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India, explained

India: Drivers, peons, and astrologers sit on board of directors of politicians' firms

An investigation into companies owned by some of India's top politicians, including BJP president Nitin Gadkari, uncovers a rank fishy smell.
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India's anti-corruption movement went bipartisan last week, with the media-indictment of Bharatiya Janata Party President Nitin Gadkari. But it's the details of the latest wave of revelations that are interesting.

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India's Narendra Modi: Too big to ban?

UK breaks ice with Narendra Modi despite lingering questions about Gujarat riots
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The UK government has ended its freeze-out of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, signaling that the Bharatiya Janata Party leader may be getting "too big to ban" as he edges closer to becoming his party's nominee for the prime ministerial race. The next question: Does this mean the US will rethink its decision to deny a visa to the man whom many still accuse of preventing police from interceding in the deadly Gujarat riots of 2002?

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India: Hot for teacher

Schools in Kerala tell female teachers to wear aprons and overcoats to stop naughty mobile phone pics
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ndian schoolchildren from The Devnar Foundation School for the Blind shake hands with their teachers as they participate in Teachers Day celebrations in Hyderabad. (NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)

To paraphrase '80s hair band Van Halen: They've got it bad, so bad. They're hot for teacher.

That's right, dear readers. Officials at private schools in Kerala have advised their female teachers to wear aprons or overcoats in a bid to stop naughty schoolboys from snapping revealing pictures of them while they write on the blackboard, or pick up the oft-dropped pencil and the like, reports the Times of India.

According to the newspaper, there's no dress code being enforced. It's just a word to the wise, as schools have had no success in banning mobile phones from campus.

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India: Local giants wait and watch as Starbucks opens in Mumbai

Local chains Barista and Cafe Coffee Day converted Youngistan from tea to coffee, but now Starbucks is coming to town.
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Starbucks' signature burnt and bitter coffee comes to India on Friday, with the opening of the global java chain's first outlet in Mumbai.  But the US giant's late entry could make cracking India's booming coffee business tougher than expected.

Two Indian pioneers, Barista and Cafe Coffee Day, succeeded in converting Indian youth from tea to coffee essentially by providing a cheap date. Stop by any outlet in Delhi, Mumbai, or even a remote locale like Puri, home of the Jagunath Temple, on the coast of Orissa, and you'll find teenagers and 20-somethings on stealth dates -- nursing a single coffee frappe or brownie sundae for hours, and occasionally slipping out to the street for a cigarette.  

Sure, there are professionals, too. You'll note the occasional laptop. But the music is loud and there's a guitar on hand for anybody who wants to start a spontaneous singalong.  

That doesn't mean there's unbreakable brand loyalty for either joint, I suspect. But it suggests that the Indian market isn't as big or as profitable as Starbucks likely estimates. (The margins on a 60 rupee cup of coffee, consumed over two-and-a-half hours, have to be razor thin).  And it means that the world's biggest purveyor of milky drinks (something has to kill that bitter taste!) is way behind when it comes to boots on the ground.

As the Hindustan Times reports, the organized cafe business in India is presently worth about $240 million in revenue per year, which is a drop in the bucket compared with the $3.3 billion in revenue Starbucks posted for the third quarter. While the sector is growing by as much as 30 percent a year, there are already some 1,950 branded cafe stores in operation -- led by Cafe Coffee Day with 1,350 outlets. And global competitors like Costa Coffee and Dunkin Donuts have yet to dent Indians' preference for the local outfits.

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India: Delhi and Mumbai are neither lovable nor livable, says UN

Delhi ranks last in UN survey of "green cities," while both Delhi and Mumbai fall in bottom half on "prosperity."
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New Delhi and Mumbai are world class cities. Just ask anybody who's never been outside of India. But don't go to the United Nations. 

According to a new UN study of the world's largest cities, India's most prestigious metropolises are neither lovable nor livable. Despite frequently patting itself on the back for its trees (what of the garbage strewn around their boles!?), New Delhi ranked dead out of 95 cities on the UN's environmental index. And neither Delhi nor Mumbai was able to break into the top half in "prosperity."

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India: PM pledges $50 million for biodiversity protection, but are the 'rich' countries listening?

India's track record on environmental protection is dismal, but its $50 million pledge should shame the US and Europe into action.
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A butterfly sits in the window sill near a garden in New Delhi on October 25, 2011. India hosts one of the world's largest biodiversity hot spots. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

The Indian prime minister pledged $50 million to protect the world's plant and animal life at the UN convention on biodiversity Tuesday, in a move intended to push the world's more developed countries to put up or shut up.

India's track record on the environment is dismal, as activists told the Hindustan Times. But the PM's move, like an earlier shift away from stonewalling on emissions limits, should shame the world's rich countries into shelling out as well.

"Listening to his assertions regarding India's commitment to conservation and livelihoods, one would think the country is in the right hands. Nothing can be farther from the truth," the paper quoted Ashish Kothari, founder of NGO Kalpvariksh, as saying.

As GlobalPost noted in February, Indian environmentalists have slammed the country's environmental protection regime as farcical, even as the PM and others among the business lobby have repeatedly blamed the supposedly slow pace of green clearances for holding back industrial projects.

According to the Center for Science and Environment, a greater number of projects were approved in the past five years than the number projected by the national Planning Commission for the upcoming 11th and 12th Five Year Plans.

Between 2007 and 2011, for instance, 361 non-coal mining projects were cleared during the supposed drought, and the country's iron and steel capacity doubled.

Respect for biodiversity is also a joke, considering the way environmental impact assessments have been conducted for huge projects, such as a series of more than 150 dams slated for construction in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh (See Dam Nation: the threat to the environment)

Between 2005 and 2009, the Arunachal Pradesh state government took in around $200 million in fees and so-called upfront payments for allotting dam projects to developers, according to the state Department of Hydro Power Development. In two of those years, receipts for upfront payments amounted to 10 percent of the state's entire budget for expenditures on public programs.

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India: Medical expenses plunge 40 million people into poverty each year

Nearly 80 percent of healthcare costs in India are made out-of-pocket, says President
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(ROUF BHAT/AFP/Getty Images)

In a plea to the faculty and students of the prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Indian President Pranab Mukherjee drew attention to the healthcare emergency India faces -- as 80 percent of costs are paid out-of-pocket and healthcare debts plunge 40 million Indians into poverty every year.

“I am deeply concerned about the impoverishing impact of health and medical expenses on the vulnerable sections of our society," the president said, addressing the institute's 40th Annual Convocation of AIIMS.

As I wrote some years ago for Newsweek, AIIMS is a remarkable institution -- providing care free or virtually free to huge numbers of Indians from all walks of life. 

In 2005, "the government-run hospital, with about 2,000 beds, treated 3.5 million people, achieving mortality and infection rates comparable to the best facilities in the developed world--for fees that come to about $1 a day for inpatients," that article reported. "AIIMS can do this because of government funding of about $100 million a year.... [and because] senior residents at AIIMS make about $400 a month."

The problem is that the institution is essentially unique in India, which has adopted a disastrous go-slow policy when it comes to increasing the budget for health care, regardless of the concern of Mr. Mukherjee (who was finance minister before he was nominated to the figurehead post of president).

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India: Kingfisher's Vijay Mallya, from booze to boos, may sell out to Diageo

Dubbed "India's worst businessman," Mallya bet the crown jewels on (what?!) the airline business.
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Vijay Mallya on July 28, 2012 in Budapest, Hungary. (Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Once upon a time, Vijay Mallya, the CEO of United Breweries and the owner of India's flagship Kingfisher beer, styled himself as "the king of good times" -- a sort of Hugh Hefner meets Richard Branson, with a swimsuit calendar, an airline, and more gold chains on his hairy exposed chest than the 1980s version of Mr. T.  

Oh how the mighty have fallen.

Last month, the liquor baron who (if truth be told) made most of his fortune when he enjoyed a near-monopoly in the beer- and whisky-business of so-called "Indian Made Foreign Liquor" (IMFL) was dubbed "India's worst businessman" by FirstPost.in. And as his ego-driven Kingfisher Airlines continues to bleed cash, and employees threaten to sue him for back pay, now it appears that the one-time monarch will only be able to keep his (unbuttoned to the navel) shirt by selling a controlling interest in the crown jewel of his liquor business to Diageo, as the Times of India reports Wednesday.

According to the paper, Mallya is close to inking a deal to sell his 25 percent controling interest in the UB Group's United Spirits unit to the British liquor giant, giving a major leg up to a foreign competitor that's thirsty to drink up the fast growing Indian booze market. After the deal, Diageo will own 25 percent in the company to Mallya's 15 percent -- which will no doubt be a great thing for investors.

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India: Good government turns Maharashtra ghost town into 'village of millionaires'

Good local government turned Maharashtra's Hiware Bazar from a fading wasteland into the lush homeland of the rich.
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Navapur, India's Maharashtra state. (Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)

Just like you can't throw a stone in India without hitting a politician, it's pretty tough to talk to a policy wonk without getting a sermon on "governance." But here's something you don't hear that often:

Apart from delivering essential services like clean water, building decent roads and collecting the garbage, good local government can actually create wealth. And I'm not talking about a few guys weaving baskets. I'm talking about 60 millionaires in one village in Maharashtra.

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Nepal: First gay sports festival held in Kathmandu

Gay athletes compete to fight homophobia in conservative Nepal

Some 250 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) athletes competed in a sports festival in Kathmandu over the weekend in an effort to fight homophobia in the conservative Hindu nation.

"About 1,500 spectators cheered as the athletes, waving rainbow colored flags, marched at the Dasharath Stadium in the heart of Kathmandu in the opening ceremony of the three-day event," India's DNA newspaper reported.

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