Kathmandu: Thamel, Jamel and the local

Rising Mall, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Rising Mall, Durbar Marg, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Among the capitals of the world Kathmandu perhaps has nothing noteworthy than its location on the road to Himalayas.The famous ones make it to the lists – “best cities to…” (travel, live, work etc). Whereas, Kathmandu makes it to none. This capital is on the itinerary than being on the bests list. It already does well by being on a traveler’s itinerary, not as a pit stop but as a reprieve and that too for several days, for weary travelers who have known the press, push, shove and breathlessness of global capitals with people fitting in as much as they can in their list of to-dos. In Thamel one only tries to fit in as much food and as much leisure as one can before the plane flies out of the valley.

Of course, this is one version of Kathmandu. The one shaped by a traveler taking timed immersions in it. One where he lives in Thamel, wakes up to a continental or English breakfast or to a bowl of hummus. He encounters the city through what is seen and presented to him in the clutch of lanes around this tourist ghetto.

This morning, I took table which faced the door at the Chikusa Coffee Shop. For most part wanted to have some coffee and look out to the street which set itself up habitually every morning in this tourist hub of Thamel. I noticed a couple of Nepalese men reading newspapers in the cafe. The Republica is a new one, which is printed here in collaboration with NYT and also circulates a copy of international edition of NYT along, every day. Quite a long distance this little capital has come in just over a decade that I have seen it for. In one of them there is a drug addiction report, new PM’s unhappiness with an investigation agency of the government, a festival which is marked with a dip in a river in the city and bits about high mountain regions with their problems this season. Usual in several sense. Just that these reports being read widely is somewhat new. Nepal has seen an increase in newspapers published here particularly in English.

Overheard a traveler describing how people he saw over the past days “did everything” – washing, bathing, cremating the dead and much more on the line along the river. The man wasn’t born when England and riverside cities of West did the same. And sure he hasn’t read about it either in all these years of his existence. Not being mean here, after eavesdropping on the conversation… but it strikes remarkable how visitors process the visual encounters they have in countries they travel to.

After the breakfast,  I joined sunbathers by the red wall of the Moroccan Consulate on Tridev marg. The map seller dusted the shelves and went about tucking the trail maps on the shelves by the pavement. In another hotel’s foyer a couple loaded several hundred kilos of kit bags on a pickup, leaving for a distant trail.

Thamel, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Thamel, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Imadol, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Imadol, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Another Kathmandu wakes up in Sanepa and Jamsikhel where the typical cafes seen in upscale areas of cities like Mumbai, Bangalore etc serve the typical breakfast menu of English, Continental, American and an odd insert of Nepali chia and poori-tarkari. Sanepa is, in a local newspaper’s words, ‘an NGO town’. One can find the major INGOs operating in Nepal and UN agencies offices along its clutch of lanes. The road from Sanepa leads up to Jamsikhel where housing market serves the expats. A walk around these two areas can be a good start for a newcomer into the aid world of Nepal. A local says, “we now call Jamsikhel as Jamel” implying the transformation of a once Nepali area into a tourist or expat dominated locality like Thamel (which has been legendary for the presence of tourists at all times of the year). The traditional area of Patan has as though disowned Jamsikhel and rolled back itself a bit.

The hangouts for the locals, as I understand, aren’t any of these but Kathmandu’s new malls. Durbar square still packs a throng of locals of all ages at all hours of the day. The inner lanes around the expanding ring road is where one finds the local version. The ring road now seems to be forever covered in dust and traffic snarls, yet there is a buzz – that typical Asian energy and activity fills the streets. Scores of workers finishing their day and milling around the corner spaces that serve tea.

It is interesting to see how the aid agencies and the whole support industry around it has created urban spaces where it appears as though the locals have vacated those spaces, given them up and retreated. To this it might also be good to add effects of tourism on urban spaces, although this is being widely studied. People from Barcelona, Paris, Goa or perhaps Kochi can testify for the effects that growing tourism in their cities have had on their lives. However, this might not yet be the situation with what a thriving aid industry does to the local lifestyle in a city. The spaces are not contested yet. I’d be interested in exploring statistics on employment of Nepalese in aid sector and employment in other sectors. Being a low income country, it has been developing its infrastructure through various loans and grants (example, the B P Highway completed with aid from JICA), as have other countries around the world. But, the business of aid has also brought along urban dynamics which includes and excludes people in ways that should be concerning.

These are at best impressionistic observations from knowing this country for a couple of years. It might however fall into some kind of pattern if one begins a comparative study of countries that receive substantial amount of aid, its effect on urban spaces (at least in their capital cities) and what the implications of this urban impact might be on the cities’ governance, civic upkeep and local culture.

The cross seems heavy to bear


A hyper modern museum space (Astrup Fearnley) right on the old harbour in Oslo. The landscape continues to change with high intensity construction activity.

In Oct – Nov, 2016 I spent six weeks in Scandinavia (Norway mostly) and in countries of Western Europe. This was to be my roving introduction to the region. To a traveler, the time he visits always appear as an interesting time. Likewise with me! It was to do with Brexit, immigration crisis and the rise of nationalistic fervour above the super-nationalistic identity that EU tried to drive in all these decades.

In Norway, the human-nature relationship is said to be special (vs. other part of the world). The fact that Norwegians enjoy a very high standard of living and at the same time have managed to achieve a high degree of environmental conservation is always foregrounded in discussions. Norwegian values and its landscapes are also said to be a part of the inspiration that led Arne Naess to articulate his ideas in deep ecology. This meant that while I moved around Oslo and its suburbs, I was quite consciously looking for evidence of such a relationship. Oslo’s high number of electric cars and ubiquitous charging pods for these cars for sure was one. However, I wanted to know what kind of discourse on environment, nature and human relationship went on here. This is what I was after. And then perhaps, having identified it, contrast it with the Asian context. Is it some kind of enlightened thinking going on in other parts of the world that is amiss in the Asians or Indians in particular?

The intent is to talk of environmental thinking and the contemporary discourse on environment. Climate change negotiations at those high profile and widely televised COP meetings to me smack of a doublethink on the OECD nations’ part. It seems unfair ( coming from a region which loves ending its sentences with “… in all fairness.” & “To be fair…”) that the burden of environmental concern and therefore reduction in carbon footprint should fall on countries in Asia, primarily India and China.

To complete this twisted picture of an environmental values of the OECD countries, we have the activists in Indian metropolitan cities whose action and thought go as far as the city’s parks and town halls where they can either light candles or hold placards or arrange public talks against the latest proposed infrastructure ( a steel flyover lately, in Bengaluru). It appears incomplete – their variety of action.

The Cross Seems Heavy to Bear

There appears to be an undue burden placed on an average man on the streets of India, to think about environmental impact and the impending crises. What is she to do about it? Everyone seems to have a prescription. But is that practicable or should the action start with an individual first (followed by systemic measures) is a question which needs a thought. This has been a continuing frustration with the arguments and reasoning that the activists and some of the policy makers push forth.

An ecological consciousness which drives conduct from a mere instrumental relationship to a blend of altruistic and instrumental behaviour with nature has undergone a re-discovery in twenty-first century. India seemed to have locked up its ecological consciousness away in a chest which would later on be broken into by recurrent environmental crises – year on year drought, floods, loss of soil fertility etc. During the decades of Nehruvian push towards modernization of India through its modern ‘temples’ – industries, damns, power plants etc, ecology formed neither a consideration in public policy nor in scientific planning a worthy factor. Note that it was the modern Indian state making that decision. The citizenry followed along – some gained from the benefits that the projects had to offer, some who stood in the path of the big projects were relocated and some others found careers of a lifetime in those enterprises. What agency if any could have an individual exercised if she felt not in favour of these large projects of modernization?

Also, this was well within the paradigm of the times, wherein the countries of the West took the same path to development – by dispensing with considerations of ecological impact and pushing up the exploitation of natural resources to the advancement as well as fulfillment of human needs. Soon enough, the impacts of ecological recklessness were to be felt across countries, with each one facing consequences proportionate to their extent of exploitation. The cross of environmental degradation and resultant loss seems heavy to bear. What are the options then, that a way back to an ecologically sustainable way of life can be found? With whom and where must it start from?

A look at the current ecological discourse shows a resurgence of themes like ecological processes and their relationship with development. This was identified by thinkers like Arne Naess, Rachel Carson, E F Schumacher and within India, by Gandhi with his ideas of sustainability and self-reliance. Besides these, anthropologists have written about man and nature relationship in earlier societies which embodied this form of behaviour.[1] Among these, an idea which perhaps hold potential to provide a philosophical foundation to the thought on way ahead is Naess’ exhortation for an ‘enlargement of the ego-self to eco-self’. This, he argued, might result in environmentally responsible behaviour as a form of self-interest. While Naess’ gaze appears to be directed at the individual, I argue that the same thought must be first applied to nations and their governments. It is with the state’s apparatus which should move towards an eco-self – an ‘eco-self of the state’. A state’s eco-self is a better suited site of action than an individual who as a citizen may not have the same influence and power to negotiate with the state vis-à-vis other citizens. Partha Chatterjee’s distinction of the civil society and political society identifies this differential power equation and how the state deals with the two groups in accordance with their status.

The climate change negotiations at the Climate Change summits are unlikely to work with technological and monetary interventions which are forever sharpened as though someday it would reach a state of perfection where the inter-nation differences over environmental impact and conservation would suddenly cease to exist. It needs a combination of these approaches with a direction for governments which face the crisis of venturing forth into imagining an ecological-self that does not call upon them to sacrifice their lifestyles and neither impinges on their future desires of consumption, material comfort and aspiration. This is the real challenge that domestic as well as global public policy is set against. These might manifest as conflict of interests, however, the underlying cause is a deadlock in being able to think about how one might conceptualize a path which lessens the human impact on environment and at the same time makes the inevitable cross a bit easier to bear.

[1] See Martinez Alier on Environmentalism of the Poor, Jared Diamond on collapse of societies and Rev John Malthus on overpopulation.

The Middle Path to Development: Lessons from Bhutan’s environment policy

Paro valley as seen from Taktsang Monastery, Bhutan

Paro valley as seen from Taktsang Monastery, Bhutan

If there is a place which can make a traveler feel intimate with it in the shortest time since her arrival, Paro would be it. A gushing river of clear water and a fort marks the entrance to the town. The air is an invitation to inhale deep and a reminder that this is not usual for a traveler from any other part of the world – to breathe deep! Two main thoroughfares encompass the town- its houses, shops, parks and public spaces. Sitting on a ledge at the Taktsang Monastery waiting for the monastery to re-open after lunch break, a chance conversation with an officer of Bhutan’s Forest Services served as the early hints of ‘the middle path’. The place couldn’t have been any more momentous. The ‘middle path’ in Buddhism is described as the path of moderation. To Buddhists, it signifies a path of wisdom which strikes a balance between the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. The Middle Path is also how the environmental policy of Bhutan articulates the way forward.
High in these mountains of Eastern Himalayas, the remarkability lies in the relationship between the people and environment. Does it hit the sweet spot of ‘sustainability’? Not quite. Yet, there is something of great value that the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan offers in thinking about the environment. The National Environment Commission of Bhutan was born in this town after the 1990 Paro Workshop on Environment and Sustainable Development. The NEC’s responsibility was to draw up a ‘national strategy to ensure that environmental concerns become an integral part of the development agenda’. The ultimate goal of the National Environment Strategy (NES), a report of the Commission explains, is to ‘minimise or mitigate the impacts that are likely to result from the development process’. This is where Bhutan’s remarkability lies. The NES, which is a policy document, articulates, with remarkable honesty, the kind of challenge the country is likely to face in the future.
The following quotes from the NES document of 1998 illustrate the environmental potential of a political system. Formally, this system is a constitutional monarchy currently, although at the time NES document of 1998 was written Bhutan was a monarchy. The democratic reforms are of very recent origin. The members of the National Assembly have mandated the country to maintain a forest cover of more than 60% (National Forest Policy, 1974) at all times. Forest cover stands at more than 72.5% of the country. The document on NES, 1998 states,

The Middle Path-National Environment Strategy for Bhutan aims to highlight issues, potential problems and constraints, and choices that our country has to make in order to ensure the conservation of our natural resources while pursuing economic development.

There is a certain kind of policy thinking that this statement reflects – one in which problems are articulated and acknowledged in the barest form of honesty. Problem recognition in policy making is regarded as the first step towards effective policy making. Further, examine the questions that the NES, 1998 posits to itself and seeks to remedy,

Can we adopt modern development while still maintaining our traditional values?
Can we accept the need to develop industries, social infrastructure and markets, while still recognising that development is not material development alone, but the enhancement of knowledge, spiritual and cultural development? Can we maintain our traditional values and sustainable livelihoods in a changing global environment? Can we raise the living standards of the present population without compromising the country’s cultural integrity, historical heritage or the quality of life for future generations?

These questions reflect a searching intent in the policy thinking of Bhutan’s political system. Another instance is use of the word ‘spiritual’ in a policy document which stands at odds with the positivist and objective traditions of policy science. This is the variety of progressiveness which is yet to be seen as a norm in policy thinking. The intent of this piece has been to highlight how political systems do hold potential for environmental consciousness and factor in sustainability in their development process. Does Bhutan have these answers? Why don’t we see political contestations in Bhutan over different interests as one might see in India? Ethnic homogeneity in the Bhutanese society seems to be advantageous on this front. In addition to it, democracy is nascent in Bhutan and this perhaps explains the absence of dissenting voices.

In 2012, Bhutan announced its decision to become a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The country has been known as a model for proactive conservation initiatives and has received international acclaim for its commitment to its biodiversity. This is a testimony to the fact that Bhutan’s policy thinking is in a direction that other countries can take a leaf from.

Quick Take: Policy as the new law

Is policy the new law? The quick take here pursues this question.

The observation appears to hold ground considering the manner in which important decisions are made and implemented by governments worldwide, although this applies more to democracies than other forms of political systems. There is an increasing preference to policy making over law making. This shift in a way marks a weakening of constitutionalism as the traditionalists knew it. The shift was subtle to begin with in post World War – II era and became a rapid transformation after the emergence of structural reforms and new public management.  Newly independent countries  either accepted the structural reforms which basically made countries change their governance style via policy than law making or had to forego development aid and loans. The preference for policy making in such a context is evident.

The policy route to change is probably due to a shorter path to implementing a new order and significantly less public resistance and scrutiny that policy making involves. Making laws is slower and fraught with public scrutiny and interference. Policy making tends to happen in a government space which is deeply embedded and is far higher in reach and access to citizenry in comparison to law making. This procedural and structural advantage is likely cause for the safety and ease that policy making provides to governments.

Moreover, the legitimacy to such a style of governance (by policy making) is given by global pressures of trade, globalized economic processes and inter-dependencies. Domestically, it is the political demands which make governments opt for policy route, as this delivers well to satisfy popular demands. Policy is a faster and comparatively obstacle free solution of a modern democracy’s problems. Take for instance the regulation that defines use of coastal zones in India. As a policy it caters to the demands of the market as well as the state itself. This also gets legitimized by the fact that the guideline document is issued by the legislature itself (in this case Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change).

It is likely that the most important precedent for greater preference of policy over law was set by the economic reforms of 1991. While that yielded on the intended outcome of jump-starting economic growth, it was also in a way a signal to subversion of democratic process. Most certainly, it was the beginning of end of constitutionalism as a cornerstone. Policy process is seen to be at odds with constitutional values at times. However, contemporary policy process is a mix of desirable and undesirable consequences. Economic policy which led to liberalization of Indian economy has been regarded as a desirable change whereas environmental policies have largely failed in being inclusive and has consistently been violent in its impact on marginalized groups.

With emergence of regulatory governance we see that preference of policy route to governance has increased further. Independent regulatory authorities which have near complete autonomy over controlling key government sectors have achieved success through policy making. The RBI and TRAI are fitting examples of the trend. With mainstreaming of regulatory governance as a practice, policy’s position as the new law will only strengthen.

The space (policy and law and things in-between) is getting complicated to understand, navigate through and study. We are likely to see more policy think-tanks setting up and public policy programs being offered by top institutions in India. While this take is about governments’ preference to policy making as a procedural ease, a much broader take on public policy and its relevance was pursued by Shiv Visvanathan  in this editorial.



When bad guys get elected


Kolkata, 2008

Here is a quick take on the electoral process prompted by a twitter conversation with a friend. This first appeared on Lokniti blog.

This polemical piece is a consequence of a twitter conversation with another MPP grad (@suhasd1988) on an article in NYT by Maskin and Sen that he shared. The authors explain how a majority rule based electoral process might have stopped Trump, who is the leading presidential candidate in the upcoming election in the US and has won the primaries in 23 states.  How Majority Rule Might Have Stopped Donald Trump ). The authors seem to suggest that on a one-on-one contest Trump would have been defeated in 17 states. Sure! But it is a conjecture as best as anyone else’s because it just didn’t happen. Giving it to the authors, they do say that it “might have stopped” Donald Trump.

The alleged outcome must necessarily happen for this thesis to hold any water. Launching off from this point, the authors write –

In the early contests, Mr. Trump attracted less than 50 percent of the vote (in Arkansas he got only 33 percent); a majority of voters rejected him. But he faced more than one opponent every time, so that the non-Trump vote was split. That implies he could well have been defeated in most (given his extreme views on many subjects) had the opposition coalesced around one of his leading rivals.

True! Anyone with a keen eye on elections and voting behaviour would agree with that one on defeating a candidate by coalition of the opposition around a leading rival. This leads to the question – does it (coalitions as these) happen? If yes, what prevented it from happening in Trump’s case? The near impossibility of determining this curious phenomenon is the point of this post. I would argue that this is at best an academic quest which helps scholars but is lacks capacity to look beyond the process and account for the outcome. It appears sloppy on account of the fact that the reasoning (as quoted above) is used to argue that the candidates getting elected are not the right ones or desirable ones. It is theoretically correct that the winners lack the support of a majority of voters. The problematic bit comes next –

As with the Republicans and Mr. Trump’s flirtations with fear and violence, India now suffers the ill effects of a serious confusion when a plurality win is marketed as a majority victory. The Muslim Brotherhood government of 2012 to 2013 in Egypt provides another, and similarly disturbing, example; it helped to undermine democracy in Egypt altogether.

The assumption that the winning candidates in the cited examples from US, India and Egypt (party in this case) are ‘disturbing’ and have had negative consequences is the problem. This is an impressionistic inference. Let me present a counterview – that the inherent ability of a democratic setup in checking unrestrained behaviour of elected leaders prevents the ‘disturbing’ consequences from happening, although during campaign the contesting candidates might come across as potentially problematic if they act on their rallying points.

Systemic checks in a democratic setup: This is true of India and the US as history suggests. The system of governance – executive, legislature and the judiciary, are at least minimally robust enough to check the anti-public interest and self-serving (or even party serving) of the winning candidate when he is appointed. Except the period of emergency in India during Indira Gandhi’s reign, we can see no evidence of a leader running amuck with his own agenda. The analysis by Maskin and Sen stands reasonable on the electoral process but runs out of consistency when it comes to their assertion that this process produces winners who are likely to undermine democracy or are against the best interest of the country. It would have been nice to see a specific example supporting their assertion. In India, even a seemingly larger than life leader like Modi has had a tough rope walk in terms of appeasing the Hindutva groups supporting his party and keeping the interests of other minority groups in regard. It is not as straightforward as the article might suggest. When bad guys get elected bad things do not necessarily happen! A campaigning Donald Trump is very likely to undergo a change as Donald Trump in the White House. This change will be due to the candidate being given the power due to his electoral win. This power is not dictatorial. This power is not freewheeling. It comes with rules, conditions and protocols of decision making. And hence, it should not be assumed that a candidate pitching contentious and potentially divisive policies during campaigns, when given power will be able to do exact same things. That is the strength of the democratic system.  Otherwise, one can forever imagine and probably introduce more workable election procedures and keep finding problems with the winning candidate because he may end up acting in problematic ways. That failure of the winning candidate is not because he was not voted by the right procedure. What stands as a guarantee in the ranking system that the winning candidate who will ‘truly command majority support’?

If the challenge is to arrive at an election system which leads to a winner who truly commands majority support then that elegant suggestion by the authors is well taken. But for those who are keen on understanding leaders in roles of power and acting in full public glare, this is only a wishful arrangement. There are other variables like human behaviour which can lead to equally desirable or undesirable outcomes. The point is to throw light on those situations that can make a useful contribution to political theory.


On how not to help: Afghanistan

IMAGE: From boston.com 's The Big Picture feature. Photographer: Ahmad Masood/Reuters . I use this picture for the interesting caption that it appeared with on The Big Picture. These statements end up forming worldview on the country - Continuing conflict, NATO airstrikes and cultural practices combine to make Afghanistan a very dangerous place to be a woman," says Antonella Notari, head of Women Change Makers, a group that supports women social entrepreneurs around the world. A woman walks past riot police outside a gathering in Kabul's stadium, February 23, 2007.

IMAGE: From boston.com ‘s The Big Picture feature. Photographer: Ahmad Masood/Reuters . I use this picture for the interesting caption that it appeared with on The Big Picture. These statements end up forming worldview on the country – Continuing conflict, NATO airstrikes and cultural practices combine to make Afghanistan a very dangerous place to be a woman,” says Antonella Notari, head of Women Change Makers, a group that supports women social entrepreneurs around the world. A woman walks past riot police outside a gathering in Kabul’s stadium, February 23, 2007.

The manner in which Afghanistan’s women empowerment projects have gone wrong makes an extremely useful study for development sector and workers therein. If development studies at universities followed the case study method, then this should have been one of the first ones to be discussed. Because so much is just so messed up about western development workers trying to help Afghani women.

In NYT this morning, Bina Shah has a telling piece on the gender based development dynamics unfolding in Afghanistan. The reason her account merits attention is because it includes the voices of people from that very society. The author of the piece at NYT, though, is Karachi based, but Pakistan’s proximity to Afghanistan and the cultural overlaps are certainly more significant than a development worker parachuting from the northern hemisphere.  It isn’t some professor of women studies from the west or a gender development expert with years of experience in the region making observations on the situation of women in Afghanistan and their relationship with the men. These are Afghani women.

And as I understand from their views, the development workers have got it badly wrong. That the women are severely oppressed and are helpless against the oppression and violence inflicted by the men is not quite in line with the voices from within Afghanistan. Shah writes –

…the self-image of a great many Afghan women doesn’t match the victimhood awarded them by Western aid workers. They see themselves instead as brave, capable and strong. Islam is important to them, as is their honor. They want more freedoms, of course, but they want to be active participants in their own liberation and set their own pace for the struggle.

A few weeks back, in a discussion on aid and the UN setup in India, I remember the frustration I had with expats who occupy all the tier-I and tier-II position in UN organizations in the country. For instance, an overwhelming majority of “WASH Specialists” in India are foreign nationals with PhDs from B-grade schools of the west. That creates an adverse effect that the capable and talented Indian individuals opt out of such organizations and work elsewhere, preferably abroad.

A similar effect seems to be happening in Afghanistan. Shah reports –

…an Afghan filmmaker named Sahraa Karimi spoke in Karachi. She said development workers grew rich on “women’s empowerment projects” and “minority interest projects” while many female Afghan intellectuals left the country in a debilitating brain drain. It is just too hard for them to endure the dangerous working conditions and suffocating social environments outside Afghanistan’s fortified Western compounds.

That talent drain is likely to have a severe impact on Afghanistan with a limited pool of well-trained individuals.

The point is a simple one – that development sector needs a very strong active role from the host country’s own society. It does not work without it. Lessons from Afghanistan points to the same direction. Back here in India too I can count over a dozen instances of how the development sector (and the ‘experts’) get it awfully wrong, an awful lot of times.



Explorations in Marxist social theory & a book review



Image Courtesy: Wikimedia (for all)


This one will be a longer post than usual, but delights me especially because I could manage to get a somewhat minimal sense of the range of thoughts and ideas in the Marxist lineage, which has been a long going effort. The post includes a discussion of a clutch of the thinkers in a rather cursory form. This is guided along a fantastic anthology of essays titled Against Orthodoxy: Social Theory and Its Discontents by Stanley Aronowitz, that I happened to read as a part of a course on Development and Law. What made me pick this book is that Aronowitz has been a career trade unionist. With over three decades of work as a union member, I felt his commentaries merits a closer read. 

The development paradigm in the twenty-first century is characterized as predominantly capitalist. The processes that will achieve higher incomes, better living conditions and great prosperity for the people are believed to be those that operate in and through capitalism. Developing and less developed countries, it is seen are orienting their economies in a manner that they stand to gain from these processes of capitalism. For instance, export led growth is one such process which has gained widespread currency and for which there are rather strong success stories to learn from in Asia. If capitalism as a paradigm is believed to have occupied the center stage and is likely to stay, what then can be said of the tremendous destruction of environment, countries (as this is being written the failed states of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan continue to contribute headlines of humanitarian crisis every week.) as well as of human lives? How is it that despite the historic devastation of populations (World Wars) as well as planet’s natural resources which happened in twentieth century alone, capitalism still survived and in fact appears to be thriving in the twenty-first century, whereas socialism faded into memory, and in some cases, disgrace?

The above are the kind of questions that Aronowitz’s book Against Orthodoxy grapples with, by the way of his writings over a span of thirty five years from 1972 to 2015. The essays in the book are critiques of social theories and ideas of some of the leading writers of dissident Marxist social theory. The central theme that binds this long running rumination is to understand ‘the system that has produced such devastation as world wars and environmental crisis’ and how does it continue to march on. The essays are united in their problem of subjectivity.

The questions posed by the author emerge from the realm of social theory and in the process of their discussion happen to throw light on major global events and patterns. For instance, he begins by asking if capitalism’s hold on underlying populations is due to its promise, and occasionally fulfillment, of a better life signified by rising levels of consumption? And is the technological revolution of our time manifested in electronically driven communications, entertainments, and fantastic productivity increases so mesmerizing that a few can resist its blandishments? This is where critical social theories from thinkers like Marcuse, Lefebvre, Luckacs, Horkheimer, Gramsci and others are examined to understand how might their ideas assist in understanding these questions better or to even frame the question as the way it was, to begin with.

This collection of essays makes an enriching read to readers with particular interest in Marxist theory and critical social theory. Another burning question that appears to simmer throughout the book is – Is the prospect of fundamental social change so fearful that even when individuals and groups recognize the system’s limitations to fulfill good life, let alone its failures, people hold on to their hopes within the prevailing setup rather than seek alternatives? Or is the radical imagination dried up so that the available past solutions are so discredited that people are forced to live entirely in the present?

It may perhaps be noted that the book does not offer solutions but on how the thinkers included here analyze the problems. The book focuses on major social thinkers within the tradition of historical materialism and dialectical materialism. This is the orthodoxy the book talks of. They agree on the problems but differ among themselves about what is their nature and what is to be done. On the methodological front the book fixes itself intently on historical and dialectical materialism.

The following section offers a snapshot of the thinkers and aspects of their ideas that are discussed in the essays. Marcuse was a critical theorist who saw theory and action as a continuum. He speaks of “technological rationality” in capitalism, while believing that theory must specify material conditions for realization of human liberation.

A fascinating thought that shines through in reading Marcuse is the idea that labour movement’s fate is a barometer of political prospects. This is of tremendous relevance to the contemporary reading of labour movements in developing countries especially. Further, technology is constructed in conceptual sense as a form of social domination. Marcuse points out that individuality no longer mean self- development but instead the relentless pursuit of personal interests. He argues that Marx’s view that as soon as conditions are present, the workers knowledge of their own interests is sufficient for revolutionary action is not true because monopoly capital has found the means to level the proletariat and deprive it of the collective knowledge by which to lead itself.

From a brilliant commentary on Marcuse, Aaronotiwz trains his gaze on sociologists Raymond Williams and Likacs as well as on aspects of methodology. Raymonds, as a pioneer in cultural studies believed in labour movement. He believed it to be “the fundamental cultural institution of the working class and that workers remained “the key to any possible emancipatory social transformation.” On a somewhat parallel note the author notes that one needed a method that was sensitive to history and allowed for the interpretations involved in understanding to evolve.  And in the process, returning to the key question on understating the process of development he proposes that “knowledge about the object of study as well as a broad, deep comprehension of the world” is necessary for the development of understanding.

In another essay Aronowitz explains that Lukacs’ was an attempt to craft a theory in which the subject as much as the object played a formative role in forging history. His argument that the commodity form itself – a category of political economy – transformed relations among people into relations between things. This “thingification” of everday life thereby reified and appeared to make eternal capitalist system itself (this is in some ways derived from Marx’s “fetishism of commodities”). For Lukacs concept of alienation becomes a structural feature of the capitalist system of production and especially of social and political reproduction – here he departs from conventional Marxist theory of ideology.

The everyday life along this exploration of critical social theory enters the inquiry in this book with Lefebvre. The idea of “urbanism” is also credited to Lefebvre. His investigations were directed to the key question of why and how global capitalism, despite a century of unrelieved wars, revolutions, economic crises, and political turmoil in the both “advanced” and developing world, managed to survive. He notes that “whatever happens, alterations in daily life will remain the criterion of change” wherein daily life cannot be defined as a “sub-system” within a larger system. This too appears to be a departure from Marx’s conception of society and its processes.  Daily life is the site of and the crucial condition for the “reproduction of the relations of production”. Its colonization by the state and by economic relations provides the answer to the question of the survival of survival of capitalism in the wake of its horrendous 20th century history. The right to difference is for him a fundamental principle, especially for the effectiveness of the Left’s struggle for democracy.

In the series of essays, everyday life as an inquiry gives way to theory of political organization with which Gramsci’s ideas are explored. This makes a brilliant read for those who are looking forward to an introduction to Gramsci and neo-Marxist political thought.  Gramsci examines the concrete processes of social transformation and particularly how revolutionary forces out to proceed from the present conditions of economic, political and ideological hegemony to a moment when the “historic bloc” of excluded classes and other social formations may contest and win power. In India, one could think of the political party AAP and its electoral win in New Delhi at this juncture. In AAP one can see the observation that “every party is the expression of a social group” fitting well.

Perhaps for the reader of critical social theory and with interests in later thinkers like Horkheimer and Friere the last two essays would make for a high point of this brilliant collection by Aaronowitz.

Horkheimer is quoted by the author which at one level magnificently captures the state of the current state of political Left in India and at another level is a masterstroke in social theory in its prophetic nature –

“the revolution won’t happen with guns, rather it will happen incrementally, year by year, generation by generation. We will gradually infiltrate their educational institutions and their political offices, transforming hem into Marxist entities as we move towards universal egalitarianism”

With Friere the author deals with his ideas in power relationships as well as humanism, which are as rewarding a read as the rest of the book.

In summary, Against Orthodoxy is a book that maps the trend from from Revolution to Radical Democracy and grapples with the question of how capitalism still finds such a widespread acceptance. The book takes on the enterprise of revising and re-contextualizing Marxist theory. Along the course of the essays it points to battle fronts in which Left must venture if it has to combat capitalism arguing that the solutions would emerge if this fine interlinked web of social reality and self-consciousness is examined in enriched forms. The book in its writing style is dense and makes a difficult read but merits effort if one ones to get closer to the heart of Marxist social theory and critical social theory. And finally, it is a treat for readers interested in philosophical enquiry.

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 data.gov 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 data.gov 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 – https://www.academia.edu/5595811/Rethinking_Welfare_When_Builder_Takes_Care_of_the_Workers_BOCW_Act

Prison reforms in India: A quick history

In our work, we figured that a concise history of prison reforms is hard to find. So, in this post I have pieced together the events that led to improving prison conditions and what came of those efforts. Plus, a schematic on criminal justice system. This should be useful for those who’d like to know the processes involved in commitment of a crime, reporting to the police, investigation, trial and finally conviction. This might also help in just understanding the news better, because in India a typical headline with “chargsheet filed…” is all too common.

Tracing the trajectory of reforms in any sector in India is essentially an exercise in tracking the various committees that Government of India might have setup at different times, particularly since independence in 1947. The state of affairs in the respective sector then is a cumulative effect of these committees over the decades. Prison management too has a similar course. For the present enquiry on prison reform I begin with a study by Dr. W. C. Reckless, an expert on correctional work in 1951, commissioned by Government of India. The study report titled “Jail Administration in India” recommended a revision of outdated jail manuals. This recommendation was supported by the Eighth Conference of the Inspector Generals of Prisons in 1952. A consequence of this was the All India Jail Manual Committee set up in 1957 to prepare a model prison manual. The report suggested wide ranging reforms – latest methods in jail administration, probation, after-care, juvenile and remand homes etc. The report also suggested amendments in the Prison Act 1894 to provide a legal base for correctional work. The committee drafted a Model Prison Manual in 1960. The current prison management is guided by this model prison manual.
The next major development in prison reforms comes after two decades from the development of prison manual. In 1980 a Committee on Jail Reform (Mulla Committee) was set up by Government of India which was to review laws, rules and regulations governing prisons and correctional facilities in India. Situation of women prisoners however had to wait till 1987 when Justice Krishna Iyer Committee was appointed to study the state of women prisoners. It suggested appointment of more women in police force to in view of their special role in tackling women and child offenders.
The concern about congestion of under-trial prisoners in jails features for the first time in Law Commission of India report number 78 published in 1979. But, it seeks solace in the fact that the “problem (is) not confined to India”. The report recommendations for amendment of bail procedure such that it provides for those undertrial prisoners who have difficulty in finding surety for their bail when granted by the court. It also recommended widening the list of bailable offenses. It further suggested that the undertrial prisoners must not be housed in the same prison as convicts. This “contamination” according to the commission leads to deleterious effect on undertrial prisoners.

The most recent exercise in addressing prison reform is the Committee on Reforms of the Criminal Justice System in 2000 to consider measures for revamping the Criminal Justice System. This was a wider exercise which in its effect might lead to better prison system overall. It aimed at “simplifying judicial procedures and practices, bringing about synergy among the judiciary, the Prosecution and Police, making the system simpler, faster, cheaper and people-friendly, and restoring the confidence of the common man”. What is interesting is that this committee rightly identifies a procedural flaw in the trial process in the Criminal Justice System, which builds the need for reform. It states –

The Adversarial System lacks dynamism because it has no lofty ideal to inspire. It has not been entrusted with a positive duty to discover truth as in the Inquisitorial System. When the investigation is perfunctory or ineffective, Judges seldom take any initiative to remedy the situation. During the trial, the Judges do not bother if relevant evidence is not produced and plays a passive role as he has no duty to search for truth. As the prosecution has to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt, the system appears to be skewed in favour of the accused. It is therefore necessary to strengthen the Adversarial System by adopting with suitable modifications some of the good and useful features of the Inquisitorial System.

The committee’s recommendation on measures easing convictions, lowering the threshold of evidence and making confessions made to the police admissible as evidence is of relevance to prison reform. These measures are likely to impact prison overcrowding as well.

An overview of criminal process in India

An overview of criminal process in India

Criminal justice system in India is outlined in the schematic above.  This schematic is necessary to understand the locations in the system where delays, irregularities, deviation from the procedures and other divergences occur. For instance, the accumulating number of undertrials in the prisons is because at the stage of investigation the police of the state generally adopts an “active” approach. This means that the suspect is taken into police custody and then interrogation is carried out. This practice starts building up prison population which further compounds after the chargesheet is filed and a trial process initiated against the accused. At this stage a further clogging happens in the system because many of the accused either do not have wherewithal to arrange for their bail or simply do not have access to legal aid to file for a bail.

Until the filing of chargesheet (See schematic) the process is conducted by police department. They receive complaints and initiate investigations. If the police department is understaffed then it is likely that the investigations will suffer from a higher pendency.

Indian prisons at a glance

Prisons in no country are a thing to showcase. It is the proverbial underbelly of the society which holds within itself all sorts of deviations that aren’t supposed to be a part of the visible spectrum of society. Lately, in India there has been some noises made about prison reforms. Before this, Indians have only known their very popular police officer from the elite Indian Police Services, Kiran Bedi, talk of conditions in prison and the need to approach correction differently. Those talks started and stopped with the popular Tihar Jail. Beyond this, prisons in India have been away from the Indian attention, except when a celebrity or a high profile politician is jail in one of the many central jails.

I found it remarkable that the general public knew very little about the prisons, the prisoners and what goes on inside them. This was the starting point of a three month study on prisons in India where I completed a sort of crash course from knowing about prison administration to the ideas of criminal justice system. This was a fascinating journey which is now in a shape that I can share and hope that some may find it interesting enough to explore further.

My colleague Praveena and I analyzed the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data for prisons and crime to unpack the common refrain of “prison reforms” in India.

Here are some preliminary numbers –

At 25 persons per 100,000 population, India has one of the lowest imprisonment rates in the world. This is worth noting for two reasons – one, that very few people actually go to the prison in India. Conversely, it also implies that conviction rate is low. Second, that this often misleads into an impression that crime rate in India is low. As we investigate later we find that low imprisonment is a consequence of limited policing capacity and correctional infrastructure than crime rate.

Rate of Imprisonment in India (Data Source: UN Global Report on Crime and Justice 1999).

Rate of Imprisonment in India (Data Source: UN Global Report on Crime and Justice 1999).

The following table lists stats are from the annual report – Prison Statistics, India (2012) of the NCRB. The most striking figure is the percentage of pre-trial prisoners as of 2007. Of the total number of people in prisons over 66% are not convicted. They are those whose cases are still under trial. So the actual number of convicts is just about 30% of the number of prisoners!

Prison population 3,76,396
Capacity 277, 304
As on (31.12.2007)
Pre-trial detainees / remand prisoners 66.60%
Female prisoners 4.10%

From the same report, as on 2012, the number of prisons of all types are listed in the table –

Central jails 127
District jails 340
Sub jails 806
Women jails 20
Open jails 46
Borstal schools 21
Special jails 31
Other jails 3

The occupancy rate of the Indian prisons is at an un-threatening and seemingly normal figure of 112%.

As we go further exploring the numbers and attempt to contrast it with the social patterns that the Indian society reflects, we find that knowing prison administration is essential to make sense of why does the police operate the way they do and where the trouble lies in the system. So, the following schematics illustrate prison administration in India.

Prison Administration in India (Credit: Authors)

Prison Administration in India (Credit: Authors)

Every state has a hierarchy of jails – Central Jail, District Jail, Sub –Jail, Women’s Jail, Borstals and Open Jails. Together these are administered by prison department which is staffed by state police personnel and specially trained correctional staff. Figure 2 illustrates this arrangement. The purpose of this schematic is to know various kinds types of skilled personnel that are required to run a correctional facility. The consequences of not having such skilled staff is leading to issues like poor quality living, violation of basic human rights and disease burden (including mental health) in the prisons.

In the next post, we analyze NCRB’s prison and crime data.