Friday, December 28, 2012

Happy 2013!

Next week I’ll experience my third New Year’s Day here in Hyderabad.  It’s amazing how quickly time passes.  I’ve become such a confirmed Hyderabadi that I can even contemplate the possibility of staying up with friends celebrating New Year’s Eve and making it until breakfast is served at 4 am.  (I’m not sure that I’ll actually achieve it, but at least I can contemplate it!)

Happy New Year!                             

As we prepare to usher in 2013, it seems as though the world is drowning in bad news.  Horrific crimes in the U.S. and in India create a pervasive sense of insecurity and highlight the fact that man is capable of unspeakable evil as well as of good.  Discussion of the U.S. economy is focused on the threats of debt and rising inequality, while in India growth has moderated and power woes have intensified.  Turmoil continues to afflict many parts of the world, with the Central African Republic presenting the latest crisis.  There are plenty of reasons to engage in negative thinking.

In this context, the resolution I am making for the New Year is to think and act positively.  By that, I don’t mean ignoring the negative, but refusing to let it immobilize me.  As an individual, it is hard to feel powerful in the face of bad news, but by acting positively, one fosters hope and offers encouragement.  And concerted positive action makes change possible.  Indians and Americans both share this experience; the civil rights movement in the U.S. and the independence movement in India were two of the greatest examples of peaceful citizen activism of the 20th century. 

What is true about momentous social events is also true on a personal level.  If things go wrong in the office, I remind myself that I love my job, and the minor obstacles that arise don’t get me down.  I’m not perfect, and there are times I let negative emotions affect me, causing me to behave in ways I’m not proud of and affecting both my own happiness and the enjoyment of others.  For example, it happens sometimes when I make a couple of really bad shots on the golf course.  If I get mad at myself and think negatively, I start playing worse, I become much worse company for my playing partners, and I stop enjoying myself.  If instead I take the bad shots in my stride, I generally recover my usual standard of play and I enjoy the game. 

It’s a long way to go from my golf game to the mobilization of citizens to fight violence against women, but in both cases, despair is not helpful.  Envisioning a more positive future provides the energy to make it happen.  And you never know how big a difference your individual decision might make.  A recent editorial column by Nicholas Kristof described how a casual thought of Ted Turner’s transformed millions of lives.  Read it and it’ll make you smile—a great way to start 2013. 

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 14, 2012

One Village’s Solution to Domestic Violence

 The U.S. Consulate General, Hyderabad participated in a number of events observing “16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence,” a global campaign dedicated to the awareness and the elimination of gender-based violence. One such event was a trip to Toopran, a village 50 kilometers outside Hyderabad, where Consul General Katherine Dhanani and I attended a meeting of the state government’s Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP). SERP sponsors a number of social programs including a program that utilizes groups of mostly female villagers, known as Social Action Committees (SAC), in conjunction with community-managed Family Counseling Centers to help detect, arbitrate, and resolve domestic issues in local communities. The program is designed to resolve domestic disputes before they are brought into the judicial system, a process which can take many years to reach resolution. The program is mostly rural and utilizes nearly 15,000 members in 1,440 SACs throughout the state to counsel fellow villagers and raise awareness of such social issues as domestic violence, child marriage, girl child education, substance abuse, and dowry harassment.

India, like many countries including the United States, suffers from societal ills such as domestic violence and issues related to substance abuse. India also has a number of issues that we generally don’t see in the United States, including child marriage and dowry harassment. Although both men and women are affected by these issues, women are most often the victims. Furthermore, many women do not have the support systems, education, or resources they need to help them resolve these issues and are often afraid to turn to local police or government authorities. Women seeking assistance and justice can now turn to a group of peers in whom they can find trust and empathy.

A SAC will open a case for the victim and then proceed to take action. To me, the process seems very similar to what we in the United States would consider an intervention. After receiving the complaint, a SAC will attempt to counsel the offending party and convince them to attend a session at one of the Family Counseling Centers along with the aggrieved party. The counselors are a kind of hybrid between a therapist and a legal arbitrator who seek not only to resolve the current dispute but to alter the behavior or mentality that led to the issue in the first place. Community sentiment and involvement are still very strong in rural India today and social pressure can be a powerful force. SACs seek to harness this force to affect change through social obligation as well as legal obligation.

During the meeting, we heard stories of how members of SACs successfully addressed domestic issues in rural areas. During their interaction with the consul general, a few domestic violence victims narrated the problems that the SACs helped them overcome, such as securing a withheld inheritance and overcoming physical abuse. SAC members described the challenges they faced in achieving success with arbitration and counseling. Impressed by the grit and determination shown by the victims as well as the members of the SACs, Consul General Dhanani said that she was truly inspired by the accounts she heard. “You have given me excitement and encouragement,” she remarked. CG Dhanani noted that although men may have greater physical strength, woman have the mental fortitude to overcome any challenge in life.

Travis Coberly is the Political-Economic Officer at the U.S. Consulate General, Hyderabad.

Friday, November 23, 2012

A Taste of Thanksgiving Abroad

As an American living in Hyderabad, I’m always excited to celebrate Thanksgiving. In fact, despite having lived in several countries over the past ten or so years as a member of the U.S. Foreign Service, Thanksgiving is an American holiday that I have always celebrated with enthusiasm.

                                    Public Affairs Officer, Carla Benini, sharing her apple pie recipe

As many Indians may already know, the roots of Thanksgiving were planted in the earliest days of America’s existence.  Brave and hopeful new settlers seeking opportunities in the “new world” were greeted with a harsh New England winter soon after they landed. Only half of the original Mayflower settlers survived but those who did found themselves in an unlikely allegiance with local Native Americans, who taught the settlers about local farming techniques to ensure a good harvest. Sure enough, there was cause for celebration at the end of the planting season and the local British governor helped organize a feast in which Pilgrims (settlers) and Native Americans gave thanks and celebrated their bounty at the dinner table.

On November 22, while Americans may  not be thinking specifically about the Pilgrims or how cold that first winter in 1620 was, we do believe Thanksgiving is an opportunity to consider all for which we are thankful.  Some Americans choose to commemorate the day by volunteering at a homeless shelter or food bank as a means of giving back and helping out those who are less fortunate. Others use it as a time to gather with family and reconnect with old friends.

Thanksgiving is synonymous with serving a belt-breaking amount of food. Turkeys are the main attraction, and are served with such dishes such as cranberry relish, stuffing and sweet potatoes. But no two stuffing recipes are exactly alike—most Americans cherish their family recipes that have been handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter over the generations. I recreated my mother’s apple pie last year and will do my best to come even remotely close on her pumpkin pie this year. With grandparents born in Europe, I am accustomed to an ethnic twist at our Thanksgiving dinner table. Pasta in some form was always served while my mother made sure she baked her Christmas, stolen, a little early, so we could all enjoy her Dutch treat.

One of the reasons why I cherish Thanksgiving when living abroad is the challenge of recreating a typical American Thanksgiving with locally procured food. In Brazil, I made a cranberry relish out of the locally grown jaboticaba. Last year I made my own sausage for a stuffing from pork I found in Secunderabad. This year we spiced up our turkey Indian-style by using local spices.

Carla Benini is the Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Consulate General, Hyderabad.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Local Basketball Clinic is a Slam Dunk

As a graduate of Kansas University, where basketball is not just a passion but where it was practically invented, I was proud to inaugurate a two-day basketball clinic last Saturday for young Hyderabadi boys and girls.  It may seem strange to think of the American consulate hosting a basketball clinic, but actually, we see sports diplomacy as an important area of exchange between the United States and other countries.  Participating in sports helps transcend cultural differences and brings people together.  At the same time, it also teaches leadership, teamwork, and encourages respect for rules and for one another.

From February 17 to 27, SportsUnited conducted a sports visitor exchange with India in which ten female and male coaches from all over India visited the United States for a ten-day basketball program.  Amruth Raj and Amitha Jaiswal were our basketball emissaries from Hyderabad. During this program, participants met with sports professionals, athletes from American schools, and engaged in several activities on teambuilding and safety.  The group also went to Orlando, Florida for intensive training in coaching and participation in the NBA Coaches Clinics.

Before opening our clinic in Hyderabad, I had a chance to speak with Amruth and Amitha about the highlights of their U.S. experience.  Both were impressed that American parents enthusiastically support their children’s participation in sports.  Having just spent the summer with my sister and brother-in-law, both of whom attend numerous softball and soccer games to encourage and inspire my nieces, I wholeheartedly agree with their observation.  They also said watching an all-star game in Florida was a dream come true.

Amruth and Amitha both knew that their experience didn’t end when they returned to Hyderabad, and they were eager to share their newfound coaching skills with young basketball players in Hyderabad.  On a recent Saturday morning, the young boys and girls participating in the clinic were grinning from ear to ear.  They appeared galvanized by the support offered to them by the U.S. Consulate.  I was also gratified to meet with their parents, many of whom were excited and thankful for this unique opportunity.

Gurdit Singh is the new Assistant Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Consulate General, Hyderabad

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Role of a Modern Political Convention

As I write this blog, the Republicans had just wrapped up their national convention in Tampa, Florida, and Tuesday, September 4 began the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Both these major party conventions will be elaborate exercises attracting a very high level of media interest throughout the United States.  We all know that the 2012 presidential candidates of the Democratic and Republican parties are Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.  So it might be reasonable to ask, what is the point of a party convention?

In the abstract, the primary purpose of the convention remains the official selection of the party’s candidate for the presidency.  In the early decades of the history of the United States, congressional delegations met and determined who their parties’ candidates would be.  Dissension led to an expansion of the system to a broader group of party leaders in the 1830s, who met in what was called a convention to make the choice.  It was still a matter of party insiders deciding who to put forward, however, and the process only became more democratic after the controversial 1968 Democratic convention, when anti-war activists demonstrated to protest their lack of voice in the process.  As a result, both the Republican and Democratic parties today hold primary elections in individual states, and those elections determine who the delegates will be who will participate in the conventions.  Since none of this has any official constitutional basis, each party and each state sets its own rules for how the primary will be held, who can participate, and whether the states’ delegates will each support the candidates they stood for in the primaries or whether they will vote as a bloc in favor of the candidate with the most support.  In recent years, the results of primaries have led less successful candidates to withdraw, so the nominee has been known long before the convention, which simply officially endorses the nomination.

The convention also votes on the vice presidential candidate and on the policy platform on which its candidate must run.  Today both of these are also determined in advance and simply endorsed at the convention.  So what was once a significant substantive role for conventions is now largely symbolic.

The convention continues to be important as the launching of the candidate’s official campaign.  It provides an exceptional opportunity for public outreach, and each party carefully selects its roster of speakers and apportions them time slots designed to rally the faithful and attract undecided and independent voters to the campaign.  While both major party candidates have been campaigning against each other in public appearances and through media advertisements for months, it is only after the convention that they hold formal debates.

Of course the Republican and Democratic parties are not the only ones holding conventions, and numerous other parties will endorse their own candidates.  The challenge for third party candidates is to assemble a campaign organization that can meet the requirements to get the candidate’s name on the presidential ballot in all 50 states, since each state has its own rules and requirements for filing fees and signatures.  In 2000, the Green Party and its allies managed to get the name of its candidate, Ralph Nader, on 42 state ballots. 

So while it may seem from here that the U.S. presidential campaign has been underway for a long time, the real campaign is beginning now, and will continue until election day, which is always the first Tuesday in November: this year, November 6.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

My First Indian Iftar

After I graduated university, I moved to Indonesia where I was lucky enough attend a number of iftar dinners. Although I wasn’t fasting during Ramzan, I loved how every meal was a celebration to be enjoyed with family, friends, and even strangers. I also appreciated learning that for Muslims Ramzan is a time spent becoming a better person by overcoming your desires, and it is a period spent reaching out to your neighbors and those less fortunate than you. Although most Americans think of Ramzan and Islam when we think of fasting, the idea of fasting isn’t unique to Islam. I’ve heard from Hindu colleagues that fasting during a specific time of a month or during a festival is common. Growing up, I saw some of my Catholic family members give up certain food items for the duration of Lent. So although Ramzan is an Islamic holiday, much of the world has similar traditions.

Iftars are not just celebrated in Islamic countries, but worldwide. As I mentioned, I attended many iftars in Indonesia, but I was also invited to a few in Washington, DC. Just last week President Obama hosted a dinner at the White House for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In his speech he mentioned that the very first iftar dinner at the White House was organized by America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, and took place over 200 years ago! Even a country as young as America has a long history of iftar dinners.
I arrived in Hyderabad a few weeks ago – just in time for this year’s Ramzan.  The consulate sponsored an iftar dinner at MESCO Grade School in the Old City.  When we first arrived at the school we split up and I distributed an American quiz – a worksheet with ten questions about the U.S.  Many of the students had never talked to Americans before, but they knew a lot about the U.S. I was impressed by their enthusiasm and their curiosity. I answered a lot of questions about my background and American culture, food, and geography, and I learned more about how Indian schools and classes are organized. It was a learning experience for all of us.

My husband is originally from Tunisia and he is Muslim-American, so he gave a presentation about his experiences as a Muslim in America. Not only did he show slideshows of all the beautiful mosques in the States as well as present information about the great things Muslim-Americans are doing, he was also able to talk about some of his personal experiences. I hope that some of the younger students understood that America isn’t composed of one type of people, but many races, religions, cultures, and languages.

Afterwards we all went upstairs to break the fast with fruit and dates and I got the opportunity to talk to some of the students at the school. Most of the kids had been fasting all day, and I was impressed that they had all been so enthusiastic during our interactions before dinner. After breaking the fast the students went to pray, and when they came back we all had a dinner of haleem, biryani, and khubani ka meetha for dessert.  Although the students were young, a lot of them expressed interest in travelling to the U.S. for travel or to study. I hope that if they do, they will feel as welcome in the U.S. as I did during our iftar dinner.  After Eid-al-fitr next week it will be another eleven months before the next Ramzan, but I hope that the same spirit of community and generosity continues throughout the year.

Courtney Kline is a Vice Consul at the U.S. Consulate General, Hyderabad

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Defining Diversity

I’ve had wonderful opportunities to serve at a variety of Embassies and Consulates during my career, but one thing I’ve sacrificed is time at home in the U.S.  I haven’t lived in my own country since 1998.  I visit regularly, and in fact the State Department requires that diplomats spend at least a month on holiday in the U.S. between assignments, but because I’m not there on a day-to-day basis, changes in public attitudes and public mood that occur gradually may be more evident to me than they would be if I lived at home.  Some changes are likely temporary—like the current polarization of our political space, or the sense of insecurity and pessimism caused by the current economic slowdown.  But others are clearly fundamental, long-term trends, such as the incredible growth of visibility and influence of Indian Americans, or the reduced tolerance for cigarette smoking. 
Looking back through U.S. history, one clear, long-term trend is our increasing acceptance of diversity, and with it the extension of equal rights and protections.  Our founding fathers in the U.S. Declaration of Independence said “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Americans are proud of this philosophical legacy, but we also recognize that we did not, in fact, provide all men with equal rights for most of our history.  The Constitution of the U.S. acknowledged slavery by apportioning representatives to the states through a formula that added to the number of “free Persons” another number representing three-fifths of “all other Persons.”  It was only in 1866 that the sixteenth amendment to the Constitution provided equal protections to African American men, and only in 1920 that the nineteenth amendment extended constitutional protection to women.  It took almost a century after the sixteenth amendment for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to outlaw discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion or sex.  When John F. Kennedy ran for office in 1960, the election of a Catholic was considered revolutionary, just as President Obama’s election was a watershed moment for racial equality. 

This trend of broadening U.S. legal protections and social acceptance continues to this day.  Since the Civil Rights Act was signed, we have enacted legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability, age, and, most recently, genetic information.  An area of focus today involves gay rights.  The U.S. has not yet enacted legislation specifically prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but President Clinton signed an executive order in 1998 banning discrimination in federal employment, and many states have broader protections, including recognition of same-sex marriage.  The Consulate recently sponsored a Rainbow Film Festival to celebrate LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) pride month.  The four films screened included documentaries and docudramas; all were based on true stories, highlighting the history of the gay rights movement in the U.S.  One of the things that they made clear was that America’s acceptance of homosexuality is relatively recent and remains incomplete.  In 1969, when the raid that is featured in the film “Stonewall Uprising” occurred, homosexual conduct was illegal in most of the U.S.  Today, a majority of Americans favor permitting same sex marriage.  Demonstrating how far we have come, on the occasion of Human Rights Day last year, President Obama and Secretary Clinton announced that promoting acceptance of gay rights around the world would be a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy.

A 2007 global attitude survey ( asked people: “Should homosexuality be accepted by society?”  80 percent or more of citizens in most European countries said yes, and 49 percent of Americans said homosexuality should be socially accepted.  South Asia, the Middle East and Africa had the lowest acceptance levels, with India at only 10 percent.  In this context, it’s not surprising that some groups here in Hyderabad opposed the showing of films about the gay rights struggle in the U.S.  Fortunately, we were able to go forward despite efforts to force a cancellation.  The Consulate is respectful of those who hold different views, and will seek to avoid confrontations.  But we will continue to treat LGBT issues as a human rights issue and engage actively to build respect for the rights of LGBT persons, and to show solidarity for those suffering from stigma and discrimination. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Planting a School Garden

Growing up in northeastern United States, I had a garden at home, and I would often help my mother grow plants and vegetables.  When I left home to attend university in Vermont, the students maintained an organic garden that grew fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers.  It was one of my favorite places on campus to visit and was where my husband proposed marriage, so it continues to bring me fond memories. 
Gardens don’t only hold personal significance for me. They also provide important benefits to individual health and the environment.  Many Americans have chosen to grow their own produce as a healthy alternative to supermarket varieties or to reduce fossil fuel consumption and emissions required to transport produce across great distances. Responsible consumers plant home and community gardens in an effort to “eat locally” to reduce carbon emissions and have a smaller impact on the environment.
The U.S. Consulate General, Hyderabad decided to team up with i Go Green Foundation to plant a school garden.  We wanted to help students begin the path towards healthy lifestyles and learn about the benefits of gardens to the environment. Planting a school or community garden restores oxygen to the air, helps replenish groundwater supplies and reduces air pollution.

Planting a garden also creates a positive learning space and opportunity to build responsibility in young children.  By planting a school garden we created an outdoor classroom where students can gain firsthand knowledge about basic plant biology and the ecosystem.  They also learn the value of responsibility, as they work to care for living things and learn about the many environmental and health benefits of plants and trees.  Most importantly, planting a school garden empowers students by showing them they can have a positive impact on their community and the environment.

The students of Sri Vidyanjali School in Kukatpally were excited to have their own school garden.  Together we planted seeds that will grow into palak, tomatoes, bitter gourd, brinjal, chili peppers and more.  Of course, I could only be there for one day; it will be up to the students to maintain their garden.  I told them I’d be come back to check on their progress.  The students promised to make me lunch with fresh vegetables from the garden.  I can’t wait, as long as they don’t use too much chili!

Elizabeth Jones is the Assistant Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Consulate General, Hyderabad.  

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Thoughts about Undergraduate Education

I’ve written about students and opportunities for undergraduate study in the U.S. before, but the subject has been on my mind again lately, in part because this is “back to school” season here in Hyderabad and also because it’s peak student visa season at the Consulate.  In the next  six months, we hope to establish an office of the U.S.-India Educational Foundation (USIEF) at the Consulate which will focus its efforts on helping students in Andhra Pradesh to find appropriate educational programs in the U.S.   I’m hopeful that USIEF’s efforts will mean that at this time next year, we’ll have even more demand for visas for students to pursue undergraduate education in the U.S.—and much higher rates of visa approval for these students, who will have well-considered educational plans.

The other day I read an article about the grueling schedules secondary school students endure in India as they prepare to compete for the critical exams that will determine their university placement.  The journalist reported that it’s not uncommon for students to study 12 or more hours a day, six days a week, and often sacrifice other interests, including sports, social interaction and cultural activities, because they just don’t have time. 

It struck me how different that stress is from the pressures facing American high school students who want admission to the top universities in the U.S.   They enhance their prospects by putting more time onto extracurricular activities, like sports, fine arts, and volunteering in the community.

For Indian students, results in examinations that test knowledge seem to be the dominant factor in university admissions.  For American students, the picture is more complicated.  Colleges and universities make an initial, quantitative assessment of candidates by looking at a combination of grades in high school and results in examinations that test literacy and analytical skills.  On that basis, they narrow their pools of applicants, but final decisions only come after they look at a variety of other factors, including references, essays, interviews, and records of extracurricular activities.  Of course, students who completely neglect studying will have poor grades in high school, and some studying may be useful to prepare for the SAT exam.  But a bright, motivated student can excel on both without putting in anything like the number of hours that Indian students spend absorbing the vast body of knowledge that they will be tested on. 

When I was in high school in the U.S. in the 1970s, sports was by far the most important extracurricular activity that could help a high school student gain admission to a competitive university, but today the focus is wider.  Participation in fine or performing arts is a plus, as is a record of leadership.  At selective schools, there is increasing preference for students who have demonstrated a sense of social responsibility by participating in volunteer activities.  And references, essays and interviews have real weight in the process.  American universities are looking for future leaders, innovators, and communicators, not just those who will excel in academics, and they use all these indicators to help identify the most promising applicants.

The big difference between the criteria students in India are familiar with and the way the American system works may be intimidating for Indian students thinking about pursuing undergraduate education in the U.S.  The other big barrier is the high cost of U.S. universities.  As a result, many students look for help and advice on where to apply.  The U.S. government has a student advising service called Education USA.  Education USA throughout India works through the U.S.-India Educational Foundation, which is jointly sponsored by the U.S. and Indian governments, and provides free advice and resources for prospective students.  Their website is:  They also have a toll-free student advising telephone number 1-800-103-1231.  We’ve found, however, that many students don’t know about the services of USIEF and Education USA, and instead they turn to many other educational consultants.  Some of these consultants may be knowledgeable and effective, but many of them have a conflict of interest because they accept funds from universities when they steer students in their direction.  Some also provide poor advice, and encourage students to misrepresent their circumstances during visa interviews.  I’m pleased that we will be opening an office of USIEF at the Consulate in the coming months.  USIEF will help students find the schools that best meets their objectives and will be able to help students understand the process of applying for financial aid.

I hope that Indian students will also become more aware in the future about some of the special opportunities that exist in the U.S., for example, for female student athletes.  The U.S. may be unique in the value that universities place on participation in sports.  Critics accuse some of the biggest universities in the U.S. of exploiting athletes by enrolling those who excel in high-profile sports like basketball and football as students despite the fact that their grades and test scores suggest they have little potential to meet normal academic standards.  For those who use college as a springboard to become professional athletes, the system works; for unqualified students and those who can’t take advantage of educational opportunities and who don’t make it to the next level, the accusation of exploitation is difficult to refute.  But there are others who benefit from this.  U.S. legislation requires that colleges provide young women as many athletic scholarships as they provide to young men.  As a result, universities maintain women’s teams and provide financial support to girls who combine academic and athletic achievements.  When I was in Zimbabwe, I was pleased to see that a number of Zimbabwean girls received scholarships to study in the U.S. while playing field hockey.  These young women have a chance to participate in sports, but they also get a quality education, and I hope more Indian girls will also take advantage of this scholarship opportunity.  

Friday, April 20, 2012

Don't be a litterbug!

Earth Day raises awareness about a whole range of issues, from climate change at the global level to littering at the local level.  Littering might seem a lot more trivial than climate change, but I think addressing both is partly a matter of changing the daily habits of millions of people.  I’ve been thinking a little about the environment at various levels, and how the issues are similar and how they’re different.

I’ve mentioned before in this blog that, as much as I love living in India, one of the things I find hard to tolerate is the presence of trash all over the place. Twice in recent weeks friends of mine have lamented about garbage in their neighborhoods.  In both cases, my friends told me government trash pickup is not regular so residents dump on vacant land.  In each case, an independent contractor had been identified to pick up the trash for a modest fee.  But the residents of these wealthy neighborhoods were not interested in paying for the service. 

Figuring out how to address garbage in the streets depends in part on why it happens.  When I studied economics, we talked about something called a “free rider” problem.  The free rider problem explains why people might continue littering even if they really would prefer to live in a clean city—and would be willing to pay the cost to have a clean environment.  (The cost of keeping the street clean would be money in the case of a trash collection fee or just the effort to dispose of garbage properly in the case of general littering.)  The problem is, if I pay but others don’t, I’ve paid for nothing, since the environment will still be dirty.  If 90% of us bear the cost but the other 10% don’t, we’ll have a relatively clean environment—and those 10% who continue littering will be getting a free ride.  As more and more people look to get a free ride, the environment gets dirtier and dirtier.  Why should I pay if I don’t think others will? 

In economics, the free rider problem is one of the justifications for government action.  In the example of neighborhood trash pickup, assuming we value a clean environment, if we had a neighborhood association that had the authority to collect mandatory fees, we could all vote to be billed by the association to pay the contractor.  We’d all be happy to pay since there would be no free riders.  In the case of littering more broadly, if we all valued clean streets, we might vote for politicians who campaigned on a pledge to crack down on littering. 

This example, though, shows why government action isn’t the only answer, and may not be effective all by its self.  What if people don’t value a clean environment?  Then they won’t vote for politicians who say they’ll raise rates to pay for trash pickup or pledge a crackdown on littering, and nothing will be done.  It’s also harder to solve the problem the broader it is.  It’s fairly easy to see government action as a solution if people value cleanliness and trash in the streets is mostly a matter of households dumping their garbage.  An effective trash collection service funded by the government based on rates collected by households could work and satisfy everyone.  But if casual littering is a big part of the problem, stricter government laws on littering would be much harder to enforce.   (Imagine the manpower and paperwork it would take if everyone who littered in Hyderabad today was ticketed and fined!) 

What are some alternatives or accompaniments to government action?  A starting point is public education that increases the value people place on hygiene and a clean environment.  For example, a public outreach campaign could explain that widespread garbage encourages rodent infestation and mosquito breeding, both of which increase disease prevalence and childhood mortality.  That might make people care.  Sometimes public education can contribute to other forms of “coercion” that substitute for government action.   In the U.S. littering has declined dramatically during my lifetime largely because of public outreach campaigns. In most places in the U.S. today, laws against littering are pretty much irrelevant, since the social pressure to dispose of trash properly is so strong.  Campaigns focused on children, who were urged: “Don’t be a litterbug!”  Today, a schoolchild who dropped his food wrapper on the playground would be severely criticized by his peers, a penalty much more effective than a teacher’s rebuke.  Social pressure has also made the wearing of fur pretty much socially unacceptable in the U.S. because of concern about abuses in some fur trapping practices—even though the trapping of wild animals only affected a few types of fur, and there is no similar social taboo associated with leather.

The issues associated with global climate change are much more complicated.  For starters, there is no global authority that can assure compliance by all in any scheme.  But one thing that is the same is that a solution will impose costs on everyone, and that will only be sustainable if there is popular consensus about the value of a reduction in greenhouse gases.  Achieving that is complicated by the fact that the benefits of action will accrue largely to future generations.  But the importance of public education is the same for climate change as it is for littering.  The potential for leveraging social pressures is evident in the proliferation of marketing campaigns for “green” products.  In the U.S., we are still fairly far from a real popular consensus on policies to combat climate change.  But I think grassroots trends and increasing popular interest suggest that we can make up ground quickly and reach a point soon when we’re willing to change old habits. 

I’m also hopeful that Hyderabad will soon embrace a new commitment to cleaner streets.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Voting Across Borders

Click here for video message by CG Dhanani

Indian and American citizens share certain democratic rights, and we also share the fundamental democratic responsibility to vote.  With U.S. elections coming up this year, I’ve been giving some thought to voting.  By that, I don’t mean thinking about whether or not I’ll vote (I will), but more general issues like voting participation rates and absentee voting.  

In the U.S., absentee voting has long been an accepted practice, largely through postal votes, although some states are experimenting with policies to encourage voting by creating more options that don’t require a voter to show up at a given place on a given day.  I know absentee voting isn’t accepted everywhere.  In my last country of assignment, Zimbabwe, the issue was a very heated one.  Many Zimbabweans left the country because of political repression, so naturally the opposition strongly favored allowing Zimbabweans in the diaspora to vote.  The ruling party adamantly opposed it.  In some countries, however, efforts to facilitate voting for citizens living overseas are much more direct than those of the U.S.  In my second last country of assignment, Gabon, I witnessed French citizens lining up in their embassy to cast ballots in French elections.  I can just imagine the logistical challenge we would face if thousands of Americans resident in Andhra Pradesh came to the Consulate in Hyderabad on November 6 to exercise their constitutional rights!

I was interested to see that India’s voter participation rates are quite similar to rates in U.S. presidential elections—and we’re both at the bottom end of a list of major democracies on voting rates, according to Wikipedia: Voter turnout - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  The same article shows a surprising difference between the U.S. and India in the breakdown of voting rates according to socio-economic status.  In the U.S., voting rates rise as the level of education rises, while in India, those with college educations vote less than those without, and those who have studied at a post-graduate level have the lowest rates of all.  I’m not sure data from just one election really says very much—but it’s interesting in any case.

In the U.S., we have national elections every two years, but only hold presidential elections every four years.  (All seats in the House of Representatives and a third of Senate seats are up for election every two years.) Rates of voter participation are sharply higher in presidential election years, rising from roughly 37 percent of the voting age population to over 57 percent.  Rates of voter participation have been increasing in the U.S. since 1996, and the 2008 election reportedly had the highest eligible voter participation rate since 1960. 

It will be interesting to see whether that trend to higher voting rates continues in 2012.  I hope so.  Reported U.S. public dissatisfaction with government, which I discussed in a blog post last year, should motivate citizens to do their part to make government respond to their needs.  If we don’t fulfill our civic responsibility, we have only ourselves to blame if those elected don’t reflect our views. 

As government employees, my colleagues and I are subject to strict restrictions on partisan political activities, but we are fully authorized and personally energized to encourage our fellow citizens to participate in our political process.  We had an in-house session on absentee voting for Americans working at the Consulate the other day, and I was pleased to see how interested my colleagues were in the subject.  For Americans interested in absentee voting from India, there’s information on our consulate website, but all you really need to know is at another site: Federal Voting Assistance ProgramOne important point to note for American citizens: the Consulate is able to transmit your ballot through the U.S. mail for you.  (Even though voting is voluntary and filing tax returns is mandatory for Americans, we can only do this for voting, not for tax filing.)

Friday, March 9, 2012

Celebrating Women’s Empowerment

March is Women’s History Month, and March 8 is International Women’s Day.  With women representing half of the human race, it may seem odd that a particular month is designated to honor them, and perhaps the day will come when gender is such an unimportant feature in our lives that we feel no need to mark it.  But that day is not today.  Throughout the world, women face special challenges simply because they are women, and it’s appropriate that we set aside a month to, in the word’s of President Obama’s proclamation declaring the month, “reaffirm our steadfast commitment to the rights, security, and dignity of women in America and around the world.”

I was honored to be invited as chief guest to two celebrations of International Women’s Day in Hyderabad.  The first was with women members of the National Federation of Indian Railwaymen and the South Central Railway Employees’ Sangh (SCRES).  The SCRES ceremony followed a day of programming designed to enhance health awareness of women and to empower women in the fight against sexual harassment and domestic violence.  I was especially pleased to be able to participate in this program because I have such respect and admiration for India’s working women.  I’ve worked all my life, since I first was paid to babysit when I was 12 years old, and my mother and grandmother were both working women.  I know how lucky I am to have a job that gives me great fulfillment as I earn my living.  I am also fortunate in having a supportive husband and the means to employ others to keep my household functioning.  I know some Indian women have the same advantages I do, but the great majority of India’s working women perform difficult toil and bear the additional responsibility outside the workplace to cook and clean for their families and nurture their children.  It was wonderful sharing a celebration with these heroines at the Rail Nilayam on March 6.

I was equally impressed by the women who attended the “Stars of Safa” International Women’s Day celebration on March 7.  This celebration was a great representation of the theme of the 2012 Women’s History Month: “Women’s Education – Women’s Empowerment.”  Safa works with women in a disadvantaged, inner-city community to reduce dependency and poverty by providing skills training and organizing income generation through selling women-made products.  Profits from the sales support scholarships for the children of the community, and on March 7 Safa launched a new scholarship fund that will help girls continue their education to a higher levelSafa is focused on income generation, but it also encourages women to liberate themselves from the isolation of their homes and gain the confidence to speak up for themselves.  A number of these women demonstrated the courage to step up on the dais and speak into the microphone on March 7, and the example they are setting for their sons and daughters is even more important than the scholarships Safa offers in ensuring that the women of tomorrow enjoy freedom and respect.

In general, I don’t think I have the right to make judgments about different cultural practices and norms.  But I don’t apologize for making a judgment about the crimes that are committed against women every day on the streets of Hyderabad and throughout India.  I am horrified by the prevalence of sexual harassment in public spaces in India.  Calling groping and verbal abuse “eve-teasing” diminishes the offensiveness of what amounts to physical assault.  In addition to the crimes against individuals, fear of harassment restricts all women’s freedom of movement.  I find it shocking that so many men engage in this activity and that others stand by and let it occur.  On the occasion of Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, we have much to celebrate, but much more remains to be done.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Art and Awareness Come to Puri Beach

Elizabeth Jones is the Assistant Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Consulate General, Hyderabad. She has been living in Hyderabad for one year and loves it when she is sent to the beach for work.

Working all weekend isn’t so bad if you get to hang out on the beach!  The U.S. Consulate General Hyderabad conducted its first cultural program in Odisha by organizing an exhibit by a 3D sidewalk artist on Puri Beach.  American artist Tracy Lee Stum visited India on a five-city tour hosted by the U.S. Embassy and consulates.  As a member of the Public Affairs team at Consulate, I got to help her plan her visit to Odisha.  Tracy chose to collaborate with famous Odisha sand sculptor Sudarsan Puttnaik. The two agreed on marine conversation as a theme, given they both hail from coastal cities – Sudarsan from Puri and Tracy from California — and are passionate about environmental conservation. 
Sudarsan and Tracy had never met before this trip, but they found that they have much in common.  Both of them believe in creating art in public for the public.  While most art is created in private studios and displayed in galleries or museums, sidewalk paintings and sand sculptures are created in the public for the public.  Tracy sees herself and Sudarsan as performers as well as artists, since passersby often stop to watch the artists work.  Tracy describes the process as “creating something out of nothing” and sees it as a work of art in itself.
And it was a performance.  Over the course of a day and a half, thousands of people stopped to observe the progress she and Sudarsan made.  She would often stop to chat with them and explain the piece. 
Tracy calls her sidewalk painting and Sudarsan’s sand sculptures “ephemeral art forms” because they are created to last a short period of time before they deteriorate and disappear.  As artists, both Tracy and Sudarsan have to view their final products with detachment and agree to let them go. 
When the final piece was completed, crowds gathered on the viewing platform to peer through a special lens that made the painting look 3D.  Tracy’s painted dolphins looked like they were jumping out of Sudarsan’s sand sculpture into a pool right in the middle of the ground. 
Tracy is an artist, a performer, and also a teacher.  She is committed to sharing her skills with others, and on her trip to India, she conducted workshops for young artists in every city she visited.  In Bhubaneswar, she spent a day at Bakul Children’s Library, and with the help of 50 young students and local artists, she transformed the street into an art gallery.  She demonstrated 3D techniques and worked individually with the artists. At the end of the day, the street was filled with brightly-colored 3D paintings.  Teaching workshops is one of Tracy’s favorite activities because she loves meeting young artists who are eager to explore new techniques.  I understood what she meant – it was so inspiring to be surrounded by energetic, creative people as they worked together to use art to express themselves. 
Tracy’s effect on Odisha lives on.  This week we heard about two young women in Odisha who were so inspired by Tracy’s ideas about public art that they have taken it upon themselves to pain public walls in Bhubaneswar.  Read about their efforts to make the city more beautiful here.
Tracy’s art may be ephemeral, but her impact is not.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Learning about Leprosy

On Sunday, January 29, LEPRA India organized a walk for World Leprosy Day to fight stigma and discrimination.  I was honored to be invited as chief guest and pleased to see how many Hyderabadis turned out for the walk, including students, activists and persons affected by leprosy. 
Before the march, Dr. Ranganadha Rao, LEPRA’s chief executive briefed me about leprosy in India, and I was disturbed by what I learned.  Leprosy is a treatable, curable disease, and there’s no need for newly-infected individuals to experience the kind of disabilities that we all associate with leprosy as long as they are diagnosed early and begin multi-drug therapy.  Unfortunately, though, stigma and misinformation discourage patients from seeking medical help early, resulting in late diagnoses and unnecessary suffering. 
I was struck by some sad parallels between leprosy and HIV/AIDS.  Both diseases were at one time considered incurable and consequently extremely feared.  Lack of accurate information about disease transmission in both cases led many members of the public to shun those affected by AIDS and leprosy.  In the late 20th century, science prevailed over superstition at least enough to fight off proposals to quarantine AIDS patients, but for many years leprosy sufferers were forcibly segregated from society.  Even today, stigma is so great that many leprosy survivors who bear the disfiguring traces of the disease choose to live in leprosy colonies because of discrimination and ostracism in the wider world.  To some extent it’s a vicious cycle: misinformation, stigma, and discrimination cause irrational fear that contributes to delay in diagnosis.  Delayed diagnosis results in irreversible damage so that those cured of the disease remain marked by it, and suffer discrimination.
The facts are indisputable.  Untreated leprosy is a communicable disease caused by a bacteria, but it’s very hard to catch, and most people (about 95%) have natural immunity.  Within a very short time of beginning treatment, patients are no longer infectious, and in less than a year, they’re cured.  If you meet someone who bears the signs of leprosy, you can be 100% sure that they have been diagnosed, treated and cured—you run no risk of catching the disease from them.

Given these facts, discrimination and stigma are cruel, unfair and just plain inexcusable.  But many Indian laws continue to discriminate against leprosy patients.  For example in many states, including Andhra Pradesh, they’re prohibited from running for local office.  Leprosy patients aren’t allowed to drive according to the Motor Vehicle Act of 1939, which still applies.  LEPRA is launching a signature campaign to try to raise awareness and combat these pernicious practices.  The idea is “each one, teach one,” and this blog is one of the ways I’m trying to do my part.  I hope you will too.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Exploring Odisha's Heritage

I spent a week in and around Bhubaneswar from January 16 to the 20th with Ambassador Burleigh from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi and several of my colleagues from the Consulate General in Hyderabad.  Odisha is the second state in Hyderabad’s consular district, but I’ve spent relatively little time there.  I’m resolved to make it a higher priority in the future, starting with a celebration of “America Days” in Bhubaneswar from February 1-3. 
Thanks to Ambassador Burleigh’s suggestions, the trip had a strong cultural component (in addition to some very interesting meetings and project site visits).  I particularly valued the opportunity to learn and experience more of India’s rich cultural heritage.  As a newcomer to India--and to the south Asia region as a whole-- I’ve had a steep learning curve to climb.  When I first heard about my assignment to Hyderabad, I asked friends and colleagues to recommend books I could read to prepare myself, and the list that resulted was daunting.  Playing to my strengths instead of addressing my weaknesses, I decided to start by learning about modern India, the country’s relatively recent history and contemporary development challenges.  Since I arrived in Hyderabad I’ve continued along the same lines; I’ve visited many more hospitals than temples.  I’m aware that spiritual beliefs and traditions play a very important role in modern India, but I’ve not yet greatly exposed myself to or educated myself about the ancient traditions that underlie the modern society.  My trip to Bhubaneswar was enlightening.
Our visit to the State Museum of Odisha drew my attention to one area of craftsmanship that links India’s past with its present: palm leaf engraving.  I had bought an engraving during the recent All-India Crafts Mela at Shilparamam, and I was very interested when I met the artisans who create these works of art during a January 17 stop at the Raghurajpur crafts village on the road to Puri.  Then we went to the State Museum and the curator showed us parts of the Museum’s amazing manuscript collection, including well-preserved and beautifully engraved illustrations and documents dating back more than 1000 years.  I was profoundly struck by the fact that the techniques used and many of the stories told by the creators of those ancient manuscripts were exactly the same as those of today’s artisans. 
Learning about and seeing the Jagannath temple in Puri showed me another strong connection between India’s past and present.  I had the honor of meeting the King of Puri, Dibyasingh Dev, and learning about the Ratha Yatra festival directly from him.  He explained that tribal communities discovered the deity and worshiped the god before he was discovered by Hindu priests.  The descendents of his early worshipers still serve him in the temple and are the only ones permitted in his presence during his period of retreat and convalescence before the festival.  Then we went to Puri and climbed to the roof of the library to look at the temple, since non-Hindus are not allowed to enter.  It was interesting to see the temple, but I found even more striking the view of the road leading to the temple, where even on an ordinary Wednesday, thousands of pilgrims were approaching to pay a visit and view Lord Jagannath, creating a moving mosaic of color.  The King had told us that the temple kitchens were (at least at one time) the largest in India, and feed tens of thousands of people every day, using only indigenous vegetables.  For me as an American, the fact that these traditions have been meticulously maintained for a thousand years is truly astonishing.
Our cultural odyssey also included the Sun Temple in Konark, the opening of a music festival at the Rajarani temple in Bhubaneswar, and a walk through a new botanical garden near the Lingaraja temple.  The importance of traditional spiritual values in modern daily life was also clear from the tulsi plants on raised platforms I saw near destroyed houses in flood-affected villages; it was evident that they were important parts of daily family life for villagers. 
It was good to go beyond my routine and expand my knowledge of India’s spiritual and cultural heritage last week.  I know that Andhra Pradesh also offers a multitude of cultural opportunities, and I hope to continue my education in the months to come.