India Journalism Tech

Fired Americans Say Indian Firm Gave Their Jobs to H-1B Visa Holders

That’s the headline on my latest exclusive, out a few weeks ago.

It generated a lot of reader interest, and was picked up by several news outlets in India and the U.S.

It began: <-- 🎁 Gift link

A U.S. visa program for skilled foreign workers has long stoked concerns over American workers losing their jobs to lower-paid foreigners. Now a group of experienced American professionals is accusing an Indian outsourcing giant of firing them on short notice and filling many of their roles with workers from India on H1-B visas.

The American workers say that India’s Tata Consultancy Services illegally discriminated against them based on their race and age, firing them and shifting some of their work to lower-paid Indian immigrants on temporary work visas.

Since late December, at least 22 workers have filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against TCS, whose clients have included dozens of the U.S.’s biggest companies.

The American former TCS employees are Caucasians, Asian-Americans and Hispanic Americans ranging in age from their 40s to their 60s and living in more than a dozen U.S. states. Many have master’s of business administration or other advanced degrees, according to the complaints, which were viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

While companies often conduct layoffs that affect workers with more seniority, the American professionals say TCS broke the law by targeting them based on protected characteristics of age and race. They say the company’s move demonstrated preferential treatment to Indian workers in the U.S. on the coveted visas.

A TCS spokeswoman said allegations that the company engages in unlawful discrimination are meritless and misleading. TCS has a strong record of being an equal opportunity employer in the U.S., acting with integrity in its operations, she said.

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India Journalism Tech

India’s TikTok Ban Is a Cautionary Tale for the U.S.

I’m late in posting this, but that was the headline on a story my colleague Vibhuti Agarwal wrote last month.

It began: <-- 🎁 Gift link

NEW DELHI—Gayatari Mohanty always wanted to be a dancer. But her father, who washes cars for a living, and her mother, a domestic helper, didn’t have enough money for lessons. So the 19-year-old New Delhi native taught herself.

One day in 2019, Mohanty discovered TikTok. She and a friend were drawn to the platform’s lighthearted videos. They often rushed home from school to upload clips of Mohanty’s spirited dancing to retro Bollywood songs from the 1960s and 70s.

Soon Mohanty had gained some 5,000 followers. That didn’t make her a star or earn her any money, but it was enough to boost her confidence.

“My skill gave me my biggest achievement in life,” she said. “TikTok became my stage where I could show my dancing skills and get appreciated for it.”

That all ended suddenly the next year, when India’s government banned the Chinese short video-sharing titan, citing cybersecurity concerns.

“It felt like a personal loss, like someone close to me was no more,” she said.

The South Asian nation provides a case study in what happens when the wildly popular service goes away, as it might in the U.S. A bipartisan bill that sailed through the House this month would force parent company ByteDance to sell the platform’s U.S. operations or face a ban. President Biden has said he supports such legislation, which will now go to the Senate, where its fate is uncertain.

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India Journalism Tech

Billionaire Bets That a $12 Mobile Phone Can Get More of the World’s Most Populous Country Online

That’s the title of my latest story, out Thursday. It begins: 🎁 <-- free link

Even as 5G mobile networks begin to expand in India, about half of the country’s 1.4 billion people remain disconnected from the Internet.

Billionaire Mukesh Ambani is betting a new web-enabled mobile phone that costs about $12 can change that and win yet more customers for his dominant wireless-network provider.

The device, launched in July by Ambani’s Reliance Jio Infocomm, resembles the simple, durable Nokia phones from decades past. It has a physical keyboard, a small screen and a camera, and comes in basic colors like blue, black, gray and red.

While the device isn’t 5G-capable, it offers 4G speeds, meaning it can stream music and video via pre-installed apps from Reliance Jio’s services, which include content such as Bollywood films, cricket matches and pop music. The phone can also be used to make digital payments, a practice that has boomed in India in recent years.

Many Indians who are online access the Internet via smartphones. But a smartphone in India typically costs more than $250, far out of reach for millions of people who make just a few dollars a day.

“There are still 250 million mobile-phone users in India who remain trapped in the 2G era, unable to tap into basic features of the internet,” Akash Ambani, Mukesh Ambani’s son and the chairman of Reliance Jio, said when launching the phone. He was referring to people using basic mobile devices, which often lack web connections.

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India Journalism

Modi’s Vision for India Rests On Six Giant Companies

That’s the headline on my newest story, a piece with my colleague Niharika Mandhana that ran on Thursday’s page one.

It begins:

NEW DELHI–Prime Minister Narendra Modi says this is India’s decade. That claim rests heavily on a handful of dominant conglomerates.

Increasingly aligned with Modi’s priorities, the roughly half-dozen mega-firms—which include Reliance Industries and Adani Group, helmed by two of Asia’s richest tycoons—have the ability to raise vast sums of capital, and the experience and political connections to navigate India’s byzantine bureaucracy. Capitalizing on government subsidies and privatization plans, they are executing projects with a scale and speed that have eluded India in the past.

Among their ventures: A new airport for Mumbai, designed by the firm founded by the late Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid to look like a lotus flower, which is scheduled to start opening next year after the Adani Group took it over. When completed, it’s expected to connect to high-speed rail and handle 90 million passengers annually—only slightly fewer than Atlanta’s main airport, the world’s busiest, last year.

After spending more than $45 billion to build out telecommunications networks, Reliance Industries — a petrochemicals, textiles and retail juggernaut — is constructing factories to make solar panels and batteries for energy storage to position India as a credible alternative to China. It has pledged $75 billion in green-energy spending over the next 15 years.

The 155-year-old Tata Group, which took control of the formerly state-owned Air India last year, recently placed one of the largest orders in aviation history for 470 new aircraft. The salt-to-steel-to-software behemoth, which owns British automaker Jaguar Land Rover, is forging ahead with producing electric vehicles, military transport aircraft, smartphones and telecom hardware, with plans to invest $90 billion in India over five years.

Half a dozen conglomerates now control or have major stakes in 25% of India’s port capacity, 45% of cement production, a third of steel making, nearly 60% of all telecom subscriptions, and more than 45% of coal imports. An analysis by the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy, a research firm, shows that a quarter of all new investment proposals by private companies since 2014 have come from the companies.

“This is the period where it’s not the mad rush of entrepreneurs going out to build new capacities, to become great entrepreneurs—this is the era of great concentration,” said Mahesh Vyas, CMIE’s managing director.

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India Journalism Tech

YouTube Looking Into Gandhi’s Claim Political Videos in India Suppressed

That’s the headline on my latest story, an exclusive out Wednesday.

It begins:

YouTube’s chief executive said in an email that the company is looking into a claim by Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi that the Alphabet Inc. unit is suppressing his videos criticizing India’s ruling party and a billionaire who controls a conglomerate accused of wide-ranging fraud.

The March 25 email from YouTube’s Neal Mohan, which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, came in response to a letter sent two weeks earlier from the leader of a group of overseas Indians who support Mr. Gandhi’s Congress party.

The letter, which was reviewed by the Journal, included data from Mr. Gandhi’s social-media team making the case that his videos related to “the issue of cronyism of the ruling government with one industrialist, Mr. Gautam Adani,” are receiving views that are significantly lower than YouTube analytics suggest they should be, and are being “suppressed, perhaps unwittingly and algorithmically.”

The data, which was reviewed by the Journal, showed that based on interactions such as likes on two videos alleging Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given special treatment to the company headed by Mr. Adani, the Adani Group, the videos should have received about 2.8 million views combined, but instead got less than a third of that.

The data also suggested Mr. Gandhi’s videos are receiving fewer views because they are now recommended less frequently to users via YouTube’s home page, the letter said.

“Thanks,” Mr. Mohan wrote in reply. “Team is taking a look,” he wrote, without elaborating.

Representatives for Alphabet Inc.’s Google and YouTube didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Representatives for the Prime Minister’s Office, Mr. Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the Adani Group didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

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India Journalism Tech

YouTube, Facebook and Instagram Gave Platforms to Indian Cow-Protection Vigilante

That was the headline on March 6 story I wrote with my colleague Jeff Horwitz. It began:

Monu Manesar, the alias of an Indian cow-protection influencer, has spent the past six years documenting his personal war against cattle smugglers on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram.

In openly violent posts that often clashed with the platforms’ stated content policies, his accounts livestreamed car chases of men suspected to be transporting beef or cows—an animal deeply revered in Hinduism. He and fellow vigilantes filmed themselves ramming vehicles, shooting out truck tires and trading gunfire with alleged smugglers. The posts included anti-Muslim slurs and trophy photos of captives bleeding from the head.

Human-rights organizations warned YouTube, a unit of Alphabet Inc.’s Google, and Meta Platforms Inc., parent of Facebook and Instagram, that the exploits posed a threat to human life and encouraged violence against Muslims. The Monu Manesar accounts stayed online and continued to rack up followers, however: 210,000 subscribers on YouTube and nearly 150,000 across Meta’s Facebook and Instagram.

Now police in India are investigating Monu Manesar—whose real name is Mohit Yadav, according to police—and his associates in the deaths of two alleged cow smugglers whose charred bodies were found on Feb. 16 in their burned-out vehicle. The episode has sparked new debate over such vigilantism in India and what role social-media platforms play in fomenting religious violence.

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India Journalism

Guns Offered for Sale in Facebook Groups Devoted to Religious Extremists in India

That’s the headline on my latest story, out February 8. It begins:

Facebook users have offered for sale on the platform handguns, rifles, shotguns and bullets to members of a forum devoted to an extremist Hindu organization with a history of violence in India.

Eight posts, some of which had been up since April, caught the eye of Raqib Hameed Naik, the founder of a group that monitors attacks against religious minorities in India. He began reporting them to Meta Platforms Inc. in late January as contravening the company’s publicly stated policy that prohibits private individuals from buying or selling firearms or ammunition on Facebook platforms.

Facebook declined to remove them, saying the posts didn’t violate the company’s rules, according to responses from the company that The Wall Street Journal reviewed.

After the Journal inquired about the posts, Facebook on Tuesday removed them, saying they ran afoul of the company’s policies.

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India Journalism

Musk’s Twitter Reinstates Hindu Nationalist Accounts That Disparage Muslims

That’s the headline on my latest story, out Wednesday. It begins:

Twitter Inc. under Elon Musk has reinstated several previously suspended Hindu nationalist accounts that were popular in India, one of its largest markets by users, with human-rights groups saying the move has spurred a resurgence of divisive religious material on the platform.

Some of the accounts that were suspended had been reported for posting hate speech aimed at religious minorities in India, according to groups that reported them. Upon their return in recent weeks, some have tweeted material denigrating Muslims and others.

The tweets include a debunked video that the person who posted it claimed showed a Muslim cleric spitting on rice before serving it to others, another calling Pakistani Muslims “rectums,” and a retweet of a user who called the Quran “the source of all evil.”

The Hindu-majority South Asian nation has deep social and religious divisions that have in the past erupted into fatal religious confrontations, sometimes connected to material spread online. Muslims make up about 14% of India’s population.

Twitter had 41 million users in India as of December, making it the company’s third-biggest market by users after the U.S. and Japan, according to eMarketer, a unit of data and research firm Insider Intelligence.

Twitter didn’t respond to requests for comment.

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India Tech

Meta-Backed Meesho Is Beating Amazon, Walmart in Race for Indian Shoppers

That’s the headline on my newest story, out Saturday. It begins:

An upstart e-commerce service is winning more new shoppers in India than Inc. and Walmart Inc.’s Flipkart, posing a challenge to the U.S. retailing titans, which have plowed billions of dollars into the world’s biggest untapped digital market.

Bengaluru-based Meesho is leading the burgeoning social-commerce sector, allowing users to sell items by sharing product listings with friends via Meta Platforms Inc.’s popular WhatsApp messaging service, along with Facebook and Instagram. Meta is also an investor in Meesho, with an undisclosed stake.

Meesho was the world’s most-downloaded shopping app during the first half of this year, according to app analytics firm Apptopia, with shoppers pointing to its ease of use, wide selection of products and low prices. Some 127 million people downloaded the app, which is available only in India, compared with 81 million downloads for Amazon and 50 million for Flipkart during the period.

Amazon and Flipkart are “more for the top 1%-5% of the population” in terms of income, specializing in more expensive goods such as smartphones and televisions, said Meesho Chief Financial Officer Dhiresh Bansal.

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India Journalism

Meta Officials Cite Security Concerns for Failing to Release Full India Hate-Speech Study

That’s the headline on my latest story, an exclusive out Wednesday. It begins:

Executives at Meta Platforms Inc. privately told rights groups that security concerns prevented them from releasing details of its investigation into hate speech on its services in India, according to audio recordings heard by The Wall Street Journal.

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, in July released a four-page summary of a human-rights impact assessment on India, its biggest market by users, where it has faced accusations of failing to adequately police hate speech against religious minorities. The India summary was part of the company’s first global human-rights report. The 83-page global report offers detailed findings of some previous investigations; it included only general descriptions of its India assessment, which disappointed some rights advocates.

“This is not the report that the human-rights team at Meta wanted to publish, we wanted to be able to publish more,” Iain Levine, a Meta senior human-rights adviser, said during private online briefings with rights groups in late July after the summary was released, according to the recordings.

“A decision was made at the highest levels of the company based upon both internal and external advice that it was not possible to do so for security reasons,” he said.

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