The resurgence of field hockey in India

By Kevin Fixler, for The Atlantic (class of 2012)
DELHI, India, July 19, 2012—In India, cricket is the national obsession, but it is actually field hockey that is its official game, with a more deeply embedded history within this patchwork of nations. Field hockey is the country’s most decorated international sport, and the men’s national team is the most accomplished in the Olympic event’s history—winners of 11 medals, including eight gold, dating back to 1928.

As the world’s second-fastest growing economy strives for more influence among the most powerful nations on earth, many of India’s 1.2 billion citizens view field hockey as the country’s best shot at making a statement on sport’s largest international stage—given that cricket is not an Olympic sport. Indian field hockey has fallen off in recent years though because of a lack of success, with the national team hitting rock bottom in 2008 when it failed to qualify for the Olympics for the first time ever. Hockey’s “Black Day,” as it is known, was a near-lethal blow to a sport that has been in freefall since India won its last Olympic medal, a gold, in 1980. Support for hockey has waned ever since.

But buried deep within many Indians is a hope that hockey glory will return. That longing was mirrored in Chak de! India, an award-winning 2007 film starring Bollywood’s top star, Shah Rukh Khan. It chronicled the rise of the women’s national hockey team. Today, there is even talk that Khan, whose image graces billboards and auto-rickshaw rearview mirrors nationwide, will play Indian hockey legend Dhyan Chand—the Pelé of hockey—in another upcoming film.

“I think there is always a potential for hockey,” said Arjun Halappa, a former captain of the national team, as well as one of the country’s top players the last decade. “Everyone might say hockey is gone, but still if you look into India, emotion is always there for hockey. After cricket, you can draw a crowd only with hockey.”

Read the rest of the story, published in The Atlantic. 

An unlikely savior for Indian coffee farmers

By Brittany Schell (class of 2013)

BANGALORE, India, April 2012—In a country plagued for over a decade by farmer suicides, Seattle-based Starbucks, the global coffee scapegoat, could be an unlikely savior for Indian coffee farmers.

Specialist coffee shop chains are growing at an increasing rate in India. Cafe Coffee Day and Barista Lavazza, along with other rival cafes, have opened 1,200 shops in India over the past decade, as members of the growing middle class develop a taste for coffee. Starbucks just announced plans to open 50 new cafes in India by the end of the year.

Yet there is a gap between this prospering coffee economy and the farmers who grow the coffee beans. The coffee-growing states of Kerala and Karnataka rank among the five states with the highest rates of farmer suicide in India. More than 253,000 farmers have committed suicide in India since 1995, and in the southern states of Kerala and Karnataka the numbers are 19,000 and 35,000 respectively.

Could a multinational company like Starbucks could help address this gap?

Brittany’s final story is a written piece and a video. 

Saying ‘No’ to dowry

By Emma Cott, for The Hindu Sunday Magazine (class of 2009)

BANGALORE, India, January 2009—Satya Naresh is hunched over a laptop in his office, waiting for his website to open. “I need to upgrade the server,” beams the 38-year-old founder and CEO of, India’s first and only matrimonial website for brides and grooms that want to marry without dowry.

Ever since the success of his third matrimonial meet-up, or Swayamvaram, last December, curious young people have been logging in, and 300 new profiles are awaiting approval. As the site enters its fourth year, membership is still shy of 10,000, but Naresh is confident that as more people speak out against dowry while finding happy matches, the idea will catch on. He gushes about each of his 13 “success couples” like a proud parent.

Although dowry was outlawed in 1961, it is still practised to different extents in different castes. Dowry harassment can range from a lifetime of verbal abuse to extreme physical and sexual abuse to murder. But few are willing to speak about it from their own experience.

Vasantha, a producer at a television station, said that she attempted suicide after the beatings and emotional abuse by her husband and in-laws became too severe. Her two-year-long marriage was “like a hell for me. Every day they were torturing me…”

Thanks to the support of her parents, who moved to Hyderabad to care for her after her subsequent divorce, Vasantha escaped a deadly fate. But many don’t.

Read the rest of Emma’s story in The Hindu Sunday Magazine.

Gay Rights in India

By Abbie Swanson, for Making Contact (class of 2009)

DELHI, India, January 2009—”Gay Rights in India” looked at a group of gay men and women trying to overturn a British colonial law in India called Section 377. The law, which has since been overturned, made being gay illegal. Abbie interviewed people in Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai for the story.



Abbie’s project is an 18-minute radio documentary. The piece aired in June of 2009 on Making Contact and in July of ’09 on KALW.

Sabotaging Seafood: Indian Fishermen Strike Back Against Shrimp Farms

By Denis Devine (class of 2004)

A shrimp for sale in Killai, India, harvested from the bank of the Uppanar River. Lately, the vendor said, her baskets haven't been very full, due to competition from nearby shrimp farms. Photo by Denis Devine.

KILLAI, Tamil Nadu, May 24, 2004—America’s favorite seafood has left this small fishing village with an aftertaste too bitter to be concealed by cocktail sauce.

Last September, an angry mob gathered in Killai’s open-air meeting hall and decided to seek its own brand of justice. Fed up with poverty, pollution and government indifference, hundreds of fishermen marched after midnight to attack an industry they say is ruining their land and water. Their target: shrimp farms whose crops end up as appetizers and entrees at sports bars and family restaurants throughout the United States.

Some poor people throughout the developing world are paying a high price for cheap shrimp, while others strike it rich. The booming shrimp-farming business of the last two decades has transformed much of the coastlines and bottom lines of tropical South Asia and Latin America, but the fishermen in this remote corner of southeast India’s Tamil Nadu state believe shrimp farming has their centuries-old traditions under siege.

On September 18th, 2003, fishermen from Killai and neighboring villages crept onto nearby ponds full of growing shrimp, opened the dams and let the water drain out. Crowds of women were beaten in a violent, pre-dawn raid by police the next morning, prompting investigations into human rights violations. Almost 100 men and women would be arrested in the following days. Now, the people of Killai want to enlist the help of Americans.

V. K. Sezhiyan, a Killai fishermen, urges Americans not to eat farmed shrimp.

“Tell them, don’t eat these prawns that are produced out of our lives, out of our blood,” said V. K. Sezhiyan, one of the village’s elder fishermen.

U.S. seafood lovers will soon be able to heed Sezhiyan’s call. “Country-of-origin” labels are scheduled to become mandatory for imported shrimp and other seafood this fall, and the labels will also tell shoppers whether the product was caught in the wild or raised on farms. But no label will convey the anguish of Killai’s fishermen as they watch their traditional way of life slip through their nets.

The technological advances and chemical enhancements of the late 20th Century’s “Blue Revolution” rapidly transformed fish-farming from a small-scale, rural tradition to today’s high-tech, global industry. Modern industrial aquaculture is often touted as the best hope for feeding a growing population as fish stocks disappear and for helping poor nations recover from massive debt. Derided as a “pink gold rush” by its critics, shrimp farming is the most profitable and largest front in the Blue Revolution.

Underwritten by international development loans, global production of farm-raised shrimp grew by 300 percent between 1975 and 1985 and 250 percent between 1985 and 1995. The industry is still growing, up 10.5 percent in the last four years, and farm-raised shrimp are gobbling up the expanding market. In the early 1980s, only five percent of the world’s shrimp were farm-raised; last year, shrimp farms produced about 35 percent – or 3.5 billion pounds – of the global shrimp supply.

Young women de-head shrimp at a modern shrimp processing plant in Chennai, India. Photo by Denis Devine.

Thanks to this flood of farmed imports, American seafood lovers have seen shrimp transformed in recent years from a locally-caught luxury dish to a cheap, ubiquitous staple at sports bars and fast-food chains. Since overtaking tuna in 2001, shrimp has been America’s most popular seafood. The United States is the biggest shrimp importer in the world, and gets about 90 percent of its shrimp from farms throughout the developing world, like those in Killai.

This global glut of cheap, farmed shrimp also threatens the livelihoods of the men and women who catch wild shrimp around the world, including the United States. Shrimp imports from the U.S.’s top six suppliers – China, Vietnam, Ecuador, Brazil, Thailand and India – jumped 67 percent over the last three years, while wholesale prices dropped 28 percent.

While Killai’s fishermen struck back against the shrimp farms themselves, their counterparts in the U.S. took the industry to court. The U.S. International Trade Commission is reviewing an anti-dumping petition against those six shrimp importing countries filed by a coalition of shrimpers, dock owners and shrimp processors from Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and North and South Carolinas.

The Southern Shrimp Alliance charges the Asian and South American nations with selling their shrimp in the U.S. cheaper than it costs their shrimp farmers to grow them, or cheaper than what shrimp sells for in similar export markets – thus “dumping” artificially cheap shrimp on our shores. This “dumping,” the alliance claims, has caused the value of the U.S. shrimpers’ harvest to plunge 50 percent between 2000 and 2002 and southern shrimp processing plants to lay off 40 percent of their workers. A decision is expected in July; if the petition is successful, shrimp imports from the top six countries will be tagged with high tariffs to make the domestic shrimp more comparable in price.

Shrimp farming’s proponents says shrimp fishing is an outdated industry that can’t compete in a globalized market.

At low tide on the Uppanar River, a Killai fisherman returns from washing his boat. Photo by Denis Devine.

“The fisherman is being outcompeted, and is bewildered by it because he has always been able to get top dollar for his shrimp,” said Bob Rosenberry, the editor of Shrimp News International, a leading shrimp aquaculture industry newsletter. “The fishermen’s cost of production might be $2 per pound, whereas in shrimp farms in Asia, they’re getting a dollar a pound. As far as I can see, the writing is on the wall for the U.S. shrimp fisherman.”

In Killai, too, the fishermen worry about the low prices their dwindling catches are fetching on the market.

“Thousands and thousands of fishermen economically benefited” from Killai’s shrimp fishing heritage, said Sezhiyan, a 51-year-old father of three. “But since shrimp industries come into existence, only a few families enormously accumulated wealth at the cost of our lives.”

But in Killai and around the world, shrimp farming’s opponents are more likely to talk about the industry’s environmental impacts than its economics. They accuse the aquaculture industry of privatizing public land and exploiting natural resources at the expense of traditional coastal communities, and reserve their harshest criticism for shrimp farming.

Opponents blame shrimp farming’s hunger for coastal lands for the destruction of as much as 38 percent of the world’s mangrove forests. Forests like the 3,000-acre Pitchavaram Mangrove Forest Reserve that surrounds Killai are valuable to people as storm protection and food source, and invaluable to fish and crustaceans that feed and nurse amid the shelter of the tangled underwater roots.

Shrimp farming’s use of brackish water in its ponds has been blamed for the salinization of drinking water and agricultural land in most of the developing nations where the industry has flourished. Salty soil around the brick and palm-leaf homes in Killai has killed coconut trees and groundnuts that once provided villagers extra food and income. Local women must walk farther and farther to find a well with water that isn’t too salty to drink.

The villagers of Killai say this brick home is crumbling due to the salty runoff from nearby shrimp farms. Photo by Denis Devine.

Opponents say the chemicals and fertilizers used to keep the pondwater hospitable for shrimp kill fish and cause plankton blooms once the ponds are drained into the open water. Killai’s fishermen say their nets are catching fewer fish and shrimp and blame the 60 shrimp farms that have swallowed up acres of farmland and mangrove forests along the banks of the Uppanar River since 1994.

The international shrimp industry has been trying to cleap up its act. Pressure from environmental groups and importers in the U.S., Europe and Japan has pushed the seafood industry to develop voluntary codes of conduct and Best Management Practices that strive to make shrimp farming economically and environmentally sustainable. International market pressures for traceability and improved sanitary conditions have raised the bar for an increasingly industrialized commodity industry.

Government regulation is growing more sophisticated in the nations where shrimp farming boomed first, including India, where a new Aquaculture Authority is attempting to rein in shrimp farming’s bad actors with voluntary guidelines for sustainable shrimp farming.

To Killai’s fishermen, the government’s actions are too little, too late. They worry most about their children’s future, as they are no longer able to save enough money to send their children to college. Though they lamented the increasing migration of hundreds of their friends and relatives to the cities in search of work, Killai’s fishermen said they hoped their children would follow that same road out of the village.

“I want my children to be educated to get a good job,” said Sezhiyan of his three children. “I don’t want them to undergo the same suffering and uncertainties and unguaranteed life, because there is no regular income from fishing.”

Read the full version of this story

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.”