India Insight

Fighting challenges to transform banking in rural India

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily of Reuters)

India’s new program to transfer welfare payments directly to the nation’s poor has been touted as a near-revolutionary way to protect people from high-interest moneylenders, bureaucracy and bribes, and to help people improve their lives. Like many government programs designed to change the lives of millions of people, it has raised doubts about how well it would work.

I recently visited a couple of villages in Udaipur, the so-called city of lakes in Rajasthan. I wanted to see how the program is going in its early stages. My initial conclusion: it’s a big challenge.

Transferring cash directly means that the government wires money to people’s bank accounts. That avoids the traditional method of standing in endless lines at the post office, often making them easy pickings for corrupt bureaucrats looking to skim some of the cash off the top. Banks, despite what we have read, are often willing to venture into the hinterlands to set up accounts. Getting people to take them is another story.

Some officials of a government-owned bank went to survey a village in Udaipur, only to receive a rude shock — one family, petrified to see the bank officers, shut the door in their faces and wouldn’t deal with the officers until the village head man intervened.

from Photographers' Blog:

Voices of women in India’s “rape capital”

New Delhi, India

By Mansi Thapliyal

My city is known as the so-called “rape capital of the country”. They say it’s unsafe, it’s dangerous, it’s full of wolves looking to hunt you down. A lot of it may be true. As a single woman working, living and breathing in New Delhi, I have had my fair share of stories. But the labels and opinions associated with the city were accepted on one level – no one questioned them, no one asked why – until a brutal tragedy one cold December night which shook the world and forced everyone (the authorities, the public, the lawmakers) to ask themselves uncomfortable questions and focus the on safety of women. It is still an ongoing, raging debate, thank heavens.

Meanwhile, I decided to focus on what Delhi’s women face and what they think about it. How do they go on with their lives, their work, their families? Just trying to understand the magnitude of how unsafe India’s capital is became one of the most challenging and emotionally exhausting assignments of my career.

SLIDESHOW: INDIA'S WOMEN DEFEND THEMSELVES

From call center executives to advertising professionals to tea stall workers, everyone has their stories and how they cope with it. Take the example of Chandani, 22, one of the few female cab drivers in the city. As she drove me around the city, a policeman stopped us at a barricade near India Gate. When he saw that a woman was driving the cab, he scraped his jaw off the floor. “You also drive a cab?” he said with an expression that suggested that he had spotted the Abominable Snowman. “I am doing a very unconventional job for women. Given that I do night shifts, I carry pepper spray and I’m trained in self-defense. Initially I faced a lot of problems but driving cabs at night has helped me overcome my fears,” Chandani said.

Euphoria over Rahul Gandhi’s new role may be short-lived

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily of Reuters)

Rahul Gandhi has his work cut out as the new Congress vice president. His speech at the party’s brainstorming meeting on Sunday impressed fans and critics, but it probably is too soon to celebrate.

While he may be the best choice to take charge of the Congress campaign before the 2014 elections, state battles could remain outside his control. No matter how good the 42-year-old Gandhi might prove himself to be, prevailing in the nine assembly elections happening this year will be a tough sell.

Women voters in India want to stand up and be counted

Several years ago, a dinner-table conversation about state elections in Himachal Pradesh veered towards a candidate who gave away pressure cookers to woo women voters. Of course, bribing voters is illegal, but I remember wondering whether all I wanted as a woman was a pressure cooker.

The Delhi rape case and the molestation of a young girl in Guwahati in Assam last year have underscored the place that women often occupy in Indian society. These incidents have made me wonder to what extent our country’s political parties will focus on gender inequality as they look forward to the 2014 general elections. How will they vie for the women’s vote?

Until now, political parties and their largely male leadership focussed on the ‘aam aadmi’, or the common man, a phrase which subsumes women. Politicians and other public figures don’t make much hay of gender inequality and many of the attitudes toward women that hurt a large portion of our society — and when they do, they’re often lacking. The best attitude that politicians often apply to women is a patronising one. Instead of focusing on women’s empowerment through education and awareness, politicians distribute saris, cookers and sanitary napkins.

Photo gallery: Revisiting Satyajit Ray through Nemai Ghosh’s lens

In an age when moviegoers bask in the fleeting “Dabangg” culture of Bollywood, a visit to an exhibition displaying the works of photographer Nemai Ghosh in Indian cinema’s centennial year is liberating. Ghosh, a Padma Shri awardee, is credited with documenting an aspect of show business that is far removed from the usual focus of the press. In a decades-long career, the accidental photographer — he held the camera for the first time in exchange for a loan — had filmmaker Satyajit Ray as his greatest muse.

“Ghosh’s photographs of Ray, at home and on the sets suggest a rare intimacy, with the poignancy of these images of the master at work, directing and in many cases enacting roles,” said Pramod Kumar KG, curator of the exhibition, ‘Nemai Ghosh: Satyajit Ray and Beyond’, on display at the Delhi Art Gallery in Hauz Khas Village.

Here’s a picture of India’s only Academy Award winner, Satyajit Ray, or Manik-da, as he was fondly called, immersed in work at his study in Calcutta.

Nine miracles Congress might expect from Rahul Gandhi

Now that Rahul Gandhi has assumed what many would say was his rightful place, expectations from him would be high. These will be all the more pressing within the Congress party, which will look to its new vice president to help it retain power. Here is a list of those possible expectations: Hook the young ones: Gandhi is widely presented as the youthful face of the 128-year-old Congress party. At 42, he is the youngest leader in the highest ranks. With 70 percent of India’s population below the age of 35, today’s young people form an irresistible voting bloc to court. Target Dalits and “backward” classes: Rahul Gandhi’s visits to the homes of Dalits and so-called backward classes, in particular in rural India, have been well recorded. You could say that it’s just politics and public relations, but Congress needs to show more support for groups that often gravitate toward smaller regional parties. Duplicate NSUI and Youth Wing experiments: This means tackling what federal minister Jairam Ramesh called “structural problems” within Congress. Gandhi has brought about vital electoral and membership reforms in the Congress’s Youth Wing as well as its National Students Union of India, providing a wider gateway for people to enter politics. Many Congress delegates at the party’s meeting in Jaipur demanded similar progress. At the moment, members in the top Congress body are nominated, and candidates for election are usually hand picked by the party high command. Image makeover: Congress needs an image makeover in the run-up to the parliamentary elections of 2014. Rahul Gandhi’s relatively clean image and straight-talk against graft could be the party’s hope at a time when corruption scandals threaten to end its 10-year rule at the center. New alliances, preserving old friends: Who knew that lacking political experience would be a job qualification? Gandhi, with this important note on his CV, can forge new alliances and nurture old friendships that are prone to developing cracks. The “Gandhi” name: The name and the party have been intertwined since India’s independence. Whether the brand value behind the name is good or bad is sometimes hard to say. Rahul Gandhi has a chance to eliminate the need to ask the question. If he can eliminate or minimize fighting among party members, this will help. Ground realities: Congress has been accused of being out of touch with reality. Gandhi will need to project a friendly face and speak realistic words to help the party’s image. Speaking of which… speak up: Though Rahul has been a politician for nine years, public speaking has not been his forte. He has rarely expressed his opinion on various burning topics. This has emboldened the opposition and given the media evidence to say that he is not ready for senior management. It’s time to share. Lead India into the new century: A thumping victory in the 2014 elections with Gandhi as vice president and leader of the party’s campaign committee for the elections would be nice. Congress workers will hope that he will be the party’s prime ministerial candidate as well, a trump card in the face of regional and hostile forces such as Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and West Bengal Chief Minister (and former Congress ally) Mamata Banerjee. That said, some dreams may be a little too unrealistic for now.

Why Rahul Gandhi stepped into the spotlight

The Congress has for a long time acknowledged Rahul Gandhi as heir apparent and several party members had openly said that he is their leader. Which means his appointment on Saturday as the party’s vice president — a post just below that of Congress chief and Rahul’s mother Sonia — was in many ways just a matter of finding him a suitable title.

So why should it matter?

One reason for Gandhi’s long-awaited promotion was to energise the party for a round of state elections in the run-up to the national elections in 2014. The Congress remains a party which derives its charisma from the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and party workers openly swoon over the family. News of Gandhi’s appointment was greeted with fireworks and proclamations by party leaders of brighter days ahead.

Congress leader RPN Singh said this would be a “game changer” which would infuse “new vigour” in the party.

Rahul Gandhi takes first step in race to be India’s next PM

It’s the news some Congress leaders have waited for with bated breath. On Saturday, spokesman Janardhan Dwivedi announced the party’s decision to make Rahul Gandhi its vice-president.

Pressure had been mounting on the “young emperor” from within the troubled party to take charge. For years, Gandhi had shown no inclination to do so. But with his formal promotion to the party’s number two position next to mother Sonia, the 42-year-old is ready to claim the throne of the world’s largest democracy in the 2014 elections.

Here’s the latest from around the web.

Major changes in Congress with Rahul Gandhi as vice-president

Rahul’s elevation in Congress comes as no surprise: BJP

Congress gives Rahul Gandhi official status to take major decisions: Samajwadi Party

‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ meets ‘Indian Idol’ in West Bengal

(Any career-destroying attempts at irony or humour are the responsibility of the author, and not of the chief ministers of Gujarat or West Bengal or any of their associates.)

Everybody’s talking about how Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has fostered fair weather for businesses and investors in his state. Maybe he’s making it too easy. In West Bengal, it looks like investors and business people must work a little harder for their returns. Take a look at that state’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee. She isn’t just making business people and investors work for their profits; she’s making them sing.

From India Today:

An industrialist climbing the dais at an investors’ summit to sing a popular Rabindra Sangeet. The perhaps unseen scene was made possible on Tuesday courtesy West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee .

Firing on LoC: Blame game and spillovers continue

Firing between India and Pakistan along the Line of Control (LoC) in the disputed region of Kashmir has left five soldiers dead (two Indians and three Pakistanis). In India, the issue became a front-page story with the media expressing outrage over reports that the body of one Indian soldier was allegedly mutilated by the Pakistanis.

The incident fuelled tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbours and Indian political parties have minced no words in their calls for retribution.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Tuesday called the act “barbaric” and said it was no more “business as usual” with Islamabad.

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