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 55Âș 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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