Sunday, January 26, 2014

Today's newspaper article

Today’s article is from “The New York Times” and talks about something that’s always been of a concern to those of us living in New Delhi – the air quality and pollution levels.  

Beijing’s Bad Air Would Be Step Up for Smoggy Delhi


People made a fire in New Delhi to keep warm on Friday, one of many sources of pollution that makes the city’s air among the world’s worst. Sami Siva for The New York Times

NEW DELHI — In mid-January, air pollution in Beijing was so bad that the government issued urgent health warnings and closed four major highways, prompting the panicked buying of air filters and donning of face masks. But in New Delhi, where pea-soup smog created what was by some measurements even more dangerous air, there were few signs of alarm in the country’s boisterous news media, or on its effervescent Twittersphere.

Despite Beijing’s widespread reputation of having some of the most polluted air of any major city in the world, an examination of daily pollution figures collected from both cities suggests that New Delhi’s air is more laden with dangerous small particles of pollution, more often, than Beijing’s. Lately, a very bad air day in Beijing is about an average one in New Delhi.

The United States Embassy in Beijing sent out warnings in mid-January, when a measure of harmful fine particulate matter known as PM2.5 went above 500, in the upper reaches of the measurement scale, for the first time this year. This refers to particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, which is believed to pose the greatest health risk because it penetrates deeply into lungs.

Take a Deep Breath

Daily peak density of PM2.5, a harmful particulate matter. The World Health Organization recommends a daily mean exposure limit of 25 micrograms per cubic meter.
micrograms per cubic meter
New Delhi
Jan. 1
JAN. 25, 2014

By The New York Times
Sources: Delhi Pollution Control Committee; U.S. Embassy in Beijing

But for the first three weeks of this year, New Delhi’s average daily peak reading of fine particulate matter from Punjabi Bagh, a monitor whose readings are often below those of other city and independent monitors, was 473, more than twice as high as the average of 227 in Beijing. By the time pollution breached 500 in Beijing for the first time on the night of Jan. 15, Delhi had already had eight such days. Indeed, only once in three weeks did New Delhi’s daily peak value of fine particles fall below 300, a level more than 12 times the exposure limit recommended by the World Health Organization.

“It’s always puzzled me that the focus is always on China and not India,” said Dr. Angel Hsu, director of the environmental performance measurement program at the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. “China has realized that it can’t hide behind its usual opacity, whereas India gets no pressure to release better data. So there simply isn’t good public data on India like there is for China.”

Experts have long known that India’s air is among the worst in the world. A recent analysis by Yale researchers found that seven of the 10 countries with the worst air pollution exposures are in South Asia. And evidence is mounting that Indians pay a higher price for air pollution than almost anyone. A recent study showed that Indians have the world’s weakest lungs, with far less capacity than Chinese lungs. Researchers are beginning to suspect that India’s unusual mix of polluted air, poor sanitation and contaminated water may make the country among the most dangerous in the world for lungs.

India has the world’s highest death rate because of chronic respiratory diseases, and it has more deaths from asthma than any other nation, according to the World Health Organization. A recent study found that half of all visits to doctors in India are for respiratory problems, according to Sundeep Salvi, director of the Chest Research Foundation in Pune.

Clean Air Asia, an advocacy group, found that another common measure of pollution known as PM10, for particulate matter less than 10 micrometers in diameter, averaged 117 in Beijing in a six-month period in 2011. In New Delhi, the Center for Science and Environment used government data and found that an average measure of PM10 in 2011 was 281, nearly two-and-a-half times higher.

Perhaps most worrisome, Delhi’s peak daily fine particle pollution levels are 44 percent higher this year than they were last year, when they averaged 328 over the first three weeks of the year. Fine particle pollution has been strongly linked with premature death, heart attacks, strokes and heart failure. In October, the World Health Organization declared that it caused lung cancer.

BREATHLESS Amanat Devi Jain, 4, receives twice-daily breathing treatments for her asthma. Her father said the family breathed normally whenever they left India. Graham Crouch for The New York Times

The United States Embassy in Beijing posts on Twitter the readings of its air monitor, helping to spur awareness of the problem. The readings have more than 35,000 followers. The United States does not release similar readings from its New Delhi Embassy, saying the Indian government releases its own figures.

In China, concerns about air quality have transfixed many urban residents, and some government officials say curbing the pollution is a priority.

But in India, Delhi’s newly elected regional government did not mention air pollution among its 18 priorities, and India’s environment minister quit in December amid widespread criticism that she was delaying crucial industrial projects. Her replacement, the government’s petroleum minister, almost immediately approved several projects that could add considerably to pollution. India and China strenuously resisted pollution limits in global climate talks in Warsaw in November.

Frank Hammes, chief executive of IQAir, a Swiss-based maker of air filters, said his company’s sales were hundreds of times higher in China than in India.

“In China, people are extremely concerned about the air, especially around small children,” Mr. Hammes said. “Why there’s not the same concern in India is puzzling.”

In multiple interviews, Delhiites expressed a mixture of unawareness and despair about the city’s pollution levels. “I don’t think pollution is a major concern for Delhi,” said Akanksha Singh, a 20-year-old engineering student who lives on Delhi’s outskirts in Ghaziabad, adding that he felt that Delhi’s pollution problems were not nearly as bad as those of surrounding towns.

A smoggy New Delhi. Sami Siva for The New York Times

In 1998, India’s Supreme Court ordered that Delhi’s taxis, three-wheelers and buses be converted to compressed natural gas, but the resulting improvements in air quality were short-lived as cars flooded the roads. In the 1970s, Delhi had about 800,000 vehicles; now it has 7.5 million, with 1,400 more added daily.

“Now the air is far worse than it ever was,” said Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director of the Center for Science and Environment.

Indians’ relatively poor lung function has long been recognized, but researchers assumed for years that the difference was genetic.

Then a 2010 study found that the children of Indian immigrants who were born and raised in the United States had far better lung function than those born and raised in India.

“It’s not genetics; it’s mostly the environment,” said Dr. MyLinh Duong, an assistant professor of respirology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

In a study published in October, Dr. Duong compared lung tests taken in 38,517 healthy nonsmokers from 17 countries who were matched by height, age and sex. Indians’ lung function was by far the lowest among those tested.

All of this has led some wealthy Indians to consider leaving.
Annat Jain, a private equity investor who returned to India in 2001 after spending 12 years in the United States, said his father died last year of heart failure worsened by breathing problems. Now his 4-year-old daughter must be given twice-daily breathing treatments.

“But whenever we leave the country, everyone goes back to breathing normally,” he said. “It’s something my wife and I talk about constantly.”
Malavika Vyawahare contributed reporting from New Delhi, and Edward Wong from Beijing.

A version of this article appears in print on January 26, 2014, on page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: Beijing’s Bad Air Would Be Step Up for Smoggy Delhi.

Australia Day 2014

Happy Australia day !!

Did you know that today marks the 65th Anniversary of the institution of Australian citizenship ??

65 years ago today, 2,493 people from 35 nations became Australian citizens with the first citizenship ceremony held in Canberra on 3rd February 1949.

Since that time, 4.5 million people have chosen to become Australian citizens with more than one million in the last decade.

Today, Australia Day 2014 saw a record-breaking 17,863 new citizens from 155 different countries making the pledge to become Australian citizens in about 400 ceremonies across the nation, including four 4 ceremonies held overseas.

One of those was at the High Commission in New Delhi.

It was quite a lovely ceremony with a good turn out to see Otmar (one of our spouses) and Preeti take the oath and become Australian citizens. It was even more special because Otmar’s parents flew in to Delhi especially to attend the ceremony – something Otmar didn’t know.

Turned out to be quite a lovely day - after the ceremony, there was a BBQ, meat pies, lamingtons, pavlovas and even a cake. was also Republic Day so Happy Republic Day !!

Here are some photos from the day:

The reaction from Otmar when he realised his parents were here
Otmar and his parents

Tania was Master of Ceremony 
Preeti and Otmar reading out the pledge

Singing the National Anthem

The ceremony was streamed live to relatives back in Australia

Yummy meat pies !!

Even yummier pavlovas

Otmar's cake

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Today's newspaper article

Today’s article is from “The Diplomat” website and talks about the antics of the AAP here in New Delhi and their willingness to protest rather than govern.

They did win the New Delhi elections after all !!

Kejriwal’s Antics Cost Him His Honeymoon with The People

Is Arvind Kejriwal not ready to lead New Delhi? His preference for protests over governance indicates as much.

By Sanjay Kumar for The Diplomat
January 23, 2014

After nearly 48 hours under siege, Delhi is gradually returning to normal. The four major metro stations, which remained shut for two days, have been opened and the traffic jams around the city have eased.

The architect of the chaos was none other than the capital’s new Chief Minister (CM) Arvind Kejriwal, a man who captured the imagination of the nation when his nascent political outfit, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, or Common Man’s Party) made a startling debut in the elections last month by defeating the two mainstream political parties.

The perennial rebel has been a prominent face of India’s anti-corruption movement since 2011. He received huge support from the people for his anti-corruption activism, support that catapulted him to the helm of Delhi’s government in a little over a year.
But the transformation from rebel to a ruler is proving to be tough for the 45-year old CM.

The sudden sit -in protest by him and his party workers in the heart of the capital this past week indicates as much. Kejriwal went on a flash protest demanding the suspension of policemen who refused to obey the dictates of Law Minister Somnath Bharti.

Last week, the new minister called some local police to his area in the night and asked them to raid a house where some women from Uganda and Nigeria were living. He alleged that the African women, who were living in the lower middle class area of southern Delhi called Khirki Extension, were drug traffickers and prostitutes. Police refused to act in the absence of any warrant and any prior complaint. With camera rolling Bharti railed against police and called names. According to reports, the harried women were attacked inside their house and some reports suggest that they were made to go through cavity searches by the AAP workers.

The whole episode fomented outrage and the AAP government came in for harsh criticism for the highhandedness of its minister. Demands for the minister’s resignation started ringing in the air.

Pushed into a corner, Kejriwal demanded that complete control of police be placed in the hands of the Delhi government. Delhi is a city state that does not enjoy complete control of its law and order machinery like other states.

Later on, the CM shifted the goalposts and demanded the suspension of the policemen who refused to obey the Law Minister. Kejriwal and party workers started an indefinite strike on January 19 near the parliament, creating chaos and undermining security in the sensitive zone of the national capital.

This was the first time in recent memory that an elected Chief Minister and his entire cabinet sat in on a protest. The protest happened very close to the venue where Republic Day parades take place every year on January 26.

On the evening of January 21 the CM suddenly called off the sit-ins after the center agreed to send the policemen on leave. This was not the demand for which Kejriwal had held the whole capital ransom. However, his critics and the media term the CM’s sudden turnabout as a face saver – a climbdown forced on him by backlash from the people of Delhi.

This was the first such public protest by the activist-turned-politician after assuming power in Delhi. Unlike his previous sit-ins, the latest one didn’t the bring Delhi’s middle class, the backbone of Kejriwal’s anti corruption movement, to the street.

The Times of India writes that dwindling support and bad press forced an end to the protests. No more than 400 people came to support him, and the media reports that those who came were brought in from the neighboring state of Haryana. Additionally, the media debated the appropriateness of a CM protesting an issue which merits debate.

Critics say that Kejriwal’s protest was an attempt to divert the nation’s attention from his faltering Law Minister, whose resignation is being sought by political parties and women’s rights organization.

Whatever the reasons for the protest, the rookie politician has lost a substantial chunk of the people’s support in the last 48 hours – support that was hard earned over the last two years. Be it social networking sites, local FM radio stations, or TV studios, voices against the AAP are audible across Delhi.

What also became visible among the highest echelons of the AAP’s leadership during the protests was a particular intolerance towards the media, which has been unkind in its coverage of Kejriwal’s antics. The CM refused to interact with several journalists and TV networks.

Far before the AAP became an institution, it was an idea. The challenge before Kejriwal is to keep this idea alive. This can be done only through good governance, not through political antics.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Today's newspaper articles

There must be an election coming up soon......

Today’s newspaper articles come from “The Australian” and “The Diplomat”

The first talks about the behaviour from the newly elected “Common Man” party (aka AAP) – they won the Delhi elections last month and now run the place.

The second article talks about the upcoming national election.


Many left cold by Kejriwal theatrics

JANUARY 22, 2014 12:00AM

New Delhi chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, centre, is surrounded by supporters following a night sleeping on the pavement during a sit-in protest in New Delhi. Source: AFP

AS Arvind Kejriwal made his bed on the wintry streets of the Indian capital surrounded by hundreds of police on Monday night, it was hard to escape the conclusion that the Delhi Chief Minister and self-declared anarchist's grassroots protest is costing his "common man" constituency a great deal of money.

Mr Kejriwal continued his street theatrics for a second day yesterday, insisting his three-week-old Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party government would not end its sit-in near Delhi's national parliament complex until the central government had agreed to hand disciplinary power for the state's police force to his government.

The neophyte politician, whose protest movement-turned-political party had a shock victory in Delhi elections last month, has boxed himself into a tricky corner with his latest stand.

He is insisting India's Home Minister, Sushilkumar Shinde, agree to transfer five police
officers for failing to prevent recent rapes and assaults in the city, and for refusing his Law Minister Somnath Bharti's vigilante-style order last week that police raid an alleged drug and prostitution ring without a warrant.

Mr Bharti later led a mob that detained four African migrant women, accusing them of prostitution and demanding urine samples to test for drugs.

The actions have exposed the anti-corruption party to criticism it is resorting to the same "goonda (thug) politics" it promised to stamp out, and that it has failed to make the leap from protest party to effective government.

By noon yesterday, the Supreme Court had agreed to hear a complaint against Mr Kejriwal and Mr Bharti for violating a temporary anti-congregation order and causing public disturbance.

Accused of spreading anarchy by both the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress party - whose legislative support Mr Kejriwal relies upon to maintain his nascent government - Mr Kejriwal defiantly embraced the criticism. "Some say I am an anarchist, yes I am. There is lawlessness in every home in the city, and today I'll spread disorder in the Home Minister's house," he thundered.

The 45-year-old former tax inspector's complaint about police ineffectiveness is not without grounds. The city has earned its moniker as rape capital, and its law enforcers a reputation for inaction and graft.

Mr Kejriwal came to power promising to bring the Delhi police force, administered by the central government, under state control.

However, as former Delhi police chief Ved Marwah argued yesterday, that is not a reform that can be achieved overnight.


Battle Lines Drawn for India's 2014 Parliamentary Elections

As India gears up for parliamentary elections, what can voters expect?

By for The Diplomat
When the two largest parties in India hold their strategy sessions almost simultaneously, there can be no doubt that India is in election mode. The incumbent Congress Party and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) held their respective meetings this past week to formulate electoral strategies for the 2014 general elections.

Reeling under the unprecedented success of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, or the Common Man’s Party), both the major political parties spelled out their visions and ideas .

Most of the attention was on the Congress Party: there was a great amount of curiosity as to whether the party would anoint Rahul Gandhi as its Prime Ministerial candidate.

The grand old party ducked popular demand from its cadres, who gathered in the national capital from all over the country, and fell short of declaring the 43-year old leader as its candidate. Rather, it made him chief campaigner for the party; that means that the Congress will contest the elections under his leadership without necessarily putting him at the top of a ruling alliance should they win.

The decision not to project Gandhi as the prime ministerial candidate was made by the Congress Working Committee (CWC), the highest decision-making body of the party, on Thursday – a day before the party deliberated on the issues and strategies that it needed to galvanize its cadres and attract voters.

Sonia Gandhi, Congress Party president, opposed the move to present her son as the prime ministerial candidate, citing the party’s tradition of electing its leader after elections.

Political analysts, however, have a different take.

They argue that the ruling party does not want to turn the 2014 elections into a popularity contest between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, the BJP’s declared prime ministerial candidate. According to certain analysts, this would mean playing into the hands of the opposition, which wants the poll to become a clash of personalities, not ideas.

The party meeting saw a combative Gandhi taking his BJP opponent head on and tearing into the rival’s political ideology and thought.

A crisis of leadership is one problem that the party is facing, but a larger problem is the anti-incumbency mood across the country built up against the Congress after ten years of rule. The recent assembly elections, where the party lost in four out of five states, demonstrate the intensity of anti-Congress sentiment prevailing in parts of India.

The major challenge that the party faces is not from the resurgent BJP but from a rising AAP that threatens to engulf the party’s traditional base and support structure. In the Delhi Assembly elections, the nascent party decimated Congress and emerged as the second largest political group in the assembly, reducing the ruling Congress to third place after 15 years in power.

With elections just four months away, the mood among Congress cadres gathered at the Talkotara stadium in Delhi was anything but upbeat. The party is passing through the worst phase in its life since coming to power ten years ago. Rahul Gandhi is attempting to galvanize support through his pep talks but, ultimately, the Congress will have to struggle to make its presence felt at the national level.

The mood, however, in the BJP conclave was very surcharged. With Narendra Modi as its candidate, the party sees a real hope of reclaiming power after ten years under Congress. For the first time after being declared the prime ministerial candidate of the right-wing party, Modi laid out his plan for India if he comes to power. He not only mocked Congress for its failure to declare a PM candidate but also attacked the ruling alliance’s secular agenda.

But the BJP does not have only one political enemy to tame; it now has to contend with the AAP. With the anti-corruption party in ascendance among urban voters, a constituency on which the BJP depends heavily, Modi’s march to Delhi faces a new potential hurdle. Analysts say that even if the AAP manages to get 20 to 30 seats in urban centers across the country, it could significantly damage Modi’s prospects.

In the meantime, the AAP government in Delhi has become a prisoner of its own methods. It is finding it tough to transform itself from an activist outfit to a governing body – as a result, it is getting negative press within the first month of assuming power.

The coming few months are going to be crucial for the party as it tries to maintain political momentum. It is planning to contest around 400 seats in the next parliamentary elections.

Modi might be charging ahead, but the goalpost remains as elusive to him as before. Crossing the 272 mark out of 545 seats in parliament is still a long shot for the BJP. If the Congress manages to form a greater coalition of secular parties, as it is planning, then the task for the right-wing group becomes even more challenging.

For the AAP, the coming elections will demonstrate whether the party is a one-time phenomenon confined to Delhi only or something greater. If it fails to make its presence felt in any significant way, the Arvind Kejriwal-led organization will face an existential crisis.

For Rahul Gandhi, this is the toughest battle so far. He faces not only the burdens of history but also the burdens of anti-incumbency. Honest intentions are not enough to stem the tide of anti-Congress sentiment. A poor performance by the Congress in 2014 will raise further questions about his leadership and political future.

The parliamentary elections will also reveal whether India is ready to accept Narendra Modi as its prime minister. If the controversial right-wing leader succeeds, it would signal the country’s departure from the Nehruvian model of secular politics. If Modi fails instead, it will raise a question mark over his future and he might have to resign from his current position as the Chief Minister of Gujarat.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Today's newspaper articles

Today’s articles come from a number of sources: “The Diplomat”, “The Guardian” and the Foreign Policy” website.


They discuss a number of issues including: the perks of an Indian minister; corruption and the legacy of the out-going Prime minister,  Manmohan Singh.




Indian Politics: Get Rid of the Vampires

India’s politicians enjoy some astonishing perks for occasionally dubious contributions.

By Romi Jain for The Diplomat
January 13, 2014

We want all corrupt to be jailed and get severe most punishment.
- Arvind Kejriwal, activist-turned Chief Minister of Delhi

This statement echoes both the explicit and unexpressed desire and anguish of the common man in India. Although corruption extends to political, bureaucratic, corporate and other aspects of national life, cleansing the polity, the authoritative wielder of national destiny, is imperative. In fact, the magnitude of political corruption and the prevailing VIP culture that surrounds politics underscore the charm that public office holds for unscrupulous individuals. Moreover, indulging in corrupt practices is close to being a risk-free exercise. The loopholes in anti-corruption laws, overburdened judiciaries, vicious camaraderie among top to bottom officers and their nexuses with political bosses – all create a fertile ground for corruption. It is thus vital to rid Indian politics of the lure that tempts and places vampires feeding themselves at the cost of public exchequer.

Pays, Perks and Profligacy

In 2010, the members of Parliament (MPs) hiked their own salaries and allowances in a legislative amendment, unmoved by the contrasting grim plight of the common man. As a consequence, their monthly salary is Rs. 50,000 ($813), while monthly office and constituency allowances are Rs. 40,000 each. Members are also entitled to a daily allowance of Rs. 2,000 for each day of residence at a place where a parliamentary session is being held – a reward for attendance. But the story doesn’t end here. Their yearly amenities include 50,000 units of free electricity, 4,000 kiloliters of free water, three phone lines and 50,000 free local phone calls per line, and one free first-class air-conditioned or executive class train pass, in addition to access to medical facilities. MPs also benefit from such amenities as washing of sofa covers and curtains and an entitlement to furniture worth Rs.60,000 in respect of durable furniture and Rs.15,000 for non-durable furniture. According to the Citizen’s Report on Governance and Development, 2013, authored by National Social Watch, in terms of absolute amount, the value of Indian MP’s pays and perks is 68 times higher than the nation’s per capita income, and is also higher than that of their counterparts in Singapore, Japan and Italy.

Members of state legislative assemblies enjoy more or less similar comforts.

Meanwhile, as they enjoy their luxurious lifestyles, legislative members are reluctant to work. Revealing their abominable level of productivity, the National Social Watch Report states: “In 2010-12, Lok Sabha [House of the People] worked an average of less than four hours per day during 227 sittings in 852 hours…. The Rajya Sabha [Council of States] worked for 744 hours in 228 sittings. It functioned for three hours per day in each sitting instead of scheduled five hours, causing loss of about 442 hours in interruptions and forced adjournments.”

Consider the travel expenses of political elites. Between 2007 and 2012, Pratibha Patil, then president of India, a ceremonial post, spent Rs. 2.23 billion ($36.2 million) on overseas travel. No worthwhile national cause was served. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is perhaps less well known for his fondness for foreign travel. Yet since Singh’s assumption of office in 2004, Rs. 6.42 billion have been incurred on his 67 trips abroad, again with dubious benefits for India. The travel expenses of other political elites such as central ministers meanwhile surged from Rs. 0.56 billion in 2010-11 to Rs. 6.78 billion in 2011-12.

Media Vigilance and Public Activism

The recently passed Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill, 2013, aimed at creating anti-corruption watchdogs at the national and state levels, is expected to take on corruption. In fact, more reforms such as judicial streamlining and an electorate right to recall have been proposed from time to time. The key thing is that the reforms to check both corruption and profligacy need to be catalyzed by the trio of media, public and activists, as evidenced by the political triumph of anti-corruption movement (which evolved into the Aam Admi Party-AAP) in Delhi. AAP leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s publicized statement that he is an Aam Admi or common man and his refusal to use escort vehicles have created media headlines, prompting political leaders in several other states to announce more or less similar measures. For example, Uttar Pradesh CM Akhilesh Yadav has decided to reduce the number of cars in his convoy. Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje, known for her “upscale lifestyle,” has halved her security details, decided to stop at red lights as do “common commuters,” and has chosen to reside in a small government residence rather than a luxurious bungalow. Though these are piecemeal measures, what is striking is that these governments and the parties they represent have become apprehensive of public fury. A somewhat similar example can be seen in China, where one of the purposes of the central leadership’s anti-graft campaigns is to assuage smoldering public anger over corruption-bred inequality while stifling the public interest in governance that can possibly be aroused by a temptation to share in the national treasure.

Of course, there are non-corrupt and humble leaders in India such as West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee and Tripura CM Manik Sarkar (known for “legendary honesty”), but they constitute a tiny percentage of the nation’s political class. Moreover, they are too humble to publicize their distinctiveness. Consequently, their clean record has failed to exert moral pressure on their thick-skinned counterparts. As such, public pressure, media vigilance, and determined activism appear essential for almost any political reform.

India needs to purge its political offices of unreasonable perks and privileges, promote a work culture, and above all make corruption a lethally risky exercise. Get rid of the vampires, in other words.

Romi Jain is Vice President of the Indian Journal of Asian Affairs, a bi-annual, peer-reviewed journal.


Dial C for corruption: Delhi's anti-graft hotline deluged with calls on first day

Alarm bells ring for corrupt officials across Indian capital as thousands of citizens join AAP's anti-corruption crusade

Arvind Kejriwal, leader of Delhi's ruling Aam Aadmi party, wants citizens to participate in sting operations against corrupt officials. Photograph: Manish Swarup/AP

An anti-corruption helpline launched in Delhi on Thursday by the new city government received thousands of calls and more than 30 useful leads on its first day, the government has said.

The helpline, which can be reached on 011-27357169, was created as a top priority by the Aam Aadmi party (AAP). It aims to empower the public to become anti-graft inspectors by giving them advice on how to expose officials who demand bribes.

"People should understand that this is not a complaint number but a helpline, and an official will advise and explain to the public how to conduct a sting operation," AAP leader and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal told a news conference.

"After carrying out a sting operation, members of the public should contact the same adviser, following which a trap will be laid to nab the accused."
Kejriwal said on Thursday 3,904 calls were received by 3pm, and that 38 serious cases of graft had been reported. The helpline was found to be constantly engaged, despite repeated calls by Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Kejriwal, 45, a former tax official and social activist, said the hotline would be open from 8am to 10pm daily and would enable every Delhi citizen to become an anti-corruption crusader by helping to record evidence – audio or visual – against bribe takers.

"The purpose of launching this helpline is to create fear in the mind of every corrupt individual. Such people should fear they could be under surveillance at any time," he said, adding the vigilance department would look into corruption allegations.

The government will place advertisements in newspapers and on radio stations and put up hoardings in the city streets with the helpline number.

Tackling corruption was the AAP's main policy in the runup to the Delhi assembly elections last month, and a dedicated anti-graft helpline was one of the main priorities in the party's manifesto.

The party was formed in late 2012 after a two-year nationwide anti-corruption drive led by Kejriwal's former mentor, Gandhian activist Anna Hazare.

The fledgling party stunned many – including the ruling Congress and Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), the main opposition – in the polls last month, winning 28 of the 70 seats and forming a new city government with outside support from the Congress Party.

Political analysts say the party has tapped into growing middle-class anger with Indian politicians, who are often perceived to be siphoning off public funds instead of providing public services.

Its success in Delhi rang alarm bells for the Congress and the BJP in the runup to a national election due by May, underlining that an increasingly young and urban electorate is fed up with the established parties.

The AAP promised in its manifesto to send corrupt city legislators to jail within a year. Nationally, almost a third of India's lawmakers face criminal charges, but many are shielded by the slow-moving legal system.

The AAP plans to convert the growing public anger over corruption into votes in the national elections.

  • © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.


How the technocrat economist Prime Minister Manmohan Singh left India's economy in tatters.

As news flashes go, Manmohan Singh's Jan. 3 announcement that he intends to "hand over the baton to a new prime minister" was hardly earth shattering. Given his unpopularity after nearly a decade in office -- Singh's favorability rating hovers at about 5percent -- the 81-year-old already looked as likely to snag a third term as to win India a medal for skiing at the Sochi Olympics.

Nonetheless, his formal announcement -- at only his third press conference since he took office in 2004 -- sets the stage for an epic election showdown, most likely in April and May. Later this month, the ruling Congress Party is likely to name 43-year-old Rahul Gandhi, the fifth generation Nehru-Gandhi dynasty scion, as its candidate to replace Singh as prime minister. Gandhi's main rival, 63-year-old Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, has been crisscrossing the nation since the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) anointed him their candidate in September. Polls show Gandhi trailing the pro-business Hindu nationalist; in December, the BJP pulverized Congress in four important state elections. And some pundits also expect a strong showing by the year-old Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party led by anticorruption activist Arvind Kejriwal.

Amid the battle to elect a new prime minister -- who will almost certainly be more charismatic and effective than the incumbent -- it sometimes seems as though Singh has already faded into retirement. But his lackluster record will frame the upcoming election.

On Jan. 3, Singh tried to put his best foot forward. He spoke of his government achieving the country's highest growth "for any nine-year period," delivering "a New Deal for rural India" by raising incomes, and pulling 138 million people out of poverty.

He touted new legislation to check corruption, and older efforts to boost government transparency. For good measure, he warned that electing Modi -- on whose watch in 2002 Gujarat witnessed anti-Muslim riots that killed more than 1,000 people -- would prove "disastrous" for India. (Modi denies wrongdoing, and in December a lower court
up held a Supreme Court-ordered investigation that cleared him of complicity in the riots.)

Unfortunately for Singh, many people view his legacy in less charitable terms. The Oxford-educated economist inherited a nation filled with hope and leaves it filled with doubt and despair. He entered the prime minister's office as a widely-respected former finance minister, known for probity and quiet dignity, and will exit it as a byword for weakness and ineffectual governance.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates India's economy grew at 3.8 percent in 2013, about a third of its all-time high of 10.6 percent in 2010. Despite his best efforts, Singh failed to produce a breakthrough in relations with neighboring Pakistan or consolidate ties with the United States. And the staggering scale of corruption under Singh will likely linger in memory longer than his reputation for personal honesty.

The scandals that stained Singh's once spotless reputation underscore the futility of expecting a prime minister's personal integrity to curb graft. In the 2G scam, the government lost the country as much as $40 billion by selling mobile licenses at throwaway prices to favored companies. Reports of padded contracts-- $80 toilet rolls and $19,500 treadmills, and a budget bloated many times over the original estimate -- tainted the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Of what use is a leader who keeps his own hand out of the cookie jar, ask critics, if he can't stop others from emptying it before his eyes?

Singh's inability to assert himself highlights the importance of electing a prime minister by popular vote. In hindsight, Singh -- a technocrat with no mass following, whom Italian-born Congress President Sonia Gandhi propped up to sidestep controversy over her foreign origins -- always lacked the authority to lead effectively. To make matters worse, the media-shy Singh refused to seize the bully pulpit his office offered. In the age of 24/7 television news and social media, nobody can hope to run India as a recluse. As in most major democracies, a degree of accessibility to the public and the press needs to become part of the prime minister's job description. (Both Modi and Kejriwal deliver powerful speeches and possess an instinctive understanding of television.)

For the United States, the end of the Singh era also offers an opportunity for reflection. Before India's economy turned south sharply in 2012, conventional wisdom in Washington was to take for granted India's rise as a peaceful, democratic, counterbalance to China. During his November 2010 visit, President Barack Obama declared, "India is not just a rising power, it has already risen." Now it appears that those words may have been spoken prematurely, especially in relation to the economy.

Indeed, an assessment of India's first economist prime minister must focus on the economy. As the finance minister who implemented important reforms in 1991, Singh abolished industrial licensing, slashed import duties and ended government monopolies in much of the economy. As prime minister, however, instead of deepening reform Singh presided over a government that lurched to the left by plumping for redistribution over growth.

Among Singh's first acts in office in 2004 was to scrap the Ministry of Disinvestment that had begun privatizing loss-making state-owned companies. (Taxpayers continue to subsidize staggeringly inefficient firms like Air India and Scooters India.) The flagship economic initiative of Singh's first term -- an unwieldy "employment guarantee" scheme promising 100 days of work for the rural poor -- distorted labor markets, boosted corruption and helped inflate the fiscal deficit.

The technocratic Singh also showed that he could pander to voters just as nakedly as any old-fashioned populist. In 2008, a $15 billion loan waiver forgiving the debts of small farmers placed the Congress Party's re-election above fiscal responsibility and fostering a responsible culture of credit. Along with lending by state-owned banks to politically well-connected firms, the waiver weakened the banking system. In 2013, Morgan Stanley estimated problem loans accounted for 9 percent of India's total compared to less than 5 percent five years ago.

Less tangible, but arguably no less damaging, was the Congress Party's popularization of the term "inclusive growth," which implies that somehow growth is not a good thing in itself. As commentator Clive Crook points out, Chinese policymakers would see this ambivalence "as a form of derangement." In India, it portended a slide back toward the old socialist habit of viewing private enterprise with mistrust.

Besides a burst of trade liberalization, India achieved precious little from Singh's first term (2004-2009). Nonetheless, growth received a boost from a strong global economy awash with surplus cash, and the effect of a flurry of reforms in taxation, telecom, infrastructure, and aviation that Singh's predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee had initiated. Meanwhile, government spending helped India emerge from the global financial crisis relatively unscathed on the surface. But the stage for the country's dramatic slowdown had already been set.

Only after Singh's comfortable reelection in 2009 did investors begin to lose confidence in India. They expected the prime minister, no longer dependent on support from Communist parties as in his first term, to unleash long-delayed reform in banking, insurance, and retail. Instead, India began to backslide. The Environment Ministry quickly turned into an immovable roadblock for large steel, aluminum, and real estate projects. In 2012, then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee amended the law to introduce retroactive taxation after the government lost a $2.2 billion tax dispute with telecom firm Vodafone. Needing to increase revenue collection to pay for expansive welfare programs, tax authorities began aggressively targeting private firms, including foreign ones such as Nokia,Cadbury, and Royal Dutch Shell. Meanwhile, heavy-handed regulations requiring a greater proportion of technology products sold domestically to be made in India angered firms such as IBM.

Unsurprisingly, GDP growth plummeted. In the first six years of Singh's tenure, it averaged a robust 8.6 percent; in the final four, 4.6 percent, according to IMF estimates.

That's below par for a country at India's stage of development, and not nearly fast enough to create the 15 million new jobs the country needs annually to employ a youthful population. And yet India remains one of the world's toughest large markets in which to do business. It slipped three places to number 134 on the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business rankings in 2014, behind such icons of market friendliness as Ukraine, Paraguay, and Ethiopia. As for corruption, which Singh claims his government has worked hard to combat, Transparency International ranks India 94 out of 177 countries worldwide, marginally worse than the 88th place it held in 2005. Nor has India's economic slowdown forced a serious rethink. In 2013, Singh's government passed a law promising subsidized food grains to 800 million people, and a land acquisition law that businessmen say will halt industrialization by making it exceedingly difficult to buy land for factories.

Businesses have got the message: In the first seven months of the fiscal year ending March 31, 2014, foreign direct investment declined 13 percent to $18.9 billion compared to the same period the previous year. Morgan Stanley economist Ruchir Sharma blames Singh for India's swift metamorphosis "from breakout to breakdown nation."

Singh epitomized the complacency and hubris of India, Sharma said, which mistook a buoyant global economy for evidence that it could continue to grow rapidly while focusing on redistribution rather than reform.

Singh could easily be criticized for more than just corruption scandals and mishandling the economy. In terms of foreign policy, the prime minister's most cherished achievement, the landmark 2008 civil nuclear agreement with the United States, has stalled: Not a single new reactor has been built in India under its auspices after a tough liability law passed by India's parliament in 2010 made projects commercially unviable.

And the recent drama over the arrest and de facto expulsion of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade -- over charges of visa fraud and making false statements about a domestic employee -- was preceded by a longer period of drift between the two nations.

In judging the prime minister's legacy, though, these are mere asides. Singh first built his global reputation as an economic reformer, and it is that record that will be scrutinized most carefully. In hindsight, Singh was not an economic visionary, but a technocrat who managed to scurry up the greasy pole of power by keeping his head down and his voice low. When he served the reformist Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao (1991-96), Singh delivered reform. When he served the populist Sonia Gandhi, he pursued "inclusive" growth.

Either way, it's not much of a legacy. Whoever is sworn in as prime minister later this year will struggle to return India to the path of high growth and rising global stature that so many Indians had begun to take for granted. And they will remain aware that the man who once kindled hope that India would be the next Asian tiger left behind the plodding elephant of old.