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.



Returning Indians

Both, Hemingway and Virginia Woolf insisted that one ought not to judge. Describe, not opine, they suggest. I try. Then, sometimes a surge of thoughts make things go haywire. An instance – the range of views that Indians returning to India dole out as they make their way back. Lately, I have come across quite a few emotive, reflective and often times critical responses written by young men and women returning to India from universities in Europe and US who are generally unhappy with this reverse-gear travel. And I felt that most of these responses are rather unfair and mean to the country that they return to. The scope of being empathetic to their situation is also lost for me, when they tend to cast India in the light of all that they have seen with their blinkered experience in the “developed” countries where they attended universities.

About time that we have a new literary genre of angst ridden, fuming, hyper-critical social and philosophical writings from returning Indian youngsters who are given the boot from “the West” after their student visas expire.

With their dreams rear-ended by the immigration laws of the desired world they train their guns on and pump their frustration down to India and its people. Its narrow-minded, crude, uncultured, illiterate people with its men who exist only to grope the returning woman. Profound soul-searching literature that emerges as they make their reluctant way back to India; resume lives in the neighbourhoods which they thought they left for good; searching jobs shunting recruiter to recruiter not willing to accept the cheap INR remuneration! Life was lived in Euros and Dollars until now! Oh and let us not even get started about its corruption. This is the only country in the world,  you know, with life reeking of corruption from moral to economic! Of course, no where else in the world (that they escaped to), such shameful corruption exists.

As weeks turn into months and months bloom into years they take to writing and seek affirmation and glory on Facebook and twitter and blogs, hoping someday that they’d again escape the “unsafe” streets and wretched public spaces of the nation whose nationality is so regrettable!

May be I should stop reading such posts. I sure should. But sometimes it feels that this has a more ruining effect on others who live and work here and contribute to make this country a better place. No place or society is as flawless as the imagination of the returning Indians paints. They just choose to ignore the flaws of their adopted countries in their enamored lives abroad and in pursuit of keeping that dear opportunity (of living there) intact!

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.



Who is a hippie?


A lakeside cafe in Pokhara

Enthusiasm for the unseen, unfamiliar and unheard ties the hippies of the 1960s and hippies of the new millennium. Not hashish. The urge to travel, and travel irrespective of the how much is in the pocket is the spirit that bridges the two eras of this group of insufferable travelers. This bunch, moreover, travels overland compulsively.

I began reading accounts of this variety of globetrotters from the period 1960-1990 on idle days in Pokhara. I spent over three weeks last month in Nepal beginning with Kathmandu, then in the Himalayan trekking mecca of Annapurna region (a trek to Annapurna Base Camp) and the rest lounging in the legendary lakeside town of Pokhara. This was a trip done overland and slow. A ‘dirt-bag trip’as I call it – enough money for food, accommodation, transport and tea. The rest ceasing to matter.

As I read accounts from the 1960-1990 period and thought about the ‘hippies’ I felt that the pre-1990 travelers who would be labelled hippies weren’t very different from the post-2000 travelers – the millennials. I was wondering if the hippie spirit is dead and if, all we have now is what is derisively known as pseudo-hippies. I wouldn’t want to use that label though. This makes it sound like there exists a definite hippie way and that only a select few know it. This is absurd. There neither was one nor will be one stock definition and pageantry to go along with it. Being a hippie is not just a peculiar way of dressing or conduct. It is a state of mind sometimes and preference to do things in one’s own peculiar way which might be ill-fitting with the known and the established norms. Long hair, pyjamas and a bandana with a loosely hanging ukulele doesn’t make one hippie nor they are essential. It is more than just the attire. It is perhaps a manner of conduct and thought than just the appearance. There are people dropping out of the established systems of education, careers, lifestyles etc and trying to exist outside of it. Those are hippies for me. This combined with an urge to get out of the familiar and the known society into distant lands where every single day is filled with discovering language, words, ways and whats on the table to eat… life gets a jump start. For instance, the horde of Israelis in India, many making way here after finishing their service in the army.  The chatter on the streets from Bangkok and Chiang Mai to Pokhara still maintains itself decade after decade. The urge to drop out and live differently keeps surfacing in every generation. It stays the same! As Richard Gregory puts it, ‘hedonism was the primary aim’ for many.

The change though has been in the direction of travel and what was sought. While it was from Europe to Asia earlier, it is in the reverse direction as well. Asians are thronging the capitals of Europe to attain their own salvation on the streets of Paris, Milan and San Francisco. In terms of what was sought, the proverbial ‘mystic East’ has been replaced by a mysticism borne out of a capitalist order – one fueled by significantly high incomes at young age, the promise of faster travel and possibility of ‘fitting in’ overseas trips over a long weekend.

Back to Pokhara and its hippies, this is where the broke traveler came to rest, luxuriating in its cheap lodges and satiating pent up hunger in the many ‘maancha ghars’ and ‘khaja ghars’ which offer heaps of food for little money, if you can take it, that is. A statistic I read on tourism in Nepal is that the country saw a little over 6,000 tourists in 1960.

The travel accounts from 1960s and 70s describe the overland crossings and relatively free (though perilous) border crossings which could let one travel from London to India and beyond, if one had the energy to rough it out. Iran those days had secular Shahs ruling it and Afghanistan welcomed travelers like no other country. In these times, the geopolitics of the new world has literally made it impossible to cross borders without great risk to life. Many borders are literal dead-ends. Try India – Pakistan border crossing for instance or Pakistan-Afghanistan across the Durand line or Khyber pass.

Among the lot which took the overland journey (in part or whole) were the political scientists – Rudolph couple, many anthropologists, writes (Paul Theorux, Vikram Seth ) and students who’d later get back to academia as researchers and professors. These weren’t ‘freaks’ or ‘hippies’ in the conventional sense (used for those in search of cheap destinations to live and smoke marijuana) but people who nevertheless shared the same enthusiasm for east and for travel. They made better of these experiences in their later lives as I figure.

Living amidst the average travelers in the cheap backpacker hostels and traveling with them on those typical shared taxis in the many Asian cities I find that in many respects the hippies, the vagrants, the vagabonds and the freaks of the world haven’t been any different from what I read about a similar traveling lot from earlier centuries. For instance, John Lang in India. Or Freya Stark in Middle East. Or even this writer in Hindi literature I read often – Agyey. These are the same men and women from different generations. Each facilitated by the communications and transportation progress of their times. One rode a bus from Delhi for days together to reach Pokhara, while another in these times takes the cheap Yeti Air flight to Pokhara and walks through the mountains as though in a garden back home, with a porter managing the bags.

I thought of deliberating on the idea of a hippie when in Nepal because I didn’t quite appreciate the snobbery of some who labeled the place as full of ‘pseudo-hippies’. This would have meant that there probably exists this elite bunch who believes that their definition of a hippie holds and they decide if others are or not. It would be so much cool if these travelers with peculiar ways and style are left alone as long as they don’t trespass and harm the local people and their values by their choices. These cities of the world where some can live cheap and do whatever on earth they want to do with their lives, is a useful safety valve for societies across the world. This is not romanticizing the traveler, but suggesting that if not useful, this sort of traveler isn’t harmful either – pseudo or real or whatever else you want to call her!




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.


Amal Kiran & poetry

Amal Kiran's book "Inspiration and Effort"

Amal Kiran’s book “Inspiration and Effort”

Amal Kiran ! This guy is one of those tiny flowers with an intense colour, tucked way off the meadow on a mountain trail where not many venture and so not many would know of. Moreover, such flowers grow a little closer to the precipice for folks to know of their existence. How do I know? Had the good fortune of a helpful hand pointing in that direction as I stood look at the vista with her. All through those couple of days that I spent with this man’s daughter, I had no clue of the fine writing that awaited me in a Pondicherry bookshop. We spoke very little of Amal Kiran except a few references to his days in Aurobindo ashram. It was when I begin exploring further that I came across his book which opened up a whole new trail into poetry which I didn’t know existed. I say this because I have only been a consumer of poems. I do not and can’t seem to write poems.

This is about how Amal Kiran’s book Inspiration and Effort: Studies in Literary Attitude and Expression (Published: 1995, The Integral Life Foundation, USA) offers an easy to identify explanation of where might be the source of inspiration lie, in those splendid imaginations turned into words by Shelly, Shakespeare, Wordsworth or Byron.  It is well worth to re-produce this section from the first page of his book, wherein he dives straight into the intent of the entire exposition. He begins –

You hold that genuine poetry is written always by inspiration – effortlessly – as if in a state of semi-trance. A correct view, this, as regards fundamentals. But you may take my breath away by adding that, because in my letter I used words like “tried”, “attempted”, “sought” when I spoke of producing poetry of a mystic and spiritual order new in many respects to the English language, you drew the conclusion that I wrote my poems with a manufacturing mentality which thought out with intellectual labour all of the phrases, lined up the different parts like a mechanic rivetting joints and constructed artifically an unfamiliar out-of-the-way model!

Inspiration is a fact and it does come from a region that is beyond the muscular brain and the tense sinews of thought: it comes from a hidden fountain of force which is more spontaneous, swift, suggestive, vision-bright and harmonious: its outflow brings in a condition of mind cleansed of a too external and intellectual and deliberately constructive activity – hence, the semi-trance, as it were, of poetic creation.

The part I am most interested in is where he speaks of ‘spontaneity’ as the point that is ‘never properly seized by those who do not write poetry’ and goes on to explain how the process might work for those who are recognized for their poetry. Recently, reading an English translation of Kutti Revathi’s poem Rain River written in Tamil,  I marveled at the way her words could create that intense moment of desire and longing. I wondered if the entire thing came in one gush to the poet. It stayed with me for a long time. Amal Kiran’s thinking on this process appears clear and sort of helps in having a perspective on what might the process involve. It may not necessarily be the same for every poet, but it is worth a look. He writes –

The ordinary notion is that spontaneity is the first flow of words when one starts writing or the flood that overwhelms one all of a sudden. It is frequently these things but it is not confined to them. The spontaneous word is that which comes from a certain source – the deep fountain of inspiration beyond the logical and ingenuous brain: no more, no less. There is not the slightest implication that the initial flow of words is the most inspired: it may be so or it may not – everything depends on whether you are a clear medium or a partly clogged one. If you are not quite clear in the passage running between the creative source and the receptive self, the lines that come to you all of a sudden or at the first turning towards poetic composition are likely to be a mixed beauty and even a facile imitation of the beautiful. Consequently, you have to take a good deal of corrective pains or resort to a total rejection. It is of no moment how much you re-write; all that is important is whether at the first blush or at the “umpteenth” trial you catch unsullied the shining spontaneity of the secret realms where inspiration has its throne. Shakespeare never “blotted” a word; Keats “blotted” a thousand, and yet Keats is looked upon as the most Shakespearean of modern poets in “natural magic”. Even Shelly, to all appearance the most spontaneous of singers, was scrupulous in his revisions. What still kept him spontaneous was that each time it was not intellectual hacking and hewing, but a re-vision, a re-opening of the inner sight on the hidden realms in order to behold as accurately as possible the lines and tones, the shapes and designs of those dream-worlds weaving their simple or complex dances.

To end this section, Amal Kiran mentions Humbert Wolfe’s lines which ‘brings another mode of sight, speech and rhythm equally flawless:

Thus it began. On a cool and whispering eve

When there was quiet in my heart she came,

and there was the end of quiet. I believe

that a star trembled when she breathed my name.

(Humbert Wolfe)

Amal Kiran’s book – Inspiration and Effort, is a rare one from Indian authors on poetry and the process of it. He was an admirer of Aurbindo’s Savitri and a long time resident of Aurobindo ashram in Pondicherry. In over ten years that I have been visiting Pondicherry, I have not been quite attracted to read Aurobindo’s poems or his works. But Amal Kiran now makes me want to do that.

Meanwhile, from a completely direction, I read yesterday on Flavorwire – Why Queer Poetry Still Matters, which mentions yet another terrific gang of poets – Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Langston Huges and more recent ones.

I am not sure if I will ever manage to write poems, but the fact that poetry holds immense power in it to make one see the world and himself in newer and insightful ways, I am convinced of!


On how not to help: Afghanistan

IMAGE: From '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 ‘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.



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.

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?”.