Roundup 2015


In what appears to have become customary  here on Contested Realities, the annual roundup post follows. The new year’s eve post I realize is a good opportunity to take a moment and look back at the days spent in the rush of daily living. As I begin writing this one for 2015, I re-read the roundup posts I wrote at the end of 2012, 2013 and 2014. These posts are the trails that were made journeying through time.

This year was lived overwhelmingly solo. This is the first observation that comes to my mind as I think of 2015. Even as I write this the pressure cooker steams the rice for dinner and I type away before I get back to the kitchen to prepare the curry.  It has been exhilarating and frustrating in parts but certainly liberating. I would be lying if I said that those lonely evenings on some weekends didn’t get me occasionally. But besides those, it has been a time when the proverbial ‘self’ unraveled. It is a rather unusual Indian lifestyle to experience. I have been living single since 2008, the spells were interrupted with my co-founders joining in on and off. For almost two years I lived with a former partner of our company. This year tops all of the single-living years. I watched plays alone. I rode long distances on motorcycle alone. I went to movies alone and I cooked all my meals for one person only. I went to the late night movie shows where couples gave quizzing looks to the empty seat besides me, watch me sit through the film alone and walk down into the parking lot alone. In Bangalore, as I notice, one can always spot that lone ranger at the movies because there aren’t too may who hang out alone here.

The obvious consequence of living solo was long conversations with the self. I’d say, ain’t no hermitage on the mountain top needed for self-reflection! (Pico Iyer never ceases to write about such hermitages in his pieces). Try living solo in a city and one can get the same conditions sans the pervasive silence. Traffic is for real and machines of all kinds fill every passing minute of the day.

The year was very productive in the number of books I managed to read. A long lasting urge to read works of Marxist thinkers could start this year and I managed to read a fair number of them – Paulo Friere, Ivan Illich, Michael Watts, Gramsci, Heidegger, Habermas and very less of the great man Marx himself. Ideas of de-schooling and pedagogy of the oppressed made tremendous sense. These explorations have begun my lean to the left, I figure. Finding one’s own thought through an ideology laden world appears tedious.

The second observation is that this is  also the year in which technological pervasiveness climaxes in my personal life. Phone, computer and the internet took charge of my daily life, travel, education, profession and leisure such that it went out of my control even as I used more and more of it to exercise control on things in life.  In what I do, people I talk to and places I want to be were all being governed by devices.  Every evening’s run was mapped and recorded by a Nike app, a sight from the trail shared on Tumblr, activities and interaction shaped by Twitter and similar such things. The ultimate however, without me realizing it, was when personal relationships were formed, lived and driven by Whatsapp and Skype. It was me urging people I cared for and loved, to come over on Skype and let me see them. This, in a naive way, felt was making up for their physical absence. Early morning and frequent messages on Whatsapp throughout the day felt like creating an experience equivalent to shared living.  By the end of these twelve months, I went through the entire journey from urging family and friends for to be more connected through devices, thereby making up for their absence.  In the developed parts of the world, digital pundits and sociologists might remark that what I am experiencing is what the societies there have experienced half a dozen years back. I find it remarkable because this lifestyle wouldn’t possibly take roots in an Indian societal setting. The many festivals, the social obligations, parental pressures, the web of social relationships… all of these make it difficult, if not impossible, to live a solo life in India.

In a spirit of self-reflection at this new year’s eve, I think it is time to make a conscious and informed withdrawal from the overwhelming grip of digital devices. A very close friend with whom I have spent more time in a year chatting on Whatsapp and Skype than spend a handful of days together in real, remarked how different and profuse it felt to spend time together. The connect between us when in person was stirring. We experienced the joy of being together and spending time in each other’s real presence in an overwhelming manner. It wasn’t a pent-up affection over time spent in different cities bursting through when we met in person, it was merely what should have happened had I been really prioritizing people’s presence with all their heart and mind as much as mine, over digital connections.

I am reminded of Sherry Turkle’s remark that “the devices in our pockets are psychologically powerful. They don’t only change what we do, they change who we are.” I have been changing in the past year with digital devices enabling me to create a customized idea of self and project it than the spontaneous formation of the self that could have happened.

In the year ahead, I am intend to pursue a lifestyle which unfolds less in the digital world but rather gushes forth spontaneously, in a felt and real manner. Ironically, I commit to this idea on a blog! This is just the kind of situation that Contested Realities  was meant to capture – the contests. Of ideas and values and preferences in our lives.

2015 saw a lot happening in my personal life. As for the professional, this year I joined a university again. I started a graduate program in public policy at the National Law School in Bangalore. How or why of this decision is still vague in my mind. I could fit in a university program and gain a specialization along with teaching in school and the company, so went ahead and applied. This has had my leisure and travel taking a huge hit this year. No long trips to speak of!

Teaching in the school however, has been an exhilarating journey. Among other things, this has made me come close and appreciate how amazingly capable human mind is. How children progressively make use of or lose the ability of using their creativity as they go along the years in school. I am not sure of my students, but I have felt enormously privileged to be with them and helping them along the high school journey that they have been making. I once ridiculed a professor in my former university of being too idealistic in his outlook during his lectures in development studies. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I stand changed now and realize the absolute necessity of such a worldview. Otherwise what have we got to share with the young men and women who come after us, in this world and to those whom we are charged with teaching?

I hope the year ahead is as satisfying as this one and those before this have been. Good health and good spirits is all I would wish for. For me and for those reading this.



Luang Prabang: 25 years since Benedict Anderson’s visit

Luang Prabang: A view from Mt. Phousi

Luang Prabang: A view from Mt. Phousi

Tucked deep along the popular and wildly promising backpacker routes of South East Asia lies Luang Prabang. This tiny capital of a former princely state which merged with two other little kingdoms to form Laos opens itself unconditionally to the backpacker, the tourist and the fantasy seeker, all alike. No questions asked, beyond the necessary ones at the immigration. The thrill for the backpacker and the rich tourist perhaps lies in being able to walk over and taking for granted this little nation’s sovereignty, its own voice. The traveler with his stash of dollars can get away with anything – ride motorbikes without driving license, move about brazenly in utter disregard for people’s customs, practices or legal regulations and any go forth with any imaginable activity that might promise an inexperienced thrill which the tourist wouldn’t have dared to think of in his own country or traveling in the more prosperous and developed countries of the world. But in Luang Prabang, just go ahead and do it. Here, the weight of a dollar is more than people’s words. The tourist’s fantasies of every variety can be realized here for a pittance, until the pleasure seeker drops out satiated or bored.

Historian Benedict Anderson passed away last week. One of his books Imagined communities was a part of reading in grad school. Curiosity made me look up his other writings and I realized that he wrote of his trip to Luang Prabang during the Songkhran Festival in 1998. ( The excerpts in this post are from the essay published in LRB here.) Reading that I realized that it was twenty five years since his trip that I crossed the Mekong river and into its border town of Huay Xai. Three hundred kilometers up, through the lush mountains of this former Lan Xang kingdom, on the bend of the Mekong lay the endearing Luang Prabang town, home to Prabang Buddha and to some of the most affable people of the subcontinent.

Back to Anderson’s account, it appears that he was a keen eyed traveler more than a historian. His travel accounts tend to be mischievous, sarcastic and incisive in parts. In 1994 Luang Prabang was given UNESCO World Heritage status. In the four years since then, Anderson notes the changes.

In its heart is the hundred-metre-high hill of Phou Si, crowned with a restored Buddhist stupa (nicely floodlit at night) and an abandoned Russian antiaircraft gun. Below is a town that one can stroll across in 25 minutes but which has about forty elegant, modest Buddhist temple complexes, almost all warm browns, blues and whites, backed by huge bo trees, and opal-fired with the saffron robes of monks and novices. Here and there, one picks out former residences and office buildings of French colonials, which have by now acquired the charm of gentle provincial decay. Not a Hilton or Hyatt in sight: no Burger King, McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts. One BMW.

This absence of a Hilton, Hyatt, Burger King, McDonald’s etc is remarkable. The town’s remote location is evident in the fact that even twenty five years since Anderson’s visit, there still are none of these monuments of globalized existence and faux-modernity. The absence of west-styled fast food restaurants and five-start hotels is the exact reason why my friend and I felt a helpless attraction to this town and its homely feel. As Asian travelers with our own countries run over by the global food and hospitality chains, which are constantly road-rolling the peculiar and characteristic identity of the places, we felt Luang Prabang was indeed one of the last remaining places yet to be conquered by this homogenizing force.


Luang Prabang comes off as an easy paced town with not much to see but to lounge and soak up the pace of this town by the Mekong river

Sisavanvong Road: The main thoroughfare in the town

Sisavanvong Road: The main thoroughfare in the town

Back to Anderson’s piece, he examines the ‘preservation’ effort of Luang Prabang’s culture and lifestyle with the World Heritage status. The following lines make for a remarkable critique which in retrospect do seem apt –

‘Best-preserved’ indeed. But by whom or by what? First of all by French imperialism at the end of the 19th century, which, anxious about the brutal British conquest of neighbouring Burma, seized the left bank of the Mekong from the Thai monarchs in Bangkok, who had the bad habit of razing Lao townships that did not behave themselves as loyal vassals. This démarche created a new border far away from Luang Prabang, leaving most Lao-speakers, on the right bank, to become the industrious and despised ‘Irish’ of a Siam that was on the way to becoming Thailand. It made possible the absurd singular English noun ‘Laos’, stupidly taken from the French plural ‘les royaumes Laos’ (the three Lao petty principalities of Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champassak). It led to the construction of a colonial headquarters in the Thai-razed, but ‘central’ locale of Vientiane rather than the remote and northern Luang Prabang. Ultimately the creation of ‘Indochine’ as a vast administrative unit run from Hanoi left Laos as the place where, in the Thirties, six hundred Frenchmen could peaceably indulge themselves, off location, in opium, girls, boys and drink. So to speak, the lotus-eating end of the colonial world.

Through the course of history, Laos seems to be a country pushed and shoved by its neighbours as well as powerful nations. Now, the baton seems to have passed on to the backpackers and tourists to do the same. However, the place still manages to stand apart as a very different experience – culturally and geographically. The mighty Mekong is an overbearing presence. The Buddhist monks still on their early morning walk to receive alms from the townsfolk. The barges ferrying people and vehicles across the river. High school kids volunteering at the National Museum to inform visitors about the artifacts, folktales and the Ramayana stories in English. They are absolutely adorable.

Luang Prabang’s riverfront is one of the prettiest to spend a leisure evening tucked in a small corner of the world. With its setting, it does seem to drive this literal feeling of being far out in the world. Especially, with the time it takes to reach this place. With the absence of factories, heavy machinery, high-rise buildings, large automobiles, mass transport systems and especially high human density, the place manages to immediately make an impression of being in a place which is out of the usual, fast paced cities that the global traveler has routed himself through, to reach here.

The long boats with a powerful outboard engine on the Mekong are an adventurous way to arrive into Luang Prabang.

The long boats with a powerful outboard engine on the Mekong are an adventurous way to arrive into Luang Prabang.

Barges and small boats continue to be the medium of reaching upper banks of Mekong in Luang Prabang

Barges and small boats continue to be the medium of reaching upper banks of Mekong in Luang Prabang

The fate of the royalty of Luang Prabang seems like typical of the colonial era. Either the King becomes a vassal or banished from his land if he tends to be assertive. Rest of the royal family especially the Princes are groomed in the colonizer’s capital abroad, in this case, the royalty being groomed in France. King Sisavangvong gets the nickname of being the ‘playboy King’ perhaps because of his fifty children and fifteen wives. His palace, which was once a French chateau is now the national museum. The night market on the boulevard in front of the palace is a truer picture of the modern day Luang Prabang and not the uninspiring and somewhat oddly cobbled artifacts at the museum.

Laos and Luang Prabang is best seen in its night market in my opinion. It is where the common Laotian surfaces, who lives a life in the countryside perhaps and turns up at the market to make a buck out of the souvenir hunting tourist. Reading Anderson’s account from 1998, his description of the night market reads as a very fine prose and stays remarkably unchanged to my eyes twenty five years since –

The open-air market reminds one of what shopping-malls and supermarkets have cost modern life: the savour and endless variations of homemade cooking and the exuberant inventiveness of a ‘cottage’ artisanate. At the stall of a genial, toothless old Hmong woman, for example, I found an elaborately embroidered baby’s cap from which a circle of 12 silver alloy coins dangled, while the scarlet tassled top was held in place by a larger, heavier coin with a hole bored through its middle. The larger coin was inscribed: ‘1938’, ‘Indochine française’ and ‘5 centimes’. The smaller ones, dated 1980, have passed out of circulation because they are still etched with the hammer-and-sickle, and because inflation has anyway made them valueless. High colonialism and high Communism, once mortal enemies, now cheek by jowl on the endless junkheap of progress, can still light up a baby’s face.

The night market on Sisavangvong Road coming up at dusk with the palace in the background

The night market on Sisavangvong Road coming up at dusk with the palace in the background

High colonialism looms large on several of the former colonies. I see it unfolding every time a tourist treats the country as his ancestral property and brazenly goes about town with a sense of entitlement as though the people are obliged to serve him. It only feels sad that there is little being done to  by the way of the tourist’s own sensitivity as well as from the international multi-lateral organizations which can assist Laos in developing a sharp and sensitive tourism policy similar to the one which helps European countries to keep the visitor subjected to their conditions and not the other way around.

Twenty five years since Anderson’s visit, Luang Prabang does manage to retain the charm that he spoke of. It also appears to have come further down along the road which threatens its unique culture and lifestyle that Anderson pointed to. The value of such travel pieces I realize is immense in creating reference points in the history to at least be cognizant of what we will lose or have lost along the decades.

Meanwhile, I hope Benedict Anderson rests in peace.

Motorcycle, Touring & Things In-Between – 1


Last evening while reading a book on social theory, I drifted away when a chapter in it opened with a mention of the maverick sociologist C. Wright Mills (dude wrote the legendary essay on Sociological Imagination). What made me remember him is not his ideas or contribution to social theory but the fact that he used to ride a motorcycle. The man on his BMW motorcycle was  ‘the Leftist seer on motorcycle‘ and unapologetic for his controversial ideas.  I think his roadie and rider spirit has something to do with the way his professional life was!

Drifting further, I was reminded of the homegrown rider who chooses to attend the 1950 International Ornithological Congress at Uppsala in Sweden on bike. Salim Ali ships his Sunbeam motorcycle (which I suspect was the legendary  500cc S7 model) to Europe and then bikes around the continent to reach just in time for the conference at Uppsala. I wrote about his memoir The Fall of a Sparrow in an earlier post.

Motorcycle and riders, get my attention immediately! Through these years as a rider now, I do find that there is a characteristic attitude or say a certain outlook to life and situations that is unique to riders. This is impressionistic at best, but essentially experiential.

Back in my extended family, I notice that uncles and fathers who rode bikes stand apart in their ways from those who didn’t. Their children, likewise. In 1980s, an uncle used to ride the popular 150cc Lambretta scooter from Nagpur to Pune which meant 800 km of average double carriageway highway. Later, with proven high mileage of Bajaj’s 100cc Boxer motorcycle, he’d do the same only this time in style with an FM radio installed by the headlight assembly for uninterrupted All India Radio broadcast all along his highway ride. His spirit remains the same. Let him know that you are riding or driving long and he should join, he’d be by the side of the vehicle in 15 minutes with his backpack. THAT spirit! The new age bikers of the pretentious biking clubs that I know of wouldn’t even venture out to the other corner of the city on a 15 minutes decision.

My father in his early days rode a 175 cc Rajdoot motorcycle and which was my first exposure to bikes and the unique exposed feel that it came with. Adding to this were the Royal Enfield riding Dispatch Riders (DRs) in Indian army whom I would spot scores of times all through the day. That was another inspiring form – olive green 350cc bikes with metal case panniers and men in olive green uniforms or camouflage fatigues riding around cantonments and the thump of the bikes echoing through the treeline.

A car came years later and by that time I had come too far along to appreciate the closed, bubbled confines of a car. I preferred to lean-in into the curves than lean away from them as in a car. The sense of being exposed and being out-there became an non-negotiable condition to travel and touring. There was this pleasure in being exposed and giving yourself up to the whims of nature. You’d get baked by the blazing tropical Indian sun or battered by wind or soaked to the balls by the same tropical Indian monsoon for hundreds of kilometers. The thrill is beyond what a hundred years in an automobile can offer.

I have been curious about motorcycles, riders and their place in public imagination. There certainly existed, I thought, more categories beyond the ‘outlaw motorcycle riders’ that have somewhat unjustifiably occupied people’s perception. That is when I did a quick search on JSTOR for published articles. A search for “motorcycle” yielded 400 results! With this post I begin pouring over these articles and will keep posting interesting stuff that I find. This is almost like hitting on a treasure for a motorcycle enthusiast. There are stories on motorcycle to anthropologist writing on motorcycle to women on motorcycle.

An interesting piece I found is – Death & the Motorcycle by Becky Ohlsen (gated link) who races vintage motorcycles. The piece is a reflection on her riding experiences and musing over death, which she ends with Stoic philosopher Seneca’s words.

Nobody rides a motorcycle in spite of the danger; they ride because of the danger. They ride directly into the danger. They may indeed be mad, but it’s a madness rooted in a peculiar rationality.

What is also amusing to read is the opening, which clearly is motorcycle in its European context, because in Asia motorcycles are pretty much used for the said purposes and much more –

Motorcycle is not, in other words, the most practical way to fetch a loaf of bread and a carton of milk. Motorcycles are loud, obnoxious, aggressive by nature. They cannot be ridden tentatively. They are not comfortable or convenient.  They make easy things difficult.

Difficulty, obnoxiousness, aggression – as any nice girl can tell you, these things are seductive.

However, a stunningly romantic and endearing piece on motorcycle appeared in the Transatlantic Review in 1968 – Motorcycle Appassionata by Jeffrey Jones (gated link). This is nothing less than what can be dubbed as an ode to the motorcycle and the rider. This article was meant to be a song, and I can’t help quoting the opening paragraphs from it –

highway highway highway.

Downward down a sweep, upward coming out of the valley, rising a hill, over, away, around the bend, leaning, out and straight, away again.
Presto rides.
He kicks down a gear for another corner, springs the clutch as he leans into it. The motor drags and slows, popping. Whips the accelerator around, shooting up and twisting his heard, listens down like a piano tuner for the right pitch. Hums with it and taps up with boot toe into third. The bike settles on its back shocks and jumps. Tone moans and whirs quickly, higher, washing away on the soft California night.

Road lays out ahead and behind in long coaxing curves and floating stretched grades. Twin lamps, chest high on the lifted vampire bars, lick out in front over new black road. Moon light powders blue and lush summer country around. Subaqua, pine tips sway languid as a current brushes across.

Presto is the rider. More lyrical prose follows until Presto rides into a town and enters a bar. Then this –

He turns his back to them so they can easily read DRIFTERS-S.F. stitched on his jacket back over a large white iron cross. He trades the old lady a quarter for his glass of beer and watches one of the girls walk to the juke box. She stands in front of it with a hip thrust out to the side and sweeps her long red hair back over her shoulder. Reading the selection she lifts a foot and rubs the toes over the back of her other leg. the old lady shouts to her.

“Here’s them hamburgers.”

Girl turns and comes to the bar next to Presto. He reads the look of curiosity around her eyes. When she picks up the plastic baskets with the burgersin them he looks down the top of her summer dress and notices a love bite above her breast. When she turns, he’s smiling and she sniffs before speaking.

“You’re one of those Angels aren’t ya?”
“Huh-uh. Drifter.”
“Same sorta thing ennit?”
“you from L.A.?”
“No. Frisco.”

This for me speaks of how the motorcycles and bikers found expression in literature of the times. Many of these seem to end on a tragic note with ruined lives, dead bikers etc. However, they are all uniformly high on the spirit of the road, biker attitudes, details on motorcycle and the precarious lives that the riders lived.

As I write this and try to find a finish to this trip into literature on motorcycles, I am reminded of Lawrence of Arabia or T E Lawrence, another of my favorite biker from yore. He rode a 1100cc Brough Superior motorcycle. He died riding this British motorcycle in a crash. The 1937 speed record was made on this motorcycle. Not just this, every motorcycle came with a certificate guaranteeing that it could hit a ton (100 mph) within a quarter mile!


Delivery boys in India’s eCom industry

Some months back LiveMint  published a photo essay on the life of a delivery boy in India – ‘Sign Here Please’: The Life of a Delivery Boy. These are the hundreds of young men who are zipping around on bikes negotiating the killer traffic of Indian cities  delivering goods that the Indian middle-class is buying online. I have often felt that these the salaries of the delivery boys do not match the stress and risk that they face at work everyday. As a biker, I think the single greatest risk is the dangerous traffic in most of our cities. Add weather conditions to it. Top it up with employer’s targets and we have a crisis brewing. The crisis takes various forms depending on the bargaining position or assertion power that this group of workers might have. Recent strike by delivery boys at India’s largest eCom retailer is covered here, here and here.

It is hard to understand why these Indian companies with billion dollar valuations and much celebrated entrepreneurs fail to even provide basic facilities for workers. The workers reportedly struck work for the lack of toilets at work place! Looking at these incidents it appears that worker wages and worker rights safeguards in India are clearly not functioning, even though legal scholars might sing peans about the comprehensive and robust labour laws in India.

In this post I share some charts from this exploration on worker wages and rights.

Faultlines in safeguarding worker wages and rights

There are three major faultlines along which the safeguarding of worker interests and rights have broken up in the neo-liberal era which is characterized by flow of foreign capital in India and structural reforms introduced by governments (at center and state level) which seek increasing amounts of aid (in the form of low interest, long term capital) from the multi-lateral aid agencies.

  1. Informalization of labour – This phenomenon is characterized by hiring workers only as contract labour as opposed to making them regular, permanent employees. When hired as contract workers the employ is able to fire the workers at his will as well as not provide for anything over and above the wages in terms of employment benefits. Informalization is driven by the dire need for jobs in the country as well as abundant supply of labour for the employers to hire even if some among them may not be ready to work on the wage rate offered by the employer. There are always other workers available to take that job at the rates and conditions set by the employer. Figure 2 shows the trends in employment numbers in the period 2004-2010 in formal and informal sector. The total informal employment in organized sector has more than doubled in this period. This is the first faultline wherein the workers are pitted against increasingly adverse conditions and term of employment.

This arrangement of hiring (i.e. contract labour) also has made regulation of labour beyond the state’s control.


Figure 1: The change in informal and formal employment in organized and unorganized sectors in India from 2004-2010. (The chart was developed from data sheets available on portal of Government of India)
  1. Globalization and entry of foreign capital – India’s growth is funded by significant borrowing from multi-lateral institutions. Figure 3 indicates the donor commitment from World Bank Group in period 2009-2015. 2015 is half year estimate. This figure merely illustrates the trend in flow of capital in the form of loans from outside the country. As is known in development and aid literature worldwide, this capital comes with its own conditions which are the receiving country agrees to. These conditions have essentially meddled with corporate laws, property laws and labour laws in the country. Aid driven stimulation of markets in India has led to a serious degradation of laws which regulated wages and employment terms. Increasing emphasis on contract labour is one indication of the trend. Additionally, the new labour law reform bill in the parliament seeks to even alter the implicit right to collective bargain in the labour law. The reform proposes arbitration as a method of resolving differences between employer and workers and tries to dilute the collective action right.


Figure 2: Gross commitments by the World Bank Group (comprises of three institutions) in the period 2009-2015 illustrates the flow of capital to India from one source of foreign funds alone. (Data extracted from AidFlow Portal)
  1. Weak legal institutions & Worker Unions – The labour law in India uses the phrase “decent work with a living wage” as the centerpiece of the gamut of rules that it includes and which are deemed binding on the employers. However, it is necessary to note that in India, labour is a subject under concurrent list. From several states in India there is a push for making labour a state subject. This according to one state at least – Gujarat, will allow the state to formulate labour laws as per their requirement. The state specific requirement can mean anything from tailoring labor laws to suit big ticket investors in the state (ex- Gujarat ) on one end of the spectrum to making the laws pro-labour to an extent that it deters the industries from investing in the state (ex- West Bengal).

The state specific laws which provide for worker benefits and social security have had a variable performance across states. A case in point is the BOCW Act implemented in states. Observations from Karnataka, in an earlier study show that the provisions of the act have had minimal positive effect on the construction workers.[1]

Another noticeable trend is seen in the declining number of registered trade unions in India from 2001-2010. Figure 4 shows the trend.


Figure 3: The number of registered trade unions in India from 2000-2009. (Chart made from statistics available on portal of Government of India)


Future of worker conditions and remedy

In the present scenario, the odds are pitted high against the workers. They continue to remain gardeners of the beautiful garden of India’s economic growth on the terms set by the companies which bring in investment and job opportunities. Then, they are subjected to the political interests of the states where they find jobs. The state ends up determining how weak or strongly the worker rights are safeguarded in the state. Further, that migrants provide the labour required in several states, it means that the workers are clearly not in any position of bargain. This footloose labour, as Jan Breman has described, will forever be shortchanged in terms of their wages and rights in the current political and economic landscape (Breman, 1996)

First, it must be acknowledged that minimum wages is a blunt policy instrument, when seen as the single most important device in ensuring a decent wage to workers within the labour law framework. It has clearly not worked because various states have gone about determining minimum wage in several different ways, none of which in effect have translated in to wages that the workers would certainly be able to agree as sufficient for their minimum needs in the cities of their work. It may be different in rural areas but in urban it has certainly been inadequate.

Second, the problem of decent work with a living wage is fundamentally political than technical. The solution to this must emerge from inside the polity in India. It clearly cannot be dependent and manipulated by the interests outside of Indian political or economic realm. There is a pressing need for safeguarding the interests of Indian workers with the onslaught of powerful multinational corporations backed by powerful institutions.

Third, a policy design which seeks to change the incentives for local actors – the state government, local suppliers of factors of production and worker unions, must all see a definite win in the idea that their industry grows only on the back of the worker who is well provided for. A worker who earns a sufficient wage which can ensure his physical and mental capabilities is a necessity. There hasn’t been any coherent policy framework with respect to labour conditions in India. A start towards this must start with a premise set on workers’ rights and their representation in the policy making process.

Fourth, accountability relationships need to be restructured in current set up where the industry – state linkage is all prevailing and strong in a manner that it has come to determine the fate of millions of workers across the country. How this accountability relationship of the industry as well as the state can be altered or structured in a manner that the other necessary stakeholder group of the workers is brought into the equation is a question which needs further exploration. This is also important in the current decade because a union as a medium of collective bargain has undergone a steady deterioration. Where it stages a comeback or not, the equation between workers and employers needs a rethink.


[1] Rethinking Welfare When ‘Builders Take Care of the Workers’: Construction Workers’ Welfare in Bangalore and BOCW Act, 1996 . Sachin Tiwari. 2015. URL –

‘Property’ in its contemporary form


In an earlier post history of the idea of property was traced briefly. This one continues the exploration of normative and operational basis for the idea of property. The merit of this pursuit lies in the realm of grappling with several contestations that have emerged in the contemporary society. These contestations are between various classes, ethnic groups, castes (when one looks at India) and races (when one considers US) on the ownership, rights to use and share all conceivable types of resources that can be utilized and benefitted from  in the prevailing economic system. Such a blanket description of resources would then include the Marxist idea of ownership of means of production, ownership and use rights of natural resources and to the variety of ownership that has evolved in the knowledge industry.

An exploration as this, serves the wider purpose of opening up a discussion on how might one try to reconcile these wide ranging conceptions of the idea of property and the variety of normative and positivist ideas that come to bear upon the set of institutions that are then built upon such a conception.

Property rights have held an important status in the political agenda in several democratic countries worldwide. It has also come to be marked as an important feature of a capitalist economy. The modern views on property are as divergent as Monsieur Proudhon’s “all property is theft” to contemporary economist like Hernando DeSoto who sees property rights as (perhaps) the only available tool for raising capital stock for the poor to be able to raise enough financial resources in order to fund their development process. The transformation in the idea of property, thus, has been tremendous.

The operation typologies of property as forms of tangible and intangible thing; private property and common property; property as set of rules about ownership, rights and use etc is not dealt with here. This is because these typologies are based on the same foundational thoughts about conception of property that are discussed here.

The Liberal & Neo-Liberal Period

A discussion on the most recent interpretations i.e. in the liberal and neo-liberal idea of property merits significant attention because of its central position in capitalist economies as well as democracies worldwide.  While this period has come to be known for its exclusionary and restrictive property regime which is enforced through rule of law, it is also a period in which we see the sharpest description and understanding of property and property rights emerging.

In my assessment, this is also a period in which the gap between idea and practice (of the idea of property) is the smallest. This means that in its larger direction, it is the liberal and neo-liberal period where one can find the idea and practice in consonance. However, it might be good to also note that when in the history of idea of property a consonance between idea and practice is achieved, there also emerges one of the most inequitable societies in terms of income and ownership of resources.

For instance, an idea that held tremendous recognition in twentieth century was that property rights are a key for individuals to be able to make use of their labour and transform that property into productive asset which results in a livelihood. The Indian, Russian and Chinese experiments in land redistribution were attempts in line with that kind of idea. However, each of these countries has had different results in bringing about land redistribution. Its premise that ownership of means of production (land in this case) is a necessary condition for individuals to be able to earn a decent livelihood did not yield consistent results.

More recently, economist Hernando DeSoto’s call for enforceable property rights as a necessary instrument in a capitalist economy, in the hands of the poor also showed variable results. At one point, the large multilateral institutions like the World Bank also favoured DeSoto’s call for enforceable property rights as a tool for poverty alleviation. This was proposed to be done by giving property titles to the poor who own whatever little asset that can be titled. With these titles, it is assumed that they will be able to access capital markets and make use of their property as a hedge. In its implementation in Peru, studies suggest that there hasn’t been recognizable change in the poor  people’s economic situation.

Return to Locke

It is useful to see that the liberal period is also marked by a rather elegant theory of entitlements proposed by Robert Nozick. Robert Nozick (1974) argued that a theory of historical entitlement, along Lockean lines, provides both a complete justification of the institution and a set of strict criteria that govern its legitimate distribution. Property rights, according to Nozick, constrain the extent to which we are entitled to act on our intuitions and theories about distributive justice (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2004).

It is a framework which emphasizes individual rights and the derivation of political obligation from consent. Nozick holds that the only legitimate state is the minimal state, whose activities are confined to the protection of individuals and their property and to the enforcement of contracts (Scanlon, 1976).

In these times of neo-liberal hegemony , it is imperative that reconciliation between idea and practice is attempted by the institutions which have come to determine every aspect of social, economic and political life of individuals in the society. While it does seem to appear that the idea and practice of property in the neo-liberal period seems in line, however, this has led to highly contestable and inequitable outcomes. This does not seem to be a constructive basis for the future of civilizational progress. Hence, sounding the opening note again, the pursuit of philosophical basis of the idea of property is necessary, especially since the consequences of the neo-liberal interpretation of property is known and felt by most countries worldwide.

Torment of words


Last evening at a book launch in the city, I was thinking about the drive that makes people write, and write profuse lengths at that! There was Ram Guha who has himself written with a flourish for most of his life since his doctoral days, interviewing Linda Hess whose book Bodies of Hope was being released. I imagine that it probably needs a burning desire to get experiences transformed into words. For Hess it did appear a bit of that when she spoke of her experiences understanding, translating and journeying through places where Kabir’s couplets are remembered and performed. That seemed reasonable. But how often is it that such a burning desires takes over and the written form begins taking shape as fast as a moth turns butterfly? I can hardly count such instances in my life!

The impetus that I find a bit more identifiable is Gorky’s description from a classic essay he writes on How I Learnt to Write.  He describes in the essay the moments when he writes to “get things off my chest”. That is an identifiable state and real in terms of possibility of the situation. He writes,

There were moments of torment from the tension within me, moments when a lump stood in my throat and I wanted to cry out that my friend Anatoly, a glass-blower, was a lad of talent but would perish if no help were forthcoming; that the street-walker Theresa was a fine person and it was unjust that she was a prostitute, which was something the students who visited her did not see, just as they did not see that the old woman Matista, who begged for a living, had far more brains than the young and well-read accoucheuse Yakovleva.

The burdened state of mind to let it out and write about the experiences, the upsetting asymmetries and ironies of life does have a profound effect on those who think the written word would be a partial relief from having lived such experiences. I do recollect bursts of lines that begin foaming up in my mind often as I coast through days in everyday life.

This is where the next part kicks in – the lack of skill and the torment there of. The words begin feeling inadequate. The feel of the writing too fluffy and posturing at worse. That is when the keyboard crackle stops. Escape from this rut? I haven’t found a way yet. But the raw material keeps flowing in from daily experiences. However, the writer can try to be cognizant of this dynamic and keep on with his work as Gorky did.

Until one has perfects the discipline to get down to a desk and plod through the task of writing, the realm of desire, drive or urge to write seems a reasonable way out. The bursts of writing or such binges appears to be a rather reasonable path to such discipline. As I write this, I have a largish report from an earlier field-work to be written. Also sitting still are the diary entries from the road-trips taken in the past two months. None of them have gotten anywhere for the want of the drive to get them down in words. It isn’t always the proverbial procrastination. Several of those times when I do not write it is about the want of a entry into that diffuse spread of observations and corresponding thoughts that streamed through. To this I recall, Joan Didion’s remarkable ability to write Year of Magical Thinking soon after losing her family. That is a tremendous ability, to write as one is grieving.

My travel notebooks sit piled up while I wade through scattered thoughts and read works by these authors. I guess that “urge” to write is an unfaithful thing. More often one needs to just sit down and start typing the mental chatter out. This is what I am doing this morning.



On the idea of ‘property’

From a few earlier projects that our firm has handled (in FRA, land acquisition and coastal regulation) and a couple of academic exercises, I began exploring the idea of property and how it has come to be its contemporary understanding. This meant that I begin with earliest conceptions or references to the word property and further interpretations over time.

The point of this post is to share a brief table which attempts to periodise the property discourse and flags thinkers of the respective period. And then highlight fundamental ideas of the early period.

Periods (of the idea of Property)
I: The Greek Period
Property as virtue
Property as common owned
II: The Modern Period
 Property as individual right
Property ownership and rules of ownership as an instrument to resolve conflicts in society
Property as creation of sovereign state
Hume (that there is nothing ‘natural’ about private property)
III: The Marxist Idea
 Ownership of labour
Ownership of means of production
Karl Marx
IV: The Liberal & Neo-Liberal Period
 Property as enforceable right
Economic rationale for property rights
Rule of Law
Entitlement Theory
Erosion of social basis of property
Rawls (asking if property is a philosophical question at all)
Table: Periods in progression of the idea of property

In line with Aristotelian thought, John Locke follows makes a significant contribution to the idea of property with his labour theory of property. At this juncture, there is a departure from what constitutes property to an inquiry into how is property created. In a sense, ownership becomes a secondary thought, while the primary goal becomes articulation of what might be called property. Is it something already present and that a person just lays his claim over it or is property a process of creation and consequently the creator holds the right to claim it as his?The idea of property has undergone this clash of idea and practice just the same. Some of the widely noted ideas include Plato’s argument that common ownership was necessary to promote common pursuit of the common interest, and to avoid the social divisiveness that would occur ‘when some grieve exceedingly and others rejoice at the same happenings’ (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2004).  Whereas, Aristotle argues for private ownership of property justifying that this condition is a necessity for a man to act in the interest of prudence and responsibility. Further, he links the idea of property and its practice to the virtue of man. This is a radical departure from Plato’s articulation and perhaps it can be said that the Greek society’s practice of property ownership and its use as an instrument looked closer to Aristotle’s idea of it.

The resolution of the idea of property in this manner continues into the contemporary times, where this line of enquiry is instrumental in deciding upon rights and ownership issues of newer forms of knowledge products and creation that have emerged. In areas like intellectual property, such debates are instrumental because they offer a method of thought as well as a historical reference point as to how questions of ownership, rights and use evolved over time.

Locke’s original position of natural law to think about property as a creation which comes about when labour is applied to natural resources remains pivotal in understanding property as well as labour. An instance of the chasm between idea and practice that the paper argues for can be seen in case of the Lockean proviso (Waldron, 1979)[2].

This is where we see that the conditionality that one may appropriate a property of a person provided that “… there is enough, and as good, left in common for others” remains sidelined and not applied.  While on one hand there are attempts to understand and conceptualize what property might mean, there emerged thoughts on the applicability of such ideas of property. For instance, Hume argues that property relations only make sense under conditions of scarcity (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2004).

It is useful to contrast Locke’s theorization of property with that of Hobbes and Hume who begin by looking at property from the sovereign state’s perspective. Hobbes and Hume, counter to Locke’s idea of property, argue that there is no natural ‘mine’ or ‘thine’, and that property must be understood as the creation of the sovereign state or at the very least the artificial product of a convention ‘entered into by all the members of the society to bestow stability on the possession of… external goods, and leave every one in the peaceable enjoyment of what he may acquire by his fortune and industry’ (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2004).

While I pursue the shifts in the later periods, it is quite intriguing that research in this area is not pursued by developing countries and particularly in India where property rights are contested and law suits filed in every single city, town and village in the country.


[1] Roberto Unger speaks of Hegel’s idea and influence on his work in social theory in a documentary titled The Origins of Roberto Mangabeira Unger’s Philosophical Thought, 2013.

[2] Waldron asks a sharp question on this proviso which is instructive for the reading on property and Locke’s idea. He writes, in the same paper – “what if there is not enough and as good left in common for others? Does that mean nobody may appropriate anything from the state of nature and call it his private property? In other words, is the italicized clause (of necessary condition) intended as a necessary condition on private appropriation, restricting the appropriation of goods to circumstances in which there is plenty left for everybody else?”.