Monday, December 18, 2006

Goodbye to Kolkata's "underdeveloped" rickshaw pullers

On Dec. 4, BBC News reported that West Bengal's state assembly finalized a bill that bans hand-pulled rickshaws, a plan that's been in the worls for some years.

In the BBC report, West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya is quoted as saying "Westerners try to associate beggars and these rickshaws with the Calcutta landscape, but this is not what Calcutta stands for. Our city stands for prosperity and development."

According to the mayor of Kolkata, Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, "This inhuman mode of transport should have stopped years ago ... We can't imagine one man sweating and straining to pull another man."

I raise this issue not to argue whether such a ban is wrong or right. Certainly one would hope, perhaps naively, that officials are true to their word when they promise that a rehabilitation package for rickshaw pullers who will be out of work is forthcoming. Yet even if a rehabilitation package materializes, it will only be made available to licensed rickshaw pullers, according to the chief minister.

Instead, I raise this issue because I am interested in the rhetoric employed to justify the ban. Bhattacharya claims that Calcutta stands for "development." By extension, then, he must be implying that rickshaw pulling is a sign of underdevelopment. Does he, perhaps, also mean to suggest that rickshaw pulling is uncivilized? If so, is rickshaw pulling uncivilized because it is inhumane (the word the mayor used to describe rickshaw pulling)?

Or is it uncivilized because it is premised on simple machines--the wheel and lever--as opposed to the advanced machines (e.g., autos, streetcars, subways) of developed societies? In other words, isn't this ban really about changing the world's image of Calcutta? Perhaps this is no different than the motivations for New Delhi's subway?

I understand the argument to ban rickshaw pullers on humanitarian grounds. I have seen Calcutta's rickshaw pullers. I have ridden in a rickshaw behind a barefoot puller treading asphalt streets that must have been 55º C. I believe there must be a healthier and safer way for these men to make a living. But I object to officials using the rhetoric of concern for humanity when, or if, their motives truly lie elsewhere.

Since I quoted at length from Yunus' Nobel Prize acceptance speech in my post yesterday, let me conclude with another excerpt from his speech:
I support globalization and believe it can bring more benefits to the poor than its alternative. But it must be the right kind of globalization. To me, globalization is like a hundred-lane highway criss-crossing the world. If it is a free-for-all highway, its lanes will be taken over by the giant trucks from powerful economies. Bangladeshi rickshaw will be thrown off the highway. In order to have a win-win globalization we must have traffic rules, traffic police, and traffic authority for this global highway. Rule of "strongest takes it all" must be replaced by rules that ensure that the poorest have a place and piece of the action, without being elbowed out by the strong. Globalization must not become financial imperialism.
I wonder, are Calcutta's rickshaw pullers being thrown off the globalization highway? Or is something else going on here? And might this be an opportunity for one of the "social businesses" Yunus promoted in his speech; a business that could provide rickshaw pullers with a basic guaranteed income and better working conditions?

In case readers are interested in seeing what other bloggers are saying about this issue, check out Indra's Drishtikona, Pareltank, or Isaac Schrödinger.

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Follow-up on Yunus/Grameen post

I finally had a chance to read the full text of Muhammad Yunus' Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. I was glad to see Yunus make explicit the link between pverty and peace. Back in October, when it was announced that Yunus/Grameen had won, I posted an entry summarizing what various people were saying about Yunus and about the Nobel committee's decision.

In that post, I quoted an editorial from The Economist that argued that Grameen and Yunus did not deserve an award reserved for peacemakers: "This year’s winner is an admirable anti-poverty campaigner, but it is a stretch to call him or the Grameen bank peacemakers." I then went on to argue that The Economist must not understand that peace is much more than the absence of war. Yunus' speech, from which I quote at length, made this point beautifully:
By giving us this prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has given important support to the proposition that peace is inextricably linked to poverty. Poverty is a threat to peace.

I believe terrorism cannot be won over by military action ... We must address the root causes of terrorism to end it for all time to come. I believe that putting resources into improving the lives of the poor people is a better strategy than spending it on guns.

Peace should be understood in a human way − in a broad social, political and economic way. Peace is threatened by unjust economic, social and political order, absence of democracy, environmental degradation and absence of human rights.
Finally, Yunus revealed his sociological intellect when he described the self-fulfilling prophecy of poverty:
We get what we want, or what we don't refuse. We accept the fact that we will always have poor people around us, and that poverty is part of human destiny. This is precisely why we continue to have poor people around us. If we firmly believe that poverty is unacceptable to us, and that it should not belong to a civilized society, we would have built appropriate institutions and policies to create a poverty-free world.

We wanted to go to the moon, so we went there. We achieve what we want to achieve. If we are not achieving something, it is because we have not put our minds to it. We create what we want.
In my previous post on microfinance, I sung its praises without also acknowledging its limits. For example, microfinance is not ideally suited to complete capital-intensive infrastructure projects (e.g., water provision, sanitation, road construction and maintenance, etc.). But Yunus, in his speech, elaborated on the concept of social businesses. Such businesses, when focused on needs other than microfinance, may develop the capacity to deliver larger-scale infrastructure projects. According to Yunus, social businesses
will be a new kind of business introduced in the market place with the objective of making a difference in the world. Investors in the social business could get back their investment, but will not take any dividend from the company. Profit would be ploughed back into the company to expand its outreach and improve the quality of its product or service. A social business will be a non-loss, non-dividend company ... The challenge is to innovate business models and apply them to produce desired social results cost-effectively and efficiently. Healthcare for the poor, financial services for the poor, information technology for the poor, education and training for the poor, marketing for the poor, renewable energy − these are all exciting areas for social businesses.
In Grameen, Yunus has already given us a social business that provides financial services to the poor. Let's hope that in another five or ten years we're celebrating a Noble Prize winner who, following in Yunus' footsteps, pioneered a social business that educated or provided health care for the world's poor. Such achievements are vital to a future world in which peace prevails.

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Consumerism and dowry

I recently received an email from a reader of the "Consumerism in India: A Faustian Bargain?" series I posted back in August and September. For a refresher, you can click here to go to the first entry in the five-part series, or to view all my posts tagged "consumerism," click here.

Nicoletta, an Italian woman beginning a PhD program in Indology, wrote to ask what I knew about the influence modern consumerism in Indian society is having on the practice of dowry:
Many scholars and commentators have stressed a correlation between the increase in dowry demands (and its murderous manifestation) and a more consumer oriented society in India, especially among middle urban classes. Is for this reason that the research project I'm about to start will be an attempt to take a critical look at global consumerism in India, linking it to the practice of dowry. What I want to try is to start reconstructing the "social life of things" belonging to the dowry list on a intergenerational bases ... I was wondering whether you know single scholars and research centres in India dealing with the issue of dowry from my same point of view and which can assist me in the field phase of my research project.
Here's an excerpt, with some modification, from my response:
Your research idea sounds very interesting.

You might be interested in checking out the following blog entry at POV, it offers a brief summary of a recent book by Vrinda Nabar called Caste as Woman.

As per your specific questions, unfortunately I'm not an expert in the area of your interest, so my suggestions are limited.

In terms of the concept of the "social life of things," I would recommend you read a book by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Halton called The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self. It's now about 25 years old, but I think remains one of the best analyses of the way that we attach symbolic meaning to everyday material objects in our lives. It's focus is on the U.S., but theoretically I think it might be useful for you.

With respect to your research, I'd be interested in hearing more about the approach you plan to take. It sounds like you might, quite litrerally, inventory the items included in dowries across generations in particular families. Presumably you would, as well, compare changes in the make-up of dowries across families in order to understand how consumerism is more or less influencing the dowry practice in different castes, for example.

I would be very interested to see the extent to which modern consumer goods, especially those valued largely for their labels, are becoming a standard part of dowries.
I went on to tell Nicoletta that I would post an entry about her research interests, in the hopes that a reader or two might have some suggestions for her. I know there are many outstanding organizations in India working on reforming the practice of dowry. If you are a reader who has any familiarity with such organizations, please leave information about them in a comment to this post. I will make sure the information gets back to Nicoletta.

More importantly, I'd like to hear some discussion on this topic. Sociologically, the melding together of traditional practices with contemporary ones is one of the most fascinating aspects of globalization and the spread of consumerism. My guess is that there are parallel changes happening within the dowry practice. On one hand, among some segments of the population, the dowry practice is slowly eroding. But on the other hand, I suspect that Nicoletta is on to something--the way many Indians are embracing consumerism must be intensifying dowry practices, both with respect to the quantity and make-up of the goods constituting a dowry.

I hope some readers, more familiar than me on this topic, will share some thoughts.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Indian "Heroes" on American TV

I know in the past there have been a few discussions in the Indian blogosphere about desis appearing on American television programs. For example, there was the desi couple that was one of the first two teams to get booted from this season's "Amazing Race." I don't watch much MTV these days, but a student told me about a couple of desis on an MTV show called "My Super Sweet 16" where rich girls' parents spoil them on their 16th birthdays. So I looked into it, and sure enough, in episode 25 there were Priya and Divya. The summary of the episode begins like this:

Texas has two princesses when 15 year old Priya and 18 year old sister, Divya, throw a bash for a birthday and graduation. As one of the richest families in the city, the two only want the most extravagant World Indian-themed party there is.

For another take on Priya and Divya (and an account of a more modest sweet 16 birthday, see this archived post at Sepia Mutiny).

My real point in this frivolous post (I'll get back to more serious topics in the coming days) is that there is a hugely popular show this television season the entire premise of which is based on a professor of genetics from Chennai who begins tracking down "ordinary people who ... possess extraordinary abilities" (from the show's tag line). Of course, these people with extraordinary abilities (e.g., teleportation, spontaneous self-healing, flight, etc.) are all Americans. But Mohinder, the Indian character's name (played by Sendhil Ramamurthy), returns to Chennai in later episodes after momentarily giving up on figuring out the mystery of his father's death (it was his father who first hypothesized that evolution has produced people with special abilities).

Now, this is no low-budget TV show. It's on NBC, in a primetime slot, and has proven to be a big hit. Yet it seems as if the producers have cut all the corners possible in shooting the scenes that are supposed to be in India.

In the scene below, from the pilot episode, you can get a sense of what I mean:

(Sorry, I'm having trouble embedding YouTube video in Blogger beta. For now, here's the link.)

Be sure to watch at least a couple minutes in, until you get to the part where Mohinder is lecturing to students, presumably at the University of Madras. Then keep watching to see the scene where Mohinder walks through a supposed monsoon rain.

In later episodes there are quaint shots of Mohinder in a "bustling" Chennai market. I put bustling in quotes because the market in the scene bustles nothing at all like a real Indian market. Sure, the show probably didn't have the budget to go and shoot in India, but they could have gotten some better consultants to help them re-create some more believable Chennai-like scenes.

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The U.N. Global Compact: Why are Indian Companies Faltering?

First off, my apologies to the smattering of regular readers for such a gap between posts. In the academic calendar there are times of the year that are busier than others, and the last month has been one of those times. But the semester is near an end, and after I complete the manuscript I've been working on for a Dec. 1 deadline, I should have time to begin posting more regularly. Believe me, the ideas are stacking up.

For now, here's a quick post about the United Nation's Global Compact. The Global Compact was introduced in 1999 by (soon-to-be-former) Secretary General Kofi Anan with the aim of bringing together companies, UN agencies, labor, and civil society to commit to upholding ten universal principles in the areas of human rights, labor, environment, and transparency and anti-corruption.

The links above will take you to detailed explanations for each of the ten principles, to which companies may voluntary agree. So that you don't have to follow the links, here are the principles:
  1. Businesses should support and respect the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights; and
  2. make sure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses.
  3. Businesses should uphold the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;
  4. the elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labour;
  5. the effective abolition of child labour; and
  6. the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.
  7. Businesses should support a precautionary approach to environmental challenges;
  8. undertake initiatives to promote greater environmental responsibility; and
  9. encourage the development and diffusion of environmentally friendly technologies .
  10. Businesses should work against all forms of corruption, including extortion and bribery.
On the corporate side, participation in the Global Compact involves a voluntary commitment to the ten principles. Companies are required to submit an annual "Communication on Progress" that details the steps they are taking to implement the principles. What does a company get for participating? It gets to participate in Global Compact events such as "Learning Forums" where companies share best practices for upholding the principles. A participating company also gets to use the Global Compact name and logo in promotional materials.

There's a lot of debate about whether the Global Compact really makes any difference in a company's conduct. My guess is that the difference, if any, is minimal. But when the Worldwatch Institute recently reported that the UN de-listed 335 companies from the Global Compact (the UN press release on the de-listing is available here), it occurred to me that the transparency of the Global Compact listing process gives average citizens ways to hold companies accountable. According to the UN, de-listing is a strategy to maintain the integrity of the Global Compact:
This step conforms to the Global Compact's Integrity Measures ... The Integrity Measures state that any company that has missed two consecutive annual deadlines to submit a Communication on Progress (COP) will be regarded "inactive" and marked accordingly on the Global Compact website.
Since the de-listed companies can be viewed at the Global Compact website, I compiled a list of the Indian companies that were de-listed:
  1. Bharat Aluminium Company Ltd.
  2. Bongaigaon Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd.
  3. Cement Corporation of India
  4. Air India
  5. Dena Bank
  6. Central Cottage Industries
  7. Excel Industries Limited
  8. Hi-Tech Carbon
  9. Hindustan Organic Chemicals ltd.
  10. Engineering Projects India Ltd.
  11. Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd.
  12. Apollo Hospitals
  13. Mishra Dhatu Nigam Ltd.
  14. Mineral Exploration Corporation
  15. Mazagon Dock Ltd
  16. Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd.
  17. Kudremukh Iron Ore Company
  18. Kolam Information Services PVT. Ltd
  19. Infrastructure Development Finance Company Ltd.
  20. Hindustan Sanitaryware and Industries Ltd.
  21. Hindustan Petroleum Corp. Ltd.
  22. Semiconductor Complex Ltd.
  23. Scooters India LTD
  24. Quadra Advisory Private Ltd.
  25. Punjab National Bank
  26. PSi
  27. Priconser India Pvt. Ltd.
  28. North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Ltd.
  29. National Textile Corporation Ltd.
  30. MMTC
  31. Wadia Group
  32. Unit Trust of India
  33. Transnational Supply & Service
  34. The State Trading Corporation of India
  35. The Shipping Corporation of India Ltd.
  36. Telco Construction Equipment Company Ltd.
  37. Tata Tea
  38. Tata Industries Limited
  39. TAL Manufacturing Solutions Limited
Some of these companies may have failed to submit a COP because they are no longer committed to upholding the principles of the Global Compact. In other cases, they may not have the resources to devote to developing a COP. Given the number of companies from developing countries among the 335 that were de-listed, I suspect there is a common obstacle preventing companies from maintaining their commitment.

Regardless of the reason, I figured readers of The Curious Stall might be familiar with one of the companies in the list, or even have a contact, and be able to find out why some of these companies have failed to submit their COPs. Perhaps through the blogosphere we can do a little collaborative research and put a little pressure on these companies to stay committed.

If you know anything about any of the companies listed above, even just general information about what kind of business the company is engaged in, feel free to post it here. Many Indian companies have no web presence, so it is difficult for me to find anything out from where I blog. Who knows, perhaps we can collect some information that might be useful to the UN's Global Compact office in providing better support to companies in developing countries that want to stay committed to the ten principles.

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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Diseases of Poverty, Diseases of Affluence

I've been meaning to blog again about the rising rates of diabetes in India. My previous discussion, with some links to other bloggers' views on the issue, can be found here and here.

I think there is no doubt that the rise of diabetes is, in part, a function of changing lifestyles among the relatively small part of the Indian population that is reaping the benefits of the country's economic growth. There is another potentially important factor, and I will blog at greater length about that soon.

In this post I want to point out the dialectical nature of globalization (or economic liberalization, if you like). Only under the logic of globalization can a country experience both diseases of affluence and diseases of poverty. In a Marxian sense, this may be another important historical contradiction, or perhaps simply another manifestation of the central contradiction of capitalism (its simultaneous need to expand and its unsustainable exploitation of labor). Globalization, after all, as some argue, is merely the latest phase of capitalism.

This idea occurred to me as I read "The Hungry Bellies of South Asians..." at pass the roti. Commenting on the 2006 Global Hunger Index, a report issued by the Deutsche Welthungerhilfe and the International Food Policy Research Institute that uses three indicators to measure the extent of hunger in 97 developing countries and 22 countries in transition, Desi Italiana quotes the following from an article at Outlook
“Another value of the index is to demonstrate which countries have not been able to use their available economic resources effectively in reducing under nutrition,” Ms. Wiesmann noted.” High income inequality is one of the factors that causes countries to have higher levels of hunger and under nutrition than would be expected based on the gross national income per capita.”
Weisman, the IFPRI researcher who developed the index, does not go on to explain why high income inequality would exacerbate the problems of malnutrition and hunger. Perhaps the reason is obvious, but I will state it anyway: income inequality translates into disparities in power (not just economic, but political and even cultural power); and those with power work to maintain the status quo.

>Look at this optimistic headline from the Hindustan Times: "India shows improvement in tackling malnutrition: Index." But the article goes on to note that:
The hunger index for India has shown that from a score of 41.23 in 1981, it dropped to 32.73 but is holding steady at 25.73 for the years of 1997 and 2003. Bangladesh on the other hand would show its hunger index dropping from a score of 44.40 in 1981 to 28.27 in 2003.
I would be willing to bet that there is a pretty close correlation between the beginning of India's economic rise (and thereby the beginning of its growing income inequality and power disparity) and the slowing of the decline of its score on the Global Hunger Index. I am not arguing that globalization does not reduce poverty. I believe it does. But I also believe that it reduces poverty at a slower rate than alternative approaches.

Consider the following quote, from an article on Expat that draws from Welthungerhilfe’s f="">press release on the report:
Ingeborg Schaeuble, Welthungerhilfe's chairwoman, said stable countries like Ghana have managed to reduce hunger, malnutrition and the child mortality rate ... "It is, however, wrong to think that economic progress alone is enough to reduce hunger," said Schaeuble, who is the wife of German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble.

"These countries cannot make headway without investing in agriculture, health and education. This is particularly applicable to countries which have endured acute crises and war," she said.
This is precisely my point. Currently, India's investments in agriculture largely benefit the economic elite, and its investments in health and education are dismally inadequate. Now, back to diabetes. Type 2 diabetes, at least to the extent that it is linked to the diet and lifestyle of affluent people, is likely to get the attention of India's political leaders.

Globalization is slow to reduce poverty because it operates under the same logic of, or arguably is the same as, capitalism. This logic privileges continued growth of the system above all else. Social or environmental problems are never dealt with sufficiently unless there is the potential for profit in their solutions. Yet in the constant push for growth, internal conflicts emerge. Marx focused on class struggles. Perhaps coexisting diseases of poverty and affluence are part of the synthesis of the dialect.

For Marx, or Hegel for that matter, dialectics consist of a thesis, antithesis, and synthesis (a term not preferred by Hegel). The coexistence of diseases of poverty and diseases of affluence could be viewed as part of the dialectic nature of globalization. But it might be that their coexistence is actually part of the synthesis of the dialectic of capitalism. In other words (bear with me as I simplify some of Marx's thoughts), the ever increasing exploitation of the labor class by the capitalist class, and the ever increasing income inequality that comes with this exploitation, is resolved through universal sickness.

The ultimate resolution, of course, will depend on whose sickness does them in first. Presumably, the "haves" will use their economic power to manage their diseases of affluence while the "have nots" continue to suffer. This is certainly, more or less, what the medical system in the U.S. looks like. Perhaps India will follow a different path.

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Friday, October 13, 2006

As long as everyone is blogging about Grameen Bank...

As most of the globally conscious citizens of the world know by now, Dr. Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank, the original microfinance bank, has won the Nobel Peace Prize (technically he won half the prize while the Bank itself won the other half).

In short, microfinance is the ultimate antithesis to World Bank-style lending. Rather than massive loans given to governments of developing countries to undertake colossal mega development projects like dams, microfinancing finds single individuals, or sometimes a small group of individuals, and provides extremely small loans. Through a number of clever strategies, legitimate microfinance institutions like Grameen Bank are able to achieve extraordinary repayment rates. The individuals assuming the loans not only pay back the borrowed money, but develop skills to reinvest the surplus capital earned through the initial investment of the loan.

Here's what a few bloggers have been saying about Yunus and Grameen winning the award:

From Shobak, on the inspiration Grameen offers the world:
Current politics is a death-bound roller coaster, and the passengers can't disembark. People are always banging on about the resulting short supply of optimism. The stories are there, inside and outside the borders - vested with the Innovative NGOs, Tireless Activists, Young Turks and Culture Agitators."
The Globalization Institute Blog jumped on the optimism bandwagon, noting that the Institute "has been advocating a greater emphasis on microfinance in the international development community so we are delighted by this appointment. And we're doing research on how to take microfinance forward."

Kamla Bhatt has a nice summary of some of the major media coverage in her entry, including the following quote from an editorial by Gabriel Rozenberg, Economics Reporter for The Times:
Grameen shows us the poor and the destitute not as pitiable charity cases condemned to their lot, but as thwarted entrepreneurs who just lack the means to improve their families' lives. It is a profoundly optimistic view of human nature. With this inspired choice the Nobel Committee has lit a path that could lead to the eradication of poverty in our time.
And then, just in case there is too much optimism out there, we have The Economist offering its reaction in an editorial titled "Losing its lustre":
Friday October 13th, the Norwegian part of the Nobel Institute ... named the recipient of the 2006 peace award ... [T]he award was given to Muhammad Yunus and Grameen bank in Bangladesh, which promotes lending to the poorest, especially women ... [b]ut the Nobel committee could have made a braver, more difficult, choice by declaring that there would be no recipient at all ... This year’s winner is an admirable anti-poverty campaigner, but it is a stretch to call him or the Grameen bank peacemakers.
When The Economist also questions last year's winner, Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, claiming that "she has done a lot to plant trees in Kenya, but not much to promote peace," it becomes apparent that there are those who fail to understand how poverty, which emerges out of resource scarcity, is linked to conflict. "Peace," The Economist must not realize, is much more than the absence of war.

Now, what does microfinance have to offer the average citizen of a developed country who wants to help in the fight against global poverty? Most of us place some sort of vague trust in charitable and philanthropic organizations, believing that their modest work will somehow make a difference in the face of widespread poverty. Others believe that institutions like the U.N., or even the World Bank, are responsible for, and dealing with, the problems of poverty and inequality.

But these institutions are large and faceless, and if they are not working effectively to eradicate poverty, the average citizen feels powerless to change them. Many people might perceive microfinance as a tool of similarly large (though not as large as the World Bank) and faceless institutions, and therefore assume no ability to become involved. But the beauty of microfinance is that it is micro. This means that loan amounts are so small, on average, that even a lower-middle class American can contribute a small percentage of her or his annual earnings to a lender that can, in turn, make a loan to a farmer, shopkeeper, or other entrepreneur in need of a cash jumpstart.

But still, how would one find a bank engaged in microfinance, and do these banks give individuals an opportunity to make investments that can be turned around in the form of loans? They may, but there's a major obstacle in that few want to do the research to find out. There's an impressive organization, called Kiva, that has figured out a way to remove the obstacles. Kiva uses the Internet to allow people like me to lend money directly to a person in the developing world. This cuts out the massive overhead of a large bank. It gives me, the "lender," a sense that my money is actually making a difference in someone's life. If I'm happy with my investment, when my loan is repaid I can have Kiva roll right back into the lending pool so that I can help someone else.

At first I was skeptical about whether this was really a viable solution to global poverty. From the information on its website, including glowing endorsements from such media outlets as NPR, ABC News The Wall Street Journal, and Business Week, Kiva seems to have a solid foundation and a model that is already proving effective. I'm sure the most cynical among us can find reason to criticize Kiva's model of microfinance. The Economist, after all, found it rather easy to criticize Yunus and Grameen for not doing enough peacemaking to deserve a Nobel Peace Prize.

But I have to wonder, if such a model were in place six or seven years ago, when many cotton farmers in India began going deep into debt, with usurious interest rates, to buy Bt cotton from Monsanto and other biotech companies, would it have made a difference? In this case, probably not. The reason is that Bt cotton, and all of the other industrial inputs required to grow and harvest such volumes of cotton (or any other crop), are far more expensive than typical microfinance loans would cover.

What's at issue here is the use of technology at a human scale. For example, a hydroelectric dam is not a technology at a human scale. Huge institutional investors, and a stable government infrastructure for managing costs and overseeing construction, are central components to any large-scale dam project. Can a technology, whether a dam that produces electricty or a genetically engineered seed that produces increased yields, really benefit a person if he or she has little or no control over it, and in using it becomes severely dependent on others?

One of the ideas behind microfinance is that it gives people at the bottom of the pyramid a little bit of control over their lives. Not too many mega-dams have made profoundly positive impacts on people's lives. Nor have we heard many promising stories about genetically modified seeds leading to beneficial economic transformations in people's lives (the African farmers in my last post not withstanding). But the stories that come out of the microfinance community are truly amazing.

There are already plenty of organizations in India engaged in microfinance (see here for a thorough article on implementing the concept of microfinance in India, drawing on examples from elsewhere in South Asia). With time, hopefully, the legitimate and credible organizations that are doing good work will rise to the top and those that only aim to take further advantage of people will fall by the wayside. For now, I'm headed back over to Kiva to see if I can find a Ugandan barber, or a Kenyan street vendor, or an Indian tailor who need a small loan to invest in some improvements that will help grow their businesses.

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Monsanto: Africa's Johnny Appleseed?

For readers who may not know who Johnny Appleseed is, let me explain. Johnny Appleseed is an American legend. Say Johnny Appleseed, and almost any American who attended school in the U.S. or watched cartoons will know who you are talking about. The legend is based on an actual person, John Champan, who traveled around much of the American Midwest in the early 1800s spreading his apple seeds. Basically, he taught people how to grow apple trees. He became a legend, according to his wikipedia entry, "largely because of his kind and generous ways."

Well, according to a post at The Globalisation Institute's blog, it sounds like Monsanto is becoming the Johnny Appleseed of Africa. In all fariness, "How global business is inceasing crop yields in Africa," the title of the entry, merely reports on the results of a study by the Enterprise Africa! project, part of George Mason University's Mercatus Center. According to the report, "the 'combi-pack' - a package containing hybrid maize seed, fertilizer and herbicide for subsistence farmers - is helping to tackle hunger in Africa."

From the report's summary, the benefits of the combi-pack sound unassailable:
Farmers in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga provinces who use Combi-Packs along with no-till, or minimum-till, agriculture have increased maize yields. Now, the farmers raise enough maize that they can feed their families and then sell the excess, earning money to fix homes, buy clothes, and pay school fees.

Furthermore, Combi-Packs combined with no and minimum till agriculture have had beneficial effects for the environment, reducing erosion, and conserving water. Swelekile Alina Nkosi, a farmer in Mlondozi in rural Mpumalanga, enjoys these benefits. “I’m so happy with this way of farming. What will happen when I’m old I don’t know, but one thing is good, and that is now there’s no water cutting through, so my soil is conserved.”
If you doubted the benevolence of the combi-pack, here's the clincher: "Farmers call the combi-pack 'Xoshindlala,' a Zulu word that means "chase away hunger."

But wait, what is the most incredible thing about the combi-pack?
The striking thing about the combi-pack is that it is not produced or distributed by aid workers - it is sold by the Monsanto Company to the farmers for a profit. Many critics of globalisation argue that multinationals will never help the poor, because it is not in their financial interests to do so - but Monsanto is proving them wrong. The sale of combi-packs is a mutually beneficial transaction: both parties are made better off by the sale than they would have been otherwise. It is also an excellent example of markets helping the poor.
I don't want to be too cynical, so I'm not going to suggest that anything about this report is untrue. But with just a little digging, I discovered that among Enterprise Africa!'s partners are several free-market think-tanks like the Free Market Foundation and the Institute of Economic Affairs. With a little more digging, I wonder if one might discover that Enterprise Africa! gets a little of its funding from Monsanto or some of Monsanto's "philanthropic" partners.

And even if it is all true, the cynic in me is saying that there must be some sort of catch. At the very least, as these farmers earn income from the surplus that the combi-pack helps them grow, I suspect Monsanto will be right there waiting to sell them the next level of seed/fertilizer/herbicide pack, with the promise that they can grow, and earn, even more.

If the combi-pack is everything that this report makes it out to be, and if my suspicions are wrong, then let's hope Monsanto is developing a combi-pack for India's farmers. Oh, and as long as Monsanto is being so magnanimous, perhaps they can compensate all of the people around the world who have suffered the health effects of exposure to some of the toxic chemicals Monsanto has blessed us with.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Africa: India's next great source of labor?

Jen Brea at Africabeat recently blogged about a new World Bank book that says China and India are part of Africa's "Silk Road." The idea is that Africa is poised for great economic growth through increasing trade with India and China. According to the book's promotional site, it is the first attempt to offer "systematic empirical evidence on how the two emerging economic giants of Asia— China and India—now stand at the crossroads of the explosion of African-Asian trade and investment."

According to Brea, in her post titled "Africa as China and India's 'New Economic Frontier,"
There has long been chatter about labor shortages creating upward pressure on Chinese wages and the fact that Chinese products may become less competitive, if not in first world markets, then in China's own domestic market. This is where the potential for Africa to use its comparative advantage - a low-cost labor force - comes in. If that labor force were mobilized, it could produce products for Indian and Chinese consumers at lower prices than many Indian and Chinese producers.
My question is "Where does it all end?" When India begins depending on cheap labor in Africa, then where will Africans turn to find their cheap labor? And in the meantime, what will happen to the 600,000,000 Indians living in poverty whose own government bypassed them for even cheaper labor in Africa?

India has solved one problem, it has found a sound engine of economic growth. And from what I have read lately, it sounds like some of the IT sector growth is stimulating the manufacturing sector. There was a New York Times article earlier in September titled "A Younger India is Flexing its Industrial Brawn," about which Kamla Bhatt and chacko, among a few others, blogged. The main argument is that India has a younger population, no one-child policy, and hence a more robust workforce that is situated to step into the gap left if and when China falters.

Aside from the infrastructure and other obvious differences between India and China, India has another major hurdle to overcome: many manufacturing jobs require basic level of education, some even demand English language skills; at the very least, most manufacturing jobs require literacy, if not in Engligh then in Hindi. But the vast majority of the 600,000,000 Indians living in poverty, those who most need whatever new manufacturing jobs India creates, do not speak functional English, nor do many of them read or write in their mother tongues. So educating them, even just to the level to function in a factory job, is quite a challenge, and one that government after government has been unable/unwilling to take on.

But even before getting to that point, I want to return to my original question. Where does it all end? Does Africa have a labor pool that exceeds India's when it comes to the basic skills required for manufacturing jobs? If so, then maybe we'll see India shift its attention to Africa to get more cheaply the consumer goods its middle class increasingly demands.

But I don't think Africa is any better off than India (I realize I am comparing a country and a continent, crude as it is). The real race will be to see who will be the first to provide the basic social infrastructure needed to raise the labor pool to certain basic standards. Even then, in the greater scheme of things, I'm quite skeptical. The production-consumption cycle of global capitalism--a cycle in which prodcution processes are moved around the world to find the cheapest resources and cheapest labor, and completed goods are then moved back to the wealthiest parts of the world where they are consumed--is utterly unsustainable.

And, yes, I'll be the first to admit (since even environmentalists seem wary to bring it up), Americans must seriously consider lifestyle downsizing. We need to find ways to live richly without plundering the world's resources, and without setting a goal for the rest of the world that we simply cannot afford to have everyone achieve.

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Monday, September 25, 2006

"Primary financial cause of farmer suicides"

I'm still trying to carve out the time to post a critical sociological analysis of the farmer suicide issue in India. I'm compelled to make a brief post now, especially after reading "Just heart alone won't suffice," at The Indian Economy Blog (originally posted here on The Acorn), in which Nitin Pai writes:
It has been the The Acorn’s case that [the farmer suicide] crisis is caused by the government’s determined refusal to allow market forces to play in the agriculture sector. Its policies have created perverse incentives: leading to a scarcity in formal sources of credit that is the primary financial cause of farmer suicides.
Such a position is not surprising for a blogger who writes at The Indian Economy Blog. "The solution to India’s ‘agrarian crisis’, therefore," Pai continues, "lies not in government largesse, but in its retreat. It lies in making rural and agricultural markets work."

"Markets, markets, markets, let the markets do their thing," seems to be the refrain of free market believers like Pai. As a sociologist, I cringe at the notion of reducing social complexity to the abstract, and reified (the process by which our own socially constructed concepts become a part of our reality), notion of "market forces." On the other hand, I'll admit, the solution suggested in the end seems to make some sense:
Politicians, intellectuals and farmers all need to accept that small loans are more expensive and must be priced accordingly. Thus an answer to the credit needs of small farmers in India is to free up interest rates, not just in terms of regulation but in terms of acceptability. At the same time, the government should permit a whole spectrum of credit providers, formal and informal, to enter the field and compete with each other so that they can enhance the total credit flow and eventually bring down costs. No regulation can control supply and price simultaneously. So if more credit has to flow to farmers, the price (interest rate) must be deregulated. Initially it may go up, attract more players and then they will compete and bring down the rates. Ironically, this lesson from the housing and consumer finance market has been missed by our policy-makers. (Pai is quoting from here).
Sure, I can agree that there are some problems with the loan market. I just wish that the economists would take a step back and ask "Why are farmers in India borrowing money?" I need to do more research before I settle on the answers to this question. But my suspicions are that (a) the Green Revolution was the initial impetus behind more capital-intensive agriculture, and that (b) the Biotech Revolution has wratcheted up to yet another level the capital needed to farm in India today.

So let's not scoff at the "terrible and perverse incentive" created when Manmohan Singh promises money to help the widows of farmers who have committed suicide. They are simply the latest victims of at least 50 years of decision-making that has had unintended consequences. Economists have a nice short-term solution in the goal of fixing the markets so that loans are not so burdensome for farmers who are subject to uncontrollable forces like the weather. But in the long run, making agriculture increasingly capital intensive, as I believe the Green and Biotech Revolutions have, makes agriculture profitable only for large agribusinesses that can afford the overhead and absorb the losses when weather, insects, or other forces destroy their crops.

Two long-term solutions come to mind: (1) use microfinance mechanisms to wean farmers from the expensive inputs required for "conventional" agriculture and to transition them back to organic farming; (2) create "work transition" programs that can slowly move farmers into new types of work as their land is taken over by large agribusinesses (which do not create jobs).

Again, these are preliminary thoughts. I welcome all types of feedback. I am continuing to try to understand this issue and will write more on it in the coming weeks.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Old colonial tricks in new bottles

Over at grist, an environmental news and commentary site, there's a nice post in the gristmill blog by Tom Philpott. Philpott lays the foundation for his argument by drawing on a 2001 book by author Mike Davis. The book, titled Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, uses as one example strategies employed by the British to gain from droughts in India:

Davis lays out in devastating detail (first chapter available for free here) how in the 1870s, high-living colonial administrators dismantled the old Indian system for handling droughts, replacing it with one in which the price of grain floated freely based on global supply and demand. Thus, when a drought struck a grain-producing region in India, the grain price surged. The only buyers who could then afford it happened to reside in merry olde England.

The subcontinent's railroad system, paid for by taxes imposed on the Indians, very efficiently carried grain being produced in the non-drought areas to ports for shipment to the mother country. Its cutting-edge telegraph infrastructure, also financed by colonial taxes, transmitted price hikes rapidly. Famine thus rippled throughout India, including in non-drought-stricken areas.

Tens of millions perished in a series of famines in late 19th century India; before, when drought struck a certain area, food would move in from luckier areas and famines were rare. Davis claims the English took advantage of these not-so-natural disasters to consolidate its grip on the subcontinent. It was all very efficient, really.

Philpott uses this example from Davis' book to draw a parallel to the neocolonialism of the biotechnology companies that sell Indian farmers expensive Bt cotton and other seeds. Only, because the Indian government, as part of economic liberalization, is pushing for an industrial agriculture system, there is no support to bail out farmers who wind up in debt and, after a failed monsoon or other disaster (natural or otherwise) have no crops to sell and no money to repay their debts.

In other words, in the 1800s the British used their might to impose on India a system in which the British could squeeze every last rupee out of the Indian farmer. What's the difference today? Seems like old wine in new bottles. The British are gone, but the west has managed to convince India of the virtues of free markets and expensive advanced technological solutions to age-old problems like famine. And in the place of the British, the Indian government itself is imposing austerity on the Indian farmer. Meanwhile, the EU and U.S. refuse to lower their subsidies for domestic farmers and tariffs against imported agricultural goods (a pretty good summary of the failed Doha round of WTO negotiations can be found here). It's quite a racket. And who benefits?

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Friday, September 15, 2006

Elsewhere on the "Diabetes in India" story

So far, most of what I've read in the blogosphere about the NY Times article on Type 2 diabetes in India can be categorized as "Yeah, it's a problem, we know it" (see here). At Sepia Mutiny, a post on the article has prompted 140+ comments, some of which suggest that the article fails to consider explanations for the rise in diabetes other than increasing affluence.

But over at pass the roti on the left hand side, Desi Italiana has posted a nice take on the issue. Titling her entry "'Modernity' and mithai: a deadly combo," Desi Italiana points out that the link between diabetes and increasing affluence calls into question all the "India Shining" rhetoric. "What's funny," she points out, "is that despite the facts that the author provides - such as the lack of health care and health insurance, the 300 million hungry bellies and the cruel poverty - words like 'developed,' 'progress,' and 'modernization' abound."

Desi Italiana goes on to ask:
With more than 300 million people hungry, 290+ million without sanitation and drinking water, half of the population illiterate, inaccessible health care, and the AIDS epidemic spiraling out of control, where is the "modernity," "development," and "progress" in India? Is India considered to be modernizing and progressing just because it has a middle class?
Thank you for asking the types of hard questions that seldom get asked. Here is my answer:

A "developed" society, in an efficient, sustainable, and just manner, must:
  1. Replenish its population
  2. Adequately and fairly produce and distribute food/water, energy and shelter
  3. Maintain the physical and mental health of its members
  4. Pass on important knowledge to each subsequent generation
  5. Regulate human behavior so as to maintain social order
The article on diabetes in India, and the problem with the spread of AIDS pointed out by Desi Italiana, suggests that maintenance of health (3.) is not currently being achieved. In my previous posts, I tried to make the point that under a consumer culture, traditions and customs essential to the passing on of important knowledge (4.) are diminished. Widespread malnourishment, urban slums and farmer suicides all suggest that India is struggling to produce and distribute food/water, energy and shelter (2.) in an adequate and just manner.

On the other hand, except for occasional communal violence, social order (5.) appears to be more or less maintained. This means that, arguably, India is accomplishing only 1. with any great success (perhaps with too much success).

Now, this probably sounds rather harsh. My point is that India should continue to "develop" and "progress," but without blindly embracing some abstract, and therefore ultimately unobtainable, notion of what development is. A society has become modern or developed only when it uses the knowledge, technology, and other innovations of the last 200 years to meet the above conditions, for the vast majority of its members, in an efficient and just manner.

Of course, by this standard, one could conclude that the U.S. is failing to meet the basic standards of a developed society. Well, maybe the U.S. should not be the standard to which the developing world looks.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Epilogue to the Consumerism in India Series

An article (login may be required) in today's New York Times provides the perfect epilogue to the now-concluded five-part series "Consumerism in India: A Faustian Bargain?" (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) In the series, I focused more on the psychological and social consequences of life in a consumer society. I also touched on the impacts on the lives of people implicated in the global chain of production and consumption. What I did not mention were diseases of affluence. Adult onset diabetes, now more widely known as Type 2 diabetes, is a perfect example:

In its hushed but unrelenting manner, Type 2 diabetes is engulfing India, swallowing up the legs and jewels of those comfortable enough to put on weight in a country better known for famine. Here, juxtaposed alongside the stick-thin poverty, the malaria and the AIDS, the number of diabetics now totals around 35 million, and counting.

The future looks only more ominous as India hurtles into the present, modernizing and urbanizing at blinding speed. Even more of its 1.1 billion people seem destined to become heavier and more vulnerable to Type 2 diabetes, a disease of high blood sugar brought on by obesity, inactivity and genes, often culminating in blindness, amputations and heart failure. In 20 years, projections are that there may be a staggering 75 million Indian diabetics.

I don't have much to say about the article at this point. I just wanted to make sure that readers are aware of it and that the issue gets some attention in the blogosphere. The only concern I will raise is what I imagine is the dominant attitude towards this problem. The attitude, characterized by Dr. A. Ramachandran, the managing director of the M.V. Hospital for Diabetes, in Chennai, is captured in the following quote from the article:

“Diabetes unfortunately is the price you pay for progress."

I realize that Dr. Ramachandran does not represent all Indians. But if this is how India responds to the problems of consumerism and affluence, some of my predictions in the "Consumerism in India" series about the future of India looking more and more like troubled western consumer societies are already coming true. Perhaps for India, the future is now.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Consumerism in India: A Faustian Bargain? (Part 5 of 5)

The Bigger Picture

Before bringing this series to a close, I want to place India’s move towards a consumer society in a larger framework. India, after all, represents a microcosm of the larger globalizing world. For within India exists the same tension permeating global society. The tension is between those individuals who have benefited from economic liberalization and who have become full-fledged citizens in the consumer society, and those individuals who struggle to provide for themselves and their families the basic essentials for survival, reaping little or no benefits of economic liberalization or the consumer society.

Let me elaborate on this tension by examining the way in which the current global arrangement allows citizens of the developed world to deny any personal responsibility for the consequences of consumption. In fact, not only do we deny any responsibility for the ways in which our consumer lifestyles lead to global problems like climate change or local problems like sick workers or communities contaminated by industrial wastes, we go so far as to propose that the solution to the problems of the developing world is even more consumerism.

To function, a consumer society depends on consumer blindness to the broader social, cultural, and environmental consequences of our marketplace decisions. American-style consumerism has done very well at keeping the American consumer from understanding the nature of the damage done by the production and distribution of our cheap goods. As a result, Americans think it makes perfect sense that we have a right to our big SUVs, to our cheap disposable goods, and to our cheap out-of-season produce shipped to us from around the world. We work hard, so the argument goes, these things are available to us in the marketplace, and therefore we have a right to spend our hard-earned money on them if we so desire.

photo by flickr member "jennie"

How do Americans fail to make connections between our consumer choices and matters of social justice for people elsewhere around the world? After all, we make connections between heroine or bootlegged DVDs and terrorism, and define it as our moral duty to abstain from purchasing any products that might aid terrorist activities. We also make the determination for others that the production and consumption of pornography, tobacco, alcohol, and drugs, can be dangerous for certain members of society. So we regulate the production and distribution of such goods and services. Yet we don't regulate our own companies when they operate overseas in ways that would clearly be in violation of U.S. standards, and we certainly don’t regulate our own consumer behavior even though our decisions in the marketplace may perpetuate global systems of injustice.

The U.S. grew economically wealthy as a country during the last half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. This growth was a result of visionary leaders, innovative entrepreneurs, and hard-working immigrants who came in search of the American dream. Many of them achieved it. But in the mid-20th century, when it began to become apparent that some of our growth was made possible through various forms of internal exploitation (e.g. child labor, the labor of illegal immigrants, and other forms of exploitation of labor, as well as through exploitation of the environment in the form of pollution for which corporations did not have to pay), we passed laws to put constraints on these forms of exploitation. Corporations determined that they could escape these constraints by moving to other parts of the world where, because of range of factors, regulations were either non-existent or unenforced and industry in any form was welcomed.

Today, these same corporations are able to provide Americans, as well as other developed societies, with the cheap goods to which we believe we have a right. At one time, Americans could make purchases in the marketplace and be somewhat assured—because most everything we purchased was made in the U.S. and therefore met American labor, environmental, and human rights standards—that our purchases were not harming people or the environments on which people depend for their livelihood. Today we live in a global marketplace and therefore do not have the luxury of being so presumptuous.

But the successful consumer society buffers its members from the material universe of consumerism. Consumers cannot be permitted to know the true costs of their consumer lifestyles for fear they would either reduce their consumption levels or demand goods manufactured to certain basic social and environmental standards. This has largely worked in the U.S. since we have been able to off-shore most of the uglier aspects of the material universe of consumerism. India is one among many of the destinations. Whether collection of our obsolete and hazardous electronic waste, destruction of the retired ships we used to transport our cheap goods, or exploitation of cheap labor to manufacture textiles, semiconductors, or other goods, Americans are largely isolated from the hazards involved in the production, distribution and disposal of our consumer goods.

Living amidst eWaste: photo by flickr member "Greenpeace India"

Can India similarly protect its privileged consumers from the harsh realities of producing, distributing, and disposing of cheap consumer goods? After all, not only are there are few places left to “off-shore” the ugly aspects of the material universe of consumerism, but most of the ugly aspects already coexist with among India’s malls, gated communities, and other trappings of developed world consumerism. If through the process of globalization Americans have managed to export not only our hazardous waste and dangerous jobs, but also our belief that in a consumer anyone who works hard has the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of her or his labor in the consumer marketplace, then maybe India can shield its full-fledged consumers from the knowledge that their consumerism sustains domestic and global inequality.

But perhaps Indians will find other motives for rejecting, or at least accepting on their own terms, American-style consumerism. Indians have always maintained a healthy suspicion of U.S. motives with respect to their country. Now should be no time to relinquish this skepticism. It may seem as if Americans want Indians, who make up a huge untapped market, to join us in our consumer lifestyles. But I doubt Americans wish for Indians to join us because we have some deep sense of compassion and justice that leads us to believe that Indians must be given access to the same quality of life as us. If we were motivated by a deep sense of compassion and justice, we’d call into question our own lifestyles, which are only sustainable to the extent that others around the world are denied some of the basic comforts—like clean drinking water—that we take for granted. Americans, or more specifically the American government, first and foremost support India’s transition to a consumer society because it is good for the American economy, not because of any concern for India’s millions of citizens living in poverty.

India: An Improvement on the Consumer Society or a Faustian Bargain?

With all this criticism, readers might be asking whether I have a solution. Suggesting an alternative approach to economic development has not been the purpose of this series, though I think a reasonable approach would combine a mix of large-scale development projects that are sensitive to local people and small-scale development projects that protect and nurture the very crafts, skills, and traditions that make India what it is today. Rather, my aim has been to point out that even if consumerism is the path India pursues, Indians should be asking some difficult questions. How will consumerism change India and Indians? Can India tailor its own uniquely Indian consumer society that avoids the pitfalls of western-style consumerism? If India embraces a patently western-style consumer society model, will it have "sold its soul" as the legendary Faust is purported to have done?

Indians don't seem to be asking these questions. Instead, what I hear many educated Indians say is this: “Sure India is changing rapidly and we have no idea what it will be like in 20 years. But we have no option, this is the only hope we have of taking care of our people.” Even if consumerism is the approach that India follows, which already seems to be the case, Indians ought to enter into it with a critical perspective that may help them avoid some of the negative outcomes, like those discussed in this series, that unquestioning American consumers now experience.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Consumerism in India: A Faustian Bargain? (Part 4 of 5)

In the last installment of the “Consumerism in India: A Faustian Bargain?” series, I concluded by suggesting that consumer capitalism, in order to maintain a constantly increasing rate of growth, reshapes or even breaks down existing cultural traditions. Without cultural traditions, from which people derive a sense of belonging, a sense of being loved, and ultimately their very sense of who they are, people turn to the consumer commodities of the marketplace to fulfill these needs.

Cultural change happens all the time. Historically, however, such changes come from the ground up. They emerge through people’s indidivual or collaborative efforts to solve the problems of everyday life. In a consumer society, cultural change happens largely from above. New cultural objects in a consumer society, the commodities that we consume in the marketplace, are produced by corporate executives who survey the market and attempt to “solve the problem” of how to make a profit. A new Maruti or the latest pair of Levis do not solve any problems of everyday life. If anything, they simply create new problems like planning for the maintenance and replacement of our newly purchased goods.
I ended the last installment in this series by proposing that Indians should be asking “What will the future India look like if change continues to be driven by a market orientation rooted in the culture of consumption?”

We in the West tend to assume that democracy and free markets are the solutions to the world’s problems. When a society embraces consumerism, so the assumption continues, its problems are solved for its people are finally doing well enough to have discretionary income to spend. India has democracy, it has free markets, and it is rapidly embracing consumerism. But is consumerism a good fit for India? What are the flaws with historical or present systems of provisioning of goods in Indian society? Are these flaws really overcome by the consumerist model of provisioning? And if so, do the new problems that the consumerist model brings outweigh the benefits gained by overcoming the problems with the old model? The following anecdotes are not intended to answer these questions, but rather to prompt further discussion about the questions.

Let me describe a few observations I have made about shopping in India that point to some potential obstacles to the development of a consumer society on an American scale.

Clearly India is working hard to make American-style consumerism take hold. Currently, however, except for the up-and-coming malls beginning to dot the landscapes around India’s major metros, shopping in India is largely a matter of visiting local markets with tiny shops, averaging only 500 square feet, and with pretty limited selection. In these venues, “browsing” in true consumerist style is definitely not facilitated nor generally practiced. Browsing is essential to a successful consumer society since it is through browsing that we make impulse purchases. If we purchase only that for which we perceive a need, then the consumer society becomes too dependent on marketing messages to convince consumers of a need for a product. Through browsing, however, we convince ourselves in ways that we perceive are free of the influence of advertising that we need or deserve something we had not previously intended to buy.

Street Retail in Ahmedabad's Night Market

I raise the possibility that consumerism may not be a good fit for Indian society because Indian retail models, many of which appear to be based on high employee-to-customer ratios, are simply not conducive to browsing. For example, in Bangalore one day, my wife and I decided to step into a toy store (the one on Brigade Rd. for those of you who are locals) with our two children—at the time aged 3 1/2 and almost 2. We were perplexed when we encountered a virtual wall of employees making it impossible to push one's way through the store. Employees actively discouraged our children from browsing by taking from them the toys they had picked up and placing them back on the shelves. My sense is that the high employee-to-customer ratio approach is based on a belief that the employee can best tell the consumer what he or she needs. Another example should illustrate what I mean.

Photo by flickr member "grande illusion"

Jewelry shopping in India is serious business, and given the cultural significance of gold, perhaps whatever I observed in jewelry stores is less an attempt to strive for American-style consumerism and more a function of unique cultural characteristics. Nevertheless, my observations are worth noting. As at the toy store, jewelry stores operate with a high employee-to-customer ratio. The customer is constantly tended to, whether providing a chair to sit in or a cup of tea to drink. But as with the tiny shops in a typical Indian market or bazaar, browsing is not possible. At the jewelry store, however, the reason has little to do with space and everything to do with the fact that over-attentive employees insist on bringing the products to the customer. In one case, my wife described to an employee the type of earring she wanted. The employee then proceeded to bring her styles of jewelry completely inconsistent with her expressed preference.

Another type of store that employs some of the same “overwhelm-the-customer-with-attention” techniques is what I suppose you could call the silk superstore, or textiles-only department store. Upon entering one such store, a chain in Kerala called Jayalakshmi, we were instantly bombarded with attention from at least 8 to 10 of the 30 or so employees working the main floor. We were instantly asked what we were looking for. In the practice of browsing, the consumer only knows what she or he is looking for after it is discovered. Discovering what one is looking for is challenging with an employee always at one’s heel. And if the customer has a purchase in mind, and shares this information with an employee, the employee then becomes the expert in determining what the customer wants.

House of Alukka's: A Major Kerala Jewelry Store Chain

Now, back to my point. These examples of what can best be described as awkward approaches to customer service are probably in some way an outgrowth of an attempt by India’s retail sector to woo the reluctant Indian consumer. In time, I am sure retail in India will develop new models that are conducive to more spontaneous consumerism. If so, then why is this a problem? Again, as I set out at the beginning of this entry, the problem has to do with the way that consumer capitalism forces the transformation of certain existing cultural traditions in the interest of expanding markets and constant growth. Top-down, market-driven change represents a homogenizing force. After a certain length of time, India will cease to look like India. Instead, it will look a lot more like American society.

Obviously Indians will still eat different foods, practice different religions, and speak different languages than Americans, and there will still be plenty of internal diversity (just as American society has racial, ethnic, and religious diversity). But all of the richness and diversity of India’s cultural traditions will be diminished. Rather than at the well or open-air market, Indians will find community at the mall or Wal-Mart, the way many Americans do. Americans lack a culture rooted in historical traditions based on religious, utilitarian, and other approaches to functioning in everyday life. Instead, our culture is rooted in the transience of fashions and fads manipulated by profit-seeking capitalists. The harder India tries to become a consumer society, the greater the likelihood that its culture will follow the same path.

Already, in the last ten to fifteen years, much of the richness of Indian culture has been diminished. Beautiful terra cotta vessels, once used throughout India to collect and transport water, have been largely replaced by brightly colored plastic vessels. Similarly, today one is hard pressed to find chai served in disposable and biodegradable terra cotta cups. Instead, train passengers receive their chai in plastic or paper cups. At a deeper level, as India’s rural regions become transformed by the forces of globalization, people are abandoning traditional handicrafts and other ways of life that evolved over thousands of years.

I realize that I am once again verging on a romantic and monolithic notion of Indian culture. I’ll take whatever criticisms come my way. But let me make it clear that I am not suggesting that India resist consumerism in order to preserve some quaint, idealized version of Indian culture. Instead, I’m trying to be provocative and to compel Indians to begin asking some difficult questions about what is most valued about India’s cultural heritage, about what is worth preserving, and about what parts of Indian culture are vital to what it means to be Indian, as diverse a set of meanings as that identity might hold.

In a way, these are some of the questions that Vroom, the character from One Night @ The Call Center who I discussed in the last installment of this series, was asking. Vroom is calling for India’s youth to question consumerism and to look inward for a more authentic sense of identity and source of meaning in life. I use the example of Vroom because his is likely a more credible, and definitely a more widely heard, voice than my own. In fact, some might argue that it is hypocritical for me, an American, to ask Indians to question consumerism’s hold on them. After all, Americans have long since embraced consumerism and accepted the commodified form of culture that comes with it. I would counter this critique by pointing out that in the U.S., except for the Native Americans who Anglo-Americans had largely obliterated by the early 20th century, there were no longstanding cultural traditions to protect. It was partly because of the lack of identity on the part of displaced British colonists that consumerism as a source of identity was able to take root in America.

The situation is fundamentally different in India. For Vroom, that India’s youth are embracing the consumer lifestyle is troubling because it is a lifestyle being sold to it by the same people who they are helping in the call centers. I think Vroom is contending that if the youth generation does not opt out of this lifestyle, they, as much as any multinational corporation or government economic policymaker, will be responsible for India’s failure to realize its real potential. In a broader sense, I think Vroom’s fear is that India, and India’s youth in particular, is becoming trapped in a consumerist lifestyle that once embraced cannot easily be abandoned.

In the final installment of this series, I will focus on the way in which American consumer culture creates a convenient bubble, within which the consumer is comfortably oblivious to the consequences of the consumer lifestyle. This is achieved, in part, by shipping off to other countries much of the dirty work—the resource and labor exploitation—involved in delivering to us our consumer goods. I’ll conclude the series by asking whether the same relationship will hold for India. Can India “ship off” the ugly dark side involved in the production of consumer goods so that its consumers can live in the same sort of denial as American consumers?

Monday, August 28, 2006

Another good use of blogging...

Don't worry, the fourth installment of "Consumerism in India: A Faustian Bargain?" is coming shortly. But since my last post I realized I forgot to mention another nice example of using blogging to give voice to the voiceless.

Over at randon-typing, Aneesh has posted a conversaton he had with what Americans would call a "gopher." (link to the English translation, though read the original post as well for some context). Only this was no intern getting coffee for a corporate executive. This gopher was a 12-year old boy working at a seat-cover shop (for those who haven't been to India, seat-cover shops, which supply replacement seats for the widely used motor bikes, are common in most cities).

There are very interesting similarities and differences between this boy's views and the autowallah that I discussed in the previous post. After the boy tells Aneesh a story about a classmate who has deliberately failed the fifth standard so that he can continue to get free meals from school, Aneesh tells him "Don't you do things like this. Study well and you'll get food automatically."

The boy replies: "One never gets food automatically, you have to work for it, no matter you study or not." Like the autowallah, this boy has developed a realist orientation to life borne out of his own experiences and first-hand observations.

On the other hand, the boy shows much greater optimism about the changes that "development" is bringing to his life and the lives of people in his colony. The autowallah, when asked whether all of the "India Shining" talk has changed anything for him, responded "Kya bakwaas, gharib aadmi gharib ho raha hai, aur aamir log aur aamir" (What bullshit, the poor get poorer and the rich get richer).

Here's how Aneesh's boy responded when asked "development, what does it mean?"

"it means, the coming of newer things to the city, the beautification of the city, people getting jobs. You know bhaiyya 4 people of my colony are employed by the service." Later the boy asks Aneesh if he has been to the new mall, about which the boy says:

"What a great place it is. The bijli ki sidhiyaan (the escalator) are fantastic. They take you up and bring you down, automatically. Mangal City (another mall) is useless, they only have the up escalator. It's like as if they want you to stay there forever, it's one-way."

I'm not going to try to find any deeper meaning in what these two first-hand accounts by people who do not currently, and likely will never, have a blog to spread their views tell us about economic development in India. They are important stories, and the world should hear more of them.

If anyone knows of others who are using the blogosphere this way, please let me know. I'd like to begin keeping a record of these types of accounts. Comment here or email me at zavestoski [at] gmail dot com.

Blogging at its best?

I'm interrupting the "Consumerism in India: A Faustian Bargain?" series because I came across a post today at a now defunct blog called Subehshaam that should be read widely. The post is titled "dekho sabse sasta wallah" (the cheapest one), and retells the story of an exchange between the blogger and an autowallah.

I think it's vital that bloggers remember that we're all talking to people similarly privileged (either by birth, hard work, or a combination of both). When we read debates about whether India's growing economy is or is not benefiting the millions of Indians living in poverty, the voices we never hear are those whose present conditions and future hopes we are debating. An example of such a debate can be found in Nitin's "Puncture Mishra" post at The Indian Economy Blog and the 46 comments that followed.

The blogger relating the conversation with the autowallah has helped remind us all how important it is that we hear not just each other, but also the voices of the autowallah's, and everyone else trying to make a living and make sense out of the changes India is going through.

The following part of the conversation, which began with the driver saying to the blogger "I have never understood why you all argue with us over 5-10 rupees," best illustrates my point:
Finally, I asked, "Uncle, aap yeh lecture har savaari ko dete hain, zyada paise lene ke liye ya mujhe hee diya hai?" (Do you give this lecture to all your customers to get more money, or just me?" He said, "Meri baat sirf haqeeqat hai, aap samjhne na ya samajhe." (My talk is only reality, regardless whether you understand it or not."
Do we understand his reality? And perhaps as important, is our talk, all our blogging, a meaningful reality?

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Consumerism in India: A Faustian Bargain? (Part 3 of 5)

Consumerism, Identity, and Resistance in India
In Parts 1 and 2 of this series, I defined consumer culture and then discussed some of the consequences of finding an identity within a consumer society that is characterized by a rapidly shifting, and therefore unstable, system of cultural meanings. But what does all of this have to do with India? The obvious answer is that inasmuch as India continues down the path of a consumer society, citizens in India will increasingly take on all of the problems with consumerism as a form of social organization that were discussed in Part 2.

In this installment, I want to explore whether there is any evidence of concern among Indians about the transition to a consumer culture. I think there is evidence, modest though it may be. To illustrate, let me turn to Chetan Bhagat's One Night @ The Call Center, a fictional book about six employees at Gurgaon call center. The book, which is a bestseller in India, is less about life working in a call center, and more a vehicle for the author to critique India's headlong rush into consumer capitalism. For a summary, see here. For blogger reviews, see here or here.

In the following passage, the characters are returning to their call center after an extended break at a nearby nightclub. Shyam, the main character who seems to be complacent with being a team leader at his call center with the potential to move up the call center hierarchy, is talking to Vroom, who continues to work in the call center despite having deep reservations about its effect on him and his generation:
At the corner of Sahara Mall we passed by a Pizza Hut. It was closed. Vroom went up and stood in front of it. I wondered if he had really gone crazy; was he expecting pizza at this time?
We stood near the entrance. On our right, there was a thirty-foot wide metal hoarding of a cola company. A top Bollywood actress held a drink bottle and looked at us with inviting eyes. Like a fizzy drink was all it took to seduce her into bed.
Vroom walked close to the actress’s face.

Photo by Flickr member "afterimagery"

‘What’s up dude?’ I said.
‘You see her?’ Vroom said, pointing to the actress.
I nodded.
‘There she is, looking at us like she is our best friend. Do you think she cares for us?’
‘I don’t know. She is a youth icon man,’ I shrugged my shoulders.
‘Yes, youth icon. This airhead chick is supposed to be our role model. Like she knows a fuck about life and gives a fuck about us. All she cares about is cash. She doesn’t care about you or me. She just wants you to buy this black piss,’ Vroom said, pointing to the cola bottle. (p. 211-212)
As a sociologist, I am interested in the reasons for this book’s popularity. The success of the author’s first book, Five-Point Someone, offers a partial explanation. Another explanation is that there is a message that resonates with readers at some level. Vroom is speaking for a segment of the population that is disillusioned with global capitalism’s promise that consumer culture is India’s economic salvation.

Photo by Flickr member "patangay"

Near the end of the book, Vroom speaks even more explicitly for his generation, the “youth generation:”
The government doesn’t care for anybody … Even that “youth special” channel, they don’t care either. They say youth because they want the damn Pizza Huts and Cokes and Pepsis of the world to come and give their ads to them. Ads that say if we spend our salary to have pizza and coke, we will be happy. Like young people don’t have a fucking brain. Tell us what crap to have and we’ll have it. (p. 213)
And then, in a speech aimed at saving the call center from lay-offs that Vroom and Shyam’s manager calls “rightsizing,” Vroom offers what could be considered a rallying cry for his generation:
My friends, I am angry. Because every day, I see some of the world’s strongest and smartest people in my country. I see all this potential, yet it is all getting wasted. An entire generation up all night, providing crutches for the white morons to run their lives. And then big companies come and convince us with their advertising to value crap we don’t need, do jobs we hate so that we can buy stuff—junk food, colored fizzy water, dumbass credit cards and overpriced shoes. They call it youth culture. Is this what they think youth is about? Two generations ago, the youth got this country free. Now that was something meaningful. But what happened after that? We have just been reduced to a high-spending demographic. The only youth power they care about is our spending power. (p. 253)
Vroom wants to know why his generation is up all night working in call centers and not hard at work building up India’s infrastructure, discovering alternative energy sources, reforming its government, or in other ways changing the country for the better. Instead they are stuck inside the call centers, working through the middle of the night, so that they can have enough money to buy the cultural commodities of the very people whose problems they are solving in their call center jobs. In a sense, Vroom seems to be asking "Will the embrace of consumerism have been worth it if in the process Indian’s lose a sense of what it means to be Indian?"

Photo by Flickr member "k1mk1m"

There are some very interesting parallels between Vroom’s speech to the youth generation at the end of One Night @ the Call Center, and Karan’s speech over the airwaves at the end of the top-grossing film "Rang De Basanti." In a future post, I’ll discuss the similarities between these two recent Indian pop culture phenomena, the most striking of which might be that both One Night @ the Call Center and "Rang De Basanti" received very strong, and very mixed, responses from readers/viewers. In both cases, it seems that people either hated or loved the book/film.

Now back to my point. Vroom’s concern has to do with the potential for the lure of consumer luxuries to stifle the talents and promise of an entire generation of Indians. For me—and I’ll admit I am merely someone with some training to understand social organization and social change who also happens to have lived in India for six months—the problem with consumer capitalism is the way in which it forces the transformation of certain existing cultural traditions in the interest of expanding markets to meet the system’s demand for constant growth.

I understand that this is sensitive terrain I am now treading. I certainly do not mean to romanticize India or its culture. Nor do I want to lump all Indians into one category. But there seems to be no denying that consumer capitalism is brining changes to India. Indeed, every Indian I spoke to about these matters admitted that India is experiencing rapid change. The changes will mean different things for different people, depending on who you are or where you fit into the cultural mosaic of India. Ultimately, every Indian should be asking “What will the future India look like if change continues to be driven by a market orientation rooted in the culture of consumption?”

I’ll offer one possible answer to this question in the next installment of “Consumerism in India: A Faustian Bargain?”

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