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Corruption skeletons tumble out of the closet

Mobile licenses undervaluation scam spills. Top industrialist in leaked-tape embarrassment. Police closing in on corrupt Commonwealth Games officials. Bankers arrested in loan-for-bribe scandal. Economy grows at searing pace. Business and government clash over green rules. And can Tintin be funny in Hindi?

Top News: A scandal involving the underselling of second generation mobile phone licenses by about $40 billion — enough to feed all of India’s hungry population for several years, according to one estimate — claimed the job of telecom minister Andimuthu Raja a fortnight ago. The Supreme Court jumped in demanding to know why the prime minister had not acted for 16 months against Raja who allegedly sold the licenses for a fraction of their value, that too to ineligible companies. Foreign telecom firms such as Norway’s Telenor, Emirates Telecom and Bahrain were among those who had stakes in companies which were granted the 2008 licenses. India’s opposition parties blocked parliamentary business for several days demanding that the government launch a parliamentary inquiry into the scam. Rapped on the knuckles by the Supreme Court for its inaction, the government sprang up finally, speeding up investigations and sent notices to five companies that were awarded 85 licenses asking why their licenses should not be cancelled. A government auditor found these companies were ineligible but had been unduly favored by minister Raja’s department.  Until his resignation, Raja was in charge of the world’s fastest growing mobile market, India, with over half-a-billion subscribers.

As an offshoot of the telecom scam, Ratan Tata, one of India’s most-respected industrialists and head of the Tata industrial and businessempire, appealed to the Supreme Court to block any further disclosures after transcripts of his private telephone conversations were reproduced in local publications.  Tata has been discomfited by the intercepts and leaks which detail conversations with his company’s public relations advisor Niira Radia about competitors, politics and the controversial 2G license sale in 2008. Radia, also a leading corporate lobbyist, had her phone tapped in an investigation into the tainted license sale. Transcripts of Radia speaking with a host of politicians, industrialists and journalistswere placed before the Supreme Court by a group demanding a probe into the scandal.

Meanwhile, investigations have progressedin the Commonwealth Games corruption scandal that mortified Indians and led to the country losing face as hosts of the New Delhi Games in early October.  Indian police arrested some top officialsand raided the homes of games organizers who stand accused of massive graft in the purchase of every Games item from toilet paper to treadmills. The financial irregularities led to the Games budget swelling to an estimated $8 billion.  The investigators are said to be closing in onthe Games organizing committee chairman and member of the ruling Congress Party, Suresh Kalmadi, who quit last month.

As if all these scandalswere not quite enough, Indians were blitzed by yet another scandal involving many real estate firms and other companies bribing bank officialsin return for ‘facilitating’ the release of hefty loans.  Officers of the premier police agency Central Bureau of Investigation -- overworked in the face of a multitude of recent scams -- arrested eight people in the loan scam, four officials from state-owned banks, another from a state-owned insurance firmand three executives of a private brokerage firm.  Finance minister Pranab Mukherjeesaid that the loans given to the various companies were ‘quite safe’. In the face of recent Wall Street financial meltdown, India’s state-run banks and insurance firms were generally viewed as safe and their funds government-guaranteed.

Money: India’s economy is likely to surpassthe government’s indicated GDP growth target of 8.5 for the fiscal year ending in March 2011.  GDP climbed to 8.9 percentfor the second consecutive quarter in July to September, buoyed by manufacturing and services sectors.  India’s expansion has bucked the global downtrend and also contrasts the slowdown even amongst its neighbors in Asia.  Analysts expect the central Reserve Bankto raise interest rates to stem inflation. 

India’s business and government are repeatedly clashingover the enforcement of green regulation.  A construction firm which has developed a luxury townshipcalled Lavasa in the Western state of Maharashtra accused the government of being high-handed.   South Korea’s POSCO locked horns with the government a second time over government permits for its planned $12 billion steel mill in the eastern state of Orissa.  The forest advisory committee recommended the temporary withdrawal of the final approvalfor POSCO’s steel plant and captive port, environment minister Jairam Ramesh told Parliament.  The conflicts highlight the rising challenges of balancing environmental protection with blazing development in a country which is essentially poor and infrastructure-deprived.

Elsewhere:Does baal ki khaal and karod kasmasate kale kachchuve sound remotely familiar or funny?  Indians are rolling their tongues around these new Hindi phrasesas they pick up the Hindi translations of the adventures of the intrepid boy-reporter Tintin.  Baal ki khaal does not translate to anything close to Tintin’s oft-repeated “Great Snakes!”nor does ‘Karod Kasmasate..’ translate into Captain Haddock’s “billions of bilious blistering blue barnacles!”  The first eight of the original comics created 80 years ago by Belgian author-illustrator Herge went on sale in Hindi, the most widely-spoken language in populous India.  Indian translator Ajay Mago said he had a challenging timefinding the Hindi equivalent of catchy phrases and jokes that abound in the comics.  Though Tintin remains Tintin in Hindi, his dog Snowy has been christened Natkhat and the detectives Thomson and Thompson have become Santu and Bantu. End/