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A guide to the dynamic economics, politics, and culture of the world's most populous region.

Obama's 'bromance' with Pakistan hits India

A college friendship with Pakistani hippies suggests the US president is cooler than we thought, at least according to a new play.
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The US government aired ads on Pakistani TV this week denouncing the anti-Islam film. (LiveLeak/Screengrab)

US President Barack Obama has done more to shift America's allegiance away from Pakistan toward India than any of his predecessors. But according to a new play by Rashid Razaq, Potus had a bromance with a Pakistani classmate who merits only a few pages in Obama's "Dreams of My Father."

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India: Can mobile phones take the place of banks?

Leveraging mobile phones, India's FINO has built a customer base of 50 million paan wallahs, rickshaw pullers and vegetable vendors

Getting poor people into the banking system -- which will allow them not only to save money, but also borrow funds to increase their earning power -- has been one of India's biggest challenges. But as a new article from Forbes India points out, an outfit called FINO, which was started by ICICI Bank in 2006, has been quietly making serious progress.

When I wrote about mobile banking for Newsweek back in 2007, it was little more than a good idea, though a host of firms were already setting up "banking correspondents" in India's towns and villages. But since then, FINO has flown under the radar to make some pretty big strides, writes Forbes.

The quintessential "branchless bank," FINO uses so-called ‘pod machines’, hand-held biometric devices that recorded customer fingerprints, and local agents to keep serve its customers, says Forbes. The biometric readers reduce the risk of fraud, and its machines function both online and offline, so money still got transferred in areas without any network.

This is one instance where technology seems to be living up to the hype.

"By January 2010, it had 10 million customers (across 15 banks). It added another 15 million in the next year and doubled the base to 50 million by August 2012, two-thirds of the clientele base in the sector," the magazine reports. What's more? Having posted its first profits in 2011, "It’s eyeing 100 million by 2015," Forbes says.

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India: Toilets versus temples

India's rural development minister draws the ire of religious groups with the self-evident claim that the country needs toilets more than temples.
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An Indian man (L) washes as another comes out of a toilet in a toilet complex run by an NGO Sulabh International at railway station in New Delhi on April 23, 2011. (PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)

Religious folks to say God is everywhere, which they mostly seem to believe is a good thing. Only half of that is true of excrement here in India.

So why has a self-evident statement by the rural development minister that India needs toilets more than it does temples raised the hackles of some religious groups here?  No reason, I suspect, except the political party he represents.

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India: 30-plus starlets seek to invert Bollywood tradition

Bollywood is known for films with 60-year-old "heroes" playing opposite teenage starlets. But that might be changing.

A handful of 30-something starlets -- and a couple nearing 50 -- are hoping to reverse one of Bollywood's oldest traditions: The "hero" can play a college student well into his 60s, but a woman's career is over when she crosses the big 3-0 or (gasp!) gets married.

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India: Driving while Muslim? Cops plant evidence, skew facts

New reports highlight police persecution of India's Muslim minority.
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An Indian Muslim prays duringi the Friday prayer noon at the Jama Masjid in New Delhi. (PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images)

India's Muslim minority faces economic and social discrimination--resulting in skewed poverty figures for the community. But their treatment at the hands of government authorities can be even worse, new reports suggest.

A new study by the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association (JTSA) documents 16 cases in which the so-called "special cell" of the Delhi police allegedly planted evidence in an effort to nab Muslim youths as operatives of terrorist groups like Al Badr, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) and Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), Outlook magazine reports. All 16 were later acquitted by the courts. 

But not everybody is so lucky, presumably. Even those who avoid conviction, thanks to support from human rights activists and the like, may never escape the cloud of suspicion that surrounds them after the initial arrest. And there has so far been no attempt to compensate the victims of this type of abuse by the police, or to lay criminal charges against the police officers involved, the JTSA points out.

“Courts have clearly indicted the special cell for setting up innocents, violating due process, concocting evidence... (they have) ordered a CBI probe against the cell and directed the filing of FIRs and initiation of departmental inquiries," Outlook quotes JTSA president Manisha Sethi as saying. Yet, not a single officer in the operations described here has suffered any consequence. Instead, they get promotions and gallantry awards.”

Across India, the situation is equally bad, journalist Muzamil Jaleel points out in a compelling series of articles for the Indian Express on the prosecutions of alleged operatives of the banned Students' Islamic Movement of Indian (SIMI). 

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India: Fear of the "foreign hand"

Xenophobia re-emerges as a political football in the wake of Congress Party's moves on foreign investment.
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Indian anti-nuclear activists bury themselves in sand as part of a protest, demanding that uranium fuel stop being loaded in the nuclear reactor of Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) on the beach at Idinthakarai village in southern Tamil Nadu on September 26, 2012. (STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images)

Virtually every political player in India is evoking the pre-liberalization bogey of the "foreign hand" to gain mileage in the wake of the Congress Party's moves to open the economy further to foreign investment.

And the government itself has even gotten into the game, blaming foreign-funded agitators for protests against a nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu, among other ills. So what gives?

"Some dub it as an old chestnut that is way past its use-by date, harking back to mysterious briefcases (like the one on this magazine’s cover) carried by safari suit-clad CIA men in Indira Gandhi’s regime—followed soon by the Soviets who were upset with Morarji Desai," writes India's Outlook Magazine.

"Later, just before India liberalised, Rajiv Gandhi used the bogey when [the] Bofors [defense corruption scandal] got too hot. Others insist that targeting the foreigner is a convenient distraction for a beleaguered government desperate to prolong its own use-by date. And yet others argue with increasing shrillness that the rapacious foreigner is to blame for everything, from illegally invading us to fuelling terror, taking away our jobs and creating doubts about India’s shining economic story."

The latest "foreign hand" comes in the form of the Penny Dreadful banker, downgrading India's credit rating to blackmail the government into opening the retail sector to foreign investment by companies like Walmart. But that's hardly the end of it.

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India: Cops plan to use pregnant women to make busts

Orissa authorities plan to use pregnant women in stings meant to expose clinics performing illegal ultrasound tests.
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(ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

In India's losing battle against the abortion of female fetuses, the state of Orissa plans to turn expecting mothers into undercover cops.

The Orissa government has decided to use pregnant women in sting operations to catch clinics and nursing homes that are conducting illegal sex determination tests, as well as abortions for sex selection, the Hindustan Times reports.

Apparently, no one among the state authorities attended elementary school, or they'd know about the basketball under the t-shirt trick.

As Hanna Ingber Win reported for GlobalPost in 2011, as India develops and its middle class grows, the aborting of female fetuses is becoming more common. India’s 2011 census showed that the country’s child sex ratio, the number of girls to boys under age 7, is the worst it has been since India gained independence in 1947.

A natural sex ratio is 105 boys born for every 100 girls. This is to adjust for girls’ slightly higher likelihood of surviving than boys. However, India’s 2011 census showed that the sex ratio for children under age seven is 109 to 100. While not ostensibly a large difference, that ratio equates to 7 million fewer girls than boys under the age of 7 in India, which is home to 1.2 billion people.

Things are particularly bad in Orissa.

The sex ratio in Orissa has declined from 953 females per 1,000 males in 2001 to 934 in 2011. In more than 10 of the state’s 30 districts, the sex ratio is less than 900, the paper said.

Will the stings work? Doubtful. Well, they'll make a few busts. But the problem goes beyond law enforcement. 

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Northeast India: The country's next hot spot or the world's next flashpoint?

India's Northeast is pitching itself as the country's next tourism hot spot. But tensions fueled by Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar and China could make it the world's next flashpoint.

India's Northeast is pitching for a piece of the "Incredible India" tourism campaign, but the region is still simmering with dozens of separatist insurgencies, with the nations on its borders often throwing gas on the fire, according to a renowned Asia hand.

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Are you good enough to play pro football in India?

India's first professional football league -- the American pigskin-and-grid-iron kind -- kicks off.
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A detail of the uniform and whistle of an NFL referee. (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Are you good enough to play pro football in India? Probably. Would you want to? Probably not.

That's what I came away with from this Time magazine profile on the opening weekend of the new Elite Football League of India, which also features teams representing Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

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India: A bigger role in Afghanistan on the horizon?

Triangular meet between US, Afghanistan and India in New York this week signals that Washington may look to New Delhi to replace Islamabad in the stabilization effort.
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Two Afghan children watch US military soldiers from the 3rd platoon, C-company, 1-23 infantry on patrol in Genrandai village at Panjwai district, Kandahar on September 24, 2012. The Afghan Taliban dismissed NATO figures showing a decrease in insurgent attacks, saying the statistics reflect troop withdrawals and a 'cowardly' avoidance of contact. (TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)

Beijing, New Delhi and Islamabad are wrangling for position in Afghanistan following the US drawdown, the always-interesting C. Raja Mohan writes in the Indian Express. The upshot: A first-ever triangular meeting between leaders from the US, India and Afghanistan this week sends yet another signal the US may look to replace Islamabad with New Delhi in its stabilization plans.

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