Connect to share and comment

Neighborhood bullies

A Mumbai attack gunmen gets the death sentence. An Indian diplomat is arrested on espionage charges. Spurred by China, India pledges to dramatically boost infrastructure spending. Bidding for mobile bandwidth skyrockets. And India outsources call centers to prisons.

 Top News:   A special court in Mumbai handed a death-by-hanging sentence  to Mohammed Ajmal Kasab charged in the 2008 Mumbai attacks in which 166 people died.  Kasab, a member of the Pakistan-based terror outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba which attacked Mumbai’s train station, luxury hotels, a café and a Jewish Center. The only gunman captured alive after the terrorist attack, he was convicted on several counts of murder, conspiracy, terrorism and waging a war against India. He can now appeal his death sentence. Most death-row convicts in the country spend many years in prison trying to appeal their punishment. 

In another story that captured national attention, Rajendra Yadav, 35, a scrap yard laborer in New Delhi, died from exposure to intense radiation, revealing the non-existent safeguards for waste disposal in India.  The scrap came from a Delhi University radiotherapy machine. Yadav died from multiple organ failure, and seven fellow-workers were hospitalized.  The news emerged at a time when India is pushing an ambitious plan to build a series of new nuclear power stations to meet the country’s energy deficit.  India has become a dumping yard for radioactive waste material slipping undetected into the country. 

Meanwhile, India arrested a diplomat working in Islamabad on charges of spying for Pakistan.  Madhuri Gupta, 53, is a second secretary in the high commission in charge of the press and information section.  She was arrested on a work trip to New Delhi after being suspected of handing over sensitive and classified documents to Pakistan’s intelligence service ISI.  India and Pakistan have a history of suspicion and have fought three wars.  The gruesome 2008 terror attacks on Mumbai were blamed on terror groups based in Pakistan.

A blast from a roadside bomb ripped apart a passenger bus carrying civilians and police officers in central India’s Chhattisgarh state.  At least 40 people died in the remote landmine-triggered ambush and Maoist insurgents laid claim to the attack.  Last month, 76 personnel of a paramilitary patrol were killed in an attack. The mineral-rich but underdeveloped region has been the site of an increasingly violent fight between rebel groups and the government in recent months.  India later said it was willing to begin peace talks with the Maoists, but only if the groups halted all violence for 72 hours. The offer has been spurned. Meanwhile, India is grappling with the use of air strikes to control the activities of thousands of Maoists. But air strikes are a sensitive subject given the likelihood of civilian casualties.

Young Muslim working women in India have denounced a conservative Muslim seminary’s fiat banning women from working alongside men in offices.  Muslim women have increasingly entered the work force, from government offices to call centers in the country.  Many working women responded to the April 4 decree saying clerics should first deal with economic backwardness in the community. The clerics of the conservative seminary, called Darul Uloom, located in the north-western state of Uttar Pradesh, passed the decree and said women could work in offices provided they wore a full-body veil. 

Money:  The Deputy Chairman of India’s Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia has said that India’s robust recovery after the global economic meltdown indicated that the fundamentals of India’s economy are strong.  Although India’s fiscal deficit is a cause of concern, the debt ratio is much less than that of countries with problems, he said.

India’s road network is ranked worse than the roads in poor, war-torn countries of Arica.  The country now plans to award $50 billion of road projects in 2011.  Investors are expected to fund up to 70 percent of that amount. The government is also planning an $11 billion debt fund to build its ports, roads and bridges to drive economic growth and compete with the neighboring infrastructure powerhouse, China. India doubled its infrastructure target spending to $1 trillion in the five years starting 2012.   The country spent 6.5 percent of its GDP in 2009 on infrastructure compared with 11 percent by China.  The expert view is that only investment in infrastructure can boost economic growth to the double-digit levels required to pull millions of Indians out of abject poverty.

India’s fiercely fought 3G high-speed cell phone spectrum auction has just ended, raising about $15 billion exceeding the government’s expectation of $7.5 billion. India is considered one of the world’s fastest growing and exciting mobile markets, and over the one-month auction period the bids rose dramatically. Among the winning bidders were India’s largest cell phone service providers Bharti Airtel and Reliance Communications as well as Vodafone. India is adding 20 million new customers every month, a growth considered phenomenal by global standards.

Meanwhile, London-based Vodafone wrote down by over 25 percent the value of its Indian operations after paying $11 billion for a majority stake in the Hutchison Essar (the country’s fourth-largest operator) just three years ago. The booking amounted to a $3.3 billion charge.   India is currently Vodafone’s fastest-growing market in the world but whether it is the emerging-market powerhouse that the company is hoping for remains to be seen.

France-based global retailer Carrefour SA said it is opening its first wholesale store outside New Delhi next month and also considering a franchise model in India. This will help the world’s second largest retailing firm to get a toe into the Indian market, where laws bar foreign retailers from owning multi-brand retail stores. Carrefour aims to open 150 hypermarkets in India. 

India has imposed tightened restrictions on imports of telecom equipment, and China has responded by urging India to remove the ban and provide a fair business environment to Chinese firms.  India’s home ministry has blocked several deals between Indian telecom companies and Chinese vendors such as Huawei Technologies and ZTE Telecom for fear that such equipment could be compromised by hackers or Chinese intelligence agencies.  Tensions and suspicions are ever-present between India and China, two of Asia’s largest economies and trading partners but long-time political rivals.

Elsewhere: India is often called as the world’s back office.  In the not-too-distant future, Americans calling a 800 number could get their calls put through to an Indian prison.  And no, this is not a piece of fiction.  A jailhouse in Cherlapally in the southern Andhra Pradesh state is setting up a business process outsourcing center aimed at equipping jailbirds with job skills that will prepare them for their release.  The inmates will first start on tasks such as data entry and may later work voice-based calls.  Prisoners will earn about 150 rupees (nearly $4) daily for this; prison authorities now pay a tenth of that sum for prison labor.