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India: 5 Stories Making Headlines At Home

This week, we shine the spotlight on India:

P FOR PICHAI

Google's surprise announcement that it was restructuring its businesses under a new parent company called Alphabet was a significant boost to India's national pride, with much of the media coverage focused on Google's new CEO, Indian-born Sundar Pichai. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to congratulate the 43-year-old for his rapid climb to the top of one of the most successful and powerful companies on the planet.

Like Microsoft's CEO Satya Nadella, Pichai has been hailed as a role model for young Indians, and Indian website Firspost now characterizes Indians as "the biggest power players in Silicon Valley." As many as 15% of startups there are founded by Indians.

Among the innumerable articles dedicated to Pichai, The Hindustan Times published a series of interviews with his former teachers and schoolmates. "He was one of those typical good students who would follow every word of the teacher," his former thesis supervisor said. A former student, meanwhile, said he remembered Pichai as "kind of a bookworm."


GOVERNMENT TAKES ON NESTLE …

The Indian government is suing Nestlé"s Indian unit and is seeking the equivalent of $100 million in damages over allegations that the company's highly popular Maggi noodles are unsafe for consumption, The Times of India reported. The world's biggest food company was banned in June from selling its instant noodles after the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India found that the product contained excessive levels of lead that were endangering consumer health, which Nestlé denied. The ban is said to have cost the Swiss company as much as $50 million, but India's consumer affairs department now says Nestlé"s advertisements were misleading and deceptive and earned "unjust profits" through "unfair trade practices."


… BUT FAILS TO CRACK DOWN ON PORN

If having noodles removed from supermarket shelves went down relatively well with consumers, the same can't be said of the government's order to Internet service providers to block access to 857 pornographic websites. Having provoked a storm of criticism on social media at home as well as mockery abroad, the decision was overturned just days later, with Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi admitting that India "cannot become a totalitarian state" or "enter everyone's house or bedrooms," The Indian Express reported.

The ban was initially motivated by the government's determination to tackle child pornography and to prevent children from accessing adult material online. It came weeks after behavioral experts said that rising porn addiction among Indian youth could lead to risky sexual behavior on a large scale, especially in a country that already faces a rape problem.



MONSOON MISERY

Forecasters had warned months ago that this year's monsoon season (June to September) would bring below-normal levels of rain, and they were right. After suffering a devastating heat wave that killed more than 2,300 people in May, rain levels at the end of July were 9% below normal, and 20% below normal for the first 10 days of August. Worse still, rain distribution has been largely unequal, with some regions receiving as little as half of usual levels, sparking fears of droughts in the months to come. Other regions have been plagued by floods and landslides that killed dozens across India, as well as in Pakistan and Myanmar.

Despite boasting one of the world's highest growth rates and being Asia's third-largest economy, half of India's population still work in the agriculture sector, which depends heavily on the monsoon season, The Hindustan Times explained.


KODAIKANAL WON'T BACK DOWN

Nestlé isn't the only multinational corporation to find itself in trouble in India. Hindustan Unilever Ltd., the local subsidiary of Unilever, has been the target of a Nicki Minaj-inspired protest song that has gone viral on YouTube. The reason? The company's failure to clean up mercury contamination from its former thermometer factory — which Unilever shut down in 2001 — in the otherwise idyllic town of Kodaikanal, in southern India.

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Panoramic view of Kodaikanal — Photo: Challiyan

The video, which has been viewed nearly three million times, is part of a campaign to make the issue public and thus force Unilever to "clean up their mess" and compensate former workers suffering from mercury poisoning. More than 80,000 people have signed a petition calling on the company to take responsibility. Less than two weeks after the video's release and in the face of what The Economic Times described as "social media activism," Unilever announced it had submitted a "soil remediation" project and would start working on a solution. But as the song warns, "Kodaikanal won't back down until you make amends."

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