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India's motivation problem: From the Kumbh Mela to the Jaipur Foot

The World Bank sees reason for hope in the 'pop-up megacity' built for the Kumbh Mela. Here's why it just confirms my despair.
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ALLAHABAD, INDIA - FEBRUARY 12: Hindu pilgrims walk across a pontoon bridge as others bathe on the banks of Sangam, the confluence of the holy rivers Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati, during the Maha Kumbh Mela on February 12, 2013 in Allahabad, India. The Maha Kumbh Mela, believed to be the largest religious gathering on earth is held every 12 years on the banks of Sangam, the confluence of the holy rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. The Kumbh Mela alternates between the cities of Nasik, Allahabad, Ujjain and Haridwar every three years. The Maha Kumbh Mela celebrated at the holy site of Sangam in Allahabad, is the largest and holiest, celebrated over 55 days, it is expected to attract over 100 million people. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images) (Daniel Berehulak/AFP/Getty Images)

Everybody from Harvard researchers to the World Bank (not to mention the World Hindu Council) found reason for hope at this year's Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. Here's why their findings just drove me deeper into despair.

As the Financial Times points out, Onno Ruhl, the head of the World Bank in India, observed in Allahabad that the otherwise incompetent authorities of Uttar Pradesh are able to build an efficient "pop-up megacity" every three years for the massive religious festival. This year, for instance, they built a tent city for 2 million people in less than three months, "complete with hard roads, toilets, running water, electricity, food shops, garbage collection and well-manned police stations."  All things that the government has by and large failed to provide the population of its permanent cities, towns and villages over many decades.

Inspiring? To me, not so much.

The conclusion that Ruhl and others draw from this experience is that India is capable of solving its notorious infrastructure problems. But that is self-evident. Anything that America can do, India can do. The issue is not one of ability, but of will. And that's where I get depressed. India CAN solve problems, but it WON'T. And the reason is hidden in the throwaway "explanation" that the bureaucrat in charge of the project gives for its success.

"First, the authorities ensure that all those working on the project are accountable for their actions and the money they spend. Second, those involved are highly motivated," the FT cites Allahabad divisional commissioner Devesh Chaturvedi as saying.

“They feel it’s a real service to all these pilgrims who have come here, the sadhus [holy men] and the seers, so it’s a sort of mission which motivates them to work extra, despite difficult working conditions,” Chaturvedi says.

This is the same non-explanation that I have received time and again when I've visited "success stories" like the cleanup of Surat, Gujarat -- which was inspired by a bout of the plague in 1994 to reinvent itself of one of India's cleanest cities. Things happen because somebody actually cares and takes responsibility. Or, what is the more depressing flip side, apart from an occasional blip on the radar, every public activity in India is a complete and unmitigated failure because nobody cares and everybody would rather, for example, steal from the public distribution system than ensure that starving people get food.

Take the Jaipur Foot, a remarkable low-cost prosthetics project profiled in this month's Forbes India. Again, everybody from Harvard Business School on down has examined the project to see how they've managed to provide prosthetic limbs to 1.3 million people for free. But all they've been able to come up with is that it is the result of the efforts of a single man, a former bureaucrat named Devendra Raj Mehta. And now that he's getting up in years, the very real fear is that the project may well die with him.


India's hanging judge: President lays foundation for flurry of executions

Recently inducted Indian President Pranab Mukherjee has already okayed more executions than his predecessors did over 15 years -- and he's just getting started.
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All India Anti Terrorist Front (AIATF) activists shout slogans as they celebrate the execution of Mohammed Afzal Guru, in Amritsar on February 9, 2013. A Kashmiri separatist was executed Saturday over his role in a deadly attack on parliament in New Delhi in 2001, an episode that brought nuclear-armed India and Pakistan to the brink of war. (AFP/Getty Images)

With fat-frame spectacles and a cherub's face, India's president doesn't look like a bloodthirsty killer. But in his first seven months in office, he's already set the local speed record for sending prisoners to the gallows, and it looks like he may just be getting started.

According to the Times of India, Mukherjee has already presided over more executions than his predecessors managed in 15 years.

In November 2012, Mukherjee quietly okayed the secret dawn execution of convicted Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Kasab, caught on camera during the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Earlier this month, he approved the secret dawn hanging of convicted Kashmiri terrorist Afzal Guru, who was convicted of plotting the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament based primarily on a confession made in police custody. On Thursday, Mukherjee reportedly rejected the mercy pleas of four associates of the famous bandit Veerappan -- clearing the way for the execution of the men, who were convicted of killing 22 people, including policemen, in a landmine blast in 1993. And there are reportedly eight more convicts whose mercy pleas are pending.

Human rights activists have condemned the executions that have already been carried out on moral grounds, disputing the government's right to kill its citizens for any reason. But whatever your views on the death penalty, the timing and manner of these hangings is deeply troubling. 

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Like? Unfriend? Message? At one homeless shelter, New Delhi street kids use Facebook to live vicariously -- with invented identities. (SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Weird wide web?  Definitely.

The Globe and Mail's Stephanie Nolen reports that India's savvy street kids have taken to Facebook to make new friends -- and new identities.

Yep. It sounds like a scam. But it's not. These are ambitious young homeless kids with big dreams. And they're practicing on Facebook. Here's Nolen:


Inside Baseball: Why Nandy's mistake matters

An Indian sociologist's remarks on caste and corruption should shine a light on stereotypes
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Mad or what? Sociologist ignited a firestorm by suggesting that India's lower castes are responsible for most of the country's corruption. (AFP/Getty Images)

When the inside baseball of Indian politics makes it to the pages of the New York Times and the website of the New Yorker, it's time to weigh in. Leaving the background to the hyperlinks, here's my take:

Indian sociologist Ashis Nandy's remarks at Jaipur, and his later clarification, are not important simply because the attempt to prosecute him for insulting Indians from lower castes represents yet another attack on freedom of speech in the name of “sensitivity,” as Manu Joseph aptly lampoons in the New York Times and Basharat Peer ably explains for the New Yorker.

The main issue is the content of his statement, which sneakily confirms as “fact” a widely held public perception for which there is no hard evidence, and, in truth, seems patently false based on common sense.

The statement in question?

“It is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the OBCs and the Scheduled Castes and now increasingly Scheduled Tribes and as long as this is the case, Indian republic will survive.”

Much has been made of the context for that statement, which you can read in full here. But in my reading of it nothing undercuts the essential assertion.

Nandy is sincere and sympathetic. He is saying that the corruption of India's lower castes is justified, even desirable. And Nandy admits that corruption of a kind is common among the elites. But it's interesting, to say the least, that he compares the assistance of an old boys' network in getting into Oxford or Harvard to the “millions of rupees” amassed by “the only unrecognized billionaire in India today” Madhu Koda – which were allegedly earned through illegal manipulation of the mining laws and perhaps selling his support, by turns, to the Bharatiya Janata Party and later the Congress. (So much for the context).

Nevertheless, whether Nandy means well or not is immaterial. So is whether or not he suffers from some unwitting prejudices, even as he thinks he is being radical. The most important thing here is that he claims something as “fact” for which he offers no evidence and that he cannot support. Namely, he says that most of the corruption in India can now be attributed to the lower castes, which comprise the mid-level Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and the formerly untouchable Dalits or Scheduled Castes. (Yes, there's also the Scheduled Tribes, but only so much inside baseball for one blog post).

This is a widely held perception that I suggest is based solely on a handful of high-profile prosecutions: the notorious “fodder scam” case against Bihar's Lalu Prasad Yadav, the “Taj corridor scam” case against Uttar Pradesh's Kumari Mayawati and, more recently, the “2G telecom spectrum scam” case against former telecom minister Andimuthu Raja.

That's called “believing is seeing” – you only process the evidence that suits your preconceptions, if you bother with evidence at all.  Surely there were corruption cases against high-caste Indians as well.  And if they didn't generate as much heat, one might say with equal authority that Mayawati & co were targeted for serious criminal investigations, and the others ignored, precisely because of their respective castes.


Pakistan: Coup likely averted with fresh election date, opposition backing

Surprisingly resilient Zardari may make history by completing his full term.
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Supporters of Pakistani cleric Tahir-ul Qadri wave flags on the third day of the protest rally in Islamabad on January 16, 2013. Pakistan's opposition parties on Wednesday backed the government against any "extra-constitutional changes," and the government announced it will hold fresh elections on May 15, likely staving off any threat of a soft coup engineered by the military. (AFP/Getty Images)

Pakistan's opposition parties agreed to back the government against any “extra-constitutional changes” to prevent the country from holding elections this spring and the government announced Pakistan will go to the polls on May 15 – developments that will likely prevent the army from engineering a “soft coup,” if that was indeed ever on the cards.


India: Is the justice system broken?

Rampant human rights violations, dismal conviction rates, skyrocketing crime, and nearly 400,000 inmates in prison--only a third of whom have actually been convicted. Justice, Indian style.
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Is India's justice system broken? Its prisons house nearly 400,000 inmates, only about a third of whom have ever been convicted of a crime. And more than 1,000 have spent five years in jail without ever seeing the inside of a court. (AFP/Getty Images)

A wag once remarked that a trip through the Indian court system is as near to experiencing eternity as a living soul can get. But it's not just slow. Despite well-written laws and legions of well-intentioned cops, lawyers, judges, and activists, the Indian justice system is abusive, arbitrary, and above all ineffective.

In short, it's badly broken. And the only answer that seems to gain any traction is to make it tougher, or more arbitrary.  

The current arguments run that the death penalty to be meted out to rapists, or that juveniles should be tried as adults, or, as a cop friend pointed out, that the police must be freed from petty concerns about human rights, to strike fear of law and order into the hearts of criminals.

But consider some stats put together this week by the Wall Street Journal's Real Time blog, as part of a seris on the justice system.


India's rape protests reflect disenchantment with democracy

Indians feel betrayed by a democratic system that has entrenched extortion of its citizens, argues Prem Shankar Jha
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Anti-rape protests in New Delhi, following the vicious gang rape of a 23-year-old student, reflected a growing disenchantment with India's failing democracy, argues Prem Shankar Jha. (AFP/Getty Images)

They weren't really protesting against rape, Prem Shankar Jha argues in a persuasive and thought-provoking column in Tuesday's Hindu.  They were really protesting extortion.


"Barring a few lapses, the Central and State governments acted promptly, and with commendable efficiency," Jha writes. "The Delhi police captured the alleged rapists within hours and the government spared no expense in its attempt to save her life."

So why were people so angry?

"The answer is that the rape acted as the trigger for an older, and deeper, anger in people — one that has been smouldering for years in their hearts. This stems from a profound sense of betrayal. Democracy was meant to empower them. Instead, in a way that few of them understand even today, it has done the exact opposite."

I'm not entirely convinced. But as I wrote in my article on the protests, it does seem clear that anger over violence against women dovetailed with disgust over corruption and the government's many failures in service delivery.

More importantly, Jha draws out some interesting observations in arguing his point.

(1) Indians aren't mad about bribery, they're mad about extortion

Every Indian worth his salt has paid a bribe to get preferential treatment. But extortion isn't voluntary.

"It requires no contract; no negotiation; and therefore no element of consent. It is a simple exercise of brute power by an employee or representative of the state over the citizen. Its commonest form is to deny the citizen the services to which he is entitled until he agrees to make a ‘private’ payment to the functionary in whom the power of the state is vested. Every act of extortion is a fresh reminder to the citizen of his or her impotence. This becomes complete if he or she is denied redress for the abuse of power."

(2) Democracy hasn't empowered the people

"One set of figures illustrates the impunity with which civil servants can break the law. According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s annual report Crime in India 2007, between 2003 and 2007 citizens filed 282, 384 complaints of human rights abuses against the police. Of these only 79,000 were investigated; only 1,070 policemen were brought to trial and only 264 — less than one in a thousand — were convicted."


India: Has Mediocracy already convicted Delhi gang rape 5?

India's high-profile gang rape case has parallels with New York's Central Park jogger case
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New York City Councilman Charles Barron (R), from Brooklyn's district 42, leads a protest outside of Manhattan's Criminal Court September 30, 2002 in New York City. The group was protesting what they feel has been the wrongful conviction of five Harlem men in the 1989 rape of a Central Park jogger. All of the men have served from seven to twelve years in prison. Prior to the men's conviction, the case sparked a media frenzy similar to the one elicited by the December 16, 2012 gang rape of a 23-year-old physical therapy student in New Delhi. (AFP/Getty Images)

Can the five adults and one juvenile suspects in the notorious Delhi gang rape case expect a fair trial? Probably not.

On paper, the men accused of the vicious assault will enjoy all the advantages of India's liberal justice system, apart from the high-priced, influential lawyers that only the wealthy can afford. But cases are not tried on paper, and this one exhibits every sign that it will not be tried in the Saket district court where they made their first appearance on Monday. Instead, like so many court cases, government policies, and bureaucratic actions, it will be decided by the country's real rulers: The Mediocracy.

"This is a media trial," senior Delhi High Court advocate Rajinder Singh told me in a Q&A yesterday. "Even the judges who are going to be responsible for these trials are motivated by the media and what is going on in the country."

In almost every story I've reported, whether it's about poor people starving because of government corruption or a city cleaning up its act after an unhealthy dose of the plague, somebody will say it: All this is only happening because of the media attention. And if the media attention goes away too soon, "all this" stops happening, too.  (Consider the Wall Street Journal's neat encapsulation and the Washington Post's history of "high profile" Indian rape cases and the policies they engendered, such as an innovative and effective Delhi Police outreach program called Parivartan, which began in 2006 after a sensational case and then quietly died as the media attention to the issue waned, according to the Economic Times).

Call it the power of the press, and it's a good thing. The government isn't functioning -- it's failing to feed the hungry, or failing to curb corruption (the main cause of the first failure), and the journalists step in.  But the short attention span of the news cycle isn't enough to initiate real change--consider the country's revolving door elections--and as the Delhi gang rape case indicates to some degree, what makes news is often connected with caste- and class-related biases. (Rape and humiliation is a daily reality for women from the castes once known as "untouchable," for instance, yet the media's sporadic coverage of the problem has never gained much traction, as Badri Narayan pointed out for The Hindu). 

On Wednesday, a high-handed New York Times editorial cautioned that "there are disturbing aspects to the way the case is being handled." They're right. But the editors might have a look at the newspaper morgue before they get TOO snippy: There are several parallels (as well as contrasts) here to the brutal New York City rape and beating of the so-called "Central Park jogger" in 1989-- which ignited a similar media frenzy. 


India: Why "vested interests" might not be so bad

Lifting India's ludicrously low limits on campaign finance could drum rapists out of politics, argues India's business press
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Indian students and activists carry candles at India Gate during a protest following the gang-rape of a student in New Delhi on December 19, 2012. (SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Americans often lament that the massive campaign contributions of the tobacco lobby or arms manufacturers stack the deck against our politicians passing certain types of legislation. But India's experience with drastic limits on these documented campaign contributions tells a different story, according to the local business press: When you keep big business out of politics, you let (alleged) criminals and gangsters in.


Delhi gears up for renewed protests after gang rape victim succumbs to injuries

Anger mounts over government's decision to send victim to Singapore for treatment, and police barricades designed to limit protests.
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Indian protesters burn a rapist in effigy Dec. 26, 2012, in New Delhi, India. (Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images)

Protesters have already begun to gather at New Delhi's Jantar Mantar on Saturday morning, as the city wakes to the news that the victim of a brutal gang rape died in a Singapore hospital overnight.