India Revisited

I’ve decided to take my distrust of linear narratives to heart and not care about the backlog of comments I want to transform into posts. So, I skip my follow up on Oslo waterfront development (which has the makings of a seriously juicy update), my thoughts on the recent conference of Critical Heritage, backtrack from the incredible meeting I had with Equations in Bangalore today, and revisit two days ago, when I arrived back in India after a one and half year hiatus. Forgive me as I descend into typical semi-nauseating, self-reflective travel writing and muse a bit over my reintroduction to India.

As I walked the seven kilometers to the Bangalore City Railway Station I realized just how much India had changed me, not in that om shanti kind of way, but in terms of perspective, outlooks, and, of course, urban planning. For example, it was India that taught me the pointlessness of dichotomies. Those moments walking in the street, when an ox pulling a man on a flatbed wagon overtakes you, only to be immediately eclipsed by a bloated SUV or seeing a woman bent over, sweeping the entrance to an upscale shopping mall with a broom made of panni no longer affect me as they once did. Even as I write this, I feel slightly uncomfortable articulating these descriptions; just the act of writing them encourages me to reiterate dichotomies of development. You see, they aren’t. They just are. So while these encounters still make me pause, I no longer muse over what we obsessively call developed and undeveloped. As far as I’m concerned there is no development, no advancement, only change.

Before I came to India I had very marked opinions on things, things like the informal economy and capitalism—even recycling. It was black and white in my opinion. The informal economy disfavors women (as in a woman who informally works in family shop is very unlikely to receive pay) or that capitalism exploits marginal workers. Recycling should be practiced as it is in Germany and Switzerland—organized, state regulated, three bins in all public places. Although I might still have such opinions, I recognize their limits and their flaws. The informal economy is more welcoming than the formal because jobs are created not from the top down but from the bottom up. Indeed the relationship between formal and informal is neither dichotomous nor parasitic. The informal organizes around the formal’s shortcomings, for example informal buses that provide services to people who do not live on formal transit lines.

Not having a state-structured recycling program gives way to a highly efficient informal system of recycling where the value of discarded objects is subjectively considered. It is more labor intensive which, in turn, creates more jobs.

In both these examples, it’s not a question of development that I want to consider, but a question of rights and a question respect. The problem with the informal recycling structure is that this work falls to the lowest of socio-economic classes who often have little alternative. The problem with this informal labor is that these workers have no job security, no assurance of health benefits.

Capitalism in India seems to offer more outlets for job diversity than previous models. Now, I feel like I’m about to shoot myself when I write this, but subjective experience seems to suggest that capitalism means young people have more alternatives for employment than those of their parents. Let me briefly muse over capitalism of the worst kind—multinational corporate domination. When IT software companies come to Chennai and Bangalore they often employ women who might otherwise struggle to find work outside the family business. By offering such jobs, new freedoms, such as having a personal income, are created. True, like many people in India, these women may share their salary with the family; but there is an undeniable sense of worth that comes from receiving an income. This in turn encourages women to cultivate an identity that might have otherwise been impossible. In this case I would argue that gender stereotypes are both reimagined and reaffirmed—particularly through the encouragement of consumerist behaviors. For example, public space can still be very gendered in India. Malls—the very embodiment of Western capitalism—may be the only space in which such women feel comfortable expressing their identity.

In short, India disrupted any possible conclusions I could make about the world around me. In the past, I blamed Deconstruction for making me into a frustratingly relative thinker, but my time in Chennai sent me adrift upon an expansive sea of theoretical doubt.

The second thing India taught me was to think about what the word infrastructure means, what it is and how we use it. Living in a gridded society, it is easy to take infrastructure for granted. While it’s impossible not to marvel at sights such as the Brooklyn Bridge or strain your neck as you search for the top of buildings, in cities like Chennai, thinking about infrastructure is overwhelming…where does one start? The mosquito problem in this city is so intense because of all the stagnant water. But how does one lay a drainage system in a city that is already built? Again, the temptation is to present this question of infrastructure in terms of developed/undeveloped but I think to do so is to grossly misrepresent and simplify something of almost beautiful complexity.

People are a relatively efficient species. When there is perceived to be a lack, people will compensate in some way. They will create their own sewers, their own electric grid. This is why I keep coming back to India’s urban areas. Because it challenges me to rethink process, change and human nature.

3 Responses to “India Revisited”
  1. Good post. The market indeed dissolves certain types of relationships to thereby open up new ones. Some of them are good — self-determination; some not so — alienation, exploitation, etc. When I studied the market for counterfeit goods on Canal Street in NYC, I found similar conditions. The most dangerous and least remunerative jobs, roving vendor selling low-end knockoffs, were completely filled by Chinese women, most of them undocumented. I think throwing out concepts of development may be a bit premature, though. While you might find exceptions here and there, there’s no doubt the “average person” in an advanced capitalist society has access to more material resources than someone in an emerging one. Getting rid of the attitude that so-called “advanced” is inherently better in all ways is good. A little deconstruction goes a long way in terms of psychic realignment in that regard. Anyway, good stuff.

  2. Love the post!!! A couple of my own non-linear thoughts (though they follow yours) – first, the developed / underdeveloped dichotomy deserves a closer look. When i run across this dichotomy, my question always is – what is being compared? One economy to another? One nation’s infrastructure to another? Or more likely, a vague collection of hard and soft indicators? My guess is the latter, and a country is ‘developed’ when they hit a certain (though vaguely defined) metric. For example – does the fact that 95% of all American households own a phone and 40% of those are iphones make this country more developed than another? (**fake stats!)

    What is consistently frustrating is that the base assumption is never clear. And, I suspect, what underlies the dichotomy is a lack of creativity. I would hazard to say that the definition of development needs to be expanded – for instance, up until recently (and maybe not even yet) environmental stewardship was not considered a characteristic of a developed nation.

    Moving on – thoughts on your formal / informal economy statements. I agree with you but think that a more accurate word choice (and to use words i hear you say often) is not that the informal economy is more welcoming, but that it is an easier economy to penetrate. An informal economy by another name is an entrepreneurial space. It is based on gumption and, probably, some kind of gap analysis. Someone somewhere thinks – what do i need that does not exist? and, can i make some money off it?? As you noted, one major benefit to nurturing an idea in a formal economy is (hopefully) some semblance of labor regulation that encompass minimum wage bars and a right to work in a healthy environment.

    The other part to this issues is is the idea of tradeoffs and solutions – what are the sacrifices someone makes in an informal economy? access to becoming a player vs the terms under which you are able to play. this becomes especially sticky when gender is involved.

    Anyhow, thats all i’ve got at the moment, but i really appreciate that you take the time to share these thoughts – happy travels!!!

    • morganfrances says:

      Ahhhh same to you! Thanks for taking these thoughts and running with them in a much clearer manner. I like your use of the term(s) hard and soft indicators so that it’s less about this dichotomy of developed/undeveloped and more about what exactly we are trying to measure (which then feeds nicely to your call for more creativity).

      You know, I wrote this the first day I got back to India and although I tried to present these questions outside my subjective experience, I do think it was just a personal challenge (read monologue) in response to how I’ve been trained to think.

      I started rethinking this whole thing especially after I left Bangalore and moved on to Anegundi for a month. For example, elaborating on your (fake) stats and presenting some real ones: in Anegundi (population is roughly 2,500-3,000 people), less than 6% of the families own fridges, but more than 58% own a color TV. But can we use these stats to talk about ‘development’, as in, has the village jumped scales of development?

      Aneugundi seldom has power for more than 12 hours a day. This has huge a consequence on the ability to properly use a refrigerator, but not so much a TV. My general observation is that people are so used to not having refrigerators, they don’t ‘miss’ having one, but many people are quite..errr, I don’t want to use the word proud, but yeah, happy to have TV. For many families, the TV is a link to an India outside the village and indeed some indicator of socio-economic achievement.

      I don’t know about you, but I remember my social science text books from middle school, the ones where, for each country (sometimes continent), they’d give stats like number of children, cars, and tvs per family. To highlight differences the text book used images; if I was to look at Kenya, where less than one percent of families had cars, I’d barely see more than the outline of the car hood. I could visually compare this to the States where I’d see exactly two and half outlines of cars. Hmmm, I’m loosing steam here as I think about these crazy public school books, but the point is that development was presented as linear, as in, people wouldn’t have complete outlines of TVs without first having complete outlines of refrigerators. It is here that I’m recalling your forward-thinking obsession with mobile infrastructure and its ability to add grey to the usual black and white discussion of development.

      While in Anegudni I met with a Dr. Poojary, a brilliant professor in the Department of Development Studies at Kannada University. I could wax poetic about the knowledge of this man, but one thing I will mention is that during our conversation he argued was that in India, politicians are still winning elections based on promises of delivering basic infrastructure–sanitation, drainage systems, portable drinking water–to communities. In his opinion, this is a pretty undeveloped platform for election. I think overall he was amused (maybe annoyed) at my perhaps superficial/postmodern attempt to argue against the concept of development and gave me many good reasons why. I think your approach/questions/thoughts offers many ways to move forward so that development can retain some vague metric-ish thing that helps illustrate flaws/corruption/ineffective systems but moves beyond the colonial legacy of power (does this make any sense?!?! I am jet-legged like mad!!!)

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