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 NiƱo 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?