Saturday, January 14, 2012

Comrade Rehmati, a Maoist rebel, deep inside the jungles of Chhattisgarh in central India. Photo by Sami Siva

India's Failing Counterinsurgency Campaign

By Anuj Chopra

Tapping his fingernails on a tiny stainless steel lunch box, Comrade Vijay, a mustachioed rebel commander, made a startling assertion: There was enough bomb material inside to blow up a jeep. With 90 pounds of such explosives, he claimed, his comrades in the Indian Maoist rebel army had blown up land-mine-resistant armored vehicles the Indian government imported from South Africa. Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) are the "main strength" of the rebels, he told me, as he sat under a makeshift tarpaulin tent, rifle at his side.

In October 2009, on assignment for Abu Dhabi's National newspaper, I hiked more than 40 miles through the damp, malarial jungles of Bastar in central India, the deadliest theater of the country's decades-long Maoist insurgency, winding through mineral-rich hills and a spate of rebel-controlled villages to Comrade Vijay's hideout in a patch of forest clearing atop a hill. I had traveled all that way to ask the rebel commander whether there was any chance of a truce between his forces and the Indian government -- a possibility he and his men vehemently denied. As we spoke, Vijay's fellow comrades -- about 20 communist guerrillas, mostly teenaged boys and girls in olive green commando fatigues -- milled around the clearing, antiquated Enfield rifles slung on their shoulders, many of them snatched in raids on police stations.


The coal thieves of Jharia. Photo by Subhash Sharma

India digs in to clean up mining

By Anuj Chopra

JHARIA, INDIA - Every day at sundown, about a dozen villagers from this village in the Jharia region in eastern India crawl like moles into a dark, airless hole punched 4 metres into the earth.

Working by torchlight, they spend hours each night ripping coal out of hard stone with hammers and pick axes, braving dangers such as cave ins and poisonous gas. For the impoverished residents of Jharia, stealing coal - about 12 to 15 sacks a night - from such hostile pits to sell in the region's flourishing black market is a dangerous way of life. But it is lucrative business. Each of the sacks holds up to 15kg of coal that sells for between 6 rupees and 10 rupees a kilo.

Beneath their feet lies one of India's largest coal deposits. In Jharia, where underground coal mining officially began in 1894, there is US$12 billion of coal deposits, the government says. In the past decade, residents of Jairampur, who requested anonymity fearing their village could be raided by authorities, have dug several such holes to reach the coal. Such illegal mining is rampant in this coal belt.


Friday, January 13, 2012

How Pakistan fell in love with Bollywood

By Anuj Chopra

In February 2010, just before the release of the Bollywood film My Name is Khan, a message generated in Pakistan on the microblogging site Twitter was massively retweeted in Mumbai, India: "You might want to come to Karachi to catch MNIK's first day, first show!"

The release of My Name Is Khan, or MNIK, as it is popularly known, had to be scaled back in Mumbai, India's film capital, because of a political controversy. Just days before the premier, its lead actor, Shah Rukh Khan, had lamented the exclusion of Pakistani cricketers from the Indian Premier League cricket auction. This infuriated Shiv Sena, a Hindu ultranationalist group that advocates snapping all sporting and cultural ties with Pakistan. It launched a campaign against Khan, threatening to stall his film's release until he apologized and retracted his statement, which he refused to do. Placard-wielding protesters besieged his mansion in suburban Mumbai, burning his effigy and bellowing slogans like "Shah Rukh Khan, go away to Pakistan!" One of the protesters clutched in his hands a dummy airline ticket emblazoned with the words: "Mumbai to Pakistan." Mumbai stationed police officers at movie theaters and rounded up 2,000 people in advance of the opening as a cautionary measure.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the border in Karachi, My Name Is Khan opened Feb. 13 to packed houses and was received with roaring claps and whistles. According to Pakistani cinema owners, it was the highest-earning film ever to screen in Pakistan.

This film certainly resonates with Pakistani audiences because of its theme -- it tells the story of an autistic Muslim man's struggles against prejudices in the United States in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The big applause line in Pakistan comes at the beginning, when Khan proclaims, "My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist!" But the widely published tweet inviting Indians to watch the film in Karachi offered a somewhat twisted insight into a cultural paradox: two countries sharing so many cultural references, and yet watching them through such different lenses.


The site for the proposed 9,900 MW nuclear power plant in Jaitapur, India, guarded round the clock by a police outpost. Photo by Vikas Khot

Field of Fissures

By Anuj Chopra

JAITAPUR, INDIA - The fishing trawler's groaning engine is abruptly shut down a couple of nautical miles off the coast of Sakhri Nate, a seaside hamlet fringed with palm trees and mango groves. Sakshil Kotawadekar, 25, stands on the deck under the broiling sun, surrounded by a group of men untangling a spidery web of fishing nets and sorting their catch. "Look, that thing there," he says, pointing at a lighthouse perched atop a barren cliff along the jagged coastline. "It threatens to rob us of our lands, our livelihoods, our way of life. It will imperil our very existence."

Kotawadekar isn't describing a haunted lighthouse. Adjacent to it is the site for the proposed 9,900 MW nuclear power plant to be built by the French state-owned company Areva. In all, six 1,650 MWe (megawatt electrical) European Pressurised Reactors (EPR) will be installed by Areva in phases within the next 15 to 18 years, with the first two reactors expected to come into operation by 2018-19. At full capacity, this plant at Jaitapur in Maharashtra's Ratnagiri district will trump Japan's 8,200 MW Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant to become the world's largest nuclear power project.

Local fishermen like Kotawadekar, who owns two trawlers and whose family has been in the trade for generations, fear that the project could cause irreparable damage to the region's environment and marine ecology. The plant is expected to guzzle 52 billion litres of sea water every day--15 times Mumbai's daily water supply--and disgorge the same volume five degrees warmer back into the sea. Environmentalists say that would push away marine life along the coast into deeper waters, depleting the catch and forcing local fishermen to go further out into the sea. Ratnagiri boasts an annual catch of 1,25,000 tonnes of a variety of fish, including pomfret, surmai (kingfish), bangda (Indian mackerel) and rawas (Indian salmon), but with the project, those numbers could dwindle significantly. Environmentalists also fear that the radioactive waste generated in the nuclear plant could permeate the alluvial soil, stunting the local mango, cashew, rice and jackfruit plantations.


Imtyaz Ahmad Ganaie, whose house was destroyed in an army encounter against militants in Sopore, Indian Kashmir. Photo by Anuj Chopra

Old Wounds, Fresh Attacks in Kashmir

By Anuj Chopra

SOPORE, INDIAN KASHMIR - Delicately lifting the hem of his pheran, a loose-fitting Kashmiri gown, Imtyaz Ahmad Ganaie stumbles barefoot across heaps of scattered rubble and detritus.

“Only bricks and stones remain,” he says, looking ashen, as he pointed at his house, destroyed during a three-day gun battle in February 2010 between Indian troops and militants. “Mortar shells destroyed everything.”

For nearly 70 hours, military helicopters beat overhead amid loud explosions and gunfire as a cat-and-mouse game ensued between soldiers and militants hiding in Ganaie’s crowded village of Chinkipora in Sopore.

His family, like other residents caught in the crossfire, managed to flee to safety, but nearly two dozen houses were flattened or severely damaged in the hunt which also left four Indian soldiers dead.

The disputed region of Kashmir is a victim of history’s caprice. Claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan, it has been the focus of three wars between both nuclear-armed rivals since independence in 1947. Nearly 100,000 people have lost their lives since militancy first erupted in this Muslim-majority state two decades ago. But in this verdant landscape replete with flaming-red Chinar trees and apple orchards, militancy had ebbed to an all time low in recent years.

In the last decade, militancy related fatalities declined continuously since their peak of 4,507 killed in 2001. For the first time in two decades, killings in 2008 were well below the ‘high intensity’ mark of 1,000 per year for the third consecutive year.

However, this brash encounter with battle-inoculated militants is an ominous sign of a new, lethal wave of militancy returning to haunt Indian-administered Kashmir after a long lull.

Mumbai succumbs to a new underworld - the water mafia

By Anuj Chopra

MUMBAI - As night envelops Dharavi, Asia's largest slum, in the Indian city of Mumbai, two dozen dwellers sidle out of their shanties clutching steel ewers and plastic cans. They hurriedly clamber over a wrought iron railing fence, race across a tangle of railway tracks, braving speeding local trains, and crowd around a spigot in a desolate patch on the other side. Soon the place is burbling with a feverish scramble for water. Amid fist fights and verbal blows, they take turns to fill their containers from the gushing spigot. Then they run back to empty them with relatives waiting on the other side of the railing, and sprint back for a refill.

Sitting on a concrete platform a short distance away, chewing tobacco, is Ravi Anna, recognised as a local goon who controls the spigot. He offers slum dwellers without water connections a chance to collect drinking water between 7pm and 10pm every day - for a fee. To an outsider, the arrangement might sound entrepreneurial, except that this water is not his to sell. The spigot draws from a water tank belonging to the Indian Railways.


Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Sharia policewoman addresses women dressed in tight jeans during a street inspection in Banda Aceh. Photo by Anuj Chopra

On Patrol With Sharia Policewomen

By Anuj Chopra

BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA - The girls are outmanoeuvered.

Out of nowhere, a group of policewomen in olive-green uniforms, swoop in and flag down their motorcycle. "Where are you going?" one asks, inspecting their identity cards.

"To the university," the girls reply demurely. "Dressed like that?" she thunders. "That's not how a Muslim should dress. If you wear clothes like that, you will burn in hell!"

There is a deer-in-the-headlights moment. The girls, both teenagers, freeze in shamefaced silence. Both of them are wearing headscarves and dressed in nothing skimpy. But they still flout Aceh's dress code: both are wearing skin-tight, hip-hugging jeans, a big taboo in the eyes of Aceh's Sharia police. ...