Indian sociology, if there is one

Last week was spent in listening to some of the best Indian minds in sociology during NIAS’s annual seminar on nation, community and citizenship in contemporary India. It was also a fitting tribute to M N Srinivas in whose honour a panel discussion was organized. The discussions seemed in-line with his own way – stress-testing concepts and original. There were differing opinions on the relevance of concepts, ethnographic method etc. One of Srinivas’ contemporaries present at the occasion was Prof. N. Jayram who had known M N Srinivas for a substantial part of his later academic career.

I have been interested in Srinivas’ work and the development of sociology in India for a while now. The seminar at NIAS brought together a rather large section of Indian sociologists who, undoubtedly, have driven teaching and research in sociology in Indian universities. Over the last three years, I have used excerpts of Srinivas’ The Remembered Village as an preliminary exposure to sociology for students of O and A level studies. I find it a useful sample of classical sociological writing which comes up as a result of long term observations driven by a structured inquiry. I have been interested in knowing what has been the legacy of Srinivas’ work in India and how has it changed the study of Indian society. While I did manage to have some insights into it at the seminar, the more interesting part was Prof. Jayram’s reminiscence of Srinivas. A rich description of sociology in early years of independent India can be found in Srinivas’ interview with Chris Fuller here.

Jayram suggests that there are two things worth noting when we discuss Srinivas today – that he came in at a time when social philosophy transitioned to sociology and that his career spanned colonialism, Indian independence, Nehruvian socialism and nationalism (he passed away in 1999). In terms of the discipline, he  privileged field view and participants , which methodologically many know as participant observation. His approach was of being in the field and getting us “earthworm perspective “(for Jayram the importance of this approach kicked in during his work in diaspora studies in Trinidad). The terms he coined – dominant caste, vertical and horizontal solidarity etc are widely used in analysis of Indian society now. Srinivas emphasized on caste as interest group over caste as a system. This analytical lens becomes immediately useful when one finds that systemic analysis of caste not being helpful in offering any logical analysis of caste dynamics.
Jayram added that Srinivas was strongly influenced by structural functionalism. It was his eclecticism that made his sociology more appealing. When one thinks of it, it is hard to list names of eminently readable sociologists in India. The likes of Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Ashish Nandy, Shiv Visvanathan etc who appear often in the newspaper columns can hardly be understood by common people (and require re-readings for social science graduates themselves). One could argue that these are not sociologists, but the larger point remains – that Indian academicians don’t quite have the ability to write in an engaging manner. The only exception to this, in my opinion, is Andre Beteille. Whereas, Srinivas did not restrain from communicating his ideas to a general audience. Jayram remarks that Srinivas’ language carried both – the novelist’s imagination and sociologist’s thinking. That is a enviable ability to write! It is said that Srinivas was also influenced by Graham Greene’s prose style.

Another sociologist on the panel and whose papers I have read through MA was Surinder Jodhka. His remarkably sharp, analytical mind is rather unusual in the discipline. Jodhka’s criticism on “Rampura” (village where Srinivas does his field work) as a problem – that it is the idea of a Hinduised India, is reverent yet sharp in pointing out the contention. Jodhka says, the village of Srinivas’ imagination isn’t quite a village reflecting the realities of a village in contemporary India. Jodhka urges that rural is not just one – there are many rurals. Rural India encompases a whole range of possiblities and configurations which get flattened out in the dichotomous references of rural and urban. A more reasonable category, Jodhka insists would be settlement. The last bit of Jodhka’s critique was about the conceptin of an ideal society which in some sense has been about a casteless society. He asserts that  a casteless society is not an answer – a democratic society is! In a way, it is futile to imagine that caste would cease to matter in the future. Evidence suggests that irrespective of material status, caste consciousness has deepened in India. If anything, it matters all the more. Caste based coalitions are now a major determinant of political outcomes as well as in businesses. In such a scenario, imagining a casteless society is delusional. The task of sociology is to acknowledge the realities of the society and then offer a way forward, not by negating them.

In most MA programs, courses in sociology are dominated by published papers from British and US institutions. Most students are at  a loss to even recall two Indian sociologists and their works. Indian sociology with its own approaches and unique knowledge production could certainly be identified in the 1970s and perhaps until late 1990s. After this, I do not quite find works as situated – in method and content, in India, as earlier. This can be a hasty remark, until I find published works on Indian society, which deviate from the methodological and conceptual traditions of the British and US institutions.




From APU Conference 2013 : On right to welfare

APU Conference 2013. Right to Welfare: Education, Food and Work, Bangalore

APU Conference 2013. Right to Welfare: Education, Food and Work, Bangalore

This morning we are at APU’s Conference 2013 on Right to Welfare: Education, Food and Work. The focus seems firmly set on India and here is the list of papers. My colleague and I find the conference note to be high on theoretical quotient with respect to thinking on institutional and legal fronts – about what welfare means in India and its delivery. During the day we hear people working in social security, education, poverty, food, work and a variety of interdisciplinary areas in development like rights based approach to welfare, structural violence and welfare etc.

Besides the range being a little too expansive, we find that it might well be one of the few times in a year that we sit in conferences understanding, debating and learning about new ways of thinking and conceptualization of problems that we see in our work with non-profits and small businesses in the development sector. We experience the issues of equity, access and rights but seldom get to effect changes to remedy the imbalance. Or at times we have not even known how to approach serious issues such as these. The themes –

I. Law and development in India

II. Statutory rights-based approach to welfare

III. Rights and Obligations

Of these we look forward to interesting research on structural violence and welfare by Akhil Gupta, Social Citizenship in India by Niraja Jayal and on India’s new rights agenda by Sanjay Ruparelia.

The conference opened with two fairly accurate observations from Anurag of APU, who trawls the Indian hinterland looking at changes, emerging practices and learning from them to devise effective social action –

1. That there has been a retreat of welfare in India

2.  That there is a lack of engagement between the intellectuals and people on the ground. And  that this is beginning to be a problem .

For us as practitioners, this might yield interesting ways to look at the contests of rights, access and equity and associated problems that we see in out work. And how these could be addressed by businesses or perhaps by our work in data analysis and documentation. If it does yield interesting insights, be sure to find it here.


‘This got women reading and thinking’ – MFC Discussion [4]

The report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India was published in 1974 and many in India consider it a landmark in the women’s rights movement as well as a first comprehensive document on Indian women in all aspects of productive and social life. The sweep as I read the contents is enormous.  A Frontline magazine article discussing Women’s Reservation Bill says,

The Committee on the Status of Women in India (1971-74) undertook the most comprehensive review on women’s status since Independence. It noted the “difficulties being experienced by women in obtaining adequate representation” and the “declining trend in the number of women legislators”, which it apprehended may result in women “losing faith in the political process to change their conditions in life, may opt out of the political system and become either passive partners or rebels” (“Towards Equality”, Report of the CSWI, GOI, page 302).

The committee refrained from suggesting reservation, given both the earlier experience and the basis of feedback from women in political parties. This was the only issue on which a note of dissent was submitted by three members. The committee strongly recommended action to provide women “special opportunities for participation in the representative structures of local government”.

My understanding of women’s movements in India and the heady times in which this report was set was unknown to me until Dr Veena Shatrugna gave a brief history of the report (she was also a part of it) in the MFC meet at Hyderabad. Here is what she had to say –

Towards Equality” published in early 1970s was a historical document which determined women’s thought. This got women reading and thinking. By the 1980s organization of women’s movement was disparate – some worked on health, work, law etc. Area of environment was not an issue at that time. This was all outside the formal system- outside academia (for them it was a waste of time), trade unions etc. All the work appeared fragmented but it fitted in well in the larger pic. 

  • Sewa – was organizing women for their right to do the kind of work they were doing like vegetable vendors, rag pickers etc. With VP Singh govt in power (mid 1980s) Ila Bhat was asked to head a national commission to study the working conditions of women in the non-formal sector. The commission sent out 10 lakh questionnaires to various organizations. They received 1.5 lakh filled questionnaires.
  • It was fascinating to see the list of various occupations that emerged. It was amateurish in a sense as many of those insisted on adding a “worker” to whatever trade they described. It was an indication that women were now “workers”.  It added a kind of richness. “There is so much work, but we do not have work” the report began with. Wages was in question. Women can work in any condition that’s the assumption. What they are asking for is interesting. What we did not notice is that the commission was asking for minimum wages.
  • This was 1990s. Women’s movement loses out after this. Why? There were too many things which were asked for. Recommendations were all over the place. For Instance, the symptoms of disease are also mixed up. Tusser workers’ hazards, cashew workers’ hazards and other occupations are given in detail in the report.The men were not accounted for.
  • Dr. Veena finally adds,
  • This team was in a political sense very innocent. It didn’t have any political backing and it was forgotten after it was released. The whole thing came at a time when the nation was not interested in women. It still makes me happy reading the report.

Now, why doesn’t this make the stuff of lectures in the Indian universities, in development, sociology and similar courses? At lest, some of these wayward activists can beef up their understanding of social and feminist movements in the country reading stuff like this than running around plastering slogans (condescending? no! criticism? yes!)

State-Judiciary pact in the neoliberal times – MFC Discussion [3]

A sharp, clear speaking labour lawyer presents this case of Andhra Pradesh Mining Development Corporation (APMDC) which violated occupational health and safety laws in a quartz mine opened in 1964 in a remote location in Mehboobnagar district.

Case Status: Ongoing, Writ Petition in Andhra Pradesh High Court

Facts:  A quartz mine of APMDC operated from 1964 to 1975. 400 workers  worked in the mines during its period of operation. The location of the mine is remote. In the 1980s almost  all the former workers start dying in three villages of the district. There is a rush to various hospitals in the state by the affected families for treatment. Hospitals diagnose the conditions differently – pharyngitis  tuberculosis etc. Only one, Ramamurthy Hospital diagnosed it as silicosis- an occupational disease. The media gives these deaths extensive coverage. Subsequently AP govt steps in and sends a committee comprising of 5 doctors to the district.

An investigation by Union ministry team finds 136 workers dead and 191 workers critically ill in the year 2000. As on 2013  a writ petition is pending.

The lawyer presenting the case highlights the kind of questions being raised in this case where a compensation is being claimed by the workers’ families and state is being held responsible for the deaths:

  1. The deaths happened in the period 1984-1985. Why has the petition come so late?
  2.  The petition should have been filed under  Workers Compensation Act instead of  clogging the High Court which has a huge backlog of cases.
  3. There s no documentation of this disaster. Therefore, filing charges on APMDC has been difficult.
  4. Workers are being asked – Where is your identity? How do we know you have worked in this mine? PF card, health card… any card? How do we fix the claim on APMDC?

In all these, not a single question was directed at the State. Then there is an enquiry report from a union ministry and yet State doesn’t act or intervene in the situation. Judiciary it is said checks the action of the legislature. In all these years it has not questioned the State! There is not a single question directed against the State where its agency APMDC has shown blatant disregard for workers’ medical care, rehabilitation and  even a basic enquiry.

It is interesting how the situation is being framed.The line of critique to me appears incomplete and rather hasty –

There is some kind of a pact between the judiciary and the State. The pact is “I will not ask you and you will not question”.  This is the backbone of our liberalization.  Actually… we have no labour laws. The state has completely abdicated itself. It is this kind of silence we see in our judiciary!

State of OHS in India – MFC Discussion [2]

MFC Annual Meet, 2013, Hyderabad

MFC Annual Meet, 2013, Hyderabad

The meeting at MFC has been quite rewarding for my research interest in Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) in India. The conversations at the meeting yielded a laundry list of issues that affect a functioning and effective OHS system in the country. It starts with an instance of an industrial chemical polyacrylate which is categorized as a mild to moderate toxin. 5 workers reports an NGO from Vadodara, Gujarat, have died in the state due to polyacrylate exposure. Other instance cited was of nasal septum perforation from chromium exposure in Vadodara.

The range of issues in OHS are:

  • Data on deaths, injuries, disability and ODs.
  • Workplace environment monitoring, its data (dose- effect replationship)
  • Laws and their enforcement, use of legal provisions
  • Right to refuse – workers have a right to refuse work if they think that conditions are not safe. It doesn’t apply that way in India
  • Investigations and their reports
  • Information on hazards- to the workers
  • Information on OHS situation to the society
  • Unionization and TU situation – politics and priorities
  • Priorities for workers and other stake holders
  • Medical education, diagnosis, treatment. OHS education in other faculties – law, engineering, social work, sociology, medicine. For instance- doctors know so little about OHS. In case of IITs – how many of them include OHS in their curriculum?
  • Disability assessment and rights of disabled. Workers disabled because of OH are not included by disability law. Case- a disable person was assessed by ESI medical panel. Disability assessed as 20%. Within 2 months the person dies. When an RTI was raised by an NGO to know what standard was applied to assess the disability. The medical team replied that there was no standard.
  • Research on different aspects of OHS= medical, social, legal.
  • Use of PPE, availability, quality standardization and other issues.
  • Technology – age old techniques like dye manufacturing being done in open pans
  • Vulnerability of specific social groups like dalits, migrant workers etc.
  • Lack of BOHS (basic OHS) and lack of social security to majority – ESI & ESIC. Many places not covered by ESI and employers do not want ESI
  • Universalisation of BOHS/Integration of OHS with general health services
  • Role of central and state govts, national and international agencies, NGOs, TUs.
  • Campaigns, movements, networking
  • OHS literature
  • Myths and misconceptions
  • Relief and rehabilitation
  • Return to work – ‘light duty’
  • New technology and materials (no information on status of these in India)
  •  Occupational cancers, NIHL, Pneumoconiosis

On data – central government has no control over the state governments. And this affects data availability.

Work environment monitoring – vague and poorly implemented. Law does not mandate industrial hygienist. South Africa had a mandated a ‘dust monitor’ 100yrs back.

Madhya Pradesh – deaths due to silicosis among migrant workers were always reported as due to TB by the doctors. TB vs Silicosis sort of a movement began. 2005-06 424 persons were affected due to silicosis. In 2011, 1701 persons affected with silicosis in 3 districts in MP. This was a small study. A petition has been filed to knw the status of silicosis. NHRC has released a report on silicosis. MP govt has constituted a silicosis board to address the issue and also track migrant workers.
Rajasthan – mining is a huge revenue source to the state. Labourers are generally employed through agents. The mines are let out on lease to the owners. Now to the labourers Rajasthan govt is paying out of its own pocket. The govt is not able to make the mining lobby to address the situation. Workers do not know who they are working for. It is also difficult to determine who owns the mine. 21 victims have been compensated with Rs 3 lakhs. Now the state govt is concerned that it is spending its relief fund money.
Comment – appeal to look at the causes below the symptoms. Large scale denial of disease is for a reason. So understand the political economy of OH. There is a paradigm shift in the entire world of work in the last 2-3 decades. Whenever capital engages in surplus extraction there are two barriers- it has to give job secturty. Second, wages to labour. Regan and Thatcher bring in neoliberal capitalism and a paradigm shift in surplus extaction. Mid 1990s production is reorganized. It orients towards maximization. In that situation employer-employee relationship is fragmented so that it is no more required to take care of the worker. Labour extraction becomes absolute.

Construction, Mining and Factories sector have a schedule of diseases. A person/doctor who comes across a patient suffering from any of the listed diseases can report to the Factories Inspector. (Ref: Book “They go to die” on mining in South Africa).

Comment – Medical profession is getting away too easily. It can’t diagnose silicosis. “we can’t wait for a well wisher funded by Bill Gates to do find a diagnosis. May be he can help if he finds a vaccine for it.”

Work, Health & Rights – MFC Discussion [1]

MFC Banner

Medico Friends Circle completes 40 years with this annual conference in Hyderabad. Seeing the energy and quality of discussions this morning is admirable. The gathering is quite diverse – activists, NGOs, researchers, development professionals, engineers and doctors (although the name suggests that it is a group of medical professionals.

Theme of this MFC meet is Work, Health and Rights.

The concerns within this are about what is work, work conditions and gender, particularly in the unorganized sector. Now, the distinction between organized and unorganized sector is not straight forward or simple. The concern originates from the health care situation of 97% of the work force in India today. To address this, it would be required to structurally analyze the forms of legal, economic and social relationships in which the workers exist with their employers.

Organized/Unorganized categorization is based on sectors of production, whereas, workers can be employed under formal and informal modes. One view is that it is a convenient economic-legal categorization which grades people on the degree of benefits they receive as a part of work force. The other is that the categorization of organized sector began with the Factories Act.

Agriculture has been mostly informal but with MNCs coming in many aspects of agriculture has become organized yet the workers have remain unorganized. There are problems when an industry begins to get organized. And these problems are of concern to development and growth.  Two primary concerns in defining nature of sector and work are-

  • Legality
  • Social Security

The right to unionize should be of critical importance when a sector organizes. This according to one view, helps ensure social security which should be of primary concern from a gender perspective.

Unorganized-organized categorization would soon become irrelevant in the neoliberal world says one participant citing the  case of Rajasthan government where employees who were made permanent after 2004 do not have any pension benefits or security.. They only take a monthly salary.

Contrary to this, some perceive that the categorization is a fairly clear one at that and there are two markers of such a distinction-

  • Worker – direct hires, contract workers (under ESI Act).
  • Entitlements – employer provided, employee-employee contributory model, safety net (RG Yojana)

When in 2006 it was declared that “menial services” will be contracted out in the public sector why didn’t anyone object? The dalits were completely pushed out from the resultant opportunities. In the government sector dalits were turned away. And therefore, it is necessary that the meet discusses caste and class also.

The view that these categories are becoming redundant is held by quite a few. “Today we find that a permanent worker is an endangered species says a former trade union worker.” The sector is moving towards dissolving this employer-employee relation.

I find it interesting that the people here concern themselves with figuring out these overwhelmingly confusing categories of organized-unorganized and formal- informal work. It is interesting because here is a group comprising mostly of practitioners and fieldworkers and not academicians who find it problematic the way workers are seen and engaged with rests on such arbitrary system.