Sociology of Law & Labour Welfare

I have been studying the building and construction workers in Bangalore as a part of an academic research for over six months now. The study emerges from a simple observation that many of us might have made commuting around in this city – that what explains such poor work, health and social conditions in which the construction workers live? Is there no law which guarantees minimum work and social conditions to them? Turns out there is!

The Building and Other Construction Workers Act (BOCW), 1996 was made to address this situation. This category of workers have worked and lived in appalling conditions forever and the BOCW act was brought into force to improve their situation as a class of workers in the country. Then, did it work to improve their condition should be our next question. This is where we hit the classic Indian condition of having adequate legal provision but little implementation and consequently ineffective law. While this can be analysed in several different ways, I choose to ask a normative question on the understanding of ‘labour welfare’ by the judiciary. This is because the BOCW Act proposes to take care of the workers’ welfare by extending social security benefits to them. These benefits are essentially about financial assistance provided to registered workers under eight different schemes. There are 13,00,000 construction workers in Bangalore according to the Karnataka BOCW Welfare Board estimates. Out of these, 250,000 are registered with the board and therefore deemed as ‘covered’ with social security benefits. Among these registered workers the most popular scheme is financial assistance for education, maternity assistance and funeral assistance in that order!

Sociology of law is a poorly developed discipline in India. Legal analysis often does not account for the social contexts in which the law operates. Its relevance to the contemporary dynamics of labour productivity, migration and their economic contribution makes me consider a sociological enquiry in this issue. The country can no longer afford to neglect its construction workers which forms a substantial part of the unskilled labour force employed in the construction sector and which in fact is the driving force of the sector – not machinery and certainly not capital. A case in point is the Commonwealth Games 2010 in New Delhi. Over Rs.70000 Crores were provided only for improving the city infrastructure and sports facilities. When the work was at peak in mid-May, 2008 to mid-May, 2009, more than one lakh workers were employed in all these projects.

Their welfare must be of immediate concern to the state governments because – first, they are a major group of workers who rank low on human development measures like income, healthcare, education and skills. Second, that the neglect that they have lived through in the 1990s and 2000s which were the famed years of India’s economic success story, has alienated them from considering themselves a part of the society as well as of the growth story which the country so wishes to tout as ‘inclusive’. Here the law is directly linked to social and economic aspects of the construction workers lives. This is also evident in Durkheim’s theorization of the relationship of law to the forms of sociality. He says: “The visible symbol of social solidarity (conceived as a solidarity in fact, that is, a form of solidarity) is the Law,” and adds: ‘Hence we can be sure of finding all the essential varieties of social solidarity reflected in the Law’.

Now, when the law itself doesn’t encompass the values of dignity of labour and welfare as a comprehensive set of enabling conditions that makes a worker feel secure and safe his work environment then what possibilities of him to be reflect even traces of social solidarity. In addition to this the workers are in many cases the flotsam and jetsam of a certain kind of economic growth where it has ceased to be anything beyond an exercise in identifying development by numbers and percentages. All the workers we interviewed during the study were migrants. Therefore, we suggest that there is disconnect in the way the act articulates its goals and has set guidelines for the states to then provide for the welfare of the construction workers. The act discounts the social world that the construction workers inhabit. To interpret their social security as financial assistance is incomplete. Contrast this with the social security bundle of white collar workers which comprise of benefits like provident fund, right to a clean, safe workplace, strict enforcement of building safety compliance, maternity benefits to women employees, crèches, tax sops, food coupons etc. The question of explaining such divergence of benefits between these classes of workers may not concern private enterprises but must in all aspects concern the law.

An enquiry into this law and poor state of welfare of the workers reveals problems on several fronts from economic relationship between employer and the workers to labour rights. What type of change in the status quo is likely to bring about a positive change in the situation and where does one begin thinking about it – are the questions that must be dealt with in order to have a broad based change than a mere sharpening of the act. A divergence from the conventional view which argues that law should not be seen as working through the modern types of courts or police is of significance here.

Reciprocity as a moral norm can make a significant difference to the understanding of construction workers’ relationship with the society at large. Malinowski observes that reciprocity is the binding force in the society. Everyone has to render adequate services to others lest others may withdraw or reduce their service for him. Reciprocity is a key intervening variable (gated link) which through which shared social rules are enabled to yield social stability. On a normative front this appears to be a moral yet practical position that one can take to view labour welfare in the modern society and go about effecting appropriate rules to guarantee a minimal standard of living and work conditions at par with the national average that exists in the country today.


Music and perception

Ustad Bismillah Khan playing his shehnai. (Photo: The Hindu)

Ustad Bismillah Khan playing his shehnai. (Photo: The Hindu)

An effect of pursuing liberal arts is that one’s mind is no more disengaged with the heart. (yes, that typical problem with modern education). Pursuit of any form of art or art itself as an experience, as a conscious consumption works as a bridge between the left and the right brained orientations that psychology talks about. Bridging of these two sides has interesting consequences in life, which are at times thoroughly satisfying. For instance, one’s conception of music as an experience.

Why do eyes well up listening to some people play music? Never knowing who the violinist in Song from a Secret Garden is, but riding with that song a full five hundred kilometers on the road stopping, crying, gazing into stunning landscapes, letting the tears get absorbed by the balaclava covering your face and repeating it all in that order?

And so with Ustad Bismillah Khan whose shehnai can reach such depths within that you’ve never fathomed. This affectionate, intimate connect with the person without having seen him ever, tells something about the ability of music to be a language transcending the need to know. You’ve heard a music and felt something happening within? Then you’ve already known him, met him and you are already talking to him. Ustad Bismillah Khan of one’s mind is perhaps the real Ustad Bismillah  who he ever wished to be! And the rest is just a body, a physical being as the Hindu belief goes. The affinities run deep and gets deeper with time. That the body is gone? How does it matter?

As they say, the music lives on. The language too remains, the message expressed and the man still alive. If you care enough to talk and listen and dialogue, he is there! And so are many such people who are no more with us.

Saints & Poets – Kannada Poetry

Translated works are often special because of a completely new world that they open up for a reader who wouldn’t have otherwise known and understood some of the finest poetry of a different region composed in an alien language. When such a world opens up, it is like a travel to a distant unknown land whose terrain, landscape and colors one enjoys with fascination. Living in Bangalore for some time now, I noticed statues of men like Basvanna (near Chalukya Hotel signal), Kuvempu (at Freedom Park) and could know no further of their poetry or their life.

Book Cover: Poets & Saints, Translated by G. S. Amur

Book Cover: Poets & Saints, Translated by G. S. Amur

This afternoon, I am reading Saints and Poets, a collection of Kannada poetry translated by G.S. Amur. It is a sheer delight to know these men and women poets of Karnataka and have a taste of their poetry. The book is highly recommended.

Here are some of my favorites :

Basavanna: A great religious and social reformer of the 12th century and a minister in the court of the Kalachuri king Bijjala (1130-1167) who ruled in Kalyan. He is considered to be the most poetic of the Vachanakaras.

Tied to the altar,
The sacrificial lamb
Ate the tender leaves
Hung in decoration.
Not knowing the axe
Would fall, it filled
Its burning belley.
That day it was born,
That day it died.
Did the killers live
O God Kudala Sangama?

Akkamahadevi: First woman poet in Kannada and one of the best known of the 12th century Vachanakaras. She has been an iconic figure for women poets in Kannada because of her revolutionary nature, her spiritual achievement and the high poetic quality of her Vachanas.

When you build a house in the mountains
It will not do to be scared of wild animals.
When you build a house on the ocean shore
It will not do to be frightened by breaking waves.
When you build a house in the marketplace
It will not do to shy away from noise.
Hear me Channamallikarjunadeva,
Being born on the earth it will not do
To lose peace of mind by praise or blame.

Sarvajana: A 16th century saint and preacher, he is a household name in Karnataka. His Vachanas, set in the desi metre of Tripadi have a biting wit.

You find him in fine sand,
In polished stone
And in lines drawn on cloth
Can’t you find him in yourself,
Says Sarvajana.

The other names in the collection include modern poets like Gopalakrishna Adiga, Channaveera Kanavi, G.S. Shivarudrappa and more. This serves as a very engaging and enjoyable panorama of Kannada poetry.

Masquerades in alternative thinking: The case of education

Government Primary School, Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh (Photo: Arun Sivaramakrishnan)

Government Primary School, Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh (Photo: Arun Sivaramakrishnan)

What is ‘alternative’ about alternative education? This is where I begin. Education is not my area of expertise but I have been a teacher and experienced what it is to teach. That is where I draw my understanding from. I explore the meaning and practice of it from my own experience in tutoring seventh and eighth graders, from Deepti  Mehrotra’s account on Origins of Alternative Education in India: A Continuing Journey and Sarada  Balagopalan’s Understanding Educational Innovation in India: The Case of Eklavya.

There are significant sociological concerns with the way alternative education is practiced in India and in its assertion as the way forward for education. Its claims are large and the practical effect meager.  For instance, Deepti Mehrotra asserts in her paper that, “Alternatives to this kind of education might not constitute a cohesive movement, but inherent in them is a powerful critique of such a system, and the potential for social transformation.” Serving the role of a powerful criticism and then suggesting that it can bring about a social transformation does imply that the ideas need to operate within the realm of mainstream education. Or is a social transformation possessing a completely new education system will emerge which would have displaced mainstream education? The idea appears to be farfetched. The paper does not engage with the question of what should be the vision and specific goals of education from a philosophical perspective. It merely seeks to engage with the idea of alternative education as claimed and as practiced.

The stated vision of the mainstream schools and alternative schools is not very divergent. Without a doubt that the form and action that mainstream schools adopt towards realizing these educational goals are of deep concern. Mainstream education in its present form has often had damaging effects on children’s development and also builds up further potential of creating an individual deficient in several vital facilities of life which constitute the experience of living – appreciation of arts, nature, sensitivity, self-consciousness and similar values. However, the ideas advanced as alternative education are merely different pedagogical approach towards a broader vision of education that is similar to that of mainstream education. I contend that the ideas labeled as ‘alternative’ with respect to school education do not suggest a different or another way of thinking about education itself but are about means and approaches to delivery of education in its present form.  If what is proposed by alternative education proposes to be alternative then the practice of education children for a few years on a free form curriculum and then making them appear for the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) examination can be read as a merging with mainstream education. Contrast this with Mehrotra’s observation on examinations, “Children pursue rigid, examination-oriented syllabi and compete with one another in a relentless race to perform. Camaraderie, cooperation, fun and a love for learning are, unfortunately, casualties.” An alternative education system which aims at letting children explore on their own, self-learn and only facilitate learning (vs. teaching) also submits to the urge of certification. This in true spirit is not alternative, perhaps a divergent way of arriving at the same outcome.

The other question is that of the social transformation claims that alternative education makes. How does it aim to achieve this transformation when choice of alternative education is made either by the poor sections of the society or by the upper sections who are positioned enough to support their children in pursuing non-conventional career option. The ‘middle’ section is missing. This must be examined closely because this section is critical for the aimed transformation.

When the question of alternative is framed from another perspective – of that of educational innovation, it gets relevant and consistent with its meaning. Hoshangabad Science Teaching Program (HSTP) and later Eklavya, an NGO which worked in improving science teaching in government schools in Madhya Pradesh embody a true sense of being an alternative in a sense that it can achieve social transformation starting from school education. Sample this diary entry by a school teacher, Hemraj Bhat, who kept a record of his experience as a teacher in a government primary school. Here is a teacher who is questioning, improvising, innovation and genuinely trying to achieve all that alternative education proposes and this, by being within the larger mainstream framework –

“We play a game of words through this paper. Today some boys listed Gulab Jamun in the category of flowers. Similarly some boys thought that Chameli was the name of a place and many listed butterfly as a bird. When such situations arise, they provide a good atmosphere for discussion. Many children thought ‘Rabri’ was rubber and said it is something we put in our hair. Some boys said ‘Rabri’ is an eraser. All children associated cream with cream rolls and put it in the list of eatables. In local language ‘Makri’ is called ‘makra’. The children could not understand that ‘Makra’ and ‘Makri’ was the same thing. They can differentiate between animals and birds but cannot understand the difference between  animals and insects. That is why they put butterflies and moths in the list of birds and lizards, cockroaches and snakes under animals. So this activity creates an atmosphere for discussing language, our environment and science etc., all at the same time. I have only realised this now. When I prepared the assignment, my objective was merely to develop the reading skills of children.”

The thought advanced here is that innovations in mainstream education hope to achieve the same outcome as that of alternative education. That alternative schools finally subject their students to one or the other type of examination, assessment and certification goes against the grain of alternative behaviour. Such claim to exclusivity and divergent practice by alternative education does not qualify as another possible ‘thought’.  Much of what is claimed by alternative education is being practiced and successfully in the mainstream schools as well. A school teacher when asked his role in the classroom while teaching Eklavya textbooks replies, “Our role while teaching the Eklavya books was like that of a colleague or helper. For instance, if a group were working on a given experiment, we would sit with them and assist them.”

So, while the claim that alternative education is about a wide range of alternative possibilities in education stands valid, the same cannot be said of it as a radical new thought. Examining this claim is pertinent to the current debates in education because first, this claim problematize mainstream and public education in a non-constructive manner. Second, this could lead to rise of a certain elite variety of education at one end and a lesser variety of schools for the poor at the other end, without actually having done anything radical after all!

Post development critiques: the scare-crows of development sector

Use of ‘post-‘ as a prefix to established paradigm like ‘modern’ and in our case ‘development’ is often used as an entry point into advancing an alternative and in most cases a polemical theory. I argue that post-development critiques of development operate in this mode – where they take a polar opposite position on what development as a practice means as well as by advancing arguments which discounts the realities and challenges that a large number of developing and under-developed nations face. In essence, what post development theories does is that it functions as a ‘scare-crow’ in the farm of development, much like the way a scare-crow works in a paddy field – scaring or preventing birds from picking on the paddy seeds by pretending that there are people working in the field.

In the following I examine some of the critiques and offer explanation as to how it does not imply an end of ‘development’ phase so as to ascribe a ‘post’ label. It is perhaps too soon to write it off in this post developmentalist fashion.

Conflating the traditional and underdeveloped: A critique of development is that it conflates ideas of ‘traditional’ and ‘underdeveloped’ and that this is a misrepresentation of reality. In alleging this it is not noted that the object of concern for the nations in pursuit of economic growth is not traditional but adopting ‘modernization’. Interpreting development in terms of tradition is the handiwork of post development theorists and not the doing of development. Development as a loss of tradition can then be seen as a scare-crow which in effect is not a real threat present in the field but is an impression. Traditions are a set of practices that a society continues to practice over a period of time which have yielded a certain social, ethical or moral deliverance. When seen from a larger time frame one may find that traditions too have changed over time. They too are in a state of flux.

So when a development oriented state aspires to modernize its ways of functioning and pushes further the society’s social aspirations, traditions too tend to change. They are after all a set of practices with a collective sanction of the society. They do not necessarily possess a timeless quality and have to be checked for consistency. For instance, the more a society industrializes the more professionalization of traditional family systems of care take place – like child care. In the earlier order child care in Indian society was offered by the grandparents who existed as a part of a larger joint family. But with emergence of nuclear families and urbanization child care is now a form of professional service offered by the market. This has usurped the traditional form of child care.

Development as a ‘surrender’ of social consciousness and autonomy: By stretching this thought backwards it could as well be said that the existence of ‘society’ itself is a surrender leave alone development. Social contract and a sovereign state which are the core units of human existence are themselves a surrender of autonomy. From such purist position and linear thinking many other social phenomenon could be labeled surrender. This criticism is inconsistent because social systems are complex and are a consequence of several types of interactions. Surrender from one perspective could be an informed choice from another. For instance, a predominant role of markets in shaping public choice is seen as a surrender of the people to markets and corporations. In another way of reading, it can also be said with equal fervor and perhaps with greater reason that it is a conscious choice of people aspiring for better lives for themselves. If markets are capable of delivering such aspirations then that is the direction where society will align. Reading this as surrender is a hasty thought.

Karl Polanyi notes that ‘the economic system is embedded as a component of human culture and like culture it is in a constant state of evolution. This relationship between economic system and human culture is of significance to the argument. Social consciousness is a subset of human culture. It is only when human culture and economy are seem as disjoint can one make such a comparison and then infer surrender or cooperation, whereas the argument is that one is a subset of the other. Also, it is not necessary that change in social consciousness can be automatically inferred as surrender. If it means that society now is willingly submitting and the market manipulates the individual then one should ask if market is an altogether a new creature different and out of control of man. It is governed by the people themselves and this indicates that they are surrendering to their own choices.

Professionalization and ‘expertization’ of development: Elsewhere, Vijay Mahajan notes that in India new NGOs came to be established by people with higher educational and professional backgrounds, who were concerned about the problems of the mainstream institutions and wished to explore alternatives in social action. If the mode of operation of development sector is considered to be voluntary action alone then the criticism is of value. However, with mainstreaming of development as a state concern and a national aspirational path development becomes embedded into the state’s agenda. When the state begins framing its work in terms of development it acts upon it in a mission mode. Professionalization then becomes a necessity in order to achieve the goals set by the state. While this can contradict the notion of pure form development (which is seen as pareto efficient), in practice there are costs- social and economic. The magnitude of these costs is dependent on the state’s strategy as well as the society’s collective aspiration. Often they are in consonance as can be seen from the rise of the ‘Asian tigers’ – Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong. As citizens of a ‘developed’ state Singaporeans, Taiwanese etc often take pride in their country’s prosperity and might differ in their view of the costs they incurred in the journey of their country to this stage.

The arguments forwarded here are to suggest that post development critiques themselves do not account for the current realities of the world when they state that development is surrender or is problematic. While there are problems it is still one of the reasonable ways of moving ahead towards realizing basic levels of prosperity to humanity at large. Therefore, the simile that these critiques are much like the scare-crows in farms which give an impression of reality (of people working in the farm) but are actually dummies. However, they do serve the purpose of ensuring that the debates on development are enriched by such polemical positions.