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India's year of mega-scandals

2010’s scams outdo past decades put together. Two pristine Indian reputations take a beating. Rights activist jailed for sedition. India amidst an onion crisis. Mobile subscriptions boom. Space program suffers setback. And, who’s hotter - Munni or Sheila?


Top News: The year gone by can authoritatively be described India’s Year of Scandals. There was the telecom scam, widely referred to as the 2G scam. Before that was the Commonwealth Games scam, termed the CWG scam. Prior to that was the Adarsh scam, a housing swindle involving the high and mighty in bureaucracy and politics in Mumbai. Then the banking scam, the mining scam and so on.  The list is as long as also the process of pinning down the guilty. The upshot: India’s frayed brand image. The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry, a leading Indian industry body, said the acts of corruption had endangered India’s brand and growth story. Here’s something for the statistically minded: the extent of corruption in the 2G scam, some $40 billion, outdid all the past scams in post-independence India.

The year ended on a low note for two seemingly unassailable Indians, both embroiled in the 2G scam tapes: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s upright, squeaky clean image took a beating after it became public that he had dawdled instead of assertively acting against his tainted Telecom Minister Andimuthu Raja in the 2G scam. One of India’s best-known industrialists Ratan Tata, who heads the mega-business empire Tatas, was heard discussing the telecom minister with a lobbyist in a leaked tape. Tata appealed to the Supreme Court to block further release of taped conversations saying it was an intrusion of his privacy.

A district court in central India found human rights activist Binayak Sen guilty of sedition and sent him to prison for life, shocking social activists. Sen along with two others was found guilty of colluding with the feared, militant Maoists to establish a network to fight the state. Amnesty International described the trial as violating international fair-trial standards and the sentence as harsh. Sen has never been directly charged with any act of violence.

Money: The country is in the throes of a great onion crisis, with prices of the vegetable doubling to nearly $2 a kilogram in a country where about two-thirds of Indians live on $1 a day. Newspapers had a field day with headlines that went, “Crying Onion tears,” “The Great Onion Robbery,” and “Ever had a Biryani without Onions.” In the past, rising prices for the bulbous vegetable have felled governments.  The defensive government scurried about banning exports and bringing in onions from neighboring rival Pakistan. Soaring onion prices point to a more serious story: food inflation has risen by over 12 percent in 2010. Spiking inflation rates have added to the political pressure on Singh's government, already down because of so many scandals.

India’s tele-density touched 62.51 percent by the end of October, as the country added 18.98 new subscribers to the network. The total number of connections is now 706.69 million, according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. That means more pesky calls and spam texts. Wireline connections, however, are declining dramatically in the country.

India’s vaunted space program suffered a setback during Christmas weekend after a communications satellite strayed off course just after lift-off and exploded. Television cameras captured the rocket enveloped in black smoke just after it launched at a location near India’s southeastern city of Chennai.  India’s ambitious, low-cost space program is the nation’s pride. The space organization plans is readying manned missions including a voyage to land an Indian on the Moon in 2016.

Elsewhere: Munni and Sheila, two popular Indian names, are being shunned by Indian women after two raunchy Bollywood tracks busted music charts. 2010’s hottest songs, "Munni Badnaam Hui" and "Sheila ki Jawani" have made the lives of women with the same names difficult, prompting name changes and court cases. Some social activists have called for banning the two songs, saying they are cheap and vulgar, and cater to voyeurs. Bollywood songs are part of the country’s pop culture, played widely in public transport, weddings, pubs and election rallies. The wider debate in India currently is which of the two songs is more popular.