Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Bihar battleground for old hatreds

India is gripped with election fever. No news bulletin passes without references to the campaign; newspapers devote whole sections to it; the talk in government circles in New Delhi is about little else.

This is not a national poll — the Government of Narendra Modi is not yet 18 months into its five-year term — but an election for the Legislative Assembly of the north-eastern State of Bihar. In normal times the voting would be of little general interest to Indians, but these are not normal times.

There are two main reasons why Bihar is in the national headlines. The first has to do with India’s constitutional make-up. Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a healthy majority in the Lower House of the National Parliament, the Lok Sabah, but its legislation can be blocked – and frequently is – by opponents in the Upper House, the Rajya Sabah.

Membership of the Rajya Sabah is determined by State Legislatures, so in order to overturn the Opposition majority, the BJP needs to win in a succession of State elections of which Bihar is one.

The second reason is all about personalities and the two current heavyweights of Indian politics, one of course being Modi and the other the current Chief Minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar.

To say the two men dislike each other would be an understatement – they despise each other with a vitriolic hatred that goes back decades. Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) Party was once in alliance with the BJP but he withdrew it when Modi was selected as the Prime Ministerial candidate for the national election.

There is little doubt Kumar believed he should have been the choice and now he sees his chance to get his own back on his old enemy by humiliating him on home turf.

To do so he has formed what is being called a Grand Alliance of Opposition parties that were once at each other’s throats – the Rashtriya Janata Dal of former Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav and the Indian National Congress, once the natural party of government in the nation, but now reduced to a bit player in this contest.

Of course, Modi is not a candidate in the poll, but the actual leader of the BJP Opposition, Sushil Modi (no relation) hardly seems to get a mention.

It is the Prime Minister who has stomped up and down the State, describing the three-part coalition as “the three idiots”. Kumar hit back by composing a poem lampooning Modi to which Modi replied that Kumar should keep practicing for his new role as a poet after his election defeat.

As with most elections in India, the Bihar poll is spread over five days, with the final polling day being on the 5 November after which counting will take place and the result made known before the State Government’s current term ends on 29 November.  

With three polling days already completed, both groups claim they are leading, but BJP analysts point to the poor showing of Janata Dal (United) in the May 2014 national election, when it was only able to win two of the Bihar seats.

“Kumar cut himself adrift from his BJP lifeline and it is only a matter of time before he will sink without trace,” one said.  

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Time for action on rape culture

Enough is enough. The rape of a two- year-old child in New Delhi is horrific enough, but the ritual finger-pointing and blame-shifting that followed is almost as sickening.

Indian leaders need to wake up to the fact – and wake up fast – that the rape culture pervading their nation is doing irreparable harm to its international standing and needs to be addressed, not with pious words, but with action. 
The abuse of the tiny girl has focused the world’s attention on a problem that seems to be endemic among Indian male society. In one seven-day period there have been reports of a nine-year-old girl gang raped and murdered in Jharkhand, an eight year-old raped by her uncle it Utter Pradesh and the gang-rape of a 20-year-old women in an outer suburb of New Delhi.

And these are incidents that have been reported and which received a degree of publicity. Others - many others - are either not reported at all, or are buried in police files.

And there lies another problem. In a further report, a 15-year-old girl from the city of Bangalore who said she was assaulted by a gang of youths on her way home from school who stripped her and took photographs, later committed suicide. Her family claimed they had made several complaints to the local police but nothing had been done.
The police later admitted they had done nothing other than telling the family to go away and settle the matter themselves.

Complaints of police inaction are common, usually when the complainants are Dalits or low cast. New Delhi has one of the largest police forces for a city that size in the world, but still seems incapable of halting a steady stream of incidents that has India’s capital also branded as the rape capital of the world.
So far all the authorities have done is play the blame game. The capital is run by the Aam Aadmi Party whose Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, blames the Bharatiya Janata Party national Government which has control of the capital’s police force.

Members of the Opposition Congress Party held an outraged protest outside the Chief Minister’s office, conveniently forgetting that one of India’s most publicised cases – the rape of medical student Jyoti Singh on a New Delhi bus in 2012 — occurred on their watch.
Demonstrations and angry words will be forgotten tomorrow if they are not followed up with action. India’s politicians have to accept they are all to blame for years of tolerance and neglect. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was right when he said that while parents have traditionally kept their daughters under strict control, they have allowed their sons to roam wild.

Boys have grown up in the belief that any girl out on the streets at night must be of loose morals and therefore fair game. That was exactly the defence put up by one of Ms Singh’s rapists.  
After that incident the penalties for rape were increased, but in its wake rapes and assaults have actually risen, largely because the gangs and individuals that commit these crimes know they have a good chance of never being apprehended.

Police forces throughout India have to be instructed in no uncertain terms that every incident, every report, has to be vigorously pursued. Potential rapists must be made aware that they will face justice.
This should be supported by a national campaign of education, aimed not just at young people but also their parents, stressing equality for men and women under the law and the constitution. This admittedly will take time to change engrained attitudes, but it is far better to light the candle than curse the dark. 

If India portrays itself as a modern industrialising nation, there is no place for the medieval attitude of one half of its population towards the other.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Indian rewards for Australian pioneer

The Canberra Institute of Technology (CIT) has made a significant breakthrough into the Indian market with an agreement to develop vocational training schools in the country.

Not only does this place the CIT at the forefront of overseas vocational institutions in India, it comes at a time when that nation’s need for skilled tradespeople has never been greater.

While other Australian sectors and States are obsessed with finding niches in the overcrowded China market, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Government is firmly establishing itself in the other, long-neglected Asian giant.

There will be significant rewards.

The Modi Government has set a target of creating 500 million skilled jobs by 2022 with a particular focus on training young people between the ages of 15 and 24, which represents 19 per cent of the nation’s population.

With its 100 smart cities program, and an emphasis on improving the country’s crumbling infrastructure, India has a desperate need for a vast range of occupations from plumbers and electricians to surveyors and architects.

In the past these areas have been neglected by middle-class Indians in the rush to enter the nation’s burgeoning ICT and financial services industries but now the trades are being promoted, both as essential to the nation’s growth and as a way out of poverty for many who feel left behind by the nation’s rapid economic progress.

CIT’s Chief Executive, Leanne Cover, places an emphasis on the institute’s spatial information and surveying programs, saying they are already well-respected within Australia and will be a good fit with its new international partners.

“CIT and the ACT Department of education and training are establishing a strong reputation in India’s educational regions,” Ms Cover said.

“We have reached an important agreement where CIT will develop, in collaboration with India, specialised expertise for workforce development and in exchange, offer some exciting opportunities for CIT teachers and other staff.”

As trailblazers in a nation with enormous and largely untapped potential, CIT and the ACT Government that backs it, deserve to succeed.

One thing remains – an initiative to promote the teaching of Hindi in Canberra schools. While many Indians do speak English — and it is acknowledged as a requirement for those engaged in business there — a working knowledge of the majority language is needed for those who truly want to understand the underpinnings of this complex, often turbulent, always vibrant nation.