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Thousands around India have been supporting Anna Hazare's anti-corruption movement. (Photo credit: Business Standard)

Published in the Huffington Post on August 19, 2011.

Hat sales are unusually high in India for this time of year. Specifically, white boat-shaped ‘Gandhi caps’ are flying off the shelves. India’s hat makers have a septuagenarian social activist named Kisan Baburao Hazare — popularly known as Anna Hazare — to thank for that.

Across India, Anna Hazare’s supporters have been vociferously protesting the government’s refusal to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill. Drafted by members of the India Against Corruption movement, the bill proposes an independent body, or lokpal, to investigate and prosecute corrupt politicians. While Hazare spent part of the week in jail, thousands have been lighting white candles, wearing “I am Anna” stickers, and donning ‘Gandhi caps’ in support of his cause. Hazare, meanwhile, is refusing to eat or drink anything until the government signs a version of the bill he deems satisfactory.

Emotions are running high, and it has become abundantly clear that the aam aadmi, or common man, is dissatisfied with the level of corruption in the Indian government. It is also clear that with this new international spotlight, the government must start taking corruption seriously.

It is less clear, however, whether passing the proposed Jan Lokpal bill will actually keep government-wide corruption at bay. As with most populist uprisings, the vast majority of supporters have been drawn by the spirit, rather than the letter, of the proposed policy changes. Relatively few of those chanting “Sab neta chor hai” (all politicians are thieves) have been discussing the nuts and bolts of the proposed Jan Lokpal Bill.

Unfortunately, while the bill has a very noble end in mind — a government free of corruption — it will not, in its current form, likely get us there. There are several reasons for this.

As mentioned, the bill establishes a new committee to investigate and prosecute corruption in the Indian government. Such an entity, however, does not address the fundamental reasons corruption occurs. It also does not change the inner workings of the government to make it corruption-proof in the future. Nandan Nilekani, chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (and former head of Infosys Technologies), highlighted in an interview the need to address the systemic causes of Indian corruption:

You obviously need surveillance and audit, but that’s a layer you put on top of a functioning, streamlined system. A surveillance and audit cannot be a substitute for that. That’s one of the conceptual problems I have with many of these proposals, is that nobody’s talking about how we fix the underlying things. [Instead], we create one more army of people who are going to inspect something that already is not working.

Second, the structure of the proposed lokpal is troubling from a legal standpoint. Unlike other public institutions in India, the committee’s powers reach across several dimensions, putting it in violation of the democratic ideal of checks and balances. For instance, it both investigates crimes and prosecutes those found guilty — awarding it powers that are usually separated. Given this, some lawyers, including Arghya Sengupta, worry whether the proposed lokpal is itself corruption-proof. “You don’t build institutions thinking all members will be guardian angels,” said Sengupta, member of the Delhi-based think tank Pre-Legislative Briefing Services, in a phone interview. “You design them to take care of [potential] bad apples who will be on the committee fifty years from now.”

Finally, even if the bill were carefully designed, Hazare’s supporters must remember that overturning society involves much more than passing a law. “There’s this notion that you can change the world by changing a law,” said Anush Kapadia, Harvard lecturer and expert on Indian political economy. “[The Jan Lokpal Bill] is almost a utopian idea of what a law can do. You have to remember, however, that you cannot read outcomes from design.” Pouring so much energy into the passage of this bill may, in the long run, be detrimental to the larger cause.

Anna Hazare and his supporters should be extremely proud of what they have accomplished. This movement has brought unprecedented light to an enormous thorn in Indian democracy. At this point, however, they should let go of their specific demands and instead allow a much wider ring of experts to develop methods that will, in due course, systemically weed out corruption.

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Published in The Guardian on March 7, 2011.  Read the full article here or read below.

Until recently, microfinance has been the golden child of international development. Microfinance companies would lend small amounts of money to poor women who would, in the ideal scenario, use them to start small businesses. Their interest rates were typically lower than loan sharks’ but still high enough to make a profit. Around the world, development experts believed microfinance was an ideal way to alleviate poverty, a smart way to “do good” while also “doing well”.

How times have changed.

In the last few months, many people have become newly critical. In November, politicians in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh started making bold claims about how microfinance’s crushing interest rates and strongman tactics were, among other things, leading to suicide among over-indebted borrowers.

Some of the politicians’ statements were considered dubious to industry insiders – the Wall Street Journal, for instance, found suicide rates among microfinance borrowers to be five to 10 times lower than among the general Indian population – but they resonated with the public. State politicians ordered private microfinance institutions to stop lending money, and likewise told borrowers to stop repaying existing debt.

Within India, microfinance has historically had its strongest foothold inAndhra Pradesh. Private microfinance lenders had, in aggregate, disbursed more than 150bn rupees (£1.8bn) to more than six million customers. Around the world, experts looked to the state as the Indian business torchbearer.

Given this, Andhra Pradesh politicians likely knew that if they began openly worrying about multiple borrowing, coercive recovery tactics, and suicide related to private microfinance institutions, the rest of the country would carefully listen.

Following the politicians’ announcements, practitioners estimate that more than 80% of customers in Andhra Pradesh have stopped repaying their loans. MFIs have been bearing unprecedented losses, would-be customers have had fewer options for borrowing money, and international media outlets have been running apocalyptic headlines such as “India microcredit faces collapse from defaults”.

Microfinance lenders say the present limbo is not sustainable. They insist the situation must return to business as usual, or more realistically, that new rules – ones amenable to both politicians and practitioners – must be established. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has been trying to do just this. They recently commissioned a high-powered group, the Malegam Committee, to study current problems in microfinance and create a new set of rules for the industry. This committee submitted an initial report on 19 January, and after rounds of discussion, the RBI will enforce the final recommendations later this year.

Unfortunately, most industry insiders have been disappointed with the report’s draft. Of particular concern are the new recommended caps on interest rates. Malegam recommends large microfinance companies to have lending margins (that is, the difference between the borrowing and lending rate) of no more than 10%. Operating costs for many companies, particularly those that serve remote populations, are often at least this much. Profitability becomes nearly impossible. According to one industry source, the “interest rates were never really an issue in India in the past. What this cap will do is make it more difficult to expand into underserved areas or reach the poorest customers. Reaching these regions and customers is more expensive, and rigid margin caps take away a lender’s flexibility to price for these higher costs. Companies will instead focus on areas where customers are easy to reach, which runs counter to the government’s stated financial inclusion goals.”

The Malegam report also places a low ceiling – 50,000 rupees – on borrowers’ annual household income. The rationale is that microfinance was originally created to serve the poorest of the poor, and that ceilings will ensure they stick to that mission. Unfortunately, this recommendation runs counter to many academic findings. Microfinance has been shown, in several instances, to work best for people who are poor, but not entirely downtrodden. These customers, according to MIT’s Poverty Action Lab, are more likely to use funds profitably and to repay debt. Brahmanand Hegde, founder and CEO of Vistaar Livelihood Finance, said that “the report is a huge disappointment to us. It is forcing the industry to accept conditions that run against any business sense.”

There have been isolated instances of customer protest. In Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, customers staged a sit-in outside a public bank, demanding more government-sponsored loans. Without private microfinance companies, they are finding it difficult to lead the lifestyles to which they had become accustomed.

Nobody today can predict the future of the sector. If Malegam’s current recommendations are enforced, however, we may see some private microfinance institutions being forced to shut down. The international development community’s golden child may sadly suffer a premature death.

Sarika Bansal

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Published in Motherland Magazine, November 2010.

Text: Sarika Bansal

A contestant at India SuperQueen 2010. Photo credit: Sarika Bansal

Backstage was all your average pageant stuff. Talcum powder, stray sequins and nervous laughter filled the musty dressing room air. Contestants calmed one another while adjusting their hair and bra straps. “Don’t worry, na,” one contestant cooed. “You’re a beautiful woman, the audience will love you.”

The venue may have been a lavish Mumbai five star hotel, and the contestants as ravishing as any Bollywood starlet, but the watchful gaze of Lord Ardhanarishwar – in the form of a kaleidoscopic effigy looming over the stage – reminded everyone how unique this event really was.

Just as the statue of Ardhanarishwar represented the synthesis of masculine and feminine energies, one could say that the pageant did the same. While all the contest- ants identified as female, most were biologically male. These dolled-up hopefuls were hijras, members of India’s third gender, competing in the country’s first transgender beauty pageant held earlier this year.

“Indian Super Queen,” organized by hijra personality Laxmi Narayan Tripathi and sponsored by business conglomerate V-Care, was no modest affair. Auditions were held in ten Indian locations, from Mumbai to Manipur and judging the final round were Bollywood actresses Zeenat Aman and Celina Jaitley. Contestants participated in personality development seminars and were given nutritional advice.

When the first contestant hit the ramp, she dazzled the audience. Her hair and makeup were flawless, the red sari accentuated feminine curves and her strut was confident. The same held true for the other 15 finalists. In their moment onstage, one could forget the negative stereotypes often associated with India’s hijra community. They were resplendent, poised, unfettered – in short, they were stars in their own right.

“This is a dream come true,” exclaimed one hijra during the question-answer round. “This is a platform we have never seen before in our community. It gives us a chance to show [mainstream] society that we too can look beautiful.”

Laxmi, who goes by her first name, agreed that this was a primary aim of the competition.

“I have been working as an activist for the community for many years now. At the end of the day, what is activism but creating new spaces for people to shine? This pageant has helped the girls become much more confident, which is more than I could have ever asked for.”

Three of the judges at India SuperQueen: Laxmi, Zeenat Aman, and Celina Jaitley. Photo credit: Sarika Bansal

Perhaps the largest difference between the “Indian Super Queen” and a standard beauty pageant was the emphasis on community. Throughout the competition, contestants were asked how they would use the title to help uplift fellow hijras. When the top five finalists were chosen, the remaining contestants were asked to remain on stage. “Everyone stay put!” instructed Laxmi, as a new layer of confetti coated the ramp. “We are all in this together, and even though the judges have to choose a winner, you have all made it so far.”

This level of kinship runs deep. Having been marginalized for centuries, the hijra community has responded by creating a parallel society. They live in matriarchal households headed by nayaks who, among other things, appoint gurus. When new hijras enter the community, they are assigned to a guru through whom they learn all there is to know about hijra life.

“My guru taught me how to cook, how to dress, and how to act,” says Santoshi Gauri, 39, of her time as a chela or disciple. “Without her, I wouldn’t be standing here today.”

Over time, chelas become like sisters, gurus like mothers, and nayaks their grandmothers.

“Many hijras were either kicked out or ran away from home at a young age, so you can imagine how difficult life would be without a strong support network,” explains hijra activist Gauri Kanchana. “Of course, we have disagreements from time to time, and some people rebel against the hierarchy entirely. But the important thing is that for better or for worse, we’re bound to each other like family.”

Sitting on the floor of Kanchana’s modest abode, located in Malvani, a neighbourhood in northern Mumbai and home to some 800 hijras, the support network is evident. Her home doubles as a community centre for the organization Sakhi Char Chowghi Trust. Throughout the day, people flow in and out of Kanchana’s drawing room, sipping chai and fervently sharing the latest Bollywood gossip. They swap tips on how to most effectively remove pesky facial hair and how to best show off a newly acquired bosom.

Given how marginalized the community is, the atmosphere in the drawing room is often heavy. Women who have just completed vaginoplasty procedures (vaginal constructive surgery) sometimes come in, looking for a place to ease their physical pain. Others enter with saltier tears, be they from a breakup with an abusive boyfriend, a tough encounter with parents or a general case of the blues.

On happier occasions, the shared joy appears boundless. When 25-year-old Shreya Janki explains that she has acquired a masters degree in social work, the entire room beams with pride.

The winners of India SuperQueen. Photo credit: The Asian Age

Besides Janki, there are many hijras who are aspiring for job opportunities in mainstream society. Though sex work remains a primary source of employment for the community – workers earn between 1 000 to 2 000 per night depending on beauty and reputation – some are slowly breaking the mould. Bobby, the bubbly winner of the pageant, has recently secured a job as a hair stylist in Mumbai.

“That in itself is a huge achievement for our community – a transgender girl from Manipur working as a hair stylist for the general public. We are very proud of Bobby,” says Laxmi.

Others are beginning to work in call centres as they say it is harder to discriminate against a transgender individual on the phone. In certain states, hijras are even able to procure government jobs, such as becoming loan recovery agents for banks. Some are also beginning to take on college degrees. While they face difficulties in the process – most are ostracized, harassed, and forced to register as male – Kanchana’s girls say they are generally grateful for the opportunity.

And of course, there are the shining lights of Bollywood. “One day, I would like to be an item girl, even sexier than Rakhi Sawant,” giggled one contestant when asked about her future goals. Some audience members may have dismissed this as a pipe dream, but Laxmi firmly believes this is a near-term possibility. “At the end of the day, beauty is beauty, and many of our girls are beautiful. It will just be a matter of time before we have a proper hijra Bollywood star.”

Underlying Laxmi’s optimism are quiet glimmers of change. Over the last decade, community-based organizations across the country have become active in promoting transgender rights. Among other things, they have been trumpeting the need for voter IDs, education equality, and employment opportunities. They have gained a few small victories so far: in 2004, hijras in Tamil Nadu were given voting rights, and by 2008, several states had begun to set up hijra-specific welfare boards.

Considering all of these developments – high- budget beauty pageants, educational opportunities and welfare boards – what does the next decade hold for India’s third gender?

“Ten years is far too short of a time horizon,” says Kanchana. “We have only started to come together and fight for our rights. If we want to talk about serious change, let’s look at what will happen in 100 years, or maybe even 150. By then, transgender youth should be able to study in college just like everyone else. Parents will no longer shun their children, but will instead accept them for who they are.”

Though aware of the on-going, uphill battle that awaits the hijra community, Kanchana remains positive.

“We are caged birds who just want to be set free. Once society sets us free, we will soar high into the neela aasmaan, into the clear blue sky.”

“Beauty Queens” in PDF. Double click to view.

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I should probably preface this story by saying that I’m not a princess.  You can use a lot of other choice words to describe me, but “princess” would hardly be accurate.  I rarely flinch at the sight of a cockroach or moldy fruit, and if the only “bathroom” in sight is two pieces of cinderblock atop strangers’ decaying feces, I’ll hold my breath and make do.

My relatively relaxed, sab chalta hai (everything goes), attitude has been very handy when traveling throughout India.  It’s allowed me to sample delicious peanut chutney in northern Karnataka, freshly ground in what I decided were “clean enough” conditions.  It’s allowed me to stubbornly complete surveys in a Delhi slum during monsoon, when the air was dripping with rain, flies, and the wafting smell of clogged sewer pipe.  It’s even allowed me to keep smiling when I realized—ex post facto—that my bath water in a Maharashtran hill station was full of unidentifiable brown particles (the bathroom lighting, needless to say, was sub-optimal).

Once in a while, however, certain events have really forced me to question what is “cool” versus “irritating,” what is “a story for a grandkids” versus “pointlessly miserable.”

Two years ago, I had decided to travel to Haridwar, Uttar Pradesh to practice yoga/meditation in an ashram for a week.  It was a trip I had wanted to take for years, and I was looking forward to temporarily trading my stressful job for fresh mountain air.

I arranged my overnight journey to Haridwar with a travel agent in Delhi.  “The bus will be very comfortable,” the agent assured me, his gaze firmly affixed on the busty Bollywood posters behind me.  “It may not have air conditioning, but—as you can see from this picture—the seats are very roomy.  You’ll be glad the train and all other buses were sold out!”

The guy was a used car salesman in the making. (more…)

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Published in The Guardian on June 6, 2010. Read the article here or below

The rejection of sex education by parliament has left Indians relying on a newspaper column for advice on basic biology

Can oral sex lead to pregnancy? Will daily masturbation make me go bald? If my elbow brushes against a woman’s breasts on a bus, will I be at risk from HIV?

These are not questions being asked by innocent pre-teens in a middle-school playground. Rather, they are being posed – and answered – in India’s most widely circulated English-language newspaper. The “Ask the Sexpert” column runs in a daily supplement of the Times of India, with spinoff columns beginning to appear in other major Indian periodicals.

It essentially features sex-related questions from across India, followed by small nuggets of advice. The queries range from the serious to the clueless, from the sympathy-evoking to the unintentionally entertaining. (Some choice, if rather explicit, examples can be seen here, here and here.

To a first-time reader, particularly one with a functional understanding of the birds and the bees, many questions will seem unbelievably basic. How can a society, especially one with a strong cultural emphasis on education, be so ignorant of elementary biology? To put it bluntly, why are so many Indian adults confused about where babies come from?

First-time readers will be further surprised to learn that author, Dr Mahinder Watsa, is an 85-year-old gynaecologist and sex counsellor. Unlike many Indian octogenarians, however, Watsa does not spend his time decrying the decline of family values. Rather, he appears to have largely accepted – and arguably immersed himself in – the concerns and realities of today’s youth.

Ask the Sexpert is far from prudish. Though occasionally antiquated, Watsa’s advice is – for the most part – factual, terse, and at times even sardonic. He regularly calls men “old-fashioned” for seeking brides with intact hymens, and often tells size-obsessed men to simply “learn the art of love-making”. Homosexuality seems to be Watsa’s only taboo topic; all else is fair game.

His column provides a sharp contrast to candy-coated Bollywood cinema, and to Indian society overall. It unabashedly discusses topics that are otherwise brushed under carpets, and boldly uses phrases that are usually only whispered in shy giggles. Most importantly, it does what Indian sex education has clearly failed to do. Indian schools are, by a long stretch, less open about sex than Watsa’s column. While Ask the Sexpert discusses premature ejaculation and G-spots at length, the Indian educational system offers students unsubstantial lessons on human anatomy.

This is, in part, because of a parliamentary ruling that rejected the introduction of proper sex education in schools. Sex education has no place in India’s “social and cultural ethos”, the committee argued, and school children should simply be taught that “sex before marriage … is immoral, unethical and unhealthy”.

Some observers believe that committee members are afraid of sex education leading to “people having sex on every corner”. Never mind that scientific studies around the world have found sex education to both delay the onset of sexual behaviour and to increase likelihood of safe sex. Until the Indian education system recognises its shortcomings, the Indian public will have few options but to continue to “ask the sexpert”.


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Published in The National on May 10, 2010.  Click here or read the text below:

It is a muggy Monday morning in a small town in Kerala, India. The local bank is about to open. Outside its doors, under the shade of a coconut palm, sit a dozen customers waiting to withdraw funds from their NRI (non-resident Indian) bank accounts.

These accounts, kept jointly with their children in the Gulf, are replenished at regular intervals. With this money, these customers will pay for many of their household expenses.

This scene can be replicated, with minor variations, across Kerala and beyond. If all these instances are amalgamated, the cash withdrawn equals 3 per cent of India’s current GDP. It is a staggering figure, one that sheds light on how important foreign remittances are to India’s everyday functioning.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the southern state of Kerala. Earlier this decade, foreign remittances, most of which originated in Gulf countries, constituted 22 per cent of the state’s economy.

As a result, “some parts of Kerala simulate the Gulf countries”, reads a 2009 report from published jointly by Mangalore University and Gulf College. The consequences of remittances, the report claims, can be felt across most spheres of life, including the economic, political, social and even religious.

While many of these changes may seem positive at first – Gulf remittances have, for example, been the driving force behind improving some hospitals and airports – have they helped the recipient communities grow equitably? Has economic growth been sustainable and fair? (more…)

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When I googled "bright-eyed and bushy-tailed," this is the first image that came up (it's from http://www.idiomsbykids.com)

When I arrived at Mumbai’s international airport in July 2006, I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Wait, scratch the “bright-eyed” bit.  Before leaving home, I somehow decided that half of my books were “too precious” for check-in luggage, leaving me to run through the airport with the weight of a baby camel on my back (don’t you love short layovers that force you to sprint down endless corridors?). On the first leg (New York-London), I was seated next to a loud and pungent Russian woman, and on the second (London-Mumbai), in the middle of a rambunctious Punjabi family.  I don’t remember exactly what happened, but there was definitely some bad singing and spiked orange juice involved.  In any case, I arrived at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport anything but bright-eyed.

But oh, was I bushy-tailed.

I had big plans for India.  I was so earnest about living and working in the Motherland, I get embarrassed just thinking about it.  Over my proposed two-year stint in management consulting, I was planning to “develop the toolkit” required to “address the most pressing social issues of our generation.”  I would learn everything about economic development from the private sector, after which I would infiltrate the social justice world with orgasmic insights.  Basically, I came to India to solve poverty.  And maybe injustice too, if I decided to work weekends sometimes.  And in the process, I was going to love and cherish India like no one ever had.  I was going to become one with with my surroundings — and not in the leathery hippie kind of way.

Well, we all know what they say about the best-laid plans.  Anyway.  Back to the airport.

It was 3am Indian time, and I had finally gone through immigration and found my bags.  It was time to search for the Auntie and Uncle who were to be my hosts for the next three days.

Ordinarily, I would have stayed in my company’s guesthouse, but for some reason, it was fully booked for the first three days I arrived.  In retrospect, I should have just rebooked my ticket.  But no, at the time, I was adamant about coming on the day I had decided in my head.  I boldly told HR that I would “figure something out” for those initial three days.  I don’t really know what I was thinking, since I had no family or friends in Mumbai.  Hell, I had never even been there!  My family tried to talk sense into me, but I wouldn’t hear any of it.  “But-but-but,” I whined, “don’t make me start my new life three days later than planned!”

Several frantic phone calls later, my parents found someone to take me in.  I’m still not sure what the connection to this family was — I think they were my aunt’s father-in-law’s college roommate’s best friend’s dogwalker’s niece, or something — but I was grateful that these perfect strangers had an extra sofa where I could sleep.

As soon as I met them, I got the sense that they weren’t quite normal, but I was so tired that I let the feeling pass.  At any rate, I was concentrating more on how overwhelming my new surroundings were.  The pre-monsoon air was sticky and thick, and I had forgotten what a shock India can be on your olfactory nerves.  Taxi drivers were energetically vying for our attention with an out-of-tune chorus of, “Madam, madam, madam.”  I felt like everyone was staring at me (which, in retrospect, they probably were, since Indians love to stare).  I just needed a moment for it all to sink in.

(more…)

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