Sociology – Is it necessary to take sides?

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The editors of n+1 magazine have gone whacking at the weeds that have grown in sociology as a discipline in their recent issue. Too Much Sociology discusses what is wrong with the nature of knowledge produced by sociology and the way it is used, appropriated or more often, tapped into, by arts, literature, politics and culture critics to their ends. They note that sociology has always rested itself on universalisms and depersonalized individuals with its interpretations encapsulated it into theories like agent-structure, habitus, unfreedom and other such ideas which are now the keywords for the critics in other disciplines like arts, culture and social sciences. The closing question on why does sociology requires one to take a side is something which we must now ask even more assertively to the masquerading social scientists. The editors make a tough note with – “It elaborates rules for a never-ending battle in which there are winners and losers, dominators and dominated, but nonetheless fails to persuade us why we might want to take sides in the first place.”

A year into a graduate program which packs in a major paper in sociology and then keeps it close to the core curriculum, I have experienced the power and curse of sociology at the same time. Sociology in this graduate program in development, is meant to aid a better understanding of people, society and institutions. So I might perhaps be making a rather early observation here, but then, these too serve a purpose – of charting the course of one’s learning.  There is a gradual frustration level that I was building up attending lectures in a course called ‘Categories in Art’ and then more heavily in lectures on theory and philosophy of development. The reasoning offered by instructors in both these courses was much like a plain polarized light which oscillates on a single axis alone. Although enough ‘disclaimers’ were given that the views put forth are one’s own and should be approached with caution, I felt that these did no good to my understanding of the subject. For instance, in categories in arts, the instructor could read only political statements and motivations in works of art. Seriously? Is that all that one can say about works of artists from different tribes and regions of India? Perhaps this was her key concern but that sure doesn’t make a complete appraisal or introduction. It is coloured, perhaps, anthropocentric and if I have to take it further, flawed. The instructor – a trained art historian had a knack of seeing only schemes, collusion and vested interests in dance forms, paintings and literature. While this may certainly be true, what happened to aesthetics? That too if a question is raised, is explained as an acquired, learned, influenced taste or style of the artist. Is there nothing that one can say about the aesthetics of such art? Aesthetics as a theme was for all purposes emasculated out of the arts in this course. (The obvious result – I dropped out of the course.)

Similarly, theory and philosophy of development lectures were a needless, quixotic time travel into ancient Greece and Rome. The farthest it came along the history scale is Hegelian dialectics. And all this to train a mixed bunch of graduate students into development professionals? The instructor would deep dive into the Renaissance period like an earthworm running into the dark end of the tube which was partially subjected to a glowing bulb. No attempts to bring him back to pursue discussion on contemporary works and trends in development practice could liberate the lectures out of the ancient clutches. After several such lectures, I felt that N+1 editors raise a very critical question which in my opinion must be asked – Can we no longer really provide good-faith reasons for our cultural preferences, reasons rooted in private and idiosyncratic experience but articulated in a common language, and therefore also capable of non-coerced, voluntary change?

The two instructors I took lectures from are examples of professors hard coded into the highly technical and often superfluous styles of practicing sociology. And this intellectual muscle flexing is seriously threatening sociology which could be of use to our world without laying conditions on who can participate and who cannot and which is not dominated by such single strands of theory that applies a singular elitist scale of interpretation, projecting that as the universal.

Microfinance in India: A case of development’s bull run

Image: Flickr User Vikram Walia

Image: Flickr User Vikram Walia

Talking to some friends who work in NGOs I have noticed an increased pace of activity in NGOs running microfinance programs. And some programs around the other buzz word ‘financial inclusion’. This made me think if microfinance really has the kind of emancipatory potential that many in the non-profit sector see. I dug up a few papers that were discussed as a part of microfinace module back at the university and found I could use them to make a case of a clear bull run that happened and which really isn’t anything better than retrofitting a market idea into a ‘non-profit’ space.

Whatever the motivations of microfinance as a service in the interest of development were, there is one thing that may be safely stated – that microfinance was a market based enterprise. An enterprise which affected a kind of financial engineering that could potentially help people in the poor and low income categories to get out of the poverty trap that they found themselves in. It may not have started with the motivation of making higher returns by extending credit at an interest to the poor but it certainly ended as that. By end, I imply the crashing of microfinance industry with the Andhra Pradesh crisis. On the thought that it was a market based enterprise it would not be difficult to find consensus, irrespective of which side of the debate one is positioned. What many contend is writing off microfinance as an approach in helping the poor and lower income people to get out of poverty.

If we look at microfinance industry’s performance in India during the period 2000-2010  it reflects what I allege as microfinance’s ‘bull run’ in the development sector. ‘Bull run’ is a term borrowed from stock markets where it is characterized by a sustained increase in share prices. Such an increase is based on positive investor confidence in the economy. For instance, the Bombay Stock Exchange had a bull run from April 2003 to January 2008, a period of five years when the sensex increased from 2,900 points to 21,000 points. This is a massive bull run which tends to pay off investors handsomely. During such a bull run there is a widespread confidence in the market which tends to obfuscate information, merits and overall sustainability of prices of a company’s shares. I argue that such a thing happened with the microfinance industry in India. The use of market terms in explaining the dynamics of an industry which was touted to be necessarily steeped into development sector is deliberate. It is deliberate because microfinance’s emergence as an industry received its most important impetus only when capital from the conventional or mainstream financial markets made its entry into the sector.

The origins of microfinance industry may have been out of concerns of poverty alleviation and genuine belief in the deliverance of microfinance as a tool to escape poverty but as it unfolded it can be seen that it was anything but that. This professor at the university notes that microfinance industry has done well in the last decade: has grown from a USD 400 million in 1996 to USD 200 billion industry, by 2010. In terms of market size it has indeed done well and is an indicator of the kind of growth that a necessarily development activity is capable of showing if it is left to market forces. This aligns with the bull run phase that is the subject of this article. He also explains the underlying reason for such a splendid rate of return that many of the microfinance companies saw during this period. There was also a growing thinking that subsidized credit has its own limitations. Lending should be done at rates which cover the costs: of capital, of delivery and of risk. While costing, cost of delivery of both financial and technical assistance and support services, at the doorstep of the poor household was also included. However, these services were often not delivered, leaving an extra-normal margin for the Micro-finance Institutions (MFI).

This extra-normal margin is well explained in a paper by this professor and his co-authors who happened to be a part of the early microfinance movement themselves. An extra normal margin was an attractive proposition for the mainstream finance companies which were already reeling under the ongoing crisis in the banking industry in India to channelize their capital and of course forces in to this emergent sector. The emergent patterns had all the making of a typical market space where the ruling order is capital and scale. This became evident in the course of growth that microfinance companies in many states later followed. A high capital investment which had to be responded to with strict performance in terms of return on investment which would then effect the earlier stated ‘development outcomes’ by the microfinance company.

There are several arguments made on the impact of microfinance on poverty alleviation, its role as an activity which brings access to finance by the poor who are not covered by mainstream banking etc. These arguments need empirical evidence. Presenting microfinance as a win-win solution that helps companies find that fortune at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ as well as offers a value proposition to the poor in terms of access to low interest capital is incomplete. As a general proposition the vision is fully supported neither by logic nor by the available empirical evidence. Morduch’s example from Micro Banking Bulletin, 1998 speaks to the emotive argument made by others – that the most careful and comprehensive recent survey shows that the programs that target the poorest borrowers generate revenues sufficient to cover just 70% of their full costs. So why would such an inefficient program as microfinance should be run when in comparison by making lending to the poor a banking priority one could achieve similar results, theoretically. Now, one may argue that banking priorities gravitate towards those who are rich and not to the poor. Then this is where the argument that making access to finance to the poor a political priority will be necessary. If it can be a political priority then it will also get addressed by the banking sector. The reason for having a parallel industry where regulation and quality control has been rife with conflict is unexplained. It will be easier to achieve this outcome via the conventional banking industry given the same political and social conditions that are argued for by the microfinance proponents.

Mission drift argument about microfinance industry’s good intentions in the beginning which then get subjected to equity market’s pressures of return on investment and also to the emergence of microfinance as a ‘sunrise’ opportunity must also be examined in the reverse order. Why did the mission drift happen? 

The mission drift argument does not note that structurally finance industry is oriented towards capital flows, performance of capital, return on investment, scale and other typically market oriented structures. What was being attempted by the microfinance industry pioneers was a retrofitting of a market structure into the development sector and reorienting its goals from wealth creation to servicing the poor with access to finance and help them escape poverty. This reasoning is not pursued for a variety of reasons. First is that of admitting to this massive transplantation experiment. Second, is that of making mistakes and not acknowledging them. Third, that pushing microfinance as a solution the development practitioners have come so far that mission drift is the only convenient and saving argument that can be made. However, this reasoning must be driven in order to not make the same mistakes again.

A revision in the microfinance industry regulation and working is being proposed in the wake of Malegam Committee report and the other multiple crises like debt recovery methods of microfinance companies and borrower suicides. It should be questioned if watering down of a capital and market dominated industry like finance to suit development outcomes could be done like the way it was done starting from Grameen Bank to Basix and to SKS Microfinance.
It appeared to be a purely market opportunity which ran well for a period rising on investor confidence and sector wide optimist. During this time finer details were dispensed with. Every microfinance company responded to the lure of capital and the charm of ‘reaching out’ to a large number of ‘unreached’, ‘under-served’ constituency of poor.

The crash of the industry should serve a vital lesson to development sector – of not working in complete dispensation of the day’s reality that market forces are major influences. The development goals of equity, access and opportunity to a poverty free life cannot be situated in a world which discounts the market forces. The measures must work with them and try to negotiate around conflicting goals. Not in the way of retrofitting an idea from one space to the other. If the poor must escape poverty then structural adjustments in the political, governance and social spaces must be effected which then effects a conducive environment for the poor to rise up on the back of equal opportunities and on their own capabilities. The idea that enabling access to finance will achieve this outcome has been a flawed one not only incomplete.

Consulting in Development Sector – Attempting a McKinsey?

A sunrise opportunity?

A sunrise opportunity?

My partner and I got talking about the next five years of our careers as well as the small consulting practice which has grown over the past 3-4 years, starting straight out of college with our first degrees. It is only later that we both went for higher degrees, standing on some hard work experience and practical insights from having built a small business from zero to something. By the third year of our small firm we figured we were offering documentation, analysis and all kinds of help to non-profits in India (and then abroad last year) as well as to small businesses all of whom are in some way or the other linked to the development sector.

Well, you could say that about any company or corporation, but I am working with the popular/conventional notion of ‘development sector’- which includes aid agencies, NGOs and businesses who deal with programs that deliver food, education, healthcare, livelihood or any such service/support to the society. By the fifth year, we figure that the need for strategic as well as process consulting in development sector is a fairly good opportunity. Opportunity in two ways – the sector sure needs some good infusion of efficiency and speed and second, in that the sector is increasing by its value in terms of budget and role. Also, that at least in India, the sector in our understanding is in desperate need of high quality professionals who understand the complex challenges of a globalized world and an extremely diverse society which is being served by an equally complex governance and political system.

So, a consulting firm in this space could bring in the ideas and values just as McKinsey introduced in business consulting. They thought of themselves as ‘management engineers’ who would help corporations tackle challenges of growth, expansion, operation and more importantly strategy (more on this later). The space is as broad in development sector too, which today lives by the word of the international aid agencies of the governments or civil society groups of the west. We have a DFID, USAID, IDRC, the clutch of agencies from UN and ‘the bank’ and ‘the Fund’ dictating the terms, practices and ideas in the sector. From the random and scattered set of consultants in the sector and companies which are generally a club of retired boys from important government positions or ex-bureaucrats the sector has benefited little. A startup like enthusiasm and dynamism is what we think can do a lot of good to the sector.

The other concerning scene here in India is the quality of professionals who enter the development sector. They are either a consequence of poor tailoring done by the universities or people with tunnel vision churned out of institutions run by thinkers and intellectuals of a heavy ideological bent. It isn’t surprising that many of them then see taking the streets, endless paper writing and picketing conferences (if not themselves participating in those conferences) as their roles in the sector. (At least this is true of that old social service poster boy university in Mumbai.) This must go. The sector could sure do better with activists who also carry plans or could suggest alternatives, which is a rarity. For instance, all that picketing at WTO meetings in the US and then in Canada later (couldn’t do much in Doha) was a lot of action with no result. They could have been better organized and represented by their contribution than just a show of strength.

That minor digression aside, the small wave of management and technology graduates starting their own small initiatives across India in the 1970s and 1980s (PRADAN, BASIX, Development Alternatives, Barefoot College and the likes) need to happen again. In the wave of revival we need a marriage of business acumen and outcome oriented focus with ideologies, not just a flirt of ideologies with pseudo market ideas . A consulting firm could then help them gain steam, ramp up their processes and get ahead delivering the outcomes that they set their vision on. And that idea of ‘our success would be when we are no longer required in a region’ is absurd! If that is how you see yourself in a space then you are creating a self-destructive future, with which you may be fine but not your team. And this is happening. We feel that this is an interesting experiment we are on to, at least for our own selves and our success would be when we can bring in a change of dominant ideas of development which are often flawed in the way the goals and incentives are articulated.

James Kondo, who heads Twitter in Japan recollects this analogy that he was given when he joined McKinsey to understand the Firm. The insiders compared the Firm to the Jesuits and the tailors of Savile Row, who “unlike fashion houses and designers … are always in the background”. We find that this is already happening in development sector too. Like when our company’s reports shape practice and use of approaches in water management projects in a few states. We feel like Savile Row tailors whose ideas are shaping country strategy of an agency entering India. We see it happening when our work is used by organization heads in presenting themselves abroad as well as in India.

Take a Ride and Be Happy – Experiencing Happiness in Bhutan

Thimpu, Bhutan

Thimpu, Bhutan

In May, 2013 I spent a week traveling in Bhutan. My primary destination was the Taktsang Monastery outside Paro (posted here – Insights at the Edge), after which I spent some time in the capital Thimpu. This is a post on some general observations that I made while in Thimpu.

The dense fog on the high mountain roads made the journey into the little kingdom as surreal as the colorful visions of life painted on the walls of the monasteries that I were to see in my journey in this land of happiness. ‘Happiness is a place’, said one of the advertisements in the day’s newspaper in Bhutan. With offices like Gross National Happiness Commission and Sustainable Development Secretariat the country seemed to be driving down a route which is much like its own high mountain passes – lonely and offbeat. In its enterprise, much of the world has only understood money and wealth in one form or the other. It takes a different normative universe to be thinking of spiritual path to life where the commonly understood idea of development remains tangentially relevant. A curious blend of faith, respect for cultural values (I find that respect for the values made the youth wear their traditional dress and not so much that they liked it)  and pragmatism in dealing with ideas and influences of the world made for a striking public behaviour which I were to see across Bhutan’s towns, offices and public spaces. The city roads have an abundance of high end SUVs from Toyota and Hyundai. Yet the men driving them wear a gho which sits very loosely on the shoulders and has a skirt like lower portion matched with knee length socks and oxford model leather shoes. This is what I understand is their formal wear and official wear, having seen men in the government offices, Bhutan’s King as well as other dignitaries visiting countries abroad. Such a combination of men in ethnic wear driving these high end and stylish cars to me was striking. Perhaps, this is the outsider’s eyes view it. The SUVs could just be the need in the mountains, but then the Indian SUVs  offer the same utility at a fraction of the price of a Toyota Prado.

Entering the Thimpu Valley, On its main road which leads inside the city

Entering the Thimpu Valley, On its main road which leads inside the city

Wogzin Lam, Thimpu

Intrigued by the road signage. It has a caricature of a man wearing gho, Bhutan’s traditional wear. Wogzin Lam, Thimpu

A view from the road of Thimpu's many restaurants. The air is causal and very chatty with men catching up over momos.

A view from the road of Thimpu’s many restaurants. The air is causal and very chatty with men catching up over momos.

Another view of Wogzin Lam street, Thimpu

Another view of Wogzin Lam street, Thimpu

Thimpu is said to be the world's only capital city without traffic lights

Thimpu is said to be the world’s only capital city without traffic lights

From the newspapers that I read during the week when I visited Bhutan, I gathered that the government believes the country’s ‘collective happiness’ should be the end value of their development strategy.  Walking around Bhutan’s capital Thimpu I noticed the tempered school like frenzy that the city reflected as the country was closing in on its second general elections. The contesting leaders were being introduced in on the television too as I watched the dinner time news. Some were young thirty-somethings contesting from their constituencies which weren’t any more than a cluster of 200-300 houses. What is interesting is the number of political parties that have come up in Bhutan since the first election back in 2008. The aspiring politicians are mostly educated in India, some of them with graduate degrees from USA and few from UK. Political scene gets busy hereon and will make for sociologically rich observations as in this country.

Unlike its neighbour Nepal, democracy is being handheld and brought in by Bhutan’s monarch himself. This could be seen as an intelligent move by the King himself or as a measure in time against the kind of fate that Nepal saw with a communist party coup and even before that the killings in the royal family itself. There is tremendous amount of admiration and love for the King among the Bhutanese and rightly so. His Majesty King Jigme Wangchuk appears anything but a king in his public appearances, addresses to the public and from what I figured from his interviews. Oh and those adorable photographs of the King and the Queen in public spaces – parks, buildings etc. The country reflects a very friendly and welcome air. Although that extreme behaviour the government had shown to push out the Nepalese settlers in Bhutan is still a fair blot on Bhutan. That urge to maintain racial homogeneity I think may not work out very well for them in the future.

Even as the country experiments with democracy and more interestingly with the European Union’s idea of “good governance” Bhutan is set for interesting times. Sample this – the country is dependent on India for its petroleum, manufactured goods, finished goods, higher education and more importantly for skilled labour. Due to a constitutional provision to ensure a minimum forest cover of 70% industrial and economic growth is limited, which was already limited due to Bhutan’s difficult terrain. The problem that Bhutan faces is of employment for its youth as well as to raise its own industrial sectors other than only exporting hydroelectricity to India. This forms a major source of its earnings followed by tourism and international aid. Tourism is an earner due to its strict control and high tariff of USD 200-250 per day imposed on tourists (excluding Indians) visiting Bhutan.

Clock Tower Square, Thimpu, Bhutan

Clock Tower Square, Thimpu, Bhutan

A residential area in Thimpu. The apartment blocks are usually about 6-7 floors high and have a shop (most likely a bar) on the ground floor

A residential area in Thimpu. The apartment blocks are usually about 6-7 floors high and have a shop (most likely a bar) on the ground floor

As the city settles to a cold and breezy evening. Thimpu, Bhutan

As the city settles to a cold and breezy evening. Thimpu, Bhutan

The tiny nation has its human, ethical and spiritual character very well in place. It is a pure delight to live among the Bhutanese people and see the country go by its work smiling, taking it easy. But as a visitor I see that the government’s present policies would no way help it come out of its least developed country (LDC) tag even in the next two decades. The average Bhutanese youth is either a civil servant after having taken advanced degrees in India or elsewhere or is engaged in jobs and services inside Bhutan which are good as a livelihood but do not really yield high returns or value in the long run. There is very little enterprise in the country of its own apart from agriculture and livestock. With television and internet having already entered late in the country (in the mid 1990s as I know) the youth is watching, reading and listening the sounds and sights of the world. It won’t be too long before the less visible and commonplace discontentment of the younger Bhutanese population takes shape into a major national situation if the government does not keep pace with the aspirations of the country. This is a good possibility now than earlier times because the nation is slowly cutting its teeth into political organization, mobilization and rallying for causes. The natural progression of this is when the youth step in to harness this emerging political scene towards their causes and interests. It should be interesting to locate that happiness in the next decade or so of Bhutan’s experiments with politics and democracy set in the backdrop of evolving media and internet spaces. 

A city bus in Thimpu, Bhutan

A city bus in Thimpu, Bhutan

The bus operated by Royal Government of Bhutan connecting Kolkata, India to Phuentsholing, Bhutan

The bus operated by Royal Government of Bhutan connecting Kolkata, India to Phuentsholing, Bhutan

Alernative Dispute Resolution & Legal System Reform in India

This is the summer of dreaming dangerously (yes, Zizek too is in the summer reading list). I have been trying to pack in three different projects in this summer plus a travel in the subcontinent. Here goes a brief on the first internship at the Bangalore Mediation Center in Bangalore on mediation as a method of alternative dispute resolution in India’s legal system reform. 

 

This summer I work with a team on a project to study mediation as an alternative dispute resolution method. ADR is looked upon in the legal fraternity as a way ahead in achieving legal system reform in India. There is a tremendous backlog of pending cases in the Indian courts across states and in the Supreme Court of India. Estimates suggest that if the number of cases pending in the courts are continued to be tried in the same way as now then it would take up to 340 years to solve all of them. That by any means is a tough situation in a society. Therefore, alternatives are being considered. One stream of thought suggests that what is to be done is clearly known – that the legal system faces capacity and resources issues and therefore open up more courts and modernize the courts to be able to handle such a heavy case load. The other approach however suggests that we must look at alternatives to the process of dispute resolution itself. Why is it necessary that every case must be adjudicated i.e tried in a court of law where a judgment is handed over to the parties and they live with it? An alternative approach can be to – mediation, conciliation, arbitration and counseling. These means are different from a trial in the way that it doesn’t involve a judgment of what is right or wrong (primarily) and instead focuses on what are the disputing parties’ interests and how to achieve a state where both the parties’ interests are met by negotiation. The neutralizing communication skills and powerful bargaining strategies of facilitated negotiation can strengthen the system’s capacity to bring justice to the society, as Chodosh suggests.

ADR is not new to India. It existed as a part of the Arbitration Act of 1940. Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 and the National Legal Service Authority Act, 1987 (under which the Lok Adalats were constituted) are provisions which offer alternatives to a regular trial in court. Also, Section 89 of the Code of Civil Procedure provides for Mediation as an Alternative Dispute Resolution mechanism in India. However, with the increasing pendency of cases there is an increasing thrust on ADR as the legal processes in India proceed at a very slow pace. In 2007, High Court of Karnataka set up Bangalore Mediation Center (BMC) to mediate cases that would be referred to it from various courts in the state. The center is overseen by a director, a coordinator and a team of 82 trained mediators who are all practicing lawyers. BMC is widely perceived as a successful initiative because of the high number of cases it has mediated as well as for its high settlement rate. It mediated over 18,000 cases in a five year period since 2007 with a success rate of about 64%.

We examine the case data from BMC for general patterns that could suggest trends in using mediation as an ADR method. The exercise also serves as an exercise in testing how valid is BMC’s claim about its success in mediation of cases. We look for the type of cases mediated, success rates, time taken for the cases to be solved and what kind of cases are more likely to get resolved through mediation. For instance, family disputes have a higher tendency of resolution by mediation than cases of criminal nature.

What interests me in this study is that I come to this field from a non-legal background. I do not have training in law except a semester long course in law and governance, which served as an orientation into reading the law, understanding it and gaining a proficiency which can help in working in development sector. The dataset from BMC therefore looks interesting, for the associations and relationships that I figure between the variables are not seen the same way by the others with a law degree.

Over the next few weeks I sit as an observer in the mediation sessions and closely watch the process where a mediator is hearing a case between two parties at the BMC. The mediation sessions are observed to identify interests of both the parties. What kind of motivations do they hold and how does the mediator figure these out. The concerns, goals, priorities and means through which a resolution is achieved are of critical importance in understanding mediation as a process. And then how does all of these differ across various types of cases like matrimonial cases, family disputes etc. Observe interests, as the coordinator of BMC suggests. The enthusiasm towards mediation is high at BMC. One lawyer even suggests that “this is a silent revolution going on in the Indian courts”.

A good social (ethnographic?) account of the process and a identifying patterns (related to method, type etc) in mediation of cases would be a more likely product of this study.

Insights at the edge

Also known as the Tiger's Nest, Taktsang Monastery is one of the most important Buddhist center in the Himalayas. It is a complex of several monasteries.

Also known as the Tiger’s Nest, Taktsang Monastery is one of the most important Buddhist center in the Himalayas. It is a complex of several monasteries.

A recent trip to Bhutan only affirms how amazingly insular one can be. A world of possibilities exist, unfold and play themselves across the world yet we seem to believe that the world order as we know it is the only one which works. This was the a strand of thought as I spent my first night in the Bhutanese town of Phuentsholing. That the country has a functioning monarchy was on my mind as I crossed the gates into the kingdom of Bhutan. The other was a sense of excitement to experience this country of happiness firsthand. This country was to impress me, surprise me and overwhelm me every single day that I spent here. From a chance encounter with a forest services officer while waiting outside the Taktsang monastery to a dinner table conversation with a family of Tibetan refugees to walking down the streets of Paro on a full moon night, I experienced a world unlike any other  that I am aware of.

Taktsang Monastery's dramatic setting had attracted me to it ever since I saw a photograph online. And a trip to the place happened out of the blue. Yes, just like the deep blues there!

Taktsang Monastery’s dramatic setting had attracted me to it ever since I saw a photograph online. And a trip to the place happened out of the blue. Yes, just like the deep blues there!

A year back, I chanced upon a picture of this great monastery which is also said to be an important center for those of the Buddhist faith. This was the Taktsang Monastery (or the Tiger’s Nest) towards which I was instinctively drawn, located on a cliff in the Paro valley. I didn’t care to ascertain why. The setting was so dramatic that I felt I must see it and trek up its holy steps. I had seen documentaries where people cried like babies as they entered these sacred buddhist complexes. There was the Harvard anthropologist Wade Davis crying inconsolably in one of the monasteries that he visits and then Pico Iyer writing about experiences in the company of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in his book The Open Road. I felt an urge to subject myself to such an experience and see some of these monasteries for real. As a Hindu, the belief system and the religious values that I was accustomed to offered no such mild yet profound experience which is not terrifying and which is not transactional in its nature. Deliverance for the Hindu (as I see it) is always a transaction with the higher powers. There is a vow and there is a bargain and there are ways to negotiate in case you find that vow a bit too difficult to keep. Buddhism isn’t so, as I read it in contrast. Not a very elegant way to look at it but works for me. The decision to head in Taktsang’s direction too, was as unconscious. It seemed as if there was an inner program unfolding in which I held the role of only performing the action. The rest was determined on a plane of which I knew little about.

It was the day of vesak, also a national holiday in Bhutan. Many school children and youngsters were on the trail in their traditional dress and carrying packs of potato chips, biscuits and other eatables to be given as offering at the several shrines inside the monastery.

It was the day of vesak, also a national holiday in Bhutan. Many school children and youngsters were on the trail in their traditional dress and carrying packs of potato chips, biscuits and other eatables to be given as offering at the several shrines inside the monastery.

Prayer wheels on the way to Taktsang

Prayer wheels on the way to Taktsang

Much of the path is dotted with these colorful prayer flags which look splendid with the sky and the pines all around.

Much of the path is dotted with these colorful prayer flags which look splendid with the sky and the pines all around.

This monastery is an important center for those of the buddhist faith. It is believed that Guru Padmasambhava who is said to have brought Buddism to Bhutan had meditated in this place. “Takstang” means a tiger’s liar and he had flown to this location on the back of a flying tigress. For a moment this and other versions of the legend consumed me as I started from Kolkata on a bus run by the royal government of Bhutan. It took me to Phuentsholing from where Paro is about six hours drive. The entry into this fascinating kingdom was  a gradual lesson in politeness and a zen like patience. To my incessantly stereotyping mind, every Bhutanese looked like a zen monk to whom I must talk to with a slight bow borne out of admiration. The men and women almost everywhere wore their traditional dress. The men in gho and the women in that gorgeous kira.

I had heard it from a dozen people that morning, about how fortunate I am to be visiting Taktsang on the day of the vesak . It was a full moon night that day, also known as buddha purnima . This day commemorates the birth, enlightenment and the death of Buddha and is one of the most auspicious day around the world for all the people of this faith. It was good to take the steps towards this monastery with this feeling of having being called to this place on such a day. It was a solemn morning. The pine trees made it even more intense. It got surreal as I trekked those eight kilometers to the monastery. It was much like that moment when Frederick, that character in Herman Hesse’s story Within and Without comes across the words “Nothing is without, nothing is within; for what is without is within” in his friend Erwin’s beautiful hand. He doesn’t know it. Yet he is sure that these words would soon torment him to be not able to know why they hold his attention and why should they matter to him. They appear to be casting a magic spell on him. Just as this place and the surroundings that day were playing on me.

The monastery complex. Photography inside is prohibited. And I think it is a good thing!

The monastery complex. Photography inside is prohibited. And I think it is a good thing!

Late in the noon the light spread beautifully in the entire valley.

Late in the noon the light spread beautifully in the entire valley.

There were these huge prayer flag strung across the cliffs. As I look back, the setting was too surreal to be in.

There were these huge prayer flag strung across the cliffs. As I look back, the setting was too surreal to be in.

It is interesting how some of these places where you travel end up altering and shaping a person. And perhaps a traveler is a consequence of several such experiences. I loved the place and its people right from the point of entry into this lovely country and until that third day when I was in Paro, I was much at peace and content with each moment. Not much to worry about, nothing to take care of when I get back and thoughts like these. Every moment felt complete. This probably was heightening what I was experiencing on that trek and then further into the temple complex. I found happy, smiling faces all around. There were Bhutanese men and women, youngsters and children who had come in groups to offer their prayers at Taktsang on this day of vesak which was also a national holiday. Yet they appeared so few that the press of crowd that is typically felt in Indian temples or holy places was absent. What was without, I longed for becoming so within. It is one of the few places where I could hit a consonance between the outer and the inner states. Of being!

Construction Workers and Amendments to BOCW Act

A few months back, I was studying the Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996 which is the first formal and exclusive piece of legislation which provides for social welfare of the construction workers in India. Questions explored were – 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? Highlights of the study are on the poster here and we suggested that the state (governments at the center and state level) should own up the responsibility to provide for this class of workers as well, just as the way it  does for others. The paper parked its findings with the title Rethinking welfare when builders take care of the workers . In the wake of the latest amendment to the BOCW Act, 1996 and a commentary in EPW I find it fascinating that the state’s role is imagined very differently when it comes to blue collar workers and particularly the construction workers.

Rethinking welfare when builders take care of the workers

Rethinking welfare when builders take care of the workers

A recent piece by Vidhya Soundararajan under commentary in EPW suggests that the employers should be charged with the responsibility of registering the workers.  I have made an argument which is pretty much the reverse of what she suggests. Her understanding appears to be based on the registrations, claims and cess utilization statistics that she has sourced from various states. While the aggregate number might make her suggestion of making registration employer’s responsibility, my understanding suggests that this will not work, to put it mildly. More strongly, I think it will distort the already skewed employer-worker relationship. How? By burdening the employer with more responsibilities, which should have been most certainly shouldered by the respective state governments. Why is it that all sorts of formal workers are very well covered by the state governments and when it comes to the “informal” sector workers they wash themselves off?

The state must own up the responsibility just as the way it provides for and cares for the other classes of its workers. And if builders/employers are to take care of the workers then watch out for more trouble from informalization, labour exploitation and perhaps a larger impact on hiring, contracting and infrastructure projects. A good case is Gujarat where although the state has shown positive net growth in economic output, but at the same time has shown no improvement in wages and welfare of the labourers. I strongly believe that it is the State’s responsibility and it cannot be indifferent to this class of workers while at the same time provide the other classes of workers with all the benefits. This will only sow more seeds of discord and alienation.