Less Known Facts About Muslims in India

18 May

There are two main concerns about Indian Muslims. First, many fear that Indian Muslims are greatly behind other groups. The second, deeper concern relates to Muslim women. Many fear sex gaps to be much larger among Muslims than other groups. 

Let’s look at the facts.

  1. Education. The literacy rate of rural Muslim Indian women is a shade higher than that of rural Hindu women. Pair it with the fact that the sex gap in literacy across urban and rural among Hindus is greater than among Muslims. (Note also how pleasing the numbers are among Sikhs.)

Source: Wikipedia (via NSO).

2. HH Expenditure. The Muslim/Hindu household expenditure ratio across rural India is 110 (see here). After adjusting for household size, it drops to 97. In no state except Delhi (which has a tiny rural population) is the ratio ever lower than 83, and in 15 out of 22 states (this is still 2007), the Muslim/Hindu ratio is over 100. There is also significant regional variation. Muslims in rural Kerala have a higher average household expenditure than the mean household expenditure among rural Hindus in any state! The urban Muslim/Hindu expenditure ratios look starker, but the mean is 87. None of this accounts for the fact that Muslims are, on average, younger than Hindus. 

3. Infant Mortality. According to Vaclav Smil, “Infant mortality is an excellent proxy for a wide range of conditions including income, quality of housing, nutrition, education, and investment in health care.” Indian Muslims have long enjoyed an advantage over Hindus (see here and here).

4. Share of Population and TFR.

  • The share of Hindus as a percent of population declined by nearly 8% over the many decades. Compare that to India’s neighbors, especially East Pakistan/Bangladesh, but also Burma (see here).
  • One metric that is correlated with development is TFR. In the last 27 years, the TFR among Hindus has declined from 3.3 to 1.9, while among Muslims it has declined from 4.4 to 2.4 (see here).

Relative Status of Brahmins Across India in 1931

15 Apr

One of the common misunderstandings about caste in India is that the extent of Brahmin privilege is similar across India. One way we can investigate this is by examining literacy rates across castes. In the 1931 census, the Bombay region was a picture of Brahmin dominance, with the literacy rate of Brahmins 1.7x that of the next caste group (Lohana). In Madras, the dominance is less pronounced, with the literacy rates of Brahmins 1.25x that of the next caste group, Nayars. But if you move to Punjab, the pattern reverses, with Brahmins no longer the most literate caste. The Khatri literacy rate in Punjab is 1.7x that of Brahmins. (See also Bengal, where Brahmins were not the most literate caste.)

Punjab and Sind are also interesting for their small populations of Scheduled Castes, with just 4.5% of the population categorized as such compared to the average of about 14% (Appendix II of Ambedkar’s book on Pakistan). (This is thought to be partly a result of conversions to Sikhism and Islam.)

Political Macroeconomics

25 Dec

Look Ma, I Connected Some Dots!

In late 2019, in a lecture at the Watson Center at Brown University, Raghuram Rajan spoke about the challenges facing the Indian economy. While discussing the trends in growth in the Indian economy (I have linked to the relevant section in the video. see below for the relevant slide), Mr. Rajan notes:

“We were growing really fast before the great recession, and then 2009 was a year of very poor growth. We started climbing a little bit after it, but since then, since about 2012, we have had a steady upward movement in growth going back to the pre-2000, pre-financial crisis growth rates. And then since about mid-2016 (GS: a couple of years after Mr. Modi became the PM), we have seen a steady deceleration.”

Raghuram Rajan at the Watson Center at Brown in 2019 explaining the graph below

The statement is supported by the red lines that connect the deepest valleys with the highest peak, eagerly eliding over the enormous variation in between (see below).

See Something, Say Some Other Thing

Not to be left behind, Mr. Rajan’s interlocutor Mr. Subramanian shares the following slide about investment collapse. Note the title of the slide and then look at the actual slide. The title says that the investment (tallied by the black line) collapses in 2010 (before Mr. Modi became PM).


If you are looking to learn more about some of the common techniques people use to lie with charts, you can read How Charts Lie. (You can read my notes on the book here.)

No Shit! Open Defecation in India

20 Dec

On Oct. 2nd, 2019, on Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birthday, and just five years after the launch of the Swachh Bharat Campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared India ODF.

From https://sbm.gov.in/sbmdashboard/IHHL.aspx
Note the legend at the bottom. The same legend applies to the graphs in the gallery below.

The 2018-2019 Annual Sanitation Survey corroborates the progress:

From the 2018-19 National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey
From the 2018-19 National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey

Reducing open defecation matters because it can reduce child mortality and stunting. For instance, reducing open defecation to the levels among Muslims can increase the number of children surviving till the age of 5 by 1.7 percentage points. Coffey and Spears make the case that open defecation is the key reason why India is home to nearly a third of stunted children in the world. (See this paper as well.) (You can read my notes on Coffey and Spears’ book here. )

If the data are right, it is a commendable achievement, except that the data are not. As the National Statistical Office 2019 report, published just a month after the PM’s announcement, finds, only “71.3% of (rural) households [have] access to a toilet” (BBC). 

The situation in some states is considerably grimmer.

Like the infomercial where the deal only gets better, the news here only gets worse. For India to be ODF, people not only need to have access to the toilets but also need to use them. It is a key point that Coffey and Spears go to great lengths to explain. They report results from the SQUAT survey, which finds that of the households with latrines, 40% of the households have at least one person who defecates outside.

The government numbers stink. But don’t let the brazen number fudging take away from the actual accomplishment of building millions of toilets and a 20+ percentage point decline in open defecation in rural areas between 2009 and 2017 (based on WHO and Unicef data). (The WHO and Unicef data are corroborated by other sources including the 2018 r.i.c.e survey, which finds that “44% of rural people over two years old in rural Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh defecate in the open. This is an improvement: 70% of rural people in the 2014 survey defecated in the open.”)

Some Facts About Indian Polling Stations

27 Sep

Of the 748,584 polling stations for which we have self-reported data on building conditions, nearly 24% report having Internet. A similar number report having “Landline Telephone/Fax Connection.”

97.7% report having toilets for men and women.

2.6% report being in a “dilapidated or dangerous” building.

93.2% report having ramps for the disabled. 98.3% report having “proper road connectivity.” Nearly 4% report being located at a place where the “voters have to cross river/valley/ravine or natural obstacle to reach PS.”

92% of the polling stations are located in “Govt building/Premises.” And 11.4% are reportedly located in “an institution/religious place.”

8% report having a “political party office situated within 200 meters of PS premises.”

For underlying data and scripts, see here.

Missing Women on the Streets of Delhi

19 Nov

In 1990, Amartya Sen estimated that more than 100 million women were missing in South and West Asia, and China. His NYRB article shed light on sex-discrimination in parts of Asia, highlighting, among other things, pathologies like sex-selective abortion, biases in nutrition, healthcare, and schooling.

We aim to extend that line of inquiry, and shed light on the question: “How many women are missing from a public life?” In particular, we aim to answer how many women are missing from the streets.

To estimate ‘missing women,’ we need a baseline. While there are some plausible ‘taste-based’ reasons for the sex ratio on the streets to differ from 50-50, for the current analysis, I assume that in a gender equal society, roughly equal number of men and women are out on the streets. And I attribute any skew to real (and perceived) threat of molestation, violence, harassment, patriarchy (allowing wives, daughters, sisters to go out), discrimination in employment, and similar such things.

Note About Data and Measurement

Of all the people out on the street over the course of a typical day in Delhi, what proportion are women? To answer that, I devised what I thought was a pretty reasonable sampling plan, and a pretty clever data collection strategy see here. Essentially, we would send people at random street locations at random times and ask them to take photos at head height, and then crowd-source counting the total number of people in the picture and the total number of women in the picture.

The data we finally collected in this round bears little resemblance to the original data collection plan. As to why the data collection went off rails, we have nothing to share publicly for now. The map of the places from which we collect data though lays bare the problems.

Data, Scripts, and Analyses are posted here.


The data were collected between 2016-11-12 and 2017-01-11. And between roughly 10 am and 7 pm. In all, we collected nearly 1,958 photos from 196 locations. On average about 81.5% of the people on the street were men. The average proportion of men across various locations was 86.7% which suggests that somewhat busier places have somewhat more women.

Rape in India

16 Jun

According to crime reports, in India, rape is about 15 times less common than in the US. A variety of concerns apply. For one, the definition of rape varies considerably. But differences aren’t always in the expected direction. For instance, Indian Penal Code considers sex under the following circumstance as rape: “With her consent, when the man knows that he is not her husband, and that her consent is given because she believes that he is another man to whom she is or believes herself to be lawfully married.” In 2013, however, the definition of rape under the Indian Penal Code was updated to what is generally about par with the international definitions except for two major exceptions: the above clause, and more materially, the continued exclusion of marital rape. For two, there are genuine fears about rape being yet more severely underreported in India.

Evidence from Surveys
Given that rape is underreported, anonymous surveys of people are better indicators of prevalence of rape. In the US, comparing CDC National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey data to FBI crime reports suggests that only about 6.6% of rapes are reported. (Though see also, comparison to National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) which suggests that one of every three rapes are reported.) In India, according to Lancet (citing numbers from American Journal of Epidemiology (Web Table 4)), “1% of victims of sexual violence report the crime to the police.” Another article based on data from the 2005 National Family Health Survey (NFHS) finds that the corresponding figure for India is .7%. (One odd thing about the article that caught my eye — The proportion of marital rape reported ought to be zero given the Indian Penal Code doesn’t recognize marital rape. But perhaps reports can still be made.) This pegs the rate of rape in India at either about 60% of the rate in the US (if CDC numbers are more commensurable to NFHS numbers) or at about three times as much (if NCVS numbers are more commensurable to NFHS numbers).

The article based on NFHS data also estimates that nearly 98% of rapes are committed by husbands. This compares to 26% in US according to NCVS. So one startling finding is that risk of rape for unmarried women is startlingly low in India. Or chances of being raped as a married woman, astonishingly high. Data also show that rapes by husbands in India are especially unlikely to be reported. The low risk of rape for unmarried women may be a consequence of something equally abhorrent — fear of sexual harassment, or because of patriarchal attitudes at home, Indian women may be much less likely to be outdoors than men. (It would be good to quantify this.)

p.s. From a comparative perspective, it is important to keep in mind that in the West, especially the US, most commuting to work is by car, and one would want to adjust for time walking on the street to derive commensurate numbers for some quantities.

(No) Missing daughters of Indian Politicians

29 Jun

Indian politicians get a bad rap. They are thought to be corrupt, inept, and sexist. Here we check whether there is prima facie evidence for sex-selective abortion.

According to data on the Indian Government ‘Archive’, 15th Lok Sabha members (csv) had, in all, 696 sons and 666 daughters for a sex ratio of 957 females to 1000 males. Progeny of members from states with the most skewed sex ratios (Punjab, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, and Haryana) had a surprisingly healthy sex ratio of 1245 females to 1000 males. Sex ratios of children of BJP and INC members were 930/1000 and 965/1000 respectively. Rajya Sabha members (csv) had 271 sons and 272 daughters for a sex ratio of 1003 females to 1000 males. Not only was there little evidence of sex-selective abortion, data also suggest that fertility rates were modest. Lok Sabha members had on average 2.5 kids while members of Rajya Sabha had on average 2.2 kids.

Github repository.

p.s. In 2023, I redid the analysis with new official data from 12–17th LS. Results here.

Gandhi And His Critics

7 Mar

Gandhi could never come to terms with the fact that he took leave from his dying father to have sex with his wife; his father died while he copulated. This episode produced a lifelong obsession with overcoming sexual desire and sanitation (or so Freudians will claim). Unrelatedly, Gandhi had unconventional (even bad, for their time) ideas about some other important matters – he wasn’t a fan of industrialization. All this is well known.

Was Gandhi a hidden, if not manifest, Hindu nationalist with an upper caste agenda? None too careful ideological hobbyist historians like Arundhati Roy will have you believe that. Do they have a point? No.

There are a great many similarities between how Jinnah and Ambedkar argued their cases with Gandhi. Not much distinguishes how Gandhi responded to each, often refusing to agree to the ‘facts’ that motivated their arguments, and always disagreeing with the claim that there was just one solution (the solution they proposed) to the problem they had identified. Gandhi saw both these leaders as too infatuated with their solutions (Gandhi was a touch too infatuated with his own solutions). He thought their solutions were irresponsible, if not illogical. Gandhi saw both Jinnah and Ambedkar eye to eye on the problems (we have good evidence on that), but never on the solutions. Does it make him opposed to their aims? No. His aims were the same as theirs, if not more ambitious.

(Upper caste) Hindus are never going to change. Replace ‘upper caste Hindus’ with any other group and you have a fair gist of the dominant understanding of people of ‘other groups.’ No easier caricature of humanity than this. If you believe that, the solution is obvious. Kill or split. Order restored. Except often enough order isn’t. The legacy of hatred lives on. The oppressed mutate into oppressors of their ‘own’ kind. (Who is your own is something we don’t think about enough about, relying often on simple heuristics. Is Lalu Prasad Yadav a well-wisher of all Yadavs? I think not. The same goes for enemies.)

You need more courage to see the greater truth – that people so thoughtlessly cruel can just as easily become defenders of enlightened ‘common sense’, that certain truths can be understood by people and that many will (and do) happily sacrifice their material advantage once they understand those facts. You also need courage to work from this greater truth. Creating change in people isn’t easy. Quite the opposite. But over the long run, it is perhaps the only solution.

But then, a lot of change (both positive and negative) has come incidentally, not as a result of conscious programs. Demographics along with particular democratic institutions in India have increased the political power of the lower castes (though like everybody, they haven’t always used it wisely). And economic liberalization, brought upon for different reasons, may have done more to erase caste boundaries than many other conscious attempts.

The Worry About Anna (Hazare)

29 Aug

The following piece is in response to Arundhati Roy’s opinion published in The Hindu.

That Anna’s proposal for Lokpal is deeply flawed is inarguable. Whether Anna is also a bigoted RSS sympathizer, if not their agent, propelled by foreign money, as Roy would have us believe, is more in doubt. Since the debate about the latter point is rendered moot by the overwhelming support that Anna seems to enjoy, I focus on some important, though very well-tread and long understood, questions around corruption raised by Roy in her polemical screed.

Corruption is ubiquitous in India. Ration shops (considerable adulteration, the skim sold off), government employment schemes (ghost employees), admission to government schools (bribes must be paid to the principal), allocation of telecom and mining licenses (bribes paid for getting licenses for cheaper than what a fair auction would fetch), ultrasound clinics providing prenatal gender identification (bribes paid to police to keep these running) etc. are but a few examples of this widespread practice.

That corruption has serious negative consequences is also not in doubt. The poor get lower quality produce, if anything at all, as a result of corruption in ration shops. Inadequate public goods (e.g. canals) result from public’s money, and some intended beneficiaries denied the benefit, as a result of ghost employees in government employment schemes. Sex-selective abortions result from continued operation of prenatal ultrasound clinics. And a considerable loss in government revenue (which can be used to provide public goods) results from corruption in granting of licenses.

On occasion, corruption may increase the welfare of those most in need. For example, if some laws are arrayed against the poor, and if the poor can pay a nominal bribe to circumvent the law, corruption may benefit the poor. The overall impact of corruption on the poor is still likely to be heavily negative, if only because the loss to the public exchequer via the widely suspected significantly greater corruption among the rich is expected to be far greater. There also exists some empirical evidence to support the claim that corruption causes poverty (Gupta et al., 2002). However, an argument can be made to not enforce anti-corruption laws in some spheres, if successful attempts to amend the law that warrants circumvention can’t be mounted.

In all, the case for reducing corruption is strong. However, schemes of solving corruption by creating a bureaucracy to go after the corrupt may be upended by bureaucrats going rogue. Stories of the almost limitless power of a ‘Vigilance Commissioner’ to harass and extort are almost legend.

“Who shall mind the minders?” is one of the central questions in institutional design. The traditional solution to the problem has been to institute a system of checks and balances to supplement accountability via “free and fair” elections (which themselves need a functioning institutional framework). The system only works within limits, through innovative institutional designs to solve the problem can be thought off. The only other fruitful direction for reducing corruption has been to increase transparency (via RTI, post-facto disclosures of all bids in an auction, etc.), and via increased automation (cutting out the middlemen, keeping bids blind from the committee so as to prevent certain kinds of collusion, etc.) — something the government is slowly and unevenly (depending on vested interests) working towards.

Corruption in enforcement is harder to tackle. Agents sent to enforce pollution laws have been known to extort from factory owners by threatening them with falsely implicating them with deliberately adulterated samples. There automating testing, and scrambling identity of the source during analysis, may prove useful.


Gupta, Sanjeev, Hamid Davoodi and Rosa Alonso-Terme. 2002. Does corruption affect income inequality and poverty? Economics of Governance. 3: 23–45

Learning about Delhi: A Second Look at The Delhi Walla

3 Sep

In Delhi, one is surrounded by history, but oblivious of it.

Worn stone and brick arches with peeling MCD plaster, whitewashed either white or the color of basic clay pots, soot-blackened and carrying crudely carved avocations of love, appear suddenly across noisy traffic-filled roads but don’t jolt one into a reverie about the world that once was. Overgrown crumbling fragments of monuments in roundabouts seem disconnected and undistinguished.

Part of the obliviousness to culture stems from the fact that Delhi is a city of immigrants, as William Dalrymple states somewhere. Immigrants not only lack that generational connection that people have to a city’s monuments, but they are often also committed to establishing their own culture than embracing what was there before. And then many of those who came in after partition, living in tents for years, found themselves too busy with necessities of life and subsequently establishing and reinforcing their own (financial) roots. A countless number of poor laborers, middle-class professionals, alike, who have immigrated to Delhi since then, share the same drive, and the same blindness to history around them.

The city is a backdrop of the daily hustle to carve out a living. Monuments are either to be ignored or to be forcefully enjoyed, loud praise barely enough at hiding disappointment. These forlorn palaces, forts, and landmarks, eviscerated remorselessly of their jewels and glory by the British and Indians alike, uncared for by poorly funded and corrupt ASI, need a somberness of mood and mind, a willingness to step back and fill in the melancholy silences evoked by neglect, and commonness. These monuments need time and care.

The Delhi Walla attempts to capture these moments, more than the monuments. He often partially succeeds. His achievement, however, is greater than the sum of its parts. In a slow progression of hasty glimpses, he seems to be instilling in us the ability to look, and to look past the deficiencies, into the past, and into ourselves.

From worn monuments to worn out people, The Delhi Walla redeems. In a society so split by class, “Mission Delhi,” perhaps gives many a new capacity to look at each other as human beings.

Given the achievement, it is all the more galling that many a time the writing on The Delhi Walla is forgettable – words are ill-chosen, thoughts left marooned in a grammarless sea, and glimpses of wit and style never nourished to full health. This isn’t calumny but fact. And it is as much our loss as his that the writer doesn’t have the time. Good writing above all needs time; time allows for reflection about what we want to convey and how.

While The Delhi Walla wouldn’t have come about without its author, some of the interest in Delhi’s history and culture is a result of sociological forces gathering pace in a post-liberalization India. The Delhi Walla has found an audience in the expatriates, some of the “youth” who finally have the time and money and nouveau middle-class energies and sensibilities bred partly on Western media, to seek higher culture than saas-bahu dramas, and more generally a people beginning to create and form identities, less based on family than on cultural consumption, which are so essential to modern capitalism. Culture is being commoditized finally, by Indians. This in itself is a welcome relief from genuine doubts about whether we had a culture to speak of.

Understanding Delhi and the Delhi Walla

8 Jan

The article was written for The Delhi Walla

The Delhi Walla is a journalist’s blog, albeit without the drama and urgency with which journalism and journalists are often associated with today. The writing on the blog represents that prior tradition among journalists which was about subtle observation, gentle humor, as evinced in journalists’ travelogues, and in shows like BBC’s “From our own correspondent.”

The blog is a significant achievement. More so because reporting on cities is generally skillfully and purposefully bankrupt, formulaic and inane, an orgy of crummy descriptions of pointless people, and events, and soulless corporate jingles about places to eat, and entertain, infested almost always with a touch too colorful poorly shot photos.

With an eclectic choice of topics, a choice that is many a times dictated by the city rather than by an urge to puppeteer description in grips of pincers of prejudice, with gentle and subtle humor, Mayank shines a weak but almost always pleasant humanistic light on the myriad facets of Delhi, and the occupations, preoccupations, habits, of its residents. The wonderful aspect of the blog is that it catalogs ‘real life,’ an all too absent commodity in newspapers, be it then a story about the need to find a second home in a city with cramped homes that provide all too little privacy, the rather oddly structured stories on colonies (as they are called in Delhi), or the succession of charming articles on bookstores, and their proprietors. Perhaps seen hence, it is a writer’s blog. And that is probably a more accurate description of the sensibility of the blog, and the author, and explains the void comparisons to newspapers that I make above.

One can try to understand things of interest by disinterring things, breaking them apart skillfully, through analysis and connecting those parts into an explanation or simply description conjoined by some connective tissue. It is a bit like looking at white light through a prism, with colored rainbow being the distillate. Of course, more often we just describe a part of one color, and the rest is at best in the penumbra. Analysis is generally purposive and demands specificity. It struggles to contain, and cast, and organize, and too often the aim is to achieve that aha! moment. For all these reasons, the enterprise is often fraught with problems of myopia, and of force.

Another feature of the analytical method is the method of writing – it is writing through contestation. For example, the account that I provide here is often times a ‘negative’ account — describing what this blog isn’t, rather than simply focusing on what it is. The method may be insightful if the analysis has legs, but it is seldom enjoyable.

The Delhi Walla chooses differently; he observes, describes, narrates, engages in reverie, and gently analyzes. He does it with great modesty and some charm. His method of understanding isn’t analytic introspection, but subtle observation that produces that warm flush of vague but liberalist accepting, even embracing, empathy, and exultation in the shared existence. It is akin to the understanding and exultation one feels while standing on the roof of the house on a pleasant summer evening, and looking over the gullis and Mohalla.

Delhi is an easy city to caricature. It is bleak, dirty, loud, and crowded. And it is certainly all that. But the reality is simultaneously substantially more mundane and textured. Likewise, people sometimes mistakenly make the inferential leap from bleak surroundings to bleak lives; all too often bleak surroundings are peripheral to the fuller psychological lives lived among acquaintances, friends, relations, and more.

Delhi is a city that carries the hopes and aspirations of people living in it, the location of deaths, marriages, jobs, cars, monuments, history, politics, money, and more. One can take respite, if so is needed, in the beauty of some of its monuments, sometimes in just its familiarity, in its traditions and landmarks, even in its oppressive heat, as Mayank occasionally does, food, conversation, and intimacy of friends and family, among other things.

The Delhi Walla
The Delhi Walla is an eclectic account of Delhi. It is an ode to the passions of Delhi Walla — the Muslim heritage of Delhi, books, Arundhati Roy, and gay life in the city. It is an account of his questions, and more interestingly a live account of an unfailingly interesting life.

Did India’s Economic Miracle Begin in 1980? Why?

19 Nov

Two recent papers (and many previous ones)—From the Hindu Rate of Growth to the Hindu Rate of Reform and From ‘Hindu Growth’ to productivity surge: the mystery of Indian growth transition—present evidence that India’s growth accelerated starting 1979, and not, as is often noted, post-1991. The papers go on to conjecture about possible causes for the same including the green revolution, internal liberalization, etc.

Rodrik and Subramanian posit “that the trigger for India’s economic growth was an attitudinal shift on the part of the national government in 1980 in favor of private business. The rhetoric of the reigning Congress Party until that time had been all about socialism and pro-poor policies. When Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, she re-aligned herself politically with the organized private sector and dropped her previous rhetoric. The national government’s attitude towards business went from being outright hostile to supportive. Indira’s switch was further reinforced, in a more explicit manner, by Rajiv Gandhi following his rise to power in 1984.”

The same point is made, albeit in a different language, by Atul Kohli, Professor of Economics at Princeton.

Evidence of Growth in GDP in the 80s:

Average decennial growth rates across countries and regions
Average decennial growth rates across countries and regions

One can easily surmise from the graph that the growth rates in the 1990s (2.5) were twice that of what it was in the 80s. However, the growth in the 80s, compared to past 20 years was again significantly higher.

India's GDP between 1960 and 2007

India's GDP growth rates between 1960 and 2007

India's per capita GNI (PPP adjusted) between 1960 and 2007

In the Middle of Nowhere

12 Sep

Given that wealth is hard to measure, the middle class has often been defined in terms of income. Gary Burtless defines it as families earning anywhere between half of median income ($24,000) to twice as much ($96,000). Frank Levy, based on Census data for families in their prime earning years, pegs that range between $30,000 and $90,000. This seems much too wide a ‘middle’ to be meaningful. These incomes likely reflect very different lifestyles and options. But the definition is slippier still. The World Bank defines the middle class as people making between $10 and $20 a day — adjusted for local prices — which is roughly the range of average incomes between Brazil ($10) and Italy ($20).

The middle-class has been described as a rentier class with no social basis but one with a specific function. Benefits are distributed asymmetrically in a Capitalist system, with the top .01% gaining significantly more than the next .09%, who in turn gain significantly more than the next 1%, and so on. This pyramid is held in place by the inclusive meritocratic rhetoric, and by the aspirants (middle class) in whose hands success seems the nearest. More broadly, each economic system has a legitimizing (sense-making) discourse for its winners and losers, and in Capitalism — it is the inclusive, achievable, democratic discourse about merit and hard work. The successful are caught in the need for ascribing their success to their own ingenuity and hard work.

The moralism of middle class can be better understood if we look to its historical roots in Victorian England. One of the defining features of the middle-class in the Victorian era was its extreme moralism — railing against the corrupt degenerate aristocracy, and the equally corrupt breeding-like-rabbits poor — and trying to define meritocracy as the only ethical framework. Hence meritocracy has become the defining ethos of the society — inclusive yet elusive — inclusive enough to keep the bottom salivating, and yet elusive enough to keep it nearly always out of reach of the lower classes.

Media and the Middle Class: Example of India

The timing of India’s liberalization was fortuitous in a way – especially as we trace the story of the ascent of the middle class in the past decade – as it coincided with the advent of transnational satellite broadcasting in Asia. In 1991, Hong Kong-based (Murdoch owned) Star TV started broadcasting to several Asian countries from a clutch of transponders aboard Asiasat 1. Its mainstay was recycled American programming. Star TV found instant reception due to Gulf War which had revolutionized cable. The satellite dishes/and cable/ operators showed images from gulf war and then showed Hindi movies at the end of the war. Overnight, video parlor owners changed to cable operators offering Star TV’s five channels — including BBC and MTV. BBC was later dropped.

The government took a lax view of the mushrooming illegal cable industry and didn’t take steps to regularize it until 1995, and even then enforcement was lax, if not non-existent. The rise of cable was significant in shaping the middle class, and how it chose to see itself – at once liberal, and aware of global trends in fashion and entertainment.

But if it were not for further liberalization of media, and the new generation that took reigns of that media – the story may still have been different.

The narrative around media’s role in the construction of the new middle class is more completely understood if we move beyond analyzing the product or the stated strategic intentions of the actors, and instead look at the people running media today.

Till the early nineties, the only game town used to be the state media. Even the newspapers trod lightly, if progressively, under threat of government boycott of ads. The dominant ethos in reporting and programming on the state media were the liberalist bureaucratic ethos and on radio dominated by people likely to be friends with university professors. Doordarshan ran public service ads, and social cohesion promoting dramas.

This all changed, first with the introduction of cable, which initially featured foreign channels carrying a sprinkling of preppy foreign-bred hyphenated Indians, and then with the rise of native media led by clawing young brigade. The recruits to the media industry – young, turgid with ambition, aiming to please, and imbibed in business ethos- were key in hastening the spread of middle-class discourse. A similar process is underway in American journalism with a shift in technology necessitating a significant generational shift. It is patently clear reading Times of India with its Leisure sections (something which was started by Washington Post Style Section in the 1980s) that newspaper today looks like a vastly different animal than a decade and a half ago. One can argue that some of the change in media was a result of the change in economy, and not a cause of some of the changes but the alacrity with which media changed, the speed with which it contorted, and the multiple places in which it behaved as the vanguard speaks of fundamental change in ethos that could only have happened with the active participation of the eager to be indoctrinated/ or already indoctrinated.

A Walk Down the Memory Lane: Connaught Place

14 Jul

The romance of a Delhi summer can be savored by conjuring up just one image: the vast, cool corridors of Connaught Place.

The Raj-era building, built between 1928 and 1934 though formally opened in 1931, was based on the designs of World War I veteran Robert Tor Russell, Chief Architect to the Public Works Department. Russell had worked in India before the War as an assistant to the famous John Begg, who along with George Wittet is generally credited with developing the Indo-Saracenic style. Thankfully, due to exigency or choice, none of Begg’s influence invaded Russell’s design aesthetic, which was dominated by the understated yet stately stucco neo-classical style popularized by Sir Edwin Lutyens. Russell’s aesthetic, however, did carry distinct echoes of Italian architecture- The opulent gracefully executed Tuscan loggias on both on both levels (the upper-level structures have been increasingly converted into offices) being the defining features of Connaught Place.

Growing up in the eighties, Connaught Place, with its massive arcaded colonnades, circular columnar geometry which was never oppressive, upscale if slightly frumpy shops, as opposed to upscale shops now which have interior designs that are almost always preternaturally youthful, with humming air conditioners, when air conditioners were a rarity, was a source of wonder and awe. It was also the only place where one saw foreigners in Delhi. They, almost always in their sunglasses and shorts, walking unhurriedly yet purposefully.

Going to Connaught Place meant going through India Gate and parts of Lutyens Delhi. As we neared India gate, the temperature dropped a few degrees as bus gathered pace and air shed its molten edge in the leafy embrace of trees, and over the grassy expanse of the maidans. Suddenly the furrowed brow of the bus passengers relaxed as we entered the non-gridlocked, beautiful, stately, tree-lined Delhi, and a near bonhomie was restored.

Getting down at Barakhamba Road, I remember always taking a few seconds to take in the faint yet pleasant excitement of being in this glorious commercial hub, feeling happy, and almost dreamily becoming aware of the pleasant rush of traffic and how the car horns sounded different — more sonorous, here. However, the two things that I remember most about going to Connaught Place are the shoe shops and Nirula’s. If mom wanted a sandal, it had to be from the Liberty shop in Connaught Place, and the Bata shop there was considered absolutely irreplaceable for men’s shoes. The air-conditioned Nirula’s with its exotic pizzas, which never tasted good but were ravenously consumed, and burgers, and ice-creams was heaven, albeit a heaven in which the feet and heart were as timorous as excitement complete.

On the way back home at night, happy with the day, the relatively empty bus with its dull yellow light seemed positively romantic. As we passed the ice-cream wallahs with their fluorescent lights covered in colored cellophane, and the strolling families, near India gate, the adventure was complete.

Akshardham: A Spiritual Theme Park

26 Oct

The huge red sandstone and marble monument, visible from the nearby highway, stands alone, proud, and out of place.

The local road abutting the walled complex has a few informal ‘checkpoints’ where men in plain clothes check cars. As our Maruti Zen lurches into the ‘complex’, the true enormity of the ‘operation’ – the beehive of activity that keeps this place running – becomes clear. The complex employs at least a few hundred people (almost all men), mostly young, eager, full of self-importance, and too prone to giving directions where none are necessary. The job of frisking visitors, shepherding them through metal detectors, collecting parking tickets, maintaining order, among other things, at this massive complex clearly leaves the workers flush with tepid excitement akin to what one feels when one stands in the back lines of a violent mob.

Swaminarayan Akshardham temple complex in Delhi is a large red sandstone-and-white marble structure built on a 100-acre plot on the Yamuna riverbed, opposite the disintegrating dingy hovels and narrow lanes of Pandav Nagar. The prodigiously carved temple, which took about five years to build and reportedly employed over 7,000 artisans during its construction, cost around Rs 2 billion (or about $50 million).

The construction of this gargantuan complex right on the dried up riverbed attracted the ire of environmentalists concerned about its impact on the river’s future sustainability. Their protests seemed a bit misplaced given that the Yamuna is not more than a sickly nallah, and isn’t expected to do much better in the future. However, it is widely believed amongst the knowledgeable elite that construction of the temple, as the first building on the riverbed, was a master move by babus at the Delhi Development Authority interested in opening up the riverbed for commercial development. Being a temple, the structure will never be torn down, and under the aegis, corporate developers can furnish claims for future development. The plan seems to have borne fruit with a Commonwealth Village for Commonwealth games scheduled in 2010 scheduled to come up next to the temple complex in the very near future.

The temple is run by the Swami Narayan trust or more precisely, the Bochasanvasi Aksharpurushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS). The current leader of the group, Pramukh Swami Maharaj (which roughly translates to ‘leader’ ‘saint’ ‘king’ respectively), is credited with inspiration for the temple. Apparently, the guru had a vision in which he saw a temple near the banks of Yamuna, an erstwhile preserve of Mughal monuments, and voila in a few years, the dream was realized. A useful biography of this great man can be conveniently found on the web.

The complex, featuring a Disneyland kind 12-minute boat ride to allow visitors to sail through displays of Indian culture, and a large food court serving everything from Burgers (vegetarian) to Dosas, takes its name from the Akshardham temple in Gujarat’s capital, Gandhinagar. The temple in Gujarat was the site of a deadly bomb attack and hostage drama in 2002. Given the history, the temple in Delhi features extraordinary security measures – people are barred from taking in any electronic equipment, they are frisked thoroughly, and even asked to open up their wallets for inspection (strictly inspection, fortunately).

The Swaminarayan temple complex is a strange mix of architectural styles, ranging from Deccan to Mughal to Mewari. The intricately carved marble interiors are reminiscent of opulent Mughal tombs and palaces, the main building’s red sandstone facade seems to pay ode to Deccan style temples (most prominently Meenakshi temple in its ostentatious carving), while the boundary wall and supporting structure seem to be inspired by a mixture of Mewari and Mughal styles. Walking on the tiled pathways perpendicularly crossing its wide lawns (reminiscent of Mughal garden layout), dotted with garish faux roman (painted cast iron with paint starting to peel) sculptures narrating major Hindu allegories, and showcasing prominent Hindu mythological figures, I still vividly remember catching myself staring at a boundary wall that seemed deceptively similar to Red Fort’s. Similarities to Mughal architecture aren’t that surprising given that Mughal architecture itself borrows heavily from (Hindu) architecture in Rajasthan during the 16th century, but the effect is ironic indeed.

The temple exteriors seem to have been carved to inspire awe rather than convey a more aesthetic sense of beauty. The impulse to impress is most clearly seen inside the carved white marble interior sanctum, generally the most unadorned place in a Hindu temple – in line with the philosophy that devotees symbolically leave the world behind at the sanctum and enter a distraction-free meditative space. The effect of all the embellishment seems strangely contrived, much like that of sets from religious mythological shows on television.

More pointedly, as a monument to both Hindu pride and ‘Shining India’, it is appropriately both a religious monument and a theme park. Hindu pride stares at emptily from the narrative sculptural montages, the embellished shell, and the self-satisfied awed masses that congregate here while ‘Shining India’ gleams in its insipidity in the food court, in the boat ride, in the musical fountains, and in the multimedia museum devoted to Hindu mythology catastrophically crossed with Indian history. But then it is mere natural progression from gaudy television dramas based on religious epics to gaudy monuments inspired by the same mythological television dramas. It is a mere natural downward progression – to be precise- towards a not-so-unique blend of pride, philistinism, money, religious fervor, and entertainment.

Bemoaning Delhi

6 Oct

Delhi doesn’t look like anything. It is amorphous, and as misshapen as only third world cities can be. It is but a mass of hutments, box-like houses built to occupy every available inch of space (and a couple more created by bribery) crammed together across narrow lanes interspersed by indifferent wide diseased roads full of traffic and nauseous fumes, covered in brownish dust that suffuses the air, with a deathly sun beating over it.

People live in this place—a lot of them. But the city was not created for them. Instead, people have wrested savagely whatever little piece they can. And the combined savagery of poverty and corrupt government has created this tired undifferentiated mass of bricks, tar, garbage, and people.

It is as if the houses have come up, lanes been laid, roads built, with no thought, or care except the most pressing, the most basic one—to survive. To talk of architecture is a presumption, and to talk about the city’s “character” an even more absurd pretension still. It is weird to see Delhi through Western eyes, even their pictures of poverty with cute children with distended bellies due to malnutrition are exotic. There is nothing exotic about Delhi. There is no mystery that is lurking beneath its hutments, or its Nirulas, or behind the empty eyes of its ‘upwardly mobile’ middle class. Not that the brand conscious or the carefully brand weary middle class in West has something to boast about. But leave the pretensions home.

Delhi is there. People are living, driving, pissing on the disintegrating walls plastered with tattered posters that line some of its streets, fucking in their bedrooms, and coming out blank-eyed in the morning from their cells. It is a city of elbows and impatience. It is a city full of people bent upon joylessly eating, and consuming, to fill that enormous chasm that opens up when you live such warped lives. It is a city of broken men, and women – with distended pot-bellies, cracked hands, and tired disfigured faces. And no – they don’t want your fucking sympathy, or even your ‘understanding’ for there is nothing to understand, they exist only to dig up another day from the bowels of another sleepless night.

There is no redemption in Delhi, even for the rich. Why should there be? Rich can hide in air-conditioned cocoons but must give in and sadistically abuse their servants, generally young boys 10-12 years old – if the nimbupani isn’t cold enough.

Since the north excels in aborting female fetuses, and ‘protective’ attitudes towards women by their parents, and predatory attitudes towards them by young males stifle their movement, you only see hordes of young men on the road. Since there is little impetus to implement child labor laws, kids sell – sometimes surprisingly high-end books to people who will never read them but will talk about them– at red lights.

Delhi, as Dalrymple points out during one of his sane moments in the largely delusional novel dedicated to the city ‘City of Djinns’, is a refugee city. Delhi, until the economic reforms of the mid-90s, was defined by two things: entrepreneurial Punjabi refugees who came after partition and built their lives piece by piece, and the largish babudom. Post ’95, it increasingly became a grotto for the myriad poor – predominantly from North India, and simultaneously an embodiment of Delhi government’s aspirations, and the rich Indians’ aspirations, both mediated by the reality of poverty, corruption, philistinism, and greed. Both aspirations fed each other, as they still do, to sap soul out of the city – leeching the richer neighborhoods of languorous bungalows shaded by Gulmohar trees, and with walls draped by Bougainvilleas – carefully replacing them with multi-storied boxes, replacing town roads with enormous highways to accommodate the rapidly multiplying cars, and tearing down some of the poor localities and eviscerating small businesses based on their ‘unauthorized’ status. Whatever vestiges of culture Delhi clung on to were preyed upon and consumed during the last decade or so as Delhi grew one enormous housing project – endless grid-like arrays of shabby quality 4-5 story flats- after another. The taps dried as water shortage became acuter, and now aunties in ‘good’ neighborhoods rejoice if they get water for three hours every day. The sad part is that Delhi is the capital city and boasts of some of the best infrastructure that the country has to offer. There may be some joy still. The umbra of carnage wreaked over the past decade may still yield to the faint light of the globalized penumbra. After all, McDonald’s is here and Ronald, the jovial and orange clown, seems inclined to show us the way to perennial peace and civilization.

Shining India: The Marvel of Marble

26 Sep

The Singapore Airlines flight SQ 408 landed at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi at 8:45pm, a full 15 minutes ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, there was no gate available to greet the early arrival. After waiting for about 15 minutes, a gate was found and the weary passengers started “deplaning” into a stale-aired tunnel devoid of any air conditioning.

Passing through it, we reached a smallish marble-floored concourse also devoid of functioning air-conditioning. India is perhaps one of the few nations in the world where the government spends, what is undoubtedly an exorbitant amount of money to cover the floor with marble, and then leaves the air-conditioning unplugged. Marble in my memory is inextricably linked to the beautiful elegant toy-like tomb of Arjumand Banu Begum, better known as Mumtaz Mahal, and the marble floors that line the homes of the nouveau rich in Delhi. The concourse of Indira Gandhi Airport is also one such tomb – a tomb to India’s bureaucracy, the babudom (a pejorative term used to describe Indian bureaucracy) whose dried pan spittle adorns the lower extremities of the walls, and higher areas of corners, and one such hanging statement about clueless money.

I was soon making my way through the staircase to a smallish area that had the immigration counters, as passengers from another flight – this time from Malaysia as my surreptitious sideways glances at people’s passports and immigration forms later revealed – poured in. The area became crowded as people flowed over on to the staircase.

I belong to a class of people who are unable, or perhaps unwilling, most of the times to be assertive. So the waves of people pushed me back to my due spot- near the end of the line. In the interim melee, a man in his mid-30s behind me called out to his wife, ‘Arrey issey main dekhta hoon tum jaldi say line mein jaa kar lago (I will look out for him – the kid – you go hurry up and stand in the line). The passengers though were generally quiet and undemanding showing a detachment that only comes from having lived in plush comforting environments for some time, or when you are a young ‘foreign tourist’ and all ‘this’ is part of being in a new country. Of course, the fact that all of the Indian (expatriates or natives) passengers, a majority of the total passengers, belong to the super elite for whom pretending patience in front of fellow elites is important and also helps keep the verbalizing of resentment to a minimum.

The other airplane that had come from Malaysia was full of Muslims in full regalia—skull caps, flowing robes, and slippers. The foreigners in our line wondered. I wondered too.

In due time, my number came and I handed over my passport to the clearly overworked and unsmiling man across the counter; the job is perhaps lowly and the government babu (pejorative term used to describe Indian bureaucrats) at the counter looked impoverished – he had a noticeably dirty collar, the shirt was yellowing and worn, and his tie was little askew. He stared briefly and stamped.

Then came the robust baggage trolleys – not the dainty ones that I saw in Hong Kong – on which I plunked my suitcases, which came slowly and sullenly over the conveyor belt looking worn and maltreated. And I was off into the dusty crowded outside, and into the hands of my parents.

Bijli, Sadak, Makaan: Art at the Crossroads of Infrastructure and Culture

25 Jun

The questions that Ashok Sukumaran asks of us are to the say the least, unusual. The way he asks them is more unusual still. Yet these are questions are uniquely applicable to India – especially an India that is in throes of globalization, and a technological revolution. Mr. Sukumaran through his art asks us to question the meaning of public and public space, the adequacy of current communication media, the meaning of being digital, and the role of art and the artist in helping pose and answer these questions.
Mr. Sukumaran is foremost an astute and nimble observer. He is also a precocious talent and an incisive questioner. He doesn’t practice art that is produced and hung in galleries and for the intellectual consumption of the cultural elites, who consume art for the singular purpose of negotiating their social and cultural status.

Mr. Sukumaran practices media art. In other words, he doesn’t limit himself to a medium; he uses whatever is necessary to convey a point or understand an idea. And often this means going outside museum or gallery spaces and on to the city street to answer (or pose) questions that can only be understood in the public realm.

In this recent recurrencies project, Mr. Sukumaran explores, via reconfigurations of urban electricity, “new and old ideas of equitability, exchange, pleasure, negotiation, and sociability.” In the installation, 14th-road: where we live, “a remote switch hangs from a tree across the road from [the artist’s] apartment, connected to the lights in [their] balcony”. Mr. Sukumaran uses this setup to see how public infers what this is, what is allowed and what isn’t. People who flick the switch, as the notes alongside reveal, are wary of the claims that artists make about ‘redistributing connections’; they ask questions about how the apparatus works, how much it costs, call to see if there is a “secret meaning” etc.

It is interesting to see how the social structures and expectations become exposed as the days progress. We get to see certain ‘street level epistemologies’ of meaning, authority, social relationships, and technology. When I asked Mr. Sukumaran whether he was concerned about the fact that some of his pieces had become public spectacles, he said no. In fact, he said, spectacle – mingled with the anxieties, expectations of authority, etc. that it invokes – is sometimes the perfect mechanism to explore the relationship between society and authority.

“Infrastructure is culture,” says Ashok Sukumaran while explaining how access to infrastructure comes to define what is possible within a society. There are two particular facets to how we can understand the impact of infrastructure – firstly society rations access to infrastructure in a way that is largely commensurate with its existing hierarchies and priorities, and secondly and more importantly infrastructure– be it electricity or telephone or the Internet – tampers with the existing social hierarchies, and creates its own. Infrastructure comes with its own command economies – be it the petty government Babu or the humble Chowkidar – society installs gatekeepers or gatekeepers emerge as society lays down mechanisms for distributing infrastructure. Infrastructure also signals what is permitted and what isn’t. It thus sets up norms of behavior and social conduct. There are a host of questions that Mr. Sukumaran brings to the table around this issues – how do we react when the norms are broken? Who creates these norms? How are these norms institutionalized and then propagated and socialized? What are the power structures that underpin these norms? How is infrastructure and access to it understood on the street – by the doodhwalla and the fruit juice operator and the Mumbai housewife? These are only a small set of questions that Mr. Sukumaran has been trying to answer. He has many more.

Ashok Sukumaran was born to a Japanese mother and an Indian father in 1974. Mr. Sukumaran spent his childhood in Shimla, the summer capital of the Raj which still hosts a somewhat eclectic, variegated set of people, according to Mr. Sukumaran. He describes his childhood as fairly normal, middle-class and “very dal-roti” except for some exposure to Japanese toys and electronics that his relatives sent from Japan. Mr. Sukumaran traces some of his fascination with technology to the access he had to these “smuggled” goods.

After finishing school, Sukumaran went on to study architecture at the prestigious School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi. A certain amount of architectural training is distinctly visible in his work. A fascination with form, color, and space are very much on display, but in a mode that is quite different from traditional design. After finishing up with SPA, Mr. Sukumaran worked for some time as an architect. He says that during this time he got to work closely with local mistris and artisans and found the experience unique and deeply satisfying. Mr. Sukumaran often collaborates with local electricians and decorators and finds it an integral part of producing his art.

In 2001, just before the 9/11 attacks, Mr. Sukumaran landed in the Los Angeles to study at the Department of Design|Media Arts at University of California, Los Angeles. Being in this politically charged and emotional moment was edifying in some ways, according to Mr. Sukumaran. After graduating from UCLA, Mr. Sukumaran worked at a variety of places including as the project director for NANO, “an exhibition that blended multiple scientific disciplines to explore the intersection of digital art and nanoscale science at LACMALab, Los Angeles.” He has also harvested a slew of prestigious residencies and awards including winning the first prize in the Universal Warning Sign Design Competition for his breathtakingly creative ‘Blue Yucca Ridge’ at Yucca Mountain, the first Sun Microsystems ‘ZeroOne’ residency, and the UNESCO Digital Arts Award for 2005 for his “poetic yet pragmatic” project SWITCH, a subset of the recurrencies.net project described above.

It is a testament to his ability that Mr. Sukumaran has managed to create an impressive body of work in the short span of about four years. Both the variety of questions he has dealt with and the techniques he has used to explore them are striking.

Mr. Sukumaran’s quest for answers to complex questions around society and technology has often extended into the digital realm. Mr. Sukumaran has tried to explore what it means to be digital. In particular, he questions the seemingly infinitely tensile, manipulability of the digital by exposing both the “hard chemical” and “soft social” processes that underpin the digital.

Mr. Sukumaran, to his credit, in spite of the success and accolades that he has received, continues to struggle with the role of art in society. He stridently believes in the importance of art and argues that art is one of the only places left where one can ask meta cross-disciplinary questions. Yet, he seems deeply perturbed by the commercial expropriation of art, and the Kuspitian notion that Contemporary art is merely busy with making clever commentary. To that end, Mr. Sukumaran has striven to distance himself from the commercial aspects of art and dispense with the elitist pretensions of art by deliberately choosing to raise his questions outside traditional venues, and forms.

Final Words

Contemporary Art would still live, defying Donald Kuspit, on the strength of artists like Mr. Sukumaran who produce art with self-conscious rigor and perceptive incisiveness. The hope is that such threads can make the much-abused Contemporary in art intellectually invigorating, fertile, and genuinely provocative.



Sun Microsystem’s page on the artist.

Thwarting Failure in South Asia

19 Jun

Six South Asian countries are among the 25 states likeliest to fail on the “Failed States Index”, co-created by Foreign Policy magazine and The Fund for Peace. The same six countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka – (in the same order) were also featured amongst the top 25 in last year’s rankings.

The Indian subcontinent, it appears, has the highest density of states in danger of ‘failing’ in a geographical region, aside from a broad swathe of Central Africa running from Sudan to Guinea. Nearly half a billion people live in the states marked as likely to fail in the subcontinent.

Any failure of state within the subcontinent is likely to have an impact well beyond the borders of that country. In fact, that is exactly why US-based think-tanks and magazines create these ‘failed states index’ to begin with. The co-creators of the index argue, citing the 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy – filled with the typical hyperbole that garbs most US security policy documents – that the impact of state failure is likely to be ‘global’. Even if we discount such assertions, the likely impact of state failure in the subcontinent is certainly worrisome, especially for India.

Before we analyze the impact of state failure in South Asia, let me diverge briefly to formalize what we mean by a ‘failed state’.

What is a ‘Failed State’?

One may argue that if a state fails its people, it is a ‘failed state’. But formally a ‘failed state’ is defined as one with a weak government, political instability, and insecurity. State Failure, according to Center for International Development and Conflict Management at University of Maryland’s State Failure Task Force Report: Phase III Findings (Large PDF document – 255 pages) has been defined as a state that may have one or a combination of the following –

  • “Revolutionary wars. Episodes of sustained violent conflict between governments and politically organized challengers that seek to overthrow the central government, to replace its leaders, or to seize power in one region.
  • Ethnic wars. Episodes of sustained violent conflict in which national, ethnic, religious, or other communal minorities challenge governments to seek major changes in status.
  • Adverse regime changes. Major, abrupt shifts in patterns of governance, including state collapse, periods of severe elite or regime instability, and shifts away from democracy toward authoritarian rule.
  • Genocides and politicides. Sustained policies by states or their agents, or, in civil wars, by either of the contending authorities that result in the deaths of a substantial portion of a communal or political group.”

India in a ‘Dangerous Neighborhood’

There are a variety of factors that underpin the instability in the region—resurgent Islamic fundamentalism combined with military rule in Pakistan and Bangladesh (two different degrees in both countries), Taleban in Afghanistan, ‘Maoists’ in Nepal, the hermetic authoritarian regime in Burma, and Tamil nationalists in Sri Lanka.

Troublingly, a lot of the problems, like Islamic fundamentalism, that plague ‘failing states’ in South Asia can travel well across borders. There is already evidence to the fact that Maoist success in Nepal is having an effect of emboldening Maoists insurgents in the eastern part of India. And if problems in Bangladesh were to set off an even wider wave of immigrants looking for security and economic opportunity in India, it is likely that the widespread anger against Bangladeshi immigrants in parts of North-east India would escalate into sectarian violence.

Given the fact that India has tangible, probable, and immediate threats, and given India’s crucial role within South Asian politics, it is but obvious that India should play a crucial role in mitigating some of the issues precipitating state failure in its neighborhood. India will have to play its hand deftly though and the choices will not always be obvious. For example, India has for years on end enjoyed a cozy relationship with Nepalese Royalty but has had to put in its weight behind the political parties and the Maoists who wanted the Monarchy scrapped. On the other end India, which has long argued for democracy in Pakistan, has established a healthy working relationship with Musharraf government and even made some moves towards meaningful negotiations over Kashmir.

While India has shown great pragmatism in dealing with some long-running and some ‘unexpected’ political upheavals, it doesn’t seem to have a coherent long-term strategic perspective on how to foment stability in the region. Part of the reason is that India doesn’t really have the bargaining power, as in resources or military muscle, for a more aggressive foreign policy. However it does enjoy a fair amount of credibility among the major powers within the world, and it is time that it use it to chart out a longer term policy towards it neighbors. The key components of the policy should be an enlightened economic policy – for example, making compromises towards creating a regional free-trade block, a more active role in diplomacy – say for example complimenting the role of the Norwegians and the Icelandic delegation in Sri Lanka, taking lead in thinking about ‘sustainable development’ and environment – especially important given the enormous impact that global warming can wreck on the region, marshalling resources from the Western countries for the basics – education, health, and basic infrastructure, and working with authoritarian regimes where necessary to urge for more moderate and sustainable policies.

…to be continued…