Jobs, Jobs, Jobs: The Success of NREGA

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), a law passed in India in 2005 by the Congress Party that guarantees 100 days of paid labor to every adult member of rural households, has been the subject of enormous attention. It has been lauded for its initiative and criticized as another inefficient welfare program. Recent analysis, including a widely published AP article a few days ago, is shining a positive light on the legislation. It seems that NREGA, while expensive and imperfect, has been effective in reducing poverty across a wide swath of rural India, and has changed numerous lives for the better. As the program continues, civil society and government can do a great deal to improve its efficiency and impact.

The article that brought newfound attention on NREGA was an AP article published a few days ago entitled “One Indian Village Wins Freedom with Job Program” by Ravi Nessman. The article describes the wretched conditions in which the residents of the small town of Pipari, a small town 180 kilometers north of Lucknow, lived in before the job program:

For as long as anyone can remember, the people of Pipari have lived as virtual slaves.

The wealthy, upper-caste landlord forced them to work his fields for almost nothing, gave them loans at impossible interest rates, controlled their access to government welfare and held the police in his pocket.

They were dalits, the lowest caste, with houses made of cattle dung, clothing in tatters and barely enough food for a meal and a half a day. They were trapped below the bottom, serfs in an age-old system of exploitation that few in rural India dared question.

The “world’s largest social welfare program” helped them change their reality. The article describes how the residents demanded work under the new law in 2006, but local officials did not register them for work out of fear it would undermine their power. However, the local residents were emboldened by the law, and spent months fiercely protesting until they received their entitled work and pay.

The program has had a chain effect, allowing rural workers to use their earnings for savings instead of taking loans from the usurious landlord, and forcing the landlord to double wages to compete with the new workfare. They are able to send children to school and put food on the table, and the article ends on an inspiring note:

The men don’t pedal rickshaws in Kanpoor anymore, but stay home with their families and their fields. The women are earning money of their own for the first time. The villagers are even discussing taking on the next most powerful person in the area, the man who runs the government food shop, whom they accuse of stealing their subsidized sugar ration.

As for Shukla (the landlord), they still defer to him, but rebel in small ways. When he tells them to do work for him, they do what is convenient and ignore the rest, they said. And they have stopped touching his feet, giving him a little salute instead.

“He still acts like a king, but we don’t consider him a king anymore,” said Harpal Gautam, 37. “His rights and our rights are equal.”

The story paints a nice picture of NREGA, but is the story an anomaly or reflective of the program’s overall success? General consensus from various media and scholarly examinations seems to determine that the program has problems that need to be fixed, but, on the whole, has been surprisingly successful, especially considering the low expectations for most Indian government social welfare programs. Continue reading

Ted Kennedy: A Champion for Immigrants

Ted Kennedy passed away today, the third-longest serving member of the Senate in history, and a man who affected the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans. In a family of public servants, he perhaps did the most for our country of any of the Kennedy brothers, and he certainly made a profound impact in almost all of our lives, as immigrants and the descendants of immigrants. Most notably in civil rights and immigration, but also in practically every other walk of life, he has affected the lives of South Asian immigrants.


From the moment he entered the Senate in 1962, he was devoted to the causes of Civil Rights and Immigration Reform, in a large part motivated by his own family’s experience. His great-grandparents had been immigrants to the United States from Ireland, and his family had profoundly benefited from the opportunities that America offered while also bearing the brunt of discrimination against Irish Catholics. He recounted these experiences as he fiercely advocated for the Civil Rights Act of 1965, and most relevantly to us, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Kennedy described how his immigrant ancestry impacted him in an insightful 2006 NPR interview about his work on immigration policy:

(My grandfather told me about when..) no Irish need apply for jobs. They were constantly ostracized and discriminated against, primarily against employment and every other aspect of social-political and economic life. And then they gradually asserted themselves. My grandfather Fitzgerald was the first son of immigrants that was elected to the Congress of the United States, and also a mayor of a major city, which was a major breakthrough. But the sting of discrimination they felt was very powerful and stayed with them. And that became a very important element in the whole restructuring of our immigrant bill in 1965.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 “abolished the national-origin quotas that had been in place in the United States since the Immigration Act of 1924.” The quotas based on preferences for ethnicities from Western Europe were significantly loosened, opening the doors for immigrants from Africa and Asia to come to this country in far greater numbers.

In 1965, Kennedy was floor manager for an immigration bill that ended four decades of preferences for Northern Europeans at the expense of Asians and other groups and, some have argued, paved the way for Barack Obama’s presidential victory (Slate).

His legislative skill in passing this bill was extraordinary, given the fact that there was no powerful constituency lobbying for people, such as my parents, who were not yet in the country:

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Empowering the World’s Women

23cover-395.jpg This Sunday’s New York Times’ Magazine had a special and resonant theme: “Saving the World’s Women.” The magazine had a descriptive collection of articles well-worth reading. They covered subjects including the challenge of educating young girls in Afghanistan, an interview with Hillary Clinton covering the Obama Administration’s foreign policy in relation to women’s rights, a troubling trend of gender selection in developing countries, and a growing branch of philanthropy in which women support women’s causes. The cover article, “The Women’s Crusade,” is an excerpt from Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s upcoming book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” I’ll highlight a few of the most important problems and solutions illustrated in the issue here, but the whole magazine is well worth reading, and much of it focuses on South Asia and issues relevant to South Asia. The cover article speaks urgently about the world’s “missing women”:

Amartya Sen, the ebullient Nobel Prize-winning economist, developed a gauge of gender inequality that is striking…“More than 100 million women are missing,” Sen wrote in 1990…Sen noted that in normal circumstances, women live longer than men, and so there are more females than males in much of the world. Yet in places where girls have a deeply unequal status, they vanish. China has 107 males for every 100 females in its overall population (and an even greater disproportion among newborns), and India has 108. The implication of the sex ratios, Sen later found, is that about 107 million females are missing from the globe today.

Tragically, another article, “the daughter deficit,” points out that as development progresses in China and India, sexual selection actually becomes even worse. As women become better educated, they have less children, and the implied urgency of having a boy ironically increases than if they had many children:

In Punjab, then India’s richest state, which had a high rate of female literacy and a high average age of marriage…the prejudice for sons flourished. Along with Haryana, Punjab had the country’s highest percentage of so-called missing girls — those aborted, killed as newborns or dead in their first few years from neglect. Here was a puzzle: Development seemed to have not only failed to help many Indian girls but to have made things worse.

There are many more striking facts about the oppression of women globally: 1% of the world’s landowners are women, a woman in India has a 1-in-70 chance of dying in childbirth, girls in India 1-5 years of age are 50% more likely to die than boys their age, 1 million children work in Asia’s sex trade, “bride burnings” take place in India every two hours, and much more harrowing information that is important to read. But for all the bad news, there is also a lot of inspiring news in the magazine. It illustrates that simple steps taken to help educate and empower the world’s women can have a dramatic effect on the problems of poverty and extremism. (The good news after the jump….) Continue reading

Raja making his move in Illinois

In the murky, corrupt and disillusioning world of Illinois politics, the comptroller’s office is, surprisingly, a rare bright spot in the dark sea of state government. Though there is a now notorious former comptroller of the state, the current one, Dan Hynes, is almost universally regarded as a competent and good public servant, and now an Indian with an impressive record is running for the position in the 2010 election (as long as Hynes does not run for reelection). 225px-Raja_Krishnamoorthi.jpg Raja Krishnamoorthi is a young politician with a sizable resume:

As Deputy Treasurer, Raja was responsible for overseeing programs in the Illinois Treasurer’s Office involving the custody and administration of billions of dollars in state funds. Raja managed those programs without a hint of scandal or favoritism. Prior to his appointment as Deputy Treasurer, Raja served on the board of the Illinois Housing Development Authority (IHDA), becoming chair of its Audit Committee. During his service, IHDA helped provide thousands of low- and moderate-income families across Illinois with affordable housing. Later, Raja was appointed as a Special Assistant Attorney General to help start the public corruption unit in the Illinois Attorney General’s Office.

Not only that, but Raja, 36 years old, grew up in local Peoria, was valedictorian at Richwoods High School, went to Princeton and Harvard Law School, and has a wife and two young sons. He is representative of the “post-doctor” Indian generation, having spent a few years in management consulting and a few years in private law practice. He’s a “longtime friend” of President Obama’s who has worked on all of his campaigns, which should help him out quite a bit here in Illinois. As people are still not sure of Hynes’ intentions and it is still a while before the 2010 election, there has not been a great deal of press coverage yet, but the Chicago Sun-Times had this nice profile of Raja a few months ago: Continue reading

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Sea of Poppies: A Review

Sea-of-Poppies-BOOKS__.jpg Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies is a remarkable novel, complex and challenging enough to test even the most experienced reader and historian, but relatable and powerful enough to touch someone who solely appreciates a great story. Dickensian in its scope and power, the story follows riveting characters from all origins as they navigate the complex contours of 1830’s opium-ridden India, a land where the weight of history lies heavily, yet identities are transformed overnight.

Warning: Some plot details are included! If you are going to read the book (which you should), read the rest of the review afterwards Continue reading

India’s Environmental Challenges

Friday was World Environment Day, and here in India many different newspapers covered different facets of the environmental challenges facing India. An excellent new paper, Mint (published in part by the Wall Street Journal) had an informative report on the current environmental challenges facing the country. The report outlined five major environmental issues facing the country; certainly not the only ones, but a good place to start learning about the work that needs to be done to create a sustainable foundation for growth here:

  1. Water availability in India is “rapidly” running dry and is an issue that needs to be confronted soon before it faces a severe water crisis. Only 67% of rural Indians have access to water in their homes (as opposed to 95% in 2005). Solutions can start with rainwater harvesting for large buildings and fixing distribution losses.

  2. Invasive species “are the second biggest threat to biodiversity after deforestation.” India loses a great deal of valuable plants and animals because of invasive species, but at the same time, many of the introduced crops, such as soya and wheat, are financially viable and important. Solutions could include microreserves for native plants

  3. The loss of natural habitats creates situations in which lions, leopards, and monkeys, amongst other animals, create major problems for humans in their daily interactions. As animals ruin property and take lives, humans are tempted to start killing important parts of the environment. The main solution here is not ruining the animals’ native environments, or creating reserves.

  4. India’s energy grid is direly overtaxed, resulting in major power shortages for much of the country. Building efficiency measures, such as those suggested by the Obama Administration in America (reconfiguring buildings to make them more sustainable and making sure future construction is more environmentally friendly, including natural cooling techniques and solar panels.

  5. Mining causes significant soil erosion and deforestation, in addition to forced relocation of tribal peoples. Mining needs to be regulated more strictly by states to prevent widespread illegal mining and environmental ruin.

The crux of all of these reports on World Environment Day is that India’s rapid growth is driving equally rapid environmental destruction. An argument often put forth in developing countries is that it is unfair to ask people to make environmental sacrifices during a period of growth and industrialization when Western countries did not have to make the same choices. Yet, as we get a glimpse of above, India, as a dense country of 1 billion people, faces unique challenges that need unique responses. Action to solve these problems now, even at the expense of slightly slower growth in the future, will allow development to be sustainable and last longer. The new elections have ushered in a lot of optimism for India’s economic future; hopefully the government will recognize the need for smart and sustainable development policies. Wherever you are in the world, there are many things you can do to help make the world a cleaner and greener place.

P.S.: Sorry for the lack of links, the wireless at my grandmother’s in Bombay is just a little slower than the one in Chicago =) Continue reading

Your Vote: The Future of South Asian American Politics

As the election nears, it is crucial to understand just how important this election will be for our community. Just a few years ago, the concept of major South Asian campaign groups, let along major South Asian candidates, was unthinkable. South Asians were a small group that didn’t get out to the polls in sizable numbers and those who did were usually spoken to solely on the issues of immigration and U.S.-India relations. This election, however, has dramatically changed the nature of the South Asian community’s involvement in politics. India Post recently had a great piece where they highlighted a few young South Asians who have been making their voice heard this election season, and it gives a good overview of how our community has mobilized this year.

The article profiles South Asians from a variety of backgrounds, all motivated to become active during this election season for different reasons. Bhavini Dhoshi, 25, is “currently working as a legal intern for a not-for-profit immigration services organization,” and especially cares about reproductive rights, the environment, and healthcare, amongst other issues. Shashi Dholandas, a 24-year old young law student, counts “the current state of the economy and the US standing in the international arena” as his major concerns. Niki Shah, an organizer with South Asians for Obama, says “My generation is overburdened with the cost of education. We want a decent education but the attached cost may outweigh the long-term benefits.”

The profiles are interesting and definitely worth a read, and are notable because of the breadth of interests and activities of the surveyed group. The article does mention U.S.-India relations, and these are surely important issues for members of our community, be they immigrants who once called a South Asian nation their home, or the children of those immigrants. Yet for every single young South Asian, these issues were secondary to topics such as healthcare, the environment, the war, or the economy.

At the DNC, Hrishi Karthikeyan, the founder of South Asians for Obama, noted that one of the reasons he started SAFO was because he wanted politicians and campaigns to realize that there were many South Asians for whom every issue was important, just as they would be for any American. For far too long, politicians had felt as though they only needed to talk to South Asians about issues such as immigration and U.S.-India relations, and they would have their vote. The massive activation in this campaign is changing this perception as more South Asians get involved and voice their concerns on every issue of importance. In this campaign, Indian-Americans have played a major role in issues concerning foreign policy, domestic policy, and finance, amongst other issues. Over the past year, one Indian-American has shined as the governor of a very Southern state while another is in a tight congressional race in Minnesota.

South Asians have worked hard in this election to rise from a small niche group to an important part of the electorate. Groups such as SAFO, Asian Americans for Obama, and non-partisan groups including SAALT have put forth their best efforts to transform the South Asian vote into a prominent piece of the American electoral map. It will all be for naught, however, if we don’t vote en masse this Tuesday. So tomorrow, your vote is not only about the direction of this country, but our community’s place in the American political spectrum. The choice between non-voting and voting is the choice between leaving our community a niche group that will always be on the periphery of the political scene or helping us emerge as a crucial bloc that can make our voices heard for many elections to come. Continue reading

Desis swinging Virginia (again)

At the DNC, it was clear that Asian-Americans were taking a far larger role in this election than in previous ones. There were more candidates running for office, targeted voter outreach programs, and entire unit of Obama’s campaign solely devoted to the AAPI vote. Taz recently wrote about the recent Asian-American Survey results released, and these results have been receiving wide coverage in a variety of contexts, often in articles highlighting Asian-American political involvement around the country, so I thought I would quickly highlight one which shows just how profound an effect a group of organized South Asians is having on this election.

The Washington Post highlighted Asian-American involvement in the tight presidential race in Virginia, specifically noting that of Indian-Americans who first were involved in the Webb election of 2006.

Perhaps the most-organized Asian voters in Virginia are the Indian Americans, a highly educated and entrepreneurial group. They tend to vote Democratic, although they have applauded the Bush administration’s warm relations and recent nuclear technology agreement with India. Some of their leaders are active in Democratic Party politics, raising substantial funds for local and state candidates. Many initially supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and have now switched their allegiance to Obama.
Anish Chopra, a longtime Democratic activist who is the state’s secretary of technology, said the community has evolved politically in recent years and felt empowered by Webb’s victory. He said about 80 percent of Asian Americans who voted in that race, or about 50,000 people, supported Webb, far more than Webb’s 7,200-vote margin over Allen.

At the IALI fundraiser I had attended on day 1 of the DNC, Governor Tim Kaine had specifically mentioned the various Indian-American members of his cabinet, and how they were some of the most talented and capable members of his governing group. The article goes on to mention how young members of the community are playing the most prominent part in the current ethnic mobilization:

Community leaders said many first-generation Asian Americans, who came here as refugees or economic immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s and are now reaching retirement age, have tended to be business-oriented, insular and focused on issues in their homelands. Second-generation professionals and their college-age children tend to be more liberal, engaged in domestic issues and eager to join forces with people from other backgrounds.

Virginia is a crucial swing state, and as was echoed at the DNC, Asian-Americans now have the numbers and clout to swing states across the nation. Ashwin Madia’s race to Congress is looking stronger everyday, although he can still use your help, and in the end, it will be our participation and voting in the next few months which will determine whether South Asian mobilization will be a lasting trend or a disappointing case of chasing after shadows. I know that our younger generation is fired up and ready to go; at our campus here, almost many South Asian students know of and are excited about the Madia Campaign, let alone the enthusiasm over the presidential race. Now every South Asian immigrant in this country has to show they are up to the task and go (and tell all your friends, relatives, community-members, etc.,) to VOTE!

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DNC Day 4: The Promise

Give this to the Democrats – even if message control is sometimes a challenge, they sure know how to make a convention eventful. The day at Invesco Field was already like no other event I had ever attended before Obama spoke – standing in line from 10 A.M., I saw enthusiasm and excitement about democracy from such an enormous group of people (80,000), and the most special part about the night was that these 80,000 really were a diverse cross-section of the United States. Unlike just about every other event of the week, one did not need to be wealthy and/or powerful to get in and see the speech. And it was reflected well in the speeches immediately preceding Barack Obama’s, by working-class Americans who have fallen on hard times in the last eight years. Other notable early speeches included that of Al Gore (decent, but he spoke very quickly), Bill Richardson (great reception from the crowd), and a performance from Will.I.Am (awesome).

The main event, and the speech everyone was waiting for, however, was Obama’s, and for good reason. With the “open convention” and the anniversary of Dr. King’s speech, the event was billed as a historic and landmark event. Obama could have given a purely soaring and intellectual speech similar to his discussions of race and national politics in previous instances, but he wisely realized that different times call for different approaches. Many voters are questioning where the “meat” behind his economic plans is, and thus, today he told voters “exactly what change would mean if I am president.” He then delved into specifics of reforming the tax code, eliminating capital gains for small businesses, tax cuts for the poor and middle class, tax hikes for the top 5%, and eliminating dependence on foreign oil. His hope, which seemed to be achieved, was that any voter watching would have a fairly clear understanding of how he would approach economic issues by the end of the speech.


He also delved into specifics on energy policy, foreign policy, and made sure to highlight the McCain-Bush connections for all they were worth. He came out tough and hardened, challenging that “If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament, and judgment, to serve as the next Commander-in-Chief, that’s a debate I’m ready to have.” Many have worried about Obama being a soft president, or relenting on his principles – after a week of Illinois delegation meetings, followed by this speech, I’m definitely convinced that a spine of steel is pretty much a necessary trait for anyone to succeed in Illinois politics.

Obama touched on a theme that is also one of Ashwin Madia’s favored lines of speaking, and that he had not discussed in a while. Madia is at his best when he speaks about “redefining patriotism,” and how patriotism is not merely “bumping your hands on your chest and waving a flag.” Madia is one of what I think of as the “Obama generation” of politicians who is inspired by a candidate who has the guts to say, “I’ve got news for you John McCain: We all put our country first.”

But when it came time to finish the speech, Obama returned to what he does best, and that was to inspire and motivate the listeners to work together for a better purpose. He discussed America’s promise, a subject that holds a special appeal to anyone who has immigrated, or whose parents have immigrated, to this country.

This country of ours has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military on Earth, but that’s not what makes us strong. Our universities and our culture are the envy of the world, but that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores.
Instead, it is that American spirit – that American promise – that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; that makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that better place around the bend.
That promise is our greatest inheritance. It’s a promise I make to my daughters when I tuck them in at night, and a promise that you make to yours – a promise that has led immigrants to cross oceans and pioneers to travel west; a promise that led workers to picket lines, and women to reach for the ballot.

When Obama spoke to the crowd about America’s promise, he was certainly speaking to people such as my parents, who, young in India, saw and knew that only in America was there “that better place around the bend,” and who knew that their kids could do things in this country that they could do nowhere else. He was talking about the American Dream that has allowed our community to come here, flourish, and create a unique home. And he knows that this “American promise,” which has been the foundation for our flourishing and strong community, is eroding and must be restored and rebuilt.

Whether you agree with him or not, one of the most unique elements of Obama’s candidacy is that he knows our story, that of the American Dream, in a way few candidates for higher office ever have. As his biographical video played, he accepted the nomination, and then invoked King’s speech and dream at the conclusion, many of the young and old in the crowd who had never thought a man with his name, appearance, and background could be in this position had tears in their eyes. Continue reading

DNC Day 3: Nader Rally

Well, the laws of probability had to eventually come to fruition, and for one night of the convention, I decided to have an “alternate night.” I headed to the Ralph Nader “Open the Debates” rally at U of D, which was quite the spectacle. It was at times entertaining, frustrating, bizarre, and exciting. It cost 12 dollars to enter, which was somewhere between a few thousand dollars and a few hundred thousand less than it takes to get in the DNC. I was on the prowl for South Asians, though it seemed that by the time I had arrived most people had already settled in their seats (Nader rallies are not for those with short attention spans, and they are more like performances as opposed to the ‘meeting’ feeling of a convention).naderden.jpg

I was able to catch a glimpse of Ralph at the start of the convention, which was a good thing seeing as though some uncontrollable circumstances prevented me from seeing his final speech. Unlike the DNC or RNC, time management was not in high demand at the rally. I did, however, see Cindy Sheehan, the MC, and the former lead singer of the Dead Kennedys give speeches generally trashing both parties for their many “similarities.” On a slightly more substantive note, Bob Barr and Cynthia McKinney sent taped videos offering their critiques of the establishment and their arguments for opening the Presidential Debates to 3rd party candidates, which was the stated purpose of the rally.

I met one South Asian vendor, Nick Bygon, who was selling black Ralph Nader “rebel” t-shirts in the mold of Obama’s white “hope” t-shirts. Bygon, a student at community college, told me he supports Nader because he believes in a cause “greater than himself,” and that there’s little difference between the two major parties. He cited the example of Afghanistan, saying that Obama’s pledge to increase troop levels showed that he really was no different than McCain when it came to “warmongering.” When asked about the accusation that Nader stole voters from Obama, he replied that Nader supporters would never have voted for Obama or McCain. (He might be interested in this article). He said he first supported Nader in 2000 and has been a major fan ever since.

Cindy Sheehan spoke about the war, Jello Biafra spoke about torture, and Sean Penn gave a highly convoluted and confused speech about terrorism. There were some really weird musicians and some generally bizarre protesters. The impression and general feeling of the audience was: don’t tell Ralph not to run! The two major parties are the exact same! Anyone who truly believes the two parties are the same, has obviously not looked at recent Supreme Court appointees, the candidates’ plans for Iraq, their tax plans, and their healthcare plans. And while I was on the prowl for South Asians, and maybe I was just looking in the wrong sections of the crowd, I have a theory about why there might not be a large amount of South Asian Nader supporters. The extremely diverse group of people attending Nader rallies gushes at the prospect of socialism, single-payer healthcare, high taxes, and increased government. They are shining idealists, fighting for a socialist ideal they have never experienced in the very free and capitalist state of the United States. Many South Asian immigrants, on the other hand, have experienced the full brunt of government socialism, spending, and ambitious programs (see India up to ’91) in their countries of origin, and are thus wary of unbridled government expansion. They have found that good old balanced and centrist economic pragmatism works, whether here or there, and hey – this guy says his whole theory of economics is “pragmatism.” Continue reading