Is linguistic diversity related to development?

Linguistic diversity map of the world. Red indicates the 8 mega-diverse countries that together have more than 50% of the world languages. (Source: Wikipedia)

While discussing language this afternoon I happened to notice that linguistic diversity across the world maps quite well over the development status of countries worldwide. What I see is that the most linguistically diverse countries (or regions) of the world are also the countries which are less developed or developing according to their economic status. On the map, red indicates the 8 mega-diverse countries that together have more than 50% of the world languages. This is comprised of India, countries of middle and south east Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. Only Australia among the entire bunch is a developed country.
A question this pattern then poses is – does having a single language (or perhaps lesser linguistic diversity) facilitate development of a country? Language diversity is related to ethnic diversity, as in case of India. A larger ethnic diversity which speaks its own language is not likely to lend itself easily to collective goals and aspiration that a country sets for its people. Also that a good amount of administrative bandwidth is likely to be spent in managing this diversity as seen in India.

The thought is easy to reason when one reads the history of formation of states in independent India on linguistic basis. Today every state has its own unique language and in which the state government conducts its business. While this is necessary, the problem manifests itself when we see India as a federation of several such states with their own languages. Language becomes a distinct identity and begins to symbolize many aspects of an individual’s identity, class and background. In India’s case it also ends up dragging caste. This cocktail of identity and issue appears to have language at the core.

Similar linguistic and ethnicity pattern is reflected in other parts of the world on the linguistic diversity map. Central Africa appears to be as diverse and less developed compared to India. And this is interesting, because the proportion of English speakers in India in urban areas is in a majority. Many earlier have argued that India has able to charge its economic growth because of its proportion of workforce which can speak English. And ability to speak English and development has also been spoken of as a linked pattern.
A more homogenized language profile as in USA and members of the European Union on the other hand ( I am tempted to think) eases up the administrative difficulties of a country in governing its population and also simplify day-to-day affairs of the two way communication between the government and its citizens. I realize that there are many incomplete thoughts in this relationship that I draw between linguistic diversity and development, but it does look like a question worth exploring.

Another view on it is that there may not be any relationship at all. My sociology professor argues that if one goes back to history and looks at the very same map with development status (or prosperity status of regions) in the ancient period, the linguistically diverse regions were prosperous and the developed nations of today didn’t even exist then. The consideration of economic status is very contemporary and strongly set in the modern economic system. Language perhaps didn’t bear upon trade and commerce in ancient period but in the modern economic system it bears a causal relationship with trade. The pre-modern trade was of commodities (or primary goods) and modern form of knowledge industry evolves only with technology. This has altered the relationship of economic growth with language from the ancient to the modern period. And therefore, I do not quite agree with him that there may not be a relationship such as this.

Lastly, the idea of lingua franca evolves from the common language that many across the region or the world begin to use in order to facilitate communication with the people that they mean to interact with. For example, much before English, it was Portuguese which was commonly spoken and widely understood on the coastline across India. The lingua franca now happens to be English as it is no more the ships and the merchants arriving on the Indian coast but that the merchants and traders in the digital era plug in straight into the economies of the world and at the same time also draw trade straight on to their screens on their desks without any change in their geographies.


Why Interpret Art?


Art: “Dreamers” by Shreya

A short course in Categories in Art (posted earlier here, here & here) early this year has left me with a slightly accentuated sense of “works” of art, “artists” and “forms”. It also made me think about what art is and examine why some claim an exclusive “understanding” of art whereas each one of us are capable of experiencing art ourselves. That is as far as that art course helped me. The other outcome – that it generated a range of questions on art. When did understanding take over experience, along the course of art’s journey? A journey which perhaps is as old, in temporal sense, as the history of man.  Why is it that a criticism of art today occupies so much space than practice or experience of it, in our times? What makes the practice of art lose to the critic’s gaze?

Trained historians and art historians at that, will open a can of processes answers to these questions. But that does not settle it. Those who argue that art is always figurative claim that this is universal, whereas an artist – painter, dancer, writer, poet and musician would attest that it is not always that they have tried to make a statement or convey a thought with the pieces that they have created. Sometimes, they are just that, a creation of one’s own because the creator enjoyed the experience – the kinetic or the action element of creating something. Inspiration or the drive to do it can take a backstage or can kick in, in subtler forms. This does not seem to fit well with the mainstream idea of art as being figurative or those who subscribe to the mimetic theory of art.

Personally, it is quite a divergent way of thinking for me and reflects the learning process. A few months earlier, on art criticism and scholarly engagement with arts, I wrote

While I acknowledge that this method oriented experience of arts is too clinical and perhaps doesn’t remain an experience anymore I would argue that it delivers on greater insights into the context, form and style of the art work.

And the other day I tweeted – “interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art”. This made a relevant point of start to explore the current obsession with interpretation. These are Sontag’s brilliant words on interpretation, which my friend (a non -conforming artist herself) found interesting as well.  And here is the complete paragraph from Susan Sontag’s  Against Interpretation which ends with that line above. The other reason to share it is that I have been exploring Sontag’s writings for some time now. They are remarkable, for they stand as relevant today in the same intensity, if not more, as they were in 1961, when the book was first published.

Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling. Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.

Sontag seems to be unsatisfied with limiting it to art alone, and goes further to say –

Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings”. It is to turn the world into this world. (“This world”! As if there were any other.)

The world, our world, is depleted enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have.

The lines reflect a confidence of thought and belief which the critics and historians seldom reflect. These lines had a near effect of bulldozing the ideas I learnt in that arts course I referred to and also the bulk of modern discourses on art. I am now clearing the landscape of my “understanding” of art and rather building it on “experience” which I should have done to begin with. It is partly to do with the realization that art is an experience first. This experience originates in the action of doing something, connecting and relating to it. The artist embodies art and often becomes one with the process itself. Why is this not important? It appears that we have completely dispensed with the praxis and rather interested in looking only at the end product. This is a clear dumbing down which would are a recipe for impoverished times ahead, just as they appear now. On theory , Sontag’s is a rather clear explanation of the status quo –

The fact is, all Western consciousness of and reflection upon art have remained within the confines staked out by the Greek theory of art as mimesis or representation. It is through this theory that art as such – above and beyond given works of art – becomes problematic, in need of defense. And it is the defense of art which gives birth to the odd vision by which something we have learned to call “form” is separated off from something we have learned to call “content”, and to the well-intentioned move which makes content essential and form accessory.

Some distance has sure been covered away from the old mimetic theory to the new as is evident today. It is easier to suggest that art is not merely or necessarily a reflection of an outer reality but that it can be about subjective expression as well. That art is a subjective expression gains currency with the abstract art that we see around. Sontag argues that the main feature of the mimetic theory still persists i.e. of content.

A move away from the urge to interpret art should set us free from the appalling materialistic, exact and predictable future that the society stares at. There isn’t a need to fit subjectivity into formal, systematized forms of understanding, even if it could lend itself to such a rude and ridiculous approach.  In fact, when I look around to my friends and those who I know engage with art in whatever form, they are all individuals exhibiting strikingly different ideas and reflect a highly individualistic experience of art. I find almost all their works fascinating and they make me think about the amazing capacities of human mind that gushes out in these myriad forms in our everyday life.

So what is the point, the reader may ask. And let me run back to make it, with Sontag’s words –

None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what is said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did. From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art. We can only quarrel with one or another means of defense. Indeed, we have an obligation to overthrow any means of defending and justifying art which becomes particularly obtuse or onerous or insensitive to contemporary needs and practice. 

Tough times for dreamers?

Right to Information: What has it changed in India?


From its early origin as a mass movement in a Rajasthan village in 1996 to a countrywide struggle for a Right to Information (RTI) Act which was passed in 2005, it has led to interesting and peculiar consequences to governance and bureaucracy in India. The current and earlier debates around RTI suggests that it has meant different things to different interest groups and the larger divide is seen in the way it is used by the urban and rural sections of the Indian society. A simple approach can be to examine RTI on the following aspects –

a)      Mode of action of RTI towards facilitating accountability

b)      Consequences of the availability of a tool like RTI in the hands of the citizens

c)       Analysis of the impact of RTI on effectiveness and accountability

 Action – RTI entitles a citizen an access to information related to public works, schemes, programs and all other activities of departments of the government that are concerned with welfare and provide services to the citizens (or those that affect the citizens in any direct manner), at the state and center level. Until 2005 the citizens’ demand for information could be turned down by the respective department if they wished to. The departments or offices would typically deny information using arbitrary or vague laws like the Official Secrets Act. But with RTI citizens now have a legal right to the information that they are seeking. This is a landmark change for an average Indian citizen in the 21st century India. It was practically unheard of a citizen making a ‘demand’ of any sort in any of the public offices before this act. That they can do it has hit the Indian bureaucracies at various levels like a tornado from which the only way to recover is to yield information and lighten up so that they are not swept away from their chairs and offices.

Structurally, RTI has altered the power relation between the state and civil society. RTI vests power in an individual to make a claim on the state. Let us examine this hypothetically – A is accountable to B if A’s work effects B and is obliged to offer explanation for it when B demands to so. When the explanation does not satisfy B, he can impose sanctions on A. This is how accountability arrangement between A, who is a bureaucrat and B who is a citizen, works. Before RTI, B could not have demanded an explanation. RTI has brought a shift in the power balance between A and B. Earlier A possessed power do deny B an explanation. Now, RTI enforces a legal mechanism to strengthen B’s demand for information from A. And in cases, it brings on a sanction on A for its actions.

ConsequencesAs in the case of MKSS’ movement in a village in Rajasthan to demand information from the village level bureaucracy on a welfare scheme, we see that the village administrative officer and the block development officer had to release accounts of expenditure and status of welfare schemes in the village. RTI has effect a public watch on the working of the bureaucracy. Today, eight years since RTI Act was effected, the government offices work with a clear knowledge that their actions and their work may be called for scrutiny by any member of the public at any point of time. Such a panopticon like gaze brought about by RTI has stemmed the rampant corruption amongst the street level bureaucracy. One must note that it has only stemmed corruption and not rooted it out.

Another consequence has been the use of RTI as a tool to make planning processes of public welfare schemes inclusive. For instance, detailed project reports on large scale infrastructure projects are required to be shared with the public and public consent for the plan must be sought. This brings in an enormous amount of scrutiny and pressure on governments to ensure public interests. This, from an environment where even simple questions were seldom asked or answered is a big leap into a public sphere where citizens now have an almost retributive power to challenge bureaucracy’s inaction or corruption.  Also, collusive type of corruption in which the bureaucrats and individuals with vested interests (or contractors) would team up to siphon resources or funds, is checked by other vigilant citizens’ groups. This has had interesting consequences on caste and group dynamics in the rural areas. The urban groups have used RTI to mount pressure on the urban local bodies to deliver essential civic services and address grievances. The use of RTI among the two groups is quite a contrast and makes an interesting socio-political study.

AnalysisRTI has impacted working of the government offices across the hierarchy – from lower to higher levels in varying but significant degree. On accountability both in rural and urban areas interesting uses of RTI have emerged. These suggest that RTI has been successful in creating the necessary pressure on the government in making it answerable to the citizens. At village level most of the public works information – especially financial information is displayed at the site or in panchayat offices. This has improved the performance of public schemes and to the least has made people aware that such a scheme was sanctioned for their village in the first place.

In cities citizen action groups have been successful in conduction public audits and question spending decisions of the public offices. Pension, healthcare and similar services have been made to perform better and without petty corruption (or at least reduced) by widespread use of RTI by urban middle class.

However, on effectiveness and efficiency of governments – state and center, RTI has had a lesser impact. This is due to the fact that effective government is not influenced by information pressure alone. For government to be effective it also needs to have institutional capacity and resources to deliver on the performance expectation. In addition to this, as a response to mounting pressure from RTI corruption has shifted from lower levels to higher ones such that it now affects government performance at a systemic level. For instance auction of natural resources – oil and natural gas exploration blocks, mining or telecom spectrum allocation have all seen scams which were led by highest level of bureaucracy and political system. Government effectivity has seen lesser impact by RTI than accountability.

RTI’s impact has been limited and highly context specific. In the spaces that it is designed to operate, it has performed fairly well, as evidence of RTI application figures and RTI based activism suggests. For the many problems that affect government performance in India like corruption, clientelism, red tape and time consuming procedures, RTI cannot be and must not be seen as a panacea. It is an end in itself. 

Travel in the post-colonial times

Fort Dansborg ovelooking the sea, Tranquebar

Fort Dansborg ovelooking the sea, Tranquebar

This little Dutch settlement has always attracted me with its brilliant blue skies and the expansive ocean. Last week we drove into this seaside village, which was a twenty five mile long stretch of coast leased out to the early Dutchmen by the Tanjore king in the late 1700s. The Dutch called it Tranquebar. The Tamils call it Tarangambadi, translated loosely as ‘the land of singing waves’. The last couple of hours remained of the day light as we entered this town and took up a hotel by the sea side. The evening wore a calm look and a quaintness that is hard to find along the dense and busy east coast road in Tamil Nadu. The intact (and partially restored) arch at the entrance of the Dutch settlement physically marked a time travel zone that we were about to enter. The narrow road led to an old church, the fort – called the Dansborg and a lovely sea side villa which now is a heritage hotel run by Neemrana group.

I have been visiting this place on almost all my rides along this coastline much like the Danish, Portuguese, British and the French ships which did the same but from the other side. From the records of protestant missionaries and the Portuguese trade documents I learn that this was one of the busiest regions in maritime trade along with other now disappeared ports like Porto Novo (about 80 kilometers north of Tranquebar). We stopped to take a look at the statue of Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg, the first protestant missionary to India, who traveled to India to spread the word of God. A marble slab underneath the statue listed many other minor firsts that the local Diocese could dig up, or perhaps imagine, about the man and made a laundry list of achievements down there. The statue didn’t cut much an impression on me, especially with its gold paint but the little tidbit of a history there – of he being the first protestant missionary in India – set my thoughts wandering into a past that I have often loved to imagine and recreate. A past much like a movie set in which fort Dansborg rises in the horizon with the Danish red flag fluttering and the young Zigenbalg hoping to set foot as he approaches the land, at this very place on the eastern coast.

An old Dutch house, Tranquebar

An old Dutch house, Tranquebar (Image: Praveena Sridhar)

A statue of Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg (July 10, 1682 – February 23, 1719)

A statue of Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg, July 10, 1682 – February 23, 1719 (Image: Praveena Sridhar)

Fishermen at work on a Sunday morning, opposite to the fort. They inhabit the modern day Tarangambadi.

Fishermen at work on a Sunday morning, opposite to the fort. They inhabit the modern day Tarangambadi.

The other details blurred out as I read the history of protestant missionaries in Madurai, Tirunelveli and the incursions of the Tranquebar mission. These men were clearly fired with a spirit of adventure and fascination of ideas which captured their imagination. An imagination which saw a world made possible by their God, their faith and that these are supreme – and that the rest, the ‘heathens’ must be brought to the fold. In my reconstruction of the 17th and the 18th century India when the Dutch arrived, I was inclined to think more about their adventure and rawness of the endeavor of these men who set sail in a direction they hardly knew of. And yet when they arrive they have plans – of trade, commerce and evangelism. Perhaps they were fired by the enthusiasm of the newly formed Dutch Republic back home when they declared independence from England and formed a federation during the end of 16th century.  One can see Tranquebar as a consequential small story in the larger canvas of the Dutch Golden Age (“Gouden Eeuw”) during which the Dutch Empire became one of the major seafaring and economic powers in the 17th century. Interestingly, many economic historians regard Netherlands as the world’s first thoroughly capitalist country.

Well, in the heat of such a splendid economic and power charged run the Dutch were understandably getting adventurous and sure had plans for it. And from the many ships sent out in the world, one of them was to reach India and hit the coast somewhere around the place where I stood that evening. Fort Dansborg was rather unimpressive and likely so to an Indian who has seen the massive, intimidating and fascinatingly beautiful forts in the Rajputana – Mehrangarh, Jaisalmer, in the Deccan – Golconda, Gingee, Vellore and in the high hills of the Konkan coast. Meanwhile, the fishermen on a small landing spot were busy sorting their nets and separating the catch after an early morning round of fishing. The scene was mildly strange – a bright 21st century morning with motorized fishing boats on the coast and a very busy history in the background with Zigenbalg’s grave marking the end of a generation of adventurers.

Reading accounts and papers of the colonial era and experiencing them often generates different narratives. And that is the point I was reflecting upon. On the Sunday morning in Tranquebar, gospel music flowed in the air from the church nearby, interspersed with hymns in Tamil. The church is as old as the fort. The hymns stood in contrast to the reality of the day. This in a way appeared as the way in which the dead Dutchmen’s conquest lived. In these hymns and a formerly alien faith which arrived by the ships that laid anchor on this coast over three hundred years back. Colonial era may have been past and the research papers mark that historical juncture fairly well. But at the core of the post-colonial times lies the colonial, healthy and mutated. Those hymns were by the ‘heathens’ who embraced protestant Christianity and years later venerate the man who brought this alien faith to them. The faith that makes the people of this settlement sing these hymns and regard Sunday as a day of prayer and mass is clearly not theirs. It was a part of the conquest, of men charged with commercial and technological prowess and a part of the project of shaping the world into becoming what they imagined it as.

Conquests I now think are little about physical forms like forts, territories and countries. They are more about conquest of minds, of people’s faith, practices and of their beings, into becoming what the conqueror wants it to be. This variety of conquest impregnates generations to come and lives, as strong as ever. The physical forms, even of the conqueror are gone yet the effects remain.

Another case of being too early: Governor’s remarks on APU



Being always late when required and way too early when not required is a pathological condition in India, especially among those of the political and bureaucratic lot. Of them the Governors of states are a unique lot. In the recent times, it has become rather difficult to understand what role does this class of administrators (if one can call them that) play in a state other than occupying colonial bungalows. With some of them almost behaving like those who occupied those bungalows before independence. Last week, the Governor of Karnataka, H.R. Bhardwaj in a ceremony at the Raj Bhavan (the Governor’s residence) remarked that Azim Premji University (APU) is not ‘living up to its promise of helping the poor and economically-weaker students’.

I happen to attend a graduate program in development at this university. Clearly, I have spent more time than the Governor in this university and can see that he has arrived way too early into an impact assessment party which is not happening. And it in this case it is neither required nor solicited. That he is a “Visitor” at this university and not the Chancellor is a relief!

Obviously, such a remark grows out of a distance from a life of struggle and realities of the country that the office of the Governor reflects. How does one assess the impact of a university which was set up in 2010 and has just seen its first batch graduate? Since his remark, many have suggested that it is premature to judge APU which is a fair point. But let us indulge this remark as it happens to have received some coverage in the newspapers. So, if he would have cared to even visit this university in question for at least one continuous week he would have learnt a thing or two about restraint, civility and definitely a good load about the realities of people, lives, livelihoods and education in an India which is different from what it appears from the windows of the Raj Bhavan. This learning put together would be worth more than a typical luxurious and soporific term in the office. One needs to look at the areas of work that the university is working in – primary education, government teachers’ training, education capacity building in districts and blocks, policy research, empirical studies in education and development – to gain a sense of the expanse that this institution is hoping to contribute to.

His remark was particularly about helping students of economically poor background. For one he clearly has no idea about the scholarships, financial assistance and pre-placement offer like arrangements that the university has with the students, in spite of he being listed as a visitor here. Second, this is a vacuous, opportunistic statement. If the assumption is that this would evoke a response from the university or the foundation that runs it or even the people who manage it, then it is a clear miscalculation. Because there is not a spare moment for indulging remarks like these in this establishment. And civility with hard and real work is valued here more than watching things out of a window. Those who are at the helm do not spend their time addressing banquets but trudge the paths in the hinterland understanding the country better and developing an appropriate response to help the situation, if necessary.

Bottomline is, there is much more happening here than what goes out in the world. People here are media shy and tend to take the last row of chairs when it is time for accolades. This to some is an alien thought.

A colleague suggests that this post is flat on substantial point about the university and that it verges on being a rant. So here goes further evidence of the kind of thinking and scholarship that the university hopes to produce. In Putting Scholarship First the university’s registrar, Giri talks of the Gordian knot of higher education in India today. It is an interesting piece, particularly for those who are interesting in questions with a slant of ‘impact’.

In the Indian context, the overarching social purpose ought to drive research. Research that informs policy and can contribute towards social benefit, even if not published in international journals, should be valued. Such research by teachers serves to bring their students into the world of inquiry, discovery and to appreciate that knowledge is not something to be merely consumed but to be continuously generated.

How does one then look at the impact of a new university within three years of its start? For all we know, a vision such as this might not even create an impact as understood and expected by those sitting at positions from where they should rather be more telescopic in their thinking.