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Giving peace a chance in Kashmir

New Delhi’s Commonwealth Games are a fiasco. Millions of tons of wheat rot as millions go hungry. India’s very own oil spill. BlackBerry is in a pickle. And, will India’s super-cheap computer actually work?

Kashmiri woman shouts

Top News: Kashmir separatists rejected India’s offer of political autonomy in the region, an offer that came after months of anti-India violence in the troubled valley. Appealing to Muslim-dominated Kashmir to give “peace a chance,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said his government would consider any consensus proposal for autonomy so long as it was within the bounds of the Indian constitution. Singh also offered a “job plan” for a region where rampant unemployment has fuelled rage amongst youth against Indian rule. But Kashmir separatists including Javed Mir, a politician, said Kashmir wanted independence, not autonomy. The fight would continue, he said. Kashmir makes up the fragile divide between rival nuclear-armed neighbors, India and Pakistan. Over 50 people, mostly students, have been killed in violence and stone-throwing followed by police shootings in the valley.

India vowed to make the upcoming October Commonwealth Games in New Delhi memorable even as corruption scandals and unfinished stadiums persist weeks before athletes are due to arrive. Two officials were suspended over graft charges and a sports management company was fired as organizers race to finish projects and stadiums. Opposition lawmakers are alleging shoddy work at venues, trumped up costs and corruption in tenders and purchases. India is spending over $2.5 billion on the games, while more money is being spent by the local government to spruce up the capital, New Delhi. To top this, there are allegations of labor abuse and large-scale dislocation of slum dwellers.

India is building a tunnel in the Himalayas that will bypass the inhospitable Rohtang Pass, one of the most perilous stretches in the snowy mountains. The tunnel, which will take five years to complete, will challenge numerous Indian contractors and will also likely bolster defenses against neighboring China. When complete, the tunnel will connect remote Ladakh to the rest of the country. Just across the border, China has been stepping up infrastructure projects for decades, building roads, airports, tunnels and even an all-weather railway line to Tibet.

A stockpile of wheat, the world’s largest, that could feed over 200 million Indians for a year is starting to rot because the country does not have warehouses to store the grain.  The issue is causing heartburn in India where millions cannot afford even two meals a day. Nearly 18 million metric tons of wheat is stored outdoors without sufficient cover from the lashing monsoon rains. The wastage could drive up global wheat prices. The government is hoarding the wheat, since exporting it would invite citizen wrath and selling it at market price would further aggravate the already-high food inflation numbers. Distributing the grain through the government-subsidized system to the public would further burden the government. India is the world’s second largest producer of both wheat and rice.

Money: A fuel leak has been plugged in a container ship that struck another cargo vessel and spewed 500 tons of oil into the Arabian Sea just off India’s west coast. The accident, which was apparently due to radio communication failure, closed India’s primary port in Mumbai for several days. Mumbai accounts for about a third of India’s exports. Over 300 cargo containers that fell into the sea posed a navigational hazard. The oil slick itself spread over an area with a radius of about three miles around the capsizing ship.

BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion (RIM) is in trouble in India. This week, the government called for a meeting of telecom service providers to discuss security concerns arising out of BlackBerry services. India is one of several countries who have called out Canada-based RIM to stop its service as security agencies are unable to monitor its operations. Countries like China, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia have also had similar issues. India is also trying to sort out another telecom issue relating to the import of equipment, especially from China, amid concerns the equipment may be infected with sophisticated spying software. RIM may have to provide India access to encrypted messages in times of emergency, though its software is designed to deflect any interception.

India’s colorful, fantasy-filled movie industry has outdone itself. The $35-million “Endhiran,” a new bilingual film in Hindi and Tamil, is the costliest Indian movie ever made. The film starring regional star Rajanikanth, who plays a scientist and a robot, and the beauteous Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai Bachchan has been in the making for two years and will be released in September. It has been shot in exotic locations in Austria, Peru, Brazil and the United States. 

Elsewhere: And now from the land of the $2,000-car, the less-than-a-cent per minute mobile phone calls and the $2,100-heart surgery, comes the newest deal — a computer on the cheap. The prototype of the super discounted, touch-screen device was unveiled last month. iPad it ain’t, but the cheap computer does have an internet browser, a pdf reader, a Wi-Fi port and more. Why, it can even run on solar power for an additional cost. Now the government has to get it from prototype to finished product, but that’s another story. India’s government hopes to get the device on shelves in stores next year.