It is not his job! On politicians, development and development agencies

A water tanker supplying drinking water in a slum of Doddaballapura. Unlike many other tankers for which people pay as much as Rs 2.50 for a pitcher ( 7-8 liters), this tanker is sponsored by a local politician. (Pic from the report. Courtesy - Praveena Sridhar)

A water tanker supplying drinking water in a slum of Doddaballapura. Unlike many other tankers for which people pay as much as Rs 2.50 for a pitcher ( 7-8 liters), this tanker is sponsored by a local politician. (Pic from the report. Courtesy – Praveena Sridhar)

From a recent report that we prepared for an NGO, a reader asked “What is that MLA’s incentive to push for proper/improved drinking water system” referring to a small case study on a Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) in a constituency who was trying to help the drinking water crisis in his town.

So here are some ways of looking at the situation and assess what his incentive might be –

  1.  It is not the MLA’s business to provide or even push for proper drinking water system. He belongs to the “legislative” wing. Water provision is the responsibility of the “executive”. So if he does that then it is a transgression, in its strict sense. However, these transgressions are widely observed in many regions of the country and therefore one has to deal with it. One reason, as an extension of the above thought is that he is “appeasing” his electorate. Then, that it is easier for him to rally for this cause as it is widely felt among the people and that it is visible in its effects. If there is any improvement in the water situation then that too gets immediately felt among the people and therefore he gets a clear and fair mileage (politically) if he gets into this.
  2. An explanation that he is the “saviour” might not be so true because the politicians themselves clearly realize today that they can be quickly kicked off their chairs if he keeps the hubris of being a parent/saviour of the people. The relationship has gone more transactional with people becoming increasingly aware of methods to rally for their cause.
  3. From a Weberain (Marx Weber’s work on bureaucracy) perspective it can be argued that we do not know his calculation/motivation. As an individual how is he locating himself in the political mesh of power and its dynamics would be a determinant of his motivation to act on a particular issue in his constituency. This is ‘politics in practice’ and not how it ought to be!
  4. Executivisation of the Legislature – This phenomenon is one of the concerns of governance in the present times. The legislative in several different ways and mechanisms is adopting the role of executive. Our case of an MLA servicing water in a locality is an instance of this. This is exacerbated by the provision of MLA Development Fund, which is a small purse of a few crores granted to the MLA to spend on his constituency. This some argue is absolutely unconstitutional and must be done away with. A case in point is Bihar state. The Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, in his first term abolished the MLA Development Fund system in the state and directed that if it is development work that the MLAs need to carry out in their constituencies then they might as well ask the state government itself for the funds.

In effect what the above points establish is that our case where the MLA pushes for a proper drinking water system is a complex issue. It is not singular in its motivation. That MLA’s behaviour is situated in a complex web of contemporary politics, bureaucratic functioning and relationship between legislature and executive.

Our other concern is how a development agency situates its work in such a landscape. In another instance we see that an MLA in AP state ‘hijacks’ a development agency’s work in providing the clean drinking water by advertising his name for the little support that he provides to the dev agency in its work. Ideally, it should not matter to the dev agency if its goal of provisioning clean drinking water is still being achieved.  But in practice it matters to the agency as it also wants to further its work and therefore tries to ensure visibility. Also that this visibility is to let its own donors know that the work was done and it was done in this particular region. The dev agency in order to prevent this hijack and avoid getting caught in a sticky situation should first begin with understanding the context and dynamics, just like we saw above that the motivation as well as the role that the MLA was playing is different from what he ought to do. An understanding of this would then place the dev agency in a much better situation to take a decision on partnering with the political agency.


The above is a result of discussion with Prof. Narayana at APU  and @praveenasridhar who has authored the report and done all the field work. 

Absurdity of fasting as activism (or fancier still – social intervention)

Here is a crude joke which sums up whats happening at this place I attend.

An ageing philanthropist, a promising young mountaineer and an activist are flying in a small plane. Half way in their journey the plane develops a snag. The pilot declares that the plane will crash soon, grabs a parachute and jumps off the plane. The three men are horrified at this and look for parachutes. The activist manages to grab one in the scramble (experienced as he was in stuff like this. Hadn’t he managed to break the security cordon and ripped off the state flag last time?) and jumps off.

Now, the philanthropist and the young mountaineer remain. Philanthropist says to the other,

“Son, as you see I am much older than you are and have seen many glorious seasons in my life and lived it well. I do not regret dying at this age. You have a long life ahead of you. Please take the remaining parachute and save your life.”

The two of them are in a strange but poised silence.The young man then figures things out and replies,

“Sir, we need not worry. The activist in his haste has jumped off with my backpack. There are two parachutes here and we both will make it to the ground safely. Come. Let us not delay.”

This has much to do with my irritation at the string of mails that are urging people to not eat (as in fast) at least one meal of the day and instead consider sending the food over to the people whose homes (considered slum) were recently demolished by the city’s municipal corporation. More on that here. There is an understanding that a meal shifted from one set of people to the other is likely to help the situation in some manner. If one argues on the morality, humanitarian and other such ethical-moral-spiritual concerns then I will sure have to ask him to cut the crap and on further insistence to shut the f*** up.

Why does it escape these young folks who are driven by a concern to help the distressed people that a meal once or twice a day really doesn’t matter. The significant bandwidth they spend on organizing the logistics of this food support program (and mind you just as a one off thing) takes more effort and resources than the help or impact that it is likely to have. In anyway, these people are able bodied men and women who are generally capable of managing their food. So, why such an ill thought idea to help is something I am trying to understand.

The fiery zeal of “helping” and “working” for a “cause” is probably burning their thinking as well. Why not take some time to figure out what the people rendered homeless might require at the moment. It is often seen that they value resource support, legal representation and other help of similar nature more than their immediate food and clothing, unless it is a natural disaster or calamity including difficult weather.

Taking a more broad sweep, I have often felt that this is what is wrong with the Indian variety of activism – poorly thought ideas of intervention (poorly understood as well) and the haste to run and do something. The activists would be quick to retort “but we do grab attention and bring the issue to focus”. I say that is not all and that is not even the starting point. More on that later. At the moment, it is much about venting out my exasperation at this variety which sits all around me and spams my mailbox with such bleeding heart mails asking me to give up food.

Categories of Art (2) – Defining words

A procession with traditional dance form commemorating a Kannada filmstar Rajkumar's life

A procession with traditional dance form commemorating a Kannada filmstar (Rajkumar) life in Yelahanka, Bangalore

Here is an exercise I am doing this morning in an art course that I have picked. Instructor‘s guidelines:

Write one sentence in English that uses the following words. Use the words in a way that feels familiar. The sentence should incorporate what you see as the meaning of art, class, culture …. ONLY ONE SENTENCE PLEASE.

Art | Class | Culture | Folk | Literature | Modern | Native | Primitive | Popular | Taste | Tradition | Vernacular

Here goes my response. These are spontaneous thoughts on what I imagine of the words given –

Art – Art is how I relate to the diversity and variety of human imagination in everyday life.

Class – A categorization of processes for convenience, which is subjective and at times arbitrary.

Culture – That abstract, relative and subjective idea about their own life styles and traditions that individuals tend to believe and identify themselves with.

Folk – An identifier of common forms of art that may or may not have a formal body of work but lives and propagates through daily lives of people.

Literature – A written form of engagement with imagination and creativity.

Modern – An expression of self and the manner of relating to contemporary processes which construct a sense of identity in individuals.

Native – A label ascribing origin or exclusivity of sorts to form of art or process.

Primitive – A word referring to period or chronological origin of an object, form, process

Popular – Forms of behaviour, art and style which appears to be widely adopted in a particular period of time.

Taste – An exclusive consumption preference or identification of oneself with a particular idea of art form.

Tradition – A form or practice which has continued over generations and have come to be a defining or identifying element for a community.

Vernacular – A contemporary or ‘as practiced’ form of a language or art form.

This is an interesting exercise because I wouldn’t have otherwise taken an effort to think about these and try defining them. As the course proceeds I think I would be able to refine (or perhaps revise) these ideas.

Categories of Art (1) – Primitive, Classical, Vernacular, Modern, Contemporary and More

A painted Shiva in a house, Jamui, Bihar

A painted Shiva on the wall of a house in Jamui, Bihar

Categories of Art is a 6 months course in arts that I begin this month. My earlier training is in biotechnology and that has always left me feeling a bit deficient in my understanding of arts. This course as I see it might help me in identifying and articulating my perception and experience of art forms. Plus, it just complements my travel in many interesting ways.

This post is from the first session of this course where we fill in a self assessment form. The contents of this form is supposed to help instructor gain a sense of understanding of the backgrounds that the participants come from. Also, it sort of helps one get a flavour of what the class’ perception of self, modern, art etc is. The questions ask for simple information about one’s family and structure. The information is a proxy to know the participants and in a very generic sense estimate how they identify themselves with society, gender, art and abstract ideas like modernity. It also would offer a probable explanation of why they believe the way they do. As the instructor suggests, “you are taught (usually) to look at other people. This presents an opportunity for reflecting upon yourselves.” As for that question exploring the language of instruction of the participant she argues that the English world offers a different kind of intellectual and creative space and the vernacular offers a different one. One needs to be cognizant of this.

The questions of the form are shared below, including my responses to them. It would be interesting to see it again when I finish the program. It would sure reflect the distance that I am likely to cover during this engagement with art and its categories.

1. Do you know your caste? Does your name reflect your caste?

Yes. Yes.

2.  Are you from a village, town or city?


3. Have you ever been to a village, town or city before joining the university?


4. In which language medium were you educated?


5. Write a sentence in English about the class structure of your family.

My family is characterized by a migration from practicing priests as an occupational class to a family of professionals employed in various services (or service class?) in the government, over a period of five generations (with me as fifth).

6. Write the same sentence in a vernacular language.

7. Do you cook?


8. Who cooks food in your home?


9. Does your mother work outside the house?


10. Does your father do housework?


11. Which classical art form, if any, do you engage with on a regular basis?

Carnatic and Western classical music

12. Which folk art form, if any, do you engage with on a regular basis?

Hindi Poetry of the rural variety

13. Which popular art form, if any, do you engage with on a regular basis?


14. What does modern mean to you?

Modern to me is an expression of self and the manner of relating to contemporary processes which construct a sense of identity in an individual (or groups).

15. Do you read books for pleasure? How many a year? In what languages?

Yes. About 45 a year. English (very few Hindi)

Railfanning – A traveler’s gaze on railways & rail travel


Between 2010-2012, I was a frequent traveler on Chennai-Bangalore rail route. Quite often I traveled on an unreserved ticket and invariably standing by the door of the coach. The door side of an Indian railway coach (for those who aren’t familiar) is quite a vantage point for the tribes of sociologists, anthropologists, aimless wanderers, intrepid travelers, mendicants and anyone under the sun who doesn’t care about having a place to sit and is curious about the world around him, including the lovely landscapes that the train traverses. Understandably, I have always held that I belong to the doors and rightfully take my place by the door as soon as I board the train.

Now, once the train is on the roll a slice of the grand Indian bazaar unfolds in front of you – books, pirated cinema DVDs, cheap toys, key rings, wallets, handkerchiefs, fruits, vegetables, peanuts, that typical puffed rice tossed with fresh greens, tomatoes and a dash of lemon, snacks from the pantry (if the train has one), tender coconuts, a range of fresh farm produce depending on the season… the list is as diverse as the land and its people!

Blind, partially blind and not really blind people, all hawking wares as blind men seems like a thing going on forever in these trains. Elsewhere in the coach young men and ladies take a look at a range of key rings, parents browse through a collection of cheap coloring, sketching, cursive handwriting and story books assuming that their kids better have one of these than bother about those toys being hawked. The highway like aisle is occupied by sellers of everything that can be sold in this market on rails. Pantry vendors call with trays of whatever the kitchen on wheels is cooking that evening. As stations roll by, the range of offerings from the pantry change.  This activity filled train rides are an idler’s delight and perhaps a sociologist’s curiosity. And for a writer, inspiration and stuff worth ten pages at least!

This fascination for the railways, travelers and the sheer variety of thing happening on rails made me look at some of them more closely. Of this milieu, hawkers are one set that have interested me. Joining them at work for over three weeks last year, I have learnt a great deal about another form of quick to emerge and quick to adapt form of livelihood which exists somewhere on the boundary of the legal and illegal ways of earning a living. A bit of that was posted here as fieldnotes. Illegal? This really is the imagination of Indian Railways and which is something I am trying to understand. But, this aside I think we (my team) as entrepreneurs don’t even half the courage and half the risk taking ability that these people take in their work and lives. This post is just an admiration and appreciation of these awesome folks who not many of us happen to notice on our journeys.

Modernists – Then & Now

Early Indian modernists

Early Indian modernists

This morning a discussion on life, work and legacy of Raja Rammohun Roy and Syed Ahmed Khan led to a question on why did they call for ‘modern’ education in India of the mid 19th century (around 1840-1890 period)? How different was the Indian education system before the onset of colonial period and post? What did Indian education lack that the ‘modern’ British system have?

One perspective stems from Dharampal’s The Beautiful Tree, an important work on the history of Indian education system. He argues that much of the British education system of the British India (and consequently today’s education system) is based on the ancient Indian structure. By this he probably means that the instruction method, spread of schools (as in a school in every village) and curriculum all appear to have been adopted and modified to the needs of the British administration and presented as their own. I do not doubt the claims of the book nor the scholar’s study. In fact, I find the process only too natural.

I have two observations on the current discourse on origins of modern education system in India and its effects:

1. Allegation that British education system is essentially Indian, with a sense that it is noting new but our own system shown to us as new is not true.

2. ‘Modernists’ of 19th century are not much different in their approach to the new crop of Indian academicians and professors who have returned to India (or visit periodically) after being trained abroad or worked abroad. The ideas they propagate back in India are pretty much the same like what the modernists of 19th century did!

Saying that the British system of education is only a derivative of traditional Indian system is one thing. But implying that the British system has in some way borrowed and been deceitful in doing that would be flawed. Here is my reason for believing so. If the invaders in any geography are powerful enough and have long term ambitions to rule the place and not just plunder it then it is quite a natural progression that the dominating power would manipulate the processes of this new land and its people. Like if they want Indians to work in the new order of production (and industry) in British India then they would also have to be oriented and trained likewise. If the British empire brought in railways, elaborate administrative processes and newer technologies (post industrial revolution) to India then they also wanted to condition Indians to be able to work in that new environment. This is easier when one takes in an existing mode of learning of the natives themselves and modify it by incorporating all that you would also want to ensure that the natives learn in order to serve you better (remember this is a colonial power-colony relationship) The ‘modernists’ like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Raja Rammohun Roy saw how out of tune a native Indian is, in this new order of things in British India. They probably felt that it would hinder the growth of the native Indian as he wouldn’t be able to better his lot if he doesn’t ‘learn’ the ways of the new India. Also, we know that Syed Ahmed Khan held British empire to be way too powerful and that Indians didn’t stand a chance if they were to revolt against it, as they did in the uprising of 1857. Now this was one group of people who thought that Indians should modernize – learn English language and train in newer fields of science and industry. Those who pushed for such ideas are termed ‘modernists’ of the late 19th century.

There is another set of modernists that I see – Indian academicians and professors who are trained abroad. I find that they do not see themselves as agents propagating certain ideas which do not necessarily hold the same importance as they think it should or are simply irrelevant. To my understanding they aren’t any different from what our 19th century modernists were doing. These I call modernists of now. Except the subaltern studies initiative, I do not recall anything as original as this in its concern and rigour. We have some of the major works on Indian society, culture and politics from western thinkers. Also in many instances divergent from what the native sociologists would see it like.

These are some first thoughts on a discussion on some of the early modernists in India and which was in some way imagined as something that happened in the past. In spirit, I think it still happens and will keep happening. Being conscious of it can be a better position to be in than always looking at it in retrospect.

A trek into human imagination

A view of Sumeru range and Kedarnath valley from the trail.

A view of Sumeru range and Kedarnath valley from the trail.

“Asti kaschit vaak vishesh?” asked Kalidasa’s wife when he returned home after long years away from her and home. This question in Sanskrit means “do you have anything to say?” Inspired by each of the four words (of the question) Kalidasa is said to have written four epics of the medieval Indian Sanskrit literature – Meghdoota, Raghuvamsa, Shakuntala and Abhijanashakuntalam. I have not read these texts in their original form nor can I claim to have a good grasp of their themes. My exposure to Sanskrit remains limited to learning the language for five years in high school. But the anecdote conveys a great deal about human imagination. The tremendous range and depths of human imagination appears exasperating and at other times exhilarating. In this, I have often located myself as a traveler, exploring what it is that delights us? What is beautiful? And how do we know when we find see something beautiful?

Courtesy their experiences, exposure to absolutely alien environments, landscapes, cultures, languages, colors, food, customs, societies and lifestyles travelers tend to look at life in a much different perspective than they would have otherwise. It could have been a fair chance that had Kalidasa not left home and wandered for years, he may not have developed that ‘different perspective’ that I am talking about. Men and women across ages have ventured out solo or in groups to explore what lay beyond the immediate and apparent. They have almost always returned with life altering experiences which have also added greatly to human knowledge – Al Beruni, Ibn Batuta, Huein Tsang, Fa Hein, Marco Polo, Amerigo Vespuci- the list is endless. Of more recent times Lawrence of Arabia, Freya Stark, Pico Iyer (?). How does such an experience shape a person and how does his conception of the world change (perhaps slightly) is often a gradual process. Like this trek in the Himalayas four years back. What was adventure alone then is a clear experience in traversing the personal plane beginning with the outside. As I walked, putting step after step on that 14 kilometer trek to Kedarnath shrine I didn’t quite realize that those footsteps were not made on the physical terrain alone. They were also the first steps made into the self. Another terrain where I was beginning to know myself and explore how I related to others and what did I think about things that I hadn’t known were raging questions in themselves.

Spending a moment on recalling this journey is also due a chance encounter with a fellow traveler on a train to south India from up north (Kris, this is for you. And the Kedar pictures that follow). Kris has made me go over that trek in the Himalayas frame by frame (from what I remember) and place myself again in those experiences contrasting and mapping the distance I have covered as an individual in these years.

Pilgrims, ponies and the crowd at start of Kedarnath trail

Pilgrims, ponies and the crowd at start of Kedarnath trail

We were four of us on the trail. What we shared was an excitement for the unknown. An urge to venture out, test the limits of our physical selves and wrap in all the adventure that we can while we are still able bodied. This could be very Indian thought, for we believe that able body is a blessing and a matter of being fortunate. On their mutual love for science that brought them together, in a memorial address for Hermann Minkowski, David Hilbert says,
“… we also liked to seek out hidden trails and discovered many an unexpected view which was pleasing to our eyes; and when the one pointed it out to the other, and we admired it together, our joy was complete.” On that trail high up in the Himalayas our joy was pretty much the same.

Himalayas can evoke a range of emotions. This experience intensifies when a man’s faith is layered on this. Himalayas are an abode of many Hindu gods. High in the snow capped peaks are caves, temples and physical forms of divinity which are revered. This I think is a work of human imagination and a profound one at that. Perhaps the experience of witnessing the sight of these majestic peaks, the experience of being one to one with these enormous mountains was a spiritual experience. It is stirring – the physical exhaustion of having trekked so high and what one sees in such a physical and mental state. And to one’s imagination this was the divine one that he sought or never knew he sought but could make out when he found it.

The high point of the trek to Kedarnath temple was the awe inspiring fashion in which the magnificent Sumeru peaks revealed themselves for a brief moment from an overcast sky and on a rainy noon.

The imposing Sumeru range hidden in fog and clouds at Kedarnath temple

The imposing Sumeru range hidden in fog and clouds at Kedarnath temple

Kedarnath temple in the foggy Sumeru range background

Kedarnath temple in the foggy Sumeru range background

Sumeru range reveals itself for a brief moment

Sumeru range reveals itself for a brief moment

The magnificent peaks over Kedarnath temple

The magnificent Sumeru peaks over Kedarnath temple

Sumeru peaks

Sumeru peaks

Talking to Kris on that train traveling across the Deccan plateau, I was startled to know that he had a similar experience. He was on his way back from a trek to Kedarnath and I did it 4 years back. But the similarity of experience and his sublime experience made me wonder if that is how the nature plays itself out high up there. I would be happy enough to leave my ‘rational’ self and believe in this spectacular play of divinity manifested through the nature.

Photo credits: my awesome fellow traveler @praveenasridhar & me @tiwarisac

From that midnight ‘tryst’ to the high noon – Indian democracy

The recent gangrape in Delhi and the government’s response to the demonstrations in the city has been the most disappointing sight for me. Corruption, scams, policy screw ups… all that was fine with me. But stifling such a protest wasn’t what I thought one would see in India at least (like shutting down metro stations to prevent protestors from getting together). This set me exploring how far has India come along on the democracy road or has it actually drifted away from its path?

Independent India was all about experiments and grand ones at that to begin with. Nehru, the first Prime Minister, felt that the new born nation cannot afford the revolutionary way of the left nor can it afford to be socialist in its approach to nation building. He proposed “a third way which takes the best from all existing systems- the Russian, the American and others- and seeks to create something suited to one’s own history and philosophy.”[i] With independence, India’s political landscape began transforming in a manner that would later have accumulated as not quite favourable or even reasonably reflecting democracy in spirit. Sudipta Kaviraj articulates the phases of political transformation as an early period of realignment (that happened around independence), experimentation (when India moved to a passive capitalist growth led economic system), consolidation and instability (a degenerative phase of Nehruvian ideas and Indo-China, Indo-Pak wars). [ii]

Although many views on how old is democracy in India exist, with some Hindu nationalists also claiming that the appointment of kings too was democratic and that the idea of democracy is not new to India. It is also argued that with the British, democracy has only revisited India. These scripture based reasons of democracy are of little relevance to the scope here. It should be interesting to map the emergence of democracy in a post-colonial India. That democracy arises from a peculiar set of historical, social and economic circumstances is helpful in explaining much of the values that independent India inherited, which determined its approach to nation building and governance.

While presenting the new Constitution in the Constituent Assembly, its architect Dr. B.R. Ambedkar said that “democracy is not a form of government, but a form of social organization”.[iii] Ambedkar made remarks in that address to the Assembly, which in hindsight appear landmark. These can also be considered as a benchmark to understand that where did India aspire to start and where did it set its eye as a democracy. Doing this, we can then look at the events and explore if she did reach anywhere near that or has only gone wayward in the six decades since Independence. Ambedkar reasoned that three things must be done if India wishes to maintain democracy not only in its form but also in fact. First, he emphasizes, is that constitutional methods must be adhered to, for achieving social and economic objectives. When the nation didn’t have a constitution, movements resorting to unconstitutional methods might have been justified, but now that there is one, no justification stands reasonable for resorting to unconstitutional means. Civil disobedience and Gandhi’s ‘satyagraha’, as used post-Independence, was also viewed as an unconstitutional way to achieve an objective which a group felt was in its interest.

Contrasting this view with recent movements in anti-corruption, people’s rights to natural resources, right to reservation in public services etc, one can notice the divergence from the original thought that India set out with. Second, that in a democracy people should not vest so much power in a single person or leader that he may subvert the institutions. Any form of ‘hero worship’ too must be avoided. Although, there is nothing wrong with honouring great men for their service, there are limits to being grateful. Third, Ambedkar urges people not to be content with political democracy alone. He reasons that social democracy must form the base on which political democracy rests. Social democracy, he states, is a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as principles of life.[iv]

This address in November 1949, by Ambedkar sets the larger context of understanding of democracy in India and the practice of it. Although, it is debatable how it unfolded over the years, the intent it can be said was much as Ambedkar outlined while presenting the draft Constitution

Democracy- Increasing divide in spirit & practice

When Congress came to power, a realignment of the earlier order happened, as Sudipta Kaviraj articulates. To some within the party, Congress’ departure from reformist agenda was a great concern. For Nehru, as a Prime Minister, democratic social transformation became an integral part of economic strategy. This turned out to be at odds with the socialist ideas as well. He pointed to “country as an area of agreement between opposing ideologies of capitalism on the one hand and communism on the other”.[v] These differences marked the changes that Congress underwent, and its emergence as a party led by Nehru’s ideas about nation building. In this approach, India got its first streak of capitalist development by the way of extensive planning exercises and massive government programs in infrastructure building and public sector enterprises. This shift is important to note because in about a decade’s time a heavy bureaucratization of the government takes place which in later years would come to determine (and undermine) the democratic process in the country. Nehru’s industrialization led approach to growth and modernization had a good run during the period 1950-1964. But it also had consequences which would lead to serious polarization of Congress party, a national dissatisfaction on over emphasis on industrialization whereas India was still agrarian (with a majority of them being small farmers) and an over dependence on Soviet technology and assistance. These factors eventually precipitated into disillusionment and a political crisis with the death of Nehru in 1964. The phase of assertion by regional political parties and establishing their rule in Indian states was about to begin. Within three years of Nehru’s death, the CPI (M) managed to regroup in many Indian states and run for election in those states. Similarly, the rich farmers from the northern belt had formed stronger associations to assert themselves. Several other forms of associations and regional political parties had begun to emerge making the larger political scene noisier and diverse. Theoretically, democracy was actually being well lived by representation from several different groups, communities and classes that India is made of. But this did not guarantee that the government, its institutions and its work was all in public interest.

Indira Gandhi came to power after Nehru, her father, passed away. This was a period of political turmoil which was answered by appointing Indira Gandhi as the successor. Her coming to power marks a major blow to the spirit of democracy in India but in a way it also helped the country look back at what it started with, and attempt a reorientation. It is paradoxical that Indira Gandhi’s style led to a gradual decline of election based choice of leaders within the party and at the same time her rise as a leader nationally. Her mass appeal and the ability to directly connect with the masses bypassing the regional leaders was an interesting phenomenon. While she was leading a party (Congress), everything in the party was about decisions made by her and passed on to the party members. Critical political decision making also began shifting to higher levels of bureaucracy. This had a very debilitating effect on Congress party. Nationally, elections turned into populist referendums which completely undermined the electoral process. The period of emergency from June 1975 to March 1977 is another landmark in the progression of democracy in India. This 18 month period made a good time for leaders and the people of India to experience what it is like to exist in a space of limited or no civic rights that democracy guaranteed. Patronage and cronyism infiltrated politics even when Indira Gandhi was re-elected to power in 1985. During this entire period, the gulf in practice of democracy kept widening, but it would be difficult to present a contrary argument that India on the whole did not move towards becoming more democratic. This is because in spite of severe damages done to the political system by feudal and class led politics, the chaos that it caused only made several other groups emerge and put up a strong opposition. Although, the emergence and assertion of political parties from minority groups did take a considerable time, the sum total of the events by a great measure, moved towards heterogeneity and multi-party political system.

Dalit groups emerged faster as a consequence of this higher class dominated politics. For instance, formation of dalit political parties like Republican Party of India, Dalit Panthers and more importantly BahujanSamaj Party (BSP) which was formed in 1984. From its formation in 1984 to its emergence as single majority party in 2007 Uttar Pradesh state elections, BSP makes an interesting case in rise of oppressed and marginal groups in the political system of India. This could also be seen as a consequence of the early democratic principles that were enshrined in the Constitution of India. It could also be said that the process took a considerable time. But the fact that it emerged on its own accord and from the people themselves makes it peculiar and also ensures that the change is lasting.


i) Guha, Ramachandra. Makers of Modern India. Penguin Books India, 2010
ii) Kaviraj, Sudipta, (1988), A Critique of the Passive Revolution, in Chatterjee, Partha, State and   Politics in India, OUP 2002 
iii) Guha, Ramachandra. Makers of Modern India. Penguin Books India, 2010.
iv) Constituent Assembly of India – Volume Date Accessed, Sept 30, 2012
v) Harrison, Kevin and Boyd, Tony, Understanding political ideas and movements. Manchester University Press, 2003

The proverbial India – China comparison

There is this obsession with Indians about Chinese cities, their outrageously large engineering projects, their ventures in Africa, the Chinese people and other things Chinese. Especially in my neighbourhood which is a rather insignificant south Indian town where a private university (happens to be my alma mater too) has been admitting hundreds of Chinese students in its various technology programs (undergraduate) over the past couple of years. It is a common sight in the town to see these chatty young faces walking by, learning and living in a completely different culture. What brings them here is an MoU of this private Indian university with another in China to teach their students in an ‘english medium’ institution. At least that is how the common story goes on coconut radio here.

Now, after a term of economics as a major subject I have begun to see things a little more differently and perhaps clearly. The clarity that has set in is about the difference in Indian and Chinese initiation of market reforms, which has come to determine the current economic statuses and accomplishments of both these large nations. This in a way refers to the ‘path dependency school’ of thought which I have just begun to explore.

The difference in initiation of market reforms is on 4 counts:

  1. Colonial history and political experience:  As a consequence of an early brush with British imperialism (the exploitative opium trade & trading environment on the offshore ports off the mainland) the development thought in China was marked by an intense mistrust of the markets. With the humiliation and forced submission brought about during the opium wars with Britain in late 19th century Chinese were very clear about their mode and degree of interaction with foreign trade interests. Consolidation of power and later rule of the communist party carried these early experiences to the formation and governance style of the state. Later reforms too were guided by this in a sense that China believed that state owned companies must be the major players in the market. State’s participation in the market meant that it would play an enormous influence instead of allowing a free market play. Chinese state owned companies like CNOOC, OCBC etc as a consequence grew bigger  on state involvement. The reform process in China has been different from the Indian reform process in the extent of participation and control by the state. This consequently made it easier for Chinese companies to compete overseas and at the same time give a tough competition (although skewed) to foreign multinationals desirous of doing business in China. A case in point is Chinese search company Baidu vs. Google China. Similarly, online commerce company Alibaba gave a tough run to foreign ecommerce majors like eBay and Amazon. Markets in China have had a greater control by the state and designed to incline with Chinese interests. 
  2. Role of State: The communist party in China has had a long reign of power and is still going strong. State’s presence is pervasive in the economy. This is quite different from India. Indian companies have competed in the international markets alone and on their own merit compared to the state backed Chinese companies. While the reform trigger for India was a balance of payment crisis brought about by the state (to mark the tipping point), China’s reform process appears to be gradual and not crisis induced. China exhibited high levels of readiness in terms of literacy, infrastructure and other necessary ingredients for people to make use of the rapidly liberalizing markets.
  3. Development Strategy: As said earlier, during market reforms initiation in China it was better prepared to make use of the opportunities that opening up of markets presented. The workforce was literate and trained as well as the state of infrastructure complemented the opportunities of the time quite well. Transport network, production and labour linkages, power infrastructure and financial system – all of it could aid a rapid growth process. Higher literacy meant that the population was essentially a ready workforce which would only require basic training for their vocation. At the same time a single party rule meant faster decision making process and rapid implementation of projects which required things like public consent, relocation of people etc. The concerted action required from various departments and wings of the system was achieved conveniently due to their political structure.
  4. Leverage of International Trade: While India and China stood at the same position with respect to their initial mistrust of the markets and capitalists, China moved ahead with a different strategy whereas India completely shut itself off from the markets in the initial years (at least for the first four Five Year Plans). During these the famous Mahalanobis model of economic growth was being test fired in India. In spite of having a large domestic market China still focused on international trade. It promoted manufacturing sector by developing production processes so massive that it could produce goods much cheaper than what it would take to produce them in the western countries. This cost advantage boosted Chinese manufacturing sector to begin with. Consequent export market growth paid huge dividends in later decades. For instance China has the world’s largest forex reserves. All this while Indian export market was small and comprised of raw goods primarily.

It may appear that Indian market reform story has been slower than that of China. The point being made here is that the two countries have had a vastly different path to growth from the late 20th century. In comparing them one should be conscious of the paths that these countries have taken. Otherwise the exercise would be unproductive as it is often seen.


Holy cow, armchair anthropology & attraction of the ‘exotic’

Cows_JamuiA paper I recently read and which I had never known about (although some argue that it has been one of the most well known papers on culture & ecology) amazes me in its method and for the art of stating the obvious.

Marvin Harris’ paper The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle ‘attempts’ to talks of the ecological role of bovine cattle in India. (JSTOR link, gated & I don’t like these folks anymore for the world lost a brilliant young man, Aaron Scwartz, due to their deathly lawsuit.)  By his own admission he bases his argument on’ intensive reading’ and that he has ‘never seen a sacred cow, nor been to India’. This is amazing! Such erudition that he exhibits in the successive pages of the article are all based on having not seen the subject of his article at all. Leave alone that the reference ‘sacred cow’ itself is laughable if you were to ask an Indian. Cows in the hindu belief are sacred aren’t referred to as sacred cow. That which he attempts to do i.e. an ethnographic account is logic defying, for his language itself exudes ignorance of the place and relevance of cows – a) for Hindus and b) in India .

Numbers on cattle production, fodder consumption, efficiency variables etc are relatively easy to access, easier to crunch and layer interpretation on them. So the ecological arguments of the paper form the information bulk. But the rest is banal and not quite about the ‘puzzling inconsistencies’ that he thinks it is. So, the fact that the author has not seen, leave alone experience the sight of watching cows in Indian setting, his subject makes this paper’s assertions very thin. I have a serious problem with this. The second problem is that why on earth is this sort of stuff a part of sociology readings particularly in graduate programs in India. I do not quite care about outside India because some of it can be informative for others to know and that the paper comes out of the western institutions which have encouraged such armchair anthropology in the first place.

He writes,

“Mismanagement of India’s agricultural resources as a result of the Hindu doctrine of ahimsa  especially as it applies to beef cattle, is frequently noted by Indianists and others concerned with the relation between values and behavior. Although different anti-rational, dysfunctional and inutile aspects of the cattle complex are stressed by different authors, many agree that ahimsa is a prime example of how men will diminish their material welfare to obtain spiritual satisfaction in obedience to nonrational or frankly irrational belief.”

With this he identifies the tensions between beliefs and rational thought that characterizes a society’s relationship with production systems. When ecology is seen as a relationship between man and environment mediated by culture, the dynamics of resource use and inter dependencies become evident. The idea of “ahimsa” and cow as a sacred animal evolve from Rig Veda, a Hindu religious text. The practice of not killing cows irrespective of their utility as a resource that is practiced by Hindus then becomes irrational yet necessary as a religious practice. Harris argues that it is not as irrational as it appears. There is a logical sense in such a practice. I admit that such a reasoning is valid and his argument that culture too has a logic and reason behind it. It isn’t quite exotic and strange as it may seem to an outsider. The underlying thought that ideas – how they are formed and how they evolve, have much to do with the way relationships are framed and perceived is a reasonable one.

But, Harris’ opinion that “ahimsa” is an example of how men will diminish their material welfare may not necessarily be subscribed to (and I feel strongly about the haste in coming to this conclusion) because:

  1. Teleologically speaking, material well-being is not how many societies (including the Hindu) see their ultimate goal in life.
  2. The role of cow in the Indian belief system and in the agricultural production system is more complex than the simplistic, instrumental relation that Harris’ frames it as. I mean, he really ought to have traveled to India and experienced a city road with stray cows, a rural farm life, a town life with many well employed families still maintaining a cow shed and things like that. That would sure have made a deeper and richer study. For instance, much of what he says about cows utility Indian children grow up seeing it all around. And consequently they too are able to reason out the utility value of cows and much more than what his paper tries to illuminate. I remember my Grandma explaining me the practices and all that she would do to maintain her stock of 4 cows. It ain’t rocket science, it is deeply rooted in cultural practices which we sure understand better by the mere fact that we are a part of it and live within it.