BBC News – Is India exaggerating its economic growth?

India’s economic growth might be overestimated, according to the country’s former chief economic adviser.

Sameer Hashmi

Mumbai – Maharashtra – India, 13 June 2019. In a column published in an Indian newspaper, Arvind Subramanian said his research shows India has changed how it measures growth, and this led to its gross domestic product (GDP) being overstated by about 2.5% annually.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s panel of economic advisers has rejected his conclusions, adding it would soon issue a “point-to-point rebuttal”.

Mr Subramanian’s observations have, however, reignited concerns about the credibility of India’s economic growth data.

It was the fastest growing economy in 2018 but many leading economists have argued the new methodology is flawed as it does not truly reflect the economy.

What’s the controversy?

In 2015, India changed the way it measured GDP.

One of the major changes: GDP is now measured by using market prices rather than basic costs. Simply put, the GDP was used to be calculated based on the wholesale prices at which producers received their products. Now, it’s calculated based on the market prices paid by consumers.

And the base year was shifted from 2004-05 to 2011-12 to assess quarterly and annual growth figures. Since then, the methodology has been under scrutiny from economists and statisticians.

Mr Subramanian has reinforced those doubts by claiming that the economic growth for the period between the financial years 2011-12 and 2016-17 is exaggerated. While official estimates put it at 7%, he pegs the “actual growth” at about 4.5%.

His comments are based on his own research, which has been published by the Centre for International Development at Harvard University.

Since 2015, when the new methodology came into effect, a growing number of experts have questioned the high growth estimates under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

Despite his government’s claims of rapid growth, unemployment touched a 45-year high between 2017 and 2018.

Raghuram Rajan, former head of India’s central bank and former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, has expressed doubts over the data given the high rate of joblessness.

What does the Indian government say?

The government has defended its methodology for calculating economic growth.

“India objectively measures the contribution of various sectors in the economy and the country’s GDP estimates are based on accepted procedures and methodologies,” India’s statistics ministry said in a statement.

This is the not the first time that the government has been questioned over data collection. A study by the statistics ministry found that in the fiscal year which ended June 2016, 36% of companies in the database used for calculating India’s GDP could not be traced or were wrongly classified.

The government itself has admitted there are deficiencies in the way it collets data.

Mr Subramanian has called for an independent panel of experts comprising Indian and foreign nationals to examine India’s GDP data.

“My new research suggests that post-global financial crisis, the heady narrative of a guns-blazing India – that statisticians led us to believe – may have to cede to a more realistic one of an economy growing solidly but not spectacularly,” Mr Subramanian writes.

How will this affect India?

It’s a big blow for Mr Modi’s government, which recently won a second term but is already under pressure to revive economic growth.

The government’s own figures admit that India is no longer the fastest growing economy, it lost that tag to China when its GDP grew at its slowest pace in five years.

Not only could this hurt India’s reputation but it also highlights how economic policies implemented over the past few years may have actually impeded growth by giving an inaccurate picture of the economy.

For example, interest rates in India were kept high to tackle inflation but that created more barriers for businesses, forcing them to borrow capital at a high cost. To make matters worse, the unravelling of the bad loans crisis impacted banks, making it difficult to access money.

The central bank lowered interest rates thrice this year to boost the economy after growth started to falter.

The lack of jobs and the agrarian crisis gripping India are two huge challenges that have weighed down economic growth.

Apart from restoring confidence in the economy, experts say there is an urgent need to revamp the statistical system to capture real-time data for policy analysis. The government has said that it’s working with the World Bank to modernise the way data is collected

Mr Modi has set up committees to device policies that would help attract investment and create employment. Given the gloomy outlook on India’s economy, Mr Subramanian, too, expects the government to act swiftly to tackle the slowdown.

“Going forward, there must be reform urgency stemming from the new knowledge that growth has been tepid, not torrid,” he writes.

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-48609326

BBC News – India court releases army veteran detained as foreigner

Guwahati – Assam – India, 07 June 2019. A high court in India has ordered the release of a decorated Indian army veteran who was hauled off to a detention camp after being declared a “foreigner” under a controversial measure. BBC Hindi’s Vineet Khare reports on how the man’s arrest has outraged India.

It was the evening of 27 May and Mohamed Sanaullah, 52, had just reached his home in Guwahati in the north-eastern Indian state of Assam, when he got a call from the local police superintendent’s office.

The man on the other end of the line told Mr Sanaullah that the state’s foreigners tribunal had declared him a “foreigner” four days ago and asked him to report there.

“He knew what lay ahead,” Mr Sanaullah’s lawyer and son-in-law, Shahidul Islam, who was with him in Guwahati at the time of his arrest, told the BBC.

He spent the night in police custody.

On Friday, the high court in Assam granted Mr Sanaullah bail. But his lawyer told the Indian Express newspaper that his appeal challenging his detention in the first place is still pending.

Mr Sanaullah is one of four million people who was left off the latest draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) published last year.

The NRC was first created in 1951 to determine who was born in India and who might be a migrant from neighbouring, Muslim-majority East Pakistan, now known as Bangladesh.

The census, conducted only in the north-eastern state of Assam, counts as citizens those who can prove that they were residents of India before midnight on 24 March 1971, a day before Bangladesh declared its independence from Pakistan.

An army veteran with 30 years of service, Mr Sanaullah was working as an officer with the border police, GuwahatiGuwahatia unit of the state police service – when the call came.

Ironically, one of its main jobs is to stem illegal migration from Bangladesh.

Mr Sanaullah was dispatched to a detention centre the next day, where he has been ever since. There are hundreds of people, also declared foreigners, who are in six detention centres around the state.

Even though the most recent version of the NRC was only published in 2018, Assam has a history of trying people suspected to be foreigners. For decades, it did so under a 1983 law, until it was repealed in 2005. The detention centres were set up in 2009 because of fears that those declared “foreigners” would try and escape.

Many have been languishing there for years.

But Mr Sanaullah was luckier than most. His story caught the attention of national media, which began flashing headlines that a “war hero” in the state had been declared a foreigner.

Outrage quickly followed.

A leader from India’s main opposition Congress party said Mr Sanaullah’s detention was an “insult” to India’s armed forces, adding that it demonstrated that the NRC had been compiled in a “high-handed and flawed” manner.

Others asked if the purpose of the NRC was to identify illegal migrants or label all Muslims as illegal immigrants.

Officials are quick to point out that tens of thousands of Hindus were also left off the list. But critics cite the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which seeks to provide citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

In fact the bill was shelved after people in Assam vehemently protested against it fearing that Hindu migrants who were not included in the NRC would still get citizenship to stay on.

As news of Mr Sanaullah’s detention spread, the country’s top court also got involved, expressing its “serious concern”. It summoned the state’s co-ordinator of the NRC and asked him to ensure that the process by which people were deemed foreigners or not was carried out properly.

Mr Sanaullah’s case documents revealed that the case against him was built on the basis of “witness statements” questioning his nationality. These statements were made in 2008 and 2009 by three people in his home village.

The documents also contain an alleged “confession” where Mr Sanaullah reportedly said that he is actually from a village near the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka.

But these are all being questioned now.

For one, all three “witnesses” are flatly denying making any statement against Mr Sanaullah to the investigating officer, who has been identified as Chandramal Das.

“Sanaullah was like family to us. Why would I give a statement against him? I never met Chandramal Das or even heard his name until now,” Sobahan Ali told the BBC.

Another, Quran Ali, said he was mystified to learn his name was given as that of a witness because he had not even been living in the village at the time that he was supposed to have made this statement.

They say their names have been misused and their signatures forged on the document.

Mr Sanaullah’s family also deny he ever made any “confession” about his birthplace to anyone.

These revelations have now prompted police to register a case against Mr Das.

Mr Das, who retired last year, told the NDTV news channel that the entire thing was a “mix-up of reports”, and that he had meant to investigate another man whose name was Sanaulla (both names would be spelled the same in the local language).

“My father only heard of the probe in 2018 when his name didn’t figure in the NRC draft list,” Mr Sanaullah’s daughter Shehnaz Akhar told the BBC.

“It was only when he went to the NRC office that he found out that there was a 10-year-old case against him.”

Hafiz Rashid Ahmed Choudhary, a senior lawyer at the Guwahati high court in Assam, says that this case is hardly unique and that there are hundreds of people like Mr Sanaullah who are languishing in detention camps.

“It’s happening because of lapses on the part of the agencies. Police officials lack knowledge and sometimes act in a biased manner. And the Foreigners Tribunals are manned by members who give verdicts but have little experience. The minimum experience to be a member is seven years.”

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-48523963

Human Rights Without Frontiers – Vet charged with blasphemy over medicine ‘wrapped in religious text’

A Hindu veterinary doctor in south-east Pakistan has been charged under the country’s strict blasphemy laws after allegedly selling medicine wrapped in paper bearing Islamic religious text.

BBC News, 28 May 2019 – An angry crowd set fire to his clinic near Mirpur Khas, Sindh province, and other Hindu-owned shops were looted.

The vet said his use of the paper, apparently torn from an Islamic studies school textbook, was a mistake.

If he is convicted he could be sentenced to life in prison.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws carry harsh penalties for anyone who insults Islam. Critics say they target a disproportionate number of people from religious minorities.

According to reports, the vet had used pages from the school textbook to wrap up medicines for a customer with sick livestock. But the customer saw Islamic religious content on the pages and went to a local cleric who informed police.

Maulana Hafeez-ur-Rehman, a local leader of the religious political party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islami, told BBC Urdu that the doctor had done it deliberately.

According to police, the vet has insisted that his use of the paper was a mistake.

He has since been charged with insulting religious beliefs and defiling the Koran and faces life in prison.

Islam is Pakistan’s national religion and public support for the strict blasphemy laws is strong.

Correspondents say hardline politicians have often backed severe punishments, partly as a way of shoring up their support base.

Hundreds of Pakistani citizens have been charged with blasphemy over the past few decades and some cases have triggered an international outcry.

Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi was sentenced to death in 2010 after being accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad in a row with her neighbours.

She spent years on death row until her conviction was overturned in 2018 by the Supreme Court. She has since left the country.

https://bbc.in/2Wv9it4

BBC News – How Narendra Modi has reinvented Indian politics

Soutik Biswas, India correspondent

New Delhi – India, 24 May 2019. Narendra Modi has scored a resounding victory in the Indian general election, securing a second five-year term. The BBC’s Soutik Biswas looks at the main takeaways.

1. The second landside is all about Narendra Modi

India’s polarising prime minister made this an election all about himself.

He should have faced some anti-incumbency. Joblessness has risen to a record high, farm incomes have plummeted and industrial production has slumped. Many Indians were hit hard by the currency ban (also known as demonetisation), which was designed to flush out undeclared wealth, and there were complaints about what critics said was a poorly-designed and complicated uniform sales tax.

The results prove that people are not yet blaming Mr Modi for this.

On the stump, the prime minister repeatedly told people that he needed more than five years to undo more than “60 years of mismanagement”. Voters agreed to give him more time.

Many Indians seem to believe that Mr Modi is a kind of messiah who will solve all their problems. A survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), a Delhi-based think tank, a third of BJP voters said they would have supported another party if Mr Modi was not the prime ministerial candidate.

“This tells you how much this vote was for Mr Modi, more than the BJP. This election was all about Mr Modi’s leadership above all else,” Milan Vaishnav, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, told me.

In a sense, Mr Modi’s second successive landslide win echoes Ronald Reagan’s abiding popularity as US president in the 1980s, when he somehow escaped blame for his country’s economic woes. Reagan was called the Great Communicator and for being a “teflon” president whose mistakes never stuck to him. Mr Modi enjoys a similar reputation.

Many say Mr Modi has made India’s elections more presidential. But strong prime ministers have often overshadowed their parties – Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Indira Gandhi are some obvious examples.

“There is no question that Mr Modi is the most popular politician in India since Indira Gandhi. He is peerless when it comes to the national stage at the present,” says Dr Vaishnav.

The 2014 win was partly a vote in anger against the corruption-tainted Congress party. Thursday’s win is an affirmation for Mr Modi. He has become the first leader since 1971 to secure a single party majority twice in a row. “This is a victory for Modi and his vision of a new India,” says Mahesh Rangarajan, a professor of history at Ashoka University.

2. A cocktail of development and nationalism worked

A combination of nationalist rhetoric, subtle religious polarisation and a slew of welfare programmes helped Mr Modi to coast to a second successive win.

In a bitter and divisive campaign, Mr Modi effortlessly fused nationalism and development. He created binaries: the nationalists (his supporters) versus the anti-nationals (his political rivals and critics); the watchman (Modi himself, protecting the country on “land, air, and outer space”) versus the entitled and the corrupt (an obvious dig at the main opposition Congress party).

Aligned to this, deftly, was the promise of development. Mr Modi’s targeted welfare schemes for the poor, homes, toilets, credit, cooking gas, have used technology for speedy delivery. However, the quality of these services and how much they have helped ameliorate deprivation is debatable.

Mr Modi also mined national security and foreign policy as vote-getters in a manner never seen in a general election in recent history.

After a suicide attack, claimed by Pakistan-based militants, which killed more than 40 Indian paramilitaries in disputed Kashmir and the retaliatory air strike against Pakistan in the run-up to the election, Mr Modi successfully convinced the masses that the country would be secure if he remained in power.

People having no obvious interest in foreign policy, farmers, traders, labourers, told us during our campaign travels that India had won the respect of the outside world under Mr Modi.

“It is all right if there’s little development, but Modi is keeping the nation secure and keeping India’s head high,” a voter in the eastern city of Kolkata told me.

3. Modi’s win signals a major shift in politics

Mr Modi’s persona has become larger than his cadre-based party, and a symbol of hope and aspiration for many.

Under Mr Modi and his powerful aide Amit Shah, the BJP has developed into a ruthless party machine. “The geographical expansion of the BJP is a very significant development,” says Mahesh Rangarajan.

Traditionally, the BJP has found its strongest support in India’s populous Hindi-speaking states in the north. (Of the 282 seats the party won in 2014, 193 came from these states.) The exceptions are Gujarat, Mr Modi’s home state and a BJP bastion, and Maharashtra, where the BJP has governed in alliance with a local party.

But since Mr Modi became PM, the BJP has formed governments in key north-eastern states like Assam and Tripura, which are primarily Assamese and Bengali-speaking.

And in this election, the BJP, where it contested more seats than the Congress, has emerged as a force to reckon with in non-Hindi speaking states like Orissa and West Bengal in the east.

The party’s modest presence in southern India still doesn’t make it a truly pan-Indian party like the Congress of yore, but the BJP is moving towards it.

Twenty years ago when it was in power under Atal Behari Vajpayee, the BJP seemed content being the first among equals, the largest party in a group of parties which tried to run a stable government.

Under Mr Modi, the BJP commands an overwhelming majority in parliament as the first party, and there are no equals.

He and Amit Shah have adopted an aggressive take-no-prisoners style of politics. The party is not a seasonal machine that comes alive during elections. It appears to be in permanent political campaign mode.

Political scientist Suhas Palshikar believes India could be moving towards a one-party dominant state like the Congress in the past.

He calls it the “second dominant party system”, with the BJP leading the pack, and the main opposition Congress remaining “weak and nominal” and the regional parties losing ground.

4. Nationalism and yearning for a strongman played a key role

Mr Modi’s strident nationalism as a main campaign plank seems to have overruled the more pressing economic problems facing voters.

Some analysts believe that under Mr Modi, India could be inching towards a more “ethnic democracy”, which requires the “mobilisation of the majority in order to preserve the ethnic nation”.

This would look more like Israel which sociologist Sammy Smooha characterised as a state that “endeavours to combine an ethnic identity (Jewish) and a parliamentary system drawing its inspiration from Western Europe”.

Will Hindu nationalism become the default mode of Indian politics and society?

It will not be easy, India thrives on diversity. Hinduism is a diverse faith. Social and linguistic differences hold India together. Democracy is an additional glue.

The BJP’s strand of strident Hindu nationalism, conflating Hinduism and patriotism, may not appeal to all Indians. “There’s no other place in the world where diversity is so spectral and a drive to homogenise so fraught,” says Professor Rangarajan.

Also India’s shift to the right is not unique to India, it’s happening with the new right in the Republican Party in the US, and the central ground of French and German politics has shifted rightwards.

India’s rightward shift is clearly part of a wider trend where the nature of nationalism is being redefined and cultural identity is being given renewed emphasis.

How valid are fears that India is sliding into a majoritarian state under Mr Modi?

He is not the first leader to be called a fascist and authoritarian by his critics; Mrs Gandhi was called both when she suspended civil liberties and imposed the Emergency in the mid-1970s. People voted her out after two years.

Mr Modi is a strongman, and people possibly love him for that.

A 2017 report by the CSDS showed that respondents who supported democracy in India had dropped from 70% to 63% between 2005 and 2017. A Pew report in 2017 found that 55% of respondents backed a “governing system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts”.

But the yearning for a strongman is not unique to India. Look at Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro or Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines.

5. India’s Grand Old Party faces an existential crisis

The Congress has suffered a second successive drubbing but for now is likely to remain the second largest party nationally.

But it’s way behind the BJP and is facing a major crisis: the shrinking of its geographical space.

In Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Bengal, India’s most populous region, the party is virtually non-existent. The party is invisible in southern states like Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. In the industrially developed west of India, the party last won a state election in Gujarat in 1990, and hasn’t been in power in Maharashtra since Mr Modi became PM.

Several questions are going to be asked after a second successive general election debacle. How can the party become more acceptable to more allies? How will the party be run? How does the party reduce its dependence on the Gandhi dynasty and open itself to younger leaders? (The Congress is still a party of second and third generation leaders in several states.) How does Congress build a grassroots network of workers to take on the BJP?

“The Congress will likely muddle along, as it has in the last several election cycles. It is not a party known for deep introspection. But there are enough two-party states in India where the Congress is at odds with the BJP to create a floor for the Congress,” says Milan Vaishnav.

Political scientist Yogendra Yadav, who’s also a politician these days, believes the Congress has outlived its utility and “must die”. But parties are capable of reinvention and renewal. Only the future will tell whether the Congress can rebuild itself from the ruins.

6. A mixed future for India’s regional parties

In the bellwether state of Uttar Pradesh, which sends more MPs to parliament than any other, the BJP is looking at a repeat of its stunning 2014 performance when it won 71 of 80 seats. It is one of India’s most socially divided and economically disadvantaged states.

This time, Mr Modi’s party was expected to face stiff competition from a formidable alliance of powerful regional parties, the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, which was aptly named the “mahagatbandhan” or grand alliance.

Mr Modi’s charisma and chemistry appear to have triumphed over the hard-nosed “social arithmetic” forged by these two regional parties who have always counted on the faithful votes of a section of lower caste Indians and untouchables (formerly known as Dalits). That faith is now broken, and it also proves that caste arithmetic is not immutable.

India’s regional parties must now rethink their strategies and offer a more compelling economic and social vision. Otherwise, more and more of their own voters will abandon them.

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-48293048

BBC News – India’s next government will have a growth problem

Soutik Biswas, India correspondent

New Delhi – India, 17 May 2019. As India lumbers towards the final phase of an exhausting general election and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP seeks a second term in power, there’s some worrying news. The world’s fastest growing major economy appears to be headed for a slowdown.

The signs are everywhere. Economic growth slowed to 6.6% in the three months to December, the slowest in six quarters. Sales of cars and SUVs have slumped to a seven-year-low. Tractors and two-wheelers sales are down. Net profits for 334 companies (excluding banks and financials) are down 18% year-on-year, according to the Financial Express newspaper.

That’s not all. In March, passenger growth in the world’s fastest growing aviation market expanded at the slowest pace in nearly six years. Demand for bank credit has spluttered.

Hindustan Unilever, India’s leading maker of fast moving consumer goods, has reported March quarter revenue growth of just 7%, its weakest in 18 months.

One newspaper wondered whether India was “losing the consumption plot”. Taken together, all this points to a fall in both urban and rural incomes, leading to demand contraction. A crop glut has seen farm incomes drop.

And credit stagnation, partly triggered by the collapse of a major non-banking financial institution, or a shadow bank, has led to a fall in lending and worsened matters.

Kaushik Basu, former chief economist of the World Bank and professor of economics at Cornell University, believes the slowdown is “much more serious” than he initially believed. “The evidence is now mounting to the point where it can no longer be ignored,” he told me.

One reason, he believes, is the controversial currency ban in 2016, also called demonetisation, which adversely hit farmers. More than 80% of the currency circulating in India’s sprawling cash-driven economy was taken out of circulation in what, in the words of one of Prime Minister Modi’s own advisers, was a “massive, draconian, monetary shock”.

“This was evident to all by early 2017. What many observers did not realise then, I did not, is that the shock made the farmers take on debts which ended up causing sustained hardship to them that is continuing and slowing down the agriculture sector.”

The other major disappointment, according to Professor Basu, has been exports. “Export growth has been close to zero for the last five years. For a low-wage economy like India, a little policy professionalism, a combination of monetary policy and micro incentives, is all that is needed to grow this sector.

It is regrettable that the rhetoric was not backed up with policy design.”

Others like economist Rathin Roy, a member of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, believe that India’s consumption story could actually be levelling out.

Dr Roy believes India’s rapid growth has been essentially powered by its top 100 million citizens. The leading indicators of economic prosperity, he says, are things that these Indians consume, cars, two-wheelers, air conditioners and so on. Having had their fill of home-made goods, they have now moved to imported luxuries, foreign holidays and Italian kitchens, for example.

A majority of Indians want nutritious food, affordable clothing and housing, health and education, which really should be the leading indicators of economic growth. “Subsidies and income support cannot pay for such consumption on a massive scale.

At least half the population should earn incomes that enable them to buy these at affordable prices so that a maximum of 500 million people can be subsidised to improve their welfare,” Dr Roy says.

Unless India is able to do this in the next decade or so, Dr Roy believes, it is headed for what economists call a “middle income trap”, when a country stops being able to achieve rapid growth easily and compete with advanced economies.

Economist Ardo Hannson defines it as a situation when countries “seem to get stuck in a trap where your costs are escalating and you lose competitiveness”.

One problem is that once you are stuck in a middle income trap, it is difficult to get out. A World Bank study found that out of the 101 middle-income countries in 1960, some 13 had become high-income by 2008 based on per capita income relative to the US.

Only three of the 13 countries have a population of more than 25 million. India is a lower-middle income economy and to get caught in a trap at this stage will be tragic.

Dr Roy says the classic middle income trap means that the rich are taxed to provide minimum services to the poor, who will kept from extreme poverty and vulnerability by using such taxes to subsidise their existence, including an universal basic income in perpetuity.

“We will be Brazil. On the other hand If India produces what all Indians want to consume efficiently, and at affordable prices, then inclusive growth will stave off the middle income trap. We will be Japan,” says Dr Roy.

The next government has its work cut out.

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-48268801

BBC News – India election 2019: How sugar influences the world’s biggest vote

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a recent election meeting in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, he was compelled to make a promise relating to sugar, a diet staple.

Soutik Biswas – India correspondent

New Delhi – India, 08 May 2019. Farmers who grow cane in the politically crucial state ruled by Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were angry because sugar mills had not paid their dues in time. They held protests and blocked railway tracks. “I know there are cane dues. I will make sure every penny of yours will be paid,” Mr Modi told the audience.

India’s sugar mills are bleeding money and collectively owe billions of dollars to 50 million cane farmers, many of whom haven’t been paid for nearly a year.

Niti Ayog, a government think tank, says the arrears have reached “alarming” levels. More than 12 million tonnes of unsold sugar have piled up in factories. There is little incentive to export more as India’s sugar price is higher than the international price.

Sugar is serious business in India. Around 525 mills produced more than 30 million tonnes of sugar in the last crushing season, which lasted from October to April. This makes it the world’s largest producer, unseating Brazil. A large number of mills are run by cooperatives where farmers own shares proportional to the land they own and pledge their produce to the mill.

That’s not all. Some 50 million farmers, tightly concentrated geographically, are engaged in cane farming. Millions more work in the mills and farms and are engaged in transportation of cane.

As with much of India’s politics, cane growers appear to be a reliable “vote bank”. Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, which together produce 60% of the country’s sugar, send 128 MPs to the parliament.

The price of cane can swing votes in more than 150 of the 545 seats in the ongoing general election, according to one estimate. Sugar is possibly the “most politicised crop in the world”, says Shekhar Gaikwad, the sugar commissioner of Maharashtra.

Indians are also voracious consumers of sugar. The bulk of the supply goes into making sweets, confectionary and fizzy drinks that are beginning to contribute to a rising obesity problem, like elsewhere in the world.

“The world’s sweet tooth continues to rely on cane sugar, much as it did four centuries ago,” says James Walvin, author of How Sugar Corrupted the World.

On the face of it, cane growers and owners of sugar mills should be happy.

The government sets cane and sugar prices, allocates production and export quotas, and hands out ample subsidies. State-run banks give crop loans to farmers and production loans to mills. When mills run out of cash, public funds are used to bail them out. “I earn around 7,000 rupees ($100; £76) from growing sugar every month.

It’s not a lot of money, but it’s an assured income,” says Sanjay Anna Kole, a fourth-generation, 10-acre cane farm owner in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district.

But protectionism may be yielding diminishing returns. Generous price support for the crop means the price at which mills buy cane has outstripped the price at which they sell sugar. Among large producers, Thailand, Brazil and Australia, India pays the highest cane price to farmers. It also spends more than Brazil, for example, in producing sugar.

The involvement of politicians may not be helping matters. Since the inception of the first mills in the 1950s, politicians have owned or gained control of them by winning mill co-operative elections. Almost half a dozen ministers in Maharashtra, India’s second-biggest cane growing state, own sugar mills.

A study on the links between politicians and sugar mills by Sandip Sukhtankar, associate professor of economics at University of Virginia, found that 101 of the 183 mills, for which data was available, in Maharashtra had chairmen who competed for state or national elections between 1993 and 2005.

He also found that cane prices paid by “politically controlled” mills fell during election years, and that this was not entirely due to loss of productivity.

These mills have also been blamed for holding on to arrears and releasing them before elections to win over voters; and political parties have been accused of using money from the mills to finance campaigns.

“One would think that perhaps political parties that don’t benefit from links to sugar might have incentives to reform the sector, but we have seen parties everywhere want a piece of the action,” says Dr Sukhtankar. “There are resources in the sugar industry to be extracted for political purposes.”

Whatever the case, India’s world-beating crop is mired in crisis. The farmers and the mills grumble that they aren’t getting a fair price for their crop and sugar respectively. “It looks like a sunset industry for me. There’s no future in cane until the government completely overhauls farm policies,” Suresh Mahadev Gatage, an organic cane-grower in Kolhapur, told me.

The unrest among the farmers is worrying. In January, several thousand angry cane farmers descended on Shekhar Gaikwad’s office in the city of Pune, demanding the mills pay their dues in time. The negotiations lasted 13 hours.

One of the farmers’ demands was to arrest a state minister, who was heading three mills in the state, and had defaulted on his cane dues. When negotiations ended way past midnight, authorities issued orders to seize sugar from the offending mills and sell it in retail.

In India’s lumbering bureaucracy, that took another eight hours because 500 copies of the orders had to be printed. “My office is pelted by stones every other day by irate farmers,” says Mr Gaikwad.

Meanwhile, what is completely forgotten is how much sugar has hurt India’s ecology. More than 60% of the water available for farming in India is consumed by rice and sugar, two crops that occupy 24% of the cultivable area. Experts say crop prices should begin to reflect the scarcity and economic value of water.

But before that, as Raju Shetti, MP and a prominent leader of sugarcane farmers, says, price controls should be eased and bulk corporate buyers like soft drink companies and pharmaceuticals should pay more for sugar.

“We need differential pricing for sugar. Cheap sugar should be only provided to people who can’t afford it. The rest should pay a higher price,” he told me.

“Otherwise, the industry will collapse, and farmers will die. Even politicians will not be able to save it.”

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-48173677

BBC News – India student leader ‘a symbol of protest’ against PM Modi

A district in one of India’s poorest states has made national headlines in the ongoing general election after a firebrand student leader decided to run for a seat there. Kanhaiya Kumar, who was charged with “sedition” for allegedly shouting anti-India slogans and spent a few weeks in jail in 2016, is a candidate from Begusarai constituency where voting was held on Monday. Neha Thirani Bagri reports.

Bihat – Bihar – India, 01 May 2019. It is early morning in the Bihari village of Bihat, when Kanhaiya Kumar emerges from his home. He is immediately swamped by young men rushing to shake his hand, asking to take selfies with him, wearing t-shirts emblazoned with his image.

Mr Kumar, who grew up here, shot to fame in 2016 when he was arrested and charged with sedition.

Then a student union leader at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, he was accused of chanting anti-India slogans at a campus event to commemorate the anniversary of the hanging of Mohammed Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri man convicted of plotting the 2001 attacks on the Indian parliament.

Kanhaiya Kumar: India’s most loved and loathed student

His arrest became the rallying cry for critics of the Hindu nationalist politics of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with student protests organised across the country.

Mr Kumar is still fighting the charge of sedition, a colonial-era statute that has been used to clamp down on dissent in India, which he calls “completely false propaganda”.

“Kanhaiya Kumar has become a symbol of protest against the politics which is represented by Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” said Sanjay Kumar, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

Mr Kumar has since completed his PhD. On Monday, he had his first foray into politics, when he ran for election in the constituency of Begusarai in the fourth phase of polling in the Indian election. Votes will only be counted in late May.

The constituency was once a communist stronghold known as the “Leningrad of Bihar”.

“This was not a choice, to enter politics. It was a forced responsibility,” Mr Kumar said during a full day of campaigning before his constituency went to the polls. Mr Kumar is from the Communist Party of India (CPI), the influence of which has been waning over the past few years.

“Our constitution talks about a secular country. If they are attempting to invoke a particular religion and change the character of the state, then, of course, we will oppose this.”

While Mr Modi swept to a historic victory in India’s last election in 2014 on the promise of better days ahead, many rural Indians have been disappointed with rising unemployment and an agrarian crisis.

Mr Modi and other BJP leaders have been criticised for spouting communally-charged rhetoric and remaining silent in the face of increasing religious violence.

Kanhaiya Kumar: ‘Sedition’ student returns to JNU with fiery speech

The main opposition Congress party has struggled to mount a strong challenge, though gained some momentum with victories in key state elections last year.

Bihar, India’s third most populous state, elects 40 members out of 545 to India’s lower house of parliament. In the 2014 general election, the BJP won 22 of the 40 seats.

On Monday, Mr Kumar went up against BJP’s Giriraj Singh, who once said that those who oppose Mr Modi should go to Pakistan. It was a three-way contest with the regional Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), which has fielded a Muslim candidate.

“Right now, people’s real issues have vanished from the conversation,” said Mr Kumar. He has become known for often emphasising education, jobs, public healthcare, and minority rights in his speeches. Mr Kumar has garnered the support of civil rights campaigners, activists, and celebrities from across India.

His outsized social media presence has also made him particularly popular with young people, many of whom are drawn towards Mr Kumar’s charismatic personality, fiery oratory, and local roots.

Connect with the young

Videos of his speeches, often critical of the BJP and right-wing politics, have garnered millions of views on YouTube and Facebook. “Kanhaiya’s thinking connects with us young people,” said Pankaj Kumar, 24, adding that he often shares the politician’s speeches with his friends on WhatsApp.

“If Kanhaiya wins at least we will have pride, it was because of him that Begusarai became famous in India and even the whole world.”

Mr Kumar’s speeches have also attracted a sizeable number of Muslim voters, many in the district were vocal supporters of him. “People with power in this country are only thinking about how to create religious division,” said Mohammed Shoaib Alam. “Kanhaiya will raise his voice for the issues of poor people,” he added.

While Mr Kumar’s popularity has drawn national attention to the contest for the parliamentary seat from this remote constituency, his victory is far from certain.

“All odds are against him,” said Neelanjan Sircar, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, adding that Mr Kumar did not benefit from having the backing of a large political party or coalition or the consolidated vote from one community.

“If he pulls this off, and he is massively popular on the ground, it would just be a testament to his individual political skill.”

Neha Thirani Bagri is an independent journalist

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-48090304

BBC News – ‘Strongman’ image may not win votes for Narendra Modi

Good intentions are ubiquitous in politics, wrote American economist Bryan Caplan. What is scarce, however, are “accurate beliefs”. Elections are always a good occasion to test such beliefs.

Soutik Biswas, India correspondent

New Delhi – India, 22 April 2019. Is India’s Narendra Modi really a strongman leader in the mould of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan and Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin? Will he succeed in making the mammoth 2019 election a presidential referendum on his performance?

Are people really unhappy that Mr Modi did not carry out the kind of radical economic reforms that many thought he would? Is he a clear favourite to secure a second term in power, thanks to the lack of a charismatic rival? Is good economics bad politics in the world’s largest democracy? Does rising nationalism threaten democracy?

In his engaging new book, Democracy On The Road, Ruchir Sharma grapples with these questions and more. The global investor, author and New York Times columnist has made 27 election trips to India since 1998 during which, he says, he must have “driven a distance nearly equal to a lap around Earth”.

He’s been to more than half of India’s 29 states and to the 10 most populous and politically important states more than once. I caught up with him on his recent trip to India.

Opinion polls in India have sometimes shown a public desire for a strong leader, unshackled from the compulsions of parliamentary democracy. However, Mr Sharma says, the electoral realities of India actually “rebel” against strongman leaders.

“In the end, Indians root for the underdog,” he told me. “The democratic impulse is strong. If the leader becomes arrogant, he is pulled down by the people. Most importantly, it is difficult for one leader to dominate for long in this extraordinarily diverse country.”

So diverse that a leading multinational firm divides 29 Indian states into a further 14 sub-regions because “consumer tastes, habits and languages are far more fragmented in India”. The real strength of Indian democracy, says Mr Sharma, lies in its diversity.

He believes in spite of Mr Modi projecting himself as a strongman, India is “really no country for strongmen”.

“The 2019 election is being cast as a contest between Modi and the rest, a referendum on India’s appetite for strongman rule and commitment to democracy. More likely, the election will shape up as a series of state contests. The result will depend on whether the opposition parties can work together to unseat the BJP.”

There is ample evidence to support Mr Sharma’s claim. Regional parties now hold more than 160 seats, nearly a third of the seats, in parliament, up from 35 in the early phase after Independence.

“This important new phenomenon has converted our general elections into a combination of state-level regional or sub-national elections,” says psephologist Prannoy Roy.

BJP’s historic win in 2014, many believe, was a “black swan”, a highly unlikely and unpredictable event. Mr Sharma says “BJP could win a third of the popular vote as it did during the Modi wave in 2014, yet lose its majority of seats in the parliament”.

One reason, according to Mr Sharma, is “incumbents don’t usually win, and challengers do”.

Winning parties in crowded state elections often need only a third of the vote to take a majority of seats. Prannoy Roy found that 70% of the governments in big and medium-sized states were thrown out by voters between 1977 and 2002.

The picture now, he believes, is more mixed: governments today have a “50:50” chance of being re-elected.

Indian political power is “hard won and fleeting”, candidates have to go through tests of community, family, inflation, welfare, development, corruption. Between 10-20% of the electorate are made up of some of the dominant communities. Most states are “hotbeds of anti-incumbency”.

Mr Sharma also doubts whether most Indians are really unhappy that Mr Modi did not turn out to be the reformer they may have hoped for.

“India’s political DNA,” he says, “is fundamentally socialist and statist”. “There is no real support for systematic free-market reform, either among voters or among the political elite, and no sign that what is generally considered good economics will ever become a consistent election-winning strategy.”

Reforms in India, usually, have been either by stealth or triggered by an economic crisis. Also, Mr Sharma believes that fears of rising nationalism and religious politics putting democracy in peril are unfounded.

They tend to “underestimate the check provided by sub national pride”. Returning to his favourite theme, he says India is too “heterogeneous to be dominated by populist nationalism”.

And, in the end, he believes the 2019 ballot will “offer a choice of two different political visions, one celebrating the reality of many Indias, the other aspiring to build one India”.

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-47959604

BBC News – The couples on the run for love in India

Divya Arya

Gujarat – India, 14 April 2019. Most Indian families still prefer marriages arranged within their religion and caste. Marriages outside these rigid boundaries have often led to violent consequences, including “honour” killings. But some young Indians are still willing to defy their families and communities for love, reports the BBC’s Divya Arya.

Ravindra Parmar knew that pursuing a relationship with an upper-caste woman would be dangerous.

He is a Dalit (formerly known as “untouchable”), a caste that sits at the lowest rung of India’s social ladder. The woman he fell in love with, Shilpaba Upendrasinh Vala, is a Rajput, a Hindu warrior caste near the apex of the system.

The yawning gap between his position and hers is something rarely bridged in Indian society.

“We are not even allowed to walk past their area and I had dared to marry into their family,” he says.

“Those who marry inter-caste are seen as aliens. The perception is that they are terrorists who revolt in society.”

Ravindra and Shilpaba were born and brought up in two villages separated by more than 100km (62 miles) in the western state of Gujarat.

They met on Facebook and would spend hours taking digs at each other.

But all that friendly banter had a deep impact on Shilpaba.

“I was like any other village girl limited to home and college, but he broadened my horizon, made me realise that my life has more meaning,” she says.

Social media has opened a space that did not exist a few decades ago. Rigid caste and religious divides meant that the possibility of meeting, interacting and striking friendships in public places was neither possible nor encouraged.

The caste system is hereditary, and the practice of marrying within the caste ensures that the hierarchy is perpetuated. Caste divisions have deep roots in history and Dalit men who have married women from upper castes have been killed.

Marriages across caste or religion in India are uncommon. According to the India Human Development Survey, only about 5% of Indian marriages are inter-caste.

The onus of upholding tradition, culture and “purity” falls on the woman and if she marries outside traditional boundaries, she is seen as besmirching the honour of the community and her family.

The anger and backlash can lead to violent attacks and killings.

Shilpaba had to flee from her village to marry Ravindra. But the threat of violence has continued to hang over them: they have moved between houses and cities a dozen times in the past three years. Ravindra is a trained engineer but had to leave his job and has had to do daily-wage labour wherever they have lived to make ends meet.

Shilpaba says the stress became unbearable. They started blaming each other for their situation and she even contemplated taking her own life.

“Ravindra convinced me out of it, as that was no solution,” she says. “Now we are both studying law with a vision to take up human rights cases and make our parents proud through our work.

“Maybe then they will see that we didn’t take this decision to just have fun and they will accept us.”

‘Shocking’ level of prejudice’

The latest data available from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) shows that 77 murder cases in 2016 were reported with “honour killing” as the motive.

Such violence is highly under-reported and these numbers do not accurately reflect social attitudes that may be growing more conservative.

A 2016 survey, Social Attitudes Research for India (Sari), conducted across Delhi, Mumbai, and the states of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan found the majority of respondents opposed to inter-caste and inter-religious marriages.

In fact they were in favour of a law banning such marriages.

“It is quite shocking that despite rising levels of literacy and education, prejudicial beliefs do not reduce. In fact, they are worryingly high,” says Professor Amit Thorat of Jawaharlal Nehru University, who worked on the Sari survey.

“Religious and traditional values around hierarchies, around the notion of purity and pollution seem to be more sacrosanct and valuable than human rights, the right to live or the right to marry by choice.”

Feeling unsafe

Bibi Ayisha and Aditya Verma were 17 years old when they fell in love. They too found each other on Facebook. That they were born into different religions, she is Muslim, he is Hindu, did not matter to them. But their families fiercely opposed the relationship.

Aditya was born and grew up in Delhi. After finishing school, he enrolled in a college in the southern Indian city of Bangalore only because Ayisha lived there. But that sign of his dedication couldn’t win her parents over: he was still a Hindu.

Madly in love, and after waiting for two years, Ayisha ran away with Aditya. They moved to Delhi but, like Ravindra and Shilpaba, they still did not feel safe.

“We were so scared that for five months we stayed in a room. Neither of us was working at that time. I thought if I stepped out, I would be killed, because I was Muslim and he was Hindu,” says Ayisha.

In February 2018, 23-year old Ankit Saxena was murdered in broad daylight in the capital Delhi for having a relationship with a Muslim woman.

The woman’s parents and two others were arrested and the trial is ongoing.

Ayisha says that after that incident, the fear of a possible honour killing started feeling very real.

“Even if we went out briefly, I was constantly looking around and if I saw anyone with a beard, I thought that they were members of my family coming to kill me.”

Spreading awareness

Her fears have been set against the backdrop of an India where religious polarisation is increasing. A Hindu nationalist government has been in power since 2014 and is accused of normalising anti-Muslim sentiment.

“I think the present environment is such that rather than bringing people and religions together, it is trying to fan the fires of division,” says Prof Thorat.

He is quick to point to the violent partition of India to underscore that such beliefs have existed for more than half a century, but believes that efforts to bridge divides are lacking.

Ayisha’s parents like Aditya but are not ready to accept him into their family unless he converts to Islam. Aditya’s parents are equally unwilling for the marriage unless Ayisha adopts Hinduism.

Both of them are opposed to adopting the other’s religion, and losing their own.

“When we fell in love, I knew she was a Muslim and she knew I was Hindu. We don’t want that any of us should lose our identity,” Aditya says.

India passed a law in 1872 that enables legal registration of a marriage between a man and woman of different religions or caste without any conversion.

Aditya found out about the Special Marriage Act through Asif Iqbal and Ranu Kulshreshtha, a couple who married inter-faith back in 2000.

Soon after their marriage, in the aftermath of the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002, they witnessed targeting of couples like themselves and a lack of any support mechanisms.

They set up an organisation called Dhanak, which spreads legal awareness and provides counselling as well as safe houses to couples who want to marry inter-faith or inter-caste.

But awareness about the Special Marriage Act is very low. It also has a rule that requires a notice about the intended marriage to be displayed at a public place for a month, giving opportunity to anyone to place an objection.

“This provision is often misused by fanatic Hindu groups like Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and Muslim organisations like Nizam-e-Mustafa, who would approach the families and pressure them to stop their daughters as daughters are easy targets,” explains Asif Iqbal.

According to him, the local police also do not encourage such marriages and instead play an active role in stopping them, especially in smaller towns.

Rekha Sharma, chairperson of the government’s advisory body, the National Commission for Women, agrees.

“The government needs to do more in sensitising the police and legal officers about this, as the law helps in stopping conversion yet still enabling inter-faith marriage,” she says.

But she adds that lasting change cannot come only by enforcing laws, but by changing social mindsets.

Acceptance is key for the survival of such couples as they deal with severe social and economic isolation.

‘Trust and love’

The Dhanak network has helped Ayisha feel safe. She has now met many couples like her and Aditya, and it gives her immense hope.

“If you trust your partner and love them very much, then nothing else should matter. You should not waste time worrying about family and society. They will come around eventually,” she says.

After their marriage, Ravindra and Shilpaba decided to change their surname to Bharatiya, which means Indian.

They decided to drop their original surname since it revealed their respective castes.

Ravindra is an idealist, he believes that more inter-caste marriages will lead to a future in India where caste divisions will cease to be an issue.

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-47823588

BBC News – Pakistan PM Khan : Kashmir issue ‘cannot keep boiling’

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has told the BBC that peace with India over the disputed territory of Kashmir would be “tremendous” for the wider region.

Mr Khan, a former cricketer who became leader eight months ago, said the nuclear-armed neighbours could only settle their differences with dialogue.

The comments come as India prepares to vote in a general election, weeks after an upsurge of violence in Kashmir.

A suicide attack against Indian forces triggered cross-border air strikes.

Asked what message he wanted to send to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his country, Mr Khan told the BBC’s John Simpson that the Kashmir issue “has to be settled” and “cannot keep boiling like it is”.

“The number-one tasks of the two governments is how are we going to reduce poverty and the way we reduce poverty is by settling our differences through dialogue and there is only one difference, which is Kashmir,” he said.

India’s prime minister has used anti-Pakistan rhetoric and stressed national-security themes during his re-election campaign.

Many see the election as a referendum on the polarising politics of his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Voting will open on Thursday and continue into May.

Irresponsible

Mr Khan also spoke about the dangers of confrontation between the two neighbours.

“Once you respond, no-one can predict where it can go from there,” he said.

If India had “come back and then again attacked Pakistan, Pakistan would have no choice but to respond,” he added.

“So in that situation, two nuclear-armed countries, I just felt it was very irresponsible.”

Also read :Hand of friendship’ on election eve

Analysis by the BBC’s world affairs editor John Simpson

Also read : Why is there tension over Kashmir?

The published article and the two items mentioned above can be found at:

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-47869921