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, 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 3 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 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 women, 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 — fearful of sexual harassment or as a consequence of patriarchy at home, Indian women may be much less likely to be outdoors than men (it would be good to quantify this).

(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.

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 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 benefit, as a result of ghost employees in government employment schemes. Sex-selective abortions result from continued operation of prenatal ultrasound clinics. And 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 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, though 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 middle men, 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 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 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, 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. 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.

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 times 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 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 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.

Pakistan’s reponse to Mumbai: Beyond denial, and incapacity

6 Dec

“Nearly 200 people lost their lives in the serial bomb blasts in India’s financial capital of Mumbai …deliberate planned massacres have this cruel meaninglessness to them that rile up the hearts of even the stoics.,” I wrote two years ago right after the serial train blasts. Now another atrocity of similar magnitude has spurred me to write another column. The point remains the same.

The article is split in two parts. The first part analyzes whether Pakistan can do something to counter the media inflamed passions, while at the same time taking steps towards dealing with some of its own long-standing problems. The second part tries to address the reasons behind support for terrorism and the role of media.

Pakistan’s response
Irfan Husain, one of the most erudite and incisive columnists, writing in Dawn on the latest Mumbai blasts, finds Pakistan government’s denial of access to 20 terror suspects to India on basis of legalese is patently disingenuous.

“While defending Pakistan recently, our foreign minister was quoted as saying that we were a ‘responsible state.’ And when India presented our government with a list of the names of 20 people accused of terrorism against our neighbour, spokesmen immediately demanded to see the proof against them. This legalistic approach would have carried more weight had the Pakistani state shown this kind of respect for the rule of law in the past. But given the frequency with which ordinary Pakistanis are picked up and ‘disappeared’ by organs of the state without any vestige of due process, the claim to responsibility rings a little hollow.

Indeed, a responsible state would hardly allow the likes of Maulana Masood Azhar of the Jaish-i-Mohammad; Hafiz Saeed of the Lashkar-i-Taiba; and the Indian criminal Dawood Ibrahim to run around loose.”

While Mr. Husain frames the argument for handing over the 20 odd terror suspects rather minimally, focusing on the hypocrisy, and the definition of a ‘responsible state,’ a stronger argument can be made on basis of rather minimal costs for such an enterprise, and reasonable benefits to such a move. Here’s a brief analysis of benefits, and costs of such an exercise –


  • The Mumbai terror attacks led to not only the resignation of a left of center Home Minister, Shivraj Patil, and middle of the line Congress Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra, but also widespread furor against the Congress government. Handing over suspects will likely strengthen the hands of moderates in India, and perhaps dampen the chances of BJP coming to power in elections next year. This argument is reasonably important given negotiating with sane people is a necessity, though arguably BJP at least for some of its time in power was predisposed to following a sane strategy.
  • It will be a potent gesture towards extremist organizations (domestic), India, and US. I believe any such handover ought to be accompanied by negotiations with India and US and perhaps getting some guarantees on issues of interest, and it ought to be done in blaze of media glory to burnish Pakistan’s image.
  • Handing over 20 people to India – even if they aren’t involved in the attacks – is probably the most painless of the gestures that Pakistani government can make to address the media inflamed demands of India and US.


  • As Mr. Husain argues, the arguments made about the inability of handover aren’t real — not because of legal issues, and not because of the stated weakness of Pakistani political establishment. The latter point needs further explication. Pakistani political establishment lacks power due to two reasons – lack of public support for measures which may be seen as blatantly catering to Indian whims, and existence of a powerful military with interests that are different than the political establishment. Politics is often circumscribed by incorrect perceptions of political costs; Public opinion constituencies can be ‘shaped’ to line up behind cogently argued, and aggressively marketed policy initiatives. It is the lack of political entrepreneurship behind good policy – which probably stems from rampant cynicism and preference for ‘safe’ choices – that dooms most policy exercises. There is perhaps even a genuine opportunity for some Pakistani leaders to craft constituencies by taking an appropriately framed response around handover of the 20 people to appeal to vast majority of Pakistanis.The second point would about weakness of political forces vis-à-vis military establishment is powerfully highlighted by Gen. Kayani’s refusal to allow ISI chief to travel to India, in spite of initial assurance by Gilani. However, it is but one instance and ought to be considered in lieu of the following facts – ISI chief is probably directly under the protection of the military, India’s demand for ISI chief was mostly a political maneuver and India would have used the visit for primarily political point scoring. On the issue of handing over suspects, it is quite likely that the PM and president can use the leverage provided by Indian and US pressure, and the media brouhaha, to negotiate some kind of deal.
  • Even if we assume that handing over all 20 people may be a particularly costly strategy for Pakistani establishment given its weakness, it is always possible to ferret out more than a few of these people by negotiating deals with others. I say this because we know that the interests of even ‘jihadi’ organizations are often contraposed.

While handing over terror suspects is perhaps an optimal strategy to quickly firefight the situation at limited cost, and to likely benefit, other strategies remain – including setting up a joint security force with India, actively cracking down on militant organizations in Pakistan, and increasing transparency through sharing information. While ideally all the measures should be pursued, handover of suspects, in being public, in its incontrovertibility in being a media event with characters, and in its explicitness in providing something tangible and coveted would likely be of the most help in the near term.

Caveat and long-term policy

The above analysis occasionally borders on being a limited cynical strategic model of signaling, with emphasis on lowering costs, and maximizing benefits. Sometimes lost within it is the argument that attacks provide politicians with an opportunity to initiate action that is in line with long-term interests of Pakistan. Strategic signaling should not be the guiding principle of long term policy. For thinking about long term interests, Pakistan will do well to think of what kind of policy it would like to implement if India (Kashmir) wasn’t on the table.

The past

Earlier in the article, Mr. Husain presents an overview of how Pakistani establishment has traditionally handled negotiations with the West over India.

“Years ago, a western diplomat wrote that Pakistan was the only country in the world that negotiates with a gun to its own head. Our argument, long familiar to aid donors, goes something like this: If you don’t give us what we need, the government will collapse and this might result in anarchy, and a takeover by Islamic militants.”

How much of the assertion is true isn’t generally analyzed, for few are ready to call the bluff that seems to gain in reality through recitation, than facts. Without discounting the perils to the Pakistani state, it is likely that the overly conservative assessments drawn by analysts aren’t warranted. There exists a political opportunity to create coalition in cities — as was powerfully demonstrated in elections earlier this year — to address trenchant problems, albeit nimbly.

The fact that poverty is not a sufficient condition for terrorism is easily surmised. So is the inadequacy of inequality as an explanatory variable. We also know that arms and munitions take organization, access, and funds. The simplest version then of terrorism is the following – cynical political actors exploiting a select few feeling disenchanted. But there is more to the story. Why is there support for terrorism? The answer to that perhaps lies in the fury of the impotent. The fury of the potent (powerful), of course is never called such, and is mostly realized through indifference – be it 3 million Vietnamese dead or half a million plus Iraqi dead. And the fact that life continues to be abstract, and death more abstract still. At the heart of both emotions lies however how people typically engage with politics, especially in face of violence. The motivating force – though editorials may be full of condolences, and streets full of candle light vigils- isn’t concern for fellow people or loss, but seething personal anger amplified over countless discussions with the like-minded, and the similarly aroused. It is then that the perceived inequalities, the depravity of the act(s) start to loom much larger, and harsher response seems to look like a necessity.

Given this latent disposition of the public, media plays a critical role, in inflaming passions and extracting unreasonable demands from governments. While the West may be able to afford the toll that a 24/7 scandal obsessed media culture that does 99% of its reporting before less than a percent is known, given the extreme paucity of resources at disposal of third-world governments, they can ill-afford such distractions in policy making agendas. Such media coverage is all the more perilous for India – given the frail and fraying relations between Hindus and Muslims.

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 often noted – post 1991, and go on to conjecture about possible causes for the same including – 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 in the 80s. However, the growth in the 80s – as 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


What is so middle about the middle class?

12 Sep

Defining the middle

Given that wealth is hard to measure, 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 life styles 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).

In the middle of nowhere

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 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 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 intensions of the actors, and instead look at the people running media today.

Till early nineties, the only game town used to be the state media. Even the newspapers treaded 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 new 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 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 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-Sarcenic 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.