All entries for May 2006
May 05, 2006
[I submitted this project proposal to the Lord Rootes Memorial Fund and won a grant to do this project in India. I am putting it up here so people can send me their ideas, and some contacts which I can pursue to make the project better]
The Economist’s The World in 2006 declared the clock striking “India’s hour”. As early as 2003, Goldman Sachs had reported that the country’s economy, if maintaining an aggregate growth rate of 7–8% per annum, would become the third largest in the world by as early as 2030. Since the early 90s, India has maintained an average growth rate in excess of 6%, which has recently notched up to 7% in the last couple of years, with the annual rate touching 8.1% in 2003–04. In the first quarter of 2005–06, growth rate has hit 8.1%, followed by an 8% growth rate in the second. Sustained economic growth has resulted in a fall in the percentage of people under the poverty line– from 42.1% in 1990 to 24.5% in 2005. This economic spirit of India that has been let loose owes its flourishing largely to the economic reforms ushered in the early 1990s by the man who is Prime Minister today and was Finance Minister then– Manmohan Singh.
Undoubtedly, after a decade or so in a globalising world, Indian society has undergone fundamental shifts. Deep inside the Indian rural heartland, farmers are increasingly affected by the decisions that are taken in the corridors of power at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Indian urban life has been transformed wholesale, with a new found consumer spirit and the burgeoning information technology industry. As the Harvard economist and Nobel laureate scholar Amartya Sen has argued in his recent book The Argumentative Indian, no one facet of India is more representative of the society as a whole. From the farmers working in villages where the caste system still dominates, to the computer savvy business professional in Bangalore– all of them are equally Indians. In essence, whatever is said about India, the opposite is almost always true.
Media space has been lavishly devoted to articles trying to capture this changing face of India. Albeit somewhat vague, but a search for “India” on Google News generates 96,800 articles vis–à–vis 51,700 for Britain. With India on the offensive at the WTO, signing agreements for sharing nuclear know–how with the USA and joining the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor group, there is no dearth of news about the country.
The project that I propose in the following pages will seek to shed light on the lives of today’s Indians. It will not depend on emotionless government statistics, nor would it rely on hearsay and other second hand material. It involves direct interactions with individuals living in all rungs of the Indian societal ladder, and finding out how they are involved in this transformative process, and what their take on it is.
There is a tendency among Indian technocrats and academics to dismiss popular opinion as ill–informed and easily swayed by lavish, and false, promises of politicians. However, I strongly believe that “it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, but what does matter is what others think of you”. No matter how many international rating agencies upgrade India’s credit ratings, or how many anti–globalisation campaigners protest against economic reforms in the campuses across Delhi, what really matters is the perception of the aam aadmi (common man) and how he sees his life changing as a result of these sweeping forces of history.
The ‘common man’ in India is a much idealised and misunderstood figure. Commentators often make the mistake of categorising just the urban worker or the farmer as aam aadmi. In a country where the middle classes comprise a larger number of people than the entire population of the United States of America, the salaried middle classes as well as the ‘new’ middle classes in industries such as pharmaceuticals and information technology cannot be ignored. This is not to suggest that the traditional definition is entirely inaccurate. It is merely inadequate. Indeed, I will be interviewing farmers in various districts in Punjab, one of India’s most agriculturally dependent states, as part of this project.
Nor can we overlook the businessmen. Since the economic reforms, India has seen the emergence and flourishing of domestic companies like Infosys, Ranbaxy, Dr Reddy’s, Wipro, TCS, etc. competing side by side with traditional business houses of the Tatas, Birlas and Ambanis (Reliance Conglomerate), but also with the multinational companies. Entrepreneurs like Narayana Murthy and Azim Premji are respected individuals today. Crucially, as Yasheng Huang and Tarun Khanna of MIT have argued, these Indian multinationals hold the key to India not being reduced to primarily a source of cheap labour for foreign companies, but being able to develop its own products and brands. I will be interviewing business executives from the software and outsourcing company Infosys in Bangalore and the pharmaceutical firm Dr Reddy’s in Hyderabad as part of this project.
That being said, the politician and bureaucrat, both Indian and international, cannot be left out of the scope of this project. After all, it is the government that has allowed the reforms to take place, and it was the International Monetary Fund whose structural adjustment loan initially bailed out India during the balance of payments crisis. I will be interviewing the country representative of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in New Delhi. As a representative of the Indian polity, I have arranged for an interview with the Chief Minister of Sikkim, one of the supposedly least globalised states of India.
During my time of academic reflection at Warwick, one of the crucial observations and deductions that I have made is the imperative need to make small–holding Indian farmers more competitive. India may argue for a swift phasing out of farm subsidies by the European Union and the United States at the WTO, but I remain doubtful of its ability to successfully penetrate the international markets once the tariffs are gone, as gaining economies of scale will remain difficult. I believe that the answer lies with Amul, a dairy product co–operative that brings together 2.41 million farmers across the western Indian state of Gujarat. Built with resources pooled together by small holders, it boasted of revenues worth $672 million (£388 million) in 2004–05. Such combined efforts have ushered in what commentators have labelled “operation flood” in the rural heartland of Gujarat, and changed the lives of millions of subsistence farmers, largely women, by providing them with better market access and remunerations. I have scheduled an appointment to visit Anand in Gujarat– the home of Amul– and talk to their managers about this initiative. I will also meet the chairman of Amul Dr Vergese Kurien, a very well–known personality in India.
Aside from the pre–scheduled interviews, I also plan a rather informal and ad hoc interaction with the general Indian populace, both in rural as well as urban parts of the country. My project involves considerable travel through out India, much of it on the train and road which provides ample opportunity to speak to the owner of the roadside dhaba (Punjabi café), or the farmer in the rice fields of West Bengal, or the local priest in a Gujarati village. It is often said that India’s most remarkable achievement has been in sustaining a democratic form of government in a largely poor nation of 1 billion people, something unparalleled in the world. This democratic polity has ensured that the citizens, from the agitating students on university campuses to the farmer in the remote districts, are aware of the burning political issues and are usually rather opinionated about such matters. Their answer to my questions will be deeply revealing of the prevalent attitudes within India.
Relevant Skills and Qualities
I strongly believe in the superiority of first hand fieldwork over reliance on secondary material alone, especially in a sociological project such as I plan to undertake. However, the conductor must possess cultural and language skills to adequately enmesh within the society he plans to study to view the responses of the interviewees in the proper light. I was born and raised in Kolkata, where I spent 15 years of my life. Like other Indian metropolises, Kolkata is also undergoing major structural changes due to the advent of globalisation. My memory goes back to the early 1990s when this change was beginning. I am, therefore, aware of the major issues that are of concern to India’s population and can therefore ask the most pressing questions.
I am a native user of Hindi and Bengali. Not only are these two the two most spoken languages in the sub–continent, but the knowledge of Hindi allow me to interact with common people in almost every corner of India.
Being an Indian also helps in the logistical intricacies of my project. For example, I know the best rates that are available for my travel which would make it cost effective. I am aware of the most useful avenues to pursue relevant governmental departments.
Having my family members, many of them academics and professionals in India, helps immensely in adding to my list of interviewees. For example, I have numerous contacts at the University of Calcutta and the University of Delhi– two of the most esteemed institutions in the country whom I can pursue for academic reflection on my project, and also for additional thoughts on the report which I plan to submit at the end of the project. I have recently worked for the Liberty Institute in New Delhi on an academic project, which has brought me in touch with eminent political commentators such as Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who heads the Centre for Policy Research– a think–tank– in the capital. I am planning to interview him as part of this project.
I agree with Benjamin Franklin when he said– “Time is money”. My aim will be to conduct this project with the absolute minimum time required on the ground, to prevent from adding on the already substantial estimated costs of this project. Not being a foreigner, I do not require additional time at the beginning to “settle in” or “get a feel of” India. The mind boggling commotion and seemingly unavoidable cul–de–sac of Indian life is something I am used to.
I would like to conduct this project during my summer vacation. My point of landing in India would be Kolkata, where I can not only begin the project by casual interactions with some of my acquaintances across the campuses of Jadavpur and Calcutta universities, but also contact some of my academic contacts and get some methodological feedback on the project. I would also take this opportunity to visit some rural areas in West Bengal and speak to panchayat (village council) leaders and common people. I consider 7 days an appropriate time in Kolkata. This stay will not add to the costs of my project since my home is here.
With the arrival of low cost airlines, it is often cheaper to take a flight vis–à–vis the train (which is also time consuming) to travel within India. From Kolkata I would like to fly to Ahmedabad, from where I will hire a car to Anand, where I will tour the campus of Amul. I would also like to accompany some of the managers to their operations in some villages to witness first hand the work there, and speak to some of the villagers personally. I consider 3 days adequate for my stay at Anand.
From Ahmedabad I travel southwards to arrive in the Garden City– Bangalore. I have many acquaintances here that can help me find affordable accommodation. I will visit the campus of Infosys and interview one of their business executives, and also plan to add Wipro, Satyam and TCS to my list between now and the summer. Although I do not speak Kannada, with the help of my friends I will interact with numerous college students, vendors and other actors on the Indian urban scene. In any case, English and Hindi are widely spoken. I will spend 2 days in Bangalore.
I proceed next to Hyderabad, where I will interview representatives from Dr Reddy’s. It is also one of the most cosmopolitan of south Indian cities, as the information technology hub attracts people from all parts of India. This will provide me with a good opportunity to interview many people in the streets of the city. Although I do not speak Telegu, being an international IT centre, English and Hindi proficiency is widespread. I will spend 2 days in the city.
After my stint in south India, I head northwards towards the capital Delhi where I will not only hold my scheduled interview with the representative of UNCTAD, but also use my acquaintances in campuses across the colleges of the University of Delhi to interact with a number of students and academics and note their responses to my questions. Accommodation costs in Delhi will be negligible, as I have relatives here. However, I will be travelling to Bhatinda in Punjab from Delhi to conduct the fieldwork with farmers in neighbouring villages. This will take approximately 2–3 days and I will be living with a friend in Bhatinda. Appendix A includes the list of confirmed contacts I have gathered in these villages. I will spend 5 days in Delhi (including my Punjab trip).
From Delhi I fly to Kolkata from where I will take a train to Siliguri, the biggest town of north Bengal from where I will take a car to the hilly state of Sikkim, and its capital Gangtok. I have been here before, and am aware of the various communities that reside here, most notably the Nepalis and the Buddhists (including Tibetan monks). Apart from my interview with the Chief Minister, I will spend considerable time interacting with the local populace as well as the tourists to the region about the ways in which this erstwhile mountain kingdom is changing. I will spend 3 days in Gangtok.
My project, as it is now, should take 22 days to complete. However, as I later explain, were I to add to my list of interviewees, it would have to be extended accordingly. I keep 8 days as ‘reserve’, entailing that my entire trip will be approximately 1 month long.
It is impossible to list all my acquaintances in a country where I have lived for most of my life. However, the individuals who have agreed to be interviewed are–
–Partha Chakrabarti, Head of Public Relations, Amul
–Bhavna Mehra, Executive (Academic Branding), Infosys Technologies Ltd.
–Mythili Mamidanna, Corporate Communications, Dr Reddy’s Laboratories Ltd.
–Dr Pawan Chamling, Honourable Chief Minister of Sikkim
–Anuj Arora, Deputy Secretary, Department of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Finance
–Veena Jha, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, New Delhi
–Bhangya Bhukya, Ford Fellow, University of Warwick
Some of my contacts in the Indian academia who will help me get in touch with eminent academics interested in my project include Dr Pramesh Kapoor (University of Delhi), Dr Madhu Kapoor (Vivekananda College, University of Calcutta) and Dr Dhruba Jyoti Ghosh (Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta), among others.
There will be two overarching sections in the report– 1. Thematic Analysis and 2. Regional Dynamics.
For (1), I would like to lay out the topics according to the questions asked. For example, a section would be titled Changing Urban Culture: India’s Youth Speak or Farming: Contrasting Experiences in Punjab and West Bengal. This would be across the various areas where my fieldwork would take place. This would correspond with the extremely problematic juxtaposition of social hierarchy in the form of class and caste in urban and rural India. For example, another section would be headed The Changing Dynamics of Caste: Rural Punjab and Gujarat in Focus. The dynamics of the IT industry can be subjected to a four–way comparison between the traditional hubs like Bangalore and Hyderabad with their upcoming competitors in Delhi and Kolkata.
Some of the issues will nevertheless be regionally specific, such as the development in co–operative farming in Gujarat, or the problems associated with being sidelined from the mainstream forces of globalisation as experienced by Sikkim. Section 2 is meant for such topics.
My questions will cover the following issues and any others brought up by the interviewees themselves–
1. How far quality of life has improved (if at all) in the 1990s
2. Whether economic reforms have opened up more opportunities for the jobless
3. Whether choices have been broadened, both for the middle as well as the poor classes
4. How far caste still dominates India, especially the rural areas
5. The impacts of cultural imports and changes in popular culture
6. The prospects of new industries such as IT and pharmaceuticals in a globalised market
7. Whether doing business in India is getting less tedious following the ‘License Raj’
8. Whether being Indian means something different today than it did in the 1980s
9. If a solution like Amul is applicable to the rest of rural India
10. Where India will be by 2050
11. What type of society do Indians want for themselves
The most important thing about this list is that it will be equally applied to the entrepreneur as well as the street vendor. The markedly different backgrounds of the interviewees should impact their responses in interesting ways.
My presentation style will be a synthesis between academic correctness and journalistic flair. I will use ample photographic material where relevant, and quotations from individuals will amply dot the final report to prevent any personal bias that I may have creeping in it. Ultimately I will try and bring together all my observations in a concluding section, but it will be kept strictly separate from the sections where actual quotations are being presented.
Ongoing Additions to Project Structure
After consultation with my referee Dr David Hardiman (Department of History), I have decided to add two more legs to my trip. The additional costs for these two legs will be drawn from the reserve fund as outlined below.
1. A visit to rural areas adjacent to Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh as these are diametrically opposite in living standards compared to the city (a fact that cost the local government the elections in 2004). My ignorance of Telegu will not prove a hindrance, as a Ford Fellow from the University of Warwick is currently conducting fieldwork in the region, and has agreed to either accompany me personally or arrange for one of his academic colleagues to do so.
2. I will interview activists in non–governmental organizations like SETU in Gujarat to get a critical view of urbanisation of villages that have taken place because of Amul. I will also discuss the plight of migrant workers with them. I am currently in the process of contacting them.
Benefits of the Project
The most obvious benefit for the wider community of such a wide ranging sociological project is that it will introduce India and her people in a new light to the world. Too much about India that is currently written, both in India and internationally, is based on dry economistic arguments, or entrenched prejudices, or vested interests, or nationalist jingo, or a unitary vision of India. This is an attempt to climb down from the ivory tower and go to the people themselves and make a note of their perceptions and visions about India, for that is what ultimately constitutes (or at least, should constitute) a national consensus. The project will show India in all her diversities and forms, with all her seeming contradictions and myriad of “argumentative Indians”.
From William Jones to Thomas Macaulay, there has been plenty of interest about India in Britain. With the advent of the 21st century and India asserting itself as a growing economic and political power, the West has set out to re–understand India. My project will contribute towards that general attempt with the difference being that it will project a picture of India from within, rather than what India appears from Coventry.
On a personal note, it will allow me to catch a glimpse of what India really is. Yes, a glimpse– for India is too vast to be understood in 1 month. However, as I have selected my fieldwork areas and interviewees carefully, I should get a representative sample of all Indians. My course at Warwick does not focus on India, and in any case it does not dwell on sociological and anthropological interpretations. My project does just that– going into a society itself to gauge its dynamics from within rather than trying to peel the skins from outside.
May 04, 2006
SAAG Paper 1787, 04.05.06
On April 28th, human resources development minister Arjun Singh apologised to the students who were protesting outside his office in New Delhi, and were manhandled by the security officers there. However, he refused to offer any assurance that he would seriously reconsider his proposal which he has submitted to the union cabinet of reserving 27% of seats in premier educational institutions across India for the caste sub–groups labelled as ‘other backward castes’.
Mr Singh has been under pressure off late, with students protesting across the country, intellectuals slamming his proposal as compartmentalisation of India, and the Election Commission accusing him of violating the “model code” by announcing such populist measures right before assembly elections were due in five states across India. But with the OBCs comprising of 52% of India’s electorate, none of the main political parties can vociferously oppose the scheme.
The concept of caste–baste reservations for government jobs and places in educational institutions have been around ever since India gained independence in 1947. The Mandal Commission– whose report forms the basis of the current proposal– identified 3,743 castes and sub–castes as OBC in its report in 1980. Needless to say, there is an argument that such crude categorisation is both unjust and arbitrary. But vote–bank politics has always prevented a serious questioning of the entire push towards reservations.
Aside from the 27% proposed reservation for the OBCs, there is already a 22.5% reservations for the Scheduled Castes and Schedule Tribes (SC/ST) groups in these educational institutions. Mr Singh’s proposal would raise the reservation percentage for SC/ST/OBCs to 49.5%. This applies to all premier institutions in India, including the Indian Institute of Technologies, Indian Institute of Managements and the 20 central universities.
Mr Singh wants to go further. Last December he tabled the 104th amendment to the constitution to ensure that reservations were also extended to private unaided educational institutions. Job quotas in the private sector– it is often said– is only a matter of time.
Predictably, the reaction of the industry has been hostile. Azim Premji– CEO of Wipro– recently spoke publicly against the proposal. He is one among many entrepreneurs who have expressed their dissatisfaction over the proposals. However, industrial bodies such as the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) are already preparing themselves for the consequences. A “caste headcount” has been launched among the national workforce of these companies in order to gauge how the various castes are represented.
The theoretical arguments around this issue are complex, and academic debates surrounding the American system of affirmative action and reverse discrimination have been around since the 1970s. Much of that debate applies to the situation currently prevalent in India.
First, the major argument in favour of the reservations is that of historic injustice being dished out to the subaltern classes. However, the notion of inter–generational guilt is somewhat disturbing to our intuitions. Why should someone suffer today because his ancestors might have wronged another individual?
Second, it is also argued that reservations ensure a route to upward social mobility for the downtrodden and it gives them self–respect and dignity as citizens. However, it is extremely doubtful how far the dignity of the individual is being preserved by leapfrogging him into a position for which a better qualified candidate already exists. It helps breed a mentality that people from backward castes can only get a job with the help of quotas, and it is humiliating to well–qualified candidates from such communities. Indeed, the Supreme Court has recently rapped the states for not collecting data on individuals from SC/ST/OBC background who secure jobs and educational seats through the ‘general’ category and not their respective caste category.
Third, educational institutions such as the IITs and IIMs have been at the forefront of the changing face of India under globalisation. They produce much of the skilled workforce for top Indian and multinational corporations. Merit– rather than caste/religious background– should be the sole criteria of selection in such institutions, so as not to promote mediocrity.
Fourth, it is argued that we must look at the ‘genesis of merit’ rather than take it at face value. The argument is that the backward castes never got adequate access to public services such as education, health, etc. to develop their intellect and compete in a truly meritocratic society. This appears intuitively attractive, but it leaves a big question unanswered.
After all, there are poor people in India who are from the ‘general’ caste category. On the contrary, there are well–off people from the backward castes. These might be the exception to the norm, but their existence cannot be denied. By implementing caste–based reservations, all we achieve is to discriminate against the poor–but–upper caste candidate and benefit the “creamy layer” amongst the rich–but–lower caste candidate.
It has been suggested that reservations should be made on the economic class of the candidate– a criteria that cuts across caste boundaries when making a decision. However, even this system is not adequate. Given India’s high rate of corruption and poor administrative setup, ‘faking poverty’ could indeed be rife. In any case, this also compromises meritocracy.
The solution that I propose is two–tier. First, we must identify the crux of the problem– continuing caste discrimination. The government should focus on implementing the laws for equal opportunity and access to public services in the remote villages in India’s heartlands. Second, the selection criteria for institutions must be based on a subjective criterion which takes into account economic condition of the applicant’s family, his merit and the implications of his/her particular caste background, etc.
Caste, therefore, must be one of the factors under consideration, and only in so far as it actually did have an impact on the concerned individual’s life. Such a tailor–made criterion will look at every person individually and will not blindly follow a rule that may not be neutral or fair at all. It discourages precedence–based judgements being made.
Therefore, there will be no need for quotas in any state–based institutions whatsoever. As far as private sector reservations is concerned, the rights of the individuals who invested their private assets to build a company will be grossly infringed upon, were they forced to hire someone based on the state’s criterion and not their own choice. It is, therefore, a classical oxymoron.
There is a consequentialist argument for caste–based quotas. It argues that we must wait for a generation to operate under the system for results to be evident. However, that misses the entire point. The counter–argument is not that quotas will not work, but that it is inherently unjust.
The author is based at the University of Warwick, England