant of citizenship to the foreign spouse.

Isn’t it high time we opened our front doors to the world instead of winking at their entry through the back door?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Over 1,000 IAS Officers Fail To Submit Property Returns

Over 1,000 IAS officers have failed to submit their immovable property returns (IPRs) to the government within the stipulated time frame this year.

Of the total of 1,057 officers who did not submit their IPRs for 2012, a highest of 147 are from Uttar Pradesh cadre, 114 of Arunachal Pradesh-Goa-Mizoram-Union Territories (AGMUT), 100 of Manipur-Tripura, 96 of Jammu and Kashmir and 88 of Madhya Pradesh cadre among others, according to Department of Personnel and Training data.

Suspended IAS couple Arvind and Tinoo Joshi of MP cadre are also among the list of erring officials. Joshis, both 1979 batch officers of Madhya Pradesh cadre, made headlines after Income Tax department raided their residence in February, 2010 and allegedly unearthed assets worth over Rs 350 crore.

58 IAS officers of Karnataka cadre, 53 of Andhra Pradesh, 48 of Punjab, 47 of Orissa, 45 of West Bengal, 40 of Himachal Pradesh, 35 of Haryana, 25 of Jharkhand, 23 of Assam-Meghalaya, 22 of Rajasthan, 20 of Tamil Nadu, 17 of Maharashtra, 16 of Nagaland, 14 of Gujarat, 13 of Bihar, 10 of Kerala, nine each of Uttarakhand and Chhattisgarh and eight of Sikkim cadre have not given their IPRs, it said.

The total sanctioned strength of IAS is 6,217, including 1,339 promotion posts. Of these, 4,737 officers are in position.

An all-India service officer is bound to file property returns of a year by January end of the following year, failing which promotion and empanelment to senior level postings may be denied.

Besides, there are 107 IAS officers who have not submitted their IPRs for 2011. As many as 198 IAS officials did not give their property details for 2010. “A circular has already been sent to all cadre
controlling authorities to inform them about timely submission of their IPRs,” said an official of the DoPT, which acts as a nodal agency for administrative matters of the IAS officers.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Where Are Our Missing Children?

In India, a child goes missing every eight minutes, according to data from the National Crime Records Bureau. Almost 40 percent of those children haven’t been found.

If you are a parent, go hug your child before you read this piece. We have an epidemic on, an epidemic that gets but a passing mention in the newspapers, an epidemic that is real and tangible only for those parents who wait for the call that never comes, the child who never returns, who do the rounds of the police stations, photographs in hand, who put out advertisements in the newspapers, describing what their child was wearing when he or she went missing, who live a life in limbo. Our children are going missing. One child every eight minutes across India. 


“In India, a child goes missing every eight minutes, according to data from the National Crime Records Bureau. Almost 40 percent of those children haven’t been found.” Wall Street Journal India Realtime.
On October 25, 2012, firstpost.com stated, 
“According to the police, a newborn boy was kidnapped from Wadia Hospital in Central Mumbai. The day-old boy was stolen during visiting hours when his mother, Jasmine Naik (28), was taking an evening walk in the corridor of the hospital, they said. She had left the baby unattended in the ward and was taking a stroll when someone took him away, police said, adding the hospital, run by a private trust, didn’t have CCTV cameras.” 
DNA pointed out in its October 26, 2012 issue, 
“The Bombay High Court in 2009 issued 23 guidelines for enhancing security in government, semi-government and BMC-run hospitals after a four day old baby of Mohan and Mohini Nerurkar was kidnapped from the maternity ward of BMC-run Sion hospital. The HC order said that sensitive areas such as the neo-natal, post-natal and paediatric wards should have CCTV cameras. The court said they should also be installed at all entry and exit routes. However, not one camera has been installed inside the premises of Wadia Maternity Hospital. The management has left a proposal to install CCTV cameras worth Rs 1 lakh pending for three years.” 
In its July 8, 2012 issue, DNA pointed out, 
“Three year old Sangita, who was kidnapped from the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) on June 10, was rescued from her kidnapper at the Haridwar bus station by the Haridwar Police on Saturday afternoon. The alleged kidnapper, identified as Raju, was also arrested by the Haridwar police. The Government Railway Police (GRP) of Maharashtra recently released shocking CCTV footage of the kidnapping. It shows a limping man alighting from a train and wandering about the station before spotting the sleeping family and three year old Sangita, who was not asleep at the time. The man then sat beside her and took her away.” 
Sangita’s parents were lucky that she was found. Not all kidnappings have a happy ending; some children are never found, or are found dead. 
Perhaps the most chilling are the 2006 Nithari killings, where remains of 17 children were found in drains outside a bungalow. 
“For the last two years, more than forty young children and women went missing from a small urban hamlet of Nithari, at the centre of Noida, a satellite town bordering Delhi (India). The local media regularly covered the incidents of missing children; the National Commission for Women also took cognisance of the matter, but the children continued to vanish in thin air. However, in the last week of December 2006, by sheer chance some human remains were spotted at the backyard of a palatial house situated at the edge of the village of Nithari. When the spot was searched further what emerged was a chilling tale of cold blooded serial murders that perhaps qualify as the biggest serial killings any where in the world.” http://www.pucl.org/Topics/Child/2007/nithari.html 
The unimaginable horror of Nithari killings, were further abetted by a lackadaisical police force that refused to take complaints of missing children. 
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), almost 60,000 children were reported missing in 2011. Of these, 22,000 are yet to be located. However, according to a report by Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), nearly 11 children go missing every hour, and at least, 4 of them are never found. According to BBA, the number of missing children could be as high as 90,000 per year. West Bengal topped the charts of missing children with 12,000 children missing in 2011. Madhya Pradesh followed with 7,797 cases, while Delhi had 5,111 cases. These are merely reported cases that discount those children who might run away due to various factors, ranging from abuse to dysfunctional homes, and exam stress, or some who might get lost while families travel. Majority of the missing children are just taken away. The statistics are scary – in 2011, 15,284 cases of kidnapping were reported. This was up 43 percent from the previous year. 
Children are kidnapped for human trafficking, illegal organ transplantation, prostitution, child porn racketing, child labour in factories and unpaid domestic help. Many children are forced to beg; some are mutilated to evoke sympathy for more earning potential, and a small percentage for ransom. 
Kidnappings for ransom are on the rise, and in some cases even after paying up, the parents never see their children again. According to a report in the Guardian, 
“Figures from Delhi police show that kidnap for ransom is on the rise. In 2008, there were 1,233 cases in the national capital; by last year that had soared to 2,975. In the first three months of 2011, 802 cases were registered.” 
According to an estimate by NGOs, only 50 percent of missing children are actually reported to the NCRB. Urban slum children are the most vulnerable as they are easily lured into promise of good food and clothes. According to news reports, there are over 800 gangs with 5,000 members involved in the kidnapping and trafficking of children, much in the same way they would traffic drugs, or contraband. Some parents are so poor; they don’t have recent photographs to give the police. Children between the ages of 6 and 13 are the most targeted and vulnerable. Infants are also taken; sometimes from the very hospitals they are born in, or from railway stations, and other crowded places. The children, who are lucky enough to be found and rescued or have the presence of mind to run away, speak of being sold into agricultural or factory labour. 
Why do we have so many missing children and why are they not found? 
It starts with how the investigation is done. Very often, First Information Reports are not registered; just an entry is made into a list of missing persons at the police station, and a photograph of missing child sent across city police stations. Cases are only investigated if the person reporting the missing child files a case of kidnapping. 
Delhi scores better in this regard – if a child is not found within 24 hours, a case of kidnapping is to be filed mandatorily. An initiative called Pehchaan (recognition) in Delhi has policemen taking pictures of children in slums for record, and copies are provided to their families. The Crime Branch has launched an exclusive portal (www.trackthemissingchild.gov.in) to track down missing children across the country. All states have to compulsorily put this facility into place. A PIL filed by Bachpan Bachao Andolan, states that over 1.7 lakh children have gone missing in the country between January 2008 and 2010. In response to this PIL, Supreme Court has instructed the chief secretaries of all states and union territories to ask police stations to register an FIR, and start an investigation. Supreme Court also directed that all police stations should have a special juvenile police officer. 
This may be too little, too late for those parents who have waited endlessly. For those children, who have already become statistics in the long lists, these measures might not be of any help. But we can, and we must push for more attention to the growing menace; we cannot let this get brushed under the carpet.

Nobody’s Missing Children

NGO’s working in the field estimate that barely 10 percent of all missing children cases are registered with the police. An overwhelming 90 percent disappear into the great morass of the Never Seen Never Heard of Again.

“Nobody seems to be concerned about the missing children. This is the irony,” stated a bench of the Supreme Court on Feb 5. The remark is indicative of the apathy shown by the Centre and state governments toward the issue of missing children. The court had directed the Centre and the various states to file status reports on the status of the missing children in the country and in their states in March 2012. The notices were issued by Justices Altamas Kabir and SS Nijjar in response to a Public Interest Litigation by the NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan on the escalating numbers of missing children in India. Unfortunately, a year later, these status reports are still to be filed by the Centre and several state governments.

The Supreme Court, taking serious note of the absence of the chief secretaries of Arunachal Pradesh, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu despite being directed to be physically present and not through their counsels, threatened to issue non bailable arrest warrants against them. The West Bengal counsel incidentally submitted that the status report had not been filed since there was no instruction, which the SC took exception to. Of the five States whose chief secretaries had been specifically asked to be present, only the chief secretaries of Goa and Orissa were present. Not only the Centre but also the governments of Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Meghalaya, Uttrakhand, West Bengal and Union Territories of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Chandigarh, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Daman and Diu, NCT of Delhi and Lakhshadweep have not filed their status reports, the court noted.
The numbers are scary. According to the figures filed by BBA in its PIL, over 1.7 lakh children had gone missing between January 2008 and January 2010. The exact figures given were 1,17,480 children who had gone missing, of which 41,546 children were still untraced. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, one child goes missing in India every eight minutes. Forty per cent of these children will never be found and will end up as mere statistics in an ever growing list of missing children in this country, children who are picked up from streets, from outside their homes, from railway stations, even from hospitals as newborns. Many of these children will end up trafficked, either as cheap labour, or to beggar syndicates or into the sex trade. For their parents it is a nightmare they live through every single day, the waiting for news that their child has been found, the hoping against hope, catching a sudden glimpse of someone in a crowded place who resembles their child, receiving information from distant places, that perhaps their child has been spotted there, only to rush there and be disappointed.
In 2011, 15,284 children were kidnapped, up 43 percent from the previous year. Around 3,517 cases of child trafficking were reported in the same year, buying and selling girls for the sex trade, for marriage, as well as trafficking of children for the organ trade, as drug mules, into bonded labour in the unorganised sector and to begging syndicates across the country. According to unconfirmed reports, there are close on 800 organised child trafficking gangs across the country. Traffickers target children from the lower income groups, where the families do not have the financial strength or the political connections to pursue their cases with the authorities. They pick up children who aren’t watched over too carefully from slums and congested areas. Merely a handful of the children who get kidnapped are taken for ransom. Sometimes, if the parents pay up, or the police locates the kidnapped child, the child is reunited with its family. Sometimes, despite paying up, some kidnapped children are brutalised and killed.
The highest number of untraced children are from Delhi, followed by Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Bangalore, city wise. According to the BBA, the number of missing children is highest in Maharashtra followed by West Bengal, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh and the number of untraced missing children is highest in West Bengal followed by Maharashtra, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. Sadly, 75 per cent of missing children in Kolkata and 65 per cent in Delhi “continue to remain untraced” according to a two-year study, titled ‘Trafficking of Women and Children in India’, compiled by Shankar Sen and P M Nair, with a team of ISS researchers. The report also found that sometimes, these children are actually sold to traffickers by their own family or people who know them, at times for as little as Rs 5,000. The survey interviewed over 500 rescued children who were now in homes. Of these, 40 percent told the surveyors that they had been sold when they were younger than ten, the rest were sold when they were between 11 and 14 years of age. Of these, only a mere seven percent of the rescued children stated they had been trafficked by total strangers.
India has the largest number of child labourers in the world, even though child labour is prohibited by the law. Data suggests that 12.66 million children are employed illegally in cigarette, bidi, firework and carpet weaving factories. Children are also employed at construction sites and in homes as domestic workers. Many of these are victims of child trafficking.
NGO’s working in the field estimate that barely 10 percent of all missing children cases are registered with the police. An overwhelming 90 percent disappear into the great morass of the Never Seen Never Heard of Again. The way missing children are investigated by our authorities is another reason why recovery rates are so low. Except for a few states, FIRs are not registered for missing children. The name of the missing child is just entered into a list of missing persons at the police station where it is reported. This does not lead to an in depth investigation. Photos of the missing child are sent to all police stations in cities like Mumbai but no active investigation into the disappearance of the child is done, unless the person who reports the child missing asks the police to file a case of kidnapping. Post the horrific Nithari murders in 2006, the law in Delhi requires a case of kidnapping to be filed by the police if a child is not located within 24 hours of being reported missing. In the Nithari killings, children had begun going missing from the neighbourhood for two years, but the police refused to register complaints or investigate the cases.
As a start, the police have begun sharing an integrated database of missing children, www.zipnet.in, as well as unidentified children found. Some of the parents of the children on the database are so poor, they don’t even have a recent photograph of the child they can provide. There is an interesting recent initiative by the Delhi police where it goes into the slums, photographs and registers all the children so that in the event of the child going missing recent photographs and details of the child are available. What is of immediate need though is an integrated country wide database that allows states to track missing children who are trafficked across states and work in tandem to rescue trafficked children, as well as trace children who might have run away for reasons ranging from dysfunctional homes, to exam pressure to a desire to see a big city. A standard protocol procedure to deal with a case of missing children needs to be put into place across the country by investigation and law enforcement agencies.
The Supreme Court’s annoyance on this issue is well justified. The “last opportunity” given to the Centre and the states to file their affidavits is now February 19. Whether the status reports will be filed by February 19 or not remains to be seen, but the fact remains that we, as a country, are not concerned about our missing children. They disappear into files, remain photographs on posters and morph into mere statistics. The parents live through the nightmare every single day of not knowing whether their child is alive or dead, or if alive, living under what unimaginable conditions. And we need to hang our heads in shame at our collective apathy to this terrifying issue.

Friday, January 18, 2013

For A Post-Colonial Congress

Can the century-old party reinvent itself at Jaipur and meet the challenges at its door?

The Congress’s three-day brainstorming conclave – chintan shivir – in Jaipur from today couldn’t have been better timed. The political crisis in Jharkhand presents new possibilities. Meanwhile, nine other states go to the polls in 2013: Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Karnataka, Meghalaya, Tripura, Nagaland and Mizoram. The outcome in Congress-ruled Rajasthan and Delhi and BJP-governed Karnataka could provide early clues to the 2014 general elections. 
    
A bruising budget session meanwhile looms. Finance minister P Chidambaram will have to defer around Rs 50,000 crore of Plan expenditure to beyond April 1, 2013 in order to keep the fiscal deficit below 5.5% of GDP. Instructions to cut or defer expenses have already gone out to every Union ministry. But the Congress’s real problem is not economics; it is politics. The precise timing of the 16th Lok Sabha elections will be decided by Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati without whose support the UPA government would fall. 
    
At the Jaipur chintan shivir, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi confronts three problems but has solutions to only two. The first problem is the choice of the UPA’s prime ministerial candidate in 2014. If the Congress wins more than 170 seats, the answer is Rahul Gandhi. If it doesn’t, the answer becomes more complicated. The focus will turn to finding an interim CEO for the party to replace Manmohan Singh who will be 82 years old in September 2014. 
    
Singh was leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha between 1998 and 2004 before being elevated to the prime ministership. Sonia may have to pick one from among her senior ministers for a similar role if the Congress can’t form a government in 2014 and it is necessary to sequester Rahul from long-term electoral damage. The chintan shivir will give us a good idea who that CEO could be: the reliable if colourless defence minister A K Antony, the ambitious and controversial P Chidambaram, or a dark horse like the external affairs minister Salman Khurshid.
    
Sonia’s second problem is rebuilding the party organisation in the states from the grassroots. Of the key state assembly elections scheduled to be held in 2013, the Congress is likely to do badly in all except Karnataka where B S Yeddyurappa’s breakaway Karnataka Janata Party and the Janata Dal (S) could create a hung assembly. The BJP faces a rout and the Congress, though lacking a charismatic local leader, may be able to stitch together a coalition government. 
    
Sonia’s third problem is public perception. The UPA is widely regarded as corrupt. It is held responsible for inflation. It has presided over an economic slowdown. And it has encouraged the worst excesses of crony capitalism. The game-changer Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) scheme will provide balm but is not the surgery the Congress needs to redeem public trust. 
    
In 1947 Mahatma Gandhi, freedom achieved, wanted to disband the Congress and form new political organisations to contest free elections. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel agreed. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru did not. Nehru’s view prevailed. In 1969, Indira Gandhi split the Congress to sideline the syndicate of regional satraps led by K Kamaraj and S Nijalingappa. The organisational and state-level decline of the Congress began in 1969 though Indira’s 1971 election victory and the euphoria over the Bangladesh war disguised it for nearly a decade. 
    
Nehru inherited a colonial administration. After Independence, it continued to serve the government in power. Colonial laws had been written to often protect British injustice, not deliver justice to Indians. Many remain cast in stone 150 years later, delaying and denying justice to ordinary Indians. Yet, Nehru did not impose chief ministers on states. The party’s local organisation was given a relatively free hand to choose regional leaders. Indira reversed that policy. She imposed state chief ministers, suspended intra-Congress elections, dismissed opposition state governments under Article 356 and undermined the judiciary. 
    
The important lesson for Sonia to absorb at the chintan shivir in Jaipur is to not follow her mother-in-law’s autocratic policies and hew instead to Nehru’s liberal, transparent leadership. Nehru made many errors: Jammu & Kashmir, China and even sowing the seeds of dynasty by appointing members of his family to high office – from Indira to sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. The last thing the battered Congress needs is to emulate Nehru’s few missteps and ignore the many excellent examples of governance he set. 
    
In 1998, Sonia took charge of a party fraying at the edges. Fifteen years later, having become the longest-serving president in Congress history, the party’s edges have frayed further. In 1999, the Congress won 114 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lowest in its history. To avoid falling below that in 2014, Sonia has to solve the leadership problem, strengthen the organisation at the grassroots in the states and restore public confidence. 
    
With its vast army of workers and an overflowing party treasury, the Congress remains a formidable force. It has been underestimated before – in 1980 and again in 2004 – when it was supposed to lose the general elections but didn’t. It can resolve its first two problems – leadership and reorganising the states – with the right strategies. The third – public perception – may prove more intractable. On that could rest its fate in 2014. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

India's Education Sector: Moving Toward a Digital Future

The typical Indian classroom was once characterized by students sitting through hour-long teacher monologues. Now, technology is making life easier for both students and educators. Schools are increasingly adopting digital teaching solutions to engage with a generation of pupils well-versed with the likes of PlayStations and iPads, and trying to make the classroom environment more inclusive and participatory.

Take Smartclass from Educomp Solutions, one of the first Indian companies in this space. Smartclass is essentially a digital content library of curriculum-mapped, multimedia-rich, 3D content. It also enables teachers to quickly assess how much of a particular lesson students have been able to assimilate during the class. Once a topic is covered, the teacher gives the class a set of questions on a large screen. Each student then answers via a personal answering device or the smart assessment system. The teacher gets the scores right away and based on that, she repeats parts of the lesson that the students don't appear to have grasped.

"Technology makes the teaching-learning process very easy and interesting," says Harish Arora, a chemistry teacher at the Bal Bharti Public School in New Delhi who has been using Smartclass since 2004. "For instance, [earlier] it would easily take me one full lecture to just draw an electromagnetic cell on the blackboard. Though I could explain the cell structure, there was no way I could have managed to show them how it really functions. This is where technology comes to our aid -- now I can show the students a 3D model of the cell and how it functions. Instead of wasting precious time drawing the diagram on the blackboard, I can invest it in building the conceptual clarity of my students."

According to Abhinav Dhar, director for K-12 at Educomp Solutions, more than 12,000 schools across 560 districts in India have adopted Smartclass. More importantly, the number is growing at almost 20 schools a day. On average, in each of these schools eight classrooms are using Smartclass.

"When we launched Smartclass in 2004 as the first-ever digital classroom program, it was an uphill task convincing schools to adopt it," Dhar notes. "These schools had not witnessed any change in a century.... It is a completely different scenario now. Private schools across India today see [technology] as an imperative. A digital classroom is set to become the bare-minimum teaching accessory in schools, just like a blackboard is today."

Dhar recalls that one major roadblock for Educomp's proposition in the early days was on the price front. At US$4,000 (at the exchange rate of Rs. 50 to a U.S. dollar) per classroom, schools found the product very expensive. To get over this hurdle, Educomp quickly decided to make the initial investment and gave the schools an option to pay over a period of three to five years. The strategy worked. Enthused by the market response, in January Educomp launched an upgraded version -- the Smartclass Class
Transformation System -- with more features, including simulations, mind maps, worksheets, web links, a diagram maker, graphic organizers and assessment tools.

HUGE POTENTIAL
According to the "Indian Education Sector Outlook -- Insights on Schooling Segment," a report released by New Delhi--based research and consultancy firm Technopak Advisors in May, the total number of schools in India stands at 1.3 million. Of these, private schools account for 20%. Educomp's Dhar points out that only around 10% of the private schools have tapped the potential of multimedia classroom teaching whereas in government schools, it has barely made any inroads.

"The current market size for digitized school products in private schools is around US$500 million," says Enayet Kabir, associate director for education at Technopak. "This is expected to grow at a CAGR [compound annual growth rate] of 20% to reach the over US$2 billion mark by 2020. However, the market potential then might get as big as S$4 billion [i.e. if the total population of private schools that could adopt multimedia actually adopt it.] Apart from this, the current market size for ICT [information and communications technology] in government schools is US$750 million. We expect this to grow five times by 2020 due to the current low level of penetration in government schools."

Kabir lists Educomp Solutions, Everonn Education, NIIT, Core Education & Technologies, IL&FS and Compucom as dominant players in this sector. New entrants include HCL Infosystems, Learn Next, Tata Interactive Systems, Mexus Education, S. Chand Harcourt (India) and iDiscoveri Education. Except for S. Chand Harcourt, which is a joint venture between S. Chand and US-based Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, all the others are Indian firms.

A recent trend is that schools in tier two and tier three cities are increasingly adopting the latest technology. Rajesh Shethia, head of sales and marketing at TataInteractive Systems, which launched Tata ClassEdge in early 2011 and has partnered up with more than 900 schools, says that "more than half of the demand for digital classrooms is from tier two and tier three cities." According to Shethia, schools in these smaller cities realize that it is difficult for their students to get as much exposure as students from tier one cities. "[So] they proactively subscribe to solutions such as ours, which richly benefit both teachers and students by simplifying the syllabus....

Even parents want the best for their wards and are not averse to paying a little extra. They see value in these initiatives by schools to modernize the way teaching is imparted today." Making some back-of-the-envelope calculations Shethia adds: "If we consider the top 100,000 private schools in India as the captive market, the potential is approximately two million classrooms of which currently just about 80,000 have been digitized."
Srikanth B. Iyer, COO of Pearson Education Services, also sees tremendous potential in the smaller cities. Pearson provides end-to-end education solutions in the K-12 segment. Its multimedia tool, DigitALly, has been adopted in more than 3,000 private schools across India since 2004. "DigitALly installations have been growing at three times the market for the past two years," Iyer says. "Currently, more than 60% of our customers are from tier two and tier three towns, such as Barpeta (in the state of Assam), Sohagpur (in Madhya Pradesh) and Balia (in Uttar Pradesh)."

In order to make its offering attractive to the schools, Pearson has devised a monthly payment model under which a school pays around US$2 per student per month. "As the price point is affordable, schools across all locations and fee structures find it viable to opt for our solution," Iyer notes. "We focus on tier two and tier three towns and cities where penetration is relatively low and desire for adoption of technology is high." HCL's Digischool program, which launched about 18 months ago, has also made a strong beginning, with a client base of more than 2,500 schools.

PARTNERING WITH STATE GOVERNMENTS
Meanwhile, state governments are also giving a boost to the adoption of technology in schools. Edureach, a divison of Educomp, has partnered with 16 state governments and more than 30 education departments and boards in the country, covering over 36,000 government schools and reaching out to more than 10.60 million students.

"Edureach leads the market with 27% of the total schools where ICT projects have been implemented," says Soumya Kanti, president of Edureach. "We are looking [to add] 3,000 more schools this fiscal year and 20,000 to 25,000 additional schools in the next five years." As of now, Edureach has created digital learning content in more than 14 regional languages for these projects.

In the northern state of Haryana, CORE Education and Technologies is implementing a US$59 million ICT project that aims to benefit 5 million students across 2,622 schools. Five of these schools will be developed as "Smart" schools. CORE is also implementing ICT projects in the states of Gujarat, Meghalaya, Punjab, Maharashtra and Nagaland. The scope of work in these projects ranges from implementation of computer-aided learning in schools, installing bio-metric devices to monitor attendance of teachers, and setting up computer hardware, software and other allied accessories and equipments.

"The task has not been an easy one," admits Anshul Sonak, president of CORE. "There are several logistical issues. Delivery of equipment to rural areas is a big challenge in itself.... There is lack of basic infrastructure -- either there are no classrooms or there are ones with no windows.... Some schools don't even have toilets. Moreover, the power availability in these areas is often poor and we have had to deploy generator sets in many schools."

But despite the challenges, educationists are optimistic. Rahul De, professor of quantitative methods and information systems area at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore (IIM-B) believes that "ICT can have a huge impact on our education system." He points out that ICT can result in increasing the reach [of education] and in keeping the costs low. "With increasing penetration of mobile phones and Internet kiosks, the potential is indeed immense," he adds.

A study conducted by De in 2009 on the economic impact of free and open source software (FOSS) in India found that it resulted in significant cost savings. "FOSS can play a huge role in education," De notes. "In the state of Kerala, it has already had a huge impact in both saving costs and providing state-of-the-art access computing to students in government schools. FOSS has a huge number of packages for school students, many of which can be ported to local languages and used in schools. It is also helping disabled students in a big way, by enabling them to access digital resources using audio-visual aids."
Edureach's Kanti adds that a study by the Centre for Multi-Disciplinary Development Research in Dharwad in Karnataka in 2006 revealed significant improvement in student enrolment and attendance, as well as a reduction of student dropouts due to ICT interventions. "Yet another study conducted by the Xavier Institute of
Management in Bhubaneswar in 2007 revealed that computer-aided education has improved the performance of children in subjects such as English, mathematics and science, which are taught through computers using multimedia-based educational content."

ALL IN A TAB
In line with this increasing interest in technology for school education, there has been a rush of education-focused tablet computers in the market. The most high-profile of these has been Aakash, which was launched by Kapil Sibal, union minister for human resource development, in October 2011. The Aakash project is part of the ministry's National Mission on Education through Information & Communication Technology (NME-ICT). It aims to eliminate digital illiteracy by distributing the Aakash tablets to students across India at subsidized rates. While the project itself has become mired in delays and controversy, it has generated a lot of awareness and interest among students around the educational tablet.

Meanwhile, DataWind, the Canada-based firm that partnered with the union government for the Aakash project, has also launched UbiSlate7, the commercial version ofAakash. "The opportunity for low-cost tablets in India is huge. In the next two years, it will exceed the size of the computer market in India i.e. 10 million units per year," says Suneet Singh Tuli, president and CEO of DataWind.

In April, technology firm HCL Infosystems launched the MyEdu Tab, which is priced at around US$230 for the K-12 version. The device comes preloaded with educational applications and also books from the National Council of Educational Research and Training, a government organization. Anand Ekambaram, senior vice-president and head of learning at HCL Infosystems, is in the process of partnering with more than 30 educational institutes across India for MyEdu Tab. "MyEdu Tab has content offline and can be accessed over the cloud. It allows students to learn at their own pace," Ekambaram notes. "With a topic revision application and a self-assessment engine, students can evaluate their skills and knowledge on their own. Teachers can upload content, which can be accessed by students and parents for tasks such as homework and progress reports on their respective devices. The parent can monitor the progress of his or her child through the cloud-based ecosystem."

Earlier this year, Micromax, a leading Indian handset manufacturer, also launched an edutainment device called Funbook. Micromax has also partnered with Pearson and Everonn to make available relevant content for students. Susha John, director and CEO at Everonn, was upbeat at the launch. "Digital learning facilitated through tablets will revolutionize the educational space," John said. "Everonn has invested in developing content and services targeted toward tablet audiences. To start with, we will offer our school curriculum-learning modules ... and at home live tuition products on the Funbook. Students can now have access to good teachers, educational content and a great learning experience anytime, anywhere."

At Pearson, Max Gabriel, senior vice-president and chief technology officer, is "focusing on K-12 content in English to begin with. We are sitting on a huge repository of existing content. Adding the right level of interactivity and richer experience will be our priority." Meanwhile, Educomp is gearing up to launch content that is device agnostic and can be run on any tablet.

But even as schools in India are going through this transformation powered by technology, one key question is how big a role technology will play in the education sector.

In an earlier interview S. Sadagopan, founder-director at the International Institute of Information Technology in Bangalore, pointed out that there are four parts to learning -- lectures, library, laboratory and life -- noting that, "Technology plays a critical role in all these." Kabir of Technopak adds another perspective. "Despite numerous studies on the impact of ICT in education, the outcomes remain difficult to measure and open to much debate. It needs to be understood that technology is only an enabler and a force multiplier and cannot be treated as a panacea. We believe that impressive gains in teaching-learning outcomes are possible only through an integrated approach rather than a piecemeal intervention."

Don Huesman, managing director of Wharton's innovation group, recommends caution in considering potential investments in educational technologies. "These are very exciting times for online and distance education technologies, but there are risks facing parents, educators and policy makers in evaluating the opportunities these new technologies, and their proponents, represent."

Huesman points to the recent growth in high-quality, free, online educational courseware offered on websites like the Khan Academy and the Math Forum, as well as the work of the Open Learning Initiative in developing intelligent cognitive tutors and learning analytics. "But such technologies, available from a global network of resources, only provide value when understood, chosen and integrated into a local educational community," he says. As an illustration, Huesman offers the example of cyber kiosks, provided in recent years by foundations at no cost to rural communities in India, exacerbating the "gender divide" in many traditional communities in which young women congregating at public cyber cafes, also frequented by young men, would be considered taboo. "Interventions by governments and NGOs must be inclusive of local community concerns and aware of local political complications," Huesman notes.

Monday, June 01, 2009

In India, the comedy of power-sharing

By M H Ahssan

Twelve days after the very surprising Indian election results were out, 10 days after Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam chief V Prabhakaran's body was found by the Sri Lankan army near Nandikadal lagoon, nine days after Aung San Suu Kyi's trial began in Myanmar, three days after Nepal turned a corner in its tumultuous politics, and a day after suicide bombers ripped through the heart of Lahore, a government finally took shape in New Delhi.

For once, it seemed history - carrying its burden of sub-continental deaths, destruction and tales of intimidation - was about to outpace contemporary politics. It was an unusually protracted wait outside the delivery room.

But wasn't this supposed to be an emphatic vote for continuity, for the comfort of the familiar? So what took Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress party president Sonia Gandhi so much time to put a team together? Surprisingly, the huge mandate the Congress got turned out to be the hindrance. A bigger victory betokened not a bigger pie, but a larger number of people that justifiably expect a piece of it.

Thus, the louder the celebratory firecrackers outside 10 Janpath - the New Delhi residence of the Congress president - the longer the queue of fat cars became. No sooner had the exercise of choosing cabinet ministers begun, aspirants made sure they were in the frame. (In the case of the mercurial Farooq Abdullah, former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister, this was accomplished by petulantly and noisily storming off to watch the Indian Premiere League cricket finals in South Africa when his name didn't figure in the first round.) Even in this spectacle of democratic power-sharing, rendered as full-blown comedy, there were significant patterns, a few markers for the future.

But the bustle around the Congress, the haggling, the noise of the bazaar, was itself a sign of how things had changed in a very short while. A few days before the May 16 results, a senior Congress functionary had predicted ruefully that "a government can be in place only by the end of the month". Everyone present had concluded that he meant to indicate - and he most probably meant to - the uncertainty of a fractured verdict, the legal quagmire of a hung parliament. His statement turned out prophetic. For all the wrong reasons though. In a twist in the tale worthy of the masters of the genre, it was not a number drought that caused the delay but its opposite, a downright embarrassment of riches.

Political parties, even from camps not particularly friendly to the Congress, voluntarily rushed to the president of India to submit their letters of support to the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The numbers with the UPA climbed to 325, way beyond the simple majority mark of 272 that everyone thought would be out of everyone's reach. The comfort levels rose to such a point that it quickly started getting suffocating. By lending unprompted support, everyone was clearly looking for a quid pro quo.

Almost a breathless fortnight later, Manmohan and Sonia Gandhi admitted managing the strong supply line was "a difficult and taxing job". But it had to be done for the sake of present equilibrium and future growth. Forming a government was not simply a corporate-style question of finding the right people for the right job - that basic imperative had to married with the subtler demands of representative politics. Pruning, grafting and retooling an old team for a new game, thwarting the unreasonable and satisfying those who won't be denied, all this had to be done while managing perceptions.

Such a composite play offers all the pleasures of a minefield. The first major explosion - actually a series of sharp ones - was reported as Muthuvel Karunanidhi, the chief of Congress's southern ally Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), rode into town with his entire entourage of sons, daughters, grand-nephews and other grandees, all aspiring ministers. Having scripted a win that no one would have bet their money on, the wheelchair-bound Karunanidhi expected to be handsomely rewarded with plum portfolios, no less than nine. Three cabinet berths and the rest junior ministers.

Surprising though it may seem for a group of top Tamil politicians, no one here had Sri Lanka on their minds. No talk of the Tamil refugees herded into camps in the warzone, of relief measures, or of the need to put pressure on Colombo to ensure a political package is worked out for the island's long-suffering Tamil population. The emotive election was past - the rhetoric had already delivered the votes. Now was the time to stake claim to your own relief package, to stock up on ammo to take care of the coming five years.

In the outgoing government, the DMK held plum infrastructure portfolios: shipping, surface transport, IT and communications, to name a few. This time, they not only wanted what they had but some more, such as railways, health and commerce. But between 2004 and now, a key equation had changed. From being a 145-member party in parliament, very much at the mercy of its coalition partners, the Congress has regained its stature with 206 seats. It would not yield so easily to "friendly" bullying. Karunanidhi left Delhi in a huff, threatening not to join the government. A few days of sulk ended with a bit of cajoling over the phone by the prime minister, and he returned meekly to accept whatever was on offer.

Finally, the DMK had to settle for textiles, chemicals and fertilizers plus IT and communications - all ministries that oversee those particular sectors. And, a few junior ministers of state, a subordinate position, to sugar-coat the deal. (Work allocation to junior ministers largely depends on the cabinet minister's whims. Often they are left with very little to do except answering difficult parliamentary questions.) The DMK had been cut to size. If Karunanidhi accepted the deal, it was only because it helped him control the vaulting ambitions in his own ranks.

But taming the DMK solved only part of the problem. As Sonia and Manmohan realized, Congress leaders themselves could act equally peevishly. Having won 206 seats, they thought it was their "party" as well. Individual leaders exerted themselves to keep old allies and willing suitors out of the race so they did not have to share the pie. Such was the clamor for cabinet-rank postings that portfolio distribution had to be held back even after the ornate Ashoka Hall of Rashtrapati Bhavan - the palatial, colonial-era residence of the Indian president - had played host to two rounds of oath-taking.

The prime minister himself took his oath of office on May 22 along with 19 others. The all-important finance portfolio was allocated to party veteran and second-in-command Pranab Mukherjee; the home ministry stayed with P Chidambaram (the glib corporate lawyer moved there from finance after the Mumbai terror strikes of last November); railways went to the leader of the largest ally, Mamata Banerjee; the squeaky-clean A K Antony expectedly kept defense; and foreign affairs went unexpectedly to S M Krishna (a former chief minister of the southern state of Karnataka).

The rest were kept waiting without portfolios until the morning of Friday, May 29. The portfolios of 78 ministers were announced at one go, one day after the second swearing-in ceremony where as many as 59 ministers took oath. "Several factors like availability of talent and other considerations played a role in the making of the team. People expect more than business as usual," Manmohan said in his usual workaday fashion afterwards.

So at the end of two weeks, it turned out to be one jumbo cabinet. No less than six former chief ministers jostled their way in, including two ex-chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir (Farooq Abdullah and Ghulam Nabi Azad), two of Karnataka (Veerappa Moily and S M Krishna). Seventy-seven-year-old Krishna's induction was the most astonishing event. Not only did he not contest the elections, he was cooling off after losing the last assembly elections in his home state to the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. Known to have "good access" to Manmohan, he was perhaps chosen for the calmness of age. He's suave, soft-spoken and can be expected to bring a non-belligerent, if copybook, approach to the ministry. Analysts, however, feel it might equally call for sagacity and creative initiative to deal with a South Asia in flames.

Another surprise was the shifting of former commerce minister Kamal Nath, who had pulled off quite a coup at the World Trade Organization talks in Davos, to the gritty and unglamorous ministry for surface transport. Some see this as a clear signal of intent from the prime minister; he wants the more energetic hands rolling up their sleeves to rev up basic infrastructure (in this case, roadways and highways). This ministry was with the DMK and saw little work in the last five years, with contracts worth $10 billion stuck in the pipeline.

Manmohan has been responsible for key paradigm shifts whenever he has been in government. He completely overhauled India's economic policy in the early 1990s, bringing in reforms. By 2008, he had formally changed the course of India's foreign policy by signing the India-United States nuclear deal. This time, he is expected to open up the higher education sector to foreign participation. His choice of Kapil Sibal, a senior Supreme Court lawyer and science and technology minister last time, is being seen as significant.

Although some allies lost out, Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar - his prime ministerial ambitions decisively thwarted - has retained his hold over the agriculture portfolio. An acknowledgement of his work, notwithstanding his controversial decision to import wheat. It needs to be seen how the social welfare slant the Congress would like the Manmohan government to take can be married to the market orientation of Pawar's agriculture policy.

The coming days would show whether a faultline develops between Pawar and the Congress leadership. The Congress sees its victory in this elections as an unambiguous vote for welfarism, as enshrined in the rural employment guarantee scheme and the massive farm loan waiver of 2008, and it would soon like to bring in a food security bill. How Pawar responds to it would be interesting to watch.

The biggest straw in the wind is the fact that the Congress leadership chose the socialist-minded Mukherjee over the aggressively pro-reform Montek Singh Ahluwalia as finance minister. It is widely rumored that Manmohan's preference for Ahluwalia, currently the Planning Commission deputy chairman, was shot down by a cautious party. Mukherjee, expected to present the budget in parliament in early July, could bring an urban employment guarantee scheme (on the lines of the rural job scheme) and cut interest rates of loans for farmers and the poor. He's also hinting at another economic stimulus package for infrastructure by way of massive government investment.

Mukherjee, who has returned as finance minister after a quarter of a century, would have to step up spending to support growth even at the risk of widening fiscal deficit. The Indian economy has been hit much more by the global recession than the government is prepared to admit. He also has to create jobs in this recessionary market to meet the aspirations of the youth who are said to have voted for Congress.

Youth is fast becoming an obsession of the Manmohan government. The young Gandhi scion, Rahul, is held to be instrumental in attracting young voters (the Congress won 75 of the 82 seats for which he campaigned) and has been demanding more representation for them. Thus has been born a new constituency within government, leading to the induction of seven junior ministers below the age of 40. The youngest of all is Agatha Sangma, a 27-year-old law graduate from the northeastern state of Meghalaya.

Now to see if this elaborately wrought vehicle - this "mix of youth and experience", as Manmohan himself proffered - can move as fast as he wants to meet his 100-day targets.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Votes cast as a 'weapon of the weak'

By M H Ahssan

India's rich and middle class urban voters have failed to show up in large numbers to exercise their franchise in the country's 15th month-long general election. Despite a massive campaign to get the educated to vote, the software hubs of Bangalore and Pune, the two main metros which went to the polls in the second phase of voting on April 23, registered poor turnout.

In contrast to rural areas, which had a turnout of 60%, constituencies in Bangalore city registered a mere 46% turnout, a figure that is below the national average in two phases of voting so far but also lower than turnout in the 2004 general election. As in previous elections, in the two rounds of voting that have been completed in India's multi-phase general election, urban middle-class voters have indicated that they are laggards in comparison to the rural or urban poor.

Media reports on the Indian elections often draw attention to the magnitude of the electoral exercise. Indeed, it is hard not to be impressed by the sheer scale of the election. A 714-million-strong electorate will vote in 828,804 polling booths in 543 constituencies in a five-phase election spread over a month. Four million electoral officials and 2.1 million security personnel are overseeing the process to ensure that it is free, fair and peaceful. Animals, too, are on hand to assist in the process. In the states of Assam and Meghalaya in India's northeast, elephants carry officials and polling material to voting booths.

The Election Commission (EC), which conducts the polls, goes the extra mile to ensure that voters can exercise their franchise. In some parts of the country, which are inaccessible by roads, officials trek for three to four days or ride on the backs of elephants to set up polling booths.

In the western state of Gujarat, the EC has set up a polling booth for one voter - a priest in a temple in the heart of the Gir forest, which is home to the Asiatic lion. He will vote in the third phase of the election.

Officials brave wild animals, scorching heat, long treks, militants and impatient voters to ensure that people can exercise their fundamental right to vote.

As remarkable as these statistics or the logistics involved in conducting the election is the mass participation in Indian elections. Unlike the global trend of a steady decline in voting levels, in India voter turnout over the years has either increased or remained stable.

And what makes this rise in voter turnout significant is that it is spurred by the rise in participation in elections by the poor, women, lower castes and Dalits and tribals. The most vulnerable sections of Indian society are increasingly enthusiastic about voting.

Unlike Western democracies, which granted the right to vote first to propertied men, later educated men, then all men and only after much debate and agitation to women, independent India granted all adult men and women regardless of their religion, caste, language, wealth or education the right to vote in one fell swoop, points out Ramachandra Guha, author of India after Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy.

The Indian constitution granted all its citizens the right to vote. Right from the first general election in 1952, India's poorest and most marginalized sections have possessed the right to vote. And they have been the most keen to exercise this right.

Voter turnout in India has been higher in rural areas than in cities since 1977. The poor vote more than the rich, especially in urban areas and in the past four general elections, Dalits (or Untouchables as they used to be called) have voted more than upper-caste Hindus, says Yogendra Yadav, a political analyst with the Center for the Study of Developing Societies. "This 'participatory upsurge' from below has defined the character of Indian democracy in the past two decades or so," he says.

This is quite unlike the experience in Western democracies where it is the rich, the well-educated and those belonging to the majority community who are more likely to vote and participate in political activity.

Analysts have pointed out that if those at the lower end of the socio-economic hierarchy take the trouble to vote, defying threats and violence, it is because democracy is bringing change in their lives, however small these might be. Polling day is that one big day on which their decision matters, when their choice counts.

Voters defy militants' calls for a boycott of the poll to exercise their franchise. Maoists have called for a poll boycott and sought to impose it with intimidation and violence. Still, people in the states of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh have come out to vote. In assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir in November and December last year, 62% of the electorate voted in spite of a boycott call by separatists.

The media have often underestimated the rural/poor voter, looking on him or her as someone who votes along caste or other parochial lines, who votes as told to rather than on the basis of an informed choice.

This might be true, but only to a limited extent. In 2004, the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) campaigned on an "India Shining" slogan. But India was not shining for rural Indians and those at the bottom of the heap. Unlike the educated/urban voter who swallowed the NDA's propaganda campaign, the rural voters registered their protest through the ballot box. They voted out the NDA. The vote is the "weapon of the weak", points out Yadav.

This time around, whether the rural voter who is reeling under a severe agrarian crisis is impressed by the 8% average economic growth rate achieved under the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is debatable. To its credit, the UPA has put in place a rural employment guarantee scheme that provides one member of every rural household with work for 100 days every year.

Both the Congress and the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have made provision of heavily subsidized wheat and rice a central plank in their election campaigns. The Congress has promised every poor family 25 kilograms of wheat or rice at 3 rupees (US$0.06) a kilogram and the BJP 35 kilograms at 2 rupees per kg.

One of the districts that voted in the first phase was Kandhamal in the eastern state of Orissa, which was ravaged by anti-Christian violence last year. Voter turnout in the district was 65.7%. About 90% of those still living in relief camps - people who are too terrified to return to their homes for fear of communal violence - turned up at polling booths despite a Maoist call for a poll boycott and fear of communal violence. Clearly, these victims of communal violence are looking on the ballot box with some hope.

How do Muslims - India's largest religious minority - view the democratic process? Contrary to the perception worldwide that Muslims do not believe in democracy, Muslims in India are as enthusiastic as Hindus in their stated support of democracy. Voter turnout among Muslims, which dipped in the early 1990s and again in 2004, has generally been rising or stable and is as robust as that among Hindus. "Clearly, Indian Muslims are not opting out of democratic politics," says Yadav.

It is not religion but class that appears to influence voter turnout. The rich and middle class Indian doesn't seem to share the faith the poor have in the elections and the power of the vote. Over the years, urban apathy has grown. All the parties are the same, urban voters grumble, pointing to the fielding of criminal and corrupt candidates in some areas.

Voter turnout in successive elections over the past two decades indicate that for all their whining about the quality of politicians who represent them in parliament and state assemblies, India's educated and more privileged sections don't do anything about it on polling day. They simply stay away.

South Mumbai, where many of India's millionaires and billionaires live and work is notorious for poor turnout on polling day, as is Bangalore, India's software hub. State assembly elections in Bangalore in May last year saw an abysmal 44% exercise their franchise, the lowest in the past five elections.

Will Mumbai, Delhi and other Indian cities go Bangalore's way in the coming phases of voting? The terror attacks in Mumbai in November last year shook up the country's politically apathetic youth and brought them out into the streets demanding greater accountability and better performance from the political elite. Thousands participated in candlelight vigils and online campaigns.

Whether they will leave the comfort of their air-conditioned homes to wait in long lines outside polling booths to vote in scorching heat is another matter.