World News

Cyclone Nivar tears down power lines, trees in India

CHENNAI, India (Reuters) – A severe cyclone slammed into India’s southern coast early on Thursday, uprooting trees and power lines, but there was little loss of life or extensive damage to property.

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Cyclone Nivar made landfall near the city of Puducherry in the southern state of Tamil Nadu with winds of up to 130 km per hour (81 miles per hour), according to the India Meteorological Department.

Heavy rains triggered by the storm caused flooding in some streets of the city of Chennai, Tamil Nadu’s largest city which is home to many large automobile manufacturers, according to a Reuters witness.

People were seen walking in knee-deep water in some streets in south Chennai, which has many low-lying areas susceptible to flooding. Local administration workers have been working to remove fallen trees and power lines, city corporation officials said on Twitter.

Local media reported at least five deaths in and around Chennai, due to causes including trees falling, drowning and electrocution.

A spokesman for the chief minister’s office, which controls law and order in the state, declined to comment.

“This year, because of the precautions taken, the situation has not been that bad. Except for a few fallen trees and flooding in some streets, we have largely been safe,” said S. Sakthivel, a shopkeeper in the city.

Some residents in south Chennai had parked cars on a bridge over fears of flooding. More than a hundred cars were seen dotting the edges of a bridge in the south Chennai suburb Velachery.

Tens of thousands of people were evacuated from low-lying areas of Tamil Nadu ahead of the storm’s landfall, R.B. Udhayakumar, Tamil Nadu’s disaster management minister, said on Wednesday.

The Meteorological Department said Nivar’s intensity had dropped to 85 to 95 kph (53 to 59 mph) and is expected to weaken further.

GRAPHIC: Cyclone Nivar –

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Work from home revolution surprise boon for India's women

MUMBAI (BLOOMBERG) The coronavirus pandemic has hit women worldwide with job losses and closures of childcare centres. Yet a surprising bright spot is emerging: India’s US$200 billion (S$268.4 billion) technology services industry, where new rules are expected to provide female workers with a broad swath of flexible work arrangements and fresh employment opportunities.

On the outskirts of New Delhi, Teena Likhari, 45, quit her job running operations for the Indian back office of a Silicon Valley company in 2018 because of a family medical emergency. Looking to rejoin this year, she expected a market stunted by lockdowns. Instead, the pandemic had made work-from-home mainstream in her industry, which had long shunned the practice.

Not only did the operations manager quickly land a job with Indian outsourcer WNS Global Services, but working from her home in the city of Gurgaon, she began overseeing a 100-member team in the city of Pune about 900 miles away.

Ms Likhari is one of the early beneficiaries of India’s decision to lift decades-old restrictions on remote work in back office firms because of the pandemic. The tech services industry – one of the country’s most important financially – can now allow employees to shift from traditional offices to work-from-anywhere arrangements, permanently if needed. Indian women, who have often had to sacrifice for their husbands’ careers or other commitments at home, have much to gain from the policy change.

“Even a year ago, an operations leader working remotely would’ve been unimaginable,” said Ms Likhari, who has seen scores of women quit work after childbirth, marriage or when a family member fell ill. “The change will allow so many career women like me to do what we do from home, it’s a game changer.”

India’s large numbers of English-speaking graduates and cheaper costs relative to the West have spawned a sprawling industry that’s often called the world’s back office because of its global reach. The broad outsourcing sector, which includes technology services in addition to business processes, employs about 4.5 million people. Foreign banks from Deutsche Bank to Barclays run wholly owned centres handling everything from global payrolls to technology infrastructure maintenance for themselves and customers. Local outsourcers Tata Consultancy Services and WNS offer everything from data analytics to support on financial and accounting processes to international clients.

The pandemic has changed workplaces globally but the new norms are particularly significant in India. Social conventions that required women to move to their husband’s locations or stay with family in small towns, or simply be available inside the home to care for elders and children have shut out millions of qualified female workers. Greater flexibility and the opportunity to work from anywhere would give them choices they’ve never had before.

Also, India’s old rules – originally designed to prevent misuse of leased telecom lines – had prevented permanent work from home arrangements in back offices. But the pandemic pushed the government to remove decades-old reporting obligations, such as those requiring companies to provide office network diagrams in order to get international communication circuit allocations. The changes opened the door for people to work from home on a long-term basis.

A huge segment of working women in India, particularly the less privileged, have faced many of the same problems that have beset their global counterparts during the pandemic as they’ve had to juggle childcare, online schooling and office work from home, forcing some to drop out. Millions of female rural workers and daily wage earners lost jobs because they can’t work from home. Yet, the changes in the technology services industry show just how deeply the pandemic is forcing Indian companies to reimagine workplaces.

Companies like WNS, which caters to the likes of Virgin Atlantic Airways, Tesco and Avon Products, are envisaging a hybrid office and home model, satellite offices in small cities and a blend of full-time employees and gig workers.

“We’ll see work going to people rather than people going to work,” said Keshav Murugesh, group chief executive officer of WNS which employs 43,000 workers globally, nearly 30,000 of them in India. “With flexible hours or selected work days, over 100 million Indian women with secondary degrees, could potentially find employment,” he said.

Mumbai-headquartered Tata Consultancy, closing in on half a million workers, has already committed to a “25-by-25” strategy – by 2025, only 25 per cent of its workforce will be working inside an office at any one time.

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“Given time and location flexibility, less women will quit after having children,” said N.G. Subramaniam, chief operating officer of Tata Consultancy, Asia’s largest outsourcer with US$22 billion in annual revenue. “More women will stay in the workforce, more will reach senior leadership levels.”

A third of India’s technology services labour force comprises women, already a better gender ratio than most other industries in the country, Nasscom, the industry trade association says. Work from home opportunities in back offices may now offer more opportunities to qualified women in small towns who aren’t allowed to migrate to bigger cities for work.

Most of the back office outsourcing centres are located in sprawling campuses within big cities like Bangalore or New Delhi. Barclays, for instance, has over 20,000 workers providing technology solutions globally and UBS Group has 6,000 employees, about a third of them in Mumbai alone. Deutsche Bank employs 11,500, nearly half of whom are in the neighbouring city of Pune. Most of these workers have been operating from home during the pandemic.

“There is so much talent in smaller cities that has been untapped so far,” said Madhavi Lall, head of human resources at Deutsche Bank India. “Flexible work arrangements would certainly bring that talent to the fore, especially women who find it difficult to migrate or shift their base.”

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The pandemic has pushed discussions on future work models and strategies, especially with regard to arrangements like staggering employee shifts, rotating days or weeks of in-office presence, she said. And that along with the change in India’s government rules will enable more women to join the workforce.

While India is evolving, cultural norms need to progress further, said Debjani Ghosh, president of Nasscom. Added flexibility could certainly improve women’s participation in the workforce. But it could also increase pressure to simultaneously deliver on the home front.

“If work-from-anywhere has to succeed,” Ms Ghosh said, “the mindset that women have to work as well as single-handedly manage the home has to change.”

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World News

G-20 summit: Indian PM Modi calls for new Global Index in post-pandemic era

NEW DELHI (XINHUA) – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called for a new Global Index for the post-coronavirus world, at the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Saudi Arabia.

The index should include elements such as the creation of a vast talent pool, ensuring technology reaches all segments of the society, transparency in governance systems, as well as dealing with the Earth with a spirit of trusteeship.

“Based on this, the G-20 can lay the foundation of a new world,” said Mr Modi on Saturday (Nov 21).

In his opening remarks at the summit, Mr Modi called for decisive action by the G-20, not only limited to economic recovery, jobs and trade, but also to focus on preserving planet Earth.

This is because “all of us are trustees of humanity’s future”, he said.

The Covid-19 pandemic was an important turning point in the history of humanity, and the biggest challenge the world was facing since World War II, Mr Modi said.

Convened by Saudi Arabia, the 15th G-20 Leaders’ Summit is being held till Sunday.

Conducted in a virtual format, the summit centred on the theme “Realising Opportunities of 21st Century for All”, which has assumed greater importance in the wake of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

The agenda of the summit is spread out over two sessions on overcoming the pandemic, economic recovery and restoring jobs, and building an inclusive, sustainable and resilient future.

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Besides, there are also side events planned on the two days on pandemic preparedness and on safeguarding the planet.

The summit continues on Sunday, culminating in the adoption of the Leaders’ Declaration and with Saudi Arabia passing on the presidency to Italy.

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World News

US election: Joy in India as Biden and Harris win, but questions, too

Kamala Harris’s ancestral village in southern India rejoiced on Sunday. But across the country, many wonder what changes the new administration will bring.

From the moment the sun came up in Thulasendrapuram, a little village in southern India, people started stringing firecrackers across the road. They poured into the temple. They took coloured powder and wrote exuberant messages in big, happy letters in front of their homes, like this one: “Congratulations Kamala Harris, pride of our village.”

If there was one place in India that relished the triumph of Joe Biden and Harris, his running mate, in the US presidential election, it was Thulasendrapuram, the hamlet where Harris’s Indian grandfather was born more than 100 years ago. Her name is scrawled on a board by the temple. People there love her and identify strongly with her.

For four days, Thulasendrapuram’s 500 or so residents had been waiting anxiously. They’d been praying at the temple, draping Hindu idols with rose petals and strings of sweet-smelling jasmine, and alternately searching for good omens and checking their cellphones for the latest updates.

On Sunday, a wave of joy burst.

“Kamala has made this village very proud,” said Renganathan, a farmer, who rushed to the village’s main temple. “She’s a great lady and an inspiration. She belongs to this soil.”

Although Harris has been more understated about her Indian heritage than about her experience as a Black woman, her path to the vice presidency has also been guided by the values of her Indian-born mother and her wider Indian family, who have stood by her all her life. In several major speeches, Harris has gushed about her Indian grandfather, P.V. Gopalan, who inspired her with his stories about the fight for India’s independence.

Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, who came to America young and alone in the late 1950s and made a career as a breast cancer researcher before dying of cancer in 2009, remains one of the people Harris talks about most.

In her victory speech in Delaware on Saturday, Harris said her mother was “the woman most responsible for my presence here today.”

“When she came here from India at the age of 19, she maybe didn’t quite imagine this moment,” Harris said. “But she believed so deeply in an America where a moment like this is possible.”

Indians have been watching this election extremely closely, less because of Harris’ heritage than for what it might portend for India-US relations. In the past few months, the two countries, the world’s largest democracies, have drawn closer.

Part of the reason is China. Since Chinese troops surged across the disputed India-China border in June, sparking clashes that killed more than 20 Indian soldiers, the United States and India have bolstered their military relationship, sharing more intelligence and planning more coordinated training exercises, both sides motivated by a desire to contain China.

How things will change under a Biden-Harris administration is the big question that Indians are now asking. The incoming administration is definitely much more familiar with India. Harris spent a lot of time in India as a young woman, visiting family and developing a fondness for Indian food and culture.

And Biden, even before he was President Barack Obama’s vice president, was a champion for India in the Senate, pushing hard for a nuclear deal between the two nations. Biden has also promised to allow more visas for skilled immigrant workers, which President Donald Trump drastically reduced, and Indian workers could benefit enormously from that.

But foreign policy experts expect that the Biden-Harris team will also be tougher on India. They say that the policies of the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, have made life more difficult for Muslims in the country, and while the Trump administration has kept quiet about changes in Kashmir and the passage of a new, blatantly anti-Muslim citizenship law, Harris and Biden are likely to be more critical.

Harris has already indicated that she is concerned about the way that India has tightened control over Kashmir, a Muslim-majority territory that is disputed between India and Pakistan. People who know her well expect her to speak up more.

“Kamala is a very strong personality who feels very strongly about certain issues, like human and civil rights,” her uncle G. Balachandran said by telephone from his house in New Delhi on Sunday morning. “She may say things if she feels India is going against humanitarian rights.”

Most analysts believe that human rights overall will probably get more attention under a Biden administration, which might make Modi nervous.

Shortly after midnight, Modi tweeted his congratulations to Biden and Harris.

“Your success is pathbreaking, and a matter of immense pride not just for your chittis, but also for all Indian-Americans,” he wrote in a separate message to Harris, using a Tamil term of endearment for aunts that she herself used in her speech accepting the vice presidential nomination in August.

A handful of Harris’ relatives still live in India, including an aunt who has been in her corner for years. She once lined up 108 coconuts to be smashed at a Hindu temple to bring Harris good luck in a race for California attorney general. (Harris won that election, by the slimmest of margins.)

But Harris’ grandfather left the ancestral village of Thulasendrapuram, which is a bumpy eight-hour drive from the city of Chennai, more than 80 years ago. She no longer has close relatives there. Still, that’s not stopping the village from hatching big plans.

Some people are hoping the government will now build a college there, a wish the village has been making for years. Others say that Harris’ ascension might bring a better road — or at least some more donations for the temple.

On Sunday, packs of women in bright saris thronged the temple, carrying buckets of freshly made sweets.

The smell of gunpowder hung in the air from all the firecrackers.

A light rain fell.

“From the moment she announced that she was a candidate, we have been praying,” said Arul Mozhi Sudhakar, a village councillor. “God has been listening to our prayers.”

Written by: Jeffrey Gettleman and Prakash Elumalai
Photographs by: Erin Schaff

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