Showing posts with label India. Show all posts
Showing posts with label India. Show all posts
11 September 2014

Chinese Woman Publishes First-Ever Travelogue On India

Chinese travel writer Hong Mei at the India-Pakistan border at Wagah with her American husband Tom Carter.

Chinese travel writer Hong Mei at the India-Pakistan border at Wagah with her American husband Tom Carter.

The author Hong Mei called it a transformative journey about India's rich and diverse culture

A brush with Bollwood stars, encounters with Maoists besides exposure to election campaigning enlivens the narrative of a rare backpack Chinese woman's transformative journey to the nooks and corners of India. Hong Mei, 34, who travelled India for several months in 2009 along with her American husband, Tom Carter released her travelogue book in Chinese language titled "The further I walk, the closer I get to me", stated to be the first such account by a contemporary Chinese about India.

In many ways it is a transformative journey about India's rich and diverse culture, she told PTI
During the visit, she participated in festivals and events like Kumbh Mela, Pushkar Camel Fair, Holi besides the general elections campaigning in 2009.
Pushed by Tom, who had done a pictorial book along with her on all the 33 provinces of China highlighting its diversity, Hong had relatively comfortable travel in India as she was mostly mistaken as someone from India's North-East provinces or from Japan.
Travelling with a budget of about USD 20 a day, the twohad a good exposure to Indian way of life in the North, South and Western regions.
Tom was chosen as 10th batsman in a cricket match scene in the Bollywood movie Dil Bole Hadippa.
While in Mumbai, Hong had an insightful exposure to 2009 elections as the candidates canvassed in a festive spirit.
For someone hailing from country with a One-Party-rule (Communist Party), it was a spectacle of political harmony.
Both had an enduring experience feeling the heat travelling in areas where Maoists are active in Orissa.
Significantly Hongs accounts of elections as well as her Maoist encounters were edited out of book as authorities in China were cagey about such narratives influencing the Chinese.

Hong Mei poses with a tribal child in Odisha.
The two had close calls travelling to India’s border areas with Pakistan in the Kutch region of Gujarat as well as the Wagah border point on the Indian side of Punjab.
Her best moments in India were taking part in the cultural festivals like Holi and the worst part was she missed her regular intake of food due to excess exposure to vegetarian food in India while Tom fell sick grappling with poor immune system.
Hong said her ground breaking backpacking journey to India illustrates a growing trend among new Chinese middle classes to quit their jobs to hit the roads abroad.
Indian travels in a way impacted her as she says the religious fervour in India had left a mark of influence as she turned spiritual.
She is also thinks that despite trying conditions, Indians appeared happier compared to their Chinese counterparts despite their material success.

10 September 2014

India Set to Import 100,000 Tonnes of Rice From Burma

Burma will supply 100,000 tonnes of rice to India, to meet the need for the commodity in the states of Mizoram and Manipur (PHOTO:wikicommons). Burma will supply 100,000 tonnes of rice to India, to meet the need for the commodity in the states of Mizoram and Manipur (PHOTO:wikicommons).


India, the largest rice exporter in the world, is set to import around 100,000 tonnes of rice from Burma, which was once the largest exporter of the commodity.

The move is a result of logistical bottlenecks that will hinder the transportation of rice to the northeastern states of India. The rice import is a preventive measure to avoid a supply crisis in the states of Manipur and Mizoram, where a railway construction project is underway.

In the absence of feasible transport routes to connect Mizoram and Manipur with the rest of India during this phase, the Food Corporation of India will import rice from Burma, which is well connected by road to these northeastern Indian states, according to a report in the Indian daily, The Economic Times.

Though what seems like a temporary arrangement, the move seems to further calibrate India’s “Look East” policy, in which bilateral relations with Burma have always been prioritized to combat Chinese monopoly in the region.

All efforts to increase India’s bilateral trade with Burma are viewed as an essential and natural strategy to increase Indian influence within a country that it shares much with, including a colonial history and a 1,009-mile border.

The decision to import rice from Burma, even despite surplus production at home, fosters a mutually inclusive economic understanding between the two countries, which are both competitors in South Asia for rice export.
The rice import also provides an opportunity for India to explore and identify the potential capacity of the northeastern states, volatile with secessionist and insurgent groups, but also shares an extensively vast percentage of its borderlines with regional neighbours. According to a report published by Gateway House, an Indian think tank, the exchange of commodities between India and Burma via its northeastern terrain will aid India in tapping into the hitherto neglected role that northeast can play in further strengthening the trade possibilities between the two countries.

At present, it is unclear whether the trade route will be via the Chittagong port or via land routes, although The Economic Times suggests the latter. Interestingly if the trade is to be via road, it will be carried out across the commonly disputed borderlines of Burma and India. The landscape of northeast India, which merges relatively seamlessly into Burmese territory, has been a belt of narcotic activity and arms trading, and is also infested with insurgent rebel groups on either side of the border.
Former Indian military commander, Rahul Bhonsle, who spearheads Asia, explained to DVB about the need to buckle up security at either ends of the trade routes. “In the case of the land route being used, adequate checks [must be implemented] to ensure that the [rice] transportation is not used by the criminal and militant nexus operating across the borders to their advantage,” said Bhonsle.

The increasing importance of transport routes via India and Burma as a priority was emphasised at the fifth annual Indo-US strategic dialogue. The strategic importance of building transport trade routes via Burma serves a twofold purpose for India: increasing trade connectivity; and serving as a strategic entry portal into Southeast Asia.

For Burma, the export deal with India comes at a time when the rice industry faces stiff competition from its neighbours; the Myanmar Rice Federation demanded tangible rice policies earlier this year to match the level of surplus production of other rice-exporting countries.

The latest five-year national export strategy, unveiled by the Burmese government on 5 September, has accredited rice exports to be of “highest importance” in 2014-15, reported Oryza, a leading rice industry publication..

“The [Burmese] government is planning to explore newer markets for its rice exports,” it said, part of a strategy to revive Burma’s once famed rice export legacy.

With this deal underway, India will be importing rice after almost three decades.
12 August 2014

Ready to Talk With Maoists, Northeast Insurgents: Rajnath

Rajnath Singh asserted that the Government will take all steps to ensure communal harmony. (File/PTI) Rajnath Singh asserted that the Government will take all steps to ensure communal harmony.

New Delhi, Aug 12 : The government is ready to talk to northeast insurgents as well as Maoists if they shun violence, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said Monday.

Replying to a debate on the working of home ministry in the Rajya Sabha, Rajnath Singh said: "Left wing extremism is a big challenge for the country but the government will not allow anyone to indulge in violence. If they shun violence, we are ready to talk."

On the northeast insurgents, the minister said: "We are ready to talk with any extremist group under the purview of the constitution. Peace in northeastern states is our priority."

The home minister added that every Indian citizen will get identity cards within three years to end the problem of illegal migrants.

Expressing desire to bring about permanent solution to the Kashmir issue, Rajnath Singh said the government is willing to have any dialogue under the ambit of 'insaniyat' (humanity) to address the problem and favours good relations with Pakistan.

"We want to find a permanent solution to Kashmir issue. We are ready for any kind of dialogue within Constitutional framework... If necessary, we are even willing to hold dialogue within the framework of 'insaniyat'," the home minister informed Rajya Sabha.

In this context, he sought the cooperation of opposition Congress if it could help in any manner.
He said India also wants good relations with Pakistan and is ready to hold talks with that country to end the problem of infiltration.

The Minister asserted that the Government does not discriminate on the basis of caste, creed or religion and blamed "vote-bank" politics for the recent incidents of communal violence and said it will not tolerate such occurrences.

Singh said, "We are aware that India is not a country of any one community, caste or region. Our government is committed to ensure justice to all on the basis of 'insaniyat' (humanity). Our concern and priority is 'rozi, roti and suraksha' (employment, food and security)."

Referring to the communal incidents that have taken place in Uttar Pradesh recently, he said, "the situation deteriorated only because of vote-bank politics, nothing else."

He asserted that the Government will take all steps to ensure communal harmony.

The reply, which lasted nearly two hours, tested the patience of Rajya Sabha members, with several of them urging the minister to conclude.

Deputy Chairman P.J. Kurien also asked Rajnath Singh a few times how much time he is going to take to complete his reply.

The reply only ended at about 9.30 PM

Rajnath Singh made it a point to reply to all points raised by the members, and addressed issues ranging from insurgency, to communal harmony.

Congress leader Satyavrat Chaturvedi went ahead to say that they will not ask the home minister any questions again, while his party colleague Anand Sharma was seen gesturing at the minister with folded hands.

When some members complained of being hungry, Communist Party of India-Marxist leader Sitaram Yechury said in a lighter note that communists are habituated of being hungry, but the house must take a break so that food can be arranged for other MPs.

When the minister finished his reply, Kurien complimented him and said: "The House compliments you for replying to every member's point."
23 June 2014

Looking For A Peg

2.46litres is India’s average per capita  consumption of pure alcohol in 2010, according to WHO

2.46litres is India’s average per capita consumption of pure alcohol in 2010, according to WHO


As Kerala attempts phased prohibition, a look at how the country holds its drink

The abstainers
Prohibition is in force in Gujarat, Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland

The Mizoram Liquor Total Prohibition Act 1996 banned the sale and consumption of liquor, but permits called ‘red cards’ are issued to ex-servicemen and others on ‘health grounds’. Tourists may also bring alcohol. Though government figures say about 60-odd people have died from consuming spurious alcohol since 1996, the numbers are likely to be higher.

Rs 600-800 is the price of a bottle of bootlegged whiskey.

DRINK TO THIS:  Country liquor and IMFL are freely available at Rangvamual and Phunchawng, west of Aizawl. So when people head there, they say, “RV ila”, literally “Let’s RV”, RV being the short form for Rangvamual.

Prohibition was imposed in 1991. Manipur has a tradition of ‘neshabandhis’, locals usually led by the famous ‘Meira Paibis’ or ‘Mothers of Manipur’ who went around cracking down on alcohol. A cabinet decision five years ago to reinstate liquor licenses hasn’t made any progress. The law is not imposed on some SCs and STs who are traditional liquor brewers. So locally brewed rice beer and wine is openly available at Sekmai, Andro and any Kabui village.

Rs 1,800 is the price of a bottle of bootlegged whiskey.

DRINK TO THIS: Everything from beer to whiskey to rum can be got from hidden vends. Myanmarese, Chinese and Thai beer are easily available.

The Nagaland Total Liquor Prohibition Act 1989 was passed in 1990. But traditional ‘Zu’ and ‘Rohi’ liquor can be prepared and consumed. Last July, then CM Neiphiu Rio admitted in the Assembly that prohibition was a failure. Liquor flows freely from neighbouring Assam.

Rs 600 lakh per year is what the excise department generated before prohibition. The department now gets around Rs 10 lakh per annum in fines.

DRINK TO THIS:  On May 26, Commissioner of Excise in Nagaland issued an order to destroy 4,488 cases of seized IMFL. A civil society group arrived to discover that only 2,394 were destroyed and the rest were missing.

Prohibition has been in force since 1960 and a 2011 amended version is called the Gujarat Prohibition Act. Foreigners and NRIs need permits to drink and can  get them at the airport. The permit lets them buy buy two units (750ml) every 10 days. A domicile can get permits only on health grounds.

Alcohol can be legally consumed at SEZs, of which the state has 22. In 2009, 150 people died in Ahmedabad from drinking spurious liquor.

Rs 3000-4,000 crore is the estimated annual loss in excise duty. The bootlegging network is said to earn at least Rs 1,500 crore annually.

DRINK TO THIS:  Bootleggers, called ‘folder’, deliver IMFL at your doorstep.
20 June 2014

The Slumdog Millionaire Architect

Hafeez Contractor high above Mumbai in a current project, the Minerva, with his Imperial Towers in the distance to the right. Credit Mahesh Shantaram for The New York Times
The offices of Hafeez Contractor, India’s most commercially successful architect, are on Bank Street, just around the corner from the Mumbai Stock Exchange. The prestige of the address, however, is undermined by the beleaguered state of the Raj-era building. In the reception area, a flat-screen displaying a loop of Contractor’s futuristic projects is mounted on a cracked, stained plaster wall. Upstairs, hundreds of designers sit shoulder to shoulder at long rows of computer monitors, packed in almost as mercilessly as on the commuter trains that ferry them to work each day. The office has struggled to keep up with the firm’s expanding work force and is perpetually under construction. Staff members were known to walk 15 minutes to the five-star Taj Mahal Palace Hotel rather than brave the employee-restroom line. Contractor has vastly increased his square footage by building a loft, but a day at the office now entails ducking through archways, dodging stray wires and ignoring the wail of power saws.

On what used to be a shantytown, the Imperial Towers now loom over low-income apartments. Credit Mahesh Shantaram for The New York Times
From this unlikely office, Contractor is helping to create the face of 21st-century India — a nation of flourishing wealth and entrenched poverty that looks, according to the economists Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze, “more and more like islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa.” More than anyone else, it is Contractor who is responsible for building those “islands.” He has done this in part by designing elaborate corporate campuses on the outskirts of cities, like his projects for Infosys, the Bangalore-based technology giant that employs more than 160,000 people. For Infosys, he built a software-development park outside Pune that features two avant-garde office orbs, which Contractor calls his “dew drops,” and a 337-acre corporate educational facility near Mysore that is laid out around a columned structure Contractor designed to look like St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. In New Delhi’s D.L.F. CyberCity, Contractor constructed a sprawling office development for blue-chip companies including Microsoft, KPMG, Lufthansa and American Express. His most famous project is Hiranandani Gardens, in suburban Mumbai, not far from the airport, where Contractor designed the domestic terminal. The 250-acre mixed-use neighborhood achieved some measure of fame when it served as the backdrop for India’s breakneck development in the 2008 film “Slumdog Millionaire.” In one of the movie’s more famous scenes, a character gazes out at the neighborhood’s skyline, dominated by what appear to be Greek temples stretched 33 stories into the air, and declares, “India’s at the center of the world now.”
The neighborhood, named for the billionaire real-estate-developing Hiranandani brothers, certainly bears its architect’s signature flamboyance. But what defines a Contractor project is the feeling that you are in a world apart. It houses more than 15,000 people and includes offices for more than 150 companies; it has its own school, its own hospital and its own recreational amenities, like Nirvana Park. All of this is supported by a vast system of backup power generators and sewage-treatment facilities that free the community from India’s notoriously dysfunctional infrastructure. At Hiranandani Gardens, you can almost forget you’re in a nation where 300 million people lack electricity. You certainly don’t have to worry about bathroom lines. Inside Hiranandani Gardens — taking a meeting at Colgate-Palmolive, lunching at Pizza Hut — there is little, save the auto-rickshaws buzzing down Technology Street, to remind you that you’re even in India. And that is precisely the point.

Contractor’s projects constitute a kind of alternate India, an archipelago of green zones in which Indian professionals inhabit a first world behind walls and security checkpoints, insulated from the chaos that has long hamstrung their homeland. Unlike most developing countries, India has pursued professional-services-led economic growth, opting for office parks over sweatshops. India “looks like no other developing nation,” the Mumbai-born pundit Fareed Zakaria has written. “India’s G.D.P. is 50 percent services, 25 percent industry and 25 percent agricultural. The only other countries that fit this profile are Portugal and Greece — middle-income countries.” Contractor has found his niche in building the offices where India’s professional services are produced and the residences, hotels and shopping malls where Indian professionals spend their time and money.
While the world wonders whether India, under the incoming pro-market government of Narendra Modi, can return to the blistering growth rates it was consistently posting before the global financial crisis, Contractor only obliquely acknowledges that the recent sputtering of India’s economy has affected his practice. Certain projects that would ideally be built quickly, he concedes, are instead being built in stages. Regardless, he prefers to look forward. The total acreage of an upscale satellite city he’s currently building near Delhi (when combined with a neighboring nature preserve) “will be larger than Central Park in New York,” he crowed. “Now that’s called creating history.”
In February, Contractor took me to see one of his newest projects, an 85-story Y-shaped condominium tower called Minerva that is being built atop a former shantytown. As we rose in the steel-framed, open-air construction elevator, the oft-obscured fact that Mumbai is a tropical island revealed itself, with the Arabian Sea stretching out beyond the lush, green oval of the Mahalaxmi Race Course. We ascended to the 26th floor, just a slab of concrete that was poured 10 weeks earlier. From this vantage point, we had an excellent view of the kinds of buildings Contractor is known for building in city centers — luxury high-rises set in the middle of India’s slums. To our left, next to the most expensive home in the world — the industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s $1 billion personal high-rise — were Contractor’s sleek Imperial Towers, built on the site of one of the city’s first slum redevelopments. Moving from left to right, Contractor pointed to the Four Seasons Hotel, which he worked on. “Atria Mall is us,” he continued, “and we’re doing three towers in that slum” next to a modern building with a pitched roof. Squinting out over the metropolis from this altitude, it was easy to spot the skyscrapers, but the teeming, low-rise slums — just undulating mounds of tarp and corrugated metal — were harder to locate. When I spotted the shantytown, Contractor added, “That pitched roof is also us.”

To call Hafeez Contractor Bollywood’s starchitect would not do justice to his fame. He is more like a luxury brand. The entire headline on a billboard for a new housing development in Kolkata read, “Designed by the famed Hafeez Contractor.” The architect does product endorsements for companies as if he were a movie star: computer makers (HP) and airlines (Swissair). When Indians talk about Contractor, they generally call him simply Hafeez.
Stylistically, Contractor’s buildings have no signature, save a penchant for glitz. “I always say . . . that you definitely like a woman with lipstick, rouge, eyelashes,” he told me. “So if you make your building more beautiful with some appliqués, there’s nothing wrong.” Instead of a style, what most unifies Contractor’s projects is that they actually get built. Architecture has long been described as the most political of the arts, and the key to Contractor’s success is as much his mastery of the policy levers of the world’s largest democracy as his talents as a designer. Combining the skills of an architect with those of a political operative, Contractor can read new regulations and immediately find exploitable loopholes and work behind the scenes to shape legislation that serves his business. He cultivates friends in high places, and he has learned to time his public statements judiciously. “There are several good ideas that I have announced at the wrong time,” Contractor told me. “Just before [the] election, some party accepts it and — with good fortune or bad fortune — the other party comes, and he kills it.” Most crucially, he has mastered the art of rhetoric, of phrasing his private interests in terms of the public interest.

Inside the high-rises, several million dollars buys not only granite countertops and Arabian Sea views but also electricity that never goes out and water that always runs.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Contractor’s effort to redevelop Mumbai’s slums. When India became independent in 1947, only a small segment of Mumbai’s population lived in shantytowns; by the 1990s, after wave upon wave of job-seeking domestic migrants arrived, roughly half the city’s estimated 10 million people lived in them.
The local government has long been vexed by the problem. Until 1970, the city held that informal settlements were illegal, and it sent the police to clear them in periodic crackdowns. Then it switched gears and endorsed so-called slum upgrading, adding basic amenities like streetlights and public toilets to informal neighborhoods. But between the government’s penury, endemic corruption and the ever-growing size of the problem, progress was limited. Today Mumbai’s best-known slum, Dharavi, packs a population comparable to San Francisco’s into less than one square mile of urban space. Its jerry-built structures can rise several stories, the upper floors accessible by ladders that extend down into darkened alleyways. Though families are large and child labor is rampant, the average household income in the neighborhood hovers around $60 a week.
Contractor had long supported a grand bargain in which developers would be given the opportunity to build market-rate projects on valuable land covered by slums in exchange for providing new, free housing for slum dwellers. He argued for such a policy in the media as well as in private conversations with politicians. In 1995, when the conservative Shiv Sena Party took power in elections in Maharashtra state (Mumbai is its capital), Contractor saw an opening. But it required cozying up to one of the least savory figures in Indian politics: Bal Thackeray, the leader of Shiv Sena and a political cartoonist by trade, who openly admired Hitler and rose to power by pitting Mumbai’s ethnic groups against one another. His followers called him by the honorific Balasaheb. The local press dubbed him “the uncrowned king,” because Thackeray was not an elected official but a party boss. He controlled Mumbai through a devoted following of Hindu youths that he could call upon to paralyze the metropolis with protests — or riots — if he didn’t get his way.

Shiv Sena came to power on a platform of “free housing for slum dwellers” but lacked a concrete policy for putting it into effect. After the elections, Contractor says he set his staff to work on a comprehensive study of Mumbai’s slums. His team came up with a plan to allow market-rate development of skyscrapers with extended height limits in exchange for rehousing the slum dwellers. In a closed-door meeting, Contractor recalled, he presented his proposal and got Thackeray to endorse the grand bargain over the objections of his deputies.
As Contractor spoke with me, he couldn’t hide his disdain for Thackeray’s populist pretensions. But he had a grudging respect for his ability to get things done — specifically Contractor’s own agenda. “You need a strong guy,” Contractor said.

Although he credits Thackeray, Contractor calls himself “the real architect of slum-redevelopment policy.” It’s an audacious claim, given that the policy details were worked out by a committee on which Contractor did not serve. But whatever the extent of his role, in the years since enactment, Contractor has become the go-to architect for transforming shantytowns into plots that combine low-income apartments and ultraluxury condominiums. Inside the high-rises, several million dollars buys not only granite countertops and Arabian Sea views but also electricity that never goes out and water that always runs.
Given Mumbai’s surreal inequality, Contractor’s market-based plans have made him the architect that Indian intellectuals love to hate. P. K. Das, Mumbai’s best-known radical urbanist — he is known as an architect-activist — is the nemesis of market-friendly architects like Contractor. Das rails against slum-redevelopment policy as a ruse to privatize prime plots of real estate, tarring it as the “greatest bluff ever perpetrated on the city’s poor.” While Contractor claims his structures, with their reliable utilities and sewage treatment, model best practices for the rest of India, critics like Das worry that giving India’s most influential citizens high-quality infrastructure amid India’s poverty removes the political will to make basics like reliable power and potable tap water universal. Providing basic services to the rich and not the poor bespeaks “a state of underdevelopment, not a state of development,” Das told me in his studio.

At the Infosys campus outside Pune, Contractor built two avant-garde orbs that he refers to as his “dew drops.” Credit Mahesh Shantaram for The New York Times
Following the tour with Contractor of his Minerva project, we headed across town in his chauffeured white S.U.V. to have lunch at an upscale Indian chain restaurant in a shopping mall. The busy street life passing our windows — fruit sellers hawking their produce, young rag pickers filling their giant tarp sacks with scavenged recyclables, women in abayas going about their daily chores — seemed to be far removed, as if we were watching a documentary about Mumbai’s poor from the comfort of a well-appointed theater. At the Jacob Circle roundabout, a teenager gunned his motor scooter the wrong direction around the one-way traffic circle, his helmetless friend hanging on tight behind him. “Look at this guy!” Contractor offered, more in amusement than in anger. “Bombay” — he still calls it that — “has gone wacko.”

As the surname suggests, Contractor’s family has deep roots in the building trades. Family lore has it that his great-great-grandfather helped build what is now the University of Baroda, 250 miles north of Mumbai in the state of Gujarat. The Contractors were part of the tiny Parsee community in Western India privileged by the British. By the early 20th century, Contractor says, his ancestors were wealthy industrialists, well diversified into power plants and liquor.
Hafeez was born in Mumbai in 1950, part of the Midnight’s Children generation that never knew the British Raj. Despite the joys of freedom, it was an inauspicious time to be born — and not only because Hafeez’s father died unexpectedly just 13 days before his birth. The family was foundering. The newborn Republic of India looked with disdain on the Contractors’ industrial concerns. Private power plants would have no place in Jawaharlal Nehru’s state, and alcohol would be banned in Gandhi’s spiritual nation.
But if politics destroyed the Contractor family’s fortune, under Hafeez’s savvy guidance, politics would rebuild it. After barely securing a spot in architecture school, the young Hafeez excelled. His senior project was displayed at Mumbai’s leading contemporary art museum, and he won a postgraduate scholarship to Columbia University, where he earned a master’s in 1977. Contractor came to find Manhattan seductive, but unlike many Indian professionals, he vowed to return to India rather than use the fellowship as a ticket out. “The temptation was so great,” he recalled, “that I said, ‘Graduate in the afternoon, catch a flight in the night.’ And I literally meant it. I left for my flight from the farewell dinner.”
In the India he returned to, apartments meant for low-income residents were hemmed in by a square-footage limit that was part of the Urban Land Ceiling and Regulation Act, passed while Contractor was in New York. The legislation capped some apartments at just 40 square meters (430 square feet), but nearly as soon as the regulations were enacted, Indians found a simple way to flout them: Husbands and wives would buy adjoining units and then remove a wall to combine them. That was just the first step. The race was on to come up with a design that could conjure the feel of luxury within the still-modest 860-square-foot flats.
In the impeccably air-conditioned glass-and-steel sales office of the Minerva condominium tower, Contractor recalled how the Mumbai developer Kirti Kedia approached him and demanded apartments that included 10-by-14 bedrooms and 20-by-20 living rooms, straining the limits of the regulations before even considering necessities like hallways and bathrooms. “I said, ‘Come on, Kirti, I can’t beat arithmetic,’ ” Contractor recalled. “Kirti said, ‘Raja’ . . . he calls me Raja — raja means king — ‘that is why I have come to you.’ ” Contractor took out his red felt-tip pen and legal pad and showed me how he did it.

Starting with the living room, Contractor drew a 20-by-20 square — 400 square feet. Turning the height of the square into the diameter of a circle, a bit like Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, Contractor shaved off the top two corners. This little move cut some 40 square feet off the room. He applied the same trick to the rectangular bedrooms. “And I got it. I beat the arithmetic. I showed him the plan the next day. . . . This was the rage of that time!” Contractor had outsmarted the regulations by literally cutting corners. The result was the Megh, Malhar and Raag Towers, a set of organic-shaped buildings. The towers weren’t finished until years later, but commissions for other buildings rolled in, and Hafeez became a household name. A 1987 print ad showed him standing atop his latest bullet-shaped high-rise holding airline tickets. It said simply: “Hafeez Contractor Flies Swissair.”
Contractor can read new regulations and immediately find exploitable loopholes and work behind the scenes to shape legislation that serves his business.
In 1991, when an economic crisis forced India to adopt I.M.F.-imposed free-market reforms, Contractor was perfectly positioned to benefit. Foreign capital poured into the country, and domestic companies boomed. One day, Contractor was sitting in the restaurant of the Taj Palace Hotel in New Delhi when he spotted Narayana Murthy, a founder of the software outsourcing giant Infosys. In 1981, Murthy started the company with six partners and $250 in pooled capital; now he was a billionaire. Though Contractor had never met the tycoon before, he seized the opportunity to pitch his services. As Murthy tells the story, Contractor walked up to him and asked, “Can I disturb you?” When Contractor introduced himself, Murthy recalls, “I thought, This guy is so humble, almost a zero-ego person, and yet he is the most creative architect from India. After just a brief chat, Murthy concluded that he wanted to work with Contractor.
In the early days of Infosys, the company was headquartered in an office building in downtown Bangalore. But Murthy saw no way to expand there. The city’s transit system was hopeless. Murthy recalled telling his colleagues: “Look, if we try to expand in the city, we won’t have enough car parks. . . . We will create India’s first software campus.”
Contractor was initially enlisted to add “show buildings” to Murthy’s new Bangalore campus, including the glass pyramid television studio from which the company beams its quarterly results to the world. (Murthy told me he liked I.M. Pei’s addition to the Louvre so much that he had Contractor build him one.) Soon Contractor was tasked with designing entire campuses for the company. “We fight a very tough battle here,” Murthy mused. “We go through all this pollution, traffic, noise, and we reach our campus, and in a jiffy we are expected to satisfy the needs — the technological needs — of the most advanced customer from the first world all day. We have to create an environment where it becomes easier.” To this end, Murthy demanded all the amenities of a large city behind the gates. “It has to have bookstores, it has to have food courts,” he said, “it has to have a swimming pool, it has to have a cricket pitch.”

As Sadaf Khan, an Infosys communications staff member, told me bluntly when I arrived at the gates of the Bangalore headquarters: “This campus is a different world compared to the rest of the city. When you’re inside the campus, you might as well not be in Bangalore.”
If the goal is to conjure a “different world,” Infosys’ campuses are indisputably successful. But not everyone is happy with the results. Varun Singh, a 30-year-old middle manager, was enjoying a smoke with his team of programmers outside the gates of the company’s Pune campus when he told me that employees didn’t have much access to the recreational facilities, “because we’re loaded down with work.” His underlings stood by nodding, impressed with his candor. Working in a chic, Contractor-designed “dew drop” wowed his parents when they came to visit, Singh continued, but on a day-to-day basis, the campus irked him. The location on the edge of town was inconvenient, and after the long ride from his apartment each morning on a company bus, he still had to walk a third of a mile from the campus gate to his office. (The golf cart that I traveled in, he informed me, was reserved for visiting clients and journalists.) Singh said he would prefer Infosys to operate out of a more ordinary office building in the city center. But Murthy tapped Contractor to build exurban campuses precisely because he concluded that expanding in India’s dysfunctional downtowns wasn’t feasible.
Contractor is changing the makeup of those dysfunctional downtowns by building luxury residences alongside the slum redevelopments he advocated for with Shiv Sena. In those constructions, the two Indias sit side by side, but still painstakingly sealed off from each other. As the architect explained to me, his firm lays out the redevelopment-site plans with an eye toward keeping the slum dwellers and the condo buyers segregated. Each group is from a “separate class,” he said. “If you had it combined, neither the slum guys nor the prospective clients would like it.”
According to Contractor, prospective clients and slum dwellers alike support his efforts. At the ribbon-cutting for what would be the first slum-rehousing apartments abutting the site of his Imperial Towers, the tenants who inhabited the 2,500 huts that covered the 13-acre site conducted a religious ceremony to mark the opening. Contractor says the women put on their finest saris and approached him and the developer reverently with an oil lamp. “They were taking our aarti,” or making an offering, Contractor recounted, “giving us as much honor as they’re giving to a god. So I asked this lady, ‘Why are you doing this?’ She said: ‘Do you know what you have done to our lives? We, all ladies in the slum, cannot go to a toilet after the sun rises and before the sun sets, but you are giving us tap water, 24-hours water.’ ”
The architect Hafeez Contractor, center, with members of his staff at his office in Mumbai. Credit Mahesh Shantaram for The New York Times
The day after meeting Contractor, I visited the low-income housing next to the Imperial Towers. Beside the nine-story concrete parking garage that constitutes the condominiums’ base, teenage boys were absorbed in their game on an improvised cricket pitch. Inside a building bearing a spray-painted mural of Bal Thackeray and other local heroes on its facade, an old man was busy at an ironing board he had set up in the stairwell as an informal laundry business. Up one flight and down the dimly lit hallway, I met the seven members of the Khan family in the 225-square-foot apartment they received after the community voted to give developers the right to build the multimillion-dollar flats.

The Khans’ original home had been on the footprint of the building where they live today. Back in the 1950s, the family patriarch moved to Mumbai as this community was being carved out of steep, flood-prone jungle land that nobody else wanted. Until their slum was razed, the Khans were living in a 90-square-foot hut with only corrugated metal sheets to keep out the rain.
When I asked the Khans if they were satisfied with the redevelopment, every member of the family agreed enthusiastically. Even when they become eligible to sell their flat — after 10 years of residency, as mandated by the redevelopment policy — they told me they planned to stay. The access to jobs, markets and services afforded by their central location outweighs the temptation to part with their 225 square feet of Mumbai, which was worth, they estimated, $65,000.
In order for a developer to secure the rights for a coveted plot, 70 percent of the shantytown’s occupants have to vote in favor of that builder. Developers vie to win over influential community members, sometimes promising to sweeten the deal with add-ons. Contractor mentioned providing a free refrigerator in each unit. When I noted the rampant rumors that development companies pay cash bribes for votes, Contractor didn’t deny it. “Every country has to go through this kind of a phase,” he said. “In your country, it was the 1920s and 1930s.”
In their apartment, however, the Khans told me that there had been only one developer making an offer for their slum and that there were no handouts. The community simply accepted the baseline offer to redevelop the parcel to the minimum standards required by the law. Contractor points out that under the law, the slum dwellers’ costs are covered by the developers for 10 years. But the Khans said there were additional fees associated with the elevators and the fluorescent lighting in the common hallways. Before redevelopment, they had to pay only a 50-cent tax to the government each month; now they have to come up with nearly $9 a month. Covering that cost takes nearly every member of the Khan family pitching in to augment the $50 a month that 37-year-old Amina earns as a maid.
As for Contractor’s story of being thanked for 24-hour running water, the Khans told me they get running water for only one hour a day — 30 minutes in the morning and another 30 minutes in the evening. When the water goes on, they fill up buckets to use for the rest of the day or night. Just next door, in the Imperial Towers penthouse (asking price: $20 million), the swimming pool is the size of seven slum-redevelopment apartments combined, and it is always full. Still, the Khans insisted, they were satisfied with this situation.
Contractor sees his slum redevelopments as studies in communal harmony in which both rich and poor “enjoy their own freedom, but they don’t disturb the other guy’s freedom.” But Sheela Patel, the director of the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers, an organization that advocates for the urban poor, considers the rehousing units “vertical slums.” In many redevelopments, she said, “the space between the [buildings] is six feet, so the first three or four floors don’t even get sunlight during the day.” Patel served as the sole NGO representative on the committee that helped redesign the slum-redevelopment policy after Shiv Sena won the 1995 elections on its free-housing pledge. “This thing of 70 percent of the community agreeing to do it, that was our contribution,” she said. “The developers were violently against that.” But, she says, in the decades since the policy was enacted, greed and corruption have rendered it “one more thing that it is done in the name of the poor but hasn’t improved the quality of habitat for the poor in the sense that it was meant to be.”
Mumbai’s best-known slum, Dharavi, packs a population comparable to San Francisco’s into less than one square mile of urban space.
“If you ask me what am I most happy about, I wouldn’t say I made a building for the richest man or that I made one of the tallest buildings in this city,” Contractor told me in the Minerva sales office, puffing his chest and flexing his biceps for comic effect. “What I’m really happy about is one fine day, I got an idea for slum redevelopment. I used to say that until we do something about the slums, we’re not going to have anything. We must have a good social-housing policy.”
But critics like the Mumbai writer Naresh Fernandes dismiss Contractor’s enthusiasm for market-based policy as self-serving folly. “Instead of building the sort of public-housing projects that have proved effective in London, Hong Kong and Singapore,” Fernandes wrote in his 2013 book, “City Adrift,” “Mumbai decided that its housing crisis should be left to the whimsies of the private sector.” As a result, only those slums located on the most desirable plots of land have proved tempting to developers. When Shiv Sena enacted the redevelopment policy, Fernandes wrote, it estimated that it would rehouse 800,000 slum dwellers. Now, nearly two decades later, it has served only 127,000.
Contractor stands by the policy and insists that even his high-end projects are not exercises in excess but models of best practices. They set standards for a developed India that the government must emulate. In talking about the potable tap water on the Infosys campuses, Contractor offered: “If Infosys can do it, why can’t the Bangalore city do it? Why can’t the Mumbai city do it?”
His voice took on a pleading tone: “If we can do it, why can’t you do it?”
Indeed, in America’s development, what began as private amenities available only to the rich — indoor plumbing, electric lighting — were eventually incorporated into public building codes and universalized. In neighboring China, the pro-market reformer Deng Xiaoping argued, “Let some get rich first,” and in the decades since his reign, even average Chinese have seen remarkable improvements in their living standards. Today 99 percent of Chinese have regular access to a toilet; in India, the figure is only 49 percent.
Some argue that if India really is following this well-trod path of development — just with a late start — the concerns of Contractor’s critics are misplaced. But China’s rise out of poverty was based on an authoritarian model that is a nonstarter in democratic India. And even America’s broad middle class is beginning to look like a 20th-century anomaly. Besides, Contractor’s projects suggest India is on a different path altogether.
India’s social commentators dismiss Contractor’s gaudy creations as real-life Bollywood sets. But taste aside, they are nothing to sneer at. Developments like CyberCity and Hiranandani Gardens are more than just symbols of India’s rise; they are a key part of it. Inside Contractor’s corporate campuses, with their private, reliable infrastructure, it’s always business as usual; outside the gates, you’re at the mercy of the nation that hosted the largest blackout in human history, which left 600 million people without power in 2012. When, for example, the Bangalore authorities initiate a multiday shutdown of their municipal water system for “maintenance,” as they have been known to do, you can still make tea with the tap water at Infosys headquarters and get back to your spreadsheet. And by permitting Indian professionals to approximate a Western standard of living without emigrating, Contractor’s residences can lure Indian executives back to world-class businesses in Mumbai and Bangalore instead of New York and Silicon Valley.
Discussing the blackout, Amartya Sen told an audience in Jaipur last January that the media neglected an important fact. “Two hundred million of those 600 million people never had any power at all,” he said. Equally notable, though, is the converse: That for the privileged few working on an Infosys campus or living in one of Contractor’s residential compounds, the generators kicked in and the lights stayed on. The Indian poor live in perpetual darkness, and the Indian rich live in perpetual light.
Sen concluded by exhorting his countrymen to “start making intelligent use of the resources that economic growth generates” to close India’s unconscionable social gaps. It is a sensible prescription. But it is not a politically pressing one in the world’s largest democracy, because the nation’s problems are no longer an issue for its most fortunate citizens. They live in a different world now, even when they are right next door.
Daniel Brook is the author of “A History of Future Cities.” This is his first article for the magazine.

09 June 2014

What a scorcher! Delhi swelters in record 47.8C heat as Capital gets its hottest day for sixty-two years

Sunday turned into 'Stunned Day' for Delhi residents as a weather station near the airport recorded a high temperature of 47.8ºC, the highest in over six decades.
The last time this happened was in 1952, five years after Independence.
Put another way, Delhi residents less than 62 years of age have just experienced the hottest day of their lives.
The more downtown weather station at Safdarjung recorded 45.1ºC, five degrees above normal and the hottest in five years.
People cover their faces to beat the heat
A foreign tourist protects herself from the sizzling heat
Brutal weather: People cover their faces (left) to beat the heat on Sunday, while a foreign tourist (right) protects herself from the scorching sun.

The forecast was even worse. The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) said clear skies and the heat wave are expected to hold, and there will be more of the same on Monday.
At this rate, Delhi could set an all-time maximum temperature record this week.
Delhi was not alone in its misery. North India reeled under a heat wave, with records being set and broken all over the region. Chandigarh baked at 45ºC, its second highest June temperature in 10 years. Hisar in Haryana boiled at 46.6ºC; Ludhiana touched 46.3ºC.
In Rajasthan, Jaipur hit 47ºC, eight degrees above normal, while Ganganagar burned at 48.6ºC. Uttar Pradesh wasn't spared: Allahabad recorded a high 48.3ºC.
Even the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh suffered. Una, a foothill town, saw the day temperature rise up to an incredible 45ºC, while Sundernagar, a town in the Beas-kissed Mandi district, saw the mercury breach 40ºC.

Power play

Youngsters beat the heat as the mercury soars in New Delhi
Youngsters beat the heat as the mercury soars in New Delhi

The dismal power situation made life highly uncomfortable in the Capital. The damage wreaked to major transmission lines by the dust-storm of May 30 added to the usual peak summer deficit of power to bring hell across the city.
Residential colonies in South, South-west and West Delhi continued to grapple with long power cuts. In Chittaranjan Park, Kalkaji and Greater Kailash, residents complained of nearly three to four hours of power cuts during afternoons, when the heat was at its worst.
Bearing the brunt of sweltering heat and power cuts, residents of the walled city, Patparganj and North-east Delhi even raised protests against the power outages.
"We are not able to even recharge our inverters. We haven't been able to sleep all night. The temperature is breaking all its previous records, and so is the government in not providing us electricity," said Eklayva, a resident of Patparganj.
Delhi was able to meet peak demand of 5152 MW on 7th June 2014, and with highest-ever consumption of 109.206 Million Units. However the unrestricted peak demand was about 5600 MW, resulting in load shedding of around 400 MW during peak time in several parts of the city.
"This was due to system overloading and constraints, mainly due to damage caused to three main 220 kV Transmission Lines," said a power department official.
As a result of this, certain pockets in East Delhi, West Delhi and Central Delhi are more vulnerable to system load-shedding, including Uttam Nagar, Dwarka, Ghazipur, Mayur Vihar, Geeta Colony, Daryaganj, and the Walled City.
"Power supply is interrupted. Power comes for ten minutes and then there is load shedding for an hour. This has been the pattern since the last 10 days," said a resident of Dwarka.
Tata Power Delhi Distribution Limited, one of the two power distribution companies in the capital, claimed they are ready to meet the full load requirement.
"As far as TPDDL is concerned, it has arranged for adequate quantity of power to meet peak summer requirement of approximately 1,545 MW in its area in North Delhi. The current peak demand is hovering around 1,380 MW. The TPDDL network is completely ready to meet the full load requirement," a spokesperson said.
BSES said they have set up a team for internal monitoring and that they would put up the load-shedding schedule on their website. BSES, however, said the power crisis is due to failure of transmission of power.
"After the storm which hit the capital almost 10 days ago, transmission was hit badly. Delhi Transco Limited (DTL) is the one responsible for transmission of power but they have suffered the maximum damage. BSES is preparing its load-shedding schedule and will update it on website," said a BSES official on condition of anonymity.
Coming into action Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung directed the discoms to adopt measures to address this concern. The L-G has ordered discoms to announce a schedule of load-shedding.
Likewise, one of the strong measures will be to cut off the power supply to malls after 10pm, since power demand hits a peak between 10pm and 1 am.
Likewise, government establishments have also been asked to conserve their electricity consumption by switching off their air conditioning between 3.30 and 4.30pm when demand for power in residential areas hits an all-time high.
"Discoms are working out a schedule which will be shared with the public," an advisory from the office of the Lieutenant Governor said.
"Peak load conditions occur in the city between 3pm to 5pm and then again from 10pm to 1am during night. So, these measures will be adopted with immediate effect," the advisory said.
Five days of hell

L-G orders cut in malls' power supply after 10pm

By Heena Kausar in New Delhi
Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung
Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung

As Delhi reels under a severe power crisis, Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung on Sunday ordered that power supply to shopping malls in the Capital be stopped after 10pm.
The L-G held a meeting to review the power situation and directed that people be informed in advance about load-shedding in their areas.
Jung also announced a slew of measures to address the power crisis.
The L-G directed that all government offices, including the Delhi Secretariat, universities and colleges, must switch off air conditioners between 3.30 and 4.30pm to conserve power during peak hours.
"This does not include emergency services and critical institutions such as hospitals," the LG said in a statement.
To ensure proper communication about power outages, Jung directed the discoms to prepare a schedule of power cuts and share it with public.
"Whenever there is less supply of power, the power distribution companies will announce a schedule informing people about the timings when electric supply will be cut. Discoms are working out a schedule which will be shared with the public," an advisory from the office of the L-G said.
"Power supply to malls will not be available after 10pm. High mast halogen lamps in the streets, which consume more power, will be switched off during night peak hours to conserve energy," the statement said, adding: "The discoms will strengthen their call centres by increasing the number of lines and deploying additional staff so that there is better communication with the public."
The advisory also said the measures should be adopted with immediate effect.
"Peak load situations occur in the city between 3pm and 5pm, and again from 10pm and 1am. So, these measures will be adopted with immediate effect," the advisory said.
Jung also asked people to run their air-conditioners at 25 degrees or above, and take all measures at home and in offices to conserve electricity.
The meeting was attended by the chief secretary, principal secretary (power), senior officers of Delhi Transco Limited and CEOs of all the power distribution companies.
Delhi registered its highest ever power consumption of 109.206 million units on May 7, leading to load-shedding of around 400 MW, which affected power supply in several parts of the city.

Water mafia still rules Capital's streets

By Shibaji Roychoudhury in New Delhi
Prolonged power outages have left its impact on the Capital's water supply. And in this hour of crisis, the water tanker mafia is making quick money.
While the usual rate for 1,000 litres of water is anything between Rs 1,000 and Rs 2,000, it has shot up to new heights as the water crisis is at its peak.
After the thunderstorm on May 30, people living in several parts of Delhi are not only suffering from erratic power supply, but are also unable to draw enough water using pumps for daily use.
Residents in areas such as Sangam Vihar, Malviya Nagar and Khirki Extension are finding it tough to pay high charges every day
Residents in areas such as Sangam Vihar, Malviya Nagar and Khirki Extension are finding it tough to pay high charges every day

"The power supply is inconsistent and due to voltage fluctuation, the wiring inside the pump burned. Once we got that fixed, there was barely any water to pump up. We have complained to the DJB office, but they said that due to the power shortage, the water motors too are working inconsistently. Hence, we have no choice but to depend on private tankers," said K.K. Paul, a resident of Chittaranjan Park in South Delhi, while paying Rs 3,000 to a private tanker for 1,000 litres of water.
Paul can afford to buy water from private tankers, but residents in areas like Sangam Vihar, Devli Village, Malviya Nagar, Adchini, Khirki Extension, Saidulajab, Madangir, Tigri and Khanpur are finding it tough to pay the high charges every day.
"We used to pay Rs 1,500 for a thousand litre of water, but now they are charging Rs 2,000 or Rs 3,000...Since we can't afford that much, the cost is being shared by neighbours," Khanpur resident Vishal Nagar said.
According to a Delhi Jal Board (DJB) official, the damage to the power transmission network has affected operations at various water treatment plants, affecting the supply of water in East, West and South Delhi.
The official added that the DJB is doing everything possible to bring the situation back to normal at the earliest.
The board has set up a 24x7 call centre and control room to register complaints.
The DJB supplies nearly 850 million gallons per day of water. This is far less than the Capital's demand of more than 1,000 MGD of water. It has roped in the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) to construct tube wells in various areas that fall under its jurisdiction.
In Dwarka, which has been the most affected area, the DDA has been sending water tankers free of charge to the residents.

06 June 2014

Madhya Pradesh Home Minister: Rape Is 'Sometimes Right, Sometimes Wrong'

Demonstrators hold placards during a candlelight vigil to mark the first death anniversary of the Delhi gang rape victim in New Delhi December 29, 2013. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee/Files
Demonstrators hold placards during a candlelight vigil to mark the first death anniversary of the Delhi gang rape victim in New Delhi December 29, 2013.
Credit: Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee/Files
New Delhi, Jun 6 : Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Babulal Gaur has described rape as a social crime, saying "sometimes it's right, sometimes it's wrong", in the latest controversial remarks by an Indian politician about rape.

Akhilesh Yadav, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, where two cousins aged 12 and 14 were raped and hanged last week, has faced criticism for failing to visit the scene and for accusing the media of hyping the story.

Gaur, who is from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said on Thursday that the crime of rape can only be considered to have been committed if it is reported to police.

"This is a social crime which depends on men and women. Sometimes it's right, sometimes it's wrong," said Gaur, the home minister responsible for law and order in BJP-run Madhya Pradesh.
"Until there's a complaint, nothing can happen," Gaur told reporters.

Gaur also expressed sympathy with Mulayam Singh Yadav, head of the regional Samajwadi Party. In the recent election, Mulayam criticised legal changes that foresee the death penalty for gang rape, saying: "Boys commit mistakes: Will they be hanged for rape?"

The BJP dismissed Gaur's comments as an expression of his personal views, and not the party's.
Modi, who was sworn in as prime minister last week after a landslide election victory, has so far remained silent over the double killing in the village of Katra Shahadatganj, around half a day's drive east of New Delhi.

The father and uncle of one of the victims said they tried to report the crime to local police but had been turned away. Three men have been arrested over the killings. Two policemen were held on suspicion of trying to cover up the crime.

Although a rape is reported in India every 21 minutes on average, law enforcement failures mean that such crimes - a symptom of pervasive sexual and caste oppression - are often not reported or properly investigated, human rights groups say.

More sex crimes have come to light in recent days. A woman in a nearby district of Uttar Pradesh was gang-raped, forced to drink acid and strangled to death. Another was shot dead in northeast India while resisting attackers, media reports said.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said he was "especially appalled" by the rape and murder of the two girls.

"We say no to the dismissive, destructive attitude of, 'Boys will be boys'," he said in a statement this week that made clear his contempt for the language used by Mulayam Singh Yadav.
(Reporting by Sruthi Gottipati; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)
21 February 2014

DU students develop app for uncommon languages

NEW DELHI: The Indic Language application, when it goes live, may not help you discuss the geopolitics of oil in Ladakhi or Mao Naga (also called Imela) but you should be able to swear in them. After he discovered in school that he could impress friends by writing their names in different languages, Vikalp Kumar, 21, learnt eight. That interest has translated into a rather unique conservation effort for "lesser-known" languages at Delhi University's Cluster Innovation Centre.

A team of four undergraduates, including him, are gathering words from native speakers and will make that corpus-with audio versions -available through a web application. So far, it has completed work on two languages-Ladakhi and Mao Naga. More are in the works.

Vikalp, originally from Chennai, speaks Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, English and Sarazi (or Saradzi)-spoken in one district in Kashmir-and possesses a "workable understanding" of Persian and Sanskrit. Initially, he was thinking large scale-"We wanted to cover South Asia."

As mentor and coordinator of BTech in Humanities, Sukrita Paul Kumar's job was to keep ambitions realistic. An editor for People's Linguistic Survey of India, she knew just how massive an undertaking this project was. The students found out soon enough-spadework alone took a semester; the questionnaire took three months. Typically, this sort of exercise would claim large chunks of funds and field visits. The team found ways around both.

Delhi's 'melting-pot' status helped. "There are speakers of 80 northeastern languages in Delhi," says Vikalp. They found some through friends and student associations. Containing over 2,600 English words (covering 30 topics) and phrases in English, the questionnaire is circulated among native speakers of a language for the closest equivalents in it.

In September 2013, members of Ladakhi and Kargil student associations participated in what Vikalp calls a "rapid vocabulary collection workshop". In about four hours, 2,500 words in Ladakhi were "collected"-"enough for a basic dictionary"-and recorded. He found speakers of Dhatki, from in Sindh in Pakistan, at the South Asian University in Delhi.

Technology allowed Vikalp to cross borders. He contacted a speaker of Khowar (from Chitral, near Swat Valley) in Islamabad through Facebook. Words are "collected" by email and recordings, by instant messenger, Whatsapp.

"When we have about five languages," says Kumar, "We can go public." She's also considering letting future batches of students pick up where the current leaves off, adding to the number of languages.

But the app isn't another online dictionary. It has songs, subtitled videos and indicates the geographical spread of a language. "There aren't equivalents for all English words. In Sarazi, there's 'here', 'there', 'yonder' and 'out-of-sight' instead of 'front', 'back' etc," explains Vikalp, "Some languages have words for 'uphill', 'downhill', 'upper-stream' and 'lower-stream', others don't." "You can see how geography influences language formation," adds Kumar.

Himanshu Patel and Vivek Shekhar worked on "geography, culture and politics" for the first semester. The 'tech' team-Himanshu and Leelambar Soren-had to teach themselves Flash from internet tutorials; help was also sought from linguistics departments within and outside DU.

In his fourth semester, Vikalp is taking a few courses in linguistics from the university department-BTech in Humanities runs in the meta-college system allowing him to pick what he likes. A bachelor's degree isn't offered in it at any college.
17 December 2013

Narendra Modi’s personality cult is now available to download on your smartphone

The many faces of Narendra Modi.Zatun Game Studio
Last week, Abhinav Chokhavatia, a 32-year-old app developer from India, released his company’s latest offering, “Modified.” Built for Android devices, the app is a game that allows users to dress up Narendra Modi, the leader of the opposition and the man most likely to become India’s next prime minister, in a variety of guises.

Chokhavatia’s 18-person company, Zatun, is based in Ahmedabad, the biggest city in the state of Gujarat, of which Modi is presently the chief minister, and he was worried at first about a backlash from the politician’s supporters. ”We had this idea way back in June. But we were not too keen on going ahead and developing [it] because someone somewhere might go crazy and do something,” Chokhavatia says. But then he noticed how many other apps featuring Modi there already were.

Narendra Modi is something of an oddity in India politics. In a country with a Westminster-style parliamentary system, he has attained almost presidential levels of popularity, driving votes for his party on the basis of personality and a fiery oration. As the Economist notes in its latest issue (paywall), in a country where politicians routinely pay citizens to attend political rallies, Modi charges an entrance fee. He is also popular among the educated and the young; Modi is the most-popular Indian politician on Twitter, with some 3 million followers. The prime minister has fewer than 1 million. Modi even has a nickname: NaMo. 

There’s an app—or a dozen—for that

A search for Modi on the Google Play store produces a dozen games and apps featuring the politician.Google Play
There are already at least a dozen games featuring Modi’s name and likeness on Google Play, the store for Android phones. (The first result on a search for the presumed Congress candidate, Rahul Gandhi, is called “Narendra Modi vs Rahul Gandhi”.) Modi Run ”is an action game where politician Modi Runs through all the states and wins over the election to become Prime Minister of India.” It has been installed on between 500,000 and 1 million devices. Narendra Modi: Game, which has been installed between 50,000 and 100,000 times, promises, “in this journey you will get information about Narendra Modi’s development in every field.” Temple Lost Running Modi 2 Run, visible in the top-right-hand corner of the above image but which has vanished since this piece was written, combined the twin Hindu obsessions of Modi and the Ayodhya temple, which has simmered at the heart of India’s religious differences since 1992. Indeed, it is not just games. A group of businessmen claim to be producing a Modi-branded phone called “Smart Namo.” Supporters routinely don Modi masks for both political and cultural events.

To many, these are signs of a personality cult. But those involved in building the cult don’t believe that is the case. “We’re just giving people a fun game to play. We don’t think it is hurting or adding to his image,” Chokhavatia says. Similar games existed for film stars, he says, so he figured, why not make one featuring a politician? Strangely enough, he doesn’t plan to make an app featuring any other politicians.
10 December 2013

Climate change hits bamboo production in India

A child walks along a bamboo fence in northeast India. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Stella Paul

KUMARGHAT, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Changing rainfall patterns are slashing bamboo production in northeast India, leading to losses of jobs and businesses.
Erratic rainfall and dry spells have led bamboo to flower more frequently, then die back afterward, local people say. That has hurt families who are dependent on the grass for their livelihoods and even for food.
Savita Datta, 37, a former bamboo artisan from Unakoti district in India’s Tripura state, once split bamboo into sticks to supply incense factories. She and her husband earned a profit of 15,000 to 20,000 rupees ($240 to $320) every month, she said.
But starting in 2007 bamboo growers began reporting a record drop in production. As the supply of raw material fell, prices began to rise, climbing from about 15 rupees ($0.25) per bamboo cane to as much as 50 rupees ($0.80).
After struggling for a year, Savita and Ramapada finally had to shut down their business. She now works as a domestic servant and he pulls a rickshaw for a living.
“Some farmers said that all their bamboo plants had died because of sudden flowering, while others said that their bamboo shoots were not growing well due to heat and excessive rain,” Savita recalls
Amol Dutta, a manager at People’s Cooperative Society, a state government initiative that promotes rural entrepreneurs, estimates that at least 18 bamboo-stick-making units have closed in the past five years in North Tripura district alone. Those still in business have either moved their base elsewhere or are planning to do so.
Anuj Chakravarty, a resident of Emrapasa village in North Tripura, has been selling bamboo furniture for the past 20 years.  Last year he relocated his business to Mumbai.
“A thousand bamboos (bought at bulk rate) now cost over 4,000 rupees, which is more than triple the price we paid even five or six years ago. At this rate, we can’t run a business. So we decided to move out,” he said.
Besides offering a bigger clientele, Mumbai has another attraction, says Chakravarty: cheaper bamboo imported from China.
“Local suppliers gave us more varieties in raw material and design,” he admits. “With Chinese bamboos, you don’t get that. But they are two or three times cheaper.”
The decline in bamboo production, and the import of cheaper Chinese products are signs of difficulty for a region of India that has traditionally been known as the country’s bamboo hub. Almost 56 percent of India’s bamboo production comes from the eight hill states of the northeast.
People here not only grow the grass for money, but rely on it extensively for sustenance too:  tender shoots are eaten as a delicacy, while mature bamboo branches are used to build fences, houses, furniture and household goods such as  baskets, grain containers and cutlery.
Pannalal Dhar, 47, of Sonamara village, has been growing the plant all his life. But this year, for the first time, Dhar was unable to re-fence his house because he was unable to harvest a single branch. The same is true of all 52 families in Sonamara.
“Earlier, I harvested bamboos that were as fat as a log. People bought them to use as pillars in their huts. Now all I get is sickly, thin bamboos that are useless,” says Dhar, pointing at the bare patch of land by his pond that until recently was his bamboo field.
According to Dhar, the decline is partly due to the bamboo’s natural cycle of flowering and dying, but it has been worsened by irregular rain and dry spells. Bamboo shoots require warm but moist soil to flourish, and the monsoon used to be predictable, with gentle rain followed by fierce rainfall for three or four weeks.
But for the past six or seven years, it has rained very hard from the onset of the monsoon in early June, followed by dry spells that last for weeks.
“Normally, before the monsoon, I would build a mud bank around the bamboo plants. This would trap moisture and help the shoots grow even when the sun came out. But now the showers are so severe, the mud banks are getting washed (away) quickly. The tender shoots are getting exposed to the sun,” Dhar said.
The climate in northeast India has been changing fast. According to a report by the government of India, average annual rainfall in the region, which was 2,450 mm a year, is now decreasing at a rate of 11 mm per decade.
Bamboo plants in northeast India usually flower only about every five decades. After flowering, the bamboo dies back, but a dramatic side effect of the blossoming plants is a huge increase in the local population of rats, which feed on the flowers and then go on to destroy other crops, further jeopardizing the residents’ livelihoods.
Suhagmani Deb, an 81-year-old bamboo farmer in Kumarghat, says that in her lifetime she has seen bamboo plants flower only three times, but the last two occasions have been in the past six years.
The recent flowerings have been irregular, occurring in different parts of the region at different times, and have seriously disrupted the bamboo supply. The region’s only paper-producing factory, the Cachar Paper Mill in Hailakandi, Assam, is one of the larger businesses affected. With an annual production capacity of 100,000 tonnes, it requires up to 350 tonnes of bamboo daily. Shortages of bamboo have stopped operations at the mill at least five times this year after the states of Mizoram and Tripura failed to provide their anticipated supply.
Lalnan Puii, a senior official in Mizoram’s department of agriculture, says that since the large-scale flowering in 2007-2008, bamboo production has fallen by half. Changes in climatic conditions have worsened the crisis, he adds.
“The gap in production should have been filled by now. But there are too many dry spells these days which is affecting the growth of the bamboo,” Puii says.
He adds that the government is trying to help farmers by exempting them from income tax and excise duties, and subsidising their electricity. It has also banned the sale of bamboo shoots.
While these measures are designed to help large farmers, small growers have few reasons to be hopeful. Some, like Deb, are already planning to stop farming bamboo, and feel increasingly uncertain about the future.
 “Nobody knows if the weather will be normal again in the coming days. So how do I know everything will be alright again?” she asks.
Stella Paul is a multimedia journalist based in Hyderabad, India.