“Komal” to Mom Becomes “Kim” to U.S. Callers

By Sophia Tareen (class of 2004)

GURGAON, New Delhi, March 2003 – At sunset Komal Saini becomes the Cinderella of a global economy. Her carriage is a company taxi that picks her up in the New Delhi of power shortages and drops her off in this suburb of skyscrapers with power to spare. In this parallel world, English is spoken with a global accent, the workday is 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. and Komal becomes Kim.

Here is Daksh, a three-year-old Indian company named for a Sanskrit army command meaning “attention, alertness, vigilance to act immediately with supreme urgency.”

Kim’s urgent task? To pacify the hordes of Americans with cell phones, bank accounts, computers or any other appliance with an 800-customer service number. Through the magic of fiber optic cable, dialing 800 places the caller on a global waiting list for India, Arizona or anywhere else in the world with a trained, English speaking work force.

The call to India costs no more than one to Arizona, but India’s agents cost considerably less — $45 a week in India compared to $206 a week in the United States. That advantage has made India’s call centers grow almost 70 percent in 2002. And the business shows no signs of slowing or having any real competitors because at its heart is India’s immense, college-educated and English-speaking population.

To attract new graduates, the Indian centers have created an environment that is something between a college dormitory and a corporate office — running from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m.

Rows of computer terminals peppered with hand-scrawled Post-its are next to grids grading the top performers in C-SAT, or Customer Satisfaction, scores. And company regalia with Daksh’s mission statement cover the walls. All are meant to motivate Daksh’s 2,500 frontline employees, more than half of whom hit the phones each night.

Getting one of these call center jobs is not easy. On any given day of the week, a dozen hopeful crowd the clean corporate lobby — complete with an American flag.

The first cut is determined by an English grammar test; from there it’s off to a one-on-one interview; and finally a group discussion test. Of the 150 to 400 who apply each month, most are turned away — accents too harsh, English too muddled or service skills simply hopeless. “I’m having two brothers,” instead of “I have two brothers,” will get a prospect the boot.

“We’re not trying to give them an American accent,” said Vandana Ranganathan, head of operations. Instead, they need a “global” accent. What does that sound like?

Listen. It aims for the “sh” tone of pleasure rather than the Indian “plezer.” Or the softer “auspicious” rather than “aws-pee-sheeyus” that fluency in Hindi encourages.

Then there’s word order. “I’m holding you,” is relearned in training to “please hold.”

Some mistakes, however, resist training. In one call, for example, a U.S. customer told the Indian operator about her sister who had recently passed away. To show empathy, the Indian operator wanted to know where the woman had been buried. “Where did you lay your sister?” she asked.

Once the accent is neutralized, there’s customer service and product training — all of which happen during the same hours they will eventually work — 8 p.m. to 4 a.m.

“Be sensitive to verbal cues,” says a trainer with a Daksh name tag hanging from her neck. Even if a customer yells at them, they must remain patient.

“How do you feel when a customer becomes irate?” the trainer asks.

“[I think] have I done something wrong?” a young male agent in glasses answers eagerly.

On the job, however, agents have different answers.

“I hit the Mute key on the phone and let him have it, in English or Hindi … then I remove my finger from the Mute key and tell him, ‘It’s wonderful talking to you,'” said Shika Chawla, who’s been at Daksh for 14 months.

If that doesn’t work, there’s always break time. Eminem blasts from a recreation room with pool tables. And there’s a 24-hour company cafeteria that bustles all night with a young workforce clad mostly in jeans and button-down shirts.

On a recent evening, Nitan (“Nathan”) and his buddy Nikuhu (“Neal”), both 23, were just finishing up their break.

“You have to have a lot of patience,” Nitan said, referring to the monotony. Nevertheless, he and Nikuhu have been at Daksh for 18 months and hope to stay.

Ranganathan insists, “It’s increasingly a career option and not just a transit lounge.”

But there are a few opportunities to climb the corporate ladder: some move up to team leader or manager. But many treat it as a stomping ground or even finishing school—taking a few months or a year to learn more English and then moving onto another job.

Lavinia Hieriem, who has been at Daksh for eight months, said outings, parties and potlucks help, but turnover rates—25 to 30 percent in the answering service according to company officials — are still high. Many, however, stay within the same industry.

Once they’ve re-calibrated their accents, it’s the hours that prove to be the biggest hurdle.

“I can’t adjust to the time,” added Hieriem with a laugh. “I can never sleep.”

India’s Other Border: A Land of Beautiful Lies

By Sean Marciniak (class of 2004)

Indian Border Security Forces pose with confiscated cough syrup. Photograph by Mark Murrmann.

KALYANI, West Bengal, March 2003 – On a searing day here this spring, the Indian border patrol nabbed a boy trying to slip between thatched huts with two dozen bottles of cough syrup. His clinking contraband did more than cure a sore throat — each bottle had an alcohol content equal to three jiggers of whisky. Everybody on the India-Bangladesh border knows the cough syrup packs a kick, and really that’s all it’s good for. At 104 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s too hot to catch a cold here right now.

After border patrol soldiers marched the boy away, some hung back with a photographer, and posed behind the medicine bottles with their guns. Chest out, chin high, the soldiers stood over the cough syrup as if they’d slaughtered the last wild buffalo on the Great Plains.

Times might look easy on India’s eastern border but this is a land filled with beautiful lies. Never mind the wandering cows, the plush rice fields or the children that tease the local livestock. These stretches of the Indo-Bangladeshi border exist as an uncanny space of calm — an eye in a gathering storm that promises political conspiracy and international espionage.

India’s ruling party, the Hindu nationalist BJP, has begun a propaganda war that describes this border as tameless and dangerous; its new frontline in a war against terrorism. Bangladeshi immigrants, it says, are predominantly Muslim and hostile. Pakistani spies and terrorists float among them, the party argues, ready to get downright ugly when Pakistan tips its hat. About 40,000 Indian paramilitary troops have arrived here since February to stop this alleged border infiltration.

Bangladesh has denied the allegations, and Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Morshed Khan went a step further, telling a French news agency that India’s charges stemmed from “domestic compulsions.” However, he acknowledged that “small-scale intrusion” was possible and that “there is need for ensuring peace along this frontier.”

For a long time, all this was something one might expect of India’s more famous western border, the one it shares with Pakistan. It was always Pakistan that helped sneak in armed intruders, who then waged a “proxy war” over Kashmir. The infiltration in the west always drew more headlines, especially last year when it pushed both countries perilously close to nuclear war.

But this attention helped to change India’s border dynamics. In the past year, India’s western border has become much less porous, and those who insist on crossing the line now must look eastward. It’s the balloon effect in action, a law as old and tested as gravity.

A member of India's Border Security Force points out a well-traveled path along the India-Bangladesh border, used by smugglers and local villagers alike. Photograph by Mark Murrmann.

Consequently, the Indo-Bangladeshi border has been getting more attention. In early January, India’s Deputy Prime Minister, L.K. Advani, looked over alarming Indian intelligence reports that estimated 16 million illegal Bangladeshi migrants had infiltrated the nation. Advani, who also commands India’s homeland security department, barked out to state leaders that India’s national security was at stake.

“For us in India, (immigration) is a hideous problem,” said Advani in an interview in New Delhi. “The numbers are enormous. It is not merely the eastern provinces that are affected. The immigrants have spread. Here in Delhi, there are colonies where only Bangladeshis live.”

However, a visit to the border, as well as extensive interviews with security officials, political leaders and local residents, show that Advani’s rhetoric has as much to do with his party’s politics as with national security. As the chief minister of New Delhi put it, a woman named Sheila Dikshit who heralds from the opposition Congress party and faces an election later this year: “He (Advani) comes up with these comments every time there is an election.”

And the Pakistani spies? Few doubt that ISI spies have infiltrated parts of West Bengal, but not to the degree claimed by the BJP. State leaders in West Bengal recently said they caught 60 men and women in 2002 who worked in ISI-sponsored spy rings, small cadres that mostly collected intelligence on border security troops. But Hindu nationalists have taken it a step further, whispering that spies are planning revolutions in East India that would cause it to secede to Bangladesh.

“Look, anything that happens in India is ISI,” said Jairam Ramesh, one of the most articulate spokesmen for the Congress Party. “Blame the ISI. The American embassy was attacked in Calcutta … ISI. It’s like what Bush says with Al Qaeda. Blame Al Qaeda.”

It has worked. Advani’s alarm bells have sounded shrilly, rousing even the sleepiest of dogs. The Marxist party of West Bengal, for example, which has ruled the state for 25 years and has always bitterly opposed the BJP, is for the first time on the defensive. On the issue of illegal immigration, it’s doing what many observers call a “substantive rethink” on its longstanding policy of nurturing migrants.

The Marxist’s policy change is bound to hurt many feelings. Hundreds of Bangladeshis cross into India every day, and have done so since 1971 when, helped by the Indian Army, Bangladesh was carved out of Pakistan. Getting specific numbers is guesswork, academics said, because no reliable census data exists. Indian intelligence officials estimate that up to 37,000 cross in a single month.

They come for different reasons. Poor Hindus — a minority in Bangladesh — seek refuge from what they describe as persecution of a new Muslim government, sections of which are openly anti-India. Poor Muslims, who make up an estimated two-thirds of the immigrants, are economic refugees, having fled one of the most penniless and crowded nations on earth — a country best known for biblically proportioned floods.

If it’s economics that makes them pack their bags, it’s geography that helps them move across. West Bengal’s 1,000-mile border with Bangladesh, for example, wanders through the Ganges River delta like a love-struck teenager. It crosses and re-crosses rivers, bisecting fields as flat as pancakes. There is no Rio Grande here to mark the international border, nor any sort of fence that extends for any helpful length.

What little traffic there is flows freely along a border road that passes through the village of Kalyani, near Bongaon, West Bengal. Photograph by Mark Murrmann.

Unlike the U.S.-Mexico border, this line does not divide populations of different ethnicity. The entire area is home to an ethnic group known as Bengalis, and telling a Bangladeshi apart from an Indian here is as hard as distinguishing between twins. What turns this headache into a migraine is that India has no national identity card system — Advani is vigorously campaigning for one — and proving someone is not a citizen is virtually impossible.

Take the town of Petrapole, where the border is little more than an imaginary line marked by white stones that only sometimes can be sighted in the thick grass, and it’s easy to step into Bangladesh by accident. A short walk from the official customs crossing, people trickle out from a banana grove, then lope across a rice field into Bangladesh without so much as a hop.

Wiping away sweat and watching from a nearby railroad track sat soldiers from the Border Security Force. The BSF, the largest paramilitary force in the world, is charged with wringing a tourniquet around borderlands traffic, but the 96,000 stationed on the eastern border have only recently shown some degree of effectiveness. Some say it’s the increased numbers. Others say Advani’s focus on the east has forced BSF commanders to curtail what has been described as rampant corruption, a characteristic so often discussed that the BSF has become known as the Border Smuggling Force.

Still others wonder why everyone is fussing. Problems on the border, they argue, have existed since 1948, when the subcontinent was cleaved into India, West Pakistan and East Pakistan. For years, borderland smuggling outfits and undocumented immigration came and went without so much as a second glance. Nothing has changed, they say, but the political ambitions of the ruling party behind Advani, the BJP. And the new nervousness of the ruling Marxists.

Making the Marxists See Red

West Bengal, internationally most famous for its giant tigers, is known within India for loftier reasons: it’s the country’s best-governed state, thanks to the continuous re-election of a government as unique as its big cats. The Left Front, led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist, has remained in power for a quarter century. Under it, the literacy rate hovers at 76 percent and sociologists have noted that West Bengal doesn’t see the high degree of Hindu-Muslim violence that has plagued the rest of India.

Because of its ideology and electoral success, the Left Front has long been the bane of central New Delhi governments. Its grassroots organizing and discipline have caused their political enemies endless headaches, such that even the BJP, so mighty in New Delhi, has maintained an anemic presence here. In 1984 the state garnered less than half a percentage of the vote; since capturing power at the federal level, it’s only managed to raise its share of the vote to six percent.

But the BJP is poised for a power grab, thanks to recent outcries over immigration and terrorism.

The 2001 census confirmed what had long been suspected: that the demographics of West Bengal have changed to the advantage of Muslims. In districts like Maldah, for example, almost 50 percent of the rural population is Muslim; in Murshidabad, it’s more than 60 percent. Blocs of Hindu voters have grown nervous and the BJP has been quick to stoke these fears.

Wary that this could give the BJP a foot in the state’s door, the Marxists, many political observers say, have decided to realign their immigration policy with Advani’s more conservative vision. Or, at least, make noises to that effect.

“We had the immigration problem here long before the Kashmir problem but that was not so serious,” said Jayanta Roy, leader of the Forward Bloc, a member of the ruling Left Front. “But then we got information from the Central government that Muslim fundamentalists, with the political patronage of the Pakistani government, are very much active in India and they have chosen Calcutta as a soft target.”

In recent months, the Marxists have called for more security and deportations. They have even talked of “modernizing” the madrassahs along the border, accusing them of breeding fundamentalism. Such language is unprecedented, coming from a party that encouraged an open border and accommodated so-called hostile Bangladeshis. Why? The reason is simple: the immigrants vote.

A Bandladeshi woman cooks dinner for her family on a busy sidewalk in downtown Calcutta. Photograph by Mark Murrmann.

How is an even more interesting matter. In exchange for support during elections, Indian politicians were rumored to distribute “ration cards” to newly arrived Bangladeshis. Ration cards, equivalent of food stamps, are key to the transaction because, aside from allowing one to purchase subsidized rice, wheat and sugar at local stores, these documents serve as identity cards. Ration cards are what gets you on the local voter registry.

Since the accusations were made years ago, no one publicly admitted to this vote-getting strategy. However, recent interviews with political party members drew outright or partial admissions.

Nirupam Sen, the second-most powerful Marxist in West Bengal, gave the following response: “It differs from area to area; I cannot spell out these things. I cannot make any comments on exactly where, who, how it has been done. That is absolutely not possible.”

Neither can leaders in West Bengal’s immigrant communities.

Bangladeshis currently congregate in such places as Calcutta’s Municipal Ward 30, a squalid neighborhood in the north of the city. Ward 30 has steadily has grown over the last two decades, slowly spilling over the banks of a nearby black water canal. Infrastructure is scarce; people are not. Thatched homes, dirt roads, and outhouses are the order of the day. But locals say this den of illegal immigrants manages to squeeze a population of 9,000 into a space that measures 500 meters by about 33 meters.

The leader of the neighborhood is identifiable by his large pot belly, the only one in sight.

“No one here is Bangladeshi,” said Basander Das, who officially is a branch committee member for the Marxists. Questioned further, he acknowledged that 600 to 700 neighbors couldn’t produce documents, and that many feared Advani’s latest grumblings.

“No one is Bangladeshi,” he repeated, “but we fear that if there is a drive against illegal settlers, we may be affected unnecessarily. No one here has been dislocated, but if there is any move, there will be rioting.”

Feeding the Fear

Das’ warning betrays the growing unease in the Left Front as it prepares its bitter pill for Bangladeshi immigrants. To stem mass demonstrations, state leaders have said, time and again, that its campaign is aimed at only those who are “terrorists backed by Pakistan and the ISI.” Of which there aren’t that many.

A fading hammer and sickle painted on a wall in Calcutta's Municipal Ward 30, a community of over a thousand Bangladeshi immigrants. Photograph by Mark Murrmann.

A Calcutta Police inspector agreed to meet with reporters in a relative’s shop, one nestled deep in the side of a narrow alley. Asked about the presence of terrorist ISI agents in West Bengal, he looked pained to say that he had not encountered any Pakistani spies in Calcutta for five years. “We are searching the pebbles,” he said, “but it is very tough.”

Despite limited information, Advani and his followers have been able to gain support in hostile West Bengal by taking an international slogan — the war on terrorism — and localizing it.

If Advani has set the tone, his junior colleagues in the party are amplifying it to alarmist levels. According to regional BJP leaders, there are ISI spies lurking in every border village and immigrant colony, blending into places like the village of Kalyani and Calcutta’s Municipal Ward 30. According to them, secret agents are poised to incite insurrection at the command of Islamabad.

“You don’t expect part of America to break away and join Mexico, but over here, the problem is that if a part of India becomes a Muslim majority, then we’d be scared,” said Tathagata Roy, president of West Bengal’s BJP chapter. Asked what this fear was based on, Roy said: “I have no access to intelligence reports. I go largely on newspaper reports … and what I get on the net.”

The Border’s Dadas

By Sean Marciniak (class of 2004)

Officially a waiter at a coffee shop near the Bongaon bus depot, Vikram Saha helps transport illegal immigrants across the India-Bangladesh border. Photograph by Mark Murrmann.

BONGAON, West Bengal, March 2003 – Three miles from the border, in this lawless outpost, a man in a cheap shirt emerges from a café in the bus station. He doesn’t look especially menacing; he’s what Americans would call a coyote, a smuggler of humans. Here in Bongaon, they call him a dada, which carries a slightly less pejorative connotation. It effectively means a don.

But lost on the West Bengal gangster are the ostentatious suits and cigars of the Italian-American wiseguys.

“I’m totally invisible. No one will know I’m here,” said Vikram Saha, who “officially” works as a waiter in the corner coffee shop. And, it’s a good thing. The Government’s focus on the border has meant that the business of smuggling has soured. Nowadays, the most active border activity is by agents sending back Bangladeshi migrants.

It’s already noon and Saha hasn’t found a single customer for his side business. Normally he culls the bus stop for the poor and disheveled — people who obviously have arrived to sneak back into Bangladesh and visit family. For a fee of 450 rupees (about $10), Saha will transport them from the bus stop to a safehouse on the border. There, another dada will guide them across into Bangladesh.

Farther down the road, another sort of dada has been fiddling his thumbs.

In the claustrophobic backroom of this three-man-wide money exchange store, Saroj Biswas has been waiting for the government’s firestorm to blow over. Biswas, who is uncommonly tall for the area at about 5’8″, is the A-dog leader of a syndicate that deals in smuggled goods.

“Everything except heroin and gold,” he said, eyeballing the strangers around him. “That’s on principle.”

The number one illegally transported good between India and Bangladesh is cattle. Experts estimate that dadas stampede more than 1.5 million cattle across the border every year.

Business is down, said Biswas; border trade has braked to a standstill. “It’s the political climate,” he said. And then there’s the new assistant commander of the Border Security Force, a “good officer” whom they are lobbying to transfer.

The Border Insecurity Force

Sitting in a small foreign exchange shop he manages, Saroj Biswas moves goods across the India-Bangladesh border. Photograph by Mark Murrmann.

That new assistant is commander Senthil Kumar, stationed at the nearby Petrapole office for about 10 months.

Sitting in his office where it’s hard to ignore the stuffed toy Bengal tiger in the corner, the 26-year-old Kumar echoes Deputy Prime Minister L. K. Advani’s rhetoric to the last word. “Pakistan feels a setback there (in the west). The ISI agents look for a safe passage and where do they find a safe passage? Bangladesh,” he says. However, he acknowledged: “We have not caught any ISI agents but we have lots of reports. We don’t have a direct confrontation with them because they sneak in clandestinely.”

But with so many men and relatively so little an area, it would seem impossible to slip something past the BSF, which boasts about 250,000 members — 20 times bigger than the U.S. Border Patrol. Kumar said he has stationed two BSF agents every few hundred yards, each outfitted with night vision goggles. Behind the line, teams of foot, bike, horse and vehicle patrols provide zone coverage.

However, size never really has seemed to equal potency. In 2001, the BSF apprehended about 11,000 transborder criminals and 8,349 Bangladeshi nationals. The U.S. Border Patrol, with a force of about 10,000, apprehended 1.2 million undocumented immigrants.

So what does he do given Advani’s message? Kumar says he has little choice other than conducting “push-ins.” Push-ins are informal acts of repatriation that usually occur at night, in which BSF agents round up their daily catches and march them through unguarded stretches of the Bangladeshi border. Since February, it has been estimated that the BSF has pushed back 15,000 to 20,000 immigrants. “We try to contact them (BDR agents), but they don’t respond,” Kumar said. “We have a game over here.”

Subrata Nagchowhury and Mark Murrmann contributed to this report.

Modernity Brings New Wave of Selective Sex Abortions

By Shani Moore (class of 2004) and Ofelia Madrid (class of 2003)

CHANDIGARH, Punjab, March 2003 – When India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, decided to get architect Le Corbusier all the way from Paris to design this city, he saw it as a modernist symbol for an ancient country, a city that would be “unfettered by traditions of the past.” Chandigarh is of enormous importance, Nehru said, “because it hits you on the head and makes you think.”

Fifty years on, what hits a visitor on the head is how tradition trumps modernity.

Yes, Nehru’s vision exists. Streets swell with color as women in bright T-shirts, jeans and Western dresses head to Internet cafes or local coffee shops, defying stereotypes that often depict them solely in saris or behind veils.

Yet despite the architecture, the chic dress and the wealth of women attending college, these states have the dubious distinction of being the worst place in the country for a female fetus.

At an average of about 10,000 a year, the number of selective-sex abortions from 1995 to 2001 in Haryana and Punjab rose almost 9 percent, according to the latest study by the United Nations Population Fund. This despite the fact that a full year earlier, the government outlawed the practice of determining the gender of the fetus through an ultrasound test and put in place several nationwide women empowerment schemes in health care and education.

“It is always in the back of your mind that you want a boy,” said Amrita Singh, a 28-year-old former college teacher who is four months pregnant. Even if she had a girl, a complete family would require a male child, she said. For her checkups, Singh goes to a private clinic that has a prominent sign outside declaring: “Using Ultrasounds to Determine the Sex of a Fetus is Illegal. It is Not Practiced Here.”

This is a result of the 1994 Pre-Natal Diagnostic Technologies (PNDT) Act under which conviction can lead to a prison term of three to five years and a fine of $200 to $1,000. Provisions of the Act apply to pregnant women unless it can be proved that they were forced to take the test.

The law is tough on paper but on the ground, there have been no convictions. “It gets very difficult to prove complicity,” acknowledged Union Health Minister Sushma Swaraj, who leads the government’s efforts against feticide. Minister Swaraj is a Haryana woman who, in her 20s, was the country’s youngest minister ever. Yet she realizes the reaction of her peers. “As soon as they could tell if they were having a boy or a girl, women were running to the machines,” she said. According to a National Family Health Survey, more than 75 percent of Punjabi women are aware of the technology to determine the gender of the fetus.

Government laws and private and public campaigns have made hardly a dent in reversing the exceptionally low female to male ratio here. For example, in 1991, according to the Indian census, there were only 875 girls (0-6 years of age) per every 1,000 boys in Punjab. By 2001, this number had fallen to 793.

In contrast, for India as a whole, the corresponding ratio fell from 945 in 1991 to 927 in 2001. In the United States, there are approximately 954 females per every 1000 males. Punjab and Haryana, incidentally, have the lowest female to male ratio among India’s 29 states.

Enforcing the pre-natal law has become tougher as ultrasound technologies have become cheaper and more lightweight. “People are just taking the portable ultrasound machines, putting it into their cars, and going to people’s houses,” said Dr. G.S. Kochhar, former president of the Indian Medical Association. “You can’t stop it.”

The Indian society does not want to, said Dr. Rainuka Dagar, a research fellow at the Institute for Development and Communication in Chandigarh. She blamed India’s patriarchal social structure for the female child not having the same value as the male child in the Indian family.

“Parents look at the female child and think, ‘We’re going to be paying for a girl for the rest of our lives,'” Dagar said. “It’s like putting money in the neighbor’s bank.”

A daughter is seen as a drain on the family finances because she will eventually marry, leave the family and a dowry will have to be provided. One common sign advertising ultrasound clinics in Punjab, pulled down after the law was passed, said it all, comparing the costs of an ultra sound test to a dowry: “500 now, save 5,000 later.”

So it is no surprise that while “there is no social stigma to having an abortion,” said Professor Pam Rajput, Director of the Women’s Studies and Development Center at Punjab University, “there is a social stigma if you have a girl.”

According to the pre-natal law, neither doctors nor technicians are allowed to test specifically for the sex of the fetus unless they are screening for a sex-linked genetic disease. When performing general scans, and recognizing the gender of the fetus is unavoidable, they are still forbidden from revealing that information to the parents.

All the law has done is “drive up the prices,” Professor Rajput said. “Before, where you could learn the sex of the child for 500 rupees, now they are charging 1,000 or more.” Abortions at the later state cost anywhere from $100 to $200.

“The whole process (of identifying and destroying late-term fetuses) takes about 24 to 48 hours,” Dr. Kochhar said. “These are not simple procedures, and now unqualified people are doing it,” he said, estimating that most people performing the illegal ultrasounds are X-ray technicians.

An attempt to address the problem has been introduced by select members of government, among them Minister Swaraj. Her experimental new plan, entitled, “Your Daughter, Your Wealth,” seeks to change the cultural psyche of undervaluing women. Pregnant couples that participate in the state’s pre-natal care program will receive 1,000 rupees or about $20 if they deliver a girl — and $10 if they deliver a boy.

Critics of the bonus program say it is unlikely to change the culture that prizes men over women.

“1,000 rupees?” Dagar, the Chandigarh researcher, scoffed. “From top to bottom, male superiority is legitimized. That matter cannot be targeted (by this program.).”

Other efforts from the government have focused on revamping existing laws. As it was originally crafted in 1994, the pre-natal law had no teeth. Amendments adopted in February of this year provide for greater tracking of the monies potentially received through sex-screening and also increase penalties for violating the law.

Professor Rajput, however, argues that the society mentality has to change before the edict can take any real effect. “These traditional ideas have been embedded into our minds for ages,” Rajput said. “It takes time.”

Reema Sharma, a 25-year-old teacher who is three months pregnant, is a reminder of how long that will be. Sharma has huge brown eyes that blink furiously when she talks about the sex of the child. “My in-laws are OK with this; they won’t force me to have another child if it’s a girl.

“But it would be nice to have a boy,” she said. “They would be happier.”

Saving Lives and Playing Politics

By Kelly Virella (class of 2003)

AHMEDABAD, India, March 2003 – When temperatures hit 105 degrees Fahrenheit, 35 patients lay in an infirmary without air-conditioning, in beds separated by less than three feet of space. But among the poor in this city of five million, they were the lucky ones.

A woman with jaundice, who had an IV in her arm, lay in her bed and explained why. She had been in the hospital for four days, but owed less than $8 for her stay. That’s 90 percent less than what she would have paid at a private hospital.

“Here we get doctors full time, 24 hours a day,” she said. “It’s as good as private practice, for a very nominal charge. Even better than government hospital.”

It’s cheap and by many accounts good health care, but somebody, somewhere down the line, has to pay. That’s where the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (Council) or the World Hindu Council comes in, a 37-year-old religious-cultural group with offices in 42 countries, including the United States.

Although the Council carefully avoids calling itself a political organization, its growth is good news for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which now rules India. The Council’s story in Gujarat offers a glimpse of how the ruling BJP hopes to keep increasing its seats in Parliament.

One year after the communal violence between Muslims and Hindus, this bed is the only item left in the relief camp for Muslims whose homes were burned. Photograph by Mimi Chakarova.

The Council that runs the hospital is the same led by people named in police records in riots that killed more than 1,000 Muslims in March of 2002. Following the riots, the Council distributed brochures across this city against Muslims — who make up less than 9 percent of Gujarat’s 51 million people — calling them “traitors and terrorists” and asking Hindus to “save our country by boycotting Muslims economically and socially.”

Such facts hardly faze Dr. Hitesh Ramanuj, the chief of staff of the hospital, who is also the head of a city-level branch of the Council. He says his organization is honored to fund and run the hospital. “It’s not a totally fascist organization,” he said. “I didn’t join the organization because it was a fascist organization. I joined because it had a social service component.”

It’s this “social service component,” many say, that the Council is using to hide a shrewd strategy to win over destitute, low-caste Hindus, a constituency that has traditionally shown little support for its brand of anti-Muslim ideology. The strategy seems to be working.

Some of the strongest evidence is in Bapunagar, the predominantly low-caste, Hindu slum of 75,000 residents, where Shree Dhanvantry hospital is located. Bapunagar is named after Mahatma Gandhi who was born in Gujarat and was called Bapu (father of the nation).

With nearly 20,000 laid-off textile mill workers, it’s a sort of refugee camp for people who lost their jobs in the early ’80s and ’90s, when changes in technology and government mismanagement shut down all but six of Ahmedabad’s 61 mills. Already, the Council has recruited an estimated 7,000 members here, including the jaundiced woman.

These numbers are key to the Council’s growth. The Council champions an ideology called Hindutva. Loosely, this means ensuring a Hindu state for India where minorities, notably Christians and Muslims, “should know their place.”

This ideology dovetails with that of the BJP. Political observers say that if the BJP is Hindutva’s brain, the Council is its brawn.

The BJP has reaped rich political dividends thanks to the Council’s “mass-contact programs.” These include several campaigns across the country against “cow slaughter,” (Hindus revere the cow) and against conversion of oppressed low-caste Hindus to Islam or Christianity.

Council leaders and activists played a key role in the demolition of a 450-year-old mosque in the northern India town of Ayodhya in 1992 and are now threatening to defy court orders to build a Hindu temple there. All this has come in handy for the BJP: from just two seats in the 545-member Parliament in 1980, the BJP now has 182.

The first ones to jump onto the Hindutva bandwagon were upper-caste, urban middle-class Hindus. Many political observers feel that with these voters under its belt, the BJP is looking at making inroads into the poor, low-caste Hindus, who make up over 52 percent of the country’s population and have traditionally sided with India’s leading opposition party, the Congress Party. The Dhanvantry hospital and other elements of the Council’s “social service component” in villages are designed to deliver these members.

However, some say that it goes deeper than that. “Charity is there, but it is basically a superficial thing,” said Gurang Jani, a sociology professor at Gujarati University. “They just want to create the Hindu fundamentalist mind in the new generation. They want to create this radical Hinduism. They are not changing the community. They are just creating havoc.”

And for this, no ground is more fertile than Gujarat. Of the Council’s estimated 4 million members nationwide, about 1.5 million come from this state alone — a 20 percent growth over the last five years. Gujarat is also the only state where the BJP is in power and where it has a special relationship with the Council.

In the national government, the BJP rules in a coalition of more than 20 parties and is often embarrassed by the Council’s brand of Hindutva since its shrill anti-Muslim rhetoric makes partners nervous — some have even threatened to quit if the Council isn’t reined in. In the Gujarat legislature, however, the BJP is in power alone and doesn’t need to look over its shoulder every time the Council raises the heat as it did during the riots, leading the mobs and fueling the violence.

During the communal violence in Gujarat, many Muslims were burned alive. This boy managed to escape but the scars on his body will always remain as a reminder. Photograph by Mimi Chakarova.

Our hands are clean of Muslim blood, says D.K. Akruwala, vice-president of the Gujarat branch of the Council. He says the Hindus who started the riots simply got upset when they heard how a Muslim mob had set a train on fire, killing 59 Hindus near here. “Do you expect that there would not be any reaction?” he yelled. “The reaction to burning 59 persons was burning 1,000 people. It was a reaction of the people.” All the Council did, Akruwala said, was help Hindus organize their defense. “Our agency is responsible for protecting the afflicted.”

That wasn’t all the Council did. In the elections that followed the riots, several Council members — from the top brass down to neighborhood activists — threw their weight behind the BJP. Not only did Council leaders share the campaign stage with BJP candidates, they mobilized voters, distributed pamphlets and called for a boycott of the Congress Party. At one campaign rally, Pravin Togadia, a former Ahmedabad-based surgeon and now the Council’s No. 2 man, ridiculed Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress, as an “Italian dog,” a reference to her Italian origins. Riding on a wave of such a campaign whipped up by the Council, the BJP won a landslide victory in Gujarat, securing two-thirds of the seats in the state assembly.

Dinesh Shukla, Gujarati University professor emeritus of political science, estimates that 20 to 25 percent of the BJP’s newly elected legislators are Council members. It wasn’t surprising, therefore, when just last month, the party pushed through the Gujarat state assembly a Council-backed law punishing with fines some conversions to Islam.

Yet even before the election, there was evidence the Council was reaching the masses. Poor, low-caste Hindus who had lived side-by-side with poor Muslims for decades allegedly raped, burned and mutilated their Muslim neighbors during last year’s riots, which were the most gruesome of the five that have occurred here in the past 35 years. What surprised many was how for the first time, the BJP made enormous gains in predominantly low-caste villages and districts which were traditional Congress bastions.

But Dr. Jaideep Patel, the man who runs the Gujarat branch of the Council, said low-caste Hindus are not his targets. “No, no, no,” he said, sitting behind his desk, flailing his hands. “All Hindu people are connecting with the Council,” from Brahmins to the untouchables.

“These (the charitable works) are not the workings of a fascist organization,” said Patel, who was shot in the head in an assassination attempt that he says left him unconscious for 15 days. “Who is the fascist?” he said. “The one who shoots or the one who takes the bullet?”

But Hanif Lakdawala, a Muslim psychiatrist and civil rights leader who runs a medical clinic for poor Hindus and Muslims, said “fascists” set up hospitals, take bullets and shoot them, too. “We’re up against very formidable forces,” he said. “Hatred against Muslims has become part of the collective consciousness of Gujarati Hindus.”

A Laptop Minister Operates in the Midst of Old World Poverty

By Malcolm Gay (class of 2003)

HYDERABAD, Andhra Pradesh, March 2003 – With a tenant list boasting the likes of Microsoft, Oracle and Infosys, Cyber Towers, a 580,000 sq. foot building, would feel right at home along California’s Route 101. But the Internet-connected building, with a soaring atrium, central fountain and constant, air-conditioned breeze, has come to symbolize this southern Indian state’s bid to lure private investment, generate wealth and kick-start development. It’s the crown jewel of a series of policies that has kept the state’s charismatic leader, Chandrababu Naidu, in office since 1995 as a popular figure in Third World development circles.

But unlike its northern Californian cousins, Cyber Towers lies a mere 60 kilometers away from villages like Thangadapalli, a rural hamlet of 8,000 where scant electricity, a two-year drought and few employment opportunities force many villagers to spend much of the year migrating in search of work.

Hunger is this village’s constant companion, as is disease and poverty. Roads go unpaved, sewers remain open and many of the villagers’ low-slung homes have neither indoor plumbing nor electricity. What little power the village receives — five hours per day, according to villagers — is inadequate for residents’ irrigation pumps, and their fields are left barren.

It is the tightrope between these two worlds — the lure of high-tech and the recalcitrant problems of poverty — that Naidu’s government must successfully walk in its bid to win a third successive term in elections scheduled for next year. It’s an election that is being closely monitored by the rest of India: Its outcome is important not only for Naidu’s future, but it’s also being seen as a litmus test for a new model of development in the subcontinent.

In a state where over half of the 77 million residents earn less than $500 a year, villages like Thangadapalli are not the exception, they are the rule. Only three out of 10 residents in the state have access to piped water; the overall literacy rate is just over 50 percent; and almost a quarter live below the poverty line, pegged at $49 per year.

Yet Naidu has turned Hyderabad into one of the country’s hottest destinations for software services and information technology (IT). His government is the first in India to commit itself to economic growth using IT services. But can Naidu’s strategy, using IT to spur growth, translate into social and economic goods for the majority of the people of his state? Or will it simply deepen the existing divide? The answer is far from clear.

What is clear is that Naidu and his supporters have faith in his vision of development. His regimen of corporate power subsidies, land grants and relaxed tax laws has delivered Andhra Pradesh much-needed investment. The state received $350 million in World Bank funds for beefing-up its computer and road infrastructure — the first such loan to go to an Indian state. He’s outfitted the state’s capital, Hyderabad, with slick flyovers, well-lit streets and a host of five-star hotels. He has also quadrupled the number of trees in the city, and his efforts have earned him audiences with Bill Gates and Bill Clinton. The effects of his policies have also been felt abroad. Not only is Naidu fast becoming a fixture at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, but one in four Indian workers in Silicon Valley comes from Andhra Pradesh.

Naidu has set the ambitious goal of a 9 to 10 percent annual growth rate for the state economy. The state’s present growth rate is just under 7 percent as compared to the national figure of 5.2 percent. In Andhra Pradesh 2020, a policy paper on state development over the next two decades, the government also promises to increase the services sector — of which IT is the key component — nearly 16-fold.

To that end, Naidu has expanded the state’s university system. He established the Indian Institute of Internet Technology that links the Indian School of Business to prominent American business schools, and increased the number of available engineering slots from 8,000 in 1995 to more than 47,000 in 2002. He’s also taken steps to make the state attractive to foreign investment. Hi-Tec City (Hyderabad Information Technology Engineering Consultancy City), the office park that houses Cyber Towers, sits on 151 acres of land donated by the state.

Developers promise that the park will eventually offer more than 5 million sq. feet of office space, as well as corporate housing, malls and discos. The park already has three generator stations, insuring that in a country where electricity is a scarce commodity, the energy-hungry tech companies will never suffer a blackout. Foreign companies are also offered a 25 percent electricity subsidy and are exempt from many of the regulations that tie up other industries.

Still, much remains to be done. Critics charge that, due to a diet of tax breaks and subsidies, the $55 million tech industry contributes too little to the state’s overall economy. Currently, high-tech accounts for less than one percent of the state’s GDP, and while tech jobs may be lucrative, less than 69,000 people work in the sector. They charge that Naidu is too urban, elitist and “obsessed” with technology, deriding him as a “laptop” chief minister.

“My question is, when you repeatedly say at international forums that the world is looking to Andhra Pradesh for investment — but what about the ground reality,” said K. Rosaiah, a local leader of the out-of-power Congress Party. “What [the people] require, what they demand, is better infrastructure, better roads, pure drinking water and supply of electricity.…This government is forgetting the basic amenities and the demands of the people and is always talking about IT.”

In an attempt to ease village life, the government has embarked on a series of e-governance projects. The programs allow Indians — who must often trudge from office to office to pay their bills — to pay all of their bills at one localized service center. Initially launched in the capital, “e-seva” is being expanded to nearly 230 locations throughout the state.

“I think we should not minimize [Naidu’s] achievements in streamlining government,” said Pranab Bardhan, professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley. “Andhra has done quite well in computerizing land records which in most of other states is in a big mess. [But] he needs to do much more. He needs to expand his policy range, and that’s where IT is not enough. I’m not sure that the life of the poor in Andhra Pradesh has been significantly improved.”

One reason is that high-tech has done little to clean up the state’s fiscal mess. “Naidu’s undoubtedly paying a lot of attention to the development of the state,” said Kodanda Ram, an associate professor of Political Science at Osmania University in Hyderabad. “[But] the farmers, the artisans, the tribals — to develop these sectors a lot of funds need to be invested, and that’s something that Naidu has not done. They are losing their livelihood.”

And the state’s public debt is increasing. Under Naidu, the public debt has grown from under $3 billion in 1995-96, to more than $9.5 billion in 2003-04. During those same years, the state’s outstanding loans from the central government have swollen from just over $2.1 billion to over $4.5 billion.

Still, in a country where politicians traditionally speak the language of government charity and subsidy, Naidu has dramatically cut the residential electricity subsidy, raising rates by as much as 70 percent. He has privatized four key state-owned companies and has plans for 10 more. Voluntary Retirement Schemes, meant to trim down the bloated bureaucracy — its salaries bleed away a majority of the state’s revenue — have been introduced and the government says it’s amending labor laws to make hiring and firing easier.

But all this is at best a long, long haul, and people are getting increasingly impatient. Poverty remains the state’s biggest problem. On average, 400 farmers annually commit suicide in Andhra Pradesh — by far the highest rate in the country.

The state also leads the country in doling out ration cards, a key poverty indicator. And while Naidu may talk of reforms, under his leadership state spending on non-development disbursements has grown to over 40 percent of all government spending.

“On the one side, he says he wants to use development as the main arm to mobilize political involvement [of the villagers], but it’s primarily patronage that he’s using to motivate them,” said Ram. “If you go to the villages and ask them they laugh and laugh. They say the same road has been repaired again and again; the same water tank has been repaired again and again.”

But during a visit to Thangadapalli, few people were laughing. Though their main road was paved, villagers complained that they received only five hours of electricity per day, an insufficient amount to irrigate their lands. “[The government] has only concentrated on city development, but it’s neglecting the smaller villages,” said Uppudu Usaiah, 58, a small, wizened woman wearing a green sari.

Usaiah was accompanied by her son, Sarjeeva, whose legs have been left withered and crippled from excess fluoride in the village’s water supply. Gesturing toward a rusted spigot, Usaiah said through an interpreter: “I’ve had no other option but to drink this water.”

Confronted with these villagers’ plight, Special Secretary to the Chief Minister Naidu Randeep Sudan is quick to defend his boss. “If you look at the effect of the fluoride — this is something that has happened over a period of years,” he said, adding that under Naidu the government has started a project to add over 10,000 kilometers of roads to the state. “If you compare the situation today to what it was five years ago, there’s been a dramatic change.”

But some remain unimpressed. “I’m not concerned with computers,” said Suruvi Venkateram, 39, a villager who arrived on a hand-powered bicycle, his small body twisted and made useless from excess fluoride. “We’re more worried about immediate things, like drinking water, employment and irrigation.”