Posts for category ‘India’

Interview on NHPR: Word of Mouth
| March 25, 2010 | 2:32 pm

This month Mother Jones published a story of mine about surrogate mothers in India. Today I New Hampshire Public Radio interviewed me about the article on their show “Word of Mouth.” Listen to the interview here

I’ll post a link to the story in Mother Jones once they post it online. In the meanwhile you can check it out on newsstands across the country.

Goodbye Chennai and the American Victory Lap
| August 1, 2009 | 11:46 am

It is hard to leave a city that you has become part of you, but after three and a half years in Chennai, my time time in India has drawn to a close. In July my wife and I packed up our apartment in Kilpauk and took a melancholy taxi ride to the airport to catch a flight back to the United States. When I arrived in India I didn’t know much about what it meant to be a journalist in a foreign country, but I’ve had the opportunity to write some ambitious and thought provoking articles on a range of subjects (from skeleton traders, to the introduction of the world’s cheapest car). I’ve seen some of the best and the worst things that happen in South Asia, and I feel lucky to have been a witness.

We decided to move back to the United States when my wife, Padma, was accepted into the masters program in Anthropology at Columbia University in New York. She has handed over the reigns of the Shakti Center to the capable hands of Aniruddh Vasudevan, her comrade in arms since the founding of the organization. On my part, I’m going to be pretty busy for the next year writing a book about the international trade in human body parts and will likely be back in India for short trips during my research.

But merely arriving back in America and getting back down to work would be a terrible tribute to mark the change. So we decided that most fitting way to readjust to our home was to take a well-deserved victory lap around the country, starting from my mother’s house in Seattle, down to the Mexican border in San Diego, and then across the country through the deserts in the Southwest, the endless rough Texan terrain, to the ghostly remains of New Orleans, and up through Atlanta, Washington DC, and finally New York City.

Rather than give you a play by play of each stop, I thought I’d leave you with a few images of what we found on our American Odyssey. One thing is for sure: life’s adventures will not end now that I’m back home. In fact, it looks like they might just be beginning.

Padma tries on cowbow boots in Austin, Texas.

I shot a Glock in Atlanta. I’m a much better shot than I had expected. Evildoers Beware!

Finding the high school Mascot of my dreams.

A 40 foot cactus in Arizona.

Padma invents a new sport: Katana Beerball.

India Today’s 10 Crore Fake Rupee Boondoggle
| February 12, 2009 | 10:34 am

Are Pakistani spies flooding vast amounts of fake cash into the Indian economy with the intend ot devaluing the rupee? That the question that India Today wants you to ask this week with its cover story titled Fake Currency, The New Threat. It’s a solid topic for an investigative piece, too bad they don’t have any evidence for the claim.

Quoting a mid-level minion on Maharashtra’s Anti-Terror squad named Param Bir Sing, reporter Malini Bhupta claims that 8 out of every 1000 notes are counterfeit. Never mind that the anti-terror squad doesn’t have jurisdiction over currency matters, the rate of .8% isn’t exactly staggering.

Which is to say, in absolute terms, peanuts.

The real story killer comes when you start to read the data they’ve collected. In 2007, when counterfeiting in the country was at its absolute worst, the police seized about Rs. 10 crore (about $4 million) worth of fake notes. In addition to those busts, all commercial banks in the country combined reported receiving rs 5 crore ($2.5 million).

By contrast, in 1993 alone, the US seized $120 million in counterfeit currency.

Even if they were off by a factor of 10, and there was $70 million worth of fake rupees changing hands in a year, it would barely be a hiccup on India’s road to development.

Given that India’s GDP is $3.319 trillion. It would take billions of fake notes to even come close to making a dent in the economy. Counterfeiting isn’t much of a problem at all. In fact, the total fake currency detected by the government between 2001 and 2007 comes to just 61.7 crore rupees, or about $15 million. Which is to say, a little less than a nice apartment in Mumbai.

There is no way that a story like this should pass through even a rudimentary fact checking process, let alone end up on the cover of a national magazine. India Today is becoming the Fox News of South Asia. The claim of a counterfeit menace doesn’t even stand up to its own internal logic and seems only aimed at scaring readers into believing that Pakistan is up to no good dirty tricks.

The Case Against Pakistan
| November 27, 2008 | 11:24 pm
Terrorist in Victoria Terminal Sebastian D’Souza / Mumbai Mirror

As the siege on lower Mumbai stretches into its third day it has become clear that that attacks were not orchestrated by an unknown terrorist group, but that they had been planned, financed and carried out by elements within the Pakistani Intelligence agency known as ISI. It is still unclear if the intelligence agency acted alone or if high level members of Pakistan’s government had signed off on the operation, or whether individuals within the agency broke away with their own agenda. However, if the Pakistani government does immediate action against its rogue agency this assault could be considered an act of war.

Internally Pakistan is in chaos. The government has almost no presence in its Northwest Frontier Provence (NWFP) and has sacrificing its military sovereignty to American forces for the war on terror. After almost 60 years of stalemate on the Kashmir issue, Pakistan has begin to fall behind India. As its claim on Kashmir is losing strength hard-line Islamic militants and Taliban remnants are setting up shop across the country.

While at present, Pakistan is a major rival to India, ten years down the line the country could well be obsolete. India is becoming a major regional power, with a booming economy, a recently passed nuclear deal and a growth rate that touches on 10%. From an intelligence and security perspective, Pakistan has to either take strong measures to improve its domestic situation or hope that its rivals similarly falter.

With little hope of improving the problems within its own borders, ISI has opted to pull a card from the CIA’s former playbook and attempt to destabilize the region.

For almost forty years from 1960s through the 1990s the Central Intelligence Agency planned and executed several operations in South America, Asia and Eastern Europe, aimed at destabilizing the regions. Always operating under a guise of plausibly deniability, and without the broader support of the American people the CIA was successful at clandestine operations. By financing a war by proxy in Afghanistan, a guerilla army in Tibet, assassinations in Chile, a failed coup in Cuba and arming Contras in Nicaragua, the CIA bet that by destabilizing competing nation states the could further secure America’s position in the world. And, despite some terrible public relations, the CIA’s efforts worked.

The ISI has every motivation to do the same thing in India.

In the past six months there have been ten major terrorist attacks across India, the highest rate of violence in more than a decade. Bombings in Hyderabad, Jaipur, Varanasi, Bangalore, Delhi and Bombay spread panic across the country, and the groups claiming responsibility were new and apparently homegrown. These so-called “Indian Muhajaddin” use hit and run tactics and claim to have fundamentalist politics—but released very little information about its political demands claiming that it was practicing Jihad for Jihad’s sake. At best their ideology is just meant to signal general Islamic discontent. In other words, the ideology is a thin veil for ISI to claim plausible deniability.

The Indian versions of these so-called Islamic fundamentalists do not appear to have a legitimate ideological base. This separates them from every other terrorist group in the last 40-odd years that had specific political demands. The IRA strove for independence from Ireland, Basques from Spain, Hezbollah for an independent Palestine, the LTTE for an independent Tamil State, and Naxalites for a communist revolution. Even Al Qaeda’s rabidly fundamentalist politics expressed a political ideology for independence from the west and establishing a government according to sharia law.

Local terror groups in India did not seem to have any concrete ideology apart from spreading violence, and perhaps inter-ethnic conflict. At best they have the political savvy of the Columbine school shooters. Their motivations are ultimately inscrutable—and patently false.
Many reports show shady linkages kept to Pakistani immigrants and ISI funding, not local radical mosques preaching jihad. Only a few months ago even the CIA fingered ISI behind the bombing of India’s embassy in Kabul. At best the half-hearted proclamations of the Indian and Deccan Muhajaddins to “free Islamic fighters from Indian prisons” were only a thin veil to disguise their real agendas.

Now, with a tactical attack on southern Mumbai that used military tactics, and even satellite communication with a base in Karachi it is clear that there is no homegrown anti-India Islamic agenda. Instead, it seems that Pakistan’s intelligence agency has been trying to spread instability across India to achieve its own strategic ends.

India now must contemplate a response to the actions of ISI. Many segments of Pakistan’s government want peace with the India, and it is likely that the agency has been acting on its own without approval from elected officials. But unless the government is able to regain control of ISI the recent attacks on Mumbai could be construed as an act of war.

**UPDATE: Some changes have been made to this post. In the original version I was more certain about the role of ISI, but reader feedback has made me reconsider some points. While it is apparent that the assailants on Mumbai had help from Pakistan, and likely from members of the intelligence service, it could be that factions from within the security agency acted without authorization from the top-brass.

Mobgalore: How Organized Crime Took Over Bangalore
| October 24, 2008 | 9:59 am

Since the beginning of India’s IT boom Bangalore has been the darling of globalization pundits and and development dreamers. The gist, as Thomas Friedman articulates it, is that the world is flattening so that workers and companies can compete for opportunities from anywhere on the planet. Bangalore, of course, is the shiniest example of globalization’s success. However, what has been occluded from the discussion is how the massive investments and capital flows into Bangalore have also contributed to the rise of a powerful and violent mafia. Bangalore’s economy is growing much faster than its judicial, regulatory and enforcement systems. The gap has proved to be fertile ground for an unregulated, informal and often criminal systems to fill the space.

In this month’s issue of WIRED magazine I wrote a story called “The Godfather of Bangalore” where I showed how underworld dons have taken control of many of the city’s land dealings by providing an alternate judicial system to mediate land claims. There is no easy way to solve a land dispute in India. Inherited parcels are often contested by dozens of semi-legitimate claimants and court cases routinely take 15 years to come to a judgment. But the pace of land development is relentless, and companies and wealthy individuals don’t want to wait for the wheels of justice to finish, they want immediate resolutions.

Muthappa Rai is one of the most feared men in Bangalore

And this is where the land mafia comes in. Rather than go to courts, a land developer can approach one of the five or six major dons in the city and ask them to mediate a dispute, and seal the deal with threats of violence.

In the course of my research I met people who killed with guns, knives and swords. They fought each other and they fought local people for rights to the land. And most of them got rich along the way.

The most famous don (who says that he is now reformed) is Muthappa Rai, who has beaten the rap on several murder and extortion charges, but is commonly referred to as the most powerful underworld figure in the city.

I have been working on this story for three years, following the story of several different underworld figures through newspapers, government reports and on the ground reporting. In July and August I was able to meet the most influential people in the underworld, and the authorities charged with keeping them in check. The picture I’ve come up with is pretty grim. In effect, very few people have any faith in the law to resolve problems in Bangalore. Mafia dons act with impunity, and routinely defeat legal cases against them.

In my view, Bangalore isn’t only an example of the best that India has to offer. Instead Bangalore shows how the worst elements of Indian society can co-exist with a ultra high tech and modern image. Bangalore today isn’t much different than it was three hundred years ago when kings ruled the land. The kings of today are power brokers, IT captains of industry, underworld dons and government ministers who play by their own rules. Bangalore isn’t neo-colonialist as some people have claimed. It’s neo-feudalist.

Check out the video slideshow that I did for WIRED News for more information on the bangalore mafia that didn’t make it into the WIRED magazine story. I’ve also posted more photos that I took during my research here.

Want a Job in Journlaism? Try India
| August 6, 2008 | 11:39 pm

Today Salon is running an article contrasting the shriveling opportunities for journalists in the United States and the booming media market in India. Arun Venugopal writes, “2,400 journalists left newspaper newsrooms last year, either through layoffs or buyouts, leaving the industry with its smallest workforce since 1984.” However, the market in India offers salaries as high as $180,000 and now a few American journalists are making the jump to India.

Arun contacted me early last week to get my opinion on the market for foreign journalists in India. Here’s the section where I come up.

“I have met foreigners working at the Hindu, Mint, GQ, the Hindustan Times and Times of India,” wrote Scott Carney, a Chennai-based journalist who freelances for NPR, Wired and National Geographic TV. “They all work on Indian salaries, don’t speak the language, and all seem to be having a ball. Since there are so many new publications opening up in India, there is a lot of demand for native English speakers and people who can bring higher reporting standards to local papers.”

Carney says he turns down two or three assignments a month.

“I pretty much stick only to big investigative stories on subjects that I choose, and leave the daily reporting and feature pieces to other journalists. I have noticed that some American media houses are pulling back their freelance budgets (just try getting an assignment past the foreign desk at NPR these days!). But I bet that freelancers in America are feeling the pinch much more than I am while living on the rupee.”

“If anything,” he wrote in his e-mail, “I’d like to see more freelancers move to India. There are too many stories to cover and just not enough time to get to them all.”

Check out the rest of the story here.

Back to India for the Children of Immigrants
| March 6, 2008 | 3:58 am
Preetha Narayanan moved back to India for a year and a half on a scholarship.

Thousands of Indians born in America have found a new home in the land that their parents abandoned. This week for NPR I reported on a new trend among second generation Indians to return to India in search of opportunity. Part of the draw is that Indians born and raised in the states often feel conflicted over their identities–on one hand they feel like they feel set apart from the American mainstream, while on the other they aren’t sure how well they they fit into India, either. Inevitably, when they move to India, many in the second generation find that they have more in common with other Americans than they do with local people. And some people, find that disheartening.

But there are some clear advantages to moving. In addition to new visa schemes like the PIO and OCI cards that allow people to cross borders and work without too much government hassle, returning Indians also find that they can seriously advance their career. S. Mitra Kalita, a newspaper editor at Mint in Delhi, says that simply moving to India threw her into the ranks of senior management almost immediately. It would have taken her years to get to the same position working at newspapers back home.

And it’s not just the second generation moving back. I’m increasingly meeting people here in Chennai and Bangalore who have been educated in the United States and even worked there for a few years who have decided that moving back makes a lot of sense. In the 1970s and 1980s most people assumed that moving to America would lock them into the west–returning wasn’t even on the table. Now, it seems, many people are able to bridge both worlds.

Here’s the story on NPR:

The Hindu’s Front Page "Real Estate"
| February 29, 2008 | 7:37 am

This is the front page of The Hindu today, February 29, 2008. It’s a full page ad hocking a new real-estate scheme. For more than a century The Hindu has been considered one of India’s best newspapers, but selling its front page to an advertiser is nothing less than editorial treason.

And it’s just the most recent offender in a long line of terrible advertising ploys that undercut the credibility of journalism in India. Earlier this year the Decccan Chronicle pull a similar shenanigan when they thought no one would notice.

It’s true, newspapers do need to support themselves on advertising dollars, but in order to retain credibility there is usually a wall between editorial and advertising. Reporters need to have free reign to write the stories they want, and the paper sells on the basis of those stories. By putting a full page advertisement on the front page the newspaper ceases to be a news source. It makes it the trash that delivery men leave on my doorstep.

I don’t think I am going to read The Hindu anymore.

Traffic, Congestion, City Planning and…the Nano
| February 12, 2008 | 1:06 am

What do you think about traffic in India? I want to know.

As far as infrastructure is concerned, the next decade is going to determine the long term future of India. The number of vehicles on the roads is growing by orders of magnitude. According to statistics on the Bangalore Traffic Police website, in 1987 the IT capital of Bangalore had only 400,000 cars on the road. By 2005 there were more than 2 million. As India metropolises continue to grow the mileage of roadways doesn’t even come close to keeping pace leading to traffic jams, and worse, gridlock.

Next year automakers are going to release 14 new car designs onto Indian roads. New players Volkswagen and Nissan are preparing for major releases while TATA motors has announced an ultra-cheap “people’s car” that cost barely more than a motorcycle. I’m working on a story about the future of Indian cities–the plans to make things better, and the downfalls of quick development and I’d like to get people’s opinion of what they think the future holds.

Also, does anyone know of any cutting edge initiatives in city planning, or civic management that are prepared to deal with the traffic influx? In your opinion, who are the biggest and brightest minds in the field?