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A guide to the dynamic economics, politics, and culture of the world's most populous region.

India: PM pledges $50 million for biodiversity protection, but are the 'rich' countries listening?

India's track record on environmental protection is dismal, but its $50 million pledge should shame the US and Europe into action.
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A butterfly sits in the window sill near a garden in New Delhi on October 25, 2011. India hosts one of the world's largest biodiversity hot spots. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

The Indian prime minister pledged $50 million to protect the world's plant and animal life at the UN convention on biodiversity Tuesday, in a move intended to push the world's more developed countries to put up or shut up.

India's track record on the environment is dismal, as activists told the Hindustan Times. But the PM's move, like an earlier shift away from stonewalling on emissions limits, should shame the world's rich countries into shelling out as well.

"Listening to his assertions regarding India's commitment to conservation and livelihoods, one would think the country is in the right hands. Nothing can be farther from the truth," the paper quoted Ashish Kothari, founder of NGO Kalpvariksh, as saying.

As GlobalPost noted in February, Indian environmentalists have slammed the country's environmental protection regime as farcical, even as the PM and others among the business lobby have repeatedly blamed the supposedly slow pace of green clearances for holding back industrial projects.

According to the Center for Science and Environment, a greater number of projects were approved in the past five years than the number projected by the national Planning Commission for the upcoming 11th and 12th Five Year Plans.

Between 2007 and 2011, for instance, 361 non-coal mining projects were cleared during the supposed drought, and the country's iron and steel capacity doubled.

Respect for biodiversity is also a joke, considering the way environmental impact assessments have been conducted for huge projects, such as a series of more than 150 dams slated for construction in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh (See Dam Nation: the threat to the environment)

Between 2005 and 2009, the Arunachal Pradesh state government took in around $200 million in fees and so-called upfront payments for allotting dam projects to developers, according to the state Department of Hydro Power Development. In two of those years, receipts for upfront payments amounted to 10 percent of the state's entire budget for expenditures on public programs.

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India: Medical expenses plunge 40 million people into poverty each year

Nearly 80 percent of healthcare costs in India are made out-of-pocket, says President
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(ROUF BHAT/AFP/Getty Images)

In a plea to the faculty and students of the prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Indian President Pranab Mukherjee drew attention to the healthcare emergency India faces -- as 80 percent of costs are paid out-of-pocket and healthcare debts plunge 40 million Indians into poverty every year.

“I am deeply concerned about the impoverishing impact of health and medical expenses on the vulnerable sections of our society," the president said, addressing the institute's 40th Annual Convocation of AIIMS.

As I wrote some years ago for Newsweek, AIIMS is a remarkable institution -- providing care free or virtually free to huge numbers of Indians from all walks of life. 

In 2005, "the government-run hospital, with about 2,000 beds, treated 3.5 million people, achieving mortality and infection rates comparable to the best facilities in the developed world--for fees that come to about $1 a day for inpatients," that article reported. "AIIMS can do this because of government funding of about $100 million a year.... [and because] senior residents at AIIMS make about $400 a month."

The problem is that the institution is essentially unique in India, which has adopted a disastrous go-slow policy when it comes to increasing the budget for health care, regardless of the concern of Mr. Mukherjee (who was finance minister before he was nominated to the figurehead post of president).

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India: Kingfisher's Vijay Mallya, from booze to boos, may sell out to Diageo

Dubbed "India's worst businessman," Mallya bet the crown jewels on (what?!) the airline business.
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Vijay Mallya on July 28, 2012 in Budapest, Hungary. (Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Once upon a time, Vijay Mallya, the CEO of United Breweries and the owner of India's flagship Kingfisher beer, styled himself as "the king of good times" -- a sort of Hugh Hefner meets Richard Branson, with a swimsuit calendar, an airline, and more gold chains on his hairy exposed chest than the 1980s version of Mr. T.  

Oh how the mighty have fallen.

Last month, the liquor baron who (if truth be told) made most of his fortune when he enjoyed a near-monopoly in the beer- and whisky-business of so-called "Indian Made Foreign Liquor" (IMFL) was dubbed "India's worst businessman" by FirstPost.in. And as his ego-driven Kingfisher Airlines continues to bleed cash, and employees threaten to sue him for back pay, now it appears that the one-time monarch will only be able to keep his (unbuttoned to the navel) shirt by selling a controlling interest in the crown jewel of his liquor business to Diageo, as the Times of India reports Wednesday.

According to the paper, Mallya is close to inking a deal to sell his 25 percent controling interest in the UB Group's United Spirits unit to the British liquor giant, giving a major leg up to a foreign competitor that's thirsty to drink up the fast growing Indian booze market. After the deal, Diageo will own 25 percent in the company to Mallya's 15 percent -- which will no doubt be a great thing for investors.

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India: Good government turns Maharashtra ghost town into 'village of millionaires'

Good local government turned Maharashtra's Hiware Bazar from a fading wasteland into the lush homeland of the rich.
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Navapur, India's Maharashtra state. (Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)

Just like you can't throw a stone in India without hitting a politician, it's pretty tough to talk to a policy wonk without getting a sermon on "governance." But here's something you don't hear that often:

Apart from delivering essential services like clean water, building decent roads and collecting the garbage, good local government can actually create wealth. And I'm not talking about a few guys weaving baskets. I'm talking about 60 millionaires in one village in Maharashtra.

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Nepal: First gay sports festival held in Kathmandu

Gay athletes compete to fight homophobia in conservative Nepal

Some 250 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) athletes competed in a sports festival in Kathmandu over the weekend in an effort to fight homophobia in the conservative Hindu nation.

"About 1,500 spectators cheered as the athletes, waving rainbow colored flags, marched at the Dasharath Stadium in the heart of Kathmandu in the opening ceremony of the three-day event," India's DNA newspaper reported.

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India: Spike in inflation shatters hopes of rate cut

PM's fuel price hike boosted inflation to 10-month high of 7.8 percent in August, killing industry's hopes for a rate cut.
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Members of the Communist Party of India, Marxists(CPI-M) burn an effigy of United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government during a protest against petrol price rises in Hyderabad on September 16, 2011. Rising oil costs have contributed to a spike in inflation that is becoming a major headache for India as the rupee plunges against the dollar. (NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)

The prime minister's moves to hike prices for petrol and diesel fuel, thus reducing the government's subsidy bill and moving closer to balancing the budget, resulted in a spike in inflation that has put paid to industry's hopes for an interest rate cut.

Inflation rose to a 10-month high 7.8 percent in August, thanks mainly to the fuel price hike, Reuters reported Monday.

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India: Can India Inc make interest payments on its dollar debt?

Suzlon Energy's trouble making payments on $200 million debt raises concerns about the heath of India's debt-laden firms

Wind turbine maker Suzlon Energy's announcement that it may not be able to repay foreign currency bonds worth some $200 million has again raised questions about the financial health of debt-laden Indian companies, following the dramatic depreciation of the rupee this year.

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India: Can you really teach entrepreneurs?

There's growing skepticism about the developing world's "reluctant entrepreneurs," who start businesses only because they can't find a job, writes the Economist

My article on the Be! Fund this week showcased how the non-profit is applying the principles of venture capital to create entrepreneurs in India's poorest communities -- and building businesses that employ people and address social or environmental problems.  But can these entrepreneurs really bring about large scale change?

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India: "Mindless negativity" on hunger, malnutrition, and child marriage

India is world's child marriage capital, accounts for most of the world's hungry, and fails spectacularly at curbing malnutrition.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh lashed out against "mindless negativity" on Wednesday, in a thinly veiled response to the flurry of corruption allegations leveled against a businessman who married into the Gandhi family. But it would be worse than mindless to take a rosy view of the situation--despite India's improved economic growth over the past 20 years.

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India: Clinical trials exploit India's poor

Incidents of abuse highlight flaws in India's regulation of clinical trials

Thanks to its huge, ethnically diverse population, India has become a global hub for clinical trials since it introduced patent protection laws in 2005, lowering research and development costs by nearly two-thirds in phase one phase three trials. But the business has been plagued by regulatory failures, reports India's Mint newspaper.

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