Tag Archives: India

Marking World Toilet Day: Campaigning for the Right to Pee

November 19 marked World Toilet Day, a day designated by the United Nations to draw attention to the need to improve sanitation conditions around the world. According to the United Nations, a $1 investment in providing safe water and sanitation generates a $4.3 return in the form of reduced health care costs. The United Nations has set as a goal to halve the proportion of people without access to sanitation. Currently around 1 billion people (or 15% of the world’s population) lacks access to toilets, increasing the risk of people, particularly children, dying from diarrheal disease.

In India, campaigners have been carrying out the Right to Pee campaign, drawing attention to the unequal practice of charging women to use toilets in large cities while men can use urinals for free. Campaigners claim that this practice forces poor women to relieve themselves in fields and alleyways, increasing risk of rape and sexual assault. They have demanded the government provide free access to urinals for women in major cities.

What do you think? What could governments in both the global North and South do to improve access to sanitation around the world? Is there a right to sanitation? Should there be? Why?

The Changing Face of Indian Politics


Narendra Modi, India's Prime Minister elect.

Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister elect.

Nation-wide elections concluded last week in India, the world’s largest democracy. In total, more than 530 million votes were cast, and while the final votes are still being tabulated, it is clear that voters gave Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a majority in the country’s parliament.

The results representing a sharp defeat for the ruling Congress Party, which has been a central force in Indian politics since independence from Britain in 1947. The results also suggest that the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, which dominated Indian politics since 1947, may have reached its end.

The elections were remarkable for a number of reasons. First, last week’s elections boasted the highest turnout in Indian history. More than 130 million new voters cast their ballot this year, meaning that the number of new voters in India was about the same as the total number of voters in the 2008 US presidential elections.  Voter turnout in India was also quite high, with more than two-thirds of eligible voters casting ballots.

But the results were also fascinating. The election represents the first time in Indian history that a single party—other than the Congress Party—has captured an outright majority in the national parliament. This majority will make it much easier for the BJP to push through policies, as it will not need to rely on coalition partners for their support.

The election results were also interesting insofar as the head of the BJP and India’s newest Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, will be the first Indian Prime Minister born after the country achieved independence. For his supporters, this suggests that Modi will bring a new vision to India’s government. As a center-right Hindu nationalist party, the BJP has supported opening the Indian economy and pursuing a neoliberal program of economic development. This message resonated with many young voters, who view economic development as a key political objective and who had grown tired of the Congress Party’s inability to deliver on promises of jobs.

It’s important to remember, though, that while capturing an outright majority of the seats in parliament, the BJP received only about one-third of the popular vote. This is because India’s single-member district system—a system similar to the one used in Canada, Great Britain, and the United States—tends to exacerbate the margin of victory. As an editorial in the Washington Post points out, the BJP will capture a majority of the seats in the parliament despite winning just 31 percent of the popular vote.  Unlike a proportional representation system which allocates seats in the parliament based on the proportion of the vote received, a single-member district election sends one representative to parliament for each district, with no requirement that that candidate receive a majority of the vote. When multiple parties contest the seat, it makes it increasingly possible (indeed, increasingly likely) that the winging party will capture the seat with a plurality rather than a majority of the vote.

So with an outright majority in parliament, the BJP appears well positioned to enact its agenda. At the same time, the unique nature of this year’s elections—particularly dependent on the strong showing of various regional parties which helped to fracture the vote in individual states—raise the question of whether or not the BJP will be able to hold on to its gains in the next national election.

The Limits of Diplomatic Immunity

Devyani Khobragade, India's Deputy Consul General in New York.

Devyani Khobragade, India’s Deputy Consul General in New York.

US relations with India suffered a serious setback last week after federal US Marshalls arrested and strip searched India’s Deputy Consul General, Devyani Khobragade. Khobragade was detained on charges that she violated visa provisions and underpaid her Indian maid. But India’s government responded angrily at the charges and the treatment of Khobragade. They say that the Indian government was never notified of the issue, and that the United States was merely engaged in “muscle flexing.”

As an Indian diplomatic officer, Khobragade has consular but not diplomatic immunity. Consular immunity protects Khobragade from prosecution for actions undertaken as part of her official duties, but leaves her open to arrest on other charges. Diplomatic immunity, by contrast, would have prevented her detention or arrest on any charges.

Regardless, her detention left the US government on the defensive last week, as Secretary of State John Kerry was forced to issue an apology for the situation after US diplomats in India were forced to return their diplomatic ID cards and the Indian government removed barricades outside of US diplomatic compounds in India.

Addressing Gender-Based Violence in India

A photo from the campaign against gender-based violence in India.

A photo from the campaign against gender-based violence in India.

India has received much attention in recent months for sexual assaults against both Indian and foreign women. The seven month trial of four men accused of gang raping a woman on a bus in New Delhi in February is expected to close soon. If found guilty, the men face death by hanging. But national statistics suggest that fewer than one-quarter of alleged rapists were convicted, in part because of the stigmatization of the victims.

High profile cases like this one are beginning to change this perception. The February rape sparked national protests, prompting the Indian Parliament created fast-track courts to address rape and to impose harsher sentences for convicted rapists.

And now a new campaign is focusing attention on domestic violence, using images of the Hindu goddesses Lakshmi, Durga and Saraswati touched up to reveal black eyes, swollen lips, or lacerations indicative of domestic violence. Each image is accompanied with a short text reading, “Pray that we never see this day. Today, more than 68 per cent of women in India are victims of domestic violence. Tomorrow, it seems like no woman shall be spared. Not even the ones we pray to.” It’s a powerful campaign.

Tailgate Decal in Texas

Tailgate Decal in Texas

Meanwhile Huffington Post reported that a Texas business created a decal of a woman bound and tied curled up in a truck. When placed on a truck’s tailgate, the image creates an optical illusion making it appear the woman is lying in the back of the pickup truck bed. The shop producing the decal hopes that it will attract new business. But critics argue that the image contributes to a culture of violence against women.

What do you think? Will India’s campaign to reduce gender-based violence be successful? Is the violence against women in India indicative of a “culture of violence”? Does such a culture exist in the United States? And if so, what might be done to reduce or eliminate gender-based violence? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

India’s School Lunch Program Tragedy

An Indian girl eats lunch at school as part of the Mid-Day Meal Scheme.

An Indian girl eats lunch at school as part of the Mid-Day Meal Scheme.

Tragedy struck in India this week as 47 students fell ill and 22 died after consuming food tainted with a powerful insecticide. The tainted rice was consumed as part of a school lunch known as the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, consisting of rice, soybeans, and potatoes on Tuesday. India boasts the world’s largest public nutrition program, and the lunch was served as part of that program, intended to bolster school attendance and improve student performance in school. The program reaches some 120 million children in 1.2 million schools across the country.

The tragedy sparked protests on Wednesday. During the protests, at least four police vehicles were set alight. The government has promised a complete investigation into the incident and has offered to compensate the families of the children in the amount of 200,000 rupees (about $3,300).

Each of the deaths of the 22 children is a tragedy in its own right. Equally tragic, though, would be the loss of the school lunch program as a result of the poisoning. Recent improvements in the program have resulted in more timely delivery of higher quality food. Some are concerned that the tragedy may undermine support for and participation in the program. And the tragedy certainly speaks to the need to improve safety in school kitchens and the quality of the food served. But the program itself remains a powerful tool to in addressing the challenges of childhood malnutrition in India.

(This story was originally blogged at Global Food Politics and is reprinted here by permission).

The Politics of UN Security Council Reform

President Barack Obama chairs a meeting of the UN Security Council, September 24, 2009.

President Barack Obama chairs a meeting of the UN Security Council, September 24, 2009.

Blogging at Foreign Policy, David Bosco yesterday posted an interesting proposal for reform of the United Nations Security Council. As most readers probably already know, the UN Security Council is comprised of 15 members. The five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) each possess a veto over Security Council action. In addition, ten non-permanent members are elected by a two-thirds majority vote of the General Assembly to two year terms on a regional basis.

The structure of the Security Council was set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when the five permanent members made more sense. The structure makes little sense today, though. Several important countries (such as Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan) lack a permanent seat but want one. Meanwhile, the current permanent members of the Security Council are hesitant to embrace expansion, as any expansion would dilute their position.

And therein lies the challenge. Given the competing positions, there has been little agreement on how to move forward.  And any changes would require the approval of 2/3 of the Member States in the General Assembly and agreement by the five permanent members of the Security Council. Thus while a general consensus that the Security Council’s structure needs reforming is widely shared, the specifics of any individual country’s membership on the Council draws opposition. Italy and Spain oppose Germany’s claim, Mexico, Columbia, and Argentina oppose Brazil, Pakistan opposes India, South Korea opposes Japan. The African bloc also demands membership, though precisely which countries would represent Africa on the Council is not entirely clear. Given this level of disagreement, it has been relatively easy for the permanent members of the Council to avoid the difficult decisions associated with reform.

And this is what makes Bosco’s proposal so intriguing. He suggests that the General Assembly engage in a policy of collective disobedience, refusing to approve any new rotating members for the Security Council until the permanent members of the Security Council move forward with a real reform of the Council. It would also force the various camps in the General Assembly to set aside their competing positions and develop a coherent reform proposal. Bosco notes the collective action problem that would have to be overcome for this proposal to work. Nevertheless, it represents in interesting possibility in moving a twenty-year old debate forward.

What do you think? Should Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan be granted permanent membership on the United Nations Security Council? Can the United Nations overcome the structural challenges it faces and reform its structure to become more relevant in the 21st century? Or will competing positions and the structural power of the permanent members undermine proposals for reform? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

The BRICS Development Bank: The Future of South-South Cooperation?

Conclusion of the BRICS Summit in South Africa.

Conclusion of the BRICS Summit in South Africa.

The BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) announced their intention to fund a new development bank to challenge what they perceive as the Western-dominated agenda of the international financial institutions (IFIs). The move, which came about two weeks ago, has generated considerable discussion both of the charges leveled by the BRICS against the IFIs and about the role of the BRICS in global politics more generally.

The BRICS’s new development bank would be funded through an initial donation from each of the five countries, though considerable debate over what precisely the new bank will do. And therein lies the fundamental problem. The idea of South-South cooperation, that is, the exchange of resources, knowledge, and technology between developing countries, has been popular since the 1970s. Its proponents argued that South-South cooperation could reduce developing countries dependence on the developed world and could lead to a shift in the international balance of power away from the first world. But little real progress has been made.

And that precisely is the issue. As the al Jazeera article announcing the BRICS development bank noted, “Disputes remain over what the new bank will do, with all sides trying to mould the institution to their own foreign or domestic policy goals, and with each looking for assurances of an equitable return on their initial investment.”

Collectively, the BRICS countries represent approximately for one-quarter of global economic activity and are home to about 40 percent of the world’s population. And yet their interests are often at odds, reflecting the diversity of their political and economic experiences. Blogging at Project Syndicate, political economist Dani Rodrick argues that, “just about the only thing these countries have in common is that they are the only economies ranked among world’s 15 largest that are not members of the OECD.” Rodrick notes that in the structures of their economies (Russia and Brazil depend on commodity exports, India on Services, and China on manufacturing), their political systems (Brazil and China are democracies, China and Russia are not), and on their global position (China is rising while Russia is a superpower in decline), the BRICS have little in common.

Further, apart from the development bank proposal (which still lacks any real details), the BRICS have failed to articulate a coherent global policy in any real sense. Rodrick argues that the  BRICS have played “a rather unimaginative and timid role” in global politics, while  Joseph Nye notes that the diversity (indeed, the rivalry) between the BRICS countries undermine their potential to work together to develop a coherent challenge to the existing global political and economic infrastructure.

What do you think? Does the BRICS bank represent a challenge to the international financial institutions? Can Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa present a new impetus for South-South cooperation? Or do the stark differences between the countries undermine the potential for effective cooperation? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.